Long way to Caucasus. German infantry forces the Don across a makeshift crossing made of barrels and planks.



The blows dealt to the German forces during the winter of 1941/1942 in the battles of Moscow, Rostov and Tikhvin, although put the end to the hitlerite Blitzkrieg, did not break the power of the Nazi Reich. German armies still occupied vast areas of the Soviet Union, and they still enjoyed the myth of invincibility, which emerged from the past campaigns.

Before the spring of 1942 the German command made a number of decisions, which allowed to compensate for the losses in the Eastern front, and even increase the number of the troops there by 700,000. Between December 1941 and April 1942 the German command had reinforces the German forces on the Eastern front with additional 40 divisions. Effectively, the total number of the German forces, including the III Reich's satellites' troops, increased to 217 divisions and 20 brigades. Three out of five air fleets were engaged in fights against the Soviet Union. In the beginning of May 1942 "Axis" forces on the Eastern front numbered close to 6.5 million servicemen.

Hitlerite strategists, convinced that the second front in West Europe would not be opened in 1942, started planning of a new offensive in the east. During the meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima, the German leader, Adolf Hitler, expressed belief that the Russians would be ultimately crushed the same summer. He decided to strike to the Caucasus and Persia (Iran), advance as far as to Afghanistan, and create a direct threat to the Indies, in which he saw the source of the British colonial supremacy.

To divert the Russians' attention from the main axis of the new offensive, the Germans had undertaken diversion operations in the central sector of the front in the direction of Moscow, and in the north, near Leningrad (Petersburg).

However, the Chief Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht - OKW) had miscalculated. The Russians had deducted what were the enemy intentions, and decided to frustrate them. Taking into consideration the strategic situation, combat capabilities of the Red Army, and economical potential of the USSR, the Supreme Command decided to conduct strategic defence along the whole Germano-Soviet front, with limited offensive operations designed to contain substantial enemy forces in fights, and deny them freedom of strategic manoeuvre. Unfortunately, that plan was also miscalculated, since in the spring of 1942 the overall strategic situation was unfavourable to the Soviet Union, and the Wehrmacht still enjoyed superiority in numbers and equipment.

The Germans had completed preparations for a new offensive in great style by the end of May 1942. On 1 June Hitler left the "Wolf's Liar", his headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia, and flew to Poltava, where the Army Group South had its headquarters. There he met the top German strategists, marshals and generals with extensive war experience. Together they discussed and established details of the consecutive phases of the summer offensive. The moods and hopes of the German Führer and his commanders were extraordinarily optimistic, and very much bellicose.

Meanwhile, the results of the Red Army's offensive operations were quite discouraging. In the Kerch Peninsula failed their operation designed to recapture Crimea. On 8 May German forces launched a counter-attack, broke through the defences of the 44th Army, and staged amphibious landings near Theodosia. They succeeded in surrounding elements of the Crimean Front, and taking Kerch (15 May). That worsened situation of the defenders of Sevastopol. The Germans were able to amass their forces around the city and block it on land, in the air, and at sea. On 7 June they began the third assault on Sevastopol. The assault was so powerful that after 250 days of gallant defence the Supreme Command was forced to order evacuation of the troops fighting at Sevastopol.

In other sectors of the Germano-Soviet front the situation was also difficult. The advance of the Kalinin Front on Rzhev did not bring major success. Also the Leningrad Front fought without success on the River Volkhov. Yet, the most dramatic fights had unfolded around Kharkov. On 12 May the South-Western Front (Marshal Semyon Timoshenko) launched there an offensive designed to crush the German 6th Army (Gen. Friedrich von Paulus) and liberate the city. At once the offensive was all successful. Enemy defences were broken in many sectors, and Soviet rapid forces advanced westward as far as 60 kilometres within three days. But then the situation had changed dramatically. The Germans went to powerful counter-offensive. They outflanked stretched columns of the 9th Army, and got to the Soviet rears. On 18 May they completed the encirclement of the Soviet forces. Only few units managed to break through the encirclement ring; huge quantities of equipment and manpower were lost. The situation in the southern sector of the Germano-Soviet front was worsening daily. It was especially dangerous because the OKW was planning the next strategic offensive.

The offensive began in the end of June. Intoxicated with the spring success, they counted on quick and easy victory, which would win all designated objectives. During the conference at his headquarters Hitler himself used to say with self-confidence that the Russians' resistance would be very weak.

The Army Group South had formed a grouping of 90 divisions for the decisive offensive. Operation Group Weichs, advancing from Kursk to the bend of Don under the cover of the 4th Air Fleet, wedged in between two armies of the Bryansk Front. However, further attempts to encircle the core forces of the Bryansk Front, and also the South-Western Front in perspective, failed once they encountered a hard defence of the Soviet forces around Voronezh. This way the first crack in the enemy design had been made.

Nevertheless, the enemy achieved a substantial success and grasped strategic initiative. The OKW did not fail to develop that success. On 7 June it reorganized the order of battle of the German forces concentrated in southern Russia. The Army Group South was divided into two army groups - A (Field-Marshal Wilhelm List) and B (Field-Marshal Fedor von Bock). Hitler in person arrived to the front to control operations of both newly created army groups. His Supreme Headquarters, as well as the headquarters of the chief commands of the Armed Forces and the Army moved from East Prussia to Vinnitsa.

Soviet armies were retreating in incessant rearguard fights: the South-Western Front across the bend of the Don to Stalingrad, and the Southern Front to the lower flow of the Don. Despite of many initiatives of the Soviet command, troops, worn out in previous fights, were not able to stand the relentless pressure of the enemy forces. Before the mid-July the gap in the southern sector of the East front widened from 150 to 400 kilometres. The Germans occupied industrial areas of the Donbass and agricultural areas along the Don. Rostov was taken, and direct menace was created to Stalingrad and North Caucasus. After the great victory at Moscow, the Soviet nation again tasted the bitterness of defeat.

The overall strategic situation was the worse since it unfolded on a broader background of the "Axis" Berlin - Rome - Tokyo triumphs on all the fronts of the Second World War. The first half of 1942 was particularly heavy on the anti-fascist coalition. It was marked by defeats on all the fronts. Apart of the main, East front of the war, also a catastrophic situation developed in the Far East, where the Japanese destroyed the American Pacific Fleet, took Hongkong, Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. Allied forces were in retreat in Burma. Germano-Italian forces went to a new offensive in North Africa, took Tobruk, and approached to Alexandria, creating menace to the Suez Canal and oil fields of the Middle East. German armies, advancing to the Volga and Caucasus, created another arm of gigantic pincers, aiming at the Middle East.

The whole Germany was in the state of utmost euphoria and festive joy. To the tune of the propaganda trumpets, everybody was talking about new successes and coming final victory in the war.