Rasputitsa – Quagmire on the Eastern Front

The rasputitsa are severe weather conditions occurring in Eastern Europe, particularly in areas that were part of the Soviet Union during WW2. The rasputitsa occurs twice a year, in the spring and autumn. The spring rasputitsa occurs when the surface level ice and snow starts to melt over ground that is still frozen. The Autumn rasputitsa occurs because of the rainy season. Although the cause is different the effect is the same. The ground, including unpaved roads, dissolve into mud and rivers can become enlarged. The result is transport bogs down, making troop movement and logistics very difficult. The Russian term ‘time without roads’ very aptly describes the conditions.

Wehrmacht soldiers pulling car from the mud, November 1941

Wehrmacht soldiers pulling car from the mud, November 1941

Rasputitsa (Definition)

Rasputitsa was the name for the severe weather conditions that occur seasonal in Eastern European areas, namely the Soviet Union. These conditions are typically characterized by thick mud caused by the recently melted snow and rain. This then turns any road that has not been paved into a great hindrance to any forces attempting to move through it.

Even rivers and streams could quickly become enlarged and themselves be extreme obstacles for military forces. All of this coupled with the disease and the impact the horrible conditions could have on the morale of invading armies made the rasputitsa weather feared by most high commands and operational leaders.

Wikipedia: Rasputitsa

Rasputitsa (Russian: распу́тица, IPA: [rɐsˈputʲɪtsə]) is a season when travel on unpaved roads becomes difficult, owing to muddy conditions, either from autumnal rains or spring thaw. It also refers to the condition of the roads, during those seasons

The term is applied to muddy road conditions in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, which are caused by the poor drainage of underlying clay-laden soils found in the region. Roads are subject to weight limitations and closures during the period in certain districts of Russia. The phenomenon was a hindrance in the early 20th century in the Soviet Union since 40% of rural villages were not served by paved roads.

Rasputitsa seasons of Russia are well known as a great defensive advantage in wartime. Common nicknames are General Mud or Marshal Mud. During the French invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon found the mud to be a great hindrance.

During the Second World War, the month-long muddy period slowed down the German advance during the Battle of Moscow and may have helped save the Soviet capital.

Wikipedia: Battle of Moscow

But the weather began to change, hampering the Germans. By 7 October [1941], the first snow fell and quickly melted, turning roads and open areas into muddy quagmires, a phenomenon known as rasputitsa in Russia. German armored groups were greatly slowed, allowing Soviet forces to fall back and regroup.

On 31 October, the German Army high command ordered a halt to all offensive operations until increasingly severe logistical problems were resolved and the rasputitsa subsided.

By 15 November 1941, the ground had finally frozen, solving the mud problem.

Glantz (1998, p. 90)

Here, during the period of spring rains, dirt roads quickly soak through and become difficult to traverse.

Meteorological conditions in May 1942 were unfavourable for ground forces, and frequent rains during the first half of the month and low clouds sharply restricted aviation operations. Airfields, which did not have outfitted take-off and landing strips, where put out of action. Their exploitation became possible only during the second half of May.

Mawdsley (2015)

Another major offensive directive followed from the Stavka on 20 March [1942], which Zhukov found foolish and wasteful, as the spring rasputitsa was about to set in. The rasputitsa in October 1941 came from the autumn rains, but the rasputitsa in the last weeks of March 1942 was more elemental. The melting of the winter’s snowfall was combined with the gradual thawing of the sodden ground which had been frozen to a depth of several metres. For up to to two months movement was very difficult, especially on unpaved roads.

Red Army attacks in the Rzhev-Viaz’ma salient petered out in late September and early October 1942 with the rasputitsa.

The defence of Moscow was certainly helped by changes in the weather. The fate of Hitler’s offensive is commonly associated with deep snow drifts and frozen German motors, with the bitter cold of December and January. The first snow fell in the centre of the Eastern Front in early October [1941]. What, however, gave the Red Army its first respite was the autumn season of rain and snow, and alternating freeze and thaw which began shortly afterwards, the rasputitsa.

We had anticipated this of course [one German general recalled], for we had read about it in our studies of Russian conditions. But the reality far exceeded our worst expectations. In the Viaz’ma area it began, slowly enough, in mid-October and became steadily more intense until mid-November. It is hard to convey a picture of what it was like to anybody who has not actually experienced it. There are only very few metalled roads in this part of the world. All others, and the open country too, become a sticky morass. The infantryman slithers in the mud, while many teams of horse are needed to drag each gun forward. All wheeled vehicles ink up to their axles in the slime. Even tractors can only move with great difficulty.

Indeed, it was only with the onset of the early winter frost in late November that German (and Soviet) movement became easier. On the other hand, the rasputitsa, like the final freeze of winter, was not something that was unexpected for either side. Zhukov maintained that the rasputitsa period was relatively short in 1941, and this seems to have been the truth. The rain and mud made operations as difficult for the Russians as it did the Germans. The rain and mud made operations as difficult for the Russians as it did for the Germans. It hampered Red Army efforts to pull equipment out of the Viaz’ma-Briansk trap and to bring up replacement units by ford to cover Moscow. The change of the weather did, however, on balance favour the Red Army. Unlike the Germans, the Russians had a working railway system behind their front line. Soviet plans, meanwhile were operating from prepared airfields, while the Luftwaffe now had to make do with improvised muddy landing strips.

