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European theatre of World War II

  (Redirected from European Theatre of World War II)

The European theatre of World War II, also known as the Second European War, was a huge area of heavy fighting across Europe, from Germany's invasion of Poland on 1st of September 1939 until the end of the war with the Soviet Union conquering most of Eastern Europe along with the German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945 (Victory in Europe Day). The Allied powers fought the Axis powers on two major fronts (the Eastern Front and Western Front) as well as in a massive air war and in the adjoining Mediterranean and Middle East theatre.

Second European War
Part of World War II
Hitlermusso2 edit.jpg
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Italy
Date1 September 1939 – 25 May 1945[1]
Location
Europe and adjoining regions
Result
Belligerents

Allies:
 Soviet Union[nb 1]
 United States[nb 2]
 United Kingdom

 Canada
 Australia
 New Zealand
 South Africa
 France

Poland
 Yugoslavia

 Greece
 Czechoslovakia
 Belgium
 Netherlands
 Norway
 Brazil[nb 3]
 Luxembourg


 Italy (from 1943)
 Romania (from 1944)
Bulgaria (from 1944)
 Finland (from 1944)


 Denmark

Axis:
 Germany
 Italy[nb 4]

 Romania[nb 6]
 Hungary
 Bulgaria[nb 7]
Axis puppet states
 Italian Social Republic[nb 8]
 Slovakia
Croatia
 Vichy France[nb 9]
Nedic Regime
Hellenic State
Albania[nb 10]
Quisling Regime
Co-belligerents
 Finland[nb 11]


 Soviet Union[nb 12]
(1939–1941)
Commanders and leaders
Soviet Union Joseph Stalin
United Kingdom Winston Churchill
United States Franklin D. Roosevelt
France Édouard Daladier
Free France Charles de Gaulle
Poland Władysław Raczkiewicz
Kingdom of Yugoslavia Dušan Simović
Josip Broz Tito
Kingdom of Greece Alexandros Papagos
Canada W.L. Mackenzie King
Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš
Belgium Hubert Pierlot
Netherlands Pieter Sjoerds Gerbrandy
Norway Johan Nygaardsvold
Brazil Getúlio Vargas
Denmark Christian X
Luxembourg Pierre Dupong
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Badoglio
Kingdom of Romania Michael I
Kimon Georgiev
Finland C.G.E. Mannerheim

Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler
Kingdom of Italy Italian Social Republic Benito Mussolini
Kingdom of Romania Ion Antonescu
Kingdom of Hungary (1920–1946) Miklós Horthy
Kingdom of Bulgaria Boris III
Slovak Republic (1939–1945) Jozef Tiso
Independent State of Croatia Ante Pavelić
Vichy France Philippe Pétain
Milan Nedić
Georgios Tsolakoglou
Rexhep Mitrovica
Norway Vidkun Quisling
Finland Risto Ryti


Soviet Union Joseph Stalin

Contents

Preceding eventsEdit

Germany was defeated in World War I, and the Treaty of Versailles placed punitive conditions on the country, including significant financial reparations, the loss of territory (some only temporarily), war guilt, military weakening and limitation, and economic weakening. Germany was humiliated in front of the world and had to pay very large war reparations. Many Germans blamed their country's post-war economic collapse and hyperinflation on the treaty's conditions. These resentments contributed to the political instability which made it possible for Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party to come to power, with Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

After Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations, Mussolini of Fascist Italy and Hitler formed the Rome-Berlin axis, under a treaty known as the Pact of Steel. Later, the Empire of Japan, under the government of Hideki Tojo, would also join as an Axis power. Japan and Germany had already signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1939, to counter the perceived threat of the communism of the Soviet Union. Other smaller powers also later joined the Axis throughout the war.

Outbreak of war in EuropeEdit

Germany and the Soviet Union were sworn enemies, but following the Munich Agreement, which effectively handed over Czechoslovakia (a French and Soviet ally, and the only remaining presidential democracy in Central Europe) to Germany, political realities allowed the Soviet Union to sign a non-aggression pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) including a secret clause partitioning Poland, the Baltic Republics and Finland between the two spheres of influence.

Full-scale war in Europe began at dawn on 1 September 1939, when Germany used her newly formed Blitzkrieg tactics and military strength to invade Poland, to which both the United Kingdom and France had pledged protection and independence guarantees. On 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany and British troops were sent to France, however neither French nor British troops gave any significant assistance to the Poles during the entire invasion, and the German–French border, excepting the Saar Offensive, remained mostly calm, this period of the war is commonly known as the Phoney War.

On 17 September the Soviet forces joined the invasion of Poland, although remaining neutral with respect to Western powers. The Polish government evacuated the country for Romania. Poland fell within five weeks, with its last large operational units surrendering on October 5 after the Battle of Kock. As the Polish September Campaign ended, Hitler offered to Britain and France peace on the basis of recognition of German European continental dominance. On 12 October the United Kingdom formally refused.

Despite the quick campaign in the east, along the Franco-German frontier the war settled into a quiet period. This relatively non-confrontational and mostly non-fighting period between the major powers lasted until May 10, 1940, and was known as the Phoney War.

