This was a Soviet offensive, more generally known as 'Yupiter', against Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge ’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the area to the west and north-west of Moscow within the ‘Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation’ 1, which was the second Soviet strategic offensive of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of World War II after the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' (10 January/28 February 1942).
Undertaken in the aftermath of the German failure to take Moscow in ‘Taifun’ (i), this ‘Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation’ was a geographically and militarily complex undertaking which created of the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma salient, and was fought with such ferocity on both sides that the battle became popularly known as the ‘Rzhev meatgrinder’ or ‘Rzhev mincer’ for its very high level of casualties.
During the first stage of the Soviet winter offensive, in the period to 7 January 1942, the German forces had been driven back from the outskirts of Moscow in the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, and from 8 January the Soviet offensive was resumed with drives to the north-west and south-east of Moscow, in the process creating the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma salient along and to the north of the Moscow Highway from Smolensk. This salient was strategically important for Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and therefore very strongly defended.
It was on the night of 5/6 December that there started the first of a series of Soviet offensives to save Moscow, for at this time the Soviet high command was not aware that the invading Germans were totally exhausted and therefore incapable, at least in the short term, of further offensive effort. General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front was first off the mark: from north-west to south-east, General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army (from a time in December renamed as the 4th Shock Army), General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 39th Army, General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 29th Army, General Major Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 31st Army and General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army crossed the frozen upper reaches of the Volga river and adjacent areas, and ran into determined German resistance everywhere except in the sector, between Kalinin and the confluence of the Lama and Volga rivers, of Yushkevich’s 31st Army. Here a major advance was achieved, the Soviet formation penetrating the right wing of Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s (from 15 January 1942 Generaloberst Walter Model’s) 9th Army and reaching Turginovo, about 20 miles (32 km) in the German rear.
On the following day the right flank of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, on the left of the Kalinin Front and supported by 700 aircraft, took up the attack in order to prevent Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe outflanking Moscow in the area to the north-east of the city. The German troops gave ground, quickly falling back some 15.5 miles (25 km) to the west, and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, recently reinforced by six divisions freshly arrived from Siberia and the Ural mountains area, began to move across the line of the railway linking Moscow and Kalinin.
Near Tula, well to the south on the other side of the Oka river, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee had already begun to withdraw toward the line of the Don river’s upper reaches, rapidly followed by General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army, which had been instructed to retake Stalinogorsk and Epifan. Still farther to the south, shock formations of tanks, cavalry and infantry had been formed by General Leytenant Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army, on the right of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s South-West Front, to undertake deep penetrations right into the rear areas of Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s or, during Weichs’s absence through illness, General Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army. Starting on 13 December, these Soviet drives cut the Germans formations’ main lines of retreat from Elets to Livny, and cut off and effectively destroyed part of Generalleutnant Fritz Schlieper’s 45th Division and caused severe losses to Generalleutnant Hans-Heinrich Sixt von Arnim’s 9th Division and Generalleutnant Hans Schlemmer’s 134th Division as they tried to pull back.
For the first time in the war the Soviet forces captured large quantities of German weapons and other heavy equipment, much of which had broken down or stuck in the deep snow, and in their haul the Soviets took many guns and vehicles.
Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch, who had recently tendered his resignation as commander-in-chief of the German army, had met von Bock in Smolensk on 13 December. von Bock had told von Brauchitsch that his formations could no longer hold the positions they had reached in December 1941, and that he felt any attempt to do so would inevitably call destruction down on Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Totalling 67 understrength and exhausted divisions, this army group was trying to hold a front of 600 miles (965 km), much of it comprising exposed salients containing little of operational or strategic value but demanding considerable manpower to hold. In the current situation there were no German reserve formations available, and the lines of communication were guarded by just four security divisions. According to the German intelligence apparatus on 6 December, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was opposed by 12 Soviet armies totalling 88 infantry divisions, 15 cavalry divisions and 24 tank brigades. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was already more than hard pressed, and von Bock informed von Brauchitsch that he was experiencing difficulty of disengaging from the Soviet forces without losing control of his formations.
von Brauchitsch believed that a withdrawal was the right course, and outlined a 'Königsberg-Linie' fallback line which was generally known to the men of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' as the ‘Winter-Linie’. This was based on the Rollbahn north/south road just to the east of Vyaz’ma, some 90 miles (145 km) to the rear of the positions currently held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, extending through Rzhev, Zubtsov, Gzhatsk, Yukhnov, Orel and Kursk.
