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Chapter Ten.

German Casualties and Tank Losses:
Did the Germans Have the Combat Strength to Seize Moscow in the Summer of 1941?

HISTORICAL convention avers that the Germans suffered severe casualties from the beginning of the Russian campaign and faced lengthy rest and reorganization by the end of July 1941, before continuing the advance into the Soviet Union. Contrary to this view, the Germans suffered relatively light casualties, especially considering that during Barbarossa violent fighting took place along the entire front as the Germans advanced everywhere to bring the war to a quick end. German forces on the eastern front stood at a strength higher than any other time in the war and, according to all accounts, the Russian infantry fought stubbornly in defensive positions and counterattacked fiercely, often in wave after wave. Thus, the convention has maintained without adequate verification that the Germans attacking along the entire front must have suffered crippling casualties.

It is evident today that either the Soviets had been surprised and adopted a makeshift strategy to attack the Germans as far west as possible with all reserves, or they had been caught in the middle of an offensive deployment of their own. As a German observer pointed out, however, "In pursuing this policy they evidently grossly overestimated German losses.{1} This acute observation-largely accurate-might also have read, "In pursuing a policy of defense to the last man and counterattack without regard to tactical reality or losses, the Soviets evidently felt that the Germans were suffering severe losses similar to their own." By 3 July 1941, the Germans had completed the fast phase of Barbarossa-Army Group North had broken out of the Dvina bridgeheads and moved north in a late but great rush toward Leningrad, and Army Group Center had moved away from the large pocket near Minsk and moved east toward Smolensk. That date is a reasonable one to check German casualties and gauge the possibilities of a push for Moscow in the immediate future. Table 7 compares German and Soviet casualties during this period.

Table 7. German and Soviet Casualties Compared
(22 June-3 July 1941, entire front)
German (documented) Soviet (estimated)
Killed 11,822 Killed 200,000
Wounded 39,109 Wounded 400,000
Missing 3,961* Captured 335.000
Total 54,892 Tota 935,000
* Comprised of captured and killed, with some of the former also wounded.

The Germans attacked with dose to 3,000,000 personnel, and the Soviets initially had approximately 2,500,000 men committed in western Soviet Russia. German forces would be drawn down gradually during Barbarossa. while the Soviets would be immensely reinforced by mobilization. Soviet mobilization, however, was counterbalanced by the tactical and operational superiority of the German field armies, reflected in catastrophic Soviet casualties, particularly in captured and killed. The result is that at any single moment during Barbarossa, with one notable exception, one could expect to find approximately 3,000.000 Germans engaged in combat with a similar number of Russians. The exception is early in August, when Army Group Center was so successful that the Soviet forces opposed to it, according to German intelligence estimates, appeared to have been reduced to roughly half the strength of Army Group Center. To grasp whether or not German casualties in the fast phase of Barbarossa were leading toward a German collapse in August, one should note that the campaign involved approximately 6,000,000 men who could be engaged in combat at any time. German casualties totalling 54,892 in the fast twelve days of combat, involving some 6,000,000 men, can be described as moderate. German casualties compared with Soviet losses during the same period show an overall exchange ratio of approximately I German casualty for every 15 Soviet casualties. The Germans suffered so few casualties and managed to extract so uneven a ratio in their favor that any analysis of casualties supports the view that the Soviets were losing on 3 July 1941 and had little time left to survive if the Germans continued their pace.

They did. By 16 July 1941, when they seized Smolensk, they had lost only 102,488 men. and by 2 August they had taken 179,500 casualties. On the latter date, had they been operating under the hypothetical case of a direct advance on Moscow from Smolensk, where they were at that moment, they would have been less than two weeks from a final offensive on Moscow and scarcely deterred by the casualties incurred up to 2 August. The casualties were small for the results achieved, the sizes of the German and Soviet armies engaged, and the closeness of the Germans to victory in the entire campaign.

