kick the door and Russia will collapse,” (Hitler, before the opening of
the eastern front). Russia’s campaign began triumphantly on 22 June 1941 with
the entry of the German army into Russian territory for the
“Barbarossa” operation. The invasion of Russia was called by the
Germans. Stalin had never believed that the Germans wanted to invade the Soviet
Union. He thought that the non-aggression pact Molotov-Ribbentrop, which
provided for the division of Poland, would secure Russia. Signs of a
forthcoming invasion of observation of espionage services and the worrying
communications of the Soviet ambassador to Berlin were not held in any account
by Stalin, who did not activate counter moves for that invasion which seemed to
everyone imminent except for the Secretary Of the Supreme Soviet. The Germans,
assuring the tranquility on the western front with the invasion of France,
turned their aims of conquest against their Eastern Ally, the Soviet Union. The
German army entered Poland occupied by the Russians and in Ukraine practically
without a fight. In a short time, the German divisions went deeply into the
Soviet territory, taking advantage of the sympathies that met on the part of
the Ukrainian and Baltic peoples who felt themselves under Russian occupation.
Italian, Hungarian and Romanian troops participated in the invasion, along with the German divisions. Mussolini came from various military defeats in Africa and from the failure of the Greek campaign, which was only won by the intervention of German troops. These disastrous military operations had compromised his credibility with Allied Hitler. Mussolini, as well as everyone else in Europe, had understood in advance the intentions of conquest of the eastern territories, although Hitler held completely in the dark Italy of what he was organizing on the Russian front. Mussolini prepared an expeditionary force, the CSIR (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia), which when it left for Russia, took the name ARMIR (Armata Italiana in Russia), to intervene at the appropriate time alongside the German troops and capitalize on the “safe” victory of the ally against Russia led by a Stalin who was undecided on what to do. Stalin had made already clear to Germany to be willing to grant concessions in order to avoid the invasion. In mid-July, ARMIR, with 220,000 soldiers, moved to Russia, having the task, assigned by German strategists, to help with the Hungarian and Romanian troops the German army in conquering the southern territories of the Soviet Union.
The invasion of the Soviet Union provided three lines of penetration. The German troops, with the 4th Panzergruppe, strong of 600 tanks, deployed on the north face, assisted by troops recruited in the Baltic republics and indirectly assisted by the Finnish army, a country that nevertheless officially allied with Germany, was aimed at conquering of Leningrad. At the center were the 2nd and 3rd Panzergruppe with 2000 tanks headed for Minsk and Moscow. The southern front, where ARMIR also operated, was led by the 1st Panzergruppe with 800 tanks. It had as its goal Ukraine, the vast granary of Europe, and the Russian Caucasus, rich in oil fields. To get to the Caucasus, it was first to win his entry gate, Stalingrad.
The Germans led their war against Russia as a giant
blitz. The tanks, which were able to travel even 300 kilometers a day, were the
diamond’s point that served to break through the front and to defeat Soviet
troops. Then came the army that militarily occupied the areas that were
conquered. This strategy was successful because the Soviet tanks were
significantly inferior to the German ones. But German tanks had a great defect:
their lines were Teutonic squared. The vertical armors of the tower tanks gave
enemy strikes a good target. Soon the Russians made their production and sent
their new T-34 tanks to the front instead of the old BT-7. The B-34 armor was
oblique and roundish. This did not allow opposing strikes to impact violently,
greatly increasing the armor resistance. They were armed with enormous cannons
and had larger tracks that facilitated the march in the muddy swamps typical of
Russia. They became the terror of the German tank troops who knew, with their
75 mm tank cannon, that they had a gun against the rifle of Russian, provided
with a tank cannon so long that it sometimes exploded due to the barrel
On September 8, 1941, the Germans arrived at the doors of Leningrad, the ancient Tsarist capital of St. Petersburg. They thought they could conquer the city within a few days, given the little resistance found until that moment. The Germans believed the Russians of a lower race and therefore could not properly handle their army. Instead they found a heroic resistance. The siege to the city lasted two years and five months, but despite the enormous suffering that Leningrad citizens had to endure, the city resisted the bombing carried by artillery and enemy tanks.
As the northern army was blocked in the Leningrad siege, the center armed with 2000 tanks was commanded to head to Moscow. Hitler had been tempted to make that order as he considered important to consolidate the conquest of Ukraine. On July 16, the Germans were in Smolensk, a few miles from Moscow. Soviet troops had awaiting to the east of Smolensk. They were the last defensive line before the capital. Losing Moscow, the Russians would have escaped to Siberia, where to organize the last defense, that of survival. They knew their destiny well, as their ambassador in Berlin it had reported in the event of defeat. A part of the Russians on the European side of the territory would remain slaves at the service of the Germans, the others would be deported to Siberia.
The southern army of the German deployment, with the Italians, the Hungarians and the Rumanians, advanced to Rostov, conquering it. The troops had stretched across the territory exposing the north side to countering the Soviets. The 1st Panzergruppe suffered the first defeat of Germany in Russia. The Soviet army succeeded in pushing the Germans back and regaining Rostov.
winter of ’41 came. The Napoleonic Syndrome also began to strike the German
army. Hitler had imagined that he could complete the Barbarossa operation
before the arrival of winter, his soldiers were not equipped to support the
intense colds of Russian winter. The Italian soldier of ARMIR had shoes lined
with the cardboard. Only in winter, the Germans had their uniforms, coats, and
winter boots. The Italians did not have these supplies, remaining abandoned
with their light equipment, since, according to the Italian high command, this
was an operation that began in June and therefore a summer operation.
The arrival of the summer of ’42 saw the German forces in a critical situation. The German armies in the north Russia were in fact locked in the siege of Leningrad. The German central pole forces were fought with fierce battles. The Russians defended Moscow with every means. The invaders were forced to retreat, losing in a position war that kept them locked. Hitler, wanting to capitalize on advancing in Soviet territory with a big victory, ordered the conquest of Stalingrad to the army deployed south of Russia. According to the intentions of the high command in Berlin, the conquest of Stalingrad had to end before the winter of ’42. Hitler thought of conquering the oil-rich South Russia and facilitating the reunification between the German and Japanese armies, which was in the hands of the conquest campaign in Eastern Asia, between Manchuria and Indochina. General Paulus was at the command of the Stalingrad operation, a legend for German soldiers.
During the winter of ’41 Stalingrad had prepared for the enemy attack with the construction of bastions, ditches, trenches, casemates. On July 17, 42, the Battle of Stalingrad began. The Germans tried to build a bridgehead beyond the River Don, about 50 kilometers west of the city. The 62nd Russian armed forces effectively defied the German forces. The invaders had reinforced two infantry armies and one armored troop. Despite this they managed to move on only a few kilometers. On 28 July, Stalingrad authorities declared the general mobilization. Stalin had issued a statement: “No more a step back,” where citizens were called to endure until death. Everyone, from the age of 15, came to fight: workers who just left the factories, students, seniors, women. They were armed in a hurry and dispersed in defense of the city. More than 500 snipers were operating among the Russians. Tycoons chosen to hit the enemy even one kilometer away. They had fitted the legendary Mosin / Nagant model 91/30 rifle, which had adopted the technical solutions of Italian Carcano rifle. Among them the soldier “Vasja” Zaitsev was with 250 enemies killed, he became a legend and was a national hero of the Soviet Union. His story was told in the film “The enemy at the gates”.
On August 23, German General Hube with his Panzer Division penetrated far beyond Don reaching the Volga River and isolating the city from the north, preventing that supplies entered in the city. The battle of Stalingrad became the most decisive of the entire Barbarossa operation. Stalin, aware of how important the conquest of that city was for the Germans, concentrated all efforts in that clash. Unfortunately, the aid was scarce due to German siege. The only supply way was by Volga river. The boats arrived, unloaded supplies, loaded women and children, and went back. Two columns of boats were formed on the river, one in to go in ad one to go away, in slow motion, seamlessly. General Zuchov, who came from Moscow with his troops to the north of Stalingrad, repeatedly attacked German troops of General Hube. Although Zuchov could not defeat the Germans, he kept them busy, preventing the city from being fully encircled.
During September, fourth German army of General Hoth succeeded in closing the siege in south of Stalingrad, completing the encirclement of the city. Hitler, in a meeting with the commander of the Stalingrad operation, General Paulus, agreed on the final attack on the city. The winter had come and Hitler began to realize that the intense cold and the snowy fields where their Panzer Division sank the tracks without allowing fast travel would mean a stash in the offensive to the advantage of the Russian defenders who could count on an industrial production of imposing weapons. The Russians had for the time shifting industrial equipment from Western cities under threat of invasion in eastern areas near the Urals. Russian aviation could count on thousands of new planes and the army had enough new B-34 tanks, suitable for snowmobile shifts.
On September 13, the Germans were practically in the city, but they were fiercely opposed street by street, house by house, Russian defenders, who nowadays not only soldiers but also all civilians capable to handle a rifle. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities had completed the move of women and children. Just a few square kilometers, in the center of the city, was still under Soviet control, a small bag on the right bank of the Volga. The command was entrusted to Generals Eremenko and Cujkov. The Luftwaffe continually bombed Stalingrad. A group of Russian girls employed in anti-aircraft, distinguished themselves by their courage and ability to break down enemy aircraft. The Russians operated from the rubble of the palaces and factories where the commands were hidden. Resisting another two months was the goal that the Russian resistance to give the time to organize the great winter counter-offensive that Moscow was preparing for.
When it seemed that the Germans had the best since they were in almost all of the city, even though they had opposed building by building by Russian fighters, reinforcements came from the east that crossed the Volga on boats in the darkness of the night. The Soviet counterattack curbed the Germans even if it could not regain the invasion of General Paulus’s tanks. The Russians had two strengths: the heavy artillery on the other side of the Volga bombed the German positions and the nocturnal attacks that the Russian troops carried on the Germans within their positions. The invaders had no respite, they could not even rest, for the fear of these little blitz that brought a huge damage to the morale of the troop. These attacks were called by the Germans “Rattenkrieg (war of rats)”, since Russians often used sewers to reach enemy positions.
On November 11, General Paulus stirred up the last attack, the decisive one that would have to push all Russians into the Volga. The offensive lasted 8 days, now the Germans were the masters of the city. There were only small teams of resistance on the right bank of the river. It was November 18th, the last battle had come too late. The great Russian counter-offensive began, the “Uranus” operation. General Paulus had to leave the city of Stalingrad in a hurry and return to Don where the German troops underwent the Russian attack and were about to be encircled.
The “Uranus” operation, the Russian winter counter-offensive, though foreseeable, had surprised of the German high command that had its own dispersed forces on a large territory. The Russian ability to renew the wards with men and means had been underestimated. The withdrawal troops of General Paulus over Don’s line was necessary to recapture the troops and replenish a force capable of responding to the offensive. The Russians’ breakthrough on one side of the German deployment beyond the Don, and the consequent encirclement was the beginning of the end of Russia’s campaign for Germany.
The Battle of Stalingrad officially ended in the last days of January 1943. The Russians counted 500.000 deaths and 650,000 wounded, the Germans in the battle had a million dead. Italians of ARMIR, who were placed on Don’s line, had 40,000 fallen. The “Uranus” offensive marked a trend reversal. Now Russians were advancing to Germany. After two years, Soviet soldiers entered Berlin.
(Photo at the top: Stalingrado, casa di Pavlov 1943, Russian State Military Archive)