The Turning Point of Hitler’s War with the Soviet Union; August-October 1941

Abstract (word count: 255)
This essay concerns one of the greatest military reversals in history. After half a year of stunning victories, a dominant army was forced into retreat for the first time in its history. Being a German history enthusiast, the question of why the German Wehrmacht failed in its invasion of the Soviet Union by December 1941 has always been a topic I was very interested in, as I believe Operation Barbarossa to be one of the 20th, if not the 20th century’s greatest and most important military campaigns. The orthodox explanation for Hitler’s defeat in this crucial venture always seemed “too easy” to me. I knew there must have been more to the defeat of the Wehrmacht than simply mud, snow and logistical shortcomings. As I dove deeper and deeper into the mountains of research that has been made on this topic, I came across a book called Hitler’s Panzers East: WW2 reinterpreted, written by R.H.S Stolfi. This book explored a theory for Hitler’s defeat in the east that intrigued me. Coupled with the well researched and presented nature of the book, I came to take this theory to be the truth. The thesis of this book is that Adolf Hitler is the sole culprit of Germany’s failure to win the war in Russia, and as a consequence WW2 as a whole. At the focal point of this failure by Hitler lie a number of decisions he made from July to September 1941 (the turning point of Hitler’s War with the Soviet Union) which doomed the operation to failure. This is the thesis my essay follows.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction…(pg.5)
2. Start of Blitzkrieg in the East…(pg.5)
3. Mud, snow and bad weather…(pg.6)
4. My thesis…(pg.7)
5. Führer Directive 33-35…(pg.8)
6. Hitler disperses his forces…(pg.10)
7. The Kiev Encirclement…(pg.12)
8. The dangers of a war of attrition…(pg.14)
9. Failure of Operation Typhoon…(pg.15)
10. Hypothetical outcome of earlier German advance…(pg.17)
11. Significance of Germany capturing Moscow…(pg.18)
12. Conclusion…(pg.19)
13. Appendix…(pg.21)
14. Bibliography…(pg.23)
The “turning point” of a war is the point, after which, the course of the rest of the war is pre-determined and one side is assured victory. The Ostfront, or Eastern Front was, in my mind, the most important theatre of the Second World War in Europe. Inspired either by aspirations of world dominance, racial ideology or economic necessity, Adolf Hitler and the German High Command set in motion with their invasion of the USSR a conflict that would last four years, would take the lives of roughly 4,300,000[1] German and 11,500,000[2] Russian soldiers, and would feature some of the harshest fighting conditions and worst acts of brutality and savagery in history. Fall Barbarossa or Operation Barbarossa was the codename given to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd. Named after the crusading German King Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, this was the single greatest land invasion in history with regard to the amount of personnel and war material involved. This essay will answer the question of when the turning of this war was.
Start of Blitzkrieg in the East
On June 22nd approximately 4 million soldiers of Germany and her allies (most notably Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland and Italy) crossed the 2,900[3] km long frontier between Nazi Germany and Soviet-occupied Poland. The majority of this gargantuan force was organized into three army groups; Army Group North, Center and South, with objectives Leningrad, Moscow and the capture of the Ukraine respectively (Appendix 3). By 1941, the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe had established themselves as being the most co-efficient and effective combined armed force in all of Europe, defeating and occupying Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, France, and crushing the British Expeditionary Force. As the ferocity of Barbarossa unfolded to the eyes of the world, it looked as if the German war machine would again achieve success with their innovative use of deep-thrusting armored spearheads independent of slow-moving infantry combined with superbly coordinated tactical air support offered by the Luftwaffe.
