In the summer of 1941, Adolf Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa, sending German forces against the Soviet Union. The Nazi dictator had long considered communism the arch-enemy of his people, and he decided that Germany needed Lebensraum, or living space. Hitler believed that conquering the Soviets was the next step toward German expansion and domination.
Turning on his former ally in violation of a nonaggression pact between the two countries, Hitler sent thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft against the Soviets. Immediately victorious on a broad front, the Wehrmacht conquered vast amounts of Soviet territory in the opening weeks of the operation. As summer gave way to fall, the German invaders seemed unstoppable.
One of Germany’s greatest feats of arms, the encirclement of 55 Soviet divisions that led to the capture of about 463,000 prisoners, was accomplished during Operation Typhoon, the offensive toward Moscow that began on October 2, 1941. The 7th Panzer Division had quickly arrived on the outskirts of Vyasma, 145 kilometers east of Smolensk, setting one encircling arm around a northern pocket of Soviet forces. The 10th Panzer Division arrived on the southern outskirts of Vyasma virtually simultaneously, having covered more than twice the distance that the 7th had traveled in the same period of time.
The 10th Panzer Division and other German formations that were concentrated for the attack faced the challenge of attacking Soviet forces that had been preparing defenses for more than two months. On the main front, west and southwest of Vyasma, the Soviets had massed field armies that had been allowed more than two months of additional mobilization time while the Germans had been delayed by encirclement operations near Kiev. The Soviets had blocked the obvious and practical routes to Moscow, and the Germans were forced to attack in the SmolenskVyasma area in order to push toward the capital and rail center of the Soviet Union.
The Germans were also forced to attack a Soviet front that ran almost in a straight line north and south of the heights of Jarcevo, located 50 kilometers northeast of Smolensk. The Germans would have to penetrate the Soviets’ prepared defenses, then advance quickly enough behind the defending Soviets to cut them off from the rest of the Soviet Union and destroy them.
The 10th Panzer’s commander, Maj. Gen. Ferdinand Schaal, had led his division through campaigns in Poland and France and the opening operations in the Soviet Union. For his success, the Wehrmacht promoted him to lieutenant general, and Maj. Gen. Wolfgang Fischer was given command of the 10th Panzer on the eve of Operation Typhoon. Fischer and his staff had to both plan the details of the attack and determine the direction and tempo the drive would take after the breakthrough. Corps Commander General Georg Stumme reinforced the 10th Panzer Division with Artillery Headquarters 128 (Arko 128) for the attack. Arko 128 was to plan and execute fire support in the attack sector, serve as the fire support control center for the division, and coordinate the fire of the division’s 90th Artillery Regiment and the other artillery that was attached to the panzer division for the breakthrough. The Germans positioned Arko 128 away from the division command post, freeing the command post from the dominating pressure of the fire support control apparatus and associated technical processes and procedures, and allowing it to remain light, mobile and movement-oriented.
Stumme also reinforced the 10th Panzer Division with Artillery Regiment 618, its four artillery battalions, one special artillery observation battalion and one smoke mortar battalion to supplement the firepower of the 90th Artillery Regiment. In addition, Stumme attached Infantry Regiment 479 to the 10th Panzer Division to make an assault against the Soviet field fortifications. He also assigned several pioneer formations to bridge the intervening water courses, improve the narrow unpaved roads over the projected route of advance, and negotiate several big anti-tank ditches discovered by aerial reconnaissance.
The 10th Panzer Division began the encirclement at 5:30 a.m. on October 2, 1941, with the flexible general mission to ‘break through the enemy Desna River positions and thrust deeply beyond.’ The objectives established by corps headquarters show the division advancing northeast, parallel to and south of the main road from Roslavl through Juchnov to Moscow. The artillery preparation, which lasted only 35 minutes, fired shells against known targets; the artillery then was held for fire-on-call when directed by artillery forward observers with the advancing German columns.
