I’m agnostic on the Kiev/Moscow debate as articulated so far, leaning towards “no purely strategic/operational choice would have been decisive in August 1941.” In particular, I find Stolfi’s book half-baked. Askey is making a better case and I’m interested to see its full articulation while respectfully skeptical.
My fundamental reservations are that:
- (1) merely trading Kiev+Taifun for an earlier Vyzma+Moscow doesn’t change force ratios decisively from the OTL case,
- (2) Likewise, trading Moscow for Donbas probably doesn’t decisively change the economic picture, such that 1942 goes decisively differently.
- (3) Given similar force ratios, holding Moscow in winter is dubious as it would be a magnet for Soviet counteroffensives. It would conceivably force Stalin to mount a concentrated effort that traps AGC in an earlier and worse Stalingrad, rather than dissipating forces front-wide as in OTL.
- (1) A “Kiev-lite,” combined with an earlier Vyazma, would feasibly destroy more RKKA in September than OTL.
- (2)Greater force destruction in ATL September allows Ostheer to advance and destroy on both the Ukraine and Moscow axes in October, removing the typical “either/or” strategic/economic quandary.
- (3)Greater force destruction in both ATL September and October, combined with assuming rational winter defensive lines after taking Moscow, could feasibly enable holding Moscow against even a concentrated Soviet winter offensive, while also holding more in the South. This might decisively change the 1942 picture and the war’s outcome.
I. SWF’s defeat was imminent by September 1941 even absent Guderian.
On this I’ve changed my mind recently. I’m going to justify this judgement at some length because AHF members and certain authors often state “SWF was doomed anyway” but without sufficient argumentation. Understanding SWF’s true situation will go a long way to explaining my ATL.
6th Army (LI AK) was over the Dniepr north of Kiev (at Gornostaipol) by August 24th. From August 27th, however, SWF counterattacks pushed 111 ID back from breaching the Desna. SWF then contained the Gornostaipol bridgehead for 10 days, with LI AK crossing the Desna on September 6. Thereafter, LI AK broke out from its Desna bridgehead (around Oster) by September 10th, later linking up with XXIV AK on September 17 (might have been the 18th technically).
The infantry therefore achieved on their own a large portion of “the” Kiev kessel (really multiple kessels).
What was AGS’s armor doing at this time? Well we’ve seen that 11th panzer seized the Gornostaipol bridgehead on August 23rd/24th but by August 27th it was withdrawn to Korosten and would not see combat again until Operation Taifun. The bulk of PzGr1 was resting in the Dniepr bend by August 29th and wouldn’t begin crossing the Dniepr until September 11th . AGS’s infantry therefore achieved an encircling position without September help from PzGr1.
So consider the subsidiary ATL in which the only PoD is Guderian has attacked towards Moscow in late August: 6th/17th armies probably still close the inner ring of encirclement around Kiev if SWF holds firm as in OTL. One could argue that Guderian’s absence frees up forces to block the infantry armies but Guderian was mostly fighting Bryansk/Central fronts and they’ll have to deal with his thrust on Moscow in this ATL – by moving some of Bryansk Front’s forces towards Moscow and by attacking AGC’s flanks.
Simultaneously, one might argue that PzGr1 could have met up with 2nd Army to form the outer ring of encirclement. It would be a less-powerful, probably more-leaky ring but OTL shows that the Soviets posed little threat from outside the kessel, while ATL an earlier Moscow drive would have made the Soviet resources no stronger. A few mentions from AGS’s war diary:
T311 R258 Frame 570 – AGS report on Kiev kesselschlacht, September 16 1941:
T311 R258 Frame 583 – AGS report on Kiev kesselschlacht, September 17 1941A threat to the eastern flank of the PG1 and 2 by the enemy in the area of the HG is not recognizable even today.
T311 R258 Frame 605 – AGS report on Kiev kesselschlacht, September 18 1941The enemy neither threatened the encirclement operation from the east, nor did he undertake any major attempts to break through the encircled areas.
…these are the critical days after the September 15th linkup of PzGr’s 1&2 yet no sign of Soviet break-in attempts from outside the mega-pocket. No mention of them on subsequent days either.The enemy made no major breakthrough attempts or escape attempts from the east.
