Monday, September 26, 2011

The Battle of Kiev - September 1941

13th Panzer Division, 1st Panzer Group, Army Group South, Summer 1941

Seventy years ago today the massive encirclement operation known as the battle of Kiev was declared over by the German High Command. The success was deemed the greatest defeat of its kind in history with the Wehrmacht taking 665,000 Red Army prisoners, although Soviet sources give a smaller number. The Deutschewochenschau number 577 of 24 September 1941 opened with a dedication to Generaloberst Ritter von Schobert - commander of the 11th Army - who had died a "hero's death" (den Heldentod fand) when his reconnaissance plane landed in a Soviet minefield earlier that same month. The music playing in the background to the report provides an example of the attitude the Nazis had towards sacrifice at this point in the war. It was assumed that there would be significant losses given the stakes involved and the willingness to self-sacrifice (Opferbereitschaft) of the soldiers from the highest to the lowest ranks was expected since the decisions made and the successes achieved would mark the next phase/epoch of not only the history of Germany, but the entire world. Through this unprecedented level of destruction, the participants in this crusade were in effect making a new world.

The Kiev operation is interesting for several reasons in addition to its very scale. For maps look here for detailed maps and here for a general map.

Stalin had thought an offensive at this late date in the season would not come in the south, but towards Moscow, which he knew from his spies in Berlin and elsewhere was the prime German goal. General Zhukov was in fact sacked for suggesting that Kiev would have to be surrendered. At the end of July with the German Army Group Center stalled to the front of Smolensk, Zhukov saw the threat to the south and recommended a retreat across the Dnepr. Stalin took this as a challenge to his strategic leadership and had Zhukov replaced with Marshall B.M. Shaposhnikov whom Stalin considered politically reliable and unlikely to disagree with his views. Zhukov was given command of the Reserve Front facing the German bridgehead at Yelnia to the front of Moscow, where his successes there were to pay later dividends.

So, first we have the unwillingness of the Soviets to retreat, but if the main goal was Moscow, why turn half the Panzer strength of Army Group Center south into the Ukraine instead of northeast towards Moscow? Why was there this diversion of strength which allowed for the massive encirclement of the Kiev pocket?

To answer that question we need to go back to the planning stages for the campaign which had started at the end of 1940. A series of competing plans were drawn up, and while there was general agreement as to the main emphasis on Moscow, there were those who felt that either Leningrad in the north, or the Ukraine should be secured first. Hitler's own variant envisioned a flank strategy focused on Leningrad. In December 1940, a General Staff Kriegsspiel or war-game was conducted by General von Paulus (who would later go into captivity with the remnants of his 6th Army at Stalingrad). The results were quite interesting and contrary to the very optimistic projections coming from the Army High Command (OKH), the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW) and the Luftwaffe (OKL).

Based on his war-game, Paulus concluded that: First, the resources at German disposal were barely enough to advance to Moscow and reaching the Archangel-Volga River line were beyond their capabilities. Second the spaces and time involved did not allow for the Blitzkrieg approach which had been used effectively against both Poland and France. The Panzers could advance, but at such a speed that the following infantry would be left far behind. Also the Luftwaffe would not be able to displace forward as quickly as in the past leaving the Panzers with limited air support the further they advanced. Third and finally, supply would be difficult once the advance got beyond the Dnepr-Dvina line. Constructing new supply areas, relaying European gauge rail lines not to mention repairing what had been destroyed would take months. It should be noted that the war-games included certain optimistic assumptions some of which later proved unfounded. The Germans assumed superiority in tanks, artillery, signals equipment and aircraft, and assumed that their infantry divisions enjoyed a 1/3 superiority in terms of heavy weapons over Soviet infantry division equivalents.

In spite of the war-game's conclusions, General Halder of the OKH believed the fighting quality of the Red Army to be so low, that he assumed that the campaign would be over by the onset of winter. At the same time Halder was focused on Moscow as the main aim of the campaign and thought it possible to capture the capitol during the 1941 campaign.

The OKW under General Jodl were convinced of the importance of Moscow, but thought that the northern flank, the area between Leningrad and Moscow would have to be cleared before an advance on Moscow could commence. Halder was able to convince Jodl of the soundness of his views, but given the influence of Hermann Göring and the Luftwaffe who were pressuring Hitler to capture the Ukraine and the Crimea as well, Halder was having difficulties. Success it seemed had made far too much possible, that is assuming that the Red Army was on the edge of collapse . . .

Reichsmarschall Göring is seen today as simply a drug-addicted buffoon, but in 1941 he enjoyed a relatively high level of prestige in the Nazi hierarchy. It is interesting to note that in the Wochenschau edition linked above, he receives a prominent place in the presentation. In the summer of 1941 Göring was seen as an expert in Blitzkrieg warfare, due to the Luftwaffe component of the system, and considered by many to have a better grasp of the subject than the reactionary generals like Halder of the General Staff.

Thus we see Göring, not Halder or even Jodl, playing a key role in strategic direction in the summer of 1941. It was also at this time that he promised Hitler that the Luftwaffe would be able to "destroy Leningrad from the air". So it became policy with a memo issued by Hitler on 22 August. This is important to note: As the Panzers were moving south towards Kiev, the Luftwaffe was moving north to support Army Group North's attack on Leningrad.

The final indignity for Halder was performed by General Guderian, who in a private discussion with Hitler on 23 August confirmed that Moscow should be the main goal, but that also he be allowed to retain control of his entire 2nd Panzer Group for the Kiev operation. Guderian advanced due south to close the pocket with the 1st Panzer Group advancing north. Thus Guderian retained control of his formation, but this allowed Zhukov to grind up a German Army Corps at Yelnia, which would have could have been better used on the later advance on Moscow.

Kiev was a great victory, which opened the door to the Ukraine, but it also saved Moscow since the Germans would be unable to shift the 2nd Panzer Group north in time, not to mention the losses/wear and tear which could not be replaced. Instead of smashing the forces to the immediate front of Army Group Center with a fall offensive and then digging in for the winter, the Germans risked it all to take Moscow as the weather turned cold, with an army that had been equipped to win before the snows fell . . .


  1. So the question that comes to me is a similar one to my reaction to the Schlieffen Plan; given the spatial and logistical challenge, was the objective of Barbarossa (or Schlieffen) ever really attainable?

    And the answer seems to be, as your post suggests, no. That to have even a hope of reaching the planned objectives required a cascading series of optimistic - overoptimistic - outcomes not practical in real terms.

    The space was just to vast and the real pace of movement too slow. Regardless of the competence of the defenders.

    Mind you, it does seem that OKH helped things along by making some grand tactical blunders...but, then, Stalin seems to be trying to HELP them out by making his own.

    But the overall plan just seems un-doable when not viewed through Victory Disease beer goggles...

  2. Germany was doomed the moment they started the war, it guaranteed an eventual show-down with Russia and Germany didn't have the manpower, resources or industry to defeat the sheer numbers and distances of the USSR.

    I'm reading The Blitzkrieg Legend by Karl-Heinz Frieser who says the vast the bulk of the German senior officer corp was very doubtful of the Manstein/Guderian plan of the 'sickle-cut' via the Ardennes. He believes it succeeded in part because Guderian (and other like-minded Panzer generals) blatantly ignored the directives and orders of their conservative minded superiors and plunged westward to the coast based on their personal beliefs. That it succeeded as they planned (due to their understanding of the panzer forces and the lethargy of the Allied command structure)is the reason they went on to have successful (if you can use that term in the misery that was WW2) careers versus cleaning up horse poo in a stable outside Heidelberg.

    It was only after the campaign in the west that Halder and others began to believe in the capabilities of mobile warfare. And then they drunkenly over-estimated it's capabilities in the face of the Russian bear.

  3. I think the southern campaign is defensible. What doesn't work is a northern campaign at the same time. Volgograd is a terrific intermediate prize. Not only do you really piss a maniac off (and destroy an army), you gain a static point where you can consolidate forces and make a push towards Moscow next year. If they come after you first, you're on the defense, with the inherent advantages accruing thereto.

    Ukraine for food, the Caucasus for oil. Both were needed by Germany. None of that in Moscow. Oh, and lots of folks in the south weren't exactly lovers of the USSR and likely wouldn't mind accommodating invaders. The Germans knew how to deal with those who wouldn't.

    True, the book says slay the snake by severing the head first. But the USSR was so vast and had so many ethnic and cultural differences within its borders that an incremental approach involving swallowing major strategic chunks first and leaving the head for later might have worked. We do know how that focusing on the head and still trying for those other chunks worked out, don't we?

  4. Seydlitz – “In the summer of 1941 Göring was seen as an expert in Blitzkrieg warfare, due to the Luftwaffe component of the system, and considered by many to have a better grasp of the subject than the reactionary generals like Halder of the General Staff.

    Easy to see why. In addition to the Stukas that directly supported Panzers, his Luftwaffe also built and controlled the paratroopers, and the 88s. No large airborne drops were done in Barbarossa, however I believe a Luftwaffe armored airborne regiment participated at Kiev. Also the 50+ flak battalions attached to Heer units going up against the Soviets were Luftwaffe. Those Air Force AA gunners became fair antitank gunners.

    Ranger Jim -

    Goering is a prime example IMHO of a guy with lots of combat experience who never should have been made a general. His battlefield creds included the Iron Cross, and Prussia’s highest military medal the Blue Max. He was an Ace who personally shot down 22 Allied aircraft and ended up commanding von Richthofen’s flying circus. You would think he would have made a great Luftwaffe Commander. Yet he failed miserably and ended up a schemer, a political general, what we here have termed a perfumed prince. As head of the Luftwaffe he was more interested in haute cuisine and high fashion than high strategy.

  5. Gentlemen-

    Thanks for the interesting comments.

    The margin for success against the USSR was very narrow and the Wehrmacht could not knock Russia out in one campaign, but seizing the Ukraine in 1941 and advancing to within 200 kilometers of Moscow, in good defensive positions for the winter . . . This followed by a new campaign to take Moscow in 1942. Moscow was the hub of the Soviet state, would it have survived its loss? Also after 1942 the removed/new factories in the Urals would be in full production. Advancing to the Volga as Publius mentions is a tempting goal, but will it knock out Stalin's government?

    There's that on the one side, a very slim margin of success, but on the other we have Clausewitz telling us that Russia cannot be defeated by conventional means, that is Lenin in a sealed train rather than 3,000,000 Wehrmacht soldiers . . .

    I've read Frieser's book and consider his argument convincing. I used "The Blitzkrieg Legend" as one of my source's for my thread on Fall Gelb.

    What doomed Germany in 1941 was that they did not have a real strategy (the application of various sources of power to achieve a dynamic greater than the sum of the individual elements) but relied solely on brutal force and "personality" (bogus notions of racial superiority). In the end the Russians simply could generate more force, but then they had a strategy as well . . .

  6. mike-

    The Luftwaffe as the darings of the Propaganda Ministry comes out in the Wochenschau newsreels as well . . . I think Göring's prestige takes a fatal hit the next year with the failure of his boast to supply Stalingrad from the air . . .

  7. Mike,
    Contrast G to Smiling Alfred. Kesselring was Luftwaffe.
    Political guys make poor combat leaders. Examples abound although there were some exceptions in the German team. Deitrich comes to mind.
    Nothing works better than solid training and troop experience.
    Leon and Publius,
    In the Ukraine the Germans threw away opportunity as the population was ready to support the German occupation until the Germans destroyed this willingness. Also the treatment of POW's stiffened Russian tactical stiffness.
    If there was ever a place for hearts and minds it was the Ukraine and the Germans simply blew it. One must wonder how many Rusn pow's would've crossed over to the German side IF THEY HAD NOT BEEN STARVED to death.
    Here i go-- doesn't all the German mistakes sorta remind one of the PWOT???!Mistaken/false assumptions and pie in the sky planning.
    Doesn't the pwot seem a piss ant event compared to the Ostfront? Big war -little war , it's all the same and the principles always apply. This is a lead in for Seydlitz to refer to Karl C.

  8. To all,
    Von Paulus didn't need to war game this critter. All his conclusions were as simple as hell.
    Then as now we fail to go against the flow of common knowledge and mystical thinking.

  9. Seydlitz,
    Didn't G take a hit after Dunkirk and the Battle for Britain, the air version.?

  10. I am on thin ice, because the biography of Goering I read was at least 30 years ago, AND MY memory is not a strong suit. It was by a respected American biographer who pointed out the enigmatic behavior of Goering, who had a rather high IQ, as was learned at Nuremburg, where all the accused were tested and found, counter to Allied propaganda hopes, to be quite bright. In fact, they were retested in hopes that the first go round was wrong, which it wasn't.

    Anyway, the author posited that Goering's withdrawal into drugs was a coping mechanism resulting from the conflict between his solemn oath to Hitler and Goering's realization that the man was morally bankrupt and on a collision course with disaster. One example given was that Goering apparently was directly in charge of major transportation aspects of "The Final Solution", but never carried that out with vigor and slowly transferred that off to more willing and enthusiastic players in the Nazi Party.

    What the author hypothesized was that Goering was bound to his oath to Hitler years before, rendering him unable to raise a hand against Hitler, and thus simply did less and less to further Hitler's objectives. He didn't paint Goering as any moral or ethical giant, but as simply one who was early to realize what was going on and simply fiddled while Berlin burned, so to speak.

    The author presented evidence for a fairly convincing argument. Goering's behavior at Nuremburg was not that of a drug addled buffoon, by any means. On several occasions, he tripped up the Allied prosecutors, debunking supposed evidence of his acts and whereabouts, using Allied information to do so.

    It was a very interesting book, and I wish I could remember the author.

  11. l,
    To my mind G was obe after the 2 events i listed.
    H was delusional to listen to G's delusions.

  12. Al-

    "Goering's behavior at Nuremburg was not that of a drug addled buffoon, by any means. On several occasions, he tripped up the Allied prosecutors, debunking supposed evidence of his acts and whereabouts, using Allied information to do so."

    He wasn't because he had to dry out after he was captured. I remember reading where one of the Nazi's at Nürmberg commented that if only Göring had been so clear-headed during the war . .

    To give some background on Göring I came across this:

    MR. JUSTICE JACKSON: Well, tell us what there is about General Galland's conversation with Goring, as far as you know it.

    SPEER: It was at the Fuhrer's headquarters in East Prussia in front of Goring's train. Galland had reported to Hitler that enemy fighter planes were already escorting bomber squadrons as far as Liege and that it was to be expected that in the future the bomber units would travel still farther from their bases escorted by fighters. After a discussion with Hitler on the military situation Goring upbraided Galland and told him with some excitement that this could not possibly be true, that the fighters could not go as far as Liege. He said that from his experience as an old fighter pilot he knew this perfectly well. Thereupon Galland replied that the fighters were being shot down, and were lying on the ground near Liege. Goring would not believe this was true. Galland was an outspoken man who told Goring his opinion quite clearly and refused to allow Goring's excitement to influence him. Finally Goring, as Supreme Commander of the Air Force, expressly forbade Galland to make any further reports on this matter. It was impossible, he said, that enemy fighters could penetrate so deeply in the direction of Germany, and so he ordered him to accept that as being true. I continued to discuss the matter afterward with Galland and Galland was actually later relieved by Goring of his duties as Commanding General of Fighters. Up to this time Galland had been in charge of all the fighter units in Germany. He was the general in charge of all the fighters within the High Command of the Air Force.

    THE PRESIDENT: What is the date of that?

    MR. JUSTICE JACKSON: I was going to ask.

    SPEER: It must have been toward the end of 1943.


  13. Jim - There were numerous peoples ready to give Stalin and the Russians a swift kick if given the opportunity. However the racial prejudices of the Nazi regime guaranteed the Baltics, the Ukrainians and others would be treated horribly. Heck, there were probably Russians who'd have been willing to rise up against Stalin if treated well. In the end I guess they all decided that if they were going to be murdered by either Stalin or Hitler, they preferred it be the home team.

  14. I think one of the most critical factors leading to the German decision to go into Russia was their misinterpretation of the political sturdiness of the Soviets. They'd seen the Poles, Czechs, British, French and the Low Country governments fold when they were pushed politically, militarily, or both. And their experience with the Tsarist Russians in WW1 was one of incompetence and collapse.

    It was their misfortune to run into the only other WW2 leader more ruthless and indifferent to the deaths of his people than Hitler.

    Stalin had a saying; "It takes a brave man NOT to be a hero in my army".

    1. What an incredibly ignorant view of history.

  15. Certainly Goering was not much of an administrator. According to Vajda, "German Aircraft Production: 1933-1945," Goering "would work only occasionally and had little knowledge of economic, strategic or technical matters..." The Ju-88, dive and medium bomber underscored the problems with the RLM -- aircraft that were already on the production lines between 1938 and 1940 were subjected to 50,000 production changes.

  16. Al - Leonard Mosley: The Reich Marshall???

    Jim - It was 'Uncle Albert' not Alfred. Not sure why you like his record?? Sure, he kicked our butts at Anzio and Cassino, but was that his genius or Mark Clark's fork-ups? In the 30s as Luftwaffe CofS he only pushed acquisition of tactical CAS aircraft and paratroopers to support ground ops and completely disregarded strategic air. He was also responsible along with Goering and Sperrle for Luftwaffe failures in the Battle of Britain. In Russia, supporting Army Group Center he misread the Soviet Air Forces and air defense around Moscow.

  17. jim-

    Göring did take a hit after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britian, but with the successes of the summer and fall of 1941, not to mention Crete in April, the Luftwaffe looked formidable indeed. Which allowed him to make a claim like he did concerning Leningrad.

  18. Mike- Not Mosley, which I did read, and also gave some insights into the enigma of Goering. The Mosley book is what led me to read the other, as it was the first treatment of Goering that wasn't seriously skewed by post war anti-Nazi bias. May have been a book profiling a couple of key generals in WWII, showing strengths and weaknesses that were not generally discussed elsewhere. Been a long time, and while it and Mosley stayed on my shelves for occasional reference until I moved here, it was donated somewhere back then.

    While Goering never openly disobeyed Hitler, there are numerous instances where he disagreed, such as in foreign policy. Goering was supported of a much smaller geographic "Reich", closer to pre WWI situation, and was also known t have opposed the invasion of Poland in '39, as he was convinced Chamberlain would declare war as a result. He was equally tepid over the "Battle of Britain", still hoping that the two nations could co-exist. The Russian campaign was also seen as wrong headed by him. I'm not saying the man had any redeeming merits, just saying he may be taking hits for reasons that do not accurately describe his underlying motives. He was an enigma and a paradox.

    As to testimony by the accused at Nuremberg, much was tainted by attempts at self preservation at the expense of other accused. I think it was Mosley who wrote that once Goering realized that the Allies would not accept surrendering German generals as in "days of old", he knew the outcome of the tribunal was pre-ordained. There is sufficient documentation that FDR and Stalin wanted executions of Nazis following the War:

    According to the minutes of a Roosevelt-Stalin meeting during the Yalta Conference, on February 4, 1945, at the Livadia Palace, President Roosevelt "said that he had been very much struck by the extent of German destruction in the Crimea and therefore he was more bloodthirsty in regard to the Germans than he had been a year ago, and he hoped that Marshal Stalin would again propose a toast to the execution of 50,000 officers of the German Army."

    In the early 60's, I had the pleasure of meeting a then retired federal judge (sadly, his name escapes me) that FDR had approached in '43 or '44 to accept a commission as a Naval Reserve JAG Captain, "in case we need your services". He accepted, but when told later that FDR wanted him to serve on the inevitable tribunals, he declined, only because it did not appear to be an issue of legal justice, but "sealing the political victory". Instead, he offered to serve at sea to prove he was in support of the Allied cause, or as a defense counsel, but the tribunals' implied objectives made him leery of serving as a judge or prosecutor. He never was called to active duty.

    The judge felt that his view was indeed borne out to be correct, especially in the case of Nuremburg. He knew Henry Morganthau, and found the Morganthau Plan distasteful, if not a "Crime Against Humanity", at least in Morganthau's intent. As the judge commented, while the Nuremberg Tribunals were underway, Morganthau's plan, in the form of JCS 1067, was committing pure barbarity against the German populace. (Now you have an insight into where my awareness of and thinking on the first two years of the Occupation originated.)

    Sorry to have taken us off track.

  19. Aviator,
    My atty Blucher Lines is the son of a CPT.Lines who worked for Jaworsky at Nuremburg. I try to get him to write his father's story.
    Back to G. I think Milch may have been the key to the Luftwaffe.
    Do you mean Stalingrad??

  20. jim-

    Very good point about the Germans being "conquerors" rather than "liberators" in the Ukraine. I wonder how many German divisions that mistake "neutralized". Same situation in Belorus.

  21. Jim-

    No, we're talking 1941, Leningrad as in my post. Göring boasted that the city could be destroyed from the air.

  22. IMHO - In Leningrad Goering was thinking that they could repeat how Kesselring bombed Warsaw into submission in September of 39, and Rotterdam in May of 40 (after the city had already capitulated), and what he tried to do in London starting in September of 40. How poor old Uncle Albert escaped the noose is beyond me, the Allies must have been feeling sorry for Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin.

    Seydlitz: How do you get the umlaut - is there a special key combo for that??

  23. mike-

    My keyboard is auf Deutsch, I even have an "ß" . . .

  24. Completely off topic:

    Μινς ισ Ελλενικι and driving me crazy, as the keyboard layout is also different, and my limited touch typing often ends up touching a different key than what I remember was in a given position! Usually buy replacement laptops in the US and carry them back from a visit or have a friend "mule" it here. However, a spilled cup of coffee on a keyboard left me without a functioning laptop, and the next opportunity to "import" one isn't until March.

    So, I just have to adjust, slowly, το α Γρεεκ Κευβοαρδ.

  25. It's jüst being överseäs I güeß, I göt üsed tö a Germän keyböärd bäck in the bäd öle däys, and häve häd öne ever since.

  26. . . . oh yea that, and laptops are a lot cheaper in Germany than they are in Portugal . . .

  27. Mike,
    How did Von Braun escape any responsibility for his use of slave labor?
    It was all rather loosely applied, as there were good and bad nazis. Or so it seems.

  28. I'd hazard a guess that his knowledge of rockets was his "get out of jail" card. Weren't a lot of die-hard nazi's swept under the carpet in exchange for working with the west against the Soviets?

  29. Ranger - Our Secretary of State let him and some other Peenemunde boys into the states in June 45. But the State Dept was probably bamboozled by the Army (or by OSS?) who doctored up their records to show no NAZI affiliation.

    Leon - At the time (after VE day but before VJ day) it was thought that their efforts could contribute to the defeat of Japan. Only later (after the Iron Curtain clamped down on eastern Europe) was their work thought valuable against Stalin. But in any case the same went for the ex-Nazis who ended up working for the Soviet rocket program. There were some ex-NAZIs scrubbed clean and reborn as Communists in East Germany also.

  30. Leon-

    Klaus Barbie?


    Yes, it happened in the GDR as well, specifically a couple of generals who were instrumental in the establishment of the Nationale Volksarmee . . .

  31. Seydlitz:

    I wonder if General Gehlen(sp?) had anything to do with sweet-talking the CIC and German High Commissioner John McCloy to not send Barbie to France back in 1950. Perhaps not, Barbie was SD while Gehlen had been Abwehr I believe. McCloy was also the guy that pardoned Krupp and several other NAZI industrialists. Turns out he also commuted the death sentence of a Einsatzgruppe Sondercommando Colonel who participated in the murder of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and mental cases in Estonia and Latvia. That colonel happened to be the son of an IG Farben executive that he(McCloy) represented in America before the war.

    Klaus Barbie brings up Josef Mengele. Not that Dr Death had any American help. But one of today's news stories regarding the genocide in German SW Africa back in 1904 relates. Turns out Mengele studied medicine at the University of Berlin under Eugen Fischer who performed medical experimentation including deliberate infection with smallpox and typhus on captured Hereros, and used their skulls for his racial theories.

    Eugen Fischer,