The greatest land war in recorded history began at 3.30am, sixty-five years ago today - Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Even those amongst the survivors of this clash of totalitarian ideaologies who were just eighteen at the time are now eighty-three years of age. The remnants of those field-gray columns which marched off into the dust of the steppe in June 1941 are now rapidly slipping into history themselves as, indeed, are the veterans of the Red Army.
The Chief of the German General Staff, General Franz Halder wrote in his diary on 22 June 1941: "The morning reports indicate that all armies (except the 11th) have started the offensive according to plan. Tactical surprise of the enemy had apparently been achieved along the entire line."
The British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Alan Brooke, wrote in his diary on 22 June 1941: "Germany started march into Russia! And with it a new phase of the war opens up."
Historians today are wont to debate what the 'turning point' of the second world war was in terms of particular battles - Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Normandy, etc. For me, however, it was 22 June 1941, when Hitler turned East - for it saved Britain as the jumping off point for the liberation of Western Europe three years later. In combination with this portentious event, the Axis fate was sealed less than six months later with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war. Alan Brooke endorsed this view in the annotations which he made in the 1950's to his diary entry for 22 June 1941:
"It certainly was a new phase of the war from my point of view. As long as the Germans were engaged in the invasion of Russia there was no possibility of an invasion of these islands. It would now depend on how long Russia could last and what resistance she would be able to put up. My own opinion at the time, and an opinion that was shared by most people, was that Russia would not last long, possibly 3 or 4 months, possibly slightly longer. Putting it at 4 months, and as we were then in June, it certainly looked as if Germany would be unable to launch an invasion of England until October, and by then the weather and winter would be against any such enterprise.
"It therefore looked as if we should now be safe from invasion during 1941. This would put me in the position of devoting my energies towards converting the defence forces of this island into a thoroughly efficient army capable of undertaking overseas operations if and when such operations became possible.
"We were now able to begin to think more offensively, and to begin to examine the problems of a re-entry into France, although such operations still lay in the dim future. We could, however, produce more formations for active service in Africa."
Hitler had told his Generals that, upon the launch of Barbarossa, "the world would hold its breath." As Alan Brooke's comments indicate, the free world - led by Britain - in fact breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it: they are its product and its victors. No wonder, therefore, that men concern themselves with history.