by Bevin Alexander, 4 February 2006
Reprinted with the generous permission of Bevin Alexander

The purpose of military strategy is to diminish the possibility of resistance. It should be the aim of every leader to discover the weaknesses of the enemy, and to pierce his Achilles' Heel. This is how battles and wars are best won.

German infantryman in front of a burning BT-5 tank and a dead crew member in Ukraine, June 1941
German infantryman in front of a burning BT-5 tank and a dead crew member in Ukraine, June 1941

This advice goes back at least to Sun Tzu in the fifth century B.C., but it is extraordinarily difficult for human beings to follow. The attack against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, is the most powerful example in the twentieth century of how a leader and a nation -- in this case Adolf Hitler and Germany -- can ignore clear, eternal rules of successful warfare, and pursue a course that leads straight to destruction.

Attacking Russia head-on was wrong to begin with, because it guaranteed the greatest resistance, not the least. A direct attack also forces an enemy back on his reserves and supplies, while it constantly lengthens the supply and reinforcement lines of the attacker. The better strategy is to separate the enemy from his supplies and reserves. That is why an attack on the flank is more likely to be successful.

Nevertheless Hitler could still have won if he had struck at the Soviet Union's weakness, instead of its strength.

His most disastrous error was to go into the Soviet Union as a conqueror instead of a liberator. The Soviet people had suffered enormously at the hands of the Communist autocracy for two decades. Millions had died when the Reds forced people off their land to create collective farms. Millions more were obliged to move great distances to work long hours, under terrible conditions, and little compensation in factories and construction projects. The secret police punished any resistance with death or transportation to horrible prison gulags in Siberia. In the gruesome purges of the 1930s, Joseph Stalin had systematically killed all leaders and all military officers who, in his paranoid mind, posed the slightest threat to his dictatorship. Life for the ordinary Russian was drab, full of exhausting work, and dangerous. At the same time, the Soviet Union was an empire ruling over a collection of subjugated peoples who were violently opposed to rule from the Kremlin.

Vast numbers of these people would have risen in rebellion if Hitler's legions had entered with the promise of freedom and elimination of Soviet oppression. Had Hitler done this, the Soviet Union would have collapsed.

With such a policy, Hitler would not have gained the Lebensraum , or living space for the German people, that he coveted, but once the Soviet Union had been shattered, he could have put into effect anything he wanted to in the pieces that remained.

Hitler, however, followed precisely the opposite course of action. His "commissar order" called for the instant shooting down of Communist party agents in the army. He sent Einsatzgruppen or extermination detachments to come behind the army and rout out and murder Jews. He resolved to deport or allow millions of Slavs to starve in order to empty the land for future German settlers. v

Two days before the Germans struck, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's commissioner for the regions to be conquered, told his closest collaborators: "The job of feeding the German people stands at the top of the list of Germany's claims in the east....We see absolutely no reason for any obligation on our part to feed also the Russian people."

The genuine welcome that German soldiers received as they entered Soviet towns and villages in the first days of the campaign was quickly replaced by fear, hatred, and a bitter guerrilla war behind the lines that slowed supplies to the front, killed thousands of Germans, and increasingly hobbled the German army.

Hitler's actual military plans also were so false strategically that they could only succeed if the Red Army collapsed from internal stress. That, in fact, is what Hitler counted on. He did not expect to win by a superior method or concept, but by relying on the Russian army to disintegrate after a series of initial battles.

Great generals don't win wars in this fashion. They don't depend upon their enemies to make mistakes or give up. A great general relies upon his own ideas, initiative, skill, and maneuvers to put the enemy in a position where he must do the general's bidding.

Hitler's greatest strategic mistake was his refusal to concentrate on a single, decisive goal. Instead he sought to gain---all at the same time---three widely distant objectives: Leningrad, which he sought to smash because it was the birthplace of Russian Communism; the Ukraine and the Caucausus beyond, which he wanted for its abundant foodstuffs, 60 percent of Soviet industry, and the bulk of the Soviet Union's oil; and Moscow, which he desired because it was the capital of the Soviet Union and its nerve center.

Hitler wanted all of them. Indeed, he expected to reach the line Archangel-Caspian Sea in 1941. That is 300 miles east of Moscow, and only about 450 miles from the Ural mountains. But Germany did not have the strength to achieve all of these goals in a single year's campaign. At best, it had the strength to achieve one.

Hitler scorned such a limitation, and ordered Army Group North to go for Leningrad, Army Group Center for Moscow, and Army Group South for the Ukraine. These objectives spread over the entire western face of the Soviet Union could not possibly be coordinated. Each army group would be required to conduct a separate campaign. And, because resources were to be divided in three directions, no single effort would have the strength to achieve a war-winning decision on its own.

Launched in June 1941, Operation Barbarossa tank spearheads of Panzer Group Guderian were just breaking through the Russian border defenses

The task Hitler set for Germany was almost inconceivable. He hoped to seize a million square miles of the Soviet Union in 1941, a region the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. The campaign in the west, on the other hand, had been fought out in an area of 50,000 square miles, roughly the size of North Carolina or New York State. Therefore, the ratio of men to space was twenty times greater in the east than it had been in the west.

Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander of the army, and General Franz Halder, chief of staff, wanted the primary objective to be Moscow, and wanted forces concentrated overwhelmingly in the center. They rightly contended that conquest of Leningrad, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus depended on defeating the Red Army. And an essential part of this army would be met on the road to Moscow. Moscow was the hub of railroads, mecca of world Communism, headquarters of a highly centralized government, and a great industrial center employing more than a million workers.

Moreover, an attack into the center of the Soviet Union would turn the nation's vastness---generally thought of as its greatest asset---into a liability. Once the Germans possessed Moscow's communications node, Red Army forces on either side could not coordinate their efforts. The Germans in the central position between the two could have been defeated each separately.

The German army and economy could support a drive on Moscow. Though 560 miles east of the German frontier, it was connected to the west by a paved highway and railroads.

This would have still been a direct, frontal assault against the strength of the Red Army, but the ratio of force to space was so low in Russia that German mechanized forces could always find openings for indirect advance into the Soviet rear. At the same time the widely spaced cities at which roads and railways converged offered the Germans alternative targets. While threatening one city north and another city south, they could actually strike at a third beyond. But the Russians, not knowing which objective the Germans had chosen, would have to defend all three.

Hitler understood that he could not defeat the entire Red Army all at once. But he hoped to solve the problem by committing two of his four panzer groups under Heinz Guderian and Hermann Hoth to Army Group Center, commanded by Fedor von Bock, with the aim of destroying Red Army forces in front of Moscow in a series of giant encirclements?Kesselschlachten or caldron battles. The Russians, to his thinking, could be eliminated in place.

Army Group Center was to attack just north of the Pripet Marshes, a huge swampy region 220 miles wide and 120 miles deep beginning some 170 miles east of Warsaw that effectively divided the front in half. Bock's armies, led by the panzers, were to advance from East Prussia and the German-Russian frontier along the Bug river to Smolensk.

Army Group North under Wilhelm von Leeb, with one panzer group under Erich Hoepner was to drive from East Prussia through the Baltic states to Leningrad.

Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group South with the last panzer group under Ewald von Kleist was to thrust south of the Pripet Marshes toward the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, 300 airline miles from the jumpoff points along and below the Bug, then drive on to the industrial Donetz river basin, 430 miles southeast of Kiev.

The first great encirclement was to be in Army Group Center around Bialystok, fewer than sixty miles east of the German-Soviet boundary in Poland, the other around Minsk, 180 miles farther east. The two panzer groups then were to press on to Smolensk, 200 miles beyond Minsk, and bring about a third Kesselschlacht . After that, Hitler planned to shift the two panzer groups north to help destroy the Russians in that region and capture Leningrad.

Only after Leningrad was seized, according to his directive of December 18, 1940, ordering Barbarossa, "are further offensive operations to be initiated with the objective of occupying the important center of communications and of armaments manufacture, Moscow."

However, Hitler showed his intention of gaining all three objectives by directing that, when the caldron battles were completed (and Leningrad presumably taken), pursuit was to proceed not only toward Moscow, but also into the Ukraine to seize the Donetz basin.

In summary, Hitler's original directive required massive strikes deep into the Soviet Union in three directions by three army groups, followed by a shift of half the army's armor 400 miles north to capture Leningrad, then a return of this armor south to press on Moscow, while Army Group South continued to drive to the far reaches of the Ukraine, over 700 miles from the German-Soviet frontier.

This was an impossible burden for the German army. In the event, Hitler made it worse because he seized an opportunistic chance to destroy a number of armies in the Ukraine around Kiev, and abandoned his original strategy. Once the Kesselschlachten were completed in Army Group Center, he sent only one panzer group north toward Leningrad, and ordered the other south to help create the enemy pocket east of Kiev.

German forces pushing through Latvia, July 1941

Army Group North did not have enough strength to seize Leningrad. And, by the time the diverted panzers got back on the road to Moscow, the rainy season had set in, and after that the Russian winter. As a consequence the strike for Moscow failed as well. With insufficient armor remaining in the south, the effort to seize all of the Ukraine and open a path to the oil of the Caucasus also collapsed.

Therefore, Hitler, by trying for too much, and then altering his priorities by sending a panzer group from the center into the Ukraine, failed everywhere . These failures meant that Germany had lost the war. By December 1941, there was no hope of anything better than a negotiated peace. And this Hitler refused to consider.

Hitler's plan rested on two false assumptions. The first was that he would have time enough (even without the shift of panzers to the Ukraine) to switch armor to the north then back to the center in time to win a decisive victory before the rains and snows of autumn. Distances were simply too great, Russian roads and climate too poor, and Red Army resistance too intense for such a plan to have had any hope of success. As Guderian summarized the campaign to his wife on December 10, 1941, "the enemy, the size of the country, and the foulness of the weather were all grossly underestimated."

The second great mistaken assumption was that, after destroying the Red Army in the west by means of caldron battles, Stalin would be unable to create any more armies. That is, once the Kesselschlachten were over, the Soviet Union would collapse, and the Germans could occupy the rest of the country at their leisure and without resistance. Not only did Hitler's ally, Japan, refuse to attack Siberia, thereby releasing more than a quarter of a million Soviet soldiers to rush west to fight the Germans at a crucial moment, but the Russian people rose in a giant national effort to repel the invader, and created vast new armies.

The colossal miscalculation on Hitler's part - that he could gain everything in a great, all-encompassing, one-year campaign that branched off in three directions - spelled his final destruction. By trying to bite off too much, he lost everything.

Brauchitsch and Halder were right. The Germans should have struck for the single, decisive objective that was achievable in 1941: Moscow. But neither Brauchitsch nor Halder was willing to confront Hitler on this point

Stalin played directly into Hitler's strategic plans by lining up the vast majority of his forces along the frontier, with the idea of defending most of his territory, instead of pulling them back in reserve to strike at German formations that extended themselves too far or exposed their flanks. The Germans believed they could break through the front at a number of places, race past the Russians, then swing in around them and close them into giant pockets.

The Russian campaign was not to be a repetition of the swift blitzkrieg of the 1940 campaign in the west.

The senior German generals favored this method because they feared to push too far into Russia before the main elements of the Red Army were beaten. Consequently, they insisted that the panzers must cooperate with the infantry by wheeling inward from either flank, in pincers movements, and closing around the rear of the enemy to complete the ring.

In most wars, the inherent strength of the belligerents becomes more and more important once past the initial or opening campaign or phase. That is to say, if a power has been unable to achieve a decision with its original force, then long-term factors generally decide the outcome of the war. Superior power exerted over time to wear down an opponent is called attrition. This is the single greatest danger that a weaker belligerent faces.

This was the situation Adolf Hitler faced when he attacked the Soviet Union. Unless he achieved a quick and overwhelming victory, the Soviet Union was likely to win because its capacity to fight a long-term war of attrition was much greater than Germany's.

The Soviet Union's resources were immense compared to Germany's. Its great size forced an enormous dispersal of German military strength. Its population was twice that of Germany's. It had unlimited quantities of oil, minerals, and power. Soviet war production over time would outstrip German production. In addition, the Soviet Union could tap the resources of the rest of the world, especially the United States, because the Allies controlled the seas and could deliver goods by way of Iran.

Hitler, therefore, had to gain a quick victory or be forced into a war of attrition that he could not win. Hitler refused to see these realities, and this was the ultimate cause of his destruction.

For immediate use in the attack, Hitler assembled 107 infantry divisions, 19 panzer divisions, 18 motorized divisions, and one cavalry division, a total of three million men, with supporting troops. This represented the bulk of the total German strength of 205 divisions. The Barbarossa forces included 3,350 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces, and 2,770 aircraft.

The great weakness of the panzer divisions was the condition of the roads. In the vast Soviet Union there were only 40,000 miles of paved highways. Most routes were dirt, and turned into muddy morasses in wet weather. In a panzer division fewer than 300 vehicles were fully tracked, while nearly 3,000 were wheeled and largely restricted to roads. In the west this had been little problem, because of the abundance of all-weather roads. In Russia their relative absence meant that panzer mobility would be ended with the first mud.

The Red Army was not prepared for the German onslaught, in part because of the condition of its forces, in part because too many troops were positioned right against the frontier, but also because Joseph Stalin had guessed wrong where the main German onslaught would come, and put a preponderance of his forces south of the Pripet Marshes.

The Russians assembled 171 divisions in five army groups or "fronts" in three belts or echelons along the frontier. Behind the five forward fronts, separate groups of five field armies were being formed as a second strategic echelon. This Reserve Front was assembling on the line of the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, some 180 miles east and 100 miles northeast of the frontier. Before hostilities these forming reserves were virtually invisible to German intelligence.

German troops with Pz 38(t) advancing towards Moscow, October 1941

Soviet authorities had ample warning of the attack, but Stalin blindly hoped the Soviet Union could escape Hitler's wrath, at least for a time, and ignored plain evidence.

On March 20, 1941, Sumner Welles, United States undersecretary of state, informed the Soviet ambassador of the attack, picked up by the American commercial attaché in Berlin. Winston Churchill alerted Stalin in a personal note delivered on April 19, 1941, based on intercepts of German messages (which he didn't reveal to Stalin). American Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt informed Molotov, Soviet foreign minister, of reports to U.S. legations in Bucharest and Stockholm the first week of June stating the invasion was coming within a fortnight. High-altitude Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft made more than 300 overflights of Soviet territory in the weeks leading up to D-Day, June 22, 1941. On June 16, the German embassy evacuated all but essential personnel. There were many more warnings.

Up to the last day, the Soviet Union continued to supply Germany with raw materials, including 4,000 tons of rubber, plus manganese and other minerals shipped from the Far East over the Trans-Siberian Railway.

But Stalin had actually been preparing for war. On May 6, he took over personally as chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, or prime minister, replacing Molotov, who remained foreign minister. It was the first time Stalin had taken a government office.

In April Stalin implemented readiness measures, including partial mobilization. He transferred forces from the Far East and Siberia to the west, sent twenty-eight rifle divisions and four armies to the border, and began assembling a fifth army near Moscow. In late May he called up 800,000 reservists to fill out divisional strengths and form cadres for 100 divisions.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was not ready. Its forces were poorly arrayed, trained, and equipped. Soviet political leadership had been paralyzed by its fixation on maintaining peace. Hope clouded reality.

Few troops were concentrated where most needed. Aside from more troops being stationed below the Pripet Marshes, they were spread evenly across the front, and not many were held back for counterattack reserves. These dispositions played directly into German panzer tactics of punching a hole at a single point with overwhelming force and with additional motorized forces rushing through the gap into the rear like a raging torrent.

The Soviets had about 110 infantry (or "rifle") divisions along the western frontier. In theory they were about the same size (15,000 men) as German divisions, but in June 1941 they averaged only about 8,000 men.

But the greatest fault of the Red Army was its organization of armored and motorized forces. It possessed fifty tank divisions and twenty-five mechanized (motorized) divisions, far more than the Germans, but Stalin had not accepted the German doctrine of concentration of armor. The largest armored formation was a mechanized corps of one motorized and two tank divisions, and these corps were widely dispersed across the front, not massed as were German panzer formations. Furthermore, each mechanized corps's divisions were often a hundred kilometers apart. Some corps were subordinate to field armies with the job of supporting local counterattacks. Others were held in reserve to take part in counterthrusts under front (army group) control. Soviet armor, spread out in small packets, thereby repeated the error that the British and French had made in the 1940 campaign.

As Hitler left Berlin by train for his new headquarters "Wolfsschanze" (wolf's lair or entrenchment) near Rastenburg in East Prussia, Luftwaffe aircraft rose from strips at 3 a.m. Sunday, June 22, 1941, and bombed and strafed Soviet airfields, catching hundreds of planes on the ground and attacking any that rose into the air. Before the day was up, the Luftwaffe had destroyed 1,200 Red aircraft. Within days they had driven most Soviet planes from the sky, and achieved air supremacy.

German panzers massed at key crossing points broke across the frontier and drove deep into the interior. Everywhere they achieved almost total surprise, and were almost entirely successful, except in the south. Here the German infantry struck strong defenses west of Lvov (Lemberg) and on the Styr river.

Stalin's belief that Hitler would make his main effort into Ukraine had resulted in the Southwestern Front being especially strong in armor---six mechanized corps, with a larger proportion of new T-34s than elsewhere. Mikhail Kirponos, southwest commander, mounted armor attacks on both flanks of the panzer thrusts of Kleist's Panzer Group 1. The 5th Army operating out of the swamps of the Pripet had a firm base for the assault. The 6th Army on the open steppe to the south did not. The fight was tough, but the two arms of the Russian pincers never met, and Kleist drove on to seize Lvov on June 30.

Kirponos continued to strike on both sides of the German advance, but could not stop Kleist's panzers, which swept past Rovno and Ostrog through the "Zhitomir corridor" toward Kiev.

In the extreme south, the 11th Army of Romanians and Germans attacked across the Pruth river into Bessarabia, winning it in a week, then moving on, with all-Romanian formations, to besiege Odessa along the Black Sea.

Army Group North pushed out of East Prussia, led by Panzer Group 4 (Hoepner), and pressed through the Baltic states toward Leningrad.

Russian prisoners captured by German forces at Bryansk and Vyasma waiting to be transported to a prisoner of war camp somewhere in Russia, 2 November 1941

In Army Group Center, Guderian's Panzer Group 2 plunged across the Bug river at Brest-Litovsk, and Hoth's Panzer Group 3 drove out of East Prussia with Minsk, 215 miles northeast of Brest, as their initial objective. The Russian garrison defended the fortress at Brest, but it was hopeless because German infantry surrounded it and pounded it into submission in a week.

Since the Russians were utterly surprised, Guderian's panzers got across the Bug river well enough, some of his tanks fording thirteen feet of water using waterproofing developed for the Sea Lion operation.

As the panzers moved eastward and enveloped both sides of the Russian forces around Bialystok, Field Marshal Bock ordered his infantry 4th and 9th Armies to encircle these bypassed Russians (twelve divisions) east of Bialystok. The first great Kesselschlacht began to develop.

By June 28, Guderian's panzers had reached Bobruysk on the Beresina river, 170 miles northeast of Brest-Litovsk, while Hoth's tanks had seized Minsk, eighty miles northwest of Bobruysk, thereby nearly closing off fifteen Russian divisions in another caldron west of Minsk in the region Volkovysk and Novogrudok.

The Germans learned that they could outmaneuver the Russians with their Schnellentruppen or "fast troops," but could not outfight them. Everywhere the Russians resisted stoutly. They were slow to panic and surrender when closed into caldrons.

In both Kesselschlachten the Russians took advantage of the fact that the panzers had moved on, and German infantry had to close the circles. Many escaped, though in small groups. Those who remained fought doggedly, but made only limited efforts to break out. Part of the reason was the strong rings the Germans finally threw around the surrounded troops. Another was that Soviet commanders feared they would be shot if they ordered withdrawal---something that shortly did happen. Another was that the Russians had few vehicles and little means to escape. The Russians also were more willing to surrender in the first weeks of the war because they did not know the murderous treatment they would receive in captivity. These factors explain the stupendous numbers of Russians who passed into German POW cages during the summer of 1941.

It did not take the Russian people long to realize they were facing an implacable, blood-thirsty foe, however. The anti-Bolshevik indoctrination of the German army had led to a feeling of intolerance of and superiority over Russian "Untermenschen". Hitler's "commissar order" caused some soldiers to feel any Red, commissar or ordinary soldier, might be shot on the spot.

Since the Germans could label anybody a commissar or a partisan, Russians soon stopped surrendering and often fought to the death in desperate situations.

This was not true in the caldron battles around Bialystok and Minsk, and up to July 9, the Germans took 233,000 prisoners. Even so, about as many Russians escaped from the pincers as were caught within them.

Meanwhile Hoth's and Guderian's panzer groups, now formed into the 4th Panzer Army under Günther von Kluge, were already rushing 200 miles beyond Minsk for the third great series of encirclements near Smolensk. Since Army Group Center's infantry divisions were still miles behind the panzers, Kluge wrapped his tanks, half-tracks, and motorized divisions around three caldrons, two smaller ones east of Mogilev and west of Nevel, a greater one between Orscha and Smolensk.

After grim resistance the Germans shattered three Soviet armies, and by August 6 had taken 310,000 POWs, destroyed 3,200 tanks, and captured 3,100 guns. Nevertheless, about 200,000 Russians escaped to fall back and continue to block the road to Moscow.

In the other two army groups advances had been spectacular as well. Army Group South repulsed a Soviet flank attack out of the Pripet Marshes, while Kleist's Panzer Group 1 turned southeast, and, with the help of 17th Army and the Hungarian corps, encircled two Russian groups around Uman, 120 miles south of Kiev, capturing 103,000 Russians.

Army Group North occupied Latvia. Panzer Group 4 (Hoepner) pressed through Ostrov, about two-hundred miles southwest of Leningrad, while 18th Army (Küchler) penetrated into Estonia.

The Finns moved down the Karelian isthmus but did not threaten Leningrad, and a German mountain corps in Lappland far to the north was deterred from seizing Murmansk by terrible weather.

Because Stalin had made the colossal error of pushing most of his forces to the frontier, where they were largely overrun or captured in encirclements, the Germans, despite the widely diffused nature of their offensive, were within sight of victory. Indeed, both Hitler and Halder thought they had won. Instead of taking advantage of the fortuitous gains that the panzers had made, Hitler commenced a series of disastrous delays and vacillations that canceled out the victories.

The success in Army Group Center had been spectacular. There were few Soviet troops still guarding the Moscow road. A stunning opportunity had materialized. Guderian's and Hoth's tanks had advanced 440 miles in six weeks, and were only 220 miles from Moscow. The dry weather was certain to continue until the autumn rains. Although tank strength had fallen to half that at the start, there was every reason to believe that the remaining armor could reach the capital and drive a dagger into the heart of the Soviet Union.

Red Army soldiers examine war trophies captured in battles with invading Germans, somewhere in Russia, 18 September 1941

The unexpected successes of the caldron battles had reinvigorated Brauchitsch and Halder in their view that everything possible should be committed to the central front and capture of Moscow.

