With his recall to Moscow Georgy Zhukov’s moment had arrived. The impending battle for the Soviet capital would either bolster or demolish his reputation; much more importantly it would determine the fate of Operation Barbarossa—Hitler’s attempt to conquer Russia in a Blitzkrieg invasion designed to avoid a costly war of attrition on the Eastern Front.
Hitler’s plan had worked well so far, except that the Red Army exacted a heavier than expected toll on the Wehrmacht as it marched across Russia. In summer 1941 alone the Germans suffered twice as many casualties as they had in conquering France in 1940. But the cost to the Soviets was even greater. Although the Red Army had an available personnel pool of millions of former conscripts who had already served in its ranks for a year or two, it would take time to mobilize, retrain, and reequip this massive reserve. The Red Army was beginning to run out of equipment as well as trained troops. The German occupation of a big chunk of European Russia denied the Soviets access to a significant portion of their industrial resources. As the Germans advanced the Soviets had performed little short of a miracle in dismantling and shipping eastward hundreds of factories together with hundreds of thousands of industrial workers. But it would take time to get the relocated factories up and running to produce desperately needed tanks, planes, and munitions. The Soviet Union’s western allies—Britain, the United States, and other countries—were beginning to send aid, but this did not begin arriving in significant amounts until 1942. In the meantime the Soviets faced Operation Typhoon—an attack on Moscow by seventy divisions, consisting of a million men, 1,700 tanks, 14,000 artillery pieces, and almost 1,000 planes. If Hitler could capture the Soviet capital it would be the death knell for Stalin’s regime. The Soviets might have been able to survive the loss of their capital for a while but it is difficult to imagine the Red Army coming back from such a devastating defeat, particularly if Hitler’s ally Japan had decided to launch an attack on the Soviet Far East rather than on the United States at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Zhukov was not placed in charge of Moscow’s defense immediately. First, on October 6, Stavka appointed Zhukov its representative to the Reserve Front he had commanded at Yel’nya and issued strict instructions that any decisions he took about the deployment and use of its troops were to be fully implemented. Then, on October 8, Zhukov was named commander of the Reserve Front in place of Marshal Budenny. Finally, on October 10 Stalin unified the Western and Reserve Fronts into a single Western Front commanded by Zhukov. Konev, the existing commander of the Western Front, was made Zhukov’s deputy. A few days later, however, Konev was placed in charge of a newly formed Kalinin Front, composed of armies drawn from the Northwestern and Western Fronts, and tasked to guard Zhukov’s northern flank.
The precise circumstances of Zhukov’s appointment to command the new Western Front have been the subject of an arcane but instructive controversy. In Konev’s contribution to a book on the battle of Moscow published in 1968 he claimed Zhukov was made head of the Western Front as a result of his recommendation. In the same book Zhukov asserted that his appointment as commander of the new Western Front followed a telephone conversation with Stalin—one of many that he had with him after his return from Leningrad. During that conversation, wrote Zhukov, Stalin asked him if he had any objections to Konev being his deputy. Another variation of the story, related by Zhukov to the journalist and writer Konstantin Simonov in 1964–1965, was that during the telephone call Stalin said he wanted to court-martial Konev because of the failures of the Western Front and only desisted when Zhukov persuaded the dictator that Konev was an honest man who did not deserve an end like Pavlov, the ill-fated commander of the original Western Front who was executed in July 1941.
While Konev’s version of events is supported by the documentary record, Zhukov’s assertion that he enjoyed Stalin’s confidence is true, too. Zhukov’s appointment to a central role in the defense of Moscow was inevitable because Stalin did not recall him from Leningrad simply to make him commander of the Reserve Front.
Behind this minor skirmish in the 1960s between the two retired generals lay a long history of professional rivalry and personal animosity. During the war Konev emerged as one of Zhukov’s main rivals for fame and military glory—a rivalry that climaxed with their race to take Berlin in 1945. When Stalin demoted Zhukov after the war, Konev took his place as commander-in-chief of Soviet ground forces. In 1957 when Zhukov was dismissed by Khrushchev as minister of defense, Konev was the most prominent of his public critics, even going so far as to publish an article in Pravda that trashed Zhukov’s war record. It is little wonder that Zhukov resented any suggestion he owed his appointment as commander of the Western Front to Konev. Indeed, Zhukov’s memoirs are peppered with direct and indirect digs at Konev’s performance as a wartime commander.
