December 31, 2012


Jokes are not a recent cultural phenomenon but have been around since the dawn of civilization.  The oldest joke dates back to 1,600 BC and targeted an Egyptian pharoah. It went something like this:  "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? Sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile - and urge the pharaoh to go fishing."  No doubt Pharoah was amused. In the 1st century BC, a popular joke circulated about Emperor Augustus.  The Emperor, it was said, was touring his kingdom one day and came across a man who looked remarkably like himself.  Augustus was intrigued and asked the man, "Was your mother at one time in service at the palace?"  The man responded, "No your highness, but my father was." 

The propensity for humour and jokes are ingrained in the human psyche, perhaps even part of our DNA.  Human civilization may never have progressed at all were it not for the double-entendre, puns, sarcasm, wit, anecdotes, riddles, satire, and a slew of tasteless jokes.  At the root of jokes is the human compulsion to challenge the status quo, to discredit authority,  to address taboos and faux pas. We, today, are no different from our ancient forefathers.

In it's unadulterated form jokes serve to break a tense atmosphere into one of laughter, to reveal truths that we can personally identify with, and encourage us to laugh at our own foibles and limitations. Jokes have the power to elevate our social consciousness and promote mutual understanding.  However at its worst jokes are deeply offensive and have the potential of demonizing an entire group of people based purely on racial, cultural, ethnic, gender, and religious differences.

During WW2 so called "jokes" were an essential component of the Nazi propaganda machine and were widely dispensed in the attempt to discredit Poland's reputation in the eyes of the world, as well as to destroy the morale of the Polish people.  What is particularly disturbing is that much of WW2 propaganda has survived to this day. The lies, myths and slander perpetrated against the Polish people by the Nazis (and Soviets) continue to circulate today throughout the world in the form of jokes.

Most of these jokes could be categorized as "generic"  meaning that the same joke has been applied to virtually every nation, for example the light bulb joke.  But this article seeks to address more serious and damaging slurs that people mistake for "jokes".  Though not all issues will be discussed, the major ones are as follows:

The story about the Polish cavalry attacking German tanks during World War 2 is only propaganda.  It was a myth intentionally created by the Nazis to ridicule the Polish army, and discredit them in the eyes of their allies.  There is no evidence to support this allegation.  It is a lie.

Please click on the following link for more information:

The Myth about Polish Cavalry in WW2

Another joke is derived from the propaganda that the Nazi "blitzkrieg" attack destroyed all Polish planes while they were still on the ground. This is also untrue.  Polish planes managed to take to the skies 600 strong, and despite their outdated planes, Polish pilots succeeded in destroying an astounding number of German planes. Tragically, the Polish Air Force was decimated as they truly were no match for the faster and more powerful German aircraft.  But the skill and daring of the Polish ace pilot is the stuff of legends - and it's all true!

For more information about these subjects, please click on the following links:

Media & Propaganda: The Polish Air Force in September 1939

Famous Polish PZL 37 Los and P11 and the Polish Aces Who Flew Them

During WW2 a barrage of propaganda condemned the Polish people as inferior "untermenschen" who lacked intelligence. These were lies. It was Nazi propaganda.  Hitler's objective was to annihilate the Polish nation, as well erase all evidence of Polish culture - the Polish language, education, and Poland's rich history of art and music.  Still, today, otherwise intelligent people repeat this slander,  and ridicule Poland as a nation of lazy, uneducated ne'er-do-wells. In essence, they are perpetuating the same Nazi slurs with impunity.  It has become a joke to them.

From time to time there have been jokes made about "Polish Concentration Camps" as well as allegations that the Polish people supported the Nazis during WW2.  This is false. One has merely to read about WW2 Polish history to understand that there was no such thing as a Polish concentration camp.  When the Nazis completed construction of Auschwitz, its first prisoners were Polish Christians, though later the majority consisted of Jewish inmates.

Please click on the following link:

Petition against the term "Polish Concentration Camp"

In reality Poland has had a long and great history, despite the turbulent and violent attacks on its sovereignty and freedom.  The Sons and Daughters of Poland count among the greatest treasures of the world. Throughout millennia, Polish artists, philosophers, musicians, astronomers, scientists, mathematicians, engineers, chemists, generals, kings, explorers, poets, writers, inventors, have all contributed  to the advancements of the world as well as provide inspiration to others.  

Merely one glimpse at the brilliance of Polish creativity and intellect (past and present) must surely eradicate all the malfeasance that has too long remained a scourge upon Poland's honour.

Please click on the following link:

Polish Inventions: WW2 Weapons Development and Technology

In closing I would just like to mention that the most endearing Polish motto is, I believe is "For Your Freedom and Ours". It has stood the test of time and the Polish people continue to demonstrate that they are true to their word.  

Poland is our ally and friend.  Let the New Year be an opportunity for us to learn more about Poland - I promise that the experience will be enlightening and fascinating!

