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Eastern Front (World War II) (Central Victory)

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Eastern Front
Part of World War II
Russland Gefangennahme russischer Soldaten
Soviet soldiers surrender as the Germans advance into Russia in 1944
Date 24 August 1939 (1939-08-24) – 2 February 1943 (1943-02-02)
(3 years, 5 months, 1 week and 2 days)
Location Europe east of Germany: Central, Eastern and Northern Europe; in other stages Southern Europe (Balkans), Germany and Austria
Belligerents
Axis

Flag of Imperial Germany Germany
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Austria (to 1941)
Flag of Italy Italy


Co-belligerents
Flag of Romania Romania (1941)

Axis puppet states

Flag of Poland 2 Poland
United Baltic Duchy flag Livonia (to 1941)
Flag of Lithuania 1918-1940 Lithuania (to 1941)
Flag of Belarus (1918, 1991-1995) Belarus (1941)
Flag of Finland Finland (1939-40)

Allies

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Soviet Union
Flag of Tannu Tuva Tuvan People's Republic


Co-belligerents
Flag of Romania Romania (from 1941)
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Imperial Germany Wilhelm II of Germany(commander-in-chief) (to 1941)

Flag of Imperial Germany Adolf Hitler (commander-in-chief) (from 1941)
Flag of Imperial Germany Wilhelm III of Germany Flag of Imperial Germany Ernst Busch
Flag of Imperial Germany Heinz Guderian
Flag of Imperial Germany Ewald von Kleist
Flag of Imperial Germany Günther von Kluge
Flag of Imperial Germany Georg von Küchler
Flag of Imperial Germany Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Flag of Imperial Germany Wilhelm List
Flag of Imperial Germany Erich von Manstein
Flag of Imperial Germany Walter Model
Flag of Imperial Germany Friedrich Paulus
Flag of Imperial Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Flag of Imperial Germany Fedor von Bock
Flag of Imperial Germany Felix Steiner
Flag of Imperial Germany Ferdinand Schörner
Flag of Imperial Germany Walther von Reichenau
Flag of Imperial Germany Helmuth Weidling
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Otto I of Austria
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Arthur Seyss-Inquart
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Erhard Raus
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Gusztáv Vitéz Jány
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Miklós Horthy
CV Flag of Austria 1920-1941 Alexander Löhr
Flag of Belarus (1918, 1991-1995) Mikola Abramchyk
Flag of Belarus (1918, 1991-1995) Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz
Flag of Belarus (1918, 1991-1995) Michał Vituška
United Baltic Duchy flag Adolf Friedrich of Livonia
United Baltic Duchy flag Heinrich Baron von Behr
Flag of Romania Carol II of Romania
Flag of Romania Ion Antonescu
Flag of Romania Petre Dumitrescu
Flag of Romania Constantin Constantinescu
Flag of Finland Väinö II of Finland
Flag of Finland Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim
Flag of Finland Karl Lennart Oesch
Flag of Italy Benito Mussolini
Flag of Italy Giovanni Messe
Flag of Italy Italo Gariboldi
Flag of Italy Vincenzo LaCorte di Leuca I

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Joseph Stalin (commander-in-chief)
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Georgy Zhukov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Nikandr Chibisov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Konev
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Vasily Chuikov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Rodion Malinovsky
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Bagramyan
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Fedyuninsky
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Valerian Frolov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Vasiliy Gordov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Leonid Govorov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Mikhail Kirponos
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Mikhail Khozin
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Fyodor Kuznetsov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Maslennikov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Kirill Meretskov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Dmitry Pavlov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Petrov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Markian Popov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Maxim Purkayev
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Pavel Rotmistrov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Semyon Timoshenko
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Fyodor Tolbukhin
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Aleksandr Vasilevsky
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Nikolai Vatutin
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Kliment Voroshilov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Andrei Yeremenko
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Matvei Zakharov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Aleksei Antonov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Konstantin Rokossovsky