Germany and the USSR partition Northern EuropeEdit

 
Finnish soldiers during the Winter War

Several other countries, however, were drawn into the conflict at this time. By 28 September 1939, the three Baltic Republics felt they had no choice but to permit Soviet bases and troops on their territory. The Baltic Republics were occupied by the Soviet army in June 1940, and finally annexed to the Soviet Union in August 1940.

The Soviet Union wanted to annex Finland and offered a union agreement, but Finland rejected it, which caused the Soviet Union to attack Finland on November 30. This began the Winter War. After five months of hard fighting, Finns were only pushed from a strip of land bordering Russia, in spite of Soviet numerical superiority, the Soviet Union gave up attempts to subdue the whole country. In the Moscow Peace Treaty of 12 March 1940, Finland ceded 10% of her territory (Karelia, Salla and Petsamo). The Finns were embittered over having lost more land in the peace than on the battlefields, and over the perceived lack of world sympathy.

Meanwhile, in western Scandinavia, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940, and in response, Britain occupied the Faroe Islands (a Danish territory) and invaded and occupied Iceland (a sovereign nation with the King of Denmark as its monarch).

Sweden was able to remain neutral.

War comes to the WestEdit

 
German troops in Paris after the Fall of France

On 10 May the Phoney War ended with a sweeping German invasion of the neutral Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and into France bypassing the French fortifications of the Maginot Line along the border with Germany. After overrunning the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Germany turned against France, entering the country through the Ardennes on May 13—the French had left this area less well defended, believing its terrain to be impassable for tanks and other vehicles. Most Allied forces were in Flanders, anticipating a re-run of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, and were cut off from the French mainland. As a result of this, and also the superior German communications and tactics, the Battle of France was shorter than virtually all pre-war Allied thought could have conceived. It lasted only six weeks. On 10 June Italy declared war on both France and the United Kingdom, but did not gain any significant success in this campaign. The French government fled Paris, and soon, France surrendered on 22 June. In order to further the humiliation of the French people and the country itself, Hitler arranged for the surrender document to be signed in the Forest of Compiègne, in the same railway coach where the German surrender had been signed in 1918. The surrender divided France into two major parts; the northern part under German control, and a southern part under French control, based at Vichy and referred to as Vichy France, a rump state friendly to Germany. Many French soldiers, as well as those of other occupied countries, escaped to Britain. The General de Gaulle proclaimed himself the legitimate leader of Free France and vowed to continue to fight. Following the unexpected swift victory, Hitler promoted 12 generals to the rank of field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.

Vyacheslav Molotov, the Foreign Policy Minister of the USSR, which was tied with Soviet–German non-aggression treaty, congratulated the Germans: "We hand over the most cordial congratulations by the Soviet government on the occasion of splendid success of German Wehrmacht. Guderian's tanks broke through to the sea near Abbeville, powered by Soviet fuel, the German bombs, that razed Rotterdam to the ground, were filled with Soviet pyroxylin, and bullet cases, which hit the British soldiers retreating from Dunkirk, were cast of Soviet cupronickel alloy..."[2]

Later, on 24 April 1941, the USSR gave full diplomatic recognition to the Vichy government situated in the non-occupied zone in France.[3]

Thus, the Fall of France left Britain and the Commonwealth to stand alone. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, resigned during the battle and was replaced by Winston Churchill. Much of Britain's army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirk, where hundreds (if not thousands) of tiny civilian boats were used to ferry troops from the beaches to the waiting warships. There is much debate over whether German Panzer divisions could have defeated these soldiers alone if they had pressed forward, since the tank divisions were overextended and would require extensive refitting; in any case, Hitler elected to follow the advice of the leader of German air forces Hermann Göring and allow the Luftwaffe alone to attack the Allied forces until German infantry was able to advance, giving the British a window for the evacuation. Later, many of the evacuated troops would form an important part and the center of the army that landed at Normandy on D-Day.

The British rejected several covert German attempts to negotiate a peace. Germany massed their air force in northern German-occupied France to prepare the way for a possible invasion, codenamed Operation Seelöwe ("Sea Lion"), deeming that air superiority was essential for the invasion. The operations of the Luftwaffe against the Royal Air Force became known as the Battle of Britain. Initially the Luftwaffe concentrated on destroying the RAF on the ground and in the air. They later switched to bombing major and large industrial British cities in the Blitz, in an attempt to draw RAF fighters out and defeat them completely. Neither approach was successful in reducing the RAF to the point where air superiority could be obtained, and plans for an invasion were suspended by September 1940.

During the Blitz, all of Britain's major industrial, cathedral, and political cites were heavily bombed. London suffered particularly, being bombed each night for several months. Other targets included Birmingham and Coventry, and strategically important cities, such as the naval base at Plymouth and the port of Kingston upon Hull. With no land forces in direct conflict in Europe, the war in the air attracted worldwide attention even as sea units fought the Battle of the Atlantic and a number of British commando raids hit targets in occupied Europe. Churchill famously said of the RAF personnel who fought in the battle: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

Air warEdit

 
The RAF Supermarine Spitfire, used extensively during the Battle of Britain

The air war in the European theatre commenced in 1939.

