German Assault on Moscow – The Final Push




The German offensive was resumed on 15 November 1941 in clear and frosty weather.

Reinhardt’s 3 Panzer Group and a part of Strauss’s 9 Army drove in Khomenko’s 30 Army on the left wing of Konev’s Kalinin Front in an attack towards Klin.

Stalin’s reaction was immediate. Lelyushenko, who was recovering from a wound he had received a few weeks earlier when his 5 Army command post had been overrun by German tanks, was ordered to go to 30 Army and replace Khomenko. Lelyushenko’s arrival was the first inkling Khomenko had that he was to be relieved, this being Stalin’s normal method of replacing unsuccessful commanders. Khomenko went off in disgrace and, Lelyushenko hints, to punishment. What form this took is not known but Khomenko reappeared two years later in command of 44 Army where, wounded and blinded, he died, so it is said, in German captivity.

On 16 November Hoepner’s 4 Panzer Group attacked Rokossovsky’s 16 Army on the right wing of Zhukov’s West Front and started to thrust towards Istra, and two days later Guderian’s 2 Panzer Army took up the attack from the area of Tula.

The twelve divisions of Hoepner’s 4 Panzer Group had gone into battle with only three-quarters of their first line ammunition and two and a half refills of vehicle fuel, sufficient for only 200 miles’ normal consumption. Hoepner had been reluctant to attack without the cooperation of von Kluge’s left flank, which was to stand idle, since an unsupported advance by the two panzer groups to the north of Moscow would give rise to a dangerously exposed salient. He was unsuccessful in his urging, however, and the OKH confirmed that von Kluge was not to participate. In consequence Hoepner was obliged to protect his own right flank, and the committing of formations to this task was to rob his main striking force of its impetus.

Hoepner’s initial attacks against Rokossovsky’s 16 Army had been made in thick mist, and in the very early stages of the offensive there had been some heavy fighting. 78 Sturm Division of 9 Corps had good fortune when it hit upon a poorly defended locality; the defenders gave way to a short and sharp frontal attack and the attackers penetrated deep into the enemy rear and started to roll up the front. Red Army headquarters, artillery and reserves were taken by surprise, often still asleep, and were quickly mopped up. The count of Soviet prisoners was high, against negligible German casualties, and by the evening of the first day 9 Corps had reached a point five miles behind the enemy.

The second day was no less successful, although the enemy resistance was hardening so that each locality had to be fought for. The Moskva River and its tributaries were frozen and could be crossed but the usual difficulties were met in getting vehicles down the steep overhanging cliff-like river banks of the balki; these were impassable even to tanks. Mines had been sown everywhere. As Hoepner feared, the protection of his southern boundary, roughly along the line of the Moskva Rier, slowed the progress of 9 Corps.

Further to the north the other infantry corps made steady progress against a dogged enemy, and not before 26 November did 40 Panzer Corps take the city of Istra, known before 1930 as Voskresensk, with its famous New Jerusalem monastery, built in the seventeenth century after the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Istra, which had a population of only a few thousand, was about twenty-five miles from the original start line and only thirty from Moscow. The Germans held it against determined enemy tank and infantry counter-attacks.

About a third of the German tanks had fallen behind because of breakdown or obstacles, and those still battle-worthy were beginning to run short of fuel. The maps were bad and many localities shown simply did not exist on the ground; all sign posts and place names had been removed by the Russians. Except on the beaten tracks the snow could not be crossed easily, for although its surface was frozen it would not bear weight, so that men and vehicles fell through into the twofoot- deep soft snow underneath.

On 16 November, 5 German Corps, part of Hoepner’s force to the north-east of Moscow, had been counter-attacked by Caucasian troops but these were held, even though rifle company strengths were down to less than thirty men. Two days later 5 Corps itself went over to the attack to the south of Klin. By 22 November the Red Army troops facing 35 Infantry Division were withdrawing fast and for a short time it appeared that enemy resistance might be broken; there were numerous Red Army deserters and line-crossers. Meanwhile the extreme cold continued, the thermometer sinking at night to minus 40 degrees centigrade.

