When in 1939 Germany invaded Poland, Adolf Hitler formed a peace pact with the USSR - led at the time by Josef Stalin - who occupied the eastern part of Poland. This pact brought the borders of the two powerful countries together and caused much unrest. Then, during the winter of 1939/1940 the USSR invaded Finland, showing Germany it had a lot of power, and forced it to cede territory, thus worsening the relations between the two countries further. After this there was a period of relative quiet between the two countries, but Germany continued to take over Europe.
Even though relations between the two countries were worsening, Britain was extremely concerned about the non-aggression pact between them, as after the takeover of Europe they had no allies, and America only offered some help with the Lend-Lease Agreement2.
In December 1940, Hitler and his generals agreed on the eventual destruction of the USSR. Although Stalin's spy network found out about this and informed him he took no action because this, he believed, would aggravate Germany still further to the point of immediately declaring war.
Meanwhile, back in Germany a time, a place and a strategy were created for the invasion. This was to be June 1941, along the boundary with the section of the USSR in Europe and to use three armies; Army Group North, aimed at Leningrad (now St Petersburg); Army Group Centre, aimed at the capital of Moscow; and Army Group South, aimed at the Ukraine oilfields and Stalingrad (now Volgograd).
Phase One - the Blitzkrieg
After a brief bombardment, German troops and tanks stormed forward, with fighter-bombers whirring overhead.
On 28 June, the Germans seized Minsk in what is now Belarus. Stalin then began to order counterattacks which were hopeless as the Russians had obsolete tanks and planes and the infantry were poorly trained. Stalin then employed the scorched earth policy3.
After huge numbers of prisoners were taken and hundreds of thousands of men killed, Stalin eventually saw he was doing the wrong thing. At this point most military commanders would order their troops to retreat and regroup a few miles away but instead he ordered his troops to hold to the last man. This guaranteed that they would be wholly and completely annihilated.
Some historians say that this decision may have slowed up Hitler enough to bring the Russian winter down on them.
However, the German advance did not stop and hardly even slowed down, as on 10 July, 1941, the Germans crossed the River Dnieper in Belarus and on 20 August, 1941, they began the siege of Leningrad, with Finland attacking the land to the east and cutting off the city's supply lines. Despite this, the city didn't fall even though two million men from both sides died trying to take it/defend it. The advance continued on all fronts with the Nazis taking Kiev. Then the October rains arrived, turning all the tracks into mud. Through this nothing could move and the German advance came to a relative halt.
It was around this time that the Soviets began to deploy the brilliant T-34 tank, which had wide tracks to go through the mud and armour so thick that only the German 88mm anti-aircraft gun could pierce its hull.
When at last the rain ceased and frost began to settle, the Germans were overjoyed, but worried. The invasion should have ended many weeks ago and it was only a matter of time before 'General Winter4' would be constantly interfering with plans and making nonsense out of timetables.
On 2 October, Operation Typhoon began with its intended objective of Moscow. In this last desperate rush Germany took city after city, with Odessa, Kharkov, Sevastopol and Rostov all falling into Nazi hands. But by this time it was hopeless: the Russian winter had come and T-34s were commonplace. Moscow was almost reached, but the Germans were held just short and on 6 December, the Soviets launched a counter offensive.
Phase Two - the Attack in the South
After withdrawing from the immediate vicinity of Moscow the German army dug in for a long winter. The Soviet advance had been halted for now, but only at a huge cost of men and materials. When the weather began to warm again the front became a battle of attrition and full-on destruction as the Germans and Russians wasted entire armies trying to break through.
Eventually it was the Germans who broke through, blasting their way through the Crimea in May and re-taking Sevastopol. After that there was an all-out drive for the Ukraine oilfields and Stalingrad. The main reasons that Hitler wanted to take Stalingrad were it was a key strongpoint in the battle, and its name (Stalin-grad). For the same reasons, Stalin ordered vast amounts of troops to defend the city itself, in case of a mass German breakthrough. This gave the other armies an easier task and allowed them to hold out, and most of the troops in front of the South Army withdrew. After some further battles the Germans came to the gates of Stalingrad in September.
|German Army||Soviet Army|
|Led by von Paulus||Led by Zhukov|
|1,011,500 men||1,000,500 men|
|10,290 artillery guns||13,541 artillery guns|
|675 tanks||894 tanks|
|1,216 planes||1,115 planes|
The fighting for the city was extremely fierce, with hand-to-hand combat often the only possible method of attack. The Germans took all but the last few streets of the city, but the Soviets always held on, bringing up reinforcements and T-34s from the rear. This terrifying battle went on for around a month before the USSR started to gain the upper hand.
They began to surround the Germans, but the Germans still had a chance of escape! But this was not to be. Hitler insisted the armies stayed at Stalingrad, and they began to be crushed, not just by the Soviet forces, but by the dreaded return of winter. Food and fuel ran short, and the German armies were cold, tired and frustrated, as they believed this pointless battle shouldn't be taking place and they should be defending a line a few miles to the west. Eventually, in February 1943, the entire army in Stalingrad surrendered. This was probably the turning point in the war as Hitler had used up over a million men and huge amounts of resources and had failed. From then on the war would favour the Soviets. Even Hitler admitted this, saying:
The god of war has gone over to the other side.
Phase Three - the Retreat
After Stalingrad the Germans turned and ran. The first withdrawals were from the Caucasus Mountains in January, shortly before the mass surrender of German troops. The situation was hopeless as the Soviet tanks and planes were attacking the troops at every opportunity and not letting the Germans get any rest or dig in.
Such an occasion did eventually happen when the Russians broke through the city of Kursk and the surrounding area of the German line with a large amount of armour, but left the other sections with a light force. This gave the Germans the chance to dig in, and for the last time form a plan. They would conduct a pincer movement, cut off the attacking forces from the rest of the Soviet army and destroy them. The attack happened during July and continued for some time at a reasonable advance, though hardly Blitzkrieg. However, the advance came to a halt, largely because of hastily installed defences. The Germans were slowly pushed back, until the counter-attack turned into an offensive, and the offensive into a rout.
The German offensive was also notable for the largest tank battle in history which happened when hundreds of German and Soviet tanks met purely by chance. It was huge, and the destruction was so intense that there was no real winner of the battle, but the Russians had reserves and could afford the losses but Germany could not.
What eventually happened to the German armies was this:
Army Group North – Got trapped in Estonia after being forced away from a ruined Leningrad in 1944 and were held there until the end of the war.
Army Group Centre – Were reduced to a fraction of their former amount, but continued to fight.
Army Group South – Effectively wiped out in the battle of Stalingrad and the resulting carnage.
After that there were no more major battles, and the Russians finally pulled in to Berlin on 21 April, 1945. Hitler committed suicide on the 30 and Germany surrendered on 7 May.
The most prominent result of the war was the fact that over 20 million Soviets had been killed. The huge loss in life was a disaster for the USSR, who took years to regain their former strength. However, during this time they annexed most of Eastern Europe and established themselves as a world superpower alongside the USA. This led to the East-West scenario known as the Cold War and the Iron Curtain - the eloquent name for the boundary where the two worlds met.