This was the Soviet strategic counter-offensive 1 to drive the Germans from the gates of Moscow after had been checked by the ‘Moscow Strategic Defensive Operation’ and then, it was hoped, take and destroy Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (5 December 1941/8 January 1942).
It was on 5 December that the Soviet counter-offensive was started by the Kalinin Front. After two days of little progress, Soviet armies retook Krasnaya Polyana and several other towns in the immediate vicinity of Moscow. By this time the arrival of fresh aircraft had raised the German air strength to 599 aircraft, and that of the Soviets to 1,376 aircraft.
Adolf Hitler and Generaloberst Franz Halder, chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, discussed a directive for the winter campaign on the Eastern Front at Hitler’s headquarters during the afternoon of 6 December. Neither of the two men had, until recently, anticipated having to devote much thought to the subject. Before the advent of the rains in October, they had expected the German troops, except a number of infantry divisions needed to be watch over the remnants of the defeated Soviet army,to be home by the end of the year. Since a time early in November, in recognition that that victory was by now not so close, the Germans had been trying to maximise their returns in the last stages of the 1941 campaign and at the same time to delay decisions on whether or not to halt for the winter, and in the case of the former when and where the halt was to be made. The setback at Rostov-na-Donu and ominous reports from Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had apparently at last persuaded Halder to send Hitler a statement on German strength, which was down by 25%, and to request a decision, which Hitler made during the afternoon of 6 December. According to the German leader, numbers meant nothing: the Soviets had lost at least 10 times as many, and on the assumption that they had possessed three times as many men at the start of the campaign, this still meant they were worse off. Single German divisions might be holding 15.5-mile (25-km) fronts, as Halder claimed, but that was an indication of Soviet rather than German weakness. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ should hold Tikhvin and be ready to advance in order to make contact with the Finns on the other side of Leningrad as soon as the army group had received armour and troop reinforcements. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ should bear in mind that the Soviets never voluntarily yielded an inch of ground and neither should the Germans. Weather permitting and after the receipt of some reinforcement, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ should be able to retake Rostov-na-Donu, and possibly the entire Donets river basin as well.
As Halder well appreciated, Hitler had not made a decision but had evaded one, and did so once again on the following day. Having received a request during the night of 6 December to approve the withdrawals which were already being made by Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe in the north and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee in the south, Hitler agreed on the morning of 7 December to let the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe straighten their lines but said nothing about the 2nd Panzerarmee, or indeed about the whole situation in which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ now found itself. Hitler emphasised to the Oberkommando des Heeres that since the pressure on Moscow was now released, the Soviets could be expected to attempt the relief of Leningrad. As Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would need its entire strength to maintain its grip on Leningrad, it could not attack past Tikhvin and should be allowed to shorten its front to a limited degree, but not enough to put the east/west road and railway through Tikhvin out of German artillery range.
Along the front line, 7 December started clear and cold. Early Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights brought back reports of continuing heavy Soviet railway traffic toward Moscow and Tikhvin. At ground level, blowing snow spumes limited visibility, and wind-blown drifted closed the roads. During the night, the roads running to the east and south-east from Klin had seen masses of the 3rd Panzergruppe’s rear-echelon trucks and wagons heading to the west, but how far to the west they were to travel no one knew. The German had started to withdraw from the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal, and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army was following hesitantly behind the Panzer group, which the weather had already forced to abandon 15 tanks, three heavy howitzers, a number of Flak guns, and dozens of trucks and passenger cars: this was a greater quantity of matériel than would the Panzer Group would normally expect to lose in a week of heavy fighting. Troops could not tow guns out of their emplacements. The engines of some vehicles would not start, and the grease on bearings and in transmissions in others vehicles froze even as they were running. Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Panzerdivision, which had been headed toward Krasnaya Polyana, had reversed course during the night in response to new orders to block the Soviet thrust toward Klin: in the morning the division was extended over some 40 miles (65 km) and it tried to make its way through snowdrifts on blocked roads, with its tanks short of fuel.
The strongest formation of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, joined the Soviet counter-offensive on 7 December along the front to the west of Krasnaya Polyana. But the most dangerous threat to the Germans continued to come from General Major Dmitry D. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, which had extended its thrust toward Klin during the night. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ requested reinforcements to the 3rd Panzergruppe’s neighbouring formations. General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s (from 12 December General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s) 29th Army and General Major Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 31st Army maintained their pressure on Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army in the area to the west and south-east of Kalinin, but had failed to make any impression by this date. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 20th Army, joined by Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, kept the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe under constant pressure but were unable to gain any significant tactical advantage at any point. General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army occupied Mikhailov after a skirmish with the German rear guard. The sectors of the front held by General Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army remained quiet.
Although the Soviet counter-offensive was gathering strength and taking on a definite form only slowly, there was a steady increase in the tension felt by the German armies along the 700-mile (1125-km) front from Tikhvin to the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to the east of Kursk. The entire army group was being subjected to a prolonged shock as successive Soviet formations and units entered the fray and broke radio silence. German radio intercept units detected the signal traffic of 24 or more Soviet divisions and brigades on the army group’s front on 7 December than there had been on 15 November.
Both von Bock and army had come to believe that the Soviets could not be introducing significant number of wholly fresh forces, and had therefore been forced to strip the front in some places to supply the battle elsewhere. von Leeb had seen the consequences he feared for his Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ as inevitable after the 4th Army’s advance on Moscow failed on 4 December. These consequences soon became evident. General Kirill A. Meretskov had regrouped his 4th Independent Army and, with reinforcements, was closing on Tikhvin from three sides by 5 December. Here, on 7 December and in a blizzard which extended to cover the Moscow region in the afternoon, the spearhead of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was almost encircled. Some 27 trains had delivered Soviet reinforcements during the past three days, and the Germans were now outnumbered by a 2/1 ratio. Hitler had promised about 100 tanks and 22,000 men within the next seven to 14 days, but for the present all von Leeb could offer in Tikhvin were five tanks, of which four were inoperable because of the cold, and a modest number of infantry also suffering badly from the extreme cold. In the afternoon, von Leeb had no option but to order the evacuation of Tikhvin.
On 8 December, when the Soviets crossed the railway line linking Klin and approached within 2 to 3 miles (3.2 and 4.8 km) of the road junction at Klin, where very long columns of the 3rd Panzergruppe’s vehicles, von Bock attempted to scrape reserves out of the front. All he could get for the 3rd Panzergruppe was a single infantry battalion. The Oberkommando des Heeres informed von Bock not to expect replacements of battalion size or greater before the middle of January because the railways could not handle them until that time. When von Bock asked Halder for trained divisions rather than replacements, Halder replied that the Oberkommando des Heeres lacked complete divisions ready for despatch to the front, and that such divisions would have to come from the western theatre, which was controlled by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. The desperate von Bock felt that he had no option but to place the 3rd Panzergruppe under control of the 4th Panzergruppe, itself under command of the 4th Army. Reinhardt saw in this an abdication of the army group’s responsibility for the Panzer group, but von Bock said he thought it would make Hoepner, commander of the 4th Panzergruppe, and von Kluge, commander of the 4th Army, more inclined to aid the 3rd Panzergruppe. The 9th Army, which was the 3rd Panzergruppe’s neighbour to the north, was having more than enough trouble of its own as the 31st and 29th Armies maintained the pressure of their attack on Kalinin. How much help 4th Panzergruppe or 4th Army would be, or even could be, was problematical. The more rapidly Reinhardt extricated his 3rd Panzergruppe from the trap emerging to the east of Klin, the sooner Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe would have to embark on the same kind of westward trek and, once the two Panzer groups had escaped, von Kluge’s front would be exposed. von Kluge would then have come to a decision about whether he was prepared to run the risk of being overwhelmed where he stood or to pull the 4th Army out of its relatively well-built defensive line and into the snow and cold behind it.
With the Soviets bearing down on him, Reinhardt was in a hurry, but Hoepner did not wish to be rushed. von Kluge would have preferred not to have to make a decision.
Although he did not yet know it on 8 December, von Bock was about to face a greater threat on his southern flank. Here Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee had embarked on the complex task of reducing the size of the bulge it held to the east of Tula, and in a mere two days this task cost the 2nd Panzerarmee many vehicles and guns which had simply to be abandoned. One of Guderian’s corps alone recorded 1,500 cases of frostbite, 350 of which required the amputation of one or more limbs. Supplies were not reaching the 2nd Panzerarmee’s railhead at Orel as, in other sectors of the front, only the insulated Soviet-built locomotives could continue to work in the extreme cold. The army group had promised to fly in Diesel fuel and petrol on 8 December, but then had to divert the required airlift capacity to support the 3rd Panzergruppe. Moreover, at Mikhailov, the 10th Army was committing trainloads of troops into action as soon as they arrived. German air reconnaissance on 8 December reported 50 trains headed in each direction between Ryazan and Mikhailov. On 8 December and again on the following day, Guderian informed von Bock that the 2nd Panzerarmee faced a major crisis in confidence among the non-commissioned officers and the men, but declined to say against who this loss of confidence was directed, and refused von Bock’s suggestion to report in person to Hitler but asked yet again, as he had already on many other occasions, whether the Oberkommando des Heeres and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht were being given a clear picture of what was taking place on the Eastern Front.
Schmidt’s 2nd Army, the 2nd Panzerarmee’s southern neighbour, held a front of 185 miles (300 km), which was longer than that held by any other army on the East Front: the army had seven divisions, each of which had to hold an average length of 26.5 miles (43 km) for a further average of almost 2 miles (3.2 km) per company. While the Germans were still on the offensive, the task of the 2nd Army had been to fill the gap between the 2nd Panzerarmee and Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s (from 1 January 1942 Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s) 6th Army. This task had been comparatively easy as long as the attention of the Soviets was focused on Moscow and the Soviet high command had been afforded no time in which to worry itself about this open space and its scattering of small provincial towns such as Yelets, Livny and Novosil. Once it was on the defensive, though, the thinly spread 2nd Army was the only formation between the Soviets and Kursk, its only railhead, and Orel, the 2nd Panzerarmee’s only railhead. On 7 December the 2nd Army came to a halt after taking Yelets, the last town of any size within 50 miles (80 km). In the following days, Schmidt proposed that his army should devastate a strip, 9.33 miles (15 km) wide, parallel to his entire line and then pull back behind this scorched-earth barrier to settle for the winter.
On the following day, even more suddenly than it had dropped, the temperature climbed to a figure above freezing point along the whole of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. In the centre of the 2nd Army, to the south of Yelets, in snow and rain which froze as it hit the still-freezing ground, six Soviet tanks created a hole between Generalmajor Gerhard Körner’s 45th Division and Generalleutnant Hans-Heinrich Sixt von Arnim’s 95th Division, and through this gap a Soviet cavalry division plunged. The self-propelled assault guns of the two German divisions could barely negotiate the ice, and by the next morning, after a night in which falls of heavy snow had blown into drifts, they had been rendered immobile by the conditions as well as the fact that both divisions had also run out of fuel. In another day, two more cavalry divisions and one infantry division had opened the gap to 16.25 miles (25 km) and driven 50 miles (80 km) in a wedge to the north-west in the direction of Novosil and Orel. The 95th Division had lost half of its strength, and the 45th Division still more. As well as being without motor fuel, both divisions were drastically short of ammunition and food. Delivery from the air was promised, but the weather made it impossible for aircraft to take-off. Schmidt told von Bock that the 2nd Army was about to be cut in two and driven back on Kursk and Orel, thereby leaving an 85-mile (135-km) gap between the two towns.
On 8 December, Hitler issued the Führerweisung Nr 39 directive for the winter campaign. As the cold weather had arrived early than had been anticipated, Hitler announced, all major offensive operations were to cease: they had, of course, already done so. But. Hitler added, there were to be no withdrawals except to prepared positions. Moreover, he totally ignored the actuality of events on the Eastern Front and instructed the Oberkommando des Heeres to begin the recall to Germany of the armoured and motorised infantry divisions for refitting.
To be left ineffectual was a matter the German field commands had not experienced up to this time. Senior commanders were no well versed in the art of controlling military operations, and breakthroughs such as those at Klin and Yelets were nuisances they were supposed to overcome as a matter of course. The first two or three days would reveal the measure of the Soviet effort, it was believed, and by then the German divisions in the breakthrough area would either be back in control, or their corps, army and army group staffs would have started to move reinforcements of men, armour, artillery and air support into the area in question. The Germans conceded that somewhere an opponent might prevail no matter how strongly the Germans countered, but such an opponent would have to possess greater military skills than the Germans were prepared to concede that the Soviets possessed. The staff would ordinarily have discussed problems such as those which had emerged at Klin and Yelets during a evening, controlled these retreats by telephone and teletype during the morning of the following day. Meanwhile the commanding generals would have gone, if they felt it sensible to do so, to look for themselves and deliver encouragement or reprimand. Every commander knew what he had to do. Corps and army staffs could take some battalions from one location and a regiment from another, or a few companies or one or two divisions depending on the scale of the problem, and have these forces on the move to the location at which they were needed. An army group would have reserves or could make some by taking divisions out of the line, and there were generally one or two divisions on a railway moving somewhere up or down the front. Withdrawals like those 3rd Panzergruppe and 2nd Panzerarmee had started were still novel for both staffs and troops, but the various operations officers and chiefs-of-staff knew how to move anything from a division to a whole army some 6.25 to 9.33 miles (10 to 15 km) in a night
The German army had been capable of undertaking this step right up to December 1941, when its capability effectively ended. The 1st Panzerdivision should have checked the Soviet drive toward Klin, but it was prevented by the climate from doing so. In the prevailing weather, terrain and Soviet commitment, the withdrawals of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 2nd Panzerarmee were little masterpieces of military skill. Everywhere the troops withdrew, however, they abandoned weapons and equipment: the loss of armour, artillery and trucks, which would not soon be replaced, would make each successive move more difficult and more dangerous on the one hand, and on the other encourage the Soviets. The Soviet attacks were currently extemporised for the most part, but it was to be expected that worse eventuate when the Soviets became certain of their advantage, a fact which they could deduce from the equipment which the Germans abandoned. All his armies needed fresh troops, but von Bock had none at his disposal, and any attempt to build a reserve out of what he had was an impossible task, for no army commander was prepared to relinquish even a battalion when he knew full well that he himself might need it desperately in the very near future.
