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Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941

By David Stahel. 429 pp. Cambridge, 2013. $35

In the early 1860s, Charles Joseph Minard created an extraordinary map that communicated the scope and scale of Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia. It plotted the relationship between the length of the advance (and retreat) and the Grand Armée’s dwindling strength, and included key geographic features and a graph of the temperature gradient during the horrible retreat. The presentation let viewers grasp the full measure of the catastrophe befalling French ambitions.

This most recent book by David Stahel, along with his earlier works, Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East (2012) and Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East (2009), performs a similar function for Hitler’s even more titanic 1941 invasion. The Australian scholar combines strategic and economic context, statistics, operational analysis, and tactical-level accounts from individual soldiers in constructing a layered but highly readable narrative. It is a remarkable feat.

Effectively using the expanding literature on the Eastern Front and extensive primary research, Stahel confronts ongoing debates, like the German war economy’s organization and the campaign’s true “culminating point.” His examination of the invasion’s logistical dimension is among the best. He draws much-needed attention to the Grosstransportraum, the truck-based logistical organization that vainly attempted to make up for the Soviet Union’s poor rail system. And he does not neglect the ideological aspects of the “crusade”: He recounts the grim story of the 707th Infantry Division, which reportedly executed 10,431 “partisans” while capturing a mere 90 rifles, and tells of German soldiers booting Russian peasants out of their homes to freeze without a backward glance, underscoring the Eastern Front’s dehumanization.

His main focus is Panzer groups, the invasion’s mechanized spearheads, so Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center and Panzer Groups 2 and 3 take center stage.

Despite the scale of early German victories, Stahel concludes that the vital Panzer forces were, in the words of one German tank commander, being “destroyed by winning.” Stubborn if artless Soviet resistance (most notably at the Yel’nya salient, east of Smolensk), German logistical mismanagement, and a wholly unrealistic assessment of Barbarossa’s prospects at nearly every Wehrmacht level conspired to derail the campaign even as the massive battles of encirclement proceeded. Stahel argues that the campaign pivoted in mid-August 1941 when victory was no longer possible. This marks a significant departure from standard accounts, where the climax occurs before Moscow in late autumn of that year. Eschewing simplistic “General Winter” explanations, Stahel’s detailed analysis of how prolonged combat affected German manpower and material strength is most convincing.

His Kiev volume fills a yawning gap in the literature. Bitter debates within the German command and a mistaken Soviet appraisal of German intentions combined to produce the largest battle of encirclement in World War II, one that was perhaps the acme of Wehrmacht operational prowess. And his account of the drive toward Moscow epitomizes the unworkable German strategic and operational thinking plaguing the campaign. Exhausted German spearheads had little chance of destroying the still-powerful Red Army and taking the capital.

Stahel does a much better job than most covering the campaign’s aerial dimensions. Like the Panzer groups, the Luftwaffe displayed tremendous operational and tactical superiority over its Soviet adversaries—for those first triumphal weeks. Then, when the Red Air Force seemed to be swept from the skies, German air superiority became localized, rather than general. German troops frequently reported heavy air attacks from the resurgent Soviets.

The memory of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion shadowed both Germans and Soviets in 1941. The parallels are many. In both cases dogged Russian resistance, at tremendous cost, helped to upset a seemingly invincible foe. Stahel offers one of the clearest explanations thus far of how this unfolded. His fourth volume on the Battle of Moscow should be eagerly anticipated.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.