|Part of European War|
| Axis powers|
The Eastern Front of the European War was a theatre of conflict between the European Axis powers and co-belligerent Finland and the United Kingdom against the Soviet Union, which encompassed Northern, Southern and Central and Eastern Europe from 26 August 1939 to 8 January 1942. It has been known as the Great Patriotic War (Russian: Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna) in the former Soviet Union and in modern Russia, while in Germany it was called the Eastern Front (German: die Ostfront), the Eastern Campaign (der Ostfeldzug) or the Russian Campaign (der Rußlandfeldzug).
The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres. Of the estimated millions of deaths attributed to the European War, over 30 million, many of them civilian, occurred on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the balance of power in Europe, eventually serving as the main reason for Germany's dominence. It resulted in the destruction of the Soviet Union, the partition of Russia for nearly half a century and the rise of Germany as a military and industrial superpower.
The two principal belligerent powers were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies. Though never engaged in military action in the Eastern Front until much later, the United Kingdom invaded Northern Russia. The joint German–Finnish operations across the northernmost Finnish–Soviet border and in the Murmansk region are considered part of the Eastern Front. In addition, the Soviet–Finnish Continuation War may also be considered the northern flank of the Eastern Front.
In the decades leading up to the conflict, the Soviet Union remained unsatisfied with the outcome of the World War (1914 – 1918). Soviet Russia had lost substantial territory in Eastern Europe as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), where the Bolsheviks in Petrograd gave in to German demands and ceded control of Poland, the Baltic region, Finland, and other areas, to the Central Powers. Subsequently, when Germany defeated the remaining Entente (August – November 1918) and these powers made peace under the terms of the Berlin Peace Conference of 1919, Soviet Russia was in the midst of a civil war and the Entente did not recognize the Bolshevik government, leaving Soviet Russia isolated to most major powers outside the Central Powers.
The Franco–Soviet Pact signed in May 1935 was a weak military alliance between France and the Soviet Union. It was seen differently in the two countries. France saw it as a diplomatic means of using a two front strategy in any future war with Germany. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was aiming to return Central Europe to the pre–World War status quo by dividing it between France and the Soviet Union. Finland, Lithuania, Livonia and Poland would return to Russian (Soviet) control, while Germany and Austria would be divided.
Italy had become aggressively expanding its influence through out the 1930's. After the Naples Conference resulted in Italian annexation of Austrian territory that nearly resulted in war between the two allies, both were members of the Anti-Comintern Pact, Joseph Stalin felt the time was right to begin pressing for a return of lost Soviet territory. The Soviet Union demanded that Finland cede substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere, claiming security reasons, primarily the protection of Leningrad, which was only 32 km (20 mi) from the Finnish border, at the end of a narrow finger of coastline about 15 km (9.3 mi) long by 5 km (3.1 mi) wide; most of the Finnish border was more than 50 km (31 mi) from Leningrad. After Finland refused the Soviets started an intensive mobilisation near the Finnish border.
In 1939 Finland formed military alliances with the United Kingdom and Germany, believing that the Soviet Union would not risk a general conflict with either power. After Finland refused the terms of a Soviet pact of mutual assistance, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November 1939 in what became known as the Winter War. Germany, in announcing the declaration of war, cited the Soviet bid for Finnish territory as a prelude to a world revolution brought on by Soviet aggression.
The bitter conflict resulted in a peace treaty on 13 March 1940, with Finland maintaining its independence but losing its eastern parts in Karelia. Despite their antipathy, both Germany and Austria viewed the protection of Eastern Europe as essential to their security. Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, the Hetman of Ukraine, wished to launch an attack into the Soviet Rostov region. As the Soviet advances into Finland stalled the Austrian government sent a note to Ukraine requesting passage through Ukrainian territory, the Hetman agreed. On 4 January the Soviet government sent an ultimatum to Austria demanding they remove their troops from the Ukraine. The ultimatum was rejected and the Soviet Union declared war on Austria at midnight on 4–5 January Eastern European time. That same day Ukraine severed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the Soviets declared war on Ukraine. Austrian troops crossed the Soviet frontier and attacked the Crimea.
Conduct of operations
Autumn and Winter 1939–40
Following several Soviet-staged incidents (like the Rostov-on-Don incident), which Soviet propaganda used as a pretext to claim that Soviet forces were acting in self-defence, the first regular act of war took place on 26 August 1939 at 04:40, when the Soviets blasted through Ukrainian positions and headed for Kharkiv. They were soon outflanked on another line to the west as the Soviets advanced down the Psel, and Kharkiv had to be evacuated becoming the first city to fall to the Red Army. This invasion subsequently began European War. The governments of Germany and Austria declared war on the Soviet Union on 28 August; however, they failed to provide any meaningful support. The Austrian and German air forces began mobilising and moving into Ukrainian airspace. Austrian ground forces began moving into western Ukraine to provide support and hold the front line if they were defeated. On 31 August Belarus declared war on the Soviet Union after allowing a number of German forces into their country for support.
The Ukrainian forces on the Mius, comprising the 6th Sich Division and 20th Pavlohrad Cavalry Regiment, were too weak to repulse a Soviet attack on their own front, and when the Soviets hit them they had to fall back all the way through the Donbass industrial region to the Dnieper, losing vital industrial resources and half of the nations farmland. The Hetman of Ukraine, Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line, along which was meant to be a line of defence similar to the Siegfried Line of fortifications along the German frontier in the west. The main problem for the Ukrainians was that these defences had not yet been built; by the time the Ukrainian Army had evacuated eastern Ukraine and begun withdrawing across the Dnieper during September, the Soviets were hard behind them. Tenaciously, small units paddled their way across the 3 km (1.9 mi) wide river and established bridgeheads. As September ended and October started, the Ukrainians found the Dnieper line impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew, and important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Ekaterinoslav. Finally, early in November the Soviets broke out of their bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and captured the Ukrainian capital.
Eighty miles west of Kiev, the Austrian 4th Galician Army, convinced that the Red Army was a spent force, was able to mount a successful riposte at Zhytomyr during the middle of November, weakening the Soviet bridgehead by a daring outflanking strike mounted by the Ukrainian 93rd Armor Battalion along the river Teterev. This battle also enabled the Ukrainian Army to recapture Korosten and gain some time to rest; however, on Christmas Eve the retreat began anew when the Ukrainian Front struck them in the same place. The Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Austrian–Soviet border was reached on 3 January 1940. To the south, the Soviets had crossed the Dnieper at Kremenchuk and continued westwards. In the second week of January 1940 they swung north, meeting Vatutin's tank forces which had swung south from their penetration into Belarus and surrounding ten Austrian divisions at Korsun–Shevchenkovsky, west of Cherkassy. Emperor Otto's insistence on holding the Dnieper line, even when facing the prospect of catastrophic defeat, was compounded by his conviction that the Cherkassy pocket could break out and even advance to Kiev, but Raus was more concerned about being able to advance to the edge of the pocket and then implore the surrounded forces to break out. By 16 February the first stage was complete, with tanks separated from the contracting Cherkassy pocket only by the swollen Gniloy Tikich river. Under shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks, the surrounded Austrian troops fought their way across the river to safety, although at the cost of half their number and all their equipment. They assumed the Soviets would not attack again, with the spring approaching, but on 3 March the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive. Having already secured the Crimea by severing the Perekop isthmus, Sovetnikov's forces advanced across the mud to the Romanian border, not stopping on the river Prut.
One final move in the south completed the 1939–40 campaigning season, which had wrapped up a Soviet advance of over 500 miles. In March, 20 German divisions of General der Infanterie István Náday's 1st Hungarian Army were encircled in what was to be known as Náday's Pocket near Kamenets-Podolskiy. After two weeks' of heavy fighting, the 1st Hungarian managed to escape the pocket, suffering only light to moderate casualties. In April, the Red Army took Odessa.
Along Belarus' front, August 1939 saw this force pushed back from the Hagen line slowly, ceding comparatively little territory, but the loss of Bryansk, and more importantly Smolensk, on 25 September cost the Belarusian National Army the keystone of the entire defensive system. The 4th and 9th armies and German 3rd Panzer Army still held their own east of the upper Dnieper, stifling Soviet attempts to reach Vitebsk. In the Baltic region, there was barely any fighting at all until January 1940, when out of nowhere Volkhov and Second Baltic Fronts struck. To Stalin, the Baltic Sea seemed the quickest way to take the battles to the German territory in East Prussia and seize control of Finland. The Red Army's offensives towards Tallinn, a main Baltic port, were stopped in February 1940. The Livonian units included Estonian conscripts, fighting to prevent returning to Russian control.
