Military history



Within a few days of retreating to his dacha in despair, Stalin recovered his nerve, if indeed he had really lost it. Some thought he had retreated into temporary isolation like Ivan the Terrible centuries before, to demonstrate his indispensability. A State Defence Committee was set up, with Stalin himself in the chair. His retreat had given him the chance to rethink his role. On 3 July 1941, the same day that Franz Halder confided to his diary his belief that victory had already been achieved by the German forces, Stalin spoke to the Soviet people over the radio, for the first time not as Communist dictator but as patriotic leader. ‘Brothers and sisters,’ he said, ‘friends!’ This was an entirely new note. He went so far as to admit that the Red Army had been unprepared for the attack. The Germans, he said, were ‘wicked and perfidious . . . heavily armed with tanks and artillery’. But they would not prevail. The Soviet people had to organize civil defence and mobilize every ounce of energy to defeat the enemy. It was necessary to form partisan groups behind the lines to cause as much damage and disruption as possible. Silence, lies and evasion, people felt, had at last been replaced with some kind of truth.231 Communist Party propaganda began to emphasize the defence not of the revolution but of the motherland. The party newspaper, Pravda (‘Truth’), dropped the slogan ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ from its masthead and replaced it with ‘Death to the German Invaders!’ Nikolai Moskvin noted on 30 September 1941 that ‘the mood of the local population has changed sharply’. From constantly threatening to betray him to the Germans, they came round to the patriotic cause after learning that the occupation authorities were keeping the collective farms going because it made it easier to collect the grain for transporting back to Germany.232

The speech’s patriotic appeal was all the more powerful because people were already beginning to learn the bitter realities of German occupation. Stories of the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camps mingled with eyewitness reports of the mass shooting of civilians and the burning of villages by German troops to produce in the still-retreating ranks of the Red Army a determination to fight the enemy that had been almost entirely absent in the first chaotic days of the war. When the city of Kursk fell, the Germans arrested all the healthy male inhabitants, penned them into open barbed-wire enclosures without food or water, and then put them to work, guarded by Germans wielding rubber truncheons. ‘The streets are empty,’ noted a Soviet intelligence report. ‘The shops have been looted. There is no mains water and no electricity. Kursk has collapsed.’233 Minsk, reported Fedor von Bock, was little more than a ‘heap of rubble, in which the population is wandering about without any food.’234 Other cities and towns were reduced to a similar state. They were deliberately starved of supplies by their German conquerors, who requisitioned the bulk of foodstuffs for themselves, in a situation already rendered critical by the removal of large quantities of supplies by the retreating Red Army. Hitler declared that it was his firm intention ‘to raze Moscow and Leningrad to the ground, so as to prevent people staying there and obliging us to feed them through the winter. These cities are to be annihilated by the air force.’235 Many people fled the advancing German troops - the population of Kiev, for instance, fell by half, from 600,000 to 300,000 - but even for those who were left, staying alive quickly became a priority in every occupied area. The German military issued a stream of orders imposing curfews, drafting young men into forced labour, requisitioning winter clothing, and executing hundreds of citizens in reprisal for every supposed act of arson or sabotage.236 Looting by German troops was as widespread as it had been in Poland. ‘Everywhere,’ wrote General Gotthard Heinrici caustically on 23 June 1941, ‘our people are looking for harnesses and take the horses away from the farmers. Great wailing and lamentation in the villages. Thus is the population “liberated”.’237 Their requisitioning of food, he added on 4 July 1941, was thorough and comprehensive. ‘But the land will likely soon be sucked dry.’238 The troops’ behaviour quickly alienated even people who had initially welcomed them as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny. ‘If our people were only a bit more decent and sensible!’ lamented Hans Meier-Welcker. ‘They are taking everything that suits them from the farmers.’ Meier-Welcker saw soldiers stealing chickens, tearing beehives apart to get at the honeycomb, and throwing themselves upon a gaggle of geese in a farmyard. He tried to discipline the looters, but it was a lost cause.239

One army officer reported on 31 August 1941 from another part of the front:

The population not only in Orscha, but also in Mogilev and other localities, has repeatedly made complaints concerning the taking of their belongings by individual German soldiers, who themselves could have no possible use for such items. I was told, amongst others, by a woman in Orscha, who was in tears of despair, that a German soldier had taken the coat of her three-year-old child whom she was carrying in her arms. She said that her entire dwelling had been burnt; and she would never have thought that German soldiers could be so pitiless as to take the clothes of small children.240

Orders from Army Headquarters threatening punishment for such acts remained a dead letter. In Witebsk troops removed all but eight of the town collective’s 200 cattle, paying for only twelve of them. Huge quantities of supplies were stolen, including a million sheets of plyboard from a local timber yard, and 15 tons of salt from a storehouse. When the weather turned cold, troops began stealing wooden furniture from people’s houses to use as fuel. In the south, Hungarian troops were said to be ‘taking everything that was not nailed down’. The local people referred to them as ‘Austrian Huns’. Scores of thousands of troops were forcibly billeted on townspeople, eating them out of house and home. In desperation, many women turned to prostitution. In some areas the incidence of venereal disease among German troops soon reached a rate of 10 per cent. The establishment of 200 official army brothels for the troops in the east did little to alleviate this situation. Rapes were far from uncommon, though rape was not used as a deliberate policy by the army; yet of the 1.5 million members of the armed forces condemned by court-martial for offences of all kinds, only 5,349 were put on trial for sexual offences, mostly as a result of complaints by the female victims. The courts dealt with this kind of offence leniently, and arrests for looting and theft even fell after 22 June 1941. Clearly the army was turning a blind eye to misbehaviour by the troops in the east, so long as it did not affect morale.241 Theft and rape went alongside wilful acts of destruction. German army units amused themselves in the various palaces that dotted the countryside around St Petersburg by machine-gunning mirrors and ripping silks and brocades from the walls. They took away the bronze statues that adorned the famous fountains of the Peterhof Palace to be melted down, and destroyed the machinery operating the fountains. The houses in which famous Russian cultural figures had lived were deliberately targeted: manuscripts at Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana were burned in the stoves, while the composer Tchaikovsky’s house was trashed and army motorcycles driven over the musical manuscripts that littered the floor.242

From the outset, the military adopted a reprisal policy that was brutal in the extreme. As in Serbia, German army units raided Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian villages, burning the houses and shooting the inhabitants, in retribution for even the smallest supposed act of sabotage. They had little compunction in destroying what seemed to them to be scarcely habitable dwellings anyway. ‘If one had not seen with one’s own eyes these primitive circumstances among the Russians,’ wrote the soldier Hans-Albert Giese to his mother on 12 July 1941, ‘one could not believe that such a thing still existed . . . Our own cowstalls at home are sometimes like gold in comparison to the best room in the homes in which the Russians choose to live. They are perhaps a worse rabble than the Gypsies.’ A few days later he referred to Russian villagers as ‘bush negroes’.243 Senior army officers were equally contemptuous of the civilian population of Russia, which Manstein, entirely typically, described as a land far from Western civilization. Rundstedt was constantly complaining of the dirt in the quarters he took up in the southern sector of the front. The inhabitants of the Soviet Union seemed bestial, Asiatic, dull and fatalistic, or cunning and without honour, to officers and men of all ranks alike.244On entering the Soviet Union, Gotthard Heinrici felt he had entered another universe: ‘I believe that one could only do it justice if we did not, as we have here, enter it gradually, on foot, but instead travelled to it as in a sea-voyage to a strange part of the globe and then, as one left our own shores, cut off all internal ties with the things we are used to at home.’245 This was a kind of negative tourism: ‘There will be hardly anyone in this miserable land,’ wrote one soldier from the conquered area, ‘who does not think gladly and often of his Germany and his loved ones at home. Things here are really even worse than in Poland. Nothing but dirt and tremendous poverty rule the roost here, and one simply cannot understand how people can live under such circumstances.’246 It did not matter, therefore, how harshly these miserable, half-human people were treated. Hundreds of civilians were taken as hostages; they were customarily shot when the next act of partisan resistance occurred. ‘We are now experiencing war in its entire tragedy,’ reported Alois Scheuer, a corporal, born in 1909, who belonged to the older generation among the troops, ‘it is humankind’s greatest misfortune, it makes people rough and brutal.’ Only the thought of his wife and children, and his Catholic faith, prevented him from ‘becoming almost without feeling in spirit and soul’.247 German military violence against civilians soon dissipated the support the invaders had initially won from the local population. Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued. ‘The war is being cruelly fought on both sides,’ confessed Albert Neuhaus in August 1941.248

A few months later, he reported a commonplace incident of a kind that must have happened many times before. ‘In a neighbouring village that we passed through this afternoon, our soldiers had hanged a woman from a tree because she had been stirring up people against the German troops. So we are making short shrift of these people.’249 A keen photographer, Neuhaus thought nothing of taking a snap of an alleged partisan hanging from a tree and sending it back home to his wife.250 Everywhere German troops burned villages to the ground and shot civilians by the thousand.251 The speed of the German advance meant that many Red Army units found themselves cut off; they then continued fighting behind the front, joining with local people to create partisan bands to harry the enemy in the rear. This enraged the German troops, who, just as they had in Poland in 1939, considered this somehow unfair. ‘Lost soldiers,’ reported General Gotthard Heinrici on 23 June 1941, just one day into the invasion, ‘are sitting everywhere in the great forests, in innumerable farmsteads, and often enough shooting from behind. The Russians in general are fighting the war in an insidious manner. Our people have cleared them out several times, without pardon. ’252 ‘Our people,’ he wrote on 6 July 1941, ‘beat and shot dead everything that was running around in a brown uniform.’253 On 7 November 1941, Heinrici was forced to tell his interpreter, Lieutenant Beutelsbacher, who had been carrying out executions of real or imagined Soviet guerrilla fighters, ‘he is not to hang partisans up 100 m in front of my window. Not a pretty sight in the morning.’254

Faced with such horrors, Soviet soldiers and civilians began to listen to Stalin’s new, patriotic message and fight back. Encouraged by Stalin, more and more young men took to the woods to form partisan bands, raiding German installations and intensifying the vicious circle of violence and repression. By the end of the year, the overwhelming mass of civilians in the occupied areas had come round to supporting the Soviet regime, encouraged by Stalin’s emphasis on patriotic defence against a ruthless foreign invader.255Escalating partisan resistance went along with a dramatic recovery of the fighting effectiveness of the Red Army. The cumbersome structure of the Red Army was simplified, creating flexible units that would be able to respond more rapidly to German tactical advances. Soviet commanders were ordered to concentrate their artillery in anti-tank defences where it seemed likely the German panzers would attack. Soviet rethinking continued into 1942 and 1943, but already before the end of 1941 the groundwork had been laid for a more effective response to the continuing German invasion. The State Defence Committee reorganized the mobilization system to make better use of the 14 million reservists created by a universal conscription law in 1938. More than 5 million reservists were quickly mobilized within a few weeks of the German invasion, and more followed. So hasty was this mobilization that most of the new divisions and brigades had nothing more than rifles to fight with. Part of the reason for this was that war production facilities were undergoing a relocation of huge proportions, as factories in the industrial regions of the Ukraine were dismantled and transported to safety east of the Ural mountains. A special relocation council was set up on 24 June and the operation was under way by early July. German reconnaissance aircraft reported what to them were inexplicable massings of railway wagons in the region - no fewer than 8,000 freight cars were employed on the removal of metallurgical facilities from one town in the Donbas to the recently created industrial centre of Magnitogorsk in the Urals, for example. Altogether, 1,360 arms and munitions factories were transferred eastwards between July and November 1941, using one and a half million railway wagons. The man in charge of the complex task of removal, Andrej Kosygin, won a justified reputation as a tirelessly efficient administrator that was to bring him to high office in the Soviet Union after the war. What could not be taken, such as coalmines, power stations, railway locomotive repair shops, and even a hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper river, was sabotaged or destroyed. This scorched-earth policy deprived the invading Germans of resources on which they had been counting. But together with the evacuation, it also meant that the Red Army had to fight the war in the winter of 1941-2 largely with existing equipment, until the new or relocated production centres came on stream.256

Stalin also ordered a series of massive ethnic cleansing operations to remove what he and the Soviet leadership thought of as potential by subversive elements from the theatre of war. More than 390,000 ethnic Germans in the Ukraine were forcibly deported eastwards from September 1941. Altogether there were nearly one and a half million ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union. 15,000 Soviet secret policemen descended upon the Volga to begin the expulsion of the ethnic Germans living there, removing 50,000 of them already by the middle of August 1941. Similar actions took place in the lower Volga, where a large community of German descent was living. In mid-September 1941, expulsions began from the major cities. By the end of 1942, more than 1,200,000 ethnic Germans had been deported to Siberia and other remote areas. Perhaps as many as 175,000 died as a result of police brutality, starvation and disease. Many of them spoke no German, and were German only by virtue of remote ancestry. It made no difference. Other ethnic groups were targeted too - Poles, as we have seen, were deported in large numbers from 1939, and, later in the war, up to half a million Chechens and other minorities in the Caucasus were removed for having allegedly collaborated with the Germans as well. In addition, as the German forces advanced, the Soviet secret police systematically murdered all the political prisoners in the jails that stood in their path. One hit squad arrived at a prison at Luck that had been damaged in a bombing raid, lined up the political prisoners, and machine-gunned up to 4,000 of them. In the western Ukraine and western Belarus alone, some 100,000 prisoners were shot, bayoneted, or killed by hand-grenades being thrown into their cells.257 Whatever their impact on the war effort, such actions stored up a bitter legacy of hatred which was to lead within a very short time to horrific acts of revenge.


The Soviet will to resist, expressed in these various ways, operating from top to bottom of the hierarchy, quickly became apparent to the German military leaders, who soon realized that the war was not going to end in a matter of weeks after all. Army Group Centre had managed to encircle huge numbers of Soviet troops, but in the north and south the Red Army had only been driven back, and the German advance was slowing down. Far from melting away, the Red Army was beginning to find ways to bring fresh reserves to the front, and it was starting to mount successful counter-attacks on a local basis. Well before the end of July, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock was forced to deal with repeated counter-attacks by the Soviet forces. The Russians were becoming ‘impudent’, he noted. ‘Victory has not yet been won!’ ‘The Russians are unbelievably tough!!’258 ‘Day by day,’ one ordinary soldier wrote in a propaganda tract, the troops had to endure ‘the piercing screams of the Bolshevik hordes, who seem to rise from the earth in dense masses’.259Particularly around Smolensk, on the way from Minsk to Moscow, to the east of the river Dnieper, the Soviet commanders Zhukov and Timoshenko had begun a series of heavy counter-attacks on 10 July 1941 in an attempt to disrupt the advance of General Heinz Guderian’s panzer group towards the city. Poorly equipped, badly co-ordinated and inadequately supplied, the Soviet resistance failed, but it slowed down the German advance and inflicted heavy losses of men and equipment on Guderian’s forces, whose supply lines were now seriously over-extended. Ordinary soldiers shared the view that the Russians were unexpectedly tough.260 The German armies were subjected to constant harassment and repeated attacks. ‘The Russians are very strong & fight with desperation,’ wrote General Gotthard Heinrici to his wife on 20 July 1941. ‘They appear suddenly all over the place, shooting, fall upon columns, individual cars, messengers etc. . . . Our losses are considerable.’261

Indeed, the Germans had lost over 63,000 men by the end of the month.262 On 22 July 1941 Heinrici confided to his wife: ‘One does not have the feeling that in general the Russian will to resist has been broken, or that the people want to drive out their Bolshevik leaders. For the moment one has the impression that the war will go on, even if Moscow is taken, somewhere in the depths of this endless land.’263 Over the next few weeks, he returned again and again in his letters to express his amazement at the Russians’ ‘astonishing strength to resist’ and their astounding ‘toughness’. ‘Their units are all half-destroyed, but they just fill them with new people and they attack again. How the Russians manage it is beyond me.’264 German military intelligence had failed to register the presence of the huge Soviet reserve units to the east of the Dnieper, from which fresh troops were constantly being moved to the front.265 Little more than a month after the invasion had begun, leading German generals were beginning to recognize that the Soviet Union was the Third Reich’s ‘first serious opponent’ with ‘inexhaustible human resources’.266 By 2 August General Halder was already beginning to think of how to supply German troops with winter clothing.267 Nine days later he was seriously concerned:

In the situation as a whole it is becoming ever clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus, which has consciously prepared for the war with the absolute lack of restraint that is peculiar to totalitarian states. This conclusion applies to its economic as well as its organizational forces, to its transport system and above all to its purely military capacity to operate. At the outset of the war we reckoned with about 200 enemy div[isions]. Now we are already counting 360. These div[isions] are certainly not armed and equipped in our sense of the words, and tactically they are often poorly led. But they are there. And when a dozen of them have been destroyed, then the Russians put up another dozen.268

And even Halder’s gloomy statistic was in fact a substantial underestimation of the strength of his opponent. Moreover, the German troops were suffering heavy losses - 10 per cent of the invasion force was dead, wounded or missing by the end of July 1941. ‘In view of the weakness of our forces and the endless spaces,’ he concluded gloomily on 15 August 1941, ‘we can never achieve success.’269

While the Red Army drew on vast reserves to replace the millions of soldiers lost or captured in the first months of the campaign, the German armed forces had already used up most of the manpower available and had very few fresh troops to throw into the fray. In late July, Guderian pushed on with his armoured forces and took control of the area of land between the two rivers Dvina and Dnieper, but the overstretched German forces left gaps in their defences, and the Red Army, fired with new enthusiasm for the battle, launched a series of counter-attacks that began to give Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, commanding Army Group Centre, serious cause for concern. As the relentless assaults continued, he was forced to concede ‘that our troops are tired, and as a consequence of the heavy losses among the officers do not exhibit the necessary steadiness either’. ‘I have almost no reserves left to pit against the enemy’s massing of strength and his relentless attacks,’ he confessed on 31 July 1941. By the end of the first week in August he was seriously worried about ‘the slowly declining fighting value of our troops under the impact of constant attacks’. How, he wondered, would his forces ever be able to continue their advance under such conditions?270

Quite apart from this, moving around the countryside was far more difficult than it had been in France, Holland or Belgium. Metalled roads were few and far between, totalling only 40,000 miles in all the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. One soldier noted that even the made-up roads were so full of potholes that his unit preferred to march along the ditch that ran along next to it.271 The railways ran on a broad gauge to which it was difficult to transfer Western European rolling stock after the Red Army had removed virtually all the Soviet locomotives, goods wagons and passenger coaches, and destroyed or sabotaged tracks, bridges and viaducts. And even without these problems, the country was too sparsely supplied with railway lines to transport with any rapidity the huge quantities of men and supplies the Germans brought into the fray. German jeep and truck production was still relatively low despite the motorization drive of the 1930s, and motor vehicles in any case were restricted in their use by the shortage of fuel. In these circumstances, the German and allied armies relied heavily on horses - at least 625,000 of them on the Eastern Front - for basic transport, hauling artillery pieces, carrying ammunition and pulling supply carts. Horses were often better able to negotiate the muddy and treacherous tracks that passed for roads in Eastern Europe. ‘Thank God for our horses!’ exclaimed Meier-Welcker some months later:

At times they are the last and only thing we can rely on. Thanks to them we made it through the winter, even if they died in their thousands from exhaustion, lack of fodder and their tremendous exertions. Horses are especially important in the wet summer of this year and the often thickly wooded, boggy and impassable terrain of our present sector. The motorized troop units in our area shrank to miserable objects last winter and spring.272

But horses were also slow-moving, unable to go at much more than walking pace for most of the time. The vast bulk of the infantry, as always, trudged along on foot.

As the invasion proceeded, the wear and tear of flying almost continual missions began to tell on the German aircraft. By the end of July 1941 there were only just over 1,000 planes in operation. Command of the air counted for little if there were too few bombers to inflict significant damage on Soviet war production. The expanse of Russia was too vast for the German air force to establish permanent air superiority, however great its effectiveness in a tactical role. Stuka dive-bombers terrified enemy infantry by the screaming noise of their engines as they plunged out of the sky, but they were extremely vulnerable to attack from fighter planes, while the bombers most commonly deployed, the Dornier 17 and the Junkers 88, lacked the range to be effective against Soviet installations. Troop losses by this time, including missing, wounded and killed, were over 213,000. The rest, as Bock had observed, were beginning to suffer from exhaustion after more than a month of non-stop combat. Spare parts for tanks and armoured personnel carriers were in short supply. On 30 July 1941 the Army Supreme Command ordered the advance to pause and regroup. Little more than a month after it had begun, the invasion had started to lose its momentum.273

Dividing the invading forces into Army Groups North, Centre and South, intended to advance tangentially to one another, was a measure partly necessitated by the presence in the area of invasion of the vast and impenetrable Pripet marshes. But it meant that the German armed forces were unable to concentrate on a single, unstoppable, knockout blow. By August 1941, it was already clear that the advance could not resume on all three fronts simultaneously. A choice had to be made between putting the weight of the next phase of the assault in the north, towards Leningrad, the centre, towards Moscow, or the south, towards Kiev. The leading German generals, following the classic Prussian military doctrine of going for the enemy’s centre of gravity, wanted to continue on to Moscow. But Hitler, whose contempt for the Russian troops was boundless, did not think this would be necessary; for him, securing the economic resources of the western parts of the Soviet Union was the primary aim; the Soviet state would crash into ruin in any case. After the victories in France and the west, neither Halder nor the other generals who thought like him felt able to gainsay the Leader. On 21 August 1941, after a good deal of debate, Hitler rejected the army’s request to continue pushing on towards Moscow, and ordered the generals to divert forces from Army Group Centre to strengthen the attack in the south, take Kiev, secure the agricultural resources of the Ukraine, and then head on for the Crimea, to deprive the Russians of a possible base for air attacks on the Romanian oilfields. Further troops and resources were detached from the centre to bolster the drive towards Leningrad. But Germany’s Finnish allies lacked the resources, the manpower and indeed the political will to push the Soviet forces back very far beyond the old Russo-Finnish border, and the German advance was slowed down by fierce Soviet resistance. A frustrated Hilter announced on 22 September 1941 that he had ‘decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. I have no interest in the further existence of this large city after the defeat of Soviet Russia’.274 The threat proved to be empty bluster.

Field Marshal Fedor von Bock telephoned Halder and told him that the decision to focus on the southern sector was misconceived,

above all because it puts in question the attack on the east. The War Directives are always saying that the point is not to capture Moscow! I don’t want to capture Moscow! I want to destroy the enemy army, and the mass of this army is standing in front of me!! The turn away towards the south is a sideshow, however large it might be, through which a question-mark is placed over the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before the winter - it does not help at all!!275

A disappointed Bock could only give vent to his frustration in the pages of his diary: ‘If the eastern campaign after all its successes now fades away into a dreary defence,’ he wrote, ‘that’s not my fault.’276 Halder was just as irritated, criticizing in his diary the ‘zigzag in the Leader’s individual orders’ that the switch of target involved.277 Yet at first, Hitler’s decision to weaken his forces in the centre did not seem to pose a problem. German armoured divisions from Army Groups Centre and South under the command of Heinz Guderian, who had caused Bock considerable irritation with his insistent and intemperate demands, broke through the Soviet lines, repelled a massive counter-offensive launched in late August and early September, and captured a further 665,000 prisoners, along with 884 tanks and over 3,000 artillery pieces. Kiev, Kharkov and most of central and eastern Ukraine were occupied in late September and October, and on 21 November 1941 German forces took Rostov-on-Don, opening up the prospect of cutting off oil supplies to the Red Army from the Caucasus and harnessing the industrial resources of the Donets Basin. These were among the greatest German military victories of the war.278

Even before the assault on Kiev, German losses in terms of killed, missing, wounded or invalided out had mounted to nearly 400,000, and half the German tanks were out of commission or under repair. Bock hailed the operation as ‘a brilliant success’ but added that ‘the main strength of the Russians is standing unbroken in front of me, and - as before - the question remains open as to whether we will succeed in smashing it and exploiting the victory before winter comes in such a way that Russia cannot recover in this war’.279 Hitler thought this was still possible. The German forces, he told Goebbels on 23 September 1941, had achieved the breakthrough they had been looking for. German troops would soon encircle Moscow. Stalin, Hitler thought, was bound to sue for peace, and this would inevitably bring Britain to the negotiating-table too. The way was open to a final victory. Yet Hitler did not now expect this to occur immediately. He was already resigned to accepting that the war would go on until the following spring. But the huge victories of the preceding months left him optimistic that the war would be over by the middle of 1942 at the latest.280 Substantial numbers of troops were transferred back to Army Group Centre, now reinforced with fresh supplies, and strengthened by more forces from the north for a resumption of the march on Moscow. Bock had got his wish.281 2 million German soldiers and 2,000 tanks, backed by massive air-power, advanced on the Soviet capital in October 1941 in a fresh campaign named ‘Operation Typhoon’, once again encircling the Red Army forces and taking 673,000 prisoners and enormous quantities of equipment. Addressing the traditional annual assembly of Party Regional Leaders and ‘Old Fighters’ in Munich on 8 November 1941, the anniversary of the failed 1923 beer-hall putsch, Hitler declared: ‘Never before has a giant empire been smashed and struck down in a shorter time than Soviet Russia.’282

But this was another illusion. For the weeks of delay proved fatal. In retrospect, many considered that had they pressed on towards Moscow in August and September, the German forces might well have taken the Soviet capital, despite growing problems of keeping their supply lines open at such a distance from their bases further to the west. And, as Bock wished, they might have inflicted enormous, perhaps fatally demoralizing losses on the main forces of the Red Army in doing so. But in the end, this was hindsight with a grossly distorted vision. Generals like Bock, Halder and the others who championed, both then and later on, the idea of a knockout blow against the Soviet forces massed before Moscow were reflecting above all the dogma of the Prussian military tradition in which they had been brought up and spent most of their lives: the tradition that prescribed attack as the king of military operations, and the total destruction of the enemy armies as the only proper end of any military campaign. Bock knew better than almost anybody that his troops were tired, his units depleted, his supplies intermittent, his equipment unfitted for a winter campaign. But like many senior commanders in the German army, he was haunted by the memory of the Battle of the Marne, the failure of the western offensive in 1914. Like Hitler, he was determined that it would not be repeated. And like Hitler, too, he fatally underestimated the strength of the enemy, an enemy the depth of whose reserves of manpower and mat’riel he was aware of, but lightly brushed aside, just as, in the end, he discounted the new fighting spirit of the Red Army that had inflicted so many casualties on his forces.283


By October, as Bock had feared, the Soviet leadership had rethought and reorganized its whole way of conducting the war. After issuing draconian orders for the punishment of shirkers and deserters and having Dmitri Pavlov, the commander of the Red Army on the Western Front at the time of the invasion, tried by a summary court-martial and shot, Stalin began to realize, as he told his officers in October 1941, that ‘persuasion, not violence’ should be used to motivate the troops. He began to allow his commanders greater freedom of action in conducting their campaigns. Meanwhile, after reading a biography of the Tsarist general Kutuzov, who had abandoned Moscow in the face of Napoleon’s invasion, the Soviet leader decided that to leave the capital would cause panic. It was one thing to burn a small early nineteenth-century town to the ground, another thing altogether to surrender the vast conurbation that had become the modern Soviet capital. ‘No evacuation,’ Stalin said. ‘We’ll stay here until victory.’284 Under Stalin’s leadership, the new State Defence Committee began to get a grip on the situation. On 10 October 1941 Stalin appointed General Georgi Zhukov to command the armies defending the capital. Zhukov’s forces, numbering about a million men, were forced on to the defensive as Bock pushed rapidly forward towards Moscow. Panic broke out among the population in some quarters of Moscow, though the city was spared the horrors of aerial bombardment, as German planes concentrated their efforts on attacking Soviet troops on the ground.285

At this point, the autumn rains arrived with a vengeance, turning the unmade Russian roads into impassable sludge. On 15 October 1941, Guderian told Bock that he had to order a pause in the advance. The Field Marshal blamed it not only on stiff enemy resistance but also on the ‘indescribable state of the roads, which makes almost any movement of the motorized vehicles impossible’.286 Because of the ‘temporary impassability of the roads and tracks for vehicles’, noted Meier-Welcker, ‘we have not received any deliveries of fuel, munitions or foodstuffs’, and the troops were living off whatever they could find, mainly potatoes, baking their own bread and slaughtering local livestock themselves.287 Driving along a road in the area on 16 October 1941, General Heinrici found ‘a continual line of sinking, bogged-down, broken-down motor vehicles, which were hopelessly stuck fast. Almost as many dead horses lay beside them in the mire. Today,’ he was forced to admit, ‘we’ve simply come to a halt because of the difficulties of the roads.’288 By late October the German armies had been stuck in the mud for three weeks.

Zhukov seized the opportunity to restore order, declaring martial law on 19 October 1941 and putting nine reserve armies into place behind the river Volga. Although they consisted mostly of raw recruits and previous military rejects, they numbered 900,000 men in all and would, Stalin and Zhukov hoped, provide a serious obstacle to any German attempt to encircle the city. Moreover, a report from Richard Sorge, Stalin’s spy in Tokyo, not long before his arrest on 18 October 1941, convinced the Soviet leader that the Japanese were not going to attack Russia (indeed, they had other targets in mind). Backed by further intelligence reports, this led to a decisive move: on 12 October Stalin ordered 400,000 experienced troops, 1,000 tanks and 1,000 planes westward across Siberia into position behind Moscow, replacing them with enough newly recruited soldiers to deter the Japanese should they change their minds.289 The new reinforcements brought up by Stalin were not only unanticipated by the Germans, they also proved decisive. Field Marshal Bock feared the worst: ‘The splitting of the Army Group,’ he wrote on 25 October 1941, ‘in combination with the terrible weather has led to our getting stuck. Through this, the Russians are winning the time to fill up their shattered divisions and to strengthen their defences, the more so as they command the mass of roads and railway lines around Moscow. That’s very bad!’290

By 15 November 1941, as winter began to set in, the ground was hard enough for Bock to resume his advance. The tanks and armoured vehicles rolled forward once more, reaching positions within 30 kilometres of the suburbs and cutting off the Moscow-Volga canal. But soon it began to snow, and on the night of 4 December the temperature plummeted to minus 34 degrees Celsius, freezing German equipment and penetrating the troops’ inadequate winter clothing. The next night the thermometer fell still further, reaching minus 40 in some places. In the midst of the Russian winter, the German troops, equipped for a campaign that had been confidently expected to last only until the autumn, were poorly clad and ill prepared. ‘All armies,’ noted Bock already on 14 November 1941, ‘are complaining about considerable difficulties in bringing fresh supplies of every kind - foodstuffs, ammunition, fuel and winter clothing.’291 Soon Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels began a campaign to collect winter clothes for the troops. Hitler issued a personal appeal on 20 December 1941, and the same evening Goebbels broadcast a helpful list of the items needed. Woollen and fur clothing was confiscated from German Jews in late December 1941 and sent to the freezing troops on the Eastern Front. But it was all too late; and in any case, transport difficulties meant that much of the clothing would not reach the front. Meier-Welcker was reduced to hoping in late January that the ‘wool collection’ would at least reach the front by the following winter. Cases of frostbite were occurring with increasing frequency among the German troops. ‘Their feet are so swollen,’ he noted, ‘that their boots have to be cut open. That reveals that their feet or at least their toes are blue or already black, and are starting to be affected by frostbite.’292

The senior generals had been aware of the problem, but with blind optimism they had thought it would be solved by the occupation of major Russian cities like Moscow and Leningrad, where they could take up warm winter quarters. Winter had come, and they were still encamped on the open steppe. The wind, wrote General Heinrici, ‘stabs you in the face with needles, and blasts through your protective headgear and your gloves. Your eyes are streaming so much that you can hardly see a thing.’293 In one infantry division, 13 per cent of the unit’s average strength were invalided out with frostbite between 20 December 1941 and 19 February 1942.294 After weeks without washing or changing their clothes, the men were dirty and verminous. ‘Everybody is swarming with lice, and is constantly itching and scratching,’ wrote Heinrici. ‘Many have suppurating wounds from the eternal scratching and scraping. Many have got bladder and bowel infections through lying on the cold ground.’ His troops were ‘extremely exhausted’.295Such conditions were well suited to the Soviet armies, who had learned the lesson of the bitter Winter War against Finland and were now properly equipped for fighting in these terrible conditions, deploying ski battalions to move swiftly over the snow-covered ground, and light cavalry to advance quickly over waterlogged terrain impassable to tanks. The German army’s defensive tactics were based on the assumption that counter-attacks could be met with sufficient forces to provide defence in depth, that the Red Army would mainly use infantry, and that it would be possible for senior officers to choose their ground and make tactical withdrawals where necessary. All these assumptions proved to be wrong from the outset and contributed to the disaster that was about to overtake the German forces. On 5 December 1941 Zhukov ordered a counter-offensive, aiming initially at the German pincers north and south of Moscow, to eliminate the danger of it being surrounded. Soviet troops, he ordered, were not to waste time and lives in frontal attacks on fortified positions but were simply to pass them by, leaving covering forces, and make for the German lines of withdrawal. On 7 December 1941 Bock noted that he was now facing twenty-four more Red Army divisions than there had been in his theatre of war in mid-November. The odds were stacking up fast against him. Without supplies, weakened in numbers, lacking in reserve forces, weary and exhausted, the troops could not be deployed rapidly to meet the onslaught of an enemy ‘who is mounting a counter-attack with the reckless commitment of his inexhaustible human masses’.296

Unable to decide whether to continue the advance or break it off,

Bock could think of nothing better than sending Halder a continual stream of demands for reinforcements. The next day Hitler recognized the seriousness of the situation by ordering a halt to the advance. Meanwhile, Bock’s dithering began to spread uncertainty among the troops. If they could not advance any further, what were they to do next?297 Morale began to plummet. Already on 30 November 1941 the corporal Alois Scheuer wrote to his wife from his position 60 kilometres from Moscow:

I am sitting with my comrades in a dugout, in the half-dark. You have no idea how lousy and crazy we all look, and how this life has become a torment for me. It can’t be described in words any more. I’ve only got one thought left: when will I get out of this hell? . . . It has been and is simply too much for me, what I’ve got to take part in here. It is slowly destroying us.298

By Christmas Day 1941, Scheuer estimated that 90 per cent of his original company were gone - dead, wounded, missing, ill or suffering from frostbite. His own toes were beginning to turn black. Scheuer survived the experience, lasting until February 1943, when he was killed, still fighting on the Eastern Front.299 Amidst wild blizzards that brought down the German field telephone lines and blocked the roads, confusion began to set in amongst Bock’s troops. Only a single railway line was available to serve a retreat, and the roads became blocked with immobilized tanks and vehicles, many of which had to be abandoned as the German forces, shocked and surprised by the counter-attack, began to fall back in the face of Zhukov’s onslaught. Smaller counter-attacks in the far north and south, at Tikhvin and Rostov, prevented the Germans from moving reinforcements to the battle-front.300

German tanks and armoured vehicles were in many cases out of fuel. Ammunition and rations were in short supply. Combat aircraft could not fly in the driving snow. On 16 December 1941, after pushing back the German salients to the north and south of the city, Zhukov ordered a full advance to the west. Within ten days the situation for the Germans had become desperate. ‘We have a difficult day behind us,’ wrote Meier-Welcker on 26 December 1941:

Hampered by the snow and especially the snowdrifts, often shovelling ourselves out metre by metre, and travelling with vehicles and equipment that is by no means adequate for the Russian winter, behind us the enemy pressing on, concern to bring the troops to safety in time, to carry the wounded along, not to let too many weapons or too much equipment fall into enemy hands, all this was sorely trying for the troops and the leadership.301

Worst of all were the ‘snowstorms, which very quickly rendered impassable roads we had just dug free’.302 The Russian advance was unstoppable. ‘Equipped with fabulous winter equipment, they are everywhere pushing through the wide gaps that have opened up in our front,’ observed Heinrici on 22 December. ‘Although we saw the disaster of encirclement coming, again and again the command came from above to halt.’ But there was no alternative to moving if they were not to be completely cut off. The result was a chaotic instead of an orderly retreat. ‘The retreat in snow and ice,’ wrote Heinrici, ‘is absolutely Napoleonic in its manner. The losses are similar.’303


Faced with the failure of their grand offensive, Bock and the senior commanders had little idea of what to do next. One minute they ordered a retreat, the next they thought it was better to make a stand. Guderian confessed he did not know how to extricate the army from the situation it was now in. While he dithered, failing altogether to prepare proper defensive positions for overwintering, Bock remained almost absurdly optimistic about the possibility of a further advance. However, he now thought the issue of whether or not to retreat was more political than military. The generals’ desperation began to take its toll. The crisis of the German army before Moscow prompted the first major upheaval in the senior ranks of the German armed forces during the war. The first to go was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group South. He had been ordered by Hitler, via the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, to stop the beleaguered armoured divisions of General Ewald von Kleist from withdrawing from the outskirts of Rostov further than the German Leader had been prepared to allow. But, fearing they would be encircled, he refused. An angry Hitler fired Rundstedt on 1 December 1941, replacing him with Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau. Only when he visited the area on 2-3 December 1941 did Hitler concede that Rundstedt had been right. But he did not reinstate Rundstedt. Reichenau’s command was only a brief one, since he died of a heart attack on 17 January 1942. His death was a sign of the severe mental and physical strain under which the senior commanding officers, mostly men in their late fifties and early sixties, were now labouring. In early December Rundstedt, already ailing, also suffered a heart attack, though it did not prove fatal. The next to suffer a collapse in his health was Bock himself. Already on 13 December 1941 he told Brauchitsch that he was ‘physically very low’. ‘The “Russian sickness” and a definite over-exertion has brought me so low,’ he wrote a few days later, ‘that I must fear that I will fail in my command.’ On 16 December 1941 he asked Hitler for permission to go on sick leave. There was no question, however, of any difference of opinion between the two men. Before he left the front on 19 December 1941, handing over the command of Army Group Centre to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, Bock issued orders to his troops to hold the line. His meeting with Hitler on 22 December 1941 was ‘very friendly’, he noted in his diary. That this was a real rather than a diplomatic illness was made crystal-clear by Bock’s request to Hitler to be reinstalled in a front-line command when he had recovered, as indeed he soon was.304

On 16 December 1941, in the most important of these changes of top-ranking military personnel, Hitler accepted the resignation of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the army. Brauchitsch, buffeted by the competing demands of his Leader and his generals, had been unable to cope with the stress of defeat. He too suffered a heart attack in mid-November. After some discussion, Hitler decided that he would replace him not with another general, but with himself.305 Hitler’s announcement that he had replaced Brauchitsch and taken over the direction of military operations himself was greeted with relief by many of the beleaguered German troops. ‘Now the Leader has taken our fate into his own hands,’ reported Albert Neuhaus to his wife on 21 December 1941, ‘after v. Brauchitsch has resigned because of illness. And the Leader will know how to deploy his soldiers where it’s right to do so.’306 The generals too breathed a sigh of relief. Responsibility for getting the army out of the mess before Moscow had at last been taken from their shoulders. Guderian hoped now for ‘quick and energetic’ action from Hitler’s ‘accustomed energy’, while another tank commander, General Hans-Georg Reinhardt, welcomed the fact that there was ‘finally a Leader’s Order’ that would bring ‘clarity’ about what to do next. Only a few remained sceptical, amongst them General Heinrici, who wrote to his wife on 20 December 1941 that Hitler had now taken over command but ‘he too will probably not be in a position to turn the situation around’.307

But nearly all the generals considered that Hitler had already proved his genius as a military commander in 1940, and trusted him to cut the Gordian knot. Stepping in eagerly to fill the decision-making vacuum, Hitler ordered reinforcements to be brought up from the west and told his troops on the Eastern Front to hold their positions until they arrived. ‘The fanatical will to defend the ground on which the troops are standing, ’ he told the officers of Army Group Centre four days later, ‘must be injected into the troops with every possible means, even the toughest.’ ‘Talk of Napoleon’s retreat is threatening to become reality,’ he warned on 20 October 1941. Napoleon’s retreat was the beginning of the end for the French Emperor. The same thing was not going to happen to him.308 His order to stand firm not only created clarity about what the army was doing but also had some effect in improving morale. On the other hand, the rigidity with which he now implemented it began to have an effect on the smaller-scale tactical withdrawals that the desperate situation frequently necessitated at various parts of the front. Gotthard Heinrici in particular became increasingly frustrated at the repeated orders to stand firm, when all this brought was a repeated danger of being surrounded. ‘The disaster continues,’ he wrote to his wife on Christmas Eve 1941:

And at the top, in Berlin, at the very top, nobody wants to admit it. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make blind. Every day we experience this anew. But for reasons of prestige nobody dares to take a determined step backwards. They don’t want to admit that their army is already completely surrounded before Moscow. They refuse to recognize that the Russians can do such a thing. And in complete blindness they are keeling over into the abyss. And they will end in 4 weeks by losing their army before Moscow and later on by losing the whole war.309

Heinrici railed against his superiors, who refused to order a retreat ‘for fear of offending the top leadership’.310

This was the beginning of a long-lived legend, repeated by many of Hitler’s surviving generals after the war, according to which if only they had been left by Hitler to get on with it, they could have achieved victory. Professional generalship was what won wars; the interference of an amateur like Hitler, however gifted he might be, could only bring ruin in the end. The truth, however, was very different. The generals’ blind insistence on attack through the autumn and early winter of 1941, their failure to prepare defensive positions for overwintering, their naive optimism in the face of what they knew to be a determined and well-equipped enemy, their studious refusal to draw the consequences from the increasing tiredness of their troops, the growing difficulties of supply and the failure of much of their equipment in the bitter cold of the Russian winter brought them to a situation by December where they were paralysed by despair and indecision. Hitler’s stabilization of the situation only increased his contempt for them. ‘Once more a dramatic scene with the Leader,’ recorded Halder in his diary on 3 January 1942, ‘in which he casts doubt on the generals’ ability to screw up their courage to take tough decisions.’311 Hitler was now determined not to allow the generals any more freedom of action. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, in command of Army Group North, found himself under fire from Hitler when he visited him on 12 January 1942 to ask permission to withdraw from some positions he thought were indefensible, in order to avoid further losses. Hitler, backed by Halder, thought this would weaken the Army Group’s northern flank and make the coming summer campaign more difficult. When he failed to get his way, he tendered his resignation, which was accepted on 16 January 1942. His replacement, General Georg von K̈chler, was told firmly by Halder that he would be expected to obey the orders emanating from Hitler’s headquarters.312

Disobedience to Hitler’s orders now carried with it severe consequences. General Heinz Guderian met Hitler on 20 December 1941 to plead for permission to retreat. Hitler told him he would have to get the troops to dig in and fight. But, Guderian objected, the ground was frozen solid five feet down. Then the troops would have to sacrifice themselves, Hitler countered. He was backed by Kluge and Halder, both of whom disliked the arrogant, wilful tank commander, as Bock had also done, and saw in the contretemps an opportunity to get rid of him. Disobeying Kluge’s express command, Guderian carried out a major withdrawal operation, telling his commander: ‘I will lead my army in these unusual circumstances in such a manner that I can answer for it to my conscience. ’ Kluge thought he should answer to his superior officers, and told Hitler that either Guderian would have to go, or he would. On 26 December 1941 Guderian was dismissed. The lack of solidarity shown by the leading generals with one another fatally undermined any attempt they might have made to take a stand against Hitler’s rigid insistence on resistance at any price.313 The tank commander General Erich Hoepner noted perceptively: ‘ “Fanatical will” alone won’t do it. The will is there. The strength is lacking.’314 Faced with the encirclement of the Twentieth Army Corps, Hoepner requested permission to withdraw and to retreat to a more defensible line. The new commander of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal G̈nther von Kluge, told him he was referring the matter to Hitler and ordered him to prepare for an immediate retreat. Thinking this meant Hitler would give his approval and not wanting to court disaster by delaying any further, Hoepner began the retreat anyway, moving his troops out on the afternoon of 8 January 1942. Appalled, and terrified at what Hitler might think, Kluge reported his action immediately to the Leader, who dismissed Hoepner from the army without a pension the same evening.315

With these changes, and others lower down the chain of command, Hitler had succeeded in establishing a complete dominance over the top army commanders. From now on they would do his will. Their much-vaunted professionalism had failed before Moscow. Military operations would now be directed by Hitler himself. With this victory over the generals, he could now afford to relax his rigid insistence on holding the line. By the middle of January 1942 Field Marshal Kluge had won Hitler’s approval for a series of adjustments of the front including a number of local retreats to its ‘winter position’. Fighting continued as the Red Army mounted continual assaults on the narrow German communication line with the rear. General Heinrici gained a considerable reputation as a defensive tactician as he held it until the Russian attacks ran out of steam; it was to return to haunt him at the end of the war, when Hitler would put him in charge of the defence of Berlin.316 Nevertheless, the scale of the disaster before Moscow was clear to all. Zhukov had pushed the Germans back to the point from which they had launched Operation Typhoon two months before. For the German army, this was, as General Franz Halder put it, ‘the greatest crisis in two world wars’.317 The losses inflicted on the German armed forces were enormous. In 1939, only 19,000 had been killed; and in all the campaigns of 1940, German losses had totalled no more than 83,000 - serious enough, indeed, but not irreplaceable. In 1941, however, 357,000 German troops were reported killed or missing in action, over 300,000 of them on the Eastern Front. These were huge losses that could not easily be replaced. Only Stalin’s decision to attack all along the front instead of pushing home the advantage by concentrating his forces in an all-out assault against the retreating German Army Group Centre prevented the disaster from being even worse.318

For all their advances since 22 June 1941, the Germans had everywhere failed to achieve their objectives. The overweening optimism of the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa had given way to an increasing sense of crisis, reflected in Hitler’s repeated dismissals of his leading generals. German military forces had for the first time been shown to be vulnerable. After Moscow, Hitler was still optimistic about the chances of victory. But he now knew it would take longer than he had originally envisaged.319 The invasion of the Soviet Union had changed the face of the war irrevocably. A series of easy victories in the west had been followed by an increasingly grim struggle in the east. What happened on the Soviet Front dwarfed anything seen in France, Denmark, Norway or the Low Countries. From 22 June 1941 onwards, at least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theatres of war in 1939- 45 put together, including the Far East. The sheer scale of the struggle was extraordinary. So too was its bitterness and its ideological fanaticism, on both sides. It was in the end on the Eastern Front, more than any other, that the fortunes of war were decided.320

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