Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Winter 1941-42 Soviet Offensive Part I

SS troops patrolling in the snow of the Eastern front during the winter of 1941-42. The disastrous winter of 1941/42 on the Russian Front taught the Germans that they needed to be better prepared for the cold winters of future campaigns. In reality, the Germans were confident that they would win the war against Russia before the winter set in. Although the units of the Waffen-SS suffered tremendous casualties due to the cold weather, they were better prepared than their Army contemporaries. This is because Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler, operating outside the Armed Forces High Command, was able to procure some winter clothing for his troops.

Late on the evening of January 5, a sizable group of generals and high-ranking government officials arrived for the meeting in Stalin's office at the Kremlin. They immediately noticed a significant change in the decor, which suggested to them what the dictator had in mind. The familiar portraits of Marx and Engels had been taken down from their prominent places, and in their stead were hanging pictures of Suvorov and Kutuzov--Russian heroes who had fought in wars against the Turks and French.

First on the program was the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov, a capable career officer who in 1918 had joined the "Workers and Peasants Red Army." Shaposhnikov sketched out an astonishing plan that he had concocted against his better judgment. Five large- scale offensives would be launched almost simultaneously. They would relieve Leningrad, which had been blockaded by the Germans since last September; would in twin attacks shove the Wehrmacht back on both sides of Moscow; would recapture the rich Donets basin in the Ukraine; and would drive the Germans out of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. These blows, supposedly, would put the Germans to flight out of the Soviet Union.

When Shaposhnikov had finished his presentation, Stalin spoke to dispel any doubts about what his own position was. "The Germans are in disarray as a result of their defeat at Moscow," he stated. "They are poorly fitted out for the winter. This is a most favorable time for the transition to a general offensive." Stalin then called on General Zhukov to express his opinion.

Zhukov, who always had strong opinions, said he was in favor of continuing his attacks on the Moscow front if sufficient troops and tanks could be supplied, but he pronounced the other operations much too ambitious for the men and materiel on hand. "Without powerful artillery support," he asserted, "they will be ground down and suffer heavy-not to say unjustifiable-losses."

General Zhukov's position was backed by Nikolai A. Voznesensky, the outspoken Chairman of the State Planning Commission and the chief mobilizer of Soviet war production, which was just now beginning to turn out tanks and planes in significant numbers. Voznesensky declared that there would not be enough materiel to supply all of the operations that had been proposed.

Stalin shrugged off the objections and said impatiently, "We must grind the Germans down with all possible speed, so that they cannot attack in the spring." This explanation was heartily endorsed by Georgy M. Malenkov, a top political commissar, and NKVD chief Lavrenty P. Beria, whose secret-police force was virtually an independent state with- in the Soviet state. They accused Voznesensky of making mountainous obstacles out of molehill problems.

Stalin asked for any further comments. There were none. "So," he said, "this, it seems, ends the discussion."

Discussion? Nothing had been discussed, and Zhukov said as much to Shaposhnikov as the meeting broke up. Marshal Shaposhnikov agreed. "It was foolish to argue," he said. "The Boss had already decided. The directives have gone out to almost all of the fronts, and they will launch the offensive very soon."

"Well then, why did Stalin ask me to give my opinion?" growled Zhukov.

"I just don't know, old fellow," Shaposhnikov replied with a sigh, "I just don't know."

But both men did know: The meeting had been another of Stalin's charades, designed to key up the generals and remind them that he called the turns. As for Stalin's plan, no one present that night-not even Stalin himself-genuinely believed that the tide of battle could be turned that year, much less in a winter of desperate preemptive attacks . In fact, these attacks would fall far short of their objectives and make it considerably easier for the Germans to resume their offensive in the spring.

Yet the tide-turning battle on the Russian front the battle that Winston Churchill later called "the hinge of fate" on which World War II swung in the favor of the Allies-would indeed be fought in 1942, and in a place that on January 5 seemed quite safe from the Germans. The place was Stalin- grad on the Volga River, a modest industrial city then 300 miles behind the battle front.

At Stalingrad in August, the Russians and the Germans would clash in an apocalyptic battle that engaged upward of four million soldiers. Both sides suffered a total of 1 .5 million casualties, earning Stalingrad the grisly name of "Verdun on the Volga." And in the heat of that battle, the Red Army would be forged from scrap iron into steel.

Winter 1941-42 Soviet Offensive Part II

Stalin's offensive was scheduled to begin on January 10, so his commanders had precious little time for preparation. It made no real difference. The Red Army was still patently inferior to the Wehrmacht in almost every category, and since it was fighting on raw courage and sheer manpower (six million men in spite of all losses), it was as ready for battle now as it would be in the near future.

From top to bottom, the Red Army was disastrously short of able leaders. At the command level, this was in large part the bitter heritage of the Great Purge of the late 1930s, when Stalin, in an epic fit of paranoia at the Army's growing power and independence, executed or imprisoned more than 35,000 career officers of all ranks. Many of the senior officers who survived had better credentials as Stalin loyalists than as competent commanders.

Good, bad or indifferent, the officer corps was decimated during the early German victories, and the survivors were handicapped even more by the political commissar system, which saddled field commanders with coequal Communist Party watchdogs who were empowered to veto their orders even under combat conditions. Many a disobedient or faltering commander was shot on the spot by his commissar.

The enlisted ranks, too, were a shambles. The Red Army had suffered crippling early losses among the educated technicians and self-starting noncoms needed to make a modern army work. The great mass of men were still only sketchily trained; some could hardly operate their own personal weapons, which were in short supply as well. Most of the troops were peasants and workers from remote sections of the immense country. They had a natural tendency to flock together on the battlefield, which made them splendid targets. The Soviet soldiers were fond of quoting an old saying: "It is better to die in company, and Mother Russia has sons enough." When the Russians fought as individuals they ordinarily fought well, but soldiers they were not-at least not yet.

In the beginning, the Red Army's elemental response to its crushing defeats was to break down into a primitive form of military organization-the rifle brigade that numbered a few thousand infantrymen assembled from shattered units and thrown into battle under the command of recently promoted colonels and majors. Tactically, these scratch outfits were disastrous. One unit, for example, was not even able to support its few remaining tanks to exploit a local breakthrough; the soldiers just stood around watching the action, and when the tanks were knocked out because of the infantry's failure to silence the Germans' antitank guns, the men simply wandered off as if in a daze.

The only maneuver at which the riflemen excelled was the reckless, flat-out charge: In wave upon tragic wave, they ran straight ahead into German gunfire. The suicidal charge became an officially accepted tactic; men were spent as freely as ammunition in wearing down the Germans by massive attrition. A Soviet staff officer put it bluntly: "We have a superiority in potential manpower. We've got to translate that superiority into terms of slaughter. And that won't be too difficult. Russians have a contempt for death. If we can keep them armed, the Germans will leave their own corpses scattered all over the steppes."

In spite of all its deficiencies, the Red Army did have certain advantages for the winter offensive. As Stalin had remarked, the Germans were shaken by their failure to capture Moscow, and they were ill-prepared to face the cruel Russian winter, with its chest-high snowdrifts and temperatures that plunged as low as -50* F. The invasion had been cockily planned to end by autumn, and greatcoats and fur-lined boots had been ordered only for the 60 divisions expected to remain on occupation duty.

The rest of the Wehrmacht suffered horribly from frostbite, and to combat the cold the soldiers wore layered assortments of tablecloths, towels and whatever else they could find. They became "Winter Fritzes"-clown-like figures in the Soviet press. The Red Army forces were more warmly dressed, and they knew that winter was their ally.

Moreover, the Germans often went hungry; their supply lines were long, and food shipments had low priority. Even with meals before them, the numb-fingered soldiers found that eating was painful and frustrating. A hot meal would freeze before it could be consumed. A German officer reported that: "One man who was drawing his ration of boiling soup at a field kitchen could not find his spoon. It took him 30 seconds to find it, but by then the soup was lukewarm. He began to eat it as quickly as he could, without losing a moment's time, but already the soup was cold, and soon it would be solid."

Unknowingly, the Russians had another asset: Adolf Hitler. The Führer, cosseted in his Wolf's Lair headquarters in the Rastenburg forest of East Prussia, meddled in military affairs as persistently as Stalin did, though heretofore with better effect. Just as Stalin's command to stand fast had led to the enormous Soviet entrapments at Kiev and elsewhere, so Hitler in December had ordered most of his armies to hold at all cost-despite his generals' recommendation of a strategic retreat to consolidate their lines.

"The troops must dig their nails into the ground," Hitler had said. "They must dig in and not yield an inch." Above all, there was to be absolutely no retreat from Moscow. On this point the Führer was so rigid and splenetic that when General Heinz Guderian withdrew his 2nd Panzer Group a short distance southwest of Moscow, Hitler sacked his best panzer commander. Others had followed as the Führer settled his long-standing feud with the arrogant, opinionated Prussian officer corps. Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the Army, had resigned in ill health, and Hitler officially took over the vacated post, which in fact he had held for several months. To his generals Hitler bragged, "Anyone can do the little job of directing operations in the War."

The disposition of German forces on the Moscow front was fully as important as Hitler believed. Here the Wehrmacht was in greatest danger. And it was here that Stalin launched his first and strongest counterattack.

Winter 1941-42 Soviet Offensive Part III

The Moscow offensive persevered with the two-pronged attacks inaugurated by General Zhukov in December. To the north, two Soviet armies attacked toward Demyansk and three more armies attacked toward Belev to the south and east. These drives by 76 divisions quickly produced a large irregular bulge in the German lines and threatened to isolate the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev area. To the south of Moscow, even larger Soviet forces struck due west in the general direction of Smolensk, but here the going was tougher. Surrounded German units expertly formed circular hedgehog defenses to protect themselves against attack from any direction. They held their ground and kept busy Soviet units that otherwise could have advanced farther to the west and south.

Week after week, continuous fighting raged the length and breadth of the enormous Moscow front. The battles were particularly fierce in the north around Demyansk, Kholm and Staraya Russa; if Soviet forces broke through there, they might link up with armies that began attacking southward from the Leningrad sector on January 13. Red Army units did penetrate to the center of Staraya Russa, blowing up ammunition dumps and reducing the ancient trading post to rubble. But the German 2nd Corps, surrounded in a 20-by-40-mile hedgehog between Demyansk and Kholm, held out through a two-and-a-half-month siege with the aid of supplies flown in by the Luftwaffe.

Soviet forces, too, were surrounded in great swirling battles around Vyazma, in the center of the Moscow front between the two enormous pincers. The Germans cut off General P. A. Belov's cavalry corps and three divisions of the Thirty-third Army under Lieut. General M. G. Yefremov. For weeks the Russians hung on and fought back. Belov's horsemen finally sliced through to Soviet lines, but Yefremov and most of his men were blocked at every turn. Severely wounded and facing capture, Yefremov shot himself.

Elsewhere, the Soviet attacks fared poorly. The armies in the Leningrad sector failed to break through to the besieged city, and one army was surrounded on boggy terrain to the south. Far to the south of the Moscow front, Soviet forces did manage to drive a salient into the German lines near Izyum, but they could advance no farther and were left in a dangerously exposed position. At the extreme southern end of the front, Soviet forces attempted to relieve German pressure on besieged Sevastopol by making an amphibious assault on the nearby Kerch Peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea. The expedition proved to be a costly failure. The Sevastopol garrison attempted to break out of the encircling German lines, but it too came a cropper.

Nevertheless, Stalin stopped at nothing to keep his offensives going. He juggled his commanders and shifted whole armies about, sometimes for no apparent purpose. On the Moscow front, he deprived Zhukov of the First Shock Army just when the general needed it most, and only to place it in reserve. Zhukov objected vigorously, saying that he had earmarked that army for his attack toward Vyazma . "Don't protest," Stalin retorted. "Send it along. You have plenty of troops-just count them."

And so it was that, in late February, Stalin's much-vaunted general offensive ran out of steam and presently ground to a halt, just as reasonable Soviet officers had said it would on January 5. The Red Army had won isolated chunks of relatively unimportant terrain and had been gravely weakened in the process. General Zhukov indulged himself a dry recapitulation: "Stalin was very attentive to advice but, regrettably, sometimes took decisions not in accord with the situation." Yet the winter campaign had not been much of a victory for the Germans either. German casualties amounted to nearly 200,000 men, and only by dint of skilful and courageous fighting had Hitler's Wehrmacht been able to hold in roughly the same position that the generals had hoped to occupy in the strategic withdrawal forbidden by the Führer.

This fact, of course, escaped Hitler's notice. He heartily agreed with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who put out word that "the Führer alone saved the Eastern Front this winter." Goebbels noted credulously in his diary, "The Führer described to me how close we were to a Napoleonic winter. Had he weakened for one moment, the front would have caved in a catastrophe that would have put the Napoleonic disaster far into the shade.”