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Chapter Five.

Barbarossa South, the Fight in the Ukraine: June 1941

THE Germans would win or lose the Russian campaign based on the progress of Army Group Center in the summer of 1941. Yet, what about the progress of the wings and the possibilities of operational disasters that might adversely affect the advance toward Moscow? In June and July 1941, German Army Group South was advancing against an enemy that outnumbered it in every significant way. Soviet forces south of the Pripyat Marshes outnumbered the Germans in men; numbers of major infantry, tank, motorized, and cavalry formations; and tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces of hke sizes. On 17 March 1940, Hitler intruded to the severe detriment of German operations south of the Pripyat Marshes by a dilettante whim unchallenged by OKH and Army Group South. Concerned that the strong German 12th Army, scheduled to advance out of Romania into the southern Ukraine, would be held up by the Dniester River, Hitler ordered the German offensive concentrated largely in the restricted gap between the Pripyat Marshes and the Carpathian Mountains.{1} German military professionals in OKH and Army Group South had not seen any exceptional challenge in the Dniester and planned a great double envelopment of the Soviet forces in the Ukraine west of the Dnieper using the 12th Army as the southern arm. Because of Hitler's ill-advised, nervous dabbling into an effective plan of operations, Army Group South was forced to attempt a single envelopment out of the gap between the marshes and the mountains against numerically superior forces.

Extraordinary Strength of the Red Army In the Ukraine.


1941: Unanswered Questions

The immense numbers and fighting qualities of the Soviet forces massed in the Ukraine remain at least an interesting curiosity and at most a possible decisive clue to Soviet plans and intentions in 1941. In a state noted for ideological conformity and bureaucratic discipline, Soviet historians have hewn the unwavering line that the Soviet Union, as early as August 1939, began to play for time and position against an impending attack from an ultraimperialist, National Socialist Germany. Conveniently for the peace-seeking, socialist image affected by the Soviet government, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, the Soviet position on the period from 1939 to 1941 to 1945 was set since 1941 in the interpretive concrete that the Soviets seized vast territories in eastern Europe in 1939 and 1940 in anticipation of just such a German attack. The argument continues that seizure of all or part of five countries was necessary to successfully defend the Soviet Union and was justified by events that unfolded in 1941.

With striking inconsistency. Soviet and Western writers who subscribe to that interpretation of Soviet actions in 1939-1941 fail to connect the Soviet takeover of huge territories totalling approximately 180,000 square miles for defense against German imperialist invasion with the mutually incompatible German surprise attack massing 157 German divisions in peacetime close to the Soviet border by June 1941. Hitler, indeed, has remained such a historical villain that virtually no serious consideration has been given to the possibility, even knowing Hitler's acknowledged aggressive intentions in the east, that the Soviet Union-which took more than half of Poland (1939); invaded, occupied, and built up military bases in the three former Baltic republics (1939); attacked and absorbed significant parts of Finland (1939-1940); and invaded and occupied Bessarabia (1940)-might have had corresponding, aggressive intentions in the west.

Soviet writers slavishly hew to the line that the Soviet Union consciously prepared for an attack by National Socialist Germany. Western writers, rather timidly by comparison with themes of Soviet aggression in postwar eastern Europe, the Cold War, etc., generally accept the benevolent interpretation that Stalin was buying time to increase the Soviet defenses. Neither interpretation is overly convincing, particularly since each depends for its automatic acceptance on the indisputable truth that Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Still, historical truth can be misleading, for although the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, one can make a strong case that the strategic calculus in Europe favored the Soviet Union, which was in a far better position to attack Germany. In 1939 and part of 1940, the Soviets faced a Germany at war with two other major European powers and, seen through the eyes of historical contemporaries, with little chance of winning it. Circumstances were favorable for aggressive action by the Soviet Union and presented exceptional opportunities for expansion westward. That the Soviets seized an area in eastern Europe larger than California during 1939 and 1940, when they had the opportunity and the armed force to do so, does not necessarily prove aggressive intent. Considering, however, that Germany was at war with two major European powers in a struggle that promised to be challenging, exhausting, and lengthy, the historical interpretation that the Soviet Union seized large territories to the west between September 1939 and May 1940 to prepare for certain attack by Germany is not credible.

