Barbarossa – The invasion of Russia begins

Dawn breaks on the 22nd June 1941 as some of the millions of German troops begin their march east.

Hours before the launch of the largest invasion the world had ever seen, a German soldier with communist sympathies had swam across the Bug river to give a warning to the Russians. Stalin ordered that he be shot for spreading disinformation.

Max Kuhnert was a soldier in a cavalry reconnaissance unit attached to an infantry regiment. In the early hours of the morning he was taking his horses to be watered:

At exactly 3.15 a.m., in the faint first light of day I was on my way to water the horses at the river when the whole area exploded. All hell was let loose and I prayed for the strength to hold my two horses.

The noise and sight were indescribable, the earth seemed to tremble, all the batteries came alive out of the darkness of the pine trees. Flames shot towards the border followed by the explosion of the shells on the other side. All around us were what appeared to be great sheets of lightning, torn through by flames while thunder crashed and boomed.

The barrage kept on and on, no one could hear anything else and orders had to be given by hand signal. We were ordered to march towards the river, where special units had already erected a pontoon bridge, over which, although we could not hear them, we could see our tanks rumbling.

For an hour and a half the firing continued, and then we could hear the Russian planes attacking our invading troops; many of them got shot down by our fighters.

Regimental Sergeant-Major Hamann told me to get over the river under my own steam, in other words, I was to get the horses across, but not over the pontoon bridge as there was simply no room for the animals; in any case I believe the horses would have panicked with the tremendous swaying of the bridge—it was a fast-flowing river.

See Will We See Tomorrow?: A German Cavalryman at War, 1939-42

A Soviet BT7 tank - a 'cavalry' or fast tank - burns as the Germans approach. Soviet resistance was often determined but was very badly co-ordinated at a strategic level.

The German Panzer armies were to spearhead the assault.

Hitler believed that they only needed to ‘kick in the door’ and the whole Soviet army would just collapse. It was an opinion shared by most in the German high command. It was also widely held in the ranks of the Wehrmacht. A Lieutenant in the 74th Infantry Division wrote home on the 22nd:

I’ll tell you in advance that in four to five weeks time the swastika flag will be wafting over the Kremlin in Moscow, and that moreover we will have Russia finished this year and Tommy on the carpet. . .

Ja — it is no secret, when and how, that we will be in Moscow within four weeks with our as yet undefeated Wehrmacht. It is only 1,000km from Suwalki as the crow flies.

We only need to conduct another Blitzkrieg. We only know how to attack. Forward, onward and again forward in concert with our heavy weapons raining fire, cordite, iron, bombs and shells — all on the heads of the Russians. That’s all it needs.

Quoted by Robert Kershaw in War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942.

For the vast majority of the German troops it was still a matter of foot slogging.

Thousands of Russian aircraft were destroyed on their airfields during the first few days.

Three weeks before Heinz Knoke had been on the Dover-Ashford-Canterbury ‘milk run’ over south east England. At 0500 on the 22nd he took off for his first mission on the Russian front:

Flying low over the broad plains, we notice endless German columns rolling eastwards. The bomber formations overhead and the dreaded Stuka dive-bombers alongside us are all heading in the same direction. We are to carry out a low-level attack on one of the Russian headquarters, situated in the woods to the west of Druskieniki.

On Russian territory, by contrast, everything appears to be asleep. We locate the headquarters and fly low over the wooden buildings, but there is not a Russian soldier in sight. Swooping at one of the huts, I press the bomb-release button on the control stick. I distinctly feel the aircraft lift as it gets rid of the load.

The others drop theirs at the same time. Great masses of dirt fountain up into the air, and for a time we are unable to see because of all the smoke and dust.

One of the huts is fiercely blazing. Vehicles have been stripped of their camouflage and overturned by the blast. The Ivans at last come to life. The scene below is like an overturned ant-heap, as they scurry about in confusion. Stepsons of Stalin in their underwear flee for cover in the woods. Light flak-guns appear. I set my sights on one of them, and open up with machine-guns and both cannon. An Ivan at the gun falls to the ground, still in underwear.

And now for the next one! Round again, and I let them have it. The Russians stand fast and begin firing back at me. ” Just wait till I take the fun out of your shooting, you bastards! ”

Round yet again for another attack.

I never shot as well as this before. I come down to six feet, almost brushing the tree-tops in the process. Then pull up sharply in a climbing turn. My Ivans lie flat on the ground beside their gun. One of them leaps to his feet and dashes into the trees. The remainder forget to get up again.

At last the spell is broken. We have dreamed for a long time of doing something like this to the Bolshevists. Our feeling is not exactly one of hatred, so much as utter contempt. It is a genuine satisfaction for us to be able to trample the Bolshevists in the mud where they belong.

He took off for his sixth and last sortie at 8pm. He had not seen a Soviet plane all day. See Heinz Knoke: I flew for the Fuhrer: Story of a German Airman

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