The Drive on Moscow, 1941

The Drive on Moscow, 1941

by Niklas Zetterling, Anders Frankson
At the end of September 1941, more than a million German soldiers lined up along the frontline just 180 miles west of Moscow. They were well-trained, confident, and had good reasons to hope that the war in the East would be over with one last offensive. Facing them was an equally large Soviet force, but whose soldiers were neither as well-trained nor as confident.


At the end of September 1941, more than a million German soldiers lined up along the frontline just 180 miles west of Moscow. They were well-trained, confident, and had good reasons to hope that the war in the East would be over with one last offensive. Facing them was an equally large Soviet force, but whose soldiers were neither as well-trained nor as confident. When the Germans struck, disaster soon befell the Soviet defenders. German panzer spearheads cut through enemy defenses and thrust deeply to encircle most of the Soviet soldiers on the approaches to Moscow. Within a few weeks, most of the Russian soldiers marched into captivity, where a grim fate awaited them.  Despite the overwhelming initial German success, however, the Soviet capital did not fall. German combat units, as well as supply transport, were bogged down in mud caused by autumn rains. General Zhukov was called back to Moscow and given the desperate task to recreate defense lines west of Moscow. The mud allowed him time to accomplish this, and when the Germans again began to attack in November, they met stiffer resistance. Even so, they came perilously close to the capital, and if the vicissitudes of weather had cooperated, would have seized it. Though German units were also fighting desperately by now, the Soviet build-up soon exceeded their own. The Drive on Moscow, 1941 is based on numerous archival records, personal diaries, letters, and other sources. It recreates the battle from the perspective of the soldiers as well as the generals. The battle had a crucial role in the overall German strategy in the East, and its outcome reveals why the failure of the German assault on Moscow may well have been true turning point of World War II.

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The Drive on Moscow 1941

Operation Taifun and Germany's First Crisis of World War II

By Niklas Zetterling, Anders Frankson

Casemate Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0662-9



The disaster at Kiev clearly showed that the Germans held the initiative. Soviet commanders now had to focus on defense. The huge losses at Kiev left them with few means to halt the Germans in the Ukraine, at least in the immediate future. In the Leningrad area, the Germans had apparently halted. The situation was less serious than it had been, but remained precarious.

Strong Soviet forces were positioned west of Moscow. In all, they amounted to about 1.25 million men, approximately 1,050 tanks and over 10,000 guns and mortars, positioned between Ostashkov in the north and Vorosba in the south. Three front commands had to share these resources and 15 armies were subordinated to the fronts.

The three front commands responsible for the defense of Moscow were, from south to north, Bryansk Front, Reserve Front and West Front. The Bryansk Front was commanded by 48-year-old General Andrei Eremenko. He had been serving in the Far East when the Germans attacked. Soon he was ordered to Europe and the central sector, where the Germans advanced astonishingly fast at the end of June. Eremenko served as commander of West Front during three brief periods, in place of Marshal Semen Timoshenko. In August, Eremenko was summoned to a meeting with Stalin and on August 16 he was appointed commander of the recently created Bryansk Front. At the end of September, Eremenko had three armies plus an "operational group" directly subordinated to him. His divisions were evenly distributed along his front sector, except for three divisions held in reserve near Bryansk. His plans called for the reserve to counterattack in either a northwesterly or southwesterly direction as necessary. It is clear that a German attack in the general direction of Bryansk was expected and the reserve had been positioned accordingly.

Eremenko had one more reserve, located farther south. The 42nd Tank Brigade was located south of Suzemka, ready to attack toward Yampol and Gluchov. Eremenko's three other tank brigades were also located in the vicinity. Despite the tank brigades, this sector was one of Eremenko's weakest. He would be hard-put to halt a determined German attack from the southwest. Except for the reserve at Bryansk, his defenses had little depth. The distance from the front to the reserve was more than 150 kilometers (93 miles), which meant that bringing the reserves into action against a German attack would take time.

Of the three fronts defending the approaches to Moscow, Eremenko's was the weakest. He had little more than 1,700 guns and mortars and only 259 tanks. His front sector was rather wide, so slightly fewer than 250,000 men were spread along a front of 300 kilometers (186 miles). On the other hand, the distance from the front to the capital was much greater than at the other two fronts.

* * *

The Reserve Front was positioned north of Eremenko's Bryansk Front and its armies were disposed in a peculiar way. It was commanded by Marshal Semen Budjonny (anglicized spelling: Budenny), who had allotted the front sector between Kirov and Yelnya to his two strongest armies. Most of his other formations were placed in a belt behind the West Front. The latter defended the front from Yelnya to the Ostashkov area, where two divisions from the Reserve Front were responsible for the defense of the front line. The sector further north was defended by the forces of the Northwest Front. Combined, the two armies Budjonny had placed between Kirov and Yelnya comprised approximately 200,000 men. Also, he had positioned an additional army behind them as reserve, bringing the strength on this sector to 260,000 men. Budjonny thus had more personnel defending his front than Eremenko had along his much long front.

At the age of 58, Budjonny was one of the true veterans of the Red Army. He had known Stalin since the Civil War, when they had served in the same formation. This was probably one of the main reasons why Budjonny was one of only two marshals to survive the purges of 1937–38. He subsequently received command of an army during the Winter War with Finland, 1939–40, but did not achieve any success. Nevertheless, he was given overall command of the operations in Ukraine in July 1941, a position which meant that he had to coordinate the efforts of Southwest Front and South Front. Again Budjonny failed to shine and Stalin decided to replace him with Timoshenko in September. The aged marshal was not left without any share, as he received command of the Reserve Front when Zhukov departed to organize the defense of Leningrad, which was in more imminent danger.

* * *

The third and final front on the central sector was the West Front, commanded by Col. General Ivan Konev. He was originally a political officer, but he commanded the Nineteenth Army on June 22, 1941. It became embroiled in heavy fighting in the Vitebsk–Smolensk area. On September 12, he replaced Marshal Timoshenko as commander of the West Front and thus had to shoulder most of the responsibility for defending the capital. For this task, Konev had six armies.

Konev's armies were deployed from Yelnya northwards. He had placed all armies in the front and none in reserve, as large parts of the Reserve Front were deployed behind him. He decided to position his strongest formations on both sides of the main road from Smolensk to Moscow. Three armies were detailed to this sector, which was less than one-third of the front line he was responsible for.

The defense plan created by Konev and his staff, dated September 20, 1941, discussed six possible main directions from which the Germans might attack. According to a report from September 28, two of them were identified as particularly important. One of them was along the main road, where Konev had already placed a significant part of his resources. The second possible German attack direction was towards Rzhev, further north. Countermeasures were discussed in the report, but it was concluded that the reserves were already positioned to deal with the two threats that were regarded as most serious. One of the reserves was located just north of Dorogobush, near the highway, while the second was deployed in the Belyy area. The first consisted of four divisions and four brigades and the second comprised four divisions, two of them cavalry. These reserve groupings included the majority of Konev's 486 tanks.

The armies subordinated to the front also created defense plans and sent them to the staff of the higher command echelon for approval. Lt. General Konstantin Rokossovsky, who led the Sixteenth Army, stated in his memoirs that his staff worked on a detailed defense plan during the second half of September. It included plans for a scenario in which the enemy broke through, which described how a withdrawal and delaying actions would be conducted. Rokossovsky argued that the enemy's superior mobility and possession of the initiative would make such an operation complicated. The front commander, Konev, deleted this part of the Sixteenth Army's defense plan.

