Faced with the failure of their grand offensive, Bock and the senior commanders had little idea of what to do next. One minute they ordered a retreat, the next they thought it was better to make a stand. Guderian confessed he did not know how to extricate the army from the situation it was now in. While he dithered, failing altogether to prepare proper defensive positions for overwintering, Bock remained almost absurdly optimistic about the possibility of a further advance. However, he now thought the issue of whether or not to retreat was more political than military. The generals’ desperation began to take its toll. The crisis of the German army before Moscow prompted the first major upheaval in the senior ranks of the German armed forces during the war. The first to go was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group South. He had been ordered by Hitler, via the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, to stop the beleaguered armoured divisions of General Ewald von Kleist from withdrawing from the outskirts of Rostov further than the German Leader had been prepared to allow. But, fearing they would be encircled, he refused. An angry Hitler fired Rundstedt on 1 December 1941, replacing him with Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau. Only when he visited the area on 2-3 December 1941 did Hitler concede that Rundstedt had been right. But he did not reinstate Rundstedt. Reichenau’s command was only a brief one, since he died of a heart attack on 17 January 1942. His death was a sign of the severe mental and physical strain under which the senior commanding officers, mostly men in their late fifties and early sixties, were now labouring. In early December Rundstedt, already ailing, also suffered a heart attack, though it did not prove fatal. The next to suffer a collapse in his health was Bock himself. Already on 13 December 1941 he told Brauchitsch that he was ‘physically very low’. ‘The “Russian sickness” and a definite over-exertion has brought me so low,’ he wrote a few days later, ‘that I must fear that I will fail in my command.’ On 16 December 1941 he asked Hitler for permission to go on sick leave. There was no question, however, of any difference of opinion between the two men. Before he left the front on 19 December 1941, handing over the command of Army Group Centre to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, Bock issued orders to his troops to hold the line. His meeting with Hitler on 22 December 1941 was ‘very friendly’, he noted in his diary. That this was a real rather than a diplomatic illness was made crystal-clear by Bock’s request to Hitler to be reinstalled in a front-line command when he had recovered, as indeed he soon was.
On 16 December 1941, in the most important of these changes of top-ranking military personnel, Hitler accepted the resignation of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the army. Brauchitsch, buffeted by the competing demands of his Leader and his generals, had been unable to cope with the stress of defeat. He too suffered a heart attack in mid-November. After some discussion, Hitler decided that he would replace him not with another general, but with himself. Hitler’s announcement that he had replaced Brauchitsch and taken over the direction of military operations himself was greeted with relief by many of the beleaguered German troops. ‘Now the Leader has taken our fate into his own hands,’ reported Albert Neuhaus to his wife on 21 December 1941, ‘after v. Brauchitsch has resigned because of illness. And the Leader will know how to deploy his soldiers where it’s right to do so.’ The generals too breathed a sigh of relief. Responsibility for getting the army out of the mess before Moscow had at last been taken from their shoulders. Guderian hoped now for ‘quick and energetic’ action from Hitler’s ‘accustomed energy’, while another tank commander, General Hans-Georg Reinhardt, welcomed the fact that there was ‘finally a Leader’s Order’ that would bring ‘clarity’ about what to do next. Only a few remained sceptical, amongst them General Heinrici, who wrote to his wife on 20 December 1941 that Hitler had now taken over command but ‘he too will probably not be in a position to turn the situation around’.
But nearly all the generals considered that Hitler had already proved his genius as a military commander in 1940, and trusted him to cut the Gordian knot. Stepping in eagerly to fill the decision-making vacuum, Hitler ordered reinforcements to be brought up from the west and told his troops on the Eastern Front to hold their positions until they arrived. ‘The fanatical will to defend the ground on which the troops are standing, ’ he told the officers of Army Group Centre four days later, ‘must be injected into the troops with every possible means, even the toughest.’ ‘Talk of Napoleon’s retreat is threatening to become reality,’ he warned on 20 October 1941. Napoleon’s retreat was the beginning of the end for the French Emperor. The same thing was not going to happen to him. His order to stand firm not only created clarity about what the army was doing but also had some effect in improving morale. On the other hand, the rigidity with which he now implemented it began to have an effect on the smaller-scale tactical withdrawals that the desperate situation frequently necessitated at various parts of the front. Gotthard Heinrici in particular became increasingly frustrated at the repeated orders to stand firm, when all this brought was a repeated danger of being surrounded. ‘The disaster continues,’ he wrote to his wife on Christmas Eve 1941:
And at the top, in Berlin, at the very top, nobody wants to admit it. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make blind. Every day we experience this anew. But for reasons of prestige nobody dares to take a determined step backwards. They don’t want to admit that their army is already completely surrounded before Moscow. They refuse to recognize that the Russians can do such a thing. And in complete blindness they are keeling over into the abyss. And they will end in 4 weeks by losing their army before Moscow and later on by losing the whole war.
Heinrici railed against his superiors, who refused to order a retreat ‘for fear of offending the top leadership’.
This was the beginning of a long-lived legend, repeated by many of Hitler’s surviving generals after the war, according to which if only they had been left by Hitler to get on with it, they could have achieved victory. Professional generalship was what won wars; the interference of an amateur like Hitler, however gifted he might be, could only bring ruin in the end. The truth, however, was very different. The generals’ blind insistence on attack through the autumn and early winter of 1941, their failure to prepare defensive positions for overwintering, their naive optimism in the face of what they knew to be a determined and well-equipped enemy, their studious refusal to draw the consequences from the increasing tiredness of their troops, the growing difficulties of supply and the failure of much of their equipment in the bitter cold of the Russian winter brought them to a situation by December where they were paralysed by despair and indecision. Hitler’s stabilization of the situation only increased his contempt for them. ‘Once more a dramatic scene with the Leader,’ recorded Halder in his diary on 3 January 1942, ‘in which he casts doubt on the generals’ ability to screw up their courage to take tough decisions.’ Hitler was now determined not to allow the generals any more freedom of action. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, in command of Army Group North, found himself under fire from Hitler when he visited him on 12 January 1942 to ask permission to withdraw from some positions he thought were indefensible, in order to avoid further losses. Hitler, backed by Halder, thought this would weaken the Army Group’s northern flank and make the coming summer campaign more difficult. When he failed to get his way, he tendered his resignation, which was accepted on 16 January 1942. His replacement, General Georg von Küchler, was told firmly by Halder that he would be expected to obey the orders emanating from Hitler’s headquarters.
Disobedience to Hitler’s orders now carried with it severe consequences. General Heinz Guderian met Hitler on 20 December 1941 to plead for permission to retreat. Hitler told him he would have to get the troops to dig in and fight. But, Guderian objected, the ground was frozen solid five feet down. Then the troops would have to sacrifice themselves, Hitler countered. He was backed by Kluge and Halder, both of whom disliked the arrogant, wilful tank commander, as Bock had also done, and saw in the contretemps an opportunity to get rid of him. Disobeying Kluge’s express command, Guderian carried out a major withdrawal operation, telling his commander: ‘I will lead my army in these unusual circumstances in such a manner that I can answer for it to my conscience. ’ Kluge thought he should answer to his superior officers, and told Hitler that either Guderian would have to go, or he would. On 26 December 1941 Guderian was dismissed. The lack of solidarity shown by the leading generals with one another fatally undermined any attempt they might have made to take a stand against Hitler’s rigid insistence on resistance at any price. The tank commander General Erich Hoepner noted perceptively: ‘ “Fanatical will” alone won’t do it. The will is there. The strength is lacking.’ Faced with the encirclement of the Twentieth Army Corps, Hoepner requested permission to withdraw and to retreat to a more defensible line. The new commander of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, told him he was referring the matter to Hitler and ordered him to prepare for an immediate retreat. Thinking this meant Hitler would give his approval and not wanting to court disaster by delaying any further, Hoepner began the retreat anyway, moving his troops out on the afternoon of 8 January 1942. Appalled, and terrified at what Hitler might think, Kluge reported his action immediately to the Leader, who dismissed Hoepner from the army without a pension the same evening.
With these changes, and others lower down the chain of command, Hitler had succeeded in establishing a complete dominance over the top army commanders. From now on they would do his will. Their much-vaunted professionalism had failed before Moscow. Military operations would now be directed by Hitler himself. With this victory over the generals, he could now afford to relax his rigid insistence on holding the line. By the middle of January 1942 Field Marshal Kluge had won Hitler’s approval for a series of adjustments of the front including a number of local retreats to its ‘winter position’. Fighting continued as the Red Army mounted continual assaults on the narrow German communication line with the rear. General Heinrici gained a considerable reputation as a defensive tactician as he held it until the Russian attacks ran out of steam; it was to return to haunt him at the end of the war, when Hitler would put him in charge of the defence of Berlin. Nevertheless, the scale of the disaster before Moscow was clear to all. Zhukov had pushed the Germans back to the point from which they had launched Operation Typhoon two months before. For the German army, this was, as General Franz Halder put it, ‘the greatest crisis in two world wars’. The losses inflicted on the German armed forces were enormous. In 1939, only 19,000 had been killed; and in all the campaigns of 1940, German losses had totalled no more than 83,000 – serious enough, indeed, but not irreplaceable. In 1941, however, 357,000 German troops were reported killed or missing in action, over 300,000 of them on the Eastern Front. These were huge losses that could not easily be replaced. Only Stalin’s decision to attack all along the front instead of pushing home the advantage by concentrating his forces in an all-out assault against the retreating German Army Group Centre prevented the disaster from being even worse.
For all their advances since 22 June 1941, the Germans had everywhere failed to achieve their objectives. The overweening optimism of the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa had given way to an increasing sense of crisis, reflected in Hitler’s repeated dismissals of his leading generals. German military forces had for the first time been shown to be vulnerable. After Moscow, Hitler was still optimistic about the chances of victory. But he now knew it would take longer than he had originally envisaged. The invasion of the Soviet Union had changed the face of the war irrevocably. A series of easy victories in the west had been followed by an increasingly grim struggle in the east. What happened on the Soviet Front dwarfed anything seen in France, Denmark, Norway or the Low Countries. From 22 June 1941 onwards, at least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theatres of war in 1939-45 put together, including the Far East. The sheer scale of the struggle was extraordinary. So too was its bitterness and its ideological fanaticism, on both sides. It was in the end on the Eastern Front, more than any other, that the fortunes of war were decided.