At the root of the personality clash between Konev and Zhukov were the similarities in their temperament and leadership style. Like Zhukov, Konev was an energetic and exacting commander who did not suffer fools gladly and was prone to hot-tempered outbursts. Equally, his preparation for battle was meticulous and his conduct of operations highly controlled. Unlike Zhukov, Konev’s background was in artillery and he started his career in the Red Army as a political commissar during the civil war. Only in the mid-1920s did he switch to a strictly military command. He then rose through the ranks, his path paralleling that of Zhukov, but not until the battle of Moscow did the two men serve together for the first—but not the last—time.
Zhukov’s brief as commander of the Western Front was to halt the German advance on Moscow. His problem was that he had few forces with which to do so. The Viazma and Briansk encirclements of early October had been even more disastrous than those at Minsk and Kiev in the summer. The Briansk, Western, and Reserve Fronts lost a total of sixty-four rifle divisions, eleven tank brigades, and fifty artillery regiments, leaving Zhukov with only 900,000 troops to defend the Soviet capital. Even before Zhukov’s arrival Stavka had ordered a retreat to the Mozhaisk Line—a series of defensive positions about seventy-five miles west of Moscow that stretched for 150 miles from Kalinin in the north to Tula in the south. But this line did not hold for very long. By mid-October the Germans had broken through on the flanks, capturing Kalinin and threatening Tula, where there began a tremendous battle that went on for weeks. Mozhaisk was abandoned on October 18 and with the road to Moscow open, panic broke out in the Soviet capital. There were riots, looting, and mass attempts to flee the city. The tense atmosphere was heightened by rumors the authorities were preparing to evacuate the city (which they were). Nerves were steadied by a radio broadcast on October 17 by A. A. Shcherbakov, the Moscow Communist Party leader, who assured citizens that Comrade Stalin remained in the capital. The situation was stabilized further by a GKO (State Defense Council) resolution published on October 19 that declared a state of siege, imposed a curfew, and announced that Zhukov was in command of the Front defending Moscow. The next day Stalin rang David Ortenberg, editor of Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star)—the Red Army newspaper—and ordered him to publish a picture of Zhukov. He was also told to pass the picture to Pravda so that they could publish it, too. When the photograph appeared in Krasnaya Zvezda on October 21 it was the first time the paper had printed a picture of a Front commander. The photograph was also published by Pravda the same day. Ortenberg claims that Zhukov later said to him the picture had only been published to ensure he got the blame if the city fell to the Germans. The more charitable explanation is that Stalin had the picture published in order to inspire people’s confidence in the defense of Moscow.
Zhukov responded to this grave crisis in the same way as he had in Leningrad: draconian discipline; no surrender and no retreat; counterattack wherever and whenever possible. The first edict Zhukov issued as commander of the Western Front was a declaration on October 13 that “cowards and panic-mongers” fleeing the battlefield, abandoning their weapons, or retreating without permission would be shot on the spot. “Not a step back! Forward for the Motherland!” it concluded. This threat was as applicable to high-ranking officers as ordinary ranks. On November 3 Zhukov announced that Colonel A. G. Gerasimov, commander of the 133rd Rifle Division, and divisional commissary G. F. Shabalov had been shot for ordering an unauthorized retreat.
It is reported that Zhukov read War and Peace during the battle of Moscow and it may be that Tolstoy’s monumental novel set during the Napoleonic Wars inspired this appeal to patriotic sentiment: “The fields and forests where you are now standing in defence of mother Moscow are stained with the sacred blood of our predecessors who have gone down in history for their defeat of the Napoleonic hordes,” Zhukov declared to his troops on November 1. “We are the sons of the great Soviet people. We were brought up and educated by the party of Lenin and Stalin. For a quarter of a century we have built our lives under its leadership and in this hour of danger we will not spare our forces or our lives in erecting a steel wall in defence of the Motherland and in defence of its sacred capital, Moscow. Blood for blood! Death for death! The complete destruction of the enemy! For honour and freedom, for our Motherland, for our sacred Moscow!”
