World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

The Invasion of the Soviet Union

German soldier at Stalingrad
German soldier with Russian-made PPSh-41 submachine gun at Stalingrad. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-168-618/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Opening an eastern front in Europe by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler expanded World War II and started a battle that would consume massive amounts of German manpower and resources. After achieving stunning success in the early months of the campaign, the attack stalled and the Soviets began to slowly push the Germans back. On May 2, 1945, the Soviets captured Berlin, helping to end World War II in Europe.

Hitler Turns East

Stymied in his attempt to invade Britain in 1940, Hitler refocused his attention on opening an eastern front and conquering the Soviet Union. Since the 1920s, he had advocated seeking additional Lebensraum (living space) for the German people in the east. Believing the Slavs and Russians to be racially inferior, Hitler sought to establish a New Order in which German Aryans would control Eastern Europe and use it for their benefit. To prepare the German people for an attack on the Soviets, Hitler unleashed a broad propaganda campaign that focused on the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin's regime and the horrors of Communism.

Hitler's decision was further influenced by a belief that the Soviets could be defeated in a brief campaign. This was reinforced by the Red Army's poor performance in the recent Winter War (1939-1940) against Finland and the Wehrmacht's (German Army) tremendous success in swiftly defeating the Allies in the Low Countries and France.

As Hitler pushed planning forward, many of his senior military commanders argued in favor of defeating Britain first, rather than opening an eastern front. Hitler, believing himself to be a military genius, brushed these concerns aside, stating that the defeat of the Soviets would only further isolate Britain.

Operation Barbarossa

Designed by Hitler, the plan for invading the Soviet Union called for the use of three large army groups. Army Group North was to march through the Baltic Republics and capture Leningrad. In Poland, Army Group Center was to drive east to Smolensk, then on to Moscow. Army Group South was ordered to attack into the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then turn towards the oil fields of the Caucasus. All told, the plan called for the use of 3.3 million German soldiers, as well as an additional 1 million from Axis nations such as Italy, Romania, and Hungary. While the German High Command (OKW) advocated for a direct strike on Moscow with the bulk of their forces, Hitler insisted on capturing the Baltics and Ukraine as well.

Early German Victories

Originally scheduled for May 1941, Operation Barbarossa did not commence until June 22, 1941, due to late spring rains and German troops being diverted to the fighting in Greece and the Balkans. The invasion came as a surprise to Stalin, despite intelligence reports that suggested a German attack was likely. As German troops surged across the frontier, they were quickly able to break through the Soviet lines as large panzer formations led the advance with infantry following behind.

Army Group North advanced 50 miles on the first day and soon was crossing the Dvina River, near Dvinsk, on the road to Leningrad.

Attacking through Poland, Army Group Center initiated the first of several large battles of encirclement when the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies drove around 540,000 Soviets. As infantry armies held the Soviets in place, the two Panzer Armies raced around their rear, linking up at Minsk and completing the encirclement. Turning inwards, the Germans hammered the trapped Soviets and captured 290,000 soldiers (250,000 escaped). Advancing through southern Poland and Romania, Army Group South met stiffer resistance but was able to defeat a massive Soviet armored counterattack on June 26-30.

With the Luftwaffe commanding the skies, German troops had the luxury of calling in frequent air strikes to support their advance.

On July 3, after pausing to allow the infantry to catch up, Army Group Center resumed their advance towards Smolensk. Again, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies swung wide, this time encircling three Soviet armies. After the pincers closed, over 300,000 Soviets surrendered while 200,000 were able to escape.

Hitler Changes the Plan

A month into the campaign, it became clear that OKW had badly underestimated the strength of the Soviets as the large surrenders had failed to end their resistance. Unwilling to continue fighting large battles of encirclement, Hitler sought to strike the Soviet's economic base by taking Leningrad and the Caucasus oil fields. To accomplish this, he ordered panzers to be diverted from Army Group Center to support Army Groups North and South. OKW fought this move, as the generals knew that most of the Red Army was concentrated around Moscow and that a battle there could end the war. As before, Hitler was not to be persuaded and the orders were issued.

The German Advance Continues

Reinforced, Army Group North was able to break through the Soviet defenses on August 8, and by the end of the month was only 30 miles from Leningrad. In the Ukraine, Army Group South destroyed three Soviet armies near Uman, before executing a massive encirclement of Kiev which was completed on August 16. After savage fighting, the city was captured along with over 600,000 of its defenders. With the loss at Kiev, the Red Army no longer possessed any significant reserves in the west and only 800,000 men remained to defend Moscow. The situation worsened on September 8, when German forces cut off Leningrad and initiated a siege that would last 900 days and claim 200,000 of the city's inhabitants.

The Battle of Moscow Begins

In late September, Hitler again changed his mind and ordered the panzers to rejoin Army Group Central for a drive on Moscow. Beginning on October 2, Operation Typhoon was designed to break through the Soviet defensive lines and enable German forces to take the capital.

After initial success that saw the Germans execute another encirclement, this time capturing 663,000, the advance slowed to a crawl due to heavy autumn rains. By October 13, German forces were only 90 miles from Moscow but were advancing less than 2 miles a day. On the 31st, OKW ordered a halt to regroup its armies. The lull allowed the Soviets to bring reinforcements to Moscow from the Far East, including 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

The German Advance Ends at the Gates of Moscow

On November 15, with the ground beginning to freeze, the Germans resumed their attacks on Moscow. A week later, they were badly defeated south of the city by fresh troops from Siberia and the Far East. To the northeast, the 4th Panzer Army penetrated to within 15 miles of the Kremlin before Soviet forces and driving blizzards ground their advance to a halt. As the Germans had anticipated a quick campaign to conquer the Soviet Union, they were not prepared for winter warfare. Soon the cold and snow were causing more casualties than combat. Having successfully defended the capital, Soviet forces, commanded by General Georgy Zhukov, launched a major counterattack on December 5, which succeeded in driving the Germans back 200 miles. This was the Wehrmacht's first significant retreat since the war had begun in 1939.

The Germans Strike Back

With the pressure on Moscow relieved, Stalin ordered a general counteroffensive on January 2. Soviet forces pushed the Germans back nearly encircling Demyansk and threatening Smolensk and Bryansk. By mid-March, the Germans had stabilized their lines and any chances of a major defeat were averted. As spring progressed, the Soviets prepared to launch a major offensive to retake Kharkov. Beginning with major attacks on both sides of the city in May, the Soviets quickly broke through the German lines. To contain the threat, the German Sixth Army attacked the base of the salient caused by the Soviet advance, successfully encircling the attackers. Trapped, the Soviets suffered 70,000 killed and 200,000 captured.

Lacking the manpower to remain on the offensive all along the Eastern Front, Hitler decided to focus German efforts in the south with the goal of taking the oil fields. Codenamed Operation Blue, this new offensive began on June 28, 1942, and caught the Soviets, who thought the Germans would renew their efforts around Moscow, by surprise. Advancing, the Germans were delayed by heavy fighting in Voronezh which allowed the Soviets to bring reinforcements south. Unlike the year before, the Soviets were fighting well and conducting organized retreats which prevented the scale of losses endured in 1941. Angered by a perceived lack of progress, Hitler divided Army Group South into two separate units, Army Group A and Army Group B. Possessing the majority of the armor, Army Group A was tasked with taking the oil fields, while Army Group B was ordered to take Stalingrad to protect the German flank.

The Tide Turns at Stalingrad

Prior to the arrival of German troops, the Luftwaffe began a massive bombing campaign against Stalingrad which reduced the city to rubble and killed over 40,000 civilians. Advancing, Army Group B reached the Volga River both north and south of the city by the end of August, forcing the Soviets to bring supplies and reinforcements across the river to defend the city. Shortly thereafter, Stalin dispatched Zhukov south to take command of the situation. On September 13, elements of the German Sixth Army entered Stalingrad's suburbs and, within ten days, arrived near the industrial heart of the city. Over the next several weeks, German and Soviet forces engaged in savage street fighting in attempts to take control of the city. At one point, the average life expectancy of a Soviet soldier in Stalingrad was less than one day.

As the city devolved into a maelstrom of carnage, Zhukov began building up his forces on the city's flanks. On November 19, 1942, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, which struck and broke through the weakened German flanks around Stalingrad. Advancing quickly, they encircled the German Sixth Army in four days. Trapped, the Sixth Army's commander, General Friedrich Paulus, requested permission to attempt a breakout but was refused by Hitler. In conjunction with Operation Uranus, the Soviets attacked Army Group Center near Moscow to prevent reinforcements being sent to Stalingrad. In mid-December, Field Marshall Erich von Manstein organized a relief force to aid the beleaguered Sixth Army, but it was unable to break through the Soviet lines. With no other choice, Paulus surrendered the remaining 91,000 men of the Sixth Army on February 2, 1943. In the fighting for Stalingrad, over 2 million were killed or wounded.

While the fighting raged at Stalingrad, Army Group A's drive to the Caucasus oil fields began to slow. German forces occupied the oil facilities north of the Caucasus Mountains but found that the Soviets had destroyed them. Unable to find a way through the mountains, and with the situation at Stalingrad deteriorating, Army Group A began to withdraw towards Rostov.

Battle of Kursk

In the wake of Stalingrad, the Red Army launched eight winter offensives across the Don River basin. These were largely characterized by initial Soviet gains followed by strong German counterattacks. During one of these, the Germans were able to retake Kharkov. On July 4, 1943, once the spring rains had abated, the Germans launched a massive offensive designed to destroy the Soviet salient around Kursk. Aware of the German plans, the Soviets constructed an elaborate system of earthworks to defend the area. Attacking from the north and south at the salient's base, German forces met heavy resistance. In the south, they came close to achieving a breakthrough but were beaten back near Prokhorovka in the largest tank battle of the war. Fighting from the defensive, the Soviets allowed the Germans to exhaust their resources and reserves.

Having won on the defensive, the Soviets launched a series of counteroffensives that drove the Germans back past their July 4 positions and led to the liberation of Kharkov and an advance to the Dnieper River. Retreating, the Germans attempted to form a new line along the river but were unable to hold it as the Soviets began crossing in numerous places.

The Soviets Move West

Soviet troops began to pour across the Dnieper and soon liberated the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Soon, elements of the Red Army were nearing the 1939 Soviet-Polish border. In January 1944, the Soviets launched a major winter offensive in the north which relieved the siege of Leningrad, while Red Army forces in the south cleared the western Ukraine. As the Soviets neared Hungary, Hitler decided to occupy the country amid concerns that Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy would make a separate peace. German troops crossed the border on March 20, 1944. In April, the Soviets attacked into Romania to gain a foothold for a summer offensive in that area.

On June 22, 1944, the Soviets launched their main summer offensive (Operation Bagration) in Belarus. Involving 2.5 million soldiers and over 6,000 tanks, the offensive sought to destroy Army Group Center while also preventing the Germans from diverting troops to combat the Allied landings in France. In the ensuing battle, the Wehrmacht suffered one its worst defeats of the war as Army Group Center was shattered and Minsk liberated.

Warsaw Uprising

Storming through the Germans, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw on July 31. Believing that their liberation was finally at hand, the populace of Warsaw rose in revolt against the Germans. That August, 40,000 Poles took control of the city, but the anticipated Soviet assistance never came. Over the next two months, the Germans flooded the city with soldiers and brutally put down the revolt.

Advances in the Balkans

With the situation in hand in the center of the front, the Soviets began their summer campaign in the Balkans. As the Red Army surged into Romania, the German and Romanian front lines collapsed within two days. By early September, both Romania and Bulgaria had surrendered and switched from the Axis to the Allies. Following up their success in the Balkans, the Red Army pushed into Hungary in October 1944 but were badly beaten at Debrecen.

To the south, Soviet advances forced the Germans to evacuate Greece on October 12 and, with the aid of Yugoslav Partisans, captured Belgrade on October 20. In Hungary, the Red Army renewed their assault and was able to push through to encircle Budapest on December 29. Trapped within the city were 188,000 Axis forces which held out until February 13.

The Campaign in Poland

As the Soviet forces in the south were driving west, the Red Army in the north was clearing the Baltic Republics. In the fighting, Army Group North was cut off from other German forces when the Soviets reached the Baltic Sea near Memel on October 10. Trapped in the "Courland Pocket," 250,000 men of Army Group North held out on the Latvian Peninsula until the end of the war. Having cleared the Balkans, Stalin ordered his forces redeployed to Poland for a winter offensive.

Originally scheduled for late January, the offensive was advanced to the 12th after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Stalin to attack sooner to relieve pressure on US and British forces during the Battle of the Bulge. The offensive started with Marshall Ivan Konev's forces attacking across the Vistula River in southern Poland and was followed by assaults near Warsaw by Zhukov. In the north, Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky attacked over the Narew River. The combined weight of the offensive destroyed the German lines and left their front in ruins. Zhukov liberated Warsaw on January 17, 1945, and Konev reached the prewar German border a week after the offensive's start. During the first week of the campaign, the Red Army advanced 100 miles along a front that was 400 miles long.

The Battle for Berlin

While the Soviets originally hoped to take Berlin in February, their offensive began to stall as German resistance increased and their supply lines became overextended. As the Soviets consolidated their position, they struck north into Pomerania and south into Silesia to protect their flanks. As the spring of 1945 moved on, Hitler believed that the Soviet's next target would be Prague rather than Berlin. He was mistaken when on April 16, Soviet forces began their assault on the German capital.

The task of taking the city was given to Zhukov, with Konev protecting his flank to the south and Rokossovsky ordered to continue advancing west to link up with the British and Americans. Crossing the Oder River, Zhukov's attack bogged down while trying to take the Seelow Heights. After three days of battle and 33,000 dead, the Soviets succeeded in breaching the German defenses. With Soviet forces encircling Berlin, Hitler called for a last-ditch resistance effort and began arming civilians to fight in Volkssturm militias. Pressing into the city, Zhukov's men fought house to house against determined German resistance. With the end rapidly approaching, Hitler retired to the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery building. There, on April 30, he committed suicide. On May 2, the last defenders of Berlin surrendered to the Red Army, effectively ending the war on the Eastern Front.

Aftermath of the Eastern Front

The Eastern Front of World War II was the largest single front in the history of warfare both in terms of size and soldiers involved. During the course of the fighting, the Eastern Front claimed 10.6 million Soviet soldiers and 5 million Axis troops. As the war raged, both sides committed a variety of atrocities, with the Germans rounding up and executing millions of Soviet Jews, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities, as well as enslaving civilians in conquered territories. The Soviets were guilty of ethnic cleansing, mass executions of civilians and prisoners, torture, and oppression.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union contributed significantly to the Nazi's ultimate defeat as the front consumed vast amounts of manpower and material. Over 80% of the Wehrmacht's World War II casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. Likewise, the invasion eased pressure on the other Allies and gave them a valuable ally in the east.