From Barbarossa to Stalingrad: the Unstoppable German Juggernaut in the East-1941-1942

18 Jun


On June 22nd, 1941, over three million German troops separated into three Army Groups–North, Center, and South–and poured over the Russian frontier after a colossal artillery barrage. Soviet NKVD border guards were caught completely by surprise, and as the invasion steamrolled over unprepared Russian positions, pouring over the massive steppes and through the unkempt forests and marshes, even the Russian Stavka was caught off guard, with Stalin himself refusing to believe it was real. But the invasion, code named Unternehmen Barbarossa, Operation Barbarossa, was very real, and by December 1941, its inexorable tide had brought it to the gates of Moscow, and within four years, that same tide would reverse and suck the German military back to the gates of Berlin, catching and killing over 30 million people in its wake.

As the black clouds of war gathered on the horizon in the summer of 1939, an uneasy peace had settled like a thin sheet over Europe. Hitler’s conquests, such as the invasion of the Rhineland in March 1936, Austria in March 1938, the Sudetenland in October 1938, and Czechoslovakia in March 1939, had reached a nearly insurmountable obstacle, Poland, whose very invasion threatened war with Great Britain and France, two nations who had pursued a policy of appeasement whilst still licking their wounds and counting their losses following the First World War. Spain had settled into peace, with Generalissimo Francisco Franco declaring himself head of state in 1939 following a lengthy, and particularly brutal, civil war that simultaneously acted as a proxy war for many nations who would soon be waging war amongst each other. It was the calm before the storm, and the storm was approaching, faster than anyone could have imagined. German designs on Poland, Hitler and his command staff knew full well, would lead to war with Great Britain and France, and in an effort to secure his eastern flank against a potential Russian assault in order to prevent a replay of the First World War. Anglo-French relations with the Soviets were unknown to the Germans, primarily due to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that the monarchist and democratic powers of France and Great Britain were fearful of the spread of Bolshevism. Nazi Germany was in a position where it could act proactively, and secure Russo-German relations before a war with France and Great Britain could erupt in the west. If this alliance could be secured between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, whether it be temporary or permanent, could save Germany’s vast army and the immense volume of material for war in the west. With Hitler’s eyes on Poland, war with the western Allies would come. It was inevitable. And in August 1939, Hitler dispatched Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow to ensure that war with the east would be averted.

Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow in late August, and within days, he and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov had hammered out a document that, contrary to popular belief, was not a peace treaty. It was a nonaggression pact, stating that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would avert war between their two nations, but that war could still be a possibility, although a rather faint and inconspicuous one. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as it came to be known, also stated that when Germany invaded Poland, the nation would be split in two down a vertical line affixed roughly in the center of the country, with Nazi German forces taking the western portion, which included the port of Gdansk (Danzig) and the capital, Warsaw, while the Soviets were given the east, which consisted of little but forests and flat plains devoid of any real natural resources. The Russians were also allotted the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania under the provisions of the 1939 treaty, and they were absorbed into the massive U.S.S.R. in 1940. On September 1st, 1939, one million German troops stormed across the Polish frontier, fording the river Oder and began marching toward Warsaw. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, a pre-dreadnought relic of the First World War that had participated in the 1916 undecided engagement at Jutland against the formidable Royal Navy blockade, fired upon a Polish garrison in Gdansk, opening the assault. The previous night, a German radio station in the village of Gleiwitz, which straddled the German-Polish frontier, was supposedly assaulted by Polish troops, prompting the invasion and giving it false legitimacy. In reality, the so-called “Polish” troops had merely been S.S. soldiers clad in Polish uniforms, and the “German” troops killed were prisoners from a nearby penitentiary clad in German uniforms. The assault had been conducted in a time when German-Polish relations had all but collapsed, due to Germany’s strongly voiced wish to conquer her neighbor, who had only recently acquired a national border. The nation of Poland had not existed since the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw, which had been created in 1807 by a riot over conscription, and died in 1815 following Napoleon’s Congress of Vienna. The nation had been absorbed piecemeal into the Russian and German Empires (the latter did not formally exist until 1871, but the territory was already there), and finally gained independence one hundred and three years later, and desired to maintain that independence. Yet Hitler’s territorial designs in the late 1930s threatened this tentative autonomy. Hitler desired the port of Gdansk primarily, which, prior to the war and the hated provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, had been within German borders, and Hitler’s numerous diplomatic approaches on the port had been met with a stiff hand by the Polish government. In 1939, with German aggression nearly pouring over the river Oder, the Poles sought an alliance with Great Britain, which was soon expanded to include France. This would cause the war to go global. As negotiations crumbled between Nazi Germany and the Polish Second Republic, Hitler was presented with no other option but the prospect of invasion, which would suck the French and British into conflict with his forces. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact settled on August 23rd, 1939, Hitler was given his window of opportunity to invade Poland and swivel round and strike the western Allies, and he took it. On September 1st, 1939, one million troops invaded Poland, and within two days, Great Britain and France, two nations that had previously turned hypocritical blind eyes to the plight of many nations in central Europe as they were crushed under the oppressive Nazi jackboot, declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