Yet at this moment Hitler turned the campaign in a completely different direction---and thereby lost the one chance that the caldron battles had given him to destroy the Soviet Union.

Ignoring the virtually open road to Moscow, he issued on July 19 a directive ordering Hoth's panzer group to turn north to assist Leeb's advance on Leningrad, and Guderian's panzer group to swing south and help Rundstedt's army group seize Kiev. On July 23 Hitler postponed the drive on Moscow by any forces until the caldrons around Smolensk had been mopped up.

Guderian went to a conference at army group headquarters at Novi Borisov on July 27 to be informed of the new orders. Although here he learned he'd been promoted to army commander and his group renamed Panzer Army Guderian, he was outraged by instructions to halt the advance on Moscow.

Bock agreed with Guderian, but, like Brauchitsch and Halder, did not have the stomach to challenge Hitler. However, he and army headquarters (OKH) were perfectly willing to let the impetuous Guderian carry the burden, and tacitly went along with a delaying operation that Guderian set in motion to frustrate Hitler's orders.

The effort hinged around seizing the town of Roslavl, seventy miles southeast of Smolensk, at the junction of roads to Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad. Roslavl was important as a jumping-off point for Moscow. But Guderian's principal aim was to entangle his forces so deeply in this operation that orders to assist Rundstedt would be canceled and he could resume his drive on Moscow.

The Russians inadvertently took part in the conspiracy. Stalin rushed reserves to Roslavl---raw units in training and militia outfits called into service, Stalin's only source of fresh troops. Hitler was taken in temporarily, postponed the diversion of Hoth and Guderian on July 30, and agreed to visit Army Group Center on August 4 to see the situation for himself.

At this conference, Bock, Hoth, and Guderian told Hitler that continuing the offensive toward Moscow was vital. Hitler then demonstrated how little he could be moved by logic and military considerations. He announced that Leningrad was his primary objective, and he was inclined to select the Ukraine next for three reasons: its raw materials and food were needed, Rundstedt seemed on the verge of victory, and the Crimea had to be occupied to prevent Russian planes there bombing the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.

On August 7, Jodl and Halder persuaded Hitler to renew the advance on Moscow. Three days later resistance at Leningrad caused him to change his mind and once more order Hoth's tanks to help Leeb. Everything came to a head on August 22, when Guderian got an alert to move his group south to help destroy Russian armies around Kiev. He was fuming the next day when he attended a commanders' conference at army group headquarters with Halder. The army chief of staff announced that Hitler's new "unalterable resolve" was that neither the Leningrad nor Moscow operations would be carried out. The immediate objective was to be capture of the Ukraine and Crimea.

Everyone present knew this meant there would be a winter campaign, for which the German army was not prepared, and the conflict would turn into a war of attrition. The only concession Guderian subsequently wrung from Hitler was that his panzer group would return to the Moscow front as soon as the battle for Kiev was won.

Hitler's irresolution had consumed a month of dry summer when his panzers could have rolled to Moscow. It was August 25 when Guderian finally turned south on the new mission that was to take another month to finish. By the time he could get back on the Moscow road the autumn rainy season would arrive, a period of mud called rasputiza (literally time without roads), which would slow or stop vehicles and thus the advance. And after that would come the Russian winter.

The disputes in July and August about strategy demonstrated that Adolf Hitler did not possess a fundamental prerequisite of great commanders. Successful generals from Alexander the Great on have thought out their ultimate objectives in advance, and adhered doggedly to them in the stress and chaos of battle, ignoring peripheral targets, however attractive, and passing up partial victories in order to achieve total success at the end.

Hitler, it turned out, could conceive of no great strategic plan. And once embroiled in a campaign, he was ready to toss aside even the general aims he started with to gain temporary or opportunistic goals that materialized, but could not win the war. He had shown this erratic irresolution or fickleness in a negative way in the 1940 campaign, wanting to halt the panzers out of fear just as they were about to break out into undefended space and win a spectacular victory, and actually stopping the tanks before Dunkirk.

The attack on Kiev is one of the greatest examples in history of how a leader can be seduced by the vision of short-term gains into abandoning a course of action that would have given him victory. Kiev is remarkable in another sense because Hitler, some of his generals, and not a few historians in later years were so blinded by the magnitude of the German success they forgot that at Kiev Germany surrendered its last chance to win the war.

Kiev did offer a tempting target. Army Group South had advanced to the Dnieper river, but had not taken Kiev. It had, however, driven into the southern Ukraine, and before the end of August had seized Dnepropetrovsk on the bend of the Dnieper river, 250 miles southeast of Kiev. Stalin had ordered the defense of the Dnieper line at all costs, and Soviet headquarters sent three additional armies to reinforce the Southwestern Front under General Mikhail Kirponos and Marshal Seymon Budenny.

The situation was now set for a giant envelopment. Kleist's Panzer Group 1 at the Dnieper bend, and Guderian's Panzer Army at Starodub were both far to the east of Kiev. If Kleist could drive north and Guderian south, they could close off the entire region around Kiev. This was the opportunity that Hitler saw, and the prospect is what finally drew him away from the attack on Moscow.

The campaign got under way on August 25. While 2d Army pressed south from Gomel, Guderian's panzers struck from Starodub, seventy-five miles to the east, and seized a bridge over the Desna river, sixty miles south, before the Russians could destroy it. Heavy Soviet resistance forced Guderian to commit his last reserves and required a week of bitter fighting to break out of the Desna bridgehead and continue south.

Meanwhile Kleist's Panzer Group 1 moved from Dnepropetrovsk to the more westerly crossing of the Dnieper at Kremenchug, and launched his arm of the pincers on September 12.

By this time, the Soviets were beginning to realize their danger, but could do little to prevent Guderian's tanks crossing the Seym river and pressing on to Konotop. Budenny sent a general to Moscow to authorize retreat. But Stalin replied: "Hold at any price." He also replaced Budenny with Semen Timoshenko as southwestern commander. With that the Soviet army group was left in a hopeless position. On Sepember 14-15 the points of the German armored wedge met at Lokhvitsa, 125 miles east of Kiev. The caldron was closed.

When Timoshenko arrived, he recognized the incredible danger, and on September 16 ordered withdrawal on his own, despite the example of Western Front commander Dimitri G. Pavlov, whom Stalin had shot on July 1 over the disaster at Minsk. Kirponos dared not carry out the order, however, and wasted two days in a futile effort to get permission from Stalin. By then it was too late. The Germans had formed an iron ring around the caldron, and tore the Russian armies apart as they tried to break out. Kirponos died in the fighting. By September 19, when the Germans seized the city of Kiev itself, Russian resistance had virtually ended.

The Germans captured 665,000 men in the Kiev caldron, the largest single military success in history and the largest haul of prisoners ever attained in one battle.

During the frantic first days of the campaign, Soviet officials transferred 1,500 factories and as much machinery as possible, along with workers, by rail to the Urals and western Siberia. This exhausting, chaotic undertaking resulted in enormous drops in production and terrible living conditions for workers, but ensured that ultimately Soviet industry would recover and produce weapons and war goods in great quantities. In the interim, much depended on the willingness of the west to support the Soviet Union.

In the United States and Britain there was doubt that Russia could last out the summer. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first reaction to Soviet pleas for help was caution, but he quickly decided that aiding the Red Army might be worth the gamble. In mid-July FDR sent his closest confidant, Harry Hopkins, to London to discuss the matter with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill.

Churchill endorsed American help to Russia, but didn't like the idea of supplies destined for Britain being diverted to the Reds. Hopkins decided to go to Moscow himself to assess the situation. In Moscow Hopkins found confidence, high morale, and "unbounded determination to win." Stalin vowed he'd fight beyond the Ural mountains even if Moscow fell.

At the moment the United States was as preoccupied with Japan as it was Hitler's advances into the Soviet Union. On July 2, at a secret imperial conference in Tokyo, Japanese leaders decided not to join the war against Russia, unless the Red Army collapsed. Instead they elected to continue their drive south to seize most or all of southeast Asia, overrunning the colonies there of the Netherlands, France, and Britain. Shortly after France's defeat in 1940, the Japanese demanded and got permission to occupy northern French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

The Kremlin knew the results of the July 2 conference from its spy in Tokyo, Richard Sorge. But Stalin took no chances. Though he desperately needed the thirty divisions, many tanks, and 2,800 warplanes he had in the Far East, he kept most in place, and actually strengthened defenses around Manchuria, where the Japanese army was massed.

This sealed Japan's decision to move south, and on July 14 the government demanded of the Vichy French agreement to occupy eight air bases in southern Indochina and to use France's naval base at Camranh bay. The French quickly capitulated.

FDR and Cordell Hull, secretary of state, didn't know of the imperial conference, but were aware of much that was going on in Tokyo. American army and navy cryptanalysts by August 1940 had discovered the secrets of the Japanese encoding machine known as "Purple" which diplomats used in radio messages to and from Tokyo. American intercepts of these messages in the decoding program named "Magic" picked up indications of Japanese intentions in southeast Asia.

This galvanized Roosevelt to freeze Japanese assets on July 25, 1941, instantly ending all trade with Japan. Britain, its dominions, and the Dutch East Indies followed quickly.

Roosevelt and Churchill hoped this action would slow the Japanese drive toward war. But it actually accelerated it. Without oil imports from the United States or the East Indies, Japan's military operations would collapse within months. The army and navy started preparing for armed confrontation.

Hopkins told FDR all-out aid to Russia was a good bet. At the worst it would delay Hitler long enough for the United States to prepare for war. He recommended the Soviets be declared eligible for aid. Roosevelt promised Stalin strong aid after three months. Meantime Russia had to make it on its own. FDR's decision was influenced by the fear that Stalin might conclude a peace with Hitler, something hardly less bad than a German victory.

Shortly thereafter, Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran, and ensured an all-weather, unopposed supply line to Russia.

When Guderian's panzer group had moved south to assist in the Kiev Kesselschlacht , Hitler had sent Hermann Hoth's panzer group to join Army Group North's efforts to seize Leningrad. But the Finns refused to press down from the north beyond their old prewar boundary. Half a million of the city's three million people had helped to build fortifications around the city---620 miles of earthworks, 400 miles of antitank ditches, thousands of concrete pillboxes.

German panzers were able to seal off the southeastern approaches to the city, the only land bridge to the rest of Russia. This put the city under siege, but left open a water route east of the city across Lake Ladoga. The situation for the people was grim, but there was no thought of surrender. And in mid-September Georgy K. Zhukov, dismissed as chief of staff because he had advised Stalin to abandon Kiev, arrived with orders to hold the city.

Zhukov brought up every gun and mortar available to blast the Germans, and prevent penetration of the city's defense line. Leeb?s attacks failed. The Leningrad front slowly subsided into a gruesome siege that lasted until the spring of 1944, killed or starved millions, but had no major effect on the war.

Meanwhile, far to the south, Rundstedt's army group overran the Donetz basin and, on November 21, seized Rostov on the Don, at the entrance to the Caucasus. But without Guderian's tanks, he could not drive on the oil fields. The Russians soon pushed his exhausted troops out of the city.

Rundstedt wanted to pull back to a good defensive line along the Mius river, about forty miles west of Rostov, but Hitler forbade the withdrawal. Rundstedt persisted in his demands for freedom. When Hitler refused, he asked to be relieved of command. Hitler agreed, but told Rundstedt in future he would not consider any request by generals for retirement.

Meanwhile, Erich von Manstein, who had been given command of 11th Army with orders to seize the Crimea, reached the neck of the peninsula on September 29, and by November 18 had driven most of the surviving Russians into Sebastopol. Attacks against the fortress failed, and Manstein finally called off the effort on December 30, 1941. Meanwhile, Russians landed on the Kerch peninsula in the eastern part of the island on December 26 and tried to reconquer the Crimea. With great difficulty Manstein sealed off the peninsula, but anticipated that the Red Army would make another attempt in the spring of 1942.

