In the spring of 1942, Soviet troops were in a difficult position. They had survived a difficult winter, but had not yet been able to turn back the German tide. Against the advice of General Georgy Zhukov, Stalin decided on an ill-fated attempt to attack the Germans in the south, to try to retake Kharkov. It turned into a bloody debacle in which over a quarter of a million Soviet troops were captured, and it led to a German breakthrough in the South. Fascist forces began marching toward the Volga and the stage was set for the most important military battle of the Second World War. Within a few months, the “invincible” German war machine would be broken and the tide of the war turned. But only after hundreds of thousands had perished and the city on the Volga bearing the vozhd’s name—Stalingrad—was turned into a pile of steaming rubble.
Stalin had expected Hitler’s main attack in 1942 to be on the Central Front, directed at Moscow. As a result, Soviet forces in the South were diluted to strengthen the Center, and they were unable to withstand the German onslaught, the main objective of which turned out to be driving to the Volga, cutting off Russia’s oil supplies from the Caucasus (and Lend-Lease, supplied through Iran), and cutting Russia in two.
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