The Soviet Offensive Bogs Down

The Soviet winter offensive in the south began on 18 January, 1942. Southwest Front’s 6th and 57th Armies attacked the Germans on a line between Balakleya and Slavyansk advancing 26 kilometers. The 37th Army made advances south of Slavyansk but were unable to penetrate the German defenses. 1st and 5th Cavalry assisted 57th Army’s advance to take Barvenkovo on 24 January. 6th Army turned north toward Kharkov.

An ad hoc German unit, ‘Mackensen’ Group, blocked the Soviet 57th Army north of Krasnoarmeyskoye. 6th, 57th, and 9th Armies with the assistance of a Cavalry Corps held a salient at Balakleya, Lozovanya, and Slavyansk 88 kilometers deep and 113 kilometers across. The attempt to defeat the Germans in the Donbass failed.

Against Army Group North the 2nd Shock Army penetrated the German line moving toward Lyuban. This fighting continued through February. The salient gained there could not be extended or widened. Ultimately, the Germans surrounded Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army in March.

Returning to Army Group Center the Soviet 5th and 33rd Armies liberated Ruza, Mozhaysk, and Vereya on 20 January while the paratroops dropped on Zhelanye straddled the enemy routes to the rear. The Soviet 33rd Army, assisted by cavalry blocked the Warsaw road on 27 January striking for Vyazma, but German forces restored their line along the Ugra River. This success cut off Soviet forces near Zhelanye. They continued to fight alongside the partisans until April.

Shortage of shells prohibited an artillery offensive on 14 February. STAVKA’s directive of 20 March insisted on a more energetic prosecution of the German-held Rzhev, Gzhatsk, Vyazma triangle. The spring thaw finally forced STAVKA to accept a defensive posture. It also allowed the Germans to attack the concentration of partisans near Zhelanye inflicting severe casualties on them.

The winter offensive smashed the myth of the invincibility of the German Army. German losses included 500,000 men, 1,300 tanks, 2,500 guns and 15,000 assorted vehicles.

For the Soviets, the block on the German advance allowed the completion of the transfer of most of Soviet industry to the east and production began ramping up.

By 1 May Hitler’s plans for the Soviet Union solidified. He focused on the southern sector. Donbas would be removed from the Soviet military/economic balance. Transportation on the Volga would be cut off. He intended a siege on oil supplies and a conquest of Stalingrad as a hold on the Soviet military forces. The taking of the Caucasus oilfields would draw Turkey into the war.

Additionally, psychological operations ensured Stalin believed the capture of Moscow remained of high importance in German strategy.

For the summer offensive the Soviet Army possessed 5,500,000 men, 5,000 tanks, 41,000 guns and 2,500 combat aircraft.

The Germans possessed 217 divisions, and 20 brigades at 89 to 90% strength, and three air fleets. This force consisted of 6,200,000 men, 57,000 guns, 3,200 tanks and assault guns, 3,400 combat aircraft, 300 surface ships, and 44 submarines.

The next phase of the battle was about to begin.

Sources: “The Russian Recovery,” John Erickson, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

“The Moscow Counterblow,” Marshal Zhukov, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

“The Kharkov Offensives,” Colonel Vasili Morozov, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

All-Out Offensive on All Fronts

At a meeting of STAVKA on 5 January, 1942, Stalin called for an “all-out offensive” against the Germans. The proposal consisted of attacks by all nine fronts against all three German army groups.

In the north the objective was the freeing of Leningrad from encirclement. In the center Stalin wanted liberty for the Donbas region. In the south an assault to retake the Crimea.

General Zhukov, honored as the savior of Moscow, and Voznesensky objected based on the weakened condition of the Soviet Army. With the support of Timoshenko, Beria, and Malenkov, Stalin overrode the objections.

The attacks started on 7 January. Northwest Front struck north from south of Lake Ilmen but failed to take Staraya Russa. On 13 January the Volkov Front on the Volkov River found itself unable to move against the Germans. Lack of ammunition, food, and fuel prevented the troops from passing into and through Lyuban.

On 9 January 3rd and 4th Shock Armies cut south behind Army Group Center. Short of food, the troops knew the only way to succeed was to take the German supply dump at Toropets.

Kalinin Front worked to surround the German IX Army near Sychevka while cavalry attacked to surround German forces in Rzhev. General Zhukov’s forces moved through the ‘Kaluga Gap’ and attacked north toward Vyazma to surround Sukinichi.

The Luftwaffe flew in supplies for seven German divisions surrounded in Demyansk.

Fifteen hundred Soviet paratroops were dropped on Zhelanye and operated behind German lines with the assistance of partisans.

The less than spectacular results of these operations prompted Stalin to take command. He transferred the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies to the Kalinin Front. First Shock Army was detached from Kalinin Front and assigned to Northwest Front. He then directed 16th Army detached from Zhukov’s forces and sent to Bryansk Front to take Sukhinichi.

Govin’s spearheads were on the road to Minsk when Army Group Center, itself nearly surrounded, cut off those forces near Vyazma.

Casualties during this offensive were high. By late January Kalinin Front had 35 tanks remaining. High Command Reserve Artillery had only six guns. Rifle divisions had 3,000 to 3,700 soldiers each. 13th Army, originally assigned 11,500 soldiers, had been reduced to the size of a division. Tank brigades possessed 15 to 20 tanks, and artillery regiments had 12 guns.

Air support for ground forces vanished as the front moved out of the range of fighters.

General Model surrounded the Soviet 39th and 29th Armies at Rzhev.

In Army Group South’s area General Timoshenko crossed the Donets River and drove a wedge 97 kilometers deep into the German positions near Izyum.

In the Crimea Soviet troops crossed from the Kerch Peninsula and moved as far west as Feodosiya before the Germans forced them to a stop.

Sources: “The Russian Recovery,” John Erickson, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

“The Moscow Counterblow,” Marshal Zhukov, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Co, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

The Soviet Riposte

The Germans entered the Moscow suburbs on 5 December, 1941, as the Soviets went on the offensive. But the Soviets had suffered greater losses in six months than any army in history. Stalin commanded an attack against a German Army unprepared for the Russian winter.

With the occupation of Minsk and Riga, with Moscow nearly surrounded and factories moving east, the Soviet Union saw a drop in the production of war materials. Electric generation stations shut down. Coal supplies were lost. Kharkov’s production of tanks stopped. Aircraft production was reduced from July’s output of 2,000 to 627 in November. Leningrad, though surrounded, continued production of guns and ammunition and sent the products to Moscow by air.

Losses among Soviet fighting units reduced their effectiveness. The population, fleeing German occupation, reduced available manpower for the military. The Army resorted to conscription of the available population. Barely trained recruits received a few lectures on warfare and were thrown into the front line against accomplished German adversaries. Experienced soldiers from the far eastern Kwantung Army traveled by train across Siberia into the west.

Stalin called General Zhukov to ask if he felt Moscow could be held.

Severe frost and deep snow enveloped central Russia, but the Soviet troops possessed high morale.

On 2 December the 65th Ground Attack Air Regiment destroyed 100 vehicles near Solnechnogorsk. That night the air force of Moscow Military Air District destroyed 20 enemy aircraft on the ground near Klin.

Kalinin Front launched their attack 5 December and on 6 December penetrated the German defenses south of Kalinin. Solnechnogorsk was entered on the evening of 9 December and the Germans were driven out by the 12th. Kryukovo was taken on 8 December. Klin was taken on the 15th.

Guderian’s II Panzer Army retreated from Tula beginning on 3 December intending to stand at Venev. However, on 6 December II Panzer Army’s flank at Mikhailov was attacked and the Germans fell back from Venev and Mikhailov toward Uzlovaya, Bogoroditsk, and Sukhinichi.

On 9 December reconnaissance aircraft detected the German retreat. The Soviets advanced 130 kilometers. By 12 December the German flank forces had been defeated.

Soviet paratroops were dropped west of Teryayeva Sloboda on 15 December.

From 13 December to 24 December the Western Front moved their right wing to the Zubtsov—Gzkatsk line and the left wing to Polotnyany—Zavod-Kozelsk with the center on Mozhaysk—Maloyaroslavets.

All of this was accomplished with the assistance of the Air Defense Forces and the Long Range Air Force which attacked artillery positions, tank units, and command posts.

In the north the Kalinin front reached the area of Staritsa on 17 December.

By 1 January, 1942, the only front still moving was Western Front. The right wing met German resistance on the Lama and Ruza Rivers. The center, on the Ruza, Nara, and Oka Rivers struck toward Mozhaysk, Borovsk, and Maloyaroslavets, while the left wing pursued the enemy in the direction of Yukhnov, Mosalsk, and Kirov. A request for fresh forces to continue the pursuit of the Germans was refused.

Sources: “Battle for Moscow: The Russian View,” Colonel D. Proektor, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

“The Russian Recovery,” John Erickson. History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

“The Moscow Counterblow: The Russian View,” Marshal G. K. Zhukov, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973