December 1941 East Front

On the Russian front, the Germans had been so close to Moscow on the morning of December 2 that they thought they could see the towers of the Kremlin through their field glasses. Some of them were convinced that they had seen movement in the streets as well. But that had been earlier, before the weather closed in. The Germans could hardly see one another’s faces now that the snow had begun to fall again.

The snow was still falling as Lieutenant Heinrich Haape and his two companions drove up to the front line from the railway town of Klin. According to the map in the Cabinet War Rooms, the front lay directly ahead of them, a neat length of black yarn crossing the road a few miles short of Moscow. The reality, in the murk and chaos, was rather harder to determine.

Haape was a medical officer attached to the Eighteenth Infantry Regiment. Together with Oberleutnant Kageneck and Fischer, their driver, he was bringing up a carload of cognac, chocolate, cigars, cigarettes, and medical supplies—gifts from the Luftwaffe, which still had access to such luxuries. Sitting beside Kageneck while Fischer followed the tracks of some other vehicle through the snow, Haape could hardly believe that they were almost in Moscow at last.

Already there were signs of an approaching city all around them: houses, side streets, billboards along the way plastered with enormous pictures of Lenin and Stalin. Now and then there was even a two-story building among all the wooden shacks. But no people. None that Haape could see. The whole place appeared to be deserted:

Not a soul was in sight. Many of the buildings were burnt-out shells, a heap of rubble bearing mute evidence of a bombing raid or concentrated artillery fire. Not a building was occupied—every man, woman, child and beast had fled. The snow had drifted up against the doors of the wooden hovels, and on the window-sills. An occasional Wehrmacht signboard, in code, showed us that we were still on the right road.

By Haape’s calculation another fifteen minutes at the same speed would bring them to Moscow’s city limits. He found it sobering, frightening even, to think that they could be in Red Square fifteen minutes after that, if the Russians didn’t stop them first.

They drove on for some time before coming at length to a front-line post beside the road. Two officers emerged as they drew up. One asked where they were going.

“Moscow,” Kageneck told him.

“That’s where we’re going too. Perhaps you’d better wait for us.”

The officer pointed with his leather glove. There were Russians to the right and left of them. The tram stop to Moscow lay just ahead, but the trams weren’t running. The officer advised them to come back next week if they wanted to drive any farther into Moscow.

He told Haape that the men in his unit had taken 25 percent casualties from frostbite alone in the past few days. They were still waiting for their winter clothing to arrive. All any of them could think about was getting to Moscow before Christmas and finding somewhere warm and dry to spend the rest of the winter. The troops had convinced themselves that the fall of Moscow must surely mean the end of the war:

One more jump and we’ll be there,” the officer said confidently. “It’ll be over. Surely we can’t be denied it now?”

Haape wished he could be so certain. Like many in the German army, he was beginning to have his doubts about the wisdom of invading Russia.

He walked over to the tram stop. It was a stone shed with wooden seats. The tramlines were invisible under the snow, but a row of telegraph poles pointed the way to Moscow.

A bin on the wall was full of old tram tickets with Moskva stamped on them. On impulse Haape pocketed a few as a souvenir. Then he and the others returned to their car and drove back the way they had come. It was probably as near as any German got to Moscow that winter.

#

Some 130 miles to the south, General Heinz Guderian was acutely aware of the difficulties facing the troops as they struggled to fight a war in the bitter cold, with the temperature continuing to plummet. If he had his way, the men under his command would dig in for the winter, recoup their strength, and wait for spring before attempting to advance any further. But Hitler’s orders were unequivocal. Guderian was to push on, regardless of the weather. There was nothing else he could do if he wanted to retain his command.

Guderian was one of the stars of the war so far. He had never needed any urging to push on in the past. His panzer tanks had led the way in Poland and France, moving forward so fast that his men had nicknamed him “Der schnelle Heinz” as they visited blitzkrieg on their enemies. It was only an order from above that had prevented him from annihilating the British at Dunkirk.

Guderian’s panzers had led the way in Russia too. They had swept all before them as they aimed straight for Moscow. They might have taken the capital already if Hitler hadn’t suddenly diverted them south to reinforce the Kiev front.

Guderian was in command now at Tula, covering the approaches to Moscow from the south. He had set up a temporary headquarters at Yasnaya Polyana, the country estate just outside Tula that was home to the Tolstoy family. Guderian had arrived on December 2, taking over one of the two big houses on the property for himself and his staff. The other was still occupied by the family.

It had not escaped the Germans’ notice that Yasnaya was where Russia’s most famous novelist had written his most famous novel. Leo Tolstoy had spent most of the 1860s writing War and Peace, a tribute to the courage of the Russian people during the Napoleonic campaign of 1812, in which his father had fought. The Germans knew all about War and Peace, even if they hadn’t read it themselves. In particular, they all knew how it turned out in the end.

There was a Tolstoy museum at Yasnaya, whose contents the Russians had prudently removed before the Wehrmacht arrived. Guderian had given orders that the Tolstoy family’s remaining furniture and books were to be locked away in two rooms for safekeeping. He had also ordered that the novelist’s descendants were to be left undisturbed in their own house on the estate.