Flag of Romania Michael of Romania
Flag of Romania Constantin Sănătescu
Flag of Romania Petre Dumitrescu

Casualties and losses
Total dead:
5,178,000
Total dead:
10,651,000

Background

The Soviet assault was originally scheduled to begin at 04:00 on August 14. However, on August 13, the Ukrainian-German Common Defense Pact was signed as an annex to the Austro-Ukrainian Military Alliance. In this accord, Germany committed itself to the defence of Ukraine, guaranteeing to preserve Ukrainian independence. At the same time, the Germans and the Ukrainians were hinting to Moscow that they were willing to resume discussions — not at all how Stalin hoped to frame the conflict. Thus, he wavered and postponed his attack until August 24, managing to in effect halt the entire invasion "in mid-leap".

On August 17, Stalin tried to dissuade the Germans and the Austrians from interfering in the upcoming conflict, even pledging that the Soviet forces would be made available to Germany's empire in the future. The negotiations convinced Stalin that there was little chance the Axis powers would declare war on the Soviet Union, and even if they did, because of the lack of "territorial guarantees" to Ukraine, they would be willing to negotiate a compromise favourable to the Soviet Union after its conquest of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the increased number of overflights by high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and cross border troop movements signaled that war was imminent.

On August 20, prompted by the British, the Soviet Union issued one last diplomatic offer, with the invasion yet to be rescheduled. That evening, the Soviet government responded in a communication that it aimed not only for the restoration of the Pryazovia region but also the safeguarding of the Russian minority in Ukraine. It said that they were willing to commence negotiations, but indicated that a Ukrainian representative with the power to sign an agreement had to arrive in Moscow the next day while in the meantime it would draw up a set of proposals. The British Cabinet was pleased that negotiations had been agreed to but, regarded the requirement for an immediate arrival of a Ukrainian representative with full signing powers as an unacceptable ultimatum. On the night of August 21/22, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov read a 16-point Soviet proposal to the German ambassador. When the ambassador requested a copy of the proposals for transmission to the Ukrainian government Molotov refused on the grounds that the requested Ukrainian representative had failed to arrive by midnight. When Ukrainian Ambassador Poloz went to see Molotov later on August 22 to indicate that Ukraine was favorably disposed to negotiations, he announced that he did not have the full power to sign, and Molotov dismissed him. It was then broadcast that Ukraine had rejected the Soviet Union's offer, and negotiations with Ukraine came to an end. Stalin issued orders for the invasion to commence soon afterwards.

On August 23, the Ukrainian Navy sent its destroyer flotilla to Romania, executing operational agreement made with Romania a year earlier. On the same day, Hetman Pavlo announced the mobilization of Ukrainian troops. However, he was pressured into revoking the order by the Austrians, who apparently still hoped for a diplomatic settlement, failing to realize that the Soviets were fully mobilized and concentrated at the Ukrainian border. During the night of August 22, the Rostov-on-Don incident, a false flag attack on the radio station, was staged near the city of Rostov-on-Don by Red Army units posing as Ukrainian troops, in the Rostov region as part of the wider operation. On August 23, 1939 Stalin ordered hostilities against Ukraine to start at 4:45 the next morning. Because of the prior stoppage, Ukraine managed to mobilize only 70% of its planned forces, and many units were still forming or moving to their designated front line positions.

Conduct of operations

Autumn and Winter 1939–40

Katyusha

"Katyusha" – a notable Soviet rocket launcher

Following several Soviet-staged incidents (like the Rostov-on-Don incident), which Soviet propaganda used as a pretext to claim that Soviet forces were acting in self-defence, the first regular act of war took place on August 22, 1939 at 04:40, when the Soviets blasted through Ukrainian positions and headed for Kharkiv. They were soon outflanked on another line to the west as the Soviets advanced down the Psel, and Kharkiv had to be evacuated becoming the first city to fall to the Red Army. This invasion subsequently began World War II. The governments of Germany and Austria declared war on the Soviet Union on August 25; however, they failed to provide any meaningful support. The Austrian and German air forces began mobilising and moving into Ukrainian airspace. Austrian ground forces began moving into western Ukraine to provide support and hold the front line if they were defeated. On August 31 Belarus declared war on the Soviet Union after allowing a number of German forces into their country for support.

