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Russians halt German advance in a decisive battle at Kursk

Russians halt German advance in a decisive battle at Kursk

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On July 12, 1943, one of the greatest clashes of armor in military history takes place as the German offensive against the Russian fortification at Kursk, a Russian railway and industrial center, is stopped in a devastating battle, marking the turning point in the Eastern front in the Russians’ favor.

The Germans had been driven from Kursk, a key communications center between north and south, back in February. By March, the Russians had created a salient, a defensive fortification, just west of Kursk in order to prevent another attempt by the Germans to advance farther south in Russia. In June, the German invaders launched an air attack against Kursk; on the ground, Operation Cottbus was launched, ostensibly dedicated to destroying Russian partisan activity, but in reality resulting in the wholesale slaughter of Russian civilians, among whom Soviet partisan fighters had been hiding. The Russians responded with air raids against German troop formations.

By July, Hitler realized that the breaking of the Russian resistance at Kursk was essential to pursuing his aims in Soviet Russia and the defense of Greater Germany, that is, German-occupied territory outside prewar German borders. “This day, you are to take part in an offensive of such importance that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome,” Hitler announced to his soldiers on July 4. But on July 5, the Russians pulled the rug out from under Hitler’s offensive by launching their own artillery bombardment. The Germans counterattacked, and the largest tank battle in history began: Between the two assailants, 6,000 tanks were deployed. On July 12, 900 Russian tanks clashed with 900 German (including their superior Tiger tanks) at Prokhorovka—the Battle of Kursk’s most serious engagement. When it was all over, 300 German tanks, and even more Russian ones, were strewn over the battlefield. “The earth was black and scorched with tanks like burning torches,” reported one Russian officer. But the Russians had stopped the German advance dead in its tracks. The advantage had passed to the East. The Germans’ stay in Soviet territory was coming to an end.

READ MORE: 8 Things You Should Know About WWII's Eastern Front

The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk (July 4 - July 20, 1943) was a decisive battle on the Eastern Front during World War II.

The battle was an attempt by the German side to get on the offensive after defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad.

The Soviet counterpart, however, had good intelligence about the German preparations. , the Red Army established deep defensive positions and gathered large forces in reserve.

The Battle of Kursk was one of the greatest armored battles and probably the air battle in history that led to the largest loss in a single day.

The famous tank crew at Prokhorovka was part of the Battle of Kursk. The German forces were unable to break through the Soviet lines, and eventually brought the Soviet forces counterattacked.

The German side named the battle as "Operation Citadel", while the Soviet side, had two names for it: "Operation Kutuzov" for the defensive and "Operation Polkovodets Rumjantsev" for the offensive.

The Battle of Kursk was the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front, after Kursk the initiative shifted to the Red Army.

The Soviet battle plan and its execution was exemplary and is still a subject of study in war schools.

For 60 years now domestic historiography has been repeating these data about the crucial battle at Prokhorovka, on the Kursk Bulge: 800 Soviet tanks vs. 700 Nazi tanks Soviet losses - 300 vehicles Nazi losses - 400. A decisive victory was won. Document analysis, however, reveals a somewhat different picture

The Battle of Kursk, which took place 60 years ago, was a direct continuation of the Battle of Stalingrad.

After the Paulus army was successfully encircled, the Soviet command made a serious mistake and failed to surround and eliminate the entire Nazi force on the Don and in the North Caucasus.

Field Marshal Manstein, who had been allowed to get away from the Caucasus, in February-March 1943 inflicted a crushing defeat on Soviet forces, retaking Kharkov and Belgorod.

The Nazis did not have enough firepower for Kursk, hence the Kursk Bulge, a projection going deep into the Nazi front. Within that bulge a powerful Soviet force was concentrated, and the Nazis were out to get the Soviets in revenge for Stalingrad by encircling and routing them.

After June 1941, the Nazis did not prepare any other offensive operation as thoroughly as they did Operation Citadel.

Preparations continued for almost four months the troops received a substantial amount of modern hardware and equipment, including Tiger and Panther tanks, Elephant (Ferdinand in Soviet terminology) self-propelled guns, Fw-190 fighters, the AT modification of the Ju-87 bomber, and so forth.

Preparations were made amid the utmost secrecy, but that secret was known to everyone. The axis of the upcoming Nazi strike was far too obvious.

Soviet intelligence services merely confirmed the Nazi plans.

So Soviet troops prepared the counteroffensive operation just as thoroughly. Never in the entire Great Patriotic War had our army built such strong, deeply layered defensive installations.

And, whereas virtually all Nazi attacks in the 1941-1942 period came as a surprise to us, this one was awaited impatiently (if this term is at all applicable to a relentless battle).

Furthermore, it is a military-science axiom that an attacking force should have at least a four-fold superiority over a defending force.

At Kursk, in the summer of 1943, the Nazis did not have any superiority at all. The Soviet Central and Voronezh Fronts had a 20 percent to 50 percent superiority over the opposing Center and South Groups while there was also a whole reserve front - the Steppe Front, making Soviet superiority over the Nazis more than twofold. To cap it all, we knew exactly when the Nazi offensive was to begin.

In such conditions, Operation Citadel was a suicide mission for the Nazis, pure and simple. It is noteworthy that Hitler was well aware of that, but the Nazi generals were resolved to take their revenge for the Stalingrad humiliation.

The offensive began on July 5. Strange as that may be, the strike by the group under Manstein's command, in the south, proved successful.

In less than a week, an armored fist of Tigers, Panthers, and Elephants, escorted by AT Junkers, despite fierce resistance by Soviet forces, breached all three defense lines of the Voronezh Front commanded by Gen. Vatutin.

By July 12, the Nazis gained operational depth, and so to rectify the situation, which was getting catastrophic, the Soviet command mounted a counterstroke with the assets and forces of the Fifth Guards Tank Army under Gen. Rotmistrov. That was the historic battle of Prokhorovka.

It consisted of a number of separate combat episodes, the total number of Soviet tanks reaching 660 with the Nazis having not more than 420. So Prokhorovka cannot be regarded as the largest tank battle in war history: Even in the course of the Battle of Kursk there were more wide-ranging engagements, while in late June 1941 over 1,500 tanks on both sides had been involved in a battle in Western Ukraine.

As for the losses, the fact is that the Soviet side lost approximately 500 vehicles while the Nazis, about 200. Therefore it is difficult to talk about victory here although that was very well understood at the time.

As Rotmistrov himself recalled later, "when he learned about our losses, Stalin flew into a rage: After all, according to the Supreme High Command plans, the tank army was designed to take part in a counteroffensive, near Kharkov, but now it had to be reconstituted and reinforced.

The supreme commander decided to dismiss me from command and all but have me court-martialed." To analyze thebattle of Prokhorovka, Stalin gave orders to set up a State Defense Committee commission, which judged the operation a classic failure.

Manstein's victory, however, proved hollow. First, Nazi losses were enormous even though smaller than Soviet losses.

There were no assets left to exploit the success. Second, Gen. Model, who attacked the Kursk Bulge from the north, moving toward Manstein, got hopelessly stuck in the defense lines of the Central Front commanded by Gen. Rokossovsky.

Furthermore, on July 12, he was attacked from the rear, when Soviet Western Front troops began an advance on Orel.

Finally, British-U.S. troops landed on Sicily, and Hitler panicked. The subsequent course of the war showed that the allies did not have a chance on the Italian Front, but in July 1943, Hitler ordered troops to be redeployed from the Eastern Front to Italy. By July 17, Manstein began to retreat. The Nazis "achieved a defeat," showing that they were still superior fighters while the Soviets "suffered a victory" since the battle had from the start been hopeless for the Nazis.

Everything could have been different at Kursk had the Nazis attacked not at the base of the bulge, where Soviet forces were expecting them, but head-on, where there were virtually no defensive lines. In that case they would have reached the rear service positions of both the Central and the Voronezh Front on the second day of the operation.

That was what Manstein wanted to do, and Marshal Zhukov recognized the danger after the war. Hitler was also inclined to support that plan.

But being products of the classical Prussian military school, Wehrmacht generals refused to break canons. They did everything "properly." And lost.

After that, the Nazis, having lost their elite units, were unable to attack successfully until the end of the war while the Soviets took another step to victory, once again paying an exorbitant price for that.

Battle of Kursk: Eastern Front 1943

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Duration of the battle

The offensive

The Russians knew that the Germans would attack with a large number of tanks. They therefore equipped their positions with an abundance of anti-tank weapons and built minefields. The Russians quickly expanded their defenses to six defensive belts. The mobile troops were initially kept in reserve. Meanwhile, partisan groups constantly hindered German supplies.

According to the original plans, the Germans would attack in May. Hitler, however, insisted that the attack be delayed until his new wonder weapons were ready: The Panther and the Elefant tanks. On July 2, 1943, Hitler announced that the offensive would start on July 5. Most German generals thought that the attack should have taken place much earlier, because aerial reconnaissance had revealed what was in store for them. The generals also feared that, over time, troops would be needed to fight an invasion in the Mediterranean. The Russians suspected that the attack would take place between 3 and 6 July. On July 4, when they saw the Germans begin to remove their barbed wire and mines, General Rokossovski gave the order to shoot at the Germans with planes and artillery. The Germans also started to fire back.

2. World War One changed his fortunes

In 1915 Zhukov was conscripted into a cavalry regiment.

Zhukov in 1916. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

The Eastern Front was less characterised by static trench warfare than the west, and the 19 year old private was able to prove himself a superb soldier in Tsar Nicholas’ army. He won the Cross of St George not once but twice for extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, and was promoted to become a non-commissioned officer.


“…The American military authorities have likewise warned that the American east coast might be the area chosen for a blind attack by some sort of flying bomb. It was called the German V-3. To be specific, this device is based on the principle of the explosion of the nuclei of the atoms in heavy hydrogen derived from heavy water”:

(Was a Nazi Atomic bomb used in 1943 Against Russian Troops in Kursk)
In the winter and spring of 1943, after their terrible defeat in Stalingrad, clearly outnumbered and losing the initiative in the eastern front, Hitler and the German High Command were asking themselves what to do next, in the summer of 1943.

The situation was bad not only on the war front.

While Russian tank production increased to unbelievable levels, the German obsession for complex new super weapons, like the advanced but then immature Panther and Tiger tanks, largely reduced German tank production.

General Guderian, the best German armor expert and commander, said:

As interesting as these designs were, the practical result was just a reduced production of the Panzer 4, our only efficient tank then, to a very modest level…

Shortly before the battle of Kursk Guderian added, about the Panther and its crews:

They are simply not ready yet for the front.

In early 1943 the Germans were about to destroy their own tank production rates by terminating Panzer 4 production in return for a production of just 25 new Tigers per month, but at a moment of reason Hitler gave control of tank production to Guderian who stopped this idea.

The German Plan

The debate in the German High Command about what to do in the summer of 1943 was between two options, the realistic option and the enthusiast-optimist option:
The realistic option, supported by Guderian and Manstein, the best German field commanders, and by others, suggested to compensate for the large Russian numerical advantage by fully utilizing the superiority of the German commanders and soldiers in tactics, command, and fighting, by a strategy of dynamic mobile defense that would cause great losses to the Russians in a series of local clashes. The realistic goal was to stop and delay the Russians, as decisive victory was no longer achievable.
The enthusiast-optimistic option, proposed by General Zeitzler, chief of staff of the German army, suggested to concentrate almost all German tanks, and other forces, to a major decisive battle against a large portion of the Russian armor, in order to destroy them and by doing so hopefully regain the initiative. The most suitable place for such a battle, as Zeitzler proposed, was the Kursk salient, a wide region around the city of Kursk, about half way between Moscow and the black sea, where the Germans surrounded the Russians from three sides. It was obvious that the Russians will keep a large tank force there, and the plan was to encircle them in a classic Blitzkrieg style pincer movement of German tanks from North and South and destroy them. Zeitzler’s plan was code named Operation Citadel.
When Hitler discussed the two options with his Generals on May 4th, exactly two months before the German attack began, it became clear that each of the two options had a major problem.

The major problem with Zeitzler’s plan to attack the Kursk salient, was that aerial photos clearly revealed that the Russians were building dense and deep fortifications there in order to counter such an attack, and that many Russian tanks were moved deeper behind the front line. Instead of an open battlefield Blitzkrieg, it was going to be a direct charge on dense anti-tank defences. General von Mellenthin warned that such a direct attack will be a “Totenritt”, a ride to death, for the German tanks. In response to Guderian’s worries, Hitler himself admitted that whenever he think of this planned attack, his guts turn.

The major problem with Guderian’s option was that it lacked the charm, enthusiasm, and optimistic hope for a major change in the war that Zeitzler’s plan had. So the enthusiast Hitler decided in favor of Zeitzler’s plan, and calmed his worries of it by ordering to delay the attack for a while in order to incorporate more of the brand new advanced German tanks and tank destroyers in it. The date was set to July 4, 1943.

Once the order was given, the Germans prepared as best as they could. The entire region was photographed from above, the German commanders visited the front line to observe their intended routes, and the Germans concentrated all available forces in two armies, North and South of the Kursk salient, leaving minimal forces along the rest of the long Russian front.
The German force included a total of 50 divisions, including 17 armor and mechanized divisions. These included the most powerful and best equipped German divisions, such as the Gross Deutschland (Great Germany) division and the Waffen-SS tank divisions Leibstandarte (Hitler’s bodyguards), Totenkopf (Death skull), and Das Reich (The Reich). The Germans concentrated all their new armor, the Tiger and Panther tanks, and the mighty new Elefant tank destroyers, which had a front armor thicker than a battleship’s armor. They also concentrated all available air units and artillery, and despite the problems of the German plan it was a formidable concentrated mobile armor force with great offensive potential.