Not surprisingly, the Germans had anticipated casualties in the war they had planned, and they had providentially taken steps to be prepared for them. They estimated their losses in the great "border" battles, anticipated to last from June to August 1941, would be 275.000 and felt that they might incur another 200,000 in the month of September.{2} For an army so often accused of grossly underestimating the challenges of war in the Soviet Union, the Germans anticipated casualties, one of the challenges of war, with uncanny accuracy. The army anticipated 275,000 casualties for June-August 1941 and had that number available in its field replacement battalions and the Field Replacement Army to replenish the forecasted losses. Actually, the army slightly overestimated the casualties it would take under the army scheme of maneuver (as opposed to Hitler's eventual procrastinated maneuver) in Barbarossa, suffering roughly 257,000 casualties during that period. Hence, it can scarcely be claimed that the Germans were surprised and thrown off stride by the severity of their losses, which were less than they had anticipated, or that they were inhibited significantly by casualties in launching a great strategic offensive toward Moscow on 13 August 1941.

Other Means of Gauging German Casualties:
The Situation in the Divisions

Other ways of gauging German losses can be used to sense how dose the Germans were to victory in the opening stages of the campaign. The Germans attacked with approximately 141 divisions reinforced by "army troops." The latter troops were held by corps, army, and army group commanders and assigned as required to support the operations of the divisions. The army troops comprised powerful forces, particularly of artillery, pioneer, chemical mortar (smoke), and self-propelled storm gun units. They &t into the picture of combat in Barbarossa and the other campaigns largely by the way they were used to reinforce operations by the German divisions. The divisions were the largest self-contained maneuver elements used by the Germans, and they can be used to gauge casualties in Barbarossa. On 22 June 1941, the attacking German divisions were powerful combat organizations averaging approximately 15,745 men among the infantry, panzer, and motorized infantry types.{3} On 23 August, approximately when it would have been closing in on Moscow under the hypothetical direct advance, and after fighting a series of hard battles (Roslavl, Rogachev, and Gomel) to open the way south, Panzer Group Guderian controlled eight divisions averaging 12,543 men, each at "engagement strength."{4} The divisions had additional men in unevacuated, lightly wounded, and temporarily sick. The German divisions of the heavily engaged Panzer Group Guderian of Army Group Center were 'operating at 80-percent personnel strength compared with their numbers at the beginning of the war.{5} That strength shows that Army Group Center would not have been prevented from taking Moscow because of casualties.

Contrasting Numbers and Qualities of the Opposing Tank Forces, 1941

The German army was not inhibited on 2 August 1941 by casualties, but it still could have been crippled by losses in its single most important weapon during the advance-the battle tank. In 1941, the German battle tanks, in contrast to reconnaissance types, were relatively light vehicles that could have suffered heavy losses at the hands of the numerically large Soviet tank and antitank forces. The Germans held the tanks shown in Table 8.

The German Pz.Kw. II was scarcely suitable for tank-versus-tank combat or infantry support. A weak tank production effort in serious battle tanks had forced the Germans to use the Pz.Kw. II alongside battle tanks in combat. The Germans used them judiciously, emphasizing their value in reconnaissance and coups de main, but the tank could be expected to suffer heavy losses.

Table 8. German Battle Tanks, Barbarossa, 1941 Specifications*
German Tank Tons Armor,** mm Gun, mm Road Range, km Maximum speed, km/h
Pz. Kw. II A-E{6} 10 15 20 260 48
TNHP 38 (Czech){7} 10 25 37 230 42
Pz.Kw. II A-H{6} 20 30 50 175 40
Pz. Kw. IV A-E{6} 21 30 75 200 40
*The German tanks include numerous letter variants complicated in turn by retrofitted material, but the specifications are predominately as shown.
**Max armor at a few frontal locations.

The Czech-manufactured TNHP 38 tank was no heavier but had thicker armor in several frontal locations and a much more potent 3.7cm long-barreled, high-velocity cannon. The German tank was a light reconnaissance vehicle used to play a presumptuous role as a battle tank. By the standards of the day, the Czech-manufactured TNHP 38 was at least a marginal battle tank. comparable to the Soviet cavalry tanks and T-26 infantry support tanks available in huge numbers to the Red Army. At the beginning of the war, the Soviets had approximately 17,000 of the and T-26 tanks, compared with 746 German Pz.Kw. II and 812 TNHP 38 tanks in the invading field armies. In similar types of marginal battle tanks, therefore, the Soviet tanks outnumbered the Germans numerically by more than an order of magnitude. A more complete picture of Soviet battle tanks is given in Table 9.{8}

