Eastern Front (World War II)

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: World War II

Eastern Front
Part of World War II
Image:Reichstag flag.jpg
Soviet soldiers of the 3rd Shock Army reenacting the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag after the Battle of Berlin on May 2, 1945.
Date 1941–1945
Location Central and Eastern Europe
Result Decisive Soviet victory
Belligerents
Flag of the Soviet UnionSoviet Union

Polish Secret State
Flag of Poland Polish Committee of National Liberation
Yugoslav Liberation Army
Flag of Romania Romania (from 1944)
Bulgaria">Flag of Bulgaria Bulgaria (from 1944)
Flag of Czechoslovakia Czechoslovak Republic

Germany">Flag of Germany Germany
Flag of Italy Italy (to 1943)
Flag of Romania Romania (to 1944)
Flag of Finland Finland (to 1944)
Flag of Hungary Hungary
Flag of Slovakia Slovakia
Flag of Croatia Croatia
Flag of Bulgaria Bulgaria (to 1944)
Volunteers from Western Europe
Commanders
Flag of the Soviet Union Aleksei Antonov
Flag of the Soviet Union Nikandr Chibisov
Flag of the Soviet Union Ivan Konev
Flag of the Soviet Union Rodion Malinovsky
Flag of the Soviet Union Ivan Bagramyan
Flag of the Soviet Union Ivan Fedyuninsky
Flag of the Soviet Union Valerian Frolov
Flag of the Soviet Union Vasiliy Gordov
Flag of the Soviet Union Leonid Govorov
Flag of the Soviet Union Mikhail Kirponos
Flag of the Soviet Union Mikhail Khozin
Flag of the Soviet Union Fyodor Kuznetsov
Flag of the Soviet Union Ivan Maslennikov
Flag of the Soviet Union Kirill Meretskov
Flag of the Soviet Union Ivan Petrov
Flag of the Soviet Union Markian Popov
Flag of the Soviet Union Maxim Purkayev
Flag of the Soviet Union Alexander Rodimtsev
Flag of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovsky
Flag of the Soviet Union Pavel Rotmistrov
Flag of the Soviet Union Vasiliy Sokolovsky
Flag of the Soviet Union Semyon Timoshenko
Flag of the Soviet Union Fyodor Tolbukhin
Flag of the Soviet Union Aleksandr Vasilevsky
Flag of the Soviet Union Nikolai Vatutin
Flag of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov

Flag of the Soviet Union Andrei Yeremenko
Flag of the Soviet Union Matvei Zakharov
Flag of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov
Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski
Flag of Poland Zygmunt Berling
Flag of Poland Michał Żymierski
Flag of Poland Karol Świerczewski
Josip Broz Tito
Flag of Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda

Flag of Germany Ernst Busch
Flag of Germany Heinz Guderian
Flag of Germany Ewald von Kleist
Flag of Germany Günther von Kluge
Flag of Germany Georg von Küchler
Flag of Germany Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Flag of Germany Wilhelm List
Flag of Germany Erich von Manstein
Flag of Germany Walter Model
Flag of Germany Friedrich Paulus
Flag of Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Flag of Germany Ferdinand Schörner
Flag of Germany Erhard Raus
Flag of Germany Walther von Reichenau
Flag of Italy Giovanni Messe, CSIR
Flag of Italy Italo Gariboldi, ARMIR
Flag of Romania Petre Dumitrescu, 3rd Army
Flag of Romania Constantin Constantinescu, 4th Army
Flag of Finland Karl Lennart Oesch
Flag of Finland Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim
Flag of Hungary Gusztáv Vitéz Jány, 2nd Army
Flag of Hungary Ferenc Szombathelyi
Casualties and losses
See below See below

The Eastern Front (German: Die Ostfront 1941-1945) of the European Theatre of World War II was a theatre of war between the German Reich and the Soviet Union which encompassed central and eastern Europe from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945. The German term for this conflict is the 'Russlandfeldzug 1941–1945' (Russian campaign) or more commonly the 'Russian front'. Nazi propaganda dubbed the conflict The Crusade against Bolshevism. In all Soviet and the majority of Russian sources, the conflict in Europe is referred to as the Great Patriotic War, but also includes operations against Japan in 1945. Some scholars of the conflict use the term Russo-German War, while others use Soviet-German War, Nazi-Soviet War, German-Soviet War, or Axis-Soviet War.

It was the largest theatre of war in history and was notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. More people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theaters of World War II combined. With over 20 million dead, many of them civilians, the Eastern Front has been called a war of extermination. It resulted in the destruction 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 invasion of Poland in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the resulting fourth partition of Poland when the Soviet Union used the invasion as a pretext to occupy 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 annexation of the Baltic States, and the annexation of Bessarabia.

This article, however, concentrates on the much larger conflict fought from June 1941 to May 1945, in which the two principal belligerent powers were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Finnish Continuation War may be considered the northern flank of the Eastern Front.

Forces

The war was fought between the German Reich, its Allies, and many pro-Nazi volunteers from occupied states, against the Soviet Union, and eventually its Allies of the British Commonwealth, France and the United States. The conflict begun on 22 June 1941 as part of the Operation Barbarossa Offensive, when Axis forces crossed the borders, described in the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, thereby invading the Soviet Union. The war ended on 9 May 1945, when Germany's armed forces surrendered unconditionally following the Berlin Offensive, a strategic operation executed by the Red Army also known as the Battle of Berlin. The states that provided forces and other resources for the German war effort included the Axis Powers — foremost Italy, Romania, Hungary, and pro-Nazi Slovakia and Croatia. The anti-Soviet Finland, which had fought two conflicts with the Soviet Union, also joined the Offensive. The Wehrmacht forces were also assisted by anti-Communist partisans in places like Western Ukraine, the Baltic states and later Crimean Tatars. Among the most prominent volunteer army formations was the Spanish division, sent by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to keep his ties to the Axis intact.

The Soviet Union received cooperation from partisans in many Wehrmacht-occupied countries in Eastern Europe, notably those in Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In addition the Polish Armed Forces in the East, particularly the First and Second Polish armies, were armed and trained, and would eventually fight alongside the Red Army. The Free French forces also contributed to the Red Army by formation of GC3 (Groupe de Chasse 3 or 3rd Fighter Group) unit to fulfill the commitment of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, who thought that it was important for French servicemen to serve on all fronts. British and Commonwealth forces contributed directly to the fighting on the Eastern Front through their service in the convoys and training Red Air Force pilots, as well as in provision of early material and intelligence support. The later massive material support of the Lend-Lease by the United States and Canada played a significant part particularly in the logistics of the war.

Ideologies

Hitler had argued in his autobiography Mein Kampf for the necessity of Lebensraum, 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 great purge of the 1930s, Hitler 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." Thus, another short Blitzkrieg was expected, no serious preparations for warfare in winter, or prolonged over years, were made. In the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk in 1943 and the resulting dire German military situation, Hitler and Nazi propaganda proclaimed the war to be a German defense of European (Western) Civilization against destruction by the vast " Bolshevik hordes" that were pouring into Europe.

Stalin's vision also included the occupation of foreign countries: using the occasion of world attention drawn to the Western Front, he annexed the three Baltic countries in 1940, thus gaining a place d'arme in case of a possible war with Hitler-Germany. Soviet active participation in the 1939 invasion of Poland should also not be underestimated. Yet, unlike Hitler, Stalin did not have any far-reaching plans of expanding Soviet territory to include Eastern Europe, let alone Germany; Soviet policy might rather be interpreted as the attempt to create a buffer zone between the USSR and Germany before Hitler's attack, which the Soviet Union had all the reasons to consider inevitable.

Results

The Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II. It is generally accepted as being the deadliest conflict in human history, with over 30 million killed as a result. It involved more land combat than all other World War II theatres combined. The distinctly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was exemplified by an often willful disregard for human life by both sides. It was also reflected in the ideological premise for the war, which also saw a momentous clash between two directly opposed and radical ideologies. To hard line Nazis in Berlin, the war against the Soviet Union was one of a struggle of Fascism against Communism, and the Aryan race against the " inferior" Slavic race. Hitler referred to it in unique terms, calling it a "war of annihilation", one in which the Soviet Union was to be utterly destroyed and the populations of Eastern Europe and Russia were to be enslaved and exterminated. This would further German expansion and provide for the colonization of Eastern Europe and Western Russia. In addition, Hitler also sought to wipe out the large Jewish population of Eastern Europe (see The Holocaust). Aside from the ideological conflict, the mindframe of the leaders of Germany and the Soviet Union, Hitler and Stalin respectively, contributed to the escalation of terror and murder on an unprecedented scale. Stalin and Hitler both disregarded human life in order to achieve their goal of victory. This included terrorization of their own people, as well as mass deportation (planned, in the case of Germany) of entire populations. All these factors resulted in tremendous brutality both to combatants and civilians that found no parallel on the Western Front.

The war inflicted huge losses and suffering upon the civilian populations of the affected countries. Behind the front lines, atrocities against civilians in German-occupied areas were routine, including the Holocaust. German and German-allied forces treated civilian populations with exceptional brutality, massacring villages and routinely killing civilian hostages. Both sides practiced widespread scorched earth tactics, but the loss of civilian lives in the case of Germany was incomparably smaller than that of the Soviet Union, in which at least 20 million civilians were killed by the Nazis. When the Red Army invaded Germany in 1944, many German civilians suffered from vengeance taken by Red Army soldiers (see Red Army atrocities). After the war, following the Yalta conference agreements between the Allies, the German populations of East Prussia and Silesia were displaced to the west of the Oder-Neisse Line, in what became one of the largest forced migrations of people in world history. The German minority scattered over large swaths of Eastern Europe was thus expelled and those who did not manage to leave were exterminated.

Much of the combat took place in or close by populated areas, and the actions of both sides contributed to massive loss of civilian life as well as a tremendous material damage. According to a summary, presented by Lieutenant General Roman Rudenko at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, the property damage in the Soviet Union inflicted by the Axis invasion was estimated to a value of 679 billion rubles. The largest number of civilian deaths in a single city was 1,2 million citizens dead during the Siege of Leningrad. The combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Seven million horses, and 17 million sheep and goats were also slaughtered or driven off.

Background

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 had established a non-aggression agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and a secret protocol outlined how Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania would be divided between them. The two powers invaded and partitioned Poland in 1939. In November 1939 the Soviet Union waged the Winter War against Finland. And in June 1940, threatening to use force if its demands were not fulfilled, it won the diplomatic wars against Romania and three Baltic states, which allowed it to peacefully occupy Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania de facto, (while no Western state regarded the annexation of these states de jure) and to return the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldavian territories in the North and North-Eastern regions of Romania (Northern Bucovina and Basarabia).

