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Eastern Front
Part of European War
Date 26 August 1939 – 8 January 1942
(2 years, 4 months, 1 week and 6 days)
Location Europe east of Germany: Central, Eastern Europe and Northern Europe; in some stages Southern Europe (Balkans), Germany and Austria
Result Axis victory
  • Collapse of the Greater Austria
  • Germany occupies Eastern Europe and establishes pro-German Fascist governments
Belligerents
Axis powers
Flag of the German Empire.svg Germany
22px Austria (1939–40)
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Bulgaria (1941–42)
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italy
Flag of Romania.svg Romania (1941–42)
Co-belligerents

Flag of Finland.svg Finland
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Soviet Union

The Eastern Front of the European War was a theatre of conflict between the European Axis powers and co-belligerent Finland and the United Kingdom against the Soviet Union, which encompassed Northern, Southern and Central and Eastern Europe from 26 August 1939 to 8 January 1942. It has been known as the Great Patriotic War (Russian: Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna) in the former Soviet Union and in modern Russia, while in Germany it was called the Eastern Front (German: die Ostfront), the Eastern Campaign (der Ostfeldzug) or the Russian Campaign (der Rußlandfeldzug).

The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres. Of the estimated millions of deaths attributed to the European War, over 30 million, many of them civilian, occurred on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the balance of power in Europe, eventually serving as the main reason for Germany's dominence. It resulted in the destruction of the Soviet Union, the partition of Russia for nearly half a century and the rise of Germany as a military and industrial superpower.

The two principal belligerent powers were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies. Though never engaged in military action in the Eastern Front until much later, the United Kingdom invaded Northern Russia. The joint German–Finnish operations across the northernmost Finnish–Soviet border and in the Murmansk region are considered part of the Eastern Front. In addition, the Soviet–Finnish Continuation War may also be considered the northern flank of the Eastern Front.

Background

The Soviet Union, like many nations of Europe, was unsatisfied with the outcome of the World War (1914–1918). Soviet Russia had lost substantial territory in Eastern Europe it annexed in the 18th and 19th centuries. A result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), where the Bolsheviks in Petrograd conceded to German demands and ceded control of Poland, Lithuania, Livonia, Finland, and other areas, to the Central Powers. The government of Germany, in turn decided to grant these states limited independence as buffer states. When the war in the west ended in September 1918, Soviet Russia was in the midst of a civil war and the Entente did not recognize the Bolshevik government, leaving the Soviets isolated. Diplomatic recognition and trade came over the course of the 1920's.

The Franco-Soviet Alliance signed in May 1935 was a bilateral agreement between France and the Soviet Union. France's aim was to envelope Germany with a threat of a two-front war. The Soviet's aim was to return Eastern Europe to the pre–World War status quo and dividing Germany between France and the Soviet Union. Belarus, Bessarabia, Finland, Livonia, Lithuania and Ukraine would return to the Soviet control, while Poland and Romania would be retain their independence.

France participated with Germany in the annexation of Austrian territory by Italy the Naples Agreement. Although the USSR was not part of the agreement, they demanded significant territorial concessions from Finland demanding that they cede substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere, claiming security reasons, primarily the protection of Leningrad, which was only 32 km (20 mi) from the Finnish border, at the end of a narrow finger of coastline about 15 km (9.3 mi) long by 5 km (3.1 mi) wide; most of the Finnish border was more than 50 km (31 mi) from Leningrad. Finland rejected Soviet demands, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, starting a European War. While both the United Kingdom and Germany declared war on the Soviet Union on 2 December, in the end their aid to Finland was very limited. This resulted in a peace treaty on 13 March 1940, with Finland maintaining its independence but losing its eastern parts in Karelia.

Conduct of operations

December 1939–February 1940


Soviet soldiers preparing rafts to cross the Dnieper (the sign reads "Onwards to Kiev!")

