Mozhaysk-Malaoyaroslavets Defensive Operation

The 'Mozhaysk-Maloyaroslavets Defensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking during the 'Taifun' (i) stage of the Battle of Moscow, and was intended to prevent the German forces from breaking through from the west farther toward Moscow (10/30 October 1941).

Preparing to repel a renewed offensive by Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', the Soviet supreme command defined the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' as its primary line of resistance. Within a week, 14 infantry divisions, 16 tank brigades, more than 40 artillery regiments and other formations and units, inferior to the Germ forces in number, offered a stubborn resistance in the areas of Kaluga, Maloyaroslavets, Mozhaysk and Volokolamsk, and despite their own very heavy losses, by the end of October had checked the Germans' main assault formations, which had not been able to break through the Soviet forces' latest defensive front on the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line'.

The earlier Soviet defeats in the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk areas had by this time created a great danger to Moscow from the direction of Mozhaysk. To organise what was now appreciated as the essential high-quality anti-tank defence, the Soviet supreme command on 4 October despatched to Mozhaysk General Major Leonid A. Govorov, the chief of the Reserve Front’s artillery element, and on 9 October the Soviet supreme command ordered the creation of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' under the command of General Leytenant Pavel A. Artemev with Govorov as his deputy. In order to created a unified force in the Western Direction, the Reserve Front’s remaining forces were transferred to the West Front on 10 October, the day on which General Georgi K. Zhukov was appointed as the commander of the West Front with General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev, the front’s previous commander, as his deputy.

On the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', the Soviet forces which had managed to extricate themselves Vyaz’ma pocket, whose relief the Soviet supreme command had not even considered for the combination of inadequate strength and the need to defend Moscow, were used to bolster the forces already there. The newly formed but still weak and unco-ordinated formations constituting the defence were. from north to south, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army in the Volokolamsk area, General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s (from 18 October General Major Leonid A. Govorov’s after Lelyushenko had been injured) 5th Army in the Mozhaysk area, General Leytenant Mikhail G. Yefremov’s 33rd Army in the Naro-Fominsk area, General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army in the Maloyaroslavets area and General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army in the Serpukhov area.

The forward, and indeed the main, defensive component of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' extended from the Lama river via Volokolamsk, Borodino, Ilyinskoye, Detchino and Kaluga to Tula. The second line extended from Klin, via the Istra reservoir, Istra, Zvenigorod, the Moscow river, the Narskiye Prudy lake, Narofominsk and the Nara river to Serpukhov. The third line extended from Khlebnikovo via Nakhabino to Domodedovo. For lack of time and the speed of the German advance, the development and preparation of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' was not completed: for example, only some 40% of the planned firing positions were completed. Along the front were three fortified regions, in the form of the Volokolamsk Fortified Region (No. 35), the Mozhaysk Fortified Region and the Maloyaroslavsk Fortified Region (No. 37). In the Mozhaysk Fortified Region, by 10 October a total of 47 bunkers, 103 pillboxes, 70 anti-tank ditches, 45 escarpments and 13 wire entanglements had been completed. During its construction, the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' was seen by the Soviets as being manned by 25 divisions. Of these, in the 74 miles (119 km) of the Volokolamsk Fortified Region there were to be six infantry divisions; in 50 miles (80 km) of the Mozhaysk Fortified Region there were to be five divisions; in the 35 miles (56 km) of the Maloyaroslavets Fortified Region there were to be six divisions; and in the 47 miles (75 km) of the Kaluga Fortified Region there were to be four divisions. It was also planned that each of the fortified regions would have one division as reserve. Intent was one thing, of course, but the reality of the Soviet situation on 10 October was that there were not 25 divisions at the disposal of Artemev, the commander of the Moscow Military District.

On 9 October, the Germans took Gzhatsk, just to the north of the Moscow Highway between Vyaz’ma and Mozhaysk, and their drove forward toward Mozhaysk. Near the 77-mile (125-km) marker of the Moscow Highway, near the village of Yelnya, the the 5th Army took the first brunt of the battle for the forward edge of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line'. These positions were defended by one battalion of the 17th Regiment, and anti-tank guns were installed in pillboxes on each side of the highway. Before the Germans appeared, the engineers of the 467th Separate Engineer Battalion blew up the bridge over the Yelenka river.

