This was the German offensive in the area of Prel, Mtsensk and Bolkhov in the direction of Tula during the advance on Moscow within the context of ‘Taifun’ (i) (24 October/5 December 1941).
The extreme right of the German grand offensive, the planning and implementation of ‘Schlussjagd’ was entrusted to Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and the successful Soviet defence of Tula helped to secure the southern approaches to Moscow at the time of the German army’s greatest effort against the Soviet capital.
Believing that he had provided sufficient protection for his flanks by the clearing operations in the areas of Kiev, Velikiye Luki, Staraya Russa and Demyansk, on 6 September Hitler issued his order for the drive on Moscow in the Führerweisung Nr 35, which established the strategic framework in which ‘Taifun’ (i) was planned. In the central region of European Russia the switch from summer to autumn commonly arrived late in September or early in October, the advent of heavy rainfall slowing or stopping all movement until the ground had been hardened once more by the first frosts of October and November. The first snow to settle usually fell at the start of December. Even so, there could be short periods of thaw at any time during the winter, and like the autumnal and spring rains these turned the ground to slush and unpaved roads and tracks to glutinous mud. Time was therefore of paramount importance in the planning and execution of ‘Taifun’ (i).
The main planning of this undertaking was done between the Oberkommando des Heeres and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, though the plans were, of course, subject to Hitler’s approval. The German intelligence assessment of the Soviet dispositions before Moscow was now considerably more accurate than it had been, though still imperfect, and believed that the Soviet order of battle comprised Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s West Front of seven armies deployed forward and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front of two armies to its south. There was nothing known of the Soviet armies in the rear, and the strength of West Front was estimated variously as between 70 and 100 divisions, but this estimate was not far removed from the actuality. The hurriedly constructed Soviet defence lines extending back to the capital were readily identifiable from the air. The task demanded of von Bock was the destruction of the Soviet forces before advancing to take Moscow, and the basis of the German plan was an attack in the centre on a axis from Smolensk to Moscow with a double Panzer envelopment, whose pincers were to meet at Vyaz’ma some 80 miles (130 km) in the rear of the Soviet forward positions: this was, in essence, to be a repeat of the pincer movement formerly carried out at Minsk. As at Minsk, the northern pincer was to comprise Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army with Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe under command. This pincer comprised 23 divisions of which three were Panzer and two motorised. The southern pincer was based on Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army and, since Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (from 5 October 2nd Panzerarmee was still far to the south after its diversion to aid in the capture of Kiev, Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe which, with all but one of the Panzer corps, had been switched from Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to come under command of the 4th Army, giving von Kluge a total of 22 divisions, of which five were Panzer and two motorised.
Once the Vyaz’ma pocket had been closed, the 9th Army and 3rd Panzergruppe were to move to the north-east so that their primary axis lay on the line linking Bely and Kalinin via Rzhev, so encircling Moscow from the north and cutting Soviet communications to the North-West Front and the Leningrad region. The 4th Army and 4th Panzergruppe were to move from Roslavl to a line linking Vyaz’ma and Yukhnov, and thence Moscow.
Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army had been recalled to the north from their operations in Ukraine, but there was not enough time for the concentration of these two major formations in the vital area of Smolensk. It was decided, therefore, that Guderian’s formation, which comprised three Panzer corps (General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps [mot.], General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps [mot.] and General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps [mot.]) and two infantry corps (XXXIV Corps and XXXV Corps), in all 15.5 divisions of which five were Panzer and four motorised, should attack from the area of Glukhov to the north-east toward Orel and Tula to the south of Moscow. As part of the movement to the north, Guderian’s left flank was to curve round and behind Eremenko’s Bryansk Front. On Guderian’s left, the 2nd Army of eight divisions, constituting the link between the 2nd Panzergruppe and the 4th Army, was to move to the east and join Guderian’s left flank at Bryansk and complete the envelopment of the three armies (not two as believed by Guderian) of Eremenko’s Bryansk Front. Guderian was to start the offensive on 30 September, and the offensive was to be extended to the other armies two days later.
Near Roslavl Hoepner had assumed command of a Panzer corps formerly under Guderian, who had been given in exchange a Panzer corps from Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe (from 25 October 1st Panzerarmee). In all, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd provided von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ nine divisions, of which two were Panzer and two motorised, and came to rue the day it lost the formations when, some eight weeks later, it was hit by Soviet counter-offensives. von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had also lost some of its strength, as it had been forced to release five Panzer and two motorised divisions together with General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps, and soon lost the initiative near Leningrad and in the north-east.
(The interchange of these many corps and divisions was confusing, and must have led to a loss of efficiency. Hoth had already lost both of his original corps, the XXXIX Corps [mot.] and LVII Corps [mot.], with the exception of two divisions kept in 9th Army reserve, to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. For the thrust on Vyaz’ma he eventually received from Hoepner the XLI Corps [mot.] and LVI Corps [mot.], brought down from the north. Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe was to comprise the LVIII Corps [mot.] taken over from von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe, XXIV Corps [mot.] and XLVII Corps [mot.]. Since Guderian was too far to the south to form the southern pincer of the attack on Vyaz’ma, the headquarters of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe was brought to the south of Hoth’s Panzergruppe to assume command of an armoured concentration near Roslavl, this including the XLVI Corps [mot.] taken over from Guderian, LVII Corps [mot.] and XL Corps [mot.]. The movement of the divisions within the corps was still more complex.)
These formation losses and exchanges were not offset by the promised reinforcement of one infantry division from France, Generalmajor Agustín Muñoz Grandes’s División Azul known to the Germans as the 250th Division, and two parachute regiments.
von Leeb protested at the removal of formations from his army group before they could complete their tasks, but his protests were merely brushed aside as the Oberkommando des Heeres seemed confident that the thrust on Moscow would relieve all Soviet pressure in the area of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, but the contrary was in fact the case as the pressure of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ led to an increase on the Soviet pressure on von Leeb’s army group as the Soviet high command sought to save Moscow by mounting counter-offensives in the north as well as in Ukraine in an effort to persuade the Germans to despatch reinforcement from the centre.
Once more the success of the new German offensive was not assured. The thinning of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, which retained the XXXIX Corps (mot.), and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, which retained the III Corps (mot.) and XIC Corps (mot.), had made it possible to increase the strength of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to 70 divisions, of which 14 were Panzer and eight motorised. Air support was to be provided by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II, comprising the II Fliegerkorps and VIII Fliegerkorps with 32 Geschwadern, in all about 1,000 of the 2,400 aircraft then available on the Eastern Front.
At the end of September, the Soviet strength before Moscow was estimated by German intelligence as 80 infantry divisions, 11 tank divisions or brigades, and nine cavalry divisions, supported by only 1,100 warplanes.
The front for which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was responsible was some 400 miles (645 km), and von Bock had fewer than two divisions as his army group reserve. The Oberkommando des Heeres had no reserve whatsoever.
Moscow had come under air attack for the first time during the night of 22/23 July, and was then bombed on the following two nights. By this time the Germans had reached Smolensk and the Soviet leadership believed that the Germans drive on Moscow was imminent. The Soviets had made desperate efforts to build two great systems of linear earthwork fortifications to the west of Moscow using civil labour. The outer line was the 'Vyaz’ma Line', which extended in an essentially straight north/south alignment from an area about 30 miles (48 km) to the east of Ostashkov near the Valdai Hills in the north, forward of Vyaz’ma to a point beyond Kirov in the south, and as thus about 200 miles (320 km) long. The inner line was the 'Mozhaysk Line', which was a series of shallow east/west curves about 80 miles (130 km) to the west of Moscow and extended again on a north/south alignment from the south-western end of the Volga Reservoir in north near Volokolamsk to Likhvin between Kaluga and Belev in the south, and was thus about 160 miles (260 km) long. Another four semi-circular and concentric defence lines ringed the inner approaches to Moscow from the west.
The defence of the approaches to Moscow was the task of the Western Direction under the command of Timoshenko until 10 September, when Timoshenko was shifted to Ukraine and the direction was disestablished. Responsible for a north/south front of some 450 miles (725 km), the Western Direction extended from a boundary with the North-West Front at Ostashkov in the north to a boundary with the South-West Front near Vorozhba in the south, and comprised three separate fronts. The most important of these was General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s West Front, deployed some 60 miles (100 km) to the west of Vyaz’ma and stretching from the Ostashkov lakes to Yelnya, about 40 miles (65 km) to the south-east of Smolensk. 1
Under the temporary command of Marshal Semyon M. Budyonny, recently removed from command of the South-Western Direction, the Reserve Front comprised six armies. 2 The Reserve Front was echeloned in depth behind Konev’s West Front roughly on the 'Vyaz’ma Line', from the source of the Volga river near Ostashkov in the north to Yelnya in the south. The Reserve Front was not in contact with the Germans except on its extreme left, where Rakutin’s 24th Army and Sobennikov’s 43rd Army constituted the link between the West Front and the Bryansk Front. Budyonny was not long to be entrusted with an active command and at the first indications of battle he was to find himself superseded.
To the south of the Reserve Front, beyond the railway line linking Roslavl and Kirov, was Eremenko’s Bryansk Front, which currently comprised General Major Mikhail P. Petrov’s 50th Army, General Major Yakov G. Kreizer’s 3rd Army and General Major Avksentii M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army, with General Leytenant Arkadi N. Ermakov’s Operational Group ‘Ermakov’ covering the far left flank.
The Western Direction numbered about 83 divisions, nine cavalry divisions and 13 tank brigades, in all about 800,000 men, 770 tanks and 360 aircraft.
Until a time late in September, the Western Direction was unaware of the fact that a major German offensive was about to be launched against it, and for this Hitler’s wavering strategy was again largely responsible. Even as late as the third week in September the Germans were still dispersed, having just completed the Kiev encirclement, and there was heavy fighting still going on to the north of Lake Ilmen.
The initial stage of the Moscow offensive was launched on 30 September, and took the Soviet high command by surprise. As soon as it became clear what the Germans intended, all Soviet attacks, these being of a local nature with limited objectives, were brought to an end and the Soviet forces went over to the defensive as hurried preparations were instituted to meet the main weight of the offensive. The Soviets combed every formation and unit for men who could be spared to create defence in depth and undertake counterattacks, and a central direction reserve was formed under General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin, still a deputy commander if the front, from elements withdrawn from the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies. All forms of mobile defence were forbidden, on the grounds that they might lead to a general retreat, and formations and units were ordered to fight and hold where they were.
On 30 September Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe fell on Ermakov’s flank group with three Panzer corps forward on a fairly narrow front, and in good weather advanced more than 50 miles (80 km) during the day. The Soviet air forces flew only scattered bombing raids. The Germans’ slower marching infantry provided flank protection and mopped up pockets of resistance left in the wake of the armoured vanguards. By 2 October Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had been driven away to the north after it had tried to seal the breach opened by the German armour, and on the following day Orel, about 130 miles (210 km) in the Soviet rear, fell to the Germans. Meanwhile Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) on the German left flank had changed the axis of its advance sharply to the north with the object of enveloping Eremenko’s Bryansk Front from the rear. These early German gains had been achieved at very modest cost, but when the Soviet commanders had recovered a measure of equilibrium the resistance stiffened and Zakharkin’s 49th Army, which was in reserve in the area to the west of Tula, was ordered to move forward from the 'Mozhaysk Line' in the rear and retake Orel, but the order was rapidly overtaken by events.
On 1 October Iosif Stalin had sent for General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko, the nominated commander of the as-yet unassembled I Special Guards Rifle Corps, and sent him to undertake the defence of Mtsensk and Orel. Lelyushenko departed Moscow with a motorcycle regiment, which was the only unit readily available, and at Tula picked up some guns, towed by local buses, from the artillery school. Lelyushenko was in constant communication by telephone with General Boris M. Shaposhnikov, the chief of the general staff, who was able to start sending Lelyushenko, by road and rail, partially assembled formations and units, as well as Katyusha artillery rocket batteries. Among the troops to arrive at Mtsensk from Leningrad by railway was part of General Major Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Brigade, equipped mainly with KV heavy and T-34 medium tanks. Supported by infantry, the part-brigade encountered Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), on Guderian’s right flank near Mtsensk on the road to Tula, during 6 October, and heavy fighting resulted. On Guderian’s left flank, Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision had already taken Bryansk, thereby opening the German road and railway supply line from Roslavl to Orel.
On the night of 6/7 October the first snow of the winter descended on Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
The German envelopment of the Bryansk Front made excellent progress as the infantry of von Weichs’s 2nd Army in the west advanced steadily toward the Desna river, working closely with the left flank of what had just become the 2nd Panzerarmee, and completed the encirclement of part of Kreizer’s 3rd Army and Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army to the south of Bryansk and elements of Petrov’s 50th Army to the north of the city. On 10 October Guderian received new instructions from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, these detailing numerous tasks including the destruction of two Soviet pockets to the north and south of Bryansk, the seizure of Kursk about 50 miles (80 km) to the south-east, and the resumption of the advance on Tula, all of these to be implemented immediately. Guderian believed that these orders originated with a headquarters above army group level, and received no reply when he asked for his tasks to be allocated priorities. Mobile operations had by now become impossible, however, for while the snow continued to fall it did not settle, and the ground and roads were morasses of deep mud. Columns of vehicle came to a halt, and aircraft dropped bales of rope to isolated units so that they could use their tracked vehicles to tow themselves free.
Since 6 October, Eremenko and the Bryansk Front had lost all communication with the Soviet high command, and on the night of 8/9 October Eremenko ordered the withdrawal of his already encircled forces. Many of Eremenko’s men did in fact manage to break out. On 17 October the part of the 50th Army in the pocket to the north of Bryansk surrendered, but resistance in the pocket to the south of the town continued until 25 October. The 3rd, 13th and 50th Armies all suffered a severe drain of their strengths as men straggled, some 50,000 of them being taken prisoner. Petrov, commander of the 50th Army, was killed.
By 15 October, the 2nd Panzerarmee was still a victim of the weather, and had therefore been unable to advance beyond Mtsensk. There had been only one good route from Orel to Tula, and this had already broken up under the weight of the heavy traffic and bad weather. Soviet engineers had mined the road verges and demolished the bridges, and the Germans had to lay many miles of corduroy roads. Fuel for the army’s vehicles was now in very short supply, and this necessarily imposed further restrictions on mobility. The Soviet forces were already falling back rapidly in this area, however, as on 24 October Eremenko was ordered on 24 October to withdraw as best he could to the line linking Tula and Elets covering Moscow’s southern flank. Eremenko’s front had been essentially destroyed as a combat formation.
Near Trubchevsk, Generalleutnant Kurt Feldt’s 1st Kavalleriedivision was covering Guderian’s left flank and closed on the pocket to the south of Bryansk. Heavy rain and scattered snow had begun to fall on the night of 9/10 October, and after this the rain was incessant. Swamps appeared everywhere, and torrents of water tore through the woods, cutting the ground into gullies and ditches. Motor vehicles could not be moved without heavy tractors, horses were up to their bellies in slime, and even the lightest cart was reliant on a team of draught animals for movement. The delivery of fuel for vehicles, and food for men and animals, broke down. There was no shelter, and even higher headquarters were reduced to the use of peasant hovels.
The clearance of the Bryansk pocket was rendered all the more difficult as the local forests were both unthinned and untended, with any gaps between the trees rendered impossible by marsh, thicket and undergrowth, and the task of locating and either killing or capturing the lurking Soviet troops was very costly. Prisoners said that the headquarters of the 3rd Army was somewhere in the area, but the 1st Kavalleriedivision could not find it. A little further to the north-east, Generalleutnant Dr Lothar Rendulic’s (from 1 November Generalleutnant Rudolf Peschel’s) 52nd Division, the right-flank formation of von Kluge’s 4th Army, had moved from Sukhinichi to Kaluga, leaving the forest belt behind it, when on 13 October the autumn rains began in earnest. The division abandoned its remaining general service army carts as they lacked the ground clearance which was needed, and seized any and every Russian farm vehicle it could find. All equipment was unloaded and abandoned with the exception of two light guns and two limbers for each battery, each piece being pulled by 10 horses, while teams of spare horses brought up the rear. Within two days the horses had lost their shoes but could manage without them in the soft going, but the same did not hold true for the infantry, whose calf boots were frequently sucked from their legs as they waded forward in knee-deep mud. Then such boots are remained began to fall to pieces. After the first day’s march the horse-drawn baggage could no longer maintain the pace, and the troops had to go without food other than tea and potatoes looted from the farms. Little knowing what lay ahead of them, the men actually longed for the arrival of frost, winter and better going for vehicles, men and animals.
