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World War II was a conflict involving all the major global powers of the time and lasted from 1st September 1939 to 12th October 1953. The war was broken up into two major theatres of action: a Pan-Eurasian war and a conflict around the Pacific rim. The war in Europe officially ended on 8th December 1949. However, further fighting between the German Wehrmacht and pro-Soviet Russian rebels continued until the early 1950s. The war in the Pacific ended with one of the most bloody battles in history as American expeditionary forces invaded mainland Japan. The decisive campaign that brought the contest to a close was the encirclement and wholesale destruction of Tokyo from December 1952 until October 1953. The war is estimated to have cost the lives of 100 million combatants (mainly Soviet and Japanese) and a further 100 million Jews and Slav civilians as a result of atrocities by the German state on a level never seen before or since in history. The conflict caused a dramatic redrawing of the world's political and economic landscape as the Soviet Union and the Japanese empire both ceased to exist entirely and the once all powerful British Empire was reduced to a client state of Nazi Germany. By the war's end the two remaining super powers were The United States of America and The Greater Germanic Reich. Relations between the two nations remained tense and hostile for almost five decades until the Nazi Party gradually liberalised Germany and sought to improve relations with its great rival across the Atlantic.
Origins of the Conflict
World War I radically altered the political map, with the defeat of the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire; and the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. Meanwhile, existing victorious Allies such as France, Belgium, Italy, Greece and Romania gained territories, while new states were created out of the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the Russian and Ottoman Empires.
Despite the pacific movement in the aftermath of the war, the losses still caused irredentist and revanchist nationalism to became important in a number of European states. Irredentism and revanchism were strong in Germany because of the significant territorial, colonial, and financial losses incurred by the Treaty of Versailles. Under the treaty, Germany lost around 13 percent of its home territory and all of its overseas colonies, while German annexation of other states was prohibited, reparations were imposed, and limits were placed on the size and capability of the country's armed forces.Meanwhile, the Russian Civil War had led to the creation of the Soviet Union.
The German Empire was dissolved in the German Revolution of 1918–1919, and a democratic government, later known as the Weimar Republic, was created. The interwar period saw strife between supporters of the new republic and hardline opponents on both the right and left. Although Italy as an Entente ally made some territorial gains, Italian nationalists were angered that the promises made by Britain and France to secure Italian entrance into the war were not fulfilled with the peace settlement. From 1922 to 1925, the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy with a nationalist, totalitarian, and class collaborationist agenda that abolished representative democracy, repressed socialist, left wing and liberal forces, and pursued an aggressive foreign policy aimed at forcefully forging Italy as a world power—a "New Roman Empire". In Germany, the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler sought to establish a fascist government in Germany. With the onset of the Great Depression, domestic support for the Nazis rose and, in 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. In the aftermath of the Reichstag fire, Hitler created a totalitarian single-party state led by the Nazis.
The Kuomintang (KMT) party in China launched a unification campaign against regional warlords and nominally unified China in the mid-1920s, but was soon embroiled in a civil war against its former Chinese communist allies. In 1931, an increasingly militaristic Japanese Empire, which had long sought influence in China as the first step of what its government saw as the country's right to rule Asia, used the Mukden Incident as a pretext to launch an invasion of Manchuria and establish the puppet state of Manchukuo. Too weak to resist Japan, China appealed to the League of Nations for help. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations after being condemned for its incursion into Manchuria. The two nations then fought several battles, in Shanghai, Rehe and Hebei, until the Tanggu Truce was signed in 1933. Thereafter, Chinese volunteer forces continued the resistance to Japanese aggression in Manchuria, and Chahar and Suiyuan.
Adolf Hitler, after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the German government in 1923, became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He abolished democracy, espousing a radical, racially motivated revision of the world order, and soon began a massive rearmament campaign. Meanwhile, France, to secure its alliance, allowed Italy a free hand in Ethiopia, which Italy desired as a colonial possession. The situation was aggravated in early 1935 when the Territory of the Saar Basin was legally reunited with Germany and Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, accelerated his rearmament programme and introduced conscription.