Poland’s military was no match for the overwhelming numerical superiority and bewildering firepower of the German Wehrmacht. Polish cavalry, still riding on horseback, attempted to assault German Panzer tanks head-on, with sabers drawn in a similar fashion to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury’s disastrous cavalry charge against French black powder artillery at Castillon in 1453, leading to the climactic close of the Hundred Years’ War. Poland’s air force consisted of superannuated biplane derelicts of the First World War, no match for the speed, firepower, and agility of German monoplane fighters. By mid-September, German troops were upon Warsaw, and on the 27th, Soviet troops invaded from the east, pinning the Poles between the inexorable might of the highly trained, incredibly well led, and well equipped German Wehrmacht and poorly trained, poorly equipped, mediocre leadership, but overwhelming numerical superiority of the Soviet Red Army, and in 1940, the Soviet military committed one of their first atrocities of the war, slaughtering thousands of captured Polish military commanders and intelligentsia at Katyn Forest. By October, the nation had been conquered by the dual powers, and another tentative peace settled over Europe, even with war declared. The east would remain quiet until the shattering morning artillery barrage of June 22nd, 1941. The peace that settled over western Europe was known as the “Phony War”, and nicknamed the “Sitzkrieg”, a satirical strike at Germany’s Blitzkrieg tactic, a revolutionizing strategy invented by Panzer General Heinz Guderian. At the height of the Phony War in late 1939, France was pouring troops and millions of francs into the vaunted defenses of the Maginot Line, named for Minister of War Andre Maginot, who, in the late 1920s, had ordered the Line’s construction in an effort to avert a potential war with Germany, a nation many Frenchmen still feared. The Line was a subterranean defensive tunnel system erected with antitank defenses positioned above ground, facing the mountainous, heavily forested German frontier. It had originally been slated to stretch from the French border with Switzerland, wrap around the French frontier, and end at the English Channel, yet as the war began, it was never completed. The French military at the beginning of the war was massive, yet was poorly trained, possessed woefully inadequate leadership, and mediocre supplies to fight a war. The British military, primarily the British Expeditionary Force, resembled that of the one dispatched to France in the First World War, which ended the dynamic campaign of the Indian summer of 1914 following the battle of the Marne,  at Ypres. The B.E.F. was undersized, possessing a force hovering around one hundred thousand men, yet was incredibly well led and possessed nearly unparalleled leadership, yet, due to Britain’s existence as an island nation, its supplies were put in a stranglehold by the infamous U-boat “wolf packs” of Admiral Karl Doenitz. In October 1939, the first U-boat kill of the war, H.M.S. Royal Oak, was torpedoed in Scapa Flow by U-47. Scapa Flow, a lake-sized segment of the North Sea bounded by islands north of Scotland, was previously thought to be untouchable by U-boats, yet Gunther Prein, the skipper of the U-47, had exposed this fallacy, and fired the first torpedo of a submersible war that would last the entirety of the war, and lead to the deaths of nearly 30,000 German submariners. Soon, these U-boats would swarm the North Atlantic, and threaten the supply convoys departing from American ports in New England and Canadian ports along the Labrador Coast and Newfoundland, spiraling Britain into a dire situation. As the Phony War continued in the west, with the British and French bolstering their armies and shocking them out of their prewar slumber, two wars erupted in Europe, far to the east. Following a breakdown in negotiations, Soviet forces, poorly equipped for what they were to be assaulting, stormed into Karelia, and struck at the forces of Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, and the army of Finland, beginning the Russo-Finnish, or Winter, War of 1939.

