Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s greatest mistake

With the 75th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa approaching, Rob Attar asked Antony Beevor why the German invasion of the Soviet Union ended in chaos and bloody failure...

A photograph of the battle of Moscow, 1942, first printed in Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich from 1940 to 1945. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

In context

Operation Barbarossa

Launched on 22 June 1941 and named after the 12th-century Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union represented a decisive breaking of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. The Axis attacking forces of more than 3 million men split into three groups, aimed at Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow.

The Soviets were caught by surprise and suffered appallingly in the early exchanges, losing millions of men, as well as cities such as Kiev, Smolensk and Vyazma. However, the German losses were also high and, a combination of improving Soviet defences and the Russian winter halted the Wehrmacht outside the gates of Moscow in December. Meanwhile, Hitler had opted not to fight for Leningrad, instead subjecting the city to a lengthy siege.

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