Thank you for visiting Polish Greatness Blog, and I wish you all a very Happy New Year 2013!! 

Szczesliwego Nowego Roku !!!

November 11, 2012


We are a nation of hero-worshippers yet we know more about fictional characters like Batman, Ironman and the Green Lantern - even Rambo is regaled as a superhero. But we seldom pay our respects to the real heroes - soldiers, whose acts of valor have elevated them far above the common thread. Sadly, few of us can name more than one or two war heroes.

This blog is in memory of soldiers who went beyond the call of duty, whose bravery was awe-inspiring, and who sacrificed their life for freedom and justice. Only a few among them have been praised as heroes but just to have taken up arms and forged bravely into battle has made heroes of them all.

Here are but a few of the soldiers who have earned their place in history as real Super Heroes. Their courage serves not only inspire us but restores our faith in the great power of the human spirit.


Audie Murphy, the sixth of twelve siblings, came from humble beginnings.He was only twelve years old when his father abandoned the family. As a result Murphy had to drop out of fifth grade and worked for a dollar per day in an effort to help his family make ends meet.  He even turned to hunting to put food on the table and the skills he attained as a marksman would serve him well.  When he reached 17 years of age, he tried to enlist in the marines and the army but was rejected twice due to his height and weight (5'5" at 110 lbs).  When Murphy finally succeeded, he quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted several times until he became company commander.  Throughout his distinguished service Murphy was decorated numerous times for his acts of valor. When his division invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943 he killed two Italian officers as they tried to escape on horseback; two months later while on night patrol at Salerno, Murphy and his men were ambushed by German soldiers, but fought their way out, killing three Germans and captured the others. His combat skills at Monte Cassino were nothing short of legendary.  By August 1944, Murphy was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France.  A German soldier, feigning surrender took aim and killed Lattie Tipton, Murphy's best friend. At that moment all hell broke loose as Murphy charged the enemy and single-handedly wiped out the entire German machine gun crew in retaliation.  His steely-nerved courage earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.  His other medals included the Congressional Medal of Honour, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, French Legion of Honour, French Croix de Guerrre, and more. After the end of the war he returned home to a heroes welcome and honoured with parades, lavish banquets and speeches.  Soon afterwards Murphy embarked on a career in acting and earned critical acclaim in the production of the Red Badge of Courage, among other films. He also wrote a book "To Hell and Back" in which he wrote about his friend Lattie.  

aka Fighting Jack Churchill, Mad Jack

John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming British WW2 hero - Mad Jack with sword in hand during a training exercise in Inveraray Scotland

John Fleming graduated in 1926 from Royal Military academy, a prestigious institution
otherwise known as "Sandhurst". For the following ten years he served in Burma with the Manchester Regiment followed by a short stint in civilian life.  But when Poland was invaded in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union he hastily returned to join his Regiment.  In May 1940 at L'Epinette France, Fleming earned his infamous reputation as "Mad Jack" when he attacked and killed the enemy using only barbed arrows. He was the only British soldier ever to have cut down the enemy using only a long bow.  After Dunkirk, he joined the Commandos and became second in command of his unit.  On December 27, 1941 he took part in Operation Archery in an invasion of the German garrison at Vagsoy, Norway.  As his landing craft approached the bay and the ramps were dropped ashore, Fleming lept forward like a madman while playing his bagpipes, flung a grenade at the enemy and dashed into the fighting fray.  He was decorated with the Military Cross and bar for his immense valor.

Mad Jack with sword in hand during a training exercise in Inveraray Scotland

During the invasion of Sicily, Fleming led Commando unit 2 during the landing at Catania and Salerno, armed with nothing more than a Scottish broadsword dangling at his waist, a longbow and arrows slung around his neck, and cradling his bagpipes under his arm.  At Salerno his Commandos invaded the town capturing the post and succeeded in taking 42 prisoners (which included the mortar squad).  Fleming and his men headed headed back to base while the wounded followed behind, transported in carts pushed by the German POWs.  Fleming commented that the scenario reminded him of "an image from the Napoleonic Wars".  He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order for his valor. 

The most awe-inspiring Operation took place in Yugoslavia in 1944.  Fleming led the Commandos on a raid against German positions on the island of Brac.  With an army of 1,500 partisans, 43 Commando, and one troop consisting of 40 Commando, Fleming landed amid a hail of German fire, but decided to postpone the attack until the next day.  It was not until the second day that his company launched into battle;  as 43 Commando was moving into position along the flank, Fleming led the 40 Commando, while the partisans remained at the landing site.  Only Fleming and six other men succeeded in reaching the objective.  The rest of the unit was either killed or wounded. Legend has it that Churchill was playing on his bagpipes the tune, ""Will Ye No Come Back Again?" as the Germans advanced.

