SOMETIMES WORLD WAR II is so big it’s tough to wrap your head around it. Battles that in another conflict would form the martial centerpiece often find little place in memory, and sometimes we forget them altogether. World War II claims more memorable great battles than any war in history, but just as many of its fights are forgotten.
Nowhere is this more true than on the Eastern Front, that massive collision of Germany and the Soviet Union. Even on its own, this was one of history’s great conflicts. The opposing forces’ size, the ferocity, the battlefield’s sprawl, the toll, you name it: the Eastern Front was the Big One.
How big? Consider the following scene: the German Sixth Army is in deep trouble. Months of constant, grinding combat have sapped this force of men and materiel, dulling its fighting edge and bringing its frontline soldiers to the brink of exhaustion. As the curtain rises, the Red Army has launched a massive counteroffensive. Not only have heavy Soviet attacks pinned Sixth Army in front, but the Soviets are also working around the Germans’ left and right flanks, protected by elements of the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies.
The Romanians, staunch allies of the Reich and pillars of the invasion known as Operation Barbarossa, are brave, but they lack the gear, materiel, and training that the Wehrmacht boasts. By day’s end, Soviet forward detachments—fast-moving tanks, infantry, and motorized artillery—have gashed both Romanian defensive sectors.
As always, a Red Army “second echelon” stands ready to exploit the breakthrough. By the second day, Soviet T-34 and JS-1 (“JS” for Joseph Stalin) tanks are speeding forward, lapping at Sixth Army’s flanks and heading for a link-up far to the German rear. That happens on the third day. Sixth Army is encircled—trapped in what the Germans call a Kessel, or “cauldron.” The Soviets have cut Sixth Army off from home, from retreat, and from the roads and rails on which its supplies travel. A mechanized army deprived of daily replacements, ammunition, fuel, and food begins almost immediately to die. Fighting strength plummets, and so does morale.
Already, Sixth Army’s brain trust—the army commander and his staff officers, along with his corps commanders and theirs—is evaluating: how many days, how many men, how much fuel and supplies. The math stinks, and so do the operational alternatives. The Germans can stay put and hope for a relief offensive. But no friendly force is nearby, or even in the same time zone; the rest of the German front is in headlong retreat. The Soviets have whipped the Romanians beyond any capacity to aid their besieged patrons.
Vague promises of supply by air are floating from the Führer’s headquarters, but supplying so large an army—hundreds of thousands of men—is a pipe dream. Sixth Army has one option: strap on helmets, form up, and try to claw its way out of the cauldron. It will not be easy, counterattacking west while amid Soviet lunges from all other compass points, but at least Sixth Army would be doing something—and in so awful a situation it’s crucial to maintain morale.
Wait, you cry! Any World War II aficionado instantly knows the scenario. How can we say this is a “forgotten battle”? Stalingrad? You can’t be serious. This has to be one of the war’s best-known episodes!
But that’s just the point. This is not Stalingrad, and the above scene is not from Operation Uranus, the great Soviet counteroffensive of 1942. Rather, the time is August 1944, and the Red Army has just launched the “Jassy-Kishinev operation,” hardly a household phrase in the West today. The German Sixth Army, rebuilt in 1943 after the Red Army encircled and destroyed it at Stalingrad, is standing not on the Volga River, but between the Dniester and the Pruth. The Sixth is fighting not in the Soviet Union but in Romania. The army’s commander is not General Friedrich Paulus, but the equally doomed, semianonymous General Maximilian Fretter-Pico. Sixth Army is again encircled, dying for a second time in 18 months. And by and large, historians have yawned.
How big was this war? So big that the Soviets killed the same German army twice, and we don’t even notice.