Stumme visited the division command post periodically to observe the progress of the attack. At 8:05 a.m., he called for additional Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber support. Then he ordered the rail bridge across the Desna, which had been seized by the division, to be made passable. He sent out reconnaissance to find a location to ford the river and ordered the quickest possible advance of the tanks.
At 9:10 a.m., Fischer ordered the division’s reinforced panzer brigade, consisting of the 7th Panzer Regiment and several other combat elements, to advance across a ford discovered near a partly constructed bridge, which would not be ready until about noon. As the first battalion of tanks crossed the ford and began to move through the difficult terrain beyond, it became evident that the passage was going too slowly, and Fischer ordered the second battalion to cross at the rail bridge. By 4:20 p.m., the panzer brigade had effectively crossed the Desna and several small streams just beyond it. It was then reinforced by the 2nd Battalion of Motorized Infantry Regiment 69 and an attached artillery battalion, turning it into a strong combined-arms battle group (Kampfgruppe). Accompanied by Fischer and his staff, the tank-heavy Kampfgruppe began to advance.
By early evening on October 2, the Kampfgruppe had advanced well in the face of moderate Soviet resistance and difficulties with the unpaved roads and swampy off-road soil conditions. Fischer decided to take advantage of the nearly full moon and ordered the Kampfgruppe to continue to advance throughout the entire night. He directed the force to thrust toward the city of Mosalsk, approximately 75 kilometers distant and behind the defending Soviet field armies, which presented possibilities for strategic encirclement. He also ordered his two motorized infantry regiments to advance along a separate axis toward Mosalsk.
On October 3, the division continued to struggle with difficult road and cross-country conditions and tough resistance from strong Soviet units. At 7 a.m. Fischer, moving behind the Kampfgruppe in his small group of command, communications and escort vehicles, was fired on by Soviet anti-tank guns from north of the road. Later along that same stretch of road, which had seemed to be reasonably well secured, two radio trucks of the communications battalion were destroyed by direct hits from Soviet anti-tank guns–direct-fire weapons evidently shooting from ranges of no more than about 800 meters.
The annoyed commander of the accompanying division radio company picked up every man in the area, three German self-propelled anti-tank guns that were passing by on the road, and elements of the 3rd Company of Panzer Pioneer Battalion 39 and attacked the Soviet force. As the attack progressed, a light battery of 1st Battalion, 90th Artillery Regiment, which was advancing along the road on another assignment, voluntarily deployed into firing positions to support the attack. Finally, the radio company commander managed to communicate with division headquarters to get Stuka air support in the target area, which was marked by artillery smoke rounds and white light clusters fired by signal pistols. By 11:40 a.m., the 1st Battalion of Motorized Infantry Regiment 69 and the rest of the 1st Battalion, 90th Artillery Regiment, had added their efforts to help destroy an entire Soviet infantry regiment that had remained quietly in its position and been bypassed by the rapidly moving Kampfgruppe.
Slowed by that engagement, difficult road conditions and fuel shortages, at 4:10 p.m. on October 3 the division was reorganized into two new Kampfgruppen. The right (southern) battle group consisted of the 90th Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion, the 10th Motorcycle Battalion and the 89th Motorized Rifle Regiment. The left (northern) battle group included the 7th Panzer Regiment and one light reconnaissance troop. All of the division artillery was attached to the groups and moving in column with them. Artillery support would be especially responsive because the artillery was moving with the units. The commander and headquarters of the 90th Artillery Regiment moved with the southern battle group and had the radio communications capability to mass the division firepower. Central control of fire in this mobile advance was virtually impossible, however, because the two battle groups would advance too far apart and would face encounters too different and widely separated to permit centralized control of artillery. Fischer ordered the two battle groups to continue to move through the evening of October 3, converging on Mosalsk from two different directions.
Early the next afternoon, as the division continued its slow move toward Mosalsk over the unpaved roads, Stumme arrived at Fischer’s location and directed him to turn north at Mosalsk to reach the road running from Roslavl through Juchnov to Moscow. Fischer agreed and requested permission to move one of the Kampfgruppen as quickly as possible to Juchnov, on the Ugra River, to set up a bridgehead to fight off flank attacks as the division turned north to seize Vyasma. A short time later the 10th Panzer Division broke into the deep rear area of the Soviet forces. As the Germans overtook Soviet horse-drawn and motorized columns, the Soviets surrendered without offering resistance.
For the first time in the campaign, the 10th Panzer Division directed prisoners rearward without escort. Fischer, in the lead of the northern battle group, moved into Mosalsk at 4:30 p.m. Observing the clean breakthrough that the battle group had achieved, he ordered the advance to again continue through the night, this time to reach the RoslavlJuchnovMoscow road, 25 kilometers southwest of Juchnov.
As the battle group moved north on October 4 with Fischer accompanying the column, 12 Russian trucks suddenly drove into the column immediately in front of Fischer’s vehicle. The 10th Panzer Division’s war diary notes briefly that all of the staff officers engaged in the ensuing firefight and that 30 Soviet prisoners were taken.
About two hours later, Fischer moved onto the road junction 25 kilometers southwest of Juchnov. Around 8:30 p.m., corps headquarters ordered the 10th Panzer Division to advance eastward toward Juchnov and seize both the city and the bridge over the Ugra River. In an impressive display of initiative, Fischer had already ordered part of the left battle group to continue to advance and take the town.
The right battle group, which had been lost by division headquarters, reported by radio at 1:50 a.m. on October 5 that its advance element stood only three kilometers southeast of Juchnov. On the initiative of its commander, this powerful battle group had continued to march through the night toward an objective vital to the encirclement of the Soviet forces.
In the midst of this confusing situation–in which the two battle groups lay spread out over approximately 100 kilometers of unpaved roads, generally bordered by soft ground–Fischer asked corps headquarters if he should continue to thrust toward Vyasma or if a thrust to Gzhatsk (now the city of Gagarin, 65 kilometers northeast of Vyasma and a mere 150 kilometers from Moscow) would be better. At 3 a.m., corps headquarters answered that the 10th Panzer Division was to advance west of the Ugra and take Vyasma.
The drive continued at an unbelievable pace. At 5 a.m. on October 5, Fischer ordered the left battle group to advance into the area 12 kilometers northeast of Vyasma. Fuel remained in short supply; the division was now only three days into its drive, but it had traveled 175 kilometers from its original position on the west bank of the Desna River. The battle group did not have enough fuel for both tank battalions, so the commander ordered one battalion to refuel and lead the battle group north toward Vyasma. He directed the other battalion to wait for the struggling fuel columns, fill up, then catch up to the advancing battle group. As it turned out, a few German fuel trucks were not far behind, and by 6:15 the remaining battalion was refueled and had linked up with the rear of the battle group. The commander of the Kampfgruppe then estimated that he had enough fuel to advance 60 kilometers.
The other large battle group, which was comprised largely of motorized infantry, was assigned to hold Juchnov, develop a bridgehead over the Ugra and cover the right rear of the division in its advance toward Vyasma. When the closely following SS Division Das Reich reached Juchnov, the battle group was to move forward to reinforce the 10th Panzer Division’s northward drive.
As the leading Kampfgruppe moved north on the road from Juchnov to Vyasma, it encountered more difficult road conditions and came under Soviet air attack. The leading panzer battalion had been refueled in the morning, but there had been only enough fuel to fill the tanks halfway. Near Slobodka, the tanks ran out of gasoline. At 12:30 p.m., just after the tanks had run dry, the division operations echelon, which had been moving near the lead of the division, arrived on the scene. To maintain the tempo of the advance, Fischer ordered the battle group’s motorized infantry to continue the march past the immobilized tanks and lead the advance. He expected only weak enemy resistance, so tanks were not required in the lead.
At 5 p.m., the leading motorized infantry unit, the 2nd Battalion of Motorized Rifle Regiment 69, informed division headquarters that it had only enough fuel to advance about 25 kilometers. Forty-five minutes later, the motorized infantry battalion informed the battle group commander that it had reached the Ugra River northwest of Slobodka and was now only 40 kilometers from Vyasma. As the sun set that evening, the division was faced with a lack of fuel, no bridge across the river and indications that the enemy was increasing in strength.
