This was the German strategic offensive against Moscow, the capital of the USSR, undertaken as the proposed culmination of ‘Barbarossa’ (2 October/5 December 1941).
On 6 September, describing the German advances in the north toward Leningrad and in the south in the area lying to the east of Kiev as creating the basis on which Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could seek a decision against the Soviet forces of General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s West Front, Adolf Hitler issued his Führerweisung Nr 35 for what became ‘Taifun’ (i). This directive mandated that the German forces’ main effort would revert at the end of the month from Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ back to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, which would by that time have its detached Panzer and air formations returned to it together with reinforcements in armour from the other two army groups (Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’) and the reserves of the Oberkommando des Heeres. Thereafter, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ were to press ahead with their particular operations at reduced strength: Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was to establish contact with the Finnish forces on the Karelian isthmus to the north of Leningrad and to push across the Volkhov river to meet them also in the area to the east of Lake Ladoga; and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was to continue its advance to the east in order to capture Kharkov and Melitopol, and also to despatch Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army to the south into the Crimean peninsula.
In the last week of September, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ recalled Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (from 5 October the 2nd Panzerarmee) and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe, and acquired the headquarters of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe from Heeresgruppe Nord together with Panzer corps from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. By that time Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had captured Petrokrepost (Schlüsselburg in German) at the mouth of the Neva river on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, thereby cutting Leningrad’s contact by land with the rest of the USSR, and Finnish forces had established themselves across the Karelian isthmus to the north of the same city and on the Svir river to the east of Lake Ladoga. The vanguard forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ were nearing Kharkov and closing on Melitopol. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ meanwhile held the line it had occupied to the east of Smolensk in August.
On the Soviet side of the somewhat diffuse front lines, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov’s North-Western Direction and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s Western Direction had ceased to exist in August as September respectively as their functions were assumed by the general staff and the Stavka, leaving only Marshal Sovetskogo Budyonny’s (from 16 September Timoshenko’s) South-Western Direction as a theatre-level command. In the far northern sector of the Eastern Front, between Lake Onega and the Barents Sea, General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelia Front was managing with the aid of the oncoming autumn weather to hold the Germans and Finns away from Murmansk and the railway extending to the south along the western side of the White Sea to link Murmansk with the rest of the USSR. Against Heeresgruppe Nord, the Leningrad Front, commanded from 10 September by General Georgi K. Zhukov, defended Leningrad, and General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front held the line from Lake Ladoga to the south as far as Ostashkov. On the southern flank, Timoshenko took personal command of the South-West Front on 26 September and, with this, General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s South Front and General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 51st Independent Army in Crimea, was responsible for the defence of the USSR in the area to the south of the level of Kursk. Against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were ranged Konev’s West Front, General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front, and the Reserve Front 1, at whose head Budyonny had succeeded Zhukov.
Facing Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, therefore, were three Soviet fronts forming a defensive line between the cities of Vyaz’ma and Bryansk, and so, the Soviets hoped, barring the way to Moscow. The armies allocated to these three fronts had been involved in heavy fighting during the summer’s ‘Barbarossa’ campaign farther to the west, but nonetheless constituted a formidable concentration of strength with 1.25 million men, 1,000 tanks and 7,600 pieces of artillery. The Soviet air forces had suffered huge losses, in the order of something between 7,500 and 21,200 aircraft during the summer, but extraordinary industrial achievements had begun to replace these losses, and at the start of ‘Taifun’ (i) the Soviet air forces could muster 936 aircraft, of which 578 were bombers, in support of the West, Bryansk and Reserve Fronts.
The comparatively long pause in the centre of the Eastern Front had afforded the Stavka the invaluable time it required to rebuild the Soviet defences. The three fronts had a combined total of at least 1.25 million men, and while Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had a larger number of men, something in the order of 1.93 million, these included a considerable proportion of auxiliary forces. Thus the army group’s effective strength of 78 divisions provided it with little more than numerical equality with the Soviet forces opposing them.
The state of comparative quiet in the regions to the west of Moscow ended on 2 October when in conditions of bright autumnal sunshine, the armour of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ 2 got under way to the east once again at the start of ‘Taifun’ (i). Konev and Eremenko had their West Front and Bryansk Front respectively concentrated in the areas to the west of Vyaz’ma, on the direct axis toward Moscow, and to the west of Bryansk.
In overall terms, more than 1 million German troops were committed to the operation, along with 1,700 tanks and 14,000 pieces of artillery. Air support down to the tactical level was provided by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II, but the German air strength had been severely reduced by the pace and extent of operations during the summer, in which the Luftwaffe had lost 1,603 aircraft destroyed and 1,028 damaged. Luftflotte II thus possessed only 549 serviceable aircraft, this figure including 158 level bombers and dive-bombers, and 172 fighters.
The planned offensive relied on Germany’s now fully developed Blitzkrieg tactics, using Panzer groups advancing at maximum speed deep into Soviet-held territory and round Soviet formations as they executed double-pincer movements to trap Soviet formations in large pockets for subsequent destruction. Once Soviet resistance along the front linking Vyaz’ma and Bryansk had been broken, the German forces were to press farther to the east in order to encircle Moscow in similar fashion by outflanking it from the north and south. However, before the plan got under way the continuous fighting had reduced the German armies in combat capability, a factor exacerbated by increasingly acute logistical difficulties. Guderian, for example, noted that some of his group’s earlier tank losses had not been made good, and that fuel was already in short supply even before ‘Taifun’ (i) started on 2 October.
The German attack initially proceeded according to plan, with the 3rd Panzergruppe pushing through the middle on the front without encountering major opposition and then dividing its mobile forces, of which part wheeled to the north to complete the encirclement of Vyaz’ma with the 4th Panzergruppe, and the other part wheeled to the south to close the ring around Bryansk in conjunction with what had become the 2nd Panzerarmee on 5 October. The Soviet defence, which was still under construction, was overrun, and the spearheads of the 2nd Panzerarmee and 3rd Panzergruppe met at Vyaz’ma on 10 October 1941, trapping the Soviet 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies in a huge pocket just to the west of this city.
The Soviet forces constrained in the pocket continued their resistance with great determination, however, and the Germans were forced to commit 28 divisions to the task of eliminating the pocket: these troops would otherwise have been available to support the continued offensive toward Moscow. The remnants of the Soviets’ West and Reserve Fronts retreated from the area of Vyaz’ma and occupied new defensive lines in the ‘Mozhaysk Line’ centred on that city on the main highway from Smolensk to Moscow via Vyaz’ma. Although the Soviet losses were enormous, some of the encircled units escaped in small groups ranging in size from platoons to full infantry divisions. The determination of the Soviet resistance near Vyaz’ma also provided time for the Soviet high command to deliver reinforcements to the formations defending Moscow, namely the 5th, 16th, 43rd and 49th Armies. At this stage, three infantry and two tank divisions were transferred from the Far East, and larger numbers of such divisions were earmarked to follow in rapid order.
Farther to the south, in the Bryansk sector, the Soviet performance was initially barely more effective than that round Vyaz’ma. The 2nd Panzerarmee executed an enveloping movement around the city, linking with the advancing 2nd Army and capturing Orel by 3 October and Bryansk by 6 October.
But the pause before ‘Taifun’ (i) could be planned and launched was now about to catch up with the Germans as the weather began to change in favour of the Soviets. The first snow fell on 7 October but quickly melted, turning roads and open areas into muddy and cloying quagmires of the rasputitsa. The increasingly bad going now began to become a major impediment to the speed of the German armoured forces, providing the Soviet forces with the opportunity to fall back and regroup.
The Soviet forces were able to counterattack in some places. For example, Generalmajor Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlencamp’s 4th Panzerdivision fell into an ambush set by General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s hastily formed I Guards Special Corps, which included Polkovnik Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade, near the city of Mtsensk. Newly built T-34 medium tanks were concealed in the woods as the German armour moved past them and then, as an improvised force of Soviet infantry contained their advance, the Soviet armour fell on both flanks of the Panzer division and savaged the German PzKpfw IV battle tanks. For the Germans, the shock of this defeat, even though it was only a tactical reverse of limited import, was so great that a special investigation was ordered, and Guderian and his troops discovered, to their dismay, that the T-34 tank was almost impervious to German anti-tank weapons, both vehicle-mounted and towed. As Guderian expressed it, the PzKpfw IV tank with its short-barrel 75-mm (2.95-in) gun could explode a T-34 only by hitting the engine from behind, and Guderian additionally noted that the Soviets had also started to digest the implications of the German armoured tactics and develop ways to counter them.
Other counterattacks further slowed the German offensive. Operating to the north of Guderian’s forces with the aim of trapping the Bryansk Front, the 2nd Army came under strong Soviet pressure aided by increasingly effective air support
According to their assessment of the initial Soviet defeat, the Germans took prisoner 673,000 Soviet soldiers in the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk pockets, although modern research had suggested a lower but still very large figure of 514,000 prisoners, reducing Soviet strength by 41%. The personnel losses, permanent as well as temporary, calculated by the Soviet command were smaller but still massive at 499,000 soldiers.
But the operations in the extensive forests around Bryansk had tied down parts of the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzergruppe until a time late in the third week of October, and many of Eremenko’s troops eventually either escaped the encirclement to make their way back to Soviet territory or to hide deep in the woods where the Germans would later have to face them as partisans.
On 9 October the German propaganda ministry, quoting Hitler, used a press conference to forecast the imminent destruction of the armies defending Moscow. As Hitler had never previously needed to lie about a specific and verifiable military fact, the conference convinced foreign correspondents that the collapse of all Soviet resistance was perhaps hours away. German civilian morale, which had been low since the start of ‘Barbarossa’, improved significantly, and there began to circulate rumours of the soldiers being home by Christmas and great riches being derived from the future Lebensraum in the east.
The Soviet resistance had slowed the Germans considerable, however, and the brutal cold of the typical Russian winter was now only weeks distant. On 10 October, as they arrived within sight of the ‘Mozhaysk Line’ defences to the west of Moscow, the Germans were about to run into another defensive barrier held by new Soviet forces. On the same day, Zhukov was recalled from Leningrad, where he had just completed the stabilisation of that city’s defences, to assume command of the defence of Moscow using the combined West and Reserve Fronts, with Konev as his deputy. On 12 October, Zhukov ordered the concentration of all available forces on the strengthened ‘Mozhaysk Line’ using survivors from the Vyaz’ma pocket, recent conscripts and a sprinkling of seasoned troops rushed from other sectors and Siberia, and in this had the full support of General Leytenant Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the deputy chief of the general staff and head of the general staff’s operations directorate.
The Germans still controlled the sky wherever they chose to do so, however, and the tactical combination of the level bombers of the Kampfgeschwadern and the dive-bombers of the Stukageschwadern flew 537 fighter-covered sorties during this day, in the process destroying some 440 vehicles and 150 pieces of artillery.
On 10 October, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had called an end to the operations of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee ‘Norwegen’ from the northern part of occupied Norway across northern Finland toward Murmansk in the belief that the war was about to end on the main front. Much of the world, and especially the governments of the UK and USA, wished to believe that this was not true, but to do so, except as an act of faith, seemed unreasonable. The US military attaché in Moscow had reported on 10 October that it seemed ‘the end of Russian resistance is not far away’. The British government had come to fear that the end for the USSR might be near during September, even before the start of ‘Taifun’ (i), after Iosif Stalin had made an urgent demand that a second front be opened without delay in western Europe or, if that was impossible, for the delivery of 25 to 30 British divisions to fight in the USSR. Desperate as the Soviet situation seemed, it was actually worse at this time than either the Germans or the UK and USA imagined. Four months of war and territorial losses had reduced Soviet production capacity by 63% in coal, 68% in iron, 58% in steel and 60% in aluminium. After rising during the summer, in October Soviet war production also dropped enormously, possible by as much as 60%. During October the Moscow and Donets industrial complexes had to shut down so that the process of dismantling them and despatching them by railway for re-establishment in areas to the east of the Ural mountains. The decline in fact continued into November and December, months in which the Moscow and Donets basins produced no coal, the output of rolled ferrous metals fell to 33% of that in June 1941, and the manufacture of ball bearings declined by 95%. W. Averell Harriman, the USA’s expediter of Lend-Lease deliveries, who had been in Moscow at the end of September, had accepted a shopping list from Stalin for orders worth US$1 billion, but the delivery of the ordered items would take months to implement.
By 13 October the Germans had reached the ‘Mozhaysk Line’, which was a hastily constructed double set of field fortifications protecting Moscow’s western approaches. This line extended from the south-western end of the Volga Reservoir near Kalinin in the north toward Volokolamsk and Kaluga, on the Upa river just upstream of its junction with the Oka river, in the south. Despite recent reinforcements, the new line was held by only some 90,000 Soviet troops, a number altogether to small to halt the German advance. Given the limited resources available to him, Zhukov decided to concentrate his forces at four critical points: from north to south, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army guarded Volokolamsk, General Major Leonid A. Govorov’s 5th Army defended Mozhaysk, General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army shielded Maloyaroslavets, and General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army protected Kaluga. The West Front, which had been almost wholly destroyed after its encirclement near Vyaz’ma was thus in the process of re-creation almost entirely from scratch.
The great urban area of Moscow was also hastily fortified. According to Zhukov, 250,000 women and teenagers worked to dig trenches and anti-tank ditches around the northern, western and southern perimeter of the city, in the process shifting almost 105.945 million cu ft (3 million m³) of earth by hand to create three defence lines. In the city itself, workers’ militia battalions were raised to hold the lines, and Moscow’s industrial facilities were hastily adapted to military tasks: one automobile factory was turned into a sub-machine gun armoury, a clock factory manufactured mine detonators, the chocolate factory shifted to food production for the front, and automobile repair workshops started to repair damaged tanks and military vehicles. Despite these preparations, the capital was within striking distance of the German armour, and German warplanes mounted large air raids on the city, though the air raids caused only limited damage because of the city’s extensive anti-aircraft defences and effective civilian fire brigades.
On 12 October, Hitler issued the same instructions for Moscow as he had earlier given for Leningrad: the German forces were to surround the city and then starve it out of existence. No German soldier was to set foot in Moscow until hunger and disease had done their work.
The Germans resumed the offensive on 13 October, and initially sought to avoid the strongest of the Soviet defences by driving the 9th Army and 3rd Panzergruppe to the north-east in the direction of the weakly protected city of Kalinin, and the 4th Army and 4th Panzergruppe to the east in the direction of Kaluga and Tula, capturing all except Tula by 14 October. Encouraged by these initial successes, the Germans launched a frontal assault against the fortified line, taking Mozhaysk and Maloyaroslavets on 18 October, Naro-Fominsk on 21 October, and Volokolamsk on 27 October after intense fighting. At this time, the increasing danger of flanking attacks on what was left of his forces persuaded Zhukov to order his formations to pull back into the area to the east of the Nara river.
On 15 October, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the communist party apparatus, the general staff and various civil government offices from Moscow to Kuybyshev (now Samara), leaving only modest numbers of officials behind. The evacuation caused panic among the population of Moscow, who saw this ‘abandonment’ as proof that the Soviet capital was about to fall, and on 16/17 October much of the civilian population tried to flee, mobbing the available trains and jamming the roads from the city. Despite all this, Stalin himself publicly remained in the Soviet capital, a fact which helped to calm the public’s fear and pandemonium.
On 17 October, the Stavka had created the Kalinin Front, under Konev’s command, to take over Zhukov’s right flank and free Zhukov to control the defences of the direct approaches to Moscow from the west and south-west.
On 19 October the State Defence Committee put Moscow under a state of siege, and at the front, as reported by Zhukov with radical understatement, rigid order was established and stern measures were introduced to prevent breaches of discipline.
Farther to the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee initially advanced to the north-east from the area of Sevsk in the direction of Tula via Orel with comparative ease as the defences of the ‘Mozhaysk Line’ did not extend that far to the south and there were no major significant concentrations of Soviet forces to blocked its progress. Deteriorating weather, fuel shortages and damage to roads and bridges eventually slowed the Germans, however, and Guderian’s army did not reach the outskirts of Tula until 26 October. The German plan initially called for the rapid capture of Tula, to be followed by wheel farther to the north in order to complete the outer edge of the southern pincer move around Moscow. The 2nd Panzerarmee’s first attack was repelled by the 50th Army and civilian volunteers on 29 October, however, after a desperate fight within sight of the city.
On 18 October, after advancing past Mozhaysk and Kaluga, the 4th Panzergruppe began turning to skirt Moscow on the north and so open the way for the 4th Army’s infantry to execute the planned encirclement. Anticipating similar support on its right from the 2nd Panzerarmee, the 4th Army had ordered the southern arm of the encirclement on 16 October and fixed the line of the Moscow peripheral railway as the closest its forces were to approach to the city. Had it been able to maintain the speed it had attained in the early days of the month, the armour of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe would have been less than two days from Moscow when it passed Mozhaysk, but was in fact now moving at a considerably lower speed.
One of the reasons, and indeed the most significant of these reasons, for the slow pace of the advance at this time was the fact that the Germans were having their first experience of the rasputitsa. The first snow fell on the night of 6/7 October and, from this time on, the alternation of rain and snow, combined with the churning of the surface by tanks and trucks, turned the roads into steadily deepening quagmires of all-pervading, sticky mud. By the end of the third week of October, the leading divisions of the 4th Panzergruppe and 2nd Panzerarmee had become extended over distances of between 25 and 30 miles (40 and 50 km), and on occasions the infantry was sometimes outdistancing the armour. The 3rd Panzergruppe even considered dismounting its tank crews and going ahead on foot and with panje wagons, which were the Russian peasants’ one-horse carts. Meanwhile, strong counterattacks on the 3rd Panzergruppe at Kalinin and the 2nd Panzerarmee along the Zusha river at Mtsensk had demonstrated, somewhat alarmingly to the Germans, that even though aerial reconnaissance reports showed Moscow being evacuated, the Soviets were clearly not about to yield the city without a fight.
As a result of the weather, and for the first time in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the Soviets were now able to meet the Germans on almost equal tactical terms: moving slowly and confined to the roads, the Germans could be met head-on and forced to fight for every mile. The new Soviet T-34 tank, which had been available in numbers too small to exert any influence in the fast-moving encirclement battles, now came into its own. Possessing wider tracks than the opposing German tanks, the T-34 was more buoyant in the mud and therefore less likely to become bogged down. Its heavy armament and its armour, which was both thick and well sloped, allowed one or two T-34 tanks in a roadblock to halt an advance until the Germans were able to bring forward either an 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun or 100-mm (3.94-in) field gun, which were the only comparatively mobile pieces of artillery with the capability to penetrate the T-34’s armour. Both of these weapons, and especially the 88-mm (3.465-in) piece, were heavy and bulky, however, and were therefore both vulnerable and difficult to move over poor roads.
On 31 October, the Oberkommando des Heeres ordered a halt to all offensive operations until the increasingly severe logistical problems faced by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been resolved and the increasing cold had frozen the rasputitsa and thereby improved the going. At the end of October, therefore, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was effectively at a halt along the line from Kalinin in the north to the Oka river, to the west of Tula, in the south: the centre of this line was some 35 miles (55 km) from Moscow.
In the meantime, von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had abandoned its attempt to close the siege line around Leningrad in the area to the west of Lake Ladoga during September, after the Finns had refused to advance any farther to the south: their commander-in-chief, Sotamarsalkka Erich Mannerheim, had pledged in 1918 not to use the border on the Karelia isthmus for the launch of any attack on Leningrad. Then left to hold the so-called Flaschenhals (bottleneck), only 6 miles (10 km) wide, to the east of Petrokrepost, von Leeb had on Hitler’s orders started a thrust from Chudovo to the north-east past Tikhvin to the Finnish line on the lower reaches of the Svir river upstream of its mouth on Lake Ladoga. This offensive had also slowed, and at the end of the month the rasputitsa halted it short of Tikhvin.
In the last week of October von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ managed to take Kharkov and Stalino, and also to break through the Perekop isthmus into Crimea, before being brought to a halt by the rasputitsa.
From the Soviet side of the front line, the frustration of the German intentions was, of course, very welcome but did not remove the threat to the USSR. If Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ succeeded in taking Tikhvin, this would sever the one railway line to the southern shore of Lake Ladoga and thereby further isolate Leningrad. At Stalino, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ almost had control of the industry and coal mines of the Donets river basin.
The Panzer formations to the north-east and south of Moscow were currently poised to destroy the industrial heart of central Russia, and so leave the Soviet forces from the Arctic to the Caucasus at the exposed ends of a disconnected railway system lacking effective lateral lines.
Early in the morning of 7 November, which was the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin reviewed an impromptu parade and in his address to the troops, most of whom were to go straight from Red Square to the front, called on them to match the feats of several Russian heroes who had won decisive victories in earlier centuries. On the previous night, in a speech to the communist party organisation of Moscow, Stalin had told his audience of the huge order for Lend-Lease weapons and equipment, and laid the blame for the USSR’s current series of defeats on the refusal or inability of the western powers to open a second front in Europe. Both speeches claimed that Germany would indeed be defeated, but passed no comment on the result of the current campaign.
The Stavka had already embarked on the creation of 11 reserve armies 3 on the line from Vytegra on the south-eastern tip of Lake Onega in the west to the Rybinsk Reservoir in the east, in the area to the north of Moscow, and thence to the east and south along the Volga river. Should the Stavka believe that the new armies would have to hold this line, the USSR’s future must have seemed very bleak: should the Germans reach this line, it would means that the Leningrad and Moscow industrial regions had been taken, and the USSR was on the verge of destruction as a military power.
Near the end of the first week in November, the front was beginning to become active once more, though only on its flanks but not on its centre. Despite the fact that it had almost been ready to fall back to the line of the Volkhov river in the preceding week, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ managed to gather sufficient momentum in the rasputitsa and against steadily growing Soviet resistance to take Tikhvin on 8 November. In the south, the 11th Army, under the command of von Manstein since 13 September after the death of Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert in an aeroplane accident on the previous day, by 8 November had cleared all of Crimea but the Kerch peninsula in the east and the the fortress city of Sevastopol in the west.
So far as Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was concerned, on 30 October von Bock had ordered the resumption of ‘Taifun’ (i) as soon as the weather and ground conditions had improved. During the second week of November, as the weather began to clear and the ground to freeze, the German armour could start to move once again. The Oberkommando des Heeres and the field commands now had to consider a question raised by the time which had been lost to the rasputitsa: where were the Germans forces to halt for the winter? The plans and preparations for ‘Barbarossa’ had not included any consideration of the need to continue active operations into the winter as all command levels had assumed that the entire campaign would have been successfully completed during 1941. On 7 November, Hitler conceded to Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch, the army’s commander-in-chief, that the German land forces would not be able to reach key objectives such as Murmansk, the Volga river and the Caucasian oilfields during 1941, and speaking in Munich on the following day, Hitler called Blitzkrieg an ‘idiotic word’ and said that he was prepared to carry the war into 1942 and beyond should this prove necessary. Thus the idea, or rather the dream, of a single-season victory had vanished even as the winter started to descend on Russia.
On 5 November Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, had told Oberst Adolf Heusinger, his chief of operations, some basis on which to close the current campaign was required, but what such a basis could be appeared different to each of the major figures involved. von Leeb had exhausted his reserves to take Tikhvin, could go no farther forward, was not inclined to fall back, and described Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ being on a hand-to-mouth existence. von Bock had severe doubts about how much farther Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could go but, recalling the fateful consequences of the German decision to stop on the Marne river in September 1914, was unwilling to forego any chance there might still be to take Moscow. For the moment, von Bock could imagine nothing worse than having to sit out the winter just 35 miles (55 km) from Moscow with the Soviets in full control of the city and the half-dozen railway lines running into it from the north, south and east. von Rundstedt called on the Oberkommando des Heeres to let him halt Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ along the line it had reached in order to preserve its remaining strength after the long summer campaign and to give him the opportunity to rebuild the army group for the next spring.
Halder saw the strategic and operational possibilities as falling into either of two categories: an Erhaltungsgedanken in which conservation of strength was the deciding factor, and a Wirkungsgedanken in which the deciding factor was the exploitation of current strength to achieve the maximum effect in the time remaining. Halder said that it was necessary to weigh and balance these two categories against each other, and the results then to be converted into guidance for the field commands.
On 7 November, Halder sent the chief-of-staff of each army group and army a copy of an 11-page document and associated map with notice that of Staff that both options would be the subject of a general staff conference to be held in about a week at Orsha. The map of European Russia had two north/south lines: one was designated as the ‘farthest boundary still to be attempted’, and the other the ‘minimum boundary’. The former extended from Vologda in the north via Gorky and Stalingrad to Maykop in the south, and would cut central Russia from railway contact with the northern ports (Murmansk and Arkhangyel’sk) and with the Caucasus, and would bring in hand the entire Moscow industrial complex, the upper and middle reaches of the Volga river, and the Maykop oilfields. That this action would end the war was doubtful but, as Halder saw it, it would bring German forces into an alignment they could maintain indefinitely, ‘in the event that the highest leadership later decided against resuming the attack in the east’. The latter terminated in the north on the middle reaches of the Svir river, some 30 miles (50 km) to the east of Lake Ladoga, and on the south at Rostov-na-Donu at the mouth of the Don river, and in its centre passed 160 miles (260 km) to the east of Moscow. It would provide a secure link with the Finnish army on the Svir river, bring Moscow and the cluster of industrial cities to the north-east between Rybinsk and Yaroslavl under German control, cut all the railway lines running toward Moscow from the east, and position Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ for later advances to Stalingrad and the Caucasus. But this would still be an interim rather than definitive boundary, and another offensive would be needed to secure Vologda, Gorky, Stalingrad and the oilfields at Maykop and Baku.
Halder and the chiefs of his operations, organisation, intelligence and supply branches arrived by train in Orsha, within the zone controlled by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, on the night of 12/13 November. The general staff conference began at 10.00 on the morning which followed, and ran through the day and into the night. Halder’s own belief, with which he said Hitler had agreed, was inclined strongly toward the Wirkungsgedanken. Halder had given the chiefs-of-staff his position in the document he had sent with the map. Before ending the current campaign, Halder stated, the Germans forces should win, at the very least, positions well suited to the launch of a further campaign in the spring of 1942, while at the same time minimising the danger of the unprepared troops from being overtaken by the winter. In fact, Halder had added, it would be worthwhile to run some risk before the onset of winter to get to the ‘farthest boundary’ or at least the ‘minimum boundary’.
At the meeting, Halder argued that carrying the offensive at least to the ‘minimum boundary’ was both necessary and advantageous. The core concept on which ‘Barbarossa’ had been based, Halder said, had been to bring about the defeat of the USSR in 1941. For a number of reasons, among them ‘natural forces’ but primarily the Soviets’ ‘astonishing’ military and matériel strength, this was no longer wholly attainable. Even though its strength had been very drastically reduced, the USSR still possessed a potential so great that it could not yet be dismissed as a military threat and simply ‘kept under surveillance’ as had been planned. Consequently, the Eastern Front would remain an active theatre into the following year, and this raised problems. The Oberkommando des Heeres had been aware from the first, Halder went on to explain, that the forces assembled for ‘Barbarossa’ could not be sustained beyond the end of 1941, which meant that the personnel losses thus far could not be replaced in the coming year, and cutbacks in motor vehicle allotments would of necessity entail a reduction in mobility. The USSR, on the other hand, still had enough men and industry to rebuild its forces by the summer of 1942 if it could survive until then. The German army would therefore as a consequence still have to attempt to inflict enough damage on the Soviets before the end of 1941 ‘so that the troops will not have to pay in blood next year for what is neglected now’.
For their part, the chiefs-of-staff reminded Halder of some things he already knew very well. As of 1 November, the German casualties total stood at 686,000 men, representing 20% of the 3.4 million men, including replacements, committed since June, or the equivalent of one regiment in every division. Of the 500,000 motor vehicles on the Eastern Front, 33% were worn out or damaged beyond repair, and only 33% were fully serviceable. Panzer divisions were down to 35% of their original tank strengths. The Oberkommando des Heeres itself rated the 136 divisions currently deployed on the Eastern Front as the equivalent of no more than 83 full-strength divisions. All of these conditions could only get worse, the chiefs-of-staff stated, should operations be continued, and one other, namely that of logistics, would get much worse. Every mile the armies moved to the east put an added strain on the railways. Winter clothing for the troops was already having to be left in storage because it could not be brought forward without reducing deliveries of other supplies. German locomotives and rolling stock could not run on the Soviet railways until their tracks had been relaid from the Soviet wide gauge to the German standard gauge; moreover, in the entirety of the Soviet territory occupied thus far only 500 Soviet locomotives and 21,000 wagons had been captured, representing only a little more than 10% of what was required.
The estimates of the chiefs-of-staff of what might still be accomplished were equally bleak. Generalmajor Kurt Brennecke, von Leeb’s chief-of-staff, told Halder that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had no divisions for a further drive to the east and could acquire these only by first eliminating the Soviet 8th Army, which it had confined in a pocket to the west of Leningrad. Brennecke noted that Halder did not mention Vologda again. Generalmajor Hans von Greiffenberg, von Bock’s chief-of-staff, was not receptive to Halder’s suggestion that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ should not resume its advance toward Moscow for about two weeks so that it could rebuild its strength for a deeper thrust. Generalmajor George von Sodenstern, von Rundstedt’s chief-of-staff, emphasised von Rundstedt’s belief that should Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ undertake an advance toward Maykop, after the long march across southern Russia it had already made, this would remove his only major armoured formation, Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee, from action for most of the next year.
After dinner on 13 November, Halder gave his appreciation of the meeting’s results, telling his listeners that had concluded, he said, that the extensive operations he had suggested on 7 November and in the morning session could no longer be considered. Halder nonetheless believed that the army groups would still have to get as much as possible from their troops until about the middle of December. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ would have to drive forward, though apparently not as far as Stalingrad. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would not gain substantial ground beyond Moscow, but would nevertheless have to exert greater pressure on the city. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would be expected to resume its drive at Tikhvin, close on Leningrad, and assist the Finnish forces in the area to the east of Lake Ladoga. Vologda, Gorky, Stalingrad and Maykop would have to be left for the next summer despite the fact that by them the Soviets would possess more strength than the Germans. However, Oberstleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein, Guderian’s chief-of-staff, had already been at pains to point out to Halder that the war was not now being fought in France and that the month was not May.
The Soviets described the strategic situation at the time of the November lull on the Eastern Front in terms which were somewhat self-contradictory. The official accounts maintained that Soviet resistance halted the Germans to the west of Moscow and dismissed the effect of the deterioration of the weather as a German excuse for failure. On the other hand, the Soviets accounts indicated that the effect of the Soviet success was temporary, and that the initiative remained with the Germans: in short, the Soviet armies had fought the German armies to a total standstill and gained a brief respite. As one Soviet account stated it, the Germans needed two weeks to prepare the next stage of their offensive, but at the same time this pause allowed the Soviets to reinforce the front and consolidate the defences of Moscow.
For the Soviets just as much as for the Germans, the critical strategic factors early in November were the approach of winter, which was as welcome to the Soviets as it was unwelcome to the Germans, and the relative condition and strength of the two adversaries. The manpower and matériel which had kept the USSR in the war up to time time, despite its monumental losses, were adequate for one more campaign. On 1 December the Soviet field armies would have 4.2 million men, a slight numerical superiority in tanks over the Germans, an approximate equality with them in aircraft, and a small inferiority in artillery and mortars.
The Germans greatly underestimated the Soviet strength. Estimates given to the chiefs-of-staff on 13 November at Orsha suggested the total of Soviet formations and larger units at 160 divisions and 40 brigades, and posited their combat effectiveness at less than 50% because more than half of those formations’ and units’ officers and men were thought to be untrained. The actual numbers on 1 December, according to Soviet sources, were 279 divisions and 93 brigades. These formations and units, especially those from the reserves, were poor in terms of their training and experience, but were combined with a growing core of seasoned divisions. The individual principally, albeit indirectly, responsible for this increase in Soviet readiness was the agent Richard Sorge. Working in Japan, Sorge had supplied enough information on Japanese plans to allow the Soviet high command to start relocating some forces from east to west even before 22 June. Through Sorge, Stalin knew of the Japanese decision of 30 June to uphold its neutrality treaty of April 1941 with the USSR and to risk war with the USA. By the autumn, Stalin had probably become convinced of Sorge’s reliability, or become so desperate, that he had decided redeploy more troops from Siberia to European Russia. Some of these Siberian divisions had appeared on the Eastern Front as early as October, and more during November. The Stavka had held back from the front the majority of the higher-grade formations from the east in order to strengthen the reserve armies which were then being created. By 1 December the Stavka had relocated 70 divisions from Siberia and another 27 divisions out of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus. Together these units constituted at least 30% of the total strategic reserves committed during the 1941 campaign.
As a departure from his earlier practice, Stalin did not commit his main reserves when the German advance resumed. The reserve armies were still being formed, and it is possible that Stalin had not yet decided to undertake a final stand at Moscow. Stalin nevertheless believed that the defence of Moscow and the region round it was the overriding strategic requirement. (Up to this time in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, between June and November, Stalin had committed 150 divisions, which represented 51% of the Stavka’s overall divisional reserves, in the sector of the West Front.) By a time late in October, the West Front had been allocated 11 rifle divisions, 16 tank brigades and 40 artillery regiments from the reserve and from other fronts, and in the first half of November it had acquired 100,000 troops, 300 tanks and 2,000 pieces of artillery.
Meanwhile, workers from Moscow and surrounding cities had been recruited to form four first-line infantry divisions and 12 militia divisions. On 10 November Zhukov acquired the 50th Army from the Bryansk Front, which was being deactivated, and a week later gained the 30th Army from the Kalinin Front. These extensions of his flanks gave Zhukov control of a sector extending from just south of Kalinin in the north to Tula in the south.
In the middle of November, before the weather changed and the lull ended, the Stavka had incorporated almost all of its forces into the defence of Moscow. The West Front was to hold the direct approaches and to counter strong armoured thrusts expected to the west of Klin and at Tula. Konev’s Kalinin Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front under Marshal Timoshenko were to pin the outer flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and thereby prevent von Bock from redeploying greater strength against Moscow. General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s South Front and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s Leningrad Front were under instruction to prepare offensives near Rostov and at Tikhvin respectively in order to draw German reserves away from the centre.
During the second week of November, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ adhered to essentially the same deployment as at the beginning of the lull. Strauss’s 9th Army held the line from the north-central boundary, to the west of Ostashkov, as far as Kalinin. The 3rd Panzergruppe, under the command of Reinhardt, who had replaced Generaloberst Hermann Hoth on 5 October, was on the Lama river, some 30 miles (50 km) to the west of Klin, with Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe on its right in the sector to the north of the highway linking Smolensk and Moscow. von Kluge’s 4th Army had its left flank straddling this highway and its right touching the left flank of Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee on the Oka river. The bulk of the 2nd Panzerarmee’s armour was concentrated in a salient projecting to the east in the area to the south of Tula. von Weichs’s 2nd Army covered the German south flank to the east of Orel and Kursk. Against these, the Kalinin Front, the West Front and the right flank of the South-West Front could pit 12 armies.
Despite his doubts about how much farther Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could advance, von Bock had tried to retain his option for a thrust to penetrate deeply past Moscow. He had pulled his armour inward toward Moscow to a degree, but still had it arching well round and to the east of the city. He aimed the 3rd Panzergruppe to the south of the Volga Reservoir in the direction of the Moscow-Volga Canal, the 4th Panzergruppe toward this canal via Knin, and the 2nd Panzerarmee toward Kashira and Ryazan via Tula. These axes would bring the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe out on the Moscow-Volga Canal to strike in the direction of Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, give the 2nd Panzerarmee the option of heading to the north from Kashira toward Moscow or to the east across the Oka river toward Gorky, and leave the close-in encirclement of the city of the Moscow to the 4th Army. As the time for the renewal of the ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive decreased, however, the doubts in von Bock’s mind increased, and he told Halder and his subordinate army and group commanders that he believed that the army group had insufficient troops, tanks and supplies to get beyond the Moscow-Volga Canal in the north and the Moscow river in the south. Even so, von Bock left unchanged the armies’ and groups’ original orders and thus, as the 3rd Panzergruppe asserted, made their tasks ‘unclear’.
On 14 November, Zhukov intervened with some reluctance in what so far had been seen by each side as a German initiative. Reinforced with a cavalry corps of two divisions each of 3,000 men, one infantry division, one tank division and two tank brigades, the 49th Army fell on the 4th Army’s right flank in the area to the east of Serpukhov. At the last minute, because Zhukov expected the renewed German offensive any day, Stalin had insisted on counterblows, which Zhukov believed could accomplish nothing but complicate the defence. During the morning on 15 November, one infantry corps of the 9th Army, which was only supernumerary in the ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive, started to advance in the area to the south of Kalinin and experienced what up to this was a novelty in the war on the Eastern Front: the 30th Army fell back without offering an opposition. Although the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe faced opposition when they resumed their offensives on the following day, the Soviet forces facing them nonetheless fared badly. A counterblow by the 16th Army’s right flank, reinforced with one tank division and five cavalry divisions, ran straight into the 4th Panzergruppe’s attack in the area to the east of Volokolamsk and collapsed. On 18 November the 2nd Panzerarmee began its attack in the area to the south of Tula, and one of its corps advanced almost 25 miles (40 km) during the day. On the following day, Stalin asked Zhukov if he was sure that his forces would be able to hold Moscow, to which Zhukov replied that Moscow would be held, but added that to do so he would require at least two more armies and 200 additional tanks. Stalin agreed to the provision of the two armies, though not before the end of the month, but not of the tanks. For the Soviets this meant that the situation outside Moscow was not likely to improve in the near future unless relief was provided by the operations which the Soviets were about to launch on other parts of the Eastern Front.
To the west and north of Rostov-na-Donu, Timoshenko had doubled the strength of the South Front in the course of the month’s first two weeks by the deployment of two fresh formations in the form of the 37th Army and the 56th Independent Army. On 17 November, the 37th Army and elements of the 9th and 18th Armies attacked the shoulder of von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee across the lower reaches on the Donets river in an area about 50 miles (80 km) to the north of Rostov-na-Donu at the start of the ‘Rostov-na-Donu Strategic Offensive Operation’. Timoshenko’s objective was to satisfy the Stavka’s requirement for a diversion and at the same time to block German access to the Caucasus, but the results of the offensive’s first days were not encouraging: General Gustav von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.) checked the Soviet forces in the north while General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot.) diverged to the south-east in the direction of Rostov-na-Donu.
The outlook for an effective Soviet diversion at Tikhvin in the north seemed even less promising. Here Meretskov had assumed command of the shattered 4th Independent Army on 9 November, just as Tikhvin was being lost, and just one day later, in response to urgent demands from the Stavka, went onto the attack in the ‘Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation’ with the reinforcement of just one infantry division and two tank battalions the 4th Independent Army had received so far. These forces were actually enough, in view of the difficult conditions in which Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was now operating, to sway the balance toward the Soviets, but the offensive was not likely to produce swift, let alone devastating, results.
The armour of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had made good progress in the first three days of the renewed ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive, for the increasing cold had frozen the ground, which was covered only with a powdering of dry snow ground. Thus the going was good, and the Germans had aided their own cause by camouflaging their tanks, trucks, and guns with white paint. Even so, the combination of fewer daylight hours, low cloud and snow flurries limited the number of air support sorties which could be flown, and temperatures now well below freezing were new to and hard on men who had hitherto fought only in warmer locations and conditions. However, the German armour could now move across country without any fear of becoming bogged down in the rasputitsa, and the summer-time irritants of dust and insects, especially mosquitoes, were for this season at least things of the past. The situation in which the German forces were now operating was also better: the forests, marshes and swamps of Belorussia had now been replaced by the upland terrain of the Moscow area, which was characterised by villages of prosperous and clean appearance. However, as the Germans were all too aware, the current weather was merely the harbinger of the real Russian winter, in which operations would be altogether different and considerably more difficult.
The staff of the3rd Panzergruppe had already informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that while its infantry could be made mobile in the coldest weather and the deepest snow, its tanks and trucks could not merely be ordered to operate under conditions for which they had never been designed. But commanders and staff officers took a measure of comfort from examination of meteorological statistics, extending as far back as the 19th century, which suggested that there was no reason to expect heavy falls of snow and very low temperatures before the middle of December.
For the moment the weather was the least of the troubles facing Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ on 18 November. In three days of combat, the 4th Army had only just managed to defeat the Soviet counterblow at Serpukhov. When a second counterblow, This time including some Siberian troops fully experienced and equipped for winter fighting, fell on it at the same place on 18 November, von Kluge talked about a tactical withdrawal of some 9.25 to 15.5 miles (15 to 25 km) behind the Protva river. As some of his regiments had been reduced to as few as 400 to 500 men under the command of senior lieutenants, von Bock said that his right flank would probably not be to complete the southern advance of the encirclement of Moscow. Late on 18 November, von Bock and Halder discussed the prospects still possessed by ‘Taifun’ (i), and came to the conclusion that each side was close to the limit of its strength and endurance, and therefore that victory would go to the side possessing the greater will and determination. Two days later, von Bock travelled in his headquarters train into the area behind the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe, and once again arrived at a further revision of the plan, now ordering the 4th Panzergruppe to bear to the east, in the area to the south of Klin, and thereby add weight to the 4th Army’s left flank. von Bock ordered the 3rd Panzergruppe to take Klin and then veer to the south-east along the road and the railway linking Klin and Moscow toward Solnechnogorsk. Them after the 3rd Panzergruppe had taken Klin on 23 November, von Bock changed his mind one again. The 4th Panzergruppe’s left-flank units were already in Solnechnogorsk, and von Bock now responded to a proposal from Reinhardt to turn his 3rd Panzergruppe to the south-east in the direction of Moscow with an order to cover 4th Panzergruppe’s flank but also to drive straight to the east as far as he could.
From 23 November, as the 3rd Panzergruppe headed to the east away from Klin, the German offensive tactics worked excellently. The Soviets fell back steadily and, for once, did not torch whole villages as they retreated, a fact which the group’s intelligence staff construed as an indication of either increasing demoralisation or intention to return, though the latter seemed less likely. The group’s leading formation, Generalmajor Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, currently under the temporary command of Oberst Nikolaus von Vormann, seized a deserting NKVD lieutenant, who under interrogation indicated that the Soviets were undertaking the evacuation of the area to the west of the Moscow-Volga Canal and were readying fresh troops off the group’s open northern flank for a counterattack toward Klin. The interrogation report did not reach the group’s headquarters until the second week of December.
On 27 November the 7th Panzerdivision reached the Moscow-Volga Canal and on the morning of the following day, on the assumption that its task was still to push to the east, the 3rd Panzergruppe seized a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the canal at Yakhroma. During the day the spearhead of the 4th Panzergruppe, von Langermann und Erlencamp’s 2nd Panzerdivision, came almost to a halt some 18.5 miles (30 km) farther to the south in the area to the west of Krasnaya Polyana, and 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Moscow. Echeloned in a 15.5-mile (25-km) line on the 2nd Panzerdivision’s right, Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe now had Generalmajor Walther Scheller’s 11th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Gustav Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Wolfgang Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s SS Division ‘Das Reich’, all directed toward toward Moscow but making almost no headway as they ran into the minefields and fiercely defended earthwork fortifications ringing the city. The left flank of von Kluge’s 4th Army was making progress, albeit slow and very limited, but not enough to keep Hoepner’s forces from having to stretch to maintain contact. The 2nd Panzerarmee had eliminated the major Soviet bulge to the south of Tula, but the 50th Army continued to hold grimly around the city, and a raid by one of 2nd Panzerarmee’s divisions to the north in the direction of Kashira was attracting large quantities of Soviet cavalry and armour tanks onto Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision.
On the night of 28/29 November, while changing his plan once again, von Bock committed his symbolic ‘last regiment’ when he allocated to the 3rd Panzergruppe Oberst Walther Krause’s 900th Lehrbrigade (mot.), the only reserve he still possessed but comprising only one battalion, and ordered Reinhardt to forget the Yakhroma bridgehead, turn to the south along the west bank of the canal, and supplement the push toward Moscow by Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe.
In the past week, meanwhile, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had suffered heavily in the area of Rostov-na-Donu. SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (mot.) had taken the city on 21 November in a notable but dangerous action. In and around Rostov-na-Donu, von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot/) was attacked from the south across the frozen Don river and from the north across the open steppe, and on its left elements of three Soviet armies struck von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.). Several days earlier, von Kleist, commanding the 1st Panzerarmee, had started to appreciate that this onslaught was altogether more serious than he had anticipated, and on 22 November ordered the III Corps (mot.) to evacuate Rostov-na-Donu and fall back behind to the west into the area behind the Mius river. von Kleist was compelled to cancel this order only one day later, however, after von Rundstedt, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, told him that while he personally approved of the evacuation, von Brauchitsch, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the army, had demanded that the city be held because its abandonment would possess not only directly military but also far-reaching political consequences. The timing of this whole episode was indeed problematical as Hitler was readying a highly publicised spectacle for the renewal of the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact, which was the cornerstone of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
With Rostov-na-Donu lost, Leningrad cut off and Moscow under direct threat, the Soviet strategic position now seemed worse than ever. But Stalin seemed to believe, as strongly as did von Bock and Hitler, that the struggle was one of the will as much as of the military, and on 22 November the Stavka told Timoshenko that the loss of Rostov-na-Donu in no way meant that the counter-offensive against the 1st Panzerarmee was to be called off. Two days later a new directive gave Cherevichenko’s South Front the mission of destroying the 1st Panzerarmee and retaking the area of Taganrog and Rostov-na-Donu at the north-eastern end of the Sea of Azov. Apparently aware by then that he could not defeat the entire Panzer army, however, Cherevichenko opted for a smaller but more promising approach and in three days shifted the weight of his forces from his northern front to the line at Rostov-na-Donu.
Clearly the Soviets were feeling under enormous pressure, but the same was also true of the Germans at this time late in November. Not yet recovered from a heart attack earlier in the month, von Brauchitsch became ever more querulous, for he was impatient for the type of success which might smooth his interviews with Hitler. von Bock developed acute diarrhoea. von Rundstedt became haughtily silent, letting his chief-of-staff, General Georg von Sodenstern, conduct all business with the Oberkommando des Heeres.
Meanwhile Hitler moved between Berlin and his ‘Wolfsschanze’ headquarters in East Prussia on politico-military matters possessing ominous undertones. On 21 November, he was in Berlin for the funeral of Generaloberst Ernst Udet, the air force’s chief of aircraft development, whose death was a suicide but being reported as an aeroplane accident. Four days later the German leader was back in Berlin to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact and to welcome two new but reluctant members, Finland and Denmark. He spent the next two days in ceremonies and festivities associated with the signing of the enlarged Anti-Comintern Pact and, on 28 November attended the funeral of Germany’s leading air ace, Oberst Werner Mölders, who had been killed in the crash of the aeroplane in which he was travelling to attend Udet’s funeral. Hitler spent the rest of the day in talks with visiting diplomats.
On returning to the ‘Wolfsschanze’ early on 29 November, Hitler found awaiting him the news that German troops were retreating on the Eastern Front. By 28 November Cherevichenko had committed 21 divisions against the III Corps (mot.) at Rostov-na-Donu. von Mackensen had reported several weeks earlier, before the start of the last advance, that his two divisions, Dietrich’s Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (mot.) and Generalmajor Walther Düvert’s 13th Panzerdivision, were exhausted, short of every item of personal and vehicle kit, and down to between 50% and 67% of its of their normal strengths. During 28 November, as indeed he had expected to have to do, von Kleist ordered von Mackensen to abandon Rostov-na-Donu. When Hitler reached the ‘Wolfsschanze’, the III Corps (mot.) had left Rostov-na-Donu, and the tactical and numerical factors strongly favoured the Soviets.
During the morning of 30 November, just as he had attempted to do one week earlier, von Kleist ordered his whole right flank, including the III Corps (mot.), to retire behind the Mius river, some 45 miles (70 km) to the west of Rostov-na-Donu. von Kleist had taken what was, in tactical terms, entirely the right decision, for there was no advantage to be won from a prolonged stand in open terrain, and the short but relatively straight Mius river provided a good line on which to stand through the winter. On the other hand, a retreat of this length in a strategically important sector of the front at this stage of the campaign would inevitably take on the appearance, at the psychological and political levels, of a Soviet victory, and no one was more sensitive to any implication of this type than Hitler. In an interview with von Brauchitsch during the afternoon of 30 November, Hitler browbeat von Brauchitsch into trying to get von Rundstedt to delay the execution of von Kleist’s order. When von Rundstedt refused to do so and offered his resignation, Hitler dismissed him early on the following day and named Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau, commander of the 6th Army, to succeed him at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Even so, after insisting through the day that his forces could hold a line somewhere to the east of the Mius river, von Reichenau finally had to accept the reality of the situation and allow the withdrawal to the Mius be completed that same night.
Before the break of day on 2 December, Hitler departed East Prussia by air for von Kleist’s headquarters in Mariupol farther to the west on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Hitler stopped at Poltava later in the morning to collect von Reichenau and change from his comfortable but vulnerable Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor four-engined transport aeroplane to a faster and better defended Heinkel He 111 two-engined bomber. The weather was unusually cold for December in Ukraine, and to the east of Mariupol band of ice, 5 miles (8 km) wide and 1 ft (0.3 m) thick, was already edging the Gulf of Taganrog. At Mariupol, Hitler and von Reichenau spoke with von Kleist and Dietrich. The whole event was distinctly unpleasant and in fact basically pointless as events had by now overtaken decisions. It seems that Hitler wished to obtain an assurance from Dietrich, one of his oldest party cronies and former bodyguard, that Rostov-na-Donu could not have been held, and assurances from all three generals that the line of the Mius river would indeed be held. After receiving the assurances he wanted, Hitler switched to talk about restarting the offensive in the new year, promising von Kleist everything from tanks and self-propelled assault guns to airborne troops and fresh divisions.
When he returned to the ‘Wolfsschanze’ at a time early on 4 December, after an overnight stop in Poltava because of adverse weather, Hitler found a prediction of another retreat awaiting him. von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, believed that the Soviets were beginning to see an opportunity not only to retake Tikhvin but also to secure the liberation of Leningrad: the latter would constitute a substantial political and military success for the Soviets. A German push to the north out of the Tikhvin salient toward Lake Ladoga had been stopped on 1 December at Volkhov, some 35 miles (55 km) to the south of the lake. Should the Soviets recapture Tikhvin and reopen the railway to Volkhov, they would be in a position to accelerate the flow of the reinforcements they were bringing from the south-east for an attack on the Flaschenhals: German air reconnaissance had reported 29 trains heading to the north-west on the line lining Vologda and Tikhvin on 2 December. What was of the greatest concern to von Leeb was not so much the situation of his own Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ but that of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. As von Leeb saw it, in the event that a strong threat to Moscow could not be maintained, the Soviets would inevitably be in the position to release reserves in large enough quantities to make possible an offensive against Tikhvin and Leningrad.
On 27 November there was a major crisis in the Soviet defence of Moscow. To the north of the city, the advances of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe past Klin and Solnechnogorsk had ripped a gap, some 28 miles (45 km) wide, between Dimitrov, on the Moscow-Volga Canal, and Krasnaya Polyana, only 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Moscow. Lelyushenko, who had assumed command of the 30th Army on 18 November, had brought his formation back under control, but not in time to prevent it from being driven into a corner in the angle of the Volga river and the Moscow-Volga Canal and there, at least in the short term, the army could do nothing to block the German progress to the east and the south. Since the front had broken open between Klin and Solnechnogorsk, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army had been compelled to extend its flank to the east to cover Moscow and to take the whole shock of the German sweep toward the city. The 17th Panzerdivision’s thrust toward Kashira was starting to create a deep pocket around Tula and was putting a spearhead of the 2nd Panzerarmee within some 65 miles (105 km) of Moscow on its southern side.
The problem suffered by the 30th Army had had only useful result to the Soviets, for its had given the Stavka an early indication of the difficulty to come and therefore, when this crisis did eventuate, the means to cope with it were already being assembled. Unlike von Bock, Stalin seemed not to be ready to commit his ‘last regiment’ in the battle for Moscow, but he also possessed sufficient resources to remain in the fight for one more round. Late in November, he gave the West Front a significant reinforcement in the form of nine infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions, eight rifle brigades, six tank brigades and 10 independent tank battalions. Of these, three infantry divisions were allocated to the 30th Army, one infantry division, the two cavalry divisions formed into General Major Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps and some of the armour to the Kashira area, and the rest to the 16th, 5th and 50th Armies as well as the front reserve.
Moreover, as the German forces were passing Klin, Stalin and the Stavka had begun to create two reserve armies to cover the gap that would be developing farther to the east. On 23 November Kuznetsov took command of one of these, the 1st Shock Army, on the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal to the south of Dimitrov. The shock armies were conceived on the basis of above-average strengths of armour, artillery, automatic weapons and motor transport, but the 1st Shock Army (others were created in the winter of 1941/42) was not so well equipped. When Kuznetsov arrived in Dimitrov on 23 November, the 1st Shock Army comprised just one infantry brigade, but by the end of the month it had one infantry division, nine infantry brigades, 10 separate battalions, one regiment of artillery, and a contingent of rocket launchers. About 70% of its men were more than 30 years old. The second of the two new reserve armies was the 20th Army, which was created in what, by 27 November, had become the most critical spot on the entire front, namely the sector between the right flank of the 16th Army and the Moscow-Volga Canal, and included the much-contested village of Krasnaya Polyana. Because of the subsequent behaviour of its commander, General Major Andrei A. Vlasov, who turned against the USSR after his capture in 1942, Soviet histories were reticent in dealing with the role of the 20th Army in the battle for Moscow. Late in 1941, though, Vlasov was regarded within the Soviet army as one of its most brilliant younger generals. He had commanded the 37th Army, which had been destroyed in the Kiev pocket, but had escaped with some of his staff. Like Kuznetsov, Vlasov initially had only a mixture of miscellaneous units, possibly only one Siberian infantry brigade, some 10,000 criminal prisoners, and 15 tanks, but it seems probable that the 20th Army, which was also in position to take over some of the 16th Army’s right-flank elements, was quickly brought up to a strength at least equal to that of the 1st Shock Army.
During the last week of November, the Stavka started to bring five of the newly formed reserve armies forward from the line of the Volga river. The 24th, 26th and 60th Armies were positioned to the east of Moscow, the 61st Army was deployed behind the South-West Front’s right flank, and the 10th Army was located to the west of the Oka river below Kashira in position to block the thrusts of the 2nd Panzerarmee toward Kolomna and Ryazan. Commanded by General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov, the 10th Army was probably typical of these armies: it was based on seven reserve infantry divisions recruited in the Moscow region, and had about 100,000 men. After receiving its movement order on 24 November, the 10th Army had to travel more than 300 miles (485 km) from its original station at Syzran on the Volga river by rail and on foot as it had almost no motor vehicles.
During 29 November, the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe came into contact with elements of 1st Shock Army and 20th Army at Yakhroma and at a point to the west of Krasnaya Polyana. Late in the day, after Zhukov had assured him that no fresh forces of any size would be committed by the Germans in the immediate future, Stalin allocated control of the 1st Shock Army, 20th Army and 10th Army to Zhukov for a counterattack. On this same day the 3rd Panzergruppe made the turn to the south as it had been ordered, and the 4th Panzergruppe made slight advances. Talking to Halder, von Bock said he was concerned that unless the attack from the north succeeded the battle would rapidly disintegrate into a head-on battle of attrition comparable to the Battle of Verdun in World War I.
On the night of 30 November/1 December, while von Leeb worried about what might happen at Leningrad once the pressure on Moscow had come to an end and von Rundstedt was a merely hours away from dismissal, von Bock came to the conclusion the situation of his army group made little sense. During the day, while two Panzer groups were again reporting advances, albeit only very small, Heusinger, the chief of the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had spoken by telephone with von Bock along the lines that the encirclement of Moscow was only a precursor to major thrusts in the direction of Voronezh and Yaroslavl. When von Bock later spoke with von Brauchitsch to tell him that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ did not have enough strength to encircle at Moscow much less to do anything more, he had to ask several times if von Brauchitsch was still listening. Early the morning of the following day, and concerned about whether or not von Brauchitsch had listened, von Bock repeated by teletype what he had said the day before, and added that the high command’s apparent belief in an impending Soviet collapse was nothing more than fantasy; the men of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were totally exhausted, the offensive no longer made any strategic sense, and the army group would soon be brought to a halt ‘before the gates of Moscow’. von Bock ended with the very pertinent question of what was then to be done.
During the morning of 30 November, Zhukov submitted to the Stavka a plan for his West Front to launch a counter-offensive to the north and south of Moscow. The idea was far from new for, as Zhukov himself later put it, the counter-offensive had been under preparation all through the defensive actions. Since June, the three primary and unwavering objects of Soviet strategy had been to let the Germans exhaust themselves, to bring them to a halt, and to create the conditions for a subsequent shift to the counter-offensive. Counter-offensives had been launched by the Soviet forces on the frontiers during June and on the line of the Dniepr and Dvina river during July, and the both the Stavka and the general staff had considered other counter-offensives throughout the period in which ‘Barbarossa’ and ‘Taifun’ (i) had swept to the east, most recently at the time when the Germans had been stopped on the approaches to Moscow early in November. However, neither the plan Zhukov submitted on 30 November in response to earlier instructions from the general staff, nor the circumstances under which the plan was expected to be executed conformed with any exactitude to previous strategic thinking. This had envisaged a counter-offensive against German forces which had been driven to a halt. The current plan was conceived as a last-ditch effort in a battle which would probably turn against the Soviets. Zhukov later wrote that he told Stalin on the night of 29/30 November that the Germans had been bled white and that the core of his plan was to attack past Klin and Solnechnogorsk some 60 miles (100 km) to Teryaeva Sloboda and Volokolamsk in the north, and about the same distance past Stalinogorsk to the Upa river in the south. On the other hand, when briefing Konev, the commander of the Kalinin Front, two of whose armies were to be included in the counter-offensive, Vasilevsky, the acting chief of the general staff, said that the Soviets could only halt the German attack toward Moscow and thus establish the situation for the start of the process of inflicting a major defeat on the Germans by active operations with a decisive aim, and if they failed to do so in the next few days, it would be too late. The order for the counter-offensive which Kuznetsov, the commander of the 1st Shock Army, received on the morning of 2 December was to have General Major Fyedor D. Zakharov’s group of forces (elements of three infantry divisions and one tank brigade) attack toward Dednevo and Fedorovka, and in the longer term advance toward Klin. Dednevo and Fedorovka were villages directly opposite the army’s left flank, and the Zakharov group had been the rearguard at Klin and was currently pinned to the west of the Moscow-Volga Canal by the spearhead of the 3rd Panzergruppe.
General Leytenant Vasili D. Sokolovsky, who was currently Zhukov’s chief-of-staff, later wrote that the primary objective of the Soviet counter-offensive was to inflict decisive destruction on the German attack and give the Germans no opportunity to regroup and entrench themselves close to Moscow. Zhukov also qualified his own statement of the objectives by saying that the Soviet forces’ first task was to be the removal of the immediate threat to Moscow, and that they would need more forces before farther-ranging and more decisive tasks could be allocated. However, Stalin, who had been willing during the summer to commit reserve armies into counterattacks as swiftly as they could be established, was now being very cautious in allocating them to this counter-offensive. The reserve armies based to the east of Moscow were earmarked for used in the defence, if necessary, or if they were not required, in developing a counter-offensive. The decision about how and when the armies would be committed was reserved to the Stavka, which meant to Stalin, who had not yet come to any decision.
In the first two days of December, it seemed that von Bock might have been overly pessimistic, and that the Soviet counter-offensive might be attempted at a time too late to save the Soviet situation. To the surprise of the Germans as much as of the Soviets, Generalmajor Karl Pflaum’s 258th Division of the 4th Army broke through the Soviet line to the south of the highway linking Smolensk and Moscow on 1 December. To the north-east of Tula, on the following day, the 2nd Panzerarmee began a hook to the west which, had it been successful in pinching off the city, could have brought the right flank of the 4th Army into motion. von Bock had reverted to fighting what he assumed to be the battle of the ‘last regiments’, and now wavered between desperate hope and gloomy apprehension. Early on 2 December, von Bock informed von Kluge, Reinhardt and Hoepner that the Soviets were finally close to breaking point. Talking to Halder later in the same day, though, he said that as a result of the declining strength of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, the cold and the stiffening resistance of the Soviet defence, doubts about success were starting to take a definite form.
On 3 December, despite still more causes for doubt, the level of von Bock’s determination actually increased to a slight degree. In the morning, when von Kluge proposed to end the 4th Army’s attack because it would not get through to Moscow, von Bock decided to wait for another two or three days to see what effect the pressure of the 3rd Panzergruppe could have. By a time late in afternoon, the 258th Division was fighting its way to the west out of a Soviet encirclement; the 4th Panzergruppe had reported its offensive strength almost totally exhausted; and the 3rd Panzergruppe was fighting the 1st Shock Army at Yakhroma. Farther to the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee was still advancing to the north-east of Tula but in the face of a blizzard which was heaping snow all along the army group’s front. von Bock now informed General Alfred Jodl, the chief of operations in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, that although his troop strength was almost at an end, he would continue the offensive, and that the reason he was doing so was because keeping the initiative was preferable to going over to the defensive with weakened forces in exposed positions.
During the previous two weeks the weather had been getting colder, with temperatures ranging between 0° and 20° F (-18° and -7° C). On the morning of 4 December, after heavy falls of snow on the previous day, the temperature was -4° F (-20° C), and during the day the 4th Army went over to the defensive with its front quiet. The 4th Panzergruppe repelled several Soviet armour-led counterattacks in the area to the south-west of Krasnaya Polyana, but said that it could not advance until 3rd Panzergruppe came fully abreast of it. The 3rd Panzergruppe was meanwhile attempting to bring three panzer divisions to bear in the area to the south-west of Yakhroma, but was coming under pressure on its front to the north-west of Yakhroma from Soviet reinforcements, some of which Reinhardt, the group’s commander, believed to be Siberian units. And the 2nd Panzerarmee was regrouping before making another attempt to pinch off Tula. Again von Bock had decided to remain on the offensive. Apparently only slightly disturbed by a report of some six fresh Soviet divisions, well provided with tanks and rocket launchers, on the front to the north-west of Moscow, he concluded that they were probably not new strength but formations redeployed from nearby quiet sectors, and reported in his last report of the day to the Oberkommando des Heeres that a counter-offensive was unlikely as the Soviets did not have enough forces.
Stalin remained in close touch with Zhukov right through the first days of December, speaking to him several times a day as the Soviet’s leadership appreciated the fact that in this complex situation it was very important to time the shift from the defence to the counter-offensive at the right moment and place, and the Soviets believed that the best moment for the shift to the counter-offensive would present itself when the Germans had been compelled to stop their attack but could not immediately go onto the defensive because their formations and units were not properly regrouped, had created no reserves, and had prepared no defence lines. While most Soviet accounts did not specify a particular day, according to Sokolovsky the decision was made to shift to the counter-offensive on 4 December when the formations of the West Front troops had brought the Germans to a halt in the Moscow region and the time was fully ripe to go over to the immediate counteroffensive. Vasilevsky later wrote that the Stavka set the date for the counterattack as 5 and 6 December.
On the night of 4/5 December, Vasilevsky went to the headquarters of the Kalinin Front to deliver the directive from the general staff to start the counter-offensive, and possibly to ensure that it began on 5 December. Claiming he had neither the armour nor the infantry to attack, Konev had opposed the launch of the counter-offensive when Vasilevsky had spoken to him three days earlier. The task of the Kalinin Front was to strike the 9th Army on the sector of the front to the south-east of Kalinin with the 29th Army and 31st Army and push to the south and west in the general direction of Minkulino-Gorodishche, some 25 miles (40 km) to the east of Klin.
Timoshenko, at the South-West Front, received his orders on 4 December to strike the 2nd Army on 6 December with his 3rd Army and 13th Army, and to aim for Yefremov and past Yelets toward Livny. Yefremov lay just behind the front on the 2nd Army’s northern flank, and Yelets, in the centre, was then still in Soviet hands.
Vasilevsky’s account indicated that the Stavka’s orders to begin the counter-offensive on 5 and 6 December applied to the West Front as well as to the Kalinin Front and the South-West Front. However, Zhukov later described his telephone conversation with Stalin late on 4 December in which they talked about air and armour reinforcements for the West Front and which Stalin closed by reminding Zhukov to remember that that Kalinin Front was going over to the counter-offensive on 5 December and that the South-West Front would follow on 6 December.
During the night of 4/5 December, the temperature dropped to -25° F (-32° C), and the severity of the cold was such that during the night in question one German regiment suffered more than 300 frostbite casualties, and several of its wounded froze to death. On the following morning, tanks would not start, artillery and machine guns would not fire because their lubricants and the oil in their recoil mechanisms had congealed, and large numbers of frostbite cases were reported by all the German divisions. In this paralysing cold, the 29th Army attacked across the ice-covered Volga river to the west of Kalinin during the morning and broke into the 9th Army’s line to a depth of about 1 mile (1.6 km) before being brought to a halt. Reinhardt and Hoepner each reported more fresh Soviet troops on their fronts, and also that their own offensive capabilities were fast disappearing. Even so, Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe attempted to drive a wedge to the south between the left flank of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe at Krasnaya Polyana and the Moscow-Volga Canal, but his formations’ and units’ automatic weapons did not work, the cold rapidly sapped the men’s energy, and the attack had barely started before it had to be recalled.
In this same morning, Guderian still believed that his 2nd Panzerarmee could take Tula, but by evening his confidence had faded to the extent that he proposed a gradual withdrawal from the whole bulge to the east of Tula as far back as the lines of the Don and Shat rivers. His tanks, Guderian reported, were breaking down in the cold, while those of the Soviet continued to run.
Zhukov’s order for the start of the counter-offensive on 6 December was delivered to the armies of the West Front on 5 December, and the Germans soon came to believe that the drastic temperature drop on the night of 4/5 December had triggered Zhukov’s precise timing. Early in 1942, too late to be of use, the German intelligence service circulated to the commands on the Eastern Front a partial transcript of statements apparently made by Timoshenko and Zhukov at a conference late in November urging a counter-offensive round Moscow. Timoshenko, the forces of whose South-West Front were at the time of the conference approaching victory at Rostov-na-Donu, recommended that priority should be to Zhukov’s West Front on the grounds that the great danger for the Germans was that the first big change in the weather would immobilise all of their motorised equipment, and that the Soviets must therefore hold out for as long as possible and in any way possible but then immediately go over to the attack after the first few days of cold had broken the operational capabilities of the German forces. Timoshenko categorised the backbone of the of the German effort as its armour and motorised artillery, which would become inoperative as soon as the temperature fell to -20° F (-29° C). According to the intelligence report, Zhukov added that he proposed to let the start and the course of the offensive be determined by the weather, and expected its success to be proportional to the degree to which the cold immobilised the German equipment.
The Soviet accounts, however, wholly ignored the possibility of the weather playing any part in the timing of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, as the Soviets designated their counter-offensive. The Soviets responded to the German argument that the change in the weather benefited the Soviet forces by pointing out that both sides had to cope with cold and snow and that the temperatures in December 1941 were not actually as low as the figures of -25° to -50° F (-32° to -46° C) claimed by the Germans: one Soviet work claiming these two points gave the average temperature in December, as recorded by Soviet weather stations around Moscow, as -19.5° F (-28.6° C), so the differences in the temperatures claimed by the Germans and Soviets seems inconsequential. The relationship between the weather and the counter-offensive seems coincidental up to 4 December, but after that date the probability that it influenced the precise timing of the West Front’s operations increases.
As of 5 December, the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe were motionless as a result of the cold, regardless of whether or not the Soviet resistance could have achieved the same effect.
For the counter-offensive, the West Front was to strike toward Klin, Solnechnogorsk and Istra with the object of destroying the German left flank, and to deliver blows into the flanks and rear of the 2nd Panzerarmee toward Uzlovaya and Bogoroditsk to smash the German right flank. The final order which Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army received on 5 December once again ordered it to clear the area of Dednevo and Fedorovka, and then advance toward Klin.
Soviet post-war accounts of the Soviet switch from the defensive to the offensive treat the relative strengths of each side’s forces on the eve of the counter-offensive as a matter of major significance. The Soviets emphasised the fact that, on 5 December, the German forces outnumbered those of the Soviets in the Moscow sector: but the figures the Soviets employed vary radially from account to account, and in overall terms do not substantiate the claim of a German numerical superiority. One of the later sets of figures claimed 1.708 million German troops pitted against 1.1 million Soviet troops, but these figures seem to include for the Germans all the men (including Luftwaffe personnel) allocated to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, but for the Soviets only those men assigned to the counter-offensive. The strengths given in other works were said to be those of the divisions and brigades in Heeresgruppe Mitte and those of the Soviet fronts, and thus reflected the combat strengths for the two sides. None of the quoted Soviet strengths, however, included the eight armies still in the Stavka reserve, representing about 800,000 men.
Even without the reserve armies, however, it is apparent that the Soviet forces opposing Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were in relative terms somewhat stronger on 5 December than they had been on 2 October at the start of ‘Taifun’ (i): while Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had not been able to replace its losses in men, weapons and equipment, the during the same period the Soviet armies in the Moscow sector had acquired 33% more rifle divisions, 500% more cavalry divisions, 200% more artillery regiments, and 250% as many tank brigades.
In front of Moscow at the break of day on 6 December, the temperature was -38° F (-39° C). During the night, von Bock had given his approval to Guderian’s proposed withdrawal of the 2nd Panzerarmee, and had instructed Reinhardt and Hoepner to adjust their plans for the withdrawals of their 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe from Yakhroma and Krasnaya Polyana to a line covering Klin. von Bock had also called General Rudolf Schmidt to order him to halt the slow eastward drift of his 2nd Army toward Yelets over the past few days lest his formation found itself farther to the east than any of the army group’s other major formations.
On the first day of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’, the Soviet armies had varying success: the 31st Army joined the stalled 29th Army of the Kalinin Front but failed to get across the Volga river to the south of Kalinin; the 30th Army made the day’s best (and for the Germans most dangerous) start by breaking into the 3rd Panzergruppe’s flank to the north-east of Klin to a depth of some 8 miles (13 km); the 1st Shock Army and 20th Army struck the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe along a line from Yakhroma to a location to the west of Krasnaya Polyana, but only the 20th Army advanced, and then for only a short distance, on the southern edge of Krasnaya Polyana; and the 10th Army, most of which was still on the march from Syzran, started to attack Mikhaylov, on the eastern perimeter of the Tula bulge, with one infantry division and two motorised infantry regiments. During the day the 2nd Army took Yelets while the South-West Front’s 13th Army was shifting to the offensive in the same sector.
Before 12.00 on 6 December, Reinhardt informed von Bock that the 3rd Panzergruppe would have to start pulling away on the south during the night to provide some armour to pit against the 30th Army. This meant that the 4th Panzergruppe, the 3rd Panzergruppe’s southern neighbour, would also have to start back in the immediate future. The Soviet pressure subsided everywhere that afternoon, and von Kluge spoke to von Bock about slowing the pace of the withdrawals so that all equipment and supplies could be evacuated. Nevertheless, in the bitter night that followed, the battle turned.
Along the line from Tikhvin to the Mius river via Moscow, the ‘Barbarossa’ campaign had come to an end, and with it the associated ‘Taifun’ (i) effort to take Moscow.
These last were the 3rd Panzergruppe in the north, the 4th Panzergruppe in the centre and the 2nd Panzergruppe in the south. The 2nd Panzergruppe comprised General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) (two Panzer and one motorised divisions), General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps (mot.) (two Panzer and one motorised divisions), General Hermann Metz’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXIV (two infantry divisions) and General Karl Ritter von Prager’s XXXV Corps (four infantry and one cavalry divisions). The 3rd Panzergruppe comprised General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s (from 6 October General Otto Ottenbacher’s) XLI Corps (mot.) (one Panzer, one motorised and one infantry divisions and one armoured flamethrower battalion), von Manstein’s (from 13 September General Ferdinand Schaal’s) LVI Corps (mot.) (two Panzer, one motorised and one infantry divisions), General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps (three infantry divisions), General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps (two infantry divisions), and group reserve (one motorised brigade). The 4th Panzergruppe comprised General Walter Schroth’s XII Corps (two infantry divisions), General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) (two Panzer and one infantry divisions), General Gottfried-Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s XLVI Corps (mot.) (two Panzer and one infantry divisions), and General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) (two Panzer and two motorised divisions).