Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Winter 1941-42 Soviet Offensive Part II

Stalin's offensive was scheduled to begin on January 10, so his commanders had precious little time for preparation. It made no real difference. The Red Army was still patently inferior to the Wehrmacht in almost every category, and since it was fighting on raw courage and sheer manpower (six million men in spite of all losses), it was as ready for battle now as it would be in the near future.

From top to bottom, the Red Army was disastrously short of able leaders. At the command level, this was in large part the bitter heritage of the Great Purge of the late 1930s, when Stalin, in an epic fit of paranoia at the Army's growing power and independence, executed or imprisoned more than 35,000 career officers of all ranks. Many of the senior officers who survived had better credentials as Stalin loyalists than as competent commanders.

Good, bad or indifferent, the officer corps was decimated during the early German victories, and the survivors were handicapped even more by the political commissar system, which saddled field commanders with coequal Communist Party watchdogs who were empowered to veto their orders even under combat conditions. Many a disobedient or faltering commander was shot on the spot by his commissar.

The enlisted ranks, too, were a shambles. The Red Army had suffered crippling early losses among the educated technicians and self-starting noncoms needed to make a modern army work. The great mass of men were still only sketchily trained; some could hardly operate their own personal weapons, which were in short supply as well. Most of the troops were peasants and workers from remote sections of the immense country. They had a natural tendency to flock together on the battlefield, which made them splendid targets. The Soviet soldiers were fond of quoting an old saying: "It is better to die in company, and Mother Russia has sons enough." When the Russians fought as individuals they ordinarily fought well, but soldiers they were not-at least not yet.

In the beginning, the Red Army's elemental response to its crushing defeats was to break down into a primitive form of military organization-the rifle brigade that numbered a few thousand infantrymen assembled from shattered units and thrown into battle under the command of recently promoted colonels and majors. Tactically, these scratch outfits were disastrous. One unit, for example, was not even able to support its few remaining tanks to exploit a local breakthrough; the soldiers just stood around watching the action, and when the tanks were knocked out because of the infantry's failure to silence the Germans' antitank guns, the men simply wandered off as if in a daze.

The only maneuver at which the riflemen excelled was the reckless, flat-out charge: In wave upon tragic wave, they ran straight ahead into German gunfire. The suicidal charge became an officially accepted tactic; men were spent as freely as ammunition in wearing down the Germans by massive attrition. A Soviet staff officer put it bluntly: "We have a superiority in potential manpower. We've got to translate that superiority into terms of slaughter. And that won't be too difficult. Russians have a contempt for death. If we can keep them armed, the Germans will leave their own corpses scattered all over the steppes."

In spite of all its deficiencies, the Red Army did have certain advantages for the winter offensive. As Stalin had remarked, the Germans were shaken by their failure to capture Moscow, and they were ill-prepared to face the cruel Russian winter, with its chest-high snowdrifts and temperatures that plunged as low as -50* F. The invasion had been cockily planned to end by autumn, and greatcoats and fur-lined boots had been ordered only for the 60 divisions expected to remain on occupation duty.

The rest of the Wehrmacht suffered horribly from frostbite, and to combat the cold the soldiers wore layered assortments of tablecloths, towels and whatever else they could find. They became "Winter Fritzes"-clown-like figures in the Soviet press. The Red Army forces were more warmly dressed, and they knew that winter was their ally.

Moreover, the Germans often went hungry; their supply lines were long, and food shipments had low priority. Even with meals before them, the numb-fingered soldiers found that eating was painful and frustrating. A hot meal would freeze before it could be consumed. A German officer reported that: "One man who was drawing his ration of boiling soup at a field kitchen could not find his spoon. It took him 30 seconds to find it, but by then the soup was lukewarm. He began to eat it as quickly as he could, without losing a moment's time, but already the soup was cold, and soon it would be solid."

Unknowingly, the Russians had another asset: Adolf Hitler. The Führer, cosseted in his Wolf's Lair headquarters in the Rastenburg forest of East Prussia, meddled in military affairs as persistently as Stalin did, though heretofore with better effect. Just as Stalin's command to stand fast had led to the enormous Soviet entrapments at Kiev and elsewhere, so Hitler in December had ordered most of his armies to hold at all cost-despite his generals' recommendation of a strategic retreat to consolidate their lines.

"The troops must dig their nails into the ground," Hitler had said. "They must dig in and not yield an inch." Above all, there was to be absolutely no retreat from Moscow. On this point the Führer was so rigid and splenetic that when General Heinz Guderian withdrew his 2nd Panzer Group a short distance southwest of Moscow, Hitler sacked his best panzer commander. Others had followed as the Führer settled his long-standing feud with the arrogant, opinionated Prussian officer corps. Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the Army, had resigned in ill health, and Hitler officially took over the vacated post, which in fact he had held for several months. To his generals Hitler bragged, "Anyone can do the little job of directing operations in the War."

The disposition of German forces on the Moscow front was fully as important as Hitler believed. Here the Wehrmacht was in greatest danger. And it was here that Stalin launched his first and strongest counterattack.

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