Russian Project 1241.2 [Pauk]

The Pauk class is the NATO reporting name for a class of small patrol corvettes built for the Soviet Navy and export customers between 1977 and 1989. The Russian designation is “Project 1241.2” Molniya-2. These ships are designed for coastal patrol and inshore anti-submarine warfare. The design is the patrol version of the Tarantul class corvette which is designated “Project 1241.1” by the Russians, but is slightly longer and has diesel engines. The boats are fitted with a dipping sonar which is also used in Soviet helicopters.

The superstructure the Molniya is divided into 3 levels, 3 different types of radar installation.

First, the upper which has installed fire-control radar for anti-ship missile Garpun-Bal-E (in Project 1241 RE Tarantul, radar is located on the top of the mast), followed by the fire control radar MR-123 Vympel for gunboat AK-176 and rapid firing AK-630 guns, on top of the mast to install the target search radar MR 352 positiv-E (note ship missiles Project 1241 RE Tarantul does not have this type of radar ).

Masts of Project 1241 RE Tarantul circle at an angle to the rear has also mast vertical box Molniya and lower,  the second mast column has installed 2 electronic warfare systems.

Weapons of Molniya more powerful than Tarantul, Molniya is fitted to 16 subsonic anti-ship missile Kh-35 Uran-E (NATO name SS-N-25 Switchblade range of 130 km, which is arranged into four launched two sides clusters with 4 missiles each cluster.

Project 1241.8 Molniya gunboat is equipped with AK-176M 76.2 mm, two rapid fire guns AK-630M, low-to-air missiles, Igla-1M, (with Russian weapons, M is used for a variation undergoing modernization).

Power source system of the two ships are the same are used engine CODOG (combined diesel gas turbines). The displacement of Molniya is little more than a little than Tarantul due carrying more missiles (550 tonnes compared with 490 tonnes).

Overall, the combat capability of the Molniya is higher than with Tarantul.

Displacement, tons: 580 full load

Dimensions, feet (metres): 190.3 x 34.4 x 8.2 (58 x 10.5 x 25)

Main machinery: 4 M504 diesels, 16 000 hp, 2 shafts

Speed, knots; 28-34

Complement: 40

Missiles: SAM SA N-5quad launcher, manual aiming: IR homing to 10 km (5.5 nm) at 1.5 Mach, warhead 25 kg, 8 missiles Guns: 1-3 in (76 mm)/60, 85° elevation, 120 rounds/minute to 7 km (3.8 nm); weight of shell 16 kg

1 -30 mm/65, 6 barrels. 3 000 rounds/minute combined to 2 km

Torpedoes: 4-1 6 m (406 mm) tubes Type 40. anti-submarine; active/passive homing up to 15 km (8 nm) at up to 40 knots, warhead 100- 150 kg

A/S mortars: 2 RBU 1 200 5 tubed fixed, range 1 200 m, warhead 34 kg.

Depth charges: 2 racks (12)

Countermeasures: Decoys 2-1 6-barrelled Chaff launchers ESM Passive receivers

Radars: Air/surface search Peel Cone, E band

Surface search Spin Trough, I band

Fire control Bass Tilt, H/l band

Sonars: VDS (mounted on transom), active attack, high frequency

Programmes: First laid down in 1977 and completed in 1979 Replacement for “Poti” class. In series production Soviet type name is maly prottvolodochny korabl meaning small anti-submarine ship.





Unternehmen Sonnenwende[Operation Solstice]and its Impact on the Soviet Command

Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.

Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945

The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.

Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.

At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:

11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish

23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch

27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish

Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.

Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.

Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.

While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.

Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.

Operation Solstice [OoB]



In his statement to us at Viazma in the middle of September, General Sokolovsky had made three important points: first, that despite terrible setbacks the Red Army was gradually “grinding down” the Wehrmacht; secondly that it was very likely that the Germans would make one last desperate attempt, or even “several last desperate attempts” to capture Moscow, but they would fail in this; and, thirdly, that the Red Army was well-clothed for a winter campaign.

The impression that the Russians were rapidly learning all kinds of lessons, were dismissing as useless some of the pre-war theories, which were wholly inapplicable to prevailing conditions, and that professional soldiers of the highest order were taking over the command from the Army “politicians” and the “civil war legends” like Budienny and Voroshilov was to be confirmed in the next few weeks. Some brilliant soldiers had survived the Army Purges of 1937–8, notably Zhukov and Shaposhnikov, and had continued at their posts during the worst time of the German invasion; Zhukov had literally saved Leningrad in the nick of time by taking over from Voroshilov when all seemed lost. Apart from him and Shaposhnikov, Timoshenko—a first-class staff officer who had started his career in the Tsar’s army—was almost the only one of the pre-war top brass to prove a man of ability and imagination.

The first months of the war had been a school of the greatest value to the officers of the Red Army, and it was above all those who had distinguished themselves in the operations of June to October 1941 who were to form that brilliant pléiade of generals and marshals the like of whom had not been seen since Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In the course of the summer and autumn important changes had been made in the organisation of the air force by General Novikov, and in the use of artillery by General Voronov; both Zhukov and Konev had played a leading role in holding up the Germans at Smolensk; Rokossovsky, Vatutin, Cherniakhovsky, Rotmistrov, Boldin, Malinovsky, Fedyuninsky, Govorov, Meretskov, Yeremenko, Belov, Lelushenko, Bagramian and numerous other men, who were to become famous during the Battle of Moscow or in other important battles in 1941, were men who had, as it were, won their spurs in the heavy fighting during the first months of the war. Distinction in the field now became Stalin’s criterion in making top army appointments. It is, indeed, perfectly true that “the summer and autumn battles had brought on a military purge, as opposed to a political purge of the military. There was a growing restlessness with the incompetent and the inept. The great and signal strength of the Soviet High Command was that it was able to produce that minimum of high calibre commanders capable of steering the Red Army out of total disaster”.

Undoubtedly some of the commanders had only a purely nominal Party affiliation, and some of the new men, such as Rokossovsky, had actually been victims of the Army Purges of 1937–8, and so could not have had any tender feelings for Stalin.

The Stavka, the General Headquarters of the Soviet High Command was set up on June 23, and a few days later the State Defence Committee (GKO), consisting of Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria; on July 10 the “Stavka of the High Command” became the “Stavka of the Supreme Command”, with Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budienny, Shaposhnikov and General Zhukov, the Chief of Staff, as members. On July 19 Stalin became Defence Commissar and on August 7 Commander-in-Chief.

The Commissar system was greatly reinforced; the commissars, as “representatives of the Party and the government in the Red Army” were to watch over the officers’ and soldiers’ morale, and share with the commander full responsibility for the unit’s conduct in battle. They were also to report to the Supreme Command any cases of “unworthiness” amongst either officers or political personnel. This was a hangover from the civil war, and, indeed, from the much more recent period when the officer corps was suspected of unreliability. In practice, in 1941, the commissars proved, in the great majority of cases, to be either men who almost fully supported the officers, or were, at most, a minor technical nuisance; but inspired by the same lutte à outrance spirit, and, faced daily by pressing military tasks, the old political and personal differences between officer and commissar were now usually less harsh than in the past. Even so, the dual command had its drawbacks, and, at the time of Stalingrad, the commissars’ role was to be drastically modified.

Whether or not there was any serious need for giving the officer a “Party whip”, there was certainly even less need for the NKVD’s “rear security units” to check panic through the use of machine-gunners ready to keep the Red Army from any unauthorised withdrawals. “What initial fears there might have been that the troops would not fight were soon dispelled by the stubborn and bitter defence which the Red Army put up against the Germans, fighting, as Halder observed, ‘to the last man’, and employing ‘treacherous methods’ in which the Russian did not cease firing until he was dead”. These “rear security units” were a revival of a practice inherited from the Civil War, and proved wholly unnecessary in 1941, the Army itself dealing rigorously with any cases of cowardice and panic.

The role of the NKVD in actual military operations remains rather obscure, though it is known that, apart from the Frontier Guards, who were under NKVD jurisdiction, and who were the first to meet the German onslaught, there were to be some very important occasions in which NKVD troops fought as battle units—for example at Voronezh in June–July 1942, where they helped to prevent a particularly dangerous German breakthrough. But there was a much grimmer side to the NKVD’s connection with the Red Army; thus, not only Russian prisoners who had managed to escape from the Germans, but even whole Army units who—as so often happened in 1941—had broken out of German encirclement, were subjected as suspects to the most harsh and petty interrogation by the O.O. (Osoby Otdel—Special Department) run by the NKVD. In Simonov’s novel, The Living and the Dead, there is a particularly sickening episode based on actual fact, in which a large number of officers and soldiers break out of a German encirclement after many weeks’ fighting. They are promptly disarmed by the NKVD; but it so happens that at that very moment the Germans have started their offensive against Moscow, and as the disarmed men are being taken to a NKVD sorting station, they are trapped by the Germans, and simply massacred, unable to offer any resistance.

Apart from that, however, the NKVD interfered less than before with the Red Army; the border-line between the military and the “political” elements in the Army was vanishing, and Stalin himself presided over this development. Whatever he had done in the past to weaken the army by his purges and his constant political interference, he had learned his lesson from the summer and autumn of 1941. Voroshilov and Budienny were pushed into the background and the role of the NKVD bosses greatly reduced. The patriotic, nationalist and “1812” line was wholeheartedly taken up by all ranks of the army. All the military talent—discovered and tested in the first battles of the war and, in some cases, before that in the Far East—was assembled, all available reserves were thrown into battle, including some crack divisions from Central Asia and the Far East, a measure made possible by the Non-Aggression Pact concluded with the Japanese in 1939.

Whatever bad memories and reservations the generals may have had, Stalin had become the indispensable unifying factor in the patrie-en-danger atmosphere of October–November 1941. There was no alternative. The Germans were on the outskirts of Leningrad, were pushing through the Donbas on their way to Rostov, and on September 30 the “final” offensive against Moscow had started.

The Battle of Moscow falls, broadly, into three phases: the first German offensive from September 30 to nearly the end of October; the second German offensive from November 17 right up to December 5; and the Russian counter-offensive of December 6, which lasted till spring 1942.

On September 30 Guderian’s panzer units on the southern flank of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) thrust against Glukhov and Orel, which fell on October 2, but were then held up by a tank group under Colonel Katyukov beyond Mtsensk, on the road to Tula. Other German forces launched full scale attacks from the south-west in the Bryansk area and from the west on the Smolensk-Moscow road. Large Soviet troop concentrations were encircled south of Bryansk and in the Viazma area due west of Moscow. The Germans had planned to contain Soviet troops surrounded in the Viazma area mainly by infantry, thus freeing their panzer and motorised divisions for a lightning advance on Moscow. But for more than a week, fighting a circular battle of extreme ferocity, the remnants of the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies and the troops under General Boldin tied up most of the German 4th Army and of the 4th Tank Corps. This resistance enabled the Soviet Supreme Command to extricate and withdraw more of their front line troops from the encirclement to the Mozhaisk line and to bring up reserves from the rear.

By October 6 German tank units had broken through the Rzhev-Viazma defence line and were advancing towards the Mozhaisk line of fortified positions some fifty miles west of Moscow, which had been improvised and prepared during the summer of 1941, and ran from Kalinin (north-west of Moscow on the Moscow-Leningrad Railway line), to Kaluga (south-west of Moscow and half-way between Tula and Viazma), Maloyaroslavets and Tula. The few troops manning these defences could halt the advance units of the Heeresgruppe Mitte, but not the bulk of the German forces.

While reinforcements from the Far East and Central Asia were on their way to the Moscow Front, the GKO Headquarters threw in what reserves they could muster. The infantry of Generals Artemiev and Lelushenko and the tanks of General Kurkin which fought here were, by October 9, placed under the direct orders of the Soviet Supreme Command. On the following day Zhukov was appointed C. in C. of the whole front.

But the Germans bypassed the Mozhaisk line from the south and captured Kaluga on October 12. Two days later, outflanking the Mozhaisk line in the north, they broke into Kalinin. After heavy fighting Mozhaisk itself was abandoned on October 18. Already on the 14th fierce battles were raging in the Volokolamsk sector, midway between Mozhaisk and Kalinin, some fifty miles north-west of Moscow.

The situation was extremely serious. There was no continuous front any more. The German air force was master of the sky. German tank units, penetrating deep into the rear, were forcing the Red Army units to retreat to new positions to avoid encirclement. Together with the army, thousands of Soviet civilians were moving east. People on foot, or in horse carts, cattle, cars, were moving east in a continuous stream along all the roads, making troop movements even more difficult.

Despite stiff resistance everywhere, the Germans were closing in on Moscow from all directions. It was two days after the fall of Kalinin, and when the threat of a breakthrough from Volokolamsk to Istra and Moscow looked a near-certainty, that the “Moscow panic” reached its height. This was on October 16. To this day the story is current that, on that morning, two German tanks broke into Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, where they were promptly destroyed; that two such tanks ever existed, except in some frightened Muscovite’s imagination, is not confirmed by any serious source.

What happened in Moscow on October 16? Many have spoken of the big skedaddle (bolshoi drap) that took place that day. Although, as we shall see, this is an over-generalisation, October 16 in Moscow was certainly not a tale of the “unanimous heroism of the people of Moscow” as recorded in the official History.

It took the Moscow population several days to realise how serious the new German offensive was. During the last days of September and, indeed, for the first few days of October, all attention was centred on the big German offensive in the Ukraine, the news of the breakthrough into the Crimea, and the Beaverbrook visit, which had begun on September 29. At his press conference on September 28 Lozovsky had tried to sound very reassuring, saying that the Germans were losing “many tens of thousands dead” outside Leningrad, but that no matter how many more they lost, they still wouldn’t get into Leningrad; he also said that “communications continued to be maintained”, and that, although there was rationing in the city, there was no food shortage. He also said that there was heavy fighting “for the Crimea”, but denied that the Germans had as yet crossed the Perekop Isthmus. As for the German claim of having captured 500,000 or 600,000 prisoners in the Ukraine, after the loss of Kiev, he was much more cagey, saying that the battle was continuing, and that it was not in the Russian’s interest to give out information prematurely. However, he added the somewhat sinister phrase: “The farther east the Germans push, the nearer will they get to the grave of Nazi Germany.” He seemed to be prepared for the loss of Kharkov and the Donbas, though he did not say so.

It did not become clear until October 4 or 5 that an offensive against Moscow had started, and, even so, it was not clear how big it was. There was, needless to say, nothing in the Russian papers about Hitler’s speech of October 2 announcing his “final” drive against Moscow.

However, Lozovsky referred to it in his press conference of October 7. He looked slightly flustered, but said that Hitler’s speech only showed that the fellow was getting desperate.

“He knows he isn’t going to win the war, but he has to keep the Germans more or less contented during the winter, and he must therefore achieve some major success, which would suggest that a certain stage of the war has closed. The second reason why it is essential for Hitler to do something big is the Anglo-American-Soviet agreement, which has caused a feeling of despondency in Germany. The Germans could, at a pinch, swallow a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with Britain, but a ‘Bolshevik’ agreement with America was more than the Germans had ever expected.” Lozovsky added that, anyway, the capture of this or that city would not affect the final outcome of the war. It was as if he was already preparing the press for the possible loss of Moscow. Yet he managed to end on a note of bravado: “If the Germans want to see a few hundred thousand more of their people killed, they’ll succeed in that—if in nothing else.”

The news on the night of the 7th was even worse, with the first official reference to “heavy fighting in the direction of Viazma”.

On the 8th, while Pravda and Izvestia were careful not to sound too alarmed (Pravda actually started with a routine article on “The Work of Women in War-Time”), the army paper, Red Star, looked extremely disquieting. It said that “the very existence of the Soviet State was in danger”, and that every man of the Red Army “must stand firm and fight to the last drop of blood”. It described the new German offensive as a last desperate fling:

Hitler has thrown into it everything he has got—even every old and obsolete tank, every midget tank the Germans have collected in Holland, France or Belgium has been thrown into this battle… The Soviet soldiers must at any price destroy these tanks, old and new, large or small. All the riff-raff armour of ruined Europe is being thrown against the Soviet Union.

Pravda sounded the alarm on the 9th, warning the people of Moscow against “careless complacency” and calling on them to “mobilise all their forces to repel the enemy’s offensive”. On the following day it called for “vigilance” saying that, in addition to advancing on Moscow, “the enemy is also trying, through the wide network of its agents, spies and agents-provocateurs, to disorganise the rear and to create panic”. On October 12, Pravda spoke of the “terrible danger” threatening the country.

Even without the help of enemy agents, there was enough in Pravda to spread the greatest alarm among the population of Moscow. Talk of evacuation had begun on the 8th, and foreign embassies as well as numerous Russian government offices and institutions were told to expect a decision on it very shortly. The atmosphere was becoming extremely tense. There was talk of Moscow as a “super-Madrid” among the braver, and feverish attempts to get away among the less brave.

By October 13, the situation in Moscow had become highly critical. Numerous German troops which had, for over a week, been held up by the “Viazma encirclement”, had become available for the final attack on Moscow. The “Western” Front, under the general command of General Zhukov, assisted by General Konev, and with General Sokolovsky as Chief of Staff, consisted of four sectors: Volokolamsk under Rokossovsky; Mozhaisk under Govorov, Maloyaroslavets under Golubev and Kaluga under Zakharkin. There was absolutely no certainty that a German breakthrough could be prevented, and on October 12, the State Defence Committee had decided to call upon the people of Moscow to build a defence line some distance outside Moscow, another one right along the city border, and two supplementary city lines along the outer and inner rings of boulevards within Moscow itself.

On the morning of October 13, Shcherbakov, Secretary of the Central Committee and of the Moscow Party Committee of the Communist Party, spoke at a meeting called by the Moscow Party Organisation: “Let us not shut our eyes. Moscow is in danger.” He appealed to the workers of the city to send all possible reserves to the front and to the defence lines both inside and outside the city; and to increase greatly the output of arms and munitions.

The resolution passed by the Moscow Organisation called for “iron discipline, a merciless struggle against even the slightest manifestations of panic, against cowards, deserters and rumour-mongers”. The resolution further decided that, within two or three days, each Moscow district should assemble a battalion of volunteers; these came to be known as Moscow’s “Communist Battalions” and were, like some of the opolcheniye regiments, to play an important role in the defence of Moscow by filling in “gaps”—at a very heavy cost in lives. Within three days, 12,000 such volunteers were formed into platoons and battalions, most of them with little military training and no fighting experience.

It was on October 12 and 13 that it was decided to evacuate immediately to Kuibyshev and other cities in the east a large number of government offices, including many People’s Commissariats, part of the Party organisations, and the entire diplomatic corps of Moscow. Moscow’s most important armaments works were to be evacuated as well. Practically all “scientific and cultural institutions” such as the Academy of Sciences, the University and the theatres were to be moved.

But the State Defence Committee, the Stavka of the Supreme Command, and a skeleton administration were to stay on in Moscow until further notice. The principal newspapers such as Pravda, Red Star, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Trud, continued to be published in the capital.

The news of these evacuations was followed by the official communiqué published on the morning of October 16. It said: “During the night of October 14–15 the position on the Western Front became worse. The German-Fascist troops hurled against our troops large quantities of tanks and motorised infantry, and in one sector broke through our defences.”

In describing the great October crisis in Moscow it is important to distinguish between three factors. First, the Army, which fought on desperately against superior enemy forces, and yielded ground only very slowly, although owing to relatively poor maneuverability, it was unable to prevent some spectacular German local successes, such as the capture of Kaluga in the south on the 12th, of Kalinin in the north on the 14th, or that breakthrough in what was rather vaguely described as “the Volokolamsk sector” to which the “panic communiqué”, published on October 16, referred. Even long afterwards it was believed in Moscow that on the 15th the Germans had crashed through much further towards Moscow than is apparent today from any published record of the fighting. Only then, it was said, did Rokossovsky stop the rot by throwing in the last reserves, including scarcely-trained opolchentsy, and troops from Siberia as soon as they disembarked from the trains. There are countless stories of regular soldiers and even opolchentsy attacking German tanks with hand grenades and with “petrol bottles”, and of other “last ditch” exploits. The morale of the fighting forces certainly did not crack. The fact that fresh troops from the Far East and Central Asia were being thrown in all the time, though only in limited numbers, had a salutary effect in keeping up the spirit of the troops who had already fought without respite for over a fortnight.

Secondly, there was the Moscow working-class; most of them were ready to put in long hours of overtime in factories producing armaments and ammunition; to build defences; to fight the Germans inside Moscow should they break through, or, if all failed, to “follow the Red Army to the east”. However, there were different shades in the determination of the workers to “defend Moscow” at all costs. The very fact that not more than 12,000 should have volunteered for the “Communist brigades” at the height of the near-panic of October 13–16 seems indicative; was it because, to many, these improvised battalions seemed futile in this kind of war, or was it because, at the back of many workers’ minds, there was the idea that Russia was still vast, and that it might be more advantageous to fight the decisive battle somewhere east.

Thirdly, there was a large mass of Muscovites, difficult to classify, who were more responsible than the others for “the great skedaddle” of October 16. These included anybody from plain obyvateli, ready to run away from danger, to small, medium and even high Party or non-Party officials who felt that Moscow had become a job for the Army, and that there was not much that civilians could do. Among these people there was a genuine fear of finding themselves under German occupation, and, with regular passes, or with passes of sorts they had somehow wangled—or sometimes with no passes at all—people fled to the east, just as in Paris people had fled to the south in 1940 as the Germans approached the capital.

Later, many of these people were to be bitterly ashamed of having fled, of having overrated the might of the Germans, of having not had enough confidence in the Red Army. And yet, had not the Government shown the way, as it were, by frantically speeding up on all those evacuations from the 10th of October onwards?

Especially in 1942 the “big skedaddle” of October 16 continued to be a nasty memory with many. There were some grim jokes on the subject—especially in connection with the medal “For the Defence of Moscow” that had been distributed lavishly among the soldiers and civilians; there was the joke about the two kinds of ribbons—some Moscow medals should be suspended on the regular moiré ribbon, others on a drap ribbon—drap meaning both a thick kind of cloth and skedaddle. There was also the joke of a famous and very plump and well-equipped actress who had received a Moscow Medal “for defending Moscow from Kuibyshev with her breast”.

I remember Surkov telling me that when he arrived in Moscow from the front on the 16th, he phoned some fifteen or twenty of his friends, and all had vanished.

In “fiction”, more than in formal history, there are some valuable descriptions of Moscow at the height of the crisis—for instance in Simonov’s The Living and the Dead already quoted. Here is a picture of Moscow during that grim 16th of October and the following days—with the railway station stampedes; with officials fleeing in their cars without a permit; the opolchentsy and Communist battalion men sullenly walking, rather than marching, down the streets, dressed in a motley collection of clothes, smoking, but not singing; with the “Hammer and Sickle” factory working day and night turning out thousands of anti-tank hedge-hogs, which are then driven to the outer ring of boulevards; with its smell of burning papers; with the rapid succession of air-raids and air-battles over Moscow, in which Russian airmen often suicidally ram enemy planes; with the demoralisation of the majority and the grim determination among the minority to hang on to Moscow, and to fight, if necessary, inside the city.

By the 16th, many factories had already been evacuated.

All the same, below all the froth of panic and despair there was “another Moscow”:

Later, when all this belonged to the past, and somebody recalled that 16th of October with sorrow or bitterness, he [Simonov’s hero] would say nothing. The memory of Moscow that day was unbearable to him—like the face of a person you love distorted by fear. And yet, not only outside Moscow, where the troops were fighting and dying that day, but inside Moscow itself, there were enough people who were doing all within their power not to surrender it. And that was why Moscow was not lost. And yet, at the Front that day the war seemed to have taken a fatal turn, and there were people in Moscow that same day who, in their despair, were ready to believe that the Germans would enter Moscow tomorrow. As always happens in tragic moments, the deep faith and inconspicuous work of those who carried on, was not yet known to all, and had not yet come to bear fruit, while the bewilderment, terror and despair of the others hit you between the eyes. This was inevitable. That day tens of thousands, getting away from the Germans, rolled like avalanches towards the railway stations and towards the eastern exits of Moscow; and yet, out of these tens of thousands, there were perhaps only a few thousand whom history could rightly condemn.

Simonov wrote this account of Moscow on October 16, 1941 after a lapse of nearly twenty years; but his story—which could not have been published in Stalin’s day—rings true in the light of what I had heard of those grim days only a few months later, in 1942.


Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin in an T34/85 and 501st Heavy Tank Battalion

The heaviest tank produced during World War II, the Tiger II was also known as the King Tiger in literal translation of the German Königstiger, or Bengal tiger. At 63.5 tonnes (62.5 tons), it outweighed any other heavy tank deployed in appreciable numbers. Its 88mm (3.5in) KwK 43 L/71 high-velocity gun was the finest implement of warfare of its kind in the German arsenal when production began in earnest in mid-1944. Although the Tiger II was a formidable foe in combat, fuel shortages and mechanical failures resulted in a number of the massive tanks being abandoned in the field or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture.