The Russo-Finnish War had erupted over faltering negotiations regarding Soviet designs on the Karelian isthmus, owned by Finland situated just north of the Soviet metropolitan center of Leningrad, a city of over one million people. The two were separated by the expanses of Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. Finland had gained its independence from Russia in 1917, separating at the height of the Russian Revolution and future Russian Civil War. The two had offered a distraction to the Soviet government, yet by 1939, territorial disputes were becoming common, as the Soviets still thought Finland a piece of their territory, not independent. As negotiations collapsed in late 1939, war finally became the only possible reality, and in late November 1939, war was declared. Yet the overconfident Soviet military, who outnumbered the Finns nearly ten to one in most circumstances, were up against an enemy who possessed the upper hand in the area it mattered most: superior leadership. The Red Army assaulted concentrated Finnish positions in massed infantry assaults in the dead of winter as 1939 turned to 1940, with many Red Army generals adhering closely to the disastrous tactics of the First World War, as the majority of Russian generals of any real strategic genius had either been sacked, executed, or deported during Stalin’s paranoia-fueled purges of the 1930s. Their limited strategic knowledge cost the Soviets not only massive amounts of men and material, yet also blunted and bloodied their offensive spearhead. The Finns were concentrating their incredibly small army in defensive pockets that were impenetrable by Soviet forces, and utilized the terrain and the subzero conditions of winter to their benefit, yet as the spring of 1940 dawned and the blood-stained snow of the previous winter melted away, the Russians broke through the defenses of the Mannerheim Line, a defensive position that had cost the Russians thousands of men, and a peace was settled between the two nations, with Karelia once again falling into Russian hands. With Karelia in Russian hands, the Winter War of 1939-40 had, unbeknownst to the bloodied Russians and Finns, shattered the Phony War. On April 9th, 1940, Germany launched Unternehmen Weserzeit, Operation Weser Time, pouring over the border of Denmark and dropping Fallschirmjaeger paratroopers into the Kingdom of Haakon VII, Norway. As an Anglo-French army steamed north to blunt the German invasion of Norway, on May 10th, 1940, Fall Gelb, Case Yellow, was initiated, with German paratroopers landing near Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and glider-borne infantry landing atop the fortress of Eben Emael in Belgium, a fortress that had cost the Germans the initiative in the First World War. As the Netherlands and Belgium were conquered, German Panzers poured through the dense Ardennes Forest, outflanking the Maginot Line. The Ardennes had been thought impenetrable by the French, a mistake that would cost them their capital. Within a matter of weeks, the German military, utilizing the unstoppable blitzkrieg, had overrun and rolled up the beleaguered and outmatched French military, taken Paris, and wheeled north, pinning what remained of the French military and similarly bewildered British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk, 300,000 men short on ammunition, medical supplies, food, and water, with their backs to the English Channel. And just as Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was readying himself to smash what remained of Allied resistance, he halted for an unknown reason, allowing the 300,000 British and French troops to be evacuated during Operation Dynamo, with any serviceable ships, whether they be civilian or military, taking the men back to the British Isles, although the majority would be dispatched north to stall the inexorable German invasion of Norway, which was finally solidified following the German victories in Narvik fjord. By the end of 1940, western Europe was within German hands, and German bomber aircraft of the Luftwaffe were striking Royal Air Force fields, as well as the stations of the Chain Home radar installations, along the British east coast, leading to the Battle of Britain. Yet fighting in western Europe had primarily died down, while fighting in the east commenced once again, with the second war in the east opening in October 1940, with an Italian invasion of Greece.

In early October 1940, Italian forces under General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca launched an ill-fated invasion across the Pindus Mountains through the snow-coated passes of the Dinaric Alps of southern Albania, conquered by Italy in April 1939. The Italian Army was diminutive, poorly trained, possessed garishly abominable leadership, and utilized what appeared to be surplus equipment from the First World War, primarily in their armor, antitank weapons, aircraft, and firepower. The Italians were pitted against the forces of the Hellenic Army, commanded by the formidable strategic skill of Alexandros Papagos, who commanded the negligible Greek troops against the Italians,  and repulsed the first offensive into the Pindus Mountains in November, prompting Mussolini to rid Prasca of his command and replace him with Ubaldo Soddu. Papagos’s men pursued the shattered Italian forces into Albania, and there the efficacious Hellenic Army would remain until April 1941, throwing back a second Italian counteroffensive in March. Papagos maintained Greek forces in Albania even as German intervention became overwhelmingly manifest. Mussolini had attempted to launch an assault into Greece to prove his forces were just as successful as those of Nazi Germany in their offensive capability, yet in doing so had proved him and his command inferior to that of Hitler, prompting Hitler to launch Unternehmen Marita, Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece, launched in conjunction with Unternehmen Strafe, Operation Punishment, the invasion of Yugoslavia. The Italian failure in their assault in Greece had led Hitler to the decision to handle the untenable position of the Italian Army himself, a decision made against the admonishment of the staff of his High Command.

