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The Great Patriotic War: 1941-45


The initial phase of the Russian campaign, following Germanyís massive surprise attack on 22 June 1941, was extremely successful for the aggressor and catastrophic for the Soviets. The size of the invading army had no precedent in history: over 5.3 million men, over 4,000 tanks, 4,500 aircraft, and over 47,000 pieces of ordnance, attacking along an 1,800-mile-long front. 


In the first five months of the invasion German armored units drove deep into Soviet territory, advancing to some 750 miles at some points past the Russian front. They reached the outskirts of Moscow, captured most of the Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula in the south, and encircled Leningrad in the north, imposing a blockade on Russiaís second largest city.

The Red Army suffered losses unparalleled in military history: by 1 December 1941 it had lost 7 million (dead, missing, or taken prisoner), about 22,000 tanks, and nearly 25,000 military aircraft. In practice, nothing remained of the Red Army units formed prior to the German invasion.

The catastrophic defeats and losses of the initial stage of the war were clearly the result of the fundamental miscalculation of the Stalinist leadership that had chosen to ally the Soviet Union with the Nazi regime. The collusion with Hitler had deprived Russia of the critical buffer of Poland, allowing Germany to amass troops along the Soviet border and launch the surprise attack. In addition, the Soviet troops, deployed in the recently annexed eastern provinces of Poland, did not have enough time to set up powerful defensive positions.

Stalin had received numerous warnings from his intelligence agents and Western governments about the imminent surprise attack, but he chose to discount them. He may have believed that countermeasures by the Soviet Union could only provoke the Germans. He also may have dismissed the warnings as attempts to poison his relations with Germany. Had he heeded those signals, he could have saved much of his troops by ordering them to prepare for action. In any event, the Germans achieved a complete tactical surprise, while the Sovietsí forward deployments exposed them to the full force of the Blitzkrieg.

The humiliating defeats were a tragic consequence of the political system, in which the supreme leader with absolute authority completely dominated strategic decision making. Stalinís own dictatorial disposition and the inclination to use terror to suppress dissenting opinions discouraged his administration from contradicting his own analysis of the situation. Moreover, the years of Stalinís overinflated cult had created a psychological environment, when even top political and military figures were too awed to contradict him or believed unquestioningly in his infallibility.

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USSR in World War II


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