German Invasion of the U.S.S.R.
Earl F. Ziemke
The summer of 1940, after France had surrendered, found Adolf HITLER in a quandary. He had won three whirlwind campaigns, but the next in logical order, the reckoning with Great Britain, was one for which he had little stomach. By his own admission he was a lion on land but a coward on water, and he began planning for an invasion of the British Isles with scant enthusiasm. At the same time he toyed with other projects: the capture of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal, a landing at Haifa, a North African campaign. None of these was significant enough to resolve any of his major problems: how to dispose of Britain; how to secure the Lebensraum (space for living) for which the war was ostensibly being fought; how to end the war on German terms before the United States could arm and intervene; how to deal with the Soviet Union, a "friend he neither liked nor trusted. Most pressing at the moment was the question of Britain. Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of France were occupied, but the British showed no inclination to quit. The more he thought it over, the more Hitler became convinced that the British hope eventually to find an ally in the USSR. If that were true, then the way to bring the British to heel quickly was to remove their last hope.
GERMAN PLANS AND ATTACK: 1941
Exactly when Hitler decided that he would have to fight the Soviet Union is a moot question. The idea of an inevitable clash between nazism and Soviet communism was one of the least ambiguous tenets of his political philosophy. If, during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he did not talk about it, he also did not renounce it. On the other hand, it cannot be assumed that, in turning against the Soviet Union when he did, Hitler was merely executing part of a preconceived program. As in nearly all of his decisions, there was a progression involving the original idea, a specific strategic concept, events and circumstances that seemed to him to confirm the validity of the first two steps, and, finally, a period in which he developed an unshakable determination to see the enterprise through.
The idea of inevitable conflict with the Soviet Union Hitler had expressed in Mein Kampf. In July 1940, the apparent stalemate in the war with Britain brought the Soviet Union to the forefront of his strategic thinking as an inviting target in itself, as the last obstacle to German hegemony on the Continent, and as the lever with which to bring Britain to terms. At the same time, by acting as an equal--even an independent--partner, the Soviet government appeared to confirm the line of thought which he had begun to follow. In June 1940, during the week before the Franco-German armistice, Soviet troops occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The secret protocol to the 1939 pact placed the three Baltic states in the Soviet sphere of influence, but the Russians' timing was a disquieting sign that they intended to take their share of every German victory. At the end of June, the Russians forced Romania to cede Bessarabia and northern Bucovina to them, a step that brought them closer to the Romanian oilfields, on which the Wehrmacht was heavily dependent. Then, in July, the Soviet government renewed its pressure on Finland. By treaty Finland was in the Soviet sphere of influence, but in occupying Norway Germany had secured an access route to the Finnish nickel-mining region near Petsamo (now Pechenga) on the Arctic coast, and in July 1940 the German firm I. G. Farbenindustrie signed a contract for the entire output of the Finnish mines.
As early as June of that year, the German Army General Staff was speaking of the USSR as the possible next scene of operations. On July 21, toward the end of a conference regarding the projected invasion of the British Isles, Hitler instructed the commander in chief of the army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, to begin planning a campaign against the Soviet Union. Ten days later, on July 31, in another conference concerned mostly with the war against Britain, Hitler declared that a reckoning with the Soviet Union was necessary. He said that he had wanted to proceed with it that fall, but because of the severe Russian winters had decided to wait until May 1941. The operation would have to be swift and final, and he was allowing five months for its completion. Any longer period would involve the army in winter warfare and might give the British and Americans time to intervene. In these two almost casual statements, Hitler, if he had not made an irrevocable decision (and perhaps he had not), at least set a course from which he never later saw any reason to deviate.
On August 1, Col. Gen. Franz Halder, chief of the Army General Staff, described to Gen. Erich Marcks a campaign against the Soviet Union employing two army groups, one striking toward Moscow (Moskva) and the other toward Kiev. He assigned to Marcks the task of developing the details. By August 5, Marcks had completed a plan that called for a main effort directed toward Moscow, a secondary effort in the south in the direction of Kiev, and a subsidiary thrust toward Leningrad. There was still much planning to be done, but the Marcks program did establish the army's concept of Moscow as the outstanding strategic objective.
A visit by Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav M. Molotov to Berlin on Nov. 12-13, 1940, produced the first overt signs of a rift between Germany and the USSR. The purpose of the visit was to discuss the Soviet Union's joining Germany, Italy, and Japan in a four-power alliance. Molotov came armed with demands and complaints. He wanted to know whether Germany intended to honor her treaty obligations with respect to Finland. Lately, in his opinion, the Germans had shown too great an interest in that nation, and the Soviet Union intended to intervene there as it had in the Baltic states. The Soviet government also wanted bases in Bulgaria and control of the Dardanelles. Hitler, on the other hand, talked glowingly of Soviet expansion to the east, into India for instance, and he issued a thinly veiled warning that he would not tolerate further Soviet encroachments in Europe. Concerning Finland, he stated that any new disturbance in the Baltic area would place a heavy strain on German-Soviet relations. The meeting had a definite, if subtle, effect on both partners. The Russians continued to maneuver diplomatically but carefully avoided overt acts. Hitler was thoroughly annoyed at the Russians' display of grasping independence, and he believed that they would not have dared to assert themselves as they had without a secret agreement with the British.
Preparation of Operation Barbarossa
On Dec. 18, 1940, Hitler signed Fuhrer Directive No. 21, subtitled " Operation Barbarossa. The directive, which was based on the work of several planning groups, was the strategic outline for a campaign against the Soviet Union. It laid down a plan for a two-phase operation. In the first phase the German Army was to engage the Soviet main force as close to the western border of the Soviet Union as possible, cut it up by encircling movements, and destroy it and so prevent the Russians from fighting a delaying action across the vast spaces of their country. The second phase would take the form of a rapid pursuit to a line running north and south from the Volga River to Arkhangelsk (Archangel). The destruction of the Urals industrial area farther east could be left to the Luftwaffe.
The directive divided the German forces into three army groups, two north of the Pripet (Pripyat) Marshes and one to the south. The northernmost army group would strike toward Leningrad, the one in the center toward Smolensk, and that in the south toward Kiev. The central army group would be the strongest, but after the attack began, it might be required to divert some of its strength to help its neighbor on the north toward Leningrad. Hitler had included this idea over the almost unanimous opposition of his generals, but in a sense he was taking the more orthodox view. Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kiev were situated at nearly equal distances from the frontier; therefore, in the light of the over-all strategy, they should have been taken before the army drove deeply into the interior. The generals, on the other hand, had the better argument. In their opinion the main force had to be directed without any diversions toward the primary objective, Moscow, for it was there that the decisive battle would be fought after the Russians had been forced to concentrate all of the forces they could assemble to defend the capital and hub of the country's communications systems.
In the directive, Hitler also stated that Romania and Finland were to be considered prospective allies in the war against the Soviet Union. Arrangements would be made with both countries in due course. Hitler instructed the German Army of Norway to be prepared to occupy the Petsamo region and to conduct an offensive from Finland to cut the Murmansk (Kirov) Railroad.
Toward the end of January 1941, the Army General Staff completed an operations order that assigned specific missions to the various army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb, was to attack from East Prussia toward Leningrad. It would place its greatest strength on its right flank and turn to the left, driving the Russian defenders back against the Baltic coast. Army Group Center, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, operating north of the Pripet Marshes, would employ strong tank forces to complete two giant encirclements, one closing near Minsk and the other east of Smolensk. The final decision as to whether this group would continue directly toward Moscow or halt at Smolensk and divert forces to Army Group North could be avoided, since it was contrary to German staff practice to carry definitive planning past the first phase of an operation. Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was to attack from southern Poland and Romania, its flank armies converging on Kiev to trap the Soviet armies in the western Ukraine in a great pocket west of the Dnieper (Dnepr) River. (In March, Hitler became convinced that the southern flank army would not be able to fight its way across the Dniester or Dnestr River; consequently, he assigned to the army on the north the mission of striking toward Kiev and then sweeping southward inside the great bend of the Dnieper.) At a conference on February 3, General Halder summarized the plan for Hitler and informed him that the first echelon of troops was moving into assembly areas behind the frontier. At the close of the conference, Hitler approved the operations order and declared, " The world will hold its breath when Operation Barbarossa begins.
The first starting date set for Operation Barbarossa was May 15. The plans had provided time for a preliminary campaign in Greece, but when Yugoslavia was added to the Balkan campaign after the anti-Axis coup of March 26-27, the timetable had to be revised. Barbarossa was postponed to June 22.
Within the small circle of high-ranking officers and government officials who
knew about Barbarossa, opinions varied. Although some of the generals
occasionally expressed random doubts, once the planning was well under way, most
of them came to share the view of General Halder that the campaign would be
completed in 8 to 10 weeks. A notable exception was the military attache in
Moscow, who believed that Soviet industrial capacity, particularly that east of
the Urals, was being greatly underestimated. Members of the German Foreign
Office contended that so much could be obtained from the Soviet Union by
political means that a military conquest was superfluous. The German ambassador
to the Soviet Union told Hitler that Joseph STALIN " would give the shirt
off his back
to avoid a
While Hitler honed and polished his military plans, the first objective of Soviet policy was to avoid provocation. From the beginning the Nazi-Soviet Pact had hardly been an instrument of mutual faith and confidence, but the Soviet government became even more conciliatory as it came to realize that it was alone with Hitler on the Continent. After badgering Finland through the winter of 1940-1941, the Russians moderated their tone in the spring. They did not renounce their aspirations in the Balkans, but on the eve of the German sweep into that area they refrained from giving the Yugoslav government the mutual assistance pact which it desired and on April 5, 1941, signed instead an innocuous treaty of friendship and nonaggression. In the light of subsequent events the most significant Soviet step was the conclusion on April 13 of a treaty of neutrality with Japan.
In the last week before the attack, Stalin remained desperately committed to the hope that he could avoid war by not giving Hitler an excuse for an attack. He ignored warnings from Britain and the United States, and shipments of strategic materials from the Soviet Union to Germany continued until the hour when the German armies crossed the border. The worst effect of Stalin's attitude was that it left the Soviet Army and people psychologically unprepared for war. The German attack came as a devastating surprise. In the closely controlled Soviet society few outside the highest governmental circles had even suspected that a conflict was brewing.
