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.
Zhukov wired Stalin on August 19 and reiterated his concerns in light of recent events. In his reply, Stalin agreed with Zhukov that enemy operations indicated a potential threat to the Southwestern Front in Ukraine, but he said that resolute measures were being undertaken to prevent that. Stalin also restated his resolve to hold Kiev. Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos, commander of the Southwestern Front, agreed with Stalin. He could and would successfully defend Ukraine.
Army Group Center’s Second Army, which was attacking eastward on Panzer Group 2’s right flank, had not been able to keep pace with the motorized units of the panzer group. During the first week of August, Second Army’s easternmost units were attacking near Cherikov on the Sosh River, almost 100 miles southwest of Guderian’s units fighting on the Desna River east of Roslavl. Therefore, the panzer group’s XXIV Motorized Corps spent the next three weeks cleaning up pockets of enemy troops on its southern and southwestern flanks, eliminating the threat and enabling the Second Army to catch up. This brought Panzer Group 2’s units farther south. Whether they would continue in that direction or turn to the northeast toward Moscow was still up in the air.
On the 23rd, Guderian, as well as all the Army commanders subordinated to Army Group Center, were summoned to a conference at army group headquarters with von Bock and Halder. Fourth Army’s Field Marshal Hans von Kluge, Second Army commander Col. Gen. Maximilian von Weichs, commander of the Ninth Army Colonel General Adolf Strauss, and the panzer leaders Guderian and Hoth were gathered in the conference room when von Bock and a dour looking Halder walked in.
“The Führer has decided to conduct neither the operation against Leningrad as previously envisaged by him, nor the offensive against Moscow as proposed by the Army General Staff, but to take possession first of the Ukraine and the Crimea,” Halder announced.
The generals were stunned!
“What can we do against this decision?” asked von Bock. “Nothing. It’s immutable,” Halder replied. There it was, the decision that they all feared and fought had been made.
But maybe there was something they could do. Bock suggested that Guderian accompany Halder back to the Führer’s headquarters in East Prussia and try to convince Hitler to change his mind. They had to try something.
Guderian and Halder arrived at the headquarters about 8 on that Saturday evening; Halder went to check on arrangements for a meeting with Hitler while Guderian reported to von Brauchitsch. Guderian was floored when von Brauchitsch greeted him with the words, “I forbid you to mention the question of Moscow to the Führer. The operation to the south has been ordered. The problem now is simply how it is to be carried out. Discussion is pointless!”
Guderian thought the meeting was, therefore, pointless, but the army commander insisted, make your report, but no mention of Moscow.
Several members of the Führer’s staff were present in the map room, including Keitel; General Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff of the armed forces; Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief adjutant; and many others but neither Halder nor von Brauchitsch. Guderian was on his own.
Hitler greeted the panzer leader cordially and asked for his report. Guderian spoke about the current situation, the condition of his troops and their equipment, about the supply situation and Russian resistance.
“Do you believe your troops are still capable of a major effort?” Hitler inquired.
Guderian saw his opening. “If the troops are set a great objective, the kind that would inspire every man of them, yes.”
“You are, of course, thinking of Moscow,” Hitler replied.
“Yes my Führer, may I have permission to give my reasons?”
“By all means Guderian. Say whatever is on your mind.”
General Guderian began slowly, laying out the detail he had organized on the plane:
Moscow was the head and heart of the Soviet Union …
It’s the communications center …