Moscow Option: An Alternative Second World War

Moscow Option: An Alternative Second World War

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by David Downing

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This provocative alternate history looks at World War II from a new angle - what might have happened had the Germans taken Moscow in 1941. Based on authentic history and real possibilities, this book plays out the dramatic consequences of opportunities taken and examines the grotesque possibilities of a Third Reich triumphant. On September 30th, 1941, the Germans

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This provocative alternate history looks at World War II from a new angle - what might have happened had the Germans taken Moscow in 1941. Based on authentic history and real possibilities, this book plays out the dramatic consequences of opportunities taken and examines the grotesque possibilities of a Third Reich triumphant. On September 30th, 1941, the Germans fight their way into the ruins of Moscow, and the Soviet Union collapses. Although Russian resistance continues, German ambition multiplies after this signal victory and offensives are launched in Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Hitler's armies, assured of success, make their leader's dreams reality, and Allied hopes of victory seem to be hopelessly doomed. David Downing's writing is fluid and eminently believable, as he blends actual events with the intriguing possibilities of alternate history. The Moscow Option is a chilling reminder that the course of World War II might easily have run very differently.

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Chapter One


Do you remember the dryness in your throat
When rattling their naked power of evil
They were banging ahead and bellowing
And autumn was advancing in steps of calamity?

Boris Pasternak


According to Führer Directive 21, issued on 18 December 1940, the German Army was to `crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign'. With that aim in mind eight infantry armies and four panzer groups had crossed the border on 22 June 1941, destroyed the bulk of the armies facing them and advanced deep into Soviet territory. For three weeks, as the miles rolled away beneath the panzers' tracks, any doubts as to the enormity of the task had been subdued beneath the enthusiasm of conquest. In the north Höppner's two panzer corps were a mere eighty miles from Leningrad by mid-July; in the south Kleist's Panzer Group was striking towards the lower Dnieper. In the centre, astride the main Moscow highway, the panzer groups under Hoth and Guderian twice closed on huge concentrations of Soviet troops. By 16 July the tanks were rumbling through the ruins of Smolensk, already two-thirds of the way to the Soviet capital. A slice of the Soviet Union over twice the size of France had been amputated, and close to two million prisoners taken. This, surely, was victory on an epic scale.

    Epic, perhaps. But not yet victory. The Soviet Union had not collapsed as Hitler had predicted it would. `We have only to kick in the door,' the Führer had said, `and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.' Well, the door had been comprehensively kicked in, but the structure still stood bloodily intact. Fall Barbarossa, the plan for the defeat of Russia, was beginning to fray at the centre.

    It had been an optimistic plan from the beginning. There were too many miles, too few roads, too little firm and open ground. This enemy was an altogether different proposition to those already crushed under the Wehrmacht's motorised heel. The citizens of the Soviet Union had a greater will to resist than had been shown by the French, they had more room to make resistance count than had been available to the hapless Poles. And there were many more of them. The Germans, outnumbered from the start, were advancing on three divergent axes towards objectives separated by over a thousand miles of often difficult terrain. And as the force of their spearheads was diluted by the growing distances between and behind them the German intelligence estimates of Soviet strength were continually being revised upwards. For every prisoner the Germans took, or so it seemed, there were two new Soviet citizens donning Red Army uniform. The German boat was taking water faster than its crew could bail. Sooner or later, unless something radical was done, it would sink.

    There was only one solution to this problem. If the limbs of the Soviet Goliath could not be held down, then the blow had to be struck at the nervous system. This, after all, was the basis of panzer warfare. Death by paralysis, not by body blows. The assault had to be focused on objectives whose importance transcended their immediate value, before the Army as a whole was sucked into a war of attrition it could only lose.

    But which objectives? This essentially was the question at issue during the last two weeks of July and the first few days of August. Hitler was not yet overly concerned about Russian resistance, informing the Japanese Ambassador on 15 July that he expected to be withdrawing forces from the Eastern Front some time in August. At this point Barbarossa still seemed to be on schedule, and this implied, according to Hitler's reading of the plan, that Army Group Centre's armour would soon be sent north and south to aid the flanking Army Groups in securing the Baltic Coast and the Donets industrial region. Hence Führer Directive 33, issued on 19 July, which ordered such a redeployment.