The more credible German battle tanks-Pz.Kw. Ill and IV-were overmatched by the Soviet T-34, KV-I, and KV-2 vehicles, especially in the tank-versus-tank combat qualities of armor protection and main armament. In a curious turnabout in the campaign, high-quality Soviet tanks in small numbers faced German tanks in larger numbers with similar missions but inferior qualities. In the first months of the war, the Soviets probably used approximately 500 of these vehicles. The Germans, in contrast, entered the Soviet Union in the first days of the war with 1,065 combat-model (as distinguished from command-vehicle) Pz.Kw. Ill and 489 Pz.Kw. IV tanks. It is only fair to note that these German tanks would have their hands full with the immense numbers of and T-26 vehicles, almost all of which were armed with the Soviet 4.5cm tank cannon-quite capable of penetrating the armor of most larger German tanks at realistic combat ranges. These same German tanks would also have their hands full with the larger Soviet tanks, whose armor was impervious to the projectiles fired by the German 5.0cm L42 and 7.5cm L24 tank cannon. The Germans were saved in this almost incredible technical mismatch by the flexible use of other weapons to support the tanks, including the 10.5cm light field howitzer, 10.0cm field gun, and 8.8cm flak (antiaircraft cannon).{9} The German tanks could knock out a few of the Soviet T-34, KV-1, and KV-2 tanks only because of their high rates of fire and impacts best described as statistical outliers- unlikely impacts, or combinations of impacts against gun tubes, drive sprockets, and the junctions between turrets and hulls.{10}

Table 9. Soviet Battle Tanks, Barbarossa, 1941 Specifications*
Soviet Tank Tons Armor,** mm Gun, mm Road Range, km Speed, km/h
T-26 A-C 10 15 45 225 48
BT-2,5,7 12 13 45 375 52
T-34 A,B 26 65 76 400 52
KV-1 A-C 48 120 76 335 35
KV-2 52 110 150 250 26
*The Soviet tanks include different letter variants, but the specifications are predominately as shown.
**Max armor over wide areas at front of hulls and turrets.

The Importance of Tanks in the German Blitzkrieg

The Germans depended for success in Barbarossa largely on aggressive, self-confident panzer leaders and the qualities and numbers of their tanks. Tanks were so important to them that a shorthand way of comprehending the strategic possibilities would be to compare the numbers of tanks available at any stage in Barbarossa. The Germans, of course, had combined tanks with other combat arms, such as motorized and eventually mechanized infantry (i.e armored, tracked vehicles to carry riflemen), motorized artillery, pioneers, antitank guns. and special communications, repair, and supply detachments. Tanks could not perform effectively in combat without the support of the other combat arms and service units. The synthesis of these weapons in panzer divisions represented a unique achievement of the Germans in the interwar period.

Many military officers in other states-especially Britain. France, and the Soviet Union-emphasized the development of tanks and tank divisions, but none combined tanks and the other combat arms so effectively into balanced combat organizations capable of strategic movement and swift campaigns. In counterpoint to this concept of combined arms, although tanks could not move effectively without the complex organized support of other arms and service units, blitzkriegs in turn stopped without the tanks. The Germans executed the ultrablitz into the Soviet Union with panzer divisions in the lead. The striking power of the divisions and, in turn, the strategic possibilities for the Germans therefore can be represented by the number of tanks available at any time for German panzer leaders to deploy over the Russian countryside.

An analysis of the value of tanks can be made by summarizing the numbers (Table 10), then showing whether or not the Germans had enough to do the job required in Barbarossa.

Table 10. Russo-German Tank Balance. Barbarossa, 1941
Russians Germans {11}
T-26 A-C c.12000{12} Pz.Kw. II 746
2,5.7 c.5000{12} TNHP 38 812*
T-34 , c.1200{13} Pz.Kw. III 1065
KV-1, 2 c.582{13} Pz.Kw. IV 479
* Number indudes some older TNHS 35 vehicles.

