“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” —Winston Churchill (1950)
On Sunday, June 22, 1941, as the sun slumbered, 3.6 million soldiers, 2,000 warplane pilots, and 3,350 tank commanders under skilled German command crouched at the border of Soviet-occupied Poland ready to invade the Communist nation Joseph Stalin had ruled with steel-fisted brutality for years.
Shortly after 3 am, in an operation Adolf Hitler called “Barbarossa,” a three-million-man Axis force struck Soviet positions along a 900-mile-long front. German aircraft bombed military bases, supply depots and cities, including Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Brest in Belarus, and others up and down the frontier. The night before, German commandos had snuck into Soviet territory and destroyed Red Army communications networks in the West, making it difficult for those under attack to obtain direction from Moscow.
By the end of the first day of combat, some 1,200 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed, two-thirds while parked on the ground. The poorly led Soviet troops who were not killed or captured buckled under the German onslaught.
Stalin was staggered by the German ambush. Germany’s unannounced act of war violated the nonaggression pact that Hitler and Stalin had signed less than two years earlier and placed at risk the very survival of the Soviet Union.
At first, Stalin insisted that it was just a provocation triggered by some rogue German generals and refused to order a counterattack until he heard officially from Berlin. The German declaration of war finally arrived four hours later.
Hitler justified Barbarossa on the basis that the Soviet Union was “about to attack Germany from the rear.” Eventually, after much dithering, Stalin ordered the Red Army to “use all their strength and means to come down on the enemy’s forces and destroy them where they have violated the Soviet border,” but oddly directed that until further orders “ground troops were not to cross the border.”
The Soviet dictator lacked the heart to inform the Russian people that the Germans had invaded. That bitter task fell to Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, who reported the assault in a radio broadcast more than eight hours after the conflict began. Sadly, Axis bombs and bullets had already alerted millions to the disaster.