At 03:15 on 22 June 1941, 99 (including fourteen panzer and ten motorised divisions) out of 190 German divisions, deployed an attack against the Soviet UNI0N from the Baltic right through to the Black Sea. They were accompanied by ten Romanian divisions as well as nine brigades from Romania and four from Hungary. On that same day, the Baltic, Western and Kyiv Special Military Districts were renamed the Northwestern, Western and Southwestern Fronts respectively.
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 continually reduced by the slower-moving infantry armies. As part of this high tempo campaign, the German air force began immediate attacks on Soviet airfields, destroying many of the Soviet Air Force fleets; which, nevertheless, consisted of planes that were largely obsolete.
As German troops were getting deeper and deeper into the country, however, day by day it was getting harder and harder for them to fight against the Soviet soldiers. And the invasion that was once considered successful, ceased to be such a success once the Nazis reached Stalingrad. It was this city, named after one of the Soviet UNI0Ns’ great leaders of the past, that stopped the Germans in their tracks. Because had Stalingrad admitted defeat, not only would it have been the loss of a city, but the loss of an ideology.
The Battle for Stalingrad has been judged as one of the greatest victories on the Eastern Front, and rightly so: Taking place between 17 July 1942 - 2 February 1943, the results of all operations are cited as the turning point for WWII. And yet, as one of the bloodiest battles of the war, casualties during those few months alone are estimated at a whopping two million, and have been marked by brutality and a disregard for military and civilian casualties from both sides. It was the first large-scale defeat for Germany as the Soviet-offensive eventually trapped and destroyed the German 6th Army as well as other Axis forces. They were forced to retreat and this would be the last time Germany would engage any Soviet territory. February 2 would mark the beginning of a dream lost for the Nazis.
But it would take a further two years to continue the push of German armies back to their home base in Berlin. And this was important for Stalin as not only did he want to crush the Germans, he wanted to be first in the capital to gain a commanding influence over the European continent. His offensive attack to capture East Germany began on 16 April with an assault on the German front lines situated on the Oder and Neisse rivers. The day the Soviet forces fought their way into the centre of Berlin, April 30, Hitler decided that he would go out in style by marrying Eva Braun and then committing suicide by cyanide and shooting himself. Helmuth Weidling, the defence commandant of Berlin, surrendered the city to the Soviets on 2 May and the German Instrument of Surrender entered into force on 8 May 1945 at 23.01 CET – it was already 9 May in the Soviet UNI0N.
War in His Own Words
Younger generations have been lucky; most of their encounters with war have only been in books and movies. And while those with first-hand experiences are getting fewer and fewer, that isn’t to say that there’s no one around who remembers those fateful days. In fact, arriving at the Veterans Centre in the Solomyansky neighbourhood, I was greeted by their deputy chief, Hruhoriy Lvovich Strokin. A man in his 90s and still in demand for signing documents, settling disputes and talking over the general issues with the veterans and pensioners he has under his wing. Finding a fleeting moment out of his busy day for What’s On, he spoke briefly about his memories of war and those things that still plague him today.
“When we talk of war, I can’t really express what the hardest aspect of it was because from beginning to end, including the Victory Parade itself, it’s all hard. When the war kicked off, I was a 20-year old student and was immediately put into the reserve. At that time, the most frightening thing for me was hearing that the Nazis were just 27 kilometres from Moscow and Hitler had claimed that his troops were getting ready to parade on Moscow’s Red Square. And yet I wasn’t afraid when I was sent to the front lines, trudging through trenches not even knowing how to shoot a gun, because the ideologies of communism were guiding us and all I can remember thinking was ‘Rodina Mat v opasnosti’ (the Motherland is in danger).
“Of course before 1942, German troops had the advantage. They had more time to ready themselves, and according to the pact agreed by both Stalin and Hitler, we were supposed to be safe from German attacks. They had excellent armour and were far better equipped. And we... What did we have... We had an army of 173 nationalities, friendly and compassionate toward each other. And we were united by an ideology: A strong will and the faith that we would prevail. I would even go so far as to say that the patriotism between all Soviet soldiers played one of the most important parts in this war.
“When the war ended, I was frightened. Frightened of the silence. Being on the front I’d got used to the noise and tension and then all of a sudden, I was faced with silence. And yet, people were counting the days ‘til the war’s end, supporting each other, being positive and friendly, believing in justice and good fortune even though they faced a squalid reality: Life in zelyankas, a shortage of everything, a huge number of orphans.
“Now it is different, and from a 90-year perspective I realise that our politicians haven't learnt anything. They’re obsessed with power and don’t give a damn about those they should care about. This day, 9 May, is not only about commemorating those that die in the war, it’s also about reminding those in power, that human beings, along with our well-being, is of the utmost importance... At least, it should be. Veterans these days receive a pension of 1300-1400hrv a month, while heart medicine, for example, costs about 700hrv. You tell me how can those of us that are left survive such conditions?
“Politicians remember us on 9 May. If only we as 20-year old soldiers, fighting for victory, had known that this was how we would have been taken care of; humiliated and always in need. Times of war were terrific. God only knows what you could call the times we're living in today...
Vadym Mishkoriz and Ksenia Karpenko