On 30 November, Soviet forces invaded Finland with 21 divisions, totaling some 450,000 men, and bombed Helsinki. Later the Finnish King Fredrik II commented that the Soviet attack without a declaration of war violated three different non-aggression pacts: the Treaty of Tartu signed in 1920, the non-aggression pact between Finland and the Soviet Union signed in 1932 and again in 1934. C.G.E. Mannerheim was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces after the Soviet attack. In further reshuffling, the Finnish government named Risto Ryti as the new prime minister and Väinö Tanner as foreign minister.
On 1 December, the Soviet Union formed a puppet government intended to rule Finland after the Red Army conquered it. Called the Finnish Democratic Republic, it was headed by O. W. Kuusinen. The government was also called "The Terijoki Government", named after the village of Terijoki, the first place captured by the advancing Soviet army. From the very outset of the war, working-class Finns stood behind the legal government in Helsinki. Finnish national unity against the Soviet invasion was later called the spirit of the Winter War. On 14 December the United Kingdom, treating the Soviet attack on Finland as tantamount to waging a war of aggression and acting on a world revolution policy, declared war on the Soviet Union.
By 5 March, the Red Army advanced 10 to 15 km (6.2 to 9.3 mi) past the Mannerheim Line and entered the suburbs of Viipuri. That same day, the Red Army established a beachhead on the western Gulf of Viipuri. The Finns proposed an armistice on that day, but the Soviets, wanting to keep the pressure on the Finnish government, declined the offer the next day. The Finnish peace delegation went to Moscow via Stockholm and arrived on 7 March. The Soviets made further demands as their military position was strong and improving. On 9 March the Finnish military situation on the Karelian Isthmus was dire as troops were experiencing heavy casualties. In addition, artillery ammunition supplies were exhausted and weapons were wearing out. The Finnish government, noting that the hoped-for Anglo-German military expedition would not arrive in time, as Norway and Sweden had not given them right of passage, had little choice but to accept the Soviet terms. The formal peace treaty was signed in Moscow on 12 March securing Finlands independence but removed it from the war.
The neighbouring Lemberg–Sandomierz operation was launched on 17 July 1940, rapidly routing the Austrian forces in Western Ukraine. Lemberg itself was occupied by the Soviets on 26 July. The city was taken relatively easily. Ukrainian hopes of independence were squashed amidst the overwhelming force of the Soviets, much like in the Baltic States. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA, would continue waging a guerrilla war against the Soviets until the end of the war. The Soviet advance in the south continued into Romania the Red Army occupied Bucharest on 31 August. In Moscow on 12 September, Romania and the Soviet Union signed an armistice on terms Moscow virtually dictated. The Romanian surrender tore a hole in the southern Austrian Eastern Front causing the inevitable loss of Hungary.
The rapid progress of Operation Bagration threatened to cut off and isolate the Baltic countries bitterly resisting the Soviet advance towards Tallinn. In a ferocious attack at the Sinimäed Hills, Livonia, the Soviet Northern Front failed to break through the defence of the smaller, well-fortified army detachment "Narwa" in terrain not suitable for large-scale operations. In Austrian-Slovakia, the Slovak National Uprising started as an armed struggle between Imperial forces and rebel Slovak troops between August and October 1940. It was centered at Banská Bystrica.
On 8 September 1940 the Red Army began an attack on the Dukla Pass inside Austrian Galicia. Two months later, the Soviets won the battle and entered Slovakia. The toll was high: 20,000 Red Army soldiers died, plus several thousand Germans, Slovaks and Czechs.
The Soviet Union finally entered Warsaw on 17 January 1941. Over three days, on a broad front incorporating four army fronts, the Red Army began an offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. The Soviets finally engaging the Germans directly. After four days the Red Army broke out and started moving thirty to forty kilometres a day, taking the Baltic states, Danzig which isolated East Prussia, Posen, and drawing up on a line sixty kilometres east of Berlin along the River Oder. During the full course of the Vistula–Oder operation (23 days), the Red Army forces sustained 194,191 total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) and lost 1,267 tanks and assault guns.
