Operation Barbarossa, Analysis of Early Fighting
The German-led invasion of the Soviet Union began at 3:15 am, on 22 June 1941, with an enormous artillery barrage along the Nazi-Soviet frontier. The USSR’s hierarchy had counted on it being too late in the year for German forces to attack, despite warnings to the contrary.
Comprising part of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, Russian deliveries of commodities to Nazi Germany continued until the final moments; the last trainload arrived into the Reich at 2 am on 22 June, which amused the onlooking German soldiers who were about to advance into the Soviet Union.
During the attack’s opening phase, much went according to plan for the invaders.
Nearly all of the bridges across the vast front were taken by the Germans intact. Many hundreds of Soviet aircraft were either shot down, destroyed on the ground, or fell undamaged into the enemy’s hands. Significant numbers of Soviet troops were on leave, while other Red Army divisions were separated from their artillery when the Wehrmacht swarmed across the border. Many Russian formations were simply overrun, and taken prisoner, before they had an opportunity to form an effective defence. In the first week of the invasion, the Soviet Army saw around 600,000 of its troops either killed, captured or wounded.
A key proponent of the Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) concept, General Heinz Guderian commanding Panzer Group 2, was concerned that the first panzer thrusts were not penetrating deeply enough. His fears seem unfounded; on the fourth day of the invasion, 25 June 1941, Army Group Centre had cut off and encircled two entire Soviet armies east of Bialystok, in north-eastern Poland. On 27 June Army Group Centre reached Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, meaning the German spearhead was closer to Moscow than Berlin.
On 3 July 1941, all Soviet divisions in the Bialystok Bend of the Niemen River had been wiped out. Army Group Centre opened its pincers, and closed them again on the Red Army forces west of Minsk. The German claws snapped shut on 10 July, and in this huge trap 33 Soviet divisions were eliminated, amounting to over 300,000 men. The Russians also lost 4,800 tanks along with 9,400 guns and mortars.
Southward, Gerd von Rundstedt‘s Army Group South attacked the region of Galicia, which covers parts of eastern Poland and western Ukraine. Soviet forces were larger here and they fought superbly well, under the leadership of General Mikhail Kirponos, who would be killed almost three months later near Kiev in a landmine explosion. Army Group South made slow progress at first, not more than six miles per day. However, before June 1941 was out, Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s army had broken into the Ukraine, capturing the cities of Rovno on 28 June and Lvov on 30 June.
Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, made initial rapid progress. As part of Panzer Group 4, General Erich von Manstein’s 56th Panzer Corps sliced through Lithuania and, by 25 June, had advanced 155 miles to safely capture the bridge over the Daugava River at Daugavpils, in south-eastern Latvia. Von Manstein was halted here for six days, until the German 16th Army infantry divisions could catch up with him. This delay for Army Group North allowed the Russians to fortify their rearguard. When von Leeb’s advance resumed on 2 July 1941, they met much stiffer resistance.
In the Soviet Army’s central section, their 48-year-old General Andrey Yeremenko, commanding the Soviet Western Front, had instilled new life into the defence. During early July it rained heavily for a brief time, helping further to slow the main German advance. Despite these obstacles, Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Centre captured Vitebsk, in north-eastern Belarus, on 10 July. That same day, Guderian’s panzers managed to cross the Dnieper River, which flows through eastern Belarus and central Ukraine.
On 16 July 1941, Army Group Centre was at the outskirts of the Russian city of Smolensk, 230 miles from Moscow as the crow flies. It meant, in just over three weeks of fighting, that the Germans had advanced more than two-thirds of the way to Moscow. The Wehrmacht’s timetable was running as scheduled. At this period, it seemed that a German victory was inevitable. Already on 15 July, General Hermann Hoth‘s Panzer Group 3 had bypassed Smolensk to the north, and successfully cut the Smolensk-Moscow highway.
Herman Hoff at the center of the image
Yet the USSR did not crumble like past Wehrmacht victims had. On 16 July the German pincers closed around Smolensk, but the encircled Russians fought on for another three weeks, until 7 August. The Germans captured another 300,000 Soviet troops, but their own casualties were not insignificant and they paused for reorganisation. A principal difference between the Nazi invasion of France, and the Soviet Union, was that the landmass was so much bigger in the latter nation, and the distances therefore took longer to navigate. In addition, the French road networks were of superior quality to the Russian road system.
As soon as the Germans halted at Smolensk, Soviet troops launched a vigorous counterattack. Extremely heavy fighting ensued in the Yelnya Bend east of Smolensk, and it continued through August 1941. North of the Smolensk-Moscow highway, the Russians also counterattacked, using for the first occasion one of their secret weapons: the Katyusha rocket launcher which the Germans nicknamed “The Stalin Organ”, due to its melancholy wailing sound as it fired multiple rockets. The Russians had 1,000 Katyusha rocket launchers in service during the second half of 1941.
In mid-August 1941 the German invasion was eight weeks old, the length of time in which Adolf Hitler, his commanders and also the Americans and British expected the USSR to be overthrown. By late summer, the Wehrmacht had conquered a great deal of territory but the leading goal, of annihilating the Soviet armies west of the Dnieper River, had not been accomplished.
Below the Pripet Marshes, von Rundstedt’s Army Group South took the Ukrainian cities of Zhitomir and Uman. In the latter city in central Ukraine, four panzer divisions surrounded and destroyed three Russian armies in the first week of August 1941. Hitler and his Axis ally Benito Mussolinivisited Uman later that month, on 28 August, in order to inspect the Italian expeditionary force and to call on von Rundstedt’s headquarters, which were located in Uman.
Army Group South now marched down the southern side of the Dnieper Bend, and on 18 August 1941 reached Zaporozhye. On 24 August at Zaporozhye, the Russians blew up their Dnieper Dam in order to stall the enemy. Two days later, the city of Dnipropetrovsk fell to the Germans, little more than 40 miles north of Zaporozhye. The Romanian 4th Army, in the meantime, invaded southern Ukraine and encircled Odessa, a city which contained 600,000 residents, a third of them Jewish. The Romanian 4th Army was joined in the Siege of Odessa by the German 11th Army, but Odessa did not capitulate until 16 October 1941.
Progress was not as quick as Army Group North had expected either. In the north-western USSR, the terrain was more suited to defending and the front was shorter, making it easier for the Soviets to hold the Germans up. Red Army divisions in this sector launched counterattacks too but, regardless, Army Group North captured the Russian city of Pskov on 9 July 1941, fewer than 150 miles south-west of Leningrad.
The way appeared open for a march on Leningrad, between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen. This route ensured that the Germans could link up with Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim‘s Finnish Army, which was attacking the Russians across the Karelian Isthmus east of Lake Ladoga, Europe’s biggest lake. Hitler stated that, “We Germans only have affection for Finland”, which he said was not the case between the Germans and Italians, only between himself and Mussolini. By now the Axis armies were reinforced with Hungarian, Croatian and Slovenian units.
Von Leeb’s divisions ran into a strong Soviet defensive line, bypassing Lake Ilmen and the Narva River on the Gulf of Finland, which it took Army Group North three weeks to overcome. Army Group North’s advance resumed on 8 August 1941, and though the Russians continued to resist, Novgorod fell on 15 August, one of Russia’s oldest cities.
Towards the end of August 1941, von Leeb’s left wing was within 25 miles of Leningrad. On 29 August the Finns took the town of Viipuri, less than 80 miles north-west of Leningrad. The following day, 30 August, the Germans entered the urban locality of Mga, which contained the last railway line connecting Leningrad to the remainder of Russia.
It looked as if Leningrad was doomed, and while von Leeb’s divisions closed on the famous city, another campaign was unfolding in Arctic Russia. Hitler had decided that he wanted the strategically important Russian port city of Murmansk, over 600 miles north of Leningrad. He dispatched General Eduard Dietl’s Mountain Corps, so as to capture Murmansk by advancing from the Petsamo region of northern Finland. Further south, the German 36th Corps was to sever the Murmansk railway line at the town of Kandalaksha; and further south still, the 3rd Finnish Corps was to cut the rail link at Loukhi.
All three of these German-Finnish operations failed, and Murmansk remained in Soviet hands but it was continually bombed by the Luftwaffe.
Regarding president Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program signed into law in March 1941, American equipment entered Murmansk harbour from December 1941. The US military hardware, it should be highlighted, would amount to a small fraction of the matériel Soviet Russia had at its disposal throughout the entire war – the great majority of which was domestically produced by the Russians.
Hardly a scrap of US or British military aid was sent to the Red Army, when the critical fighting was occurring from the late summer to the early winter of 1941. This suggests the Anglo-American powers were quite content to sit back, and watch the Germans and Soviets knock lumps out of each other; while the Americans, in particular, gathered their strength on the sidelines for the conflict they knew they would enter before long.
The Russian historian Evgeniy Spitsyn wrote,
“Out of the almost $46 billion that was spent on all Lend-Lease aid, the US allocated only $9.1 billion, i.e., only a little more than 20% of the funds, to the Red Army, which defeated the vast majority of the divisions from Germany and her military satellites. During that time the British Empire was given more than $30.2 billion, France – $1.4 billion, China – $630 million, and even Latin America (!) received $420 million”.
By the final week of August 1941, von Bock’s Army Group Centre was 185 miles from Moscow. The German High Command (OKH) knew what the next objective should be: the Russian capital, in front of which the bulk of the Red Army was being massed for its defence. OKH issued an order on 18 August for the taking of Moscow, but Hitler instead intervened fatally in the war, believing that he knew more about military affairs than the generals. On 21 August he set Moscow temporarily to one side, and ordered that the Wehrmacht capture various targets including Kiev, Leningrad and the Crimea.
This gave Joseph Stalin time to bolster the Soviet defences in front of Moscow. Army Group South was the main beneficiary of Hitler’s reallocation of German divisions, as Army Group Centre was stripped of four of its five panzer corps and three infantry corps; but even the Army Group South commander, von Rundstedt, felt those forces should have remained in the centre for the drive on Moscow.
Von Rundstedt was requested by Hitler to institute a giant encirclement in the Dnieper Bend around Kiev; with the northern flank of Army Group South co-operating with the southern flank of Army Group Centre.
Germans Surround Kiev and Leningrad
In the second half of August 1941, the German strategic plan in their invasion of the USSR was drastically altered. Most of Army Group Center’s armor was dispatched southward to the Ukraine, with the Wehrmacht’s advance on Moscow postponed temporarily.
By now, the Nazi Security Service was reporting on a “certain unease” and a “decline in the hopeful mood” of the German population. The quick triumph in the east they were assured of by Joseph Goebbels‘ propaganda had not arrived. The anxiety afflicting the German public was increased by letters sent home from Wehrmacht troops, many of which confirmed that the attack on the Soviet Union was not progressing as planned. There were also rising numbers of death notices of German soldiers in the newspapers.
Well-known German author Victor Klemperer, who was Jewish, wrote from Dresden with far-sighted accuracy on 2 September 1941,
“The general question is whether things will be decided in Russia before the wet season in the autumn. It does not look like it… One is counting how many people in the shops say ‘Heil Hitler’ and how many ‘Good day’. ‘Good day’ is apparently increasing”.
Hitler himself “realized that his plans for a Blitzkrieg campaign in the east had failed” by early August 1941, German historian Volker Ullrich wrote in the second part of his biography on Hitler. Two weeks later on 18 August, Hitler said outright to Propaganda Minister Goebbels that he and the German generals had “completely underestimated the might and especially the equipment of the Soviet armies”.
Russian tank numbers, for example, were more than twice greater than Nazi intelligence had originally estimated, and the Red Army itself was much larger than predicted. Seven weeks into the invasion, on 11 August 1941 General Franz Halder, Chief-of-Staff of the German Army High Command (OKH), stated in his diary, “At the start of the war, we anticipated around 200 enemy divisions. But we have already counted 360”.
Yet, as September 1941 began, it seemed quite possible that Hitler was pulling off another telling victory to silence his commanders’ doubts. In dry weather with clear skies overhead Panzer Group 2, led by General Heinz Guderian, captured the northern Ukrainian city of Chernigov on 9 September 1941, just 80 miles north of the capital, Kiev. Guderian’s panzers drove east, thereafter, to take the long Desna Bridge at Novgorod Severskiy.
Colonel-General Ewald von Kleist’s four panzer divisions, belonging to Army Group South, rolled northwards to link up with Guderian’s armor. It was becoming obvious to Soviet military men that the Germans were implementing a gigantic pincers movement, which was aimed at cutting off all of the Russian armies within the Dnieper Bend and, in doing so, surrounding Kiev. The 58-year-old Marshal Semyon Budyonny, leading the Soviet Southwestern and Southern Fronts, could see this clearly. He pleaded in vain with Joseph Stalin to let him retreat to the Donets River.
From early on Stalin had refused to allow Kiev to be abandoned. His prominent commander Georgy Zhukov warned him, as early as 29 July 1941, that the exposed Ukrainian capital should be forsaken for strategic purposes. An angry Stalin replied to Zhukov “How could you hit upon the idea of surrendering Kiev to the enemy?” Zhukov said throughout August that he “continued to urge Stalin to advise such a withdrawal”. On 18 August, Stalin and the Soviet Supreme High Command (Stavka) issued a directive ordering that Kiev must not be surrendered. Stalin could not bear to give up the Soviet Union’s third largest city without a fight.
At the end of August 1941, the Wehrmacht had forced the Red Army back to a defensive line at the Dnieper River. Kiev lay vulnerable at the end of a long salient. Stalin then compounded his original strategic mistake, by reinforcing the area around Kiev with more Red Army divisions.
On 13 September 1941 Major-General Vasily Tupikov, in the Kiev sector, compiled a report outlining how “complete catastrophe was only a couple of days away”. Stalin responded, “Major-General Tupikov sent a panic-ridden dispatch… The situation, on the contrary, requires that commanders at all levels maintain an exceptionally clear head and restraint. No one must give way to panic”.
The following day, 14 September, von Kleist and Guderian’s panzers met at the Ukrainian city of Lokhvytsia, 120 miles east of Kiev. The trap was sealed. Budyonny’s troops fought frantically to extricate themselves but these efforts failed. As also did the Russian attacks coming from further east, which were attempts to rescue the doomed 50 Soviet divisions encircled in the Dnieper Bend.
Kiev fell to the Germans on 19 September 1941, and by the time the fighting died down on 26 September, 665,000 Soviet troops surrendered, the better part of five armies. This was the largest surrender of forces in the field in military history. The Soviets further lost 900 tanks and 3,500 guns. Total Red Army personnel losses in the Kiev area, including casualties, came to 750,000 men. Among the dead was Tupikov who, as mentioned, had tried to warn the Soviet General Staff about the calamity that was set to unfold.
English scholar Geoffrey Roberts wrote, “On 17 September Stavka finally authorized a withdrawal from Kiev, to the eastern bank of the Dnepr. It was too little, too late; the pincers of the German encirclement east of Kiev had already closed”.
After the loss of Kiev, Stalin was “in a trance” according to Zhukov and it understandably took him some days to recover. At this point three months into the Nazi-Soviet war the Red Army had, altogether, lost at least 2,050,000 men, while the Germans had suffered casualties of less than 10% of that number, 185,000 men, the British historian Evan Mawdsley noted. The 185,000 figure still amounted to a higher number of casualties inflicted on the German Army (156,000) in the Battle of France, and the fighting on the Eastern front was of course far from over.