The German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) assigned 148 divisions, including 19 panzer divisions, to the invasion of the USSR. Total personnel strength was 3,050,000 men. Initially the armies had 3,350 tanks, 7,184 artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 625,000 horses, and the Luftwaffe provided 2,500 aircraft of all types. The Finnish Army added 500,000 men, and Romania furnished 14 divisions or about 250,000 men. After the invasion started, Hungary, Italy, and the puppet state of Slovakia also furnished contingents of troops. An additional 5 German divisions under the direct control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) were earmarked for the attack out of northern Finland to cut the Murmansk Railroad. The most significant assets of the German Army on the eve of the Soviet campaign were its skill and experience in conducting mobile warfare. The highly successful panzer corps of the French campaign had been succeeded by an even larger mobile unit, the panzer group. Four of these were to spearhead the advance into the USSR. The panzer groups were in fact powerful armored armies, but until late 1941 lingering conservatism among some senior generals prevented their being given the status of full-fledged armies.
Figures on the strength of the Soviet armed forces during World War II and earlier periods remain military secrets. German estimates, which were approximately correct, placed the total initial strength of the Soviet Army at 203 divisions and 46 motorized or armored brigades. Of these, 33 divisions and 5 brigades were in the Far East, while the rest were either on the western frontier or at stations in European Russia. By this reckoning total Soviet personnel strength on hand in Europe to meet the invasion was about 2,300,000 men. The number of Soviet military aircraft was at least twice and possibly as much as three times that of the Germans, but most of the planes were obsolete models. Newer designs were just going into production. The Russians may have had as many as 10,000 tanks, most of them mechanically not inferior to the German types and one, the T-34 Stalin tank, heavier and more powerful than any tank the Germans had until late 1943. The T-34, however, was not as yet in full production.
The Winter War of 1939-1940 against Finland had revealed many deficiencies in the Soviet Army. The most serious of these were also ones which could not be corrected easily or quickly. Much of the time, Soviet leadership had been very bad. Incompetence in the lower and middle officer grades had been matched by rigidity and lack of imagination at higher levels. Although the troops had displayed some good qualities, including stubborness and indifference to hardship, they had proved unskilled and lacking in initiative. The war with Finland had severely damaged Soviet military prestige abroad, but the poor showing made in the conflict did not provide an absolute index of Soviet military potential. In a nearly all-out war, Soviet troops had successfully withstood a Japanese attempt to thrust into Outer Mongolia between May and September 1939.
In June 1941, the defense of the western border was assigned to the Leningrad, Special Western, Special Kievan, and Odessa military districts. If war broke out, these were to become front headquarters and hold the attackers until the forces in the interior could be mobilized. (The Russian term " front is translated as "army group, but in terms of strength and of the size of sector that it usually occupied, the Soviet front in World War II was more nearly equivalent to a German or American army.) The recently acquired western territories provided a buffer but also forced the army to meet an attack in front of the Stalin Line, the fortified line built in the 1930's behind the pre-1939 border.
German Campaign: June 22-Dec. 5, 1941
Shortly before midnight on June 21, telegraphic orders were dispatched from the Soviet People's Commissariat for Defense, instructing the frontier military districts to place themselves on a war footing. By then it was too late. Many units never received the orders, and among those that did, few were capable of responding effectively in the two or three hours remaining to them.
Before dawn on June 22, the German armies had crossed the border. Army Group
North, striking northward from East Prussia, encountered only 7 divisions on the
border, and its advance through the Baltic states was swift. By the end of the
month, having destroyed an estimated 12 to 15 Soviet divisions, the army group
drew up to the Dvina (Western Dvina) River. On July 10, it reached Pskov and
Opochka on old Soviet territory. On that day the Finnish Army opened its attack
southward into the Karelian Isthmus. Meanwhile, Army Group Center, advancing
north of the Pripet Marshes, had completed one large encirclement around
The German intention was to destroy the Soviet Army west of the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. On July 3, General Halder believed that this was being accomplished. He predicted that the German forces would meet only scattered resistance east of the rivers, and Hitler concluded that the Russians had lost the war.
When they had a chance to do so, the Russian troops fought well, but their commanders generally displayed little or no familiarity with the tactical principles of concentration and maneuver. They spread their tanks and infantry equally over the entire front, and they seldom attempted a mobile defense, partly because in those days the officer suspected of having abandoned a position voluntarily was a prime candidate for the firing squad.
The Soviet government faced the staggering task of mobilizing and organizing its armed forces to meet an invader already across the border and advancing into the interior at an average rate of nearly 20 miles a day. The first step was to convert the border military districts to fronts. On June 30, the State Defense Committee was created with Stalin as its chairman. It assumed all political, economic, and military power in the country. Then, on July 10, three strategic high commands, designated as the Northwest, West, and Southwest forces, were formed. From the first these forces were no match for the comparable German echelon, the army group headquarters, for their staffs lacked the capacity to direct very large forces and the lesser commands performed so erratically that coordinated operations were hardly worth attempting. The fronts proved to be the largest units which the Soviet commanders and staffs were able to handle effectively, and they were gradually reduced in size as new ones were added.
In a radio address on July 3, Stalin announced that the Soviet government would welcome aid from the West. He also proclaimed a " scorched earth policy, which would leave the invaders "not a kilogram of grain nor a liter of gasoline. Most important, he called on the people to fight for Russia and so placed himself and the far from popular Communist system at the head of a great national movement. In the long run, Russian nationalism decided the war. It was not automatically ranged on the side of the Soviet government, but Hitler, bent on conquest, rejected it and Stalin cultivated it.
Through July and the first week in August, the German armies continued their advance. Army Group North was slowed by the swampy, heavily forested country between Lakes Peipus and Ilmen, but it planned to launch its final drive to Leningrad on August 10. By August 5, Army Group Center had taken 100,000 Russian prisoners in a pocket around Smolensk. Three days later, it captured another 38,000 prisoners near Roslavl, where it had trapped a force moving to relieve Smolensk. The army group then took its two panzer groups, which had traveled more than 350 miles, out of the front for refitting, which was expected to require about two weeks. Army Group South, on August 5, eliminated a pocket around Uman, in which it had trapped between 16 and 20 Soviet divisions, and then swept into the Dnieper bend, destroying all the Soviet units that could not escape across the river.
By mid-August, the first phase of the offensive was nearly ended. Before the Army Group Center panzer groups were ready to move again, the German High Command would have to decide whether Moscow was to be the main objective. The generals had no doubts; they were convinced that the Soviet Army could be forced to fight the decisive battle of the war before Moscow. Hitler appeared not to have made up his mind, but he insisted that to him Moscow was not a military objective: it was only, as he put it, a geographical expression. At the end of July, he regarded Leningrad as the most important objective and wanted to divert a panzer group from Army Group Center to hasten the advance northward, but the generals persuaded him to transfer only a corps. After considering the problem and arguing with the generals several weeks longer, Hitler announced his final decision on August 21. He intended to give priority to the flanks, in the south taking the Crimea and the Donets Basin industrial region and cutting the Russians off from the Caucasus oil, and in the north taking Leningrad and joining forces with the Finns. Only after Leningrad had been secured and Army Group South was well on its way would the advance toward Moscow resume. In the meantime, Army Group Center would divert strong forces to assist Army Group South.
On August 25, the Second Army and the 2d Panzer Group turned southward from
the Army Group Center flank. Three weeks later, on September 16, the spearheads
of the 2d Panzer Group and the 1st Panzer Group, which had moved northward from
the Dnieper bend, met 150 miles east of Kiev. Rain and mud slowed
On the northern flank, in the second half of August, the Finnish Army and Army Group North closed in rapidly on Leningrad. On August 31, the Finns reached their pre-1940 border on the Karelian Isthmus 30 miles north of Leningrad, and on the same day an Army Group North division arrived at the Neva River 10 miles southeast of the city. Four days later, the Finnish Army opened an offensive east of Lake Ladoga toward the Svir River, where it expected to make contact with German forces coming from the southwest. On September 8, Army Group North took Shlisselburg (German, Schlusselburg) on Lake Ladoga and severed Leningrad's land connections with the interior of the Soviet Union. The city probably could have been taken in a few weeks despite exceptionally stiff Soviet resistance had it not been for several unusual circumstances. In the first place, Hitler decided that Leningrad was to be surrounded and not entered, and the army group therefore had to try to maneuver into the narrow isthmus to the east. Secondly, the Finnish commander in chief, Field Marshal (later Marshal of Finland) Baron Carl G. E. Mannerheim, refused to cross the border and close in from the north. Apparently he did not want to do what he conceived to be the Germans' work for them, and he also did not want to lend substance to the old Soviet argument that the Finish border on the Karelian Isthmus was a threat to Leningrad. Finally, in the second week of September, Hitler removed Army Group North's armor. He left the army group one motorized corps, and demanded that it be withheld for a thrust toward the east to meet the Finns on the Svir when the time was ripe.
Hitler had decided on September 6 to concentrate German strength on Moscow after all. Army Group Center was to be reinforced at the expense of its two neighbors, and Army Groups North and South were to complete their missions with the forces remaining to them. On October 2, after a fateful six weeks' pause, Army Group Center returned to action. Rested and refitted, it was in first-class condition. Within two weeks it had completed three large encirclements, two near Bryansk and the other west of Vyazma. Together these operations brought in 663,000 Russian prisoners. The chief of the operations branch of OKW, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, stated that the complete military collapse of the Soviet Union in the near future appeared "not unlikely. Hitler stopped the advance of the Army of Norway to the Murmansk Railroad, which had been going slowly, as no longer necessary. Then, before Army Group Center finished clearing the three pockets, the fall rains set in, and for a month the advance toward Moscow slowed to a crawl as the Russian dirt roads dissolved into ribbons of mud.
In the south, Army Group South made good progress, carrying its advance on the north to Kharkov and the line of the upper Donets River, and striking along the coast of the Sea of Azov for Rostov-on-Don. On October 27, the Eleventh Army forced its way into the Crimea across Perekop Isthmus. By mid-November, it possessed all of the peninsula except Sevastopol. Then, on November 20, troops of Army Group South took Rostov. During the next week, however, briefly but ominously the tide turned. The Russians opened their first successful offensive, and by the end of the month had forced the Germans from Rostov and back to the Mius River.
Army Group North, on October 16, attacked across the Volkhov River toward Tikhvin and the Svir River, which the Finnish Army had reached at the end of September. After the first two or three days the fall rains overtook the operation, and before the end of the first week the troops were leaving their tanks and trucks behind, bogged down on muddy roads. On November 8, German troops broke into Tikhvin, but there they stayed until mid-December, when Russian units closing in on all sides forced them back to the Volkhov.