    Brauchitsch, Halder and the Army Group Centre generals neither shared Hitler's confidence nor agreed with the proposed rerouting of the central panzer groups. It was becoming apparent to them that the grandiose aims of Barbarossa were not attainable in a `rapid campaign'. They urged a continuation of the advance on the central axis. Only before Moscow, they argued, would the Russians be forced to stand and fight. And only the capture of the capital would provide that paralysing blow which alone could avert a long and costly war of attrition. They quoted the findings of the Zossen war-game of December 1940. `In view of the paramount importance of preserving (Army Group Centre's) resources for the final, ultimate onslaught on Moscow', it had been decided, Army Groups South and North would have to make do with their own resources. For should Moscow not be attained the war-gamers foresaw `a long drawn-out war beyond the capacity of the German Armed Forces to wage'.

    Hitler, pressured even by the normally docile Jodl, wavered. Directive 34, issued on 30 July, postponed `for the moment the further tasks and objectives laid down (for Panzer Groups 2 and 3) in Directive 33'.

    This procrastination on the Führer's part formed the background to the Novy Borrisov meeting of 4 August. The generals all clamoured for permission to continue the advance on Moscow. Hitler spoke forcibly of the need to take Leningrad, the Ukraine and the Crimea, but did not commit himself either way. He then flew off for his rendezvous with destiny on the Rastenburg airfield. Two days later Halder began to supervise the drafting of an operational plan for the capture of Moscow.

    This was not a straightforward task, for the Germans' room for manoeuvre was already severely limited. Halder could not merely sanction a headlong charge towards the capital. That would have been as suicidal as continuing to advance slowly on a broad front.

    The first, most obvious, limiting factor was the current disposition of the German and Soviet armies. In the central sector conditions were superficially favourable. During the first week of August both Hoth and Guderian's groups had taken strides to by-pass the heavy Red Army concentrations in the Yelna area. Hoth's reconnaissance units were approaching Rzhev, Guderian's forces had taken Roslavl and were firmly astride the road that ran through it towards Moscow. Luftwaffe reconnaissance reported that behind the Soviet line in this sector there were virtually no reserves. A breakthrough in depth would present few problems to the armoured spearheads of a renewed German advance.

    But there would be problems, further back, in the rear flanks of such an advance. Here, in the Velikiye Luki and Gomel areas, there had been a buildup of Soviet strength. To charge forward towards Moscow would further stretch the German forces covering these threatened sectors. Army Group Centre did not have the strength both to advance and protect its own flanks. Units from the other two army groups would have to perform the latter task.

    In the north the flow of battle provided Halder with a ready-made solution. On 6 August the Red Army held a line from Lake Ilmen to the town of Luga and then down the Luga river to the Baltic coast. Here the terrain — mostly marshland and forest — was most unsuitable for the panzers, and for several weeks Höppner's Panzer Group 4 had been bogged down in positional warfare. Then on 12 August the Soviet Thirty-fourth Army launched an attack in the region south of Lake Ilmen, and one of Höppner's two corps, the 56th under General Manstein, was detached from the Luga front to deal with it. Within a few days it had done so. More to the point, 56th Panzer Corps was now ideally deployed to form the northern wing of the drive on Moscow.

    In the south no such solutions presented themselves. The armoured fist of Army Group South, Kleist's Panzer Group 1, was moving away from Army Group Centre. A decisive encirclement of Soviet forces had just been completed in the Uman region, and Kleist's spearhead was now flowing south-eastwards down the land-corridor between the Bug and lower Dnieper rivers. Behind them the huge garrison of Kiev still held out against Sixth Army; further north the Soviet Fifth Army around Chernigov threatened the northern and southern flanks of Army Groups South and Centre respectively. This was a potentially dangerous situation for the Germans, and the dangers were not greatly lessened by Soviet Fifth Army's voluntary withdrawal across the Desna river in mid-August. Clearly the gap between Army Groups Centre and South had to be filled.

    All this was basic strategy, second nature to the mandarins of the German General Staff. One did not advance without securing one's flanks. But Halder, unlike Hitler, did not exaggerate the problem. He intended to solve it, not let it dictate his overall strategy. One of Kleist's three panzer corps would be brought back and placed under the temporary command of Sixth Army. The newly-strengthened Army would extend its control northwards to establish a firm connection with Second Army, the southernmost formation of Army Group Centre. This shifting of Army Group South's centre of gravity away from the Ukrainian steppe would probably limit the prospects of conquest in that area, but it was unavoidable if the march on the capital was to succeed. Rather Moscow and no Ukraine than Ukraine and no Moscow. For the moment the Germans could not have both.

    While Halder was thus absorbed choosing `ends' the rest of the German Army was endeavouring to gather the `means'. It had now been campaigning for seven weeks, longer than in France, in conditions much more wearing to both men and machines. The tanks had been worn down by the bad `roads', their engines clogged with the ubiquitous dust; the wheeled vehicles had in many cases simply jolted themselves to pieces. An enormous flow of replacement parts and fuel was required to keep this motorised army moving, more enormous than the German transport facilities could cope with. By mid-August supply was running well below demand.

    The main stumbling-block was the wider gauge of the Soviet railways. The Germans could only keep the Warsaw-Polotsk line running with the small number of engines and amount of rolling stock captured in the opening week of the attack. The rest of the railways had to be converted to the German gauge, and this would take time. Although the engineers worked around the clock to re-lay the tracks as far as Gomel, Orsha and Dno, the supplies reaching Army Group Centre in the first week of August were quite inadequate for the provisioning of a major offensive. A report from the Quartermaster General's office on 6 August reached the conclusion that a simultaneous attack by three armies on the central section was out of the question, and that even simultaneous operations by the two panzer groups would be difficult to supply. Clearly there had to be a pause of two or three weeks' duration for resting, refitting and the accumulation of essential supplies.

    The more amenable supply/transport situation in Army Group North's sector further encouraged Halder in his decision to place the centre of gravity of the Moscow offensive north of the Smolensk-Moscow highway. Certainly the Valdai Hills were not ideal terrain for panzer warfare, but since an attack in that area would both dissipate the northern flank threat and be easy to supply, the disadvantages would have to be accepted. Manstein 56th Panzer Corps, now reinforced with 8th Panzer Division from Reinhardt's Corps and placed under Panzer Group 3 command, would advance eastward along the southern shores of Lake Ilmen and on to the main Leningrad-Moscow road before turning south-eastwards towards the capital. The attack would begin on 23 August.

    Two days later the rest of Army Group Centre would follow suit. The other two corps of Hoth's Panzer Group 3 would strike north-eastwards towards Rzhev. From there one would continue northwards to meet Manstein's, and thus enclose several Soviet armies in a pocket around Ostashkov. The other would turn towards Moscow on the Volokamsk road as soon as conditions permitted. Guderian's Panzer Group 2 would not advance on the Bryansk-Kaluga axis envisaged in the original plan, but would pinch out the strong Soviet forces in the Yelna region with Fourth Army help and then advance astride the Vyazma and Yukhnov roads towards Moscow. Behind these panzer forces Fourth, Ninth and Sixteenth Armies (the latter on loan from Army Group North) would move forward to pick up the prisoners and tie down the ground. Halder sent out the operational orders on 14 August.

    They would come as no surprise to the troops of Army Group Centre, who unlike their Führer had never considered any other objectives. Already the signs `Moskau 240 kilometren' were pointing the way. Morale among the troops was high, for the end was in sight. `Moscow before the snow falls — home before Christmas' ran the popular slogan. It occurred to few that the one did not necessarily imply the other.


On 3 July, with the opening blitzkrieg twelve days old, Stalin had spoken to the Soviet people. `Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, fighters of our Army and Navy! I am speaking to you, my friends!' he began. The unprecedented intimacy of this introduction underlined, as nothing else could have done, the desperation of the Soviet Union's situation. These words ushered in a new reality. Of occupied territories, of forming home guards and partisan units, of scorching the earth in the invader's path. Of total war.

