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Chapter 3.

Race To The Dnepr

The Formation Of The Bialystok-Minsk Pockets

The deployment of Hitler's eastern legions began in February 1941 with the arrival in Poland of seven infantry, and one motorized, divisions aboard troop trains from the west. From mid-March to mid-April eighteen large units rolled into western Poland, and from then until the first of May the Reichsbahn had to increase the normal rate of traffic on the Polish railroads by a hundred percent{1}. In addition to the movement of troops, a new, massive bunker complex, called the Wolfschanze or "Wolf's Den" by Hitler, was built near Rastenburg in East Prussia to serve as headquarters for the fiihrer and the OKW during the war in Russia. The OKH headquarters was set up in the Mauerwald near Angerburg, about an hour's drive from the Wolfschanze. In a subtle way, the remoteness of this site contributed to the sense of isolation felt by the Army commanders (see Figures 8 and 9).

In all, 2.5 million men were deployed by the Germans along the eastern front by June 22, 1941, with somewhat less than half of them, 1.162 million, positioned in the area of Field Marshal von Bock's Army Group Center. Of the seventeen panzer divisions sent to the east, five were included in Guderian's Panzer Group 2 opposite Brest Litovsk and four were placed around Suvaiki in Hermann Hoth's Panzer Group 3{2}. There was no doubt in Halder's mind that Army Group Center was powerful enough to crush all resistance in the Bialystok-Minsk area and then rapidly reach the first important operational objectives on the Dnepr and Dvina rivers{3}. [96] [Fig.8] [97] [Fig.9] [98]

It was the task of the two panzer groups situated on the flanks of Army Group Center to drive into the Bialystok salient from the north and south and link up east of Minsk, thus, according to Halder, creating conditions favorable for the destruction of the enemy forces located between Bialystok and Minsk. After achieving this first goal, Guderian and Hoth were to proceed rapidly toward the line Smolensk-Yelnia-Roslavl across the Dnepr and toward Vitebsk and the upper Dvina area, in order, it was hoped, to prevent the Russians from gaining time to erect a cohesive defense using these two important river barriers{4}.

The two infantry armies assigned to Army Group Center, the Ninth commanded by Colonel General Strauss and the Fourth under Field Marshal von Kluge, were given the task of following behind the two panzer groups as closely as possible and securing the Bialystok-Minsk pocket after the armored ring had closed around Minsk. The Russians then trapped in the pocket were expected either to surrender en masse or to succumb quickly to the greatly superior German force. The Fourth Army was to assist Guderian in crossing the frontier on the southern flank of Army Group Center and then follow along behind his Panzer Group 2, while the Ninth Army was to perform the same function in cooperation with Panzer Group 3. On the extreme southern flank of Army Group Center was positioned the 1st Cavalry Division, which was assigned the difficult task of moving along the edge of the Pripet swamps and guarding against a Soviet thrust from the south. This mounted division would later be reinforced by two infantry divisions.

It was Halder's plan, true to his false theories about the Russian strategy for defense, to subordinate Army Group Center's two panzer groups to the infantry armies during the beginning phase of the attack on June 22. It was believed by the OKH that the Russian fortifications along the demarcation line would be stronger than they in fact proved to be. For this reason, Halder considered it wise to use artillery and infantry to effect the initial breakthrough, saving the armored strength for the rapid exploitation of the anticipated successful rupture of the enemy's defense line. Putting infantry ahead of tanks during the initial assault was, however, just the kind of tactic that Guderian wished to avoid. In his mind's eye, Guderian visualized the few good roads in Russia being choked by marching columns of men and slow-moving motorized [99] and horse-drawn vehicles. Experience in France had shown that fast-moving tank units would encounter delays in passing through such obstacles, so Guderian firmly rejected Halder's proposal when the chief of the general staff visited him at his headquarters in Warsaw on June 6.

Halder made the same proposal to the chief of staff of Army Group North, but it was also rejected by Colonel General Hoepner, the commander of Panzer Group 4{5}. These incidents no doubt contributed to the lack of respect Guderian and the other panzer generals felt for the OKH, a feeling that would grow into a deep and personal enmity when the campaign in Russia began to develop unfavorably. Beyond this. Col. Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, was actively trying to persuade the fiihrer to sack some of the older "entrenched" leaders of the OKH and replace them with generals having more recent combat experience. Schmundt especially wanted Guderian to replace Brauchitsch{6}.

The German strategic concept of the disposition of the Russian forces along the eastern front compelled the OKH to assume that the first enemy reaction after the German assault would be to attempt to withdraw all forces from the frontier in a hurried retreat and regroup them along a makeshift defense line farther east, presumably behind the Dnepr-Dvina line{7}. Halder's plan then for using far-reaching armored spearheads to seal off the lines of retreat of the enemy's main force grouped along the border was tailored to suit a situation that did not exist.

At 9:15 P.M. on June 22, Marshal Timoshenko ordered the Northwestern, Western, and Southwestern fronts to take the offensive. No order was given by the Soviet Supreme Command for the Third and Tenth armies to pull back from the Bialystok salient to the line Lida-Slonim-Pinsk until June 25{8}. It was not the intention of the Red Army command to order an immediate retreat for the forces in the Bialystok salient, nor did these units represent anything more than a small part of the military resources at its disposal. (Figure 10 shows how the tactical and operational echelons of the Red Army actually were deployed on June 22. This deployment should be compared with that shown on the general staff map in Figure 1). Even if Halder's suppositions had been correct about the placement of the Red Army, the probable reaction of the Soviet Supreme Command to the moves by the German panzer groups to cut off the Bialystok salient, other factors would have [100] [Fig.10] [101] made the carrying out of such a vast encirclement extremely hazardous.

The scale of maneuver in Russia was to be much larger than anything previously encountered by the OKH, and the Wehrmacht lacked enough mechanized units effectively to manage such great spaces. The distance from the German jump-off line to Minsk was over three hundred kilometers, and Smolensk was seven hundred kilometers distant. By comparison in 1940 German tanks were required to traverse only three hundred kilometers from the border of the Reich to the mouth of the Somme in order to cut off the French army{9}.

Out of Army Group Center's entire allotment of manpower, only eighteen percent was contained in the mechanized units, whereas altogether the Germans were prepared to begin operations in the Soviet Union, on all fronts, with only 3,200 tanks{10}. Although the OKH had committed itself to a strategy that favored rapid movement over long distances, heavy reliance was made on horses, with some 625,000 of them being used to pull everything from field kitchens to artillery pieces. The Wehrmacht began the war in the east with a total of about 600,000 motor vehicles of all kinds; however, many of them were of Czech or French origin and had weak suspensions that could not negotiate poorly surfaced Russian roads, often axle-deep in sand when the weather was dry and impassable quagmires when it rained. Only about 3 percent of the roads in European Russia were hard-surfaced in 1941, and this meant that a great strain would be placed on the German supply system, which would have to depend almost exclusively on wheeled trucks until the Russian railway network could be repaired and converted to the standard European gauge{11}.

When the big guns opened fire in the early dawn hours of June 22 and the first German units crossed over into Soviet territory, reports began to flow into army headquarters that did not conform to Halder's preconceived opinions about the enemy's defense plans. Not only was Russian resistance along the border in most cases surprisingly light, but Soviet artillery activity was scarcely visible. These~factors7 coupled with the inability of the Luftwaffe to detect any major Russian movement on the roads leading out of the Bialystok salient during the first few days of the war, led some German commanders, particularly those of the larger units, to wonder if the Russians were hiding out in the forests around Bialystok [102] or were much weaker in strength than German intelligence had estimated. Another possibility also existed, one that Strauss feared had come true: "Were their masses lying farther east, did we have a false idea about their deployment?{12}".

