Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Retreat from Moscow

A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942

David Stahel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

INTRODUCTION


Germany’s winter campaign of 1941–1942 has commonly been seen as the “first defeat” of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. Indeed, two of the most recent books about the fighting near Moscow by Robert Forczyk (2006) and Michael Jones (2009) both share the subtitle Hitler’s First Defeat.1 The most thorough and comprehensive study of the period is actually an earlier work by Klaus Reinhardt, whose pioneering study has remained the standard work in spite of being first published in 1972.2 Rejecting the accepted view, which saw Stalingrad or Kursk as the classic turning points of Germany’s war, Reinhardt was among the first to argue that the battle of Moscow, especially in the winter of 1941–1942, constituted the decisive event of the war, which represented, as his subtitle claimed, “the failure of Hitler’s strategy.”

For those not familiar with my former studies of German operations in the east, the fighting at Moscow will not be portrayed in this book as Hitler’s “first defeat,” nor even the turning point of the war, because I argue that both already took place in the summer of 1941. Such a proposition may strike some as counterintuitive given that, at the most basic level, the story of Germany’s summer campaign is typically characterized by fast-moving panzer groups, calamitous cauldron battles, and staggering sums of Red Army losses. Perhaps even more conclusive is the fact that, at the end of it all, Hitler’s armies stood deep inside the Soviet Union, ultimately threatening Leningrad, Moscow, and Sevastopol. The logic here appears simple: Germany’s first defeat, whenever that might have been, certainly could not have come before the first winter of the war.

The problem with this logic is that it separates German operations from their strategic context. Battles do not exist in a vacuum, and they should not be seen as ends in themselves. The sheer accumulation of battlefield “victories” in 1941 clearly did not suffice to knock the Soviet Union out of the war, and it was this failure that ultimately proved so ruinous to Germany’s prospects. Heavily restricted access to raw materials, critical production bottlenecks, and bitter policy debates governing the allocation of resources to the armed forces were fundamental to the outcome of a large-scale industrialized war. Indeed, it was Germany’s grim long-term economic prospects that first directed Hitler’s attention toward an eastern campaign, but embarking on it came with huge risks.3 Either Hitler would secure his long-prophesied Lebensraum (living space) in the east and ensure limitless access to almost any resource Germany might require in its war against Great Britain, or the Wehrmacht’s air and sea war in the west would be disastrously undercut by a parallel, high-intensity land war in the east. Thus, it was absolutely essential for Germany to end any prospective war against the Soviet Union as quickly and as decisively as possible—there was simply no economic or military contingency for anything else.4 Under these circumstances, some authors have attempted to argue Germany’s dominance by pointing to the far greater problems in the Red Army during the summer campaign. Yet the contexts for the two forces were entirely different; the Wehrmacht had to win outright at all costs, while the Red Army had only to survive as a force in being.

What made German operations in the course of 1941 so important to the war’s ultimate outcome was not just their failure to secure Hitler’s all-important victory, but the cost of so many battles to the Wehrmacht’s panzer groups. In its ruthless pursuit of victory, the German Ostheer (eastern army) became a very blunt instrument, and there was simply no way of reconstituting this offensive power without a very long period of inactivity that the unrelenting warfare in the east would never permit. As the chief of the Army General Staff, Colonel-General Franz Halder, acknowledged in his diary on November 23: “An army, like that of June 1941, will henceforth no longer be available to us.”5 Accordingly, the summer and fall of 1941 saw the Wehrmacht achieve stunning successes, but from a strategic point of view it failed to do the one thing that really mattered—defeat the Soviet Union before its vital panzer groups were blunted. Once Operation Barbarossa (the code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union) passed from being a blitzkrieg to a slogging war of matériel, which was already the case by the end of the summer, large-scale economic deficiencies spelled eventual doom for the Nazi state.

