29 October 2013

A Column of Armour from Panzer-Brigade "Koll" at Vyazma

Image size: 1600 x 1102 pixel. 412 KB
Date: Thursday, 2 October 1941
Place: Vyazma, Smolensk Oblast, Soviet Union
Photographer: Helmut Ritgen

A column of armour from Panzer-Brigade "Koll" advance through woods past a burning Soviet ammunition truck. On the right, unguarded Soviet prisoners make their way to the rear. The leading Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) bears on the driver's visor the yellow "Y" sign of 7. Panzer-Division, identifying Panzer-Regiment 25. After German forces encircled Leningrad in the north, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to the center part of the Soviet front. His Führer Directive 36 on 6 September focused German preparations on a drive against Moscow in Operation TAIFUN (TYPHOON), entrusted to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center. Bock commanded 5 field armies consisting of 14 panzer divisions, 9 panzergrenadier divisions, and 44 infantry divisions. He planned to use his armor to seize two key towns, Vyazma (some 150 miles west of Moscow) and Bryansk (220 miles southwest of Moscow) in order to open the road to the Soviet capital for his infantry. The leading German units involved were Colonel General Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group, Colonel General Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group, Colonel General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group, and Colonel General Maximillian von Weich’s Second Army. To defend Moscow, the Soviets had assembled 6 armies under Colonel General Ivan Konev’s Western Front. They were backed by 4 second-echelon armies. To Konev’s immediate south were 2 additional armies of Marshal Semyon Budenny’s Reserve Front. Three more reserve armies were eventually brought forward. All the armies were badly understrength: totaling 80 divisions, they were, in fact, the equivalent of only 25 full-strength divisions. The Germans had more than twice the number of tanks (an estimated 1,000 to 479), and the Soviets had only about 360 aircraft to at least twice as many German planes. The Soviets also suffered from a shortage of trained officers, as many had been pulled out of their units in August and September to organize new formations in the rear. In addition, the Soviets had shortages in modern antitank and antiaircraft weapons. Lieutenant General Andrei Yeremenko commanded Soviet forces in the Bryansk area where the Germans planned to attack. On 2 September, Stavka (the Soviet High Command) ordered Yeremenko’s Bryansk Front to move in two different directions, toward Roslav and southwest on Starodub in an effort to halt the German advance. The Soviet effort ended in failure, necessitating a return to defensive operations by 13 September. German forces also moved into a gap of some 36 miles between the Bryansk and Southwestern Fronts. On 30 September, Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group began an advance that carried it 50 miles the first day and 100 miles over the next three days. Guderian took the key rail junction of Orel, 150 miles in the Soviet rear, on 8 October. Two days earlier, 2nd Panzer Group had surrounded Bryansk. At the same time, von Weich’s forces moved from the west, trapping the Soviet Third, Thirteenth, and Fiftieth Armies, although some of Yeremenko’s forces escaped to the east on 25 October. To the north, meanwhile, Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group drove into the gap between the Soviet Nineteenth and Thirtieth Armies northwest of Vyazma, while 4th Panzer Group penetrated a vulnerable area between the Reserve and Bryansk Fronts. Konev countered by sending his deputy, Lieutenant General I. V. Boldin, and his operational group of three divisions and two tank brigades to strike the flank of 3rd Panzer Group on 3–4 October, but these efforts came too late. Boldin’s force was caught in the German encirclement, along with the greater part of Konev’s Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-Fourth, and Third-Second Armies west of Vyazma. General Konstantin Rokossovsky had been sent to Vyazma with his staff to gather five reinforced divisions there for a counterattack on 6 October, only to find no Soviet divisions and German tanks already on the scene. He fled the town and soon discovered that he was between the inner and outer rings of the encirclement; he decided to break out to the northeast, picking up units along the way, including the 18th Infantry (the Home Guard Division) and an NKVD unit. These units broke out and joined Konev in Mozhaisk, 40 miles west of Moscow, where surviving elements of the Western and Reserve Fronts were forming a new 135-mile-long line to Kaluga. Lieutenant General M. F. Lukin, Nineteenth Army’s commander, also broke out of the encirclement to the east with two-plus divisions on the night of 12–13 October. The Germans were hampered by the onset of the rainy season, which turned the roads into quagmires. But Stalin’s penchant for linear defense with fronts deployed in single operational echelon had been pierced by German armor supported by artillery and Stukas, resulting in the encirclement and capture of as many as 660,000 Soviet troops, 1,242 tanks, and 5,412 artillery pieces. Vyazma surrendered on 14 October and Bryansk on 20 October. This engagement was, however, the last of the great German encirclements. When word reached Moscow of the defeat, a great many citizens took flight, necessitating the proclamation of martial law in the capital on 19 October. Konev received the blame for the defeat; he was replaced by General of the Army Georgii Zhukov, who was charged with the final defense of Moscow.

Helmut Ritgen photo collection
Book "The 6th Panzer Division: 1937-45" by Oberst a.D. Helmut Ritgen

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