The German attack on the Soviet Union was not un-telegraphed. For months German troops and tanks gathered in Poland, yet Josef Stalin trusted Adolf Hitler. On the fateful day German artillery began bombarding the Soviet front lines. Luftwaffe aircraft crossed the frontier at 0300.
The German’s three pronged attack spanned a 3,200 kilometer front. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb commanded Army Group North. Army Group South, commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt invaded south of the Pripyat Marshes into the Ukraine. Army Group Center, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock advanced toward Minsk, aiming to take that and Smolensk on the way to Moscow.
When Stalin’s troops invaded Poland in September 1939 he did not fortify the front. Instead, he relied on the fortifications established pre-1939.
Disorganized, with little support from artillery or aircraft, and no defense plans, the Soviet troops fell back in disarray. The Germans bypassed organized resistance. The fortress at Brest-Litovsk, surrounded with no chance of escape, held out for four days.
In the air the Luftwaffe reigned supreme, hitting airfields, anti-aircraft artillery, and aircraft on the ground. They claimed 322 aircraft shot down and 1,489 destroyed on the ground. The Soviet Air Force launched 1,900 sorties on 23 June attacking tank and troop concentrations and claiming 100 German aircraft destroyed.
By 23 June Soviet forces retreated from Bialystok. The German Army Group Center thrust out two arms to surround Soviet forces near Minsk. General Bock felt the Soviets were retreating to prevent his intended encirclement. He commanded his forces to take Polotsk and Vitebsk on the Dvina River to prevent the establishment of a defense line behind the River.
On 24 June the Panzer Gruppen occupied Slonim in the south and Wilno in the north and prepared to close their trap. The main crossing on the River Bug was taken. As the encirclement developed tanks outpaced the infantry and gaps between them appeared. In the east the tankers found they could not contain infantry units effectively. Many Soviet troops escaped and fell back to reorganize.
As the Germans tightened the encirclement, the large pocket degenerated into several smaller pockets. One around Bialystok and another around Volkovsk. Making use of the dense forests around Bialystok and using ration and ammunition dumps the resourceful and tough Soviet soldiers progressed northeastward toward Novogrudok, but were encircled again on 29 June. The double envelopment captured the Soviet 3rd and 10th Armies.
The next step was to capture the ‘Land Bridge’ between the Dvina and the Dnieper rivers. First there was the reconsolidation of Army Group Center. The infantry would replace the Panzers in the job of containing the Soviet soldiers now surrounded, while the tanks advanced toward Smolensk, the next objective.
Sources: Barbarossa: The Shock, Lieutenant General N. K. Popel, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s
Barbarossa: Drive to Smolensk, Generalmajor Alfred Philippi, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s
The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973World War II: Day by Day, Anthony Shaw, MBI Publishing Company, Osceola, WI, 2001