In order to make for easier co-ordination and control over the extended frontages, the 3rd Panzergruppe was put under command of the 4th Panzergruppe, and the 2nd Army was subordinated to the 2nd Panzerarmee.
When it began to gain a surer picture of the difficulties in which the Germans were now finding themselves, the Soviet high command revised its thinking about the nature of current operations, and changed them from the initial concept of spoiling attacks to a major counter-offensive. This was to be based on a double envelopment from the flanks, rather than the West Front’s frontal attack. The sector along which the new Soviet counter-offensive was to be undertaken was some 600 miles (965 km) long, and the offensive was to be the task of 16 armies. The Soviets thus intended to encompass the complete destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by an offensive against each shoulder of the great German salient, that in the north-west being made by the Kalinin Front from the area of Kalinin and Torzhok toward Smolensk, and that in the south-east by the West Front in company with General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s Bryansk Front (re-formed on 18 December and already exerting considerable pressure on the 2nd Panzerarmee) driving in a great arc from the south from Stalinogorsk first to Sukhinichi and Kozelsk, and thence to Vyaz’ma and Smolensk. General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front was tasked with a secondary but deeper encircling thrust from the north-west of that made by the Kalinin Front, from the area Demyansk and Ostashkov along the boundary between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
The strategic ambition of this massive counter-offensive was therefore to encircle major German forces in a huge pocket, nearly 200 miles (320 km) in depth, stretching almost from Moscow to Smolensk, with one left-hand pincer and two right-hand pincers.
As the preparations for the great offensive were planned and completed, the West Front’s right flank in the Moscow area was to continue its pressure to the west, pinning the Germans and so preventing or at least hindering their withdrawal.
On 15 December, the date on which the main apparatus of the Soviet government was instructed to return to Moscow from Kuybyshev, to which it had been sent in the direst days of 'Taifun' (i), Hitler overruled von Brauchitsch’s concept of a strategic withdrawal, and on the following day ordered the German formations to hold fast without thought of any Soviet breakthroughs on their flanks and round into their rear. Hitler also took the opportunity to accept von Brauchitsch’s offer to retire, and he himself then became commander-in-chief of the German forces. Whether or not Hitler was right to insist on a rigid defence in front of Moscow remains a subject of debate. A withdrawal under pressure and in adverse weather conditions could readily have become a rout, in this case ending with the destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Hitler’s considerations were political rather than military, though, but his decision was probably approved by most of the German commanders on the Eastern Front as the only way to avoid the possibility of a major reverse.
Despite a desperate defence, however, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was able to hold its forward positions for only a few days before being compelled over the following five weeks to pull back between 100 and 200 miles (160 and 320 km). The army group lost large quantities of artillery and motor transport, and the formation’s very heavy losses were the result as much of the weather conditions as of the actions of the Soviet forces. The line initially held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ extended in great curves of eastward-facing salients and westward-facing re-entrants, and as neither the army group not the Oberkommando des Heeres had the reserves to meet and defeat any Soviet counter-offensive, any possible salvation could only have been found in a German withdrawal to a shorter defensive line.
As it was, during December the two great arms of the Soviet envelopment had started to encircle the German formations immediately to the west of Moscow.
It was on 10 December that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ ordered all of its subordinate formations to switch to the defensive, on 13 December that a secret order, originated by von Brauchitsch, had reached formation commanders with instructions for them to break contact and withdraw to a line 90 miles (145 km) to the west, and on 14 December that a countermanding order from Hitler arrived. By this time von Kluge’s (from 26 December 1941 General Ludwig Kübler’s) 4th Army, in the area to the south-west of Moscow between the Moscow Highway and the Ugra river, was already in danger of being outflanked and indeed encircled, and elements of Generalleutnant Erich Schröck’s (from 31 December 1942 Generalleutnant Martin Gareis’s) 98th Division were detached to the area behind the Protva river to prepare new positions, but on 17 December these were turned round and sent back again. It was finally during the evening of 19 December that the formations of the 4th Army were instructed to hold their positions without any thought of withdrawal, and the German forces were at least relieved that they had at last received categorical orders.
The fortunes of the 98th Division can be seen as typical of all the formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in this period. The division continued to dig itself in despite constant Soviet air attacks, and in the next two days heavy fighting continued on its flanks. To the north a Soviet armoured attack penetrated some 6 miles (9.5 km) on its left, and two to three Soviet divisions broke into the positions of its neighbouring division on the right. Then on 23 December, only four days after the receipt of stand-still order, the division and its companion formations of the 4th Army were compelled to begin a long withdrawal. On 24 December the division reached Borodino on the banks of the Istya river, which was frozen and therefore provided neither a defensive position for the Germans nor an obstacle for the Soviets. At 19.00 on 24 December the division was ordered to fall back still farther.