With the conclusion of the Kiev encirclement, Hitler at last was ready to attack Moscow. He ordered it, code-named Operation Typhoon, to commence on September 30. The principal aim was the destruction of Soviet forces blocking the road to the Soviet capital.

He transferred back Hoth's and Guderian's panzer groups, and sent along all but one corps of Hoepner's group from Army Group North. In theory Army Group Center's commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, had a formidable force in the panzer formations, plus 4th Army (Kluge), and 9th Army (Strauss), a maneuver mass of seventy divisions.

But the German army as a whole had lost half a million men since June 22. Almost no units were at full strength. Many of the 600,000 horses the Germans had brought into Russia to carry supplies were dead, and there were no replacements. Ammunition had to be left on the sides of the roads. The simplest necessities disappeared---razor blades, soap, toothpaste, shoe-repair kits, needle and thread. The sick could not be left in the rear, because the forests behind were infested with partisan guerrillas. Rain began in September with cold northeast winds. Shelter everywhere was inadequate or nonexistent. Boots were falling apart, clothing turning into rags.

The infantry divisions were 2,000 to 4,000 men below strength. The three panzer groups (thirteen panzer and seven motorized divisions) possessed only about a thousand tanks altogether. Still they were superior to the 480 tanks (only forty-five new T-34s and KV-1s) that Ivan S. Konev's West Front had to oppose them.

The Russians had had two months to build field fortifications across the approaches to Moscow, and about 800,000 men were facing them. But they were mostly raw replacements with little training and poor leadership.

German panzers broke the Russian front in five places. Guderian drove northeast from Sostka to Orel, eighty miles south of Moscow. His advance was so rapid that the electric streetcars were still running in the city, and evacuations of factories were under way as his tanks rolled in. Workers had to abandon machinery and tools on the streets.

Guderian then turned west on Bryansk. With the help of 2d Army to the west and Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 to the north, he trapped thousands of Russians south and west of Bryansk. Meanwhile 4th and 9th Armies and Hoth's Panzer Group 3 formed another caldron west of Vyazma (only 135 miles from Moscow).

The battles were turbulent. Frequently German troops were cut off and had to fight their way free. Russian aircraft bombed frequently, but flew so high their aim was inaccurate. Counter strokes by T-34 and KV-1 tanks led to critical battle situations.

Guderian commented on a collision of 4th Panzer Division northeast of Orel on October 11: "Numerous Russian T-34s went into action and inflicted heavy losses on the German tanks. Up to this time we had enjoyed tank superiority, but from now on the situation was reversed."

German tankers found that the short-barreled 75mm gun on their Mark IV could knock out a T-34 only if it could hit the grating above the engine in the rear, a shot rarely possible. The 480-mile-wide battlefield was covered with fallen soldiers, dead horses, shot-up tanks, and the first American jeeps.

Stalin had rushed many militiamen with virtually no training into ranks, and large numbers of them gave up without a fight. Once more, linear Russian dispositions had allowed the Germans to break through at selected points, and surround great bodies of troops. On October 13, resistance in the Vyazma caldron ceased. A week later the last Russians surrendered in the Bryansk pocket. The Germans counted 650,000 prisoners altogether, almost as many as were taken in the Kiev caldron.

There were now very few Soviet soldiers between the Germans and Moscow. The entire Soviet army in European Russia was down to 800,000 men and 770 tanks. But the situation had changed radically since August. The first snow fell on October 7. It melted quickly, but was followed by heavy rains.

"The roads rapidly became nothing but canals of bottomless mud," Guderian wrote, "along which our vehicles could only advance at a snail's pace and with great wear to the engines."

In the crisis, Stalin brought Georgy Zhukov back from Leningrad on October 10 to direct the defense of Moscow. Panic was setting in among the people. Rumors of advancing Germans spread widely. People began to fly from the city.

Zhukov stilled the panic by mobilizing every person he could find to build antitank ditches outside the city. A quarter of a million people, three-fourths of them women, did the work by hand with shovels, spades, and buckets. Using whatever troops he could find, Zhukov manned the Mozhaisk line, the Russians' last defensive position, running from the "Sea of Moscow," a reservoir on the Volga river seventy miles north of the city, in a semicircle around to the Oka river, fifty-five miles south of Moscow.

Stalin ordered the Soviet government along with all top officials, the diplomatic corps, and many specialists to evacuate 420 miles east to Kuybyshev, north of the Caspian Sea.

But Stalin did not leave and did not lose his nerve. He lived in a small villa far outside the Kremlin, and worked mostly in the nearby subway station Kirovskaya, where the Soviet high command (Stavka) also operated.

On October 5 he received a radio message from his spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo that the Japanese would go to war with the United States in the next few months.

This meant that the huge army he was maintaining in the Far East to deter Japan no longer was needed, and he ordered twelve divisions with 1,700 tanks and 1,500 aircraft (altogether 250,000 men) in eastern Siberia and Outer Mongolia to come to the defense of Moscow. Until their appearance weeks would go by. Whether the Soviets would get that much leeway depended principally upon the weather.

Rasputiza or the period of mud reached its high point. Vehicles sank to the hubcaps in the morass. The entire German supply system was hobbled.

But on November 2, 1941, the weather began to improve. A light frost permitted the troops to become mobile. Artillery pieces were dragged out of the mud. Trucks could roll once more. Train lines reopened. Bock insisted on a final great exertion to reach Moscow.

The objectives remained a double-sided encirclement of Moscow. In the center 4th Army (Kluge) was to hold the enemy by a frontal attack. On the north Panzer Groups 3 and 4 were to fight to the Moscow-Volga canal running up to the Sea of Moscow. On the south Guderian was to advance past Tula to Kolomna, on the Oka river about sixty miles southeast of Moscow.

