Rzhev-Vyaz'ma Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation' was the Soviet operation designed to pinch out the German forces in the large pocket including Rzhev and Vyaz’ma to the west of Moscow (8 January/20 April 1942).

The sub-operations within the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation' were the 'Sychyovka-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation' (8 January/28 February), the 'Mozhaysk-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation' otherwise known as 'Yupiter' (10 January/28 February), the 'Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation' (9 January/6 February), the 'Vyaz’ma Airborne Operation' (18 January/28 February), the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation' (3 March/20 April 1942 and the second phase of the 'Demyansk Offensive Operation' (7 January/20 May).

During the Soviet forces' 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' in the winter of 1941/1942, a significant number of German forces were driven back from the Soviet capital and then faced isolation in a never-completed encirclement to the west of Moscow. This German-held Rzhev-Vyaz’ma salient faced to the east, and thus toward Moscow, and was strategically important for Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' as the fact that it faced Moscow offered great strategic possibilities. The salient was therefore heavily fortified and strongly defended.

The Soviet forces initially committed by the Kalinin Front and West Front included the 22nd, 29th, 30th, 31st and 39th Armies of the former, and the 1st Shock, 5th, 10th, 16th, 20th, 33rd, 43rd, 49th and 50th Armies and three cavalry corps of the latter. The intent was for the 22nd Army, 29th Army and 39th Armies supported by the XI Cavalry Corps to attack to the south-west of Rzhev and penetrate deep into the western flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte''s 9th Army. This was achieved in January, and by the end of the month the cavalry corps found itself almost 70 miles (110 km) deep into the German flank. To eliminate this threat to the rear of the 9th Army, the Germans had begun the 'Seydlitz' (iii) operation by 2 July. As a result of terrain’s nature, the lines of communication serving the 22nd Army, 29th Army and 39th Army which attempted to enlarge the Soviet penetration became difficult, and they were encircled. The cutting of a major highway to Rzhev by the cavalry signalled the commencement of the 'Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation'.

During December 1941 the two large arms of the Soviet envelopment had started to encircle the German formations immediately to the west of Moscow, and on 10 December these formations were ordered to go over to the defensive. On 13 December a secret order, originated by Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army’s commander-in-chief, had been distributed to higher commanders on the Eastern Front, instructing them to break contact with the Soviet forces and to withdraw to a line some 90 miles (145 km) to the west. On the following day there arrived the order from Adolf Hitler countermanding the order of the previous day. Then information was received that Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army was in danger of being outflanked from the rear. Units of Generalleutnant Erich Schröck’s 98th Division were accordingly despatched to locations behind the Protva river to prepare new positions, but on 17 December these were sent back again. The repeated changes of orders led to a grave disquiet and for the first time confidence was shaken in the higher command. It was only in the evening of 19 December that it was finally ordered that troops should remain in their positions without withdrawing, and all commanders and troops began to breathe again in relief at having finally received decisive firm orders.

On 19 December von Brauchitsch had been forced to resign and Hitler had assumed personal command of the German army. The army’s faith in Hitler was still very high, and a new wave of optimism spread. The 98th Division continued to dig in with renewed energy, although attacked from the air on a constant basis, and in the next two days there was heavy fighting on its flanks. Immediately to the north, a Soviet tank attack made a penetration of some 6 miles (10 km) just beyond the main road linking Moscow and Smolensk, while two to three Soviet divisions broke into the position of the division just to its right. Bad news was spreading north and south along the front and, on 23 December, a mere four days after the standstill order, the 98th Division and its neighbouring formations were compelled to embark on their long withdrawal. On 24 December the division reached the field of the 1812 Battle of Borodino on the banks of the Istya river which, being frozen, was neither an obstacle to the Soviets not a useful defensive position for the Germans, and at 19.00 on 24 December the troops moved back again.

Generalleutnant Willy Seeger’s 292th Division was also on the Nara river, was relieved when it heard the standstill order as it considered that it lacked the strength for a long withdrawal. Despite this, it did have to fall back, and on the night of 31 December/1 January found itself holding a divisional sector about 8 miles (12,85 km) wide with companies which, although down to a mere 30 men, were nonetheless stronger than those of its neighbours. On that night a Soviet officer was killed in the divisional rear area: what most impressed the unshaven, filthy and verminous German troops was the cleanliness of the officer’s clothing.

To the north of Moscow, General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe was falling back from Moscow, covering between 7 and 15 miles (11.25 and 24 km) per day in temperatures as cold as -30° C (-22° F). For three weeks the troops went almost without sleep and in the uncertainty of whether or not the Soviets would already be waiting for them in the next village. The strength of the corps was lessening every day, but no chance at all of support from other formations. Between 25 December and 1 January, Ruoff and his staff were juggling small groups of men and single pieces of artillery as they attempted to plug gaps. Battalions were down to a strength of 50 men without anti-tank weapons other than the few howitzers capable of tackling the attacking Soviet T-34 medium tanks. Battalions supported by a single field gun has to be sacrificed buy a few more days for the corps.

During the six weeks following Hitler’s standstill order, Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s 35th Division, a veteran formation of the 'Barbarossa' campaign since its very first day, had lost more than 2,500 men, which constituted more than one-third of its casualties over the whole of the war. The division had only two 50-mm anti-tank guns and six field howitzers. As a result of its losses, Generalleutnant Heinz Hellmich’s 23rd Division, already lacking Hellmich, whose health had failed as a result of the rigours of the climate and campaign, had re-formed its nine battalions into just three battalions totalling about 1,000 men; the divisional artillery had been reduced to one 50-mm anti-tank gun and three howitzers. Generalleutnant Ernst Dehner’s 106th Division, once very highly regarded, had very few of its original officers and only 500 men.

Despite the acute German position, there were no cases of refusal to obey orders and certainly no hint of mutiny in the V Corps. By the beginning of 1942, however, the average German soldier had developed an almost pathological fear of Soviet tanks and had become both distrustful and scornful of the orders and situation reports from higher headquarters based on the claimed 'inferiority' of the Soviet army.

Generalleutnant Helge Auleb’s 6th Division was located on the northern periphery near Kalinin, on the line of the Tma river in the area of Staritza, when it began to fall back to the south-west. The first equipment it lost was its heavy howitzer battery as the division lacked the horses required to move the guns, and the companies of the 3/18th Infanterieregiment had shrunk to an average of five machine guns, one mortar and seven rifles. Wooded and pocked by thick thickets, the area was difficult to defend, and whereas nearly all of the Soviet attacks were heavily supported by guns and mortars, the remaining German guns could not fire for lack of ammunition.

Typhus was proving a problem in the German ranks, but there were sufficient medical supplies only to inoculate those soldiers more than 50 years old. German soldiers universally ignored Hitler’s order that all houses and other shelter should be burned before they retreated, in part because German commanders were sured that Soviet soldiers could spend the night in the open without problem but in greater part because the first sign of smoke brought Soviet artillery fire down in the area.

The efforts of the Luftwaffe were signally small in this phase of the campaign, which was characterised by very poor visibility. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II and one air corps had already been removed from the theatre, and only General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII was left for the support of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. A small number of army formations were sent eastward from Germany and western Europe, but reached the Eastern Front too late and were then committed on a piecemeal and thus exercised little effect on the course of the campaign. For the most part, therefore, von Kluge had to survive on the basis of the formations already deployed in the army group, and reinforcements had therefore to be found by combing out headquarters and supply troops, and organising alarm units from engineer, Luftwaffe ground staff and security troops.

The inner right encircling element of the Soviet pincer movement was provided by General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front, which comprised General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 39th Reserve Army (six infantry and two cavalry divisions) supported on its right and left respectively by General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army and General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 29th Army. This flanking arm moved from the areas of Kalinin and Torzhok toward Rzhev, about 120 miles (195 km) directly to the west of Moscow. This Soviet advance was slow but steady as Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s [e[9th Army retreated fighting desperately and created minefields in its wake.