To the north of Moscow General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, of the 4th Panzergruppe, was also falling back from Moscow, covering between 7 and 15.5 miles (11.25 and 25 km) per day in temperatures down to -30° C (-22° F). For three weeks the troops had to survive with only snatches of sleep, and were constantly uncertain as to whether they would find shelter for the night or the Soviets would be awaiting their arrival at the next village.
In every division and every corps the fighting strength was declining on a day by day basis, and every commander knew that appeals to neighbouring formations and higher echelons would be fruitless. Between 25 December 1941 and 1 January 1942 every senior commander had constantly to ‘reshuffle his pack’ of infantry, artillery and any other assets in an effort to cope with each situation as it happened. So dire was the German position that infantry battalions had only 50 men without anti-tank weapons, and the only anti-tank capability rested with higher echelons who might be able to use howitzers to tackle the increasingly rampant strength of the Soviet armour. It was a hand-to-mouth existence as single battalions, each supported by one field gun, were sacrificed to buy the time for their parent divisions or corps to seek a way of escaping the Soviet forces.
Typical of the straits to which the German divisions had been reduced were the three divisions of the V Corps: in the six weeks following the stand-fast order, Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s 35th Division had lost more than 2,500 men and was left with just six field howitzers and two 50-mm anti-tank guns; Generalleutnant Heinz Hellmich’s (from 17 January 1942 Generalleutnant Kurt Badinski’s) 23rd Division had lost so many men that it revised its establishment of nine infantry battalions into just three battalions sharing only 1,000 men, and had a mere three field howitzers and one 50-mm anti-tank gun; and Generalleutnant Ernst Dehner’s 106th Division had hardly any of its officers left to it and could muster a mere 500 infantrymen.
Hitler had ordered that every house and other building should be burned as the Germans pulled back, but this order was largely ignored as the Germans believed that the Soviet soldiers could sleep in the open without suffering any ill effects, and that the first sign of smoke from a burning house resulted in a Soviet artillery or air response.
This campaign saw only very limited Luftwaffe activity, sometimes because the visibility was so poor, often because the service’s aircraft were not serviceable in the extreme cold, and in general because the Luftwaffe’s numbers were small. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II and one Fliegerkorps had already been withdrawn from the Eastern Front, so the only air support available to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was that of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps, which was the only mobile support still available to the German commanders.
A few army formations were promised from Germany or the occupation forces in western Europe, but these arrived generally too late and were then committed piecemeal to play no effective part in the campaign.
The inner element of the Soviets’ two right-hand pincers of the Kalinin Front was based on Maslennikov’s 39th Army, a force of six infantry and two cavalry divisions, supported on its right and left by Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army and Shvetsov’s 29th Army respectively. This pincer moved forward from the area around Kalinin and Torzhok in the direction of Rzhev, about 120 miles (195 km) to the west of Moscow, and though its advance was slow it was also steady as it pressed Strauss’s 9th Army, which fell back as slowly as it could manage and strewed mines in its rear.
Farther to the south, on the other side of Moscow where the Soviets’ single left-hand pincer was striking to the west, Guderian was showing some nervousness about the steadiness of the 2nd Army to his rear, where detachments of Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had managed to reach the approaches to Livny. A mere three days before his dismissal, von Brauchitsch had met Guderian in Roslavl and authorised him to withdraw the 2nd Panzerarmee behind the Susha and Oka rivers, some 80 miles (130 km) behind the line of the upper Don river. Hitler countermanded this authority after Guderian had already started to pull his formations back, and promised the aerial delivery of 500 reinforcements to stop the advance of what was in effect six Soviet armies and one cavalry corps. Guderian flew to Rastenburg in East Prussia, confident that he could persuade Hitler to see reason, but received only Hitler’s obdurate order that his formations were to stand where they were.
On 24 December the position became critical when von Kluge, newly elevated to the command of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in succession to von Bock, accused Guderian of disobeying the orders of both Hitler and von Kleist himself, to stand fast: von Kluge averred that Guderian had evacuated Chern, and so opened a gap between General Gotthard Heinrici’s XLIII Corps and the main body of the 2nd Panzerarmee. Whatever the cause, the appearance of this 25-mile (40-km) gap allowed the Soviet forces to stream though into the Germans’ rear areas and push forward in the direction of Smolensk and Vyaz’ma. On 26 December Guderian was placed on the retired list, and succeeded at the head of the 2nd Panzerarmee by Schmidt, temporary commander of the 2nd Army and former commander of the XXXIX Panzerkorps.
