The first weeks of Barbarossa saw the Panzers make rapid advances and Soviet forces taking heavy losses, outshining the German achievements of 1940. However, problems soon surfaced. The lack of a suitable road network slowed down the German follow-up infantry and supplies, with the result that the Panzers failed to complete the encirclement of the enemy. The infantry took longer than expected to mop up enemy forces and the Panzer Divisions became worn out; to compound matters, the Soviet mobilization came sooner than expected. Autumn, with its unfavourable climate, soon bogged down Operation Taifun, the German assault on Moscow. Time and space – two unforeseen factors – took their toll, and eventually the Soviet counter-offensive of December 1941 brought the German Army and the Panzerwaffe face to face with their first defeat, which was to have dire consequences for the Germans.
It did not take long before the war on the Eastern Front exposed the shortcomings of German doctrine. The lack of an adequate road network and accurate maps, the erroneous estimates for fuel consumption (60,000 litres of fuel daily for a 200-tank Panzer Regiment soon turned into 120,000 and 180,000 litres daily) and the wear and tear on the vehicles greatly influenced the Panzer Divisions’ capabilities, along with the inability of the infantry to keep pace with the armoured advance. Until 27 June 1941 Panzergruppen 2 and 3 advanced 320km with a daily rate of 64km, but this shrank to 20km a day in early July. Likewise, 8. Panzer Division’s daily rate of advance was 7Skm until 26 June, but this dropped to 32km in the first half of July. Autumn brought the first bad weather, and the resulting quagmire, which restricted the Panzer Divisions to movement on the main roads, made manoeuvre and encirclement practically impossible. Winter combined with improvements to the Soviet defences, with their anti-tank guns deployed forward, further reduced the mobility of the Panzer Divisions. Eventually, the severe losses suffered during the first Soviet counter-offensive and the subsequent reorganization of the Panzer Divisions crushed any German hopes of victory.
End of 1941
The blitzkrieg team was frayed. The Luftwaffe’s operational losses had been compounded by the problems of maintenance at improvised forward air strips, and crew fatigue the system refused to recognize. The 2nd Air Fleet, Army Group Center’s opposite number, had approximately 170 single-engine fighters, about the same number of bombers, and 120 ground attack planes. The artillery’s material losses had been limited, but its horses were dying, its vehicles were breaking down, and its ammunition reserves were limited. The infantry was tired. Average divisional strengths had been reduced by a quarter—more in the rifle companies. Morale was still high; and to some degree the shortage of men was compensated by material. Increasing numbers of 50mm antitank guns, effective against T-34s, were coming on line. Army Group Center had 14 battalions of the assault guns that had demonstrated their worth over and over again in all sectors. In the final analysis, however, the attack on Moscow would go as far as the panzers could carry it.
The code name was Taifun, and reality approached rhetoric. The initial intention had been to redeploy 4th Panzer Group on Hoth’s left and launch a two-pronged attack. The rapid victory at Kiev enabled Guderian’s group to be brought up on the right. When the number was finalized, Bock had fourteen panzer and eight motorized divisions, more than 1,000 tanks on a 500-mile front. The panzers were not what they had been on June 21. Casualties had been heavy and replacements inadequate. But they remained the cream of the army: tempered but not yet brittle, respecting their enemy but still convinced they had the Soviets’ measure.
Guderian’s panzer divisions were still at about half their assigned tank strength. The situation in Groups 3 and 4 was better. Two of Hoepner’s divisions had even enjoyed full, albeit brief, refits in France. The problem was sustainability. Shifting Panzer Groups 2 and 4 quickly and smoothly showcased the quality of German staff planning and traffic management, but it came with a price in wear and tear. Hitler had ordered engine production allocated to new vehicles, and the army group had received only 350 replacements. The shortage of other vehicles exceeded 20 percent. Fuel consumption was outstripping the Reich’s production capacity. Existing supplies remained difficult to move forward due to the still-inadequate rail system.