If Germany suffered its first and most significant setback in the summer of 1941, what then is the relevance of studying the 1941–1942 winter campaign? Is it simply one of the many stepping-stones in the long decline of Nazi Germany or is there something unique about this period? Indeed, if we no longer consider it Germany’s first defeat, then what kind of defeat was it? If battles need to be placed in a larger context to ascertain their significance, we should not assume that Germany’s winter retreat, any more than its summer advance, is the only indicator of “success,” or in this case “defeat.” If the war in the east was, since the end of the first summer, a battle of attrition, then the relative cost of German and Soviet operations determined their worth, and the outcome of any single encounter cannot be decided simply by asking who held the field at the end of the day. In the vast expanses of the east, ground mattered far less than resources, but both the Nazi and Soviet regimes struggled to understand this. Moreover, because of their shared obsession with prestige as well as their grandiloquent ideological worldviews, surrendering ground, even for a tactical/operational advantage, was consistently viewed as defeatist and cowardly. By the same token, offensive operations were consistently pursued by both sides to the detriment of the attacking forces, which were routinely overextended, lacked adequate supply, and became exposed to enemy counterattack.

By the beginning of December 1941 conditions at the front saw both armies suffering frightful shortages and living in desperate conditions across most of the line. Inevitably therefore the strategic calculus for the success of any operation was how much damage it could inflict upon the enemy and, by the same token, what the corresponding cost of that operation would necessitate. With armies stretched, resources typically inadequate, and mobility for most units limited, avoiding wasteful operations was more significant than the alternative of doing nothing at all. Yet for both the German and Soviet high commands there was little appreciation of this. Time and again positions were to be seized or defended “at any cost,” while success was measured by the acquisition of a set objective and not the sacrifices it entailed.6 While this remains a by-product of the inexorably ideological nature of the Nazi/Soviet view of war, it should not be accepted as our own standard for determining the value of events. Clearly, the ends did not always justify the means, so we should not simply assume that the most basic indicator of military success—seizing ground from the enemy—was in every instance vindicated.

In 1941 one of the central problems for the Red Army and the Wehrmacht was the lack of alignment between operational planning and strategic reality. Both sides were attempting far too much and expecting more of their forces than they could ever hope to deliver. During Operation Barbarossa, the Ostheer leadership pursued its advance with an almost obsessive determination, oblivious to the exhaustion of their men and the debilitating matériel losses within their mobile formations. This led directly to the dangerous position the Germans found themselves in near Moscow on December 5 when the first Soviet counterattacks began. Initially the Red Army’s offensive capitalized on the overextension of the central part of the German front, where multiple armies, under the direction of Army Group Center, were left dangerously exposed. Soviet success was also aided by the Wehrmacht’s unpreparedness for the cold, but each new Soviet advance encouraged ever more ambitious thinking until soon Stalin and the Stavka (the Soviet high command) were themselves undermining their own potential to strike a major blow.

Making matters worse, the Red Army on the offensive was in no way comparable to the Wehrmacht in 1941. Its hard-won professionalism, training, and experience enabled the German army to cope much better with excessive expectations than could the fledgling Red Army, whose ill-prepared officer corps was barely able to handle the more passive demands of defensive warfare, much less the skills required for a major offensive. Little experience in conducting forward operations and far too few qualified staff officers made functional command and control haphazard at best, leading in many instances to the infantry attacking in isolation without the support of heavy weapons or coordinated movements. A remarkable number of Soviet officers did not even attempt to “soften up” German positions and simply charged the enemy lines in senseless massed attacks. The German records are replete with such examples, and not surprisingly, soon after the offensive began, Soviet orders appeared expressly forbidding these kinds of wasteful charges.

On the other side, December 5 represented the exhaustion of Army Group Center’s own offensive and, at long last, the concentration of remaining resources on the much-neglected defense. While this counted for little in the immediate situation, over time remaining on the defensive wherever possible acted to conserve strength, while fieldworks such as bunkers or fortified villages acted as important force multipliers,7 which in a resource-poor environment greatly aided German forces. Where the front could no longer be held, retreat bought the German armies precious time and allowed them to fall back on their supply lines. This functioned remarkably well for the first two weeks of the offensive until Hitler’s halt order, which forbade any withdrawal unless approved by himself, came into effect. Hitler’s grasp of military principles was heavily colored by ideological precepts that undercut Germany’s defensive war just as Soviet forces were themselves being driven to excess. In this instance, the halt order was Hitler’s blanket solution that immensely complicated Army Group Center’s response.

