As the Barbarossa invasion proceeded, the wear and tear of flying almost continual missions began to tell on the German aircraft. By the end of July 1941 there were only just over 1,000 planes in operation. Command of the air counted for little if there were too few bombers to inflict significant damage on Soviet war production. The expanse of Russia was too vast for the German air force to establish permanent air superiority, however great its effectiveness in a tactical role. Stuka dive-bombers terrified enemy infantry by the screaming noise of their engines as they plunged out of the sky, but they were extremely vulnerable to attack from fighter planes, while the bombers most commonly deployed, the Dornier 17 and the Junkers 88, lacked the range to be effective against Soviet installations. Troop losses by this time, including missing, wounded and killed, were over 213,000. The rest, as Bock had observed, were beginning to suffer from exhaustion after more than a month of non-stop combat. Spare parts for tanks and armoured personnel carriers were in short supply. On 30 July 1941 the Army Supreme Command ordered the advance to pause and regroup. Little more than a month after it had begun, the invasion had started to lose its momentum.
Dividing the invading forces into Army Groups North, Centre and South, intended to advance tangentially to one another, was a measure partly necessitated by the presence in the area of invasion of the vast and impenetrable Pripet marshes. But it meant that the German armed forces were unable to concentrate on a single, unstoppable, knockout blow. By August 1941, it was already clear that the advance could not resume on all three fronts simultaneously. A choice had to be made between putting the weight of the next phase of the assault in the north, towards Leningrad, the centre, towards Moscow, or the south, towards Kiev. The leading German generals, following the classic Prussian military doctrine of going for the enemy’s centre of gravity, wanted to continue on to Moscow. But Hitler, whose contempt for the Russian troops was boundless, did not think this would be necessary; for him, securing the economic resources of the western parts of the Soviet Union was the primary aim; the Soviet state would crash into ruin in any case. After the victories in France and the west, neither Halder nor the other generals who thought like him felt able to gainsay the Leader. On 21 August 1941, after a good deal of debate, Hitler rejected the army’s request to continue pushing on towards Moscow, and ordered the generals to divert forces from Army Group Centre to strengthen the attack in the south, take Kiev, secure the agricultural resources of the Ukraine, and then head on for the Crimea, to deprive the Russians of a possible base for air attacks on the Romanian oilfields. Further troops and resources were detached from the centre to bolster the drive towards Leningrad. But Germany’s Finnish allies lacked the resources, the manpower and indeed the political will to push the Soviet forces back very far beyond the old Russo-Finnish border, and the German advance was slowed down by fierce Soviet resistance. A frustrated Hilter announced on 22 September 1941 that he had ‘decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. I have no interest in the further existence of this large city after the defeat of Soviet Russia’. The threat proved to be empty bluster.
Field Marshal Fedor von Bock telephoned Halder and told him that the decision to focus on the southern sector was misconceived,
above all because it puts in question the attack on the east. The War Directives are always saying that the point is not to capture Moscow! I don’t want to capture Moscow! I want to destroy the enemy army, and the mass of this army is standing in front of me!! The turn away towards the south is a sideshow, however large it might be, through which a question-mark is placed over the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before the winter – it does not help at all!!
A disappointed Bock could only give vent to his frustration in the pages of his diary: ‘If the eastern campaign after all its successes now fades away into a dreary defence,’ he wrote, ‘that’s not my fault.’ Halder was just as irritated, criticizing in his diary the ‘zigzag in the Leader’s individual orders’ that the switch of target involved. Yet at first, Hitler’s decision to weaken his forces in the centre did not seem to pose a problem. German armoured divisions from Army Groups Centre and South under the command of Heinz Guderian, who had caused Bock considerable irritation with his insistent and intemperate demands, broke through the Soviet lines, repelled a massive counter-offensive launched in late August and early September, and captured a further 665,000 prisoners, along with 884 tanks and over 3,000 artillery pieces. Kiev, Kharkov and most of central and eastern Ukraine were occupied in late September and October, and on 21 November 1941 German forces took Rostov-on-Don, opening up the prospect of cutting off oil supplies to the Red Army from the Caucasus and harnessing the industrial resources of the Donets Basin. These were among the greatest German military victories of the war.
