** war and social upheaval: World War II defense of Moscow Битва за Москву, Bitva za Moskvu

World War II: The Battle for Moscow (October 1941-April 1942)

Figure 1.--Here anxious civilians outside a newspaper kiosk read the latest news about the German drive on Moscow. Notice the little girl with adults here. I think she is helping sell the newspapers. I'm not sure when this photograph was taken, but would guess during November 1941. I also don't know what the sign says. The Soviets evacuated the Government and diplomatic corps, but Stalin stayed in the city.

The desisive battle of Barbarossa and arguably the entire War was fought before Moscow during the Winter 1941-42. The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves. A Japanese spy in Tokyo had informed Stalin well before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. These troops, well trained in winter warfare, on December 6, 1941 launched a winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow--inflicting irreplaceable losses. The Wehrmacht was stuned at the extent of the Soviet offensive, assuming that the staggering victories in the Summer had crippled the Red Army. There were no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the camapign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. This probably saved the Wwhrmach from an even greater dissater than what ocurred. An entire Germany Army, the 16th Army of more than 90,000 men, was essentially cut off and only supplied with an enormous effort by the Luftwaffe. A land corridor was not restablished until April 1942. The massive Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength amd huge quantities of tanks, artillery, and supplies. These losses of men and material by the Wehrmacht were especially grevious and Germany did not have the manpower resources or industrial capacity to fully repace and reequip a new army.


Both Lenningrad and Moscow were primary objectives of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler planned to totally destroy both cities once Germany had won the War. Moscow was the political and economic center of the Soviet Union. This had been the case in Tsarist Russia, but was made even more important in the new Soviet state where ever aspect of political and economic life was controlled by Stalin. Moscow was also a major communications hub. It was also a symbol of Soviet resistance and ythus of major propaganda value. Some military historians are convinced that a NAZI victory in the war with the Soviet Union hinged on taking Moscow before Winter set in. Some believe that haf Hitler not intervened that there was no real military reasons that prevented the Wehrmact from accomplishing just that goal. [Stolfi] No one doubts that Moscow was important, but other historians maintain that Soviet resistance would not have collapsed. The epic battle of Stalingrad probably gets more attention from historians. I am notvsure precisly why, perhaps because the Germans were surrounded in the city and there was a more defintive end to the battle. The battle for Moscow, however involved much larger forces--more than 7 million men on both sides. It was thus the largest battle ever fought. (There were only 4 million men involved at Stalingrad because the two armies had been so reduced by fighting during Barbarossa.) The battle was fought over a huge area--an area about the size of France. The disaster before Moscow was the Wehrmacht's first defeat. Not only was it a massive defeat, but it came at a time at which Hitler had decided to declare war on the United States, leaving the now weakened Wehrmacht to fight not only Britain and Russia, but the United states with its enormous human and material resources. Ironicall this is the same Hitler who had rose to power and gained his initial military victories by dividing his opponents and defeating them in detail. How such a careful politican became involved in a war against such overwealming forces resulted fom his change of tactics after the defeat of France. Victory in the battle of Moscow would have significantly changed that. With the resources of a defeated Soviet Union, Hitler could have successfully defended his Fortress Europe against the Anglo-American allies. The German losses were so massive that when the Wehrmact mounted its 1942 summer offensive that it could no longer strike all along the front as in Barbarosa, nut only in one sector. Stalin and the Soviet High Command were convinced that Hitler would renew the drive on Moscow. Instead Hitler chose the south, opting for the resources of the Ukraine and the oil of the Caucauses.

Operation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941)

Operation Barbarossa, the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union, was the culimation of all Hitler's dreams. He layed out in Mein Kampf Germany's need for Lebensrau which coiuld be obtasined in the East. He daw this as a racial war against the Jews and Slavs. He saw the Soviet Union as pat of the Jewsish and Slaviv meance to Germany. Thus destroying te Soviet Union and its people would give Germany access to the land and resources thay was necessary to dominate Europe and eventually the world. The Germans struck at the Soviet Union with three massive coluns. The stringest was Army Group Center and its mission was to seize Moscow which Hitler saw as a key prize. The German General Staff (OKW) planned to enter Moscow within 3-4 months. The Wehrmach achieved enormous successes, destroying major Red Army formatiions. Soviet resistance was inotiaslly ineffectual, but gradually strengthened as the campasign continued. The Battle of Smolensk (July-September 1941) in particular delayed the German drive toward Moscow. A debate within OKW followed. Army Group South had faced stiffere opposition including much of the Soviet armor force and had not maintained the face of Army Group Center's drive east. Thus substantial Red Army forces now existed on Army Group Center's souther flank. Hadler was uneasy about begining the drive toward Moscow with this threat on his flank. Other German Generals wanted to begin the drive immeduately. Hitler mase the final decession. And for Hitler seizing the resources of the Ukraine were a critical element in the decession. Guderian's armored fources was ordered south rasther than east. The result was the largest Wehrmact victory of the War. Over 0.6 million Red Army soldiers surrendered at Kiev. But this delayed the Wehrmacht another month.