In the Army Group Center sector freezing weather set in during the second week of November, and while the troops chopped their tanks, guns, and vehicles out of the frozen mud, the German High Command had to decide whether to make the final thrust to Moscow immediately or wait until the next spring. No one wanted to fight in the Russian winter. Field Marshal von Bock, the army group commander, thought that he could still finish in time, and his decision apparently tipped the balance. On November 15, in cold, clear weather, the army group pushed forward and immediately began developing a sweeping double envelopment, which it intended to close east of Moscow. Two panzer groups struck north of the city, while a third approached it from the south.
The good weather lasted a few days, but before
On December 5, Col. Gen. Hans Reinhardt, who was in command of the force north of Moscow, reported that his troops were exhausted: he could hold his sector only if the Russians did not attack, for he had no reserves. On the same day, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, commanding the spearhead armor on the south, recommended that the offensive be halted. His forward units were meeting massive resistance from the Russians, and the cold had become too severe for the troops and the vehicles.
SOVIET AND GERMAN OFFENSIVES: 1941-1943
First Soviet Winter Offensive: December 1941-March 1942
During the summer and fall of 1941 the Soviet armies retreated because they had to and not (as was claimed as long as Stalin lived) because of a masterful strategic plan. The nation suffered staggering losses, including two thirds of its prewar coal-producing areas, three fourths of its iron and manganese ore production, and a population of 35,000,000. Nevertheless, the sacrifices bought time, which the Soviet regime exploited with ruthless energy. Even while they were in full retreat, losing, destroying, or tearing down and shipping to the east entire industrial complexes, the Russians managed to recruit and equip fresh armies. As of December 1, Soviet casualties probably totaled between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000 men, but at the same time the Germans identified at or near the front 280 rifle and cavalry divisions and 44 tank or mechanized brigades.
The Soviet High Command did not share Hitler's doubts concerning the strategic importance of Moscow. In the summer and fall it sacrificed entire armies and groups of armies in attempts to hold the western approaches to the capital. It would have sacrificed more in the battle for the city itself had not the earliest and coldest winter in a half century almost literally frozen the German armies in their tracks.
The long delays in August, September, and October and the German loss of momentum on the northern and southern flanks in November had given the Russians time to assemble strong reserves around Moscow. Possibly, had the cold not set in, the German armies would have battled their way through that mass of men as they had through others, but victory, as Bock predicted late in November, would have been achieved by the narrowest of margins. As it was, the German offensive ground to a halt on December 5.
On the morning of December 6, the West Front, commanded by Army Gen. (later Marshal) Georgi K. Zhukov, counterattacked. Its offensive in the Moscow sector was joined on the north by the left flank of the Kalinin Front under Col. Gen. (later Marshal) Ivan S. Konev, and on the south by the right flank of the Southwest Front under Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko. The effect was devastating. Army Group Center had thrown its last reserves into the attempt to take Moscow; it had no prepared positions, and the troops could not dig into the rock-hard ground. The German trucks and tanks were not winterized, and the troops lacked winter clothing, because according to the plan the war should have been over before winter. The generals wanted to retreat, but Hitler refused to do so. There was no place to go, he said, and once a retreat began it would become a rout. The few local withdrawals that he permitted led to such heavy losses of equipment that he became convinced that the only solution was an absolutely rigid defense. On December 18, he issued an order calling for fanatical resistance. Units were to stand firm no matter what the danger.
This order marked a turning point in the German conduct of the war. On December 19, Brauchitsch resigned. His authority had been declining for months, and after December 6 Hitler had pushed him aside. He was not replaced. Influenced by a growing disdain for professional military men and by a desire to give the troops the feeling that they were backed by the fuhrer's will and guided by his genius, Hitler took over as commander in chief of the army. Before the end of the month the three army group commanders followed Brauchitsch into retirement, and several lesser generals were dismissed for having carried out unauthorized withdrawals.
Under the weight of the Soviet offensive the German spearheads north and south of Moscow quickly crumbled in spite of Hitler. Gaining confidence, the Soviet High Command expanded the offensive until the whole Army Group Center front was aflame, and Army Group North was nearly as hard pressed. At the end of December, a breakthrough on the north and a deepening thrust in the southern flank brought the Germans to an astonished realization that the Russians were attempting nothing less than to encircle Army Group Center.
On Jan. 15, 1942, for the first time in the war, Hitler issued an order for a large-scale withdrawal. He authorized Army Group Center to move its front opposite Moscow back to a line running north and south 85 miles west of the capital. The withdrawal was not far enough to escape the threatening encirclement, but it shortened the front and freed troops for the flanks. At the same time winter clothing, much of it donated by German civilians, began to arrive. After mid-January and until well into February, the crisis grew. Although Army Group Center regained some control on its southern flank, for weeks it was nearly helpless against the thrust from the north and barely managed to keep open its lifeline, the road and railroad running eastward from Smolensk. On the boundary between Army Groups North and Center the front was torn open in a 160-mile gap between Rzhev and Lake Ilmen. At Demyansk, south of the lake, two German corps totaling 100,000 men were encircled and had to be supplied by air.
Great as their successes were, however, the Russians lacked the military finesse to turn their opportunities to full account. The grand design, the encirclement of Army Group Center, was not executed. The Demyansk, Kholm, and other smaller pockets came into existence largely because Hitler refused his units permission to maneuver. By mid-February, the Soviet offensive had lost most of its momentum and appeared no longer to have any objective other than to gain additional ground and inflict random damage on the Germans. In the first week of the month, Army Group Center managed to anchor its front on the north around Rzhev, and in the second and third weeks fresh divisions began moving in from the west to narrow the gap to Army Group North. In March, the gradual German recovery continued until the spring mud and floods brought operations to a temporary halt.
Even though the first Soviet winter offensive was militarily inconclusive, it had tremendous effects. Soviet military prestige rose, and the two-year-old myth of German invincibility was shattered. Possibly even more important, the Soviet government acquired a firmer hold on the loyalty of its people on both sides of the front. Paradoxically, Hitler did not lose and perhaps gained stature among his troops. He had again demonstrated his talent for overcoming what appeared to be impossible odds. He had told his men to stand and fight, and they had. His will and the soldiers' spirit had met the test better, the generals were forced to admit, than military science could have done. For the German Army, the most tragic consequences lay in the future, when Hitler tried to make the system of rigid defense work against better-equipped, better-trained, and better-led Soviet forces.
German Summer Offensive of 1942
By the spring of 1942, Hitler had assumed direct and complete control of operations on the eastern front. He used the chief of the Army General Staff, General Halder, as his personal chief of staff. During the winter he had reduced the discretionary authority of the army group and army commanders. From his headquarters at Rastenburg (now Ketrzyn) in East Prussia he issued orders to the front by telephone and teletype. Meanwhile, Stalin, aided by members of the Politburo attached to the major commands, kept a similarly tight rein on the Soviet generals.
In a directive issued on April 5, Hitler outlined his plans for the summer. The German armies would regain the initiative along the entire eastern front but, aside from possibly taking Leningrad to link their forces with the Finns, would launch a full-scale offensive only in the south, toward the Don River, Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and the Caucasus oilfields. As preliminaries to the offensive, Army Group South was to complete the conquest of the Crimea, where the Russians still held Sevastopol and had acquired a large beachhead on the Kerch Peninsula during the winter, and eliminate a 60-mile-deep bridgehead around Izyum on the Donets River below Kharkov, also a legacy of the winter fighting.
The advance into the Caucasus, when it had first become a subject for concrete German planning in October 1941, had been considered an expedition to be completed in a few weeks. In April 1942, however, Hitler saw it as a decisive stroke. Not only would the Soviet oil-producing regions be cut off, but presumably by the time that had been accomplished, an even more important objective would have been attained--namely, as Hitler stated in the directive, "the final destruction of the Soviet Union's remaining human defensive strength. He assumed that the Soviet Union would sacrifice its last manpower reserves to defend the oil and, losing both, would be brought to its knees.
For Hitler and for most other members of the German High Command, the war in the Soviet Union had become increasingly a game of numbers. The Germans were waiting for the time when Soviet manpower was exhausted. As long as the Russians continued to expend men at the rate they had during the previous summer, fall, and winter, it seemed not to matter much where the German Army took the offensive. The Caucasus operation, however, appeared to present an opportunity to attain four objectives simultaneously. Before it ended, the human arithmetic could be expected to turn irreversibly against the USSR. If Stalin chose not to draw the proper conclusion and remained in the war, the Soviets would be doubly handicapped by the loss of oil and so could be conquered at leisure. Germany, on the other hand, would solve its greatest economic problem, the lack of adequate oil resources, and would also be in a position to carry the war into the Middle East.
The operation was to be carried out in stages. In the first phase, successive enveloping thrusts, beginning in the north on the Kursk-Voronezh line, would smash the Russian southern flank and carry the German front to the Don River. Then the attack would proceed to Stalingrad and across the Kerch Strait to the Taman Peninsula and strike into the flank of the Soviet Caucasus defenses. After the time and direction of the attack could no longer be concealed, Army Group South would be divided into Army Groups A and B. Army Group B, commanded by Bock (whose retirement had lasted only about a month), would open the offensive on the north. Later, Army Group A, under Field Marshal Wilhelm List, would attack along the line of the lower Don and into the Caucasus.
As of April 30, German casualties in the campaign totaled 1,167,835. For a time during the winter, battlefront strengths had been low in some sectors, but as spring wore on, men returning from hospitals and replacements refilled the units. In the regroupment for the summer offensive, Army Group B took command of the Second, Fourth Panzer, and Sixth armies, the first two being transferred from Army Group Center. Army Group A was assigned the First Panzer, Eleventh, and Seventeenth armies. For the first time the German allies Italy, Hungary, and Romania took the field in earnest, each providing an army. All three of these armies were deficient in equipment and training, and the Romanians and Hungarians would rather have fought each other than the Russians. The allied armies were expected mainly to lend substance to Hitler's claim that he was conducting a selfless "crusade against bolshevism and occasionally to provide cover on the German flanks.
Encouraged by the past winter's successes, the Soviet High Command also planned to take the initiative when good weather returned. It intended to keep the Germans off balance by means of local attacks at Leningrad, Demyansk, Orel, Kharkov, in the Donets bend, and in the Crimea, and so to lay the groundwork for another general offensive. In April, Marshal Timoshenko's Southwest Front began preparing the Kharkov operation, which embodied two enveloping thrusts, one across the Donets north of Kharkov and the other from the Izyum bridgehead south of the city. After encircling and destroying the Germans around Kharkov, his troops were to strike southwestward to Dnepropetrovsk.
