LIBERATION OF EUROPE
By Lyubov Tsarevskaya
After a defeat at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943 the Nazi forces rolled westward. But mounting a sustainable defense was beyond them and the year 1944 proved fatal for the Wehrmacht. In a series of successful operations Soviet troops cleared the territory of the Soviet Union of the Nazi hordes. Next on the agenda was the liberation of Europe.
After its 1943 victories the Soviet Union, in the expression of Italian historian Giuseppe Bof, developed the ability to pursue the Nazi army even beyond the German borders. In the final stage of the war the Soviet state appeared as the most powerful military and political force on the continent to be reckoned with on all matters of the post-war arrangement in the world. For three years the brunt of the war lay on the shoulders of the Soviet Union. The British and American allies were after their own political purposes and dragged their feet over the opening of the second front in the hope that the Soviet Army would run out of breath in its further struggle with the Nazis and slow down its advance in Europe. Besides, the British and Americans planned the landing of allied forces not in the West, which would be extremely handy, but in Northern Italy and in the Balkans with a view to occupy these countries before the arrival of Soviet troops. The Soviet leadership headed by Joseph Stalin had figured that out and took a firm position on the issue. As he met with the allies to discuss anti-Hitler coalition at the Teheran Conference on November 28th through December 1st 1943 Stalin demanded from the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill the exact date of the opening of the second front. On getting no answer the Soviet leader rose up to go saying that he had too much work to attend to at home to afford such a waste of time, when nothing, as he could gather, was going to come out of it… For fear of the conference being disrupted Churchill had to set the opening for May 1944. In reality the opening of the second front took place on June 6th.
Since the allies had no doubts that the victory over Nazi Germany was imminent, the participants in the Teheran Conference discussed post-war arrangements for Germany. Britain and the United States suggested dismemberment of Germany into several states, which would include Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and a number of other areas. But Stalin voiced disagreement.
“In my opinion,” he said, “a solution to the problem should be sought not by way of destroying Germany, which would be impossible to do, just as it would be impossible to destroy Russia. A solution lies in demilitarization and democratization of Germany by way of doing away with fascism and the Wehrmacht and handing over Third Reich leaders to stand trial by people.”
In the spring of 1944 the Soviet Army crossed into Rumania, Germany’s satellite. For Hitler the oil-rich Rumania was a window on the Balkans and to protect it he concentrated a 500-thousand strong force in the area. The Soviet government suggested a truce to the pro-Nazi Antonescu government but it was rejected. Rumania’s pullout of the war had to be resolved by military means. August the 20th marked the beginning of the Yassy-Kishinev operation, in which the Nazi army suffered a crushing defeat losing 18 divisions. On August 31st 1944 the Soviet troops entered Bucharest.
In September 1944 the Soviet Army enter neighbouring Bulgaria. Bulgarians welcomed the liberators with flowers, baskets of grapes and other treats. After breaking relations with Germany Bulgaria declared war on it and the country was soon cleared of the enemy by joint effort from Soviet forces and Bulgarian armed groups.
The Soviet breakthrough in the Balkans created favourable conditions for liberation of Yugoslavia, Hungary and Austria and set into motion the national-liberation movement in Greece and Albania.
The fiercest of battles were on the territory of Hungary.
The collapse of the Eastern front and the rapid advance of Soviet armies in the West forced the Hungarian ruling circles to seek contact with western powers. In response the Nazis immediately brought troops into Hungary. In Hungary the Soviet forces ran into severe resistance, for a loss of it would open the way to Austria and the southern areas of Germany and deprive Germany of oil supplies, so needed by tank armies and aviation. Battles were the hottest for Budapest. After surrounding a 188-thousand strong enemy group on December 29th 1944 the Soviet command sent a team of negotiators to the besieged Nazi force with a view to avoid further bloodshed and propose conditions for surrender. But the Nazis did not only reject the proposal but killed the negotiators sneakily shooting them in the back as they crossed the ceasefire line. In this way Budapest, a city of more than one million, became a scene of fierce and senseless resistance through the fault of Hitler command and the pro-Nazi Szalasi government. In none of the European capitals they had taken did the Soviet troops witness street battles as long as in Budapest. The liberation of Budapest makes one of the most tragic and heroic chapters of the war. It radically changed the situation on the southern flank of the Soviet-Nazi front and made it possible to envelop the entire of the Nazi southern flank.
In the spring of 1945 Soviet troops stood at Austria’s borders. Hitler, however, had no intention to surrender Vienna without battle. That Hitler was determined to defend Vienna was clear from his order to relocate the armoured division from the Berlin direction to Vienna. The enemy spread rumours that the Soviet Army was killing all Austrian members of the National Socialist Party and called on the country’s residents to fight to the last. The Austrians, however, did not only put up any resistance but took part in anti-fascist struggle. Nazi General von Buenau informed Hitler: “The civilian population is hanging out red and white flags and is firing at the Nazi troops, and this fire is much more effective than the enemy.”