Thanks to their “Lucy” spy network, which operated high ranking sources in Germany via Switzerland, the Russians didn’t just expect the German attack, they knew all about it. They received the full details of the German plan, and the Russian military intelligence was able to verify most details in the front to ensure that the information was real, not disinformation.

The Russians prepared eight defence lines one behind the other, and also positioned their entire strategic mobile reserve East of the Kursk salient, in case the Germans will penetrate thru all these defence lines, which indeed happened.

The Russian plan was simple. First, they will let the Germans attack as planned right into their series of very dense defence lines, and after the German armor will be crushed there, the Russian army will start its strategic attack North and South of the Kursk salient and push the Germans West along a wide part of the front.

The Russian defence was unprecedented in its density. A total of 1,300,000 Russian soldiers with 3600 tanks, 20,000 guns, including 6000 76mm anti-tank guns, and 2400 aircraft were concentrated in and around the Kursk salient. It was about a fifth of the Russian military personnel, over a third of the tanks and over 1/4 of the aircraft. They laid 3400 mines per each kilometer of the front, half of them anti-tank mines, and over 300,000 civilians dug thousands of kilometers of anti-tank trenches and other fortifications. The Russian lines were filled with numerous anti-tank guns organized in groups of up to 10, each group commanded by one officer and firing at the same target. The Russian camouflage was superb, the Germans said that until they were hit by them, they could identify neither the Russian mine fields nor their anti-tank gun positions. To avoid forcing the Germans to divert from their known plan, Russian air attacks were delayed until the German tanks already moved into the trap. The Russians were as ready as they could be.

The Battle of Kursk

The German attack finally began, in the afternoon of July 4, 1943, as planned. The German armor spearheads, led by the most armored and most powerful Tigers and Elefants, advanced forward in the wheat fields toward the Russian lines. Then came wave after wave of anti-tank aircraft attacks by both sides, German Stukas attacked dug in Russian tanks and Russian Sturmoviks attacked the German tanks. The fighters of both sides engages in air combats over the battlefield, and each side’s massive heavy artillery also fired. The advancing German tanks suffered rapidly increasing losses from the dense Russian anti-tank defences, but pressed forward. Once the German heavy tanks reached into the Russian defense lines, they could finally be hit and destroyed from their sides, where they were not so armored as from the front. At this short range they also lost their superiority in long range firing from their powerful guns.

In the North, the German attack advanced only 10km into the Russian lines in two days and was stopped, after losing about 25,000 soldiers and 200 tanks, but fighting continued. In the South, where they had stronger forces, the Germans sent all their reserves forward and pressed on despite the losses. On July 12, after a week of heavy fighting with heavy casualties in both sides, General Hoth, the German commander in the South side of the Kursk salient, decided to concentrate all his remaining tanks, about 600, and press forward with all their concentrated force deeper, past the last remaining Russian defense line, and into an area more suitable for tank warfare near the small village Prokhorovka.

He didn’t know that at this point in the battle, the Russian High Command already predicted this development, and since the German advance in the North was stopped, they could now safely send their armor reserve to meet the advancing German tanks in the South. The Russians ordered their entire 5th Guards tank army, which so far didn’t participate in the battle, to hurry at maximum speed from its position East of Kursk to meet the German tanks advancing near Prokhorovka.

Due to very bad visibility, with thick smoke and dust, when the Russian tanks met the German tanks the next morning, they didn’t stop advancing until they were all around and between them, so about 1500 German and Russian tanks fought in a fierce battle of very short firing distances in which the Germans could not exploit their technological superiority in longer range fighting. The Germans lost more than half of their remaining tanks in this great clash which lasted eight hours, and the Russians lost greater numbers. The battle was decided. The next day Hitler ordered to stop Operation Citadel, and the Russians started their counter attack north of Kursk.

After the Battle

The battlefield in Kursk was filled with many hundreds of burnt tanks and crashed aircraft, and so many dead soldiers. The difference was that while the Russians suffered heavy losses but could continue as planned and shift from defence to a large counter attack in a wide front, the German army in the East just lost the core of its remaining force.

In the summer of 1941 the German army attacked Russia and was stopped only near Moscow.

In the summer of 1942 the German army attacked in South Russia and reached the Volga river at Stalingrad before it was stopped, and lost the strategic initiative to the recovering Russian army.

In the summer of 1943, in the battle of Kursk, the much weaker German army broke its fist and lost its best remaining units in its attempt to regain the initiative in one last major attack, for which the Russians were fully prepared.

After the battle of Kursk, the war in the eastern front was a long Russian advance, in which the Russian army returned to all the territory it lost to the Germans, conquered all of Eastern Europe, and reached all the way to Germany and to Berlin and won the war. The Germans could no longer attack or stop the Russian advance, and were just pushed back in a long retreat.

The contents in their entirety, with the original breaks where they occurred in the text for transmission:

This bomb is revolutionary in its results, and it will completely upset all ordinary precepts of warfare hitherto established. I am sending you, in one group, all those reports on what is called the atom-splitting bomb:

It is a fact that in June of 1943 the German Army tried out an utterly new type of weapon against the Russians at a location 150 kilometers southeast of Kursk. Although it was the entire 19th Infantry Regiment of the Russians which was thus attacked, only a few bombs (each round up to 5 kilograms) sufficed to utterly wipe them out to the last man.

The following is according to a statement by Lieutenant-Colonel UE (?) I KENJI, advisor to the attaché in Hungary and formerly (on duty?) in this country, who by chance saw the actual scene immediately after the above took place:

“All the men and the horses (within the area of?) the explosion of the shells were charred black and even their ammunition had all been detonated ”

Moreover, it is a fact that the same type of war material was tried out in the Crimea, too. At that time the Russians claimed that this was poison-gas, and protested that if Germany were ever again to use it, Russia, too, would use poison-gas.

There is also the fact that recently in London – in the period between October and the 15th of November – the loss of life and the damage to business buildings through fires of unknown origin was great. It is clear, judging especially by the articles about a new weapon of this type, which have appeared from time to time recently in British and American magazines – that even our enemy has already begun to study this type.

To generalize on the basis of all these reports: I am convinced that the most important technical advance in the present great war is in the realization of the atom-splitting bomb. Therefore, the central authorities are planning, through research on this type of weapon, to speed up the matter of rendering the weapon practical. And for my part, I am convinced of the necessity for taking urgent steps to effect this end.

The following are the facts I have learned regarding its technical data:

Recently the British authorities warned their people of the possibility that they might undergo attacks by German atom-splitting bombs. The American military authorities have likewise warned that the American east coast might be the area chosen for a blind attack by some sort of flying bomb. It was called the German V-3. To be specific, this device is based on the principle of the explosion of the nuclei of the atoms in heavy hydrogen derived from heavy water. (Germany has a large plant (for this?) in the vicinity of Rjukan, Norway, which has from time to time been bombed by English planes.).

Naturally, there have been plenty of examples even before this of successful attempts at smashing individual atoms. However, as far as the demonstration of any practical results is concerned, they seem not to have been able to split large numbers of atoms in a single group. That is, they require for the splitting of each single atom a force that will disintegrate the electron orbit.

On the other hand, the stuff that the Germans are using has, apparently, a very much greater specific gravity than anything heretofore used. In this connection, allusions have been made to SIRIUS and stars of the “White Dwarf” group. (Their specific gravity is (6?) 1 thousand, and the weight of one cubic inch is 1 ton.)

In general, atoms cannot be compressed into the nuclear density. However, the terrific pressures and extremes of temperature in the “White Dwarfs” cause the bursting of the atoms and A-GENSHI HAKAI DAN. That is, a bomb deriving its force from the release of atomic energy.

There are, moreover, radiations from the exterior of these stars composed of what is left of the atoms which are only the nuclei, very small in volume.

According to the English newspaper accounts, the German atom-splitting device is the NEUMAN disintegrator. Enormous energy is directed into the central part of the atom and this generates at atomic pressure of several tons of thousands of tons (sic) per square inch. This device can split the relatively unstable atoms of such elements as uranium. Moreover, it brings into being a store of explosive atomic energy.

The end of this amazing intercept then reads:

Inter 12 Dec 44 (1,2) Japanese Rec’d 12 Dec 44 Trans 14 Dec 44 (3020-B), apparently references to when the message was intercepted by American intelligence, its original language (Japanese), when the message was received, when it was translated (December 12, 1944), and by whom (3020- B).

Edgar Mayer and Thomas Mehner, Hitler und die Bombe (Rottenburg: Kopp Verlag, 2002), citing “Stockholm to Tokyo, No. 232.9 December 1944 (War Department), National Archives, RG 457, SRA 14628-32, declassified October 1, 1978.

The date of this document two days before the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge must have set off alarm bells in the offices of Allied Intelligence personnel both during and after the war. While it is certainly clear that the Japanese attaché in Stockholm seems to be somewhat confused about the nature of nuclear fission, a number of startling things stand out in the document:

(1) The Germans were, according to the report, using weapons of mass destruction of some type on the Eastern Front, but had apparently for some reason refrained from using them on the Western Allies

(a) The areas specifically mentioned were Kursk, in the approximate location of the southern pincer of the German offensive, which took place in July, and not June, of 1943, and the Crimean peninsula

(b) The time mentioned was 1943, though since the only major action to have occurred in the Crimea was in 1942 with the massive German artillery bombardment, one must also conclude that the time frame stretched back into 1942

At this juncture is it worth pausing to consider briefly the German siege of the Russian fortress of Sevastopol, scene of the most colossal artillery bombardment of the war, as it bears directly on the interpretation of this intercept.

The siege was led by Colonel-General (later Field Marshal) Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army. Von Manstein assembled 1,300 artillery pieces – the largest concentration of heavy and super-heavy artillery deployed by any Power during the war – and pounded Sevastopol with this mighty arsenal twenty-four hours a day for five clays. These were no ordinary heavy field pieces.

Two mortar regiments – the 1st Heavy Mortar Regiment and the 70th Mortar Regiment – as well as the 1st and 4th Mortar Battalions, had been concentrated in front of the fortress under the special command of Colonel Nieman – altogether 21 batteries with 576 barrels, including the batteries of the 1st Heavy Mortar regiment with the 11- and 12 1/2 inch high explosive and incendiary oil shells…

Even these monsters were not the largest pieces deployed at Sevastopol. Several of the 16 1/2 inch “Big Bertha” Krupp cannon and their old Austrian Skoda counterparts were massed against the Russian positions, along with the even more colossal “Karl” and “Thor” mortars, gigantic self-propelled 24 inch mortars firing shells that weighed over two tons.

But even “Karl” was not quite the last word in gunnery. That last word was stationed at Bakhchisary, in the “Palace of Gardens” of the ancient residence of the Tartar Khans, and was called “Dora,” or occasionally “Heavy Gustav.” It was the heaviest gun of the last war. Its caliber was 31 1/2 inches. Sixty railway carriages were needed to transport the parts of the monster. Its 107-foot barrel ejected high-explosive projectiles of 4800 kg -i.e., nearly five tons- over a distance of 29 miles. Or it could hurl even heavier armour-piercing missiles, weighing seven tons, at targets nearly 24 miles away. The missile together with its cartridge measured nearly twenty-six feet in length. Erect that would be about (the) height of a two-storey house….

These data are sufficient to show that here the conventional gun had been enlarged to gigantic, almost super-dimensional scale – indeed, to a point where one might question the economic return obtained from such a weapon. Yet one single round from “Dora” destroyed an ammunition dump in Severnaya Bay at Sevastopol although it was situated 100 feet below ground.

So horrendous was the bombardment from this massed heavy and super-heavy artillery that the German General Staff estimated that over 500 rounds fell on Russian positions per second during the five days’ artillery and aerial bombardment, a massive expenditure of ammunition. The rain of steel on the Russian positions pulverized Russian morale and was often so thunderous that eardrums burst. At the end of the battle, the city and environs of Sevastopol were ruined, two entire Soviet armies had been obliterated, and over 90,000 prisoners were taken.

Paul Carrell, Hitler Moves East, 1941-1943 (Ballantine Books, 1971)
Why are these details significant? First, note the reference to “incendiary oil shells.” These shells are the indication that unusual weaponry was deployed by the Germans at Sevastopol and delivered through conventional – though quite large – artillery pieces. The German Army did possess such shells and deployed the frequently and with no little effectiveness on the Eastern Front.

But might there have been an even more fearsome weapon? The Germans indeed developed an early version of a modern “fuel-air” bomb, a conventional explosive with the explosive power of a tactical nuclear weapon. Given the great weight of such projectiles, and the German lack of sufficient heavy-lift aircraft to deliver them, it is possible if not likely that super-heavy artillery was used to deploy them. This would also explain another curiosity in the Japanese military attaché’s statement: the Germans apparently did not deploy weapons of mass destruction against cities, but only against military targets that would have been within the range of such weapons.

To resume the analysis of the Japanese statement:

(2) The Germans may have been seriously pursuing the hydrogen bomb, since reactions of the nuclei of heavy water atoms -containing deuterium and tritium- are essential in thermonuclear fusion reactions, a point highlighted by the Japanese delegate (though he confuses these reactions with fission reactions of atom bombs)

(3) The enormous temperatures of atom bombs are used as detonators in conventional hydrogen bombs

(4) In desperation the Russians appeal to have been ready to resort to the use of poison gas against the Germans if they did not “cease and desist”

(5) The Russians believe the weapons to have been “poison gas” of some sort, either a cover story put out by the Russians, or a result of field reports being made by Russian soldiers who were ignorant of the type of weapon deployed against them [The detail of “charred bodies” and exploded ammunition certainly point to non-conventional weaponry. A fuel-air device would at least account for the charring. The tremendous heat produced by such a bomb could also conceivably detonate ammunition. Likewise, radioactive burns with its characteristic blistering effects might well have been misunderstood by Russian field soldiers and officers, who would most likely not have been familiar with nuclear energy, as the effects of poison gas]

and finally, and most sensationally,

(6) According to the Japanese cable, the Germans appeared to have gained their specialized knowledge via some connection to the star system of Sirius and that knowledge involved some exotic form of very dense matter, a statement that strains credulity even today.

It is this last point that directs our attention to the most fantastic and arcane recesses of wartime German secret weapons research, for if the allegation has even a partial basis in truth, then it indicates that at some highly secret level, physics, and the esoteric, were being pursued by the Nazi regime in some very extraordinary ways. [To anyone familiar with the wealth of material on alternative research into the Giza compound in Egypt, the reference to Sirius will immediately conjure images of Egyptian religion, its preoccupation with death, with the Osiris myth, and to the Sirian star system].

In this regard it is important to note that the extreme density of the material described by the Japanese envoy resembles nothing so much as a construct of modern post-war theoretical physics called “dark matter”. In all likelihood his report greatly overestimates the mass of this material – if it existed at all – but nonetheless it is crucial to observe that it is material far beyond the ordinary density of matter.


Germany and the Soviet Union remained unsatisfied with the outcome of World War I (1914–1918). Soviet Russia had lost substantial territory in Eastern Europe as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), where the Bolsheviks in Petrograd conceded to German demands and ceded control of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and other areas, to the Central Powers. Subsequently, when Germany in its turn surrendered to the Allies (November 1918) and these territories became independent states under the terms of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at Versailles, Soviet Russia was in the midst of a civil war and the Allies did not recognise the Bolshevik government, so no Soviet Russian representation attended. [6]

Adolf Hitler had declared his intention to invade the Soviet Union on 11 August 1939 to Carl Jacob Burckhardt, League of Nations Commissioner, by saying:

Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians. If the West is too stupid and blind to grasp this, then I shall be compelled to come to an agreement with the Russians, beat the West and then after their defeat turn against the Soviet Union with all my forces. I need the Ukraine so that they can't starve us out, as happened in the last war. [7]

The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed in August 1939 was a non-aggression agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union. It contained a secret protocol aiming to return Central Europe to the pre–World War I status quo by dividing it between Germany and the Soviet Union. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would return to the Soviet control, while Poland and Romania would be divided. [ citation needed ] The Eastern Front was also made possible by the German–Soviet Border and Commercial Agreement in which the Soviet Union gave Germany the resources necessary to launch military operations in Eastern Europe. [8]

On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. On 17 September, the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland, and, as a result, Poland was partitioned among Germany, the Soviet Union and Lithuania. Soon after that, the Soviet Union demanded significant territorial concessions from Finland, and after Finland rejected Soviet demands, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November 1939 in what became known as the Winter War – a bitter conflict that resulted in a peace treaty on 13 March 1940, with Finland maintaining its independence but losing its eastern parts in Karelia. [9]

In June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied and illegally annexed the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). [9] The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact ostensibly provided security to the Soviets in the occupation both of the Baltics and of the north and northeastern regions of Romania (Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, June–July 1940), although Hitler, in announcing the invasion of the Soviet Union, cited the Soviet annexations of Baltic and Romanian territory as having violated Germany's understanding of the Pact. Moscow partitioned the annexed Romanian territory between the Ukrainian and Moldavian Soviet republics.

German ideology

Adolf Hitler had argued in his autobiography Mein Kampf (1925) for the necessity of Lebensraum ("living space"): acquiring new territory for Germans in Eastern Europe, in particular Russia. [10] He envisaged settling Germans there, as according to Nazi ideology the Germanic people constituted the "master race", while exterminating or deporting most of the existing inhabitants to Siberia and using the remainder as slave labour. [11] Hitler as early as 1917 had referred to the Russians as inferior, believing that the Bolshevik Revolution had put the Jews in power over the mass of Slavs, who were, in Hitler's opinion, incapable of ruling themselves and had thus ended up being ruled by Jewish masters. [12]

The Nazi leadership, including Heinrich Himmler, [13] saw the war against the Soviet Union as a struggle between the ideologies of Nazism and Jewish Bolshevism, and ensuring territorial expansion for the Germanic Übermensch (superhumans), who according to Nazi ideology were the Aryan Herrenvolk ("master race"), at the expense of the Slavic Untermenschen (subhumans). [14] Wehrmacht officers told their troops to target people who were described as "Jewish Bolshevik subhumans", the "Mongol hordes", the "Asiatic flood" and the "red beast". [15] The vast majority of German soldiers viewed the war in Nazi terms, seeing the Soviet enemy as sub-human. [16]

Hitler referred to the war in radical terms, calling it a "war of annihilation" (Vernichtungskrieg) which was both an ideological and racial war. The Nazi vision for the future of Eastern Europe was codified most clearly in the Generalplan Ost. The populations of occupied Central Europe and the Soviet Union were to be partially deported to West Siberia, enslaved and eventually exterminated the conquered territories were to be colonised by German or "Germanized" settlers. [17] In addition, the Nazis also sought to wipe out the large Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe [18] as part of their program aiming to exterminate all European Jews. [19]

After Germany's initial success at the Battle of Kiev in 1941, Hitler saw the Soviet Union as militarily weak and ripe for immediate conquest. In a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on 3 October, he announced, "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." [20] Thus, Germany expected another short Blitzkrieg and made no serious preparations for prolonged warfare. However, following the decisive Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and the resulting dire German military situation, Nazi propaganda began to portray the war as a German defence of Western civilisation against destruction by the vast "Bolshevik hordes" that were pouring into Europe.

Soviet situation

Throughout the 1930s the Soviet Union underwent massive industrialisation and economic growth under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Stalin's central tenet, "Socialism in One Country", manifested itself as a series of nationwide centralised Five-Year Plans from 1929 onwards. This represented an ideological shift in Soviet policy, away from its commitment to the international communist revolution, and eventually leading to the dissolution of the Comintern (Third International) organisation in 1943. The Soviet Union started a process of militarisation with the 1st Five-Year Plan that officially began in 1928, although it was only towards the end of the 2nd Five-Year Plan in the mid-1930s that military power became the primary focus of Soviet industrialisation. [21]

In February 1936 the Spanish general election brought many communist leaders into the Popular Front government in the Second Spanish Republic, but in a matter of months a right-wing military coup initiated the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. This conflict soon took on the characteristics of a proxy war involving the Soviet Union and left wing volunteers from different countries on the side of the predominantly socialist and communist-led [22] Second Spanish Republic [23] while Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Portugal's Estado Novo (Portugal) took the side of Spanish Nationalists, the military rebel group led by General Francisco Franco. [24] It served as a useful testing ground for both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army to experiment with equipment and tactics that they would later employ on a wider scale in the Second World War.

Germany, which was an anti-communist régime, formalised its ideological position on 25 November 1936 by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan. [25] Fascist Italy joined the Pact a year later. [23] [26] Soviet Union negotiated treaties of mutual assistance with France and with Czechoslovakia with the aim of containing Germany's expansion. [27] The German Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (1938–1939) demonstrated the impossibility of establishing a collective security system in Europe, [28] a policy advocated by the Soviet ministry of foreign affairs under Maxim Litvinov. [29] [30] This, as well as the reluctance of the British and French governments to sign a full-scale anti-German political and military alliance with the USSR, [31] led to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany in late August 1939. [32] The separate Tripartite Pact between what became the three prime Axis Powers would not be signed until some four years after the Anti-Comintern Pact.

The war was fought between Nazi Germany, its allies and Finland, against the Soviet Union and its allies. The conflict began on 22 June 1941 with 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 Battle of Berlin (also known as the Berlin Offensive), a strategic operation executed by the Red Army.

The states that provided forces and other resources for the German war effort included the Axis Powers – primarily Romania, Hungary, Italy, pro-Nazi Slovakia, and Croatia. Anti-Soviet Finland, which had fought the Winter War against the Soviet Union, also joined the offensive. The Wehrmacht forces were also assisted by anti-Communist partisans in places like Western Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Among the most prominent volunteer army formations was the Spanish Blue Division, sent by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to keep his ties to the Axis intact. [33]

The Soviet Union offered support to the partisans in many Wehrmacht-occupied countries in Central Europe, notably those in Slovakia, Poland. 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 the formation of the GC3 (Groupe de Chasse 3 or 3rd Fighter Group) unit to fulfil 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.

Comparative strengths of combat forces, Eastern Front, 1941–1945 [34] [35] [36]
Date Axis forces Soviet forces
22 June 1941 3,050,000 Germans, 67,000 (northern Norway) 500,000 Finns, 150,000 Romanians
Total: 3,767,000 in the east (80% of the German Army)
2,680,000 active in Western Military Districts out of 5,500,000 (overall) 12,000,000 mobilizable reserves
7 June 1942 2,600,000 Germans, 90,000 (northern Norway) 600,000 Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians
Total: 3,720,000 in the east (80% of the German Army)
5,313,000 (front) 383,000 (hospital)
Total: 9,350,000
9 July 1943 3,403,000 Germans, 80,000 (northern Norway) 400,000 Finns, 150,000 Romanians and Hungarians
Total: 3,933,000 in the east (63% of the German Army)
6,724,000 (front) 446,445 (hospital)
Total: 10,300,000
1 May 1944 2,460,000 Germans, 60,000 (northern Norway) 300,000 Finns, 550,000 Romanians and Hungarians
Total: 3,370,000 in the east (62% of the German Army)
1 January 1945 2,230,000 Germans, 100,000 Hungarians
Total: 2,330,000 in the east (60% of the German Army)
6,532,000 (360,000 Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Czechs)
1 April 1945 1,960,000 Germans
Total: 1,960,000 (66% of the German Army)
6,410,000 (450,000 Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Czechs)

The above figures includes all personnel in the German Army, i.e. active-duty Heer, Waffen SS, Luftwaffe ground forces, personnel of the naval coastal artillery and security units. [37] [38] In the spring of 1940, Germany had mobilised 5,500,000 men. [39] By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht consisted of c, 3,800,000 men of the Heer, 1,680,000 of the Luftwaffe, 404,000 of the Kriegsmarine, 150,000 of the Waffen-SS, and 1,200,000 of the Replacement Army (contained 450,400 active reservists, 550,000 new recruits and 204,000 in administrative services, vigiles and or in convalescence). The Wehrmacht had a total strength of 7,234,000 men by 1941. For Operation Barbarossa, Germany mobilised 3,300,000 troops of the Heer, 150,000 of the Waffen-SS [40] and approximately 250,000 personnel of the Luftwaffe were actively earmarked. [41]

By July 1943, the Wehrmacht numbered 6,815,000 troops. Of these, 3,900,000 were deployed in eastern Europe, 180,000 in Finland, 315,000 in Norway, 110,000 in Denmark, 1,370,000 in western Europe, 330,000 in Italy, and 610,000 in the Balkans. [42] According to a presentation by Alfred Jodl, the Wehrmacht was up to 7,849,000 personnel in April 1944. 3,878,000 were deployed in eastern Europe, 311,000 in Norway/Denmark, 1,873,000 in western Europe, 961,000 in Italy, and 826,000 in the Balkans. [43] About 15–20% of total German strength were foreign troops (from allied countries or conquered territories). The German high water mark was just before Battle of Kursk, in early July 1943: 3,403,000 German troops and 650,000 Finnish, Hungarian, Romanian and other countries troops. [35] [36]

For nearly two years the border was quiet while Germany conquered Denmark, Norway, France, the Low Countries, and the Balkans. Hitler had always intended to renege on his pact with the Soviet Union, eventually making the decision to invade in the spring of 1941. [7] [44]

Some historians say 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 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. [45]

British historians Alan S. Milward and M. Medlicott show that Nazi Germany—unlike Imperial Germany—was prepared for only a short-term war (Blitzkrieg). [46] According to Edward Ericson, although Germany's own resources were sufficient for the victories in the West in 1940, massive Soviet shipments obtained during a short period of Nazi–Soviet economic collaboration were critical for Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa. [47]

Germany had been assembling very large numbers of troops in eastern Poland and making repeated reconnaissance flights over the border the Soviet Union responded by assembling its divisions on its western border, although the Soviet mobilisation was slower than Germany's due to the country's less dense road network. As in the Sino-Soviet conflict on the Chinese Eastern Railway or Soviet–Japanese border conflicts, Soviet troops on the western border received a directive, signed by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and General of the Army Georgy Zhukov, that ordered (as demanded by Stalin): "do not answer to any provocations" and "do not undertake any (offensive) actions without specific orders" – which meant that Soviet troops could open fire only on their soil and forbade counter-attack on German soil. The German invasion therefore caught the Soviet military and civilian leadership largely by surprise.

The extent of warnings received by Stalin about a German invasion is controversial, and the claim that there was a warning that "Germany will attack on 22 June without declaration of war" has been dismissed as a "popular myth". However, some sources quoted in the articles on Soviet spies Richard Sorge and Willi Lehmann, say they had sent warnings of an attack on 20 or 22 June, which were treated as "disinformation". The Lucy spy ring in Switzerland also sent warnings, possibly deriving from Ultra codebreaking in Britain. Sweden had access to internal German communications through breaking the crypto used in the Siemens and Halske T52 crypto machine also known as the Geheimschreiber and informed Stalin about the forthcoming invasion well ahead of June 22, but did not reveal its sources.

