This section deals with events in Europe and Africa. In summary:
- It starts off in August 1939 with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying Poland in just a month, the Soviet Union later waging and eventually ending an inconclusive war against Finland that winter. In April 1940 Germany seizes Denmark and Norway to preempt the Allies' attempts to strong-arm Sweden into embargoing Germany, and on 10 May executes a crazed but amazingly effective two-month campaign through the Netherlands, Belgium, and into France. Italy joins the war on Germany's side and by the 22nd of June, Germany occupies all of Norway, The Low Countries and northern France. Having suffered a coup by military leaders Marshal Pétain and Admiral Darlan, the French Government votes itself and the Third Republic out of existence by giving Pétain absolute power. The new "French State" (dubbed "Vichy" France by its enemies) becomes a subservient rump state to Germany. Despite British attempts to capture and/or destroy it so it cannot be used to aid a German invasion of Britain, Germany refrains from seizing the remainder of the French fleet in return for Pétain's cooperation. Pétain and General Franco both refuse Hitler's offers to join the Axis of Steel note . German irrecoverable losses (captured, crippled, dead) c.20k Polish Campaign + c.30k French Campaign, Poland c.70k + France c.100k (post-surrender Poland c.500k, France c.2m captured), Commonwealth c.20k.
- Hitler is exasperated when Mussolini declares war on Greece for no good reason note . Germany prepares to bail Italy out of Greece because they fear that Britain will use Greek airfields to bomb the oilfields and refineries of Ploesti in Romania — Germany's source of virtually all petroleum products besides minor oil wells in Hungary, limited-capacity synthetic plants, and so-expensive-it's-basically-robbery purchases from the USSR. Yugoslavia suffers a British-backed coup and leaves the Axis, so Germany invades it to get to Greece note . British Commonwealth air forces note confront the Axis over Britain and North Africa. German irrecoverable c.10k, Commonwealth c.20k
- Germany launches Operation Barbarossa to destroy The Red Army in three weeks and occupy the European part of the USSR within two months on the 22/6/1941 with 2 million men, 3k tanks note , 3k planes note 624k draft horses, and 120k trucks along three 'fronts' and managed by three Army Groups under a new General Headquartersnote . The Red Army's two-million-strong forces along the central-northern German-Soviet border are caught totally by surprise and in just two weeks are at least nominally trapped in pockets based around Bialystock, Galicia, and Minsk, though measures to prevent them from just sneaking out the eastern side of the lattermost are miserablenote . Wehrmacht loses 1/6 of horses and 1/5 of supply-trucks in the first month due to malnutrition, exhaustion, and Red Army straggler attacks on rear-area troops. Kiev Military District forces, remnants of Western Military District, and reserve forces numbering 2 million stop Heer advance dead at Smolensk and Kiev by early August note . Massive internal disagreement flares up; Hitler wants to target resource-rich Ukraine, whereas the majority of the high-ranking officers note believe seizure of Moscow necessary to end war before winter and have tried to make this happen behind Hitler's back. note . Hitler is persuaded that defeating the Soviet Union will require defeating their remaining forces, which Halder and von Brauchitsch argue will be around Moscow but, to their frustration, Hitler overrules them by insisting that Ukraine and Leningrad must come first. German irrecoverable c.100k, Soviet c.2 million (majority captured or missing as partisans).
- Germany's August 1941 Kiev offensive detaches half of Army Group Center's mobile forces and throws Army Group Center's entire truck-pool behind them, giving them just enough fuel and ammo to slowly knaw their way south over a month-and-a-half of combat. Half of Army Group Center's remaining mobile forces are then sent north, to help Army Group North take Leningrad. The Soviet high command (Ставка, Stavka) under Zhukov urges Stalin to order withdrawal from the Kiev salient on the grounds that it is a death-trap that cannot be held, but Stalin refuses and has Zhukov reassigned to the Leningrad sector for his honesty. Soviet forces are driven back to Leningrad, but Army Group North has been so weakened by the fighting that a direct assault on the city is ruled out as suicidal—Siege of Leningrad begins. Army Group South's remaining mobile forces strike north in the last fortnight of September, and desperate Soviet break-out attempts fail. No sooner is the pocket crushed than, at the beginning of October, Army Group Center initiates Typhoon. One million troops opposite Army Group Center are trapped in three pockets around Vyazma, but advance slows to a crawl as Belrussian fuel stockpiles are totally expended. Rasputista, 'season of mud', then forces German forces to halt and pillage area to survive while advance continues with just 20,000 troops using all available tanks & halftracks—10k militiamen & NKVD are killed using AA guns to fight delaying actions in towns. Ground freezes in December, crippling German supply chain note . Advance dead on its feet—all available food and clothing already stolen from locals, fuel and ammunition supply at under 10% of offensive requirements. Soviet counterattacks meet with more and more success. Heer retreats become routs. Stalin declares a Winter Counteroffensive in January with two million troops against million-strong remnants of Army Group Center, half-million men of Army Group North. Aims are to break the Siege of Leningrad and encircle the entirety of Army Group Center, a bold attempt to win the war at one stroke note . At same time (7 December 1941), Japan executes her Southern Offensive Campaign against Britain, Netherlands, and the United States. That month, Hitler also declares war on the United States. German irrecoverable c.400k, Soviet c.2 million (majority captured or dead).
- By late June the Soviets' Summer Offensive Operation has bogged down trying to attack Army Group South. On 28 June 1942, Germany's Army Group South executes Case Blue to take east Ukraine and the oilfields of the Caucasus, quickly encircling and capturing the Red Army Summer Offensive forces and leaving the whole Ukrainian front critically weakened, Stalin moving his reserves to prevent them from driving on Moscow. Army Group South is split into Army Groups A and B and set to take The Caucasus and defend their flank near Stalingrad respectively—but at the last minute Hitler takes forces from the former so the latter can capture Stalingrad, causing both forces to fail. On 19 November the Soviets deploy half of the massive reserves they've been hiding in the south in Operations Uranus and Saturn—trapping 100,000-200,000 Italian and Romanian and a similar number of German troops in a "pocket" around Stalingrad, then pushing the Germans out of the Caucasus entirely. The Soviets have kept the other half of their reserves in plain sight for use in Operation Mars (25 November 1942) to break the back of Army Group Center—but they fail with heavy losses because the Germans were expecting it and had deployed their own reserves there to counter them. When the last starving survivors of the Stalingrad pocket surrender at gunpoint in February 1943, only 91,000 German troops are left. The offensive against Army Group North to break the Siege of Leningrad is unsuccessful, and on 19 February-15 March the Red Army's pursuit of the reconstituted Army Group South is crushed by a counteroffensive led by Panzer forces redeployed from Army Group Center and Army Group A (formerly deployed in the Caucasus) in the Donets counteroffensive. German irrecoverable c.300k, Hungarian+Romanian+Italian c.400k, Soviet c.3 million
- Although Erwin Rommel's German Expeditionary Force (of just one division!) in North Africa was originally just meant to prop the Italians up and avoid making them look bad, North Africa has effectively turned into a "fifth front" for Germany, with Rommel commanding half as many troops as Army Group B. Given that North Africa has zero strategic importance, deploying troops (let alone combat!) here is not something that Germany can actually afford note . Although the Italians manage to transport more-than-sufficient supplies to their depot in Benghazi in the face of harassment from British Malta, the road-supply chain from there to Cyrenaica and Egypt is a thousand kilometers longnote and Rommel's troops starve as their food rots in the docks at Benghazi note . After some back-and-forth action the Western Allies eventually push him back into Tunisia, with U.S. troops occupying French North Africa and pushing eastward. Although the Allies, and the completely inexperienced Americans in particular, make some serious blunders this only persuades Hitler to send even more men to the North African Front so he can avoid admitting that they shouldn't be there in the first place all 100k of whom surrendernote when the Allies finally break through and encircle them. Noting the importance of tea in the African theater as a way to make the awful water taste better, the British government buys the entire world crop in 1942. German irrecoverable c.100k (majority captured), Italian c.400k (majority captured), Western Allies c.20k
- The Donets counter-offensive has created a prominent bulge in the Soviet-Axis lines around the city of Kursk. On 5 July 1943, the Germans launch Operation Citadel to cut it off and thereby shorten the front, but the Soviets are ready for them and to their shock and dismay they fail utterly note . On the 10th of July, the Allies use staging posts in North Africa to execute operation Husky, liberating Sicily, whereupon Hitler acknowledges the failure of Citadel and orders some of its mobile forces to Italy. The Soviets follow up with an offensive in Belarus, which the OKH has to divert their already-exhausted Panzer formations to to prevent them from breaking through in earnest. No sooner is the front there stablized than the Soviet forces in the Kursk bulge go on the offensive and make a huge breakthrough around Kharkov-Kiev, forcing the Germans to divert their mobile forces south again. No sooner is that front stabilized then the Soviets execute the Don offensive in southern Ukraine then another northern Ukrainian offensive then the Lower Dnepr offensive and then, after that year's Rasputitsa, the west-Ukrainian Korsun offensive that winter—generally accepted as the death knell of Germany's experienced Panzer forces. With Army Group North's strength having been steadily eroded by four failed Soviet offensives, constant raids, and neglect by the OKH the Red Army finally manages to force open a corridor to the city in the winter '43 Leningrad offensive, lifting the siege. The Allies execute operation Baytown and land in Southern Italy, resulting in a coup in which Mussolini is toppled and Italy joins the Allies. Germany quickly occupies northern Italy and establishes a series of fortified defensive lines across the hilly peninsula. The Allies' Italian front continues to gradually push northward in the years to follow, but the going is slow and the forces on both sides remain small with fewer than a million combat troops on both sides. The Allied strategic-bombing campaign helps the Red Air Force achieve air-supremacynote and begins to cause serious disruption to German industrynote as the air-war turns against Germany despite the full mobilization of Germany's resources for 'Total War'. German irrecoverable c.500k OKH/Ostfront c.50k OKW/Other, Soviet c.1 million, Western Allies c.100k
- On 6 June 1944, the Allies implement Operation Overlord and successfully establish a beachhead at Normandy, northern France. As Germany scrambles to keep them contained, on 22 June General Rokossovskiy's forces catch the Germans off-guard by launching a double-envelopment offensive into Belarus and not Poland note - operation Bagration. Sealing up half of Army Group Center's forces in a pocket east of Minsk, they then barge aside the rest and an eclectic mix of German reinforcements on their way south and west to northern Poland and the Baltic States. The Germans divert forces from eastern Poland to slow them down, whereupon the Soviets execute the second phase of Bagration—from Ukraine into Poland. The sites of former extermination camps destroyed by the retreating Germans, including Treblinka, fall into Soviet hands. Soviet-backed Communist Republic of Poland is established in city of Lwow, and in response British-backed Polish Government-in-Exile orders Polish 'Home Army' to rise up and liberate Poland before Soviet and Communist Polish forces arrive in the hopes of establishing anti-Communist Polish regime. Home Army forcibly incorporated into Army of Communist Poland, with Soviet help, or crushed by German forces. Warsaw Uprising falls to mix of Foreign-SS, Green Police, Luftwaffe, and Army units after two months of urban warfare. With German counterattacks in Prussia and Poland stabilising the front at Germany's pre-war borders and along the Vistula, the Soviets launch the Iassy–Kishinev offensive into Romania that September note . When Romania switches sides, Bulgaria and Finland follow suit and the Soviets are poised to invade Hungary by the time the Rasputitsa arrives. Half of Germany's entire 22-June stock of combat troops has been killed or captured note and their replacements are woefully inexperienced. Army Group North is cut off in the Baltic states by a daring offensive into East Prussia. Allied troops have captured 50,000 German troops in the Falaize Pocket and broken out of Normandy; facing forces more than three times the size of her ownnote , Germany's defeat is imminent. The Soviets and Allies take Romania and France and get bogged down in Hungary and the Low Countriesnote respectively. As the Red Army's Hungarian Offensive against German Army Group South grinds on into its second month, a German force of about the same size (c.300,000 men) launches a counteroffensive—codenamed Operation Wacht am Rheinnote —against the Western Allies (primarily Americans) in Belgium on 16 December in what will become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Despite limited initial success, it's soon bogged down and is cancelled on the 25th of December, the forces involved being ordered to withdraw as the Red Army completes its encirclement of Budapest by the 26th of Decembernote . Hitler orders that the siege be relieved by Panzer forces withdrawn from the French and Polish fronts, but Operation Konrad grinds to a halt south of the city before the Red Army counterattack goes on to encircle them. Only food and fuel shortages—unlike Hitler, 'Stavka' considers the Hungarian front to be of secondary importance—prevent the Red Army spearheads from entering Austria immediately. German irrecoverable c.500k OKH/Ostfront c.100k OKW/other, Hungarian+Romanian c.200k, Soviet c.1 million, Western Allies c.200k
- Upon Churchill's request, Stalin makes a big show of bringing the Vistula-Oder offensive forward by eight days to 12 January. Its goal of taking Berlin (which was too ambitious anyway) is downgraded to merely taking bridgeheads across the Oder to facilitate a final push on the German capital later. The inexperienced and ill-equipped German forces being outnumbered by more than 4:1 (2.2 million to 450,000) it succeeds with minimal losses and great speed, one consequence of which being that Auschwitz extermination camp is liberated largely intact despite German desires that it (like Trebilinka and the others). However, German forces are far from exhausted and Stalin wants great care to be taken to liberate the bulk of German industry (concentrated in Silesia, in the west of today's Poland, to protect it from Allied bombing) intact. Accordingly Rokossvsky's front is tasked with grinding its way to the coast of East Prussia (even in the face of fanatical German resistance, such as that at Königsburg) and Koniev's is ordered to use sophisticated manoeuvres to encourage the Germans to retreat from Silesia with due haste and a minimum of fighting. Stalin and Churchill hash out the definitive Soviet-Allied zones in Europe as Hitler juggles what's left of Germany's Panzer forces through two last counteroffensives, February's Operation Solstice and March's Operation Spring Awakening, to relieve pressure on Berlin and retake the Hungarian oil fields respectively. Both fail with heavy losses, the latter greatly expediting the Soviet advance into Austria. The "prize", and price, of taking Berlin is left to Stalin note The race (between Marshals G.K. Zhukov and I.Y. Koniev) to take Berlin starts on the 16th of April, with Soviet forces quickly meeting up with American troops at Torgau on the Elbe. Hitler commits suicide in his bunker and on 8 May 1945, with the red Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the new Reichspräsident, Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, surrenders unconditionally to the Allied Expeditionary Force and Red Army Command (represented by Zhukov). Stalin prepares to honour his deal with the Allies by transferring his best mobile units from Europe in preparation for the Red Army's Far Eastern Offensive Operation against Japanese forces in China that August, and some U.S. troops are also redeployed to take part in October's Operation Downfall. German irrecoverable 2 million (majority captured), Soviet c.500k, Western Allies c.50k
While we are perfectly aware that 'Blitzkrieg' was not a German military term, but an Anglo-American word used to describe a mixture of German combined-arms Battlefield Tactics and Operational-level encirclement manoeuvres, it is a useful shorthand and is too entrenched to be dismissed. However, kindly distinguish between the decentralized-and-flexible Tactical command principle of Auftragstaktik ('mission-based tactics') note and the Operational emphasis on Bewegungskrieg (mobile warfare) note .
World War II combat operations begin with the Nazi invasion of Poland, preceded by a series of False Flag Operationsnote . Britain and France declare war on Germany, beginning the Western Front, but they don't actually do anything to help beyond imposing a blockade and the latter initiating a limited offensive into the Saar region. Poland's odds get that much grimmer as their old enemy, the Soviet Union, invades from the east to make good on their part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Poland's regular forces are crushed in just five weeks, having dealt far less casualties than anyone had anticipated on account of their overwhelming numerical, material and organisational disadvantage. That said, neither the Germans nor the Soviets manage to round up all of the now-former country's military personnel, and these living loose ends will cause trouble later. Some, like the Polish air force—many former pilots of which join the Royal Air Force—flee the country and fight alongside the Allies, and others form resistance groups and await the time to strike. The Soviet Union follows up its acquisition with the quiet annexation of the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and even Lithuania; althought the latter was supposed to be a German-dominated state in the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Soviets want it as it had been part of the Russian Empire and the Lingua Franca there is actually Russian (the Soviet Union's official language). The Germans hastily revise the treaty so Lithuania's in the 'Soviet Sphere' and the Germans aren't legally obligated to go to war with the USSR over it.
On the naval front, the Battle of the Atlantic begins slowly. The German Navy has learned many lessons from its experience of commerce-raiding in the First World War and the new Commander of U-boats, Admiral Karl Dönitz, has been planning for a new submarine war for nearly twenty years. He and his staff expect the British to quickly adopt the convoy system, which had led to a sharp decline in sinkings by U-boats when the Royal Navy finally conceded it was necessary in mid-1917. In addition, the British have developed sonar (a form of remote-detection device that uses sound-waves) and are confident they can easily locate submerged boats. However, German U-boats will spend most of their non-attack time surfaced for practical reasons (as they have limited range and speed while submerged) and to reduce the effectiveness of sonar. Dönitz has also developed new doctrine to counter convoys: submarines will scout out, converge upon, and follow convoys by day. Then, they will attack under the cover of darkness when the convoy escorts' sight-based anti-submarine weapons will be least effective. Unfortunately, he has less than a fifth of the submarines needed for strategically significant operations, the fleet expansion and rearmament program is nowhere near complete, as Dönitz and surface fleet commander Grand Admiral Erich Raeder were under the impression that war wouldn't start until 1943 at the earliest.note . Nevertheless, he sends his "Grey Wolves" into the North Sea to begin sinking ships. One of them, U-47, is sent into Scapa Flow, the main naval base in the British Isles, and sinks the battleship HMS Royal Oak before escaping unharmed. The British are stunned.
Next comes a weird eight-month pause variously nicknamed the "Phony War", the "Sitzkrieg" (Sitting War), the "Drôle de Guerre" (Funny War), or the "Bore War" (a pun on the Boer War), in which the British and French mobilize all their industries and quietly churn out all the armaments they can, mobilising and organising all their reserves for a defence of the Low Countries while they sit behind their Naval Blockade and the Maginot Line. Germany does much the same in this period, but unbeknownst to the Allies the blockade strategy is near-totally ineffective—the Allies were right to assume that Germany had been largely unprepared for a war with them, and that the Nazis' strategic-resource stockpiles were very small. However, the Soviet Union is now trading with Germany as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and so numerous types of Unobtanium like molybdenum, tungsten, aluminium, rubber, and petroleum products are freely available to them... albeit at cut-throat prices. A brief spurt of excitement comes when Scandinavia gets involved—the Allies were considering getting involved there to stop Sweden supplying Germany with high-quality steel (a trade which was drastically less important than it appeared in the short term, as Germany was also able to get steel from the Soviets), but the Germans see this coming and attack Denmark and Norway to preempt them. This audacious attack in the face of Britain's superior seapower catches the Allies completely flat-footed, and the resulting confusion prevents the Royal Navy from intervening until it's too late, though the brand-new heavy cruiser Blücher is sunk and the pocket battleship Lutzow heavily damaged by the Norwegian shore batteries defending Oslo. While an Allied force (originally destined for Finland) manages to take the important Norwegian port of Narvik (through which Swedish iron ore is sent to Germany), they are in no position to hold it and are ordered to withdraw to France for a more important battle. Taking some of the sting from Britain's first major retreat, the initial Royal Navy assault on Narvik managed to sink a third of Germany's modern destroyers—a coup which, along with their other naval losses, will have serious repercussions later.
When the Germans do declare war on Belgium on May 10, 1940, the Allies are seemingly ready for them. The Allies have a numerical advantage in troops, artillery and tanks, and though the Royal Air Force and Armée de l'Air have fewer bombers than the Luftwaffe, they have more fighters. Almost all their troops have modern weapons with sufficient ammunition and the training to use them properly—France has had conscription for years, meaning that virtually all of the troops in their army have completed at least a year or two of military training. The Wehrmacht, on the other hand, is largely inexperienced and ill-equipped (though the veterans of the "Condor Legion" have disseminated their experiences from the Spanish Civil War, and the motorised small mobile force has also been bloodied in the invasion of Poland and the battles in Scandinavia even if the infantry are still overwhelmingly 'green'). The Allies' forces also have far more horses, trucks, and mobile/'motorized' troops (infantry units which use trucks to get around).
However, French military 'doctrine' has greater shortcomings than German doctrine does. 'Doctrine' is a shorthand term for the philosophy, 'how-to' guides, and structure militaries use for waging war. French and German doctrine is shaped by their First World War experiences, and neither is perfect. An 'operation' consists of a series of battles fought in pursuit of a strategic goal, the length of which is dictated by what is physically possible in terms of the required production, stockpiles, and throughput of supplies (ammunition, fuel, food, spare parts, and so on). German doctrine has two critical shortcomings regarding planning in that it has no concept of a war which is not over in the space of a single 'campaign' or 'operation', and the physical possibility of enacting the operation (in terms of supply requirements) is never considered in the planning phase. The problem with the planning of operations in French doctrine is even more fundamental: it doesn't recognise the existence of Campaigns/Operations. There is no such thing as a 'completely incompetent' Campaign/Operational-level German planner, as he always has standardised guidelines to thought and action to underwrite his performance. On the other hand, there is no minimum standard of competence for a French Operational planner.
French doctrine's flaws regarding the actual conduct of operations are also greater than the German. French doctrine is based around 'positional warfare': the seizure and defense of landmarks and territory on the battlefield. It emphasises the inexorable and centrally-directed concentration of overwhelming artillery and armoured assets on the battlefield to take territory and repel attacks at minimal cost through the expenditure of large amounts of ammunition. This is a modernised and frankly superb version of the slow-paced, methodical, low-casualty warfare which France perfected in 1918. German doctrine on the other hand is based upon a complete rejection of 'positional warfare' in favour of pre-WWI German theories of Bewegungskrieg or 'manoeuvre warfare': the rapid movement and concentration of forces at the operational level. It emphasises the ad-hoc movement of highly independent mobile forces to encircle operational-level groupings of enemy forces to defeat them at minimal cost through cutting them off from resupply. This is a modernised and passably-workable version of the rapid, chaotic, low-casualty warfare which Germany practiced against Romania in 1917.
In other words, the betting man would favour the Germans if they manage to keep the war mobile and the French if they manage to bog it down. If the war bogs down into positional warfare then the German Army will be completely incapable of making any headway against the French Army, or stopping the French from making headway of their own: the French, with their centrally-directed Artillery and Armour, will be tactically unstoppable. But if the Germans can strike a decisive blow while the situation is still relatively fluid and manoeuvre is still possible, then the French will be largely incapable of reacting in time to halt the German Army's movements or making headway of their own: the Germans, with their independently-acting mobile Infantry and Armour, will have surrounded and destroyed a significant portion of the French Army. Interestingly, this debate (Manoeuvre versus Positional Warfare) had already played out and been resolved in the Soviet Union: the victor was neither school of thought, with Vladimir Triandafilov combining the two into a new school of warfare which he called 'Deep Battle'. As he saw it, a Modern Army needed to be capable of breaking the deadlock of positional warfare as a pre-requisite to executing sophisticated operational manoeuvres and encirclements to net large hauls of prisoners. But more on that later.
The French high command under Gamelin decides that this time, the Allies will hold the line in Belgium at a series of major rivers while making good on their industrial-commercial advantage by further building up their forces, before (when the Germans are virtually out of fuel because of the blockade) pushing the Germans back across the border. They haven't, however, ironed out the details. Politicking within the high command (careers and reputations were at stake when the Allies' plans were devised) meant that only one plan (holding the line in Belgium and building up their forces) was fleshed-out in detail. Even so, it's a good idea (despite the whole "blockade not actually working" thing). Germany is the only Great Power not to have a high commandnote , but Germany's top generals and Hitlernote know all too well their forces' own inadequacies, and that the Allies' advantages will only increase with time. They are also uncomfortably aware of just how untenable their alliance with the Soviets is in the long term.
With all this in mind, Hitler has chosen to launch an offensive against the Allies through Belgium. Germany's small and out-classed force of armored and motorized units will use their superior speed and communications to punch a tiny opening in the Allied front and force their way through to wreak havoc behind Allied lines—and the rest of the German army will follow, on foot, to encircle half the entire French Army in one fell swoop by attacking where they least expect it! The old guard of Hitler's generals—who saw combat in World War One—believe that this is monumentally stupid. France's reserves will stop the Wehrmacht's Panzer forces dead in their tracks—or worse, lure them into a huge trap and destroy them at their leisure. The only thing stopping the French Army's massive (albeit non-motorized) regular forces from doing much the same would be speed. And no modern army could survive for long with such constricted lines of supply. In effect they say it is a fool's mission, and waste no time telling Hitler and his "new guard."
But, fool's mission though it should have been, it works. This is a result of the way France designed, organized, and deployed her forces in general terms and with specific regards to the plan they are implementing (moving into Belgium to defend it with a few solid lines of defence). The French forces engaged there have held far too few units back as a strategic reserve, which would be fine if they were facing an enemy offensive on a (relatively) broad front—but not one so insanely narrow and concentrated. The organization of France's military also does not help—France has more tanks than Germany, but very few dedicated tank units. Instead, France's large number of well-armored tanks are dispersed throughout their regular infantry divisions and move at speeds to match, all part of their strategy of defending and advancing on broad fronts. Most of the Armée de l'Air's planes are either obsolete or unserviceable, meaning they are outnumbered and outclassed by the Luftwaffe despite their numerical superiority on paper. The French armed forces also have too little communications equipment; most of the stuff they do have is of poor quality and has too few operators to match—meaning that it takes French officers longer than their German counterparts to receive, pass on, and implement new information and new orders.note . But perhaps more importantly, the French don't have a plan to counter the German one and have a very hard time improvising a solution. A fatal combination of flawed military doctrine and politicking has led to a critical failure of operational planning. The failure to devise contingency plans for the overall "Battle of France" and French doctrine's low emphasis on lower-level initiative and ad-hoc measures means that it's very difficult for the French Army to respond on-the-fly. Essentially, German improvisation and movement has outwitted France's ponderous brawn.