Mud, snow and bad weather
Despite numerous early warnings to Stalin, tactical surprise was absolute on the morning of June 22nd. Border defenses were easily overrun and Soviet forces were thrown into disarray and confusion. By 3 October, when Operation Typhoon, the final assault on Moscow began, German armor had encircled huge Red Army forces at Minsk, Kiev, Smolensk and Uman, each time destroying or forcing the surrender of numerous Soviet field armies. The Kiev encirclement alone had yielded the massive number of roughly 600,000[4] prisoners, comprising four Soviet armies and virtually erasing an entire Soviet Front (1 Front consisted of roughly three armies). In light of these astronomical achievements, how was it possible that Hitler’s armies were stopped and eventually defeated by the Red Army at the gates of Moscow and beyond? Over the past 70 years following the conflict, most historians have come to agree that a combination of bad weather (mud, snow and freezing temperatures), Russian manpower and material stockpiles, and German economic shortcomings brought the formerly “invincible” German war machine to a standstill with reconnaissance units in December 1941 looking at the glinting spires of the Kremlin.[5]
My thesis
My thesis is not to discredit these reasons completely. In my opinion, these factors all contributed to the eventual German defeat in 1945. It was indeed the freezing cold and snow that played a major role in stopping Hitler from seizing both Moscow in 1941 and Stalingrad in 1942. Also, it was the vast reserves of manpower and industrial resources that made a German victory impossible after 1941. Lastly, I do believe that the very limited and underutilized German economy did prevent Germany from ultimately supplying their troops on the front lines of the Eastern Front with what they needed, and eventually the ability to fight a war on multiple fronts and in multiple theatres of operations. The thesis of this essay is that Barbarossa and the opening stages of this campaign were the turning point of the war and that they were of the utmost importance when considering the possibility of a German victory against the Soviet Union, and a favorable conclusion of the war as a whole.
Führer Directive 33-35
When considering turning points in the war in the East, turning points after which it is believed that Germany could not have won the war, the battles of Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943) and Moscow (1941) come to mind. These were all decisive battles in their own right that helped crush Hitler’s ambitions, but I believe the turning point of this war to be much earlier. I believe the turning point of this war to be in the period between August-October 1941, in the immediate wake of Barbarossa. In this brief time period, Hitler made what I believe to be the greatest strategic blunder in 20th century military history. On 19th July to 21st August Hitler issued his directives 33-35, dictating that the advance on Moscow was no longer to be the Schwerpunkt or focus of the army’s effort (as it had been before with most of Germany’s tank and mechanized forces being deployed in Army Group Center) and that the seizure of Leningrad and the Ukraine were now the priorities.[6] What this meant on the battlefield was that insurmountably valuable time and effort was wasted with, in my mind, fruitless ventures that did nothing to improve Germany’s strategic position in its war with Russia. With General Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group (The Panzer Groups held between 4 and 5 Panzer Divisions, and roughly 5 motorized infantry and regular infantry divisions) being diverted to the Ukraine and General Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group being diverted to Leningrad, Army Group Center would not continue its advance on Moscow until early October[7], having given Stalin two whole months to prepare for the resumed German onslaught, and wasted valuable men and equipment as a result of Hitler’s lack of strategic understanding and foresight. The simple delay of these two months meant Soviet defenses around Moscow could be improved and prepared in more depth. I believe this to be the turning point of the Second World War’s Eastern Front since after this particular strategic folly Hitler’s and his armies would not be able to seize the heart of the Soviet Union in Moscow due to Soviet preparations and the onset of winter. This meant that all impetus and momentum gained from Barbarossa’s early successes was lost hereafter, making a German victory impossible.