Soviet intelligence was fooled by German disinformation, so sent false alarms to Moscow about a German invasion in April, May and the beginning of June. Soviet intelligence reported that Germany would rather invade the USSR after the fall of the British Empire [48] or after an unacceptable ultimatum demanding German occupation of Ukraine during the German invasion of Britain. [49]

Foreign support and measures

A strategic air offensive by the United States Army Air Force and Royal Air Force played a significant part in reducing German industry and tying up German air force and air defence resources, with some bombings, such as the bombing of the eastern German city of Dresden, being done to facilitate specific Soviet operational goals. In addition to Germany, hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on their eastern allies of Romania and Hungary, primarily in an attempt to cripple Romanian oil production.

British and Commonwealth forces also contributed directly to the fighting on the Eastern Front through their service in the Arctic convoys and training Red Air Force pilots, as well as in the provision of early material and intelligence support.

Allied shipments to the Soviet Union [50]
Year Amount
1941 360,778 2.1
1942 2,453,097 14
1943 4,794,545 27.4
1944 6,217,622 35.5
1945 3,673,819 21
Total 17,499,861 100

Soviet Union

Among other goods, Lend-Lease supplied: [51] : 8–9

  • 58% of the USSR's high octane aviation fuel
  • 33% of their motor vehicles
  • 53% of USSR domestic production of expended ordnance (artillery shells, mines, assorted explosives)
  • 30% of fighters and bombers
  • 93% of railway equipment (locomotives, freight cars, wide gauge rails, etc.)
  • 50–80% of rolled steel, cable, lead, and aluminium
  • 43% of garage facilities (building materials & blueprints)
  • 12% of tanks and SPGs
  • 50% of TNT (1942–1944) and 33% of ammunition powder (in 1944) [52]
  • 16% of all explosives (from 1941 to 1945, the USSR produced 505,000 tons of explosives and received 105,000 tons of Lend-Lease imports) [53]

Lend-Lease aid of military hardware, components and goods to the Soviet Union constituted to 20% percent of the assistance. [51] : 122 Rest were foodstuff, nonferrous metals (e.g. copper, magnesium, nickel, zinc, lead, tin, aluminium), chemical substances, petroleum (high octane aviation gasoline) and factory machinery. The aid of production-line equipment and machinery were crucial and helped to maintain adequate levels of Soviet armament production during the entire war. [51] : 122 In addition, the USSR received wartime innovations including penicillin, radar, rocket, precision-bombing technology, the long-range navigation system Loran, and many other innovations. [51] : 123

Of the 800,000 tons of nonferrous metals shipped, [51] : 124 about 350,000 tons were aluminium. [51] : 135 The shipment of aluminium not only represented double the amount of metal that Germany possessed, but also composed the bulk of aluminium that was used in manufacture of Soviet aircraft, that had fallen in critically short supply. [51] : 135 Soviet statistics show, that without these shipments of aluminium, aircraft production would have been less than one-half (or about 45,000 less) of the total 137,000 produced aircraft. [51] : 135

Stalin noted in 1944, that two-thirds of Soviet heavy industry had been built with the help of the United States, and the remaining one-third, with the help from other Western nations such as Great Britain and Canada. [51] : 129 The massive transfer of equipment and skilled personnel from occupied territories helped further to boost the economic base. [51] : 129 Without Lend-Lease aid, Soviet Union's diminished post invasion economic base would not have produced adequate supplies of weaponry, other than focus on machine tool, foodstuff and consumer goods [ clarification needed ] . [51] : 129

In the last year of war, lend-lease data show that about 5.1 million tons of foodstuff left the United States for the Soviet Union. [51] : 123 It is estimated that all the food supplies sent to Russia could feed a 12,000,000-man strong army a half pound of concentrated food per day, for the entire duration of the war. [51] : 122–3

The total lend-lease aid during the second World War had been estimated between $42–50 billion. [51] : 128 The Soviet Union received shipments in war materials, military equipment and other supplies worth of $12.5 billion, about a quarter of the U.S. lend-lease aid provided to other allied countries. [51] : 123 However, post-war negotiations to settle all the debt were never concluded, [51] : 133 and as of date, the debt issues is still on in future American-Russian summits and talks. [51] : 133–4

Prof. Dr. Albert L. Weeks conclude: 'As to attempts to sum up the importance of those four-year-long shipments of Lend-Lease for the Russian victory on the Eastern Front in World War II, the jury is still out – that is, in any definitive sense of establishing exactly how crucial this aid was.' [51] : 123

Nazi Germany

Germany's economic, scientific, research and industrial capabilities were one of the most technically advanced in the world at the time. However, access to (and control of) the resources, raw materials and production capacity required to entertain long-term goals (such as European control, German territorial expansion and the destruction of the USSR) were limited. Political demands necessitated the expansion of Germany's control of natural and human resources, industrial capacity and farmland beyond its borders (conquered territories). Germany's military production was tied to resources outside its area of control, a dynamic not found amongst the Allies.

During the war, as Germany acquired new territories (either by direct annexation or by installing puppet governments in defeated countries), these new territories were forced to sell raw materials and agricultural products to German buyers at extremely low prices. Two-thirds of all French trains in 1941 were used to carry goods to Germany. Norway lost 20% of its national income in 1940 and 40% in 1943. [54] Axis allies such as Romania and Italy, Hungary, Finland, Croatia and Bulgaria benefited from Germany's net imports. Overall, France made the largest contribution to the German war effort. In 1943–44, French payments to Germany may have risen to as much as 55% of French GDP. [55] Overall, Germany imported 20% of its food and 33% of its raw materials from conquered territories and Axis allies. [56]

On 27 May 1940, Germany signed the "Oil Pact" with Romania, by which Germany would trade arms for oil. Romania's oil production amounted to approximately 6,000,000 tons annually. This production represents 35% of the total fuel production of the Axis including the synthetic products and the substitutes and 70% of the total production of crude oil. [57] In 1941, Germany only had 18% of the oil it had in peacetime. Romania supplied Germany and its allies with roughly 13 million barrels of oil (about 4 million per year) between 1941 and 1943. Germany's peak oil production in 1944 amounted to about 12 million barrels of oil per year. [58]

Rolf Karlbom estimated that Swedish share of Germany's total consumption of iron may have amounted to 43% during the period of 1933–43. It may also be likely that 'Swedish ore formed the raw material of four out of every ten German guns' during the Hitler era'. [59]

Forced labour

The use of foreign forced labour and slavery in Nazi Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II took place on an unprecedented scale. [60] It was a vital part of the German economic exploitation of conquered territories. It also contributed to the mass extermination of populations in German-occupied Europe. The Nazi Germans abducted approximately 12 million foreign people from almost twenty European countries about two-thirds came from Central Europe and Eastern Europe. [61] Counting deaths and turnover, about 15 million men and women were forced labourers at one point during the war. [62] For example, 1.5 million French soldiers were kept in POW camps in Germany as hostages and forced workers and, in 1943, 600,000 French civilians were forced to move to Germany to work in war plants. [63]

The defeat of Germany in 1945 freed approximately 11 million foreigners (categorised as "displaced persons"), most of whom were forced labourers and POWs. In wartime, the German forces had brought into the Reich 6.5 million civilians in addition to Soviet POWs for unfree labour in factories. [61] In all, 5.2 million foreign workers and POWs were repatriated to the Soviet Union, 1.6 million to Poland, 1.5 million to France, and 900,000 to Italy, along with 300,000 to 400,000 each to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Belgium. [64]

While German historians do not apply any specific periodisation to the conduct of operations on the Eastern Front, all Soviet and Russian historians divide the war against Germany and its allies into three periods, which are further subdivided into eight major campaigns of the Theatre of war: [65]

  • First period (Russian: Первый период Великой Отечественной войны ) (22 June 1941 – 18 November 1942)
  1. Summer–Autumn Campaign of 1941 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1941 г. ) (22 June – 4 December 1941)
  2. Winter Campaign of 1941–42 (Russian: Зимняя кампания 1941/42 г. ) (5 December 1941 – 30 April 1942)
  3. Summer–Autumn Campaign of 1942 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1942 г. ) (1 May – 18 November 1942)
  • Second period (Russian: Второй период Великой Отечественной войны ) (19 November 1942 – 31 December 1943)
  1. Winter Campaign of 1942–43 (Russian: Зимняя кампания 1942–1943 гг. ) (19 November 1942 – 3 March 1943)
  2. Summer–Autumn Campaign of 1943 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1943 г. ) (1 July – 31 December 1943)
  • Third period (Russian: Третий период Великой Отечественной войны ) (1 January 1944 – 9 May 1945)
  1. Winter–Spring Campaign (Russian: Зимне-весенняя кампания 1944 г. ) (1 January – 31 May 1944)
  2. Summer–Autumn Campaign of 1944 (Russian: Летне-осенняя кампания 1944 г. ) (1 June – 31 December 1944)
  3. Campaign in Europe during 1945 (Russian: Кампания в Европе 1945 г. ) (1 January – 9 May 1945)

Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941

Operation Barbarossa began just before dawn on 22 June 1941. The Germans cut the wire network in all Soviet western military districts to undermine the Red Army's communications. [66] Panicky transmissions from the Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this: "We are being fired upon. What shall we do?" The answer was just as confusing: "You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?" [67]

At 03:15 on 22 June 1941, 99 of 190 German divisions, including fourteen panzer divisions and ten motorised, were deployed against the Soviet Union from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions, three Italian divisions, two Slovakian divisions and nine Romanian and four Hungarian brigades. [68] On the same day, the Baltic, Western and Kiev Special military districts were renamed the Northwestern, Western and Southwestern Fronts respectively. [66]

To establish air supremacy, the Luftwaffe began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields, destroying much of the forward-deployed Soviet Air Force airfield fleets consisting of largely obsolescent types before their pilots had a chance to leave the ground. [69] For a month the offensive conducted on three axes 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 armies while the panzers continued the offensive, following the Blitzkrieg doctrine.

Army Group North's objective was Leningrad via the Baltic states. Comprising the 16th and 18th Armies and the 4th Panzer Group, this formation advanced through the Baltic states, and the Russian Pskov and Novgorod regions. Local insurgents seized the moment and controlled most of Lithuania, northern Latvia and southern Estonia prior to the arrival of the German forces. [70] [71]

Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (the 2nd and 3rd), advanced to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk and converged east of Minsk, followed by the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Armies. The combined panzer force reached the Beresina River in just six days, 650 km (400 mi) from their start lines. The next objective was to cross the Dnieper river, which was accomplished by 11 July. Their next target was Smolensk, which fell on 16 July, but the fierce Soviet resistance in the Smolensk area and slowing of the Wehrmacht advance by the North and South Army Groups forced Hitler to halt a central thrust at Moscow and to divert the 3rd Panzer Group north. Critically, Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group was ordered to move south in a giant pincer manoeuvre with Army Group South which was advancing into Ukraine. Army Group Centre's infantry divisions were left relatively unsupported by armour to continue their slow advance to Moscow. [72]

This decision caused a severe leadership crisis. The German field commanders argued for an immediate offensive towards Moscow, but Hitler over-ruled them, citing the importance of Ukrainian agricultural, mining and industrial resources, as well as the massing of Soviet reserves in the Gomel area between Army Group Centre's southern flank and the bogged-down Army Group South's northern flank. This decision, Hitler's "summer pause", [72] is believed to have had a severe impact on the Battle of Moscow's outcome, by slowing down the advance on Moscow in favour of encircling large numbers of Soviet troops around Kiev. [73]

Army Group South, with the 1st Panzer Group, the 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, was tasked with advancing through Galicia and into Ukraine. Their progress, however, was rather slow, and they took heavy casualties in the Battle of Brody. At the beginning of July, the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies, aided by elements of the German 11th Army, fought their way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. The 1st Panzer Group turned away from Kiev for the moment, advancing into the Dnieper bend (western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast). When it joined up with the southern elements of Army Group South at Uman, the Group captured about 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a huge encirclement. Advancing armoured divisions of the Army Group South met with Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group near Lokhvytsa in mid September, cutting off large numbers of Red Army troops in the pocket east of Kiev. [72] 400,000 Soviet prisoners were captured as Kiev was surrendered on 19 September. [72]

As the Red Army withdrew behind the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, the Soviet Stavka (high command) turned its attention to evacuating as much of the western regions' industry as it could. Factories were dismantled and transported on flatcars away from the front line for re-establishment in more remote areas of the Ural Mountains, Caucasus, Central Asia and south-eastern Siberia. Most civilians were left to make their own way east, with only industry-related workers evacuated with the equipment much of the population was left behind to the mercy of the invading forces.

Stalin ordered the retreating Red Army to initiate a scorched-earth policy to deny the Germans and their allies basic supplies as they advanced eastward. To carry out that order, destruction battalions were formed in front-line areas, having the authority to summarily execute any suspicious person. The destruction battalions burned down villages, schools, and public buildings. [74] As a part of this policy, the NKVD massacred thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners. [75]

Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941

Hitler then decided to resume the advance on Moscow, re-designating the panzer groups as panzer armies for the occasion. Operation Typhoon, which was set in motion on 30 September, saw the 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Oryol (captured 5 October) to the Oka River at Plavsk, 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. [76] Army Group North positioned itself in front of Leningrad and attempted to cut the rail link at Mga to the east. [77] This 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 Zapadnaya Litsa River, where they settled down. [78]

Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkov, Kursk, and Stalino. The combined German and Romanian forces moved into the Crimea and took control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until 3 July 1942). On 21 November, the Wehrmacht 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. [79] [80]

The onset of the winter freeze saw one last German lunge that opened on 15 November, when the Wehrmacht attempted to encircle Moscow. On 27 November, the 4th Panzer Army got to within 30 km (19 mi) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army failed to take Tula, the last Soviet city that stood in its way to the capital. After a meeting held in Orsha between the head of the OKH (Army General Staff), General Franz Halder and the heads of three Army groups and armies, decided to push forward to Moscow since it was better, as argued by the head of Army Group Center, 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. [81]

However, by 6 December it became clear that the Wehrmacht did not have the strength to capture Moscow, and the attack was suspended. Marshal Shaposhnikov thus began his counter-attack, employing freshly mobilised reserves, [82] as well as some well-trained Far-Eastern divisions transferred from the east following intelligence that Japan would remain neutral. [83]

Soviet counter-offensive: Winter 1941

The Soviet counter-offensive during the Battle of Moscow had removed the immediate German threat to the city. According to Zhukov, "the success of the December counter-offensive in the central strategic direction was considerable. Having suffered a major defeat the German striking forces of Army Group Centre were retreating." Stalin's objective in January 1942 was "to deny the Germans any breathing space, to drive them westward without let-up, to make them use up their reserves before spring comes. " [84]

The main blow was to be delivered by a double envelopment orchestrated by the Northwestern Front, the Kalinin Front and the Western Front. The overall objective according to Zhukov was the "subsequent encirclement and destruction of the enemy's main forces in the area of Rzhev, Vyazma and Smolensk. The Leningrad Front, the Volkhov Front and the right wing forces of the Northwestern Front were to rout the Army Group North." The Southwestern Front and Southern Front were to defeat the Army Group South. The Caucasian Front and Black Sea Fleet were to take back the Crimea. [84] : 53

The 20th Army, part of the Soviet 1st Shock Army, the 22nd Tank Brigade and five ski battalions launched their attack on 10 January 1942. By 17 January, the Soviets had captured Lotoshino and Shakhovskaya. By 20 January, the 5th and 33rd armies had captured Ruza, Dorokhovo, Mozhaisk and Vereya, while the 43rd and 49th armies were at Domanovo. [84] : 58–59

The Wehrmacht rallied, retaining a salient at Rzhev. A Soviet parachute drop by two battalions of the 201st Airborne Brigade and the 250th Airborne Regiment on 18 and 22 January was designed to "cut off enemy communications with the rear." Lt.-Gen. Mikhail Grigoryevich Yefremov's 33rd Army aided by Gen. Belov's 1st Cavalry Corps and Soviet Partisans attempted to seize Vyazma. This force was joined by additional paratroopers of the 8th Airborne Brigade at the end of January. However, in early February, the Germans managed to cut off this force, separating the Soviets from their main force in the rear of the Germans. They were supplied by air until April when they were given permission to regain the Soviet main lines. Only part of Belov's Cavalry Corps made it to safety however, while Yefremov's men fought "a losing battle." [84] : 59–62

By April 1942, the Soviet Supreme Command agreed to assume the defensive so as to "consolidate the captured ground." According to Zhukov, "During the winter offensive, the forces of the Western Front had advanced from 70 to 100 km, which somewhat improved the overall operational and strategic situation on the Western sector." [84] : 64

To the north, the Red Army 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.

Further north still, the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was unleashed on the Volkhov River. Initially this made some progress however, it was unsupported, and by June a German counterattack cut off and destroyed the army. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant General Andrey Vlasov, later defected to Germany and formed the ROA or Russian Liberation Army.

In the south the Red Army lunged over the Donets River at Izyum and drove a 100 km (62 mi) deep salient. The intent was to pin Army Group South against the Sea of Azov, but as the winter eased the Wehrmacht counter-attacked and cut off the over-extended Soviet troops in the Second Battle of Kharkov.

Don, Volga, and Caucasus: Summer 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 oil fields, but operational considerations and Hitler's vanity made him order both objectives to be attempted simultaneously. Rostov was recaptured on 24 July when the 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 defences and allow the 1st Panzer Army to enter the oil town with little opposition.

Meanwhile, the 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 the 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, the 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 main offensive. 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 the 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 and 4th Panzer Armies had been fighting their way into Stalingrad, Soviet armies had congregated on either side of the city, specifically into the Don bridgeheads, and it was from these that they struck in November 1942. In Operation Uranus started on 19 November, two Soviet fronts punched through the Romanian lines and converged at Kalach on 23 November, trapping 300,000 Axis troops behind them. [85] A simultaneous offensive on the Rzhev sector known as Operation Mars was supposed to advance to Smolensk, but was a costly failure, with German tactical defences preventing any breakthrough.

The Germans rushed to transfer troops to the Soviet Union in 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 mi) short of its goal. To divert the rescue attempt, the Red Army 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. [86]

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 Red Army advanced from the Don 500 km (310 mi) to the west of Stalingrad, marching through Kursk (retaken on 8 February 1943) and Kharkov (retaken 16 February 1943). To save the position in the south, the Germans decided to abandon the Rzhev salient in February, freeing enough 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, when the spring thaw intervened. This left a glaring Soviet bulge (salient) in the front centered on Kursk.

Kursk: Summer 1943

After the failure of the attempt to capture Stalingrad, Hitler had delegated planning authority for the upcoming campaign season to the German Army High Command and reinstated Heinz 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. [87]

However, if one last great blitzkrieg offensive could be mounted, then attention could then be turned to the Allied threat to the Western Front. Certainly, the peace negotiations in April had gone nowhere. [87] 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 the area east of Kursk, and by that means restore the lines of Army Group South to the exact points that it held over the winter of 1941–1942.

In the north, the entire German 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 (5.0 mi) 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 Red Army then launched a counter-offensive, Operation Kutuzov.

On 12 July the Red Army battled 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 4th Panzer Army, 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 II 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 (16 mi) before encountering the reserves of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army outside Prokhorovka. Battle was joined on 12 July, with about one thousand tanks being engaged.

After the war, the battle near Prochorovka was idealised by Soviet historians as the largest 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 its objectives, the German advance had been halted.

At the end of the day both sides had fought each other to a standstill, but regardless of the German failure in the north Erich von Manstein proposed he continue the attack with the 4th Panzer Army. 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 halt 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 defence against a major Soviet counteroffensive that lasted into August.

The Kursk offensive was the last on the scale of 1940 and 1941 that the Wehrmacht was able to launch subsequent offensives would represent only a shadow of previous German offensive might.

Autumn and Winter 1943–44

The Soviet multi-stage summer offensive started with the advance into the Orel salient. The diversion of the well-equipped Großdeutschland Division from Belgorod to Karachev could not counteract it, and the Wehrmacht began a withdrawal from Orel (retaken by the Red Army on 5 August 1943), falling back to the Hagen line in front of Bryansk. To the south, the Red Army broke through Army Group South's Belgorod positions and headed for Kharkov once again. Although intense battles of movement throughout late July and into August 1943 saw the Tigers blunting Soviet tank attacks on one axis, they were soon outflanked on another line to the west as the Soviet forces advanced down the Psel, and Kharkov was abandoned for the final time on 22 August.

The German forces on the Mius, now comprising the 1st Panzer Army and a reconstituted 6th Army, were by August too weak to repulse a Soviet attack on their own front, and when the Red Army hit them they retreated all the way through the Donbas industrial region to the Dnieper, losing 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 (Siegfried Line) of fortifications along the German frontier in the west.

The main problem for the Wehrmacht was that these defences had not yet been built by the time Army Group South had evacuated eastern Ukraine and begun withdrawing across the Dnieper during September, the Soviet forces were hard behind them. Tenaciously, small units paddled their way across the 3 km (1.9 mi) wide river and established bridgeheads. A second attempt by the Red Army to gain land using parachutists, mounted at Kaniv on 24 September, proved as disappointing as at Dorogobuzh eighteen months previously. The paratroopers were soon repelled – but not until still more Red Army troops had used the cover they provided to get themselves over the Dnieper and securely dug in.

As September ended and October started, 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. Finally, early in November the Red Army broke out of its bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and captured the Ukrainian capital, at that time the third largest city in the Soviet Union.

130 kilometres (80 mi) 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 Zhytomyr during the middle of November, weakening the Soviet bridgehead by 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 the 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, the 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 which had swung south from their penetration into Poland and surrounding ten German divisions at Korsun–Shevchenkovsky, 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 shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks, the surrounded German troops, among whom were the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, fought their way across the river to safety, although at the cost of half their number and all their equipment. They assumed the Red Army would not attack again, with the spring approaching, but on 3 March the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive. Having already isolated the Crimea by severing the Perekop isthmus, Malinovsky's forces advanced across the mud to the Romanian border, not stopping on the river Prut.

One final move in the south completed the 1943–44 campaigning season, which had wrapped up a Soviet advance of over 800 kilometres (500 mi). 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' of heavy fighting, the 1st Panzer managed to escape the pocket, at the cost of losing almost the entire heavy equipment. At this point, Hitler sacked several prominent generals, Manstein included. In April, the Red Army took back Odessa, followed by 4th Ukrainian Front's campaign to restore control over the Crimea, which culminated in the capture 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 Army 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. [89]

In a lightning campaign, the Germans were pushed back from Leningrad and Novgorod was captured by Soviet forces. After a 120-kilometre (75 mi) advance in January and February, the Leningrad Front had reached the borders of Estonia. To Stalin, the Baltic Sea seemed the quickest way to take the battles to the German territory in East Prussia and seize control of Finland. [89] The Leningrad Front's offensives towards Tallinn, a main Baltic port, were stopped in February 1944. The German army group "Narwa" included Estonian conscripts, defending the re-establishment of Estonian independence. [90] [91]

Summer 1944

Wehrmacht planners were convinced that the Red Army would attack again in the south, where the front was 80 kilometres (50 mi) from Lviv and offered the most direct route to Berlin. Accordingly, they stripped troops from Army Group Centre, whose front still protruded deep into the Soviet Union. The Germans had transferred some units to France to counter the invasion of Normandy two weeks before. The Belorussian Offensive (codenamed Operation Bagration), which was agreed upon by Allies at the Tehran Conference in December 1943 and launched on 22 June 1944, was a massive Soviet attack, consisting of four Soviet army groups totalling over 120 divisions that smashed into a thinly held German line.

They focused their massive attacks on Army Group Centre, not Army Group North Ukraine as the Germans had originally expected. More than 2.3 million Soviet troops went into action against German Army Group Centre, which had a strength of fewer than 800,000 men. At the points of attack, the numerical and quality advantages of the Soviet forces were overwhelming. The Red Army achieved a ratio of ten to one in tanks and seven to one in aircraft over their enemy. The Germans crumbled. The capital of Belarus, Minsk, was taken on 3 July, trapping some 100,000 Germans. Ten days later the Red Army reached the prewar Polish border. Bagration was, by any measure, one of the largest single operations of the war.

By the end of August 1944, it had cost the Germans

400,000 dead, wounded, missing and sick, from whom 160,000 were captured, as well as 2,000 tanks and 57,000 other vehicles. In the operation, the Red Army lost

180,000 dead and missing (765,815 in total, including wounded and sick plus 5,073 Poles), [92] as well as 2,957 tanks and assault guns. The offensive at Estonia claimed another 480,000 Soviet soldiers, 100,000 of them classed as dead. [93] [94]

The neighbouring Lvov–Sandomierz operation was launched on 17 July 1944, with the Red Army routing the German forces in Western Ukraine and retaking Lviv. The Soviet advance in the south continued into Romania and, following a coup against the Axis-allied government of Romania on 23 August, the Red Army occupied Bucharest on 31 August. Romania and the Soviet Union signed an armistice on 12 September. [95] [96]

The rapid progress of Operation Bagration threatened to cut off and isolate the German units of Army Group North bitterly resisting the Soviet advance towards Tallinn. Despite a ferocious attack at the Sinimäed Hills, Estonia, the Soviet Leningrad Front failed to break through the defence of the smaller, well-fortified army detachment "Narwa" in terrain not suitable for large-scale operations. [97] [98]

On the Karelian Isthmus, the Red Army launched a Vyborg–Petrozavodsk Offensive against the Finnish lines on 9 June 1944, (coordinated with the Western Allied Invasion of Normandy). Three armies were pitted there against the Finns, among them several experienced guards rifle formations. The attack breached the Finnish front line of defence in Valkeasaari on 10 June and the Finnish forces retreated to their secondary defence line, the VT-line. The Soviet attack was supported by a heavy artillery barrage, air bombardments and armoured forces. The VT-line was breached on 14 June and after a failed counterattack in Kuuterselkä by the Finnish armoured division, the Finnish defence had to be pulled back to the VKT-line. After heavy fighting in the battles of Tali-Ihantala and Ilomantsi, Finnish troops finally managed to halt the Soviet attack. [ citation needed ]

In Poland, as the Red Army approached, the Polish Home Army (AK) launched Operation Tempest. During the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army were ordered to halt at the Vistula River. Whether Stalin was unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the Polish resistance is disputed. [99]

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

Autumn 1944

On 8 September 1944 the Red Army began an attack on the Dukla Pass on the Slovak–Polish border. Two months later, the Soviet forces won the battle and entered Slovakia. The toll was high: 20,000 Red Army soldiers died, plus several thousand Germans, Slovaks and Czechs.

Under the pressure of the Soviet Baltic Offensive, the German Army Group North were withdrawn to fight in the sieges of Saaremaa, Courland and Memel.

January–March 1945

The Soviet Union finally entered Warsaw on 17 January 1945, after the city was destroyed and abandoned by the Germans. Over three days, on a broad front incorporating four army fronts, the Red Army launched the Vistula–Oder Offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. The Soviets outnumbered the Germans on average by 5–6:1 in troops, 6:1 in artillery, 6:1 in tanks and 4:1 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 River Oder. During the full course of the Vistula–Oder operation (23 days), the Red Army forces sustained 194,191 total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) 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 limited counter-attack (codenamed Operation Solstice) by the newly created Army Group Vistula, under the command of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had failed by 24 February, and the Red Army drove on to Pomerania and cleared the right bank of the Oder River. In the south, the German attempts, in Operation Konrad, to relieve the encircled garrison at Budapest failed and the city fell on 13 February. On 6 March, the Germans launched what would be their final major offensive of the war, Operation Spring Awakening, which failed by 16 March. On 30 March the Red Army entered Austria and captured Vienna on 13 April.

