140 Field Marshal Fodor von Bock wearing Knight's Cross

Field Marshal Fodor von Bock wearing Knight's Cross

(Oct. 8, 2021) This week 80 years ago, Armegruppe Center, commanded by Field Marshal Fodor von Bock, began the final assault on Moscow.

Opposing the German advance, the Soviets marshaled one and a quarter million men, 1,000 tanks, 7,600 guns and 936 aircraft divided amongst the Western Front, commanded by Gen. Ivan Konev, the Bryansk Front, commanded by Gen. Andrei Yeremenko, and the Reserve Front commanded by Marshal Semyon Budenny.

Field Marshal von Bock’s Armegruppe Center counted more than one million men, 1,700 tanks, 14,000 guns and 549 aircraft..

The offensive was launched on Sept. 30, 1941. Three days later, Adolph Hitler declared, “... today, and I declare it without any reservation, that the enemy in the East has been struck down and will never rise again.”

At first it looked as if he was correct. The Panzers had, once more, sliced deep behind Soviet lines. On Oct. 3, Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee captured Orel, 130 miles behind Red Army lines, and 224 miles south-southwest of Moscow, on the Oka River. Today the city has a population of 317,000.

The streetcars were still operating as the tanks of 4th Panzerdivision, commanded by Baron Willibald von Langermann und Erlencamp, rolled into the city. Simultaneously, Gen. Ivan V. Boldin, Gen. Konev’s deputy, led 300 tanks and two infantry divisions in an unsuccessful counterattack.

By Oct. 5, Baron Maximilian von Weichs’ Second Army had crossed the Dezna River. Bryansk was captured the next day by Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee. It is located 235 miles southwest of Moscow and today the 850-year-old city has a population of 415,000.

During the battle, a Soviet sergeant from the 24th Tank Regiment, 12th Tank Division was seriously wounded and taken to a Soviet military hospital for treatment and recovery. While in the hospital, he overheard some of the soldiers complaining about their rifles. From this came the storied AK-47. The sergeant’s name was, of course, Mikhail T. Kalashnikov.

On Oct. 7, the Third Panzerarmee’s LVII Corps and the Fourth Panzergruppe’s XLI Corps met west of Vyazma, trapping all, or large parts, of five Soviet Armies. The first snow fell on Gen. Guderian’s sector that day. Soviet army commanders Mikhail F. Lukin, Filipp A. Ershakov, and Sergei V. Vishnevskii were captured. Gen. Ershakov did not survive German captivity. Army commanders Konstantin I. Rakutin and Mikhail P. Petrov were killed.

German Army Chief-of-Staff, Franz Halder, wrote in his diary, on Oct. 8, “To save Moscow the enemy will try to bring up reinforcements, especially from the North. But any such miscellaneous force, scraped together in an emergency, will not suffice against our superior strength, and provided our strategy is any good at all (provided the weather is not too bad), we shall succeed in divesting Moscow.”

Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee linked with Baron von Weichs’ Second Army and trapped Gen. Avksentii M. Gorodnianskii’s Thirteenth Army near Bryansk on Oct. 9. But by then, the Russian mud appeared and German mobility ceased.

Vyazma is located west of Moscow, between Smolensk and the capital. In 1941, the 800-year-old city had a population of about 60,000. After the war, its population totaled 716. Three buildings remained. In the two camps which the Germans constructed there, 80,000 Soviet citizens died.

Gen. Georgi Zhukov was recalled from Leningrad to command the defense of the Soviet capital on Oct. 10. He replaced Gen. Konev as commander of Western Front. After convincing Stalin not to have Konev shot, he was made Zhukov’s deputy.

The “Vyazma Pocket” was eliminated on Oct. 14 and the “Bryansk Pocket” six days later. In between, Kalinin (Tver) and Kaluga were captured. The 800-year-old city of Tver currently has a population of 400,000 and is located north of Moscow. During the Stalinist era, it was renamed for Mikhail Kalinin, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. The 500-year-old city of Kaluga, with a current population of 325,000 is located 93 miles southwest of Moscow and was the hometown of Gen. Zhukov.

Although time had been purchased, the cost was staggering. The debacles at Bryansk and Vyazma had cost the Red Army more than 673,000 Soviet soldiers captured, and the capture or destruction of 1,242 tanks and 5,412 guns. But the trains continued to roll west, along the Trans-Siberian Railway, with fresh divisions from the Far East for the defense of the Soviet capital.

And the mud continued to wreck havoc with German timetables and machinery. Fuel was consumed at three times the normal rate. Gen. Guderian recalled that, “. . . the roads rapidly became nothing but canals of bottomless mud, along which our vehicles could advance only at snail’s pace, and with great wear to the engines. The next few weeks were dominated by the mud. Wheeled vehicles could advance only with the help of tracked vehicles. These latter, having to perform tasks for which they were not intended, rapidly wore out.”

The advance on Moscow ground to a halt with the objective only 50 miles away. A conference of the German field generals and Gen. Halder was held on Nov. 13, in the 900-year-old Belorussian city of Orsha, located midway between Minsk and Smolensk. Over the objections of Field Marshals von Kluge and von Bock, Gen. Guderian and others, the order was given to make one final effort and to resume the advance on Moscow. Field Marshal von Bock said that, “...the last battalion will decide the issue.”

Two days later, with the ground frozen, the order to resume the advance was given. But the Wehrmacht had yet to receive any winter clothing. There was no room on the trains that were shipping more important commodities, such as ammunition, fuel and food.

During the occupation of Bryansk, which lasted until Sept. 17, 1943, the forests around the city were occupied by some 60,000 partisans who killed 100,000 German troops, derailed almost 1,000 trains and destroyed hundreds of bridges and miles of track.

Orel, Bryansk, Tver, and Vyazma have been designated “Cities of Military Glory” by the Russian President.

Next week: Stalin’s Decision

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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