What happens is that, as planned, all of Germany's mobile forces lead a rush through the Ardennes Forest (the French thought it impossible to get that many tanks through and adequately-supplied over such poor terrain with such little trace, and it was admittedly difficult) and make a mad, frenzied dash to the English Channel before the French reserves or regular forces can catch up with them in detail, with as many battle-ready regular troops as Germany can spare following in their wake. France's commanders are too slow to react, and a 'very' large portion of the French Army (plus the Belgian Army and British Expeditionary Force) is cut off in Belgium with few supplies (the idea had been that they would move up to establish a forward perimeter first, and their supplies would follow). Hitler orders his Panzers to stop short of totally destroying the BEF, believing he can cut a deal with Britain, allowing the Royal Navy to evacuate the BEF (the "miracle of Dunkerque", though Dunkirk was just one of the many evacuations that happened at the time) and a sizeable number of French troops as well, albeit with the loss of most of their weapons and all of their vehicles. So the BEF lives to fight another day and France gains the nucleus of a "Free French" army in exile. However, as Churchill himself puts it, "Wars are not won by evacuations." The Allies have still suffered a catastrophic defeat.
The triumphant German army then turns north and crushes—or forces the surrender—of what pockets remain of the entrapped French Army. In seemingly no time at all, they've solved their supply problems by linking up their forces and continue to overrun what badly-outnumbered and increasingly isolated French forces remain to the south. The whole campaign only takes about six weeks, but the Germans take heavy casualties in the process—much as you'd expect, given their less well-equipped and numerous, but much better coordinated and applied forces. As France collapses, Benito Mussolini decides to imitate his buddy Hitler and attack France too. The Italian army does badly despite greatly outnumbering the French, a sign of things to come for Germany's worse-than-useless ally. Nevertheless, after the dust settles, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France have all fallen to the Axis Powers. Hitler makes a point of it to sign France's surrender in the same railway car and in the same forest where Germany signed the armistice at the end of World War I (and even makes the same gesture of leaving during the negotiations as Marshal Foch had done). Celebrations break out across Germany and the population is driven into a euphoric war fever.
The fall of France can be better understood if one notes the near-total collapse of French morale that came with the encirclement and then destruction of the Belgian pocket; with this one stunning strategic victory French defeat was certain, and her soldiers knew this all too well. Whereas Germany's forces were on a morale-high after the conquest of Poland—backed up by a culture of gung-ho militaristic Revanchism that had characterized pre-WWI French culture—France's post-WWI culture was marked by its rejection of all that in favour of a kind of cynical (if not fatalistic) pacifism. Thus, when it was clear that France had lost, many of her soldiers (wisely) legged it rather than die pointlessly—and her leadership looked for a way to end the war on the least harsh terms possible under the circumstances, i.e. as quickly as possible while the Germans' terms were still kinda acceptablenote . As this happens, the German U-boat flotillas begin relocating to the ports on France's western coastline, giving them a clear and open window into the North Atlantic.
The Red Army's subsequent poor performance comes as a surprise to everyone bar themselves, as they had done quite well in a border clash with Imperial Japanese Army on a disputed patch of Communist Mongolian/Mongolian Kingdom soil just a year before at Khalkhin Gol. This textbook example of a successful small-scale encirclement operation saw the Soviet operational commander, Colonel Georgiy Zhukov, later appointed to the post of Chief of the General Staff (Stavka) after the Winter War. The operation also encouraged Japan to agree to an non-aggression pact with the USSR, expiring in 1946. Returning to the war at hand, the Red Army wasted no time in touting the failed operations of the Winter War as damning indictments of its own degraded capabilities:
- The supply services were completely unprepared to sustain the campaign due to the utter lack of prior planning, forcing extensive improvisation and therefore waste and inefficiency. Moreover the supply services functioned inefficiently, with throughput being insufficient for the troops' needs.
- Maps were not drawn up, printed, and issued in the required scales and numbers.
- Weather and geography were rarely anticipated or accounted for, resulting in delays and chaos when they inevitably affected the actual conduct of operations.
- Aerial, artillery, engineering, and infantry observation was not adequately conducted. Even when sufficient data was collected, it was not processed competently or in a timely fashion. The locations of enemy fixed defenses and troop concentrations were largely unknown.
- Combat Reconnaissance and Deep Reconnaissance were not conducted, leading to a total inability to identify defensive positions, troop concentrations, and artillery concentrations in the enemy rear areas outside full-scale combat.
- Infantry and artillery forces failed to communicate frankly and plan joint operations. Consequently many infantry attacks were conducted with little or no artillery support. Poor observation, reconnaissance, and data-processing times meant poor accuracy in bombardments requested during attacks and a near-total inability to target and suppress enemy artillery in a timely fashion.
- Engineers were often used in generic combat roles with no regard to their proper use in assaulting enemy fortifications, dismantling enemy minefields and obstacles, and creating and repairing infrastructure in the rear areas.
When the Leningrad Military District's assaults on the Karelian Isthmus (the most direct path from Leningrad to Helsinki, with an actual railway line) failed, the ineffectual General Meretskov was replaced by the utterly incompetent Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin's old Civil War buddy. Voroshilov decided that, rather than identifying or fixing any of the problems with his force's organisation and deployment, he'd simply have them flank the isthmus through 200km of dense and uncharted swamps and forests. This worked out about as well as one might expect, with his force's many isolated and overextended columns being cut to ribbons by Finnish hit-and-run raids. At this point even Stalin recognises that Voroshilov isn't up to the task and allows him to be replaced by Semyon Timoshenko—not an inspired commander, but a decent one who commands the respect of both his peers and Stalin. Timoshenko works with the General Staff to identify and begin to correct the problems listed above, ordering increased observation and reconnaissance while improving artillery/infantry coordination. This doesn't solve the processing issue, but it allows his forces to finally make some inexorable headway—even if the going is slow.
Soviet forces are poised to clear the Karelian isthmus and break into the open country when the USSR strikes a peace deal with the Finnish government, wanting to avoid open hostilities with the Allies—the invasion had provoked such widespread international condemnation that Britain and France were poised to dispatch an expeditionary force to assist the Finns, which would have meant open war (or at least sanctions and a blockade) and therefore an end to the USSR's foreign trade. As a grain, steel, and oil exporter, one might assume that the Soviet Union would not have been particularly bothered by this. However, the current five-year plan is focused on trying to build up the number of transport trucks (which are all, not at all coincidentally, military grade) in the "civilian" economy and Red Army. For that they'd need tires. And while the Soviets can produce synthetic rubber from coal, they'd much rather buy the natural alternative from Anglo–Dutch southeast Asia and South America.
The Winter War worked out badly in that was a costly failure which diplomatically isolated the Soviet Union, but it worked to their advantage given that it utterly discredited figures like Kliment Voroshilov who had been denying (in his case quite possibly sincerely) that the Red Army's effectiveness had been degraded by the fatal combination of purges and rapid two-fold expansion. It put the faults with the post-purge Red Army on display for all the world to see and forced Stalin to recognise that the Red Army had to be reformed, with figures such as GRU (military intelligence directorate) chief Colonel Ivan Proskurov metaphorically tearing Stalin a new one in secret military councils called to determine just what the hell went so very bloody wrong. The Red Army's abysmal performance had wider implications because it was pretty much the only case study that the Fremde Heeres Ost (Foreign Armies Ost) department of the German Army's General Staff had to go on when making assessments of the Red Army's effectiveness. To the Germany Army's detriment, in late 1940 the FHO would conclude that the entire Red Army would be every bit as incompetent in mid-1941 as it had proven in the winter of 1939-40—so incompetent, in short, that it would be totally incapable of defending the USSR from a German invasion.
Finland agreed to a harsh peace because it had been economically and militarily incapable of continuing the war, and everyone knew it. That they lasted so long is a point of real pride for the Finns and a cause of serious concern for Stalin, who came to understand that the reforms he instituted to politicize the Red Army were a bad idea and have severely impacted its fighting ability. One concrete result is that Commissars are reduced to their pre-1937 status of mere advisers and liaisons with the Communist Party, rather than being co-leaders of their units. He also accelerates the armaments program, which should see the Red Army become the most modern and lavishly-equipped fighting force in the world by 1943 or so.
The Allies had been extraordinarily keen to get Finland on their side as part of their wider strategy of blockading Germany. They even put together an expeditionary force to send to Finland, should the latter formally ask them for it. This is because having ground troops in the area, who could use Finland as a base, would allow them to project their (military) power into the Baltic and hopefully get Sweden to stop exporting steel to Germany (by "offering" to buy it themselves). As it turns out, the Germans preempt Finland and the Allies by seizing Denmark and attacking Norway in a surprise offensive, thereby making the Allies' diplomatic overtures meaningless as Germany now controls access to the Baltic. The task force is diverted to Norway, but too late; the Germans' hold over the country is already too strong, and the Allies have to withdraw. Over the coming months, Germany soon draws neutral-but-Axis-sympathetic Sweden and a now-embittered, staunchly anti-Russian and anti-Soviet Finland into their orbit
On a brighter note, the campaign finally gives a name to what may be history's most famous improvised weapon. When the Soviets started dropping cluster and incendiary bombs on Finnish towns, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed they were actually dropping food"Bread Baskets"for the starving Finnish proletariat. The Finns subsequently dub their improvised petrol bombs—of the same type used by desperate infantrymen trying to take out tanks in China and Spain—"Molotov Cocktails". "Cocktails", because they're a drink to go down with the "bread". Appropriately enough, a majority of them were filled with high-proof grain and potato spirit rather than petrol and were manufactured by Finland's government-controlled liquor monopoly.
Scandinavia Proper had declared neutrality when war broke out. When Finland was invaded, Norway quickly chose sides, and through public fundraising, backpacks and warm clothing was shipped off to Finland in a hurry during the end of 1939. What Norway and Denmark didn't know was that Germany had plans for them
Intelligence heated up, and so did political debates during the winter of 1940. In February, the German tanker Altmark passed through Norwegian waters, carrying prisoners of war. The prisoners were actually British, taken during the Graf Spee incident off the Brazilian coast, and the prisoners were ferried the long route to avoid attention. Norwegian navy and coastguard contacted the Altmark repeatedly, and the ship was eventually boarded by Norwegian navy personnel, inquiring the Germans on what the heck they were up to. As it were, the Norwegian navy took the Germans on face value and let the ship continue its southward course. The RAF spotted the ship later on and alerted the Royal Navy, who gave chase, acknowledging that the POWs were British. The Altmark sought refuge in a Norwegian fjord (Jøssingfjord) on the south-west of Norway, and after direct orders from navy minister Winston Churchill himself, the British asked for permission to board the ship. The Altmark ran aground, and the British went aboard, approaching the Germans in direct combat with bayonets. This skirmish was the first actual confrontation between British and German troops, and the Germans lost eleven soldiers. The incident sped up the German plans for invasion of Norway, because Hitler by this time understood that the British might have some strategic interests there as well.
The neutrality line had to be preserved. The Altmark incident was debated in Norway because both the British and the Germans had violated Norwegian neutrality (underscoring the point that the British authorities had declined to alert the Norwegian coastal guard, and the Norwegians likewise had not contacted the British on the identity of the POWs). The local fascists, however. had already begun their moves. Thus, Vidkun Quisling had already made a trip to Germany, assuring Hitler that Norway would cooperate if necessary. He was, of course, at odds with his own government over this. Great Britain was also wary that Norway might fall under German influence, because of the iron shippings from Narvik. This argument was used by Norwegian collaborators later on. During the crucial end of March and beginning of April, Britain and France mined parts of the Norwegian coastline, stirring a debate in the Norwegian parliament on what exactly the British were up to.
The question of mobilizing in case the British were about to invade was in fact turned down by the king himself, because of his tight connection to the British royalty, and because king Haakon understood that this would put Norway on the German side against the UK, which he wisely avoided.
The British, especially Navy minister Churchill, actually had plans for an invasion of Norway, securing the Iron line from Kiruna to Narvik, and thus hindering the Germans in getting their hands on it. As it turned out, Nazi Germany beat them to the punch, having the plans ready for assault by March 26. The first flotilla embarked April 6, heading for Narvik. At this point. the British had mined the Norwegian route from Narvik to make it difficult for the Germans to use the iron lane. Churchill had come up with this idea in the autumn of 1939 already, but it was executed in April 1940, while the Germans already were on their way. The iron mines were Swedish, and the Narvik port had been built by the British. Sweden, being neutral at the time, never came in harm´s way during the war, and became a hotspot for information, diplomacy and massive scolding from Norway at the beginning of the Norwegian campaign.
The crossing of interests between UK and Germany were mirrored in the Norwegian debate. The fascists supported Germany, and used the Altmark incident against the British. The fact that Germany actually invaded first, tipped the greater part of Norwegians over to the British side, and pitted them thoroughly against the Germans. When the Germans eventually did invade, they explained their actions with the argument of "protecting Norway and Denmark against western aggression", blatantly ignoring the fact that the Reich had provoked war in the first place. This flyer, written in Norwegian with a vague German fling to it, was spread over most of Norway, and promptly ignored.
German embassies in Norway were well aware of the invasion plans, and used a lot of propaganda to keep Norwegian public and officials from acting rashly. Thus, a movie made from the bombing of Warsaw was shown at the very beginning of April, to underline the point of what the Wehrmacht actually could manage. Meanwhile, a Norwegian journalist in Lübeck telegraphed home on an alarming mass of ships scheduled for the North Sea. The telegram was received, but the headlines never got printed. The military leadership, and even the government, was alerted about this, but forces inside the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised caution. The invasion began on the morning of April 9. Denmark was attacked through Jutland. While some Danish units near the border offered some scattered resistance, the Danish government, under Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning and King Christian X convened at a crisis meeting in the early morning hours. Remembering the terror bombing Warsaw had been subjected to the year before, the Danish leaders feared that something similar could happen to Copenhagen, and as such came to the conclusion that offering any kind of serious resistance to the Germans was an untenable situation that would only lead to the needless loss of Danish lives. A general order of surrender was quickly handed down to the Danish armed forces, though some active fighting would still go on for a couple of hours, as the German attack had disrupted the lines of communication. All in all the German invasion of Denmark lasted about six hours. In a show of goodwill for the swift surrender, the Nazi government allowed the Danish state to keep their King and elected civil government and some modicum of autonomy, but only on the condition of the Danish government's continued and full collaboration with any German orders. In Norway, however, things would take a quite different course...
Using the now occupied Denmark as as a springboard, the Nazi war machine was able to attack Norway at several ports at once. Many coastal forts responded with what they had, and some cities, like Kristiansand, Stavanger and Bergen suffered heavy bombardment. Kristiansand probably had the worst of it. In the Oslo fjord, the German attack fleet suffered equally heavy losses, with the heavy cruiser Blücher going down with all hands.
This stalled the German invasion of the capital, and enabled the government and King to escape. They travelled through the country for two months, practically with the Wehrmacht at their heels in hot pursuit. By April 10th, the Quisling government had taken the helm, and offered King Haakon VII and his government "safe conduct" if they surrendered. The King made a stand, giving the laconic reply of "No" to the German ultimatum of surrender, something which the civil government quickly back him on. As a result the Germans had to fight their way into the country for two months. Local army units took to arms in many places, and made the best of it. The badassery of the local units kept the Germans at bay for weeks, until the Luftwaffe arrived. Some mountainous areas were so narrow, the Norwegians just fortified the mountainsides, knowing that German vehicles only had one small country road to use. The Germans understood rather quickly that the Norwegians just picked them off one by one. Then again—the Luftwaffe saved the German advance. Hitler was allegedly furious over the Norwegian lack of cooperation in the matter, and declared war by April 11, seeing to it that Norway became, and remained, a fighting Ally during the remainder of the war, although the Norwegian mainland was occupied.
In the north, Trondheim was taken without a gunshot (although the local fortress at Munkholmen opened fire), and the city of Narvik surrendered, most likely because the local army chief was a member of the Quisling party. This party counted some officers who surrendered sooner than others. Narvik suffered bombardment from the British, and the battle for Narvik was reknown because both French and British troops took part. In this battle, the Wehrmacht was pushed as far inland as the Swedish border and was on the verge of surrendering, when the British and French got news of the invasion of France. Cue a HeelFace Turn, and a sudden Norwegian surrender.
Speaking of the British, the Royal Navy had actually intended to help Norway during April and May. Bad weather in the North Sea and a string of horribly bad decisions from the British high command gave the Germans every chance to win the campaign. This string of events led to the famous Norway debates in May, forcing Prime Minister Chamberlain to resign, leaving his place to Winston Churchill. The fact that he, as a minister of the navy, was in fact responsible for the naval blunders in the North Sea, was promptly forgotten.
Norway surrendered by June 10. But by then, the Norwegian government was in exile, and the Norwegian commercial fleet had been ordered to seek refuge in neutral ports. Thus, Norway was reckoned among the Allied forces, not as an occupied land per se. During the war, the Norwegian fleet secured a lifeline to the British Isles, making it possible for the British to endure German siege. The fleet suffered heavy losses because of this.
Britain therefore quietly seizes the French ships that had taken refuge from the fall of France in Plymouth and Portsmouth, and issues ultimata to the French flotillas in Alexandria and Mers-el-Kébir: surrender or be destroyed. The Alexandrian flotilla of one battleship and four cruisers does not surrender but promises to sit out the war, which the Royal Navy reckons is good enough. But Admiral Darlan's flotilla of four battleships and six destroyers refuses either to surrender or make any promises to their former allies, and so the Royal Navy reluctantly uses carrier-based aircraft and the guns of three capital ships to try to sink the fleet at its moorings in Mers-el-Kébir. The attack on Mers-el-Kébir doesn't do much damage, but it sends a powerful message to the Axis and the Commonwealth that Britain will fight the war to the end, no matter what. More importantly, the Germans keep their word to France and let them keep what remains of the French Navy—three (damaged) battleships, and a handful of cruisers and destroyers. Much of the captured French fleet goes on to be used by the "Free French" forces under General Charles de Gaulle, the Alexandrian flotilla that rejoins the war in 1943.
Apart from India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and a couple dozen other protectorates and colonies Britain stands alone against the relative might of Hitler's Third Reich, and Mussolini's Fascist Italy. Their army is shattered and in no condition to resist an invasion, but they still have the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the English Channel to protect them. The Germans, however, have a problem: the Kriegsmarine, already relatively tiny, took significant losses invading Norway. They also lack specialized landing forces or amphibious landing gear, and their failure to seize the French fleet means it will be a long time before they can be reinforced.note Aerial superiority, therefore, is essential to shepherd an invasion force across the Channel and protect their supply convoys afterwards. Fortunately for the British, the Luftwaffe is exhausted by the high-tempo close air support operations which Bewegungskrieg operations require, so the Germans must pause for several weeks to rest and reequip their air forces before a full-scale assault can begin.
The Luftwaffe does its best to put pressure on the RAF by targeting its aerodromes and radar installations. However, Nazi leadership once again insists upon meddling in the Luftwaffe's affairs, forcing changes in tactics and targets at the first signs of resistance in order to keep the "victories" coming. Bombing priorities are switched between RAF airfields and British urban-industrial centers at critical moments, and they fail to appreciate—largely as a result of false intelligence reports, mind—the significance of radar installations in drastically increasing the RAF's operational and tactical efficiency. This was because British intelligence, lead by William Stephenson, code name:Intrepid, had created the Doublecross system where any captured German spies (And post-war analysis realized that the British caught all the agents!) were forced to choose to become double agents or face execution. As a result of this effective counterespionage, Luftwaffe commanders had claimed that they would be able to reduce the RAF's capabilities to the point that an invasion would be a possibility within as little as two weeks; but after three months of trying for multiple objectives (destroying the RAF, destroying Britain's industry, and destroying civilian morale through attacks on urban centers) they still haven't gotten anywhere, and they've taken an awful lot of losses. The Germans decide to take their strategic bombing campaigns down several notches, making them purely night-time affairs to avoid further losses.
Operation Sea Lion (which was never taken all that seriously to begin with) note is suspended pending the acquisition of sufficient Lebensraum and industry to produce a massive surface fleet—the minimum time-frame for which is five years, hopefully. Many come to believe, in retrospect, PM Churchill's claim that this was the UK's finest hour. Still, the Germans remain the masters of Fortress Europe and the Allies just don't have the strength to defeat them and Britain isn't off the hook just yet, what with the Nazis taking submarine-based commerce-raiding warfare to new heights. Britain has to ship half of her food supplies and virtually all her rare materials in across the Atlantic Ocean, and there's an awful lot of water out there for the Kriegsmarine's "wolfpacks" to hide in. A constant menace, they destroy thousands of tons of vital merchant shipping, and in just a brief window from June until October of 1940, U-boats sink an astounding 270 Allied ships.
In May 1941, the Germans complete their flagship, the battleship Bismarck. They send her out into the Atlantic to raid commerce because the Germans do not have the numbers to take on the Royal Navy. The British quickly get wind of this and dispatch a squadron composed of battlecruiser HMS Hood and the brand new and untried battleship HMS Prince Of Wales to intercept.note . But Hood is an old ship, designed before the WWI battle of Jutland convincingly demonstrated the vulnerability of battlecruisers, and she quickly explodes under Bismarck's accurate gunfire during their encounter in the Denmark Strait, taking all but three of her nearly 1500 man crew with her.
Shocked, and yearning for revenge, Churchill personally orders anything that can float or fly to hunt down Bismarck. Damaged by Prince of Wales during their battle, the Germans decide to return to the safety of France and successfully give their pursuers the slip, causing the British Admiralty many sleepless hours until Bismarck can be located again. Realizing that Bismarck is already safely beyond interception unless it can somehow be slowed, the British launch (from the "lucky" HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier) a last ditch aerial torpedo attack using outdated biplanes flown by inexperienced pilots in appalling weather conditions. Fortunately, with the weather working in their favor, the biplanes prove impossible to hit and their squadron leader scores the lucky torpedo hit that jams Bismarck's rudders into a turning action and allows the Royal Navy to catch up. Bismarck goes down fighting and like a certain ship that also went down on her maiden voyage, becomes a legend. Ironically, the U-boats sent to "help" Bismarck only succeed in scaring off the British ships, leaving most of her crew to join Hood's at the bottom of the Atlantic.
At the same time, Britain found itself in a strange situation when Hitler's right-hand man, Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess, made an unauthorized flight to the UK and parachuted in to present a peace proposal on his own initiative to the British government. As it was, the British government, who of course never took his offer seriously, took him prisoner for the rest of his life and found him a headache to deal with considering Stalin was convinced that the silly incident was evidence of the Western Allies plotting with the Axis against him. As for Hitler, he was deeply troubled by Hess' foolhardy stunt, released an official disavowal of Hess' actions and had Goebbels' propaganda machine paint Hess as a total flake for the public. In addition, contrary to the popular image of the Third Reich being obsessed by the supernatural, Hitler had many psychics, astrologers, faith healers and the like on June 9th rounded up as scapegoats for the embarrassment.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States—still isolationist but not wanting a repeat of the conditions that pulled them into World War One—declares a state of "armed neutrality" and a resolution to defend neutral shipping on their side of the pond. This effectively results in a state of undeclared war between the U.S. Navy and the Kriegsmarine. Deeply disturbing for the Imperial Japanese Navy is the announcement of a huge naval construction program to make that defence possible—the "Two Ocean Navy" act of 1940 would see it dwarf even the Royal Navy within ten years note . This comes as a tremendous shock to the Japanese, who had long chafed under the hated 5-5-3 battleship ratio: the Two Ocean Navy Act effectively set the new ratio at five to one, with similar increases in other classes of warships and 10,000 additional aircraft. In all their fulminations against the hated treatiesnote they'd never considered that they also served as a check on American behavior.
This rearming also allows the U.S. an opportunity to "loan" 50 aging but still serviceable destroyers to the UK, in return for long-term leases on naval bases, a sale in all but name. The "loaning" continued with the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which throws the government's support behind the production of massive quantities of armaments for sale to the embattled European powers. But this isn't mere war-profiteering, unlike the earlier "Cash-and-Carry" Act, which was technically open to all belligerentsnote . This offer is open to the Allies only, and Great Britain in particular. It features decent prices and jaw-droppingly huge low- (and some no-) interest loans so that the Allies can actually afford to keep fighting, and more importantly to buy the U.S.'s armaments.note . The U.S. also starts subsidizing airfield construction across the South Pacific with large gifts of cash and construction equipment to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to preserve a lifeline to the Philippines. Taken together, these measures mean the United States's neutrality is now a mere pretense.
However, underneath this apparent strength lies many weaknesses. Mussolini has turned one of the most formidable militaries on the planet during WWI into a paper tiger. He expanded the military to the point where it became unwieldy and could not provide adequate training to all its troops, while technologically, it slunk well below the cutting edge. Italy's fleet of battleships, while formidable on paper, is immobilized both by lack of fuel and fear of losing them. Italy's industry, resources, and economy are nowhere near strong enough to stand up to the rigors of a world war, even had they been mobilized (which they never were anyway). And finally, Mussolini's agenda meant that he made enemies unnecessarily—especially ones that would prove too difficult for him to chew. Unfortunately for Italy, his previous targets had been too weak to contest him effectively. So, ignorant of the pitfalls, he decides to charge right ahead.
In August, Mussolini opts to escalate the campaign and orders the Libyan forces—led by General Rodolfo Graziani—to launch an attack into Egypt to take the Suez Canal, against the General's protests that his forces aren't properly equipped. Not long afterwards, the Italian army launches attacks along the borders they have with the British colonies of British Somaliland, Sudan and Egypt, pitting somewhere around 400,000 soldiers against less than 100,000 Allied troops. Outnumbering the British by around 6 to 1 on the Libya-Egypt front, Graziani drives deep into Egypt while the British commanders scramble to reorganize their forces in the face of generalized attacks against them stretching from the Western desert to the Sudan.