Generalmajor Walter von Boltenstern’s 29th Division (mot.), which as a motorised formation was part of the 2nd Panzerarmee, had fallen back steadily since 6 December. By 12 December the division had managed to pull back and regroup round Mtsensk, but had lost much of its equipment. In the Tula area, where the 2nd Panzerarmee’s line had been breached, the Soviet forces advanced swiftly under an effective air umbrella provided by the Soviet air forces. The I Guards Cavalry Corps spearheaded the advance together with General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army and General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army, later supplemented by Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s 33rd Army. This Soviet advance took Peremyshl on 25 December and Kaluga five days later, and the I Guards Cavalry Corps then persevered with its drive toward Yukhnov, less than 70 miles (115 km) from Vyaz’ma.
By the start of 1942, however, the Soviet formations were beginning to suffer the effects of sustained operations in highly adverse conditions at the considerably extended ends of indifferent lines of communication. The Soviet forces were also finding difficulty in dislodging the Germans from the many strongpoints which they were now managing to create. This was a major problem along the main railway lines of the area. In overall terms, though, the Soviet high command was more than satisfied with the progress of the southern pincer from the region of Tula.
The Soviet high command now instructed Kurochkin to launch the North-West Front’s outer element of the twin north-western pincers, from Ostashkov toward Vitebsk. Intended to advance more than 200 miles (320 km), this supported both Konev’s Kalinin Front and the right wing of Zhukov’s West Front. On 9 January two of the North-West Front’s formations, General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, began their offensive from the area of Lake Seliger, but made only slow progress until after Peno had been taken. On the right the 3rd Shock Army then moved to the west in the direction of Kholm and Velikiye Luki , while on the left the 4th Shock Army drove to the south-west along the southern bank of the Lower Dvina river in the direction of Vitebsk. The country was heavily wooded with few tracks and, as these two armies were moving on divergent axes, widening gaps appeared not only between them but also between Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army and Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army on its left and advancing in the direction of Rzhev and both Vyaz’ma and Yartsevo on the Moscow Highway.
Control and supply became increasingly problematical in these circumstances, but by the end of January the leading formations of the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies were approaching Velikiye Luki, Velizh and Demidov, having accomplished a largely unopposed advance of nearly 200 miles (320 km) over very difficult terrain. Kholm, which was the southernmost major town within the sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, held out as a result of its superb defence by Generalleutnant Theodor Scherer’s 281st Sicherungsdivision, which was only a 5,000-man line of communications security unit for Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
The Soviet outer right-hand pincer had therefore accomplished virtually all of its tasks, but the gap between the right and left pincers between Demidov and Spas-Demensk was still more than 100 miles (160 km) wide.
Meanwhile a number of changes had taken place among the senior German leadership. Strauss had become ill and been replaced at the head of the 9th Army in mid-January by General (soon to become Generaloberst) Walter Model, previously commander of the XLI Panzerkorps. Despite having been only recently appointed to command of the 4th Army, Kübler decided that he did not want the task and was replaced on 20 January by Heinrici, formerly commander of the XLIII Corps.
On 8 January the Soviets seemed to be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough near Sukhinichi, and von Kluge demanded from Halder that the tand-and-fight order be rescinded so that he, as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, had the freedom dispose his formations as he thought fit. Halder referred the matter to Hitler, and at this stage it was discovered that Hoepner had already sidestepped the order and instructed his 4th Panzergruppe to pull back in the face of a possible encirclement. Hoepner was immediately dismissed from the army and replaced by Ruoff, formerly commander of the V Corps.
Meanwhile the Soviets had been pushing forward their offensive. In the middle of the virtual pocket created by the Soviet double envelopment, General Major Andrei A. Vlasov’s specially reinforced 20th Army, together with Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and the II Guards Cavalry Corps, broke through on 13 January near Volokolamsk. Supported by the 22nd Army, 39th Army and 29th Army, constituting the Kalinin Front’s inner right-hand pincer, had finally reached the area of Rzhev. By the end of January the German position was still more acute than it had been earlier in the same month for, despite their orders to hold the original defence line, the formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been driven back to the south-west by anything between 100 and 150 miles (160 to 240 km). Deep within the pocket which the Soviet forces had now almost managed to close were Model’s 9th Army and Ruoff’s 4th Panzerarmee, as the 4th Panzergruppe had been restyled at the beginning of the year. Heinrici’s 4th Army was still managing to hold open the entrance to the pocket, trying to delay the Soviets’ left-hand pincer, which was slowly closing the gap from the south.
Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army had escaped the Soviet attempt to envelop them, and were to the south in the area of Orel.
At this stage the Soviet high command made a notably bold attempt to seal the entrance of the cauldron with airborne troops and partisans. In the 'Vyaz’ma Airborne Operation', the 8th and 201st Airborne Brigades and other units of the IV Airborne Corps, in all about 4,000 men, were landed to the south-east and south-west of Vyaz’ma with the task of severing the railway link between Smolensk and Vyaz’ma, and of closing the mouth of the pocket. In Sukhinichi, to the south of the entrance of this 'cauldron', some 4,000 German troops had been cut off since 3 January and had to be nourished by air; and nearby, in Yukhnov, several divisions were threatened with encirclement. The road linking Yukhnov and Roslavl had been severed, and the Soviets were now threatening the road and railway links between Smolensk and Vyaz’ma, which were the primary lines of communication for the 9th Army, 3rd Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee.
Farther to the south, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s 61st Army were moving against the 2nd Panzerarmee in the area between Bryansk and Orel, and also posed a threat to the railway linking Roslavl, Bryansk and Orel, which was the primary line of communication for the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzerarmee.
During the first week of January, the 33rd Army had started to open a gap between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 4th Army near Medyn, and it had been for ordering a pull-back to escape this encirclement that Hoepner had been dismissed in favour of Ruoff, who could nonetheless not hold the line, forcing Hitler to agree on 13 January to the retirement which had already taken place. Meanwhile elements of the I Guards Cavalry Corps and 33rd Army had succeeded in their task of separating the 4th Panzerarmee in the north from the 4th Army in the south, and had therefore been able to introduce themselves into the open neck of the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma pocket in the area to the south of Vyaz’ma, where they were supplemented by partisans and the some elements of the highly scattered airborne troops.
Another threat to the Germans came from the north of the pocket, where the 29th and 39th Armies, together with the XI Cavalry Corps, had advanced rapidly to the south and south-west from Rzhev toward Vyaz’ma and Yartsevo right across the rear of the 9th Army and 4th Panzerarmee.
From the German perspective, the whole situation in the area to the west of Moscow appeared to be critical as the Soviets had almost completed the closure of the great pocket’s entrance, and the encircled German formations were in the process of being ground to destruction. So far the course of events had decisively favoured the Soviet offensive, but in the middle of February the situation was suddenly transformed.
On 21 January the Soviet high command had withdrawn the 1st Shock Army and 16th Army from the region to the west of Moscow in order to be able to provide reinforcements for the northern and southern flanks, and this left the 20th Army, the only formation still operating in the centre, too limited in capability to complete the task of rolling up the German pocket from east to west. This relieved the eastward pressure on the 4th Panzerarmee and 9th Army, both of which were deep in the pocket. The 33rd Army and I Guards Cavalry Corps were trying, with the aid of the airborne troops and partisan units, to seal the opening of the pocket between Yukhnov and Vyaz’ma, and now these were strongly counterattacked by the 4th Panzerarmee. This managed to re-establish contact with the 4th Army on the outside of the pocket in the course of 3 February, and cut off the Soviet troops in the mouth of the pocket from their rear.
On 5 February the 9th Army, together with encircled German forces near Olenino and Rzhev, attacked the encircling 29th Army from east and west, isolated it from its neighbours, encircled it and then destroyed it. It is believed that a mere 5,000 survivors managed to escaped to the south and join the XI Cavalry Corps and 39th Army which, by that time, were themselves almost encircled. Hitler had meanwhile agreed reluctantly to a general withdrawal to the ‘Winter-Linie’ and ordered the 3rd Panzerarmee and elements of the 9th Army out of the pocket to Vitebsk and Smolensk, allowing the establishment of a reserve giving the German defence a measure of depth. The 3rd Panzerarmee soon succeeded in containing the Soviet drives toward Vitebsk and Demidov, a success facilitated by the fact that the 4th Shock Army, now in great difficulty about its supply situation, was moving very slowly and with a lack of firm purpose. A German division thrusting to the north-east from Smolensk reached Bely, and in the process separated the 39th Army and 22nd Army from each other. The German forces encircled at Sukhinichi had already been extricated on 25 January.
