The Moscow offensive persevered with the two-pronged attacks inaugurated by General Zhukov in December. To the north, two Soviet armies attacked toward Demyansk and three more armies attacked toward Belev to the south and east. These drives by 76 divisions quickly produced a large irregular bulge in the German lines and threatened to isolate the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev area. To the south of Moscow, even larger Soviet forces struck due west in the general direction of Smolensk, but here the going was tougher. Surrounded German units expertly formed circular hedgehog defenses to protect themselves against attack from any direction. They held their ground and kept busy Soviet units that otherwise could have advanced farther to the west and south.
Week after week, continuous fighting raged the length and breadth of the enormous Moscow front. The battles were particularly fierce in the north around Demyansk, Kholm and Staraya Russa; if Soviet forces broke through there, they might link up with armies that began attacking southward from the Leningrad sector on January 13. Red Army units did penetrate to the center of Staraya Russa, blowing up ammunition dumps and reducing the ancient trading post to rubble. But the German 2nd Corps, surrounded in a 20-by-40-mile hedgehog between Demyansk and Kholm, held out through a two-and-a-half-month siege with the aid of supplies flown in by the Luftwaffe.
Soviet forces, too, were surrounded in great swirling battles around Vyazma, in the center of the Moscow front between the two enormous pincers. The Germans cut off General P. A. Belov’s cavalry corps and three divisions of the Thirty-third Army under Lieut. General M. G. Yefremov. For weeks the Russians hung on and fought back. Belov’s horsemen finally sliced through to Soviet lines, but Yefremov and most of his men were blocked at every turn. Severely wounded and facing capture, Yefremov shot himself.
Elsewhere, the Soviet attacks fared poorly. The armies in the Leningrad sector failed to break through to the besieged city, and one army was surrounded on boggy terrain to the south. Far to the south of the Moscow front, Soviet forces did manage to drive a salient into the German lines near Izyum, but they could advance no farther and were left in a dangerously exposed position. At the extreme southern end of the front, Soviet forces attempted to relieve German pressure on besieged Sevastopol by making an amphibious assault on the nearby Kerch Peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea. The expedition proved to be a costly failure. The Sevastopol garrison attempted to break out of the encircling German lines, but it too came a cropper.
Nevertheless, Stalin stopped at nothing to keep his offensives going. He juggled his commanders and shifted whole armies about, sometimes for no apparent purpose. On the Moscow front, he deprived Zhukov of the First Shock Army just when the general needed it most, and only to place it in reserve. Zhukov objected vigorously, saying that he had earmarked that army for his attack toward Vyazma . “Don’t protest,” Stalin retorted. “Send it along. You have plenty of troops-just count them.”
And so it was that, in late February, Stalin’s much-vaunted general offensive ran out of steam and presently ground to a halt, just as reasonable Soviet officers had said it would on January 5. The Red Army had won isolated chunks of relatively unimportant terrain and had been gravely weakened in the process. General Zhukov indulged himself a dry recapitulation: “Stalin was very attentive to advice but, regrettably, sometimes took decisions not in accord with the situation.” Yet the winter campaign had not been much of a victory for the Germans either. German casualties amounted to nearly 200,000 men, and only by dint of skilful and courageous fighting had Hitler’s Wehrmacht been able to hold in roughly the same position that the generals had hoped to occupy in the strategic withdrawal forbidden by the Führer.
This fact, of course, escaped Hitler’s notice. He heartily agreed with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who put out word that “the Führer alone saved the Eastern Front this winter.” Goebbels noted credulously in his diary, “The Führer described to me how close we were to a Napoleonic winter. Had he weakened for one moment, the front would have caved in a catastrophe that would have put the Napoleonic disaster far into the shade.”