Change of guard. After the coup d'état in Bucharest the remnants of the fascist past are being removed from the sight.



In result of the summer offensive in 1944 five Soviet fronts numbering 23 field armies, 5 armoured armies and 5 air armies had reached the borders of East Prussia, Vistula and the Carpathian ranges. The successes achieved in the main directions of the strategic advance eased the operations on the flanks, which in their turn secured blows dealt on the main strategic axes.

On 10 July the 2nd Baltic Front (Gen. Andrei Yeremenko) started the offensive on Riga; the first to reach the approaches of the Lettonian capital was the Lettonian Corps. On 17 July commenced its operations the 3rd Baltic Front (Gen. Ivan Maslennikov) and struck against Tartu, while the forces of the Leningrad Front on 26 July took Narva. As many as 56 enemy divisions, including 5 armoured and 2 motorized ones, altogether 700,000 men, were routed in the vast area between the Gulf of Finland and Niemen. On 25 August the Germans abandoned Tartu. The Soviet 2nd Assault Army, which among others comprised the 8th Estonian Corps, broke through the German positions north to the Lake Chud and pursued the enemy all the way to Tallin. The Estonian capital was liberated on 22 September.

The commander of the German Army Group North, Gen. Ferdinand Schörner, planned to re-build his defences in the far approaches of Riga, between Western Dvina (Daugava) and the Gulf of Riga. He concentrated there substantial forces, freshly reinforced. In those circumstances the command of the Soviet forces decided to shift the point of gravity of their offensive to the direction of Memel (Klaipeda). Within six days they completed an operation unique for the whole Second World War - regrouping of a main strategic force to another operational zone; and this manoeuvre was thoroughly masked of the enemy intelligence. The new advance commenced on 5 October; it was carried out by the forces of the 1st Baltic Front (Gen. Ivan Bagramyan) among which fought the 16th Lithuanian Division. Five days later Soviet troops reached the shores of the Baltic Sea some 40km north of Libava (Liepaia). This way was cut the land connection between the Army Group North and East Prussia. By 22 October the northern side of the Niemen was cleared of the enemy forces. The Germans held Memel till January, but their resistance did not have any strategic significance, similarly like their resistance on the Courland Peninsula, which lasted till the end of the war. Riga was liberated in fights, which took place on 13-15 October, and by 24 November the whole Estonia with islands Saaremaa and Hiiumaa was liberated too. The Baltic Fleet regained the easiness to operate in the Baltic Sea. The Soviet command decided that it was enough to block Schörner's forces in Courlandia and Klaipeda, and assign the rest of the troops to more important sectors of the front.

Simultaneously lasted the fights on the extreme north wing of the onslaught. On 10 June 1944 the Leningrad Front started the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. The land troops were supported by the forces of the Baltic Fleet and Ladoga Flotilla. On 20 June was liberated Vyborg, and on the next day the forces of the Karelian Front (Gen. Kirill Meretskov) developed the advance on the north shores of the Lake Ladoga. In course of week-long fights the Russians had liberated Petrozavodsk occupied two years earlier by the Finns. Soon the Soviet forces reached the Soviet-Finnish border, where their offensive was halted on 9 August. The Finns strove to conclude a cease-fire since January, but the German pressure did not make it possible to start the peace talks. It was not until 25 August that the Finnish government stepped out with peace proposals, and on 4 September, upon a request of the Soviet government, it severed the alliance and diplomatic relations with the hitlerite III Reich. On 19 September in Moscow was signed the Soviet-Finnish cease-fire and within next few days Finland, which was not in war with the Western powers, found herself in the anti-fascist coalition, although it was not until March 1945 that Finland had formally declared the war on Germany.

On 28 Finnish troops, including the only armoured division they possessed, turned against the Germans. The Germans were retreating to the north leaving behind them scorched land. Their goal was the Arctic port of Petsamo (Pechenga). But there on 7 October the Karelian Front dealt the next crushing blow. The core of the German forces in the north was destroyed in the course of the joint Soviet-Finnish operation near the Lake Inari and the whole Finnish Arctic coast with Petsamo was cleared of the enemy. The Russians pursued the enemy into north-eastern Norway, where they liberated the town of Kirkenes. The remnants of the German forces beyond the polar circle were agonizing in the winter conditions of the tundra. On 5 December 1944 the Supreme Command officially ceased the operations in the north - there was no more enemy to beat there.

But there still was the enemy in the south. The main direction of the Soviet strategic offensive in the summer 1944 was the one to the Vistula. But the fronts, which were fighting in that direction, had covered a huge distance and advanced ahead of their wings. Moreover they needed rest, reinforcements in manpower and equipment, and above all - shortening their too much stretched supply lines. The latter was not possible without establishment of new supply bases located closer to the frontlines and restoring full operational capacity of the railways. In the strategic plane the wings of the advanced forces were menaced by strong enemy groupings: Schörner's Army Group North in the north and the Army Group Southern Ukraine (Gen. Johannes Friessner) in the south-east. That is why the operations in the Baltic republics were so important and that is why an operation across the Dniester was also becoming more and more important. It had to secure the main effort from the south and speed up the collapse of the fascist occupation of the Balkans. In the summer and autumn 1944 the Balkan direction became the main one in the scale of the whole Germano-Soviet front.

At that time Romania had been ripening for a major revolt. The country was ruled by a fanatic Germanophile, Marshal Ion Antonescu, who managed to turn against himself all the political powers of Romania as well as conservative military circles. Adolescent king Michael was seeking, through diplomatic channels in neutral countries, a possibility to surrender to the Western democracies. His envoys had managed to contact the Polish government in exile in London and were probing the position of the British. The king did not know that during the conference of the Big Three - Sir Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - in Teheran at the end of 1943 an agreement had been made, which ruined Churchill's plans of British penetration of the East Europe. Meanwhile the time was running, Romanian armies were suffering a defeat after defeat and when the Russians seized bridgeheads on the right bank of the Dniester, some Romanian militarymen decided that the time had come to come to terms with the communists and other underground opposition forces to conclude a cease-fire and extricate Romania from such a fatal alliance. At that time nobody had doubts that the alliance with hitlerite Germany could only lead to a disaster. On 14 June 1944 took part a secret meeting: oppositionists agreed on the project of an uprising, which had to be bound with the Soviet offensive.

The main forces of the Army Group Southern Ukraine were deployed between the Seret and the coast of the Black Sea between Prut and Dniester. They comprised 47 divisions, in these 25 German ones; others were Romanian of the 3rd Army deployed around the Dniester Bight and the 4th Army deployed in the west of Iasi. Both armies were commanded by the Germans. Psychologically the revolt in Romania was also easy because the country was still agitated by the results of so-called Vienna Award: in August 1940 Romania had to cede northern Transylvania to Hungary and southern Dobruja to Bulgaria. The Romanian state lost then almost one-third of its territory.

The Soviet offensive commenced on 20 August. The forces of the 2nd Ukrainian Front (Gen. Rodion Malinovskiy) and the 3rd Ukrainian Front (Gen. Fyodor Tolbukhin) within two days put the whole Germano-Romanian grouping in situation, which menaced with their encirclement. On 23 August the Romanian 3rd Army, overwhelmed by the offensive, laid its arms down. On the same day the Radio Bucharest broke its regular program and announced to the audience: Do not turn your radio sets off - we will broadcast a very important message. In one of the radio-station's rooms a German officer was preparing his everyday's program called German Hour. It used to start at 22:15, but that day it was not going to happen. The whole country had listened instead to the royal proclamation recorded several days earlier - it announced cessation of the hostilities with the Allies and arrest of Marshal Antonescu.

Adolf Hitler, who at that time resided in his headquarters at Rastenburg, got berserk. It was not just the Romanian army lost to him, it was not just the Romanian wheat and corn; first of all he lost the Romanian oil - the last source of good quality fuels for the German motors. The same night Hitler ordered Friessner to arrest and murder all the Romanian leaders and commanders, attack Bucharest and turn it into the ruins and ashes, as other generals of his at that time were doing to Warsaw. He also ordered to establish a new Romanian government controlled by persons completely dependent on the Germans. Then he turned to another map and nervously asked: Is Paris burning? He issued orders concerning razing the capital of France to the ground several days earlier, but to the German commandant of Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, such an order was too outrageous and he chose a surrender to the Allies. Two days later Paris was celebrating its liberation - in a good condition rather, although there was a lot of shooting around, when the Parisians rose against the invaders.

It was not until 24 August that Friessner received more sensible orders. Namely, he was allowed to withdraw his troops into the Carpathian Mountains. But it could not help him. The core of his forces was trapped in the pocket between Iasi, Kishinev and Galati. Out of twenty-five German divisions eighteen were annihilated. There was no time to level Bucharest, and on top of that the Germans failed to find a Romanian general stupid enough to create a government supporting German deeds. Finally on 25 August Romania officially declared the war on Germany and seventeen Romanian divisions overnight turned against Friessner's forces. The Romanian army, which so far was not able to boast about any significant military achievements, suddenly acquired combat spirit; Romanian soldiers were beating the Germans with the fierce of a slave, who rises against his hereto master. On 31 August Bucharest was cleared of the Germans by the regular and insurgent Romanian troops, and the city could welcome the advanced troops from the 2nd Ukrainian Front. Among them was the Infantry Division Tudor Vladimirescu, formed in the Soviet Union of the Romanian POW's and emigrants. Although the coming troops were greeted to flowers and casques of wine, they did not intend to stop there. They saw a new goal before them: they were going to the borders of Yugoslavia. On those days was also liberated Ploesti - the capital city of the biggest petroleum basin in Europe. Since then the German fuel supplies could rely only on the German factories of synthetic fuels, incessantly bombed by the Allied air forces. The seizure of the Romanian oil fields became one of the factors that made the war closer to its end.

On the left wing of the forces operating in Romania, beyond the Danube, was Bulgaria. She was in the state of war with the Anglo-Saxon powers and had her share in the occupation of the Balkans, where she had occupied a part of Yugoslav Macedonia and the Greek Western Thrace. Bulgaria did not take part in the war with the Soviet Union, but the Germans did not intend to respect that fact. Their navy and air force used Bulgarian ports and airfields in combat operations, German troops stationed in Bulgaria, and used the Bulgarian territory for their movements and supplies. The Bulgarian government, similarly like the Romanian one, since some time strove to conclude a cease-fire with the Western democracies hoping that that would save the monarchic regime of the imminent revolution following the coming of the Red Army. Those political manoeuvres, very late as a matter of fact, failed though. On 5 September the Soviet government issued the note that it was in state of war with Bulgaria. On 8 September first units from the 3rd Ukrainian Front forced the Danube, and the next day in Bulgaria broke out an anti-fascist uprising prepared by the Fatherland Front dominated by the communists. The regents, who exercised the power in name of the infant czar, were arrested by the officers sympathizing with the insurgents. It was not until 16 September that the Russians reached Sofia, but they nowhere encountered any resistance. The Bulgarians, who remembered the Russians supporting their national liberation struggle with the Turks in the 19th century, welcomed the Russians as liberators. The Russians also seized the ports in Burgas and Varna together with the German ships deployed there. The new Bulgarian government promptly declared war on Germany and Hungary; the re-organized Bulgarian army of 200,000 men soon went to the war alongside the Allies and took part in battles on the Yugoslav and Hungarian soil.

In the end of September troops of the 3rd Ukrainian Front reached the borders of Yugoslavia in the west of town of Vidin. On the left wing they had the allied Bulgarian divisions. On 28 September the 3rd Ukrainian Front struck from Vidin towards Belgrade, having on the right wing the forces of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which struck from Romania across Voivodina. Simultaneously the Yugoslav partisan forces launched a concentric offensive on Belgrade, co-ordinated with the Soviet offensive. After heavy fights the capital of Yugoslavia was liberated on 20 October. Farther to the south the Bulgarian troops took Nis and approached Vranje, where the fights among Serbian, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian forces took part during the First World War. The whole German Army Group Serbia was crushed and the Germans started retreating northward across Croatia. Simultaneously the occupation forces in Greece and Albania, cut off from the main forces, started their withdrawal as early as on 4 October, chased by the partisan forces. Almost the whole area of the Balkans, apart of the north-west areas of the Yugoslav territory, was liberated, and after the liberation of Belgrade the main effort of the Soviet forces was shifted towards Budapest.