Smolensk (July 10-September 10, 1941)

Smolensk was the gateway to Moscow. This was the case with Napoleon's Grand Armeé in 1812. It was also the case for Army Group Center in 1941. German Panzers initiated operations to trap Soviet forces defending Smolensk (July 10). Army Group Center's offensive was opposed by the Red Army Western Front commanded by Timoshenko, the Reserve Front commanded by Zhukov, the Central Front commanded by the Kuznetsov, and Bryansk Front commanded by Yeryomenko. Soviet resistance led by the major luminaries of the Great Patriotic War was fierce. Some historians believe that increasing Soviet resistance at Smolesk was in part the reason that Hitler ordered Guderian south. [Glantz] He wanted to secure Army Group Center's southern flank. Hitler himself made this argument. The Germans completed the encirclement, but had to fight off Soviet counterattacks. The counterattacks for a time opened a corridor allowing important Soviets forces to break out of the encirclement. The battle for Smolensk was another German victory, but nothing like the scale of the achievement at Kiev. Soviet losses totaled over 0.3 million men. The Wehrmacht reported 0.3 million prisioners. [Glantz] The Wehrmacht encountered much more stubboirn Soviet resistance at Smolensk than they had experiuenced in early battles. German losses in the battle were substantially higher than the Wehrmacht had experienced in earlier engagements, a stunning 0.25 million men. Zukov bought time at Smolensk to strengthen the defenses of Moscow. OKW concluded, however, that the Soviet miltary forces defending Moscow had been desimated. [Glantz] The Germans during and after the battle, virtually destroyed the city.

Air Raids (July 1941)

Hitler and Wehrmacht planners in the opening phase of Barbarossa were optimistically predicting that they would be in Moscow within weeks. The Wehrmacht was achieving stunning successes, but it was soon apparent that they would not reach Moscow in a few weeks. The Wehrmacht drive east did bring Moscow within range of Lufwaffe bombers and Hitler was anxious to get on with the task of destroying Moscow. Hitler at this stage ordered the Luftwaffe to initiate terror attacks on the the Soviet capital. Hitler's instruction to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring were to level both Moscow and Leningrad to the ground (July 8). He wanted to ensure that there "will be left no inhabitants that we will have to supply during the winter". Hitler issued the final order for the implementation of these raids--Führer Order No. 33 (July 19, 1941). The Luftwaffe staged a series of air raids. The first strike on Moscow was carried out by 195 bombers (July 21). That was not a force that could destroy a city the size of Moscow. Not only werw only 195 bombers involved, but they were medium twin-engine bombers designed for tacticl upport not heavy four engine bombers with large bomb loads. And they were operating a greater distances than the bombers that carried out the Blitz on London. And unlike the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe when there was no army operations to support, the Luftwaffe had massive army operations to support. Hitler was especially anxious to destroy the Kremlin. The emense area covered by Moscow was an imposing target for the limited Luftwaffe force available. The Luftwaffe, somewhat to its surprise, was confronted with dense air defenses. The Luftwaffe had smashed the Red Air Force in the opening days of Barbarossa. Stalin had moved much of his air force west where it was very vulnerable. Thus Barbarossa unfolded with little serious oposition from the Red Air Firce. Moscow was different. General-Mayor Mikhail Gromadin coomanding Moscow Air Defense District (Moskovskaya Zona PVO) had assembeled 585 fighters. More than half were modern types (170 MiG-3s, 95 Yak-1s, 75 LaGG-3s, 200 I-16s and 45 I-153s). Moscow was also ringed by dense anti-aircraft batteries--1,044 anti-aircraft guns. The Germans hit Moscow again with 115 bombers (July 22) and 100 bombers (July 23). The Luftwaffe was unable to maintain even this limited level of attacks. The Soviet defenses and the demands of Wehrmacht for air support forced the Luftwaffe to end large-scale raids on Moscow. The number of bombers was decreased from 100 during the third night to 50, 30, and finally no more than 15. The Luftwaffe terror campaign was reduced to nuisance raids. The raids caused only limited damage to important targets. The Kremlin in particular still stood defiently. The effectively organized Civil Defense units also limited the damage. There were, however, substantial civilian casualties. Civilians as well as officials sought refuge in the deep tunnels of the newly constructed Moscow Metro. The Wehrmacht as Barbarossa developed would move much closer to Moscow, but attrition, the weather, and the need to support ground units would prevent them from staging a major Blitz on Moscow.

Kiev (August-September)

Hitler delayed the drive by ordering Guderian to turn south and support Army Group South (July 27). Hitler's Directives 33 and 34 significantly altered the Wehrmacht battle plan. Guderian does not immediately comply, but is forced to redirect his front and drive south toward Kiev. Many Wehrmacht commanders believe that this was a grevious error and lay the failure of Barbarossa on Hitler. [Guderian] Many but not all historians agree. [Stolfi] The first snow of the coming Winter occurred (September 12). It was only a minor hinderence, but the weather became a major factor in the campaign. The Wehrmacht achieved one of the most stunning victories in military history. The Germans took Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, destroying seven Soviet armies (September 19). Over 650,000 Soviet prisioners are taken--the largest tally in any battle in history. Hitler called it, "the gratest victory of all time. This had the effect, however, of reducing the strength of the forces moving on Moscow, in effect delaying that drive by about 2 months. Once Guderian was able to move toward Moscow again, the weather caused increasing problems, first the Autumn rains and than the onset of an unusually severe Winter. Taking Kiev and destroying five Soviet armies had the benefit of securing Army Group Center's souhern flank. Many military historians disagree as to wether this was a realistic possibility.

Lenningrad (September )

Leningrad was the Soviet Union's other great city. Army Group North driving west through the Baltics cut off Lenningrad (September 6). The people of Lenningrad had built deep defensibe lines that helped the City's defenders stop the Germans. Hitler decided to focus on Moscow and withdrew Panzers from the Lenningrad front to strengthen Army Group Center. The defense of the City was directed by Marshal Zukov. Hitler decided not to storm the City, but rarher to pound and starve the beleagered defenders into submission. The Germand hoped to take the City and then direct Army Group Center's drive on Moscow. Lenningrad, however, held. But the 2.9 million people of Lenningrad would have to endure a 900 day seige. Many would not survive.

Führer Directive 35--Moscow Offensive (September 6, 1941)

Barbarossa had been complicated by Hitler's interference, facilating between objectives and moving units between the the Army Groups. There had from the beginning been some ambiguity in tghe olans for Barbarossa, rising from the fact that OKH and OKW had both developed plans for the offensive. Hitler's incessant tinkering only added additional ambiguity. Finally with Führer Directive 35 he instructed Army Group Center to drive on Moscow. There is a discussion of the overall Eastern Front, but the focus here is on final victory to be achieved by the drive on Moscow. The objective was not only to seize Moscow, but to destroy the Red Army units that would oppose the drive. This was the heart of the Red army that had survived Barbarossa. It was assumed that they would stand and fight rather than let Moscow fall and this thus provided the opportunity to essentially destroy the Red army and end the War. Field Marshall Von Bock's Army Group Center was to be strengthened for this purpose. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies were to be reinforced with the 4th Panzer Army which had be fighting with Army Groyp North on the Lenningrad Front. The drive on Moscow was to be the final strike ending the war in the East. Over a million well-trained and armed German troops only 180 miles from Moscow lined up to strike the final blow. [Zetterkibg and Frankson] And this time much of the Red Army that had stood between Stain and Hitler laid smashed in the German rear. Its soldiers killed or starving in Wehrmacht POW camps. While such was the size of the Red Army and the Soviet ability to create new units, the Red Army was not yet destroyed. In large measure the coming struggle would determine the fate of the Western world. And to an extent today not fully appreciated, Hitler had a real opportunity to win World War II. Ot would be his only real chnce to do so.

Defense of Moscow

Stalin put the defense of Mosow in the hands of his most competent commander, Marshal Georgi Zukov (1896-1974). Zukov had been the Chief of Staff of the Red army, but Stalin replaced him when he suggested withdrawinng from Kiev. Stalin sent him to Lennigrad where he played a role in the successful defense of that City. Zhukov proceeded to organize the defense of Leningrad (September 13). Zhukov had Lenningrad citizens dig anti-tank ditches and other defenses creating multiple lines of defense to protect the city. As the Wehrmact intensified his push toward Moscow, Stalin recalled him to the capital to organize the defenses. Civilians were put to a range of tasks. Even after the attrocities of Stalin's Great Terror and the Gulag, there was still a fervent feeling of patriotism and idealism. Undernourished girls were assigned to dig trenches and cut firewood. Bolshoi Theater performers dug trenches. A Communist Party member suggested that less ilustrious personages should perform such manual tasks. The Bolshoi group was offened. "What, do you take us for deserters?" [Braihwaite]

Alexander Shcherbakov

Moscow's Communist boss was Alexander Shcherbakov. He was a Stalin loyalist as were all individuaks in position of power at the time. He worked tirelessly to prepare the city for the German assault. Ironically he fell dead on May 9, 1945 -- Victory in Europe Day in the Soviet Union..

Operation Typhoon (September 30)

The Wehrmacht after their victories at Kiev and Smolensk regrouped to renew the drive on Moscow. Once OKW had secured Army Group Center's southern flank, the final drive on Moscow could commence--Operation Typhoon. More than a million well-trained and by now very experienced Grman troops took position along the frontline facing Moscow (late-September). They were now only 180-mile west of the Soviet capital. [Zetterling and Frankson] This was to be the defining engagement of the War--the great turning point. The Germans achieved considerable success in the opening phase of Typhoon. The OKW assessment was that the principal Red Army units had been either destroyed or weakened to the point that the succesful defense of the city was not possible. Hitler speaking at the Berlin Sportpalast, a favored venue, He disparaged the Red Army in the most vulgar terms, calling them "animals and bests". He told Germans "this enemy is already broken and will never rise again". (October 3). he Red Army in the interval provided, by the shift south toward Kiev had ammassed strong forces against the Wehrmacht and deployed them behind strong defensive positions. Army Group Center launched Operation Typhoon (September 30, 1941). OKW wanted to seize Moscow before the hard winter weather hit. The Autumn began in ernest (October 7). This rains exacerbated the already serious logistical problems and the Wehrmacht was forced to call a temprary hault in offensuve operations (October 30). The Panzers, however, had scored another series of successes. Major encirclements were executed at Vyasma and Bryansk. The Wehrmacht killed or captured another 0.6 million Soviet soldiers and huge quanyities of equipment and supplies. OKW was astounded, however, at the strength of the Red Army which they had thought a defeated force. Army Group Center had began Typhoon about 200 miles from Moscow and rapidly cloed that gap to 75 miles, destroying several Soviet armies.

Mozhaisk Defensive Line

The German Typhoon offensive was stopped at the Mozhaisk Defensive Line about 75 miles from the city. Both the defensives and the weather stopped the Germans who paused to regroup. OKW prepared to execute another giant encirclement to take Moscow in. OKW ordered the resumption of the drive toward Moscow (November 15). They had not resolved logistical problems. Colder weather was resolving the problem of mud-clogged roads, but creating even woese problems for the poorly prepared German soldiers. Barbarossa was to be a Summer Blitzkrieg. The Germans had not yet reached Moscow and the Winter had set in. Most German soldiers were still fighting in their Summer uniforms. Although the Wehrmacht had inflicted enormous losses on the Red Army, the Germans had taken unexpectedly serious casulaties. Major German formations were now under strength and fighting with significants losses of equipment.

Soviet Preparations

Unbenongst to OKW, Stalin had authorized the transfer of strong Red army units from Siberia. Throughout the early campaign of Barbarosa, the Soviets had kept substantial forces in Siberia, assuming that Japan would join their Axis partners and attack from Manchuria. Upon learning that the Japanese had no such intention, Zukov brought a substantial part of these forces west to strengthen Red Army formations around Moscow. He added them to the strategic reserve he was building in rear areas. German intelligence did not preceive this build up. OKW and Hitler continued to believe that the Red Army was nearing the break up point.


The Japanese decission to strike America rather than Russia, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves west to stop the Germans. Unlike the Allies, the Axis made no real effort to coordinate their war effort. Hitler did not inform the Japanese or Mussolini about his plans to invade the Sobviet Union nor did the Japanese inform the NAZIs of their plans to strike Pearl Harbor. Mussolini in part out of pique suprised Hitler with his invasion of Greece, a decesion that complicated Hitler's Barbarossa prepasration. A German journalist (Soviet agent) in Tokyo informed Stalin well before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. Most historians agree that the Japanese decesion to strike America rather than join in the NAZI assault on the Soviets was the critical decesion of World War II. America was not yet in the War, but President Roosevelt's diplomatic resistance to Japanese operations in China and Indo-China and decession to move the Pacific Fleet to Pear Harbor appears to have caused the Japanese to confront America rather than the Soviet Union. Their experience in the 1939 border war with the Soviets was probably another factor. The failure of the Axis to coordinate strategy doomed Barbarossa and in the end was a central factor in the eventual Allied victory.

Siberian Reserves

Since the 1939 border fighting with Japan, Stalin had maintained a poweful army in Siberia. The importance of this well-equipped and trained force increased as the Wehrmacht smashed whole armies. The German destroyed a substantial part of the Red Army as Barbarossa unfolded, in part because Stalin had ordered them to take forward positions along the frontier. With the onset of Typhoon and the NAZI drive on Moscow, the need for fresh troos became critical if Moscow was to be saved. A German journalist, Richard Sorge, in Japan was a secret Soviet agent. He reported that Japan had decided not to attack the Soviet Union and had opted to strike south (early October). Here President Roosevelt's strong position against Japanese agression was a critical fator. Sorge's report can be over emphazized. During War countries reveive all kinds of reports. How could the Soviets be sure Sorge was correct or for that matter trustworthy. After all Stalin before Barbarossa had ignored numerous reports warning him of the coming NAZI invasion. It is likely that Stalin had other sources of information. Of course another factor was the desperate military situation that made up Stalin's mind. The Siberian divisions were well-trained and equipped and aucostomed to operating in winter weather. The Soviets rushed about 40 divisions west to participate in the defense of Moscow. They were to serve as a critical element in Zuhkov's counter offensive.

The Weather

The Wehrmact had fought the major battles of Barbarossa during the fine, generally dry conditions of the Russian summer. This changed during Typphoon. The autumn rains turning Russia's primitive roads into rivers of mud. Negotiated the thick mud proved a challenge for the mechamized armor Panzers that led the German drive. It also impeded supply trucks and horse-drawm transport that much of the Wehrmacht still relied on to move men and supplies. The arrival of cold winter weather froze the mud, but created a range of additional problems for the Germans tht OKW, which planned the German offensive on the basis that the campaign would be complee before the onset of winter, had not planned.

General Winter

A surprising aspect of Barbarossa is the extent to which played a decisive element. The Wehrmacht assumed that the staggering victories in the Summer had ireversibly crippled the Red Army. There were thus no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons and equipment in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the camapign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. The weather by November had turned cold, but not bitter cold. This changed in late November when Moscow was enveloped in bitter cold, virtually Arctic conditions. German caualties from frostbite began to mout. But it was not just the suffering of the men that afflicted the German advance. Their great advantage had been their mechamized equipment proividing great striking power and mobility. The German equioment was increasingly imobilized by the weather. German lubriucants in particular were not designed to function in severe Winter conditions. Red Army units also suffered in the cold weather, but they were trained and equipped to deal with it. And they had the proper lubricants for their tanks and other vehicles. German commanders after the War writing their memoirs often mentioned the weather, finding this preferable to admitting they were beaten by the Red Army which that first year they saw a an undisciplined rabble. Soviet commanders anserred with the simple reply, "even aschool boy knows it snows in Russia." The Wehrmscht's failure to prepare for the Winter is a fascinating aspect of Barbarossa. German commanders were well educated in military campaigns and knew of the imporance of weather. And all were conversant with Napoleon's disasterous 1812 campaign. Ans Germany is a northern European country acustomed to cold winters. It was not just the cold, the autumn rains and mus were also a factor, but cold and snow proved decisive. So how could the Germans have been so poorly prepared?

Evacuation Order (October 15)

Moscow was in a state of flux by mid-October. It looked increasingly likely that the city would fall to the NAZIs. There was a steady flow of men west to the front and refufees moving east out of the city. Given the speed of the NAZI push toward Moscow, the Soviets begin to evacuate the city. The Soviets evacuated the Government and diplomatic corps to Kuibyshev. The Bolshoi was evacuated. About half of the population had been evacuated (Noveember 7). Moscow residents began to flee the city as rumors that the Germans were about to enter. Moscow began spinning out of control Workers saw their bosses leaving in cars and trucks, in some case with their personal affects such as pianos and house plants. Thiscaused riots at some plants and mobs threaten to gain control of the city. Party bosses in cars and tricks were stoppd and beaten by angry mobs. Some of the mobs chanted, "Kill the Jews!".Interestingly in the situation of Moscow under the German threat, people began to speak more freely in a way that they never dared before under Stalin. Stalin ordered the NKVD to rig importantant buildings and ladmarks with explosives. Assasination teams were organized to operate in case the Germans successfully seized the city. Stalin's personal train was kept waiting at the train station. He was afraid to fly. When the Germans reached the suburbs, Stalin went to the railway station. He reportedly paced the platform and then finally ordered his driver to take him back to the platform. This was brought under order when officials explained that Comrade Stalin had not yet left and by NKVD troops. [Braihwaite] Stalin ordered NKVD units to restore order in the city. No one knows how many Muscovites were killed. [Nagorski] In the end he decided to stay in the city.

Military Parade (November 7)

Stalin decided that the annual military parade honoring the Revolution needed to be held to make the statement that the Red Army would not break and Moscow would not be abanodoned. Two divisions and many tanks were pulled out of the city's defenses for the parade. Some believe that Stalin was afraid to attend, but moost authors beliece he did and addressed the troops. Fearing a Luftwaffe attack, the parade was held at 8:00 am rather than the usual 10:00 am. [Braihwaite]

Final German Drive

The lead German Panzers drove to within site of Moscow, about 19 miles. Wehrmacht officers were reported seeing the spires of St. Basil in the Kremlin. The weather was apauling. Their equipment was breaking down. The men were exhausted and without cold weather clothing. Zhukov fed his reserves sparingly into the front line. Two Panzer forces attempted to encircle Moscow (November 15). This was the final phase of Operation Typhoon. The Germans described it as the Ostheer nach vorn--the flight to the front. The Germans were increasingly desperate to reach Moscow for shelter from the weather. But between them ans Moscow stood Red Army forces in strong dfensive positions--the Mozhaisk Position. This was the final line of defense ringing the city. This was built around natural defenses. Sea of Moscow in the north and the River Oka in the south. Zhukov had only usedc a small part of his building reserves for the Mozhaisk Position. The northern pincer of the NAZI attack was msde up of 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies was the driving force of the Kalinin Front. The 9th Army reached the Sea of Moscow and the Volga Canal ((November 27). Here they liked with the 3rd Panzer Army. The 7th Panzer Division crossed the Canal (November 28). The Germans reached Krasnaya Polyana about 30 km from Moscow. The 4th Panzer Army got within 30 km (19 miles) of the Kremlin when it reached the last tramstop of the Moscow line at Khimki (November 27). Guderians with the 2nd Panzer Armyn was attacking from the south toward Tula. When the Soviets blocked him at Tukla, he bypassed the city. The NAZI forces to the west of Moscow were about 50 km away. It is at this point that Russia's ancient ally--the weather joined the battle. The 2nd Panzer Army failed to take Tula, the last city on the drive to Moscow. Efforts to go around Tula flundered at Kashira, a rail center. Until this point the weather had been cold, but not bitter. Temperatures plummeted. The Germans were confronred with temoeratures -20°C and some Wehrmacht units reported temperatures of nearly -60° C. I was to be one of the most severe Winters in recent history. Hitler and refused advisers who had suggested equipping the Wehrmacht Winter clothing. He was insistent that Barbarossa was to be a Summer campaign. Guederian reported that his troops were "done for". The Germans report huge casualties, not to the Soviets, but to the winter--over 100,000 incapacitating frostbite injuries. About 2,000 were so severe that amputations resulted. The Panzers to the west of the city made a last desperate attempt to break through to Moscow. They were within a few kilometers of the Soviet capital. Forward units reached the suburbs and could see domes of Red Square through their field glasses before being driven back. [Fest, pp. 653-654.] Army General Staff, General Halder, and the three Army Groups (North, Center, and South) and other senior commanders met at Orsha. They decided to continue the drive on Moscow. Army Group Center commander von Bock argued whatever the difficulty, the alternative was to allow the Soviets to build up forces for a counter stroke. But Army Group Center was no longer capable of advancing. Hitler was finally forced to abandon the attack on Moscow (December 5). This can be considered the end of Operation Barbarossa and ultimately any realistic German opportunity to win the War.

The Hunger Plan

Our discussion of the German drive on Moscow is largely a description of the military campaign. One should never, however, lose sight of just what the German plan was for the Soviet people after they took Moscow and destroyed the Red Army. The German attrocities in World War II are well documented, including the Holocaust and much more. Incredibly their plans far exceeded wg\hat they were actually able to accomplish. The Soviet Union lost some 25 million people in World War II--the exact number will never be known, but this is only a fraction of the killingb Hitler and his henchmen had planned. The initial step ws the Hunger Plan. This was a plan Hitler assigned Rehmarshal Göring to carry out. The plan was to starve some 30 million Soviet civilians during the winter of 1941-42. Stalin and the NKVD had used mass starvation as a policy too, most notably in the enginered Ukranian famine (1932-33). [Appelbaum] Stalin dspite the enormity of his crimes, only targetted specific population groups. Hitler on the other hand targetted the entire Soviet people. The Germans planned to begin killing the urban populaton of the Soviet Union through strvation--the Hunger Plan. And this incredibly was just the beginning. Soviet cities were to be destroyed, llowed to revert to forest lands. The rural populations were given a repreive. They wre needed to produce food and Stalin's policies of controlling them thrugh collective farms would be continued. This would be the case until German settlers could collonize the East, using the fraction of the original population as a Helot-like slave labor force. German planners spelled out this in great detail--Generalplan Ost. This was surey the most diobolical plan of conquest in hunan history. A third of the population of the Soviet Union was to be killed outfight, athird driven beyond the Urals, and a third reduced to slave labor. The actual proportions varied from population to population (Russian, Byelorussiand, Ukranians, ect.) abd in different interations of Generalplan Ost. Poles and Czechs were to be treated similarly. Thus the stakes quite simply could not have been larger.

