Sunday, April 20, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: The Soviet counter-offensive of December 1941

The German invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941 shattered the Red Army and drove deep into the Russian heartland. By October, the Wehrmacht had taken 2 million prisoners and destroyed thousands of enemy tanks and guns. Only 5% of the pre-invasion strength of Red army aviation in western Europe remained intact. On the 30th September the German high command launched Operation Typhoon, designed to take German forces all the way to Moscow. With winter approaching, it was crucial that the Wehrmacht capture Moscow and complete its campaign objectives. Field Marshal von Bock was given one and half million men to command as part of the offensive. He set the 7th November (the anniversary of the Russian revolution) as the date for the final surrounding of Moscow. Despite this apparently overwhelming strength, the sudden onset of winter and increased Russian resistance left the German army stranded 40 kilometres from the city. The Red army then launched a series of surprise counterattacks pushing the Germans back a hundred miles and saving Moscow. The traditional view of these events is that the sudden arrival of large numbers of reinforcements from Siberia turned the tide in favour of the Soviets. The reality was somewhat more complicated and involved a good deal more planning from the Soviet Stavka at this early stage of the Russian campaign than historians generally give credit for.

At first the Soviet leadership refused to acknowledge the scale of the German offensive in October 1941. On the 5th October, a fighter pilot reported a column of German panzers a dozen miles in length not more than a hundred miles from Moscow. Two more pilots were sent on reconnaissance flights before the Stavka decided to take action. With Moscow itself now under threat a quarter of a million civilians marched out to dig anti-tank trenches (these scenes would be repeated in Berlin three and half years later as the Red Army approached). On the night of the 15th October, foreign embassies were told to prepare to leave for Kuybyshev on the Volga. A state of siege was declared on the 19th October and foot rioting, looting and drunkardness soon followed. Fear that the capital was about to be abandoned provoked thousands to try and get out, flooding the train stations. Stalin’s security chief Beria was forced to bring in several regiments of NKVD troops into the city to restore order. By late November, a force of 65,000 troops had been assembled to defend the city of Moscow proper. These units included people’s militia, destroyer detachments and two NKVD divisions. The city’s defences consisted of three defence lines. Within the city centre a complex system of barricades and defence belts were manned by internal security forces.

Operation Typhoon began well for the German army with its usual combination of rapid movement and encirclement of Russian troops. German forces had been advancing continuously for nearly four months. Many of the troops were exhausted and much of their equipment needed to be repaired or replaced. The resistance of the Red Army was also stiffening. Groups of Russian soldiers continued to fight despite being cut off and surrounded in pockets. However, it was the weather that played the crucial role in slowing down the German advance. By the middle of October the rain had turned dirt roads into mud and made progress in vehicles extremely slow in certain areas. German ration trucks could not get through in some places, so farm carts had to be commandeered from local agricultural communities. Despite these setbacks German troops managed to reach the outskirts of Moscow by the end of November. To the north of the city, they were close enough to be able to see the muzzle flashes through their binoculars of the anti-aircraft batteries protecting the Kremlin. This was to be the limit of their advance. Russian resistance as well as sheer exhaustion of the Wehrmacht had ground German forces to a halt. Many units were reduced to half strength. In a last ditch effort at the end of November, Field Marshal von Kluge sent a force up the road to Moscow. The incredible cold and furious resistance of Russian troops ended the German assault. German forces were pulled back slightly and fighting seemed to draw to a standstill. By the beginning of December, Field Marshal von Bock had to admit that the window of opportunity for taking Moscow had been and gone for 1941.

During October and November the Soviet high command (the ‘Stavka’), had thrown forces into new defensive lines in the hope of wearing down the German army. At the beginning of November, the Stavka began contemplating a major strategic counter-offensive operation. Its objectives would be threefold. Firstly to eliminate the exposed German salients on both sides of Moscow, secondly to force the front line back and thirdly to encircle and defeat the German army decisively. Intelligence reports from the Soviet agent Richard Sorge in Tokyo had confirmed that the Japanese would be attacking America in the Pacific, rather than join in the German attack on the USSR from the far east. This allowed Stalin to redeploy those divisions based in Siberia.

The Siberian divisions are often regarded as being the primary ‘reserve’ forces of the Red army available at this time. It is important not to over exaggerate the contribution of these forces in comparison to the overall numbers of new divisions the Soviets had managed to raise since the initial invasion in June. The Germans had calculated that the USSR could raise another 300 divisions. This was based on the assumption that two divisions could be made up per million people of the total population. This calculation proved disastrously incorrect. By December, twice that number had been raised. There were 285 rifle divisions, twelve reformed tank divisions, 88 cavalry divisions, 174 rifle and 193 tank brigades available to the Red Army by the 31st December 1941. After the disasters of the summer, the Soviets had moved 70 divisions from the interior Military Districts and raised an additional 194 divisions and 94 brigades. The total number of forces brought from the Far East was therefore only a relatively small force of only 27 divisions. Crucially however, the Siberian units were of far greater quality than the majority of the newly raised divisions of the Red army. The Siberian forces consisted of ski-troop battalions and were natural hunters and skilled shots (much like the Finns in the Winter war of 1940). With temperatures falling to –20C (-4F), their ability to fight in the snow and use it as tactical advantage would prove crucial in defeating the Germans.

Russian ski-troops during the counter-offensive

In addition, German forces were not prepared for a winter campaign. Their equipment began to freeze, jamming weapons and forcing troops to light fires underneath tanks and aircraft in order to defrost them for use. Their supply lines were now thousands of miles into Russia. For the first time since June, the Soviets had the advantage in men and equipment. 1,700 new T-34s were brought up by the Red army for the counter-offensive. The T-34 tanks had broad enough tanks to cope with the snow and ice and were more mobile compared to the German Panzer mark IV. Soviet Infantry were equipped with padded jackets and white camouflage suits. Unlike their German counterparts, Soviet infantry had been given cases to protect the metal parts of their machine guns and rifles from freezing in the cold.

On the 5th December, General Koniev attacked the outer edge of the German north salient. Four armies commanded by Zhukov and Rokossovsky were hurled against the inner side of the salient. To the south of Moscow, German forces were attacked from different directions. The offensive centred on a sector from Kalin, 170 kilometres north of Moscow to Yelets, 350 kilometres in the south. The total frontage extended to 1,000 kilometres. Red army cavalry divisions ranged deep behind German lines, attacking supply depots. German forces were driven back as far as a hundred miles in some places. For the first time, Wehrmacht forces found themselves trapped in pockets as Hitler refused to order a retreat. By mid December, Soviet forces had recaptured Tula, Ryazan, Rostov, Kalin and Smolensk, Orlov and Kursk. Moscow had been saved and the Germans had suffered their first land defeat since the war had begun in 1939. Although the Germans managed to re-establish a stable line and the Soviets had failed to capitalise on their success, it was the first signs that the Red army would become the first class fighting force that would go on to take Berlin in 1945.

Ian Kershaw, Fateful choices: ten choices that changed the world 1940-1941 (London, 2007)

Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (London, 2007)

Antony Beever, Stalingrad (London, 1998)

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: a new history (London, 2001)

Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (Phoenix, 2000)

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