World War Two’s Eastern Front: 8 Facts You Must Know

These are 8 facts every history buff must know about the Eastern Front of World War Two.

WWII’s Eastern Front, between June 1941 to May 1945 – Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union with Joseph Stalin as its leader was engaged in a fight that would go down war history as one of the biggest and deadliest.

Not only was this deadly contest between these two leaders and their armies eventually turned the tide against Nazi Germany and their hopes of conquering whole of Europe, it was also marked with gaffes when it came to war strategies as well as human sufferings and atrocities in massive numbers.

Let’s take a trip down war history lane and get to know these 8 facts concerning the brutal but often overlooked Eastern Front of World War Two.

1. Stalin ignored early warnings of possible German attacks.

Nazi Germany attacking what was then known as the Soviet Union may have been the biggest surprise attack in the annals of military history but several sources point out that it shouldn’t have been the case at all had its leader heeded the early warnings about it happening.

While there was an existing non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia – signed in 1939 – the time the former attacked the latter, many believed Hitler intended to attack the Russians in his own time as he viewed them a race inferior to his own.

However, Russian leader Joseph Stalin appeared blind to the true intentions of the Nazi leader.

Soviet spies had already warned Stalin that Germany’s attack was imminent months before it actually happened but he did not listen to them. Furthermore, he believed Hitler when the dictator said the reason behind why German troops were on the Soviet border was to keep them out of range of British warplane strikes. Stalin even ordered his own soldiers not to fire out at German spy planes in spite of the countless times they invaded Soviet’s airspace.

Finally, Stalin’s perplexing trust on Hitler got shattered completely when Nazi Germany sent in over three million of its troops to invade Soviet Union in what was called Operation Barbarossa giving birth to WWII’s Russian Front [Eastern Front].

2. Germany would crush Soviet Union quickly . . . wrong!

 

Operation Barbarossa’s original intent was to totally defeat Soviet Union within a three-to-six-month period. In its early days, many war analysts believed and started predicting that Soviet Union’s defeat would be dealt earlier than the operation’s time span.

Nazi German troops, tanks and planes were very ruthless killing and wounding 150,000 Soviets just within a week through the campaign in the Eastern Front while its air force – the Luftwaffe – destroyed 2,000 Soviet warplanes just within the first two days of the operation.

However, in spite of these massive setbacks in the early days of the duel, Soviet Union continued to fight back and its ostensibly unending supply of troops carried on and eventually became too much for Nazi Germany to handle.

While several million Russians died because of Germany’s continuing campaign, Hitler also lost 700,000 men in it. Moreover, the Soviets showed they were not pushovers; they fought back as ferociously that Germany’s believed swift victory dragged on for years and ended in defeat.

3. Perpetual winter in the Eastern Front – an important factor in Soviet victory.

Russia’s never-ending and deadly frost – aptly called General Winter –  played a crucial role in the victory of the Russians against the Germans.

Hitler’s invasion plan was set out for the German troops to conquer Russia before the country’s legendary cold climate set in. But then, the German army’s problem with supplies coupled with the dauntless resistance Soviet Union put up stall their advance to Moscow until late 1941. By this time, General Winter had already started which proved too much for the German army still clad in their summer uniforms.

“Frostbite epidemic” quickly spread with an estimated number of 100,000 cases reported at the end of 1941. This resulted to the amputation of about 15,000 limbs.

It’s not just the German soldiers who had to contend with the biting cold of the Eastern Front. Their equipment had, too. Their guns and artillery froze and could not be fired while their tanks and jeeps refused to start as these also got frozen. Not only was the annual cold a thorn on the side of the Germans, the other seasons were quite “hellish”, too. Russian summer proved to be too hot oftentimes while Russian spring and fall brought in rasputitsa, the miserable rainy season that clogged roads rendering them impassable.

Of course, the Russians were more accustomed to the weather conditions of the Eastern Front as it was their own country. They had skis, camouflage and specially designed rifles to use.

4. Russian women had large contribution in the Eastern Front.

Soviet Union and Nazi Germany differ greatly in views regarding women. Hitler made it clear that a woman’s role revolved around the Kinder, Küche, Kirche or children, kitchen/home and church.

Though this phrase was never used by the Third Reich’s officials, Hitler encouraged women during his reign to get married, bear as many children as they could – with rewards – and not to hold paying jobs. As a matter of fact, when the Nazi party came into power, many women doctors as well as those who held offices in the government were sacked.

