Just over a year earlier Hitler had stunned the world with his massive surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa had been intended to smash the Red Army apart and overcome Russia within a matter of a few months.
It had very nearly succeeded until the vast distances and extremes of climate had stalled the Wehrmacht in its tracks. The Soviet state had demonstrated remarkable resilience, with seemingly inexhaustible sources of manpower it had pushed the Germans back over the winter and stabilised the threat to Moscow.
Already 1942 had seen major battles at Kharkov and on the Crimea, where the Red Army had fought to the death at Sebastapol. These battle had seen already seen casualties on both sides that dwarfed anything that would be seen in the Desert war. Yet now Germany launched her major offensive for 1942.
Hitler now decided to strike out for the deep south east of the Soviet Union. Moscow was no longer the objective. If he could reach the oilfields in the Caucasus he could cut off the fuel supply to the Red Army, the life blood of the Soviet war machine. The distances were vast, the gamble was huge.
Once again the Wehrmacht had built up its resources readying itself for a massive attack. On the 28th June it launched itself across the River Tim. Wilhelm Pruller was there:
Sunday, 28th June 1942
At 02.15 the artillery corps let out their first shot, and in that same instant, as the shell was winging its way towards the Russian installations, the heavy guns start a barrage the like of which none of us in the whole Battalion has ever heard before. Guns of every sort and calibre, batteries without number, spew their deadly shells at the enemy bank. The 8’8 flak barks, the 2 cm. flak chatters, the heavy mortars roar, the artillery thunders – all in rapid-fire confusion. In between, the bombs of our new weapon howl- the rocket mortarsl [the Nebelwerfer].
In the midst of this roar, the men are crossing the Tim with their little rafts in feverish haste. We are attacking on a broad front: many, many divisions are moving simultaneously across the Tim. Hundreds of thousands can now move again after the banishment of the winter, can move eastwards; we are so happy about it.
I’m still on this side of the Tim, clearing the Platoons so they can cross quickly at the appointed time. When the last Platoon hits the rafts, I rush into the water, and jump into one, already overfilled; but before I can even grasp what’s happening, I’m on the other side.
The Companies are still lying in a protected position. We collect everyone and then move off towards Nish Dolgoe, a village about 1.5 km. from here; its capture is our first point of attack.
The land is bathed in a thick fog, because of the many mortar, artillery and bomb hits, as well as the smoke-screen. You can’t recognize anything at 20 feet.
All about us is still an ear-splitting, gigantic racket, shot after shot, the scream of rockets kicked off by rocket mortars, a never-ending inferno. Meanwhile, we’ve fallen in, stormed across the enemy artillery and mortar fire, got through, as if by a miracle (or was it my nose?) the Soviet minefields, and landed in the middle of a Russian ditch shielded by a row of bushes.
It’s not easy to know where to make for now, because the fog doesn’t allow you any sense of direction: people from another Company run past us – they belong over to the right – infantry tears right through our middle – they belong more towards the left – and at the beginning we are too far to the right ourselves, but during the actual attack we all got to our proper assigned places.
In another ditch which we are using to get out of the enemy fire, we find 70 or 80 Bolsheviks who have to be mowed down, driven off or taken prisoner. A man-to-man fight takes place, and only very few Soviets get away alive.
Contemporary German Newsreel, with English subtitles, includes footage of the battle in progress, shows the role of Stuka dive bombers: