27 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Six: Forgotten progress

Soviet troops in Lvov, Ukraine, 1944 (via Wikipedia)
Part Five

When one thinks of the year 1944, one automatically thinks of Operation Overlord and the liberation of France, along with the debacle that was Market Garden. Western popular opinion doesn't really remember the considerable advances against heavy opposition that the Red Army and its allies would make during this year. Perhaps it's the lack of a big, memorable "spectacular", like the huge amphibious landing that was D-Day or the street fighting of Berlin.

Despite making a lot of headway in the post-Kursk attacks, the front line in the Eastern Front, an assignment increasingly dreaded by German troops, remained entirely within the USSR as of the beginning of 1944. By the end of it, Soviet forces had ejected the Germans from the USSR entirely, had gained control of Romania and Bulgaria, was half-way into Yugoslavia and was at the gates of pre-Hitler Germany.

In the process, one would argue for the worse, the USSR had established the conditions for its post-war domination of Central and Eastern Europe.

The year opened with two big offensives in Ukraine and the Crimea, designed to clear the Soviet breadbasket of enemy forces. These areas were also important to Hitler; with the Crimea in Soviet hands, the VVS (Soviet Air Force) would be in bombing range of the Romanian oil refineries - refineries that Germany had to control if it was to keep its vehicles moving.

The Korsun Pocket

The Red Army forced its way across the Dnepr river in many places due to sheer weight of numbers, but a salient of German forces still existed between Kanev and Cherkassy, with two whole Corps of 8th Army in the area. There was an airfield at Korsun in said salient, so any forces that got cut off could be resupplied by air (a risky proposition though considering increasing Soviet air superiority), but von Manstein was sufficiently concerned about encirclement to ask to be allowed to withdraw. You can guess Hitler's answer.

Stavka spotted the situation and on 24 January, the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts attacked from opposite ends. After four days, the "Korsun Pocket" closed, with 57,000 Germans trapped inside, now under command of General Wilhelm Stemmerman. While the Korsun airfield was initially used to supply the forces in there, that was eventually abandoned due to increasing pressure. An attempt to relieve the German forces and encircle the encircling forces (another one of of Hitler's daft ideas, as most of the forces needed were under half strength) fell foul of an early spring thaw.

Stemmerman was eventually allowed to launch a breakout attempt on 16 February, having to abandon nearly of his heavy equipment (due to lack of fuel and horses. People often forget the large role played by our hooved friends on all sides in the war), but erroneously believed that a key hill (Hill 239) was in German hands. With the radios destroyed, he couldn't be informed otherwise. The initial thrust of the breakout forces ran into the enemy and the situation promptly turned into a full-scale rout, as panicked German soldiers in same cases ended up swimming across a freezing river to escape.

Eventually 35,000 men escaped, but with most of their weaponry lost, six German divisions had been effectively neutralised.

By June, US bombers and fighters could conduct "shuttle" missions, flying from the UK to attack German targets, landing in the USSR to refuel and rearm, attack targets in Romania and then return via Italy to the UK. Known as Operation Frantic, it had mixed success - the original targets had been captured by the autumn, operations were suspended for the winter and it was no longer needed by spring 1945.

Operation Bagration

The advances in the south and north now left a 250-mile bulge occupied by Army Group Centre between the Pripyat marshes and the Dvina river. As their summer offensive, the Soviets decided to eliminate this rather large bulge.

Hitler, anticipating an attack in the south, had taken most of AGC's tanks to reinforce there. He had also implemented a policy of fortified areas around key communication centres, while completely ignoring some useful natural barriers. The "fester platz" as these cities became known was another of Hitler's dumber ideas - the Soviets just bypassed them, deciding to deal with them later at will.

After a massive pre-attack bout of partisan activity, similar to that which would proceed Overlord in the same month, the first phase of the attack began on 19 June 1944.

To cut a long story short, Bagration was a massive success. With the Luftwaffe forces having been withdrawn to deal, as best they could, with the Allied landings in Normandy, the Soviet Union enjoyed clear superiority in pretty much every area, including strategic surprise. The weakened German defences were smashed and retreating forces were either cut off or continually harassed. Minsk was liberated on 3 July and by the end of the month, the Germans were completely out of the USSR. Various forces were cut off and eliminated - 28 divisions would end up either destroyed or ineffective; the Germans losing almost 300,000 men, either dead or captured. A massive hole was now open in the German front; the Soviets would go through it all the way to Berlin.

The Warsaw Uprising

By 31 July, Soviet forces were approaching Warsaw. Radio Moscow called on the people to rise up against the Nazis and the Polish Home Army promptly did just that the next day, expecting Soviet help to arrive in just a few days.

It wouldn't come. Stalin halted the Red Army short of Warsaw and prohibited the Western allies from using Soviet airfields to supply the resistance, limiting what they could do in terms of air drops because of the distances involved. It is no surprise that after two months of fighting intense German attacks, the survivors had to surrender. 100,000 - 200,000 civilians died in the fighting, which was then followed by the Germans starting to level the city, completing 70% of the job.

The failure of the Warsaw Uprising must be deemed the most cynically disgusting act of the war by Stalin; by allowing the Home Army, linked to the pre-war exiled government (now in London) to fail and lose much of its leadership, the way was set for a pro-Soviet government to take over after the war, with the Soviets claiming they had "liberated" Warsaw when they finally arrived in January 1945.

The rest of the year

The Soviet forces continued advancing, entering Romania in August and Bulgaria in September. Both pro-Axis governments were overthrown by internal forces and both countries promptly changed sides to supporting the Allies. Both would ultimately become communist. Finland also concluded a peace treaty in this year.

As 1944 came to an end, it was clear that the war was going to end in Europe during the next year. But it was still not over.

Part Seven 

No comments: