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Chapter 4.

Battles For The Upper Dnepr

The Soviet Response

The dimensions of the battles that developed around the upper Dnepr in mid-July 1941 were large by any standard. Overall, the battle for the Dnepr in the area of the Army Group Center encompassed 600-650 kilometers of front, stretched from Sebezh and Velikie Luki in the north to the Loev and Novgorod-Severski in the south; from Polotsk, Vitebsk, and Zhiobin in the west to Toropets, Yartsevo, and Trubchevsk in the east. Not only was the physical setting of the struggle immense, but the duration of it was protracted, from July 10, when Guderian succeeded in crossing the Dnepr, to the last days of September, when the advance toward Moscow was resumed under the code name Operation Typhoon{1}.

After D. G. Pavlov's sudden dismissal as commander of the Western Front (and his subsequent execution). Marshal S. K. Timoshenko, the commissar for defense, was picked by Stalin on July 1 to serve as Pavlov's successor. It had been said that Timoshenko's assignment was due to Stalin's desire to take direct control over military affairs, yet the evidence seems to show that in early July Stalin was still somewhat shaken by the turn of events and was relying heavily on his close advisors to run the government and the military. The Soviet dictator went into seclusion after June 22 and made no public appearances of any kind until his radio address to the nation on July 3{2}. Whatever Stalin's role at this point [136] might have been, it was Timoshenko who had to answer for the success or failure of the Western Front and he must have been aware that he, too, could share Pavlov's fate.

The situation that confronted Timoshenko when he and his staff arrived at Smolensk on July 2 was anything but enviable. Pavlov's counter-attacks with three mechanized corps had not worked the desired effect on the two German panzer groups coming into the Bialystok salient from the north and south; nor had the enemy failed to take advantage of its overwhelming air superiority close to the frontier. Communications in the forward areas of the Western Front were in shambles; it was difficult for a commander to make intelligent decisions under such conditions.

By June 26 it had become obvious to Zhukov, still the chief of the general staff, and Timoshenko that emergency measures must be taken by the operational echelon if the German armor were to be checked before a breach was torn in the Dnepr line of defense. Zhukov could not have foreseen how rapid the advance of the German tanks was to be after the bridges over the Nieman were captured intact and after the Luftwaffe had made short work of the large Russian mechanized corps. Zhukov acknowledged one other mistake in his memoirs: "We did not envisage the nature of the blow [on June 22] in its entirety. Neither the People's Commissar [Timoshenko], nor myself . . . expected the enemy to concentrate such huge numbers of armored and motorized troops, and, on the first day, to commit them to action in powerful compact groupings in all strategic directions." Zhukov evidently believed beforehand that the Germans would be more cautious in crossing the border, putting infantry and artillery ahead of the tanks, as Halder had proposed{3}. A decision had to be made at once to strengthen the Dvina-Dnepr line in the area of the operational echelon of the Western Front. A delay or postponement of this decision was not possible, because no one could predict how long the forces within the encirclements could resist the strong German pressure. One bright spot in the picture, however, was that the Russian forces, parts of three armies cut off by the Germans west of Minsk, were continuing to put up a stiff fight. The tactical reserve was, in actuality, fulfilling its function by holding its ground while the German armor passed on to the east, and as has been seen, many German units were tied down by the Bialystok-Minsk encirclement operation until after July 8{4}. But Zhukov could not count [137] on the German infantry being held west of the Dnepr for long. Positive action was required to ensure the position of the forces on the upper Dnepr.

On the evening of June 26 Zhukov was summoned to Moscow from the Southwestern Front to discuss the situation with Timoshenko and Vatutin, who was then chief of the Operations Section of the general staff. It was decided at this conference that the forces of the operational echelon already on the Dvina-Dnepr line in the area of the Western Front-the Twentieth, Twenty-first, and Twenty-second armies, plus other units-would now have to be augmented by other armies taken from the main part of the operational echelon in the Ukraine and from the reserves directly controlled by the Supreme Command. The final recommendation made to Stalin on June 27 called for the Thirteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-first, and Twenty-second armies to defend the line Dvina-Polotsk-Vitebsk-Orsha-Mogilev-Mozyr. In addition, the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-eighth armies from the Supreme Command reserve were to be held in readiness near and to the south of Smolensk. The recommendation also called for the immediate formation of two or three more armies from the Moscow militia. Stalin approved of this proposal without objection{5}.

On July 10, the day Guderian succeeded in forcing the Dnepr, the units of the Russian Western Front were distributed along a line stretching from north of the Western Dvina River to south of Gomel. From Idritsa to Drissa and farther along the Western Dvina, on the extreme northern flank of the Western Front, was the Twenty-second Army under Lieutenant Gen. F. A. Ershakov. This army occupied a 210-kilometer front and had been heavily engaged with Hoth's Panzer Group 3. Slightly to the rear and to the south of the Twenty-second Army was Lieutenant General Konev's Nineteenth Army, which had been brought up by rail from Belaia Tserkov to the Rudnia-Demidov-Vitebsk area. Konev's force had to be thrown into a counterattack toward Vitebsk as soon as it had left the trains, but this counterthrust was largely wasteful, although Hoth's push from Vitebsk to Orsha was slowed somewhat. In the area from Vitebsk to Orsha was Lieutenant Gen. P. A. Kurochkin's Twentieth Army with fifteen divisions that had just arrived from the Orel Military District. This army was in the best shape, numerically, and was the best deployed, with each division having only a 10-12 kilometer front. The remnants of the Vth and [138] VIIth Mechanized Corps, which had carried out the ill-fated coun-teroffensive in the Lepel-Orsha area on July 6, were also part of the Twentieth Army's complement. The many tanks lost by these two corps at Orsha and Lepel were sorely missed when the battle closer to Smolensk began to develop{6}.

