Was attacking the Kiev pocket in 1941 really a terrible idea?

An admittedly more arcane debate than the usual political/religious/social ones in this forum.

First, a little background. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The initial goals were to occupy Moscow and Leningrad before winter set in. This was expected to trigger a general collapse of the Soviet army and government and end the war.

The Wehrmacht initially achieved great success. Red Army formations had been stationed close to the Soviet frontier and many were encircled and captured. Huge amounts of Soviet territory fell to Germany and it appeared the Soviet Union was indeed on the verge of surrender.

By July, the Wehrmacht was about two hundred miles from Moscow and the Red Army appeared to have no credible defenses in place to defend the city. Then Hitler unexpectedly summoned his top generals and told them he was changing their orders. He was halting the advance towards Moscow and redirecting troops towards Kiev. The reason was that Stalin had concentrated a huge amount of troops in Kiev (the third largest Soviet city) and Hitler believed they were now vulnerable to being encircled and destroyed by the Germans.

Most of the generals opposed Hitler’s plan. They argued that Moscow was the original goal of the campaign and a major change like this was a bad idea. Hitler insisted and the plan was carried out. Kiev was cut off and captured and the Red Army lost over a million soldiers.

The drive on Moscow was resumed in October but by now the weather was getting bad. The Wehrmacht was able to get within a few miles of Moscow by December but could not take the city. The Red Army brought in reinforcements and were able to hold on and even counterattack. The Soviets expected a renewed offensive against Moscow in the spring but Hitler ordered a southern offensive instead. But that’s another topic.

Anyway, most historians now say that Hitler’s decision was wrong and probably cost him the war. I’d certainly agree that Hitler made a lot of bad military calls but I have to wonder if this was one of them. I looks to me more like Monday morning quarterbacking.

As I see it, Hitler saw that there were two different targets in the summer of 1941; the political target of Moscow and the military target of Kiev. Hitler decided to concentrate on one target and picked Kiev. Admittedly, it was not an goal in the original pre-war plan of attack, but who would have anticipated that Stalin would put so many troops in such a vulnerable position? Once he did so, it would have been foolish to ignore the opening that existed.

Moscow admittedly was also a valuable prize. But the Soviets were aware of how exposed it was and had already been making plans for its loss. The Soviets had begun setting up a new wartime capital in Kuibyshev further to the east and planned on continuing the war from there if necessary.

So if Germany had stuck to its original plan, Moscow probably would have fallen in August or September. But like the French a century before, the Germans may have found that occupying Moscow did not end the war. Meanwhile, the troops around Kiev would have had an opportunity to withdraw or be reinforced in place. Troops, after all, are moveable unlike cities. The same historians that criticized what happened would instead criticize the Germans for focusing on empty political targets while ignoring the Red Army.

So to return to the title, was attacking the Kiev pocket in 1941 really a terrible idea?

A bad idea, well, no. It may not have been as good as some others. However, had the Germans captured Moscow, the center of military and political control, as well as poroduction and so forth, would have been cut off, making it difficult to launch an offensive.

Hitler’s Generals perhaps felt they could easily cover the 200 miles to Moscow and then easily deal with the Russians near Kiev.

I’d have to say that this is the most significant statement in the OP:

So, your experts that you pay to know about these things disagree with you, so you go ahead and do it anyway, so what happens?

You lose.

'Nuff said. :smiley:

It probably didn’t matter, in the end.

Kiev was a massive disaster for the Russians, but Guderian claimed it as only a tactical victory. Various sources have claimed that Kiev delayed operation “typhoon” against Moscow by six weeks, but even if the 2nd Panzergruppe and 2nd Army had been available, capturing & controlling such a large urban area with the forces at hand would’ve been problematical. Further, even assuming a success in capturing and controlling Moscow, leaving the Russian forces around Kiev intact would’ve presented the Russians with a large, capable force arrayed against an exposed, thinly guarded flank. Zhukov felt that leaving a front capable of striking the German flank as they advanced would have been courting disaster for the Germans (and he probably was desperately hoping for it). The major Russian industrial base around Kiev would also have had all winter to produce weapons and ammunition.

Hitler bit off far more than he could chew, although I must say that the German armed forces made one hell of a stab at swallowing it anyway.

Tranquillis, I’m not sure what you’re saying. You start off by saying “yes”, attacking Kiev instead of Moscow was a bad idea. But then the rest of your post seems to support the opposite view.

There was a precedent. In 1940, virtually all of the German general’s wanted to attack France with what was essentially a modifed repeat of the Schlieffen Plan. On the advice of one low ranking general, Hitler overruled his military advisors and ordered the Ardennes offensive instead. The operation was an overwhelming success.

Granted, most of the time when Hitler overruled his generals, he was wrong and they were right. But even a blind squirrel finds an occasional nut.

I can’t agree that attacking Kiev lost the war, or even that it was a bad idea, because I’m simply not convinced that losing Moscow would have damaged the Soviets as badly as is usually assumed.

Napoleon, after all, took Moscow in 1812. It was of no use to him; the Russians then simply gave Moscow up and then counterattacked when the time suited them. I don’t believe taking Moscow would have done Hitler substantially more good; I think the Soviets would have pulled everything out they could, set up a capital elsewhere, and kept right on fighting. They relocated how many hundred of factories eastward? Relocating some bureaucrats wouldn’t have been that much harder.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe taking Moscow would have seriously damaged the USSR’s command and control capabilities… but then, they also would have had Kiev and all its infrastructure, plus a million extra soldiers or so with all their guns, vehicles, and fighting power. I don’t see how one can be demonstrated to be more valuable than the other. The USSR had all the space in the world to give up.

I believe it is a common oversimplification to look at the Eastern Front war as being decided by what the Germans did WRONG, as opposed to what the Soviets did RIGHT. There always seems to be an implicit assumption that the Germans were the better army and would have beaten the inferior Russians if only Hitler was smarter/the Russians didn’t have people to throw away/the winters weren’t so cold/you can’t beat Russia in a land war. Those things all had an effect (and you CAN beat Russia in a land war. It was done in World War I), but then the Germans had plenty of advantages, too. It’s often not considered that the Germans might just have gotten the shit kicked out of them by a superior armed forces, which, IMHO, is precisely what happened. The Germans were winning the war while the Soviets were fighting badly with poorly organized armies, incompetent political hacks for generals, and outdated tactics and equipment. When the Soviets promoted skilled warriors to command their armies, equipped their men with high quality weapons, and started to pull a few tricks of their own, they started winning.

The tide of the war didn’t really turn on the Kiev/Moscow decision. It turned in Stalingrad and Kursk and other operations around that time (Dec. 1942-July 1943) and is directly aligned to a vast improvement in the way the Soviets organized and waged war.

It’s important to remember Stalin’s mindset during this period. During the opening weeks of the war, he locked himself in a room for long periods of times and cried. He was completely leveled, emotionally, because he knew there was little chance they’d be able to fend the Germans off.

Add to this the major encirclements of millions of men, and remarkably quick progress on the front, and Stalin was almost ready to cave in.

If the Germans would’ve pushed through to Moscow, a major industrial production center, logistical node, command and control node, seat of government, etc. - the morale effect, on top of the huge morale loss by the first 2 months of the war, might’ve been enough to completely topple the Russian government into submission - perhaps Germany would offer generous, appealing terms… and then stab them in the back later.

That’s the point of Blitzkrieg. Really fuck your opponent quickly, and make him capitulate. That was the reason for every victory thus far, generally.

About the decision - no, it wasn’t really a bad decision. Losing your only major force with any sort of initiative in the region would be a stunning morale loss, but probably not quite on par with the morale loss on Moscow.

The German invasion didn’t have a very clear cut goal from the start, it was basically “Well, we’ll just destroy the red army…”. Unfortunately, they didn’t win any victories so demoralizing that they caused Russia to cave in.

Basically, Hitler could’ve gone either way, and the Russians might’ve still prevailed. However, there’s a good chance that capturing Moscow would’ve caused an already hugely demoralized Stalin to just get up and try to get what he could out of a peace deal.

So, it wasn’t a bad decision, but it didn’t pay off. The other alternative may have. But to call the decision clearly stupid seems like Monday-morning quarterbacking to me.

