It is well-known that World War II was the largest and most widespread war in all of human history. It involved most of the world’s countries, was fought in three separate continents, and directly affected about 100 million people. But what many people today do not realize is the scope of the Eastern Front in WWII. The conflict on the Eastern Front, involving Soviet, German, Italian, Romanian, and other forces, was unprecedented in its spread and ferocity; therefore, this conflict includes some truly shocking numbers. This post details just some of these numbers, and the stories behind them.
The total number of deaths on the Eastern Front, including over 10 million Soviet soldiers. Axis losses totalled about 5 million, and a horrific 14 to 17 million Soviet civilians were also killed. Such massive numbers are nearly impossible to comprehend, and it’s insane for me to think that the fatalities of the Eastern Front are only slightly less than the entire current population of Canada, where I live.
Soviet dead, piled high by the Germans near Cholm, Poland, in January 1942. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-004-3633-30A/ Muck, Richard/ CC-BY-SA
The number of women who served in the Red Army during WWII. Under a policy incredibly foreign indeed to Western countries such as Great Britain, the Soviet Union allowed its female citizens to serve in combat roles. These women turned out to be valuable additions to the Red Army; the achievements of many surpassing those of their male counterparts. For example, Roza Shanina was a sniper active from 1944 until her death in January 1945. Despite joining the Red Army aged only 19, she was a gifted sniper and made 59 kills.
Roza Shanina with her 1891/30 scoped Mosin rifle. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
The number of Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik aircraft produced, making the Il-2 the most produced combat aircraft of all time. An irreplaceably efficient tool in the Soviet Air Force’s arsenal, the Il-2 was used as a ground-attack aircraft, and was able to defeat German Panther and Tiger I tanks far more easily than other tanks could on the ground.
Il-2s attacking, guns blazing, during the Battle of Kursk. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #225/F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0
Over 300,000 Soviets were killed or captured at the Battle of Bialystok-Minsk. Conducted by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre upon the onset of Operation Barbarossa, this battle lasted from June 22 to early July. Despite the short duration, however, Bialystok-Minsk had severe results for the Red Army. Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group (commanded by the famous Heinz Guderian) and 3rd Panzer Group completed a flawless pincer operation, encircling huge numbers of Soviet troops; most of whom would later die in the brutal conditions of German POW camps.
A POW camp for Soviets. The Germans were unprepared for the astonishing numbers of prisoners they accumulated on the Eastern Front, so many camps were simply hastily-fenced areas of grass, with no facilities or shelter. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B21845/ Wahner/ CC-BY-SA
53 tonnes was the weight of the Soviet Union’s gargantuan KV-2 heavy assault tank. Only 225 of these tanks were ever made, which was probably a good thing- they were slow, unreliable, and easily visible to the enemy due to their distinctive boxy turret. As a comparison, the IS heavy tank weighed 46 tonnes and the T-34 medium tank only 26.
A KV-2 abandoned by its crew in mid-1941. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-209-0091-11/Nägele/CC-BY-SA
The number of Hero Cities in the former Soviet Union. Josef Stalin awarded the first Hero City titles in 1945, to commemorate certain Soviet cities’ heroism in WWII. The twelve cities of Leningrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kiev, Kerch, Novorossiysk, Minsk, Tula, Smolensk, and Murmansk have received this symbolic title, and Brest Fortress in Belarus is titled as a Hero Fortress.
Section of Sevastopol’s Hero City monument. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Wardlemke
The number of troops sentenced to death by court martial for desertion by the time the war was not even four months old. Retreat was essentially not allowed in the Red Army, and NKVD “blocking troops” were put in place from the beginning. Their task was to stop and potentially arrest any retreating or deserting troops, something which they seemed to have done with great efficiency. Stalin’s famous Order No. 227 of July 1942 only encouraged these extreme tactics, as it instructed commanders to create blocking battalions which should immediately shoot any fleeing “cowards”.
Soviet stamp depicting the words “Not a step back!”; a phrase which was notably featured in Order No. 227. Image from ru.wikipedia. Attributed to Vizu and G. Stravitsky
The strength of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in 1941. After their initial encouraging gains, the Germans were gradually beaten down until their Eastern Front contingent numbered only 1,960,000 in 1945. The turning point of the Eastern Front is widely seen to be the Battle of Stalingrad, which was the Wehrmacht’s first real defeat at the hand of the Soviets.
