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Eastern Front (World War II)

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(Redirected from Great Patriotic War)

The Eastern Front of World War II was the theatre of war covering the the conflict in eastern Europe. Many sources include the German-Polish War of 1939 in this World War II theatre but this article concentrates on the much larger conflict which was fought from June 1941 to May 1945 in which the two principal belligerent nations were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It resulted in the rise of the Soviet Union as a military and industrial superpower, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and the partition of Germany.

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A Soviet soldier raises the hammer and sickle over the Reichstag after the Battle of Berlin, May 1945

In Russian, the conflict is referred to as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna), a name which alludes to the RussoNapoleonic Patriotic War on Russian soil in 1812. The Russo-Finnish Continuation War may be considered the northern flank of the Eastern Front. Some scholars of the conflict use the term Russo-German War, while others use Soviet-German War or German-Soviet War.

Contents

Overview

The Great Patriotic War began on 22 June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, and ended on 8 May 1945, when Germany's armed forces surrendered unconditionally following the Battle of Berlin. Germany was able to call on the manpower of three other Axis Powers, Italy, Hungary and Romania to support them at the front and in the areas which they invaded the help of some anti-communists. The Soviet Union had help from partisans in many countries in eastern Europe, notably those in Poland and Yugoslavia. In addition the 1st and 2nd Polish armies, armed and trained by the Soviets, fought alongside the Red Army at the front.

The Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, probably of all of history, and involved more land combat than all other World War II fronts combined: the Axis mobilised about ten million troops, of which two to three million died, and the Soviet Union about thirty million, of which six to nine million died. The Red Army and other forces of the USSR inflicted about 80% of losses suffered by German land forces (Germany's strongest armed force comprised of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS) in World War II.

The war inflicted huge losses and suffering onto the civilian populations of the participants. Behind the front atrocities against civilians were routine, including the Holocaust of the Jews in German-occupied areas. Twenty to thirty million civilians were killed or died of disease, starvation and mistreatment. The German populations of East Prussia and Silesia were displaced to the west of the Oder-Neisse Line.

Background

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 had established a non-aggression agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and a secret protocol described how Poland, the Baltic countries and Romania would be divided between them. In the Polish September Campaign of 1939 the two powers invaded and partitioned Poland, and in June 1940 the Soviet Union had occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the North and North-Eastern regions of Romania (Northern Bucovina and Basarabia).

The partition of Poland gave Germany and the Soviet Union a common border for the first time. For nearly two years the border was quiet while Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, France, and the Balkans.

Adolf Hitler had always intended to renege on the pact with the Soviet Union and invade. He had argued in Mein Kampf of the necessity of acquiring new territory for German settlement in Eastern Europe. He envisaged settling Germans as a master race in western Russia, while deporting most of the Russians to Siberia and using the remainder as slave labour. After the purges of 1930s he saw the Soviet Union as militarily weak and ripe for conquest: "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down."

Joseph Stalin was fearful of war with Germany, thereby being reluctant to do anything to provoke Hitler. Even though Germany had been assembling very large numbers of troops in eastern Poland and making clandestine reconnaissance flights over the border, Stalin ignored the warnings of his own as well as foreign intelligence. Moreover, on the very night of the invasion, Soviet troops received a directive undersigned by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and General of the Army Georgy Zhukov that commanded: "do not answer to any provocations" and "do not undertake any actions without specific orders". The German invasion therefore caught the Soviet military and leadership largely by surprise.

Operations

Invasion: Summer 1941

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Main article: Operation Barbarossa

At 04:45 on 22 June 1941, four million German, Italian, Romanian and other Axis troops burst over the borders and stormed into the Soviet Union. For a month the three-pronged offensive was completely unstoppable as the Panzer forces surrounded hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets that were then reduced by slower-moving infantry divisions while the panzers charged on.

Army Group North's objective was Leningrad via the Baltic States. Comprising the 16th and 18th Armies and 4th Panzer Group, this formation drove through Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the Russian cities of Pskov and Novgorod. Army Group Centre comprised two Panzer groups (2nd and 3rd), which rolled east from either side of Brest-Litovsk and converged ahead of Minsk, followed by 2nd, 4th and 9th Armies. The combined Panzer force reached the Beresina River in just six days, 650 km (400 miles) from their start lines. The next objective was to cross the Dnieper river, which was accomplished by 11 July. Following that, their next target was Smolensk, which fell on 16 July, but the engagement in the Smolensk area blocked the German advance until mid-September, effectively disrupting the blitzkrieg.

Army Group South, with 1st Panzer Group, 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, was tasked with advancing through Galicia and into Ukraine. Their progress, however, was rather slower, with only the corridor towards Kiev secure by mid-July. 11th Army, aided by two Romanian armies, fought its way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. 1st Panzer Group turned away from Kiev for the moment, advancing into the Dnieper bend. When it joined up with the southern elements of Army Group South at Uman, the group captured 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a huge pocket.

As the Red Army withdrew behind the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, the Soviet hierarchy turned its attention to moving as much of the region's heavy industry as it could, dismantled and packed onto flatcars, away from the front line, re-establishing it in more remote areas behind the Urals and in Central Asia. Most civilians could not be evacuated along with the equipment and were left behind to die, which was a fate far more acceptable than surrender (and one which would be remembered when the time came).

With the capture of Smolensk and the advance to the Luga river, Army Groups Centre and North had completed their first major objective: to get across and hold the "land bridge" between the Dvina and Dnieper. The route to Moscow, now only 400 km (250 miles) away, was wide open.

The German generals argued for an immediate drive towards Moscow, but Hitler overruled them, citing the importance of Ukrainian grain and heavy industry if under German possession, not to mention the massing of Soviet reserves in the Gomel area between Army Group Centre's southern flanks and the bogged-down Army Group South to the south. The order was issued to 2nd Panzer Group to turn south and advance towards Kiev. This took the whole of August and into September, but when 2nd Panzer Group joined up with 1st Panzer Group at Lokhvitsa on 5 September, 665,000 Soviet prisoners were taken and Kiev fell on 19 September.

Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941

Main articles: Operation Typhoon and Battle of Rostov

Now Hitler decided to resume the advance to Moscow, renaming the Panzer Groups to Panzer Armies for the occasion. Operation Typhoon, which was set in motion on 30 September, saw 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Orel (captured 7 October) to the Oka river at Plavskoye, while the 4th Panzer Army (transferred from Army Group North to Centre) and 3rd Panzer Armies surrounded the Soviet forces in two huge pockets at Vyazma and Bryansk. Army Group North positioned itself in front of Leningrad and attempted to cut the rail link at Tikhvin to the east. Thus began the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. North of the Arctic Circle, a German-Finnish force set out for Murmansk but could get no further than the Litsa river, where they settled down.

Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkov, Kursk and Stalino. The 11th Army moved into the Crimea and had taken control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until 3 July 1942). On 21 November the Germans took Rostov, the gateway to the Caucasus. However, the German lines were over-extended and the Soviet defenders counterattacked the 1st Panzer Army's spearhead from the north, forcing them to pull out of the city and behind the Mius River; the first significant German withdrawal of the war.

Just as Operation Typhoon got going, the Russian weather struck. For the second half of October it rained solidly, turning what few roads there were into endless mud that trapped German vehicles, horses and men alike. With 160 km (100 miles) still to go to Moscow, there was worse to come when the temperature plunged and snow started falling. The vehicles could move again, but the men could not, freezing with no winter clothing. The German leadership, expecting the campaign to be over in a few months, had not equipped their armies for winter fighting.

One last lunge on 15 November saw the Germans attempting to throw a ring around Moscow. On 27 November 4th Panzer Army got within 30 km (19 miles) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki, while 2nd Panzer Army, try as it might, could not take Tula, the last Russian city that stood in its way of the capital. Furious rows marked the difference in opinion between Hitler, who insisted that the drive towards Moscow could not be halted, and his generals, whose troops were completely exhausted in the murderous cold. As Hitler started sacking those commanders who opposed him, it was at this point that the Soviets struck back for the first time.

Soviet counter-offensive: Winter 1941

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The Soviet winter counter-offensive, 5 December 1941 to 7 May 1942

Main article: Battle of Moscow, Second Battle of Kharkov

During the autumn, Zhukov had been transferring fresh and well-equipped Soviet forces from Siberia and the far east to Moscow (these troops had been stationed there in expectation of a Japanese attack, but intelligence indicated that the Japanese had decided to attack southeast Asia and the Pacific instead). On 5 December 1941, these reinforcements attacked the German lines around Moscow, supported by new T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers. The new Soviet troops were prepared for winter warfare, and they included several ski battalions. The exhausted and freezing Germans were routed and driven back between 100 and 250 km (60 to 150 miles) by 7 January 1942

Soviet troops in winter camouflage advancing during the , December 1941
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Soviet troops in winter camouflage advancing during the Battle of Moscow, December 1941

A further Soviet attack was mounted in late January, focusing on the junction between Army Groups North and Centre between Lake Seliger and Rzhev, and drove a gap between the two German army groups. In concert with the advance from Kaluga to the south-west of Moscow, it was intended that the two offensives converge on Smolensk, but the Germans rallied and managed to hold them apart, retaining a salient at Rzhev. A Soviet parachute drop on German-held Dorogobuzh was spectacularly unsuccessful, and those paratroopers who survived had to escape to the partisan-held areas beginning to swell behind German lines. To the north, the Soviets surrounded a German garrison in Demyansk, which held out with air supply for four months, and established themselves in front of Kholm, Velizh and Velikie Luki.

In the south the Red Army crashed over the Donets River at Izyum and drove a 100-km (60-mile) deep salient. The intent was to pin Army Group South against the Sea of Azov, but as the winter eased the Germans were able to counter-attack and cut off the over-extended Soviet troops in the Second Battle of Kharkov.

Don, Volga, and Caucasus: Summer 1942

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Operation Blue: German advances from 7 May 1942 to 18 November 1942

Main articles: Battle of Voronezh, Battle of the Caucasus, Battle of Stalingrad

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German troops in the Caucasus

Although plans were made to attack Moscow again, on 28 June 1942, the offensive re-opened in a different direction. Army Group South took the initiative, anchoring the front with the Battle of Voronezh and then following the Don river southeastwards. The grand plan was to secure the Don and Volga first and then drive into the Caucasus towards the oilfields, but operational considerations and Hitler's vanity made him order both objectives to be attempted simultaneously. Rostov was recaptured on 24 July when 1st Panzer Army joined in, and then that group drove south towards Maikop. As part of this, Operation Shamil was executed, a plan whereby a group of Brandenburger commandos dressed up as Soviet NKVD troops to destabilise Maikop's defenses and allow the 1st Panzer Army to enter the oil town with little opposition.

Meanwhile, 6th Army was driving towards Stalingrad, for a long period unsupported by 4th Panzer Army who had been diverted to help 1st Panzer Army cross the Don. By the time 4th Panzer Army had rejoined the Stalingrad offensive, Soviet resistance (comprising the 62nd Army under Vasily Chuikov) had stiffened. A leap across the Don brought German troops to the Volga on 23 August but for the next three months the Wehrmacht would be fighting the Battle of Stalingrad street-by-street.

Towards the south 1st Panzer Army had reached the Caucasian foothills and the Malka river. At the end of August Romanian mountain troops joined the Caucasian spearhead, while the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies were redeployed from their successful task of clearing the Azov littoral. They took up position either side of Stalingrad to free German troops for the proper fighting. Mindful of the continuing antagonism between Axis allies Romania and Hungary over Transylvania, the Romanian army in the Don bend was separated from the Hungarian 2nd army by the Italian 8th Army. Thus all of Hitler's allies were in it — including a Slovakian contingent with 1st Panzer Army and a Croatian regiment attached to 6th Army.

The advance into the Caucasus bogged down, with the Germans unable to fight their way past Malgobek and to the main prize of Grozny. Instead they switched the direction of their advance to come at it from the south, crossing the Malka at the end of October and entering North Ossetia. In the first week of November, on the outskirts of Ordzhonikidze, the 13th Panzer Division's spearhead was snipped off and the Panzer troops had to fall back. The offensive into Russia was over.

Stalingrad: Winter 1942

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Operations Uranus, Saturn and Mars: Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, 18 November 1942 to March 1943

Main articles: Battle of Stalingrad, Operation Saturn, Second Rzhev-Sychevka offensive, Third Battle of Kharkov, Battle of Velikiye Luki

While the German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army had been fighting their way into Stalingrad, Soviet armies had congregated on either side of the city, specifically into the Don bridgeheads that the Romanians had been unable to reduce, and it was from these that they struck on 19 November 1942. In Operation Uranus, two Soviet fronts punched through the Romanians and converged at Kalach on 23 November, trapping 300,000 Axis troops behind them. A simultaneous offensive on the Rzhev sector known as Operation Mars was supposed to advance to Smolensk, but was a failure, with German tactical flair winning the day.

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German soldiers at Stalingrad

The Germans rushed to transfer troops to Russia for a desperate attempt to relieve Stalingrad, but the offensive could not get going till 12 December, by which time the 6th Army in Stalingrad was starving and too weak to break out towards it. Operation Winter Storm, with three transferred Panzer divisions, got going briskly from Kotelnikovo towards the Aksai river but bogged down 65 km (40 miles) short of its goal. To divert the rescue attempt the Soviets decided to smash the Italians and come down behind the relief attempt if they could, that operation starting on 16 December. What it did accomplish was to destroy many of the aircraft that had been transporting relief supplies to Stalingrad. The fairly limited scope of the Soviet offensive, although still eventually targeted on Rostov, also allowed Hitler time to see sense and pull Army Group A out of the Caucasus and back over the Don.

On 31 January 1943, the 90,000 survivors of the 300,000-man 6th Army surrendered. By that time the Hungarian contingent had also been wiped out. The Soviets advanced from the Don 500 km (300 miles) to the west of Stalingrad, marching through Kursk (taken 8 February 1943) and Kharkov (taken 16 February 1943). In order to save the position in the south, the decision was taken in February to abandon the Rzhev salient, freeing enough German troops to make a successful riposte in eastern Ukraine. Manstein's counteroffensive, stiffened by a specially trained SS Panzer Corps equipped with Tiger tanks, opened on 20 February 1943, and fought its way from Poltava back into Kharkov in the third week of March, upon which the spring thaw intervened. This had left a glaring bulge in the front centred on Kursk.

Kursk: Summer 1943

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German advances at Kharkov and Kursk, 19 February 1943 to 1 August 1943

Main article: Battle of Kursk

After the failure of the attempt to capture Stalingrad, Hitler had deferred planning authority for the upcoming campaign season to the German Army High Command and reinstated Guderian to a prominent role, this time as Inspector of Panzer Troops. Debate among the general staff was polarised, with even Hitler nervous about any attempt to pinch off the Kursk salient. He knew that in the intervening six months the Russian position at Kursk had been reinforced heavily with anti tank guns, tank traps, mines, barbed wire, trenches, pillboxes, artillery and mortars. But if one last great blitzkrieg offensive could be mounted, just maybe the Soviets would ease off and attention could then be turned to the Allied threat to the Western Front. The advance would be executed from the Orel salient to the north of Kursk and from Belgorod to the south. Both wings would converge on Tim, and by that means restore the lines of Army Group South to the exact points that it held over the winter of 1941–1942.

Although the Germans knew that the Red Army's massive reserves of manpower had been bled dry in the summer of 1941 and 1942, the Soviets were still re-equipping, simply by drafting the men from the regions recaptured.

Under pressure from his generals, Hitler bit the bullet and agreed to the attack on Kursk, little realising that the Abwehr's intelligence on the Soviet position there had been undermined by a concerted Stavka misinformation and counter-intelligence campaign mounted by the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland. When the Germans began the operation, it was after months of delays waiting for new tanks and equipment, by which time the Soviets had reinforced the Kursk salient with more anti-tank firepower than had ever been assembled in one place before or since.

In the north, the entire 9th Army had been redeployed from the Rzhev salient into the Orel salient and was to advance from Maloarkhangelsk to Kursk. But its forces could not even get past the first objective at Olkhovatka, just 8 km (5 miles) into the advance. The 9th Army blunted its spearhead against the Soviet minefields, frustratingly so considering that the high ground there was the only natural barrier between them and flat tank country all the way to Kursk. The direction of advance was then switched to Ponyri, to the west of Olkhovatka, but the 9th Army could not break through here either and went over to the defensive. The Soviets simply soaked up the German punishment and then struck back. On 12 July the Red Army ploughed through the demarcation line between the 211th and 293rd Divisions on the Zhizdra river and steamed towards Karachev, right behind them and behind Orel.

Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers of the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division "Totenkopf" at the start of the
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Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers of the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division "Totenkopf" at the start of the Battle of Kursk

The southern offensive, spearheaded by 4th Panzer Army, made more headway. Advancing on either side of the upper Donets on a narrow corridor, the SS Panzer Corps and the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Divisions battled its way through minefields and over comparatively high ground towards Oboyan. Stiff resistance caused a change of direction from east to west of the front, but the Tigers and Panthers got 25 km (15 miles) before encountering the reserves of the Soviet 5th Tank Army outside Prokhorovka. Battle was joined on 12 July, with thousands of tanks doing battle. At the end of the day both sides had fought each other to a standstill. The Soviets could absorb the fearful losses of men and equipment that they did, but the Germans could not, and that was what won the day. Also worried by the Allies landing in Sicily on 10 July, Hitler took fright and withdrew the SS Panzer Corps from the southern face of the Kursk salient, and that was the end of the Germans' final attack in Russia.

The Battle of Kursk represented a scaled-up version of the battles of World War I — infantry advancing under machine gun fire, and tanks advancing on batteries of anti-tank guns. Much of the German equipment was new and untested, with undertrained crews. The new tank hunter units, though sporting a highly effective 88mm cannon, had no hull mounted machine gun to protect against infantry, and were quickly targeted by the Soviet anti tank guns, which were positioned in hemispherical concave bulges, forming semicircles of high velocity crossfire. Moreover, these positions were protected by small two-man foxholes armed with limpet tank mines, machine gun nests, and mortar fire, ensuring than the Wehrmacht infantry could not effectively defend the tanks. The Kursk offensive was the last on the scale of 1940 and 1941 the Wehrmacht was able to launch, and subsequent offensives would represent only a shadow of previous German offensive might. Following the defeat, Hitler would not trust his generals to the same extent again, and as his own mental condition deteriorated the quality of German strategic decision fell correspondingly.