Although many features of the Tiger II were actually ahead of their time, the tank was plagued by mechanical issues. Many of the problems stemmed from an unreliable drivetrain. Its tremendous weight strained the Maybach powerplant and resulted in frequent breakdowns, while the suspension was also suspect in varied weather conditions. The weight of the Tiger II contributed to difficulties with cross-country movement, particularly over marshy terrain and across rivers. Long-distance travel was accomplished on railway flatcars.

The cost of Tiger II production was prohibitive as well, several times greater per unit than that of other German tanks. Each Tiger II further required the investment of 300,000 man-hours to complete. Fuel consumption was extreme and limited the range of the Tiger II, particularly during the crucial hours of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

Guards Lieutenant A. P. Oskin

Following their destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive across the Ukraine and into Eastern Poland against Army Group North Ukraine.

It culminated in the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula River, notably in the region of Sandomierz. Despite their losses, the German forces were still full of fight and threw whatever units they could muster against the Soviet enclaves.

One of these units was 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, newly equipped with Tiger IIs and under the command of Major von Legat. In common with most of the German heavy tank units in the latter part of the war, the 501st was fated to become a ‘fire brigade’ force, transferred from place to place as the situation demanded and denied the time to build up an operational relationship with the units it supported.

However, its baptism of fire as a Tiger II unit was yet to come, as, on 6th August 1944, all serviceable vehicles were loaded onto flat cars and shipped to Poland, leaving behind 14 of these brand new, but temperamental monsters in the battalion workshops.

In the vicinity of Staszow, at the southwestern extremity of the Sandomierz bridgehead, the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Corps was in the van of the Russian advance; the village of Ogledow its latest conquest. However, resistance had hardened and reconnaissance led Corps HQ to order its tank units to pull back and establish defensive positions west of Staszow.

The German heavy tank battalion had just arrived in Poland with their new Tiger IIs (first unit with the Tiger II in the East). After unloading at Kielce, 45 Tigers set out for Ogledow 30 miles or so away, only 8 Tigers made it with the rest failing on route.

On 12 August 1944, a lone T-34/85 under Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade employed its 85mm gun against the latest German heavy tank, the Tiger II. Lt.Oskin was outside of Ogledow hiding in a corn field.

Oskin observed three Tigers along a dirt road and realized that from his concealed position he could fire at their flanks. At a range of 200m (656ft), Oskin ordered his gunner, Abubakir Merkhaidorov, to fire at the second tank in line. The shell penetrated the turret. Two more hits were scored. The fourth shell set the Tiger alight. As the first Tiger in line rotated its turret, Oskin got off four rounds. Three did little damage, but the fourth set the Tiger ablaze.

Blinded by smoke and fire from the other two German tanks, the third Tiger began to withdraw, but Oskin manoeuvred behind it. A single round destroyed the tank. Oskin had demonstrated what the T-34/85 could do in combat and was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Prisoners captured prior to the action had revealed the arrival of a new heavy tank battalion, but the Russians appear to have had no idea that it was equipped with the Tiger Is replacement. In fact 501st Heavy Tank Battalion had only been able to muster 11 serviceable vehicles for this attack, due to the mechanical problems that dogged most of the late war German ‘super weapons’, which tended to be rushed into service without sufficient field trials.

With this assault beaten back the Soviet forces launched a counter attack, surprising the German forces and recapturing Ogledow. Amongst the spoils were three Tiger IIs, allegedly still in running order and abandoned by their crews. It is likely that these had suffered minor malfunctions and, as no other vehicle was capable of towing them, couldn’t be moved in time.

Other clashes followed, which, according to Soviet sources, resulted in the loss of more Tigers to the guns of Soviet tanks, including the IS-IIs of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Battalion. Seven King Tigers attacked Soviet positions from the height 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his IS-2 tank (with number 98 painted on the turret, fitted with the D-25 cannon) let the German tanks to come to the distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After few hits the first tank was set on fire and the second was knocked out. German tanks reversed and moved back. Udalov drove towards enemy and from the edge of the forest fired again. With one more tank burning Germans retreated. Soon King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov’s IS-II set up the ambush. He commenced fire at the distance 1000 metres and after third round had set enemy tank on fire. The Germans realized the grave situation and retreated again.

Guards Senior Lieutenant V. A. Udalov

During three days of continuous fighting between August 11th and 13th, 1944, in area of Staszów and Szyldów the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, 13 of them were newly introduced King Tigers.

“From 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took 7 POWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed 6 tanks, 10 trucks and 2 other vehicles.”

Whatever the full truth, the German heavies had been poorly deployed in ill-judged frontal attacks and after the action Major von Legat was replaced as the unit commander.

Plans for the T-34/85 tank gained impetus following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By March 1944, the upgunned variant of the original T-34 medium tank was being deployed with elite Guards units of the Soviet Red Army.

The long barrel of the high-velocity 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 gun enhanced the sleek, streamlined profile of the T-34/85 medium tank with its turret forward atop the hull. The design was characteristic of Soviet tanks for decades to come.

T-34/85 medium tank

The improved firepower of the T-34/85 medium tank came about following analysis of the T-34 performance during the Battle of Kursk. Three 85mm (3.35in) weapons were considered before a decision was made to mount the ZIS-S-53.

Following the victory at Kursk in July 1943, thwarting the German offensive Operation Citadel, the Soviets began to assess the performance of their T-34 medium tank in combat with the German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger tanks. The T-34 was equipped with a 76.2mm (3in) main weapon, while the German tanks mounted high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns respectively.

Both sides lost tanks in great numbers, but it was determined that the T-34’s main weapon did not provide sufficient muzzle velocity to penetrate German armour at a reasonable distance, compelling the Soviets to execute mass charges to close rapidly with the Germans in something resembling a Wild West shootout.

The initial conclusion was that the T-34 required more armour and additional plating was affixed to a small number of the tanks. During testing it was determined that the additional armour so eroded speed and manoeuvrability that the experimental model, the T-43, was discarded.

The Power of Suggestion

The designers came to the realization that the answer to enhancing the T-34’s combat capability laid in a new main weapon. Soviet records indicate that during a meeting on 25 August 1943, V.G. Grabin, the chief designer at Artillery Factory No 92, suggested arming the T-34 with a more powerful 85mm (3.35in) gun. Three separate designs were tested before the ZIS-S-53 gun, sponsored by General F.F. Petrov, was accepted. The gun was also used in the KV-85 and IS-2 heavy tanks, as well as the SU-85 tank destroyer.

The one-piece cast turret was enlarged to accommodate a third crewman, bringing the total to five, with the commander no longer required to serve the main gun in combat. The new configuration substantially improved the combat efficiency of the T-34/85. The commander was positioned in the rear of the turret to the left with the gunner in front of him and the loader on the right. The driver and a second machine gunner were positioned forward in the hull. The basic turret redesign was completed within weeks at Production Works No 112 in Gorky.

Other changes to the T-34/85 from the original T-34 included a commander’s cupola atop the turret with five vision slits. A hatch was installed in the turret roof for the loader and included ventilation slits to evacuate fumes from the main weapon and a turret-mounted 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun. A second machine gun remained in the hull. Pistol ports were placed on the turret sides.

Due to space restrictions, the size of the fuel tanks was reduced, slightly curbing the T-34/85’s range compared to the earlier T-34. The heavier turret also required that stronger springs be introduced to the Christie suspension to adjust for the additional weight.

Prescribed Production

The exigencies of war greatly influenced the hurried production of the T-34/85. By 15 December 1943, on the strength of proven hull designs – three of which were in production with only slight differences between them – the Soviet State Defence Committee ordered production of the T-34/85 to commence. The turret itself, however, had not been finalized and its designers were required to catch up with the pace of hull production.

Production Works No 112 actually began manufacturing the new tank in January 1944 and the first T-34/85s were delivered to elite Guards armoured units in March 1944. During the spring, two more manufacturing facilities, in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil, were assigned to produce the T-34/85. Most of the new tanks actually were produced in Nizhnij Tagil. Throughout wartime production, the turret and other components of the tank were refined and improved. At one time, the three factories were producing three slightly different turrets.