Deployed in the city of Smolensk itself was the Sixteenth Army, with two rifle divisions, which had been brought west hurriedly from the interior. The Sixteenth Army was commanded by Lieutenant Gen. M. F. Lukin, but later, by the time of the assault on the city by the German 29th Motorized Division, all units around Smolensk were subordinated to Kurochkin. Many of the divisions, especially those of the Sixteenth and Nineteenth armies, which had been brought from the south and east, were rushed into the front lines in a rather haphazard fashion, and the soldiers, in many cases, were given very little training and advance preparation{7}.

South of Smolensk along the front Shklov-Mogilev-Stary Bykhov was the Thirteenth Army under Lieutenant Gen. P. M. Filatov. The condition of this army was not good, since many of its troops had just managed to escape from the encirclement around Minsk. It was now the front of the Thirteenth Army that Guderian chose for his breakthrough toward Smolensk and Yelnia. Each of the Thirteenth Army's four divisions had a 20-25 kilometer front, and its XXth Mechanized Corps had no tanks remaining. Behind the Thirteenth Army south of Smolensk, occupying the high ground around Yelnia, was Maj. Gen. K. I. Rakutin's Twenty-fourth Army. Rakutin's neighbor to the south along the Desna River was Lieutenant Gen. V. la. Kachalov's Twenty-eighth Army. Both of these units had recently been created from the Supreme Command reserves.

On the extreme southern wing of the Western Front, along the line Stary Bykhov-Rogachev-Rechitsa, and also around Gomel, was the powerful Twenty-first Army that Zhukov had expected to play a key role in slowing down Army Group Center by the time the Germans reached the Dnepr. Shielded as it was from the west by the Pripet Marshes, Col. Gen. F. I. Kuznetsov's Twenty-first Army was in an excellent position to fulfill all of Zhukov's expectations; it was composed of three rifle corps placed in two echelons along a 140-kilometer front{8}. Also filtering east were strong elements of the Fourth Army that had escaped the Bialystok encirclement [139] and were retreating under fire toward the Thirteenth and Twenty-first armies{9}.

In general, the forces which the Red Army managed to assemble on the upper Dnepr by July 10 made an imposing array. Still, however, there were serious shortages of equipment. The four armies in the forefront of the Western Front had, by official estimate, only 145 tanks, 3,800 guns and mortars, 389 usable aircraft, and only a few antitank and antiaircraft weapons. Zhukov knew that manpower alone would not be enough to halt the German advance, so by July 14, the Supreme Command began to deploy the armies of the strategic reserve as soon as they became mobilized along lines east of the Dvina-Dnepr behind the Western Front{10}.

This action, and the movement northward of important units of the operational echelon from the Ukraine, represented a partial breakdown of the careful strategy that Zhukov and Stalin had plotted before the war. By July 8 the former tactical reserve of the Western Front had ceased to exist, and what the Supreme Command had intended to be the operational echelon along the Dnepr-Dvina line was now transformed into the new tactical echelon, with fronts that were becoming rapidly less flexible and maneuverable as the German pressure toward the east continued. As a result of the Supreme Command's decision to deploy the strategic reserve on and immediately behind the Western Front, the strategic reserve would be unable to fulfill the function for which it had originally been intended, that is, launching a counteroffensive as soon as the German army had been halted, presumably along the Dvina-Dnepr line. Now, instead of holding back the strategic reserve and using it all at once against the Wehrmacht in a massive counteroffensive, the Supreme Command had decided by mid-July to use it piecemeal, to deploy it as soon as the mobilization schedule would allow, in order to supplement the armies already on the Dvina-Dnepr line and to establish other lines of defense farther east between the battlefronts and Moscow{11}.

The situation with regard to the large armored formations, the mechanized corps, also had to be brought sharply into focus. The Luftwaffe's work had been so effective against them in White Russia that Zhukov's intended plan to hold the new models back for a counteroffensive by the strategic reserve also had to be given up. Pavlov's failure in White Russia also meant that many factories, including tank factories, had to be dismantled and moved eastward [140] as quickly as possible. For example, the Kirov factory in Leningrad, the Kharkov Diesel Works, and the "Red Proletariat" Factory in Moscow were all moved to Cheliabinsk in the Urals. Eventually, part of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory was moved there, causing the vast complex at Cheliabinsk to be nicknamed "Tankograd"{12}.

The combination of higher than expected initial losses coupled with production interruptions in key tank factories forced the STAVKA on July 15 to order the breakup of the mechanized corps. A few tank divisions were kept, but most were split up into their component regiments. The motorized divisions were at the same time made into rifle divisions. The goal was to concentrate on building smaller armored units that could be used more easily to support the rifle divisions in a combined-arms role{13}. The point is that Zhukov was forced to fritter away the new tank production piecemeal in order to shore up the tattered operational echelon. Despite this seemingly desperate situation, however. Soviet industry managed to rise to the occasion and produce 4,800 newer model tanks in the second half of 1941. Some Western commentators have remarked about the severity of the economic dislocations resulting from evacuations of factories to the east, but it should be remembered that the Russians produced more tanks in the last six months of 1941 than the Germans did during the whole year- 3,796, including self-propelled guns. This impressive feat not only allowed the Red Army to keep pace with the numbers of German tanks on the front despite continuous heavy losses, but it also permitted Zhukov the luxury of being able to concentrate 774 tanks, including 222 T-34s and KVs, along the key axis of the Moscow counteroffensive against the flanks of Army Group Center in December{14}. It should also be said that the enforced reliance on combined-arms tactics and the forsaking of the large armored formations in the end proved to be an advantage for the Red Army. As will be seen in the next chapter, the Germans would have done well to have taken a leaf from Zhukov's book at Yelnia and themselves learned more about combined-arms tactics, especially in defensive situations. Later in March 1942, after an increase in the numbers of tanks, the Red Army was able to recreate the tank corps, which added significantly to its ability to exploit breakthroughs. The basic reliance on combined-arms operations and [141] the close mutual support of tanks, artillery, and infantry was, however, not discarded{15}.

The important strategic decisions that the Supreme Command made in late June and in the first half of July, to strengthen the approaches to Moscow as rapidly as possible with armies from the interior and from the Ukraine, should not be understood to have canceled out the prewar strategy entirely. A large, uncommitted part of the original operational echelon was still located in the Ukraine, and although Panzer Group 1 of Army Group South had broken through the "Stalin line" of fortifications south of Novograd-Volynskii on July 7, another month was to pass before Army Group South could bring the Uman battle of encirclement to a close. Although Brauehitsch really wanted Panzer Group 1 to cross the Dnepr and take Kiev on its own, he agreed with Hitler that the Uman encirclement should be carried out beforehand because this was a "safe" decision and because he wished in this way to try to conceal from Hitler the true danger of the Kiev situation. The OKH portrayed the situation in the area of Army Group South in brighter colors than the truth warranted because of their desire to influence Hitler in favor of Moscow{16}.

The powerful Russian Fifth Army, operating just south of the Pripet Marshes and west of the Dnepr around Korosten did not begin with its withdrawal over to the eastern bank of that river until after August 21{17}. As the huge mass of prisoners gathered in by the Germans during the Kiev encirclement would show, the Russian Supreme Command had not yet completely cast overboard its hopes of using the operational group in the Ukraine to good advantage against the flanks of Army Group Center. It is true that the prewar strategy of the Supreme Command had been placed in jeopardy by mid-July, but it had not been changed entirely. In mid-July the war was less than a month old and the mobilization of the strategic reserve was still in its first phase. Bigger things could be planned for the coming weeks once mobilization got into full swing. Despite the altering of their strategy, Zhukov and Stalin were not yet faced with a crisis, even after the abrupt fall of Smolensk on July 16.

On July 12, the Supreme Command ordered Timoshenko to prepare a defense of Mogilev and to launch a counterattack from the direction of Gomel toward Bobruisk in order to hit the rearward [142] areas of Panzer Group 2 advancing across the Dnepr{18}. The main blow of this attack was carried out by the LXIIIrd Rifle Corps of the Twenty-first Army. Guderian's push over the Dnepr had caused a gap to open between the Russian Thirteenth and Twenty-first Armies after the units of the Thirteenth Army south of Mogilev were forced to abandon Krichev and withdraw to the east and southeast, leaving the units at Mogilev and Orsha completely surrounded. On July 14, after the taking of Mstislavl to the east of Mogilev, an interpreter from the German 10th Panzer Division made a telephone call over the open line to Krichev and was asked if he needed any more (Russian) troops in Mstislavl. The interpreter replied, politely, "No, thank you"{19}.

The counterattack by the Twenty-first Army was begun on July 13 with a force of about twenty divisions, and it achieved some initial success by forcing the Dnepr, retaking Rogachev and Zhiobin, and pushing on toward Bobruisk against the southern flank of Guderian's XXIVth Panzer Corps. These attacks, which were strong enough to cause the commander of the XXIVth Panzer Corps to fear for the loss of his rearward communications, were no deterrent whatsoever to Guderian, who was determined to reach the high ground around Yelnia as soon as possible{20}. Since, however, the XLVIth Panzer Corps was unable to advance toward Dorogobuzh and link up with Hoth's Panzer Group 3 after taking Yelnia on July 19, a significant portion of the strength of the Russian Sixteenth and Twentieth armies succeeded in making its escape eastward through Dorogobuzh. According to Hoth, "To Panzer Group 2 the taking of the heights of Yelnia for the later continuance of the advance eastward appeared more important than the completion of the Smolensk encirclement"{21}.

The Closing Of The Smolensk Pocket

Guderian would have liked to have been able to close the Smolensk pocket, but he was unable to do so for two reasons: (1) the strong pressure exerted on the XLVIth Panzer Corps by the Russian Twenty-fourth Army and (2) the strong pressure exerted on the southern flank of his panzer group and against von Weichs's Second Army by the Russian Twenty-first Army. Guderian could have taken Dorogobuzh and linked up with Hoth only by forfeiting his position around Yelnia, but this he would not do. On the morning of July 20, von Kluge, still the nominal superior of both [143] Hoth and Guderian as commander of the Fourth Panzer Army, telephoned Guderian and asked him if the XLVIth Panzer Corps should not be withdrawn from Yelnia. Guderian replied in the negative because "this would stiffen the beaten enemy and would not be understood by our own troops"{22}.

When von Bock received notice on the morning of July 20 of the fall of Yelnia, a success that Guderian described as an "advantage which must be used," he replied that nothing else mattered except that the Smolensk pocket be hermetically sealed. Von Bock went so far as to dispatch a general staff liaison officer to Guderian with a personal message to this effect. In the words of the commander of Army Group Center to Guderian: "You must be reasonable. A push further to the east is now out of the question." Von Bock's reference to the impossibility of an immediate resumption of the Moscow offensive was made because of the delays experienced by the German Second Army in dealing with the threat to the southern flank of Army Group Center. Von Bock was not happy with von Weichs's failure to force the Dnepr; nevertheless, the commander of Army Group Center would have little luck in hurrying the divisions of the Second Army up from the south toward the north and east to relieve Guderian at Yelnia so his tanks could close the Smolensk pocket. Guderian's southern flank was also in danger, and as will be seen, he had other ideas about how the Second Army would have to be used. The commander of Army Group Center was not inclined to attribute his failure to forge a tight, armored ring around Smolensk to Guderian, who, he believed, was fundamentally correct in his desire to hold Yelnia as a springboard for an operation against Moscow. Instead, he blamed everything on von Kluge because he was Guderian's immediate superior, though he had no real power over the panzer general. This awkward command system had been designed by Halder to give Guderian the maximum amount of freedom to strike for Moscow. Guderian's independence was now eroding von Bock's ability to control his army group, as it would later erode Halder's ability to influence the overall situation. Heusinger, Halder's chief of operations, was closer to the truth when he telephoned von Bock and attributed the failure of Army Group Center to close the pocket around Smolensk to the strong Russian pressure against the flank of Panzer Group 2 from the east, southeast, and south. [144]

In order to seal the Smolensk pocket, it was Guderian's plan to send the 18th Panzer Division from Gusino on the upper Dnepr to relieve the Infantry Regiment "Gross Deutschland" thirty-five kilometers north of Roslavl and then use the infantry regiment for the move on Dorogobuzh from the south. Guderian recorded in his memoirs that von Kluge did not approve of this plan, because he was afraid of the danger to the northern flank of Panzer Group 2 along the Dnepr if the 18th Panzer Division were to be pulled out of line{23}.

In reality, however, the panzer general's criticism of von Kluge was unjustified, because the 18th Panzer Division could not be used in this fashion before the infantry of the IXth Army Corps arrived to take its place; this corps did not come into position until after July 21{24}. Later, when the 18th Panzer Division arrived to relieve "Gross Deutschland" on July 24, both units were immediately hit and pinned down by strong Russian attacks from the direction of Roslavl, a factor that Guderian failed to mention in his memoirs other than to say that the crisis at Roslavl arose because infantry units were held up by the OKH on the Dnepr west of Smolensk{25}. In the end, Guderian was prepared to carry out the assault on Dorogobuzh from the south with only the 17th Panzer Division from Yelnia and the SS "Das Reich" Division, a move that would then have been extremely risky. At the last minute, on July 25, von Kluge contacted Guderian and advised him to call off the attack if it appeared it would be too costly-Guderian took the advice{26}. The gap between the two panzer groups was not closed until July 27 by Hoth's 20th Motorized Division, but by then the real damage had already been done.

Timoshenko's Counteroffensive At Smolensk

The punishment inflicted on von Kluge's Fourth Panzer Army around Smolensk during the third week in July and after was caused by the new forces introduced by the Red Army Supreme Command. In order to coordinate the forces rapidly being mobilized, a new Reserve Front had been created on July 14 under Lt. Gen. I. A. Bogdanov. This Reserve Front included not only the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-eighth armies at Yelnia and on the Desna, but also four new armies: the Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, Thirty-first, and Thirty-second. These units were given the initial assignment of holding the line Staraia Russa-Ostashkov-Belyi-Yelnia-Briansk, [145] and two armies of this group, the Thirty-first and the Thirty-second, were held in the rear at Torzhok-Kalinin-Volokolamsk and at Naro-Fominsk-Maloyaroslavets-Vysokinichi. Later, the Thirty-second Army at Naro-Fominsk was sent to the Mozhaisk line of defense.By July 20, Timoshenko's Western Front had formed five special groups under major generals K. K. Rokossovskii and V. A, Khomenko and lieutenant generals S. A. Kalinin, V. Ia. Kachalov, and I. I. Maslennikov. These units, which were in some cases strong enough to give them local superiority over the Germans, were intended by the Supreme Command to mount a counteroffensive to encircle Smolensk and recapture it from the enemy as well as aid the trapped Russian divisions west of the city (see Figure 17){27}.

In a conversation with Timoshenko on July 20, Stalin told the commander of the Western Front:

Until now you have been throwing only two or three divisions at a time into the front and this has produced no real results. It must now be the time to give up such tactics and begin building [Fig.17] [146] spearheads on their flanks of about 7-8 divisions with mobile units. It is time to choose our own directions and force the enemy to shift his forces to suit us. I believe that we can now stop pitching pebbles and really throw some big rocks{28}.

It is clear from this statement that Stalin was now a very confident man, in fact too confident. The time was not ripe for the Red Army to be able to choose its own grounds for an offensive without regard for the intentions of the enemy. Stalin would learn his lesson the hard way at Kiev in September, but his basic optimism about the overall situation was not ill-founded. Army Group Center was indeed in difficult straits, especially along its southern Hank.

Timoshenko's counteroffensive against Smolensk was unleashed on July 23 with the Twenty-eighth Army striking from the Roslavl area and the Thirtieth and Twenty-fourth armies attempting to advance westward from the area Belyi-Yartsevo. A large group under Rokossovskii, with armor, helped some units of the Sixteenth and Twentieth armies to break out across the Dnepr from south of Yartsevo at this time. On July 29 the Russians assaulted almost the whole front of the German Ninth Army, firing forty guns from one artillery position, and managed to achieve a breakthrough southwest of Belyi. According to von Bock, "The fact is our troops are tired and the high loss in officers has brought about a lack of staying power." On August 2 air reconnaissance reported to Army Group Center that the Russians had built a bridge on the eastern side of the Smolensk pocket and that their troops were "streaming out to the east"{29}. After Hoth succeeded in closing the Smolensk pocket, what was left of the Sixteenth Army, including its headquarters staff, joined Rokossovskii's group, which took on the designation "Sixteenth Army" after August 5{30}.

Subsequent to the sealing of the Smolensk pocket, Russian units continued to make their escape eastward. During the night of August 3-4 Rokossovskii pushed forward the Vth Mechanized Corps and the 229th Rifle Division to open the Dnepr crossing at Solovev. On the same day other units of the Twentieth Army crossed over in the area of Zabor on a twenty-kilometer front, and the withdrawals went on for some days under heavy German fire. Field Marshal Kesselring of the Luftwaffe estimated that over one [147] hundred thousand Russian troops managed to escape from the Smolensk pocket to form new divisions. In his words, "The failure to wipe out these forces-I merely recall the costly battles in the Yelnia salient between 30 July and 5 September-could not be laid to the charge of the German troops or their commanders. Our divisions, including the Luftwaffe, were simply overtaxed, at the end of their tether and far from their supply centers"{31}. Kesselring was only partly correct in his assessment of the German failure to win a decisive victory at Smolensk. It is true that the Wehrmacht was seriously overburdened, but the Smolensk pocket could have been sealed effectively if Guderian had been willing to give up his position at Yelnia. In his eyes, however, forfeiting Yelnia would have been giving up to Moscow, and that was something he would not do.

Guderian's criticisms of the OKH's actions in the battle for Smolensk require closer examination. Guderian has charged, as mentioned earlier, that the OKH purposely held back the infantry units of the Second Army west of the Dnepr and that this mistake led directly to the crisis along Panzer Group 2's southern flank from the direction of Roslavl. It is true that the Second Army was held up west of the Dnepr for a longer time than expected, but the reason for this had nothing to do with the OKH. The delays encountered by the Second Army were due, first of all, to the extraordinary length of time required to clear the Minsk pocket and, secondly, to the damage inflicted on the Second Army's southern flank by the Russian Thirteenth and Twenty-first armies. The progress of the Second Army was also hampered by the confused and contradictory orders it received from above, most notably from von Bock. At the heart of the difficulties faced by Army Group Center was the employment of faulty tactics that left the flank of Panzer Group 2 sparsely covered, stretching from Smolensk to Yelnia to southeast of Mogilev, beyond the reach of marching infantry units for a long period. The commander of Army Group Center had to weigh the relative importance of sending infantry units toward Smolensk to help secure the pocket there or sending them to Guderian's southern flank, particularly to the XXIVth Panzer Corps at Propoisk (now Slavgorod) on the Sozh, which was experiencing strong pressure from the Russian Twenty-first Army. Von Bock, along with Guderian, was motivated above all by the desire to press on to Moscow, but for von Bock this strategy [148] did not call for sending infantry to protect the southern flank of Panzer Group 2; it called for pushing infantry eastward as rapidly as possible along the most direct route to the Soviet capital. After all, had not Guderian himself told the generals under his command not to worry about their flanks or their rear but always to strike ahead for the supreme goal?

Action On The Flanks Of Army Group Center

The problems for Guderian in the south began on July 16, the same day as the fall of Smolensk. The XXIVth Panzer Corps reported early in the morning that the 1st Cavalry Division had to repulse repeated assaults by one to two Russian divisions on both sides of the Dnepr eight kilometers south of Stary Bykhov (see Figure 18). The panzer corps also reported that the 10th Motorized Division on the eastern side of the Gomel-Mogilev road was being pressed hard from a northerly direction. The commander of the corps, Geyer von Schweppenburg, urgently requested that the infantry of the XIIth Army Corps from the Second Army be brought up immediately or else the corps was in danger of losing its rearward communications. The next day Guderian telephoned von Kluge and asked him if part of the XIIth Army Corps could not be used to attack Mogilev and thus relieve the XXIVth Panzer Corps. The commander of the Fourth Panzer Army had to decline this proposal because the XIIth Army Corps was already being turned southward to deal with problems on its own flank{32}.

The difficulty confronting von Weichs and his Second Army staff was that too many demands were being made on his infantry by too many people and all at the same time. Von Weichs needed the XIIth Army Corps badly at Stary Bykhov in order to close a gap that had opened up between it and the LIIIrd Army Corps, the latter unit having its own hands full contending with Russian units that were crossing over to the western bank of the Dnepr in the region of Novy Bykhov. In the early afternoon of July 16, the LIIIrd Army Corps estimated that it was being assailed by seven Russian divisions and could not hold out much longer{33}. Although the XIIth Army Corps reached Stary Bykhov just in the nick of time after a strenuous forced march, the Russians still managed to push west of Rogachev on July 18 and retake Strenki from the 167th Infantry Division with rolling artillery fire and tanks. [149] [Fig.18] [150]

By July 18, the Second Army had to deal with four groups of Russians: (1) a weak group that had penetrated through the Pinsk swamps, (2) a group of about two divisions, including a motorized division, that had pushed to the south of Bobruisk, (3) the ZhIobin-Rogachev group that had pinned down the LIIIrd Army Corps, and (4) the Russians who had been bypassed by Panzer Group 2 at Novy Bykhov and Mogilev, also west of the Dnepr. The third, or ZhIobin-Rogachev, group had given evidence of powerful artillery support and was being strengthened by additional units brought up from Gomel; its strength was estimated at eight or nine divisions, with more on the way. There were also more Russians around Shklov, Kopys, and Orsha. This situation seemed so serious to von Weichs that he urgently recommended that Gomel be taken at once, or else the flank of the Second Army would continue to be imperiled (see Figures 19 and 20).

Meanwhile, as he pointed out, the Russians would be able to bring up more reinforcements against the XXIVth Panzer Corps at Propoisk{34}.

When von Bock learned of von Weichs's request, he turned a deaf ear to the commander of the Second Army and said that the task of the army must be to cross the Dnepr and push to the northeast, toward Smolensk and Moscow, leaving "only the bare minimum protection for the southern flank." Von Bock then issued von Weiehs a written order for the Second Army to move its main force to the northeast and to turn the XIIth Army Corps to the south only insofar as it was "absolutely necessary." Von Bock concluded by referring to the Russian units on Guderian's southern flank as being only "makeshift units" and expressed his belief that the threat to the southern flank of the Second Army was overestimated{35}. Now the Second Army would be permitted only to screen itself from the direction of Gomel, while the bulk of the IXth, XIIIth, and VIIth army corps would have to move toward the northeast.

While the infantry corps of the Second Army were still preparing to cross the Dnepr, Guderian's XXIVth Panzer Corps continued in a state of unrelieved crisis. The corps command fully expected the Russians to cross the Sozh between Propoisk and Krichev and cut off all German units east of the Sozh. Already by July 19, the 1st Cavalry Division had sustained a Russian breakthrough ten kilometers southeast of Stary Bykhov. On this day the [151] [Fig.19] [152] [Fig.20] [153] Russians made a continuous attack with tanks and artillery all along the front of the 10th Motorized Division of the XXIVth Panzer Corps at Propoisk, and the division was now very close to the end of its ammunition supply{36}. Guderian put in another request to von Kluge for the help of the XIIth Army Corps, but the commander of the Fourth Panzer Army was powerless; von Bock had already rendered a decision. This request for infantry was renewed again on July 21, this time directly from the 10th Motorized Division, but von Weichs replied that he would not turn another division to the south without an express order from Army Group Center{37}. Guderian noted in his panzer group's war diary that the battered German troops at Propoisk "regarded with bitterness" the fact that the XIIth Army Corps was not sent to their aid but turned to the northeast instead. Guderian now realized rather bitterly himself that in order to relieve their comrades at Smolensk, the Russians had taken notice of Panzer Group 2's long, open southern flank{38}.