On May 12, the Southwest Front attacked. While the thrust north of Kharkov gained some ground initially, it was quickly stopped. The attack from the Izyum bridgehead went well the first day and then rapidly lost momentum on the second. Timoshenko apparently realized that he had encountered an overwhelming buildup of German strength. With the support of his member of the Military Council (political commissar), Nikita S. Khrushchev, he appealed to Stalin for permission to stop the offensive. Stalin refused. On May 17, a strong German armored force, which had been assembled and was ready before the Southwest Front entered the trap, struck into the Izyum bridgehead from the south. Two days later, Stalin allowed Timoshenko to turn his units around and try to extricate them, but by then it was too late. On May 25, the ring closed, and in a short time the Germans eliminated the pocket, taking approximately 240,000 prisoners.
The planned Soviet summer offensive disappeared in the Kharkov debacle, and the Soviet government accelerated its diplomatic and propaganda campaigns for a second front in western Europe. The effect of the battle would have been greater if the Germans had been able to begin their own offensive immediately, but they were not ready. The Eleventh Army still had a mission to complete in the Crimea, which required another month. Sevastopol was finally taken by the Germans on July 1, after an eight-month siege.
Meanwhile, at dawn on June 28, the Second and Fourth Panzer armies opened the German summer offensive. They quickly pushed their way through the inner flanks of the Bryansk and Southwest fronts and advanced eastward toward Voronezh, reaching the outskirts of the city four days later and taking it on July 6. The Fourth Panzer Army then turned southeastward along the Don to meet the Sixth Army, which had moved eastward from Kharkov on June 30. The German armies again held the upper hand, but the first two thrusts, to Voronezh and east of Kharkov, which had been planned as great encirclements on the 1941 pattern, brought in less than 100,000 prisoners. Disappointed, Hitler on July 13 replaced Bock with Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs as commanding general of Army Group B.
The Russians had abandoned the rigid defensive tactics which cost them so many men in 1941. They were still far from having mastered the mobile defense: the Bryansk and Southwest fronts were badly mangled in the retreat, but they did get the bulk of their forces across the Don. In mid-July, the Soviet High Command organized the second phase of its defense. The headquarters of the Voronezh Front took over most of the Southwest Front sector on the Don, and Timoshenko assumed command of the newly created Stalingrad Front, which was composed principally of three fresh armies, two of them established on a line south of Kletskaya across the inside of the Don bend. The South Front, opposite Army Group A, was ordered to wheel back, pivoting on Rostov, to bring its front parallel with the lower Don.
Hitler had originally intended to execute a third encirclement inside the Don bend, which was to clear the entire line of the Don before the offensive was carried toward Stalingrad and into the Caucasus. On July 13, he changed his mind and ordered Army Group A, to which he attached the Fourth Panzer Army, to turn southward, cross the lower Don, and force the Russians back into a pocket around Rostov. In moving to the south, the Fourth Panzer Army passed forward of the line thrown up by the Stalingrad Front, leaving the Sixth Army to meet the two fresh Soviet armies alone.
Rostov fell on July 23 without producing the expected large numbers of prisoners. On the same day, Hitler issued a directive setting forth new objectives. He transferred a panzer corps from the Fourth Panzer Army to the Sixth Army and ordered the latter to clear the Don bend, cross the narrows between the Don and the Volga, and take Stalingrad. He also instructed Army Group A to fan out south of Rostov, clear the Black Sea coast, and capture the oilfields at Maikop and Grozny. At the same time, the army group would have to yield the headquarters, all of the heavy artillery, and about half of the divisions of the Eleventh Army, which were being shifted to the north to take Leningrad and so prepare the way for a joint German-Finnish thrust to Belomorsk to cut the Murmansk Railroad. As he had at the same stage of the 1941 offensive, Hitler was dispersing the German effort.
Army Group A was on the threshold of the Caucasus, but the distances were tremendous: 200 miles to Maikop and nearly 400 miles to Grozny. To reach Baku and Tiflis, the mountains had to be crossed. On July 29, the army group cut the last Soviet rail line into the Caucasus. Two days later, Hitler issued another directive. The Russians, he reasoned, could do nothing further to defend the Caucasus, but they could be forced to expend their last reserves defending Stalingrad and their lifeline, the Volga River. He ordered the Fourth Panzer Army to make a 180 degrees turn and advance on the city from the south. On the same day, two new Soviet armies joined the Stalingrad defense forces.
The German successes continued in August, but without bringing any major objective closer to attainment. East of Leningrad, Army Group North withstood a Soviet attempt to break the siege, but as a consequence had to abandon its own plan to take the city. Army Group A seized Maikop, but found the oilfield completely destroyed. A mountain company planted the swastika flag on Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus, but Soviet troops continued to hold all the passes. Two armored corps headed toward Grozny, but were slowed down and finally stopped for several weeks by gasoline shortages: the trucks making the long trip from Rostov were burning nearly as much gasoline as they could carry. The Sixth and Fourth Panzer armies closed in on Stalingrad from the west and south, but had to spread their forces thinly to cover their flanks and so lost their momentum.
At the end of the month, the eastern branch of German Army intelligence concluded that the Soviet Union had lost less territory and fewer men than it had anticipated on the basis of the 1941 experience and would therefore be able to conduct another strong winter offensive. In September, it reached the dismaying conclusion that Germany, far from winning the game of numbers, was perilously close to losing it. The total German and allied strength on the eastern front, excluding Finland was 3,138,000 men. The Soviet Union had 4,255,000 men either on the front or as readily available reserves. Moreover, the Soviet pool of draftable manpower was about three times greater than that of Germany.
Hitler now apparently realized that victory was slipping away from him and began looking for scapegoats. On September 9, in a minor dispute over tactics, he dismissed Field Marshal List as commanding general of Army Group A, and he also told Halder that he intended to relieve him as chief of the Army General Staff. For a time he also considered removing his most trusted military adviser, General Jodl. In one of the most unusual arrangements of the war, Hitler for two and one-half months took personal command of Army Group A, which he then ran from his forward headquarters near Vinnitsa in the western Ukraine 700 miles behind the army group front. On September 24, Gen. (later Col. Gen.) Kurt Zeitzler replaced Halder.
In August, to cover the lengthening front, Army Group B had placed the Hungarian Second and Italian Eighth armies along the Don below Voronezh. By mid-September, the Sixth Army had pushed the Russians into a bridgehead at Stalingrad 9 miles long and no more than 3 to 4 miles deep, but there for the next two months the Soviet Sixty-second Army under Gen. (later Marshal) Vasili I. Chuikov forced the Germans into a battle of attrition on a scale not seen since World War I. In early October, to gain troops for the fighting in Stalingrad, the Sixth Army turned its flank on the Don over to the Romanian Third Army. On October 14, Hitler issued an order terminating the summer operations except at Stalingrad and at several points in the Caucasus.
Second Soviet Winter Offensive: November 1942-March 1943
While Army Groups A and B marched across southern European Russia to the edge of Asia, the Soviet Union raised, equipped, and trained new armies in preparation for the coming winter. During the summer the Soviet Army carried through a reorganization that did not (as Soviet historians have since claimed) place it at the pinnacle of military science, but did give it the ability to operate effectively against weakened and overextended German forces. Beginning in 1941, the Soviet staffs, aided by the military academies and other special groups, had closely studied German tactics and operating methods. They had learned much and had not been purely imitative scholars. The defensive battles of the summer of 1942 already showed a great increase in flexibility and imagination. Armor had been released from its role of infantry support, and tank armies were being created. At the higher levels commanders had emerged--Zhukov was the best example--who had not only mastered the German tactics, but had adapted them to their own forces' capabilities and limitations.
The fall of 1942 also marked the culmination of a successful effort to establish a partisan movement behind the German front. Attempts in 1941 to incite partisan activity had produced only a mediocre response, but in the winter, when the whole northern half of the German front crumbled, the Soviet High Command was able to send recruiters into occupied territory and virtually draft a partisan movement. During the spring and summer the partisan detachments were drawn together into brigades and brought under tight control from the Soviet side of the front. By fall the movement was nearing its approximate maximum strength of 200,000 men, nine tenths of them operating behind Army Groups Center and North.
In August, General Zhukov and Gen. (later Marshal) Aleksandr M. Vasilevski had assumed direction of the coordination of Stalingrad's defense as representatives of the high command. The last of the strategic commands, the Southwest Forces, had been disbanded in the spring of 1942; thereafter, when conditions required broader direction than the fronts could give, temporary higher headquarters were established under representatives of the high command. Most frequently it was Zhukov who performed this function. In the first week of October, he perfected a plan for a counterattack at Stalingrad. A massive buildup during the rest of the month and the first two weeks of November raised Soviet strength around the city to 12 armies, including a tank army, under three front headquarters.
After waiting for freezing weather to create suitable conditions for overland tank movements and the Allied landings in North Africa to occupy the Germans in the west, the Russians opened their offensive at Stalingrad on November 19. The Fifth Tank Army attacked the Romanian Third Army north of the city and demolished its front in a few hours. The next day another force struck south of Stalingrad, achieving an even more spectacular success against a Romanian corps on the Fourth Panzer Army front. On November 22, the Soviet spearheads met at Kalach on the Don River, and the Sixth Army and approximately half of the German and Romanian troops of the Fourth Panzer Army (250,000 to 300,000 men in all) were encircled.
Two days before, Hitler had created a new headquarters, Army Group Don, under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, which he entrusted with the mission of rescuing the Sixth Army. Adhering to his fanatical resistance doctrine of the previous winter, he refused the request of Gen. (later Field Marshal) Friedrich Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army, to evacuate Stalingrad and break out to the west. On December 19, the Fourth Panzer Army under Army Group Don advanced to within 35 miles of the Stalingrad pocket, but Hitler again refused to permit the now badly weakened Sixth Army to break out of the encirclement. In the meantime, after smashing the Italian Eighth Army on the Don on December 16, the Russians had extended their offensive west of Stalingrad. They were clearly intending to move via Millerovo to Rostov and cut off Army Groups Don and A. Army Group A, which Hitler had placed under Col. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ewald von Kleist on November 22, was still in the Caucasus, its left flank 350 miles from Rostov. On December 28, Manstein was forced to order the Fourth Panzer Army to withdraw south of Stalingrad. Army Group Don was fighting for its own existence and that of Army Group A.
