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Don’t Fool With Mother Russia

We have talked about Winston Churchill’s courage in leading Britain in its lonely fight against Hitler in 1940-41, but recall that his struggle took place with no Nazi troops on British soil (save for the Channel Islands, to be precise). However, after delving into the literature regarding fighting on the Eastern Front, and visiting erstwhile Stalingrad, it’s not hard to conclude that bravery and sacrifice even more extraordinary were to be found in the Soviet Union during its own solitary battle against Germany between 1941-1944.

In fact, the argument can be made, and historian David Glantz seems to imply it, that the USSR was well on its way to defeating Nazi Germany by itself when Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Russians were already on the offensive at the end of 1941 after the initial German attack was halted at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. And though the Wehrmacht re-took the initiative in the summer of 1942, numerous Soviet offensives severely bled the German army after Stalin’s Order #227: “Not One Step Back.” (Ни шагу назад! / Ni Shagu Nazad!). As the Germans reached Stalingrad, the extraordinary Soviet organization that raised and trained huge armies and equipped them with fine weapons (T-34 tanks, reliable infantry guns, excellent artillery, and competent aircraft) was already functioning smoothly. At the end of 1942, the Germans were blunted at Stalingrad, too, and then during the next summer, their huge offensive at Kursk failed.

After that, the overpowering weight of the constantly improving Soviet forces, and Stalin’s willingness to incur casualties, made the outcome of the fighting in the East inevitable. D-Day accelerated the arrival of the end, but the Allies were happy to land in Normandy while some 200 or so German divisions were in the process of being destroyed in the East.

Addendum: The freestanding concrete statue — it is held in place only by its weight — at the top of Stalingrad’s Mamayev Kurgan (Mamayev Hill) is known as The Motherland Calls. It stands only six feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty. The hill, an ancient Tatar burial mound, was the scene of many months of bitter fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad. Neither side could hold onto the site, which provides an uninterrupted view up and down the city that borders the Volga.

Stalingrad2.jpg The Flour Factory, as it is preserved today, and as it was in the 1960’s (inset), was typical of the structures that led fighting in the “Kessel” (cauldron) to be known as “Rattenkrieg” — war of the rats. During the struggle, most of Stalingrad’s buildings were reduced to skeletons by airborne bombing and artillery fire, and Soviet and Nazi soldiers fought hand to hand in them in battles that more resembled WWI than blitzkrieg. As a German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city…the hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure.”
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