The Red Army began a massive offensive westward on 3 December 1939. The Livonian city of Narwa was attacked on the same day, along with Marienburg being captured on 7 December. By Christmas Eve the railway junction of Taps was captured. The offensive into northern Livonia continued to 34 km (21 mi) away from Reval. In central Livonia, the Red Army took the railway junction of Walk on 17 December and the city of Tartu on 24 December.

Another attack, now against Belarus, began on 10 December. Panicky transmissions from the Belarusian front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this: "We are being fired upon. What shall we do?" The government in Minsk had not declared war on the Soviet Union nor mobilized its army. Polotsk fell on 11 December, Drýsa and Rahačoŭ on 12 December, Žłobin on 14 December, Babrujsk on 18 December, Barysaŭ on 23 December, Sluck on 28 December and Červień on 29 December. On 30 December 1939, the Red Army entered Minsk almost unopposed, while the government fled to Vilnius. On 31 December, the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia (SSRB) was proclaimed. On 8 January, the SSRB government signed the Union Treaty, joining the USSR. At the same time Belarusian units set up a defensive line in western Belarus. Ill-equipped and composed mostly of local recruits, they were determined to defend their homes from what the newspapers described as a "Red menace".

Riga was captured by the Red Army on 3 January 1940. By the end of January the Livonian Government and remaining units south of the Daugava river had retreated all the way to Libau, but then the Red Army's offensive stalled along the Venta river. Livonia was now split down the center. The front line in northern Livonia ran 34 km (21 mi) east of Reval, west from Dorpat and south of Haynasch. As Soviet troops approached Lithuanian territory on 12 December 1939, the Lithuanian Army had not fully mobilized yet and could not offer serious resistance. The Red Army captured one town after another: Zarasai and Švenčionys (Dec. 22), Utena (Dec. 23), Rokiškis (Dec. 27), Ukmergė and Panevėžys (Jan. 9), Šiauliai (Jan. 15), Telšiai (Jan. 25). After five days of fighting, Vilnius fell to the Soviets on 5 January. The front somewhat stabilized when Soviet forces were stopped near the Venta River by Livonian and German units, however Lithuania lost about ⅔ of its territory.

In response to the capture of Vilnius, the Royal Polish Army started sending units eastwards to help the self-defense units, while the Soviets did the same but in the opposite direction. On 7 February 1940 an agreement was signed between Duke Adolf Friedrich and Jüri Uluots, starting formation of autonomous Estonian Defence League led by Nikolai Reek on Estonian territory. The EDL launched a counter-offensive on 18 February. Taps was liberated two days later in a campaign highlighted by the implementation of the highly successful "soomusrongid" (armoured trains). This turn of events was swiftly followed by the liberaton of the large town of Wesenberg on 23 February. Aiding the advance, a 1,000-strong Finnish-Estonian force landed at Udria to the rear of the Soviet lines on 28 February. In so doing, retreat eastward for the Soviet forces was precluded. The following day Narwa was liberated from the Soviets. In mid-February, in the area of the towns of Biaroza and Masty, where the Red Army advanced towards Poland. Both the Soviet offensive and the Polish counterattack started at the same time. By April the Soviets captured Hrodna, the last Belarusian stronghold.

March–July 1940


Polish soldiers entrenched near Hrodna as the Red Army advances across Belarus

In early March 1940, Polish units started an offensive, crossing the Neman River, taking Pinsk, and reaching the outskirts of Lída. In April the Red Army had recaptured Hrodna , but was soon pushed out by a Polish counter-offensive. Ukrainian forces retook Sarny, Žytomyr, Kórosten, and were threatening to take back Kiev. While in the Baltic region Tuckum was recaptured from by the German Army on 15 March and Mitau on 18 March. Unable to hold their line and facing strengthening presense of the German forces, the Red Army withdrew from its positions and reorganized. Polish forces continued a steady eastern advance supporting, also being supported by, Lithuanian forces. The Poles took Lída on 17 April and Navahrudak on 18 April, and recaptured Vilnius on 19 April, driving the SSR government from the capital. On 22 May 1940 Riga was recaptured by the Germans and terror against any suspected Soviet sympathizers began. At the same time the EDL divisions also started southward offensive into South Livonia. By end of May they had captured Marienburg and Wolmar. Due simultaneous German-Livonian westward offensive, the situation was becoming very difficult for the Soviets who were driven back to Latgale by the middle of June. On 8 August, Polish forces took Minsk. After heavy fighting, the town of Babrujsk near the Berezina River was captured.

With Polish forces having driven a wedge between Soviet forces to the north (Belarus) and south (Ukraine). The K.u.K Army of Austria was ready to mount its first major operation. On 24 April, Austria began its main offensive, Operation Kiev. The K.u.K. Army Group Archduke Felix were assisted by the remaining 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers under personal command of Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, Hetman of Ukraine. On 26 April, in his "Call to the People of Ukraine", Emperor Otto I told the crowds outside Hofburg palace that "the Imperial and Royal army would only stay as long as necessary until the legal Ukrainian government took control over its own territory". The Austrian's 4th Galician Army easily won border clashes with the Red Army in Ukraine but the Soviets withdrew with minimal losses. Subsequently, the combined Austro–Ukrainian forces entered an abandoned Kiev on 7 May, encountering only token resistance. On 29 May the Soviets counterattacked. Austrian forces in the area, preparing for an offensive towards Žlobin, managed to hold their ground, but were unable to start their own planned offensive. As June ended and July started, the Austrians found the line along the Dnieper river impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew, and important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporizhzhya the first to go, followed by Ekaterinoslav. Finally, early in August the Red Army broke out of its bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and recaptured the Ukrainian capital.

August 1940–February 1941


Soviet parade in Chișinău after the annexation. The aftermath of this event triggered a shift in Romania's politics towards fascism

Now 80 mi (130 km) west of Kiev, Erhard Raus, convinced that the Red Army was a spent force, was able to mount a successful riposte at Žytomyr during the middle of August, weakening the Soviet bridgehead by a daring outflanking strike mounted by the Ukrainian 93rd Sich Rifle Battalion along the river Teteriv. This battle also enabled the Ukrainian troops to recapture Korosten and gain some time to rest; however, on 24 August the retreat began anew when the Ukrainians struck them in the same place. The Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Austrian–Soviet border was reached on 3 September 1940. To the south, the Soviets had crossed the Dnieper at Kremenčuk and continued westwards. In the second week of September 1940 they swung north, meeting Ivan Tyulenev's tank forces which had swung south from their positions in Belarus and surrounding ten Austrian divisions at Korsun, west of the city. Hetman Vyshyvanyi's insistence on holding the Dnieper line, even when facing the prospect of catastrophic defeat, was compounded by his conviction that the Korsun pocket could break out and even advance to Kiev, but Raus was more concerned about being able to advance to the edge of the pocket and then implore the surrounded forces to break out. By 16 September the first stage was complete, with tanks separated from the contracting Korsun pocket only by the swollen Gniloy Tikich river. Under shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks, the surrounded Austrian troops fought their way across the river to safety, although at the cost of half their number and all their equipment. They assumed the Soviets would not attack again, with the winter approaching, but on 3 October the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive.

To maintain neutrality, as well as a Soviet ultimatum, Romania agreed to give up Bessarabia. Two-thirds of Bessarabia formed the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The rest (Bugeac) was apportioned to the newly created Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The fact that so much land was lost without a fight shattered the underpinnings of King Carol's power. This reinforced the fascist and military factions, who eventually staged a coup that turned the country into a dictatorship under Mareșal Ion Antonescu. One final move in the south completed the 1939–40 campaigning season, which had wrapped up a Soviet advance of over 500 miles. In November, 20 Austrian divisions of General der Infanterie István Náday's 1st Hungarian Army were encircled in what was to be known as Náday's Pocket near Kamianets-Podilskyi. After two weeks' of heavy fighting, the 1st Hungarian Army managed to escape the pocket, suffering only light to moderate casualties.

Soviet Advances 24 August to 28 October 1940

On Belarus' front, August 1940 saw this force pushed back from the southern border slowly, ceding comparatively little territory, but the inability to advance, and more importantly the to prevent being outflanked, by 25 September cost the Royal Polish Army the keystone of their entire defensive system. The Polish 4th and 9th armies and German 3rd Panzer Army still held their own east of the upper Dnieper, stifling Soviet attempts to reach Brest. In the Baltic region, there was barely any fighting at all until January 1941, when out of nowhere Volkhov and Second Baltic Fronts struck. To Stalin, the Baltic Sea seemed the quickest way to take the battles to the German territory in East Prussia. The Red Army's offensives towards Reval, were stopped in February 1941.

March–September 1941


Soviet soldiers in Połack, 4 April 1941

Soviet soldiers in Vilnius, 13 April 1941

K.u.K. planners were convinced that the Red Army would attack again in the south, where the front was 50 mi (80 km) from Lemberg and offered the most direct route to Vienna. Accordingly, they requested German troops from the north, whose front still held at the Soviet frontiers with Livonia. The Belarusian Offensive (code named Operation Bagration) launched on 22 March 1941, was a massive Soviet attack, consisting of four Soviet army groups totaling over 120 divisions that smashed into a thinly held German line. They focused their massive attacks on Polish and Belarusian units, not the Germans as was originally expected. More than 2.3 million Soviet troops went into action against the Polish forces, which boasted a strength of fewer than 800,000 men. At the points of attack, the numerical and quality advantages of the Soviet forces were overwhelming: the Red Army achieved a ratio of ten to one in tanks and seven to one in aircraft over their enemy. The Poles crumbled. The Belarusian capital of Minsk, was retaken by the Soviets on 3 April, trapping some 100,000 Poles. Ten days later the Red Army reached the Bug river. Bagration was, by any measure, one of the largest single operations of the war. By the end of May 1941, it had cost the Anti-Comintern, mostly Polish ~400,000 dead, wounded, missing and sick, from whom 160,000 were captured, as well as 2,000 tanks and 57,000 other vehicles. In the operation, the Red Army lost ~180,000 dead and missing (760,742 in total, including wounded and sick), as well as 2,957 tanks and assault guns. The offensive at Livonia claimed another 480,000 Soviet soldiers, 100,000 of them classed as dead.

The neighboring Lemberg–Sandomierz operation was launched on 17 April 1941, with the Red Army routing the Austrian forces in Western Ukraine and taking Lemberg. The Soviet advance in the south continued into Transylvania and, after reaching the Mureș river on 23 May, the Red Army occupied Cluj , the capital of Transylvania, on 11 June. Despite initial success in an advance, the Red Army managed to stop an Austrian advance at the Battle of Păuliș, and soon a Soviet counterattack overwhelmed the Austrians, who gave ground and evacuated Transylvania itself on 21 June.

Soviet soldiers advance through the streets of Mitau; summer 1941

The rapid progress of Operation Bagration threatened to cut off and isolate the units of the Baltic bitterly resisting the Soviet advance towards Reval. Despite a ferocious attack at the Sinimäed Hills, the Soviet Northern Front failed to break through the defense of the smaller, well-fortified army detachment "Narwa" in terrain not suitable for large-scale operations. As the Red Army advanced, a Slovak National Uprising started as an armed struggle for independence between Austrian K.u.K. forces and rebel Slovak troops between July and September 1941. It was centered at Banská Bystrica. During the uprising, the Soviet Army halted in the hills of the Beskyd Mountains , unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the Slovaks.

File:EasternFrontMedal.jpg

Over three million German and Axis personnel were awarded the Eastern Front Medal for service during 15 November 1941 – 15 April 1942. It was nicknamed the Gefrierfleischorden – "frozen meat-medal".

On 8 September 1941 the Red Army began an attack on the Dukla Pass in the Laborec Highlands. Two months later, the Soviet forces won the battle and entered Slovakia. The toll was high: 20,000 Red Army soldiers died, plus several thousand Austro-Germans, Slovaks and Czechs. Under the pressure of the Soviet Baltic Offensive, the German forces were withdrawn to fight in the sieges of Ösel, Courland and Memel.

September–October 1941

Following increasing violence across the empire and demands from Germany that Austria agree to the Anti-Comintern Pact, Austrian Foreign Minister Count Teleki met with Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 12 September, in an attempt to negotiate terms for a new Austro-German alliance. Hitler presented Schmidt with a set of demands that included appointing Nazi sympathizers to positions of power in the government. The key appointment was that of Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Minister of Public Security, with full, unlimited control of the police. In return Hitler would publicly reaffirm the agreement of July 1936 and reaffirm his support for Austria's national sovereignty. Browbeaten by Hitler and with Soviet forces fast advancing from the east, Chancellor Starhemberg began attempting to contact the British and the Italians to escape from the war and establish an armistice with the Soviets.

On 19 September, the Germans responded by sending an ultimatum to Austria, demanding that all power be handed over to the Austrian Nazis or face an invasion. The ultimatum was set to expire at noon, but was extended by two hours. Starhemberg's government reject German demands and Kaiser Wilhelm III signed the order to send troops into Austria at one o'clock. On the morning of 20 October, a German-led invasion, Operation Otto, of Austria began. Anti-Comintern forces occupied key locations to ensure Austrian loyalty. They placed Emperor Otto under house arrest and replaced Starhemberg with a more pliable successor. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an avid supporter of the Nazis, became the new Chancellor of Austria.

January–April 1942

File:Eastern Front 1945-01 to 1945-05.png

Soviet advances from 1 January 1945 to 11 May 1945:

The Soviet Union finally entered Warsaw on 17 January 1942. Over three days, on a broad front, the Red Army launched the Vistula–Oder Offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. After four days the Red Army broke out and started moving thirty to forty kilometres a day, taking the Baltic states, Danzig, which isolated East Prussia, and drawing up on a line sixty kilometres east of Posen. During the full course of the Vistula–Oder operation (23 days), the Red Army forces sustained 194,191 total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) and lost 1,267 tanks and assault guns.


File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-072-09, Ostpreußen, Flüchtlingtreck.jpg

German refugees from East Prussia, February 1945

A limited counter-attack (codenamed Operation Solstice) under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, had halted the Soviet advance on 24 February, and the German Army drove on to West Prussia and cleared the left bank of the Bug River. In the south, the attempts, in Operation Konrad, to relieve the encircled garrison at Budapest were underway. On 6 March, Romanian forces entered Transylvania and captured the towns of Brașov and Sibiu while advancing toward the Mureș river. Their main objective was to take Cluj from the Red Army. The Romanians engaged the Red Army on 8 March in what was to become the Battle of Turda, which lasted until 8 April and resulted in heavy casualties for both sides. Also around this time, the Serbian Army carried out its an independent offensive action, penetrating Vojvodina in southern Austria. Despite initial success, the Red Army managed to stop the Serb advance, however a combined Serbo-Romanian counterattack overwhelmed the Soviets, who gave ground and evacuated the Banat region on 21 March.

The Germans launched Operation Spring Awakening, which began on 16 March. After several days of heavy fighting the German Second Panzer Army and the Italian 23rd Infantry Division Ferrara punched holes through the Soviet front line and were fanning out across Hungary. By 24 March, elements of both armies had completed the encirclement of the Hungarian capital and the Siege of Budapest entered its final stages. On 25 March the Italians broke through the 1st Ukrainian Front's line north of Vsetín. Fyodor Tolbukhin, military commander of Budapest and the 3rd Ukrainian Front, surrendered the city on 2 April. Altogether, the operations in Hungary (16 March – 2 April) cost the Red Army 361,367 casualties (dead, wounded, missing and sick) and 1997 tanks and assault guns.

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April–May 1941

Main articles: Poland Campaign

Before any real offensive against the Soviet Union could be attempted the Axis had to secure eastern Germany, retake Hungary and drive the Red Army out of Poland. The German offensive had two objectives. The offensive was to be on a broad front and was to move as rapidly as possible to the east, to align the front as far east as possible.

The morning 14 April, German forces went on the offensive from the north, south, and west. As the Germans advanced, Soviet forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation in western Poland to more established lines of defense to the east. After the early-May Soviet defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage. Soviet forces then withdrew to the Polish border where they prepared for a long defense of the Soviet Union newly annexed frontier republic's.

The offensive to recapture Northern Hungary and Budapest started on 16 April with an assault on the Red Army positions in Slovakia. After several days of heavy fighting the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies punched holes through the Soviet front line and were fanning out across Hungary. By 24 April, elements of the German Second Panzer and Third Hungarian Armies had completed the encirclement of the Hungarian capital and the Second Siege of Budapest entered its final stages. On 25 April the Third Hungarian Army broke through the 1st Ukrainian Front's line north of Vsetín. Fyodor Tolbukhin, military commander of Budapest and the 3rd Ukrainian Front, surrendered the city to the Germans on 2 May. Altogether, the operations in Hungary (16 April – 2 May) cost the Red Army 361,367 casualties (dead, wounded, missing and sick) and 1997 tanks and assault guns.

Operation Barbarossa: Summer 1941

File:Eastern Front 1941-06 to 1941-12.png

Operation Barbarossa: the German invasion of the Soviet Union, 21 June 1941 to 5 December 1941:

Operation Barbarossa began just before dawn on 22 June 1941. The Germans wrecked the wire network in all Soviet western military districts to undermine Soviet communications.

Panicky transmissions from Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this one:

"We are being fired upon. What shall we do?"

The answer was just as confusing:

"You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?"

File:22jun1941.jpg

Map of South Western Front (Ukrainian) at 22 June 1941

At 03:15 on 22 June 1941, 99 of 190 German divisions, including fourteen panzer divisions and ten motorized, were deployed against the Soviet Union from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions, and nine Romanian and four Hungarian brigades. On the same day, the British Expeditionary Force, led by Lieutenant-general Henry Pownall, invaded Northern Russia. To establish air supremacy, the Luftwaffe began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields, destroying much of the forward-deployed Soviet Air Force airfield fleets consisting of largely obsolescent types before their pilots had a chance to leave the ground. For a month the offensive conducted on three axes was completely unstoppable as the panzer forces encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in huge pockets that were then reduced by slower-moving infantry armies while the panzers continued the offensive, following the Blitzkrieg doctrine.

Army Group North's objective was Leningrad via the Baltic states. Comprising the 16th and 18th Armies and the 4th Panzer Group, this formation advanced through the Baltic states, and the Russian Pskov and Novgorod regions. Local insurgents seized the moment and controlled most of Lithuania, northern Latvia and southern Estonia prior to the arrival of the German forces.

File:Victims of Soviet NKVD in Lvov, June 1941.jpg

The corpses of victims of Stalin's NKVD murdered in last days of June 1941, just after outbreak of war

Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (2nd and 3rd), advanced to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk and converged east of Minsk, followed by the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Armies. The combined panzer force reached the Beresina River in just six days, 650 km (400 mi) from their start lines. The next objective was to cross the Dnieper river, which was accomplished by 11 July. Their next target was Smolensk, which fell on 16 July, but the fierce Soviet resistance in the Smolensk area and retardation of the Wehrmacht advance in North and South forced German leadership to halt a central thrust at Moscow and to divert Panzer Group 3 north. Critically, Guderian's Panzer Group 2 was ordered to move south in a giant pincer maneuver with Army Group South which was advancing into Ukraine. Army Group Centre's infantry divisions were left relatively unsupported by armor to continue their slow advance to Moscow.

This decision caused a severe leadership crisis. The German field commanders argued for an immediate offensive towards Moscow, but Hitler overruled them, citing the importance of Ukrainian agricultural, mining and industrial resources, as well as the massing of Soviet reserves in the Gomel area between Army Group Centre's southern flank and the bogged-down Army Group South's northern flank. This decision, Hitler's "summer pause", is believed to have had a severe impact on the Battle of Moscow's outcome, by giving up speed in the advance on Moscow in favor of encircling large numbers of Soviet troops around Kiev.

