Third Reich in photos: Eastern Front in flames
AS THE TIDE OF WAR TURNED, THE SOVIET FRONT BECAME SYNONYMOUS WITH DEATH
Rare photos from the front in 1942-43
“Between novorossiysk and tuapse” 29 October 1942
The cover of the Cologne Illustrated Newspaper spotlights a mass of Russian POWS led by a single German soldier, pipe in mouth, thereby trumpeting the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front victories – in this case on a dusty road near two important Black Sea ports. Most of Novorossiysk was occupied by German and Romanian troops on 10 September 1942. However, the strategic bay was defended for 225 days by a small Soviet naval unit until it was liberated in September 1943. The Axis was therefore never allowed access to the port for the transport of supplies.
Hitler fanatically believed that after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union the Communist monolith would collapse like a house of cards when confronted by the invincibility of Nazi ideology and military technology. While some of his high command had their doubts about attacking such a vast country, and remembering Napoleon’s catastrophic attempt previously, Hitler held sway, and on the morning of 22 June 1941, he sent millions of Axis troops across the border, intent on bursting
Stalin’s bubble of security – an illusion previously imagined because of his non-aggression pact with Germany.
Initially, Hitler could dance one of his victory jigs as vast swathes of Russian territory were overrun and hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops killed or captured. The ‘house of cards’ was indeed shaken, some outlying structures fell, but time, the weather, the great expanse of land, diminishing resources and, most importantly, the stamina, resilience and courage of the Russian peoples shored up the structure, turning the tide against the invaders.
Another major factor was the influx of material support by the Allies, including 30 per cent of the USSR’S military aircraft and 58 per cent of the high-octane aviation fuel, as well as 33 per cent of its motor vehicles and 93 per cent of railway equipment. It would still take a scorched earth policy and the deaths of millions, but the Soviet house stood firm.
Soon a shadow began to fall over Germany. On 14 October a flight of
291 American B-17E ‘Flying Fortresses’ destroyed the ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt – a sign of things to come. Later that month British forces turned the tables on Rommel, defeating the Afrika Korps at El Alamein.
In early November a Russian counterattack threatened to encircle the vaunted Sixth Army, but Hitler refused to allow a withdrawal and later, as matters worsened, denied a break-out, sealing the fate of 300,000 troops, including Romanian and Italian allies. Facing not only determined Russian attacks, the Axis forces also grappled with -40 degrees Celsius.
The beginning of 1943 found German troops forced to withdraw from the Caucasus and its oil reserves. On 2 February, the Sixth Army surrendered to Soviet forces, and over 90,000 soldiers became POWS. Only 5,000 would ever return to Germany.
May 1943 featured 150,000 Germans and Italians surrendering to the Allies in Tunisia. The summer also saw ever-increasing losses of German U-boats during the Atlantic Sea war, and eventually 90 per cent of German submariners were lost. In July a titanic tank battle was fought at Kursk, and would be the Wehrmacht’s last offensive action of the war on the Eastern Front. Then, on 10 July, combined Anglo-american forces landed in Sicily, beginning the Allied climb up the Italian ‘boot’, led by British General Montgomery’s Eighth Army and American General Patton’s Seventh Army.
Cracks in the Axis wall widened when Mussolini was ‘dismissed’ from power by his own government. It prompted Hitler to withdraw muchneeded elite forces from Kursk and send them to Italy, where they could take over much of the country, disarming its military, killing thousands of Italian soldiers and sending thousands more into slave labour.
As 1943 ground to an end, the German military juggernaut was bogged down as fuel supplies dried up, and tank and aircraft losses escalated along with troop casualties. The home front was also in flames under relentless Allied saturation bombing. The term ‘Eastern Front’ had, for the German soldier and his civilian family, become synonymous with death. Axis casualties for 1943 are estimated at over 1.6 million, Soviet casualties at nearly 8 million.
“OVER 90,000 SOLDIERS BECAME POWS. ONLY 5,000 WOULD EVER RETURN TO GERMANY”