Ukraine: Autumn and Winter 1943

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Soviet advances from 1 August 1943 to 31 December 1944

The Soviet juggernaut got rolling in earnest with the advance into the Germans' Orel salient. The diversion of Hitler's favourite Grossdeutschland Division from Belgorod to Karachev could not halt the tide, and a strategic decision was made to abandon Orel (taken by the Red Army on 5 August 1943) and fall back to the Hagen line in front of Bryansk. To the south, the Soviets blasted through Army Group South's Belgorod positions and headed for Kharkov once again. Though intense battles of movement throughout late July and into August 1943 saw the Tigers blunting Soviet tanks on one axis, they were soon outflanked on another line to the west as the Soviets advanced down the Psel, and Kharkov had to be evacuated for the final time on 22 August.

The German forces on the Mius, now constituting the 1st Panzer Army and a reconstituted 6th Army, were by August too weak to sustain a Soviet onslaught on their own front, and when the Soviets hit them they had to fall back all the way through the Donbass industrial region to the Dnieper, losing the industrial resources and half the farmland that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union to exploit. At this time Hitler agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line, along which was meant to be the Ostwall, a line of defence similar to the Westwall of fortifications along the West German frontier. Trouble was, it hadn't been built yet, and by the time Army Group South had evacuated eastern Ukraine and begun withdrawing across the Dnieper during September, the Soviets were hard behind them. Tenaciously, small units paddled their way across the 3-km (2-mile) wide river and established bridgeheads. A second attempt by the Soviets to gain land using parachutists, mounted at Kanev on 24 September, proved as luckless as at Dorogobuzh eighteen months previously, and the paratroopers were soon repelled — but not before still more Red Army troops had used the cover they provided to get themselves over the Dnieper and securely dug in. As September proceeded into October, the Germans found the Dnieper line impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew and grew, and important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Dnepropetrovsk. In January 1944 ten German divisions trapped near Cherkassy managed to break out but with terrible losses. Then, in March, 20 German divisions of Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube's 1st Panzer Army were encircled in what was to be known as Hube's Pocket near Kamenets-Podolskiy. After two weeks hard fighting, the 1st Panzer managed to escape the pocket, suffering only light to moderate casualties.

Further to the north, Army Group Centre was pushed back from the Hagen line slowly, losing comparatively little territory, but losing Bryansk and more importantly, Smolensk, on 25 September. The town was the keystone of the entire German defensive system, but the 4th and 9th Armies and 3rd Panzer Armies still held their own east of the upper Dnieper. On Army Group North's front, there was barely any fighting at all until January 1944 when Novgorod was recaptured; by February the Red Army had reached Estonia.

In the south, they reached the Romanian border in March, captured Odessa in April, and Sevastopol in May.

Belarus: Summer 1944

Main articles: Operation Bagration, Lvov-Sandomir Offensive

On the central front, a massive Soviet attack, Operation Bagration, starting on June 22 1944, led eventually to the destruction of the German Army Group Centre. The Germans had transferred units to France to meet the invasion of Normandy two weeks before. Four Soviet army groups totaling over 120 divisions smashed into the thinly-held German line.

The Soviets achieved a ratio of ten to one in tanks and seven to one in aircraft over their enemy. At the points of attack, the numerical and quality advantages of the Soviets were overwhelming. The Germans crumbled. The capital of Belarus, Minsk, was taken on July 3, trapping 50,000 Germans. Ten days later the Red Army reached the prewar Polish border. The rapid progress cut off and isolated the German units of Army Group North fighting in Courland.

The neighbouring Lvov-Sandomierz operation was launched on 17 July 1944, rapidly routing the German forces in the western Ukraine. The Soviet advance in the south continued into Romania and following a coup against Axis-allied government of Romania on August 23, the Red army occupied Bucharest on August 31. In Moscow on September 12, Romania and the Soviet Union signed an armistice on terms Moscow virtually dictated. The Romanian surrender tore a hole in the southern German Eastern Front causing the loss of the whole of the Balkans.

In Poland, as the Red Army approached Warsaw in July, the Polish Home Army launched the Warsaw Uprising. However, the Soviet Army halted at the Vistula River, unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the Polish resistance. An attempt by the newly-formed communist Polish People's Army to relieve the city was thrown back in September with heavy losses.

Eastern Europe: January–March 1945

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Soviet advances from 1 January 1945 to 7 May 1945

Main article: Vistula-Oder Offensive

The Soviet Union finally captured Warsaw in January 1945. Over three days, on a broad front incorporating four army Fronts, the Red Army began an offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. The Soviets outnumbered the Germans on average by nine to one in troops, ten to one in artillery, and ten to one in tanks and self-propelled artillery. After four days the Red Army broke out and started moving thirty to forty kilometres a day, taking the Baltic states, Danzig, East Prussia, Poznan, and drawing up on a line sixty kilometres east of Berlin along the Oder River.

