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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/9/15

Seventy Years after the "Great Patriotic War:" "Let No One Forget, Let Nothing Be Forgotten"

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Less understood by the German enthusiasts then -- or anybody else around the world, then or today -- was the enormous toll that the Red Army was taking on the German war machine. For example, virtually nobody knew that, on 18 November 1941, the head of the Main Committee for tank production, Walter Rowland, visited Nazi Germany's foremost Panzer Group leader, Heinz Guderian, to discuss German tank requirements at the front. Not only did Guderian extol the superiority of the Soviet T-34 tank and the heavy, virtually impenetrable, KV-1 tank, he also told Rowland that the numbers of Soviet tanks were increasing as the war continued. (Eventually, Lend-Lease tanks would make matters even worse for Germany.)

Rowland's tour of the front shocked him. Upon returning home, he reported: "Our troops are too lightly dressed, in some cases wrapped in blankets. An assorted picture of frozen-up cars abandoned by the side of the road, with panje carts drawn by Russian ponies doing their best to provide inadequate supplies. The tanks could not be employed: if the motors and gearboxes still worked, the weapons failed due to freezing up." (Stahel, p. 162) The Red Army had experienced similar freezing during its "Winter War" with Finland in 1939-40, but immediately commenced research to create better cold-resistant lubricants. Thus, in late 1941, it enjoyed distinct mobility and fire-power advantages over the Ostheer during sub-freezing weather.

In late November 1941 -- approximately the same time that Colonel-General Fritz Fromm informed Franz Halder, the Chief of the Army General Staff, that the output of German arms production was declining -- Rowland became convinced that Germany lacked the industrial and resource base to compete with the Soviet Union, let alone Great Britain and the United States. Thus, he went to Fritz Todt, the minister for armaments and munitions, and told him, "The war against Russia cannot be won!" When both Rowland and Todt confronted Hitler with the news, the Fuehrer asked: "How then should I end the war." (Ibid, p. 163)

In his masterful new study, titled The Battle for Moscow, David Stahel suggests that, with the failure of his blitzkrieg strategy -- due to indomitable Ivan and the vast expanses of the Soviet Union -- Hitler may have switched to a "Friderician strategy," which was based on the assumption that the alliance between the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union would collapse. Obviously, he was in denial, but how else could he face up to the implications of a long war of attrition against a Red Army that "was growing in size, strength, and skill from month to month" (Stahel, p. 111) as well as the vastly superior economies of Great Britain and the United States?

Professor Stahel vividly and persuasively demonstrates that the Ostheer reached its "culminating point" in November 1941, before overextending itself in early December 1941 -- just 41 kilometers outside Moscow. The offensive capacity of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Center was completely exhausted by the pace of its advance, staggering losses in weapons and personnel, Red Army counterthrusts, overextended supply lines, too few supply trains and trucks, virtually no winter uniforms, too little fuel, shelter and food, the psychological and physical immobilization caused by the muck of the rasputitsa and the freezing cold that prevented rifles, guns, engines, locomotives and turrets from operating.

Worse, for Bock, on 7 December 1941 the Red Army unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive that doomed Operation Typhoon -- the German plan to capture Moscow before the end of 1941. The counteroffensive was led by Lieutenant-General Konstantin Rokossovsky's Sixteenth Army and, in three phases (beginning respectively on 6 December, 16 December and 16 January) Soviet forces succeeded in forcing the overextended and exhausted German forces to retreat some 150 to 300 kilometers from its most eastern advance.

Although military historian Chris Bellamy believes the Bitva pod Moskvoy (Battle before Moscow) "probably saved the country" and "smashed the Wehrmacht's reputation for invincibility" (p. 350), Hitler feared far worse. He subsequently credited his order forbidding retreat with preventing the collapse of the Eastern Front. (See Hellbeck, p. 10)

Nevertheless, Ivan would suffer another serious setback at the Battle of Khar'kov in May 1942. "The Red Army had lost parts of four armies: 22 rifle divisions, 7 cavalry divisions and 15 tank brigades, 540 aircraft, 1,200 tanks and 2,000 guns. An estimated 240,000 were taken prisoner, and more than a quarter of a million lost altogether," (Bellamy, p. 453).

The disaster at Khar'kov occurred just before the Ostheer began Operation Blau (Blue). In the last of its various iterations Operation Blau resulted in the order that tasked Army Group B, spearheaded by General Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army, to attack the strategically insignificant city of Stalingrad. Hitler was caught up in the symbolism of destroying the city named after Stalin.

Few battles in the history of warfare have been more ferociously fought than the Battle of Stalingrad. Weak attacks in late July and early August by Army Group B were followed by the Luftwaffe's first major bombardment of the city on 23 August. By 10 September some 300,000 civilians had been evacuated." (Bellamy, p. 515) By the middle of September Fritz and Ivan were battling one another house-to-house, if not room-to-room. The Germans called it the "rat war," because avenging Ivan came at them from everywhere, seemingly out of the woodwork. 91 percent of the city was destroyed, but the Red Army had Army Group B where it wanted -- in unfavorable urban terrain.

The battle turned into a disaster for the Germans when, in the middle of November, Soviet forces began Operation Uranus and pulled off "one of the greatest encirclements in history" (Ibid, p. 535), trapping "22 German divisions totaling 330,000 men, including the Sixth Army, Rumanian remnants, and one corps of the Fourth Panzer Army." (Glantz & House, p. 134).

Germany was in a state of shock. After the encirclement, German newspapers ceased their reporting on the battle until January 1943. Nevertheless, "The German security police reported that people spoke of the last bullet, which they would save for themselves once 'everything was over.'" In March 1943, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler visited the Treblinka death camp in eastern Poland and urgently instructed the camp authorities to exhume all the bodies of the 700,000 Jews who had been killed there and cremate the corpses" (Hellbeck, p. 2).

Hitler attempted to recover from the debacle at Stalingrad by directing a massive summer campaign against the salient surrounding Kursk. Commencing on 5 July 1943, it proved to be disastrous for the Ostheer, which lost some 70,000 men and 3000 tanks. According to Norman Davies, the author of No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939 -- 1945 (Viking, 2006), "The significance of Kursk cannot be overrated. This was the decisive battle. The Wehrmacht's prime strike force was destroyed so completely that a major offensive could never be launched again," (pp. 111-112).

Note that this "decisive" battle took place nearly a year before the commencement of Operation Overlord and so-called "decisive" battle on D-Day. But, then, nothing great happens -- at least, in the minds of most Americans (and British), unless they had a hand in it. They would be disabused of this error, however, were they to listen to the words of America's foremost expert on the Eastern Front, David M. Glantz: "Left to their own devices, Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht: the ultimate result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France's Atlantic beaches" (Glantz & House, p. 285).

Astoundingly, seventy years later the world knows shamefully little about Ivan's heroics or sacrifices -- and even less about Ivan and his fellow Ivans as genuine human beings. Worse, much of what they know is wrong.

In January 2006, Metropolitan Books published Catherine Merridale's unprecedented research into the lives of Red Army soldiers, titled Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. [Note: A small amount of what follows below could be found in my review of Professor Merridale's book, which was titled, "Myths and Realities of the Great Patriotic War." It was published in Russia's St. Petersburg Times on 12 May 2006. Unfortunately, the paper ceased operating in December 2014 and its website containing my article has disappeared.]

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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