CONQUERING RUSSIA PROLOGUE
By the beginning of autumn 1941, Hitler believed that Russia was finished. Within three weeks of the opening of the campaign, Field Marshal von Bock's Army Group Centre, with thirty infantry divisions and fifteen panzer or motorized divisions, had pushed 450 miles from Bialistock to Smolensk. Moscow lay about 200 miles further east along the high road which Napoleon had taken 1812. To the north Field Marshal von Lebb's army group, twenty-one infantry and six armoured division strong, was moving rapidly up through the Baltic States toward Leningrad. To the south Field Marshal von Rundstedt's army group of twenty-five infantry, four motorised, four mountain and five panzer divisions was advancing toward the Dnieper River and Kiew, the capital of the fertile Ukraine, which Hitler coveted.
So planmäßig (according to plan), as the OKW puts it, was the German progress along a thousand mile front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and so confident was the Nazi dictator that it would continue at an accelerated pace as one Soviet army after another was surrounded or dispersed, that on July 14, a bare three weeks after the invasion had begun, he issued a directive advising that the strength of the Army could be 'considerably reduced in the near future' and that armament production would be concentrated on naval ships and Luftwaffe planes, especially the latter, for the conduct of the war against the last remaining enemy, Britain, and, he added, 'against America should the case arise'. BY the end of September he instructed the high Command to prepare to disband forty divisions so that this additional manpower could be utilized by industry.
Russia's two greatest cities, Leningrad, which Peter the Great had built as the capital on the Baltic and Moscow, the ancient and now Bolshevik capital, seemed to Hitler about to fall. On September 18 he issued strict orders: 'A capitulation of Leningrad or Moscow is not to be accepted, even when offered'. What was to happen to them he made clear to his commanders in a directive of September 29:
"the Führer has decided to have St. Petersburg (Leningrad) wiped off the face of the earth. The further existence of this large city is of no interest once Soviet Russia is overthrown...The intention is to close in on the city and raze it to the ground by artillery and continuous attack...Requests that the city be taken over will be turned down, for the problem of the survival of the population and of supplying it with food is one which cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for existence we have no interest in keeping even part of this great city population. [A few weeks later Göring told Ciano. 'This year between twenty and thirty million persons will die of hunger in Russia. But even if it were not, nothing can be done, certain nations must be decimated. It is obvious that humanity is condemned to die of hunger, the last to die will be our two peoples...In the camps for Russian prisoners they have begun to eat each other".(Ciano's Diplomatic Papers pp 464-65), sic]
That same week, on October 3, Hitler returned to Berlin and in an address to the German people proclaimed the collapse of the Soviet Union. 'I declare today, and I declare it without any reservation'. he said, ' that the enemy in the East has been struck down and will never rise again...Behind our troops there already lies a territory twice the size of the German Reich when I came to power in 1933'. When on October 8, Orel, a key city south of Moscow fell, Hitler sent his press chief, Otto Dietrich, flying back to Berlin, to tell the correspondents of the world's leading newspapers there the next day that the last intact Soviet armies, those of Marshal Timoshenko, defending Moscow, were locked in two steel German pockets before the capital, that the southern army of Marshal Budenmy were routed and dispersed, and that sixty to seventy divisions of Marshal Voroshilov's army were surrounded in Leningrad. For all military purposes', Dietrich concluded smugly, 'Soviet Russia is done with. The British dream of a two-front war was dead'. These public boasts of Hitler and Dietrich were, to say the least, premature. In reality the Russians, despite the surprise with which they were taken on June 22, their subsequent heavy losses in men and equipment, their rapid withdrawal and the entrapment of some of their best armies, had begun in July to put up a mounting resistance such as the Wehrmacht had never encountered before. Halder' diary and the reports of such front line commanders as General Guderian, who led a large panzer group on he central front, began to be peppered, and then laden, with accounts of server fighting, desperate Russian stands and counter-attacks and heavy casualties to German as well as Soviet troops.
