Book Review – The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank

Jack Radey and Charles Sharp, The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2012. Maps. Bibliography. Index. 280pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Pilfold, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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There is huge body of literature that deals with Operation Barbarossa, and its climax, the Battle for Moscow – Operation Typhoon. Much has been made of German operations before Moscow, often seen as an attempt to capture the city and end the war. The Soviet capital was not the primary objective according to the Directive, though the Fuhrer certainly hoped this would be enough to force the enemy to collapse. In fact, in keeping with Hitler’s method of operating, he sought to annihilate as many Soviet units as was possible in front of Moscow and before the weather impeded German mobility. This goal lay at the heart of Typhoon. Further operations would be directed toward Moscow thereafter.

Jack Radey and Charles Sharp have approach this well-trodden ground with seemingly little left to explore. Fortunately, their research has unearthed new Soviet and German archives that have been unexploited over the last 72 years. The Soviet archives, understandably, have only become available in recent times, even though the state itself collapsed over 20 years ago. The unexplored German sources, some readily available for half a century, is more difficult to excuse.

With the sources, Radey and Sharp have assembled an impressive and very detailed account of the battle between the Wehrmacht and Red Army around Moscow in 1941. They cover the strategic, operational and tactical elements thoroughly and in meticulous detail. Rather than looking at the entire battle, they have picked out a part of the struggle to focus on, one that has rarely been covered in the German and Soviet Official Histories or by Historians since the end of the war – the Battle of Kalinin and the attack on the Soviets’ Northern Front. In German literature, the Northern Flank is simply treated; a quick and limited strike to seize the city that was held by German forces against overwhelming odds later in December 1941. In the Soviets’ view; the Germans captured the city but got no further. Both were content to leave it there. The German victory at Vyazma-Bryansk and the destruction of several armies west of the capital and the defence of the city’s western approaches has attracted most of the attention.

Yet the Battle of Kalinin, a city to the north of Moscow, whose defenders also bore the brunt of an all-out assault, thus far has been regarded as a sideshow to the main event in the Centre. It was here a full-sized Panzer Army (3rd) was deployed against the Kalinin Front. Such neglect is difficult to understand since German operational records show that the Panzer Army was to undertake an encirclement operation far grander than the Vyazma-Bryansk battle, which saw the destruction of four Soviet armies. The Panzer Army was ordered to undertake a Kessel, which would destroy seven armies protecting the northern approaches to Moscow, then invest the capital and threaten the Soviet North Western Front with encirclement. It is quite bizarre that this event has not been better treated. It would seem Historians have had little interest in exploring this phase of the operation, or a costly German failure at this juncture in the battle, and particularly after the events at Vyazma.

The German advance met with disaster within two weeks. The authors ascertain why and explore the common themes at the tactical level; German initiative, skill, tactical prowess, excellent communications and equipment, which opposed Soviet units who had limited firepower, moderate experience, poor communication and few units equipped with trained staffs and all badly under strength. Moreover, while some large Divisions were grouped in defence of the Northern Front, most were at half strength. The question is confronted; under the circumstances how did they prevail?

The courage and determination of Soviet forces whose fate, and that of their country and system, was at stake was a factor – but only one factor – in their success and one the Germans grossly underestimated. Radey and Sharp dispel most Soviet accounts of heroism as hyperbole. In fact, the Soviets had several talented commanders that made the most of their resources. Ivan Konev, Nikolai Vatutin and Pavel Rotmistrov are the most recognisable. These men were excellent staff officers and highly competent tacticians and operators. Nevertheless, they were, as the authors point out, assisted by the enemy.

Radey and Sharp demolish the belief that pervades in German accounts that ‘General Mud’ and ‘General Winter’ was the Wehrmacht’s main opponent at Kalinin and Moscow. The weather was a neutral arbiter and the Soviets had an equally, if not greater difficulty, in manoeuvring their forces and traversing terrain. German air activity also placed considerable constraints on Soviet lines of communication. They ‘credit’ to the Germans – through the behaviour of senior German commanders of the XXXXI Mechanised Corps, particularly Friederich Kirchner, spearheading the Kalinin operation – a distinct lethargy, or even outright incompetence at logistics. It was the lack of an adequate logistical tail and preparations, not the mud, which allowed roads to collapse or disintegrate under heavy traffic and frustrate their advance. Units competed for road space with supply columns leading to an operational quagmire, evidenced from the recorded complaints of division commanders.

Symptomatic of the German general Staff at large, from the German Wars of Unification to Third Reich, was the inability to understand the integral role logistics played in military operations. Kalinin was a repeat of the Schlieffen Plan (1914), Operation Michael (1918) and Barbarossa in microcosm. Entire Corps’ suffered critical shortages of fuel, food and ammunition. The Germans had not assembled enough resources to proceed to Moscow after Kalinin, never mind to continue with Typhoon along the rest of the front after the initial success at Vyzama. Yet the High Command, Kirchner and his divisional commanders persisted with an advance on a narrow front with dwindling fuel and ammunition against a determined enemy. During the second week of operations, his Corps was reliant on captured Soviet fuel stores. The blatant disregard shown by Kirchner was reflected in a High Command that believed German inventiveness and tactical superiority could surmount any problems – logistics difficulties being seen as more of an inconvenience rather than a necessity, and potential danger. This attitude permeated up and down the command chain.

The consequences of German failings are evident in the Kalinin/northern operation. It failed within in a week. Supply bases were too far away to continue offensive operations. The Oberkommando der Wehrmcht had attempted the venture with too few resources. When the Soviet counter stroke came at Kalinin, the lack of Soviet resources allowed the Panzer Army to extract itself and avoid encirclement but at a heavy price. While the fighting had not destroyed the German Motorized Corps, it was shattered. At Kalinin the Soviets conducted an offensive with armies rather than brigades. It was a different approach than taken on the rest of the Moscow Front. It was perhaps a sign the Soviets understood this threat to be of greater significance than any other part of the front. Despite this fact, it has still been ignored by the historiography.

Even so, the authors remind us that the scarcity in Soviet resources at Kalinin did not stem from the same logistical failures as the Germans. The enemy forces west of the capital were deemed a greater threat, and considered Kalinin only a meeting engagement. Elsewhere and rather, consistent with defensive Soviet Deep Battle doctrine – foolishly thrown away during the Purges and now hastily relearned – the Soviet command submitted only enough forces to hold the front while building a large reserve to strike at an exhausted enemy. By early December, substantial reinforcements had arrived. On 5 December, 10 reserve armies very nearly destroyed the exhausted and over-extended Army Group Centre. At Kalinin, Soviet resources allowed only for small ‘cutting attacks’ to slow and exhaust the enemy, but with the same effect. The General counter attack on 5 December committed enough resources to recover Kalinin. The German effort had been for nothing.

This book not only looks at a battle within a larger battle or an understanding of what German intentions were, and why the Battle of Moscow ended in defeat for them, but rather it tells the reader, in microcosm, why the Wehrmacht failed on the Eastern Front and in every theatre of war. The German Command underestimated Soviet will to fight and blithely assumed battlefield prowess could compensate and overcome distance, terrain and resistance. The root cause of this arrogance can likely be found in the ideology of National Socialism that added the mythical superiority of the Germanic soldier to the German mindset. The author’s work is a classic lesson in the relationship between ends and means – of realistic goals and adequate resources. It was a lesson the Wehrmacht never learned. German offensive operations at the Battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, Alamien, and the Bulge are a testament to that fact.

Citation: Daniel Pilfold, ‘Review of Jack Radey and Charles Sharp, The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 16 January 2013

You can download a copy of this review here.

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4 responses to “Book Review – The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews | The Second World War Military Operations Research Group·

  2. Pingback: A Victory Denied, [Side by Side] p1 | The Big Board·

  3. I agree that the failure by other authors to use the German archives is borderline inexcusable. In the U.S. they are freely available at the National Archives and Records Administration, and they’re also in the German military archives. The Soviet/Russian archives are somewhat more problematic. To actually do research in the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO) outside of Moscow is both inconvenient and very expensive. Radey and Sharp do the next best thing: they rely on Soviet memoirs, collections of contemporary documents published in Soviet and post-Soviet times, and the relatively new online collection at podvignaroda.ru. This is far from satisfactory, but it’s the best we have right now.

  4. Actually, we had access to many Soviet records. Someone in the Russian general staff realized that their wartime archives; a virtual mountain of documents, were all printed on wartime, acid-based paper, and within 20 years will probably be a large mountain of dust. So they have been scanning them, and dumping them onto the internet by the train load. We had army reports, and orders, and situation maps, particularly for 29th Army, Group Vatutin, and to some extent from Kalinin Front. Also situation maps, strength reports, and the like. Thanks to Charles Sharp’s hard work, we had translations of both Soviet and German accounts of the same actions to lay side-by-side and compare.

    We are currently working on a second book to follow Defense of Moscow, 1941, the Northern Flank. This one will deal with the same time period, just a little further south, covering the attack on Western Front’s 16th, 5th, 33rd and 43rd Armies by Panzer Group 4 and 4th Army, between about 9 – 30 October. It covers the Volokolamsk, Mozhaisk, Maloyaroslavets and Kaluga axes. So far about 1400 pages of documents translated, should go over 2,000 by the time Charles is done. It is a fascinating story.

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