Wehrmacht soldiers marching across the Russian countryside in 1943. Atribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0595-05/CC-BY-SA
Around 2,000 Soviet planes were destroyed by the Luftwaffe on the very first day of Operation Barbarossa- a crippling blow to the Soviet side, especially considering that this number was about 1/6 of the entire Soviet Air Force. Such significant losses added to the Soviet Union’s plight in the following months, since the Luftwaffe had gained air superiority so quickly.
Ruined MiG-3 in a photograph taken not long after the start of Operation Barbarossa. Image from the Polish Archive via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
The explanations accompanying these numbers have, I hope, illustrated some of the terrifying scope of the Eastern Front. The immensity of this conflict still remains just unimaginable to me, because of its inhumanity and cruelty as well as its massive extent. The Soviet Union occupied a giant geographical area, and it seems that the Eastern Front’s scale was very much proportionate to this. Although such large numbers are difficult to comprehend, whenever I read an account of individual bravery or sacrifice on the Eastern Front, that figure of 30 million always flickers into my mind. How terrible that 30 million people gave their lives, or were killed, or executed, in the all-encompassing conflict of the Eastern Front.
(2014, January 14). Barrier troops. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrier_troops
(2014, May 26). Eastern Front (World War II). Retrieved from http://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Front_(World_War_II)
Our second day in the verdant London spring was spent walking around various areas of the capital, visiting long-running markets and ancient churches interspersed amongst futuristic skyscrapers and office buildings. One of my favourite things about London is that it combines so many eras and so much history in every single city block; the Gothic Revival Houses of Parliament lie right across the Thames from the Millennium-built London Eye, and nearly brand new edifices such as the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Cheese-grater buildings are within sight of St. Paul’s and the Tower of London. It is this staggering variance and amazing hodgepodge of architecture and history that makes London so endlessly fascinating, as was evident to me on my trip in May 2012.
The day began in the City of London, when we went to Leadenhall Market. Built in Victorian times and boasting a very distinctive colour scheme and architectural style, Leadenhall is a charming market with many shops and much to see. While we were there, there was live music as well as a number of stalls selling all sorts of food and other items. The Market was also done up in a beautifully patriotic manner, with St. George’s Cross bunting strung along the shops and flags hanging from the roof.
Our first view of Leadenhall Market
Charming strings of bunting decorating the already beautiful market
Leadenhall Market certainly occupies an interesting area of London. It is somewhat at odds with its surroundings, or the other way round- the market sits in the shadow of the otherworldly, industrial, metallic façade of the Lloyd’s building. When I first saw Lloyd’s, I was shocked by its peculiarity. It looks more like a futuristic multi-storey carpark than the headquarters of a 300-year old insurance institution!
Rear of the Lloyd’s building, completed in 1986 and Grade I listed only twenty-five years later
Close-up of Lloyd’s- admire it or hate it, one must admit that the building is distinctive
Only a few moments from Lloyd’s and Leadenhall, one finds the equally unique building that locals call ‘the Gherkin’. Situated at 30 St. Mary Axe, this unmistakeable building is filled with offices and is one of London’s most recognizable contemporary landmarks.
The Gherkin, with the steeple of St. Andrew Undershaft church in the foreground
The base of the Gherkin
Our next destinations were also in the City- Smithfield Market, and the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great. Smithfield Market has historically sold meat and livestock, and is still home to many butchers today. However, the market was unfortunately closed while we were there, so we were only able to see the market building rather than the bustle of the market itself.
The classical exterior of Smithfield Market
St. Bartholomew-the-Great is a beautiful Anglican church mere streets away from Smithfield Market. It was built in the 1100s, making it one of the oldest buildings in all of London. Amazingly, it survived both the Great Fire of 1666 and the bombing of World War II unscathed. Although we did not go inside the church- there is an entrance fee for tourists- the exterior is impressive enough, featuring medieval carving and contrasting checkerboard patterns.
View of the ancient Great St. Bart’s church
Example of the fascinating exterior details of St. Bartholomew-the-Great
Another incredibly old feature of the Smithfield area is St. Bartholomew’s gatehouse. Built as a gatehouse for the Norman church of Great St. Bart’s beyond, this picturesque building features a 13th century stonework base and a timber-framed upper section from Elizabethan times. It is so fortunate and wonderful that such a thing exists today, due to the lack of similar buildings after the destructive Great Fire and the Blitz of WWII.
The gatehouse of St. Bartholomew-the-Great
Later that evening, the view from our Victoria hotel reminded me of the ever-busy nature of London- I could see cranes building yet more new structures, silhouetted against the grey cloudy sky.
Construction visible in the Victoria area
London is fantastic because it keeps giving me reasons to return. It never stands still for a second, and I doubt there will ever be a time when I’ve seen everything it has to offer. How exciting to think that it will continue to evolve, endlessly adding new landmarks and features to the well-known and well-loved sights that presently exist. London is a city that has both history and promise, and that makes it the most intriguing metropolis on earth.
Springtime is a special and exciting time anywhere, but as I discovered in April 2012, in London it has a unmatched quality that makes one happy to be alive. Before the beginning of tourist season, my dad, brother, and I took a wonderful trip to London where we enjoyed ourselves immensely; finding the spring rain just as refreshing and beautiful as the fresh April sunshine.
Our first hotel (we split the trip between two of them) was the DoubleTree by Hilton across from Victoria Station. I really enjoyed this hotel because of its remarkable proximity to transportation, a pasty shop, and attractions like Buckingham Palace and the London Eye. Another plus for this hotel was the complimentary chocolate cookie that we were each given upon arrival!
Covered shopping area near Victoria Station, across from Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey!)
After changing out of our posh travelling attire (we always have to make an extra effort to look respectable when flying, since my father is an employee and therefore ambassador of the airline- no comfy lounge pants and sandals for us!), we made for Regent’s Canal where we took a waterbus to Camden Locks. The Canal area is so charming and was simply gorgeous and awash with spring foliage and flowers for our voyage.
The April flora in a City of Westminster planter near Regent’s Canal and Warwick Avenue
Barge of the London Waterbus Co. on the canal
Taking a waterbus is a very good idea and I would recommend it to any tourists to London. It enables one to see some of London’s most interesting yet lesser known areas- like Camden Lock Market- in a relaxed and calming way. As well, the waterbus can dock at the London Zoo if necessary, which is another appealing attraction for many visitors to the capital.
The canal offers many intriguing sights, from nearly submarine trees…
…to sinking dinghies
Once we arrived in Camden Lock Market, we walked about and got some food. This market has a fabulous array of food stalls, offering fare from all over the globe. It’s painful to decide what one is going to eat, because one can buy crepes, kebabs, Chinese dumplings, and cuisine from places like Turkey and Ethiopia. In addition to all this food, there are outdoor stalls selling handmade jewellery, art, and cheap tourist-y clothing and accessories. A little farther along, there is The Stables Market, which (evidently) used to be stables- amidst the cobbled streets and old brick walls of this area, there are many antique shops, and even more food. I love Camden Lock Market. It’s always bustling and dynamic, and there are so many interesting things to see and buy!
Some of the Market’s culinary offerings- not as busy as usual, due to it being a rainy morning
That afternoon I was pleased when we travelled to Chelsea to visit the National Army Museum. I don’t remember ever being in the affluent and exclusive area that is Chelsea before this, and it was rather fun to walk through the rain beneath my Union flag umbrella, perusing the windows of antique shops as Rolls Royces and Aston Martins drove by. We also passed the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which is home to the famous Chelsea Pensioners. Several of the Pensioners were out and about, and I found it delightful that the one we passed on the sidewalk greeted us politely. Common courtesy and friendliness are, unfortunately, hard to find; and so this incident was both memorable and heartwarming.
Evidence of Chelsea’s bountiful wealth- an Aston Martin, parked on left ahead of the green Mini
Sign for the Royal Hospital Chelsea
The National Army Museum itself was enjoyable- not too extensive, but that was alright for us since we were quite tired, having not really slept since arriving in the UK. (Except for my brother, who took full advantage of our earlier relaxed waterbus ride by falling asleep until we reached Camden!) The Museum had lots of displays of WWII rifles and artillery, which was fascinating for me. It also dealt with the earlier history of the British Army, back to the days of muskets and the famous red coats.
