By Dale Cozort
In the spring of 1942, Germany’s generals almost unanimously agreed that the Germans should renew their advance on Moscow. The Soviet counterattack in the winter of 1941-42 had pushed the Germans back somewhat from Moscow, but the Russian capital was still within German reach in the spring of 1942 — 100 miles away at one point.
Hitler overruled his generals. The Soviets had built up formidable defenses around Moscow. They had also concentrated an enormous number of divisions there, including the bulk of their armor. Hitler decided to emphasize the southern front in a quest for oil while running a disinformation campaign to keep the Soviet forces around Moscow pinned there. The generals felt that pushing into the Caucasus without destroying the Soviet army first was like putting your head in a noose. They were proven right at Stalingrad.
What might have happened
Hitler did sometimes get attacks of common sense. They became rarer as time went on, but they still happened. Let’s say he initially rejects his generals’ advice on this one. The Soviet offensive in the south is smashed and the German southern offensive starts.
Then, as in our timeline, a key German officer with knowledge of the entire plan turns up missing after a plane crash. The Germans suspect that he ended up in Russian hands. The point of divergence comes when Hitler has one of his attacks of common sense. He decides that with the southern plan probably blown, he should shift emphasis to the center. The German army concentrates on taking Moscow.
The Soviets have built up formidable defenses in front of Moscow, and they expect the Germans to go after it. On the other hand, the Soviet army is nowhere near as good as it was a year later at Kursk. The German army is still more effective man-for-man than the Soviets.
The Soviets have a lot of manpower, but it is still poorly trained and nowhere near as well armed as it was later in 1942. For example, in our timeline the Soviets built close to 8,000 T34 tanks between the end of June 1942 and December 31, 1942, along with thousands of aircraft and artillery pieces. Every month that the Soviets avoided a decisive battle made them enormously stronger.
The Western Allies are feeding the Soviets Ultra information, but the Soviets haven’t learned to trust that information yet. As a result, Soviet defenses at the point the Germans attack are nowhere near as formidable as they were for the German offensive a year later.
The Germans take heavy losses, but they break through and turn the Battle for Moscow mobile. The Soviets are better at mobile warfare than they were in 1941, but they aren’t as good as the Germans. Once the battle goes mobile, the Soviets start losing men and equipment at a prodigious rate. By early August, the Germans have surrounded Moscow and pushed the frontline nearly a hundred miles beyond it. They have killed or captured well over a million Soviet troops. They also have several hundred thousand Soviet troops trapped inside a pocket around Moscow. Many of the Soviet troops that escape do so without their heavy equipment.
The Germans haven’t won the war just yet. Stalin and other key Soviet leaders, along with a lot of other people from Moscow and the vicinity, have escaped and gone deeper into Russia. Soviet transportation and industry are disrupted by the cutoff of Moscow, but the Soviets are cranking out new equipment at a very high rate, and new divisions are being trained and equipped almost as quickly as existing ones are destroyed.
At the same time, Stalin faces a dilemma. The troops trapped in the Moscow pocket will get weaker as time goes on. The actual fall of the capital could have a major impact on Soviet morale. Also, the Germans now control a very large part of the Russian heartland, along with a large part of the Russian population of the Soviet Union. That reduces the base Stalin has to draw on as he rebuilds his army. It also shifts the composition of that army, giving him a higher percentage of less reliable ethnic groups to draw on.
Adding to Stalin’s difficulties is the fact that Moscow is a transportation hub. The Soviet rail network becomes a lot less useful without it. Also, for morale reasons, Stalin was not able to evacuate a lot of the Kremlin bureaucracy until the last moment. As a result, many of the faceless planners that make the Soviet economy work are still trapped in the Moscow pocket. Without good communication with those planners, Soviet industry is already starting to fall into confusion. He needs to launch a counteroffensive soon. At the same time, he needs to build up a force capable of actually breaking through to Moscow.
The Germans face a different set of problems. The battle for Moscow has weakened them a lot. They aren’t getting replacement men and equipment at the rate the Russians are. As a result, the balance between them and the Soviets is no more favorable than it was in the spring of 1942. But Hitler thinks the war is essentially won. He is planning to go after the Caucasus oil starting in late August or September — as soon as Moscow falls. Fortunately for the Germans, that doesn’t happen. Stalin knows that Moscow can’t hold out until winter. The fall rains would make an October offensive very difficult. The means that the Soviets need to do an offensive with whatever they have online by mid-September. They also need help from the West.
The Soviets had agreed that Operation Torch, the Allied landing in North Africa, was the route to take for the Western Allies. Now they need to either have that landing moved up or replaced by something more direct. In early July, with the battles around Moscow going badly, Stalin demands that the Western Allies move up the schedule for Operation Torch to mid-August at the latest. The British and Americans are nowhere near ready, but they throw an operation together to take pressure off the Soviets.