There were a number of weaknesses in the defenses along the three fronts. No notable forces were located at the important junctions of Orel, Rzhev and Vyazma. The division of responsibility between the West Front and the Reserve Front was a potential problem as it could result in delays when reserves had to be committed. The coordination of airpower was another weak point. The Soviet armed forces had not yet introduced the practise of coordinating ground and air forces when allocating an air army to a front, as would be common later during the war. For example, all air units in the Reserve Front were subordinated to the two frontline armies, while Eremenko had placed most of his air assets under the Thirteenth Army. The West Front had chosen to use its air units as a central resource. In addition to the airpower attached to the three fronts, there were considerable air formations that belonged to the strategic air force and the air defense of Moscow. No less than about 60% of all the Soviet aircraft that could fight in the area west of Moscow belonged to these latter two categories. There was no unified command and control system for the airpower.

The Soviet supply service had received its new command organization at front and army level in August 1941. It had not yet been honed into a smoothly working structure. Many commanders and other officers had recently received their appointments, like Nicolai Antipenko, who served as chief of the supply service at the Forty-Ninth Army staff.

Prior to the change in August, supply was either managed by the operations section of the staff, or someone was temporarily appointed to ensure that supply arrived at the combat units. Little thought had been devoted to the problem before the war broke out, as the supply services seemed to work fine during exercises. The strains of war proved much more severe, however, and the coordination was often insufficient.

Soon after the German invasion, Antipenko was recalled to Moscow from Lwow and the battles in the south. He was assigned the task of ensuring that the recently formed Thirtieth Army was properly supplied. He received a map showing the location of the army staff before leaving Moscow in mid-July. When he arrived in the Belyy area he could not find the staff in the location marked on the map. He continued along the road and met a group of soldiers running towards him. He halted his car and asked the men if they knew where he could find the staff. One of them answered, panting: "I don't know where the staff is, but on the other side of the small hill there are fascists." Antipenko did not hesitate. He promptly turned his car around.

* * *

Before the creation of the position of chief of the supply service, the war council of the Thirtieth Army suggested that Antipenko assume responsibility for the supply service of the army, as he already worked extensively with such issues. Antipenko set out to the front headquarters to report, but upon arrival he met Major General Vasiley Vinogradov, who was already on his way to the Thirtieth Army to become chief of the supply service. Antipenko was ordered to go back to Moscow. There he found an order telling him to go to Tbilisi in the Caucasus and become chief of staff of the border troops. As he did not want to leave the front, Antipenko managed to get the post of head of supply service at the Forty-Ninth Army. This army belonged to the Reserve Front and was positioned right behind the Thirtieth Army, which belonged to the West Front.

Planning a defensive operation can often be more challenging than planning an offensive operation. The attacker usually dictates the course of events and enjoys certain important advantages (advantages that probably contributed to the decision to attack in the first place). The defender has the difficult task of anticipating the enemy's moves, and he often has to cope with other disadvantages. At the end of September, the Soviet defenders did not suffer from numerical inferiority, but there were other weaknesses to consider, the most fundamental of which was the lower combat power of the Soviet units, which resulted from inferior tactics, training and junior leadership.

At the time, the condition of Soviet combat units varied considerably. Some units were fresh, but had received little training. Other formations were seriously depleted after costly battles. It is worthwhile examining the particular difficulties faced by a few units to see the variety and scale of the problems facing the Red Army.

The rifle divisions formed the backbone of the Soviet army. A very large portion of Soviet manpower was allotted to the rifle divisions; there were a great number of them, and at the beginning of the war their combined personnel strength was considerable. The 242nd Rifle Division was one of 82 divisions detailed for the defense of Moscow. It was located on the West Front sector, attached to the Thirtieth Army. The 242nd Rifle Division had begun to form in the Kalinin area on June 27, less than a week after the initial German onslaught. Just two weeks later, the 242nd Division became attached to the Thirtieth Army as a reserve division, which demonstrates the gravity of the situation. One of the measures used to replace the Red Army's catastrophic casualties was to use personnel from the NKVD's border troops to form rifle divisions. Approximately 1,500 officers and men from the NKVD were placed in fifteen rifle divisions created soon after the German attack.