On 10 October, the 'Mozhaysk-Maloyaroslavets Defensive Operation' began as General Walter Schroth’s XII Corps of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe and General General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge 's 4th Army began the German offensive in the area of Kaluga and Maloyaroslavets areas, and quickly broke through the Soviet defences. Three days later, fierce fighting erupted along the fronts of the Mozhaysk Fortified Region and the Maloyaroslavets Fortified Region, and 16 October the German offensive had spread to the Volokolamsk Fortified Region. By 18 October, armour of General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.), a component of the 4th Panzergruppe, had entered Mozhaysk on the second defence line, some 60 miles (100 km) to the west of Moscow, after some fierce fighting against three tank brigades near Borodino, and the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' had been breached by General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) of the 4th Army near Maloyaroslavets and Borovsk, and by Felber’s XIII Corps near Kaluga. Thus there had developed a major threat in the Naro-Fominsk and Podolsk areas to the south of Moscow, and the lines of communication between Moscow and Tula were in danger of being cut. To meet this situation a new Soviet formation, Yefremov’s 13th Army, was formed in this area and Golubev’s 43rd Army was reinforced. The three Moscow defence rings were further strengthened by barricades, strongpoints and anti-tank obstacles, and three workers' divisions were hurriedly formed from volunteers and conscripted civilians. Special orders were enacted to strengthen the political and military control over the civilian population: these included the establishment of military tribunals and, as deemed necessary', the use of firing squads for the exemplary shooting of 'offenders'.

By the middle of October, when the weather finally broke up, the German advance shown by the daily situation maps in the headquarters of Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief of the German army, was highly satisfactory but did not reflect the real position. It was known that Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee's formation was failing to make any farther progress and appeared to be bogged down near Mtsensk, but it was not realised that the weather was shortly to halt movement everywhere. On 14 October von Brauchitsch issued an Oberkommando des Heeres order, which was of course an order from Adolf Hitler, which outlined the further development of operations by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte': Moscow was to be surrounded but not occupied and any offer of capitulation was to be rejected. The military orders which followed this strange mix of concepts were no less impracticable, and involved the complete dispersal of the strength which had been concentrated for the destruction of the West Front and the seizure of Moscow. Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army was to move from Kursk to Voronezh while Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee was to take Tula and encircle Moscow from the south-east. von Kluge’s 4th Army was to pin the Soviet forces to the west of Moscow while Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4the Panzergruppe were to encircle Moscow from the north-east. Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army was to strike straight to the north from the line linking Kalinin and Staritsa to Vishny Volochok, in the area of the Valdai hills, to support Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’sHeeresgruppe 'Nord'. All these operations would have spread Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' over a front of about 600 miles (965 km), and von Brauchitsch’s plan not surprisingly brought a protest from von Bock, who wished to undertake an attack on Moscow by the shortest and most direct route.

From the middle of October, the worsening weather had slowed the rate of the German advance in front of Moscow, just as it had done that of the 2nd Panzerarmee in the area of Mtsensk, where the winter had broken 10 days earlier. There followed for Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' a situation which was exactly the same as that which had checked the 2nd Panzerarmee: the Moscow Highway started to break up and all wheeled traffic was brought to a halt in the vast area of rasputitsa mud. Only tracked vehicles and panje wagons were capable of any movement at all. Whole divisions came to a halt, their stationary units and detachments scattered over hundreds of miles. Thousands of horses died through over-exertion and lack of fodder, and guns and heavy equipment remained stuck in the muddy morass. Anti-tank guns could not be moved forward to tackle the Soviet armour which were numerous once more, and many signal vehicles were to remain separated from their headquarters. The supply system broke down and there was insufficient air transport to cope with anything but emergency supply drops. Even when it was possible to get wheeled motor vehicles moving with the assistance of tracked prime movers, the appalling nature of the going quickly exhausted the front’s limited fuel stocks. Stranded detachments were in very real danger of starving.