Pre-war doctrine had held that waves of bombers hitting enemy cities would cause mass panic and the rapid collapse of the enemy. As a result, the Royal Air Force had built up a large strategic bomber force. By way of contrast, Nazi German air force doctrine was almost totally dedicated to supporting the army. Therefore, German bombers were smaller than their British equivalents, and Germany never developed a fully successful four engined heavy bomber equivalent to the Lancaster or B-17, with only the similarly sized Heinkel He 177A placed into production and made operational for such duties with the Luftwaffe in the later war years.

The main concentration of German raids on British cities was from 7 September 1940 until 10 May 1941 in the most famous air battle of all time, known as the Battle of Britain. Facing odds of four against one the RAF held off the Luftwaffe, forcing Hermann Wilhelm Göring to withdraw his forces and more importantly indefinitely postpone invasion plans. This proved the first major turning point of the War. After that most of the strength of the Luftwaffe was diverted to the war against the Soviet Union leaving German cities vulnerable to British and later American air bombings. As a result of the victory, Great Britain was used by U.S and other Allied forces as a base from which to begin the D-Day landings in June 1944 and the liberation of Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Nevertheless, German raids continued on British cities albeit on a smaller and less destructive scale for the rest of the war, and later the V1 Flying Bomb and V-2 ballistic missile were both used against Britain. However, the balance of bomb tonnage being dropped shifted greatly in favour of the RAF as Bomber Command gained in strength. By 1942, Bomber Command could put 1,000 bombers over one German city.

During the beginning raids of Operation Barbarossa the Luftwaffe wiped out the majority of the Soviet air forces. The Soviets would only regain their air wing later in the war with the help of the United States.

From 1942 onwards, the efforts of Bomber Command were supplemented by the Eighth Air Force of the United States Army Air Forces, U.S. Army Air Forces units being deployed to England to join the assault on mainland Europe on 4 July 1942. Bomber Command raided by night and the US forces by day. The "Operation Gomorrah" raids on Hamburg (24 July 1943 – 29 July 1943) caused a firestorm leading to massive destruction and loss of life.

On 14 February 1945, a raid on Dresden produced one of the most devastating fires in history. A firestorm was created in the city, and between 18,000 and 25,000 people were killed.[4][5][6] Only the Hamburg attack, the 9–10 March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945) killed more people through a single attack.

Mediterranean and other European countriesEdit

 
Partisan liberated territory in Yugoslavia, May 1943

The Mediterranean and Middle East theatre was a major theatre of operations during the Second World War. The vast size of this theatre included the fighting between the Allies and Axis in Italy, the Balkans, Southern Europe, Malta, North Africa and the Middle East.

Prior to the war Italy had invaded Albania and officially annexed it. Mussolini's regime declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, and invaded Greece on 28 October. However, Italian forces were unable to match the Nazi successes in northwest Europe. Italy declared war on Greece and invaded the country, but it was not until German intervention that the country was overrun. While the Greek campaign was underway, German forces, supported by the Italians, Hungarians and the Bulgarians simultaneously invaded Yugoslavia. After the mainland was conquered, Germany invaded Crete in what is known as the Battle of Crete. With the Balkans secure, Germany and her allies attacked the Soviet Union in the largest land operation in history. The Balkans campaign delayed the invasion,[citation needed] and subsequent resistance movements in Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece tied up valuable Axis forces.[citation needed] This provided much needed and possibly decisive relief for the Soviets.

Fighting in Southern Europe would not resume until Axis forces were defeated in North Africa. Following the Axis defeat in Africa, Allied forces invaded Italy and during a prolonged campaign fought their way north through Italy. The invasion of Italy resulted in the nation switching sides to the Allies and the ousting of Mussolini. But, in spite of the coup, Fascists and occupying German forces retained possession of the northern half of Italy. In northern part of Italy, the occupying Germans installed Mussolini as the head of new fascist republican government, the Italian Social Republic or RSI to show that the Axis was still in force. But Mussolini and his Fascists were now puppet rulers under their German patrons.

Allied (and mostly pro-Soviet) National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, which got some supplies and assistance from Western Allies, battled Axis powers on the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea. In late 1944 it was joined with the advancing Soviet Army and proceeded to push remaining German forces out of the Balkans.

By April 1945, German forces were retreating on all fronts in northern Italy and occupied Yugoslavia, following continuous Allied attacks. The campaign, and the fighting in the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre came to an end on 29 April. On 2 May in Italy, Field Marshal Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the commander-in-chief of all German forces in the country surrendered to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, the supreme commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean area. Fighting would, however, continue in Greece where a civil war had broke out and end on 1949 after Greek government troops aided by the US and Britain defeated the communist guerrillas supported by Marshall Tito and USSR.

Eastern FrontEdit

Operation Barbarossa and the Battle of MoscowEdit

 
The "Big Three" Allied leaders at the 1945 Yalta Conference. From left to right: Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin D. Roosevelt (US), and Joseph Stalin (USSR).

On 22 June 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, [7] the invasion of the Soviet Union. The operation, which was and remains the largest military undertaking in the history of warfare, brought about the single largest, deadliest and most destructive theater of combat in human history. The Eastern Front (as it became known) featured more land combat than all other theaters of WWII combined, was characterized by an almost complete disregard for human life, property, and dignity from both sides, and resulted in the deaths of more than 30 million people (the majority of whom were Soviet civilians) and incomprehensible amounts of additional destruction.

