Battalion commander. After the death of the commander, the political officer raises the battalion to attack. In 1942 the Red Army still suffered heavy casualties while fighting prevailing enemy.



In the beginning of 1942 - the first year of the truly world war - the Germans were determined to achieve final goals they failed to achieve in the previous year. One can say that in their military effort they were approaching the culmination. However they were bound to face their enemies' even bigger determination strengthened with painful but valuable experiences.

The situation on the eastern front had improved. Successful Soviet military effort at that time took place not only in the battle for Moscow. In the north invaders' plans to take Leningrad (Petersburg) were frustrated. In the south on 29 November there was liberated Rostov, and in December a major amphibious operation was staged near Kerch and Theodosia. Many German commanders, like for example Gen. Günther Blumentritt - then chief of staff of the 4th Army - noted in their diaries that everybody, even in Hitler's headquarters, had realised that the war with Russia in fact just started. Yet the success of the Moscow counter-offensive was not to happen again for a while. Leningrad was besieged, and attempts to relieve it failed. Whereas in Crimea the Kerch-Theodosian operation, which was designed to relieve Sevastopol, failed due to the clumsiness of the operation and bad weather conditions. Some Soviet historians put all the blame on the commander of the Soviet 44th Army for such a state of matters, but the overall performance of the armed forces was impaired beyond the performance of individual commanders. The Official History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union reads among others:

One of the reasons is that in the beginning of 1942 the Supreme Command (...) overestimated capabilities of the Soviet armed forces, and assigned excessive objectives. Experiences of the winter counter-offensive also exposed serious errors on the part of the Supreme Command, front commands, and army commands. The Supreme Command by inconsiderate launching of the offensive simultaneously in all the important directions dispersed strategic reserves. Nine armies remaining at its disposal were evenly distributed among the fronts. Therefore when they were needed to complete encirclement and annihilation of the enemy's central grouping, the Supreme Command possessed no necessary reserves. Similar situation occurred in other sectors of the front. [Великая Отечественная война Советского Союза, 1941-1945. (1984)].

Georgiy Zhukov in his memoirs recalls that the troops were lacking ammunition very badly. The daily ration was limited to two rounds per piece of artillery. In those conditions an efficient artillery barrage was out of question, and advancing infantry suffered heavy casualties.

Invaders still enjoyed superiority in forces. In the beginning of 1942 against the Soviet Union fought 180 divisions and 25 brigades. That was a highly efficient military machine, which had the experience of the conquest of Europe, and the support of almost untouched industry of Germany and occupied countries. But the Germans abandoned the idea of annihilation of the Soviet forces. It too clearly proved impossible. Instead, they focused on the plan to paralyze the Soviet state by seizure of Russia's agricultural and industrial areas, and especially the Caucasian oil fields. The loss of the oil fields could prove fatal to the Russians' war effort. So Hitler abandoned the Moscow direction, where he could not expect anything but hardening defence, and assigned his commanders to new objectives. Their shortest geographical description: Caucasus and Volga. For that new offensive in the spring 1942 they augmented the pressure in the south, particularly in Crimea. On 19 May they took Kerch, and on 4 July they finally broke the defence of Sevastopol. There was only one step across the Strait of Kerch to the Caucasus. Simultaneously the Russians' offensive near Kharkov failed and they had to abandon the city in the end of the May. In result the Germans assumed positions very suitable for further operations in the east and south-east.

In defence of Crimea, where commanded Gen. Dmitriy Kozlov, soldiers and sailors from the three Soviet armies fighting there had demonstrated extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice. But this time the command did not live up to their troops. A particular disappointment became the Stavka's representative and member of the military council of the Crimean Front, Leo Mechlis. He was a journalist and political activist without military education. His lifetime achievement was launching in 1934, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the propaganda campaign, which eventually led to massive political reprisals and the elevation of Joseph Stalin's personal cult. Now this person tried to control the course of a major military campaign; with disastrous effect. And his snitching before Moscow annoyed there everybody, so eventually the Soviet leader wired him a very remarkable message:

You demand that we replace Kozlov with some kind of Hindenburg. But you cannot help to know that we have no Hindenburgs in reserve. Situation in Crimea was not all that bad and you could manage it yourself. If you had used the ground-assault aviation not for secondary tasks but to kill enemy tanks and infantry, they would have not broken the front and would have not passed. One does not need to be a Hindenburg to understand this simple truth after keeping his arse for two months in the Crimean Front. [Василевский А. М. (1978).]

