By the end of September 1941, it was becoming clear to much of the world observing that the German-led invasion of the USSR had not gone as the Nazis had expected. Three months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet position was still very serious, however.
By this point, the Red Army had suffered at least two million casualties, while the Germans had lost a modest 185,000 men, giving a solid indication of the Wehrmacht’s superiority over the enemy.
In the north-west of Russia, Leningrad was already surrounded from September 8, 1941 by German-Finnish forces. Leningrad was subjected to aerial and ground bombardments, while its inhabitants were starved by the blockade. Next winter, up to 100,000 people in Leningrad would each starve month. In the south, the Ukrainian capital Kiev had fallen on September 19, 1941 into the hands of a vast German pincer movement; with the Red Army suffering an unprecedented loss of around 750,000 troops in the Kiev region, the vast majority of them taken prisoner.
Read more: Operation Barbarossa: Analyze the combat – Part 2
What really happened?
With Kiev in German hands, Army Group South, led by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, sank deeper into Ukrainian territory. As part of Army Group South, the German 11th Army, led by its new commander Erich von Manstein, occupied Perekop on September 27, 1941, an urban agglomeration that connects the Ukrainian mainland to the Crimean peninsula. General von Manstein would become one of the most formidable war commanders in the Wehrmacht.
In early October 1941, the German 11th Army linked up with Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group 1, now reinforced and called the 1st Panzer Army. They quickly surrounded large elements of two Soviet armies east of Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine and near the Sea of Azov, a body of water slightly larger than Belgium. This meeting was, therefore, titled by the Germans “The Battle of the Sea of Azov”, a conflict largely forgotten today.
As the noose tightened, German divisions captured more than 100,000 Soviet troops on the shores of the Sea of Azov. The Russians lost more than 200 tanks and nearly 800 guns there, while the commander of the Soviet 18th Army, General AK Smirnov, was killed in action by artillery fire on October 8, 1941. Historian Aleksander A. Maslov wrote de Smirnov, “The Germans who buried the general placed a plywood board over his grave, with an inscription in Russian, German and Romanian, urging their soldiers to fight as bravely as this Soviet soldier.”
With their column of panzers and infantry stretching for miles on the horizon, the Germans swept the coast along the Sea of Azov. The 1st Panzer Army captured Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port city, on October 6, 1941. Two days later, just over 40 miles further east along the coastline, Mariupol fell, on the northern sea coast. from Azov. The fighting in this region of southeastern Ukraine ended on October 11, 1941, with a decisive victory for the Wehrmacht. British academic Evan Mawdsley recognized that the Battle of the Sea of Azov “was certainly one of the half-dozen great Red Army defeats of 1941”.
The advance itself straddling the Sea of Azov continued, as the Germans crossed the Ukrainian border into southwest Russia. On October 17, 1941, two SS divisions of the 1st Armored Army reached Taganrog, homeland of about 200,000 inhabitants.
Read more: Operation Barbarossa: Analyze the combat – Part 1
SS divisions were followed from behind by Wehrmacht soldiers
The German 11th Army, meanwhile, marched west to join Marshal Ion Antonescu’s 4th Romanian Army, which had surrounded Odessa in southern Ukraine and on the Black Sea. The engagement here revealed serious gaps in the Romanians’ combat capabilities, and they were grateful to see the arrival of the German 11th Army. After two months of stoic resistance, Odessa fell on October 16, 1941 as the Soviet army withdrew from the city. In the following days, Romanian forces, assisted by SS units, would assassinate tens of thousands of Jewish inhabitants of Odessa (the Odessa massacre).
Between August and September 1941, the majority of the Red Army reserves had been moved by Joseph Stalin to the crucial Moscow theater in the center. Von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, in part because of this, has made steady progress. The advance of Army Group South threatened the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, a major industrial center, while Donbass was also in peril, a major coal mining area as well as Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city considered to be “The gateway to the Caucasus” and its oil fields.