The balance supports a number of important generalizations about Barbarossa, some old and well known, others new and inadequately explored. To the Germans, tanks were so important that the qualities and numbers of Soviet vehicles were debated at all levels. Hitler, with his penchant for detail, was concerned about Soviet tanks. He underestimated their numbers, lending support to the thesis that the Germans fatally underestimated the numbers and qualities of Soviet weapons. Guderian. however, who led the largest panzer group into the Soviet Union and fought against a large share of the Soviet tank force, seems to have had no illusions about the numbers (even 18,000 to as many as 22,000).{14} With respect to the qualities of the enemy tanks, Guderian was seriously discomfited by the appearance of significant numbers of Soviet T-34 tanks in October 1941, but he was not surprised by their qualities. The German army had been roughly handled by Allied tanks at the end of the First World War. As a direct result, the infantry and mobile divisions built in the 1930s had many antitank guns, anticipating the threat of great numbers of Allied infantry support tanks in any war.{15} This anticipation carried into the war against the Soviet Union, and a large percentage of the extraordinary numbers of Soviet tanks destroyed in Barbarossa was accounted for by the German infantry divisions' antitank guns.

The Soviets had so many tanks they could deploy huge numbers in battalion-level organizations to support their infantry divisions. They could also place large numbers in motorized-mechanized brigades and tank divisions before the German attack. The Soviets employed so many tanks and deployed them so extensively that the German infantry divisions met huge numbers and knocked out virtually all with the 3.7cm and 5.0cm antitank guns of the antitank battalions and regimental antitank companies (the fourteenth company of each German infantry regiment).{16} In the opening days of the war the German 256th Infantry Division, advancing from the northwest toward Bialystok, was forced to stop and defend itself against Soviet tank attacks from 24 to 26 June at Kuznica. The infantry division antitank guns and attached self-propelled storm artillery destroyed 250 Soviet tanks in this engagement{17} and contributed to pinning down and encircling huge Soviet forces in the Bialystok pocket.{18}

The panzer groups, particularly in Army Groups Center and South, faced similar powerful counterattacks. The panzer divisions of the groups averaged approximately 164 battle tanks each and could advance against strong Soviet tank forces. Even the panzer divisions and their accompanying motorized infantry divisions ran into powerful Soviet mechanized formations, which could be neither bypassed nor ignored and forced major tank battles from the first day of the war. Such battles lasted from several hours to a full day in Army Groups North and Center, and even longer in Army Group South. The German panzer and motorized rifle divisions would drive into a mass of at least 8,000 and possibly as many as 12,000 tanks as the Soviet tank forces were attracted to the more dangerous, deeply penetrating mobile divisions. Considering the numbers, one wonders how the Germans advanced at all against such a mass of Soviet tanks.

Hitler and the Balance Between the Soviet and German Tank Forces

In a conversation with Guderian in July 1941, knowing that his field armies were wrestling with vast Soviet tank forces, Hitler remarked that he would not have attacked the Soviet Union had he believed Guderian's earlier estimate of 10,000 Soviet tanks in the late 1930s. The remark shows that Hitler had underestimated the number of Soviet tanks and leads to an interpretation of the campaign in which the masses of Soviet tanks had slowed, then stopped, the Germans, The Germans were surprised by the appearance of extremely high quality T-34 A and and KV-I and 2 tanks in and among the more numerous lighter vehicles.{19} The conventional wisdom gathers impressive support in the thesis that the Germans were halted by the numbers and quality of the Red Army, particularly its tanks. In short, the masses of moderate-quality lighter vehicles slowed the Germans, while enough of the superior quality T-34s halted the Germans short of Moscow by December 1941.

Hitler probably underestimated the size of the Soviet tank force and the special qualities of a small but important part of it. Yet the German tank force-tanks combined entirely in the four 'panzer groups-advanced so swiftly against the defending Soviets in June and July 1941 that it established the preconditions for defeat of the Soviet Union. Hitler's underestimation of the size and certain qualities of the Soviet tank force is accurate but irrelevant to the Russian campaign because the German panzer groups advanced against the Red Army and its tanks on a schedule that could be projected in June-July 1941 into the defeat of the Soviet Union. If Hitler underestimated the Soviet tank force, and yet the German panzer groups advanced swiftly through it, logic demands that Hitler must have underestimated the striking power of his panzer forces. The intriguing generalization supported by such argument is that the underestimations cancel themselves. The underestimated Red Army and its tanks found themselves all but eliminated by the pace, destructive power, and territorial gains of the underestimated German army and its panzer groups by the first of August 1941.

