The rasputitsa refers to the biannual seasons when unpaved roads become difficult to traverse in parts of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The word may be translated as the “quagmire season” because during this period the large flatlands become extremely muddy and marshy, as do most unpaved roads. The term applies to both the “spring rasputitsa” and “autumn rasputitsa” and to the condition of the roads during those seasons. The rasputitsa occurs more strongly in the spring due to the melting snow but it usually recurs in the fall due to frequent heavy rains.
The rasputitsa seasons of Russia are well known as a great defensive advantage in wartime. Napoleon found the mud in Russia to be a very great hindrance in 1812. During the Second World War the month-long muddy period slowed down the German advance during the Battle of Moscow, and may have helped save the Soviet capital, as well as the presence of “General Winter”, that followed the autumn rasputitsa period.
Von Weichs’s 2 Army was still clearing up the area of the encircled Bryansk Front near the Desna and had been left far behind the spearhead of the advance and out of touch with the main enemy. In the second week in October 1941, the clearing operations having been completed, its three infantry corps began their long march eastwards through the streaming rain and mud. The men were exhausted after the break-in battles and mopping-up operations near Bryansk, but there was no question of giving them even a few days’ rest. Pursuit eastwards was the order of the day. Tired and verminous and soaked to the skin, boots and socks never dry, the infantry trudged slowly southeast from Bryansk along the Orel highway.
Infantry was the only arm capable of moving by its own efforts, even though this movement was hardly eight miles a day. With its few possessions on its back it moved itself, fed itself and quartered itself by living off the land, improved its own tracks and built its own light bridges. Not only did it march, but it found the willing hands which pulled the horses out of mud-filled shell holes and gullies, and provided the heaving backs which got the ditched wagon wheels turning again; yet without the horse the infantry itself would have been lost.
Most roads and tracks had disappeared and those remaining were so few in number that several divisions were allocated to a single route, this congestion slowing down the rate of march. No wheeled motor vehicles accompanied the columns. Although the progress of the dismounted men was painfully slow, that of the horses in harness was even slower. In the end the infantry companies were ordered on ahead and they left behind them the vehicle-loaded stores, heavy radio and ammunition and the horse-drawn anti-tank guns and artillery. Fleeter of foot, they began to overtake other units and formations, no further effort being made to keep to a march table, so that regiments and divisions became mixed and broken up.
The hamlets through which the columns passed were crammed with German troops; too often the towns and bigger villages had been destroyed in the fighting or gutted by the local inhabitants, who looted all materials and fixtures which could possibly be carried off. For the most part the troops remained out at night in the rain and the cold; sleep was out of the question. Although movement was not delayed by the enemy or by mines, it took von Weichs’s marching infantry formations fourteen days to cover 125 miles. Even then, most of the equipment had been left behind.
By 26 October, when the van of 2 Army had reached the area between Mtsensk and Kursk, it was directed to thrust on Efremov, Elets and the area north of Voronezh. Von Weichs, having crossed Guderian’s lines of communication from left to right, was moving away from him and could no longer cover the 2 Panzer Army right flank.
Immediately to the north of von Weichs’s 2 Army, 52 German Infantry Division moved near the inter-army boundary towards Kaluga on the far southern flank of von Kluge’s 4 Army. The formation had started from Sukhinichi, leaving the forest belt behind it, when, on 13 October, the rains began in earnest. The general service army carts were ditched because they were slung too low, and Russian farm vehicles were seized from the fields. The loads which could not be carried forward were abandoned and the remaining horses pooled in order to provide spare teams. Only two light guns in each battery were taken on, together with their limbers, each piece being dragged forward by ten horses, while the unharnessed animals brought up the rear.
Within two days the horses, up to the knees and sometimes the girths in mud, had lost their shoes, but in the soft going could manage without them. The infantrymen, whose calf boots were frequently sucked from their legs as they waded on, knee deep in water, were not so fortunate. Their boots were already in pieces. After the first day’s march the horse-drawn guns and baggage, light though it was, could not keep up with the men, and the troops went rationless except for the tea and potatoes looted from the farms. No longer could they rely on the support of the gun and mortar in clearing up enemy resistance.
Unwittingly, they longed for the coming of the front and the winter.