As the war progressed in both Europe and Africa throughout the war, the Italian government gradually began to surrender the majority of its governmental capacity, as well as cede command of its army, to that of Nazi Germany, and that parasitic relationship had begun with Italy’s failure in Greece, a failure bettered by the tactical genius and offensive capability of the German Wehrmacht. On April 6th, 1941, as British troops of Force W under Henry Maitland Wilson landed on the Greek mainland at the haste of Papagos (Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek Prime Minister until his death in January 1941, had feared British involvement in Greek affairs against the Germans due to their history of colonization), German forces crossed into Greece via southern Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The initial thrust had been made as part of Punishment, which steamrolled over the Royal Yugoslav Army, crushing them in a brutal assault, with the German Luftwaffe even ordered to decimate the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade in an air raid after the city was declared open to prevent its destruction. The Operation had been christened “Punishment” following a coup d’etat executed by men of the Royal Yugoslav Army, led by Josip Broz, soon to be known as Tito, that had overthrown the monarchy and pulled Yugoslavia from its tentative alliance with Nazi Germany under the terms of the Tripartite Pact. The Yugoslavs capitulated within days, allowing German forces under Field Marshall Wilhelm List to drive into Greece through Macedonia. By late April, the Greek Hellenic Army had been annihilated, German forces had seized Athens, and what remained of Wilson’s Force W had been evacuated to the island fortress of Crete, where, in early May, a sizable force of German paratroopers landed during Unternehmen Merkur, Operation Mercury. British forces under Field Marshall Claude Autchinleck had been transferred north to bolster the men under Wilson, leading, in part, to Autchinleck’s defeat at the first engagement at El Alamein and his replacement by Harold Alexander under orders from Churchill. Hitler’s dual invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece had been made in direct defiance of the continued warnings of his generals, who cited Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which occurred on June 24th, 1812. Hitler had made plans for an invasion of the Soviet Union, code named Unternehmen  Barbarossa, Operation Barbarossa, named in honor of Frederick Barbarossa, the aging Holy Roman Emperor who had drowned in a river during the early stages of the Third Crusade, launched to lift Saladin’s iron grip on Jerusalem following the defeat of King Guy de Lusignan at Hattin in 1087. Hitler’s commanders, time and again, admonished him to strike at the vast Soviet Union as fast and as soon as possible, preferably in the early spring. This would give Hitler’s armies more than ample time to strike across the vast Soviet steppes and enter Moscow before the brutal Russian winter had time to set in. Yet Hitler had become engulfed in the rapidly deteriorating Italian situation in the Balkans, as well as the situation in North Africa, after the Italian 10th Army under Rudolfo Graziani was destroyed by Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps during December 1940’s Operation Compass, prompting the German chancellor, in February 1941, to dispatch the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions under General Erwin Rommel to Tripoli in the form of the infamous Afrika Korps. Hitler’s generals had warned him, on numerous occasions, to avoid starting his invasion too late in the year, and continued to cite Napoleon’s invasion as they did so. Tsarist Russia had abhorred the 1809 Treaty of Schoenbrunn, as it handed the territory of Western Galicia to the Duchy of Warsaw, a potential springboard for a French invasion of the Russian Empire, and as diplomatic relations continued to falter, Napoleon raised a massive army, numbering some 685,000 men from almost as many backgrounds in the form of the Grand Armee, and on June 24th, 1812, he marched his army into the vast Russia Empire, reaching the capital of Tsar Alexander I in mid-September following a victory at Borodino against Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov. As Napoleon’s army fell upon Moscow to force his foe to make a decision regarding any potential alliance with the French emperor, the Russians burned the capital to the ground. With no Russian capitulation in sight and as the first snow began to fall, Napoleon marched his massive army back to France in subzero temperatures. Kutuzov returned, and although defeated at Maloyaroslavets, he forced Napoleon’s army to utilize the very same road to Smolensk they had marched to Moscow with, and within days, Cossack cavalry set upon Napoleon’s lumbering army, now dangerously low on food, water, medical supplies, ammunition, and above all, morale. The Russians had pursued a scorched earth strategy, torching their boundless supplies of grain to prevent them from falling into the hands of Napoleon’s ravenous army, and by December 1812, the starving Grand Armee, stricken with frostbite and hypothermia, had escaped Russian territory, where it completely fell apart. Men from Austria deserted and marched back to Austria, Prussians deserted to their homes in Prussia, Poles deserted for their homes in Poland, yet the casualties stood. 380,000 of Napoleon’s 685,000 men had perished, the vast majority on the journey home. Hitler’s commanders cited this as a prime example why an invasion of Russia should, if attempted at all, begin early in the year, preferably early spring, to avoid coming into contact with the merciless Russian winter, which had contributed, above anything else, to the destruction of Napoleon’s army in 1812. In order to defeat Russia, one must not only defeat her massive armies, yet also overcome her weather and terrain, two additional factors that would come to contribute heavily to Hitler’s defeat in his attempted conquest following the early victories of 1941-42.

