This was a German strategic defence line on the Eastern Front schemed by Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in December 1941 when it became apparent that ‘Taifun’ (i) had failed and that the German armies were being subjected to a major Soviet winter counter-offensive (5 December 1941/early April 1942).
The ‘Winter-Linie’ positions lay some 90 miles (145 km) to the rear of the Germans’ current front line, and ran, through a point just to the east of Vyaz’ma, on a basically north/south line through Zubtsov, Gzhatsk and Yukhnov.
As they came to appreciate the real weakness of the German forces in front of Moscow in the aftermath of the failure of ‘Taifun’ and associated undertakings, the Soviets changed their thinking from comparatively small-scale local offensives designed largely to relieve the pressure on Moscow to an altogether larger-scale strategic counter-offensive that came to be designated as the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ (5 December 1941/7 January 1942) 1.
This overall Soviet concept was based on a double envelopment from the flanks, rather than just a frontal attack made by General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front (10 armies with 51 infantry, three tank and 15 cavalry divisions together with 18 infantry and 15 tank brigades). The width of the new counter-offensive was to be 600 miles (965 km), and no fewer than 16 armies were to be used. In this grandly conceived Soviet undertaking, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was to be destroyed by an attack on each shoulder of the German salient.
One thrust was to be made by General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front (three armies with 15 infantry and one cavalry divisions) from the area of Kalinin and Torzhok toward Smolensk, while the left flank of the West Front, together with the newly re-established Bryansk Front under General Leytenant Yakov T. Cherevichenko, which was already pressing hard against Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee, was to drive in a great arc from the south from Stalinogorsk to Sukhinichi, and then on to Vyaz’ma and Smolensk.
General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front was ordered to make a secondary and yet deeper right encircling thrust to the west of that made by Konev, from the area of Demyansk and Ostashkov roughly along the boundary between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
Conceived on a massive scale, the Soviet counter-offensive was designed to encircle the bulk of the German forces to the west of Moscow in a great pocket, nearly 200 miles (320 km) deep and extending from Moscow to Smolensk, with one left arm and two right arms, one outside the other. Meanwhile, the right flank of West Front in the Moscow area was to continue its push to the west with the object of pinning the Germans and thereby preventing their withdrawal as the significance of the pincer movements to the north and south started to become evident.
On 8 December, the day on which the Soviet government returned to Moscow from its temporary refuge at Kuybyshev to which it had decamped in the direst days of ‘Taifun’ (i), Adolf Hitler overruled the intent of Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the army, to pull the German forces back to a more easily defended line, and expressly forbade any such withdrawal. Eight days later Hitler ordered the German forces to hold their current positions at any and all costs without consideration of Soviet movements on their flanks or even in their rear. von Brauchitsch was retired. and Hitler took over as commander-in-chief.
Whether or not Hitler was right in demanding that no retreat be made is impossible to ascertain: a German withdrawal under heavy Soviet pressure, especially in the bitter winter conditions then prevalent, could very easily have become a rout and resulted in the destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Even so, an objective military decision based on this factor was not the reason for Hitler’s order, which in fact resulted from considerations of ‘face’ and the determination that ground won with German blood should never be yielded. Most German commanders probably agreed with Hitler’s order, generally on military rather than political grounds, but there were also good arguments for the Germans to break contact at the most opportune moment and withdraw, even if they had to abandon guns, vehicles and other equipment which could not be moved, to points as far to the rear as Vyaz’ma or Smolensk.
Here the military argument was that a failure to hold, or to break contact successfully and withdraw, could result in a running fight of great danger and cost, as indeed happened.
Despite a desperate defence, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was able to hold none of its positions for more than a few days and then, right along the line, was compelled during the next five weeks to fall back a distance of between 100 and 200 miles (160 and 320 km), in the process losing large numbers of guns and vehicles, and suffering very great losses to the weather rather than Soviet action.
von Bock’s front was a great arc, and as neither the army group nor the Oberkommando des Heeres possessed any significant reserves, a withdrawal to a shorter defensive line was therefore an attractive option as this could be held by smaller forces, so opening the way for formations to be withdrawn for rest and refitting before being committed to the front line once more in replacement for other formations which could themselves then be rested and refitted.
There was yet another and still more compelling reason why the Germans would probably have been sensible to implement a rapid strategic withdrawal. The Germans had failed to take Moscow in ‘Taifun’ (i) primarily as a result of their inability to overcome the problems of space and movement they faced in western Russia. Poorly supplied and completely exhausted at the far end of lengthy and often compromised lines of communication, and also lacking adequate shelter and winter clothing, the German formations outside Moscow were faced by well clothed and adequately fed Soviet troops supplied with an abundance of materials and munitions from bases a mere 20 miles (32 km) or so to their rear. It is arguable, therefore, that once it had become clear that they could not take Moscow, the Germans would have been prudent to fall back to Vyaz’ma or Smolensk and thereby present the Soviets with the problems of fighting an offensive battle after a tiring 200-mile (320-km) winter pursuit.
Whether Hitler was right or wrong in insisting on a rigid defence, Nazi propaganda insisted that Hitler had become the army’s saviour. This started the process that inflicted irreparable damage to the highest-level direction of the German war effort by further reinforcing Hitler’s delusional belief in his own greatness as a military commander, the overwhelming importance of his own will and the importance of holding ground. The delusion was one of the main factors which soon contributed in a major fashion to the huge German defeats at Stalingrad and in Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltic region, Africa and France.
The campaign in front of Moscow had yet another highly adverse effect on the organisation of the German high command, for Hitler now formally assumed the de iure as well as the de facto command of the German army. From December 1941 onward, Hitler’s control of operations was total, and he started to intervene in the most trivial details. Generaloberst Franz Halder, chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, elected to remain in his post but was not allowed to remain for long as he dared occasionally to disagree with Hitler.
During December the two great arms of the Soviet envelopment had started to encircle the German formations immediately to the west of Moscow, and on 10 December the Germans forces were ordered to go over to the defensive. On 13 December a secret order, originated by von Brauchitsch, was distributed to commanders, ordering them to break contact and withdraw to a line 95 miles (150 km) west. On the following day there arrived Hitler’s order countermanding the order of the previous day. Then information was received that Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army was in danger of being outflanked from the rear: units were sent back behind the Protva river to prepare new positions, but on 17 December these units were ordered to return to their forward positions. The repeated changes of orders greatly discomfited front-line formations and started, for the first time, to erode the belief of officers and men in the capacities of the German higher command levels. Finally, during the evening of 19 December and after several other instances of command vacillation, the troops were ordered to remain in their positions without withdrawing, and all commanders and troops began to breathe again in relief at having at last received orders which were clear and firm: Hitler was now in command.
The story of just a few of the German formations on the Eastern Front at this time may be taken as typical.
After its receipt of the stand-fast order, Generalleutnant Erich Schröck’s (from 31 December Generalleutnant Martin Gareis’s) 98th Division had to undertake two days of heavy fighting on its flanks as it held off the Soviet offensive. On the division’s northern flank a Soviet tank attack penetrated about 6 miles (10 km) just beyond the Moscow Highway, and two to three Soviet divisions broke into the division’s right-flanking neighbour formation. On 23 December, only four days after being ordered to hold fast, the 98th Division and its neighbours were forced to begin their long withdrawal. On 24 December the division reached Borodino on the banks of the frozen Istya river, which was neither an obstacle to the Soviets nor a defensive position for the Germans, and at 19.00 on 24 December the division moved back once again.
Generalleutnant Willy Seeger’s 292nd Division, also of the 4th Army and situated on the Nara river, was relieved when it received the stand firm order as it believed it lacked the strength for a long withdrawal. Then it too had to fall back, and on the night of 31 December was holding a sector about 8 miles (13 km) wide with rifle companies which had a strength of only 30 men but were nonetheless stronger than those of its neighbouring divisions.
In the six weeks following Hitler’s stand-firm order, Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s 35th Division lost more than 2,500 men, more than one-third of its casualties over the whole of the war. In the way of heavier weapons, the division had only two rather than 12 50-mm anti-tank guns and six rather than 24 105-mm (4.13-in) field howitzers left to it.
The 23rd Division, already without its commander, had re-formed its nine shattered battalions into just three battalions with only about 1,000 men between them. Its divisional artillery had been reduced to one 50-mm anti-tank gun and three 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers.
These were typical of the many German divisions, in this instance of General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, forming part of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe that was suffering so grievously from the Soviet pressure and the weather in the area to the north of Moscow. The corps was falling back from Moscow, covering between 7 and 15 miles (11.25 and 24 km) per day in temperatures down to -22° F (-30° C). Over a period of three weeks the strength of the corps was steadily lessened, but there was no hope of aid from neighbouring formations or higher-level formations. Battalions were down to 50 men and lacked anti-tank weapons except the few artillery howitzers capable of engaging the attacking T-34 medium tanks that were now appearing in ever-increasing numbers. Battalions supported by a single field gun were being sacrificed to gain a few more days for the corps.
Despite its overall superiority to the Soviet air forces, the Luftwaffe could play only the most minor part in the fighting, largely as a result of poor visibility. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II and one air corps had already been removed from the theatre, and only General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps remained available for the support of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and provided the only mobile support still available to the German commanders.
A few army formations were redeployed from western Europe and Germany (six divisions in November and December, to be followed by another 17 between January and March) but, arriving late in the proceedings, these were committed to the fighting on a piecemeal basis and had little effect on the fighting. For the most part, therefore, von Kluge had to rely on the troops already deployed, and his reinforcements had to be found by combing out headquarters and supply troops, and organising alarm units from engineers, Luftwaffe ground staffs and security troops.
The Soviet inner right encircling pincer, provided by Konev’s Kalinin Front, was based on General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 39th Reserve Army (six infantry and two cavalry divisions) supported on its right and left respectively by General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army and General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 29th Army. This flanking arm moved from the areas of Kalinin and Torzhok toward Rzhev, about 120 miles (195 km) to the west of Moscow. Soviet progress in this sector was steady but slow as Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army fell back, fighting desperately and sowing mines as it went.
To the south, near Tula and Stalinogorsk, Guderian was revealing a measure of nervousness about the steadiness of Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army to the south of his 2nd Panzerarmee, where elements of General Major Avksentii M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had managed to reach the area of Livny on the Sosna river. Guderian’s relationship with Halder and von Bock was at best indifferent, and he had earlier attempted to bypass both and bring his plight and views to Hitler’s personal attention by sending written reports by way of Generalleutnant Bodewin Keitel (younger brother of Wilhelm Keitel and head of the army personnel department) and Oberst Rudolf Schmundt (Hitler’s military aide and then Bodewin Keitel’s successor in 1942). Just three days before his dismissal, von Brauchitsch had met Guderian in Roslavl and given him permission to fall back to the Susha and Oka rivers, almost 80 miles (130 km) behind the line of upper Don river.
Hitler countermanded the order after the withdrawal had started, and promised the aerial delivery of 500 reinforcements to stop the advance of what was in effect six Soviet armies and a cavalry corps. Guderian flew to Rastenburg, confident that his persuasiveness and Hitler’s understanding would result in the speedy resolution of this misunderstanding, but Hitler refused to change his position and ordained that the troops should hold in their positions.
On 24 December the position became critical when von Kluge, only just arrived as successor to von Bock as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, accused Guderian of disobeying both Hitler’s and his own orders by continuing to retreat, saying that Guderian had on his own authority evacuated Chern and thus opened a gap between General Gotthard Heinrici’s XLIII Corps and the main body of the 2nd Panzerarmee. Whatever the cause, a 25-mile (40-km) gap had indeed appeared between the two formations, and through this gap the Soviets streamed into the German rear and advanced rapidly in the direction of Smolensk and Vyaz’ma. This resulted, on 26 December, in Guderian being placed on the retired list and replaced as commander of the 2nd Panzerarmee by Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt, the temporary commander of the 2nd Army and the former commander of the XXXIX Panzerkorps.
Generalleutnant Max Fremerey’s 29th Division (mot.), which was part of the 2nd Panzerarmee, had fallen back steadily from the night of 6 December. The fact that the German offensive had been unsuccessful and that the Germans were in retreat did not cause any significant loss of morale or efficiency in the division which was, however, in constant fear that the extreme cold would halt it, so leaving it at the mercy of the Soviets, whose forces were growing steadily stronger. By 12 December the division had withdrawn successfully and concentrated on Mtsensk, having lost much of its equipment and heavier weapons.
In the area of Tula, where the 2nd Panzerarmee had been breached, the Soviet advance was rapid and the Soviet air forces were notably active. The advance was spearheaded by General Major Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps together with General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army and General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army, later supplemented by General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, General Major Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s 33rd Army. The Soviet forces took Peremyshl on 25 December and Kaluga on 30 December, and the I Guards Cavalry Corps continued its thrust towards Yukhnov, less than 70 miles (115 km) from Vyaz’ma, butchering German wounded and stragglers as it went.
However, by 1 January 1942 the Soviets were beginning to complain of the adverse effect on their operations of the extreme cold and of the increasing difficulties of supply. The German strongpoints were also difficult, especially those along the main railway lines. In general, though, from the Stavka’s point of view, the progress of the left enveloping thrust from the Tula area was very good, and the Stavka ordered Kurochkin’s North-West Front to begin its deep encirclement on the right, from Ostashkov to Vitebsk.
This was the outer right flanking pincer more than 200 miles (320 km) deep into the German rear, and was to support both Konev’s Kalinin Front and the right wing of Zhukov’s West Front. On 9 January General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, both of the North-West Front, began their offensive from the area of the Ostashkov lakes, but made little progress until the town of Peno had been taken. The 3rd Shock Army then moved west toward Kholm and Velikiye Luki, and the 4th Shock Army advanced to the south-west in the direction of Vitebsk. The country through which this advance was being made was heavily wooded with only a few tracks and, as the armies were moving on divergent axes, great gaps inevitably appeared between them and Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army on their left.
Despite the fact that control and supply were becoming increasingly problematical, the Soviet forces reached Andreapol on 15 January, and by the end of the month Soviet troops were near Velikiye Luki, Vitebsk and Demidov, having accomplished a largely unopposed advance of nearly 200 miles (320 km) across notably tricky terrain.
Lying within the area of responsibility of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, Kholm could not be taken against the very determined defence of Generalleutnant Theodor Scherer’s 281st Sicherungsdivision. The outer right arm of the Soviet enveloping movement was already in place by this time, but the gap between the right and left pincer arms in the area between Demidov and Spas-Demensk was still more than 100 miles (160 km).
Meanwhile there had been other casualties to the senior echelon of the German field command structure. Commanding the 9th Army, Strauss had become ill and was replaced in mid-January by General Walter Model, the former commander of the XLI Panzerkorps. The newly appointed commander of the 4th Army, General Ludwig Kübler told Hitler he did not wish the position and was replaced on 20 January by Heinrici, the former commander of the XLIII Corps.
On 8 January, with the Soviets seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough near Sukhinichi, von Kluge demanded from Halder that the stand-firm order be withdrawn so that he, as army group commander, could move his formations as he thought fit. Halder referred the matter to Hitler, but then it was discovered that Hoepner had taken matters into his own hands and ordered his 4th Panzerarmee, as the 4th Panzergruppe had been redesignated on 1 January, to withdraw out of a possible encirclement. Hitler immediately dismissed Hoepner and replaced him with Ruoff, formerly commander of the V Corps, whose command was assumed by Generalleutnant Wilhelm Wetzel.
Meanwhile deep in the centre of the pocket created by the Soviet double envelopment, General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s specially reinforced 20th Army, together with Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and General Major Issa A. Pliev’s II Guards Cavalry Corps, broke through on 13 January near Volokolamsk and moved to the east. Maslennikov’s 39th Army and Shvetsov’s 29th Army, supported by the 22nd Army, all of which formed Konev’s inner right pincer, had finally reached the area of Rzhev.
By the end of January the German position was serious. Far from holding the original defensive line as ordered by Hitler, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had in fact been driven some 100 to 150 km (160 to 240 km) to the south-west. Model’s 9th Army and Ruoff’s 4th Panzerarmee were deep in the almost closed pocket. Heinrici’s 4th Army was holding open the pocket’s mouth as its sought to delay the Soviet left pincer which was slowly closing the gap from the south. Under Schmidt’s command, the 2nd Panzerarmee and Schmidt’s own 2nd Army had escaped the envelopment and were farther to the south, in the area of Orel.
The Stavka then attempted to close the close the mouth of the ‘cauldron’ with an airborne operation supported on the ground by partisans. Polkovnik Aleksandr A. Onufriev’s 8th Airborne Brigade and the 201st Airborne Brigade, together with other units of General Major Aleksei F. Levashev’s (from 23 February General Major Aleksandr F. Kazankin’s) IV Airborne Corps, in all about 4,000 men, were dropped to the south-east and south-west of Vyaz’ma with the task of cutting the railway line linking Smolensk and Vyaz’ma, and thus sealing the great gap at the mouth of the pocket. In Sukhinichi, to the south of the pocket’s mouth, about 4,000 German troops remained by Hitler’s order, having been cut off on 3 January and now having to be supplied by air. In the same basic area, near Yukhnov, a number of divisions were threatened with encirclement. The road linking Yukhnov and Roslavl had been broken, and the rail and road links between Smolensk and Vyaz’ma were threatened: these were the primary lines of communication and supply for the 9th Army, 3rd Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee.
Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s 61st Army were advancing farther to the south against the 2nd Panzerarmee between Bryansk and Orel, and were also threatening the railway line linking Roslavl, Bryansk and Orel, which was the primary line of communications serving the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army.
During the first week of January, Efremov’s 33rd Army had started to drive a wedge between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 4th Army in the area of Medyn. Ruoff’s army could not hold the line and on 13 January Hitler was forced to agree to what had already taken place. Meanwhile elements of the I Guards Cavalry Corps and the 33rd Army had succeeded in separating the 4th Panzerarmee in the north from the 4th Army in the south, and had driven into the open mouth of the pocket south of Vyaz’ma, where they were to be joined by partisans and the airborne troops.
A further threat to the Germans came from the north of the pocket, where Shvetsov’s 29th Army and Maslennikov’s 39th Army, together with the II Cavalry Corps, had advanced rapidly to the south and south-west from Rzhev in the direction of Vyaz’ma and Yartsevo and thus straight across the rear of the 9th Army and the 4th Panzerarmee. The German situation appeared critical as the Soviets had almost closed the mouth of the great pocket, in which the encircled formations were being destroyed.
In mid-February, however, the whole situation was once more suddenly transformed. On 21 January the Stavka had been premature in withdrawing Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and Rokossovsky’s 16th Army from the area to the west of Moscow in order to reinforce the northern and southern flanks. This caused the offensive of Vlasov’s 20th Army, which was attempting to roll up the German pocket from east to west, to stall, thereby relieving the eastward pressure on the 4th Panzerarmee and the 9th Army, both of which were inside the pocket. Efremov’s 33rd Army and the I Guards Cavalry Corps which, together with the airborne troops and partisan units, were trying to seal the pocket between Yukhnov and Vyaz’ma, were suddenly counterattacked violently by Ruoff’s 4th Panzerarmee, which re-established contact with the 4th Army on the outside of the pocket during 3 February, and cut off the Soviet troops from their rear. On 5 February Model’s 9th Army, together with encircled German pockets near Olenino and Rzhev, attacked Shvetsov’s encircling 29th Army from both east and west, thus separating it from its neighbours, and in turn encircled and destroyed it. Only some 5,000 survivors escaped to the south and joined the II Cavalry Corps and 39th Army, by then themselves almost encircled.
Hitler had meanwhile been forced finally to agree to a general withdrawal to the ‘Winter-Linie’ positions and brought Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee and elements of the 9th Army out of the pocket to Vitebsk and Smolensk to form a reserve in depth. The 3rd Panzerarmee soon contained the Soviet thrusts toward Vitebsk and Demidov, all the more easily since Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, which was by then having great supply difficulties, was moving only slowly and with great uncertainty. A German division thrusting to the north-east from Smolensk reached Bely and separated the 39th Army and 22nd Army. The encircled German garrison at Sukhinichi had already been extricated on 25 January.
The key to the battle lay, however, in the area of Vyaz’ma, in the mouth of the pocket. On 1 February Zhukov had become commander of the Western Theatre in addition to being the commander of West Front, the new theatre including the West, Kalinin and Bryansk Fronts. By then the Soviet forces were too weak either to close the pocket or destroy the partially encircled German forces. The II Cavalry Corps and part of the 39th Army had been cut off by Model’s 9th Army. Part of the 33rd Army, together with the I Guards Cavalry Corps, part of the IV Airborne Corps and partisan units, had been encircled in the mouth of the pocket when the 4th Panzerarmee and 4th Army re-established contact, and these isolated Soviet formations now had to be supplied by air. The desperate Soviet efforts to relieve them were without avail and none of the many other Soviet armies were in any condition to help or even move, since they were at the end of a 150-mile (240-km) line of communications, and the bad weather and lack of transport made regular supply impossible. Moreover, the advance had outrun the range of the supporting fighter aircraft.
All that the Soviets could do in these circumstances was increase the political indoctrination and awareness of the flagging supply and transport troops, an effort that, not surprisingly, failed to effect any material improvement. Meanwhile the encircled Soviet forces were slowly destroyed. Early in March the fighting started to decline with the Germans strongly and firmly entrenched with secure communications to Vyaz’ma and Orel. On 20 March the Stavka committed its degraded forces to another offensive, the Kalinin Front once more being instructed to separate the Olenino and Rzhev pockets, and the West Front to attack eastward with four armies along the railway line linking Moscow and Vyaz’ma. This offensive began at the end of March but was discontinued after a few days at the beginning of April because of the troops’ total exhaustion and the supply and transport difficulties resulting from the mud of the spring thaw.
The Soviet winter counter-offensive in front of Moscow had spent itself with each side at the limits of its endurance.