OKW claim German losses of 77,000 killed, 334,000 wounded and 292,000 missing, with a total of 703,000 men, on the Eastern Front during January and February 1945. [100]

On 9 April 1945, Königsberg in East Prussia finally fell to the Red Army, although the shattered remnants of Army Group Centre continued to resist on the Vistula Spit and Hel Peninsula 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 throughout 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.

The fall of Königsberg allowed Stavka to free up General Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front (2BF) to move west to the east bank of the Oder. During the first two weeks of April, the Red Army 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. [101] The three Soviet fronts had altogether some 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 Katyusha rocket launchers, (nicknamed "Stalin Organs") and 95,383 motor vehicles, many of which were manufactured in the United States. [101]

End of the war: April–May 1945

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 sphere of influence, 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 over-riding 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 part of the German atomic bomb program. [102]

The offensive to capture central Germany and Berlin started on 16 April 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 punched holes through the German front line and were fanning out across central Germany. By 24 April, elements of the 1BF and 1UF had completed the encirclement of the German capital and the Battle of Berlin entered its final stages. On 25 April 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. [103] [104]

On 29 and 30 April, 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 Soviet forces on 2 May. [105] Altogether, the Berlin operation (16 April – 2 May) cost the Red Army 361,367 casualties (dead, wounded, missing and sick) and 1,997 tanks and assault guns. German losses in this period of the war remain impossible to determine with any reliability. [106]

At 2:41 am on 7 May 1945, at SHAEF headquarters, German Chief-of-Staff General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender documents for all German forces to the Allies at Reims in France. It included the phrase All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945. The next day shortly before midnight, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Zhukov's headquarters, now known as the German-Russian Museum. The war in Europe was over. [107]

In the Soviet Union the end of the war is considered to be 9 May, 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 8–9 May holiday) and some other post-Soviet countries. The ceremonial Victory parade was held in Moscow on 24 June.

The German Army Group Centre initially refused to surrender and continued to fight in Czechoslovakia until about 11 May. [108]

A small German garrison on the Danish island of Bornholm refused to surrender until they were bombed and invaded by the Soviets. The island was returned to the Danish government four months later.

Soviet Far East: August 1945

After the German defeat, Joseph Stalin promised his allies Truman and Churchill, that he would attack the Japanese within 90 days of the German surrender. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria began on 8 August 1945, with an assault on the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo and neighbouring Mengjiang the greater offensive would eventually include northern Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. Apart from the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, it marked the only military action of the Soviet Union against Imperial 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 skill gained during the bitter fighting with the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe over four years. [109]

The Eastern Front was 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. [4] The German armed forces suffered 80% of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. [110] 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 wilful 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 ideologies.

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 the terrorisation of their own people, as well as mass deportations of entire populations. All these factors resulted in tremendous brutality both to combatants and civilians that found no parallel on the Western Front. According to Time magazine: "By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion." [111] Conversely, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, calculated that without the Eastern Front, the United States would have had to double the number of its soldiers on the Western Front. [112]

Memorandum for the President's Special Assistant Harry Hopkins, Washington, D.C., 10 August 1943:

In War II Russia occupies a dominant position and is the decisive factor looking toward the defeat of the Axis in Europe. While in Sicily the forces of Great Britain and the United States are being opposed by 2 German divisions, the Russian front is receiving attention of approximately 200 German divisions. Whenever the Allies open a second front on the Continent, it will be decidedly a secondary front to that of Russia theirs will continue to be the main effort. Without Russia in the war, the Axis cannot be defeated in Europe, and the position of the United Nations becomes precarious. Similarly, Russia’s post-war position in Europe will be a dominant one. With Germany crushed, there is no power in Europe to oppose her tremendous military forces. [113]

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 those carried out as part of the Holocaust. German and German-allied forces treated civilian populations with exceptional brutality, massacring whole village populations and routinely killing civilian hostages (see German war crimes). Both sides practised 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 were killed. According to British historian Geoffrey Hosking, "The full demographic loss to the Soviet peoples was even greater: since a high proportion of those killed were young men of child-begetting age, the postwar Soviet population was 45 to 50 million smaller than post-1939 projections would have led one to expect." [114]

When the Red Army invaded Germany in 1944, many German civilians suffered from reprisals by Red Army soldiers (see Soviet war crimes). 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 Soviet Union came out of World War II militarily victorious but economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or close to populated areas, and the actions of both sides contributed to massive loss of civilian life and 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. [115]

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, 64,000 kilometres (40,000 mi) of railroad, 4,100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries leaving 25 million homeless. Seven million horses, 17 million cattle, 20 million pigs, 27 million sheep were also slaughtered or driven off. [115] Wild fauna were also affected. Wolves and foxes fleeing westward from the killing zone, as the Soviet army advanced between 1943 and 1945, were responsible for a rabies epidemic that spread slowly westwards, reaching the coast of the English Channel by 1968. [116]

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were both ideologically driven states (by Soviet communism and by Nazism respectively), in which the foremost political leaders had near-absolute power. The character of the war was thus determined by the political leaders and their ideology to a much greater extent than in any other theatre of World War II. [ citation needed ]

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler exercised tight control over the German war-effort, 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 from the OKW staff with rhetoric.

In part because of the unexpected degree of German success in 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 appealed 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 like Bevin Alexander in How Hitler Could Have Won regard this decision as a missed opportunity to win the war.

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

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

The success of this hedgehog defence outside Moscow led Hitler to insist on the holding of territory when it made no military sense, and to sack generals who retreated without orders. Officers with initiative were replaced with yes-men or with fanatical Nazis. The disastrous encirclements later in the war – at Stalingrad, Korsun and many other places – resulted directly from Hitler's orders. This idea of holding territory led to another failed plan, dubbed [ by whom? ] "Heaven-bound Missions", which involved fortifying even the most unimportant or insignificant of cities and the holding of these "fortresses" at all costs. Many divisions became cut off in "fortress" cities, or wasted uselessly in secondary theatres, because Hitler would not sanction retreat or voluntarily abandon any of his conquests.

Frustration at Hitler's leadership in the war was one of the factors in the attempted coup d'etat of 1944, but after the failure of the 20 July Plot Hitler considered the army and its officer corps suspect and came to rely on the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Nazi party members to prosecute the war.

Hitler's direction of the war ultimately proved 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 bore the greatest responsibility for some of the disasters at the beginning of the war (for example, the Battle of Kiev (1941)), but equally deserves praise for the subsequent success of the Soviet Red Army, which depended on the unprecedentedly rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union, which Stalin's internal policy had made the first priority throughout the 1930s. Stalin's Great Purge of the Red Army in the late 1930s involved the legal prosecution of many of the senior command, many of whom the courts convicted and sentenced to death or to imprisonment.

The executed included Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a proponent of armoured blitzkrieg. Stalin promoted some obscurantists like Grigory Kulik who opposed the mechanisation of the army and the production of tanks, but on the other hand purged the older commanders who had held their positions since the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922, and who had experience, but were deemed "politically unreliable". This opened up their places to the promotion of many younger officers that Stalin and the NKVD regarded as in line with Stalinist politics. Many [ quantify ] of these newly promoted commanders proved terribly inexperienced, but some later became very successful. Soviet tank-output remained the largest in the world.

From the foundation of the Red Army in 1918, political distrust of the military had led to a system of "dual command", with every commander 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 – commissars ensured the loyalty of the commanding officers and implemented Party orders.

Following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, of the Baltic states and of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in 1939–1940, Stalin insisted on the occupation of every fold of the newly Sovietized territories this move westward positioned troops far from their depots, in salients that left them vulnerable to encirclement. As tension heightened in spring, 1941, Stalin desperately tried not to give Hitler any provocation that Berlin could use as an excuse for a German attack Stalin refused to allow the military to go on the alert – even as German troops gathered on the borders and German reconnaissance planes overflew installations. This refusal to take 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 German-Soviet war.

At the crisis of the war, in the autumn of 1942, Stalin made many concessions to the army: the government restored unitary command by removing the Commissars from the chain of command. Order 25 of 15 January 1943 introduced shoulderboards for all ranks this represented a significant symbolic step, since after the Russian Revolution of 1917 shoulderboards had connotations as a symbol of the old Tsarist régime. Beginning in autumn 1941, units that had proved themselves by superior performance in combat were given the traditional "Guards" title. [117]

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 to penal companies which carried out especially hazardous duties, such as serving as tramplers to clear Nazi minefields. [118] The order stipulated to capture or shoot "cowards" and fleeing panicked troops at the rear the blocking detachments in the first three months shot 1,000 penal troops and sent 24,993 to penal battalions. [119] By October 1942 the idea of regular blocking detachments was quietly dropped, By 29 October 1944 the units were officially disbanded. [120] [121]

As it became clear that the Soviet Union would win the war, Stalin ensured that propaganda always mentioned his leadership of the war he sidelined the victorious generals and never allowed them to develop into political rivals. After the war the Soviets once again purged the Red Army (though not as brutally as in the 1930s) and demoted many successful officers (including Zhukov, Malinovsky and Koniev) to unimportant positions. [ citation needed ]

The enormous territorial gains of 1941 presented Germany with vast areas to pacify and administer. For the majority of people of the Soviet Union, the Nazi invasion was viewed as a brutal act of unprovoked aggression. While it is important to note that not all parts of Soviet society viewed the German advance in this way, the majority of the Soviet population viewed German forces as occupiers. In areas such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940) the Wehrmacht was tolerated by a relatively more significant part of the native population.

This was particularly true for the territories of Western Ukraine, recently rejoined to the Soviet Union, where the anti-Polish and anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist underground hoped in vain to establish the "independent state", relying on German armed force. However, Soviet society as a whole was hostile to the invading Nazis from the very start. The 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 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. The cruel and brutally inhumane treatment of Soviet civilians, women, children and elderly, the daily bombings of civilian cities and towns, Nazi pillaging of Soviet villages and hamlets and unprecedented harsh punishment and treatment of civilians in general were some of the primary reasons for Soviet resistance to Nazi Germany's invasion. Indeed, the Soviets viewed Germany's invasion as an act of aggression and an attempt to conquer and enslave the local population.

Regions closer to the front were managed by military powers of the region, in other areas such as the Baltic states annexed by the 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. [122]

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. [123] In many towns, the battles were fought 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 it 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 Ostlegionen). These results and missed opportunities contributed to the defeat of the Wehrmacht.

Vadim Erlikman has detailed Soviet losses totalling 26.5 million war related deaths. Military losses of 10.6 million include six million killed or missing in action and 3.6 million POW dead, plus 400,000 paramilitary and Soviet partisan losses. Civilian deaths totalled 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 labour and 5.5 million famine and disease deaths. Additional famine deaths, which totalled one million during 1946–47, are not included here. These losses are for the entire territory of the USSR including territories annexed in 1939–40. [ citation needed ]

Some recent reports raise the number of Belarusians who perished in the 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)." [126]

Sixty percent of Soviet POWs died during the war. By its end, large numbers of Soviet POWs, forced labourers and Nazi collaborators (including those who were forcefully repatriated by the Western Allies) went to special NKVD "filtration" camps. By 1946, 80 per cent of civilians and 20 per cent of POWs were freed, others were re-drafted, or sent to labour battalions. Two per cent of civilians and 14 per cent of the POWs were sent to the Gulag. [127] [128]

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

Although the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention (1929), it is generally accepted that it considered itself bound by the provisions of the Hague convention. [129] A month after the German invasion in 1941, an offer was made for a reciprocal adherence to Hague convention. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials. [130]

Soviet repressions also contributed into the Eastern Front's death toll. Mass repression occurred in the occupied portions of Poland as well as in the Baltic states and Bessarabia. Immediately after the start of the German invasion, the NKVD massacred large numbers of inmates in most of their prisons in Western Belarus and Western Ukraine, while the remainder was to be evacuated in death marches. [131]

The Soviet victory owed a great deal to the ability of its 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 industrialisation of the Urals and central Asia. In 1941, thousands of trains evacuated critical factories and workers from Belarus and Ukraine to safe areas far from the front lines. Once these facilities were reassembled east of the Urals, production could be resumed without fear of German bombing.

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. [ citation needed ] The increases in production of 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. American exports and technical expertise also enabled the Soviets to produce goods that they wouldn't have been able to on their own. For example, while the USSR was able to produce fuel of octane numbers from 70 to 74, Soviet industry only met 4% of demand for fuel of octane numbers from 90+ all aircraft produced after 1939 required fuel of the latter category. To fulfill demands, the USSR depended on American assistance, both in finished products and TEL. [132]

Germany had far greater resources than did the USSR, and dwarfed its production in every matrix except for oil, having over five times the USSR's coal production, over three times its iron production, three times its steel production, twice its electricity production, and about 2/3 of its oil production. [133]

German production of explosives from 1940 to 1944 was 1.595 million tons, along with 829,970 tons of powder. Consumption on all fronts during the same period was 1.493 million tons of explosives and 626,887 tons of powder. [134] From 1941 to 1945, the USSR produced only 505,000 tons of explosives and received 105,000 tons of Lend-Lease imports. [53] Germany outproduced the Soviet Union 3.16 to 1 in explosives tonnage.