Following victories in Greece and Yugoslavia, victories that cost the Wehrmacht considerable time in their planned strike at the Soviet Union, time they did not have, on June 22nd, 1941, two days before the 129th anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, German artillery opened along the entire frontier, from Poland to the Ukraine. N.K.V.D border guards were caught entirely off guard by the sudden assault. The Wehrmacht had been massing men along the Russian frontier for months prior to the invasion, and after continued Russian demands to know the reason for such a buildup, the Germans returned with statements of it being a mere training exercise. They lied. As the first streaks of light crossed the sky in the early dawn hours of the 22nd of June 1941, 3 million Wehrmacht troops poured across the border, from Finland to the Ukraine, broken into three segments, Army Groups North, Center, and South. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, consisting of the 18th Army, 16th Army, and 4th Panzer Army, was to strike north through the Baltic States via East Prussia, soon to house Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg, and seize the metropolitan center of Leningrad, a bustling city with a population of close to two million people. The offensive toward Leningrad would be supported by Finnish forces pouring down through the forests to the north of the city, and would operate in conjunction with Unternehmen Silberfuchs, Operation Silver Fox, a joint German-Finnish strike at the port of Murmansk. In the center, striking through Poland into Byelorussia, was Army Group Center, commanded by Field Marshall Fedor von Bock, consisting of the 9th Army, 3rd Panzer Group, 4th Army, 2nd Army, and 2nd Panzer Group. Army Group Center’s primary objective was Moscow, the Soviet capital, as well as the cities of Smolensk and Minsk that lay in its path. To the south, striking through the Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, was Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, which consisted of the 1st Panzer Group, 6th, 11th, and 17th Armies, as well as the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies. The invasion was followed closely by S.S. Einsatzgruppen, men dispatched to hunt down Russian Jews, as well as Romani people (gypsies), the mentally retarded, homosexuals, and others deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime. The S.S. groups hunted Jews and either deported them to camps within occupied territory or executed them in mass killings outright, the most high profile being the massacre at Babi Yar, a ravine outside the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, in November 1941. The invasion caught Soviet forces completely by surprise. The Stavka, the Soviet military high command, was in shambles and disarray, much like the Soviet armies attempting to flee the vast, well organized, and incredibly well led German armies. Stalin refused to belief it to be true, and as the invasion unfurled, he had no choice. Entire Soviet armies had been annihilated. Within in the first two weeks, 2.5 million Soviet troops had been killed, wounded, or captured. Following the destruction of an armored spearhead at Uman in August 1941, German forces of Army Group South fell upon Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and following an over month-long siege, took the city on September 26th, 1941, killing or capturing nearly 700,000 Soviet forces. Among the dead was the garrison’s commander, Mikhail Kirponos, who had been killed attempting a breakout from the surrounded and doomed city, with Kharkov falling the next month to the 6th Army. Army Group North advanced on Leningrad, seizing Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, and finally falling upon the metropolis in early September 1941. The bustling city had been preparing for the German offensive, with the negligible Soviet garrison in the city forcing the city’s citizens to erect antitank fortifications, as well as trench systems, barricades, antiaircraft defenses, and Concertina wire entanglements, yet this was not enough. German commanders believed the city to be heavily fortified, yet unbeknownst to them, the Soviet garrison in the city was incredibly outnumbered and outgunned. Leeb chose not to directly assault the city in fear of coming into contact with this phantom Soviet army many believed to be defending the doomed megalopolis, and chose rather to surround it and besiege it to death with the assistance of his Finnish allies under Mannerheim. The Finns and the Germans, in early September, severed the final line of communication, and cut the last serviceable rail link out of the city, a rail line to Murmansk. The city was surrounded, and the siege would remain in place until January 1944, with over 3 million Red Army and civilian casualties by the siege’s finale. Sadly enough, had German forces advanced into the city, they could have taken it on the first day of their assault on the metropolis, and a lengthy and particularly brutal siege that cost the lives of so many could have been avoided altogether, yet due to faulty intelligence and rumors, this was not the case. Hitler wished to destroy Leningrad, contrary to the popular belief that he wanted to transform the city into a German megalopolis. And the siege nearly did just that. In the center of the advance, Army Group Center seized Smolensk in early July 1941, and within a matter of days fell upon Vitebsk, opening a vast road to Moscow, the Soviet capital.

