XIV. Everything had worked as Stalin expected, but Stalin was surprised by the fierceness of the German attack: in a matter of weeks, the Soviet forward armies, caught in their offensive stance and unprepared for defense, were surrounded and destroyed piecemeal: millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoners, and vast regions were occupied by Axis troops.
In some of those regions, say the Baltic countries, the Germans were taken as liberators, and local recruits joined the enemy in large numbers; in other regions, guerrilla groups were formed behind the lines to continue the resistance; in all of them, the Nazi murder machine worked at full speed, sweeping everything on its path.
Over that summer, the front quickly moved closer to Moscow, as the Soviet divisions collapsed one after the other. The Tukhachevsky purge had removed most experienced field commanders from the Red Army, and their positions had been filled with political appointees and friends of several Kremlin factions, whose military skill was unrelated to their military grades. Plus, the invasion had laid bare the inadequacies of the Soviet economy, unable to feed and supply millions of men and women under arms.
Kiev fell, the Axis troops penetrated deep into the Ukraine, and Stalin started to realise that, after all, there was a chance that Hitler’s army wouldn’t simply bleed to death in the Soviet vastness, but could actually succeed and conquer the whole country, or at least its European portion. With a full-blown crisis in his hands, Stalin reorganized several key ministries, and ordered the transfer of entire industries to the Ural region, well east of Moscow, to ensure that the fight would continue even if the capital fell. Useless but well connected generals were stripped of their commands and younger, more capable generals with no political god-parents were appointed to replace them. Stringent, Soviet-style directives were issued to field armies: not another inch would be given up. The German invasion had to be resisted to the last man. The survival of the Soviet Union, and more than that, was at stake.
The crisis lasted well into the Fall, with German armies approaching Moscow from the west, despite the early arrival of wintery cold and snow. However, the German offensive petered off at that point, unable to overcome the weather and the desperate resistance of the Soviet armies packed in front of the capital. Stalin cancelled the emergency plans for an evacuation of the Kremlin; on December 12, he ordered champagne to celebrate the Japanese attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, which forced the U.S. entry in the world war.
With the Americans on board and supplying enormous amounts of military hardware by sea, everything was much easier in 1942. The Axis army mounted a respectable summer offensive that took the front to the downtown of Stalingrad, and the feet of the Caucasus; but the Soviets were well-prepared to hit back, and that they did in September, when Stalin approved two large-scale offensives devised by a young, brilliant general named Zhukov: Operation Uranus sought to roll back the Axis’ central army group just southwest of Moscow, and resulted in a costly fiasco, due to the stiff resistance offered by the German troops there; however, Operation Mars brought about the collapse of Romanian and German armies around the Stalingrad perimeter, and the complete encirclement of hundreds of thousands of top Germans troops inside.
In early 1943, the Sixth German Army of Stalingrad – now reduced to a few tens of thousands of starved, defeated survivors – gave up hope and surrendered. The war was won, even if the Nazis would refuse to concede defeat for two more years.