Kleist Moves North
On 3 October, Kesselring ordered Kleist’s Panzer Group 1 to advance on a broad front, “… left flank on Kursk and the right on Gubkin … to drive north-eastwards to gain touch with Guderian at Yelets.” Once he was in position on Guderian’s right Kleist was next to strike south-eastwards and capture Voronezh before changing direction again, northwards to create the western wall of the salient.
Kleist’s Group, like Guderian’s, had not had to cover such vast distances as either Hoth or Hoepner but its advance had been slowed by deep mud and by a surprising fuel famine. A mechanical defect in Elekta, the ground identification signal apparatus, caused the Ju transports to overfly Kleist and to airdrop their cargoes over Guderian. It took nearly four days to identify and to rectify that fault, by which time Kleist was so short of fuel that his Group’s advance was reduced to that of a single Panzer Company. Drastic shortages call for radical action and Kesselring’s solution was direct. Every Heinkel III in VIII Air Corps was loaded with fuel and ammunition and the massed squadrons touched down on the Kursk uplands at Swoboda where Kleist’s Group had halted. A single mission was sufficient to replenish it and the Divisions resumed their drive across the open steppe-land.
On 14 October Panzer Group 1 forced a crossing of the Olym downstream from Guderian, and in the area of Kastornoye the point units of 1st and 2nd Groups met. Later that afternoon the main force of both groups linked up and a solid wall of armor extended from Gubkin to Yelets. Kleist Group moved out immediately to capture Voronezh but that city was not to be taken by coup-de-main. It was a regional capital with half a million citizens, most of whom worked in its giant arms factories. As in the case of Mtsensk, Stavka ordered Voronezh to be held at all costs, intending that Mtsensk be the northern and Voronezh the southern jaw of a Soviet pincer. Those two jaws would be massively reinforced and, when the Red Army opened its offensive, they would trap the Panzer Army Group and destroy it.
Hoepner Struggles to Reach Guderian’s Gap
Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 had been so heavily engaged in the encirclement operations at Smolensk and in the continuing fighting around Vyasma that it could only withdraw individual Panzer Regiments from the battle line. Acting upon Kesselring’s orders these marched southwards to gain contact with Guderian now driving hard for Yelets.
On the Mtsensk sector Vietinghoff grouped his XXXXVI Panzer Corps in support of Second Infantry Army which was fighting desperately against the heavily reinforced Fiftieth Red Army. Stalin had ordered that Soviet formation in order to hold Mtsensk and Tula and form the northern pincer of Stavka’s planned counter-offensive. When Stumme’s XXXX Corps reached Vietinghoff he handed over the task of supporting Second Army and struck eastwards across the Neruts river, passed south of Khomotovo and halted at Krasnaya Zara where he positioned his Corps on Guderian’s left flank. Detained by the Vyasma battles and slowed by mud, neither Stumme’s XXXX nor Kuntzen’s LVII Panzer Corps had gained touch with Vietinghoff by the evening of 14 October, but late that night, to the west of Guderian’s Gap, the first elements of both Corps reached their concentration areas and were promptly struck by the first heavy Autumn rainstorm.
“That night it rained,” wrote Lt. Col. Brentwald of LVII Panzer Corps Staff. “We have had some rain since the beginning of September but this was not like anything we had experienced before. This was a monsoon which lasted all night and throughout the next day with no let up … The mud it produced was knee-deep … the soil soaked up the rain like a sponge. A primeval force of nature and not the might of the Russian enemy holds us fast …”
Throughout 15 October, although XXXX and LVII Corps were held fast in the mud, XXXXVI Corps was still moving over ground that had not yet been churned up. Vietinghoff swung towards Yefremov where his advance struck and dispersed the Twenty-first and Thirty-eighth Red Armies, both reinforced by workers’ battalions armed with Molotov cocktails and other primitive anti-tank devices.
Hoth Reaches Guderian’s Gap
Like Hoepner’s Group, Hoth’s Group 3 disengaged piecemeal from the Vyasma operation, then concentrated and began to march southwards, en route to “Guderian’s Gap.” Its passage, already slow across torn-up battlefields and Army Group Center’s supply routes, was further delayed by clinging mud as it struggled forward to gain touch with the other Panzer Groups.
