Monday, March 2, 2015
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union which began on 22 June 1941 was waged on an extraordinary scale across a front of 1,000 miles. The war was Hitler’s inspiration. Following the success of German forces in 1939 and 1940 he finally decided in December 1940 to launch a quick strike at the Soviet Union using the same war of movement and concentrated armoured/ air fighting power that had succeeded until then. Divided into three army groups, North, Centre, and South, three million German and allied forces drove against the unprepared Soviet armies in a series of devastating pincer movements which brought them to the edge of Leningrad and Moscow in four months, and to the economically rich Donets Basin in the southern Ukraine. The winter weather prevented the quick victory Hitler wanted, but the following spring German forces moved forward again in the south to try to capture the whole of the southern industrial and oil region and to swing behind the remaining Soviet forces to the north to complete one final annihilating encirclement. By September German forces had reached Stalingrad on the Volga and the edge of the Caucasus mountains.
The German attack was a model of operational skill and tactical efficiency, but by the late summer of 1942 there were clear signs that the momentum was lost. In November the Soviet armies on either side of Stalingrad inflicted the first major defeat on the invading force. The encirclement and capture of 300,000 men of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad in January 1943 was regarded world-wide as the point at which the tide turned against the aggressor states. The German defeat has often been blamed on Hitler himself, who had taken over direct command of German armies in December 1941. While it is certainly the case that he led his forces into a campaign where they became vulnerably overstretched across the steppe of southern Russia, few German generals even in the autumn of 1942 thought that Soviet forces were capable of very serious resistance in the south. The roots of the German problem go deeper than this. During the first eighteen months of the conflict the German forces underwent a gradual process of ‘de-modernization’. The numbers of aircraft and tanks were constantly reduced through high battle losses and the diversion of resources to other fronts. Production in the Reich failed to keep pace. At the end of very long lines of communication the maintenance and repair of vehicles and planes became a logistical nightmare. The severe climate—bitterly cold in winter, hot and dusty in the summer—took a heavy toll of vehicles. Armoured divisions began the war with 328 tanks apiece; by the summer of 1943 they averaged 73; by the end of the war the figure was 54. The German army fell back on the use of horses. During 1942 German industry turned out only 59,000 trucks for an army of 8 million men, but the same year 400,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front. The German forces concentrated their air and tank power on a few élite divisions; the rest of the army moved like those of the Great War, by rail, horse, or foot.
The Soviet forces experienced entirely the opposite process. From a feeble platform in 1941 Soviet armies and air forces underwent an extraordinary programme of reform and modernization. Soviet military leaders set out deliberately to copy the success of their enemy. Air forces were concentrated in large air armies, centrally co-ordinated for the most flexible response to problems at the front line, and with great improvements in radio communication which made it possible to give effective support to ground forces. Armies were reorganized to match German practice, with a core of heavily armoured and mobile divisions. Small improvements, such as the installation of two-way radios in tanks, supplied from the United States as aid, produced a radical change in fighting power. Stalin gave high priority to supply and logistics, and by 1943 the number of aircraft and tanks produced began to overhaul German production by a wide margin, while the technical quality improved remarkably in the course of two years. The most significant reform came in the attention paid to operational skills. Stalin devolved responsibility for organizing operations to the general staff and his exceptionally talented deputy Marshal Zhukov. Under his leadership the Soviet forces proved capable of planning and executing operations involving millions of men, a feat quite beyond Soviet generals in the early stages of the war.
The effects of these far-reaching reforms were demonstrated in the largest and most significant set-piece battle of the war, at Kursk in July 1943. In an effort to stabilize their front- line German generals planned to lure the Soviet forces into a huge pitched battle on the Kursk steppe where they hoped to encircle and capture the core of the revived Red Army. Zhukov prepared a defensive field of such depth and sophistication that the German armoured spearheads were only able to move a matter of miles before annihilating Soviet counter-offensives broke the German line and drove the invading force back beyond the Dnieper River. In the following eighteen months Soviet offensive tactics succeeded in driving back what had been regarded until then as the finest army and air force in the world. German forces swung on to the defensive, concentrating on using tanks as mobile defensive artillery, and switching to the mass production of anti-tank guns and heavy defensive armament. The growing imbalance of forces in favour of the Red Army disguised the extent to which the balance on the battlefield began to swing back to the defender. In the gruelling advance into Germany both sides suffered extraordinary losses. It was here that the Second World War was won and lost. The Red Army destroyed some 607 divisions of German and allied forces between 1941 and 1945. Two-thirds of German tank losses were inflicted on the Eastern Front.