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Stark Images From War: Russian Front: WW2

"When Barbarossa begins, the world will hold its breath!"
Adolf Hitler February 1941

The conflict on the Eastern Front during WWII saw some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the war. But it was not only a battle between two vast armies, it was also a battle of cultures, politics, and ideals. It was a conflict of Nazism v Stalinism, Fascism v Communism, East v West. This was a conflict, which would shape the modern world.

'We have seriously underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate'.
Colonel General Heinz Guderian, November 1941.

Order No. 227,more commonly known as 'Not One Step Backwards'. Stalin made many changes, then signed it. The order was to be read to all troops in the Red Army. 'Panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of positions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military tribunal.' Anyone who surrendered was 'a traitor to the Motherland'. Each army had to organize 'three to five well-armed detachments (up to 200 men each)' to form a second line to shoot down any soldier who tried to run away. Zhukov implemented this order on the Western Front within ten days, using tanks manned by specially selected officers. They followed the first wave of an attack, ready 'to combat cowardice', by opening fire on any soldiers who wavered.

Russian soldiers in the heat of battle

With the German invasion of Russia only a few weeks old, it soon become clear to both the fighting men and their commanders, that this campaign would be considerably more difficult than previous ones. This was not only due to the stubborn and tenacious nature of the Russian defence, but also to a number of other factors, which were unique to Russia itself.

Russia's many unique terrain variations caused innumerable problems for the advancing German forces. The main physical obstacles were its many rivers. Most of the major rivers in Russia flow from north to south, forming a series of natural barriers to an army advancing from west to east. The rivers also become wider and deeper the further you progress east. They are fed by numerous tributaries, which in themselves presented further difficulties. They are also prone to heavy flooding during the spring thaw and autumn wet seasons. 


Russians move forward under covering fire


The sheer geographical size of Russia had a debilitating effect on German operations, both physically and psychologically. Russia's vast depth and breadth, 635 miles (950km) from the Prussian border to Moscow and 1865 miles (2800km) from Murmansk in the north to the Black Sea in the south, swallowed up the German forces. This huge area, not only caused a debilitating dispersion of forces, but also led to an impossibly overstretched line of supply and communication as the German forces advanced.
Further more the German soldier found it an unnerving and depressing experience. They had never seen such a vast landscape and could often endure days of forced marches, without ever coming across a town or village, through an endless landscape of cornfields and forests that stretched away to the horizon.


A battle-hardened Russian snatches a smoke


The effects of climate in Russia had a profound effect on the German army throughout their campaign on the Eastern Front. It was wholly unprepared for the harsh variety of climatic change it would face.

The initial problems the German Army faced were caused by the scorching Russian summer. The Russian roads baked hard by the sun, crumbled under the weight of the German advance, turning to dust, which clogged the moving parts of vehicles and weapons. Dust filters were eventually fitted to most vehicles to help prevent these problems. The German infantry, enduring forced marches of up to 35 miles a day, were doing so in temperatures of up to 30°C. Retreating Russian forces often poisoned water supplies so dehydration also became a problem. The heat also brought with it the risk of diseases such as malaria, dysentery, colic and bowel inflammation.

However these inconveniences were nothing when compared to those faced once the autumn rains arrived. During this period, known as rasputitsa, the rains, which usually began in October and lasted for a month, turned the roads into bottomless quagmires thick with mud. Wheeled vehicles and horses were stuck fast and the German panzers, with their narrow tracks, had difficulty moving. Everything ground to a halt and any movement during this period was virtually impossible. Hundreds of miles of corduroy road had to be built during the muddy seasons in order to move up supplies and heavy equipment. The native Panje horse and wagon became indispensable, able to operate in all but the worst conditions.

The muds of the autumn were swiftly followed by the onset of the harsh Russian winter. The winter of 1941 was the worst in over a hundred years and those that followed were little better. The first snows usually arrived towards the end of October and temperatures dropped rapidly. Snowfall was the heaviest in the northern regions, lasting for up to six months, with temperatures as low as -55°C. Further south, the snowfall was less severe and lasted only four months. Streams and even major rivers froze solid for months at a time, to such an extent that vehicles were able to cross and in one case a rail line was laid across the Dnepr River to help supply the German 6th Army engaged in fighting east of the river.