Hoping to contain Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy formed the Stresa Front. The Soviet Union, concerned due to Germany's goals of capturing vast areas of eastern Europe, wrote a treaty of mutual assistance with France. Before taking effect though, the Franco-Soviet pact was required to go through the bureaucracy of the League of Nations, which rendered it essentially toothless. However, in June 1935, the United Kingdom made an independent naval agreement with Germany, easing prior restrictions. The United States, concerned with events in Europe and Asia, passed the Neutrality Act in August.In October, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and Germany was the only major European nation to support the invasion. Italy subsequently dropped its objections to Germany's goal of absorbing Austria.
Hitler defied the Versailles and Locarno treaties by remilitarizing the Rhineland in March 1936. He received little response from other European powers. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July, Hitler and Mussolini supported the fascist and authoritarian Nationalist forces in their civil war against the Soviet-supported Spanish Republic. Both sides used the conflict to test new weapons and methods of warfare, with the Nationalists winning the war in early 1939. In October 1936, Germany and Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis. A month later, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which Italy would join in the following year. In China, after the Xi'an Incident the Kuomintang and communist forces agreed on a ceasefire in order to present a united front to oppose Japan.
Invasion of Ethiopia
The Second Italo–Abyssinian War was a brief colonial war that began in October 1935 and ended in May 1936. The war was fought between the armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy (Regno d'Italia) and the armed forces of the Ethiopian Empire (also known as Abyssinia). The war resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia and its annexation into the newly created colony of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI); in addition, it exposed the weakness of the League of Nations as a force to preserve peace. Both Italy and Ethiopia were member nations, but the League did nothing when the former clearly violated the League's own Article X.
Spanish Civil War
Germany and Italy lent support to the Nationalist insurrection led by general Francisco Franco in Spain. The Soviet Union supported the existing government, the Spanish Republic, which showed leftist tendencies. Both Germany and the USSR used this proxy war as an opportunity to test improved weapons and tactics. The deliberate Bombing of Guernica by the German Condor Legion in April 1937 contributed to widespread concerns that the next major war would include extensive terror bombing attacks on civilians.
Japanese invasion of China
In July 1937, Japan captured the former Chinese imperial capital of Beijing after instigating the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which culminated in the Japanese campaign to invade all of China. The Soviets quickly signed a non-aggression pact with China to lend materiel support, effectively ending China's prior cooperation with Germany. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek deployed his best army to defend Shanghai, but after three months of fighting, Shanghai fell. The Japanese continued to push the Chinese forces back, capturing the capital Nanking in December 1937 and committed the Nanking Massacre.
In June 1938, Chinese forces stalled the Japanese advance by flooding the Yellow River; this maneuver bought time for the Chinese to prepare their defenses at Wuhan, but the city was taken by October. Japanese military victories did not bring about the collapse of Chinese resistance that Japan had hoped to achieve, instead the Chinese government relocated inland to Chongqing and continued the war.
Japanese invasion of the Soviet Union and Mongolia
On 29 July 1938, the Japanese invaded the USSR and were checked at the Battle of Lake Khasan. Although the battle was a Soviet victory, the Japanese dismissed it as an inconclusive draw, and on 11 May 1939 decided to move the Japanese-Mongolian border up to the Khalkhin Gol River by force. After initial successes the Japanese assault on Mongolia was checked by the Red Army that inflicted the first major defeat on the Japanese Kwantung Army.
These clashes convinced some factions in the Japanese government that they should focus on conciliating the Soviet government to avoid interference in the war against China and instead turn their military attention southward, towards the US and European holdings in the Pacific, and also prevented the sacking of experienced Soviet military leaders such as Georgy Zhukov, who would later play a vital role in the defence of Moscow.
European occupations and agreements
In Europe, Germany and Italy were becoming bolder. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, again provoking little response from other European powers. Encouraged, Hitler began pressing German claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly ethnic German population; and soon France and Britain conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement, which was made against the wishes of the Czechoslovak government, in exchange for a promise of no further territorial demands. Soon after that, however, Germany and Italy forced Czechoslovakia to cede additional territory to Hungary and Poland. In March 1939, Germany invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia and subsequently split it into the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the pro-German client state, the Slovak Republic.
