Note: After reading Mbwun's essay on the Soviet involvement in WW2, I decided to back up his arguement with an assignment i did for my year 11 modern history. The Eastern Front is a passionate interest to me and after much of my own readings it is my belief that had it not been for Hitler who fucked around with his general's and disregarded their common sense and their sound military stratergies, the Russians would have been defeated or forced to sue for peace and any hope for the Western Allies to win would have been impossible. Since there was a word limit (that i have greatly exceded) i was only able to cover the first two years of the German-Soviet War. these two contain the most important events, and the after kursk in the summer of '43 there was another two and bit years of calamity and slow withdrawing which ultimately ended in Berlin.
The Eastern Front (June 1941-February 1943)
Barbarossa & Stalingrad
Focus Question: Was it Hitler's personal interference that devastated the German military initiative in the first half of the German-Soviet War 1941-1943, which led a defensive war and the eventual downfall of the Third Reich?
The unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 commenced with Unternehmen (Operation) Barbarossa and the largest and most devastating individual war in human history, accounting for around two-thirds to half of the loss of life in the Second World War. The desire to exterminate the Soviet Union was the pinnacle of Hitler's political and ideological attention and obsession. In August 1939, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets to buy some time for his preparations. He used this time to make himself master of Europe. Germany occupied or influenced every nation on the continent from Polish border to the Pyrenees and from Norway to Crete. Only the British resisted in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, North Africa and the skies above Britain but their defeat seemed imminent. With all opposition quelled he turned his sight to the East. However despite the enormous initial Blitzkrieg success in Russia, interference in the conduct of military operation by Adolf Hitler hindered the progress of the Ostheer (German Eastern Army). This setback led to an initial defeat of the Barbarossa campaign, then the disaster the following year with the invasion of the Caucasus, Fall Blau and the battle at Stalingrad. Because of the blunders made by the dictator, the bulk of the German military was put in a fragile defensive war in the Eastern Front, contributing to the ultimate downfall of the German Third Reich.
Hitler had been motivated by many factors for a war with the Soviet Union for decades. In Mein Kampf, he referred his desire for a "war to destroy what Hitler saw as the 'Judeo-Bolshevik' regime in the Soviet Union," (Wikipedia, 2006). Hitler desired what he called Lebensraum (living space), the creation of a more logical proportion between the German population and the land space they had to live in, considering that the Soviet Union contained one-sixth of the earth's land surface. There were other appeals besides the great expanses and the crusade to exterminate the sub-human population and replace it Aryans, he also claimed that the east was "a cure for the German economic ills of the day," (Tarrant, V, E, 1992, p. 1). He reasoned at the Nuremburg Rally in 1936, "If we had at our disposal the incalculable wealth and stores of raw material of the Ural Mountains and the unending fertile plains of the Ukraine to be exploited under National Socialist leadership… our German people would swim in plenty," (Tarrant, V, E, 1992, p. 2). High ranking Nazis made it these goals a priority in planning stage of the attack. "Few officers saw the directive of 23 May, which called for the German armies in the east to expropriate whatever they needed, and also to send at least seven million tons of grain a year back to Germany… Nazi leaders had no illusion about the consequences for civilians deprived of the Ukraine's resources" (Beevor, A, 1998, p. 16). By 1940, the German High Command began working on the planning of the attack under the codename, Operation Barbarossa, named for the 12th Century Teutonic Emperor. In Hitler's mind the aims were clear. Using the same Blitzkrieg assault tactics that would conquered the armies of Europe the Wehrmacht would establish a defensive line against Asiatic Russia from the Volga River to last industrial area left to Russia in the Urals could then be destroyed by the Luftwaffe, (Beevor, A, 1998, p. 12). Hitler intended to push the surviving Russians out into the steppes of Asia behind the Urals, which were deemed of no importance.
Barbarossa was originally set to commence on May 15, 1941, but was postponed while Hitler diverted his forces to the Balkan campaign. Joined with the as of yet inivincible and confident Wehrmacht was a multinational expiditionary force of Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Slovaks, Croats and Spanish massing on the Polish, Romanian and Bessarabian frontier. Combined, with their foreign allies there were around four million men, 2770 aircraft, 3300 tanks and 600,000 other vehicles at the disposal of the Ostheer. The largest Invasion force ever assembled attacked at 3:15 AM, June 22, and caught the Soviets, thanks to Stalin's naivety and stupidity, completely by surprise. In the first week, German panzer divisions thrust 500 miles deep into soviet territory while the Luftwaffe obliterated enemy mobilizations, lines of communication and a large percentage of the Red Air Force. Georgy Semenyak, then a 20-year-old soldier in the Soviet 204th Division explains the disorder and confusion for the Russians, "I fought on the border three days…The bombing, shooting… explosions of artillery gunfire continued non-stop- on the fourth day his unit began to retreat- into chaos. "it was a dismal picture, during the day, aeroplanes continued dropping bombs on the retreating soldiers…when the orders was given for the retreat, there were huge numbers of people heading in every direction- although the majority were heading east," (Rees, L, 1999, p. 44).
The Invasion was split into three Army Groups: North, Center and South. Their missions respectively, were to advance through the Baltic states and either take or destroy Leningrad, advance through Belarus and the west-central regions of Russia proper and ultimately Moscow, strike the heavily populated and agricultural heartland of the Ukraine and the oil fields of the Caucasus. (Rees, L, 1999, p. 40) Hitler had said before the war, "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down," (Wikipedia, 2006). With the progress being made it actually seemed possible. In 1941, the great encirclements of the Red Army, the Kesselschlachten (Cauldron battles) had captured three million soviet troops, 14,300 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces, plus another five million soviet casualties suffered (Lucas, J, 1979, p. 176). However Hitler stole the potency of Barbarossa from the beginning by de-emphasising the importance of Moscow. "Brauchitsch and Halder were deeply disturbed, however, when Hitler decided to weaken his central thrust, in order to bolster what he saw as subsidiary operations. The Fuhrer believed that once he seized the agricultural wealth of the Ukraine and the Caucasian oilfields, the Reich's invincibility would be guaranteed," (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 20). When Hitler pulled further strength from the A.G.C. mid campaign, Halder, who was a constant protagonist to Hitler's directives, wrote in his diary, "The Fuhrer's constant interference is becoming a regular nuisance… He's playing warlord again and bothering us with absurd ideas" (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 58). Hitler's interference changed the focus to the flanks and the made the mission of seizing recourses priority, contrary to his general's opinions.
Yet Barbarossa was turning into a two edged sword. Blitzkrieg was not suited for the vast expanses of Russia. When the Panzers broke through enemy lines and into the rear, the distances were too far for the infantry and supply lines to keep up. The tanks would often have to wait for them to catch up, slowing the advance. To make things worse in July after the cauldron battle at Smolensk, Hitler ordered the halt of Army Group Center, and transferred their panzer spearheads to assist the capture of Kiev in the south. This annoyed F.M. von Bock, commander of A.G.C. who protested vigourously to his immediate superiors, Brauchtisch and Halder, whom he accused of "robbing him of victory by not standing up to the Fuhrer" (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 104). Though a victory, it postponed the drive on Moscow till October, by then it was too late. When the advance of A.G.C. now known as Operation Typhoon, was resumed, the Russian winter was setting in. The Germans fought through to the very gates of Moscow but were stalled by the appalling conditions. General Von Greiffenburg, chief of staff to the 12th Army commented on the Russian weather, "The effect of the climate in Russia is to make things impassable in the mud of spring and autumn, unbearable in the heat of summer and impossible in the depths of winter. Climate in Russia is a series of natural disasters," (Lucas, J, 1979, p.78). Hitler, who had expected a campaign of a matter of weeks, hadn't bothered to issue winter uniforms or equipment to the troops, who now were in combat in conditions as cold as -40 degrees C. Fuel froze stopping the tanks, while soldiers removed winter clothing from the Russian dead to survive. In the winter of 1941-42, the Germans suffered 133,620 frostbite casualties, (Fowler, W, 2001, p. 17). Too make things even worse, Stalin, who no longer feared a Japanese attack from Manchuria, released his eastern reserves and winter forces in a massive counter-offensive in the middle of the German advance at Moscow. Army Group Center, spread too thin and outmatched in the tundra environment was thrown back three hundred kilometres in disarray. Sergeant Wolfgang Horn of the 10th Panzer Division wrote in his diary, "We join the long column in retreat. It snows nearly without break. Cows are driven alongside for food. When Russian civilians try to join the column, we keep them back since we do not have enough food for them. We rest beside burnt down houses, close to the still-glowing beams. Our backs remain cold, but at least our fronts get warm," (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 144). Hitler rejected his general's notion of allowing a controlled withdraw to more tenable positions and personally took control of the Army High Command. On the 16 December he decreed, "It is the duty of the troops to maintain their position without concerning themselves whether the enemy has broken through on their flanks or in the rear," (Lucas, J, 1979, p. 177). This stubborn order to not retreat saved A.G.C. a complete collapse and route and convinced Hitler of his tactical genius, claiming himself as the "greatest general of all time" (Dollinger, H, 1965, p. 12) It would be a stroke of luck he would not let his commanders forget in the future.
