Archive for second world war

The Fifth Battle of Kharkiv

Posted in History with tags , , , on March 8, 2022 by telescoper
The ruins of the Regional Administration Building on Freedom Square, Kharkiv

When a speaker at yesterday’s vigil mentioned that his family were from Kharkiv, the scene of great destruction and heavily civilian casualties as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was reminded that this location was the scene of no fewer than four huge and bloody battles during the Second World War.

Kharkiv fell to German forces after the First Battle of Kharkiv took place in October 1941. The first attempt by the Soviets to take it back led to the Second Battle of Kharkiv, which took place in May 1942, and was a catastrophic defeat for the Red Army. Among other things this fiasco revealed Stalin to be a military leader of legendary incompetence. He had a huge numerical advantage in men, tanks, artillery and but most of his troops were poorly trained conscripts who were sent into a position from which they were easily outflanked, then encircled and finally destroyed. The losses were appalling: almost 300,000 casualties and the destruction of over a thousand tanks. This defeat left the way open for German forces to advance on Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where they were finally halted in 1943.

The Third Battle of Kharkiv of January 1943 was another German victory but resulted in a salient which was successfully attacked during the Battle of Kursk leading to a massive German defeat. Kharkiv was finally recaptured by the Soviets in August 1943 after a fourth major battle.

It seems in the Fifth Battle of Kharkiv, Putin is following Stalin’s policy of sacrificing the resource he values least – the lives of his young conscripts – but the big difference between then and now is that it is the Russian army is attacking a predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine; Kharkiv is only 25km from the Russian border. If Putin’s army is prepared to behave so abominably to people he claims are his own, one can barely imagine the horrors he will inflict on the Ukrainian-speakers elsewhere in Ukraine. This isn’t just a war, it’s a genocide.

Operation Varsity

Posted in History with tags , , , , on March 24, 2015 by telescoper

Today provides me with an occasion for a short post in a very irregular series marking the momentous events that unfolded seventy years ago.

At 1000 hours on 24th March 1945, nine battalions of the 6th British Airborne Division together with six from 17th US Airborne Division began landing on the German (east) side of the River Rhine, near Wesel. This was the last mass parachute and glider assault of the Second World War, and was designed to pierce the final great physical barrier to a ground advance into Nazi Germany. It was codenamed Operation Varsity.


The airborne troops were given the task of seizing and holding high ground overlooking a stretch of the Rhine which was to be crossed by elements of the British 21st Army Group, which included the British Second Army. The airborneassault involved 540 aircraft towing 1300 gliders into heavy anti-aircraft fire, so casualties during the first phase of the operation were heavy. However, within six hours of the commencement of the operation, all objectives were taken and the airborne troops subsequently linked up with ground forces who had crossed the river in assault boats in what was known as Operation Plunder.

This was all a part of a coordinated series of airborne and amphibious attacks by British, Canadian and American forces that began overnight on 23rd March 1945 and went on during the morning of 24th March 1945. The Applied troops, crossing the River Rhine in large numbers and beginning a rapid advance into Germany. By 27 March, they had established a bridgehead 35 miles (56 km) wide and 20 miles (32 km) deep.

Following the link-up with the ground troops, the 6th Airborne led  a 300 mile advance through Germany, marching approximately 11 miles per day until they managed to capture enough enemy transport. Second Army reached the Weser on 4 April, the Elbe on 19 April, the shore of the Baltic Sea at Lübeck on 2 May. On 3 May, Hamburg capitulated. By 7 May the Soviet Army had met up with the British forces at the Baltic port of Wismar.

I mention this because one of the troops that crossed the Rhine the British Second Army that day was a new recruit, a young man by the name of Richard Shaw, my mother’s brother. He took part in the subsequent advance through Germany and spent most of the year after the end of the Second World War stationed in Hamburg. He died just a few years ago, after a fall in his home, at the age of 85.

Lest we forget.