The reports about the absence of a Russian retreat from the Bialystok salient were rationalized by Halder as being due to the "clumsiness" of the Russian command, which he considered to be incapable of taking countermeasures on an operational level. It was his view that the Russians would have to defend themselves in their current positions, being unable to react properly, because the Red Army lacked the ability to discern the broad sweep of the Wehrmacht's movements{13}. The absence of any Russian move to retreat from the Bialystok salient also made a strong impression on Guderian, who noted in his panzer group's war diary, "It is possible that the Russian High Command knew about the coming attack but did not pass the information down to the forces actually doing the fighting{14}". The fact, however, that the number of Russian prisoners brought in during the first day's action was considerably smaller than had been anticipated, along with the noticeable lack of artillery in the Soviet units, did cause Halder some concern. These unpleasant developments forced the chief of the general staff to conclude that large portions of the Russian forces were located farther east than had at first been thought, but he believed that the bulk of these forces were no more distant than Minsk and that after Panzer Groups 2 and 3 linked up around that city, the breadth of the gap in the Russian front, plus their heavy losses in the pocket, would allow Army Group Center to achieve full freedom of action.

The feeling of uneasiness in the OKH about what the Russians were preparing to do to defend themselves was increased by information sent back to headquarters from Army Groups North and South during the second day of the war. In the Army Group North area along the Baltic it had become obvious that the Red Army was making no attempt to defend Lithuania and, in fact, had already begun a withdrawal to behind the Dvina line well in advance of the German attack{15}. Despite this sign that the Soviet command had had forewarning about Barbarossa and was implementing a sophisticated and broad-scale plan for defense, Halder refused to believe that the "inefficient and sluggish nature of their command structure" allowed for any kind of planning at all{16}. [103]

Meanwhile, although the Northern and Central army groups appeared to be making fast enough progress, the situation for Army Group South was developing quite differently. There, in the Ukraine, the Wehrmacht had bitten granite because the Red Army was better equipped with the latest model weapons, including T-34 tanks and Mig-3 aircraft, which the Germans had scarcely encountered on the other fronts and had not expected to encounter at all{17}. In a review of the situation on June 24, Hitler told Jodi that the strong Soviet resistance in the Ukraine was confirmation of his belief that Stalin had intended to invade Rumania and the Balkans sooner or later and showed further that Moscow had assigned the protection of the Ukraine the highest priority. Hitler and Jodi were still convinced that it had been Stalin's intention for some time to start a war with Germany on his own initiative, and they were not able to see how the powerful presence of the Red Army in the Ukraine contributed to the overall strategy for the defense of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they were on the right track in determining where the strength of the Red Army actually was.

While Hitler, the OKH, and the OKW were busily trying to discover where the Russians were. Army Group Center was hard at work trying to erect a solid wall around the Bialystok-Minsk pocket. The first day of fighting went exceptionally well for Hoth's Panzer Group 3. The Nieman River had four crossing points in Panzer Group 3's operational area, the most important of which were three bridges located between forty-five and seventy kilometers from the demarcation line, and all of them were taken undestroyed. In the case of the bridges at Olita the Russian 126th Rifle Division and the 5th Tank Division tried desperately to defend the Nieman crossings, but the Luftwaffe proved to be very effective in keeping the tank division off balance. The bridges could have been demolished in plenty of time, and Major N. P. Belov of the 4th Pontoon-Bridge Regiment of the Eleventh Army had been ordered to accomplish this task as early as 2:00 P.M. on June 23, but this order was not obeyed immediately, because adequate studies of the bridge's concrete structure had not been made in advance. Later, as the German tanks drew closer, the commander of the units on the west bank refused to let the engineers do their job, which has led at least one Soviet historian to imply that it was an act of treason that opened the way across the Nieman to the Germans{18}. The swift crossing of this potentially troublesome river [104] barrier ensured Hoth's rapid progress toward the Molodechno-Lake Naroch line, and from there an approach could be made on Minsk from the northwest. The failure of the Russian command to hold the Nieman line also led to the rapid fall of Vilna, which was taken by the XXXIXth Panzer Corps in the early morning hours of June 24, (see Figure 11){19}.

The way seemed to be opened also to Vitebsk and the "land bridge" between the Dvina and the Dnepr rivers to the north, a goal that appeared to Hoth, and von Bock as well, to be particularly worthwhile because this area presented itself as the natural pathway to Moscow from the west. In order to further the purpose of securing the Vitebsk-Orsha region, an enterprise that would have left only two motorized divisions available to prevent the Russians from breaking out of the Minsk pocket toward the north, Hoth ordered the LVIIth and XXXIXth panzer corps to stand by to take Molodechno and push toward Glubokoe north of Lake Naroch (see Figure 12).

On June 24, however. Army Group Center informed Hoth that the decision had been made by Brauchitsch to turn his panzer [Fig.11] [105] [Fig.12] [106] group from Vilna to the south and east, toward Minsk, not to the north and east as he and von Bock had wished{20}. Panzer Group 3 was now directed to seize the heights north of Minsk and cooperate with Panzer Group 2 in sealing off the Minsk pocket. This order dismayed Hoth, who viewed the Bialystok-Minsk pocket as relatively unimportant compared to the urgent necessity of securing the "land bridge" between the Dvina and Dnepr rivers before the Russians could group enough forces together along these two rivers to construct a proper defense. Hoth had made an agreement with von Bock before the invasion about the Vitebsk-Orsha approach to Moscow as the first priority of his Panzer Group 3, and now the entire strategy appeared to be jeopardized by what Hoth believed to be an unconscionable delay. Hoth went so far as to dispatch Lieutenant Colonel von Huenersdorff, who was the OKH liaison officer attached to Panzer Group 3, back to East Prussia to plead directly with Halder to try to get this decision changed, but it was to no avail. The OKH remained steadfast in implementing what Hoth acidly referred to as a "safe but time-wasting tactic{21}". Hoth, like Guderian, in the first few days of the war had already begun to lose faith in the OKH.

Actually, Halder's attitude with respect to the Vitebsk-Orsha approach to Moscow was not fundamentally different from those of the panzer generals or von Bock. Nevertheless, Halder saw the need for exercising some restraint in the handling of the vast encirclement now taking place. The biggest problem lay in the area of the Ninth Army after its XXth Army Corps was hard hit by Russian tanks on the eastern side of the Lososna River at Kuznica and Sidra. By the evening of June 24, the XXth Army Corps was being subjected to attacks from three sides by up to a hundred tanks, including some of the newer, heavier T-34s. The German infantry was hard pressed to repulse the massed Russian armor with no tanks of their own and only a few of the highly prized Sturmgeschutz self-propelled artillery vehicles.

To their horror, the German infantry commanders discovered that the 3.7 cm antitank guns (PAK) used by the Panzerjaeger tank destroyer regiments were virtually useless against the latest types of Russian tanks. The XXth Army Corps now began to appeal frantically for more antitank weapons and for more armor-piercing ammunition, some of which was flown in by the Luftwaffe. It was von Richthofen's VIIIth Air Corps that saved the right wing of the [107] Ninth Army from serious damage on June 24 and 25 by responding quickly to the XXth Corps' pleas for help. The JU-87 Stukas, in some cases equipped with phosphorus bombs, proved to be particularly effective in disrupting the large Soviet tank columns in the Lunna-Indura-Sokolka area and also in the area south of Grodno.

The problems confronting the Ninth Army were caused by the counterattack by two mechanized corps planned by the commander of the Western Front, D. G. Pavlov, against what he believed would be the southern flank of Panzer Group 3 advancing from the direction of Suvaiki toward Minsk. Hoth, however, had crossed the Nieman much sooner than Pavlov could have anticipated for the reasons outlined already, so the bulk of the Russian tanks ploughed into the right flank of the Ninth Army, merely brushing Hoth's southern flank. The Soviet XIth Mechanized Corps was the first to go into action from south of Grodno, and it was later joined by the VIth Mechanized Corps, which moved from northeast of Bialystok to southeast of Grodno. The Russian armor from around Grodno initially achieved some success, particularly the 29th Tank Division commanded by Col. N. P. Studnev, but the massive German air strikes were too much for them to overcome{22}. The German air bombardment of Grodno itself wreaked havoc on Russian communications in this area, and despite all efforts, well-coordinated counterattacks were made impossible{23}. Pavlov's virtually clean miss of Panzer Group 3 meant that Minsk was left without armored protection, and Hoth's penetration to that city from around Molodechno on June 26 was thus left largely unimpeded. Pavlov was under the erroneous impression that Hoth would veer his tanks to the south after reaching Lida, not Molodechno, as he in fact did. As a result, he did not prepare an adequate defense of Minsk but instead sent the XXIst Rifle Corps from the intermediate echelon reserve off toward Lida from west of Minsk{24}. Pavlov's maneuver in this respect can be called a mistake, but Hoth's rapid capture of Minsk was not the only important result of the two mechanized corps' clash with the Ninth Army{25}.