At 10 p.m. on October 5, the commander of the panzer brigade that led the Kampfgruppe radioed that his force was too weak to hold the modest bridgehead at the ford on the Ugra River. Division headquarters calculated that it could not provide reinforcements before daylight and ordered the battle group to evacuate its bridgehead. In an astounding display of initiative, the battle group commander proceeded to ignore the order to evacuate that he had requested, and led a night tank attack that gained high ground north of the bridgehead and secured the crossing. At 3:20 a.m., division headquarters ordered the battle group not to evacuate the bridgehead but rather to break out of it northward toward Vyasma.
By daybreak on October 6, the division had been able to bring forward enough fuel to allow the battle group to advance another 80 kilometers, but as the group began to advance at about 7 a.m., it ran into a series of impassable bridges that delayed movement over the numerous brooks in the area. Fischer, again accompanying the lead elements of the battle group, ordered the pioneers forward to bridge the gaps. In some cases the small streams were only 3 to 6 feet wide but had bottoms and banks so soft that no wheeled vehicles could cross the short distances. The pioneers were not able to bridge the streams until 2:30 p.m., and the battle groups were not able to move out until approximately 4 p.m. While they were waiting, two new Kampfgruppen were formed from the previously very strong group. Each group had one panzer battalion, one motorized infantry battalion, attached artillery, anti-aircraft guns and pioneer units. The division ordered the left Kampfgruppe to seize Vyasma from the south and the right Kampfgruppe to seize and block the road to Moscow at a point about 10 kilometers northeast of the city and then move into the city from that direction. Late on the evening of October 6, Fischer ordered a night attack–despite the fact that the fuel supply was tenuous and his troops were tired and would be advancing over unknown terrain. He ordered the left Kampfgruppe to seize the airport on the southern outskirts of Vyasma before midnight, and directed the right Kampfgruppe to block the rail line running east out of the city by the same time.
At 2:30 p.m., Stumme met with Fischer near the division command post close to the Ugra River. He ordered the advancing right column of the neighboring 2nd Panzer Division to move into the 10th Panzer Division’s route of advance, clear the supply route and reinforce the 10th Panzer Division’s advance. At 3:30 p.m., Fischer moved forward to accompany the leading element of the left Kampfgruppe into the southern outskirts of Vyasma. Fischer observed as the Kampfgruppe cleared the area that there was virtually no contact with the enemy. He accordingly ordered the leading panzer battalion to move forward immediately without any other supporting forces and seize the airfield, which was about six kilometers northeast of the city. Fischer made that decision just as the panzer battalion seized a long wooden bridge at the town of Bessova and moved across it. To secure the bridge, he stationed himself, the drivers and messengers of the operations vehicles, the panzer battalion’s reconnaissance platoon and two light-armored reconnaissance vehicles from the 90th Reconnaissance Battalion on and around the bridge.
The 2nd Battalion, Panzer Regiment 7, broke into the clear and, at 7:15 p.m. on October 6, radioed division headquarters that it had seized the Vyasma airfield. This position alone blocked a significant part of the east-west movement through Vyasma.
About two hours later, the battle group reported that the 2nd Battalion, Motorized Rifle Regiment 69, had linked up with the panzer battalion at the airfield and that the reinforced formation had broken one of the two great rail lines leading east toward Moscow and Kaluga, out of Vyasma. A few hours later, the division linked up with elements of the 7th Panzer Division, which was advancing from the north, and blocked the escape route of 55 Soviet divisions trapped to the west of the two German panzer divisions.
Farther south, at approximately the same time, other forces of Army Group Center linked up near Bryansk, encircling 33 additional Soviet divisions. In the resulting double battle of Vyasma and Bryansk, the Germans took 663,000 Soviet prisoners. The Germans had won one of the largest battles of encirclement in history.
This article was written by Russel H.S. Stolfi and originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!