The decisive element of the battle was now to be found in the mouth of the pocket, and most specifically in the region round Vyaz’ma. On 1 February Zhukov had been appointed commander of the Western Direction in addition to retaining his position at the head of the West Front, this new theatre including, from north to south, the Kalinin Front, West Front and Bryansk Front. By this time the Soviet forces were exhausted, and too weak either to close the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma pocket or to complete the destruction of the German forces partially encircled in the pocket. The XI Cavalry Corps and part of the 39th Army had been cut off by the 9th Army, and at the same time part of the 33rd Army together with the I Guards Cavalry Corps, part of the IV Airborne Corps and partisan units had been encircled in the mouth of the pocket when the 4th Panzerarmee and 4th Army re-established contact, and these Soviet troops were now wholly reliant on air supply. The desperate efforts made by the Soviets to relieve the trapped forces did not succeed, and no other Soviet forces were able to aid, or even to move, as they were at the end of a 150-mile (240-km) line of communication which was constantly interrupted by bad weather and lack of transport.
Another factor adversely affecting the progress of the Soviet offensive was lack of fighter cover, for the advance had moved so far and so fast that it had proved impossible as yet to create new airfields within fighter range of the front. Thus the encircled Soviet forces were slowly cut to pieces by the German ground forces with the aid of more effective fighter cover and improved tactical air support.
During the period early in March the fighting started to decline in intensity, leaving the Germans in good positions and also in possession of secure lines of communication to Vyaz’ma and Orel. On 20 March the Soviet high command ordered their formations forward in yet another stage of the offensive, the Kalinin Front being instructed once more to separate the Olenino north-westward spur of the German salient from the rest of the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma pocket, and the West Front to attack to the east with four armies along the line of the railway linking Moscow and Vyaz’ma. This stage of the offensive began at the end of March but was discontinued at the beginning of April after only a few days as the Soviet troops were totally exhausted, and supply proved all but impossible in the glutinous mid of the spring thaw.
Thus the Soviet winter offensive in front of Moscow had groaned to a halt. This offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been supported by other major offensives in the Leningrad and Lake Ilmen areas, in Ukraine and in Crimea, it should be noted. Only at Demyansk and Izyum did the Soviet forces gain any but transitory success.
So while the German forces had overreached themselves when they set out without proper logistic preparation to take Moscow too late in the year, with inadequate resources and in the face of deteriorating weather, the Soviet offensive had been committed with considerable strength, but also with straitened long-term resources and lines of communication which became overtaxed the farther the Soviet armies advanced. The Soviet high command had both overestimated the success of its winter defence and underestimated the strength, resilience and stamina of the German forces.
Offensives had been ordered all along the Eastern Front, but the Soviet forces lacked the strength required, and this led to the failure to secure a decisive advantage anywhere along the front, as exemplified by the fact that of nine Soviet armies in reserve at the start of the winter campaign, single armies had been allocated to the North-West Front, Kalinin Front, Bryansk Front and South-West Front, two to the Volkhov Front and three to the West Front.
This first Soviet offensive had been schemed and executed as a huge undertaking, but had lacked the type of closely co-ordinated strategic direction which was required. Thus the sudden change from a piecemeal and hasty defence to a general offensive was characterised by inadequate time for planning and preparation. Despite this, at front level the Soviet plans may have been too ambitious, but were generally well conceived at the operational level and designed to yield a double envelopment in great depth. They failed because of the winter weather and the Soviets’ lack of the massed armour formations to secure their timely execution. The vast majority of the Soviet troops involved were marching infantry or horsed cavalry, supported by numerous tanks deployed in comparatively small units. The armour was therefore committed in small detachments rather than as complete brigades, and the use of airborne troops, both at Vyaz’ma and Demyansk, was a failure since these shock troops were committed at too great a depth without the heavier weapons which might have allowed them to survive for the considerable time which was to elapse before their could be reached by conventional ground forces.
Even if the Soviet high command had allotted nine instead of five reserve armies to the Western Direction, Zhukov would in all probability still have lacked the strength to destroy Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. In overall terms, therefore, while the German forces had suffered a major defeat before Moscow, this was not catastrophic and the 376,000 German battle casualties of the winter of 1941/42 on the Eastern Front were in no way excessive. It must be added, though, that to the battle casualties must be added the casualties resulting from illness (most typhus) and exposure, which boosted the total to approximately 900,000, and this was a figure greater than Germany could afford. No figures or the Soviet losses have ever been revealed, but were probably twice those of the Germans.