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     The Russian campaign
     The Great Patriotic War

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The Russian campaign: 1941-1942

As early as the autumn of 1940, when the Battle of Britain casts doubt on his invasion plans across the Channel, Hitler's thoughts turn to an attack on his eastern ally, Stalin. He orders plans to be prepared under the codename Barbarossa. In a directive dated 18 December 1940 he states: 'The German armed forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England.'

Hitler's intention is that his quick campaign should begin early in May 1941, but precious weeks are lost and it is not until June 22 that three army groups cross the Russian border on a broad front from southern Poland to the Baltic coast.


In charge of this campaign are the army commanders who together carried out such a brilliant blitzkrieg to the west a year earlier. The first signs are that they will repeat their triumph. Guderian's armoured corps advances 50 miles in the first day. Four days later, on June 27, he reaches Minsk, 200 miles inside Russia. 300,000 Russians, encircled by the German thrust, are taken prisoner.

Guderian crosses the obstacle of the Dnieper river on July 10 and reaches Smolensk on July 16. The route he is taking leads directly to Moscow. Less than four weeks have passed, and 400 miles have been travelled. The Russian capital is now only 200 miles away. There is surely time.


Guderian and other commanders urge the strategy of pushing straight on towards Moscow, but Hitler makes a priority of disabling as much as possible of the Russian army. Guderian is ordered to swing south towards Kiev, where a pincer movement succeeds in capturing another 500,000 men (bringing the total number of prisoners in the campaign so far to about a million).

The move towards Moscow is resumed in early October. At the end of the month a victory at Vyazma brings another 600,000 Russian prisoners. But Moscow is still 125 miles ahead. The weather is deteriorating. The roads are deep in mud, soon to freeze. A few advance detachments struggle to the suburbs of the capital, in early December. But now the Russian winter has started in earnest.


Further to the north another German army, pushing along the Baltic coast, has made similarly spectacular progress in the early weeks of the campaign. Russia's second city, Leningrad, is reached in August. But the Germans prove unable to capture it. They begin a siege, which they hope will be over before the winter. It turns out to last for 900 days, until January 1944.

The Germans, confident in their technique of blitzkrieg, have come unprepared for winter conditions. They now receive orders from Hitler that no one is to turn back on any front. Remembering what happened to Napoleon's army on the march to Moscow, the shivering commanders and their men know all too well the hidden strengths brought out in the Russians by depths of winter and extremes of danger.


In December the Russians begin their counteroffensive, using divisions brought from Siberia. They make progress, rolling the Germans back on some fronts as much as 150 miles. But in an astonishing feat of endurance, in appalling conditions, the German resolve holds firm. It is fifteen months before the Russians dislodge the enemy from Vyazma, just 125 miles from the capital.

So when summer returns, in 1942, the Germans are in place for a renewed offensive. This time it is directed to the south. Hitler has his eye on the oil fields of the Caucasus. Once again, even though the German divisions are much weakened by their deprivations, the assault is carried out with extraordinary verve.


The strategy is to capture three salient points which protect the Caucasus, the valuable region between the Black Sea and the Caspian. They are Sebastopol on the Black Sea coast, Rostov at the mouth of the Don and Stalingrad on the Volga.

The campaign is launched in early June. A month later the Crimea and Sebastopol are in German hands. Rostov falls on July 25, enabling a German army to press on towards the oil fields. But the third target, Stalingrad, proves elusive. With extreme tenacity, fighting from house to house, the Russians defend this city which protects routes from the north and east. So the Germans begin a second winter on Russian soil, in the blitzkrieg that went wrong.


Stalingrad: 1942-1943

The battle for the city of Stalingrad, bitterly fought from building to building, lasts from August to November 1942. Neither side is able to gain absolute control of the city and evict the other, even though Germany's entire Sixth Army is involved. But the Germans, even if they achieve possession, are in the graver danger. They are fighting far from their sources of supply. And the city they are struggling so hard to occupy may prove a trap, as the Russians are even now planning.

A Russian pincer campaign is launched on November 19. It has a simple aim, to encircle the Germans. Just four days later the noose is complete, though not yet tight. It surrounds a large area between the Volga and the Don. Inside it are more than 200,000 of the enemy.