To me, the above suggests that Guderian might not have been needed to achieve the bulk of Kiev’s outcome: he mostly fought forces (Bryansk Front) that were only in the battle because of his presence. PzGr1 might have linked up with Second Army on its own and could conceivably have held the outer ring of encirclement against weak/non-existent counterattacks. (I will nuance this view below)
AGS’s record of PoW hauls provides further evidence:
The document breaks up the Kiev battle into Kessel (from Sept. 8) and pre-Kessel periods. AGC bagged only 39,342 of the Kessel PoW’s (AGC’s tally of its Kiev PoW’s – Kessel or not – is within ~2% of AGS’s, btw). We’ve already established Guderian’s seeming superfluity against break-ins; these stats show him as a minor factor in reducing the pocket along its inner lines as well (especially considering 2nd Army probably took most of AGC’s Kessel PoW’s).
Now for some nuance/caveat: It is true that 2nd Army’s advance southwards is a big part of the picture and that this advance was assisted by Guderian operating on its left flank. How far 2nd Army would have gone on its own I will leave to further discussion; Guderian could have moved south with it until mid-August before stopping for rest and then early Vyazma. The ATL proposes an alternative solution.
….so with all that setup we’re finally at the Gornostaipol option.
II. The Gornostaipol Option
OKH commits its reserve mechanized divisions (2 panzer, 1 motorized infantry) to AGS’s left wing, where they push Soviet 5th Army back over Dniepr – as in OTL – but now 6th Army is strong enough to develop its foothold into Kiev’s rear.
As we have seen, AGS seized the Gornostaipol bridgehead by August 24 (11th Panzer) and reached the Desna the next day. Then SWF counterattacked, checking LI Corps in the ~15 miles between the Dniepr and Desna until it crossed the latter on September 6.
In this ATL, the extra divisions consolidate Ostheer’s hold on the Dniepr-Desna gap rather than being forced back on August 27. Elements of 11th Panzer are also retained in the bridgehead instead of resting for Taifun (with appropriate compensation later). Here’s a crude illustration using OKH’s August 25 map:
The 3.5 mechanized divisions plus LI AK’s ID’s are forcing the Desna and rolling up Soviet forces on their left flank in the Dniepr-Desna gap. The latter move threatens the rear of forces opposing 2nd Army (XIII AK), compelling their retreat. As its opponents fall back to the Desna, 2nd Army can strengthen its left wing over OTL to compensate for Guderian’s absence.
In OTL, 6th Army’s breakout from the Gornostaipol-Oster bridgeheads axis didn’t occur until around September 10th, when 2nd Army had also crossed the Desna and was threatening the forces containing 6th Army in their rear. With 3.5 extra mechanized divisions, and having had time to consolidate its Dniepr-Desna gap communications and move forward its ID’s, the ATL 6th Army-Plus should be able to break out from the Desna on its own.
What then? Let’s schedule the breakout from the Gornostaipol-Oster axis, as in OTL, on September 10-11 (with the intervening time spent unshackling 2nd Army from its right-flank foes and consolidating the Oster bridgehead over the Desna). This timeline allows PzGr1 its OTL rest period before crossing the Dniepr around Kremenchug. Using OKH’s September 11 map and crude drawing, I see the following general course of battle:
The green lines represent the infantry army thrusts and are basically as in OTL: LI AK driving S-SE from Oster and XXIV AK north from Rzhishchevy to form the inner kessel around Kiev. The blue lines represent the 3.5 ATL mechanized divisions, which meet with PzGr1 to form an outer pocket roughly congruous with the main outer OTL pocket around what AGS calls “Raum Pirjatin-Solotonoscha.”. I’ve crossed out PzGr2 units in red… As mentioned, AOK 2 would have pivoted units into this space (though not as far south) by virtue of the added ATL units freeing its left flank in late-August and early September.
We are missing another pocket northeast of the Pirjatin-Solotonoscha grouping, but the primary documents imply that these pockets – formed primarily by AGC units – yielded only ~7% of the greater Kiev campaign’s PoW haul.
And while PzGr1 doesn’t have Guderian manning the outer ring of encirclement, our primary documents indicate that there was no outer threat OTL. ATL the earlier drive on Moscow will have sucked Bryansk Front and reserves towards it.