In the middle of April 1944 Vienna, one of Europe’s most scenic capitals, was fully cleared of the enemy. The Soviet soldiers managed to preserve many of the city’s architectural monuments and managed to clear the famous bridges across the Danube of mines.
The Soviet Army units reached the southern borders of Germany marking the approaching collapse of the Third Reich.
In the summer 1944 the British and American troops landed in Normandy, and Germany faced the need to wage war on two fronts. The enemy was still strong and a final victory was yet to come in a string of bloody battles.
The Soviet Army advanced on both the south-western and central direction, in Poland. After the Nazi armies had been thrown back with severe losses behind the Vistula, the Wehrmacht built a powerful line of defense about 500 kilometers deep to prevent the Soviet forces from getting to the German borders. The Soviet Army was to break through 7 strongholds, smash the enemy in the shortest time possible, liberate Poland and came out on the Oder – the approach area to Berlin. Only a strong army could accomplish that.
The Vistula-Oder operation was prepared by the Soviet command in dead secrecy. One of the most widely spread distraction maneuver was placing powerful loudspeakers on the frontline and play music at full volume. The song the Nazi soldiers liked most was “Katyusha”. By their loudspeakers the Nazis cried for encores. And the requests to rerun “Katyusha” were immediately satisfied. While the enemy was enjoying the story of Katyusha, the “Katyusha” multiple-rocket launches rolled onto the left bank of the Vistula unnoticed and took up firing positions.
And while the Soviet Army was getting ready for a decisive battle in Poland, the British-American allies experienced serious difficulties.
After landing in France on June 6th 1944 the British and American troops were slowly approaching the German border. In four and a half months they had covered 550 kilometers. Meanwhile, two weeks after the Soviet troops began to advance from the eastern border of Belorussia and on July 28th they reached the Vistula near Warsaw. The German historian Paul Karel wrote:
“In five weeks they advanced 700 kilometers with battles – a speed that exceeded that of Guderian’s and Got’s tank groups in the summer blitzkrieg of 1941. By the end of July 1944 the frontline went along the borders of Eastern Prussia and skirted the Vistula. “On to Berlin!” Soviet soldiers cried out laughing. The curtain on the last act of war was rising.”
The British and American forces ran into fierce resistance from the Nazis, which they hadn’t expected. More than that, on December 16th the Nazi troops unexpectedly launched a counter-offensive in Ardennes and threw the allies 90 kilometers back. As a result, the allied troops found themselves in a critical position and some were starting to panic. Hundreds of miles from the frontlines their staff headquarters ceased to work getting ready to be evacuated. The allies feared that the Nazis would reach the English Channel and that would be the second Dunkerk.
Winston Churchill had to appeal to Stalin: “Battles are raging in the West, can we count on a large-scale offensive on the Vistula or elsewhere within January?”
Stalin was quick to respond.
“…We’ve been mounting an advance, though the weather is bad enough for that. However, in view of the critical position of our allies on the western front, the High Command has resolved to finish the preparations as quickly as possible and regardless of the weather to start a large-scale offensive throughout the central front by the second half of January. You can count on us to so whatever we can to support the allies.”
The Vistula-Oder operation, which started on January 12th, forced the Nazis to relocate part of their troops from the western front to the east. And tension on the western front quickly subsided.
With powerful slicing strikes the Soviet troops cut through the enemy’s defenses. On the third day of the advance they liberated Warsaw. The Nazis had to leave the capital in a rush and they practically razed the city to the ground as they left. Marshal Georgy Zhukov telegraphed Joseph Stalin in Moscow:
“The Nazi barbarians have destroyed Warsaw. With a ferocity of sadists they smashed quarter after quarter. Major industrial enterprises were wiped off the ground, residential buildings blown up or burnt, the city economy ruined, thousands of residents killed and the rest driven out. The city is dead.”
The Soviet advance was dashing to a point that they caught the Nazis unawares as they appeared in the lower reaches of the Oder by Kustrin. Marshal Zhukov wrote in his memoirs:
“As a Soviet unit broke into the town of Kinitz, the streets were full of strolling Nazi soldiers and the restaurants were full of Nazi officers. Trains from Kinitz to Berlin ran according to schedule and communications ran as normal. The sight of Soviet troops 70 kilometers from Berlin came right out of the blue.”
With Soviet troops drawing nearer to Czechoslovakia, the country saw a dramatic upsurge in national liberation movements. For more than eight months lasted heavy battles for the liberation of Czechoslovakia. Fighting did not even stop after Germany signed a surrender agreement in May 1945.
Lying ahead was the battle of Berlin, the surrender of Nazi Germany and the Great Victory!
The Soviet Army liberated ten countries of Europe paying a dear price for it – more than a million soldiers and officers gave their lives for saving Europe from the Nazi plague. Memorials to Soviet liberators and Soviet wartime cemeteries in countries across Europe stay clear evidence of people’s tribute to the memory of the Soviet soldier. And thank God these memories are still with us.
Source:The Voice of Russia