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The WW2 Eastern Front: 1941: Some Images

Honest historians admit that the war in Europe during the Second World War was war on the Eastern Front. The rest was all a side show....


The senior officers of the Wehrmacht flattered themselves that they represented a cultured nation, yet they readily acquiesced in the barbarities designed into the Barbarossa plan. These included the starvation of at least 30 million Russians, in order that their food supplies might be diverted to Germany, originally a conception of Nazi agriculture chief Herbert Backe.

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 At a meeting held on 2 May 1941 to discuss the occupation of the Soviet Union, the army’s armament-planning secretariat recorded its commitment to a policy noteworthy even in the context of the Third Reich: 

1 The war can only be continued, if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia in the third year. 

2 If we take what we need out of the country, there can be no doubt that many millions of people will die of starvation. 

 Barbarossa was therefore not merely a military operation, but also an economic programme expected to encompass the deaths of tens of millions of people, an objective which it partially attained. Some generals protested against orders requiring their men to participate in the systematic murder of Soviet commissars, and rather more questioned Hitler’s invasion strategy. 

Maj. Gen. Erich Marcks, the brilliant officer responsible for early planning, proposed that the decisive thrust should be delivered north of the Pripet Marshes, because Russian deployments anticipated an assault farther south. Several commanders argued that a conquered population which was treated mercifully would be more manageable than one which gained nothing by accepting subjection. Such objections were framed in pragmatic rather than moral terms; when Berlin rejected them, the critics lapsed into acquiescence and faithfully executed Hitler’s orders. 

Industrialised savagery was inherent in Barbarossa. Göring told those charged with administering the occupied territories: “God knows, you are not sent out there to work for the welfare of the people in your charge, but to get the utmost out of them, so that the German people can live.” Col. Gen. Erich Hoepner, the fifty-five-year-old cavalryman commanding Fourth Panzer Group, said: “The war with Russia is a vital part of the German people’s fight for existence. It is the old fight of German against Slav, the defence of European culture against the Muscovite-Asiatic flood, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This war must have as its goal the destruction of today’s Russia—and for this reason it must be conducted with unprecedented harshness. Every clash, from conception to execution, must be guided by an iron determination to annihilate the enemy completely and utterly.” From June 1941 onwards, few German senior officers could credibly deny complicity in the crimes of Nazism.

The war in Russia was brutal with no quarters given or taken. Germans walk away from a burning village in the Soviet Union. It is possible it was set on fire by the retreating Red Army in 1941. Or by the Germans. The Wehrmacht had orders to burn down villages where collaborators were found.


The huge troop movements preceding Barbarossa became the stuff of café gossip on the streets of Europe: the writer Mikhail Sebastian was telephoned by a friend in Bucharest on 19 June who said, “The war will begin tomorrow morning if it stops raining.”

Yet Stalin forbade every movement that might provoke Berlin, overruling repeated pleas from his commanders to alert the front. He ordered antiaircraft defences not to fire on Luftwaffe overflights of Soviet territory, of which ninety-one were reported in May and early June. Himself a warlord of icy purpose, Stalin was confounded by the apparent perversity of Hitler’s behaviour. Under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany was receiving enormous material aid from Russia: supply trains continued to roll west until the very moment of the invasion; the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were largely fuelled by Soviet oil; the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats had access to Russian port facilities. Britain remained undefeated. Stalin thus refused to believe that Hitler would precipitate a cataclysmic breach with him, and was personally responsible for the fact that the German onslaught, no surprise to his senior commanders, caught the defences unprepared.

Georgy Zhukov, chief of the general staff, dispatched an alert order to all commands late on 21 June, but this reached them only an hour before the Germans attacked.


This is in Poland. 1939. German soldiers reconnoiter as a Polish village burns, devastated by the Luftwaffe.

Germans in Dunaburg (Dvinsk), Latvia. June 26, 1941.


In the first weeks of Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht achieved some of the greatest victories in the annals of war. Entire armies were enveloped and destroyed, notably at Bialystok-Minsk and Smolensk. Stalin’s soldiers surrendered in tens and hundreds of thousands. Russian aircraft losses mounted daily. Twenty- year-old pilot Heinz Knoke, a dedicated Nazi, described the exhilaration of strafing: “I never shot as well as this before. My Ivans lie flat on the ground. One of them leaps to his feet and dashes into the trees. The remainder forget to get up again … Smiling faces all around when the pilots report. We have dreamed for a long time of doing something like this to the Bolshevists. Our feeling is not exactly one of hatred, so much as utter contempt. It is a genuine satisfaction for us to be able to trample the Bolshevists in the mud where they belong.”

