The beginning of the Nazi-Soviet War on June 22, 1941, was a cataclysm of an unimaginable scale. The ensuing conflict would unfold across an enormous theater and would be fought by armies of unprecedented size. Major operations were conducted from Berlin to the Volga, and from the Baltic to the Caucasus - millions of men killing each other in an arena well over a thousand miles across. It was also here, in the east, that the brutality of the Nazi regime was finally unleashed in its totality. As the Wehrmacht blasted its way into the Soviet interior, it was trailed by special SS units tasked with summarily executing identified categories of enemies, like Communist Party officials and Jews. Hundreds of thousands would be shot over open air death pits.
Thus, in geographic scale, in the sheer size of the armies, and in the uninhibited animalism of the violence, the Nazi-Soviet war stands alone. It is the war: the archetype of man-made apocalypse; unrivaled as the single greatest expression of organized violence.
This war began in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, when the German Wehrmacht jumped off its start lines and implemented Operation Barbarossa. This operation, like the larger war that it inaugurated, was unprecedented in its scope. The German force numbered well over three million men - dwarfing the forces involved in the invasions of Poland or France. Even more uniquely, however, Barbarossa was an attempt to wage a campaign of maneuver and annihilation on a genuinely continental scale. The planned areas of operation ranged from the Baltic States and Leningrad in the north all the way to Crimea in the south. The entire battlespace was on the order of half a million square miles. This is entirely unique. Neither before nor after would any army attempt a fully continental scale operation - and for good reason.
Barbarossa and its immediate follow up operation (Operation Typhoon) are much mythologized and frequently misrepresented in popular histories. The most simplistic story that is usually told centers strongly on the Russian winter. The Germans, it is said, were on the verge of capturing Moscow when they were caught out by the onset of winter weather, which froze their advance and allowed the USSR to recover (usually, it is said, with the generous aid of American lend-lease). A slightly more sophisticated, but still incorrect story points to the decision in the early autumn to redirect forces towards Kiev as a critical moment - allegedly, this reflected Hitler getting distracted by secondary objectives and causing a fatal delay which left the Germans unable to reach Moscow in time.
The failure of Barbarossa was in fact rooted in the highest conceptions of the operation, rather than in the details of its implementation. Barbarossa failed because it was simply impossible to successfully wage a continental scale maneuver campaign in the Soviet Union with the resources available to the German Wehrmacht in 1941. Tellingly, Barbarossa achieved all its objectives - but these successes did not translate to strategic victory.
You have heard that man’s reach exceeds his grasp. In the case of the Wehrmacht in 1941, neither reach nor grasp was the deficiency. Hitler had reached and grabbed something far too big for him, and found himself grappling with a power that he had not understood and could not dominate. The enormous latent military power of the Soviet Union had been invisible to German planners, who foolishly dismissed the fighting prowess of Slavs, the sophistication of Soviet weapons systems, and especially the unparalleled organizational powers of the Communist Party, which could calmly and efficiently mobilize tens of millions of men to fight.
And so, blinded by hubris and Nazi presuppositions about Soviet incompetence and Slavic inferiority, the Wehrmacht found itself trapped in a war that it could not win, against an army that it had not understood, stranded in a vast country which mocked it with cruel distance. Above all, the Nazi regime discovered that its Soviet adversary had a totalizing ideology and powers of mobilization and coercion that outmatched its own. Stalin’s empire, which Hitler dismissed as a giant with feet of clay, was much more powerful than anybody yet knew. Hitler, who yearned to bring an apocalyptic war of annihilation to the east, should have been careful what he wished for.
The Worst Surprise Ever
At first glance, Operation Barbarossa would seem to be characterized by two seemingly contradictory aspects - namely, that the German force was both the greatest accumulation of fighting power in the history of Europe, but they also managed to achieve almost total surprise. This seems as if it should be impossible - how could the Soviet Union be blind to the buildup of such an enormous force on their border - millions of men, with thousands upon thousands of artillery pieces, tanks, and vehicles, and with them the enormous supply depots, airfields, and rear area infrastructure?
The answer lay in a peculiar admixture of Stalin’s own assumptions about German intentions, the dance of intelligence and counterintelligence, and a severe lack of understanding in the top echelon of Soviet leadership as to what it would look like on the ground when the Germans unleashed their mechanized attack package. Allow me the indulgence of an elaboration.
In 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were still technically operating under a set of agreements which included a non-aggression pact, a trade agreement (which largely exchanged German machine tools and technology for Soviet raw materials), and an agreement on borders and spheres of influence which history knows as the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. Despite the nominally friendly alignment of the two countries, there was a shared sense that the alliance was rapidly outliving its usefulness, and that the two countries would soon be at war.
The disintegration of Nazi-Soviet relations was multi-causal. The arrangement was rather unpalatable for Hitler in the sense that it made Germany dependent on Soviet grain, oil, and other materials. Given Hitler’s ideological presuppositions about the necessity of economic self sufficiency, ongoing dependence on Stalin for materials was a bitter pill to swallow indeed. Furthermore, the specific terms of Nazi-Soviet trade were strategically disadvantageous to Germany, because they were sending the Soviet Union industrial tools and technology that made the USSR more powerful over time, while receiving only consumable materials in exchange. Hanging over all of this was Hitler’s general obsession with “Judeo-Bolshevism” and eastern empire.
Without going too deeply into the specifics of Hitler’s worldview (another time, perhaps), it would be proper to say that the USSR was the specific place where his many ambitions were conjoined. It was in the lands of the Soviet Union where Hitler would both build a self-sufficient and resource rich German empire and also finally force a final confrontation with “the Jews.” This proposed an archetypically Hitlerian solution. Hitler was above all a compulsive geopolitical gambler who loved the idea that he could solve all his problems with a single decisive stroke, and here was the perfect example. He could acquire grain, oil, and living space, end his dependency on an ideological nemesis, and kill a huge number of Jews and Communists with a single move.
The Nazi-Soviet truce, then, was never going to last. Its demise in 1941 was specifically triggered by disputes as to the relative spheres of influence in the Balkans. In November, 1940, Molotov visited Berlin and the idea was discussed to have the Soviet Union join the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy, but the talks broke down over the Soviet desire to have a presence in Bulgaria. What poisoned the relationship was not even particularly the issues at stake, but the fact that Hitler flew into an apoplectic fury when he was told of the Soviet proposals, and his subsequent decision to give Molotov the silent treatment. The Soviet proposal never relieved a formal reply - a silence which deeply unnerved Stalin and more or less confirmed that the truce was disintegrating.
How, then, could the Soviets have been caught by surprise at the launch of Barbarossa? Well, Stalin was certainly under no illusions that a war was coming. In early 1941, he gave a speech to graduates of the Red Army Main Military Academy in which he expressly predicted that a war was approaching and that the Red Army would break the myth of the Wehrmacht’s invincibility. Preparations for war were underway in the Soviet Union when the attack came on June 22.
Knowing that a war will occur is different from knowing the day that it will start. Stalin enjoyed many streams of intelligence warning him that a German invasion was in the offing (including a warning from Winston Churchill), but they could not agree on the dates. Stalin knew that the Wehrmacht was massing on his borders, but could not ascertain their intentions. Furthermore, Stalin had observed a pattern in Hitler’s behavior. All of Germany’s previous expansions - Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and so on - had come after the Fuhrer first made a final outrageous demand for concessions. In other words, Hitler seemed to favor first threatening his victims at gunpoint before unloading the Wehrmacht on them. Stalin in 1941 seems to have been quite confident that Hitler would threaten and make demands before attacking. The idea that the Wehrmacht would simply… attack… seems to have not seriously occurred to him.
Above all, Stalin’s greatest mistake was relatively simple. He believed that he was ready for war. Stalin had moved heaven and earth to industrialize the USSR and arm it to the teeth with modern weaponry. The Red Army was the largest in the world, and it had a tank park significantly larger than the Wehrmacht’s. In June, 1941, Stalin had 220 divisions mobilized, and a significant number were forward deployed on the border.
On June 19, the Party boss of Ukraine - Nikita Khrushchev - held meetings with Stalin at the Kremlin. As the sky grew dark, Khrushchev said “I really must go. War will break out at any moment, and it might find me here in Moscow or on the road.” Stalin responded, “Yes, you are right.” A few days later, at 1:00 AM on June 22, Stalin - under incessant urging from Zhukov - allowed the Red Army units on the border to come up to baseline combat readiness, but emphasized that “The task of our forces is to refrain from any kind of provocative action.”
At the heart of the matter, Stalin - who was not a military man - simply did not understand how fast and violent the German attack package was. He presumed that the enormous Soviet forces on the border would handle whatever came their way. We could say, perhaps, that Stalin was abstractly prepared for the idea of war with Nazi Germany, but he did not understand what that would mean on the ground, or what it would look like when the Germans unleashed everything they had on Red Army.
He was ready for war, but he was not ready for the Wehrmacht.
Opening: The Mirage
Operation Barbarossa was a paradox par excellence. Very simply, it was the Wehrmacht’s greatest operational achievement to date - and yet it lost Germany the war. How can this be? Let’s examine.
The war began much the way other iconic German attacks had, and Red Army units on the frontier now enjoyed the same treatment as had the French in 1940 or the Poles in 1939: clouds of screeching Stukas, tanks disgorging fire on the approach, artillery concentrating on breach points, and well drilled infantry pouring on mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. The Red Army handled it about as well as the Wehrmacht’s previous opponents had. At this point in time, there was simply no military in the world that had the integration of arms to match the German mechanized toolkit, and the sheer violence, speed, and maniacally concentrated firepower at the breach was too much for anyone to handle.