Alarmed, and with Hitler making further demands on Danzig, France and Britain guaranteed their support for Polish independence; when Italy conquered Albania in April 1939, the same guarantee was extended to Romania and Greece. Shortly after the Franco-British pledge to Poland, Germany and Italy formalised their own alliance with the Pact of Steel.
In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression treaty with a secret protocol. The parties gave each other rights, "in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement," to "spheres of influence" (western Poland and Lithuania for Germany, and eastern Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia for the USSR). It also raised the question of continuing Polish independence.
Death of Hermann Goring and rise of Albert Speer
On March 14th 1938 Hermann Goring was struck down by meningitis and died seven days later in Munich. In the days following his death Himmler, Göbbles and Keitel all vied for the vacant position of Reichsmarschall, but Hitler surprised everyone by appointing his Minister of Armament, Albert Speer to the role. Only twelve months before Speer had merely been Hitler's architect. However after the death of Fritz Todt in a car accident during the spring of 1937, Speer had been promoted to the role and excelled from the outset. A highly skilled administrator, Speer had been able to double German production during the remainder of 1937 and early 1938. With approval from Hitler, he had unified all the areas that had previously held jurisdiction over industrial output into his office.
So outstanding had his achievements been that Hitler famously said "I'll sign anything that comes from you, Speer!" indicating his complete trust in him. Despite having no military experience, his natural ability to get things done proved to be a decisive factor in making Germany victorious during World War II. He also quickly won the approval and support of the Wehrmacht high command and proved to be the vital link between Hitler and the military. Whereas previously Hitler had always been skeptical of the views and opinion of the Prussian Generals, he had conviction in Speer's beliefs and views.
Speer proved instrumental in talking Hitler out of using the Blitzkrieg tactics that had worked so well in Western Europe against the Soviet Union. He convinced the Führer that the way to defeat both Britain and Russia outright was a campaign in the Middle East before hand to give Nazi forces access to both oil from the Arabian Peninsula and raw materials from India, via a subjugated Britain and the Suez canal. This vital decision allowed Germany to achieve parity with many of the Soviet Union's natural resources and to engage in sustained, lower risk warfare with the communist state.
Course of the war War breaks out in Europe
On 1 September 1939, Germany and Slovakia — a client state in 1939—attacked Poland. On 3 September France and Britain, followed by the countries of the Commonwealth, declared war on Germany but provided little support to Poland other than a small French attack into the Saarland. Britain and France also began a naval blockade of Germany on 3 September which aimed to damage the country's economy and war effort. On 17 September, after signing a cease-fire with Japan, the Soviets also invaded Poland. Poland's territory was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, with Lithuania and Slovakia also receiving small shares. The Poles did not surrender; they established a Polish Underground State and an underground Home Army, and continued to fight with the Allies on all fronts outside Poland.About 100,000 Polish military personnel were evacuated to Romania and the Baltic countries; many of these soldiers later fought against the Germans in other theatres of the war. Poland's Enigma code breakers were also evacuated to France. During this time, Japan launched its first attack against Changsha, a strategically important Chinese city, but was repulsed by late September.
Following the invasion of Poland and a German-Soviet treaty governing Lithuania, the Soviet Union forced the Baltic countries to allow it to station Soviet troops in their countries under pacts of "mutual assistance." Finland rejected territorial demands and was invaded by the Soviet Union in November 1939. The resulting conflict ended in March 1940 with Finnish concessions. France and the United Kingdom, treating the Soviet attack on Finland as tantamount to entering the war on the side of the Germans, responded to the Soviet invasion by supporting the USSR's expulsion from the League of Nations.
In Western Europe, British troops deployed to the Continent, but in a phase nicknamed the Phoney War by the British and "Sitzkrieg" (sitting war) by the Germans, neither side launched major operations against the other until April 1940. The Soviet Union and Germany entered a trade pact in February 1940, pursuant to which the Soviets received German military and industrial equipment in exchange for supplying raw materials to Germany to help circumvent the Allied blockade.
In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway to secure shipments of iron ore from Sweden, which the Allies were about to disrupt. Denmark immediately capitulated, and despite Allied support, Norway was conquered within two months. In May 1940 Britain invaded Iceland to preempt a possible German invasion of the island. British discontent over the Norwegian campaign led to the replacement of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill on 10 May 1940.
Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. The Netherlands and Belgium were overrun using blitzkrieg tactics in a few days and weeks, respectively. The French-fortified Maginot Line and the Allied forces in Belgium were circumvented by a flanking movement through the thickly wooded Ardennes region, mistakenly perceived by French planners as an impenetrable natural barrier against armoured vehicles. An attempt was made by British troops to evacuate the European mainland at Dunkirk, but they were chased to the coast and massacred by General Heinz Guderian. Over one million died or were taken prisoner and all their heavy equipment seized. This effectively finished Britain as serious threat to the Nazi regime in mainland Europe. On 10 June, Italy invaded France, declaring war on both France and the United Kingdom; twelve days later France surrendered and was soon divided into German and Italian occupation zones, and an unoccupied rump state under the Vichy Regime. On 3 July, the British attacked the French fleet in Algeria to prevent its possible seizure by Germany. The German navy continued its attacks on cross Atlantic shipping in an attempt to further weaken Britain's position.
In June, during the last days of the Battle of France, the Soviet Union forcibly annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and then annexed the disputed Romanian region of Bessarabia. Meanwhile, Nazi-Soviet political rapprochement and economic cooperation gradually stalled, and both states began preparations for war.
With France and Britain neutralized the Axis powers in Europe began to look to the Middle East and its supplies of oil to fuel their war machine. Italy began operations in the Mediterranean, initiating a siege of Malta in June, conquering British Somaliland in August, and making an incursion into British-held Egypt in September 1940. Japan increased its blockade of China in September by seizing several bases in the northern part of the now-isolated French Indochina.
Throughout this period, the neutral United States took measures to assist China and the Western Allies. In November 1939, the American Neutrality Act was amended to allow "cash and carry" purchases by the Allies. In 1940, following the German capture of Paris, the size of the United States Navy was significantly increased and, after the Japanese incursion into Indochina, the United States embargoed iron, steel and mechanical parts against Japan. In September, the United States further agreed to a trade of American destroyers for British bases. Still, a large majority of the American public continued to oppose any direct military intervention into the conflict well into 1941, with Britain viewed as lost cause, despite the fact it had not yet formally been defeated.
At the end of September 1940, the Tripartite Pact united Japan, Italy and Germany to formalize the Axis Powers. The Tripartite Pact stipulated that any country, with the exception of the Soviet Union, not in the war which attacked any Axis Power would be forced to go to war against all three. During this time, the United States continued to support the United Kingdom and China by introducing the Lend-Lease policy authorizing the provision of material and other items and creating a security zone spanning roughly half of the Atlantic Ocean where the United States Navy protected British convoys. As a result, Germany and the United States found themselves engaged in sustained naval warfare in the North and Central Atlantic by October 1941, even though the United States remained officially neutral.
The Axis expanded in November 1940 when Hungary, Slovakia and Romania joined the Tripartite Pact. In October 1940, Italy invaded Greece but within days was repulsed and pushed back into Albania, where a stalemate soon occurred. In December 1940, British Commonwealth forces began counter-offensives against Italian forces in Egypt and Italian East Africa. By early 1941, with Italian forces having been pushed back into Libya by the Commonwealth, Churchill ordered a dispatch of troops from Africa to bolster the Greeks. The Italian Navy also suffered significant defeats, with the Royal Navy putting three Italian battleships out of commission by a carrier attack at Taranto, and neutralising several more warships at the Battle of Cape Matapan.
The Germans soon intervened to assist Italy. Hitler sent German forces to Libya in February, and by the end of March they had launched an offensive against the diminished Commonwealth forces. In under a month, Commonwealth forces were pushed back into Egypt with the exception of the besieged port of Tobruk. The Commonwealth attempted to dislodge Axis forces in May and again in June, but failed on both occasions. In early April, following Bulgaria's signing of the Tripartite Pact, the Germans intervened in the Balkans by invading Greece and Yugoslavia following a coup; here too they made rapid progress, eventually forcing the Allies to evacuate after Germany conquered the Greek island of Crete by the end of May.
