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Great Patriotic War (term)

Great Patriotic War (term)

Historical term

The Great Patriotic War began at 3:30am on 22 June 1941, when the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union along a front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas with 3.2 million German soldiers, organised in 150 divisions, supported by 3,350 tanks, 7,184 artillery pieces, 600,000 trucks, 2,000 warplanes. Finnish, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Slovakian forces, amongst others, eventually joined the attack. The German high command reckoned that Operation Barbarossa would take 4 to 6 weeks to finish off the Soviet Union. In the west, U.S and British military intelligence agreed. Besides, what force had ever beaten the Wehrmacht? Nazi Germany was the invincible colossus. Poland had been crushed in a few days. In April 1940 the Anglo-French attempt to defend Norway was a fiasco. The Germans walked into Denmark. In May the Wehrmacht attacked in the west, Holland disappeared and Belgium hurried to quit the fight. France collapsed in a few weeks. The British army was driven out of Dunkirk, naked, without guns or Lorries. In the spring of 1941, Yugoslavia and Greece disappeared in a matter of weeks at little cost to the German invaders.

Wherever the Wehrmacht advanced in Europe, it was a walkover… until that day German soldiers stepped across Soviet frontiers. The Red Army was caught flatfooted, in halfway measures of mobilisation, because Soviet “boss”, I. V. Stalin, did not want to provoke Hitlerite Germany. The result was a catastrophe. But unlike Poland and unlike France, the USSR did not quit the fight after the expected 4 to 6 weeks. The Red Army’s losses were unimaginable, two million soldiers lost in the first three and a half months of the war. The Baltic provinces were lost. Smolensk fell and then Kiev, in the worst Soviet defeat of the war. Leningrad was encircled. An old man asked some soldiers, “Where are you retreating from?” There were calamities everywhere. But at places like the fortress of Brest and in hundreds of unnamed locations, road junctions, villages and towns, Red Army units fought on often to the last soldier. They fought out of encirclements to rejoin their own lines or to disappear into the forests and swamps of Belorussia and the northwestern Ukraine to organise the first partisan units to attack the German rear. By the end of 1941, three million Soviet soldiers were lost (2/3s being POWs who the Germans allowed to starve to death); 177 divisions were struck from the Soviet order of battle. Still, the Red Army fought on, even forcing back the Germans at Yelnya, southeast of Smolensk, at the end of August. The Wehrmacht felt the bite of the battered but not beaten Red Army. German forces were taking 7,000 casualties a day, a new experience for them.

As the Wehrmacht advanced, Einsatzgruppen, SS death squads, followed, killing Jews, Roma, communists, Soviet POWs, or anyone who got in their way. Baltic and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators assisted in the mass murders. Soviet women and children were stripped naked and forced to queue, waiting for execution. When winter came, freezing German soldiers shot villagers or forced them out of their homes, dressed in rags like beggars, robbing them of hearth, winter clothing and anything to eat.

In the west those who predicted a speedy Soviet collapse, the usual western Sovietophobes, looked stupid and had to eat their forecasts. Public opinion understood that Hitlerite Germany had walked into a quagmire, not another cake walk in France. While the British everyman cheered on Soviet resistance, the British government did relatively little to help. Some Cabinet ministers were even reluctant to call the Soviet Union an ally. The prime minister, Winston S. Churchill, refused to let BBC play the Soviet national anthem, the Internationale, on Sunday evenings along with those of other allies.

Timeline

Further Resources

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Victory Day: Remembering the Great Patriotic War

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References

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