German Position

Hitler demanded that the Wwhracht drive on when their was no longer any real hope of seizing Moscow. The Germans were not unfamiiar with cold winters. Yet stocks of winter clothing we stllnin weahouses located in the Reich. One reasion Stalin had rejected reoports of an eminent German invasion was that intelligence reports ndicated that the Gemans were making no preparations for a winter campaign. As Hittler demanded the Wehrmcht press on, no though was given to defensive positioning or preparing the troops for an extended winter campign. Two historins describe the sutuaton, "During the final days of December, the Germans lacked the stamina to do any more than conduct minor raids of the kind undertaken northeast Naro-Forminsk. Their units were badly wioen, while further Soviet reinforcements contnued to arrive. The gloomy pictur paintd by von Bock at the end of November had not been overly pesimistic. In fact, the situation was even worse than the Germans realized: Soviet reserves of which the Germans were compltely unaware waited behind the front. They would soon open a new chapterin the struggle on the eastern Front. Operation Barbrossa had finaly got stuck." [Zetterkibg and Frankson] Failing to detect theSoviet build up was surely the single greatest intelligence failure of the War, but one that the Germans would repeat in subsequent campaigns, The Wermacht was not meerly stuck. Largely thanks to Hiter's demands, as well as the political toadies he advanced to military command, to push on, the Whermacht was not in defensive positions from which they could wait out the winter and contiue the campaign in the summer. They were in exposed positins, shrot of amunition and supplies, without winter clothing, and without lubrrcants that could keep vehices functiioning in bitter cold weather. For this military insaity, the en of theWehrmacht would pay terrible price.

Red Army Offensive (December 6)

Zhukov had been building up his reserves. Zhukov strategy was to bleed the Wehrmacht as it drove toward Moscow, build up a powerful force, and then strike when the Wehrmacht had been weakened. This was a stategy that he used successfully on several occassions. Here he made full use of the Russian Winter that was handing a terrible impact on the unprepared German soldiers. The Soviet Siberian forces were well trained in Winter warfare. The Soviet buildup was completely indetected by German intelligence. Particularly important was the arrival of Siberian reserves which were withdrawm from the forces facing the Japanese in Manchuria. Zhukov launched his winter offensive against the Whermacht that had been stoped at the gates of Moscow and which had been severly affected by the cold weather. The Red Army struck (December 6). German intelligence had failed to pick up any indication of the Soviet preparations. They were totally unprepared for a Soviet offensive. This was perhaps the greates intelligence failure of the War. The Wehrmacht was stuned at the extent of the Soviet offensive, assuming that the staggering victories in the Summer had crippled the Red Army. There were no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the campaign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. The Soviet offensive was a shock to the Germans who had thought that victory was within their grasp. The Soviets attacked with their Siberian veterans as well as new largely untested divisions. They were supported by artillery, T-34 tanks, and Katyusha rocket launchers. The Soviet armor unlike their German counterparts did not freeze up in the cold weather. For the first time in the War, The Soviets had the advantage of armor and mobility. And for the first time, the Germans surrendred or broke and ran in large numbers. One author writes, "The riflemen were in wild flight all along the line., hunted by the Russian tanks. The other tank from my company had been knocked out. By then, we were moving past another knocked out tank. We no longer had any way on our tank to provide aimed fire .... Eight riflemen were cowering on the front of my tank. Bunvhes of them were hanging off the sides. Despite that, more and more were attempting to climb up on the rear deck while we were moving. Many of them had been wounded by all the shrapnel flying about. But being wojnded meant nothing at that point., when you smelled an opportunity to escape the inferno." [Schäufler]

Stand and Fight Order (December 16, 1941)

Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. This probably saved the Wehrmacht from an even greater dissater than what ocurred. The Soviets inflict staggering losses of men and material--irreplaceable losses. Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. He even replaces Guderian for disobeying his order not to withdraw (December 20). (Guderian was reportedly only rearranging his front line in order to shorten and make it more defensible.) Hitler's obstinancy may have saved the Wehrmacht from an even greater dissater than what ocurred.

December 1941

The month of December 1941 was surely the most momentus of the War. It was in December that what was essentially a European war became a world war and it was in December that the outcome of the War was essentially decided. There would for sure be hard fighting ahead. But after December, the outcome of the War wa no longer in doubt. And the competent commanders in the Wehrmact knew that Germany could no longer win the War. (Less well understood was how total their country's defeat would be.) Of course Americans will immediately see the stunning Japanese carrier attack on Pear Harbor (December 7), which brought Americ into the war. But much more occured in December. German had by the beginning of the month so devestated the Red Army that the Wehrmacht had achieved parity--meaning approximately equal levels of combat soldiers. Ironically, the Red Army launched its offence before Moscow the day before (December 6). The Germans did not admit the scale of the disaster the Wehrmach experienced before Moscow, but a series of stunning announcements followed from Berlin. The Germans admited for tge first time that they would not be able to take Moscow (December 8). Then an even more surprising announcement, Hitler declared war on the United States (December 10). This stunned both the German military and the German people. Competent military commanders were agast. Having failed to defeat the Soviet Union, Hitler had declared war on the country that had been largely responsible for Germany's defeat on the Westen Front in World war I. It was an unfathomobable act of national suiside. Germany straining with the burdens of wageing war against Britain and the Soviets now added another enemy. And not just any country, but the United States with a huge population and immense industrial might. But the stunning developments of the month did not end here. Hitler orders Army Group Center to stand and fight. The soldiers are told to defend their positions at all costs and any withdrawal is forbidden (December 16). Dr. Goebels made a radio appeal for warm clothing for the soldiers at the front (December 20). The Great Germant Wehrmacht was in essence begging in the street corner for hand-me-down clothing. The next day Hitler announced that he was replacing the Whermacht commander Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch . An what great military mind would Hitler replace him with? The answer of course was obvious--Hitler took personal command of the Wehrmacht. But it was a far weaker Wehrmacht than the one that had begun the War, and a Wehrmacht that not only faced a Red army growing in size and competence, but a new foe--the United states army being formed across the Atlantic. At at the end of the month, Hitler delivered a New Year's message to the German people, warning them that hard fighting lat ahead in the New Year. Neither Hitler or the German people, however, were prepared for just how hard that fighting would be. The Germans failure to take Moscow and dragging America into the War essentially sealed the fate of the Axis. This was clear to many German officers. It is no accident that Goebbels begins talking about defeatists in OKW. Goebels wrote in his diary, "... I talked at length with Martin, [Lt. Colonel Martin was the Wehrmacht liason officer to the Propaganda Ministry.] I tried to persuade him to tell me the names of all officers in the OKW and OKH who are guilty of fostering defeatism, and to make a written report on them. The Führer has called for such a written report from me so that he may take proper measures." [January 21, 1942--Goebbels, p.34]