Soviet armoured fighting vehicle production was greater than the Germans (in 1943, the Soviet Union manufactured 24,089 tanks and self-propelled guns to Germany's 19,800). The Soviets incrementally upgraded existing designs, and simplified and refined manufacturing processes to increase production, and were helped by a mass infusion of harder to produce goods such as aviation fuel, machine tools, trucks, and high-explosives from Lend-Lease, allowing them to concentrate on a few key industries. Meanwhile, Germany had been cut off from foreign trade for years by the time it invaded the USSR, was in the middle of two extended and costly theatres at air and sea that further limited production (Battle of the Atlantic and Defence of the Reich), and was forced to devote a large segment of its expenditures to goods the Soviets could cut back on (such as trucks) or which would never even be used against the Soviets (such as ships). Naval vessels alone constituted 10–15% of Germany's war expenditures from 1940 to 1944 depending on the year, while armoured vehicles by comparison were only 5–8%. [135]

Summary of German and Soviet raw material production during the war [136]
Year Coal
(million tonnes, Germany includes lignite and bituminous types)
(million tonnes)
(thousand tonnes)
(million tonnes)
German Soviet German Soviet German Soviet German Soviet Italian Hungarian Romanian Japanese
1941 483.4 151.4 31.8 17.9 233.6 5.7 33.0 0.12 0.4 5.5
1942 513.1 75.5 32.1 8.1 264.0 51.7 6.6 22.0 0.01 0.7 5.7 1.8
1943 521.4 93.1 34.6 8.5 250.0 62.3 7.6 18.0 0.01 0.8 5.3 2.3
1944 509.8 121.5 28.5 10.9 245.3 82.7 5.5 18.2 1 3.5 1
1945 [137] 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 war [136]
Year Tanks and self-
propelled guns
Soviet German Italian Hungarian Romanian Japanese
1941 6,590 5,200 [138] 595 595
1942 24,446 9,300 [138] 1,252 500 557
1943 24,089 19,800 336 105 558
1944 28,963 27,300 353
1945 [137] 15,400 137
Summary of Axis and Soviet aircraft production during the war [136]
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
1945 [137] 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 [139]
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
1945 [137] 9,500,000 2,900,000 12,400,000

Soviet production and upkeep was assisted by the Lend-Lease program from the United States and the United Kingdom. In the course of the war the US supplied $11 billion of materiel through Lend-Lease. This included 400,000 trucks, 12,000 armoured vehicles (including 7,000 tanks), 11,400 aircraft and 1.75 million tons of food. [140] The British supplied aircraft including 3,000 Hurricanes and 4,000 other aircraft during the war. Five thousand tanks were provided by the British and Canada. Total British supplies were about four million tons. [141] Germany on the other hand had the resources of conquered Europe at its disposal those numbers are however not included into the tables above, such as production in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, and so on.

After the defeat at Stalingrad, Germany geared completely towards a war economy, as expounded in a speech given by Joseph Goebbels, (the Nazi propaganda minister), in the Berlin Sportpalast, increasing production in subsequent years under Albert Speer's (the Reich armaments minister) direction, despite the intensifying Allied bombing campaign.

The fighting involved millions of Axis and Soviet troops along the broadest land front in military history. It was by far the deadliest single theatre of the European portion of World War II with up to 8.7 - 10 million military deaths on the Soviet side (although, depending on the criteria used, casualties in the Far East theatre may have been similar in number). [142] [143] [144] Axis military deaths were 5 million of which around 4,000,000 were German deaths. [145] [146]

Included in this figure of German losses is the majority of the 2 million German military personnel listed as missing or unaccounted for after the war. Rüdiger Overmans states that it seems entirely plausible, while not provable, that one half of these men were killed in action and the other half died in Soviet custody. [147] Official OKW Casualty Figures list 65% of Heer killed/missing/captured as being lost on the Eastern Front from 1 September 1939, to 1 January 1945 (four months and a week before the conclusion of the war), with front not specified for losses of the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. [148]

Estimated civilian deaths range from about 14 to 17 million. Over 11.4 million Soviet civilians within pre-1939 Soviet borders were killed, and another estimated 3.5 million civilians were killed in the annexed territories. [149] The Nazis exterminated one to two million Soviet Jews (including the annexed territories) as part of the Holocaust. [150] Soviet and Russian historiography often uses the term "irretrievable casualties". According to the Narkomat of Defence order (No. 023, 4 February 1944), the irretrievable casualties include killed, missing, those who died due to war-time or subsequent wounds, maladies and chilblains and those who were captured.

The huge death toll was attributed to several factors, including brutal mistreatment of POWs and captured partisans, the large deficiency of food and medical supplies in Soviet territories, and atrocities committed mostly by the Germans against the civilian population. The multiple battles and 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 II [151]
Forces fighting with the Axis
Total Dead KIA/DOW/MIA Prisoners taken by the Soviets Prisoners who died in Captivity WIA (not including DOW)
Greater Germany est 4,137,000 [152] est 3,637,000 2,733,739–3,000,060 500,000 [153] Unknown
Soviet residents who joined German army 215,000 215,000 400,000+ Unknown 118,127
Romania 281,000 226,000 500,000 55,000
Hungary 300,000 245,000 500,000 55,000 89,313
Italy 82,000 55,000 70,000 27,000
Finland [154] 63,204 62,731 3,500 473 158,000
Total est 5,078,000 est 4,437,400 4,264,497–4,530,818 est 637,000 Unknown
Military losses on the Eastern Front during World War II [155]
Forces fighting with the Soviet Union
Total Dead KIA/DOW/MIA Prisoners taken by the Axis Prisoners who died in captivity WIA (not including DOW)
Soviet 8,668,400–10,000,000 6,829,600 4,059,000 (military personnel only)–5,700,000 2,250,000–3,300,000 [156] [157] of which 1,283,200 confirmed [158] 13,581,483 [159]
Poland 24,000 24,000 Unknown Unknown
Romania 17,000 17,000 80,000 Unknown
Bulgaria 10,000 10,000 Unknown Unknown
Total Up to

Based on Soviet sources Krivosheev put German losses on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945 at 6,923,700 men: including killed in action, died of wounds or disease and reported missing and presumed dead – 4,137,100, taken prisoner 2,571,600 and 215,000 dead among Soviet volunteers in the Wehrmacht. Deaths of POW were 450,600 including 356,700 in NKVD camps and 93,900 in transit. [152]

According to a report prepared by the General Staff of the Army issued in December 1944, materiel losses in the East from the period of 22 June 1941 until November 1944 stood at 33,324 armoured vehicles of all types (tanks, assault guns, tank destroyers, self-propelled guns and others). Paul Winter, Defeating Hitler, states "these figures are undoubtedly too low". [160] According to Soviet claims, the Germans lost 42,700 tanks, tank destroyers, self-propelled guns and assault guns on the Eastern front. [161] Overall, Nazi Germany produced 3,024 reconnaissance vehicles, [ unreliable source? ] 2,450 other armoured vehicles, 21,880 armoured personnel carriers, 36,703 semi-tracked tractors and 87,329 semi-tracked trucks, [162] estimated 2/3 were lost on the Eastern front. [ citation needed ]

The Soviets lost 96,500 tanks, tank destroyers, self-propelled guns and assault guns, as well as 37,600 other armoured vehicles (such as armoured cars and semi-tracked trucks) for a total of 134,100 armoured vehicles lost. [163]

The Soviets also lost 102,600 aircraft (combat and non-combat causes), including 46,100 in combat. [164] According to Soviet claims, the Germans lost 75,700 aircraft on the Eastern front. [165]

Polish Armed Forces in the East, initially consisting of Poles from Eastern Poland or otherwise in the 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 Central Europe were occupied by the Soviets, they changed sides and declared war on Germany (see Allied Commissions).

Some Soviet citizens would side with the Germans and join Andrey Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army, Ukrainian Liberation Army, Georgian Legion and other Ostlegionen units. Most of those who joined were Soviet POWs. These foreign volunteers in the Wermacht were primarily used in the Eastern Front but some were assigned to guard the beaches of Normandy. [166] 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 Western Ukraine. They fought in their own Waffen-SS units, including the Latvian Legion and the Galicia Division. [167]

Krivoshein was born into the well-to-do family of a Jewish artisan shop owner and in 1917 graduated from a gymnasium, a Russian secondary school for the educated elite. In 1918 he enlisted in the Red Army to fight against the Whites in the Russian Civil War, seeing service in the 1st Cavalry Army of Semyon Budyonny.

After the end of the war in 1921, Krivoshein stayed in the army. With the introduction in the Red Army of tank forces, Krivoshein was chosen among most talented cavalry officers to master the new brand of weapon. He was sent to study in the elite Frunze Military Academy, graduated in 1931 and served in the mechanized troops, rising in 1934 to commander of mechanized regiment. In 1936 he volunteered to fight in Spain on the side of the Republicans against nationalist General Francisco Franco, who was supported in Spain's civil war by both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Krivoshein received the honor of becoming the first Soviet tank commander in Spain following his arrival alongside a small group of other Soviet volunteers and T-26 light tanks at the Republican port of Cartagena in October 1936.

In November–December 1936, he commanded tank forces of the Republican army in the Battle of Madrid and won praise for his performance. While the small tank force of a single brigade could not halt Franco's offence, his bold actions bolstered the morale of the Republicans.

In January 1937 Krivoshein was recalled to the Soviet Union to recuperate. He was promoted to kombrig and appointed commander of a mechanized brigade. In the summer of 1938, he led his brigade against the Japanese in the Battle of Lake Khasan.

September 1939-1940: war against Poland and attack on Finland Edit

Following the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, both Germany and the Soviet Union became involved as co-belligerents in war over the territories of the weaker Polish republic. (Stalin's negotiations about non-aggression and a mutual diplomatic understanding between Germany and the USSR had tacitly aimed at retaking what had been taken by Poland by the Riga Treaty with Lenin-led Soviet Russia during the Russian Civil War in 1921.)

In a short and victorious campaign, the Soviet Union attacked Poland on September 17, 1939 the Poles had already been fighting off the German invasion since September 1. Krivoshein held command of the 29th Light Tank Brigade within the 4th Army of Vasily Chuikov. As Poland's leaders had by then concentrated their forces in the west and the Polish command had decided to offer only minimal resistance in the east in order to better meet the devastating attacks of Nazi Germany's advances against western Poland and the rapid German drive towards Warsaw, whose siege had already begun on September 16, just prior to the start of the Soviets' strike on the following day, the campaign passed relatively uneventfully for the troops until encountering the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. Within two weeks the Soviets took more than 250,000 Polish prisoners of war.

The quick advance of the German army had taken some elements of the German forces beyond the agreed-upon demarcation line between the Germans and Soviets, the two armies coming face-to-face against each other just east of the Bug River. The encounter was unexpected, and the German and Soviet forces scuffled in minor attacks and counterattacks against one another along the Bug region. [1] Upon penetrating the Bug region toward the city of Brest-Litovsk, Krivoshein found that the German troops had already occupied the town ahead of the advancing Red Army, and was invited by a party of German officers to the German headquarters to share breakfast with their commander, General Heinz Guderian. Krivoshein agreed, and following a brief talk, the German troops agreed to withdraw west to the previously-agreed demarcation line and hand the city and its fortress to the Soviet forces. [2] [3]

During the meeting, Guderian proposed a joint parade of Soviet and German troops through the town, including a lineup of soldiers from both armies on the central square. Krivoshein declined, noting the exhaustion of the Soviet troops after a protracted march, but promised to supply a military band and a few battalions to accompany the parade of the withdrawing German troops, and agreed to Guderian's request that he and Guderian would stand and review the ceremony together. [4] [5] [6] (Various Western historians and some Russian writers refer to this notorious episode as the German-Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk.)

Krivoshein's next tour of duty with his tank brigade was the attack on Finland during the Winter War of 1939-40. The effective military of this smaller nation surprised the aggressors with unyielding resolve, but Krivoshein fought with distinction and his promotion was quick. In less than two years he rose from commander of a motorized rifle division and then a tank division to commander of tank forces for a key Baltic Special Military District. With the Red Army's introduction of the traditional Russian ranks for its highest commanding staff, he became, in 1940, a major-general. Krivoshein received command of the 25th Mechanized Corps in April 1941.

Reform of Soviet armored forces, 1941-1943 Edit

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Krivoshein's 25th Mechanized Corps constantly re-deployed and took part in an unsuccessful counterattack in the Bykhov area. [7]

In 1941–1943 Krivoshein was a head of Department of Training in the Main Directorate of the Red Army Tank Forces. [ citation needed ] The training of the Soviet tank crews had to respond to constantly changing demands to the crews such as introduction of the new tanks and search for the best size of tank formation in combat.

Battle of Kursk Edit

In 1943 when the Red Army was preparing for the decisive Battle of Kursk, Krivoshein received command of the 3rd Mechanized Corps in Mikhail Katukov's 1st Tank Army of the Voronezh Front, commanded by Nikolai Vatutin. He and Katukov were the best defense tacticians in the Red Army armour. The Soviet high command assigned to Krivoshein a crucial task to fight in the first echelon in the south of the Kursk salient against German Army Group South and the most capable of all German Field Marshals----Erich von Manstein. Krivoshein took position in town of Oboyan, and together with 6th Tank Corps in Prokhorovka during the battle he faced the main weight of German assault, led by the top Wehrmacht panzer General Hermann Hoth.

Krivoshein's forces were in dire technical disadvantage to German panzers. Against his corps, the Germans deployed their powerful Tiger I tanks, armed with 88mm guns that ranged approximately two kilometers. The Soviet tank T-34 had a smaller 76.2 mm gun with a shorter range of fire. On the first day of battle, on 1943 July 6, the Germans used Tigers together with enormous Ferdinand assault guns in an attack on Krivoshein. After fierce, tenacious fighting, by the end of the day German panzers penetrated Soviet defenses in the junction between 3rd Mechanized Corps and 6th Tank Corps, but Soviet tanks held the ground. The next morning, on July 7, Hoth sent the bulk of German panzers against Krivoshein. In their turn, Katukov and Vatutin fed Krivoshein with reinforcements. In a pitched battle Krivoshein withstood the German assault. By the end of the day a German aerial reconnaissance reported to Hoth: "The Russians are not falling back. They stand there on line. Our tanks are stopped. They are burning."

On the next day, July 8, Manstein and Hoth in desperation decided to stake everything on a renewed attack. Under massive German assault, Krivoshein withdrew his corps to a new defense position but the Germans once again failed to break through his front line. The failure spelled doom for the German panzers. Unable to defeat Krivoshein, on 1943 July 9 Hoth redirected his attack against the 6th Tank Corps in Prokhorovka, leaving his right flank open. On July 12, the powerful 5th Guards Tank Army of Pavel Rotmistrov slammed into Hoth's flank and delivered a mortal blow to the German panzers. The 1st Tank Army also went on counterattack. By the end of the day, Hoth, suffering from terrible losses, retreated. The Wehrmacht lost the greatest tank battle in history, and the Red Army in effect had won the war.

Joseph Stalin bestowed on the 1st Tank Army and two of its most distinguished corps the highest Soviet honorific titles for military formation, the "guards". Krivoshein's 3rd Mechanized Corps became the 8th Guards Mechanized Corps. Krivoshein was promoted to Lieutenant General and was awarded the highest Soviet decoration for his outstanding generalship, the Order of Suvorov.

During the battle, the 1st Tank Army was severely weakened and had only 141 tanks left. Krivoshein's corps alone lost nearly 90% of its command cadre. In spite of these losses, Vatutin ordered the exhausted 1st Tank Army to go on the offensive in the Belgorod-Kharkiv operation but, after a spectacular initial advance, it was stalled and Stavka withdrew it in order to restore it for future combat. After receiving replacement goods and equipment, in December 1943 Krivoshein's corps was sent together with the rest of the 1st Guards Tank Army to the 1st Ukrainian Front of Ivan Konev. Krivoshein spearheaded Konev's offensive in expelling the Germans from the right bank Ukraine.

Belarus to Berlin Edit

Krivoshein was severely wounded in the battle and was recovering for several months. Later in 1944 he received command of the 1st Mechanized Krasnograd Corps and fought in Operation Bagration, which smashed the German Army Group Centre in Belarus. Among many other Belorussian cities Krivoshein recaptured from the Germans was Brest.

In the last days of the war, in spring 1945, Krivoshein led his corps in vanguard of 1st Belorussian Front of the leading Soviet commander of World War II Georgy Zhukov in the Battle of Berlin. Stalin awarded to Zhukov the honour to take Berlin it was a recognition of the exclusive standing of Krivoshein among Soviet armour generals that Zhukov entrusted him to lead the Soviet armies in the final Soviet triumph over Germany. Krivoshein slashed through the heavily fortified and echeloned German defenses in the critical Battle of Seelow Heights and fought his way to the Reichstag. For his outstanding combat leadership and personal courage in the capture of Berlin, Krivoshein received the highest Soviet war honour, the order of a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Krivoshein continued to command his corps until 1946 when he was appointed Head of Department at the M. V. Frunze Military Academy. In 1950 he moved to Odessa to command the mechanized and tank forces of the small Odessa Military District. In 1951 the Ministry of Defense selected him as a candidate for the Soviet Army higher command and sent him to study in the Higher Military Academy of the General Staff. Krivoshein graduated in 1952. The death of Stalin in March 1953 brought an end to Krivoshein's military career: as the new leadership began to reduce the huge Soviet army and, on May 4, 1953 the Soviet Ministry of Defense retired him after 35 years of service. He spent the last quarter century of his life writing four books of his war memoirs.

The most decisive battles of WW2

World War Two was a race to victory between the Allied and Axis powers. A race measured in battles waged against very different backdrops, from blasted urban wastelands to scorched desert plains. Some of these confrontations are famed to this day as the key turning points in the war.

The Battle of Stalingrad

'This isn’t hell. This is ten times worse than hell.' These words by Soviet officer Vasily Chuikov summed up the horrific conditions within Stalingrad, which was transformed into a vast death zone of close-quarters savagery from August 1942 to February 1943. Adolf Hitler wanted the city as a propaganda prize because it bore the name of his nemesis, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and the city was swiftly reduced to smoking rabble by ruthless German air raids.

Read more about: Hitler

What if Stalingrad had fallen?

But what followed was an arduous battle of attrition, with enemy soldiers fighting from street to street, house to house and room to room. Key locations were taken and re-taken multiple times on the same day, troops lived in fear of being picked off by snipers at any time, and there was even fighting in the sewers. Eventually, the Soviets launched an epic counterattack, Operation Uranus, which saw the Axis invaders encircled and trapped in the city, where they were preyed upon by the Red Army and the harsh Russian winter.

Their eventual surrender was a catastrophic defeat for the Nazis, stopping their advance east and dealing a huge psychological blow to Hitler himself, who said 'The god of war has gone over to the other side.'

The Battle of Britain

Waged between July and October 1940, the Battle of Britain earnt its name before it even happened – in a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who warned that failure would mean the civilised world would 'sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age'. France had recently fallen, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was still watching from the sidelines, and the United Kingdom was regarded as the lone bulwark against Hitler’s domination of Europe.

Churchill knew that establishing air supremacy was essential to Hitler’s ultimate ambition of mounting a full-scale invasion of Britain. It was down to the pilots of the RAF, and iconic planes like the Hawkers Hurricane and Submarine Spitfire, to stop this from happening. And stop it they did, with the help of many non-British airmen, including Polish squadrons whose 'unsurpassed gallantry' was hailed by the Air Chief Marshal.

Read more about: WW2

How the Battle of Britain was won

Another hero of the battle was Wing Commander James Brindley Nicolson, whose Hurricane had caught fire after being hit by four cannon shells. Despite being injured in the foot and eye, and sitting in a blazing cockpit, Nicolson carried on flying and took down an enemy plane before finally allowing himself to bail out of his stricken craft. For this incredible bravery, Nicolson was given the Victoria Cross – the only pilot of RAF Fighter Command to receive one.

The Battle of Kursk

Although it’s generally overshadowed by the infamy of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk was another titanic confrontation between the forces of Hitler and Stalin. It took place in summer 1943, in the aftermath of the German defeat at Stalingrad, when the Nazis sought to regain a foothold by attacking the Soviet front line by the Russian city of Kursk. The front line formed a bulge, or salient, into German-held territory, and the idea was to cut it off with a pincer attack from the north and south.

Read more about: Battles

The Battle of Kursk: the largest tank battle in history

Things didn’t go to plan, with the Soviets pre-empting the attack by laying defences like tank traps and mines. The salient was, after all, an incredibly obvious target, and the Nazis fatally prevaricated before fighting commenced, giving Joseph Stalin’s troops ample time to prepare. The episode would become famous for the epic skirmishes between tanks, with the Battle of Prokhorovka, in the southern zone of the wider Battle of Kursk, often touted as one of the biggest tank battles in history. By winning at Kursk, the Soviets definitively consolidated the prior victory at Stalingrad, and Stalin achieved lasting supremacy over Hitler on the Eastern Front.

The Second Battle of El Alamein

Two battles of El Alamein took place in North Africa throughout much of 1942. The first ended with a temporary stalemate between Axis and Allied forces in Egypt, with vast swathes of crucial territory at stake, including oil fields and the Suez Canal. It set the stage for a pivotal confrontation between two of the most famous personalities of World War Two. On the Allied side there was Bernard Law Montgomery, aka 'Monty', while his great enemy was Erwin Rommel, aka 'the Desert Fox'.

The Allies were in advantageous position, with many more men, tanks and armoured cars at Monty’s disposal. Rommel, an acclaimed military genius, was also in ill health, and was absent at the start of the second battle of El Alamein. His replacement died of a heart attack on the front line, which was emblematic of more misfortunes to come on Rommel’s side. After much severe and bloody fighting, Montgomery was triumphant, turning the tide in the Desert War. It was a moment immortalised by the words of Winston Churchill, who said 'this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'

The Battle of Midway

In June 1942, just half a year after the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the war, President Roosevelt took decisive vengeance on the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Ironically, this was as a result of the Japanese attempting to replicate the success of Pearl Harbor by staging another sudden assault, this time on the US base on Midway Island in the Pacific.

Russians halt German advance in a decisive battle at Kursk - Jul 12, 1943 - HISTORY.com

TSgt Joe C.

On this day in 1943, one of the greatest clashes of armor in military history takes place as the German offensive against the Russian fortification at Kursk, a Russian railway and industrial center, is stopped in a devastating battle, marking the turning point in the Eastern front in the Russians’ favor.

The Germans had been driven from Kursk, a key communications center between north and south, back in February. By March, the Russians had created a salient, a defensive fortification, just west of Kursk in order to prevent another attempt by the Germans to advance farther south in Russia. In June, the German invaders launched an air attack against Kursk on the ground, Operation Cottbus was launched, ostensibly dedicated to destroying Russian partisan activity, but in reality resulting in the wholesale slaughter of Russian civilians, among whom Soviet partisan fighters had been hiding. The Russians responded with air raids against German troop formations.

By July, Hitler realized that the breaking of the Russian resistance at Kursk was essential to pursuing his aims in Soviet Russia and the defense of Greater Germany, that is, German-occupied territory outside prewar German borders. “This day, you are to take part in an offensive of such importance that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome,” Hitler announced to his soldiers on July 4. But on July 5, the Russians pulled the rug out from under Hitler’s offensive by launching their own artillery bombardment. The Germans counterattacked, and the largest tank battle in history began: Between the two assailants, 6,000 tanks were deployed. On July 12, 900 Russian tanks clashed with 900 German (including their superior Tiger tanks) at Prokhorovka—the Battle of Kursk’s most serious engagement. When it was all over, 300 German tanks, and even more Russian ones, were strewn over the battlefield. “The earth was black and scorched with tanks like burning torches,” reported one Russian officer. But the Russians had stopped the German advance dead in its tracks. The advantage had passed to the East. The Germans’ stay in Soviet territory was coming to an end.

How the Germans made use of the Soviet Union’s best tank

The T-34 was the best Soviet tank of World War II. Well armed and protected, fast and maneuverable, it was unequaled on the battlefield until 1942.

&ldquoThe T-34 tank was reliable on any terrain,&rdquo recalled Colonel General Johannes Friesner, commander of Army Group South Ukraine: &ldquoThe Russian tanks could operate where we thought it impossible. The T-34&rsquos firepower was also impressive. For the Soviet infantry, it served as an excellent path-layer and support vehicle.&rdquo

Unsurprisingly, the Third Reich found a worthy role was found for such a formidable machine. On the basis of captured T-34s, the Germans created whole battalions, with some German tankmen scoring dozens of victories in them, becoming real aces.

In the Wehrmacht

The first T-34/76s (&ldquo76&rdquo referred to the 76-mm gun) appeared in the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1941 under the designation Pz.Kpfw. T-34-747 (r), where &ldquor&rdquo indicated the Russian origin of the tank and &ldquoPz.Kpfw&rdquo stood for Panzerkampfwagen (&ldquoarmored fighting vehicle&rdquo). About 300 such tanks fought for Germany in World War II.

Captured tanks were equipped with German radios and optics. And some had commander&rsquos cupolas fitted to improve the visibility of the crew leader.

The acute shortage of ammunition and spare parts made it hard to maintain the tanks in a combat-ready condition. Some T-34s had to be completely disassembled to supply parts for others. And shells were removed from destroyed T-34s, sometimes mid-battle.

To prevent captured Soviet T-34s from being hit by their own artillery and the Luftwaffe, a large Balkenkreuz or swastika marking was applied to the hull and turret. Nevertheless, in the heat of battle, gunners often failed to notice them and opened fire on the silhouettes of the hated Soviet tanks.

The T-34 served the Germans not only in its traditional role. Some were converted into vehicle retrievers or self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. In the latter case, the turret was dismantled and replaced by a special open-top, rotating welded tower with a 20-mm Flakvierling 38 anti-aircraft gun. Severely damaged T-34s were installed on armored trains as artillery mounts.

In the Waffen SS

It was the Waffen SS that made the most widespread use of the illustrious Soviet tank, above all the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. After the recapture of Kharkov on March 18, 1943, about 50 incapacitated T-34s awaiting repair fell into its hands.

Using the facilities of the Kharkov Tractor Plant, the SS restored several dozen tanks and formed a separate company from them within the Reich division &mdash the largest unit of captured T-34s in the German armed forces.

A total of 25 tanks were put into service, and a further 12 were sent to the Kinschlag SS Panzer-Grenadier School, where young cadets were trained in anti-tank combat.

Soviet tanks in the Reich division took part in the decisive Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. Since by this time the T-34-76 was technically obsolete, the Germans used it not for breakthroughs, but as an anti-tank weapon, firing mostly from stationary and concealed positions to minimize the risk to themselves.

Of the German tankmen who used the T-34, the most outstanding were the platoon commander of the 9th Panzer Company of the Reich division, SS Oberscharführer Joseph Naber, and tank commander Emil Seibold, who served in the same division. The latter became one of the best tank aces of the war, scoring a total of 69 kills, several dozen of which in the Soviet T-34.

After the Battle of Kursk, the obsolete T-34/76 was gradually withdrawn from the German army. But some were still seen defending Berlin in May 1945.

In 1944, the more advanced T-34/85 (with an 85-mm gun) entered service with the Red Army. However, the Germans captured no more than a few dozen of them, and only a handful ever opposed the now advancing Soviet forces.

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Watch the video: Tank Battle of Kursk Russia vs Germany Operation Citadel (May 2022).