The Red Army’s offensives of 1943–5 sustained a masterly drum-beat that kept the Wehrmacht constantly reeling. They began in the middle of the Baltic States, Byelorussia, and Ukraine and ended with the siege of Berlin. They were organized in a series of huge forward leaps, in which colossal concentrations of men and material would be massed in front of the Germans’ over-stretched lines, then unleashed in an irresistible flood. The second such offensive, after Kursk, was aimed at the Dnieper, which was defended by the Germans with a wide zone of scorched earth. The third, launched in January 1944, was aimed at the distant Vistula. The fourth, beginning in August 1944, turned south into the Balkans and was aimed at the Danube. The fifth, in January 1945, was aimed at the Oder and beyond.
In each of these movements, the basic tactic was to surround and to envelop the points of resistance. Once a defensive fortress was cut off and isolated, it could safely be left for destruction at a later date. In this way, several German armies were cut off in Courland and left undefeated till the end of the war. Major German fortresses in the East, such as Breslau, were still intact when Berlin fell. The main thing was to prevent the Wehrmacht from preparing a counter-blow, and hence to harry, to harass, and to maul. The Russians knew war on the steppes: aggression usually paid off, fixed defence could usually be outflanked. As the Plain narrowed, the Wehrmacht’s temptation to stand and fight grew stronger. Three such choke-points occurred at the Dukla Pass in the Carpathians, in the battle for Budapest, and at the line of the Pomeranian Wall. Here Soviet and German blood was spilled in profusion.
The reputation of the Red Army—renamed the Soviet Army in 1944—went before it. Given the memories of 1939–41, it was often regarded as an alien force even in the Soviet Union. In the Balkans, it was received at best with mixed feelings. In Germany, where the troopers were encouraged to murder and rape, it provoked panic. The first German village to be freed from the Nazis was martyred. Pictures of German women crucified on barn doors were circulated by the Nazis to stiffen resistance. Instead, in the winter of 1944–5, the mass of the German population took flight.
The Soviet drive into central Europe was one of the grandest and most terrible military operations of modern history. One of the soldiers in its ranks, who was himself arrested at the front, wrote of ’the Juggernaut of Comintern’ crushing all beneath its wheels. For, if the Soviet Army brought liberation from the hated Nazis, it also brought subjugation to Stalinism. With it came looting, rape, common violence, and official terror on a horrific scale. For those who saw it, it was an unforgettable sight. As the battered German formations pulled back, wave after wave of liberators passed through. First came the front-line troops, alert, well-clothed, heavily armed. Next came the second-class units and punishment battalions, who marched with ammunition but no food. Behind them the flotsam of the front—stragglers, camp followers, walking wounded, refugees trapped between the lines. At the back rolled the cordon of the NKVD in their smart uniforms and American jeeps, shooting all who failed to keep going. Finally there came ‘the hordes of Asia’, the endless supply columns riding on anything that would move westwards—broken-down trucks, hijacked peasant carts, ponies, even camels. The contrast between the red-eyed, bandaged, and weary German soldiery and the endless truck-loads of fresh-faced Slavonic and Asiatic lads told its own story. The Soviet advance into the Balkans in August 1944 had important political consequences. Romania changed sides, and took the field against her erstwhile Nazi patrons; Hungary was occupied by the German army to prevent Budapest from following Bucharest’s example. In Bulgaria, the royal government was toppled in September. In Yugoslavia, Tito’s partisans joined up with Soviet troops and freed Belgrade in October. In Greece and Albania, both of which lay beyond the line of Soviet occupation, the communist underground made preparations to take over. At which point, in December, the Soviets ran into the obstinate defence of Budapest; and the advance came to a halt until the New Year.