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Chapter 5.

The Pause of Army Group Center

The Yelnia Salient

Lfter the formation of the Yelnia salient there was little else the German armored and motorized units of the XLVIth Panzer Corps of Panzer Group 2 could do but hold on grimly to the territory they had won and hope for relief. The marching infantry of von Kluge's Fourth Panzer Army was, however, far to the west, and this army's IXth Army Corps would not arrive in the salient in force until July 28, nine days after the fall of Yelnia (see Figure 21).

On July 24, 1941, the XLVIth Panzer Corps ordered its SS "Das Reich" Division and its 10th Panzer Division to rectify the defense line around Yelnia and prepare to hold the area as economically as possible, making the best use of the irregular terrain. By 1:00 P.M. the SS was already fighting off Russian assaults with heavy tanks near hill 125.6. The SS had to defend a long front of over thirty kilometers on the northern side of the salient from this hill to Koloshchina, Vydrina, Lavrova, Ushakova, and the Glinka railroad station. In order to shorten "Das Reich's" front, von Vietinghoff, the commander of the XLVIth Panzer Corps, decided to pull the motorized infantry regiment "Gross Deutschland" into the salient, also to the northern side, to the immediate left of the SS{1}. The northern front of the salient was particularly dangerous at this time, for the Russian divisions, both inside and outside the [164] [Fig.21] [165] semipocket around Smolensk, were doing all they could to keep open an escape route to the east.

Early in the afternoon of July 25, the following day, several Russian tanks broke through the seam of the SS and the 10th Panzer Division, three of them penetrating nearly to Yelnia itself. In about an hour this attack was beaten back, with the Russians leaving sixteen broken tanks on the battlefield. Only one German gun position had been overrun, but the damage would have been considerably worse had the Russians sent in infantry behind the tanks{2}. The Russian commanders, especially on the tactical level, still had much to learn, but the Germans would not be able much longer to consider themselves so fortunate. Von Vietinghoff, realizing that the 3.7 cm antitanks guns his troops were using were worthless against the big Russian tanks, managed to get one 8.8cm antiaircraft weapon brought in from a Luftwaffe unit. This gun could destroy a Russian tank at over one thousand meters, and it and others like it proved to be indispensable for the prolonged defense of the Yelnia salient. The Luftwaffe also provided welcome support in other ways. JU-87 Stuka dive-bombers were constantly in action over and around the salient disrupting Russian tank columns. Later the Stukas would be gone, for they would follow Guderian during his march to the Ukraine and Guderian would not allow any of his units to remain at Yelnia. When the panzer general left, he would not only take the air cover and some artillery away from the salient, he would also remove virtually all of the motorized units, which were critically important behind the lines of a static defense in order to provide a mobile reserve in case of an enemy breakthrough. This was a factor readily appreciated while the XLVIth Panzer Corps was within the salient but ignored when the unit was ordered to pull out and head to the south. As an example of this, on the morning of July 26 the Russians hit SS "Das Reich" along its entire front with aircraft and tanks, and the division pleaded for a mobile reserve to be sent by the 10th Panzer Division, which was done in short order{3}.

During the afternoon of July 25, von Geyer's IXth Army Corps received orders from von Kluge's Fourth Army to proceed as rapidly as possible to Yelnia and relieve the forces of Panzer Group 2. On the way into the salient, near and to the east of Voroshilovo, Infantry Regiment 485 of the 263rd Infantry Division was hit hard by the Russian 149th Rifle Division. Two German [166] [Fig.22] [167] battalions were cut off and had to beat back attacks from all sides by Russian tanks. The division had no reserves, and so the battalions were ordered to fight their way out of the encirclement as best they could; they succeeded in doing so on July 27- "after suffering considerable losses in personnel and materiel"{4}. The rest of the IXth Army Corps began the relief of the 18th Panzer Division west of Yelnia and the infantry regiment "Gross Deutschland, " an operation that was completed by July 28{5}. The infantry regiment "Gross Deutschland" was moved out of line to a position in and generally to the west of Yelnia. The SS Division's western flank was now covered by units of the XLVIIth Panzer Corps, including the 17th Panzer Division; these were then linking up east of Smolensk with Panzer Group 3's 20th Motorized and 7th Panzer Divisions. Meanwhile, the Vth and VIIIth Army Corps of Strauss's Ninth Army were employing four divisions in rounding up the trapped Russians to the north and west of Smolensk (see Figure 22). By the end of July the divisions of the Russian Sixteenth and Twentieth armies caught in the Smolensk pocket were down to about one or two thousand men each. The Twentieth Army had only 65 tanks and 177 guns remaining, yet the battles went on with neither side yielding or expecting quarter{6}. The Smolensk pocket would not finally be eliminated until August 5, when Army Group Center's "Order of the Day" proclaimed that the Russians had lost 309,110 prisoners, 3,205 tanks, 3,000 guns, and 341 aircraft{7}.

After coming into the salient, the IXth Army Corps took up positions on the southern side of the front, with the 292nd Infantry Division being farthest east, next to the 10th Panzer Division, and the 263rd Infantry Division being farthest to the west. The final move by the infantry divisions into the salient was aided by the willingness of General Schaal, the commander of the 10th Panzer Division, to allow his empty trucks to be used for this purpose.

During the next two days, the units of the IXth Army Corps discovered for themselves what others in the Yelnia salient had already come to know: that the Russian attacks with heavy tanks could not be stopped with ordinary antitank weapons. Fortunately, the IXth Corps had a few Sturmgeschutz self-propelled artillery pieces, which allowed it to bolster its front with a mobile reserve of sorts. Without the Sturmgeschutz and some antiaircraft guns brought into action at the end of July, the IXth Corps would have [168] been in serious trouble{8}. Other problems for the corps were caused by the swampy ground around the upper Desna, on the southern side of the salient, and by the thick scrub that grew everywhere and allowed the enemy to creep up close to the front lines without being observed. The worst problem that the German troops had to face at Yelnia was a difficulty that became more troublesome every day: the growing power of the Russian artillery that was being moved into the range of the salient. On July 30, the 10th Panzer Division was subjected to heavy attacks while trying to disengage itself from the front, and the artillery support that the Russians had brought up for these attacks caused some surprise. The 10th Panzer received word from the Luftwaffe that "outside the range of our own artillery large numbers of Russian guns are firing from open country; closer in to our front their guns are well hidden under the low trees"{9}. It was taken as an ominous sign by many at Yelnia in late July that the Russians appeared to be so well provided with artillery and ammunition behind the Dnepr. It was also regarded as an ill omen that the Russian prisoners taken during the attacks on the salient were fresh, clean-cut, and had a military bearing, unlike the rather motley prisoners captured in earlier battles{10}. The Russian strategic reserve was already making its presence felt to Army Group Center: so far only the advance elements had arrived; the rest would come soon enough.

When Guderian began to make plans on July 28 for the march southward with Roslavl as the first objective, as ordered by the OKH and Army Group Center, he also made provision for two Army Corps, the VIIth and the IXth, to join him. The IXth Corps was to push its front south and east toward Kovali and Kosaki along the western bank of the upper Desna. This would mean that, for a time, the IXth Corps, augmented by the 137th Infantry Division, would be removed from the Yelnia salient. The corps was compelled to return to Yelnia at a later date, however, after conditions there had deteriorated to a considerable degree{11}.

On August 8 the defense of the Yelnia salient, now some thirty kilometers long and twenty kilometers wide, was temporarily transferred to the XXth Army Corps under General Materna, although Panzer Group 2 retained overall command of the area until August 26. Around the perimeter of the salient, starting from the southwestern end, were the 268th Infantry Division, the SS "Das Reich" Division plus one regiment of the 292nd Infantry Division [169] and, along the northern rim, the 15th Infantry Division{12}. The troubles for these units began almost immediately, especially in the hills near Klematina, a small village northwest of Yelnia near the swampy Ustrom rivulet. This area was repeatedly subjected to Russian artillery, tank, and air attacks. On August 10, the Russians shifted their assaults to the Uzha stream, which flows due north from Yelnia into the Dnepr. Here the Russians broke through the seam between the 15th Infantry Division and the SS, retaking a small village. In order to stem this assault, the XXth Corps had to send three thousand rounds of light field howitzer ammunition to its 15th Division. Despite this heavy dependence on artillery, the next day the corps was ordered to give up two artillery regiments to Guderian's XLVIth Panzer Corps, which was preparing to move the "Das Reich" Division out of the salient toward the south, along with the regiment "Gross Deutschland" and the 10th Panzer Division, which had already moved out. Materna protested violently against this decision, which he described as "a significant weakening of our defense strength," but to no avail"{13}. The Russians now attacked the 15th Division in dense waves, losing heavily in the process but bloodying the Germans as well. On August 10-11 alone, the 15th Division lost twenty officers. By August 11, the German shortage of artillery ammunition was critical, and the units of the 292nd Division had been pushed off the hills around Klematina. As a matter of urgent necessity, the SS division was temporarily forced to move back into line along the Uzha. The position at Klematina was soon restored without major difficulty, although the corps command had been seriously worried about the integrity of the front lines. On August 13, the rest of the 292nd Infantry Division began to filter back into line (having returned from the mission northeast of Roslavl) in order to bolster the beleaguered 15th Division and the SS, whose front had been pushed back three kilometers.

When he was informed about the situation along the Uzha and about another breakthrough in the front of the Ninth Army north of Yelnia, von Bock remarked that Army Group Center had no reserves left except the Spanish "Blue Division" and the 183rd Infantry Division, which was scheduled to arrive in Grodno sometime in mid-August; "From Grodno to the front is 600 kms.! ... I need every man at the front." Von Bock was known to have a low opinion of his country's allies-he had observed that the Spanish [170] were wont to pound their MG-34 machine guns into the ground with shovels instead of using the tripods. There were also stories of them carrying pigs and chickens in their trucks as well as taking women for rides{14}. As amusing as these tales must have been, von Bock would have done better to worry about the behavior of his own countrymen. In a report by "Einsatzgruppe B" of the SS operating in the rear areas of Army Group Center it was claimed that by mid-November 1941, 45,467 Jews had already been shot{15}.

In a report dated August 13, Materna outlined the situation of the XXth Army Corps to Army Group Center, describing the heavy losses along the salient, especially the northern perimeter, and stated that it was impossible to respond adequately to the Russian "drum fire" artillery barrages because of the ammunition shortage. The three divisions then under his command, the 268th, the 292nd, and the 15th, had fronts of twenty-five, fourteen, and twenty-two kilometers respectively, in very difficult terrain. At the end of the report, in the gravest possible language, he prophesied that if the Russian attacks were better coordinated and came in larger than battalion strength, then his divisions might not be able to hold on{16}. On August 14, Materna flew to Guderian's headquarters to plead for help: he asked either to be allowed to reduce the size of the salient or for Panzer Group 2 to send forces to the Desna and the Ugra, south and east of Smolensk. Guderian did not give a definite reply to this request, saying only that the decision would be made within the next two days{17}.

The first time the panzer general had been asked to render a decision about maintaining the position at Yelnia had been on July 20, when, in response to a query from von Kluge, he had refused to consider the possibility of abandonment. The next occasion on which Guderian's opinion was solicited came on August 4, when Hitler visited Army Group Center. In order to ensure the smooth running of this conference, Halder had telephoned Greiffenberg, Army Group Center's chief of staff, on August 3 and warned him "to use caution in outlining the Yelnia situation" to Hitler so as to avoid any possibility of interference from the fuhrer{18}. Halder did not need to worry about what Guderian would say about Yelnia, however. The panzer general told Hitler that Yelnia was indispensable for a future operation against Moscow, and even if an offensive against Moscow were not envisioned, "the maintenance of the salient still remains a question of prestige"{19}. This was the second [171] time that Guderian had referred to the Yelnia salient as being important for certain metaphysical reasons, such as troop morale or prestige, but Hitler would not listen to any such talk from one of his generals; in his words "Prestige cannot be permitted to influence the decision at all." In his memoirs Guderian mentioned only the first part of his argument-that Yelnia had importance for future operations against Moscow{20}. Hitler, however, was unable to decide the question about Yelnia immediately, and so a final decision was postponed. On August 14, after his confrontation with Materna, Guderian realized that something had to be done.

In a telephone conversation with von Bock on this same day, Guderian said that Yelnia could be held only if (1) the Russians were pushed back to the edge of the great forest east of the Desna; (2) a great deal more ammunition were made available for the salient; and (3) the Luftwaffe concentrated strong forces for use against the Russians around Yelnia. Von Bock decided to pass this thorny problem on to the OKH, telling Brauchitsch essentially what he had heard from Guderian but adding that he doubted that a short push over the Desna would help Yelnia at all. Von Bock also said that he could do nothing more about either the ammunition supply or the Luftwaffe, the latter being in Gbring's province. Brauchitsch promised an early answer{21}.

Late in the afternoon Halder telephoned Greiffenberg at Army Group Center and notified him that the OKH would leave the final decision about Yelnia to von Bock, although Halder was of the personal opinion that the salient should be held "because it is harder on the enemy than it is on us{22}". The OKH also left open the possibility of Army Group Center pushing farther east, a possibility that von Bock was "overjoyed" to hear{23}. When von Bock contacted Guderian the next day to ask his advice, the panzer general said the salient should continue to be held, although two infantry divisions of the IXth Army Corps would have to relieve two of his motorized divisions there. Another infantry division could be held behind the salient in reserve. In his memoirs Guderian noted that his plan to push his panzer group to the northeast toward Viazma was rejected by the OKH on August 11 and that soon after that he advocated giving up the Yelnia salient, thus attempting to rid himself of any responsibility for this bloody affair. Notations after August 11 in von Bock's diary and in the diary of Guderian's own panzer group, however, contain no such record [172] that the panzer general wanted to abandon Yelnia. On the contrary, Guderian's advice to von Bock was key to the question of holding the salient{24}. The decision to hold on to Yelnia had thus firmly been made by mid-August, but no one from the OKH or Panzer Group 2 had any reason for doing so other than that the Russians were wasting more lives there than the Germans-a true reversion to Falkenhayn's strategy at Verdun in 1916-or that the location was valuable to hold in case another immediate offensive operation were to be carried out against Moscow, a decision that had been repeatedly put off by Hitler. It is also a sad commentary on the state of German military planning in 1941 that some generals advocated maintaining a position for reasons of prestige. To say that Yelnia was a costly blunder would be to minimize its true horror.

On August 15 at 10:30 A.M. the IXth Army Corps received orders from Panzer Group 2 to move both of its divisions, now the 137th and 263rd Infantry Divisions, back into the Yelnia salient to relieve the elements of the SS "Das Reich" Division and infantry regiment "Gross Deutschland," both belonging to Guderian's XLVIth Panzer Corps (see Figure 23). The panzer corps conveniently provided trucks to hurry the infantry into place on the northern side of the salient west of the Uzha{25}. In the area of the XXth Army Corps, IXth Corps' neighbor to the east, the 78th Infantry Division was brought in on August 16 to replace the badly mauled 15th Infantry Division. By August 17, after the XXth Army Corps had been in the salient only one week, its three divisions had lost 2,254 men, including 97 officers{26}.

