Russian WWII Offensive of 1941


It was devastatingly cold in the Russian winter of 1941, 
during the peak of the German offensive against Moscow. Just as it 
had Napoleon's armies in the century before, the Russian winter 
conditions had stopped the advance on Moscow. Hitler had not planned 
on a winter war, and thus had not properly equipped his troop 
frostbite, and thousands of them died of exposure. Indeed, it was this 
biting winter which had provided the Russians with an opportunity to 
gather themselves, and prepare for one of the most heroic 
counter-offensives of World War II - known to the Russian people as 
"The Great Patriotic War." 
 It would be wrong to attribute the German failure at this time 
solely to the harsh winter; the main failure was that of misjudgment 
and mistiming. The offensive had been launched too late in the year, 
at a season where the weather was due to break up. The Germans had 
underestimated the effects of the harsh weather and terrain on their 
motorized units, and had poorly rationed their resources - too much 
had been asked of the German troops, and strengths had been allowed to 
drop too low.
 Despite a few more victories by German forces in November and 
December, they would never again substantially advance into the areas 
surrounding Moscow. On October 28th, the German 3 Panzer group, under 
the command of Field-Marshal Von Kluge, had again tried to penetrate 
into the northern area of Kalinin, and failed. Hitler called in 9 
Army to join the 3 Panzer, and moved them towards the northeast area 
above Moscow. Russian resistance had been uneven, but in the front of 
Tula and on the Nara, where new formations were arriving, it had been 
the most determined and tough. The Red Army had fallen back to within 
forty miles of Moscow, but was sustained by massive Muscovite power, a 
continuing flow of troops to the front line.
 During the months of October and November, nine new Russian 
armies had been trained, and were being deployed throughout the 
fronts. Two complete armies and parts of another three were to reach 
the Moscow area towards the end of November. Many of the divisions in 
these armies were raised from newly inducted recruits, but some were 
well trained and equipped and had been withdrawn from the military 
districts in Central Russia, and Siberia.
 In October and early November, a few German battalions still 
fighting had brought all Red Army motor vehicles (except tanks) to a 
stop, and the Russian Quarter-master-General Khrulev, was forced to 
switch his troops to horses and carts. He was criticized by both his 
own troops and Stalin, but was granted permission to form 76 horse 
transport battalions. The problems caused by the transport shortage 
and weather were recognized by the Soviet High Command, and fuel 
refills were sent to the front lines. Defenses were restored and 
thickened up, and Moscow awaited the second stage of the German 
offensive, which is described in detail in the German Offensive 
section of this report. By November however, German casualties had 
reached 145,000 troops. 
 The German position in the South, between Tula and Voronezh 
was both confusing and disquieting, as on October 26, German 2 Panzer 
leader Guderian had suddenly been attacked by the renewed Russian 
forces on the east flank, and was fighting to hold his ground. The 2 
Panzer had been meant to surround Moscow, but was so weak in armor, 
and with the addition of several infantry corps, its mobile strength 
was greatly decreased.
 As the German drive against Moscow slackened, the Soviet 
commander on the Moscow front, General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, 
on December 6 inaugurated the first great counteroffensive with 
strokes against Bock's right in the Elets (Yelets) and Tula sectors 
south of Moscow and against his center in the Klin and Kalinin sectors 
to the northwest. Levies of Siberian troops, who were extremely 
effective fighters in cold weather, were used for these offensives. 
There followed a blow at the German left, in the Velikie Luki sector; 
and the counteroffensive, which was sustained throughout the winter of 
1941-42, soon took the form of a triple convergence toward Smolensk. 
 Before the end of the year Kinzel (the head of the Foreign 
Armies East intelligence), was to issue a rewrite of the German Army 
handbook on the Soviet Armed forces which contrasted the report put 
out that year before. The Red Army, it said, had been made into a 
fighting force serviceable to a degree that would not have been 
thought possible before the war. What was most astonishing was not 
its numerical strength, but rather the great stocks of available 
weapons, equipment, clothing, tanks, and guns. German intelligence 
was surprised that Soviet High Command recognized and remedied its own 
weaknesses, their organizational powers, and the ability of the High 
Command and the troops in the field to overcome their difficulties by 
 The first day of December was one of terrible implications for 
the German forces in Moscow, and within the German High Command. On 
that morning, Hitler himself had issued three telegrams: one removing 
General Von Rundstedt from command of the German 5 Panzer Army in 
Russia; the second ordering the attack of 1 Panzer Army on the 
southern city of Voroshilovgrad; and the third demanding that 50 tanks 
per Panzer Division be sent to General von Kleist, who's forces were 
being defeated by Russian General Cherevichenko on the Ukrainian 
front. This erupted into chaos around the German high command, and 
left Hitler in control of the crucial 5 Panzer Army, a crucial 
division near Moscow: a command he was ill qualified to take.
 These Soviet counteroffensives tumbled back the exhausted 
Germans, lapped around their flanks, and produced a critical 
situation. From generals downward, the invaders were filled with 
ghastly thoughts of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. In that emergency 
Hitler forbade any retreat beyond the shortest possible local 
withdrawals. His decision exposed his troops to awful sufferings in 
their advanced positions facing Moscow, for they had neither the 
clothing nor the equipment for a Russian winter campaign; but if they 
had once started a general retreat it might easily have degenerated 
into a panic-stricken rout.
 The Red Army's winter counteroffensive continued for more than 
three months after its December launching, though with diminishing 
progress. By March 1942 it had advanced more than 150 miles in some 
sectors. But the Germans maintained their hold on the main bastions of 
their winter front despite the fact that the Soviets had often 
advanced many miles beyond these bastions, which were in effect cut 
off. In retrospect it became clear that Hitler's objection to any 
major withdrawals worked out in such a way as to restore the 
confidence of the German troops and probably saved them from a 
widespread collapse. Nevertheless, they paid a heavy price indirectly 
for that rigid defense. The tremendous strain of that winter 
campaign, on armies that had not been prepared for it, had other 
serious effects. Before the winter ended, many German divisions were 
reduced to barely a third of their original strength, and they were 
never fully built up again.
 In early January, as soon as it was known that the Germans 
were in retreat, the Red Army troops were spurred into motion, and 
their morale and fighting spirit increased greatly - along with Soviet 
casualties. For the Russians began to counter-attack without regard 
to losses, flinging themselves at the German rearguards. Zhukov was 
forced to change his tactics and order his troops to avoid all centers 
of enemy resistance - as he was being smashed at such points. As soon 
as the gaps in the German positions could be found, the Russians 
struck there. The Red Army was well equipped for winter warfare and 
was much more mobile than their enemy. But, as Zhukov admits, they 
were still poorly trained, and their Field Commanders were still 
hesitant to attack gaps in the German line, as they still feared 
encirclement. Stalin, at the time, was convinced that the Germans 
were still benumbed by the cold, and that the entire front was ripe 
for the taking. However, Zhukov knew that the only vulnerable front 
was the Army Group Center; their other positions in Valdai, Volkov, or 
the Ukraine were unlikely to yield any further successes. However, 
Stalin hastily attacked the flanks of the Army Group Center, which 
would give Zhukov's army a fierce fight, and casualties and delays 
were high. Stalin's mistake, in the end, was overestimating Russian 
strength, and underestimating German resilience - especially under the 
Fürhrer's strict command not to fall back.
 By the end of April, the Russians had pushed back the German 
Kalinin, North-West, and Bryansk until Russian army groups could push 
them back no further. These German forces were no longer capable of 
any advancement into Russia, and were bogged down by the spring mud. 
The Russian 33 and 39 Soviet Armies remained in the pocket of the 
remaining "horseshoe" shaped German front (known as the Rzhev Salient, 
and maintained by three Panzer armies), where the Army Group Center 
continued to fend off struggling Russian forces. However, the forces 
around the Rzhev Salient were strained and barely able to continue 
holding the front. Yet Hitler maintained them there, hoping to 
someday launch another offensive from that point. By March of 1942 
however, the Fürhrer had lost all his interest in ever taking the 
Russian capital. Thus ends the story of the siege on Moscow, and 
begins the long story of the rebuilding.
 Germany, had it mobilized its forces completely in 1941, would 
have been able to take Russia within a matter of months. However, 
being spread as they were between both the Eastern and Western fronts, 
it became an exponentially more difficult task for him - one which he 
never succeeded in. Hitler's egotistical caprice drove him away from 
victory. He fought on three fronts, and made the United States an 
enemy of Germany; against such odds he could not win. His decision to 
fork off from the attack on Moscow, detaching all but one Panzer Army 
from Army Group Center to send them to Leningrad and the Ukraine meant 
that the capital would never be taken by German troops. By the time 
they re-grouped within Army Group Center in February, it was too late 
and too muddy for them to cover the distance from Smolensk to Moscow. 
 The war had resulted in losses of 860,000 troops for the Germans. 
Soviet prisoners taken during that time were 3,461,000 along with 
perhaps double that in casualties on the Leningrad, Muscovite, and 
Ukrainian fronts.


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