“Thank God for Russian forests,” commented Panzer Captain Wolfgang Hentschel. “Their tree trunks are the material from which the Pioneers build corduroy roads across the mud. It is over those slippery, undulating, wooden paths that our vehicles slither forward. The pace of our advance, and remember this is without any enemy opposition at all, has sunk to less than 20km a day where once it had been 240. We all pray for hot, dry weather.”
During the second week of October the ground dried sufficiently and Hoth drove his Group forward at top speed. Kesselring’s dispositions for the advance of Panzer Army Group to Gorki had long been redundant, but a rearrangement brought Panzer Groups 2 and 3 shoulder to shoulder forming the assault wave with 4 and 1 preparing to line the eastern and western salient walls respectively.
On the evening of 14 October Hoth’s Group gained touch with the others and halted at the junction of the Sosna and Don rivers with Hoepner’s Group on one flank and Guderian’s on the other. “Our pioneers worked all night bridging those rivers,” said Hentschel, “so that the advance could press ahead.”
Panzer Army Group Drives on Gorki
Early in the morning of 16 October, Kesselring set up his Field headquarters in Yelets and coordinated the great wheeling movement which would bring the Panzer Groups in line abreast ready to advance towards Gorki, some 650km distant. WOTAN was behind schedule and it worried him, for every day’s delay served the enemy’s purpose. When his subordinates demanded time to rest their men and to service their vehicles he could give them only three days. WOTAN’s third phase had to open on 18 October. Military Intelligence had indicated that the Soviets were about to carry out a major withdrawal and Panzer Army Group had to be ready to exploit any weakness shown by the Red Army during that retreat.
On his flight to Yelets the Field Marshal had seen below him little blobs of armored vehicles still held fast in mud produced by the rain of the previous days. Those imprisoned panzers were a terrible warning of what could happen—what was in fact to happen when snow fell early on the 18th covering the battlefield to a depth of 10cm. During the afternoon a thaw cleared the snow but produced mud compelling a postponement of Stage 3. During the night temperatures fell hardening the ground and raising the spirits of the panzer troops who knew that soon they would be able to move again. Working by floodlight the crews smashed off the mud clods that clogged the tracks so that by 0200hrs columns of armor, with headlights blazing, were rumbling across the frozen ground.
The series of battles leading up to Gorki created a period of bitter fighting, of relentless attack and desperate defense; a time in which mud held fast the panzer formations until hard frost freed them. Weeks in which the sable candles of smoke rising in the still autumn air marked the pyres of burning tanks. In essence, the course of operations from 18 October to the end of the month was characterized by the Soviets being confined to the towns along the salient walls from which they mounted furious attacks against the panzer formations ranging across the open countryside and destroying such opposition as they met. In its advance from Yefremov via Dankov to Skopin, Panzer Group 1 was so fiercely attacked by Red forces striking out of Novmoskovsk, that Guderian was compelled to detach Geyr’s XXIV Corps to support Kleist until an infantry Corps reached the area. A similar action was fought at Ryazan against an even heavier offensive, supported by troops of the Moscow Front, switched on internal lines from the west to the east flank. Panzer Group 1 was fortunate in being aided by nature on the Ryazan sector. The river Ramova was not a single stream but a mass of riverlets running through marshland—a perfect barrier against Soviet armor striking from the west and from the north-west. Kleist needed only to patrol on his side of the river and concentrated the bulk of his force on the high ground between the Ramova and the Raga, the latter river forming the boundary between Panzer Groups 1 and 2.
Guided by reconnaissance aircraft and supported by Stukas the panzer formations of each Group dealt with any crisis which arose on a neighbor’s flank. An analysis of Russian tank tactics highlights the difference between the Red Army’s highly skilled, pre-war crews and its more recently trained men. A post-battle report stated:
The enemy’s second attack (on the right flank) made good use of ground, coming up out of the shallow valley of the river and screened by the low hills on the eastern side of the road. This wave of machines got in amongst the artillery of 3rd Panzer Division which was limbering up ready to move forward. Hastily laid belts of mines and flame throwers drove back the T 26s … The third attack was incompetently mounted and a whole tank battalion moved on the skyline across a ridge. Our anti-tank guns picked the machines off and destroyed the whole unit …
Kesselring’s handling of his Army Group was masterly and he coolly detached units to bolster a threatened sector or created battle groups to strengthen a panzer attack. His energy and presence were an inspiration to his men.
Guderian’s Group, bypassing towns and crushing opposition, moved so fast that on 27 October, Kesselring was forced to halt it at Murom until Hoth and Hoepner had drawn level. The towns of Kylebaki and Vyksa fell to Panzer Group 3 on the following day and Hoth detached his LVI Panzer Corps to help take the strategic road and rail center of Arzhamas against the fanatic defense of a Shock Army specially created to hold it. With the fall of Arzhamas on the 29th, the Soviet formations opposing Panzer Group 4 broke. As they fled Hoepner sent out his armored car battalions to patrol the west bank of the Volga, while 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions went racing ahead to pursue the enemy and to gain ground. Wireless signals advised Hoepner that Bogorodsk had been taken, then that the advance guard had seized Kstovo and later that day had pushed on to the Volga. But Hoepner desperately needed infantry reinforcements and Kesselring sent in waves of Ju-52s, each carrying a Rifle Section. Within five hours two battalions of 258th Division had been flown in. The 5th and 11th Panzer Divisions of XXXXVI Corps moved fast to support Stumme’s XXXX Corps while LVII Corps continued with the unglamorous but vital task of strengthening the salient walls. By 2 November the Panzer Army Group was positioned ready to begin the final advance to Gorki. Group 1, on the left, had reached the Andreyevo sector and Guderian was advancing towards Gorki supported by Hoth’s Group 3. Meanwhile Hoepner’s Group 4 crossed the Volga against fanatical resistance and massive, all-arms counter-attacks, and went on to establish bridgeheads on the river’s eastern bank.
On 4 and 5 November a vast air fleet, under Kesselring’s direct control, launched waves of raids upon Gorki. Stukas bombed Russian strongpoints and gun emplacements, until there was no fire from Soviet anti-aircraft batteries to deter the Heinkel squadrons which cruised across the sky bombing Gorki and the neighboring town of Dzerzinsk at will. The impotence of the Red Air Force is explained in a Luftwaffe report covering the period from the opening of WOTAN: “Soviet air operations were made initially on a mass scale but heavy losses reduced these to attacks by four or even fewer Stormovik aircraft on any one time … [they were] nuisance raids which had little effect …” The total number of enemy aircraft destroyed during the period was 2700 but the report does not state aircraft types: “… the Soviets could produce planes in abundance but not pilots sufficiently well trained to challenge our airmen …”
Resistance to the infantry patrols of 29th Division which entered both towns on the following day was weak and soon beaten down. Opposition on the eastern flank had been crushed and when Kleist Group secured Andreyevo, to the south-east of Vladimir the western sector was also firm. A German cordon, with both of flanks secure, extended south of the Gorki-Vladimir-Moscow highway.
On 6 November Panzer Army Group Headquarters ordered a defensive posture for the following day in anticipation of massive Russian attacks which would mark the anniversary of the Revolution. Those assaults came in on the 7th and 8th, employing masses of infantry, tanks and cavalry supported by artillery barrages of hitherto unknown intensity. Furious though those assaults were they were everywhere beaten back by German troops who knew they were winning: as one German major put it, “Thank Heaven for Ivan’s predictability. He attacks the same sector at precise intervals. Once his most recent assaults have been driven off we know things will be quiet until the stated interval has elapsed. When that new attack comes in we are ready for it. His tactics are almost routine. A very long preliminary barrage which ends abruptly. Then a short pause and the barrage resumes for five minutes. Under its cover his tanks roll forward and as they come close our panzer outpost line swings round and pretends to flee in panic. The Reds chase the ‘fleeing’ vehicles and are impaled on our anti-tank line … It never fails …”
But those days had been ones of deep crisis causing a signal to be sent to all units on the 9th for the defensive posture to be maintained throughout the following two days. Where possible, the time was to be spent in vehicle maintenance so that when the attack opened against Moscow, every possible panzer would be a “runner.”
Causes for Concern
On 1 November, the Field armies reported to OKH that losses from casualties and sickness were not being made good. Statistically, each German Infantry Division had lost the equivalent of a whole regiment and that scale of losses was also reflected in armored fighting vehicle strengths. When WOTAN opened only Panzer Group 4 had been at full establishment with Groups 1 and 3 at 70% and Panzer Group 2 at only 50%. To OKH the worrying question was whether Kesselring’s Army Group would be so drained of strength that it would be too weak to fulfil its mission. On the same day a memo from Foreign Armies (East) advised Hitler that the Red Army in the West had 200 front-line Infantry Divisions, 35 Cavalry Divisions and 40 Tank Brigades, with another 63 Divisions in Finland, the Caucasus and the Far East. That memorandum went on to warn that “… the Russian leaders are beginning to coordinate all arms very skillfully in their operations …” The warning was clear: WOTAN should be cancelled. Hitler ignored that warning. The operation would continue.
The first week of November was highlighted for the infantry and panzer forces around Mtsensk and Voronezh by a series of major Red Army offensives. In Voronezh as in Moscow a military parade was held to celebrate the Revolution. Marshal Timoshenko took the salute, and the Siberian Divisions which marched past him in Voronezh went, as those in Moscow had also done, straight up the Line.
The Intelligence Section summary of 12 November reported, “The Siberian troops first encountered (on 7 November) maintained their attacks until yesterday morning. These attacks were bravely made but badly led. Prisoners stated that they had been foot marching for six weeks … There are 36 Divisions still in the Far East preparing to move westwards …”
Supreme Stavka had indeed commemorated the anniversary of the Revolution by launching major offensives. Those at Mtsensk and Voronezh, made to close “Guderian’s Gap,” were the major ones. Whole Divisions of NKVD (KGB) troops were concentrated in both areas and swung into action with such élan that their initial attacks forced the German infantry to retreat. But Stavka had made two errors. Firstly, so great a concentration of men in the cramped Mtsensk appendix restricted the armored formations, and secondly, although at Voronezh there was room for maneuver the garrison was equipped with only undergunned, light, T-26 tanks. The fighting at both places was bitter and both sides knew that its outcome would depend upon which of them broke first. It was the Soviets, bombed from the air, pounded by artillery and facing the fire of German soldiers fighting for their lives, whose morale cracked. Although the NKVD still marched into machine gun fire as unwaveringly as the Siberians or the cadets of the Voronezh military academies, the German troops soon sensed that the enemy’s spirit was gone. General Lothar Rendulic, commanding 52nd Infantry Division, wrote “Stava recognized … that the standard Russian infantryman’s offensive quality was poor and that he needed the prop of overwhelming artillery and armor.” In the Mtsensk and Voronezh battles the Red Army’s armor and air support was eroded, and without those buttresses the Soviet infantry lost heart and were slaughtered. This paradox—initial fanatical struggles followed by a sudden and total collapse—was a feature encountered during the subsequent stages of WOTAN. The failure of the NKVD and the Siberians to crush the Germans affected the morale of the ordinary Red Army units encountered by Panzer Army Group.
The presence of the Siberians on the battlefield was countered, politically. Messages between Berlin and Tokyo were followed by belligerent, anti-Soviet editorials in semi-official Japanese newspapers. These alarmed the Kremlin, which halted abruptly the flow of Siberian Divisions to the west, for these might be needed to fight in Manchuria. The surge of reinforcements from the central regions of the Soviet Union also slowed as Panzer Army Group’s advances and Luftwaffe air-raids cut railway lines forcing the Red Infantry to undertake wearisome foot marches to the battle front.
The Westward Advance to Capture Moscow
On 11 November, Sovinformbureau announced “The battle for Moscow has resumed with attacks … by the fascist Army Group von Bock … Despite heavy snow falls waves of [enemy] troops made one assault after another …” On the same day OKH also reported that Maloarchangelsk had been captured without resistance and that German formations were within 7km of Aleksin. It concluded “Weak enemy attacks indicate that the Red Army’s resistance is beginning to crumble …” A Swiss news agency wrote that the frost-hardened ground had freed the panzers from the grip of the clinging mud.
Concurrent with the opening of Army Group Center’s offensive against Moscow, the leading elements of the Panzer Army Group having spent two days regrouping and replenishing, began their westward drive. Hoepner created a strong battle group from units lining the salient’s eastern wall and sent it out to gain the area between Kstovo and Balaxna. Battle group Schirmer not only enlarged the bridgeheads on the Volga’s eastern bank but also cut the main east-west railway line.