Hitler disperses his forces
Having established the fact that the opening stages of the war were crucial, I believe the battle outside Moscow in the winter of 1941 to be the most important battle of the Nazi-Soviet war, although I believe its outcome was pre-determined by preceding events i.e. Directives 33-35 and Hitler’s meddling in military matters of which he knew little. As already discussed, the German war machine had made short work of all Soviet forces the Stavka (Red Army High Council) had thrown against it in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa. Since the beginning of the campaign, Army Group Center had always been the focus of the main German effort in Russia. It had been the most successful army group in terms of the number of Soviet units it destroyed and encircled, and the distance it had advanced into the USSR. Military wisdom dictates it also had the most important strategic objective; Moscow. Unfortunately for Germany, Adolf Hitler who had made himself the de facto supreme commander of the Wehrmacht, disagreed with the OKH (German Army High Command) and his generals over the strategic and operational objectives multiple times throughout the war. Most importantly, he suddenly, in the middle of the campaign, disagreed on the matter of Moscow as being the primary strategic object of Barbarossa..Hitler, instead, stressed and lectured his generals on the importance of seizing Soviet industry and economic assets to assist Germany’s already ailing economy, and depriving the Soviets of these same assets.[8] He therefore thought the objectives of the seizure of the Leningrad industrial region and the agriculturally rich Ukraine to be of more importance than, in his mind, the mere “trophy city” of Moscow. This culminated on July 30, 1941, with Führer Directive 33. It instructed the OKW to switch Army Group Centre to the defensive and for nearly all armored elements of this army group to be transferred to assist in the seizure of Kiev and Leningrad. Bypassing military structure and professional military advice, Hitler personally ordered Generals Heinz Guderian and Hermann Hoth[9] to move their Panzer Groups 2 and 3, which were already exhausted and depleted from the heavy fighting around Smolensk, to the South and North respectively to satisfy Hitler’s thirst for economic conquest. Specifically, on the 15th of August Hitler ordered that Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow be halted and the 39th Motorized Corps to be diverted from the 3rd Panzer Group in the Centre to Leningrad. By the 24th of August, after both Guderian and Halder (head of the OKH) had tried in vain to persuade Hitler to reconsider his orders, Guderian had been forced to direct the whole of his 2nd Panzer Group to help Army Group South in its encirclement of Kiev. This is the decision which ultimately caused Hitler and Germany to lose its struggle with Joseph Stalin and the USSR.
The Kiev Encirclement
At the end of July, Army Group Center was stopped dead in its tracks just east of Smolensk and the Desna River, unable to advance and forced to switch over to the defensive.[10] This was not due to stiff Soviet resistance, mud, snow, cold or lack of fuel or supplies. No, this tragic waste of a golden opportunity to advance further and to capture Moscow after the Soviets had been so soundly beaten and routed after the Smolensk fiasco[11] was Hitler’s fault alone. But did Hitler’s economic obsession pay off? Some would say “yes”, as it did create one of the greatest military feats in history. The mechanized divisions which were dispatched to Army Group North played a largely minimal role, only helping to defend against increasing Russian counterattacks in the Staraia Russa region East of Leningrad and not bringing about the capture of Leningrad for which Hitler had hoped. 2nd Panzer Group, on the other hand, achieved astounding success on an operational level. After reluctantly starting his offensive to the south, Guderian met relatively light resistance penetrating the point between the Soviet Briansk and Southwestern Fronts. General von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group had already gotten behind the Soviet Southwestern Front and on the 16th of September, both armored spearheads met in the town of Lokhvitsa, approx. 120 miles behind Kiev, encircling a force of roughly 5 Soviet armies and their equipment.[12] Despite a few thousand Russian soldiers escaping the ever-thin panzer defensive perimeter around the “Kiev Pocket” (See Appendix 4), this was the single largest encirclement and was one of the most spectacular single victories in history. 616,304 Red Army soldiers were either captured or killed in the encirclement[13] (compared with the comparatively feeble 90,000 German prisoners captured at Stalingrad in November 1942)[14]. As spectacular as the victory had been, encircling battles take time. As had been the case with previous encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk and Uman, once the enemy had been completely encircled, the mobile panzer and motorized infantry units had to wait and defend a defensive perimeter around the encirclement, as not to let any enemies escape, until the regular infantry units could march up with their artillery and reduce the trapped foe until he forced himself into suicidal frontal assaults or surrender. Although Hitler’s Southern venture and the ensuing battle won a clear victory for the Wehrmacht, I believe it was a victory that was at the wrong place and the wrong time.