British Lee Enfield rifle, used in WWII. My granddad used one of these rifles during his time as a British Army captain in India
Mock-up of a Tube tunnel, where thousands of Londoners sheltered during WWII air raids
The lower gun is a PPSh-41, a Soviet submachine gun used widely in WWII
As far as I can remember, after the Army Museum, we went back to Victoria area and got some supper before turning in for the night. Marks and Spencer or Tesco sandwiches, crisps, and Cadbury drinks are favourites whenever we’re in London, and we enjoyed these staples while watching Britain’s Got Talent auditions. We had lots planned for the next day, so this was the perfect relaxing way to end a first day that had been just as busy!
Victory Day, which falls on May 9 every year and commemorates the day in 1945 on which Nazi Germany capitulated to the attacking Soviet armies, is always an emotional day for me. Victory Day is mainly celebrated in former Soviet countries, but it has become a fixture of my calendar since I am so interested in the Eastern Front. 3 years ago, when I was beginning to seriously research for the WWII novel I’m currently writing, I came across mention of Victory Day on the internet. Spring and summer 2011 in general were emotional times for me, because I learned so much about WWII that I had never known, and so much of it was unbelievably poignant and painful.
Some of the stories of endurance and courage that inspired me most back then came from within the crumbling brick walls of Brest Fortress. Located in Brest, Belarus, and built in the 1800s by the Russians, this star-shaped fortress of red brick saw an intense conflict in June and July 1941 when the invading Wehrmacht forces came up against its defenders. The Germans needed to take Brest Fortress, since it held a garrison of almost 10,000 Red Army soldiers, in addition to controlling crossings of the River Bug and the railway to Moscow.
Kholm Gate of Brest Fortress, with battle damage visible. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Szeder László
Given the strategic importance of this fortification and the initial enthusiasm of much of the Wehrmacht, this was to be a frenzied battle. However, most people did not expect the Soviets to hold out for long. The forces they faced included an entire Austrian division of about 17,000 men, plus parts of two more infantry divisions and a panzer group- a force that, in all, was twice as strong as that of the defenders. In spite of this disparity, the Soviets fought bravely and ended up defending the fortress for much longer than anyone expected.
Essentially, the siege of Brest Fortress last eight days, from June 22-29; after that, most of its defenders were either dead from the constant German artillery strikes, or in captivity. But many accounts state that small groups or individual Soviet soldiers stayed on long after the battle was over, hiding in the bowels of the fortress and coming forth to cause chaos for the Germans. For example, Pyotr Gavrilov, a major who was later titled a Hero of the Soviet Union, was only captured on July 23, 1941- an entire month after the fortress had been seemingly completely captured.
Portrait of Pyotr Gavrilov. Image from http://brest-memorial.iatp.by/kobrinskoe-ykreplenie.html via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
But there is one story from Brest Fortress that continually inspires and touches me. It is just a fragment of a life, really, but it succinctly illustrates the self-sacrificing determination of those who stayed behind and concealed themselves, without food and without any hope, to serve their country. The ruined walls of the fortress hold many inscriptions made by its last defenders, and one of them reads: “I’m dying but I will not surrender! Farewell, Motherland. 20/VII-41”.
Bronze replica of this heart-wrenching inscription, found at Brest Fortress’s museum. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Sergei Semyonov
From the very first time I saw this inscription, I was staggered by the honesty and determination of its words, and have often wondered after the fate of the soldier who wrote them. It is likely that he did perish in defense of the fortress, and his resolve and that of his comrades defines the Red Army of WWII for me. It is a rare occurrence that I read those angular, laboriously carved words and do not feel both sad and grateful.
This very quote is a sort of inspiration for me in my own life, because it embodies the pursuit of a very admirable virtue. As well, it keeps things in perspective for me- if I ever feel overwhelmed or like I want to give up on something, these words remind me that humans can do incredible things with enough commitment.
