Could the Germans have taken Moscow?

Saturday, July 10th, 2021

When more than 3 million German and German-allied troops surged across the border on June 22, 1941, many expected Operation Barbarossa to be a walkover:

“Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards,” predicted Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. An embarrassingly large number of U.S. and British experts agreed, mindful of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s officer corps purges and the Red Army’s incompetent performance against tiny Finland in the 1939 to 1940 Winter War. An unending series of Soviet military disasters in the summer and fall of 1941 — including the killing or capture of 650,000 Soviet soldiers at Kyiv — only reinforced that opinion.

But the red banner flying over the Reichstag in May 1945 proved the experts wrong. And a new computer wargame helps explains why.

[…]

The game is a number cruncher’s dream, tracking everything from the number of operable tanks and trucks, to the combat and administrative competence of individual generals, to whether sufficient raw materials are reaching arms factories.

[…]

Battlefield success in the game depends on factors like morale, combat experience, troop fatigue, and the skill of their commanders. Because the Germans have better troops and commanders in 1941, they can chew up the Soviet armies, forcing the Soviets to hastily commit unprepared reserves, which in turn get destroyed in a vicious cycle.

[…]

Compared to the lavishly equipped U.S. Army of World War II, the German and Soviet armies faced a logistical nightmare. Although the United States and Britain held an abundance of Detroit-made trucks to haul supplies, the Germans and Soviets were always short of vehicles, and the ones they had were quickly devoured by Russia’s primitive roads. While armored units were fully motorized, Germany and Russia’s poor infantry relied on horses to haul artillery and supplies. For them, World War II was more like World War I (what historian Omer Bartov has called the “de-modernization” of the German army in the East) and only a short step away from French leader Napoléon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.

Hence, both sides on the Eastern Front relied on railroads to move troops and supplies. Armies tended to move along routes where there were railroads to supply them, but even then, logistics were difficult. Compared to Western Europe and North America, rail lines in Russia were sparse and wider than European tracks, which meant the Germans had to re-lay them as well as repair Russian scorched-earth damage to rail yards.

[…]

The game features a detailed logistical model that tracks supplies by the tons. (Yes, the tons, although the computer does most of the bean counting). Fuel, ammunition, and food are transported along rail lines to depots, where they are distributed by truck and horse-drawn wagon (and a limited capacity for aerial resupply). But railroads have a limited capacity; the rail lines actually change color on the map as their capacity is quickly overloaded. That leaves trucks, but there aren’t enough of them. And the more trucks that travel through Russia’s forests and swamps, the more trucks that break down. (Yes, the game tracks broken-down and repaired vehicles.)

This is devastating for all mechanized units, for which gasoline is life. But especially so for the Germans in 1941, who relied on their fast-moving panzers to encircle and pin the Russian armies until the foot-slow infantry moved in the for kill. Without gas, the tanks can’t perform their bold maneuvers.

This isn’t a problem at the start of the game as the Germans begin their offensive from well-stocked bases in East Prussia, Poland, and Romania.

[…]

The biggest question: Could the Germans have taken Moscow if they concentrated all of their forces on a single knife-like thrust to the Soviet capital? War in the East 2 suggests this strategy would have been a disaster: There simply wasn’t the rail and truck capacity to mass forces for a Moscow-only offensive.

The game is Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2, from Matrix Games.

Comments

  1. Bomag says:

    Crevald makes this point in Supplying War: Logistics From Wallenstein To Patton.

    “Amateurs think tactics; professionals think logistics.”

  2. Adar says:

    Stalin had 14 million trained reservists. Hitler had almost none. The Soviet army as it numbered in Jun 1941 was destroyed. Troops were just replaced. German troops were not so easily replace.

    According to Lucas, in the Soviet offensive to save Moscow in December 1841 the intention was not merely to save Moscow but to destroy the German Army Group Center, and it nearly did.

  3. Dan Kurt says:

    Of course the Germans could have taken Moscow. Read Stolfi’s book Hitler’s Panzers East.

    Also, the Germans could have taken Stalingrad had a competent commander been in command instead of the dithering incompetent Friedrich Paulus; he was a fine staff office but not a suitable commander. Read Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin: The Eastern Front, 1941-1945 by John Mosier.

  4. VXXC says:

    I applaud someone besides soldiers appreciating the importance of logistics.

    On the Moscow drive, I just finished The Viaz’ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army’s Disastrous Stand against Operation Typhoon, by Lev Lopukhovsky.

    [His father died there. He spent decades in the archives trying to find out what happened and find his father's body. He did not find his father. He did write a marvelous book. He had to really work to get the info from the archives under both the USSR and even now. He started in the 1960s and published in 2009.]

    He makes the point that the Smolensk and following Viaz’ma encirclements — Kyiv was first one — did in fact slow down and bog down the Panzers enough that their strength was 50% or less by the time they switched from encircling the Red Army for the drive on Moscow and they just ran out of energy, men, tanks and good weather. It was far from just the winter. It was not only the roads and the poor logistics.

    To answer your question, had they concentrated all on Moscow instead of also grabbing Ukraine, is difficult; they didn’t. There’s also delaying the operation several crucial weeks for the sideshow in Yugoslavia. If we want to what-if: given the shock that both Stalin and the entire USSR system had at the outset a main drive for Moscow in the summer, right from the go, instead of putting it off until October, might well have worked, in terms of getting to Moscow. One can also point out that Napoleon got to Moscow, and it availed him not.

    Steven Kotkin, a historian I respect said the final verdict of the Eastern War is the same as 1812: the regime remained intact and marshalled the Russian Empire’s huge resources to final victory. He made the same point that by 1942 the seasoned and brilliant German Army of 1941 no longer existed. They were all casualties. From 1942 on those are new soldiers, often green, as were their lower-level leaders.

    Watch Stalin at War — Stephen Kotkin.

  5. Cassander says:

    German power fell off more as a function of distance than time. If Moscow had been 500 km or 750 km from the German start line instead of 1000, it falls. But 1000 was just a bit too far, and there’s probably nothing they could have realistically done to change that. Focusing more on Moscow leaves the Germans with more exposed flanks and more Russians escaping to fight against Typhoon.

    Dan Kurt, Paulus wasn’t great, but he was trying to go nearly another 1000 km on top of the first lunge, with an army that had a lot more wear and tear on it than it had a year previously. And taking the city would have done little to improve the strategic situation he was in, very far from home on the end of a long tether, surrounded by more and more enemies.

  6. VXXC says:

    Cassander, I’m not going to really disagree about Typhoon. I am saying that the initial focus of Barbarossa had as it’s main objective of Moscow their chances of taking it would have been greatly improved. Whether that wins the war is another matter.

    Hitler had his Generals go after Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad and seize broad economic objectives, and by the time they really take up the drive to Moscow it’s not only October but the Heer is greatly attrited.

    From David Glantz:

    “[Barbarossa] the operation’s objectives were to defeat and destroy the Soviet Union’s Red Army, seize the cities of Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, overthrow the Soviet Union’s communist government, and exploit Soviet territory for the benefit of Germany. Plan (Fall) Barbarossa’s most important assumption was that the Soviet Union would collapse if the Wehrmacht could destroy the bulk of the Red Army in the border region of the western Soviet Union, specifically, west of the Western Dvina and Dnepr rivers.

    >>The plan’s most significant flaw was the sharp disagreement between Hitler and many of his generals regarding Barbarossa’s objectives, specifically, the German Fü hrer’s fixation on economic objectives and attacking on a broad front to destroy the bulk of the Red Army in the field and his generals’ concern for seizing Moscow in a rapid advance characterized by a series of spectacular encirclement battles (Kesselschlacht).”

  7. VXXC says:

    And as far as their lunge in 1942 with 6th Army especially their strategic picture and overreach was madness. They overstretched themselves and their flanks to a fatal degree, inviting disaster, and it came.

    I agree with Guderian, Hitler’s orders came from the last person he spoke to, and the entire time he is unable to prioritize what’s important. It happened in 1940 as well when he let the British escape, halting because he was afraid of exposed flanks, or perhaps because Goering told him he could destroy the British from the air, or perhaps he wanted to give them a “golden bridge” to escape and negotiate with England.

    I don’t entirely agree with postwar Generals blaming it all on Hitler — when Stalin died the Russian Generals did the same — but the records are actually clear that both were interfering fools.

    Stalin just learned, and Hitler didn’t.

  8. Gavin Longmuir says:

    A more interesting puzzle is the Red Army’s prior abysmal performance against mighty Finland. Why did Stalin make such a dog’s breakfast of that campaign?

    One explanation is that the particular Red Army forces thrown against Finland were definitely B-team, and were from southern parts of the USSR and unprepared for that kind of winter warfare. But, if true, that would raise the further question of why Stalin would have sent in the B-team and endured the resulting embarrassment?

    Now we know that Stalin was in the process of moving forces to invade German-held territory when Hitler beat him to the punch with Barbarossa, one wonders if Stalin deliberately sacrificed thousands of men in Finland, just so that Hitler would underestimate the Red Army. Certainly, Stalin would not have shed a tear for the loss of so many of his citizen-soldiers.

  9. VXXC says:

    Gavin: “Now we know that Stalin was in the process of moving forces to invade German-held territory when Hitler beat him to the punch with Barbarossa…”

    We don’t know that. In fact it’s probably not the case, the Red Arm wasn’t even mobilized, and the Soviet Troops on 22 June weren’t allowed to return fire at first. The Artillery didn’t even return fire until 10 AM. The attack began at 0300. They were under orders not to return fire because Stalin and STAVKA considered it provocations and knew they were in no shape for war. When the initial disasters unfolded Stalin had a breakdown and was muttering, “this is the end,” until Zhukov went to his dacha and manned him up. The USSR was caught not mobilized and indeed paralyzed. That’s not a war footing.

    Finland was a disaster because they’d purged the Army. It was a study in incompetence. There was no A team to send.

  10. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Viktor Suvorov has written a number of books based on Soviet-era archives (e.g. The Chief Culprit, 2008) making a convincing case that both Germany and the USSR were planning to attack each other. But Germany got their blow in first.

    Per Suvorov, the reason the initial German attack was so effective was that the USSR forces were already on the move for their own planned attack on Germany. The USSR forces were out of their defensive positions, in the open, separated from their supply trains, etc. In short, the USSR forces were caught with their pants down, and could not react to the initial German attack.

    Apparently, Suvorov’s assessment is now recognized by many historians as having merit.

  11. Cassander says:

    VXXC, my point is that I don’t think the initial goal makes much of a difference. The logistical situation only permitted so much manpower and supplies to move towards Moscow, and by the time they got to 900 km, those men were going to be exhausted and low on supplies. They sent men to Leningrad and Kiev in part because they couldn’t be sent to Moscow. Or, at least, if you send them that way, then you leave your flanks exposed and end up leaving at least as many men behind guarding them, which is what happened with the Stalingrad offensive.

    Trying to destroy the Soviet Army at the outset, as close as possible to Germany, was the right move. The trouble was the Red Army was a lot bigger than they thought and, more importantly, more able to hold together despite tremendous losses than anyone predicted.

  12. Sam J. says:

    There’s a definitive answer to all this based on more recent information. First I believe Viktor Suvorov completely. I’ve read most of his books and he is obsessive about logistics and logistics all things being equal make or break a war. Suvorov is very convincing.

    And if you don’t believe Suvorov how about Hitler himself? I happened to run across this recording a few days ago. Apparently this is the only recording of Hitler’s normal voice and in part of it he says,”…If somebody had told me a nation could start with 35,000 tanks I’d have said “you are crazy”…”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClR9tcpKZec

    Hitler’s verification of the vast amount of armaments that were for attack shows that Stalin meant to attack.

    There’s something I may have pointed out here before but if not it’s one of THE MOST IMPORTANT things that broke Hitler and the Germans. I read most of David Irving’s books and his work is excellent. In the book on Hermann Göring I read a a passage that immediately raised a big flashing red light. When Hitler was slowed down at Stalingrad Hitler called in Göring and asked him if he could deliver so many tons of supplies to Stalingrad and he said he could. In Irvings book he says that Göring and his aid KNEW this was not true. That there was no way possible they could deliver this amount of supplies and Göring lied because he was afraid of Hitler. This is why Hitler insisted they stay. He was told supplies were getting there that never made it. THAT is why Stalingrad was lost. Not because the General sucked, not because Hitler was an idiot, it was because less than 25% (I think this number is correct it’s probably close) of the amount of supplies guaranteed were actually delivered. At the end they couldn’t even defend the airfields to get more in because they didn’t have the material to do so. They ran out of food, fuel and bullets. So Goring lying to Hitler is one of the major reasons that the Germans lost WWII.

    If you read about Göring you realize he was a huge f__k up. Hitler let him get away with so much because Göring was a hero and Hitler looked up to him. I think he assumed a Man like this would do all he could properly but he didn’t. He really messed up a lot of things and did not get the right supply of planes needed in time. He spent a lot of time stealing paintings and art from the places the Germans conquered and in his hunting lodge.

    Later in the war when Speer and others took over logistics they made a massive push and greatly increased weapons supplies and development very rapidly but…not fast enough it was too late.

    Look at this excellent plane they put together in record time. It was a transport plane they cobbled together from a massive glider project. It had wheels all along it’s lower body so it could land on fields even when they had ditches across them. Think if they had a couple thousand of these earlier in the war. Supplies would not have been a problem.

    https://worldwarwings.com/messerschmitt-me-323-the-largest-land-based-transport-aircraft-of-wwii/

  13. Goober says:

    Could they have taken Moscow?

    Doubtful. The Red Army stopped them and then proceeded to pound them hard at places like Rzhev.

    But even if they did, so what? The USSRs resources and military might didn’t emanate from Moscow, and the Germans had made it very clear that this was a war of extermination. Taking Moscow would likely have done very little in the grand scheme of defeating the Red Army. That’s a whole different ball of wax, and Germany simply wasn’t going to be able to do that.

  14. VXXC says:

    I’m not going to disagree with the above about Moscow falling = win the war.

    I will disagree that Stalin was planning to attack Hitler, no. That they had vast amounts of equipment was simply because they had vast amounts of equipment, and too far forward. The Soviet Army was not mobilized at the time of the war, that’s the clincher. They were no more going to attack Germany than France or Poland was going to attack Germany.

    They were in an idiotic posture of too much too far forward but not mobilized so as to not “provoke” the Germans. There’s also the problem of WW2 thinking across the board with every nation that first encounters the Germans: the Poles, the French, the Russians, and even the English were thinking in WW1 terms of mobility and troop dispositions.

  15. VXXC says:

    Cassander, I’m not really disagreeing with you. Moscow may have well been just too far. But the German effort in the East was strategic dissipation from the start.

  16. Gavin Longmuir says:

    VXXC: “I will disagree that Stalin was planning to attack Hitler, no.”

    What is the basis of your disagreement? It is a genuine question.

    I was impressed with the thoroughness of Viktor Suvorov’s books — very Russian, lots of detail. He shows that after Stalin invaded Poland (in concert with Hitler), the USSR built strong defensive lines close to the line of division. But then shortly before Barbarossa, the Red Army started to move out of those defensive positions into salients ready to attack into German-occupied Poland. That was why the Red Army was so exposed to the initial German assault, and so easily over-run.

    If you think Suvorov is wrong, it would be helpful to explain why. After all, none of us were there at the time. We all have to rely on information from others.

  17. VXXC says:

    Sure,

    1. The Soviet Army was not mobilized in the summer of 1941. This above all.

    2. Defensive lines and troop concentrations far too forward and easily encircled but still defensive.

    3. Despite evidence of a troop buildup on the German side they still do not mobilize.

    4. Even the very night of the attack the Soviet units not caught napping only were so because their commanders disregarded orders.

    5. The actual orders were not to respond to provocations – shooting by the Germans – and the artillery units on the border don’t shoot back until 10 AM, 7 hours into the attack.

    6. Stalin and STAVKA are both at first convinced this is a provocation then stunned and paralyzed for days when the debacle unfolds. This is not an offensive mindset.