Moscow Saved

The Red Arny offensive saved Moscow. The Germans were driven back well out of artillery range. The City would never again be threatened by the Wehrmact. The frint stabilized well west of the city. There were bomber raids, but the Luftwaffe as shown in the battle of Britain had a limited strategic boming capability. The people that left the City gradually returned. There were various celebrations. The Red Army drive long lines of German POWs through the City on the way to the Gulag camps in the east. Few would ever return to Germany. The Russians called them Frozen Fritzes. Many small family, school, or other New Years celebrations were heald. Communist authorities had for several years been promoting New Years instead of Christmas. Moscovites were releaved, but few yet realized what would have befallen them had the NAZIs succeeded in taking the City.

The German 16th Army--The Demyansk Pocket (January-April 1942)

An entire Germany Army, the 16th Army of more than 90,000 men, was essentially cut off and surrounded by the Red Army. The Soviet offensive before Moscow primaily targetted Army Group Center, but the 16th Arny was part of Army Group North. The Soviets launched the Demyansk Offensive (January 7, 1942). General Lieutenant Pavel Kurochkin Northwestern Front attacked. The Soviet goal was to break the link between the German Demyansk positions, and the Staraya Russa railway that supplied the German 16th Army. The terraine and weather slowed the Soviet advance. A second attack, the Rzhev-Vyazma Offensive made more progress (January 8). The encirclement operation was completed (February 8). The Soviets succeeded in encircled the German 16th Army's (Generaloberst Ernst Busch) IInd, and parts of the Xth Army Corps (General der Artillerie Christian Hansen). Trapped in the pocket were the 12th, 30th, 32nd, 123rd and 290th infantry divisions, as well as the SS-Division Totenkopf. There were also RAD, Police, Todt organization and other auxiliary units who were trapped and assisted in the battle. In total, about 90,000 German troops and around 10,000 auxiliaries were trapped inside the pocket. Their commander was General der Infanterie Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, commander of the IInd Army Corps. The 16th Army was susrounded with only supplies provided by an enormous Luftwaffe effort. The Luftwaffe assured Hitler that the pocket could be supplied with its daily requirement of 270 tons of supplies by Luftflotte 1, Hitler ordered the 16th Army and other units to hold their positions until relieved. The pocket was relatively close to Luftwaffe air fields which made for relatively short runs. Short runs of course increased the quantities the available crews and planes could transport. The 16th Army also controlled two well equipped airfields at Demyansk and Peski. Fortunately for the Germans the weather improved in February. The Luftwaffe supply operation was very successful. A factor here was the weakness of the Red Air Force which has been largely destroyed during Barbarossa. While successful, the operation required the use of virtually the entire Luftwaffe transport fleet had to be used as well as some bombers. The Germans did bot succeed in reestablishing a land corridor until April 1942. The success of the Luftwaffe here would be a factor in Hitler's orders for the encircled 6th army at Stalingrad to stand in fight. Many of the factors which helped the Luftwaffe suceeded in supplyig tge 16th Army were not present in the Stalingrad effort.

German View

OKW press releases provided no hint to the German people of the magnitude of the disaster in the East. Goebbels provides a inkling of the reaction in Germany. "The anxiety of the German people about the Eastern Front is increasing. Deaths owing to freezing are an especially important factor is the connection. The number of cases of freezing revealed by transports from the Easern Frint back home is so enormous as to cause great indignation here and there. Unrest is, however, not sufficiently great to constitute a threat. People continue to criticize the OKW communiqué because it gives no clear picture of the situation. Soldiers' mail, too, has a devestating effect. Words cannot describe what are soldiers are writing back home from the front. That is in part because every individual wants to appear important. The passion for showing off here plays a considerable role. When the soldier writes and exagerates he doesn't stop to think that he may be causing his family and his relatives a lot of worry. I suggest once more that the OKW indoctrinate the soldiers on this point, but I don't expect much. It is a question of a human weakness against which one is powerless." [January 22, 1942--Goebbels, p. 38.] Two days ater, Goebbels provided a more graphic desriotion of the troop transports coming back from the front, "From Upper Silesia I received information to the effect that wounded soldiers are still being transported in unheated boxcars, and that the soldiers are lying, some with frozen limbs, in these trains, without blankets, neglected, and unfed for seventy or eighty hours." [January 22, 1942--Goebbels, p. 38.] Goebbels blamed the situation on the Wehrmacht. In actuality, Hitler was directly involved. During the planning of Barbarossa, officers who raised concerns such as the lack of winter uniforms were ignored or even reprimanded. Resources were limited. All available resources were to be directled at one decisive blow and victory before the winter set in. When this was not accomplished, the German soldier paid a heavy price. Goebbels diary entries provide fascinating snap shots of the War and attitudes of the NAZI leadership. What is absent from the diaries is any appreciation of the strategic balance. Here we are unsure just what Goebbels actually thought. Many pasages rail against defeatists so he could hardly pen realistic assessments of the war even if he appreciated what was happening militarily. And he does not seem to have appreciated the significance of the battle. A few days later he writes, ""I have received a report from a commanding general at the northern front which is extrodnarily favorable. The general says the Russian forces there are very weak and are being bled white. He believes the Soviet Uniin will collapse in the spring, providing we are in a position to deliver a few decisive blows." While he expresses some skepticism, he goes on to write, "It may well be that the times through which we are now passingwill later be regarded as the most advantageous in the entire history of the war: possibly it is actually true that the Bolsheviks are now using up their last resources and will break down under a severe blow." [July 26--Goebbels, p. 49.] Goebbels of course was ever optimistic, even when presented with the most adverse news. The Soviet offensive before Moscow was only the first of many disasters to come. Here we can not be too critical of his assessment. German military intelligence during the War verge on the incompetent. They seriously understimate Soviet strength and the ability to form and deploy new divisions.