Within a matter of days, Graziani reaches and stops at Sidi Barrani due to supply problems while his compatriots overrun British Somalilandnote and seize sizeable chunks of Egyptian and Sudanese borderland—to the point where Il Duce engages in (possibly exaggerated) Evil Gloating by claiming he has seized territory equal to the British "Home Islands" in the Horn of Africa. However, although horrendously outnumbered and initially outgunned, the Allied forces are able to engage in model fighting retreats that save the overwhelming majority of their forces and inflict far heavier losses than they take. When the overstretched and poorly tended Italian supply lines snap, it only gets worse. Unable to advance or withdraw, the Italians dig in to try and consolidate their gains. They establish a series of fortified camps, stockpiling supplies in anticipation of a renewed offensive to take Alexandria and the Suez.
But before they get the chance to do so the British launch Operation Compass—which was meant to be a 5-day raid by some of the 40,000 Commonwealth troops to weaken the Italians' force of 130,000 soldiers before the latter launch their next offensive. It succeeds beyond their wildest expectations, due to the Italians' chronic lack of communications equipment and staff, and general disorganisation and command-confusion. The inferiority of Italian equipment note , their lack of motorized transports and the highly dispersed nature of their camps meant that individual force after individual force of Italians is surrounded by much bigger and better-equipped forces with its members required to choose between being massacred or surrendering. The British capture virtually all the camps, huge stockpiles of supplies, and tens of thousands of Italian soldiers for less than 700 casualties. The Italians execute a disorganized retreat back to Libya as the ever-advancing British vanguard leads Compass through a localized counteroffensive into a full-blown offensive that continues to drive the Italians westward.
While this is going on, Mussolini decides to divert even more troops to his Albanian protectorate and issues an ultimatum to General Metaxas' (quasi-Fascist!) Greek government: renounce the British guarantee of their neutrality and allow Italian and German soldiers to occupy undisclosed points of the country. When this is unsurprisingly refused, Mussolini claims that Greece holds an un-neutral attitude against the Axis. The Italians promptly invade Greece across the mountainous border with Albania during late 1940, forcing General Metaxas' somewhat brutal military dictatorship into the Western Allied camp.
What follows is a series of Curb Stomp Battles on every front. The British push into Libya, culminating in the encirclement of the Italian Tenth Army (about half of the Italian force in North Africa) near the town of Beda Fomm, where they are eventually forced to surrender en masse despite increasingly desperate and fiercely-fought breakthrough attempts using their new and improved M13/40 tanks which aren't enough to compensate for the way the Italian army fundamentally lacks the communications equipment and staff they need to actually exploit such breakthroughs (even after the issues of who exactly is in charge and who is supposed to be obeying whom are largely sorted out). After all is said and done, by the end of February 1940 the British have taken most of eastern Libya and captured 130,000 Italian soldiers, several hundred vehicles and over a thousand artillery pieces. In doing so they have given the Allies their first major victory of the war and an invaluable morale boost given the litany of defeats they suffered beforehand.
In East Africa, the British take charge of an Allied force—consisting of themselves, much of the Commonwealth, the 'Free French' rebels and Belgians—and begin to push back into Italian East Africa. Resistance is considerably sterner than in the North; the overextended Italian positions crumble but don't go down without a fight. However, even with their superior numbers, the poorer quality of their troops and Command&Control links slowly tell out while Ethiopia erupts beneath their feet. The Italians turn and fight numerous hard actionsnote , but the clock is ticking and they are running out of room and ammunition.
Meanwhile, the ill-prepared Italian invasion of Greece stalls and then is routed by the woefully outnumbered Greeks utilizing superior leadership, the terrain, and Allied aid. The Greeks pursue them into Albania itself and over the course of several bitter months of fighting, hold the much larger Italian force there. Simultaneously, the Regia Aeronautica's attempts to bomb Malta into submission fail, and the naval war in the Mediterranean turns sharply against them with a series of battles, most notably those of Tarantonote and Cape Matapannote . It seems like a perfect sweep.
Nonetheless, while the Western Allies have won a series of victories they have not even come close to driving the Italians out of anywhere yet. This gives the Italians time to regroup, rearm, and reinforce. The Germans, who had for until now been content to let the Italians get with on their own foolish endeavors, fear that Mussolini's domestic support is not so firm that he can weather the loss of north Africa and hear that British reinforcements are being sent to Greece. The German military had already advised Hitler of the wisdom of ensuring Greece's neutrality (if not outright befriending them) at all costs, since Greece's proximity to Romania means that the Commonwealth can use Greek airfields to bomb Romania's oilfields—German's primary source of petrol. Germany's only alternatives are mind-bogglingly expensive coal-derived synethetic petrol, highway-robbery-priced Soviet petrol, and minuscule amounts of Hungarian petrol. Driven by military necessity, and with a great deal of annoyance at Mussolini's utter lack of strategic thinking, Hitler accepts that Germany must intervene on both fronts.
In response, Germany sends a hundred thousand combat troops, including two Panzer divisions, to conquer Greece and one division to North Africa to shore up the Italian defences there. At the time a 'corps'/'Korps' is generally understood to consist of two-to-three 'divisions' (c.15k combat troops each), so designating the German expeditionary force to North Africa the Deutsches Afrikakorps is a bit of a grandiose gesture. However, it is a deliberate gesture to help foster the impression that Germany has actually dispatched far more troops and tanks (45k and 600) to north Africa than it really has (15k and 200). The 'Korps' is led by the newly promoted Major General Erwin Rommel note .
Annoyingly for the Wehrmacht, Yugoslavia suffers a British-backed coup which sees her leave the Axis. When Bulgaria refuses to allow German troops military access (so they can invade Greece), Germany marshals her troops in Austria and Hungary before declaring war on Yugoslavia and then—once they reach the Greek border—Greece. Churchill overrides the British military to take the militarily/logically/common-sensically questionable but politically important step of stripping their army in Egypt of troops in order to reinforce Greece, only to be utterly defeated in their third hasty and incomplete evacuation of the war. The Germans utilise a full hundred thousand combat troops for this purpose, including two Panzer divisions (400 Panzers, 30k troops). The awful condition of the Greek road network and the relatively long distances traversed mean that these divisions will only finish their refitting and repairs in the German factories wherein they were made in August 1941 (neither Germany nor anyone else has come up with the idea of trying to effect anything but extremely minor repairs to tanks 'in the field'/'at the front' yet). Since Germany only has 350k mobile troops and 3.6k tanks (including these two divisions and the one in Africa), their absence will make the coming German invasion of the Soviet Union ever so slightly more impossible than it already is (given just how woeful the plans for making this happen are).
The Germans take the island of Crete with 3000 troops from its more than 10,000 defenders in the world's first major airborne assault, though the extremely high casualties discourage them from ever launching another like it. Ironically the British, and later the Americans, are very impressed by the performance of the Fallschirmjäger and soon issue directives to begin building up their own airborne divisions. Only the plucky island of Malta manages to hold on despite heavy casualties and near-starvation, an act that gets the entire island awarded the George Cross. Mussolini is humiliated, and Hitler is provided with a whole raft of snide remarks for future cocktail party conversations (it's worth noting that Italy suffered nearly as much as France in World War One, so the Allies weren't the only ones suffering from fatalism and defeatism). The field shifts to North Africa, where the Axis and Allies wage battles for control over the vital Suez Canal and access to the priceless oil supplies of the Middle East.
Rommel arrives in Tripoli on February 14, 1941, to begin supervising the offloading of his new command, and finds himself in charge of just one Panzer division (14,000 combat troops and 200 tanks) with strict orders to help the (80,000) Italians conduct a mobile defense of Benghazi and Tripoli because the total lack of railroads means that operations more than 200km from those ports will be costly or even fatal to his supply truck fleet of 6000 (not including 2000 within the division itself). But do those orders and the physical impracticality of defying them stop him? Nope. What happens next is rather bad for Germany's overall war effort, though not to the extent of actually costing her victory in the coming Soviet-German War. However it certainly is very eye-catching and impressive, making for good headlines and propaganda —especially considering that at the time, very little else is happening bar some ineffectual air-raids and the navy's drama with the Bismarck.
When he sees how short-handed he is in tanks, Rommel pulls a few cheap tricks to make the more-numerous British think he actually outnumbers them. At a parade in Tripoli, the Panzers are driven in circles around the square to make British spies believe the Germans have sent two or even three Panzer divisions to help the Italians. He then orders his troops to begin moving as quickly as possible, getting anything with an engine to move in order to create huge clouds of sand, plowing through British positions in Cyrenaica before they know what hit them and capturing considerable amounts of supplies and prisoners—including the man who masterminded Compass—in his wake. However, while he defeats and drives back the Allies, he fails to crush them, and in a weakness we will see a lot from him, he overextends his supply line by operating more than six hundred kilometres from the nearest major port and is heavily reliant on captured enemy supplies. When the British reorganize and launch a desperate counterattack that drives him back, his supply throughput improves but his overall supply situation worsens as he is no longer capturing enemy supplies. This leaves him high and dry, but not before he has taken thousands of prisoners and encircled the port of Tobruk, the only main Allied base in Cyrenaica. Moreover Tobruk could potentially deliver 0.5-1% of his frontline forces' requirements (500-600 tons of a required 100,000 monthly) if it and the light coastal ships that are all that can dock there (it's a relatively small and shallow port) remain free from allied air attack.
For the next several months, the battle lines are largely static. The Allies and Axis raid each other constantly with varying success, but attempts to change the main situation fail; Rommel repeatedly launches threadbare attacks (with his 10,000 men) to seize Tobruk that are all driven back by the Australian 9th Infantry Division (about 10,000 men), the Allies (especially the famed British 7th "Desert Rats" Armored Division of 10,000 men) launch attacks to try to relieve Tobruk but are pushed back themselves. The Allies lose dozens of tanks from a force of just a couple of hundred, the Axis lose thousands of men of a force of less than 20,000, and neither can decide the issue. On the Axis side this is because they simply don't have the strength or ammunition to adequately suppress the defenders, not least because Rommel insists upon repeatedly attacking as soon as his forces are ready rather than building up a good artillery-bombardment stockpile. On the Allied side this is because the Allies have to deal with numerous conflicts tied directly into the North African campaign but far flung from it at the same time as they are fighting Rommel.
The Allies were currently committed to supporting several 'Free French' takeovers of French territory throughout the world. At the same time, Iraqi ultranationalists and Islamists rose up and overthrew the British puppet monarchy in Baghdad and aligned themselves with the Axis, laying siege to the major RAF base in the region. The British reacted quickly and dispatched reinforcements by land, sea, and air to relieve the siege and crush the rebellion, one of the highlights being a squadron of armored cars driving from Egypt to Iraq in a matter of days to help knock out a rival Axis armored car column and open the way to Baghdad. Unfortunately, the Axis Iraqi government then fled to the French colony of Lebanon-Syria and it was revealed that the Axis planes resupplying the enemy in Iraq had to use the posts in Syria (which was governed by an "unusual" alliance of the French and their Syrian ultranationalist enemies). At the same time, they suspected that the Persian government favored the Germans and refused to transport supplies to the Soviets (who were by then at war with the Axis), leading to the British Commonwealth invading a neutral nation at peace from the South and the Soviets invading from the North, opening the way for an occupation to allow supplies to be funneled across. Somewhere in there, they managed to wrap up the East African campaign, netting somewhere to the tune of 200,000~ Italian soldiers.
Having dealt with those side episodes, the Western Allies were finally able to redeploy their forces to deal with Rommel in Cyrenaica. In the end, they manage to punch through and Rommel runs out of tanks, supplies, and mobile men, forcing him to retreat after one final attack, Operation Crusader. This showcases how the war in Africa will be fought for the next year. Nevertheless, the African Front will come to be known as the most humane and romanticized combat zone of the war, where Rommel becomes a well-respected commander (earning praise from Winston Churchill himself).
However, the war in Africa is small compared to what is coming down the tubes, as Germany gears up to break its alliance with the USSR (and winds up depriving Rommel of much-needed reinforcements and supplies for his offensives that he overspends anyway). In spite of this, the North African front remains important for various reasons. Although it barely involves two corps/one army, it is the fourth-largest Axis front (until Army Group South splits into Army Groups A and B during Fall Blau) and the largest or second largest Western Allied front (possibly bigger than the contemporary Pacific Theatre of Operations depending on how one measures it).
Rommel's retreat and a coherent Allied pursuit last only a few months. Then the Japanese entry into the war and other Free French commitments force a massive weakening of the Western Desert Front (including the diversion of virtually all of the Australian war effort), not the least of which is the ambitious invasion of the French Indian Ocean colonies (grouped here for clarity). This invasion is driven by the Allies' fear that they would support Rommel and/or allow Japanese bases to be made the way the French had allowed in French Indochina. What follows is a bit of foreshadowing, since it is one of the single largest amphibious invasions in history against Madagascar. It lasts far longer than optimal, but in a few months, the British have cleared the Indian Ocean of European threats just as the Japanese are coming in (a few of their submarines made a minor appearance during the battle) and seized one of the world's largest islands.
Unfortunately, this is a hollow victory as Rommel takes advantage of the confusion. He regroups, resupplies, and starts blunting the Allied attacks before smashing them at Gazala, his masterpiece. This, coupled with the simultaneous Japanese entry into the war and growing Axis successes in the Mediterranean, stretches the British to the breaking point. Since North Africa was overly dependent on them, they fall back in a chaotic retreat, leaving Rommel free to pick them off and finally overwhelm Tobruk. The Western Allies lose somewhere along the lines of 50,000 men in the Gazala campaign.
The main Western Allied forces only stop running when they reach El Alamein, due west of the Nile River Valley. There, they are able to reorganize, rearm, and set up strong defensive positions that Rommel cannot outflank due to the terrain. Rommel sees yet another opportunity to drive all the way to the Canal and tries to bounce the Commonwealth off the last line. The Western Allies promptly beat him back at the height of his power and thanks to the attempt, Rommel sees his supplies dry up again, leaving him awkwardly wedged in a position where he can neither attack nor defend well.
Nevertheless, the disaster at Gazala demands reckoning and Churchill sacks the Western Desert Force commander (Again) and appoints new leadership, including a replacement commander for the Eighth Army, as their previous one had died before he could take command. This replacement is one Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Germany's Grand Strategic situation is tolerable but tenuous. To secure a negotiated peace with The Commonwealth Germany would need to focus on naval production (U-boots, and perhaps ultimately a surface fleet). But to safeguard against the Soviet Union Germany has to focus on Army production. Moreover Germany simply doesn't have the fuel to fight the Soviet Union for more than two months. This is partly down to just how much the Soviets are charging the Germans for fuel, but also because the Soviets are not willing to sell them very much (relative to Germany's requirements for waging war upon them). In the near future Germany will have to choose between 1) defeating Britain in the short-term at the risk of becoming vulnerable to The Asiatic Hordes terrorized into submission and service by the Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy in the short-term, or 2) fighting a Forever War with Britain or defeating Britain in the long-term while strengthening The Communist Pawns Of The Jewish World Conspiracy by meeting their continued demands for German technical assistance... thereby eventually becoming vulnerable to The Communists in the long-term anyway when they matched Germany's level of technical expertise and married it to their 'barbaric and unholy ideological fanaticism'. Given German hatred for socialism, the choice was obvious.
Of course, in 1939 the Germans and Soviets had entered into the MolotovRibbentrop Pact, in which they agreed they would not fight each other, would continue trading with each other in the event of a war with the Allies, and would divide up Eastern Europe between them. More specifically, they agreed that Finland down to Eastern Poland would constitute a new "Soviet Sphere" and Prussia/West Poland would be the new "German Sphere". Germany also licensed the Soviets to produce a model of the BMW motorcycle.note
This alliance of convenience was useful to both sides but neither expected it to last. A longstanding and common dream among German ultranationalists of the time, and one which Hitler also possessed, was to expand Germany's borders eastwards and forge Germany into a European superpower with hundreds of millions of citizens. This would be done by by enacting a European 'trail of tears', evicting the natives and replacing them with German settlers. Places like Belarus and the Donbass would become the new Kansas and Tasmania. This expansion would empower Germany to eventually take on the other heartland of "The World Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy"—the U.S.A.—and take over the world. For his part, Josef Stalin had agreed to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as he liked territory, he liked the idea of Germany exhausting herself fighting a years-long World War I-esque conflict with France and thus being too busy to attack the USSR, and he liked the idea of the Red Army having time to modernize before it had to worry about being attacked by the victors of said years-long conflict.
Contrary to the usual stereotypes of invasions of Russia being doomed to failure, Russia actually suffered a major German invasion in World War One and disintegrated into a Civil War, one faction of which surrendered. The Imperial government was dissolved by a coup thanks to a food shortage, general political bumbling and the loss of the monarchy's remaining political capital thanks to poor handling of the war effort. The Provisional Government which succeeded it was brought down by massive popular discontent stirred up by the continued food-crisis and eventually another coup launched by the Russian Communist Party. And The Russian Communist Party surrendered to Germany because they disbanded the army and discovered, to their shock, that their volunteer citizen-militias weren't good enough (unlike the Imperial Army had been) to defend them from the Germans. In short, people regarded the Soviet Union as a deranged cousin of the Banana Republic—an anarchic, barbarous, chaotic society with a government that had gone from incompetent bumbling to inefficient malice. Part of this was the stubborn refusal of most to even call the USSR by its official name, insisting instead upon calling it "Russia"—a trend that would continue into the Cold War. Despite being even bigger than the French Army, the Red Army was also associated with total incompetence thanks to a decidedly mixed performance against the Poles during the Russian Civil War and a horrendously poor showing in The Winter War against Finland.
This poor showing was chiefly due to very recent developments in Soviet politics. Chief among these were the rapid two-fold expansion of the Army, the 1937 Army Purges, and the disbandment of every Red Army mobile unit larger than 3000 troops. The result was a Red Army with no units capable of executing mobile warfare/Bewegungskrieg and too disorganized to execute mobile or positional/trench warfare. The two-fold expansion of the army was far from ideal, as it would have thrust many junior commanders into new and more demanding positions. However, this was critically compounded by the imprisonment of the vast majority of commanders with experience managing units of 3000 men or larger. It was very difficult to go from commanding a force of 1000 men to one of 10,000 as they called for very different skills and knowledge, and most militaries only do this in very exceptional circumstances - yet by 1940 this kind of sudden leap in responsibility was the norm. Some specific examples were even worse, with one commander of a force of 500 suddenly managing a force of 15,000. Such rapid promotion and resultant command inexperience had not been seen since the ten-fold expansion of the BEF in the Great War, or the hundred-fold expansion of the US Army in the US Civil War.
The Red Army's sudden doctrinal confusion was all the more tragic given that in 1937, the institution's understanding of modern warfare had been the best in the world. In the late 1920s the military theorist and utter genius Vladimir Triandafilov had combined the theory of "positional warfare" derived from WWI-experience and the theory of "mobile warfare" derived from Russian Civil War experience (and espoused by the cavalry general Mikhail Tukhachevsky) into a new syncretic theory of warfare which he called "deep battle". Unlike the Anglo-French and the Germans, Triandafilov had realised that "positional warfare" and "mobile warfare" were not truly opposed to one another: they were two halves of the same puzzle. While Mobile Warfare truly was a great way of reducing casualties and producing stunning victories, he rebuked Tukhachevsky's assertions that this could be accomplished without proficiency in Positional Warfare. Triandafilov's ultimate Ur-Example of this was the course of the 1920 Battle of Warsaw in the Polish-Soviet War, where the inability of Tukhachevsky's forces to outflank or break through the Polish lines had resulted in disaster when Marshall Pilsudski had used direct Positional Warfare attacks to bulldoze his way straight through the middle of Tukhachevsky's depleted forces.
This all changed when Triandafilov was killed in a plane crash, and Tukhachevsky was arrested, tried for treason and collusion with foreign powers and executed. All the USSR's motorized and armored divisions, corps, and armies disbanded: no more "deep battle" theorists, no more independent armored forces, no more artillery, and no more logistics. Mass bayonet-charges in the face of enemy artillery and machine-gun fire were so obviously the way of the future. While "deep battle" was not officially abandoned as a military doctrine, and the production and R&D of artillery and tanks continued to be ramped up note , the de facto doctrine of the Red Army reverted to an omnishambolic mess reminiscent of the utter dysfunction and lack of coherence displayed by the Imperial Russian Army in the 1905 war against Japan.
Tukhachevskiy and Triandafilov had wanted entire 'mobile' armies—units with 100,000 to 500,000 men and tens of thousands of trucks and thousands of tanks—that could move (semi-independently of railways, even, if supported by enough trucks!) at twice or more the speed of infantry armies marching on foot and supplied by horse carts. Stalin's cronies said that no, that was stupid: the trucks would be used to supplement the horse carts, and the tanks would be spread out so every infantry army of 100k-500k had a hundred or more tanks each. But suddenly, Germany used mobile armies to execute devastatingly successful campaigns in Poland and France which ended in one year what everyone had thought would be a multi-year war of attrition and all this when the Soviet Union had just disbanded her own mobile armies to imitate the French Army more closely (barring Leclerc's lone, experimental motorized corps).
To his credit, Stalin was able to recognize that maybe Tukhachevskiy had actually had a point. In fact, Stalin thought that Tukhachevskiy had had so much of a point he ordered the immediate re-constitution of all the Red Army's big mobile units
but bigger. Much, much bigger. Instead of just putting the pre-purge big mobile units back together again a whole bunch of new large units would be created. In this way, the entire mobile element of the Red Army would be more than quadrupled in size by 1945! In the meantime, each and every one of those units would only have a tiny fraction of the men, equipment, and weaponry that it should when it was finally reinforced to full-strength. But just so long as they weren't actually required to do any fighting between 1940 and 1943, everything would be fine!
For their part it should be noted that the Germans were not going into 'Russia' completely blind. Weather and climate conditions were common knowledge—nature would not be springing any nasty surprises upon them. They spent months researching their previous efforts in the region and Napoleon's invasion, and noted many differences between 1941 & 1915 and 1941 & 1812 (although they went on to completely ignore most of the lessons of the WWI eastern theatre, as we'll get to in a moment). The Germans at least recognized that the Soviets had specific centers of strategic importance—central-eastern, Ukraine, Caucasia, Leningrad, and Moscow. Losing these was presumed to be be fatal to the Soviet war effort, so they would need to be defended and there was little chance that 'the Russians' would simply pack up everything and retreat. Like the operations in France and Poland, this would depend on the Heer encircling 'Russian' armies, cutting them off from food and ammo, and so forcing them to surrender without too much hard fighting.
For all that the planning process is either the work of gross incompetence or, more likely, a deliberate effort to conceal the fact that the invasion is a bad idea by making it look easy. Given the 'revisions' that Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder 'suggests' to the original, far-from-optimistic plans drawn up by Marcks and Lossberg the weight of the evidence heavily favours the latter conclusion. One draft envisages 'indefinite' Soviet resistance. Another posits a massive Soviet withdrawal of forces to the formidable natural defensive barriers of the Dnepr and Dvina rivers upon the outbreak of war. Another admits the possibility of partisan warfare. A constant refrain is the extent to which German data on Soviet population and industry is accurate, given that (in the absence of 'open-source' information on Soviet demographics and economic performance) it assumes that the USSR has exactly the same population and industry as the pre-WWI Russian Empire. None of the drafts agree on exactly which territories will be occupied in the deep interior (2000km) of the country, largely because Hitler himself had not specified this. Neither do the drafts agree on when exactly the war will end, or on what terms, how big the occupation force will have to be, or why exactly the Soviets would stop fighting—and one even openly suggests that they won't, as noted above. Asking these questions isn't going to help the Army score points with Hitler: Hitler wants other people to take care of the boring minutiae of these things for him (largely because he's lazy, but also so he can slough off any blame if things go wrong) and wants the invasion to be sure of success.
So after a few select revisions, the giant open-ended questions raised in earlier drafts give way to a very simple plan which Hitler is sure to agree to: invade 'Russia', crush the Red Army in 2 weeks, occupy 'European Russia' (whatever that means) virtually unopposed in another 6-8 weeks, the war magically ends (huzzah), and everyone goes home except 200k troops who will occupy the territory forever and ever and implement the genocide and enslavement of the locals with no problems. Unspoken is the assumption that, even though the 'plan' as presented to Hitler is clearly a steaming pile of horseshit, victory in a Soviet-German war is still fundamentally possible—when the early planning process should have cast serious doubts upon it.
While there is a "secret" contingency plan for the unlikely event that things don't go exactly as outlined in the Barbarossa plan, this plan—positing the capture of Moscow as something which will totally cripple the Soviet will and capacity to resist—is also horseshit. The operational plan for Barbarossa is a prime example of the dangers inherent in politicizing a military force; it also marks a milestone along the road to the death of professionalism, objectivity, and eventually logic in Nazi German policy. It says a lot that Joseph Goebbels, a man with no military training but at least one ounce of common sense, is the only German leader on-record as doubting the Wehrmacht's ability to defeat the Soviets and occupy European Russia in the six weeks specified in Unternehmen Barbarossa.
Barbarossa also faces another overwhelming risk before the first shot is ever fired: keeping it a secret. Or rather, how the measures that should have been in place to keep it secret prove woefully inadequate. The operation is so large, and the world so well-populated, that absolutely everybody had at least one person on their payroll who saw it coming. That the Germans thought the Soviets, the world's best-informed power (especially by the crazy conspiracy theories the Nazi Party was based on), wouldn't see it coming was epically moronic. The universal appeal of socialist ideals (the USSR's atrocities only came to light during the Cold War) means they have spies everywhere (including well-placed ones within the German and British administrations, something no contemporary power has), and their military intelligence directorate (GRU) is good enough at signals intelligence to pin-point the locations of pretty much every German unit in central Europe. Even if the Germans doubted the Soviets' capabilities, the UK and USA would have good reasons to pass on any such information if they came by it (and indeed, they did). All of this means that Barbarossa should never have come as a surprise. Yet it does, and the Red Army and Soviet Union as an institution is caught woefully unprepared for the war, even though plenty of individuals in it predicted and prepared for it.