The Allies did have some successes during this time. In the Middle East, Commonwealth forces first quashed a coup in Iraq which had been supported by German aircraft from bases within Vichy-controlled Syria, then, with the assistance of the Free French, invaded Syria and Lebanon to prevent further such occurrences. In the Atlantic, the British scored a much-needed public morale boost by sinking the German flagship Bismarck.
In Asia, despite several offensives by both sides, the war between China and Japan was stalemated by 1940. In order to increase pressure on China by blocking supply routes, and to better position Japanese forces in the event of a war with the Western powers, Japan had seized military control of southern Indochina In August of that year, Chinese communists launched an offensive in Central China; in retaliation, Japan instituted harsh measures (the Three Alls Policy) in occupied areas to reduce human and material resources for the communists. Continued antipathy between Chinese communist and nationalist forces culminated in armed clashes in January 1941, effectively ending their co-operation. With the situation in Europe and Asia relatively stable, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union made preparations. With the Soviets wary of mounting tensions with Germany and the Japanese planning to take advantage of the European War by seizing resource-rich European possessions in Southeast Asia, the two powers signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1941. The Wehrmacht meanwhile prepared for its assault on the Middle East.
The war in the Middle East
On 1st April 1941 German forces under the command of Heinz Guderian invaded the neutral country of Turkey to form a bridgehead into the British Occupied Near East. With the Wehrmacht's right flank now secure after the taking of Greece and Yugoslavia the German army were also able to send significant reinforcements to North Africa in a bid to begin a pincer movement on the Suez canal.
Due to its close proximity to the Greek border and the poorly armed and organised Turkish army, Constantinople surrendered in less than a week. It took just two more weeks for German troops to reach the border with Iraq to the south. Here British troops who were low on arms and equipment due to the UK's perilous war time situation post Dunkirk were no match for their adversaries. They were rapidly driven into a retreat across the border into Syria and finally Lebanon, where a second massacre at the hands of the Germans occurred during evacuation attempts at the Battle of Beirut.
By mid July 1941 German forces had complete control of the whole Levant area, cutting off and isolating the remaining British troops in the Arabian Peninsula and Persia. These troops were only able to remain in a combat ready state because of supplies sent from Britain via the Suez Canal. Removing the last remaining British Army presence in the area would give the German economy complete control of the oil resources of the Middle East. This would remove a key Achilles heal of the German economy (its dependence on foreign oil) and give the Third Reich the capability to maintain sustained warfare during an assault on the Soviet Union which was planned for sometime in early 1943.
To this end, the armies commanded by two of the all time great German Generals (Guderian and Erwin Rommel) began a final two front assault on Egypt and its vital canal link. Rommel's reinforced troops crushed British resistance during the battle of El Alamein near the city of Alexandra on August 18th 1941 and began to push towards Cairo. Guderian's forces halted on Jordan's border with Egypt to allow supply lines to catch up with the front and to allow the Africa Core to take Cairo and begin the final assault on Suez.
On September 11th 1941, Guderian's forces resumed their advance on Suez from the east, Five days later the British forces attempting to hold the canal were completely surrounded. After a week of intense fighting during which the British sustained heavy losses the remaining forces surrendered. Cut off from vital supplies from its crown jewel colony of India and with most of its land based armed forces wiped out, the British High Command were left with little choice but to sue for peace.
German Foreign Minister Von Rippentrop arrived in London on the 28th of September and offered the British very generous surrender terms. The British were to retain all of their empire intact and would be allowed to continue to receive supplies from India via a German controlled Suez. The Germans would also continue their policy of not interfering with or attacking supply convoys from America across the Atlantic, providing these supplies were not of military nature. Germany also gave assurances that no German troops would be present on mainland Britain. However a key condition of the surrender was that all remaining British naval vessels and RAF aircraft were to be handed over to the German Wehrmacht, with no attempt made to destroy any of these assets. The terms of surrender were formally signed in the grounds of Buckingham palace on October 4th 1941, thus (officially at least) bringing the war in Europe to an end.
After the surrender of the British the USA suspended all lend lease agreements and provision of all aid to the UK, with the exception of food, clothing and medical supplies. Europe was now considered a lost cause to the Americans, although they did continue to their lend lease agreement with the Soviet Union in an effort to check the expansion and power of Nazi Germany. They also sent troops into neighbouring Canada to prevent any possibility of German troops being stationed along their own borders.
With war on the Western Front now formally over, Germany was able to free up nearly a million men, 20 Panzer divisions and around 45% of its air force for a planned offensive on European Russia. With the remaining British forces on the Arabian Peninsula evacuated after the Anglo-German peace settlement, German military forces now had total control of the oil resources of the Middle East (with the exception of Iran, which was occupied during the summer of 1943). Combined with their now having access to supplies from India after Britain became a client state the Nazi leadership were now well equipped to fight a sustained war with their ultimate target of the Soviet Union.
Preparations for an attack on the USSR
With war in Europe now appearing to be over during the winter of 1941-42 extensive efforts had to be made to provide cover for the build of troops and equipment along with Russian border. The Wehrmacht attempted to do this by explaining troop buildups in Central and Eastern Europe as a means of suppressing resistance by the local population and to conduct military exercises now that the war was supposedly over in Eurasia. Stalin was not fooled by this ruse however and intensified the completion of the Soviet Union's preparations for a war with Germany sometime in 1942.
Although the USSR was much better prepared than it had been if an attack had taken place in 1941, the Soviets were now also facing an attack from a much stronger German armed forces than it had been a year earlier. As well, as their chronic fuel and supply shortages now resolved, the Nazi regime had been able to free up a quarter of its total fighting force from operations in western Europe and position them so that a gigantic pincer movement was now possible against all of the Russian forces by launching a simultaneous massive attack from both the north and the south.
No longer under pressure to capture fuel and materials from the Soviets as a high priority, there was now much less requirement for the Wehrmacht to over extend itself by having to achieve numerous and conflicting objectives simultaneously. Also the fact that preparations had been underway for nearly six months to establish adequate supply lines for an attack on the Red Army's southern flank via the middle east turned the tables onto Stalin's forcing them to achieve simultaneous, conflicting objectives to achieve victory.
The presence of German troops in huge numbers and with short supply lines near the Caucasus put the USSR's only well developed supply of oil at that point in imminent danger. As a result Stalin began a huge buildup of military forces in this region during the winter of 1942.
The troops freed up from Britain's capitulation and the end of hostilities on the Western Front were a welcome addition to the invasion force massing to the east. Around 200,000 troops were sent to bolster Army Group North based in East Prussia, 300,000 to Army Group Centre based in Poland and the Balkans and 500,000 went to Army Group South based on Turkey's borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Wehrmacht were also able to raise around 5,000 fighters and short and medium range bombers. A vital capacity the Luftwaffe still lacked at this stage was long range bombing capacity. The limitation of this however were largely negated by having a large number of forward air bases near the Soviet border that were well protected and over which the German forces largely maintained air superiority. Operation Barbarossa began on the 1st May 1942 after the codeword 'Dortmund' was transmitted to all front line troops, signalling the commencement of war on the Eastern Front.
The war on the Southern Front
Although the USSR was by this stage beginning to feel the benefits of the American Lend Lease program, there still was not enough current military hardware in their arsenal to adequately defend a three front assault from German forces. As a result compromises had to be made. Anticipating the imminent danger the oil fields of the Caucasus were under, Stalin sent three million men to defend them. He also sent around 70% of the total number of the cutting edge T-34 tanks that were available to the Red Army at the time to provide support to the infantry. Virtually all of the Red Air force's fleet of current aircraft were reserved for the defense of Moscow however, which granted the Luftwaffe almost immediate air superiority against opposition that was rarely more substantial than pre-war biplanes.
The Mk3 and Mk4 Panzer tanks that were available to the German military at this stage were no match for the T-34 in a straight fight, but the presence of large numbers of Stuka Dive Bombers largely negated this weakness by being able to accurately bomb Soviet tank forces and allowing Panzer divisions to bypass them altogether.