On 23 September 1941 Goebbels visited Hitler at the latter’s military headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, located near the East Prussian town of Rastenburg. With Kiev having just fallen, Goebbels observed that Hitler looked “healthy” while he was “in an excellent mood and sees the current situation extremely optimistically”.
Hitler took personal credit for taking Kiev, in which he had previously ignored the German commanders’ protests, as they were adamant the advance on Moscow should resume. Hitler told Goebbels that Army Group South would continue marching, in order to capture the USSR’s fourth largest metropolis, Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, over 250 miles further east of Kiev; and after that they should move on to take Stalingrad, another 385 miles further east again. One of these two goals was reached, with Kharkov falling to the German 6th Army on 24 October 1941. Northwards, Hitler also wanted Leningrad to be utterly subdued, Soviet Russia’s second biggest city.
In his memoirs Marshal Zhukov wrote, “Before the war, Leningrad had a population of 3,103,000 and 3,385,000 counting the suburbs”.
On 8 September 1941 Army Group North had penetrated these suburbs, with the German panzers just 10 miles from the city. So officially began the terrible Siege of Leningrad. During 10 September, Hitler informed lunch guests of his intentions regarding Leningrad, “An example should be made here and the city will disappear from the face of the earth”.
Already on 8 September, the Germans captured the town of Shlisselburg on the south shore of Lake Ladoga. A week later Slutsk (Pavlovsk) fell in Leningrad’s outer suburbs, as too did Strelna, close by to the south-west of Leningrad. To the north, the Finnish Army advanced to within a few miles of Leningrad’s northernmost suburbs and the city was now surrounded.
The German Armed Forces High Command (OKW), with Hitler’s agreement, ordered that Leningrad was not to be taken by storm; but would be bombarded from the air by the Luftwaffe, while the city’s residents were to be starved to death through military blockade. On 12 September 1941 the largest food warehouse in Leningrad, the Badajevski General Store, was blown up by a Nazi bomber aircraft.
Moreover, heavy German weaponry and artillery was ominously lined up on the ground, across Leningrad’s outskirts. The German guns had sufficient range to strike every street and district of the city, meaning that virtually no house or apartment block in Leningrad was safe, a constant terror for its inhabitants.
Following Hitler’s Directive No. 35 of 6 September 1941, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 was moved away from the Leningrad region on 15 September. It was transferred to the central front for the renewed march towards Moscow. The halting of the German advance on Leningrad, at a time when it appeared on the cusp of success, meant in the end that the city was not captured at all. The 41st Panzer Corps commander, Georg-Hans Reinhardt, had been confident that Leningrad would be taken. Reinhardt was sketching various routes on a map of Leningrad for the advance into the city, when he was ordered to cease his approach.
Nor was Leningrad fully encircled in wintertime when the water froze on Lake Ladoga, by far Europe’s largest lake. The Russians were soon able to traverse Lake Ladoga with vehicles carrying food and supplies, though they were regularly assaulted by the Luftwaffe. Fortunately, a large proportion of Leningrad’s inhabitants escaped from the city. Zhukov wrote, “As many as 1,743,129, including 414,148 children, were evacuated by decision of the Council of People’s Commissars between June 29, 1941 and March 31, 1943”.
The Germans were never able to regain the momentum in their initial march towards Leningrad. In November 1941 an offensive to join forces with the Finns east of Lake Ladoga failed. Through December the Germans were forced to retreat to the Volkhov River, about 75 miles south of Leningrad. All efforts to destroy the Soviet bridgehead at Oranienbaum, near to the west of Leningrad, were unsuccessful.
Leningrad was helped in its defense by the city’s geographical position, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. In comparison to Kiev or Moscow, Leningrad was considerably easier for the Red Army to defend. Leningrad’s western approaches were guarded by the Gulf of Finland, its northern part by the narrow strip of land called the Karelian Isthmus, its south-eastern section by the upper Neva River; while much of the area bordering the city to the south comprised of marshy terrain, which the Germans could not wade through.
Stalin placed even more importance in Leningrad’s survival than Kiev. In a telegram of 29 August 1941 sent to his Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, an anxious Stalin wrote, “I fear that Leningrad will be lost by foolish madness and that Leningrad’s divisions risk being taken prisoner”. If the city was captured by Hitler’s forces, it would enable the enemy to make a flanking attack northward on Moscow. The loss of the city that bore Lenin’s name, the founder of Soviet Russia, could only constitute a serious blow to Russian morale and a great triumph for the Nazis. The Soviet Union would be deprived of an important center of arms production were Leningrad taken.
On 10 September 1941, Stalin ordered Stavka to appoint Zhukov as commander of the new Leningrad Front. Zhukov, who possessed great ability and energy, helped to stiffen the defenses around Leningrad, forbidding Soviet officers to sanction retreats without written orders from the military command. By late September 1941, the Leningrad front had stabilized.
More than a million Soviet troops would be killed in the Leningrad region, over the next two and a half years. During that time 640,000 of Leningrad’s inhabitants died of starvation, and another 400,000 lost their lives due to either illnesses, German shelling and air raids, added to those who perished in the course of evacuations, etc.
The Siege of Leningrad was endured mainly by its female residents. Most of Leningrad’s male populace were fighting in the Soviet Army or had joined the People’s Militia, divisions of irregular troops. Leningrad’s heroic resistance helped to tie down a third of the Wehrmacht’s forces in 1941, which assisted in Moscow being saved from German occupation.
Germany’s Advance into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea
By late September 1941, it was becoming clear to much of the watching world that the German-led invasion of the USSR had not unfolded as the Nazis expected. Three months into Operation Barbarossa the Soviet Union’s position was still very serious, however.
At this point the Red Army had suffered at least two million casualties, while the Germans had lost a modest 185,000 men, which gives a firm indication of the Wehrmacht’s superiority over the Soviets, in 1941 at least. In north-western Russia, Leningrad was already surrounded from 8 September 1941 by German-Finnish forces. Leningrad was enduring bombardment from the air and the ground, while its inhabitants were being mercilessly starved by blockade. In the coming winter, as much as 100,000 people in Leningrad would die of hunger each month.
To the south, the Ukrainian capital Kiev had fallen on 19 September 1941 to a German pincers movement; as the Red Army suffered an unprecedented loss of around 750,000 men in the Kiev area, the vast majority of them taken prisoner. With Kiev in German hands Army Group South, led by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, plunged deeper into Ukrainian territory.
As part of Army Group South the German 11th Army, under its new commander Erich von Manstein, occupied Perekop on 27 September 1941, an urban settlement which connects the Ukrainian mainland to the Crimean peninsula. General von Manstein would become one of the Wehrmacht’s most formidable commanders of the war.
In early October 1941, the German 11th Army proceeded to link up with Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group 1, now reinforced and called the 1st Panzer Army. They promptly encircled large elements of two Soviet armies east of Melitopol, a city in south-eastern Ukraine and near the Sea of Azov, a body of water slightly greater in size than Belgium. This encounter was, as a result, titled by the Germans as the Battle of the Sea of Azov, a conflict mostly forgotten today.
Elements of the German 3rd Panzer Army on the road near Pruzhany, June 1941 (Licensed under Public Domain)
As the noose tightened, the German divisions captured over 100,000 Soviet troops beside the Sea of Azov. The Russians lost more than 200 tanks here and almost 800 guns, while the commander of the Soviet 18th Army, General A. K. Smirnov, was killed in action by artillery fire on 8 October 1941. The historian Aleksander A. Maslov wrote of Smirnov, “The Germans who buried the general placed a plywood board on his grave, with an inscription in Russian, German, and Romanian, exhorting their soldiers to fight as bravely as this Soviet soldier”.
With their column of panzers and infantrymen stretching for miles across the horizon, the Germans swept up the coast along the Sea of Azov. The 1st Panzer Army captured Berdiansk, a Ukrainian port city, on 6 October 1941. Two days later, just over 40 miles further east along the shoreline, Mariupol fell, on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. The fighting in this region of south-eastern Ukraine ended on 11 October 1941, with a decisive Wehrmacht victory. British scholar Evan Mawdsley acknowledged that the Battle of the Sea of Azov “was certainly one of the half dozen great Red Army defeats of 1941”.
The Marcks Plan was the original German plan of attack for Operation Barbarossa, as depicted in a US Government study (March 1955). (Licensed under Public Domain)
The advance itself astride the Sea of Azov continued, as the Germans crossed the Ukrainian frontier into south-western Russia. On 17 October 1941, two SS divisions from the 1st Panzer Army reached Taganrog, home to around 200,000 inhabitants. The SS divisions were followed from behind by Wehrmacht soldiers.
The German 11th Army had, meanwhile, marched westwards to join forces with Marshal Ion Antonescu’s Romanian 4th Army, which had surrounded Odessa in southern Ukraine and on the Black Sea. The engagement here revealed some serious flaws in the Romanians’ fighting capabilities, and they were grateful to see the German 11th Army arrive. After two months of stoic opposition, Odessa fell on 16 October 1941 as the Soviet Army retreated from the city.
In following days the Romanian forces, assisted by SS units, would murder tens of thousands of Odessa’s Jewish inhabitants (the Odessa massacre). About half of Odessa’s Jewish population got out of the city in time. Yitzhak Arad, the former Soviet resistance fighter, wrote that “Odessa had the largest Jewish community with a population of over 205,000” and “between 108,000 to 110,000” of these residents “were evacuated”.
Through August and September 1941, the majority of Red Army reserves had been shifted by Joseph Stalin to the crucial Moscow theatre in the center. Von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, in part because of this, made steady progress. Army Group South’s advance was threatening the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, a great industrial center, while under peril too was the Donbass, an important coal-mining area along with Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city considered to be “the gateway to the Caucasus” and its oil fields.
In the drive towards Kharkov, the Soviet Union’s fourth largest metropolis, the German 6th Army captured Sumy on 10 October 1941. The 6th Army was led by Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, a committed Nazi, and having taken Sumy they were 90 miles from Kharkov. The Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), an encyclopedia detailing Jewish history, outlined that von Reichenau “encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against Jews in the territory under his control”.
Kharkov was in a dire position. Not only was the German 6th Army advancing rapidly towards the city, but Kharkov’s population had swollen to over a million people, as Soviet citizens previously fled from other areas to avoid Nazi occupation. Kharkov’s pre-war populace was 840,000, but some estimates state that by September 1941 it almost doubled to 1.5 million.
On 15 October 1941, the Germans took the town of Okhtyrka, just over 60 miles north-west of Kharkov. Twenty-four hours later Bohodukhiv was taken, less than 40 miles from Kharkov. In following days the German 6th Army continued to move forward and, by 20 October, the Soviets completed their evacuation of industrial enterprises from the city. Four days later, on 24 October, von Reichenau’s men entered Kharkov and swiftly captured the city.
Kharkov’s demise came as a considerable blow. It was an industrial stronghold, where the Soviet T-34 tank had been produced at the Kharkov Tank Factory. Von Reichenau, upon inspecting a captured T-34 tank, reportedly said “If the Russians ever produce it on an assembly line we will have lost the war”. He would certainly have been disconcerted to know that, even with the loss of Kharkov, the Soviets built 12,000 T-34 tanks in 1942. Nevertheless, there were fewer than 1,000 T-34s available when the Germans invaded in June 1941; and most of those were destroyed when the really critical fighting was taking place in 1941. With Kharkov subdued, the German 6th Army proceeded to occupy the Donbass in south-eastern Ukraine.
The 1st Panzer Army, supported by the German 17th Army, was marching towards Donetsk (Stalino), 155 miles south of Kharkov. Although the Germans were hampered by supply issues and the start of the autumn rains, they captured Donetsk on 20 October 1941.
By mid-October von Manstein’s 11th Army was free to advance into the Crimean peninsula. Hitler had stated in his 21 August 1941 directive, “The Crimea has colossal importance for the protection of oil supplies from Romania. Therefore, it is necessary to employ all available means, including mobile formations, to force the lower reaches of the Dnepr rapidly before the enemy is able to reinforce his forces”.
In late October 1941, the panzers broke clear into the Crimea with a costly frontal assault. On 1 November the German 11th Army took Simferopol, the Crimea’s second biggest city. On 9 November the Wehrmacht captured Yalta, the southern Crimean resort city, and one of the Soviet Union’s most popular holiday destinations. Stalin held possession of a residence in Yalta and he had vacationed there in the summers.
A week after Yalta fell, on 16 November 1941 the German 11th Army occupied Kerch, a coastal city in eastern Crimea. The Germans had overrun almost all of the Crimea and, in doing so, they destroyed 16 Soviet divisions and captured more than 100,000 Red Army troops. Yet the Crimea’s largest city, Sevastapol, in the peninsula’s far south-west, remained in Russian hands for the time being and was effectively a fortress. Sevastapol was bolstered by the Soviet garrison which had been evacuated from Odessa in October.
The German 6th Army took the Russian city of Kursk on 3 November 1941. Army Group South had now established a line stretching more than 300 miles across, extending along Kursk-Kharkov-Donetsk-Taganrog. Hitler’s attention in this region turned further east again to Rostov-on-Don. Rostov contained over half a million people and lay 245 miles south-west of Stalingrad. The taking of Rostov would enable the Wehrmacht to advance towards the Caucasus and Stalingrad.
Luckily for the Germans, in early November 1941 the heavy Russian rainfall (rasputitsa) stopped, to be replaced by clearer weather and colder conditions. With the presence of light frost, the soil hardened and this allowed the panzers, trucks and motorcycles to shift into gear and move across the ground with relative ease.
The German 3rd Army Corps raced ahead to take Rostov, but Sepp Dietrich’s SS “Adolf Hitler” motorised division entered the city first. Rostov was captured on 21 November 1941. Nearby, the Germans seized intact the railway bridge over the frozen Don River. They were further able to cut the Caucasus oil pipelines, which Soviet Russia was heavily dependent on.
The Russians, correctly discerning the importance of this sector, launched fierce counterattacks across the Don River against the German positions in Rostov. Soviet casualties were severe, as were the German, and they were too heavy for the latter to endure. Field Marshal von Rundstedt, in overall command of all German divisions in the south-western USSR, asked Hitler for permission to retreat from Rostov.
The 65-year-old von Rundstedt was also a very experienced officer, but Hitler refused his request, and the former resigned in protest on 1 December 1941. Von Reichenau, previously the 6th Army commander, replaced von Rundstedt at the head of Army Group South.
Assessing the situation at Rostov, von Reichenau immediately came to the same conclusion as his predecessor: he therefore asked Hitler for authorisation to retire from Rostov. On 2 December 1941, Hitler took a flight from East Prussia to Mariupol, not far from Rostov and just 60 miles from the front line, in an attempt to resolve the problem himself.
Entering a world with driving blizzards and subzero temperatures, this was a far cry from what Hitler was used to at his Wolfsschanze headquarters, sheltered in the dense Masurian woods. Hitler realised the extent of the crisis and gave way to von Reichenau’s arguments. In early December, the Germans relinquished Rostov.
In some confusion, the invaders retreated 30 miles or so westwards, to a winter line behind the Mius River. It was the first major German reverse of the Nazi-Soviet War. Stalin was delighted at these developments and he publicly praised “the victory over the enemy and liberation of Rostov from the German-fascist aggressors”.
The Brutal Conduct of Operation Barbarossa
The method of warfare fought by Hitler’s forces in the Soviet Union would, before long, come back to haunt them. By pursuing a conflict in extreme ideological terms against Russia, it steeled the Red Army’s resolve in overcoming the “fascist hordes” at whatever cost.