The Germans unused to such conditions and without any suitable clothing, quickly succumbed to ill health. Frostbite was rife, causing almost as many casualties as combat. Hot food was a rare luxury and washing was an impossibility. Lice infestations were the norm, tormenting the men who gradually learned to put up with them. Other more severe illnesses, such as respiratory diseases, cystitis and dysentery often occurred. The length of sentry duties had to be shortened as men who had fallen asleep through exhaustion were simply found frozen to death. In addition to the difficulties the numbing cold imposed on the men, their equipment fared little better. Weapon breeches had to be left open to prevent them freezing shut, firing pins shattered and weapons had to be kept completely free of oil to prevent it freezing. Artillery and AT ammunition, coated in grease which froze solid, had to be scraped clean before use. Recoil mechanisms froze solid even when left covered and had to be warmed before use. Vehicles were also affected, with no cold resistant greases, oils or lubricants available, fuel tanks, gearboxes and radiators froze solid. Vehicles either had to be left running overnight or small fires lit to warm the affected parts. In some cases vehicles and artillery pieces simply froze to the ground and became immovable. Again the Panje horse and sleigh became the universal means of transportation when motor vehicles were incapacitated and roads were snowbound.

Following the winter came the spring thaw, which usually arrived in March or April. The rapid melting of the winter snows saw widespread flooding, raised river levels and a return to the muddy conditions of autumn.

Death lay everywhere. Human life was cheap


The lack of road and rail infrastructure in Russia severely hampered German mobility. 

The German Army was forced to improvise in order improve the situation. A lack of hard surfaced, all weather roads restricted movement. Corduroy roads were the most important static improvisation of the entire Russian campaign and many operations in swampy forests and in the mud of northern and central Russia were feasible only because of the construction of such roads. Hundreds of miles of corduroy road had to be built or repaired during the muddy seasons in order to move up supplies and heavy equipment. These roads were constructed by placing several layers of logs together lashed with wire and topped with a layer of sand or rubble. Corduroy roads had a detrimental effect on the speed of movements since they slowed down traffic.

Mean while the Germans dig holes for defence

A shattered Berlin

Russian soldiers hit


Another department of the NKVD, set up by Beria in the autumn of 1939, dealt with enemy prisoners of war. Its first major task had been the liquidation of over 4,000 Polish officers in the forest at Katyn.In the summer of 1942, however, its officers were underemployed because so few Germans were captured during the Axis advance.

Every member of a small detachment from the 29th Motorized Division of Fourth Panzer Army was interrogated by Lieutenant Lepinskaya from the political department of South-Western Front headquarters. Her questions to gauge their morale provided little encouraging material. 'Most of the soldiers want to fight to the end,'she had to report. 'No cases of desertion or self-inflicted wounds.Officers strict but fair.'
Stalingrad: A Fateful Siege by ANTONY BEEVOR

Fresh German troops ready for war

Russians fire as some of them move forward. Fighting in the Russian winter

Russian soldiers crouch in their positions awaiting the dreaded sound of approaching German panzers in a Russian city


The Germans move in the trench

The German motor cycle messenger is in a tearing hurry as a tank burns

German soldiers ogle and grin at captured Russian partisans. One shivers to think of what must have happened to the women


'Soviet citizens are to establish, in the areas occupied by the enemy, Partisan units on foot and on horseback. Insufferable conditions must be created for the enemy. You must follow him everywhere and annihilate his forces'.

Stalin July 1941

The Partisan war on the Eastern Front played a significant and often unrecognised role in the campaign. 

 The Partisan organization grew from humble beginnings, with small, disorganised groups of poorly trained and equipped fighters, to emerge in early 1944 as a highly motivated, well organised, well trained and equipped force totalling some 700,000 men and women. Partisan forces constantly disrupted the German rear areas, destroying lines of communication and supply and exacting a heavy toll on moral and resources. The extent of the Partisan threat resulted in the Germans deploying 25 dedicated security Divisions, 30 separate security Regiments and more than 100 police Battalions to help safeguard the rear areas.

In the troubled times the Russian child has found a new toy

Germans cross a river

Not a pretty sight. This Stuka ended in a ditch

Germans watch nonchalantly the mangled remains of man and machine

A German watches the corpses of Russian soldiers

Watching his fallen comrades-in-arm

Spark of humanity in an age of madness and hatred. A German soldier gives a wounded Russian some water

The fighting is over for these Russians

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1 Comment:

Jin said...

the photo explain of 'Fresh German troops ready for war' is not right. it is 'Fresh Soviet troops ready for war' why they are soviet soldies with early-type(1930s) helmet(its shape is like German Stahlhelm).

the 'Spark of humanity ...' is very good impressive picture.:)

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China after Deng's reform gave the chance to get rich but power is in the hands of an elite; the Communist Party of China. Membership to the party is at the whims of the local party bosses. This leaves out many people who crave political power dissatisfied and disgruntled. There in lies the roots of instability. The Party suppressed these demands once at Tiananmen in 1989. But force is hardly the way to deal with things like these.

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