Europe in 1941 before Operation Barbarossa, Germany, its allies & occupied territories in grey, Soviet Union and occupied territories in red, United Kingdom and controlled territories in green and neutral in white.

A war of attrition

Few theatres of war incapsulate the absolute horror and futility of warfare more than the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Four years (22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945.) of death, destruction, brutality and suffering on an unprecedented scale as the Axis powers and Soviet Union repeatedly clashed in a series of battles encapsulating  huge tracts of Europe and the Soviet Union and with a front line that stretched almost 3000 kilometres in length. The Soviet-Finnish Continuation War is also considered part of the wider conflict.

Comparison of the military forces of Germany and the Soviet Union during the battle for the Eastern Front. Note how German numbers generally start to decrease while the Soviets had almost tripled in size by the end of the war.

Both sides fielded huge armies numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands of tanks, vehicles aircraft, artillery, and horses. The Soviet Union suffered millions of military casualties and Germany over a million. Over five million Soviet soldiers became prisoners with less than two million surviving captivity, often due to being deliberately killed or mistreated by their captors. 

Timeline of major events on the Eastern Front: 22 June 1941 – 9 May 1945.

Civilian cost

During the conflict, the Germans managed to conquer huge amounts of territory and found themselves having to administer these areas. Most considered the Germans unwelcome invaders, while a minority, often in areas which had previously been independent from the Soviet Union (such as Ukraine), were hostile towards Stalin’s government and welcomed the Germans as liberators – even if they did not share their Nazi ideals.  

A Russian woman watches in apparent despair as a barn (presumably hers) burns to the ground.

However, brutal Nazi policies enacted in these areas meant that even those who initially welcomed the Germans soon changed their mind. None of these former Soviet territories now under German occupation received any degree of self-rule. Instead, the Germans treated the conquered territories as potential living space for future German settlers, and the native Slavic population was brutally suppressed. Civilians – old, women children were shot, starved, gassed imprisoned, or reduced to slave labour, often being forcibly removed from their towns and villages or bombed out of them, sometimes after the Germans had already pillaged them. German SS extermination squads (Einsatzgruppen) committed most of the calculated, premeditated acts of violence as part of the wider Nazi Holocaust.

The Germans showed little or no regard for their lives and often punished them severely for the slightest infraction – showing little interest as to whether they were guilty of the crime or not.

As a result of the harsh German behaviour, resistance soon sprung up which added a further layer of brutality to an already oppressive and violent environment. Civilians were frequently caught in the crossfire between the occupying Germans and the resistance and if suspected of supplying or sheltering partisans, were harshly punished (with the partisans themselves usually being executed if captured.)

Civilians being evacuated after their homes have been destroyed by German bombings during the Siege of Leningrad.  Boris Kudoyarov


The roots of the conflict – known in the Soviet Union as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – lay in Hitler’s expansionist policies and his quest to obtain ‘living space’ for the German peoples, married to his abhorrent racist views regarding ‘lesser peoples’ and his hostility towards Communism itself.  As early as 1925, with the publication of his book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler had expressed his views that Germans needed Lebensraum (Living space) and once leader, he intended to invade the Soviet Union to obtain it.

The Soviet Union had experienced its own tumultuous periods during the preceding years with violent powerful struggles and constant political upheaval, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russians. Joseph Stalin had eventually surfaced as the dominant Soviet figurehead, taking complete control in 1922, adopting the title General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He spent the next few years solidifying his powerbase and killing off or imprisoning his rivals (or anyone he considered a threat).

Anti-Nazi Soviet propaganda poster, by Russian political cartoonist, Victor Deni (1893 - 1946) 

Viktor Deni - Lambiek Comiclopedia

Anti-Soviet Nazi propaganda poster. Such images installed an immense fear and loathing in many German people of the 'communist threat'.

This came at a great cost however, as one of his customary nationwide bloodlettings – known as the ‘Great Purge’ – included amongst its victims, thousands of experienced army officers, resulting in the Soviet military being severely weakened. Now with Nazi Germany ominously on the rise, Stalin – who new that a clash with Hitler’s Germany was a virtual certainty – was playing for time, hoping his weakened military could be brought up to scratch before Germany attacked.

Briefly, the two opposing nations were officially ‘allies. An unholy alliance that was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – a non-aggression agreement between the two countries in which they promised not to take military action against each other for ten years, and which secretly sought to return Central Europe to its pre-First World War status, with the Baltic states and Finland returning to Soviet control and Poland and Romania being divided up.

Adolf Hitler, Führer of Germany

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S33882 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It was also a marriage of convenience between two opposing ideologies – fascism and communism, each led by two of the most ruthless dictators the world has seen: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. This union allowed them to individually pursue their own political aims – which most notably resulted in the unfortunate Poland becoming the most well-known victim of this, with the Invasion of Poland in 1939 – which marked the start of the Second World War – seeing the country occupied, dismembered and divided between the Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

This partnership would only ever be temporary though; Hitler had already committed himself to conquering the vast tracts of the Soviet Union in his quest to expand German territory and was happy to do it at the expense of the so called ‘untermenschen’ – those deemed racially or socially inferior. (The literal German translation is ‘underperson’).

Wehrmacht soldiers on the attack on the Eastern Front.

Krueger Horst | Flickr

Industrial comparison

Throughout the war, Russia – despite great losses in men, material and territory, was able to maintain a functioning industry, thanks in part to vast areas away from the fighting and out of the reach of enemy bombers, being used for industry. Areas such as the Urals had been converted into a strong industrial base thanks to Stalin’s Five-Year plans of the 1930’s. An effective train network with thousands of trains helping transport men and materials around Russia, ensuring key factory workers were able to be relocated to safe areas to continue working and producing vital goods for the war effort. The Soviet Union also received help via the lend-lease scheme from the United Kingdom and USA, allowing them to access materials and produce goods that they would not have otherwise been able to - aviation fuel, machine tools, trucks, and high-explosives.

Among other goods, Lend-Lease supplied:

  • 58% of the USSR's high octane aviation fuel.
  • 33% of their motor vehicles.
  • 53% of USSR domestic production of expended ordnance (artillery shells, mines, assorted explosives).
  • 30% of fighters and bombers.
  • 93% of railway equipment (locomotives, freight cars, wide gauge rails, etc.)
  • 50–80% of rolled steel, cable, lead, and aluminium.
  • 43% of garage facilities (building materials & blueprints).
  • 12% of tanks and SPGs.
  • 50% of TNT (1942–1944) and 33% of ammunition powder.
  • 16% of all explosives (From 1941 to 1945, the USSR produced 505,000 tons of explosives and received 105,000 tons of Lend-Lease imports.

Tank production during the Second World War. For the duration of the fighting on the Eastern Front, German tank and self-propelled production, whilst high, could not match the Soviet Union and experienced a sharp drop in numbers after 1944.

Germany, having conquered large tracts of Europe, had access to a huge source of materials, and was able to outproduce the Soviet Union in coal, iron, steel and electricity (although Russia retained the edge in oil production).

However, being unable to trade with potential foreign partners, Germany had to rely on what it could obtain within its own borders – which included a sizeable slave labour force. As the war progressed and German steadily started to surrender territory, this pool of resources and slave workers slowly started to decrease.

Germany also suffered from having to commit resources to other theatres it was committed to – the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic and the Defence of the Reich. The latter increased in importance as the war progressed as increasingly powerful allied bomber formations battered German towns and cities, forcing Germany to commit more and more aircraft to the defence of Germany, rather than send them to the Eastern Front.  

