Eastern Front (World War II)

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A poster documenting the "Crusade against Bolshevism" in defence of the European people against the NKVD and the Red Army of the imperialist Soviet Union. The politically correct views on the war are described in many easily found sources. Less often mentioned are various less politically correct or revisionist views. One example is the not politically correct views on the Soviet offensive plans controversy.

The Eastern Front (German: Ostfront) was part of the Second World War in Europe, encompassed the conflict in central and eastern Europe from 22 June 1941 to 8 May 1945. It was one of the largest theatres of war in history and noted for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. More people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theatres of World War II combined. It resulted in the fall of the Third Reich and the partition of Germany, and the rise of the Soviet Union as a military and industrial superpower.

The series of events preceding the opening of the Eastern Front included the Poland Campaign in 1939 by Germany and the resulting third partition of Poland when the Soviets invaded the eastern regions of the country as outlined in the secret codicil to the August 1939 Soviet-German non-aggression pact, which also paved the way for the 1940 Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. They also included England and France declaring war on Germany, plunging Europe and the world into World War II . In all Soviet and the majority of Russian sources, the conflict is referred to as the Great Patriotic War. Some scholars of the conflict use the term Russo-German War, while others use Soviet-German War, German-Soviet War, or Axis-Soviet War.

Operation Barbarossa (1941)

Stalin wanted to dominate Europe. Seeing that he could weaken Germany by giving it another front to focus on, Stalin invaded eastern Europe. Stalin had worked out the blueprint for Operation Groza to attack Germany in 6 July 1941. German intelligence had found it out and Germany started planning the preventive assault on Soviet Union. The operation was named after Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Crusades in the 12th century. It is not at all to be confused with the war on the Eastern Front until 1945 in its entirety. The operational goal was the rapid occupation of the European part of the Soviet Union by a combined force of troops from National Socialist Germany, Romania, Finland, Hungary, Italy and several other European countries. It would have been concluded by reaching a line connecting the cities of Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan, often referred to as the A-A line.

The Battle of Greece and the liberation of Yugoslavia through the Wehrmacht delayed the German counter attack against the territories occupied by the Soviet regime by a critical six weeks. Three German Army Groups along with various other Axis military units who in total numbered over 4.3 million men, 3.3 million Germans and 1 million Axis, launched the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In 1937 a drastic purge crippled the Red Army, reducing its morale and efficiency just before the world war.[1] The purge of the Red Army was claimed to be supported by fabricated evidence that German counter-intelligence had introduced through an intermediary, President Beneš of Czechoslovakia. This forged evidence purported to show correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command. However the actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced confessions. This "betrayal" has since been found to have been entirely fabricated by Stalin and not one officer was guilty.[1] In the highest echelons of the Red Army the Purges removed 3 of 5 marshals (then equivalent to six-star generals), 13 of 15 army commanders (then equivalent to four- and five-star generals), 8 of 9 admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their opportunities for foreign contacts), 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. [2] The result was that the Red Army officer corps in 1941 had many inexperienced senior officers. While 60 % of regimental commanders had two years or more of command experience in June 1941, and almost 80 % of rifle division commanders, only 20 % of corps commanders, and 5 % or fewer army and military district commanders, had the same level of experience.[3] All told, 30,000 members of the armed forces were executed. This included fifty per cent of all army officers.

Army Group North was deployed in East Prussia. Its main objectives were to secure the Baltic states and seize Leningrad. Opposite Army Group North were 2 Soviet Armies. The Germans threw their 600 tanks at the junction of the two Soviet Armies in that sector. The 4th Panzer Army's objective was to cross the River Neman and River Dvina which were the two largest obstacles in route to Leningrad. On the first day, the tanks crossed River Neman and penetrated 50 miles. Near Rasienai, the Panzers were counterattacked by 300 Soviet tanks. It took 4 days for the Germans to encircle and destroy the Soviet tanks. The Panzers then crossed River Dvina near Dvinsk, and approached Leningrad.

Army Group Center was deployed in Poland. Its main objective was to capture Moscow. Opposite Army Group Center were 4 Soviet Armies. Soviet forces occupied a salient which jutted into German territory with its center at Bialystok. Beyond, Bialystok was Minsk which was a key railway junction and guardian of the main highway to Moscow. 3rd Panzer Army punched through the junction of the two Soviet Armies from the North and crossed the River Neman, and 2nd Panzer Army crossed the River Bug from the south. While the Panzers attacked, the Infantry armies struck at the Salient and encircled Soviet troops at Bialystok. The Panzer Armies' objective was to meet at Minsk and prevent any Soviet withdrawal. On June 27, 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies met up at Minsk advancing 200 miles into Soviet Territory. In the vast pocket between Minsk and the Polish border, 32 Soviet Infantry and 8 Tank Divisions were encircled and were mercilessly attacked. Soviet soldiers numbering 290,000 were captured, while another 250,000 managed to escape.

