MAJOR BATTLES OF THE SOVIET WAR AGAINST NAZI GERMANY IN 1942-1943
By Lyubov Tsarevskaya
On June 22nd the Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union without declaration of war. The Second World War, which raged in Europe, became the Great Patriotic War on the Soviet territory. For a long four years the Soviet people defended their country’s independence and territorial integrity.
Numerical superiority in manpower and military hardware secured the Nazis a quick advance deep into this country. But the Nazi blitzkrieg ran into unprecedented heroism and tenacity of the Red Army and in the winter of 1941 the Nazis suffered a crushing defeat near Moscow and were thrown off 200 kilometers. Following the fiasco the Nazi command gave up on advancing throughout the entire front and chose to carry out the summer campaign of 1942 on the southern direction alone. Hitler wanted the wheat, coal and oil-rich areas of the Don, Volga and Caucasian Regions to paralyze the Soviet economy.
Stalingrad and the Caucasus were picked for a major blow. The capture of Stalingrad, one of the country’s major industrial centers, would have enabled the Nazis to establish control of the Volga and, provided the developments turned nicely for Germany, would have made it possible for the Nazis to advance northward and thereby cut Central Russia off the Ural rear and then surround and seize Moscow.
In the direction of Stalingrad the Nazi command concentrated a mighty force, which outnumbered the Red Army in manpower and hardware. The advance on Stalingrad began on July 17th 1942.
Fierce fighting raged at the curve of the Don and Volga for a month. Marshal Andrei Yeremenko, whose troops defended Stalingrad, recalled:
“On early morning August 23rd 1942 I was told that a major concentration of Nazi tanks, motorized infantry and artillery had crossed the Don the day before. Backed by aviation the Nazis broke through the front and headed to the east of Stalingrad. The enemy broke to the Volga near the tractor factory and on that same day the city came under massive bombardments, in which Stalingrad suffered extensive damage.”
Hitler wanted Stalingrad at all costs and the Nazi troops launched attack after attack. The enemy fought for each street or house day and night. The Soviet troops, pressed against the Volga bank, fully aware that the outcome of the battle is crucial for their country’s future, showed remarkable heroism.
As the world, with abated breath, followed the developments near Stalingrad and Germany expected the news of capture every day, the Soviet command was working out a counter-offensive plan code-named “Uranus”. Its goal was to surround and destroy the 6th army of General von Paulus, which besieged Stalingrad. To this end, fresh reinforcements were brought in. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote:
“It was as if by a magic wand that more and more personnel and hardware grew out of the vast steppes of Russia, as if a skillful magician was moulding the Ural clay into Bolshevik men and vehicles in profusion.” At dawn on November 19th 1942 Soviet troops struck with fire at the enemy from the south and north and four days later encircled the 6th army of General von Paulus. It was the first major battle of the Nazi forces since the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.
Germany was shocked. Hitler ordered Paulus to hold out to the last soldier. He knew that losing Stalingrad would mean losing the initiative for good and leaving the Volga, an area in the very heart of Russia.
To help the besieged 6th army Hitler sends the “Don” group commanded by Field-Marshal Manstein. After breaking through the Soviet defenses the Nazis reached the Myshkov River, the last natural stronghold on the way to Stalingrad, which was only 40 kilometers away. The future of Paulus’s army was at stake, so fighting was particularly fierce in the area. The Soviet defending force was dwindling rapidly. On December 24th it was joined by the 2nd Guards Army of General Malinovsky and threw Manstein back from Stalingrad. From that moment on the 330-thousand strong Nazi group was a besieged POW camp.
The conditions of the besieged group approached the disaster point by the day. In January 1943 Nazi soldiers got 150 grams of bread a day and counted every cartridge. They ate 39 thousand horses. The number of those killed grew. The situation was yet worsened by severe frosts and snowstorms. In an attempt to avoid further casualties the Soviet command made repeated attempts to enter into talks with the command of the 6th army to suggest surrender. But the Nazis remained silent. Meanwhile, von Paulus reported to Hitler:
“Joint command of troops is no longer possible. Five divisions are smashed. Further defence is useless. Catastrophe is unavoidable. To save the remaining manpower I ask for permission to surrender.”
But instead of helping the dying army, Hitler sent radio messages ordering not to surrender. On the morning of January 31st 1943 Hitler sends a message, in which he elevated Paulus to the rank of Field-Marshal. That was tantamount to a death sentence and Paulus got it right. But yet he chose to surrender. On the same day an officer with a white flag came out of the basement where the Field Marshal’s headquarters were and indicated readiness for talks on the surrender. A team of officers and submachine gunners was dispatched to meet with Paulus. A former Soviet officer, Fyodor Ilchenko, recalls:
“At the entrance Paulus’s aide checked my papers. It was damp, dirty and smelly in the basement dimly lit by candles and oil-lamps. As I entered the commander’s room, so cold and damp, I saw a Nazi without a jacket lying on the couch. When we approached him he sat up. I noticed that he looked a sorry sight. His face twitched with spasms and his right eye was sort of blinking all the time. That was Field-Marshal Friedrich von Paulus. ‘Talks on surrender will be conducted by General Roske and a headquarters representative will take the surrender,’ he said in a quiet voice.”