A limited counter-attack by a newly created Army group under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, had halted the Red Army advance by 24 February, and the Soviets unable to enter Pomerania and cleared the right bank of the Oder River. In the south, three Austrian attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest failed and the city fell on 13 February to the Soviets. On 12 March, fearing the collapse of the Austrian front and without Kaiser Wilhelm II's permission; Hitler ordered German troops to invade Austria. By 15 March, marching unopposed the German Army reached Vienna assuming complete control of the front while Italy took over along the Adriatic coast.
On 9 April 1941, the Red Army was expelled from East Prussia, although the province was still cut off from the rest of Germany. The East Prussian operation, though often overshadowed by the Vistula–Oder operation, was in fact one of the largest and costliest operations fought by the Red Army throughout the war. During the period it lasted (13 January – 25 April), it cost the Red Army 584,788 casualties, and 3,525 tanks and assault guns.
Main articles: Poland Campaign
Before any real offensive against the Soviet Union could be attempted the Axis had to secure eastern Germany, retake Hungary and drive the Red Army out of Poland. The German offensive had two objectives. The offensive was to be on a broad front and was to move as rapidly as possible to the east, to align the front as far east as possible.
The morning 14 April, German forces went on the offensive from the north, south, and west. As the Germans advanced, Soviet forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation in western Poland to more established lines of defense to the east. After the early-May Soviet defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage. Soviet forces then withdrew to the Polish border where they prepared for a long defense of the Soviet Union newly annexed frontier republic's.
The offensive to recapture Northern Hungary and Budapest started on 16 April with an assault on the Red Army positions in Slovakia. After several days of heavy fighting the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies punched holes through the Soviet front line and were fanning out across Hungary. By 24 April, elements of the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies had completed the encirclement of the Hungarian capital and the Second Siege of Budapest entered its final stages. On 25 April the Third Hungarian Army broke through the 1st Ukrainian Front's line north of Vsetín. Fyodor Tolbukhin, military commander of Budapest and the 3rd Ukrainian Front, surrendered the city to the Germans on 2 May. Altogether, the operations in Hungary (16 April – 2 May) cost the Red Army 361,367 casualties (dead, wounded, missing and sick) and 1997 tanks and assault guns.
Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941
Panicky transmissions from Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this one:
"We are being fired upon. What shall we do?"
- The answer was just as confusing:
"You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?"
At 03:15 on 22 June 1941, 99 of 190 German divisions, including fourteen panzer divisions and ten motorized, were deployed against the Soviet Union from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions, and nine Romanian and four Hungarian brigades. On the same day, the British Expeditionary Force, led by Lieutenant-general Henry Pownall, invaded Northern Russia. To establish air supremacy, the Luftwaffe began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields, destroying much of the forward-deployed Soviet Air Force airfield fleets consisting of largely obsolescent types before their pilots had a chance to leave the ground. For a month the offensive conducted on three axes was completely unstoppable as the panzer forces encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets that were then reduced by slower-moving infantry armies while the panzers continued the offensive, following the Blitzkrieg doctrine.
Army Group North's objective was Leningrad via the Baltic states. Comprising the 16th and 18th Armies and the 4th Panzer Group, this formation advanced through the Baltic states, and the Russian Pskov and Novgorod regions. Local insurgents seized the moment and controlled most of Lithuania, northern Latvia and southern Estonia prior to the arrival of the German forces.
Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (2nd and 3rd), advanced to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk and converged east of Minsk, followed by the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Armies. The combined panzer force reached the Beresina River in just six days, 650 km (400 mi) from their start lines. The next objective was to cross the Dnieper river, which was accomplished by 11 July. Their next target was Smolensk, which fell on 16 July, but the fierce Soviet resistance in the Smolensk area and retardation of the Wehrmacht advance in North and South forced German leadership to halt a central thrust at Moscow and to divert Panzer Group 3 north. Critically, Guderian's Panzer Group 2 was ordered to move south in a giant pincer maneuver with Army Group South which was advancing into Ukraine. Army Group Centre's infantry divisions were left relatively unsupported by armor to continue their slow advance to Moscow.