The German advance into the Soviet Union had thrown the Soviet armies into complete disarray, and by October 1941, three of the nation’s largest cities were in German hands. The German armies had utilized a tactic of double envelopment, a strategy perfected by Hannibal after his Carthaginian armies fell upon Roman legionnaires at Cannae in 216 B.C. After Hannibal’s armies descended from the Alps, the Carthaginian general advanced toward Cannae, where he was halted by a Roman army under Gaius Terentius Varro. Hannibal placed a diminutive force in his army’s center, while placing the majority of his forces hidden in the flanks, and when Lucius Aemilius Paullus, Varro’s executive officer, fell for the trap and assaulted Hannibal’s center, the cunning Carthaginian fox pulled his center back and threw his hidden flanks around Paullus’s sides, surrounding his army in a death grip, annihilating Paullus’s army, killing nearly 75,000 legionnaires and opening the road to Rome. Although Hannibal’s beleaguered army would later fall victim to the Fabian strategy, an early predecessor of the scorched earth strategy, and although Hannibal would be driven from Rome and defeated at Zama in 202 B.C. by Scipio Africanus, leading to the fall of Carthage, his infamous victory at Cannae would be utilized by numerous generals and tacticians throughout history, most notably by the Wehrmacht in the early years of the Soviet campaign. Smolensk, Kiev, Kharkov, and Leningrad had all been surrounded prior to their capture or siege, and millions of Soviet troops had been killed or captured following their being surrounded by numerically superior German forces. The Soviet military lacked ample leadership to combat the strategic genius the majority of Germany’s generals possessed, manifesting itself in the forms of men such as Rundstedt, Rommel, Guderian, and Manstein. This fault had, oddly enough, been caused by Soviet premier Josef Stalin himself. Paranoia-fueled purges in the 1930s, launched against generals Stalin feared were not adhering one hundred percent to the cause of Communism, led to the executions, sackings, or deportations of numerous Soviet generals, namely Georgy Zhukov, who, had they been present during Barbarossa, stalled, if not halted, portions or the entirety of the German invasion. Sub par leadership, coupled with unpreparedness to fight such a massive force (most Soviet troops fought without shoes, and some did not even have a rifle going into combat), as well as Soviet generals’ inability to swerve in a slight amount from the superannuated strategies of the previous war caused massive casualties in the early stages of the operation, and the road to Moscow was paved with the dead and dying of failed Soviet counteroffensives and valiant, albeit futile, defenses of doomed cities. By October 1941, the path to Moscow had been blown open by German armor, and Army Group Center was advancing rapidly in that direction. Soviet resistance was still a significant problem, yet with such heavy losses, the majority of the Soviet Red Army had either retreated or been annihilated. Yet a disastrous decision would cost the Germans their key to Moscow.