As it turns out, the insanity of the NSDAP has once again proven to be its greatest asset—with considerable aid from one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili. For although Germany's preparations for invading the USSR were transparent, the Nazis were able to tie together some surprisingly resourceful lies to convince Uncle Joe otherwise. One of the two most fundamental deceptions was encouraging the impression that there was a huge split between Hitler, the Nazi party, and the navy on the one hand, and Göring (and therefore the Luftwaffe) and the Heer on the other. German counterintelligence was personally directed (and in some cases, even micromanaged) by Hitler into making it look like Hitler et alii were in favour of dealing with the Soviets and Göring and the Army were making insubordinate attempts to stir up a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. The second Great Deception was giving Stalin the impression that Britain and the U.S. were trying to drive Stalin and Hitler apart in the hope that Britain alone might be able to resist Germany and (hopefully) the Soviet Union would turn on Germany in a fit of paranoia, critically weakening both sides and leaving them open to a white peace (in Britain's case) or total conquest (by the USA).
Both fundamental deceptions were things that Stalin was ready and willing to believe, especially given the way his purges had filled every institution of the Soviet State with 'yes'-men... including its intelligence organisations. Lavrenty Beria, the mass-murdering serial rapist sociopath leader of the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and mastermind of the Purges had been in Stalin's inner circle for some years by 1940-41 and knew very well that telling Stalin what he wanted to hear was far more lucrative than telling him the truth. But the USSR had a second intelligence agency: the military intelligence bureau, the GRU. GRU chief Colonel Ivan Proskurov was a competent, straight-talking man who was good at his job (assessing threats to the USSR's security) and told Stalin the truth (that it was overwhelmingly likely that Germany was probably going to attack them, and soon). Because of this Stalin thought that he was incompetent at best and war-mongering at worst and in July 1940 had him fired and replaced by Colonel Filipp Golikov. Golikov was a competent operations officer who acquitted himself well in field commands, but he had zero training in intelligence work and rightly feared to openly contradict Stalin or tell him things he didn't want to hear. Unsurprisingly, his department's assessments soon concluded that Hitler wasn't planning a war, Göring and Halder (Chief of the Army General Staff) were. In October 1941, three months after the German invasion, Proskurov was executed without trial by the NKVD.
In 1940-41, Golikov's search for any and all sources to support the conclusion that Germany wasn't about to attack the USSR was made easier by German counterintelligence for one thing, but more by the utter mind-boggling stupidity of Germany's preparations for the war. As he noted (accurately, admittedly) in Nazi Germany military production was dictated by Hitler, not Göring/the Army, and Germany was not producing what she'd need to wage a war on the USSR: trucks, armored vehicles, artillery, small-arms, and infantry equipment to replace the colossal losses she could expect to take in a years-long ground war note . Nor is she training up the large manpower reserves she'd need to replace her personnel losses (the German reserve standing at less than 300k, versus more than 3 million for the Soviets). Stalin dismisses Barbarossa as mere posturing by Hitler—he's just using Göring and Halder's insubordination as a way to test Stalin's resolve and make him back down from his talk of getting friendlier with Romania, as well as honoring the conditions of the First—and particularly the Second—Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The second includes further trading for rubber and aluminium, which Germany has no other way to get and would need (in quantities she doesn't currently have) to prosecute the aforementioned years-long war against the USSRnote . There's also the way the start date is changed from May to June because of bad weather which would ground the Luftwaffe and bog down the advance in swollen rivers and mud, which seemingly confirms the plan's fakeness.
The operational planning for the first phase of the war is faulty on both sides. Germany decides to strike north of the nigh-impassable Pripyat Marshes which take up a great deal of Belorussia, and basically divides the theater of war in two. This is because they think that the forces on their mutual border (a million combat troops) account for more than 1/2 of the entire Red Army and that the Red Army as a whole is largely based north of the marshes. This means that, in order to destroy the Red Army and win the war, they need to strike north—there also being a provision here for attacking Leningrad and Moscow in a secondary, follow-on operation that would surely do the trick even if the Soviets hadn't totally surrendered by that point. While they are right about the border-troops being based in the north, these are only 1/3 of the entire Red Army and Soviet forces are in fact concentrated along the Dnepr-Dvina rivers (100-300km east of the border) along a line 1500km long with their main strength being in the south. This is because the Soviets prioritized protecting The Ukraine, their chief agricultural and industrial region.note .
The looming catastrophe is made worse by Stalin's efforts to make the Red Army the most-politicized military in Europe ever since the Yezhovshchina purges of 1937. Stalin had been intensely distrustful of the military's freethinking spirit. It had to stop because a military that thought long and hard about things was also a military that might think about the orders it was given—and whether or not they were good ones. So he decided to stamp that out the hard way: arresting people, beating people so severely their eyes fell out, hosting show trials, executing several of the finest commanders and military theorists the Soviet Union—and indeed the world— has ever known (as well as just as many if not more utter incompetents) et cetera. So in the end, Stalin's will is the Army's will, etcetc. But Stalin didn't have a clear will when it came to the Red Army's preparations for a Soviet-German war, and all his preparations were centered around the war happening on his terms: i.e. in 1942 at the earliest, and ideally later.
Worse, Stalin tried to have it both ways and commit to a static and mobile defense at the same time. On the one hand Stalin had realized the error of his ways and wanted the Red Army to have mechanized armies again à la Triandafilov-style "deep battle". Substantial mobile forces could be used for a more active defense to counter the enemy's mobile forces, and would be necessary for success when attacking. But on the other hand he also distrusted all this new-fangled mobile warfare stuff and wanted a good ol' fashioned defensive line of bunkers and fortresses on the Soviet-German border. In practice the funds allotted to this project were insufficient, so his subordinates (including Zhukov) decided to take obsolescent artillery pieces and machine guns from certain sections of the old 1930s-era 'Stalin Line' of border fortifications (built a short way back from the Soviet-Polish border) and put them into the new defensive line. The stuff about mobile forces was pulled straight from the recently-purged Tukachevsky's manual on "deep battle"note , the latter was just Stalin hedging his bets.
The fundamental problem with his pursuit of both approaches, however, is that Stalin ensured that planning for a Soviet-German war was based around fighting the Germans when their preparations were complete, rather than planning to make do with what they had. Stalin hadn't just let the Soviets be taken by surprise—he'd ensured that they were taken by surprise while changing. The Red Army wasn't just kneed in the groin when they weren't expecting it, they were caught in the middle of taking their proverbial jumper off and had it over their head and their hands caught in the sleeves with no possible response other than blind, flailing kicks aimed in the general direction of the Wehrmacht's shins.
Finally, on the 22nd of June 1941—exactly one year after the fall of France—Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa. The day before, the German Army sends its secret codewords to confirm its immienent commencement, and at 3:15 in the morning, German artillery begins firing at Red Army positions along the entirety of the new Eastern Front. It is the largest offensive in the history of warfare, one so massive that three dedicated headquarters are needed to coordinate it. All three HQ manage an army group of more than a million men each (including logistics personnel) for a total of about 2.7 million combat troops (of whom half are "first-rate"/can be used for offensive actions and the rest only "second-rate"/only useful for defensive actions and policing stuff), 624k horses, c.500k troop-transport and scout vehicles, 120k supply trucks, 3k tanks, and 3k airplanes. This force constitutes about 3/4 of the German Army, 19/20ths of the German Army's mobile forces, and half the German Air Force. In this initial period of the war the Germans make up the majoriy of this force while being supplemented by the Romanian and Finnish armies on the southern and northern flanks respectivelynote . In the westernmost districts of the Soviet Union the Red Army has three HQ and about 2 million combat troops (all of them 'first-rate' on a good day), as many as 5k working tanks (depending on how many make it out of the repair shop on any given day), and up to 5k working aeroplanes. Together these forces about 1/3 of the Red Army, 1/4 of the Red Army's mobile forces, and 1/3 of the Red Army Air Force. On the 22nd of June the front stretches from the lower Baltic, across the Polish plains and Carpathian mountains to the Black Sea and is 1000km long—lengthening rapidly as the Germans make their way out of 'the Eurasian funnel'.
Like we said, it's the greatest operation in the history of human conflict—be it in terms of intent, scope, scale, or numbers.
The first two weeks are a colossal defeat for the Soviets' border armies as the scant organized resistance is too piecemeal and the forces involved are so vastly outnumbered that it doesn't really make a difference. The Germans manage to use commandos, air power, and artillery to sever completely almost every level of the Red Army's chain-of-command in the border districts. This means that the Red Army on most of the Soviet-German border basically ceases to exist within hours of Barbarossa. Worse still, none of the Soviet troops are prepared to fight—they aren't even on alert and they certainly haven't manned any defensive positions or brought their weapons and vehicles out of storage. The German mobile forces are able to start exploitation on just the second-to-third day (though they'd planned to do so on the first). This is all with the notable exception of the southern-most military district, which is actually on alert when the war starts.
Dealing with the individual Soviet soldier proves to be trickier, since they do exist and try to do the best they can with what they know. And, with overwhelming Axis forces crossing the border, that is to run and to hide. The 300k men in the Galicia-Podolia pocket in the south have nowhere to run and so are more or less obliterated, but in the center and north c.500k Soviet troops flee east in an attempt to reach the Dnepr-Dvina defensive line and c.100k of them make it, running more than 300 km note ). This is where the Wehrmacht's headaches begin.
Fleeing Soviet troops with no antitank weapons can't make a dent in the mobile forces—which have armored vehicles—and without heavy weapons (machine guns, mortars, etc.) they have trouble with enemy infantry as well. But the supply trains of the Wehrmacht's forces, with nothing but trucks and horse-carts guarded by "second rate" troops, prove far easier and indeed very attractive targets to starving Soviet infantrymen stuck behind enemy lines. And here a major problem of Bewegungskrieg becomes apparent—when you advance forces behind the enemy lines, your forces' supply lines also have to advance behind enemy lines. So unless you clear every square kilometer of the area you've "captured" (the Minsk pocket covers maybe 200,000 square kilometres, much of it forest and bog) they're still a problem. The situation becomes so bad that the German mobile forces have to station a tank along every hundred metres of road to protect their trucks — and this means the mobile forces at the leading edge of their armies get weaker as the advance continues, even when they don't lose troops to mechanical problems or fighting. And they do.
Somewhat amusingly, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels is also facing a major dilemma — how to show the German people just how much 'Lebensraum' the Wehrmacht has managed to conquer while avoiding drawing attention to the size of the USSR. He settles for focusing instead on the raw numbers of captured Soviet personnel and material without reference to the Soviets' ability to replace it, something many ex-Wehrmacht generals do in their own postwar memoirs. On some level, this makes a degree of sense. The Germans won the Eastern Front of WWI by defeating the Bolsheviks' citizen-militias after the Tsarist Army was disbanded, and the Polish and 1940 campaigns were over before Germany's enemies could even begin to replace the forces they'd lost — and this is exactly the kind of campaign that Barbarossa is meant to be. Unfortunately this is not the same Bolshevik military they were facing in 1917, the logistical difficulties are least as bad as in the eastern front campaigns of WWI (likely worse, given the more than doubling of the troops without a proportional increase in their train- and truck-tonnage), and these challenges are several-fold greater than the previous small and short campaigns of WWII. Furthermore, the Soviets have every reason to resist a universally-loathed genocidal enemy rather than a merely disliked racist and imperialist one.
With Soviet troops still pouring through the southern and eastern sides of the Minsk pocket, in the third week of Barbarossa the 300k men of Army Group Center's mobile forces are given the OKH's approval to take the Dnepr-Dvina rivers and the city of Smolensk (which lies to the far west of Moscow within Russia proper). They are working under the assumption that they've already destroyed 1/2 of the Red Army and there are just 200k troops between them and Moscow. Thus, closing the Smolensk pocket should take just another two weeks, meaning the end of all organized Soviet resistance and the start of a virtually unopposed advance to Moscow by the end of July.
However, the actual number of Soviet troops is more like 300k. And they have a lot of artillery and air superioritywhereas the German Mobile Forces, at the end of a very tentative logistical tether that's severely strained by transport bottlenecks and breakdown-rates over horrible road-infrastructure, as well as being badly disrupted by 50k Soviet troops still trying to flee from the Minsk pocket have precious little. The Germans' first stab at making a pocket around Smolensk actually fails in the face of an artillery-heavy Soviet counterattack upon the forces trying to pinch it off. At this point, German Bewegungskrieg doctrine calls for the heavy use of artillery and/or air-power to suppress the defenders.
But whereas the Soviets have enough ammunition to continously bombard certain sectors of the front for days at a time, and enough planes to make dozens of attacks a day, most of the German mobile forces only have enough ammunition for half an hour's firing per day. And the Luftwaffe is nowhere to be seen, with only forty-fifty combat-capable 'fighter' aircraft able to patrol the 1500km of front-lines for a few hours at a time on any given day. After considerable bickering between the impetuous and out-of-his-depth General Heinz Guderian of the 2nd Panzer Army and General Hermann Hoth of the 3rd Panzer Army, Hoth caves first and forces his troops to bludgeon their way through to completing the encirclement at a heavy cost in tanks. But then a Soviet counteroffensive with 200k fresh troops hits Hoth's exhausted troops earnest, opening it again. And then, when the Soviets have completely exhausted themselves trying to encircle the Germans, the 500k combat troops of Army Group Center's infantry armies finally catch up after five weeks of nonstop marching. This finally frees up enough of Hoth's forces for him to pinch the Smolensk pocket off one last time and hold it against Soviet break-out attempts as July ends and the fighting doesn't.
The Germans want to pull their mobile forces back so they can rest and repair all their damaged tanks. The Soviets won't let them, because if they can do this then they can use said mobile forces to go on the offensive again. So while 300k Soviet troops are captured and 100k escape, the fighting doesn't actually stop. The Yelnya salient in particular becomes the most fought-over ground of the entire European war up to that point as about half the combat units in Army Group Center are rotated through it (to avoid any one unit taking more than 20% losses). Recognising that further rotation was impossible without disbanding some combat units and re-distributing the men among the rest (something Hitler vigorously opposed throughout the war) the Germans withdraw from Yelnya in mid-August, terming it a 'front-consolidation operation'. Soviet and British propaganda tout it for what it was: a retreat.
The Heer won the Battle of Smolensk, but failed to achieve Barbarossa's objectives. At Smolensk their mobile forces attacked a force that they had assumed was much weaker than it really was, and so they took far worse losses and far longer to defeat them than they'd planned for. The Wehrmacht's offensive ability rested on those mobile forces, and with them so badly damaged the Heer as a whole was unable to keep attacking and the front bogged down in attrition trench-warfare. Before Smolensk, there was talk of reaching the Caspian Sea and the Urals according to the timetable set out in the planning for Barbarossa (i.e., by the end of August). After Smolensk, the commanders of the Wehrmacht's mobile forces are begging for a two-week rest-and-refitting period because their forces are completely incapable of further combat operations. Before Smolensk, Imperial Japan was considering attacking Soviet-controlled Siberia. After Smolensk, they rule it out.
The Wehrmacht have lost a third of their total of 3,000 tanks, another third need repairs and half of the ones currently combat capable (i.e., 1/4 of the total) are obsolete and can be destroyed by weapons carried by even ill-equipped Soviet regulars or particularly crafty partisans. Monthly German tank production is less than 50 units (5% of the current total) and tank engine production is less than 300 units per month versus more than 1,000 units requiring major repairs of this type against Soviet production of 200 tanks per-month. The Luftwaffe is also suffering. Half the Luftwaffe's planes on the Eastern Front have been destroyed or need repairs and they require six months to recover their losses. For now the rest cannot support operations beyond the current front-lines or even continually defend the current ones from Soviet air attacks.
One problem that the Wehrmacht itself does not address or even acknowledge is their awful supply situation and the rapid degradation of their motorized transport pool in particular—something that was never meant to happen, since the planning assumed that the railways would be sufficient for the front's requirements. In other words, they assumed that the trucks and horse-carts would be hauling supplies to the front from depots already fairly close to the front (no more than 50km, say) rather than depots in Poland and Germany (200-400km one-way). But even when (in August) the Belorussian railway network had been restored and could deliver stock to within 50km of the front lines, the forces at the front still had to send trucks to Germany and back to build up the stockpiles necessary for the next offensive by Army Group Center—when they weren't supposed to be used in that capacity (hauling supplies from Germany to the depots near the front) in the first place.
The incredibly long time taken to restore the railway network was attributable to a German neglect of their own logistics, Soviet attention to the disruption of the Germans', and a number of hard realities reinforcing this dynamic. The old Imerial Russian Gauge (distance between the rails) still used by the Soviets was wider than European Standard Gauge, and that trains built to travel upon it had much more range due to their larger water tanks and coal bunkers. Contrary to German planning assumptions, when retreating the Soviets took all the engines, handcars, wagons, repair shops, and other equipment they could with them and destroyed what they couldn't. This meant that not only did the German Army's Railway Troops have to physically move the rails closer and build a huge number of new refueling stations, but they also had to strip the occupied territories of Europe (which had not had a surplus of any of these things) and thereby disrupt economic activity in those areas just to restore the Soviet network to working condition. Of course, the German Army and Wehrmacht's continued insistence that this can be a short war means that they do not place orders for European train manufacturers to ramp up production - that would be wasteful, as the Soviet Union will be destroyed and its train fleet captured soon enough (and even if, say, most of it is destroyed then the lost stock can be replaced at the usual pre-war pace of production).
Joseph Goebbels notes with considerable irritation that the British press actually reports Smolensk as a Soviet victory, but acknowledges that German propaganda has to change direction and begin steeling the German people to accept a longer and much harder war. He, for one, does not think, now that Barbarossa has failed, that it will succeed by Christmas instead as the Wehrmacht is now promising.
In the Ukraine, Stalin and Hitler wrestle with their subordinates for control of military operations. Belarus and the Baltic States are a giant, swampy forest: though not entirely worthless, the area is of little value. But the primary aim of Barbarossa (albeit in the most roundabout and inefficient way possible) and pre-War Soviet planning had been to take and secure the Ukraine, respectively. With Barbarossa having ground to a halt on the Dvina–Dnepr rivers in the face of the Soviet Reserve Armies Hitler, Stalin, and their respective General Staffs disagree about how to proceed.
Chief of the Heer's General Staff Franz Halder wants an immediate drive to Moscow, believing that if the entire airpower and logistical resources of the Ostheer are concentrated behind them they'll have enough fuel, fodder, food, and ammunition to power right through the Soviet offensive currently tying down their forces at Smolensk and take Moscow on the march. With that done, Leningrad will be cut off from all supply and reinforcement and will fall in short order as well, and Soviet resistance will collapse shortly thereafter. General Fedor von Bock of Army Group Center agrees with the gist of the plan, but thinks they might need a couple of weeks of rest, repairs, and stockpiling first. Hitler, however, disagrees. Barbarossa was supposed to take out Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine in the first month, and it clearly hasn't. Germany needs the Ukraine's resources (aluminium, rare metals, food) to keep fighting the war, and the sooner the better. Moscow-Leningrad can be taken later; the Ukraine is his top priority. Hitler gets his way because he's, well, Hitler. He makes an open, direct order to the Ostheer that they will take the Ukraine to forestall any possibility of Halder or anyone else acting to the contrary. Accordingly, Heinz Guderian's Second Panzer Army (which operates at the very southern tip of Army Group Center's jurisdiction) is ordered to move south as soon as it is able to disengage from the frontlines. The Soviets' Smolensk offensive is so fierce that it is only able to start doing this in mid-August.
Chief of the Red Army's General Staff Georgiy Zhukov advocates an immediate withdrawal from the Kiev salient. He tells Stalin that the forces there are far too weak to conduct a successful counteroffensive against a German offensive operation, that most of them will be cut off and trapped if they do not start evacuating the salient before said German offensive starts, and that the Germans will launch such an offensive instead of one to take Moscow. He justifies this by pointing out that the Germans still need time to stockpile supplies for another offensive push on Moscow by Army Group Center, something the General Staff concludes that the Soviet offensives in that sector (which force them to consume ammunition and fuel that would otherwise have been stockpiled) has precluded for now. Stalin asks Zhukov to think carefully about his opinion, because Stalin is quite sure that Hitler is just the kind of whackjob nutcase who'd prioritize Moscow over a more sensible target like Ukraine—after all, if Barbarossa proved anything it's that Hitler is utterly insane. Zhukov stands by his assertions. Stalin is impressed and fires him, replacing him with Timoshenko (one of Stalin's BFFs from the Russian Civil War, but passably competent). Stalin appoints Zhukov to command of the Leningrad Front, where the situation against Army Group North is still extremely precarious and outside intervention is required to stabilise the situation.
The Battle of Kiev was a pure and unadulterated Hitler vs. Stalin action. Both had overridden the objections of their subordinates and imposed their own authority upon them, directly associating themselves with victory or defeat in the coming battle. And only one could be vindicated.
Unternehmen Barbarossa was a non-starter in the south. The Southern Front was the only ones to pass the Red Army's own standards of combat readiness in May 1941, and was the only Front actually armed, dug-in, and ready to fight on 22nd June. Whereas opposite Army Groups Center and North the Northwestern, Western, and Southwestern Fronts had totally disintegrated by the second-to-third day of the offensive, the forces opposite Army Group South stand their ground (and execute fighting retreats, something almost unheard of by Soviet forces at any stage of the war!) for three weeks before they are finally overwhelmed just as the Battle of Smolensk gets going in earnest. The Germans also trust the Romanian military to do most of the work on Army Group South's southern flank when frankly their forces are far too poorly equipped, armed, trained, and led for the task.
The result is that while the Romanians and their local and German auxiliaries are able to take ("liberate" according to them, as it was actually an area the Soviets had extorted out of them just a year before) what is now Moldova, they take worse than they get and are soon bogged down in lengthy and bloody sieges at Uman and Odessa where their inferiority and the merits of the Red Army's Southern troops make themselves all too clear. They are stuck there for the following months, paralyzing the Southern flank of Barbarossa even as the German and Axis Allied troops just North of them continue pressing into Ukraine. However, even there they face hard opposition. And this is where we come to Kiev.
Army Group South confronts the bulk of the Red Army's mobile forces in Mikhail Kirponos's Kiev Special Military District. Kirponos himself seems to have been an average commander, though his erstwhile subordinate Konstantin Rokossovskiy later suggested that he may actually have been somewhat subpar. More important were his subordinates, who included Andrey Vlasov and the aforementioned Rokossovskiy note and the lemon of a cavalry officer and Stalin's BFF Semyon Budenny. Upon the outbreak of war, Stalin ordered Zhukov to implement the May 1941 "counteroffensive" plan. This planned for Soviet forces to carefully concentrate their forces for a preemptive offensive to disrupt an imminent German invasion of the Soviet Union, or to meet it head-on when it arrived. Unfortunately, only the military district under Kirponos's command is able to implement the order, as the Baltic and Western Districts basically cease to exist by the second day of the German invasion.
Still, Kirponos's staff manage to identify the sole mobile army attached to Army Group South—the First Panzer Group (800 tanks, about 100,000 men)—and marshall a respectable force (3.5k tanks, maybe 400k men) to counterattack them from the north and east as they drive south-eastward to encircle Lvov/Lwow/Lviv in the western Ukraine. Of course a good half of both sides' tanks are obsolescent or obsolete, being vulnerable to any and all antitank weaponry and incapable of damaging enemy armored vehicles. The combined arms element of the engagement is something of a reversal of that at Smolensk, with the Germans being the ones to carefully husband their amor and rely on their antitank and anti-aircraft guns to take out the great bulk of the enemy's—with the important caveat that German antitank guns are incapable of destroying the newer Soviet tanks.
Operations in the south proceed at a relatively glacial pace, with Soviet forces falling back in relatively (by 1941 Soviet standards) good order from one pre-prepared defensive line to another with the aid of sacrificial forces. Knowing that Kirponos's forces simply don't have the engineering resources and administrative efficiency necessary to do this forever, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt commanding Army Group South uses his two infantry armies to help his Panzer army chew their way through the Soviet defenses one line at a time until, finally, they are able to make a break-through in late August and use First Panzer Army to trap several hundred thousand Soviet troops in a pocket troops west of the Dnepr (thereby cutting barge-traffic from Kiev to the Black Sea).
By this time forces sent from Army Group Center have been dispatched southward to meet up with the First Panzer Army in the eastern Ukraine (around Kursk–Kharkov). To this end, the commander of the southward advance—Heinz Guderian of the Second Panzer Army—attempts to advance on the eastern bank of the Don and thereby use it to cover the western/right flank of his mobile army as it advances. Likewise, the First Panzer Army seizes the bridge at Dnepropetrovsk/Dnipropetrovsk, the easternmost bridge over the Dnepr, to facilitate their own northeastern advance from this point.
It quickly becomes apparent that the planned encirclement is beyond German capabilities. To receive the fuel, food, ammunition, and spare parts required for an offensive advance a German Panzer Army needs a dedicated double-gauged railway feeding a series of depots less than 400km away from their front-lines. In reality, both Panzer armies are supplied by one single-gauge railway and the entire supply truck fleet of their respective Army Groups, an unsustainable setup due to the rate at which using said fleets for this purpose renders their vehicles unserviceable. While the Panzer Armies' requirements drop over time as they lose vehicles and men—both have lost half their tanks and at least a tenth of their men—the truck fleets degrade much faster than their requirements shrink. So when Guderian's forces on the eastern bank of the Dnepr are attacked by Soviet forces he quickly realizes that he can't get enough ammo and fuel over the river for his forces to fight there and orders a retreat. Likewise, Soviet forces attacking Dnepropetrovsk cause von Rundstedt to realize that he just doesn't have the supply capacity to both hold the town and build up stockpiles there for a more than 100km advance beyond the town.
