Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ
27th February, 2016
The complete defeat of German troops near Moscow in December 1941 prevented the intervention of Hitler. Penal battalions, the in-German trial divisions, and, in particular, using the definition of Keitel, the “merciless hardness of Hitler”, prevented panic in the Army in December 1941.
During the winter campaign the Nazi military tribunal condemned 62,000 soldiers and officers for desertion, unauthorized departure, disobedience and so on. 35 Generals were suspended from their posts, including Field Marshall Generals Brauchitsch, Bock, and Colonel-General Guderian.
Keitel wrote the following about the retreat of the German army near Moscow: “It would be contrary to the truth if I hadn’t stated here with the utmost conviction: the catastrophe was avoided only by sheer force of will, perseverance and the relentless hardness of Hitler. If the well thought out plan in its original form of a step-by-step retreat, in which the desire to implement it was narrow minded, egoistic and dictated by the disastrous situation of the heavily pushed and suffering from the awful cold (reason of apathy) “Center” group of armies, hadn’t been crossed out inexorably without any compromise by the Führer’s opposition and his iron energy, the fate of German army in 1941 would’ve been inevitably the same as Napoleon’s one in 1812.
As a witness to and participant in the events of those terrible weeks I have to say most definitely! All heavy weapons, all the tanks and all motorized tools would have remained on the battlefield. Being aware of the image of their own defencelessness, the troops would have also surrendered their handguns, and, having behind them a relentless pursuer, would have ran.”
At this time the number of penal battalions in the German Army had especially been growing. Trial divisions, which existed until the end of the war, saved the German units from destruction, but were stopped by the retreat of the Germans at Moscow. Few people know that the practice of penal battalions was borrowed by Stalin from Germany. Soldiers of the Soviet army that were sent to penal battalions, had to fight until first blood, i.e. a wound, and after making amends, could return to ordinary battalions. And the goal was not getting rid of people, but the punishment of servicemen who committed crimes. These battalions were mainly used for reconnaissance of the enemy firing points. But enough of the theme of battalions – this topic is 1942, and we shall get back to it.
Soviet troops on 9th December liberated Rogachevo, December 11th – Istra, December 12th – Solnechnogorsk, December 15th – Klin, December 16th – Kalinin, December 20th– Volokolamsk. Hundreds of other villages and towns were liberated in December 1941 along the Western front and the Kalinin front.
The troops successfully advanced on the southwestern front. The Germans were unable to stop the advance of our troops on the line of the Oka river. And on 30th December Kaluga was taken. The advance of Soviet troops in the South did not end with the liberation of Rostov-on-don. Pursuing the retreating enemy, our troops crossed the river Mius and created the Barvenkovsky ridge in the region of Izum.
The troops of the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts failed in December 1941 to break the blockade of Leningrad. But we seized the strategic initiative and even landed troops in Crimea with the aim of assiting the fighting in Sevastopol. Hearts of the Soviet people were filled with pride and belief in a speedy victory and the end of the war. But Stalin saw the real strength of the armies of Europe. Stalin said to the Envoy of the President of the United States, Harry Hopkins, “I believe, however, that the war will be intense and maybe prolonged”. And asked for the materials necessary for a long war.
With the only attack on the Western strategic direction our troops smashed 11 Panzers, 4 motorised infantry units and 23 German divisions. In December 1941, our troops continued to attack, however, moving ahead, Vasilevsky wrote: “During the winter offensive the Soviet troops defeated 50 enemy divisions, causing especially serious defeats to the main grouping of enemy troops – the “Centre” group of the Army”.
The prestige of Germany in the eyes of Japan and Turkey dropped significantly. Our soldiers were stronger than the selective SS physical training, will and military skill. It is possible to judge the elite German SS troops at least because the service only took recruits from the countryside with an excellent state of health. Even those with a filled in tooth were not allowed to be enrolled in this division.
Our military equipment worked reliably in the heat and in the cold. Our officers gained experience in bloody battles. Our Red Army was advancing, covering the snowy ground with corpses of German soldiers and officers, smashed artillery pieces, burned tanks and vehicles of the enemy and fallen enemy horses. And a lot of serviceable equipment had been abandoned in a panic by fleeing German soldiers. Columns of German prisoners were led to the East by our soldiers, holding rifles at the ready with fixed bayonets.
But not only the defeated German army saw the soldiers. Thousands of Germans in burned down villages and homeless civilians met our fighters on the way, dozens of ruined cities with blown up factories and homes, thousands shot, women and children tortured to death appeared before the eyes of Soviet soldiers.
At the sight of these terrible atrocities of the German invaders, the hearts of the soldiers and officers of the Red Army filled with holy wrath, demanded revenge and retribution, called them to battle. They say that Stalin issued an order to officers and soldiers, after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was tortured, to not take any prisoners.
The British Foreign Secretary, Eden, arrived in Moscow late in the evening of the 15th December 1941. He came through the not-defeated-by-the-Germans city of Murmansk. Eden rashly said to Stalin: “For now, Hitler still stands near Moscow, and Berlin is far away.” To which Stalin replied: “It’s nothing, the Russians have already been to Berlin twice, and there will be a third time”.
During the feast, Stalin offered Eden “Russian whisky” – pepper vodka, and when he caught his breath, said, “This drink can only be drank by strong people. Hitler is beginning to feel it”. Eden was driven around the roads of the suburbs, and he saw the broken German military equipment and vehicles across Europe. He had also seen hundreds of bodies of conquerors who trampled down the earth of Warsaw and Dunkerque, the North Cape and Crete, Paris and Thessaloniki, and considered themselves masters of the world, but found death at the hands of Soviet soldiers in the fields and forests near Moscow. On the return journey Eden told Maisky: “Now I’ve seen with my own eyes how the German army can suffer defeat, retreat, flee”.
On the 8th of July 1941, the chief of the General staff of the land forces of Germany, Colonel General F. Halder, who yearned to destroy all Slavs and had done everything possible to destroy them (after the war, until 1961, he collaborated with the military-historical service of the U.S army), wrote in his official diary: “The unwavering decision of the Führer to level Moscow and Leningrad to the ground, to completely get rid of the population of these cities.” But this did not happen.
In 1941 our grandparents and great-grandparents defended the right to life and, greeting the new year of 1942, proclaimed a toast for Victory. What would’ve happened to the people of the USSR in case of defeat in WWII is shown in the story depicted by Marshal of aviation Golovanov. He wrote: “Once a blond, blue-eyed girl was discovered in a downed German bomber in the form of a military pilot. When asked how she, a woman, could decide to bomb peaceful city, killing innocent women and children, she replied: “Germany needs space, but she doesn’t need people on these lands”.
In 1942, the Red Army continued to advance. Moscow and Tula regions were liberated, as well as many areas of Kalinin, Smolensk, Ryazan and Orel regions. Losses in manpower for the “Center” group of armies alone, who recently stood near Moscow, for the period from 1st January to 30th March 1942 was more than 333,000 people. After the 8th January to 20th April Sychevka-Vyazemskoy, Toropetskiy-Holmsky, Rzhevsky and Bolkhov offensive operations, the troops of our Western, Kalinin and Bryansk fronts went on the defensive. Further advance was impossible because of the spring thaw and the associated difficulties of supplying the army with munitions, the losses in men and materiel as a result of four months of offensive engagements, and a lack of reserves needed to gain superiority over the German “Centre” group of armies.
The German leadership restored order in the army by punitive disciplinary measures and created a heavily fortified line of defense, which the Red Army did not have sufficient forces to break through. Besides, the German command had moved substantial forces from Western Europe to hold the front. In particular, to avoid defeat during our Rzhev-Vyazma operation in 1942, the Germans transferred 12 divisions and two brigades out of Western Europe.
The day of the transfer of our troops to defend the aforementioned fronts (20 April 1942) is considered the day of the end of the battle of Moscow.
During the great Patriotic war, the serving army conducted 51 strategic, more than 250 front-line and about 1,000 military operations, of which nearly two-thirds were on the offensive. All these operations and battles were conducted under the guidance of the Supreme Command headed by Stalin. Millions of people were set in motion by the decision of the Stavka.
Zhukov wrote the following about the Stavka: “The Stavka was in charge of all military operations of the armed forces on land, at sea and in the air, producing the capacity for strategic efforts in the struggle against the reserves and using the forces of the guerrilla movement. The General Staff was its working body. The intentions and plans of strategic operations and campaigns were worked out in the Stavka’s apparatus – HQ, with participation of some members of the Stavka.”
This was preceded by lots of work in the Politburo and the State Defense Committee. They discussed the international situation at this point in time, and studied the potential political and military capabilities of warring States. Only after studying and discussing all public issues were projections of a political and military nature made. As a result of all this complex work the political and military strategy that guided the Supreme Command was determined.
In the development of the next operation, Stalin usually summoned the Chief of the General staff and his Deputy and painstakingly considered with them the operational-strategic situation on the Soviet-German front: the state of the troops of the fronts, the data from all kinds of intelligence and the preparation of the reserves of all military branches. Then the Chief of logistics of the Red Army was summoned to the Stavka, as well as commanders of various military branches and the heads of major departments of the people’s Commissariat of Defence, who would have to basically give support for the operation.
Then the Supreme Commander, Supreme Deputy and Chief of Staff discussed the strategic opportunities for our troops. The Chief of the General Staff and Deputy Supreme was given the task of thinking and calculating our capabilities for those operations that were planned to be held. Usually the Supreme assigned us four or five days for this job. Upon expiration of the period a preliminary decision was taken. Thereafter, the Supreme gave the Chief of the General Staff the task to request the opinion of the military councils of the fronts of the operation.
The Stavka was well aware of the situation on the fronts, and responded in a timely manner to changing circumstances. Through it the General Staff, closely following the progress of the operations, made the necessary adjustments to their troops, elaborating on them or tackling new problems that had arisen in the existing situation. If necessary, they produced a regrouping of strength, the means to achieve the goals of the operation and delivered tasks to the troops, and in special cases ceased the operation. Marshal of artillery N.D Yakovlev wrote: “The work rate was remarkable for its simplicity and intelligence. No ostentatious speeches, elevated tone, or talking softly”.
To be continued…