Operation Barbarossa – Closing Phase (May 26, 1941 – August 17, 1941)
26 May 1941, Hitler finally gave the go-ahead for the Panzers to resume their drive east after the infantry divisions had caught up and the hold on Leningrad had been consolidated. The ultimate objective of Army Group Center was the city of Smolensk, which commanded the road to Moscow. Facing the Germans was an old Soviet defensive line held by six armies. On May 29th, the Soviets launched an attack with 700 tanks against the 3rd Panzer Army. The Germans defeated this counterattack using their overwhelming air superiority. The 2nd Panzer Army crossed the River Dnieper and closed on Smolensk from the south while the 3rd Panzer Army, after defeating the Soviet counter attack, closed in on Smolensk from the north. Trapped between their pincers were three Soviet armies. On June 18th, the Panzer Groups closed the gap and 180,000 Red Army troops were captured.
Four weeks into the campaign, the Germans realized they had grossly underestimated the strength of the Soviets. The German troops had run out of their initial supplies but still had not attained the expected strategic freedom of movement. Operations were now slowed down to allow for a resupply; the delay was to be used to adapt the strategy to the new situation. Hitler had lost faith in battles of encirclement as large numbers of Soviet soldiers had continued to escape them and now believed he could defeat the Soviets by inflicting severe economic damage, depriving them of the industrial capacity to continue the war. That meant the seizure of the industrial center of Charkov and the Donets Basin, a major center of military production. Rommel was already making that a reality as his Army Group Middle East drove hard to flank Soviet forces in the Ukraine, Stalingrad its next goal. With the capture of Leningrad, Hitler now diverted Army Group North’s panzers south to reinforce Army Group Center on its drive toward Moscow, while 2nd Panzer Army was detached and sent south.
By late-May below the Pinsk Marshes, the Germans had come within a few miles of Kiev. The 1st Panzer Army then went south while the German 17th Army struck north and in between the Germans trapped three Soviet armies near Uman. As the Germans eliminated the pocket, the tanks turned north and crossed the Dnieper. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army, diverted from Army Group Center, had crossed the River Desna with 2nd Army on its right flank. The two Panzer armies now trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two others.
2nd Panzer Army had swung to the south in the back of the Kiev position, while Army Group South moved to the north from its Dniepr bridgehead. These forces would be augmented by Army Group Middle East in a flanking maneuver following its conquest of Stalingrad in late June. The encirclement of Soviet Forces in Kiev was achieved on July 27th. The encircled Soviets did not give up easily, and a savage battle ensued in which the Soviets were hammered with tanks, artillery and aerial bombardment. Kiev fell on August 7, but the encircled Soviet armies fought on. In the end, after ten days of vicious fighting, the Germans captured over 480,000 Soviet soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Battle for Moscow was being decided.
Operation WOTAN: The Drive for Moscow
For Hitler, Moscow was the most important military and political target, as he anticipated that the city’s surrender would shortly afterwards lead to the general collapse of the Soviet Union. As Franz Halder, head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (Army General Staff), wrote in 1940, “The best solution would be a direct offensive towards Moscow.” Therefore, the city was a primary target for the large and well-equipped Army Group Center as well as Army Group North which had recently captured Leningrad, its prime objective. The forces committed to Operation Wotan included five armies (the 2nd, 4th, 9th, 16th, and 18th) supported by two Panzer Groups (the 3rd and 4th) and by the Luftwaffe’s Luftflotte 1 and 2. The attack relied on standard blitzkrieg tactics, using Panzer groups rushing deep into Soviet formations and executing double-pincer movements, pocketing Red Army divisions and destroying them.
The initial Wehrmacht plan called for two initial movements. The first would be a single-pincer performed around the Soviet Western Front and Reserve Front forces located around Vyazma. The second would be a single-pincer around the Bryansk Front to capture the city of Bryansk. From that point, the plan called for another quick pincer north and south of Moscow to encircle the city.
Facing the Wehrmacht were three Soviet fronts, with most of the troops deployed in a single line and little to no reserves to the rear. Furthermore, many Soviet defenders were seriously lacking in combat experience and some critical equipment (such as anti-tank weapons), while their tanks were obsolete models. Worse, the Soviet Air Force/Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS) had suffered appalling losses, rendering air strength down to about a quarter of pre-war strength.
The Soviet command began constructing extensive defenses around the city. The first part, the Rzhev-Vyazma defense setup, was built on the Rzhev-Vyazma-Bryansk line. The second, the Mozhaisk defense line, was a double defense stretching between Kalinin and Kaluga. These defenses were still largely unprepared by the beginning of the operation because of the speed of the German advance. Furthermore, the German attack plan had been discovered quite late, and Soviet troops were ordered to assume a total defensive stance only on 14 June 1941. However, new Soviet divisions were being formed in Asia and in the Urals, and it would only be a matter of several months before these new troops could be committed, making the battle a race against time as well.
Vyazma and Bryansk Pockets
Near Vyazma, the Western and Reserve fronts were quickly defeated by the highly mobile forces of the 4th Panzer group that exploited weak areas in the defenses and then quickly moved behind the Red Army lines. The defense setup, still under construction, was overrun as the German armored spearhead encircled them at Vyazma on 10 October 1941. Four Soviet armies (the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd) were trapped in a huge pocket just west of the city.
Contrary to German expectations, the encircled Soviet forces did not surrender easily. Instead, the fighting was fierce and desperate, and the Wehrmacht had to employ 28 divisions to eliminate the surrounded Soviet armies, using forces that were needed to support the offensive towards Moscow. The remnants of the Soviet Western and Reserve Fronts were able to retreat and consolidate their lines around Mozhaisk. Moreover, the surrounded Soviet forces were not completely destroyed, as some of the encircled troops escaped in groups ranging in size from platoons to full rifle divisions. Soviet resistance near Vyazma also provided time for the Soviet high command to quickly bring some reinforcements to the four armies defending the Moscow direction (namely, the 5th, 16th, 43rd and 49th), and to transport three rifle and two tank divisions from the Far East. The initial presence of the Siberians on the battlefield was countered politically. Messages between Berlin and Tokyo were followed by belligerent, anti-Soviet editorials in semi-official Japanese newspapers. These alarmed the Kremlin, which halted abruptly the flow of Siberian Divisions to the west, fearing they might be needed to fight in Manchuria.
In the south near Bryansk, initial Soviet performance was barely more effective than near Vyazma. The Third Panzer Group executed an enveloping movement around the whole front, linking with the advancing 2nd Army and capturing Orel by 20 June and Bryansk by 23 June. Luftflotte 1/2 flew 984 combat missions and destroyed some 679 vehicles on 20 June. On 21 June a mixture of 100 dive-bombers and medium bombers destroyed rail lines and hampered Soviet troop movements in the Sumy-Lgov-Kursk area, severing communications between the Bryansk and South-Western Fronts. The Soviet 3rd and 13th armies were encircled but, again, did not surrender, and troops were able to escape in small groups, retreating to intermediate defense lines around Poniry and Mtsensk. By 10 July, the last remnants had escaped from the pocket.
Stavka’s reaction to 3rd Panzer Group’s drive on Tula was sluggish and the weak Soviet tank attacks of 24 June were repulsed with heavy loss. Hoth’s Group gained ground at such pace that it was confidently believed the hard crust of the Soviet defense must have been cracked. But it had not. Supreme Stavka ordered that Tula, on the southern approaches to Moscow, was to be held to the last, and the fanatical Soviet defense of the area between the city and Mtsensk brought the first check to 3rd Panzer Group’s drive. Luftflotte 1/2 flew 1,400 attacks against Soviet positions to support the 3rd Panzer Division, destroying 20 tanks, 34 artillery pieces and 650 vehicles of various kinds.
Elsewhere, massive Soviet counterattacks had further slowed the German offensive. The 4th Army, operating to the North of Hoth’s forces with the aim of trapping the Bryansk front became faced with a strong Soviet counter-attack. The Soviets supported the assault with heavy air-support. Despite being numerically inferior the Luftwaffe inflicted heavy losses to the VVS. 152 Stuka sorties and 259 medium bombers blunted the Soviet attack whilst another 202 Stuka and 188 medium bomber strikes were flown against supply columns in the Brynask area. Soviet Forces were caught in the open, with the Luftwaffe destroying 22 tanks and over 450 vehicles; the Soviet attack had been routed.
The magnitude of the initial Soviet defeat was appalling. According to German estimates, 514,000 soldiers were captured by the Wehrmacht in both pockets, reducing Soviet strength by 41 %. The desperate Red Army resistance, however, had greatly slowed the Wehrmacht. When, on 27 June 1941, the Germans arrived within sight of the Mozhaisk line, they found a hastily prepared defensive set-up. The Luftwaffe still controlled the sky whenever it appeared in strength. The Stukageschwader and Kampfgruppen (Stuka and bomber groups) flew 537 sorties destroying some 440 vehicles (mainly motor vehicles and trucks) and 150 artillery pieces.
On 30 June, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the Communist Party, the General Staff and various civil government offices from Moscow to Kuibyshev, leaving only a limited number of officials behind. The evacuation caused panic among Moscovites. From 3 July to 4 July, much of the civilian population tried to flee, mobbing the available trains and jamming the roads from the city. Despite all this, Stalin publicly remained in the Soviet capital, somewhat calming the fear and pandemonium.
Mozhaisk Defense Line (30 June – 17 July)
By 30 June 1941, the Wehrmacht had arrived at the Mozhaisk defense line, a hastily constructed double set of fortifications protecting Moscow from the west and stretching from Kalinin towards Volokolamsk and Kaluga. However, despite recent reinforcements, the combined strength of the Soviet armies manning the line (the 5th, 16th, 43rd and 49th armies) were hardly sufficient to stem the German advance. In light of the situation, it was decided to concentrate Red Army forces at four critical points: Volokolamsk, Mozhaisk, Maloyaroslavets and Kaluga. The entire Soviet Western Front, almost completely destroyed after its encirclement near Vyazma, was being recreated from scratch.
On 30 June 1941, the Wehrmacht resumed its offensive. At first, the Germans were unwilling to assault the Soviet defenses directly and attempted to bypass them by pushing northeast towards the weakly protected city of Kalinin, and south towards Kaluga and Tula, capturing all except Tula by 2 October. Encouraged by this initial success, the Germans conducted a frontal assault against the fortified line, taking Mozhaisk and Maloyaroslavets on 5 July, Naro-Fominsk on 13 July, and Volokolamsk on 19 July, after intense fighting. Because of the increasing danger of flanking attacks, the Red Army was forced to fall back and withdraw its forces east of the Nara River.
In the south, the 3rd Panzer Army was moving towards Tula with relative ease, since the Mozhaisk defense line did not extend that far south, and because there were no significant concentrations of Soviet troops to slow down the advance. Fuel problems and damaged roads and bridges greatly slowed the Germans; Hoth reached the outskirts of Tula only by 13 July 1941. The German plan initially called for an instant capture of Tula and for a pincer move around Moscow. However, the first attempt to capture the city failed, as German panzers were stopped by the 50th Army and civilian volunteers in a desperate fight. Hoth’s army had to stop within sight of the city on 21 July 1941.
Wehrmacht at the gates (19 July – 22 August)
By mid-July the Wehrmacht and the Red Army could be compared to “punch-drunk boxers, staying precariously on their feet but rapidly losing the power to hurt each other.” The German forces were wearing out, with only one-half of their motor vehicles still functioning, infantry divisions at one-half to two-thirds strength, and serious logistics issues. Even Hitler seemed to surrender to the idea of a long struggle, since the prospect of sending tanks into such a large city without heavy infantry support seemed risky after the costly capture of Warsaw in 1939. Still, morale ran high. By mid-July, of the three main objectives, Leningrad was in German hands and Kiev was nearly encircled. Only Moscow remained and it was within reach.
Yet the Wehrmacht struggled and that was because moving east of Smolensk meant stretching German supply lines beyond their effective limit. The colossal loss of materiel on the eastern front – without having won a decisive victory – was bleeding the German economy to death – reaching a total impasse. Despite this, Germany pressed on. It was through the achievement of Lebensraum that the Third Reich hoped to achieve both the standard of affluence and the encompassing reach of global power already attained by Britain and the United States.
The Red Army was in a very precarious position. Stalin wanted several preemptive counteroffensives to be launched against the German lines, despite protests from his generals, who pointed out the complete lack of reserves. The Wehrmacht was able to repel most of these counteroffensives, depleting the Red Army of men and vehicles that could have been used for Moscow’s defense.
At this point, the Wehrmacht still possessed an overall superiority in manpower and land forces over the Red Army. The German divisions committed to the final assault on Moscow numbered 1,943,000 men, 1,500 tanks, while Soviet forces were reduced to a shadow of their former selves, with barely 90,000 men. The Soviets had not had time to complete any defensive works around the city and the morale of those soldiers defending the capital was reaching its nadir.
On 22 July 1941, Wehrmacht spearheads were unleashed, with the goal of encircling Moscow and linking up near the city of Noginsk, east of the capital. In order to achieve this objective, the German 4th Panzer group needed to concentrate its forces between the Moscow reservoir and Mozhaisk, then proceed to Klin and Solnechnogorsk to encircle the capital from the north. In the south, the 3rd Panzer Army intended to bypass Tula, still in Soviet hands, and advance to Kashira and Kolomna, linking up with the northern pincer at Noginsk.
On 24 July 1941, German tank armies began their offensive towards Klin, where no Soviet reserves were available because of Stalin’s wish to attempt a counteroffensive at Volokolamsk, which had forced the relocation of all available reserves forces further south. Initial German attacks split the front in two, and what few Soviet soldiers could man the defense were slaughtered.
The Third Panzer Army finally captured Klin on 27 July 1941, and by 29 July, Solnechnogorsk as well. Soviet resistance was faltering. By 30 July, the German 3rd Panzer Division had seized a bridgehead across the Moscow-Volga Canal — the last major obstacle before Moscow — and stood less than 35 kilometers from the Kremlin. Just northwest of Moscow, the Wehrmacht reached Krasnaya Polyana, little more than 20 kilometers from Moscow; German officers were able to make out some of the major buildings of the Soviet capital through their field glasses.
Hoth reported minimal opposition, not the furious assaults that had been anticipated. 3rd Group’s right-wing Corps, attacked and gained ground quickly. The frontline soldiers realized that the weak opposition they were meeting indicated that the Red Army was all but defeated. One of these soldiers, Sergeant Strauch, said “30 July. We found the bodies of a number of their Commissars, all shot at point-blank range. If the Party isn’t executing them then the rank and file are…”
4th Panzer Group met the phenomenon of large, organized bodies of Red Army troops standing, lining the roads, waiting to surrender. The officer commanding one group told Hoepner that revolution had broken out in Moscow, the government had been overthrown and its leaders shot. Von Bock’s soldiers were already in the capital’s inner suburbs. A flurry of signal messages confirmed the story. General Vlassov, a former dedicated communist, whose Twentieth Army had up to now staunchly defended the northwestern approaches to Moscow, was leading a military junta which had sued for peace terms.
“Our battalion and two others were ordered from the armored personnel carriers and into passenger trains. Russian officers, many with Tsarist cockades, escorted us…After several hours we reached Moscow’s West Station and marched to the city center. Units of Bock’s Army Group were already there and in Red Square an SS detachment was blowing up Lenin’s tomb. At dusk massed searchlights lit up the flag staff over the Kremlin and deeply moved we saw the German War Standard flying at the mast head…”
The war in Russia was over. Now there would be a period of tidying up, politically, socially, and economically. The population had to be fed, the Red Army demobilized, and Russia incorporated into the Reich’s New Order. Hitler was triumphant.