Those were bitter and certainly true words. But one should keep in mind that Mechlis was Stalin's personal choice. In the beginning of the Germano-Soviet war Stalin distrusted his army commanders, and tried to control the military operations single-handed. Yet, disasters and victories of 1941-1942 sorted things out. Ignorants and cowards had to step down and hand over military issues to the professionals. But it was a long process, and the Soviet people paid dearly for that lesson.

The debacles in Crimea and Kharkov and the loss of Voronezh and Donbass drove Soviet forces into a strategic retreat down to the foothills of the Caucasus. To the Germans it was the main strategic objective. In the Caucasian direction operated the Army Group A, reinforced with the 4th Armoured Army. They concentrated there 170,000 men, 1,200 tanks, 4,500 guns and 1,000 aircraft. Their superiority over defence was in proportion of 1.5:1 in manpower, 2:1 in artillery, 3:1 in air forces, and 9:1 in the armour. The offensive launched on 25 July instantly shattered the Soviet defence along the Don. On 10 August the Germans seized Maikop, and on the next day they took Krasnodar. Despite the hardening defence they undertook further operations aiming at Grozny and Baku. On 25 October fell Nalchik, after which unfolded the fights for Ordzhonikidze (Vladikavkaz). The Germans could already see the Caucasian summits in their binoculars; a patrol of the alpine rifles climbed the highest of them, the twin-peaked Elbrus, to hoist there Nazi flag with swastika. But that was the end of their successes. The Soviet 18th Army managed to hold Ordzhonikidze. Its counter-attack on 6 November halted the German advance and marked the reversal of the situation. The German and Romanian troops running to Astrakhan were halted too. This furnished an opportunity to concentrate strategic reserve on the Volga, where the German Army Group B engaged in the battle of Stalingrad.

The Stalingrad Front was created already on 12 July. The Stavka appointed to its command Marshal Semyon Timoshenko; General Ivan Boldin became its chief of staff, and Nikita Khrushchev became the member of the military council. Theoretically the front comprised 38 divisions. In fact only 18 of them had complete establishments. Another six numbered from 2,500 to 4,000 men, and the rest of them were probably called divisions out of pure courtesy. Those were in fact residuals of once big military units, now comprising less than 1000 men, at times perhaps just a dozen of them. And the front had to hold a 500km-long defence line. The battle between the Don and Volga started on 17 July. And already in the beginning the Germans had to engage their reserves. They created an assault grouping, the core of which comprised the fresh 6th Army (Gen. Friedrich von Paulus), as well as five infantry divisions, three armoured and two motorized ones pulled out from the Army Group A and from Voronezh sector. By the end of July they amassed 250,000 troops, 750 tanks, 7,000 guns and mortars, and 1,200 aircraft. The Russians could throw against them 190,000 troops with 350 tanks, about 7,000 pieces of artillery, and 340 aircraft. In those circumstances the retreat beyond Volga was inevitable.

But that retreat came at a price. To make up for the casualties the Germans had to reinforce the 4th Armoured Army from Caucasus and the Italian 8th Army from the Ukraine. Eventually they reached Volga, but it was their final success in the south-eastern theatre. Yet German leaders and commanders still believed that nothing could stop their victorious march beyond Volga, and that the hitlerite 1000-years Reich was becoming a reality.

The grandiose battle of Stalingrad flared up in the Russian steppes.

The dramatic strategic defence unfolded along the Volga and Caucasus Mountains.

The Germano-Italian offensive in North Africa drove the British back almost to Alexandria.

In the Far East the Japanese within a couple of months occupied vast areas; from Burma they menaced India, and from New Guinea they menaced Australia.

At night from 18 to 19 August 1942 Canadian troops, supported by the British naval and air forces, landed in Dieppe on the French Atlantic coast. The landing, which was supposed to probe so-called Atlantic Wall (the German system of fortifications along the western European coasts) cost 3600 of best soldiers and 100 aircraft. It provided rather lousy data, and gave the German propaganda a reason to boast about the impregnable "Fortress Europe".

And the battle of the Atlantic reached its gloomy peak as the convoys with war materials from the United States and Canada suffered more and more losses on the way to Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

On 12 January the first American ship was sunk in the American territorial waters. The Germans were determined to show the Allies their superiority in the naval warfare. By the end of January 1942 they sank in American waters 40 ships of total displacement of 250,000BRT. The wartime British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, in his monumental work on the Second World War has titled the chapter about the Atlantic developments of 1942 The U-Boot Paradise. There is a bitter truth in this title. The American East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico became the hunting ground where the German submarines could sink at will anything that floated. They often did it in daylight, surfacing with impunity within the range of helpless American coastal batteries. It even became a chic among the German submariners to take photographs with the New York's skyline in the background. The United States Navy, which still could not pull itself together after the Pearl Harbor shock, managed to sink only two German submarines.