The Ukrainian forces on the Mius, comprising the 6th Sich Division and the 20th Pavlohrad Cavalry Regiment, were too weak to repulse a Soviet attack on their own front, and when the Soviets hit them they had to fall back all the way through the Donbass industrial region to the Dnieper, losing the industrial resources and half the farmland that the Soviet Union had invaded Ukraine to exploit. At this time Hetman Pavlo agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line, along which was meant to be a line of defence similar to the wall of fortifications along the German frontier in the west. The main problem for the Ukrainians was that these defences had not yet been built, and by the time the army had evacuated eastern Ukraine and begun withdrawing across the Dnieper during October, the Soviets were hard behind them. Tenaciously, small units paddled their way across the 3 km (1.9 mi) wide river and established bridgeheads. A second attempt by the Soviets to gain land using parachutists, mounted at Kanev on October 24, proved to be luckless, and the paratroopers were soon repelled – but not until still more Red Army troops had used the cover they provided to get themselves over the Dnieper and securely dug in. As October ended and November started, the Ukrainians found the Dnieper line impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew, and important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Dnepropetrovsk. Finally, early in December the Soviets broke out of their bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and captured the Ukrainian capital.

Roza Shanina

Soviet sniper Roza Shanina in 1944. About 400,000 Soviet women served in front-line duty units.

Eighty miles west of Kiev, the Ukrainian Steppe Division, still convinced that the Austrian Army would make it to Kiev in time, was able to mount a successful riposte at Zhytomyr during the middle of November, weakening the Soviet bridgehead by a daring outflanking strike mounted by the 1st Ukrainian Corps along the river Teterev. This battle also enabled the Ukrainians to recapture Korosten and gain some time to rest; however, on Christmas Eve the retreat began anew when the First Ukrainian Front struck them in the same place. The Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the Austrian–Soviet border was reached on January 3, 1940. To the south, the Second Ukrainian Front had crossed the Dnieper at Kremenchug and continued westwards. In the second week of January 1940 they swung north, meeting Vatutin's tank forces which had swung south from their penetration into Austria and surrounding ten Austrian divisions at Korsun–Shevchenkovsky, west of Cherkassy. Emperor Otto's insistence on holding the Dnieper line, even when facing the prospect of catastrophic defeat, was compounded by his conviction that the Cherkassy pocket could break out and even advance to Kiev, but Raus was more concerned about being able to advance to the edge of the pocket and then implore the surrounded forces to break out. By February 16 the first stage was complete, with panzers separated from the contracting Cherkassy pocket only by the swollen Gniloy Tikich river. Under shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks, the surrounded Austrian troops, fought their way across the river to safety, although at the cost of half their number and all their equipment. They assumed the Soviets would not attack again, with the spring approaching, but on March 3 the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive. Having already secured the Crimea by linking the Perekop isthmus, Malinovsky's forces advanced across the mud to the Romania border, not stopping on the river Prut.

File:Eastern Front 1943-08 to 1944-12.png

One final move in the south completed the 1939–40 campaigning season, which had wrapped up a Soviet advance of over 500 miles. In March, 20 Austrian divisions of Vezérezredes Gusztáv Vitéz Jány's  2nd Hungarian Army was encircled in what was to be known as Jány's Pocket near Kamenets-Podolskiy. After two weeks' of heavy fighting, the 2nd Hungarian managed to escape the pocket, suffering only light to moderate casualties. In April, the Red Army took Odessa, followed by a proclaimation of a communist regime in Kiev, which culminated in Ukraine's incorporation into the Soviet Union on May 10.

