1942: Attack and Counter-Attack

‘We still need to assimilate the experience of modern war … neither here, nor today will the outcome of the war be decided. The crisis is yet far off.’


The dramatic reversal of fortunes at the gates of Moscow encouraged Stalin to make the same premature assumption of victory that Hitler and his generals had been led to by the great battles of encirclement in the summer of 1941. No matter that Zhukov had husbanded the newly mobilized and only half-trained reserves to make the Moscow counter-attack possible; that he had been supported by the majority of the Red Air Force; and that the Germans had been at the extreme end of their tenuous supply lines. Stalin ordered immediate offensives all along the line from Leningrad to the Crimea.

The attempt to break the siege of Leningrad relied on the Volkhov Front, named for the river that flows north from Lake Ilmen into Lake Ladoga. In command was another youthful survivor of the purges, 43-year-old Kirill Meretskov, a veteran of the 1st Cavalry Army from the Civil War who had served in Spain alongside Pavlov. As commander of the Leningrad Military District in 1939 he had presided over the less-than-successful assaults on the Mannerheim Line at the end of that year. In January 1941 he was sacked for a dismal performance in a wargame and replaced by Zhukov. Worse was to follow: in the wake of Pavlov’s arrest, he too was seized and tortured into confessing he was part of Pavlov’s conspiracy. For reasons lost in the torturers’ archives, he was still alive in September 1941 and was released without explanation and restored to his rank.

The Volkhov Front was created in December 1941. On 7 January it launched its offensive and was reinforced with the 26th Army from Stavka reserve a week later. The 26th ploughed ahead and was re-named the 2nd Shock Army, one of four ‘breakthrough’ forces intended to have extra artillery to batter their way through the German defences. In the event, the 2nd Shock made such progress that it found itself in a deep salient. The Russian attacks stalled in the dense forests and the fighting reverted to positional warfare. Attacks and counter-attacks saw bunkers and trench lines change hands repeatedly, but changes to the front line only showed up on tactical maps of the smallest scale. The tables were turned in March 1942 when the German Army Group North counter-attacked at the base of the salient and encircled 2nd Shock Army. After the commander of the army fell ill, Meretskov sent his new deputy, Andrei Vlasov, to take charge of the pocket.

Vlasov, who had had some experience of breaking out of German encirclements the previous summer, was once again the victim of confused and disastrous command arrangements. He managed to establish a tenuous line of communication to the rear, but his position was untenable. Stavka disbanded the Volkhov Front, which had little to show for an estimated 95,000 casualties. Meretskov’s heart must have been in his mouth when this, his first operation since his release from jail, went so terribly wrong, yet the army group was re-formed in June and he was put back in charge. But from April to June this left the Leningrad Front trying to run nine armies, three independent corps and two battle groups; Vlasov received neither reinforcements nor permission to withdraw. When the rasputitsa finished at the end of May, the Germans closed the ring again. The modern Russian official history blames the commander of the Leningrad Front, Colonel-General Mikhail Khozin, who failed to act on Stavka instructions issued in the middle of May to withdraw 2nd Shock. Khozin was demoted to command the 33rd Army, but later climbed back to army group command; he lived until 1979. Vlasov’s men fought on until the end of June when they capitulated. Very few survived the war.

The German blockade of Leningrad continued. There was little thought of storming the city, merely bombing and shelling it and allowing the sub-zero temperatures and lack of food to do the rest. Hitler had publicly stated his intention to level the place. Although the famous railway across the ice brought in some supplies across the frozen Lake Ladoga, hunger turned into starvation in the winter of 1941–42, and more than half a million people perished. The bodies could not be buried and the city’s sanitary system broke down. Only the intense cold prevented an epidemic. The local NKVD were predictably busy, enforcing ‘the discipline of the revolver’: the secret police executed about 5,000 people in the first year of the siege. The stubborn, determined resistance of Leningrad is little known in the west, and Stalin, who pointedly never visited the city afterwards, took care it was not even commemorated in the USSR.

The siege would eventually last for 900 days, but Stalin’s response to this epic defence was to purge the Leningrad party after the war, possibly assassinating the former Party boss Andrei Zhdanov in 1948 and removing senior figures associated with him and the city. Two thousand functionaries and Party officials were sacked and around 200 executed. Lieutenant-General Alexei Kuznetzov, Chief Commissar of the Leningrad Front, was arrested in 1949 on false charges of treason and executed in 1950. (Khruschev posthumously rehabilitated him and many other victims of this purge in 1954.) The brilliant technocrat Nikolai Voznesensky, Deputy Premier and organizer of Russian industry, was another prominent victim of the ‘Leningrad Affair’, murdered in the back of a van in 1950.