On the morning of 9 December, when resuming a telephone conference begun the night before, von Bock informed Halder that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had to have reinforcements as it could not withstand a determined attack anywhere along its whole front. von Bock said that he was already converting every kind of specialist except tank drivers into infantry. Halder suggested that the Soviets were using the cadres and untrained troops which they really wanted to save for the coming spring, and that matters might be expected to quieten by the middle or end of the month. Thereafter the two men’s discussion became increasingly futile, von Bock saying that he did not wish to ‘whine and complain’, but that he needed reserves, to which Halder responded that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would get whatever small reserves could be assembled. After this, von Bock told his army commanders to plan to pull the whole army group back some 60 to 90 miles (100 to 150 km) to the line linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk. Even so, von Bock had no confidence that this would be of any use, because it would require several weeks, which the Germans did not have, to prepare the new line. Moreover, to start back before a new line had been prepared would be fruitless in the absence of any halt line, and the level of losses already sustained in local retreats would be multiplied enormously in any retreat undertaken without adequate preparation.
von Kluge pointed out that in any event the Soviets could probably assault any new line within three days, and von Bock confessed to von Kluge that he was about to send Hitler a personal message to the effect that von Bock found himself confronted with the need for decisions with ramifications far beyond the purely military.
On 10 December the Oberkommando des Heeres promised two or three fresh divisions, and gave von Bock an excuse, albeit very slim, for deferring talk of retreat. However, these divisions would not start to depart the western theatre until 16 December and could not be expected to reach the Eastern Front for at least one month.
Although he would not have imagined it, the situation in which von Bock found himself could in fact have been more acute. The tactical performance of the Soviet formations in the first four days of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ had been disappointing. A West Front directive of 9 December said that some Soviet units were pushing the Germans back frontally instead of passing round and encircling them. Instead of breaking through the German defences, some Soviet units slowed before them and complained about problems and heavy losses. These negative modes of operations provided the Germans the opportunity to redeploy to new lines, regroup and organise a revitalised resistance. Zhukov therefore instructed the armies of his West Front to create mobile groups with tanks, cavalry and infantry armed with automatic weapons to strike behind the Germans, especially the Germans’ motor fuel dumps and artillery positions.
On 10 December, the Soviets cut the road to the west out of Klin, which was the 3rd Panzergruppe’s single escape route, and the 3rd Panzergruppe described the scene on the road to the east of Klin as one of disintegrating discipline; increasing numbers of men making their way to the west on foot without weapons but with whatever food they had managed to obtain; constant air attacks on the road, where the dead were left unburied; rear-echelon troops of all types fleeing to the rear in complete disarray without food even as they froze; vehicle crews unwilling to await the disentanglement of road jams veering off the roads and into villages in search of cover; blockages where there was ice, a slopes or a bridge; and traffic management able to maintain only the slowest of crawls.
Away to the south, over this same period Guderian characterised his 2nd Panzerarmee as a scattered assemblage of armed baggage trains slowly wending their way to the rear.
The 2nd Army could attempt no counterattack against the fast-moving but vulnerable Soviet cavalry as it had no motor fuel and its troops were exhausted.
In another command shuffle, von Bock subordinated the 2nd Army to the 2nd Panzerarmee, and was forced to admit that while Guderian’s recent emotional outbursts had raised a question about his fitness to command two armies, Guderian at least possessed energy.
Everything was now going wrong for von Bock’s forces. The weight and drag of ice and snow were pulling down telephone lines in all directions. von Bock had transferred a security division (older men of admittedly low military capability) from railway guard duty to the 2nd Army, in which it was likely to be of very little use. Soviet partisans, whose numbers and capabilities were growing steadily, blew a bridge on the army group’s main line of communications. Two trains crashed head on and blocked the track at Vyaz’ma. A train of tank wagons designed to carry motor fuel reached the 4th Panzergruppe empty.
On 12 December, in a short period in which the telephone system was working, Halder heard some of the army group’s problems and kin a complete change of mind from that of only two days earlier stated that the situation was the worst crisis in the two world wars. Hitler was meanwhile more concerned with the course of Germany’s relationship with Japan, whose ‘Ai’ carrierborne air attack on the US forces in he Hawaiian islands group had come as a total surprise to him on 7 December. Hitler would have approved of a Japanese attack on the USSR, but had known since the middle of the summer that the Japanese would not commit themselves against the Soviets in East Asia except to garner what they could from a German victory in European Russia. Moreover, Hitler would in all probability seen a continuing Japanese threat to the USA in the Pacific as more useful than an outright war as his policy thus far had been to keep the USA out of the war. On the other hand, Pearl Harbor came when he needed something to divert attention from the German problems on the Eastern Front, and after he had convinced himself that the USA was going to be an annoying but not decisive opponent, on 11 December declared war on the USA.
At the front, increasingly desperate army commanders, most especially Guderian and von Kluge, urged Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army, to travel to the Eastern Front and see the plight of the German forces for himself. The demand to von Brauchitsch was a reflection of the generals’ belief that the senior leadership in Berlin was not getting accurate information about the real situation. What substantive help they could have expected from von Brauchitsch is difficult to see: even in better times, von Brauchitsch’s real authority had not been that which should have been the right of a general in his position, since October he had been adversely affected by heart problems, and in recent months Hitler had largely ignored him. von Brauchitsch had already made his decision to resign and was preoccupied with the manner in which he could do so as he felt obligated to Hitler for his appointment. On 10 December, von Brauchitsch had tried to keep himself aloof from problems of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by the despatch of telegrams to von Bock and his subordinate army commanders telling them that he and Hitler were aware of the difficult nature of the front-line battle with the Soviets and the weather. When this effort to reassure the Eastern Front generals failed, von Brauchitsch appeared soon after 12.00 on 13 December at von Bock’s headquarters, which was located in Smolensk. By this time von Bock and his subordinate commanders had agreed that they had no alternative but to withdraw Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to the line linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk. von Kluge had objected to such a withdrawal when the army group had proposed it three days before, but now said that he had changed his mind as his forces, most especially the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe, were in the verge of destruction within 10 days, and it was now necessary to sacrifice equipment in order to save the men. Strauss had also believed earlier that his 9th Army could hold its position, but now said that the army would have to yield Kalinin, which the northern corner post of the army group’s front. In his first conversation with von Brauchitsch, von Bock said the question was whether Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ should stand and fight despite the risk of total destruction, or withdraw even though this would entail major matériel losses.
Early on 14 December, von Brauchitsch reached Roslavl to meet von Kluge and Guderian, and Generalmajor Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief adjutant, arrived in Smolensk. Though he held only a relatively low rank, Schmundt was a member of Hitler’s ‘command group’, which von Brauchitsch was not. It is probable that Schmundt was sent to the Eastern Front for an overt display of the fact that Hitler was concerned, and covertly to protect Hitler’s interests in any decisions von Brauchitsch might make. von Brauchitsch returned to Smolensk late in the afternoon of the same day after learning that Guderian’s front to the west of Tula was also beginning to develop gaps, and he agreed that the army group would have to pull back to von Bock’s proposed line. For an hour or so it looked as though all present had at last achieved a consensus. Schmundt called General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, to get a quick decision from Hitler. The German leader answered swiftly with a qualified negative. Hitler said that the 9th Army and 3rd Panzergruppe could withdraw to the west from Kalinin and Klin only as far as they had to in order to straighten their lines. The 2nd Panzerarmee could do the same around Tula. Hitler otherwise expressly forbade giving up ground ‘something’ had been done to ready a line to which a retirement could be made. Neither von Brauchitsch nor von Bock spoke with Jodl, who had relayed Hitler’s decision, and both generals assumed ‘something’ in the way of preparation would serve to satisfy Hitler, and von Bock therefore ordered his formations to ready themselves for a withdrawal and to prepare the line linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk as best they could.
On the morning of 15 December, von Brauchitsch travelled to East Prussia as another cold wave swept over the Eastern Front: during the night the temperature dropped to -33° F (-36° C) at Tikhvin. In the morning von Leeb telephoned Hitler, something which von Bock had not done up to this time, and told the German leader that the time had come to give up the idea of holding close to Tikhvin. To Hitler’s familiar protest that yielding Tikhvin would expose the Leningrad bottleneck, von Leeb replied that the troops had to have shelter and rest, and thus that he was compelled to pull his forces 45 miles (70 km) back to the west to positions on the line of the Volkhov river. When Hitler gave no clear decision either way, von Leeb assumed the choice was his and, at 12.00, issued the order to start the movement back to the line of the Volkhov river. Seven hours later, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, called and asked von Leeb to reverse his decision as Hitler could still not make any firm decision. von Leeb then decided to visit Hitler’s headquarters.
On the Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ front, on this same day the 9th Army was ready to evacuate Kalinin after completing preparations for the destruction of the city, and most especially of the bridges across the Volga river. The 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe were retreating in a temperature of -15° F (-26° C) as the snow continued to fall, Hoepner predicting that this retirement would cost the 4th Panzergruppe most of its artillery. von Bock urged Hoepner to think and thin again about ceding every mile. Guderian had a gap 9.33 miles (15 km) wide in the 2nd Panzerarmee’s front to the west of Tula, and Schmidt reported that 2nd Army could hold to the east of the railway linking Orel and Kursk only if the Soviets made major errors, of which they had not yet offered any evidence. At 12.00 on 15 December, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’ operations branch, Oberst Adolf Heusinger, telephoned to advise that an order from Hitler was imminent, and that this would allow the 9th Army, 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe to withdraw some 31 to 40.5 miles (50 to 65 km) to Staritza and the line of the Lama and Ruza rivers. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Heusinger added, would also be free to withdraw gradually to the line linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk.
The day was also that on which momentous decisions were taken at Hitler’s headquarters. Hitler had returned to his headquarters during the previous night after remaining in Berlin to handle some diplomatic affairs. However, his absence from the ‘Wolfsschanze’ did not mean that Hitler had lost touch with matters at the front: all that the German leader needed or wished to know was available to him by telephone or through the army’s communications centre at Zossen, 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south of Berlin. But Hitler was not in personal contact with the military leadership, which may have suited him as his possessed a tendency toward indecision when faced with the need to make crucial choices. On 14 December he had given von Bock and von Brauchitsch a negative answer which could be construed as a positive answer. On the following day, Hitler had been unable to decide about Tikhvin after more than seven hours, but had apparently agreed to a far larger withdrawal by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. One day later still, however, Hitler changed his mind once again. In a morning meeting with von Leeb on 16 December, Hitler raise little in the way of objection and agreed that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ could give up the Tikhvin salient. With von Brauchitsch present, Hitler blamed the current situation on the Eastern Front on poor advice from the Oberkommando des Heeres, and he had always known, he declared, that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ lacked the strength for the task demanded of it. Had the Oberkommando des Heeres reallocated the 3rd Panzergruppe to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ in August, as Hitler had wanted, the surrounding of Leningrad would have been completed, contact would have been made with the Finns, and there would have been no problem.
After delivering his decision with regard to Tikhvin, Hitler turned his attention to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and at 12.00 Halder telephoned Hitler’s decisions to von Bock. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Halter told von Bock, was to receive an order allowing the 9th Army, 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe to complete their withdrawals if there was no alternative. The other armies were to close the gaps in their lines and stand fast. Halder had not attended the morning’s meeting, and was transmitting what he had heard from Jodl. The order, as Hitler was having those in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations branch express it, was much stronger than Halder knew, for a strategic decision equal to any thus far in World War II was being made, and the Oberkommando des Heeres was effectively out of the picture largely because von Brauchitsch had ceased to function even as an intermediary between Hitler and the army high command. After the morning conference, Schmundt told von Bock’s chief-of-staff, General Hans von Greiffenberg, that Hitler had sidetracked von Brauchitsch so far as the discussions of the current situation were concerned. For now Schmundt said he would be the person via whom the army group would contact Hitler’s headquarters as Hitler was now gathering all matters into his own hands.
When von Bock asked later whether or not von Brauchitsch had reported how close the army group was to destruction, Schmundt said that he had not. Implying that Hitler had not been told how serious was the situation in which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ now found itself, Schmundt added that Hitler had said he could not send reinforcements merely because Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had a few gaps in its front. Still unwilling to speak personally to Hitler, von Bock re-emphasised his troubles and asked Schmundt to pass these on to Hitler, and added that he could not decide whether holding or withdrawing was the more dangerous option, but either was likely to result in the army group’s destruction. In the middle of the night, Hitler telephoned von Bock to tell him that Schmundt had told him of the two men’s earlier conversation, and that the only option was to hold the line and close the gaps in it. Hitler assured von Bock that infantry reinforcements and air transport were available, and that he himself was co-ordinating their deployment. As he sought to ask what might happen before the reinforcements arrived, von Bock told Hitler that the front might tear open at at moment, but Hitler halted him to say that this was a chance which would have to be taken, and then ended the conversation.
Hitler prided himself on his ability to handle a crisis, many of which he mastered against seemingly impossible odds. He had not only mastered crises, however, but in fact profited from them largely as a result of the fact that he had often contrived their circumstances. The December 1941 crisis on the Eastern Front was one he did not want, but when he had come to the decision that he could not evade it, he did what he had done with preceding crises and sought to resolve it on the terms which suited him best. Thus what the army could not achieve in its own fashion, it would have to achieve in his.
The manner in which Hitler would do this began to become clear on the morning of 18 December, when the order announced two days earlier reached Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The order mandated that larger evasive movements could not be made as they would lead to a total loss of heavy weapons and equipment. Commanders at all level were to intervene personally to drive the troops into a fanatical resistance in their current positions without regard to Soviet breakthroughs past their flanks or into their rear. This was the only way to gain the time required to deliver reinforcements from Germany and the western theatre. Only if reserves had moved into rear positions could consideration be given to any withdrawal to those positions.
The reactions to Hitler’s order within Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ varied from resignation to anger. von Kluge predicted that no matter what the orders demanded, the army group could not hold its current positions. Reinhardt and Hoepner doubted that they could halt the divisions of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe even temporarily on the line of the Lama and Ruza rivers. von Bock passed the order down the chain of command without protest and informed Hoepner that he was to use force if necessary to halt the withdrawal. Guderian asked for air transport to take him to speak with Hitler, and by telephone told von Greiffenberg that the situation was more serious than anyone could imagine, and that unless something happened soon, the German army could expect to see things which had never before occurred. Guderian added that he would not pass the orders further down the chain of command, even if he faced a court martial for his refusal, and wished at least to give his career an honourable end.
The stand-fast order meant that Hitler had taken all command initiative out of the hands of the generals. While it was later said that this was probably the best ‘solution’ at the time, in the shorter term Hitler had in effect given Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ little more than a suicide mission: front-line leadership was in effect replaced by rear-area compulsion, and the leadership of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was thus transmuted into an agency for Hitler’s will. What the order could or would accomplish in the area round Moscow remained a question, but it certainly removed the last pretence of army autonomy within the Nazi state. Speaking with Schmundt on 16 December, and aware by this time that he was about to be given an order that would almost certainly leave him to preside over the death of his army group, von Bock had pointed out his own health problems and that Hitler might desire to have fresh blood in command of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. von Bock added the he did not mean to imply any threat but merely to state fact. However, von Bock was wholly unprepared when, on the following day, von Brauchitsch telephoned him to say that Hitler wished him to submit a request for leave. Taken aback, von Bock from this time onward became more concerned with establishing whether or not Hitler had anything against him than with the fate of his army group. On 19 December, after being granted leave until his health was better, von Bock transferred command to von Kluge, command of whose 4th Army passed in the short term to General Ludwig Kübler, and departed with the assertion that this bitter period was drawing to a close.
Meanwhile, the Soviet offensive continued. In the north, Klin and Kalinin were liberated on 15 and 16 December as the Kalinin Front drove to the west. The Soviet front commander, General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev, attempted to envelop the left wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, but met strong opposition near Rzhev and was forced to a halt after his forces had created a salient that would see a great deal of sanguinary fighting and last until 1943.
In the south, the Soviet offensive went equally well, with the forces of the South-West Front relieving Tula on 16 December. However, in the period between 17 and 22 December the Luftwaffe destroyed 299 motor vehicles and 23 tanks around Tula, hampering the continued momentum of the Soviet pursuit.
The Luftwaffe was reinforced, as Hitler saw it as the only hope to ‘save’ the situation. Two Kampfgruppen, namely Oberstleutnant Dr Gottlieb Wolff’s II/Kampfgeschwader 4 and Hauptmann Sigmund-Ulrich Freiherr von Gravenreuth’s II/KG 30, arrived from Germany, where they had been refitting, while four Transportgruppen, with a strength of 102 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft, were deployed from Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV in the southern part of the USSR to evacuate surrounded army units and improve the flow of supplies to the front-line forces. It was a last-minute effort, but nonetheless worked. The German air arm was thus able to help in the prevention of the total collapse of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
It cannot be disputed that despite the Luftwaffe’s best and at times very successful efforts, the Soviet generally managed to obtain and then preserve air superiority, and this made a huge contribution to the Soviet victory outside Moscow.
In the centre, however, progress was much slower, and Soviet troops liberated Naro-Fominsk only on 26 December, Kaluga on 28 December, and Maloyaroslavets on 2 January 1942 after 10 days of violent action. The Soviet reserves were now running low, and the offensive was halted on 7 January 1942, after having pushed the exhausted and freezing German armies back 60 to 150 miles (100 to 250 km) from Moscow.
Meanwhile, as he had been omitted from the decision-making process of 16 December, von Brauchitsch had finally offered his own resignation, which Hitler accepted three days later and then issued a proclamation that he had taken personal command of the army. The departure of von Brauchitsch came as no surprise, but Hitler’s assumption of personal command of the army led to major changes. Up to this time Hitler had used a plethora of separate agencies with overlapping responsibilities to run the war, but with its own commander-in-chief, even one as limited as von Brauchitsch, the army had possessed its own identity. The new situation left the army prone to a measure of dismemberment: the offices which assumed its tasks were small and largely semi-independent groups. One of these was the Office of the Chief of Army Armament and the Replacement Army headed by Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, and another the Office of the Chief of Army Personnel headed by Generalmajor Bodwin Keitel. As he controlled army procurement and production, and commanded all army troops inside Germany, Fromm had enough power at his disposal to control the German state. Keitel, the younger brother of Wilhelm Keitel of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, kept the officer personnel files and could influence promotions and appointments. Fromm and Keitel were directly subordinate to the army’s commander-in-chief, but as he had no desire to become involved in administrative matters Hitler placed both these offices, nominally at least, under Keitel in his capacity as chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. This latter had failed to establish itself as a true joint command over the three services, and had for some years served as a kind of second army command, superior in its closer relationship to Hitler but unable to extend its reach past the army’s commander-in-chief into army concerns. How much capital the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht could make out of the army personnel office and the replacement training office was perhaps questionable, but in armament production the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the Oberkommando des Heeres were definite rivals.
For the core of the Oberkommando des Heeres, namely the army general staff, the position was still more critical. Jodl’s armed force operations staff advised Hitler on strategy, and was already the general staff for all theatres except that in the east. When Hitler named himself the commander-in-chief of the army, even if the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or the Oberkommando des Heeres did not become superfluous, either the armed force general staff or the army general staff most certainly did. Hitler seldom expressed any objection to having two agencies doing a single task as long as he controlled both of them, and during the afternoon of 19 December told Halder that the Oberkommando des Heeres was to carry on its activities as usual, but then within hours word began to spread from Hitler’s headquarters that Jodl soon would replace Halder as chief of the army general staff, and that General Erich von Manstein would move from command of the 11th Army to replace Jodl. According to the rumour, the changes would occur as soon as von Manstein had completed his reduction of Crimea, which was expected within a few weeks. von Manstein had Hitler’s approval as the German leader had profited from von Manstein’s strategic ideas, particularly in the 1940 campaign in the west, but not that of the general staff, which had long seen von Manstein as too importunate to succeed Halder. Jodl and von Manstein could have spelled the end for the Oberkommando des Heeres as it had existed under von Brauchitsch and Halder.
If Hitler had deprived the field commands of their practical right to act on their own initiative, he had done even more to the Oberkommando des Heeres. In the prevailing atmosphere of change, in which apprehension vied with ambition, Hitler could do exactly as he pleased without thought of any opposition. On 20 December, Hitler instructed Halder about how the war on the Eastern Front was to be undertaken: a fanatical will to fight would have to be instilled in the troops by all, and indeed severe, means; soldiers had no contracts restricting them to specific duties, so those in support positions could and should defend their own positions, and all troops would have to learn to tolerate breakthroughs without undue concern; rifle pits were to be dug by blasting holes in the ground or by excavating them with artillery fire; the German troops could take winter clothing from Soviet civilians; the army was solely obligated to take care of its own troops; and every man had to defend himself where he was. Halder sent a summary of these orders to the army groups as an further elucidation of the stand-fast order.
On the morning of 20 December, Guderian set out by air to Hitler’s headquarters without pausing at the army group headquarters as protocol demanded. While Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee was in flight, von Kluge was occupied with with telegrams from his other army commanders. The 4th Army reported that the Soviets were attacking in the army’s deep flank in the direction of Kaluga, the army had no more forces at its disposal, combat strength was declining, and holding its present positions was impossible in the long run. From Hoepner at the 4th Panzergruppe von Kluge learned that General Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel and General Richard Ruoff, the commanders of the XLVI Corps (mot.) and V Corps respectively, had reported that their formations could not hold their positions, there had been heavy losses of trucks and weapons in recent days as these had been destroyed for lack of fuel, weapon strengths were down to 25% to 30% of requirements, the only option was to give orders to hold to the last man, and the troops would then be destroyed, leaving a gap in the front. And from Strauss at the 9th Army von Kluge learned that the present battle area was wooded and offered poor visibility, if it had to hold there the army was probably be penetrated and destroyed.
To Halder, with whom he maintained telephone contact throughout the day, von Kluge offered a number of proposals for withdrawals. Citing Hitler’s several demands that no ground be yielded, Halder rejected all of these. After the fall of night, von Kluge telephoned Halder to inform him that Guderian’s determination had waned and as a result he did not intend to hold his line. On checking the 2nd Panzerarmee’s reports and dispositions, von Kluge added, he had discovered that Guderian had moved one regiment from each of his army’s divisions back some 40 miles (65 km) to the Oka river, which could only indicate that Guderian intended to retreat. Guderian had by then arrived at headquarters and was closeted with Hitler when Halder telephoned with what von Kluge had told him. Hitler accused Guderian of having concocted an insane plan, and after this Halder telephoned von Kluge to inform him that Hitler had sorted out Guderian and given him a direct order to hold his front exactly where it stood.
von Kluge now returned to his own proposals for withdrawals. The trouble with what Guderian wanted to do, he said, was that it would have been a rapid retreat rather than a considered step-by-step withdrawal. Unwilling to discuss either alternative with Hitler, Halder attempted during the morning of the following day to influence von Kluge, through Brennecke, his chief-of-staff, to hold everywhere for two more weeks, claiming that the crisis would have passed by then and that the army group would be sorry if it pulled back too soon.
Finally, on the morning of 22 December, von Bock arrived from Smolensk by car at Hitler’s headquarters. Hitler received von Bock in a friendly manner during the afternoon, and the two men talked about Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in general terms. von Bock seemed to have been satisfied when Hitler assured him that he knew very serious position in which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ found itself. After Hitler had also informed him that he could report back when he was recovered, von Bock took his leave and departed, again by car, to Berlin.
As army commander-in-chief, Hitler paid no greater heed to the problems of any one group than he ever had been: Hitler hated to lose ground taken with ‘German blood’, but was untouched by human despair, and his thoughts shifted readily away from human suffering to other concerns. He worried about a loss of prestige at Leningrad and discussed with Halder the possibility of using poison gas to end the resistance in the city without further delay.
On 23 December, Hitler summoned Fromm from Berlin to report on manpower and armaments, and spoke to Fromm for several hours about the ways in which the army could be rebuilt for an offensive in 1942, and about a ‘tractor of the future’ that would use far less raw material than the current generation of trucks, adding that Dr Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Volkswagen car, would have a prototype ready in just a matter of days. As far as the Eastern Front was concerned, Hitler expected that the current crisis would have passed in 10 to 14 days, adding that there had been a hole near Tula, but that elsewhere the front would hold.
After the first few days of the new regime, the generals on the Eastern Front discovered that having Hitler in direct command was stimulating though at times ominous. For a long time none of the generals had known what, if anything, transpired between Hitler and von Brauchitsch, and in recent times von Brauchitsch had effectively communicated neither with Hitler nor with his own subordinates. From 19 December, Halder and two or three of his branch chiefs saw Hitler every day, and while he lectured to them rather than consulted them, they appreciated that they were at the centre of the decision-making process and no longer receiving their instructions second or even third hand through Keitel, Jodl or Schmundt.
After his meeting with Hitler on 23 December, Fromm believed that either the Oberkommando des Heeres or the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht would disappear, but nonetheless possessed sufficient confidence that the former would survive to order his staff to do all that it could to support the Oberkommando des Heeres.
von Kluge was commanding an army group which was in desperate trouble, but was at last holding a command commensurate with his field marshal’s rank. When von Bock reached in Berlin, however, he learned that he was no longer the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, on leave, but had joined Generalfeldmarschall Gerd Rundstedt, ex-commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, in the high command reserve pool.
Back on the Eastern Front, the first phase of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ ended on 16 December. The German spearheads aimed at Moscow had been destroyed and the majority of the original Soviet objectives had been taken. The 20th Army had entered Solnechnogorsk on 12 December, and the 10th Army was in Stalinogorsk on the following day. A mobile group of the 30th Army had taken Klin on 15 December, and the 31st Army entered Kalinin on the following day. With these successes the Soviet armies had advanced more than 32 miles (50 km) on the northern flank and more than 50 miles (80 km) on the southern flank. While no new armies had been deployed during this first phase of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, the number of troops committed to the battle had probably grown considerably during the 10-day period. At the headquarters of the 30th Army, Lelyushenko had been awaiting the arrival of the larger part of a group of six divisions from the Ural mountains and Siberia as the counter-offensive began.
Zhukov had issued an initial directive for the second phase of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ to his right flank armies on 13 December, ordering them to advance to an average depth of 80 to 95 miles (130 to 160 km) to the west and north-west of Moscow. It was Zhukov’s belief that the primary objective for the rest of the winter should be for the Soviet forces to drive the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ back 150 miles (240 km) to the line, lying to the east of Smolensk, from which the Germans had begun ‘Taifun’ (i) early in October. Zhukov estimated that this would need resupply and replacements for the armies already in action in the offensive’s first phase, and four fresh armies from the Stavka reserves. Zhukov’s intention was to keep the advance essentially frontal while using mobile groups of the type being formed in each of the armies (typically with one cavalry division, one tank brigade and one infantry brigade) to strike at targets of opportunity ahead of the main forces.
Stalin and the Stavka, however, were beginning to think in less conservative terms. They therefore allowed the West Front to embark on the second phase as Zhukov proposed, but without the four reinforcement armies originally planned. This change was made by Zhukov, who brought his central group of forces, comprising General Leytenant Leonid A. Govorov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s 33rd Army, General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army and General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army, into the counteroffensive on 18 December. Elements of the 5th Army, including a mobile group under General Major Lev M. Dovator, had been in action since 11 December, and the 49th Army’s left flank had been engaged together with the 50th Army in the Tula sector since 14 December. The 33rd Army and 43rd Army took a week to move out of their starting positions.
The reinforcement armies were committed to the outer flanks of the offensive, which were not controlled by Zhukov. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, from the West Front, and Maslennikov’s 39th Army, from the Stavka reserve, were allocated to the Kalinin Front, and Konev’s orders as of 18 December were to employ these and General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army, Shvetsov’s 29th Army and Yushkevich’s 31st Army in a drive to the west and south-west toward Rzhev and thus into the area behind the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. In the south, between 18 and 24 December, the Stavka reactivated the Bryansk Front under the command of General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko, giving it General Leytenant Petr S. Pshennikov’s 3rd Army and General Leytenant Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army, and also General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 61st Army from the reserve. Cherevichenko was instructed to break through the 2nd Army and strike to the north-west toward Mtsensk behind the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. From this it can be seen that the Stavka, at this time envisaged nothing less than the encirclement of the entire Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by having Kalinin Front advance to the south past Rzhev to Vyaz’ma while the Bryansk Front advanced to the west and north-west to Vyaz’ma and Bryansk as the West Front pinned the German army group in the centre. The Soviet high command was clearly feeling ambitious.
In the middle of December, right across the front the Germans were identifying new Soviet formations and units in numbers so great that the Oberkommando des Heeres found itself almost unwilling to hear the reports, so threatening were they. Via the general staff, Halder despatched an advisory letter stating that the large number of Soviet units identified had sometimes exercised a paralysing effect on the German leadership, which must not be permitted to fall into a ‘numbers psychosis’, and that intelligence officers had to be trained into better discrimination. The Soviet troops, as Halder meant to imply, were in fact very low in qualitative terms though great in quantitative terms. Many of the Soviet troops were boys or middle-aged men, half-trained and committed to battle sometimes without even hand weapons, often with inadequate artillery and automatic weapons support, and always with a complete disregard for losses. In the 10th Army, 75% of the troops were ages between 31 and 40 years, and sometimes older; in the 1st Shock Army the figure was between 60% and 70%. The same was probably true of the other reserve armies. Whatever their ages, shortage of training and poor levels of equipment, however, the Soviet troops were warmly dressed and the quantities of their supplies and equipment seemed to be increasing. Moreover, in their apparent ability to endure the extreme cold, they appeared to the Germans to be almost superhuman. The Germans were amazed at the ability of the Soviet troops to remain in the open at temperatures far below zero for days in succession: some of the men did freeze, but most survived and kept on fighting. Moreover, like the Soviet troops, the Soviet T-34 medium tank was also proving itself in the winter. Its compressed air starter could start its engine even in the coldest weather, and its broad tracks could carry the tank across ditches and hollows holding 5 ft (1.5 m) deep in snow.
von Bock had remarked earlier in the month that in situations such as that on the Eastern Front at this time, when some things start to go wrong everything does. By the middle of the month this was entirely true of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. In the depth of a bitter winter and under constant Soviet pressure, the army group’s subordinate formations were hard hit be problems. Each army normally had sufficient transport to move between 2,500 and 3,000 tons of supplies per day. Because of the snow, cold, mechanical failures and losses, the 2nd Panzerarmee could manage no more than 360 tons per day, and the other armies were no better off. Large stocks of winter clothing, except for items overlooked in planning months before, such as fur parkas and felt boots, was located in the army depots at the railheads. So far the Germans had not yet been able to issue one-third of the clothing to the troops because they could not deliver these items to the front. The movement of ammunition, vehicle fuel and rations had to be prioritised. Tanks, trucks and the mass of other vehicles, run down after six months in the field without deep maintenance, could not take the strain of being driven through snow and over ice, and as a result the Germans were having to abandon vehicles of all types every day, while others were worn out or had vital parts broken by the cold. Lubricants froze in crankcases, on bearings, in artillery recoil mechanisms, and even in the lightly oiled operating systems of machine guns. Out of the 970 tanks with which it had begun the ‘Barbarossa’ campaign or received subsequently, the 2nd Panzerarmee currently had just 70 tanks in running order and another 168 under repair. The 3rd Panzergruppe would, by the time it reached the Lama river, have destroyed or abandoned 289 tanks. Hitler had ordered 26 new tanks and 25 self-propelled assault guns driven from Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to bolster the 2nd Panzerarmee, but on the first stage of 60 miles (100 km) from Dniepropetrovsk to Krasnograd, eight tanks and one assault gun had broken down, and the rest still had 300 miles (480 km) to cover even as they carried all their own fuel as the truck column allocated to fuel transport was stuck fast ion the mud to the south of Krasnograd.
Even when they had tanks, the German forces faced with Soviet tanks found themselves having to rely increasingly on their field artillery, most of which lacked the mobility and power to cope with the T-34. During the autumn, the Germans had tested a hollow-charge artillery shell capable of penetrating the armour of Soviet tanks, but Hitler had ordered the recall of this ammunition in November: it had occurred to him that if the Soviets learned the secret, the hollow charge would be vastly more effective against his own lightly armoured tanks. Now, toward the turn of the year, almost daily pleading by the army group and army commanders had not persuaded Hitler to release this so-called Rotkopf (red head) ammunition.
The crisis on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ unexpectedly declined in the week after 15 December. After yielding Kalinin, the 9th Army was falling back toward Staritza with the 22nd, 29th, 31st and 30th Armies close behind it, but the 39th Army was slow in preparing to move, and Konev would be unable to bring it to bear until a time late in the month. Despite earlier bleak forecasts by Reinhardt and Hoepner, the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe managed to halt along the line of the Lama and Ruza rivers by 19 December: after their evacuation of Klin and Solnechnogorsk, the Panzer groups had moved rapidly enough to break contact with the Soviets and reach the rivers ahead of them. The troops then had time to settle into the villages and turn them into strongpoints, rest and eat a few hot meals. The infantry, which had served as the rear guard, saw for the first time how little armour and other heavy equipment had survived the retreat, but even so its morale recovered somewhat to senior commanders’ surprise.
The Soviets learned that their pursuit had ended on 19 December when Dovator, commander of the 5th Army’s mobile group, the II Guards Cavalry Corps, was killed on the Ruza river while attempting to force a crossing with dismounted cavalry. As was to become clear in the next few days, the sacrifice of Dovator and many other Soviet soldiers was pointless. From north to south, the 30th, 1st Shock, 20th, 16th and 5th Armies reached the river and were halted along them.
The 3rd Panzergruppe was prepared to hold the line of the Lama river right through the rest of the winter, and its senior officers believed it could so as long as its neighbouring formations were able to dig in solidly. The 4th Panzergruppe, however, was weak on its northern flank in the area to the west of Volokolamsk, where the railway line linking Moscow and Rzhev ran through a gap, 9.33 miles (15 km) wide, between the rivers. Here Ruoff’s V Corps, more weakened than most as it had penetrated closest to Moscow and had therefore had to make the longest retreat, wavered under the onslaught of the 1st Shock Army and by 20 December was beginning to draw strength from both Panzer groups.
In the north, the situation of Strauss’s 9th Army was in the shorter term less precarious but in the longer term somewhat more dangerous. The army pulled back slowly from Kalinin, which made it possible for the army to hold its front together but provided its formations with no opportunity to break contact with the Soviets, rest and prepare defences in the manner which the two Panzer groups had managed. Moreover, the 9th Army had no river line to which it could retreat as, between Kalinin and Rzhev, the 9th Army was retiring parallel to the Volga river. Staritza, Hitler’s choice as the 9th Army’s halting position, was nothing more than a map location and on the ground only a small break in the wilderness of forest and swamp flanking the Volga river between Rzhev and Kalinin. On the morning of 21 December, when his 9th Army was about mid-way between Kalinin and Staritza, Strauss flew to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in Smolensk and attempted to persuade von Kluge to allow his army’s withdrawal to continue by small stages, as it was already doing, past Staritza to the ‘Königsberg-Linie’. This was the line linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk which von Bock had proposed and the armies continued to consider the right ‘winter line’. Some work had been done to prepare the line, Strauss explained, while none had been or could be done at Staritza von Kluge’s response cited Hitler’s definitive order for the army to hold when it reached Staritza, and the new commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ added that he was determined to execute Hitler’s instruction.
As far as von Kluge was concerned, the 9th Army was still better placed than any other of his armies inasmuch as it had a continuous front and some room to manoeuvre in the area to the east of Staritza But whether it would have either of these was moot. While Strauss was in Smolensk on 21 December, Maslennikov’s 39th Army was deploying two divisions between the 22nd and 29th Armies in the line to the east of Staritza in order to join the drive toward Rzhev. These were only the start, though, for Maslennikov had another six divisions echeloned to the rear, and these were being brought to full readiness as fast as was possible. When the six divisions reached the front, they would be more decisive than Hitler’s order, or indeed von Kluge’s determination to see that the order was obeyed, in deciding where, when and indeed if the 9th Army’s retreat would come to a halt.
While, from 15 December, the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ appeared to have weathered the first crisis, the same could not be said of the army group’s right flank. Here the 2nd Panzerarmee and 2nd Army, now loosely combined as what some called the Armeegruppe ‘Guderian’, were being hard hit by five Soviet armies, the winter conditions and the rigidity of though in higher headquarters which denied them even the little leeway to manoeuvre which had been accorded to the left-flank armies. In the decisions which culminated in his stand-fast order, Hitler had demanded that the Armeegruppe ‘Guderian’ close the gaps in its front to the west of Tula and to the north of Livny, and hold the line linking Aleksin, Dubna and Livny. When Hitler issued the order on 18 December, the 2nd Panzerarmee’s northern flank was already several miles to the west of Aleksin. Dubna was in the centre of the 9.33-mile (15-km) gap to the west of Tula, and Livny was partially surrounded at the southern end of a 9.33-mile (15-km) gap in the centre of the 2nd Army. Holding the southern flank of the Armeegruppe ‘Guderian’ and covering both its own and the 2nd Panzerarmee’s main bases at Kursk and Orel, the 2nd Army had succeeded in screening Novosil and Livny after the Soviet penetration at Yelets. However, to undertake the task of defending 50 miles (80 km) of front from Livny to a location to the north-east of Novosil, and including the 15.5-mile (25-km) gap to the north of Livny, the 2nd Army’s commander, Schmidt, had a mere three divisions. The Soviet forces known to be opposing them were six infantry divisions, three motorised divisions, one tank brigade and two cavalry divisions. After being trapped in the Soviet breakthrough, two German formations, Generalleutnant Fritz Schlieper’s 45th Division and Generalleutnant Hans Schlemmer’s 134th Division, were attempting to fight their way to the west between Yelets and Livny. In a few days their fight would be finished, for what the Soviets did not claim the cold and snow would. The rest of the army was not much better off. From captured Soviet resupply orders, the 2nd Army’s intelligence branch predicted that the Soviet drive to the west, toward Livny and Novosil, which had slackened on 15 December, would resume in increased strength on 18 December. When the drive was not resumed, the army was not reassured for aerial reconnaissance reported Soviet reinforcements marching to the west past Yelets in three columns abreast.
On the morning of 19 December, Schmidt requested a reinforcement of two divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ because the Soviets were only 40 miles (65 km) from the strategically important railway line linking Kursk and Orel, adding that the reinforcement was needed because the 2nd Army’s fate hung on the retention of the rail line, in the pathless area to the west of the railway the troops could neither stand nor retreat for lack of supplies, and if the rail line could not be held the fate of the 2nd Army would undermine the whole of the Eastern Front.
In the night which followed, Schmidt travelled to Orel to deputise for Guderian while the latter was at Hitler’s headquarters, and also to ask him on his return for reinforcements from the 2nd Panzerarmee which, following the withdrawal from the bulge to the east of Tula, had a front only half as long as that of the 2nd Army. Guderian’s response was to tell Schmidt to start work on a retreat order and to move his headquarters and supplies back to Bryansk: it was Schmidt’s opinion that Guderian, once a great optimist, had reached the end of his tether.
On 5 December the 2nd Panzerarmee had received von Bock’s authorisation to withdraw to the east of Tula as far as the line of the Shat and Don rivers. Hitler neither approved nor specifically disapproved of this withdrawal. Before the army reached the rivers, however, Guderian came to believe that it could not stop there, and on 12 December, while giving him command also of the 2nd Army, von Bock allowed Guderian to withdraw his centre and right flank another 50 miles (80 km) west to the Plava river. By then Guderian had two gaps in the front with which to cope: one at Yelets in 2nd Army’s centre which he was expected to help close by supplying reinforcements, and the other to the west of Tula which widened steadily as his left-flank formation, General Gotthard Heinrici’s XLIII Corps, maintained its hold on the 4th Army’s flank and retreated to the west and slightly to the north in the direction of Aleksin and Kaluga, while General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) on the southern side of the gap withdrew to the south-west along the road linking Orel and Tula.
By 12 December Guderian had apparently decided that there was no point in trying either to close the front or to halt to the east of the Oka and Zusha rivers along a line on which the 2nd Panzerarmee had established some field fortifications in October before beginning its attack past Tula. Going to the Oka and Zusha rivers would have added some 40 miles (65 km) to the 2nd Panzerarmee’s retreat. Both rivers were included in the ‘Königsberg-Linie’ linking Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Orel and Kursk which von Bock proposed on 14 December. Guderian later maintained that at their meeting at Roslavl on 14 December von Brauchitsch authorised him to fall back to the Oka and Zusha river. But Hitler’s decisions culminating in the stand-fast order of 18 December rendered it extremely uncertain whether or not Guderian’s forces could be allowed to continue their withdrawal even to the Plava river. The uncertainty was particularly acute in the thinking of von Kluge, von Bock’s replacement, who believed that a retreat was necessary, but as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had to comply with Hitler’s orders. On 18 December, Guderian had most of four of the 2nd Panzerarmee’s divisions extended along the road linking Orel and Tula and was moving to the west. Crews of impressed civilians were keeping kept the road clear of snow, but motor fuel was short and the speed of the German traffic depended more on the availability of fuel than on the condition of the road. The front was still some 5 to 9.33 miles (8 to 15 km) to the east of the Plava river. During the day Hitler contacted Guderian directly and urged him to close the gap on his left flank in the area to the west of Tula, and Guderian responded that to close the gap from the south was impossible: the 2nd Panzerarmee had undertaken extensive reconnaissance, Guderian said, and had discovered the entire area to be impassible as a result of its poor roads and deep snow.
What, if anything, Guderian would do to assist the 2nd Army was equally doubtful even though his 2nd Panzerarmee on the road linking Orel and Tula was moving to the south-west in the direction of the 2nd Army’s flank. Guderian should have aided the 2nd Army as this was also protecting his own headquarters and main base at Orel, but in his continuing argument with Schmidt about where and when to send reinforcements, Guderian insisted that the 2nd Panzerarmee was worse off than 2nd Army, and so far had refused to send any reinforcement.
During the night of 18 December, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had transferred Heinrici’s XLIII Corps from the 2nd Panzerarmee to the 4th Army, and in the process turned what had been a gap in the 2nd Panzerarmee’s front to one between the two armies, and as a result there was still less chance that the gap would be closed. von Kluge, whose successor as the 4th Army's commander was yet to arrive, was thus commanding the 4th Army as well as Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and relations between 4th Army and the 2nd Panzerarmee and their commanders were at best poor. The 2nd Panzerarmee had been subordinated to the 4th Army in the early months of the ‘Barbarossa’ campaign, a fact which was greatly resented by Guderian, and Guderian had received more publicity and attention from Hitler, a fact which was greatly resented by von Kluge. Concerned almost exclusively with his own army’s problems and with his centre of gravity lying to the south and the west, Guderian was not likely to exert himself for the benefit of his northern neighbour, especially as the 4th Army had so far had the advantage of fighting on a stable front in positions built before the advent of winter.