Along the frontier of Belarus, August 1939 saw this force pushed back from the Sierada defensive line slowly, ceding comparatively little territory, but the loss of Bryansk, on September 25 cost the Belarusian National Army the keystone of the entire defensive system. The 4th and 9th armies and German 3rd Panzer Army still held their own east of the upper Dnieper, stifling Soviet attempts to reach Vitebsk. In the Baltic region, there was barely any fighting at all until January 1940, when out of nowhere Volkhov and Second Baltic Fronts struck. In a lightning campaign, the Germans positioned troops on Livonia which declared war on the Soviet Union after its attack. The Baltic Sea seemed to Stalin the quickest way to take the battles to the German territory in East Prussia and seize control of Finland. The Narva Front's offensives towards Tallinn, a main Baltic port, were stopped in February 1940. The Baltic army unites included Estonian conscripts, defending the establishment of Estonian independence.

On November 30, Soviet forces invaded Finland with 21 divisions, totaling some 450,000 men, and bombed Helsinki. Later the Finnish King Väinö II commented that the Soviet attack without a declaration of war violated three different non-aggression pacts: the Treaty of Tartu signed in 1920, the non-aggression pact between Finland and the Soviet Union signed in 1932 and again in 1934. C.G.E. Mannerheim was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces after the Soviet attack. In further reshuffling, the Finnish government named Risto Ryti as the new prime minister and Väinö Tanner as foreign minister.

On December 1, the Soviet Union formed another puppet government intended to rule Finland after the Red Army conquered it. Called the Finnish Democratic Republic, it was headed by O. W. Kuusinen. The government was also called "The Terijoki Government", named after the village of Terijoki, the first place captured by the advancing Soviet army. From the very outset of the war, working-class Finns stood behind the legal government in Helsinki. Finnish national unity against the Soviet invasion was later called the spirit of the Winter War.

By March 5, the Red Army advanced 10 to 15 km (6.2 to 9.3 mi) past the Mannerheim Line and entered the suburbs of Viipuri. That same day, the Red Army established a beachhead on the western Gulf of Viipuri. The Finns proposed an armistice on that day, but the Soviets, wanting to keep the pressure on the Finnish government, declined the offer the next day. The Finnish peace delegation went to Moscow via Stockholm and arrived on March 7. The Soviets made further demands as their military position was strong and improving. On March 9, the Finnish military situation on the Karelian Isthmus was dire as troops were experiencing heavy casualties. In addition, artillery ammunition supplies were exhausted and weapons were wearing out. The Finnish government, noting that the hoped-for Austro-German military expedition would not arrive in time, as Norway and Sweden had not given them right of passage, had little choice but to accept the Soviet terms. The formal peace treaty was signed in Moscow on March 12 securing Finlands independence but removed it from the war.

Summer 1940

Red Army greeted in Bucharest

The Red Army is greeted in Bucharest, August 1940

19440712 soviet and ak soldiers vilnius

Soviet soldiers in Vilnius, July 1940

Armeeoberkommando planners were convinced that the Soviets would attack again in the south, where the front was fifty miles from Lviv and offered the most direct route to Vienna. The Germans had transferred units to the west to particpate in the invasion of France begining in May. The Belorussian Offensive (codenamed Operation Bagration), which began on June 22, 1940 was a massive Soviet attack, consisting of four Soviet army groups totaling over 120 divisions that smashed into a thinly held Belorussian-German line. They focused their massive attacks on Belarus, not Livonia as the Germans had originally expected. More than 2.3 million Soviet troops went into action against the Belarussian Army, which boasted a strength of fewer than 800,000 men. At the points of attack, the numerical and quality advantages of the Soviets were overwhelming: the Red Army achieved a ratio of ten to one in tanks and seven to one in aircraft over their enemy. The Belarusians crumbled and the Germans retreated. The capital of Belarus, Minsk, was taken on July 3, trapping some 5,000 Germans. Ten days later the Red Army reached the prewar Polish border. Bagration was by any measure, one of the largest single operations of the war.