Ivan Konovalov, one of thousands of Stalin’s pilots surprised by dive-bombers on his airfield, wrote: “All of a sudden there was an incredible roaring sound. Someone yelled ‘Take cover!’ and I dived under a wing of my plane. Everything was burning—a terrible, raging fire.” Alexander Andrievich, a supply officer, came upon the remains of a Soviet unit shattered by air attack: “There were hundreds upon hundreds of dead … I saw one of our generals standing by a crossroads. He had come to review his troops and was wearing his best parade uniform. But his soldiers were fleeing in the opposite direction. He stood there forlorn and alone, while the troops flooded past. Behind him was an obelisk, marking the route of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.” The deputy political officer of the 5/147th Rifles led his men into action shouting, “For the Motherland and Stalin!” and was among the first to fall.

June 30, 1941. Lvov, Ukraine. Bavarian Mountain Troops enter the town to a rousing welcome by the people. The Ukrainians were sick and tired of the Soviet occupation, especially Stalin's collectivization programs. Fighting was continuing in the western part of the town.


A critical strand in the Soviet Union’s response to Barbarossa was a commitment to the doctrine of total mobilisation, first articulated by Mikhail Frunze, the brilliant war minister under Lenin. Michael Howard has observed that, while the Russians suffered a stunning tactical surprise in June 1941, strategically and psychologically they had been preparing themselves since 1917 to fight a big war against Western capitalism.

It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the eastward evacuation of key factories and workers, the fortitude of those who carried it out, and the importance of its success. Russia’s industrial migration eventually embraced 1,523 undertakings, including 1,360 major plants. Fifteen percent were transferred to the Volga, 44 percent to the Urals, 21 percent to Siberia and 20 percent to Soviet Central Asia, in 1.5 million railway wagon loads. Some 16.5 million workers embarked on new lives in conditions of appalling privation, labouring eleven hours a day, six days a week, initially often under open skies. It is hard to imagine that British or American workers could have established and operated production lines under such handicaps.

Early days of Barbarossa. A German soldier throws a stick grenade.


The partisan movement, sustaining armed resistance behind the German lines, began in June 1941 and became one of the most notable features of Russia’s war. By the end of September the NKVD claimed that 30,000 guerrilla fighters were operating in Ukraine alone. It was impossible for the invaders to secure the huge wildernesses behind the front. But bands of desperate men, conducting a campaign dependent on starving civilians for food, were by no means acclaimed by them as heroes. One of their commissars, Nikolai Moskvin, wrote: “It’s not surprising that local people run off and complain to the Germans. A lot of the time we’re just robbing them like bandits.” Later in the campaign he added an emotional postscript: “I am writing for posterity that partisans undergo inhuman sufferings.”

So did civilians. The struggle for survival, in a universe in which the occupiers controlled most of the food, caused many women to sell their bodies to Germans, and many men to enlist as auxiliaries of the Wehrmacht—“Hiwis,” as they became known: 215,000 Soviet citizens died wearing German uniforms. But partisan operations achieved a strategic importance in Russia, harassing the German rear and disrupting lines of communication to a degree unmatched anywhere else in the Nazi empire save Yugoslavia.

Hitler visits his troops on the Eastern Front, greets a wounded soldier.


Moreover, for all the Wehrmacht’s dramatic successes and advances, the Red Army remained unbroken. If many of Stalin’s soldiers readily surrendered, others fought on, even in hopeless circumstances. They astonished the Germans by their weeklong defence of the frontier fortress of Brest in June; a divisional report asserted that its attackers were obliged to overcome “a courageous garrison that cost us a lot of blood … The Russians fought with exceptional stubbornness … They displayed superb infantry training and a splendid will to resist.” The Soviets had some good heavy tanks. As Hitler’s commanders smashed one Soviet army, they were bemused to find another taking its place.

 On 8 July German intelligence reported that, out of 164 Soviet formations identified at the front, 89 had been destroyed. Yet by 11 August the mood of Halder in Berlin was much sobered: “It is increasingly clear that we underestimated the Russian colossus … We believed that the enemy had about 200 divisions. Now we are counting 360. These forces are not always well-armed and equipped and they are often poorly led. But they are there.”

