Fedor von Bock (December 3, 1880 – May 4, 1945) was an officer in the German military from 1898 to 1945, attaining the rank of Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) during World War II. As a leader who lectured his soldiers about the honor of dying for the German Fatherland, he was nicknamed "Der Sterber" (literally, "The Dier") . Bock served as the commander of Army Group North during the Invasion of Poland in 1939, commander of Army Group B during the Invasion of France in 1940, and later as the commander of Army Group Center during the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941; his final command was that of Army Group South in 1942.
Bock is best known for commanding Operation Typhoon, the ultimately failed attempt to capture Moscow during the winter of 1941. The Wehrmacht offensive was slowed by stiff Soviet resistance around Mozhaisk, and also by the Rasputitsa, the season of rain and mud in Russia. The soft dirt roads in Russia quickly turned into quagmires, and as a result the pace of the German advance slowed to a crawl. Once the full fury of the Russian winter struck, which was the coldest in over 50 years, the German armies quickly became unable to conduct further combat operations, with more casualties occurring due to the cold weather than from battle. The Soviet counteroffensive soon drove the German army into retreat, and Bock, who recommended an earlier withdrawal, was subsequently relieved of command by Adolf Hitler.
A lifelong officer in the German military, Bock was considered to be a very "by the book" general. He also had a reputation for being a fiery lecturer, earning him the nickname “Holy Fire of Küstrin”. Bock was not considered to be a brilliant theoretician, but possessed a strong sense of determination, feeling that the greatest glory that could come to a German soldier was to die on the battlefield for the Fatherland.
Bock personally despised Nazism, and was not heavily involved in politics. However, he also did not sympathize with plots to overthrow Adolf Hitler, and never filed official protests over the treatment of civilians by the Schutzstaffel. Bock was also uncommonly outspoken, a privilege Hitler extended to him only because he had been successful in battle.
He was born into a Prussian Protestant aristocratic family whose military heritage is traceable to the time of the Hohenzollerns. His father, Karl Moritz von Bock, commanded a division in the Franco-Prussian War, and was decorated for bravery at the Battle of Sedan. His great-grandfather served in the armies of Frederick the Great, and his grandfather was an officer in the Prussian Army at Jena. His mother, Olga Helene Fransziska Freifrau von Falkenhayn von Bock, was of both German and Russian aristocratic heritage. Bock was distantly related to Erich von Falkenhayn.
At the age of eight, Bock went to Berlin to study at the Potsdam and Gross Lichterfelde Military Academy. The education emphasized Prussian militarism, and he quickly became adept in academic subjects such as modern languages, mathematics, and history. He spoke fluent French, and to a fair degree English and Russian. At an early age, and largely due to his father, Bock developed an unquestioned loyalty to the state and dedication to the military profession. This upbringing would greatly influence his actions and decisions when he commanded armed forces during the Second World War. At the age of 17, Bock became an officer candidate in the Imperial Foot Guards Regiment at Potsdam; he received an officer’s commission a year later. He entered service with the rank of Sekondeleutnant.
The tall, thin, narrow-shouldered Bock had a dry and cynical sense of humor; he seldom smiled. His manner was described as being arrogant, ambitious, and opinionated; he approached military bearing with an unbending demeanor. While not a brilliant theoretician, Bock was a highly determined officer. As one of the highest ranking officers in the Reichswehr, he often addressed graduating cadets at his alma mater. His theme was always that the greatest glory that could come to a German soldier was to die for the Fatherland. He quickly earned the nickname “Holy Fire of Küstrin”.
In 1905, Bock married Mally von Reichenbach, a young Prussian noblewoman, whom he had originally met in Berlin. They were married in a traditional military wedding at the Potsdam garrison. They had a daughter, born two years after the marriage. A year later, Bock attended the War Academy in Berlin, and after a year’s study he joined the ranks of the General Staff. He soon joined the patriotic Army League and become a close associate of other young German officers such as Walther von Brauchitsch, Franz Halder, and Gerd von Rundstedt. In 1908, he was promoted to the rank of Oberleutnant.
In just five weeks, Poland was overrun by German and Soviet forces and Bock had linked Germany back to East Prussia. Following the success in Poland, Bock returned to Berlin to begin preparations for the upcoming campaign in the West.
Shortly after the conquest of Poland, on October 12, 1939, Bock was given command of Army Group B, with 291/2 divisions, including three armoured divisions. These were tasked with advancing through the Low Countries and luring the northern units of the Allied armies into a pocket. Army Group B consisted of the 18th Army and Sixth Army.
On July 18, 1940, Bock was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall during a reception held by Adolf Hitler. For much of the summer of 1940 Bock alternated his time between his headquarters in Paris and his home in Berlin. At the end of August, Army High Command transferred Army Group B to East Prussia; this included Kluge’s Fourth Army. On September 11, 1940, Bock relinquished command of his occupation area in France to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.
In preparation for Operation Barbarossa, on April 1, 1941, Army Group B was re-designated as Army Group Center in an official order from Army High Command which defined the organization of the invasion force. Deployed in Poland, Army Group Center was one of the three army formations which were to lead the invasion of the Soviet Union. It included the 4th Army and 9th Army, the 3rd Panzer Army and 2nd Panzer Army and the 2nd Air Fleet. On the left flank of Bock's Army Group Center was Army Group North, commanded by Ritter von Leeb; on the right flank was Army Group South, commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt.
Initially, the main objective of Army Group Center was to follow Napoleon’s route north of the Pripyat Marshes straight to Moscow. However, against the strong vocal opposition of von Bock, Hitler altered the original invasion plan, one of many changes he would make, both before the invasion and after it had already begun. Von Bock opposed any changes to the invasion plan of Moscow, because he wanted to occupy Moscow as soon as he could, hopefully before the onset of cold weather, so that his troops would be in warm quarters during the winter. The failure to do this caused the failure of the whole Soviet campaign.
The new task of Army Group Center was to drive towards the cities of Minsk and Smolensk, and in great encirclements destroy the Soviet Armies stationed there. Army Group Center would then drive toward Leningrad, and along with Army Group North destroy the remnants of the Soviet Armies in the Baltic states and seize valuable ports for the supply of the campaign. Only after the bulk of the Soviet army was destroyed in Western Russia would Army Group Center then drive toward the Soviet capital. Hitler made this change conscious of the fact that despite capturing Moscow, Napoleon was defeated because he did not destroy the Russian army.
At 3:15 a.m., June 22, 1941, the first shots of Operation Barbarossa were fired. At the outset of the campaign Bock remained at his desk in his headquarters waiting for the first reports from the front. Within an hour of the attack, the first reports began to arrive at Army Group Center headquarters. Elements of Heinz Guderian’s force had crossed the Bug River and were bypassing the city of Brest-Litovsk. Hermann Hoth’s tanks were heading for Grodno on the Nieman River to seize the important river crossings. Several reconnaissance units from the 4th Army and 9th Army had already crossed the Bug and Desna Rivers.
At 7:00 a.m. Bock flew from Posen to an advanced airfield near the headquarters of XIII Infantry Corps. There, Lieutenant General Erich Jaschke gave Bock a summary of the progress of the invasion. Following this meeting, Bock visited Guderian’s forward command post at Bokhaly. Guderian’s Chief of staff Colonel Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein greeted Bock, as Guderian had already crossed the Bug River several hours earlier with the 18th Panzer Division. Bock then visited Joachim Lemelsen, who gave an agitated report from the front. The roads on the Russian side of the Bug River were already becoming too soft to support the weight of tanks. As a result, several tank columns had to be rerouted to cross a bridge farther south at Koden. This rerouting caused severe traffic congestion, as some ten thousand vehicles converged on this single crossing. Despite this, the first day of the invasion had been spectacularly successful. Russian resistance was reported as being light and complete surprise was achieved. All along the front rapid progress was being made.
On the second day of Barbarossa, Bock crossed the Bug River. Escorted by Major General Gustav Schmidt, he made his way to a company command post from where he observed German artillery firing on Russian positions near Brest-Litovsk. Despite the fact that German panzers had already crossed deep into Russian territory, the defenders of the city were holding out stubbornly. Later that day Bock was presented with reports that Russian resistance was stiffening all long the front, especially on Guderian’s southern flank. Meanwhile, Hoth’s forces were advancing with much more ease through the Baltic states and White Russia. The first two days of Army Group Center’s advance proved to be highly successful.
Hoth’s armies advanced so quickly that Bock immediately contacted Walter von Brauchitsch, requesting the bypassing of Minsk in favor of attacking toward Vitebsk so that a drive could be made for Moscow. Initially, the change in plan was accepted but it was soon overruled by Hitler, who favored the encirclement and destruction of the large Soviet armies near Minsk. Bock wrote in his diary:
Differences between Bock’s strategic intent and the intent of High Command repeatedly surfaced. Bock continued to favor a direct drive toward Moscow, bypassing Soviet armies and leaving them to be destroyed by infantry, which advanced well behind tank columns. Bock argued that if encirclement was truly necessary then instead of diverting his tanks north and south to encircle and destroy smaller Soviet armies, a larger encirclement should be made eastward toward the Dvina-Dnieper River basins. Hitler decided against this plan, and insisted that the pockets containing Soviet armies must be destroyed before advancing deeper into Russia.