Early on the morning of Jan. 14, 1943, the Russians moved up the Don for the third time, this time to strike the Hungarian Second Army. The Hungarians collapsed even more quickly than the Italians and Romanians had, opening a 200-mile (320-km) gap in the German front between Voronezh and Voroshilovgrad. In another scythelike sweep the Russians turned southward to the Donets, threatening to envelop the German remnants of Army Group B and Army Group Don, which was still endeavoring to hold open Army Group A's lifeline to the west at Rostov.
On January 25, the Russians struck northward once more to hit the German Second Army, which was already withdrawing from Voronezh, and in three days they encircled two of its three corps. Hitler, who for a month had vacillated and discussed counterattacks to relieve Stalingrad, finally had to draw some conclusions. On January 27, he transferred the First Panzer Army to Army Group Don. Since this army was all that could still be removed through Rostov, the rest of Army Group A had to begin withdrawing into a large beachhead on the Taman Peninsula. This maneuver immobilized 400,000 men at a time when the entire southern flank of the eastern front was being shattered.
On January 31, Paulus, refusing to take the hint implicit in his promotion to the rank of field marshal the day before (no German field marshal had even been made prisoner), surrendered the troops that he still controlled in Stalingrad. A pocket around a tractor works in the northern suburbs of the city held out until February 2. On February 6, unwilling to risk another encirclement, Hitler gave Manstein permission to withdraw Army Group Don to the line of the Mius and Donets rivers, from which Army Group A had moved forward in July 1942.
In nine days, Army Group Don executed the retreat to the Mius. Meanwhile, the First Panzer Army moved to the army group's left flank on the Donets. But the Soviet offensive was still moving forward at full speed. The right flank of Army Group B was forced back to Kharkov, which it lost on February 14-16. A 100-mile gap opened between the flanks of Army Groups B and Don, through which Soviet units struck southward and westward across the Donets. Six Soviet tank corps forming the Popov Group, named for its commander, Col. Gen. Markian M. Popov, moved forward to sever Army Group Don's communications lines. On February 13, it cut the Dnepropetrovsk-Stalino railroad, and by February 19 it had reached the Sinelnikovo railroad junction 20 miles east-southeast of Dnepropetrovsk and had begun to turn southward toward Zaporozhe.
On February 12, Hitler had removed the headquarters of Army Group B and divided its front between Army Groups Center and Don, simultaneously redesignating the latter Army Group South. At the same time he ordered 7 divisions transferred from France and Belgium to Army Group South. A week later he ordered Army Group A to begin evacuating troops by air from the Taman Peninsula to reinforce Army Group South; 100,000 troops were transferred by the end of the first week in March.
On February 18, without waiting for the arrival of the divisions from the
west or the troops from Army Group A, Manstein initiated a series of maneuvers
that were to produce the last German victory of the war. He ordered the
headquarters of the Fourth Panzer Army to move to Dnepropetrovsk at about the
center of the gap
At the end of the month warm weather set in, and the question then was whether to continue the advance toward Kharkov at the risk of its being halted by the approaching thaw. On March 7, the weather turned cold, and Manstein decided to proceed. The Fourth Panzer Army moved rapidly to the north, and despite knee-deep mud on all the roads reached Kharkov on March 11. Seven days later, after mopping up the Soviet divisions trapped west of Kharkov, the army carried its advance 30 miles farther north and took Belgorod. Except for several bridgeheads, in which Soviet troops held on doggedly, Army Group South had regained the line of the Donets to Belgorod. Immediately to the north the Russians held a large salient west of Kursk.
For the past three years the coming of spring had heralded new German triumphs. The year 1943 was different. The victory on the Donets that ended the long winter retreat had restored German morale at the front, but not even Hitler deluded himself into believing that the next summer would see the swastika flag replanted on Mount Elbrus or German outposts again looking eastward into Asia from the high bank of the Volga. In the late spring there was an ominous quiet on the eastern front.
Since June 1941, German attention had centered in the east. In the early months of 1943, quite suddenly that, too, changed. Dangers which might have been overcome easily, had the Russian campaign developed according to schedule, threatened on all sides. In January 1943, United States Flying Fortresses staged the first daylight bombing attack on Germany. Thereafter bomb damage, particularly in the Ruhr, mounted alarmingly. A second Stalingrad had been in preparation in North Africa since November 1942. When the British Eighth Army broke through the Mareth Line late in March 1943, it became inevitable. That the British and Americans would follow their victory with an invasion of Italy or the Balkans was certain, and the day of the major test, the landing on the Channel coast, might come within the year.
On the other hand, the failure of Hitler's fanatical resistance doctrine during the winter had produced a substantial bonus. The long retreat from the Don, Stalingrad, and the Caucasus, as well as a voluntary retrograde movement which Army Group Center executed in February and March to shorten its front, had created surplus strength on the eastern front approximately equivalent to two armies. The disastrous winter had also forced Hitler to recall to active duty his tank expert, Guderian, and to appoint him inspector general for armor. By spring Guderian, working with Albert Speer, the minister for armament and munitions, had the new Tiger and Panther tanks coming from production lines by the hundreds. If another offensive in the style of 1941 or 1942 was no longer possible, neither was Germany helpless.
The most profitable strategy seemed to be to consolidate the so-called Fortress Europe and to exploit the Clausewitzian axiom that defense was the stronger form of warfare. Some of the generals proposed building an East Wall, a permanently fortified line across the USSR, but Hitler disapproved. He did, however, instruct Army Group North to plan an operation to take Leningrad and stabilize the northern flank by joining forces with the Finns. He also began reinforcing the Army of Norway to enable it to occupy Sweden if that country attempted to support Allied operations directed against northern Europe. Nevertheless, after nearly three months' hesitation, he decided that he needed one more big victory in Russia, a victory, as he put it, "that will shine like a beacon around the world. On June 12, he announced that he intended to execute Operation Citadel.
Citadel, a two-pronged attack to eliminate the Soviet salient west of Kursk, had been planned in March to be executed as soon as the ground dried and while the Russians were still off balance from their defeat at Kharkov. Bad weather and various mishaps, as well as Hitler's own uncertainty, had caused repeated postponements. By the time he decided to proceed, the German forces for Citadel were at peak strength, and so, as one of the generals pointed out, were the Russians.
Operation Citadel began on July 5. The Ninth Army on the north and the Fourth Panzer Army on the south struck toward Kursk across the base of the Soviet salient. For three days the attack went well, but on July 9 the Ninth Army was stopped before a heavily fortified ridgeline and stayed there four days. On July 12, the Russians, confident that they had taken the measure of the Ninth Army's offensive, launched a strong attack of their own against the front north of Orel behind the Ninth Army. The Fourth Panzer Army was then just beginning to gather momentum.
On the next day, July 13, Hitler called the army group commanders to his headquarters and informed them that he had decided to halt Citadel. The situation north of Orel was precarious, and he was concerned about a Soviet threat to the Donets Basin; but his greatest source of worry was Sicily, where American and British troops had landed on July 10. The Italians, he said, were not fighting, and it was necessary to create new armies to defend Italy and the Balkans. Troops would have to be removed from the eastern front. Partly to gain troops for Italy, and partly because the offensive opened by the West Front, under Gen. (later Marshal) Vasili D. Sokolovski, and the Bryansk Front, under General Popov, had already gone too far, Hitler was forced to yield his own salient around Orel, ending the German threat to Kursk.
GERMAN WITHDRAWALS: 1943-1944
Soviet Summer and Fall Offensives: August-November 1943
As the Russian campaign entered its third year, the world watched expectantly for the answers to two questions. Could the Germans recover from the effects of the winter battles for a second time and make another bid for victory? If not, could the Russians take the initiative without their old ally, "General Winter ? Citadel answered the first question, and the Soviet Army's subsequent performance erased the last lingering doubts inherent in the second.
After two years of war the Soviet Army was about to prove that it had completed its apprenticeship. It had developed tactics suited to large-scale offensive operations and had adapted them to its own limitations, which consisted primarily of a lack of initiative in the ranks and a frequent inability on the part of commanders and staffs below army levels to execute tactical maneuvers requiring precision or sensitivity to changing situations. The German blitzkrieg technique had delivered the decisive stroke with precision, speed, and economy of effort. The Russians, on the other hand, favored a broader lateral scope and more conservative execution. They adopted the breakthrough and penetration as basic tactical maneuvers, but they preferred to achieve the decisive effect by a series of relatively shallow strokes along the breadth of the front rather than by one or several deep thrusts. Although the Russians claimed that Stalingrad had supplanted Cannae as the classic encirclement battle, they did not employ the double envelopment as frequently as the Germans had. More often they were content with a single thrust or with parallel thrusts, the objective being to force their opponent back on a broad front rather than to achieve a deep penetration along a single line of advance.
On the morning of Aug. 3, 1943, in the sector from which the Fourth Panzer Army had launched the southern arm of the attack toward Kursk, the massed artillery of the Soviet Sixth Guards Army laid down a barrage of several hours' duration on the German 167th Infantry Division. When the artillery lifted its fire, 200 tanks roared into the German line, followed by waves of close-packed infantry. Before nightfall the German division was reduced to a few dazed survivors. Pouring through the gap, the Russians reached and took Belgorod on August 5. In another three days they had opened a 35-mile-wide gap on the right flank of the Fourth Panzer Army, giving them a clear road to the Dnieper River 100 miles to the southwest. On the same day, Manstein, the commanding general of Army Group South, informed Hitler that he lacked enough divisions to close the northern flank or to hold the long line on the Donets below Kharkov. He would either have to yield the Donets Basin or receive 20 divisions from somewhere else.
As he had on other occasions when confronted with unpleasant choices, Hitler avoided the decision by moving in an altogether different direction. He suddenly revived the idea of an East Wall, which he had rejected earlier. On August 12, he ordered construction started on a fortified line that was to begin in the south at Melitopol, run due north to the Dnieper River near Zaporozhe, follow the Dnieper to Kiev and the Desna to Chernigov, thence take a line almost due north to the southern tip of Lake Pskov, and, running along the west shores of Lakes Peipus and Pskov, anchor on the Gulf of Finland at Narva. While it appeared that in ordering the East Wall Hitler had accepted a general retreat on the eastern front as inevitable, subsequent decisions revealed that he actually intended to establish a barrier behind which the armies could not retreat and, since no work of any kind had as yet been done on the so-called East Wall, give himself an excuse for holding out farther east.
In the last two weeks of August, the Soviet High Command expanded the offensive to the south and north. Kharkov fell on August 23. To the southeast the Russians broke through on the Donets south of Izyum and on the Mius River line east of Snigirevka. In the last week of the month they penetrated the Army Group Center front in three places. On August 31, Hitler gave the Sixth Army permission to retire from the Mius to the Kalmius River " if necessary. Three days later, he took a second positive step, ordering Army Group A to begin evacuating the useless beachhead which it still held on the Taman Peninsula.
The Sixth Army could not halt on the Kalmius. During the morning of September 6, a motorized mechanized corps and 9 Soviet rifle divisions broke through on the boundary between the Sixth and First Panzer armies. The next day a tank corps slipped through the gap, and, leaving the infantry behind, the two armored corps moved westward. By September 8, they were approaching Pavlograd, 30 miles east of the Dnieper and 100 miles behind the Sixth Army front. On that day, Hitler allowed the Sixth and First Panzer armies to start withdrawing to the line on which he had intended to build the East Wall, from Melitopol to the Dnieper north of Zaporozhe.
By September 14, the northern flank of Army Group South was disintegrating. The Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts, and the Russians had a clear road open to Kiev. To the north, Army Group Center fared no better. The Second Army's front on the Desna, which was to have been part of the East Wall, was riddled with Soviet bridgeheads, and on September 14 the Russians began an offensive directed at Smolensk. The next day, Hitler gave the two army groups permission to retreat to the line of the Dnieper, Sozh, and Pronya rivers. In most places the retreat was already under way, and in the last week of the month it developed into a race with the Russians for possession of the river lines. At the end of the month, as the last German troops crossed the rivers, the Russians had five bridgeheads on the Dnieper between the confluence of the Pripyat River and Dnepropetrovsk.
In two and one-half months, Army Groups South and Center had been forced back for an average of 150 miles on a front 650 miles long. The Germans had lost the most valuable territory they had taken in the Soviet Union. In an effort at least to deny the Russians the fruits of those economically rich areas, Hitler had instituted a scorched-earth policy, but in the end even that satisfaction was denied him. Nearly all of the factories, power plants, mines, and railroads could be destroyed, but the Germans lacked the personnel to transport or destroy more than a fraction of the agricultural and economic goods.
The Dnieper affords the strongest natural defense line in western European Russia, especially when the battle is moving from east to west. Fortified and adequately manned, the Dnieper line could have constituted an ideal defensive position, but Army Group South was so badly battered that the river provided at most a degree of natural protection and a tenuous handhold. Of the East Wall nothing was in existence; much of the proposed line had not even been surveyed.
On reaching the Dnieper, the Soviet Army had attained the original objectives of its summer offensive. Ordinarily the shortening of the German front, the defensive advantages of the river, the lengthening Russian lines of communications, and the attrition of the Russian forces could have been expected to bring the two sides into temporary balance. But Hitler had sacrificed too much of his strength east of the river. In contrast, the Russians' numerical superiority had enabled them to rest and refit their units in shifts, and they reached the Dnieper with their offensive capability largely intact. Before the last German troops crossed the river, the battle for the Dnieper line had begun.
In the first week of October, the whole eastern front was quiet as the Russians regrouped and brought up new forces. To underscore the victories achieved so far, they began renaming the front commands. Opposite Army Group South and the Sixth Army, which had passed to Army Group A, the Voronezh, Steppes, Southwest, and South fronts became the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Ukrainian fronts.
On October 9, the Fourth Ukrainian Front launched 45 rifle divisions, five tank and motorized mechanized corps, and two cavalry corps against the Sixth Army's 13 divisions in the line between Melitopol and the Dnieper. Within three weeks it drove the Sixth Army back across the flat, dusty Nogai Steppe to the lower Dnieper. Hitler refused last-minute requests to evacuate the Seventeenth Army from the Crimea, claiming that the Russians would thereby gain airfields from which to bomb the Romanian oilfields. When the Sixth Army retreated beyond Perekop Isthmus, the Seventeenth Army was cut off, and in the first week of November Soviet troops gained beachheads on the Sivash Sea near the base of the isthmus and on the Kerch Peninsula.
While the Fourth Ukrainian Front was engaged below the Dnieper bend, the Second and Third Ukrainian fronts operating against the First Panzer and Eighth armies carved a bridgehead 200 miles wide and 60 miles deep on the river between Cherkassy and Zaporozhe. On the south the Third Ukrainian Front threatened important iron and manganese mining areas near Krivoi Rog and Nikopol, which Hitler was determined to hold at any cost. The Russians had taken a large bridgehead at the confluence of the Pripyat and the Dnieper in September. South of it, on November 3, the First Ukrainian Front broke out of two smaller bridgeheads, and three days later it took Kiev. During the rest of the month it drove the Fourth Panzer Army back west and south of the city, threatening to demolish the entire left flank of Army Group South. To the north the Belorussian Front forced the right half of Army Group Center back from the Sozh River. Around Nevel, on the boundary between Army Groups Center and North, the First and Second Baltic fronts made a deep salient in the German front.
December brought some relief to the German armies, which for a few weeks regained their balance and even managed to counterattack west of Kiev. By this time the best solution for the German predicament would have been to withdraw Army Group South and the Sixth Army to the next major river, the Bug (Southern Bug), but Hitler would not consider it. He talked vaguely of retaking Kiev and of reopening the Crimean front. Actually, German prospects were worse than they had been in the two preceding winters. Opposing 3,000,000 German troops the Soviet Army had 5,700,000 men and an overwhelming superiority in tanks and artillery. In the summer and fall offensives the Russians had repeatedly laid down artillery barrages heavier than any since the great battles of World War I. Moreover, the German Army faced two new dangers: its manpower reserves were rapidly being exhausted, and an Anglo-American invasion in the west within the next half year was nearly certain. In November, Hitler notified the eastern front that it would have to manage on its own resources until the invasion had been defeated. The danger in the west, he said, was greater than that in Russia, and he could no longer take the responsibility for allowing the western front to be weakened for the benefit of other theaters of war. He suggested that possibly the eastern front might trade space for time, but events soon were to prove that he was constitutionally incapable of adopting this course.
Offensives on the Outer Flanks
In the winter of 1943-1944 the weather, as always in Russia, became the third force in the fighting, but with a difference. The hard freeze which usually set in by mid-December and lasted into March did not arrive at all that winter in the south, and in the north it was frequently broken by thaws. Rain, sleet, slush, and mud tested the endurance of men and machines. Again the Russians had the advantage. They had sufficient reserves to give their troops occasional periods to rest and dry out. Their tanks, having wider tracks, performed better in mud than did the German armor. Their American-built lend-lease trucks ran through mud that hopelessly mired the two-wheel-drive German trucks. Both sides relied heavily on the light, high-riding one-horse panje wagon, the Russian peasant's answer to mud.
On Christmas Eve, the First Ukrainian Front drove two armies into the southern rim of the Fourth Panzer Army's front around Kiev, and the next day it developed a strong secondary thrust to the west. Either of these thrusts could ultimately smash the entire southern flank of the eastern front. The thrust moving southward, if it reached the Black Sea coast, would envelop Army Groups South and A between the Dnieper and Dniester rivers. The thrust moving to the west, on reaching the Carpathian Mountains, could be employed to drive the two army groups back against the Black Sea and into the Balkans. Considering the first thrust the greater danger, Manstein ordered the Fourth Panzer Army to concentrate on stopping the Soviet armies going south, but even that task was temporarily beyond the army's strength. By mid-January, the First Tank Army, spearheading the First Ukrainian Front's southern thrust, had gained 65 miles and was approaching Uman.
On Jan. 10, 1944, the Third and Fourth Ukrainian fronts opened a two-pronged offensive against the Sixth Army. By the end of the month, mainly because Hitler rigidly insisted on holding the mines near Nikopol and Krivoi Rog, the Russians had nearly encircled the army's main force in the angle of the front east of Krivoi Rog. Not until February 19, after the army had lost nearly all of its vehicles and artillery, did Hitler give it permission to retreat to a line on the Ingulets and lower Dnieper rivers.
In the two years that had elapsed since the first Soviet winter offensive, Army Group North had by comparison with the rest of the eastern front been almost stationary. It had yielded some ground on the right, but it had kept its line firmly anchored on Lake Ilmen. Below the lake the old Russian towns of Staraya Russa and Kholm had lain directly on the front since the summer of 1941. Even the breakthrough at Nevel in October 1943 was more significant as a portent of a possible Soviet drive to outflank the army group in the south than for the immediate loss of ground it entailed. South of Lake Ladoga the army group had fought three battles to keep Leningrad under siege and had held the Russians to a token gain of a few miles along the lake shore. From the Volkhov River to the Gulf of Finland the front resembled a World War I battlefield. It was a complicated lacework of trenches and shell holes, the result of two and one-half years' fighting in which gains and losses on both sides could be measured in yards. By January 1944, however, the stable front no longer reflected the actual condition of the army group, which had lost its best divisions through transfers.
On January 15, the Leningrad Front launched two strong attacks, one south of the city and the other from the pocket around Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov) to the east. On the same day, the Volkhov Front struck at Novgorod north of Lake Ilmen. By the end of the fifth day of the battle, the German front was disintegrating in all three places, and on January 19 the Soviet troops completed the liberation of Leningrad. Thereafter the entire left flank of Army Group North cracked. Hitler, concerned about the effect that a more extensive retreat would have on Finland, which was already negotiating tentatively with the Soviet Union, at first ordered the army group to build a new front line on the Luga River. This attempt had no chance of success, and on February 13 he was forced to order the army group back into the Panther Line, the Narva River-Lake Peipus-Lake Pskov section of the ill-fated East Wall. The Panther Line was the only major part of the wall on which substantial work had been done, and when the army group reached it on March 1, it held.
During January and February, Army Group South fought in knee-deep mud, sleet storms, and blizzards to keep its front together. The First and Fourth Panzer armies managed to halt the Soviet southward thrust northeast of Uman, but by that time the First and Second Ukrainian fronts, with Zhukov commanding as at Stalingrad, had encircled two German corps northwest of Cherkassy. Army Group South concentrated almost its entire tank strength to rescue the corps, and on the night of February 17 approximately 30,000 men, about half the number originally in the pocket, broke out. In the meantime, the left flank of Army Group South had been driven behind the 1939 Polish border nearly to Kowel (Kovel), Luck (Luts'k), and Dubno. At the end of February, Army Groups South and A held a weak but (for the first time since Christmas) almost continuous line about halfway between the Dnieper and the Bug.
