The August Pause I


landscape supply convoy pzkfw 35t german tanks column

German armour on the move at the beginning of a very long journey. Almost everywhere the Wehrmacht achieved tactical surprise. Soviet troops were caught in their camps and barracks and the Germans quickly overran incomplete or unmanned field fortifications.

Heinz Guderian (Oberbefehlshaber Panzergruppe 2), Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (Kommandeur 17.Panzer-Division), General der Panzertruppe Joachim Lemelsen

This picture was taken during Unternehmen Barbarossa, summer 1941. From right to left: Generaloberst Heinz Guderian (Oberbefehlshaber Panzergruppe 2), Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (Kommandeur 17.Panzer-Division), General der Panzertruppe Joachim Lemelsen (Kommandierender General XXXXVII.Armeekorps), unknown officer, and Generalmajor Walther Nehring (Kommandeur 18.Panzer-Division). For the last ID (Nehring), it could be also Oberst Rudolf Bamler (Chef des Stabes XXXXVII.Armeekorps). In the background parked Panzerkampfwagen III

In planning Barbarossa the Germans had assumed that after the initial onslaught and the destruction of the Red Army along the frontier, the Soviets would not be able to field substantial reserve forces—certainly not in any coherent fashion. In late July and August the Germans learned the folly of such ill-founded optimism. By the end of June the Soviets had called up 5.3 million reservists; 13 field armies (a Soviet army was approximate to a German corps) deployed in July, 14 in August, 1 in September, and 4 in October. Units from Siberia and the Far East allowed the Soviets to move 8 additional armies forward in the defense of Moscow, with 10 more arriving in spring 1942. All told, the Soviets deployed 97 existing divisions to the west over summer 1941 and created no less than 194 new divisions and 84 separate brigades.

The sheer weight of numbers began to wreck German plans. On 11 August Halder noted, “The whole situation shows more and more clearly that we have underestimated the colossus of Russia . . . This conclusion is shown both on the organizational as well as the economic levels, in the transportation, and above all in infantry divisions. We have already identified 360. The divisions are admittedly not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are badly led. But there they are; and when we destroy a dozen the Soviets simply establish another dozen.” Reinforcing Halder’s pessimism were the heavy casualties that panzer divisions suffered in July. For example, 20th Panzer Division had lost 35 percent of its officers, 19 percent of NCOs, and 11 percent of its men by 26 July. Equally disturbing was the higher-than-expected quality of some Soviet military equipment, particularly the T-34 tank, which proved to be extremely effective in combat.

The Germans’ operational pause between the end of July and the end of August did not result from Hitler’s and the OKH’s arguments as to whether the next offensive should target Moscow or Leningrad and Kiev. Rather, the Germans halted because of their inability to transport sufficient supplies of ammunition and fuel forward, coupled with the impact of the Soviet Union’s mobilization. As Halder pointed out, Soviet reserves were desperately short of equipment, lacked experienced officers and NCOs, and possessed the barest tactical knowledge, but they provided the manpower for a series of counterattacks that now broke on German spearheads. In early August, Timoshenko, commanding Soviet forces in the center, launched four of these reserve armies (approximately 37 divisions) in a series of attacks that slashed at Guderian’s southern flank. These offensives were uncoordinated and lacked the sophistication to cause anything more than local difficulties. But they forced the Germans to fight, and they drained the ammunition and fuel reserves required for a resumption of the German advance.

The farther the German advance attempted to go, the greater became the supply difficulties. Civilian trucks, stolen from Western Europe, disintegrated on the primitive Soviet roads. Within 19 days of the start of the campaign, the Wehrmacht had lost 25 percent of these vehicles with little chance of replacement. The Germans hoped to ease the supply situation by rapidly repairing and converting Soviet railroads to standard European gauge. But there were two significant problems with this plan. First, mechanized units had moved along Soviet roads rather than rails, often leaving the tracks in the hands of Soviet forces. Moreover, the repair and conversion work itself proved more difficult than expected. As early as 29 June, the Luftwaffe had to fly fuel to Fourth Panzer Group. Supply trains to Army Group North, which were scheduled to unload in three hours at the transfer point from German to Soviet gauge, were taking 80 hours. Observers described the resulting traffic jam as catastrophic. Exacerbating difficulties for Army Group North’s spearheads was the fact that its lines of communications (over 400 miles) remained exposed to attacks. By the end of July, ammunition stocks in the divisions and corps had sunk to 50 percent of normal levels and were still dropping.

Army Group South’s situation was hardly better. Rundstedt’s troops faced terrible weather conditions—periods of blazing heat and dust followed by torrential downpours. By 19 July, half of Army Group South’s trucks were out of commission. Bitter arguments broke out between units over the hijacking of trains and supplies. On 1 August, within a week of the scheduled push down the Dnepr, Rundstedt’s forward units had between one-sixth and one-seventh of their basic ammunition load. Army Group Center fared equally poorly. By early July Bock’s panzer divisions were losing tanks because the supply system could not provide parts. Combat demands during the closure and destruction of the Smolensk pocket resulted in high ammunition expenditures, while heavy counterattacks by Soviet reserve armies exacerbated ammunition shortages. Fuel supplies had to be curtailed in order to bring up more ammunition. Consequently, Army Group Center could build up only a few supply dumps for a renewed offensive; frontline units fired off ammunition as fast as it arrived; and the troops lived off the land. By the end of July all trains moving supplies forward in Army Group South were turned over to Third Panzer Group for its drive into the Ukraine (still well below its expectations), while trucks from Ninth Army had to drive 300 miles to frontier depots. Stockpiling of fuel for a renewed drive on Moscow never began.

Supply problems bedeviled the Luftwaffe as well. By mid-July, its units were seriously short of fuel and ammunition. On 5 July Fliegerkorps VIII reported that fuel had run short, even though it had already scaled back operations. Its commander, Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, noted that “supply is for us the greatest difficulty in this [campaign].” As ground forces spread out in the theater, demands for close air support grew; that in turn resulted in a shuttling of Luftwaffe units from one army group to another. Such shifts strained the supply system even more and almost caused a complete breakdown by late fall 1941. By that time operational ready rates for bomber squadrons in the entire Luftwaffe had fallen below 50 percent, plummeting to 32 percent in December.

In the face of such difficulties, the Germans argued the various options among themselves at great length. At the end of July Hitler made clear that his strategic goals remained intact. The Wehrmacht must remove Leningrad and the Soviet forces in the Baltic as military factors, while the Ukraine and the Donets Basin with their reserves of coal must be conquered as well. Hitler could not make up his mind between these two fundamental goals for the campaign. His fixation on Leningrad and the Ukraine suggests that he was uncertain whether the Wehrmacht would achieve victory before winter. At the same time, the OKH and frontline commanders were still urging an advance on Moscow, which they believed would win the war, although their claims then and after the war were not backed with any concrete evidence.