To be sure, the German army’s defeat before Moscow meant that Hitler’s belief in the fragility of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union had been proved decisively wrong. Operation Barbarossa had signally failed to achieve the aims with which it had set out in the confident days of June 1941. After stemming the German tide before Moscow, the Red Army had gone on to the offensive and forced the German army to retreat. As one German officer wrote to his brother: ‘The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr Goebbels characterizes as “animal”; it costs us blood, as does every repulse of the attackers. Apparently,’ he went on with a sarcasm that betrayed the German troops’ growing respect for the Red Army as well as a widespread contempt for Goebbels among the officer class, ‘true courage and genuine heroism only begin in Western Europe and in the centre of this part of the world.’
The bitter cold of the depths of winter, followed by a spring thaw that turned the ground to slush, made any fresh campaigning difficult on any scale until May 1942. At this point, emboldened by the victory over the Germans before Moscow, Stalin ordered a series of counter-offensives. His confidence was further strengthened by the fact that the industrial facilities relocated to the Urals and Transcaucasus had begun producing significant quantities of military equipment – 4,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft, 14,000 guns and more than 50,000 mortars by the start of the spring campaign in May 1942. Over the summer and autumn of 1942, the Red Army command experimented with a variety of ways of deploying the new tanks in combination with infantry and artillery, learning from its mistakes each time. But Stalin’s first counter-attacks proved to be as disastrous as the military engagements of the previous autumn. Massive assaults on German forces in the Leningrad area failed to relieve the beleaguered city, attacks on the centre were repulsed in fierce fighting, and in the south the Germans held fast in the face of repeated Soviet advances. In the Kharkov area a large-scale Soviet offensive in May 1942 ended with 100,000 Red Army soldiers killed and twice as many taken prisoner. The Soviet commanders had seriously underestimated German strength in the area, and failed to establish air supremacy. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, back from his sick leave on 20 January 1942 as commander of Army Group South, had decided that attack was the best form of defence, and fought a prolonged and ultimately successful campaign in the Crimea. But all the time he remained acutely aware of the thinness of the German lines and the continuing tiredness of the troops, noting with concern that they were ‘fighting their way forward with great difficulty and considerable losses’. In a major victory, Bock took the city of Voronezh. The situation seemed to be improving. ‘I saw there with my own eyes,’ wrote Hans-Albert Giese, a soldier from rural north Germany, ‘how our tanks shot the Russian colossi to pieces. The German soldier is just better in every department. I also think that it’ll be wrapped up here this year.’
But it was not to be. Hitler thought Bock dilatory and over-cautious in the follow-up to the capture of Voronezh, allowing key Soviet divisions to escape encirclement and destruction. Bock’s concern was with his exhausted troops. But Hitler could not accept this. He relieved Bock of his command with effect from 15 July 1942, replacing him with Colonel-General Maximilian von Weichs. The embittered Bock spent the rest of the war in effective retirement, obsessively trying to defend his conduct in the advance from Voronezh, and hoping against hope for reinstatement. Meanwhile, on 16 July 1942, in order to take personal command of operations, Hitler moved his field headquarters to a new centre, codenamed ‘Werewolf’, near Vinnitsa, in the Ukraine. Transported from East Prussia in sixteen planes, Hitler, his secretaries and his staff spent the next three and a half months in a compound of damp huts, plagued by daytime heat and biting mosquitoes. Here too were now located for the time being the operational headquarters of the Supreme Command of the army and of the armed forces. The main thrust of the German summer offensive was aimed at securing the Caucasus, with its rich oilfields. Fuel shortages had played a significant role in the Moscow debacle the previous winter. With typically dramatic overstatement, Hitler warned that if the Caucasian oilfields were not conquered in three months, Germany would lose the war. Having previously divided Army Group South into a northern sector (A) and a southern sector (B), he now ordered Army Group A to finish off enemy forces around Rostov-on-Don and then advance through the Caucasus, conquering the eastern coast of the Black Sea and penetrating to Chechnya and Baku, on the Caspian, both areas rich in oil. Army Group B was to take the city of Stalingrad and push on to the Caspian via Astrakhan on the lower Volga. The splitting of Army Group South and the command to launch both offensives simultaneously while sending several divisions northwards to help in the attack on Leningrad reflected Hitler’s continuing underestimation of the Soviet army. Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder was in despair, his mood not improved by Hitler’s obvious contempt for the leadership of the German army.
