Operation Barbarossa – Opening Phase (May 15, 1941 – May 26, 1941)
At 3:15 am on May 15, 1941, the Axis attacked. It is difficult to precisely pinpoint the strength of the opposing sides in this initial phase, as most German figures include reserves slated for the East but not yet committed, as well as several other issues of comparability between the German and USSR’s figures. A reasonable estimate is that roughly three million Wermacht troops went into action on 15 May, and that they were facing slightly fewer Soviet troops in the border Military Districts. The contribution of the German allies would generally only begin to make itself felt later in the campaign. The surprise was complete: Stavka, alarmed by reports that Wermacht units approached the border in battle deployment, had at 00:30 AM ordered to warn the border troops that war was imminent, only a small number of units were alerted in time.
The shock stemmed less from the timing of the attack than from the sheer number of Axis troops who struck into Soviet territory simultaneously. Aside from the roughly 3.5 million German land forces engaged in, or earmarked for the Eastern Campaign, about 500,000 Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian and Italian troops eventually accompanied the German forces, while the Army of Finland made a major contribution in the north. The 250th Spanish “Blue” Infantry Division was an odd unit, representing neither an Axis or a Waffen-SS volunteer formation, but that of Spanish Nazis and sympathizers.
Reconnaissance units of the Luftwaffe worked at a frantic pace to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The task of the Luftwaffe was to neutralize the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring, Chief of the Luftwaffe distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe’s figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found. The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the campaign, largely due to the need by the Red Army Air Forces to maneuver in support of retreating ground troops. The Luftwaffe would now be able to devote large numbers of its Geschwader to support the ground forces.
Army Group North
Opposite Heersgruppe Nord were two Soviet armies. The Wermacht OKH sent 16th Army south from Finland, while 18th Army made a daring amphibious assault on Riga and the 4th Panzer Group, with a strength of 600 tanks, was thrust at the junction of the two Soviet armies in that sector. The 4th Panzer Group’s objective was to cross the River Neman and River Dvina which were the two largest obstacles in the direction of advance towards Leningrad. On the first day, the tanks crossed the River Neman and penetrated 50 miles (80 km). Near Rasienai, the tanks were counterattacked by 300 Soviet tanks. It took four days for the Germans to encircle and destroy the Soviet armor. The Panzer Groups then crossed the River Dvina near Dvinsk. Manstein, sensing opportunity rapidly pushed forward, pinning what Soviet forces remained against the river, joined by 16th and 18th Armies, wiping out what few enemies remained. By 26 May, Leningrad was in German hands, partially aided by a coup that occurred as German soldiers neared the city.
Army Group Center
Opposite Heersgruppe Mitte were four Soviet armies: the 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th Armies. The Soviet Armies occupied a salient which jutted into German occupied Polish territory with the Soviet salient’s center at Bialystok. Beyond Bialystok was Minsk, both the capital of Belorussia and a key railway junction. The goals of the AG Center’s two Panzer Groups was to meet at Minsk, denying an escape route to the Red Army from the salient. The 3rd Panzer Group broke through the junction of two Soviet Fronts in the North of the salient, and crossed the River Neman while the 2nd Panzer Group crossed the River Bug in the South. While the Panzer Groups attacked, the Wermacht Army Group Center infantry Armies struck at the salient, eventually encircling Soviet troops at Bialystok.
Moscow at first failed to grasp the dimensions of the catastrophe that had befallen the USSR. Marshall Timoshenko ordered all Soviet forces to launch a general counter-offensive, but with supply and ammunition dumps destroyed, and a complete collapse of communication, the uncoordinated attacks failed. Next came the infamous Directive of People’s Commissariat of Defense No. 3, which demanded that the Red Army start an offensive: Stalin commanded the troops “to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping near Suwałki and to seize the Suwałki region by the evening of May 19″ and “to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping invading in Vladimir-Volynia and Brody direction” and even “to seize the Lublin region by the evening of 24.6” This maneuver failed and disorganized Red Army units, which were soon destroyed by the Wermacht forces. Further complicating the Soviet position, on 15 May the anti-Soviet May Uprising in Lithuania began, and on the next day an independent Lithuania was proclaimed. An estimated 30,000 Lithuanian rebels engaged Soviet forces, joined by ethnic Lithuanians from the Red Army. As the Germans reached further north, armed resistance against the Soviets broke out in Estonia as well.
On May 20th, 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups met up at Minsk advancing 200 miles (300 km) into Soviet territory and a third of the way to Moscow. In the vast pocket between Minsk and the Polish border, the remnants of 32 Soviet Rifle, eight tank, and motorized, cavalry and artillery divisions were encircled.
Army Group South
Opposite Army Group South in Ukraine Soviet commanders had reacted quickly to the German attack. From the start, the invaders faced a determined resistance. Opposite the Germans in Ukraine were three Soviet armies, the 5th, 6th and 26th. The German infantry Armies struck at the junctions of these armies while The 1st Panzer Group drove its armored spearhead of 600 Tanks right through the Soviet 6th Army with the objective of capturing Brody. On May 19th, five Soviet mechanized corps with over 1,000 tanks mounted a massive counter-attack on the 1st Panzer Group. The battle was among the fiercest of the invasion lasting over four days; in the end the Germans prevailed, though the Soviets inflicted heavy losses on the 1st Panzer Group.
With the failure of the Soviet counter-offensives, the last substantial Soviet tank forces in Western Ukraine had been committed, and the Red Army assumed a defensive posture, focusing on conducting a strategic withdrawal under severe pressure.
Army Group Middle East
Rommel had been pulling at the leash Hitler had kept tight around his throat for months as Army Group Middle East was reorganized into a force of three armies in preparation for Barbarossa. When 15 May came, Rommel lunged north across the Soviet frontier and made rapid progress seizing Baku on 18 May before the enemy could put up a valid defense. To Rommel’s surprise, the only force that faced him was the hastily organized 19th Army. Due to possessing greater mobility, Rommel was readily able to outmaneuver the enemy, encircling and destroying 19th Army by 25 May.
By the end of the first week, all four German Army Groups had achieved major Campaign objectives. However, in the vast pocket around Minsk and Bialystok, the Soviets were still fighting; reducing the pocket was causing high German casualties and many Red Army troops were also managing to escape. On the final reduction of the encirclement, 290,000 Red Army troops were captured, with 1,500 guns and 2,500 tanks destroyed, but 250,000 Red Army troops managed to escape.