The Buzz

How One of Hitler's Greatest Generals Conquered Ukraine (with Panzer Tanks)

The first time Adolf Hitler ventured into the captured territory of the Soviet Union was six weeks into the campaign on August 4, 1941, when he traveled to Borisov to the headquarters of Army Group Center and its commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. Colonel General Heinz Guderian, commander of the Army Group’s Panzer Group 2, whose troops had spent those seven weeks slashing through the western Soviet Union, had been called to the headquarters to make a report to the Führer.

During their meeting, Hitler spoke of his indecision regarding the further course of the campaign. He said that Leningrad was the campaign’s primary objective at this point because of its industrial capacity. But he was not sure whether Moscow or Ukraine would come next. Later, Guderian wrote, “He seemed to incline toward the latter target for a number of reasons: first, Army Group South seemed to be laying the groundwork for victory in that area; secondly, he believed that the raw materials and agricultural produce of the Ukraine were necessary to Germany for the further prosecution of the war; and finally, he thought it essential that the Crimea, ‘that Soviet aircraft carrier operating against the Rumanian oilfields’ be neutralized.”

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On the flight back to his own headquarters, Guderian decided he would make preparations based on a continuation of the attack toward Moscow, which was the course he thought to be best and he knew that it was the priority for Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the Army, Army Chief of Staff Colonel General Franz Halder, and Field Marshal von Bock. At that point the troops on the panzer group’s north flank were in heavy combat in the Yelna salient east of Smolensk, while on the south flank they had just encircled several Soviet divisions in Roslavl, 425 miles from their start on June 22 and 225 miles from Moscow.

On July 19, Hitler had issued Directive 33, ordering Army Group Center to continue its advance toward Moscow with only infantry units and to turn its armored units to the north toward Leningrad and to the south toward Ukraine, unleashing a storm of controversy. Over the next five weeks, what had been a simmering bone of contention flared into open controversy. Halder pleaded for a continuation of the attack toward Moscow, believing that diversions to the north and south would only bog his troops down in positional warfare. Bock also lobbied for Moscow, supported by Guderian and Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth, commander of Army Group Center’s other armored spearhead, Panzer Group 3. All three firmly believed that the only way to defeat the Soviet Union was to capture its capital, the central hub of the entire nation, before year’s end.

On August 12, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander of the armed forces, issued an order confirming the intention of removing the armored units from Army Group Center for use in attacks to the north and south. On the 18th, Halder and von Brauchitsch sent a long memorandum to Hitler thoroughly explaining their objections. Hitler stood firm. Halder suggested to von Brauchitsch that they resign in protest, but von Brauchitsch vacillated. They did not resign. Ironically, on the other side of the front line Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin was enduring a similar struggle.

Toward the end of July, General Georgi Zhukov, chief of staff of the Red Army, had reported to Stalin that a continued German advance from Smolensk toward Moscow was unlikely. He said German losses at Smolensk had been heavy and they had no available reserve. He therefore suggested that some of the units in front of Moscow should be transferred to other, more threatened sectors. Stalin flatly refused. He was sure that Moscow was Hitler’s primary target and would not even consider lessening its protection.

As he was concluding his remarks, Zhukov struck what turned out to be another tender spot when he said that Kiev would have to be surrendered. Stalin would not even think of surrendering Kiev, the third most populous city in the Soviet Union. He saw Zhukov’s words as an indication that he had lost his nerve and removed him from his position as chief of staff. Fortunately for the Soviets, Stalin assigned Zhukov to command the Reserve Front rather than having him shot, as had been his previous practice.

On August 12, Stalin appointed Lt. Gen. Andrei Eremenko to command the new Briansk Front composed of the Fiftieth and Thirteenth Armies and gave him specific orders to prepare to stop the renewed German offensive against Moscow, which was expected soon. Zhukov, though no longer chief of staff, kept himself fully informed about the overall situation. When he learned that recent prisoner interrogations indicated that Army Group Center had indeed gone over to the defensive on the approaches to Moscow he became alarmed.

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