Hitler had titled his march eastwards “Operation Barbarossa”, named after King Frederick Barbarossa, a red-bearded Prussian emperor who centuries before had waged war against the Slavs.
In Soviet territory, Hitler demanded his men undertake “war of annihilation” procedures. These murderous assaults eventually rebounded onto the Germans, who were dealt little mercy as they themselves had shown. By indiscriminately targeting Soviet soldiers and civilians, the Nazis were already sowing the seeds of their own defeat, though they did not yet know it.
A proportion of the USSR’s citizens, such as those in the Ukraine, had welcomed the Germans as gallant saviors releasing them at last from Stalin’s iron grip. The July and August 1941 arrival onto Ukrainian lands of Hitler’s young, undefeated foot soldiers – some golden-haired and many bronzed from the glowing sun – had indeed seduced certain Ukrainian civilians.
As German troops pushed deeper into the lush wheatfields of the Ukraine, growing numbers came forth from country homesteads to warmly greet their apparent rescuers. The ancient offering of bread and salt was graciously provided to Nazi infantrymen, as were flowers.
Joseph Goebbels‘ propaganda machine was working away seamlessly too. German officers, standing upon platforms in town squares, were handing out large color posters to civilians of an aristocratic-looking Führer, dressed in full military attire, and staring imperiously across his shoulder into the distance. At the bottom of each poster a caption in Ukrainian read, “Hitler the Liberator”.
To some in the Ukraine that is how it seemed, in the beginning at least. During that long, fateful summer of 1941, as the world watched on in wonder, it looked like nothing would ever stop the Germans in their advance towards Russia’s great cities. From the 22 June attack, after just a week of fighting, the Wehrmacht was already halfway to the capital Moscow. Such news sent Hitler into raptures at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia, whose construction had been completed hours before the invasion.
Towards the end of July 1941, following a month of combat, the Nazis had claimed an area double the size of their own country. It was a scale of victory that would have subdued any other European country.
Before too long, however, the severity of Hitler’s policies would turn the smiling villagers into wary adversaries of the German Reich. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s right arm during the war years, noted that when the dictator firmly set his mind on a decision, he would follow it through to the end. So it would be in this ideological conflict quickly descending into hatred.
Early in 1941, Hitler had said of the impending Russian attack,
“You have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down”.
After more than three months of fighting, Hitler insisted during his Berlin Sportpalast speech of 3 October 1941 that,
“this enemy [Russia] is already broken and will never rise again”.
The Nazi leader further outlined that his soldiers were,
“fighting on a front of gigantic length and against an enemy who, I must say, does not consist of human beings but of animals or beasts. We have now seen what Bolshevism can make of human beings”.
In the Ukraine, Hitler’s war of ruin served only to swell partisan numbers, while sending floods of Ukrainian men to the ranks of Soviet Armies – millions would inevitably join Stalin’s forces. The Nazi enslavement of countless Ukrainians by turning them into medieval laborers also disillusioned the society, while large-scale murders of the Jewish population drew much horror.
Clockwise from top left: German soldiers advance through Northern Russia, German flamethrower team in the Soviet Union, Soviet planes flying over German positions near Moscow, Soviet prisoners of war on the way to German prison camps, Soviet soldiers fire at German positions. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Had the invasion been conducted through avoidance of these mass killings, such as in the manner of Germany’s 1940 offensive against France, it may have weakened the Soviet soldiers’ fortitude. Hitler and his followers viewed the French racial composition as of a superior creed, however.
By directing an inhumane warfare in the east, it was impossible for the Nazis to convince local inhabitants theirs was a just motive. Sympathy swept behind the Soviet cause, and even towards Stalin himself, whose Great Purge remained fresh in the memory.
Some short years after the Second World War – across in the Caribbean – a critical factor allowing Cuba’s revolutionary, Fidel Castro, to claim power in the heartland of American dominion was the form of warfare he pursued. Castroite forces avoided the depredations of conflict witnessed elsewhere, such as wanton murder and torture. In turn, this clean conduct of battle diluted the fighting desire of Castro’s opponents, while bolstering his reputation among the Cuban people.
Of Hitler’s troops Castro noted they,
“didn’t let any Bolsheviks escape with their lives, and I really don’t know how the people in the Soviet resistance might have treated the Nazis who fell prisoner. I don’t think they could do what we did [let prisoners go]. If they turned one of those fascists loose, the next day he’d be killing Soviet men, women and children again”.
Castro’s units were battling the soldiers of Fulgencio Batista – a corrupt dictator who since 1952 was sustained mostly by American financial might. Despite the rebels being eternally outnumbered against Batista, by the late 1950s they had gathered crucial momentum.
Castro said his compliance of the laws of war, apart from its ethical aspect, was also,
“a psychological factor of great importance. When an enemy comes to respect and even admire their adversary, you’ve won a psychological victory… I once said to those who accused us of violating human rights, ‘I defy you to find a single case of extra-judicial execution; I defy you to find a single case of torture’… I say to you that no war is ever won through terrorism. It’s that simple, because if you employ terrorism you earn the opposition, hatred and rejection of those whom you need in order to win the war. That’s why we had the support of over 90% of the population in Cuba”.
In the Soviet Union, however, Hitler’s fanaticism failed to recognize the benefits, both moral and emotional, of avoiding arbitrary murder. By engaging in a war of terror, the Nazis delegitimized their purported reason for arriving as “liberators”, which held no basis in reality.
Occasionally, Hitler overcame his ideological mindset by revealing unusual, contradictory viewpoints. On separate instances, he remarked that sections of the Soviet population were racially purer than even that of the Germans.
Even before his attack on Poland, Hitler had said,
“Today the Siberians, the White Russians, and the people of the steppes live extremely healthy lives. For that reason, they are better equipped for development and in the long run biologically superior to the Germans”.
When the war turned in Russia’s favor from early 1943 onward, it was an argument Hitler would put forward with growing consistency.
Previously, in late summer 1940, after the Wehrmacht had routed French armies in the west, Hitler predicted to his generals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl that, “a campaign against Russia would be child’s play”.
It was a gross misjudgment of what lay ahead. The triumphs the Nazis had enjoyed, from autumn 1939 to the spring of 1941, cannot have been lost on Hitler as he watched German armies sweep to one easy victory after another. The apparent invulnerability of his soldiers emboldened Hitler, making him reckless and foolhardy. It also set a foundation for complacency.
During Albert Speer‘s time as the German armaments minister (1942-45), he oversaw a hugely productive war economy; however, by 1943, as Germany’s weapons industry soared it was by then too late. Speer lamented that his total war strategies had not been implemented from 1940 – he estimated that, utilizing these policies, the German war machine which attacked Russia could perhaps have been twice larger than it was in 1941.
Almost four million Nazi-led units marched eastwards in June 1941, supported by over 3,000 tanks and up to 5,000 aircraft. The Soviets had much greater numbers of both airplanes and tanks, though many models were at that stage of an inferior quality to their German rivals.
Hitler also allowed himself to be misled by faulty military intelligence underestimating Russian strength; he was swayed too by the Soviets’ dismal performance against Finland in the Winter War of 1939. When it came to defending their own soil, the Red Army would be a different proposition.
While Hitler was disregarding Russian capacities, he had forgotten the woes that befell Napoleon during his 1812 invasion of the motherland. The French emperor attacked Russia on 24 June 1812 with almost 700,000 men, then the largest force in history – as early as mid-October 1812 Napoleon was set in retreat, and by December he had lost about 500,000 soldiers. Siberian conditions gnawed away at French hearts, as the Russians fought bitterly, employing scorched earth tactics.