Following the August 5th, 1941, victory at Smolensk, the path to Moscow had been opened, ominously mirroring Napoleon’s 1812 victory at Borodino. German victories in the north had paved the way to the siege of Leningrad, while the victory at Uman had opened the path to Kiev and Kharkov. With Moscow in sight and Leningrad surrounded, Hitler made the decision to transfer the 4th Panzer Army from Army Group North to Army Group Center, a decision that was actually to the benefit of Operation Barbarossa and the planned Unternehmen Taifun, Operation Typhoon, the offensive to take Moscow. The 4th Panzer Army would give Army Group Center, a primarily infantry-based army group, much needed mobility and speed in their assault on the Soviet capital, which was now being hastily evacuated in a chaotic scene of sensitive document burning and massive trains of refugees fleeing the capital. By mid-October, as the first frost set in, Soviet citizens of the capital could hear tank treads clattering outside the city gates, and there were even reports German tank commanders could see the gold, onion-dome spires of the Kremlin, a fortress erected on Borovitsky Hill in the 1090s during the height of the Kievan Rus’, and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox church erected under order of Ivan IV the Terrible in 1588, in Red Square through their binoculars. As November set in, the first snow of the year fell, and the temperature continued to drop dramatically. To the south, Army Group South dug into defensive positions near Kharkov, while Army Group North had already set in for a lengthy siege at Leningrad. Yet Moscow was a whole different animal entirely, and German forces still needed to seize it from the weakening grip of the Red Army. Yet as the Red Army’s grip continued to weaken, the winter’s grip continued to stiffen in its ruthless hold on Army Group Center. Temperatures dropped severely, and German soldiers needed to wake in the early hours to light fires under their tank engines to thaw the congealed oil in order for the engines to turn over. Winter clothing was running scarce, as Hitler had been so confident his men would take the Soviet capital before winter set in he had neglected to amply supply his men for such a contingency. Soviet resistance around the capital was almost nonexistent, yet the winter had locked the roads in an icy grip impassible to the heavy German panzers, which would sink into the soft blanket of snow. Frostbite and hypothermia were becoming common sights, and with roads choked with thick snow, medical evacuation was nearly impossible. Stalin made the decision to remain in the Soviet capital in spite of the ever present threat to not only himself yet also his citizens and the Stavka, yet this decision would not prove life threatening. The Wehrmacht‘s inexorable advance into the vast Soviet Union had been halted by the very same factor that had killed Napoleon’s Grand Armee in 1812, only Napoleon had done something the Germans had failed to achieve: enter Moscow. As November turned to December, the offensive mobility given to Army Group Center by the 4th Panzer Army could not be successfully utilized, and the open window to Moscow could no longer be exploited. It would soon be closed altogether.

In October 1941, with German forces still advancing on Moscow as the first frost settled on the harvested crops lining the road to the beleaguered Soviet capital, Richard Sorge, a German-born spy in the employ the Red Orchestra, a Soviet intelligence organization, was living in Tokyo, the capital of the Empire of Japan. Sorge had been in the Japanese capital for several years, gathering intelligence regarding Japanese sympathies toward the Soviet Union following an engagement between Soviet and Japanese forces at Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia in 1939. An armistice had been hammered out between the Russians and the Japanese, yet feelings of distrust still existed between the two. Sorge was stationed in Tokyo to qualm any Soviet feelings of uneasiness, and in October 1941, Sorge reported that the Japanese would not attack the Soviet Union in Siberia, but instead had made plans for an attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor. And with this information in hand, in late November, an army under Georgy Zhukov arrived from Siberia to throw Army Group Center back from the Soviet capital. Trained for combat in winter conditions, and equipped for such warfare, on December 6th, 1941, one day prior to the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Soviet forces under Zhukov launched a massive counteroffensive against Army Group Center. The strike shocked Center, and threw the beleaguered army group back nearly 200 miles by early February, yet as the snow began to thaw, offensive capability was handed back to Army Group Center, and, utilizing the rains of the spring rasputitsa to their advantage, and several Soviet offensives at Rzhev were either thrown back or blunted and bloodied. One of the most high profile was a situation in which the 2nd Shock Army was cut off in a forested swamp following a failed attempt to lift the siege of Leningrad, and the Army was annihilated. Numerous overtures for assistance by Andrey Vlasov, the Army’s commander, were met with deaf ears by Moscow, and the Army was gradually destroyed by German forces. Medical evacuation was impossible due to the swampy conditions, and starvation was becoming prevalent, along with rampant disease. By June, Vlasov had surrendered to the German forces, and would soon defect and raise a collaborationist Russian army due to his hatred for the Soviet Union after what they had done to his men. The December 6th, 1941, counteroffensive had done much to reverse the German position outside Moscow, yet had been met with stiff resistance at Leningrad as well as in the Ukraine, where it advanced a token few miles and halted under mounting pressure by German forces. In the Ukraine, the situation was soon to change.

