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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: November 2011



Nazi Germany's war against the Soviet Union began on 22 June 1941 in what was the largest military undertaking in history. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa the war was to be another in a series of sweeping blitzkrieg battles, which aimed to defeat the Red Army in a matter of weeks. From the beginning the fighting proceeded with unremitting violence, which saw the German Wehrmacht undertake deep advances, while crushing numerous Soviet armies. Throughout the summer of 1941 the progress of Operation Barbarossa was reported to the German people not just as an unbroken string of battlefield successes, but as some of the greatest victories in the history of warfare. Indeed, on the surface, it may have seemed justified to categorize the battles at Belostok-Minsk, Smolensk and Uman’ as a series of unsurpassed triumphs. Yet the war was not all it appeared to be in the news reels of the German cinema or the Sondermeldungen (special bulletins) on German radio. The Wehrmacht's Ostheer (eastern army) was also suffering serious losses. In June 1941, during only the first nine days of the war, some 25,000 German fatalities were sustained and in the following month no fewer than 63,000 German soldiers fell (with tens of thousands more wounded), making July the deadliest month of the war until the battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/1943. Even more costly to the Ostheer’s chances of success were the material costs resulting from the long summer advance and unceasing battles. The vital panzer and motorized divisions suffered staggering fallout rates, which there was neither the time, facilities nor the requisite spare parts to correct. By late August 1941, Operation Barbarossa was a spent exercise, incapable of achieving its central objective of ending Soviet resistance.

While outright victory in a single campaign may have been beyond Germany's reach in late August 1941, the intensity of the fighting in the east had in no way abated. Nor were the German high command able to appreciate the seriousness of their strategic position. Army Group Centre, the largest of the three German army groups to invade the Soviet Union, had just completed two of the largest encirclements in military history. Not only had these netted a total of some 600,000 Soviet POWs, but the German lines were now two-thirds of the way to Moscow and the Army General Staff was determined to press on and seize the Soviet capital. Hitler, however, did not agree. The eastern front was advancing at different speeds and Army Group Centre, with the bulk of the panzer and motorized troops, was far ahead of its northern and southern counterparts. Consequently a major bulge had developed in the front, which would only be exacerbated by a further push on Moscow. Hitler was therefore reluctant to attack the Soviet capital, especially as he disputed its importance and referred to it as ‘only a geographical term’. More important to Hitler was the prospect of diverting Army Group Centre's renewed attack to the north and south where, in his view, much greater opportunities lay. In the north was Leningrad, which Hitler saw as the root of Bolshevism and believed to be of fundamental importance to the survival of the Soviet political system. Hitler also identified opportunities in the south, which offered far more tangible benefits to the German war effort. Uppermost in Hitler's mind were the riches of the Ukraine, which, along with the oil fields of southern Russia, he saw as the key to Germany's economic autarky. On the night of 19–20 August 1941 Hitler told his inner circle:

It is not tolerable that the life of the peoples of the continent should depend upon England. The Ukraine, and then the Volga basin, will one day be the granaries of Europe. We shall reap much more than what actually grows from the soil…If one day Sweden declines to supply any more iron, that's alright. We'll get it from Russia.

Hitler's visions of economic independence were, however, dependent upon the defeat of the Red Army and the conquest of the Soviet Union's southern regions. There was indeed much to gain and, given the difficulties of Operation Barbarossa and the impending war of attrition that Germany now faced in the east, such economic wealth had never been more essential. Yet it was in the Ukraine that Operation Barbarossa had faced some of its most determined resistance and in spite of Army Group South's hard-fought encirclement at Uman’ the total was still only 100,000 POWs. The great bulk of the Soviet South-Western Front (the main Red Army grouping in the Ukraine) was successfully withdrawn behind the Dnepr River. As Army Group South closed on the Dnepr, two months of hard fighting coupled with the great depth of the advance took a steep toll on the motorized forces. This complicated any independent action aimed at overcoming Soviet resistance along the Dnepr, especially given complications emanating from the Pripet marshes (in the northern Ukraine) from where Soviet forces where able to stage large-scale attacks into the German rear. With summer weather almost at an end and the South-Western Front entrenching itself further with every day, the prospect of destroying Soviet resistance in the Ukraine and breaking into the mineral-rich Donets Basin (in the east of the country) was looking increasingly remote.