The predicament of the 10th Motorized Division had become so severe by July 21 that von Bock had to relent and allow the Second Army to send the XIIIth Army Corps to Propoisk: "An impressive result for an enemy already so badly beaten!{39}". This relief operation was carried out by the 17th Infantry Division of the XIIIth Army Corps on July 23, but the battle still raged on northwest of Propoisk. By July 25, other infantry units from the IXth Army Corps had begun to relieve the 18th Panzer Division in the area of Vaskovo, the 29th Motorized Division near Strigino, and the 10th Panzer Division within the Yelnia salient. Guderian's chestnuts had been pulled out of the fire by several redoubtable infantry divisions-a fact that he was not prone to ignore. On July 22 Guderian addressed a personal letter to von Kluge in which he made a most revealing statement:

The panzer group is locked in a battle in an area over 100 kms. deep and we are forced to operate over huge distances with very poor roads. The securing of the flanks ... of the widely separated panzer corps has become very difficult and takes away the strength from our spearheads.

He concluded the letter by requesting an infantry corps of two or three divisions to be attached directly to the panzer group that would be used to secure the rearward areas and the flanks{40}. Von [154] Kluge's reaction to this letter has not been recorded, but he must have reflected grimly on the words that he had said to Guderian on the eve of his rash crossing of the Dnepr on July 10.

While Guderian and von Bock were clumsily trying to solve the difficulties along the Sozh, the battles still raged furiously on the western bank of the Dnepr. The VIIth Army Corps was given the task of assaulting Mogilev, an undertaking that promised to be difficult since the Russians there showed no signs of giving in, even though they had been cut off from the east. Russian planes were still flying in at night and parachuting munitions to the besieged garrison, which was lively enough to launch a counterattack against the German bridgehead on the south side of the city on July 23. During the next day the VIIth Army Corps penetrated into the downtown section of the city with parts of three divisions, and it was then that the roughest kind of house-to-house, block-by-block fighting was encountered, resulting in heavy losses for the Germans. While the battle for Mogilev was underway, von Weichs telephoned von Bock and gave him a dark assessment of the situation of his southern flank, saying that Bobruisk would be endangered if the Second Army pushed more forces to the east. Von Bock took full responsibility on himself and said that the Second Army must cross the Dnepr as rapidly as possible. The battle for Mogilev ended on July 26, ten days after the fall of Smolensk, with the Russian Thirteenth Army yielding thirty-five thousand prisoners{41}.

Even though another Russian stronghold on the Dnepr had been eliminated and even though the Germans had a secure foothold on the Sozh to the east (thanks to the timely arrival of the XIIIth Army Corps), the Red Army showed no evidence of letting up its active defense along either of the two rivers. It still maintained a strong presence on the Dnepr at Rogachev-Zhlobin and on the Sozh at Krichev. In addition, Russian cavalry units were still active far behind the German lines threatening the Minsk-Bobruisk railroad{42}. On July 28, the LIIIrd Army Corps west of Rogachev was raked by a fourteen-hour artillery barrage and a full-scale assault by a Russian division. The XIIIth Army Corps was subjected to similar treatment after it took over the Krichev bridgehead from the XXIVth Panzer Corps. On July 30 the Second Army had to cancel plans for the continuation of the offensive across the Dnepr and the Sozh during the next four to five days because the divisions [155] of the army were 20-65 percent short of their normal supply of ammunition{43}.

Halder's concern about the activities on the flanks of Army Group Center was reflected in the conference he held with Hitler on July 13. In this conference, as has been mentioned, Halder recommended that action be taken to solve the problem of the flanks before resuming the offensive toward Moscow. Halder's views on this subject were transmitted to von Bock through Greiffenberg, the chief of staff of Army Group Center, also on July 13. According to Greiffenberg, Halder favored turning Panzer Group 2 to the south, behind the main group of Russian armies in the Ukraine, after first giving it a chance to rest and refit in the Smolensk area. Greiffenberg added that Hoth should perform a similar maneuver in the north by turning part of his Panzer Group 3 toward Army Group North. The rest of Hoth's panzer group could be used to aid the main drive of the Fourth and Ninth armies on to Moscow{44}. Von Bock reacted swiftly (as could be expected) to this shift in the wind from the OKH. After first conferring with von Kluge, who was still prepared to see Moscow left as the first priority, von Bock dispatched Colonel Schmundt, Hitler's adjutant, who happened to be present at Army Group headquarters, back to East Prussia with a message to Halder protesting this impending decision{45}. Halder, however, was not deterred from putting his plan into effect. During the evening of July 13, the OKH ordered part of Panzer Group 3-it was unclear to von Bock what part was meant-to turn north and cooperate with the southern flank of Army Group North in order to encircle the Russians in the Kholm-Lovat River area south of Lake Ilmen{46}.

In order to clarify the somewhat confused directives emanating from East Prussia, von Bock telephoned Brauchitsch on the afternoon of July 14 and told him that any such wide-ranging operation by Panzer Group 3 would have to wait until after the fall of Smolensk. Brauchitsch agreed to this, but added that a further eastward plunge of the tank units was now out of the question, and that the mass of the German infantry could not then move far beyond the Dnepr, due to the problems of supply. Brauchitsch believed, however, that some sort of armor-infantry combined "expedition-corps" could be used to reach further goals, such as Moscow{47}. But the army commander in chief did not relent on the question of sending Panzer Group 3 northward. On July 16 the [156] 19th Panzer Division was ordered to take Velikie Luki on the Lovat against von Bock's wishes{48}.