France’s invasion of Russia was the Napoleonic Wars’ bloodiest battle, a turning point whose outcome weakened French hegemony in Europe, while damaging Napoleon’s once infallible reputation. It was a lesson from history that Hitler failed to heed.
The Battle of Moscow
The heavily decorated panzer commander Hasso von Manteuffel knew Adolf Hitler reasonably well, having met him on numerous occasions from the summer of 1943 until the spring of 1945.
During their discussions, Manteuffel recognised Hitler’s extensive knowledge of military history but, crucially, the German general discerned also the dictator’s shortcomings as a commander. Hitler’s inadequacies in the military domain were hardly surprising, for he was not really a soldier at all, but a politician, who had no formal military education; unlike Manteuffel who was a renowned strategist.
The American historians Samuel W. Mitcham and Gene Mueller, in their co-authored book ‘Hitler’s Commanders’, outlined the following, “Although Manteuffel was impressed with Hitler’s grasp of combat from the field soldier’s point of view, as well as the Fuehrer’s knowledge of military literature, he recognized Hitler’s weaknesses concerning grand strategy and tactical awareness, even though the Fuehrer had a flair for originality and daring. Although he was always respectful, Manteuffel always expressed his own views, regardless of how they might be received by Hitler”.
It is no exaggeration to state that the outcome of World War II rested mostly upon Hitler’s deficiencies as a military leader – and specifically the decisions made, from June to August 1941, relating to grand strategy in the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). The turning point in the war had come over a year before the German defeat at Stalingrad.
Beginning on 22 June 1941 the German-led attack on the USSR, which culminated late that year in the Battle of Moscow, apart from being the most brutal and murderous invasion ever, was by a strategic standpoint deeply flawed. From the start, the Wehrmacht’s invasion force of three million German soldiers was sliced up into three Army Groups, which were ordered to capture a number of difficult targets simultaneously (Leningrad, the Ukraine, Moscow, the Crimea, the Caucasus, etc.).
The most important objective by far was the capital city, Moscow, the Soviet Union’s biggest metropolis. Almost all roads and railways in the western USSR led irresistibly to the gates of Moscow, like spokes directed into the centre of a wheel. If the wheel (Moscow) is put out of action, the rest of the structure cannot function properly. Moscow was the communications hub and power centre of Soviet Russia, where Joseph Stalin and his entourage were headquartered. Stalin himself placed immense store in Moscow’s survival.
Stalin asked his famous general, Georgy Zhukov, late in 1941 “with an aching heart” whether “we will hold Moscow?… Tell me honestly, as a Communist”. General Zhukov replied to Stalin that Moscow will be held “without fail”. Stalin made sure that the road to Moscow was defended whenever possible by large Soviet forces, even when Hitler had turned his attention elsewhere.
Commanded by the 60-year-old Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, Army Group Centre was tasked with capturing the Russian capital. Hitler’s criminal intentions regarding Moscow were clear, as he remarked on the night of 5 July 1941, “Moscow, as the center of the doctrine [Bolshevism], must disappear from the earth’s surface as soon as its riches have been brought to shelter. There’s no question of our collaborating with the Muscovite proletariat”.
From 22 June 1941, had Army Group Centre been directed in a single great thrust towards Moscow, and in doing so protected by Army Group North and Army Group South acting as flank guards, the German Army could well have taken Moscow by the end of August 1941. Top level German commanders like Franz Halder, Heinz Guderian and von Bock recognised Moscow’s importance. Were the capital to fall, the Soviet rail and communications systems would have been shattered. With their centre blown apart, this would have posed enormous difficulties for the Red Army in supplying and bolstering their northern and southern fronts.
German armored column advances on the Moscow front, October 1941 (Licensed under Public Domain)
General Halder stated in a memorandum, of 18 August 1941, that the bulk of the Red Army was being massed in front of Moscow for its defence. If these Soviet divisions were defeated “the Russians would no longer be able to maintain a joined-up defensive front”, Halder wrote.
It is necessary to stress that the Soviet military was not ready for war with Nazi Germany in mid-1941. However, the damage inflicted by Stalin’s purges on the Red Army, from 1937, has routinely been blown out of proportion in the West.
Experienced British scholar Evan Mawdsley, a specialist in Russian history, noted correctly how “The Red Army commanders who were executed were not proven military leaders” in mechanised warfare and “Many able middle-level commanders survived the purges”; but he acknowledged too that “the execution of even a few hundred officers would be a traumatic event in any army” and this “was particularly devastating at the uppermost levels”.
Considerable harm was caused then but it was far from fatal, which events would show, as the Red Army boasted top class commanders such asZhukov, Konstantin Rokossovsky and Aleksandr Vasilevsky. The Soviet military reforms were not close to completion by June 1941, debunking the right-wing fantasy that Stalin was then preparing an attack on Germany. Stalin knew that the conflict with Nazism was approaching, but he hoped to put it off until 1942 or later; Stalin’s close associate Vyacheslav Molotov recalled the former saying shortly after the Fall of France, “we would be able to confront the Germans on an equal basis only by 1943”.
The Germans, therefore, had a huge advantage as they attacked an ill-prepared and static Soviet military in June 1941. By the first week of July 1941 for example, nearly 4,000 Soviet aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground. Yet with Operation Barbarossa’s strategic design of attacking the entirety of the western USSR at once, the strength of the Nazi blow was ultimately diluted. The Russians were given time to recover, and to their credit they did not collapse like the French the year before.
Two months into the invasion, on 21 August 1941 Hitler compounded the early strategic errors of Barbarossa, by fatefully postponing the advance on Moscow. Mitcham and Mueller describe this decision as “one of the greatest mistakes of the war” as the Soviets’ “most important city [Moscow]” was demoted to secondary stature. Hitler ordered that the Wehrmacht instead take the Crimea, the Donbas and the Caucasus while he also demanded “the investment of Leningrad and the linking up with the Finns”.
Three days before, on 18 August 1941, the German high command (OKH) had issued a request for the capture of Moscow post haste, but Hitler replied that “The army’s suggestion for continuing operations in the east does not conform to my intentions”. It was to the Wehrmacht’s detriment that Hitler, through his force of personality, had succeeded in gaining complete control over all German military operations. With these new orders of 21 August 1941, Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War was assured.
Donald J. Goodspeed, a military historian who had fought against the Nazi empire with the Canadian Army Overseas, wrote of Hitler’s 21 August directive,
“Thus a clear-cut, feasible, and single military objective [capturing Moscow] was set aside, and for it was substituted a double-headed monstrosity. Hitler was greedy and saw too many things at once. Army Group Center was to be halted, immobile, around Smolensk [240 miles west of Moscow], while rich new territories were to be taken in the south and Leningrad was to be eliminated in the north. Nor was it only that a double objective had been substituted for a single one. In the south Hitler wanted the Crimea, the Donbas and the Caucasus; in the north he wanted both Leningrad and the Karelian Isthmus”.
In late August 1941, Army Group Centre was stripped of its armour which was sent south to the Ukraine. The march into the Ukraine did result in a major German victory as its capital Kiev, the USSR’s third largest city, fell to a giant pincers movement on 19 September 1941. Stalin ignored the advice of among others Zhukov, who had sensed impending danger weeks before by warning on 29 July 1941, “the Red Army should withdraw to the east of the Dnepr river”.
Moscow women dig anti-tank trenches around their city in 1941 (Licensed under Public Domain)
Around Kiev by 26 September 1941, no less than 665,000 Soviet troops were caught within the German pincers and taken prisoner, the biggest surrender of forces in military history. The Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) now had to face the horrors of Nazi captivity.