On the other hand, the Soviet-era communism had the tendency to embrace equality among sexes and so, women who took to arms was quite common during the Second World War. They served in many of WWII’s front lines, including the Eastern Front, as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, partisan guerrillas and even as pilots of Russian fighter planes.

Russian women fighting in the front lines of the Second World War did not just boost the numbers of the Russian army, they also contributed greatly and a number of them earned reputations as fierce fighters like ace pilots Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova and sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. And don’t forget the Russian Night Witches.

5. Fight to the last man was Stalin’s order for his troops.

In the early days of the German invasion in the Eastern Front, Stalin saw millions of his own soldiers being captured by the enemy. This made him declare “Order No. 270” in August 1941 stating that any Russian soldier who surrendered or allowed themselves to be captured by the Germans would be treated as traitors of their homeland and executed if ever they return to Russia.

Later on, he upped this order with another one — the famous “Order No. 227” or the “Not One Step Backward!” rule which was declared July of 1942. This order decreed that cowards would be instantly killed on the spot. And though it was meant to boost the morale of Russian soldiers, Stalin’s order wasn’t something without merit. Special units called blocking detachments were really placed behind their own lines in the Eastern Front with the orders of executing any Russian soldier who fled. As many as 150,000 were killed in line of Stalin’s “Not One Step Backward!” decree with about 15,000 in the Battle of Stalingrad.

6. The Eastern Front saw the biggest tank battle in the whole military history.

The Siege of Leningrad, which went down history as one of the longest and most destructive with countless casualties, as well as the grisly Battle of Stalingrad all happened in the Eastern Front.

While these two are the best known battles that occurred in the Eastern Front, this battlefield is also known for something else — being the “site of the largest armored confrontation of all time”, the Battle of Kursk which occurred July of 1943.

The Battle of Kursk involved 6,000 tanks, 5,000 warplanes and about 2 million soldiers. It started with the Germans playing offensive wanting to get the 70-mile salient or bulge in the Soviet lines located in western Russia. But Hitler, wanting his new Tiger tanks to reach the front, delayed the attack. This allowed Stalin to fortify the region.

By the time the Germans started their campaign, the Soviets met them head on with mines and artillery fires that eventually destroyed many of the former’s Tiger tanks and left some 350,000 dead on both sides.

Finally, the Germans – seeing that they were no match against the Soviets – retreated on July 13. It was their last offensive operation in the Eastern Front.

7. Both the Germans and the Russians committed war crimes and atrocities in large numbers.

If the Western Front and the Eastern Front were compared, the struggle in the latter was far costlier and bigger. Furthermore, it was by far more brutal.

Both the Germans and the Russians disregarded international laws and acted cruel against the enemy — towards the opposite side’s soldiers, prisoners and even civilians.

As they advanced through the Eastern Front, German soldiers wiped out countless Russian villages with Jews, as well as other minorities, constantly rounded up and either shot or poisoned through their mobile gassing vans. Additionally, Nazi Germany’s troops also engaged in starving Russian cities to submission the most famous case being that of Leningrad. The Germans’ 28-month siege of the city resulted to the death of as many as one million civilians.

Soviet Union’s Red Army responded to Nazi Germany’s brutality in the Eastern Front with their own as they advanced to Berlin in 1945. They shot, burned alive, crushed through the use of their tanks and even crucified scores of civilians as they headed towards Germany’s capital. There are also studies that state that the Red Army may have also raped as many as 2 million German women during WWII’s last days.

8. The Soviet Union did not release the last of its German POWs until after a decade after WWII ended – in 1956.

Western Allies released the last of their POWs in 1948. But that was not the case in the Eastern Front as a number of German POWs were still locked up in the Soviet Union for a longer period of time.

Many of the German POWs in the USSR were used as laborers in coal or copper mines. It was estimated that about 400,000 to 1 million POWs died while in the hands of the Soviets.

When Stalin died in 1953, there were still about 20,000 former Nazi soldiers under the Soviet’s custody. Eventually, the last 10,000 of these prisoners of wars were released until 1955-1956.

Additional Trivia:

  • – About half of the estimated 60-70 million deaths caused by the Second World War happened within the Eastern Front.
  • – Soviet Union lost as many as 25 million casualties – soldiers and civilians – during the said conflict; that was about 15 percent of the USSR’s entire population before the war.
  • – Eight of every German soldier killed during World war Two perished while fighting in the Eastern Front.

Via History 101