The decision for war

For nearly two years the border was quiet while Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, France, The Low Countries, and the Balkans. Hitler had however always intended to renege on the pact with the Soviet Union and invade, and appears to have made his decision of when to do so in the spring 1940. Hitler believed that the Soviets would quickly capitulate after an overwhelming German offensive and that the war could largely end before the onset of the fierce Russian winter.

Some say Joseph Stalin was fearful of war with Germany or just did not expect Germany to start a two-front war, and was reluctant to do anything to provoke Hitler. Others say that Stalin was eager for Germany to be at war with other capitalist countries. Another viewpoint is that Stalin expected war in 1942 (the time when all his preparations would be complete) and stubbornly refused to believe its early arrival.

British historians Alan S. Milward and W. Medicott show that Nazi Germany--unlike Imperial Germany--was prepared for only a short-term war (Blitzkrieg).[125] According to Andreas Hillgruber, without the necessary supplies from the USSR and the strategic security in the East, Germany could not have succeeded in the West. Had the Soviets joined the Anglo-French blockade, the German war economy would have been starved. With its own raw materials in September 1939, Germany could have been supplied for a mere 9 to 12 months.

Even though Germany had been assembling very large numbers of troops in eastern Poland and making repeated 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 (as it was demanded by Stalin): "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, even though Stalin did receive a message from his spy detailing information on the attack.

For Soviet preparations, see Operation Barbarossa: Soviet preparations.

Conduct of operations

While German historians do not apply any specific periodisation to the conduct of operations on the Eastern Front, the Soviet and Russian historians divide the war against Germany and its allies into three periods, which are further subdivided into the major Campaigns of the Theatre of war:
1. First period of war (Russian: Первый период Великой Отечественной войны) (22 June 1941 - 18 November 1942)

  • Summer-Autumn Campaign (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1941 г.) (22 June - 4 December 1941)
  • Winter Campaign of 1941-42 (Russian: Зимняя кампания 1941/42 г.) (5 December 1941 - 30 April 1942)
  • Summer-Autumn Campaign (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1942 г.) (1 May - 18 November 1942)

2. Second Period of war (Russian: Второй период Великой Отечественной войны) (19 November 1942 - 31 December 1943)

  • Winter Campaign of 1942-43 (Russian: Зимняя кампания 1942-1943 гг.) (19 November 1942 - 3 March 1943)
  • Summer-Autumn Campaign of 1943 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1943 г.) (1 July - 31 December 1943)

3. Third Period of war (Russian: Третий период Великой Отечественной войны) (1 January 1944 - 9 May 1945)

  • Winter-Spring Campaign (Russian: Зимне-весенняя кампания 1944 г.) (1 January - 31 May 1944)
  • Summer-Autumn Campaign of 1944 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1944 г.) (1 June - 31 December 1944)
  • Campaign in Europe during 1945 (Russian: Кампания в Европе 1945 г.) (1 January - 9 May 1945)

Undoubtedly the best analytical works in English written on the history of the combat operation on the Eastern front in the past 20 years have been those by David Glantz, which deal with large strategic as well as smaller scale operational and tactical aspects of the conflict.

First period

Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941

Main article: Operation Barbarossa, Battle of Bialystok-Minsk Just before dawn on June 22, 1941 the Germans wrecked the wire network in all Soviet western military districts to undermine Soviet communications. At 03:15 on 22 June 1941 ninety nine (including fourteen Panzerdivisions and ten motorized) of 190 German divisions, drawn against the Soviet Union stormed it from Baltic to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions, nine Romanian and four Hungarian brigades. On the same day the Baltic, Western and Kiev special military districts were renamed to North-Western, Western and South-Western Fronts respectively. For a month the three-pronged offensive was completely unstoppable as the Panzer forces encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets that were then reduced by slower-moving infantry divisions while the panzers charged on, following the Blitzkrieg doctrine. As part of this lightning campaign the German airforce began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields destroying most of the initially antiquated and inept Soviet Air Force before it left the ground.

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.

Soviet POWs in 1941
Soviet POWs in 1941

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 slow, and took heavy casualties in a major tank battle. With only the corridor towards Kiev secure by mid-July, the 11th Army, aided by two Romanian armies, fought its way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. The 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.

Soviet propaganda poster of 1941. The inscription reads: "Join the ranks of the front female helpmates, a companion is an aid and friend for fighter!".
Soviet propaganda poster of 1941. The inscription reads: "Join the ranks of the front female helpmates, a companion is an aid and friend for fighter!".

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 the mercy of the invading forces.

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 14 September 665,000 Soviet prisoners were taken and Kiev fell on 19 September.

Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941

Lamenting the dead. Kerch, the Crimea.
Lamenting the dead. Kerch, the Crimea.

Hitler then 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 5 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.

Soviet gun crew in action at Odessa in 1941
Soviet gun crew in action at Odessa in 1941

One last lunge on 15 November saw the Germans attempting to throw a ring around Moscow. On 27 November the 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 the 2nd Panzer Army, try as it might, could not take Tula, the last Soviet city that stood in its way of the capital. After a meeting held in Orsha between the head of the Army General Staff, General Halder, and the heads of three Army Groups and armies, it was decided to push forward to Moscow since it was better, as argued by head of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, for them to try their luck on the battlefield rather than just sit and wait while their opponent gathered more strength.

However, by 6 December it became clear that the Wehrmacht was too weak to capture Moscow and the attack was put on hold. General Zhukov thus began his counter-attack, employing fresh, well-trained Siberian reserves transferred from the east following the guarantee of neutrality from Japan.

Soviet counter-offensive: Winter 1941

The Soviet winter counter-offensive, 5 December 1941 to 7 May 1942:     Soviet gains      German gains
The Soviet winter counter-offensive, 5 December 1941 to 7 May 1942:     Soviet gains      German gains
Over 3 million German and axis personnel were awarded the Winter war in the East 1941/42 (Winterschlacht im Osten 1941/42) medal for service during the 15th November 1941 - 15th April 1942 from it's creation on 26th May 1942 until 4th September 1944
Over 3 million German and axis personnel were awarded the Winter war in the East 1941/42 (Winterschlacht im Osten 1941/42) medal for service during the 15th November 1941 - 15th April 1942 from it's creation on 26th May 1942 until 4th September 1944

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 Stalin's master spy Richard Sorge 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.

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

Operation Blue: German advances from 7 May 1942 to 18 November 1942:      to 7 July 1942      to 22 July 1942      to 1 August 1942      to 18 November 1942
Operation Blue: German advances from 7 May 1942 to 18 November 1942:      to 7 July 1942      to 22 July 1942      to 1 August 1942      to 18 November 1942

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, which 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 on 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 involved — 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 approach 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

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.

The Germans rushed to transfer troops to Russia for a desperate attempt to relieve Stalingrad, but the offensive could not get going until 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 became 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 2nd Army had also been wiped out. The Soviets advanced from the Don 500 km (300 miles) to the west of Stalingrad, marching through Kursk (retaken on 8 February 1943) and Kharkov (retaken 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, strengthened 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 centered on Kursk.

Second Period

Kursk: Summer 1943

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 Soviet position at Kursk had been reinforced heavily with anti-tank guns, tank traps, landmines, 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.

Soviet 76.2mm field guns.
Soviet 76.2mm field guns.

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.

The southern offensive, spearheaded by 4.Panzer-Armee, led by Gen. Col. Hoth, with three Tank Corps 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 their 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 tanks got 25 km (15 miles) before encountering the reserves of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army outside Prokhorovka. Battle was joined on 12 July, with about one thousand tanks doing battle. After the war, the battle near Prochorovka was idealized by the Soviet historians as the biggest tank battle of all time. The meeting engagement at Prochorovka was a Soviet defensive success, albeit at heavy cost. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, with about 800 light and medium tanks, attacked elements of the II SS Panzer Corps. Tank losses on both sides have been the source of controversy ever since. Although the 5th Guards Tank Army did not attain their terrain objectives, the German advance was halted.

Marshal Zhukov and Colonel General Nikolai Voronov, commander of Red Army Artillery, (front row left to right) inspect a German Tiger tank captured near Leningrad.
Marshal Zhukov and Colonel General Nikolai Voronov, commander of Red Army Artillery, (front row left to right) inspect a German Tiger tank captured near Leningrad.

At the end of the day both sides had fought each other to a standstill, but regardless of the standstill in the north Manstein intended to continue the attack with the 4th Panzer Army. But the Soviets could absorb the fearful losses of men and equipment, and German strategic advance in Operation Citadel had been halted. Under the impression of the successful counter-attack operations in the south the Red Army started the strong offensive operation in the northern Orel salient and achieved a breakthrough on the flank of the German 9th Army. Also worried by the Allies' landing in Sicily on 10 July, Hitler made the decision to halve the offensive even as the German 9th Army was rapidly giving ground in the north. The Germans' final strategic offensive in the Soviet Union ended with their defense against a major Soviet counteroffensive that lasted into August. A detailed analysis of this campaign is available in the Battle of Kursk article.

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 the quality of German strategic decision fell correspondingly. The Battle of Kursk cost Hitler over 500,000 troops and 1,000 tanks, forever hampering future war efforts on the Eastern Front.

Autumn and Winter 1943

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 (retaken 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.

German prisoners being searched by Red Army soldiers
German prisoners being searched by Red Army soldiers

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 German frontier in the west. 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. Finally, early in November the Soviets broke out of their bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and captured the Ukrainian capital, at that time the third largest city in the Soviet Union.

Eighty miles west of Kiev, the 4th Panzer Army, still convinced that the Red Army was a spent force, was able to mount a successful riposte at Zhitomir during the middle of November, blunting the Soviet bridgehead via a daring outflanking strike mounted by the SS Panzer Corps along the river Teterev. This battle also enabled Army Group South to recapture Korosten and gain some time to rest; however, on Christmas Eve the retreat began anew when the First Ukrainian Front (renamed from Voronezh Front) struck them in the same place. The Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Polish-Soviet border was reached on 3 January 1944. To the south, Second Ukrainian Front (ex Steppe Front) had crossed the Dnieper at Kremenchug and continued westwards. In the second week of January 1944 they swung north, meeting Vatutin's tank forces who had swung south from their penetration into Poland and surrounding ten German divisions at Korsun-Shevenkovsky, west of Cherkassy. Hitler's insistence on holding the Dnieper line, even when facing the prospect of catastrophic defeat, was compounded by his conviction that the Cherkassy pocket could break out and even advance to Kiev, but Manstein was more concerned about being able to advance to the edge of the pocket and then implore the surrounded forces to break out. By 16 February the first stage was complete, with panzers separated from the contracting Cherkassy pocket only by the swollen Gniloy Tikich river. Under furious shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks and cavalry, the surrounded German troops, among whom were the SS Division Wiking, fought their way across the river to safety, losing half their number and all their equipment. Surely the Soviets would not attack again, with the spring approaching - but in March 3 the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive. Having already isolated the Crimea by severing the neck of the Perekop isthmus, Malinovsky's forces advanced across the mud to the Romanian border, not stopping on the river Prut.