Mawdsley, in his lengthy analysis of the Nazi-Soviet War, wrote that “In terms of scale, the fatalities among Red Army POWs were second only to the mass murder of the European Jews. Although an important part of the charges at the Nuremberg Trials, the story was far less prominent in the Cold War years. A quarter to a third of all the USSR’s 10 million military deaths were soldiers who died in captivity. The exact figure can never be calculated, but the most commonly accepted German figure is 3,300,300 Soviet POWs dying in captivity, some 58% of the 5,700,000 taken prisoner. The Russians accept a lower figure of Red Army POWs, 4,559,000, and 2,500,000 deaths, but with a similar death rate of 55%”.
Dreadful as the loss of Kiev ranked, September was almost gone and the worst of autumn was closing in fast. The German Army, along with its panzer divisions, was weakened by the hundreds of miles they traversed in the Ukraine. Hitler had issued Directive No. 35 on 6 September 1941, belatedly assigning Moscow as the next principal target. When the Wehrmacht’s claws closed around Kiev on 14 September, the German high command began to reinforce Army Group Centre.
Field Marshal von Bock, leading Army Group Centre, would soon have more than 1.5 million men under his command. Despite efficient German staff work, it was 26 September 1941 before final orders could be relayed for the assault on Moscow, and not until six days later did the offensive begin, hopefully titled Operation Typhoon. Hitler’s interference had resulted in a critical six week delay.
On 2 October 1941, as the Battle of Moscow commenced, it seemed to many outside observers that the Germans would yet prevail. The weather, overall, held good for the time being and the countryside was relatively flat and open, suitable terrain for the panzer formations. During the first three weeks of October 1941, an incredible 86 Soviet divisions were destroyed. Army Group Centre captured 663,000 Soviet soldiers and eradicated 1,200 enemy tanks. The English historian, Geoffrey Roberts, wrote that total Soviet personnel losses in the opening phase of October “numbered a million, including nearly 700,000 captured by the Germans”.
Most of the damage done to the Red Army here came in another massive pincers manoeuvre, which the Germans implemented around the medieval Russian towns of Vyazma and Bryansk, 150 miles apart. The northern pincer at Vyazma was the more effective, as five Russian armies were trapped and annihilated by 13 October 1941. The ring was not so tightly held at the southern pincer around Bryansk, where three Russian armies were caught and wiped out.
German soldiers west of Moscow, December 1941 (Licensed under CC BY 3.0)
Roberts highlighted that, “The encirclements were a devastating blow to the Bryansk, Western and Reserve fronts defending the approaches to Moscow”. When the Wehrmacht reached Vyazma on 7 October 1941, they were less than 140 miles from Moscow. On that day, the first snow flurries arrived in western Russia, an ill omen for the lightly-dressed Germans and their Axis allies, such as the Romanians and Italians. The snow was not heavy and quickly disappeared.
On 5 October 1941, the Soviet cause had been given a significant boost, when Stalin telephoned General Zhukov in Leningrad and asked him “can you board a plane and come to Moscow?” Zhukov was being designated with leading the defence of the capital. Zhukov agreed by replying, “I ask for permission to fly out tomorrow morning at da
wn” and Stalin said, “Very well. We await your arrival in Moscow tomorrow”.
For now, there was only so much that Zhukov could do. On 12 October 1941 Army Group Centre stormed the Russian city of Kaluga, 93 miles south-west of Moscow. A week later, 19 October, the Germans occupied the abandoned town of Mozhaysk, just 65 miles west of Moscow. The road apparently lay open and panic started to grip the capital. It is little wonder that Zhukov considered the dates, between the 10th to the 20th of October 1941, as “the most dangerous moment for the Red Army” in the entire war.
The Battle of Moscow, Soviet Counterattack
As the Battle of Moscow began eight decades ago on 2 October 1941, the weeks directly preceding and following this date did not seem to augur well for the Soviet Army. Kiev, the USSR’s third largest city, fell two weeks before on 19 September to a vast German pincers movement, and the Red Army lost a staggering 665,000 troops in the process.
Titled Operation Typhoon, the German plan for the capture of Moscow called for a two-stage battle. In the first phase German Army Group Centre, comprising of almost two million men, would execute a three-pronged attack; with the German 9th Army and Panzer Group 3 advancing to the north between the towns of Vyazma and Rzhev, both 140 miles west of Moscow.
The German 4th Army, and Panzer Group 4, would drive forward along the Roslavl-Moscow road in the centre; and Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Group 2, now called the 2nd Panzer Army, would attack to the south between Bryansk and Orel to the city of Tula, 110 miles southward of Moscow. Operation Typhoon’s second phase envisaged the final advance on the Russian capital, conducted by two armoured encircling thrusts from the north-west and the south-east.
The weather and terrain suited the Wehrmacht, for the time being. In the first three weeks of October 1941, the Germans captured another 663,000 Soviet soldiers and destroyed 1,200 tanks. Including casualties and prisoners taken, total Red Army losses in the opening stage of October amounted to a million troops. In a four week period from 19 September 1941, the Soviets had altogether lost more than 1.6 million men.
Even these terrible reverses did not prove insurmountable to a state whose populace, in 1941, amounted to around 193 million, as opposed to a population in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe of about 110 million.
On 15 October 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered the majority of Soviet government officials to leave Moscow. They relocated 560 miles further east to the city of Kuibyshev on the Volga river. This indicates that the Soviet leadership was not confident that Moscow could be held. Stalin gloomily informed Harry Hopkins, president Franklin Roosevelt’s personal emissary, that if Moscow was lost “all of Russia west of the Volga would have to be abandoned”. Nevertheless, Stalin remained in Moscow, believing that his continued presence there would maintain morale and prevent widespread unrest among Muscovites, clearly the correct decision.
While the Wehrmacht closed on Moscow, the Red Army’s resistance appeared to be weakening. On 19 October 1941 the Germans took the abandoned town of Mozhaysk, 65 miles west of Moscow. The following day, Stalin declared martial law as the capital was placed under full military control.
Red Army ski troops in Moscow. Still from documentary Moscow Strikes Back, 1942 (Licensed under CC0)
On 23 October 1941 the Germans crossed the Narva river, and were only 40 miles from Moscow. During the next day, however, the famous Russian rainfall (rasputitsa) arrived almost providentially. The Germans were expecting rains to come but the ferocity of it was a shock to them. The unpaved roads and paths quickly turned into rivers of thick, congealed mud. This meant that no wheeled vehicle could move for consecutive days, and the larger panzers advanced at a snail’s pace. The wider-tracked Russian T-34 tanks were more suited to such conditions.
British scholar Evan Mawdsley wrote,
“The defence of Moscow was certainly helped by changes in the weather” and “Unlike the Germans, the Russians had a working railway system behind their front line. Soviet planes were operating from prepared airfields, while the Luftwaffe now had to make do with improvised muddy landing strips”.
By 24 October 1941 as the rains came, the German invasion was four months old (17 weeks) and in serious difficulty. Adolf Hitler had previously expected to conquer the Soviet Union in less than half of that time (8 weeks). When France collapsed the Nazi leader told his military advisers Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl that “a campaign against Russia would be child’s play”. Field Marshal Keitel, often accused of being a lackey, disagreed and he was opposed to attacking the USSR.
The German High Command (OKH) predicted in mid-December 1940 that “the Soviet Union would be defeated in a campaign not exceeding 8-10 weeks”. Such views were strongly shared by the American and British authorities. Why did these predictions prove so wrong?
We can get to the heart of the matter, by briefly examining German blunders regarding grand strategy and, with it, the most important reason: Hitler’s directive of 21 August 1941, that led to a crucial six week postponement in the march on Moscow (21 August-2 October). This came against the wishes of the Wehrmacht’s leadership, who desperately wanted the advance towards Moscow to continue. By the last week of August, Army Group Centre was 185 miles from Moscow, not a great distance by any means.
The capital city was the USSR’s most important metropolis, its power centre and communications line. Had it fallen in the autumn of 1941, the repercussions would most probably have been fatal for the Soviets.