The neighbouring Lvov–Sandomierz operation was launched on July 7, 1940 rapidly routing the Austrian forces in Western Ukraine. Lviv itself was occupied by the Soviets on July 26. The city was taken by the 1st Ukrainian Front, a Soviet force, relatively easily. Ukrainian hopes of independence were squashed amidst the overwhelming force of the Soviets, much like in the Baltic States. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA, would continue waging a guerrilla war against the Soviets until the end of the war. The Soviet advance in the south continued into Romania and, following a coup against the Axis-aligned government of Romania on August 23, the Red Army occupied Bucharest on August 31. In Moscow on September 12, Romania and the Soviet Union signed an armistice on terms Moscow virtually dictated. The Romanian capitulation to Moscow tore a hole in the southern Austrian Front causing the inevitable loss of the whole of the Hungary.

19440816 soviet soldiers attack jelgava

Soviet soldiers advance through the streets of Jelgava; summer 1940

The rapid progress of Operation Bagration threatened to cut off and isolate the countries and German units of the Baltic bitterly resisting the Soviet advance towards Tallinn. In a ferocious attack at the Sinimäed Hills, Livonia, the Soviet Second Baltic Front failed to break through the defence of the smaller, well-fortified army detachment "Narwa" in terrain not suitable for large-scale operations. In Slovakia, the Slovak National Uprising started as an armed struggle between Austrian national forces and rebel Slovak troops between August and October 1940. It was centered at Banská Bystrica.

Autumn 1940

On September 8, 1940 the Red Army began an attack on the Dukla Pass in Austrian Galacia. Two months later, the Soviets won the battle and entered Slovakia. The toll was high: 20,000 Red Army soldiers died, plus several thousand Austrians, Slovaks and Czechs.

Under the pressure of the Soviet Baltic Offensive, the German Army Group North were withdrawn to fight in the sieges of Saaremaa, Courland and Memel.

January–March 1941

File:Eastern Front 1945-01 to 1945-05.png

Main articles: Vistula–Oder Offensive (Central Victory) (January–February) with the follow-up East Pomeranian Offensive (Centrl Victory) and Silesian Offensives (Central victory) (February–April), East Prussian Offensive (Central Victory) (January–April), Vienna Offensive (Central Victory) (March–April)

The Soviet Union advanced towards Warsaw but were prevented by combined Polish and German troops from entering the city on January 17, 1941. Over three days, on a broad front incorporating four army fronts, the Red Army began an offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. After four days the Red Army broke out and started moving thirty to forty km a day, taking the Baltic states and East Prussia. During the full course of the Vistula–Oder operation (23 days), the Red Army forces sustained 194,191 total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) and lost 1267 tanks and assault guns.

Army Group North was driven into an ever smaller pocket around Königsberg in East Prussia.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-072-09, Ostpreußen, Flüchtlingtreck

German refugees from East Prussia, February 1945

In the south, three Austrian attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest failed and the city fell on February 13 to the Soviets. On March 6, the Austrians again counter-attacked;Feldmarschall Erhard Raus insisting on the impossible task of regaining the Danube River. By March 16 the attack had failed and the Red Army counterattacked the same day. On March 30 they entered German-Austria and Emperor Otto I finally granted passage for the German army barely in time to save Vienna on April 13.

OKR and Hitler took advantage of Wilhelm II's failing health and without informing him order troops in Austria to seize control of the country and isolate Otto I and arrest members of the government and military who did not submit. By April 9, 1945 the Red Army was finally pushed out of East Prussia.

The victory at Königsberg allowed the OKR to free up seasoned soldiers to move south to the west bank of Lake Neusiedl. During the first two weeks of April, the Germans performed their fastest front redeployment of the war. General Gotthard Heinrici concentrated his Second Panzer Army, which had been deployed along the front lines from Donnerskirchen in the south to Břeclav in the north. While this redeployment was in progress gaps were left in the lines and the remnants of the Third Hungarian Army, which had been bottled up in a pocket near Hodonín, managed to withdraw.

