The Defence of Moscow
The Axis invasion of the USSR in World War Two was codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’, while the drive on Moscow was referred to as ‘Operation Typhoon’.
On June 22, 1941, Germany and its allies began what was supposed to be Adolf Hitler’s magnum opus — the conquest of the Soviet Union. Communism was to be destroyed and Germany would have unlimited territory and inexhaustible resources, while the Slavic people would be utilised as a servant class for the master Aryans.
Despite the deployment of millions of soldiers across the border, the attack took the Soviet Union entirely by surprise. Josef Stalin had been repeatedly alerted of the impending ambush but refused to believe it, and by the summer of 1941, he was convinced that the rumours were part of a British plot to get him to turn against Germany.
Until June 22nd, Germany and the USSR were operating under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had divided eastern Europe into zones of conquest between the two powers. At that point in time, Germany was also importing huge amounts of oil from the USSR. But anyone who was acquainted with ‘Mein Kampf’, Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, could predict that his attack on the USSR was inevitable. It was his ultimate military goal and June 22nd, 1941, marked the day it would begin, although that had not been the original date planned. It had been set for May 15th.
The rescheduling of the attack was a result of the spring floods in 1941. The German offensive, made up of 3.5 million men, 600,000 horses and hundreds of thousands of tanks, trucks, vehicles and motorcycles, couldn’t possibly pass over the marshy terrain brought forth by the flooding.
The flaws of Operation Barbarossa
Right off the bat, the ruthless offensive was hugely successful and over the summer, prisoners were taken by the hundreds of thousands as panzer thrusts forced entire soviet armies to their knees.
But even during its greatest successes, the operational flaws of Barbarossa could be seen. The two main advantages of the Soviet Union in warfare were unlimited men and endless space. The colossal distances the offensive faced in order to cross and supply wreaked havoc for Germany by early July.
Due to the lack of roads and the fact that German trains had a different rail gauge to their Soviet counterparts, entire new track systems had to be built. Meanwhile, the Soviets’ differing gasoline octane caused problems for the offensive too, therefore, anything that was needed to supply the millions of men, their animals and vehicles had to be brought in from further and further away. Summer soon turned to autumn and the Soviet resistance grew stiffer and stiffer.
Meanwhile, the orders for Operation Typhoon, the German drive on Moscow, were issued on September 6, and called for the destruction of the forces blocking the Moscow Road “in the limited time which remains available before the onset of the winter weather”.
Operation Typhoon kicks off on October 2, 1941, with Hitler announcing: “Today begins the last great decisive battle of the year. At last we have created the prerequisites for the final, tremendous blow which, before the onset of winter, will lead to the destruction of the enemy.”
The night before, Hitler issues a proclamation to be read to the troops: “In barely three months you have taken over 2,400,000 prisoners, you have destroyed or captured 17,500 tanks and over 21,000 guns, you have downed or destroyed on the ground 14,200 planes. The world has never seen anything like this.”
Dr. Heinrich Haape, who had been spearheading Barbarossa since June 22, wrote that in spite of such staggering losses “East of the Mezha, the Russians prepared a strong system of trenches, bunkers, tank-traps and barbed wire entanglements. [They] brought up supplies and gathered their strength to stand against [Germany] once more.”
Despite their attempts, the offensive immediately breaks through the Soviet positions. Panzer Group 4 advances 15km that day and panzer Group 3, 20km. On October 3, Hitler gives his first national address since the start of Barbarossa.
“On the morning of June 22, this greatest struggle in the history of the world began. Today I can state that everything has gone to plan,” he declared. “I may say today that this opponent has already broken down and will never rise again.” By the evening of October 3, the panzers advanced a full 50km.
On October 6, 1941, panzer army commander Heinz Guderian reports snow, but, as military historian, John Keegan has pointed out, it is hard to decipher whether a long autumn or an early winter would have been better for the offensive. A long autumn would result in swampy terrain, while an early winter would result in roads frozen solid, but other challenges such as blizzards and frostbite would be encountered.
As the Germans advance, Russian peasants set fire to their already-harvested crops, blow up village buildings and drive the animals away. The Red Army really starts to fight back, yet the armoured rings of Army Group Center’s three panzer groups slowly close in.