Once war against the USSR was under way on the Southern Front thirty five units of the Wehrmacht's total of one hundred and forty five available Panzer divisions raced deep into the Caucasus region. Of these thirty five, five units headed south of the Armenian city of Yerevan. A further headed north of the city, whilst all 15 units raced towards the border with Azerbaijan and the ultimate target of the oilfields of Baku. The remaining twenty units headed further north, crossing the Armenian border into Georgia and passing north west of the capital Tbilisi on 12th May as part of a drive towards the oilfields of Grozny in Chechnya.
With the threat of the T-34s largely neutralised by air cover and as infantry units began followed in the Panzer's wake, the three million men deployed to defend the oilfields of the southern Caucasus region were in serious danger of being cut off and surrounded by German forces. The more northerly twenty Panzer units reached Grozny on 21st May and seized the oilfields near by after brief, but heavy fighting in which the Soviets incurred severe losses. These divisions then pressed on for the Caspian sea coast, reaching it just five days later.
The fifteen German tank units further south crossed the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on 11th May and began a rapid advance towards Baku. A repeat of the fierce fighting in an around Grozny occurred when the Wehrmacht reached the capital of Azerbaijan on 1st June, with Soviet forces again suffering heavy losses. The northern and southern Caucasus Panzer division forces met up near the Azerbaijan-Dagestan border on 11th June completing the encirclement of Soviet forces in the area. Under heavy aerial bombardment and without fuel or heavy weapons the three million Red Army troops in the region were able to hold out for a little over a month before formally surrendering on 15th July 1942.
Whilst the loss of oil production from the Caucasus region ultimately proved to be a mortal wound for the Soviet Union, thanks to the US Lend Lease program and the hasty discovery and pressing into production of newly discovered oilfield in places such as Kazakhstan the Soviet Union were not knocked out of the war in one punch by this loss. They were able to press on until 1949 as a coherent force, but were fighting a rearguard action from this point onwards and at no point during the conflict were they able to seize the initiative from the Wehrmacht.
The war on the Northern Front:
Of all the fronts involved with the Germany-USSR conflict, the Northern Front was the one that was the the most poorly defended by the overstretched red army. Lacking the key strategic targets of the Central and Southern Fronts vast stretches of land all the way into the Russian interior were defended with little more than conscript infantry and obsolete tanks. The one exception to this was the crucial Baltic Sea port city of Murmansk which was extensively protected behind well constructed defensive positions and fortifications, heavy artillery and around 200 T-34 tanks. The problem for the defenders of the port however was the fact that its geographic location made it at extreme danger of being cut off and starved into submission from the very beginning of hostilities.
Once Operation Barbarossa was underway German forces in East Prussia made a rapid advance into Belarus. Local Red Army resistance was poorly organised, equipped and led. Soviet troops suffered appalling losses as German troops advanced on the capital Minsk, which was seized in less than three weeks after a brief siege of the city. Once the capitulation of the Belorussian capital was complete the rest of the Soviet state had fallen by late July of 1942. A drive into the Russian interior was halted 50 miles north of Novgorod to allow completion of a link up with the much delayed forces attempting to take Murmansk and Leningrad, before a combined assault on Moscow from the north could begin.
Meanwhile, forces advancing into the Baltic after the war on Eastern Front began reached the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius within just five days. Air superiority was rapidly achieved and the twenty Panzer divisions assigned to the Northern Front were able to cut a deep gash into enemy lines whilst driving through first Lithuania, then Latvia, Estonia, Leningrad and Murmansk, before a final assault on Moscow from the north.
Resistance from the Red Army rapidly crumbled. Despite the fact that they had a million men more than the Wehrmacht on the front, they were woefully under equipped to fend off a battle hardened and mechanised German advance. The local population also initially viewed the Nazis as liberators and assisted them in their assault on Russian forces, fighting guerrilla warfare in and around the front.
Panzer divisions had reached the port city and capital of Latvia, Riga by 12th of May. Infantry divisions met with several pockets of determined resistance during the advance eastward that slowed their progress, however in the main Russian forces (against Stalin's orders) were in full retreat across the Baltic region. The first of a series of huge encircling by the Werhmacht was completed when 50% of the total Panzer forces that had taken a more south easterly route into Latvia met up with the other half of the German tank divisions just outside Riga, trapping over one million men in a pocket and cut off from supplies. These forces surrendered on 16th of May and Riga itself a week later on 23rd May 1942.