Army Group South was deployed in Southern Poland and Romania and also included two Romanian Armies and several Italian, Slovakian and Hungarian Divisions. Its objective was to secure the oil fields of the Caucasus. In the South, Soviet commanders quickly reacted to the German attack and commanded tank forces vastly outnumbering the Germans. Opposite the Germans in the South were 3 Soviet Armies. The German struck at the junctions of the 3 Soviet Armies but 1st Panzer Army struck right through the Soviet Army with the objective of capturing Brody. On June 26, five Soviet Mechanized Corps with over 1,000 Tanks mounted a massive counterattack on 1st Panzer Army. The Battle was among the fiercest of the invasion lasting over 4 days. In the end the Germans prevailed but the Soviets inflicted heavy losses on the 1st Panzer Army. With the failure of the Soviet Armored offensive, the last substantial Soviet tank forces in the south were now spent.

On July 3, Hitler finally gave the go-ahead for the Panzers to resume their drive east after the infantry armies had caught up. The next objective of Army Group Center was the city of Smolensk which commanded the road to Moscow. Facing the Germans was an old Russian defensive line where the Soviets had deployed 6 Armies. On July 6, the Soviets launched an attack with 700 Tanks against the 3rd Panzer Army. The Germans, using their overwhelming air superiority, wiped out the Soviet tanks. The 2nd Panzer Army crossed the River Dneiper and closed on Smolensk from the south while 3rd Panzer Army after defeating the Soviet counter attack approached Smolensk from the north. Trapped between their pincers were 3 Soviet Armies. On July 26, the Panzers closed the gap and then began to eliminate the pocket which yielded over 300,000 Soviet prisoners but 200,000 evaded capture. Hitler by now had lost faith in battles of encirclement and wanted to defeat the Soviets by inflicting severe economic damage which meant seizing the oil fields in the south and Leningrad in the North. Tanks from Army Group Center were diverted to Army Group North and South to aid them. Hitler's generals vehemently opposed this as Moscow was only 200 miles away from Army Group Center and the bulk of the Red Army was deployed in that sector and only an attack there could hope to end the war quickly. But Hitler was adamant and the Tanks from Army Group Center arrived and reinforced the 4th Panzer Army in the north which subsequently broke through the Soviet defenses on August 8 and by the end of August was only 30 miles from Leningrad. Meanwhile the Finns had pushed South East on both sides of Lake Ladoga reaching the old Finnish Soviet frontier.

In the South by mid-July below the Pinsk Marshes, the Germans had gotten to within a few miles of Kiev. The 1st Panzer Army then went South while the German 17th Army which was on 1st Panzer Army's southern flank struck east and between them trapped 3 Soviet Armies near Uman. As the Germans eliminated the pocket, their tanks turned north and crossed the Dneiper. Meanwhile 2nd Panzer Army, which was diverted from Army Group Center on Hitler's orders, had crossed the River Desna with 2nd Army on its right flank. This move resulted in the trapping of 4 Soviet Armies and parts of two others. The encirclement of Soviet forces in Kiev was achieved on September 16. The encircled Soviets did not give up easily, a savage battle now ensued lasting for 10 days, after which the Germans claimed over 600,000 Soviet soldiers captured. Hitler called it the greatest battle in history. After Kiev, the Red Army no longer outnumbered the Germans and there were no more reserves. To defend Moscow, Stalin had only 800,000 men left.

The Red Army was outflanked and on September 8 1941 the Germans had partially encircled Leningrad and Hitler ordered Leningrad to be besieged. Leningrad was still supplied from the Soviet rear, as Soviets still controlled the lake Ladoga. The siege lasted for a total of 900 days, from September 8, 1941 until January 27, 1944. Soviet officials took all the supplies necessary for fighting troops from civilians. Food and fuel stocks were limited to a mere 1-2 month supply, public transport was not operational and by the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942 in the depths of an unusually cold winter, the city's food rations reached an all time low of only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per person per day. In just two months, January and February of 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation. Despite these tragic losses and the inhuman conditions the city's war industries had all required supplies necessary for continuing work.

The Soviets had mounted an increasing number of attacks against Army Group Center but lacking tanks it was in no position to go on the offensive. Hitler had changed his mind and decided that tanks be sent back to Army Group Center for its all out drive on Moscow. Operation Typhoon, the drive on Moscow began on October 2. In front of Army Group Center was a series of elaborate defense lines. The Germans easily penetrated the first line as 2nd Panzer Army, returning from the south, took Orel which was 75 miles behind the Soviet first defense line. The Germans then pushed in and the vast pocket yielded 663,000 Soviet prisoners. Soviet forces now had only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense for Moscow.

Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon the weather had deteriorated steadily, slowing the German advance on Moscow to as little as 2 miles a day. On October 31, the Germany Army High Command ordered a halt on Operation Typhoon as the armies were re-organized. The pause gave the Soviets time to build up new armies and bring in the Soviet troops from the east as the neutrality pact signed by the Soviets and Japanese in April, 1941 assured Stalin that there was no longer a threat from the Japanese. On November 15, the Germans resumed the attack on Moscow. Facing the Germans were 6 Soviet Armies. The Germans intended to let the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies cross the Moscow Canal and envelop Moscow from the North East. The 2nd Panzer Army would attack Tula and then close in on Moscow from the South and the 4th Army would smash in the center. However, on November 22, Soviet Siberian Troops were unleashed on the 2nd Panzer Army in the South which inflicted a shocking defeat on the Germans. The 4th Panzer Army succeeded in crossing the Moscow canal and on December 2 had penetrated to within 15 miles of the Kremlin. But by then the first blizzards of the winter began and the Wehrmacht was not equipped for winter warfare. Frostbite and disease had caused more casualties than combat; dead and wounded had already reached 155,000 in three weeks. Some divisions were now at 50% strength and the bitter cold had caused severe problems for guns and equipment. Weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe. Hitler's plans miscarried before the onset of severe winter weather; he was so confident of a lightning victory that he did not prepare for even the possibility of winter warfare in the Soviet Union. Yet his eastern army suffered more than 734,000 casualties (about 23 percent of its average strength of 3,200,000 troops) during the first five months of the invasion, and on 27 November 1941, General Eduard Wagner, the Quartermaster General of the German Army, reported that "We are at the end of our resources in both personnel and materiel. We are about to be confronted with the dangers of deep winter." Newly built up Soviet troops near Moscow now numbered over 500,000 men and Zhukov on December 5 launched a massive counter attack which pushed the Germans back over 200 miles but no decisive breakthrough was achieved. The invasion of the Soviet Union had so far cost the Germans over 250,000 dead, 500,000 wounded and most of their tanks.

Germany's Second Offensive

On January 6, 1942, Stalin, confident of his earlier victory, ordered a general counter-offensive. Initially the attacks made good ground as Soviet pincers closed around Demyansk and Vyazma and threatening attacks were made towards Smolensk and Bryansk. But despite these successes the Soviet offensive soon ran out of steam. By March, the Germans had recovered and stabilized their line and secured the neck of the Vyazma Pocket. Only at Demyansk was there any serious prospect of a major Soviet victory. Here a large part of the German 16th Army had been surrounded. Hitler ordered no withdrawal and the 92,000 men trapped in the pocket were to hold their ground while they were re-supplied by air. For 10 weeks they held out until April when a land corridor was opened to the west. The German forces retained Demyansk until they were permitted to withdraw in February 1943.

In May, the Soviets attempted to retake the city of Kharkov, in Eastern Ukraine. They opened with concentric attacks on either side of Kharkov and in both sides broke through German lines and a serious threat to the city emerged. In response, the Germans accelerated the plans for their own offensive and launched it 5 days later. The German 6th Army struck at the salient from the south and encircled the entire Soviet army assaulting Kharkov. In the last days of May, the Germans destroyed the forces inside the pocket. Of the Soviet troops inside the pocket, 70,000 were killed, 200,000 captured and only 22,000 managed to escape.

Hitler had by now realized that his Armies were too weak to carry out an offensive on all sectors of the Eastern Front, but if the Germans could seize the oil and fertile rich area of the Southern Soviet Union this would give the Germans the means to continue with the war. Operation Blue attempted the destruction of the Red Army's southern front, consolidation of the Ukraine west of the River Volga, and the capture of the Caucaus oil fields. The Germans reinforced Army Group South by transferring divisions from other sectors and getting divisions from Axis allies. By late June, Hitler had 74 Divisions ready to go on the offensive, 51 of them German.

The Soviets did not know where the main German offensive of 1942 would come. Stalin was convinced that the German objective of 1942 would be Moscow and over 50 % of all Red Army troops were deployed in the Moscow region. Only 10 % of Soviet troops were deployed in the Southern Soviet Union.

On 28 June 1942, the German offensive began. Everywhere Soviet forces fell back as the Germans sliced through Soviet defenses. By July 5, forward elements of 4th Panzer Army reached the River Don near Voronezh and got embroiled in a bitter battle to capture the city. The Soviets, by tying down 4th Panzer Army, gained vital time to reinforce their defenses. The Soviets for the first time in the war were not fighting to hold hopelessly exposed positions but were retreating in good order. As German pincers closed in they only found stragglers and rear guards. Angered by the delays, Hitler re-organized Army Group South to two smaller Army Groups, Army Group A and Army Group B. The bulk of the Armored forces were concentrated with Army Group A which was ordered to attack towards the Caucasus oil fields while Army Group B was ordered to capture Stalingrad and guard against any Soviet counter attacks.

By 23 July the German 6th Army had taken Rostov but Soviet troops fought a skillful rearguard action which embroiled the Germans in heavy urban fighting to take the city. This also allowed the main Soviet formations to escape encirclements. With the River Don's crossing secured in the south and with the 6th Army's advance flagging, Hitler sent the 4th Panzer Army back to join up with 6th Army. In late July, 6th Army resumed its offensive and by August 10, 6th Army cleared the Soviet presence from the west bank of the River Don but Soviet troops held out in some areas, further delaying 6th Army's march east. In contrast, Army Group A after crossing the River Don on July 25 had fanned out on a broad front. The German 17th Army swung west towards the Black Sea, while the 1st Panzer Army attacked towards the south and east sweeping through country largely abandoned by Soviet troops. On August 9, 1st Panzer Army reached the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, an advance of more than three hundred miles.

In order to protect their forces in the Caucasus, the Germans attempted to capture Stalingrad, on their northeastern flank, crossing the Don River and advancing on the city. Germans bombers killed over 40,000 people and turned much of the city into rubble. The Soviet leadership realized that the German plan was the seizure of the oil fields and began sending large number of troops from the Moscow sector to reinforce their troops in the South. Zhukov, one of Stalin's most trusted generals, assumed command of the Stalingrad front in early September and mounted a series of attacks from the North which further delayed the German 6th Army's attempt to seize Stalingrad. On September 13, the Germans advanced through the southern suburbs and by September 23, 1942, the main factory complex was surrounded and the German artillery was within range of the quays on the river, across which the Soviets evacuated wounded and brought in reinforcements. Ferocious street fighting, hand-to-hand conflict of the most savage kind, now ensued in the ruins of the city. Besides being a turning point in the war, Stalingrad was also revealing in terms of the discipline and determination of both the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army. The Soviets first defended Stalingrad against a fierce German onslaught. So great were Soviet losses that at times, the life expectancy of a newly arrived soldier was less than a day,[4] and life expectancy of Soviet officer was three days. Their sacrifice is immortalized by a soldier of General Rodimtsev, about to die, who scratched on the wall of the main railway station (which changed hands 15 times during the battle) “Rodimtsev’s Guardsmen fought and died here for their Motherland.” Exhaustion and deprivation gradually sapped men's strength. Hitler, who had become obsessed with the battle of Stalingrad, refused to countenance a withdrawal. General Paulus, in desperation, launched yet another attack early in November by which time the Germans had managed to capture 90 % of the city. The Soviets, however, had been building up massive forces on the flanks of Stalingrad which were by this time severely undermanned as the bulk of the German forces had been concentrated in capturing the city and Axis satellite troops were left guarding the flanks. The Soviets launched Operation Uranus on November 19 1942, with twin attacks that met at the city of Kalach four days later, encircling the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

The Germans requested permission to attempt a breakout, which was refused by Hitler, who ordered Sixth Army to remain in Stalingrad where he promised they would be supplied by air until rescued. About the same time, the Soviets launched Operation Mars in a salient near the vicinity of Moscow. Its objective was to tie down Army Group Center and to prevent it from reinforcing Army Group South at Stalingrad.

Meanwhile, Army Group A's advance into the Caucasus had stalled as Soviet troops had destroyed the oil production facilities and a year's work was required to bring them back up, the other remaining oil fields lay south of the Caucasus Mountains. Throughout August and September, German Mountain troops probed for a way through but by October, with the onset of winter, they were no closer to their objective. With German troops encircled in Stalingrad, and Soviet armies threatening their lines of retreat, Army Group A began to fall back.

By December, Field Marshal von Manstein hastily put together a German relief force of units composed from Army Group A to relieve the trapped Sixth Army. Unable to get reinforcements from Army Group Center, the relief force only managed to get within 50 kilometers (30 mi) before they were turned back by the Soviets. By the end of the year, the Sixth Army was in desperate condition, as the Luftwaffe was able to supply only about a sixth of the supplies needed.

Shortly before surrendering to the Red Army on February 2, 1943, Friedrich Paulus was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall. This was a message from Hitler, because no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered his troops or been taken alive. Of the 300,000 strong 6th Army, only 91,000 survived to be taken prisoner, including 22 generals, of which only 5,000 men ever returned to Germany after the war. This was to be the greatest, and most costly, battle in terms of human life in history. Around 2 million men were killed or wounded on both sides, including civilians, with Axis casualties estimated to be approximately 850,000 and 750,000 for the Soviets.

Germany's third offensive

After the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, the Red Army launched eight offensives during the winter. Many were concentrated along the Don basin near Stalingrad. These attacks resulted in initial gains until German forces were able to take advantage of the over extended and weakened condition of the Red Army and launch a counter attack to re-capture the city of Kharkov and surrounding areas. This was to be the last major strategic German victory of World War II.

