As soon as it was known that the Germans were in retreat, an extraordinary transformation came over the Red Army troops, and their morale and fighting spirit rose sharply. So did the Soviet casualties. For the Russians began to counter-attack without regard to losses, fighting their way into the strongly held towns and settlements and flinging themselves against the German rearguards. The toll in dead and wounded mounted, particularly in the fierce fighting around the little city of Klin. Zhukov was forced to change his tactics and order his troops to avoid and bypass all centers of enemy resistance. As soon as the many gaps in the German positions could be felt out, bold and deep penetration was to be the order of the day.
The Red Army men were well equipped for winter warfare and were consequently much more mobile than their enemy. But, as Zhukov admits, they were still poorly trained. Field commanders in particular, conditioned by harrowing experiences of the previous year, were still fearful of encirclement and they lacked the resolution to exploit the numerous and yawning gaps between enemy formations. For the German still appeared to be strong and there was no doubt that he was as determined as ever. The operational performance of the Soviet front commanders was hampered by the lack of strong concentrations of armored forces held in reserve for the deep envelopment tasks, for after the heavy summer defeats all mechanized corps and tank divisions had been broken up. Only the tank brigades remained. These, numbering at the most only fifty tanks each, had been decentralized to the close support of infantry formations.
Unlike Timoshenko, Zhukov was not a theater commander at this time, for he exercised no control over Konev's Kalinin Front or Cherevichenko's Bryansk Front, both of which came directly under Stalin. Zhukov's command consisted of only the West Front, admittedly a large one, made up of the ten armies stretching from the north of Moscow to the area of Tula in the south.
Zhukov's main talents probably lay in the sphere of operations, for he was a cavalryman and he had specialized in that level of study. He tended to take a somewhat narrow and parochial view, restricted to the needs of West Front. He professed to believe that the situation on the Volkhov and in the Ukraine offered little hope of immediate Soviet success and he saw no reason why the reserve armies, which he so badly needed, should be allocated by Stalin to Meretskov or Timoshenko. For he had come to the opinion that with another four armies from the High Command Reserve, West Front could reach the Bryansk- Smolensk-Vitebsk line. Stalin, however, had different views.
On 5 January 1942 Zhukov was called to Moscow to attend a meeting of the GKO; Shaposhnikov, the Chief of General Staff, and Vasilevsky, the Chief of Operations, were also present. Shaposhnikov made a presentation outlining a proposed general offensive due to take place during the next two months. It was intended, said Shaposhnikov, to develop the present counter-blow against the German Army Group Center into a massive counter-offensive along the whole of the battle front from Lake Ladoga to the Black Sea. German Army Group North was to be driven back by two separate double envelopment operations; these would lift the Leningrad blockade. German Army Group South was to be assailed by a single envelopment which would free the industrial area of the East Ukraine and the Donets Basin. Meanwhile the troops from the Caucasus, who were already crossing over the frozen Kerch Straits, were to occupy the Crimea.
When the Chief of General Staff had finished his presentation, Stalin gave a brief summary of what Shaposhnikov had said, making his own views clear when he remarked that, as the Germans were in no condition to fight a winter war, the winter was the right season to smash them. The time was overdue, the dictator stressed, for the launching of a general offensive.
Stalin then asked if anyone else had anything to say, and the unsuspecting Zhukov, intent only on securing material advantages for his own West Front, took the floor. He said that he had strong doubts whether any success could be expected from further offensives in the area of Valdai and the Volkhov or in the Ukraine. Only in the center was victory ripe for the taking. There, the West, Kalinin and Bryansk Fronts all needed massive reinforcements. Zhukov, as he himself later admitted, should probably have realized by Stalin's testy interruptions that his views were unwelcome.
Worse, however, was to follow. Voznesensky, the Chairman of the State Planning Commission, a man presumably insensitive to atmosphere, then spoke out strongly in support of Zhukov against the general offensive outlined by Shaposhnikov, on the grounds that insufficient resources were available to undertake all the offensives concurrently. Stalin became increasingly angry. No one else dared to speak, except Malenkov and Beria, who hastened to agree with the dictator.
Stalin ended by saying that he had himself spoken to Timoshenko, who was all for the offensive in his particular sector. All that had to be done, continued Stalin, was to destroy the German while he was still benumbed by the cold. If a general offensive was too long delayed, the enemy would be back, as strong as ever, in the spring. On that note the meeting was concluded.
Shaposhnikov told Zhukov after the meeting that the general offensive had long been decided on and that the General Staff directives were already prepared and awaiting issue, Zhukov gathering from this conversation that the plan for the great offensive was Stalin's own and did not originate from the General Staff. Both Shaposhnikov and Zhukov were puzzled by the dictator's motives in asking for other opinions, for this Stalin did only when he had not made up his own mind; Zhukov could only come to the conclusion that the Supreme Commander acted out of caprice and spite, being determined to show the military that he, Stalin, was the de facto Commander-in-Chief. Of this no senior Soviet general could ever have been in doubt.
Stalin had decided that Zhukov's strong right flank, made up of Kuznetsov's 1 Shock, Vlasov's 20 and Rokossovsky's 16 Armies, should continue their thrust against Reinhardt and Hoepner and, together with Konev's Kalinin Front, take Rzhev. Zhukov's center, that is to say Govorov's 5 and Efremov's 33 Armies, was to continue its westward pressure against Kübler. The left flank of West Front, and in particular Boldin's 50 Army, which, benefiting by the earlier breakthrough at Chern, was already making rapid progress in its envelopment of Kübler's 4 Army from the south, was to move on Yukhnov, a small town on the Ugra about thirty miles south-west of Medyn. This movement was in support of Belov's cavalry and tank corps, which formed the great enveloping arc in the south. Belov was ordered to change his axis to a north-westerly direction and, striking between Vyazma and Yartsevo, join up with Sokolov's 11 Cavalry Corps from the Kalinin Front.
This double envelopment, meeting west of Vyazma, would encircle the larger part of Army Group Center. Golikov's 10 Army had the task of protecting Belov's far southern flank and preventing 2 Panzer Army, which was outside the pocket, from coming to the relief of the encircled German troops.
The task of Konev's Kalinin Front was unaltered in that it had to provide the inner right enveloping arm directed on Rzhev, Yartsevo and Vyazma. Kurochkin's North-West Front, as before, was to provide the outer right arm which was to thrust on Velikiye Luki and Vitebsk, so driving a great wedge between Army Group Center and Army Group North. Cherevichenko's Bryansk Front was ordered to keep up its pressure against 2 German Army in the area of Orel, while Timoshenko's South-West Theater, crossing the Donets River, should take Kharkov and swing southwards to Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe on the Dnieper. This movement, it was hoped, would free the East Ukraine and Donets Basin.