To the south near, in the area Tula, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian was uncertain of the steadiness of Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army to the rear of his 2nd Panzerarmee, where detachments of General Major Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had managed to install itself near Livny. At this Guderian’s relationship with Generaloberst Franz Halder and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' respectively, was poor and he had attempted to bypass both and garner Hitler’s attention by the delivery of written reports delivered via General Bodewin Keitel, the head of the personnel department in the Oberkommando des Heeres, and Oberst (soon Generalmajor) Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s senior liaison officer. Only three days before his dismissal, von Bock had met Guderian in Roslavl and given him the authority to retreat to the line of Susha and Oka rivers, nearly 80 miles (130 km) behind the upper reaches of the Don river. Hitler countermanded the withdrawal order after the retreat had begun, and promised a reinforcement of 500 men by air to stop the advance of what was in effect a Soviet force of six armies and one cavalry corps. Guderian flew to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in the confidence that his own persuasion and Hitler’s reason would resolve the misunderstanding. He was wrong, however, as Hitler was unmoved from his concept that the German troops should hold their current positions. On 24 December the matter came to a head after von Kluge, the new commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', accused Guderian of disobeying both his and Hitler’s orders by continuing to retreat and that Guderian had of his own volition evacuated Chern, so causing a gap between in consequence causing a gap between General Gotthard Heinrici’s (from 20 January Generalleutnant Gerhard Berthold’s XLIII Corps of the 4th Army and the main body of the 2nd Panzerarmee. Whatever the cause, a 25-mile (40-km) gap had indeed appeared between the formations, and through this Soviet formations were pouring into the German rear and advancing rapidly in the direction of Smolensk and Vyaz’ma. For this, on 26 December Guderian was placed on the retired list and succeeded in command of he 2nd Panzerarmee by Schmidt, the temporary commander of the 2nd Army and a former commander of the XXXIX Corps (mot.).

Generalmajor Max Fremerey’s 29th Division (mot.), an element of the 2nd Panzerarmee, had fallen back steadily from the night of 6 December. The fact that the German offensive had been unsuccessful and that they were in retreat did not cause any significant loss of morale or efficiency in the German soldiers, who were nonetheless fearful that the extreme cold would halt them, so pitting them pitted against numerically superior Soviet forces, which were growing in strength rapidly. By 12 December the division had withdrawn successfully, though only after abandoning much of their equipment, and concentrated round Mtsensk. Germany’s declaration of war on the USA on 11 December had little short-term impact on the men, so preoccupied were they with their own problems of survival.

In the area of Tula, where the 2nd Panzerarmee had been breached, the Soviet advance was rapid with the support of growingly effective Soviet air power. General Major’s (General Leytenant’s from 2 January) Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps led the advance, together with General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army and General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army, which were later supplemented in their advance to the west by General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s 33rd Army.

The Soviets took Peremyshl on 25 December and Kaluga on 30 December as the I Guards Cavalry Corps continued its thrust toward Yukhnov, less than 70 miles (115 km) from Vyaz’ma, killing every German it met. By 1 January, however, the Soviet formations were beginning to complain that their operations were being hampered by extreme cold and that the delivery of supplies had become very difficult. The Russians had also come to realise that the cracking of German strongpoints had become increasingly troublesome, especially along the main railway lines. In general, however, from the Soviet high command’s point of view the progress of the left enveloping thrust from the Tula area was highly satisfactory, and it ordered General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front to launch its deep encirclement on the right, from Ostashkov to Vitebsk: this was the outer right flanking pincer more than 200 miles (320 km) deep into the German rear, which was to support both Konev’s Kalinin Front and the right wing of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front. On 9 January General Leytenant Maxim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, both elements of the North-West Front, began their offensive from the area of the Ostashkov lakes, making very little progress until Peno had been captured. The 3rd Shock Army then advanced to the west in the direction of Kholm and Velikiye Luki, while the 4th Shock Army advanced to the south-west in the direction of Vitebsk. The country in which this part of the Soviet offensive was fought was characterised by is mass of woodland possessing few tracks and, as the armies were moving on divergent axes, great gaps appeared between them and General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army on their left. Both control and supply became difficult, but despite this fact the Soviets took Andreapol on 15 January, and by the end of January Soviet troops had neared Velikiye Luki, Vitebsk and Demidov after a largely unopposed advance of nearly 200 miles (320 km) across very difficult terrain. Kholm, which was within the boundaries of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', was not taken as a result of its sterling but desperate defence by Generalleutnant Theodor Scherer’s 281st Sicherungsdivision. The outer right arm of .the Soviet enveloping movement was by then already in place, but the gap between the right and left pincer arms between Demidov and Spas-Demensk was still more than 100 miles (160 km).

Meanwhile there had been other casualties among the ranks of the German senior field commanders. Strauss, the commander of the [e[9th Army, had become sick and been succeeded on 15 January by Generaloberst Walter Model, the former commander of the XLI Corps (mot.)., Generaloberst Ludwig Kübler, newly appointed commander of 4th Army, felt that the post was not right for him and had told Hitler of this, and on 20 January he was replaced by General Gotthard Heinrici, the former commander of the XLIII Corps.

On 8 January the Soviets seemed to be close to break through near Sukhinichi, and von Kluge was demanding from Halder that the standstill order be rescinded and that as an army group commander, he be given freedom of action to move his troops as he thought fit. Halder could only refer the matter to Hitler, but then it was learned that Hoepner, the commander of the 4th Panzerarmee upgraded from the 4th Panzergruppe on 1 January, had taken matters into his own hands and had begun to withdraw in order to escape encirclement. This was followed immediately by the dismissal of Hoepner, who was initially to be court-martialled until Hitler was persuaded to relent. Hoepner was replaced by Ruoff, the former commander of the V Corps.

In the depths of the centre of the pocket created by the Soviet double envelopment a specially reinforced 20th Army, under the command of General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov, together with General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and General Major Grigori T. Timofeyev’s XI Cavalry Corps, broke through on 13 January near Volokolamsk and moved to the east.

Maslennikov’s 39th Army and Shvetsov’s 29th Army, supported by the 22nd Army, all constituting Konev’s inner right pincer, had finally reached the area of Rzhev. By the end of January the German position was serious. Far from holding the original defensive line ordered by Hitler, the formations of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had been driven back to the south-east along a distance of between 100 and 150 miles (160 and 240 km). Model’s 9th Army and Ruoff’s 4th Panzerarmee were deep in the almost closed pocket. Heinrici’s 4th Army was holding open the entrance to the pocket, trying to delay the Soviet left pincer, which was slowly closing the gap from the south. Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army had escaped the envelopment and were to the south in the area of Orel. The Soviet high command now sought to seal the entrance to the 'cauldron' by the use of airborne troops and partisans. The 8th Airborne Brigade and the 201st Airborne Brigade and other units of General Major Aleksei F. Levashev’s IV Airborne Corps, totalling about 4,000 men, were landed to the south-east and south-west of Vyaz’ma with the tasks of cutting the railway line linking Smolensk and Vyaz’ma and closing the great gap at the mouth of the pocket. In Sukhinichi, to the south of the cauldron’s entrance, about 4,000 German troops remained by order of Hitler, and after being cut off on 3 January had to be supplied by air. In near-by Yukhnov a number of German divisions were threatened with encirclement. The road linking Yukhnov and Roslavl had been severed and both the rail and road connections linking Smolensk and Vyaz’ma were threatened: these were the main lines of communication serving the 9th Army, 3rd Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and Popov’s 61st Army were advancing farther to the south against the 2nd Panzerarmee in the area between Bryansk and Orel, and also threatened the rail line linking Roslavl, Bryansk and Orel, which was the line of communications for the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army.