Captain David Dragunsky was appointed chief of staff of the 242nd Rifle Division just before the Germans launched their attack on Moscow. When war broke out, he was a tank officer attending a course at the Frunze Academy in Moscow, but on June 22 itself, he happened to be near Bialystok in Byelorussia on a field exercise. Dragunsky and his comrades were ordered to return to Moscow as soon as possible. They left Bialystok burning behind them and travelled through Minsk and Smolensk to Moscow.

Many of the course attendees, including Dragunsky, were eager to be sent to the front, but they had to wait. Instead they could study a map at the large entrance hall of the Frunze Academy, where the front line was indicated. Red flags represented Soviet units and blue marked hostile forces. The daily changes indicated alarming enemy progress and Dragunsky had to force himself to concentrate on the course, instead of being distracted by the ominous developments at the front.

Dragunsky could not avoid noting that the training he was undergoing emphasized offensive action. This was in line with the Red Army field manual, but he began to observe an increasing focus on defense.

Finally Dragunsky's name was on the list of officers being dispatched to the front. He and the three other tank officers listed were instructed to go to Rzhev, where a new tank division, the 110th, was forming. The departure proved more complicated than expected, as the bureaucracy did not loosen its grip despite the war. Dragunsky and the other officers first had to get twenty signatures before they could report to the commander of the academy and start preparing for their voyage.

When the four officers arrived at the Rzhev area, they looked for a place to rest in a pine forest, where the 110th Tank Division staff was located. They were received by Colonel Chernov, the division commander, who informed them that the division was organizing an independent tank battalion to be sent to the front. Dragunsky's comrade, Major Grigoriev, who had been preliminarily appointed to command a regiment, was asked to suggest a commander for the battalion that was being created. Grigoriev recommended Lieutenant Dragunsky, as he already had some combat experience. He had fought with light T-26 tanks in the Far East.

The battalion Dragunsky was to command had a plethora of tank models, including old T-26s and BT-5s, but also brand new KVs and T-34s. It was ordered to march to Belyy and from there proceed to the 242nd Rifle Division. Upon arrival, the battalion was enthusiastically welcomed by Major General Kovalenko of the 242nd Rifle Division, who was extremely happy to receive tanks as reinforcement. To his great joy, Dragunsky was pleased to find that he knew the chief of staff of the division, Lt. Coonell Viktor Glebov, whom he had met at the Frunze Academy.

There was no time to rest for Dragunsky. His battalion was to immediately attack, together with a rifle battalion. Inadequate radio communications forced Dragunsky to rely on liaison officers bringing him attack orders. Time dragged as he and his battalion waited in their positions, ready to launch the attack. Artillery fire and bursting bombs could be heard on both sides of their attack sector as they waited for the liaison officer to show up. Finally a dented armored car arrived and the liaison officer handed over the attack order. During Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, the officer would have been riding a horse, but little else had changed, which says something about the shortcomings of Soviet military communications at this early stage of the war. After receiving the order to attack, Dragunsky's battalion set out for its baptism of fire, but the results were disappointing. Ten tanks were knocked out and more than 20 soldiers were killed or wounded.

Dragunsky's tank battalion remained attached to the 242nd Rifle Division as it participated in battles in the Smolensk area during August. Eventually all the battalion's tanks were lost. Surviving crews fought as infantry after their tanks had been knocked out, until early September when the remnants of the battalion were ordered to the Ural. The 242nd Rifle Division also suffered heavy losses, including the commander Kovalenko, who was badly wounded. The chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Glebov, replaced him.


Excerpted from The Drive on Moscow 1941 by Niklas Zetterling, Anders Frankson. Copyright © 2012 Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Niklas Zetterling is a researcher at the Swedish Defense College. Along with Anders Frankson he has previously written Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis and The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944. Both authors currently live in Sweden.     

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