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

July 18, 2016 by crew

Well, Beasts of war, after five months of campaigning, 1.6 million square kilometres miles of conquered territory, and 6.8 million total casualties, we’re finally here. At last we come to the bloody conclusion of our commemorative article series on Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.

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

So far we’ve seen…

  • Part One: The opening invasion and first Soviet counterattacks
  • Part Two: The Battle of Dubno and the crossing of the Dniepr River
  • Part Three: Operations in the north of Russia and the massive Battle of Kiev
  • Part Four: Operation Typhoon and the last push toward Moscow

By late November, the Germans are exhausted, freezing, starving, and bled white. Some panzer divisions are down to five tanks. Yet some units are within artillery range of Red Square.

barfinalA

Others claim they can SEE the spires of the Kremlin through high-powered binoculars. Can the Germans mount that last decisive push? Or is it already too late?

Guderian Halted At Kashira

November, 1941

It’s a common misconception that the German advance toward Moscow (Operation Typhoon) was halted by the Russian winter. At least initially, the winter freezes were a godsend to German mechanized forces struggling toward the Kremlin. After all, freezing temperatures hardened the autumn mud … and once again the panzers were mobile.

As we saw in part four, part of Operation Typhoon was mounted by General Guderian’s Second Panzer Army. Pushing past the city of Tula, Guderian turned to approach Moscow from the south. This put the Soviets in an operational dilemma, forcing them to choose which approach to Moscow they’d defend, and which they’d have to leave open.

barfinalB

There was just one problem. Tula didn’t fall. Rather than blitz through the city, Guderian was now grinding PAST it, losing momentum with every step. Finally, just when the Germans ran out of fuel, supplies, reserves, and endurance, the Soviets hit them with a shattering counterattack near the town of Kashira on November 27th.

Of course, the commander of Red Army forces in front of Moscow, the incomparable Georgi Zhukov, didn’t have much to work with. His reserves were extremely thin. Over six million Soviet troops had been killed, wounded, or captured since the outset of Barbarossa, and contrary to popular belief, Soviet manpower was not bottomless.

Scarce as they were, the bulk of Soviet reserves were being hoarded for a decisive showdown further north, where Panzer Groups III and IV had drawn much closer to Moscow. So to meet Guderian’s push from the south, Zhukov was beyond scraping the bottom of the barrel. He was digging into the ground on which the barrel sits.

Accordingly, Zhukov cobbled together assorted artillery, engineer, and tank units … filling in the ranks with reserve, training, and even “penal” units. Together these were attached to Major-General P. A. Belov’s 2nd Cavalry Corps, earmarked for the desperate assault.

barfinalC

These units included half the 112th Tank Division, the 9th Tank Brigade, artillery and engineers detached from 173rd Rifle Division, a “Guards Mortar” regiment of Katyushas, and a scattering of smaller independent tank, militia, and training units. Together this patchwork force was rather euphemistically re-titled the “1st Guards Cavalry Corps.”

This “guards” title was practically a military eulogy delivered in advance, because the very NEXT day these men were hurled against the half-frozen remnants of the 17th Panzer Division (XXIV Panzer Corps) at Kashira. Zhukov’s exact orders to Belov were: “Restore the situation at any cost.”

The blow hit Guderian’s frazzled spearhead on November 27th. With the Germans so weak, the attack delivered a scorched, blood-splattered victory to the Soviets. Losses were still high, but the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps drove 17th Panzer back sixteen miles and forever closed the door on German hopes for taking Moscow from the south.

barfinalD

The counter-strike at Kashira did more than just smash the easternmost penetration by German forces in 1941. Despite what had seemed to be a crippling lack of equipment and reserves, the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps had won a clean victory for the Soviets, and did wonders for their morale.

The Red Army had also proven that tanks and cavalry (yes, CAVALRY) could work together on the Eastern Front with stunning effectiveness. Such “cavalry-mechanized groups” would score repeated successes against the Germans well into 1945. This was also one of the first documented uses of Red Army “tank rider” infantry.

barfinalE

Needless to say, XXIV Panzer Corps, and by extension the Second Panzer Army, was getting nowhere near Moscow. Guderian’s exhausted drive across the Russian steppe was decisively halted, never coming within ninety miles of the Soviet capital. Yet even now, the final outcome for the Battle of Moscow was being decided to the north.

Bridge at Khimki

December 2nd, 1941

So just how close did the Germans really come to reaching Moscow? Well, the answer is predictably complex, but this is the question we explored with the next wargame in our series. We come to a bridge at a town called Khimki, less than 11.5 miles (18.5 km) from the very heart of Moscow.

While Guderian was being repulsed to the south at places like Tula and Kashira, in the north the Germans had drawn much closer to Moscow. With the Fourth Army approaching from the west and Panzer Groups III and IV pushing down from the northwest, some of these spearheads got terrifying close to the Soviet capital.

barfinalF

The closest CONFIRMED location was held by 2nd Panzer Division, at a town called Krasnaya Polyana (Red Glade). From the church steeples, troops swore they could see the “golden spires” of the Kremlin through high-powered binoculars.

Okay, this report is a little suspect, since the Kremlin had been covered in camouflage netting against German air attack. But the fact remains that the Germans were very near to the Soviet capital. In fact, if 2nd Panzer had been equipped with the long-ranged, corps-level 17.0 cm artillery, they could have easily started shelling Red Square.

barfinalG

It’s quite possible, however, that some elements of 2nd Panzer got even closer. As the Soviet line stretched, bent, and buckled in an effort not to snap under German pressure, this part of the perimeter (almost ten kilometres long) was held only by an understrength Russian rifle brigade and a tank battalion. That’s extremely thin.