The dangers of a war of attrition
With my argument claiming that this period was the turning point of Hitler’s war with the USSR, I must also disprove the arguments that the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk were the turning points of the war. Both battles were confrontations of huge proportion, but as in the case of the battle of Moscow, their outcomes were already determined before the first German soldier ever entered Stalingrad or the first tiger tank attacked at Prokhorovka. What we know today as “Blitzkrieg”, which more accurately was the way in which the Wehrmacht drastically and decisively destroyed (and not simply routed) its enemy’s armies in the opening battles was Germany’s secret to success in the Second World War. It was a way of waging war in which operational success, the art of winning battles, was everything and the economic effects of a drawn out, prolonged war were negated to a point where it did not matter that Germany had less industrial capacity compared to her enemies. What this meant was that in 1941, when the boost offered by “Blitzkrieg” was most needed by Germany to defeat the industrial giant that was the USSR, Hitler wavered and sought, instead of pursuing strategic goals such as the destruction of Soviet Armies and the capture of the Soviet capital, to pursue economic goals which would help him in the long term (a point at which Germany would lose the war anyway), he made the decisive mistake of the war. As soon as Hitler slipped into this mindset in which he was no longer trying to crush his enemy, but only trying to improve Germany’s long term economic position, victory was virtually impossible for the Wehrmacht, as Germany could not hope to match the USSR’s industrial capacity, let alone the massive support offered by “Lend-Lease” from Great Britain and the USA. The impact this had on the battlefield was that Russian superiority in both men and machines became apparent as early as 5 December when the Russians launched their own Winter offensive, immediately after six whole months of almost uninterrupted German offensive actions, which pushed Army Group Center practically back to the positions where it had started Operation Typhoon in early October. As a consequence of this failure by Hitler, all future German offensive operations hereafter (Fall Blau (the 1942 Summer Offensive), Fall Zitadelle (Kursk)), were doomed to failure.
Failure of Operation Typhoon
During the generous time period of two months given to the Soviet High Command by Hitler through his diffusion of strategic objectives, the Stavka was able to raise and place no less than nine armies opposite Army Group Center and mobilize thousands of peasant reserves (an ability the USSR had which would inexorably doom Germany’s efforts in the future) dedicated to the defense of Moscow. Knowing full well that an assault on Moscow was soon to commence, Stalin also employed thousands of Moscow civilians to dig anti-tank ditches, pillboxes, bunkers and trench systems for the defense of the capital. During this time the German tanks and mechanized units that would eventually be used to assault Moscow were being progressively worn down in strategic military sideshows in the north and south. The Germans did achieve notable success during Operation Typhoon, creating yet another enormous encirclement of Russian soldiers at Briansk-Vyazma and coming within artillery range of Moscow, but the Russian defenders had been given too much time to prepare and withstood the German onslaught. Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army, which was the southern arm of the planned encirclement of Moscow, was repulsed three times from the key town of Tula and was then forced to give up the offensive.[15] Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army fared slightly better and reached as far as Istra and a motorcycle patrol from Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzer Army reach as far as the town of Khimki (6km from Moscow outskirts) but came no further, condemning the northern pincer of the offensive to failure as well.[16]
Hypothetical outcome of earlier German advance
But what if the Germans had started their offensive on Moscow in early August, instead of October, and not diverted Army Group Centre’s tanks north and south? On 5th August, the Soviets could field an estimated 63 divisions in front of Moscow, 28 of which were fresh conscripts and 35 were remnants and escapees from the previous failures of Smolensk and Minsk[17]. Opposed to this were roughly 60 well-equipped, victorious and veteran German divisions poised to advance. Whereas on 2nd October the Russians fielded 100+ divisions supported by numerous tank brigades opposed to 70 German divisions, most of which had just arrived from the south or north and the rest of which had been sitting in waiting for the last two months[18]. Taking into account the contribution that mud, snow and the freezing cold had on the German offensive of October, which would not have been present in August, based on these figures it is hard to escape the conclusion that a German offensive launched in August 1941 would have fared far better than the one in October, and most probably would have captured the Soviet Capital and destroyed the 60 odd divisions defending it.
Significance of Germany capturing Moscow
What this would have signified for Joseph Stalin’s USSR is another question. Moscow is the quintessential heart of European Russia. It had been the Russian seat of Government since 1917, and housed the Politburo and the dictator, Stalin himself, in the Kremlin. The Soviet State Committee of Defense and the General Staff of the Red Army were also located in Moscow during this time, including most other essential military organs of the country. Compared with Moscow’s infrastructural and industrial significance, the damage to the governmental structure and dictatorship of Stalin appear negligible. In 1941, Moscow was the communication and transportation hub of the USSR, being used to receive and re-direct most resources from the Far East and Asia and through its central position being the nucleus of the intricate web of rail lines that connected Leningrad, Moscow and the Ukraine. Besides it and its surrounding area accounting for more than 18%[19] of the industrial output of the entire Soviet Union, Moscow was also the most populated city. The psychological shock to government and people alone is worth taking into account when considering the effect the fall of Moscow would have on the USSR and its war-fighting capability. Undoubtedly, the fall of Moscow would have been a catastrophic blow to the Soviet Union and a monumental victory for the Wehrmacht. A blow that I do not think the USSR would have easily recovered from and might have spelt its demise as a free nation.