Sorry, I forgot to delete the header.

I started to write a post along the lines that without a proper plan, anything Hitler did in Russia was a bad idea, but then decided to narrow the focus, and left the old subject line behind.

Kiev didn’t/wouldn’t cost Hitler Moscow, IMO, unless the Red Army collapsed. Sure, the forces German forces stuck at Kiev would have allowed the German armies to penetrate deeper into the Moscow suburbs, but we know how the Russians were willing to throw away bodies to hold land, and city fighting is voraciously hungry of men. City fighting levels the differences in training and equippage to a large degree, and rewards fierce determination and ruthlessnes. It would’ve been a fight of sheer numbers against skill, without a river to hinder the Russian moves to re-enforce. In an environment like that, numbers have a quality all their own. All the while, the German flanks would’ve been vulnerable to counter attack, pretty much at Zhukov’s lesure.

More or less unbeknownst to the German soldiers–and even some generals–in the field, the Wehrmacht withstood somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen large counterattacks during the first phases of the German advance. These were totally ineffective and were generally recorded as “strong resistance.” Unfortunately for the Soviets, they simply weren’t capable of mounting effective counterstrikes in 1941, yet the post-purge Soviet generals were all very offensively minded.

The result was disastrous; large Soviet formations were marched straight into artillery barrages and were simply written off, while at the same time the STAVKA was desperately trying to cobble together some sort of strategic reserve for later use.

I would suggest that Hitler’s generals knew this, and therefore were less concerned about a million poorly trained, equipped, and led soldiers than they were with quickly gutting the Soviet Union by cutting off its logistical head at Moscow. I’d love to find a railroad map of the Soviet Union in 1941, for I’m willing to bet that the investment of the Moscow railyards would require a detour of hundreds of miles for Soviet forces trying to move north and south.

Furthermore, the victories in France and the Low Countries had convinced many Germans that they could afford to press deep advances on very narrow fronts. There is a certain logic to this. A narrow-front advance requires a defensive line roughly twice the length of the advance itself, the flanks of the “corridor.” Once the flanks of a narrow front advance are held defensively, those units are temporarily stationary and have lower logistical requirements than a broad-front advance would require, and can be defended by units with less offensive power, with the advantage of interior lines. With only four Panzergruppen to sustain the advance, a narrow-front advance makes good sense. And again, the poorly executed Soviet counterattacks at that time lent credence to the idea that a narrow front could be easily defended.

Finally, a narrow-front advance leaves open the opportunity for encirclement maneuvers of truly enormous proportions. Had Moscow been invested and held, Kiev would have been in deep trouble anyway, for it would have been in danger of encirclement from the north and west at any time. For example, holding Moscow would offer the possibility of a southerly advance from Moscow toward the Caspian, and an easterly advance along the Black Sea from Bulgaria, boxing off the entire Soviet Southwestern Front.

It looks to me like the straight shot to Moscow is therefore more logistically sound, better focuses offensive units, and leaves open the opportunity for maneuvers even more ambitious than the encirclement of Kiev. In 1941. However, the new-and-improved Soviet armed forces of 1942 would prove to be tougher, and ever more difficult in successive years. I still don’t think the Germans could have pulled it off in the long run.

my $.02:

Do you think the thoroughly purged USSR General staff and/or party apparatchiks would have ‘couped’ Uncle Joe if Moscow had fallen in ’41?
If your WAG is “Yes or Maybe” then the diversion wasn’t a good idea by any stretch.

Do you think the 665,000 Russians captured at Kiev made any difference to the end of the war (when the Red Army was 12 million strong by ’45 AFTER defeating Germany)
If your WAG is “No” then the diversion wasn’t a good idea by any stretch.

Militarily I can see the point. German Army Groups North and Center were advancing like good blitzkriegers, but Army Group South was not really moving. If AGC had taken Moscow, it would have had an intact enemy Army on a hell of a long exposed southern flank. Still, I think the Generals felt like me: take Moscow you can always take Kiev & shore that flank up later …

I honestly don’t think the Germans had the men to fight the two front war. So unless: the Japanese invaded from the east or the Nazi’s made peace with the West, they got the bomb or Stalin was somehow removed or killed … those are the variables that I think might have affected the outcome, not anything the Wehrmacht could do …

To clarify my own personal opinion, I think Hitler made the right decision on this occasion. He was able to see there were two opportunities present at the time; capturing Moscow or destroying a large proportion of the existing Red Army. If he had decided on a Moscow campaign, the Red Army in Kiev could have been withdrawn; Moscow was a target that would remain, the Kiev pocket was a target that could disappear in a few weeks. Hitler made a decision that the latter should be the first priority.

As I wrote before, there are numerous occasions when Hitler made the wrong military decision; allowing the BEF to evacuate, directing Luftwaffe attacks against cities, not evacuating the Afrika Corps from Tunis, not bypassing Stalingrad, launching the Kursk offensive, etc… I think some historians have fallen into the easy assumption that therefore every military decision Hitler made must have been wrong.

In my opinion, the biggest military mistake made by Hitler on the Eastern Front was that his whole plan ultimately required a Soviet collapse to succeed. Hitler always believed that the Soviets were on the verge of collapse and figured that one more big offensive would trigger that fall. So even when the Wehrmacht won a major victory it usually ended up overextended and vulnerable to Red Army counterattacks because the inital planning had assumed that there would be no Red Army left when the campaign was over.

Okay, I have to change my mind here and go with Nemo.

This morning I took a good look at my 1962 Life Pictorial Atlas, which shows the rail network of the Soviet Union. Just like Paris, the Soviet rail network extended like a spider web outward from Moscow.

Assuming the rail network hadn’t expanded too dramatically in the twenty years before my atlas was published, it looks to me like the only way to really effectively cut the Soviet rail network would be to drive a further two hundred fifty miles east of Moscow to Gorkiy, on the Volga River, and thence southwest to Kharkov, or even better, to run south along the western bank of the Volga to Stalingrad. The rail system runs primarily east-west past the Volga.

That’s a huge undertaking, a “long hook” that must be protected by some depth for a distance of what looks to me to be a couple of thousand miles, counting both flanks. Such a plan would certainly be reminiscent of the overextension at Stalingrad, and would be vulnerable to any point of resistance along the entire line.

Also, this is essentially what the Germans managed to achieve by early 1943, anyway, although by not taking the first couple of rail rings around Moscow they ensured that Army Group South would always have a steady opposition in their front.

Interestingly, when speaking of the German overreach at Stalingrad, F. W. von Mellenthin invokes Napoleon in his book Panzer Battles (p. 194, paperback ed.). Speaking of his hollow victory at Borodino, “[h]ad I pressed my victory home, I would have had no troops for further victories.” A deep drive in '41 may have simply set the Germans up for an even earlier disaster of the same complexion.

I’m beginning to see why the Germans invested so much hope in a collapse of the Soviet government. That’s how the Germans pulled it off in 1917, and it might be the only way to win against the Russians. The alternative is probably to just throw up one’s hands and say, “we’re f----d.”

With that in mind, a drive on Moscow first may have made better military sense, but Hitler may have correctly seen that the only real route to victory was to try to get the Soviets to give up. While I still think that going for the jugular at Moscow is probably the best way to do that, encircling Kiev may have been a more practicable goal. We know that Kiev didn’t work in the long run, but I can’t really come up with a better alternative from my armchair.

I’ve always believed that there were only two reasons for attacking the Soviet Union: The agricultural resources of the Ukraine and the mineral resources of the Urals.

If I am right in this, then the attack against Kiev was a stunningly great idea, even though one prompted by the tactical considerations of the moment–moving against a troop massing/staging area.

On the whole, I agree with what seems to be Tranquilis’ general view: “…anything Hitler did in Russia was a bad idea…” :slight_smile:

I think the Germans could have won the war in Russia, but they failed by carrying out a poor strategy. Their strategy essentially was to strike a big enough blow against the Soviets and then the Soviets would surrender. What they should have done was design a series of campaigns, each of which would improve the German position while worsening the Soviet one. With such a strategy, a Soviet collapse would have been a bonus but it wouldn’t have been a necessity.

