The large concentration of Soviet troops served as a magnet for German commanders who sought to encircle their enemy in a decisive battle. The armored spearheads of Colonel General Heinz Guderian's Panzer Group 2 and General Hermann Hoth's Panzer Group 3 were to cross the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers, advance on a parallel axis along the Minsk-Moscow highway, and link behind Smolensk to trap the Soviets. General Alexander Löhr's Fourth Air Fleet provided aerial support. The plan was risky, as the speed it required of the mechanized elements would preclude use of the slower infantry armies needed to secure the vulnerable flanks of the panzer groups.
On 10 July, Panzer Group 2 crossed the Dnieper and bypassed Soviet troop concentrations without concern for flank security, heavy rains, or determined Soviet resistance. Guderian drove his forces deep toward Smolensk. At the same time, Panzer Group 3 captured Vitebsk and forced the Soviet defense toward Veliki Luki. By 13 July, three Soviet armies were withdrawing toward Smolensk to establish a defense of the city. To buy time, Timoshenko ordered counterattacks with his remaining armies into the exposed flanks of Panzer Group 2, which led to bitter fighting and slowed the German mechanized elements.
On 16 July, Guderian's Panzer Group 2 captured Smolensk, and Panzer Group 3 captured Yartsevo to form an elongated pocket around three Russian armies trapped north of the Dnieper. However, instead of trying to close the pocket, Guderian sent his panzers toward Yelnya, forfeiting a Kesselschlact (cauldron, or encircling battle) and offering a salient for the Soviets to attack. On 20 July, Timoshenko formed new armies to counterattack and pin down German forces, especially those in the Yelnya salient. As 60-mile-long columns of Soviet infantry moved forward and hundreds of trains appeared loaded with vehicles and tanks, the Germans realized that the Red Army had not yet been beaten.
Furious battles raged around Smolensk as the Soviets counterattacked to hold open a corridor for more than 100,000 men to escape. The Soviets lost the battle for Smolensk, although fighting continued there until 5 August. In the Smolensk pocket, the Germans captured more than 300,000 prisoners, 3,000 guns, and 3,200 tanks. However, the victory strained the German forces at all levels, forcing a pause of several weeks. As Adolf Hitler and the German army High Command debated whether the next objective should be Moscow or Ukraine, the Soviets reorganized and prepared their defenses that would halt the Germans at the gates of Moscow. Steven J. Rauch
Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–1945. New York: Quill, 1965.; Fugate, Bryan I. Operation Barbarossa. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1984.; Ziemke, Earl F., and Magna E. Bauer. Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987.
Steven J. Rauch