|December 1941. Soviet troops in winter gear, supported by tanks, counter-attack German forces.|
Seveal generals, Guderian, Blumentritt and Sepp Dietrich among them, have left reports expressing astonishment at their first encounter with the Russian T-34 tank, of which they had not previously heard and which was so heavily armoured that the shells from German anti-tank guns bounced harmlessly off it. The appearance of this panzer, Blumentritt said later, marked the beginning of what came to be called the 'tank terror'. Also for the first time in the war, the Germans did not have the benefit of overwhelming superiority in he air to protect their ground troops and scout ahead. Despite the heavy losses on the ground in the first day of the campaign and in early combat, Soviet fighter planes kept appearing, like he fresh divisions, out of nowhere. Moreover, the swiftness of the German advance and the lack of suitable airfields in Russia left the German fighter base too far back to provide effective cover at the front. "At several stages in the advance", General von Kleist later reported, "my panzer forces were handicapped through lack of cover overhead". There was another German miscalculation about the Russians which Kleist mentioned to Liddell Hart which, of course, was shared by most of the other peoples of the West that summer: "Hopes of victory", Kleist said, "were largely built on the prospect that the invasion would produce a political upheaval in Russia... Too high hopes were built on the belief that Stalin would be overthrown by his own people if he suffered heavy defeats. The belief was fostered by the Führer's political advisers.
Indeed Hitler told Jodl. "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down".
|T-34 Russian Tank'. The USSR was able to produce T-34s in a seemingly endless stream. Between 1940 and 1945 some 40,000 T-34 tanks were manufactured.|
But there was a final conclusive argument which the Generals advanced to the former corporal who was now their Supreme Commander. All their intelligence reports showed that the main Russian forces were now being concentrated before Moscow for an all-out defence of the capital. Just east of Smolensk a Soviet army of half a million men, which had extricated itself from Bock's double envelopment, was digging in to bar further German progress toward the capital.
|German sources described the gloomy looking officer at the right as a captured Russian colonel who is being interrogated by Nazi officers on October 24, 1941'|
'The proposals of the Army for the continuation of the operation in the East do not accord with my intentions. The most important objective to attain before the onset of winter is not the capture of Moscow but taking the Crimea, the industrial and coal-mining areas of the Donets basin and cutting off of Russian oil supplies from the Caucasus. In he north it is the locking up of Leningrad and the union with the Finns'.
|Adolf Hitler, centre, studies a Russian war map with General Field Marshal Walter Von Brauchitsch, left, German commander in chief, and Chief of Staff Col. General Franz Halder, on August 7, 1941'|
"Unbearable! Unheard of! The limit!' Halder snorted in his diary the next day. He conferred all afternoon ans evining with Field Marshall von Brauchitsch about the Führer's "inadmissible" mixing into the business of the Army High Command and General Staff, finally proposing that the head of the Army and he himself resign their posts. "Brauchitsch refused", Halder noted, "because it wouldn't be practical and change nothing". The gutless Field Marshall had already, as on so many other occasions, capitulated to the one-time corporal. When General Guderian arrived at the Führer's headquarters the next day, August 23, and was egged on by Halder to try to talk Hitler out of this disastrous decision, though the hard bitten panzer leader needed no urging, he was met by Brauchitsch. "I forbid you", the Army Commander in Chief said, "to mention the question of Moscow to the Führer. The operation south has been ordered. The problem now simply how it is carried out. Discussion is pointless".
Hitler let me speak to the end (Guderian later wrote). He then described in detail the considerations which had led him to make a different decision. He said that the raw materials and agriculture of the Ukraine were vitally necessary for the future prosecution of the war. He spoke of the need of neutralizing the Crimea, "the Soviet aircraft carrier for attacking the Rumanian oil fields". For the first time I heard him use the phrase: "My generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war"...He had given strict orders that the attack on Kiew was to be the immediate strategic objective and all actions were to be carried out with that in mind. I here saw for the first time a spectacle with which I was later to become very familiar: all those present, Keitel, Jodl and others, nodded in agreement with every sentence that Hitler uttered, while I was left alone with my point of view....
|With a burning bridge across the Dnieper river in the background, a German sentry keeps watch in the recently-captured city of Kiev, in 1941|
Continued under Part 2