The 4th Army, with a strength of some 36 divisions on the Nara river to the west of Moscow, had made little progress, and instead of pinning the Soviet forces was itself pinned. The condition of the German troops here gave rise for concern. Generalleutnant Erich Schröck’s 98th Division of the 4th Army's XII Corps, had made a 600-mile (965-km) march through Ukraine as part of the 6th Army to join the 4th Army just after the Vyaz’ma battle and had fought its way from Maloyaroslavets, at which point it took over the pursuit in the muddy October period when Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision came to a halt beyond the Protva river. Over the division now loomed low cloud which pelted the men with continual rain and snow showers: since the Panzer formations had been left behind, however, the infantry 'enjoyed' the nightly warmth of miserable hovels, while the armoured troops, stuck in the mud, wintered it out. It was weeks before some of these motorised troops were able to move once more, and meanwhile they were frequently compelled to fight Soviet stragglers and partisans. Supply columns could move only with the help of captured Soviet tractors. The Soviet rearguards in this sector fought with skill, and left numerous stay-behind detachments in the local woods and scrublands. On the Nara river, Soviet resistance began to stiffen again, many Mongols and Kalmucks being taken among the prisoners, and there were rumours of well-trained Siberian and airborne formations being committed to the battle. With companies of little more than platoon strength, the division’s 289th Infanterieregiment took the Chernishay heights, but was immediately driven off them by a Soviet counterattack. This was a totally novel situation, for in the earlier stages of 'Barbarossa', when German infantry units could not be prised loose from their objectives. The 290th Infanterieregiment, supported by assault guns, retook the objective but became separated from its armour and was immediately counterattacked and driven back by masses of Soviet infantry. The Germans suffered through Soviet mortar and artillery rocket fire, although the poor splinter effect of the rockets' warheads saved many German lives. In general, though, the Soviet superiority in artillery and automatic weapons caused heavy losses. The men of the 98th Division noted with envy that, unlike themselves, the Soviets had no difficulty with ammunition supply.

The Soviet T-34 medium tank came as a major shock to the German infantry. An attack on the boundary between the 289th Infanterieregiment and 290th Infanterieregiment led some of the men to panic, and it was only the personal intervention of one of the regimental commanders which persuaded the troops to return to their positions. Only when the German armour and 88-mm (3.465-in) Flak guns began to pick off the T-34 tanks did the infantry start to regain their equilibrium. Even so, Soviet tanks continued to break into the German positions but the tanks were rarely accompanied by infantry, and thus they roamed about the battlefield achieving little until they were destroyed or forced by German fire to retreat. German regimental staffs, clerks, signallers, engineers and anti-tank gunners were all used as infantrymen. Infantry companies, many of them now reduced to a mere 20 or so men and led b junior officers or senior non-commissioned officers, were unkempt and dirty as they had neither bathed nor changed their clothes for months. Plagued by lice, the infantrymen lay all day cramped and stiff in their narrow weapon pits filled with water, their feet so cold that they had lost all feeling. In these circumstances, illness and cold caused more casualties than Soviet action. Rain fell incessantly and the Luftwaffe seemed unable to cope with the Soviet fighters and bombers which dropped out of the low cloud to bomb and strafe.

One officer wrote that only 43.5 miles (70 km) from Moscow the troops still had confidence, because they could not believe that every other German soldier was in a state as wretched as theirs. On 2 November a regimental commander had reported that without rest and refit his men were no longer of any combat value, and on 5 November von Kluge arrived at the division personally to investigate its weakness. However, this made no difference to his intention to use the division in the final offensive as its condition was in fact little worse than that of most other infantry formations.