April–May 1941

Main articles: Poland Campaign (Central Victory)

Before any real offensive against the Soviet Union could be attempted the Axis had to secure eastern Germany, retake Hungary and drive the Red Army out of Poland. The German offensive had two objectives. The offensive was to be on a broad front and was to move as rapidly as possible to the east, to align the front as far east as possible.

The morning April 14, German forces went on the offensive from the north, south, and west. As the Germans advanced, Soviet forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation in western Poland to more established lines of defense to the east. After the early-May Soviet defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage. Soviet forces then withdrew to the Polish border where they prepared for a long defense of the Soviet Union newly annexed frontier republic's.

The offensive to recapture Northern Hungary and Budapest started on April 16 with an assault on the Red Army positions in Slovakia. After several days of heavy fighting the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies punched holes through the Soviet front line and were fanning out across Hungary. By April 24, elements of the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies had completed the encirclement of the Hungarian capital and the Second Siege of Budapest entered its final stages. On April 25 the Third Hungarian Army broke through the 1st Ukrainian Front's line north of Vsetín. Fyodor Tolbukhin, military commander of Budapest and the 3rd Ukrainian Front, surrendered the city to the Germans on May 2. Altogether, the operations in Hungary (April 16 – May 2) cost the Red Army 361,367 casualties (dead, wounded, missing and sick) and 1997 tanks and assault guns.

Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941

File:Eastern Front 1941-06 to 1941-12.png

Operation Barbarossa began just before dawn on June 22, 1941. The Germans wrecked the wire network in all Soviet western military districts to undermine Soviet communications.

Panicky transmissions from Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this one:

"We are being fired upon. What shall we do?"

The answer was just as confusing:

"You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?"

22jun1941

Map of South Western Front (Ukrainian) at June 22, 1941

At 03:15 on June 22, 1941 99 of 190 German divisions, including fourteen panzer divisions and ten motorized, were deployed against the Soviet Union from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions, and nine Romanian and four Hungarian brigades. On the same day, the Baltic, Western and Kiev Special military districts were renamed the Northwestern, Western and Southwestern Fronts respectively. To establish air supremacy, the Luftwaffe began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields, destroying much of the forward-deployed Soviet Air Force airfield fleets consisting of largely obsolescent types before their pilots had a chance to leave the ground. For a month the offensive conducted on three axes was completely unstoppable as the panzer forces encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets that were then reduced by slower-moving infantry armies while the panzers continued the offensive, following the Blitzkrieg doctrine.

Army Group North's objective was Leningrad via the Baltic states. Comprising the 16th and 18th Armies and the 4th Panzer Group, this formation advanced through the Baltic states, and the Russian Pskov and Novgorod regions. local insurgents seized the moment and controlled most of Lithuania, northern Latvia and southern Estonia prior to the arrival of the German forces.

File:Victims of Soviet NKVD in Lvov, June 1941.jpg

Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (2nd and 3rd), advanced to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk and converged east of Minsk, followed by the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Armies. The combined panzer force reached the Beresina River in just six days, 650 km (400 mi) from their start lines. The next objective was to cross the Dnieper river, which was accomplished by July 11. Their next target was Smolensk, which fell on July 16, but the fierce Soviet resistance in the Smolensk area and retardation of the Reichswehr advance in the North and South forced the Germans to halt a central thrust at Moscow and to divert Panzer Group 3 north. Critically, Guderian's Panzer Group 2 was ordered to move south in a giant pincer maneuver with Army Group South which was advancing into Ukraine. Army Group Centre's infantry divisions were left relatively unsupported by armor to continue their slow advance to Moscow.

This decision caused a severe leadership crisis. The German field commanders argued for an immediate offensive towards Moscow, but Hitler overruled them, citing the importance of Ukrainian agricultural, mining and industrial resources, as well as the massing of Soviet reserves in the Gomel area between Army Group Centre's southern flank and the bogged-down Army Group South's northern flank. This decision, Hitler's "summer pause", is believed to have had a nearly severe impact on the Battle of Moscow's outcome, by giving up speed in the advance on Moscow in favor of encircling large numbers of Soviet troops around Kiev.

