Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Stalin has his Way II

In accordance with the new directive, Zhukov ordered his right wing, Kuznetsov's 1 Shock and Vlasov's 20 Armies, to take up the offensive in the area of Volokolamsk against Reinhardt's 3 Panzer Army (after 1 January both Reinhardt's and Hoepner's panzer groups had been redesignated panzer armies). Together with Pliev's 2 Cavalry Corps and five ski battalions, this right flank of West Front started, on 10 January, to move steadily forwards. But on 19 January, to Zhukov's surprise and dismay, an order was received through the General Staff for the withdrawal of Kuznetsov's 1 Shock Army from West Front to the High Command Reserve, prior to transfer to the area of Demyansk, where it was to become part of Kurochkin's North-West Front.

Zhukov's appeal to the General Staff in Moscow met with only one answer—the transfer was being made at the order of the Supreme Commander. Plucking up his courage, Zhukov telephoned Stalin. On complaining that his frontage was very broad and his troops too few, he was merely contradicted by the dictator; when the front commander pleaded further, he was told to send off the army without any more back chat (bez vsyakukh razgovorov). Zhukov attempted to continue the conversation. Stalin, without another word, simply put down the receiver.

Two days later, Rokossovsky's 16 Army Headquarters and supporting troops were withdrawn from the West Front to the High Command Reserve for transfer to the southern flank. They reappeared there on 27 January, for Stalin was determined to strengthen the enveloping pincers rather than drive Army Group Center westwards out of the trap.

Vlasov was ordered to extend to his right and left, taking over the frontages formerly held by Kuznetsov and Rokossovsky; 20 Army became too widely spread and lost momentum, and in consequence the pressure against 3 and 4 Panzer Armies began to fall off.

Zhukov was subsequently to complain of the shortfall of ammunition deliveries to the West Front compared with the original planned allotment. There was of course some shortage of ammunition, and transportation difficulties caused a further bottleneck in supply. But, once again, the real grounds for Zhukov's dissatisfaction arose from the fact that a large proportion of the stocks was being diverted to the Volkhov and the Ukraine. Even so, forty-four percent of the planned allotment of artillery ammunition was delivered to West Front during January.

Zhukov's criticism of Stalin's strategy is probably not without bias, and his views in this particular instance possibly lack perspective. Stalin wanted to finish Army Group Center at a blow, and quick results could be expected only on the flanks. Four fronts were involved in the attempt to destroy von Kluge, and the North-West and Kalinin Fronts were ideally poised for a deep envelopment.

On the other hand, Zhukov's right and center were capable of only a limited rate of progress since German strong points and rear guards were proving extremely troublesome, causing heavy casualties and delays.

Kurochkin's North-West Front had been allotted two specially reinforced shock armies, both commanded by eminent soldiers, to drive from the area of Ostashkov southwards and westwards deep into von Kluge's rear. 3 Shock Army was under Lieutenant-General Purkaev, who, like Tupikov, had once been the Soviet Military Attache in Berlin. He was austere and grave and particularly well read and educated. 3 Shock Army was to strike towards Kholm-on-Lovat and Velikiye Luki. 4 Shock Army under Eremenko, yet to become famous at Stalingrad, was to move on Toropets and Vitebsk.

Purkaev and Eremenko began their offensive on 9 January, with Vostrukhov's 22 Army of the Kalinin Front covering the left flank. There were few German defenders except in Andreapol and Toropets, and the three armies began to make steady progress. As the country was heavily wooded and largely trackless, there arose great difficulties in supply and control. Vast gaps appeared between the armies as their axes ran out radially like the spokes of a wheel, westwards, south-westwards and southwards. Kholm could not be taken by 3 Shock Army in the face of the bitterest resistance by Scherer's 281 Security Division, but by the end of January Purkaev was on the outskirts of the railway town and industrial center of Velikiye Luki and Eremenko was nearing the great city of Vitebsk, which lies about fifty-five miles to the west of Smolensk. Eremenko and Purkaev had covered 170 miles in three weeks over some of the most difficult territory in Western Russia.

