This was a German unsuccessful operation to open a passage to the forces cut off behind the Soviet lines near Sukhinichi by the advances of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front and General Fyedor Ya. Kostenko’s South-West Front between General Ludwig Kübler’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (2/18 January 1942).
During the night of 24/25 December 1941, as the Soviets continued their ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ to drive von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ back from the outskirts of the Soviet capital, a period of intense cold engulfed the Eastern Front even as strong winds and a heavy fall of snow added to the drifts already left by earlier storms to render still more miserable the existence of the inadequately clothed German troops. In the southern part of the sector of the front on which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was operating, during the morning Schmidt assumed command of the 2nd Panzerarmee in succession to Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, and Kübler, newly arrived from Berlin, departed Smolensk in appalling conditions to travel 120 miles (195 km) eastward to Yukhnov, where he was to take command of the 4th Army, whose erstwhile commander, von Kluge, had replaced Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock in command of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ on 19 December. Hitler had told Kübler by telephone to ensure that his army held where it was and not yield ground unless absolutely forced to do so.
Along the whole extent of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, snow drifts had closed roads, and on the limited number of railway lines, which were the German army group’s primary lines of supply, the locomotives had frozen. The German situation was further worsened by the fact that the number of men incapacitated by frostbite was greater, to a marked degree, than the number of available replacements and those scheduled to arrive. Schmidt was expecting an attack through his army’s winter position toward Kursk; a deep-driving Soviet thrust across the Oka river between Belev and Kaluga was being prepared; Generaloberst Erich Hoepner did not believe that his 4th Panzergruppe (from 1 January 1942 4th Panzerarmee) could hold its positions much longer in the area to the west of Volokolamsk; and Generaloberst Adolf Strauss was momentarily expecting a major Soviet offensive of the left flank of his 9th Army in the area to the west of Staritza
Ever one to prevaricate about making a decision, von Kluge was now close to the point of forcing a decision. In a long and diffuse telephone conversation he informed Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, that the time had come to consider whether or not it was necessary to pull back his army group’s whole front. Lateral movement, von Kluge added, had become impossible so reinforcement of a highly threatened sector from a less threatened area was not feasible. The whole of the army group’s sector was snowed in. Generaloberst Hans-George Reinhardt had tried to take command of the 4th Army before Kübler arrived, but had found it impossible to make the move to the south from his current command, the 3rd Panzerarmee, by motor vehicle, aeroplane and even sled. The area’s roads were drifted shut as fast as they were cleared. The troops could get no food, and if they did not eat they could not fight. If the Soviets struck at his lines of communication, he could not move troops fast enough to counter it. von Kluge told Halder that Adolf Hitler now had to emerge from his castle in the clouds put both of his feet on the ground. Halder responded with a repetition of Hitler’s standard mantra against retreat, to the effect that once started a retreat was very difficult to be brought to a halt. von Kluge finally admitted that he had not reached any conclusion about the depth of the retreat he was advocating, and would have to think about it.
On 27 December, when it noted temperatures of -15° F (-26° C) in the day and and -25° F (-32° C) in the night, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ recorded it its diary that all movements were greatly hampered by the enormous snowdrifts; railway transport was stalled for the same reason and the loss of locomotives as a result of freezing; the general impossibility of redeploying men, weapons and equipment; and as a result of all the previous, the impossibility of determining schedules and then adhering to them. The diary conceded that while the Soviets must also be adversely affected by the conditions, their mobile and well-equipped cavalry, ski and sled units (the last used to bring rations and fodder to the cavalry and to transport infantry) provided them with a tactical advantage which combined with their greater manpower reserves they were now seeking to exploit at the operational as well as tactical levels. The reports of the army group’s subordinate armies were just as alarming. The 2nd Army had its back to Orel and Kursk but could not be certain of holding either of them: the Oberkommando des Heeres promised one division from the west for the Kursk area, but no more than one or at best two battalions could be delivered before the end of the month. In the 2nd Panzerarmee’s sector, elements of Generalmajor Dietrich von Saucken’s 4th Panzerdivision heading to the north along the Oka river from Belev had been halted by the snow and compelled to turn back, leaving the Oka open to the Soviet 10th and 50th Armies, which were beginning to push to the west a further 40 miles (65 km) toward Yukhnov and the important railway junction at Sukhinichi. The 4th Army was beset by a number of problems including where to get troops and how to get them to Yukhnov and Sukhinichi for the defence of these decisive points on its lines of supply and communications. General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe was so hard pressed in the area to the west of Volokolamsk that Hoepner had been compelled to commit one replacement battalion newly arrived from Germany by air despite the fact that it was armed only with pistols and wearing laced shoes.
General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s Soviet 39th Army finally got all of its divisions into action against the 9th Army during this day, but the German formation repelled the thrust developing in the direction of Rzhev, and at the end of the day Strauss reported that his army would resume the battle on the following day, but that if this type of combat continued his army would bleed to death.
Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was in fact on the verge of disintegration. On 28 December all the armies reported sharp declines in strengths as a result of combat casualties and frostbite. Schmidt reported that his 2nd Army was effectively blind as its aerial reconnaissance had failed. The engines of the German aircraft could not be started at the currently ambient low temperatures and, moreover, were not equipped to take off or land in deep snow. Kübler was trying to plan the defence of his 4th Army’s headquarters. Soviet cavalry had crossed the railway linking Sukhinichi and Kaluga railroad, and were advancing on Yukhnov with nothing to stop them. Hoepner said that his formations, and most especially the V Corps, could not continue to check Soviet attacks for much longer as they were exhausted after fighting for weeks in the snow and cold without relief. The most alarming reports came from two 9th Army divisions, Generalleutnant Helge Auleb’s 6th Division and Generalmajor (from 1 January Generalleutnant) Walter Weiss’s 26th Division, which were attempting to hold the front in the area to the north-west of Staritza against the 39th Army. Auleb reported that he had spent the whole day in Novaya [sic] with the counterattack regiment, and that they were both physically and psychologically finished: he had seen men with their boots frozen to their frozen feet, and these men would rather let themselves be beaten to death than attack in that condition. Weiss reported, in comparable vein, that the 78th Regiment of his division could no longer be considered a regiment: it had only 200 men; the Soviets had cut its communications, its radio equipments and machine guns were frozen, the latter with their crews dead alongside their weapons.
After prevaricating for three days, von Kluge phoned Hitler during the afternoon of 29 December. Hoping to make a partial retreat palatable to Hitler, he proposed to yield Kaluga, letting Strauss’s 9th Army fall back gradually into the ‘K-Linie’ (otherwise the ‘Königsberg-Linie’ between Rzhev and Kursk via Gzhatsk and Orel as earlier proposed by von bock and known to the troops as the winter line), and to pull back the whole of the 4th Army some 10 to 15 miles (15 to 25 km) in order to shorten its front and thereby release three divisions with which to defend Yukhnov and Sukhinichi. All that the 4th Army currently had in the Yukhnov area, von Kluge admitted, were a single replacement battalion and a single SS battalion, and the 4th Army’s supplies depended on these two points. Following a long hesitation and repeated questions as to how much matériel and supplies would be lost, Hitler finally agreed
that the 4th Army could evacuate Kaluga, which was to all intents already lost. Hitler forbade all other other withdrawals, and von Kluge dutifully transmitted the German leader’s decisions to his subordinate armies.
Almost exactly one day later, von Kluge attempted once more to obtain authorisation for the withdrawal of the 4th Army as, during the day in question, the Soviets had broken through and effectively destroyed two of the 4th Army’s divisions in the central sector of the army’s front. Hitler remarked that retreats had a tendency to perpetuate themselves, and therefore that once they had started the German forces might as well head straight for the Dniepr river or the Polish border. Hitler then stated that it was time for ‘the voice of cold reason to be heard’, and that there was no sense in falling back from one line to another which was no better. Hitler went on to state that in World War I he had often experienced 10-day artillery barrages and that the men had held their positions even when no more than 10% survived. When von Kluge reminded him that World War I was fought in France where the temperatures were not in the order of -13° F (-25° C), and that the 4th Army's men were psychologically and physically exhausted, Hitler only response before ending the call was that if that was the case then it was the end of the German army. Some 30 minutes later Hitler contact von Kluge to enquire whether or not the proposed new line was fortified, and von Kluge replied that while it was not fortified the Protva river offered a measure of natural protection. In that case, Hitler said, the 4th Army would have to hold its current position until a new and well fortified line had been established.