Army Group South, with the 1st Panzer Group, the 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, was tasked with advancing through Galicia and into Ukraine. Their progress, however, was rather slow, and took heavy casualties in a major tank battle. With the corridor towards Kiev secured by mid-July, the 11th Army, aided by two Romanian armies, fought its way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. The 1st Panzer Group turned away from Kiev for the moment, advancing into the Dnieper bend (western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast). When it joined up with the southern elements of Army Group South at Uman, the Group captured about 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a huge encirclement. Advancing armored divisions of the Army Group South met with the Guderian Panzer Group 2 near Lokhvytsa in mid September, cutting off large numbers of Red Army troops in the pocket east of Kiev. 400,000 Soviet prisoners were captured as Kiev was surrendered on September 19.

RIAN archive 137811 Children during air raid

Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the war, June 1941, by RIA Novosti archive

As the Red Army withdrew behind the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, the Soviet Stavka (the high command), turned its attention to evacuating as much of the western regions' industry as it could. Factories were dismantled and packed onto flatcars, away from the front line, re-establishing it in more remote areas of the Ural Mountains, Caucasus, Central Asia and south-eastern Siberia. Most civilians were left to make their own way East as only the industry-related workers could be evacuated with the equipment, and much of the population was left behind to the mercy of the invading forces.

Stalin ordered the retreating Red Army to initiate a scorched earth policy to deny Germans and their allies basic supplies as they moved eastward. To carry out that order, destruction battalions were formed in front line areas, having the authority to summarily execute any suspicious person. The destruction battalions burned down villages, schools, and public buildings. As a part of this policy, the NKVD committed massacres where thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners were executed.

Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941

The Germans then decided to resume the advance on Moscow, re-designating the panzer groups as panzer armies for the occasion. Operation Typhoon, which was set in motion on September 30, saw the 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Oryol (captured October 5) to the Oka River at Plavsk, while the 4th Panzer Army (transferred from Army Group North to Centre) and 3rd Panzer armies surrounded the Soviet forces in two huge pockets at Vyazma and Bryansk. Army Group North positioned itself in front of Leningrad and attempted to cut the rail link at Mga to the east. This began the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. North of the Arctic Circle, a German–Finnish force set out for Murmansk but could get no further than the Zapadnaya Litsa River, where they settled down.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1981-149-34A, Russland, Herausziehen eines Autos

Reichswehr soldiers pulling a car from the mud during the rasputitsa period, November 1941

Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkov, Kursk, and Stalino. The 11th Army moved into the Crimea and took control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until July 3, 1942). On November 21, the Germans took Rostov, the gateway to the Caucasus. However, the German lines were over-extended and the Soviet defenders counterattacked the 1st Panzer Army's spearhead from the north, forcing them to pull out of the city and behind the Mius River.

File:Odessa Soviet artilery.JPG

The onset of the winter freeze saw one last German lunge that opened on November 15, when the Germans attempted to throw a ring around Moscow. On November 27, the 4th Panzer Army got to within 30 km (19 mi) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army, managed to take Tula, the last Soviet city that stood in its way to the capital. After a meeting held in Orsha between the head of the OKH (Army General Staff), General Franz Halder and the heads of three Army groups and armies, decided to push forward to Moscow since it was better, as argued by the head of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, for them to try their luck on the battlefield rather than just sit and wait while their opponent gathered more strength.

However, by December 6 it became clear that the Reichswehr was strong enough to capture Moscow and the attack continued feverishly throughout the month. Marshal Shaposhnikov thus attempted a counter-attack, employing freshly mobilized reserves, but failed to receive the well-trained Far-Eastern divisions from the east do the neutrality of Japan in question. On December 30, as the German forces fought their way into the center of Moscow, Joseph Stalin committed suicide by taking cyanide and shooting himself. Georgy Zhukov, defence commandant of Moscow, surrendered the city to the Germans on January 2.

