Russian WWII Offensive of 1941 It was devastatingly cold in the Russian winter of 1941, during the peak of the German offensive against Moscow. Just as it had Napoleon’s armies in the century before, the Russian winter conditions had stopped the advance on Moscow. Hitler had not planned on a winter war, and thus had not properly equipped his troop frostbite, and thousands of them died of exposure. Indeed, it was this biting winter which had provided the Russians with an opportunity to gather themselves, and prepare for one of the most heroic counter-offensives of World War II – known to the Russian people as “The Great Patriotic War.” It would be wrong to attribute the German failure at this time solely to the harsh winter; the main failure was that of misjudgment and mistiming. The offensive had been launched too late in the year, at a season where the weather was due to break up.
The Germans had underestimated the effects of the harsh weather and terrain on their motorized units, and had poorly rationed their resources – too much had been asked of the German troops, and strengths had been allowed to drop too low. Despite a few more victories by German forces in November and December, they would never again subeztially advance into the areas surrounding Moscow. On October 28th, the German 3 Panzer group, under the command of Field-Marshal Von Kluge, had again tried to penetrate into the northern area of Kalinin, and failed. Hitler called in 9 Army to join the 3 Panzer, and moved them towards the northeast area above Moscow. Russian resiezce had been uneven, but in the front of Tula and on the Nara, where new formations were arriving, it had been the most determined and tough.
The Red Army had fallen back to within forty miles of Moscow, but was sustained by massive Muscovite power, a continuing flow of troops to the front line. During the months of October and November, nine new Russian armies had been trained, and were being deployed throughout the fronts. Two complete armies and parts of another three were to reach the Moscow area towards the end of November. Many of the divisions in these armies were raised from newly inducted recruits, but some were well trained and equipped and had been withdrawn from the military districts in Central Russia, and Siberia. In October and early November, a few German battalions still fighting had brought all Red Army motor vehicles (except tanks) to a stop, and the Russian Quarter-master-General Khrulev, was forced to switch his troops to horses and carts. He was criticized by both his own troops and Stalin, but was granted permission to form 76 horse transport battalions.
The problems caused by the transport shortage and weather were recognized by the Soviet High Command, and fuel refills were sent to the front lines. Defenses were restored and thickened up, and Moscow awaited the second stage of the German offensive, which is described in detail in the German Offensive section of this report. By November however, German casualties had reached 145,000 troops. The German position in the South, between Tula and Voronezh was both confusing and disquieting, as on October 26, German 2 Panzer leader Guderian had suddenly been attacked by the renewed Russian forces on the east flank, and was fighting to hold his ground. The 2 Panzer had been meant to surround Moscow, but was so weak in armor, and with the addition of several infantry corps, its mobile strength was greatly decreased.
As the German drive against Moscow slackened, the Soviet commander on the Moscow front, General Georgy Koneztinovich Zhukov, on December 6 inaugurated the first great counteroffensive with strokes against Bock’s right in the Elets (Yelets) and Tula sectors south of Moscow and against his center in the Klin and Kalinin sectors to the northwest. Levies of Siberian troops, who were extremely effective fighters in cold weather, were used for these offensives. There followed a blow at the German left, in the Velikie Luki sector; and the counteroffensive, which was sustained throughout the winter of 1941-42, soon took the form of a triple convergence toward Smolensk. Before the end of the year Kinzel (the head of the Foreign Armies East intelligence), was to issue a rewrite of the German Army handbook on the Soviet Armed forces which contrasted the report put out that year before. The Red Army, it said, had been made into a fighting force serviceable to a degree that would not have been thought possible before the war.
What was most astonishing was not its numerical strength, but rather the great stocks of available weapons, equipment, clothing, tanks, and guns. German intelligence was surprised that Soviet High Command recognized and remedied its own weaknesses, their organizational powers, and the ability of the High Command and the troops in the field to overcome their difficulties by improvisation. The first day of December was one of terrible implications for the German forces in Moscow, and within the German High Command. On that morning, Hitler himself had issued three telegrams: one removing General Von Rundstedt from command of the German 5 Panzer Army in Russia; the second ordering the attack of 1 Panzer Army on the southern city of Voroshilovgrad; and the third demanding that 50 tanks per Panzer Division be sent to General von Kleist, who’s forces were being defeated by Russian General Cherevichenko on the Ukrainian front. This erupted into chaos around the German high command, and left Hitler in control of the crucial 5 Panzer Army, a crucial division near Moscow: a command he was ill qualified to take.
These Soviet counteroffensives tumbled back the exhausted Germans, lapped around their flanks, and produced a critical situation. From generals downward, the invaders were filled with ghastly thoughts of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. In that emergency Hitler forbade any retreat beyond the shortest possible local withdrawals. His decision exposed his troops to awful sufferings in their advanced positions facing Moscow, for they had neither the clothing nor the equipment for a Russian winter campaign; but if they had once started a general retreat it might easily have degenerated into a panic-stricken rout. The Red Army’s winter counteroffensive continued for more than three months after its December launching, though with diminishing progress. By March 1942 it had advanced more than 150 miles in some sectors.
But the Germans maintained their hold on the main bastions of their winter front despite the fact that the Soviets had often advanced many miles beyond these bastions, which were in effect cut off. In retrospect it became clear that Hitler’s objection to any major withdrawals worked out in such a way as to restore the confidence of the German troops and probably saved them from a widespread collapse. Nevertheless, they paid a heavy price indirectly for that rigid defense. The tremendous strain of that winter campaign, on armies that had not been prepared for it, had other serious effects. Before the winter ended, many German divisions were reduced to barely a third of their original strength, and they were never fully built up again.
In early January, as soon as it was known that the Germans were in retreat, the Red Army troops were spurred into motion, and their morale and fighting spirit increased greatly – along with Soviet casualties. For the Russians began to counter-attack without regard to losses, flinging themselves at the German rearguards. Zhukov was forced to change his tactics and order his troops to avoid all centers of enemy resiezce – as he was being smashed at such points. As soon as the gaps in the German positions could be found, the Russians struck there. The Red Army was well equipped for winter warfare and was much more mobile than their enemy. But, as Zhukov admits, they were still poorly trained, and their Field Commanders were still hesitant to attack gaps in the German line, as they still feared encirclement. Stalin, at the time, was convinced that the Germans were still benumbed by the cold, and that the entire front was ripe for the taking.
However, Zhukov knew that the only vulnerable front was the Army Group Center; their other positions in Valdai, Volkov, or the Ukraine were unlikely to yield any further successes. However, Stalin hastily attacked the flanks of the Army Group Center, which would give Zhukov’s army a fierce fight, and casualties and delays were high. Stalin’s mistake, in the end, was overestimating Russian strength, and underestimating German resilience – especially under the Frhrer’s strict command not to fall back. By the end of April, the Russians had pushed back the German Kalinin, North-West, and Bryansk until Russian army groups could push them back no further. These German forces were no longer capable of any advancement into Russia, and were bogged down by the spring mud.
The Russian 33 and 39 Soviet Armies remained in the pocket of the remaining “horseshoe” shaped German front (known as the Rzhev Salient, and maintained by three Panzer armies), where the Army Group Center continued to fend off struggling Russian forces. However, the forces around the Rzhev Salient were strained and barely able to continue holding the front. Yet Hitler maintained them there, hoping to someday launch another offensive from that point. By March of 1942 however, the Frhrer had lost all his interest in ever taking the Russian capital. Thus ends the story of the siege on Moscow, and begins the long story of the rebuilding. Germany, had it mobilized its forces completely in 1941, would have been able to take Russia within a matter of months. However, being spread as they were between both the Eastern and Western fronts, it became an exponentially more difficult task for him – one which he never succeeded in. Hitler’s egotistical caprice drove him away from victory. He fought on three fronts, and made the United States an enemy of Germany; against such odds he could not win.
His decision to fork off from the attack on Moscow, detaching all but one Panzer Army from Army Group Center to send them to Leningrad and the Ukraine meant that the capital would never be taken by German troops. By the time they re-grouped within Army Group Center in February, it was too late and too muddy for them to cover the diezce from Smolensk to Moscow. The war had resulted in losses of 860,000 troops for the Germans. Soviet prisoners taken during that time were 3,461,000 along with perhaps double that in casualties on the Leningrad, Muscovite, and Ukrainian fronts.