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World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

The Road to Berlin

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World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

Soviet troops hang their flag from the Reichstag building in Berlin, 1945

Photograph Source: Public Domain
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The Soviets Move West

Soviet troops began to pour across the Dnieper and soon liberated the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Soon elements of the Red Army were nearing the 1939 Soviet-Polish border. In January 1944, the Soviets launched a major winter offensive in the north which relieved the siege of Leningrad, while Red Army forces in the south cleared the western Ukraine. As the Soviets neared Hungary, Hitler decided to occupy the country amid concerns that Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy would make a separate peace. German troops crossed the border on March 20, 1944. In April, the Soviets attacked into Romania to gain a foothold for a summer offensive in that area.

On June 22, 1944, the Soviets launched their main summer offensive (Operation Bagration) in Belarus. Involving 2.5 million soldiers and over 6,000 tanks, the offensive sought to destroy Army Group Center while also preventing the Germans from diverting troops to combat the Allied landings in France. In the ensuing battle, the Wehrmacht suffered one its worst defeats of the war as Army Group Center was shattered and Minsk liberated.

Warsaw Uprising

Storming through the Germans, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw on July 31. Believing that their liberation was finally at hand, the populace of Warsaw rose in revolt against the Germans. That August, 40,000 Poles took control of the city, but the anticipated Soviet assistance never came. Over the next two months the Germans flooded the city with soldiers and brutally put down the revolt.

Advances in the Balkans

With the situation in hand in the center of the front, the Soviets began their summer campaign in the Balkans. As the Red Army surged into Romania, the German and Romanian front lines collapsed within two days. By early September, both Romania and Bulgaria had surrendered and switched from the Axis to the Allies. Following up their success in the Balkans, the Red Army pushed into Hungary in October 1944, but were badly beaten at Debrecen.

To the south, Soviet advances forced the Germans to evacuate Greece on October 12 and, with the aid of Yugoslav Partisans, captured Belgrade on October 20. In Hungary, the Red Army renewed their assault and was able to push through to encircle Budapest on December 29. Trapped within the city were 188,000 Axis forces which held out until February 13.

The Campaign in Poland

As the Soviet forces in the south were driving west, the Red Army in the north was clearing the Baltic Republics. In the fighting, Army Group North was cut off from other German forces when the Soviets reached the Baltic Sea near Memel on October 10. Trapped in the "Courland Pocket," 250,000 men of Army Group North held out on the Latvian Peninsula until the end of the war. Having cleared the Balkans, Stalin ordered his forces redeployed to Poland for a winter offensive.

Originally scheduled for late January, the offensive was advanced to the 12th after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Stalin to attack sooner to relieve pressure on US and British forces during the Battle of the Bulge. The offensive started with Marshall Ivan Konev's forces attacking across the Vistula River in southern Poland and was followed by assaults near Warsaw by Zhukov. In the north, Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky attacked over the Narew River. The combined weight of the offensive destroyed the German lines and left their front in ruins. Zhukov liberated Warsaw on January 17, 1945, and Konev reached the prewar German border a week after the offensive's start. During the first week of the campaign, the Red Army advanced 100 miles along a front that was 400 miles long.

The Battle for Berlin

While the Soviets originally hoped to take Berlin in February, their offensive began to stall as German resistance increased and their supply lines became overextended. As the Soviets consolidated their position they struck north into Pomerania and south into Silesia to protect their flanks. As the spring of 1945 moved on, Hitler believed that the Soviet's next target would be Prague rather than Berlin. He was mistaken when on April 16, Soviet forces began their assault on the German capital.

The task of taking the city was given to Zhukov, with Konev protecting his flank to the south and Rokossovsky ordered to continue advancing west to link up with the British and Americans. Crossing the Oder River, Zhukov's attack bogged down while trying to take the Seelow Heights. After three days of battle and 33,000 dead, the Soviets succeeded in breaching the German defenses. With Soviet forces encircling Berlin, Hitler called for a last ditch resistance effort and began arming civilians to fight in Volkssturm militias. Pressing into the city, Zhukov's men fought house to house against determined German resistance. With the end rapidly approaching, Hitler retired to the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery building. There, on April 30, he committed suicide. On May 2, the last defenders of Berlin surrendered to the Red Army effectively ending the war on the Eastern Front.

Aftermath of the Eastern Front

The Eastern Front of World War II was the largest single front in the history of warfare both in terms of size and soldiers involved. During the course of the fighting, the Eastern Front claimed 10.6 million Soviets soldiers and 5 million Axis troops. As the war raged, both sides committed a variety of atrocities, with the Germans rounding up and executing millions of Soviet Jews, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities as well as enslaving civilians in conquered territories. The Soviets were guilty of ethnic cleansing, mass executions of civilians and prisoners, torture, and oppression.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union contributed significantly to the Nazi's ultimate defeat as the front consumed vast amounts of manpower and material. Over 80% of the Wehrmacht's World War II casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. Likewise, the invasion eased pressure on the other Allies and gave them a valuable ally in the east.

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