The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin disliked international law, which resulted in the Soviet Union not joining The Hague or Geneva Conventions, excluding any German obligation to abide by any guidelines about human rights or treatment of prisoners (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 26). Another of Hitler's great mistakes was to conduct his genocidal race war using the Einsatzgruppen, which added to anti-German sentiments in regions where they were initially viewed as liberators. In the Baltic States and the Ukraine in particular there was much jubilation when the Wehrmacht 'liberated' them from the communist oppression they had suffered. Yet instead of capitalising on this anti-Soviet feeling, Hitler's racism defeated his common sense and wasted a great opportunity to gain popular support. He issued a number of decrees for eradicating the Russians and empowered the army to make reprisals and execute civilians who took up arms against the Germans (Tarrant, V.E, 1992, p. 26). The extermination policy was carried out by the Einsatzgruppen who were made up of four, 3000 strong, SS death squads that followed the advance of the frontline troops and scoured the occupied territories of the undesirables: communists, political commissars and Jews. "To Hitler and the Nazis, the Soviet Union was not like France or Belgium or any other 'civilised' country in the west. From the beginning, this was viewed as a war against savages who carried with in them the dangerous corrupting belief of communism infested with Judaism. Halder (German Army High Command Chief of Staff), reflecting Hitler's desires, noted on 17 March, 1941 that the Intelligentsia put in by Stalin must be exterminated and that 'In Great Russia force must be used in its most brutal form," (Rees, L, 1999, p. 30). This brutality would in turn only make things worse for the Germans. In the first four months of Barbarossa Einsatzgruppe A butchered 100,000 Jews in the occupied territories. Those Jews who managed to elude the death squads later became victims to the Military Police who lumped inoffensive Jews in with partisans. "The battle front reversals of early December might have caused Hitler and his aides to reconsider the wisdom of conducting a savage race war and a punishing military campaign simultaneously. The massacres could scarcely go unnoticed: In many places, the victims were herded away by the thousands in broad daylight and gunned down in big pits," (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 153). One of the most notable of the massacres was committed by Sonderkommando 4a and two police battalions, when they transported and exterminated 33,771 Jews from Kiev in a ravine at Babi Yar, in September 1941 (Beevor, A, 1998, p. 56). Following an earlier murder of ninety Jewish children by Ukrainian militiamen, chief of staff for the 295th Infantry Division, Lt. Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, who had attempted to save them from execution, sent a full report directly to the Headquarters of Army Group South. "Angry and appalled, he wrote to his wife: 'We cannot and should not be allowed to win this war.' At the first opportunity, he went on leave to Paris to see Field Marshall von Wiltzleben, one of the leading members of the anti-Hitler movement" (Beevor, A, 1998, p. 55/56). From 1941-1945 the Einsatzgruppen executed 1.5-2 million people, a majority Jewish (Willmott, H.P. & Cross, R. & Messenger, C. 2004, p. 102). By waging a war of annihilation behind the line, the German forces had to dedicate a large potion of their material and manpower in security operations behind the line because of an increasingly active partisan problem where many zones of the occupied territories would be unsafe to travel. With an overstretched front and attacks from within and without, Hitler's stubbornness had put the Ostheer in a difficult position.
When the spring thaw came in early 1942, the front became a sea of mud, stalling both sides into inaction. In this breathing space the Germans consolidated and stabilised the front, Hitler, not realising how close he had brought the invasion to disaster began hatching a wild fantasy plan for a renewal of the Offensive in the summer months. Barbarossa ended in calamity. However the Wehrmacht had already lost 1.1 million men plus another half a million to frostbite cases, most infantry divisions were operating at 50 strength. 74,000 personnel carriers and other vehicles and 180,000 pack animals were lost; with only 10 replace (Constable, G (ed.), 1990, p. 177). Despite the image of the Wehrmacht as the most modern and motorised army in the world, it actually relied heavily on pack animals for supplies and transport. With such heavy losses and the inability to fully replace them like the Russian, it was impossible to make another broad Barbarossa like offensive along the entire 2500 kilometre front. In 1942 the Germans would have to attack in one sector of the front. Planning for Fall Blau (Plan Blue) started from where Hitler directed the war at the Wolfsshcanze (Wolf's Lair) in Rastenburg, East Prussia, which was described as "the compound of camouflaged bunkers and wooden huts, a cross between a concentration camp and a monastery…" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 7). From here the Fuhrer was out of touch with the real nature of the Eastern Front and saw things as they appeared on a map and not what he was advised in reality. Since December 1941, when Hitler assumed command of the Ostheer, he had an opportunity to interfere to a whole new extreme.
The plan for Blau was for Army Group South to stab south-westward through the Ukraine through the Ukraine into the Caucasus. It would be a phased attack where German units would first strike at Voronezh cutting Moscow from the south. But in order to smash open the gates of the Caucasus the Red Army would have to be annihilated through a series of envelopments between the great bend of the Don River. The Caucasus region was the oil rich region between the Black and Caspian Seas, which accounted for 70 of the Soviet Unions oil production and was a rich prize that Hitler sought in order to add to Germany's precarious reserves. However in the Fuhrers mind envisioned a far more unfeasible objective in which after the Wehrmacht had seized the Caucasus it would plunge further south and cross into Iran, cutting off the allied supply route to Russia. Then they would like up in the Middle East with Rommel's Afikakorp, which would meanwhile slash through British armies in Egypt in order to take the petroleum wealth of the Arabian Peninsula (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 8). When presented with a draft of the plan, Hitler decided it required 'refinement.' "The new version (of Fall Blau) Hitler felt, granted too much freedom to the commanders in the field. 'I will deal with the matter myself,' he announced and then began to rewriting large sections of it" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 8). Hitler also totally dismissed the Soviets as a threat, he claimed after Blau began, "The Russian is finished,' he boasted to the Chief of the Army high Command, Franz Halder. 'I must admit it looks like it,' Halder assented, while complaining to his diary about the Fuhrer's 'chronic tendency to underrate enemy capabilities'" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 59). When Franz Halder, Army Chief of Staff tried to express the flaws in the plan, "The cautious General, who formerly had spoken frankly to the Fuhrer on such matters as enemy manpower and armaments, now seldom bothered him with unpleasant facts. 'Any logical discussion was out of the question,' Halder said of Hitler after the war. 'He would foam at the mouth, threaten me with his fists, and scream at the top of his lungs'" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 8). Caucasian oil appeared all that the Fuhrer was concerned about in the early stages of planning. He told his generals at a conference, "If we don't take Maikop and Grozny… then I must put an end to the war" (Beevor, A, 1998, p. 69/70). The irony was that his forces would never make it to Grozny, mainly to his own fault."
The new summer attack was postponed while the 11th Army completed its conquest of the Crimea. Before the offensive could begin, the Soviets launched one of their own in May with 640,000 men in the Izyum Salient and initially disrupted the Germans. However the Germans encircled and crushed them shortly afterwards. On July 7 the assault on Voronezh began. By June 22, the Germans sprinted forth across the vast steppes to destroy the enemy on the Don and enjoyed tremendous successes against the Russians, recalling the early days of Barbarossa. They slowed and regrouped for an attack on the south, but Hitler thinking that the Russians were beaten issued a number of orders that place enormous strains on the strength of Army Group South. Von Bock warned Hitler of the Soviet strategic reserves that were kept in waiting but he was not concerned. "And what do these reserves consist of,' Hitler retorted. 'Stupid cotton pickers from Kazakhstan, Mongolian half-apes from East Siberia, who will run away at the first rumble of a Stuka! I tell you, Bock, we have them by their coattails! The motto is: Attack! And attack again! This time there will be no severe winter to save them. We will be sitting in the Caucasus and operating their oilfields long before then!" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 20). On the eve of renewing the offensive, Hitler announced plans of robbing this front of no fewer than nine divisions. "Two elite divisions of motorised infantry, the Grossdeutschland and Liebstandarte SS, were to be redeployed in France to allay his developing fears of an allied invasion. A pair of panzer divisions, the 9th and 11th, were diverted to Army Group Centre. The main body of Manstein's victorious Eleventh Army in the Crimea standing ready to strike across the Kerch Strait into the Caucasus- were sent a thousand miles away to reinforce Army Group North for what the Fuhrer expected would be the final decisive offensive against Leningrad, scheduled for late summer" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 59).
Once he weakened the southern force, he would ask them not only to complete the previous objectives but undertake new missions as well. The forces were divided into Army Groups A & B. A.G.A. in addition to capturing the oil fields would have to occupy "The entire eastern coastline of the Black Sea, there eliminating the Black Sea ports and enemy Black Sea Fleet" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 61). A.G.B. would no longer be relegated to the secondary role of driving east toward Stalingrad to guard the left flank of the Caucasus thrust. "It was now entrusted with the outright capture of Stalin's namesake city" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 61). The operation was now a logistical and tactical nightmare for the Germans yet Hitler remained confident in his own invincibility. "His two Army groups on the southern front would have to diverge at right angles, opening a large and vulnerable gap between them and necessitating separate lines of supply. As the recently departed Bock had foreseen, the battle was being chopped in two" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 61). Stalingrad (literally Stalin City) was "now an industrial city of 500,000, manufacturing more than one-fourth the Soviet Union's tanks and other armoured vehicles, Stalingrad stretched like a narrow ribbon of some thirty miles along the west bank of the Volga" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 73). Now it was an ideological target, which Hitler would become obsessed. In the original plan for Blau it was not a major objective. "The precise fate of Stalingrad, a railway centre and important port on the Volga River, was not clearly spelt out. The directive (Fuhrer Directive no. 41) instructed only that, to protect the left flank of the main thrust into the Caucasus, every effort would be made 'to reach Stalingrad itself, or at least to bring the city under fire from heavy artillery so that it would no longer be of any use as an industrial or communications centre" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 10). This city would become a focal point of the front the setting for a turning point in the war.
In August, the Germans began an assault on Stalingrad with 100,000 men, 500 tanks and 1000 aircraft. They surrounded Stalingrad and the Soviet 62nd Army and then subjected the city and its population, who were forbidden to evacuate by Stalin, to a murderous Luftwaffe and artillery bombardment that reduced it to a sea of ruins. The Germans found that instead of breaking Russian spirits it only fuelled their determination and helped them use the devastation as better cover and kill zones. Street fighting degenerated the assault into petty and vicious battles that drained the advance and worked to the Russian favour. A German soldier, Joachim Stempel described it, "This was a form of warfare for which the Germans had not been prepared. Hand-to-hand combat, personal warfare… I don't want to say it was entirely foreign, but there were elements of our training, which were very much on the fringe. We were an offensive army, trained for attack, and we were able to defend ourselves, of course, but we didn't have the experience of the Russian soldiers, whose training, whose nature and whose psyche of being tied to his native soil were all thrown into the mix. We didn't have that, and I think that we had more casualties because we weren't as close to the nature of the Russians…. The Russians had the advantage in trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat-there's no doubt. As a tank unit, we were used to driving tanks and then stopping, clearing the area and moving forward. But that was all forgotten in the past, a long time ago" (Rees, L, 1999, p. 159).