Bock, enraged by this decision, was quoted as saying:
He hesitantly gave the order to abandon the drive toward Vitebsk and assist in the destruction of the pockets. On June 25, Bock moved his headquarters from Posen to Kobryn, a town about fifteen miles northeast of Brest-Litovsk. On June 30, the 4th Army and 9th Army met each other near Slonim, trapping thousands of Russian soldiers. However, many Russian soldiers managed to escape eastward. Bock soon gave the order to disengage from the encirclement and prepare for a full-scale drive to the east. This order once again caused a confrontation between Bock and Brauchitsch.
On July 3, Bock’s forces were once again advancing eastward, with Guderian’s tanks crossing the Beresina and Hoth’s tanks crossing the Duna. This day marked the furthest distance covered by Bock’s troops in a single day, with over 100 miles traveled. Four days later, Guderian’s tanks crossed the Dnieper River, the last great obstacle before Smolensk. However, Guderian was soon ordered by Günther von Kluge to withdraw back across the river. Bock soon reversed this order, and Guderian was allowed to re-cross the river. Bock protested Kluge’s actions to High Command, to no avail. On July 11, Bock moved his headquarters again to Borisov, a Russian town near the Beresina River.
On September 9, Army High Command instructed Bock to prepare an operational order for the assault on Moscow. Operation Typhoon was the code-name given to this new attack, which was to begin no later then September 30. Bock carefully supervised the planning and preparation of the operation, and a few days later it was approved by the High Command.
As part of the preparation for Operation Typhoon, Army Group Center would be reinforced and replenished with men and vehicles; it would be composed of three infantry armies (2nd Army, 4th Army, and 9th Army) and three tank armies (2nd Panzer Army, 3rd Panzer Army, and 4th Panzer Army). Colonel General Erich Hoepner would command the 4th Panzer Army, while the former two were outgrowths of Hoth’s and Guderian’s original Panzer Groups. The replenishment of Army Group Center for Operation Typhoon caused it to increase greatly in size: with almost 1.5 million soldiers, it was now larger than it was at the outset of Operation Barbarossa. Bock spent most of the remainder of September on inspection tours of his reinforced Army Group Center. On one occasion, Bock, along with Albert Kesselring, flew over Moscow.
On September 29, Bock held a conference with his senior commanders Strauss, Hoth, Kluge, Weichs, Hoepner, Guderian, and Kesselring. During the meeting the main operational plan was reviewed, with Bock again stressing that Moscow must be taken by November 7, before the onset of the Russian winter, and to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The following day, Operation Typhoon began with attacks from Guderian’s and Hoth’s armored forces. Several days later, the infantry armies began to move toward Moscow. With less then 100 miles between the most advanced troops and Moscow, Bock estimated that his troops would enter the city in three to four weeks.
Almost immediately, Bock’s forces encountered stiff Soviet resistance on the road to Moscow. The previous diversions of Army Group Center allowed the Soviets to reinforce the area between Smolensk and Moscow with the Russian 3rd Army, 10th Army, 13th Army, and 20th Army, as well as elements of three other armies. German forces were outnumbered almost two to one. However, the superior tactics and training of the Wehrmacht, along with an element of surprise, resulted in significant gains despite the increasingly desperate measures employed by the Russians to stop the advance.
The 2nd Panzer Army, along with the XLVIII Panzer Corps, attacked important rail junctions near Orel and Bryansk. Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army soon crossed the Desna River and gained access to deep Russian territory. Meanwhile, Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Army struck toward Rshev on the Volga River.
On October 3, Guderian’s forces soon captured Orel and subsequently gained access to a paved highway which led to Moscow, some 180 miles away. Meanwhile, elements of the 2nd Panzer Army reported that they had bypassed Bryansk and were heading toward Kuraschev. Bock ordered Guderian to press on toward Tula, but within hours this order had been reversed by High Command. The reversal of the order called for Guderian to attack Bryansk where, along with Vyazma, two massive encirclements of Soviet forces were occurring. Bock argued that the area between Orel and Tula remained relatively free of Soviet forces and that Tula could be captured within hours. Ultimately, Bock agreed to divert Guderian’s tanks toward Byansk.
Cold rain soon began to fall over the northern sectors of Army Group Center’s front, and the roads soon turned into quagmires as part of the Rasputitsa. Virtually the entire front became stuck - the only vehicles capable of negotiating the mud were tanks and other tracked vehicles. However, these moved at a snail's pace (sometimes less than two miles per day ), and fuel consumption soared. This further aggravated the problem of already poor supply lines. Trucks soon became stuck in the mud, as soldiers tried desperately to free them. As the temperature continued to drop, Guderian requested a supply of winter clothing and anti-freeze for the vehicles. However, the increase in partisan activity behind the lines, along with the deteriorating weather conditions, made it increasingly difficult for these vital supplies to reach the front. In one two day period, partisans made over sixty attacks on German truck convoys, outposts, and railway lines.