    As July unfolded the enemy pressed forward. All along an eight-hundred-mile front from the Baltic to the Black Sea the Red Army either died, retreated or marched west in long broken lines towards the German maltreatment camps. The towns mentioned in the official Soviet communiqués drifted steadily eastward across the maps, the first reports of German atrocities hot on their heels.

    But towards the end of that horrifying month the unstoppable advance seemed, for the moment at least, to have been stopped. In the area of Smolensk the line was holding, and the inhabitants of Moscow, two hundred miles further to the east, breathed a nervous sigh of relief.

    In the capital conditions were hard but not yet harsh. Strict rationing had been introduced in mid-July, and basic items like food and cigarettes were harder to come by for those in the less privileged categories. But restaurants and theatres remained open, the latter as a showcase for the burgeoning trade in patriotic plays, poems and songs. Moscow's formidable anti-aircraft defences took a fair toll of the nightly air raids and little damage had yet been done to the city. At night many slept in the recently completed Metro while the sky above the capital was awash with searchlight beams and barrage balloons.

    In the Kremlin there was too much knowledge for optimism. Stavka, the supreme Soviet military-political command, met in the ancient rooms and received news of the latest disasters. There were many of them. The Red Army had been surprised, outmanoeuvred, outclassed and outfought. Warned by the British, by its own commanders at the front, by its agents round the world, the Soviet leadership had applied Nelson's blind-eye technique with spectacularly disastrous results. The Air Force had been cut to ribbons on the ground, whole armies like lumbering mammoths had been surrounded and reduced by the German masters of the panzer art. When given the opportunity to attack, Red Army formations had charged like incoherent Light Brigades down the muzzles of the German guns. Defensively inept, offensively gallant to the point of suicide, the front line of the Red Army had practically ceased to exist.

    Who was responsible for this disaster? Not the ordinary Red Army soldier. Though lacking the experience and tactical skills of his German counterpart, though frequently armed with inferior equipment, he had fought, and continued to fight, with a reckless bravery that the Germans found thoroughly depressing. Not the front-line officer either. No more than his French, British or Polish counterparts, could he have been expected to grasp the essence of panzer warfare overnight.

    If anyone was responsible it was the Supreme Command. Or more simply, Stalin. Firstly for allowing the German Army to take his own by surprise, secondly for removing those leaders who did understand armoured warfare — most notably Tukhachevskiy — in the purges of 1937-8. But, these undoubted mistakes notwithstanding, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the fundamental reason for the Soviet defeat in the summer of 1941 was the different sense of priorities held by the political leaderships of Germany and the Soviet Union. If one state was devoting its energies to conquest and another to national construction there was an excellent chance that the former would prove a more efficient conqueror.

    Stavka had to learn the hard way. Though some measures could be implemented immediately — generals like Rokossovsky, whose excellent military careers had been cut short for political reasons, could be pulled out of the Siberian concentration camps and given their uniforms back — the thorough reorganisation, re-equipping and retraining of the Red Army would take a great deal of time. And time was extremely precious.

    In August it must have seemed that those lessons that needed to be learned in a hurry were hardly being learned at all. A further series of frontal attacks were launched and, like bears tumbling into pits, Thirty-fourth Army near Lake Ilmen, Twenty-eighth Army around Roslavl, and Thirteenth and Fiftieth Armies between Gomel and Krichev disappeared into historical limbo. All these attacks took place in those rear-flank areas of the projected German advance; their failure eased Halder's anxieties considerably. Only around Yelna in the central sector did the Red Army battle the Germans to an honourable draw through August, and this apparent success was to prove as fatal as the failures. The leaders in the Kremlin interpreted it, wrongly, as evidence of the continuing viability of linear defence lines, and proceeded to construct two more between Yelna and the capital. The first of these, under General Zhukov, contained five fresh armies on a line from Ostashkov to Kirov; the second consisted merely of earthworks dug by workers brought out from Moscow. On the front itself the eight armies of Timoshenko's West Front held a line from Lake Seliger to Yelna. Further south the two armies of Yeremenko's new Bryansk Front were to cover the Bryansk-Orel sector, which outdated Soviet intelligence had earmarked as Guderian's probable approach route.