Taking notice that his IXth Army Corps had a forty-kilometer front and that the infantry units lacked the mobility to react to crises along it (as did the XLVIth Panzer Corps), General von Geyer on August 18 urgently requested Panzer Group 2 to send some self-propelled artillery and heavy artillery units back into the salient. This request was prompted by the fact that on the previous day Panzer Group 2 had ordered nearly all of the heavy artillery and the engineers taken away from the XXth Army Corps{27}. It was the opinion of the chief of staff of the XXth Corps that the loss of this artillery and the engineers, plus the casualties the corps had suffered, had badly weakened the front. On August 20 General Materna drove to see Guderian near Roslavl to tell him personally about the "extremely difficult and threatening situation" faced by [173] [Fig.23] [174] the XXth Army Corps. The only concession Guderian was willing to make was that the 268th Infantry Division on the southeastern side of the salient would not have to undertake the immediate relief of the 10th Panzer Division to the south of the XXth Corps. Guderian would not relent on the question of artillery-it had to be taken elsewhere{28}. At noon on August 22, von Kluge's Fourth Panzer Army officially took command over the three Army Corps within the salient, the IXth on the northern and western sides, the XXth on the eastern and southern sides, and the VIIth along the Desna front leading to the south. Since von Kluge was ill, however, Guderian retained actual command over the salient until August 26{29}.

On August 23 the 263rd Infantry Division of the IXth Army Corps lost 150 men repulsing a penetration at Chimborasso, a low mountain; the loss was also due to a heavy Russian artillery barrage. The 263rd Division was in a particularly bad position because it was located on the extreme northwestern corner of the salient, right at the "neck of the bottle" the Russians were trying to break off. The division had been losing an average of a hundred men a day for the five days it had been in the salient. By August 24 the line strength of the division's infantry companies had sunk to thirty or forty men. Geyer pleaded for the 15th Infantry Division to be sent back into the salient to help the 263rd Division, but this question was shelved until von Kluge could return and render a decision. On August 25 the 263rd Division suffered another penetration south of Chuvashi, which it could not rectify. The Russian artillery continued to rain shells at a steady rate and the division lost over two hundred men on this one day. Meanwhile, von Bock refused to allow the self-propelled artillery of the SS "Das Reich" Division to return to the salient, although more heavy artillery batteries were sent. The self-propelled artillery units were supposed to remain with the SS "Das Reich" and infantry regiment "Gross Deutschland" because they were due to move south to join the rest of Panzer Group 2 and Guderian did not want to split up his mobile units. Von Bock did agree to allow the 263rd Division to have the artillery from the 15th Division but this was only a small gain{30}. During the next day, the 263rd Division lost another 150 men trying to repair the ruptured front line at Chuvashi. This carnage had to stop, and so both Materna and Geyer flew to see von Kluge at Minsk, the field marshal having just returned to duty, and [175] convinced him that he should visit the salient and gain a first-hand impression{31}.

The first result of von Kluge's visit to the front on August 27 was that the 15th Infantry Division was sent immediately to the relief of the 263rd Division, which by then was down to twenty-five to fifty men in each of its companies. Before leaving its sector of the front for refitting, the 263rd Division finally managed to restore the old front line south of Chuvashi, the Russians leaving three hundred dead behind{32}. The second result of von Kluge's visit to the IXth and XXth Army Corps was that the next day he drafted a report to von Bock with the forecast that if the Russians ceased attacking only in battalion strength and mounted assaults with whole divisions, concentrating on a small area, then, with their bountiful artillery support, they would succeed in permanently cracking the German front. Von Kluge went on to say that Yelnia was originally taken by Panzer Group 2 as an offensive measure and that the position was very difficult for defense. Each division in the salient was losing 50-150 men a day, and only one road led out of the salient to the west, through a zone under German control only eighteen kilometers wide. Von Kluge recommended either rapidly resuming the offensive toward Moscow or giving up the salient{33}.

The conditions von Kluge surveyed on the front lines of his army were indeed depressing. There were no trenches as there had been in the First World War; instead the defense at Yelnia was conducted using "a string of pearls" kind of dugout system, with each small dugout holding one or two men and being spaced ten to twenty meters apart. In most areas there was no depth to the line, such as in the area of the XXth Army Corps' 78th Infantry Division, which was compelled to hold an eighteen-kilometer front. No company or division had any reserves, and the enemy was able to creep up to within twenty-five meters of the German lines. As a result of the close contact with the enemy, movement by daylight was impossible, and all but the most essential movement was prohibited at night, for it was then that the Russians were most likely to attack{34}. Barricade and construction work of any kind was also hindered, and food could be supplied to the dugouts only at night and at some risk. The men in the dugouts had little contact with their comrades to the rear and to either side, a condition that made for shaky morale. During four days' fighting up to August 26, the [176] 78th Infantry Division had lost four hundred men, and the overall casualty rate since the beginning of the war was 30 percent for the division. Most of the losses sustained by the division were caused by twenty-five to thirty Russian guns that were firing with an "unlimited" ammunition supply. A daily average of two thousand shells fell on the 78th Division, and on the night of August 24-25 five thousand shells rained down, mostly of 120-170mm caliber. Two 210mm guns were also used along with many heavy mortar tubes-with telling effect. The Russians were using excellent sighting and ranging techniques and frequently changing the positions of their batteries. On August 26, the commander of the 78th Division, General Gallenkamp, predicted that the division would be "used up" very soon." Similar reports flowed in to Fourth Army headquarters virtually every day. The older officers in the field considered the unsteady static front (unruhige Stellungsfront) situation at Yelnia to be worse than conditions during the First World War and wanted either to resume the offensive or give up the position-merely to hold it for reasons of prestige was asking too much{36}.

Zhukov Demonstrates His Skill

In late July 1941, after a disagreement with Stalin over strategy that will be explained later, G. K. Zhukov was removed from his post as chief of the general staff and replaced by B. M. Shaposhnikov, who had been the Supreme Command's representative at the Western Front opposite Army Group Center. Zhukov was demoted and given command of Bogdanov's Reserve Front, receiving from Stalin the mission of rubbing out the Yelnia salient{37}. He arrived to take up his new assignment in early August. After taking the measure of the job to be done and the resources at his disposal, Zhukov decided to postpone any major action until later when reinforcements could be brought up to support K. I. Rakutin's Twenty-fourth Army. The main assault on the salient by three Russian divisions was not to begin finally until August 30. All other attacks up to this time were only probing efforts to pinpoint the enemy's artillery positions and to generally find the weak spots in the German defense system. Although these small attacks were not calculated to produce big results, nevertheless they caused the Germans much difficulty, especially the XXth Army Corps{38}. When Zhukov's main effort began, he departed from the tactic of [177] using only battalions in the assault. The Russians would now advance with entire divisions, with armor and artillery support on small fronts, and it was this kind of pressure that finally forced the German lines to give way{39}. These tactics were honed and refined with great effectiveness during the later war years.

The breakthrough of the German defenses was to be undertaken by nine of the Twenty-fourth Army's thirteen rifle divisions, while four other divisions maintained defensive positions on the eastern side of the Uzha. The decisive offensive operation was to be carried out by the group west of the Uzha on the northern rim of the salient. Here was located the 102nd Tank Division and the 107th and 100th rifle divisions. These units had the greatest strength and were deployed on a narrow 4.5-kilometer front. The southern group was composed of the 303rd rifle and the 106th motorized divisions, but these units had to move against a front of eight kilometers around Leonova. Two rifle divisions, the 19th and the 309th, were positioned due east of the salient and assigned the task of pushing straight in toward Yelnia from the leading edge of the salient. The main assault was launched early on August 30 with infantry attacks in certain key areas; then at 7:30 A.M. all of the Twenty-fourth Army's eight hundred guns plus many mortars and some Katyusha rocket launchers opened fire on the salient. Some sixty thousand Russian soldiers were flung against seventy thousand Germans, who were well dug in although spread very thin along a seventy-kilometer front. The attack in the south began first, with limited success. The Russian effort in the north was, however, a different matter{40}.