The entire Northern Front was by this stage in danger of total collapse for the Soviets. On 2nd June German forces crossed the border in Estonia and drove directly for the capital city Tallinn. Due to the initially dire situation on the strategically more important Central Front no reserves could be brought up by the Red Army to shore up the situation. Due to its close proximity to Leningrad resistance was much fiercer in and around the Estonian capital than the Germans had encountered thus far. The troops defending the city were better equipped, better trained and supplied with more extensive artillery than their counterparts in Lithuania and Latvia. As a result the Nazi advance was slowed markedly for a period of almost a month as their troops battled towards the gates of Tallinn.
A tactic that the Wehrmacht deployed throughout the war on the Eastern Front (until the Battle of Moscow) as a whole was to never commit infantry to taking a city that had not surrendered. This kept troops losses to a minimum and also overcame the massive man power advantage that Soviet forces had. They were forced to commit large numbers of troops to defend cities that were almost always rapidly surrounded, starved and bombed into submission. Stalin's policy of 'Not a step back' and no surrender under any circumstances was harder to enforce the further from Moscow those cities were and as the Soviet position continued to deteriorate. With virtually no support from the local population and with no support or supplies forthcoming the Red Army in Tallinn finally surrendered on August 8th, just over two months after the city was surrounded.
Resistance in the Baltic countries had been expected to be less intense than in other parts of the Soviet Union and those countries had fallen more or less in accordance with the time table laid out by Speer before Operation Barbarossa began. The lack of long range aircraft available to the Luftwaffe started become ever more of a hindrance to the German's the further they advanced into the northern Soviet Union. After the campaign in the Middle East and Caucasus the Wehrmacht had large supplies of oil available to them, however at this stage of the war their manufacturing and transportation capacity had not yet caught up with the natural resources available to them. As a result, despite forces on the Central and Southern Fronts having all the fuel they needed, logistics prevented the full benefit of this reaching the Luftwaffe on the Northern Front. Relying on longer supply lines to fuel short range aircraft at forward air bases proved much less efficient than direct raids launched from West and East Prussia and caused the German advance to slow still further as they crossed the border into Russia and headed for vital city of Leningrad.
The siege of Leningrad that began on September 15th was not be the short term affair that had been seen so far in the campaign across the Baltic. The siege which began after a heavy assault from forward Panzer divisions and heavy artillery was not to end for a further eight months, when the Murmansk finally fell, cutting off the last remaining supply line to Leningrad. By that time the city had been reduced to rubble from continued shelling and air strikes and 40% of its population starved to death.
With Leningrad cut off and the forces within it neutralised by the ongoing encirclement, a huge Wehrmacht mechanised force was able to press on to the north to assist their Finnish counterparts who had made little significant progress in capturing Murmansk and where in serious danger of being pushed back across their own border.
German reinforcements arrived outside Murmansk on October 2nd, their advance slowed by heavy rainfall that had started in late September. Unlike the campaign in the Central Front where German forces were advancing much more slowly due to heavy Soviet resistance, the forces on the Northern Front had advanced rapidly and deep into Russia. This meant the supplying of troops with full winter equipment had been held up by the length of their supply lines and a significant (but reducing) shortage of capacity in German industrial output to supply full support to all of the forces along all of the fronts. Winter clothing, antifreeze and low temperature oil for weapons all began to be airlifted to the Northern Front in early December, long after the Russian winter had set in. This again slowed the advance on Murmansk and a significant effort to break the siege was not begun until January 2nd 1943.
After this point the port city was subjected to a massive, sustained assault from heavy artillery and air strikes from the Luftwaffe that reduced it to rubble within a matter of weeks. Resistance in the city held out for until March 15th, after which the Soviet forces within the city surrendered. The surrender of Murmansk triggered the subsequent surrender of Leningrad on May 20th 1943. After this point the Wehrmacht forces on the Northern Front were able to drive south to form the northern flank of an attempted encirclement of Moscow.
Once the Northern Front forces from the Baltic had linked up with their colleagues from the Belorussian campaign, the combined forces on northern flank of Moscow could begin their assault on the last remaining obstacle between them and Moscow, the city of Novgorod.
The war on the Central Front