Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

When Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, they did so with the goal of capturing beaches that would create serve as a “supply offload” point.  Of course, ultimate goal was to head east, free western Europe from Germany’s vise grip, and destroy Adolf Hitler’s regime.  What many of the boys running ashore that gray morning may not have known was that, hundreds and hundreds of miles to the east, the Red Army was planning a storm of its own, a complimentary assault to the west.  And it was scheduled to begin on June 22, 1944, exactly 3 years after the Germans began their conquest of Russia.

Much had changed on the Eastern Front in 3 years.  Moscow had been saved early on.  Stalingrad had been saved by a brilliant counteroffensive against General Paulus’ entrenched Sixth Army.  And Leningrad, after two-and-a-half years of siege, starvation, and suffering, was now back in Russian hands.

The Wehrmacht had been pushed back everywhere in the east, feeling the increasingly crushing weight of the vast Red Army that had finally gotten its act together, coupled with the overwhelming production capability possessed by the Soviet Union.  And the Wehrmacht was going to feel it again.

In the east, Germany fielded Army Group Centre with 1.2 million men in 63 divisions.  But in his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy gives the real score, and while it’s just a bunch of numbers, they boggle the mind.  “Facing them, the Russians assembled nearly 2.4 million in 168 divisions, 12 ‘corps’ – the tank formations equating to divisions – and 20 brigades.  For the first time they also had the newly formed First Polish Army – 4 divisions and 2 brigades.  The balance of forces was overwhelmingly in the Russians’ favour:  36,400 guns and mortars against 9,500; 5,200 tanks against 900; and 5,300 aircraft against 1,350.”

The Russians called it Operation Bagration.  It was the largest Allied land operation of the Second World War, and it began just two weeks after Operation Overlord and just one week after the largest ocean operation of the war (Operation Forager).

And just like Overlord (scheduled for June 5th), Bagration ended up being delayed a day.  But when the coiled spring was released, it let loose with the roar.  At 5:00am, the first shots of this massive counteroffensive were fired.  Every artillery piece along the front had been alloted roughly six tons of ammunition, and the rolling barrage they offered up to their German enemy was devastating.  It was followed up Katyusha rocket attacks, to which the Germans had been introduced at Stalingrad, and were terrifying in their randomness.  Probing attacks the previous day by company- and brigade-sized forces allowed the Russians to seek out German weaknesses.  In addition, an excellent deception campaign (much like the one waged on the Normandy coasts) had caused a lot of German armor to be moved away from the main attack.

So when the tanks of the Red Army smashed into the 450-mile front, they did so with a massive 7-to-1 advantage.  German resistance could do little but melt before the onslaught.  When Bagration ran its course in mid August (less than 8 weeks later), Army Group Centre had largely ceased to exist.  Total German losses are still unknown.  And the Russians had advanced more than 300 miles to Poland’s door.

After more than 3 years of occupation and brutal butchery, the Germans had been largely evicted from Red Army territory.

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If you remember way back to this site’s younger days, you might recall the discussion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Signed in August of 1939, it allowed for the disappearance of Poland, half of which went to Germany, and the remainder going to Russia.

But included in the pact was permission for the Russians to do as they pleased with the Baltic States…Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.  Of course, that permission didn’t come from any of the named countries.  Funny how that works sometimes.

Well, on June 15, 1940, Russia began cashing in on their end of the deal.  It actually began a little before that with accusations by the Russians that the Baltic States were sympathetic to the Allies.  They were followed by more accursations, this time that the Baltics were actually collaberating with the Allies.  On the 12th, the Russian government simply issued an ultimatum, demanding that the country allow Red Army troops to cross the border.  And on the 15th, the Soviets simply moved in and occupied Lithuania.

The following day, Latvia and Estonia would follow suit, falling victim to the bloodless war.

A little more than a month later, all three states would be absorbed into the Soviet Union.  And they would remain so for less than a year.  Then the Germans would come calling…

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin

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The Nazi-Soviet Pact (signed in August of 1939) is easily the most recognizable agreement between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.  I suppose that’s something of a surprise, since Adolf Hitler despised Russia’s Bolshevism and Joseph Stalin despised Germany’s National Socialism (and was paranoid of nearly everything and everyone else).  And it was that distrust that really made the Pact possible, as it was a way to create something of a buffer zone between the two (albeit at Poland’s expense).

But this certainly wasn’t the only agreement between the two countries.  Just days before the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, Russia and Germany signed an economic agreement.  The Russians would send food, raw materials, and oil to Germany in exchange for money and equipment.  In February of 1940, the economic agreement was expanded and became more militaristic in nature, as Germany promised to send blueprints for some of its military assets to Russia, receiving more raw materials (particularly oil) in return.

There were also secret agreements.  There was the secret addendum to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Germany gave Russia a free hand to do what it wanted with Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.  And then there was the secret protocol of January 10, 1941.  Signed by Vyacheslav Molotov (the Russian Foreign Minister) and Count von der Schulenburg (the German ambassador), this had nothing to do with economics, but returned once again to territory.

The “Sulwalki Strip” was a 25-mile by 50-mile strip of Lithuanian territory that was controlled by Germany.   The German government agreed to relinquish control of the area.  In return, the Russians agreed to give Germany 31.5 million Reichsmarks…sort of.  One-eighth of the money (3,937,500 Reichsmarks) would be delivered as raw materials, to be paid within 3 months.  The remaining seven-eighths (~27,500,000 Reichsmarks) were actually reductions in the payments that Germany was making to Russia as part of the expanded 1940 Economic Agreement.

So Germany gave up a little piece of land and, in return, got  more raw materials from Russia.  It also kept a sizeable chunk of change in its own coffers, money which would come in handy when they invaded Russia just six months down the road.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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I’ve been away from the keyboard for a couple of days…not lost in the Bermuda Triangle or anything, but just busy with “life” kind of things.  I feel like the last couple months have been rather scatter-shot around here, but the good news is the calendar has lots of stuff coming up.  In fact, between now and the end of the year, only 3 days are blank in the spreadsheet.  We’ll see how I do…in the meantime…

As the bitter cold of 1941’s December descended, the picture was pretty bleak for Russian citizens.  Leningrad was basically surrounded while the German armies pounded the city and waited for its inhabitants to starve.  The spires of Moscow were in the sights of the Wehrmacht, and the encirclement of the capital was halted only by exhaustion, the need for fresh troops and supplies, and the afore-mentioned bitter cold.

And on the 5th, the Soviets struck hard, launching a massive counterattack aimed at relieving pressure on Moscow.  Simultaneously, Red Army forces struck around Leningrad, hoping the stop the strangulation of that city as well.  It was there that the Germans were trying to finish cutting off the eastern approaches to the city.  If that could be done, then even a frozen Lake Ladoga would be of no use to the Russians.

Russian troops made for Tikhvin, which was located little more than one hundred miles southeast of Leningrad and had been taken by the Germans in mid-November.  Two days later, Tikhvin was largely surrounded.  Hitler had promised to deliver 100 tanks and more than 20,000 troops, but what the Russians actually encountered were a half-dozen tanks and exhausted men that were freezing.  In the face of impossible odds and with 7,000 casualties already lost, German Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb was left with little choice but to abandon Tikhvin to the home country.  On December 9, 1941, Red Army forces recaptured the town.

If light of how precarious the overall situation was for Russia, it seems a rather insignificant victory…it’s one town.  But it also reopened a major railhead and reduced the road route to Lake Ladoga from nearly 200 miles to just 60.  Trucking supplies over the frozen lake had now moved from the realm of “near suicidal” to “feasible”.

For the time being, the victory saved Leningrad.  Dmitry Pavlov, Leningrad’s food chief, later wrote, “Without exaggeration, the defeat of the German Fascist forces at Tikhvin and the recapture of the northern railway line up to Mga station saved thousands of people from starvation.”

In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes, “More than that, the counteroffensive which retook the vital junction at Tikhvin on 9 December 1941 was the first major successful counteroffensive against the Wehrmacht by any combatant in the Second World War.”

The fight for Tikhvin displayed the first chink in the armor of German superiority, and that made the battle a big deal.

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Colonel-General Franz Halder had a pretty stormy relationship with his boss.  Of course, if the guy who signed your checks was Adolf Hitler, you’d expect a few bumps between your yearly job reviews.  But Halder was a pretty capable battlefield tactician regardless of his boss’ assessments.  As he sat high above the bloodied plains of Russia watching his German armies slug it out with the Red Army, he voiced  his concerns with mounting losses in men and equipment despite the incredible victories.  The casualties needed to be reduced, he noted, “if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”

But so far, the wins just kept on coming.  Last week, I touched on the German victories at Bryansk and Vyaz’ma, but I didn’t really talk about just how massive those wins were.  Three Soviet Fronts had been brought to ruination by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre.  Of the 1,250,000 men that began the battles, and estimated 250,000 made their escapes from the two encirclements.  Which means a million Red Army soldiers were either killed or wounded.  To try to offer even a bit of perspective, the U.S. lost a little more than 415,000 soldiers…in the entire war…every theater.  Sixty-four Soviet divisions were destroyed.  In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes that “the Soviet loss of 64 divisions at Vyaz’ma-Bryansk and in the surrounding operations would have taken a population of 32 million – one-sixth of the pre-war Soviet population – to replenish.  It was a cataclysm.”

The situation would not immediately improve.

The Mozhaysk Defence Line was the Soviet Union’s “line in the sand”.  Situated just 125 kilometers (80 miles) west of Moscow, it was defended by three complete Soviet Armies plus 10 additional divisions of the People’s Militia.  If the Germans broke through, orders to begin the evacuation of Moscow would go into effect.  The Germans covered the distance between Vyaz’ma and Mozhaysk Defence Line in a matter of days, breaching it on the October 15th and triggering the evacuations in the capital.  On October 18, 1941,  Mozhaysk itself (located 25 kms further east of the Defence Line) would fall to the Germans.

It should be emphasized that these victories were not coming easily for Halder, his fellow generals, and their men.  German losses were extremely heavy, the lines of supply were now incredibly long (and prone to partisan attack), the soldiers and equipment were exhausted, and the weather was starting to turn.

But cooler weather didn’t cool down the Germans much.  Despite their difficulties, the collapse of Moscow appeared to be right on schedule.  Conditions would have to change, and soon, if Moscow was not destined to be overrun.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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The day after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa (their invasion of Russia), Russian dictator Joseph Stalin launched something of his own.


It didn’t involve a massive counterattack or armies or artillery or aircraft, which is pretty obvious because those things were busy being smashed to bits by the Wehrmacht’s three massive army groups, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s plethora of planes.  Stavka was a political-military war command that was designed “to effect the most centralised and flexible command of the Armed Forces in the conditions of the war which had just begun.”  It was peopled by the most capable Soviet military minds of the time (and the best available men still above ground after Stalin’s late-1930s purges).

And as June of 1941 rolled into October, that organization of “centralised command” had been reorganized twice and had witnessed the Germans roll over the western steppes of its homeland much like room-temperature butter is spread over hot toast.  The one constant was Joseph Stalin’s presence at the top.

This brutal no-holds-barred war, which halted for a bit after the Germans captured Smolensk in early August,  had fired up again as Hitler’s minions launched Operation Typhoon (the final push to Moscow, which we’ll discuss sometime), on October 2nd.

Little more than 100 miles west of the capital, the Germans were working their encirclement magic on the city of Vyaz’ma.  Lt. Gen. Konstantin Rokossovskiy was ordered to drop everything, turn over his command, pack up his staff, and make straight for Vyaz’ma, where five infantry divisions would be waiting for his counterattack orders.  When he arrived, not only were there not five divisions, there weren’t any…except the Third and Fourth German Panzer divisions, which proceeded to complete the encirclement the next day.  Rokossovskiy barely escaped.

Straight south (and further from Moscow), Bryansk was having a similar experience.

And now, on October 8, 1941, there was much to report to Stavka.  Much of the report was bad news.

Of course, there were the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk pockets.  Rokossivskiy’s Sixteenth Army?…the one he was ordered to leave behind?…it was in the process of being encircled as well.  And further south, Mariupol, a large port on the Sea of Azov, had fallen to the Germans.  As Marshal Georgiy Zhukov called the meeting of Stavka that morning gave the news, he said “almost all routes to Moscow are open.”  Stalin, Stavka, the capital, and the Soviet Union were in serious trouble.

If there was any good news for the day, it was the weather forecast.  The autumn rains had arrived, which would hopefully serve to slow the rapid German advance.  But that was pretty much it.  The Germans were once again looking unassailable…and the Russians pretty vulnerable.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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Our trip to Phoenix was good, though it ended quickly.  While I don’t much like to fly (and I’ve made no secret of that), the flights were quite smooth.  Our son is doing well…we got to see his apartment for the first time, and it’s pretty nice.  I really like the stark beauty of the Arizona desert, but the city is so large and busy that it’s hard to really do anything on our own (much less really enjoy the area) until we’ve spent a little more time there.  We’ll go back again, but for now, it was good to see him.

Let’s touch on a bit of history to get back into the swing of things.

As August of 1941 prepared to roll into September, it was hard to characterize Operation Barbarossa as anything other than a smashing success for the Germans.  One by one, the cities of western Russia fell to the forces of the Wehrmacht.  We’ve dedicated time to the capture of VitebskMinsk, and Smolensk in the course of all our discussions, and made mention of a couple others, like Kiev and Kharkov.  So those of you that are regular readers are well aware that the early months of this massive German “gamble in the east” were heady ones for the invaders.

In the north, Army Group North was bearing down on Leningrad.  Situated on the Gulf of Finland, this city of 4 million people was much more than a large Russian seaport.  As the place where the Revolution of 1905 began, it was also considered the cradle of the Communist movement.  And those two things made it a doubly important target for Adolf Hitler’s legions.

And even as the German Panzers approached the outskirts of the city, there was some doubt as to the next steps.  In his book The Siege of Leningrad (now approaching 40 years since publication), Leon Goure writes, “The stage was thus set for the final assault on the city.  But at that time it was by no means certain that such an assault would be made, because Hitler was unable to decide what to do with Leningrad once it was captured.”

Some of Hitler’s generals agreed, desiring that Moscow be the primary target and that Leningrad be left to wither in an encirclement.  Goure goes on to write that Hitler really wanted to avoid a direct attack on the city for a couple of reasons.  First, he believed the Soviet propoganda promising a bloody house-to-house defense.  He had already seen a teaser of that kind of warfare in places like Kiev, Smolensk, and Tallin, and it was costly in both men and equipment.  But second, the German dictator wasn’t really sure what to do with the city’s 4 million people.  He suggested forcing them from the city and allowing them to travel further east, but the Generals knew that was impractical.

As the Generals debated, the Army successes continued.  On August 30, 1941, the Germans cut the Leningrad-Ovinichi rail line and had advanced as far as the Neva River at Ivanovskoe.  The railroad was the last one out of Leningrad.  If people were going to get out of the city, it would likely be on foot.

For all intents and purposes, Leningrad was now surrounded.  The only open area was directly east of the city, towards Lake Ladoga, and the Germans were trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to get Mannerheim and his Finnish troops to take that area.  The Siege of Leningrad was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: The Siege of Leningrad – There are numerous worthy books on the Siege.  This happens to be the “grandfather” in my collection, so it gets the nod today.

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