In addition to German troops, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian and Finnish soldiers, still bitter over the Winter War, participated in the invasion. Spain even sent the all volunteer Blue Division to assist. Still, some 75% of the Axis fighters, as well as all members of the supreme command, were German.

The invader's goal was simple: avoid a war of attrition by destroying the Soviet Union and its people in a single decisive strike, and arrive at the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line before the onset of the harsh Russian winter. To accomplish this, the 2.9 million man invasion force was split into three groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, was to strike through the Baltic States and besiege the old Russian Empire capital of Leningrad (formerly and currently St. Petersburg). At the same time, field marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Centre was to take the Minsk-Smolensk axis to the Soviet capital, Moscow. Lastly, Gerd von Rundstedt was to lead Army Group South into the Ukraine, seize Kiev and the breadbasket regions of the Donets Basin, and time permitting, advance towards the oil-rich Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas. German planners believed the Soviets would collapse within three months.

The Soviets knew they were not ready for war with Hitler's Germany in June 1941 and up to the last moment were taking active measures to avoid provoking the Wehrmacht into a fight. On the very night of the invasion Soviet troops received a directive undersigned by Marshal Timoshenko and General of the Army Georgi Zhukov that commanded: "do not answer to any provocations" and "do not undertake any actions without specific orders". They knew their men lacked the training, equipment, doctrine and experience of their German counterparts, and while the Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks were more than a match for most German models available at the time, their crews were powerfully outclassed by the German Panzer teams. Additionally, as the Soviets always planned to attack, they had virtually no serious defensive doctrine and were deployed along the frontier in easily flankable masses that the Germans bypassed, pocketed, and destroyed in a series of breathtaking early victories.

Among such successful battles of encirclement were the German capture of Bialystok and Minsk (June-July 1941), the Battle of Smolensk (July 1941), and the Battle of Uman (July-August). In addition, the Germans had destroyed much of the Soviet Air Forces on the ground in the opening hours of the invasion, virtually obliterated the massive Red Army tank corps at Brody (which was larger than any single armored battle in the Kursk campaign), and completed in September the largest encirclement in military history when armored units from Army Group Centre, despite the protests of some of its commanders, were diverted from the Moscow road south to assist Army Group South in its surrounding of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. To the south, Sevastopol in the Crimea was also besieged, and in the far north one of human history's greatest, costliest and most prolonged military struggles began when German and Finnish troops besieged Leningrad in the opening months of the invasion. Hitler had ordered that the city must "vanish from the surface of the earth", with its entire population exterminated. Axis forces managed to cut all overland access to the city, forcing Russian troops to move desperately needed food and ammunition across Lake Ladoga. The siege, which would result in roughly 1,000,000 civilian deaths (800,000 from starvation), would not be lifted for 872 days. In nearly all occupied areas, the German occupiers massacred Jews and Communist officers, destroyed infrastructure, shipped able-bodied adults west for use in Germany's slave labor machine, and committed countless other atrocities not only permitted by the Reich, but actively supported by it.

Despite these early successes, however, Operation Barbarossa suffered from several fundamental flaws. Among them were the logistical and supply chain struggles brought about by the sheer vastness of Soviet territory. Other issues were the failure of German intelligence to correctly anticipate the severity of Russian resistance (indeed, the Russians did not give in as the Germans expected, despite the immensity of their losses), and disagreements between Hitler (who believed that the invasion should primarily target Soviet resources and production capacity) and his generals (who believed the target should remain Moscow and other major Soviet cities). During their long retreat, the Soviets also employed a scorched earth policy, frustrating German logistics further, and attacked incessantly. While these counterattacks often ended in tactical failure, their aggregate effect was to slow and harass the German advance, buying crucial time for major cities to prepare defensive operations and for Soviet factories to be dismantled and shipped east, where they were rebuilt so industrial operations could resume outside the reach of German air or ground forces.

As a result of these frustrations, Operation Typhoon, the long awaited assault on Moscow, did not commence until October, well behind schedule. The Germans won mighty encirclement victories at Bryansk and Vyazma, but autumn rains turned the dirt roads to mud, preventing further operations until after the winter ice hardened the ground. Unfortunately, by that time the Russians had powerfully reinforced the capital's defenses. In the bitter cold of the Russian winter, the German army was first halted in its tracks in the suburbs of Moscow, and then thrown back by a series of desperate Soviet counterattacks.

Although the Battle of Moscow resulted in roughly three times as many Red Army casualties as German (roughly 1.2 million to Germany's 400,000), it was a clear operational failure on the part of the Wehrmacht. Moscow remained in Russian hands and the Soviets had held on against all odds. Meanwhile, Germany had suffered enormous and difficult (if not outright impossible) to replace casualties since the invasion began, and was now locked in a dreaded war of attrition with the Soviets. Operation Barbarossa had failed.

Battles of 1942, Case Blue and StalingradEdit

The offensives and counteroffensives carried out by both sides during the 1941-42 Winter campaigns had by spring 1942 turned the front lines into a confusing series of bulges and salients that either side could potentially exploit. However, the Red Army's attempts to encircle the Germans still near Moscow ended disastrously when German Field marshal Walter Model turned the tables on them, beginning the Battles of Rzhev, which would last until mid-1943. The Russians did manage to encircle some 100,000 Germans in the Demyansk pocket between Moscow and Leningrad, but these surrounded men were supplied by air until they were relieved. Meanwhile, to the south, the Germans pushed in towards the still resisting city of Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula.