Battlefield Improvement

The T-34/85 indeed brought better combat survivability to Soviet armoured forces. The greater range of the new main weapon and its muzzle velocity of 780 metres per second (2559 feet per second) improved penetration of German armour plating with armour-piercing ammunition. Combat experience revealed the need for additional protection against German anti-tank weapons such as the shoulder-fired Panzerfaust. Additional thin plating or wire mesh was welded into areas around the hull and turret that were susceptible to ‘trapping’ shells or hollow charges. These were often successful at deflecting otherwise damaging strikes.

Approximately 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced during the war and production continued into the late 1950s. Variants included the OT-34/85, mounting an AT-42 flamethrower instead of the hull machine gun. The flamethrower was capable of emitting a stream of fire up to 100m (327ft).

From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable I

German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon, 1945. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffman.

In early 1945, the Eastern Front was what it had been since the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa: a German graveyard, the theater that claimed the lion’s share of the army’s divisions and generated the most casualties. The German strategic decision in 1944 to prioritize the Western Front, deal the Anglo-Americans a sharp blow, and then turn back with redoubled fury to the east was also the same thing it had been all along: nonsense. Errors on the strategic level are always the most serious, trumping operational brilliance and tactical acumen. Indeed, strategic errors have a way of being fatal. The Wehrmacht’s dramatic path in 1944 from defeat to catastrophe to rebirth on the Western Front was an epic in its way, but an empty one. By late 1944, the Eastern Front had gone into free fall.

The Red Army had spent the autumn mercilessly gouging into the flanks of the German strategic position. A series of offensives smashed Army Group North—always the weakest and most undersupported of the army groups—and herded its two component armies (the 16th and 18th) into one of the most senseless military positions of all time: the Courland Pocket. The small hump of western Latvia from Libau in the west to Tuckum in the east held over thirty German divisions that were cut off from the rest of the Wehrmacht and from the homeland—a force that had to be supplied by sea. The Soviets launched three great offensives into Courland in 1944, two in October and one in December, and then three more in 1945 (January, February, and March). The German force, renamed Army Group Courland in January 1945, warded off all of them, a masterpiece of defensive positional warfare against a powerful enemy, but in the end these thirty divisions stayed right where the Red Army wanted them: in a self-imposed prison camp. Indeed, the defense of the Courland Pocket benefited from the large number of German divisions packed like sardines into a very tiny front. For once on the Eastern Front, German divisions didn’t have to defend outrageously extended fronts, and under such conditions they gave a good accounting of themselves. From time to time, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff since July 21, 1944, pleaded with Hitler to evacuate Courland and bring the lost armies home to bolster the defenses of the homeland. Over and over again, Hitler refused, and he could always count on a reliable ally in the argument: Admiral Dönitz. He claimed that keeping a toehold in the Baltic Sea was essential to testing Germany’s new, fully submersible Type XXI U-boats, one of those miracle weapons that Hitler claimed was eventually going to win the war. At any rate, as 1945 dawned, it was unlikely that Germany could have scrounged up enough ships, transport capacity, and fuel to evacuate Army Group Courland—even if Hitler had agreed.

Likewise, in the south, the Red Army spent the autumn leveraging the advantages gained by Romania’s defection. The Soviets overran the Ploesti oil fields, coerced Bulgaria to declare war on Germany, drove into Yugoslavia, and captured Belgrade in October. These successes fatally compromised the position of German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, and the German occupation force in the southern Balkans, General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E, received orders to evacuate Greece, southern Albania, and southern Macedonia in October. Löhr brought his force north, with Tito’s Partisan forces nipping at their heels the whole way. Over and over again, German forces had to fight their way out of encirclements, but they could always amass sufficient force against the lighter-armed Partisans to do so. The Wehrmacht was less well equipped to deal with Allied air attacks, however, especially on the twisting mountain roads of central Bosnia, and the entire march north was an exercise in misery.

The next target in line—and Soviet strategy in this period of the war has all the meticulous sense of purpose of a clerk checking off boxes on an inventory sheet—was Hungary. After the huge losses the Hungarians suffered in the Soviet Union since Stalingrad, the country had clearly been wavering in its allegiance to the Axis. On March 12, 1944, the Germans had carried out Operation Margarethe, occupying the country to prevent an Italian- or Romanian-style defection. By October, Soviet forces had driven deep into Hungary, and fierce armored battles were raging around Debrecen in the Great Hungarian Plain. The Hungarian head of state, Admiral Miklós Horthy, negotiated an armistice with the Soviets. His announcement of the armistice on October 15, 1944, led the Germans to carry out Operation Panzerfaust, a coup by fascist fanatics of the Arrow Cross movement. Horthy was out, and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi was in. The Germans purchased Horthy’s acquiescence by kidnaping his son, Miklós Jr., beating him senseless, rolling him up in a rug, and transporting him to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany (Operation Mickey Mouse): a suitably gangsterish event that tells us all we need to know about the nature of Nazi foreign policy. Keeping Hungary loyal had little impact on the military side, however. After clearing the plain on the eastern bank of the Tisza River, the Soviets stormed toward Budapest. On December 5 they launched an offensive on both sides of the capital and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944. The siege, with four full German divisions inside the ring, would rage well into 1945.

All of these attacks in the northern and southern sector of the front left the center more or less untouched. Soviet forces still stood where they had since August: along the Vistula River, opposite Warsaw. And for anyone who had been paying attention to Soviet strategy thus far in the war, clearing the flanks could mean only one thing as 1945 began: an offensive along the central Warsaw-Berlin axis and a drive into the heart of Berlin. The end of the fighting back in August had seen Soviet armies seize three great bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw: at Magnuszew, at Pulawy, and on a long stretch of the Vistula between Baranow and Sandomierz, moving north to south. To the north of Warsaw, the Soviets held three more bridgeheads over the Narew River, two around Pultusk and a third at Lomza. Again, to anyone cognizant in Soviet battle planning, the maintenance of such numerous and expansive bridgeheads was a clear expression of operational intent. Unlike past offensives, the Soviets did not go to great lengths to employ maskirovka or deception. There could be no fooling the Germans as to the site of an attack so monstrous in size, and with German reserves chewed up in the Ardennes and in the fighting in Hungary, it hardly mattered how sly the Soviets tried to be. Most of the massive preparations for the great offensive—the Vistula-Oder operation—took place in the open.

And massive they were: two Soviet fronts bursting with men, tanks, and guns. On the Soviet right, directly opposite and to the south of Warsaw, 1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal G. K. Zhukov) assembled ten armies (eight combined-arms armies for the initial penetration, two tank armies, and two cavalry corps for exploitation along the attack axis) plus an air army. Such a robust force offered unlimited operational possibilities, and Zhukov seemed determined to try them all. He envisioned no fewer than three penetrations: the major one from the Magnuszew bridgehead, a 15-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep bulge over the river just south of Warsaw. Zhukov crammed three armies into Magnuszew, the 8th Guards Army under General V. I. Chuikov (formerly the 62nd Army, the heroes of Stalingrad), 5th Shock Army, and 61st Army. They would make the penetration, setting the stage for the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 2nd Guards Tank Army to launch the exploitation to the west. Zhukov designed a second, smaller penetration north of Warsaw, where 47th Army would take advantage of the general rupturing of the German line to cross the Vistula, loop around Warsaw to the north, and link up with the 61st Army coming up out of Magnuszew to encircle the city. Finally, a third drive would emerge out of Pulawy, in the southern reaches of Zhukov’s sector: 69th Army and 33rd Army would penetrate the German lines and link up with forces coming down out of Magnuszew, creating a series of tactical encirclements.

To the south (left) of Zhukov lay Marshal I. S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Here, too, stood ten full armies at the commander’s disposal, eight combined-arms armies and two tank armies. Konev’s plan was the opposite of Zhukov’s, however, and much simpler: while Zhukov was attacking in many places at once, Konev planned on one single great thrust. He jammed no fewer than five of his armies—half the total force—into the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead (the 6th, 13th, 52nd, 3rd Guards, and 5th Guards). Moreover, Konev planned to insert 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army into the breakout from the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead on day one. The assault of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front might well have been the single greatest concentration of land power in all of World War II.

Taken together, the two Soviet fronts amassed shocking numbers for the upcoming offensive. Konev and Zhukov had no fewer than 134 rifle divisions, 33,000 guns, 7,000 tanks, and 4,700 aircraft. In all, they commanded 2.25 million men. The two fronts contained about one-third of all infantry formations on the entire front and almost one-half of all the tanks. One authority calls the Soviet advantage “both absolute and awesome, fivefold in manpower, fivefold in armor, over sevenfold in artillery, and seventeen times the German strength in the air.” As always, the prelude to deep battle was concentration of massive force on extremely narrow fronts, and the Vistula-Oder operation was no different. The Soviets were able to lay on 220–250 guns per kilometer of front, a (theoretical) artillery piece every 4 meters, along with 21–25 tanks. It was a devastating concentration of offensive power, beyond anything the Soviets had yet achieved, even in their megavictory in Byelorussia the previous summer. A five-to-one advantage in armor across the entire front can easily become a superiority of ten- or even twenty-to-one in certain chosen assault sectors.

Moreover, the Soviet Stavka constructed this behemoth force while simultaneously planning another two-front offensive against East Prussia. The 2nd Byelorussian (Marshal K. K. Rokossovsky) and 3rd Byelorussian (General I. D. Cherniakhovsky) Fronts would launch a vast concentric operation against the exposed province. The operational scheme was essentially that of the Tannenberg campaign in 1914. Cherniakhovsky’s force would launch a frontal blast due west, driving on a direct route through Gumbinnen and Insterburg toward Königsberg. Once he had pinned German forces in place, Rokossovsky would come up from the south though Osterode and Allenstein, head toward the Baltic Sea at Elbing, and drive into the deep flank and rear of the German defenders. German forces in the province belonged to Army Group Center, under the command of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt. He had three weak armies (from left to right: 3rd Panzer, 4th, and 2nd) and a badly distended position, with 4th Army occupying a lazy, indefensible bulge looping out toward the east. The initial Soviet attacks intended to Kessel 4th Army by smashing the two armies on its flanks. Launching two vast offensives at once, the Soviet Union had become a military superpower by 1945, the purveyor of strategic land power par excellence.

And what of the German force defending the Vistula line? Here stood Army Group A (formerly Army Group North Ukraine, renamed after its brusque eviction from Ukrainian soil in July 1944), under the same officer who had commanded it during that previous catastrophe: General Joseph Harpe. Army Group A contained four relatively threadbare armies stretched over a 420-mile front and deployed along a more or less straight line stretching from north to south:

9th Army (General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz)

—opposite the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads

4th Panzer Army (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser)

—opposite the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead

17th Army (General Friedrich Schulz)

—south of the Vistula to the Beskid Range in the Carpathians

Armeegruppe Heinrici: 1st Panzer Army and 1st Hungarian Army

(both under the command of General Gotthard Heinrici)

—holding the army group’s right wing in the Carpathians.

Altogether, Harpe’s army group could call upon a mere twenty-five divisions on line to hold this long front (standing against 134 Soviet divisions), along with 1,300 tanks (against 6,500). Twelve panzer divisions stood in reserve, but few were at full strength and fuel was in short supply—the Wehrmacht’s “new normal” since the loss of the Ploesti fields. Air support for the front, courtesy of VIII Fliegerkorps flying out of Kraków, was minimal. The Fliegerkorps could barely put 300 aircraft into the air (against 4,700), and those that were theoretically available to fly often didn’t, due again to serious fuel constraints. Army Group A also suffered from a serious shortage of munitions of all sorts, and many of Harpe’s units in January 1945 had an ammunition load for only two or three days of high-intensity combat.

All these numbers were indicative of the Soviet strategic edge: resources, industrial capacity, and increases in productivity, of course. They were also a product of German decision-making over the last six months. Hitler and the OKW had made a particularly fateful choice the previous fall when they decided to form a new army (the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich) rather than transfer newly raised units to strengthen German armies already holding the line against the Soviets. We might say the same for their decision to deploy that new army in the west for the Ardennes offensive. That choice meant that German defenses in the east would lack a reserve army that Harpe or the General Staff and the OKH could insert to smash a Soviet breakthrough with a bold Panzer counterstroke. Finally, once it was clear that Wacht am Rhein was finished, Hitler and the OKW decided to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army not to the east, as originally promised, but rather to the southeast, to Hungary, where it launched a series of three failed relief offensives to break the Soviet siege of Budapest (Operations Konrad I–III). All of these choices meant starving Army Group A and the other German forces currently defending the long line from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. And yet, we cannot merely label these decisions “wrong.” However Hitler or anyone else shuffled them, there simply were not enough German divisions, corps, or armies to do all that needed to be done. Whether 6th SS Panzer Army fought in Budapest or on the Baranow bridgehead line was hardly going to change the ultimate verdict of the war—not at this late date.

We could say the same thing about the operational scheme mooted by Harpe’s chief of staff, the young and energetic General Wolfdietrich Ritter von Xylander. In the current conformation of the front, the Baranow and Magnuszew bridgeheads jutted into German-held territory. German forces deployed on that sector of the front, therefore, were in a salient pointing east, nearly encircled even before the start of the fighting. Xylander devised a plan he dubbed Schlittenfahrt (“Sleighride,” named, incidentally, for the signature maneuver of the Great Elector of Brandenburg in the Winter Campaign of 1678–1679). Just before the offensive, German forces would evacuate the bulge, moving back in three stages to the previously prepared Hubertus Line. The immense Soviet bombardment would therefore strike air—and so would the irresistible momentum of the initial Soviet attack. They would still come forward, but without their usual power. German forces would be standing in good order on a well-prepared, fortified line and be able either to hold the Soviet drive or even to strike a counterblow if conditions were favorable. Moreover, Xylander calculated that Schlittenfahrt would free up, at a minimum, four divisions, which he could use to form a strategic reserve for the army group.

Guderian presented Schlittenfahrt to Hitler at a conference at the Eyrie on January 9, along with a demand for reinforcements from the west and the by now obligatory demand for the evacuation of the Courland Pocket. While the scheme seems sensible enough, the Führer wasn’t having it. The proposed operation was just another retreat, he said, just another refusal to follow his orders to hold the line. Manuever wasn’t important to the outcome of the upcoming battle. Determination and strength of will: those were the keys. Hitler responded to Guderian’s presentation of the dire situation at the front with all the contempt he had built up for years against the generals, their propensity to “operate,” their constant demands for retreat. He didn’t believe Guderian’s intelligence estimates on Soviet tanks and guns, labeling them “completely idiotic.” Guderian responded that they came from the intelligence service, particularly from General Reinhard Gehlen in the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) office. “If you think he belongs in a madhouse, then lock me up, too!” Even though the rage on both sides subsided, and the discussion returned to a more civil space, the entire experience “was extremely unpleasant,” Guderian wrote. Hitler had reverted to an “ostrich strategy.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Front had become “a house of cards. If the front is penetrated at any point, the whole thing would fall apart.” Hitler’s response had all the charm of a funeral bell tolling: “The East must rely on itself and survive on what it has.”

Guderian’s account of the January meeting has become the accepted narrative, and no indications that he was lying, or even exaggerating, have ever come to light. Indeed, in a nighttime conference after the Chief of the General Staff departed, Hitler expanded on his skepticism of the reports he had heard earlier that day:

I looked at the numbers today, and we have 3,000 tanks and assault guns in the east. Since we usually shoot up enemy tanks at a 3–1 ratio, the Soviets need 9,000 tanks to destroy us. They need a 3–1 superiority. But they don’t have 9,000 tanks, not at the moment.

And here: if we look at the whole front, they’re supposed to have 150 guns every kilometer. That’s 1,500 guns on a ten-kilometer front. There is no way that can be true! That would mean 15,000 guns on a 100-kilometer front, and 20,000 guns on a 150-kilometer front. The Russians aren’t made of artillery!

In fact, we can say that they were made of artillery. Hitler’s departure from reality—born either of ignorance or of willful self-deception—is striking. The time had long passed when the Führer’s intuition and amateurish luck could lead to positive battlefield outcomes. His “unprofessional and defective” decisions were leading them all to doom, and they were directly responsible for the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

But in the interests of historical accuracy and fairness, let us note that Xylander’s plan was no more realistic than Hitler’s. The notion that the proposed Schlittenfahrt or any similar operational stratagem could ward off the dark fate awaiting Army Group A on the Vistula belongs to the realm of fantasy. Consider the words of the German official history. The controversy over Schlittenfahrt was “irrelevant,” the author argues:

Plans of this sort could not replace the German army’s losses in materiel and personnel or reduce the opponent’s superiority, neither on the Vistula nor weeks later on the Oder.