The Soviet offensive inflicted irreplaceable losses to the Axis. The massive Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength amd huge quantities of tanks, artillery, and supplies. These losses of men and material by the Wehrmacht were especially grevious and Germany did not have the manpower resources or industrial capacity to fully repace and reequip a new army. The Soviet losses were actually greater than the German losses. Casualties have been estimates at 1.9 million Soviets and 0.6 million Germans. [Nagorski] The combined 2.0 million casualtes dwarf all other battles and indeed exceed those in almost all other wars. While the Soiviet losses were huge, they could be replaced and the Germans consistently underestimated the Soviet ability to raise new divisions. The Germans could not, however, replace their losses. The Germans would be able to launch another summer offensive in 1942, but it would be on a much smaller scale than iBarbarossa, limited to only the southern sector of the front.

Assessment: World War II

The Battle for Moscow is without doubt one of the most important battles of the War. It was the desisive battle of Barbarossa and arguably the entire War. Most accounts of World War II point to Stalingrad as the turning point of world War II. The Soviet stand before Moscow, however, may have been the decisive action of the War. It was by far the largest battle of the War. Over 7 million men were involved. By contrast only 4 million men fought at Salingrad. It certainly meant that Germany had lost its best opprtunity to destroy the Soviet Union and Red Army. One historian writes, "In their hearts many Germans already knew that, if the Battle of Moscow was not the beginning of the end, it was most certainly the end of the beginning." [Braihwaite] What many historians fail to note is that while the Wehrmacht had occupied large areas of the Soviet Union, they were still, on the perifery of Russia. What they had occupied was the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, and areas of the Ukraine. Russia, much of the Soviet arms industry, and key resources like oil was still in Soviet hands World War II was won and lost on the Eastern Front. It was on the Eastern Front that the Wehrmacht was destroyed. Most of the Wehrmacht was deployed there, even after D-Day and most of the casualties were sustained there. The Soviets in the fighting before Moscow were able to not only stave off defeat, but seriously wound the Wehrmacht. It was the Whrmacht's first important defeat of the War. The Germans had in the opening phase of Barbarossa significantly weakened the Red Army. Before the Red Army offensive, the Wehrmacht had so depleted Soviet forces that they had achieved parity. The Red Army offensive readdressed the that situation. The Wehrmacht suffered losses that it could not replace. The Soviets could and did rapidly brng to the front new divisions. And because the Soviet arms industry was not destroyed by the Germans, they were able to equip these units. Not only was the huge Soviert arms industry able to equip new units, but the victory before Miscow bought the time needed for American Lend Lease supplies to reach the Soviets. This was Hitler's opportunity to in the War. Not only did the Wehrmact fail before Moscow, but Hitler inexplicably declared war on the United States. Thus completely changing the strategic ballance.

Overall Assessment

The Battle of Moscow was we think clearly the decisive battle of World War II. It was the battle that stopped the NAZI juggernaut and made possible the defeat of the NAZIs. It was, however, probably not the most important battle of the War. The Battle of Moscow decided which of the two totalitarian systems would emerge victorious from the War. It would be Stalin's totalitarian Communism and not Hitler's totalutarian NAZI regime. But D-Day, a much smaller-scale battle, put the Western democracies back on the continent a made possible the liberation of Western Europe and the preservation of Western democracy. The eventual victory of the West in the Cold War was all made possible by D-Day and the subsequent Allied drive into NAZI Germany. Of course without the Soviet victory at Miscow and the substatial attrition of the Wehrmcht, the D-Day landings would not hsave been possible


Applebaum, Anne."The Worst of the madness," The New York Review of Bookss (November 11, 2010).

Braihwaite, Rodric. Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Knopf, 2006), 398p.

Goebbels, Joseph. ed, Louis B. Lochner, The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943 (Doubleday: New York, 1948), 566p.

Fest, Joachim c. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Glantz, David M. Soviet Military Deception in World War II (F. Cass: London, 1989).

Nagorski, Andrew. The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Battle that Changed the Course of World war II (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 366p.

Schäufler, Hans. Panzer Warfare on the Eastern Front (2012), 288p.

Zetterkibg, Niklas and Anders Frankson. The Drive on Moscow, 1941 (2012), 321p.


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Created: 3:19 PM 10/21/2006
Last updated: 11:30 PM 11/4/2012