Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

“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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »