Colonel-General Franz Halder had a pretty stormy relationship with his boss. Of course, if the guy who signed your checks was Adolf Hitler, you’d expect a few bumps between your yearly job reviews. But Halder was a pretty capable battlefield tactician regardless of his boss’ assessments. As he sat high above the bloodied plains of Russia watching his German armies slug it out with the Red Army, he voiced his concerns with mounting losses in men and equipment despite the incredible victories. The casualties needed to be reduced, he noted, “if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”
But so far, the wins just kept on coming. Last week, I touched on the German victories at Bryansk and Vyaz’ma, but I didn’t really talk about just how massive those wins were. Three Soviet Fronts had been brought to ruination by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre. Of the 1,250,000 men that began the battles, and estimated 250,000 made their escapes from the two encirclements. Which means a million Red Army soldiers were either killed or wounded. To try to offer even a bit of perspective, the U.S. lost a little more than 415,000 soldiers…in the entire war…every theater. Sixty-four Soviet divisions were destroyed. In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes that “the Soviet loss of 64 divisions at Vyaz’ma-Bryansk and in the surrounding operations would have taken a population of 32 million – one-sixth of the pre-war Soviet population – to replenish. It was a cataclysm.”
The situation would not immediately improve.
The Mozhaysk Defence Line was the Soviet Union’s “line in the sand”. Situated just 125 kilometers (80 miles) west of Moscow, it was defended by three complete Soviet Armies plus 10 additional divisions of the People’s Militia. If the Germans broke through, orders to begin the evacuation of Moscow would go into effect. The Germans covered the distance between Vyaz’ma and Mozhaysk Defence Line in a matter of days, breaching it on the October 15th and triggering the evacuations in the capital. On October 18, 1941, Mozhaysk itself (located 25 kms further east of the Defence Line) would fall to the Germans.
It should be emphasized that these victories were not coming easily for Halder, his fellow generals, and their men. German losses were extremely heavy, the lines of supply were now incredibly long (and prone to partisan attack), the soldiers and equipment were exhausted, and the weather was starting to turn.
But cooler weather didn’t cool down the Germans much. Despite their difficulties, the collapse of Moscow appeared to be right on schedule. Conditions would have to change, and soon, if Moscow was not destined to be overrun.
Recommended Reading: Absolute War