This final offensive went down in the annals of the German army as the ?die Flucht nach vorn ? or "the flight to the front"---the desperate attempt of the troops to get into the shelters of Moscow before the onset of winter.

The attempt began on November 15 in clear frosty weather. The panzer units of the northern wing gained a bridgehead across the canal at Dimitrov, and one division came within eighteen miles of Moscow at Krasnaya Polyana. Guderian went around toughly defended Tula and approached Kashira, only thirty-two miles from Kolomna.

Perhaps members of a most-forward German patrol saw the towers of the Kremlin, as legend has it, perhaps not. In any case a glimpse is all they got. The German offensive stopped. The reasons were the onset of cruel winter, and the decision of Zhukov to move to the offensive, when a part of the reinforcements from the Far East arrived.

Temperatures sank to minus 20 degrees Celsius, then fell farther. The German army was not able to cope with such cold. The army lacked winter clothing (fur caps, parkas, felt boots, snow hoods). The number of frostbite cases rose to 228,000. Tanks, machine weapons, and radios failed. Boilers of locomotives burst.

An attempt by 4th Army to renew its attack broke down. Over the next fourteen days the offensive north and south also collapsed. Between the weather and Soviet spoiling attacks, only local advances occurred. T-34 tanks struck Guderian's right flank east of Tula, catching the 112th Infantry Division with no weapons that could stop them, and sending most of the division in panicked retreat.

Stalemate was setting in. Bock doubted the value of pushing on, and asked OKH on December 1 to suspend the operation. But Brauchitsch, desperately fearful of Hitler's anger, insisted the attacks must continue.

The soldiers at the front pressed a few miles forward. But at that moment, December 5, Zhukov launched a counteroffensive. He threw in not only the reinforcements from the Far East, but three new armies that had been forming deep in the Russian hinterland east of the Volga. Some of the new divisions were equipped with Katyusha rocket launchers ("Stalin organs"), a terrifying, but inaccurate, new battlefield weapon that could throw sixteen fin-stabilized 132mm rockets from rails on the back of a truck. For the first time also strong Soviet fighters appeared in the skies.

The counter blow hit the worn-out German divisions at the moment of their greatest weakness. Guderian, attacked by what he called "Siberians," had to give up the positions he had won around Tula. On December 6 a Soviet penetration of four armies spread in the direction of Klin, forcing the Germans back from their closest approach to the capital. South of Moscow, other Soviet forces threatened to cut off Guderian's advanced forces around Kashira, and he withdrew to the line of the upper Don river, sixty miles to the south.

Russian forces were too weak to encircle the German units before they escaped, but the initiative had been wrested from the Germans. The Germans doggedly held on, however, and stopped the Red Army attacks on both sides of Moscow.

In the midst of this crisis, Japan attacked the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Four days later, Hitler declared war on the United States, dragging Mussolini along with him. It was another of Hitler's foolish decisions, because it would have been difficult for President Roosevelt to get Congress unilaterally to declare war on Germany.

German senior officers paid little notice to their new foe, because they were frantically trying to stave off Russian attacks. Halder did not even note in his diary on December 11 that Germany had declared war. Brauchitsch proposed that the army move back to a shortened "winter line" east of Yukhnov-Rzhev, a withdrawal of about a hundred miles. Hitler refused.

He accepted the resignation of Brauchitsch. Though ostensibly based on a heart attack Brauchitsch had suffered, it actually resulted from his and Hitler's long-disturbed relationship. Hitler made himself commander in chief of the army, and ordered "fanatical resistance." He authorized withdrawals only with his personal approval. Nevertheless, despite his orders, German forces fell back in numerous places to avoid being surrounded and destroyed.

Barbarossa had failed. Hitler never saw that he made any mistake. He blamed the defeat on the "unexpectedly early onset of severe winter." Losses rose to 775,000 dead, wounded, and missing---almost one-fourth of the entire strength of the field armies.

A leadership crisis followed. Hitler had relieved Rundstedt because he wanted to withdraw to the Mius river. He now removed both other army group commanders, Bock, ostensibly for sickness, Leeb because Hitler rejected his proposal to withdraw from exposed positions around Leningrad. Three army commanders, Maximilian von Weichs (2d), Adolf Strauss (9th), and Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel (17th), also departed, along with thirty other general officers, including Hoepner, whom Hitler expelled from the army for an unauthorized retreat. Most significantly, he ousted Guderian. Hitler had refused to listen to an attempt by Guderian on December 20 to explain the desperate situation at the front. So the best panzer leader in the German army went into the army officers reserve pool.

By January 1, 1942, Soviet forces had retaken Kalinin, a hundred miles northwest of Moscow, and Kaluga, a hundred miles southwest, and were besieging German strongholds that had been bypassed and surrounded. The threat to Moscow had ended. At this point Hitler issued an order for all troops to stand fast. On January 7, Stalin launched a counteroffensive along the whole front, something the Red Army was too weak to accomplish. The Russians failed to eliminate the surrounded Germans, and made only limited advances elsewhere. The German army survived the winter of 1941-42 because Stalin attempted too much. But Hitler thought the reason was his stand-fast order. For the rest of the war this encouraged him in his mad insistence to defend every inch of ground.

It was a pity for Germany that Adolf Hitler never heeded the advice of the Swiss military analyst Antoine-Henri Jomini, commenting on Napoleon's 1812 invasion: "Russia is a country which is easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of."

Copyright © 2006 Bevin Alexander
Written and reprinted by the generous permission of Bevin Alexander. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bevin Alexander at Also, please visit Bevin Alexander's website at

About the Author

Bevin Alexander is the author of nine books on military history. He commanded the 5th Historical Detachment in the Korean War, 1951-52, and received three battle stars for service at the front. He holds a bachelor's degree with honors in history from The Citadel, and a master's degree with distinction from Northwestern University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia.