On June 1941, Hitler launched an attack on the Soviet Union. The campaign is called 'Operation Barbarossa'. Although the conquest of Russia for 'living space' was Hitler's main aim in the attack, he was overconfident about the task. 'You have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down,' he said. He reckoned that his army, whose blitzkrieg methods had proved so successful in Poland, France and Yugoslavia, would defeat the Russians in a few weeks. He did not even try to get his ally Japan to make an attack on, the Soviet Union in the east. This would have divided Russian strength as they would have to deal in a two-front attack and made a German victory over the Soviet Union more likely.
As for Stalin, he, as sure that the Germans would attack the Soviet Union one day. However, he thought a long struggle in the west would give the Soviet Union time to build up her strength. The swift fall of France in 1940 horrified him. The Germans were not tied down in the west as Stalin had expected. But then Russian spies told Stalin that Hitler planned his attack on the Soviet Union for June 1941 he seemed to refuse to believe it and did not inform his front-line troops. When the German attack started one surprised Russian officer radioed, 'we are being fired on. What shall we do?' His headquarters replied, 'you must be mad. And why is your signal not in code?'
Hitler's plan of invasion is first to gain control of the air, and then three - German -army groups would invade the Soviet Union. Army Group (Centre), the strongest, was spearheaded by two panzer groups with four or five panzer divisions each, led by Guderian and Hoth. They tore through the Russian defences, advanced 300 km and met at Minsk, encircling large numbers of Russians. Infantry armies encircled the Russians, taking a total of about 300000 prisoners. Guderian and Hoth advanced again towards Smolensk, encircling another 300000 Russians, and some thousands of tanks and guns. In the tank battles the German crews were horrified when they found that direct hits from their guns bounced off the sloping armour of the Russian T34 tanks. The Germans, however, were more experienced and they could out-manoeuvre the Russian tanks, and stop them with shots in the tracks at the side or through the engine grating at the rear. The German infantry, making long, hard marches in summer heat, could only go as fast as the horses and carts, which brought up their food and ammunition. They complained that they needed the help of the panzers, and Guderian was blamed for going ahead too fast with his armour.
The brilliant German successes were not decisive. Many Russians escaped and even when surrounded kept on fighting. When the Russian leaders recovered from the first shock they rushed up more tanks and guns than the Germans thought they had. Rainy weather turned the primitive Russian roads to mud and halted wheeled transport and tanks until the sun came out and dried the ground. The Germans failed to wipe out the Soviet Red Army before reaching the River Dnieper, as Hitler had planned.
The German leaders argued about what to do next. Most of the generals wanted to push on to Moscow. But Hitler, who was now beginning to interfere in military planning, said no. The position of German Army Group (South) is near Ukraine. After making slow progress at first, it then made the immense advance to the River Dnieper, as shown. Hitler ordered Guderian to turn his tanks southwards towards Kiev and overrun Ukraine. German forces under Kleist then pushed northwards to meet him. The battle of Kiev followed. Stalin would not let the Russians escape from what became the biggest encirclement of all. For five days the Germans slaughtered Russians and then took over 600000 prisoners.
The German generals thought it was a mistake to fight the Battle of Kiev: valuable stocks of weapons and ammunition were used and six weeks of good weather were wasted. And in the meantime the Russians in Moscow had all this time to build defences.