The gap that was steadily opening up between the motorized units of Panzer Group 3 and the infantry units of the Ninth Army was widened further by Pavlov's counterattack, and the Russians were able to use this delay in the progress of the German infantry [108] to effect the escape to the north and east of important units that would otherwise have been securely trapped{26}. The holding up of the Ninth Army's right wing near Grodno also meant that Grodno would have to be the turning point for the German infantry to press down to the south to link up with the Fourth Army around Bialystok in order to contain the Russian forces around this city. For the Ninth Army, the ring around Bialystok would initially have to be formed with five infantry divisions, each having a front of approximately twenty-five kilometers. A twenty-five kilometer front would be difficult enough for an infantry division to defend under favorable circumstances, but very troublesome indeed in the thick forests around Bialystok. To try and extend the front of the Ninth Army closer to the main part of Panzer Group 3 farther to the east was, by June 25, an impossibility, yet von Bock was not deterred from ordering one entire army corps from the Ninth Army to turn to the northeast toward Vilna. This turn was planned to aid Hoth's projected drive toward Vitebsk-Orsha but would have seriously impaired the Ninth Army's ability to hold a continuous front around Bialystok. In the afternoon of June 25, Colonel Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, flew to Ninth Army headquarters and informed Strauss that the fuhrer fully agreed with the Ninth Army about the inadvisability of von Bock's action and that Army Group Center, accordingly, had issued an order turning all of the Ninth Army toward the south. Halder remarked that it was "characteristic" of von Bock that he demanded a written order from the OKH before he would execute the closing maneuver around Bialystok. After failing to convince Schmundt of the necessity of carrying out one gigantic encirclement reaching all the way around Smolensk, von Bock then took out his frustrations on Brauchitsch, who visited Army Group Center the following day-again to no avail{27}.

Hitler had already expressed concern to Brauchitsch about the integrity of the Bialystok pocket during a conference in the afternoon of June 24, and this concern was manifested further in an order issued by the fuhrer the following day that forbade the conduct of armored operations by Army Groups Center and South too far to the east without proper precautions being taken to secure the rearward areas. Halder's response to this was to refer to Hitler's order as "the same old song" and further to say that "this will not change our plans at all{28}. What the chief of the general staff had [109] now decided to do was to remedy the serious difficulties facing the Ninth Army, thus placating Hitler, while at the same time giving the panzer generals of Army Group Center a maximum amount of freedom from restraint by any higher authority.

Halder sought to achieve his dual purpose in two ways: (1) by allowing the Ninth and Fourth Armies to turn inward from the north and south to form a tight inner ring around Bialystok and (2) by allowing the panzer groups alone to form an outer ring farther east around Minsk. Thus, by June 28, after Guderian's link-up with Hoth around Minsk, two large pockets had been formed-one around Bialystok, by infantry units that had practically no armor, and the other around Novogrudok-Minsk, with armor but with only six motorized infantry divisions-instead of the one encirclement originally planned (see Figure 13).

In order best to handle this complicated situation, Halder decided to use a clever ploy that was intended at once to increase Hitler's confidence in the OKH while opening the way for Hoth and Guderian to race ahead and reach the Dnepr-Dvina line without waiting for the resolution of the battles around Bialystok and Minsk-Novogrudok. This was done by activating Colonel General von Weichs's Second Army command staff, which was supposed [Fig.13] [110] to have been held in reserve in Posen until after Army Group Center had reached Smolensk, and giving it command over most of the infantry units of von Kluge's Fourth Army, then operating on the southern side of the Bialystok pocket. When this order was given on June 25, at the same time Panzer Groups 2 and 3 were placed directly under von Kluge's Fourth Army command along with two infantry corps{29}.

Putting the panzer groups under an old-line artillery commander like von Kluge severely rankled the impetuous Guderian, but the arrangement afforded the OKH several advantages. Guderian was so upset by this action that he sent Major von Below, the general staff liaison officer attached to Panzer Group 2, back to the Mauerwald in East Prussia to tell Halder that he preferred to be relieved of his command rather than serve under von Kluge{30}. Halder was not inclined to listen, however, because he hoped that Hitler would accept this action as proof that the OKH was trying to cool Guderian's blood by weakening von Bock's control over him, for it was well known that von Bock, along with Guderian and Hoth, were the strongest advocates of a direct push on Moscow. Von Kluge, by contrast, more conservative and orthodox in his views on such matters, was in agreement with Hitler about the necessity of using the panzer groups to help maintain the Bialystok pocket. It was for this reason that Halder steadfastly refused to give command of both panzer groups to Guderian, a possibility that he talked over with Paulus and Wagner, for he must have known that this action would have unduly excited the fuhrer's suspicions about the activities of the OKH and the staff of Army Group Center. Moreover, Halder probably did not trust Guderian too far, because he had the reputation, frowned upon in army circles, of being loyal to Hitler-if not an out-and-out Nazi. Guderian was one of the few regular army generals-another was von Reichenau-who habitually used the Nazi raised-arm salute{30a}. This distrust prevented Halder from placing Guderian in a position where he could have had more immediate contact with Hitler{31}. [111]

Ultimately, Halder hoped that Guderian and Hoth would "do the right thing" by pushing rapidly on to Moscow even though they lacked specific orders directing them to do so. The OKH itself could not give such orders, because Hitler would surely have had them rescinded; the fuhrer had already expressed his wishes in this matter quite plainly to Brauchitsch{32}. It is evident, too, that von Bock was a knowing participant in Halder's plot, for he told Guderian bluntly that he personally wanted to have no responsibility for the panzer general's actions, and he left no doubt in Guderian's mind that the OKH expected the commanders of the panzer groups "to carry out the previously accepted plan" either without orders or even against orders{33}. At this point Guderian must have had the feeling that Halder and Brauchitsch were preparing to leave him out on a limb, asking him to take all the risk involved in disobeying orders while not assuming any responsibility themselves in case something should go wrong. Guderian's misgivings about the motives and actions of the OKH in this way were profoundly increased.

Guderian's push across the Bug River in the area of Brest Litovsk had gone quite smoothly on the morning of June 22, although the stout Russian defense of the Brest fortress itself was an unwelcome surprise. The German 45th Infantry Division had to pay a high toll in blood in order to overwhelm the defenders of Brest, many of whom were new recruits, who managed to hold out for several weeks behind their fortifications. The entire 45th Infantry Division was held up at Brest Litovsk until July 1, and parts of it had to be detained in the area for another three weeks{34}.

Pavlov's attempt on June 23 to organize a thrust against Panzer Group 2 from the Kobrin area toward Brest had come to grief due to the continuous German air and artillery bombardment that dispersed the XIVth Mechanized Corps and prevented it from being employed in a unified fashion. As it turned out, the Russian 22nd Tank Division east of Brest, the 30th Tank Division at Pruzhany, and the 205th Motorized Division near Bereza all were thrown into battle piecemeal. As a result, the Russian Fourth Army had no choice but to fall back to the east{35}. By 2:00 P.M. on June 24 Guderian's XXI Vth Panzer Corps had succeeded in crossing the Shchara River near Slonim in the area of the Russian 55th Rifle Division, which had just been pulled up from Slutsk to replace the 205th Motorized Division. After crossing the Shchara [112] and also destroying the last twenty-five tanks of the XIVth Mechanized Corps, Guderian pushed on to Baranovichi on June 25. After the fall of the river crossings at Slonim, the Russian Fourth Army was cut off from retreat. Even though the Fourth Army had now lost the capability of central guidance, its units having broken down into autonomous formations. Panzer Group 2 and the German infantry would have their hands full trying to contain the Russian attempts to break out to the east and southeast. The main job of blocking the Russians attempting to escape from Bialystok toward Slonim devolved on Lieutenant General von Boltenstern's heroic 29th Motorized Division, while the 17th and 18th panzer divisions were thus freed to advance on to Minsk.

