Operation ‘Taifun’ – The German failure in front of Moscow

The rasputitsa effect - a village street near Moscow, November 1941On 5 December 1941, just over 70 years ago, the German ‘Taifun’ (typhoon) operation froze to death in a mire of bitter cold and German exhaustion with the attackers at the very gates of Moscow, and so ended any hope that the Germans had of finishing the USSR as a viable enemy in one major campaign during the summer and autumn of 1941. ‘Taifun’ was schemed as the culmination of ‘Barbarossa’ (30 September/5 December 1941). The operation was ordered specifically by Adolf Hitler on 6 September 1941 in his Führerweisung Nr 35, which established that the forces of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s Western Direction were to be destroyed east of Smolensk by pincer attacks directed on Vyaz’ma, starting by the end of September, so that Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could then drive on Moscow with its left flank on the upper reaches of the Volga river and its right flank on the Okha river. The detailed planning of the operation was entrusted to the Oberkommando des Heeres, which co-ordinated its efforts closely with those of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, both staffs appreciating that their forces faced not only the Soviet armies but also an increasingly urgent problem of time as the weather was likely to break early in October with the arrival of the autumn rasputitsa (glutinous mud) presaging the winter’s freeze early in December.

At this time the delay imposed upon Germany’s plans against the USSR by the implementation of ‘Unternehmen 25’ and ‘Marita’ in the Balkans, to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece respectively, became fully apparent as a strategic folly of the first order. The German problem was compounded by an erroneous intelligence assessment of the strength facing Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in front of Moscow, this being reckoned as the seven armies of General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s West Front and two armies of General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front to Timoshenko’s south. The Germans rightly reckoned the Soviet front-line strength at between 70 and 100 divisions, but failed to appreciate the presence of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s Reserve Front (42 divisions in six armies) behind the Vyaz’ma Defence Line. The operational scheme devised by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the Oberkommando des Heeres was simple in concept: the well-established double pincer movement, in this instance designed to close at Vyaz’ma on the Moscow Highway some 80 miles (130 km) from the German start line, trapping the bulk of the Soviet forces.

But the plan was difficult to execute because of the strengthening Soviet resistance against German forces approaching the point of exhaustion and now sorely in need of reinforcement and refitting. The northern arm of the pincer consisted of Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army with Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe inside it, and the southern arm was similarly constituted of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army with Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe outside it. Strauss’s northern arm could muster 18 infantry, two motorised and three Panzer divisions, while von Kluge’s southern arm could deploy 15 infantry, two motorised and five Panzer divisions. Once the armoured pincer of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe had closed on Vyaz’ma, the 3rd Panzergruppe was to spearhead the northern advance against Moscow (along the axis from Bely to Rzhev and Kalinin, thus forming the left-flank guard for the main offensive against any attempt at intervention by Konev’s new Kalinin Front and General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front, General Georgi K. Zhukov having taken command of the West Front) and the 4th Panzergruppe was to lead the southern advance (along the axis from Yukhnov to Moscow) to encircle the Soviet capital.

It had been hoped that Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (redesignated as the 2nd Panzerarmee on 5 October, and comprising six infantry, four motorised and five Panzer divisions in two infantry and three Panzer corps) would be able to move sufficiently far up from the south (together with Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army of eight infantry divisions) to take part in the main offensive, but as this proved impossible the 2nd Panzergruppe and 2nd Army were allocated the important secondary task in ‘Wotan’ of driving north-east from Novgorod Seversky toward Orel and Tula with the object of piercing through Eremenko’s Bryansk Front and forming a right-flank guard for the main offensive against any Soviet attempts at intervention from the south.