The rains of spring inhibited campaigning in the Soviet Union, but both sides used the interval to build up for the inevitable battle that would come in the summer. The start date for the offensive had been moved repeatedly as delays in preparation had forced the Germans to postpone the attack. By 4 July 1943, the Wehrmacht, after assembling their greatest concentration of firepower during the whole of World War II, launched their offensive against the Soviet Union at the Kursk salient. Their intentions were known by the Soviets, who hastened to defend the salient with an enormous system of earthwork defenses. The Germans attacked from both the north and south of the salient and hoped to meet in the middle, cutting off the salient and trapping 60 Soviet divisions. The German offensive in the Northern sector was ground down as little progress was made through the Soviet defenses but in the Southern Sector there was a danger of a German breakthrough. The Soviets then brought up their reserves to contain the German thrust in the Southern sector, and the ensuing Battle of Kursk became the largest tank battle of the war, near the city of Prokhorovka. The Germans lacking any sizable reserves had exhausted their armored forces and could not stop the Soviet counteroffensive that threw them back across their starting positions. [5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Operation Roland commenced at 0810 hours on 30 July. [...] General Hollidt’s counter-offensive might have collapsed against a wall of Soviet mines and anti-tank guns, had not Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps supporting attack achieved some measure of success southwest of Stepanovka. Von Vormann’s 23. Panzer-Division attacked with Kampfgruppe Schägger at 0810 hours. The composition of this Kampfgruppe demonstrates the growing poverty of German Panzer-Divisionen after Zitadelle: Major Peter Schägger’s Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 23, Hauptmann Robert Alber’s I./Pz.Rgt. 201, the II./Pz.Gren.Rgt. 126 and the Feld-Lehr-Bataillon 128 (the division’s replacement battalion). Despite lacking Tigers like Hausser’s Waffen-SS divisions, both Schägger and Alber were experienced reserve officers who knew how to handle their limited resources. Avoiding high ground, Alber manoeuvred his tanks through lightly-wooded, low-lying ground and managed to overrun the town of Saurivka (Saur-Mogilsky in 1943). Soviet mines and anti-tank guns were a problem in this sector as well, but the 315th Rifle Division’s defences were not as well-prepared. After breaking through the crust, Alber’s panzers boldly advanced cross-country and seized the village of Garany, behind the 315 RD’s main positions. At 1000 hours, the 16. Panzergrenadier-Division joined the attack and sent Kampfgruppe Sander (Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 116 and III./Grenadier-Regiment 50 from 111.Infanterie-Division) to link-up with Alber’s Panzers, which was achieved at 1145 hours. A force of just five battalions had surrounded the 315 RD and succeeded in taking over 3,000 Soviet prisoners on the first day of Roland, as well as destabilizing the left flank of the Mius bridgehead. During the night of 30–31 July, Totenkopf’s pioniers were able to remove about 2,000 mines and cleared a narrow lane through the outer minefields, but pionier casualties for this effort were excessive. On the second day of the offensive, Hausser’s II. SS-Panzerkorps began their attack at 0915 hours with a 45-minute artillery preparation and received some Stuka close air support sorties, but their assault units were substantially weaker. Totenkopf attacked into the teeth of the Soviet defence with only 15 tanks (including two Tigers) and was again repulsed with heavy losses. [...] Hollidt assembled all available artillery and put it at Hausser’s disposal for an all-out attack on 1 August. By this time, the Germans knew where most of the Soviet artillery and anti-tank guns were located and thus the artillery preparation that started before dawn was far more effective. Prior to the ground assault, Nebelwerfer batteries created a thick smoke screen to conceal the advancing German infantry and tanks, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Soviet defensive fire. After much heavy fighting, Das Reich finally captured Stepanovka and then its panzers swept eastward, overrunning some of the anti-tank units blocking Totenkopf ’s path. By 1600 hours, the centre of the Soviet defensive line was near collapse. [...] In the south, the XXIV Panzerkorps achieved a major breakthrough and advanced toward the Mius. By evening, the Soviet defence crumbled and the remaining units began retreating across the Mius. On 2 August, Hollidt’s forces advanced to the river and crushed the last resistance in the bridgehead. Tolbukhin’s forces had suffered a major defeat, leaving behind 17,895 prisoners, but the remnants of 2 GMC and 4 GMC escaped across the river. Although a tactical success, the Mius River fighting was extremely costly for the Germans. Overall, AOK 6 suffered 21,369 casualties in the 17-day battle. Hausser’s II.SS-Panzerkorps was virtually burnt-out: Totenkopf suffered 1,458 casualties in its four-day attack and was reduced to just 23 operational tanks, while Das Reich suffered nearly 1,000 casualties and was left with 22 tanks. While many damaged tanks would be repaired in time, losses in Panzergrenadiers and pioniers were particularly crippling and not easy to replace. The 3. and 23. Panzer-Divisionen were also reduced to a very depleted condition and 16. Panzergrenadier-Division was wrecked (3,957 casualties between 17–31 July) by the Battle for the Mius Bridgehead. Tolbukhin’s short-lived Mius bridgehead succeeded in causing von Manstein to disperse his armour after Zitadelle and then crippling his strongest formation, II. SS-Panzerkorps.[12]