In the Soviet headquarters von Paulus asked one of the generals to explain why the Soviet soldiers were fit to advance day and night and lie in the snow at temperatures as low as 35 to 40 degrees below zero. In response the General pointed at a soldier standing nearby: “Look at what he is wearing.” The soldier had on felt boots, wadded pants, thermal underwear, a short fur coat, a winter hat and mittens. ‘Our Motherland looks after its defenders,’ the General added.
Meanwhile, streams of captured Nazis trudged along the roads leading to Stalingrad. Frostbitten, muffled in rags, sacks and felt fabrics, the defeated soldiers and officers looked an abominable sight. The 6th Nazi army ceased to exist.
The Battle of Stalingrad lasted for 200 days and nights and left huge losses on both sides: 1.5 million from the Nazis and 1.13 million from the Soviets.
The Battle changed the course of the war on the Soviet-Nazi front in favour of the Soviet Union and reversed the tide of the Second World War on the whole. The defeat of the Nazis came as a symbolic grave cross that now loomed over the halo of the invincibility of Nazi Germany.
The defeat under Stalingrad shattered the morale of Nazi Germany and triggered widespread resentment over the futile war in satellite countries. The military and political consequences of Soviet successes in the winter of 1942-43 were so impressive that Hitler had to admit on February 1st 1943 that winning the war in the East by acting on the offensive was no longer possible. That, the fuehrer said, had to be accepted as a fact. But even though facts indicated imminent defeat Hitler and his entourage continued to believe that the war could yet be won and there was a chance to reverse the situation.
In an attempt to take revenge the Wehrmacht launched preparations for the summer campaign. Victory had to be obtained at any price to save the political image of Germany. Overall mobilization was declared throughout the country and tanks, self-propelled guns and planes were produced at increased pace. In the absence of second front in the West, Germany concentrated the bulk of its forces on the Soviet-Nazi front. In the summer campaign the Wehrmacht planned to destroy the Soviet forces near Kursk, Oryol and Belgorod. And this choice was fully justified.
In the course of Soviet advances in the winter of 1942-43 there formed an extensive bulge near Kursk, which was described by war historians as the Kursk Bulge. The bulge put the Soviet troops defending it at risk of being surrounded by the enemy. The Nazi command resolved to take advantage of the situation. To this end, it mounted an offensive code-named “Citadel”, under which the Soviet forces were to be surrounded from the flanks and destroyed west of Kursk. For the “Citadel” operation the enemy brought in 70 divisions, 16 of them tank and motorized, extensively backed from the air.
In answer to the Wehrmacht’s plan the Soviet command decided to abstain from a pre-emptive attack but tire the Nazis out in defense, knock out its tanks, and then with fresh reserves launch an offensive and smash the enemy.
The Battle of Kursk Bulge started on July 5th 1943. It took the Nazis the first few battles to feel the strength of the Soviet defenses. In the large-scale campaign in which four million soldiers took part and which lasted seven weeks the crucial time fell on July 12th, the day of the biggest in history tank battle, which occurred near Prokhorovka village in the Belgorod Region. Armoured Forces Marshal Pavel Rotmistrov, who commanded one of the tank armies, recalled.
“In the morning of July 12th I and a group of officers were at an observation point, from which the battlefield could be seen very clearly. In the first minutes of the battle two avalanches of tanks surged onto one another in clouds of dust and smoke. 1500 tanks on either side were in action simultaneously and the field near Prokhorovka proved too small for such a force. Locked into one huge tangle the tanks rolled into one enormous mass. Hundreds of tanks and self-propelled guns were on fire. The rumble from rattling armour and the howl of shells many of which ricocheted sideways as they hit the armour was deafening! Soldiers jumped out of burning tanks and rolled on the ground to put out flames.”
Hitler’s command pinned most of their hopes on the new “Tiger” and “Panther” tanks and the “Ferdinand” self-propelled gun. However, the Soviet tanks, which boasted a higher degree of maneuverability, knocked out the armoured Nazi monsters with utmost efficiency. The battle ended with a total defeat of the Nazi tank force, which was turned into a scrap of metal. After the Battle of Prokhorovka the Soviet troops went on the offensive and liberated Oryol and Belgorod.
The defeat of the Nazis near Kursk left Germany unable to recover from the losses. The German historian Goertliz wrote that the Battle of Kursk marked the beginning of a deadly crisis in the Nazi army.
On the occasion of the victory on the Kursk Bulge on August 5th 1943 Moscow for the first time saluted to Soviet troops. And that was quite justified, for winning the Battle of Kursk meant winning the war. The victory in the Battle of Kursk had far-reaching consequences – it brought forth the collapse of the Nazi bloc, which included a number of European countries, and led to the expansion of anti-fascist and national liberation movement in Europe.
The former battlefield near Prokhorovka is now a park with St.Peter and Paul’s Church and a memorial bell-tower that peals every 25 minutes in honour of Russian valiance in the three major battles in the history of Russia – the Battle of Kulikovo, the Battle of Borodino and the Battle of Prokhorovka.
Source:The Voice of Russia