#ADayLikeToday in 1943, Kharkov was definitely liberated

Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev

Map of the Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev

A day like today in 1943, Kharkov was definitely liberated by the Red Army after two years been captured by both sides. The city and its nearest region was a very active war zone during those first two years of the Soviet-German War. If we look at the German terminology, there were four battles for the city, named First Battle of Kharkov, Second, etc.

The last one (named Fourth Battle of Kharkov by the Germans and Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviets) finished on August 23rd, 1943. The city was captured the last day of Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, one of the Soviets’ operations carried out after Operation Citadelle. The Operation was performed by the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts and was commanded by Ivan Konev. In addition to the capture of the city, the German 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf were seriously damaged.

Besides the capture of Kharkov, on August 23rd the Battle for Kursk came to its end. It started on July 5th and after one month and a half, the Soviet Union regained control of several cities along with several thousand square kilometres. The Red Army suffered incredible casualties but the German Armed Forced would never recover from this defeat.

Defense of Brest Fortress

During the first months of the Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union suffered some of the worst defeats in History. That is a fact we perfectly know. For example, during the Battle of Bialystok-Minsk or the Battle of Kiev many Soviet soldiers were killed or captured. But during those first weeks, some Soviet units did a great job, not winning battles but stopping German infantry and tanks. One of those actions was the Defense of Brest Fortress.

The Brest Fortress

Brest and its Fortress were located on the shores of Bug river, just in the border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They were part of Poland but the Soviets annexed them thanks to Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Brest Fortress was a classic fortress of the 19th century. It was composed of four different islands due to Bug and Mujávets rivers. The headquarters and the barracks were located in the inner part and they could accommodate up to 12.000 soldiers. The fortifications around it were 1,5 meters’ width.

The Battle

On the 21st of June, just one day before the start of Operation Barbarossa, German spies and recon troupes reported that the Soviet did not expect an attack. Luckily for the Soviets, the command sent by Semion Timoshenko and Georgy Zhukov that night (they ordered all the units to be ready for action) did arrive to the garrison of the Brest Fortress (it did not arrive to many other units).

Map Operation Barbarossa

Map of Operation Barbarossa. The Brest Fortress is located in the cuadrant B3.

7 battalions belonging to the 6th “Orel’ Red Banner” Division and 42nd Rifle Division and some units belonging to the 17th NKVD Border troops and the 132nd NKVD Independent Battalion formed the garrison. In total, close to 3.500 soldiers.

On the 22nd of June, the German 45th Infantry Division assaulted the fortress after a heavy shelling, but they were unable to win the battle as the shelling was not even near to destroying the fortifications. Furthermore, the Soviets were mentally prepared, maybe due to the presence of NKVD troops and they did not follow Moscow’s guideline (not to ’provoke’ the enemy), as they used everything they had to defend the fortress from the very beginning.

Major Piotr Gavrilov

Major Piotr Gavrilov

On the 24th, the Soviet resistance was almost non-existent in the western part of Brest, but the Fortress still resisted. The attackers reported that on the 30th of June, after throwing 1.800 kilogram of bombs just the day before, they capture the fortress. That report is not 100% correct, as there were some Soviet groups still fighting inside the Fortress. Some of them fought until the 20th of July. Piotr Gavrilov, commander of the 44th Rifle Regiment of the 46th Rifle Division, was among them. He was able to prepare a jailbreak, but the Germans surrounded them and, after heavy fighting, he was captured.

The Brest Fortress was the first place where the Soviet resistance was really hard. The 45th Infantry Division suffered 319 kills (29 officials and 290 soldiers) during the first the of the battle. On the 30th of July, their casualties were 40 officials and 442 killed and 1.000 injured. At the end of June, the division reported to have fought against really prepared (military and morally) soldiers.

References

Chris Bellamy. Absolute War. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 2011. P. 207-209 and 239-242.

Women in the Red Army (I)

Women at War

During the Great Patriotic War, around 800.000 women (doubtlessly much less than those who volunteer) served in the Soviet Armed Forces. Probably, most of us have seen photos or movies where women fight along with men against fascism. Films like, for example, Battle for Sevastopol (the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the deadliest female sniper) or Enemy at the Gates show how important women where during the war, but in my opinion, the audience does not place enough importance on their work. Starting with this one, I will publish some little articles regarding the importance of women in the war effort, as I think they did not receive their well-deserved glory.

Introduction

As I said in the first paragraph, women in the Red Army were more than 800.000: 520.000 fought as regular Red Army troops and 300.000 did so in the Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS), literally “Military Air Forces”). Some sources state that this was possible due to Bolshevik ideology, but many other sources state just the opposite, explaining that Bolshevik did not do nothing to give freedom to women, keeping them as inferior (for a complete study regarding Bolshevik ideology towards women, read the article “Ideology, Gender and Propaganda in the Soviet Union: A Historical Survey”, by Choi Chatterjee. Find it in the references).

The vast majority of those women come from urban areas, were Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, the Youth Organization of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), were between 18 and 25 years old and were single and had no child. The requirements to be admitted in the Armed Forces were very strict: While men usually did physical and health tests, women had to deal with ‘cultural tests’ (Russian literacy, education, etc.) besides physical and health tests. Russian literacy tests were especially discriminatory, as it was really difficult for the minor ethnic groups to pass it. As the tests were that difficult, the average level of the women who served was higher than men’s level.

Soon I will publish the second part of the article.

References

Chatterjee, Choi. “Ideology, Gender and Propaganda in the Soviet Union: A Historical Survey.” Left History. 1999. 18/08/2018 <https://lh.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/lh/article/viewFile/5380/4575>.

Two books to start researching about Soviet-German War

When we start researching about a new topic it is usual to not know from where to start researching. The Eastern Front of the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War) was an extremely long and violent combat between two Great Powers. That is why many books, articles, thesis, etc. has been written about it. These two are the ones that I recommend to start investigating:

When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House

When titans clashedDavid Glantz is, at least for me, the best historian of the Eastern Front. He has written many books and articles about the topic and most of them are reference works. When Titans Clashed is the summary of the entire war and it is a great introduction to the four years long conflict.

In addition, as Glantz has written many books about the war (most of them extremely interesting), it could be helpful for the beginner to get used to his style soon.

Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, Chris Bellamy

Absolute War Chris BellamyAnother great work about the war. Bellamy focused on the first two years of the war, providing many details of those two years but goes through the last two years quite fast. Anyway, it is a very good book as it provides some statistics about the war that could be very useful for a beginner, as he/she could start realising how big this conflict was.

For example, Bellamy gives some tables regarding Soviet and German casualties in some of the major battles and he explains a extremely delicate topic: Soviet casualties during the whole war.

After these two and when you have some idea about the development of the war, you will be able to start reading more specific and dense books. As I said before, David Glantz is my favourite historian but in this case I do not recommend his books until you know not only the general idea of the war but some more details. His books are extraordinary but also quite dense (he specifies divisions, brigades, regiments and even battalions while talking about a battle!).

In the future I will publish some posts about the bibliography of different battles of the war so the people interested in a specific battle knows which books to read.