Even taking command of the XLIII Corps, the 4th Army would still be unable to close the gap to the west of Tula. During 18 December, in obedience to the Stavka’s orders for the second phase of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, Efremov’s 33rd Army, Golubev’s 43rd Army and Zakharkin’s 49th Army fell on the entire length of the 4th Army’s front. The German formation’s line of trenches and dug-outs on the Nara river stopped the 33rd and 43rd Armies, but the 49th Army drove General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps, the XLIII Corps’ northern neighbour, back on each side of Tarusa, while Boldin’s 50th Army started to work its way round and thence behind the XLIII Corps’ open flank.
While Guderian was at Hitler’s headquarters on 20 December and von Kluge was scrutinising Guderian’s dispositions, Boldin undertook moves which came as unpleasant surprises for the two German commanders. After seeing the gap in the German front widen for almost two weeks to a width of almost 31 miles (50 km) by 18 December, Boldin had decided to exploit it and assembled for this purpose a mobile force of single tank, cavalry and infantry divisions under his deputy army commander, General Major Valeri S. Popov, and despatched it that night round the XLIII Corps’ open flank in an attack on Kaluga, which was the 4th Army’s railhead and supply base. At the same time he reinforced General Major Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps with one infantry division for an attack 40 miles (65 km) straight to the west toward Chekalin on the Oka river. By the fall of night on 20 December, Popov’s mobile group was fighting to the south of Kaluga, and the I Guards Cavalry Corps was more than half-way to Chekalin. On Boldin’s left, several divisions of the 10th Army had also plunged through the gap and were driving toward Belev on the Oka river, 15.5 miles (25 km) to the south of Chekalin.
On returning to Orel on 21 December, Guderian found awaiting him, in addition to the order Hitler had already given him orally to hold his line exactly where it stood, a second order from the German leader shifting the boundary between the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 4th Army farther to the north in order to make the 2nd Panzerarmee responsible for the defence of the the Oka river as far as Peremyshl, some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Chekalin. During the previous night, Soviet armour had broken into Kaluga, and von Kluge and his chief-of-staff talked to Hitler and Halder by telephone several times during the day about pulling back the 4th Army and allowing the increasingly troubled 2nd Army giving up Livny. Hitler promised massive air support for the defence of Kaluga, and Halder reverted to what had by now become his standard response and said that it would be wrong to yield anything because the crisis would pass within two weeks.
For the 4th Army, the next two days were desperate. On 22 December, in a driving snowstorm, the 49th Army broke through the 4th Army’s front at Tarusa, splitting the XLIII Corps from the rest of the army. This placed the Soviets in a position to disrupt 4th Army’s centre and at the same time encircle the XLIII Corps, which already had Popov’s mobile group behind it at Kaluga. von Kluge told Hitler that he had ordered his forces to standard fast, but that he believed the next day would demand answers to a major question. In the afternoon of 23 December, von Kluge informed Hitler that there must now be an answer the question of whether the German forces were to stand and be killed, or pull back the front and sacrifice a certain amount of matériel to save the rest. After asking in detail about the quantities of matériel which would be saved and lost, Hitler replied that if there was no alternative von Kluge was authorised to order a withdrawal. von Kluge assured Hitler that he would use this authorisation only if he could see no alternative solution to the German dilemma, and in any event not in less than one day. Halder later telephoned von Kluge to tell him that the Luftwaffe had reported that the Soviet forces which had broken through between the XLIII Corps and XIII Corps were merely a number of ski-equipped units, and therefore that history should not record that the 4th Army had given an order for its centre and left flank to retreat in front of a few ‘skiers’. The army group chief-of-staff, Greiffenberg, responded that the corps had orders to stand fast for the present, but when Halder called back an hour later, Greiffenberg told him that the corps had been ordered to retreat.
On 22 December, at Chekalin, construction troops, who were the only Germans in the area, had spotted several small Soviet sled columns approaching the town. One-third of a German division, of about regimental size, was somewhere in the area on its way to Chekalin, but could not get there through the snow in less than two or three days. Guderian was at the front all day, at General Walther Fischer von Weikersthal’s LIII Corps, through one of whose subordinate formations, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Stemmermann’s 296th Division, the Soviets had broken through in several places. After returning to Orel shortly before 24.00, Guderian told von Kluge that obedience to Hitler’s orders would require him to sacrifice this division. On 23 December, the 296th Division fell back to the Oka river at Belev after its neighbour, Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division had been almost totally destroyed. The 2nd Panzerarmee then reported that it would have to pull its entire front behind the Oka and Zusha rivers within the next two or three days. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ indicated that the 296th Division’s withdrawal had not received Hitler’s approval, and that a retirement to the Oka and Zusha was not to be made under any circumstances unless Hitler approved.
During the morning of 24 December, von Kluge informed Halder that Guderian had allowed the 296th Division pull back farther than had been reported, had also pulled back General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.), his major right-flank formation, without prior authorisation, and had not been getting troops to the Oka river between Belev and Chekalin and to the north of them on time. Halder thereupon declared that Guderian should be court-martialled, but von Kluge could not make up his mind: the army group commander added that the snow had drifted badly on the routes to Belev and to the north, and that the 2nd Panzerarmee had executed its withdrawals only under extreme Soviet pressure. The Oberkommando des Heeres then attempted to send an order, in Hitler’s name, directly to Guderian: this again forbade any withdrawal, directed him to send one division to Belev, and demanded that he report his dispositions directly to the Oberkommando des Heeres before 24.00 on the same night.
Whether or not Guderian could be made to halt, the 2nd Army, which was tied into Guderian’s right flank, had to move along with it. During the afternoon of 24 December, the 2nd Army’s commander, Schmidt, told the army group headquarters that he was issuing orders to abandon Novosil and Livny and pull back to the ‘Königsberg-Linie’, and lacked the time to wait for approval. Because of low visibility in blowing snow, Schmidt was unaware of the location of Guderian’s flank or the location of the Soviet forces, but in another day he would be unable to make any kind of orderly retreat and perhaps not be able to retreat at all from Livny, whose encirclement was almost complete.
During that day and much of the following night, von Kluge was talking by telephone alternately with Guderian and Halder, warning Guderian against any further withdrawals without Hitler’s explicit approval, and telling Halder that Chekalin was in flames, the Soviets had crossed the Oka river, and the defence of Kaluga was failing. Before 24.00 von Kluge called Halder once more to inform him that Guderian had asked to be relieved and court-martialled, and that the whole of the Oka river line from Belev to Kaluga was in danger.
On 25 December Schmidt reported that Soviet armour had crossed the Tim river, which had been part of the ‘Königsberg-Linie’, and asked for 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and Rotkopf ammunition as the guns and ammunition currently available to his forces were useless against the Soviet armour.
Halder and Heusinger, his chief of operations, on the one hand and von Kluge on the other all argued with Guderian about the best way to defend Chekalin and Belev. Guderian had Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlencamp’s (from 28 December Generalmajor Dietrich von Saucken’s) 4th Panzerdivision available near Orel, but said that he needed the 3rd Panzerdivision to support 2nd Army. After the fall of night, Guderian reported that some elements of the 4th Panzerdivision were at Belev, but also that the roads from there to the north were impassable except by sled. Hitler had meanwhile intervened with an order to put the area of Belev,Chekalin and Peremyshl under the command of the headquarters of Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), which had controlled the 3rd Panzerdivision and 4th Panzerdivision but currently had no formations of its own.
It was not until later in the night that von Kluge looked at the day’s situation reports and learned that in the previous 24 hours the 2nd Panzerarmee had fallen back almost to the line of the Oka and Zusha rivers. von Kluge contacted Guderian and accused him of having deliberately issued orders contrary to those he had received, eliciting from Guderian the reply that in these unusual circumstances he led his army in a manner he could justify to his conscience. von Kluge then complained to Halder that while he possessed greatest respect for Guderian, who was a fantastic commander, Guderian did not obey, and that von Kluge could transmit and execute Hitler’s orders only if he could rely on his subordinate army commanders. von Kluge added that he was basically entirely on Guderian’s side, for no one could simply allow himself be slaughtered, but Guderian should obey and keep von Kluge informed. Within an hour Hitler contacted von Kluge to tell him that he would do what was necessary with regard to Guderian, and in the morning Guderian was relieved of his command and transferred to the high command reserve. A few hours later Hitler forbade Guderian to issue any farewell order to his troops.
During the night of 25 December, a wave of very cold weather swept across the Eastern Front, wind and a heavy fall of snow adding to the drifts already left by the storms of previous days. In the morning Schmidt took command of the Armeegruppe ‘Guderian’, which now became the Armeegruppe ‘Schmidt’, and General Ludwig Kübler, just arrived from Berlin, departed Smolensk to travel the 125 miles (200 km) eastward to Yukhnov, where he was to take command of the 4th Army. Hitler told Kübler by telephone before he left to make his army stand fast and not yield a single step except under compulsion.
Along the full length of the front, roads were closed by drifts, and railway locomotives froze. The rate of loss to frostbite considerably exceeded the available replacements, and indeed those scheduled to reach the front. Schmidt was expecting an attack through the ‘Königsberg-Linie’ toward Kursk; a powerful Soviet drive across the Oka river between Belev and Kaluga was clearly imminent; Hoepner believed that his 4th Panzergruppe could not hold much longer in the area to the west of Volokolamsk; and Strauss was expecting a heavy attack on his 9th Army’s left flank in the area to the west of Staritza momentarily. von Kluge was near, but typically not quite at, the point of forcing a decision. In a long and diffuse telephone call he told Halder that the time had come to consider whether or not it was necessary to pull back the army group’s front; lateral movement had become impossible as every road line and railway had been closed by snow; Reinhardt had tried to take command of the 4th Army before Kübler’s arrival, but had not been able to get there by car, aeroplane or even sled; the roads were being drifted shut as fast as they were shovelled clear; the men could get nothing to eat, and if they did not eat they could not fight; and if the Soviets struck at his lines of communication, he could not move troops fast enough to counter it.
In such circumstance, von Kluge concluded, Hitler had to become altogether more pragmatic. Halder reiterated Hitler’s standard objection to a retreat: once a major retreat had begun, it could probably not be stopped. Finally, von Kluge admitted that he did not know what line he would want to reach in any retreat, and would have to give more consideration to the matter.
On 27 December, noting temperatures of -15° F (-26° C) in the day and -25° F (-32° C) in the night, the Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ command journal entry for the day opened with general remarks including the fact that all movements were burdened by the enormous snowdrifts; railway transport was stalled for the same reason, and the loss of locomotives to freezing had increased the problem; the movement of the few available reserves was prevented by the snow; for the above reasons all time schedules were meaningless; and the Soviets had to contend with the same difficulties, but their mobile, well-equipped cavalry, ski, and sled units (the last used to bring rations and fodder to the cavalry and to transport infantry) gave them tactical advantages which, together with larger manpower reserves, they were now seeking to exploit operationally.
The armies’ reports were truly alarming. The 2nd Army had its back to Orel and Kursk and was not certain of holding either of these key cities. The Oberkommando des Heeres promised a division from the western theatre for Kursk, but no more than one or two battalions could arrive before the end of the month. At the 2nd Panzerarmee, elements of the 4th Panzerdivision heading to the north along the Oka river from Belev had been stopped by snow and forced to turn back, leaving the Oka river front open to the Soviet 10th and 50th Armies, and the Soviets were starting to push to the west another 40 miles (65 km) to Yukhnov and the main railway nexus at Sukhinichi. As well as its other difficulties, the 4th Army had to decide not only where to get troops but also how to move them to defend Yukhnov and Sukhinichi, both critical points on the army’s lines of supply and communications lines. In the 4th Panzergruppe, Ruoff’s V Corps was barely surviving in the area to the west of Volokolamsk, and it had been necessary to commit a replacement battalion, newly arrived by air from Germany, wearing laced boots and armed only with pistols. The Soviet 39th Army was finally able to commit all of its divisions against the 9th Army during the day, but the 9th Army repelled the thrust developing toward Rzhev, and at the end of the day Strauss reported that he would resume the battle on the following day, but that if this type of fighting continued his army would be bled to death.
The inescapable fact was that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was falling apart. On 28 December all of the armies reported sharply declining strengths as a result of combat and frostbite. Schmidt said that the 2nd Army was effectively blind as its aerial reconnaissance capability had failed because the German aircraft engines could not be started at low temperatures, and the aircraft were not equipped to take off or land in deep snow. Kübler at the 4th Army was having to consider how to defend his own headquarters as Soviet cavalry had crossed the railway line linking Sukhinichi and Kaluga and was approaching Yukhnov with nothing to halt it. Hoepner at the 4th Panzergruppe said his formations, especially the V Corps, could not manage to check the Soviet attacks for much longer as their men were exhausted after fighting for weeks in the snow and cold without relief.
However, the most alarming reports came from Strauss’s 9th Army, whose 6th Division and 26th Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Helge Auleb and Generalleutnant Walter Weiss respectively, were defending the front to the north-west of Staritza against the Soviet 39th Army. Auleb reported that on this day he had been with his counterattack regiment all day, and could see that the men had reached their physical and psychological limits. He saw men whose boots were frozen to their frozen feet, and would prefer to let themselves be beaten to death than attack. Weiss reported that the 78th Infanterieregiment could no longer be considered a regiment as it had only 200 men. The Soviets had cut its communications, its radio equipment and machine guns were frozen; and the machine gun crews were lying dead alongside their weapons.
After three days of further indecision, von Kluge telephoned Hitler in the afternoon of 29 December. In the hope of making the notion of a partial retreat palatable to Hitler, he proposed to sacrifice Kaluga, permitting Strauss’s 9th Army to fall back by stages to the ‘Königsberg-Linie’, and to take the 4th Army’s entire front back 9.33 to 15.5 miles (15 to 25 km) in order to shorten the line and release three divisions to defend Yukhnov and Sukhinichi. All that the 4th Army currently had available at Yukhnov, von Kluge added, were a replacement battalion and an SS battalion, and the 4th Army’s supplies depended on these two supply points. After a long delay and repeated questions about the probable extent of matériel and supply losses, Hitler finally agreed to allow the 4th Army to evacuate Kaluga, which in fact was all but lost already. Hitler expressly forbade any other withdrawals, and von Kluge dutifully transmitted Hitler’s decisions to his armies.
