4. Regarded by Eisenhower as one of the fiercest engagements of the Second World War, the Battle of the Reichswald saw fifty thousand Allied soldiers attempt to breach the German lines and ensure easy crossing over the Rhine and into Germany
Determining the best route into Germany would be across the relatively flat lands of northern Europe, encompassing the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr, Allied generals resolved the need to clear German presence west of the Rhine prior to attempting a crossing. Divided into a pincer movement, Operation Veritable – later known as the Battle of the Reichswald – served as the northern half of the campaign, with Allied soldiers seeking to gain command over the heavily forested and thawed flood plains of the Rhine. Engaging the entrenched German defenders on unfavorable ground in poor conditions on February 8, 1945, advance air raids of colossal proportions failed to dislodge the Axis positions.
Despite sending a combined force of fifty thousand Allied soldiers, mostly British and Canadian, the Germans, under orders to not give ground, held firm against the onslaught. Impeded by flooded ground, trees, and minefields, the Allies were forced to gradually pick apart the enemy defenses over the course of weeks. Eventually able to cross the Roer after waters subsided on February 23, the German lines were flanked and 230,000 captured. General Eisenhower would later remark the Battle of the Reichswald “was some of the fiercest fightings of the whole war”, with more than sixty thousand combined casualties across just one month and three days.
3. Although a military defeat, the delay caused by the Siege of Lille enabled the evacuation at Dunkirk to be far more successful than it otherwise would have been, saving tens of thousands of professional soldiers who would return to fight again in Europe in 1944
Attempting to retreat on the night of May 27, 1940, only the British Expeditionary forces near Lille, as well as the Third Corps of the French First Army, successfully crossed the Lys. Surrounding the majority of the First Army in Lille, several German Panzer and Infantry divisions subsequently enclosed the remainder and laid siege to the city. Attempting multiple breakouts on the morning of the 28th, the French efforts were mostly in vain, with only a few companies escaping. Fighting house to house across the Lille suburbs for days, with food and ammunition rapidly declining, on June 1 35,000 Allied soldiers were forced to surrender to the Germans.
Although seemingly a devastating defeat for the Allies, postwar perceptions of the Siege of Lille have offered a somewhat more nuanced interpretation. Beginning with Churchill’s The Second World War, who referred to the battle as a “splendid contribution”, it has been argued the encounter delayed the German advance upon Dunkirk for four crucial days. Occupying several divisions otherwise intended to pursue the retreating Allies to Dunkirk, the brave efforts of the doomed soldiers in Lille instead bought sufficient time for the miraculous evacuation of at least an additional hundred thousand soldiers from the French beach.
2. Becoming the first major Soviet victory against the Germans during Operation Barbarossa, the Yelnya Offensive – becoming a rallying cry across Russia – nevertheless cost the Red Army greatly
Located eighty-two kilometers south-east of Smolensk, the town of Yelnya was regarded by the advancing German forces as a strategically sound position from which to launch an offensive towards Moscow. Forming the Reserve Front under Marshall Zhukov, these poorly trained and equipped Soviets were commanded to throw back the Germans from the Yelnya heights and prevent this plan from taking place. Attacking on August 30, 1941, Zhukov, understanding the limitations of the recruits under his command, sought to encircle the Germans and force either surrender or a strategic retreat.
Succeeding on September 3, having suffered 23,000 casualties, the Germans withdrew rather than allow themselves to be surrounded. However, the Soviets in contrast suffered at least 31,000 casualties – with a far higher mortality rate – whilst the town’s 15,000 inhabitants were either killed or enslaved by the retreating Germans. Becoming the first substantial reversal infliction upon the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets exploited the offensive as a major propaganda boon, even allowing foreign correspondents to visit the battlefield. Nevertheless, more recent military assessments have concluded the horrendous losses severely impacted future Soviet defensive capabilities and undermined their ability to contain and withstand subsequent German offensives into Russia.
1. Defining the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, the Battle of Suomussalmi saw 11,500 Finns defeat approximately 50,000 Soviets in a prime example of how a smaller and better-organized force can surpass a numerically superior enemy
Beginning on November 30, 1939, three months after the formal beginnings of World War Two, the Winter War saw the Soviet Union declare war and attempt to seize Finnish territory with a mind towards establishing a puppet communist government. Advancing on Suomussalmi on December 7, the Finns withdrew without contest to the opposite shores of Lakes Niskanselkä and Haukiperä to await the Soviet offensive. Failing to cross the lakes the following day, the Soviets subsequently sought to circumvent the obstacles and attack the Finnish positions from the northwest. Similarly failing, the encouraged Finns were reinforced on December 9 by additional soldiers and initiated a counter-offensive to retake Suomussalmi.
Continually failing in their attacks against the outnumbered Finnish, on December 27 the Finns triumphed and broke the Soviet lines to retake the village. Retreating in panic, the Finns pursued and rolled up supporting regiments of Soviets, pushing them all the way back to the Russian border. Providing a decisive morale boost for the outgunned Finnish army, capturing a huge quantity of valuable equipment in the process, the Soviet Union was forced to reorganize and commit far greater resources than they had originally planned to the campaign. Losing less than two thousand of their own, the Finns had successfully killed almost thirty thousand Soviets and captured more than two thousand more.
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