The 1941–1945 war between Germany and the Soviet Union was the greatest conflict in history ever fought on a single front. For almost four years, nine million troops were continually engaged as Germany and its allies Finland, Romania, Hungary, and Italy battled the Soviet Union in total war. Fighting predominantly on the ground, the battles raged over thousands of miles with Germany invading and marching 1,240 miles to the east and the Soviet Union counterattacking and eventually pushing them back 1,550 miles to Berlin. On both sides, millions of soldiers were captured; hundreds of thousands of prisoners-of-war were cruelly mistreated, starved to death, or shot, particularly by the Germans. Millions of civilians were killed or displaced. And for the first eighteen months, the Soviet Union fought this war almost entirely on its own.
German objectives: swiftly crush the Soviet Union, get control of the USSR’s natural resources, create Lebensraum (living space) for the German people, and annihilate the epicenter of Communism and its alleged Jewish allies
In 1941, after subduing most of western Europe in a matter of weeks, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to his ally of convenience, the Soviet Union, with its huge stores of oil and vast expanse of farmland. On June 22, the Germans launched the largest land invasion in world history, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, as 3,000,000 Axis troops and 3,600 tanks, with cover from 2,700 aircraft, swarmed eastward across Poland, Belorussia, and the plains of the Ukraine. Four thousand Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground in the first week; within a month, ninety percent of Soviet tanks were destroyed. Against the advice of his generals, Joseph Stalin insisted on defending Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, to the last man. Kiev fell on September 19. In the disaster, 600,000 Red Army troops were taken prisoner. The German forces closed in on Russia itself, having destroyed most of the Red Army’s front line and taken 2,000,000 Soviet prisoners. Leningrad was under siege; Moscow was in danger.
German objectives: destroy the city of Leningrad while avoiding large-scale urban warfare
The German forces that rolled across the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 stopped when they reached Leningrad, halted by Hitler, who did not yet want his troops caught up in urban warfare. Instead, the führer demanded the city be cut off from food and supplies and razed to the ground. The only route left open into Leningrad was by ship across the northern and eastern part of Lake Ladoga. When the lake froze over, Soviet trucks brought in food, fuel, and troop reinforcements, and the empty trucks carried out evacuees–850,000 between January and July 1942 alone. But the few ships and trucks that arrived could not assuage the overall misery. People froze to death or died from starvation or disease while being bombarded continually by German artillery. Some ate rats, cats, dogs, sawdust, wallpaper paste–anything they could try to digest. Roving gangs preyed on lone pedestrians as people resorted to cannibalism. For 900 days, the Germans laid siege to Leningrad. By the time the Red Army finally broke through in January 1944, more than 640,000 residents had died.
German objectives: conquer the Soviet capital before winter
Operation Typhoon, Germany’s full-scale attack on Moscow, began with such lightning speed that the advance panicked the Red Army and the citizens of Moscow. Stalin was forced to declare martial law on October 19 as residents fled to the east, along with much of the Soviet government. In a grand piece of propaganda, Stalin, who had grown confident that Marshal Zhukov could defend the city, chose to remain in Moscow. As heavy autumn rains turned roads to mud, the action paused, allowing Zhukov to restore order within the Red Army and Stalin to muster almost 900,000 troops into reserve forces. When the action resumed in mid-November, the Germans swarmed to within 20 miles of Moscow suburbs, but were soon struggling with frozen equipment in the frigid weather. In early December, with temperatures dipping to -40°C, Zhukov counterattacked. Both sides lacked adequate fuel, food, and ammunition as they battled throughout the month, but the Red Army eventually pushed the Germans back almost 100 miles from the city. The defense of Moscow was the first appreciable Soviet victory against Hitler. On December 19, Hitler relieved his army commander in chief, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, and took control of the army himself.
Axis objective: Germany, with its Axis partners Romania, Hungary, and Italy, wanted control of this strategic city on the River Volga, a railroad hub for trains carrying Soviet industrial and natural resource
For Operation Blue, Hitler’s 1942 summer offensive, Germany’s Army Group South was split into two forces, Army Groups A and B. While Army Group A swept to the south to capture the Caucasus Mountains with its prodigious oil fields, Army Group B moved north toward Stalingrad. Stalin wanted the city held at all cost and turned again to Marshal Zhukov, the hero of Moscow. To prevent a repeat of the panic in Moscow, Stalin issued Order No. 227, “Not a Step Backward,” on July 28. Read aloud to Soviet fighters, the order forbade soldiers from falling back unless sanctioned by the Kremlin . Unauthorized retreats were to be regarded as treason; “panic-makers and cowards” would be liquidated on the spot.
After the Luftwaffe softened up Soviet defenses with thousands of bombing runs, German troops entered the center of Stalingrad in September. In bloody hand-to-hand combat, they fought the Red Army for control, street-by-street, house-by-house, while large artillery battles raged outside the city. In early October, fresh Soviet troops arrived and, on November 19, the Soviets counterattacked. Smashing through two Romanian armies, they surrounded the Axis forces encircling the city. Hitler refused all requests to retreat, leaving his armies bogged down with dwindling supplies as the Luftwaffe was unable to deliver the 700 tons of supplies needed each day. For two more months, the bloody battle dragged on. The Soviets took the last German airfield in January, cutting the Germans off from supplies. Though ordered to fight to the last man, the last Axis units surrendered on February 2. Despite the loss of approximately 500,000 men at Stalingrad, the victory demonstrated the true power of the Red Army as a fighting force and eased Allied fears that the Soviet Union could not withstand Hitler’s onslaughts. For the first time, Hitler had been beaten.
German objective: restore German morale by eliminating the Kursk salient , stabilize the front, and set up another drive toward Moscow
In the summer of 1943, the German-Soviet front lines had a westward bulge of 118 by 75 miles around the city of Kursk, an important railroad junction located 500 miles south of Moscow. Now more willing to listen to his military leaders, Stalin had accepted Marshal Zhukov’s plan to fortify their defenses near Kursk. By July, the Soviets had 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, and 2,400 aircraft in place there. Spies had also given Stalin an advantage by informing him of the date of the upcoming German attack at Kursk.
On July 5, the offensive, known as Operation Citadel, began. Attacking simultaneously from the north and the south, the German armies threw more than 500,000 men and 2,700 tanks at the Soviets as the Luftwaffe pummelled their lines while flying 3,000 sorties a day.
For six days the two sides slugged it out. Artillery, tanks, and aircraft caused massive casualties, but the Germans were unable to break through. A Soviet counterattack on July 12 led to the largest tank battle of the war, with 1,800 tanks blazing away at each other for an entire day. The next day, Hitler called off the operation and withdrew panzer units to reinforce his units now facing the Allies in Sicily. Though the Soviets lost more than twice as many men and aircraft in battle as the Germans, Kursk stopped Germany’s eastward movement. Never again would the Nazis dominate on the eastern front. This battle also marked the first time the Red Army had not retreated during a German summer attack.