But after the first few days, Guderian’s and Herman Hoth’s panzers cannot advance temporarily due to lack of fuel, the Luftwaffe doesn’t achieve any form of aerial supremacy and the Red Air Force makes life difficult for the Germans on the ground.
However, chief of the staff of the Red Army and marshal of the Soviet Union, Boris Shaposhnikov, gets a report that a German convoy spanning 20km is advancing unopposed on Yukhnov, around a third of the way to Moscow.
The fact of the matter is that German units are operating behind Soviet lines with nothing between them and Moscow. Josef Stalin orders his armies to mobilise everything and hold off the Germans for a week until reserves can be brought in. A new defence line is to be be built west of Moscow, anchored on Mozhaisk. The Western, Bryansk and Reserve Fronts are now authorised to withdraw but it seems to be too little too late.
By October 7, disaster is unfolding. Georgy Zhukov has arrived from Leningrad to take over Moscow’s defence but he witnesses the scale of the disaster — both the Western and Reserve Fronts are in a huge pocket centered on Vyazema, and the road to Moscow is, in fact, open.
The weather changes at the end of the first week. It becomes colder and rain, snow and the autumn mud have made an appearance.
Soviet writer and journalist, Vassily Grossman, writes: “There’s rain, snow, hailstones, a liquid bottomless swamp, black pastry mixed by thousands and thousands of boots, wheels, caterpillars. And everyone is happy once again. The Germans must get stuck in our hellish Autumn.” But Army Group Center’s war diary that day proclaims: “All corps have the order: forwards! Forwards! Forwards!”
By mid month, panic spreads across Moscow and people evacuate east, but Zhukov has mobilised 250,000 Muscovites, most of them women, to build and reinforce the city’s defences.
After three weeks of Operation Typhoon, stubborn defence, mud, snow and ice have prevented the Germans from reaching the city. Despite this, the German papers have proclaimed impending victory. American journalist Howard Smith, based in Berlin, reports that the breaking point for many German people in terms of trusting their government’s accurate reporting of the war is now. Meanwhile, in his diary, Josef Goebbels writes: “Our victory news is no longer accepted with the required attention and necessary importance.”
And while Vyazema falls, the average German soldier wonders just how large the Red Army is because they still have not been beaten and Vyazema is just the first hurdle among many. When Stalin receives intelligence stating that the Japanese will definitely not attack the Soviets in the east until at least the Spring of 1942, he orders half of the divisional strength of the far east to head west to hold Moscow. That includes more than 8 divisions with 1,000 tanks and 1,000 planes.
Half a million people are now fighting to defend Moscow but the Germans are 100km away. According to David Stahel: “The blitz tactics, which had so utterly shattered the Soviet front in early October when conditions were dry and the panzer forces more tightly concentrated, were now impossible.”
On October 30, Operation Typhoon comes to an abrupt halt until the winter weather freezes the ground just enough to allow the German offensive some mobility.
On November 7, Josef Stalin gives his famous speech of defiance at Moscow’s Red Square during the October Revolution Parade, promising the destruction of German invaders.
The German advance recommences on November 15 in -20 degree weather, bringing with it numerous challenges such as oil freezes, broken rifle bolts and sentries freezing to death, but they persevere.
Advance units cross the Volga-Moscow Canal. General Konstantin Rokossovsky gets the order: “Kryukovo is the final point of withdrawal. There can be no further falling back. There is nowhere to fall back to.”
The canal is now the last big obstacle before Moscow is surrounded from the north. On the morning of November 28, German panzers are no more than 35 kilometres from the Kremlin.
Erich Hoepner’s 4th panzers take Krasnaia Poliana on November 30 and are now within artillery range of Moscow. In the morning of December 1, Gunther von Kluge’s 4th Army launches a furious attempt to take the shortest route to Moscow — the Minsk-Moscow highway. By noon the Soviets have been pushed back several kilometres and the Germans are 7km from the highway. Should they reach the highway and split the Soviet 5th and 33rd armies, the Soviets would face ultimate disaster.
Knowing that this absolutely cannot happen, Zhukov throws everything he has left into the breach. On December 2nd, a German combat engineer patrol reaches Khimkhi, 18km from the city centre, on a scouting mission. This is the closest the Germans get to Moscow.
At 03:00 on December 5 1941, the great Red Army counter offensive begins.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the Battle of Moscow, watch our Sabaton History episode here: