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86 CHAPTER SIX To Moscow OVEREXTENSION By the end of July 1941, many of the German invaders had belatedly realized the true scope of their enterprise. By this time, it was crystal clear that Hitler ’s initial assumption regarding how victory would be achieved had proven incorrect. Although Army Group Center had destroyed virtually all Soviet forces west of the Dvina and Dnepr Rivers, the Red Army did not collapse. In fact, along the Dnepr and around Smolensk Red Army resistance stiffened unexpectedly as fresh Soviet armies reached the battlefield. Compounding these shocking developments, yawning gaps appeared between Germany’s three army groups as they advanced eastward. Furthermore, the enormous success of their initial advance had carried Wehrmacht forces beyond their fragile logistical structure, compelling OKH to declare a virtual standstill on 30 July so that Army Group Center could rest and refit. By this time, 720 kilometers (450 miles) forward of the nearest railheads, Third Panzer Group was struggling to fend off repeated Soviet attacks east and northeast of Smolensk as Second Panzer Group’s panzers and motorized infantry clung determinedly to their embattled bridgehead over the Desna River at El’nia. Thus, both panzer groups were decisively engaged at a time when Hitler insisted they clear Army Group Center’s threatened flanks. Nor could they be released for other missions until follow-on German infantry succeeded in eliminating encircled enemy forces from the Smolensk region. Unpaved roads made it difficult for wheeled vehicles, let alone marching infantry, to keep pace with the dwindling number of tanks in the spearheads. As early as 16 July, bypassed Soviet troops and embryonic partisan groups began to attack the resupply convoys behind the German spearheads. The infantry started to wear out its boots, and staff officers initiated planning for winter clothing. By 2 August, the three army groups had suffered 179,500 casualties in six weeks but had received only 47,000 replacements.1 At the same time, Adolf Hitler resisted requests to issue newly produced tanks and major repair assemblies; he was trying to reserve this production for new and reconstituted panzer units after the campaign season ended. During the winter and spring of 1940–1941, a special production effort had focused on ground forces’ weapons and ammunition, but that program was To Moscow 87 completed in June, clearing the way to shift priorities.2 On 14 July, Hitler ordered increased production of submarines and tanks, reducing the priority of ammunition and repair parts for the army in the field.3 The extent of Hitler’s involvement in such matters was illustrated by a conference at Army Group Center headquarters on 4 August, when a group of senior commanders pleaded with the dictator to release 350 replacement engines for Panzer IIIs.4 The one thing that the Wehrmacht had in abundance was targets. General Franz Halder, who had thought the war won in early July, acknowledged his mistake in a diary entry for 11 August: The whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian [sic] colossus. . . . [Soviet] divisions are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and if we smash a dozen of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen. . . . They are near their own resources , while we are moving farther and farther away from ours. And so our troops, sprawled over an immense front line, without any depth, are subjected to the incessant attacks of the enemy.5 Not all German leaders saw the situation so clearly and pessimistically, but many of them sought clearer guidance as to how to bring the war to a quick conclusion. Even Hitler allegedly remarked that, had he known that Heinz Guderian’s prewar figures for Soviet tank strength were so accurate, he might not have started the war.6 For want of any other method to hasten victory, the dictator and many of his senior commanders chose to emphasize the destruction of bypassed Soviet forces, so that the cadres of those units did not escape, and the elimination of Soviet forces from Army Group Center ’s flanks. This accorded with the original concept of operations, which had focused on destroying the Red Army rather than seizing terrain. Moreover, Hitler was correct in advocating smaller, shallower encirclements, given the strained logistics and dwindling combat power of the German mechanized forces. Still, younger commanders such as Guderian and Manstein opposed this policy because it...


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