Generalleutnant Walther Fischer von Weikersthal’s 35th Division was located on he right flank of General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, the most southerly of the major formations of Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army as it began to advance in the area to the north of Moscow; but on 19 October the rain and thaw halted most of this division. Although many of their companies had a strength of as few as 30 men. the infantry continued to struggle forward through cloying mud up to their knees. All motor vehicles, radio equipment and vehicles, heavy artillery and baggage were left behind between Klushino and Sereda. A few pieces of light artillery were moved forward, each piece and its limber being dragged slowly by no fewer than 24 horses. Surgeons with their field medical teams were loaded into panje carts and sent forward with the infantry, and an attempt was made to establish a supply chain from Gzhatsk, using pack animals and carts. By 20 October the infantry had crossed the Ruza river against light resistance, the Soviets having only a few guns but no shortage of ammunition. Between 24 and 26 October it appeared that the Soviet defence was collapsing and on 27 October Volokolamsk was taken. Four days later the 35th Division, although reduced to two radically understrength regiments, had taken 1,800 prisoners and covered 15.5 miles (25 km) of the most difficult waterlogged terrain in five days.

On 31 October a pause of two weeks was ordered, while more guns and ammunition were brought up. For the rest of the month, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' edged its way slowly and laboriously forward in accordance with its orders. The 40th Army had reached the Nara river on the line between Serpukhov and Volokolamsk, while farther to the south the 9th Army in heavy fighting secured the area to the north of Rzhev on the approaches to Kalinin. Still farther to the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee finally took Mtsensk on 24 October, but as its shortage of fuel would not allow the whole of the XXIV Corps (mot.) to advance on Tula, all of the remaining fuel was pooled in order to get some tanks forward and an improvised Panzer brigade was sent under the command of Oberst Heinrich Eberbach to seize the town by a coup-de-main assault. The attack on Yermakov’s 50th Army, which was holding Tula, failed and the German tank losses were heavy.

The breaking of the weather caused an almost complete falling off in the intensity of the German attacks and gave the Soviets much needed relief. By the end of October the Soviet supreme command had come to regard the situation as stable, and thus begun to withdraw troops into reserve for rest and rehabilitation. Both sides now entered on a hectic race to make good the enormous losses they had suffered during the first two weeks in October at Vyaz’ma and Bryansk, and the Soviets readied themselves to hold the next German onslaught.

It was expected that when it came, the German offensive would follow the pattern established in the preceding attacks, and would therefore be made by strong armoured forces on each flank. The Soviet plan was now to take the form of attacks on these flanking Panzer forces before they could be organised for an offensive. One tank and five cavalry divisions from the area near Volokolamsk were to drive into the flank and rear of Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe, and to the south of Stalinogorsk, one cavalry and two tank divisions began to infiltrate into the rear of Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee. The West Front received reinforcements and new formations as well as many anti-tank and mortar regiments from General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front, which had been disestablished on 10 November. Of considerably greater importance was the reorganisation and retraining of another nine armies during October and November. These were deployed on a line between Lake Onega in the north and Astrakhan in the south via Roslavl, Gorky, Saratov and Stalingrad. Two complete armies and elements of another three armies were scheduled to reach the Moscow area by the end of November. Some of these armies' divisions were raised from newly drafted recruits, but some of the formations were well trained and equipped, and had been withdrawn from the military districts in central Russia and Siberia. In order to move and concentrate these troops behind the West Front, the entire Soviet railway network was given up to the army, and on 24 October the Moscow railway complex was put entirely under military control. Large numbers of military trains ran from Tomsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk and Kuybyshev without stopping to change locomotives or crews, covering between 500 and 600 miles (800 and 965 km) per day. During October and November the Soviet supreme command made large-scale administrative preparations for the final defensive battle before Moscow, and for this purpose large numbers of pack and animal truck and sledge companies were formed, as a pony had far greater mobility in mud or soft snow than a wheeled motor vehicle. However, as the problems caused by the shortage of transport, the weather and the terrain were fully evident, seven days' rations, six refills of vehicle fuel and three lines of ammunition were positioned with the forward troops.

For the first time on World War II, German movement had been brought to a complete halt, and remained so during the second and third weeks in October as a result of the rain and mud.