Considerably farther to the north on the axis from Smolensk to Vyaz’ma, meanwhile, the Soviet position appeared disastrous. The weather had been especially good on 2 October when the 9th Army and 4th Army started their main attack toward Moscow, and by the end of this day the 9th Army and 3rd Panzergruppe had broken through at the junction between Khomenko’s 30th Army and Lukin’s 19th Army. Hoth had only three Panzer divisions, but attacked with his two Panzer corps forward, with General Ferdinand Schaal’s LVI Corps (mot.) making for Kholm on the Dniepr river and Vyaz’ma, and General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) advancing to the east and north-east in the direction of Rzhev on the upper reaches of the Volga river. The Soviet resistance was considerably weaker than had been anticipated with the exception of a single counterattack by a Soviet tank brigade in the area to the south-west of Kholm. Benefiting from the fine weather, the hard ground and the excellent support of von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps, the German armour was soon able to cross the upper reaches of the Dniepr river and press forward in the direction of Vyaz’ma. One of the infantry divisions following Hoth’s Panzer group through Kholm on the northern axis to Vyaz’ma reported that although the Soviet defences prepared during the last two months were strong, the Soviet forces had been taken completely by surprise and, except for three days of heavy fighting before 7 October, the resistance was weak. In its 10-day day advance this division took 8,500 prisoners.
To the south of the axis from Smolensk to Vyaz’ma, Rakutin’s 24th Army and Sobennikov’s 43rd Army of Budyonny’s Reserve Front bore the brunt of the attack by von Kluge’s 4th Army and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, and disintegrated under the pressure of the German onslaught. In a time of less than two days, Hoepner’s Panzer group had penetrated through the 'Vyaz’ma Line', taking Spas-Demensk and Kirov on 4 October, and then Yukhnov and Mosalsk on the following day. On the night of 5/6/October Budyonny reported that in overall terms the situation was very serious as Hoepner’s formation had got behind his command and was rolling up the defence line from south to north. Any intention to stand and fight could only have led to the destruction of the West and Reserve Fronts, and each of these was ordered to undertake a general withdrawal to the area lying to the east of the 'Vyaz’ma Line' during the night of 6/7 October, covered by the Operational Group ‘Boldin’ and the 31st and 32nd Armies of the Reserve Front. At this crucial moment the Soviet high command, instead of adhering to the established and straightforward methods of control, saw it fit to embroil itself in another complex regroup of its forces. The 30th Army was relieved by the 31st Army, and the divisions of the 16th Army were transferred to the 20th Army. The headquarters of Rokossovsky’s 16th Army was to have taken command of all the formations in the area of Vyaz’ma, which was under threat from the junction of the pincers of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe. Yet again, the speed of the evolving situation outpaced the orders designed to cope with the situation, and all communications and control broke down within the West Front and Reserve Front. Boldin’s heterogeneous reserve force and the 31st Army were overcome, and by 7 October most of the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies and the Operation Group ‘Boldin’ had been encircled by the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe in the area to the west of Vyaz’ma. The encircled Soviet troops continued to fight, and in the process made a useful contribution to the defence of Moscow, but their efforts were neither very determined nor protracted, and lasted barely one week. The crushing of this Soviet pocket yielded to the Germans no fewer than 650,000 prisoners, and it has been estimated that at least 45 divisions were destroyed.
This was the trigger for a widespread panic in Moscow, resulting in a huge exodus on 16 October, the refugees blocking the roads as they attempted to escape what they saw an the inevitable German seizure of Moscow. Here of streamed back. Although Stalin, the state defence committee and the Stavka remained in the capital, many governmental departments and the diplomatic corps were ordered to move to Kuybyshev, deeper into the interior of the USSR. Many officials and their families, with or without permission, joined in the flight, looting was widespread, and on 19 October a state of siege was declared.
On 5 and 6 October Stalin had telephoned Leningrad to order General Georgi K. Zhukov, currently co-ordinating the defence of the USSR’s second greatest city, to return to Moscow. At Leningrad Zhukov was having difficulties with Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Grigori I. Kulik, the generally incompetent commander of the 54th Army, but leaving General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky in temporary command of the Leningrad Front and detaching General Major Mikhail S. Khozin, the chief-of-staff, to watch over Kulik, who was a crony of Stalin, Zhukov returned by air to Moscow on 7 October.
Communication with Konev’s West Front and Budyonny’s Reserve Front had in general failed, and Stalin was unable to gather any real sense of the overall situation. Zhukov quickly departed Moscow by road to the west to attempt to establish was was in fact happening at the front. On the night of 7/8 October Zhukov located Konev’s headquarters without much difficulty and was informed of the details of the encirclement. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front had offered resistance, albeit of a patchy nature, and nothing was known of Budyonny. After speaking to Stalin by telephone in the early hours of 8 October, Zhukov departed once again in order to find Budyonny, who was believed to be somewhere near Maloyaroslavets. After much difficulty, Zhukov eventually found the headquarters of the Reserve Front, where the senior officers present were General Major A. F. Anisov, the chief-of-staff, and Army Commissar Lev Z. Mekhlis, the Stavka representative. Neither of these two officers was able to provide Zhukov with almost nothing about the situation of the Soviet forces or the positions of the German forces, and the whereabouts of Budyonny were unknown to both, who feared he had been lost with the 43rd Army. From Konev nothing had been heard for two days. Zhukov left them busy giving orders for the collection and re-formation of routed units and men, and once more left in search of Budyonny.
There was never any question of breaking though to relieve the formations trapped in the huge Vyaz’ma pocket as there were no forces available for the purpose, and it was decided instead to place every formation and unit which could be mustered into the defences of the 'Mozhaysk Line' in front of Moscow. These came to a total of no more than 14 infantry divisions, 16 tank brigades and 40 infantry regiments, some 90,000 men in all, and these began to concentrate on 14 October under the headquarters of Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, Golubev’s 43rd Army, Zakharkin’s 49th Army and Lelyushenko’s (later Govorov’s) newly created 5th Army, all of which were regrouping on the 'Mozhaysk Line', where General Major Semyon I. Bogdanov was responsible for the preparation and co-ordination of the fortification effort.
More strength was being committed to the area, however. A thinning of the forces in the Far East began at about this time, and Kurochkin’s North-West Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front transferred some formations to the Moscow area. On 10 October Zhukov assumed command first of the Reserve Front and then of the West Front, whereupon the two fronts were amalgamated into one. The former commander of West Front, Konev became Zhukov’s deputy, and General Leytenant Vasili D. Sokolovsky his chief-of-staff.
Konev did not remain long in this post, however, because a fresh crisis was emerging in the area to the north-west of Moscow. Here the 3rd Panzergruppe, now under Reinhardt’s command, was advancing to the north-east and entered Kalinin on 14 October in the rear of the 22nd, 29th and 31st Armies, which then fell back in disorder. A new Kalinin Front was then formed on 17 October under Konev’s command and comprising General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 29th Army and General Major V. A. Khomenko’s 30th Army, together with an operational group under General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin. This new front extended at right angles to the West Front from the area of Kalinin in the east to the Ostashkov lakes in the west.
Zhukov was responsible for the defensive effort on all the approaches to Moscow and as such exercised control of all troops holding the defence lines, while General Leytenant P. A. Artemev, commander of the Moscow Military District, supervised the defence of the city under Zhukov’s overall command.
