Barbarossa 1941 – USSR Invaded 75th Anniversary Series [Part Four]

July 11, 2016 by crew

Welcome back once again, Beasts of War, to our commemorative wargaming explorations of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. This assault, the biggest in history at the time, ignited what is known today as “the Eastern Front,” by far the largest part of the Second World War.

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So far we’ve seen…

  • Part One: The opening invasion and first Soviet counterattacks
  • Part Two: The Battle of Dubno and crossing the Dniepr River
  • Part Three: Northern operations and the massive Battle of Kiev

But now the autumn rains have set in and the German advance, all but unstoppable until now, finally seems to be stumbling. Stiffening Soviet resistance and a bewildering lack of focus the German operational plan aren’t helping matters. Technically, Operation Barbarossa has already failed, but a new assault is already brewing.

The Hungarian Fast Corps

October, 1941

As mentioned in previous articles, the Germans had plenty of allies when they invaded the Soviet Union. Another of these was the Royal Hungarian Army, which contributed a 40,000-strong “Carpathian Group” (spearheaded by the semi-armoured motorized “Rapid Corps”) to Army Group South.

This Hungarian Rapid Corps achieved notable success during the encirclement of Uman in July and the Battle of Nikopol in August. However, losses were always severe. Part of the reason is (to put it cynically) that the Germans considered such “allied” units to be expendable, and they were poorly equipped compared to German formations.

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One of Hungarian Rapid Corps’ more celebrated moments came after the Battle of Kiev, when the German 17th Army was advancing toward the Donets River. Despite being battered down to just six battalions, the Hungarian Fast Corps (part of 17th Army) was ordered to break through a strong section of the Soviet line held near Pobjeda.

However, the Hungarians outflanked the Soviets (instead of driving straight through) and hit the Soviet 270th Rifle Division from the side. After a hard-fought but successful battle, the Hungarians destabilized Soviet defences enough to let the 17th Army mount a breakthrough toward the key cities of Voroshilovgrad and Izyum.

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In November, the battered and exhausted Rapid Corps would fight two more bitter engagements just south of Izyum until the Germans finally took the city and secured a bridgehead over the Donets River. By this point, however, the Rapid Corps had lost thousands of casualties and almost all their vehicles, and were withdrawn in early December.

The Typhoon Strikes

Mtensk – October 2nd, 1941

With Leningrad now under siege in the north and Kiev fallen in the south, the invaders finally shifted their attention back on the central prize: Moscow. Technically speaking, Operation Barbarossa was over. A new invasion plan had been drawn up for what the Germans hoped would be the final effort in the east: Operation Typhoon.

If successful, this assault could end the campaign in Russia. If Russia has to sue for peace, with the US still neutral and Great Britain hanging by a thread, Germany just MIGHT win the whole war right here. If you want an operation where the total outcome of the World War II could really have swung Germany’s way, it’s this one.

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The main push of Operation Typhoon opened on October 2th, 1941. Even considering the firepower available to these reorganized German armies, the attack met with stunning initial success. The heaviest blow came right up the Smolensk-Moscow highway, where the Soviets had fortified a massive new line of defence near the town of Vyazma.

The result, however, was all too familiar. The panzer groups carved out yet another series of vast encirclements, and within weeks the bulk of seven Soviet armies … SEVEN … were lost in or around of Vyazma. Almost 700,000 more men were gone, and the road to Moscow was torn open yet again.

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To the south, meanwhile, Guderian’s newly reorganized “Second Panzer Army” (formerly Panzer Group II) had opened its own offensive. The idea was to outflank the main Soviet defences centred on Vyazma, drive through Orel and Tula, and eventually approach Moscow from the south.

At first Guderian did very well, his lead units took the city of Orel so fast that Soviet authorities didn’t have time to cut electrical power. However, he was about to hit a very serious obstacle in the form of the “1st Special Guards Rifle Corps” … a new type of unit that slammed the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions to a dead halt near the town of Mtensk.

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The 1st Special Guards Rifle Corps is a tough unit to research, since it only existed for about ten days. Incorporating the new Soviet tank brigades and more T-34s and KV-1s, the unit possessed much greater operational speed and effectiveness than the old bulky “tank divisions” loaded with old models. Despite it all, the Soviets were learning.

One of the key units of the 1st Special Guards Rifle Corps was the 4th Tank Brigade, commanded by a man destined to become of the truly great tank generals of World War II. This was Mikhail E. Katukov, who’d be leading earth-shaking armour battles from the first week of Barbarossa though the last shots fired in Berlin.

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Since his first taste of combat at the nightmarish Battle of Dubno and the bitter retreat across the Ukraine, Katukov had been developing new tank tactics and training his officers to apply them. These involved concealed firing positions, dummy firing points, secondary fighting positions, prepared lines of phased retreat.