Winter battles 1943–1944

The Soviets captured Kharkov following their victory at Kursk and with the Autumn rains threatening, Hitler agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line in August. As September proceeded into October, the Germans found the Dnieper line impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew. Important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Dnepropetrovsk. Early in November the Soviets broke out of their bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and recaptured the Ukrainian capital. The 1st Ukrainian Front attacked at Korosten on Christmas Eve, and the Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Soviet-Polish border was reached.

The Soviets launched their winter offensive in January 1944 in the Northern sector and relieved the brutal siege of Leningrad. The Germans conducted an orderly retreat from the Leningrad area to a shorter line on Narva river, where all Soviet attacks were beaten back until September 1944 in the battle of Narva. By March the Soviets struck into Romania from Ukraine. The Soviet forces encircled the First Panzer Army north of the Dniestr river. The Germans escaped the pocket in April, saving most of their men but losing their heavy equipment. During April, the Red Army launched a series of attacks near the city of Iaşi, Romania, aimed at capturing the strategically important sector which they hoped to use as a springboard into Romania for a summer offensive. The Soviets were held back by the German and Romanian forces when they launched the attack through the forest of Târgul Frumos as Axis forces successfully defended the sector through the month of April.

As Soviet troops neared Hungary, German troops occupied Hungary on March 20. Hitler thought that Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy might no longer be a reliable ally. Germany's other Axis ally, Finland had sought a separate peace with Stalin in February 1944, but would not accept the initial terms offered. On June 9, the Soviet Union began the Fourth strategic offensive on the Karelian Isthmus that, after three months, forced Finland to accept an armistice.

Battles in 1944

Before the Soviets could begin their Summer offensive into Belarus they had to clear the Crimea peninsula of Axis forces. Remnants of the German Seventeenth Army of Army Group South and some Romanian forces were cut off and left behind in the peninsula when the Germans retreated from the Ukraine. In early May, the Red Army's 3rd Ukrainian Front attacked the Germans and the ensuing battle was a complete victory of the Soviet forces and a botched evacuation effort across the Black Sea by Germany failed.

With the Crimea cleared, the long awaited Soviet summer offensive codenamed, Operation Bagration, began on June 22, 1944 which involved 2.5 million men and 6,000 tanks. Its objective was to clear German troops from Belarus and crush German Army Group Center which was defending that sector. The offensive was timed to coincide with the Allied landings in Normandy but delays caused the offensive to be postponed for a few weeks. The subsequent battle resulted in the destruction of German Army Group Centre and over 800,000 German casualties, the greatest defeat for the Wehrmacht during the war. The Soviets swept forward, reaching the outskirts of Warsaw on July 31.

On July 24, Soviets launched another offensive on Narva front. Stalin's strategic aim was to occupy Estonia as a favourable basis for invasions of Finland and East-Prussia. However, all the Soviet assaults were stopped by the European Waffen-SS volunteers in the Battle of Blue Hills and Stalin had to call off the operation on August 12, 1944.

The proximity of the Red Army led the Poles in Warsaw to believe they would soon be liberated. On August 1, they revolted as part of the wider Operation Tempest. Nearly 40,000 Polish resistance fighters seized control of the city. The Soviets, however, did not advance any further.[13] Stalin didn't want to help pro-independence Poles and ordered his army to stop for waiting the Germans to suppress the uprising. The only assistance given to the Poles was artillery fire, as German army units moved into the city to put down the revolt. The resistance ended on October 2. German units then destroyed most of what was left of the city.

In Yugoslavia, the tide of the civil war was turning to favor the Partisans. On 16 June 1944, the Treaty of Vis was signed between the Partisans and the Royal Government, officially making the Partisans the regular army of Yugoslavia. By the end of August, Josip Tito was appointed as the Chief-of-Staff of the Yugoslav Army in the Fatherland, although his Royalist rival Mihajlović and many Chetniks continued fighting their own resistance until their final defeat in the Battle on Lijevča field by a Croatian coalition.

Following the destruction of German Army Group Center, the Soviets attacked German forces in the south in mid-July 1944, and in a month's time they cleared Ukraine of German presence inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. Once Ukraine had been cleared the Soviet forces struck into Romania. The Red Army's 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts engaged German Heeresgruppe Südukraine, which consisted of German and Romanian formations, in an operation to occupy Romania and destroy the German formations in the sector. The result of the Battle of Romania was a complete victory for the Red Army, and a switch of Romania from the Axis to the Allied camp. Bulgaria surrendered to the Red Army in September. Following the German retreat from Romania, the Soviets entered Hungary in October 1944 but the German Sixth Army encircled and destroyed three corps of Marshal Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky's Group Pliyev near Debrecen, Hungary. The rapid assault the Soviets had hoped that would lead to the capture of Budapest was now halted and Hungary would remain Germany's ally until the end of the war in Europe. This battle would be the last German victory in the Eastern Front.

As the Red Army continued their advance into the Balkans, Bulgaria left the Axis on September 9, and German troops abandoned Greece on October 12. At the same time, Yugoslav Partisans shifted operations into Serbia, freed Belgrade on October 20 with Soviet help, and assisted the Albanian Resistance rout the Germans by November 29. By year end, the Partisans controlled the eastern half of Yugoslavia and the Dalmatian coast, and were ready for a final westward offensive by late March, 1945.

The Soviets recovered from their defeat in Debrecen and advancing columns of the Red Army took control of Belgrade in late December, and reached Budapest on December 29, 1944, encircling the city where over 188,000 Axis troops were trapped including many German Waffen-SS. The Germans held out until February 13, 1945 and the siege became one of the bloodiest of the war. Meanwhile the Red Army's 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Baltic Fronts engaged the remnants of German Army Group Center and Army Group North to capture the Baltic region from the Germans in October 1944. The result of the series of battles was a permanent loss of contact between Army Groups North and Centre, and the creation of the Courland Pocket in Latvia where the 18th and 16th German Armies, numbering over 250,000 men were trapped and would remain there till the end of the war.

Battles in 1945

With the Balkans and most of Hungary cleared of German troops by late December 1944, the Soviets began a massive re-deployment of their forces to Poland for their upcoming Winter offensive. Soviet preparations were still on-going when Churchill asked Stalin to launch his offensive as soon as possible to ease German pressure in the West. Stalin agreed and the offensive was set for January 12, 1945. Konev’s armies attacked the Germans in southern Poland and expanded out from their Vistula River bridgehead near Sandomierz. On January 14, Rokossovskiy’s armies attacked from the Narew River north of Warsaw. Zhukov's armies in the center attacked from their bridgeheads near Warsaw. The combined Soviet offensive broke the defenses covering East Prussia, leaving the German front in chaos.

Zhukov took Warsaw by January 17 and by January 19, his tanks took Łódź. That same day, Konev's forces reached the German prewar border. At the end of the first week of the offensive, the Soviets had penetrated 160 kilometers (100 mi) deep on a front that was 650 kilometers (400 mi) wide. The Soviet onslaught finally halted on the Oder River at the end of January, only 60 kilometers (40 mi) from Berlin.

The Soviets had hoped to capture Berlin by mid-February but that proved hopelessly optimistic. German resistance which had all but collapsed during the initial phase of the attack had stiffened immeasurably. Soviet supply lines were over-extended. The spring thaw, the lack of air support, and fear of encirclement through flank attacks from East Prussia, Pommern and Silesia led to a general halt in the Soviet offensive. The newly created Army Group Vistula, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, attempted a counter-attack on the exposed flank of the Soviet Army but failed by February 24. This made it clear to Zhukov that the flank had to be secure before any attack on Berlin could be mounted. The Soviets then re-organized their forces and then struck north and cleared Pomerania and then attacked the south and cleared Silesia of German troops. In the south, three German attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest garrison failed, and the city fell to the Soviets on February 13. Again the Germans counter-attacked; Hitler insisting on the impossible task of regaining the Danube River. By March 16, the attack had failed, and the Red Army counter-attacked the same day. On March 30, they entered Austria and captured Vienna on April 13.

Hitler had believed that the main Soviet target for their upcoming offensive would be in the south near Prague and not Berlin and had sent the last remaining German reserves to defend that sector. The Red Army's main goal was in fact Berlin and by April 16 it was ready to begin its final assault on Berlin. Zhukov's forces struck from the center and crossed the Oder river but got bogged down under stiff German resistance around Seelow Heights. After three days of very heavy fighting and 33,000 Soviet soldiers dead,[14] the last defenses of Berlin were breached. Konev crossed the Oder river from the South and was within striking distance of Berlin but Stalin ordered Konev to guard the flanks of Zhukov's forces and not attack Berlin, as Stalin had promised the capture of Berlin to Zhukov. Rokossovskiy’s forces crossed the Oder from the North and linked up with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's forces in northern Germany while the forces of Zhukov and Konev captured Berlin.