Instead First Panzer Army's forces cross the Dnepr a good hundred kilometres to the west of Dnepropetrovsk and meet Guderian's forces in central Ukraine instead, but not before several of its units literally run out of fuel. Kirponos orders all his forces to attempt to break out of the encirclement without waiting for approval from Stalin (which comes the next day), but it's already too late. Kirponos himself is killed leading an attack by ad hoc forces, and the last pocket is crushed after just another week of fighting. Some 600,000 Soviet combat and logistics troops are captured, and there are a series of explosions in German-occupied buildings across the city of Kiev. Despite concerted reprisals and interrogations, they continue. Eventually it transpires that the Kiev branch of the NKVD rigged every government building in the city with tripwire- and timer-triggered explosives. In the course of this, from the 29th-30th of September Order Police and SS troops 'secure' Kiev by disposing of the city's entire Jewish population (34,000) in the nearby ravine of Babi Yar.
Interestingly, the Romanian Army's summertime enthusiasm for eliminating the Jews in their slice of the occupied USSR (Transdnistria) seems to have inspired Hitler to push for a widening of the SS and Order Police Einsatzgruppen's target demographic from male Jews to all Jews. In mid-July the SS chief Himmler reached a verbal understanding with Hitler that total eradication was desirable. Himmler then strove to reach similar verbal understandings with SS and Order Police personnel in the USSR during August, with Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group South being visited last due to its lesser importance. This lesser importance stemmed directly from the minimal territory it had captured to that point.
Unfortunately for the Axis, the makings of an easily-predicted but seemingly left-field logistical nightmare now start coming to a boil. German forces receive only half the supplies they need to survive and continue fighting by rail (about 40% food, 40% fuel and fodder, 20% ammunition)note . While about half their food can be plundered from the locals, they cannot improvise their supply of fuel, fodder or ammunition. This forces them to use horse and motor transport to make up the other 30% or so of their requirements, but this requires their entire complement of horses and trucks and kills both several times faster than they can be replaced. Although the supply situation is not yet a full-blown crisis, it is literally impossible to avert one without stopping the advance in August at the latest—and ideally, though the Soviets would never let them do this, all combat. As we know, however, this isn't what the Wehrmacht does and indeed no one outside the logistics services actually advocates this—though after the war Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein claimed that they had done so. As far as the leadership of the Wehrmacht is concerned, the supply services have been Crying Wolf the whole time—they had said that advancing beyond the Dnepr and Dvina was impossible when apparently it wasn't, and they had said the same of the second phase of the offensive to take Kiev and Leningrad.
Almost no 'Russian-gauge' trains have been captured and more than 100k Wehrmacht horses have died in combat and from wounds, exhaustion, disease and starvation—they push the poor creatures way too hard in trying to keep up with the Wehrmacht's 'mobile' forces, which have no horses and use trucks for everything (and so can, theoretically, travel faster and for longer and be supplied over greater distances). While Kiev is captured along with a few hundred thousand Soviet troops, many escape once again and the area captured is worthless (machinery gone or destroyed, mines collapsed, harvest taken or burnt, railway lines and all trains destroyed, etcetc). And yes, the "land bridge" between the Dnepr and Dvina rivers at Smolensk is captured. This opens the way for an advance along the Smolensk–Moscow highway to Moscow but half the remaining vehicles in the mobile units are out of commission and awaiting spare parts that will take months to arrive given the supply backlog. Additionally, most of the captured railway network has yet to be repaired and converted to European standard-gauge, and the horses are dropping like flies and literally cannot sustain any further advances
Worse, Soviet resistance is getting competent. While various Soviet soldiers and units fought like lions on day one with individual courage and initiative, the catastrophic muck-ups of the early campaign mean many others collapsed catastrophically with little problem. This reinforced German expectations—and complacency—that the "inferior Slav" would fold. But Smolensk, Uman, Odessa, Kiev and Brody show that is about to change; the Soviets are beginning to get their act together and fight smart too.
Hitler demonstrates a great deal more common sense than his Generals when he reckons that taking everything up to the Dvina–Dnepr is good enough and that even if Barbarossa has failed—it's taken them two months more than they had "planned", inverted commas, and the Soviets still haven't given up and peaceably let every last man, woman and child in their country be exterminated (for some reason)—they can just have another crack at destroying the USSR next year, when the supply situation is alright again and they've brought up enough fresh horses and stockpiled enough fuel. However the Wehrmacht's Chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, and Armeegruppe Mittel's Commanding Officer, Feodor von Bock, have tried their best to manipulate their subordinates into marching on Leningrad and Moscow as soon as possible. While this is insubordination, it's only because they are convinced that they know how the war can be won; i.e., taking Leningrad and Moscow, which to their minds will cause Soviet resistance to crumble. Hitler is not happy about this. Not one bit. But eventually, he lets them have their way—if only because they persuade him that that is where the bulk of the Red Army can be found and destroyed.
October's Unternehmen Taifun (English: Operation Typhoon) is to make use of Army Group Center's full force and what remains of the mobile Armies of Army Group South (1st Panzer Army) and North (4th Panzer Army). Army Group Center accounts for 1.5 of the 2 million combat troops and and 1500 of the 2000 tanks to be used in Taifun. The overall objectives are to take Moscow, the massive Small Arms manufacturing center of Tula, the premiere T-34 production center at Kharkov, and the rich coal and iron deposits of the Donbass. Army Group North's Tikhvin suboffensive will tighten the siege of Leningrad by taking the railway station at Tikhvin, the basis of a supply route through Lake Ladoga, and thereby aid the city of two million in starving to death over the winter note . Army Group Center will effect two encirclements using Hermann Hoth's Third Panzer Army in the north (Rzhev) and Heinz Guderian's Second Panzer Army in the south (Bryansk). The Panzer armies will then spearhead a massive encirclement through the cities of Kaliningrad in the north and Tula in the south to close an encirclement some 100-200km east of Moscow. Army Group South is to improvise some sort of means to take the eastern Ukraine and Donbass.
But for all its strength, the German Army has run out of endurance. The main focus of Taifun is Army Group Center, which has more than 60% of the first- and second-rate German forces note in the Eastern Theatre. This is a relatively good concentration of force on the Germans' part, given that the Soviets have only 1.2 million troops opposite Army Group Center, but on the other hand this is only 40% of the Soviets' combat capable forces: the Red Army's total combat troops outnumber the Ostheer's by about 3.5 million men to 2 million. Worse, German reserves and replacements for the entire German military stand at near zero—though there are a few hundred thousand wounded combat troops who can be expected to return to service within the next six months. On the other hand the Soviets have about 2 million men currently in hospital and in-training whom they can expect to become available within the next three months (or sooner, if they rush the training)note . At this point neither side has any combat troops they can transfer from other duties, with the Germans having redeployed their only Panzer reserves (400 tanks) note for the operation and the Soviets having transferred the last of their Caucasian and Far Eastern districts' troops to the front lines months ago.
Taifun seems to go well at first. Soviet forces at Tikhvin are driven away from the station and the city's food supply is completely cut until a new route to Lake Ladoga is created further east, prompting further cuts in all ration categories note . The great bulk of the Red Army forces opposite Army Group Center are trapped in two pockets in less than a week, though crushing them takes a further fortnight and some elements (especially in the south) escape to the east.
All things considered, the Soviet response is a model of crisis management. The Soviets ship the first new combat forces they have to the Leningrad sector (despite the disasters unfolding to the south) and use these to recapture Tikhvin and restore the city's lifeline. In the center they order the surrounded units to stay where they are and hold out while using NKVD, civil air-defense units (including many women and some all-women units), and militia detachments to hold the villages and towns between the advancing German forces and Kaliningrad-Tula. And in the south the Germans' lack of petrol means they are unable to pursue the Soviets when they retreat, meaning that the Soviet units there are able to reorganize themselves over time as the Germans advance. No sooner have the Germans reached Kaliningrad than they exhaust the supply stockpiles they had built up in Belarus, forcing them to use their truck fleet to transport supplies from Poland again. Worse, just a few days later operations in the entire theatre of war come to an abrupt halt as the Rasputitsa arrives.
All the lands north of the Alps-Carpathians-Caucasus Mountains experience two periods of muddy weather which are known in Russian as the Rasputitsa ('season of mud', 'season of no roads'). One comes about as a result of heavy rains which gradually turn to heavy snowfall as the daytime temperature drops below freezing sometime in September-October, and the other occurs as the snow begins to thaw sometime in February-April. Advancing and keeping forces supplied through this period was traditionally considered impossible, or at the very least bloody difficult. In the area of Smolensk–Moscow the Rasputitsa usually arrived in mid-late September or early October, but in 1941 it arrived in mid-October and by its absence allowed the initial advances made during Unternehmen Taifun. Contrary to later German accounts this was in no way unexpected or unmanageable—this meteorological phenomenon had been a fact of life in Europe for all of recorded history, and attempting to fight through it (without adequate engineering/logistical preparation) had caused the failure of military operations as recently as Passchendaele in 1917 (an ill-fated British Commonwealth campaign in Belgium). Moreover, German forces had observed the arrival of the Rasputitsa in the Smolensk–Moscow area firsthand during World War One.
The actual effect of the Rasputitsa is to immobilize the remaining half of Army Group Center's truck fleet as it gets bogged down on the roads between Moscow and Warsaw, and keep much of it there as the ground freezes and the trucks not recovered from the mud are stuck there until the ground thaws again. With maybe a quarter of the fleet left the Germans make concessions to the reality of the situation and decide that instead of making a huge encirclement far to the east of Moscow they will occupy the city's suburbs and besiege it by attacking it directly from the south (through Tula), the west (through Kaliningrad) and the south-west. Hoth's forces make it within 20km of the city's outskirts when the cold destroys about nine tenths of the train fleet and takes a further toll upon the truck fleet, leaving Army Group Center with less than 40% of its subsistence-only (i.e., just food, no ammo or fuel) requirements.
Every year northern Europe experiences a period of cold, typically sub-zero temperatures which are known in English as "winter". Advancing and keeping forces supplied through this period was traditionally considered impossible, or at the very least bloody difficult. In the area of Smolensk–Moscow, winter usually arrives by late October, but in 1941 it arrived in early December and by its absence allowed the advances made in the second phase of Unternehmen Taifun. Contrary to later German accounts, the temperatures encountered were average for the region and were in fact well-known to German forces, which had experienced them in the Smolensk–Moscow area firsthand during the Great War. Despite this there had been a hitherto-ignored emphasis on maximum throughput of supply at the expense of maintaining the supply services actually needed to ensure said maximum throughput. Moreover, throughout the entire Barbarossa and Taifun campaigns, lubricant and spare parts—needed for the routine maintenance of weapons and vehicles—had been totally neglected even for the combat services, resulting in guns and vehicles that were otherwise perfectly serviceable having to be abandoned. But most egregiously of all, long after the army had procured sufficient winter uniforms note and antifreeze for its weapons and vehicles, all those winter supplies were left in depots in Poland. As casualties from frostbite and hypothermia mounted, fuel lines froze solid in German trucks and tanks, the hydraulic shock-absorbers in German artillery pieces froze and broke the guns, moving parts jammed in German small-arms, and the water pipes in the trains' steam engines froze and burst (rendering them inoperable) they finally realized they had to do something but it was already too late. On 6 December 1941, the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive began.
The origins of the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive were quite unassuming. This was reflected in the relatively small numbers used at this stage: less than half a million combat troops against Army Group Center, a similar number against Army Group South, and less than 50,000 against Army Group North. The city of Tula was a mere 100km south of Moscow and produced a large proportion of the Soviet Union's rifles, pistols, machine guns, and sub-machine guns. Driving Heinz Guderian's Second Panzer Army from its position around Tula and restoring its rail link to the east was therefore important to maximizing its manufacturing output—in turn key to replacing the previous months' losses of small arms and automatic small arms in particular. Likewise, Hermann Hoth's Third Panzer Army would also have to be driven back as it was sitting on the western side of the Moscow Canal (which connected the city to the Volga). Retaking it would take pressure off the rail network when the Volga thawed. Gerd von Rundstedt's forces in the Donbass, which basically just amounted to the remnants of the First Panzer Army, would also have to be driven out of the region to safeguard the Soviets' supplies of coal and iron. Thankfully German forces had been too weak to do anything but take the city and minor manufacturing center of Rostov-on-Don, leaving the mining operations in the area largely unmolested and intact. Finally, the people of Leningrad (population 2.3 million) were beginning to die of starvation and the factories in the city would soon run out of raw materials. Reestablishing the more efficient food supply route to the city—through the rail station at Tikhvin, to Lake Ladoga, and across it—could save hundreds of thousands of lives and allow the relocation of personnel and machinery vital to war production. But only the restoration of the Leningrad–Moscow railway line could actually save the entire population, as the evacuation of factory equipment (bar the shipyards) was prioritized over that of ordinary civilians. The practical, versus morale, benefits of this prioritization are debatable.
It was in the name of retaking these limited objectives that the Soviet Fronts opposite Army Group Center began a series of limited counterattacks under the supervision of Stavka representative Georgiy Zhukov and those opposite Army Group South began another under Stavka representative Semyon Timoshenko (mastermind of the "successful" third phase of the 1940-41 Winter War). Leningrad Front forces also conducted a small offensive to drive German forces back from Tikhvin and restore the more efficient supply route to the city. All three operations met with an unexpected degree of success, as German forces everywhere were hamstrung by critical shortages of ammunition and fuel supply. The entire supply apparatus of Army Groups North and Center broke down for a couple of weeks when the bulk of the train fleet was incapacitated by the bursting of their water pipes, but even before then it had been inadequate and after the necessary repairs were completed it remained so. Despite not losing any trains Army Group South was just so inadequately supplied, owing to the size of its force relative to the rail infrastructure in its sector, that it was simply unable to maintain even a very small force (less than 100,000 combat troops) on active operations away from its main depots in central Ukraine. Accordingly, Heinz Guderian's forces around Tula began withdrawing even before the Soviet counterattacks began in earnest, and when Timoshenko revealed a concealed infantry army and threatened to cut the rail line supplying Gerd von Rundstedt's mobile forces in the Donbass, the elderly German commander ordered an immediate withdrawal.
In ordering and permitting withdrawals, Guderian, Rundstedt, and Fedor von Bock (commander of Army Group Center) had violated Hitler's express orders. This virtually forced Hitler to remove them, despite their demonstrable political reliability and Rundstedt's competence as a commander (bar the blindness to supply, an weakness fostered in every German commander by their training).
The success of these attacks was jarring and thrilling after the string of defeats the Soviet Union—and, well, everybody else—had suffered up to this point. Given the panicked conduct of the German retreat, the state of the German supply system, the revitalization of the Red Army back to a strength of 2.5 million combat troops (as against the Germans' 1.5 million), and the joy and optimism inspired by some actual bona fide victories, it is understandable that Stavka was inclined to believe that a decisive blow—which could appreciably shorten the war—was possible. In hindsight, it very probably was. But not in the way that Stalin guided Stavka into attempting. Encircling and defeating a German Infantry Army (about 200k combat troops over an area of less than 100km by 100km) was certainly possible—indeed, the survival of Army Group Center's Ninth (Infantry) Army was in doubt for most of the winter. The total destruction of Army Group Center, on the other hand, was almost certainly impossible given that it still had a million combat troops to its name and occupied an area more than 500km wide and deep.
The Red Army simply didn't have the tanks and trucks to effect such a deep (more than 200km) encirclement of Army Group Center. Without adequate numbers of well-armed tanks, Soviet exploitation forces didn't have the firepower to overcome German defensive strongpoints. Without adequate numbers of trucks, Soviet exploitation forces didn't have enough infantry to assist and protect their tanks or enough ammunition and fuel to conduct advances of more than 100km at a time. In other words, covering the 200km of a 'shallow' encirclement of just half of Army Group Center would require at least two successful advances—and the Germans would have the time to form new tactical defenses after each phase. Despite their success in concentrating and supplying forces for assault and breakthrough operations to shallow operational depths, Soviet inability to exploit these holes in the enemy front any further meant that these couldn't lead to anything if Stavka insisted on over-ambitious objectives. The Stavka was not unaware of their forces' lack of combat power and attempted a number of ad hoc solutions including the use of lightly-armed and armored Scout Tanks against German defensive strongpoints and the combat debut of the 50,000 men of the Paratroop Corps to seize objectives deep in the German rear areas. Both measures failed with heavy losses for the forces concerned.
Ultimately the Winter Counteroffensive degenerated from a rapid, casualty-light encirclement operation into one of grinding attrition. All that can really be said in its favour is that it greatly and permanently eroded the strength of the infantry forces which the Germans used to hold the front lines across the Eastern Theatre. German infantry divisions started Barbarossa with their full complement of 14k combat troops, started Taifun with an average of about 12k, and came out of the Winter Counteroffensive with about 10k each. Despite a steady trickle of replacements this number would never recover, and in 1942-3 was only maintained at that level through the conscription of Soviet civilians and POW to free up the divisions' logistics troops for combat.
Unfortunately for the Soviets their newly-formed infantry divisions lack machine guns and light artillery, and more importantly, virtually none of the men and few of the NCOs and officers have seen combat before. Worse, many of the older units have trouble claiming recruits and so their units are left dangerously understrength. 'Old' units full of experienced troops can have as few as a quarter of the troops as 'New' units of inexperienced men. This is bad news for pretty much every unit, but especially the new armored units which require a high degree of training and experience to be properly effective. Worse, the entire Red Army has to watch its usage of ammunition as numerous armaments factories and their specialist staff are moved deep into the interior of the country to avoid losing them to the Axis. Many are eventually moved all the way to the Urals and Soviet Asia, where their sheer distance from Axis-controlled airfields safeguards them from Strategic Bombing note .
The Soviets have avoided defeat, but the German Hungerplan is instituted in the occupied USSR and millions of Soviet citizens are beginning to die of hunger and cold there and within still-besieged Leningrad. On the plus side this obvious defeat is a huge blow to German military and civilian morale, General Gerd von Rundstedt (and several lemons including Heinz Guderian and Fedor von Bock) is relieved of his post, and the Germans aren't prepared strip the bulk of their infantry divisions of their 'organic' (i.e., belonging-to-the-division) motor transport to supplement the lost truck fleets—meaning that the German summer offensive(s) will be just as poorly supplied as all previous ones. Somewhat amusingly, the Wehrmacht makes a big show of pretending that the winter is of incredible and unprecedented severity and so asks German citizens to donate winter gear for its troops.note
Hitler also gives Stalin and Churchill a huge Christmas present by declaring war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Hawaii in December, thereby destroying any remaining domestic American isolationist opposition to intervening in Europe. Granted, it will take a while for the unprepared U.S. war machine to get up to speed, but in the meantime the Allies can start reaping the full benefit of the world's largest industrial economy. U.S. war production will soon exceed all of the other combatants put together, and all of their factories are safely beyond the reach of Hitler's forces. Dönitz's U-boats will do their utmost to prevent the fuel, weapons, and munitions from crossing the Atlantic, but the next time the Red Army advances, their supplies will be carried aboard the first wave of an ever-increasing number of American trucks (which by the war's end will account for 2/3 of the Soviet total of 200,000). Hitler orders a naval offensive against the American East Coast as quickly as possible, even though the Dönitz has only five U-boats available. However, for now, five are all they need.
By January 1942, after weeks of evading British patrols with no idea what's in store, the small flotilla arrives off the East Coast of the United States; their plan is codenamed Operation Drumbeat. They get so close they can smell the forests and see the cars on shore. Despite being at war for a month, it's still taking Americans a while to adjust to this, and the Germans are ready to give a reminder. They begin relentlessly attacking merchant ships, which are easily visible from the coastal city lights and use their radios openly. For the German submariners, it is effectively like shooting fish in a barrel; they haven't had things this easy since the early months of the war. The commander of the U.S. Navy, Admiral Ernest King, is urged by the British to implement a convoy system to curb American losses. However, King declines because a) he doesn't like the British one bit, and b) the U.S. Navy is now dangerously stretched thin, having sold fifty ships to the Royal Navy a few months earlier (though many of them would have been inadequate to hunt submarines), much of the Pacific Fleet is in ruins, and they need to defend a two-ocean front. He decides to prioritize convoys for troop ships heading for England. Not a single American troop ship is lost, while nearly six hundred merchant ships are lost on the East Coast. The attacks last until March, when the U.S. Navy finally has enough ships to begin coastal convoys, though lone wolves would continue coming to the American coast up to the end of the war. The threat of German submarines is seen as severe enough that from March of 1942 and August of 1943 the government authorizes the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer organization made up of civilian pilots and their planes, to begin patrolling off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to seek out German submarines and merchant ships in distress. From May of 1942, CAP aircraft are authorized to carry live ordnance, and end up credited with two U-boats sunk in exchange for 26 pilots lost at sea.
Once all combat ceases with the first Rasputitsa of 1942, the Spring thaw of February-March, 'Stavka' finally has breathing space to figure out what went so horribly wrong this year. Despite slight improvement, mostly in the artillery, the horrific losses of the previous six months and the consequent inexperience of the current body of personnel mean that the problems are quite similar to those identified during The Winter War two years ago.
On a lighter note, the Leningrad Council decides it has just the thing to cheer up its remaining 1.5 milllion citizens (after more than half a million starvation-related deaths and a lesser number of evacuations) living (for now) on starvation rations: music! Specifically Shostakovich's recently-completed 7th Symphony, 'Leningrad'. Dedicated to the wartime passions and suffering of the Soviet peoples, and the people of Leningrad in particular, the circumstances surrounding its live premiere in Leningrad on the 9th of August 1942 soon become legendary. The city of Leningrad, née Saint Petersburg, had long been one of the great cultural centers of Europe even after the 'Yezhovschina'/'Purges' of the mid-late 1930s, and before the war had fielded many renowned musical groups. When the city authorities are persuaded to stage a live performance in March 1942 the only one left is the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, with just 15 players. Its conscripted, wounded, crippled, and dead players are replaced by volunteers off the streets, its members are given extra rations to enable them to stay awake and practice note , and the Leningrad Front and Baltic Fleet agree to divert munitions needed for the August 1942 Sinyavino offensive and coordinate Red Army Heavy Artillery and Soviet Naval Artillery assets to ensure effective suppression of Army Group North's artillery for the live performance and city-wide broadcast scheduled for 9 August 1942. They only have the energy to practice the full symphony once and three players die of starvation-related diseases before the premiere. On the day the emaciated, exhausted, semi-professional players do not perform the piece with much technical merit. But their raw emotion and expressiveness move the city to tears and make the performance truly legendary.
Interestingly, despite overwhelming popularity the symphony's worldwide premiere that March had been panned by critics for (1) being too long, (2) giving too much time to soloists, and (3) being too emotional and sappy.
In the summer of 1942, the German and Soviet armies were very different beasts to what they had been just one year previously. In 1941 Germany advanced on three fronts across a front of more than 2000km with force of 3 million combat troops, 3k tanks, and 120k supply trucks. In 1942 Germany is using a force of 2 million German combat troops, 1 million Romanian/Hungarian/Italian combat troops, 2k tanks, and 20k supply trucks to mostly just hold a line 3000km long, and at most can hope to advance on just one 500km-wide front using up to a mere million troops. In many senses the deciding point of the war is already past; this year Germany's operations do not presume to crush all Soviet resistance, with German campaign planning for 1942 expecting that the war will drag on through the winter and be decided by the summer campaign of 1943 at the very earliest. The FHO (Foreign Armies East) office anticipates victory within this timetable on the grounds that the Soviets simply don't have the men to replace the losses that Germany can expect to inflict in this year's summer campaign. Actually they're not that far off—convict, female, and asian manpower has become critical to the Soviet war effort already.
For their part the Soviets don't have any substantive information on German capabilities or intentions, which makes them very wary. They counsel Stalin upon caution. The Soviets know that the Germans will have repaired the thousand tanks that were disabled during Barbarossa, making the German tank force at least 1.5k or so, but they have no how many new tanks have been produced and have no clue how big the German truck fleet is this year. The fleet could easily be replenished by stripping German infantry units of their motor transport. To conserve trucks 1/3 of the infantry divisions used in Barbarossa had no motor vehicles, there being fewer than 150k trucks within infantry and mobile divisions versus 120k in the truck fleet. This year there might still be as many as 100k trucks in the divisions, versus the mere 20k in the fleet—making this kind of stripping a real cause for concern. With a big tank force and truck fleet the Germans could well have the strength and logistical capability to sustain an advance on all three fronts this summerbut the Soviets don't know this and have no way of finding out until they make their move.
Stalin, on the other hand, is emboldened by the winter offensive's mixed success and orders distraction offensives along the entire front to tie German forces down. Meanwhile he begins massing troops for a summer offensive to lift the siege of Leningrad and liberate central Ukraine. Soviet commanders have forecast a renewal of the German assault on Moscow, so defensive preparations take priority over distraction operations in that sector. However, the Germans have already persuaded Hitler to initiate a battle for Leningrad (using heavy artillery redeployed from the also-ongoing siege of Sevastopol in the Crimea) and launch an offensive in the Ukraine as well. They have convinced Hitler that the Soviets totally exhausted their fighting power and so will remain on the defensive and deploy the bulk of their forces around Moscow. Consequently, the four forces trip over one another; the German force preparing to take Leningrad (to their north) is hit in their eastern flank and must abandon their mission to defend themselves in months of WWI-style meatgrinder trench warfare battles (which, as at Smolensk, favors the Soviets and their infamous love of artillery). At the same time the Soviet force in the Ukraine exhausts itself without making much headway and so is encircled and almost totally wiped out.