Many of these ideas may sound “simple” or “basic.” Just remember the Red Army’s officer corps had been gutted by Stalin before the war, and those that survived had mostly been killed by the Germans. Katukov was one of the few who was re-inventing the Red Army from the ground up, and in the heat of apocalyptic combat, no less.

Still, Katukov (and the rest of the Red Army) had a long way to go. Shaking off the setback on October 6, the panzers struck again on October 9. They cracked the Soviet line, and what remained of Katukov’s brigade fell back with other units across the Zusha River over a damaged rail bridge in the middle of the night, still under German fire.

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The Germans, however, had already run out of time. The first snows fell on October 7th. Their spearheads, having advanced 200 miles in the first week, advanced only 20 miles in the second week. Guderian himself would grumble in his memoirs that Mtensk saw a marked improvement in Soviet tactics, equipment, and operational planning.

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Katukov, meanwhile, would receive the Order of Lenin for his fighting around Mtensk, and his 4th Tank Brigade would become the 1st GUARDS Tank Brigade on November 11. On that same day, Katukov was promoted to Major-General, and was well on his way to becoming one of the great Red Army tank commanders of World War II.

Napoleon’s Battlefield

Borodino – October 16th, 1941

Many people like to draw comparisons between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion of 1941. Few people realize just how similar these invasions actually were in places. One 1941 battle unfolded on the exact field as one of 1812’s bloodiest battles, the eerie coincidence not lost on the men or commanders who were there.

Earlier in this article, we discussed the cataclysmic Battle of Vyazma. The bulk of seven Soviet armies were chopped up into a series of pockets that collectively cost them even more than the disaster at Kiev. For the first time in the war, Germans forces actually outnumbered the Red Army.

While these pockets were being reduced, the German XL Motorized Corps (including the SS “Das Reich” division and Vichy French volunteers) were among the spearheads racing eastward to exploit the breach. But they met fierce resistance at the historic battlefield of Borodino, where Russia’s fate had been decided against the French in 1812.

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Needless to say, the Soviets were scratching together a new defence in the wake of Vyazma. This would be the “Mozhaisk Line,” centred just 60 miles from the heart of Moscow. After advancing some 600 miles so far (almost a thousand kilometres), one can understand how the Germans assumed their invasion of Russia was all but won.

First to hit the Mozhaisk Line (at Borodino) was the aforementioned XL Motorized Corps, which included elements of the 10th Panzer Division and the Waffen SS “Das Reich” Motorized Division. Although some of the best troops in the German war machine, these units were also badly worn out and understrength after four months of combat.

Also present were thousands of Vichy French volunteers of the “Légion des Volontaires Français,” or LVF (attached to German 7th Infantry). Like many of Germany’s “allies,” many of these men genuinely feared the threat of Soviet Bolshevism. Others simply preferred military service to the conscript labour they faced back in occupied France.

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Standing in their way was the newly-arrived 32nd “Red Banner” Rifle Division. Unlike many in the Red Army, these men were victorious veterans of wars in Mongolia against the Japanese in 1938 and 1939 (where they’d earned their Red Banner status). Now they’d meet the Axis on the exact field where Kutuzov had met Napoleon back in 1812.

The symbolism was lost on no one. Field-Marshal von Kluge spoke to the men of the LVF, reminding them that Germans and French had fought together against the Russians on this very field 129 years ago. Meanwhile, the Soviets staged 32nd Red Banner Division’s HQ on the exact spot of Kutuzov’s headquarters.

Suffice it to say that history repeated itself in full, bloody fury. The advance of XL Motorized Corps came to an abrupt and impolite halt, and they would gain just 30 more miles in the next two weeks. But that also meant that Germans were now just 30 miles from Moscow, when the full freezing force of the Russian winter finally struck …

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Hopefully it’s clear that by this point, the campaign in Russia was truly coming down to the wire. THIS was the point where the outcome of World War II hung in the greatest doubt. If the Soviets had been forced to sue for a separate peace, even a temporary one, all the potential trajectories for the rest of the war come into grave, grave question.

Please come back next week as we conclude this 75th Anniversary commemorative article series on the invasion of the Soviet Union. This is one of history’s true turning points, so don’t miss it! Meanwhile, please feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments below, and give us your take on this pivotal campaign of World War II.

By James Johnson

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"After a hard-fought but successful battle, the Hungarians destabilized Soviet defences enough to let the 17th Army mount a breakthrough toward the key cities of Voroshilovgrad and Izyum..."

"...for the first time in the war, Germans forces actually outnumbered the Red Army"