Sleepwalking Into World War III
Trump’s Dangerous Militarization of Foreign Policy
UNTIL the summer of 1941 the German Wehrmacht had gone from success to success; all of the operations which it had launched were brilliant in conception and execution. Poland, Norway, France and the Balkans were the scenes of great triumphs. It is true that Hitler had cast longing eyes across the English Channel and had directed preparations for an invasion of England. Yet the fact that this was not attempted appeared to confirm that the German High Command knew the measure of the attainable and weighed carefully the chances of victory. Then like a bombshell came the news on June 22, 1941, that Germany had launched a surprise assault on her treaty partner, the Soviet Union.
All long-range preparations for this campaign, which had received the code name Barbarossa, had been made for a target date in the middle of May 1941. This time for launching the operation remained unchanged during the winter 1940-41 while the German Balkan campaign (Marita) was planned. Marita was limited originally to the occupation of northern Greece, to support the bogged-down Italian offensive in Albania; and in accordance with the Adolf Hitler directive of March 17, the forces provided for it were not to be considered in the deployment against Russia. Moreover, the opening date for Barbarossa suffered no postponement when, on Hitler's order of March 22, the Balkan campaign was extended, as a result of the British landings in Greece, to include all of Greece inclusive of the Peloponnesus. The widely accepted belief that the British intervention in Greece resulted in a postponement of the opening date of Barbarossa is not valid.
Events in Jugoslavia did delay it, however. The Jugoslav Government which had joined the Three Power Pact on March 25 fell as a result of a coup d'état in Belgrade two days later. Hitler at once decided on the campaign against Jugoslavia. The forces earmarked for the Balkan campaign had now to be increased considerably and nine of the support divisions provided for Barbarossa were taken for this purpose. On April 3, three days before the beginning of the Balkan campaign, the Armed Forces High Command concluded: "The opening date for Barbarossa will be delayed at least four weeks as a result of the Balkan operations." A further postponement of about ten days ensued when the German deployment was delayed by unusually heavy rains during May. Even so, certain of the forces employed in the Balkan campaign, among others the air forces which participated in the capture of the island of Crete, were late in arriving on the Russian front. There can be no doubt that the loss of almost six weeks of precious summer weather had a decisive and ominous effect on the outcome of the eastern campaign.
A fundamental difference in the concept of the German General Staff and that of Hitler came to light early in the operational planning for the Russian campaign. The General Staff planned the disposition of two large operational groups, one of which was to advance in the direction of Kiev, the other toward Moscow. The Chief of the General Staff, General Halder, considered the conquest of the Baltic states, in the northerly direction, as only a secondary operation which must in no wise infringe on the assault on Moscow. On the other hand, Hitler explained to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, on December 5, 1940, that "Moscow is not very important," and on March 17, 1941, that it was "entirely immaterial" to him. Corresponding to this concept which Hitler held from the beginning, the first directive issued by the Armed Forces High Command for Barbarossa on December 18, 1940, the secondary nature of the attack on Moscow came clearly to light. It provided for two army groups to be employed north of the Pripet Marshes to destroy the enemy forces in White Russia and the Baltic states; their primary objective was to be the conquest of the Baltic states and the occupation of Leningrad and Kronstadt. A third army group was to advance south of the Pripet Marshes with Kiev and the area downstream of the Dnieper River as its objective. Only after the battles had been fought on both sides of the Pripet area would the objective of Moscow and the occupation of the Donets basin -- east of the bend of the Dnieper -- be undertaken "in the course of the pursuit."
The contrary concepts of Hitler and the Army High Command resulted from two different points of view. Hitler sought political and economic objectives in his plan of campaign: in the north he wished to join forces with the Finns as soon as possible, in the south he sought to gain the granary of the Ukraine and the Russian industrial area in the bend of the Dnieper. However, the primary concern of the Army High Command was to destroy the military might of the enemy as quickly as possible.This objective could be realized most surely on the way to Moscow. At all other places the defending forces could retire before the onslaught of the invaders, but they had to make a stand before Moscow. A glance at the map will suffice to indicate the extraordinary importance of Moscow as a focal railroad point. It is the great center of power of European Russia, and was the one city the Russians had to defend.
Field Marshal von Brauchitsch postponed a clarification of the question until the Russian deployment had been broken in the border battles. Then a decision for the further course of operations had to be made, and the Army High Command began the effort to sway Adolf Hitler's will. Had this question been fought out before the beginning of the campaign the Army might have succeeded, because Hitler's directive of December 18, 1940, had described the general objective of operations as "to destroy the Russian forces deployed in the west and to prevent their escape into the wide open spaces of Russia." Moreover, on July 13, 1941, after the dual battle of Bialystok-Minsk, Hitler declared to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army: "It is of less importance to advance rapidly to the eastward than to destroy the living forces of the enemy."
In accordance with the Barbarossa directive of December 18, 1940, the German deployment was consummated in three large groups, for which 142 formations, including the Rumanian divisions, were provided, of which 19 were armored divisions with about 3,000 tanks, and 14 were motorized divisions. These were constituted as follows:
(a) Army Group South (Field Marshal von Rundstedt); the 11th, 17th, and 6th Armies with Armored Group 1 (von Kleist), 37 divisions, of which five were armored, three motorized.
(b) Army Group Center (Field Marshal von Bock); the 4th Army with Armored Group 2 (Guderian); and the 9th Army with Armored Group 3 (Hoth), 51 divisions, of which nine were armored, seven motorized.
(c) Army Group North (Field Marshal von Leeb); the 16th and 18th Armies with Armored Group 4 (Hoeppner), 30 divisions, of which three were armored, three motorized.
In addition there were available the Armed Forces High Command Reserves, consisting of 24 divisions, of which two were armored and one motorized. The reserves of the Army Groups are included in the above figures; they were rated very weak. The German forces in northern Finland (four divisions) and the Finnish formations are not included in the deployment.
The relation of German strength to that of the Russians was not at all satisfactory. The General Staff estimated that Russia had available at the commencement of hostilities 213 divisions, of which ten were armored divisions and 37 motorized brigades. Only meager information was available as to the number of tanks the Russians had at their disposal. The General Staff reckoned with about 10,000, which would mean a considerable superiority in numbers for the Russian Army. As to fighting capacity, it was assumed that the German troops and officers were more battle-wise, that German leadership was superior to the Russian, and that the latter was definitely inferior in making quick decisions in a war of movement. However, the good fighting qualities of the Russian soldier, particularly on the defense, were not underestimated. If Hitler was of the opinion that the Russian armed forces, possibly also the Soviet régime, would collapse under the first heavy blows, this was a hypothesis which did not enter the calculations of the General Staff.
The Russian strategic principles, which were developed under Stalin's régime, were based on the assumption that the Russian armed forces must oppose an army equipped with modern weapons by utilizing time and space, by fighting a delaying action, and by striving to wear down gradually the strength of the enemy by means of offensive and defensive actions. During this phase of the conflict their own reserves were to be greatly increased with utmost mechanization of the army, so that in the second half of the war they could meet the enemy with superior forces and go over to an annihilating general offensive. Stalin's personal opinion was that, in view of the great depth of space in Russia which permitted the gaining of time by giving up space, and the tremendous supply difficulties, even the offensive of a fully motorized attacking army must gradually exhaust itself.
These command principles emphasized that it was necessary for the attacking forces to prevent the enemy from retreating, and to make him fight. Against an opponent who could and would utilize space as a decisive factor, the German Army suffered under a very severe disadvantage in that it could make available only a small number of motorized infantry formations because of lack of material and fuel. Under these circumstances the timely support of infantry for the rapidly advancing armored divisions presented the High Command with a problem which could not always be solved despite the marching performance of the troops, which exceeded all expectations.
A question on which differences of opinion existed in the German High Command was whether the Russian deployment which had been in progress since the summer of 1940 was accomplished with a view to an attack on Germany, or whether it was only a defensive countermeasure to the German deployment. In a conference on the Brenner Pass on October 15, 1940, Adolf Hitler said to the Duce: "Russia will not attack; the men who rule Russia have good sense." But did he actually mean it? German authoritative opinion inclined to the view that the Russian troop concentrations provided for a deployment with the objective of an offensive in the general direction of Warsaw. The Chief of the General Staff said of the situation of April 7, 1941, that "the Russian organization would permit them to go over quickly to the attack; it might be extremely inconvenient." On the other hand, German generals who led their corps to the attack in the border battles declared to the author that they had struck right into the middle of a Russian defensive deployment, and that it was still in progress when the German troops crossed the border.
The strength and disposition of the Russian Army as obtained by the German intelligence service indicated that there were two primary Russian concentrations, one in the Ukraine with about 70 large formations, the other in White Russia around and west of Minsk with about 60 large formations. In the Baltic states there were apparently only about 30 formations. In accordance with its estimate of the situation the Army High Command considered the northern theater of war, north of the Pripet area, of decisive military importance. Here the German armed forces could strike to the heart of the enemy by an attack on Moscow. On the other hand, from a military point of view, the southern theater of war -- where the enemy could retreat without serious sacrifice and seek to stop the assault behind the Dnieper -- was of lesser importance.
In view of the tremendous extent of the front it was impossible to attack everywhere. The procedure was to establish focal points, to cut off strong Russian forces in deep penetrations at the decisive places, and to force them into battles with reversed front. Only a partial envelopment of the Russian group in the south was possible by attacking along the line of the primary road, Lublin-Lutsk-Rovno-Kiev, and then moving downstream along the Dnieper in the direction of Dnepropetrovsk. An envelopment from both sides by a simultaneous advance of a southern pincer arm from Rumania was not possible because the Rumanian forces were too weak to effect a breakthrough and strong German forces could not be transported to Rumania for lack of railroad facilities. The situation was more favorable in the north where the deep westerly bend of the border at Bialystok invited a two-sided envelopment by wedges driven from the two areas around Brest-Litovsk and around Suwalki. The enemy forces to the north in the adjacent Baltic states could be cut off by an attack in the direction of Leningrad via Kaunas, Dvinsk (Daugavpils) and Pskov, and forced toward the Baltic Sea. Thus the first operational objectives were laid down to about the line, Dnieper-Orsha-Leningrad. The further plans hinged on the development of this first phase of the war. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army hoped to effect a timely agreement concerning the differences between Hitler and himself for the further conduct of operations against the Soviet Union.
When the German armed forces advanced to the attack on June 22 they achieved tactical surprise. The Russians were in part startled out of their billets; in many cases their leaders stood helpless in the face of the attack, but the troops recovered quickly from the shock and offered tough local resistance. The conduct of the enemy created an impression on June 23 that he sought to withdraw. However, on the day following, General Halder noted: "The Russians have no intention of retreating; they are throwing in everything they have to stop the breakthrough." It came as an unpleasant surprise to the High Command when the front reported the appearance of Russian tanks with 15 cm. (5.9 in.) guns.
Up to June 30 the situation had developed as follows: on the front of Army Group South the 6th Army with Armored Group 1 had fought its way through to east of Rovno, but the 17th Army attacking to the southward thereof did not get any farther than Lemberg. The fighting was hard and was repeatedly marked by Russian counterattacks. The situation was not entirely satisfactory. On the front of Army Group Center the designed envelopment of the enemy in the area between Bialystok and Minsk had succeeded; Armored Groups 2 and 3 had joined forces as planned at Minsk, which fell into German hands on June 28. The surrounded Russian forces attempted to break out of the ring singly and in broken formations. After the battle the German forces reported the capture of 290,000 prisoners with 2,585 tanks and 1,449 guns. Army Group North captured Dvinsk on June 26 and forced a crossing of the Dvina River. It was considered that 12-15 enemy divisions had been destroyed west of the Dvina in Lithuania and Latvia.
In general the Army High Command could feel fully satisfied with the results of the first ten days of operations. The Chief of the German General Staff adjudged the situation on July 3 very favorably: "It is probably not an exaggeration when I contend that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days." However, Hitler was concerned for Army Group South, fearing enemy flank attacks on it from the north and south. General Halder remarked: "The Supreme Commander places no trust in the commands in the field, or in the education and training of the senior officers!"
After the border battles had been successfully concluded, the question of the advance on Moscow had to be settled for the two northern army groups. Army Group South had only minor interest therein, since its objectives lay in Kiev and the bend of the Dnieper. However, the farther it advanced to the eastward the greater became the danger to its two flanks, as Hitler had previously feared, and more and more forces had to be withdrawn from the spearhead for flank protection. This was particularly the case on the northern flank where the 5th Russian Army was concentrated in the Pripet area. The 11th Army had to be thrown in to relieve the danger to the southern flank, and in its further advance to Odessa it had to carry along the Rumanian divisions. By July 19 the 11th Army had reached the Dniester River, the 17th Army Vinnitsa, and the 6th Army the area west of Kiev.
Up to this day the progress of Army Group Center in the direction of Moscow was very gratifying. In conformity with the objectives of the Army High Command, it had been possible, despite tough resistance, to seize the passage between the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers and to secure the triangle Orsha-Smolensk-Vitebsk as a base for a further advance on Moscow. Strong enemy forces were cut off at Smolensk; another 180,000 Russians were made prisoner, 2,000 tanks and 1,900 guns were captured. As early as July 13, the Commander of this Army Group, Field Marshal von Bock, who was always one to press on with all his might, viewed the prospects of a "breakthrough of tank spearheads on Moscow" as very favorable. However, strong enemy pressure from the 21st, 4th, and 13th Russian Armies now began to be felt on the southern flank of the Army Group.
Armored Group 4 of Army Group North, cutting between Lakes Peipus and Ilmen, was engaged in a bold advance on Leningrad; the 16th and 18th Armies had fought their way through to Lake Peipus-Velikie Luki. Unfortunately the situation led to a separation of Armored Group 4; one part advanced toward Narva in order to assault Leningrad from the westward, while the other part was directed against Novgorod on Lake Ilmen with a view subsequently to cutting off Leningrad from the eastward. This division of forces was entirely unwelcome to the Army High Command; for the time being it desired to cut off that city from the eastward and to join forces with the Finns at Lake Ladoga.
This was the general situation when Adolf Hitler's directive number 33 of July 19 was issued. It contemplated a turning movement of strong forces, in particular fast formations, of Army Group Center to the southeastward and southward in order to annihilate, in coöperation with Army Group South, the Russian 5th Army and the enemy forces which had been shifted to the east bank of the Dnieper. Other motorized forces of the Army Group were to advance northeasterly, cut the line of communication Moscow-Leningrad, and cover the right flank of Army Group North in its assault on Leningrad. Army Group Center was to continue the advance on Moscow with infantry alone. Thus began a turning point in the war, incomprehensible to the Russians -- "Marne miracle" as a Russian general called it -- which was to save Moscow just as Paris was relieved in 1914.
However, the time had not yet arrived when directive number 33 had to be acted upon. The troops were still engaged on all fronts in concluding the operations then in progress. Consequently the Army High Command did not at once enter the lists with Hitler for the continuation of the attack on Moscow. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army advanced the argument that the fast forces of Army Group Center to which Hitler had assigned objectives urgently needed a 10-14 day rest period to restore their combat effectiveness. General Halder made this note of the conference with the Fuehrer on July 23: "At present the Fuehrer is not at all interested in Moscow, only in Leningrad. Therefore Bock must release his armored forces and move on Moscow with only his infantry." After another conference with the Fuehrer on July 25, Halder viewed the new directive as a "bogging down of the current stirring operations;" a reference to the importance of Moscow was "summarily rejected" by Hitler. On July 28 the former added: "The operations ordered by the Fuehrer will lead to a scattering of forces and to stagnation in the decisive direction, Moscow. Bock will be so weak that he will not be able to attack."
Nevertheless, the representations of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch about the directive of July 19 were not without their effect on Hitler. He admitted that the armored forces, Army Group Center, needed time for rest and refitting, and directed them to delay execution of the newly assigned tasks. Army Group Center was to go over to the defense temporarily and make attacks only with limited objectives which might improve its positions for subsequent operations. In view of this interpretation of the directive, nothing was lost for the time being and one could hope for the future.
At the end of July Armored Group 1 of Army Group South finally succeeded in breaking through to Pervomaisk from the north, so that an encirclement of strong enemy forces around Uman was indicated; but in the Pripet area and before Kiev the 6th Army was still being held by the Russian 5th Army. Army Group Center was still employed in mopping up the encirclement at Smolensk; its armored forces started their rest period. The enemy worked hard to establish a new front and drew on Moscow continuously for fresh forces. The southern wing of Army Group North advanced as far as Kholm; the infantry divisions were moving toward Narva and Novgorod to support the armored spearheads. The enemy was working feverishly to defend Leningrad.
The further development of the situation to August 20 was not entirely satisfactory for Army Group South. To be sure it had been possible to cut off considerable Russian forces at Uman, and almost the entire bend of the Dnieper downstream from Kiev had been cleared of the enemy, but the 6th Army still remained tied down before Kiev. Like a dread specter, the Russian 5th Army continued to threaten the deep inner flanks of Army Groups South and Center. Moreover, strong Russian counterattacks in the vicinity of Kiev several times led to serious local crises, and continued bad weather hampered the operations of Army Group South. During the first week of August Army Group Center sustained bitter enemy counterattacks, some of which were warded off only with difficulty. These indicated that the enemy was preparing a defensive line west of Bryansk-Vyazma-Rzhev. On August 15, against the advice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Hitler now directed Armored Group 3 which had just finished its rest period to turn over one armored corps to Army Group North. A strong Russian penetration at Staraya Russa had occasioned a local crisis and Hitler seized the opportunity to take a tactical measure which was entirely in consonance with his plan of operations.
On August 10 Army Group North began its attack on Leningrad, both from the southward and the westward. Even before this offensive had begun, the breakthrough to the Gulf of Finland at Kunda, halfway between Tallinn (Reval) and Narva, was accomplished on August 7. The German Naval Staff was particularly interested in this phase and constantly urged on the Supreme Command the early occupation of Leningrad. From its point of view this was more important than the capture of Moscow, for if Moscow fell, the war in the east would not end then and there. However, if Leningrad and Kronstadt were captured, then the Russians would lose their last Baltic naval base. This would end naval warfare in the Baltic Sea, and all forces of the Navy would become available for their primary task -- the war against the United Kingdom.
On August 17 Narva was taken. However, the attack in the direction of Leningrad met tough resistance and made very slow progress. The previously mentioned crisis at Staraya Russa took place. A pessimistic note suddenly appears in Halder's war diary: "We underestimated Russia, we reckoned with 200 divisions and now have already counted 360. Our front on this broad expanse is too thin, it has no depth. In consequence the enemy attacks often meet with success."
The contest between the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Hitler over the operational decision continued during the entire first half of August and reached its height at this time. The notes of the Chief of the General Staff picture clearly this drawn-out conflict; here and there, they also show that the stand of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch was not always firm enough. Again and again Hitler emphasized his previously announced objectives: first Leningrad, then eastern Ukraine, and thirdly Moscow. The Army High Command reiterated that the Russian armed forces could be crushed only by striking for Moscow, where the enemy had gradually concentrated 70 divisions.
In addition to personal conferences with Hitler, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army also had a lengthy discussion with the Chief of the Armed Forces Command Staff, General Jodl, with a view to winning over the Fuehrer. Jodl was strongly impressed and promised to use his influence with Hitler. On August 18 the Commander-in-Chief gave him his estimate of the situation in a detailed memorandum.
On August 21 Adolf Hitler issued a new directive. It began with these words: "The Army proposal of August 18 is rejected." The directive made plain that the most important objective was not the occupation of Moscow but the seizure of the Crimea and the industrial area in the Donets basin, the severing of the Russian oil supply from the Caucasus, and cutting off of Leningrad and joining forces with the Finns. Thus Hitler continued to follow his original plan of operations; the contest which the Army High Command had waged against it was in vain. In particular the directive provided for a concentric operation with the inner flanks of Army Groups Center and South which should dispose of the Russian 5th Army, and in the north for a close siege of Leningrad. Army Group Center was to make available the necessary forces. Only after the attainment of these objectives would it be possible for this Army Group to resume its offensive against Moscow.
In the light of later events, it is apparent that with this directive the course of the entire eastern campaign was fatally determined. In the south this strategy led to the great encirclement of Kiev. In the north Leningrad was cut off, but a junction of forces with the Finns was not effected. However, in the decisive direction of Moscow, valuable time was lost to an enemy who was fighting for time, and who did all in his power to utilize it to build up his defenses. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army made a last attempt to get Adolf Hitler to change his course when he arranged for a personal interview between General Guderian, Commander of Armored Group 2, and the Fuehrer; it failed when Guderian yielded to Hitler's views.
The Chief of the General Staff thought that the Commander-in-Chief of the Army could not take the responsibility for the course set by Hitler, and, moreover, the Fuehrer had personally charged Field Marshal von Brauchitsch with allowing the Army Groups too much latitude in advancing their particular interests. Hence General Halder asked the Commander-in-Chief to request that both of them be relieved of office. Brauchitsch declined: "Since a relief of office would not, in fact, eventuate, the situation would remain unchanged." The ill-feeling between Hitler and the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was alleviated a few days later when Hitler declared in a conversation that "He did not mean it that way." But nothing essential was changed thereby.
It was in such a mood of depression that the Army High Command received a report from Field Marshal von Bock on August 28 stating that in view of the projected withdrawal of forces from Army Group Center "he could foresee the end of his Army Group's ability to hold out." At the beginning of September Marshal Timoshenko, Bock's Russian opponent in the middle of the eastern front, launched a powerful surprise counteroffensive against the 4th Army in the bend of the Desna. According to Russian accounts, the Germans suffered the loss of eight divisions; the bend of the Desna had to be given up on September 5.
The Russian front, like the German, was divided into three great areas of command. Voroshilov commanded in the north, Budenny in the south, and Timoshenko in the center. The latter was one of the most interesting personalities in the Russian High Command. He was born in 1895, the son of a landless peasant in Bessarabia, grew up as a farm laborer and received scarcely any education in his youth. In 1915 he was drafted for service in the Tsarist army. He distinguished himself in the chaotic fighting after the Russian Revolution to such a degree that he was given command of the 6th Red Cavalry Division at the age of 23 and attracted the attention of both Stalin and Lenin. It was said that he could not read or write when he was a division commander. At the War Academy, under Frunze and Tukhachevsky, he had a chance to make up for what he had missed in his youth. From 1925-30 he was both Commander and Political Commissar of the 3rd Cavalry Corps. He was in command of the military district of Kiev when the war with Poland broke out in 1939. His loyalty to the Stalin régime was considered so staunch that he was untouched while heads were rolling all around him in the great purge of the armed forces in 1937, even though he continued Tukhachevsky's fight to do away with political commissars in the army. After the poor showing of the Russian troops in the first phase of the war with Finland, Stalin appointed him Commander-in-Chief at the end of December 1940. After a month's preparation Timoshenko took the offensive, and his complete success in breaking through the Mannerheim Line won him the title of "Hero of the Soviet Union," appointment as Defense Commissar, and membership in the Supreme War Council. Timoshenko had "arrived." Within the army he sought to introduce titles of rank for officers and the military salute; these were ordered by Stalin in 1944. His primary concerns were the mechanization of the army and the establishment of a salutary relationship between the officers and men. Timoshenko was a bachelor; an army song had the refrain: "He treats his soldiers as his sons. . . ."
At the beginning of the war Timoshenko had command of the Russian center and fell heir to the most important task -- the defense of Moscow. From the Russian point of view, the great sacrifices of the battles at Bialystok-Minsk and at Smolensk had not been in vain: they had intercepted and delayed the German assault. When the German High Command broke off the offensive against Moscow after Smolensk, Timoshenko gained time to consolidate his forces before Moscow. The prewar Russian strategic concepts were ingrained in him; he was the born "defensive fighter." When the Russians went over to large-scale offensive action in the later years of the war, he stepped down in favor of younger generals, whom the war itself had developed.
At the beginning of September the first indications of a sudden change in Adolf Hitler's strategy were noted. In the north the isolation of Leningrad was imminent; between Lakes Ladoga and Ilmen the 18th Army was gradually pushing its way into the Volkhov River sector; south of Lake Ilmen the 16th Army had reached the area west of Valdai Hills. In the south the movements ordered by Hitler to effect an encirclement of Kiev were progressing favorably. On September 6 -- this time in agreement with the proposals of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army -- Hitler issued directive number 35, which ordered a rapid build-up of Army Group Center to launching a decisive offensive. Its stated purpose was to annihilate Timoshenko's Army Group which was "committed to action" in the center, "in the available time allowed prior to the onset of winter weather." This was the first reference to the approaching dread winter!
Army Group Center was to commence this operation at the end of September, with the objective of destroying the enemy forces eastward of Smolensk by a pincer movement in direction of Vyazma, and thereafter to reach Moscow in the course of the pursuit. Army Groups South and North were directed to make strong forces available to Army Group Center, especially fast formations, for this new operation, as soon as the situation around Kiev and Leningrad permitted. In this connection it was thought that Armored Group 2 would be in an excellent position to support the pursuit in the direction of Moscow by an advance toward Orel-Tula. Moreover, Army Group South was to aid the attack of Army Group Center by an advance of the 17th Army in the direction of Poltava-Kharkov, while to the south the 11th Army, supported by an advance of Armored Group 1 to the eastward, was to continue the attack on the Crimea. For the further course of the operations against Moscow, Army Groups South and North were to cover the adjacent flanks of Army Group Center.
When Adolf Hitler issued the directive of September 6, he desired to commence the new offensive on Moscow in eight or ten days, that is, by the middle of September. However, this proved to be impossible; the troops were still engaged in carrying out the operations of the directive of August 21, and then had to be regrouped for the new assignments. Thus the advance on Moscow was interrupted not only for two weeks, between the dates of the two directives, but also by additional time needed to prepare the forces to take up anew the original campaign plan of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
The great pincer action in the area of Kiev, which was undertaken according to Hitler's orders of August 21, took a "classic" course, as the official war diary expresses it. On September 17 the ring around Kiev began to close and on the 19th the first German troops entered the city; enemy attempts to break out were repulsed. When this great encirclement was subsequently cleared out, 665,000 prisoners were taken as well as immense quantities of matériel. Adolf Hitler called this battle "the greatest battle in the history of the world," while the Chief of the German General Staff termed it "the greatest strategic blunder of the eastern campaign"!
On September 26 the 11th Army in the south broke through the defenses to the Crimea at Perekop. After conclusion of the battle at Kiev at the end of September, the other armies of Army Group South were released to continue their advance in the direction of Rostov-Kharkov. The situation of Army Group North developed less satisfactorily. The ring around Leningrad was not closed as tightly as desired by the Army High Command, and the 16th Army in its advance on both sides of Lake Ilmen sustained strong Russian counterattacks; the enemy was noticeably reinforcing his troops here. After release of the fast formations for the operation against Moscow, a deadlock gradually set in on the fronts of Army Group North. The deep eastern flank of this group was a particular point of danger; it had to be watched carefully because it could easily develop into a threat for the north flank of Army Group Center in the course of its advance on Moscow.
On September 30 the tank divisions of Armored Group 2 (Guderian) started off the Moscow offensive in the direction of Orel. The enemy was apparently surprised; up to the night of October 1 the Armored Group had penetrated more than 37 miles into enemy territory. On October 2 the grand attack of the 2nd, 4th and 9th Armies began. Taifun was the cover name for the offensive.
This operation also took a classic course during the first days. The enemy stood and fought. Up to the night of October 3 the infantry divisions had also penetrated to a depth up to 25 miles. On the 4th, Armored Group 2 reached Mtsensk by way of Orel and encountered no further opposition; Armored Group 4 (Hoeppner) penetrated to the vicinity of Yukhnov, and Armored Group 3 (Hoth) to Kholm. Two large encirclements at Bryansk and at Vyazma appeared to be shaping up. On October 7 the objective of the first phase of operations was attained; the rings around the two areas were closed. Once again, upon conclusion of the action around the latter, the troops reported the capture of about 660,000 prisoners and vast quantities of matériel. Thanks to their almost unbelievable marching, the infantry had followed in close support of the armored divisions. Strong forces of the 4th Army were far advanced in the direction of Kaluga on October 9; the 9th Army was pressing on Rzhev and in conjunction with Armored Group 3 was preparing for the attack on Kalinin. Armored Group 2 was engaged in the advance on Tula, but its progress was slowed by the condition of the weather and enemy flank attacks.
The primary objective, Moscow, appeared to be within grasp. These were the days when all the German forces in the east were filled with pride, hope and confidence, and when Adolf Hitler in boundless overestimation of what had been accomplished announced to the world the collapse of the Russian armed forces. Even the Chief of the German General Staff, who was accustomed to see things in a cool and sober light, expressed the hope that "given moderately correct leadership and moderately good weather the encirclement of Moscow must succeed."
Now, however, the weather turned on the Germans and threatened to nullify all their gains. A period of rain and mud, unusually heavy and protracted for this time of the year, made what were bad roads impassable. After the dual battle of Bryansk-Vyazma the whole pursuit operation stuck fast in the mud. In particular the advance of Armored Group 2 on Tula, which was so important for the attack on Moscow from the south, was completely stopped.
Instead of the expected spirited pursuit of a sorely stricken foe, there was now a crawling advance through mud and rain against an enemy who was throwing everything he had into the defense of his capital. Nevertheless, the forces of Army Group Center continued to press slowly eastward. Up to October 20 the 4th Army with Armored Group 4 reached the area eastward of the line Kaluga-Mozhaisk, the 9th Army with parts of Armored Group 3 reached the region Kalinin-Staritsa. Armored Group 2, supported by the 2nd Army, continued to be especially hard hit by the mud; it did not get rolling until October 20.
The situation remained essentially unchanged to the beginning of November; meanwhile Armored Group 2 had reached the vicinity of Tula and thus was set for the assault on Moscow. The Soviet Government considered the situation of the capital so precarious that it evacuated to Kazan. Army Group North had succeeded in joining forces with Army Group Center at Ostashkov, south of the Valdai Hills. The southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, with the exception of a strip at Oranienbaum, was in German hands, as were the outlying islands, Oesel, Dagoe and Muhu, which had been captured by landing operations the latter part of October. Army Group North prepared for an attack on Tikhvin, which was important for an advance to eastward of Lake Ladoga in seeking contact with the Finns. Army Group South, in particular Armored Group 1 (Kleist, had continued rolling in the direction of Rostov. The infantry formations were held up somewhat by tough enemy resistance and particularly by the mud, but at the beginning of November the 6th Army was able to reach the area of Kharkov-Belgorod and the 17th Army the Donets River on either side of Izyum. Also at this time the resistance of the Crimea defense was broken.
Now the German High Command was confronted with the fateful question whether the attack on Moscow should be resumed despite the ominous delays and the approaching winter. On November 9 the Commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal von Rundstedt advocated a cessation of operations in order to preserve the striking power of the military forces, but the Commander-in-Chief of the Army (von Brauchitsch) and the Commander of Army Group Center (von Bock) were agreed that the attack must be continued. Von Bock in particular stressed the necessity of carrying through, and both insisted that "both opponents were calling on their last reserves of strength and that the one with the more determined will would prevail." Moscow lay only about 37 miles from the German front. German leaders reminded themselves of the Battle of the Marne in 1914, which was given up for lost when it might yet have been won. There is a widespread belief that the question of the resumption of the offensive led to sharp differences between Hitler and Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, but this is myth.
On November 15 the weather permitted the resumption of the offensive on all fronts, and on that day Army Group Center commenced the assault on the enemy capital. The 9th Army made good progress southeast of Kalinin, but the 4th Army reported on November 17 that it could not continue the offensive because of strong enemy attacks on its right flank; the opponent attacked here with four divisions on a very small front. Field Marshal von Bock directed that the offensive be continued notwithstanding; support was to be expected from Armored Group 2 from the vicinity of Tula and by an attack of the 9th Army. He drove his army group forward with "unparalleled energy," even though the 4th Army and Armored Group 2 were near the end of their resources. "The last battalion will decide the issue," he declared. After heavy fighting on November 21 the 4th Army successfully warded off attacks against its right flank and on the 23rd the situation appeared to have eased. Armored Group 2 and the right flank of the 2nd Army adjoining it were able to advance. However, the 6th Army of Army Group South, on the right of the 2nd Army, which had orders to advance in the direction of Voronezh, could not be moved for days despite continuous severe prodding from the top. Its advance was particularly important because the enemy was continuously drawing forces from that sector for the defense of Moscow. The Commander, Field Marshal von Reichenau, had been taken sick; in consequence the army did not show its usual drive.
Even though the center of the German eastern front pushed slowly on Moscow, it appeared to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army more and more doubtful that the enemy capital could be reached before the onset of winter. On November 10 Field Marshal von Brauchitsch suffered a severe heart attack. Adolf Hitler was strongly impressed by the mounting difficulties. To be sure, he maintained that the enemy armament potential had been considerably reduced by the loss of the numerous areas which supplied raw materials; and he laid great store on political friction within Russia. But on November 9 he said, in words that were strange to him, "that the recognition that neither force is able to annihilate the other will lead to a compromise peace."
