Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Eastern Front — 1942

In Russia the Germans survived the crisis of the Russian winter counteroffensive, and in April 1942 Hitler issued orders for Operation Blue, a major offensive in the south aimed at the oilfields of the Caucasus. In June the attack began well, with scenes reminiscent of victories the previous year, and the Germans pushed deep into the Caucasus. But by mid-September the offensive had stalled, and German 6th Army was making heavy weather of its attack on Stalingrad, on the Volga. On November 19, the Russians launched carefully husbanded reserves to began the attack which led to the encirclement of the 6th Army in one of the war's most terrible battles. Above, a Russian heavy machine-gun in the snow, winter 1941-42.

The Russian winter not only caught the Germans without proper clothing but caused serious difficulties for vehicles not designed with this climate in mind. Here a tank drags an assault gun from a snowdrift.

Although the Germans occupied the Crimea in 1941, the naval base of Sevastopol held out. It was eventually taken in July 1942 after heavy bombardments which reduced the city to rubble.

In early August 6th Army destroyed most of a Russian army in the bend of the Don north of Kalach. This is the apocalyptic scene on the river bank in the first week of August.

Operation Edelweiss, initiated when Hitler cancelled Operation Blue in July, sent Army Group A deep into the Caucasus. Here a German anti-tank unit is silhouetted by smoke from burning oilfields at Maikop, fired by their defenders, in the last week of August.

Operation Heron saw Army Group B drive for the Volga with the aim of taking Stalingrad and extending down the river as far as Astrakhan. Here German infantry move up as Stalingrad burns on the horizon.

The bitter fighting at Stalingrad placed overwhelming emphasis on the courage and determination of small groups of men fighting in what soon became a blighted landscape. Here a German machine-gun detachment — the empty ammunition boxes to its rear are evidence of heavy fighting — defends the ruins of suburban cottages.

A German infantry officer, whose decorations include the Iron Cross 1st Class and the infantry assault badge, issues orders. The soldier on the left has equipped himself with a captured Russian sub-machine gun.

After the encirclement of Stalingrad Hitler gave Manstein command of the newly created Army Group Don and ordered him to break into the pocket. Here a German tank hits a Russian mine during an abortive counterattack, December 20.

Friedrich Paulus, commander of 6th Army, was promoted to field-marshal on 30 January in Hitler's expectation that he would commit suicide rather than capitulate. However, he surrendered the following day. These Russian officers — the term was reintroduced by Stalin in 1942 — are still wearing collar rank badges, soon to be replaced by tsarist-style shoulder boards, all part of an attempt to restore the army's morale and efficiency.

The Germans lost some 200,000 men at Stalingrad: most of their prisoners of war did not survive captivity. Here a column of prisoners winds its way across the frozen steppe. Those in white fur hats are Romanians: defeat at Stalingrad struck a chill into Germany's allies.

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