Soviet counter-offensive: Winter 1941

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With the death of Joseph Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov became de facto leader of the Soviet Union. Molotov and other Soviet leadership relocated to the Caucasus where a temporary government continued the war.

A Soviet attack was mounted in late January, focusing on the junction between Army groups North and Centre between Lake Seliger and Rzhev, and drove a gap between the two German army groups. In concert with the advance from Kaluga to the south-west of Moscow, it was intended that the two offensives converge on Smolensk, but the Germans rallied and managed to hold them apart, retaining a salient at Rzhev. A Soviet parachute drop on German-held Dorogobuzh was spectacularly unsuccessful, and those paratroopers who survived had to escape to the partisan-held areas beginning to swell behind the German lines. Further north, the Second Shock Army was unleashed on the Volkhov River. Initially this made some progress; however, it was unsupported, and by June a German counterattack cut off and destroyed the army. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant General Andrey Vlasov later became known for defecting to the Germans and forming the ROA or Russian Liberation Army.

In the south the Red Army lunged over the Donets River at Izyum and drove a 100 km ({{rnd/bExpression error: Unexpected < operator.|Expression error: Unexpected < operator.|(Expression error: Unrecognised punctuation character "[".)|Expression error: Unexpected < operator.}} mi) deep salient. The intent was to pin Army Group South against the Sea of Azov, but as the winter eased the Germans were able to counter-attack and cut off the over-extended Soviet troops in the Second Battle of Kharkov.

Don, Volga, and Caucasus: Summer 1942

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Although plans were made to starve the Soviet resistance the Japanese bombing of the American fleet and attack on Rabaul changed the global situation drastically. It became clear the Germans needed a decisive victory that crushed the Red Army. On June 28, 1942 an offensive opened in a different direction. Army Group South took the initiative, anchoring the front with the Battle of Voronezh and then following the Don river southeastwards. The grand plan was to secure the Don and Volga first and then drive into the Caucasus towards the oilfields, but operational considerations and Hitler's vanity made him order both objectives to be attempted simultaneously. Rostov was recaptured on July 24 when the 1st Panzer Army joined in, and then that group drove south towards Maikop. As part of this, Operation Shamil was executed, a plan whereby a group of Brandenburger commandos dressed up as Soviet NKVD troops to destabilise Maikop's defenses and allow the 1st Panzer Army to enter the oil town with little opposition.

Meanwhile, the 6th Army was driving towards Stalingrad, for a long period unsupported by 4th Panzer Army, which had been diverted to help 1st Panzer Army cross the Don. By the time the 4th Panzer Army had rejoined the Stalingrad offensive Soviet resistance (comprising the 62nd Army under Vasily Chuikov) had stiffened. A leap across the Don brought German troops to the Volga on August 23 but for the next three months the Reichswehr would be fighting the Battle of Stalingrad street-by-street. Towards the south, the 1st Panzer Army had reached the Caucasian foothills and the Malka River. At the end of August Romanian mountain troops joined the Caucasian spearhead, while the Romanian 3rd and 4th armies were redeployed from their successful task of clearing the Azov littoral. They took up position on either side of Stalingrad to free German troops for the main offensive. Mindful of the continuing antagonism between Axis allies Romania and the Hungarian units over Transylvania, the Romanian army in the Don bend was separated from the Hungarian 2nd army by the Italian 8th Army. Thus all of Germany's allies were involved – including a Czechoslovakian contingent with the 1st Panzer Army and a Croatian regiment attached to 6th Army.

The advance into the Caucasus bogged down, with the Germans unable to fight their way past Malgobek and to the main prize of Grozny. Instead they switched the direction of their advance to approach it from the south, crossing the Malka at the end of October and entering North Ossetia. In the first week of November, on the outskirts of Ordzhonikidze, the 13th Panzer Division's spearhead was snipped off and the panzer troops had to fall back.

Stalingrad: Winter 1942

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