On 25 January 1945, Hitler renamed three army groups. Army Group North became Army Group Courland; Army Group Centre became Army Group North and Army Group A became Army Group Centre. Army Group North (old Army Group Centre) was driven into an ever smaller pocket around Knigsberg in East Prussia.

A counterattack by the newly created Army Group Vistula, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, had failed by February 24, and the Soviets drove on to Pomerania and cleared the right bank of the Oder River. In the south, three German attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest failed and the city fell on February 13 to the Soviets. Again the Germans counterattacked, Hitler insisting on the impossible task of regaining the Danube River. By March 16 the attack had failed and the Red Army counterattacked the same day. On March 30 they entered Austria and captured Vienna on April 13.

On April 9, 1945, Knigsberg finally fell to the Red Army, although the shattered remnants of Army Group North continued to resist on the Heiligenbeil and Danzig beachheads until the end of the war in Europe. This freed up General Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belarusian Front (2BF) to move west to the east bank of the Oder river. During the first two weeks of April the Soviets performed their fastest front redeployment of the war. General Georgy Zhukov concentrated his 1st Belarusian Front (1BF) which had been deployed along the Oder river from Frankfurt in the south to the Baltic, into an area in front of the Seelow Heights. The 2BF moved into the positions being vacated by the 1BF north of the Seelow Heights. While this redeployment was in progress gaps were left in the lines and the remnants of the German 2nd Army which had been bottled up in a pocket near Danzig managed to escape across the Oder. To the south General Ivan Konev shifted the main weight of the 1st Ukrainian Front (1UF) out of Upper Silesia north-west to the Neisse River. The three Soviet fronts had altogether 2.5 million men (including 78,556 soldiers of the 1st Polish Army); 6,250 tanks; 7,500 aircraft; 41,600 artillery pieces and mortars; 3,255 truck-mounted Katyushas rockets, (nicknamed "Stalin Organs"); and 95,383 motor vehicles, many manufactured in the USA.

Berlin: April 1945

Main article: Battle of Berlin

All that was left for the Soviets to do was to launch an offensive to capture what was to become East Germany. The Soviet offensive had two objectives. Because of Stalin's suspicions about the intentions of the Western Allies to hand over territory occupied by them in the post war Soviet zone of occupation, the offensive was to be on a broad front and was to move as rapidly as possible to the west, to meet the Western Allies as far west as possible. But the overriding objective was to capture Berlin. The two were complementary because possession of the zone could not be won quickly unless Berlin was taken. Another consideration was that Berlin itself held strategic assets, including Adolf Hitler and the German atomic bomb programme.

The offensive to capture East Germany and Berlin started on April 16 with an assault on the German front lines on the Oder and Neisse rivers. After several days of heavy fighting the Soviet 1BF and 1UF had punched holes through the German front line and were fanning out across East Germany. By the April 24 elements of the 1BF and 1UF had completed the encirclement of Berlin and the Battle of Berlin entered its final stages. On April 25 the 2BF broke through the German 3rd Panzer Army's line south of Stettin. They were now free to move west towards the British 21st Army Group and north towards the Baltic port of Stralsund. The Soviet 58th Guards Division of the 5th Guards Army made contact with the US 69th Infantry Division of the First Army near Torgau, Germany on the Elbe river.

On April 30, as the Soviet forces fought their way into the centre of Berlin, Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun and then committed suicide by taking cyanide and shooting himself. Helmuth Weidling, defence commandant of Berlin, surrendered the city to the Soviets on May 2.

At 02:41 on the morning of May 7, 1945, at the SHAEF headquarters, German Chief-of-Staff General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender documents for all German forces to the Allies. It included the phrase All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8th May 1945. The next day shortly before midnight, Jodl repeated the signing in Berlin at Zhukov's headquaters. The war in Europe was over.

In the Soviet Union the end of war is considered to be 9 May, when the surrender took effect Moscow time. This date is celebrated as national holiday, Victory Day, or День Победы in the Russian Federation and some other post-Soviet countries.

Some German armies initially refused to surrender and continued to fight in Czechoslovakia until about 11 May.

Leadership

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were ideologically driven totalitarian states in which the leader had near-absolute power. The character of the war was thus determined by the leaders and their ideology to a much greater extent than in any other theatre of World War II.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler exercised a tight control over the war, spending much of his time in his command bunkers (most notably at Rastenburg in East Prussia, at Vinnitsa in Ukraine, and under the Reichstag in Berlin). At crucial periods in the war he held daily situation conferences, at which he used his remarkable talent for public speaking to overwhelm opposition from his generals and the OKW staff with rhetoric.

He believed himself a military genius, with a grasp of the total war effort that eluded his generals. In August 1941 when Walther von Brauchitsch (commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht) and Fedor von Bock were appealing for an attack on Moscow, Hitler instead ordered the encirclement and capture of Ukraine, in order to acquire the farmland, industry, and natural resources of that country. Some historians believe that this decision was a missed opportunity to win the war.

In the winter of 1941–1942 Hitler believed that his obstinate refusal to allow the German armies to retreat had saved Army Group Centre from collapse. He later told Erhard Milch,

I had to act ruthlessly. I had to send even my closest generals packing, two army generals, for example … I could only tell these gentlemen, "Get yourself back to Germany as rapidly as you can — but leave the army in my charge. And the army is staying at the front."

The success of this hedgehog defence outside Moscow led Hitler to insist on the holding of territory when it made no military sense, and to sack generals who retreated without orders. Officers with initiative were replaced with yes-men or fanatical Nazis. The disastrous encirclements later in the war — at Stalingrad, Korsun and many other places — were the direct result of Hitler's orders. Many divisions became cut off in "fortress" cities, or wasted uselessly in secondary theatres, because Hitler would not sanction retreat or abandon voluntarily any of his conquests.

Frustration at Hitler's leadership of the war was one of the factors in the attempted coup d'etat of 1944, but after the failure of the July 20 Plot Hitler considered the army and its officer corps suspect and came to rely on the Schutzstaffel and Nazi party members to prosecute the war. His many disastrous appointments included that of Heinrich Himmler to command Army Group Vistula in the defence of Berlin in 1945 — Himmler suffered a mental breakdown under the stress of the command and was quickly replaced by Gotthard Heinrici.

Hitler's direction of the war was disastrous for the German army, though the skill, loyalty, professionalism and endurance of officers and soldiers enabled him to keep Germany fighting to the end. However, the Allied commanders who read the decrypted German command signals were always happier when Hitler was in charge. F. W. Winterbotham wrote of Hitler's signal to Gerd von Rundstedt to continue the attack to the west during the Battle of the Bulge:

From experience we had learned that when Hitler started refusing to do what the generals recommended, things started to go wrong, and this was to be no exception.
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Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin bore the greatest responsibility for the disasters of the first two years of the war.

The Great Purge of the Red Army in the 1930s on Stalin's orders had killed or imprisoned the majority of the senior command, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the brilliant proponent of armoured blitzkrieg. Stalin promoted obscurantists like Grigory Kulik, who opposed the mechanization of the army and the production of tanks. Distrust of the military led to a system of "dual command", in which every high-ranking officer was paired with a political commissar, a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who ensured that the officer was loyal and implemented Party orders.

Following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, the Baltic states and Bessarabia in 1939–1940, Stalin insisted that every fold of the new territories should be occupied: this move westward left troops far from their depots in salients that left them vulnerable to encirclement. There was an assumption that the coming war would be fought outside the borders of the Soviet Union and few plans were made for defence. As tension heightened in Spring 1941, Stalin was desperate not to give Hitler any provocation that could be used as an excuse for an attack; this caused him to refuse to allow the military to go onto the alert even as German troops gathered on the borders and German reconnaissance planes overflew installations. This refusal to take the necessary action was instrumental in the destruction of the Soviet air force, lined up on its airfields, in the first days of the war.

Stalin's insistence on repeated counterattacks without preparation led to the loss of almost the whole of the Red Army's tank corps in 1941 — many tanks simply ran out of fuel on their way to the battlefield through faulty planning or ignorance of the location of fuel dumps.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin was able to learn lessons and improve his conduct of the war. He gradually came to realise the dangers of inadequate preparation and built up a competent command and control organization — the Stavka — under Semyon Timoshenko, Georgy Zhukov and Kliment Voroshilov.

At the crisis of the war, in autumn 1942, Stalin made many concessions to the army: unitary command was restored, as were insignia such as shoulderboards — stripped from tsarist officers after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Elite divisions were given the traditional "Guards" title. But these concessions were combined with ruthless discipline: Order No. 227, issued on 28 July 1942, threatened commanders who retreated without orders with punishment by court-martial. Infractions by military and politruks were punished with transferal to penal battalions and penal companies, and the NKVD's barrage troops would shoot soldiers who fled.

As it became clear that the Soviet Union would win the war Stalin ensured that propaganda always mentioned his leadership of the war; the victorious generals were sidelined and never allowed to develop into political rivals. After the war the Red Army was once again purged: many successful officers were demoted to unimportant positions (including Zhukov, Malinovsky and Koniev); a few were tortured into confessions of treason and sent to the Gulag. No-one was allowed to detract from Stalin's cult of personality.