Whatever they thought in private, however, the generals saw no alternative but to go along with Hitler’s plans. The campaign began with an assault by Army Group A on the Crimea, in which Field Marshal Erich von Manstein defeated twenty-one Red Army divisions, killing or capturing 200,000 out of the 300,000 soldiers facing his forces. The Red Army command had realized too late that the Germans had, temporarily at least, abandoned their ambition to take Moscow and were concentrating their efforts in the south. The main Crimean city, Sevastopol, put up stiff resistance but fell after a siege lasting a month, with 90,000 Red Army troops being taken prisoner. The whole operation, however, had cost the German army nearly 100,000 casualties, and when German, Hungarian, Italian and Romanian forces moved southwards they found the Russians adopting a new tactic. Instead of fighting every inch of the way until they were surrounded and destroyed, the Russian armies, with Stalin’s agreement, engaged in a series of tactical retreats that denied the Germans the vast numbers of prisoners they had hoped for. They took between 100,000 and 200,000 in three large-scale battles, many fewer than before. Undaunted, Army Group A occupied the oilfields at Maykop, only to find the refineries had been systematically destroyed by the retreating Russians. To mark the success of their advance, mountaineering troops from Austria climbed Mount Elbrus, at 5,630 metres (or 19,000 feet) the highest point in the Caucasus, and planted the German flag on the peak. Hitler was privately enraged, fuming at what he saw as a diversion from the real objectives of the campaign. ‘I often saw Hitler furious,’ reported Albert Speer later, ‘but seldom did his anger erupt from him as it did when this report came in.’ He railed against ‘these crazy mountain climbers who belong before a court-martial’. They were pursuing their idiotic hobbies in the midst of a war, he exclaimed indignantly.’ His reaction suggested a nervousness about the advance that was to turn out to be fully justified.
In the north, Leningrad (St Petersburg) had been cut off by German forces since 8 September 1941. With over 3 million people living in the city and its suburbs, the situation soon became extremely difficult as supplies dwindled to almost nothing. Soon the city’s inhabitants were starving, eating cats, dogs, rats and even each other. A narrow and precarious line of communication was kept open across the ice of Lake Ladoga, but the Russians were not able to bring in more than a fraction of what was needed to feed the city and keep its inhabitants warm. In the first winter of the siege, there were 886 arrests for cannibalism. 440,000 people were evacuated, but, according to German estimates, a million civilians died during the winter of 1941-2 from cold and starvation. The city’s situation improved in the course of 1942, with everyone growing and storing vegetables for the coming winter, half a million more people being evacuated, and massive quantities of supplies and munitions being shipped in across Lake Ladoga and stockpiled for when the freeze began. A new pipeline laid down on the bottom of the lake pumped in oil for heating. 160 combat planes of the German air force were lost in a futile attempt to bomb the Soviet communication line, while bombing raids on the city itself caused widespread damage but failed to destroy it or break the morale of the remaining citizens. Luck also came to the Leningraders’ aid at last: the winter of 1942-3 was far less severe than its calamitous predecessor. The frost came late, in mid-November. As everything began to freeze once more, the city still stood in defiance of the German siege.
Further south, a Soviet counter-attack on the town of Rzhev in August 1942 was threatening serious damage to Army Group Centre. Halder asked Hitler to allow a retreat to a more easily defensible line. ‘You always come here with the same proposal, that of withdrawal,’ Hitler shouted at his Chief of the General Army Staff. Halder lacked the same toughness as the troops, Hitler told him. Halder lost his temper. He was tough enough, he said. ‘But out there, brave musketeers and lieutenants are falling in thousands and thousands as a useless sacrifice in a hopeless situation simply because their commanders are not allowed to make the only reasonable decision and have their hands tied behind their backs.’ In Rzhev, Hans Meier-Welcker noticed an alarming improvement in Soviet tactics. They were now beginning to co-ordinate tanks, infantry and air support in a way they had not succeeded in doing before. The Red Army troops were far better able than the Germans to cope with extreme weather conditions, he thought. ‘We are amazed,’ he wrote in April 1942, ‘by what the Russians are achieving in the mud!’ ‘Our columns of vehicles,’ wrote one officer, ‘are stuck hopelessly in the morass of unfathomable roads, and further supplies are already hard to organize.’ In such conditions, German armour was often useless. By the summer, the troops were having to contend with temperatures of 40 degrees in the shade and the massive dust-clouds thrown up by the advancing motorized columns. ‘The roads,’ wrote the same officer to his brother, ‘are shrouded in a single thick cloud of dust, through which man and beast make their way: it’s troublesome for the eyes. The dust often swirls up in thick pillars that then blow along the columns, making it impossible to see anything for minutes at a time.’
Impatient with, or perhaps unaware of, such practical problems, Hitler demanded that his generals press on with the advance. ‘Discussions with the Leader today,’ recorded Halder despairingly at the end of August 1942, ‘were once more characterized by serious accusations levelled against the military leadership at the top of the army. They are accused of intellectual arrogance, incorrigibility and an inability to recognize the essentials.’ On 24 September 1942, finally, Hitler dismissed Halder, telling him to his face that he had lost his nerve. Halder’s replacement was Major-General Kurt Zeitzler, previously in charge of coastal defences in the west. A convinced National Socialist, Zeitzler began his tenure of office by demanding that all members of the Army General Staff reaffirm their belief in the Leader, a belief Halder had so self-evidently long since lost. By the end of 1942, it was reckoned that one and a half million troops of various nationalities had been killed, wounded, invalided out or taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, nearly half the original invading force. There were 327,000 German dead. These losses were becoming increasingly hard to replace. The eastern campaign had stalled. To try to break the impasse, the German army advanced on Stalingrad, not only a major industrial centre and key distribution point for supplies to and from the Caucasus, but also a city whose name lent it a symbolic significance that during the coming months came to acquire an importance far beyond anything else its situation might warrant.