81 years ago on Wednesday, June 22, Nazi Germany launched the biggest land invasion in human history: Operation Barbarossa, its drive into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This began the biggest and bloodiest part of the Second World War in Europe, by an order of magnitude.
On June 22, 2022, episode one of Beyond Barbarossa launches on major podcasting networks. It is the first English-language podcast to focus on this, the major sector of the war.
This weekend, the blog commemorates this horrific, tragic event with a sample from Army of Worn Soles, the true story of a Canadian man who faced this onslaught.
The bootless army
Eastern Ukraine, October, 1941
By autumn 1941, the Red Army was exhausted, filthy and covered in lice. Maurice had been wearing the same uniform for weeks, since his regiment had slipped through the German encirclement east of the Psyol River.
One word characterized the Red Army in 1941: retreat. By September, they were down to half-rations. The regiments had to steal water from the farms they were supposed to be defending. Soldiers’ boots fell apart after hundreds of kilometres of retreating across thick mud that threatened to swallow men whole. Divisions ran out of ammunition every day, and the army could not replace damaged uniforms.
While the officers had sturdy leather boots, the enlisted men’s boots were leather only on the lower section. The uppers were felt, which shredded quickly. By fall, the boots fell apart, and Maurice saw men wrap their feet in newspapers.
Newspapers filled with propaganda about how we’re beating the Germans back. Wrapping feet is all they’re good for.
Even Sergeant Petro’s ability to scrounge provisions reached its limit by mid-September. The boys sewed up tears in their clothing as best they could, but their ragged uniforms made them look more like beggars than an army. Even Maurice’s boots leaked.
Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union had been on a scale the world had never seen. Millions of men, hundreds of thousands of tanks and trucks and airplanes swept across the plains of eastern Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia, and then into Russia itself. Outgunned, undertrained, lacking almost everything except sheer numbers of men, the Red Army retreated until they were surrounded and destroyed or captured. The Germans boasted about capturing whole armies, hundreds of thousands of men.
Most prisoners did not survive until the end of the war.
The Red Army’s ferocity in retreat became legendary. Especially in Ukraine, where the Soviets fought with a bravery and savagery out of proportion to their equipment, organization and leadership. Soldiers would hide under stacks of hay while the invaders swept past. Knowing they had been abandoned by their units, they would attack the Germans’ rear, killing scores before they were cut down.
Maurice focused on keeping his “boys” alive. By day, they hid as best they could in stands of trees, behind burned-down farm buildings or in ditches. At night, they gathered the guns, ammunition and their personal equipment. The boys would take turns pulling a wagon while Maurice fended off the senior officers’ urges to gather with the rest of the army. Maurice knew that would only make them a bigger target.
Beyond Barbarossa: the podcast
Beyond Barbarossa is a new historical podcast that dives deep into the history of the bloodiest, costliest and most tragic side of the largest war in history: the Eastern Front of World War II. Starting on June 22, 2022, this weekly podcast traces the history of the war from its launch in June 22, 1941 to its end in May 1945. It will also look at the trends and events that led to the war, and the aftermath.
Listen to the trailer.
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