June 22, 1941…June 22, 2012. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Without taking anything away from Allied campaigns in the Mediterranean, France, or even the Pacific, the Second World War was won on the Russian steppe and forest. This was the largest conflict the world has ever seen, and stands among the most brutal as well, as many pictures illustrate. It is difficult to visualize or gain any sense of the scale involved–for once the over-simplified force comparisons on the History Channel and the Military Channel are actually quite helpful here.
Although for many years the story, as known in the U.S., has been one of elite German units finally overwhelmed through Soviet “brute strength”, the narrative is slowly changing to focus on the actual stories: the growth and transformation of the Red Army into a truly formidable opponent, the demythologizing of the Wehrmacht as an efficient but flawed fighting machine, and the reality of the Holocaust on the Eastern Front (The Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto is only one site of many dedicated to exposing this reality). One of the best documentaries on the overall conflict is Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow, which contains 10 episodes.
And running that show about even, in my mind, is the 18-episode Soviet Storm, done in 2010 in Russia and then re-released on British TV, apparently. Its excellent account of Operation Bagration, the destruction of German Army Group Center starting on June 22, 1944, is worth watching:
Naturally, any military discussion must include David Glantz, scholar supreme on the Red Army, and Robert Citino, the latter having just published the next volume in his operational analysis of the German army at war. I’m especially desirous of getting my hands on a copy of Valeriy Zamulin’s Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative, which reinterprets many aspects of the battle. And for the statistical buffs among us, there is OperationBarbarossa.net, which is a preview of a massive statistical survey of the campaign by Nigel Askey, familiar to some for his strategy board game designs back in the day.
No post on the Great Patriotic War would be complete without a salute to the T34 tank, often lauded as one of, if not the, very best armored fighting vehicles ever produced.
And while occasionally the official West Point atlas maps can be mind-boggling in detail, this one captures the scale and complexity of the war’s opening months.