Soviet advances from 1 August 1943 to 31 December 1944:      to 1 December 1943      to 30 April 1944      to 19 August 1944      to 31 December 1944
Soviet advances from 1 August 1943 to 31 December 1944:      to 1 December 1943      to 30 April 1944      to 19 August 1944      to 31 December 1944

One final move in the south completed the 1943-44 campaigning season, which had wrapped up an advance of over 500 miles. 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. At this point, Hitler sacked several prominent generals, Manstein included. April saw the capture of Odessa in April 1944, followed by 4th Ukrainian Front's campaign to recapture the Crimea, which culminated with the recapture of Sevastopol on 10 May.

Along Army Group Centre's front, August 1943 saw this force pushed back from the Hagen line slowly, ceding comparatively little territory, but the loss of Bryansk and more importantly, Smolensk, on 25 September cost the Wehrmacht the keystone of the entire German defensive system. The 4th and 9th Armies and 3rd Panzer Armies still held their own east of the upper Dnieper, stifling Soviet attempts to reach Vitebsk. On Army Group North's front, there was barely any fighting at all until January 1944, when out of nowhere Volkhov and Second Baltic Fronts struck. In a lightning campaign, Leningrad was liberated and Novgorod was recaptured; by February the Red Army had reached the borders of Estonia after a 75 mile advance.

Third Period

Summer 1944

Wehrmacht planning was convinced that the Soviets would attack again in the south, where the front was fifty miles from Lvov and offered the most direct route to Berlin. Accordingly they denuded of troops Army Group Centre, whose front still protruded deep into the Soviet Union. The Belorussian Offensive (codenamed Operation Bagration) started on June 22, 1944, was a massive Soviet attack, consisting of four Soviet army groups totaling over 120 divisions that smashed into a thinly-held German line. They focused their massive attacks on Army Group Centre, not Army Group South as the Germans had originally expected. The Germans had transferred units to France to counter the invasion of Normandy two weeks before. The Red Army achieved a ratio of ten to one in tanks and seven to one in aircraft over the enemy. At the points of attack, the numerical and quality advantages of the Soviets were overwhelming. More than 2.3 million Soviet troops went into action against the German Army Group Centre, which could boast a strength of less than 800,000 men. 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. Bagration was by any measure one of the largest single operations of the war. By the end of August 1944 it had cost the Red Army ~170,000 dead, missing, wounded and sick, as well as 2,957 tanks and assault guns. The Germans lost approximately 670,000 dead, missing, wounded and sick, out of whom 160,000 were captured, as well 2,000 tanks and 57,000 other vehicles.

Red Army soldiers restoring the USSR border sign. By the end of 1944 practically the entire pre-war Soviet territory was liberated.
Red Army soldiers restoring the USSR border sign. By the end of 1944 practically the entire pre-war Soviet territory was liberated.

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 the 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 inevitable loss of the whole of the Balkans.

In Poland, as the Red Army approached, the Polish Home Army (AK) launched Operation Tempest. During the Warsaw Uprising, the Soviet Army halted at the Vistula River, unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the Polish resistance. An attempt by the communist controlled 1st Polish Army to relieve the city was unsupported by the Red Army and was thrown back in September with heavy losses.

In Slovakia, the Slovak National Uprising started as an armed struggle between German Wehrmacht forces and rebel Slovak troops in August to October 1944. It was centered at Banská Bystrica.

Autumn 1944

On 8 September 1944 the Red Army begun an attack on the Dukla Pass on the Slovak-Polish border. Two months later, the Soviets won the battle and entered Slovakia. The toll was high: 85,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead, plus several thousand Germans, Slovaks and Czechs.

January-March 1945

Soviet advances from 1 January 1945 to 7 May 1945:      to 30 March 1945      to 11 May 1945
Soviet advances from 1 January 1945 to 7 May 1945:      to 30 March 1945      to 11 May 1945

The Soviet Union finally entered Warsaw in January 1945, after it was destroyed and abandoned by the Germans. 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 five~six to one in troops, six to one in artillery, six to one in tanks and four to one in 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, Poznań, and drawing up on a line sixty kilometres east of Berlin along the Oder River. During the full course of the Vistula-Oder operation (23 days), the Red Army forces sustained 194,000 casualties and lost 1,267 tanks and assault guns.

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 Königsberg in East Prussia.

A counter-attack by the newly created Army Group Vistula, under the command of Reichsführer-SS 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 counter-attacked, 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.

Soviet tanks and infantry pressing on the Germans near Budapest.
Soviet tanks and infantry pressing on the Germans near Budapest.

On April 9, 1945, Königsberg 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. The East Prussian operation, though often overshadowed by the Vistula-Oder operation and the later battle for Berlin, was in fact one of the largest and costliest operations fought by the Red army through the war. During the period it lasted (13 January - 25 April), it cost the Red Army 584,788 casualties, and 3,525 tanks and assault guns.

By early April, the Stavka freed up General Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian 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 Belorussian 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.

End of War: April–May 1945

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14,933,000 Soviet and Soviet influence nations personnel were awarded the medal for victory over Germany from 9th May 1945.

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 program.

Lidiya Ruslanova performing for Soviet soldiers during the Great Patriotic War.
Lidiya Ruslanova performing for Soviet soldiers during the Great Patriotic War.