By April 24, the Soviet army groups had encircled the German Ninth Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army. These were the main forces that were supposed to defend Berlin but Hitler had issued orders for these forces to hold their ground and not retreat. Thus the main German forces which were supposed to defend Berlin were trapped southeast of the city. Berlin was encircled around the same time and as a final resistance effort, Hitler called for civilians, including teenagers and the elderly, to fight in the Volkssturm militia against the oncoming Red Army. Those marginal forces were augmented by the battered German remnants that had fought the Soviets in Seelow Heights. Hitler ordered the encircled Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse to break out and link up with the German Twelfth Army under General Walther Wenck. After linking up, the armies were to relieve Berlin, an impossible task. The surviving units of the Ninth Army were instead driven into the forests around Berlin near the village of Halbe where they were involved in particularly fierce fighting trying to break through the Soviet lines and reach the Twelfth Army. A minority managed to join with the Twelfth Army and fight their way west to surrender to the Americans. Meanwhile the fierce urban fighting continued in Berlin. The Germans had stockpiled a very large quantity of Panzerfausts and took a very heavy toll on Soviet tanks in the rubble filled streets of Berlin. However, the Soviets employed the lessons they learned during the urban fighting of Stalingrad and were slowly advancing to the center of the city. German forces in the city resisted tenaciously, in particular the SS Nordland which was made of foreign SS volunteers, because they were ideologically motivated and they believed that they would not live if captured. The fighting was house-to-house and hand-to-hand. The Soviets sustained 360,000 casualties; the Germans sustained 450,000 including civilians and above that 170,000 captured. Hitler and his staff moved into the Führerbunker, a concrete bunker beneath the Chancellery, where on 30 April 1945, he committed suicide, along with Eva Hitler, his new wife.


Germany's inability to achieve victory over the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa opened up the possibility for Soviet counter-attacks to conquer vast parts of Europe where murder and rape were hiding at every corner. Stalin deported German POWs to labour camps and Gulags, for hundreds of thousands death was the only escape. Millions of Germans were expelled from their homeland. Volksdeutsche and other ethnic groups were also deported en masse to the east.

See also

Specific awards

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Red Army pbs.org, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
  2. http://www.redarmystudies.net/0411030.htm, citing Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 489.
  3. Glantz, David M., Stumbling Colossus, p. 58.
  4. Beevor, Antony [1999]. Stalingrad (in English). Viking Press, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-024985-0 (Pbk). 
  5. Case Study: Soviet Prisoners-of-War (POWs), 1941-42. Gendercide Watch. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
  6. Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners (p. 290) - "2.8 million young, healthy Soviet POWs" killed by the Germans, "mainly by starvation ... in less than eight months" of 1941-42, before "the decimation of Soviet POWs ... was stopped" and the Germans "began to use them as laborers" (emphasis added).
  7. Peter Calvocoressi,Guy Wint, Total War - "The total number of prisoners taken by the German armies in the USSR was in the region of 5.5 million. Of these the astounding number of 3.5 million or more had been lost by the middle of 1944 and the assumption must be that they were either deliberately killed or done to death by criminal negligence. Nearly two million of them died in camps and close on another million disappeared while in military custody either in the USSR or in rear areas; a further quarter of a million disappeared or died in transit between the front and destinations in the rear; another 473,000 died or were killed in military custody in Germany or Poland." They add that "This slaughter of prisoners cannot be accounted for by the peculiar chaos of the war in the east. ... The true cause was the inhuman policy of the National Socialists towards the Russians as a people and the acquiescence of army commanders in attitudes and conditions which amounted to a sentence of death on their prisoners."
  8. "Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century", Greenhill Books, London, 1997, G. F. Krivosheev
  9. Christian Streit: Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die Sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen, 1941-1945, Bonn: Dietz (3. Aufl., 1. Aufl. 1978), ISBN 3801250164 - "Between 22 June 1941 and the end of the war, roughly 5.7 million members of the Red Army fell into German hands. In January 1945, 930,000 were still in German camps. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called "volunteers" (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht. Another 500,000, as estimated by the Army High Command, had either fled or been liberated. The remaining 3,300,000 (57.5 percent of the total) had perished."
  10. NAZI PERSECUTION OF SOVIET PRISONERS OF WAR United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - "Existing sources suggest that some 5.7 million Soviet army personnel fell into German hands during World War II. As of January 1945, the German army reported that only about 930,000 Soviet POWs remained in German custody. The German army released about one million Soviet POWs as auxiliaries of the German army and the SS. About half a million Soviet POWs had escaped German custody or had been liberated by the Soviet army as it advanced westward through eastern Europe into Germany. The remaining 3.3 million, or about 57 percent of those taken prisoner, were dead by the end of the war."
  11. Jonathan Nor, Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten National Socialist Victims of World War II - "Statistics show that out of 5.7 million Soviet soldiers captured between 1941 and 1945, more than 3.5 million died in captivity."
  12. The Mius River Battles, 17 July–2 August 1943
  13. The Warsaw Rising: Its Causes, Course, and Capitulation
  14. http://www.gedenkstaette-seelower-hoehen.de/