With the Wehrmacht slicing into Ukraine as part of Operation Barbarossa, an enormous salient of Soviet forces had formed around Kyiv, threatening the flank of German forces headed to Moscow.
At the same time, said Sir Richard J Evans, the historian of Nazi Germany, Hitler was obsessed with capturing Ukraine’s food supplies both to starve the Slavs and ensure there was no hunger-driven collapse of the home front, as in the First World War.
His generals, however, were desperate to get to Moscow as quickly as possible and before the onset of Russia’s crushing winter, believing it would precipitate the fall of the USSR.
Yet, when Walther von Brauchitsch, the head of the army, suggested the focus should be the Soviet capital, he was told by Hitler that “only ossified brains could think of such an idea”.
Ultimately, the dictator divided his forces and sent a large proportion southwards to Kyiv and another towards Moscow.
His general staff complied, but they remained unconvinced. According to David Glantz, a military historian, Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the Army High Command, complained bitterly after the war that Hitler’s plans were “utopian and unacceptable”.
On the face of it, Hitler was proved correct. The Battle of Kiev resulted in the largest encirclement of an enemy force ever seen, trapping more than 450,000 Soviet soldiers.
Yet weeks later, when German forces reached the outskirts of Moscow, Hitler’s generals became all the more convinced that it had been a mistake.
Outside Moscow, the Red Army stopped the German advance and drove them back.