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Book Review 274: The Drive on Moscow 1941

April 28, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE DRIVE ON MOSCOW 1941: Operation Taifun and Germany's First Great Crisis in World War II, by Niklas Zetterling and Andres Frankson. 336 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

The war in Europe was decided before the United States became a combatant. This is a judgment long held by historians, especially those who are not American. Niklas Zetterling and Andres Frankson validate it with their study of the German “final assault” on Moscow that began Oct. 1, 1941.

Zetterling and Frankson, prolific writers on Eastern Front operations, make extensive use of operational documents that have now been available for nearly 20 years. The older conclusions remain persuasive.

“The Drive on Moscow 1941” is not revisionist history, even if it will seem so to many American readers.

Zetterling and Frankson are sophisticated strategic analysts, although their writing is rather pedestrian and that conceals somewhat the incisiveness of their report. But they are also narrowly focused in this book.

They set out the strategic situation as it presented itself to the Hitlerians before hot war began in 1939, but they do not consider the “what ifs” of the way things played out.

They do not, for example, consider whether the formations frittered away in North Africa would have changed the outcome of the battles if sent to Russia. This restraint is commendable.

However, it is surprising that they do not even mention the three-week delay in the start of Operation Barbarossa caused by the coup of Serbian monarchists in March. When playing “what if,” this event makes for one of the more plausible alternative histories.

It is unquestionable that Hitler's unscheduled conquest of the Balkans delayed his Russian adventure. After digesting the prisoners of the initial drive, the German army was ready to renew its drive on Moscow on October 1.

The slight breathing space allowed the Red Army while the Germans reduced the Kiev pocket did not prove helpful tactically. In 10 days, the Germans rounded up even more prisoners than they had in the initial drive.

The Russian losses were at least 670,000.

Then it rained. The tired and worn out Germans could not go forward. It was a huge struggle just to get food and munitions to the forward formations.

Zetterling and Frankson, unlike most historians, give full attention to the consequences of the German army's use of horse transport.

In a sense, we can push the determination of the outcome of the European war to Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany unleashed “lightning war” on Poland. The rush of the tanks obscured the fact that the German army moved by rail and, where the tracks ended, horse.

It can be argued that in Russia blitzkrieg was a phantasm. No matter how fast the panzers advanced, the rest of the German army was not going to move faster than Napoleon's Grand Armee had in 1812.

Still, despite that, it is conceivable that the German army could have encircled Moscow in autumn 1941 if it had gotten an earlier start.

What might have happened then is imponderable.

It didn't happen because the autumn rains began just about when they usually did.


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