Occupation and repression

A member of Einsatzgruppe D executes a Jew kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, , in 1942.
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A member of Einsatzgruppe D executes a Jew kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1942.

The enormous territorial gains of 1941 presented Germany with vast areas to pacify and administer. Some Soviet citizens, especially in the non-Russian republics, greeted their conquerors as liberators from Stalinist repression. But they were soon to learn that their new masters were even worse than the old. Nascent national liberation movements among Belarusians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and other were viewed by Hitler with suspicion; some were co-opted into the Axis armies and others brutally suppressed. None of the conquered territories gained any measure of self-rule. Instead, the racist Nazi ideologues saw the future of the East as one of settlement by German colonists, with the natives killed, expelled, or reduced to slave labour.

Some captured regions, like the Baltic states, were incorporated into Greater Germany; in others Commissariats were established to extract the maximum in loot. In September 1941, Erich Koch was appointed to the Ukrainian Commissariat. His opening speech was clear about German policy: "I am known as a brutal dog … Our job is to suck from Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of … I am expecting from you the utmost severity towards the native population."

Atrocities against the Jewish population began immediately, with the dispatch of Einsatzgruppen (task groups) to round up Jews and shoot them. Local anti-semites were encouraged to carry out their own pogroms. In July 1941 Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski's SS unit began to carry out more systematic killings, including the massacre of 30,000 at Babi Yar. By the end of 1941 there were more than 50,000 troops devoted to rounding up and killing Jews. The gradual industrialization of killing led to adoption of the Final Solution and the establishment of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps: the machinery of the Holocaust. In three years of occupation, between one and two million Soviet Jews were killed. Other ethnic groups were targeted for extermination, including the Roma and Sinti; see Porajmos.

The massacres of Jews and other ethnic minorities were only a part of the deaths from the Nazi occupation. Many thousands of Soviet civilians were executed, but millions died from starvation as the Germans requisitioned food for their armies and fodder for their draft horses. As they retreated from Ukraine and Belarus in 1943–1944, the German occupiers systematically applied a scorched earth policy, burning towns and cities, destroying infrastructure, and leaving civilians to starve or die of exposure. Estimates of total civilian dead in the Soviet Union in the war range from seven million (Encyclopedia Britannica) to seventeen million (Overy).

The Nazi ideology and the maltreatment of the local population and Soviet POWs encouraged partisan fighting behind the front, motivated even anti-communinists or non-Russian nationalists to ally with the Soviets, and greatly delayed the formation of German allied divisions consisting of Soviet POWs (see Vlasov army). These results and missed opportunities contributed to the defeat of the Wehrmacht.

Industrial output

A Soviet  tank towing a damaged armoured vehicle at the  in July 1943. The Soviet Union manufactured 40,000 T-34s during the war.
Enlarge
A Soviet T-34 tank towing a damaged armoured vehicle at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The Soviet Union manufactured 40,000 T-34s during the war.

The Soviet victory owed a great deal to the ability of her war industry to outperform the German economy, despite the enormous loss of population and land. The Stalinist five year plans of the 1930s had resulted in the industrialization of the Urals and central Asia. In 1941, the trains that shipped troops to the front were used to evacuate thousands of factories from Belarus and Ukraine to safe areas far from the front lines.

As the Soviet Union's manpower reserves ran low from 1943 onwards, the great Soviet offensives had to depend more equipment and less on the expenditure of lives. The increases in production of war materiel were achieved at the expense of civilian living standards — the most thorough application of the principle of total war — and with the help of Lend-Lease supplies from the United Kingdom and the United States.

Germany could not compete with Soviets on quantity of military production (in 1943, the Soviet Union manufactured 24,000 tanks to Germany's 13,000). At the same time, German industry produced a number of advanced designs such as the Tiger tank, and the anti-tank panzerfaust.

See also

References

  • Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Penguin, 2002.
  • John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad, Harper & Row, 1975.
  • John Erickson, The Road to Berlin, Harper & Row, 1982.
  • John Erickson and David Dilks, Barbarossa, the Axis and the Allies, Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
  • David Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army stopped Hitler, University Press of Kansas, 1995.
  • Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader, Da Capo Press, New York, 2001.
  • Basil Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War, Cassel & Co; Pan Books, 1973.
  • David Irving, Hitler's War, Hodder & Stoughton, 1977.
  • Richard Overy, Russia's War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941–1945, Penguin, 1997.
  • Albert Seaton, The Russo-German War 1941–45, Praeger, 1971.
  • F. W. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, Orion, 1974.

External links


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