On the basis of the numbers alone, the outcome of the upcoming offensive was not in doubt. For the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, the time for brilliant maneuver was over, since space was lacking. The depth required [for a war of maneuver] lay to the east, not west, of the Vistula. Each retreat brought the eastern opponent to the borders of the Reich. The danger loomed of ground operations on the soil of the homeland.

Indeed, like Model and Rundstedt pressing their point with Hitler and Jodl for the “small solution” during the 1944 Ardennes planning cycle, Xylander, Harpe, and Guderian were declaring allegiance to a way of war they had learned in the War Academy and then tested in the field in the early days of World War II: that war consists above all of a series of cleverly designed and boldly executed military operations, devoid of context, politics, or economics.

Handed impossible orders to hold out to the last man but lacking enough men to do so, Guderian attempted to compensate by digging a series of fortified positions on and behind the Vistula line. Hundreds of thousand of civilians, both German and Polish, as well as prisoners of war, went to work digging trenches and artillery emplacements, felling trees for roadblocks, and protecting the major towns and cities with all-around fortifications. The system was impressive enough on paper, including a Hauptkampflinie (main battle line) backstopped by no fewer than four lines (designated “a” through “d”) extending to a depth of 150 miles, with intermediate positions between them. A final barrier, the Nibelungen-Stellung (Nibelung Position), stretched from Bratislava in the south to the Stettin on the Baltic Sea coast. East Prussia, too, had an impressive system of prepared defenses. Many of them, like the Lötzen Triangle in the lakes district, were of great antiquity but still useful as defensive force multipliers within the dark forests of the province.67 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht lacked many of the necessary materiel to build and hold a modern fortified line, including concrete, construction tools, fuel for the tractors, and, above all, artillery to place in the new bunkers; the works remained inadequate and incomplete on the eve of the Soviet offensive.

Mobilizing civilian labor was a double-edged sword for the army, moreover, since it brought the civil administration into play. As they had with the formation of the Volkssturm, the Gauleiters sensed that that their moment had come. They could see that fortification-building and civilian mobilization meant access to greater power and funding. Nazi officials in the eastern provinces soon began to intervene in the process of fortification building. The results were catastrophic. Arguments over jurisdiction and precedence arose between the army and the civilian authorities, resulting in confusion, waste, and redundancy of effort. Erich Koch, for example, former Gauleiter of occupied Ukraine and now holding the same office in East Prussia, was an energetic fellow—in all the worst ways. While he knew nothing of fortification or military affairs in general, he was certain that he “was smarter than a trained commander.” East Prussia wound up with a haphazard gaggle of poorly placed bunkers, trenches that meandered off into nowhere, and observation posts without a line of sight through the forest. Koch also came up with one of the war’s most absurd inventions: a concrete tube two feet in diameter, sunk into the earth so it could allow enemy tanks to pass; a man would then open its lid to spray enemy infantry with machine-gun fire. The test of battle soon showed the problems: the man inside the tube was terrified, he had no real contact with the outside world once he’d gone underground, and any sort of artillery strike on his position led to shattered concrete and the grisliest wounds imaginable. The infantry called it the Koch-Topf (“cooking pot”).

From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable II

Lacking manpower, materiel, and suitable fortifications, Army Group A cracked apart on the first day of the Soviet offensive (within hours, actually). As always, the Soviets staggered the start. Coordinated front-level offensives on this continental scale require more than a starter’s pistol. Local variations in weather, the ground, and the state of preparations can lead to delays. In previous weeks, the Stavka had been the recipient of urgent requests from the western powers to advance the date of the offensive, scheduled originally for January 16. Stalin had obliged. Indeed, there was nothing he seemed to enjoy more than advancing a starting date on his commanders. The result was a certain amount of last-second scrambling that some commanders handled more smoothly than others:

January 12th       1st Ukrainian Front (Konev)

January 13th       1st Baltic Front (Bagramyan)

2nd Byelorussian Front (Rokossovsky)

3rd Byelorussian Front (Cherniakhovsky)

January 14th       1st Byelorussian Front (Zhukov)

At any rate, staggering the attacks brought a benefit—as the Soviets well knew by now. With German field commanders confused as to the location of the Soviet Schwerpunkt, they were uncertain or tentative in their reactions and often inserted their meager reserves prematurely or into the wrong place. The impact of receiving one massive blow after another also had a paralyzing effect on the High Command, including both Hitler and the OKH alike.

The Vistula-Oder operation, then, began as Marshal Konev’s show, with Zhukov’s front following two days later. Konev’s assault out of the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead married brute force to a sophisticated tactical approach, and it remains a model of modern offensive operations. The offensive opened with a brief but monstrous 15-minute bombardment at 4:45 a.m., with 300 guns per kilometer arranged quite literally hub to hub, targeting 4th Panzer Army opposite the bridgehead. Joining in at 5:00 a.m. were the “forward battalions,” probing the German front for weak spots and driving ahead 600 meters into the German defensive zone over the next few hours, occupying the German frontline trenches and even parts of the second. Most of the defending German infantry thought that they were facing the main attack by now, and they came up from their bunkers, where they’d been waiting out the Soviet bombardment, to engage the Soviet assault troops. That decision was fatal, leaving them open and vulnerable to the big one: an all-guns-at-once, 107-minute plastering of every worth-while target at and behind the German front. Soon the entire battlefield was a seething mass of high explosives, deadly chunks of shrapnel, and clods of frozen dirt, covered in a thick, choking, acrid smoke. A whole series of direct hits destroyed the headquarters of 4th Panzer Army, and the commander, a shaken General Gräser, might as well have been back in Berlin for all the control he was able to exert on the battle. And now, just before noon, it was the turn of the main body of Soviet infantry, moving up in 150-meter-wide sectors deliberately left untouched by the bombardment. Within hours they had penetrated as deep as five miles, and Konev hadn’t even played his trump card: the more than 2,000 tanks of the 3rd Guards and 4th Tank Armies. They came up at 2:00 p.m., passing through their own infantry and driving deep, smashing German defenses beyond hope of repair. By nightfall, they had torn a 25-mile-wide gash and in some sectors had penetrated up to 20 miles deep.

Through it all 4th Panzer Army hadn’t reacted and, indeed, hadn’t been able to react. Like a patient lying on an operating table, the initiative was out of its hands. The formation in the front line, XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, had three divisions stretched very thinly, and the opening Soviet attack had vaporized it. Analysts who have studied German dispositions carefully note that the reserve Panzer formations of 4th Panzer Army (the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions belonging to General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps) were deployed too close to the front line. The decision belonged to Hitler, suspicious as ever of his commanders’ operational intentions and willingness to retreat. Located just a few thousand yards behind the Hauptkampflinie, however, Nehring’s corps suffered mightily in the opening bombardment, especially in terms of command, control, and radio facilities. Within an hour, Nehring was out of communication with his divisions, and as much as General Gräser, he was commanding blindly for the entire opening sequence. He finally received orders in the late afternoon to close up his two divisions to the town of Kielce—dead center in the path of the onrushing Soviet tank armies. His signal troops had restored communications with his divisions by now, but it hardly mattered: the orders were already obsolete. Soviet armor had already overrun the assembly areas for his Panzers, catching one Tiger tank battalion being refueled out in the open and destroying it completely. The two divisions struggle gamely toward Kielce in disconnected and isolated fragments, and the commander of 17th Panzer Division, Colonel Albert Brux, was wounded in a Soviet bombardment and taken prisoner.

Not that it mattered. Soviet armored spearheads had already taken Kielce. Nehring’s corps never did manage to launch a counterattack. Rather, it found itself fighting for its life against superior forces from the start. Soon, 4th Panzer Army had ceased to exist as a military formation. It had degenerated into an onrushing stream of men and vehicles, along with thousands of ethnic German refugees, all heading west and northwest, desperately trying to get to safety. This almost always meant off-road movement, however, since Soviet armor was prowling all the good highways. In the course of the first few days, small groups of survivors from the neighboring XXXXII Corps and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps coalesced around the remnants of Nehring’s Panzer corps to form Gruppe Nehring—all that was left of the army.