von Kluge had spoken with Hitler in the middle of the day on 30 December at a time before the armies submitted their daily reports. When these arrived, they contained more bad news. In the 9th Army’s sector, Staritza was almost encircled and the 39th Army was approaching Rzhev. Strauss was forced to admit that his army was on the verge of collapse, which could spell the end for the entire army group if the Soviets then debouched to the south deep into its flank and rear. The most which the 9th Army could still achieve, Strauss believed, was to fight a delaying action to cover the flank while the army group fell back to escape the trap.
On the following day von Kluge spoke several times with Strauss, Kübler, Hoepner, Reinhardt and Halder. Of the army commanders only Reinhardt was against retreat: his line on the Lama river was firm, and his formation’s equipment was so tightly snowed in that he did not think he could move any of it: if the 3rd Panzergruppe did have to move, its men could do so only with their rifles after abandoning all else. Halder’s primary concern was to avoid having to take any proposals to Hitler who, Halder knew, would not authorise any withdrawal to a predetermined line and would certainly never order one. Finally von Kluge told Halder that Strauss had already ordered General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s (from 1 January General Bruno Bieler’s) VI Corps to fall back from Staritza gradually in a three- or four-day period to the ‘K-Linie’.
At 23.30 von Kluge spoke with Hitler once again and, without telling him what he had told Halder, asked for authorisation to withdraw the 9th Army, 4th Army and part of the 4th Panzergruppe. After a discussion, von Kluge was informed by Hitler that he would have to consider the matter with the high command, and then 60 minutes later the German leader contacted von Kluge to say that no retreat was to be attempted as this would entail the loss of too much matériel After von Kluge had told him that the VI Corps had already been ordered to fall back, Hitler ordered that the corps should halt where it was, and von Kluge dutifully passed on this decision to Strauss.
The encirclement of the main part of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was second-phase objective of the Soviets’ grand offensive, and started to become apparent to the Germans in the first days of 1942. The first indication, not perceived for what it was, had come on 25 December when the thrusts of the 10th and 50th Armies, the left-flank armies of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, initially angled toward the south-west in the direction of Belev and Kaluga in the gap between the 4th Army and the 2nd Panzerarmee, began to veer more to the west and north-west in the direction of Sukhinichi and Yukhnov. The second indication was the 39th Army’s push toward the south in the direction of Rzhev, which had started in full strength on 27 December, but this was still obscured four days later by savage fighting along the whole of the 9th Army’s front.
On the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, events were forcing a change in the Soviet plan. General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army and General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army were moving more rapidly and were now better positioned to pursue an envelopment from the south than were the armies of General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s Bryansk Front slightly farther to the south. Of the latter front’s three armies, only General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 61st Army, on the 10th Army’s outer flank, managed to gain some momentum, while General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov’s 3rd Army and General Major Avksentii M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had become very tired by the end of December. Thus the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was being left outside the southern arm of the projected encirclement, which would bring quick changes for Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee and subordinated 2nd Army.
Late in December the 2nd Army was hard-pressed to hold its line on the Zusha and Tim rivers, some miles behind the ‘K-Linie’ although still 30 to 35 miles (50 to 55 km) to the west of the railway linking Kursk and Orel. Schmidt informed von Kluge on 30 December that the 2nd Army might be compelled to yield both Kursk and Orel as well as the railway between them, and that in this eventuality it would have to divide into two parts to follow the railways to the west. This would open a gap, some 60 miles (100 km) wide, in the front, but the army could not survive in the snow-covered wilderness at any distance from the railways. In the event, though, the Bryansk Front was unable to effect the breakthrough which would have compelled the 2nd Army to retreat still farther, and by the end of the first week in January all of this Soviet front’s armies had come to a halt. The Bryansk Front’s part in the counter-offensive ended along the line of the Tim and the Zusha rivers, leaving Mtsensk, Kursk and Orel in German hands. By the middle of January, the Germans’ new winter line had become firm, and to reduce the width of the front which von Kluge had to control Hitler transferred the 2nd Army to von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs, who had commanded the army during the summer and autumn, and had been on sick leave since a time early in November, resumed his command, and Schmidt moved from Kursk to Orel to concentrate on command of the 2nd Panzerarmee.