Even before the assault on Kiev, German losses in terms of killed, missing, wounded or invalided out had mounted to nearly 400,000, and half the German tanks were out of commission or under repair. Bock hailed the operation as ‘a brilliant success’ but added that ‘the main strength of the Russians is standing unbroken in front of me, and – as before – the question remains open as to whether we will succeed in smashing it and exploiting the victory before winter comes in such a way that Russia cannot recover in this war’. Hitler thought this was still possible. The German forces, he told Goebbels on 23 September 1941, had achieved the breakthrough they had been looking for. German troops would soon encircle Moscow. Stalin, Hitler thought, was bound to sue for peace, and this would inevitably bring Britain to the negotiating-table too. The way was open to a final victory. Yet Hitler did not now expect this to occur immediately. He was already resigned to accepting that the war would go on until the following spring. But the huge victories of the preceding months left him optimistic that the war would be over by the middle of 1942 at the latest. Substantial numbers of troops were transferred back to Army Group Centre, now reinforced with fresh supplies, and strengthened by more forces from the north for a resumption of the march on Moscow. Bock had got his wish. 2 million German soldiers and 2,000 tanks, backed by massive air-power, advanced on the Soviet capital in October 1941 in a fresh campaign named ‘Operation Typhoon’, once again encircling the Red Army forces and taking 673,000 prisoners and enormous quantities of equipment. Addressing the traditional annual assembly of Party Regional Leaders and ‘Old Fighters’ in Munich on 8 November 1941, the anniversary of the failed 1923 beer-hall putsch, Hitler declared: ‘Never before has a giant empire been smashed and struck down in a shorter time than Soviet Russia.’
But this was another illusion. For the weeks of delay proved fatal. In retrospect, many considered that had they pressed on towards Moscow in August and September, the German forces might well have taken the Soviet capital, despite growing problems of keeping their supply lines open at such a distance from their bases further to the west. And, as Bock wished, they might have inflicted enormous, perhaps fatally demoralizing losses on the main forces of the Red Army in doing so. But in the end, this was hindsight with a grossly distorted vision. Generals like Bock, Halder and the others who championed, both then and later on, the idea of a knockout blow against the Soviet forces massed before Moscow were reflecting above all the dogma of the Prussian military tradition in which they had been brought up and spent most of their lives: the tradition that prescribed attack as the king of military operations, and the total destruction of the enemy armies as the only proper end of any military campaign. Bock knew better than almost anybody that his troops were tired, his units depleted, his supplies intermittent, his equipment unfitted for a winter campaign. But like many senior commanders in the German army, he was haunted by the memory of the Battle of the Marne, the failure of the western offensive in 1914. Like Hitler, he was determined that it would not be repeated. And like Hitler, too, he fatally underestimated the strength of the enemy, an enemy the depth of whose reserves of manpower and materiel he was aware of, but lightly brushed aside, just as, in the end, he discounted the new fighting spirit of the Red Army that had inflicted so many casualties on his forces.
By October, as Bock had feared, the Soviet leadership had rethought and reorganized its whole way of conducting the war. After issuing draconian orders for the punishment of shirkers and deserters and having Dmitri Pavlov, the commander of the Red Army on the Western Front at the time of the invasion, tried by a summary court-martial and shot, Stalin began to realize, as he told his officers in October 1941, that ‘persuasion, not violence’ should be used to motivate the troops. He began to allow his commanders greater freedom of action in conducting their campaigns. Meanwhile, after reading a biography of the Tsarist general Kutuzov, who had abandoned Moscow in the face of Napoleon’s invasion, the Soviet leader decided that to leave the capital would cause panic. It was one thing to burn a small early nineteenth-century town to the ground, another thing altogether to surrender the vast conurbation that had become the modern Soviet capital. ‘No evacuation,’ Stalin said. ‘We’ll stay here until victory.’ Under Stalin’s leadership, the new State Defence Committee began to get a grip on the situation. On 10 October 1941 Stalin appointed General Georgi Zhukov to command the armies defending the capital. Zhukov’s forces, numbering about a million men, were forced on to the defensive as Bock pushed rapidly forward towards Moscow. Panic broke out among the population in some quarters of Moscow, though the city was spared the horrors of aerial bombardment, as German planes concentrated their efforts on attacking Soviet troops on the ground.
At this point, the autumn rains arrived with a vengeance, turning the unmade Russian roads into impassable sludge. On 15 October 1941, Guderian told Bock that he had to order a pause in the advance. The Field Marshal blamed it not only on stiff enemy resistance but also on the ‘indescribable state of the roads, which makes almost any movement of the motorized vehicles impossible’. Because of the ‘temporary impassability of the roads and tracks for vehicles’, noted Meier-Welcker, ‘we have not received any deliveries of fuel, munitions or foodstuffs’, and the troops were living off whatever they could find, mainly potatoes, baking their own bread and slaughtering local livestock themselves. Driving along a road in the area on 16 October 1941, General Heinrici found ‘a continual line of sinking, bogged-down, broken-down motor vehicles, which were hopelessly stuck fast. Almost as many dead horses lay beside them in the mire. Today,’ he was forced to admit, ‘we’ve simply come to a halt because of the difficulties of the roads.’ By late October the German armies had been stuck in the mud for three weeks.