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Chapter Nine.

The German Capability to Advance on Moscow in August 1941:
Possibilities Based on the August Situation and the Actual German Offensive of 2 October 1941

In July 1941, with Army Group Center more than halfway to Moscow, Bock began to organize and time the final drive from around Smolensk. He encountered two challenges. First, he faced Adolf Hitler, desperately rent by some inner fear about fighting the great battle opposite Army Group Center necessary to defeat the Soviet Union. Next, he faced the mass of the Soviet armed forces, interposed between Army Group Center and Moscow-the point of no or, at least, improbable return for the Soviets.

Gripped by a Fixation on Leningrad, Hitler Vacillates over Strategic Objectives

Grasping at an incidental economic area, by December 1940 Hitler had come to consider Leningrad the primary operational target for the German armed forces attacking the Soviet Union.{1} On 13 July 1941, Hitler reiterated the idea of using Army Group Center to capture Leningrad, but toward the end of July decided instead that the army group should swing to the southeast to take the Ukraine. Bock and virtually every officer at higher levels of command, but not those immediately around Hitler in OKW, would fight this decision. This turmoil would keep Army Group Center halted east of Smolensk and delay its excursion into the Ukraine until almost September 1941. No Soviet armed forces action kept the Germans halted in August or delayed their aberrant move southward at month's end.{2}

As the German army stood immobilized by Hitler's concern for indecisive gains on the wings of the advance, a campaign and a war that could have been won in August 1941 irrevocably slipped away. At this moment, around the end of July 1941, the Germans came closer to defeating the Soviet Union and winning the Second World War in Europe than at any other time. These statements apply to the campaign begun in June, and without caveat about its delayed start caused by the severe winter of 1940-1941, a campaign in the Balkans, and allegations of motor transport shortages. Hermann Hoth correctly predicted that the Russian campaign would be won as a blitz blitzkrieg (or blitz{2}); and Fedor von Bock agreed wholeheartedly as he voiced his demand: swiftly and ruthlessly forward! Time, perhaps more than any other factor, provides a focus for the realities of the eastern campaign. Surely, had the Germans reached Moscow in August 1941 they would have won the campaign and war. Almost as surely, when Hitler delayed the final strike for Moscow until October 1941, the Germans had little chance of winning. Finally, had the Germans not captured Moscow by Christmas 1941, then Walter Model's prophecy of defeat would have been valid. The reversed scene above-the Germans at Moscow in August rather than short of Moscow in December-is paramount. It leads to a fundamental reinterpretation of the war, which posits that had the Germans taken Moscow in August they would have won and, conversely, had they faltered then, they would have been constrained by time and the strategic circumstances to suffer certain defeat-all in the space of a single month. To make this argument it must be proved that Bock had the capabilities in Army Group Center to defeat the main concentration of the Soviet armed forces, roughly handled but continuously reinforced, between him and Moscow.

The Turning Point In World War II and a Possible Alternate

With a timely order in late July 1941 to seize Moscow, Bock would have directed Guderian, with infantry support, to seize the communications center of Roslavl and used the great road through it to Moscow. Bock actually ordered Guderian in late July 1941 to seize Roslavl, and Guderian attacked on 1 August with a small part of his armor and a large infantry force comprising two corps. The operation had an unusually complex scheme of maneuver,{3} and Guderian led it personally to a victory, taking 38,000 Russian prisoners and clearing the area around Roslavl and to the southeast toward Bryansk.{4} According to the senior infantry corps commander, by 8 August the Germans ended the battle, even cleaning up the numerous enemy stragglers.{5} Bock then prepared for the attack against Moscow with the attack timed after needed rest, maintenance of weapons and vehicles, and stockpiling of fuel, ammunition, and rations. General Hermann Geyer, commanding the 9th Infantry Corps in the Roslavl battle, remarked; "The decision for battle was from the Panzer Group. It was bold, but correct. The success was morally and materially very great. We hoped with it that we would move out quickly in the direction of Moscow."{6}

