Military history

24. A TURN OF THE TIDE

BY THE BEGINNING of autumn 1941, Hitler believed that Russia was finished.

Within three weeks of the opening of the campaign, Field Marshal von Bock’s Army Group Center, with thirty infantry divisions and fifteen panzer or motorized divisions, had pushed 450 miles from Bialystok to Smolensk. Moscow lay but 200 miles farther east along the high road whichNapoleon had taken in 1812. To the north Field Marshal von Leeb’s army group, twenty-one infantry and six armored divisions strong, was moving rapidly up through the Baltic States toward Leningrad. To the south Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s army group of twenty-five infantry, four motorized, four mountain and five panzer divisions was advancing toward the Dnieper River and Kiev, capital of the fertile Ukraine, which Hitler coveted.

So planmaessig (according to plan), as the OKW communiqués put it, was the German progress along a thousand-mile front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and so confident was the Nazi dictator that it would continue at an accelerated pace as one Soviet army after another was surrounded or dispersed, that on July 14, a bare three weeks after the invasion had begun, he issued a directive advising that the strength of the Army could be “considerably reduced in the near future” and that armament production would be concentrated on naval ships and Luftwaffe planes, especially the latter, for the conduct of the war against the last remaining enemy, Britain, and—he added—“against America should the case arise.”1 By the end of September he instructed the High Command to prepare to disband forty infantry divisions so that this additional manpower could be utilized by industry.2

Russia’s two greatest cities, Leningrad, which Peter the Great had built as the capital on the Baltic, and Moscow, the ancient and now Bolshevik capital, seemed to Hitler about to fall. On September 18 he issued strict orders: “A capitulation of Leningrad or Moscow is not to be accepted, even if offered.”3 What was to happen to them he made clear to his commanders in a directive of September 29:

The Fuehrer has decided to have St. Petersburg [Leningrad] wiped off the face of the earth* The further existence of this large city is of no interest once Soviet Russia is overthrown …

The intention is to close in on the city and raze it to the ground by artillery and by continuous air attack …

Requests that the city be taken over will be turned down, for the problem of the survival of the population and of supplying it with food is one which cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for existence we have no interest in keeping even part of this great city’s population.†4

That same week, on October 3, Hitler returned to Berlin and in an address to the German people proclaimed the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I declare today, and I declare it without any reservation,” he said, “that the enemy in the East has been struck down and will never rise again … Behind our troops there already lies a territory twice the size of the German Reich when I came to power in 1933.”

When on October 8, Orel, a key city south of Moscow, fell, Hitler sent his press chief, Otto Dietrich, flying back to Berlin, to tell the correspondents of the world’s leading newspapers there the next day that the last intact Soviet armies, those of Marshal Timoshenko, defending Moscow, were locked in two steel German pockets before the capital; that the southern armies of Marshal Budënny were routed and dispersed; and that sixty to seventy divisions of Marshal Voroshilov’s army were surrounded in Leningrad.

“For all military purposes,” Dietrich concluded smugly, “Soviet Russia is done with. The British dream of a two-front war is dead.”

These public boasts of Hitler and Dietrich were, to say the least, premature.  In reality the Russians, despite the surprise with which they were taken on June 22, their subsequent heavy losses in men and equipment, their rapid withdrawal and the entrapment of some of their best armies, had begun in July to put up a mounting resistance such as the Wehrmacht had never encountered before. Halder’s diary and the reports of such front-line commanders as General Guderian, who led a large panzer group on the central front, began to be peppered—and then laden—with accounts of severe fighting, desperate Russian stands and counterattacks and heavy casualties to German as well as Soviet troops.

“The conduct of the Russian troops,” General Blumentritt wrote later, “even in this first battle [for Minsk] was in striking contrast to the behavior of the Poles and the Western Allies in defeat. Even when encircled the Russians stood their ground and fought.”5 And there proved to be more of them, and with better equipment, than Adolf Hitler had dreamed was possible. Fresh Soviet divisions which German intelligence had no inkling of were continually being thrown into battle. “It is becoming ever clearer,” Halder wrote in his diary on August 11, “that we underestimated the strength of the Russian colossus not only in the economic and transportation sphere but above all in the military. At the beginning we reckoned with some 200 enemy divisions and we have already identified 360. When a dozen of them are destroyed the Russians throw in another dozen. On this broad expanse our front is too thin. It has no depth. As a result, the repeated enemy attacks often meet with some success.” Rundstedt put it bluntly to Allied interrogators after the war. “I realized,” he said, “soon after the attack was begun that everything that had been written about Russia was nonsense.”

Several generals, Guderian, Blumentritt and Sepp Dietrich among them, have left reports expressing astonishment at their first encounter with the Russian T-34 tank, of which they had not previously heard and which was so heavily armored that the shells from the German antitank guns bounced harmlessly off it. The appearance of this panzer, Blumentritt said later, marked the beginning of what came to be called the “tank terror.” Also, for the first time in the war; the Germans did not have the benefit of overwhelming superiority in the air to protect their ground troops and scout ahead. Despite the heavy losses on the ground in the first day of the campaign and in early combat, Soviet fighter planes kept appearing, like the fresh divisions, out of nowhere. Moreover, the swiftness of the German advance and the lack of suitable airfields in Russia left the German fighter bases too far back to provide effective cover at the front. “At several stages in the advance,” General von Kleist later reported, “my panzer forces were handicapped through lack of cover overhead.”6

There was another German miscalculation about the Russians which Kleist mentioned to Liddell Hart and which, of course, was shared by most of the other peoples of the West that summer.

“Hopes of victory,” Kleist said, “were largely built on the prospect that the invasion would produce a political upheaval in Russia … Too high hopes were built on the belief that Staun would be overthrown by his own people if he suffered heavy defeats. The belief was fostered by the Fuehrer’s political advisers.”7

Indeed Hitler had told Jodl, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

The opportunity to kick in the door seemed to the Fuehrer to be at hand halfway through July when there occurred the first great controversy over strategy in the German High Command and led to a decision by the Fuehrer, over the protests of most of the top generals, which Halder thought proved to be “the greatest strategic blunder of the Eastern campaign.” The issue was simple but fundamental. Should Bock’s Army Group Center, the most powerful and so far the most successful of the three main German armies, push on the two hundred miles to Moscow from Smolensk, which it had reached on July 16? Or should the original plan, which Hitler had laid down in the December 18 directive, and which called for the main thrusts on the north and south flanks, be adhered to? In other words, was Moscow the prize goal, or Leningrad and the Ukraine?

The Army High Command, led by Brauchitsch and Halder and supported by Bock, whose central army group was moving up the main highway to Moscow, and by Guderian, whose panzer forces were leading it, insisted on an all-out drive for the Soviet capital. There was much more to their argument than merely stressing the psychological value of capturing the enemy capital. Moscow, they pointed out to Hitler, was a vital source of armament production and, even more important, the center of the Russian transportation and communications system. Take it, and the Soviets would not only be deprived of an essential source of arms but would be unable to move troops and supplies to the distant fronts, which thereafter would weaken, wither and collapse.

But there was a final conclusive argument which the generals advanced to the former corporal who was now their Supreme Commander. All their intelligence reports showed that the main Russian forces were now being concentrated before Moscow for an all-out defense of the capital. Just east of Smolensk a Soviet army of half a million men, which had extricated itself from Bock’s double envelopment, was digging in to bar further German progress toward the capital.

The center of gravity of Russian strength [Halder wrote in a report prepared for the Allies immediately after the war]8 was therefore in front of Army Group Center …

The General Staff had been brought up with the idea that it must be the aim of an operation to defeat the military power of the enemy, and it therefore considered the next and most pressing task to be to defeat the forces of Timoshenko by concentrating all available forces at Army Group Center, to advance on Moscow, to take this nerve center of enemy resistance and to destroy the new enemy formations. The assembly for this attack had to be carried out as soon as possible because the season was advanced. Army Group North was in the meantime to fulfill its original mission and to try to contact the Finns. Army Group South was to advance farther East to tie down the strongest possible enemy force.

… After oral discussions between the General Staff and the Supreme Command [OKW] had failed, the Commander in Chief of the Army [Brauchitsch] submitted a memorandum of the General Staff to Hitler.

This, we learn from Halder’s diary, was done on August 18. “The effect,” says Halder, “was explosive.” Hitler had his hungry eyes on the food belt and industrial areas of the Ukraine and on the Russian oil fields just beyond in the Caucasus. Besides, he thought he saw a golden opportunity to entrap Budënny’s armies east of the Dnieper beyond Kiev, which still held out. He also wanted to capture Leningrad and join up with the Finns in the north. To accomplish these twin aims, several infantry and panzer divisions from Army Group Center would have to be detached and sent north and especially south. Moscow could wait.

On August 21, Hitler hurled a new directive at his rebellious General Staff. Halder copied it out word for word in his diary the next day.

The proposals of the Army for the continuation of the operations in the East do not accord with my intentions.

The most important objective to attain before the onset of winter is not the capture of Moscow but the taking of the Crimea, the industrial and coal-mining areas of the Donets basin and the cutting off of Russian oil supplies from the Caucasus. In the north it is the locking up of Leningrad and the union with the Finns.

The Soviet Fifth Army on the Dnieper in the south, whose stubborn resistance had annoyed Hitler for several days, must, he laid it down, be utterly destroyed, the Ukraine and the Crimea occupied, Leningrad surrounded and a junction with the Finns achieved. “Only then,” he concluded, “will the conditions be created whereby Timoshenko’s army can be attacked and successfully defeated.”

Thus [commented Halder bitterly] the aim of defeating decisively the Russian armies in front of Moscow was subordinated to the desire to obtain a valuable industrial area and to advance in the direction of Russian oil … Hitler now became obsessed with the idea of capturing both Leningrad and Stalingrad, for he persuaded himself that if these two “holy cities of Communism” were to fall, Russia would collapse.

To add insult to injury to the field marshals and the generals who did not appreciate his strategic genius, Hitler sent what Halder called a “countermemorandum” (to that of the Army of the eighteenth), which the General Staff Chief described as “full of insults,” such as stating that the Army High Command was full of “minds fossilized in out-of-date theories.”

“Unbearable! Unheard of! The limit!” Halder snorted in his diary the next day. He conferred all afternoon and evening with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch about the Fuehrer’s “inadmissible” mixing into the business of the Army High Command and General Staff, finally proposing that the head of the Army and he himself resign their posts. “Brauchitsch refused,” Halder noted, “because it wouldn’t be practical and would change nothing.” The gutless Field Marshal had already, as on so many other occasions, capitulated to the onetime corporal.

When General Guderian arrived at the Fuehrer’s headquarters the next day, August 23, and was egged on by Halder to try to talk Hitler out of his disastrous decision, though the hard-bitten panzer leader needed no urging, he was met by Brauchitsch. “I forbid you,” the Army Commander in Chief said, “to mention the question of Moscow to the Fuehrer. The operation to the south has been ordered. The problem now is simply how it is to be carried out. Discussion is pointless.”

Nevertheless, when Guderian was ushered into the presence of Hitler—neither Brauchitsch nor Halder accompanied him—he disobeyed orders and argued as strongly as he could for the immediate assault on Moscow.

Hitler let me speak to the end [Guderian later wrote]. He then described in detail the considerations which had led him to make a different decision. He said that the raw materials and agriculture of the Ukraine were vitally necessary for the future prosecution of the war. He spoke of the need of neutralizing the Crimea, “that Soviet aircraft carrier for attacking the Roumanian oil fields.” For the first time I heard him use the phrase: “My generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war.” … He had given strict orders that the attack on Kiev was to be the immediate strategic objective and all actions were to be carried out with that in mind. I here saw for the first time a spectacle with which I was later to become very familiar: all those present—Keitel, Jodl and others—nodded in agreement with every sentence that Hitler uttered, while I was left alone with my point of view … 9

But Halder had at no point in the previous discussions nodded his agreement. When Guderian saw him the next day and reported his failure to get Hitler to change his mind, he says the General Staff Chief “to my amazement suffered a complete nervous collapse, which led him to make accusations and imputations which were utterly unjustified.”*

This was the most severe crisis in the German military High Command since the beginning of the war. Worse were to follow, with adversity.

In itself Rundstedt’s offensive in the south, made possible by the reinforcement of Guderian’s panzer forces and infantry divisions withdrawn from the central front, was, as Guderian put it, a great tactical victory. Kiev itself fell on September 19—German units had already penetrated 150 miles beyond it—and on the twenty-sixth the Battle of Kiev ended with the encirclement and surrender of 665,000 Russian prisoners, according to the German claim. To Hitler it was “the greatest battle in the history of the world,” but though it was a singular achievement some of his generals were more skeptical of its strategic significance. Bock’s armorless army group in the center had been forced to cool its heels for two months along the Desna River just beyond Smolensk. The autumn rains, which would turn the Russian roads into quagmires, were drawing near. And after them—the winter, the cold and the snow.

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