This decision caused a severe leadership crisis. The German field commanders argued for an immediate offensive towards Moscow, but Hitler overruled them, citing the importance of Ukrainian agricultural, mining and industrial resources, as well as the massing of Soviet reserves in the Gomel area between Army Group Centre's southern flank and the bogged-down Army Group South's northern flank. This decision, Hitler's "summer pause", is believed to have had a severe impact on the Battle of Moscow's outcome, by giving up speed in the advance on Moscow in favor of encircling large numbers of Soviet troops around Kiev.
Army Group South, with the 1st Panzer Group, the 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, was tasked with advancing through Galicia and into Ukraine. Their progress, however, was rather slow, and took heavy casualties in a major tank battle. With the corridor towards Kiev secured by mid-July, the 11th Army, aided by two Romanian armies, fought its way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. The 1st Panzer Group turned away from Kiev for the moment, advancing into the Dnieper bend (western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast). When it joined up with the southern elements of Army Group South at Uman, the Group captured about 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a huge encirclement. Advancing armored divisions of the Army Group South met with the Guderian Panzer Group 2 near Lokhvytsa in mid September, cutting off large numbers of Red Army troops in the pocket east of Kiev. 400,000 Soviet prisoners were captured as Kiev was liberated on 19 September.
Stalin ordered the retreating Red Army to initiate a scorched-earth policy to deny Germans and their allies basic supplies as they moved eastward. To carry out that order, destruction battalions were formed in front-line areas, having the authority to summarily execute any suspicious person. The destruction battalions burned down villages, schools, and public buildings. As a part of this policy the NKVD massacred thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners.
Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941
The Germans then decided to resume the advance on Moscow, re-designating the panzer groups as panzer armies for the occasion. Operation Typhoon, which was set in motion on 30 September, saw the 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Oryol (captured 5 October) to the Oka River at Plavsk, while the 4th Panzer Army (transferred from Army Group North to Centre) and 3rd Panzer armies surrounded the Soviet forces in two huge pockets at Vyazma and Bryansk. Army Group North positioned itself in front of Leningrad and attempted to cut the rail link at Mga to the east. This began the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. North of the Arctic Circle, a German–Finnish force set out for Murmansk which fell on 17 November while British forces secured Kandalaksha. The BEF continued to advance south along the Northern Dvina River where they settled down at Vologda in the fall.
Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkiv, Kursk, and Yuzovka. The 11th Army moved into the Crimea and took control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until 3 July 1942). On 21 November, the Germans took Rostov, the gateway to the Caucasus. However, the German lines were over-extended and the Soviet defenders counterattacked the 1st Panzer Army's spearhead from the north, forcing them to pull out of the city and behind the Mius River.
The onset of the winter freeze saw one last German lunge that opened on 15 November, when the Germans attempted to throw a ring around Moscow. On 27 November, the 4th Panzer Army got to within 30 km (19 mi) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army took Tula, the last Soviet city that stood in its way to the capital. After a meeting held in Orsha between the head of the OKH (Army General Staff), General Franz Halder and the heads of three Army groups and armies, decided to push forward to Moscow since it was better, as argued by the head of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, for them to try their luck on the battlefield rather than just sit and wait while their opponent gathered more strength.
By 6 December it became clear that the Wehrmacht would capture Moscow, and the attack was continued feverishly throughout the month. Marshal Shaposhnikov thus began his counter-attack, employing freshly mobilized reserves, but the much needed well-trained Far-Eastern divisions were transferred north to try and repulse the BEF. On 30 December, as the German forces fought their way into the center of Moscow, Joseph Stalin committed suicide by taking cyanide and shooting himself. Georgy Zhukov, defense commandant of Moscow, surrendered the city to the Germans on 2 January.
At 02:41 on the morning of 7 January 1942, at OKH headquarters, Red Army Chief-of-Staff General Boris Shaposhnikov signed the unconditional surrender documents for all Soviet forces to the Axis at Helsinki in Finland. It included the phrase All forces under Soviet control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 January 1942. The war in Europe was over.