Consider a chess game as an analogy. The goal is to checkmate your opponent. Suppose you have two different opportunities available on the present board. One involves sacrificing several pieces with a fifty percent chance of checkmating your opponent. The other involves a series of certain exhanges of your pieces for your opponent’s more valuable pieces with no threat of checkmate involved. The latter strategy is probably a better one, even though it offers no immediate chance of a checkmate. But the Germans in WWII almost always played the equivalent of the first strategy.

That wouldn’t have worked, and would probably ended up with a worse German defeat.

What happened was the Nazis dealt an enormous blow to the Soviets, who reeled back from the attack but didn’t fall down. Without a massive and lightning attack, the Soviets would be able to pull back their precious armoured units.

Early Soviet attacks were ineffectual because they didn’t use armour the right way, which is to have a massive armour fist punching at the enemy. The Soviet tanks at the beginning of the war were superior to the German counterparts. The KV’s could kick the daylights out of the Pazer III-E/F/G and Pazer IV-D/E/F without working out a sweat.

So if the Soviets were able to conserve these big clanky monsters and used them in the sort of tactics they discovered later, the Germans would have been in worse shape.

One thing I have NEVER understood about OPERATION BARBAROSSA-the fact was, Hitler was actually demobilizing parts of the Wermacht in 1941! He had been led to believe that the bulk of the red Army had been destroyed, and that further operations in Russia would be just “mopping up”. It was this fata arrogance that cost him the war-in 1941 he should have been drafting more soldiers, and building more tanks. Of course, he had no heavy long-range bombers, so he had no means of attacking Russian cities beyond the Urals, and also tied up a whole Army group around Leningrad (Marshal Von Leeb’s Army Group North). Also, he should have begged the Japanese to attack Russia from Manchuria-this would have been the death blow to Russia.:wally

As others have noted, as long as the German plan was to knock out the Russians in a couple months (with no backup plan), it was doomed.

As per the OP on taking Kiev. I actually think that this should have been the German strategy for the Eastern Front for the whole war. Go find large numbers of Russian troops, encircle them, wipe them out. Then pull back. Most of Russian territory is useless strategically. Don’t bother holding on to it. Go for wiping out armies. Forget land. (Always exceptions of course, oil fields and such.)

While a capture of Moscow could have easily lead to a coup against Joe, this is not necessarily a good thing from the German point of view.

Going for Moscow could have easily led to a Leningrad/Stalingrad situation. Both were major resource sinks for the Germans with little tactical advantage.

Hitler is one of the worst military strategists of all time. Everything was ego-based and short-sighted.

Several things.

First of all, in 1939, the IJA and Soviet forces clashed in a region around the border of Manchuria and Outer Mogolia. In this campaign both sides mobilised ~100,000 combatants, and the Soviet commander was none other than Zukov, who routed the IJA soundly. The Japanese lost an estimate of 1/5 of their troops, which was a severe blow to them, as they so believed the IJA was invicible. The defeat caused the IJA great pyschic damage.

Secondly, the IJA was out of position. Most of its forces was tied down in China along a very long frontline.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a secret directive from the IJA HQ dated 9 August 1941 discarded any and all attempts against the USSR “regardless of any changes in the German-USSR War.” The focus would be placed to “southern advancement,” i.e, against China, SE Asia, and eventually the US.

True, the KVs were awesome monsters. However, the Soviets produced only 636 of them by the time of Barbarossa. In addition, the crews didn’t have the proper training for combined arms operations and most Soviet tanks didn’t have a radio at this stage of the war. The most common Soviet tanks were BTs and T-26s which had barely enough armour to keep the rain out.

To go back to the OP, David Downing wrote a book in 1979 (The Moscow Option) treating the subject. His conclusion was that the Germans could have taken Moscow and wouldn’t have suffered major setbacks from ignoring the Kiev area, since the Soviets would still have had to retreat from their Ukranian salient for fear of being caught in a pocket. The main consequence would have been a lenghtening of WW II.

I read something - I forgot where - about this. Supposedly Soviet observers were allowed an inspection of German tank factories as a part of the non-aggression pact. The Soviets thought the Germans were hiding stuff because they thought the Geman tanks were inferior.

This supposedly worried the Germans.