The whole operation involved a considerable reshuffling of German formations, and though the operational capability of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was impaired by their loss of seven (two motorised and five Panzer) and nine (five infantry, two motorised and two Panzer) divisions respectively, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was not bolstered as much as it might have been, for its formations had been reorganised on what was in effect a wholesale basis, with a consequent loss of operational cohesion. Guderian was to attack on 30 September, with the main offensive following on 2 October. von Bock thus controlled 48 infantry, eight motorised and 14 Panzer divisions, and air support for the whole undertaking was entrusted to 1,000 aircraft provided by General Bruno Lörzer’s II Fliegerkorps and General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II. von Bock had only two divisions in reserve, and the Oberkommando des Heeres had no more divisions to offer him. German intelligence now put the Soviet strength at 80 infantry, 11 tank divisions or brigades, and nine cavalry divisions, whereas in fact Timoshenko’s Western Direction had Zhukov’s West Front with six armies and Eremenko’s Bryansk Front with four armies in the front line, together with the six armies of Budyonny’s Reserve Front echeloned behind them to provide defence in depth. The Soviets thus mustered some 800,000 men in 83 infantry divisions, nine cavalry divisions and 13 tank brigades (770 tanks), with air support provided by some 360 aircraft.

‘Taifun’ started as planned on 30 September, when the 2nd Panzergruppe surged forward through General Leytenant Arkadi N. Ermakov’s Operational Group ‘Ermakov’, on the left flank of the Bryansk Front, toward Sevsk and Orel. The latter fell on 3 October after the 2nd Panzergruppe had advanced some 130 miles (310 km), and at the same time General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps, one of Guderian’s three Panzerkorps, had peeled off to the north in an attempt to cut off the Bryansk Front. The Soviet resistance in this sector now began to stiffen, and General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko was sent forward from Moscow to organise the defence of Mtsensk with extemporised forces. Heavy fighting followed in this sector, north-east of Orel. Bryansk fell on 6 October to Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision on the extreme left of Guderian’s advance, and two large pockets of Soviet troops were trapped with the co-operation of the 2nd Army, which linked the 2nd Panzerarmee with the 4th Panzergruppe. To the north of Bryansk was General Major Mikhail P. Petrov’s 50th Army, and to the city’s south General Major Yakov G. Kreizer’s 3rd Army and General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s 13th Army. At this stage matters were going well for the fast-moving Germans, who were nonetheless becoming concerned by the growing resistance of the Soviets, and by the fact that the first snow of winter fell on 6 October. Eremenko and his Bryansk Front headquarters were out of touch with Moscow, and on 8 October Eremenko ordered his encircled forces to break out to the east, a move possible because the Germans had so far thrown only a cordon round the pockets. The remnants surrendered on 17 October (northern pocket) and 25 October (southern pocket), yielding 50,000 prisoners.

Farther east Guderian was making only slow progress, for the only practical road north-east from Orel had broken up under the weight of traffic it was carrying (and the Soviets were proving adept at the whole spectrum of demolitions and booby traps), cross-country movement being impossible as the continued snow melted as it reached the ground, forming the impenetrable semi-frozen mud of the autumn rasputitsa. Guderian was also suffering from a surfeit of Hitler-inspired instructions, requiring him to undertake the simultaneous captures of Tula in the north-east and of Kursk in the south, as well as the elimination of the two Soviet pockets in the west. Progress was made, however, and by 30 October Guderian had pushed forward to the outskirts of Tula and had taken Kursk.

Away to the north the two arms of von Bock’s primary pincer movement had been moving forward since 2 October with the object of trapping as much as possible of the West Front before it could fall back to the defences of the Vyaz’ma Defence Line, which stretched north/south just west of Vyaz’ma as far north as a point east of Lake Seliger, and as far south as a point just north of Bryansk. As with Guderian’s southern offensive, the northern pincer at first moved with great speed and considerable success in the last of the autumn’s fine weather. The 9th Army and 4th Panzergruppe (the northern arm) broke through the main Soviet defences at the junction of General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 30th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 19th Army just north of Dukhovshchina, allowing Hoth to launch General Ferdinand Schaal’s LVI Panzerkorps toward Kholm and Vyaz’ma, and General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLVI Panzerkorps toward Rzhev on the upper Volga. By 10 October the northern arm of the pincer had pierced the Vyaz’ma Defence Line between Vyaz’ma and Sychevka, and pushed forward as far as Gzhatsk on the rail line from Smolensk to Moscow.