Western Ukraine and the Crimea: March-May 1944
After mid-February, it appeared to the German High Command that the army groups on the eastern front had seen another winter through. Army Group North was retiring to a fortified line. Army Groups South and A were less well provided for, but after the breakout from the pocket near Cherkassy the Russians were not on the march anywhere, and anyone who wanted to overlook the fact that the Soviet armies had continued to move through an abnormally warm, wet winter could assume that in a matter of days--in a few weeks at most, when spring set in--the front would sink into the mud for a month or so.
Field Marshal von Manstein was not so hopeful. He believed that the Russians would attempt at least to advance another 35 miles and cut the Lwow (now Lvov)-Odessa railroad behind Army Group South's left flank. The signs were plentiful that they could resume the offensive if they wished. During the fighting in January and February, the four Ukrainian fronts had at no time brought all of their strength to bear, and their reserves, instead of declining, had grown enormously. By mid-February, the Soviet High Command had shifted five of its six tank armies to the area opposite Army Group South. Three of them remained in reserve. At the end of the month the sixth tank army also appeared. The American-built trucks, the wide-tracked Soviet tanks, and the panje wagons had proved their ability to keep an offensive rolling through mud.
On March 4, the First, Second, and Third Ukrainian fronts attacked. The First Ukrainian Front, the strongest of the three, struck due south from the vicinity of Shepetovka into a gap between the First and Fourth Panzer armies' flanks. The Second Ukrainian Front hit the Eighth Army's center east of Uman, and the Third Ukrainian Front drove through the center of the Sixth Army below Krivoi Rog. The Soviet offensive advanced rapidly through the mud. Except on the left against the First Ukrainian Front, the Germans usually lacked sufficient troops even to place temporary roadblocks in the Russians' way. In quick succession the Soviet spearheads crossed three potential German defense lines, the Bug, Dniester, and Prut rivers. In the last week of March, the whole First Panzer Army was encircled at Kamenets-Podolski and had to break out to the west. After gaining 165 miles on the three main thrust lines, the Soviet offensive halted in mid-April, leaving the Germans with a front which at its center was backed up against the Carpathians, and which they managed to hold only by utilizing, for the first time since Stalingrad, one Hungarian and two Romanian armies.
At the height of the offensive, on March 30, Hitler had called the commanding generals of Army Groups South and A, Manstein and Kleist, to his headquarters and had dismissed them. On the eastern front, he had explained, the day of the master tacticians was past. What he needed were ruthless generals who would drive their troops to the utmost and extract the last ounce of capability for resistance. The two new-style generals whom he appointed were Field Marshal Walter Model to command Army Group South and Col. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ferdinand Schorner to command Army Group A. A few days later, in a typical empty gesture, he redesignated Army Groups South and A as Army Groups North Ukraine and South Ukraine.
On April 8, almost as an afterthought, the Fourth Ukrainian Front launched an attack on the Crimea. The Seventeenth Army's front on Perekop Isthmus disintegrated in two days, and by April 16 the army was forced back to a small beachhead around Sevastopol. Until early May, Hitler had insisted on holding Sevastopol--to keep Turkey neutral, he said. By then the Russians had a clear field of observation across the whole beachhead to the tip of Cape Khersonesski. During four nights, German ships from Constanta, Romania, attempted to evacuate the army, but only about half of the 65,000 men on the peninsula escaped. Meanwhile, on May 9, Sevastopol was reoccupied by the Russians.
SOVIET VICTORIES: 1944-1945
Collapse in the Center: June-August 1944
In April and May 1944, it appeared, at least to Hitler and his closest advisers, that destiny might yet be made to bow to the fuhrer's will. Everything depended on whether the invasion in the west, to which the United States and Great Britain had committed themselves at the Teheran Conference (Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 1943), could be defeated. A victory in the west would release the approximately 45 percent of its strength which Germany had retained there while awaiting the invasion.
Hitler's luck and his ability to win against heavy odds seemed not to have deserted him completely. Despite the disastrous winter, he had succeeded in maintaining his determination not to weaken the western defenses for the sake of the east. In March, he had been forced to send several panzer divisions to the east, but by the end of April he managed to form new divisions to replace them. Thereafter he was as nearly ready as he intended to be, and the Russians helped him indirectly by giving no sign that they intended to do anything to make their allies' landing easier. German industrial output was still rising. Synthetic oil production reached its peak in April, and the Luftwaffe had about 40 percent more planes than it had possessed a year earlier. The production of tanks and weapons was sufficient to equip new divisions for the west and to replace some of the losses in the east. All in all, it seemed that Germany could await the next roll of the dice with some confidence.
By mid-June, the dice had been rolled, and Germany had lost. Beginning in April and continuing through May and into June, the United States and British air forces staged bombing raids that eliminated 90 percent of the German synthetic oil production. On June 6, United States and British troops landed in Normandy, and in the next several days the strategy that Hitler had carefully nurtured since November 1943 collapsed. The powerful counterattack that he had envisioned did not materialize. Because he expected a second landing north of the Seine, he refused to take troops from the Fifteenth Army, which was closest to the Normandy beachhead, and decided instead to draw reinforcements from more remote areas. Consequently, the invaders were not driven from the beaches, and the German forces in Normandy were forced to the defensive.
In the east, Hitler and the Army General Staff expected the Russians to renew their pressure against the southern flank, attempting to smash Army Group North Ukraine against the Carpathians and drive Army Group South Ukraine into the Balkans. For the center they predicted a quiet summer. To meet the expected attack against Army Group North Ukraine, they transferred a panzer corps from Army Group Center and so deprived the latter of more than 80 percent of its tanks.
Army Group Center held the last major stretch of Soviet territory left in German hands: Belorussia eastward to the ancient gateway to Moscow between Vitebsk and Orsha 290 miles west of the Soviet capital. On June 22-23, the Russians attacked--not Army Group North Ukraine, as had been expected--but Army Group Center. Vasilevski was coordinating the First Baltic and Third Belorussian fronts at Vitebsk and Orsha, while Zhukov coordinated the Second and First Belorussian fronts opposite Mogilev and Bobruisk. In three days the Russians had made deep penetrations along the entire front. Hitler, who was determined not to yield any more ground in the Soviet Union, refused to allow segments of the front still standing to retreat. The Third Panzer Army on the north lost contact with Army Group North and began to drift with the Russian tide. In the center the flanks of the Fourth and Ninth armies were broken through. By the end of the month, the First Belorussian Front had trapped and was destroying two thirds of the Ninth Army around Bobruisk. Only the headquarters and one corps escaped. The commanding general of the Fourth Army had taken matters into his own hands and ordered his troops to retreat, but the army had to make its way through roadless forests and cross the Dnieper, Drut, and Berezina rivers. The Russians on its flanks were moving faster, and on July 3 they closed the army's last escape route at Minsk. In less than two weeks, Army Group Center had lost 25 of its 38 divisions.
On June 28, Hitler had combined the command of Army Groups Center and North Ukraine under Field Marshal Model. He intended by this step to facilitate the transfer of divisions from Army Group North Ukraine to Army Group Center, but by that time the former was itself threatened and could not spare many troops. To gain troops the generals favored withdrawing the northward-jutting front of Army Group North from the Narva-Lake Peipus line to a short line between Daugavpils (Dvinsk) and Riga, but Hitler would not agree. He was concerned about the effect on Finland and the danger to the navy's submarine training ground in the Baltic Sea. All Model could do was to commit what reinforcements arrived, maneuver to gain the semblance of a coherent front, and wait for the Russians to lose their momentum.
In July, the Soviet offensive spread to the flanks. On the north the First Baltic Front drove into the gap between Army Groups Center and North toward East Prussia and the Baltic. On its right the Second and Third Baltic fronts forced Army Group North back to the Pskov-Daugavpils line. On July 29, a spearhead of the First Baltic Front reached the Baltic west of Riga and cut off Army Group North.
On the southern flank of Army Group Center the First Belorussian Front, powerfully assisted by an offensive which the First Ukrainian Front began against Army Group North Ukraine on July 13, developed a two-pronged thrust toward Brest (Brest-Litovsk). Late in the month, the First Belorussian Front carried its advance past Brest to Lublin and then turned northwestward toward Warsaw (Warszawa). The Russian point reached nearly to the Warsaw suburb of Praga on July 31. On the next day an uprising led by Tadeusz Komorowski (General Bor) broke out in Warsaw. East of the city, however, the Germans encircled and destroyed the leading Soviet tank corps, and thereafter the Russians left the Warsaw insurgents to their fate. While the First Belorussian Front devoted its attention to consolidating two bridgeheads south of Warsaw, the SS moved into the city, where after two months of savage fighting General Bor surrendered on October 2.
In August, the Soviet offensive subsided. Advancing as much as 350 miles in a little more than a month, the fronts had outrun their supplies. Army Groups Center and North Ukraine had been forced back to a line on the Vistula (Visla) and Narew (Narev) rivers and the East Prussian border, and the Russians held valuable bridgeheads across both rivers.
Beginning on August 16, Army Group Center launched a small counteroffensive that opened a narrow land corridor south of Riga to Army Group North. The respite was brief. On September 14, the three Baltic fronts began attacking toward Riga. When the Leningrad Front joined the offensive and on September 17 broke through at Tartu, Army Group North had to retreat to avoid being cut to pieces. At the end of the month the army group barely succeeded in escaping through the corridor south of Riga. On October 1, the First Baltic Front attacked due westward to the Baltic coast, which it reached near Memel (Klaipeda) on October 10. With that, Army Group North was cut off once more and had to withdraw into Courland (Kurland) west of Riga. It might still have broken out to the south, but Hitler insisted that it stay in Courland. He intended, he said, to open an offensive from there soon.
Operations on the Southern Flank
Although its front had been quiet, Army Group South Ukraine was badly
weakened by mid-August 1944. It had lost 5 of its 6 armored divisions and 4
infantry divisions through transfers. The Romanians, both troops and civilians,
were thinking increasingly of peace. On the morning of August 20, the Russians
attacked. The Second Ukrainian Front struck southward past Iasi, and the Third
Ukrainian Front pushed westward from two bridgeheads on the Dniester near
Tiraspol. On August 25, they trapped the inner flanks of the Sixth and Eighth
armies in an encirclement near Kishinev. On the same day, Romania, having
announced its acceptance of Allied armistice terms
The thrusts into Romania and Bulgaria automatically brought about the collapse of the German southeastern theater: the 300,000 Wehrmacht troops, organized into Army Groups E and F, who were defending the Adriatic and Aegean coasts and fighting partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece. Army Group E in Greece and Albania, after airlifting its troops from Crete and the other Greek islands, was forced to undertake a long and precarious march through the mountains of western Yugoslavia, which it did not complete until mid-November. Meanwhile, in September, the headquarters of the Eighth Army and the Sixth Army, using what troops they still retained, established fronts in the eastern Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps. Farther to the west the Hungarian Second and Third armies formed a line on the border. In the second half of the month the Second and Third Ukrainian fronts regrouped and began turning northward for an offensive into Hungary and northeastern Yugoslavia.
The Third Ukrainian Front began operations on September 28 with an attack from Bulgaria toward Belgrade (Beograd). Three days later, the Second and Fourth Ukrainian fronts, coordinated by Marshal Timoshenko, began driving across the mountains in eastern Hungary. Belgrade fell on October 20. On the same day, the Second Ukrainian Front took Debrecen, and the Germans evacuated Transylvania to escape encirclement. By the end of the month the Second Ukrainian Front was across the Tisza (Tisa) River, and the Third Ukrainian Front had turned northward from Belgrade along the east bank of the Danube, which it began crossing near Apatin. In November, both fronts launched attacks toward Budapest against stiff German resistance. (Troops from Army Groups E and F had reinforced the Sixth and Eighth armies.) The first Soviet troops reached the outer Budapest defense ring on November 8, but Soviet progress was slow for the next six weeks. Finally a thrust by both fronts, begun on December 20, completed the encirclement of Budapest on December 27. Two days later, a Soviet-sponsored provisional Hungarian government declared war on Germany.
Operations on the Northern Flank
Finland had gained its territorial objectives by November 1941, and after December of that year it had watched the war on the German front in the south with growing apprehension. The country was fortunate in that both Britain and the United States saw a certain amount of justice in its cause against the Soviet Union. At the Teheran Conference, President Franklin D. ROOSEVELT and Prime Minister Winston CHURCHILL had persuaded Stalin to offer the Finns a negotiated peace on terms that would leave the country independent, but after a first appraisal of the Soviet terms the Finnish government, in March 1944, had found them too onerous and rejected them.
On June 9, the Russians opened an offensive on the Karelian Isthmus, and in a month they had driven the Finnish Army back nearly to the 1940 border. The Finns were fortunate again in that a somewhat less than masterful Soviet performance, their own quick recovery after initial defeats, and German aid enabled them to keep the Russians from breaking into the heart of the country. On September 2, Finland appealed for an armistice, and on September 19 it signed the Soviet peace terms, which were oppressive but did not include a military occupation.
When the armistice went into effect, the German Twentieth Mountain Army still occupied Finnish Lapland north to the Arctic coast. After failing in 1941 to take Murmansk or to cut the Murmansk Railroad, it had settled down to positional warfare along the Soviet-Finnish border. Finland's removal from the war threatened to leave the army's southern flank dangling in a void. At first, Hitler wanted to swing the flank westward and hold northern Finland for the sake of the nickel mines near Petsamo, but later he decided to withdraw the entire army into the northern tip of Norway and then southward along the German-built coastal road. On September 6, the 200,000-man Twentieth Mountain Army began a four month's march across 500 miles of Arctic wilderness. In accordance with the Soviet armistice terms, the Finns attempted to disarm the Germans, but after several clashes in the south they did not interfere with the retreat (Finland formally declared war on Germany on March 3, 1945). The Russians, after failing to destroy the German corps stationed at Petsamo, halted their pursuit west of Kirkenes, Norway.
Advance into the Reich: January-April, 1945
At the turn of the year 1944-1945 the eastern front, bisected by the mountains of eastern Czechoslovakia, stood in the north approximately on the line reached in August 1944. In the south it followed the Czechoslovakian border to the west of Budapest and then veered southward along the line of Lake Balaton and the Drava and Danube rivers. In the north the Russians had bridgeheads across the Narew and Vistula rivers at Rozan, Serock, and Sandomierz. In the south they had encircled Budapest and had nearly reached the last German-held oilfield at Nagykanizsa. The routes to Berlin and the Silesian industrial region lay open across the Polish plain, but Hitler hoped that he could recover some of his prestige by a victory in the south. After Christmas he had transferred the 4th SS Panzer Corps from the Warsaw front to the front near Budapest.
Between January 12 and January 14, the First, Second, and Third Belorussian fronts and the First Ukrainian Front attacked. Exploiting the bridgeheads, each front achieved a complete breakthrough on the first or second day. The Second and Third Belorussian fronts went northwestward and westward against East Prussia from the line north of Warsaw. By January 26, they had driven a spearhead through to the Baltic coast east of Danzig (Gdansk), and they then began cutting up the two German armies to the northeast. The First Belorussian and First Ukrainian fronts moved westward from the front between Warsaw and the Sandomierz bridgehead toward the Oder River. After the first four days the breakthrough was so thoroughly accomplished that the Soviet armies could move in columns along the roads at speeds averaging between 20 and 25 miles a day. The First Belorussian Front bypassed Poznan on January 22, and by February 3 had drawn up to the Oder on a broad front 36 miles east of Berlin. A week earlier, the First Ukrainian Front had reached the middle Oder and established several bridgeheads. On February 8, it began attacking across the Oder north of Breslau (now Wroclaw), and by early March had cleared Silesia and had then halted on the Neisse (Lusatian Neisse) River line.
On the northern flank of the First Belorussian Front the newly created German Army Group Vistula still held a long front between the lower Oder and lower Vistula in early February. In the middle of the month the Germans attacked from that front into the rear of the Russians on the Oder opposite Berlin. The attack failed, and on February 24 the First Belorussian Front turned to the north. By March 10, it had thrown one German army back against the Baltic coast near Danzig, had driven through Pomerania (Pomorze) to the sea, and had cleared the right bank of the Oder to its mouth.
On the front in Hungary the Germans staged three attempts during January to relieve Budapest. The third, which began on January 18, penetrated deeply into the Soviet front but did not reach the city. On January 27, the Third Ukrainian Front counterattacked, and Budapest fell on February 13. In mid-February, Hitler transferred the Sixth Panzer Army from the Ardennes to Hungary, where he illogically insisted on attempting to regain the Danube line. The offensive began on March 6 and continued for 10 days without significant gains. On March 16, the Second and Third Ukrainian fronts struck back and in a little more than a week broke through on both sides of Lake Balaton. On March 30, the Russians crossed the border into Austria, and on April 13 they took Vienna.
Last Soviet Offensive
By April 1, 1945, Germany had been defeated. Silesia was gone, and the Ruhr was encircled. The output of tanks, artillery, and ammunition in the first quarter of 1945 was only about half the monthly average for 1944. From January through March, the Luftwaffe received between a twelfth and a twentieth of its requirements in aviation gasoline. The eastern and western fronts stood back to back with no room in which to maneuver. The war continued because Hitler was still in command, and he hoped for another "miracle of the house of Brandenburg, a collapse of the enemy coalition like that in the Seven Years' War which had rescued Frederick the Great from similarly desperate straits.
On the Oder-Neisse line the Russians in April regrouped the Second Belorussian Front in the north under Marshal Konstantin K. Rokossovski, the First Belorussian Front in the center opposite Berlin under Marshal Zhukov, and the First Ukrainian Front in the south under Marshal Konev. The First Belorussian and First Ukrainian fronts opened the offensive on April 16. Konev's armies achieved a complete breakthrough on the first day. The First Belorussian Front, heading straight toward Berlin from a bridgehead at Kustrin (now Kostrzyn) on the Oder River, was not so fortunate. It required two days to break out of the bridgehead and then was stopped again on April 21 at the outskirts of Berlin. In the meantime, the First Ukrainian Front had turned two tank armies to the northwest. By nightfall on April 24 they and elements of the First Belorussian Front coming from the north had closed a ring around the city. The next day, the Soviet Fifth Guards Army made contact with the United States First Army at Torgau on the Elbe River south of Berlin, and Germany was split into two parts.
Hitler had decided to remain in Berlin to the end. From his elaborate air-raid shelter he attempted to maneuver armies as he had in the old days. His first order, following the standard pattern which had failed so often in the past three years, was to hold the line and close the gaps. It was impossible to execute. On April 20, the Second Belorussian Front forced the Third Panzer Army from the Oder. By that time the Ninth Army was trapped between the flanks of the First Ukrainian and First Belorussian fronts. On April 24, Hitler ordered the Ninth Army to strike toward Berlin from the south and the Twelfth Army, facing American forces on the Elbe, to turn around and drive into the city from the west. The Twelfth Army managed to make the turn and reached Beelitz, 18 miles southwest of Berlin; there it was halted. On April 30, Hitler committed suicide, and two days later resistance ended in Berlin.
In the last week of the war the German armies on the eastern front all had one objective: to escape capture by the Russians. North and west of Berlin the Third Panzer, Twenty-first, and Twelfth armies succeeded in making agreements with United States Army commands which allowed them to pass through American lines. Army Group Center's Fourth Panzer, Seventeenth, and First Panzer armies were farther east on the upper Elbe River and in Czechoslovakia. After the unconditional surrender in Reims on May 7 (a second surrender ceremony was held in Berlin on May 9), they attempted a mass escape to the west but were stopped forward of the American-Soviet demarcation line, and nearly all of them, or about 1,000,000 men, passed into Soviet captivity. Some troops of Army Groups South, E, and Courland escaped in the last days, but most fell prisoner to the Russians. All told, the Russians took about 2,000,000 prisoners in the days immediately preceding and following the surrender.
In sheer material and human destructiveness the Russian campaign had no equal in World War II. The total German dead, either as battle casualties or as prisoners of war, probably numbered about 3,500,000. Soviet losses were at least twice as great and may have gone much higher without even beginning to include deaths among the civilian population resulting from German or Soviet action. That Germany lost the campaign can be attributed primarily to its being forced into a conflict of mass against mass which far outran its industrial and human resources. Unable from the first to compete with the Russians in expending human life, the Germans were eventually crushed by the weight of Soviet arms. After 1941, Soviet war materiel production quickly overtook and surpassed that of Germany. Additionally, the USSR received lend-lease aid, mostly from the United States, valued at over $11 billion. Among the more significant items were 409,526 trucks, 12,161 tanks and self-propelled guns, 14,000 airplanes, and 325,784 tons of explosives. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was able to commit more than 90 percent of its military strength against Germany, while the Germans were forced to retain a large part of theirs (35 to 45 percent in the years 1943 and 1944) in other theaters.
Earl F. Ziemke