Slight improvements in the weather soon made it possible for Bock’s forces to continue to seal the pockets around Bryansk and Vyazma. The dual encirclements of Soviet forces around Vyazma and Bryansk yielded some of the largest Soviet casualties since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa: some 650,000 prisoners were taken during these two encirclements, after which the Soviet armies facing Bock’s Army Group Center no longer had the advantage of superior numbers.
The weather soon deteriorated again, with the roads once more turning into impassable, muddy quagmires. Since September 30, Bock had lost some 35,000 men, 250 tanks and artillery pieces, and several hundred other vehicles, many of which were mired in the mud. Fuel and ammunition supplies became dangerously low. Despite these problems, the advance toward Moscow continued as Hitler became increasingly impatient. When advance units of the 4th Panzer Army reached Kaluga and Maloyaroslavets, German forces were within forty miles of Moscow. Guderian's advance in the south was much slower. An attempt by his forces to capture Tula had failed, with considerable losses of men and tanks. However, other units captured Stalinogorsk and Venev, indicating the possibility of bypassing Tula.
As Bock’s forces pressed on toward Moscow, panic struck in the capital. Hundreds of thousands of civilians began to evacuate the city while others were forces into emergency volunteer units. Martial law was instituted as looting and pillaging of deserted stores increased. Marshal Timoshenko was relieved of command in favor of Georgy Zhukov, who had been organizing the defense of Leningrad. The main bulk of the Soviet government was evacuated to Kuibyshev, 500 miles southeast of Moscow; however, Stalin remained in the capital after being reassured by Zhukov that the capital would not fall.
The further Bock’s forces advanced, the stiffer Soviet resistance became. The paved roads leading to Moscow became craters under constant Russian artillery fire, rendering them impassable. This forced the German troops into the mud and Army Group Center soon became stuck once again. The goal of capturing Moscow by mid-October could no longer be achieved. However, the sheer weight of the German advance could not be fully stopped and on October 21 units of the 9th Army captured Kalinin.
As November arrived the mud soon turned into ice as temperatures dropped to -20 F. While the ground hardened sufficiently enough to support vehicles, the cold weather added to the miseries of the German soldiers as many had not received winter clothing. Frostbite soon took its toll - many soldiers were severely affected and had to be evacuated.
On November 20, Bock moved his field headquarters to an advanced forward position near the front lines. There he visited an artillery command post, where he could see the buildings of Moscow through his field glasses. Several days later, German forces crossed the Moscow-Volga Canal and reached Khimki but soon fell back due to Soviet resistance. On November 29, elements of the 4th Panzer Army reached the western suburbs of Moscow. On December 4, units of the 2nd Army reached Kuntsevo, a western suburb of Moscow. Several units of Guderian’s army bypassed Kolomna and reached the Moscow River. Meanwhile, the 3rd Panzer Army once again fought into Khimki. These were the last advances made by Army Group Center under Bock’s command.
On December 6, with the temperature at -50 F, fresh Russian troops commanded by Zhukov launched a huge counterattack. All along the front near Moscow German troops retreated, destroying whatever equipment they could not salvage. Several days later, High Command ordered a halt to all offensive operations. Bock wrote in his diary:
By December 13, German forces had retreated more than 50 miles from the capital. On December 18, Bock was relieved of his command of Army Group Center. The official pretext of this decision was health problems. However, this was just one case out of some 40 high ranking officers being relieved of their command following the failure to capture Moscow. Bock's command of Army Group Center marked the closest the German army ever got to Moscow; never again would the Soviet capital be threatened.
When Bock asked for permission to withdraw his exhausted troops in December 1941, he was dismissed from his post as Commander of Army Group Center, to be reassigned to lead Army Group South in January 1942, when field marshal Walter von Reichenau died of a heart attack. Only five months later, in July 1942, Hitler blamed him for the failure of "Operation Braunschweig", the second part of the German offensive in Russia, and retired him definitively. The command of Army Group South was given to Maximilian von Weichs.
While privately opposing the atrocities being committed against Soviet civilians, Bock never protested directly to Hitler, although at one time, he had a subordinate file a formal complaint ("Meine Herren, ich stelle fest: Der Feldmarschall von Bock hat protestiert!" - "gentlemen, I state: The field marshal von Bock has protested"). His nephew, Henning von Tresckow, tried in vain to win him for the military resistance against the Hitler regime. When his staff officers planned the assassination of Hitler during a visit to his Army Group, Bock intervened. On the other hand he did not report the conspirators either.
One of the reasons for Bock's dismissal is believed to have been his expressed interest in supporting the Russian Liberation Movement, which Hitler was categorically against.
At age 64, Fedor von Bock became the only one of Hitler's Field Marshals to die from enemy fire.