Fighting Jack Churchill was born to be a soldier and reveled in the danger and thrill of it all. When the Americans dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mad Jack was purported to be disgruntled by the sudden end of the war.  He was reported to have said, "It it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going for another 10 years


Thomas George Prince was an aboriginal Canadian of the Ojibwe Nation and was born in Manitoba. He was one of eleven children and lived with his family on Brokenhead Reservation at Scanterbury. With his siblings he has the distinction of being a descendant of Chief Pequis. As a boy growing up in the wilderness Prince became an exceptionally skilled marksman and hunter. By the time he became a teenager his sights were set on joining the army.

When WW2 broke out Prince volunteered for active service but was turned down several times even though he met all the requirements. However several months later he was finally accepted and commenced training as a sapper for the Royal Canadian Engineers. He later joined the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and was promoted to Sergeant. And soon after volunteered for the 1st Special Service Force (SSF) also known as the "Devil's Brigade". Prince and his unit were subjected to the most rigorous of training drills, accompanied by live fire and honed their skills in hand-to-hand combat, explosive demolitions, amphibious ware, mountain fighting, and ski troops, among other disciplines.

In November 1943, the SSF were deployed to Italy with the objective of clearing enemy lines which had been preventing the Allies from advancing towards Rome. In the following two months they succeeded in capturing Monte la Difensa, Hill 720, Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro. From there they advanced to Anzio. By early February 1944, Prince was dispatched to scout the location of several German positions near Littoria. At his stake-out in an abandoned farmhouse just 200 metres (660 fit) from enemy lines, Prince secretly reported enemy positions, through the use of 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) of telephone wire. But communications were inadvertently lost when allied artillery fire aimed at German positions accidentally cut the telephone wire. Prince was able to locate the severed wires and rejoin them. He had calmly strolled out into the open dressed as a farmer weeding his crops, and every so often kneeling down and pretended to tie his shoelaces. For added effect, he would shake his fists at the Germans. Prince then turned to the direction of the Allied lines and shook his fist at them as well. He then resumed transmitting his reports and over the course of the next day, Allied troops succeeded in destroying four German battalions. Prince spent a total of three days behind enemy lines. The Germans never knew what hit them. Prince was decorated with the Military Medal for his "courage and utter disregard for personal safety". He was "an inspiration to his fellows and a marked credit to his unit."

On June 4, 1944, Operation Dragoon was launched, and the SSF was ordered to advance to southern France. Their first objective were the Hyeres Islands, followed by Sylvabelle on the French Riviera. By the 1st of September, Prince was sent through German lines, accompanied by a soldier, private class in the mission to scout for German positions near L'Escarene. They spotted a German reserve battalion, and were on the way back to camp to submit their report when they came upon a battle in progress between some German and French partisans; they aided in French in sniping the enemy forcing them to withdraw. When Prince finally reported to the French commander, he was asked where his company was located. Prince merely pointed to the private and said "Here". The French officer was quite astounded and thought that there were fifty troops. Prince rejoined the battle with his unit and captured the entire German battalion, about 1000 men. It was more than a battle, rather an odyssey. Prince walked for over 70 km through treacherous mountains, without food, water or sleep for 72 hours. From start to finish Prince had endured hardships that would have diminished lesser men. He was decorated with the American Silver Star. In the citation, Prince was commended for his "keen sense of responsibility and devotion to keeping with the highest traditions of...military service..of the Armed forces of the Allied Nations."

Altogether, Tommy Prince received nine medals, more than any aboriginal soldier. On February 12, 1945, Prince was called to Buckingham Palace where King George VI decorated him with the Military Medal. In April, Prince received his Silver Star from U. S. General Koening. Prince was among only 59 Canadians who received this medal, and only one of three who received the Military Medal.

Simo Häyhä
"The White Death"

Hayha was born in Rautjarvi, near the Finnish-Russian border. Before he embarked on military service, he was a farmer and hunter. When he reached the age of 20, he had joined the Finnish militia and was winning numerous shooting competitions where he demonstrated his exceptional skill at sniping. It was a skill that would prove to be invaluable during the Winter War (1939-1940)between Finland and the Soviet Union. Hayha was enlisted in the Finnish Army, with 6th Company of JR 34. He was deployed to the Kollaa River, where, dressed in white camouflage, he fought against the Red Army, enduring temperatures as low as 40 degrees below Celsius.

Wielding a Mosin-Nagant, Hayha recorded the highest number of sniper kills accomplished by one soldier,in any war - 505 confirmed kills. The records show that these kills were achieved in less than 100 days so on average, Hayha achieved five kills per day - a remarkable feat given the fact that Finland at that time of year experiences very short daylight hours.

The Red Army nick named him the White Death and tried several tactics to eliminate him, including counter-snipping and artillery attacks. On March 6, 1940, the Russians had the opportunity to strike. Hayha was shot by a bullet which struck him in the lower left jaw - it literally pulverized half his head. Despite the gruesome injury, Hayha was not dead. He regained consciousness on March 13, when peace was finally declared.