The result is disastrous. The British have not yet broken the German navy’s version of Ultra. The U-boats are still a major force in the Atlantic. They sink or scatter a major hunk of the American part of the invasion force with tens of thousands of casualties. Some damaged American troopships make it to French ports in North Africa, but are in no position to launch an invasion. The French intern them, quietly adding some of their equipment to clandestine stockpiles that the Vichy regime is accumulating in North Africa. The British part of the force arrives relatively intact, but the Vichy French in North Africa are aware of the US disaster. They understand which way the wind is blowing and fight to repel the British invasion. The Brits alone are not able to win against determined French resistance. They are forced to evacuate with heavy casualties.
Hitler is confirmed in his low opinion of British and American fighting ability. He pulls more troops from garrison duty in the west and puts them into the fight in Russia. Stalin is furious. He demands a big increase in aid or an immediate attack into France. Neither the Americans nor the British are in a position to do either of those things until they get the U-boats under control and reequip their armies. The strong Asia-first group in the American military now pushes for more resources. They argue that it is important to finish off the Japanese before the Germans finish off the Soviets. American victory in the Battle of Midway has made victory over the Japanese look possible. The defeat of the Torch convoy convinces many people that the US is not ready to take on the Germans yet. They argue that putting more pressure on the Japanese will actually help the Soviets more than a second front would by keeping the Japanese from attacking the Soviets from Manchuria.
The Roosevelt Administration wants to keep the focus on Germany, but they also need a victory to distract attention from the Torch disaster. It looks like the Torch sinkings are going to cost the Democrats dearly in the midterm congressional elections. Churchill also needs a political boost. Japan offers much more near-term potential for that than Germany does. But where should the allies put their strength? Burma? New Guinea?
Roosevelt pushes for a major commitment to Burma. He thinks that a victory there may open up a land route to Nationalist China, who can then be brought up to strength by US weapons so that they can take on the Japanese, who hopefully will then be too busy in China to attack the Soviets in their time of weakness. The British are able to move some troops to Burma that in our timeline would have gone to the Middle East to counter a possible German breakthrough from the Caucasus. The Burma offensive is not massive. The Allied logistical base there is too flimsy. It does yield some progress, but not a breakthrough to link up with the Nationalist Chinese.
Hitler is delighted by Vichy France’s resistance to the British landing. He has been dreaming of making the Vichy French a minor German ally. He has been authorizing small-scale reequipping of the French armed forces already. For example, in our timeline he allowed the Vichy French to produce a few hundred Dewoitine fighter planes for their air force in 1942. He cautiously expands that program. He allows the French to modernize a few hundred tanks that they have allowed to keep in North Africa and to produce a few new tanks to replace the ones which were destroyed in the attempted British invasion.
The Vichy French use the modernization program as a way to explore new vehicle designs (in our timeline the French continued clandestine tank design through the German occupation). Those design efforts focus mainly on up-gunning late models in the prewar S35 and H35 lines, and making turret less self-propelled guns based on them. There are also efforts to design a new vehicle based on the B1 tank series, but with a long barreled 75mm gun in the turret instead of a 45mm gun there and a short-barreled 75mm gun mounted in the hull. The Be upgrade project remains under the table, but it is helped by the open projects.
The Vichy French also push the Germans for release of some of the two million-odd French prisoners of war that the Germans are still holding. Hitler likes the leverage that those prisoners give him over France, but he also wants to lure Vichy France deeper into collaboration. Some hard negotiations leads to a compromise. On a voluntary basis, French prisoners of war can do six months of occupation duty in the southern part of the Soviet Union (Ukraine). After that they can go home.
The Germans have already recruited several thousand individual Frenchmen to serve in various German units on the Eastern Front. The new units will be nominally under French command, though the Germans maintain tight control of the chain of command at the higher levels. Collaborationist factions of the Vichy government like the agreement for obvious reasons. Factions in the government that want to eventually bring France back into the war on the Allied side go along with it, because it will give France a pool of trained fighting men to draw on if France does reenter the war. The Vichy army in France itself is officially tightly restricted in terms of tanks and heavy artillery. As Vichy maintains a small army on the Eastern Front, there always seems to be a substantial amount of heavy equipment either awaiting repairs or awaiting shipment to those troops. That may or may not become important later.
Hitler is reluctant to get the Vichy French involved in the Soviet Union, but with the additional territory he has seized in Russia he desperately needs more anti-partisan units. The French end up with close to 100,000 men in the Ukraine. The Germans quickly become annoyed because those troops, like the Hungarians in our timeline, develop a close relationship with Ukrainian nationalist groups, like the Ukrainian People’s Army. Those nationalist groups are attacking German supply lines in other areas — not because they are pro-Stalin, but because stupid Nazi racial policies have given them no choice. The French also smuggle some weapons to the Polish underground.
In the wake of the Torch fiasco, Stalin pursues two tracks. First he tries for a negotiated settlement with the Germans. Second, he frantically builds up reserves for a mid-September offensive to link up with Moscow. His generals advise against that offensive. The new divisions will not be fully equipped or trained until late October at best. The situation in the Moscow pocket can’t wait that long though. Civilians who are not essential to the defense effort are starving in droves. Defense production is continuing, but that can’t last forever. Eventually raw materials will run out. Then it will just be a matter of time before the Russian divisions in the pocket run out of bullets. They are already on very tight rations, both in food and in ammunition. Small-scale airdrops help some, but the Germans control the skies over Moscow and the Soviets know they can’t supply their army by air.
The Western Allies do everything they can to distract the Germans short of a second front. The British push an offensive in North Africa. They increase their bombing. They launch a series of pinprick raids on the French and Norwegian coasts. They increase aid to partisans in France. With the desperate situation in Moscow, Stalin allows the US to base bombers in Russia for airdrops and to help support the Soviets on the ground.
The main Allied effort is against Japan, though. As I mentioned earlier, the Allies launch an offensive in Burma, with both US and British forces playing a role. That’s intended to draw Japanese troops away from Manchuria, which in turn will allow the Soviets to move divisions away from the Manchurian border. US troops are also accumulating in England. No second front is planned until 1943 at the earliest, but at least they keep the Germans from moving even more combat power to the Eastern Front.
The Soviets launch their offensive in early September. At first it does well. The Soviets have a lot of T34s and a lot of brave, though poorly trained, infantry. The Germans have depleted a lot of their combat power in the battles around Moscow.
Stalin pushes the French Communist Party into a premature and essentially suicidal revolt against the Germans. The revolt does tie up German divisions which could otherwise have joined the fight around Moscow. Essentially, Stalin sacrifices a pawn. He hopes that the Western Allies will feel obligated to jump in and help the French Communists. They do to the extent they can, with airdrops and ground support bombing, but the Communists are crushed.
In Russia, the Germans are pushed back, but Soviet losses are far too high to sustain. They lose over half a million men before the fall rains turn the battlefield into a giant swamp. The Germans lose less than a fifth of that, but they are still shocked at the number of casualties they take.
Even with less territory to draw on, the Soviets still have a huge capacity to replace their losses. Between their own production and US and British aid, the Soviets can build new armies quickly. They just need time to train the people in those armies to the point where they are more than just cannon fodder for the Germans. Up until at least late 1943, the Soviets get stronger any time they are not losing men and equipment at several times the German rate.
Through September and October, the Moscow pocket shrinks. American and British bombers and transports are doing what they can to keep the pocket supplied from Soviet airfields. They are also losing a lot of aircraft and crew. The Germans ring the pocket with anti-aircraft guns and go after the bombers with fighter planes. They also bomb the airfields that the allied planes are based on. Stalin hopes to resume the offensive by mid-October. Rain keep falling until the end of October. By that time the Moscow pocket is crumbling. People are starving. Soldiers are running out of ammunition. When it becomes obvious that Moscow will fall, secret police systematically destroy or boobytrap everything of value in the city.
The Germans are not eager to get into a house-to-house fight in the city, so they gradually and cautiously move into the ruins. Some Soviet troops surrender. Others try to break out and join the partisans. Several thousand lurk in the ruins, staging hit-and-run raids on the Germans. The Germans take the ruins of some of the major symbolic buildings, but are in no hurry to clean up the rest of the pocket. There are still several million civilians in the remnants of Moscow. Most of them are nearly dead from starvation. Hitler decides to let them die in the pocket.
Once the Soviet troops in the pocket become militarily insignificant, Stalin is no longer interested. His propaganda machine emphasizes that Russians destroyed Moscow to deny it to the invaders, just as they did when Napoleon invaded. The Soviets do some small offensives in the south, mainly against Italian and Romanian troops, but they mainly work to build up their forces for a late-winter offensive.
Unfortunately for them, war production goes into a tailspin, as raw materials in the pipeline are used up and the disrupted central planning process and the disrupted rail system fail to get enough of the right stuff to the right place at the right time. By German standards, Soviet production is still very high, but it is much lower than in our timeline. Between battlefield losses and lower production, the Soviets have less than one-third the number of T34 tanks at the end of 1942 in this timeline that they had at the same time in ours. Other weapons numbers are comparable. The worst of the disruption is temporary, but it leaves the Soviet army incapable of launching a major offensive in late 1942 or early 1943.
At the end of 1942, the Germans think that they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. They are wrong. The Soviet Union lost over a million men killed or captured in the second half of 1942 in our timeline, and still ended the year with a larger, more effective army than they had in June 1942. In this timeline, the Soviet army has actually shrunk a little from mid-1942 levels, and is nowhere near as well equipped, but it is still formidable with well over four million men at the front and several thousand reasonably modern tanks.
The Germans launch an offensive for the Caucasus oil in spring 1943. They make good progress. The Soviets can trade space for time, and they do. The Germans have better logistics once they get the captured Soviet rail system working for them.
Unfortunately for them, Soviet production starts going back up again. The central planning system gradually gets put back together. By mid-1943, the Soviets are back to 70 percent of their production prior to the fall of Moscow. The Soviets regain their resilience. Stalin has also learned to take the advice of his generals. He isn’t throwing away manpower on premature offensives and hopeless defenses. Hitler never learns this, and actually intrudes more and more as the war goes on. At some point late in 1943, he pushes the German army into trying for one victory more than it can give him. I’ll deal with the details of that later. Then the Soviets start to retake their territory. That process is a lot slower than in our timeline, for reasons explored in part 2.