Last week we took a look at Russia’s historical super-weapon: winter; a natural force to rival any A-bomb. The indigenous population historically knew both how survive it, fight in it and wield it effectively against an interloping enemy. ‘Wielding’ is probably overstating the mark – just hanging back and leaving the exposed enemy to be ravaged by it would be a more accurate description.
The oft-repeated quote about the fate of those who do not learn the lessons of history applies to some of Hitler’s actions during WW2. Whether down to over-confidence, ineptitude, desperation, insanity or combinations thereof, Hitler’s hands-on management of his troops and resources worked paradoxically at times as an excellent asset in his downfall.
He failed to realise and exploit the emerging potential of truly astounding Nazi jet-power and nuclear technologies and on a much more mundane level, he embarked on the infamous, resource-draining Eastern Front conflict against Russia that resulted in legions of his troops becoming bogged down in the murderous Russian ice and snow across four years of brutal fighting under harsh conditions.
Referring to the Russians (with whom he signed the 1939 German – Soviet non-aggression pact) as “subhumans” and calling their system so “rotten” that it would all collapse once he had “kicked the door in”, he expected his 1941 betrayal to garner easy Soviet meat. In reality his troops would undergo catastrophic losses until 1945 brought the end of the war.
So, just how cold can a Russian winter be? Well, in the most ‘agreeable’ regions of European Russia (West of the Urals) you may experience relatively balmy minuses down to -20° C or thereabouts, with some regional fluctuations dependent upon latitude and altitude. Head beyond the Urals however and Northern Siberia can easily deliver a stunning -65° C as a matter of course. The North Eastern village of Oymayakon holds the record for the lowest recorded temperature in a permanent settlement; that of -71.2° C, with an average of -50° C in January. However at Siberia’s Vostok station, inside the Arctic Circle, an all time low of -89.2° was noted in 1983, which is a truly unimaginable figure.
Back on the Eastern front; Germany found that Stalin’s home forces were no push-over. Even after initial advances the formerly successful blitzkrieg strategies of hitting the opposition hard and fast soon failed to deliver. The Russian tenacity and sheer weight of numbers proved to be a massive drag on the German advance. German field commanders were concerned at the lack of progress towards Moscow (not helped at all by Hitler’s erroneous ‘summer pause’) and the winter loomed. Then it was upon them.
Finding themselves at the mercy of a problematic supply-chain and still issued with standard/fair-weather gear in an assault that had taken too long; Germany’s mighty Wehrmacht had to (demoralisingly) resort to insulating themselves with newspaper and straw in a losing battle against the relentless cold. This caused over 100,000 reported cases of frostbite by the years end, resulting in 15,000 limb amputations, all bullet-free as the so called “General Winter” played his role in the war.
The Nazi war-machinery fared little better as weapons, vehicles and other equipment froze and refused to function. By contrast, the weather-hardened Russian snow and ski-troops deployed modified winter-capable arms and camouflage, fighting the invaders on familiar home-terms whilst the harsh winter (the epitome of the great Russian bear) fought at their side.
[photo by Kettu]