Flogging the dead horse – Army Group Centre's stalled advance
On 19 October 1812, after having occupied Moscow for thirty-four days (beginning on 15 September), Napoleon began his long retreat from Russia. By this point the French emperor was already counting his losses while seeking to escape the dreaded effects of a Russian winter. On 19 October 1941 Hitler's armies were struggling east to reach Moscow and they were still a long way from capturing it. Indeed on 20 October Schroeck's 98th Infantry Division, one of the easternmost divisions in Bock's Army Group Centre, found a sign indicating it was still 69 kilometres short of its goal. At the same time on a hill near Tarutino the Germans passed a victory column commemorating Tsar Alexander I's 1812 triumph over the French. For Bock's armies, opposed by stiffening resistance and viscous mud, the omens of a defeat on the road to Moscow were very much apparent.
From his headquarters at Smolensk Bock surveyed the deteriorating strength of his army group with increasing desperation. Only ten days before, he had looked like the irresistible conqueror of Moscow, but the pendulum had swung, the army group was bogging down and Bock was looking for any expedient to maintain his advance. He prepared an order instructing motorised units, ‘which are paralyzed because of the road conditions’, to give up their vehicles ‘and be put together as infantry with limited artillery’. Yet, when Bock approached Brauchitsch for his consent, the commander-in-chief of the army wholly refused. In a telephone conversation on the following day (22 October) Brauchitsch, like so many in the German high command, simply could not believe that things had reached such a low point that the very instruments of modern mobile warfare should simply be abandoned. Indeed, it appears Brauchitsch still held out hope for an improvement in the weather. The fact was that the German high command had completely underestimated, and was continuing to do so, the all-pervasive nature of the Russian rasputitsa. As the chief of staff of the Fourth Army, Blumentritt, observed, the reality of the rasputitsa really had to be experienced to be truly understood.