In the north, the situation stabilized around Leningrad, as well as the situation with Army Group Center, now driven back toward Smolensk. The fronts around Leningrad and with Army Group Center would be struck numerous times throughout 1942-43, including copious Soviet assaults near Rzhev, as well as Soviet advances across the expanses of the frozen Lake Ladoga in the dead of winter to bring much needed supplies to the besieged city, yet the majority of combat in 1942 was centered on Army Group South, spearheaded by the might of the 6th Army. Originally commanded by Field Marshall Walther von Reichenau, Reichenau suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on January 17th, 1942. He was flown to Poltava in an effort to fly him to a military hospital in Leipzig, yet the plane suffered engine failure and crash landed before reaching Poltava. The landing killed many aboard, including Reichenau, who had actually been the victim of a severe heart attack, not the impact of the landing. With Reichenau’s death, the 6th Army was without leadership, until General Friedrich Paulus, deputy chief of the German Army General Staff, was appointed to succeed to deceased Reichenau. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to General of Armored Troops, and given planes for Unternehmen Blau, Operation Blue, an advance on the oil-rich Caucasus region of the Soviet Union that would ultimately terminate in the capture of Grozny and Baku, two of the largest oil processing cities in the southern Soviet Union. If captured, Grozny and Baku would fuel German offensives into either the vast, semi-arid Kazakh steppe or other German offensives toward Moscow. A grand scheme had been drawn up by Hitler in which the Afrika Korps would take Cairo and Suez, strike into Palestine and the Middle East, advance into Iran, a nation sympathetic to the Nazi regime, leading to its invasion by a joint Anglo-Soviet army in 1941, and a link up in the Caucasus. This audacious plan relied heavily on the seizure of the Caucasus region, and in late spring 1942, Paulus’s 6th Army spearheaded the advance of Army Group South in that direction. As the 6th Army was underway, the 4th Panzer Army once again shifted hands and was dispatched south to bolster the 6th Army’s advance. By July, the 4th Panzer Army had forded the river Don and seized Voronezh following a brutal urban battle, and the Army continued its advance toward the Caucasus, until Hitler made a fateful decision that would determine the outcome of the war in the East: he divided Army Group South.

The strike across the Don and the taking of Voronezh had allowed the German advance to continue across the vast Ukrainian steppe, as well as opening a window for Field Marshall Erich von Manstein to open a siege of Sevastopol, a harbor-cum-fortress heavily defended by men of the Black Sea Fleet. Hitler had come to the conclusion that the metropolis of Stalingrad, a bustling industrial city possessing a university of technology, as well as a tractor factory that had been converted to construct tanks for the Red Army, would be a massive thorn in Army Group South’s northern flank. Hitler chose to divide Army Group South into Army Groups A and B, with A being dispatched to following the length of the river Volga south to the Caucasus Mountain Range, a daunting snow-capped spine that needed to be crossed in order to reach Grozny and Baku, while B would advance north along the Volga and take Stalingrad. This fateful decision would cost the German army the war in the East. Army Group A, bolstered by the 4th Panzer Army, advanced south, reaching the Caucasus in late July and early August, with German forces even reaching Astrakhan, in present-day eastern Georgia near the Caspian Sea. This would  mark the furthest advance of the German military in the east. Army Group A soon became bogged down in heavy fighting in the Caucasus against determined Soviet defenders, although the Soviets were forced to put down continued Chechen insurgency near Grozny that threatened their rear. The Chechens were bolstered by German paratroopers and supplies that were dropped behind enemy lines threaten the Soviet stance in the Caucasus. To the north, Army Group B, spearheaded by the 6th Army, had lost a vast amount of its offensive mobility due to the loss of the 4th Panzer Army following its shift to combat in the Caucasus, and following its fording of the Don, the 6th Army soon fell upon Stalingrad, which was laid to waste by carpet bombing executed by Wolfgang von Richthofen, the cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron fighter ace from the First World War. Civilians were barred from leaving the besieged city, as Red Army troops were to be transferred across the river Volga from the barren Kazakh steppe to fortify the city and assist the 62nd Army of Vasily Chuikov in holding off the German offensive. During the advance to Stalingrad, Hitler had continually shifted the 4th Panzer Army between Army Group A and Army Group B, a decision that had not only cost the 6th Army the majority of its mobility and speed, yet also the majority of the 4th Panzer Army’s fuel, a commodity that the Wehrmacht was running lower and lower on. By late August, the outer defenses of Stalingrad had been overcome, and the city had been breached by the 6th Army. As fighting began to unfurl as the 62nd Army ferried more men across the river Volga, fighting continued to rage in the Caucasus, as well as the siege of Sevastopol, where the Schwerer Gustav, the largest rifled artillery piece ever erected, was constructed over a period of two weeks by 2,000 men. The 800mm gun only fired 49 shells during its short career, leveling the entirety of Sevastopol, and even breaching an ammunition magazine stored under the seafloor. The gun was so massive it even had to have its own segment of rail line erected. As the winter of 1942 set in, offensives in the Kerch Peninsula designed to lift the siege of Sevastopol were thrown back, and fighting continued to unravel in Stalingrad, where one of the most climactic battles of the Second World War and the fate of the potential victor of the Eastern Front was to be decided.


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