Meanwhile, the Soviets had their own plans, but their attempt to recapture Kharkov in northeastern Ukraine ended in failure when they ran into substantial German reserves, who were massing for their own summer offensive - the follow up to the previous year's Barbarossa - which was launched on June 28, 1942.

Severe oil shortages dictated that this offensive, codenamed Case Blue (or Operation Blue, or Fall Blau), prioritize the capture of the Caucasus oil fields rather than pursue another attack on Moscow, which the Soviets had anticipated and prepared for.

Initially, the Red Army was incapable of offering any serious resistance and fell back hundreds of kilometers, as they had not anticipated an attack in this sector. The retreat was so widespread and complete that Stalin himself issued Order No. 227 on July 28 (made famous by the quote "not a step back!"), which forbade unauthorized withdrawals and established blocking detachments - units with orders to shoot retreating comrades (although few men were actually killed in this manner). However, the retreats did have the benefit of preventing the Germans from destroying the Russian armies upon contact, which had cost the U.S.S.R immensely the previous year.

Meanwhile, the success and speed of the German advance, despite the oil crisis, prompted Hitler to split Army Group South into two subgroups which would each pursue separate and simultaneous objectives: Army Group A would attack the Caucasus and secure the oil, while Army Group B would defend A's flank with a due east strike towards the Volga River, and the industrial city situated along its banks, known as Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

Army Group A's effort was bolstered by the arrival of units who had finally captured Sevastopol and were now available for fresh operations. However, Russian resistance stiffened, and the Germans were caught up in combat in the unfavorable, mountainous terrain of the Caucasus, slowing their advance considerably. They also struggled to capture the prized oil fields in the region which had drawn them there in the first place. Resistance was so severe, in fact, that the Luftwaffe elected to bomb the fields at Grozny rather than bother with trying to wrestle control of it away from the Russians. The Wehrmacht did manage to seize the fields at Maykop but never reached those at Baku.

To the north, German Army Group B, spearheaded by Friedrich Paulus's mighty 6th Army, had by August fought their way through the Don Bend and were now approaching Stalingrad. German planners believed they could capture the city - then only a secondary objective - within weeks. However, the Soviet refusal to abandon the city which bore their leader's name resulted in a ferocious battle which quickly became the priority for both sides, who each poured reinforcements into the fight. From September to mid-November 1942, German units engaged Red Army defenders in a merciless, desperate struggle for every inch of every block of every street, only gradually pushing the Soviets back towards the Volga river, across which their reinforcements were being ferried. At its zenith, the Wehrmacht controlled roughly 90% of the city. However, they were unable to remove the last pockets of Soviet resistance, and the effort of getting even as far as they had had resulted in virtually all German forces being stripped from the flanks and funneled into the city proper. This left only the relatively weaker Romanian and Hungarian forces to guard the flanks of the army group.[citation needed] Critically, German preoccupation with the city itself allowed the Russians to maintain a beachhead on the western bank of the Volga north of the city, which the Red Army heavily reinforced for the upcoming counter offensive.

On November 19, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, in which they smashed through Axis flanks and surrounded the Germans inside the city. All efforts to relieve and resupply the pocket failed. After consolidating their positions, the Soviets pursued a wider offensive in the Caucasus, pushing the front lines well away from the besieged city and dooming the Germans still trapped inside. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, Hitler refused any request by the encircled men to attempt a breakout, or surrender, even going so far as to promote General Paulus to Field Marshal, essentially daring him to dishonor Germany by becoming the first officer of such high rank to surrender or be captured alive. However, starved of food, fuel, ammunition, and clothes, the pocket was gradually reduced, with the last portion surrendering regardless on February 2, 1943.

The battle Battle of Stalingrad is widely considered to be the single largest and deadliest single engagement in human history. About 2 million people, more than 100,000 of them civilians, perished in the fight. It is also often described as a turning point in the war and arguably the European conflict's most decisive battle, as the German army was no longer capable of making good losses of such magnitude and began to decline, just as the Soviets began to surge in strength. At home, German morale and belief in both the Nazi regime and the final victory plummeted. Meanwhile, Allied morale soared.

Kursk and Soviet Offensives, 1943-1945Edit

During and after the crushing of 6th Army in Stalingrad, the Soviets launched a series of offensives to wrestle as much territory from the Germans as possible. These were largely successful in pushing the Germans out of the Caucasus, although Operation Mars did fail to destroy German units in Rzhev. However, Hitler ordered Model to withdraw from Rzhev to Orel regardless, in order to avoid further Stalingrad-style disasters.

A desperate counterattack in the spring of 1943 by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's newly reformed Army Group South temporarily halted the Soviet advance, led to the German recapture of Kharkov and Belgorod and formed, along with Model's troops now occupying Oryol, a bulge or salient in the Russian lines centered around the city of Kursk. The spring rasputitsa (literally 'time without roads' in Russian), when the winter ice thawed and turned the primitive dirt road network to mud, as well as severe operational exhaustion by both sides, led to a relative calm in the southern sector of the front in Spring 1943.

