“The finest tank in the world.”—Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist
The arsenal of armour in the Soviet Union by mid-1941 included more than 22,000 tanks—more tanks than in all the armies of the world combined; more than four times as many as the Germans had. But the majority of these tanks were obsolete and the supremely confident Germans knew it. What they apparently didn’t know was that the Russians had designed, built and tested two new and considerably better tanks: the KV heavy and the T-34 medium. They also didn’t know that a number of these new tanks were already operational and serving in front-line Soviet Army units. These new tanks were very good fighting weapons, well-designed, each mounting a big gun and protected with thick armour. They were good, but they were not miracle weapons, and they had their faults. They were both relatively simple, lowtechnology vehicles. Their crew habitability and visibility was on the poor side, and their rates of mechanical breakdown on the high side. But the T-34, for its faults, is now often referred to by tank experts and historians as possibly the best tank of the war.
Of the T-34, noted author / historian / tank expert Douglas Orgill wrote: “… the effectiveness of a weapon is directly equal to its ability to get itself properly into position to deal decisive blows without being harmed by the blows it is itself receiving.” When the German invaders entered the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they would have been amazed by the T-34 tank then being fielded in large numbers by the Russians. Flushed with their successes in the Battle of France, they came into the Eastern Front expecting to roll over the opposition as they had already done with relative ease in the Low Countries, Poland, and France. Nazi doctrine had been working overtime to instill in them the notion of German superiority. Now, in the new T-34 weapon system, they were facing up to the fact that the Russians—a people they had been led to believe were Untermenschen, or subhuman, were capable of producing an armoured fighting vehicle more advanced in some ways, and more threatening than their own panzer tanks.
How did the Germans react to their experience of the T-34? Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist: “… it was the finest tank in the world.” Major-General F. W. von Mellenthin: “We had nothing comparable …” And Colonel-General Heinz Guderian: “Very worrying … up to this time we had enjoyed tank superiority, but from now on the situation was reversed. The prospect of rapid, decisive victories was fading in consequence …”
Initially, the surprise attack by the Germans was quite effective. With all the great numerical superiority of the Russian tank force, only about twenty-five percent of their tanks were in good operating condition. The bulk of their operational armoured units was then being reformed; their service equipment and spare parts in short supply. And the majority of their officers and men were short on experience of driving and operating their tanks.
On the German side, there was disagreement about the approach to take with the Soviets. Guderian, Erich von Manstein and some of the other army leaders strongly advocated using powerful force to quickly destroy the Red Army as the chief obstacle to their achievement in the campaign. But Hitler and others in the German government believed it vital to begin by paralyzing the Russian government through the seizing of poilitical and economic objectives. Ultimately, Hitler agreed to the “destruction of the Red Army in western Russia by deep penetration of armoured spearheads.”
The German forces began the operation with rapid panzer attacks which appeared to result in somewhat sluggish, though brave, and rather uncoordinated responses from the Soviet armoured units. The essential policy of the German armoured corps was, at all costs, to keep up their momentum and the pressure on the enemy force with speedy thrusts culminating in effective encirclements to seal off the other side in defeat. Manstein: “The farther a single Panzer corps ventured into the depths of the Russian hinterland, the greater the hazards became. Against this it may be said that the safety of a tank formation operating in the enemy’s rear largely depends on its ability to keep moving. Once it comes to a halt it will immediately be assailed from all sides by the enemy’s reserves.”
At the start of the action the panzers rolled swiftly through the shocked Soviet tank and artillery units, doing great damage. Quite soon, though, the German tanks, which were apparently superior in quality and capability, were faced with the harsh reality of their dependency on the vital re-supply of fuel, munitions, and rations, their security and ability to keep fighting depending heavily on their preventing the enemy from interferring with the German supply routes. The other main fear was the weather; if heavy rain came the German supply trucks would wallow in the great sticky swamps of Russian mud.
In the earliest days of the campaign, the Germans had momentum and the priceless advantage of better organization. What they discovered almost immediately, however, in their early encounters with the heavy KV tank and then with the T-34 medium, was the genuine and terrible threat posed by the 76mm gun mounted in those vehicles. The big distinction between the panzers and those two Russian tanks was the ability of the KV and T-34 to lie back beyond 1,000 yards, shoot and penetrate the thickest German armour with those 76mm rounds, while the Germans had to close to within 200 yards before firing to kill a T-34 or KV.
In the beginning of the offensive, the Germans faced far fewer examples of the T-34 and KV tanks than the sort of numbers that they would soon be up against. They were able to destroy the Soviet armour with relative ease for a while, thanks to that limited number of opposing quality weapons, the better German training, organization, leadership, and, of course, the aerial reconnaissance which gave them ample early warning of likely Soviet attack, strength and positioning of the enemy forces. In those early days of the campaign, there was little indication of the enemy being able to compile the elements needed for successful opposition to the German onslaught. The enemy the Germans were up against then seemed greatly disadvantaged by incompetent leadership, inadequate training, and tank crews inept in handling their vehicles. The Soviet tanks seemed to be plagued with breakdowns, due at least partly to the way in which the tanks were handled. The Soviet tank crews then were exhibiting poor tactics, inconsistent shooting accuracy and, because it was still early days in the offensive, an insufficient supply of the formidable T-34 and KV tanks to make an appreciable difference on the battlefield. In the period beginning with the opening of the German offensive in the Soviet Union in June, through December 1941, the Soviets lost more than 15,000 tanks and one million men to the German invader.
Soon, however, the Germans were up against the reality of war with the Soviets. The losses they were experiencing were half again as great as they had been in their earlier campaigns in the west. Perhaps more significantly to the future of the offensive, Guderian and the other German panzer leaders were plagued with re-supply and repair problems, radically diminishing the level of success they had been accustomed to in their previous, spectacular blitzkrieg adventures. After the initial months at war in the USSR, the German panzers were being slowed dramatically by logistics, the mechanical realities, the actions of the enemy, and soon, by the arrival of the horrific winter months. With the coming of the cold, the effectiveness of the tanks of both sides was lessened considerably, resulting in greatly increased pressure on the infantry units to consolidate the gains of the tank units and to fight off enemy tank actions.
The German plan for Operation Barbarossa required that the southern-most sector of the Southern Front be under the watchful eyes of the Hungarian and Rumanian armies while the Army Group South, under the command of Field Marshal von Rundstedt, and led into battle by Kleist’s panzer division attacked Kiev. Field Marshal von Bock’s Army Group Cental, meanwhile, was meant to bring a primary attack aimed at Moscow, via Smolensk and Minsk, utilizing the two most powerful and effective panzer groups, those of Guderian and Hoth, and Field Marshal Leeb’s Army Group North, including Hoepner’s panzer group, was to attack and take Leningrad. Lesser emphasis appears to have been placed on the capture of the key Soviet industrial areas and the destruction of the Russian field armies, this despite the view of the German military command that by far the most important objective was the destruction of the Russian Army by the panzer groups.
From the outset of Eastern Front activities, Hitler wanted and expected the prize of Moscow to be in hand by the end of October. With the autumn his already exhausted armoured units were expected and required to mount a new campaign aimed at taking the Russian capital. Guderian’s armoured and infantry forces did pile up sizeable gains at Vyazma and between Sevsk and Bryansk, but then they became bogged down on the new front with the coming of the great rains. Road surfaces there had been poor and inadequate for tank operation to begin with, and with the heavy rains became virtual quagmires.
From the Soviet standpoint, General Georgy Zhukov, by far the most powerful and successful Russian commander of the entire war, was attempting to rebuild the crews and equipment of his armoured forces to make them into the sort of fighting force able to perform on the same level as that of the German adversary. In his favour, the seemingly endless rains created masses of thick, glue-like mud which increasingly prevented the Germans from advancing any closer than 150 miles from Moscow. These troubles for the Germans that came with the mud allowed Zhukov time and opportunity to fight a delaying action and reinforce his own armour units, both of which added appreciably to the problems of the Germans.
By this point, the creeping, rather ineffectual movements of the German forces displayed their loss of momentum and, when they finally came within sight of the capital, they simply could go no further.
- Kugies was a panzer platoon leader and tank commander on the Russian Front in the Second World War: “At Tilsit in East Prussia I led a section of five tanks. In the lead tank we were only able to advance at about 12-14 km/h over the soft, marshy roads. Our riflemen marched ahead of us in a wide front to deal with any resistance that I could not break through. Just behind the Russian-Latvian frontier, we encountered Soviet soldiers. Our section had been ordered to halt, but, due to my defective wireless set, I did not receive the order in our tank and continued to drive on alone. The road soon became blocked by Soviet trucks and my driver had to take us through open terrain. He couldn’t stop because of the marshy ground. The Russian truck convoy was escorted by many of their tanks and, before they could turn their turret toward me I began to fire on them. Their aiming was bad and I managed to shoot nine of them out of action. With their tanks burning, and the crews fleeing, I was then able to destroy an anti-tank battery and an artillery position. I crossed a bridge and then closed my hatch-cover to prevent any enemy shells from coming in. By this time my cannon ammunition supply was exhausted and I could only shoot with my machine-gun. We now stayed where we were, alone, for about thirty minutes until our following tanks reached us. After such a dangerous situation, we all had a sip of vodka which, unfortunately, was warm for having been under our gear. Later, we learned that the tanks behind us had stopped often, as ordered, on the marshy ground. They incurred many losses.
“While trying to aid a German infantry reconnaissance patrol which was fighting in a lost cause on 13 August 1941 at the Luga bridgehead, I was wounded. I was nearly out of ammunition and a Russian machine-gun was only five metres ahead of us. I ordered us forward to try and save the reconnaissance patrol. Standing in the hatch, I was pointing in the direction of the Russian machine-gun, which was now firing at us. I was shot three times through my right hand and forefinger and got a graze on the side of my head. My cap was torn to pieces but I was hardly bleeding. As I sank into the tank, I was fired on from a nearby house. I was hit in the right shoulder by splinters and my uniform jacket was torn up. My chief took me immediately to the doctor at a nearby field unit where my wounds were bandaged. I was then flown by Ju 52 aircraft to a field hospital near Dünaburg followed by a two-day train trip to a military hospital in Germany. I always remember hearing infantrymen say to us again and again: ‘I wouldn’t like to go in your deathboxes’, and we always answered: ‘And we don’t like to walk.”
Now the German tank commanders were within sight of Moscow and the weather was becoming substantially worse. The temperature was falling like a stone and a deep, unyielding freeze was setting in, paralyzing the battle-weary panzers. Their oil froze as did the grease in their guns, and the heavy, sticky mud froze and had to be chipped away with pickaxes.
As bad as the conditions were, for both sides in the conflict, the rather small but very effective T-34 and KV tank force of General Zhukov was outperforming Hitler’s tanks in the appalling conditions to this point. While Zhukov lacked sufficient numbers of those excellent tanks to actually overwhelm the German opposition, he did have a large, highly-effective and efficiently positioned concentration of anti-tank obstacles which gave him an important capability in defending Moscow. This was proving to be the worst winter in 140 years, and as it continued, the German troops suffered horrifically in the bone-chilling cold. The sucking, clogging mud suppressed all movement, mechanical and human, to a bare minimum. In the punishing conditions, the Russians seemed both more fit and better able to contend with the brutal weather. The normally flawless standards of performance and serviceability of the German forces began to falter as the snows and bitter cold intensified.
The German armoured and infantry forces had entered Russia believing that they would simply fight a brief, efficient summer campaign to victory. They were utterly unprepared and ill-equipped for fighting and surviving in the extremes of winter in the region. They had brought summer-weight uniforms. Their tanks and other vehicles were not properly winterized and were soon suffering frozen engine blocks. The men were suffering frostbite, trench foot, shock, exposure, and exhaustion on a nearly unimaginable scale. Each day the German units were achieving less; the initial successes virtually forgotten in their dismay. Worse, their commanders were quickly losing confidence in and respect for the directions coming to them from Berlin.