During the night of June 24-25 the Russians had already placed the 17th Panzer Division in an "extremely hazardous situation" by a breakout attempt, which included some tanks, from the area of the dense Bialovicha forest reserve through Volkovysk in the general direction of Slonim, and these were the kind of attacks that the 29th Motorized Division would now have to face alone{36}. On June 26 this division was supposed to maintain a sixty-to-seventy-kilometer front from Slonim to the Zeivianka, a stream that flows into the Nieman west and north of Slonim. On this day the Russians mounted repeated attacks with tanks and cavalry against the thin German line. Once again, the German 3.7cm, and even the 5cm, antitank guns had little effect on the Russian armor, and many tanks had to be blown up in the rearward areas by pioneer units with high explosives. During the night of June 29 in the area of Derechin and Zolochieva, a big part of the Russian Fourth Army made a strong push to the east supported by artillery and tanks. The German Panzer Regiment 7 and Infantry Regiment 71 had to pull back to hill 131 west of Derechin where they could still hit the Zolochieva-Derechin road with shell-fire, but they could not prevent the Russians from streaming by to the east. Another German battle group was similarly stranded atop hill 191, also west of Derechin, the following night. On June 30 the Russians moved tanks forward to try to open the Zeiva bridge across the Zeivianka, but they were pushed back even though there were "very heavy losses" to the 29th Division. The division was finally relieved by infantry on July 1, and the men were given one day's rest near Slonim before being sent on to Baranovichi{37}. Presumably many of the Russian units that escaped were trapped [113] later in the Minsk-Novogrudok pocket farther east, although Guderian's premature weakening of the eastern and southern side of the encirclement front around Minsk led to further Russian breakthroughs between Minsk and Slonim. On June 29 von Bock had expressed grave concern to Guderian about the likelihood of a Russian breakthrough across the line Minsk-Slonim and advised him to move other units, including the SS "Das Reich" Division, to this area. Guderian's reply was that Panzer Group 2's units already in the sector were sufficient and that all available forces were needed to reach and cross the Dnepr{38}.

While the 29th Division was heavily engaged in the Zeivianka-Slonim sector, Guderian was locked in a struggle with von Kluge concerning its disposition and that of the 4th Panzer Brigade of the 10th Panzer Division. Von Kluge feared a massive Russian breakout in this area and was determined to keep the 29th Division and the 4th Panzer Brigade in their places, even though most of Panzer Group 2 was pushing on to Minsk. In Guderian's words, "It is unacceptable for this commander to allow a motorized division of this panzer group to remain in the rearward areas for one moment longer than is absolutely required at a time when the armored vanguard does not have enough strength as it is". On June 29 Guderian flew to Hoth's headquarters in order to coordinate their movements in the crossing of the Berezina River and perhaps also to discuss their joint disobedience of any order delaying their eastward progress. On the way back Guderian directed his pilot to fly over the Minsk-Slonim forest and observed "no noteworthy enemy forces" there. Soviet sources, however, confirm the experience of the 29th Division on the nights of June 29 and 30 by revealing that the largest group of the remnants of the Third, Tenth, and Thirteenth armies was attempting to escape from the encirclements in the forested and swampy region between the Nieman, Zeivianka, and Shchara rivers north of Derechin{39}.

Guderian's constant downplaying of the danger of a Russian breakout in the Shchara-Zelvianka sector in order to facilitate the rapid eastward movement of his panzer group must, in retrospect, be viewed as an attempt by him to delude the commander of the Fourth Army, von Kluge, and to provide von Bock with a false excuse to ignore the obvious risk of weakening the encirclement front at Slonim. In his memoirs Guderian lamented the fact that the Fourth Army tried to interfere in "his battle" in the Zeivianka [114] region. Notations in the war diary of Panzer Group 2, however, do not support his statement that he was unaware of the attempted interference at this time{40}. It was well known that the panzer general was ferociously protective of his units and that he would strenuously resist attempts to remove any of them from his command, even for temporary periods. Guderian devoutly believed in keeping his command intact to prevent a watering down of his strength. The personality of this man was such that he ordered every vehicle in his panzer group to be painted with a large white letter "G" for the campaign in France in 1940. This practice was continued in Russia{41}. The problems the high command and the army group would experience with Guderian's unwillingness to part with his units would create profound and far-reaching difficulties in the future.

Von Bock was not, however, in a position to give Guderian the freedom he wanted, because of Hitler's concern about the integrity of the Minsk-Novogrudok pocket. For this reason, the 29th Motorized Division was ordered by Army Group Center to move into the area of the 17th Panzer Division between Minsk and Stolbtsy while this panzer division, along with the 10th Motorized Division, was ordered to push to the west right up to the edge of the Pusha-Naliboka forest. Army Group Center's directive was transmitted by radiotelephone to the XLVIIth Panzer Corps by Panzer Group 2's headquarters on July 2, but due to "faulty reception" the XLVIIth Panzer Corps did not understand the message properly and so dispatched the 17th Panzer Division to Borisov on the Berezina anyway{42}. It is interesting to note that Guderian paid a personal visit to the 17th Panzer Division shortly before this incident took place{43}. This same process was repeated on July 4 when von Kluge ordered the Infantry Regiment "Gross Deutschland" to take up a position on the encirclement front in the area of Stolbtsy between the 29th Motorized Division and Machine Gun Battalion 5. By 11:00 A M., however, "Gross Deutschland" along with the last part of the 17th Panzer Division ("Kampfgruppe Licht") pulled away from the encirclement front and headed toward Borisov after another "misunderstanding" of orders{44}.

In a vain effort to rein in the forceful panzer general, von Kluge had called Guderian into his headquarters early on July 3 and strongly taken him to task, citing certain problems he had experienced with Hoth's units also failing to understand orders. Von [115] Kluge warned Guderian that he could be court-martialed for participating in a general's conspiracy, but Guderian noted later that he managed to ease his superior's mind on that score{45}{45a}. Subsequent events would prove, however, that von Kluge was powerless to control Guderian since his supposed subordinate had the backing of the OKH and the headquarters of Army Group Center. In the face of such determined resistance on the part of Halder, von Bock, Guderian, and Hoth, von Kluge could only yield or appeal directly to Hitler to exert his will over the conspirators. Von Kluge was not, however, the sort to go outside the normal channels of the army command in order to seek solutions to problems, no matter how pressing. He imagined that Hitler himself could not be duped and manipulated by the OKH for long and that soon the situation would be rectified, but events were to prove otherwise.

Guderian Crosses The Dnepr

The arrival on the Berezina of the 17th Panzer Division at Borisov was preceded by the rapid push of the 3rd Panzer Division to Bobruisk, farther to the south along that same river, on June 28 (see Figure 14). It had been the intention of the OKH for the 3rd Panzer Division to be used to aid Panzer Group 3 in more effectively sealing off the Minsk-Novogrudok pocket, but Guderian already had his eye on a mission farther to the east-the crossing of the Dnepr River. Halder, of course, had done nothing to dissuade Guderian from sending the 3rd Panzer on to Bobruisk, a maneuver that opened up the possibility of a rapid breakthrough over the Dnepr near Mogilev or Rogachev, even though serious problems were still being caused by Russian breakout attempts in the pocket farther west in the area of Volkovysk and Novogrudok{46}. Hitler, meanwhile, on June 29 had again voiced his concern to Brauchitsch that the wide-ranging panzer operations were endangering the success of the large encirclements, and he prevailed upon the army commander in chief to ask Army Group Center not to allow Guderian to advance beyond Bobruisk but rather have him hold the city "only for security"{47}. Halder, however, would have no part of this kind of shilly-shallying and hoped that Guderian would use any opportunity to cross the Dnepr: [116]

If he did not do that, it would be a great mistake. I hope that today [June 29] he has taken the Dnepr bridges at Rogachev and Mogilev, thereby opening the way to Smolensk and the approach to Moscow. Only in this way will the fortified land bridge between the Dvina and Dnepr be cut off from Moscow.