But War and Peace was not so easily locked away. The 1812 campaign was on everybody’s minds as the Germans braced themselves for a struggle that was clearly going to be much harder than anticipated. Russian accounts of the 1812 campaign attributed Napoleon’s defeat to the formidable fighting qualities of the Russian soldier; French ones blamed the weather. Both seemed eminently plausible to the Germans.

The resilience of the Russian army had been their first big surprise. It was poorly equipped and led after Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. The Germans had expected to cut through it like a knife through butter, as they had with every other army over the past two years.

They had been wildly successful at first, driving the Russians back across one endless horizon after another. But their success had not led to a Russian surrender, as it had with everyone else. It had steeled the Russians’ resolve, if anything. The fighting was just as determined as ever.

The real revelation, however, had been the weather. The Germans had never seen anything like it before. Winter had hardly begun and already they were knee-deep in snow. The temperature had dropped to unbelievable levels, –30º F as a matter of routine, –60º on occasion.

That meant that nothing worked as it was supposed to. The breechblocks on rifles froze, as did the oil in crankcases. Dynamos didn’t function, engines wouldn’t start, axles seized up, and cylinder blocks cracked open. Panzer crews had to light fires under their tanks for hours just to thaw out the machinery. And that was before winter had even hit its stride.

Human bodies couldn’t function properly either in the extreme cold. The Germans had little winter clothing because Hitler had refused to accept that the campaign might last this long. Wounded men were freezing to death as a result. Frostbite was causing as many casualties as normal battle wounds, often resulting in amputation.

Without overcoats, men with dysentery staggered outside to relieve themselves and died from congelation of the anus as soon as they opened their bowels. Without gloves and fur-lined boots, healthier men could do little to help them. It was no way to fight a war.

All along the line German commanders were recognizing the inevitable and abandoning the advance for the time being. They were going over to the defensive, digging in for the duration of the winter and waiting for better times in the spring.

It was the sensible thing to do, but it was not popular with the high command back in East Prussia. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had just been sacked for ignoring Hitler’s order to stand fast, and evacuating Rostov before his troops could be overwhelmed.

Guderian’s relations with Hitler were equally strained. Surrounded by yes-men who only told him what he wanted to hear, the Führer did not take kindly to plain speaking from professional soldiers. Guderian never hesitated to query decisions of the Führer’s when he didn’t agree with them. As a result, his own position was far from secure that morning as he prepared to leave Yasnaya Polyana for a visit to the headquarters of the Thirty-First Infantry Division farther along the line.

Guderian was looking forward to the visit. His old infantry battalion was part of the division. He was going to see his old comrades after he had been to headquarters, chatting with the men and finding out for himself how much fight was left in ordinary soldiers.

His immediate military objective was to close the ring around Tula to prevent the Russians from reinforcing the city. It wouldn’t be easy, after everything his troops had been through. As he set off for the Thirty-First Division, Guderian needed to satisfy himself that the men under his command still had the appetite for a fight before sending them into action again in the middle of a Russian winter.

#

Adolf Hitler was on his way back to East Prussia after a trip to Ukraine to see his generals and assess the military situation for himself. He wasn’t a happy man as his aircraft touched down near Rastenburg. For one thing, the weather in Ukraine had been so awful that his return flight had been delayed and he had had to stay overnight at Poltava. For another, he had made a mess of sacking Rundstedt after the German retreat from Rostov.

Rundstedt had already evacuated the city when Hitler ordered him to hold his ground. The field marshal had offered to resign his command if the Führer no longer had confidence in him. Hitler had accepted the offer on December 1, only to be told by his pusillanimous generals when he arrived in Ukraine that Rundstedt had been quite right to withdraw. There was nothing else the Wehrmacht could have done.

Hitler was sick of them all as he returned to Rastenburg. He told Heinz Linge, his valet, that he was never going to visit his generals in the field again. “Linge,” he confided, as they flew home, “I’m glad it’s you sitting behind me, instead of one of those Obergruppenführers who could shoot me in the back with a pistol.”

He was relieved to get back to the Wolf’s Lair, his military headquarters at Rastenburg. It lay in the forest close to the airfield, a giant network of steel and concrete bunkers, heavily camouflaged and protected from attack. Hitler had spent most of his time there since the invasion of Russia in June.

There were three security zones at the complex, spread out over two and a half square miles. The outer zone was ringed with mines and barbed wire, defended by elite troops in pillboxes and machine-gun emplacements. The middle zone housed the soldiers’ barracks and accommodation for various Nazi officials.

The inner zone was for Hitler and his close wartime associates, men like Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann, Alfred Jodl, and Wilhelm Keitel. It comprised ten camouflaged bunkers with six feet of steel-reinforced concrete overhead. It was in the inner zone that Hitler oversaw his campaign to conquer the world.

The gates swung open to receive him. Hitler had a great deal on his mind as the car drew up and he returned to his bunker. The crisis on the Russian front was coming to a head as the German advance ran out of steam. His generals were urging tactical withdrawal to avert disaster, but withdrawal would mean a considerable loss of morale as well as much-needed equipment too frozen to move.

More than that, and far more seriously, it would also mean the loss of Hitler’s reputation for invincibility. Hitler was the demigod who had descended from the clouds in Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg). He could not afford to lose that reputation now. As he prepared for the six o’clock military briefing that evening, Adolf Hitler was surely aware that he would never regain his aura of divinity, if ever his generals lost it for him in the wastelands of Russia.

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