Of course the battle of the Atlantic had been conducted long before the United States entered the war. The Royal Navy had successfully harassed German naval bases in Norway. The Germans in their turn also achieved some successes, which did not reflect on the overall course of the war, but were quite spectacular. On 24 May 1941 in the west to Iceland the salvoes of the newest and biggest German battleship Bismarck sank the pride of the Royal Navy, the battle cruiser Hood. Bismarck in her turn on 27 May 1941 was sunk with almost all her crew in the central Atlantic in result of a complex aero-naval pursuit. The Germans made a grave mistake when they sent a lone battleship into the high seas without the support of her companion, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which was assigned to other tasks.

However the sinking of the German armoured colossus could not improve the conditions of the Atlantic war of the next months. In the vast sea areas between Europe and America there operated a huge fleet of German submarines. In January and February they sank over 800,000BRT of the Allied shipping; at the same time the German air forces sank along the European coasts over 200,000BRT. Altogether within two first months of 1942 the Allies lost over a million of tons of shipping. Those were murderous losses, for together with ships had also been lost their cargo so badly needed in Great Britain and the Soviet Union. In March 1942 the Germans sank half a million of BRT, in April 400,000BRT, in May 600,000BRT, and in June 700,000BRT. When the Americans, with the help of the flotillas of British destroyers, corvettes and chasers, eventually managed to handle the situation off their eastern coasts, the Germans augmented their activities in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and central Atlantic. In the first half of 1942 they lost 32 submarines; but German shipyards every month used to launch twenty new submarines and the Allied losses kept growing.

In February 1942 a strong squadron of German battleships and cruisers passed from French Brest, via the English Channel, to the North Sea, and the Royal Navy could not do anything about it. The Bismarck's twin ship, Tirpitz, yet in January came to Norwegian Trondheim, where she menaced the shipping to Murmansk and Archangel. Now, reinforced with the Brest squadron, she became a real plague to the convoys sailing along the northern routes to the Soviet shores. Attacked many times by air and submarine forces, she luckily evaded all the bombs and torpedoes. And finally in June 1942 it came to one of the greatest Allied maritime defeats in the past war: the disaster of a big convoy sailing from Great Britain to Murmansk, and codenamed PQ-17. That convoy was unlucky since the beginning. Although it had a strong escort of four cruisers and several destroyers, it reached the Trondheim parallel already with heavy losses inflicted by German aircraft and submarines. And there Tirpitz was already preparing to sail out with three battle cruisers, and a flotilla of destroyers and submarines guided by radio by reconnaissance aircraft. Meanwhile the Allied heavy forces composed of an American battleship, British aircraft carrier and a flotilla of destroyers was too far away from the critical point. In those circumstances the British Admiralty gave the order to disperse the convoy. Individual ships had to make their way to Murmansk on their own. The effect was an unparalleled disaster: out of 38 big ships, generously loaded with priceless equipment, only nine reached the destination. Others fell the prey to the German aircraft and submarines. They hunted like ducks what was once a big convoy: lone and defenceless ships steaming in endless ocean. On top of that it turned that Tirpitz never made for the sea. She returned to her base after the torpedo attack carried out by a Soviet submarine. The disaster of PQ-17 caused a two-months-long pause in the Allied sea shipping to the Soviet Union right at the very critical moment. This defeat is still a subject of many controversies: was it an unfortunate result of erroneous orders or a cold-blooded political decision? The British still dispute whether the culprit was the Admiralty or the convoy's commodore; the Russians insist that the culprit should be sought in higher echelons of power. Unfortunately, it was not the only controversy splitting the Allies' unity.

In that critical year 1942 among the problems of the grand strategy, which absorbed attention of the leaders of the allied powers, was the question of the Iraqi oil fields. If a war can be compared to the human organism, one may say that from the British point of view the brain of that war was in London, but its heart pulsed in those oil fields. Napoleon used to say that the successful conduct of war required three things: money, money and money. Hundred-thirty years later someone not so jocularly pointed that the successful conduct of the modern war also required three things: petrol, petrol and petrol. And right in Iraq in the spring 1941 the British had to suppress the pro-hitlerite rebellion, which grew out of anti-British resentments of the natives. At the end of the First World War the Arabs of Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) sided with the British against the Turkish domination. In return they obtained a state, which was officially independent, but in fact controlled completely from London. And so now against the British they were ready to side even with the devil himself. In 1941 the British disposed the Iraqi rebellion quite easily. In fact the collaborationist authorities of French Syria let the Germans mount an airlift to Baghdad, but it was an enterprise so clumsy, that the British quickly made short with it. British fighters operating from Habbaniya, the biggest air base between Malta and Singapore, literally scattered the Iraqi infantry division advancing in that direction. Meanwhile a mechanized brigade from Palestine took the fabulous Baghdad and that was the end of the rebellion. Then the British occupied Syria together with the forces loyal to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who wanted to expel collaborationists from French possessions.