German Tank Losses In the Great Opening Battles of the Russian Campaign

By that time. in Army Group Center, Panzer Groups Guderian and Hoth had destroyed or captured 1,638 Soviet tanks in the Bialystok-Minsk battles and, assuming a similar percentage of Soviet losses in the Dvina-Dnieper and Smolensk battles, an additional 1,635 vehicles. While maintaining a blitz pace and positioning themselves east of Smolensk much earlier on 15 July 1941, the panzer groups had "knocked out" approximately 3,273 Soviet tanks.{20}. This astounding achievement in so brief a time along the high road to Moscow is a convincing argument to support the thesis that the Germans had the capability to defeat the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. We know the Soviet tank losses, and they could be characterized as fatal if the Germans had the strength to push on immediately toward Moscow. The question has been posed, however: Did the Germans lose so many tanks in fighting their way through massed Soviet vehicles along hundreds of kilometers of unpaved Russian roads that they were checked by the beginning of August 1941?

The striking power of the German panzer forces attacking the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 is equatable with their 3,102 battle tanks. By early August, to win the campaign. Army Group Center had to begin the attack on Moscow soon and depend for success largely on the number of tanks available. OKH data for August show the Germans early in the month had approximately 85 percent of their tank strength available for combat and only 15 percent as total losses. The Germans still had most of the tanks with which they had begun the campaign, but a significant fraction of these could not advance because of needed repairs. Preparing for an advance as important as that on Moscow, the Germans would make a strong effort to effect those repairs and in Army Group Center would have had approximately 65 percent of their original strength in tanks available to advance on 13 August 1941 and some 20 percent in the work shops{21}. Having started the campaign with 1,780 battle tanks in Army Group Center, the Germans still had approximately 1,157 tanks running and 356 in repair. This impressive number of tanks would have been with the field armies in August for an advance on Moscow and probably augmented by approximately 390 additional tanks from Army Group North. On 4 August, when it appeared possible that Hitler had changed his mind and decided in favor of an advance on Moscow, Guderian and Hoth estimated for OKH that their combat strength for the next offensive, against Moscow, would be 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively{22}. The panzer leaders based their estimates largely on tanks available for the advance. The two panzer groups of Army Group Center were similar in size. Thus the estimates show approximately 55 percent of the original total of tanks in the army group ready for a hypothetical advance on Moscow on about 13 August. The 65 percent estimate in the listing above, applied to Army Group Center, is more optimistic but probably also more accurate than those made by the panzer group leaders for a projected offensive hedged in by Hitler's reservations, excursions, and ancillary tasks. Had they known before the end of July that they would be called on to drive singlemindedly for Moscow, they probably would have achieved the tank percentage suggested above.

German Tanks Available for the Advance on Moscow in August 1941

The figure of 65 percent of the original German tank strength gives a realistic picture of the numbers of tanks the Germans would have used in an offensive against Moscow in the first half of August 1941. The percentage is pessimistic with respect to the remaining striking power of the panzer groups. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 with 3,102 battle tanks, a significant percentage would have been under repair for the attrition associated with the assembly for Barbarossa. This was particularly true among the panzer divisions concentrated at the last moment in Wave 4b for the offensive{23}. Tanks under repair on 22 June can be estimated at 10 percent, but the important point is that the striking power of the German panzer force was not 3.102 battle tanks but approximately 90 percent of that figure. All German estimates of tank strength after 22 June 1941 use percentages of an original strength of 3,102. This strength was never available because the Germans attacked on 22 June with about 2,792 combat-ready tanks (and 310 in repair). Thus, the Germans on 13 August would have been attacking with an estimated 65 percent of the tanks available on 22 June, but approximately 72 percent of their striking power on the first day of the war. Actual percentages would be slightly different, but the percentages used by the Germans to measure remaining striking power would have to be adjusted upward.