The broad conception of Operation Barbarossa was essentially to take Germany’s earlier campaigns and magnify them many times over. Where Poland and France had each been hit with two German army groups, Barbarossa called for three, and all of them were oversized. Poland had faced a handful of Panzer Divisions; France an eight division “Panzer Group”. The USSR would be treated to a whopping four panzer groups, with a total of seventeen panzer divisions and a variety of motorized formations.
The German scheme called for three army groups to make deep thrusts into the Soviet Union with the intention of encircling and destroying the Red Army forces on the frontier. The Germans were well aware that in 1812 the Russian Army had foiled Napoleon by simply retreating deep into the Russian interior and denying him a decisive battle. The Wehrmacht was determined in 1941 to destroy the Red Army while it was still in the borderlands and prevent a withdrawal into the vast environs of the Soviet heartland.
When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, it deployed one of the most astonishing concentrations of fighting power ever seen. Hitler had amassed the equivalent of 152 divisions, comprised of over 3 million troops, augmented by more than 650,000 soldiers mobilized from German satellite states and allies like Hungary, Finland, Romania, and Italy. The German forces were equipped with some 3,350 tanks, 600,000 vehicles, 600,000 horses, tens of thousands of artillery pieces, and more than 3,000 aircraft. Even in the face of such a truly colossal force, Stalin had legitimate reasons to feel confident. Despite the enormous German buildup, at the outbreak of war there was no major arm – tanks, infantry, aircraft, or artillery – where the Wehrmacht held a meaningful numerical advantage over the Red Army. Stalin had spent most of his time in power pursuing a breakneck industrialization to transform the USSR into a military superpower, and as a result the Red Army on the eve of war was the largest and most liberally equipped in the world. The Germans did not outnumber the Soviet army arrayed across from them - they simply smashed it.
Soviet preparation for war had focused on material factors – the sheer size of tank, artillery, and aircraft inventories – while neglecting the professional aspects of command, communications, and coordination. Consequentially, despite adequate equipment and weaponry, the Red Army was, very simply, outmatched by the nimbler and more responsive Wehrmacht.
In the first place, the performance of the Red Army cannot be separated from the fact that Stalin had conducted a widespread purge of his own officer corps only a few years prior to the outbreak of war. This appalling churn in the command hierarchy had occurred at the same time that the Red Army was expanding; as a result, Soviet officers tended to be rapidly promoted and were for the most part in over their heads early in the war, fighting a highly trained, experienced, coolly competent German officer corps, which had by now successfully undertaken two large campaigns in France and Poland, along with a variety of other specialized operations from Norway to Greece. The basic factors of experience and training were thus hilariously disposed in Germany’s favor.
At the same time, the Red Army lacked a dedicated communications system and relied on civilian telephone and telegraph lines, many of which were quickly cut by the Germans. It was not uncommon during the early phases of the war for Soviet officers to have to inquire with local communist party officials (the party did have access to wireless communications) as to where the Germans were and how far they had advanced.
These two factors – an overwhelmed officer corps and a broken communications system – had a particularly deadly synergy. Different levels of the command hierarchy were cut off from each other and blind, while at the unit level, commanders were simply unable or unwilling to take initiative. Furthermore, the… shall we say peculiarities of the Stalinist system left the officer corps with instincts that were oriented towards political survival, rather than military exigency, and this meant not making drastic unilateral decisions.
This was an absolutely central aspect of war making that Stalin and the communists simply did not grasp; they had focused on churning out tanks, guns, and shells, while neglecting the command and control functions of the army. The Germans, quite simply, were prepared to fight war at a different pace than the Soviets: German commanders were more experienced, more decisive, more precise, more willing to act independently, and more level headed. The Red Army consequentially resembled an enormous, muscle bound fighter, but with a diseased nervous system and bad eyesight.
These vulnerabilities made the Red Army particularly susceptible to the Wehrmacht’s approach to warfighting, which brought overwhelming firepower and violence at the point of attack to allow rapid penetration and movement, creating an encircled pocket, or what the Germans called a kessel, for cauldron – which could then be liquidated. By fighting multiple kesselschlachts, or encirclement battles, the Wehrmacht planned to annihilate the Red Army and destroy the Soviet Union’s capacity to resist by the autumn of 1941. The objective was very clear: destroy Soviet fighting power. Annihilating the Red Army took absolute priority over capturing any specific geographic markers. Hitler himself had remarked that even Moscow was “of no great importance.” Rather, the objective of Barbarossa was to destroy Soviet manpower: “The mass of the army”, read the Barbarossa directive, “is to be destroyed in bold operations involving deep penetrations by armored spearheads, and the withdrawal of elements capable of combat into the extensive Russian land spaces is to be prevented.”
This last portion is the key to the concept of Barbarossa, but we shall return to this later.
The first shots fired in the cataclysmic Nazi-Soviet war came in the form of an aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, which attacked over 60 frontline Soviet air bases early on June 22. The Red Air Force lost over 1200 aircraft on the first morning of the war, ensuring German control of the air all along the line of contact. On June 24, literally two days into the war, Soviet western front headquarters informed Moscow that “Enemy aviation has complete air dominance.” The wholesale destruction of the Red Air Force’s frontline units was one of the most remarkable events in the history of warfare, yet it occurred so quickly that it receives scant mention in much of the war’s historiography; it is as if the Soviet air force simply vanished into thin air. Meanwhile, German advance teams managed to cut many civilian telephone and telegraph lines, throwing the Red Army’s command and control system into disarray and forcing the NKVD (which operated a wireless radio communication system) to act as middlemen to relay orders to the army. With the Red Army severely disoriented and bereft of air support, on came the fearsome German mechanized package.
The Soviet response was woefully inadequate. 1941 would be a year of terrible mistakes, but above all, what high level Soviet leadership – including and especially Stalin – did not understand was just how much could be won or loss in the opening moments of the war. By neglecting to put the Red Army on full combat alert, the regime allowed the Wehrmacht to achieve tactical, but not strategic surprise. Years later, one Soviet Marshal, Andrei Grechko, would make the tongue in cheek remark that the government and senior commanders were fully prepared for the outbreak of war, and the only people surprised by the German attack were the Red Army soldiers on the front line. What Stalin’s team did not comprehend was that tactical surprise, mixed with Germany’s particularly aggressive and mobile approach to war and the Soviet Union’s sclerotic command system, could produce a total catastrophe.
The immediate response of the party leadership only served to emphasize the dangerous dynamics of the Soviet regime, as well as its blindness to how events would unfold on the ground. When the German attack began at around 3:00 AM, frontline commanders had great difficulty getting through to the authorities in Moscow. One admiral, who finally managed to get a very sleepy Georgy Malenkov on the phone, reported that he was being bombed by the Luftwaffe – Malenkov responded by asking, “Do you understand what you’re reporting?” Many Red Army commanders, frantically attempting to explain that a war had broken out, were told to submit their reports in writing. Marshal Timoshenko, remarkably, ordered some anti-aircraft guns not to fire back at the Germans, because it was unclear if they had the requisite permissions to do so. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Stalin’s underlings argued about who should have to wake up the boss and give him the bad news. In the end, after rousting Stalin and explaining the situation to him, the General Secretary replied matter-of-factly that the Germans would simply be “beaten all along the line.” What nobody in the room understood was that, although the war had begun only hours ago, the Germans had already seized such initiative in the air and on the ground that the Red Army’s frontier units were more or less doomed. The Soviet Union was simply unprepared for the pace of this war.
Operation Barbarossa organized the German forces into three enormous army groups. Army Group North was to dash through the Baltic States and capture Leningrad; Army Group South was tasked with a drive into Ukraine to secure the industrial and agricultural resources there. By far the largest formation, however, was Army Group Center, which was to blast its way along a line very similar to Napoleon’s invasion route, capturing Minsk and Smolensk en-route to Moscow. The geographic objectives were secondary: the main point was to annihilate the Red Army forces along the way. The point was not so much to reach Moscow as fast as possible, but that barreling up the highway towards the capital would force the Soviets to put a large fighting mass in the way which could then be destroyed.
Their initial advance was astonishing. In the opening stages of Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht ate up the miles and heaped punishment on a disoriented Red Army. One panzer formation in Army Group North covered half the distance to Leningrad in only five days. Erich von Manstein advanced 185 miles with his Panzer corps in four days. Such an astonishing depth was not even particularly unusual; in Army Group Center, Heinz Guderian drove his Panzer group 270 miles in the first week. But this was not a leisurely drive through the country: the Wehrmacht accomplished this deep penetration while blasting past Soviet resistance, repeatedly executing classic pincer maneuvers to encircle massive Red Army formations. These encirclement battles resulted in an unbelievable number of prisoners. By August, the Wehrmacht had taken nearly 900,000 prisoners of war; a series of additional mass encirclements in the autumn months swelled the number of prisoners to nearly two million. Soviet losses were truly astonishing. By October, the Red Army had lost nearly 3 million men, over 15,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 65,000 artillery pieces, and 7,000 aircraft. This was an unbelievable, staggering level of losses that no army in the world could be expected to absorb. Franz Halder, the head of German army high command, wrote in his diary in early July “It is thus probably no overstatement to say that the Russian campaign has been won in the space of two weeks.”
Of course, not everything was perfect. The Soviets counterattacked relentlessly – isolated affairs that were easily dealt with, but each attack cost the Germans time, men, and equipment. The nimble German formations were able, time and time again, to encircle huge pockets of Soviet forces, but even when encircled the Red Army fought stubbornly, and the Wehrmacht found that liquidating the pockets was a nasty business and many Soviet troops were able to escape – some slipped behind the German lines and joined partisan groups which waged guerrilla war in occupied territory. These encirclements were so huge, and took place so deep in the Soviet Union, that even the enormous panzer groups (packing several panzer divisions and motorized infantry divisions) were simply not able to “seal” the pockets tightly - they had to wait for the foot powered infantry divisions to catch up and fill in the gaps. Meanwhile, the Germans found that Soviet equipment was surprisingly formidable. Dealing with the newest Soviet tank models – KV1s and T-34s – was especially difficult, with most German antitank weapons proving unable to penetrate the armor.
