Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941
At 03:15 on 22 June 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.
Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (the 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 11 July. Their next target was Smolensk, which fell on 16 July, but the fierce Soviet resistance in the Smolensk area and slowing of the Wehrmacht advance in North and South forced Hitler to halt a central thrust at Moscow and to divert the 3rd Panzer Group north. Critically, Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group 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 severe impact on the Battle of Moscow's outcome, by slowing down 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 they took heavy casualties in a major tank battle. At the beginning of July, the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies, aided by elements of the German 11th Army, fought their 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 Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group 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 19 September.
As the Red Army withdrew behind the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, the Soviet Stavka (high command) turned its attention to evacuating as much of the western regions' industry as it could. Factories were dismantled and transported on flatcars away from the front line for re-establishment 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, with only industry-related workers evacuated with the equipment; 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 the Germans and their allies basic supplies as they advanced 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 massacred thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners.
Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941
Wehrmacht soldiers pulling a car from the mud during the rasputitsa period, November 1941
Hitler 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 30 September, saw the 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Oryol (captured 5 October) 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.
Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkov, Kursk, and Stalino. The combined German and Romanian forces moved into the Crimea and took control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until 3 July 1942). On 21 November, the Wehrmacht 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; the first significant German withdrawal of the war.
The onset of the winter freeze saw one last German lunge that opened on 15 November, when the Wehrmacht attempted to encircle Moscow. On 27 November, 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 failed 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 6 December it became clear that the Wehrmacht did not have the strength to capture Moscow, and the attack was suspended. Marshal Shaposhnikov thus began his counter-attack, employing freshly mobilized reserves, as well as some well-trained Far-Eastern divisions transferred from the east following intelligence that Japan would remain neutral.
Soviet counter-offensive: Winter 1941-1942
The Soviet counter-offensive during the Battle of Moscow had removed the immediate German threat to the city. According to Zhukov, "the success of the December counter-offensive in the central strategic direction was considerable. Having suffered a major defeat the German striking forces of Army Group Centre were retreating." Stalin's objective in January 1942 was "to deny the Germans any breathing space, to drive them westward without let-up, to make them use up their reserves before spring comes..."
The main blow was to be delivered by a double envelopment orchestrated by the Northwestern Front, the Kalinin Front and the Western Front. The overall objective according to Zhukov was the "subsequent encirclement and destruction of the enemy's main forces in the area of Rzhev, Vyazma and Smolensk. The Leningrad Front, the Volkhov Front and the right wing forces of the Northwestern Front were to rout the Army Group North." The Southwestern Front and Southern Front were to defeat the Army Group South. The Caucasian Front and Black Sea Fleet were to take back the Crimea.
The 20th Army, part of the 1st Shock Army, the 22nd Tank Brigade and five ski battalions launched their attack on 10 January 1942. By 17 January, the Soviets had captured Lotoshino and Shakhovskaya. By 20 January, the 5th and 33rd armies had captured Ruza, Dorokhovo, Mozhaisk and Vereya, while the 43rd and 49th armies were at Domanovo.
The Wehrmacht rallied, retaining a salient at Rzhev. A Soviet parachute drop by two battalions of the 201st Airborne Brigade and the 250th Airborne Regiment on 18 and 22 January was designed to "cut off enemy communications with the rear." Lt.-Gen. Mikhail Grigoryevich Yefremov's 33rd Army aided by Gen. Belov's 1st Cavalry Corps and Soviet Partisans attempted to seize Vyazma. This force was joined by additional paratroopers of the 8th Airborne Brigade at the end of January. However, in early February, the Germans managed to cut off this force, separating the Soviets from their main force in the rear of the Germans. They were supplied by air until April when they were given permission to regain the Soviet main lines. Only part of Belov's Cavalry Corps made it to safety however, while Yefremov's men fought "a losing battle."
By April 1942, the Soviet Supreme Command agreed to assume the defensive so as to "consolidate the captured ground." According to Zhukov, "During the winter offensive, the forces of the Western Front had advanced from 70 to 100 km, which somewhat improved the overall operational and strategic situation on the Western sector."
To the north, the Red Army surrounded a German garrison in Demyansk, which held out with air supply for four months, and established themselves in front of Kholm, Velizh, and Velikie Luki.
Further north still, the Soviet 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 defected to Germany and formed the ROA or Russian Liberation Army.
In the south the Red Army lunged over the Donets River at Izyum and drove a 100 km (62 mi) deep salient. The intent was to pin Army Group South against the Sea of Azov, but as the winter eased the Wehrmacht counter-attacked and cut off the over-extended Soviet troops in the Second Battle of Kharkov.
Things You Should Know About WWII’s Eastern Front
Extreme weather conditions played a crucial role in the Soviet victory
In addition to the might of the Red Army, German troops were also worn down by “General Winter”—the nickname used to describe the deadly Russian frost. Adolf Hitler’s invasion plans called for the Germans to conquer the Soviet Union before the legendary cold could set in, but supply issues and an unexpectedly spirited resistance combined to stall the advance at Moscow’s doorstep in late-1941.
In such conditions Panfilov's Men stopped the German offensive near Moscow.
The Panfilov Division's Twenty-Eight Guardsmen commonly referred to simply as Panfilov's Men, were a group of soldiers from the Red Army's 316th Rifle Division who took part in the defense of Moscow during World War II. According to official Soviet history, they were all killed in action on 16 November 1941, after destroying 18 German tanks and stopping the enemy attack. The Twenty-Eight were collectively endowed with the title Hero of the Soviet Union.
Russian song and film about The Panfilov Division's Twenty-Eight Guardsmen
Russian women served in front line combat roles
Soviet-era Communism tended to embrace the equality of the sexes, and perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in the Russian attitude toward female soldiers. Nearly one million Soviet women took up arms and served on the front lines of World War II as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, partisan guerillas and even fighter pilots. More than simply providing the Red Army with an unanticipated boost in numbers, female troops eventually earned a reputation as some of the fiercest fighters on the Eastern Front. Among others, ace pilots Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova each downed around a dozen German planes, and sharpshooter Lyudmila Pavlichenko singlehandedly killed more than 300 enemy soldiers. Anxious to prove their worth in combat, women regularly signed up for some of the most hazardous combat positions. For example, one of the most feared Soviet units was an all-female regiment of dive-bombers known as the “Night Witches,” who flew light biplanes on nighttime bombing raids behind German lines.
This amazing song is about Night Witches
V means Victory. V means Vite too.
When war raged in fronts of Soviet Union rear worked to bring victory.
All for Victory! All for Vite!!!