Book Review – Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941

David Stahel, Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. Xvii + 412 pp. £25.

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

Operation Typhoon

Yet another piece of work is now added to the endless reams of literature that focuses on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, and its most infamous operation; infamous to military strategists that is, fascinating to students of the conflict.

Almost all scholars start things in motion by justifying the need for further analysis on their chosen subject and David Stahel, a Lecturer at the University of Canberra, is no different. In fact, this, given the subject nature, should be a requirement, since all manner of writers, qualified academics, and experts and otherwise have continually engaged the literature on Operation Typhoon and the Battle for Moscow in 1941 – intended as the final chapter of the invasion of the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa. Stahel hoped to asses Army Group Centre’s operations in greater depth, and, as he put it ‘penetrate the fog of distortions and gain a better insight into the state of Germany’s war in October 1941’ (p. 7). Too difficult to fit the entire operation into a single volume, Stahel has chosen to deal with battle in two phases; this book, and the encirclement battles west of Moscow, and a second that will focus on the battles and drive for the capital in November-December 1941.

Stahel succeeds in producing a logical progression of chapters. His first deals with the bigger picture and the difficulties of campaigning in Russia with concise brevity. He draws attention to Clausewitz and his warning about the dangers of ‘the country’, populations, terrain and the difficulties of working in extraordinary and sizeable spaces. The Russians, he rightly points, out had just as much trouble coming to terms with campaigning in Russia, as did external enemies. They did not have super-human qualities or innate abilities that allowed them to fight so effectively in their homeland. Indeed, The Smolensk War (1632-34) was the beginning of the Russian learning curve. The Lithuanian-Polish coalition prevailed, not through superior military performance on the battlefield, but the Russian difficulty in dealing with logistics, and sustaining operations in a large theatre for long periods. The Northern War against Sweden (1700-21) convinced the Russians that the same landscape that made projection of their power outwards difficult, also created a formidable defensive obstacle that was ripe for exploitation.

There was also an offensive learning curve. In the War of the Polish Succession, 1733, the Russians used staging points throughout the country connected by road infrastructure to facilitate movement to sustain operations; in Russia or beyond. Russian armies were able to assist effectively outside of Russia with its Austrian allies to defeat the French. In 1758, the system was used to defeat Prussia at Kunersdorf in 1759 and the Turks in the Russo-Turkish wars in the late eighteenth century. Once again, in the Napoleonic Wars, the Russians used their natural advantages to defeat the French in 1812 instituting ‘scorched earth’ and withdrawal strategies drawing Napoleon deeper in Russia and straining his logistical lines in winter. It was an effective defence, continually avoiding a critical battle, using space and time. Using their resources to build staging areas throughout the country, the Russians were able avoid a similar fate as they pushed into central Europe in 1813. This was indeed a blueprint for success, but Soviet leaders in the 1920s and 1930s did not envisage sacrificing territory, for political reasons. Soviet military thought was based upon the cult of the offensive into well into the Second World War. Still, Stahel alludes to what other historians have rightly termed the Russian Way of War.[1]

In 1941, despite the purges and reorganisation, the Red Amy was a formidable foe, manned by a highly motivated force of men defending their homeland. As war broke out, huge portions of Soviet industry was dismantled and moved to the Urals, its people were carrying out partisan attacks behind the lines, and its economy was being conditioned for a long war of totality. Indeed, the Soviets understood that it was to be a test lasting many years, with no decisive battle, but a series of grinding campaigns until one side was broken completely (p. 134). Even though ill-equipped, and aside from huge losses which were not only replaced, but surpluses created, the size of the Soviet armed forces grew as the Germans pushed deeper into the Soviet Union. The scale of its population, land mass, modern industrial base and rail system, which fed its fighting forces with uninterrupted volumes of resources, made it a daunting prospect for any would-be invader to conquer. Indeed, it marshalled its talent to producing vast quantities of capable modern equipment as the war progressed, while applying meticulous detail on logistics, intelligence and strategy. Post Third Kharkov in March 1943, the Soviet General Staff was given hereto unheard of decision-making powers in which the talented Zuhkov and company thrived.

It was helpful for Stahel to move to the German state and examine its economy and military structure. What Stahel has to say about the German ‘preparedness’ in 1941 is not flattering and is nothing that has not already been discussed before by Adam Tooze, or Richard Overy, who have identified the chaotic nature of the German economy and state, its potential, but inability, to sustain a long war.[2]  Indeed, production could not restore lost firepower in the battles of June-September 1941. It was the weak economic state of Germany, despite its European conquests, that was a factor in Hitler’s decision to launch Barbarossa when he did. Stahel also rightly, albeit briefly, mentions the German obsession with technological factors at the expense of others. While the Germans did indeed view the combustion engine as a ‘solver’ of problems that caused unyielding difficulties for Russian opponents previously as they conquered distance and time more effectively, it brought a unique set of problems; particularly in logistics, an area that the Germans continually neglected (p. 21). Coinciding with this was extent to which the German High Command, and Nazi leadership, valued ‘will’ that could overcome all obstacles was also a factor that encouraged operational incompetence in supply-logistics. Like Napoleon, the Germans could not sustain large-scale operations in Russia for long periods. Logistical difficulties began to appear in July; just four weeks into the campaign as losses mounted and the distances grew (pp. 19-20).

It is an important consideration, since myths, perpetuated by surviving German staff officers, that the winter and weather created logistical nightmares. In fact, they served to exacerbate a supply crisis created by the lack of attention paid to it by a Command that believed the campaign would be over in weeks, something that persisted until December 1941. There appeared to be no German learning curve. The extent to which German staff officers, including the quartermaster general and his office, believed that supply problems could be overcome so long as the army had the determination to continue exposes the level to which the officer corps had bought into Nazi ideology (p. 21, 98).

It would perhaps have enhanced the narrative if Stahel had done a little on German doctrinal approach to logistics. A reoccurring theme from Frederick the Great to the failure of the Ardennes offensive in December 1944 was that there was a continuous, even traditional, failure to produce competent logistical doctrine and planning. Indeed, Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of Fliegerkorps VIII at Moscow, declared, ‘Germans are good at fighting but weak at logistics.’[3] It was not a new development. These failings were nearly responsible for the collapse of the war effort in France in 1870.[4] In 1914 and 1918, aside from strategic failings, logistics were also integral to the German failures.[5] In Barbarrossa, and every campaign thereafter, the army suffered from the same logistical failings that it inherited from its successors. This re-occurring theme in both German thinking and strategy fatally undermined their operations.

By the time Army Group Centre reached Moscow, the Wehrmacht had achieved enormous successes. However, it was so weakened it would not be able to launch an offensive along the entire front by all three army groups simultaneously again. Casualties to the ranks accelerated the use of conscripts and non-regulars and shortages of manpower remained even in view of the ruthless exploitation of slave labourers to release German manpower from industries. By October, there was a deficiency of 150,000 men. It would not improve. All the Wehrmacht’s available reserves were sent to Moscow for what was believed to the last push. Failure would subject the already over-stretched German state to a long struggle in the East. There were yet more signs that were ominous. Stahel effectively alludes to tactical elements. The appearance of the T-34 combined with capable Soviet aviation, artillery, and the rediscovery of Soviet Deep Battle doctrine, began to sow the seed of battlefield and operational recovery within the Red Army. Growing tactical competence on land in the air eroded the traditional margin of superiority enjoyed by German arms. On the defensive, it was noted in a German manual, once the Soviets had been given 24 hours to dig in, it was near impossible to move them. This was the prospect facing the Wehrmacht in October 1941.

At the outset, Stahel establishes the grim reality for the German Army and does indeed run counter to most popular literature of yesteryear that does not deal with the perilous strategic ledge that Germany was resting upon. Indeed, Stahel not only challenges the prevailing wisdom that Typhoon’s goals could be achieved under the circumstances, but that even if realised, it would not have terminated the fighting or reduced its scale thereafter. Surprisingly a large contingent of people held this view at the time; outside of Germany. There were commentators in Britain and the United States who foresaw a future Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe (p. 5). It is an interesting addition. Stahel could have made more of it. Popular histories written after the fact rarely expound any doubts that the Germans had the potential to seize Moscow. Indeed most expound the view that had Hitler not sought out Kiev in September Moscow could have been taken in passing. In fact, the road to Moscow was never ‘open’. Formidable Soviet forces stood in front of Moscow at the time in September and Army Group Centre was exhausted after battles at Minsk and Smolensk. Any offensive would have overstretched Army Group Centre’s southern flanks and exposed it to a counter-attack from the very forces destroyed in the Kiev pocket; Stahel misses an opportunity to lay the idea of earlier offensive to rest.[6]

The remainder of the book details with the narrative of the battle which incorporates the aforementioned problems covering the battle from the soldiers perspective, from the lower commands, their personal struggles, morale and understanding of the nature of the campaign unfolding around them all incorporated in a standard time-line of events in October 1941. He succeeds in striking a balance between success and failure; relaying the scale of the German encirclement victories, but also reminding the reader that they were won at exhausting cost in time and resources; while understanding that even in tactical-operational defeat, Soviet forces were working towards a simpler,  strategic aim with time on their side.

However, there remain some nagging problems concerning terminology that this reviewer finds uncomfortable. The perpetual use of the word Blitzkrieg is done without putting the subject into proper context. Stahel does not deal with its dubious origins, non-official stature, and controversies. While Barbarossa was, the only deliberately planned ‘Blitzkrieg’, for want of a better phrase, it would have been wise to explain German doctrine and operational-strategic behaviour that may have looked like a Blitzkrieg, but was never been planned as one.[7] Furthermore, the insistence in his conclusion that the failure of Typhoon was as a result of ‘the German command’s inability to grasp warfare beyond the operational level’ is somewhat surprising and undermines the authority of the narrative (pp. 298-307). Strategy was certainly neglected in favour of an obsession with operational and tactical-technological factors, but as Stahel has shown, logistics and intelligence were clearly lacking, both make up the core tenants of operational warfare, along with command, communication, and control. It is evident German thought did not pay enough attention to anything above the tactical level in detail. However, overall, Stahel produces a solid standard history and he succeeds in provoking some interesting new perspectives and ideas, but leaves one wanting more detail than is given.

Citation: Daniel Pilfold, ‘Review of David Stahel, Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 25 July 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] See: Richard Harrison, The Russian Way of War, Operational Art, 1904-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001).

[2] See: Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London: Allen Lane, 2006); Richard Overy, War and Economy in the Third Reich (Oxford: Calrendon Press, 1994).

[3] Christer Bergstrom, Barbarossa: The Air Battle, July-December 1941 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2007), p. 49. For a full analysis of Richthofen’s career, see: James Corum, Wolfram von Richthofen: Master of the German Air War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).

[4] Geoffrey Wawro, The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 288-89; David Stone, First Reich: Inside the German Army During the War with France, 1870 (London: Brassey’s, 2002).

[5] Bruce Condell and David Zabecki (eds.), On the German Art of War: Truppenfuhrung (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001), pp. 8-9, David Zabecki, The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in The Operational Level of War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 38, 167.

[6] David Glantz, Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941, New Edition (Stroud: The History Press, 2011), pp. 131-132.

[7] See: Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).


2 responses to “Book Review – Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941

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