Strategy: Leningrad, Moscow or Kiev?
By Wilhelm Mann
By early August 1941, five weeks after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, opinions among the OKW, the OKH and some of the field generals diverged.
The first idea of Hitler and OKW was for Field Marshal von Leeb, leader of Army Group North, to move northeast and take Leningrad with a strong, decisive thrust that would cut the city and its immediate hinterland from Moscow, join with the Finnish forces and secure the supply for his army group through the Baltic Sea. The larger part of Army Group Center would then support the move south to obtain the treasures of the Ukraine; then conquer Moscow without too great military risks.
Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief adjutant, had relayed this to Col. General Heinz Guderian at their July 29 meeting on the east bank of the Dnieper River, on the occasion of rewarding him with the Oakleaf of the Knight’s Cross. With all his power as Germany’s tank expert, convincingly successful in the Polish and French campaigns, Guderian argued for the thrust toward Moscow.
Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2 and Colonel General Hermann Hoth’s Panzerkorp 3 were the powerful spearheads of Army Group Center. It was known that Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge, commander-in-chief of the Fourth Army and Guderian’s superior, sided with the OKW, advising more caution. Further complicating matters—the relationship between the two was rather estranged.
OKH’s chief of staff Col General Franz Halder and his chief of operations, Col. Adolf Heusinger, were at first uncommitted, but then pleaded with the generals for the Moscow thrust, as also did their Chief, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock.
A DECISION HAD TO BE REACHED
On August 4th, at the headquarters of Army Group Center in Novy Borrisow, northeast of Minsk, the decisive meeting took place. Hitler, accompanied by Schmundt, requested reports and opinions from von Bock, Guderian, Hoth, and Heusinger.
In von Bock’s map room, the Fuehrer met, one on one, first with Heusinger, then von Bock, followed by Guderian and Hoth. Assembling all again after the individual meetings, Adolf Hitler announced his decision: first the thrust North to take Leningrad; then, depending on the military situation, either east to Moscow or South to Kiev and the heart of the Ukraine.
This was at the time that Hitler became incapacitated by severe stomach and sleeping problems.
It was on August 18 that Hitler issued Directive No. 34, pressed by the surprising Soviet offensive in the North that was endangering Col. General Erich von Manstein’s offensive toward Narva—and Manstein’s request for help from Panzerkorps Hoth. Army Group Center’s offensive power moved to the Southeast, to Kiev.
On the 24th of August, three weeks after Hitler’s original decision and six days since the Directive was issued, Guderian was called by his superior von Bock to attend a meeting at Headquarters that Halder also attended. The three discussed how Hitler’s “irrefutable decision” could be changed, and after hours long deliberation, von Bock suggested that Guderian and Halder should visit Hitler at Wolfsschanze.
Guderian describes the scene in his book Erinnerungen Eines Soldaten:
… after the landing I reported to C&C Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. He received me with the words: “I forbid you to discuss with the Fuehrer the question of Moscow. The offensive toward the South is ordered and it is only a question of the How. Any argument is useless.” I then requested to fly back to my Panzergruppe because any argument with Hitler is, under the given conditions, of no avail. But Brauchitsch did not like this either and gave me the order to see Hitler and report the situation at my Panzergruppe, but without mentioning Moscow.1
I then went to Hitler and reported in the presence of a large group of officers—Keitel, Jodl, Schmundt and others, but regretfully without Brauchitsch or Halder and no representative of the OKH—the situation at, and condition of, my Panzergruppe. Hitler asked, “Do you think your troops will, after all your achievements, still be able to endure great efforts?”
I answered: If the troops are told of a great goal, understandable to each soldier, yes.
Hitler replied: “You naturally mean Moscow.”
I: Permit me to present my reasons since you touched the subject.
Hitler agreed and I argued my case. He let me finish and did not interrupt once. Then he talked and explained why he arrived at a different decision. For the first time, I heard the sentence: “My generals do not know anything about war economy (Kriegswirtschaft).”
Once the final decision was made, I supported the offensive to the Ukraine with all my power and asked Hitler to issue an order to keep my Panzergruppe together as a solid unit. He agreed to issue that order.”2
A few days later, Army Group Center moved with decisive force towards Kiev … and was successful.
Guderian, Heinz, Erinnerungen Eines Soldaten (Memoirs of a Soldier), Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 13th edition, 1994. P.180