Yet in 1942 the overall situation was more difficult. The enemies were pushing towards Egypt and the Suez Canal, and Caucasus. A new German-backed rebellion somewhere in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, could cause a catastrophe of many consequences: liquidation of the Allied forces from Egypt to Iran, loss of the priceless oil fields, Axis domination of Turkey, and encirclement of the Soviet defence in Caucasus. That is why the British were very much interested in the Polish army being formed in the Soviet Union, and that is why they would be very glad to see it in Iraq.

The Soviet-Polish agreement concluded on 30 July 1941 in London provided for creation of an army out of the Poles, who after September 1939 found themselves in the Soviet Union. Since then two divisions had been formed in the steppes ranges near Orenburg. In December 1941 it was decided to extend them to 96,000 men. According to the Soviet regulations it had to be a field army composed of six infantry divisions and an armoured brigade. Due to harsh climatic conditions (soldiers quartered in tents in temperatures about 40 Centigrades below zero) it was also decided to move the army to the Central Asia. In March 1942 two Polish divisions were deployed in Uzbekistan, and other units were scattered all over the Central Asia. They suffered very much from epidemics difficult to contain due to lack of medicines. On top of that a substantial part of food was consumed by the army of civilians, who followed the troops. This particularly upset the Russians, who eventually limited food supplies to 44,000 rations. The troops in excess of that limit, mostly airmen, sailors and able-bodied youth, were allowed to leave the USSR. In April 1942 thirty thousand men made for Iran and Palestine to reinforce Polish troops fighting in Egypt and Great Britain; eleven thousand civilians followed them. In Uzbekistan remained the 5th and 6th Infantry Divisions comprised of spiced veterans, as well as the Reserve Division, where the strongest volunteers were completing their training. But they were not to stay there for long.

In the beginning of 1942 political controversies, among which were the questions of Poland's post-war constitution and territorial shape, cooled down the originally high temperature of the Soviet-Polish relations. Professor Stanisław Kot, the Polish ambassador in Moscow, and one of the closest friends and colleagues of the Polish prime-minister, noted in his diaries, that General Władysław Sikorski

constantly emphasized that he considered Polish troops' fight arm-by-arm with the Red Army for the liberation of the Polish territories a better guarantee of the Polish sovereignty than any agreements, which can always be severed. He maintained that a loyal co-operation with Russia in the eyes of the world's public opinion would be a factor, which would furnish stronger Allies' support than fruitless frowning aside in the corners. Such a policy, he warned, would inevitably lead to Russia's allies' demonstration, that they do not endorse it, and elimination of the Polish question from the world's political scene. [Kot St. (1963).]

Those views did not meet understanding of most of the Polish politicians and militarymen, who like the commander of the Polish army in the USSR, Gen. Władysław Anders, wanted confrontation with that country and possibly quick withdrawal of all the Polish forces from there. Sikorski considered such an option unfortunate. In attempt to curb those breakaway tendencies he inspired the resolution of the Polish government of 30 April 1942, which read:

The Council of Ministers finds, that in present conditions rendering elements of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR for their further fight along the Soviet Army with the Germans on the eastern front fits Polish interests and is compatible with the policy manifested by the agreement concluded with the Soviet government on 30 July 1941. [Kot St. (1963).]

However the matters were slipping out of his hands. In the mid-July Churchill wrote to Stalin:

I am sure it would be in our common interest, Premier Stalin, to have the three divisions of Poles you so kindly offered to join their compatriots in Palestine, where we can arm them fully. These would play a most important part in future fighting, as well as keeping the Turks in good heart by the sense of growing numbers to the southward. I hope this project of yours, which we greatly value, will not fall to the ground on account of the Poles wanting to bring with the troops a considerable mass of their women and children, who are largely dependent on the rations of the Polish soldiers. The feeding of these dependants will be a considerable burden to us. We think it well worth while bearing that burden for the sake of forming this Polish army, which will be used faithfully for our common advantage. (...)

If we do not get the Poles we should have to fill their places by drawing on the preparations now going forward on a vast scale for the Anglo-American mass invasion of the Continent. [Correspondence Between Stalin, Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill and Attlee During World War II. (2001).]

And thus in the summer 1942, in the second half of August, the rest of the Polish forces - 44,000 soldiers and 29,000 civilians - left the Soviet Union. They went to Iraq to guard there the British oily interests, while the fates of the human civilization were being decided about in the battle of Stalingrad.