Behind the front lines, however, both sides were planning for the next great battle of the war. For the first time, Soviet planners correctly guessed both the location and nature of the upcoming German summer offensive, believing it would target the Kursk bulge. The Germans called this plan Operation Citadel, and hoped that by pinching out the salient, they would deliver a blow massive enough to the Red Army that they could stabilize the front and rush reinforcements to the Mediterranean Theater, where the surging Western Allies were threatening Italy. Meanwhile, the Russians poured reinforcements into the salient's northern and southern 'necks' (vulnerable areas where the bulge meets the rest of the line). For months, troops dug trenches and anti-tank ditches, laid mine-fields, and established artillery hard points. Hitler agreed to postponed the operation by a month to secure more heavy equipment after his generals, suspecting the Soviets knew of their plans, raised concerns about the likelihood of the Operation’s success. However, this only gave the Russians more time to strengthen their defenses.

By the time Citadel was launched on July 5, 1943, the Kursk salient had been turned into the single most heavily fortified position in the history of warfare. The resulting Battle of Kursk was the last major offensive mounted by the German Army on the Eastern front, and the first time the once mighty Blitzkrieg was stopped in its tracks before it achieved a decisive breakthrough. Over a week later, after multiple huge armored and infantry engagements in the Russian trenches, the Soviets launched counter attacks which threw the Germans back and into a general retreat along virtually the entire front. The Soviets would retain the strategic initiative for the rest of the war.

Now incapable of containing the Soviet advance in the open steppe, the Germans retreated to a new defensive line on the western bank of the Dnieper River in Ukraine, employing devastating scorched earth tactics and blowing up key bridges as they withdrew. The weeks long Lower Dnieper Offensive, in which the Russians fought to cross the river and liberate Ukraine, was one of the largest operations of the war. The Germans saw some significant defensive successes here and the simultaneous Battle of Smolensk, but were ultimately unable to stop a bloody Soviet cross-river advance in which the Russians established beachheads across the Dnieper that threatened Kiev, Ukraine. By November 1943, that city too had fallen to the Russians. In December, the Russians easily defeated a German attempt to recapture central Ukraine before launching a fresh offensive of their own that pushed the Germans out of the majority of country, and isolated their garrison in Crimea.

In 1944, the Red Army lifted the Siege of Leningrad, captured the Crimean Peninsula, forced Finland out of the war, launched the titanic Operation Bagration in June, which smashed German Army Group Center and led to the recapture of Belarus (and which occurred at the same time as the Allied offensive in France), advanced into Poland and removed the Germans from the Baltic states, cornering Army Group North in the Courland Peninsula. The Germans trapped here renamed themselves Army Group Courland and fought on until the end of the war, but ceased to have any notable impact on events outside this 'armed prisoner of war camp,' as it came to be known. The threat of the legions that had besieged Leningrad for nearly 900 days had been neutralized.

By the end of that year, all of Germany's remaining European partners - Bulgaria, Romania (along with its crucial oil fields), Finland and Hungary - had been knocked out of the war by the Soviets (the Western Allies had defeated Italy in 1943). Several of them, like Finland, joined the Allied cause and turned against Germany. Fearing Stalin almost as much as Hitler, the Polish underground resistance staged an uprising against the Nazi occupiers in a bid to remove both their presence from the city and Stalin's justification for entering and occupying it. However, Stalin refused to let his men assist the Poles when their plan failed, allowing them to be crushed by the Germans and for Warsaw to be destroyed almost entirely.

The Russians did not enter Poland until they launched the Vistula–Oder Offensive in early 1945. At the same time the Red Army was storming (and raping and pillaging) their way across Germany, sweeping aside resistance from the elderly men and young boys of the Volkssturm militia and the shattered Wehrmacht units in their path, they were also plunging into the Balkans and Hungary. In several of these nations they established Communist puppet states that were loyal to Stalin and which would form the western frontier of the post-WW2 Cold War Eastern bloc. In addition, the Soviets liberated large numbers of German concentration and death camps in which millions of slave laborers or condemned inmates, many of them Jews, had been tortured and murdered on an industrial scale.

These combined Red Army offensives caused a mass German refugee crisis in which millions of displaced ethnic Germans flooded west from both the occupied nations they had resettled, and eastern Germany itself. In addition to the Vistula-Oder offensive, the Soviets had neutralized, annihilated or pocketed most remaining German units in areas of resistance like East Prussia and East Pomerania. By April 1945, some 2.5 million men were now in place to strike Berlin.

The Battle of Berlin was the final major offensive operation of the European War and one of the last great battles of all time. In it, the Red Army crushed the German defenders outside the German capital and then surrounded the city, preventing both German escape and reinforcement, and blocking any potential attempt by the western Allies to advance on Berlin themselves and share the prize (unbeknownst to the Soviets, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower had already elected not to attack Berlin, as it was in the Soviet sphere of influence anyway and therefore wouldn't be worth the cost). Casualties were appalling for both sides, but the Germans - now made up of the shattered remains of available Wehrmacht or SS troops, Hitler Youth and Volkssturm militia units, and police who all lacked fuel, air cover, artillery, numbers and ammunition - were gradually crushed as Russian troops stormed in through the south and west, seizing the German capital one block at a time.