Both sides produced enormous amounts of equipment throughout the war but generally, the Soviets retained the edge. They consistently produced more armoured fighting vehicles (tanks, self-propelled guns, armoured cars etc) than Germany (in 1943, they produced 24,089 to Germany’s 19,800) as this gap widened as the war progressed.

Additionally, the Soviets produced simpler designs, restricted the number of variants and were able to upgrade existing models more efficiently, thus improving production further.

The still neutral USA condemned Hitler's aggression.

Death and destruction

1941, The first year of war on the Eastern Front was sparked off and dominated by Operation Barbarossa – Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Deliberately breaking the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, German forces swept into Russia, destroying, or encircling entire armies and capturing hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The German Luftwaffe inflicted heavy losses on the reeling Russian air force, and it looked as if a swift victory was on the cards for Germans.

However, a combination of events, culminating in the German attack stalling around the Russian capital, Moscow, resulted in the German attack grinding to a halt, and with the severe Russian winter kicking in, German plans for further conquest were to be put on hold until the following year.

German Waffen SS soldier looking at a nervous Red Army POW, somewhere on the Eastern Front during September 1941.

Elsewhere the Soviet navy and German navy (Kriegsmarine) clashed in the Gulf of Riga as both sides attempted to lay naval mines in the region. A naval confrontation occurred again at the start of the Black Sea Campaigns with the Russian Black Sea Fleet caught off guard by the sudden launch of Operation Barbarossa and clashing with the naval forces of Germany and its allies, with a series of skirmishes occurring until 1944.  

Simmering Soviet and Finnish tensions came to a head as the Continuation War broke out between the two countries – with hostilities between the two countries essentially picking up where they left off after the Winter War ended the previous year.

After the dramatic successes of the previous year, Hitler was keen to continue this success into 1942. However, his forces would now be facing a Russian army which was slowly adapting and improving its tactics, with fresh units plugging the gaps left by the destruction of previous armies and keen to hit back at the Nazis. The Soviets were starting to make use of their excellent T-34 tank and deploy it in ever increasing numbers.

However, his forces would now be facing a Russian army which was slowly adapting and improving its tactics, with fresh units plugging the gaps left by the destruction of previous armies and keen to hit back at the Nazis. The Soviets were also starting to make use of their excellent T-34 tank and deploy it in ever increasing numbers.

Russian soldiers fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad.

OM Colorization

However, the Rzhev–Vyazma strategic offensive operation launched by the Soviets after initially making gains, ultimately ended in their forces becoming encircled and the operation ending in failure. The Germans responded with a huge victory at the 2nd Battle of Kharkov before the launch of ‘Case Blue’ – Hitlers attempt to capture the oil fields in the Caucasus.

The struggle here would eventually centre around the city of Stalingrad – now a byword for brutal, close quarter fighting – and from this point, nearly all major offensive launched by either side for the rest of the year, was focussed on gaining the upper hand in the relentless struggle for superiority in this region – casualties were enormous.

The only other major offensive of this year was Operation Mars – a disastrous attempt by the Soviets to destroy the German 9th Army, but which ended in failure – described as Marshal of the Soviet Union, Georgy Zhukov’s worst defeat.

A Russian T-34 tank and supporting infantry advance under fire. In the background, another tank has just been destroyed. Getty Images

1943, the third year of fighting, started badly for the Germans with their forces in Stalingrad finally being forced to surrender after months of bitter conflict, resulting in 90,000 German soldiers going into captivity. Increasingly, the overstretched and battered German forces were having to steadily give ground to an ever more powerful and determined adversary. The tide appeared to be slowly turning.

However, the Third Battle of Kharkov saw the German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein cunningly lure the Soviet forces into over-extending themselves and allowing the Germans to recapture the important city, thus demonstrating that when the conditions were right, the Germans could spring a nasty trap on the increasingly confident Soviet forces.

The biggest tank battle in history took place in July during Operation Citadel – the Battle of Kursk saw over ten thousand of German and Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles engage in intense fighting and featuring the debut of the new German Panther tank. Although the Germans inflicted immense casualties on the Russians, they were unable to achieve their objectives and the Soviets retained the tactical advantage.

Waffen SS "Wiking" soldiers, somewhere on the Eastern Front, 1944.

By 1944, the Germans faced an ever-increasing series of offensives from the Russians, the Dnieper–Carpathian offensive pushing them out of the Ukraine and Moldova regions, the Leningrad–Novgorod offensive finally lifting the siege at Leningrad and the Crimean Offensive forcing the German evacuation from the Crimea. Worse still for the Germans was the resounding success of Operation Bagration – a major Soviet offensive which shattered the German front line, wiped out 28 divisions causing 450,00 casualties and resulting in another 300,00 being trapped in the Courland Pocket.

Operation Bagration had been launched only two weeks after the allied landings in Normandy – Operation Overlord – which resulted the already battered German forces to effectively fight on two fronts. Only by increasingly giving up ground by performing shrewd tactical withdrawals and transferring units from the Italian front, were the Germans able to continue to stabilise the front line and avoid a complete collapse.

Such was the growing power and increasing success of the major Russian attacks from this point, that they were dubbed ‘Stalin's ten blows’ – an indicator of just how increasingly dominant the Soviet Union was becoming on the Eastern front, helped by the German forces – for all their dogged defence and clever withdrawals – increasing struggled to replace lost men and materials. At this stage at the war, it was increasingly rare for a German unit to be operating at anything close to full-strength.

Soviet Tupolev tu-2 Medium Bombers.

The final year of the war, 1945, found the Germans defending against Russian attacks in their occupied territories – the Soviet Vistula-Oder offensive captured major Polish cities taken by the Germans in 1939 after the Invasion of Poland. The Hungarian capital of Budapest fell to Russian forces and the substantial German forces in Courland remained increasingly cut off and faced being slowly whittled down by the surrounding Soviet forces.

The last major German offensive of the war – Operation Spring Awakening – was launched although, given the overall strategic situation in the Eastern Front and obvious Russian dominance, it failed to meet its objectives.

The success of the Russian East Prussian offensive saw German territory fall into Russian hands, with the Silesia region next to fall. Russian forces continued to advance into German territories and after heavy fighting, Czechoslovakia and Austria were captured by Soviet forces (although the Czech capital Prague held out until 11 May – 3 days after the German capitulation) and now it became a race to Berlin, which after bitter fighting eventually fell to the Soviets on 2 May, essentially ending the war in Europe.

Soviet banner above the Reichstag building, Berlin, Germany, May 1945.  Sputnik


Casualties on the Eastern Front were horrifically high. By the end of the war, over 5 million German and Axis troops had died on this front (the majority of whom were German) and between 8 and 10 million Russian troops.

Around 3 million Germans were taken prisoner with about half a million of those dying in captivity.  The Soviets had over 4 million of their soldiers end up in captivity, with most – around 3 million – never making it back home.

Estimated civilian deaths are between 14 to 17 million, with 1 – 2 million of those being Soviet Jews who were killed as part of the Holocaust.

Comparisons between casualties on the Eastern front and Western and Mediterranean fronts. Whilst numbers may by estimates (Western front figures may be incomplete), it does help highlight the brutality and high casualty count on the Eastern front.

User:Mercury999 - Wikimedia Commons


The Eastern Front of World War II was the largest and deadliest land theatre of the war, with more than 14 million deaths, and had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. The majority of Germany's troops and resources were concentrated on the Eastern Front, leaving the Western Front relatively weak. This allowed the Western Allies to make significant gains in North Africa and Italy, and eventually launch the D-Day invasion in 1944.

The Soviet Union's victory on the Eastern Front also played a major role in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union's success in pushing the German army back and capturing Berlin in May 1945, effectively ended the war in Europe.

Comparison chart showing the total amount of population mobilised by the end of the war.