Developments in the south of the eastern front led to a serious crisis at the end of November. The attack of Armored Group 1 gained ground rapidly in the direction of Rostov, and on November 21 this important city fell into German hands. Since the end of October the Russian southern front was commanded by Marshal Timoshenko, the successor of Budenny; Timoshenko had been succeeded in the center by Zhukov. After the loss of Rostov, Timoshenko started his counter-offensive; the Germans were forced to evacuate the city on November 28. It was the first big success for the Russians in this campaign. Armored Group 1 was attacked by such superior forces that its further retreat was unavoidable. However, Adolf Hitler forbade the withdrawal of the front to the Mius River position north of Taganrog as proposed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Field Marshal von Brauchitsch gave in. The Commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, reported that he was unable to comply with the order to hold the previous front, and asked for his relief. After sharp differences between the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Hitler, the latter accepted it on the very same day and appointed as his successor Field Marshal von Reichenau, who had recovered from his illness. Against the advice of his subordinates, von Reichenau hoped to hold a median position. It was broken by the enemy. Thereupon Hitler agreed to a retreat to the Mius position. "However," so wrote the Chief of the General Staff, "we have sacrificed strength and time and have lost Rundstedt." The precarious health of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was a matter of concern on account of this "constant irritation."
Meanwhile the offensive of Army Group Center had continued. The 4th Army, which for a time had been fighting varied defense actions, reported that it would resume the attack on December 1 because the enemy was apparently withdrawing forces from this area and "because the Supreme Command is strongly disposed to continue the offensive, even though the danger exists that the striking force of the troops will be burned out." The Chief of the General Staff confirmed "that this concept is in accord with that of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army." On December 1 Field Marshal von Bock reported that it was possible to gain only minor local successes, but this did not alter the opinion of the Army High Command that the forces must continue the assault though it took the last reserves of strength. On December 4 the possibility that the Commander-in-Chief of the Army might have to ask for his relief because of his health was discussed by the Armed Forces High Command. On the day following Field Marshal von Brauchitsch decided to tender his request to be relieved. On the same day 33 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, was reported at Tula.
At the beginning of December the situation on the German northern front also became increasingly difficult. The German forces had previously been under heavy enemy pressure in the Volkhov sector, and now their hold on the Neva front in the area of Schluesselburg became precarious. Tikhvin, which had been occupied the middle of November, was evacuated on December 8. Here temperatures of 22 to 31 degrees below zero were reported.
After this unseasonable severity, the German offensive against Moscow came to a halt. But the Russians were accustomed to the cold weather and better outfitted for it, and began to launch successful counterattacks on all fronts. The mobility and striking power of the German troops had been vitally weakened by the constant fighting and the prodigious efforts of the past weeks; now the Russian winter was the final blow. Lacking adequate clothing for the winter, the German troops suffered terrible hardship. In planning the campaign, provision had not been made for protracted hard fighting in ice and snow, much less for the unusually severe cold which came that winter.
On December 6 enemy attacks took place north and northwest of Moscow at Klin and Kalinin, but even though the enemy broke through here and there, the front was held substantially intact. The Chief of the General Staff now realized that a major withdrawal of Army Group Center to the line Mozhaisk-Rzhev-Ostashkov was necessary. The Supreme Command, however, would not agree; in Halder's opinion, the Supreme Command did not understand the condition of the troops and was inclined to pursue "picayune measures when only a major operation would avail." On December 8 the enemy broke through east of Kalinin; General Guderian reported that he was deeply concerned about the condition of his armored forces. Two days later the front of the 2nd Army was broken at Livny, and the gap grew wide. Field Marshal von Bock termed the situation critical and ordered a withdrawal of the front to the line Tula-Novosil-Tim. Kalinin, an important position, was held for the time being, but a deep penetration by the enemy west of Tula on December 13 made a further retreat necessary. Preparations had to be made to withdraw the front to the Staritsa line. Adolf Hitler concurred in these measures, and also agreed to the withdrawal of Army Group North to the Volkhov front. But he declared that, "It is not at all a case of ceasing operations. The enemy has made deep penetration at a few places only. It is fantastic to think of building up lines in the rear."
Because of serious illness, Field Marshal von Bock had to give up command of his Army Group the middle of December and Field Marshal von Kluge was appointed his successor. On December 19 Field Marshal von Brauchitsch stepped down as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Adolf Hitler personally assumed the command of the Army; General Halder continued on as his Chief of the General Staff.
For almost three months, in ice and snow, in almost unbelievably cold weather, without adequate winter clothing and with most difficult supply conditions, the German forces in the east had to fend off the Russian attacks. On December 21 the enemy fought his way into Kaluga; that position had to be evacuated. A few days later the Russians broke through the Oka River front north and south of Kaluga, hitting the 2nd and 4th Armies; they were forced to retreat. General Guderian, who had withdrawn on his own initiative and without reporting his intention to the Army Group, was relieved of his command upon request of Field Marshal von Kluge. The danger for the center of the Army Group occasioned by the Oka penetration increased from day to day; the direction of the enemy attack pointed toward Yukhnov. On December 27 the 9th Army was attacked by much superior forces in the area west of Kalinin and a serious crisis developed, but appeared to ease somewhat by the night of the 30th. It was clear that the Russians aimed to encircle the entire northern half of Army Group Center in the area between Moscow and Smolensk by driving two wedges. Field Marshal von Kluge requested Hitler to authorize a further withdrawal of Army Group Center. The latter vehemently refused, and sharp differences developed between him and the Chief of the General Staff. "The fact is," Halder wrote in his notes, "that the troops simply do not hold in 22 degrees below zero." He should have added that in all fairness this could not be expected of soldiers fighting without requisite protection in such cold. After the two enemy wedges -- the northern one in the area of Rzhev and the southern one by Sukhinichi -- had created a highly dangerous situation, Field Marshal von Kluge finally received authorization from Hitler to withdraw step by step for the protection of the "railroad," the most important transportation line between Smolensk and Moscow. Hitler's wrath fell with unprecedented severity on the Commander of Armored Group 4, General Hoeppner, who had retreated without orders of the Army Group. On January 8 he went so far against this proven tank general not only to relieve him of his command but, contrary to all justice and law, to dismiss him summarily from the Army "with all its legal consequences." Later on, after July 20, 1944, the General appeared again in the prisoner's dock as one of the most active members of the German resistance movement and was hanged by the executioners of the ill-reputed "People's Court."
Hitler remained adamant in his determination to defend every foot of ground. When heavy enemy pressure rocked Army Group North in the middle of January and the Russians penetrated German lines at Staraya Russa and on the Volkhov front, he turned down the proposal of the Commander of the Army Group, Field Marshal von Leeb, to retreat. Even when the situation in the area of Rzhev became more and more dangerous and led to the interruption of the service of supply to the 4th and 9th Armies as well as the 3rd Armored Group, he could not bring himself to issue orders to withdraw. The Chief of the General Staff noted resignedly: "This sort of command will lead to the destruction of the Army." Field Marshal von Leeb asked for his relief; his successor was Field Marshal von Kuechler. During these days the command of Army Group South also changed. Field Marshal von Reichenau had a stroke; his Army Group was taken over by Field Marshal von Bock who had meanwhile recovered from his illness.
Further crises developed. Major enemy attacks began on the 18th Army on January 19, in the area of Leningrad, likewise in the southern part of the eastern front in the direction of Kharkov. The situation on the Naht between Army Groups Center and North became particularly dangerous. Toropets was lost; north of it the enemy attacked Kholm. About a dozen Russian divisions broke through into the gap which had developed between the two Army Groups and pressed on, swerving to the southward, to the line Velikie Luki-Iljin by January 26. The troops engaged to the eastward were greatly endangered thereby, and it was possible to build up a new front west of Rzhev only with utmost difficulty. In February a very critical situation developed in the triangle Ostashkov-Kholm-Staraya Russa where the enemy sought to encircle the 16th Army by a two-pronged drive; it was necessary to supply this Army in part by air, but the situation was saved by German counterattacks.
From about February 23 a noticeable lull set in on the whole eastern front; the striking power of the Russian Army seemed almost played out also. Therewith the long months of winter warfare which had strained the German forces to the utmost came to an end. The German Army survived the ordeal of the Russian assault with untold effort and by giving up valuable territory. The ground lost was not great, relative to the enormous area captured in 1941, but the main objective, the enemy capital, Moscow, vanished beyond reach. Never again was the German Wehrmacht to get as close as it did on December 5, 1941. That the Russian counteroffensive did not inflict greater loss, and had to be content with partial successes is attributable to the firmness and toughness of the German troops, and without doubt also to the brutal energy of Adolf Hitler and his insistence that the Army stand fast at all costs.
Hitler's system of command did not, as the Chief of the General Staff feared, "lead to the destruction of the Army." Of course it is possible that if the German Army had executed a large-scale withdrawal at the beginning of December when the Russian winter offensive started, as the Chief of the General Staff wished, there would never have been the serious crisis which ensued. But who can prove it? In any case, when the winter battles developed in full violence along the whole front, it is probably true that the order to hold was the right one. Unfortunately, from the German point of view, two years later when the caliber of the German Army was much below what it was in the winter 1941-42, and when the Russian forces had been built up to overwhelming superiority, numerically and materially, Hitler was to remind his generals of the success of this policy of holding on.
In a survey of the bloody losses which the German Wehrmacht suffered in the eastern campaign to the end of February 1942, one is struck by the fact that the losses suffered by the troops in the hard winter fighting were far less than those sustained in the victorious, rapid advance into Russia during the first weeks of the war. In the period from June 22, 1941, to February 28, 1942, the losses on the east front were 210,572 dead, 747,761 wounded and 47,303 missing, a total of 1,005,636 officers and men. During the period of the first big successes (June 22 to August 13, 1941) the daily average of total losses was 7,338; on the Moscow front from December 11, 1941, to February 28, 1942, it was only 2,883. The author has been unable to determine whether the casualty lists which were used in calculating the above averages included the losses due to freezing. Up to February 20, 1942, such casualties numbered 14,357 serious -- i.e., cases in which major amputations were necessary -- about 62,000 moderate and 36,270 light -- i.e., cases which were treated with first aid. From December 5, 1941, to February 30, 1942, the serious and moderate cases averaged 979 daily; this number should perhaps be added to the figure 2,883 above.
The German eastern campaign of 1941 was handicapped from the start, in that it was launched five and one-half long weeks late. Napoleon's invasion, which likewise was undertaken too late in the year of 1812, should have been a warning for the Germans. Even so, in view of the superior striking power and toughness of the troops, the attacks might have succeeded if the Supreme Command had not erred and denied the Army the prize of the campaign -- the center of enemy power, Moscow -- when it appeared to be within grasp. The question whether the occupation of Moscow would have brought the war with Russia to an end will always be viewed differently by various authorities.
Before the author had the opportunity to study the German campaign in Russia, it seemed to him that the turn of the tide in the Second World War was at the close of the year 1942, when the German High Command was sorely tried by three ominous events: El Alamein, the Anglo-American landings in Africa, and Stalingrad. It now appears that this view is not correct: the turning point occurred earlier -- it was on the battlefields before Moscow. Here at the end of 1941 the striking power of the German Wehrmacht broke for the first time in a task which was beyond its strength. Here for the first time the enemy seized the initiative and the German Army made heavy sacrifices of fighting power defending itself against the Russian assault. The Wehrmacht was never able to recover from this ordeal. The loss was not so much a matter of numbers as it was moral and spiritual. Last but not least, it took out the most valuable and competent of the military commanders. Even though the German Army could unleash a large-scale offensive once again in the summer of 1942, it was never to regain the peak of its military prowess.