    All these lines were desperately thin. The potential Soviet manpower was proverbially inexhaustible, but armies need more than manpower. Only so many men could be trained and armed in the time available, and the weaponry situation was adversely affected in the short term by the removal of the armament industry to the east. The one trained and equipped Soviet army as yet uncommitted against the Germans — the thirty-division-strong Far Eastern Army — could not be withdrawn from its positions in the Maritime Provinces and along the Manchurian border until Stavka's agent in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, had confirmation of the rumoured Japanese intention to strike south rather than north in the coming months.

    So, proverbially inexhaustible or not, the Red Army was outnumbered in front of Moscow. Through August Stavka waited. For the strength at its disposal to grow, for a message from Sorge, for the first welcome signs of autumn. And for the Germans to renew their attack along the road to Moscow.


As the sun rose slowly above the pines on 23 August, the strengthened 56th Panzer Corps moved forward from its starting line south of Lake Ilmen. There were no roads to speak of, and 8th Panzer struck east along the railway line towards Lychkovo. Some ten miles to the north 6th Panzer and 3rd Motorised Division were directed along marshy forest tracks towards Kresttsy on the main Leningrad-Moscow road. A similar distance to the south the motorised SS division `Totenkopf' covered the Corps' southern flank against the strong enemy formations in the Demyansk-Lake Seliger area. Progress was slow but steady, the terrain offering considerably more opposition than the enemy, who was still struggling to fill the gap left by Thirty-fourth Army's recent destruction.

    By nightfall on 24 August 6th Panzer was astride the main road and 8th Panzer, after a short bitter engagement with a company of Soviet T-34 tanks, had taken Lychkovo and was rolling on towards Valdai. An improvised Soviet counter-attack along the eastern shore of Lake Ilmen was beaten off without difficulty by 3rd Motorised.

    The following day 8th Panzer crashed into Valdai. The town, despite some recent attention from the Stukas, looked relatively normal. There was the obligatory statue of Lenin, the small cluster of administration buildings, the lines of wooden houses stretching from the centre out to the forest. Barely an hour later the leading units of 6th Panzer appeared along the road from the north. This division was directed east to take and hold the important railway junction of Bologoye; 8th Panzer was to continue southeastwards along the main road towards Vyshniy Volochek.

    In the Kremlin the threat posed by Manstein's Corps was underestimated. For days an argument had been raging as to the most probable point of the enemy's forthcoming breakthrough attempt. Opinions were divided fairly evenly between the Moscow highway and Bryansk-Orel sectors; all eyes were watching to see which it would be. Reports of a major armoured attack south of Lake Ilmen were discounted. It was only the enemy making the most of his victory over the unfortunate Thirty-fourth Army; the local Red Army commander was clearly exaggerating the scale of the attack.

    By 25 August the danger was too visible to brush off so lightly, but by this time Stavka was otherwise occupied. At dawn on that day the rest of Army Group Centre, close on a million men and two thousand tanks, moved into the attack. In the Belyy area and on the main Moscow road Hoth's tanks burst through the Soviet line with all the concentrated power of long practice. 57th Panzer Corps attacked north-east towards its intended junction with Manstein, 39th Panzer Corps motored east towards Vyazma for a rendezvous with Guderian. The latter's tanks had broken through the Soviet positions on the Roslavl-Yukhnov road, with one corps punching deep into the rear of the Soviet concentrations around Yelna. The largely immobile Red Army units continued to fight hard against the slow push of Fourth Army against their front, but could do little to affect the pincers closing behind them. By 28 August Model's 3rd Panzer Division had made contact with the leading elements of 7th Panzer at Losimo and the ring was closed. Inside the pocket were the major parts of three Soviet armies.

Excerpted from THE MOSCOW OPTION by David Downing. Copyright © 2001 by David Downing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A very good read . . . I won’t spoil the book by giving the end away
. . . A page-turner to the end." – Military Illustrated

"Well reasoned and written." – Paper Wars (USA)

Publishing News: Recommended Title, September 2005
"In this addition to the popular ‘what if’ genre of history, Downing explores what might have happened if the Germans had taken Moscow during the Second World War."

"A most readable and clever tale, full of striking inventions."
- Sir Kingsley Amis

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