Bock had shown great determination in the June and July battles and the earlier preparations for the campaign. He visualized striking immediately for Smolensk, had kept the campaign on schedule by breaking the armor free of the Minsk encirclement, and, as early as 27 July, ordered the Roslavl attack to seize forward positions for the advance against Moscow. During the crucial period from 15 July to 27 July, during which Army Group Center had partly encircled, broken up, and largely destroyed the Soviet field armies between it and Moscow, Bock resisted the temptation to permit operations to become eccentric, veering south toward Gomel and north to Velikie Luke.{7} Determined to destroy the Soviet field armies opposite him and seize Moscow, he kept Army Group Center concentrated at Smolensk in July 1941. Assuming that Bock had been ordered in late July 1941 to press on to Moscow, it appears reasonable that the holy fire of Kustrin{8} would have eschewed eccentric operations and accepted the risks of maintaining his army group concentrated and moving toward Moscow.

Supposing that the German high command (OKW and OKH) had decided on seizing Moscow, and arguing that Bock would have been free of the Roslavl battle by 8 August 1941, it must be shown that the Germans had the military capabilities to capture Moscow. They proved so strong in 1941 that one can convincingly argue they were virtually assured of reaching Moscow in August, based on their performance in the actual delayed offensive of October. In that offensive, after preliminary moves by Panzer Group Guderian south of Bryansk, the Germans launched Operation Typhoon on 2 October 1941, an autumn attack intended to take Moscow. The Soviet high command had been presented with an exceptional period of two months, from roughly 1 August to 1 October 1941, to compose itself and mass forces to defend Moscow uninhibited by any German advance eastward. Under those self-imposed adverse circumstances, the Germans could be expected to make slow progress toward Moscow. This assumption is supported by the fact that, two months later, the Germans ground to a halt on the doorstep of Moscow in the week of 30 November-5 December 1941.

Whereas Army Group Center faced four Soviet armies in its advance into White Russia in June 1941 and took advantage of complete tactical and virtually complete operational surprise in its attack against them, it confronted an entirely different situation in October. Thanks to Hitler's diffusion of the campaign into military sideshows. Bock and his three infantry and three panzer armies{9} now faced no fewer than nine Soviet armies amply warned and waiting. These armies had been formed bit by bit arid thrown forward in desperation to slow down the German drive for Moscow, That the Soviets raised, armed, and transported a large part of nine armies to the collapsing front can be attributed less to the strengths of the Soviet Union in men and weapons and the organizing energy of the Communist party than to the paradox that Adolf Hitler personally had presented the Soviet government with two months to raise those forces and regain its composure.

The German Halt in the Advance on Moscow

The enormity of this situation is difficult to exaggerate and can be illustrated by an analogue in the French campaign. The modish interpretation of the Second World War in Europe would have us beheve that the Germans won easily in the lowlands and France against limited Allied manpower, weapons, and space. The same wisdom emphasizes that the Germans faltered gradually during a great surge into the Soviet Union, in which they underestimated the men, weapons, and space of the Russians and were overcome by numbers and space in 1941 and thereafter. Considering these campaigns together, one might ask; What if the Germans had sat in the bridgehead over the Meuse for two months while Hitler accepted the half-success of merely forcing the Allies out of Belgium, then kept the armies halted until he had seized the industrial and mining region of Alsace and Lorraine? The answer is that the badly defeated British, French (and probably Belgian) forces would have reformed on the Somme, joined by additional forces raised by the British and French governments, having been given an almost incredible two additional months to regain their composure and dip into a population base of eighty-six millions in Europe and additional millions in their empires. The exact details of that are conjectural, of course, but it cannot be denied that two months' grace for the Western Allies would have secured their political and military survival on the Continent. Such analysis shows not only that the Germans might have been defeated under western strategical circumstances by Hitler's nervous concern over extraneous targets, but also that the self-imposed German halt at Smolensk was of immense significance, and a similar halt would almost certainly have led to defeat in the west. The analysis supports a reinterpretation of the Second World War in which the Soviet Union survived Barbarossa not because of the fanatical determination of Communist bureaucracy, or the courageous stubbornness of the Russian soldier, or even Russian space and weather, but by the quixotic procrastination and perverse mentality of Adolf Hitler when the Germans were on the strategic offensive.

Other Problems for the Germans in an Autumn Advance

On further analysis, the German autumn offensive can be seen as even more advantageous for the Soviets. Before the two months' period noted above, which is keyed to the beginning of the Roslavl battle on 1 August 1941, the Germans reached positions from which the offensive would eventually take place, thus adding to the self-imposed delay. Elements of Panzer Group Guderian seized Yehya earlier on 20 July 1941, and units of Hoth's panzer group were also ranged in the positions from which they would attack Moscow seventy-two days later. The Soviets had more than two months to prepare for the attack against Moscow. The German 7th Panzer Division, however, actually reached its attack positions around Jarcevo, east of Smolensk, even earlier, on 15 July 1941, and was still in positions close by seventy-eight days later. With the тадп concentration of the Soviet armed forces lying just to the east of" its positions, unattacked for seventy-eight days, it is dim-cult to imagine that this panzer division would make much progress toward Moscow in mid-autumn 1941.

In contrast to the hour of 0305 on 22 June 1941. when the Germans northwest of Bialystok had attacked the Soviet Union, the Germans now attacked at 0615 on 2 October 1941, adding another damage factor stemming from Hitler's procrastination: The Germans had six fewer hours of daylight in which to fight each day in mid-autumn. Russian Octobers also included more days with overcast skies and low ceilings, which reduce the effectiveness of air attack against ground targets. The Luftwaffe was a special trump in Barbarossa; it not only destroyed over 2,000 Soviet aircraft in the first day of the campaign but also concentrated its attacks in support of the panzer wedges. Despite its relatively small numbers, it attained important effects against the Soviet field armies.{10} Criticized from Irrelevant premises for not conducting strategic bombing in the campaign, the Luftwaffe was an extremely potent tactical air force, maintaining air superiority over the advancing Germans and providing fire support for the ground armies similar to that provided by artillery. The Luftwaffe also conducted air attacks against Soviet rail and highway communications that could be characterized more as battlefield interdiction and less as close air support. The Luftwaffe provided powerful support for the German armies in Barbarossa but was severely restricted by the adverse weather conditions of October-less sunlight, less daylight, and more clouds and ground fog.{11}

The Germans Destroy Eight of Nine Soviet Field Armies Massed for the Defense of Moscow

Despite adverse conditions of season and weather and the lack of strategic surprise. Army Group Center attacked the consolidated defenses of the main concentration of the Soviet armed forces. Unlike the operations against the Bialystok and Kiev salients, jutting into German-held ground, the army group advanced against Soviet defenses with no seriously exposed flanks along their approximate 450-km length. The Germans created "artificial" pockets where few natural possibilities existed, under unfavorable climatic conditions, and with less air support against nine Soviet field armies. They faced adverse strategic circumstances compared with a possible earlier advance, and could expect to stall along an arc about 300 km from Moscow, Confounding the sophistry behind the strategic posture in which Hitler through procrastination and concern had placed it, Army Group Center won the quickest and most decisive victory of the Second World War. With only modest losses but great exertion by the troops and strain on weapons and equipment, the army group destroyed the Soviet armed forces- those between it and Moscow. With exceptional luck, a drought in October 1941 in European Russia, the German army might even have seized Moscow and the surrounding area, giving the Germans an excellent chance of defeating the Soviet Union the following summer.