The move across the Dnepr could not be made immediately, because Army Group Center would need several days, approximately until July 5, in order to resupply and regroup the two panzer [Fig.14] [117] groups. More time would also be needed to complete the transfer of the command of Panzer Groups 2 and 3 from Army Group Center's direct control to von Kluge's Fourth Army command, a task that was finally accomplished on July 3. It was von Kluge's intention to postpone Guderian's crossing of the Dnepr until the two infantry corps of his new command, the so-called Fourth Panzer Army, could be brought up to lend assistance. Guderian too was worried about the feasibility of cracking the Dnepr line without the help of infantry units being brought forward by train, but the army group could only reply that the entire rail-carrying capacity was strained to the limit in just bringing enough supplies up to the front{48}. Another problem that caused Guderian some difficulty was that his units had already suffered 3,382 casualties up to July 3 and on July 7 he had to report to the OKH that 10 percent of his tanks had been lost and only 35 percent of the tanks in the 3rd and 18th Panzer Divisions were battle worthy. The 10th Panzer Division was in the best condition, with 80 percent of its tanks being in service, but the overall repair and breakdown situation in the panzer group's armored vehicles did not auger well for a blitzkrieg victory over the Red Army{49}. But the Red Army was not passively waiting for Guderian to make the first move. Marshal Timoshenko had plans of his own.

By July 4 the XXIVth Panzer Corps, led by the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and followed by the 10th Motorized Division, had secured several crossings over the Berezina and had corne up to the Dnepr near Rogachev and at Stary Bykhov. The Soviet strength west of the Dnepr was, however, far from depleted, as their operational echelon had transformed Rogachev, Mogilev, and Orsha into formidable strongholds. On July 5 a powerful Russian force composed of units of the Twenty-first Army crossed the Dnepr near Zhiobin south of Rogachev and moved toward Bobruisk{50}. This thrust was parried and shoved back across the river by the 10th Motorized Division with some help from the 3rd Panzer Division, but nevertheless, the area between the Dnepr and the Berezina remained hazardous as many Russian units continued to operate here, destroying bridges and causing supply difficulties. On July 12 Guderian pleaded with Army Group Center to do something about putting the Minsk-Bobruisk railroad into service, but the Army Group had to reply that "this area was still too dangerous to work in{51}". Guderian, however, could not wait for these [118] problems to be cleared up; he was determined to force the Dnepr by July 10 and leave the securing of the area west of the river to the infantry of von Weichs's Second Army command, which, for the most part, was still near Minsk.

In order to cross the Dnepr as easily as possible and open the way into Smolensk from the south and west, Guderian made a fateful decision. He decided to bypass the main crossings of the river at Zhiobin, Rogachev, Mogilev, and Orsha, where the largest concentrations of Russian forces were located, and transfer his units over to the eastern bank at Stary Bykhov, to the north of Rogachev, and at Shklov and Kopys between Mogilev and Orsha. This area was covered by the Russian tactical reserve. These Soviet units were banded together with other fragmented forces and given the designation "Thirteenth Army{52}" Guderian's decision to cross the river here looked good on paper because it allowed Panzer Group 2 to push through the Russian line at its weakest points, thereby leading to the capture of Smolensk in a rapid stroke by July 16, the earliest date that the Fourth Panzer Army command had set for the arrival of the mass of the infantry of the Second Army on the Dnepr{53}. Maneuvers of this kind were dear to Guderian's heart-that is, hit the enemy at its weakest link with armor and let the infantry deal with the strong points later. This philosophy was drummed by Guderian into the heads of his subordinate commanders; on July 7 he addressed them all in a briefing session prior to the crossing of the Dnepr: "All commanders of the panzer group and their troops must disregard threats to the flanks and the rear. My divisions know only to press forward"{54}.

The idea, however, of pushing across the Dnepr, thus exposing the right flank of the panzer group to the danger of a counterattack by Timoshenko's forces east of the river, while leaving the powerful Russian concentrations around Rogachev-Zhlobin, Mogilev, and Orsha unmolested in the rear, was too much for some of Guderian's own commanders to accept. On July 8 General von Schweppenburg's XXIVth Panzer Corps had captured a Russian map showing the strength of the Red Army at Rogachev-Zhlobin and showing a connection between these forces and the large Russian grouping around Gomel. This map also indicated that a planned Russian counterattack from the southeast would take place as soon as the panzer group crossed the river. As a result of this information, von Schweppenburg earnestly recommended [119] that the attack be postponed either until the infantry had been brought up to Bobruisk or until his panzer corps could be strengthened. The same concern was voiced by von Kluge, who appeared at Guderian's headquarters early on the morning of July 9. He, too, was opposed to Panzer Group 2's crossing the Dnepr without waiting for the infantry and more artillery support, but Guderian would hear nothing of such arguments. He told von Kluge, half truthfully, that the XXIVth and XLVIth Panzer Corps had already been concentrated in their takeoff positions and that to hold them there for too long would be to expose them to the danger of attack by the Russian air force. Guderian went on to say that, if this attack succeeded, then the campaign would probably be decided within the year. After listening to Guderian's barrage of excuses, and knowing full well that he was speaking with the authority of Army Group Center and the OKH, the field marshal reluctantly backed down, though he warned Guderian prophetically, "Your operations always hang by a thread!"

As an illustration of what kind of improvisation was necessary by early July, a battalion of the 255th Infantry Division, without the approval of Army Group Center or the Second Army, was loaded onto trucks provided by the 3rd Panzer Division and moved from southeast of Minsk to Bobruisk during the night of July 9. The main part of the LIIIrd Army Corps, however, could not reach Bobruisk before July 12. The hurried progress of Panzer Group 2 and its consequent lack of infantry support led to another sticky situation on July 4 after the 3rd Panzer Division managed to establish a bridgehead on the Dnepr's eastern bank near Rogachev. Continuous attacks, however, by the LXIIIrd Rifle Corps of the Russian Twenty-first Army, personally decreed by Stalin, forced Lieutenant General Model to order his units back over to the western bank on July 6. Also, on July 8, Guderian's headquarters asked the Fourth Panzer Army to speed up the transfer of ammunition supplies through the Second Army supply area, as both the XXIVth and XLVIth Panzer Corps were reporting shortages, especially of heavy artillery shells{55}. Army Group Center's "Order of the Day" on July 8 announced the end of the Bialystok-Minsk battle and the capture of 287,704 Russian prisoners. Of this number only about a hundred thousand were taken in the smaller pocket around Bialystok{56}.

The fall of Smolensk was now but a short time away, but such [120] haste in the end gained nothing for Guderian. The problems confronting his panzer group from the southeast, and from the rear as well, would absorb ever more of his attention, and the chimera of Moscow would slowly recede into the background as the Russian pressure against his units and against the Second Army coming up from the west gradually intensified.

The Northern Flank Of Army Group Center

On the northern flank of Army Group Center events had developed somewhat differently than they had in the south. Hoth's Panzer Group 3 had been more tightly bound to the Minsk-Novogrudok encirclement front than had Panzer Group 2, and no further progress to the east was made there until after June 30, when the OKH ordered both panzer groups to reach the line Rogachev-Mogilev-Orsha-Vitebsk-Polotsk as soon as possible{57}. As far as Panzer Group 3 was concerned, the objective would be to cross the Dvina in the area of Vitebsk-Polotsk, thus helping to secure the seventy-kilometer-wide land bridge between the Dnepr and Dvina rivers. The weather intervened, however, and heavy rains turned the roads into quagmires, especially in the swampy region around the upper Berezina. But since Army Group North had already crossed the Dvina on July 26, there seemed to be a good chance for a similar success by Panzer Group 3{58}.

Due to the weather, the 7th Panzer Division at the head of the XXXIXth Panzer Corps managed to reach only Lepel instead of Vitebsk within the two days originally planned. The vehicle columns of the 7th Panzer Division and the 20th behind it were widely dispersed due to the rain and the sandy roads east of the Berezina. Also, for the first time, the Russians had begun systematically to destroy all bridges in the path of Panzer Group 3{59}. The more northerly route to the Dvina, to the north of Lake Naroch, was better for rapid travel. Part of the 19th Panzer Division leading the LVIIth Panzer Corps covered the two hundred kilometers from Vilna to Disna north of Polotsk in only twenty-four hours and by July 3 had managed to clear the southern bank of the Dvina below Polotsk of all enemy forces. Hoth now hoped to be able to take Vitebsk quickly and also cross the Dvina near Disna, but since Guderian had pulled his panzer units down to the south of Orsha on the Dnepr, this meant that only the 7th Panzer Division coming up on Vitebsk from the southwest remained in the Vitebsk-Orsha [121] land bridge. Moreover, since July 2 air reconnaissance had shown strong Russian movement from the east toward Orsha-Vitebsk and also farther north to Nevel{60}.

Within the next two days long Russian columns would be observed west of Velikie Luki, and more movement would be seen to the north of Lake Ilmen and around Pskov. As Halder observed, the Russian group around Velikie Luki was in a good position to operate either against the southeastern flank of Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 (Army Group North) or against the northeastern flank of Hoth's Panzer Group 3 (Army Group Center). The Red Air Force was also noted to be particularly strong over Velikie Luki. All of this activity, coupled with the heavy concentrations of trains around Briansk-Orel and the Russian movement from there along the roads to the north, caused Halder some concern. Nevertheless, he still concluded that "the strength the enemy has remaining would scarcely permit him to organize an operational reserve{61}".

Although Hoth managed to cross the Dvina easily enough at Disna on July 4 with the 19th Panzer Division, Vitebsk was a different matter. On July 4 Timoshenko ordered the Twentieth Army to launch a counterattack with the Vth and VIIth Mechanized Corps from north of Orsha and southwest of Vitebsk toward Senno and Lepel{62}". This mission was approved by Stalin, who insisted that the infantry of the Und and XLIVth Rifle Corps support the two mechanized corps by an attack from the area east of Borisov. These attacks were launched at 5:00 A.M. on July 6 and were carried out by a total of nearly a thousand Russian tanks{63}. Panzer Group 3's 7th Panzer Division bore the brunt of these assaults, along with Guderian's 17th Panzer Division on the northern flank of Panzer Group 2. By July 9, the 17th Panzer Division had destroyed one hundred Russian tanks coming from the direction of Orsha, losing few of their own but suffering heavy loss of life{64}. By July 7, however, the 20th Panzer Division had succeeded in crossing the Dvina and begun to press down on Vitebsk from the northwest, and the city fell on July 10. Meanwhile, the 18th Infantry Division had shaken loose from the Russians near Ulla on July 9. It would hit the Russians who were pushing toward Vitebsk from the direction of Gorodok, but the pressure on Panzer Group 3 north of the Dvina would continue to increase after July 12 from the direction of Nevel and Velikie Luki{65}. The growing Russian threat against the left flank of Panzer Group 3, plus other information [122] obtained from air reconnaissance, forced Halder (at a conference held on July 13) to advise Hitler to postpone the direct advance on Moscow. It was Halder's recommendation that Panzer Group 3 be turned toward Velikie Luki and Kholm to eliminate the enemy group at Nevel-Velikie Luki{66}. On the eve of the battle for Smolensk the chief of the general staff was beginning to have serious second thoughts about the potential danger to the flanks of Army Group Center.

A large part of the problem was that, contrary to German expectations, many Russian units continued to fight after the initial panzer breakthroughs had been accomplished, as at Brest and in the ZeIvianka-Slonim sector. Even when cut off from the rear, some Russian units tended to remain remarkably coherent. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, was the baleful effect of the Commissar Decree. On July 10 Panzer Group 4 of Army Group North had reported the "liquidation" of 101 Red Army commissars. By mid-August Panzer Group 3 had "isolated and removed" 170 of them, but the unit's intelligence staff had to report that the "special measures" taken against the political commissars were known to the enemy, and this had led to the tougher than expected resistance. Already Hitler's ideological house of cards had begun to collapse in Russia, but it would be many months before any changes were made in the commissar policy{67}.

The General Staff Reconsiders The Situation

Earlier, on July 2, Colonel Kinzel of the general staff Intelligence Department reported to Halder on the supposed strength of the Red Army. It was Halder's belief, fortified by this report, that the Russians had only fifteen to twenty infantry and six tank divisions remaining in front of Army Groups North and Center. This fantasy-world conclusion led Halder to make the following statement on July 3:

In general, one can say that our mission to destroy the mass of the Russian Army west of the Dvina and Dnepr has now been fulfilled ... it would not even be too much to say that the campaign in Russia has been won within 14 days{68}.

Halder's impressions were further confirmed when on July 8 Colonel Kinzel reported that of the 164 Soviet rifle divisions that had been identified since the beginning of the war, 89 had been fully or [123] partly destroyed, and of these only 46 remained on the battle-fronts, while another 14 divisions were tied down facing Finland and 4 more were in the Caucasus. The Russian rearward reserve was reckoned at 11 divisions. Of the 29 Russian tank divisions that had emerged, only 9 were still considered to be battle worthy. From this Colonel Kinzel concluded that the Red Army was incapable of stabilizing a continuous front even behind fortified points and predicted that although the Russians would be able to call up new formations, these units would be deficient in officers, specialists, and artillery. These deficiencies, he thought, would prove to be an especially serious handicap to the Russian armored units. In a review of the situation confronting each Army Group, Kinzel reported decisive German superiority in the areas of Army Groups North and Center and asserted that, with its tactical and operational superiority. Army Group South would soon achieve a numerical advantage{69}. As Halder found these conclusions suitable in every way to bolster his own ideas about how the war should be won, he and Brauchitsch presented them to Hitler in the afternoon of July 8.

After listening to the substance of the Intelligence Department report, Hitler offered his estimate of the situation. The filhrer's ideal solution to the Russian campaign was to be carried out as follows: (1) Army Group Center was to employ pincer movements and break the last Soviet resistance north of the Pripet, forcing the way open to Moscow. After the Dnepr was reached, Hoth could perhaps aid Army Group North or go around the capital but not use his tanks directly against the city. After reaching Smolensk, Guderian could push either to the south or to the southeast, to work with Army Group South. (2) Moscow and Leningrad were to be razed to the ground by air attacks, tanks were not to be used for this purpose. (3) After the final destruction of the enemy at Smolensk, a push could be made to the Volga. The remaining part of the Soviet Union's industry could then be destroyed either from the air or by mobile ground units. (4) Plans for the construction of winter barracks were to be set in motion. (5) New tank production was to be held back in Germany for use in later operations. The losses in Russia were to be made up by combining the panzer divisions to form new whole units. Hitler also anticipated that some personnel could be sent back to Germany{70}.

It should be noted here that Hitler's grossly overconfident [124] evaluation of the military situation in Russia in early July was a direct outgrowth of the erroneous information being supplied him by his chief of the general staff. Hitler's overoptimism about the situation in Russia in the summer of 1941 is usually cited by his critics to ridicule his military judgment{71}. It is not possible to say that Halder was purposely trying to delude Hitler as he had already done during the planning phase of Barbarossa, for he still believed the Russians were on their last legs. On July 11 Halder wrote in his diary that "it would be impossible under the circumstances for the Red Army to have any more reserves behind the front lines." To be sure, the large enemy grouping in the Nevel-Velikie Luki area did cause Halder some concern, but he attributed this ominous sign to the Russians' scraping up the remnants of lost divisions, mixing these units with untrained reserves, and throwing them into battle without officers{72}.

By July 12 and 13, however, Halder's attitude had undergone a significant change as the OKH was faced with new evidence that the Red Army was far from finished. Not only was Panzer Group 3 experiencing strong enemy pressure from the direction of Nevel-Velikie Luki, but captured documents proved that new armies were being deployed in the areas Smolensk, Orsha, east of Vitebsk -some of them being brought up from the Ukraine by train. In addition, on the southern flank of Army Group Center a hundred-kilometer-long column of Russian infantry had been observed marching from Gomel to Mogilev, and moreover, there was a huge pileup of abandoned railway cars east of Gomel, many of which had apparently been loaded with vehicles and tanks{73}. It was this new information that caused Halder on July 13 to recommend to Hitler the temporary postponement of the direct advance on Moscow until the flank situation had been remedied.

In a conference on July 15 with Paulus and Heusinger, the general staff chief of operations, Halder reiterated his belief that, although the Russian deployment seemed operational in nature, it in fact was not so, since the Red Army lacked the strength to carry out any effective countermeasures. Paulus, however, was no longer convinced of this and pointed out quite correctly that new Russian concentrations even farther east, around Kalinin and Rzhev, on the Volga northwest of Moscow, and near Briansk on the Desna, might be intended to hit a German push on Moscow from the west on both flanks{74}. Although Guderian's striking success at [125] Smolensk the following day appeared to be a bellwether for future victories, the OKH remained deeply worried about the Russian activities to the south of Lake Ilmen, between the southern flank of Army Group North and the northern flank of Army Group Center, and at Zhiobin, Rogachev, and Mogilev behind the forward elements of Panzer Group 2. Some officers of the OKH had begun to fear that the worst had happened, that the Russians had been able to deploy an operational reserve along the Dnepr-Dvina-Lake Ilmen line and farther east, although Halder could not openly admit this possibility; yet it is plain to see that by mid-July his faith in his original plan to advance rapidly on to Moscow, after taking Smolensk and crushing the mass of the Red Army west of the Dnepr-Dvina line, had been profoundly shaken.

The Fall Of Smolensk

Guderian's main drive across the Dnepr toward Smolensk, Yelnia, Dorogobuzh, and Roslavl came on July 10-11 and was carried out with only light casualties, as no attempt was made to eliminate the Russian bridgeheads on the western bank beforehand. The Russian bridgehead at Orsha was screened by two battle groups while the XXIVth Panzer Corps was to protect its own flank against attacks from the area Zhiobin-Rogachev and its northern flank against the enemy at Mogilev{75}. The XLVIIth Panzer Corps was given the direct assignment of capturing Smolensk and this was done in remarkably short order by Lieutenant General von Boltenstern's 29th Motorized Division.

The push across the Dnepr by the 29th Division of the XLVIIth Panzer Corps began at 5:15 A.M. on July 11 in the area of Kopys and at Shklov. Although Russian artillery fire was lively, it was soon suppressed with the aid of a nearby Sturmgeschiitz self-propelled artillery unit. Even while the enemy artillery was still active, and the Red Air Force as well, the pioneers of the division went to work building a bridge, completing it by 4:00 P.M. that day{76}. After a diversion to the northwest to help the 17th Panzer Division in its crossover near Orsha, the 29th Division made its way straight for Smolensk. The division met no determined resistance until the lead elements of the 15th Infantry Regiment reached Khokhlovo, and here the Russian artillery and air strikes caused heavy casualties. Again, the self-propelled artillery proved its worth in combination with the infantry, and the Russian machine [126] gun nests and strong points were soon overcome. The last resistance near Smolensk was broken in this way, and by the evening of July 15 the battle-hardened Infantry Regiment 15 drove into the southwestern edge of the city. Then, by order of the XLVIIth Panzer Corps, Infantry Regiment 71 (from Khokhlovo) and Artillery Regiment 29 were turned directly into the city's south side. This action was fought on foot and across fields mostly against militia units that had been hastily formed by the Russian Sixteenth Army command. By nightfall this second German group had also entered Smolensk{77}.

Colonel Thomas's Infantry Regiment 71 had taken the Russian heavy artillery positions on the Koniukovo hills southwest of the city and learned from prisoners that Smolensk was strongly defended from this direction. After learning this, the regiment pressed on farther east to the Chislavichi-Nikitina-Smolensk road, escaping observation by the enemy. By 4:00 P.M. they were in the city's outskirts, but within an hour a heavy barrage of Russian artillery fire began to rain down on them. Not until nightfall were the troops of Regiment 71 able to reach the southern bank of the Dnepr. During the night Artillery Regiment 29 brought up some support guns placed at its disposal including 100mm cannon, Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, 88mm flak antitank guns and the regular antitank guns. Infantry Regiment 15 was to the west of Regiment 71, also on the city's south side.

The final assault on Smolensk began at 4:00 A.M. on July 16. Due to the narrowness of the streets, the German artillery could offer the infantry only a little direct help. The main part of the Russian force in the city seemed to be on the northern bank of the river, and other Red Army motorized columns were observed coming in from the north and east. The German artillery opened fire on the Russian reinforcements; the Russians replied in kind and also with an aerial bombardment. Already in the morning of July 16 Smolensk began to take on a shattered appearance as only a few undamaged buildings could be seen protruding from the rubble. By late morning, with the aid of some self-propelled artillery and the flame-throwing tanks of Panzer Regiment 100, a secure foothold was carved out on the southern bank. Around noon Russian artillery fire of all calibers picked up considerably, and in this way many fires broke out among the city's predominantly wooden [127] houses, creating dense clouds of smoke; the cathedral tower with its golden cupolas provided a colorful contrast{78}.

Around four in the afternoon. Infantry Regiments 15 and 71 began crossing the Dnepr in rubber boats, while Artillery Regiment 29 on the southern bank poured fire into the Russian-controlled northern bank. This assault was ordered by von Bolten-stern, who had his headquarters in the Hotel Molokhov. After arriving safely on the opposite side, the men of Infantry Regiment 15 soon reached the main railroad station and by 5:30 P.M. had fought all the way into Peter's Church, smoking the Red Army men out of their hiding places as they moved along. Particularly rough fighting occurred at the cemetery on the northern bank where parts of the Russian 129th Rifle Division under Maj. Gen. A. M. Gorodnianskii managed to use the tombstones as effective cover{79}. By 6:00 P.M. the fighting had moved out to the northern city limits, with the struggle growing ever more bitter; the streets had to be cleared systematically block by block, in many cases with grenades, flamethrowers, and machine pistols. Right at the city's northern limits were located some military barracks with well-dug-in field fortifications that proved to be a tough nut to crack. Nevertheless, by 11:00 P.M. the whole city had been subdued. The struggle, however, was far from over. Russian artillery fire continued to rain down on Smolensk from the hills close in on the north side. The stricken city glowed red in the night as Russian attacks, backed up by tanks, persisted until the morning. The next day's mission for the 29th Division would be to hold positions south of Smolensk along the Dnepr line, mainly along the Roslavl road, in order to prevent the Russians from breaking out of the large semi-pocket that had been formed by the two panzer groups around Smolensk from the north and south{80}.

Although the actual taking of Smolensk went well enough, the broad encirclement of the city had been carried out neither smoothly nor with great effectiveness. After Guderian's conversation with von Kluge on July 9 and the panzer general's emphatic statement that his assault over the Dnepr would decide the campaign within the year, von Kluge, the commander of the Fourth Panzer Army, ordered the 12th Panzer Division, since July 8 relieved from duty on the Minsk encirclement front, not to join Hoth's 7th Panzer Division at Vitebsk, but rather to drive through [128] Senno to cover Guderian's northern flank. Panzer Group 3's assault north of Smolensk was thereby weakened in order to aid Guderian's push toward Smolensk-Yelnia-Dorogobuzh from the southwest, much against the protests of Hoth and von Bock{81}.

Guderian's only thought was to reach the high ground to the east and south of Smolensk between the upper Dnepr and the headwaters of the Desna, thus securing an opening to Moscow from the west, whereas Hoth was more immediately concerned with the integrity of the planned encirclement around Smolensk. On July 10 Hoth ordered the XXXIXth Panzer Corps to swing around Smolensk from the north through the line Lesno-Surazh-Usiavits toward the northeast, hoping that the heaviest enemy resistance would thus be skirted, but destroyed bridges and mines in the roads reduced the speed of the motorized units to that of the infantry{82}. On July 13 the lead elements of Hoth's XXXIXth Panzer Corps reached Demidov and Velizh, and on July 14 the 12th Panzer Division reached Lesno and then turned in a more easterly direction toward Smolensk. The 12th Panzer was checked near Rudnia after being hit by Russian attacks from three sides, but Hoth's 7th Panzer Division managed to hold fast to the Demidov highway northwest of Smolensk while Guderian's northerly XLVIIth Panzer Corps crowded up toward Orsha, leaving a great conglomeration of Russians more or less boxed in from three directions to the north and west of Smolensk. It was at this time that the STAVKA decided to unleash a new and highly secret weapon in the fight for the upper Dnepr. On July 14 the Soviet Twentieth Army fired the first Katyusha rocket salvos against the German 5th Infantry Division, then occupying Rudnia northeast of Smolensk on the Vitebsk highway. The Katyusha truck-borne, rail-launched rockets created extreme havoc in the area of the 5th Infantry Division, largely because the Germans had never encountered them before. If used against a relatively flat or open area, a large salvo of Katyusha rockets would create a veritable blizzard of shrapnel{83}.

The Formation Of The Yelnia Salient

In mid-July, Guderian made a critical choice. He elected not to turn the XLVIth Panzer Corps toward the area west of Yartsevo to link up with Hoth northwest of Smolensk. Instead, he aimed for the heights of Yelnia and Dorogobuzh, thinking ahead about [129] Moscow, and in the process forfeited the chance of forging a strong wall around the Smolensk pocket (see Figures 15 and 16){84}. The availability of an opening leading out of Smolensk to the east saved the Russian Sixteenth and Twentieth Armies from a complete disaster and led directly to the very precarious situation that would soon develop around Yelnia (the name means "spruce grove" in Russian), a small town eighty-two kilometers to the southeast of Smolensk, near the headwaters of the Desna River. The responsibility for the creation of the conditions that led to the battles around Yelnia, battles that raged with such fury that some of the older officers compared them to their experiences at Verdun in 1916, must be shared equally by Fedor von Bock and Heinz Guderian, although Halder perhaps should be given a portion of the blame. Yelnia is a name that was burned into the collective consciousness of the German army, and the memory of it faded only after the larger disasters outside Moscow and at Stalingrad.

Lieutenant General Schaal's 10th Panzer Division of the XLVIth Panzer Corps received orders to take Yelnia at 9:00 P.M. [Fig.15] [130] [Fig.16] [131] on July 16, before the battle inside Smolensk had been brought to a conclusion. At this time Yelnia was defended by the 19th Rifle Division of the Russian Twenty-fourth Army{85}. It was not until the early morning hours of July 18, however, that the bulk of the 10th Panzer could pull up to Pochinok and to Prudki, at the intersection of the Smolensk-Roslavl and Mstislavl-Yelnia roads. Forward units of the division were held up at Strigino where the bridge over the Khmara had been damaged by a Russian attempt to burn it down. The worries about that particular bridge at least were ended when one of the tanks of Panzer Regiment 7 crashed through it attempting to cross over at 5:45 a.m Because of this and other delays, Schaal decided to hold the division at Petrova-Berniki and attack Yelnia the following day at 10:00 A.M. The attack had to be further postponed until 1:15 P.M. on July 19, however, because of the bad roads and the collapse of another bridge. During the night of the eighteenth and the morning of the nineteenth, the Russians had used the delay to fortify an antitank ditch that had been dug across the Pochinok-Yelnia road{86}. Two Russian heavy artillery pieces began to shell the road from a long distance in mid-afternoon, making the situation very uncomfortable. Later, by 2:30 P.M., a way was found around the antitank ditch, and Panzer Regiment 7 resumed the advance on Yelnia along the railroad tracks from the northwest, from the direction of Smolensk. Soon the tank men drove into the western and the southern edge of the town.

Hardly had the 10th Panzer penetrated into Yelnia when the XLVIth Panzer Corps command flashed an urgent message for reinforcements to be sent to help the SS "Das Reich" Division pushing from Baltutino to Dorogobuzh. Schaal replied that he could not take Yelnia and Dorogobuzh at the same time, but the corps commander, von Vietinghoff, was insistent. As a result, parts of a motorized rifle regiment and an artillery regiment, along with one tank destroyer Panzerjaeger unit, were ordered to take and hold the Dnepr bridge at Dorogobuzh, but it would be an ill-fated attempt, as the Russian pressure around Yelnia and along the Dorogobuzh road was too great.

By 6:00 P.M. on the nineteenth, the 10th Motorcycle Battalion had cleared the east side of Yelnia all the way to the cemetery, which was eight hundred meters north of the town limits, and by 6:30 the church in the center of the town was taken; but a sharp [132] fight was still being waged on the railroad embankment west of the main station. Russian artillery fire now was beginning to pour in at a steady rate from the south and the southeast. Around eight in the evening, the whole south side of the town was under heavy shell-fire from big guns, and the divisional commander had to comment, "It is questionable whether we can take and hold Yelnia"{87}. It was not until nearly 10:00 P.M. that the costly battle around the railway station was ended and the combing out of the rest of Yelnia could be completed. This final operation was finished within the next half hour.

It was almost at this precise moment, however, that the 4th Panzer Brigade ran entirely out of engine oil. The shortage of motor oil came about because by mid-July the German tanks were using twice the amount of oil they consumed during normal operations. The dense clouds of dust encountered on the Russian roads ruined the tanks' air filters and increased wear on the engines. By July 22 the 10th Panzer Division had only nine battle-ready tanks remaining (five Panzer Us and four Panzer Ills). All the rest had been put out of commission due to breakdowns or enemy action{88}. Now, despite orders to the contrary, Schaal decided to postpone the push toward Dorogobuzh by parts of the three regiments mentioned, for to continue with so many of his tanks immobilized would mean his division would have a difficult time hanging on to Yelnia, much less expanding its area of control. On July 21 von Vietinghoff reported from the XLVIth Panzer Corps headquarters that despite the most strenuous efforts the 10th Panzer could not be supplied with oil or, for that matter, with ammunition, which also was in great demand. Because of the supply problem and because of the strong Russian presence south of Yelnia, behind the Desna, with well-emplaced artillery positions, it was decided by von Vietinghoff and Schaal to pull the stalled SS "DasReich" Division back from the road to Dorogobuzh and use it to guard the 10th Panzer's northeastern flank while the armor pushed further out to the east and south. On July 20 a tank battalion of the 10th Panzer Division, along with some infantry, overran a few Russian artillery positions to the east and south of Yelnia. These emplacements were reported to have been especially well constructed, with accommodations for both men and horses, and had obviously been completed for some time{89}. [133]

The infamous "Yelnia salient" had now been created, and it would soon become a holocaust of fire and steel that would consume the lives of tens of thousands of German and Russian soldiers. The battles around Yelnia would be more costly than any the German army had fought since 1918 and reminiscent of that earlier war in many ways. For the first time the Wehrmacht would have to face the Red Army across a static front lined with trenches and foxholes, enduring almost continuous artillery barrages and having to beat back savage infantry attacks, sometimes supported by armor. In the summer of 1941 at Yelnia, it was the Red Army that came out the victor, with the last stage of the battles coming under the personal direction of Georgii Zhukov, an ominous foreshadowing of the fate of the German army.

On July 19 Guderian issued Panzer Group Order Number 3, which stated that "after reaching the area southeast of Smolensk [i.e., around Yelnia] Panzer Group 2 will come to a halt for refitting and replenishing supplies." However, on July 20 this order was canceled due to the "changed situation"{90}. Guderian was now ready to give his battle-worn panzer group a much-needed rest after reaching Smolensk-Yelnia, but the Wehrmacht had set only one foot inside Great Russia, and the Red Army had just begun to bring the main part of its force into action. Halder and the generals in the field had wondered about the absence of large quantities of Russian artillery in the Bialystok-Minsk pockets, but by the third week in July they wondered no longer. The Russian thunder was on the Dnepr River. [134] [135]

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