Hitler’s Directive No 33

By early August the stage was set for an offensive by Army Group Centre to invade the Moscow-Gorki space in August-September 1941. However events and decisions made elsewhere were to preclude this happening. With the battle of Smolensk barely underway, Hitler issued Directive No 33 on 19th July 1941. It stated that Moscow was no longer the primary objective and that once the Smolensk pocket had been reduced Army Group Centre would hand over its panzer groups to its neighbours, Army Group North and Army Group South. 3rd Panzer Group’s 57th Panzer Corps (Kuntzen) was to move north to Leningrad and assist 18th Army, while 39th Panzer Corps (Schmidt) was to attack northeast from the Volkhov River and assist Army Group North to isolate Leningrad. Meanwhile 2nd Panzer Group was to drive south and link up with the 1st Panzer Group (Army Group South) which was to cross the South Dnepr River between Cherkassy and Kremenchug. The latter manoeuvre was aimed at trapping and destroying the troublesome Southwestern Front, and occupying the Ukraine.

Over the ensuing few weeks there was much confusion and vacillating over the German’s priorities. This was because most of the senior German commanders, most notably Halder (OKH Chief of Staff), Jodl (OKW Chief of Staff), von Bock (Cmdr Army Group Centre), Hoth (Cmdr 3rd Panzer Group) and most famously Guderian (Cmdr 2nd Panzer Group), unsurprisingly stated that Directive No 33 was a very bad idea. Brauchitsch (ObdH) and Keital (OKW) added various supplements to Directive No 33, aimed at either stalling the implementation of the directive or calling for forces to be ‘reorganised’ for an offensive against Moscow as soon as practical. One of the most ardent proponents of an early Moscow offensive was Guderian. In fact his decision to encircle and seize Roslavl was largely in order to clear the right flank as a prelude to an advance eastwards on Moscow. He hoped that placing 2nd Panzer Group in such an advantageous position (and effectively disrupting the defences of 28th and 43rd Armies) would facilitate an opportunistic change in Directive No 33. As late as 17th August, Brauchitsch and Halder tried one last appeal to resume the advance in the centre. Their arguments were set forth in a memorandum detailing why the advantage gained by the Wehrmacht on the road to Moscow should not be squandered.

Ultimately however Hitler’s will prevailed and if anything he became even more intransigent. He stated his generals knew “nothing about the economic aspects of war”, that Leningrad must be secured to “secure the iron ore route to Sweden”, that the fertile Ukraine region was needed “to provide raw materials and agricultural produce Germany would need for a long war”, and that occupation of the Crimea would “neutralise the threat from the Russian Air Force against the Ploesti oil fields”. Thus in Hilter’s eyes, Leningrad and the Ukraine both had precedence over Moscow, and the latter could be taken at leisure at a later date. Fortunately for the world at large, the Stavka did not suffer from such strategic incompetence and from September to the end of 1941 the Soviets threw the large majority of their available forces and resources into defending the approaches to Moscow.

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(Refer to The Belligerent's Forces: Soviet Mobilisation from 23rd June to 31st December 1941 for more on the Soviet mobilisation in 1941)