English historian Andrew Roberts observed, “Moscow was the nodal point of Russia’s north–south transport hub, was the administrative and political capital, was vital for Russian morale and was an important industrial centre in its own right”. As a transportation and administrative hub, Moscow performed a central role in the Red Army’s ability to supply other parts of its front. On 21 August 1941 at his Wolfsschanze headquarters in the East Prussian forests, Hitler put aside one critical objective (Moscow), and substituted it with five targets of lesser importance.
Hitler expounded that they would instead pursue “the capture of the Crimea” and “the industrial and coal mining area of the Donets” along with “the cutting off of Russian oil supplies from the Caucasus” and “the investment of Leningrad and the linking up with the Finns”. When on 22 August Hitler’s orders were forwarded to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, commanding Army Group Centre and a very experienced officer, he telephoned General Franz Halder and said it was “unfortunate, above all because it placed the attack to the east in question… I want to smash the enemy army and the bulk of this army is opposite my front!”
Von Bock, a monarchist who did not like the Nazis, continued that diverting forces away from the attack on Moscow “will jeopardize the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before winter”. Halder, a key planner in Operation Barbarossa’s original design, agreed with him. Two days later on 24 August 1941 von Bock reiterated, “They apparently do not wish to exploit under any circumstances the opportunity decisively to defeat the Russians before winter!”
One can note the normally dour von Bock’s use of exclamation marks, as he believes the chance for victory has been taken away from him. Insult was added to injury, as von Bock was compelled to release four of his five panzer corps, and three infantry corps, for the southward and northwards assaults on the Ukraine and Leningrad. Halder felt that Hitler’s directive of 21 August “was decisive to the outcome of this campaign”.
For reasons of megalomania, Hitler had overruled his military commanders on a pivotal military issue. American historians Samuel W. Mitcham and Gene Mueller summarised that Hitler’s 21 August directive “was one of the greatest mistakes of the war”. It came on top of the opening strategic errors of 22 June 1941, when the Wehrmacht attacked all of the western USSR simultaneously, ultimately weakening the Nazi blow. Fortunately, the Third Reich’s leadership was strategically inept.
In late August 1941, the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW) were contemplating that the war in the east would drag on until 1942. An early knockout strike had not materialised, and the Soviet Army was fighting with tenacity; while the Russians possessed military hardware of a high standard, like the Katyusha rocket launcher (Stalin’s Organ) and the T-34 tank, which came as a real surprise to the Germans.
An OKW memorandum from 27 August ran, “if it proves impossible to realise this objective completely [the USSR’s destruction] during 1941, the continuation of the eastern campaign has top priority for 1942”. Hitler approved the memo, which suggests that he was starting to think the invasion may not be successfully concluded in 1941. Hitler certainly believed this by November of that year.
The Soviet cause was given a major lift when, on 10 October 1941, Stalin officially granted General Georgy Zhukov the leadership over the majority of Red Army divisions (the Western Front and Reserve Front) for the capital’s defence. The 44-year-old Zhukov was an extremely able, energetic, self-confident and ruthless commander, just the sort of man that was needed.
Zhukov pursued a policy of initiating incessant counterattacks, and then withdrawing at the final moment. These tactics succeeded in wearing down the belated German march on Moscow. More than any other soldier in the war, Zhukov would play a leading part in the Nazis’ demise. Andrei Gromyko, a prominent Soviet diplomat, wrote that Zhukov was “the jewel in the crown of the Soviet people’s greatest victory”.
At the beginning of November 1941 victory was not yet assured, for the rains disappeared and frost set in. The ground had hardened enough for the panzers to begin rolling again. These colder temperatures were uncomfortable for the German troops, who incredibly were still not supplied with sufficient winter clothing, but the temperature hovered around zero for now and was not unbearable.
In preceding weeks, the Kremlin received intelligence reports from their spy in Tokyo, Dr. Richard Sorge, and also from Soviet agencies, which stated that Imperial Japan was not preparing an immediate attack on the eastern USSR. This time Stalin believed the intelligence accounts and, in the first fortnight of November 1941, he transferred 21 fresh divisions from Siberia and Central Asia to the Moscow front.
The Germans had no such reserve of men to call upon. On the night of 11 November 1941, the temperature dropped suddenly to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Frostbite cases were becoming common among German soldiers, but the Wehrmacht resumed advancing from 15 November. A week later, on 22 November the medieval town of Klin fell, 52 miles north-west of Moscow.
The following day, Panzer Group 4 took Solnechnogorsk, 38 miles from Moscow. On 27 November the 7th Panzer Division established a bridgehead across the Moscow-Volga Canal. Also during 27 November, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich captured the town of Istra, just 31 miles west of Moscow.
German professor Jörg Ganzenmüller wrote that Hitler now formulated “a special order”, which was sent to SS major Otto Skorzeny of the Das Reich division. Hitler demanded that Skorzeny and his men occupy the locks of the reservoir on the Moscow-Volga canal, and then open the locks so as to “drown” Moscow by turning it into a massive artificial lake. These orders were obviously never carried out, due to Skorzeny’s unit being unable to advance much further.
In late November 1941, it was apparent that the German offensive would likely fail. As of 26 November, the Germans had lost 743,112 men on the Eastern front. This number does not include frostbite casualties and other soldiers absent due to illness.
Because of ongoing Russian resistance and their fresh resources – which in both cases had been much greater than the Germans anticipated – General Guderian’s panzers had failed to reach the city of Tula, just over 100 miles south of Moscow. Panzer Group 3, which captured the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal on 28 November, could attack no further; and while a division from Panzer Group 4 had proceeded to within 18 miles of Moscow, continued progress for them proved impossible.
On 2 December 1941, a motorcycle reconnaissance unit of the 2nd Panzer Division reached the suburb of Khimki, five miles from Moscow and nine miles from the Kremlin. Isolated, it did not remain for long in this forward position. That was as close as the Germans ever got to the spires of Moscow.
On the night of 4 December, the temperature plummeted again to minus 31 degrees Celsius. Twenty four hours later, it sank to minus 36 degrees. It was clear that Operation Barbarossa had failed and worse was in store for the Germans. If they could not accomplish the USSR’s overthrow in 1941, they could hardly expect to do so in a weaker condition in 1942.
The writing was on the wall on 5 December 1941, as the Soviet Army counterattacked the static and precariously positioned Germans, by striking Panzer Group 3 near the Moscow-Volga Canal, along with the German 9th Army at the city of Kalinin. The next day, 6 December, General Zhukov’s divisions launched an assault on the 2nd Panzer Army south of Moscow, with both sides suffering serious losses. Yet Zhukov prevailed by forcing the 2nd Panzer Army to retreat over 50 miles.
Field Marshal von Bock, irate at these setbacks, wrote in his diary, “Last August, the road to Moscow was open; we could have entered the Bolshevik capital in triumph and in summery weather. The high military leadership of the Fatherland made a terrible mistake, when it forced my Army Group to adopt a position of defence last August. Now all of us are paying for that mistake”.
In winter weather, the Soviets were a superior fighting force in comparison to the enemy. Soviet divisions were better equipped and had much more experience of adverse conditions. Stalin said shortly after the Red Army subdued Finland in March 1940, “It is not true that the army’s fighting capacity decreases in wintertime. All the Russian Army’s major victories were won in wintertime… We are a northern country”.
With the Soviets continually counterattacking, one must give the Germans substantial credit for managing somehow to avoid a total collapse, which is what had befallen Napoleon’s army in Russia in late 1812. Hitler refused to allow a general retreat, as he ordered on 16 December 1941 that each German soldier display “fanatical resistance”.
By the end of December 1941, the Russians had advanced 100 to 150 miles across a broad front. The Red Army did not achieve a truly decisive breakthrough and the fighting would continue into 1942, and indeed well beyond that.
To Be Continue….