Exhortations notwithstanding, Zhukov was forced to retreat to new defensive positions, initially on a line running from Klin just northwest of Moscow through Istra to Serpukhov, southwest of the city. But Zhukov’s policy of constant counterattacks and withdrawal at the last possible moment had taken its toll on the enemy and by the end of October the German offensive was running out of steam. In addition, the Germans became increasingly bogged down in the autumn mud of that part of the world—what the Russians called the Rasputitsa (the season of bad roads). The Germans decided to pause and regroup, which gave Zhukov time to bring in reinforcements. From November 1 to 15 the Western Command was replenished with 100,000 additional troops, 300 more tanks, and 2,000 extra pieces of artillery.
The pause also provided a political opportunity for the Soviet leadership. On November 1 Stalin summoned Zhukov to Stavka and asked him if it was safe to go ahead with the celebration on November 7 of the anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. Zhukov assured him it was indeed safe, but because of the threat posed by German air raids the anniversary meeting for the party faithful was held underground, in the Mayakovsky metro station. Stalin spoke at this meeting and the next day he addressed the troops parading through Red Square on their way to the battlefield just outside Moscow. The situation was grave, Stalin told them, but the Soviet regime had faced even greater difficulties in the past:
Remember the year 1918, when we celebrated the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Three-quarters of our country was … in the hands of foreign interventionists. The Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East were temporarily lost to us. We had no allies, we had no Red Army … there was a shortage of food, of armaments.… Fourteen states were pressing against our country. But we did not become despondent, we did not lose heart. In the fire of war we forged the Red Army and converted our country into a military camp. The spirit of the great Lenin animated us.… And what happened? We routed the interventionists, recovered our lost territory, and achieved victory.
In his conclusion Stalin worked the patriotic theme, invoking past Russian struggles against foreign invaders:
A great liberation mission has fallen to your lot. Be worthy of this mission.… Let the manly images of our great ancestors—Alexander Nevsky [who defeated the Swedes], Dimitry Donskoy [who beat the Tartars], Kurma Minin and Dimitry Pozharsky [who drove the Poles out of Moscow], Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov [the Russian hero generals of the Napoleonic Wars]—inspire you in this war. May the victorious banner of the great Lenin be your lodestar.
In his memoirs Zhukov was generous in his praise of Stalin’s role in saving Moscow from the Germans, noting that the dictator stayed in the city throughout the battle and played a crucial role in organizing its defenses: “By his strict exactingness Stalin achieved, one can say, the near-impossible.” At the same time, Zhukov was at pains to distance himself from several wrong decisions by Stalin during the battle. But reading Zhukov’s orders, edicts, and records of conversations during the battle of Moscow, he comes across mainly as a general willing to execute the orders of his superiors without demur and who expected the same of those serving under him. It was, above all, Zhukov’s disciplined attitude that endeared him to Stalin, not his supposed forthrightness or insubordination. One example of Zhukov’s hierarchical and discipline-based command style is his response on October 26, 1941, to Rokossovsky, the commander of the 16th Army, then engaged in battle with the Germans in the Istra area, who complained about the weight of German opposition against him. Zhukov told him:
You are wasting time for no reason. Time and again we get reports from you about the incredible forces of the enemy and the insignificant forces of your army—this is not expected of a commander. We know and the government knows what you have and what the enemy has. You must not proceed from fear, which is even more dubious, but from your missions and the real forces that you have at your disposal. The instructions of the government and its command must be implemented without any advance excuses.
When the muddy roads froze in mid-November the Germans were able to resume their offensive, making some progress on the flanks, but the Red Army’s defenses held in the critical position directly west of Moscow. The turning point in the battle for the capital came at the end of November when Stavka released reserves to plug gaps in Zhukov’s defenses. Faced with fresh enemy forces and deteriorating weather conditions, the German advance on Moscow foundered only a few miles from the city center.