Still, the losses inflicted on the Red Army were unbelievably high, mounting into the millions. This war was surely over.
Let us now return to the operational conception of Barbarossa. The preoccupation was with the encirclement and destruction of the formidable Soviet forces arrayed near the border. This was, to be sure, no small task. The frontline Red Army contained more than 150 rifle divisions (infantry), and dozens of tank divisions. German war planning, however, was gravely mistaken as to what proportion of the Soviet Union’s military force was forward deployed. They presumed that this roughly 3 million man force represented the bulk of Stalin’s military capability, and that its destruction would leave the USSR prostrate. The preoccupation, therefore, was to move with great decision and destroy the Soviet frontline armies before they could withdraw into the Soviet interior.
They succeeded in this objective, with Soviet casualties swelling into seven digits in the opening phase of the war. At the battle of Minsk alone, the Germans killed or captured more than 400,000 Soviet troops in a large pocket. Halder assessed that "the objective to shatter the bulk of the Russian Army this [western] side of the Dvina and Dnepr [Rivers] has been accomplished.” He believed that to the east of these rivers, the Wehrmacht “would encounter only partial forces.”
The pace of Germany’s opening advance and the scale of the casualties they inflicted on the Red Army were of a truly historic scale. No army could be expected to have five army groups shattered at the starting gun and survive.
But something was wrong.
The Red Army was not destroyed. Their casualties were mounting into the millions, and yet the Soviets were still in the field, fighting hard at every point. What was happening? Where were they getting these men? What kind of army could absorb three million casualties in the opening campaign and not collapse? What sort of force could lose dozens of field armies and yet remain in the field everywhere?
The Soviet Union had a power that was largely invisible to Barbarossa’s planners: the Red Army had an ungodly capacity to mobilize fresh forces and regenerate its fighting power. Prewar Red Army doctrine, in fact, had specifically emphasized mobilization power and reserves. Soviet planners expected that they would have to replace all their formations every four to eight months in a high intensity war, and they had trained a huge number of reservists for that purpose.
In 1940, while preparing for Barbarossa, German army staff gamed out a scenario where the Soviets could mobilize 40 fresh divisions. This was wildly out of touch with Soviet capabilities. Instead of 40 divisions, by December 1941 the Red Army managed to mobilize a staggering 800 divisions and equivalently sized units, deploying over 14 million men. Just by the end of June alone the Soviets had already managed to call up five million reservists. This means that in less than two weeks, the Red Army was able to call on a manpower surge roughly 60% larger than the entire German invasion force. Of course, these men were not available for combat immediately; they had to be equipped and organized, and new formations had to be assembled in the rear before deployment. But they were there, and it gave the Soviet Union a depth of defense that no other country on earth could match.
Thus, we arrive at the basic paradox of Operation Barbarossa. From an operational perspective, it was one of history’s greatest victories. The Wehrmacht utterly shattered the frontline Soviet armed forces and overran the Soviet Union’s western rimland in a matter of weeks. Yet this operational success was paired with one of the great military intelligence misfires of all time, with the Germans flying blind as to the USSR’s mobilization capacity. As a result, Operation Barbarossa, strictly speaking, achieved its objectives: it destroyed the Red Army formations on the frontier before they could withdraw into the Soviet interior - and yet the completion of this audacious objective did not win the war.
Naturally, mobilizing reserves did not immediately solve any of the Red Army’s problems. These newly called up troops were not as well equipped as the frontline units which the Germans were destroying, and the problems with the Soviet officer corps persisted. A cumbersome command and control system would plague the Red Army for years. Nevertheless, 1941 was shaping up to be a year of horrifying revelations for both sides. The Soviets were learning that they had catastrophically underestimated the operational skill of the Wehrmacht, while the Germans discovered that they had been totally blind to the awesome mobilization powers of the Soviet state. In the end, the Nazi-Soviet War was an apocalypse that neither side was ready for.
Smolensk: First Doubts
The first signs that something might be wrong with the war came at a place that neither the German nor Soviet command ever anticipated to be an important battlefield. Smolensk was in the operational interstitial zone, in the first layer of the Russian interior. The Germans presumed that the Red Army would be defeated before the advance ever got to Smolensk, while the Soviets did not believe that the Wehrmacht would reach Smolensk at all. Thus, both armies got to be surprised by the dramatic events that unfolded there.
The Germans approached Smolensk in the first week of July, as Halder was making his fanciful prediction that only “partial” Soviet units would remain to oppose them. They were therefore rather surprised to find five whole Soviet field armies taking up positions around Smolensk.
This was disconcerting, in the sense that these armies were not expected to exist. But there was business to attend to. The Wehrmacht went back to its basic playbook - violent, concentrated thrusts around the city, rolling up Soviet forces in yet another promising encirclement. All very well - they would liquidate the pocket, bag several hundred thousand more prisoners, and move on. Heinz Guderian even dedicated one of his three Panzer corps to push further east and capture a bridgehead over the Desna River at the town of Yelnya, so that it it could be used as a launching pad for the next phase.
Instead of quickly crushing the encircled Soviets at Smolensk and moving on, the Germans found themselves engaged in a ferocious fight. Stalin demanded that the Red Army stop attacking with piecemeal units and “begin creating fists of seven or eight divisions”. In response, the Soviets would bring seven additional field armies to the Smolensk sector and launch a series of counterattacks which, although they were defeated, bogged the Germans down and inflicted serious casualties. Guderian’s bridgehead at Yelnya was pounded mercilessly, and the Wehrmacht was eventually forced to abandon it after suffering heavy losses. One Soviet general commented that “Our activity apparently also puzzled the enemy command, which encountered resistance where it was not expected; they saw that our troops not only fought back but also attacked (even if not always successfully).”
Indeed, the entire course of the battle at Smolensk seemed to wrongfoot the Germans. In particular, an aggressive Soviet attack against the Wehrmacht’s southern wing was at first dismissed by Field Marshall von Bock (commander of Army Group Center) as being comprised of “scraped together elements.” A few days later, those elements proved to be three whole Soviet armies which were threatening to cave in an entire Panzer Corps, and Bock was forced to move two additional corps in to restore the position. It was, he admitted in his diary, “a quite remarkable success for a badly battered opponent.”
The conduct of the Smolensk operation broadly reflected a German force that truly believed its own claims that the Red Army had been degraded to only partial forces. In particular, Guderian’s decision making surrounding his ill-fated Yelnya bridgehead demonstrated the emerging crisis. At the moment that Guderian chose to push 46th Panzer Corps east to Yelnya, he was actually under orders from Bock to close the ring around Smolensk. Guderian, we must remember, was an old-school sort of hard driving Prussian commander, who understood that a certain sort of latitude and independence was granted to the field commander when it came to taking aggressive action. After all, it had been this same sort of insubordination that bagged the great encirclement in France. Pushing himself further east to prepare for the move on Moscow was perfectly in keeping with this spirit, but it was not welcome news to Bock, who watched Soviet units leak out of the pocket through the hole that Guderian had left unplugged. When Guderian finally moved forces in to close the gap, the only unit he could spare for the job was the severely understrength 18th Panzer Division, which by this time had lost three quarters of its tanks and half of its antitank guns.
Guderian’s stunning lack of prudence, given the general exhaustion of his panzer group, exemplified the breakdown of Germany’s war. Here was a panzer force at the limits of its supply lines, operating with mounting tank losses and only a modicum of infantry support, bizarrely attempting to take on multiple difficult objectives - trying to not only complete the encirclement around Smolensk but also control a bridgehead further east. Some of Guderian’s divisional commanders reported plainly that only one objective could be achieved. Meanwhile, at Army Group command, Bock wrote with incredulous exasperation: “There is only one pocket on the army group’s front! And it has a hole!”
The Germans won the Battle of Smolensk in 1941. The entire operation cost the Soviets another 350,000 total casualties, and the city was captured in the end. But from the German perspective, the entire battle was wrong. The Soviets were supposed to be collapsing, and they were certainly not supposed to be able to throw a whole slew of new field armies into this front. Furthermore, German casualties - although lower than the Red Army’s - were still severe. The Wehrmacht lost some 110,000 men in the Smolensk operation, in addition to valuable time. The difficulty of closing the ring; the relentless Soviet counterattacks; the growing weakness of the panzer forces; the creeping sense of paralysis and disagreement in command - all indicative of a war that was going horribly wrong, even though the Wehrmacht had not yet suffered a single defeat.
The battle was finally over by July 31. By this time, a sense of disillusionment and horror was creeping into German minds. On July 13 – only five days into the operation - Bock had already confided to his diary:
“Because of extreme attrition of their material and equipment, the [two] panzer groups are only effective if they are employed as one entity.”
A few weeks later, he would add that “If, after all the successes, the campaign in the east now trickles away… it is not my fault.”
In early September, one German officer succinctly noted:
“No victorious Blitzkrieg, no destruction of the Russian army, no disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
General Gotthard Heinrici wrote a letter to his wife which admitted:
“The Russian is very strong… The war here is without doubt very bad… All past campaigns seem like child’s play in comparison with the present war. Our losses are heavy…”
The kicker, however, came from Army Chief of Staff Franz Halder. After previously boasting that the war had been won in two weeks, his diary entries from early August showed a clear shift in tone:
“It is clearer and clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus… At the start of the war, we reckoned on some 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions are definitely not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are in many ways badly led. But there they are… If we destroy a dozen, the Russians put another dozen in their place.”
Kiev: Annihilation and Crisis
The paradoxes of this war - operational victory juxtaposed against total strategic defeat - were only beginning for Germany. After the successful liquidation of the pocket around Smolensk, the Wehrmacht faced a decisive moment. It was the beginning of August, leaving an adequate window to prosecute further operations before the mud season came on - but operations to what end?
By this point in the war, the front had organically created an enormous salient around Kiev. The German advance into central Russia now jutted out over the top of the southern front. In essence, Army Group Center had advanced much deeper than Army Group South had, with the latter’s progress grinding to a halt as it reached the mighty Dnieper river.
This was a tantalizing opportunity. A strike southward by units from Army Group Center had the potential to scoop up almost all of the Soviet southwestern front in what promised to be perhaps the biggest encirclement yet. But such a move would entail denuding Army Group Center of its all important panzer divisions, precluding further progress in the center and necessarily delaying any move on Moscow.
For some, therefore, Hitler’s decision to detach critical panzer units from Army Group Center and send them south towards Kiev is the moment Germany lost the war. Distracted by the prospect of another big encirclement, the Fuhrer foolishly delayed the advance on Moscow and cost Germany its best opportunity to win the war in 1941. This theory is obviously tempting, particularly because it allows all the blame to be shifted to Hitler. Mr. Mustache has for obvious reasons become a popular scapegoat for German defeat: in the postwar period, he could not defend himself because he was dead, and nobody else would defend him because he was Hitler. It is therefore common and convenient to blame Hitler for the particular decisions that led to German defeat. This, however, is wrong.
It is fair to accuse Hitler of being wicked, or neurotic, or any number of unpleasant things, but he was not overly responsible for any particular decisions that led to German defeat. One could say, of course, that as the commander in chief he bore ultimate responsibility, and fairly so. But he was at all times advised by staff officers and served by an officer corps that implemented his orders dutifully, and in 1941 there were many German officers cheering on their Fuhrer’s decision to send the panzers south toward Kiev. Instead of portending some sort of world historical screwup, they hailed a titanic victory. More to the point, the decision to redirect forces to the Kiev axis was perfectly in keeping with the longstanding assumptions of Prusso-German war-making, which prioritized destroying the enemy’s fighting mass above all else. This was, according to conventional wisdom, the absolutely correct way to wage war.
Furthermore, from an operational perspective, this was nothing less than a perfect opportunity to wage the mother of all annihilation battles. No instructor at the German military academies could have cooked up a more dreamy scenario. The map had fallen in a favorable way for the Wehrmacht owing to the natural flow of the Dnieper, which bends like something approximating an enormous “S” around Kiev. German Army Group South had advanced up to Dnieper line, with the Red Army strongly holding the bend of the river with four armies (the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th). However, Army Group Center’s advance to Smolensk in July meant that the Germans were already over the river (that is, to the east of the Dnieper) to the north of Kiev. As a result, the Soviet position around Kiev had come to form a giant salient, with German lines protruding towards their rear in both the north and south.
Further adding to the enticement of the position (from the German view) was the fact that the key positions on the wings of the salient were already held by Panzer forces - Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group in the north, and Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group in the south. This made it possible to directly strike across the Soviet salient without rearranging the line. Guderian’s Panzer Group had to do little more that turn to the right.
This was, therefore a conceptually very simple operation. 1st and 2nd Panzer groups would drive towards each other, seal off the enormous salient around the Dnieper bend, and trap four Soviet armies in a pocket.
It is curious, then, that such a sublime and clean opportunity to fight yet another annihilation battle has been transformed into some sort of unhinged decision by Hitler which cost Germany the war. This interpretation largely results from the fact that two of Nazi Germany’s more widely read memoirists - Heinz Guderian and Franz Halder - went out of their way to dramatize it as a turning point where Hitler ignored their advice.
A brief note, perhaps, on the institutional curiosities of the Nazi war machine. The term “high command”, in this case, is an inadequate descriptor, as Nazi Germany had two prominent bodies that fit the descriptor. One was the OKH - Oberkommando des Heeres, or Army High Command. This was the body that conducted strategic planning for Army Groups and Armies. Its supreme commander was General Walther von Brauchitsch, and the chief of staff was the oft aforementioned Franz Halder, who kept a diary which became a foundational primary material for scholars after the war. However, there was also the OKW - Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces High Command, run by Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl. In theory, this was a body above the OKH which coordinated the operations of the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and Air Force (Luftwaffe), but it in practice operated as a rival decision making center to the OKH.
This all fit the standard operation procedure of the Hitler regime. The Fuhrer liked setting up rival centers of power which would compete for resources and approval, both because this enhanced his personal power (by letting him arbitrate between competing minions), and because it generated ambitious proposals, with underlings constantly under pressure to bring bigger and bolder ideas to him.
In the postwar period, it became standard fare for members of the Army staff (OKH) to portray themselves as pure professionals and not really Nazis at all, in contrast to the OKW men, who were written off as fanatically Hitler worshipping yes-men. This was seemingly solidified by the fact that the prominent OKW figures, like Jodl and Keitel, were convicted of War Crimes at Nuremburg and hanged, while the OKH men like Halder were largely let off. The upshot of all this is that it became common for the Wehrmacht to be portrayed as consisting of a “clean” faction (Halder, the OKH, and many of the field commanders) and a “Nazi” faction (the OKW and the Waffen SS). In fact, this theory is little more than a continuation of the power struggle between the OKW and the OKH which long predated either Auschwitz or Nuremburg.
In the early autumn months of 1941, the Wehrmacht found itself held up by just such a power struggle. The OKH (particularly Halder) were in favor of an immediate drive on Moscow, while the OKW was in agreement with Hitler that the priority ought to be the clearing of the flanks. Therefore, when the memoirs of someone like, say, Guderian are read, it ought to be understood that this was not simply a matter of Hitler unilaterally ignoring his advice and opting to go another direction - rather, Guderian and Halder were on the losing side of an intra-service struggle for Hitler’s signature. In the longer run, this bizarre and sclerotizing institutional fissure was patched up when Hitler made himself commander in chief of the OKH directly and ran the war in the east through that body, with the OKW taking responsibility for the other fronts.
The truth, of course, is that both the OKW and the OKH were full of officers who were perfectly willing to implement the Fuhrer’s orders, whether those orders related to the liquidation of racial enemies or to the diversion of 2nd Panzer Group southward towards Kiev. Guderian argued against the southward turn at first, but once he was brought to discuss the matter with Hitler face to face he predictably melted (Guderian tended to be rather overawed in Hitler’s presence and usually came away agreeing with the boss) and enthusiastically implemented the order.
All that being said, the decision had been made. Rather than move directly on Moscow, much of Army Group Center’s strength - particularly the panzer forces - would be diverted north and south to assist other objectives. Units from Panzer Group 3 would go north to help seal the front around Leningrad, while Guderian’s Panzer Group 2 would wheel south and help bag an enormous cauldron around Kiev.
It is a great tragedy, but Hitler was probably right. Contrary to the vain protestations of the OKH, the road to Moscow was not wide open - there was a wall of Soviet armies deploying in the way. Army Group Center was still in the process of shoring up its logistics. Truck transport was in tatters, rail lines needed to be repaired, supply dumps needed to be established, and replacement vehicles needed to be railed in. In this circumstance, clearing the flanks before blasting further into the Russian interior was an entirely sensible course of action. The idea that Army Group Center could have simply walked into Moscow in September 1941 is an absurd post-war fabrication.
All of this, perhaps, ignores the real issue. The Battle of Kiev in 1941 was, from the traditional German view of warfare, one of the most spectacularly successful operations of all time, in that it destroyed the equivalent of an entire Soviet Army Group in a matter of weeks.
The scheme worked essentially to perfection. Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group shot directly south along the inner bend of the Desna River and attacked at the hinge between the Soviet 21st and 40th Armies. Simultaneously, Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group crossed the Dneiper to the southeast of Kiev and broke through the lines of the Soviet 38th Army. The Germans now had two powerful Panzer Groups (wielding a combined nine panzer divisions with trailing motorized infantry divisions) breaking into the rear of the Soviet armies in the Dnieper bend, with three field armies (the 2nd, 6th, and 17th) pinning the rest of the Soviet lines around Kiev.
At this crucial juncture, the Soviets needed to move decisively to save these armies. The four armies now trapped in the rapidly closing pocket ought to have immediately sorted themselves out for a breakout to the east, aided by numerous Soviet armies loitering in the theater. Unfortunately, the Red Army at this point had neither the experience needed to quickly arrange such a complex operation, nor the political will to simply abandon a city as important as Kiev. Therefore, apart from a few divisions of the 21st Army which managed to withdraw through the gap before it closed, the Soviet armies instead shrank their positions into a fragile shell where they were trapped in the broad arc of the Dnieper and Desna Rivers, with two Panzer Groups walling up the only exit.
The end came remarkably quickly. The Soviet 21st conducted itself a bit better than the rest, with a few divisions escaping eastward and the rest at least maintaining a cohesive front for a time. The other armies in the bend - the 37th, 5th, and 26th - were quickly bottled up in shockingly small pockets, where they were pummeled without mercy by the Luftwaffe and by German artillery. These pockets were abnormally tight, and more than one German officer commented on the shock of looking through their binoculars and seeing so many vehicles and men crowding into such small spaces.
A larger question presents itself. The Battle of Kiev had cost the Red Army an astonishing 700,000 total casualties. Whole armies were swallowed up into firebags to either die or surrender. Tank losses were somewhat lighter (the destroyed armies being largely conventional infantry), but the Red Army did lose an eye popping 28,000 heavy guns of all types (flak, artillery, anti-tank). The scale of this battle and of the Red Army’s losses had few historic precedents.
Can a battle which inflicts so much damage on the enemy ever truly be called a mistake?
Certainly, from the viewpoint of the annihilation battle (the only view that the German Army had ever found useful), Kiev was a masterstroke. In one neat maneuver, it wiped out an entire Soviet army group, captured much of Soviet Ukraine, and protected the Army Group Center’s southern flank - and the entire operation took less than a month. For Hitler, the victory was another personal success which vindicated his military instincts, and the Reich propaganda ministry was appropriately prepared to milk it for all it was worth.
The Wehrmacht was now four months into its eastern war, and had already fought three enormous annihilation battles, in Belorussia, at Smolensk, and at Kiev.
So why was the enemy not annihilated?
Vyazma: The Culmination Point
Few moments in World War Two are as misunderstood as the Battle for Moscow. There is a popular version of the story, known to all the western boys who have grown up with a fascination in the war, which goes like this: after a series of stunning victories throughout the summer, the Wehrmacht made a final push for Moscow, where they came within a few miles of winning the war – famously, German troops could see the towers of the Kremlin through binoculars – before coming up just short due to the terrible winter weather, supply problems, and inopportune meddling by Hitler. The implication of this story is that early December 1941 in the suburbs of Moscow are the specific time and place at which Germany lost the war.
This is all wrong. In fact, Germany’s war effort was more or less doomed many weeks before they made their fateful lunge for the Soviet capital. Arguably, the war was doomed from the start, baked into the brute mathematics of Soviet manpower. The essential problem for the Wehrmacht was that the Red Army was able to assemble and field a seemingly endless line of reserve armies, which made it impossible for the Germans to fulfill the original design of the invasion and destroy Soviet fighting power in one grand operation; ultimately, this was an unsolvable problem for Germany which had nothing to do with the Russian winter.
The mythology of the fight for Moscow reflects an attempt by the German officer corps to reconcile a difficult paradox: how could they be losing a war in which they had won every battle? Moscow marked the first real operational setback for Germany in the three years since they had invaded Poland – as the first defeat, it must therefore also be the place where the war was lost. Even more conveniently, Moscow was a point in the war where Hitler’s interference became more intense, allowing German memoir writers to blame the defeat on their Fuhrer. But Moscow had never been of any obvious importance to Germany’s officers – the point of Barbarossa was to destroy the Red Army. Once it was clear that the Wehrmacht had failed to achieve this objective, the focus shifted to Moscow.
By telling themselves – and the world – that Hitler lost the war in the winter at the gates of Moscow, the German generals retroactively absolved themselves of losing the war in the late summer by failing to kill the Red Army. Memoirs like those of Panzer General Heinz Guderian, Franz Halder, or Erich Manstein spend lavish attention on the fight for Moscow, and strongly insinuate that it was that blasted Hitler who ruined everything. Such claims go unopposed – after all, who wants to defend Hitler? In fact, by the winter of 1941 there was little that Germany could have done on an operational level to win the war. It sounds strange: the Nazi-Soviet War lasted for three years, ten months, two weeks, and two days – could Germany really have been fighting a losing war for 95% of this time? But the Wehrmacht was fought out; its blade was blunted by the ferocious Red Army resistance at every point in the field. Nazi Germany had delivered a sucker punch to the Red Army’s jaw, and had a broken hand to show for it.
Germany’s lunge for Moscow in the autumn of 1941 reflected the Wehrmacht’s dire situation. Barbarossa, despite its brilliant operational results, had failed to break the Red Army. What then? What does one do when a lightning operational maneuver fails to knock the enemy out of the war?
For the Wehrmacht, with its limited playbook, the answer was clearly to launch yet another offensive. German officers were trained to think of war in a very specific way, and to seek solutions on the operational level, which is to say the aggressive movement of large formations – the sort of chess piece maneuvering that appeals to the wargaming mind. In this case, the solution was Operation Typhoon: a Barbarossa follow up which called for a pincer maneuver to encircle and destroy the Soviet forces on the approach to Moscow before capturing the city itself.
For optimists in the German command, Typhoon could be framed as a knockout blow to an opponent who was already dazed and battered by Barbarossa. More realistically, however, Typhoon betrayed an unfolding military catastrophe: despite taking horrible losses, the Soviets were somehow still upright in huge numbers – and winter was approaching. Whatever tropes persist about the Germans being surprised by the Russian winter; this is unequivocally not the case. They had explicitly banked on winning the war in the first year to avoid fighting in the winter. Time was running out – hence Typhoon, as a last-ditch effort to win the war before temperatures plummeted.
To deliver this much needed knockout strike, forces were reassigned from the northern and southern army groups to concentrate maximal fighting power in Army Group Center, whose commander – Field Marshal Fedor Von Bock – now wielded three of the Wehrmacht’s four panzer groups. Bock’s army group had now swelled to roughly 2 million men, making Typhoon the largest single German field command of the entire war. This was a formidable force, but the impressive order of battle on paper belied just how much damage the dogged Red Army defenders had dealt out over the previous three months.
This was not the same army that had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. Despite many mistakes made by high command, the rank and file of the Red Army fought ferociously and bravely, and had inflicted severe losses on the Germans. Bock’s three panzer groups were by the start of Typhoon reduced to only 52.8% of their authorized tank complements. Losses of trucks were similarly crippling; by one estimate, the panzer groups had lost between 30 and 40% of their motorized transport. In all, the Wehrmacht had lost something on the order of 200,000 vehicles during the summer months – to offset these staggering losses, Hitler signed off on a replacement batch of a mere 3500 trucks for the eastern front.
Due to the depth of the Wehrmacht’s advance into the Soviet Union (and the difficulty of modifying German trains to be compatible with Soviet track) Typhoon was to be poorly supplied. Before the operation ever began, Wehrmacht logistics personnel warned that the offensive could not be properly supplied all the way to Moscow. The pristine, superbly equipped army which had invaded the Soviet Union in June was now severely degraded – Halder would ruefully admit that “such an army will not be available to us again.”
The scale of the Wehrmacht’s operational successes had largely blinded German leadership to the abysmal state of their own army. This was, as one analyst has phrased it, an army in the process of being “de-modernized.” The Wehrmacht wanted to fight a war of maneuver, moving quickly and artfully to flank and disorient the Red Army, but after heavily bleeding tanks and vehicles during the summer fighting, the army was running perilously short on mobility and punching power. A successful invasion of the Soviet Union would have required an army capable of initiating multiple successive offensive operations, with fresh, fully supplied panzer divisions and motorized infantry that could land a sequence of blows. The Wehrmacht was simply not the army for this job. When Typhoon began on October 2, they endeavored to land a knockout hit using half strength Panzer divisions and an enormous number of tired and poorly supplied infantry units. The lack of motor transport further ensured that any further forward progress would be of the stop-start variety – tanks lunging forward, then pausing to allow infantry and supplies to catch up. As Bock himself wrote in his diary, “How a new operation is to start from this position with the slowly falling combat value of the troops, who are attacked again and again, I don’t quite know yet.”
An overarching issue by this point was the inadequacy of Germany’s rail and truck transit. Contrary to popular belief, Soviet scorched earth efforts had not totally disabled the railways (in fact, they tended to keep the railways running to evacuate factory equipment right up until the last possible moment), and German engineering units managed to restore rail connectivity to Army Group Center in preparation for Typhoon. The problem was simply that there was inadequate rail capacity to supply such an enormous army, and this forced the Wehrmacht to make impossible choices, in terms of allocating limited capacity to various needs like replacement vehicles, spare parts, ammunition, fuel - and winter clothing. Logistical pinches were amplified by the unrestrained optimism of the Army’s quartermaster, General Eduard Wagner, who as a rule tended to drastically overpromise and underdeliver.
Lacking the ability to either adequately supply the army or reinforce it, the Germans had to resort to half measures and patch jobs to scrape together the necessary force for Typhoon.
In no arm was this more apparent than armored vehicles - tanks in particular. Cumulative German tank losses were enormous, even in an unbroken string of victories. On paper, Army Group Center began Operation Typhoon in October with more tanks than it had in June, but this increase in strength was achieved through a variety of stopgap solutions which papered over the overall degradation of the Wehrmacht’s fighting power.
Tank losses had been severe, and logistics were held together by a thread, and all of this was amplified by the Wehrmacht’s now endemic reporting issues. Wehrmacht units tended to waver back and forth between over and under reporting their losses, depending on how they wanted to manipulate supply. It was common to over-report tank losses and breakdowns in order to request replacement vehicles and spare parts, but under-report them in order to get more ammunition and fuel. More broadly, the inadequate state of German supply created a strong incentive to lie. As a result, German commanders did not have a precise sense of the actual combat strength of their all-important panzer units - but they did know that the situation was dire.
On average, the tank strength of the Wehrmacht in the east by the beginning of September was approximately 30% permanent losses, 23% under repair, and 47% ready for combat. In Army Group Center, however, only 34% of the original tank strength was action-ready - these units having seen particularly fierce fighting at Smolensk. One of Hitler’s adjuncts reported the Fuhrer’s emerging alarm at the state of the panzer force:
“How was he to conduct a war, if he was counting on 1,000 additional tanks, and then someone told him there were actually only 500? He had assumed that the people in the Ordnance Office could at least count.”
To beef up Army Group Center for Typhoon, the Germans had to play almost all their immediately available cards. This included transferring a Panzer Group from Army Group North (so that Bock had 3 of the eastern army’s 4 panzer groups), dispatching both of the panzer divisions in Army High Command’s strategic reserve, allocating a batch of 316 replacement vehicles from storage, and sending captured French tanks to conduct rear area security tasks so that German panzers could be freed up for frontline action. Even with all of these measures taken, Army Group Center was still significantly under strength.
On a unit by unit basis, the army simply was shockingly degraded. Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group, which had begun the war in June with 900 tanks, was down to a mere 256 combat ready panzers by the end of September, to which they could add 149 promised replacement vehicles.
The Germans did manage to put together a powerful package for Typhoon. Bock now commanded 60% of the German forces on the eastern front. But even after giving Bock an extra Panzer Group, and deploying panzer divisions from the strategic reserve, and sending replacement vehicles, Army Group Center only barely managed to match its tank strength from June. The real crusher, however, was the fact that railing in all of these new units and replacement vehicles meant that there was no longer rail capacity for spare parts, and consequentially broken down vehicles had a tendency to stay that way.
When Typhoon finally launched, it teased yet another stunning victory for the Wehrmacht. This would be the last uncontestable victory; the final stunning annihilation battle before the mirage evaporated and the Wehrmacht could no longer ignore the apocalypse.
Schematically, Typhoon was merely an expansion of previous German movements in the Soviet Union. In both Belorussia and at Smolensk, Army Group Center had bagged huge encirclements using its two panzer groups as pincers - General Hoth’s 3rd Panzer as the northern pincer and Guderian’s 2nd as the southern. Now, with 4th Panzer Group under General Hoepner added to the inventory, there would be three pincers, with Hoenper’s group slotting into the middle.
The entire operation at first looked like yet another flawless implementation of the standard Wehrmacht package. Hoepner’s panzer group blasted a gap in the Soviet front while Guderian and Hoth curled around the edges. The Soviet response was sluggish and confused, largely due to the fact that the Soviet commander of the front, Ivan Konev (who would later prove to be extremely competent) had been ordered by Stalin and the Stavka to mount a frontloaded defense of a wide front with insufficient forces. This left the front lines thin and easy to penetrate, and Konev was unable to withdraw his units after losing communications with most of his frontline commanders due to Luftwaffe bombing of command posts. More or less hung out to dry, Konev watched helplessly as a whopping seven armies were either partially or completely encircled on the approach to Moscow.
The defense against Operation Typhoon probably marked the absolute low point of Soviet operational conduct. Within the first three weeks of October, the Red Army lost more than 900,000 men defending the approach to Moscow, and the road to the capital was looking perilously open. And yet, at the end of October, it was the Wehrmacht that felt desperation. They were out of energy and out of time.
Snow fell on the night of October 6. The following morning it quickly melted and created mud.
October was a terrible month to get anywhere in the Soviet Union; most roads were unpaved dirt, and the autumn rains quickly turned them into muddy nightmares. German vehicles everywhere were bogged down and unable to move; victims of the Rasputitsa (literally, time without roads). One German commander, after the war, would write:
We had anticipated this of course, for we had read about it in our studies of Russian conditions. But the reality far exceeded our worst expectations… The infantryman slithers in the mud, while many teams of horses are needed to drag each gun forward. All wheeled vehicles sink up to their axles in the slime.
German soldiers who had been on campaign, trekking across these vast expanses for months, now struggled to move very short distances. And still, despite the complete destruction of the Soviet forces at Viazma, there were still Red Army forces in the field, fighting back. Between the mud, the shortage of vehicles and fuel, general exhaustion, and a continuous Red Army defense, the Wehrmacht was now crawling forward. Furthermore, the slow going affected not only the advance of the combat units at the front, but also the German supply line, which by now was completely overwhelmed and providing only a trickle of the food, fuel, and ammunition needed to sustain the army. This in turn forced more hard choices - every ton of fuel and shells that was painfully hauled up to the front represented a large number of winter uniforms that were left behind.
Bock, trying his best to explain the situation to high command, bluntly said that “the objectives… surely cannot be reached before winter, because we no longer have the required forces and because it is impossible to supply those forces.”
The German forces painfully blasting their way forward towards Moscow were hardly recognizable as the same world class troops that had shaken the pillars of Europe. Their speed, precision, and vitality was gone. Instead of fighting a war of maneuver and movement (the type of war that Germany excelled at), they were now waging a battle of attrition, which was the sort of game that the Soviet Union was always going to win. One German officer explained, “We gradually lost the ability to manoeuvre. War became one of linear movement… We were no longer instructed to surprise, outflank, and annihilate the enemy. We were told: “you will hold the front from such a point to such and such a point, you will advance to such a line”.” On the other side of the line, despite the sequence of defeats, some Soviet officers could sense the shift in Germany’s ability to fight. Lieutenant General Vassily Sokolovsky boasted that “The Blitzkrieg has developed into a continuous grinding of the German war machine.” Now, it was grinding to a halt.
Army Group Center slowly trudged its way up to the outskirts of Moscow as the temperature dropped, giving rise to the enduring myth that Germany was within sight of winning the war. Utter nonsense; the German forces now grabbing at Moscow with their fingertips were fought out and exhausted, with most of their units now at between one third and half of their normal strength – and those soldiers who were still upright were now severely fatigued, improperly equipped for winter, and poorly supplied. German officers were taught to prize aggression and strength of will above everything else, and across the line they desperately tried to move their men forward. But this battle was lost. German soldiers being within binocular sight of the Kremlin is merely a mildly interesting bit of trivia; it was not as if the Germans would win the war if they could just push forward and touch the Kremlin gates – as Napoleon could have testified. This was not a game of tag; getting into Moscow would merely have meant a bloody urban battle, and it was pure fantasy to think that this wrecked remnant of the Wehrmacht had the strength to take the city block by block. And so, across the front, German units broke down and stopped, like an engine running on fumes. Typhoon, like Barbarossa, had failed, and the Red Army was still in the field.
Reality Check at Moscow
In hindsight, it is very clear that the German decision to push for Moscow in the closing months of 1941 had no serious chance of success and placed Germany in a strategically perilous position. Even the disastrously bungled Soviet defense at Vyazma cost the Germans more than enough time and casualties to doom the attack, proving that Typhoon was simply not an adequate solution to Germany’s problem – after all, if an operation can annihilate an entire enemy army group and still fail, this suggests that the operation was unworkable from the beginning.
Operation Typhoon was, after all, a choice. There were many other potentially fruitful activities that Hitler’s team might have engaged in: for example, beefing up the logistics pipeline, proclaiming the end of collective farms and recruiting the Ukrainian populace to overthrow Bolshevism, or ramping up conscriptions and war production back home (shockingly, even months after invading the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany was not on so-called “total war” economic footing). Perhaps, after annihilating the Red Army forces on the approach to Moscow at the end of October, the Wehrmacht could have dug into winter positions and looked to refit and reorganize for 1942, rather than attempting the final crawl through the mud and the snow towards the city.
Instead, the Germans did the only thing that they knew: draw up another offensive operation and try for another knockout blow, pushing forward until it was impossible to move further. Knowing, as one does now, that Typhoon was never going to work, it is easy to criticize the limited scope of the German expertise. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that whatever their limitations in other aspects of warmaking, the Wehrmacht remained the most operationally skilled army in the world, and in 1941 the Red Army proved completely incapable of countering them. Typhoon failed to take Moscow, but it did destroy an entire line of Soviet field armies guarding the approach to the capital, and inflicted horrific casualties on the Soviets. For Stalin and his associates at Stavka, the situation map told of a rapidly unfolding catastrophe.
To the residents of Moscow, including Stalin, it was not immediately obvious that the city would hold. By late October, as the Germans were battling to liquidate the Red Army pockets on the highway, Moscow had acquired a clear aura of impending doom. Civilian infrastructure broke down, with public transportation interrupted and electricity available only intermittently – coal supplies were now being hogged by armaments plants. Remarkably, there were instances of civil unrest: a rare occurrence in a population which had long ago reached the point of submission courtesy of the NKVD.
Contrary to German hopes, however, incidents of disorder in the street did not reflect a swelling anti-Soviet mood among the populace, but rather a growing fear that the government would abandon them. Some Muscovites observed how unprecedented and ominous it was that the city’s bakeries were now distributing several days’ worth of rations all at once – was the government expecting to be disrupted? In fact, Stalin and his crew had already made plans to abandon the city. On October 15, Stalin issued an order initiating the evacuation of the government and preparations to demolish factories, supply depots, and infrastructure in the event the Germans successfully entered the city. A substantial number of factories had already been evacuated, and plans were now in motion to turn what remained into a wasteland for the Germans.
Stalin – usually imperturbable and stony – seemed to be at low ebb. “Are you sure that we can hold Moscow?” he asked Zhukov, “I ask you about this with a pain in my soul. Tell me truthfully, as a communist.” Zhukov – a ‘whatever the cost’ military man par excellence – answered “We will, without fail, hold Moscow.”
After the mid-October panic, the mood in the capital stiffened into defiance. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were conscripted to dig anti-tank ditches and construct field fortifications in the outskirts of the city, while able bodied men continued to be put into uniform. Zhukov and Stalin even agreed to hold the November 7 parade for the annual commemoration of the revolution, as a demonstration of resolve.
After reviewing the parading troops, Stalin addressed the crowd. His speech, which was printed in all the newspapers the next day, admitted that the USSR was in dire straits, but insisted that Soviet victory was inevitable. “The whole world is looking at you”, he said, “for it is you who can destroy the marauding armies of the German invader.” He also, significantly, recalled the great heroes of Russia’s military history, like Alexander Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi, Alexander Suvorov, and Mikhail Kutuzov. As early as July, the Soviet regime had begun rehabilitating a specifically Russian sort of patriotism by drawing a corollary between the German invasion and the villains of Russia’s past, like Napoleon and the Mongols. Stalin once again played up this theme with the Wehrmacht at the gates. His closing line, “Death to the German occupiers!” nicely encapsulated the mood.
After toying with evacuating in October, Stalin was now set on staying in the capital to fight it out. On December 1, the General Secretary received a phone call from Zhukov’s forward headquarters in the village of Perkhushkovo. The alarmed staffer on the other end of the call reported that the Germans were very near, and asked if headquarters could be relocated further to the east. Stalin replied by asking if they had shovels on hand. The officer, bewildered at first, replied that they did have shovels and asked what should be done with them. “Comrade Stepanov, tell your comrades to take your spades”, replied the dictator, “and dig themselves some graves. The Stavka’s not leaving Moscow. I’m not leaving Moscow. And they’re not going anywhere from Perkhushkovo.”
Evaluating Stalin’s performance in the war is difficult. It is very easy to point to Stalin’s terrible errors: he did massively churn up his officer corps in the prewar years; he did botch the deployment of the Red Army in the lead up to war; during Barbarossa his leadership did lead to the mass encirclement battles which wreaked havoc on the Red Army. It is harder to give Stalin credit for his successes – it feels nicer to instead acknowledge and praise less - shall we simply say controversial - figures like Zhukov.
It is, however, a simple matter of fact that Stalin was at the center of Soviet victory, as the undisputed leader of the country, intimately involved in all critical decisions. Stalin was viewed as indispensable by all his subordinates (he continued to derive great legitimacy from his seemingly superhuman workload), and in fact his general popularity rose substantially during the war as he came to serve as the archetype for the state and its stubborn, stoic stand against the storm. In the waning months of 1941, as the German onslaught reached its apex on the approach to Moscow, Stalin’s defiance personified a growing Soviet rage in the face of the apocalypse. As Stalin himself said, to thunderous applause from the crowd in Moscow, “The German invaders want a war of extermination against the peoples of the Soviet Union. Very well then! If they want a war of extermination they shall have it!”
This sense of a heroic stand at the gates of hell was exhilarating, and not only to Soviet citizens. One American journalist, who had also been in France in 1940, recalled:
Every newspaper man who witnesses a momentous occasion of this kind tries to think of the one phrase which tells the full, thrilling story… While I was watching the Germans occupy Paris… the best I could do was: “Paris fell like a lady.” Now, the best I could find was: “Moscow stood up and fought like a man.”
Stalin, with his regime and his army, braced for a ferocious fight for the city. But the tremendous collision never came; instead, the Germans stopped. By the start of December, with temperatures plunging, Army Group Center was essentially stuck in place at every spot on the line. It was not just the cold them kept them frozen in place (an egregious pun), but also a general exhaustion and shortage of men, food, and fuel, and ammunition. The cold made things miserable, but the frontline units of Army Group Center were so chewed up and undersupplied that they would not have achieved much even in summer weather.
With the Wehrmacht thinly strung out and unable to move, the strategic initiative by default passed to the Red Army for the first time in the war. Zhukov wasted no time, and immediately initiated a ferocious counteroffensive to drive the Wehrmacht back from the doorstep. On paper, Army Group Center outnumbered the Red Army forces in the Moscow region (perhaps 1.7 million Germans against 1.1 million Soviet troops), but the Red Army had reserve armies in the process of being formed, its forces, unlike the Germans, were fresh and close to their supply and communication hubs, they had access to functioning railways, and even more importantly, the Soviets were now able to concentrate troops at targeted points on the line. Despite inferior numbers on the front, concentrated attacks gave the Red Army a numerical advantage of more than 2 to 1 at key points. The attack began on December 5, and soon managed to throw the leading edges of the German line back from Moscow.
Zhukov’s decision to waste no time and immediately hit the exhausted Germans proved decisive, and the Red Army put Army Group Center in a very difficult position over the winter. On December 8, Hitler issued War Directive 39, which ordered the army to “abandon immediately all major offensive operations and go over to the defensive.” The order was a belated recognition of a reality that already existed on the ground. For many German soldiers clinging to their positions outside Moscow, “the defensive” was already all too real.
If the summer months witnessed the height of German hubris, December would give rise to similar overconfidence among Soviet leadership. After months of crushing operational defeats and terrible losses, the sudden shift in momentum was intoxicating. The Red Army did achieve significant operational breakthroughs which eliminated the imminent threat to Moscow and caused a genuine crisis for German command. However, the contrast between the panic of October and the successes of December convinced Stalin that the Germans were on their last legs, and led to massive inflation of expectations.
The best that the Red Army could aim for in the winter was to eliminate the direct pressure on Moscow and push the Germans off the doorstep – but Stalin and his minions became convinced instead that it was possible to encircle major German formations and potentially destroy Army Group Center altogether. In one memo, Stalin expressed his confidence that the winter offensive would “ensure the complete defeat of the Nazi forces in 1942.”
Unfortunately, the Red Army simply was not capable of such ambitious operations. The Soviets remained deficient in the technical and logistical elements of waging an offensive war. The Soviet officer corps was inexperienced and unable to properly coordinate the maneuver of their units the way German officers could, Soviet supply and control systems were still cumbersome and unable to back up a deep offensive, ammunition and hot food were tightly rationed, and the Red Army struggled to coordinate a successful combined arms battle. On the other hand, the Wehrmacht – although badly chewed up – was still the world’s most lethal army, and was able to hold together with cool nerves, tactical superiority, and carefully timed counterattacks. The tragedy, therefore, was that neither army was capable of defeating the other in 1941.
In the end, the Battle of Moscow was much less climactic than the mythology suggests, although no less decisive. The story of the battle was less about the timely intervention of the winter weather, and more about the attrition and fatigue of the German forces finally taking its toll, exposing an exhausted Wehrmacht to a well-timed counteroffensive by Zhukov. The Germans were not stopped outside of Moscow because it was cold; they were stuck in the cold because their offensive had failed.
While the myth of a German chance at victory is just that – a myth – December 1941 did witnessed the first shift in the trajectory and the nature of the war, as the conflict widened and – for the first time in years – Germany lost control of the strategic initiative. But conditions on the ground in the Soviet Union were not the only thing changing to Germany’s disadvantage. On December 5, Zhukov unleashed his reserve armies and began to batter Army Group Center. Two days later, a Japanese strike force launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazi-Soviet War was joined with a growing World War.
Maneuver Becomes Attrition
There is often a tacit assumption when discussing warfare that, at a given moment, one side is “winning” and the other is “losing.” The Nazi-Soviet War, especially in 1941 and 1942, dispels this notion. Disorientation, desperation, anger, and suffering were ubiquitous for both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht. Both sides could point to certain successes, but these came in the context of a broader catastrophe. The Wehrmacht could celebrate a series of brilliant encirclements and battles won, but these – Smolensk being the ideal example – came against the backdrop of a cataclysmic misread of Soviet mobilization power: the Germans continued to encircle and destroy Soviet units, but these units were not supposed to exist, and the Red Army was supposed to have collapsed. On the Soviet side, the successful evacuation of many critical factories – especially tank factories – was (and still is) held up as a great victory by the communist regime, but of course these factories were evacuated because the Red Army was being smashed up and down the line, and crucial industrial regions were being overrun by the Germans. In the end, both parties found themselves engaged in a desperate struggle for survival which no one was prepared for: the scale and intensity of the warfare was simply without precedent. The river of suffering and death had spilled its banks.
This leads to the larger point. In 1941, neither the Red Army nor the Wehrmacht was capable of destroying the other outright. No decisive victory was possible for either side, which means that this war was precisely that thing which the Germans had dreaded - a war of attrition.
Individually, the German operations had all the characteristics of a war of maneuver, with their artful pincer movements and the powerful and decisive application of their mechanized package at decisive points. They produced enormous encirclements which ballooned Soviet casualties to outrageous levels. The problem was that these victories did not bring overall strategic decision.
The Germans fought four enormous cauldron battles in 1941 - in Belorussia, at Smolensk, at Kiev, and Vyazma on the approach to Moscow. When an army is forced to fight a sequence of maneuver campaigns, each one failing to bring about a decisive result, the cumulative effect is attritive. And this was Germany’s problem. The Red Army was simply too powerful, the manpower reserve too enormous, and the Soviet state too tenacious to destroy in one, or even two big maneuver campaigns, and the Wehrmacht was trapped in a war of attrition whether it wanted one or not.
Ultimately, this revealed that the Wehrmacht, while extremely gifted in the operational and tactical domains of warmaking, was fatally incompetent in other domains, like military intelligence and logistics. In particular, German assessments of Soviet mobilization power were perhaps the greatest military intelligence misfire of all time.
The Soviet Union’s mobilization powers were truly awesome, and perpetually made a mockery of German military intelligence. In early August, reports were presented to Hitler which predicted that the Red Army no longer had sufficient forces to form a continuous defensive front, and was likely near the end of its resources – “The number of new units being organized may have reached its peak. The creation of more new units is hardly to be expected.” The report predicted that, at the absolute maximum, the Red Army could field 390 divisions. This number was an upward revision from pre-invasion estimates and yet it still represented a laughable understimation. By this time, the Soviet mobilization had raised the Red Army’s line strength to 401 divisions – a number which would grow to 450 by September, and 592 by December. Perhaps most astonishingly, the Stavka achieved this tremendous organizational feat and then replicated it in the first half of 1942 by fielding 10 additional field armies.
In the ultimate analysis, Germany lost the war because it was engaged in an attritive struggle that it did not expect and could not understand, and it could not adjust to these conditions due to ideological constraints.
By the autumn of 1941, critical grain-growing and industrial regions were behind German lines. Of course, the entire point of Barbarossa was to allow Germany to exploit the economic resources of the western Soviet Union, and especially Ukraine, to create an economically self-sufficient greater German empire – one important assumption by German leadership, therefore, was that Barbarossa would swing the economic dimension of the war in Germany’s favor. This proved to be an utter fantasy.
The Soviet Union spent a considerable amount of energy evacuating factories out of the German path, although contrary to communist boasting these industrial assets were not rebuilt without a hitch in the rear areas. Evacuating a single factory involved hundreds, if not thousands of rail cars worth of equipment, and in the chaos of the war these loads tended to congregate at railway junctions, creating great heaps of disorganized machinery and equipment. By one estimate, roughly 1.5 million railcar loads worth of factory equipment were evacuated to the rear areas (the Urals, the Volga valley, Siberia, and Central Asia). For obvious reasons, most of these factories were not immediately reassembled in 1941, and the following year would see an enormous drop in Soviet industrial output – some estimates suggest that 1942’s output had dropped by more than one third from 1940 levels.
The main benefit of the factory evacuations, therefore, was simply to deny the Germans access to these assets. Despite these disruptions, the Soviet Union did manage to juggle an improvised, emergency economy in response to the German invasion, followed by a return of successful planning beginning in 1943 – successful, at least, by Soviet standards; the USSR’s military production never came close to matching the continent sized factory called America churning away across the oceans. Nevertheless, Stalinist development of industry in the interior regions of the USSR, especially the Urals, proved critical for giving the country a sort of economic depth that allowed it to survive the German invasion, and the investment in not only equipment but also skilled workers, managers, and technicians allowed the USSR to produce vast quantities of tanks and weaponry throughout the war.
Ironically, even though the Soviet Union lost economically valuable territories in 1941 (and Germany by extension gained them), it was the Third Reich that soon found itself facing serious economic difficulties.
The Soviet regime managed to evacuate or destroy enough valuable infrastructure that the Germans found it difficult to get any real value from captured regions. Exploiting Ukraine, for example, required redirecting German trains and coal to get things moving, but the sprawling Nazi empire was already short on both of these things. To function in the Soviet Union, the Germans had to repair track and infrastructure – but this required labor, and already Germany was facing a severe labor shortage. Additionally, moving resources out of the Soviet Union would require allocating rail capacity that was needed to move supplies in to keep the army going. The economic situation was growing so desperate that some German planners suggested shutting down the entire armaments industry for the winter to save coal. In the end, the occupied portions of the Soviet Union provided less economic value to Germany than tiny, occupied Belgium.
Insofar as the Nazis found Ukraine to be a wasteland, they merely reaped what they sowed. Remarkably, German leadership specifically chose not to abolish the Soviet collective farms – a simple gesture which could have won the support of many Ukrainians. One German official suggested that “Long-term secure deliveries of raw materials and foodstuffs to the German Reich could be achieved with fewer forcible means through a sympathetic treatment of the nationalities concerned” – bureaucratic jargon for trying to win over the Ukrainians by treating them with a bare minimum of humanity.
This sensible suggestion was dismissed outright. The Nazis were planning to starve the Slavs to death anyway, the collective farm seemed like a useful system for doing so, and the Germans never doubted that they could run them more efficiently than the communists had, and so the collective farms stayed. But the Germans, caught up in a cataclysmic war, with no knowledge of the local areas and no compelling ideology like communism, could not control the peasants like the Soviets could, and so Ukraine would not feed Germany the way Hitler wanted it to. Any hope held by the local populations that the Wehrmacht came to free them from communist oppression evaporated instantly upon contact with German barbarity.
Stalin and the communist party had set a very high bar for cruelty, and yet the Germans managed to clear it without difficult. It is worth wondering how the story would have gone if the Wehrmacht had declared the end of the collective farm and portrayed themselves as liberators (even dishonestly), making a halfhearted attempt to win the support of Ukrainians. But then, this is to wonder what it would have been like if Hitler were not wicked; but then he would not have been Hitler, and the Wehrmacht would not have been in Ukraine at all.
In the end, due to a combination of German cruelty and the Soviets’ effort to evacuate or destroy economically valuable assets, Barbarossa failed to shift the industrial aspects of the war in favor of Germany. The most immediate economic implication of the invasion for the Germans was rather the rapid exhaustion of their fuel reserves, and the costly responsibility of supplying an enormous army hundreds of miles deep in enemy territory.
Unable to implement their bloody vision of racial paradise in the east, a frustrated Nazi regime began executing compensatory crimes. The original plan was to steal Ukraine’s grain and starve tens of millions of Slavs to death. Unable to do so, the Wehrmacht instead starved where they were able. They would murder roughly 3 million Soviet prisoners of war – half a million by shooting, and the rest by forcing them into open air holding pens and waiting for them to starve to death. In Leningrad, cut off from supplies by the German siege, hunger was already a problem by the end of 1941, and by the time the Red Army rescued the city in 1944 roughly 1 million people had starved to death.
This was an apocalyptic crime by the Wehrmacht, but it was all wrong. These crimes occurred because Germany had not won the war and could not commit the crimes Hitler had planned on. Soviet prisoners were starved because the Wehrmacht was short on supplies and hoarded every calorie it could get for its own soldiers. Leningrad was the scene of mass starvation, but the city was besieged and starved because the Germans could not capture it outright. Hitler had originally planned to demolish it entirely, and so the starvation of its citizens represented the flailing rage of a Nazi regime that was about to watch an empire slip through its fingers.
So too, the decision to begin the mass murder of Jews betrayed the fact that the German war effort was doomed. Hitler made four important promises about Barbarossa: first, that the Red Army could be destroyed in a rapid campaign; secondly that the Soviet state would collapse under the strain of the war; third, that the lands of the Soviet Union would provide an economic bounty for Germans; fourth and finally, that the fall of the Soviet Union would allow for a final solution to the Jewish problem. Everything was going wrong. The Red Army was still putting fresh formations in the field everywhere; the Soviet state had not collapsed, but was instead stoically arresting, shooting, moving, and conscripting people on an enormous scale; the occupied Soviet territories were not providing grain or coal or metal, but were instead soaking up huge amounts of material and fuel. In the face of failure in the east, Hitler shifted the parameters of the war to emphasize the extermination of the Jews – a tacit acknowledgement that this was now the only war aim still within immanent reach. Originally, the Final Solution was to be implemented after the Soviet Union collapsed – therefore there were at first no real plans for how it might be achieved. With the Red Army standing strong, the war against the Jews had to be moved up the priority list, and so the SS commenced shooting Soviet Jews at a frenetic pace and experimenting with industrialized ways of murdering them.
The Holocaust, in a very real sense, was a consolation prize for a lunatic who was caught on the wrong end of his own apocalypse.
Coda: The Limits of Maneuver
It would be deeply wrong to call 1941 a Soviet success story. The military decisions made by Stalin and his team at Stavka - in particular the impetus to hold ground and counterattack relentlessly - colossally swelled Soviet casualties, wasted much of the Red Army’s premiere frontline units, and allowed the entire western rim of the USSR to be overrun. Nevertheless, amid this catastrophe the Soviet state demonstrated a tenacity, a durability, and powers of mobilization that utterly confounded German notions of a single decisive campaigning season.
Taken in a vacuum, the operations of 1941 showed off a Wehrmacht at the height of its powers, hunting and destroying enormous Soviet forces in a sequence of great victories. Cumulatively, however, these battles destroyed the Wehrmacht, which never recovered from the losses of officers, veteran troops, and equipment that it suffered in this crucial year. Declawed, defanged, deflated - it was now only a question of when and how, not if Germany would lose the war.
In August, one German divisional officer made a passing note which proved to be far more prescient than he could have imagined. The division, he noted, would have to find a way to reduce its casualty rate “if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”
Big Serge’s Reading List
I apologize for initially forgetting to include a reading list. For the sake of ease I have organized it roughly by topic.
David Glantz, “When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler”
Jonathan Dimbledy, “Operation Barbarossa: The History of a Cataclysm”
Evan Mawdsley, “Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945”
Frank Ellis, “Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire”
Stephen Fritz, “Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East”
Sean McMeekin, “Stalin’s War": A New History of World War Two”
Horst Boog et Al, “Germany and the Second World War: Volume IV: The Attack on the Soviet Union”
David Stahel, “Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East”
David Stahel, “Kiev 1941: Hitler's Battle for Supremacy in the East”
David Stahel, “Operation Typhoon: Hitler's March on Moscow”
David Glantz, “Operation Barbarossa: Hitler's Invasion of Russia 1941”
David Glantz, “Barbarossa Derailed: The Battle for Smolensk” (4 Volumes)
Lev Lopukhovsky, “The Viaz'ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army's Disastrous Stand Against Operation Typhoon”
Soviet Union & Red Army
David Glantz, “Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War”
David Glatnz, “Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War”
Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg “Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II”
Rodric Braithwaite “Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War”
Geoffrey Roberts, “Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953”
David Stone (editor), “The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945”
Catherine Merridale, “Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945”
Economics and Industry
Karel Berkhoff, “Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule”
Adam Tooze, “The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy”
Edward Ericson, “Feeding the German Eagle: Soviet Economic Aid to Nazi Germany, 1933-1941”
Mark Harrison, “Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden, 1940–1945”
Alex Kay, “Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political And Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940-1941”
Franz Halder, “The Halder War Diary: 1939-1942”
Heinz Guderian, “Panzer Leader”
Dirk Chervatin, “Eastern Front: 500 Letters from War”
Erich Manstein, “Lost Victories”
Hermann Hoth, “Panzer Operations: Germany's Panzer Group 3 During the Invasion of Russia, 1941”
"The enormous latent military power of the Soviet Union had been invisible to German planners, who foolishly dismissed the fighting prowess of Slavs, the sophistication of Soviet weapons systems, and especially the unparalleled organizational powers of the Communist Party, which could calmly and efficiently mobilize tens of millions of men to fight."
Beyond the Hollywood style bluster and propaganda of western media, history repeats itself, as the US is quietly discovering now.
Minor comment/critique: You seem to obsesss a bit as to whether your posts are too long or too infrequent. So long as they are engaging, I (personally) don't think it matters too much. Most people can't write something this long and keep their audiences engaged. So long as you can, don't worry about the length!