In the Moscow area, the temperature sank to -25ºC in January. The Kalinin and Western Fronts were ordered to destroy Army Group Centre, and came desperately close to doing so. The Germans reeled back, and before a coherent front line could be re-established, Russian cavalry units had penetrated far behind the lines, where they would remain a threat to German communications until the spring. Two Soviet armies, the 29th and 33rd, were cut off by German counter-attacks, forming pockets that were slowly reduced as better weather enabled German armour and aircraft to operate again.

In the harsh weather conditions, neither side managed to mount effective air attacks. The Luftwaffe had failed to seriously interrupt the evacuation of Soviet industries out of reach of German attack: the army’s demand for close air support was unceasing and left no opportunity for strategic air missions. German aircraft did mount a few missions against Moscow, beginning with a major raid on the night of 21 July, when 127 bombers delivered 104 tons of bombs on the Soviet capital. The Russian response was a token bomber raid made on Berlin by 18 Ilyushin Il-4s of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet’s torpedo/mine air wing on 6 August. The German raids on Moscow prompted more bombing by the Soviet long-range air force in September, but the advance of the Ostheer quickly put most Russian airfields beyond range of Berlin. A couple of night raids on a similar scale by the Luftwaffe hit a number of famous landmarks, and the Japanese embassy. The German bombers had even launched some daylight raids in the autumn, once they had fighter airfields within range, but the demands for tactical air support soon reduced attacks on Moscow to nuisance strikes by a few dozen aircraft at night. The other vital strategic target, the Soviet rail network, had been left alone too for the same reason.

The Red Air Force was conspicuous by its absence when the Germans fell back from their most advanced positions near Moscow. In December 1941 and January 1942, the Germans had very few metalled roads along which they could retreat. These highways, which the engineers worked like demons to keep clear of snow, were crowded with men and vehicles. The Luftwaffe was only able to mount a token effort to protect them with fighters. Yet they were hardly ever attacked from the air.

The Red Army’s advances trapped similar numbers of German troops behind the lines. Three important ‘pockets’ survived, largely by aerial resupply. At Demyansk, six German divisions under General von Seydlitz held out until relieved in late March. Von Seydlitz was later to play a key role at the battle of Stalingrad, where he was captured, and became a leader of anti-Nazi German prisoners in Russia, calling on their former comrades to overthrow Hitler. He was a veteran of Germany’s previous war in the east, and had been involved in an earlier battle of encirclement at Brczeziny, near Lodz, in 1914. He led a breakout from Demyansk, an epic 30-day battle of endurance that ended just as the spring thaw imposed a halt on operations. The Luftwaffe’s success in sustaining these trapped forces would later be seized upon by Hitler and Göring in November 1942, when the 6th Army was surrounded at Stalingrad; both chose to ignore that Von Seydlitz’s force was far smaller. They also overlooked the sorry state of Von Seydlitz’s survivors. The High Command saw divisions rejoining, albeit without their heavy weapons. They could be replaced, but the mental and physical consequences of living and fighting in this frozen wilderness without nourishment, sanitation or medical facilities were harder to overcome.

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, an offensive south of Kharkov pushed a 70-mile salient into German lines and established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Donets. An amphibious assault re-established a Russian presence on the Kertsch peninsula, held by a single German division, the 46th, while the rest of Von Manstein’s 11th Army fought its way into Sebastopol. The 46th Division made repeated requests to withdraw from the peninsula, which Von Manstein turned down, sending his only reserve, two brigades of Romanian mountain troops. The Soviets recaptured the port of Feodosia in a night-time amphibious operation, threatening to cut off the 46th Division. The commander of 30th Corps, Lieutenant-General Hans Graf von Sponeck, gave the order to retreat, despite explicit instructions to stand firm. The line was stabilized at Parpach and Feodosia, the latter eventually re-taken by a counter-attack from 15 to 18 January. At the insistence of the fervent Nazi Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, commander of Army Group South, Sponeck faced a court martial and was sentenced to death. The regiments of the 46th Division were stripped of their awards and battle honours – the only time this happened to an army formation during the war. Some accounts claim the divisional commander, Lieutenant-General Kurt Himer, was retired in disgrace, but he was still with the 46th Division three months later when he died of wounds on 26 March.

The spring thaw found the German Army holding its positions some 180 miles west of Moscow, the sort of distance the Panzer spearheads had covered in less than a week in the summer of 1941. Small wonder then that Stalin concentrated his forces on the Moscow Front, in expectation of a renewed drive on the Soviet capital. On a map, the German threat looked very obvious: a salient centred on Rzhev pointed at Moscow like an arrowhead. Behind it lay the trapped Russian 33rd Army. To the north, Russian forces had driven the Germans back to Veljkiye Luki, the front line dipping south to within 60 miles of Smolensk. To the south, the Russian drive on Bryansk had been stopped well short of the city: Kursk, Belgorod and Kharkov all remained in German hands.

Casualties had been unprecedented. From the invasion to the end of November the Ostheer had suffered 743,000 casualties, of whom 200,000 were dead. By comparison, German losses in the invasions of Belgium, Holland and France were 44,000 dead and 156,000 wounded. The fighting outside Moscow from December to January cost another 55,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. Panzer divisions were lucky to have 20 operational tanks by early 1942: three-quarters of the approximately 1,000 tanks assembled for Operation Typhoon were lost by 4 December. The Luftwaffe had lost 758 bombers, 568 fighters and 767 other aircraft destroyed; 473 bombers, 413 fighters and 475 other aircraft were damaged.

Soviet losses were astronomical. Every mechanized corps and 177 rifle divisions had been written off. About 1,000 vehicles remained from the pre-war tank fleet of some 22,000. The defence of Moscow and the counter-attack that followed had cost nearly a million casualties. More than three million Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner in the headlong German advance of 1941. By February 1942, only about a quarter of a million remained alive.

Behind the lines

Many Red Army units caught behind the German lines in the initial invasion did not surrender. Instead, they melted into the forests and swamps, to re-emerge when the German forces had passed eastwards. As early as July 1941, German commanders were reporting attacks well behind the lines, launched by cut-off units of the Red Army and local volunteers. The Partisan War had begun.

Despite its previous association with guerrilla warfare, the Soviet regime discovered a severe shortage of experienced guerrilla commanders in 1941. Stalin had executed most of the Bolshevik ‘Old Guard’ and there had been no preparations for resistance activity in the late 1930s. All pre-war Soviet war plans assumed a conventional war in which the Red Army would take the offensive. Stalin’s future successor, Nikita Khruschev (then Party boss in the Ukraine), issued the first call to arms in June 1941, with Stalin taking up the theme of guerrilla struggle in his radio address to the nation in July.

As the German advance swept deeper into the USSR, so NKVD and Party officials attempted to organize guerrilla units in its wake. Initial attempts were not successful. In the open country of the Ukraine there was nowhere for the partisans to hide, and the local population was welcoming the German tanks with flowers. Resistance efforts foundered in the Crimea too, where the disaffected Tartar population helped the Germans hunt down the guerrillas. (This would neither be forgotten nor forgiven.) The NKVD continued its mass arrests in the Baltic Republics, but the Red Terror proved as counter-productive as later German policies. Local people anticipated the arrival of the Germans and began attacking Soviet installations.

By early 1942 the Partisan movement had yet to make a serious impact on the war. Although a central command system had been created in Moscow to coordinate the campaign behind the lines, there were probably no more than 30,000 guerrillas in the field. However, a nucleus had been created. The remnants of Red Army units, in some areas reinforced by forces cut off after the failed counter-offensives in the spring of 1942, combined with Party activists and locals who had discovered the nature of Hitler’s ‘New Order’ for themselves. The blind savagery with which the German Army treated the conquered peoples of the USSR soon alienated many potential sympathizers, and news spread of the prisoner-of-war camps, where more than two million soldiers had met their deaths during the winter.

Behind the Russian lines men and women were struggling to survive too. In sub-zero temperatures, sometimes in near-total darkness, they unloaded machine tools from rail cars and reassembled whole factories in remote areas. The success with which Soviet industry was evacuated east in 1941 was justly celebrated by the USSR as a triumph as significant as any victory on the battlefield. Indeed, it was the foundation of all subsequent victories. Iron, steel and engineering plants were shipped to the Urals, Siberia or Kazakhstan in some 1.5 million wagon-loads. A total of 16 million people went with them, labouring with grim determination to get the machines turning again. The Yak fighter factory in Moscow was dismantled and shipped to Siberia, where production resumed after just six days on site. In three months production exceeded the quotas achieved in Moscow.

The Herculean efforts of the Soviet industrial workforce enabled the Red Army to re-equip in time for the 1942 campaigns. Many German memoirs stress the overwhelming numerical and material superiority of Soviet forces, but in 1942 it was Germany that enjoyed every industrial advantage, with the factories of most of Europe at her disposal. German steel production, for example, was four times that of the USSR. Nevertheless, even in the second half of 1941, in the middle of the relocation programme, the USSR built more tanks than German factories delivered in the whole year. Soviet industry delivered 4,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft and 14,000 artillery pieces to the Red Army between January and May 1942. During that whole year, Soviet production figures would reach 24,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 127,000 guns and mortars and 25,000 aircraft. Comparable German figures were 9,000 tanks, 12,000 guns and mortars and 15,000 aircraft. Note the yawning disparity in artillery manufacture. The growing gulf in Soviet and German industrial production would not begin to transform the situation at the front until late 1942. Meanwhile, as the floods caused by the spring thaw began to subside, both sides prepared to take the offensive – and in the same area.