By about 13 August 1941, the Germans had suffered Soviet combat action losses of approximately 12 percent of their original tanks. For Army Group Center, with 1,780 battle tanks in its divisions when it attacked earlier in June, this translates into 214 German battle tanks "knocked out" by Soviet combat action on the eve of the hypothetical German advance on Moscow. During the same period the German tanks of Panzer Groups 2 and 3 destroyed and captured 3,273 Soviet tanks. Although German tanks did not damage all of the Soviet tanks that were destroyed in the Soviet totals, the exchange ratios in tank losses were I German tank lost to 15 Soviet. By early August 1941, the German tank formations and infantry divisions had inflicted fearsome tank losses on the Soviets, and the panzer units unquestionably had enough striking power to advance to Moscow and beyond.

The Soviet T-34 Tank: Reality, Myth, and Irony

One of the great myths of the Russian campaign is that the Soviet T-34 tank appeared as a miracle of Soviet technology to produce an element of superiority over the Germans, which turned the tide in favor of the Soviets in October-December 1941, especially at the gates of Moscow in November and December, Myths are difficult to analyze and dispose of because of their combination of truth and fiction. The T-34 tank was superior to any German tank deployed in Barbarossa in gun power, armor thickness and slope, and cross-country mobility-major factors in tank-versus-tank combat. Yet it is rarely mentioned that the Soviet T-34 A and tanks had poor observation out of the vehicles, had virtually no radios for effective command and control, and, incredibly, were designed with inefficient two-man turrets. Despite their frustration at seeing their tank gun projectiles having little effect on the thick, sloped armor of the T-34 hulls and the well-shaped turrets, German tank crews were amazed that they would fire two, three, or four rounds against the T-34s to every round they received. In the Soviet two-man turrets, the tank commander had to double as gunner, thus reducing dramatically the rate of fire and the ability to acquire new targets-particularly in fluid operations and sudden, meeting engagements.

The Germans faced a severe technical inferiority: German tank cannon projectiles would not penetrate the Soviet T-34 tank. Soviet tank cannon on the T-34 penetrated the armor of all German tanks in the east in 1941, at extended ranges for the day of approximately 1,000 m. Fortunately for the Germans, the Soviets had only a few T-34 tanks available for combat in June and July 1941. Obligingly they distributed them across the entire Russian front, singly or in groups of two or three, among other tanks, including the similarly shaped cavalry tanks. With their combined arms teams, including 5.0cm antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, and artillery, the Germans could handle the T-34s comfortably in June and July. It was not until October 1941 that the T-34 tanks menaced the Germans so greatly that the tanks have been identified as one of the most significant causes of the German defeat in the battle for Moscow{24}. By then, the Soviets had shifted production toward the T-34s, which appeared in more significant numbers (with the same superior qualities) in packs of twelve to twenty tanks capable of slowing the thinned German panzer divisions of October-December 1941.

In June, July, and August, however, the Soviets lacked enough T-34s to form big concentrations and affect the campaign. The Germans were not menaced by the T-34s until the first week of October 1941, when Guderian's tanks near Orel in Operation Typhoon were two months behind schedule on the road to Moscow and unable to advance against them as they appeared in medium-sized packs. The T-34s show the potential fatal nature of time delay in a blitz against a strong opponent. Had the Germans attacked Moscow on the army schedule of about 13 August 1941, they would not have met the T-34s on the road to Moscow. Those tanks could not have been there in significant quantities to produce any noticeable effect on the advance of Army Group Center.

From another viewpoint the situation was also ironic. Hitler perceptively insisted on a campaign against Soviet Russia as early as possible, sensing correctly that every moment counted to prevent the Soviets from growing stronger and more dangerous by their armaments production. Once the campaign began, he who had been in a rush to end the Soviet armaments menace in 1941 procrastinated and by his dilatory and indecisive conduct of military operations gave the Soviets the opportunity to employ T-34 tanks. The T-34 myth emerged from an area that would have fallen to the Germans about 18 August 1941, and the tanks were manufactured largely in facilities in Moscow that would have been captured by approximately 28 August.