 Helmuth von Moltke, an anti-Nazi working in the German Abwehr, wrote to his wife, expressing regret that he had been foolish enough “in my heart of hearts” to approve the invasion. Like many of his fellow aristocrats in France and Britain, his loathing for communism had exceeded his antipathy to Hitler: “I believed that Russia would collapse from within and that we could then create an order in that region which would present no danger to us. But nothing of this is to be noticed: far behind the front Russian soldiers are fighting on, and so are peasants and workers; it is exactly as in China. We have touched something terrible and it will cost many victims.” He added a week later: “One thing seems certain to me in any case: between now and 1st April next year more people will perish miserably between the Urals and Portugal than ever before in the history of the world. And this seed will sprout. Who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind, but after such a wind as this what will the whirlwind be like?”

Germans enter Narwa, Estonia.

RUSSIA WAS SAVED from absolute defeat chiefly by the size of the country and of its armies. The Germans seized great tracts of territory, but larger ones remained; the 900-mile initial front broadened to 1,400 miles when the invaders reached the Leningrad–Odessa line. They destroyed hundreds of Soviet divisions, yet there were always more. Moscow was shocked by the readiness of its units to surrender, and of subject populations—notably in Ukraine and the Baltic republics—to embrace the Germans. But the dogged animal stubbornness of some Red Army soldiers, which had initially bewildered the Germans, now began to alarm them; every Russian who died cost the Wehrmacht effort, ammunition and precious time to kill. Hitler’s young crusaders found it intoxicating to ride their bucketing tanks across hundreds of miles of enemy territory, but the strain on machinery was relentless; as men grew tired, so too did their vehicles: tracks wore out, cables frayed, springs broke. The strength of many formations was badly reduced: by autumn, 20 percent of the original invasion force was gone, and two- thirds of its armour and vehicles; only thirty-eight tanks remained in one panzer formation, and barely sixty in another. A division commander wrote of the importance of reducing losses “if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”


1941. Undisclosed location. Somewhere on the Eastern Front.


The mud created by the rains was already proving more dangerous to the Germans, as they struggled to advance, than to the defenders holding their ground. Autumn rains were part of Russia’s natural cycle, but those that began on 8 October 1941 astonished the commanders of the all- conquering Wehrmacht, which was strange, since several of them had fought there between 1914 and 1917. In a vast country with few and poor roads—only 40,000 miles of tarmac, less than 50,000 of rail track—they failed to anticipate the impact of weather upon mobility. Suddenly, the racing panzer spearheads found themselves checked, tank tracks thrashing ineffectually in a morass. The German supply system floundered under the strain of shifting food and ammunition across hundreds of miles in weather that deteriorated daily.

German forces were still thrusting forward north and south of Moscow, but losing momentum. On 17 November, a Wehrmacht division broke and fled in the face of an attack by new Soviet T-34 tanks. Fresh Russian armies were taking the field; the invaders were running out of armour, fuel, men and faith. A young SS officer wrote: “Thus we are approaching our final goal, Moscow, step by step. It is icy cold … To start the [vehicle] engines, they must be warmed by lighting fires under the oil pan. The fuel is partially frozen, the motor oil is thick and we lack antifreeze … The remaining limited combat strength of the troops diminishes further due to the continuous exposure to the cold … The automatic weapons … often fail to operate because the breechblocks can no longer move.” If a man spat, the moisture froze before reaching the ground. A single regiment reported 315 frostbite cases. On 3 December Hoepner, commanding Fourth Panzer Group, reported: “The offensive combat power of the Corps has run out. Reasons: physical and moral over-exertion, loss of a large number of commanders, inadequate winter equipment … The High Command should decide whether a withdrawal should be undertaken.”

The anti-Russian feeling was so great in Ukraine that Germans were welcomed as liberators in 1941. Things haven't changed much even today.

German soldiers atop an inverted abandoned T-34 tank in 1941.


On 5 December, the Russians launched a massive assault which caught the Germans almost literally frozen in their positions. The Stavka had awaited the assistance of General Winter. The thermometer fell to 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, so that German lubricants hardened while Russian weapons and tanks still worked—the T-34 had a compressed-air starter, immune to frost. A stunned infantryman named Albrecht Linsen described the response of his unit to the Soviet assault: “Out of the snowstorm soldiers were running back, scattering in all directions like a panic-stricken herd of animals. A lone officer stood against this desperate mass; he gesticulated, tried to pull out his pistol and then simply let it pass. Our platoon commander made no attempt at all to stop people. I paused, wondering what to do, and there was an explosion right next to me and I felt a searing pain in my right thigh … I thought: ‘I am going to die here, 21 years old, in the snow before Moscow.’ ”

