Posts Tagged ‘Army Group Centre’

Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff was a man with a mission.  But I suppose that, for a Colonel in the German Army, having “a mission” was pretty obvious, especially in the spring of 1943.  Hitler’s forces had just suffered devastating defeat along the Volga, and things were not going well in the African desert.  So there were plans to make, and troops to move, and battles to fight (and from this point on, mostly battles to lose).

But this specific mission was different.  For von Gersdorff, it was life-changing.  In fact, it was life-ending.

You see, von Gersdorff was a conspirator.  He was one of many involved in the numerous plots to assassinate Der Fuhrer.  Officially, he was an intelligence officer in the Abwehr and part of Army Group Center, having been transferred there for the start of Operation Barbarossa.  Army Group Center was commanded by another conspirator, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock.  One of von Bock’s officers was Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, yet another conspirator who happened to be von Gersdorff’s cousin…you now see how Gersdorff ended up where he did.

These men, who correctly believed that Hitler was leading the nation to humiliation and defeat, had put together several plans to either arrest or kill Adolf Hitler.  To this point, none of them had succeeded.

On March 21, 1943 (which happened to be Germany’s Memorial Day to those killed in WWI), they tried again.  Each year, the German leader attended a memorial service.  But rather than arrest him or – what was tried on other occasions – place a bomb where Hitler would be, it was decided to carry the bombs right to the man.  Von Gersdorff volunteered to a suicide mission.  He placed bombs, each with a ten-minute fuse, in his pockets.  During Hitler’s stroll among the memorials, von Gersdorff would get close and detonate the bombs.

It was a good plan, until he arrived at the museum.  He got near Hitler, started the fuses, and waited for the bang.  Unfortunately, the German dictator was in a tremendous hurry and stayed at the museum for just eight minutes before being whisked off.  With the opportunity gone, and not wishing to blow himself to smithereens for nothing, Von Gersdorff quickly excused himself to the restroom, where he worked feverishly and successfully defused the bombs.

Freiherr von Gersdorff escaped detection and arrest.  But even more miraculous than that, he was not implicated in the famous July 20 assassination plot, which nearly succeeded.  His role in that attempt was to hide the explosives that Count von Stauffenberg eventually carried in his briefcase.

One other interesting note about Col. von Gersdorff.  Less than one month after he successfully defused the bombs in his pockets, he discovered the remnants of the Russian massacres in the Katyn Forest.

Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler

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When Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, they did so with the goal of capturing beaches that would create serve as a “supply offload” point.  Of course, ultimate goal was to head east, free western Europe from Germany’s vise grip, and destroy Adolf Hitler’s regime.  What many of the boys running ashore that gray morning may not have known was that, hundreds and hundreds of miles to the east, the Red Army was planning a storm of its own, a complimentary assault to the west.  And it was scheduled to begin on June 22, 1944, exactly 3 years after the Germans began their conquest of Russia.

Much had changed on the Eastern Front in 3 years.  Moscow had been saved early on.  Stalingrad had been saved by a brilliant counteroffensive against General Paulus’ entrenched Sixth Army.  And Leningrad, after two-and-a-half years of siege, starvation, and suffering, was now back in Russian hands.

The Wehrmacht had been pushed back everywhere in the east, feeling the increasingly crushing weight of the vast Red Army that had finally gotten its act together, coupled with the overwhelming production capability possessed by the Soviet Union.  And the Wehrmacht was going to feel it again.

In the east, Germany fielded Army Group Centre with 1.2 million men in 63 divisions.  But in his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy gives the real score, and while it’s just a bunch of numbers, they boggle the mind.  “Facing them, the Russians assembled nearly 2.4 million in 168 divisions, 12 ‘corps’ – the tank formations equating to divisions – and 20 brigades.  For the first time they also had the newly formed First Polish Army – 4 divisions and 2 brigades.  The balance of forces was overwhelmingly in the Russians’ favour:  36,400 guns and mortars against 9,500; 5,200 tanks against 900; and 5,300 aircraft against 1,350.”

The Russians called it Operation Bagration.  It was the largest Allied land operation of the Second World War, and it began just two weeks after Operation Overlord and just one week after the largest ocean operation of the war (Operation Forager).

And just like Overlord (scheduled for June 5th), Bagration ended up being delayed a day.  But when the coiled spring was released, it let loose with the roar.  At 5:00am, the first shots of this massive counteroffensive were fired.  Every artillery piece along the front had been alloted roughly six tons of ammunition, and the rolling barrage they offered up to their German enemy was devastating.  It was followed up Katyusha rocket attacks, to which the Germans had been introduced at Stalingrad, and were terrifying in their randomness.  Probing attacks the previous day by company- and brigade-sized forces allowed the Russians to seek out German weaknesses.  In addition, an excellent deception campaign (much like the one waged on the Normandy coasts) had caused a lot of German armor to be moved away from the main attack.

So when the tanks of the Red Army smashed into the 450-mile front, they did so with a massive 7-to-1 advantage.  German resistance could do little but melt before the onslaught.  When Bagration ran its course in mid August (less than 8 weeks later), Army Group Centre had largely ceased to exist.  Total German losses are still unknown.  And the Russians had advanced more than 300 miles to Poland’s door.

After more than 3 years of occupation and brutal butchery, the Germans had been largely evicted from Red Army territory.

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On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans.  The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.

Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal.  Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions.  And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.

Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th,  linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape.  In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk.  Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th.  If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.

The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing.  What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%.  More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action.  It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse.  As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command.  The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.

Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down.  But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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Yesterday, the German army was standing at the edge of Moscow, with victory little more than a dozen miles away.  Yesterday, Army Group Centre had reached its goal, bloodied, exhausted, and stretched almost to the breaking point.  Yesterday, Adolf Hitler’s intelligence network said the Russians didn’t have enough left in the tank (nor enough tanks) to strike back.  Yesterday, warmth for the Wehrmacht and fuel for the Panzers, along with a little rest, were all that was required to surround the Soviet capital and force its surrender.

But that was Yesterday.

Today, December 5, 1941, the Russian army awoke with a shocking roar, as more than a million soldiers, nearly 1,000 tanks, and almost 700 aircraft came crashing against the Germans.  Joseph Stalin had taken a desperate gamble and moved many of his troops west from the Far East and Siberia.  Small wonder that when the Uritsky found the Japanese fleet heading for Pearl Harbor, the Russian dictator played hardball with the Japanese.  Troops that would have been used against Japan were now at war…with Germans.

The nearly 60 divisions that launched to the west still only just outnumbered their German foes, but they had advantages more important than numbers.  They were rested and they were well-armed.  They fought at the end of a 6-mile supply chain rather than Germany’s 600-mile support system.  Their vehicles all ran in the bitter cold and the guns on their tanks and artillery all worked.  But most of all, the Russian soldier was warm, being properly outfitted for the deadly Russian winter.

There was no way that Hitler’s order to hold position, given that very day, could be followed.  And so the German forces began to fall back, regardless of Der Fuhrer’s commands.  Moscow, for the time being, would remain in Soviet hands.

Recommended Reading: Operation Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45

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It’s cold here today, and that’s put me in an “Operation Barbarossa” state of mind.  So let’s take a few minutes today and see how the German army was faring against its Soviet rival on this day in 1941.  When we last visited Army Group Centre, they had just captured Smolensk.  But the fighting for that city had been intense and, with the German supply lines already measuring in the hundreds of miles, it was decided that a rest was needed.

So Army Group Centre rested…for nearly two months.  And then Operation Typhoon, begun on October 2, 1941, sent them off again.  This offensive was to be the final push to Moscow.  On arrival, the Germans planned to, much like Army Group North would attempt at Leningrad, surround the city and force its surrender.

But it was October, and the weather began to play a factor.  Many roads in Russia were mere dirt tracks, and early snowfall with warm ground turned them to impassable mud bogs, slowing the Germans.  But the sustained colder weather (at least initially) then served to help the Germans as it eventually froze the ground, allowing vehicles to move.  On October 18th, Mozhaysk fell to the Wehrmacht, putting Russia’s enemy just 62 miles from Moscow.

The German advance was slowing, but still progressing.  Supply lines were now outrageously long.  Troops were again exhausted, with many units operating at one-third strength.  Only one vehicle in three was still running.  And the German leadership (operating under the assumption that Moscow would fall earlier) still had not provided its soldiers with winter garments.

And then we arrive at December 4, 1941.  Army Group Centre, having pushed 600 miles in less than 6 months, was now on the brink.  Some formations were just 15 miles from Moscow’s center.  Commanders with good binoculars could see the buildings.  I mentioned it before, but in the wee morning hours of the 4th, a daring German rode his motorcycle through the streets of the capital before being shot down…just two miles from the Kremlin.

The German army would need some time to rest, refuel, rearm, and warm up.  Maybe Moscow would need to be surrounded for the entire winter.  Who knew for sure?  Regardless, Moscow was all but theirs…or so they thought.

Recommended Reading: When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler

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The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 came as a surprise to almost no one…except Joseph Stalin.  Hoping against hope that his pact with Hitler would hold up, he ignored numerous warnings from the British, the Americans, and his own spy agencies.

So it probably goes without saying that Stalin’s armies were largely caught flat-footed in when the steamroller of the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe started flattening Soviet ground- and air-space.  Within 5 days, the German Panzers of Army Group Centre had taken Minsk, an advance of nearly 200 miles.

The next major target for the Germans was Smolensk.  Located almost exactly in the middle of the 440 miles that separates Minsk from Moscow, it was a logical target for the German Army because of the roads that lay beyond…roads that led directly to Moscow and certain victory.

The Russians had been decimated in Minsk, losing three complete armies, and fought even more desperately to hold Smolensk.  A massive Soviet tank attack west of Smolensk that began on July 6th was smashed almost to oblivion by German air-power.  Semyon Timoshenko, the hero of the Winter War, struggled to slow the enemy, but the Germans were moving so quickly that the Soviets couldn’t retreat fast enough to build any kind of defensive line.

The battle for Smolensk began on July 10th and, by the 15th, the city was almost completely surrounded by Wehrmacht tanks and soldiers, threatening yet another 3 Soviet armies with encirclement.  Ferocious Soviet counterattacks held off the German armies long enough for a massive escape to take place.  And then the pocket closed and Smolensk was trapped.  On August 5, 1941, the organized fighting would end and Smolensk was in German hands.

But the Germans were exhausted from nearly 7 weeks of constant fighting over 400 miles of territory.  Equipment was broken, supplies were low, and ammunition was in short supply.  So Army Group Centre was halted, and here a couple of decisions were made would later have a huge effect on the campaign.  First, the halt ended up lasting 2 months, which meant the final drive on Moscow would not start until October.  Second, Hitler redirected an entire Panzer Army to the north towards Leningrad.

Germany was now starting to experience the factors that would eventually cost them the war:  extremely long supply lines, fighting along way too big a front, and the inability to destroy the Soviet armies after trapping them.  But there was also Adolf Hitler, who began scattering his forces against numerous objectives, rather than focusing on the one major target he needed.  Moscow.

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