After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, German generals were convinced that a massive offensive on the Eastern Front would still allow them to regain the upper hand, and knock Russia out of the war. They planned a two pronged assault aimed at ‘pinching off’ the Kursk Salient created by the defeat at Stalingrad. The advance was to be launched from the Orel Salient to the north of Kursk and from Belgorod to the south. Both ‘prongs’ would surround Kursk, restoring the lines of Army Group South to their winter 1941-1942 position.
When the offensive finally began on 5 July, it had already been delayed countless times while the Germans waited for tanks and weapons to be supplied. The Soviets, acting on intelligence information, had massively reinforced the salient, also mobilising reserves to prepare a counterattack. By 13 July, the Germans had been forced into retreat. The attack cost Hitler over 500,000 troops and 1,000 tanks, and spelt the end of the Wehrmacht’s large-scale offensives. As strategic initiative passed to the Soviets, Hitler’s insistence on holding territory at all costs hugely undermined Germany’s ability to mount an effective defence. It was not the first or the last time that Hitler’s inflexibility contributed to military failure.
Throughout the remainder of 1943, the Soviets continued pushing the Germans back. In August 1943, they retook Orel; in the south, fierce battles throughout July and August culminated in the recapture of Kharkov. In the centre, Soviet troops took Bryansk, Smolensk and Gomel. In the south, the Germans' retreat to the River Dneiper forced them to abandon captured farmland and industrial resources. The Germans found it impossible to hold this line, which was broken in October. Kiev, the Ukrainian capital and the USSR’s third largest city, was retaken the following month.
1944 began as 1943 had ended: with unstoppable Soviet success. At the end of January, the 900 day siege of Leningrad was lifted; almost a million of the northern city’s inhabitants had perished. In the south, southern Ukraine and Galitzia were captured in March. The Germans were forced to evacuate the hard-won Crimean Peninsula. April and May saw the liberation of Odessa and Sevastapol. On 9 June, Operation Bagration was launched to retake Belarus. 166 Soviet divisions and 2,700 Soviet tanks crushed the 38 German divisions of Army Group Centre, taking Minsk on 2 July.
The Soviet troops now broke through on the Balkan Front and advanced towards Vistula. With the Soviet homeland secure, Stalin announced that the Red Army had begun a ‘march of liberation’. Sadly, this ‘liberation’ did not extend to Poland. On 5 August, the Polish Home Army, encouraged by the Soviet advance, rose against the Nazis in Warsaw. In an act which did unspeakable damage to Allied relations, Stalin offered no military or material assistance to the Poles. He also denied permission for Allied aircraft carrying aid to land in Soviet airfields. Stalin cynically calculated that it was in his interest to see Polish patriots destroyed by the Nazis, as they would stand in the way of his post-war plans for Poland. On 5 October, General Komorowski’s Army surrendered. The Nazis levelled Warsaw in reprisal and 300,000 Poles – including many innocent civilians – were slaughtered. The Soviets would finally enter Warsaw in January 1945, after its abandonment by the Germans.