During the first week in January, the 2nd Panzerarmee's east-facing front was also stabilised. At the same time, though, this army was finding itself with a lengthy and singularly unstable north-facing front. The gap between the 4th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee gaped to 50 miles (80 km), and had become the mouth of a major Soviet salient toward the west past Sukhinichi and curving to the north-west almost to Yukhnov and to the south-west in the direction of Bryansk. The 2nd Panzerarmee had now to extend its left flank to the west from Belev across a roadless distance of more than 70 miles (115 km) miles. The headquarters of General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s (from 8 January Generalmajor Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlenkamp’s) XXIV Corps (mot.), which had been assigned, though without troops, to defend the Oka river sector to the north of Belev, was moving some 80 miles (130 km) to the west into the area of Bryansk, still without troops, to attempt to halt the Soviet drive past Sukhinichi. The corps was then allocated a second task on 3 January when the 10th Army trapped some 4,000 German troops in a small pocket centred on Sukhinichi, which the Germans had reached on 7 October 1941. Hitler refused to let the garrison break out and demanded that the town be defended to the last man.
When the headquarters of the XXIV Corps (mot.) reached Bryansk on 4 January, it had under its command only a miscellany of units including two infantry battalions, one engineer battalion, an assortment of construction troops who had been stationed in the towns around Sukhinichi, and one armoured train. The last had been involved in the fighting at Sukhinichi, and the only serviceable equipment left to it was one locomotive and one wagon. Generalleutnant Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa’s 216th Division and one security division were moving toward Bryansk by rail from the west, but Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had already diverted single regiments from each of these, and the infantry division had left its motor vehicles in Poland. At Bryansk, all destined for the front had to be unloaded and reloaded from narrower-gauge German to wider-gauge Soviet trains.
During this time the 10th Army’s cavalry, aided by partisans and some Soviet soldiers who had hidden in the forests since the campaign of October 1941, were spreading with some speed to the west and south of Bryansk. On 7 January, after air reconnaissance had indicated the presence of two Soviet divisions heading to the south-west away from Sukhinichi, Schmidt had to protect the 2nd Panzerarmee’s railway lifeline through Bryansk and stripped his command’s eastern front of its last reserves, Generalmajor Heinrich Eberbach’s 4th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Walther Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision for despatch to the XXIV Corps (mot.). After doing that, Schmidt sought over the next few days to win Hitler’s approval to angle his army’s eastern front back slightly and thus acquire some reserves. On 13 January, however, Hitler ordered Schmidt to maintain his eastern front where it was, strip more troops out of it if this proved possible, and use the troops which the XXIV Corps (mot.) already had and was getting in order to mount a counterattack toward Sukhinichi. A modest number of air drops of ammunition and food, together with messages of encouragement from Hitler, were keeping the garrison of Sukhinichi in the fight.
The possibility of a break-out from Sukhinichi ended on 9 January when elements of the 10th Army reached Kirov some 40 miles (65 km) to the west and Zhizdra some 35 miles (55 km) to the south-west of Sukhinichi. Given the distances which would have to be covered, any relief effort appeared impossible, especially as the XXIV Corps (mot.)’s infantry units were for the most part recent arrivals not hardened either to the weather or to the nature of combat against Soviet troops. On 15 January the XXIV Corps (mot.) expected to start its relief effort in another four days at the earliest. Whether the XXIV Corps (mot.) would be driving toward Sukhinichi in four more days or fighting to hold Bryansk was actually still open.
In the event, the surviving forces in Sukhinichi, which had comprised von Gilsa’s Gruppe ‘von Gilsa’ (two battalions of the 216th Division, one battalion of Generalleutnant Karl von Oven’s 56th Division, one battalion of Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Ditfurth’s 403rd Sicherungsdivision, one composite battalion of men being returned to the Eastern Front, one engineer regiment and three batteries of artillery) surrendered on 29 January to the Soviet 239th and 324th Divisions.