The assault on Velikie Luki by the 19th Panzer Division began on July 17. After the Germans took the central railroad station, a Russian train rolled in loaded with tanks, wholly an unexpected gift! On July 18 the Russian Twenty-second Army fought stubbornly to retake Velikie Luki without success, suffering considerable losses in the process. The rest of the LVIIth Panzer Corps -that is, the 12th Panzer Division and the 18th Motorized Division, screening the 19th Panzer Division's southeastern flank at Nevel-was not so lucky. During the night of July 19 the screen front at Nevel was put under strong pressure by a well-organized attack from the west by Russian units being pushed back from the front of Army Group North's Sixteenth Army. In the early morning of July 20 two Russian regiments broke through the LVIIth Panzer Corps' front from west to east at Borok, inflicting some damage. Also on July 19 two Russian divisions set upon Hoth's XXXIXth Panzer Corps and with powerful artillery support broke through the front of its 14th Motorized Division south of the Nevel-Gorodok road{49}. The German attempt to surround the Russians northwest of Nevel by coordinating movements between Army Group North and Panzer Group 3 apparently would not work{50}.

After some discussion, it was agreed by everyone, except Hoth, that Velikie Luki would have to be given up. Hoth later blamed the loss of Velikie Luki on von Kluge and von Bock, both of whom were against the operation from the start because it jeopardized the attempt farther south to close the armored ring around Smolensk. In fairness it must be said that von Kluge and von Bock cannot be blamed for the failure of an operation that they had done all they could to prevent. The real blame, if blame must be assigned, belongs to Halder, for it was he who convinced Hitler that such a maneuver was necessary before the Smolensk pocket was closed{51}. Halder was willing to admit now that Velikie Luki would have to be given up, in spite of the fact that the Russians were bound to turn the city into a strongly fortified position{52}. As Hoth noted, a month later, in August, seven infantry and two panzer divisions would be needed to retake Velikie Luki{53}. The order for the 19th Panzer Division to abandon Velikie Luki and pull back to Nevel was given at 7:00 P.M. on July 20. [157]

Vacillation By The OKH - Trouble Brewing With Guderian

On the morning of July 21 Brauchitsch and Heusinger paid a short visit to Army Group Center's headquarters in Borisov in order to clarify the latest views on strategy entertained by the OKH. During a preliminary discussion Brauchitsch set forth the first goal as the sealing off of Smolensk and the elimination of the pocket of trapped Russians. Then he said preparations could be made for sending the Second Army and Panzer Group 2 toward the south and the Ukraine by the beginning of August, a judgment that was unpleasant music to von Bock's ears. During this conversation, when von Bock was temporarily absent from the room, von Kluge took the opportunity to make some disparaging remarks to Brauchitsch about von Bock's methods of command. When the commander of Army Group Center returned, he overheard part of the conversation and flew into a rage, saying that von Kluge had been his enemy for a long time and that his vanity was well known. The origin of the two field marshals' dislike for one another can be traced back to the planning phase of Barbarossa when they argued over the best method for employing tanks{54}.

When Brauchitsch returned from his trip to Borisov that same day, Halder was ready to reveal to the army commander in chief in greater detail his plans for the future conduct of operations by Army Group Center: (1) von Kluge, then the commander of the Fourth Panzer Army, should take command of the southern flank of Army Group Center, that is, over Panzer Group 2 and the southern part of the Second Army; (2) von Kluge's force was then to split off from Army Group Center and push to the southeast and come under the overall direction of von Rundstedt's Army Group South; (3) von Kluge's force would then push eastward with Stalingrad as its ultimate objective; (4) Strauss's Ninth Army would be divided, with its southern wing joining von Weichs's Second Army and its northern wing uniting with Army Group North, which in turn would shift some of its forces to the south, including the Sixteenth Army and Panzer Group 4; (5) Army Group Center, now to be composed of the Second Army and Panzer Group 3, would proceed along a line from Kholm to Bologoe toward the east (approaching Moscow from both the north and south), envelop the city, and reduce it with some help from Army [158] Group North; and (6) Army Group Center would then move its front to Kazan on the middle Volga before the end of 1941. After-the war Halder stated that "the ultimate goal of Hitler was to eliminate Russia as a European power in a brief period of time. This the OKH knew to be a military impossibility, but Hitler was never able to realize this"{55}.

In his memoirs Guderian quotes Halder's words in an OKH memorandum of July 23, 1941, in which the chief of the general staff set forth his plans as outlined above. The panzer general attempted to show that Halder favored putting the Ukraine ahead of Moscow in terms of importance, but this certainly was not the case. Von Bock also reacted strongly to this OKH communique and dispatched an immediate objection to East Prussia, saying that his army group command would become "superfluous" if the proposed order went into effect and that his post should be abolished if his army group were to be split up into three separate groups{56}. In fact, the chief of the general staff had been forced to take cognizance of reality and change his original plan so as to alleviate the problems faced by Army Group Center on its southern flank and to remedy the difficulties confronting Army Group South in the Ukraine. The essence of Halder's new strategy was that by early August a general shift of German forces to the south should take place. Important parts of Army Group Center, including Panzer Group 2 and units of the Second Army, should be sent to Army Group South, while portions of Army Group North should also be moved south to supplement the main drive on Moscow by the rest of the Second Army and Panzer Group 3-some parts of the Ninth Army would remain with the Second Army, and some of its units would come under the direction of Army Group North. Presumably, Army Group North would have to forgo the assault on Leningrad until after Moscow had been taken.

By arriving at this solution at such a late date, however, Halder would have serious problems persuading Hitler to go along with it, for he had already convinced the fuhrer once, prior to July 17, of the necessity of sending Panzer Group 3 to cooperate with Army Group North. This idea had been Hitler's all along ever since Jodi, on the basis of the Lossberg study, had shown him the efficacy of it back in December 1940. The setback that Hoth had suffered by July 20 at Velikie Luki would further strengthen Hitler's conviction that the Russians in front of Army Group North would have to be dealt with before any rapid plunge eastward was made [159] in the direction of Moscow. Halder's blunder at Velikie Luki would thus have a double-damning effect, not only on the situation along the northern flank of Army Group Center, but on Hitler as well. The fuhrer had furthermore been unfavorably impressed by Army Group Center's inability to form a tight pocket around Smolensk, a factor due more, however, to Guderian's unwilling-ness at any cost to give up Yelnia than to any direct fault of Halder's. The course of events had begun to catch up with Halder by the third week in July, for he had already set forces in motion that would shortly prove to be beyond his power to control. Fate would soon play a cruel trick on the chief of the general staff, but it was a fate of his own making.

On July 27, Guderian and his chief of staff, Freiherr von Liebenstein, flew to Army Group Center headquarters at Borisov expecting to hear that the new assignment for Panzer Group 2 would be to advance either on Moscow or Briansk, but to Guderian's surprise, he was told by von Bock that his next order of business, as ordered by Hitler, would be to cooperate with the Second Army and encircle the eight to ten Russian divisions in the direction of Gomel. In Guderian's words this would mean "sending tanks toward Germany{57}". Guderian's reaction to this order was predictable, and it was also a portent of things to come. The panzer general first replied to von Bock that his units would not be ready to undertake any new operations before August 5 and only then if supplies arrived soon enough to allow the repair and refitting of his tanks. In truth, some of what Guderian said did have a basis in fact. On July 29 Panzer Group 2 reported that as of July 25 only 263 Panzer Us, Ills, and IVs remained in battle-worthy condition. Up to this same date the panzer group had lost 20,271 men and had received approximately ten thousand men as replacements. Panzer Group 2 had begun the war with 113,500 men and 953 tanks{58}. The overall tenor of his speech, though, was designed to pressure von Bock. Guderian also described the terrain toward the south and southwest as being "impossible" and be-seeched von Bock to allow his tanks to continue east.

After von Bock managed to calm Guderian down, he told him that he would not have to send his tanks all the way back to Gomel on the Dnepr, the job of taking that fortified point could be left to the Second Army, which, it might be added, was already having a rough time with Rogachev and Zhiobin. Von Bock then broke the news to the panzer general that Brauchitsch had visited him earlier [160] in the morning and that both had agreed that Panzer Group 2 should be used against Roslavl and not Gomel. In order to sweeten the task for Guderian, the commander of Army Group Center further informed him that two infantry corps, the VIIth and the IXth, were to be placed directly under his command for the Roslavl operation{59}.

The stone was now, at least temporarily, removed from Guderian's heart. The Roslavl operation was similar to the one that he had been advocating ever since July 20 as the best way to secure the southern flank of Panzer Group 2 in a drive toward Moscow{60}. The attacks that had punished the XXIVth Panzer Corps along the Sozh since July 18 had come from the direction of Roslavl, as well as the attacks that had been launched against the XLVIIth Panzer Corps since July 24 along the Stomat River east of the Sozh. Guderian had already made plans before July 27 to finish with Roslavl before going on to Moscow. It was for this reason that on July 23 he ordered the XXIVth Panzer Corps to remain in the Propoisk-Cherikov area after its relief by the XIIIth Army Corps. There the panzer corps could be supplied with the fuel and ammunition that it needed to push on Roslavl{61}. Guderian was further pleased by the fact that two infantry corps would be added to his panzer group instead of the one that he had originally asked for on July 22. With this extra complement. Panzer Group 2 would also be able to take Krichev on the Sozh, another troublesome thorn in the panzer group's southern flank. Guderian had at first told von Bock that he would not be able to move against Gomel before August 5 at the earliest. The operation against Roslavl-Krichev, however, began on August 1.

For Guderian, the major confrontation with Hitler and the OKH could be postponed until after the Roslavl-Krichev operations had been brought to a close. The panzer general knew well enough that the OKH would do what it could to convince Hitler that a rapid drive on Moscow was necessary, but he did not care for the way Halder had outlined his view of things in the OKH communique of July 23{62}. Guderian believed that a wide sweep by his panzer group south of Moscow, perhaps through Briansk and across the Oka, might be necessary, but he strongly disagreed with Halder's plan to take Moscow with only two infantry armies and Panzer Group 3, and to detach his panzer group from Army Group Center entirely and dispatch it to the Ukraine and the lower Volga{63}. The panzer general's vanity was much too great for him to Battles for the Upper Dnepr [161] endure the slight being offered to him by the OKH. If Moscow could be taken, Guderian was sure that it could only be done with his panzer group in the vanguard. Guderian's self-esteem was well known to his colleagues, and it was a factor that von Bock had already been forced to take into account.

On July 9, before the crossing of the Dnepr, von Bock had seriously considered the possibility of moving the armored and motorized units in the rearward areas toward Panzer Group 3, which had already crossed the Dvina and was thus in a good position to drive down from the north toward Smolensk and eastward. Von Kluge's chief of staff, Blumentritt, however, had argued von Bock out of this idea, saying that he was afraid of Guderian's reaction at being slighted in such a manner. Earlier, at the time of the operations around Minsk, Guderian had shown himself to be ferociously protective of his units whenever it seemed that some of them, even temporarily, might be taken from under his command{64}. It would have been better for Halder if he had not forgotten this important feature of Guderian's forceful character. After the communique of July 23, the panzer general firmly considered Halder to be hostile to his cause, and he would not hesitate to betray the chief of the general staff in the future if given a chance.

Although Halder had not yet fathomed the depths of Guderian's psyche. Hitler knew his man, so he sent his adjutant, Schmundt, to Guderian on July 29 to present him the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross{65}. The award earned the gratitude of the panzer general, who was loyal to the core to the fuhrer. Guderian used the occasion of Schmundt's visit to ask him to carry a personal message to Hitler stressing the importance of Moscow over the Ukraine. Hitler, in the end, was not one casually to brush off Guderian, as he was prone to do with Halder, and this quirk in his character would have a telling effect later on Halder's schemes and on the course of the war.

The stage was now set for the fateful month of August: for the fearful battles along the Yelnia salient, for the operations at Roslavl-Krichev, Rogachev-Zhlobin, Gomel, and again at Velikie Luki. The time was also near for a momentous resolution of forces to take place between Hitler, the OKH, and Guderian. The losers in these struggles were, as they have always been, the men who had to die for their leaders' mistakes. [162] [163]

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