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Pictorial history of the Eastern (Russian) Front: Second World War

Hitler at a German victory military parade at Warsaw on October 5, 1939. Occupation of Poland gave Hitler a road into Russia. Barbarossa came almost two years later in June 1941.


The assault on Russia began on June 22, 1941. Some German generals had misgivings about the date. They felt it had begun a month too late. They knew about the harsh Russian winter which had defeated Napoleon's armies before. But Hitler was adamant. Thus Barbarossa began.


The German army made rapid advances into Russia. Hitler and his generals were jubilant. For some time it seemed like Russia too would fall quickly like France and Poland had done.


His most disastrous error was to go into the Soviet Union as a conqueror instead of a liberator. The Soviet people had suffered enormously at the hands of the Communist autocracy for two decades. Millions had died when the Reds forced people off their land to create collective farms. Millions more were obliged to move great distances to work long hours, under terrible conditions, and little compensation in factories and construction projects. The secret police punished any resistance with death or transportation to horrible prison gulags in Siberia. In the gruesome purges of the 1930s, Joseph Stalin had systematically killed all leaders and all military officers who, in his paranoid mind, posed the slightest threat to his dictatorship. Life for the ordinary Russian was drab, full of exhausting work, and dangerous. At the same time, the Soviet Union was an empire ruling over a collection of subjugated peoples who were violently opposed to rule from the Kremlin.

Vast numbers of these people would have risen in rebellion if Hitler's legions had entered with the promise of freedom and elimination of Soviet oppression. Had Hitler done this, the Soviet Union would have collapsed.

With such a policy, Hitler would not have gained the Lebensraum , or living space for the German people, that he coveted, but once the Soviet Union had been shattered, he could have put into effect anything he wanted to in the pieces that remained.

Hitler, however, followed precisely the opposite course of action. His "commissar order" called for the instant shooting down of Communist party agents in the army. He sent Einsatzgruppen

Two days before the Germans struck, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's commissioner for the regions to be conquered, told his closest collaborators: "The job of feeding the German people stands at the top of the list of Germany's claims in the east....We see absolutely no reason for any obligation on our part to feed also the Russian people."

The genuine welcome that German soldiers received as they entered Soviet towns and villages in the first days of the campaign was quickly replaced by fear, hatred, and a bitter guerrilla war behind the lines that slowed supplies to the front, killed thousands of Germans, and increasingly hobbled the German army.
or extermination detachments to come behind the army and rout out and murder Jews. He resolved to deport or allow millions of Slavs to starve in order to empty the land for future German settlers.
The enthusiasm spread to the battle-front. German soldiers were full of nationalistic fervour and hoped for an early victory.


A large portion of the failure to successfully execute Operation Barbarossa must go to the planners and those involved with German intelligence. Many key failures of either or both directly led to the Germans being stalled in the snows just outside Moscow in December, 1941. As far as horse cavalry was concerned, the mighty "German accounts tended to ridicule cavalry units as hopeless anachronisms. During the winter of 1941-42, when all mechanized units were immobilized by cold and snow, the horse cavalry divisions (and newly created ski battalions and brigades) [of the Russians] proved effective…" Here the Germans stubbornly clung to their belief in a quick war that would be long over before the snows of October could set in. It would appear that no thought was given in the time leading up to the attack for contingencies based on failures to meet objectives. For instance, how could the planners not have drawn up contingency plans to cover cold weather operations? Flexibility is a major key to successful warfare.

Hitler moved the date for Barbarossa back to 22 June from 15 May because of "[t]he German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece during April and May, 1941…also caused a series of delays in the attack on Russia itself." At the time, it likely seemed the sensible thing for Germany to do; but by December, with their armies poised to finish off Russia and take Moscow, it can be seen as a key contributor to Nazi defeat. This delay of five weeks would prove to be crucial! Had Barbarossa started in May instead of June, they would have arrived in Moscow and Leningrad sooner and would have taken both cities. This was yet another in a long line of German errors and miscalculations that contributed to their defeat against the Russians in the war; but logistics might have been the key area that really broke the Nazis back. 

Hitler's actual military plans also were so false strategically that they could only succeed if the Red Army collapsed from internal stress. That, in fact, is what Hitler counted on. He did not expect to win by a superior method or concept, but by relying on the Russian army to disintegrate after a series of initial battles.

