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Russian WWII Offensive Of 1941 Essay, Research Paper

It was devastatingly cold in the Russian winter of 1941,

during the peak of the German offensive against Moscow. Just as it

had Napoleon’s armies in the century before, the Russian winter

conditions had stopped the advance on Moscow. Hitler had not planned

on a winter war, and thus had not properly equipped his troop

frostbite, and thousands of them died of exposure. Indeed, it was this

biting winter which had provided the Russians with an opportunity to

gather themselves, and prepare for one of the most heroic

counter-offensives of World War II – known to the Russian people as

“The Great Patriotic War.”

It would be wrong to attribute the German failure at this time

solely to the harsh winter; the main failure was that of misjudgment

and mistiming. The offensive had been launched too late in the year,

at a season where the weather was due to break up. The Germans had

underestimated the effects of the harsh weather and terrain on their

motorized units, and had poorly rationed their resources – too much

had been asked of the German troops, and strengths had been allowed to

drop too low.

Despite a few more victories by German forces in November and

December, they would never again substantially advance into the areas

surrounding Moscow. On October 28th, the German 3 Panzer group, under

the command of Field-Marshal Von Kluge, had again tried to penetrate

into the northern area of Kalinin, and failed. Hitler called in 9

Army to join the 3 Panzer, and moved them towards the northeast area

above Moscow. Russian resistance had been uneven, but in the front of

Tula and on the Nara, where new formations were arriving, it had been

the most determined and tough. The Red Army had fallen back to within

forty miles of Moscow, but was sustained by massive Muscovite power, a

continuing flow of troops to the front line.

During the months of October and November, nine new Russian

armies had been trained, and were being deployed throughout the

fronts. Two complete armies and parts of another three were to reach

the Moscow area towards the end of November. Many of the divisions in

these armies were raised from newly inducted recruits, but some were

well trained and equipped and had been withdrawn from the military

districts in Central Russia, and Siberia.

In October and early November, a few German battalions still

fighting had brought all Red Army motor vehicles (except tanks) to a

stop, and the Russian Quarter-master-General Khrulev, was forced to

switch his troops to horses and carts. He was criticized by both his

own troops and Stalin, but was granted permission to form 76 horse

transport battalions. The problems caused by the transport shortage

and weather were recognized by the Soviet High Command, and fuel

refills were sent to the front lines. Defenses were restored and

thickened up, and Moscow awaited the second stage of the German

offensive, which is described in detail in the German Offensive

section of this report. By November however, German casualties had

reached 145,000 troops.

The German position in the South, between Tula and Voronezh

was both confusing and disquieting, as on October 26, German 2 Panzer

leader Guderian had suddenly been attacked by the renewed Russian

forces on the east flank, and was fighting to hold his ground. The 2

Panzer had been meant to surround Moscow, but was so weak in armor,

and with the addition of several infantry corps, its mobile strength

was greatly decreased.

As the German drive against Moscow slackened, the Soviet

commander on the Moscow front, General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov,

on December 6 inaugurated the first great counteroffensive with

strokes against Bock’s right in the Elets (Yelets) and Tula sectors

south of Moscow and against his center in the Klin and Kalinin sectors

to the northwest. Levies of Siberian troops, who were extremely

effective fighters in cold weather, were used for these offensives.

There followed a blow at the German left, in the Velikie Luki sector;

and the counteroffensive, which was sustained throughout the winter of

1941-42, soon took the form of a triple convergence toward Smolensk.

Before the end of the year Kinzel (the head of the Foreign

Armies East intelligence), was to issue a rewrite of the German Army

handbook on the Soviet Armed forces which contrasted the report put

out that year before. The Red Army, it said, had been made into a

fighting force serviceable to a degree that would not have been

thought possible before the war. What was most astonishing was not

its numerical strength, but rather the great stocks of available

weapons, equipment, clothing, tanks, and guns. German intelligence

was surprised that Soviet High Command recognized and remedied its own

weaknesses, their organizational powers, and the ability of the High

Command and the troops in the field to overcome their difficulties by


The first day of December was one of terrible implications for

the German forces in Moscow, and within the German High Command. On

that morning, Hitler himself had issued three telegrams: one removing

General Von Rundstedt from command of the German 5 Panzer Army in

Russia; the second ordering the attack of 1 Panzer Army on the

southern city of Voroshilovgrad; and the third demanding that 50 tanks

per Panzer Division be sent to General von Kleist, who’s forces were

being defeated by Russian General Cherevichenko on the Ukrainian

front. This erupted into chaos around the German high command, and

left Hitler in control of the crucial 5 Panzer Army, a crucial

division near Moscow: a command he was ill qualified to take.

These Soviet counteroffensives tumbled back the exhausted

Germans, lapped around their flanks, and produced a critical

situation. From generals downward, the invaders were filled with

ghastly thoughts of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. In that emergency

Hitler forbade any retreat beyond the shortest possible local

withdrawals. His decision exposed his troops to awful sufferings in

their advanced positions facing Moscow, for they had neither the

clothing nor the equipment for a Russian winter campaign; but if they

had once started a general retreat it might easily have degenerated

into a panic-stricken rout.

The Red Army’s winter counteroffensive continued for more than

three months after its December launching, though with diminishing

progress. By March 1942 it had advanced more than 150 miles in some

sectors. But the Germans maintained their hold on the main bastions of

their winter front despite the fact that the Soviets had often

advanced many miles beyond these bastions, which were in effect cut

off. In retrospect it became clear that Hitler’s objection to any

major withdrawals worked out in such a way as to restore the

confidence of the German troops and probably saved them from a

widespread collapse. Nevertheless, they paid a heavy price indirectly

for that rigid defense. The tremendous strain of that winter

campaign, on armies that had not been prepared for it, had other

serious effects. Before the winter ended, many German divisions were

reduced to barely a third of their original strength, and they were

never fully built up again.

In early January, as soon as it was known that the Germans

were in retreat, the Red Army troops were spurred into motion, and

their morale and fighting spirit increased greatly – along with Soviet

casualties. For the Russians began to counter-attack without regard

to losses, flinging themselves at the German rearguards. Zhukov was

forced to change his tactics and order his troops to avoid all centers

of enemy resistance – as he was being smashed at such points. As soon

as the gaps in the German positions could be found, the Russians

struck there. The Red Army was well equipped for winter warfare and

was much more mobile than their enemy. But, as Zhukov admits, they

were still poorly trained, and their Field Commanders were still

hesitant to attack gaps in the German line, as they still feared

encirclement. Stalin, at the time, was convinced that the Germans

were still benumbed by the cold, and that the entire front was ripe

for the taking. However, Zhukov knew that the only vulnerable front

was the Army Group Center; their other positions in Valdai, Volkov, or

the Ukraine were unlikely to yield any further successes. However,

Stalin hastily attacked the flanks of the Army Group Center, which

would give Zhukov’s army a fierce fight, and casualties and delays

were high. Stalin’s mistake, in the end, was overestimating Russian

strength, and underestimating German resilience – especially under the

F?rhrer’s strict command not to fall back.

By the end of April, the Russians had pushed back the German

Kalinin, North-West, and Bryansk until Russian army groups could push

them back no further. These German forces were no longer capable of

any advancement into Russia, and were bogged down by the spring mud.

The Russian 33 and 39 Soviet Armies remained in the pocket of the

remaining “horseshoe” shaped German front (known as the Rzhev Salient,

and maintained by three Panzer armies), where the Army Group Center

continued to fend off struggling Russian forces. However, the forces

around the Rzhev Salient were strained and barely able to continue

holding the front. Yet Hitler maintained them there, hoping to

someday launch another offensive from that point. By March of 1942

however, the F?rhrer had lost all his interest in ever taking the

Russian capital. Thus ends the story of the siege on Moscow, and

begins the long story of the rebuilding.

Germany, had it mobilized its forces completely in 1941, would

have been able to take Russia within a matter of months. However,

being spread as they were between both the Eastern and Western fronts,

it became an exponentially more difficult task for him – one which he

never succeeded in. Hitler’s egotistical caprice drove him away from

victory. He fought on three fronts, and made the United States an

enemy of Germany; against such odds he could not win. His decision to

fork off from the attack on Moscow, detaching all but one Panzer Army

from Army Group Center to send them to Leningrad and the Ukraine meant

that the capital would never be taken by German troops. By the time

they re-grouped within Army Group Center in February, it was too late

and too muddy for them to cover the distance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The war had resulted in losses of 860,000 troops for the Germans.

Soviet prisoners taken during that time were 3,461,000 along with

perhaps double that in casualties on the Leningrad, Muscovite, and

Ukrainian fronts.

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