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 58th Guards Rifle Division of the 5th Guards Army made contact with the US 69th Infantry Division of the First Army near Torgau, Germany at 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. Altogether, the Berlin operation (16 April - 8 May) cost the Red Army 81,367 casualties (dead, missing, wounded and sick) and 1,997 tanks and assault guns. German losses in this period of the war remain impossible to determine with any reliability.

At 22:41 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 May 8, 1945. The next day shortly before midnight, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Zhukov's headquarters. The war in Europe was over.

In the Soviet Union the end of the war is considered to be May 9, when the surrender took effect Moscow time. This date is celebrated as a national holiday - Victory Day - in Russia (as part of a two-day May 8-9 holiday) and some other post-Soviet countries. The ceremonial Victory parade was held in Moscow on June 24.

German Army Group Centre initially refused to surrender and continued to fight in Czechoslovakia until about May 11.

A small German garrison on the island of Bornholm (Denmark) refused to surrender until after being bombed and invaded by the Soviets. The island was returned to the Danish government four months later.

Manchuria: August 1945

The Battle of Manchuria began on August 8, 1945, with the Soviet invasion of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo; the greater invasion would eventually include neighbouring Mengjiang, as well as northern Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. It marked the initial and only military action of the Soviet Union against the Empire of Japan; at the Yalta Conference, it had agreed to Allied pleas to terminate the neutrality pact with Japan and enter the Second World War's Pacific theatre within three months after the end of the war in Europe. While not a part of the Eastern Front operations, it is included here because the commanders and much of the forces used by the Red Army, came from the European Theatre of operations and benefited from the experience gained there. In many ways this was a 'perfect' operation, delivered with the benefit gained during the bitter fighting with the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe over four years.

Leadership

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were ideologically driven 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 led Germany during World War II.
Adolf Hitler led Germany during World War II.

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 garden of the Reich Chancellery 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.

In part because of the unexpected success of the Battle of France despite the warnings of the professional military, Hitler 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 1941–42 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. 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."

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union during World War II.
Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union during World War II.

Joseph Stalin bore the greatest responsibility for the disasters at the beginning of the war, but can be equally praised for the subsequent success of the Soviet Army, which would have been impossible without the unprecedentedly rapid industrializaion of the Soviet Union, which was the first priority of Stalin's internal policy throughout the 1930s.

Stalin's Great Purge of the Red Army in the late 1930s consisted of the legal prosecution of many of the senior command, many of whom were convicted and sentenced to death or imprisonment. Those executed included Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the brilliant proponent of armoured blitzkrieg. Stalin promoted some obscurantists like Grigory Kulik (who opposed the mechanization of the army and the production of tanks), but on the other hand the purge of the older commanders who had had their positions since the Russian Civil War, and had experience, but were deemed “politically unreliable”. This opened up those places to the promotion of many younger officers that Stalin and the NKVD thought were in line with Stalinist politics, many of whom proved to be terribly inexperienced, but some were later very successful. Soviet tank output remained the largest in the world. Distrust of the military led, since the foundation of the Red Army in 1918, to a system of "dual command", in which every commander was paired with a political commissar, a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Larger units had military councils consisting of the commander, commissar and chief of staff, who ensured that the commanding officer was loyal and implemented Party orders.

Following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, the Baltic states and Bessarabia in 1939–40, 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, in the event of a German invasion, the Red Army would take the strategic offensive and fight the war mostly outside the borders of the Soviet Union; thus few plans were made for strategic defensive operations. However, fortifications were built. 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 major portions of the Red Air Force, lined up on its airfields, in the first days of the war.

Stalin's insistence on repeated counterattacks without adequate 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. While some regard this offensive strategy as an argument for Soviet aggressive strategic plans, the offensive operational planning was not, by itself, evidence of any aggressive foreign policy intent.

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 others. Incompetent commanders were gradually but ruthlessly weeded out.

At the crisis of the war, in autumn 1942, Stalin made many concessions to the army: unitary command was restored by removing the Commissars from the chain of command. After the Battle of Stalingrad, shoulderboards were introduced for all ranks; this was a significant symbolic step, since they had been seen as a symbol of the old regime after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Beginning in autumn 1941, units that had proved themselves by superior performance in combat 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 transferral to penal battalions and penal companies, and the NKVD's barrier 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 (but not as brutally as in the 1930s): many successful officers were demoted to unimportant positions (including Zhukov, Malinovsky and Koniev).

Occupation and repression

Image:Einsatzgruppen-Killingfull.jpg
A member of Einsatzgruppe D murders a Jew who is kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1942. The back of the photo is inscribed "The last Jew in Vinnitsa".

The enormous territorial gains of 1941 presented Germany with vast areas to pacify and administer. Some Soviet citizens, especially in the recently annexed territories of Western Ukraine and the Baltic States greeted their conquerors as liberators from the Soviet rule. However, nascent national liberation movements among Ukrainians and Cossacks, and others were viewed by Hitler with suspicion; some, (especially those from the Baltic States) 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 ( Generalplan Ost).

Regions closer to the front were managed by military powers of the region, in other areas such as Baltic states annexed by USSR in 1940, Reichscommissariats were established. As a rule, the maximum in loot was extracted. 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 in the conquered areas began almost 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 over 30,000 Jews 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.

Image:Nazi German attrocities.JPG
Execution of Russian civilians by a shot in the back of the head, carried out with a certain grim intensity, even relish. German officers felt a contempt for the "sub-human" Slavic people, coupled with a disposition towards anti-Semitism.

The massacres of Jews and other ethnic minorities were only a part of the deaths from the Nazi occupation. Many hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians were executed, and millions more 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 1943–44, the German occupiers systematically applied a scorched earth policy, burning towns and cities, destroying infrastructure, and leaving civilians to starve or die of exposure. In many towns, the Germans also fought Soviet forces right within towns and cities with trapped civilians caught in the middle. Estimates of total civilian dead in the Soviet Union in the war range from seven million (Encyclopædia Britannica) to seventeen million (Richard Overy).

The Nazi ideology and the maltreatment of the local population and Soviet POWs encouraged partisans fighting behind the front, motivated even anti-communists 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.

Homeless Russian children in occupied territory (about 1942)
Homeless Russian children in occupied territory (about 1942)

A Russian historian Vadim Erlikman has detailed Soviet losses totaling 26.5 million war related deaths. Military losses of 10.6 million include 7.6 million killed or missing in action and 2.6 million POW dead, plus 400,000 paramilitary and Soviet partisan losses. Civilian deaths totaled 15.9 million, which included 1.5 million from military actions; 7.1 million victims of Nazi genocide and reprisals; 1.8 million deported to Germany for forced labor; and 5.5 million famine and disease deaths. Additional famine deaths, which totaled 1 million during 1946-47, are not included here. These losses are for the entire territory of the USSR including territories annexed in 1939-40.

Belarus lost a quarter of its pre-war population, including practically all its intellectual elite. Following bloody encirclement battles, all of the present-day Belarus territory was occupied by the Germans by the end of August 1941. The Nazis imposed a brutal regime, deporting some 380,000 young people for slave labour, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians more. More than 600 villages like Khatyn were burned with their entire population. More than 209 cities and towns (out of 270 total) and 9,000 villages were destroyed. Himmler pronounced a plan according to which 3/4 of Belarusian population was designated to "eradication" and 1/4 of racially cleaner population (blue eyes, light hair) would be allowed to serve Germans as slaves.

Some recent reports raise the number of Belarusians who perished in War to "3 million 650 thousand people, unlike the former 2.2 million. That is to say not every fourth inhabitant but almost 40% of the pre-war Belarusian population perished (considering the present-day borders of Belarus)."

Sixty percent of Soviet POWs died during the war. Large numbers of Soviet POWs and forced laborers transported to Germany were on their return to the USSR (in many cases forcefully repatriated by the Western Allies) treated as traitors and deserters and were executed or deported to the Soviet prison camps. The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention (1929). However, a month after the German invasion in 1941, an offer was made for a reciprocal adherence to the Hague convention. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials .

The official Polish government report of war losses prepared in 1947 reported 6,028,000 war victims out of a population of 27,007,000 ethnic Poles and Jews; this report excluded ethnic Ukrainian and Belarusian losses.

Industrial output

A T-34 tank rolls off the line at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory No. 112 in Gorki. The Soviet Union manufactured 58,000 T-34s during the war.
A T-34 tank rolls off the line at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory No. 112 in Gorki. The Soviet Union manufactured 58,000 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. Stalin's 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 on 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. The Germans, on the other hand, could rely on a large slave workforce from the conquered countries and Soviet POWs.

Germany's raw material production was higher than the Soviets' and her labour force was far greater, but the Soviets were more efficient at using what resources they had and chose to build low-cost, low-maintenance vehicles whilst the Germans built high-cost, high-maintenance vehicles.

Germany chose to build very expensive and very complicated vehicles and even though Germany produced many times more raw materials she could not compete with the Soviets on the quantity of military production (in 1943, the Soviet Union manufactured 24,089 tanks to Germany's 19,800). The Soviets incrementally upgraded existing designs, and simplified and refined manufacturing processes to increase production. Meanwhile, German industry was forced to engineer more advanced but complex designs such as the Panther tank, the King Tiger or the Elefant.

Summary of German and Soviet Raw Material production during the war1
Year Coal
(million tonnes)
Steel
(million tonnes)
Aluminium
(thousand tonnes)
Oil
(million tonnes)
German Soviet German Soviet German Soviet German Soviet Italian Hungarian Romanian Japanese
1941 315.5 151.4 28.2 17.9 233.6 5.7 33.0 0.12 0.4 5.5 -
1942 317.9 75.5 28.7 8.1 264.0 51.7 6.6 22.0 0.01 0.7 5.7 1.8
1943 340.4 93.1 30.6 8.5 250.0 62.3 7.6 18.0 0.01 0.8 5.3 2.3
1944 347.6 121.5 25.8 10.9 245.3 82.7 5.5 18.2 - 1 3.5 1
19452 149.3 12.3 86.3 1.3 19.4 - - - 0.1
Summary of Axis and Soviet Tank and Self-
propelled Gun production during the war1
Year Tanks and self-
propelled guns
Soviet German Italian Hungarian Japanese
1941 6,590 5,2003 595 - 595
1942 24,446 9,3003 1,252 500 557
1943 24,089 19,800 336 558
1944 28,963 27,300 - 353
19452 15,400 - - 137
Summary of Axis and Soviet Aircraft production during the war1
Year Aircraft
Soviet German Italian Hungarian Romanian Japanese
1941 15,735 11,776 3,503 - 1,000 5,088
1942 25,436 15,556 2,818 6 8,861
1943 34,845 25,527 967 267 16,693
1944 40,246 39,807 - 773 28,180
19452 20,052 7,544 - - 8,263
Summary Of German and Soviet Industrial Labour (including those classified as handworkers), and Summary of Foreign, Voluntary, Coerced and POW Labour 4
Year Industrial Labour Foreign Labour Total Labour
Soviet German Soviet German Total Soviet Total German
1941 11,000,000 12,900,000 - 3,500,000 11,000,000 16,400,000
1942 7,200,000 11,600,000 50,000 4,600,000 7,250,000 16,200,000
1943 7,500,000 11,100,000 200,000 5,700,000 7,700,000 16,800,000
1944 8,200,000 10,400,000 800,000 7,600,000 9,000,000 18,000,000
19452 9,500,000 2,900,000 - 12,400,000 -