    7. The Soviet units aren’t given any offensive orders, indeed few orders at all until shortly before the attack and only the better Commanders stand their units to, see the declas RU links below. This is simply not an offensively minded army.

    8. The Wargames that summer are mostly about defending on RU soil with counterattacks, had they been competent to carry out the plan sound..they were not.

    9. The USSR is well aware it’s not in any shape to attack Germany, or defend and was in the midst of a post Finland [and post purge] reorganization.

    10. Suvorov apparently tells a good tale, but that’s all it is.

    11. Yes the Soviets had huge amounts of material, they’d been preparing for war for a decade. But that is not planning an offensive. It’s an arms buildup in response to foreign buildups and arms races beginning with the Italians in the 1920s, followed by the Japanese, then the Soviets, then of course the Germans, too late France, almost too late England.

    12. RU declas link on the first days. This is not an army prepping for invasion.

    http://22june.mil.ru/

    (Google will translate Russian.)

  18. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Thanks for responding, VXXC. I was hoping for something more tangible.

    We all have to rely on reports from others — and we have to recognize that those reports were written by human beings with axes to grind. During WWII, the image of Mother Russia being ravished by the evil Germans served the USSR well — lots of US material aid and a lack of Western criticism for its occupation of Eastern Europe. Perhaps a case of Stalin making lemonade out of the lemons Germany had handed him?

    I find Suvorov’s historical researches to be quite convincing — more than the older post-WWII “innocent Russia surprised by German invasion” tale. But that is merely my current personal assessment, and I try to keep an open mind for additional information.

  19. Sam J. says:

    “10. Suvorov apparently tells a good tale, but that’s all it is…”

    I totally disagree and all the things you raised Suvorov covers. In his books he said defensive fortifications were actually razzed in places. They spent next to no money on fortifications for defense.

    “11. Yes the Soviets had huge amounts of material, they’d been preparing for war for a decade. But that is not planning an offensive…”

    And Suvorov covers this. He goes into absolute minute detail on what “kinds” of weapons Stalin built. They wee offensive weapons. I mean if you’re all for defense why do you (i don’t remember the exact number but it was huge) raise 400,000 paratroopers and outfit them all???

    I don’t think you read the same books as I did by Suvorov cause he covers all your objections as if he knew you or someone were going to make them.

    The Russians failed because all their plans were for attack. Most all their equipment was moved up but all the preparations had not been done yet.

    Stalin was known to kill off anyone who didn’t follow orders or did things on his own initiative so everything fell apart when the Germans attacked they hunkered down and waited for orders. These people were terrorized for decades. They were not going to do anything without orders and the only orders they had were to attack Germany and that was not happening.

    “I find Suvorov’s historical researches to be quite convincing — more than the older post-WWII ‘innocent Russia surprised by German invasion’ tale…”

    You’re not wrong at all. The detail is very deep. We should note that Suvorov’s job in the USSR was to analyze just what type equipment and logistics were needed for wars. So he knew exactly what he was talking about ad since it was his job he had access to this type analysis done during WWII.

    I’ll take the word of guy whose job is to plan wars any day over a county full of historians.

  20. Sam J. says:

    “9. The USSR is well aware it’s not in any shape to attack Germany…”

    They had 35,000 tanks and I can’t remember how many attack aircraft. Vast large numbers of aircraft also.

  21. TRX says:

    “If you read about Göring you realize he was a huge f__k up.”

    Goering was a legitimate war hero, a decorated fighter pilot who took over the unit formerly commanded by Richthofen. He was with Hitler at the failed putsch in 1923. He moved in high society and industry; if you needed something done, Hermann knew who to talk to. When tested at Nuremberg, he was given an intelligence test and scored 138 despite being in severe drug withdrawal… and that was the problem; he’d been a morphine addict since the early 1920s, and heroin, and methamphetamine, and anything else that gave him a buzz. By the time WWII started he was probably only intersecting with reality-as-we-know-it on rare occasions.

    So… given the Luftwaffe command structure, if Goering wasn’t operating up to snuff, neither was the Luftwaffe, at least from a strategic perspective. Maybe in his drug haze he really thought he could bring Britain to its knees or supply Stalingrad, but he let his mouth write checks his subordinates couldn’t cash.

  22. VXXC says:

    Suvorov is a defector and sang for his supper.

    If someone can show me the USSR mobilized in 1941 I might begin to bend a bit, but that is the clincher. Not to mention being caught flatfooted. There simply was no offensive mindset.

    Vast numbers of tanks, most of which were quite outclassed or obsolete.

    Offensive weapons ≠ planned invasion. They’re just better weapons to have for maneuver warfare. I mean here tanks and aircraft, and of course the Soviets had offensive doctrine and offensive plans- most armies do. Defense alone is merely prolonging your defeat. Austria, the most defensive of powers, had plans and frequently did switch to the offense when they were ready.

    Logistics in shambles because of the purges.

    I just don’t believe it, and I don’t believe him. I’m going to be honest and admit I haven’t read him, and don’t plan to read him. I simply will not believe a defector singing for his supper.

    Simply a wild bit of revisionist history, apparently well told.

  23. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “I’m going to be honest and admit I haven’t read him, and don’t plan to read him.”

    That seems rather closed-minded.

  24. Sam J. says:

    “Suvorov is a defector and sang for his supper.”

    What kind of person sings for his supper “off key”? No one else had this perspective. Why should he, defector or not? A good defector tells them what they expect to hear.

    “I just don’t believe it, and I don’t believe him. I’m going to be honest and admit I haven’t read him, and don’t plan to read him. I simply will not believe a defector singing for his supper.”

    Well there it is.

    “What’s behind door number three?”

    “Nothing.”

    “Wait, we do have something behind door number three.”

    “No, there’s nothing there, and I refuse to look.”

  25. Sam J. says:

    “Offensive weapons ≠ planned invasion.”

    Lots of caskets and piles of bodies drained of blood ≠ vampires, but that’s the way to bet.

  26. VXXC says:

    I am glad the man has his partisans.

    Given the limited amount of time in life I can’t read every book, I must pick and choose. I am choosing not to enter this particular rabbit hole as I have no reason to do so.

    At times we must all close our minds, there simply isn’t room or time for everything.

    If it helps you in some way to believe that Stalin was about to invade Germany through Poland do believe it, I simply can’t justify the investment of time reading a case, Suvorov’s case, that I have no ability to independently refute nor time nor interest to do so, and I’m honest enough to admit I don’t believe it for reasons discussed.

    Good hunting though!

  27. Gavin Longmuir says:

    You are right, VXXC, that there is limited time in life and lots of topics we each can never follow up on. But it might be reasonable for us not to adopt such fixed ideas about topics we have decided not to investigate.

    I have been told that historians now take Suvorov’s claims quite seriously. After all, it seems hardly surprising to assert that the USSR as well as Germany had no intention of honoring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact indefinitely.

    It is fairly clear that documents from the USSR in the early 1950s when Stalin was still alive are likely to follow the Party line, regardless of reality. It is also fairly clear that a defector who wanted to sing for his supper would have to have something more timely than a revised version of things that happened decades earlier. That certainly enters my assessment of which version is likely to be more credible.

    One thing that Suvorov pointed out was the parallels between Red Army activities prior to Barbarossa and prior to its (successful) attack on Japanese-held Manchuria at the end of WWII. But if you are not interested, you are not interested.

  28. Sam J. says:

    VXXC says,”…Given the limited amount of time in life I can’t read every book, I must pick and choose…”

    I fully get that. I had piles of books I don’t have time to read but viciously arguing that someone is wrong while refusing to actually see his arguments is not an honest way to debate anything. His book is really detailed and very convincing.

    You’re raising points in argument that he has covered.

    Finland I think the reasons the Finns did so well really is down to poor Russian leadership, because most Generals had been killed, and the terrain was totally against the Russian mass attack system. There were few paths to follow surrounded by swamps and the Finns hammered all paths they had to go through. The Russian system didn’t allow much on the way of innovation and worked great on large plains but failed in more obstructive structured terrain.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Finland

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