Far from being the critical element that stiffened the backbone of the German army, Hitler’s halt order was a military disaster, which took no account of local circumstances and proved deeply unpopular among Army Group Center’s hard-pressed commanders. It assumed that the only requirement for holding a position was the requisite “will” to resist, which immediately cast doubt on any commander’s request for a retreat. Just how deeply the generals at the front resented the imposition of Hitler’s new order is one of the revelations of this study, which will demonstrate an orchestrated pattern of coordinated defiance that goes well beyond anything previously understood about the period. The oft-cited postwar claim, even by some former German officers, that the halt order somehow constituted “an immoveable barrier preventing … [the army] from pouring back in wild retreat” could not be further from the truth.8 From the commander of Army Group Center down, the halt order was typically viewed, like the Red Army, as something to be staunchly opposed and carefully outmaneuvered. Occasionally, this opposition was openly flaunted to the detriment of the protagonist, but more often than not it was carefully “managed” behind the scenes, so that the army high command and Hitler could not oppose what they did not know about—and there was a lot they did not know about.

Such bold “initiative” at the front reflects the fact that the German army’s hallmark system of “mission-oriented tactics” (Auftragstaktik), which historians have previously determined ended, or at the very least was seriously curtailed, from the first winter of the war in the east, was in fact alive and well.9 Commanders operated on their own terms to preserve their forces (and sometimes their own lives) by taking steps that purposely defied Hitler. This was not an act of resistance toward Hitler or his regime; it was motivated by self-preservation and professional instinct, which acted in the service of Nazi Germany, not in opposition to it. The army’s unadulterated support for Hitler and his war aims in the east was never in question, even when the dictator openly spoke of the coming war requiring a ruthless “war of annihilation.”10

The real crisis period of the German winter campaign extended from mid-December to mid-January, when Hitler finally relaxed his halt order and allowed three German armies a last-minute withdrawal. Yet even in this period of strategic crisis, the Red Army operated as an unwieldy, blunt instrument smashing itself relentlessly against the German lines. In places this saw German positions being overrun and tactical breakthroughs of the line, but these were the exceptions, not the rule, and the cost to the Red Army was staggering.

This study will consider all six of Army Group Center’s constituent armies (Ninth, Third Panzer, Fourth Panzer, Fourth, Second Panzer, and Second) to present a complete picture of events, rather than one that simply follows the crisis points in the line and offers no comparative context across hundreds of kilometers of front.11 The idea of a crisis in Army Group Center was more often than not a localized phenomenon: every army experienced one, but at different times and to different degrees, and never all of them at the same time. Ninth and Fourth Armies, for example, were relatively quiet sectors with few retreats for the first two weeks of the Soviet offensive, while later the situation reversed with the panzer armies, especially the Second and Third, generally considered secure.

