Although the German campaign in the Soviet Union was initially rapid, by the end of 1941 it was already clear that the card was turning. In the first half of December, the Central Army Group attacking Moscow was virtually stopped on the Soviet capital and thrown back by a surprising and strong enemy counterattack up to three hundred kilometers. The reinforcements from the Far East, a total of 40 divisions of 700,000 men, which Soviet leader Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin moved to Moscow after learning from the activity of a Soviet spy in Japan Richard Sorge, learned that the Japanese were not preparing to attack the Soviet Union, were largely responsible for this.
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However, more and more German generals were beginning to believe that the failure of their armies was also due to the decisions of their supreme commander, who did not leave them free and whose management of military operations they considered questionable.
A knight who acted extremely non-knightly
Wilhelm Josef Franz Knight von Leeb, entrusted in the spring of 1941 with the command of the North Army Group, which penetrated as far as Leningrad after the invasion of the Soviet Union, gradually reached such an attitude.
Leeb’s group had the task of advancing through the Baltics, securing ports, occupying Leningrad and, if possible, reaching Arkhangelsk. From the beginning of the campaign, the troops of the North group managed to advance up to 900 kilometers, while a very dark spot of their campaign was the active participation of ordinary German soldiers (not only members of SS special forces) in the mass extermination of Jews.
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Franz Walter Stahlecker, commander of the assassinating SS command Einsatzgruppe A, praised the Army Group North in his report to Berlin in 1941 for “exemplary cooperation with his men in resolving the Jewish question” in the Baltic states.
The Red Army managed to stop the advance of Leeb’s army only before Leningrad, where the Germans were surprised by the tough and decisive defense of the city. This was followed by one of the longest sieges in history, where the German army tried to break the resistance again with a number of barbaric acts, such as massive bombing raids on the city. Nevertheless, it was not successful and Leningrad did not submit.
The siege ended on January 27, 1944, after an incredible 900 days, with a German defeat and retreat. But Leeb was no longer there.
Give me a free hand or call me back
From the closure of the blockade of Leningrad in September 1941, the German field marshal fought hard for Tikhvin until December. As a result of strong counterattacks by Soviet troops under Marshal Kirill Mereckov, he was unable to intervene in the fighting for Moscow.
On December 15, 1941, when German troops were forced to retreat in front of Moscow, Leeb withdrew its forces on the northern flank of the Volkhov River without the consent of the highest German command. He did not confirm his move until the next day, when he met Adolf Hitler in person at his headquarters in Wolf’s Lair. At that time, however, he also came to the conclusion that without freedom of decision, nothing would be valid for the German armies.
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On January 15, 1942, Leeb asked Hitler to either give him the freedom to act as he saw fit or to remove him from command. Hitler chose the latter and Leeba was replaced by Field Marshal Georg von Küchler in command of Army Group North.
Hitler never entrusted Leeb with active command, but on the other hand, the marshal did not lose his favor. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that in 1942 he gave him an estate in Seestetten near Passau, with an estimated value of at least 660,000 Reichsmarks. However, Leeb’s resignation became another warning signal that the development of World War II would never follow the direction Hitler had wished for.