They crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941, heading east. While the attacking spearheads made good progress, there were also difficulties from day one. Their generals weren’t exactly surprised. Campaigning in this part of Europe has never been easy. The terrain was tough, the distances involved were vast, and logistics in this relatively underdeveloped land were nightmarish. And then there was the adversary: a Red Army that, while not particularly skilled or well trained, had enough manpower and modern equipment to cause any attacker some serious trouble in the field. The campaign started out in mobile mode, but soon bogged down into positional fighting that bled both sides and exhausted the invading army even as it was battering its way forward towards its strategic objectives. In the end, the Russian campaign would consume it altogether.
Ah yes, any student of the war might say: the Wehrmacht in Russia. Such a well known story. Dramatic early victories, sudden turnabout. Ultimate defeat.
The only problem is that I am talking about the Romanians.
They have gotten short shrift in histories of World War II, even those that specialize in the Eastern Front. And yet they played a key role in this greatest of all military struggles. Without them, the Barbarossa campaign of 1941 becomes nearly impossible, and 1942’s Operation Blue becomes absolutely impossible. The Romanian Army had nearly 700,000 men under arms in 1941 and 1.25 million by the summer of 1944. Romanian troops fighting in the Soviet Union outnumbered all of Germany’s other allies combined. They also won their share of operational victories. They struck east towards Odessa in the summer of 1941 and took the city after a gruesome 73-day siege. They played a major role in the Crimean campaign, with their mobile units spearheading General Erich von Manstein’s drive on Kerch, and with their infantry assisting in the gritty fighting to reduce the fortress of Sevastopol. They fought in the Caucasus, playing a key role in the conquest of Anapa and Novorossiysk.
During the 1942 campaign, they contributed two full armies (3rd and 4th) to the Axis order of battle. The Germans themselves only employed four (the 6th, 4th Panzer, 1st Panzer, and 17th, with German 2nd Army also taking part in the opening assault on Voronezh). The role they played was crucial–not to smash through Soviet defenses, but to cover immense flanks, hundreds of miles long, along the Don river and in the wide-open Kalmuk Steppe. It was a task for which the Wehrmacht no longer had sufficient troops. Yes, the Romanian formations were vaporized in the opening moments of the Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad, but then again, German resistance to that assault was no thing of beauty, either.
If you want to know the Eastern Front, you need to spend more time with the Romanians.
Next week: what we think we know, and why.
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