The Ukrainian offensive didn't just fail, it was a catastrophe rivaled only by Stalin's colossal blunder at Kiev the previous September (Stalin had refused to allow Red Army forces to withdraw from the Kiev salient before the German offensive to cut it off, and only authorized a withdrawal once the forces there had already been encircled). It delayed the German offensive for two days at the most and left the entire front significantly weaker as a result. Although Soviet forces in the Donbass and Don bend lack the strength to counterattack they are ordered to do so anyway, Barbarossa-style—marking the last time the Red Army tolerates this kind of incompetence. With already-weaker Soviet forces helping wipe themselves out, even the poorly organized Germans are able to advance at a decent pace and secure the inner bend of the Don by the beginning of August—cutting the Soviet Union's supply of coal and iron by a fifth, and potentially resulting in production shortfalls if the region is not retaken within a year. Army Group South is split into Army Group A and Army Group B as they proceed onward, but with the taking of the Donbass the length of their front lines balloons from 500km to 1000km. Axis troop density on the southernmost part of the Eastern Theater reaches its lowest point in the war so far.
Army Group A's Operation Edelweiss is extremely ambitious to say the least, ultimately aiming to place them and their Austrian mountain troops amongst the crisp white snow of the Caucasian mountains. The idea here is two-fold: they will put virtually all the Soviet Union's known oil production centres out of commission (hopefully capturing at least a couple of them), and they will use the Caucasian Mountains as a formidable natural defensive barrier against Soviet or British winter offensives. Edelweiss manages an early coup with a daring commando raid utilizing captured Soviet tanks which takes most of the Maikop production facilities intact. But even though Grozny could potentially yield a sixth as much oil as Ploesti, repair and logistical issues (related to the railways) keep it from actually contributing to the German war effort.
Even though Army Group A reaches the similarly-productive facilities of Grozny within the week, which also guards the route to the oilfields of Baku and the passes through the Caucasian Mountains, their logistical situation is too fragile for them to actually take it or advance any further. The Donbass–Grozny railway line is still damaged and it's 500km from Grozny to the Donbass, a gap which once again has to be bridged by the diminishing truck-fleet while Army Group B struggles to do likewise given heavy ammunition expenditure around and within the city of Stalingrad. The Donbass itself is only supplied by one east-west railway line and a constant stream of barge traffic through the Black Sea. Even when Army Group A repairs its railway line it's still not enough, as the line can only really supply 100,000 troops and constant counterattacks by the Soviet Caucasian Front once again keep them from building up stockpiles. The fighting is threadbare, with Army Group A suffering from critical fuel and ammunition (and eventually food, once the locals' last foodstuffs have been confiscated) shortages and the Caucasian Front suffering from great training and equipment shortages. For instance one of the Caucasian Front's divisions (10,000 men) began the defense of Grozny halfway through its training with fewer than 3000 foreign-model rifles captured from Entente Cordiale troops in the Russian Civil War (which were only supposed to be used for marksmanship training, pending the arrival of standard-issue rifles and heavy weapons). They were only saved by the fact that the Panzer division (nominally 14,000 men and 200 tanks) attacking them had fewer than 20 working tanks and just a few thousand rounds of ammo between their 10,000 surviving men.
Army Group B's role is to swing northward and eastward, safeguarding Army Group A by setting up strong defensive lines along the Don and Volga rivers and fortifying the gaps between them. The German Second Infantry Army will move the shortest distance, fortifying the gap between the Dnepr and Don rivers. The Hungarian Expeditionary Force (an Army) will defend the Don river to their east, and the Italian Expeditionary Force (also an Army) will be east of them and providing a much-needed buffer between the Hungarians and Romanians (who hate one another far more than they do the Soviets). To the east of the Italians the Romanian Third Army will also be defending along the Don, and to the east of them the German Sixth Infantry Army will fortify the gap between the Don and Volga rivers and the Fourth Romanian Army will defend Army Group B's eastern flank along the Volga river. The German Fourth Panzer Army will spearhead the Sixth Army's advance to the Volga and provide mobile reserves for Army Group B's defense that winter. All things considered, it's a decent plan. However, German optimism and underestimation of their enemy's capabilities is more than capable of ruining it.
The only major urban center in Army Group B's sector is the city of Stalingrad on the Volga, which could potentially complicate the Sixth Army's defence of the space between the Don and Volga rivers. Originally named Tsaritsyn and today called Volgograd, Stalingrad was named after Stalin and had something of a military association with him that was dismissed at the timenote . This was largely because the lessons of the Russian Civil War were seen as irrelevant to the conduct of larger and more "advanced" military operations, but also because the events of the war were not well known or studied outside of the USSR. The city itself was of relatively little importance with a population of just 600,000 and three major factory complexes (the 'Red October' Steel Works, Stalingrad Tractor Factory, and Barrikady Ordinance Factory, which were turned into virtual fortresses by their workforces) accounting for no more than 5% of Soviet industrial output at the time. However, the Germans consistently and drastically underrated the productiveness of Soviet Asia and so believed Stalingrad's contribution to be much higher. Stalingrad truly did control access to the Volga, which allowed barge traffic to and from the Greater Moscow industrial area and the Caucasian oilfields, and was where one of just two railway lines connecting Soviet Caucasia to European Russia crossed the Volga (the other going through Astrakhan, near the coast of the Caspian Sea). The Germans consistently overvalued the importance of Allied lend-lease to the Soviet cause, as a result of undervaluing native Soviet production, and so thought it worthwhile to cut these links.
When the diffusion of scarce German resources and stiff Soviet resistance keeps the Germans from seizing the passes through the Caucasian mountains, Hitler comes to favor General Friedrich Paulus's (commander of the 6th Army, a third of the German contingent of Army Group B) assertions that the seizure of Stalingrad is both possible and very worthwhile. The FHO reminds Hitler and Paulus that the Soviet manpower and matériel crisis won't allow them to amass forces for a second Winter counteroffensive, so there is no need to avoid overextending German forces and it is quite safe for the campaign to go ahead.
Army Group B's German forces quickly realize they don't have the strength or the logistical resources for a "large" (i.e., 100km or more) encirclement of the city and so settle for a "close" encirclement as at Smolensk. However, the limited nature of the attempted encirclement works against them: Soviet artillery and infantry forces operating out of the city can and do hit them in the flanks, constantly, in co-ordination with a furious series of counterattacks by Soviet forces to the north and east. And the closer the Germans get to closing the noose around the city, the more vulnerable they are to attacks from within the city itself and from the outside. The Germans try to get around this by occupying the outer suburbs of the city, using the rubble to shelter them from Soviet artillery and armored attacks. This renders them vulnerable to ambushes and infiltration attacks by Soviet infantry. Giving up on the encirclement they have their forces outside the city entrench themselves and instead start rotating their German forces through the city itself—using their superior artillery, airpower, and armor to blast their way through the city one block at a time. Paulus strips every division in the 6th Army of its combat engineers (Pioniere) and dedicates them to the task of helping them slog their way through the city.
General Vasily Chuikov has just returned from advising the Guomindang forces of Chiang Kai-shek in Sichuan province. He has been appointed commander of the 62nd (Infantry) Army, stationed within the city of Stalingrad and its suburbs. His immediate superior is the renowned Blood Knight Nikolay Vatutin, commander of the Stalingrad Front. Vatutin is an ethnic-Ukrainian cavalry officer whose sheer bloodthirst and offensive spirit is rivaled only by that of the U.S. Army's George Patton. This, not at all coincidentally, is a large part of why furious tactical counterattacks are such a constant feature of the Stalingrad Front's activities. Vatutin's opposite number in the Party hierarchy is the future Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Commissar of the Stalingrad Front. Khrushchev's right-hand man is another future Soviet premier, Leonid Brezhnev.
The Guomindang may not be a renowned fighting force, but it has proved itself very adept at several things. One of these is avoiding enemy artillery and airstrikes by using small-unit tactics to 'hug' the enemy lines. While Vatutin and Rokossovskiy constantly hammer German forces outside the city with a string of (largely ineffectual) counterattacks supported by armor and artillery, this is exactly what Chuikov has his 62nd Army's infantry units do within the city of Stalingrad itself. It does, however, come at a certain cost in lives with most of his initial 100k combat troops and the great bulk of the next 200k quickly being expended note .
While this is going on, "Monty"—as Montgomery is known to his men—and his staff start planning to break Rommel and the 30,000 combat troops of his Panzer Armee Afrika/Afrika Korps, starting by breaking the hold their mystique has on the more than 100,000 Allied combat troops on that Front. Monty starts conducting a series of speaking tours, in the vein of the renowned WWI artillerist Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, to reinforce morale, improve training and discipline, hone his command into an elite fighting force and present himself as a rival to Rommel in the media.note In the meantime, Indian industrial production and American Lend-Lease kicks into full gear and the Western Desert Force receives equipment and reinforcements from across the Western world, jumping in size and getting an upgrade in equipment. However, both sides know that speaking tours alone will not defeat tanks, so Montgomery and his commanders devise a plan to take advantage of Rommel's overriding trait: his aggressiveness. First, they begin to spread false maps showing areas of quicksand to be solid ground. Secondly, they begin an elaborate intelligence ruse to convince Rommel that a far position on their flank—Alam Halfa Ridge—is poorly defended by chasing away or shooting down enemy aerial recon and hiding tanks behind the ridge or under various ingenious covers.
Rommel takes the bait hook, line, and sinker. He launches an attempted outflanking attack to go around Alam Halfa and cut it off. Unfortunately, the attack is barely underway before many of his troops get stuck in quicksand—and thus exposed to blistering fire from every quarter—and just as the troops that aren't stuck or killed prepare to round the bend, the Commonwealth sends the tank reserve they'd been holding back to block their route. Out-Gambitted and taking heavy losses, Rommel feigns a retreat in an effort to force the British to follow him, hoping to outflank them in the battles of maneuver and attack that are his specialty. Monty doesn't bite and the feigned retreat becomes a real one as the Afrikakorps returns to its former lines with serious damage.
Combined with this decisive defeat comes the Allied invasion of French Africa, known as Operation: Torch. The plan would see the first major ground combat for American forces in the "Western" theater of war, and while the Marine Corps was handling most of the war in the Pacific, Torch and further operations in the Western theater would fall to the US Army. Torch was ambitious, combining three separate forces (US, British, and Free French under the leadership of de Gaulle) with coordinated landings all across the coast of French Africa, from Casablanca to Algiers. The French forces in North Africa were of dubious alignment, having fallen under the control of the regime in Vichy. As such, they were technically Axis-aligned. Furthermore, the British shelling of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir the previous year still meant the two nations had a lot of bad blood. This led to the American forces wearing star-spangled armbands to differentiate themselves from the British, in the hopes that the Vichy forces would not fire on them. These hopes proved unfounded, as the Vichy forces resisted all three landings, including those of their fellow Frenchmen. They were unsuccessful, however, as the Allies had brought an overwhelmingly superior force, and FFI partisan uprisings began in the major cities. The Vichy garrisons found themselves quickly overrun, and what was left of the fleet was disabled. Admiral Francois Darlan -at the time the lead civil administrator for French North Africa- convinced the military command in Algiers to surrender after he himself was captured in a daring raid by FFI forces, and within a few days all of French North Africa, sans Tunisia, lay in Allied hands.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is devising another plan on the other side of the theater: an elaborate and dangerous experiment in a cross-channel invasion. Its target is a port town in Northern France by the name of Dieppe. The ~6,000 strong force assigned to the operation is primarily composed of Canadians and is supported by British Commandos (including 50 U.S. Army Rangers), a Canadian Armoured Regiment equipped with brand new Churchill tanks, several destroyers from the Royal Navy and dozens of aircraft from the Royal Air Force. Despite the best efforts of the soldiers involved, the raid is a near-complete disaster with over half the force killed, wounded or captured. There are many reasons whynote , and the Allies take note of all of them for future operations.
Germany is holding a line 4000km long with a force of about 2 million German combat troops, 1 million Romanian/Hungarian/Italian combat troops, and 1k tanks. She has 200,000 troops and 1k tanks in reserve, about two-thirds of which are assigned to the 2nd Panzer Army of Army Group Centre. The Germans know that the Soviets have about 2.5 million combat troops and 1k tanks holding their half of the front lines, and have estimated that the Soviets have about 500,000 troops and 1k tanks in reserve - almost all of which are deployed opposite Army Group Centre. The Germans expect the Soviets to launch a massive offensive against the Rzhev-Vyazma salient of Army Group Centre and a series of local attacks against the Demyansk Pocket on the Western Front, the siege forces invested around Leningrad, and the Romanian forces of Army Group B. The Germans are confident that they have enough troops deployed in the relevant sectors to address all of these threats.
What the Germans fail to detect, however, is the secret deployment of 400,000 troops and 1k tanks opposite Army Group B - which is now outnumbered by 2:1 overall, and more than 4:1 in the specific sectors to which they have been deployed.
In December 1942, the Soviets launch a massive offensive to encircle the German Ninth Army. Stationed in the northwest corner of the RzhevVyazma salient, the Soviets hope to capitalize on its destruction by collapsing the entire salient and pushing into Belarus. It fails miserably and Operation Mars is subsequently swept under the historical carpet, never to be mentioned in Soviet or Russian school textbooks. More than 200k Soviet troops are lost in the latest Soviet offensive executed in the RzhevVyazma area, the last offensive here having been executed at the same time as the disastrous Kharkov offensive (200k dead) that May with much the same results (200k dead). Another, minor offensive by the Leningrad Front attempts once again to force open an overland link to the city and thereby enable its remaining industries to play a part in the war effort. It too fails (100k dead), but during the fighting reports come in that one of the four prototype super-heavy tanks which has been terrorising the Leningrad Front for several months now has gotten stuck in a semi-frozen bog after falling through the ice.
The local Soviet commander immediately orders a massive counterattack to capture the tank, using withering artillery fire to keep the Germans at bay and managing to capture it intact before German engineers manage to blow it up. Lacking dedicated recovery vehicles, they manage to put the tracks in "neutral", lash it to five T-70 light tanks, drag it out of the bog, and tow it away before the Germans can show up in force. Examining the captured prototype, Soviet engineers hypothesize that its heavy armor and massive 88mm gun could make it a devastating weapon if deployed en masse. Soviet design bureaus start rushing through new antitank weapons and armored vehicles to counter it. The captured protype's name? The Panzerkampfwagon VI "Tiger-I".
However, a third offensive that November has already met with success. While the eastern pincer of the attacking force under Nikolay Vatutin's Stalingrad Front was marshalled openly and allowed to be detected by the Germans, the northern pincer under Konstantin Rokossovskiy's Don Front was concentrated and deployed in secret — only being detected two days before the beginning of the offensive, by which time it was already far too late. Rokossovskiy and Vatutin have spent a solid month working out this offensive under the supervision of Chief of the General Staff Georgiy Zhukov, Chief of Operations Aleksandr Vasilyevskiy, and Artillery Inspector Nikolay Voronov. And it shows.
The ensuing operation is characterized by the best employment of intelligence gathering, analysis, and operational deception displayed by the Red Army so far. Given that the final result is far from perfect, this is something of a damning indictment of the status quo throughout the rest of the Red Army. Most egregiously, the pre-offensive intelligence-gathering operations are the first to incorporate "combat reconnaissance"sending elite raiding parties into no-man's land to identify enemy strongpoints and artillery concentrations by forcing the latter to open fire to prevent their positions from being overrun, when this would later become a staple of all Soviet offensive operations. Moreover, this is the first operation in which all Front commanders (Vatutin, Rokossovskiy) and Army commanders tour the length of the front lines and observe the enemy's positions firsthand, something which also becomes a requirement in all future operations.
After a devastating artillery bombardment which totally paralyses the Romanian defenses, Soviet infantry forces assault and break through the Romanian lines and Soviet mechanized units begin driving relatively unmolested through the open country beyond. Intelligence failures result in the northern pincer running into a German Panzer division (part of the Fourth Panzer Army) where they'd only expected a few weak infantry units and being sorely mauled, but Operation Uranus closes the pocket around the German forces by the end of the third day regardless. Soviet cavalry units are close behind and set up a ring of defenses to prevent the Germans from breaking out, and the mechanized units advance unopposed to set up another ring of defenses to prevent German forces from breaking in.
Stalingrad sits astride two of just three single-track railway lines which lead into the Donbass region from the north (there being just one other from the south), so while the Soviets would like nothing more than to let the encircled Axis forces sit there and rot they have no choice but to crush the pocket if they are to drive on the Donbass this winter. Unfortunately, the Soviet offensive to crush the pocket is a non-starter: Axis resistance is much stiffer than expected, and prisoner interrogations soon reveal why. Rather than just trapping elements of the German Sixth Army and some of the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies, the entirety of all three armies and half of the German Fourth Panzer Army (Army Group B's only mobile Army) are trapped in the pocket: half of Army Group B is in there note . While the Soviets would like nothing more than to advance straight into the Donbass to take advantage of this windfall, they need the railway lines to supply such an advance and so they divert extra forces to crush the pocket by February at the latestbefore the Rasputitsa stops all operations dead sometime in MarchApril.
While the pocket is (inadequately) supplied by air, one of Hitler's more gifted and egotistical generals — Erich von Manstein — is given control over the half of the Fourth Panzer Army outside the pocket and ordered to mount a relief effort. This was never going to go very well, not least because he had fewer than 500 tanks on paper (and considerably fewer in practice) and less than a hundred thousand troops as against the Soviets' more than 1000 tanks and 200,000 troops. The ensuing battle is easier than the Soviets anticipated, as they belatedly realise just how much of the Fourth Panzer Army was actually trapped in the pocket. While they had not discounted the possibility of encircling some Fourth Panzer Army units, they had expected most if not all of it to be outside of the pocket and therefore available for a counter-offensivenote .
Despite repeated requests, Hitler wisely defers to the judgement of the Generals not trapped in the pocket that a breakout attempt is futile—though you wouldn't realize this by reading said Generals' postwar memoirs, where the overriding impression is that a breakout was both possible and something they personally had advocated. Hitler promotes Sixth Army's commanding officer, Friedrich Paulus, to Generalfeldmarschall, with the ominous reminder that no German field marshal has ever surrendered or been captured alive—if captured, Paulus and other senior German officers could yield a great deal of valuable information to their Soviet captors. This would be in addition to the basic intelligence, translation, and deception services that the captured junior officers could be expected to provide.
Paulus doesn't take the hint, whiling away his time while his troops are ratted out and exterminated or forced to surrender one house/basement/bunker at a time until they are all dead or—like himself—captured. Having lost both the initiative and strength to break out themselves, Sixth Army can do little but wait and hope for a rescue. It never comes, and indeed the already inadequate trickle of supplies slows and then dries up completely during follow-on Soviet offensives. A daring exploitation attempt by the ten thousand men and hundred tanks of the 24th tank corps, part of Vatutin's Don Front and commanded by Major General Vasily Badanov, assaults one of the two airfields being used to resupply the Stalingrad pocket at Tatsinskaia. Chaos results as the Luftwaffe security troops try to fend off the Soviet tanks with grenades and IEDs, and by the time Badanov's men drive onto the airfield itself, they've run out of tank ammo and are forced to ''ram'' the German aircraft as they scramble to take off and evacuate the airfield. Badanov's men are massacred by twenty thousand Panzer troops coming to the Luftwaffe's rescue, but 10% of the Luftwaffe's transport fleet has been destroyed on the ground and the Soviets learn valuable lessons about setting over-ambitious objectives for mobile corps committed to deep exploitation operations and the ideal composition of said mobile corps (which need more troop-transport and supply trucks).
The surviving two-thirds of the Germans and the last handful of Romanians finally surrender on February 2, 1943. It's the most one-sided and ignominious defeat the Germans have suffered so far, and even Nazi politicians publicly admit the battle is an enormous loss. Over 100,000 German soldiers survive to be taken into Soviet captivity. However, by this time they are suffering from severe malnutrition and most have contracted Typhus (spread by lice, which thrived in the crowded and unsanitary conditions of their bunkers). Many die shortly after surrendering, and many more succumb to wounds or illness in the weeks and months to follow. The number who ultimately survived to be repatriated to Germany is unknown, and is not likely to ever become known, though it is worth noting that up to 400,000 of the more than 3 million Wehrmacht and Police/Paramilitary troops taken prisoner by the Soviets died in captivity. A large part of this uncertainty comes from the Germans' use of 'Hiwi' troops. Short for 'Hilfwiliger', 'those willing to help', they were recruited from Soviet POW or conscripted directly from the civilian population. The Wehrmacht made extensive off-the-books use of Hiwis for logistics duties as a way of freeing up German logistics personnel for combat duties, the Waffen-SS recruited more than 200,000 Hiwis for the 'Russian Liberation Army', and the Order Police recruited more than 200,000 Hiwis to police the occupied Soviet Union and implement The Holocaust throughout Europe. This was in addition to recruitment of Hiwis by the Security Police and Higher Regional Security Chiefs (HSSPFs).
'Muddying the waters', we said, because as one can only imagine, the 'unpopularity' of Germany's Vernichtungskrieg among Soviet citizens led to them taking a very, very dim view of the Hiwis.
Army Group A's retreat from the Caucasus only barely frees up enough troops to prevent the string of German retreats in eastern Ukraine from becoming a rout. Two frightfully successful German counteroffensives at Kursk and Kharkov sees the latest Soviet operations halted, but there is no doubting now that the tide has turned. The Waffen-SS, which has become another branch of the German military at this point, steps up its recruitment of foreigners with the help of a huge propaganda drive. They portray Germany's war as a battle for the survival of European civilization in the face of annihilation at the hands of the "Jewish Communist Hordes of the Barbarous Orient". Even the German civilians are made dimly aware of the desperation of the situation in February 1943 by Joseph Goebbels "Sportpalast" or "Total War Speech"—the first acknowledgement by the Nazi government that the war is going badly and that they must mobilize the German economy and society for total war.note .
While operations on the North African front involve fewer than 300k combat troops on both sides even at the height of the fighting, as against the more than four million engaged on various Soviet-German fronts such as Leningrad and Rzhev-Vyazma, in English-speaking countries the African front receives far more publicity. Part of this focus is simply the inevitable result of a lack of press contacts within the USSR, which also actively works to censor Red Army defeats (e.g., Mars) and avoids giving too much coverage to operations which are insufficiently successful (Gallop, Star). But the focus is also deliberate, as the western Allies want to convey the impression that they are valuable allies for the Soviet Union. They do so by comparing a few key tactical engagements (e.g. El Alamein and Stalingrad) and avoiding too much focus on casualties, troop and equipment totals, or the wider course and relative importance of operations. Soviet media does the opposite in the name of inflaming Soviet public opinion and so promoting heartfelt calls by members of their public for the western Allies to do more to help.
During this year's Rasputitsa, Stavka makes further criticisms of its current state of effectiveness. These indicate some improvement, but also highlight continuing weaknesses which it moves to address before the Summer Campaign of 1943 by setting new standards and drafting new procedures:
- The supply services were somewhat unprepared for the campaigns which unfolded, chiefly in those campaigns which suffered from poor prior planning, but also due to the inexperience of staffs, the pace of operations, haphazard reporting, and imperfect record-keeping. This forced an undue degree of improvisation and therefore some waste and inefficiency.
- In some of the less well-prepared operations (chiefly those of January-February) maps were not drawn up, printed, and issued in adequate numbers.
- In some of the less well-prepared operations (chiefly those of January-February) weather and geography were inadequately anticipated or accounted for, resulting in some delays and chaos.
- Aerial, artillery, engineering, and infantry observation were adequately conducted. However, the inadequate self-filtering of observations meant that a massive glut of unimportant observations was reported to higher levels. This meant that higher-level staffs were swamped with irrelevant information and therefore were unable to identify enemy troop concentrations in a timely fashion. Imperfect aerial and agent reconnaissance in the shallow operational depths (50-250km behind the front lines) meant that enemy troop concentrations and defenses there were largely unknown.
- Combat Reconnaissance and Deep Reconnaissance were conducted too far in advance of offensive operations, allowing the enemy time to shift his troop concentrations and erect new defenses before the actual offensives began. Moreover the concentration of Combat Reconnaissance units at Front level was totally impractical during the later (maneuver) stages operations, with Army level formations being forced to create their own improvised Combat Reconnaissance units just to get by.
- Infantry and artillery forces failed to adequately communicate during the later (maneuver) stages of offensive operations. Consequently many attacks outside the initial (assault-breakthrough) phase of offensives were conducted with insufficient or minimal artillery support. Excessive observation data and poor data-processing times meant poor accuracy in bombardments requested during these phases.
- Most Engineers were still being used in generic combat roles out of necessity.
The decisive Second Battle of El Alamein in October of 1942 sees the British turn Rommel back from the Suez and the Middle East oilfields for good and force the Axis to retreat westward towards Tunisia. Here, they are trapped against additional Allied forces that have executed Operation Torch and landed on the coasts of French Morocco and Algeria.note Caught in the pincer, the Germans have nowhere to go. By May 1943, the 100k German troops and 100k Italians not evacuated to Europe are prisoners of war and the fight for the continent is over. The campaign is a colossal morale boost for the Western Allies, who see their first sustained offensive successes against German forces as well as the combat debut of US troops sourced from the USA (as opposed to the on-loan Guomindang Chinese troops serving with the US Army in Burma).