The commander of the Sixth Army, General Friedrich Paulus, is well aware that this is the last possible chance to extricate his men. He sends a request to Hitler to begin a withdrawal. The answer comes back: No. Meanwhile German and Italian efforts to break the noose from outside are repulsed with heavy losses. Attempts to break out, and the freezing winter conditions, cause massive losses in the Sixth Army.

Eventually, in mid-January 1943, Paulus protests to Hitler that it is beyond human strength to continue fighting in these circumstances. Hitler's reply, as to the commanders near Moscow a year earlier, is that not an inch of ground is to be given up; 'the Sixth Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad to the last man'.


At the same time Hitler promotes von Paulus to the rank of field marshal. No German field marshal, the Führer remarks at the time, has ever been taken prisoner. But at the end of the month (on 31 January 1943) von Paulus, with just 91,000 survivors, surrenders to the Russians. Hitler is apoplectic, declaring himself personally betrayed. He protests that the new field marshal should have taken his own life, like an ancient Roman, rather than face captivity.

Hitler's personal obstinacy succeeds in maintaining a German front in Russia for another year and more. But the more significant fact is that his obsessive refusal to yield has now lost him an entire German army - and will soon lose him another, in north Africa.


The Great Patriotic War

The indomitable spirit shown by the Russians at Stalingrad is also true of the wider war effort. Accustomed to absolute control, Stalin proves an admirable leader in a national crisis. Communist slogans are put aside as the nation's war replaces the class struggle. A new national anthem is provided instead of the Internationale. The religious hierarchy of the Orthodox church, accustomed to years of persecution, is now treated as an important ally in enlisting the fervour of the mass of the Russian people. The war itself is referred to as the Great Patriotic War.

Practical achievements match the propaganda. In a supreme effort, heavy industries are relocated during 1942 from the threatened west to the remote regions of eastern Russia.


The result is that the nation, with vast swathes of its richest territory in German hands early in 1943, is nevertheless able to achieve an increase in the production of armaments. During this year some 20,000 tanks and 35,000 planes roll out from the factories. Meanwhile supplies are also arriving in convoys from the west, along the dangerous Arctic route north of Scandinavia and down to Archangel.

The tide turns at last in the summer of 1943. A Russian offensive makes lasting gains, securing a great bulge southwest from Moscow with the capture of Smolensk, Kiev and Kharkov. By the end of the year two thirds of the land taken by the Germans is back in Russian hands.


Military successes continue apace during 1944, which becomes known to Russians as the Year of the Ten Blows. The first of these thrusts, in January, is of huge psychological importance; at last, after 900 days, Leningrad is liberated from a German stranglehold. In March Russian armies reach the borders of Poland and Romania. By the end of May the Crimea is back in Russian hands. In July thirty German divisions are captured, clearing the route to Warsaw. In August Romania surrenders, to be followed soon by the arrival of the Red Army in Yugoslavia and Hungary.

By the start of 1945 Soviet forces are poised to move into the linked territories at the very heart of Hitler's Reich, Germany and Austria.


On April 6 a Soviet army enters Vienna, and before the end of the month Soviet forces encircle the German capital. On April 30 Russian soldiers are in the streets of Berlin at the moment when, below them in his bunker, Hitler commits suicide.

Just five days earlier, on April 25, American and Soviet troops have made contact seventy miles south of Berlin, at Torgau on the Elbe. Stalin has been demanding since 1942 a second front in the west to relieve the German pressure on Russia. The Allies have not been in a position to provide it until D-Day, in June 1944. This delay has a major effect on the postwar world. Soviet armies are already deployed throughout eastern Europe when Germany surrenders in May 1945.


Such an outcome is already predictable when Stalin plays host to Roosevelt and Churchill in the conference at Yalta in February 1945. When the issue is raised, he makes the improbable promise that he will ensure free elections in eastern Europe after the war. He also agrees (in return for the bait of the Kuril Islands) to break his neutrality treaty with Japan and enter the war in the east.

Russia's success in World War II lays the seeds for the Cold War of the following decades. But nothing should detract from the heroism with which that success has been achieved. Of all the combatant nations Russia suffers by far the greatest losses. The estimate of Russian soldiers and civilians killed is 17.5 million. The equivalent for Britain and the Commonwealth is less than 400,000.


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