Under such conditions, it’s very easy to imagine German reconnaissance elements sneaking through and penetrating seven kilometres to a railroad bridge over the Moscow-Volga canal, which is exactly what many accounts say happened at Khimki on December 2nd, 1941.

Here, the German recon force (motorcycle infantry and maybe some halftracks and light armoured cars) ran into a Soviet screening force (28th Rifle Brigade, 135th Separate Tank Battalion, both part of Soviet 20th Army). Fire was exchanged, by all accounts the Germans got the worst of it, and the survivors withdrew.

barfinalH

To this day, a memorial stands on the spot recognized as the closest German forces ever came to Moscow. That said, Khimki doesn’t really represent the front line of a German panzer division, or the “official perimeter” of 2nd Panzer Division, the XLVI Panzer Corps, or Panzer Group IV.

No matter where one draws the line, what’s beyond debate is that the German advance had literally frozen in place. They’d covered a thousand kilometres and come within visual sight of Moscow. But they’d go no further. By the narrowest of possible margins, the largest military operation yet mounted in the history of warfare … had failed.

barfinalI

To put it simply, the Germans had pushed too hard, too long, too far. Still in summer uniforms, and without supplies or even adequate lubricants in their engines and artillery – Operation Typhoon fell apart, froze solid, and bled to death on the white Russian steppe. And if all this weren’t bad enough, the Soviets were finally ready to strike back.

Counterstrike!

December 5th, 1941

At last, the moment has come. Even as German spearheads belly-crawl within sight of Moscow, Georgi Zhukov has been carefully hoarding his reserves, including over thirty crack rifle divisions released from Siberia.

Grimly Zhukov has ignored pleas for help from the front, where Red Army units are splintering under remorseless German pressure. He is determined not to fritter away his reserves, but only release them when he has enough operational combat power to make a decisive difference.

Finally, on December 5th, Zhukov can wait no longer. His front line truly begins to disintegrate. Zhukov’s Moscow forces will never be stronger, the Germans will never be weaker. Only now does Zhukov finally release the storm gathered in his fist. The outcome of World War II changes upon this moment.

barfinalJ

Overall, Zhukov’s plan is simple. In the centre, two armies will attack the German Fourth Army in front of Moscow and hold it in place. Six more armies will hit Guderian in the south, while seven MORE armies will hit Panzer Groups III and IV in the north, along with the German Ninth Army.

Once the Soviets break through on these wings, mechanized forces will rush through the gaps and converge at Vyazma, 150 kilometres behind the Germans, thus encircling all of Army Group Centre. Such is the plan, anyway. Whether the Red Army can conduct a manoeuvre of such operational depth remains to be seen.

Zhukov gives the order on the dark, misty, and snow-shrouded morning of Friday, December 5th, 1941. One after another, Soviet armies roll out a phased attack until the battlefield is in fiery, violent motion across 650 kilometres of front. That’s longer than England, the approximate distance between Hastings and Edinburgh.

barfinalK

The Germans, quite simply, are shattered. Their last hopes are hung on the sad assumption that the Soviets have committed the very last of their reserves. They are freezing, starving, unable to move and sometimes even to fire. Struck with a blow of this magnitude, their lines crumble and evaporate.

German generals begin pulling back when and where they could, prompting the predictable screaming fits from Hitler. But too many generals simply have no choice. From hilltop to river to town, the Germans fall back to successive defensive strongpoints and fight with grim determination to hold back the immense Soviet tide.

barfinalL

Of course, this Soviet counterattack didn’t accomplish all its objectives. Although it lost tremendous casualties, equipment, and territory, Army Group Centre was not encircled. Still tactically superior, the Germans were able to parry, cut off, and annihilate some of these over-ambitious Soviet spearheads. This war was just getting started.

The Aftermath

In the end, the Moscow counter-offensive delivered for the Soviets what they needed most at the moment: survival. Moscow would NOT fall, the Red Army would NOT die, and the Soviets would survive unto 1942 and beyond. Hitler would fire no less than thirty generals over the debacle, including “Schnelle Heinz” Guderian.

The Germans, however, were going nowhere. Rhzev, Voronezh, Stalingrad, Khar’kov, Kursk, the Dniepr Bend, Leningrad, Cherkassy, Bagration, Berlin … countless more battles remained to be fought over the next three and a half years before final victory could be declared in what the Soviets would forever call “The Great Patriotic War.”

A Thank You!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank @brennon and @lancorz for all the support they provide in publishing these articles, and @dignity and @johnlyons for the great interview when the series kicked off. And of course special thanks to @warzan for letting me ramble on so long about these historical topics on the site.

Most of all, I’d like to thank all of you, the supportive readers in the community who continue to welcome and support these article publications. Please add your comments below and keep the conversation going, and watch for a supporting forum thread with additional material and more detailed battle reports from the gaming table.

By James Johnson

If you have an article that you’d like to write for Beasts Of War then you con get in contact with us at ben@beastsofwar.com to find out more!

"So just how close did the Germans really come to reaching Moscow? Well, the answer is predictably complex..."

"Moscow would NOT fall, the Red Army would NOT die, and the Soviets would survive unto 1942 and beyond..."