Opinions also vary about the effect of the December frost. The evidence would seem to suggest it was severe but not out of the ordinary for central Russia. Expectation of a cold snap may have played some part in Stalin and Zhukov’s calculations for the timing of a counter-offensive, but they could not ave predicted a particular day. The freeze affected events later in December, when it prevented German withdrawal of heavy equipment; this dilemma drove Hitler to deliver his ‘stand fast’ order. Still, planners have to plan for the existing climate. The Germans did not fail to get to Moscow because the weather broke; they were caught b the freeze because they had failed to reach Moscow.

With the end of the rasputitsa and the onset of the first mild frost in November [1941], the way was opened for a German advance.

After the rasputitsa, on 3 May 1942, another offensive was mounted against Demiansk by Kurochkin’s Northwestern Army Gorup, this time supervised by General Vasilevskii.

The Russians assumed that operations would come to a halt in late march and April 1945 with the spring rasputitsa. Their intention was evidently to take Berlin before this.

Mitcham (2009)

In early April 1942, the rasputitsa – the spring thaw – set in. During the winter, the ground, which had been saturated by the fall rains, had frozen to a depth of eight feet or more, and several feet of ice and snow had accumulated on the top of that. Now it began to melt from the top downward, creating a progressively deepening layer of water and mud on top of frozen ground. The water could not go anywhere until the lowest layer of frozen soil had completely thawed, a process that usually took five or six weeks. During the worst three weeks of the rasputitsa, the mud was too deep for movement by motorised vehicles or even by horse-drawn vehicles, other than two-wheeled pane (peasant) wagons, which had high wheels and low weight. By mid-April, operations were virtually at a standstill throughout the combat zone. Stalin’s first winter offensive was over.

There was a blizzard blowing on February 1 [1943]. On February 3, the weather turned unseasonably warm, and the rasputitsa – the spring thaw – set in without warning.

Baker (2009)

Rasputitsa: Literally, the ‘time without roads.’ A Russian term to describe the rainy periods during the fall and spring when the roads become merely mud.

Heavy rains singled the arrival of the rasputitsa, the ‘time without roads.’ Since most Soviet roads were unpaved, the heavy fall and spring rains turned them into impassable mud holes. Extremely thick and clinging mud made even the simplest of movement nearly impossible and exhausted men, animals, machines, and fuel. Vehicles with wheels could move only if dragged by tracked vehicles such as tanks, and animals began dying by the thousands from overwork. The incredible effort required just to move slowed the entire front to a crawl.

And then came the cold: on 6 November [1941] snow began to fall in the Moscow area. The mud, thankfully, began to freeze and it was possible to extricate the equipment and move again.

The only reason the Soviets did not suffer another total disaster at Kharkov [in Feb-Mar 1943] was that the onset of the rasputitsa caused a lull in the fighting

On 12 May [1942] the Soviet offensive began even though the rains had not yet quite subsided and the forces were not quite totally prepared.

Clark (2012)

The rasputitsa (time without roads) led to atrocious fighting conditions. Kit was permanently soaked, weapons rusted, hands were puckered, everything was covered in slime and illness was rife. Army Group Centre received 23 train-loads of food and equipment each day – a third of that required – but even this was difficult to transport to where it was needed because roads from the railhead became choked with mud and immovable vehicles. Guderian notes: ‘[the] roads rapidly became nothing but canals of bottomless mud, along which our vehicles could only advance at snail’s pace and with with great wear to the engines.’ Erhard Raus concurred and later wrote:

[C]art and dirt roads became impassable, and major roads soon became mud-choked. Supply trucks broke through the gravel-topped roads and churned up the traffic lanes until even couriers services had to be carried out with tracked vehicles. By the height of the muddy season, tractors and wreckers normally capable of traversing difficult terrain had become helpless, and attempts to plough though the mud mass made the roads even more impassable … Eventually only horse-drawn vehicles could move.


In some areas the offensive ground to a halt, and to add to the woes of the Wehrmacht in particular, snow fell increasingly heavily with every passing week. Although initially thawing, making the wet conditions even worse, by early November it was settling – the first blast of what was to be an extraordinarily harsh winter.

an operational pause was deemed prudent to regroup, resupply and reorganise, beginning on 1 November [1941] until the roads froze.


References

Baker, L. (2009). The Second World War on the Eastern Front. Routledge

Clark, F. (2012). Kursk: The Greatest Battle. Headline Review.

Glantz, D. M. (1998). Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a military disaster through Soviet eyes. Ian Allan.

Mawdsley (2015). Thunder in the East (2nd Ed.). Bloomsbury Academic.

Mitcham, S. W. Jr. (2009). Blitzkrieg No Longer: The German Wehrmacht in Battle, 1943. Stackpole Books.

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