The Russian offensive smashed into the two exposed German salients north and south of Moscow, then exploited westward. The unthinkable became reality: the invincible Wehrmacht began to retreat. “Each time we leave a village, we set it alight,” wrote the panzer lieutenant Gustav Schrodek. “It is a primitive form of self-defence, and the Russians hate us for it. Yet its grim military logic is clear—to deny our pursuing opponents shelter in the terrible cold.” Lt. Kurt Grumann wrote from a field dressing station: “Eighty men were brought in here today, half of whom have second- or third-degree frostbite. Their swollen legs are covered in blisters, and they no longer resemble limbs but rather some formless mass. In some cases gangrene has already set in. What is it all for?” Many tanks and vehicles were abandoned, immured in snow and ice. “The ghost of the Napoleonic Grande Armée hovers ever more strongly above us like a malignant spirit,” wrote gunner Josef Deck.

 For ten days the Wehrmacht staggered back through a white wilderness landmarked with huddled corpses and the blackened carcasses of abandoned vehicles. Most German commanders favoured a major withdrawal. Hitler, displaying an obstinacy which mirrored that of Stalin, called instead for “fanatical resistance.” The ardent Nazi general Walther Model played a hero’s part in stabilising the line. Stalin, against Zhukov’s strong advice, insisted upon extending operations.

On 5 January he ordered a counteroffensive along the length of the front. Once more following Hitler’s example, by spurning an opportunity to concentrate forces against the weak point in the German line Stalin threw away the possibility of a great victory; Rokossovsky later offered a scornful catalogue of the blunders made, chances missed. The Germans still resisted fiercely, mowing down attackers in tens of thousands. Soviet reserves were soon exhausted, and their advance ran out of steam. Model recovered some lost ground, and Zhukov’s hopes of encircling Army Group Centre were frustrated. But the decisive reality persisted: the invaders had been pushed back between 60 and 150 miles. The Russians held Moscow.

Soviet T-26 tanks attack German panzers near Smolensk in July1941

Waffen SS soldiers at the 'Stalin Line', a series of fortifications built by the Russians on the 1939 borders. By 1941 many of the bunkers were incomplete and not used by the Red Army.

Red Army soldiers surrendered in droves to the Germans in 1941 as entire Soviet armies were encircled by the rapidly advancing panzers. It was after the Russians starting executing deserters and captured men and after the German ill-treatment of Soviet POW that the ordinary Russian started fighting to the last man.


The ruthlessness of the invaders was swiftly revealed. In France in 1940, more than a million French prisoners were caged and fed; in Russia, by contrast, prisoners were caged only to perish. First in hundreds of thousands, soon in millions, they starved to death in accordance with their captors’ design, and inability to cope with such numbers even had they wished to do so—the Reich’s camps had capacity for only 790,000. Some prisoners resorted to cannibalism. Many German units killed POWs merely to escape the inconvenience of supervising their more protracted end.

Gen. Joachim Lemelsen protested to the high command: “I am repeatedly finding out about the shooting of prisoners, defectors or deserters, carried out in an irresponsible, senseless and criminal manner. This is murder. Soon the Russians will get to hear about the countless corpses lying along the routes taken by our soldiers, without weapons and with hands raised, dispatched at close range by shots to the head. The result will be that the enemy will hide in the woods and fields and continue to fight—and we shall lose countless comrades.”

Germans in Minsk

A Soviet commander (Lopashov, later a Hero of the Soviet Union) gives his men a pep talk in 1941. he was killed in action in 1943.

The Stuka Dive Bombers. JU-87. These played a major part in early days of Barbarossa in destroying Soviet forward positions and warplanes. Later in the war they became obsolete and thus easy pickings for Soviet fighters and ack-ack.

In 1941 the Soviet air force had unwieldy obsolete planes like the I-16 (Yak) which were remorselessly destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

Hitler's orders were that all Soviet political officers (Commissars) were to be executed after capture.

Russian women fraternizing with German soldiers in occupied Russia. Perhaps they were too hasty in betting on the German side.

Occupied Minsk. 1941. A destroyed Minsk.

A German supply train in Russia. Supply is crucial in any military action. As the Germans moved deeper into Russia their supply-lines got stretched.

Ill-clothed and harried German soldiers on the outskirts of Moscow in December 1941.

Stavka bringing in fresh Siberian troops to throw the Germans off near Moscow. Winter 1941.

German soldiers retreating in December 1941. The harsh winter and the Red offensive had them reeling.


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