The Germans completed the battles comprising Operation Typhoon in the brief period of 2-14 October 1941. Although preliminary operations began on the southern front on 30 September and the Germans would comb the battlefield until 17 September. Typhoon ran its course in approximately thirteen days. The operation contained substantial elements of operational deja vu. The 7th Panzer Division, 46th Panzer Corps, Panzer Group Hoth, cut the main highway to Moscow, the supply and escape route behind huge Soviet forces, for the third time in the campaign with remarkable speed. Attacking north of the highway, as it had done at Minsk and Smolensk, the 7th Panzer Division advanced at 0615 on 2 October into the area north of Vyasma. Elements of the division's 6th Motorized Rifle Regiment cut the main highway to Moscow 2 km north of Vyasma at 1700 on 6 October, only 107 hours later. The same day, the division joined the 10th Panzer Division advancing about 100 km from the south of Vyasma, encircling approximately fifty-five Soviet divisions in a great Kessel to the west of that city. Farther south, panzer columns of the 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions, 47th Panzer Corps, Panzer Group Guderian, moving almost twice the distance, would encircle vast Soviet forces totalling approximately twenty-six divisions in two pockets, north and south of Bryansk. German infantry divisions moved up rapidly to spawn lines of encirclement on which violent fighting would fall. Up to about 11 October, the Germans took few prisoners, and many Russians escaped from the southernmost pocket. Then, almost suddenly, between 11 and 14 October, the Soviets collapsed. As commander of Army Group Center, Bock notes that his forces "demolished" eight Russian armies comprising numerous rifle and cavalry divisions and thirteen panzer divisions or brigades, yielding from 2 to 17 October 1941 the booty shown in Table 6.{12}

Had the Germans retained their mobility after this singular victory and advanced toward Moscow, they probably would have overcome remaining Soviet strategic reserves massed around the capital, and any "Siberian" forces from the east, and taken Moscow. That would have changed the future course of the war, but it is doubtful that the Germans would have won because time had slipped away to the Soviets' advantage. Actually, rains began about 10 October 1941 and continued for the rest of the month, paralyzing German movement on the unpaved roads of the Soviet Union and offering the Soviets another chance at salvation. With greater cloud cover, shorter days, and longer nights, the Russian roads and countryside were saturated and became permanently impassable until the first heavy frosts of mid-November. The Soviet high command received yet another month to build defenses around Moscow and call up forces from the interior, and the Germans irretrievably lost the Second World War in Europe.

Table 6. Soviet Collapse at Vyasma and Bryansk
(losses largely incurred from 7 to 14 October 1941)
Personnel captured 673,098
Tanks captured or destroyed 1,277
Artillery cannon captured or destroyed 4,378
Flak and Pak captured or destroyed* 1,009
* Flak = antiaircraft cannon; Pak = antitank cannon

Except for the vague possibility of a record drought in autumn 1941, Typhoon was foredoomed to be a strategical dead end for the Germans. Nevertheless, Army Group Center won an operational victory of the first magnitude. Had it consolidated its positions after the victory, a scant 150 km from Moscow, the army high command would have had a reasonable chance of converting Hitler to the campaign-winning course of defeating the Soviet armies defending Moscow in 1942, and then securing the eccentric objectives so dear to his heart in the Caucasus. Far more important than this conjecture, which projects possible events into 1942, is the observation that Typhoon was an operational success at the right place but the wrong time! It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Army Group Center would have destroyed the far weaker Soviet forces defending the capital two months earlier in August 1941. The Germans could not exploit the Typhoon victory into the seizure of Moscow and the collapse of the Soviet armed forces because autumn rains paralyzed German movement on the unpaved roads of European Russia. It is equally difficult to avoid concluding that the same army group, moving across the same roads under the summer skies of August 1941, would have destroyed the main concentration of the Soviet armed forces, taken the capital, and collapsed effective military resistance.

The Timing of a German Summer Advance on Moscow and Defeat of the Soviet Union

Could the Germans have launched Typhoon on or about 13 August 1941? If the answer were yes, then clearly it espouses an interpretation of the Second World War in which the Germans could have taken Moscow in late August. And if that were not enough, it also suggests the corollary that the Germans would have continued operations in September 1941, forcing the Soviet government to withdraw Soviet armed forces in European Russia east of the Volga River. It is doubtful that the Soviet government could have survived such a blow to its prestige. It is also questionable whether the high command could have retrieved the forces in the Baltic and Ukraine, and doubtful that an adequate base for credible resistance existed in the east.