During January’s first week, Efremov’s 33rd Army had begun to drive a wedge between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 4th Army in the Medyn area, and Hoepner had been dismissed for ordering a withdrawal to escape this encirclement. Ruoff, his successor, could not hold the line and on 13 January Hitler was forced to agree to what was a fait accompli. Meanwhile elements of the I Guards Cavalry Corps and the 33rd Army had succeeded in separating the 4th Panzerarmee in the north from the 4th Army in the south, and had thrust into the open neck of the pocket to the south of Vyaz’ma, where they were supplemented by the airborne troops and partisans. A further threat to the Germans developed from the north of the pocket, where Shvetsov’s 29th Army and Maslennikov’s 39th Army, together with the XI Cavalry Corps, had advanced to the south ands south-west at some speed from Rzhev toward Vyaz’ma and Yartsevo right across the rear of the 9th Army and the 4th Panzerarmee. The German situation was now critical, for the entrance of the great pocket was nearly closed and the encircled German formations were being very severely handled.

In the middle of February, however, the whole situation was once again suddenly changed. On 21 January, the Soviet high command had prematurely withdrawn Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and Rokossovsky’s 16th Army from the area to the west of Moscow, for it believed that it was more important to reinforce the northern and southern flanks, and this caused the offensive of Vlasov’s 20th Army, which was seeking to roll up the German pocket from east to west, to slow to a halt, and this relieved the eastward pressure on the 4th Panzerarmee and the 9th Army, both of which were inside the pocket. Efremov’s 33rd Army and the I Guards Cavalry Corps, which were operating together with the airborne troops and partisan units in an effort to seal the pocket between Yukhnov and Vyaz’ma, were suddenly and potently counterattacked by Ruoff’s 4th Panzerarmee. This German formation re-established contact with the 4th Army on the outside of the pocket on 3 February, and thereby cut off the Soviet troops from their rear. On 5 February Model’s 9th Army, together with German pockets near Olenino and Rzhev, attacked Shvetsov’s encircling 29th Army from the east and west, and isolated it from its neighbours, encircled it and destroyed it. It is believed that a mere 5,000 survivors managed to escape to the south, where they joined the XI Cavalry Corps and 39th Army, by then themselves almost encircled.

Hitler had meanwhile found himself in the position where he had no operation but to agree to a general withdrawal to the 'Winter Line', and at the same time to withdraw Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee and elements of Model’s 9th Army out of the pocket to Vitebsk and Smolensk in order to create a reserve in depth. The 3rd Panzerarmee quickly contained the Soviet thrusts toward Vitebsk and Demidov, a task eased by the fact that Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, which was by this time suffering from severe supply difficulties, was moving very slowly and with great uncertainty. A German division driving to the north-east from Smolensk reached Bely and so divided the 39th Army and 22nd Army. The German garrison of encircled Sukhinichi had been extricated on 25 January.

The key to the battle lay, however, in the area of Vyaz’ma, in the mouth of the pocket. On 1 February Zhukov had become the commander-in-chief of the Western Theatre in addition to commanding the West Front: the new theatre comprised the West Front, the Kalinin Front and the Bryansk Front. By this time the Soviet army forces were too weak either to close the pocket or destroy the partially encircled German forces. The XI Cavalry Corps and part of the 39th Army had been cut off by Model’s 9th Army. Part of the 33rd Army and the I Guards Cavalry Corps, part of 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 could be supplied only by air, and then on a scanty basis. The desperate Soviet efforts to relieve them were without avail and none of the many other Soviet armies were able to help or even to move as they too were at the end of a line of communications 150 miles (240 km) long, a distance that imposed severe difficulties that were compounded by the bad weather and lack of transport capability. This made regular supply impossible. Adding to the Soviet problems was the fact that the advance had outrun the range of the supporting tactical warplanes. In the circumstances, the only remedy available in communist ideology was the intensification of political indoctrination, but this failed to effect an improvement of the material situation. Moreover, the Soviet awareness of the failing capacity of the supply and transport troops could not convert itself into munitions and rations.

The encircled Soviet forces were slowly destroyed. From a tine early in March the severity of fighting began to diminish, leaving the German forces strongly entrenched with secure communications to Vyaz’ma and Orel. On 20 March the Soviet high command launched another offensive, the Kalinin Front being ordered once more to separate the Olenino pocket from the Rzhev pocket and the West Front to attack to the east with four armies along the rail line linking Moscow and Vyaz’ma. This offensive began at the end of March, but was terminated after only a few days at the beginning of April as the troops were exhausted and the supply and transport problem became impossible with the advent of the mud of the spring rasputitsa. The Soviet winter counter-offensive before Moscow had spent itself.

It must be noted that the Soviet winter offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was supported by other major offensives in the Leningrad and Lake Ilmen areas to the north, and in Ukraine and Crimea to the south. Only at Demyansk and Izyum in the former was there any enduring success.

It was now abundantly clear that the Germans had overreached themselves and their physical capabilities when they embarked, without proper logistic preparation and clear strategic objectives over the whole of the Eastern Front, to attempt the seizure of Moscow so late in the year. They failed because of the weather and because their resources were inadequate. The Soviet counter-offensive was launched in some strength but its momentum swiftly declined the farther to the west it advanced.

The Soviet high command had overestimated the chances of a successful winter defence and underestimated the strength, endurance and determination of the German forces. Elated by their success in saving Moscow, the Soviets convinced themselves that the Germans could be destroyed in a winter campaign. Offensives were ordered everywhere, and for this, the Soviet dictator Iosif Stalin was later blamed. These offensives, for which the Soviets had wholly insufficient strength, led to both a dispersal and a dissipation of effort. Of the nine armies held in reserve at the beginning of the winter campaign, single such formations 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. Hindsight showed that this first major Soviet offensive lacked any closely co-ordinated strategic direction, and was the natural consequence of the sudden change from a piecemeal and hasty defence to a general offensive launched without the time required for planning and preparation. Had all available energies and reserves been focussed on the destruction of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', better results might have eventuated.

Despite this, at the front level, the Soviet plans were over-ambitious but were nonetheless nicely conceived to create a double envelopment in great depth. The plans failed because of the weather conditions and because the Soviets lacked the concentration of armoured formations to execute them effectively. The majority of the Soviet troops used in these enveloping movements were of the marching infantry or horsed cavalry types, supported by large numbers of tanks, and the distances they managed to advance were highly creditable. The standard of training and overall performance revealed by the Soviet formations were inadequate, however, for the achievement of the strategic and higher tactical tasks allotted to the, and the Soviet tactical deficiencies were of the types typically associated with untrained commanders and staffs. Troops were committed to battle on a piecemeal basis without the necessary preparation, and their commanders were compelled to drive them forward too far and too fast by their high-command superiors. Reconnaissance was poor and artillery support unco-ordinated. The armour had been committed in small detachments rather than in whole brigades, and the use of airborne troops, both at Vyaz’ma and farther to the north at Demyansk, was a failure since these specialised units were committed in too great a depth in a role not suited to their light level of equipment and weapons. Even if the Soviet high command had allocated nine rather than five reserve armies to the Western Theatre, it seems likely that Zhukov would still have lacked the strength to destroy Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

Regardless of the Soviet failings, though, the Germans had still suffered a significant defeat, but this reverse was not strategically serious and the 376,000 German battle casualties which occurred during the winter of 1941/1942 on the Eastern Front were in no way excessive. The casualty rate to exposure and typhus increased this total, however, to about 900,000 men, and this was a total heavier than the Germans could afford.

German accounts have tended to emphasise, indeed to over-emphasise, the physical and mental strengths of the Soviets, but also the lack of maintenance and logistical support provided to the men in the field. The Soviet troops were hardy and had great stamina, and were accustomed to the local weather conditions, but it is arguable whether or not these qualities of hardiness and stamina were superior to their equivalents in German troops. Like his German opponent, the Soviet solder died if he was not fed, and suffered frostbite if not clothed adequately for winter conditions. Moreover, the Soviet solder required ammunition for his personal weapon and artillery, and fodder for his horse frost-bite. His rifle and his cannon needed ammunition and his horse had to have fodder. The Soviet soldier felt the cold no less than the German soldier, and the difficulty in movement was equally great for the men of each side. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that Soviet troops were significantly better clothed and equipped for winter warfare than were the Germans, and administrative preparations, albeit rough and ready, were in full accord with Soviet strategic and tactical thinking: this contrasted well with the German concept of reliance on opportunity and the fortunes of war.