Great generals don't win wars in this fashion. They don't depend upon their enemies to make mistakes or give up. A great general relies upon his own ideas, initiative, skill, and maneuvers to put the enemy in a position where he must do the general's bidding.

Hitler's greatest strategic mistake was his refusal to concentrate on a single, decisive goal. Instead he sought to gain---all at the same time---three widely distant objectives: Leningrad, which he sought to smash because it was the birthplace of Russian Communism; the Ukraine and the Caucausus beyond, which he wanted for its abundant foodstuffs, 60 percent of Soviet industry, and the bulk of the Soviet Union's oil; and Moscow, which he desired because it was the capital of the Soviet Union and its nerve center.

Hitler wanted all of them. Indeed, he expected to reach the line Archangel-Caspian Sea in 1941. That is 300 miles east of Moscow, and only about 450 miles from the Ural mountains. But Germany did not have the strength to achieve all of these goals in a single year's campaign. At best, it had the strength to achieve one. 

Goebbels propaganda machine went into overdrive extolling the German troops.

The great weakness of the panzer divisions was the condition of the roads. In the vast Soviet Union there were only 40,000 miles of paved highways. Most routes were dirt, and turned into muddy morasses in wet weather. In a panzer division fewer than 300 vehicles were fully tracked, while nearly 3,000 were wheeled and largely restricted to roads. In the west this had been little problem, because of the abundance of all-weather roads. In Russia their relative absence meant that panzer mobility would be ended with the first mud. 

The greatest fault of the Red Army was its organization of armored and motorized forces. It possessed fifty tank divisions and twenty-five mechanized (motorized) divisions, far more than the Germans, but Stalin had not accepted the German doctrine of concentration of armor. The largest armored formation was a mechanized corps of one motorized and two tank divisions, and these corps were widely dispersed across the front, not massed as were German panzer formations. Furthermore, each mechanized corps's divisions were often a hundred kilometers apart. Some corps were subordinate to field armies with the job of supporting local counterattacks. Others were held in reserve to take part in counterthrusts under front (army group) control. Soviet armor, spread out in small packets, thereby repeated the error that the British and French had made in the 1940 campaign.

German Propaganda Poster in Ukrainian Language. This was to demoralise the Soviet army.

Germans bomb Leningrad. Russian civilians die.

A Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) woman takes a dead body for mass funeral.

Even in the areas occupied by the Germans, Russian partisans kept up the fight. They were not fighting for the Soviet Union. They were fighting for Mother Russia. As were all the soldiers in Stalin's army.

The harsh Russian winter really turned the tide. The German war machine ground to a halt literally in the heavy Russian snow. The German generals had acted hastily in attacking Russia. They had not factored in the winter. The Russian soldiers were well clothed in the harsh weather (above).

The ill-prepared and poorly clothed German soldiers froze to death.

The winter gave Russia to crank up its war production. Soviet factories churned out tanks and arms.

The Soviet poster tells the story of Russian determination.

The Soviet army was standing up. The tide was turning.

The Russians threw into the battlefields fresh troops who began to overwhelm the Germans.

The Communist military 'genius' Stalin introduced "[i]n 1937, 'dual-command' (which) was hammered on with the purge. 'Military Soviets', the command-and-control device of a senior officer flanked by 'political members', blanketed the major commands and institutions."[6] Not only had Stalin shot or imprisoned nearly all of his senior military leaders during the mid-1930s 'purge:' but the idea of adding another layer into an already complicated command structure would prove to be nearly the Russians undoing in the first months of Operation Barbarossa. If not for the size of the country and its armed forces—this might have been the decisive edge the Nazis could have exploited to finish Russia in the early weeks after 22 June, 1941. Again though, these two events caused Hitler to over-estimate the effect it would have on the Russian armed forces and the regular soldier who would do most of the fighting and dying for Mother Russia.

The Russians counter-attacked ruthlessly.

The German soldiers were tired.

More fresh German tanks and arms were sent by railroads to Russia but the tide had turned.

Russians attacked and the Germans were on the back foot.

Russians tanks roll into the war fields

The Nazi tanks were destroyed

A German plane crashes. Symbolic of the state of the war.

Soviet army retakes Kiev

"Stalin's organ", Katyusha rockets firing on German positions.

Soviet fighter planes now dominated the skies

Ruins of a German Panzer.

Restoring the pre-Barbarossa border.

A losing army. German Prisoner-of-war.

Raising the Red flag over the Reichstag.

Soviet army chief general Zhukov rides during a victory parade .


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