Only one day later, von Kluge tried again to secure permission for 4th Army to retreat. The Soviet forces had meanwhile broken through and destroyed two of 4th Army’s divisions in the centre of its front. In response, Hitler repeated his belief that withdrawals always perpetuated themselves, and once started one might as well head for the Dniepr river or the Polish border right away, and that it was time for objective reasoning to decide the matter. Hitler asked what sense there was in falling back from one line to another which was no better, and told von Kluge that in World War I he had experienced several 10-day artillery barrages and the troops subjected to this deluge of high explosive had held their positions even when no more than 10% survived. When Kluge reminded him that World War I had been fought in France, where the temperatures never fell to -20° F (-29° C), and that 4th Army’s men were mentally and physically exhausted, Hitler replied that if this was so it was the end of the German army, and hung up. Some 30 minutes later Hitler called von Kluge and asked whether or not the proposed new line was fortified, von Kluge responding that it was not, but that the Protva river offered a measure of natural protection. In that case, Hitler decided, the 4th Army would have to hold it current positions until the completion of a new line into which the troops could embed themselves and check the Soviet advances.
von Kluge had spoken to Hitler in the middle of the day on 30 December before the armies’ reports had reached him. The reports athen rrived, and with them still more dire news. On the 9th Army’s front, Staritza was almost encircled, and the 39th Army was closing on Rzhev. Strauss said his army was close to collapse, and that this could be disastrous for the entire army group if the Soviets were then able to pour to the south deep into its flank and rear. The most which the 9th Army could still do, Strauss believed, was fight a delaying action to cover the flank while the army group fell back to escape the trap. On the following day von Kluge spoke by telephone several times with Strauss, Kübler, Hoepner, Reinhardt and Halder. Of the army commanders, only Reinhardt spoke against retreat as his position along the Lama river was firm and his equipment was so completely frozen (and indeed frozen to the ground) that he thought that he could move none of it. If the 3rd Panzergruppe did had to move, Reinhardt said, the troops could do so only with their rifles, and would have to leave all else. Halder’s primary concern was, as usual, the avoidance of delivering any proposals to Hitler who, Halder was sure, would not approve any withdrawal to a predetermined line and would certainly never order one. von Kluge finally told Halder that Strauss had already ordered General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps to fall back from Staritza in a gradual process of three to four days into the ‘Königsberg-Linie’. At about 23.30 von Kluge spoke with Hitler and, without telling him what he had said to Halder, requested permission to withdraw the 9th Army, the 4th Army and part of the 4th Panzergruppe. Hitler would not commit himself, and told von Kluge that he would have to discuss the matter with senior officers of the Oberkommando des Heeres. One hour later Hitler contacted von Kluge and refused to sanction any retreat as this would entail the loss of too great a quantity of matériel.
When von Kluge then informed Hitler that the VI Corps had already been ordered to fall back, Hitler told him coldly that it was it was impossible to initiate an operational-level movement without the approval of the supreme command, and the troops were to halt where they were. von Kluge immediately informed Strauss that Hitler had categorically forbidden any retreat of the ‘Königsberg-Linie’, that only local evasive movements under direct enemy pressure would be permitted, that all reserves were to be sent to the front, and that Strauss was ordered to hold every locality and strongpoint.
On 1 January 1942 few men on the Eastern Front had either the opportunity or the inclination to welcome the new year. Typical of these men were the soldiers of the 4th Panzergruppe, who were waiting for the order to withdraw. The army group had told the staff members earlier in the night that they, along with 9th Army and 4th Army, could expect to receive the order in the near future. After 24.00 Hoepner, the 4th Panzergruppe’s commander, attempted to do what was expected of a Panzer general and spoke briefly about the successes of the past six months, but could not avoid expressing what he and the others present felt most strongly, that at the turn of the year the German forces on the Eastern Front lay under huge threat. This threat increased only one hour later, when Hoepner and his staff read the teletype message that Hitler had forbidden all withdrawals.
At dawn on 1 January the temperature stood at -25° F (-32° C), and the moisture in the air had frozen into a dense white fog. The snow blanketing central Russia was cut only by a tiny network of roads cleared sufficiently to take carry slow-moving traffic on a single-lane basis. Soldiers and impressed Soviet men and women shovelled the snow in an effort to widen the lanes and to open new lanes to keep the formations and units along the front from starving, freezing and running out of fuel and ammunition. When and if the order to retreat did finally come, entire armies would have to march to the west along these narrow tracks, any or all of which could be closed again by drifting snow within a matter of a couple of hours. The armies had calculated that their infantry could cover between 6.2 and 8.1 miles (10 to 13 km) per day on these roads, and trucks 16.2 to 20 miles (26 to 32 km). Under such conditions the movement of one infantry battalion a distance of 12.5 miles (20 km) along the front could take as long as four days. Armour could cover the same distance in two days, but as many as half of the vehicles could be expected to break down before reaching their destination. In the extreme cold, machine guns jammed and tank turrets would not turn. Truck and tank motors had to be kept running continuously, and vehicles that did not move at all used one normal day’s fuel every two days.
On 1 January, probably in an effort to boost morale, the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe were elevated to army status, but as was observed by Reinhardt, commander of the new 3rd Panzerarmee, his formation’s actual strength was more exactly that of a corps than of an army.
Hitler’s mood on this day was dominated by his previous night’s exchanges with von Kluge, from which the German leader had deduced that the generals on the Eastern Front were approaching the point of disputing his authority. Strauss, commander of 9th Army, had attempted to issue an order which contradicted both the word and the spirit of Hitler’s instructions. During the day, Hitler moved to make his will finally and unmistakably clear. To von Kluge and the army commanders he wrote that the Soviet leadership was using the last of its resources in men and matériel to exploit the winter conditions and defeat the German forces, but if the forces on the Eastern Front stood firm against this assault, it would assure final victory in the summer of 1942. Existing lines were therefore to be held even if they appeared to have been outflanked, gaps in the front were soon to be filled by divisions coming from Germany and the western theatre, and columns of trucks with supplies and replacement battalions were on the way. To buy the time needed, Hitler added, the order of the hour was to hold every village, yield not a step, and fight to the last bullet and grenade. Where single localities could no longer be held, the flames blazing from every hut should tell neighbouring units and the Luftwaffe that here courageous troops had done their duty to the last shot.
When Hitler talked about the delivery of new divisions to plug the gaps, he was not trying to paper over a gap, because help for Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was indeed on its way. The real question was when this help would arrive. The Oberkommando des Heeres possessed the authority to mobilise 500,000 trained men for the Eastern Front by the end of April and had the ‘Walküre’ and ‘Rheingold’ programmes under way: the first was designed to produce four divisions from troops in Fromm’s Ersatzheer (replacement army), and these were to be ready by a time late in January or early in February, and the second was to draft previously deferred men from industry for the creation of six divisions, which would needed longer to train and equip. ‘Walküre’, ‘Rheingold’ and the additional men to complete the 500,000 reinforcements would reduce the German work force and, consequently, would mitigate one shortage but only by aggravating another.
While the creation and training of men needed for the replacement force were not insoluble problems, the Oberkommando des Heeres did not know where it could find the weapons, particularly the artillery, mortars and machine guns, to equip the ‘Walküre’ and ‘Rheingold’ divisions, for the current production levels of such weapons was insufficient to cover the recent losses on the Eastern Front. The Oberkommando des Heeres also had two other undertakings in progress as ‘Elefant’ to provide 1,900 trucks and ‘Christophorus’ to supply 6,000 vehicles of other kinds for Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’; and the German postal service was assembling 500 buses to transport troops toward the Eastern Front. These vehicles had to be collected from all parts of Germany and as far away as Paris and then driven to the east, however, and most would probably need repair by the time they reached Warsaw in occupied Poland even before reaching European Russia. Over the same period, all across Germany and under the supervision of Dr Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry, Nazi party offices were collecting furs and woollen garments, and Goebbels was about to open a drive to requisition restaurant tablecloths for use in making camouflage snow trousers and jackets. The Oberkommando des Heeres, however, seeing in this effort little more than a public relations coup for the party, demanded that the fighting men should receive adequate clothing and consigned the collected goods to storage until they could be issued to replacements later in the winter.
The second phase of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ designed to encircle and then destroy the main strength of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, was becoming discernible, and then only to a limited extent, to the Germans at the beginning of 1942. The first indication, which was not construed for what it actually was, had come on 25 December when the thrust of the 10th and 50th Armies, initially directed toward Belev and Kaluga in the gap between the 4th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee, began to turn to the west and north-west toward Sukhinichi and Yukhnov. The second indication was the 39th Army’s punch to the south toward Rzhev, which had started in full strength on 27 December but was still obscured four days later by savage fighting along the whole of the 9th Army’s front.
On the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, however, circumstances were changing the Soviet plan. The left-flank 10th and 50th Armies of Zhukov’s West Front were moving more rapidly and in a better position to pursue an envelopment from the south than were the forces of Cherevichenko’s Bryansk Front. Of the latter’s three primary formations, only the 61st Army, by attaching itself to the 10th Army’s flank, managed to attained some momentum, but the 3rd and 13th Armies were becoming exhausted by the end of December. As a result, the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was being left outside the southern arm of the projected Soviet encirclement, which would bring quick changes for the Armeegruppe ‘Schmidt’ and its two primary formations, the 2nd Army and the 2nd Panzerarmee. Late in December, the 2nd Army was finding itself very had put to hold its new winter line along the Zusha and Tim rivers, some miles behind the original winter line although still 31 to 34 miles (50 to 55 km) to the west of the railway linking Kursk and Orel. Schmidt gave von Kluge notice on 30 December that the 2nd Army might be compelled to yield Kursk, Orel and the line of the railway connecting them. If it did have to do so, the 2nd Army would be compelled to divide into two parts to follow the railways extending to the west. This would open a gap, some 60 miles (100 km) wide, in the front, but the army could not survive in the snow-covered wilderness away from the railways.
The Bryansk Front could not effect a breakthrough to force the 2nd Army into another retreat, however, and by the end of the first week in January all of its armies had been halted. The Bryansk Front’s part in the counter-offensive ended along the Tim and Zusha river, thereby leaving Mtsensk, Kursk and Orel in German hands.
Between 2 October 1941 and 7 January 1942, the Germans had suffered between 174,000 and 400,000 casualties, while the Soviets had suffered between 650,000 and 1.28 million casualties.
The victory provided an important boost for Soviet morale, and there could be no denial of the fact that the German forces had suffered their first strategic defeat of World War II: ‘Barbarossa’ had failed. This meant that Germany, after failing to knock out the USSR in one quick strike, now had to prepare for a prolonged struggle.
The Soviet winter counter-offensive had driven the German forces from the very gates of Moscow, but this political, administrative and industrial heart of the USSR was still considered to be under threat as the front line was still relatively close to it. Because of this, the Germans threat on the Moscow axis meant that it remained a priority for Stalin. In particular, the initial Soviet advance was unable to eliminate the Rzhev salient, between Rzhev in the north and Spas Demensk in the south, which was held by several divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
Immediately after the Moscow counter-offensive, a series of Soviet attacks in the Battles of Rzhev were attempted against the salient, each time with heavy losses on both sides. By a time early in 1943, however, the German forces had to disengage from the salient as the whole front was moving to the west. Nevertheless, the Moscow front was not finally secured until October 1943, when Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was decisively repulsed from the Smolensk land bridge and from the left bank of the upper Dniepr river at the end of the 2nd Battle of Smolensk.
For the first time since June 1941, by 7 January 1942 the Soviet forces had stopped the Germans and driven them back. This result led Stalin to become overconfident even before the fighting had ended, and he decided on a further expansion of the offensive.
On 5 January, therefore, in the course of a meeting in the Kremlin, Stalin announced that he was planning a general spring counter-offensive, which would be undertaken simultaneously near Moscow, outside Leningrad and in the southern USSR. This plan was accepted over Zhukov’s objections. However, the low level of the Soviet reserves and German tactical skill led to a bloody stalemate near Rzhev, known as the ‘Rzhev meat grinder’ or ‘Rzhev mincer’ that led, between 8 January 1942 and 31 March 1943 to Soviet losses of 362,664 men killed, missing or taken prisoner and 746,485 men wounded and to German losses estimated by the Soviets as 330,000 men killed, missing or taken prisoner and 450,000 men wounded. Stalin’s decision also led to a string of other Soviet defeats, such as the 2nd Battle of Kharkov (12/28 May 1942), the failed elimination of the Demyansk pocket, and the encirclement of General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army near Leningrad at the end of the ‘Lyuban-Chidovo Offensive Operation’, which was an unsuccessful attempt to lift the siege of the city between January and April 1942.
Ultimately, these failures would lead to a successful German offensive in the south but also, disastrously for the Germans, to their strategic defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942/2 February 1943).
Both the German and Soviet casualties during the battle of Moscow (see above) have been a subject of considerable debate, as various sources provide somewhat different estimates. Not all historians agree on what should be considered the Battle of Moscow in the timeline of World War II. While the start of the battle is usually regarded as the beginning of ‘Taifun’ (i) on 30 September or, according to other sources, 2 October 1941, there are two different dates for the end of the offensive. In particular, some sources exclude the Rzhev offensive from the overall scope of the Battle of Moscow, considering it as a distinct operation and thus ending the Battle of Moscow on 7 January 1942, in the process lowering the number of casualties. Other historians, who include the Rzhev and Vyaz’ma operations within the scope of the Battle of Moscow, and thus making the battle end in May 1942, give higher casualty numbers. Since the Rzhev operation started on 8 January 1942, with no pause after the previous counter-offensive, such a stance is understandable. There are also significant differences in figures from various sources.
Regardless of disagreements, such as those about precise dates and the casualty figures, the Battle of Moscow is considered among the most lethal campaigns in world history.