Soon after the war Hayha was promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant. Such a rise in rank was unprecedented in the history of the Finnish Military, but a fitting tribute to man of Hayha's great service.

In an 1998 interview, Hayha was asked how he became such a good marksmen. He answered quite simply - "Practice.". When he was questioned about whether he had any regrets for his part in the war, he replied, "I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could."


Wladyslaw Raginis was a hero of the Polish Defensive War of 1939. He commanded a small force of soldiers who bravely faced battle against an enemy that was much stronger and vastly larger in numbers. It was during the Battle of Wizna in which Polish soldiers met with such tragic end, yet their courage in the face of such overwhelming odds has emblazoned their memory in the collective consciousness of a nation.

Raginis came from an affluent family who nurtured in him love of God and country. After having graduated from gymnasium, Raginis enlisted in the NCO, and fromthere to Infantry Officers school. He graduated in 1930 and was deployed to Grodno with the 76th Infantry Regiment, as commander and instructor at the Cadet Corps. He continued to rise through the ranks, to lieutenant, captain, and then commander of the 3rd company of the Border Defense Corps Regiment. On September 7, 1939, Raginis' soldiers were poised for battle. They numbered only 720 against a horde of 42,000 German soldiers yet despite the overwhelming disparity, the Polish unit was not deterred and continued to defend its position for three days. The situation was hopeless and in an effort to boost the morale of his men, Raginis pledged that he would not leave his post alive. On the third day, the Polish resistance was wearing thin. Raginis was severely wounded, but refused to surrender and continued to command his troops. The German commander, Guderian sent a message stating that unless the last remaining bunker ceased defensive measures, he would order the execution of all Polish POWs.

Raginis turned to his soldiers expressing his gratitude for their dutiful service, and promptly ordered them to leave the bunker and surrender to the enemy. Raginis kept his word and stayed behind. The last man to leave the shelter was Seweryn Bieganski who documented what followed. He said that Raginis " looked at me warmly and softly urged me to leave. When I was at the exit, I was hit on my back with a strong gust and I heard an explosion." Raginis had committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.

When the Battle of Wizna had ended, 650 Polish soldiers had been killed in action. According to Guderian, about 900 Germans were killed by Raginis' forces, and at least ten tanks and various other AFV's were destroyed.

Though Raginis' company was virtually decimated, their efforts at pinning down German forces at Wizna made it possible for remaining Polish troops in Western Poland to defend the capital city, Warsaw. Moreover, the Polish government was able to prepare for evacuation to Romania.

Raginis' corpse along with that of Lt. Stanislaw Brykalski were buried in a makeshift grave next to the bunker. When the Red Army entered Wizna, the bodies were exhumed and reburied next to the Lomza-Bialystok road. A monument stands next to the ruins of the bunker in which he died.

One of the bunkers now a Memorial site.

Upon its tablet is the following inscription.

Przechodniu, powiedz Ojczyźnie, żeśmy walczyli do końca, spełniając swój obowiązek.

Translated to English, it means,

Passerby, tell the Fatherland that we fought to the end, fulfilling our duty.

Soldiers: Faces of War
Visit my other blog entitled History of War in Pictures for another special tribute to Soldiers.   It consists almost exclusively of photographs of Allied and Axis soldiers. Their eyes tell the story of war.  

November 10, 2012


Matt Urban (Urbanowitz) most decorated soldier of WW2
Matt Urban (Urbanowitz)

President Jimmy Carter called him "the greatest soldier in American history".  He was a man with immense courage in the face of overwhelming odds and demonstrated to the world what freedom really means.  This man was Lt. Colonel Matt Urban, a Polish American.  He was the most decorated soldier of WW2, but one medal continually eluded him - the highest commendation of the United States - the Congressional Medal of Honour.  

That he finally received the prestigious award was due entirely to the intervention of a close friend.  Urban was too modest a man to meddle in self promotion.  Despite the recommendations, it was decades before the military brass finally bestowed Urban with the recognition and respect owed to him.  In July 1980 Urban finally received the highest of honours. Several years later he stated, "When I came home, I never thought about the war.. that's why the medal was 35 years late...I just never pursued it.'

60th Infantry Regiment Coat of Arms
Though Matt Urban was born in Buffalo, New York, he was of Polish heritage.  The son of Helen and Stanley Urbanowitz, he was baptized Matty Louis Urbanowitz.  As WW2 raged throughout Europe, Urban was studying at Cornell University where he graduated in June 1941 with a degree in history and government. He immediately enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and by the following month was already on active duty training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As part of the 60th Infantry Regiment, he was dispatched overseas and saw combat action in Sicily, France, Belgium and Germany.  Urban is most praised for his heroic actions on D-Day.

During the landing at Omaha Beach Urban broke his leg, but was not deterred. His buddies were trapped on the beach, and despite his injury, Urban climbed atop a tank and led them on a concentrated attack on German position.  The Germans called Urban by the nickname the "Ghost' because he kept returning to the front lines despite his many injuries. He was wounded six times, and returned to fight six times.

But he was injured a seventh time.  A bullet ripped out one of his vocal cords, a wound which the doctors expected to be fatal.  It was a miracle that Urban survived the attack. Despite the threat to his life, Urban adamantly refused to be evacuated, and was determined to carry on and  lead his battalion. (The objective was to secure their position at the crossing-point on the Meuse River).  Against all odds, Urban did survive the injury, though it was a two year battle for recovery.  The damage to his vocal cords affected his speech for the rest of his life - he could only speak with a raspy voice. 

Urban was praised for his heroism, evident throughout the D-Day invasion. There were ten acts of bravery documented. He suffered a leg wound from a bazooka attack while fighting in Northern France and shipped to an Army hospital in England.  Remarkably within six weeks he went AWOL and returned to the battlefield.  In another incident when his unit was virtually under siege by German firepower, Urban dashed across an open field in a hail of machine gun bullets, towards an unmanned American tank.  He climbed into the tank and proceeded to return fire, successfully routing the German position.

Omaha Beach on D Day - low tide
Lt. Col. Urban was decorated with a total of  29 medals, which rival that of any military officer in the United States Forces.  Among his many awards were 7 Purple Hearts (one for each wound) with silver and bronze oak leaf clusters;  Silver Star (1 OLC); Bronze Star (2 OLC) with V Device;  NYS Conspicuous Cross with 4 Silver and 1 Gold Clusters; Legion of Merit; French Croix de Guerre; and Belgian Croix de Guerre with palm.

What was the act that earned Urban the Congressional Medal of Honour?  A sergeant who was an eyewitness to the event said that Urban, "one of the craziest officers suddenly appeared before us, yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand...He got us on our feet, though, gave us our confidence back and saved our lives."

US Congressional Medal of Honour
US Congressional Medal of Honour

Matt Urban passed away on March 20, 1995 from a collapsed lung (due to his numerous war injuries). His remains have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Matt Louis Urbanowitz will be remembered for his outstanding leadership, and amazing courage under heavy fire.  He served the United States Army, the men of his battalion, and most dear to his heart, the cause of freedom and liberty.

President Jimmy Carter congratulates Matt President Jimmy Carter congratulates Matt Urban - Congressional Medal of Honour
President Jimmy Carter congratulates Matt Urban

October 31, 2012


Operation Barbarossa was the greatest battle ever waged in the history of mankind, and the greatest failure.  Hitler's plans for conquering the Soviet Union were doomed from the start.  Despite early victories, German troops were plagued by an interminable series of setbacks, delays, and grievous losses in troops and war materiel, not to mention the fatal hazards of the Russian winter.  It was a turning point which marked Germany's decline and ultimate defeat and one from which it would never recover.

Nazi Germany's trademark, the surprise blitzkrieg attack, earned them the respect of the Axis, and terror of nations throughout Europe.  However, blitzkrieg was a tactic best applied to countries of smaller size, and was less effective against a country the size and span of western Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Soviet troops were literally caught by surprise, and because of their military unpreparedness, inexperience, and obsolete war machines, were virtually annihilated by a constant barrage of German firepower.  It was "every man for himself" as Soviet troops, led by inexperienced leaders (and in many cases, no leaders at all) struggled against a far stronger and skilled enemy.  Soviet casualties were devastating.

That Soviet troops were so easily overpowered was due to several factors, not the least which was the drastic shortfall of officers in the Red Army.  Years earlier, Stalin decimated vast numbers of his own officer corps, during the purges of the interwar years and the Great Purge of 1936-38. 

Moreover, The Soviet campaign against Finland in 1939-40 (The Winter War) was a dismal failure: the Red Army had 30 times the tanks, 100 times the airplanes, and three times the number of troops than the Finnish armed forces and despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, still could not defeat them. This factor more than any other whetted the German appetite that an invasion into Soviet Union would be fast and easy.  Hitler was adamant about launching an attack in 1941 to take advantage of the Soviets weaknesses.  A year later would have been too late.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Finland (Photo taken by © SA-kuva)

Though many Soviet bases were established along the new western border of the Soviet Union, they were not sufficiently reinforced, and hence easily overrun by the invading Germans.  Operation Barbarossa has always been referred to as Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.  Technically speaking, the Germans had actually invaded Soviet-occupied eastern Poland, and other Soviet occupied territories of the Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.  Nevertheless, it is not a misnomer that Germany invaded the Soviet Union;  Operation Barbarossa was the spearhead that punctured the "buffer zones", and made an advance possible into the heartland of western Soviet Union - to Leningrad,  to the Caucasus, and finally, an attempt on Moscow herself. 

As if by Providence, heavy rains followed by the arctic cold of a Russian Winter, severely impeded the German advance towards Moscow.  The death toll among German troops began to rise dramatically as they succumbed to frostbite and disease.  On November 27, 1941, General Wagner (Quartermaster General of the German Army) stated:  "We are at the end of our resources in both personnel and material. We are about to be confronted with the dangers of deep winter."

Though German command made an intensive research into the failures of  the 1812 Napoleon campaign into the Soviet Union, they failed to heed the lessons of the past and shipped their armies on an ill-fated mission. History was about to repeat itself - but this time on a larger scale.  In one of the many directives issued by Hitler, was one compelling his armies to "stand or die", in the face of Soviet counterattacks. 

The consequences were devastating as casualties mounted into the hundreds of thousands of dead German soldiers.  The Red Army was very much in its element and capable of subduing the enemy, launching a myriad of ferocious counterattacks that forced the Germans to ultimately retreat. The tables were turned.

In a series of "what ifs" many historians have long deliberated about Hitler's decision to delay the attack on Moscow.  Hitler postponed the attack on Moscow against the better advice of his generals opting instead to capture Leningrad, and the oil-rich fields of the Caucasus. To have postponed the capture of the capital city, despite the opportunities, was tantamount, I believe, to virtual sabotage. (If the decision to circumvent Moscow had been ordered by a lowly commanding officer of the corps, he would have been court martialed and executed by a firing squad.)    

The failure of Operation Barbarossa marked the beginning of the end for the Nazi Third Reich.  Nevertheless, for the next five years Germany would fight many more battles against the Soviet Union, and lose as many times -  the battles at Stalingrad - Kursk - Kiev - Berlin were among the most ferocious battles fought between the German and Russian forces - the Titans of WW2.  It proved that Soviet armed forces were capable, tenacious, and

The three major causes leading to the failure of Operation Barbarossa were faulty logistical planning, the weather, and underestimating the strength of Soviet troops.  But there was one other factor that proved to be as deadly - Hitler's arrogant over-confidence. The German Wehrmacht had all the resources to virtually pummel the Soviet Union into submission, but German Command made the fateful error of allocating only part of their resources to the Operation.  If all that Germany had to do was "kick in the front door" they hardly needed to take out the big cannons.

 June 24, 1945 Moscow - Victory Day Parade

Soviet soldiers with flags lowered of the defeated Nazi Reich

Photo by: Yevgeny Khaldei /

Operation Barbarossa: Clash of the Titans Index
(Please click on the following links)


Operation Barbarossa: Phase 4:  (October 2, 1941 – December 5,1941)
Operation Typhoon

Following the capture of Kiev, the Soviet forces, including trained reserves were significantly diminished. Stalin deployed reinforcements in a desperate attempt to defend Moscow and had been able to assemble eighty-three divisions comprising of 800,000 troops, however, only twenty-five of these divisions were fully effective. 

Red Army troops parade in Red Square before battle

On October 2nd Operation Typhoon was finally launched and the German advance towards Moscow had begun.  The German plan called for the deployment of two pincer offensives:  the 3rd and 4th Panzer armies which were to cross the Moscow Canal and encircle the city from the northeast.  They succeeded in breaching the Kalinin front and simultaneously destroying the Moscow-Leningrad railway. The Germans attacked Vyzama and Bryansk, entrapping the Soviet 18th 20th, 24th, and 32nd armies, effectively shattering Moscow's first line of defense.

Abandoned German military vehicles on road to Moscow 1941
Meanwhile 2nd Panzer Army advanced towards the south of Moscow Oblast against the Western Front (south of Tula).  They had taken Orvol, located 121 km (75 miles) south of the first main Soviet defense line, and succeeded in encircling the Soviet 3rd and 13th armies.  And 4th Army advanced directly towards Moscow.  Another German plan, code-named Operation Wotan was an integral part of the final phase of the German offensive. Incidentally Wotan was the name given to a Germanic God, venerated during the Middle Ages. 

German troops succeeded in capturing another 673,000 Soviet prisoners, raising the cumulative total of Soviets prisoners to an astounding 3 million.  There remained only 90,000 Soviet soldiers and 150 Soviet tanks to defend the capital city against a massive German barrage.

Soviet soldiers in German POW camp 1941
The German government felt assured that their victory was imminent and  had prematurely released public pronouncements that Moscow was on the verge of collapse and that the Soviet Union would soon be conquered.  On October 13th, the 3rd Panzer Army advanced to within 140 km (90 miles) of Moscow when circumstances changed drastically.  The temperature plummeted and amidst a continuous heavy rainfall, the unpaved roads were quickly transformed into muddy traps slowing down the German advance to no better than a snail's crawl.. Despite the elements, German troops struggled to advance but could only manage about 3.2 km (2 miles) per day.  In the meantime, their supplies dwindled rapidly.
By the end of October, German High Command ordered that Operation Typhoon be halted temporarily while the army units scrambled to re-organize itself. Yet another German delay gave the Soviets the invaluable opportunity to strengthen their own defence lines by bringing in new reinforcements.  In just over a month, Soviet command was able to organize eleven new armies which included 30 divisions brought in from Siberia, backed by 1,000 of their own tanks and 1,000 aircraft. 

German troops were on the verge of exhaustion,  besieged by the enemy, and beleagured by the elements.  It was deja vu. That Napoleon's invasion of Russia suffered the same fate was certainly not overlooked by German Command.  General Gunther Blumentritt had written about it in his diary, thus:  

General Gunther Blumentritt

"They remembered what happened to Napoleon's Army. Most of them began to re-read Caulaincourt's grim account of 1812. That had a weighty influence at this critical time in 1941. I can still see Von Kluge trudging through the mud from his sleeping quarters to his office and standing before the map with Caulaincourt's book in his hand."

By  mid-November the temperature had become so cold that ground had hardened, allowing the resumption of the German advance towards Moscow.  The Soviet 5th, 16th, 30th, 43rd, 49th, and 50th Armies had already dug in, and were waiting along the defense lines.

But the plans ultimately did not work out in favor of the Germans.  After two weeks of ferocious battle, the advance of the German troops towards Moscow was reduced to a virtual crawl. The Germans were exhausted and low on ammunition and fuel.  In the south, 2nd Panzer Army could not advance  - they were being blocked. On November 22 the Siberian units, reinforced by the 49th and 50th Soviet Armies, launched an attack on the 2nd Panzer Army with devastating consequences.  German troops were utterly obliterated. 
Then on December 2nd,  part of the 258th German Infantry Division managed to advance to within 24 km (15 miles) of Moscow, and were able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Kremlin. And just at the crucial moment, the first Russian blizzard hit with a fury that stopped the Germans in their tracks. Despite this setback, a German reconnaissance battalion had reached the town of Khimki only 8 km distance (5 miles) from Moscow and succeeded in capturing the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal, and the railway station.  But it was the end of the line. The Germans could not advance any farther.  

German soldier digging out from the snow Dec 1941

German Soldiers in the winter of Operation Barbarossa 1941

In the meantime, Soviet Command had reinforced its units until over 500,000 troops were positioned near Moscow.  On December 5th, they launched a massive counterattack forcing the German lines back to the west for over 320 km (or 200 miles).

German soldiers surrender to Soviets Dec 1941

Operation Barbarossa was ultimately a disaster from which the Wehrmacht never recovered. The failure to take Moscow marked a turning point which plagued German initiatives for the rest of the war.  German casualties in 1941, amounted to over 210,000 KIA or MIA, and 620,000 WIA (a third of which became casualties after the 1st of October). Casualties among the Axis troops (Hungarians, Romanians, and Finns) are unknown. Soviet casualties were in the millions.

German plans were ill-conceived from the start. No consideration was given for the need to equip their troops with adequate winter uniforms and suffficent supplies. As a result German troops suffered considerably from frostbite and disease.  In addition the severe cold weather had extremely detrimental effects on their war machinery; trucks, artillery and planes were literally stranded and inoperative.  Operation Barbarossa had come to a grinding hat.  Not even appeals to the German god of Wotan could restore German fortunes now.

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October 30, 2012


Operation Barbarossa: Phase Three  (August 5,1941 – October 2, 1941)

By the middle of July, German troops managed to advance to Kiev short of a few kilometers. While 1st Panzer Army veered south, the 17th German Army charged eastward. In the process they succeeded in trapping three Soviet armies between them near Uman, They then proceeded to eliminate the pocket before veering north and crossing the Dnieper.  In the meantime, the 2nd Panzer Army, splitting off from Army Group Centre, crossed the Desna and joined 2nd Army on its right flank and together they succeeded in trapping four Soviet armies and elements of two other enemy forces.

The 4th Panzer Army, reinforced by tanks from Army Group Centre was about to launch its final attack on Leningrad. On August 8th, the Panzers penetrated Soviet defense lines: while the German 16th Army attacked towards the northeast, the 18th Army, backed by an Estonian guerilla formation cleared the area and advanced to Lake Peipus.  By the end of the month, 4th Panzer Army succeeding in advancing within 48 km (30 miles) of Leningrad.
Hitler gave the order to attack Leningrad - and that German forces take no prisoners.  On September 9, Army Group North began its final thrust and in ten days reached as far as within 11 km (7 miles) of Leningrad.  But as the Germans advanced their progress became exceedingly slow and casualties quickly mounted.  

