The Unknown War is a landmark television documentary series about the Soviet struggle against — and ultimate victory over — the Nazi war machine. Hosted and narrated by Academy Award winner Burt Lancaster, this sprawling series features rare and stunning footage recorded by Soviet camera crews on the front lines, most of it unseen since its original broadcast 30 years ago. From the June 22, 1941, invasion of the Soviet Union to the Russians’ victorious march into Berlin in 1945, the devastating battles in the air, at sea and on land are detailed with astonishing images. These stories of heroism, savagery and suffering from what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War will shed new light on the Red Army’s massive contribution to the Allies’ defeat of Hitler in World War II. A Soviet-American collaboration produced in 1978 — during the throes of the Cold War — the 20-part saga was pulled from the air in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Its reemergence should be heralded as an essential addition to the recorded history of World War II.
June 22, 1941
On a pleasant June morning in 1941, nothing seemed more peaceful than Red Square and Moscow itself. It was early summer, and people were strolling along the broad streets, shopping in the big department stores or going to the country for the day. They did not know that Hitler’s legions, five million strong, had crashed through a frontier 1,800 miles long at 4 a.m. that very morning. Nor did they know, until a government broadcast alerted them at noon, that the Soviet Union was at war. The Unknown War. The war that broke Hitler’s back and ended his dream of a new order.
The Battle for Moscow
On October 8, 1941, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, broadcast from Berlin that Moscow had fallen. Hitler’s troops, he said, could see the Kremlin towers from their front lines; another four or five days and the Nazi flag would fly over the Kremlin. The Germans believed these reports, and so did many others — after all, Hitler had conquered western Europe, he had blitzed London. But in an area some 60 miles from the Kremlin, the Nazi blitzkrieg came to an end. In the Moscow suburbs, the Red Army and hundreds of thousands of ordinary men, women and children threw up barriers that the Nazi tanks could not crack. In early December, the Red Army counterattacked. They pushed Hitler’s armies as far back as 125 miles from Moscow. It was the first time in the Second World War that the mighty Nazi Wehrmacht was halted. The Siege of Leningrad
In the history of the Unknown War, Leningra stands out as a symbol of the courage and persistence of the Russian people. For years Leningrad resisted capture by Hitler’s forces. In the aching cold of winter, with nothing to eat, hundreds of thousands of Leningraders perished from starvation or simply froze to death. Still they fought on. During the terrifying siege, which the Russians call “The 900 Days,” Nazi troops encircled the city and cut off all communications — but Leningrad would not surrender.
To The East
This is the story of ordinary Russian civilians who worked to supply the military with tanks, planes, guns — whatever was necessary to win the war against the Nazis. Little is known about the planned evacuation of more than 1,500 Russian factories from out of the path of Hitler’s armies. Onto flat cars, freight cars and trucks went components of factory after factory. Far to the east, beyond the Urals in Siberia and Central Asia, the factories were reassembled. There vital war materials were produced for the fighting at the front.
The Defense of Stalingrad
In 1942 some of the fiercest combat ever took place in the monumental battle between the German and Russian armies. The ground was covered with bombs and artillery shells; almost all of Stalingrad was reduced to rubble. Of some 46,000 affected homes and villages, 41,000 were totally destroyed. In Stalingrad two million soldiers fought for 200 days and nights. Many people in the West doubted that the Soviets could win against the mighty Wehrmacht, but the Red Army fought the Nazis to a standstill. From street to street, house to house, room to room, the Russians repelled attack after attack, causing Hitler’s army to suffer its greatest losses to date. So much was at stake that the victory or defeat of either side might well determine the outcome of World War II.
Survival at Stalingrad
During the fighting for Stalingrad, the defenders of the city took an oath: “There is no land for us beyond the Volga.” When the Nazis surrendered to the Soviet army on January 31, 1943, in the largest military action in history, Stalingrad became a source of inspiration to the Allies in their mutual struggle against Hitler. In the course of the Battle of the Volga, the Soviet armed forces destroyed five armies of Germans and their fascist allies — one-fourth of all Wehrmacht troops on the eastern front. This victory strengthened the morale of the anti-Hitler coalition at a crucial time in the war.
The World's Greatest Tank Battle
In July of 1943 the largest armored battle in history took place in Kursk. Hitler planned to annihilate the Soviet army at Kursk and make one final effort to win the war in the east. Here thousands of tanks, both Soviet and German, clashed in a battle of monumental size. After the defeat of the Nazis in this battle, Hitler’s tanks — pride of his army — would never again regain the strength that had carried them from the English Channel to the Volga. And never again would the Germans meet the Russians on even terms.
War in the Arctic
In World War II the Russians were fighting along a 2,000-mile line that extended from the Black Sea to a point beyond the Arctic Circle. Arms and supplies from the United States and Great Britain came by convoy to the ice-free seaport of Murmansk, in the northernmost part of the Soviet Union. The route of the supply ships, which cut through the Arctic Sea, was so perilous that the seamen on the convoys often called it Death Alley. The convoys, identified by the code initials P.Q., were in constant danger from Nazi submarines and planes. German forces based on the northern tip of Norway made daily attacks on the ships. One convoy in particular, the PQ-17, sustained enormous losses. Out of 37 ships, only 13 managed to reach Murmansk. Cargo totaling $700 million went down to the bottom of the Arctic Sea, but the real loss was in human lives.
War in the Air
In a surprise attack on June 22 of 1941, German forces destroyed more than two-thirds of the Soviet combat aircraft fleet while they were still stationed on the ground. Hitler and his generals felt that this devastating blow would end the war in Russia very quickly, but they were wrong. The Soviets fought back, developed new tactics, and slowly, gradually, the balance shifted.
Partisans - The Guerrilla War
When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he captured Moscow; but Russia’s men and women, banding together behind his lines, turned the French invaders’ lives into a living hell. The same thing happened in 1941 when Hitler’s legions smashed into the Soviet Union and vast areas of Russian land fell into their hands. Like mushrooms after a rain, a people’s underground sprang up to attack Nazi formations, to blow up their ammunition dumps and wreck their trains. The partisans operated everywhere — in the marshes and deep forests of Belorussia, in Odessa, where they set up an underground command post in the city’s catacombs. On the shores of the Black Sea, a group of young people carried out operations against the Nazi invaders until the last member of the partisan band had been captured or shot. Nowhere were the Germans safe from the attacks of the Soviet partisans.
The Battle of the Seas
The Russians fought Hitler at sea — in the Baltic, in the Gulf of Finland, in the Black Sea and the Arctic and even on inland lakes and rivers. Soviet marines attacked so savagely, they were nicknamed “the Black Death” by the Nazis. Russia’s Baltic fleet rescued Soviet forces from Tallinn, under a rain of Nazi bombs and a barrage of torpedo fire. The Soviet survivors returned to the great naval base of Kronstadt after an evacuation at Dunkirk. When their ships were sunk, Russian sailors fought on the land. They battled the Germans in Odessa, in Novorossiysk, Murmansk, and they fought a 250-day defense of the fortress at Sebastapol. Each battle was a vivid chapter in the Unknown War.
Battle for the Caucasus
In 1943 Novorossiysk, at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, was the southernmost tip of the Soviet front. At the same time the Battle of Stalingrad was taking place, in the summer of 1942, the Battle for the Caucasus began. Hitler wanted to open a road to the Near East, to India, by way of the Caucasus. “That accomplished,” he said, “I will bring the war to the continental United States.” The fighting for the Caucasus lasted 13 and a half months. In the battle for Novorossiysk and the peninsula, the greatly outnumbered Russians defended the territory for seven months. Nazi planes made up to 2,000 raids a day on this area. German artillery barrages were followed by heavy infantry attacks. It was a long, fierce battle in which more than one explosive was fired by the Nazis for every Russian defender. The Soviet army’s victory in the Caucasus smashed Hitler’s plan for an overland route to the Near East and India.
The Liberation of the Ukraine
In the late summer of 1941 the Soviet army was forced to retreat from Kiev in the Soviet Ukraine. For more than two years, the Nazis occupied the city and virtually destroyed it. In 1943, after victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Soviet army line moved westward as the Russians liberated the occupied territories of the Ukraine that had been under the Nazi yoke. Hitler was determined to stop the Soviet army on the German line of fortifications that extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and which he called the “Eastern Bastion.” The Germans considered the Dnieper River a key point in the line, and Hitler himself boasted the Dnieper would reverse its course before the Russians would ever cross it.
The Liberation of Belorussia
The Nazis occupied the northwestern part of the Soviet Union for three years during the Unknown War. In 1944 the Soviets launched a massive attack to free the area that swept through Belorussia, and the Soviet troops continued westward, across the German frontier. From the Balkans to Vienna
After the Soviets won back their own country, they pushed westward to release Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Albania and Yugoslavia from German occupation. One of the bloodiest battles was for Budapest. The Hungarians had attempted to rise up against the Nazis, but the Germans brutally repressed them as the Soviet forces approached the city. The Russians then fought their way into the ancient Hungarian capital. More than one million Red Army men and women gave their lives in a savage battle to drive the Nazis out of Eastern Europe. The final victory was not won until the Soviet forces freed Vienna, as U.S. troops entering from the west and the Red Army entering from the east liberated Czechoslovakia.
The Liberation of Poland
Situated in central Europe, Poland was a geographical corridor for invasion and war. During World War II Poland suffered enormously; six million Poles lost their lives. In 1939 Warsaw radio played “Polonaise,” a paradoxical classical dance melody, to plea for assistance to repel the Nazi invaders, two million strong. In 1943 and 1944 Warsaw again saw destruction, suffering and death during events of tragic circumstance. Even after Berlin fell to the Allies, Poles continued to die, but in 1945 the Soviet armies forced the Nazis from Polish land.
The Allied entry into WorldWar II was designed by three men: Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Within hours of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt and Churchill announced the support of their nations for the Soviets’ fight against Germany. They pledged whatever was needed to defeat Hitler. The Big Three met twice: at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. While Soviet, British and American soldiers fought together against the common enemy, the leaders of their nations worked together to end the war and secure the peace for future generations. The outcome of the Allies’ joint efforts was the meeting of Soviet and U.S. forces on the Elbe River in Germany.
The Battle of Berlin
To the Soviet army, the capture of Berlin was the culmination of their drive to avenge the ravaging of their homeland. As the Soviets were fighting their way into the heart of the city, Hitler mobilized his last reserves. Children as young as 14 and 15 years of age were called upon to fight veteran Red Army soldiers. Hitler and the other top leaders of the Third Reich had retreated to a bunker. In that underground shelter, Hitler took his own life. The war against Hitler was over; the Germans had lost. The last major battle of the Unknown War had been fought, and peace had come to Europe.
The Last Battle of the Unknown War
The Second World War ended in Europe in May of 1945, but the war in the Far East raged on. At the conference in Yalta in February of 1945, the Big Three signed a secret document regarding the protocol of Japan which said, among other things, that the Soviets would enter the war against Japan two to three months after the fighting ended in Europe — and so they did. In the 27 days between the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and the formal capitulation of Japan to the Allied Powers, the Russians succeeded in destroying the mighty Japanese Kwantung army in Manchuria. They also reclaimed for the Soviet Union the Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin, which had been lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905. These battles were the last in World War II.
A Soldier of the Unknown War
The Unknown War was an Allied war. For the Russians, the victory had a special meaning. This was a war in which 20 million Russians died, possibly more. There was scarcely a Soviet family that didn’t suffer at least one loss from the day the Nazis first attacked until the day the war finally ended, as ordinary men and women gave their lives to save their homeland. The war dead are commemorated at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument located at the Kremlin Wall in Moscow. Countless mothers and widows bring flowers to the site to pay tribute to their dead.