Zhukov and Rokossovsky clashed again during the November battles when the latter wanted to withdraw forces to the Istra River. Zhukov refused but Rokossovsky appealed over his head to Shaposhnikov, the chief of the General Staff. Shaposhnikov agreed and gave the requisite permission. When Zhukov found out he cabled Rokossovsky: “I am the Front Commander! I countermand the order to withdraw to the Istra Reservoir and order you to defend the lines you occupy without retreating one step.” “This was like Zhukov,” complained Rokossovsky. “In this order you could feel: I am Zhukov. And his personal ego very frequently prevailed over general interests.… Certain superiors … thought that only they could handle matters effectively and only they desired success. And shouts and intimidations had to be employed against all the rest in order to bring them over to the chief’s wishes. I would also put our front commander among such individuals.”
According to Rokossovsky this incident was only one of many during the battle of Moscow and it illustrated the difference between his and Zhukov’s command style. Zhukov, Rokossovsky recalled, “had everything in abundance—talent, energy, confidence in himself” and was “a man of strong will and resolution, richly endowed with all the qualities that go into the making of a great military leader.” But, wrote Rokossovsky, “we had different views on the extent to which a commander should assert his will and the manner in which he should do it.… Insistence on the highest standards is an important and essential trait for any military leader. But it is equally essential for him to combine an iron will with tactfulness, respect for his subordinates, and the ability to rely on their intelligence and initiative. In those grim days our Front Commander did not always follow this rule. He could also be unfair in a fit of temper.”
Interestingly, Rokossovsky compared the tempestuousness of his relations with Zhukov to the support and encouragement he received from Stalin. Expecting an abusive telephone call from Zhukov, Rokossovsky picked up the phone and was pleasantly surprised to hear Stalin’s “calm, even voice” and appreciative of the “concern displayed by the Supreme Commander.… The kind, fatherly intonations were encouraging and raised one’s self-confidence.” Much like Zhukov, Rokossovsky saw in Stalin a mirror image of himself and his own command style.
While Zhukov fought the defensive battle of Moscow, Stavka was planning and preparing for a counteroffensive. As early as October 5 Stalin had decided to establish a strategic reserve of ten armies. Some of these were thrown into the battle to halt the German advance on Moscow but the bulk of them were reserved for the counteroffensive. According to Vasilevsky, at that time deputy chief of the General Staff, planning for the counteroffensive began in early November but was disrupted by renewed German attacks and did not resume until the end of the month. Zhukov’s claim to have played a central role in the preparation of the counteroffensive plan seems exaggerated, given his responsibilities as Front commander. During the battle of Moscow Zhukov met Stalin in his Kremlin office only once (on November 8). On November 30 Zhukov submitted his Front’s plan for a counterattack to Stavka. This called for an attack north of Moscow by Zhukov’s right flank in the direction of Klin, Solnechnogorsk, and Istra, and by his left flank south of Tula in the direction of Uzlovaya and Boroditsk. To stop the Germans switching their forces Zhukov also proposed to launch a strong attack directly in front of Moscow. On Zhukov’s proposal Stalin simply wrote: “Agreed. J. Stalin.”
The aim of Zhukov’s counteroffensive was to destroy the German forces attempting to envelop Moscow from the north and south. In the center the ambition was limited to pinning down German troops. At the same time, the possibility of a more substantial advance in the center was not ruled out if the situation developed favorably, including the prospect of a drive so deep that it would split German Army Group Center and open the road to Smolensk on the Mozhaisk–Viazma axis.
The Moscow counteroffensive was launched by Konev’s Kalinin Front on December 5, followed by Zhukov’s attack the next day, and then an advance by Timoshenko’s Southwestern Front. The Red Army’s effective combat strength was 388,000 troops supported by 5,600 guns and mortars and 550 tanks. Opposing it were the 240,000 troops, 5,350 artillery pieces, and 600 tanks of Army Group Center. Progress was slow at first, and on December 9 Zhukov issued a directive to his army commanders. The aim, he reminded them, was “to defeat as rapidly as possible the flanking groups of the enemy, and finally, driving swiftly forward … destroy all the armies which are in front of our Western Front.” Zhukov complained, however, that some units were launching attacks on the German rearguard rather than carrying out swift encirclements, methods that played into the hands of the enemy and gave them the chance to withdraw to “new positions, to regroup, and to organize a new resistance to our forces.” The proper technique, instructed Zhukov, was to pin down the rearguard and outflank it, not to make head-on attacks on fortified positions.
On December 12 Zhukov reported to Stalin that the Western Front had inflicted 30,000 fatalities on the Germans and liberated 400 towns and villages.43 Among the liberated areas was Zhukov’s home village of Strelkovka, though the Germans had burned the village, including his mother’s house. But she and Zhukov’s sister’s family had already been evacuated. Zhukov’s mother did not survive the war, however, dying of natural causes in 1944.
On December 13 the Soviet press carried the news of Zhukov’s stunning success in turning the tide at Moscow, including a large photograph of him. Zhukov also featured centrally in Soviet newsreels of the battle. The western media began to take notice of Zhukov, too. In January 1942 his picture appeared on the front page of the London Illustrated News with the caption: “Russia’s Brilliant Commander-in-Chief Central Front: General Gregory [sic!] Zhukov.” In June 1942 Alexander Werth, Sunday Times correspondent in Moscow, wrote in his diary: “The name mentioned most frequently, next to those of Stalin and Molotov, is Zhukov’s. Zhukov played a leading part in organising not only the Russian counter-offensive in Moscow, but it was largely he, and perhaps entirely he, who saved Leningrad in the nick of time. Somebody today remarked that when the well-informed German military attaché was asked, shortly before the war, who was the greatest Russian general, he replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Zhukov.’ ”
By the end of December the Red Army had advanced 100–150 miles along a broad front.
Zhukov’s handling of the battle of Moscow was the beginning of the wartime Zhukov myth. From now on it began to be said that with Zhukov in charge success was assured. This was not true and Zhukov was to suffer many setbacks on the road to Berlin. But belief in the myth inspired confidence in him at every level of the Red Army, not least among the lower ranks to whom he became a legendary figure, a giant of Russian military history, the contemporary counterpart of Suvorov and Kutuzov, who had saved the motherland from Napoleon. Most Red Army soldiers were peasants or had a peasant heritage and Zhukov was one of their own. While he had a reputation for cruelty and crudeness he was also seen as the man who would get the job done and lead the troops to victory.
THE RZHEV-VIAZMA OPERATIONS
The success of the December counteroffensive opened up the possibility of a more ambitious offensive to encircle and destroy a significant part of Army Group Center and Stavka began to formulate such a plan from mid-December onward. Broadly, the goal was to advance to Rzhev and Viazma and to destroy all the German forces east of the line between the two cities. The mission was entrusted to Zhukov’s Western Front with the support of the Kalinin Front commanded by Konev. Initially, the hope was that the Moscow counteroffensive could be expanded to encompass this second goal but it proved impossible when the Germans—on instructions from Hitler not to retreat—dug in for defense and held the line. In response, Stavka regrouped and launched what became known as the first Rzhev-Viazma operation.
The goal of the Rzhev-Viazma operation, set out in Stavka’s directive to the Kalinin and Western Fronts on January 7, 1942, was the encirclement of Army Group Center in the Yukhnov-Viazma-Gzhatsk-Rzhev area. Some fifty divisions from Stavka’s reserves were allocated to the operation. Between them the Western and Kalinin Fronts had fourteen armies, three Cavalry Corps, and substantial air support—a total of 688,000 troops, 10,900 guns and mortars, and 474 tanks, as against the Wehrmacht’s 625,000 troops, 11,000 artillery pieces, and 354 tanks. The operation began on January 8 with an offensive by the Kalinin Front in the direction of Rzhev. Two days later the Western Front joined in the attack, driving toward Yukhnov and Viazma, while Zhukov’s 1st, 16th, and 20th Armies continued their attack in the direction of Gzhatsk. At the end of January Stavka established a Western Direction (the original one having been abolished in 1941) to coordinate the Western and Kalinin Fronts. Zhukov was appointed commander of the Direction with overall responsibility for the Rzhev-Viazma operation.
Although the Rzhev-Viazma operation made little headway, it persisted for more than three months. Stalin was convinced the Wehrmacht’s failure to take Moscow meant that Operation Barbarossa could be rapidly reversed and the Germans driven out of Russia. On January 10, 1942, Stalin issued the following general directive to his commanders:
Our task is not to give the Germans a breathing space, but to drive them westwards without a halt, force them to exhaust their reserves before springtime when we shall have fresh big reserves, while the Germans will have no more reserves; this will ensure the complete defeat of the Nazi forces in 1942.
In line with this view of events, the Red Army launched attacks all along the Soviet-German front, but with little or no success. By the time the Rzhev-Viazma operation was called off on April 20 the Kalinin and Western Fronts had suffered in excess of 750,000 casualties. Nor was that the end of the matter. At the end of July the two fronts launched a second offensive in the Rzhev-Viazma area that continued until the end of September, again without success, and costing nearly 200,000 more casualties. In November–December the Soviets tried once more to break through with an operation code-named Mars. While Mars’s goal was limited to the destruction of the German 9th Army in the Rzhev-Sychevka area, Stavka also had in mind a much bigger encirclement of Army Group Center. Operation Mars failed, however, at the cost of 350,000 casualties including 100,000 dead.
During the first Rzhev-Viazma operation the 33rd Army, led by General M. G. Efremov, was given the job of capturing Viazma. In support were General P. A. Belov’s 1st Cavalry Corps and the 11th Cavalry Corps from the Kalinin Front. Unfortunately, the attempt to take Viazma failed and Efremov’s formation found itself surrounded by the Germans. Belov’s cavalry and some other units managed to escape but the bulk of Efremov’s forces, including Efremov himself, were destroyed. Zhukov devoted quite a lot of space in his memoirs to this episode. His treatment included some criticism of Efremov but his overall conclusion was more self-critical: “Viewing the events of 1942 critically I can say now that we misjudged the situation in the Viazma area. We had overrated the potential of our troops and underrated the enemy. He proved to be a harder nut to crack than we believed.”
The loss of the 33rd Army has been a source of considerable controversy in Russia, with some historians arguing that Zhukov tried to take Viazma too quickly and then did not sufficiently support Efremov when the operation failed. Reading the contemporary documentation, however, it is clear that Zhukov did what he could to make the operation succeed and to save the 33rd Army. He failed for the reason stated in his memoirs: his forces were not strong enough to overcome the Germans in the given circumstances.
Interestingly, during the second Rzhev-Viazma operation Zhukov received a rebuke from Stalin (and Vasilevsky) criticizing the Western Front’s failure to aid three of its divisions encircled by the Germans. Dated August 17, 1942, the note pointed out that when German divisions were encircled the Wehrmacht did all it could to help them. “Stavka considers it a matter of honour that the Western Front command save the encircled divisions.”
Stavka’s persistence in the Rzhev-Viazma area reflected the High Command’s belief that the decisive theater of the Soviet-German war was the Moscow-Smolensk-Warsaw-Berlin axis and that the key to a Soviet victory was the destruction of Army Group Center. The problem was that the Red Army proved incapable of delivering this objective until 1944. One reason for failure was the limited forces available to the Red Army in the context of the demands of many other fronts; another reason was that the Soviets faced a tenacious and increasingly well dug-in enemy in heavily forested regions that lent themselves to defense.
The Russians have a saying: while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. The Rzhev-Viazma operations were Zhukov’s major preoccupation in 1942. Even after he left the Western Front to become Stalin’s deputy supreme commander in August 1942 he continued to devote a lot of time and attention to these operations. Yet in his memoirs he preferred to focus on his role in the Red Army’s momentous victory at Stalingrad in November 1942. The little attention he did give to the Rzhev-Viazma operations was largely devoted to explaining how the failures had nothing to do with him. Zhukov argued the first Rzhev-Viazma operation failed because he was not allocated sufficient forces. The record shows, however, that Zhukov was given quite a lot of troops, more than was allocated to other fronts.