After the German 263rd Infantry Division, with the help of the 15th Infantry Division, had repaired the crack in the front at Chuvashi, no one seriously expected the Russians to resume the offensive immediately. During the early morning hours of August 30, however, the eastern flank of the 137th Infantry Division on the northern rim of the salient was hit by a surprise attack carried out without any advance artillery preparation. The Russians first made a small break in the German front along the Uzha. Later, the 137th Infantry Division was pounded by a three-hour artillery barrage and six Russian battalions succeeded in opening a bigger gap in the German front at Sadki northwest of Yelnia and west of the Ustrom. In this attack some Russian tanks penetrated a kilometer behind the German front, overrunning several machine gun [178] emplacements in the process. The Germans temporarily lost Sadki but regained it by early dawn of August 31{41}. Still early in the morning of August 31, Zhukov renewed the pressure on Sadki, this time with forty tanks, which were well handled in close cooperation with infantry. Instead of bursting into the German rear areas alone, where they could be picked off singly by the direct fire of enemy artillery, the Russian tanks this time remained in the frontline area and systematically rolled over the German weapons positions. This was where the German infantry dearly paid for its lack of self-propelled artillery, which could have played a vital role in the defense of Yelnia. In the words of the commander of the IXth Army Corps, von Geyer: "The IXth Army Corps could have been spared the loss of hundreds of lives and our achievements would have been much greater . . . had our indispensable Sturmgeschutz unit not been taken away from us"{42}.

The new penetration at Sadki and farther east widened the gap in the German front to three kilometers and pushed the salient front inward by two kilometers (see Figure 24). The German commanders now believed that the Russians were trying to pinch in the sides of the salient, from the north along the Uzha and in the south against the 268th Infantry Division of the XXth Army Corps at Leonova. Actually, the attacks against the 268th Division in the south were only designed to draw the German reserves, if any, in the wrong direction while the major blow fell along the Uzha. The Germans believed that the Russians were using poor tactics, failing to coordinate their assaults on both sides of the salient, but Zhukov had not made this mistake{43}. The German army would have a lot to learn from Zhukov during the coming months.

While the IXth Army Corps had its hands full on the eastern bank of the Uzha, the XXth Army Corps was also experiencing extreme difficulties along the other side of the stream. On August 31 the 78th Infantry Division was hit hard north of Gurev, and the division had to pull back about two kilometers. On September 1 the Russians reached Voloskov and cut the railroad south of there. Some Russian units in this area, with infantry and tanks, crossed behind the 78th Division's front and penetrated into the rear area of the 292nd Infantry Division farther to the east, destroying some supplies. The 292nd Division was already hard pressed trying to control another Russian penetration south of Vydrina, on the northeastern side of the salient at its juncture with the 78th [149] Division. On September 2, the operations chief of the 292nd Division reported to the XXth Army Corps that the division "was close to the limit of endurance"{44}. Not only could the gap at Vydrina not be closed, but the Russian group at Voloskovo in the 78th Division area immediately to the west of the 292nd Division could not be dislodged. Thus the entire northwestern flank of the XXth Army Corps was in danger of crumbling inward, while the eastern flank of the IXth Army Corps was under the same threat (see Figure 25).

In his memoirs Zhukov singled out the Voloskovo action for special attention. A rifle regiment of the 107th Rifle Division led by I. M. Nekrassov particularly distinguished itself by continuing to hold out for three days while completely surrounded{45}. In order to close the gap at Vydrina and recapture hill 240.3, Genera? Materna of the XXth Corps ordered every artillery battery in the salient that could reach the hill to direct fire at the target for twenty minutes. By committing its last reserves, the 292nd Division retook [Fig.24] [180] [Fig.25] [181] hill 240.3 during the evening of September 2, but it was obvious to all that the XXth Corps had been strained to the limit. The IXth Corps, too, had suffered heavily. The 137th Infantry Division on August 30-31 had lost five hundred men, another seven hundred on September 1. In all, since coming into the salient the division had suffered at least three thousand casualties. On September 2 the commander of the 78th Infantry Division, Gallenkamp, reported that he believed the 137th Infantry Division was "fully used up" and could no longer repulse a Russian attack. These sympathies were echoed on the same day by von Geyer, who stated that during the past ten weeks each infantry regiment of the XXth Army Corps had lost one thousand men, including forty officers. He urgently requested that infantry no longer be used in critical areas without armored support{46}.

Withdrawal From Yelnia

On September 2 Halder and Brauchitsch flew to Army Group Center headquarters at Borisov to review the situation with von Bock. No one at this conference had any idea as to when the advance on Moscow could be resumed; that project would depend on several factors beyond the control of the OKH. Halder was inclined to leave up in the air for the moment the question of Guderian's Panzer Group 2 and whether it could cooperate with Army Group Center in the advance on Moscow. At this time, Halder viewed as possible either a closer-in solution in which Guderian would cooperate directly with Army Group Center or a wider-ranging solution in which Guderian would drive directly from the south toward Moscow on his own. In any event, everyone agreed that no offensive eastward could take place before the end of September, and so a final withdrawal was ordered from the Yelnia salient{47}.

The actual task of pulling out of the salient devolved on von Kluge, and he immediately set to work and conferred with the commanders and the staffs of the IXth and XXth corps. It was decided that the withdrawal would take place in three stages: (1) during the night of September 4 the rearward services and supply units would retreat; (2) during the night of September 5 the troops farthest east would pull back to west of Yelnia; and (3) during the night of September 6 all forces would complete the move westward and take up new positions along the Striana-Ustrom front{48}. [182]

Early on the morning of September 5 the last elements of the 78th Infantry Division east of the Uzha, including fragments of the 137th Division that had been separated from their unit, began to move around the Sadki bulge ("the Russian dumpling") toward the west. The Russians in Sadki probed lightly here and there, but the 137th Division fended off the attacks. Around 6:00 P.M. the Russians laid down a strong artillery barrage against the 137th Division, but this ceased by nightfall. Mercifully, as if sent from heaven, the showers that had fallen the day before turned into a downpour, making the ground treacherous for movement but masking the German withdrawal. A thick fog also blanketed the area, making it impossible for the Russian observers to detect their Opportunity to attack the weak German lines{49}. Zhukov reported to Stalin that the Russian forces, particularly the tank forces, were not strong enough to cut off completely the salient from the west, but this probably was not true{50}. If the Germans had not evacuated Yelnia when they did, they most assuredly would have suffered an encirclement of the IXth and XXth army corps. Also, had it not been for the bad weather during the last two days of the withdrawal -a stroke of luck for the Germans-the Russians no doubt would have been able to inflict much heavier losses on the two corps.

The overall cost to the Wehrmacht in terms of lives during the battles around Yelnia in late July, August, and early September is difficult to assess from the German records. Zhukov gives the figure of forty-five thousand to forty-seven thousand German casualties, and this figure may be accurate{51}. The six divisions usually in the salient from July 29 to August 29 probably lost on the average of fifty to a hundred men dead or wounded per day, which would make for around eighteen thousand to thirty-five thousand losses for this period. From August 30 through September 3, however, the casualty rate was much higher, and the figures could easily approach those given by Zhukov. This would certainly be true if the losses suffered by the VIIth Army Corps along the Desna front to the south are taken into account{52}. The total loss to the German army from the battles around Yelnia should not be considered less than three full divisions, a dreadful price to pay for prestige. For that matter, it was a terrible price to pay for a springboard to Moscow, especially since no one knew when such an operation could be undertaken. Some historians have commented on the passivity and slowness to advance of von Kluge's Fourth Army [183] after it reached the Nara River in late November during the Operation Typhoon offensive against Moscow. The fact was that the divisions of the Fourth Army had never recovered from the wounds suffered at Yelnia during the summer. Zhukov may not have completed the destruction of the enemy at Yelnia, but he had done his job well enough so that the results of his efforts would be seen in November and December when the German armies neared Moscow{53}.

During the Yelnia operations the Red Army learned many things about German tactics, and new ways were devised to take advantage of the enemy's weaknesses. In the first phase of the battles the Russians learned that German mobile units by themselves, without strong infantry or extra artillery support, were not able to overcome a stout defense supplied with ample artillery in rugged terrain. This was the situation that prevailed in late July when the SS "Das Reich" Division and the 10th Panzer Division were unable either to advance along the Dorogobuzh road or close the gap around Smolensk. These units also could not advance into the high country much beyond Yelnia to destroy the Russian artillery emplacements that were already well dug in along the upper Desna. The Red Army at Yelnia learned how vulnerable German static defenses were if they relied solely on infantry and artillery and lacked a mobile reserve. Once the tanks and self-propelled artillery units were removed from the salient, it could only be a matter of time before breakthroughs were achieved that the Germans would not be able to close. It was important also that the power of artillery in modern warfare was clearly demonstrated to those who might have believed that in a mechanized age cumbersome and heavy artillery pieces had no place on the battlefield. After Yelnia was taken, Zhukov toured the battlefield and was greatly impressed by the destruction artillery and rocket artillery had worked. Zhukov remarked that the main German defense bastion on the Uzha at Uzhakovo was completely smashed, including the underground shelters{54}. This was information that he would file away for future reference, especially for the time in 1944-1945 when the battle lines would cease to be flexible and the Germans would rely increasingly on static defenses.

Finally, Zhukov demonstrated beyond a doubt how close cooperation between infantry, armor, and artillery in a combined-k arms operation could achieve excellent results against a strongly [184] fortified enemy. The combined-arms tactics used by Zhukov on a narrow sector of the front proved that these tactics were superior to those being employed by the Germans. If Guderian had allowed the XLVIth Panzer Corps to remain at Yelnia, the battles would have turned out differently, but he did not and so the end was predestined. In 1944 the German army would not have mobile reserves capable of defending hundreds of kilometers of static front, and the end then would be the same.

In several ways, the battles around Smolensk and Yelnia in the summer of 1941 can be said to have been strikingly representative of the entire war on the eastern front from 1941 to 1945. The first phase of the battles took place in the form of wide, sweeping German armored movements that covered tremendous distances in a short time yet failed effectively to cut off or surround the Russian armies between the encircling arms of the two panzer groups. The second phase of the battles developed around a stationary German front line that was increasingly subjected to stronger and more powerful Russian artillery barrages. The Russians also used the pause in the German forward movement to accumulate more reserves, armor and artillery, all the while probing for weak spots in the enemy's defenses. During the third and final phase of the battles, Zhukov directed a powerful combined-arms offensive against a vulnerable German position, and the Red Army carried the day. The battles, then, foreshadowed the war of movement leading up to Stalingrad in 1942-1943 and Kursk in July 1943, as well as the war of stationary fronts from mid-1943 to mid-1944 and the war of massive Russian manpower, armor, and artillery superiority from mid-1944 to 1945 that crushed all German attempts to create defensive barriers in the east.

And now it is necessary to say a word about the Russian strategy of positioning the operational echelon behind the upper Dnepr and the Pripet swamps before and immediately after the beginning of the war. At Smolensk and Yelnia the fruitfulness of this strategy was manifest as the pressure on Guderian's southern flank kept Panzer Group 2 from closing the Smolensk pocket. The wise decisions by Zhukov regarding the operational echelon, coupled with the mistakes of Guderian, Halder, and others, all contributed to the German setback on the upper Dnepr in July, August, and September. The advantages secured by the Russians were not permanent, however, and the tides of war would fluctuate before [185] Stalin and Zhukov could win a decisive victory over the enemy. Also, Stalin's decisions about the mobilization of the strategic reserve proved to be correct, for Zhukov was able to call on this reserve for extra divisions during the last phase of the battles around Yelnia. Russian losses at Smolensk-Yelnia were high, perhaps three times higher than German losses, but no permanent damage had been done to the Red Army's strategic posture. The German position in July and August, by contrast, was awkward and out of balance. The German flanks in the north and south were easily subjected to strong pressure from the operational echelon, which in mid-July was joined by the first elements of the strategic reserve, and these forces did the job of slowing and then stopping the enemy advance. Stalin had been right: full mobilization had not been necessary before June 22; but in late August and early September he would take his biggest risk of the war, and he nearly lost everything for Russia in the process.

Guderian And Roslavl-Krichev

The battles around Yelnia in early August did not concern Guderian as much as did the operations at Roslavl-Krichev, which, in his mind, were absolutely necessary if an advance toward Moscow were to be undertaken. By the end of July, after the fall of Mogilev on July 26, units of the Second Army began crossing the Dnepr in increasing numbers to the north and somewhat to the south of Stary Bykhov. The approach to the Sozh River by the Second Army had actually occured on July 25 when the XIIIth Army Corps reached the Propoisk-Cherikov area. More reinforcements arrived when the XIIth Army Corps relieved the XXIVth Panzer Corps in the Krichev bridgehead east of the Sozh on July 28. Meanwhile, well back to the west, the LIIIrd Army Corps still had not been able to cross the Dnepr due to the strong Russian presence at Rogachev-Zhlobin{55}.

In preparation for the assault on Roslavl, Guderian decided to introduce the commanders of the two army corps recently added to his panzer group, the VIIth and the IXth, to his way of winning a victory. This introduction had an inauspicious beginning when Guderian told General Geyer, the commander of the IXth Army Corps, that the "newly subordinated infantry corps, which up to then had scarcely been in action against the Russians, had to be taught my methods of attacking"{56}. Guderian noted that Geyer, [186] his old superior officer at the Truppenamt of the Reichswehr Ministry and while he was stationed at Wtirzburg in the Vth Military District, disagreed with him at first, but after the Roslavl operation began, according to the panzer general, he came to see the light. Actually, Geyer took Guderian's comment about his troops being untested in battle as a personal insult. Geyer could not refrain from pointing out that the 137th Infantry Division of his IXth Corps alone had suffered 2,050 combat losses since June 22{57}. The panzer general's words with Geyer are illustrative of the attitude that Guderian had toward the infantry units. It was Guderian's position that, since his armored units were always in the forefront of the advance, only they were actively engaged in overcoming the enemy's resistance.

Guderian was not alone in his way of thinking. Infantry units typically were expected to strain themselves to the limits of human endurance in making long forced marches over rough terrain and then defend difficult positions with inadequate weapons. The infantry was no longer considered to be the backbone of the army, and infantry units were more poorly armed, clothed, and equipped and more parsimoniously provided with replacements than any other branch of the military. The OKH constantly overtaxed the infantry and made generally bad use of it during the entire war{58}.

The plan for the encirclement at Roslavl was simple enough to execute. One arm of the trap would be provided by the XXIVth Panzer Corps, which would cooperate with the VIIth Army Corps in a push across the Sozh. The armored units were to cut off Roslavl from the south and east while the VIIth Army Corps approached the city from a westerly and somewhat northerly direction. The other arm of the encirclement was to be provided by the IXth Army Corps, which was to push due south from the Yelnia salient along the Desna toward Kovali and Kosaki. The infantry of the IXth Army Corps and the armor of the XXIVth Panzer Corps would later link up northeast of Roslavl, west of the Desna, forming a relatively small pocket; it eventually netted 38,561 prisoners{59}.

The attack on Roslavl began on August 1 with the advance of the XXIVth Panzer Corps. The movement of the VIIth and IXth army corps did not begin until August 2 (see Figure 26). Guderian was afraid that the infantry of the IXth Corps would be delayed by possible procrastination on the part of General Geyer, so the panzer [187] general went to the corps headquarters in person and stressed to his former superior the importance of cutting and holding the Roslavl-Moscow road{60}. Leaving nothing to chance, Guderian marched along with the troops of the IXth Corps to impress upon them the urgency of their mission and the necessity for haste. The panzer general was a strong believer in the power of his presence to inspire his troops to great achievements{61}. Despite, however, the initial success of the XXIVth Panzer Corps, particularly "Group Eberbach" of the 4th Panzer Division, which approached Roslavl from the south side on August 3, the IXth Army Corps was unable to make fast progress. The 137th and 292nd infantry divisions tried and failed to reach the Roslavl-Moscow road on August 2, for even though resistance was light, the roads were very bad and the 292nd Division became bogged down in the swamps around Kostyri. Both infantry divisions had, however, succeeded in marching thirty kilometers on this warm, sunny day. The next day, August 3, the 4th Panzer Division completed the conquest of [Fig.26] [188] [Fig.27] [189] Roslavl and sent units down the Moscow highway to make contact with the 292nd Division, closing the Roslavl pocket{62}.

The sealing of the Roslavl pocket had proceeded smoothly and with few delays or changes in the plan of operations. The maneuver was a textbook case of the results armor and infantry can achieve through close cooperation. The goals were not set impossibly high for the infantry to reach in a short time and, in contrast to the encirclements at Velikie Luki and Smolensk, Roslavl represented a definite improvement of the tactical situation. This is not to say that the elimination of the Roslavl pocket was accomplished altogether without difficulties. On August 5 the 137th Infantry Division reached the Desna near Bogdanovo, under harsh urging from Guderian, while the right flank of the division was still trying to maintain the northeastern side of the Roslavl pocket along the Oster against strong Russian breakout attempts supported by artillery and armor{63}. Finally, the Russians did manage to break through on the Oster front near Kosaki in the afternoon of August 5 after the 137th Division nearly ran out of ammunition, faced as it was with Russian pressure from the Roslavl pocket from the west and along the Desna front from the east. Elements of the 4th Panzer Division were ordered to help the 137th Division, but they arrived too late to prevent the temporary loss of Kosaki on August 6. It was not until units arrived on the scene from the 292nd Division and from the 137th Division's Desna front that Kosaki was retaken and the pocket finally sealed late in the day on August 6{64}. A closer coordination between infantry and armor could have made for a perfect outcome; nevertheless, the results were good enough, due to the small geographical area in which the encirclement took place.

Guderian was so encouraged by the success of the Roslavl operation that, after an inconclusive conference with Hitler at Borisov on August 4, he ordered his staff to prepare for an advance on Moscow. During the evening of August 9, the panzer general proposed to von Bock that the XXIVth Panzer Corps, then pushing southwest of Roslavl to a position east of Krichev, should reverse its front and advance toward Viazma, to the northeast. Guderian wanted his tanks to press eastward on his southern flank along the Roslavl-Moscow highway while the infantry of his two army corps advanced in the center and on the northern flank. The general direction of the offensive would be through Spas-Demensk [190] toward Viazma. Such a maneuver, according to him, would also aid an advance by Hoth's Panzer Group 3 toward Moscow from the north. It was Guderian's belief that the enemy front was very thin in front of his panzer group and that the Russians here were exhausted and would no longer be able to offer firm resistance. This plan would succeed, he was convinced, because reconnaissance had shown that for a wide area around Roslavl there was no enemy to be found{65}.

Von Bock, too, was aware that there was a gap in the Russian armies around Roslavl and that the 3rd and 4th panzer divisions of the XXIVth Panzer Corps had pushed into this vacuum, seemingly having found a way open for a further thrust to the east. There were, however, other problems that Guderian either could not see or fully appreciate that mitigated against a decision to allow Panzer Group 2 to drive eastward. To the contention that the enemy in front of his units could now offer only a weak resistance, von Bock replied, "The enemy at Yelnia is not exhausted-quite the opposite." The commander of Army Group Center raised the objection that a push from south to north by Panzer Group 2 would be endangered by the strong Russian reserves around Yelnia. Von Bock did not reject the idea totally, but he did say that the enemy facing the Second Army on the Dnepr would have to be defeated first{66}. The Russian pullback on the southern flank of Army Group Center south of Roslavl also made an impression on Halder. He believed it possible that the Russians were drawing all available strength eastward to the line Lake Ilmen-Rzhev-Viazma-Briansk in preparation for constructing a new line of defense{67}.

The situation along the Dnepr front of the Second Army at Rogachev and Zhiobin and also the still open question of what to do about the Russian forces around Gomel (see Figure 27) compelled Halder to fly to Army Group Center and confer with von Bock and von Weichs, the commander of the Second Army, on August 6. A solution to the problem along the Dnepr would have to be postponed, everyone agreed, until the Second Army could build up stronger forces, since at that moment each of its divisions had a twelve-kilometer front to maintain, and only one regiment and a cavalry division remained in the army's reserves. It was Halder's opinion, supported by the others, that Panzer Group 2 should yield one panzer division to the northern flank of the Second Army in order to enable the XIIth and XIIIth corps of that [191] army to push southward along the Dnepr and the Sozh toward Gomel.

Guderian, as might have been expected, reacted violently to this proposal by the OKH and Army Group Center, maintaining that his units badly needed rest. He went so far as to threaten to refuse to obey orders to give up even one panzer division to the Second Army{68}. In his memoirs Guderian defended his objections to this plan by saying that the distance from Roslavl to Rogachev was two hundred kilometers-that is, a four hundred-kilometer round trip-and that his panzer units could not have undertaken such a mission, given the need for refitting the vehicles. Sending tanks to Propoisk on the Sozh, insisted Guderian, would have been very difficult and would have resulted in an unconscionable loss of time{70}. Guderian's memoirs do not, however, give a true picture of the nature of his resistance to the plans of Halder and von Bock in regard to this particular issue. The fact was that Guderian fully realized that something had to be done to hasten the long-delayed advance of the southern flank of the Second Army over the Dnepr. Also, something had to be done about Krichev and Gomel, which acted as thorns in the side of his panzer group.

On August 7, Guderian had asked the permission of Army Group Center to be allowed to send the 3rd and 4th panzer divisions to Krasnopole east of the Sozh and thereby eliminate the Russian strength on the northern flank of the Second Army. The following day, Guderian was ready to send the XXIVth Panzer Corps even farther south, past Krasnopole all the way to Chechersk and Gomel. This idea was only postponed at the time because the XLIIIrd Army Corps on the extreme southern flank of the Second Army was still so far back to the west that the second arm of an encirclement would have been lacking{71}. The key to Guderian's adamant refusal to give up one panzer division to the Second Army was not a fear that the distance was too great for his battle-worn tanks, for two days later on August 9, as mentioned above, he felt confident enough about the capabilities of the XXIVth Panzer Corps to advocate sending it all the way to Viazma, a distance of no less than a hundred kilometers from its grouping points east of Roslavl. The reason for his refusal can be traced to the fact that, as he had done on previous occasions and would do again in the future, he was resistant to any attempt by any authority to remove armored units from his command, even [192] for temporary periods. This consistent behavior on the part of Guderian should have been taken more into account by Halder, for it would cause him much grief in the future.

While smarting from von Bock's and Halder's refusal to allow him to proceed to Viazma, Guderian turned his full attention to the encirclement operation around Krichev on the Sozh that was being carried out by the XXIVth Panzer Corps and the 7th Infantry Division of the XIIIth Army Corps. This operation was begun on August 9 but made slow progress because of the bad roads{72}. By August 12, the Russians at Krichev had been fully cut off, but the fighting there lasted two more days, resulting in the capture of 16,033 Russian prisoners and 76 artillery pieces (see Figure 28). An attempt by the XXIVth Panzer Corps to utilize this success and push rapidly on to Gomel came to grief when the 4th Panzer Division ran into a strong group of the enemy at Kostiukovichi{73}. Guderian had lost one round of his continual battle with Halder and von Bock, but after Krichev a victory was his- the situation on the northern flank of the Second Army had been saved without [Fig.28] [193] Panzer Group 2 having to surrender any of its units to another command.

The Beleaguered Southern Flank Of Army Group Center

The problem for the Second Army along its southern Hank at Rogachev-Zhlobin was, however, far from being solved, although hope was in sight. After the fall of Krichev the Russian Twenty-first Army had begun a deliberate pullback toward the east{74}. Now, nearly two months after the beginning of the war, the front of the operational echelon along the Dnepr north of the Pripet Marshes had begun to give way entirely, but the echelon had fulfilled its function. New Russian armies were already manning lines of defense farther east and, meanwhile, German Army Group South had not yet cracked the Dnepr front south of the marshes. The operational echelon in the eastern Ukraine was still largely intact, although some of its units had been transferred to Timoshenko's Western Front. To Stalin, Kiev seemed to be an unconquerable bastion that would anchor the Red Army's Hank in the south while the newly mobilized armies of the strategic reserve could be sent directly to the Western Front. By the third week in August, Stalin could afford to be satisfied with the general situation, for even though the operational echelon north of the Pripet was in its final stage of disintegration, adequate forces were on hand to counter almost any foreseeable German strategy. Overconfidence in war, however, breeds disaster, and the Red Army had not yet suffered its greatest calamity of 1941.

By August 13, the staff of Army Group Center had formulated a plan for effecting an encirclement around Rogachev-Zhlobin and solving the thorny problem of Gomel as well. Von Bock now wanted the Second Army to hold the Russians in check at Rogachev-Zhlobin and press on toward Gomel along the Zhiobin-Gomel railroad (although three army corps that were supposed to participate in the Gome) operation, the XIIth, XIIIth, and XLIIIrd, were forced to halt their movements to the south and east because of Russian pressure from the direction of Gomel and because parts of these three corps had to be used to prevent the Russians at Rogachev and Zhiobin from escaping eastward){75}.

Early on the morning of August 14, the LIIIrd Army Corps moved directly against Zhiobin with its southern wing of two [194] divisions. To aid the initial breakthrough of the Russian front here, the Luftwaffe supplied a squadron of JU-87 Stukas. By the evening of this same day, these two divisions took Zhiobin after a hard fight and managed to capture both the highway and the railway bridges over the Dnepr intact, although the rail bridge was somewhat damaged{76}. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the encirclement, the XIIth Army Corps turned its entire front westward to face the Russian breakout attempts coming from the direction of Rogachev. The XIIIth Corps also was unable to proceed southward toward Gomel because the Russians now began stepping up their pressure against the corps' 17th Infantry Division. The Russians used tanks in these attacks, and one assault from the direction of Gomel pushed deeply into the flank of the 17th Division before it was stopped. By August 15 the XLIIIrd Army Corps also had been thwarted in its advance on Gomel even though F. I. Kuznetsov, the commander of the Russian Central Front, which had been created on July 24 from formations of the Thirteenth and Twenty-first armies, now decided to abandon Rogachev and Gomel{77}. As a result of this withdrawal, Rogachev was taken by the German 52nd Infantry Division of the LIIIrd Army Corps in the late morning of August 15, although the Russian rear guard left behind to protect the retreat of the main force eastward toward Novozybkov was strong enough to cause some trouble at Gomel.

By August 16 the Second Army had been divided into four separate parts: (1) the XXX Vth Army Corps in the area southwest of the Berezina poised to strike at Mozyr to the south on the Pripet River (if ordered to do so by the OKH); (2) the Rogachev-Zhlobin encirclement front formed by parts of the XLIIIrd, LIIIrd, XIIth, and XIIIth army corps; (3) parts of the XIIIth and XLIIIrd army corps moving toward Gomel; and (4) a group formed by the 167th Infantry Division at the Chechersk bridgehead on the Sozh and a "Group Behlendorff," made up of most of the 258th and part of the 34th infantry divisions, which was moving eastward from the Sozh due north of Gomel{78}. On August 16 both the XLIIIrd and XIIIth army corps were stalled on the way to Gomel, but no forces could be taken from the Rogachev-Zhlobin encirclement front where the Russians were trying to make their escape. During this day, the 267th Infantry Division of the XLIIIrd Army Corps was . hit hard by an entire Russian division that succeeded in pushing [195] through German lines between Rudenka and Zavod. Only in a very few cases did the Russians in this area surrender. One company of the 267th Division had only sixty-eight men remaining after trying to fend off the frantic Russian assaults{79}.

In order to help contain the Russians fleeing from Gomel, Guderian decided to send the XXIVth Panzer Corps farther south to Starodub to the east of Gomel. This movement was begun on August 16, also the day on which the 3rd Panzer Division succeeded in capturing the Mglin crossroads. On August 17 the western flank of the XXIVth Panzer Corps came under strong pressure from the enemy, but the 10th motorized and 3rd panzer divisions still managed to cut the Gomel-Briansk railroad{80}. Early in the morning of August 19, however, some units of the 3rd Panzer Division at Unecha were hit hard from the west and were soon surrounded by Russians. In one instance a T-34 tank penetrated the German lines and made its way to the Unecha railroad station, overrunning everything in its path. It was finally stopped when a brave lieutenant jumped up on the tank, pulled off the motor grid and tossed in a grenade{81}. The situation there grew so desperate that some forward elements of the 3rd Panzer Division had to reverse their course and head back northward from Starodub to Unecha. Although the crisis around Unecha soon abated somewhat, the road from Mglin to Unecha was still blocked by the enemy, and the units of the 3rd Panzer Division that were to strike at Novozybkov were held back in readiness, prepared to move toward Unecha or Starodub if necessary. Moreover, the XXIVth Panzer Corps was dangerously near the end of its gasoline supply, and only the timely arrival of Luftwaffe transport planes loaded with oil and fuel for the corps on August 21 averted yet another crisis{82}. Guderian at this point might have welcomed close infantry support for his tanks, as he had enjoyed around Roslavl, but at Unecha such help was far away.

Guderian recalled in his memoirs that on August 17 the Second Army still had not launched its attack on Gomel and that the reason for this delay was that Army Group Center had ordered strong units of the Second Army toward the northeast, far behind the front of the XXIVth Panzer Corps{83}. The commander of the XXIVth Panzer Corps, Geyer von Schweppenburg, said his troops regarded with bitterness the tardy progress of the Second Army, believing their relief at Unecha should have come sooner. This [196] complaint was identical to the one voiced in the third week in July by the same XXIVth Panzer Corps when it desperately required relief at Propoisk. The Germans had to pay a high price for operating their tanks over long distances without close cooperation from the infantry, but this was a lesson that Guderian had not yet taken to heart.

As a matter of fact, on August 16 von Bock had ordered von Weichs's Second Army to leave only the forces barely essential to hold the ZhIobin-Gorodets pocket and to press on to Gomel with all deliberate speed{84}. Yet parts of four army corps were needed to secure this encirclement, which by August 18 had yielded fifty thousand Russian prisoners{85}. The force that had been sent eastward by the Second Army consisted of parts of two infantry divisions, known as "Group Behlendorff," that had left the Chechersk bridgehead on the Sozh on August 16 to provide cover for the northern Hank of the XXIVth Panzer Corps when that corps had been ordered by the OKH to turn westward from Starodub and advance on Gomel from the east. For the reasons outlined above, however, the XXIVth Panzer Corps was unable to advance beyond Starodub, a failure that cannot be blamed on the tardiness of the infantry divisions of the Second Army, for they were too far behind to offer any assistance (see Figure 29). The crisis at Starodub was due to Russian pressure at Unecha against the XXIVth Panzer Corps and the difficulties with supplies, as well as to the magnitude of the Russian force doing battle in the Zhiobin pocket-sufficient to tie down several large German units. Unlike the operation at Roslavl, but similar to those at Bialystok-Minsk and Smolensk, the Gomel operation had turned sour because of lack of coordination between the various arms of the German Wehrmacht.

The final assault on Gomel, situated on the Sozh above its confluence with the Dnepr, was begun at 7:00 A.M. on August 19 by units of the XIIIth Army Corps that pushed in toward the center of the town from the northwest and the northeast (see Figure 30). The 17th Infantry Division was first to break into Gomel from the west and north that same day, and there the Germans were forced to engage in the bitterest kind of house-to-house fighting. By the early evening, the Russians had been pressed all the way back to the downtown area and into the southern side; they now used their last opportunity to demolish all the bridges over the Sozh. The struggle around Gomel continued for one more day [197] [Fig.29] [198] [Fig.30] [199] until the Russians gave up entirely. The 17th Infantry Division continued its advance through the town and began to carve out a bridgehead east of the Sozh while the final clearing of Gomel itself was carried out by parts of the 131st Infantry Division."

The results of the operations at Krichev and Gomel on the southern flank of Army Group Center were satisfactory, at least in the numerical sense, from the German point of view. The two battles cost the Red Army 78,000 prisoners, 700 artillery pieces, and 144 tanks destroyed. The successful conclusion of these battles allowed the Second Army to complete the elimination of the Russian forces between the Dnepr and the Sozh and thus exert strong pressure on the northeastern flank of the Russian Fifth Army facing the German XXXVth Army Corps north of Mozyr. After the fall of Gomel, the Russian Fifth Army began to pull back from Mozyr and from the front on the northern flank of German Army Group South, southwest of the Pripet swamps. Not only was "the specter of Mozyr dead," according to von Bock, but the victories at Krichev and Gomel, coupled with the anticipated success of the resumed advance toward Velikie Luki on the opposite or northern flank of Army Group Center, meant that "the entire army group can begin again the advance to the east"{87}. The Velikie Luki operation this time would bring good results, but whether or not Army Group Center would be able to advance east depended on factors beyond von Bock's control.

The Northern Flank-Velikie Luki

On August 14 the southern flank of Army Group North south of Lake Ilmen had been hard hit by about seven Russian divisions that crossed over the Polist River and drove westward into a gap between the Und and Xth army corps. In order to counteract this strong Russian push south of Staraia Russa, Army Group North hurriedly pulled in units of the LVIth Panzer Corps to assembly points east of Dno{88}. Although Halder referred to this Russian breakthrough near Staraia Russa as a "pinprick," on August 15 the commander of Army Group North, von Leeb, reported to Brauchitsch that the Xth Army Corps was no longer able to maintain a front to the east and would now have to pull back the 290th Infantry Division to the west and north. The corps' new front would face southward and it would have its rear abutting on Lake Ilmen{89}. The situation around Staraia Russa seemed so serious that [200] on August 14 Jodi asked for and received permission from Hitler to send Hoth's XXXIXth Panzer Corps from the northern Hank of Army Group Center toward Staraia Russa. The crisis for the Xth Army Corps was alleviated, however, by a counterattack on August 19 by Manstein's LVIth Panzer Corps of Army Group North, which succeeded in restoring the front along the Polist River on August 21{90}.

Now that the XXXIXth Panzer Corps was no longer needed in the Staraia Russa sector, it was decided on orders from Hitler not to return it to Army Group Center but to send it on to the northern wing of Army Group North to aid in the assault on Leningrad. This decision to give up part of Panzer Group 3 to Army Group North was deeply resented by von Bock and Hoth, and it must be said that, from their point of view, the splitting up of Panzer Group 3 was largely unnecessary. The sending of this one panzer corps from Army Group Center to the Leningrad front would have an important effect on German strategic planning, as will later be seen. Again, the baleful effects of the failure to close the Smolensk pocket rapidly enough and the inability of Panzer Group 3 to retain control of Velikie Luki in the third week of July made themselves felt. The gap existing between Army Groups North and Center in mid-August had afforded the Red Army an excellent opportunity to drive a sharp wedge westward in the area of Staraia Russa. After the transfer of the XXXIXth Panzer Corps to Army Group North, the problem of Velikie Luki again advanced into the foreground, and a solution of this difficulty was undertaken on August 22 (see Figure 31){91}.

The task of retaking Velikie Luki was given to the Ninth Army and the LVIIth Panzer Corps of Panzer Group 3. Since August 3 the Ninth Army had been occupying defensive positions after having been pressed back from Velikie Luki and Toropets. Despite several attempts to organize a renewed assault on Velikie Luki by the 251st and 253rd infantry divisions of the XXIIIrd Army Corps, the forces of the Ninth Army were simply too weak to move ahead against the determined enemy{92}. It was finally decided by Halder and von Bock on August 9 that no large encirclement around Velikie Luki should be attempted. Instead, a close-in solution with a movement of the Ninth Army from south to north, west of Lake Ilmen, would be undertaken. The tanks of Panzer Group 3 would not be used directly against the city, because the refitting of these [201] units would require eleven more days and it was hoped by Halder and von Bock that the tanks could be held back from a major battle at Velikie Luki and reserved for a push toward Moscow{93}.

The problems faced by the Ninth Army in preparing for an attack by its northern wing were exacerbated by repeated Russian assaults along its long defense front, especially in the area of the Vop River. On August 12 the 5th Infantry Division of the Vth Army Corps suffered an enemy breakthrough of its front that reached all [Fig.31] [202] the way into the division's rearward battery positions{94}. The following week, the Russian Thirtieth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-fourth armies intensified their attacks upon the German Ninth Army along a front stretching from the source of the Western Dvina to Yartsevo. K. K. Rokossovski's re-formed Sixteenth Army kept up such continuous pressure on the Ninth Army from around Yartsevo that by mid-August the Russians had succeeded in digging in on the eastern bank of the Vop{95}. On August 18 the German 161st Infantry Division on the northern flank of the VIIIth Army Corps, which held a front along the Dnepr, Vop, and Loiania rivers, was flailed by strong Russian attacks, and the division was forced to withdraw from its front-line positions to previously prepared defenses farther west. The Vth and VIth army corps were also subjected to some pressure. By August 20, the situation on the front of the 161st Infantry Division was so serious that Hoth, who temporarily commanded the Ninth Army because Strauss was ill, committed his last reserves, the 7th Panzer and 14th Motorized divisions, to holding the line{96}. The 7th Panzer Division from the VIIIth Army Corps reserves drove into the northern flank of the Russian breakthrough southwest of Frol and penetrated to southwest of Makovia, thus saving the situation along the Loiania and preventing any further delays in the attack on Velikie Luki, although the Russian counterattacks had cost the Ninth Army heavy losses{97}.

On August 22 General Stumme's XLth Army Corps launched the long-awaited attack on Velikie Luki, along with some help from the LVIIth Panzer Corps. The XXIIIrd Army Corps joined in the attack on August 23, and a pocket was soon formed east of the city. The battle for Velikie Luki ended on August 26 with the capture of thirty-four thousand prisoners and over three hundred guns." Immediately after the fall of Velikie Luki, Hoth ordered the XLth Army Corps and one Panzer division on to Toropets, which was taken on August 29.

The conquest of Gomel in the south and of Velikie Luki in the north had relieved the pressure on the flanks of Army Group Center by the end of August. For a month and a half Army Group Center had been stalled in the Dvina-Dnepr area while the difficulties on its flanks were being resolved. By early September the Russian operational echelon in the Dvina-Dnepr area had largely been exhausted, but new formations were already in place along defense [203] lines farther east. Although Army Group Center was now in a more favorable position with regard to its own flanks, its neighbor to the south. Army Group South, had still not broken the Dnepr barrier in force, and the Kiev stronghold remained a formidable obstacle. The path to Moscow was not yet open, and there would be harsh and complex clashes of personalities among Hitler and his generals before an advance eastward could be resumed. The German military high command structure was chronically incapable of formulating clear and consistent plans for success in the Soviet Union. No important strategic decisions could be made without a contest of wills ensuing among Hitler, Halder, Jodi, von Bock, Guderian, and others. One can only wonder how the German army did so well despite such burdens. No army, however, could withstand the ravages of such jealous, egotistical, contradictory, and ill-informed leadership for long. The foundation of the army had already begun to crack at Yelnia under the weight of the leadership superstructure, a virtual collapse would be barely avoided before Moscow. [204] [205]