General Paulus's 6th Army at Stalingrad made slow progress into the city because of tiny pockets of resistance that cost time and lives to dislodge. A lieutenant of the 24th panzer division, in August 1942 wrote, "My god, why have you forsaken us? We have fought for days for a single house, with mortars, grenades, machine guns, and bayonets. Already by the third day, fifty-four German are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and on the staircases. The front is a corridor between two burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 84). Another soldier, Wilhelm Hoffmann remarked about the situation, "If all the buildings of Stalingrad are defended like this, then none of our soldiers will get home to Germany" (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p. 84). By November the Germans conquered most of the city except for Russian toeholds of several hundred meters in some of the dock areas and the northern industrial sector. Despite this, both sides suffered heavy causalities and it turned into an attempt to bleed each other white as the two dictators refused to give up Stalingrad. "Animals flee this hell… only men endure," wrote another officer of the 24th panzer in October (Willmott, H.P. & Cross, R. & Messenger, C. 2004, p. 138).
The emphasis of the Caucasus invasion seemed to loose importance compared to the Hitler's obsession to rob Stalin of Stalingrad. The unacceptable German losses due to wasteful street fighting, and the Soviets massing huge armies on the flanks prompted Halder to urge Hitler to order the 6th Army to withdraw from inside Stalingrad. "You always seem to make the same suggestion- retreat!' Hitler had snapped. 'I must demand the same toughness from my commanders as from my troops…'" This remark made Halder loose his temper and lash out at the Fuhrer for the loss of "fine riflemen by the thousands, because local commanders were not given the freedom to pull back when necessary." Hitler went on to taunt Halder for his lack of combat experience in contrast to Hitler's own World War I front line duty. "You were as chairbound in the Great War as in this-what do you think you can teach me about the troops! You, who haven't got a wound badge on your uniform!" Hitler ranted on pounding at his chest (Flaherty, T (ed.), 1990, p.70). Hitler could not be shaken. On November 19, the Soviet's launched operation Uranus which was a blitzkrieg like assault of over a million men on the flanks of the Stalingrad front. Poorer Romanian and Italian troops manned the overstretched line that fell apart quickly. 250,000 Germans of the 6th Army were trapped in the Kessel (cauldron) around Stalingrad. Hitler still ordered them to hold their position to last bullet and man. Soon winter was setting in again and there was a lack of food, ammunition and winter clothing. Reichsmarshall Goring made Hitler a bogus promise that the Luftwaffe could supply the 6th Army with an airdrop. This was logistically impossible and could at most provide 10 of what was required was sent. General Hoth's 4th panzer Army attempted to break through to the Kessel in December, only to make it half way. Because Hitler refused to let the defenders at Stalingrad attempt to break out and meet Hoth, the relief failed. If Hitler hadn't intervened a corridor could have been opened to allow most of the 6th Army to escape. Instead, the Soviets tightened their grip and continued their offensive with devastating effect. Hitler promoted Paulus, Field Marshall so that he would fight to the last man, since no German F.M. had ever been captured before. Paulus and what was left of the Sixth Army surrendered in February 1943. The Blau offensive fell apart and the Germans were forced out of the Caucasus. It was only Manstein's adroit counter-attack in March that prevented the entire southern flank from collapse. Back, more or less, where they started in early 1942 the best Germany could hope for after that was a stalemate.
Adolf Hitler unintentionally sabotaged both Operations Barbarossa and Blue. Considering that, his interference and foolish actions against all sensible military conduct was the greatest factor of German defeat in the East. On the Eastern Front these mistakes cost the lives of millions and carried disastrous ramifications for Germany and more than likely cost them the war. Barbarossa and Stalingrad nailed the coffin and sealed Germany's fate. Hitler had brought about his own destruction.Bibliography
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