Wehrmacht In Action12 January 2015

January 1942 - The Wehrmacht’s Finest Hour


The winter of 1941-42 in Russia was bitterly cold (temperatures reached a record low of -42 centigrade late in December), and the German Army was poorly equipped to operate in the freezing temperatures in which it found itself. At basic operational levels, from the grease and fuel needed to keep tanks running to the provision of adequate winter clothing for infantrymen (there were 228,000 casualties from frostbite alone during winter 1941-42), the Wehrmacht encountered grave problems. The failure of Operation Typhoon to take Moscow in November and early December was followed by the Red Army offensive that began in the morning of 5 December 1941. Within 10 days, the German Fourth Army in front of Moscow had been driven back 300km, and there was a real possibility that the entire German position facing Moscow would collapse. Next, the Red Army launched a concerted series of offensives all along the Eastern Front early in January 1942 - from Leningrad down to Rostov on Don - catching many German formations unawares. Then, too, this was a period when Hitler’s exasperation at the failure to to obey his order to stand fast made him sack generals willy nilly - C-in-C von Brauchitsch was sacked on 17 December, while 35 corps and divisional commanders were dismissed from December to March, adding further confusion.

It is a tribute to the fighting quality of the army that the Wehrmacht survived these crisis-filled months - perhaps its greatest achievement of the war. The victories of the previous three years had been based upon offensive operations and manoeuvre. Now, the German soldier had to learn a whole new way of fighting, based upon dogged defence against an enemy that held the initiative. It is true that there were some pieces of luck. For example, the Fourth Army being battered in front of Moscow was given some respite by a thaw in mid December that turned hard ground to mud and slowed Red Army pursuit for a week. And the Red Army itself was far from the experienced fighting machine it had become by 1944. Co-ordination of infantry with tanks, artillery, and air support was often woeful.

That being said, it was remarkable how German units managed to keep on fighting even when almost cut off. During December, they withdrew into village positions that they fortified into “hedgehogs”, defensive positions able to support themselves even when outflanked. From these basic defensive positions, they also needed to be able to keep contact with neighbouring German positions, and so the defence had to be mobile and troops needed to be ready to move out from the hedgehog when necessary. The positions were usually buttressed with effective minefields, which pushed Soviet attacking forces into “killing zones” that artillery or machine guns had already targeted.

German defensive doctrine up to December 1941 had emphasised an elastic defence, rather than waiting for the enemy to catch defenders in a fixed defensive perimeter. This was simply not possible for many German units in January 1942. They were facing great odds, with retreat often a worse option than staying on and fighting it out. Two things were soon clear to German unit commanders: the need to mass all firepower - both artillery, anti-tank guns and machine guns - suddenly and devastatingly on an attacking force; and the absolute imperative for local counter attacks to keep the Red Army off balance. These tactics were easier to describe than to put into practice, because there was a constant shortage of artillery shells, and in the coldest weather even the normally reliable MG34 machine gun malfunctioned. The skill sets of junior leaders within the Wehrmacht came up trumps here, in that artillery and machine gun teams soon learnt how to co-ordinate defensive fire in short, well aimed bursts.

Another key aspect of Wehrmacht defence was that individual units within any one hedgehog had faith in their neighbours to keep fighting and not to fall back unless they fell back in sync - there was a general sense of needing to keep fighting together even though relatively isolated. This sense of solidarity was probably as important as the actual tactical developments themselves, although it is difficult to quantify. The results of this willingness to fight on, however, were often astonishing. At Sukhininci, for example, a single regiment from the 216th Infantry Division was able to hold off two Soviet rifle divisions for over a month before it was relieved. Such stories were repeated all along the front during January. In spite of some Soviet successes when massed T34 attacks rolled over some hedgehogs morale held up remarkably.

The lessons learnt were rapidly disseminated, and there were long and comprehensive after-action reports from many formations that detailed the problems they had faced and how they had dealt with them - typical German thoroughness. However, Hitler also believed there were important lessons to draw from this desperate defensive fighting: firstly that his orders to stand and fight had been correct, and secondly that encircled formations could be supplied from the air (as happened with the Demyansk and Kholm Pockets in 1942). These misapprehensions caused millions of Wehrmacht casualties over the next three years.