Once all was finally over at Brest Fortress, both sides had suffered sizeable losses. 2,000 Soviets were dead and almost 500 Germans had perished as well. All the courage of the fortress’s defenders had not been enough to stop the mighty Wehrmacht; a theme which became common in the first few months of the war. What is amazing is that the Soviets knew exactly how outmatched they were- and yet they still did not hesitate to give their lives for the Motherland. They fought bravely, and then once the Germans began to take over, they chose further hardship and death over captivity. That determination was a hallmark of Red Army soldiers in WWII, and is exactly what finally ensured their victory.
Memorial to the defenders of Brest Fortress. Attributed to Szeder Laci from hu.wikipedia.org
Stalingrad was also a hotbed for this characteristic resolve- as well as at the famous Pavlov’s House, fierce battles raged around the city’s railway station, which was entrusted to a Lieutenant Anton Dragan, a junior officer to Colonel-General Alexander Rodimtsev. Lieutenant Dragan and his men of the 13th Guards Rifle Division engaged in intense room-to-room fighting in the station for an admirable three weeks. The Germans would gain possession of a given room only to be attacked again by the Soviets, who had crawled under the floorboards or through the beams of the roof.
However, Soviet reinforcements coming from across the Volga never lasted long. Only about 300 of the 10,000 men of the division who crossed the Volga survived the battle- as the Wikipedia page for the 13th Guards states, “This profligacy with life seems incredible to Western eyes, but was unremarkable during the conflict on the Eastern front”. Thus, Dragan and his men remained alone at the railway station, their numbers dwindling day by day.
Example of the devastation of the Eastern Front: central Stalingrad after the famous battle. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #602161/Zelma/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Eventually, once their supplies had been depleted, one of the men carved a moving inscription on the wall, reminiscent of the one at Brest Fortress: “Rodimtsev’s Guardsmen fought and died for their country here”. Unlike the story at Brest Fortress, however, this one has a relatively cheerful ending- Dragan and the last of his men managed to escape the railway station under cover of darkness, and were later reunited with their fellow Guardsmen.
Victory Day always brings these tales to mind, and in addition to celebrating the end of the war, I spend May 9 remembering what really won the war: huge numbers of individuals who, through their selfless acts of sacrifice and courage, allowed Nazi tyranny to be defeated and freedom to prevail. Although the soldiers of Brest Fortress and the 13th Guards perhaps never saw their nation’s victory, they nonetheless contributed to it, and that is what I remember every May 9.
It is wonderful to know, too, that all of Russia and the former Soviet Union also remembers this. Victory Day is an elaborate and well-loved holiday in those countries, and it is marked with the laying of wreaths on war memorials and giant parades through city centres. Someday I shall attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow, but until then I will continue my own celebration and commemoration of sorts here.
2010 Moscow Victory Day parade. Attribution: http://www.kremlin.ru
I’d also like to mention that today, May 9, 2014, is a national day of honour here in Canada. Today, the whole country is remembering and honouring our troops who fought in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, including the 158 who died. Although Canada does not have the largest or most powerful military, these men and women gave their lives to help others and they have solidified the generous and compassionate spirit of Canada. I know that I speak for the majority of the nation when I say that I am immensely grateful and proud of their actions.
On this beautiful day in May 2014, whether you celebrate it as Victory Day, a Day of Honour, or nothing at all, I hope you will remember the courage and sacrifice of those who ensured our freedom. We should be thankful that we are no longer mired in a worldwide war, and we must not forget the joy of peace and the actions of those who bought it.
Graffiti left on the Reichstag in Berlin by Soviet soldiers. Some examples read: “Here were Brandenburgers”, “Hello to Moscow”, and “Stalingraders in Berlin! 9 May 1945”. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Michael Rose
2005 Victory Day fireworks by the Kremlin. Attribution: http://www.kremlin.ru
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, bedecked with memorial bouquets. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Godot13
(2014). Defense of Brest Fortress. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_Brest_Fortress
(2014). Brest Fortress. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brest_Fortress
Fowler, W. (2004). Barbarossa: The First 7 Days. Havertown, PA: Casemate
Erickson, J. & Erickson, L. (2001). Hitler V. Stalin: A Conflict of Evil. London, UK: Carlton Publishing Group
Willmott, H.P.; Messenger, C.; & Cross, R. (2004). World War II. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Limited