Since Kurochkin was engaged at the time in another major operation in the area of Demyansk, not connected with the offensive against von Kluge's Army Group Center, the command of 3 and 4 Shock Armies was transferred on 22 January from Kurochkin to Konev's Kalinin Front.

To the east and roughly parallel with Eremenko's movement, Konev's Kalinin Front thrust south-westwards on Rzhev and Zubtsov, with the intention of turning the flank of 9 German Army and severing Army Group Center's rearward line of communications.

By 27 January Popov's 61 Army of the Bryansk Front, together with Golikov's 10 and Rokossovsky's 16 Armies on the left flank of the West Front, were hardly more than 100 miles east of Smolensk. The north and south pincers were closing like the upper and lower teeth of a great gaping jaw, with the German 9, 3 and 4 Panzer and part of 4 Armies inside the great horseshoe-shaped pocket. Only 2 Panzer and 2 Armies had escaped the encirclement, and this because they had been driven off to the south by the momentum of the Soviet break-in through the great Chern gap.

At the same time as the Soviet High Command was straining every nerve in its effort to encircle von Kluge's Army Group Center, the other major offensives planned by Stalin had already been launched between Leningrad and the Valdai Hills, in the Ukraine and in the distant Crimea.

Meretskov's Volkhov Front had, on 7 January, crossed the frozen Volkhov River immediately to the north of Lake Ilmen and started to move slowly but steadily in a north-westerly direction towards distant Leningrad. Although this offensive continued over the next two months and was to endanger the safety of 18 German Army (part of Army Group North), it was to offer no prospects of early victory. To the south of Lake Ilmen, however, Kurochkin's North-West Front had immediate success when, on 7 January, it developed a large-scale offensive and broke into 16 German Army defenses, partially enveloping 90,000 men of 2 German Corps in the area of Demyansk.

On 12 January, in a renewed air of crisis in Army Group North, von Leeb asked the Führer's permission to withdraw 2 Corps westwards out of the closing pocket. Hitler refused and countered with an argument, which he was to use repeatedly throughout the remainder of the war, that salients and encirclements of German troops tied down more Red Army than German forces, since the enemy was on the periphery whereas the defenders were fighting on interior lines. Since von Leeb could not subscribe to this novel theory, he asked to be relieved of his appointment. He was retired, reportedly on medical grounds, and replaced by von Küchler, formerly the commander of 18 Army.

In South Russia and the Ukraine Stalin's offensives continued throughout January. Cherevichenko's Bryansk Front made only limited progress against von Weichs's 2 Army in its thrusts on Orel and Kursk, but Timoshenko had very promising success farther to the south in the Ukraine. Crossing the upper reaches of the Donets, Kostenko's South- West and Malinovsky's South Fronts secured a huge bridgehead on the west bank of the river near Izyum, about fifty miles deep, capturing the 17 German Army main supply base. Timoshenko then thrust from this bridgehead south-westwards to take the crossing places over the Dnieper at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe deep in the rear of Army Group South, and southwards to cut the Dnepropetrovsk-Stalino railway, this being the main supply artery for von Kleist's 1 Panzer Army. Army Group South was in danger of being cut off against the Sea of Azov. Its commander, the once so confident and ebullient von Reichenau, died suddenly of a stroke.

On the far southern extremity in the Crimea, the Red Army occupation troops removed from Iran had arrived opposite the Kerch Straits. From 26 December onwards two Soviet armies had begun to make landings on the Crimean coast. The Kerch promontory was defended by von Sponeck's 42 Corps, which consisted, however, of only one German infantry division. Von Sponeck asked permission to withdraw some miles to the east where he could shorten his line of defense, but this request was refused; so, taking the law into his own hands, he ordered the withdrawal of the German troops out of the Kerch Peninsula. For this, by Hitler's order, von Sponeck was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to death.

In more recent times Stalin's strategy during these critical days has been severely criticized. Yet in fact, far from being inconsistent or capricious, it was entirely logical. Nor was it without success. Stalin's fault was merely that of overestimating Soviet strength and underestimating German resilience.

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