Army Group South, with the 1st Panzer Group, the 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, was tasked with advancing through Galicia and into Ukraine. Their progress, however, was rather slow, and took heavy casualties in a major tank battle. With the corridor towards Kiev secured by mid-July, the 11th Army, aided by two Romanian armies, fought its way through Bessarabia towards Odessa. The 1st Panzer Group turned away from Kiev for the moment, advancing into the Dnieper bend (western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast). When it joined up with the southern elements of Army Group South at Uman, the Group captured about 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a huge encirclement. Advancing armored divisions of the Army Group South met with the Guderian Panzer Group 2 near Lokhvytsa in mid September, cutting off large numbers of Red Army troops in the pocket east of Kiev. 400,000 Soviet prisoners were captured as Kiev was liberated on 19 September.

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Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the war, June 1941, by RIA Novosti archive

Stalin ordered the retreating Red Army to initiate a scorched-earth policy to deny Germans and their allies basic supplies as they moved eastward. To carry out that order, destruction battalions were formed in front-line areas, having the authority to summarily execute any suspicious person. The destruction battalions burned down villages, schools, and public buildings. As a part of this policy the NKVD massacred thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners.

Moscow and Rostov: Autumn 1941

The Germans then decided to resume the advance on Moscow, re-designating the panzer groups as panzer armies for the occasion. Operation Typhoon, which was set in motion on 30 September, saw the 2nd Panzer Army rush along the paved road from Oryol (captured 5 October) to the Oka River at Plavsk, while the 4th Panzer Army (transferred from Army Group North to Centre) and 3rd Panzer armies surrounded the Soviet forces in two huge pockets at Vyazma and Bryansk. Army Group North positioned itself in front of Leningrad and attempted to cut the rail link at Mga to the east. This began the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. North of the Arctic Circle, a German–Finnish force set out for Murmansk which fell on 17 November while British forces secured Kandalaksha. The BEF continued to advance south along the Northern Dvina River where they settled down at Vologda in the fall.
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Wehrmacht soldiers pulling a car from the mud during the rasputitsa period, November 1941

Army Group South pushed down from the Dnieper to the Sea of Azov coast, also advancing through Kharkiv, Kursk, and Yuzovka. The 11th Army moved into the Crimea and took control of all of the peninsula by autumn (except Sevastopol, which held out until 3 July 1942). On 21 November, the Germans took Rostov, the gateway to the Caucasus. However, the German lines were over-extended and the Soviet defenders counterattacked the 1st Panzer Army's spearhead from the north, forcing them to pull out of the city and behind the Mius River.

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Soviet gun crew in action at Odessa in 1941

The onset of the winter freeze saw one last German lunge that opened on 15 November, when the Germans attempted to throw a ring around Moscow. On 27 November, the 4th Panzer Army got to within 30 km (19 mi) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army took Tula, the last Soviet city that stood in its way to the capital. After a meeting held in Orsha between the head of the OKH (Army General Staff), General Franz Halder and the heads of three Army groups and armies, decided to push forward to Moscow since it was better, as argued by the head of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, for them to try their luck on the battlefield rather than just sit and wait while their opponent gathered more strength.

By 6 December it became clear that the Wehrmacht would capture Moscow, and the attack was continued feverishly throughout the month. Marshal Shaposhnikov thus began his counter-attack, employing freshly mobilized reserves, but the much needed well-trained Far-Eastern divisions were transferred north to try and repulse the BEF. On 30 December, as the German forces fought their way into the center of Moscow, Joseph Stalin committed suicide by taking cyanide and shooting himself. Georgy Zhukov, defense commandant of Moscow, surrendered the city to the Germans on 2 January.

At 02:41 on the morning of 7 January 1942, at OKH headquarters, Red Army Chief-of-Staff General Boris Shaposhnikov signed the unconditional surrender documents for all Soviet forces to the Axis at Helsinki in Finland. It included the phrase All forces under Soviet control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 January 1942. The war in Europe was over.

The Separate Coastal Army initially refused to surrender and continued to fight in Crimea until about 11 January.

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