Soviet Offensive Strategic Actions and Options: 1939-1941

It is credible is that by September 1939 the Soviet government, with an opportunistic and flexible foreign policy and an immense armaments effort, dwarfing the weapons and manpower of National Socialist Germany, could do more than just defend itself. When France fell in June 1940 to the exploitive offensive capabilities of the German army, one might argue that the Soviet government again faced possible great danger from Germany. Further, the Soviet interpretation of the events of July 1940 to June 1941, in which a dedicated Communist party and a courageous Russian people struggled to prepare for an imperialist German onslaught, is more credible than in the preceding years. Even here though, the Soviet government was favored by the providential British perseverance in the war. The consensus showing the Soviets playing for time to defend themselves does not track with the historically contemporaneous picture of a Germany involved in an aerial campaign over Britain and preparations for a challenging cross-channel invasion. From September 1939 to June 1941, the Soviet government had more options than cowering pusillanimously before the prospects of a German attack. The revisionist must note that the Soviets moved very aggressively during this period and certainly had offensive intentions limited only by immediate opportunities and long-term, deep-seated respect for the German army. The revisionist would also probably record that the seizure by the Soviets of 180,000 square miles of territory, while cowering, was only moderately pusillanimous.

Missing Information on Soviet Offensive Intentions: 1939-1941

The Soviets moved aggressively in 1939-1941 along their western boundaries into east Europe, their militant intentions limited only by selective fear of German counteraction. Why has historical interpretation stalled at the unlikely premise that the Soviets were preparing to resist a German attack? Why were enormous Soviet field armies deployed in the Ukraine in 1941, and Soviet forces in the Western Military District opposite German Army Group Center, in a defensively unconvincing arrangement? The answer is perhaps that the Soviet government was on the winning side in the Second World War and able to ensure that the Soviet-East European historical interpretation of behavior and motivation from 1939 to 1941 basked in the light of socialist defense against unprovoked, imperialist, fascist aggression. Western writers early succumbed to the temptation to consider the war in Europe as Hitler's, while the tough, aggressive foreign policies of France, Britain, and (Soviet) Russia tend to be ignored. That generalization does not mean that the governments of those three powers were not impressed with German military capabilities under a nationalist leader like Hitler in the 1930s. The generalization warns that the traditionally tough, self-confident foreign policies of those states were not inverted because modern historians determined that the Second World War was Hitler's; He wanted it, planned it, and started it. These factors are accepted today but were largely unknown to the decision-makers of the 1930s and early 1940s.

At the insistence of the Western Allies, the grand coalition partners of the Second World War convened an International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg after the war to try German political and military leaders for conspiracy to commit aggressive warfare. The tribunal included one Soviet judge and was incompetent to deal with the well-documented and similar Soviet aggression in 1939 and 1940. It is difficult to gauge the effect of the tribunal and its widely known activities on the interpretation of Soviet intentions and actions in 1939 and 1940. Still, it can be generalized that the western governments and writers were influenced by the nature of the immediate postwar period and the burgeoning revelations of Hitler's radicality to accept a "defensive" version of Soviet action in Europe from the Polish summer to the summer of 1941. All agree that the Soviet government deployed an immense army in the path of the Germans in June 1941 and entrenched it in so peculiar a way that it could be interpreted as being ready for either defense or offense. Because the Soviets have not, and may never, provide any other view than a defensive arrangement for their armies, one must rely on the brief opinions found mostly in German accounts of the early days of Barbarossa, when it was fashionable to comment briefly on the initial Soviet dispositions. The German accounts note that Soviet dispositions were highly unusual and could have been used for either attack or defense.

Awkward Deployment of the Red Army In the Ukraine and White Russia. 1941

It is difficult to explain why the Soviets in June 1941 deployed more powerful forces in the Ukraine than in the Western Military District, on the Polish border, and on the direct road to Moscow. One can conjecture that they were familiar enough with Hitler's views on the grain, raw materials, and industrial plant of the Ukraine to gamble defensively on a major German invasion or a heavy probe pointed into the Ukraine from southern Poland. Yet, it is possible that, given the tensions and provocations in Romania, the Soviets were planning an offensive of their own to ensure inheriting territories within their traditional sphere of influence. With the Soviet propensity for defensive interpretation of events and denigrating the German invasion, it would be difficult to get documentary verification of Soviet offensive intentions and the attendant unusually strong military deployment in the Ukraine. One of the few sources would be Soviet armed forces personnel captured during Barbarossa, when it seemed so probable the Germans would win that damaging information might slip out in systematic and lengthy interrogation of Soviet prisoners.{2} On 20 September 1941, German troops of the llth Army Corps, upon the German encirclement of five Soviet armies around Kiev, captured a Soviet first lieutenant, a technical expert on the rail system. He was famihar with higher-level troop deployments and stated that the Soviets were planning an attack against Romania in the autumn of 1941.{3} Soviet planning for that attack or exercising similar offensive options against territory in southeastern Europe could explain the powerful Soviet forces in the Ukraine more reasonably than defense.

The awkward unbalanced deployment of Soviet field armies in the west, where forces blocking the corridor to Moscow were weaker than those in the Ukraine, may explain more readily Soviet offensive intentions in southeastern Europe. The Soviets, for example, demonstrated sensitivity about the defense of Moscow from the beginning of the German invasion. It is difficult, knowing the desperate Soviet defense of Moscow from the beginning of the campaign, to explain the relatively weaker forces in the Special Western Military District opposite German Army Group Center. Any interpretation in which the Soviets were committed in advance exclusively or even just largely to defend against a feared German attack is difficult to sustain. The great strength of the Soviet forces opposite German Army Group South and the ability to employ them offensively toward Romania lend support to an aggressive and opportunistic political strategy by the Soviets involving offensive options as well as defense for the field armies in the west. The forward concentration of the Soviet formations opposite German Army Group Center, which unnecessarily exposed those forces to double envelopment in the Bialystok salient, and the dearth of fortifications before them, lend credence to a view that the Soviets anticipated an advance into eastern Europe while being prepared by the size and disposition of their field armies to repel a possible German attack. This spectacle of Soviet forces on the eve of Barbarossa implies an illustrative misreading of Hitler's aggressive political intent in the east combined with an almost incredibly ingenuous underestimation of the offensive capabilities of the German army.

Among possible interpretations-Soviets solely on defense, So-viets wlth offensive and defensive strategic options, and Soviets prepositioning for their own offensive-German Army Group South faced powerful Soviet forces in the Ukraine. The army group was already hobbled by Hitler's intrusive meddling stemming from his concern over delays crossing the Dniester River between Bessarabia and the Ukraine. It was a baseless fear, like that which contributed to the ill-famed decision to stop German mobile forces short of Dunkirk on 24 May 1940 for fear of difficult terrain. Playing for bigger stakes now, especially after his successes in Poland, Norway, and France, Hitler continued loading operational crosses on the ample but not infinitely broad back of the German army. In this case, he ordered all German forces, except for a weak infantry army, away from the Dniester front. This forced Rundstedt to advance frontally with the bulk of his forces in Army Group South and every one of its mobile divisions against numerically superior Soviet forces. Rundstedt's unenviable and challenging mission was somehow to encircle the Soviet forces west of the Dnieper River and destroy them.

The Mission of Army Group South In Barbarossa

Perhaps the crucial factor in Barbarossa for Rundstedt and the other commanders in Army Group South was to clarify the relationship between the powerful, predominantly German forces in the south and the even stronger forces of the Army Group Center Schwerpunkt. Rundstedt indicated that he could contribute most to the progress of Army Group Center and winning the war by trapping and destroying Soviet forces west of the Dnieper. As an absolute minimum for success in the Russian campaign, he had to pin down and deny operational freedom of maneuver to the forces opposite him. To gauge Barbarossa's potential for success through defeat of the Soviet armed forces, one has to estimate the capabilities of the German forces on the northern and southern flanks of Army Group Center to defeat the Soviet field armies opposed to them and help keep Army Group Center on schedule.

Already constrained by Hitler's decision to redeploy the bulk of the German forces in Romania, including every mobile division, to the gap between the Pripyat Marshes and the Carpathian Mountains. Army Group South faced aggressive, numerically superior Soviet forces, attempting to hold as far west as possible. From the start, Army Group South encountered fierce resistance and innumerable, aggressive local attacks by Soviet tank forces that vastly outnumbered the Germans'. The forces of Panzer Group 1 and the 6th and 17th Armies, advancing on a narrow front with impassable terrain on both flanks, attacked frontally into the mass of the Soviet forces. They advanced slowly, with little chance of a breakthrough in the north and less opportunity for a single envelopment from that direction to destroy west of the Dnieper the huge Soviet forces in the Ukraine. The Soviet defense west of Kiev has led interpreters to generalize that the fierce Soviet resistance forced the Germans to break off the Schwerpunkt advance of Army Group Center to dear up the southern flank of the Barba-rossa operation before pushing on toward Moscow. The generalization, important in interpretation of the Russian campaign, is not supported by the operations of Army Group South.

Disintegration of the Soviet Field Armies West of the Dnieper, 1941

Although slowed by powerful Soviet forces, at first skillfully directed at higher level, German Army Group South advanced relentlessly into the great mass of the Soviet field armies. Fighting with impressive determination, the Russian troops soon took prohibitive losses in less skillfully led counterattacks, and defense at the operational and tactical levels. The strong Soviet 8th Armored Corps, on 29 June 1941, struck boldly behind the German llth Panzer Division into the right flank of Panzer Group 1 near Dubno, forcing the group to destroy it. The chief, German general staff, monitoring the southern front two days earlier, had identified the Soviet armored corps and noted its apparent intention to attack at Dubno. He remarked that in doing so it was marching straight to its own destruction. The action is instructive, representative of the fighting in Barbarossa and an indicator of the potential outcome of the campaign. The action at Dubno shows the Soviet command in the Ukraine willing to sacrifice a major formation in the over-optimistic expectation of halting temporarily the German advance toward Kiev, directly to the east but some distance away. It shows the Russian troops fighting toughly, often to the last round of ammunition and drop of fuel, and absorbing catastrophic casualties. Conversely, it shows the Germans appalled by the operational sacrifice of the Russian unit but impressed by the determination of the troops to press home an attack doomed to failure. Last. it shows the Germans willing and able to destroy the formation and still maintain an advance that threatened to destroy Soviet resistance through irreversible casualties, damage, and loss of territory.

Although it took a while, the Soviet forces disintegrated under the impacts of their losses and the pace of the German advance. After putting up effective resistance for fifteen days, from 22 June to 6 July 1941, the Soviet command in the Ukraine began to lose control over events. German reports on 7 July show the 11th Panzer Division of the 48th Panzer Corps in Panzer Group 1 breaking "clearly through the enemy positions east of Polonnoje and ... pushing right through fleeing Russian columns to Berdichev."{4} Meanwhile, the Germans had pushed back and inflicted immense casualties on the Soviet armies in the Ukraine but had neither seized Kiev nor encircled a great body of troops as in the Bialystok and Minsk battles by Army Group Center. It is tempting for observers to generahze that Army Group South was in difficulty, but the forward movement it achieved by 6 July, the casualties it had Inflicted, and the breakthrough to Berdichev on 7 July do not support that view. Rather, it suggests that Army Group South had severely mauled Soviet forces in the Ukraine and pinned them down, foreclosing operational freedom of movement by the defender and, of course, any opportunity to interfere with the progress of Army Group Center farther north.

On 7 July 1941, the Soviet position in the Ukraine deteriorated rapidly, from being pinned down and forced back into avoiding the disaster of a great encirclement west of the Dnieper. By now, German Army Group South had "equal strength due to the heavy losses inflicted on the enemy and soon {would} add numerical superiority to tactical and operational superiority."{5} At this crucial juncture, the Germans were poised to achieve operational freedom of movement, facing the great decision in the south of where to pivot and in which direction to proceed to trap the Soviet armies west of the Dnieper. Two days later, on 9 July, at Army Group South, Rundstedt stated his intention to strike with the bulk of Panzer Group 1 for Belaya Tserkov, approximately 110 km farther east of Berdichev, and then to push south or southeasterly as dictated by the situation. Earlier in the day, however, Hitler directed the commander of the German army (ObdH), Generalfeld-marschall Walter von Brauchitsch, to execute a timorous half-measure advance south from Berdichev with about one-third the armor of Panzer Group 1, splitting the remainder of the armor into two formations in widely divergent directions of advance. By the evening of 9 July, Brauchitsch and his chief of staff, Halder, who had immediately protested Hitler's concept of further operations, and Rundstedt, who protested against splitting his armor and the timid nature of the attack south from Berdichev, faced their toughest enemy in the Ukraine-Adolf Hitler.

Hitler seemed destined to prevent the disorderly retreat and large-scale encirclement of a significant part of the Soviet forces in the Ukraine. The Soviet command and the Russian soldier had shown substantial skill and casualty-absorbing toughness, respectively. but finally met disaster west of the Dnieper the second week of July 1941. Hitler's decision probably would not have adversely affected Army Group Center's advance toward Moscow. However, it would have allowed the Soviet forces to avoid the severe casualties and substantial weapons losses associated with a big German Kessel (pocket) and the psychological disequilibrium and sense of inferiority caused by precipitous retreat across the Dnieper. Hitler would have let the Soviet command and Russian soldier regain their composure. That, so reassuring to bureaucrati-cally oriented commanders and peasant-based soldiers, was dangerous to the deep feints and daring advances of the German blitzkrieg attacker.

As commander in chief of the German armed forces after February 1938, Hitler passed his orders mostly to Brauchitsch and Halder. Except for the support the latter two men could marshal from senior field commanders affected by the orders, they stood as almost the only bulwark against the whimsical instability, nervousness, and unfocused energy of the supreme commander. Since November 1939, Brauchitsch was largely incapable of standing up to Hitler in confrontations over the conduct of the war, leaving his chief of staff largely responsible for maintaining effective direction in military operations. Halder was shielded from most immediate confrontations with Hitler, who dealt initially with Brauchitsch. Halder nevertheless proved a tough, determined, and generally effective antidote to Hitler's esoteric scattering of military effort and fear of risks. On 10 July 1941. Hitler reiterated in writing that he thought it "advisable and necessary to swing the leading elements of Panzer Group 1 promptly to the south." Although Brauchitsch disagreed with this blitzkrieg-diluting directive, he would make no decision that did not have the Fdhrer's approval.

Unlike the many later Hitler decisions examined ad infinitum and ad nauseum concerning Stalingrad and Kursk, which had virtually no effect on winning or losing the war, Hitler's interference in Army Group South is relatively undiscovered{6}-though it took place when the Germans were winning the campaign in Russia and the struggle in Europe. The decision, in effect, conjoined by a few similar ones, could have affected decisively winning or losing the war. In the immediate confrontation of 10 July 1941, Halder noted laconically in his diary that "it is now up to me to get the Fiihrer to agree."{7} Unable to contact a sleeping Fiihrer at 1100 (!), Halder reached Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, chief, OKW, and, interspersing logic and persistence, pointed out that the Fiihrer had directed OKH to destroy the largest possible enemy elements west of the Dnieper and therefore demanded an envelopment farther to the east. Surprisingly, within an hour after Halder's call to OKW, Hitler agreed to Halder's concept, and Army Group South continued operations in a bolder pattern. These operations led into the great encirclement at Uman (west central Ukraine) at the end of July and the disorderly retreat of the Soviet field armies across the Dnieper. Most significantly, for a more effective interpretation of the Second World War in Europe, it is dear that despite Hitler, Army Group South continued successful operations in the Ukraine and pinned down-indeed, severely mauled-Soviet forces. Army Group Center retained complete operational freedom of movement to advance on Moscow, limited only by its own immediate problems of reorganization, rest, and resupply.

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