Soviet resistance grew stringer late in October, and to the west and south of Moscow the fighting was bitter. However, an examination of the evidence shows without doubt that the German advance, which at first promised to be as rapid as any of those late in the summer, abruptly came to a halt as a result of the weather and the terrain. In the first fortnight of the 'Taifun' (i) offensive, of which the Soviet defence of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' was an early component, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' inflicted almost 700,000 casualties on the defenders at comparatively little cost to itself, and with another three weeks of dry, mild and clear weather it would almost inevitably have taken Moscow. The German successes over the Polish, French, British and Soviet forces up to this time had been truly spectacular, and had been brought about by the much superior mobility and firepower made possible by the combination of massed armoured forces and devastating close air support, superior operational and tactical communications, and leadership which was both skilled and bold. Now the loss of mobility meant the major reduction in firepower, and the German operational and tactical concept of the Blitzkrieg foundered on this factor. The almost unbelievably difficult conditions in western Russia and the morass of autumnal mud brought all wheeled movement to a standstill and destroyed the considerable majority of the horses. Tracked vehicles could keep going, but only at very reduced efficiency with a prohibitively increased fuel-consumption, and deliveries of fuel had also come to a virtual end, tracked vehicles also came to a standstill in the immediate future. Little air transport was available and the low cloud and poor visibility made difficult any form of sustained air offensive or air transport support.

The German infantry continued to advance, even through water and mud that was often waist-deep, but this advance was no longer part of a well co-ordinated and powerful fighting machine. Without armour and air support, and with little in the way of artillery or mortar fire at its disposal (even the anti-tank guns had on occasion been left behind), it crept rather than marched forward. The infantry lacked fire support, ammunition, food, equipment, clothing, warmth, shelter and medical care, because even necessities could not be brought forward. Almost overnight, the Germans were suddenly forced to depend for success in their thrust toward Moscow on the efforts of a number of unsupported, tired and understrength infantry battalions, while the rest of the German army and the Luftwaffe stood immobilised and powerless, idle and limited to the role of spectators rather than participants.

As always, the Soviet resistance was patchy. In front of Tula and on the Nara river, where new formations were arriving, it was most determined and tough. It was insignificant near Volokolamsk, where much of the Caucasian cavalry arm surrendered. From the middle of October, the Soviets were being engaged by only part of the German strength. The Soviets certainly suffered the same movement problems as did the Germans, but Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was at the end of a line of communication some 1,000 miles (1600 km) long, while the West Front was little more than 40 miles (65 km) from its main base. It is a truism of war that any conditions which inhibit movement inevitably favour the defence.

Of course it would be entirely wrong to attribute the German failure solely to the weather and/or misfortune. The primary failure was that of misjudgement and mistiming, since 'Taifun' (i) was mounted too late in the year, at a season when the weather was certain to break. A secondary cause was the lack of understanding of the special effects on mobile operations of the Russian weather and terrain, and a third was the ever present problem of shortage of resources. As 'Taifun' (i) was launched so late in the year, some other form of transport was needed to replace or supplement wheeled vehicles, both powered and horse-drawn. The only alternative method at that time would have been air transport, should the aircraft and supply resources had been available, which they were not. Too much had been asked of the German troops, and in particular of the infantry, and strengths had been allowed to drop altogether too low. In a paper prepared on 6 November 1941, which if anything understated the serious nature of the position, the 101 infantry divisions on the Eastern Front in Russia were assessed as possessing the combat capability of no more than 65 full-establishment divisions, and the 17 Panzer divisions to the effective capability of six. In all, the German forces on the Eastern Front, which numbered 136 divisions, had a fighting strength equivalent to a mere 83 divisions.

Load carriers of special design, either tracked or wheeled, could have negotiated the Russian mud, but no steps whatsoever had been taken to design or manufacture such vehicles, and as these would have been required in very large numbers it is certain that German industry could not have produced them. The alternative could have been provided by air transport, if an air transport and supply organisation of sufficient size had been in existence, but the Luftwaffe had taken no genuinely useful developments on this type.