1943 also marks the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic: better ships, new technologies, and Allied escorts are getting better at tracking down submerged U-boats. A top-secret program called ULTRA has successfully broken the German code system, allowing the Allies to know the destinations of the submarines, though they use the information provided sparingly to avoid tipping-off the Germans that their codes are compromised. Even without knowing the exact messages, destroyer escorts are able to locate U-boats simply by their excessive usage of radio, as Admiral Dönitz sends some boats upwards of seventy messages a day regarding their position, fuel status and other minutiae. Other factors included better weapons such as the Hedgehog depth charge launcher, better tactics like when Operations Research determined that bigger convoys would mean better protection, longer range combat aircraft to patrol all of the Atlantic, better technology like ships radar to detect enemy vessels on the surface and the USA simply building more ships, both cargo and fighting types, than the U-Boats could sink. The growing supply of the latter meant not only more escorts for the convoys, but also Hunter-Killer groups of fighting ships free to take on the U-Boats themselves. This culminates in "Black May" 1943, when 43 German submarines are destroyed—a full quarter of its operational U-boat fleet (which is the highest deployment it will be for the entire war). From here on, U-boats are sunk faster than they are built. Admiral Dönitz orders all boats to fall back to France. He begins implementing new technologies to help improve operations, such as the snorkel (which allows U-boats to remain submerged and recharge their batteries while hidden), new weapon attachments like mounted anti-aircraft gunsnote and new torpedoes. However, the loss of so many boats and experienced crews has already taken its toll on the U-boat force's morale, to the point where several flotilla commanders tell their departing crews "Never mind sinking ships, just come back, please."
By April 1943, the Heer and the Red Army have become different beasts again. In 1942 Germany used a force of 2 million German and 1 million allied combat troops, 2k tanks, and 20k supply trucks to mostly just hold a line 3000km long, and advanced 500km on one 500km-wide front using 1 million troops. This year Germany has just 2 million German and 500k allied combat troops, 2.5k tanks, and a supply fleet of unknown but even-more-reduced size to hold a line 3000km long which can only hope to advance 200km on a single 200km-wide front at the very most. The deciding point of the war has passed from all but a select few perspectives, such as those of the Army High Command and possibly Hitler. This year Germany's operations still hope to bring about victory, but not on any definite timetable.
Most of the Army's senior leaders recognise that Germany is too weak to defeat the Soviet Union outright, but the success of the Kharkov counter-offensive gives them hope that the Soviets might be too weak to defeat Germany either—especially given the strategic genius of the German Ubermensch. The FHO has refined its techniques and sources, noting increased Soviet use of unorthodox sources of manpower, and determined that however unsustainable Germany's manpower losses have been thus far the Soviets' have been far worse (including proportionately). Although the Soviets have about 3.5 million combat troops to the Germans' 2 million, and as many as 3.5k tanks to the Germans' 2.5k, German intelligence opines that the superior quality and employment of those German troops means that the two forces are evenly matched. Just one successful encirclement operation, such as the seven of 1941 and the three of 1942, would tip the balance in their favour. Two encirclements, and the Axis might be able to hold all their present territory—even that in southern Europe, using forces transferred from the eastern Theatre. Stalin's mindset is an enigma to all, but some dare to hope that a Soviet-German truce (in which Germany would of course at the least retain all occupied territories) might be possible if the Germans can regain the advantage. It is worth noting that these assessments consider that it might take two or three years of successful campaigning in the east to secure said truce.
The focus of the first post-Rasputitsa campaign of 1943 naturally centers on the eastern Ukraine, where the success of the February-March German counteroffensive in pushing back the Soviets' own push into central Ukraine results in the so-called "Kursk Bulge", which becomes the focus of the last Front-scale (300km wide, 100km deep) German offensive campaign. Hitler is not sold on the idea but is brow-beaten into agreeing to the move by subordinates including Manstein, who after the war continues to insist that it had been a workable concept spoiled only by Hitler's hesitation in not launching the offensive earlier and then lack of will in not putting more into it.
The Zitadelle (Citadel) offensive fails. During the offensive General Manstein blames the caution of General von Hoth, who is very wary about his offensive efforts given the strong Soviet forces he knows are on his left (eastern) flank and which he believes (correctly) are poised to attack him. Hoth's offensive only makes a few kilometres' worth of headway before bogging down. Manstein's own offensive only makes 30km's headway before being halted by the counterattacks by Soviet armored forces. Hoth's offensive breaches just two of the salient's five defensive lines, and Manstein's breaches four. Hitler cancels the offensive and transfers the attacking forces to Italy, where the British and Americans have taken Sicily and are invading the Italian peninsula proper. Given the Italian government's half-hearted commitement to the war effort, it is not unrealististic to expect a coup or Civil War in the near future.
During the Zitadelle offensive the Soviets executed a 'diversionary' offensive southwards into eastern Ukraine. The aim of this offensive was to destroy local forces within the range of light and medium artillery (3km) without producing egregious Soviet losses in an effort to convince the Germans that the next Soviet offensive would occur in eastern Ukraine. They appear to have succeeded, as German reserves (including armored forces diverted from the aborted Zitadelle offensive) were diverted to that area to restore the front lines. However, in July 1942 the next Soviet offensive struck against the German forces in Belarussia. The units in the area had been sapped of most of their strength by the Winter Counter-Offensive of 1941-2 and the Rzhev-Vyazma offensives of March and October 1942, and simply did not have the strength to prevent an Operational-level Soviet breakthrough without the diversion of German mobile forces.
Sure enough, the Germans diverted their mobile forces to stabilise the front in Belarus that July. But no sooner had they done this than the central and eastern Ukraine erupted in two general offensives. Generals Rokossovskiy and Vatutin tried their very best, but German forces were able to utilise the railway lines to withdraw their forces behind the Dnepr river. At the urging of the Stavka, egged on in turn by Stalin, both tried their very best to advance forces across the Dnepr river in central Ukraine, but all their efforts were repulsed with heavy losses. German War Production (especially that of tanks and tank armour) badly needed several elements sourced from central Ukraine (such as Tungsten, used in Tank Armour and Armour-piercing Ammunition). This made the retention and liberation of Ukraine a vital economic priority for both sides.
Given the failure of several attempts to expand the bridgeheads over the Dnepr by brute force alone, and because Rokossovskiy had succeeeded in establishing far more substantial brigeheads across the Dnepr in the area just north of Kiev (including and just south of the Pripyet Marshes) than Vatutin had in the souther Ukraine, Stavka was able to fool the German Marshall Manstein into believing that the Belarussian Front and Rokossovskiy's Front would attempt to expand their bridghead in October 1943 just before the Rasputitsa arrived at the end of October. Neither the Belarussian nor the northern Ukrainian Front executed anything more than divisionary attacks (occupying areas less than 5km deep, the range of 'light' artillery), which kept their forces safe from enemy counter-attack and left Vatutin's southern Ukrainian Front free to expand its own bridgeheads before the Rasputitsa arrived in early November. No sooner had von Manstein (in the south) and Walther Model (in Ukraine) contained these than Rokossovskiy made a concerted effort to expand his own bridgehead just before the Rasputitsa struck in northern Ukraine. This established a 100km-deep bridghead which it was simply impossible to dislodge, not least because the Rasputitsa arrived soon thereafter.
When Rokossovskiy and Vatutin's fronts had renewed their strength by repairing all their damaged tanks and assault guns, they launched a new offensive on the 24th of December. In it they aimed to encircle all the German armoured forces in the central-western Ukraine by punching through the critically weakened German Infantry forces and trapping the survivors in pockets between the Dnepr and the Dnestr. They did exactly that, trapping the entirety of Manstein's armoured forces in two humongous pockets around the city of Zhitomir in the western-central Ukraine and the airfield-town of Korsun in the 'Dnepr Bend'.
Rokossovskiy and Vatutin very nearly succeeded in eliminating both pockets, but overestimated the strength of the trapped forces and ultiamtely only ended up capturing their artillery and tanks. It had been more than five months since the Zitadelle offensive of July 1943, and absolutely nobody on either side had any idea just how strong the German or Soviet armoured units were anymore—let alone relative to one another. Both German and Soviet commanders—including Hitler, Stalin, Manstein, Rokossovskiy, and Vatutin—assumed that the German armoured units were much stronger than they really were. Accordingly the Germans attempted to stop the Soviet offensives dead in their tracks and failed, and the Soviets strengthened the mostly likely German avenues of escape from the pockets too much and failed to guard the less-likely routes strongly enough to keep most of the Germans from escaping.
All this precipitates the success of the final offensive to dislodge the Germans from the area around Leningrad and (using the same forces) to force the surrender of Finland. Army Group North's strength has been steadily eroded over the course of three years of combat, with Order Police and Security Police and Spanish ('Blue Division') troops numbering too few to fill the growing gaps in the front lines despite their fanatical anti-communism. Despite an utter lack of armored forces the January 1944 offensives finally succeed in dislodging the Germans from their positions around Leningrad through sheer weight of artillery fire. The Germans manage to slow them down and assume new defensive positions in Estonia and Belarussia, however, not least through their cunning strategy of demolishing every city and town in the wake of their retreat—forcing the Soviets to clothe, house, and feed their own civilians to keep them from dying and thereby slowing their advance. This includes the historic city of Novgorod, the Jewel of the medieval Baltic.
In February 1944 lifts the Soviets launch another offensive in the western Ukraine. The Germans breathe a sigh of relief when the Rasputitsa arrives during it, believe it is their salvation. They are wrong. The Soviets have deployed three quarters of their entire tank forces there, and use their tanks and half-tracks to squelch on through the mud and both advance and keep their troops supplied (if only barely). They encircle about half of the entire German Panzer force, and effectively force it to break out during the Rasputitsa. This time the Soviets try to cover both escape routes, but a counterattack from western Ukraine by three 'fresh' SS Panzer divisions which had been refitting in France (40,000 troops, 400+ tanks) meets the Germans fleeing westward and most of the Panzer troops make it out. Their equipment, however, is not so lucky. Almost all of their trucks, artillery, and most of their tanks are left behind. The Panzerwaffe has saved its experienced tank men, but has no tanks to put them in. If only they could have four or five months of relative peace and quiet, however, they could recover from this blow.
In southern Europe, France is annexed by the Germans in the wake of their defeat in North Africa. Part of this plan is the seizure of the French fleet moored at Toulon, which includes three capital ships and seven cruisers—nowhere near enough to turn the tide of the war, but enough to give the Allies grief. However, the French are ready for them and the entire fleet promptly scuttles itself at anchor, right down to the cargo cranes and tugboats. The crews of three destroyers and a few motorboats are overpowered by the Wehrmacht's motorcycle-based combat squads, but it's a hollow victory for Hitler—whose annexation of "Vichy" France lets anyone who still needed convincing know that, yes, he considers treaties as nothing more than ink on paper.
The Allies follow up on their victory in North Africa by landing in Italy after feeding the Germans false information that the real thrust of the invasion will be through Greece/Yugoslavia and into the Balkansnote . The Germans swallow the lie, diverting a significant force from Italy to Yugoslavia. The invasion of Sicily sees the start of joint British and American operations, which will become very important the following year, along with the combat debut of the "All-American" 82nd Airborne Division. The airborne performs rather poorly, by high command's own admission, but they learn valuable lessons that will be used later down the line with the invasion of Festungseuropa. Sicily is overwhelmed within month's as Montgomery tied down Axis defenses while Patton maneuvered American forces north, very nearly leading to the encirclement of Axis forces in Sicily. A tenacious defense allows most of the Axis forces to withdraw from the island in good order, but it is a massive strategic loss. The Allies use Sicily as a spingboard to launch the invasion of Italy that September. With the Allies threatening the mainland itself, the Italian government votes Mussolini out of power and signs a peace treaty with the Allies. In reality, this move has been coming for a long time now—ever since Mussolini declared war on France, in fact.
German forces are unfazed and quickly occupy the remainder of the Italian boot, setting up a puppet regime to rule in their stead; the Allied forces in Italy will take another two years to conquer the rest of the narrow, hilly and easily-defensible peninsula, their main role in the meantime being to keep German forces tied down and distracted from the real fighting in the east. Mussolini is later liberated from house arrest by a German commando raid and installed as the figurehead of the puppet government in northern Italy. At the very end of the war, on 28 April 1945, he and his mistress are caught by partisans while attempting to flee to Switzerland. They are summarily shot and their bodies are hung upside down in the town square in Milan.
It is at this point that World War II nears its climax. The Germans are nearing the limits of their reserves, trying to keep the Soviets from approaching ever closer to German soil. Ever since the beginning of allied cooperation, Stalin has been pushing for the creation of a fourth front by the Western Powers. The majority of German armored forces are engaged in the Ukraine and the Germans have strong infantry forces there too, and in Belarus and around Leningrad. This leaves the rest of Occupied Europe defended fairly sparsely, and generally by little more than Order Police and third-rate Army units. Opening a fourth front will mean the total collapse of the German war effort and an accelerated conclusion to the conflict. Churchill advocates fighting through the "soft underbelly of Europe": the Balkans. However, the terrain is heavily mountainous, so given the trouble the Western Allies have had advancing through Italy, The USA's military and civil leadership have long been proposing an alternative location: Operation Sledgehammer, the invasion of France. The rationale for it is sound. It'd result in a larger Front, it's closer to Germany, it's close to the British Isles (meaning enough supply throughput for them to field the largest force they can), and it's large enough that German troops are spread in a thin line along the coasts.
By summer 1944, Germany will lose the war and everyone knows it. All that is left to be decided is how many, and which, millions will die before it is over—and which parts of now-Axis Europe will go to whom.
Even within Germany itself there is no more talk of victory—at least, not outside the official propaganda. Much mileage is gotten out of the term Endsieg (lit. 'final victory'). Denying that Germany will win the war becomes de facto treason punishable by ex-officio lynching by people loyal to the party, but nobody in their right mind actually believes Germany will win. Even the most optimistic of Germany's military officers hope merely to keep the western Allies at bay in Italy and bleed the Soviets white, allowing a negotiated peace under which Germany might retain her current borders (even if the few remaining allies and puppets have to go).
The Allies' list of, well, allies seems to grow stronger by the month as countries such as Brazil commit to their cause. Germany's own allies are depleted and near-worthless. Italy has switched sides, Croatia has its hands full 'pacifying' the Balkans, Bulgaria refuses to commit any troops outside the Greek and Yugoslav territories (which contain Bulgarian minorities) it has annexed, the Romanian Army has all but been wiped out, the Hungarian Army still has some armoured forces but the rest of it has been torn to ribbons, and Finland's behaviour has been more and more suspicious lately with it looking like she too might switch sides in the near future.
On paper Germany's military situation isn't too good. This summer Germany has 1 million combat troops, 300k allied combat troops, and 2k tanks in the eastern theatre. This is against what the FHO estimates (correctly) to be about 3 million Soviet combat troops and 8k tanks and something like a 1:5 inferiority in artillery. In Italy Germany and the western Allies have 100k combat troops apiece, but the western Allies can be expected to land another million combat troops in an amphibious invasion of France (this is an erroneous estimate based upon American capabilities and deliberate deception: the real invasion force numbers 500k due to supply constraintsnote ) —though Germany could only hope to counter them with 300k.
However, Germany's actual status is even worse than it looks. While the Pripyet marshes do mean that the front is actually only 2000km long in the eastern theatre, the Soviets have the initiative. This means that German forces must correctly anticipate their next blows in advance, as they managed to do with some accuracy in the central-western Ukraine last autumn-winter. If they succeed then they can expect to suffer average defeats, as they did last year. If they fail, then the defeats might be truly disastrous. Success or failure here, in the east, could change the length of the war by weeks—or even months.
There are two truly critical fronts for the Germans this summer. The first is the western Ukrainian Front, defended by Erich von Manstein's Army Group North Ukraine with 260k combat troops. This Front has the depleted Panzer and infantry divisions which lost almost all of their tanks and artillery breaking out of the February-April pockets, and by staying in one place the process of replacing their lost weapons and vehicles is greatly simplified. While a couple are railed over to France to rest and refit, common practice in the years 1941-43, the rest stay - even if their refitting isn't completed, they might have to be thrown into combat anyway. Army Group North Ukraine is the only thing keeping the Soviets from sweeping through Poland and straight to the Baltic - cutting the rail lines which connect the 500k combat troops of Army Groups Centre and North to Germany. This manoeuvre would leave them with barely enough supply for 100k troops - not enough to stage a breakout, and not enough to maintain an effective defense either. If the Soviets could pull this off, it would be truly disastrous and could lead to Germany folding within the year.
The second critical Front is that in northern Romania, defended by Army Group South (230k combat) and what is left of the Romanian Army (200k combat). Romania supplies Germany with 1/3 of her crude oil and 1/2 of her refined petroleum products, including 1/3 of her high-octane aviation fuel. Losing Romania would cripple the German war effort, and cost Germany her last and most valuable ally. Militarily, economically, and diplomatically this Front has to be held at all costs. The Soviets had already demonstrated their understanding of Romania's importance when in May they attempted to launch an offensive (the First Iassy–Kishinev Offensive Operation) straight into Romania with the semi-depleted forces used to encircle the Germans that April. The fresh Romanian units managed to stop them with German help, but only at a heavy cost.
Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group North Ukraine, astutely notices that seven of the Soviets' eight Tank Armies are massed opposite him in western Ukraine - presumably they mean to smash through his front and drive straight to the Baltic. Von Manstein congratulates himself on his cunning deduction, and strips Army Groups Center and North of their Panzer divisions so he can counter the Soviet move with an armoured counter-offensive of his own which will cut off the Soviet spearheads. Hopefully it will be a repeat of his previous victory at Kharkov, and may buy Germany the months she needs to rearm the Panzerwaffe.
It's a trap. Just a few days before Manstein thinks the offensive into Poland will begin, Konstantin Rokossovskiy literally drives one of the seven Tank Armies stationed in western Ukraine through a series of specially-prepared roads in the eastern sectors of the Pripyet marshes and into Belarus. Together with the secret deployment of two Combined Arms Armies (composed of tanks, artillery, and infantry and tailor-made for trench warfare) to that sector, they have the strength to punch through Army Group Centre's tactical defenses and encircle half of its combat troops (200,000 men) in several pockets east of Minsk in just under two weeks. The scattered shards of the remaining half are brushed aside and disintegrate into small bands of survivors which are wiped out or surrender in the following days as Rokossovskiy's forces race to the Baltic and east Prussia. Ultimately, less than a tenth of Army Group Centre's combat and support elements survive Operation Bagration as combat-ready or wounded.
The crisis in Belarus means that there is a 500km-wide (and growing) hole in the front lines where the Soviets are pouring through and facing almost no resistance. Manstein's response as commander of Army Group North Ukraine was of course to divert some of his non-depleted infantry and Panzer divisions northward to slow Rokossovskiy down (by fortifying key railway and road junctions or counter-attacking Soviet tank-scout forces), shore up Army Group North's defense of Riga, and prepare the defense of east Prussia. However, in mid-July, the main Soviet blow came against western Poland after all. With the strongest infantry and Panzer units diverted to contain the crisis in Belarus, Manstein only has a handful of full-strength infantry or Panzer units manned by experienced professionals. The rest are full-strength infantry divisions full of 18 year-olds and pensioners, depleted infantry divisions with little artillery, and depleted Panzer divisions with few tanks. The resultant Lwow-Sandomierz Offensive Operation is extremely one-sided and Manstein is fired for being defeated one time too many.
When the news of Army Group Centre's destruction reaches Army Group North, they realize that they are in danger of being completely isolated if the Soviets successfully drive to the Baltic and so make frantic preparations for withdrawing along the railway lines or evacuating their troops by sea from the ports of Riga (Latvia) and Talinn (Estonia). Because the entire 300km length of their southern flank is now completely open and undefended, they strip their front lines in the north and east of reserves so they can set up defensive positions around Riga itself and attempt to execute fighting withdrawals from their south-eastern-most positions to the railway lines. Partially successful at first, with some troops being successfully evacuated despite sporadic sinkings by the Red Navy's submarine fleet, by early September the defenses around Riga and Talinn have completely crumbled in the face of supply shortages and concerted assaults by Soviet Combined-Arms armies. Although 'Army Group North' continues to exist as a pocket of 100k support and combat troops trapped on Lithuania's Courland Peninsula, it has basically been completely wiped out.
When news of the unfolding disasters in Belarus and then western Ukraine reach Army Group South, they are not at all surprised at being forced to give up their Panzer divisions (with about 400 working tanks) in an attempt to salvage the situation. Nor are they surprised when the Soviets attack them the next month, nor when the Soviets again take advantage of the Romanians' inferiority in artillery strength and doctrine to punch through the Romanian-defended sections of the front lines, nor when the Romanians' lone tank division (100 tanks on a good day) is not enough to stop the Soviet Tank Army (600 tanks on a good day) which is used to exploit the gap created. What they are surprised and more than a little annoyed by is the coup which takes place in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Even the German forces not already trapped in pockets are suddenly taken into custody by their former allies as the country switches sides and signs an alliance with the Soviet Unionthe beginnings of what will later become the Warsaw Pact. Germany has not just lost the bulk of her oil supply, but Army Group South and a great deal of international prestige. This is quickly followed up with the defection of Bulgaria to the Allied side, causing German forces to evacuate the country, as well as their forces on the Greek mainland and the Balkans to prevent them from being cut off.
This summer, the Germans have lost more than 3/4 of their combat troops in the east (800k dead, crippled, and captured of 1 million) and 2/3 of all the combat troops they have. After these losses Germany will never field quality infantry or armoured forces again, even as the dramatic expansion in war production gives them more and better weapons and vehicles than ever before.
These losses are compounded by the irrecoverable loss of a further 200k troops in the west, which results in a 90% turnover in German forces in mainland Europe. This is brought about by a series of amphibious landings and subsequent offensive operations in France: Overlord, Epsom, Dragoon, Bluecoat, Totalize, and Cobra.
Detailed planning for the Normandy campaign had begun more than a year previously by the time it was implemented. For political and practical reasons the USA's grand strategy prioritized destroying the less hated (within the USA) and more powerful of the Axis powers first. This was known as the "Europe First" strategy. Continuing the war with Japan after Germany's defeat would be easy because of anti-Japanese hatred and in practical terms it would be easier to defeat the continental land power first while waiting for the U.S. Navy's blockade to erode the Japanese Army's morale and effectiveness, then either redeploy the ground forces to defeat the weaker power (in Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands) or simply starve them out.
Again for political and practical reasons, the U.S. made the invasion of France a strategic goal. In political terms the U.S. public wanted to defeat Germany in the most efficient way possible, and valued American lives more than the postwar Franco-Anglo-American/Soviet political order in Europe. In practical terms the infrastructure and terrain of France and the proximity to Britain would allow the deployment of the largest possible land force, and proximity to British airbases would give good odds in the initial battles for air supremacy. Finally, practical reasons made the Normandy province the only acceptable area for the staging of such an invasion. Seizure of the large, deep ports of Brittany was thought necessary to supply such large land forces but landing in Brittany itself would meant that the landings would have to be conducted without the support of fighter aircraft from Britain. CalaisBelgium had even better coverage from British airbases, but it did not have the number and type of ports needed to support such large forces. Moreover, Calais was much more defensible for the Germans given greater fortification of the beaches themselves and hilly terrain further inland.
In 1943 the invasion of France, Operation Sledgehammer, was postponed because German forces did not yet seem on the verge of collapse and the Americans had not yet built up the largest force that they could. Ironically, the odds actually favored an Allied invasion in 1943 because the Germans had not yet given serious thought to the defense of France or diverted significant forces to do so. While some German combat forces were in France during that summer, they were depleted formations from the Ukrainian and Belorussian fighting of the previous winter.
In the summer of 1944, conditions for the invasion were still not perfect but they were about as good as could be hoped for. It was clear that German strength had been dealt a heavy blow by the Ukrainian battles of March–April, and that Anglo-American-Canadian forces would have the Germans in France heavily outnumbered when they managed to land. The 'strategic plan' (the Allies did not have a modern concept of what we today or the Germans and Soviets then would call 'operations') for Overlord anticipates that the Allied forces will drive the Germans out of France entirely within three months of relatively fluid, mobile warfare of the kind seen in North Africa in 1941-2.
Come June 6, 1944: Operation Overlord commences. Over northern France, in the wee hours of morning before sunrise, an aerial fleet of 1,200 cargo planes carry out a massive aerial invasion, dropping American and British paratroopers by parachute and glider to secure strategic points and undermine German defenses. As the sun starts to rise, the Germans are greeted to the sight of more than 5,000 vessels across the horizon, who proceed to begin ferrying hundreds of thousands of Allied troops ashore, in what would become the largest invasion by sea in modern history. The landing operation is divided among 5 codenamed beaches: The Americans land upon "Utah" and "Omaha", the British attack "Sword" and "Gold", and finally the Canadians get "Juno" beach. To say the Germans are caught flat-footed is a massive understatement; an Allied deception campaign made German Command think that they were not going to land anywhere near Normandy and the fact that the dreary weather had whipped the Channel up to the point that conducting an invasion in the middle of that mess was just downright insane, yet here the Allies were. To make things even worse, Erwin Rommel, the general in charge of the Western Front defenses, was away at home celebrating his wife's birthday, and a breakdown in communications made him vastly underestimate the size of the Allied invasion fleet, to the point that he was convinced that it was simply a diversionary attack before the main invasion would commence elsewhere. By the time he realized it was not an a diversion, it was too late as the defensive forces were in disarray as the Allies continued to pour ashore. Despite their surprise, however, the Germans fought doggedly, and the day quickly turned bloody for both sides. By the end of it, though, the Allies had gained a tenuous toehold, and over the next few days, the hold strengthened until it became a solid foothold. After four years, Fortress Europe's walls in the west are finally toppled. But the fight was far from over, as Allies and Axis began a deadly reenactment of the Great War in the northern French countryside.
To the Allies' surprise, the inland terrain of Normandy province is well-suited to defensive actions, and the German defense is not a "mobile" one but one which makes heavy use of prepared defenses and artillery. In the defense of Tunisia and Italy in 1943 the Germans revived "positional warfare" (Stellungskrieg) techniques of the kind used in the First World War, and they continue to apply them to contain the Allied forces within Normandy province. It soon becomes apparent just why the Germans abandoned these techniques in the first place as the Allies revive their own World War I techniquesthe ones that broke the German Army of 1918.
Of course, the battle was not without its challenges. Of particular concern to the Allied forces was the existence of "hedgerows" across the Normandy countryside; far from simple decorative hedges, these hedgerows were formed after centuries of farming and erosion, and essentially consisted of a mass of soil and root systems that were large enough and hardened enough to create natural barriers that even the hardiest of tanks could not cross. This slowed the Allied advance considerably, as the hedgerows forced the Allies to rely on air reconnaissance to move forward, and often put them in environments that made them fodder for enemy ambush. Such was the disarray they caused, that several times Allied and Axis soldiers would be separated by a single hedgerow, and so close they could hear each others' conversations. The original plan to deal with hedgerows was to use explosives to blow a hole, then bringing in "dozer tanks", essentially tanks with bulldozer blades attached, to expand the hole until it was large enough to pass through. This was, however, a time-consuming process, and the conspicuous dozer tanks were often targeted by the Germans in order to deny them a means to pass. Eventually, the Allies came up with "Rhino Tanks," which were regular tanks field-modified with "hedgerow cutters" (which were ironically for the Germans often made from cut-up tank obstacles from the Normandy beaches), which could slice through the roots and soil of the hedgerows much quicker than the dozer tanks could, were a lot less easy to pick out from other Allied tanks, and could be added to pretty much any armored vehicle, making them a lot more versatile. With the Rhino tanks making quick work of hedgerows, and using combined-arms tactics to overwhelm more hardened German positions, the Allied forces moved forward, slowly but surely.
After two months of 1918-style high-intensity battles in which the Allies capitalize on their superiority in artillery and advance very short distances at a time to minimize their own losses, the German forces in Normandy are utterly depleted and have no more men with which to form new defensive lines. By mid-July the Allies have more than 300,000 combat troops and 2000 tanks, and the Germans have just 100,000 troops and fewer than 500 left. Although Germany fielded and produced more than 200,000 replacement or new troops and 2000 Panzers in June-August 1944, virtually no soldiers and just 53 Panzers are sent to France: the rest are desperately needed to stabilize the front lines in Poland, East Prussia, and Hungary. The 25th of July Cobra offensive by the Americans marks the definitive breakout of Allied forces from Normandy province, with German forces melting away and retreating to the FrancoGerman border in its wake.
Though their armed forces had been crushed and their government subordinated early on, the Polish people did not remain idle during the war. Many of the country's military personnel managed to escape through the Baltic and the Balkans and make it to British territory, where they joined and fought alongside the British military in nearly every theater. Others stayed behind as founding members of the resistance movement that had bided its time for years. Now the leaders of the resistance, seeing how close the Soviets are, believe the liberation of Warsaw to be at hand and give the order to overthrow their German occupiers. However, the Soviets have supply problems and are busy trying to take the Balkans; besides, Stalin is not interested in a New Poland that has such close ties with the Allies. Neither do the Germans just let them be; indeed, their response makes quite liberal use of armored vehicles, artillery and air-support. With the Soviets denying Britain access to their airfields, the Polish Home Army is left to fend for itself. They hold out for two months, but by the time the Soviets enter the city in January 1945 the Home Army has been exterminated and Warsaw is a ghost town.
The absolute capper to Germany's shitty summer is Finland's unilateral signing of a peace treaty with the Soviet Union on the 19th of September. It had been a long time coming. The day after the German Sixth Army surrendered (for the first time, of three) at Stalingrad on the 2nd of March 1943, Field Marshal Mannerheim met with the Finnish Cabinet. They unanimously agreed that Germany was screwed and they had to find a way to avoid being dragged down with them. In 1943 the PM promised Hitler that he would never break solidarity with Germany and sign a separate peace, while Finland bade its time and quietly sent out peace feelers. After the destruction of Army Groups Center (June), North Ukraine (July), North and South (August), the Finnish PM resigned in favor of Mannerheim, who began formal peace negotiations shortly thereafter. The resulting treaty conceded Finnish independence in return for the removal of German forces still attempting to hold on to the northern half of the country, and islands in the Gulf of Finland. As a result, the German forces carried out a scorched earth campaign as they withdrew from the entire area encompassing northern Finland and far northern Norway. The move was a huge blow to German prestige, as it left Germany without a single voluntary ally bar Japan.
In the meantime, the Western Allies have amassed sufficient supplies to finally break out of their beachhead in Normandy. Increasingly-frequent Allied bombing raids like the one described in Slaughterhouse-Five put a real dampener on the German war effort, causing massive damage and disruption to German industry and infrastructure in civilian-casualty-heavy attacks which grow steadily more intense, culminating in the (in)famous fire bombing of Dresden (an important military target) in February 1945, a joint USAAF and RAF raid led by the latter and seen by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, as revenge for the Blitz, most particularly the destruction of Coventry (a similarly beautiful city). "They have sown the wind," he said. "Now they are going to reap the whirlwind."note The city was almost completely pulverized, with an estimated 25,000 civilians being consumed by the firestorms caused by liberal use of incendiary bombs.
With more and more French airfields becoming available and fewer and fewer Luftwaffe interceptors around to stop them, it is not long before the burgeoning British and American Air Forces reduce every major industrial town and transport hub in Hitler's Reich to ruins. Even their vaunted new jets prove ineffective as the bomber's Mustang escorts outnumber them 60 to one with ace pilots in them like the Tuskegee Airmen able to shoot those jets down more often than the Germans had feared. Furthermore, the capture of French airfields starts to bring their own airfields within range of Allied tactical airpower and increasingly under the near-constant cover of the dreaded Thunderbolt and Typhoon fighter-bombers that are devastating Wehrmacht formations in France. With the Luftwaffe's own bombing campaign rendered more and more ineffective as they lose serviceable airfields, Hitler turns to using the newly-developed Vergeltungswaffen ("retaliation weapons"), the V-1 "Buzz Bomb" and later the V-2 short-range ballistic missile to try and exact some vengeance upon the British—who, after the devastation of years past, by and large consider this a nuisance not worth getting worked up about. That attitude was aided with the facts that the former threat can be intercepted and the latter's impact was lessened by British intelligence's Doublecross system fooling the Germans into "correcting" the missile trajectories to avoid the cities. Not helping the German's situation is the fact that these weapons are aimed at British civilian targets out of "revenge", which has virtually no impact on the Allied war potential instead of targeting Allied-controlled ports, airfields or military bases that are actually vital to Allied logistics.
The Battle of the Atlantic has, by this point, swung permanently in favor of the Allies. U.S. war production is now running at a blistering pace. North American shipyards, immune from attack by their sheer distance from the fight, are now mass-producing new vessels at the rate of one every few days, literally faster than they could be sunk. In fact, there are now enough new escort carriers and destroyer escorts to start dispatching free-roaming hunter-killer groups, a tactic which had proved unproductive until now. With new technologies like sonobuoys, tight beam sonars, microwave radars and acoustic homing torpedoes added to old standbys like radio direction, even snorkel-equipped U-boats are no longer safe. German morale collapses as the number of sinkings plummet and 6 out of 10 boats fail to return from their patrols. U-boats will continue to sortie until the very end of the war, but the real threat to the transatlantic lifelines between the U.S. and Britain and the Soviet Union has passed.
As the Western Allies push out into the interior of France, it becomes clear to the German people that they are going to lose the war. The mighty juggernaut of the Red Army is approaching from the east, and the British and Americans, with their superior weapons and air power,* are rapidly approaching from the west. The devastation of cities like Hamburg, Mainz, Düsseldorf and in early 1945, Dresden, forces millions into refugee camps. On the Eastern Front, the fighting becomes more desperate as the German soldiers become convinced that their families and their friends really will be exterminated (just as the official propaganda claims) after three years of atrocities and a dozen million dead Soviet civilians. Reichsminister Goebbels starts to up the rhetoric in his broadcasts, using the idea of the new "wonder weapons" (such as the Me 262, the world's first operational jet fighter, and the V-2 rocket, the world's first ballistic missile) to say that the final victory will still be theirs. However, only the most delusional or fanatical Germans continue to believe him. Ever since Stalingrad, the news has gotten progressively worse; many Germans start behaving as though they have nothing to lose, recognizing that they only face total destruction.
At this point a shadowy cabal of junior German officers decide that Germany's civilian leadership is leading it to disaster: Germany needs military rule, and more than that it needs an end to the war. There had been mild disquiet among some members of the military when the Nazis came to power in 1933, but this soon subsided and by 1938 only the very highest ranks of the military were willing to move against the regime in general or Hitler specifically (e.g. "the Generals' plot" to assassinate Hitler if he tried to declare war on Czechoslovakia in 1938). The defeat of France won the Army's leaders over to the Nazi programme, and by 1941 the Army's planning for Barbarossa included ethnic cleansing and extermination.
A week after the beginning of the Lwow-Sandomierz offensive, which threatened to destroy Germany's last experienced Panzer forces in the western Ukraine, a handful of junior officers (Majors and Colonels) from the pre-Nazi days attempt to assassinate Hitler. Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg plants a bomb in Hitler's Wolfsschanze field headquarters during a staff meeting. As part of the plan, other junior officers prepare to initiate Unternehmen Walküre, a contingency plan to use reserve Army units to secure the German home front in the event of a breakdown in command and control or a POW/slave labor uprising. The conspirators also carefully reword the orders to allow for the arrest of top Ge'stapo', Security Police, and Order Police leaders. However, von Stauffenberg is interrupted and only arms half the planned amount of explosives in the bomb. The bomb then detonates on the other side of a table leg from its target, creating just enough of a shield for Hitler to survive with relatively minor wounds.
While they intended to launch Walküre even if Hitler survived, the plotters in Berlin nonetheless waste several crucial hours waiting for confirmation that he had been killed. By the end of the day, the plot is in shambles and Stauffenberg is summarily executed along with his closest co-conspirators. Hitler's distrust and paranoia of his armed forces predictably gets worse in the wake of the failed coup, and more than 5,000 people are executed in connection to the plot by the end of the war. Among these is the famed Erwin Rommel, whose direct connection with the plot (like many others who died) was dubious at best.*
Unable to supply both of his top generals, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in the south and American General George S. Patton in the north, Dwight Eisenhower is forced to choose which one to give priority of supplies. Patton's plan is simply to break through the German lines directly east of Berlin, and then push through to the German capitol city to seize it before the Soviets do. But this means smashing through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line, and then across both Western and Central Germany, in a massive battle of attrition which, while more likely to work due to sheer numbers, would prove costly in both time and men, which Eisenhower was not sure he could afford, what with the war already having been going on for 5 years already. Judging by the actions in France during Overlord and Dragoon, such attrition would mean committing to the World War I-style mobile defensives, only this time Germany would be on their home turf and by all accounts they intended to make the Allies fight tooth and nail for every inch—as one can imagine, this was not a very enticing concept for someone who wanted to end the war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.
Alternatively, Montgomery proposes a daring two-part plan called Operation Market Garden, which envisions a massive paratrooper deployment (consisting of the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne) in Holland to seize nine vital bridges ("Market"), creating a secured corridor by which the British XXX Corps* , an armoured formation, would ride straight across the Rhine and punch into Germany too swiftly for the Germans to counter ("Garden"). If it succeeds, they will be able to seize the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heart of Germany, and deal a fatal blow to the Reich's military might in one fell swoop. He claims that this will end the fighting by Christmas (which, based on history, he really should've known not to say, especially after the Germans said similar to the same thing about their Eastern Front campaign, just before Stalingrad came along). Pressured by civilian leaders to bring a quick end to the war, Eisenhower is forced to agree. Meanwhile, the Germans suspect that an Allied thrust through Holland is imminent and quickly work to replenish their divisions, many of which are at token strength.
Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather, inaccurate intelligence, insuperable logistics and equipment failures (particularly radios) causes the operation to fail despite the best efforts of the troops, particularly those working in intelligence. Cells of the Dutch Resistance managed to pass on reports that two SS Panzer Divisions were being held in reserve near Arnhem (the main target city, without which the operation was useless), but the Allied High Command distrusted them. The Americans are able to take their targets without too much of a problem, except for Nijmegen (which involves a dangerous river crossing), but the advance of XXX Corps slows considerably the further north they drive up the A50 motorway, by which the entire operation hinged upon to deliver the Allies into Germany. Unfortunately, the narrow, deep cutting corridor becomes the perfect environment for German artillery to rain upon the XXX Corps from both sides as they struggle to make headway, leading to the motorway quickly earning the name "Hell's Highway" from those unfortunate enough to travel it. Further complicating matters are that the British are dropped nearly ten miles away from their target area, due to heavy flak defenses in Arnhem, and the Germans overrun their resupply zones and isolate them. To make matters worse, on the evening of September 19th, Germany launches a massive night raid targeting the Netherlands city of Eindhoven, where the American 101st Airborne and portions of XXX Corps have garrisoned. With no anti-aircraft guns defending the city, the Allies could only watch in horror as the German bombers dropped parachute flares, and then hundreds of bombs, pulverizing the city from above and gutting buildings and structures had stood for more than one hundred years. Countless civilians are killed, who only in the days before had been celebrating with their liberators, only to be grimly reminded that their former occupiers yet existed with a vengeance. Along with the lives lost, the Allied supply line is crippled as well, further delaying XXX Corps as they struggle to reach their objective before the Allied-held bridges are overrun. In Arnhem, the British 1st Airborne, despite being critically low on supplies and heavily battered by German forces, manage to organize and take the northern bridgehead, but are forced into brutal house-to-house fighting with elite German forces, their only hope being that the XXX can reach them before they are overrun. Unfortunately, XXX Corps' momentum runs out in the city of Nijmegen—they manage to cross the bridge with the help of the 82nd Airborne, but on the far side they are met with stiff resistance from German tanks and anti-tank guns. After taking severe losses, and with their logistics already stretched to the breaking point up Hell's Highway, the Allies fall back and redraw their battle lines in Nijmegen. The 1st Airborne's relief would not be arriving. Operation Market Garden ends in failure.
With Market Garden declared officially unsuccessful, the besieged 1st Airborne paratroopers are forced to withdraw across the river, and those who cannot, surrender. The presence of skilled leadership such as Gerd von Rundstedt and Walter Model allows the Germans to stabilize the front line just along their border, helped by Allied supply problems worsened due to the failure of Market Garden as they struggle to stabilize their own side.* To add insult to injury, Market Garden delays Allied efforts to make the port of Antwerp usable, which would likely have solved the logistics problems. It also consumes much of Britain's remaining available manpower. After nearly five years of war, the British can no longer replace their losses. This forces them to cede more and more of their role in Western Europe to U.S. and Canadian forces, though this goes unnoticed by all but the very highest echelons of the Western Allied command, and only becomes apparent in retrospect. British industry continues to churn out tanks and guns for the Canadian forces until the end of the war.
As autumn continues, the war in both the West and the East enters a brief lull while the Allies attempt to reposition themselves along the German border. Nightly bombing raids devastate the German infrastructure, though for civilians they become as routine as the weather. The Luftwaffe is decisively defeated and U-boat patrols become near-completely suicidal endeavors. The Eastern Front faces total collapse, and France, Belgium, Luxembourg and half of the Netherlands are liberated. However, despite their critical situation, the Germans still possess a few advantages over the Western Allies: they are now no longer trying to defend all of Western Europe, thereby significantly shortening their supply lines, while the Allies' are critically lengthened, and thus concentrate their troops in smaller areas. Fighting closer to the German heartland means increased usage of telephones and telegraphs, reducing their dependence on radio and limiting the effectiveness of ULTRA codebreakers. But as autumn turns to winter, ULTRA is able to intercept enough messages to indicate that the Germans are planning something big.
The German officer corps as a whole approved of Hitler's decision to fight on until Germany was totally annihilated. Desire to avoid admitting national weakness (by surrendering, as in November 1918) and genuine fears of Judeo-Bolshevik vengeance upon the German people were widespread. However, even among more worldly officers there was quite simply prosaic desire to make the best of their 'glory days' and serve as high-ranking officers for as long as they could. If Germany survived the war and was allowed to have a military, they knew that their personal chances of being allowed to serve in it were pretty limited. Even if the Communists did not shoot them out of hand or imprison them forever, they would not want to touch ex-Fascist officers with ten-foot poles. And even if the Anglo-Americans didn't care what German officers had done to non-British and non-American civilians and POW, they might also be reluctant to be openly associated with such people. Finally, many junior officers had been promoted to positions above their abilities due to losses and diffusion of talent: they were unlikely to hold such high rank ever again in a much smaller and more selective peacetime military.
There were three major German counter-offensives in this period and numerous counter-attacks, all of them unsuccessful. One of these was on the western front, but it is so famous and the others (Konrad and Fruehlingswachen) are so obscure that even to this day it is sometimes called 'the last German counter-offensive'. The Wacht-Am-Rhein offensive of the 16th of December 1944 capitalised on fog and snow which grounded the Anglo-American Air Forces and so limited the value of their artillery (because the spotter-planes couldn't see the main body of the enemy). Hitler's legions attack through the Ardennes—the same route by which they snuck into France four and a half years before—in a desperate and ill-advised attempt to cut a wedge between the American and British forces. The attack catches the Allies completely by surprise and initially looks like it may, against all odds, succeed. However, there is a huge difference between the Ardennes of 1939—when the forests were picketed by only a few detached cavalry vedettes—and 1944, when the lines are manned by elements of three U.S. Army Groups under the command of Patton, Bradley and Hodges, four divisions (two veteran and two green) backed by Allied tactical airpower and the world's best artillery.
Interestingly, pro-Soviet commentators of the time (and Russian nationalists since) have claimed that the Soviet Hungarian Front's Budapest offensive operation caused Hitler to terminate the Ardennes offensive when the Second Ukrainian and First Belorussian Fronts successfully encircled Budapest during the Ardennes offensive. In fact the Ardennes offensive had bogged down and failed in all but name by the time it was officially called off and the forces withdrawn for redeployment. This claim of one ally having saved the other's bacon was actually first raised in regards to Kursk. After the war, German generals such as Erich von Manstein, who had commanded half the German force there, claimed that the Germans had only lost at Kursk because Hitler prematurely aborted the offensive to deal with the Anglo–American invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). As with the Ardennes offensive, the German offensive had already failed by the time Hitler called it off. While neither set of allies needed "saving" during the Ardennes–Hungarian or Kursk–Sicilian operations, the feeling that they had indirectly helped one another certainly helped morale and foster goodwill on both sides.
The so-called "Battle of the Bulge" results in German gains for a few days under the cover of bad weather, followed by inevitable defeat as dogged American resistance delays Hitler's tight operational timetable just long enough for his Panzer formations to run out of fuel, sometimes literally within sight of their objectives. For the Allies, General Eisenhower soon realized this attack is fact a prime opportunity to destroy the German forces since an attacking force is easier to do so. Meanwhile and most famously, American troops—primarily the 101st Airborne Division—manage to hold on to the critical road junctions in the Belgian town of Bastogne despite being surrounded, outnumbered nearly five to one, and severely lacking in cold-weather gear, medical supplies and ammunition, even as General Patton was racing to relieve them on Eisenhower's orders. Delaying actions such as these prove invaluable as the attack bogs down long enough for the streak of cloudy days to run out, allowing Montgomery to organize the various delaying actions into a concerted battle. Then the Allied air forces resume resupply and tactical operations, sending devastatingly powerful and accurate airstrikes that slow German forces even further and make their advances all the more hopeless.
Of course, for those that fought in it, the Battle of the Bulge was still notoriously brutal for both sides—the winter of 1944 in Europe brought with it record-breaking cold temperatures, and is still known as one of the coldest winters in Belgium's recent history. The Allied forces were caught completely unprepared, and compounding the situation was that most of the soldiers manning the frontlines were paratroopers, whose use in battle was intended more towards swift attacks and harassing forces behind their own lines rather than battles of attrition, but quickly found themselves performing the latter in the face of the sudden and unexpected advance for the (seemingly) well-equipped German forces. Making matters worse was that their reinforcements and resupply were delayed by the weather and already-present logistics problems (much of which was left over from the abortive Operation Market Garden), leaving them with what little they carried with them at the time. For the Axis, while they did not have to worry so much about unsuitable combat strategies, they did have just as many supply problems if not moreso due to the desperate war effort which spurred the offensive in the first place—It was not uncommon for entire German platoons to surrender to Allied forces, if only to get aid for their wounded...only to discover the Americans they surrendered to did not even have the supplies or manpower to look after their own. Such situations were rare, but there are stories of Allied soldiers leaving the surrendered German platoons a single pistol loaded with ample ammunition as a merciful courtesy for what must be done. Even then, however, what the Western Allies had experienced in the Ardennes was but a taste of what had been going on on the Eastern Front for three years now, and its biggest contribution to the war was making the American and British forces all the more anxious to get this war over as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.
By the end of January, the Germans have been pushed back to where they started, with much of their valuable armor either destroyed or left behind with empty fuel tanks. This defeat essentially breaks the back of Germany's power to resist in the West. With the last reserves of their professional army now depleted, every loss of man and machine from this point forward is literally irreplaceable. Casualties from the battle are high, with nearly 100,000 American and British killed, wounded or captured. German losses are about even. But, like the battles on the Eastern Front, as great as the Allied losses are, they are survivable. With Allied industry safely beyond the reach of the Germans, and their own industrial centers under constant air bombardment, and their main concerns being squabbling amongst the commanders (not helped by Montgomery's ill-advised comments after the Battle of the Bulge) and what was going to happen after the war. It's now only a question of how long before Germany will be forced to surrender.
Germany is now a country void of teen- and middle-aged males, who have virtually all been drafted into citizen militias to defend the Fatherland to the last. Even those who see the futility of continuing the war cannot escape it. Die-hard Nazis in the ranks ensure anyone who doesn't fight risks summary execution for cowardice. With the ultimate outcome essentially decided, no one on the Allied side wants to be the last casualty in a war that's dragged on for years with the end finally in sight. Accordingly, any place that may be hiding German troops is reduced to rubble from afar by massed airpower and artillery barrages at the first signs of resistance. In this "better safe than sorry" atmosphere, a single sniper shot from a single building can effectively doom an entire village to being wiped off the map. As the Allies advance ever deeper into Germany, countless small towns and cities, some centuries old and without any military value, are destroyed in ultimately pointless delaying actions. This is especially bad news for civilians who now face death from both sides. Anyone who tries to surrender as much as their own home is threatened with reprisal as the defense of Hitler's Third Reich becomes less a military objective than a fanatic's cause with every passing day.
By early 1945, the war in Europe has entered its endgame and the Third Reich takes its last, shuddering gasp. In March, the Americans, to their own surprise, manage to capture the intact Ludendorff Bridge in the German city of Remagen,* allowing for the Allies to cross the Rhine, the last line of defense in the West for Germany. In April, the last major German army on the Western Front has surrendered to the Americans and British after being outmaneuvered, and the Ruhr—the primary steelmaking and manufacturing center of the country and which had been the original target of the failed Operation Market Garden—is captured. 317,000 German troops are captured, along with 24 seasoned generals, leading to a complete collapse of defenses on the Western front and reducing resistance to isolated pockets which are either dead-set on holding out to the last, or simply waiting for someone to surrender to. Meanwhile the Soviets have finished securing their flanks in Prussia and Silesia, with Koniev's forces being extremely careful to minimize damage to the German industries which have been moved there from the Ruhr to protect them from Air Attack. Many of these industrial enterprises are dismantled wholesale and reassembled in Ukraine, where they only partially replace the industries destroyed by Erich von Manstein in the long German retreat (of 1943-4) from the region.
By this point, what little of Germany's once-formidable mechanized fighting power that hasn't been recalled to Berlin for a final defense begins to crumble and break down under its own weight, sometimes quite literally—Germany's Tiger and Panther tanks, formerly a nightmarish sight for any Allied tanker, have by this point expended their last spare parts and consumed their last fumes of fuel, and are either destroyed to prevent being made into trophies or simply left to abandon where they sputtered out. The Luftwaffe, once the pride of the air over Germany, have literally run out of airbases to land at. Many Allied soldiers will recount the sight of driving along Germany's famous Autobahn, only to see German planes parked neatly along the shoulders where their pilots had either been using the highway as a makeshift airbase, or had simply landed their planes and abandoned them, no longer possessing the resources nor the fighting spirit to send them into the air again. Outside of the major cities, the amount of people willing (or even able) to fight the advancing Allies continues to dwindle out, bit by bit, even as the Nazi commanders begin enacting such programs as Volkssturm, essentially a nationwide militia of whomever and whatever they can scrounge up for defense. In the face of the better-equipped and better-trained Allies, however, the Volkssturm's actions are delaying, at most, and succeed only in costing more innocent lives in the final months of the war.
On April 25, 1945, Soviet and American troops famously link up at a German village called Torgau on the river Elbe. The job of taking Berlin is left to the Soviets, who are far closer and have claimed the city as part of their sphere anyway. Indeed, Stalin is eager for the Red Army to have the honor of taking the very heart of Nazi Germany, which Hitler has refused to leave. Germany drives the pensioners, the Volkssturm, and the boys of the Hitler Youth to defend her from "the Depredations of the Jewish Communist Hordes", mustering a force of 800,000 "men" and a thousand armored vehicles in the city's defense.* For their part the Soviets bring 2.5 million of their best veterans—supported by tens of thousands of tanks, airplanes and artillery pieces—to take it from them. After some of the most brutal and bloody urban combat in history, the Red Flag waves above the Reichstag on May Day, 1945. Hitler attempts to spur the last defenders on, but after several officers refuse his orders to mount a (incredibly futile) counterattack, he unleashes a vicious tirade against his surviving subordinates and, finally admitting that the war is lost, kills himself in his bunker alongside his newly-married wife Eva Braun and his dog Blondie.* One of the most infamous figures in history is dead, but the war does not end right away.
On 8 May (9 May in Moscow), 1945, Hitler's successor—Großadmiral Dönitz—approves the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The war in Europe is over, and Allied attention now turns to ending the war in the Pacific. As Japan is even more dead-set on fighting to the last than Germany was, many predict an incredibly costly battle with casualties into the millions, but the United States have a, ah, different plan, to say the least.