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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I hope you all have had a wonderful 4th of July.  This is two years in a row that ours has been atypical (at least for July).  Last year, it was really cool.  This year was a bit warmer, but it basically rained all day.  Most of the fireworks displays around the area have been postponed until tomorrow, but the forecast calls for a bunch of rain tomorrow evening as well.  I guess we’ll see what happens.

Speaking of fireworks, the fight for Sevastopol in 1942 provided plenty of fireworks of its own.  The final assault, begun in June, was actually the culmination of a larger siege begun by German forces late in the preceding year.  In those heady early days of Barbarossa (heady at least for the Germans), the Wehrmacht had stormed into the Crimean Peninsula and (excepting the part that was bordered by the Black Sea) surrounded Sevastopol.  Then the super-cold winter of 1941 gave way to spring and the fight was on again.

As we discussed a month ago, this final battle also featured the largest guns ever used in conflict.  Massive 600mm and 800mm siege cannon may not have fired a bundle of shells, but the ones that were fired made huge explosions, like on June 6th when a series of projectiles from the 800mm Schwerer Gustav blew up an ammunition magazine.  But this was no ordinary ammo dump…it was the White Cliff and it was submerged in nearly 100 feet of water and protected by 30 feet of concrete.

Despite being heavily outnumbered (by better than 3-to-1), the Soviet forces resisted this final assault for nearly a month before finally collapsing.  On July 4, 1942, organized fighting in Sevastopol ended.  Isolated resistance and skirmishes would continue for a week, but General (soon-to-be Field Marshal) Erich von Manstein’s forces had seized the port.

Recommended Reading:  Barbarossa

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On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans.  The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.

Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal.  Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions.  And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.

Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th,  linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape.  In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk.  Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th.  If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.

The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing.  What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%.  More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action.  It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse.  As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command.  The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.

Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down.  But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.

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

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More than a year ago, we talked about Nikolai Baibakov and his work in keeping Russia’s vast oil supplies from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War.  His incentive, according to his boss Joseph Stalin, was simple.  Save the oil, save your life.  Lose the oil…well, you can probably figure it out.

By early 1942, Leningrad (in the far north) had already been under seige for months and getting supplies into that desperate city, particularly fuel, was difficult.  But in April, the Russian Defense Committee came up with the idea of an oil pipeline under Lake Ladoga, situated to the west and north of the city.

And with a stern directive from Stalin coupled with the knowledge of the “award” for failure, work began at a feverish pace.  In less than 2 months, on June 18, 1942, a tremendous technological achievement was completed and the pipeline became operational.  Nearly 300 tons of fuel per day were pumped through the underwater lifeline…not nearly enough for every need, but enough to keep Leningrad alive.

The idea caught on and, by September, the Volkhov power station was using an underwater cable to send electricity to the city.  And in August 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, Operation PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) was launched.  A pipeline was laid under the English Channel, pumping (as you might guess) about 300 tons of fuel per day.  Of course, more capacity would be added, increasing daily flows ten-fold.  But that was a couple of years down the road and, right now, the fuel to power essential services and the defenses of Leningrad was mighty welcome.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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Joseph Stalin really didn’t want to believe that his country was about to be invaded.  It’s somewhat strange that he thought this way, since he was just about the only one in Russia who did.  He had been warned by the Americans.  He had been warned by the British.  And he had been warned (repeatedly) by members of his own staff and his heads of intelligence.

As 1941 was just getting underway, the Soviet Defence Commissariat was raising flags about the increase in German troop strength near the Russian borders and the menace it raised.  On April 15th, General Zhukov’s intelligence chief reported that “A major transfer of troops…by railway, roads, motor columns and organised marches between 1 and 15 April, from the heart of Germany…towards the Soviet borders.”  By early May, the NKVD (a group we’ve discussed before) was warning of open military preparations in occupied Poland.  As May turned to June, there were more incidents of German agents dropping into Soviet territory.  If anything smacked of “impending attack”, these signs certainly did.

And still Stalin did not believe what he was seeing.  The British ambassador was called home from Moscow and took his wife with him.  When Zhukov met with Stalin, Chris Bellamy writes (in his book Absolute War) that “Stalin was by now in his most paranoid, unbending and unreceptive mood, convinced of British and German attempts to trap him into a war he was not ready to fight, and seeing ‘disinformers’, ‘traitors’, and ‘wreckers’ in every shadow.”  His fear of provoking the Germans reached the point that he ordered  his news agency, TASS, to send a message to Germany, reasurring them that the Soviets were still on friendly terms.

All the while, the Hitler’s Field Marshals and Generals were putting the final pieces in places for one of the greatest invasions ever attempted.  More than 150 divisions, with thousands of tanks, artillery pieces too numerous to count, and planes that blotted the noon-day sun were poised for action.

And on June 14, 1941 (just one day after TASS’s communique), more information arrived.  This time it came not from reconnaissance, nor from border patrols, nor from captured agents.  It came from the Red Orchestra, and that source packed a punch.  The Red Orchestra was, without question, one of the most successful spy organizations of the entire war.  Three different spy rings made up the Red Orchestra and each had a center.  There was one in charge of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Another ring was centered in Berlin.  The third (and most successful), the Lucy Ring, was run from Switzerland.  Its contacts reached into some of the highest echelons of the German government, including the Wehrmacht’s communications department and a communications officer in Army Group Centre, currently sitting on the Soviet border.  The information these spies transmitted back home was of impeccably high quality.

And on the 14th, they sent word of a confirmed invasion date…June 22nd.  This was not data to be casually tossed aside.  And yet that’s precisely what Stalin did, with a brutally coarse manner typical of the Soviet leader.  His generals had a grave concern bordering on panic, and did whatever was possible to make Stalin see beyond his own thinking, but nothing worked.

If the Red Orchestra’s information, which in numerous cases came straight from the German High Command, was tossed aside by Joseph Stalin, then no other information save the bombs and bullets and artillery shells would suffice, either.  It wouldn’t be the first time he ignored information dropped in his lap.

Recommended Reading:  The Red Orchestra – I read this in college as an assignment for a military history class, and found it fascinating.  If you can locate a copy, check it out.

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When the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, they did so with more than 180 divisions and numerous objectives.  Among them were the city Leningrad (which was nearly captured), Moscow (also nearly captured), and the naval port of Sevastopol.  And of the those three, Sevastopol may be the least familiar, so we’ll spend a couple of minutes there.

Located on the very tip of the Crimean Peninsula, Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, and was an incredibly important objective for the Wehrmacht to capture.  Within four months of Barbarossa’s launch, General Erich von Manstein’s forces had conquered most of the Crimea and, by mid-November, had surrounded the port…well, sort of.  The Germans had cut off all land access to Sevastopol, though ships and submarines could still sail through a gauntlet of German aircraft to reach the port.

Like Moscow, the winter of 1941 saw a Soviet counteroffensive that succeeded in gaining back some territory and halting the German advance.  But the spring brought renewed fighting and, with the Germans capturing the Kerch Peninsula in May of 1942, von Manstein again turned his attention to the port, which he considered to be the strongest fortress in the world.  He piled up 9 Divisions of the Eleventh Army into a 35-mile perimeter, hundreds of artillery pieces, and Wolfram von Richthofen’s entire Luftflotte 4 to put a pounding on the roughly 100,000 Red Army soldiers still hanging on.

But that wasn’t all.  In a 4-year war full of extreme and excess, Thor came on the scene.  Thor was a 600-mm gun and Manstein had 3 at his disposal.  If that wasn’t big enough, there was the Schwerer Gustav, and 800mm gun (that’s 31.5″ for you battleship fans).  Weighing 1,350 tons, it was moved into position on special railcars pulled by 60 locomotives.  It could fire a 7-ton armor-piercing shell more than 20 miles.  It truly was overkill as aircraft could now carry bombs of a similar size, but seeing that gun in the distance through a powerful set of field glasses must have been a most sobering view.

Throughout May, Manstein’s forces coiled themselves tight.  On June 2, 1942, they were released in a deafening roar as the cacophony of a massive 5-day air and artillery bombardment began.  The final push by the Germans to capture Sevastopol had begun.

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

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“Fortress Stalingrad” had a grandiose sound to it, but the title was deceiving.  German General Friedrich Paulus knew that his 6th Army was in serious trouble.  What a difference 5 days made!  Back then he believed his Soviet enemies had their backs against the proverbial wall and that Stalingrad was nearly his.

But a massive Soviet counterattack was rapidly changing the situation.  Launched in the dim morning hours of November 19th, Operation Uranus crashed into the weakened German flanks with devastating effect.  By the end of that first day, the Romanians (manning the flanks) had suffered more than 55,000 casualties.  The next day saw the 1st Romanian Armoured Division eliminated and the 22nd Panzer Army badly mauled.

The flanks largely collapsed, leaving the Soviets only modest resistance on their path to encirclement.  Paulus, seeing a horrific disaster unfolding to his back (the west), released his own 3 Panzer divisions, but a lack of fuel and ammunition – keep in mind that supply lines, which were incredibly long, came from the west – made their efforts much less effective.

On November 23, 1942, Paulus’ nightmare became reality when Soviet forces, which had stepped off from both north and south of the city, met up at Sovietskiy, 30 miles west of Stalingrad.  The encirclement, although tenuous, was complete.  What was left of the Romanian Third Army (more than 25,000 men) was forced to surrender…the Romanians suffered nearly 90,000 total casualties in four days of brutal fighting.

Inside the pocket lay Stalingrad, General Paulus, and his forces.  They comprised remnants of the Romanian Fourth Army, the Fourth Panzer, and (of course) the German Sixth Army…nearly 270,000 men.  It was at this point that Paulus stood his best chance of escape from his “trap on the Volga”.  Soviet forces had yet to consolidate their positions, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was pushing to reinforce the destroyed flanks, and Paulus still commanded a formidable force with substantial artillery.  A breakout, while not anything close to victory, would have prevented certain destruction.

But it was at this point that the German High Command did itself in.  Hermann Goering foolishly boasted that his Luftwaffe could keep Fortress Stalingrad supplied from the air…even though Wolfram von Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet only had half the aircraft it needed.  And Adolf Hitler, blinded to all reality but the now vanishing hope of capturing Stalingrad, bought Goering’s plan and ordered Paulus to hold his ground.  One can almost hear Goering’s arrogant assurance and the remaining Generals giving each other those fleeting glances of dismay.

However, in speaking of the German failures, one should not minimize Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s genius in launching Uranus.  I’ve mentioned Chris Bellamy’s book Absolute War on several occasions, and he is effusive in his praise…and rightly so.

He writes, “Along with the Carthaginians’ encirclement and annihilation of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, Zhukov’s destruction of the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939, and Schwarzkopf’s Hail Mary of 1991, it was from a purely military point of view one of the greatest encirclements of history.  But its staggering scale, in spatial and human terms, especially given the very thin margins available to the Soviet High Command, and its strategic and political consequences must make it the greatest encirclement of all time.”

Experts may argue over the “greatest”, but the Soviet linkup at Sovietskiy set in motion the most significant defeat in the 4-year Russo-German war…probably the biggest defeat for Germany in the entire war.

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Case Blue, launched in late June of 1942, got off to a smashing start for both the Soviets and the German aggressors…sort of.  The Red Army got smashed a lot, and the Wehrmacht did a lot of smashing.

By mid-August, the Germans were knocking on the doors of Stalingrad, having reached the Volga River north of the city.  The Soviet armies, having spent a couple of months retreating to avoid the dreaded encirclement, now had their backs to a river a mile wide.

At this point, the fighting degenerated into a meat-grinder house-to-house battle.  General Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army drove into, and largely through, the city, with elements reaching the Volga to fire at the forces staged on the far side.  But Paulus and his men, while fully ensconced in the city, could not break through.

As the August heat gave way to the inevitable October cooldown, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov began preparing a massive counterattack.  Codenamed Operation Uranus, it involved a double encirclement, with large forces attacking across the Volga to both the south and north of Stalingrad.

The ultimate goal was to drive through the German flanks (protected by 170,000 Romanian troops) and trap the German 6th Army in the city.  But it was a massive undertaking to move the requisite men and supplies into place while still maintaining some form of secrecy.

General Paulus recognized that his flanks were weak and over-exposed and, on November 17, 1942, German reconnassaince discovered what appeared to be a Soviet buildup northwest of the city.  But still his troops were slashing the remnants of decimated Soviet 62nd Army.  The German press said that the battle for Stalingrad was in its final phase…

…until November 19, 1942.  At 7:30am, Uranus was launched with a massive artillery barrage.  More than a million men, nearly 1,500 tanks, and 900 aircraft crashed into Paulus’ Romanian flanks.  The Romanians put up a valiant effort, but were simply overwhelmed.

Zhukov’s Operation Uranus was a brilliant counterstroke, catching an over-extended army trapped in the rubble of a city.  What’s more, Paulus’ Sixth Army wasn’t allowed to retreat from their positions, forced to hold Stalingrad by Hitler, who had become obsessed with the river-side city.  In less than a week, the German Army would go from “the verge of victory” to trapped.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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When Operation Citadel was abandoned by Adolf Hitler in July of 1943, it left in its wake the scattered bit of destroyed aircraft, the hulks of thousands of tanks, the burned out remains of more artillery pieces, and the still, quiet corpses of even more Russian and German soldiers.

While not marking the eastern-most advance of Germany’s territorial conquests (those honors go to places like Stalingrad and Moscow), it certainly was the last best chance the vaunted Wehrmacht had to push eastward.  When Citadel ended near the city of Kursk, the Germans would be, for the next two years, steadily drifting west.  The city of Kharkov (south of Kursk) was wrested from German hands six weeks later (toward the end of August), and the Russian advance picked up some momentum.

Somewhat more than 200 miles to the west of Kursk lies Kiev, the Ukranian capital and, at the time, the 3rd-largest city in the Soviet Union.  Two months after retaking Kharkov, the Russians armies were on the cusp of again taking ownership of Kiev.

To the south, Soviet forces were struggling with difficult terrain and well-deployed German defensive positions, and it was believed that a stronger push to the north (around Kiev) might either draw off German guns from the south or allowed those forces to be encircled.

On November 1st, the Soviet 38th Army attacked Kiev (part of the 1st Ukranian Front, comprising nearly three-quarters of a million men), which was occupied by the 4th Panzer Army.  On the 3rd, a massive artillery bombardment (partially using pieces quietly moved from the south) rained down on the Germans, and the Soviet 60th Army entered the fray, supported by heavy firepower from the air.

The Germans were simply overwhelmed and, with their heavy casualties and equipment losses, could do little to stop the onslaught.  It was time to get out of town.  But, as is so often the case in war, the exiting army took time to destroy whatever valuables they could find.

So when the Soviets retook Kiev on November 6, 1943, the city was a smouldering wreck and most of the city’s vast collection of antiquities were nothing more than shattered and burned memories.

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

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The early days of Operation Barbarossa were heady ones for the German Wehrmacht, and hapless ones for their Red Army opponents.  The Soviet military had been caught in a pretty bad state of preparation by the well-oiled machine that was their enemy, and they could do little but fall back, die, or surrender.

The small city of Vitebsk fell rather quietly on July 11th, less than 3 weeks after hostilities had begun.  Situated about 250 miles straight west of Moscow, Vitebsk was (at the time of the Second World War) a modest-sized town or small city.  But it played host to a significant Jewish population.  Those unable to escape the German nets were rounded up and placed in a “ghetto district” inside the town, and there they lived for several months…in pretty lousy conditions.

It doesn’t take a doctor’s skills to realize that, once the weather turned, bad things would start to happen.  All these people, in overcrowded conditions, with a poor diet, suspect hygiene, and a dearth of medical supplies, would serve to become a breeding ground for disease.

The Germans recognized this, although they somehow overlooked the fact that it was they who were the creators of the ghetto and its conditions.  And while they did nothing to prevent this from happening, they were the first to take action after the fact.

Keep in mind that while there was some sickness and malnutrition in the Vitebsk Ghetto, it certainly hadn’t reached epidemic proportions or even become a serious problem…at least not in the sources I consulted.

So the Germans responded to the potential problem by increasing the food supplies to the Ghetto, by sending in medical teams to treat disease, and providing additional clothing to the Jews living there.

That’s what you’d like me to write…but I can’t.

On October 8, 1941, the Germans (using the pretext of squalid living conditions and rampant disease) began the systematic liquidation of the Vitebsk Ghetto.  Over the next three days, at least 16,000 Jews would be removed and taken to the Vibte River outside of town, where they were shot and dumped.

When we consider the Holocaust, we often think of the concentration camps and the prisoners clad in stripes, their hollow faces peering from behind barbed wire.  Or we think of the death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, with their grisly “hospitals”, gas chambers, and ovens.  But there were dozens of these “smaller” atrocities carried during of the Third Reich.

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

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If ever there was a city that experienced the changing fortunes of warfare, it is Kharkov.  Today, it’s the second largest city in the Ukraine.  During the Second World War, it was a Soviet-German battleground no less than 5 times.

In 1941, it was captured in late October by the Wehrmacht in that early onslaught we remember so well.  In April of 1942, the Soviet Army (as part of their successful winter offensive) established a beachhead on the west side of the Donets River near Izyum and prepared an attempt to recapture  would launch an attack against Kharkov.  This attack, launched in May, ended in disaster as Friedrich Paulus’ forces surrounded the attackers and the Soviets lost a quarter of a million men in roughly two weeks.

When Stalingrad fell from Germany’s grasp in early 1943, the Soviets used that victory as a springboard and continued westward from the Volga, recapturing Kharkov in February.  And then Erich Von Manstein’s Panzers would again smash against the city, retaking it just a month later.

If you’re getting the idea that living as a citizen in the Kharkov between 1941 and 1943 warranted “hazardous-duty” pay, you’re not far from the truth.

But war would come to the city one last time.  When the Germans launched Operation Citadel in July of 1943, they did so believing they could encircle, trap, and wipe out large numbers of Soviet forces around the city of Kursk.  They were wrong.  The Soviet tactic of layering their defenses served to wear down the German attackers to the point that Citadel had to be cancelled.  But the Soviets didn’t cancel anything this time.

The Soviets quickly took the offensive and began pushing the Germans back to the west.  And as July rolled into August, Kharkov was again the center of attention.  Though facing a tenacious opponent, the Soviet armies were the stronger at this point, and Kharkov fell, this time for the last time, to the home team on August 23, 1943.

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It wouldn’t right to have talked about the Battle of Kursk without at least mentioning its final, and most memorable, engagement.  If you recall, Operation Citadel (as the Germans called it) had begun the previous week, and was Germany’s attempt to straighten out the westward loop in its front lines.

The Russian strategy was to layer its defenses, so that as the Germans broke through a line, the defeated forces would simply retreat to reinforce the next line situated a couple miles further back.  This tactic had a distinct effect on German morale as the days passed.  With each breakthrough, the Germans would be excited at the prospect of an upcoming flanking move that would complete the encirclement of the Kursk salient.  And then they’d run smack dab into another line, and the process would begin anew.  It was frustrating to say the least.

But on July 12, 1943, both sides engaged the offensive in what has come to be known as the largest single tank battle in history.  South of the Kursk lies the town of Prokhorovka.  At 7:00am, the German 2nd SS Panzer Corps (with some help from the 48th Panzer Corps) launched to the north towards Prokhorovka.  Two hours later, the Russians began one of their first offensive actions, sending the 69th Guards Army and the 5th Guards Tank Army south.  I know this kind of sounds like a “2 versus 2” battle, but each group mentioned was actually a multi-division force…these were big groups.  This single battle involved nearly 2,000 tanks.

Initial attacks were blunted (on both sides) by tenacious close air support, but the Russians got the worst of it.  Their aircraft were so busy attacking German tanks that they pretty much ignored incoming German aircraft.  Those planes, armed with 37mm flak cannons, wreaked havoc among the Russian tank formations.  And German artillery was devastating.  As the morning ended, hundreds of Russian tanks were smouldering wrecks.

Had the Russians not committed to a massive attack, but rather held to a defensive posture, their losses would have been greatly minimized.  But anyone that studies the Soviet side of World War II knows that keeping losses at a minimum was low on the priority list.

At any rate, the Germans didn’t accomplish their goals either.  So the Battle of Prokhorovka pretty much ended in a draw, with the Russians sustaining far heavier casualties and losses in equipment.  The outcome also convinced Hitler that this battle wasn’t worth continuing, so he called off Citadel the next day.

Furthermore, the Allied invasion of Sicily just two days before had caused Hitler to make another rash decision, pulling a couple crack Panzer Divisions out of the Kursk battle and sending them south towards Italy.

At full strength, the Germans may have had a little chance to break through the Russians, but we’ll never know for sure.  Operation Citadel was really the last major German offensive in Russia, which makes the Battle of Prokhorovka one of the last offensive battles.  From here on out, it was pretty much a retreat.

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

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I came across the story of Alexander Gorovets some time ago in a book I was reading.  But of course, I didn’t write down which book, so when it came time to talk about him, I had lost my main reference.  I figured an Internet search would turn up all the info I needed.  I was wrong…and when I started reading what itty-bitty crumbs were available, some of the facts were different from what I had remembered.

Then I got frustrated and did some more digging through the books I’ve recently had open…nothing.  I looked through some magazines…not a word.  So…what to do?  I’ve decided to tell you the basic story, because it’s constant, then let you decide on the details…or point me to the proper answers.  It’s a two-way version of Today’s History Lesson.

We mentioned the Battle of Kursk yesterday and its heavy concentration of ground-based firepower.  Kursk is best known for its tank warfare, and that’s good, because it was easily the largest tank battle in warfare’s long history.  But there were nearly as many planes in the air as there were tanks on the ground.  And that’s where our subject comes into the picture.

