After the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the Germans took up defensive positions and fell back in an orderly retreat. The Red Army, now with aggressive, confident commanders like Georgi Zhukov and Vasily Chuikov, backed by increasing quantities of tanks, aircraft, planes and men, supplemented by deliveries from the United States and the United Kingdom, created a very large force. The Soviets were able to convert from defense at Kursk to offense almost immediately.
On August 6, 1943, the Russians recaptured Orel, the Germans losing another 1,500 tanks in addition to the losses at Kursk. Zhukov moved across the Russian Steppe, taking Kharkov on August 23, Smolesk on September 25, and Kiev on November 6. Another 1,500 tanks were destroyed in these operations. Hitler ordered a scorched—earth policy to deny the Russians the benefits of their own territories.
The Red Army was bringing to bear a huge force that almost outnumbered the Germans two—to—one. 5,700,000 Soviet troops oppose 3,000,000 Germans and their national units, and now held overwhelming superiority in tanks and artillery. The Soviet Union had learned the lessons that the Germans had taught them in 1941, and now were going to pay their teachers back.
Since 1941 Army Group North held fairly static positions near the Soviet Finnish border. Along Army Group North’s front, both sides dug miles of trenches reminiscent of World War I. The static position of the Northern front allowed the Germans to pull needed men off the line for other fronts. As breakthroughs were made by the Soviets elsewhere, the massive size of the Red Army allowed a buildup in the north. In January 1944, the Red Army broke through to Leningrad. The siege wasn’t lifted, but a rail line would help sustain the city. The same month the Red Army attacked the Crimea and drove the Germans out of Sevastopol on May 9, 1944. An attempt to withdrawal the German garrison by sea left half of the 65,000 troops behind.
Almost all of the gains of the summer of 1941 were back in Soviet hands. Army Group Center held the last major areas of Soviet territory. Hitler, who knew that the Germans would face an Allied invasion of France within a few months, stopped reinforcing the Eastern Front.He considered having his forces take up defensive positions behind what he called the “East Wall” but there wasn’t time to even survey defensive positions before the Russians crashed through.
Increasingly Hitler and his staff looked to a crushing victory in the West to stave off total collapse. If the invasion could be stopped, then 45% of the 59 divisions awaiting the Allies could be sent to the Eastern Front. Reichsminister Albert Speer, now in charge of German war production, had increased tank and aircraft production by forty percent over a year earlier. Volkssturm divisions, old men and young boys, were created to fill the ranks of new divisions. Hitler and the Nazis were gambling that they could repeat the success of 1940—1941.
But the Allies were too well prepared. Despite the Soviets’ disinclination to coordinate a new offensive with the landings, Operation Overlord succeeded, and most of the Wehrmacht divisions in France were destroyed. Allied planes, flying shuttle missions and bombing around the clock, seriously crippled or curtained German synthetic oil production. Raids on Ploesti, Romania, where the Germans refined much of their natural oil, reduced the amount of gasoline available to Hitler’s war machine.
As the Allies were beginning their landings in Normandy, the Germans expected attacks in the North and the South on the Eastern Front. Hitler and his staff reinforced Army Group North and Army Group South, both of which had been hard hit in the Soviet Offensives of 1943—1944. To make these reinforcements, they stripped Army Group Center of 80% of their panzers.
Army Group Center was the target. Outthinking Hitler and his general staff, the Russians attacked on June 22. Hitler refused to allow those units that were still in place to retreat, and the front began to collapse. By July 3 the Army was retreating without Hitler’s permission, and two—thirds of the Ninth Army was destroyed. When the last avenue of escape was closed with the recapture of Minsk, 25 of 38 Army Group Center divisions were destroyed.
On June 28 Hitler combined the Command of Army Group Center and Army Group North Ukraine under Feldmarschall Walther Model. This was too late to save Army Group Center, and Model could only stabilize his front and wait for the Red Army to lose momentum.
On July 13, The First Belorussian Front and the First Ukrainian Front under Zhukov and Vasilevski began an attack that pushed the Germans into Poland. Within two weeks, the Red Army was sitting outside the capital. Stalin ordered them to wait and let the London—based Polish Home Army expire under German guns, saving him a potential postwar rival for political power.
On August 20, the Red Army attacked Romania, a Nazi ally, and advanced on the ruins of German oil production in Ploesti on August 30. The Sixth and Eighth German armies were encircled near Kishinev.The Romanians accepted Allied surrender terms and declared war on Germany on August 23.
Bulgaria, another German ally, was invaded on September 8, and asked for armistice on the next day. She too declared war on Germany.This cut off Army Groups E and F in Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia.A forced march through the mountains of Yugoslavia under attack from Tito’s partisans was completed in mid—November. On September 28, the Red Army began its liberation of Yugoslavia and marched on the capital of Belgrade on October 20.
On November 8, Red Army units reached Budapest in Hungary, another German ally. The city’s defenses held up the Third Ukrainian Front for six weeks, as the Sixth and Eighth Armies, backed by the retreating Army Groups E and F, fought hard. On December 27, Budapest fell under attack from two Soviet Army Fronts.A Soviet—sponsored government declared war on Germany on December 29.
East Prussia, ancient home of Germany’s best military leaders including General Heinz Guderian, was cut off and Konigsberg turned into a fortress. Civilians were evacuated on ships that hadn’t moved for lack of oil in four years. Soviet submarines in the Baltic preyed on German shipping, with the worst maritime disaster, the Wilhelm Gustloff, a civilian passenger ship carrying over 11,000 refugees, was torpedoed by the Soviet Navy submarine S—13 on January 30, 1945. 9.543 were recorded as dying, but as there was no ship’s manifest, the actual death toll would never be known.
Finland had seen static fighting for years, but with the advances all over the Soviet Union, it was only a matter of time before the Finns were threatened with invasion.The German Twentieth Mountain Army, after failing to take Leningrad, was left in a void after the Finns were attacked and thrown out of the war in a three month offensive from June—September 1944. The Germans marched out of Finland, withdrawing 500 miles across arctic wilderness. The Finns, in accordance with their Russian armistice treaty, tried to disarm the Twentieth Mountain Army. After some clashes, they escaped unmolested.German troops in Norway held the Russians inside Finland, ending the offensive in the North. Finland entered the war against Germany on March 3, 1945.
The Red Army, reinvigorated and victorious, had pushed their enemies out of Soviet territory. They would now destroy them on their own ground. The Third Reich, which Hitler had boasted would last for a thousand years, had months to live.