While Panzer Groups 2 and 3 completed their regrouping, Panzer Group 1, echeloned along the salient’s western wall, was defending itself tenaciously against the Red Army’s fanatical assaults. Pioneer detachments working at top speed repaired the railway line between Michurinsk and Murom so that Infantry Divisions could be “lifted” by train to release the panzer formations for more active duties; and one Corps of Kleist’s Panzer Group promptly struck and seized Krasni Mayek to protect Panzer Army Group’s southern flank.
On 11 November, under a lowering sky, Panzer Group 2 on the right of the Moscow highway and Panzer Group 3 on the left, moved from Gorokovyets to open WOTAN’s final phase. The number of “runners” with each Group had sunk considerably in the bitter fighting but the Field workshops had repaired damaged vehicles and had cannibalized those too badly wrecked to repair. The first waves of Panzer Group 2 disposed 200 machines and Group 3 nearly 240. Throughout the two days of inactivity relays of transport aircraft brought in only shells and fuel. With petrol tanks filled to the brim and covered by a rolling barrage the two Groups advanced side by side westward towards Moscow. At midday the November gloom vanished to be replaced by cloudless blue skies. The Stukas which had been grounded re-entered the battle, taking off from advanced airfields outside Murom, Kylebaki and Vyksa. Opposition to the German advance, light to begin with, grew despite the dive bomber raids, and the combined forces of XXIV and XXXXVII Panzer Corps were able to advance only slowly on the northern side of the highway. The two Corps of Panzer Group 1 made better progress along the southern flank bouncing across marshland hardened by severe frost.
Panzer Group 4’s war diary entry of 13 November records that 2nd Panzer Division (XXXX Corps) was attacked south of Kstovo by what was estimated to be a whole Division of Cavalry. The horsemen’s assaults to break through the Group’s front were crushed with almost total loss, but that series of charges had unnerved many German soldiers who saw with horror wounded horses galloping across the battlefield screaming in pain. Shrapnel had disembowelled others who dragged their entrails across the snow leaving swathes of blood on the white surface.
Panzer Group 1 reported minimal opposition on 16 November, not the furious assaults out of Vladimir and Sudogda that had been anticipated. 1st Group’s right-wing Corps, amalgamated with the left-wing Corps of Panzer Group 3, attacked and gained ground quickly. The front-line soldiers realized that the weak opposition they were meeting indicated that the Red Army was all but defeated. One of these soldiers, Sergeant Strauch, said “ November was bitterly cold. The first issues of winter clothing helped to keep us warm but more warming was the fact that Ivan seemed to be breaking up. We found the bodies of a number of their Commissars, all shot at point-blank range. If the Party isn’t executing them then the rank and file are …”
The recce battalions of Groups 2 and 3 approaching Vladimir met the phenomen of large, organized bodies of Red Army troops standing, lining the roads, waiting to surrender. The officer commanding one group told General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who was riding with the recce point detachment, that revolution had broken out in Moscow, the government had been overthrown and its leaders shot. Von Bock’s soldiers were already in the capital’s inner suburbs. A flurry of signal messages confirmed the story. General Vlassov, a former dedicated communist, whose Twentieth Army had up to now staunchly defended the north-western approaches to Moscow, was leading a military junta which had sued for peace terms.
“Our battalion and two others were ordered from the armored personnel carriers and into passenger trains. Russian officers, many with Tsarist cockades, escorted us … After several hours we reached Moscow’s West Station and marched to the city center. Units of Bock’s Army Group were already there and in Red Square an SS detachment was blowing up Lenin’s tomb. At dusk massed searchlights lit up the flag staff over the Kremlin and deeply moved we saw the German War Standard flying at the mast head …”
The war in Russia was over. Now there would be a period of tidying up, politically, socially and economically. The population had to be fed, the Red Army demobilized and Russia incorporated into the Reich’s New Order. Hitler was triumphant. His battle plan Operation WOTAN had won the War on the Eastern Front.
In fact, the Germans left it far too late to go to Moscow. The weather closed down upon them, their logistic support was inadequate and the Russians were given time to reinforce Moscow, stop the Germans and throw them back. Never again would the Germans attempt to capture Moscow.
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