The timing of the attack is possibly the most important question that .can be asked about the Second World War because it pinpoints the possible German victory. Before Barbarossa, the German victory in the battle of France and defeat in the aerial bombardment of England neither ensured nor prevented a German victory in the war. After Barbarossa, the Alamein battle in Africa and the struggle around Kursk did little to determine victory in the war, merely confirming the predetermined German defeat after the turning point of Barbarossa. Had the Germans won these battles, temporarily holding the British in North Africa and stabilizing the eastern front for the remainder of 1943. they still did not have a significantly greater chance of victory. German style and skill won campaigns quickly or not at all, and in Barbarossa, victory in the campaign translated into victory in the war in Europe.

German Army-Level Attacks Before the Seizure of Moscow

Army Group Center could have successfully captured Moscow based on the historical fact that one of its significant elements made a strong preparatory attack between 1 and 8 August at Roslavl for the final advance on Moscow. The attack showed that Panzer Group Guderian and the 2d Army had completed the Smolensk operations so long before the end of July that they could plan, logistically prepare, and launch an army-sized attack (approximately eleven divisions) on 1 August 1941. Its intent was to widen the front and secure more effective communications for the coming advance against Moscow. Hitler's psychological compulsion to secure the resources of the Ukraine before seizing Moscow and defeating the Red Army slowed the Germans advance out of Roslavl by a month, and then in the wrong direction. The resistance of men like Halder, Bock, and Guderian to the eccentric drive of part of Army Group Center toward the south caused Hitler to hesitate and procrastinate through much of August, finally ordering the attack to the south on 21 August. Army Group Center executed the attack on 25 August 1941 with the bulk of Panzer Group Guderian and the 2d Army (approximately fourteen divisions) and advanced successfully 450 km into the Ukraine. The move was coordinated with corresponding advances by Army Group South and netted the Germans the destruction of the Soviet field armies in the central Ukraine and the taking of 660,000 prisoners. The battle has been called by at least one authority "the greatest battle of encirclement in history,"{13} It was similar in dimensions to the Vyasma-Bryansk battle fought approximately a month later in October 1941.

Army Group Center began the Kiev battle on 25 August. The timing and scale of fighting showed that it could make a strategical push against the main mass of Soviet armed forces. During the preceding period, from 1 to 20 August 1941, Panzer Group Guderian, the 2d Army, and the remainder of Army Group Center were not permitted to launch a concentrated attack in a direction decisive for winning the campaign. They stood strategically paralyzed by the struggle between Hitler and OKH. Army Group Center, nevertheless, had the capability to advance in August 1941, as shown in the unfocused operations of 1-20 August, in which the forces of Guderian and Generaloberst Freiherr von Weichs (commanding the 2d Army) launched attacks resulting in the capture of 132,000 Soviet prisoners and the destruction or capture of 344 tanks and 976 guns. The attacks were unfocused because no one could be certain of the direction of the next strategic advance on the eastern front until the end of the struggle between Hitler and OKH, from 21 to 23 August 1941. Guderiaris and Weichs's forces were scarcely exhausted by their attacks either logistically or mechanically because on 25 August they began the great oblique advance away from Moscow into the Ukraine.

These details-the major attacks of Army Group Center between 1 and 20 August 1941 and the strategic advance of its southern half into the Ukraine on 25 August 1941-support my contention that the Germans were capable of advancing against Moscow in August 1941. The same details show that had the Germans focused Army Group Center on the seizure of Moscow toward the end of the Smolensk battle in the last half of July 1941, they would probably have started the advance on Moscow about 13 August, but no later than about 20 August. The earlier date is based on the assumption that Guderian and his supporting infantry would require five days to recover from the Roslavl battle. It also assumes that farther north, Hoth and the infantry fighting with him, pressed by Bock to move on Moscow as soon as possible, would have finished off the main Smolensk pocket, checked Soviet spoiling attacks, and advanced by the same date. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a German advance on 13 August would have reached Moscow before the end of August and, by the location and timing of the result, given Germany victory in the Second World War in Europe.