If we forego only 7% of OTL Kiev’s PoW haul, this “Kiev-lite” is not so lite. Even if it’s 15% foregone (i.e. 100k PoW), that’s a massive haul of ~560k. Combined with an early Vyazma that should bag near the same as OTL’s ~515k, Ostheer takes >400k more PoW in ATL September than OTL. That’s ~15% of RKKA’s German-facing front strength in OTL.
After Kiev, what next for AGS?
First, observe that the Gornostaipol Option has committed at least 4 of OTL Taifun’s mechanized divisions – the three reserve plus 11Pz – to AGS until at least late September. So they’re not joining the Moscow campaign for a while, if at all. I suspect this is why it wasn’t considered – OKH was too focused on radical concentration against Moscow after Kiev to notice a possible compromise.
In addition, it doesn’t make sense to transfer XXXXVIII Motorized Corps to PzGr2 (with 9PzDiv. and 16th Mot.) absent PzGr2’s jump-off towards Moscow being nearby.
So AGS has 6 more mechanized divisions, AGC 6 fewer. But recall that RKKA is ~15% weaker. Having 16.5 mech divs. (instead of 22.5) probably forces AGC to attack Moscow on a narrow front after Vyazma, which would be a good thing compared to OTL’s wide-sweeping approach. Ideally they’d take small, Roslavl-size bites out of the defenders, including on the flanks, as AGC approached Moscow.
Meanwhile, AGS has, functionally, another panzer group. Using OKH’s September 24th map, I’d envision something like this for October-November:
The green arrows roughly trace PzGr1’s OTL path (Azov Sea battle then Rostov). The first blue arrow adds a second pincer to 17th Army’s push on Kharkov. There’s not much to be encircled on 17A’s left flank but by cutting off Kharkov Ostheer would gain the city cheaply (and possibly with unevacuated equipment) or, if 17A’s OTL opponents stand firm, will take another big PoW haul. Then the second set of blue-green arrows represent a second pincer added to PzGr1’s OTL push along the Sea of Azov, meeting around Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk) – a big economic target that Ostheer didn’t take until July 1942.
Caveat is logistics: AGS lacked rail connections east of the Dniepr in fall ‘41; the second blue arrow is viable only if South/SW Fronts are very weak – i.e. if the additional ATL September losses, the ATL Kharkov battle, and/or the threat to Moscow preclude strongly defending Ukraine. Absent that situation, the “extra” panzer group drives north from Kharkov towards Kursk-Voronezh. Or it drives towards Bryansk after Kiev, seeking to replicate the Bryansk kessel in conjunction with 2nd Army as in OTL (but later). It would thereby return to AGC’s logistical burden.
III/IV. The Broader Picture.
Now let’s return to the broad picture:
- HGM has 16.5 mechanized divisions (if PzGr4 deploys as in OTL), 4 more than committed historically for Vyazma. Its ATL August/September opponent is no stronger than its ATL October opponent so there's sufficient forces for a Vyazma kessel.
- Missing the Bryansk element of Taifun could allow Bryansk Front (or its constituent forces) to counterattack the incipient Vyazma kessel but that seems unlikely to work given Efremov’s historical results.
- As in OTL October, RKKA's strength was concentrated along the Smolensk highway axis in August. So as in OTL October, I'd expect ~500k PoW's from the Vyazma pocket.
- This is a rough sketch that involves earlier Vyazma and Kiev-lite. The purpose is to illustrate possibilities for further consideration rather than to support strongly a certain outcome.
- Essential to this scenario, IMO, is the earlier Vyazma being a shallow encirclement like OTL Vyazma, rather than a “one-step” lunge for Moscow. IMO the latter would fail and/or have attrition results like OTL Smolensk, which makes holding Moscow unlikely. While Ostheer was sufficiently humbled in OTL October to go shallow (Bock still leaned delusional), I am not at all confident that AGC would have been humble in ATL late-August. OKH believed RKKA had only ~95 divisions of effective strength left (GSWW v.4, p. 581).
- Ideal ATL strategy would involve willingness to target defeat-in-detail of weakened RKKA forces, even if this precluded a mega-Kessel around Moscow.
None of these Moscow/Ukraine debates should have happened; the Germans should have started with a stronger army that would actually meet its goals on more one than axis (i.e. they needed one more panzer group, could have been even stronger than that).