Strauss’s 9 Army and Reinhardt’s 3 Panzer Group to the left of Hoepner stretched as far north as Kalinin, and only two corps, one an infantry corps, could be spared for the eastward thrust on Klin and Dmitrov. Schaal’s 56 Panzer Corps, originally consisting of only one panzer and one motorized division, made good progress, routing the two Soviet cavalry divisions which were defending the area. Klin, once a flourishing textile center but now a deserted ghost town, was taken on 23 November, the area being heavily mined and booby-trapped.

On 24 November Reinhardt was ordered by von Bock to continue his progress eastwards to protect Hoepner’s left flank. Schaal’s 56 Panzer Corps, the strength of which had been increased by a further panzer division, attacked towards Dmitrov and Yakhroma, both on the Moskva-Volga canal, against spirited ground resistance which was, however, sporadic and uncoordinated. Although enemy air activity was strong Reinhardt had formed the impression that Khomenko’s (later Lelyushenko’s) 30 Army was unprepared for combat and was very weak in numbers, as indeed it was; Reinhardt thought that with reinforcements he could have easily broken through, and he urged in vain that the main striking force should be transferred from 4 to 3 Panzer Group.

This appeal fell, however, on deaf ears. Schaal kept up his rapid movement and on 28 November crossed the bridge over the Moskva- Volga canal near Yakhroma, a cotton-milling center on the east bank, thirty-eight miles north of the capital. There, Reinhardt secured a bridgehead.

The exploitation of this bridgehead was no part of the OKH plan, since Reinhardt had been given what was, in effect, only a subsidiary task, that of protecting Hoepner’s flank. He was ordered by Army Group Center merely to hold the line of the canal and advance southwards down the west bank to keep a closer contact with Hoepner. In these circumstances there was nothing else to be done but give up the bridgehead. Reinhardt ordered Shaal to hold the line west of the Moskva-Volga canal while Model’s 41 Panzer Corps, which had come from the area of Kalinin to join Schaal, took over two of the 56 Corps panzer divisions and moved directly southwards in the direction of Moscow.

The change of direction brought with it a change in the nature of the fighting. Snow had begun to fall heavily and the temperature stood at about minus thirty degrees centigrade. Artillery could not be relied on; the mortar, which has no working parts, being nothing but a barrel and fixed striker stud, had come into its own. Petrol was smeared continuously on the sliding parts of machine-guns to keep them from freezing. Motor trucks were left behind and even the tracked vehicles could not keep moving. The ground was sown with enemy wooden box mines with a particularly sensitive detonator which caused many a soldier to lose his foot.

So Model progressed slowly through a great area covered by luxurious dachi, the summer residences of the communist hierarchy. Prisoners and guns were taken, the latter usually being destroyed on the spot. A wounded woman in Red Army uniform, captured in a Russian tank, said she was a radio operator who had accompanied her husband to the war. Part of 23 Potsdam Division, one of the formations of 41 Panzer Corps, was surrounded by the enemy and Model had to take energetic action to free it. It was noted that as the strength of the German formations ebbed that of the enemy seemed to grow.

Farther to the south the advance of Hoepner’s 4 Panzer Group had been beset by greater difficulties than those experienced by Reinhardt. The resistance of Rokossovsky’s 16 Army had been considerably stiffer than that to the north. Although he continued to make progress eastwards, on 29 November Hoepner reported that the moment might soon arise when enemy superiority on the ground and in the air could bring the advance to a standstill.

When 35 Infantry Division, one of Hoepner’s formations, eventually arrived at the town of Kryukovo, the Moscow suburbs were only fifteen miles away. Red Army infantry was making a poor showing but the enemy had plenty of tanks and artillery. Yet the German troops were already in a desperate state; the weapons were failing and the troops were without protection from the bitter winds. At dusk came the desperate scramble for the shelter of the villages. Their neighbors a little further to the south, 3 Infantry Division, were in a similar plight.

In spite of the weather, Reinhardt’s and Hoepner’s advance was rapid, for in ten days they penetrated nearly fifty miles, almost to the northern outskirts of Moscow.

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