invasion of the soviet union

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Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which was launched on Sunday 22 June 1941.

At 4:15 June 22, 1941 the German Wehrmacht attacked the Brest fortress with no warning. Attack started by artillery barrage, including 600 mm mortars of the second battery of the Heavy Artillery Battalion 833 Nr. III (“Thor”) and Nr. IV (“Odin”). Defenders were taken by surprise and failed to form a solid front. By 9:00 the fortress was completely surrounded. Most parts of the fortress were taken by the 30 of June. 25 officers and 2877 soviet soldiers were captured, 1877 soldiers and officers died.

Yet despite being stunned by the surprise attack, heavy losses from the initial shelling, shortage of food and ammunition and being cut off from the outside world the remaining Red Army soldiers took a stand in the Citadel of the fortress. Officers families caught up in the Citadel tended to the wounded and even took part in defence effort. Pockets of resistance held until 20 of July. Their sacrifice became a testament to the resilience and courage of Red Army and Soviet people.

On August 8 Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress. Unprecedented security measures were in place because of fear of Red Army defenders possibly still remain in the fortress. During the visit Hitler picked up a stone off the bride to the Citadel. After the war this stone was found in his workroom.

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The Non-German defenders of the Atlantic Wall,

In 1942 Germany began construction of the Atlantic Wall in order to defends its World War II territorial conquests from a possible Allied amphibious invasion.  The wall consisted of various fortifications, mines, tank barriers, mortars, artillery pieces, machine gun nests, pillboxes, and bunkers, and was designed to fend off any beach landing. On June 6th, 1944 Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and quickly overran these defenses.  Thousands of German soldiers were captured, but surprisingly still many of those capture were not German at all.

At the very beginning of the war Germany upheld its Nazi belief in pure Arianism. However as the war dragged, that sentiment quickly gave way as casualties grew and manpower shortages worsened. Both the Wehrmacht and the SS began to accept foreign volunteers.  Many of these foreign troops were sent to man the defenses of the Atlantic Wall.  These soldiers came from all over Europe, and even the Middle East and Asia.  One notable extreme was the Indian Legion, also known as the Azad Regiment, which consisted of volunteers from India who believed that a German victory would secure India’s independence from the British Empire. 

The reasons for volunteering were varied, some political, many as a necessity for survival.  By far the most numerous foreign volunteers were those from the Soviet Union. Some volunteered because they were disgruntled with Soviet rule, for example the Russian Liberation Army, which joined the Wehrmacht to oppose communism in Russia. However most volunteered as an alternative to spending the rest of the war as a POW.  Soviet POW’s were treated terribly during the war, with 3.3 to 3.5 million dying of starvation, disease, exhaustion, and overall maltreatment. For many Soviet POW’s, service with the German Army was the only way to avoid such a horrible fate. Typically, these troops were often not very reliable in combat. Understandably, they were not very motivated to sacrifice life and limb for their conquerors. In some cases they proved to by a grave liability, such as the case of a battalion of soldiers from Georgia which manned the Atlantic Wall defenses on the Dutch island of Texel, who in 1945 openly rebelled against the Germans.

As well as many thousand foreign volunteers, there were also many thousand foreign conscripts who were forcibly made to serve in the German Army. By far the most interesting extreme in this instance were a group of Koreans who were captured by American forces during the D-Day invasion. For three decades Japan had occupied Korea, and the men were forcibly conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1939 Japan attempted to invade the Soviet Union through Mongolia, but were badly beaten at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. The Koreans were captured and sent to the gulags, but with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, were then forced to join the Red Army and fight on the Eastern Front.  They were then captured by the Germans, conscripted into the German Army, and forced to man the defenses of the Atlantic Wall at Normandy.

By far the most numerous conscripts were Polish.  Before World War I many parts of Poland had been a part of Prussia, and later the German Empire. When Germany re-conquered these territories they considered many of the people living there to be ethnic Germans.  As such, they were considered full citizens of the Reich and thus were subject to German draft laws.  Many still believed themselves to be German and thus were willing to fight for the German cause, however many spoke Polish, had adopted Polish customs, and believed themselves to be Poles. Regardless, refusing to obey the draft laws could result in serious consequences, not only for the individual but his family as well. Some 500,000 Poles were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, with many serving on the Atlantic Wall. Like the Soviets, the Polish also were not the best soldiers as they were often unwilling to fight for their taskmasters. Around 85,000 would defect to the Free Polish Forces in France. In addition to Polish Troops, a number of Czechs considered ethnic Germans would be conscripted as well.

Overall, one in six defenders of the Atlantic Wall were not German. Nothing demonstrates the diversity of these defenders more than the photo below of a group Wehrmacht soldiers captured during D-Day

Front Row (from left to right):  a Yugoslav; an Italian; a Turk; a Pole

Back Row (from left to right): a German; a Czech; a Russian who was forced into the army when the Nazis occupied his town; and a Mongolian.

2

The Transfăgărășan [trans: over, across + Făgăraș (Făgăraș Mountains)] is a paved mountain road crossing the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania

It starts near the locality of Bascov (Argeş county) and stretches 90 kilometres to the crossroad between the DN1 and the city of Sibiu, between the highest peaks in the country, Moldoveanu and Negoiu.

The Transfăgărășan was constructed between 1970 and 1974, during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu wanted to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion. At the time, Romania already had several strategic mountain passes through the Southern Carpathians, whether inherited from the pre-communist era (the DN1 and the high-pass DN67C), or built during the initial years of the Communist regime (the DN66). These passes, however, were mainly through river valleys, and would have been easy for the Soviets to block and attack. Ceauşescu therefore ordered the construction of a road across the Făgăraş Mountains, which divide northwestern and southern Romania.

Built mainly by military forces, the road had a high financial and human cost. Work was carried out in an alpine climate, at an elevation of 2,000 metres (6,600 ft), using roughly six million kilograms (5,900 long tons; 6,600 short tons) of dynamite, and employing junior military personnel who were untrained in blasting techniques. Many workers died; official records state that only 40 soldiers lost their lives, but unofficial estimates by workers put the number in the hundreds.

The road was officially opened on September 20th 1974, although work, particularly paving of the roadbed, continued until 1980.

The road climbs to an altitude of 2,042 metres (6,699 ft), making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania after the Transalpina. It is a winding road, dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents. It is both an attraction and a challenge for hikers, cyclists, drivers and motorcycle enthusiasts. Due to the topography, the average speed is around 40 km/h (25 mph). The road also provides access to Bâlea Lake and Bâlea Waterfall.

The road is usually closed from late October until late June because of snow. Depending on the weather, it may remain open until as late as November, or may close even in the summer; 

The Transfăgărășan has more tunnels (a total of 5) and viaducts than any other road in Romania. Near the highest point, at Bâlea Lake, the road passes through Bâlea Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in Romania, at 884 m (2,900 ft).

Along the southern section of the road, near the village of Arefu, is Poenari Castle. The castle was the residence of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.

The Transfăgărășan was featured in a segment of the British TV show Top Gear, in the first episode of Series 14 (November 2009). Host Jeremy Clarkson proclaimed that the Transfăgărășan was “the best road in the world,” a title the presenters had previously given to the Stelvio Pass in Italy.

Today in history: June 22, 1941 – Nazi Germany begins Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union during World War II

Over four million soldiers of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along a 1,800 mile front, the largest invasion in the history of warfare. The German invasion of the Soviet Union caused a high rate of fatalities: 95% of all German Army casualties that occurred from 1941 to 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war. Initially the Germans occupied important areas of the USSR, but they were pushed back from Moscow and could never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire Soviet–German front. All further Nazi operations inside the USSR failed. 

Operation Barbarossa’s failure was a turning point in the Third Reich’s fortunes. Regions covered by the operation became the site of some of the largest battles, deadliest atrocities, highest casualties, and most horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike—all of which influenced the course of both World War II and 20th-century history. 

(image: A Soviet World War II poster depicting retreating Nazis, among them Hitler and Göring. It reads: “Death to the German Occupiers!” The small letters on the red flag say:“ forward to the west!)

Via Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back!)

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Erich Löwe (1906-1943) was an officer in the Wehrmacht Panzertroops and one of only 863 recipients of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (June 21, 1941, the first full day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union). He was killed on December 23, 1943 in Losovka, Russia, and was posthumously promoted to Oberstleutnant and awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.

If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song)
Pete Seeger
If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song)

Obit of the Day: Pete Seeger, Folk Legend

Pete Seeger was described by Bruce Springsteen as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.” And through his over 100 albums, you can document more than 70 years of the progressive movement’s history.

Mr. Seeger, who was the son of musicologist and violinist, became interested in rural music when his father, Charles Seeger and his step-mother Ruth Crawford Seeger, collected rural music from across the country. It was where he first heard the sound of a five-string banjo, which would become Mr. Seeger’s signature instrument, along with his 12-string guitar.

A student at Harvard, Mr. Seeger dropped out after two years and headed to New York city where he was introduced to the famed signer “Lead Belly” (Huddie Ledbetter) who introduced Mr. Seeger to another uniquely American musical genre - the blues. It was during this time that Mr. Seeger also befriended folk icon Woody Guthrie.

Mr. Seeger and Mr. Guthrie founded The Almanac Singers who would put on concerts in New York for unions and workers, with a left-leaning political message. Their 1940 “Grapes of Wrath” concert for migrant workers is considered, by some, to be the “renaissance of the American folk song." 

At this time, Mr. Seeger became active in the Communist Party. This led to a period of anti-war songs during the first two years of World War II as the Germans invaded Europe and bombarded England. His tone changed after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis in June 1941, but his popularity suffered because of the original songs. This did not stop the Army Special Services from recruiting Mr. Seeger as a performer for the war’s duration.

After the war, Mr. Seeger formed The Weavers along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. The group, which performed together from 1948-1952, was Mr. Seeger’s first taste of popular success as the group’s cover of Lead Belly’s "Goodnight Irene” reached #1 on the charts in June 1950 and remained there for 25 weeks.

The group dissolved however when they came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committees (HUAAC) in 1952, after a witness testified that Mr. Seeger and two other members of the Weavers were Communists. The climate of fear built up around Communism at the time signaled the end of the Weavers.

Three years later, Mr. Seeger was brought before HUAAC to testify. Although he appeared before the committee Mr. Seeger refused to answer questions, saying:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

He was cited with contempt, found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. An appeals court later overturned the conviction.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Mr. Seeger became committed in the civil rights movement, writing songs that were popular among the movement’s leaders. Most famously, he co-wrote “We Shall Overcome” with Frank Hamilton, Zilphia Horton, and Guy Carawan, which was adapted from the spiritual, “I’ll Overcome.” Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Commission who adopted it as an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Note: All the royalties from “We Shall Overcome” are placed in a designated fund to give grants to black community organizers in the American South.

While keeping himself firmly committed to civil rights, Mr. Seeger also took on the Vietnam War during the 1960s and '70s. He performed in numerous anti-war concerts and even played his original song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Unfortunately CBS censored the song in September 1967, cutting it from the show, but re-broadcast it the following February.

Mr. Seeger remained politically active for the rest of his life performing for causes political, social, and environmental. Sometimes singing with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo (with whom he sang “We Shall Overcome” at Occupy Wall Street in 2011) and collaborating with other music stars, most famously Bruce Springsteen in January 2009, when the duo sang “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

He received a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1993 and the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton the following year. Late in his career he would earn three recording Grammys: 1996, Best Traditional Folk Album, Pete; 2008, Best Traditional Folk Album, At 89; 2010, Best Children’s Album, Tomorrow’s Children: Pete Seeger and the Rivertown Kids and Friends. In 1996 he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a pioneer. 

His political activity brought him recognition as well. He received the Felix Valera Award from Cuba, the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, and The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. 

Pete Seeger, who wanted to be journalist when he first enrolled at Harvard, died on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, and Wikipedia

(“If I Had a Hammer” was written by Mr. Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949. The cover of the song by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1962 made it a top ten hit. The song and If I had a Hammer" Songs of Hope and Struggle  is copyright of Smithsonian American Folkways Recordings, 1998.)