Notes:

  1. Figures from Richard Overy, Russia's War, p. 155 and Campaigns of World War II Day By Day, by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab, pp. 244-52.
  2. If numbers are not stated then they are unknown. Soviet numbers for 1945 are for the whole of 1945 even after the war was over.
  3. German figures for 1941 and 1942 include tanks only. (Self-propelled guns cost 2/3 of a tank (mainly because they have no turret) and were more appropriate in a defensive role. The Germans therefore favored their production in the second half of the war.)
  4. Figures are from The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy p. 498.

It should be noted that the Axis allies Italy, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria added to the German numbers. Two-thirds of Germany's Iron ore, much needed for her military production, came from Sweden. Soviet production and upkeep was assisted by the Lend-Lease program from the United States and Britain. After the defeat at Stalingrad, Germany geared completely towards a war economy, as expounded in Goebbels' Sportpalast speech, increasing production in subsequent years under Albert Speer's astute direction, despite the intensifying Allied bombing campaign.

Casualties

The Eastern Front was unparalleled for its high intensity, ferocity, and brutality. The fighting involved millions of German and Soviet troops along the broadest land front in military history. It was by far the deadliest single theatre of war in World War II, with over 5 million deaths on the Axis Forces; Soviet military deaths were about 10.6 million (out of which 3.6 million Soviets died in German captivity), and civilian deaths were about 14 to 17 million. Soviet and Russian historiography often uses the so-called irretrievable casualties term. According to the Narkomat of Defence order (№ 023, February 4, 1944), the irretrievable casualties include killed, missed, those who died due to war-time or subsequent wounds, maladies and chilblains and those who were captured.

The genocidal death toll was attributed to several factors, including brutal mistreatment of POWs and captured partisans by both sides, multiple atrocities by the Germans and the Soviets against the civilian population and each other, the wholesale use of weaponry on the battlefield against huge masses of infantry. The multiple battles, and most of all, the use of scorched earth tactics destroyed agricultural land, infrastructure, and whole towns, leaving much of the population homeless and without food.

Military losses on the Eastern Front during World War II1
Forces fighting with the Axis
Total Dead KIA/MIA POWs taken by the Soviets POWs that died in Captivity
Greater Germany 4,300,000 4,000,000 3,300,000 374,000
Soviet residents who joined German army 215,000+ 215,000 1,000,000 Unknown
Romania 281,000 81,000 500,000 200,000
Hungary 300,000 100,000 500,000 200,000
Italy 82,000 32,000 70,000 50,000
Total 5,178,000+ 4,428,000 5,450,000 824,000
Military losses on the Eastern Front during World War II2
Forces Fighting with the Soviet Union
Total Dead KIA/MIA POWs taken by the Axis POWs that died in captivity
Soviet 10,600,000 6,600,000 5,200,000 3,600,000
Poland 24,000 24,000 Unknown Unknown
Romania 17,000 17,000 80,000 Unknown
Bulgaria 10,000 10,000 Unknown Unknown
Total 10,651,000 6,651,000 5,280,000 3,600,000

1 Rűdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1, Richard Overy The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (2004), ISBN 0-7139-9309-X

2 Vadim Erlikman, Poteri narodonaseleniia v XX veke: spravochnik. Moscow 2004. ISBN 5-93165-107-1; Mark Axworthy, Third Axis Fourth Ally. Arms and Armour 1995, p. 216. ISBN 1-85409-267-7

Total Soviet losses includes Deaths Partisans-250,000 and Deaths Militia-150,000 KIA/MIA above = Killed in action / Missing in action

Polish Armed Forces in the East, initially consisting of Poles from Eastern Poland or otherwise in Soviet Union in 1939-1941, began fighting alongside the Red Army in 1943, and grew steadily as more Polish territory was liberated from the Nazis in 1944-1945.

When the Axis countries of Eastern Europe were occupied by the Soviets, they were forced to change sides and declare war on Germany. (see Allied Commissions).

Some of the Soviet citizens would side with the Germans and join Andrey Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army. Most of those who joined were Russian POWs. Most who joined hated communism and actually saw the Nazis as liberators from communism. These men were primarily used in the Eastern Front but some were assigned to guard the beaches of Normandy. The other main group of men joining the German army were citizens of the Baltic countries annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 or from Ukraine. They fought in their own Waffen-SS units.

A comparison of the losses demonstrates the cruel treatment of the Soviet POWs by the Nazis. Most of the Axis POWs were released from captivity after the war, but the fate of the Soviet POWs differed markedly. Nazi troops who captured Red Army soldiers frequently shot them in the field or shipped them to concentration camps and executed them. Hitler's notorious Commissar Order implicated all the German armed forces in the policy of war crimes.


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