By March 1943, the tide had turned against the German Army, particularly on the Eastern Front. Now, living through their third arctic Soviet winter, the Wehrmacht faced a seemingly endless and new Red Army force. After traveling through a thousand miles of open steppes, crossing rivers, cutting through thick forests, the murderously efficient Germans could simply not believe that the Russians had more manpower. The Wehrmacht was quite literally running out of German recruits to fill their ever-dwindling ranks. No matter how many Russian tanks they destroyed, it seemed as if another ten appeared over the horizon. No matter how many Russians they shot, twenty more appeared. Also, the new tanks they faced were mostly the smaller, faster T-34s with sloped armor, and now featuring high velocity 85 mm guns. Keep in mind that Germany produced around 1200 Mark VI Tiger tanks, and 784 Mark VI King Tigers. By the end of World War II, the Russians, relying on simpler design, and a motivated workforce, built upwards of 39,000 T-34s. The Russians had just a year earlier surrounded and destroyed the German 6th Army outside of Stalingrad, and across the entire Russian front, Germans were in retreat. Of course the war still seesawed back and forth but the gains kept going to the Russians. In the west, the British and the Americans had invaded Sicily and began a march also into what Churchill termed the soft underbelly of Europe, specifically the Italian campaign was about to begin. Now a two front war, something Germans could scarcely afford, was beginning. The proximity of two large armies so close to Germany forced Hitler into moving tens of thousands of German soldiers, worn to a nub from fighting in Russia to then head into Europe to prevent a disaster there.
Two things lay behind the Germans in the East that they had not anticipated. During the grand encirclement battles that gave Germans upwards of three million Russian prisoners in the first six months of the war, not every Russian had been captured. In fact, a large number of Russian soldiers, cut off from their own troops to the East, simply waited things out, and this was their day. Escaped Russians became effective partisan guerilla fighters and were able to hinder the German retreat by blowing railroad tracks, killing or stealing pack animals used to resupply the Germans, blowing bridges often just as retreating Germans came upon them, and of course sniping and harassing.
Before they advanced all the way to Moscow and Stalingrad the German forces carried behind them Einsatzgruppen SS, special SS murderers who went through
captured Russian towns and killed Bolsheviks, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, and resistance fighters. The fact is, their scorched Earth policies became painfully clear to the Russians retaking territory, and as much as the Germans tried to hide the results, each new town the Russians recaptured just infuriated them even further. Burnt villages, rotting bodies hanging from trees mass graves adumbrated the frozen landscape. So the Germans were also reaping the fruits of the seeds they sewed on the way in. Additionally, Nazi soldiers who suffered from resistance fighters brutally retaliated against whomever they could find, making matters worse for everyone involved.
When the Germans began re-crossing the Dneiper River, the partisans scuttled the hydroelectric dams to further deny the Germans even basic luxuries like warmth and current for radios. By August of 1943, the German line revealed seriously bulges especially when the Red Army moved west and south of their forces over the river system. Now it was the Germans who were threatened with encirclement. The fighting grew increasingly fierce now the Germans weren’t just fighting for victory but for their own survival.
Of course even in retreat the disciplined and motivated and battle hardened Germans gave as good as they got. Russian dead piled up like cordwood. But the Russians kept coming in overwhelming force. By the end of 1943, the Germans were literally running westward through the Ukraine. In the Ukraine alone, 2000 T-34s, many fresh out of the factory faced about 345 Panzers. Six million Red Army soldiers faced down three million Nazis. The replacements that were requested by Wehrmacht commanders were not coming, and would never come.
In January 1944, just six months before yet another invasion came through the Normandy coastline, the 1st Ukraine Army pushed out of Kiev and cut of the Germans at Korsun. Two weeks later the other part of the pincer came from the north when the 2nd Ukraine Army closed around them.
In typical Soviet Army tactical doctrine, the main German force was pinned down by a massive Red Guard force to their front. This was usually followed by a furious and unrelenting Russian artillery barrage. Afterwards thousands of Russian infantry followed, tanks behind them. Von Manstein flew to Hitler’s command post in East Prussia known as the Wolfschantz. As Paulus did in Stalingrad, Manstein was asking for permission to retreat. Hitler refused and demanded that the Germans fight to the last man. Even the deeply inculcated sense of national pride that drove the Nazis to believe they were superior to everyone and rightfully deserved the lands they took did not stop the vast majority of them from seeing the writing on the wall. Many Germans knew the war was essentially unwinnable and they were only playing out a holding action to possibly live to see their families. Of course a few of them believed in the mission and were willing to die for the fatherland. Unfortunately for them the Russians were all too willing to accommodate.
Some 60,000 Germans were captured in the Korsun pocket. The shoe was undeniably on the other foot. The Germans did try to break out despite their orders from the Furher. T-34s ate away at their armor, and mounted Cossacks did the same thing to the retreating Germans that they did to the retreating French over a century before. They killed them, with grim efficiency. By the winter of 1944, the Germans populated the landscape in frozen bodies, many clinging to pictures of home, their last cigarette poking out of a swollen blue rictus.
Another salient comprised of German was Kamenta-Podolsky and there again German commanders asked Hitler for permission to withdraw, but again, he would have none of it. Nonetheless, the Germans retreated and some 200,000 Wehrmacht soldiers barely made it out. They left on foot as well, almost no panzers were available to carry the wounded, or ammunition. It was up to the German infantry to carry its own supplies, which slowed them even further. The Russian advance was inexorable and on April 10th, 1944, Odessa was liberated. The Russians were ecstatic.
It did not help the Germans that by now the Russians were resupplying front line troops in thousands of American trucks while the Germans were still relying on a few moribund wheeled vehicles and thousands of horses. The Germans on the Eastern front also enjoyed no effective air cover as the massive Allied bombing campaign on German cities drew off Luftwaffe assets to defend themselves. By January 1944 the Russians boasted a five to one advantage in number of aircraft. By this time in Stalingrad, conditions were so bad that 20,000 Russians a month perished, despite the end of the German 6th Army years before.
Near Orienenberg, near a new German salient, Red Army forces all the way from Siberia managed to hide and stage a massive surprise attack on the Germans in the southern west corner of the Ukraine, and another large force of Germans in the Crimean. Sixty-five minutes of artillery preceded the attack, the Ukrainian 4th Army overran the Nazis in the Crimean and German forces surrendered in large numbers although 30,000 Germans were now holed up in Sebastopol. They hoped to be evacuated and few thousand were. However the German navy lacked the ships to save most of them.
The big picture showed Finland suing for peace but the Russians, furious at the Finns, still sore from a throbbing they took in 1940, invaded the Karelian Isthmus. The Finns made a desperate retreat. By June 1944,
three years and a day after Barbarossa, the Russians bombed Axis positions in Belarus. The Germans, now a force of about 20,000 in Vitesbk, growing even more desperate executed 10,000 citizens and POWs. The Russians discovered the results and news started spreading about the atrocities committed by the Germans. Soon thereafter, 100,000 Germans were cut off and trapped in Minsk. The Russians treated them to a massive artillery bombardment and the Germans surrendered in mass.
The Russians then came across Maidarek, the first concentration camp in the East. The Russians redoubled their efforts and by August 1944 most of the invading Germans left in Russia were now trapped against the cold Baltic Sea.
The coup de grace was still ten months away and it would be delivered at the German Reich Chancelory in 1945.