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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: November 2011

5 - Ominous horizons


September strategic dilemmas – Hitler and Stalin invite disaster

If by early September the enduring hope for Germany's success in the Ukraine rested largely on Guderian's shoulders, the hopes of the Soviet Union rested with equal gravity on Eremenko's success in stopping him. Although the fighting along the eastern front raged across more than 2,700 kilometres, from the Barents Sea in the north down to the Black Sea in the south, there was no position of more fundamental importance than Eremenko's Briansk Front. More specifically, his Twenty-First and Thirteenth Armies had to defend Kirponos's exposed rear, but they were ill disposed to do so and were soon split apart despite Panzer Group 2's sluggish advance. Anticipating the danger, yet utterly failing to appreciate its magnitude, the Stavka endeavoured to deploy the newly raised Fortieth Army (under Kirponos's command) to plug the gap. It was an expedient measure of little real substance since the Fortieth Army consisted of two rifle divisions and one airborne corps, which had all been severely weakened in earlier fighting on the Dnepr. In any case, Guderian was not supposed to pose a serious problem for the Fortieth Army because Eremenko's offensive was theoretically intended to dismember Panzer Group 2. By 2 September Eremenko's lack of success placed him in a similar boat to Guderian and he too suffered the ire of his superiors, not least of all Stalin himself. Acting on Stalin's instructions, Shaposhnikov, the Chief of the General Staff, informed Eremenko in a coarsely worded communiqué:

The Stavka is much displeased with your work. In spite of the efforts of aviation and ground units, Pochep and Starodub remain in enemy hands…Guderian and the whole of his group must be smashed into smithereens. Until this happens, all your statements about success are worthless. I await your reports on the destruction of Guderian's group.

The commander of the Soviet South-Western Direction, Marshal S. M. Budenny, was not ignorant of the danger, but he was extremely cautious in his dealings with the Stavka and sought approval for virtually all decisions of any substance. On 4 September he submitted to Stalin a report detailing the emergent threat to his flanks and requesting immediate reinforcement. If this was not possible, Budenny asked permission to create his own reserve by transferring four divisions from Kirponos's Thirty-Seventh and Twenty-Sixth Armies. On Stalin's order Shaposhnikov rejected Budenny's request for reinforcements and also forbade the makeshift solution of internally reorganizing divisions to support the flanks.