Nehring was a tested commander and managed to form the motley command into a “roving Kessel” (wandernden Kessel). Surrounded on all sides by Soviet units heading west at top speed and barely thinking it worthwhile to stop and fight a pitched battle with German forces who were already obviously defeated, under constant air attack, and low on supplies and ammunition, Nehring’s little band (fewer than 10,000 men all told) managed to thread the needle again and again over the next ten days. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit the seam between the two Soviet fronts, Zhukov to his north and Konev to his south. Moving mainly by night, hiding the tanks and vehicles among the houses and barns of this rural land, Nehring avoided Soviet concentrations, launching the occasional attack only when absolutely necessary and crashing through roadblocks. Kielce to Piotrków, Lask to the crossing over the Warthe River at Sieradz, and finally crossing the Oder River to safety at Glogau: Gruppe Nehring had traveled nearly 200 miles to safety. Like the Rückkämpfer of 1944, Nehring had beaten the odds—but his saga is impressive only within the context of yet another miserable German operational collapse.

On January 14, Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front joined in the offensive. Coming out of the Magnuszew bridgehead, Zhukov meted out the same punishment to German 9th Army as Konev had to 4th Panzer. Here, too, the Soviet commander displayed finesse along with crushing strength. He opened with a furious 25-minute barrage and followed it up with a massive reconnaissance actions. It was of such size, scope, and ferocity (thirty-two reinforced rifle battalions and twenty-five additional rifle companies to reduce German strongpoints) that most of the German defenders believed once again that the main attack had begun. Soon they were falling back, abandoning the front line and then the second. A simultaneous attack out of the Pulawy bridgehead had equal success, and by the end of the day Zhukov’s armor was 20 miles inside the German defenses. The commander of 9th Army, General Lüttwitz, inserted his Panzer reserves with impressive dispatch, and 19th and 25th Panzer Divisions duly entered the fray on the first day. Given the collapse of the defenses in front of both bridgeheads, however, Lüttwitz had no choice but to split the divisions, directing 19th Panzer toward the Pulawy bridgehead and the 25th against Magnuszew. Here, too, the impression was not so much of being defeated as simply being swallowed up, and both Panzer divisions were soon reeling back with heavy losses. The next day, Zhukov directed 47th Army to begin its envelopment of Warsaw from the north, while 61st Army and 1st Polish Army drove up from the south. A few days of fighting and it was over: German troops evacuated Warsaw on January 17, and the victorious Polish formations were parading through their liberated capital.

With both 4th Panzer and 9th Armies in tatters, and both Soviet fronts pushing hard, the Vistula-Oder Offensive entered its travelogue phase. Warsaw began the parade, and now the cities and towns fell in a rush: Kraków and Czeţstochowa to Konev, Łódź to Zhukov. While there was the occasional skirmish, this was top-speed movement, limited only by logistical constraints and supply, ammunition, and fuel. By January 31, the two Soviet fronts had overrun the entire vast Posen Bulge, known as the Reichsgau Wartheland or Warthegau during Nazi occupation. On January 12—the very night that Soviet forces had smashed the German 4th Panzer Army—the provincial Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, had promised the local population that victory was certain, that “the Bolshevist flood would bleed itself to death on the borders of the Warthegau,” and that “the Bolshevist marauders (Soldateska) would not set a single foot on our land.” But these had been empty words, and Greiser knew it. Sitting on a flat, featureless plain, he had done nothing to fortify the Warthegau, and only very late in the game, on January 20, did he approve an evacuation of the civilian population. While desperate families—women, children, and the elderly—loaded themselves and their possessions onto wagons and sleighs and scurried in the freezing cold, Greiser had a berth on a safe private train to Frankfurt on the Oder, one of many despicable flights carried out by party officials in those last days. Fighting an overmatched military and an utterly negligent civilian authority, the Soviet campaign had been one of the most successful and dramatic in history. Elements of the 1st Tank Army, part of Zhukov’s front, were already on the Oder River near Küstrin and Frankfurt, having lunged nearly 250 miles in just over two weeks. Konev’s spearheads likewise had driven deep into Silesia, reaching the Oder and seizing sizable bridgeheads on the left bank of the river at Steinau and Ohlau, northwest and southeast of the provincial capital, Breslau. Silesia, Prussia’s ur-conquest from two hundred years before, now stood under threat. The Wehrmacht’s losses in all this had been colossal: no fewer than 300,000 men. “The catastrophe at the front was coming down on us like an avalanche,” as Guderian put it.

Under Guderian’s continual urging, Hitler did finally order reinforcements to the front: five divisions and a corps headquarters from the Courland Pocket, the Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps from East Prussia. The former involved evacuation by sea and would take time, if it happened at all. The latter had minimal impact. Grossdeutschland began to detrain at Łódź on January 16 and immediately sent one of its divisions, the Hermann Göring Fallschirmjäger Panzer Division, into action east of the city. But the division had massive Soviet forces hurtling at it from all directions and had no choice but to fall back. Łódź itself fell to elements of Chuikov’s 8th Army—largely consisting of infantry but moving just as rapidly as the tank armies—on January 19. Subsequent Soviet attacks caught the German trains carrying much of the Grossdeutschland Corps’s equipment and destroyed them. Within days of arriving at the front, the corps commander, General Dietrich von Saucken, saw his force reduced to the size of a battlegroup. And like Nehring, he sound found himself surrounded and in command of a wandering cauldron (Gruppe Saucken), heading south and west toward the Warthe. Nehring’s group was all that was left of 4th Panzer Army, Saucken’s the remnant of the 9th.

While the front disintegrated, not just between the Vistula and the Oder but in East Prussia as well, business as usual went on at Führer Headquarters. The same interminable situation conferences took place. Guderian and Hitler continued to argue over the same trivial particulars of operations, administration, and personnel, all of which the general describes in detail in his memoirs. They even redesignated their army groups, hardly the most pressing need at the moment:

Old Army Group (Oder Front)                     =======>              New Army Group Center

Army Group Center (East Prussia)               =======>             Army Group North

Army Group North (Courland Pocket)         =======>            Army Group Courland

And in his by now traditional response to disaster at the front, Hitler fired his generals in droves. General Harpe, the commander of Army Group A, got the axe first, followed by General Lüttwitz, commander of 9th Army. The ostensible reason was the hasty evacuation of Warsaw—yet another fallen city that Hitler had ordered held to the last man. After the fall of the fortress complex of Lötzen in East Prussia on January 23 essentially without a fight, the dismissals gained momentum. General Reinhardt, commanding Army Group Center, went next, followed by General Hossbach of 4th Army. The new army group commanders were Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, perhaps Hitler’s most fanatic servant, at Army Group A (now redesignated Army Group Center) and General Lothar Rendulic for Army Group Center (now Army Group North).

Their appointments continued a long-standing devolution within Hitler’s marshalate. Like Field Marshal Model in the west, neither Schörner nor Rendulic could make a claim to any particular operational brilliance or innovative style of leadership. Both were loyal to the core, however. Schörner, in particular, viewed terrorizing the men underneath him as a legitimate tool of National Socialist command, executed thousands of his own soldiers to keep the others in the line, and would remain with his command until the end of the war. Rendulic managed to touch all the command bases: Army Group Courland, Army Group North, back to Courland, and then Army Group South until the end of the war (with one last redesignation at Army Group Ostmark), all in the course of four months. They were men upon whom the Führer could rely: ruthless, grim commanders who were determined to throw their men into the fire by the hundreds of thousands for as long as Hitler felt they should.

Object 279

In 1957, a group of engineers, headed by L. S. Troyanov, developed a prototype of a new heavy tank, named “Object 279“. This was a very unique vehicle. The tank had a classic layout, but the problem of protection was solved by an unusual design feature. The hull of the tank was covered by a thin elliptical shield. That shield protected the tank against HEAT ammunition and to prevent it from overturning during a nuclear explosion.

The thickness of the glacis plate was 269 mm, and the thickness of the turret was 305 mm. The tank was armed with a 130 mm M-65 gun and a coaxial 14.5 mm KPVT machine-gun. The ammunition carried for the main gun was 24 shells. The Engine was a 16-cylinder diesel DG-1000 (950 hp) or 2DG-8M (1000 hp). The tank’s crew consisted of four men.

Another unusual feature of the tank was the chassis. It consisted of four tracks combined in pairs. Such construction increased the tank’s height, but guaranteed that the tank would rarely get bogged down. The tank also had great tractability on snowy and swampy terrain. At the end of 1957, a single tank had been built, but after that the project was abandoned. The “Object 279” is now displayed at Kubinka.