Similar success attended the efforts of the 4th Army and the 4th Panzergruppe (the southern arm) which fell on General Major Konstantin I. Rakutin’s 24th Army and General Leytenant Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army, and routed them before driving through the Vyaz’ma Defence Line. On 4 October the southern arm took Spas-Demyansk and Kirov, and one day later seized Yukhnov and Mosalsk before being slowed in the approaches to the Mozhaysk Defence Line by 10 October. The Soviet position was critical, and on 5 October Stalin authorised the West and Reserve Fronts to pull back east of the Vyaz’ma Defence Line in an effort to avoid total encirclement and destruction by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. General Major Vasili N. Dalmatov’s 31st Army and General Major Sergei V. Vishnevsky’s 32nd Army of the Reserve Front were ordered to check the Germans while this wholesale withdrawal was effected. But to complicate the issue, the Soviet high command now decided to reorganise its forces in the sector, and in the process of this reshuffle the high command in Moscow lost complete control of the situation.

The result was inevitable, and by 7 October the 3rd and 4th Panzergruppen had created a great pocket west of Vyaz’ma. In this pocket were trapped most of Lukin’s 19th Army, General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 20th Army, Rakutin’s 24th Army and Vishnevsky’s 32nd Army, together with General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s Operational Group ‘Boldin’. The Soviet formations continued to fight, but were demoralised and poorly led. On 13 October the great Vyaz’ma pocket collapsed, yielding the Germans some 650,000 prisoners and vast quantities of matériel, the latter including more than 1,000 tanks and 4,000 guns. The Soviets had lost more than 45 divisions, nearly half of the forces at their disposal at the beginning of ‘Taifun’.

The civil population of Moscow clearly thought that the end was at hand, and from 16 October the roads east from the Soviet capital were jammed with refugees, seriously hampering the arrival of reinforcements drawn in from the east. Premier Iosif Stalin decided that Moscow be ordered into a state of siege on 19 October, and the situation began to stabilise. More importantly, however, Stalin summoned Zhukov to co-ordinate the Soviet resistance on the Mozhaysk Defence Line, now the main barrier between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Moscow. Zhukov ordered that all stragglers and lost detachments be rushed to the Mozhaysk Defence Line, where the defences were being prepared by General Major Semyon I. Bogdanov. From 14 October General Major Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army, General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army and General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 5th Army were allocated to hold the line with 14 infantry divisions, 16 tank brigades and 40 rifle regiments (a total of 90,000 men).

It was at this time that the Soviet high command began to commit forces from the Far East now that its intelligence operatives had confirmed that Japan’s imminent entry to the war was based not on its ambition to seize eastern Siberia but on offensives east across the Pacific to destroy the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and on a drive to the south to seize the ‘Southern Resources Area’. Other Soviet reinforcements were being made available from Kurochkin’s North-West Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front. Zhukov assumed control of the whole sector on 10 October, the previous West and Reserve Fronts being amalgamated as Zhukov’s West Front, with Konev as his deputy. Seven days later Konev was despatched to form a new Kalinin Front (General Major Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 22nd Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 29th Army and General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 30th Army and the ‘Vatutin’ Group) in an effort to check the 3rd Panzergruppe, which had taken Kalinin on 14 October and thus threatened to envelop Moscow from the north if its could get round the Volga Reservoir and advance down the eastern bank of the Volga Canal to the Soviet capital. Konev’s task was thus to hold the east/west sector of front running west from Kalinin to Ostashkov at the southern end of Lake Seliger.

Zhukov was faced with an impossible task on the Mozhaysk Defence line, and by 18 October the line had been pierced by General Georg Stumme’s XL Panzerkorps at Mozhaysk, by General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Panzerkorps between Borovsk and Maloyaroslavets, and by General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps at Kaluga. By 30 October the Germans had driven through the Mozhaysk Defence Line along its full length, and were only some 40 miles (65 km) from Moscow, whose three defence lines were being strengthened continuously by civilian labour force, three-quarters of which were women. But at this time the weather broke completely, a fact not appreciated in the Oberkommando des Heeres orders of 14 October, which directed that the 2nd Panzerarmee was to take Tula and then envelop Moscow from the south, the 2nd Army to advance from Kursk to Voronezh, the 4th Army to pin the Soviet forces west of Moscow, the 3rd and 4th Panzergruppen to envelop Moscow from the north-west, and the 9th Army to move north-east toward Vishny Volochek to support Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.

The orders were issued by Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army, and brought protests from von Bock, whose army group frontage was thus extended to 600 miles (965 km) from the original 400 miles (645 km) of 2 October despite the losses of the first stage of ‘Taifun’. von Bock wanted to attack Moscow along the shortest route and with his forces concentrated, but von Brauchitsch was adamant despite warnings from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ about the worsening weather, the Germans formations’ lack of fuel, supplies and winter clothing, and the impossibility of the ground, over which only tracked vehicles and captured Soviet carts could move. Consolidation of current positions and preparations for the final German drive toward Moscow occupied the period from 30 October to 15 November, and the German situation can be regarded only as parlous. In a report of 6 November, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht reckoned that as a result of matériel and manpower deficiencies the 101 German infantry divisions on the Eastern Front (excluding Finland) should be reckoned as no better than 65 divisions, that the 17 Panzer divisions had the combat capability of a mere six Panzer divisions, and that the real strength of all 136 German divisions on the Eastern Front was that of just 83 divisions, or just over 60% of its establishment capability. With the weather worsening and the Soviets beginning to receive reinforcements from the east, this position could only deteriorate. Despite this gloomy situation, the Oberkommando des Heeres at Hitler’s insistence on 7 November issued orders for a resumption of the ‘Taifun’ offensive on the supposed grounds that the Soviet defence was incapable of holding its current positions with a continuous defence.

Prototypes of the formidable T-34 medium tank

Yet during the first 14 days of November the West Front was reinforced with 100,000 men, 300 tanks and 2,000 guns. Thus when ‘Taifun’ was resumed on 15 November, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could muster 58 divisions (38 infantry, seven motorised and 13 Panzer) against the Kalinin, West and South-West Fronts, which between them deployed 91 formations (60 infantry divisions, 14 cavalry divisions and 17 tank brigades). Of the last, several were equipped with the new and extremely formidable T-34/76 medium tank, against which German tanks and anti-tank guns were relatively impotent. The Soviets were also better acclimatised to and equipped for the weather, and despite their losses of matériel during the previous five months of mobile fighting were still well provided with artillery (especially of the heavier types which had not been deployed against the Germans in their ‘Barbarossa’ offensive). The story of Germany’s last effort against Moscow is simple, for while the Panzer formations managed to advance to within a few miles of the city, the Germans were unable to make the decisive breakthroughs either north or south of the capital and were eventually checked on 5 December. In the north the 3rd Panzergruppe managed to reach the Volga Canal against the West Front, and in the south the 2nd Panzerarmee drove past Stalinogorsk toward Ryazan but could get no farther than Mikhailov and Gorlovo before being halted by the South-West Front. By 3 December von Bock was ordered to sanction some local withdrawals in the face of Soviet counterattacks, and ‘Taifun’ had failed.

On 5 December the offensive was formally abandoned, and von Brauchitsch decided to retire. Even Hitler was forced to reconsider his desire that Moscow be taken, and on 8 December the German leader signalled his acceptance of the army’s decision. The repercussions in Germany were severe, and at a meeting on 19 December von Brauchitsch was formally replaced as commander of the army by Hitler, and von Bock was replaced as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by von Kluge. From this time onward Hitler interfered more in the conduct of operations, and the failure of ‘Taifun’ thus had a decided (and malign) effect on the operational conduct of the war by the Germans.

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