On 18 October, after fierce fighting against three tank brigades near Borodino, the armour of General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) entered Mozhaysk in the second defence line about 60 miles (100 km) from Moscow, and the 'Mozhaysk Line' had already been breached by General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) near Maloyaroslavets and Borovsk, and by General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps near Kaluga. Also under threat were the Naro-Fominsk and Podolsk areas to the south of Moscow, and communications between Moscow and Tula were also in danger of being cut. To meet this situation, General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s new 33rd Army was created in this area and Golubev’s 43rd Army received reinforcements.
The three inner defence rings round Moscow were strengthened with barricades, strongpoints and anti-tank obstacles, and three workers’ divisions were hurriedly formed with volunteer and conscripted civilians. Special orders to strengthen the political and military control over the civilian population included the establishment of military tribunals and, where necessary, the summary execution of offenders.
By the middle of October, when the good weather finally ended, the German advance as shown on the daily situation maps in the headquarters of Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army, appeared very satisfactory but did not, in act, accurately reflect the real position. It was known that Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee was making no further 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, as dictated by Hitler, to sketch the further development of operations by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Moscow was to be surrounded but not occupied, and any offer of surrender was to be rejected. The military orders which followed this curious premise were, to say the least, absurd as they ordained the complete dispersal of the forces which had been concentrated for the destruction of West Front and the seizure of Moscow: von Weichs’s 2nd Army was to move from Kursk to Voronezh, 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, Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe were to encircle the capital from the north-east, and Strauss’s 9th Army was to move directly to the north from the line between Kalinin and Staritza to Vishny Volochok in the area of the Valdai hills to support Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. These operations would have spread Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ over a front some 600 miles (965 km) long, and von Brauchitsch’s plan was immediately and strongly opposed by von Bock, who felt that it was essential to attack Moscow by the shortest and most direct route.
From the middle of October, the deterioration of the weather had slowed the rate of the German advance in front of Moscow, just as it had forced the deceleration of Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee in the Mtsensk area, where the winter had started 10 days earlier. The scenes in the north now followed the pattern of those farther to the south. The main road linking Smolensk and Moscow began to break up, and all wheeled traffic came to a standstill in the ever spreading and deepening mud. Only tracked vehicles and local four-wheel panje wagons were able to move. Entire divisions were brought to a standstill, their units widely scattered and wholly immobile. Horses died in large number as they were overtaxed and without fodder, and artillery ands other heavy equipment were stuck fast. Anti-tank guns could not be brought forward to engage the Soviet tanks, which once more were numerous, and many headquarters remained without the signals vehicles needed to keep them effective. The supply system collapsed, and a shortage of transport aircraft prevented the aerial delivery of all but emergency supplies. Even when it was possible to get wheeled motor vehicles moving with the assistance of tracked prime movers, the dire conditions quickly consumed the limited stocks of fuel. Stranded detachments were on the verge of starvation.
von Kluge’s 4th Army, on the Nara river to the west of Moscow with some 36 divisions, had achieved little progress and instead of pinning the Soviet forces as intended, was itself now pinned and causing some concern in the German higher command echelons for the condition of some of its men. Generalleutnant Erich Schröck’s 98th Division, for example, had marched some 620 miles (1000 km) through Ukraine, reached the 4th Army just after the fighting at Vyaz’ma, fought its way to the east from Maloyaroslavets, a mere 60 miles (100 km) from Moscow, and taken over the pursuit in the mud of October after von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision had been brought to a halt beyond the Protva river. There was heavy cloud releasing steady rain and snow showers but, since the Panzer formation had been left behind, the infantry benefited nightly from the comparative warmth of Russian peasant hovels while the armoured troops remained stuck in the mud and faced steadily deteriorating winter weather. It was weeks before some of the German motorised units were able to move once again, and meanwhile were increasingly targeted by Soviet stragglers and partisans. Supply columns could move only with the aid of captured Soviet tractors. The Soviet rearguards fought with skill and determination, and also left many stay-behind parties in the woods. On the Nara river, Soviet resistance began to stiffen once again, and the changing composition of the Soviet font-line formations was attested by the fact that prisoners now included many Mongols and Kalmucks, and there were also rumours that regular Siberian and parachute formations were being committed.
With its companies now reduced to the strength of little more than platoons, the 289th Regiment took the Chernishay heights but was immediately driven back by a Soviet counterattack: earlier in the campaign, German infantry could in general be expelled from any objective it had taken. Supported by assault guns, the 290th Regiment then retook the objective, but became separated from its armour and was immediately counterattacked and driven back by massed Soviet troops. The Germans suffered heavily from Soviet mortar and rocket fire, and the Soviet superiority in artillery and automatic weapons led to severe German losses. The 98th Division noted with envy that the Soviets had no difficulties with their supplies of ammunition supply.
The T-34 medium tank also inflicted a lasting impression on the German infantry. An attack by such tanks on the boundary between the 289th Regiment and 290th Regiment led some men to panic, and it was only the personal intervention of a regimental colonel which persuaded the troops to return to their positions. Only when the German armour and 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns began to target the T-34 tanks that the infantrymen started to regain their equilibrium. Even so, Soviet tanks continued to break into the German positions but, since they were rarely accompanied by their own infantry, they milled about the area achieving little until they were destroyed or forced to withdraw by German fire. So short of infantrymen was the division that regimental staffs, clerks, signallers, sappers and anti-tank gunners were all pressed in use as infantrymen. Infantry companies, now with an average strength of just 20 men and commanded by the equivalent of second lieutenants and sergeants, were bearded, filthy and infested with lice. The men lay all day in narrow weapon pits filled with water, their feet so cold that they had lost all feeling, and in fact the cold and disease were the causes of more casualties than Soviet action. There was no end to the rain, and the Luftwaffe seemed unable to handle the Soviet fighters and bombers which emerged from the low cloud to bomb and strafe the front-line troops. On 2 November a regimental commander reported that without rest and rehabilitation his men had no further fighting value, and on 5 November von Kluge visited the division for a personal investigation of its weakness. von Kluge agreed that the division was at the end of its tether, but had nonetheless to use the division in the final offensive, since its condition was in fact little worse than that of many other infantry formations.
Generalleutnant Walther Fischer von Weikersthal’s 35th Division was the right flanking formation of General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, the most southerly of the 9th Army’s major formations as it started to move toward the area lying to the north of Moscow. On 19 October the rain and thaw brought most of the division to a halt, but the infantry, many of its companies down to little more than 30 men, struggled forward to the east through knee-deep mud. All the division’s motor vehicles, radio equipment, heavier artillery and baggage were left behind between Klushino and Sereda, though a few of the lighter pieces of artillery were brought forward, each piece and limber being dragged by no fewer than 24 horses, and then only slowly and with great difficulty. Surgeons with field surgical teams were sent forward in panje wagons, and an attempt was made to use pack animals and carts for a supply chain from Gzhatsk. By 20 October the infantry had crossed the Ruza river against light resistance, the Soviets having only a few pieces of artillery but no shortage of ammunition.
Between 24 and 26 October it seemed that the Soviet defence was collapsing, and on 27 October the Germans took Volokolamsk. Four days later the 35th Division, now reduced to two regiments and very much under strength, had taken 1,800 prisoners and covered 16 miles (26 km) of the most difficult waterlogged terrain in five days. On 31 October a pause of a fortnight was ordered while more artillery and ammunition were brought up.
During the rest of October Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ edged its way slowly forward. von Kluge’s 4th Army had reached the Nara river between Serpukhov and Volokolamsk, while Strauss’s 9th Army in heavy fighting secured the area to the north of Rzhev on the approaches to Kalinin. Farther to the south, Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee finally took Mtsensk on 24 October. Since the fuel shortage would not allow the whole of the XXIV Corps (mot.) to advance on Tula, the available fuel was pooled in order to get some tanks forward and an improvised Panzer brigade was despatched under Oberst Heinrich Eberbach to seize the town by a coup-de-main effort. The attack against Ermakov’s 50th Army, which was holding Tula, failed and the German tank losses were heavy.
The deterioration of the weather led to a major slackening of the German offensive and provided the Soviets with a sorely needed respite. By the end of October the Soviet high command had already come to see the position as stabilised, and therefore began to withdraw some troops to reserve for rest and retraining. In a feverish race, the Germans sought to rebuild their first-line strength and the Soviets attempted to make good the huge losses they had suffered in the first two weeks of October at Vyaz’ma and Bryansk, and to prepare their forces to withstand the next German onslaught. It was expected that the next phase of the German offensive would follow the pattern of the preceding attacks, and would be delivered by strong Panzer forces on each flank. The Soviets aimed to counteract by attacking these flanking Panzer forces before they could be reorganised 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. 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 in addition to numerous anti-tank and mortar regiments from Eremenko’s Bryansk Front, whose existence had been terminated on 10 November. Of somewhat greater importance was the creation and training of another nine armies during October and November, these being deployed on a line linking Lake Onega, Yaroslavl, Gorky, Saratov, Stalingrad and Astrakhan. Two complete armies and elements of another three were to reach the Moscow area by the end of November. Some of the divisions in these fresh armies were raised from newly drafted recruits, but others of these formations were well trained and well equipped: these latter had been withdrawn from the military districts in central Russia and Siberia, which intelligence information, largely from the agent Richard Sorge in Tokyo, had revealed were no longer under threat of Japanese invasion. So that these fresh formations could be concentrated in the area behind the West Front, the whole of the railway network was allocated to the Soviet army, and on 24 October the Moscow railway complex was placed under military control. According to the Soviet account large numbers of military trains steamed from Tomsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk and Kuybyshev without stopping to change locomotives or crews, covering between 500 and 620 miles (800 and 1000 km) per day.
October and November saw major administrative preparations by the Soviet high command for the final defensive battle before Moscow, and the establishment of large numbers of pack and animal truck and sledge companies, the Soviets appreciating that a pony had far greater mobility in mud and soft snow than a wheeled motor vehicle. However, as they fully appreciated the problems caused by the shortage of transport, the weather and the terrain, the Soviets allocated to their forward formations rations for seven days, six refills of vehicle fuel and three first lines of ammunition.
For the first time in World War II, German movement had been halted, in this instance during the second and the third weeks in October by the cloying combination of rain and mud. Soviet historians downplayed what they described as German excuses and held that von Bock was halted by the determination and skill of the Soviet forces. Soviet resistance did indeed strengthen late in October, and to the west and south of Moscow it was bitterly determined. Yet the evidence clearly shows that the German advance, which initially seemed to be a repeat of that of the summer in its speed and distance, ended as a result of the weather and the terrain. During the first two weeks of ‘Taifun’ (i), Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ destroyed nearly 700,000 Soviet troops at relatively little cost to itself, and that another three weeks of dry, mild and clear weather would almost inevitably have seen it in Moscow.
The German successes up to this time over the Poles, Norwegians, French, British, Dutch, Belgians and Soviets had resulted from the vastly superior mobility and firepower made possible by the massing of tanks and the concentration of tactical air forces, good communications and bold leadership. The removal of this mobility necessarily entailed the loss of firepower, and the concept of Blitzkrieg failed. The almost unbelievably difficult climatic and geographical conditions in the autumn of western Russia brought all wheels to a halt and destroyed the horses on which the German army was in overall terms more reliant than on motor transport. Tracked vehicles could keep going, but only at reduced efficiency an significantly increased fuel consumption, and since the delivery of fuel was terminated by the autumnal conditions, the armour was also soon brought to a halt. Little air transport capability was available, and the low cloud and poor visibility rendered problematical any form of sustained air offensive or air transport support. The German infantry continued to go forward despite being knee-deep and sometimes even waist-deep in mud and water, but in these conditions it could not longer be part of a co-ordinated and potent fighting force. Without armour or air support, and with little artillery or mortar fire at its disposal (even the anti-tank guns had sometimes to be left behind), the infantry moved at the best a few miles per day, and lacked fire support and ammunition, equipment and food, clothing and warmth, shelter and medical care, none of which could be moved forward.
Almost overnight, therefore, the German effort against Moscow came to depend on the efforts of a number of unsupported, tired and understrength spearhead infantry battalions, while the rest of the German army and air force could only look on.
As was typical in these first months of the ‘Great Patriotic War, the Soviet resistance was uneven. In front of Tula and on the Nara river, where new formations were arriving, it was at its most determined. Near Volokolamsk it was very poor, many Caucasian cavalrymen merely surrendering. From the middle of October, the Soviets were being engaged by only part of the German strength. While it is true that the Soviets suffered the same movement problems as did the Germans, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was the the eastern end of lines of communication 1,000 miles )1600 km) long, while the Soviets were barely 40 miles (65 km) from their main base, and it is a truism that conditions which inhibit movement inevitably favour the defence.
However, it would be simplistic, and indeed wrong, to attribute the German failure solely to the weather and terrain. The Germans’ primary errors were those of misjudgement and mistiming: ‘Taifun’ (i) was planned and executed too late in the year, at a season when the weather was due to break; their secondary error was their lack of understanding of the particular effect on mobile operations of the weather and the terrain in western Russia; and their third error was lack of resources. Given that the offensive was mounted so late in the year, a major alternative or supplement to wheeled transport was necessary, and currently the only alternative was air transport, of which the Germans had insufficient. Too much had been asked of the German troops, and in particular of the infantry, and strengths had been allowed to drop to a level too low for the Germans to sustain their offensive efforts.
In an Oberkommando des Heeres paper of 6 November 1941, which if anything understated the dire nature of the current situation, it was reckoned that the 101 infantry divisions on the Eastern Front (excluding Finland) possessed a combat capability no greater than that of 65 divisions at establishment strength. The 17 Panzer divisions had likewise been reduced to the effectiveness of six. In overall strength, the German army on the Eastern Front totalled 136 divisions but possessed a combat capability of only 83 divisions.
Even though bogged down by the conditions and its own shortage of resources and reserves, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ remained poised before Moscow. The Germans now had to choose either to continue the offensive against Moscow or to pull back as there was absolutely no possibility of the army group remaining its its present positions, which were disastrously exposed to both the weather and Soviet attack. Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Ersatzheer (replacement army) even suggested, though only tentatively, to von Brauchitsch that the time had come to make peace proposals to Moscow. Inevitably, of course, Hitler remained sure that the Soviet edifice was about to crumble, and his views were shared by von Brauchitsch and Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, despite their concerns about Hitler’s direction of the German war effort. In a directive of 7 November and again at a meeting at Orsha on 13 November, Halder insisted on the continuation of the offensive on the grounds that the Soviets were now longer able to hold a continuous front. With some justification, the Germans believed that the Soviet high command would place the greatest importance on the defence of the triangle bounded by Moscow, Vologda and Saratov as the German seizure of this area would entail the complete Soviet loss of railway connections between the main theatres of operations, the Urals, the Caucasus and the British and US aid passing through this last from ports in Iran. The German intention was therefore to prevent the Soviets from withdrawing, to destroy them, and to reach a line extending from Maykop in the south via Stalingrad and Gorky to Vologda in the north. The Germans also believed that the seizure of this area would strip the USSR of its industrial and armament support area and so prevent any major re-equipment effort.
Hitler had no doubt that the operation would succeed and, in order to ensure full compliance, specifically refused to allow the preparation of any rear defensive positions to which the German forces could fall back. It is also doubtful that the possibility of failure ever suggested itself to von Brauchitsch and Halder. Of the army group commanders, von Rundstedt had for some time been sceptical of any early German victory, and von Leeb, who had been forced to undertake the Tikhvin operation against his own inclinations and judgement, was distinctly nervous about the vulnerability of this salient, but hoped that the resumption of the thrust towards Moscow would ease the pressure on his own sector.
Although Halder was in all probability confident of success in the Moscow operation, he was too good a general staff officer to leave Hitler in ignorance of the difficulties faced by the three army groups. On 19 November, in notes for Hitler, Halder was gloomy. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was at a standstill as a result of the weather and the failure of supplies, and, Halder’s spelled out the details of the situation, the phases ‘failure of supplies’ and ‘insufficient strength’ were repeated very many times. Of the 500,000 trucks on the Eastern Front, 30% were off the road and beyond repairs and another 40% needed major overhaul and repairs: thus only 30% were available and serviceable. Moreover, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ required a minimum of 31 trains per day to maintain itself, but was receiving only 16.
Generalleutnant Helge Auleb’s 6th Division occupied the left flank of 9th Army and was about 100 miles (160 km) to the north-west of Moscow. Its casualties of 3,000 men from the beginning of the war to 1 November 1941 had been light. Like all other divisions on the Eastern Front, however, the arrival of the cold weather found it stretched out to the rear for more than 100 miles (160 km). During October the supply system had failed entirely. The first-line artillery ammunition had been almost wholly expended, and there was no barbed wire to be had. The division had received no rations, but was more handily placed than many other divisions in the same situation inasmuch as it was managing to live off the land: Russian horses had been slaughtered and for nearly six weeks the troops ate little else but horse flesh leavened by small quantities of potatoes which had been collected and thawed. Bread was made with rye threshed and milled by the troops themselves, and formations and units had raised their own foraging commandos to search for horses, food and fodder. After the arrival of winter had frozen the mud into solid ground, supply and movement were gradually resumed, and horse-drawn relays of panje wagons brought supplies from Sychevka to Ulitino, though this ensured the delivery of only 15 of the minimum requirement of 30 tons per day. By the middle of November, the stock of artillery ammunition had been partially replenished, but all incoming vehicle fuel was needed to fill the tanks of the vehicles isolated and stranded some distance to the rear. Lack of horses meant that not all of the artillery could not be moved, for each piece needed as many as 14 horses, and the gunners compared their equipment unfavourably with that of the Soviets, who made use of gun-towing tractors. Also worthy of note was the fact that while they seemed to have lost most of their lighter field guns in the recent defeats, they still possessed a sizeable complement of medium and heavy guns, and had replaced their lost field guns with medium mortars. When the cold weather arrived, the troops were still in their summer uniforms, although 10% of the division’s winter clothing reached Smolensk at the beginning of November. The wounded suffered appallingly as they were evacuated across rutted tracks in panje wagons filled with straw and covered by straw-built thatched roofs to keep off the frost.
The experiences of other divisions were very similar, although many of them were even harder hit than the 6th Division.
From the beginning of November the temperature in the Moscow area dropped rapidly and the frozen ground became firm. Even so, time was still required to bring up the artillery and supply vehicles, which were still stranded far to the rear and had been frozen into the congealed to the depth of their axles. There was a lack of motor vehicles and although the railway was in use as far forward as Bryansk, Vyaz’ma and Rzhev, its capacity was low as track-laying to the German gauge was still in progress. The cold weather brought with it both suffering and frustration. Vehicles and guns had to be chipped out of the frozen mud by hand with pickaxes, and many were damaged beyond repair in the attempts to tow them free. Vehicle engines iced even as they ran unless the engine compartments were protected, and it was necessary to light fires beneath trucks and tanks at rest before their engines could be started. The oil in the recoil system of the artillery gelled to solidity, and the actions of machine guns and automatic rifles failed for the same reason. Only the mortar could be relied on. Without spuds, tracked vehicles could not grip on the ice, and in the soft snow the narrow tracks of the German armour restricted their tactical mobility.
Lack of a proper diet and the eating of frozen food gave rise to vomiting and stomach ailments. Neither camouflaged white smocks nor winter clothing had been received, and many troops were even without underclothes and serviceable boots. No soldier could be left alone without a second man to watch him for the signs of frost-bite, and the wounded died where they fell, not as a result of their wounds but from the shock and frost-bite occasioned by the loss of blood.
On 7 November it was decided that the offensive toward Moscow should be resumed, but the immediate intention was merely to approach closer to the city. To the west of the Soviet capital, von Kluge’s 4th Army was to pin the Soviet defence along the line of the Nara and Oka rivers, in the area between the Moskva river and Alexin, while Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, which was under von Kluge’s command, thrust on the left of the 4th Army’s sector in a north-easterly direction to envelop Moscow from the north. Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe was brought to the south from the area of Kalinin to operate close alongside Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, but was under command of Strauss’s 9th Army, which was itself responsible for the flank protection to the north. Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee was to drive to the north-east once more from the area of Tula toward Kashira and Kolomna and the area to the east of Moscow. von Weichs’s 2nd Army, currently under the temporary command of General Rudolf Schmidt as von Weichs was ill, was allocated only a minor role as its primary responsibility was the security of the 2nd Panzerarmee’s southern flank.
Zhukov was nominally in sole command of the defence of Moscow, and indicated that he was confident of success, though for reasons which were never elucidated and impossible to determine. Only on one occasion, 14 November, was a counterattack ordered by Stalin and Shaposhnikov, and mounted against Zhukov’s wishes by Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and Zakharkin’s 49 Army on the German northern and southern flanks in the areas of Volokolamsk and the lower reaches of the Nara river, achieved little except the pinning of part of von Kluge’s force.
During the first fortnight in November, 100,000 troops, 300 tanks and 2,000 pieces of artillery reached the West Front.
The German offensive was renewed on 15 November in clear and frosty weather. Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and part of the 9th Army drove in Khomenko’s 30 Army on the left wing of Konev’s Kalinin Front in an attack towards Klin and, on Stalin’s order, Khomenko was immediately replaced by Lelyushenko. On the following day Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe attacked Rokossovsky’s 16th Army on the right wing of the West Front, thrusting toward Istra, and on 18 November Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee took up the attack from the Tula area. Meanwhile, in the centre, von Kluge’s 4th Army was itself attacked. On the northern flank the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe enjoyed a measure of success against the 30th and 16th Armies, taking Klin on 24 November and Solnechnogorsk on 25 November. Three days later, the two Panzer groups were immediately to the north of Moscow at Dmitrov and Yakhroma, and had also crossed the Moscow-Volga Canal less than 25 miles (40 km) from the north-western edge of Moscow.
Zhukov had been urging that General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army (characterised by the fact that it possessed an organic artillery establishment greater than standard) and Golikov’s 10th Army should be allocated to him from the Stavka reserve, and control of these armies was transferred to him on 29 November. However, these armies were very incomplete and most of their men were hastily levied recruits without combat experience. The method by which the 10th Army had been raised is indicative of its readiness for war. On 21 October Golikov had been despatched to Kuznetsk in the Volga Military District to form the 10th Army of nine rifle and cavalry divisions, without the aid of an army staff or headquarters as these had not yet been established. The allocated divisions were scattered as far apart as Moscow and Turkestan, and most of them had yet to be recruited, trained and equipped. The 10th Army comprised 100,000 men (11,000 in each infantry division and 3,000 in each cavalry division), but only one-quarter of the rank and file was below the age of 30, and a not inconsiderable number were above the age of forty. Some 90% of the men were Russians and only 4% Ukrainians, but the matter which especially concerned Golikov and his military council was that the 10th Army contained 5,387 communist party members and 3,718 young communists, and an appeal to the Stavka and the Main Political Administration in Moscow led to the despatch of 700 party members to join the formation. Golikov was not as fortunate in the supply of equipment: two of his cavalry divisions were without saddlery and one of his infantry divisions was short of 7,500 rifles. Three infantry and two cavalry divisions were wholly without radio equipment, and the motor transport varied in divisions from 12% to 58% cent of establishment. There was also a general shortage of artillery, heavy machine-guns, mortars and engineer equipment.
On 24 November, Golikov was sorely surprised to be told by Shaposhnikov that instead of the three-month mobilisation period he had expected, he was to be ready to move immediately.