On July 6, 1943, the Lieutenant was flying over the battle when he spotted 20 Junkers Ju-87 Stukas.  The Stuka was, in WWII, just about the closest thing to a “precision” bomber in existance.  Though by 1943, it was clearly outdated as any kind of fighter, it was deadly in its “tank plinking” role.  Carrying a single 500-pound bomb under the fuselage, it was devastating to armor.  Gorovets knew that 20 of them could easily destroy 20 tanks.  And so he attacked.

And on the ground, Russian infantry were able to watch in amazement as Alexander slashed through the Stukas, downing one, then a second, then two more, and then another.  The Stukas simply couldn’t fight with the additional bomb weight.  And so they jettisoned their bombs and scattered for safer territory.  But before they could escape, Lt. Alexander Gorovets had single-handedly destroyed 9 of them…and then his guns ran dry.

But while his fame was just beginning (he would be named a Hero of the Soviet Union), Alexander’s life was nearly over.  Returning to base, he was jumped by a 4-ship of Focke-Wulf Fw-190’s.  Low on fuel and with no ammunition for defense, the hunter became easy prey, and Gorovets was shot down and killed.

None of that is disputed.

Here’s my confusion.  My notes indicated that our hero was flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra.  The Airacobra (shown on the left) was a U.S. mark, sent to Russia as part of Lend-Lease.  It was a capable (though not outstanding) fighter that probably achieved its greatest success in the hands of Russian pilots.  But all other sources state that Gorovets was flying a Russian-made Lavochkin La-5 (shown on the right), a very capable aircraft on par with the Focke-Wulfs that shot him down.

Anyways, Gorovets’ achievements were remarkable, regardless of which plane he was flying.  I just wish I could find that reference to him flying a P-39.  If any of you ever come across it…

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The spring of 1943 saw a growing disquiet among Germany’s Generals and Field Marshals.  North Africa had been lost, and an invasion of Italy via Sicily was looking more and more like a possibility.

In the east, Stalingrad, after nearly being captured, had been lost, together with nearly a million men and massive amounts of equipment.  The tactics of Blitzkrieg, so successful against smaller countries, were vastly more difficult to execute in a country the size of Russia, where there was lots of “room for error” and plenty of time for the opposition to learn and adapt.

But in spite of all this, there was still reason for Teutonic optimism.  The Germans still had a solid front that ran from Leningrad and the Baltic Sea in the north to Rostov and the Black Sea in the south.  If you can find those two points on a map and draw a line between them, you essentially have the line of demarcation.

But towards the south, there was a curious depression in the line that looped to the west around the city of Kursk.  It became even more pronounced when Field Marshal Erich von Manstein recaptured Kharkov in March.  It was quickly decided to straighten the line, capture Kursk (and a bunch more Russians), and then make a concerted move toward the Don River.

The offensive, originally set for early May, was postponed numerous times and the reasons were all legitimate.  First, there were newer, more powerful tanks just starting to roll off the assembly line.  The Tiger and the Panther, both serious upgrades over the current marks, would clearly make a difference around Kursk, where the flat terrain was ideally suited for mechanized warfare.  And then the fall of Africa caused attention to be diverted as it was assumed that Italy would be invaded.

By the time all was said and done, March (when Kharkov was lost) had become early July.  This was particularly good news for the Russians, because they had access to the same maps as their counterparts.  And they could see the same salient around Kursk.  And they could pretty much guess the next target.  And espionage groups were giving them lots of good information.  And they were now experienced in Blitzkrieg warfare.  And they knew how to respond.

The area around Kursk became one of the most heavily defended places on the planet.  The Russians placed 1.3 million men in the salient, along with 3,600 tanks and nearly 3,000 aircraft.  Civilians helped bury a million anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.  Artillery pieces were everywhere.  The Russian plan was to give ground slowly, avoid the Blitzkrieg “pincer and encirclement” tactics, and simply grind down their German opponents before striking.

And on July 5, 1942, the Germans got an unpleasant 2:00am “wake up call” as the Russians unleashed a massive artillery bombardment (though they didn’t move forward).  The Germans now knew that the Russians knew what was coming…and that was probably a pretty bad feeling.  At 5:30am, the Germans (after collecting their wits), launched Operation Citadel with nearly a million men, more than 3,000 tanks, and aircraft numbering more than 2,000.  The area of dispute, a circle roughly 90 miles by 100 miles, would contain more firepower per square mile than nearly any battle in history.

The battle for the Kursk salient was on, and it would be one for the ages.

Recommended Reading:  Kursk 1943 – These Osprey books are small, but pack a great informative punch.

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