On April 30, with Red Army forces just blocks away, Adolf Hitler dictated his last will and testament, retired to his private chambers in the Führerbunker with his wife of 36 hours, Eva Braun, and shot himself in the mouth while biting into a cyanide capsule. The city's garrison surrendered on May 2. 5 days later, Admiral Karl Donitz, who Hitler had appointed as his successor, surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers. However, as the Soviet witness and signatory for the Allied May 7 event, Ivan Susloparov, was deemed unauthorized to officially accept surrender, the Soviets demanded a second official surrender ceremony be held the following day, near Berlin. By the time it was signed, it was May 9 in Moscow. As such, Victory Day is held on the 9th of May in Russia and the former Soviet bloc.

Effects of the Eastern FrontEdit

More Soviet citizens died during World War II than those of all other countries combined. Nazi ideology considered Slavs to be "subhuman" and German forces committed ethnically targeted mass murder. Civilians were rounded up and burned alive or shot in squads in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Approximately 27 million Soviets, among them more than 20 million civilians in Soviet cities and areas, were killed throughout the duration of the war.

At least 7 million Red Army troops died facing the Germans and their allies in the Eastern Front. The Axis forces themselves had lost over 6 million troops, whether by combat or by wounds, disease, starvation or exposure; many others were seized as POWs and a substantial part of them died in Soviet captivity because of disease or shortage of supplies.

Lend-Lease supplies from the United Kingdom and the United States made very important impact for Soviet military forces. Supply convoys sailed to Soviet ports that were patrolled by Nazi U-boats. Allied activities before D-Day may have tied up only a few divisions in actual fighting, but many more were forced to guard lonely coasts against raids that never came or to man anti-aircraft guns throughout Nazi-controlled Europe.

Western Front, 1944-45Edit

 
General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French in opposition to Pétain's Vichy regime

Simultaneously with the fall of Rome came the long-awaited invasion of France. Operation Overlord put over 180,000 troops ashore in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Although resistance on Omaha Beach was severe, all five landing beaches were in Allied hands by the end of the day. The Germans rushed reinforcements into the region to contain the Allied advance, but the numerical and logistical disparity, total lack of air cover (Allied planes ruled the sky) and poor communication among German commanders made their position hopeless. Still, they managed to bottle up the Americans in the hedgegrows to the south, and British and Canadian forces in the streets of Caen for nearly two months before Operation Cobra delivered to the Allies the decisive breakthrough.

By now the Allies had built up an overwhelming superiority in nearly every resource. As had been the case in the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk, the Germans could now no longer contain their enemy in the open country and were thrown into a chaotic retreat towards the Franco-German border. Hitler did demand that a counteroffensive be attempted regardless of the deteriorating situation, but this ended in predictable failure and served only to get some 50,000 German troops trapped in the Falaise pocket. After the collapse of the pocket, there was nothing to stop the Allies from capturing Paris and securing nearly the whole of France (Operation Dragoon was also launched in August in southern France to complement the main drive).

Meanwhile, incessant bombing of Germany's infrastructure and cities caused tremendous casualties and disruption. Internally, Hitler survived a number of Nazi inner assassination attempts. The most serious was the July 20 Plot, occurring on July 20, 1944. Orchestrated by Claus von Stauffenberg and involving among others Erwin Rommel and Alfred Delp, the plot had intended to place a time bomb in a position to kill Hitler; however, a number of unscheduled factors led to its failure. Adolf Hitler was only slightly injured, but his mental state deteriorated into paranoia and a general detachment from reality. Multiple high ranking officials, including Rommel, were given show trials for their involvement or alleged involvement and killed.

Back in France, the Allied surge was so complete and rapid that its commanders began preparing to end the war by the end of 1944. However, the Germans regrouped at the Siegfried line on their nation's western border and halted the Allied advance in its tracks by autumn. Several attempts by the Allies to breach or outflank this wall of fortifications followed:

Operation Market Garden, launched in September 1944, was British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's plan to outflank the Siegfried line with an elaborate airborne assault in the Netherlands. However, poor Allied intelligence failed to uncover the presence of significant German reserves (commanded by Eastern front veteran and 'Fuhrer's fireman' Walter Model, so named for his defensive genius), and the operation ended in a sharp defeat. After that, the American's plan was implemented, which was to simply push through the German line directly. A US-led offensive in the Hürtgen Forest, however, was frustrated by ferocious German resistance and terrain that strongly favored the defenders. After several bloody weeks of slogging through the thick forest to capture dams and bridges on the Rur River, this initiative, too, ended in failure. Meanwhile, the Allied capture of Aachen and other western German cities produced only limited strategic gains. By December, it was clear the war would drag on into the new year, and Allied forces dug in for the cold season.

Intelligence predicted the Germans were unable to mount any major offensive operations on the Western front in the winter of 1944-45. However, this proved to be untrue when Germany mounted a major offensive through the Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944. The objectives of this operation, codenamed Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine"), which the Americans would later call the Battle of the Bulge (a reference to the bend in their front line), was to overwhelm the Allies, drive to Antwerp and split the western Allies in two. Hitler hoped this would force his enemies back to the English Channel and hopefully deliver to the Germans another victory on the order of 1940's Dunkirk evacuations. With the Allies thrown out of Europe, the Germans could once again launch their V-1 and V-2 terror weapons, and focus their ground forces in full on the deteriorating Eastern Front. However, most of Hitler's generals correctly believed this plan was far too ambitious and would likely fail spectacularly. Although the initial surprise attack did lead to several American units being surrounded, and even with poor weather grounding Allied planes, American ground forces proved more than sufficient for the task of ultimately containing, and then reversing, this attack. By January 27, 1945, the beaten Germans fell back to their starting positions, sans their precious Panzer reserves. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army and the last major offensive the Germans would be capable of mounting in the West.

Spring 1945 brought fresh Allied offensives into Germany itself. They reached and crossed the River Rhine in March after good fortune delivered an intact Ludendorff Bridge to the Americans. This was the final natural barrier between the Allies and the German heartland. On the far side of the river, Allied forces brought an end to organized resistance in the west by encircling German forces in the Ruhr Pocket and accepting the surrender of some 317,000 men who saw no further reason to fight on. From then on, the only German forces who offered notable resistance were scattered and disorganized and lacking in the manpower and resources to even slightly slow the Allies.

During these final weeks, the Allies found and liberated several concentration camps, like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Images and footage from these places, in which the few inmates (many of them Jews) who survived were emaciated, diseased and living in appalling conditions, were widely broadcast and shocked the world.

By April, the question of who would seize Berlin - the western Allies or the Soviets - arose. Many Allied leaders, like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. General George S. Patton pushed Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to make efforts to beat the Russians to the German capital, as it was deemed of paramount importance to meet the Soviets as far east as possible and deny who many already knew would be a grave ideological foe in the post war era a mighty propaganda victory. However, Eisenhower balked at the suggestion of spending an estimated 100,000 lives on what he called a 'prestige objective,' since the area around Berlin had already been promised to the Soviets. Instead he ordered all western Allied army groups to either move into Southern Germany and Austria (to prevent the remnants of the Wehrmacht from using those areas as staging grounds to once again become problematic), or to hold fast on the Elbe River to await the arrival of the Red Army.

End of the war in EuropeEdit

 
Winston Churchill waves to crowds in London on Victory in Europe Day.

On April 27, 1945, as Allied forces closed in on Milan, Mussolini was captured by Italian Partisans. He was trying to flee Italy to Switzerland and was traveling with a German anti-air battalion. On April 28, Mussolini and several of the other Fascists captured with him were taken to Dongo and executed by firing squad. The bodies were then taken to Milan and unceremoniously strung up in front of a filling station.

Hitler, learning of Mussolini's death, realized that the end had finally come. He remained in Berlin, the crumbling Nazi capital, even as the city was encircled and trapped by the Soviets and the Battle of Berlin raged. On April 30, Adolf Hitler, with his wife of one day, Eva Braun, committed suicide in his bunker to avoid capture by Soviet troops. In his last will and testament, Hitler appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as the new German leader. But Germany lasted only 7 days longer under the "Flensburg government" of Dönitz. He surrendered unconditionally to the Americans, British, and Soviets on May 8, 1945.

In late July and August 1945 the Potsdam Conference finally disbanded the former Nazi German state, reversed all German annexations and occupied territories, as well as agreed to jointly occupy and govern, denazify and demilitarize what remained of Germany.

See alsoEdit

NotesEdit

  1. ^ from 1941
  2. ^ from 1941
  3. ^ from 1942
  4. ^ until 1943
  5. ^ until 1943
  6. ^ until 1944
  7. ^ until 1944
  8. ^ from 1944
  9. ^ Vichy officially pursued a policy of armed neutrality and conducted military actions against armed incursions from both Axis and Allied belligerents. The cease fire and pledging of allegiance to the Allies of the Vichy troops in French North Africa during Operation Torch convinced the Axis that Vichy could no longer be trusted to continue this policy, so they invaded and occupied the French rump state in November 1942. Collaborationist units, such as the Milice, continued to fight alongside German troops against French Resistance fighters until the liberation of France in 1944.
  10. ^ from 1943
  11. ^ until 1944
  12. ^ See: Soviet invasion of Poland, Winter War, Soviet occupation of the Baltic states and Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina.

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Germany unconditionally surrendered on 8 May 1945, however a German Wehrmacht column continued fighting until the end of the Battle of Poljana. The Independent State of Croatia would continue fighting until the end of the Battle of Odžak on 25 May 1945.
  2. ^ [1] Archived December 27, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ The Isolation of the Revolution Archived 2006-08-26 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Bojan Pancevski Dresden bombing death toll lower than thought, Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2008.
  5. ^ Kate Connolly, Panel rethinks death toll from Dresden raids, The Guardian, 3 October 2008.
  6. ^ Landeshauptstadt Dresden (1 October 2008). "Erklärung der Dresdner Historikerkommission zur Ermittlung der Opferzahlen der Luftangriffe auf die Stadt Dresden am 13./14. Februar 1945" (PDF). Landeshauptstadt Dresden. Retrieved 13 February 2010.
  7. ^ Amnon Sella. 'Barbarossa': Surprise Attack and Communication. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 13, No. 3, (Jul., 1978), pp. 555–583.

Further readingEdit