Farther to the south-east, Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee continued to make only very slow progress. On 13 November, at a Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ conference at Orsha, attended by Halder, there was considerable discussion not of immediate concerns but rather of longer-term objectives such as the industrial city of Gorky, some 405 miles (650 km) from Orel and 200 miles (325 km) to the east of Moscow, and this appalled Oberstleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein, Guderian’s chief-of-staff. Guderian had learned that Siberian formations were arriving by rail at Ryazan and Kolomna on his exposed south-eastern flank, and that one division had already arrived at Uzlovaya. The weakened German infantry divisions could no longer cope with this fresh opponent, and Soviet counterattacks supported by T-34 tanks caused panic which spread as far to the rear as Bogoroditsk. According to Guderian, this was the first occasion on which any such thing had occurred on the Eastern Front. Comprising Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) and two infantry corps, the 2nd Panzerarmee had a strength of just 12 divisions, half of which were of foot-sore infantry. Even so, on 21 November Guderian’s army took Uzlovaya and three days later the XXIV Corps (mot.), advancing to the north in the direction of the Oka river and thence Moscow, took Venev. The Siberian troops of the 239th Division were encircled in the area of Stalinogorsk for several days before they broke out to the east, abandoning their vehicles and equipment. On the afternoon of 23 November Guderian visited von Bock to stress the fact that his formations were exhausted. Guderian then heard as von Bock spoke on the telephone to von Brauchitsch, who made it cleat that he was not permitted to make any decision. According to Guderian further representations to Halder, through the Oberkommando des Heeres’s liaison officer, were also fruitless. von Bock then gave up all hope of attaining the longer-range objectives he had been allocated, and now intended at best to improve his situation in the area of Tula. Even this was impossible, however, as the XXIV Corps (mot.) and von Kluge’s 4th Army were unable to co-ordinate their enveloping attack intended to pinch out Boldin’s 50th Army in the Tula area.
Up to this time von Bock had driven his formations relentlessly from his forward command post, but on 1 December it became clear that he had now come to the conclusion that success had become impossible, emphasising to von Brauchitsch and Halder the weakness of his troops, who were now having to made frontal attacks on well-prepared Soviet positions, Halder could only stress that the difficulties were known, but that it was the last reserves of strength which would count.
In the area to the east of Moscow a further nine Soviet reserve armies were now being formed.
Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe continued to make progress to the north of Moscow, but as they arrived the fresh Soviet formations were fighting with great determination. Hoepner spoke by telephone to von Kluge every day requesting him, in vain, to launch his attack to the west of Moscow from the area of the Nara river. For some reason von Kluge was slow to act, as he several times discussed the matter with von Bock and Generalmajor Günther Blumentritt, the 4th Army’s chief-of-staff. Thus it was 1 December before the 4th Army began its attack. Generalleutnant Curt Jahn’s 3rd Division of the LVII Corps (mot.) was one of the formations selected for the 4th Army’s offensive. The division occupied a difficult area near Naro-Fominsk, and was under observation from the Soviet positions: Soviet snipers occupied positions in the chimneys of buildings, and any daylight movement resulted in heavy mortar fire. The German formations were too weak to cover the entire front, and the gaps between the formations provided avenues by which the Soviets could and indeed did infiltrate deep into the rear. At night the temperature was down to -22° F (-30° C), and the men had to be withdrawn after just one hour in the open, and then needed one hour to thaw and have their circulation restored. Jahn himself had little faith in the possibility of a successful outcome as his division was opposed by fresh and well-equipped Siberian divisions well equipped with armour and artillery. Even so, the 29th Regiment was committed to the attack with the support of one company of self-propelled assault guns, and immediately began to haemorrhage casualties. The reinforced 5th Kompanie/29th Regiment attacked with 70 men and by the evening had been degraded to just 28 men. Inevitably, therefore, the division was brought to a halt as it had been allocated a task that was too great for its strength. The 3/8th Regiment (mot.) lost 80 men, which was one- third of its existing strength, but of these 58 were the victims of exhaustion or frost bite rather than combat. Co-ordination at army and corps levels was poor and Generalleutnant Ernst-Eberhard Hell’s 15th Division was committed at a time too late to exploit the 3rd Division’s gains.
The immediate threat to Moscow was the advance of Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe to the north of the city, and to counter it the Soviet brought up from the east troops of their 24th and 60th Reserve Armies, and the 7th and 8th Guards Divisions, the first two formations to arrive in the northern outskirts, formed the nucleus of General Major Andrei A. Vlasov’s new 20th Army. Arriving from the area of Zagorsk, Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army attacked between Dmitrov and Lake Iksha, and checked the Germans on the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal. Reinhardt’s and Hoepner’s Panzer groups were halted by these two freshly arrived armies, together with elements of Lelyushenko’s 30th Army and Rokossovsky’s 16 Army, at a distance only 17 miles (27.5 km) to the north-west of Moscow, and by 3 December these Soviet formations were already counterattacking in strength.
To the south, Guderian’s offensive was brought to a standstill by the Soviet forces’ determined stand in Tula, Stalinogorsk and Venev, which tied down so many formations that only the 17th Panzerdivision was available for the final attack on the Kashira bridges over the Oka river. This attack was repulsed by Boldin’s 50th Army and Zakharkin’s 49th Army using armour, cavalry and anti-aircraft guns operating in the anti-tank role. Meanwhile the new formations whose arrival from the east had already been noted by Guderian included Sokolov’s 26th Army near Kolomna, Golikov’s 10th Army in the Ryazan area, General Major Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s 61st Army behind the South-West Front near Ryazsk, and these were moving forward against the 2nd Panzerarmee’s flank. The 2nd Panzerarmee and 2nd Army nonetheless continued to exert pressure on the Soviets until 4 December, but their attacks became progressively weaker as a result of their increasing weakness and the fact that they were spread out along a front of 200 miles (320 km).
The offensive of von Kluge’s 4th Army gained its only noteworthy success when it broke through the line of the 33rd Army to the north of Naro-Fominsk and attempted to encircle Govorov’s 5th Army to its north. The last German effort of the offensive, this was halted by the reserves of Efremov’s 33rd Army and Golubev’s 43rd Army near Golizno on 2/3 December. In any event, the attack had been too late to be of assistance to Hoepner’s Panzer group. On 3 December, and on his own responsibility, von Kluge ordered the withdrawal of Generalleutnant Karl Pflaum’s 258th Division as the 4th Army could no longer be answerable for its safety, and von Kluge reported that his army’s losses were huge. On the same day, von Bock telephoned Jodl to ensure that Hitler had full information about the situation. By 4 December the Germans were forced to fall back to the Nara river les they be encircled, and on 5 December, with the agreement of the Oberkommando des Heeres, von Bock called off the offensive and von Brauchitsch, who was already in poor physical and mental health, decided to resign as commander-in-chief and also to retire from the army. On 6 December Hitler chaired a meeting to discuss future action. In reality, Hitler himself was at bay, and the concepts he expressed and the decisions he made at this time established the pattern for the rest of the war.
Hitler’s mind was full of statistics, some of them entirely inaccurate. He quoted German losses as 500,000 men, whereas they were in fact over 800,000, and Soviet losses as between 8 and 10 million. On the basis of these and other assessments, Hitler had no difficulty in persuading himself that all the advantages lay with the Germans, and proposed a number of extemporised schemes to release German manpower for service on the Eastern Front. These schemes included the raising of fighting formations from motor vehicle drivers, now idle because of the great number of trucks derelict or awaiting repairs, the combing out of rear services, and the replacement of German civil labour by prisoners of war, but he was adamant that under no circumstances was there to be any reduction of the troop strengths from Scandinavia or North-Western Europe. Hitler was also determined that as the Soviets had held their ground in front of Moscow, so too would the Germans. Although he was later to change his opinions, Hitler was not opposed in principle to shortening the defensive line, but there could be no question of pulling out before the rear positions, whose construction he had previously prohibited, had been built. Hitler still had his eyes on Donets river coalfields and Maykop oilfields, and had not abandoned the idea of retaking Rostov-na-Donu during the winter of 1941/42.
On 7 December Hitler started to make difficulties about any withdrawals, however small, and Halder privately despaired of the depth to which the German army’s standard of leadership had fallen. Halder noted that von Brauchitsch was little more than Hitler’s postman, and Hitler now dealt direct with the army groups. The worst aspect was that no one at the highest command levels (in fact Hitler) understood or was prepared to learn of the true conditions endured by the troops. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht believed that the position could be restored by tinkering with formation compositions and deployments at a moment at which was was actually required was a number of far-reaching and major decisions. One of these, Halder believed, was the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to the line of Ostashkov and the Ruza river.
Halder’s criticism and his proposed remedy were correct, yet it should not be forgotten that it was not only Hitler who had been responsible for driving Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte into a dangerously exposed, in fact almost desperate, position, and it seems that von Brauchitsch, von Bock and Halder had all been just as determined to take Moscow despite the lateness if the year.
On 8 December Hitler reluctantly agreed to abandon the offensive and issued Führerweisung Nr 39, which laid the blame on what he believed was the advent of surprisingly early and severe winter weather conditions. From this time onward, the German position on the Eastern Front was critically dangerous, especially after 5 December, when the Soviets launched their seven-part ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, and for the next few months German troops were on the defensive, sometimes retreating and always fighting to prevent an outright disaster. The Soviet counter-offensive did not start on 6 December as the German offensive ground to a halt, but had in fact been gradually building to a crescendo over some weeks in the later parts of the ‘Moscow Strategic Defensive Operation’. The concentration of troops had begun late in October, and in November the Meretskov group of the 4th Army, 52nd Army and 54th Army, the Leningrad Front and the South-West Front had been ordered to go over to the offensive in order to relieve the German pressure on Moscow and at the same time ensure that no German formations could be moved from the flanks to reinforce Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Worriedly noting the failure of the thrust on Moscow and his own troops under heavy Soviet attack, on 8 December von Leeb finally managed to persuade Hitler to authorise the withdrawal from Tikhvin. Whereas von Leeb wanted to withdraw about 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south-west, however, Hitler continued to insist that the Tikhvin road and railway should be kept within the range of artillery. Closer to Moscow, Konev’s Kalinin Front had started to thrust on the German flank from about 27 November, and toward the end of this same month the entirety of Zhukov’s West Front was gradually taking the initiative, its main thrust coming from the newly arrived 1st Shock Army and 20th Army to the north of Moscow. In addition, further heavy thrusts were made in the centre by the 10th Army and the strongly reinforced 50th Army. In the south, the flank of Timoshenko’s South-West Front was exerting increased pressure against the 2nd Army and the 2nd Panzerarmee.
At the time of the first of Germany’s defeats on the Eastern Front, that at Rostov-na-Donu, which the Soviets had retaken on 29 November in their ‘Rostov Strategic Offensive Operation’, Hitler had descended into a towering rage and, accepting von Rundstedt’s offer of resignation, appointed Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau as his successor. In company with Oberst Rudolf Schmundt, his military aide, Hitler flew to Mariupol to see a long-standing Nazi party crony, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, commander of the SS Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ (mot.), to hear what he hoped was the truth about the situation. He was disappointed, because the Waffen-SS force was convinced that it would not have survived if it had remained in the forward positions. So Hitler returned, his mind inflamed instead against his former friend and supporter von Reichenau, who had, more than a little surprisingly, fallen somewhat into disfavour by voicing criticism of von Brauchitsch and von Rundstedt.
The next casualty was von Brauchitsch. According to Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Hitler had known for some time, no matter how he had tried to conceal it from his staff, that military catastrophe was near and was searching for scapegoats, but a more dispassionate assessment suggests that Hitler was convinced that his senior commanders lacked the fanaticism, the will and even the expertise to overcome Germany’s may problems, especially on the Eastern Front. Arguably, some of these commanders were guilty of the fault of beginning to doubt Hitler’s military intuition and genius, and these commanders were readied for replacement.
From the beginning of December, von Brauchitsch’s position had become ever more untenable. Under the pressure of events and Hitler’s bullying, he became sick and on 15 December returned from a visit to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in a very dejected frame of mind as he could see no way in which the troops could be extricated from their impossible position. For some time past Hitler’s attitude to the army’s senior leadership had veered toward the contemptuous, and at the time of von Rundstedt’s dismissal and replacement, Hitler did not even consult von Brauchitsch. On 16 December Hitler sent Schmundt to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ for a briefing on the situation, and von Bock told Schmundt that Hitler had to make a choice: he could order a resumption of the attack toward Moscow, risking the danger that in doing so he would beat his own men to pieces, or he could remain on the defensive. If he chose to defend, Hitler would have to remember that no defensive works had been prepared in either the present positions or their rear, and it was in any case doubtful whether the German troops could hold. As an example, von Bock mentioned Generalleutnant Robert Martinek’s 267th Division which had been compelled to pull back on that same day, and had perforce to abandon all its artillery. The clear-sighted von Bock was able to comprehend the situation fully and state it without, however, coming to any decision about what needed to be done. von Bock’s appreciation paved the way to the fanatical ‘stand and fight’ order of 20 December.
The war diary of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ noted that the Soviet forces’ offensive spirit was not well developed at this time, and that the Germans’ failure had to be laid at the door first of the degraded physical and moral condition of the German troops, whose strength had been grossly overtaxed, second of the troops’ fear of being capture by the Soviets, third to the Germans’ reduced fighting strengths, fourth to the Germans’ lack of vehicle fuels and supplies, and fifth to the Germans’ acute shortage of good horses. On 7 December von Bock summarised in his diary that the three main causes for the defeat were the mud, the failure of the railway system, and the general underestimation of the Soviets.
On 19 December von Brauchitsch was dismissed and retired, and Hitler took over the function of army commander-in-chief. One day earlier von Bock, long the sufferer of a stomach condition aggravated by strain and worry, had reported himself sick and had been replaced by von Kluge, formerly commander of the 4th Army.
Halder was summoned by Hitler on 19 December and informed of the change with the words that this little affair of operational command was something anybody could do, for what was needed was political awareness and determination. Halder was told that Hitler had decided on a policy of no retreat, regardless of threat to the flanks, and had to listen to the usual dismissive reproach in which the army was compared unfavourably with the air force. Hitler added that the army had failed to make adequate provision against the weather, and all talk of a retirement could be foregone as there were no rearward positions into which to fall back, and in any event such positions could not be built because of the cold. It is arguable that Halder might have been wiser to resign rather than remain in office. He may have felt himself as responsible as Hitler and von Brauchitsch that the army on the Eastern Front had reached such straits, and it is said he was urged by von Brauchitsch to remain as he was the only officer able to extricate the troops from their dangerously exposed position.
From the start of the war with the USSR, the operational responsibilities of the German army’s commander-in-chief had been limited to the Eastern Front excluding Finland, and all other fronts became Oberkommando der Wehrmacht theatres inasmuch as they were controlled by Hitler through Jodl and the Wehrmachtführungsstab. This direct control by Hitler applied only to the army in Oberkommando der Wehrmacht theatres, since all formations and units of the air force and navy in every theatre came directly under their own commanders-in-chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Grossadmiral Erich Raeder. Unlike the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe and Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine, therefore, the Oberkommando des Heeres had already suffered a serious diminution of its operational authority. When Hitler stated his intention of taking over the post of army commander-in-chief, he was looking to exercise direct operational, and even tactical, control over the commanders of the army groups on the Eastern Front.
Hitler had no interest in von Brauchitsch’s many other important duties, and transferred them to Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. After this, Halder and those who followed him as chiefs of the general staff had little or no responsibility for staff branches outside the general staff, and the real control over armament, equipment, administration and the Ersatzheer passed into the hands of Keitel. The chief of the general staff was thus separated from other branches of the Oberkommando des Heeres, while Keitel, in addition to being chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, acted for Hitler on general affairs pertaining to the army. Halder became merely Hitler’s executive for the Eastern Front, and he and his successors were at times to suffer interference from both Keitel and Jodl even on operational matters in the USSR. This meddling was condoned by Hitler, who used Keitel and Jodl to counter unwelcome advice proffered to him by Halder.
The Heerespersonalamt (army personnel department), headed by General Bodewin Keitel, Wilhelm Keitel’s younger brother and who had formerly answered to von Brauchitsch for army promotions and appointments, now came directly under Hitler’s control, and in the autumn this most important department was put under Schmundt.
Unlike the other two armed services, therefore, the army was in reality without a commander-in-chief.