On this day in 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union begins a new stage, with Hitler’s forces capturing Mariupol. The Axis power reached the Sea of Azov.
Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. Despite warnings from his advisers that Germany could not fight the war on two fronts (as Germany’s experience in World War I proved), Hitler became convinced that England was holding out against repeated German air assaults, refusing to surrender, because it had struck a secret deal with Russia. Fearing he would be “strangled” from the East and the West, he created, in December 1940, “Directive No. 21: Case Barbarossa”–the plan to invade and occupy the very nation he had actually asked to join the Axis only a month before. On June 22, 1941, after having postponed the invasion of Russia when Italy’s attack on Greece forced Hitler to bail out his struggling ally in order to keep the Allies from gaining a foothold in the Balkans, three German army groups struck Russia hard by surprise. The Russian army was larger than German intelligence had anticipated, but they were demobilized. Stalin had shrugged off warnings from his own advisers, even Winston Churchill himself, that a German attack was imminent. By the end of the first day of the invasion, the German air force had destroyed more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft. And despite the toughness of the Russian troops, and the number of tanks and other armaments at their disposal, the Red Army was disorganized, enabling the Germans to penetrate up to 300 miles into Russian territory within the next few days.
Hitler’s battle for Stalingrad and Moscow still lay ahead, but the capture of Mariupol, at the sea’s edge, signaled the beginning of the end of Russia-as least as far as Hitler’s propaganda machine was concerned. “Soviet Russia has been vanquished!” Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press chief, announced to foreign journalists the very next day.