In the race for Kharkov, the fourth largest metropolis in the Soviet Union, the 6th German Army captured Sumy on October 10, 1941. The 6th Army was led by Marshal Walter von Reichenau, a committed Nazi, and after taking Sumy , they were 90 miles from Kharkov. The Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), an encyclopedia detailing Jewish history, describe that von Reichenau “encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control”.
Kharkov was in dire straits
Not only was the German 6th Army advancing rapidly towards the city, but Kharkov’s population had grown to over a million people, with Soviet citizens having previously fled other areas to avoid Nazi occupation. Kharkov’s pre-war population was 840,000, but some estimates indicate that by September 1941 it nearly doubled to 1.5 million.
On October 15, 1941, the Germans captured the town of Okhtyrka, just over 100 kilometers northwest of Kharkov. The next day, October 16, Bohodukhiv was captured, less than 40 miles from Kharkov. Over the next few days, the German 6th Army continued to advance, and on October 20 the Soviets completed evacuating industrial enterprises from the city. Four days later, on October 24, von Reichenau’s men entered Kharkov and quickly captured the city.
Kharkov’s disappearance was a big blow. It was an industrial stronghold, where the Soviet T-34 tank had been produced at the Kharkov Tank Factory. Von Reichenau, while inspecting a captured T-34 tank, reportedly said: “If the Russians ever produce it on an assembly line, we will have lost the war.” He certainly would have been baffled to learn that, even with the loss of Kharkiv, the Soviets built 12,000 T-34 tanks in 1942. However, there were less than 1,000 T-34s. available when the Germans invaded in June 1941; and most of them were destroyed when the really critical fighting took place in 1941. With Kharkov under control, the German 6th Army proceeded to occupy Donbass in southeastern Ukraine.
Read more: Operation Barbarossa: An Overview – Part Two
The 1st Armored Army, supported by the 17th German Army, was marching towards Donetsk (Stalino), 155 miles south of Kharkov. Although the Germans were hampered by supply problems and the onset of the autumn rains, they captured Donetsk on October 20, 1941.
By mid-October, von Manstein’s 11th Army was free to advance into the Crimean Peninsula. Hitler had declared in its directive of August 21, 1941, “Crimea is of colossal importance for the protection of Romania’s oil supplies. Therefore, it is necessary to use all available means, including mobile formations, to quickly force the lower reaches of the Dnieper before the enemy can reinforce its forces ”.
By the end of October 1941, the Panzers had penetrated the Crimea with a costly frontal assault. On November 1, the German 11th Army captured Simferopol, the second largest city in Crimea. On November 9, the Wehrmacht captured Yalta, the resort town in southern Crimea and one of the Soviet Union’s most popular vacation destinations. Stalin was in possession of a residence in Yalta and he had on holiday there during the summers.
A week after the fall of Yalta on November 16, 1941, the German 11th Army occupied Kerch, a coastal town in eastern Crimea.
The 6th German Army captured the Russian city of Kursk on November 3, 1941
The Germans had invaded almost all of Crimea and in doing so destroyed 16 Soviet divisions and captured over 100,000 Red Army soldiers. Yet the largest city in Crimea, Sebastapol, in the far southwest of the peninsula, remained in Russian hands for the time being and was in fact a fortress. Sevastapol was reinforced by the Soviet garrison which had been evacuated from Odessa in October.
Army Group South had now established a line extending over 300 miles in diameter, stretching along Kursk-Kharkov-Donetsk-
Read more: An overview of Operation Barbarossa
Fortunately for the Germans, in early November 1941, the heavy Russian rains (rasputitsa) stopped, to be replaced by clearer weather and colder conditions. With the presence of a light frost, the ground hardened, which allowed panzers, trucks and motorcycles to shift gears and move on the ground with relative ease.
Shane Quinn has been a regular contributor to Global Research for almost two years and has published articles in the US media outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Great Britain and Orinoco Tribune in Venezuela. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.