The reasons for Hitler’s August-October 1941 folly are mostly unclear, although it is clear from examining the decisions he made all throughout the war, most significantly in August-October 1941, Russia, but also in France (failure at Dunkirk) the year before and in the latter part of the war that Hitler was simply not the strategic mastermind of war he has been made out to be. He understood the necessities of starting wars while his Wehrmacht was in a dominant position, but did not grasp the necessity of clear objectives and deliberate aggressiveness on the battlefield, something his generals on the battlefield (Von Bock, Guderian, Hoth, Hoepner) and high command (Halder, von Brauchitsch) grasped very well, but whose efforts where ultimately undermined by Hitler’s paranoia and stubborn ignorance. Either because of his arrogance or his racial ideology, Hitler came to believe he had the leisure on the Eastern Front to pursue goals that would improve his own economy, while the enemy was left unbeaten! This was a mistake the Supreme-Commander of any armed force cannot make, especially considering the scale and gravity of the war with the USSR. Barbarossa was meticulously planned in every detail. I wholly disagree with the common belief that Germany’s invasion of the USSR was a mistake. The Wehrmacht was a superb fighting machine whose peak was July 1941, when innovative use of tactics and technology had made total domination of Europe a possibility by virtually opening the road to the Soviet capital Moscow and dealing blow after blow to the colossus that was the Red Army. It had the chance to defeat Stalin’s Union of Socialist Republics after the fall of Smolensk, and where it for one fateful decision probably would have done so. After August 1941, when Hitler had, perhaps inadvertently, changed the nature of the Eastern Front from a war of aggressive advance, into a war of attrition, the possibility of victory was lost forever and the turning point of the war with the Soviet Union had passed.
1. “After previous findings the importance of Moscow to the survivability of the Soviet Union has been put in third place.” – Adolf Hitler (translated) Conversation between Hitler and Chiefs of Staff at Army Group Center HQ 4. August 1941.[20]
2. “…1.The most important missions before the onset of winter are to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal regions of the Don, deprive the Russians of the opportunity to obtain oil from the Caucasus and, in the north, to encircle Leningrad and link up with the Finns rather than capture Moscow.” – Adolf Hitler Order from the OKW to the OKH 21 August 1941[21]
3. German movements from June-September
4. The Kiev Encirclement
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[1] Overmans, Rudiger: Deutsche Militarische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. pg. -
[2] Swanston, Alexander & Malcolm: The Historical Atlas of World War II. pg. 382
[3] World War II Chronicle, 2007. Legacy/ Publications International, Ltd. Page 146
[4] Stahel, David: Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East pg. 209
[5] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa pg. 186
[6]Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa pg. 96
[7] Glantz, David M. Barbarossa Derailed pg. 396
[8] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa. Pg. 100.
[9] Mitcham, Samuel W. The Men of Barbarossa pg. 165
[10] Schramm, Percy E. Kriegstagesbuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht pg. 546
[11] Glantz, David M. Barbarossa Derailed pg. 329
[12] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa. Pg. 117
[13] Glatz, David M. Before Stalingrad. pg. 129
[14] Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler’s Panzers East. pg. 225
[15] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 234
[16] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 222
[17] Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler’s Panzers East. pg. 182
[18] Forczyk, Robert. Moscow 1941. Pg. 28-29
[19] Magenheimer, Heinz. Hitler’s War – Germany’s key strategic decisions. Pg. 143
[20] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz: Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 58
[21] Glantz, David M. Before Stalingrad. pg. 281
[22] Opening stages of Barbarossa (14.11.2011)
[23] The Kiev Encirclement (14.11.2011)