Impatient with the lack of progress, Hitler ordered that instead of storming Leningrad, that German forces had to starve it into submission. (The "Hunger Plan" was established to secure ample food sources for the German armies, while simultaneously starving to death tens of thousands of Soviets and Jews. By 1944 over 4 million Soviets had died of starvation.)  Group Center was stranded, deprived of its Panzer forces and was vulnerable to several Soviet counter attacks. The German units suffered their first major defeat at Yelnya Offensive.

German commanders observe attack on Leningrad 1941

Soviet AA guns guard Leningrad sky Oct 1, 1941

Soviet troops in Leningrad 1941

Consequently, Hitler turned his attention back to Army Group Center and its mission to capture Moscow. He reallocated the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies, which had been advancing on Leningrad, to instead provide support for Army Group Center. But no thrust towards Moscow would be initiated until operations Kiev had been accomplished. Half of Army Group Centre had veered to the south, behind Kiev, while Army Group South, positioned at the Dniepr bridgehead advanced northward.
On September 16th, the Germans succeeded in encircling the Soviet forces in Kiev. Ferocious battle ensued during which the Germans unleashed a heavy barrage of fire power by tanks, artillery and aerial bombardment. The Germans won, after ten days of very heavy fighting. Soviet casualties were 452,720 KIA, 600,000 Soviet soldiers taken prisoners, as well as the confiscation of Soviet weapons - 3,867 artillery guns and mortars from 43 divisions of the Soviet 5th, 37th, 26th and 21st Soviet Armies.

Operation Barbarossa - Capture of Kiev September 19, 1941



Operation Barbarossa: Phase Two: Battle for Smolensk (July 3, 1941 – August 5, 1941)

On July 3rd the German infantry finally caught up with the Panzer division and were given the go-ahead by Hitler to resume their advance eastward.  The timing couldn't have been worse. They were caught in a heavy rainstorm, usual during Russian summers, and were slowed down to a virtual crawl along the muddy roads.  Benefiting from this delay, Soviet troops hastily organized massive troops and launched a ferocious counterattack against Army Group Center.

Army Group Center's mission was to reach Smolensk, an important Soviet command post, and were headed straight towards six Soviet armies poised and waiting along the defensive line  On July 6th the Soviets backed with 700 tanks launched an attack on the 3rd Panzer Army but were ultimately repulsed.  The Germans easily defeated the Soviets, backed with overwhelming air superiority.

Operation Barbarossa - city of Smolensk heavily bombed by German JU87s

Operation Barbarossa 1941: Soviet soldiers surrender to the German

The 2nd Panzer Army crossed the Dnieper and advanced on Smolensk from the south, while 3rd Panzer Army (which defeated the Soviet attack) advanced on Smolensk from the north. Caught in the German pincer were three Soviet armies.  By July 18th the Panzers attempted to close the gap, and were within ten miles of accomplishing their objective, however the trap would not close until July 26.  The Germans captured 300,000 Red Army soldiers but it would be another ten days before the pocket could be liquidated.  During that time about 100,000 Red Army soldiers managed to escaped, and quickly repositioned their troops for the defense of Moscow.

                                     Soviet soldiers captures by German army - detained in POW camps

Trainloads of Soviet POWs shipped to Germany. None survived.

It took all of four weeks for German Command to realize that they had seriously underestimated the strength of Soviet armed forces.   German troops had been deployed with insufficient supplies, which had very quickly diminished to alarming levels.  It became imperative for them to slow down operations long enough in order to permit reinforcements to catch up with them.  In the face of such  interminable delays, German troops were faced with the gravity of their predicament, and were desperate in their efforts to strengthen their positions.  The situation was hopeless.

Soviet AA guns aimed at enemy German planes Aug 1941

The original plan of encirclement had failed dismally, as huge numbers of Soviet units succeeded in escaping the German pincers.  Consequently, Hitler was convinced that the only way of defeating the Soviets was to destroy their economic resources and bring enemy forces to a virtual halt.  But in order to achieve that objective, the Germans would have to launch a two pronged attack:  to seize the main industrial zones of Kharkov, the Donets Basin, and the oil fields of the Caucasus in the south, and the capture of Leningrad (a vital military center)  in the north.
Hitler shakes hands with von Bock

Hitler's plans were met with blistering outrage from his generals, in particular Fedor von Bock, who demanded that German troops had to attack Moscow outright. The capital city was a major center for arms production, as well as the vital epicenter of Soviet communications and transportation.  Moreover, the capture of Moscow would have had enormous psychological impact on the enemy's morale.  Reports from German intelligence indicated that Soviet troops had been heavily deployed in and around Moscow.  It would not be an easy invasion.  Irregardless, Hitler stubbornly refused to heed the warnings and, undermined his own Commanding Officer, by giving Guderian the order to dispatch Army Group Centre tanks to the north and south.  Moscow would have to wait for now.