In this photo, Luftwaffe’s personnel gather around a Messerschmitt Bf 110 (already displaying Iraqi markings) at Tatoi Airfield, Athens, on May 14, 1941, likely during a stop on the 36 hours-long ferry flight to Mosul via French Syria. The aircraft, with the nose painted with the distinctive ‘shark mouth’ unique to this unit, is one of the Bf 110 belonging to 4. Staffel/ZG 76.
The spring of 1941 was a dark time for the Allied cause. In Africa Rommel laid siege to Tobruk, and in the Balkans German forces invaded Greece after submitting Yugoslavia. To make things worse, in Iraq, Pro-German Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani led a coup d’état that, if successful, threatened to cut the British oil supply.
Despite the appeals of a few German diplomats and military, Hitler, with his eyes set on the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, didn’t want to spare resources on what he thought to be a conflict of little strategic importance. As such, Germany’s aid to the Iraqi rebels resumed itself to a few military advisors and a small Luftwaffe’s force named ‘Fliegerführer Irak’.
‘Fliegerführer Irak’ consisted of one squadron of Bf 110s from the 4. Staffel/ZG 76 and a squadron of Heinkel 111 medium bombers, (12 aircraft each), plus a few Ju 52s and a Ju 90 transport aircraft. All aircrafts had their Luftwaffe’s codes and markings painted over and replaced by Iraqi national markings.
The unit’s bulk arrived at its base in Mosul, northern Iraq, on May 13 and immediately started operation against the British. Despite some initial successes, the fact is that by the time Fliegerführer Irak arrived in Mosul the Iraqi rebels had already lost the initiative to the British and the unit started suffering losses accordingly. On May 29 it left Iraq after having lost 14 Bf 110s and 5 He 111.
(Source - Bundesarchiv)
(Colorisation by Rui Manuel Candeias)

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The SKS Semi Automatic Rifle,

Before World War II the Soviet Union had intended to update their small arms arsenal by phasing out the Mosin Nagant bolt action rifle and replacing it with a semi automatic design.  This process began with notable models such as the AVS-36, SVT-38, and the SVT-40. However, due to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, such plans could not be fully realized and as a result the bolt action rifle remained the backbone of the Red Army. As the war drew to a close Soviet ordnance officials once again began the search for a new semi automatic rifle to become the standard infantry arm of the Soviet military.  However, unlike other designs, the new weapon was to be of carbine length, based on lessons learned from brutal urban combat on the Eastern Front, and use an intermediate cartridge similar to the German STG-44.

In 1944 the Soviet small arms designer Sergei Simonov began work on a new semi automatic carbine which used a recently invented intermediate cartridge, the 7.62X33mm.  The new SKS (Samozaryadnyj Karabin sistemy Simonova - Self Loading Carbine) was a simple, rugged, and effective weapon which used a gas operated tilting bolt semi automatic action. It incorporated a ten round fixed magazine which was loaded using stripper clips (some models would use 30 round detachable magazines). The stock was made of hardwood, and later laminate, while the receiver and magazine were of stamped sheet metal. Like most Russian small arms, the SKS was designed with simplicity, economy, and ease of manufacture in mind. As a result, the SKS was relatively simple to mass produce, making it one of the most prolifically mass produced firearms in history with over 15 million manufactured. Most models tend to have a folding bayonet attached underside the barrel. A cleaning kit is also located in a compartment within the stock.

Apparently pre-production trial runs of the SKS began in the waning months of World War II, although I have never seen any sources that confirm this. The SKS was officially adopted in 1949, only a few years after the invention of the AK-47. While the AK-47 was the much better weapon, with a select fire system and 30 round magazine, it was difficult to mass produce, had many production issues, and had some reliability issues to be worked out.  Thus the AK-47 did not become a mainstay of the Soviet military until an improved model called the AKM was introduced in 1959. Until then the SKS would serve as the backbone of the Soviet Armed Forces. In addition to Soviet production, Communist allies often produced their own models and variants.  The most common example is the Chinese Type 56, which was adopted by the Chinese military in 1956 and continued in official use for over 30 years. Other Communist bloc producers include Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea, Vietnam, and East Germany. Millions were also exported to Soviet and Chinese influence countries around the world.  As a result of the SKS’s availability, they have been used in every conflict around the world for the past 50 years.

Today, the SKS has been officially withdrawn from most militaries, and are typically relegated as a reserve weapon or a ceremonial arm.  They are still common among small militias, terrorist organizations, freedom fighters, guerrillas, and other insurgent groups.  Many more are sold as military surplus on civilian markets as popular hunting rifles and sporting arms.