One method of assessing the winter fighting is to consider its raw cost, and the most basic indicator here is casualties. Grigorii Fedotovich Krivosheev’s landmark study of Soviet casualties estimated that the Red Army’s aggregate daily losses for the initial period of the Moscow counteroffensive (December 5, 1941, to January 7, 1942) were more costly than the Moscow defensive operations (September 30 to December 5, 1941). The former cost 10,910 men (dead and wounded) each day, while the latter exacted a daily average of 9,823 casualties. Even if we compare the Moscow counteroffensive to the Kiev defensive operation (July 7 to September 26, 1941), the average daily losses of the latter came to 8,543, substantially fewer again.12 This does not mean that the total losses for the Moscow counteroffensive were higher overall because its operational period was shorter, but that the casualties were more concentrated between December 5 and January 7, 1942. More recently, Lev Lopukhovsky and Boris Kavalerchik have persuasively argued that Krivosheev’s figures, which were made up of reports submitted to the Soviet high command, excluded large numbers of losses resulting from German encirclements or other wartime circumstances where no reports could be made. This demonstrates that earlier periods of the war were in fact much more costly to the Red Army, but the evidence provided by Lopukhovsky and Kavalerchik also revises upward the Soviet winter losses. Their detailed analysis of the wartime records reveals as many as 552,000 casualties for the month of December, 558,000 for January and a further 528,000 in February, equaling a winter total of 1,638,000 Soviet losses.13 This is a figure that surely questions the extent of Stalin’s “victorious” winter campaign, especially when one considers that total German casualties for a slightly longer period (November 26, 1941, to February 28, 1942) came to just 262,524.14 Soviet losses were more than six times those of the Germans in the winter of 1941–1942, making the argument for Germany’s “defeat” much more relative.15 The result vindicates John Erickson’s characterization of Soviet infantry in this period as little more than a “mob of riflemen,” which he argued was “thus inviting heavy casualties” until they were supported by more heavy weaponry.16

For all the dramatic depictions of Army Group Center’s frozen soldiers and the often-exaggerated parallels with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat, the actual number of German dead compares favorably to the earlier periods of the war. In fact, there were fewer German deaths in December 1941 (40,198) than in the preceding months of July (63,099), August (46,066), September (51,033), and October (41,099). Only in the months of June (25,000 in just nine days of combat) and November (36,000) were fewer German deaths recorded. January (48,164) and February (44,099) 1942 were somewhat higher, but nothing like the death toll resulting from real German disasters, such as that seen in January and February 1943 following the loss of Stalingrad and the German Sixth Army. Here the German death toll for the same two months reached a staggering 248,640.17

Finally, the winter of 1941–1942 is unique because it is one of the only times in the war that Germany successfully matched its strategy to its operations. When Hitler issued War Directive 39 on December 8, ordering the Ostheer to “abandon immediately all major offensive operations and go over to the defensive,” the gap between Army Group Center’s means and ends closed to something barely achievable, which was more than could be said of preceding war directives that overestimated Germany’s offensive capabilities and confidently predicted “military mastery of the European continent after the overthrow of Russia.”18 Such hubris, however, was much less evident by early December as Hitler’s new war directive explained: “The way in which these defensive operations are to be carried out will be decided in accordance with the purpose which they are intended to serve, viz.: To hold areas which are of great operational or economic importance to the enemy.”19

Army Group Center held a string of important Russian cities, which facilitated supply, offered shelter, assisted rear area organization, and functioned as valuable transportation nodes. They could also be counted upon as rough indicators of where local Soviet offensives would be directed and thus channeling their forces on the approaches and, if reached, forcing them to assault German strongpoints. These included Kursk, Orel, Briansk, Kaluga, Viaz’ma, Rzhev, Kalinin, and behind them all Smolensk, where Army Group Center had its headquarters. By January 1942 the Stavka’s general offensive sought to execute two major envelopments, a smaller one to close at Viaz’ma and a larger one at Smolensk.20 Yet neither of these two cities would fall to the Red Army, just as neither of the two encirclements would succeed. German defensive operations, while sometimes desperate, successfully defended all of their major strategic locations except for Kalinin (which was on the front line when the Soviet offensive began) and Kaluga.

The Soviet plan was not just looking to capture population centers, but to encircle and destroy major sections of Army Group Center.21 In fact, the destruction of the whole army group was sometimes called for in Soviet plans. Yet Germany not only successfully maintained its chain of strategic locations, the army group also endured intact without losing an army, a corps, or even a single division. Of course, some of these formations became so worn down by the fighting that they hardly functioned as corps or divisions, but in spite of being occasionally cut off and subjected to all manner of punishment, no major German formations were lost. The same cannot be said of the Red Army, which became so overextended that, at its worst, one and a half Soviet armies—some 60,000 Soviet troops—became cut off and were mostly destroyed.

German operations, therefore, not only sufficed to preserve their formations and defend their strategic objectives, but also, by doing so, frustrated the Soviet offensive plan and exacted a tremendous toll on the Red Army.22 It was something of a role reversal from the summer and autumn, when the Red Army had successfully foiled Germany’s strategic intentions, but as already observed, both regimes habitually pursued wildly overblown plans. In the winter, however, Germany proved dominant tactically, operationally, and even strategically. Army Group Center, while terribly battered by the winter fighting, was not destroyed by it, and would go on to maintain a remarkably strong position in the center of the Eastern Front for another two and a half years.

If the present study seeks to reassess one aspect of the winter period, it is to question who benefited the most—or lost the least—from the 1941–1942 winter campaign. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who commanded the Soviet Western Front during the winter fighting, wrote in a draft of his memoirs (which only came to light much later):

The History of the Great Fatherland War still comes to a generally positive conclusion about the [first] winter offensive of our forces, despite the lack of success. I do not agree with this evaluation. The embellishment of history, one could say, is a sad attempt to paint over failure. If you consider our losses and what results were achieved, it will be clear that it was a Pyrrhic victory.23

Identifying the winter period as a Soviet Pyrrhic victory does not ameliorate Germany’s own dire circumstances or exonerate the decisions of Hitler and the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres—OKH) in precipitating the circumstances that led to Army Group Center’s winter crisis. Even many of the leading commanders in the field contributed significantly to the awful state of affairs Germany confronted by early December, although in their subsequent writings they would choose to pin all of their woes on higher authorities. Most important, whatever measure of success Germany’s winter campaign had, it did not change the fundamental point that Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist made after the war: “Everything was based on the hope of a decisive result by the autumn of 1941.”24 That was not changed by the winter campaign, nor could it ever have been. But Germany certainly lost far fewer men in the fighting, frustrated the Soviet strategic plan, and emerged in the spring unbroken and best placed to recapture the initiative for another major summer offensive. Investigating how Army Group Center achieved this is the central purpose of this study.

The need to understand the centrality of the Nazi-Soviet conflict to the outcome of the Second World War cannot be overstated. It was not just one more front in the war against Hitler’s Germany, it was the front. The Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union with almost 150 divisions (over 3 million men), while in North Africa the Western allies engaged Rommel’s famous Afrikakorps with just three German divisions (45,000 men). Even after D-Day, almost three years from the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Western allies would never face more than 25 percent of the German army in their campaigns across Western Europe. The German army was battered to death in one campaign after another on the Eastern Front. Yet the Wehrmacht’s path to destruction was by no means devoid of major reversals, while Soviet “successes” were often won at a staggering cost, which sometimes hindered rather than helped the Red Army’s final victory. The winter of 1941–1942 is a case in point and a caution against oversimplified conclusions based on a superficial analysis of what was achieved. Stalin’s counteroffensive constitutes one of the clearest examples of Soviet strategic overreach, which underestimated Germany’s enduring tactical and operational dominance and led to horrendous losses. In the final analysis Army Group Center was far from defeated in the winter fighting, Auftragstaktik did not disappear as a result of Hitler’s halt order, and the Wehrmacht’s response was much more offensive than has previously been understood. Moreover, the prevailing historical narrative dominated by Germany’s “crisis and retreat,” while not always incorrect, ignores the fact that Army Group Center’s withdrawals were often operationally successful and strategically necessary. The new line Army Group Center occupied defended valuable Russian cities in highly favorable battles of attrition. As one summative report from the 7th Infantry Division stated two weeks into the Soviet offensive: “In this struggle, there is no armistice, there is only victory or defeat. The task of the German Eastern Army is to force a German victory with all means and under all circumstances.”25 This task was almost universally understood, and whatever the cost to the German troops and the occupied Russian population, it was Hitler—not Stalin—who achieved his strategic goals for the winter.


Copyright © 2019 by David Stahel