By the middle of January, the Germans’ new winter line was solid, and to reduce the length of front to be controlled by von Kluge, Hitler ordered the transfer of the 2nd Army to von Reichenau’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. von Weichs, who had commanded the 2nd Army during the summer and autumn of 1941, but had been on sick leave since a time early in November, now resumed his command, and Schmidt moved from Kursk to Orel to take command of the 2nd Panzerarmee. During the first week of January, the 2nd Panzerarmee’s front facing to the east also became stable. At the same time, though, the 2nd Panzerarmee was acquiring a long and dangerously unstable front facing to the north. The gap between 4th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee was 50 miles (80 km) wide and had become the opening into a great bulge extending to the west past Sukhinichi, to the north-west almost to Yukhnov and to the south-west toward Bryansk. The 2nd Panzerarmee was faced with the need to stretch its left flank westward from Belev across more than 68.5 miles (110 km) of roadless country. The headquarters of Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), which had been assigned, without troops, to defend the line of the Oka river to the north of Belev, was relocating 80 miles (130 km) westward to Bryansk, and still without troops was to attempt to halt the Soviet thrust past Sukhinichi. The corps acquired a second mission on 3 January, when the Soviet 10th Army trapped 4,000 German troops in Sukhinichi. Hitler refused to let the garrison attempt a break-out and demanded that the town be defended to the last man.
When the headquarters of the XXIV Corps (mot.) reached Bryansk on 4 January, it had acquired a miscellany of units including two infantry battalions, one engineer battalion, some construction troops who had been stationed in the towns around Sukhinichi, and one armoured train. The last had been used in the fighting at Sukhinichi, and now had only its locomotive and one serviceable car. Single infantry and security divisions were being delivered to Bryansk by rail from the west, but Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had already diverted one regiment of each of these divisions, and the infantry division had left its motor vehicles in Poland. At Bryansk all that was going to the front had to be unloaded and reloaded from German- to Soviet-gauge trains.
During this period, the 10th Army’s cavalry, supported by partisans and Soviet soldiers who had been hiding in the forests since the fighting of October 1941 as the Germans surged to the east, was fanning out at some speed into the area to the west and south of Bryansk. On 7 January, after air reconnaissance had indicated the presence of two Soviet divisions moving to the south-west from Sukhinichi, Schmidt had to to protect the railway through Bryansk, which was his force’s lifeline, and stripped the last reserves from the eastern part of his Armeegruppe’s front. These reserves were on the east of its last reserves, the 4th Panzerdivision, under the temporary command of Oberst Heinrich Eberbach as von Saucken had been wounded on 2 January, and the 18th Panzerdivision, under the temporary command of Oberst Rudolf-Eduard Licht, and sent them to the XXIV Corps (mot.). Over the following days Schmidt tried to win Hitler’s permission to bend his eastern front back slightly and thus be in the position to build as small reserve. On 13 January Hitler ordered Schmidt to maintain the eastern part of his front where it was, to withdraw troops if possible, and to use the troops the XXIV Corps (mot.) already controlled and was receiving in order to counterattack toward Sukhinichi. Occasional airdrops of ammunition and food, interspersed with encouraging messages from Hitler, were keeping the garrison of Sukhinichi in the battle.
Any break-out from Sukhinichi became impossible on and after 9 January, the day after the formal end of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ and the start of the ‘Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation’ (8 January/20 April) 2, when the 10th Army reached Kirov, 40 miles (65 km) to the west, and Zhizdra, 35 miles (55 km) to the south-west.
Given the distances involved, any relief of Sukhinichi appeared to be impossible, especially as the XXIV Corps (mot.)’s infantry strength comprised for the most part recently arrived units neither tempered to the weather nor experienced in the nature of warfare on the Eastern Front. On 15 January the XXIV Corps (mot.) expected to start the attack in another four days at the very earliest, but the question of whether the corps would be driving toward Sukhinichi in four more days or fighting to hold Bryansk was still moot. For more than a week, the Stavka had been shifting formations and units from the stalled Bryansk Front into the gap, and on 13 January the Stavka had moved the headquarters of the 61st Army closer to the left flank of the 10th Army.
By comparison with those in the centre and on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, those on the right, namely the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzerarmee, were well situated. The greatest threat posed by the Soviet offensive was moving away from the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzerarmee as the Soviets began to launch steadily more intense assaults on the 4th Army and 4th Panzerarmee in the centre, and on the 9th Army and 3rd Panzerarmee on the left. While the armies on the right faced threats, those in the centre and on the left faced complete destruction. At the beginning of the year, each of the army group’s four armies had good reason to assume that, in its current circumstances and as a result of the orders it was receiving, it was heading into total disaster. The armies’ danger was in fact so great and seemed so close that for a time it hid the Soviet forces’ strategic design to encircle and destroy them all. As a result, the campaign assumed a dual character as each of the German armies, compelled by Hitler’s orders, fought for individual survival, and the Soviet Kalinin and West Fronts concentrated on a second objective, Vyaz’ma.
A small city on the line of the road and railway linking Moscow and Smolensk, Vyaz’ma lies 125 miles (200 km) to the west of Moscow and 90 miles (145 km) to the east of Smolensk, and in the early 1940s was a key railway nexus from which lines extended to the north and south to Rzhev and Bryansk, to the north-east to Moscow, and to the south-east to Kaluga and Tula. The line to Rzhev carried all the supplies for the 3rd Panzerarmee and most of those for the 9th Army. The road and railway line between Vyaz’ma and Moscow supplied the 4th Panzerarmee, and the 4th Army depended on the line linking Vyaz’ma and Kaluga for its supply requirements. The railway line to Bryansk had provided an alternative route for 4th Army, but lost much of its utility after the Soviets passed to the west of Sukhinichi. By the beginning of 1942, the Kalinin Front’s right-flank armies were 90 miles (145 km) from Vyaz’ma, and the West Front’s left flank, operating in the gap between the 4th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee, had about 55 miles (90 km) still to cover, via Yukhnov, to get to Vyaz’ma. The 4th Army’s and 4th Panzerarmee’s most easterly formations were 90 miles (145 km) from Vyaz’ma. With the possible exception of that at Kiev, even the more operationally experienced and logistically capable Germans had themselves not attempted an envelopment on so great a scale.
There was also a considerable difference in the Soviet effort in the fact that it combined brute force and manoeuvre. While the Germans had designed their pincer movements for accomplishment with the minimum possible strength and effort, this was not the Soviet way. As just one of several Soviet commanders of like mind, Zhukov seems to have possessed greater confidence in the frontal assault of the type which had served well enough on the approaches to Moscow than in the more elegant, but also the more demanding, envelopment. Regardless of the envelopment being attempted, therefore, his West Front continued to batter the whole length of the front held by the 4th Army, 4th Panzerarmee and 3rd Panzerarmee. Konev’s Kalinin Front adopted basically the same method against the 9th Army. To the German forces, pinned in place by Hitler’s inflexible orders, the weight of the Soviet forces driving at them from the east made the envelopment almost irrelevant.
In the direct face-to-face war which had continued along almost the entire front, each side had gained an invaluable month’s experience in the nature and execution of winter warfare, and from this several factors had emerged. The Germans clung to villages, whose small buildings provided shelter where no other existed. In ground frozen to a rock-like solidity down to a depth of 6 to 8 ft (1.8 to 2.4 m) it was impossible to dig, let alone to build. Village buildings may have been small and crude, but were nonetheless assets, and when the were compelled to fall back the Germans were at pains to destroy them so that they could provide no comfort to the Soviets. As a result, the advancing Soviet forces generally had to remain in the open which, despite the fact that the Soviets were more acclimatised to the weather and better equipped for it, was less hazardous for them than for the Germans only in relative terms, especially when the temperature fell to reached -30° to -40° F (-34° to -40° C). On the other side of the tactical coin, the villages which the Germans held were fixed points in huge snowfields, immobile and frequently filled with mismatched troops whose presence was the result of the climate rather than any tactical purpose. The villages were also very vulnerable, as the Soviets quickly appreciated, to standardised assault patterns: one man who knew the area could direct fire from the back of a tank and smash a village from a distance with high explosives; at night, or in a snowstorm, or in fog, one or two tanks with infantry could drive straight into a village, blasting the buildings one by one; if the defenders came out into the open, the Soviet infantry occupied local buildings; and if the defenders remained indoors, their position was equally hazardous since thatched roofs and wooden construction offered little protection against 76.2-mm (3-in) shells.
However, the German 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role gun and field howitzers firing Rotkopf hollow-charge ammunition, which Hitler had released in December, could knock out the T-34 tank. A direct Rotkopf hit generally killed the tank’s entire crew and any infantry riding on the vehicle. But the Germans guns lacked manoeuvrability and were vulnerable to tank guns and, at close range, also to the weapons of the Soviet infantry. Though very capable, the 88-mm (3.465-in) gun had a particularly high profile. In being compelled to use field artillery in the anti-tank role, the Germans had to accept a loss ratio of close to 1/1, and thus a decline in their artillery strength.
German troops, particularly the infantry and artillery, had not been accustomed in the war up to this time to accepting losses equal to those of their opponents, and they had not even imagined anything like the apparent Soviet disdain for life evidenced in an apparent lack of concern for casualties either from cold or from German fire. Soviet forces could take the villages desired by the Germans, but usually at some cost, and their commanders seemed always to be prepared to pay a heavy price in their men’s lives.
At the beginning of 1942, the latest crisis faced by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was on the 4th Army’s front where, on 2 January, the 43rd Army assaulted the boundary between General Friedrich Materna’s XX Corps and Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Corps (mot.) for several days and then prised open a 9.33-mile (15-km) gap between Borovsk and Maloyaroslavets. With this, the 4th Army, which had already lost contact with the 2nd Panzerarmee, was to all intents and purposes cut adrift. The 4th Panzerarmee was only slightly better placed: the hold of Ruoff’s V Corps was steadily weakening in the area to the west of Volokolamsk and, as the armies on their outer flanks were driven back, the 4th Panzerarmee’s and 3rd Panzerarmee’s fronts were being exposed on the eastern side of a dangerous outward bulge. When, during the afternoon of 2 January, Hoepner requested Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to review the latest stand-fast order in light of these conditions, he was merely informed that Hitler had the greatest trust in the 4th Panzerarmee and its leadership, a categorical refusal for any kind of withdrawal, and an order to transfer two infantry regiments and one artillery battalion to help Materna’s XX Corps, control of which von Kluge then transferred to Hoepner. In placing the XX Corps under Hoepner’s control, von Kluge converted what had been a gap in an army front into one between two armies. Technically the decision was absolutely correct: the corps had contact with the 4th Panzerarmee but no contact with Kübler’s 4th Army, and Hoepner could thus provide it with support whereas Kübler could not. On the other hand, as had happened in the area to the west of Tula, the gap now became the concern of two commands, each of which had equally serious problems elsewhere. On 3 January, von Kluge ordered Hoepner to attack from his side to close the gap between Barovsk and Maloyaroslavets. To do so Hoepner had to move one of his divisions out to the XX Corps’ right flank, a process which lasted two days, and on the morning of 6 January, when the division was ready, the 4th Army reported that its flank had been pushed back during the night, so opening the gap to 18 miles (29 km) but leaving the point at which Hoepner’s attack was aimed under Soviet control. During the night, moreover, three Soviet divisions had turned to the north behind the flank of the XX Corps, so in the morning Hoepner proposed to bend back his flank, but von Kluge immediately forbade this and ordered start of the planned attack. The 4th Army, accordingly to von Kluge, would help, though this would amount to only one battalion.
For two days Hoepner’s one division on the XX Corps’ right flank attacked to the south while the Soviet division pushed to the north behind it and the XX Corps, until finally on the morning of 8 January Materna told Hoepner he could no longer be responsible for the XX Corps’ situation: the Soviets, Materna said, had severed his one cleared road to the west, he could no longer get delivery of any supplies and, should the Soviets secure a tighter grip, he would be unable to extricate the corps. Hoepner then told von Kluge that the XX Corps would shortly be lost unless it was permitted to pull back. von Kluge insisted that the corps’ situation was not as bad as painted by Materna and Hoepner, but added that he would call Halder. Two hours later, at 12.00, von Kluge said that he had demanded a decision about the XX Corps, that Halder was on his way to Hitler to obtain it, and that Hoepner was to alert Materna because the order could come at any minute. A little less than two hours later, after failing to reach Halder several times, Hoepner on his own responsibility ordered the XX Corps to pull back.
After the fall of night, having been out of touch with Hoepner’s army for seven hours, von Kluge had seemingly learned of Hoepner’s order, and called to confirm that Hoepner had given it. von Kluge then said an order to retreat was impossible not because it was wrong but because it went against Hitler’s orders. von Kluge saw this case as being the same as that involving Guderian, and was quick to dissociate himself from any responsibility for it by pointing out that at 12.00 he had specifically used the word ‘prepare’ and not ‘order’. von Kluge called again at 23.30 to tell Hoepner that Hitler had disapproved the order given to the XX Corps and relieved Hoepner, who was succeeded by Generaloberst Richard Ruoff.
After the XX Corps had passed from the 4th Army to the 4th Panzerarmee, four of the 4th Army’s five remaining corps, outflanked on the north and the south, were caught in a detached loop of the front touching the Oka river to the west of Kaluga and reaching to the north some 35 miles (55 km) to a point not far short of Maloyaroslavets, which the 43rd Army had taken on 2 January. What might befall the four corps from the north was in the hands of the 4th Panzerarmee on the one hand and the Soviets on the other. The northernmost formation, Kirchner’s LVII Corps (mot.), possessed barely the strength to cover the flank. The same was true of Heinrici’s XLIII Corps in the south. The danger was currently greater in the south because the 50th Army’s spearheads, to the north-west of Sukhinichi, were 40 miles (65 km) behind the eastern face of the loop and less than 9.33 miles (15 km) from the Rollbahn highway used by the 4th Army as its one good road.
By 5 January the 4th Army had gathered sufficient strength at Yukhnov to deflect the Soviet forces from the Rollbahn there, but as the the road ran across rather than away from the Soviet axis of advance, the Soviets had only to shift their attack on the highway a few miles to the south in order to cut it. The 4th Army’s chief-of-staff told Schmundt, Hitler’s adjutant, that if the Soviet thrust was successful, it would be deadly. All that the army had on the whole of the western perimeter of the Sukhinichi bulge was the headquarters of General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) with elements of two divisions and several Luftwaffe construction battalions.
On the night of 5 January, Heinrici, commander of the XLIII Corps, contacted Generalmajor Günther Blumentritt, the 4th Army’s chief-of-staff, to ask if the army was being sacrificed as a measure of deliberate policy and if it was being treated in the manner with which the Soviet command had treated its troops during the encirclement battles of the summer of 1941s. Heinrici added that his men knew that the Soviets were a considerable distance behind them in the south, and they should be informed of what was awaiting them. A report of what Heinrici had said reached the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ less than 10 minutes later, and von Kluge telephoned Heinrici to say that the whole of the 4th Army to keep its nerve. He would not leave his old army abandoned, von Kluge added, matters were not yet that critical, and if the 4th Army stood fast there was every likelihood that a state of balance could be achieved.
During the afternoon of 7 January, Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) reported that with its current strength it could not prevent the Soviets from reaching the Rollbahn anywhere along its 50-mile (80-km) length to the south-west of Yukhnov. At this stage von Kluge attempted to persuade Hitler to allow the 4th Army to pull its eastern front some 31 miles (50 km) back to the area of Yukhnov, a move which would shorten the front and release troops to defend the Rollbahn. After a long telephone conversation late in the night, von Kluge came to believe that Hitler was finally ready to entertain the idea of a withdrawal. In the morning, however, Hitler presented a number of ideas for small shifts which, he was sure, could solve the problem on the Rollbahn. Hitler spoke with von Kluge and Halder several times throughout the day, but refused steadily to make a decision despite the fact that the reports from the 4th Army were becoming ever worse. At 12.00, Blumentritt told von Kluge that Soviet columns were behind both flanks of the four corps in the east, and that it was now impossible for the corps just to withdraw: they would have to fight their way back. von Kluge’s response was that he was expecting a major decision from Hitler sooner rather than later. Six hours later the decision had still not come, and Blumentritt told von Kluge that in a very short time von Kluge would have to give the order himself, which the army group commander had earlier said he would do if necessary to save the 4th Army. Finally at 22.00 Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, telephoned Halder, who then telephoned von Kluge: Hitler had agreed to let the 4th Army’s four corps in the east withdraw 9.33 miles (15 km) in a staged retirement, but not the 31 miles (50 km) which the army and army group had proposed.
In the order he had issued on 1 January, Hitler had attempted to tie the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to its current position with the 3rd Panzerarmee facing to the east along the Lama River and the 9th Army in a 125-mile (200-km) line extending almost directly to the west past Rzhev along the upper reaches of the Volga river to the junction with Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ in the area to the south of Ostashkov. Rzhev was the northern corner post of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ as, lying as it did on the Volga river at the junction of a north/south and east/west railways, it gave the army group’s left flank something to which it could pin itself in what was otherwise a wilderness of forest and swamp stretching for many miles in all directions. The sector to the north and east of Rzhev was the most threatened spot on the left flank, for there General Bruno Bieler’s VI Corps was being hard hit by the 39th, 29th and 31st Armies but holding its position, much to the approval of Hitler. On 29 December, after air reconnaissance had indicated a situation round Staritza more favourable than had been suggested in the reports of the VI Corps, Hitler had dismissed Förster in favour, for just a few days, of General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, who was also commanding general of the VIII Fliegerkorps, the air support command for the Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
In the course of the night of 1 January, Hitler forbade any but local evasive movements and in the morning ordered the phrase ‘Königsberg-Linie’ to be dropped as its promulgated a ‘dangerous myth’. One day later Hitler ordered the 9th Army, in the particular form of the VI Corps and its left-hand neighbour, General Albrecht Schubert’s XXIII Corps, to retreat not a single step for any reason whatsoever. After being told that Hitler had been angered by his attempt to order a retreat and having also been promised 300 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft to deliver reinforcements for his 9th Army, Strauss passed Hitler’s order to the VI Corps and XXIII Corps with his own strong endorsement. Strauss and his staff actually believed that the 9th Army was at the tipping point and could hold it current position for no more than a few more days. Generalleutnant Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz, commander of the XXVII Corps holding an exposed sector between the VI Corps and the left flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee, was still less sanguine. Fearing that the VI Corps would collapse and that his own formation would follow, von Gablenz asked Strauss several times on 2 January to disregard Hitler’s order as his men knew that their position was hopeless and there was no way he could compel them to standard and fight. After his XXVII Corps and the VI Corps lost more ground during the day, and Strauss had once again ordered him to hold, von Gablenz sent a radio message stating that he could no longer bear the responsibility for his command and requesting to be relieved of his command. Strauss ordered von Gablenz to relinquish his command and proceed immediately by air to the army group headquarters in Smolensk at dawn on the following day. von Gablenz was replaced by General Joachim Witthöft.
Before the fall of night on 2 January, a gap had opened to the north-west of Rzhev between the XXIII Corps and the VI Corps, but the fact that this gap did not widen during the following day gave the staff of the 9th Army heart. With the temperature at -40° F (-40° C) and the snow still falling, the German troops were fighting well; von Richthofen’s fighters and dive-bombers were flying; and one battalion of reinforcements arrived in Rzhev by air during the day. The 9th Army congratulated itself on having overcome the worst of its winter warfare deficiencies: frostbite casualties were still high, but the troops were outfitted with furs and felt boots requisitioned from the Soviet civilians, and they had devised adequate ways of keeping automatic weapons working in low temperatures. When the 39th Army widened the breach to the north-west of Rzhev on 4 January, Strauss thought he could close it by attacks from the east and the west. He had a reserve of sorts in the form of SS-Standartenführer Hermann Fegelein’s SS Kavalleriebrigade: stationed behind the XXIII Corps on security duty, this was one of only two horsed cavalry units in German service. To this brigade Strauss allocated the task of attacking from the west while the VI Corps used an extemporised infantry assault group to make the effort from the east. So lightweight an effort could hardly have been expected to succeed without more Soviet co-operation than was likely.
Three Soviet armies were approaching Rzhev, and for several days air reconnaissance had reported a fresh Soviet grouping on the XXIII Corps’ left flank to the south of Ostashkov. Early in the morning of 5 January, the 39th Army opened the gap to the north-west of Rzhev to 8.1 miles (13 km) and large numbers of troops began to debouch through this gap to the south. Strauss could not have the SS Kavalleriebrigade in position for another day, and the mood in the army group’s headquarters and at the Oberkommando des Heeres was very dismal. von Kluge ordered Strauss urge that Rzhev was to be held at all costs, and Halder said that Rzhev was the the most decisive location on the Eastern Front, adding that there must be a commander, whatever his rank, who could rectify matters there.
At the same time Strauss and Reinhardt started to argue about a divisional sector. On 3 January, in order to let Hoepner’s 4th Panzerarmee concentrate on handling the the Borovsk-Maloyaroslavets breakthrough, Hitler and von Kluge had transferred the 3rd Panzerarmee from von Kluge’s command and Ruoff’s V Corps from Hoepner’s 4th Panzerarmee to Strauss’s 9th Army. To Reinhardt’s anger, Strauss had refused to give him command of the V Corps on the grounds that Ruoff was senior to Reinhardt. (The matter of seniority was resolved 10 days later when Ruoff replaced Hoepner in command of the 4th Panzerarmee, and the V Corps received a new commander in Generalleutnant Wilhelm Wetzel and was reallocated to the 3rd Panzerarmee.) Reinhardt then claimed that his 3rd Panzerarmee, located between two of the 9th Army’s corps, would be robbed of strength on each flank, and refused an order from Strauss to take over a divisional sector from the XXVII Corps on the 3rd Panzerarmee’s left flank. Learning of the matter, von Kluge threatened Reinhardt with a court-martial if he did not obey orders, and indeed then extended this threat to all of the 9th Army’s generals.
The SS Kavalleriebrigade and the VI Corps attacked at Rzhev on 7 January and had been brought to a halt by the afternoon of the following day. Then two Soviet divisions surged over the thin German line in the area to the south of Ostashkov, opening a gap on the army group’s boundary, and the gap to the west of Rzhev widened by several miles when the SS Kavalleriebrigade ran out of ammunition and had to pull back. Four Soviet divisions were moving to the south, parallel with the railway line linking Vyazma and Rzhev, with nothing between them and the railway line. Strauss informed von Kluge and the Oberkommando des Heeres that the 4th Army, 4th Panzerarmee, 3rd Panzerarmee and 9th Army had been taken in a double envelopment, and that the only chance to prevent these armies’ destruction was to take them into the Gzhatsk-Volga position (i.e. the ‘Königsberg-Linie’ which Hitler had declared not to exist), a move which might free sufficient strength for the army group to eliminate the northern arm of the envelopment in the area to the west of Rzhev. von Kluge agreed, but would not give an order unless Hitler approved it. Halder and von Kluge spoke with Hitler, but the latter insisted on seeing von Kluge in person before making any decision.
During the night of 9 January, a blizzard hammered Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and forced a one-day pause in the fighting. von Kluge’s aeroplane could not get off the ground on the following morning for the flight to Hitler’s headquarters, and nothing changed at the front during the day as even the Soviets could not move. In the area to the east of Smolensk, trains and trucks were buried in snowdrifts. When he finally reached Hitler’s headquarters on 11 January, von Kluge found Hitler, apparently encouraged by the weather-imposed pause in the fighting, eager to talk about anything but a withdrawal: snowshoe battalions, the method of getting more men into a train, and the forthcoming spring and summer campaigns. So far as withdrawal was concerned, Hitler was adamant that every hour that this could be postponed would by to the advantage of the German forces.
von Kluge arrived back in Smolensk during the afternoon of 12 January. A few hours later, and in conformity with a procedure recently established to eliminate misunderstandings, Hitler reinforced his previous day’s remarks via teletype to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and under the heading ‘The Führer and Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht has ordered’ went on to emphasis that every day of continued stubborn resistance was decisive. It provided the possibility of bringing reinforcements into action to buttress the front. Therefore the break-ins had to be eliminated. The message then continued, as though there were no other causes for concern than the large gaps in the area to the west of Rzhev and between the 4th Panzerarmee and 4th Army, that the German forces close these gaps. The 4th Panzerarmee was to be permitted to pull back front about 9.33 miles (15 km) on condition that it released enough units to re-establish contact with the 4th Army. The 9th Army would have to thin the rest of its front to build a force with which to counterattack and close the gap at Rzhev.
Hitler’s effort to uphold his stand-fast thinking had by now lost touch completely with the realities of warfare on the Eastern Front as experienced by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the winter of 1941/42. The order to the 4th Panzerarmee allowed it only to complete the movement which Hoepner had started four days earlier. During those days the troops had been fighting in bitter cold and exposed terrain, were unable to advance and forbidden to retreat. The men were hopelessly discouraged, confused by events and the orders of their higher-level superiors, and totally exhausted at the physical and psychological levels; surprise had been lost; and the Soviets knew what the Germans were attempting and were on hand to foil their every effort. The 9th Army did not have just one gap with which to contend, as Hitler pretended. The XXIII Corps had suffered breakthroughs on both its flanks, and 9th Army did not know for certain what was happening to this corps because all telephone and telegraph communication had failed. On the 3rd Panzerarmee’s right flank, the V Corps was disintegrating in the face of Soviet armour and infantry attacks. The 3rd Panzerarmee formations were running out of ammunition, rations, and motor fuel, and Reinhardt threatened, as a result of this and the problems of the V Corps, to order a retreat on his own authority. Snow had halted all traffic on the railway to the north of Vyazma, and the impressed Soviet railway personnel had taken the opportunity to escape.
As they had over the last few days, on 12 January Soviet warplanes bombed Sychevka on the railway line mid-way between Vyazma and Rzhev, and when the bombers were not overhead, Strauss and his 9th Army headquarters personnel in Sychevka could hear the noise of war from the north-west. After the fall of night on this day, the noise became louder and more distinct every hour. Early on 13 January the Führer order, forwarded by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, reached the armies. The basics of the order’s contents were already known to the field formations, but the dismay and resentment it occasioned were overshadowed within hours as the I Guards Cavalry Corps, pressing to the north in the direction of Vyaz’ma, crossed the Rollbahn on the 4th Army’s right flank. By the fall of night, the army was having to evacuate Medyn, its left-hand anchor and the 4th Panzerarmee’s intended objective as it tried to close the gap. During the afternoon, Strauss and the 9th Army staff could see as well as hear the battle then being fought in the Sychevka railway yards, but a final supply train for the 9th Army and 3rd Panzerarmee did manage to escape to the north in the direction of Rzhev: when the next train might get through, no one could foretell. Strauss sent part of his staff to the south in the direction of Vyaz’ma before 12.00 but himself remained in Sychevka with Oberst Rudolf Hofmann, his chief-of-staff, until a time late in the afternoon in order to maintain contact with the V Corps and XXIII Corps, both of which reported that they were on the verge of collapse.
The Oberkommando des Heeres prepared for Hitler a pair of ‘solutions’ to the problem of Vyaz’ma and Rzhev. One of these, to have Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ stand fast as it had been doing, could still produce about 1.5 divisions in about 10 days for another attempt to close the Rzhev gap, but should this attempt fail, the Soviets would also take Vyaz’ma. The other, to order a retreat to the ‘Königsberg-Linie’, would give 4th Army and the 4th Panzerarmee a chance to close the gap separating them and yield three divisions for a counterattack at Rzhev.
von Kluge fought the vain fight right through 13 January, and indeed over the following two days, in his effort to convince the armies of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ that Hitler’s latest instruction was workable and to relay his mounting troubles to the Oberkommando des Heeres in a succession of increasingly desperate telephone calls. In this effort he made himself the instrument for imposing Hitler’s adamant will on the armies while at the same time seeking to wheedle minor concessions from Hitler. During the afternoon of 14 January, von Kluge spoke at with Hitler about the need to hold Rzhev as the army group’s northern bastion and thereby prevent a lateral collapse of the front. Hitler said he wanted to wait another day. Later, after the day’s situation conference, Halder observed that Hitler knew a retreat was necessary but simply could not bring himself to make the decision. What arrived finally, transmitted by Halder one day later, was a grudging agreement in principle to a general retreat to the ‘Königsberg-Linie’. Hitler’s own feelings were reflected in his confirming order of the following day, in which he said that this was the first occasion on which he had ordered a major withdrawal. It was clearly the most difficult order Hitler had yet given.