The Battle of Moscow is the name given by Soviet historians to two periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defensive effort frustrated Hitler's attack on Moscow, capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the largest Soviet city. Moscow was one of the primary military and political objectives for Axis forces in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
The German strategic offensive named Operation Typhoon was planned to conduct two pincer offensives, one to the north of Moscow against the Kalinin Front by the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies, simultaneously severing the Moscow–Leningrad railway, and another to the south of Moscow Oblast against the Western Front, south of Tula by the 2nd Panzer Army, while the 4th Army advanced directly towards Moscow from the west. A separate operational German plan, codenamed Operation Wotan, was included in the final phase of the German offensive.
Initially, the Soviet forces conducted a strategic defence of the Moscow Oblast by constructing three defensive belts, and deploying newly raised reserve armies as well as bringing troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern Military Districts. Subsequently, as the German offensives were halted, a Soviet strategic counter-offensive and smaller-scale offensive operations were executed to force German armies back to the positions around the cities of Oryol, Vyazma and Vitebsk, nearly surrounding three German armies in the process.
Background[edit | edit source]
The original German invasion plan, which the Axis called Operation Barbarossa, called for the capture of Moscow within four months.
On 22 June 1941, German, Romanian and Slovak troops invaded the Soviet Union, later also joined by Hungary (following the bombing of the Hungarian city Kassa), effectively starting Operation Barbarossa. Having destroyed most of the Soviet Air Force on the ground, German forces quickly advanced deep into Soviet territory using blitzkrieg tactics. Armored units raced forward in pincer movements, pocketing and destroying entire Soviet armies. While the German Army Group North moved towards Leningrad, Army Group South was to take control of Ukraine, while Army Group Center advanced towards Moscow. The Soviet defenses were overwhelmed and the casualties sustained by the Red Army were enormous.
By July 1941, Army Group Center had managed to encircle several Soviet armies near Minsk during the Battle of Białystok-Minsk, creating a huge breach in Soviet lines—one that the Soviets could not immediately fill, as no reserves were available—and destroying the Soviet Western Front as an organized force. Thus, the Wehrmacht was able to cross the Dnieper river, which barred the path to Moscow, with only minimal casualties.
In August 1941, German forces captured the city of Smolensk, an important stronghold on the road to Moscow. Smolensk was historically considered the key to Moscow because it controlled a landbridge located between the Dvina, Dnieper, and several other rivers, allowing for a fast advance by ground troops without the necessity of building major bridges across wide rivers. The desperate Soviet defense of the Smolensk region lasted for two months, from 10 July-10 September 1941. This intense engagement, known as the Battle of Smolensk, delayed the German advance until mid-September, effectively disrupting the blitzkrieg and forcing Army Group Center to use almost half of its strategic reserves (10 of 24 divisions) during the battle. At this stage, although Moscow was vulnerable, an offensive against the city would have exposed both of the Germans' flanks. In part to address these perceived risks, Hitler ordered the attack to turn north and south and eliminate Russian forces at Leningrad and Kiev (whereas the former has to be termed a German failure, the latter resulted in a huge triumph for the Germans). Diversion of the significant part of three (out of four) panzer armies, along with the 2nd, 4th and 9th infantry armies, significantly delayed the German advance on Moscow and caused a major crisis in German leadership. By the time the advance on Moscow was resumed on 2 October 1941 German forces had been significantly weakened while the Russians had raised new forces for the defence of the city - changes that would greatly affect Typhoon's outcome.
Elsewhere, the German advance also bogged down. Near Leningrad, Army Group North was held up by the Luga defense line for almost a month before eventually overrunning it. In the south, Army Group South, which included many Hungarian and Romanian units whose overall combat effectiveness lagged behind that of the Wehrmacht, was stopped by determined Soviet counterattacks. The Wehrmacht now faced a dilemma: while Army Group Center was still strong enough to reach Moscow, such an advance would create a bulge in the German lines that would be vulnerable to Red Army flanking attacks. Moreover, Hitler believed that Germany needed to secure Ukraine's food and mineral resources. The Wehrmacht was therefore ordered to first secure the Donbass region before advancing towards Moscow. As a result, instead of thrusting towards Moscow, Heinz Guderian's Panzer Army was turned south to support Gerd von Rundstedt's attack on Kiev, where the Germans inflicted another significant defeat on the Red Army. On 19 September 1941, Soviet forces had to abandon Kiev despite Stalin's persistent refusal to allow Soviet forces forces to withdraw from the Kiev salient - an event recorded by both Aleksandr Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov in their respective memoirs. Although defying Stalin's orders cost Zhukov his post of Chief of the General Staff, his predictions proved correct as several Soviet armies were encircled and annihilated by the Wehrmacht in a double pincer movement, a victory that allowed the Wehrmacht to resume its advance on the southern front.
Although a decisive Axis victory, the Battle of Kiev set the German blitzkrieg against Moscow even further behind schedule. As Guderian later wrote, "Kiev was certainly a brilliant tactical success, but the question of whether it had a significant strategic importance still remains open. Everything now depended on our ability to achieve expected results before the winter and even before autumn rains." Hitler still believed that the Wehrmacht had a chance to finish the war before winter by taking Moscow. On 2 October 1941, Army Group Center under Fedor von Bock launched its final offensive towards Moscow, code-named Operation Typhoon. Hitler said soon after its start that "After three months of preparations, we finally have the possibility to crush our enemy before the winter comes. All possible preparations were done...; today starts the last battle of the year..."
Initial German advance (30 September – 10 October)[edit | edit source]
Plans[edit | edit source]
Hitler viewed Moscow as Operation Barbarossa's most important military and political target, anticipating that the city's capture would precipitate the general collapse of the Soviet war efforts. As Franz Halder, head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (Army General Staff), wrote in 1940, "The best solution would be a direct offensive towards Moscow." Therefore, the city was the primary target for the large and well-equipped Army Group Center. The forces committed to Operation Typhoon included three armies (the 2nd, 4th and 9th) supported by three Panzer Groups (the 2nd, 3rd and 4th) and by the Luftwaffe's Luftflotte 2. Overall, more than one million men were committed to the operation, along with 1,700 tanks and 14,000 guns. German aerial strength, however, had been severely reduced over the summer's campaigning as the Luftwaffe had lost 1,603 aircraft destroyed and 1,028 damaged. Luftflotte 2 had only 549 serviceable machines, including 158 medium and dive-bombers and 172 fighters, available for Operation Typhoon. The attack relied on standard blitzkrieg tactics, using Panzer groups rushing deep into Soviet formations and executing double-pincer movements, pocketing Red Army divisions and destroying them.
The first stage of the Wehrmacht plan was to be a double-pincer performed around the Soviet Western and Reserve Fronts located around Vyazma. This was to be followed by a single-pincer around the Bryansk Front to capture the city of Bryansk. The final assault on Moscow was to be another quick pincer north and south of Moscow to encircle the city. However, even before these plans got underway the German armies were already battered and experiencing some logistical issues. Guderian, for example, wrote that some of his destroyed tanks had not been replaced, and that his mechanized troops lacked fuel at the beginning of the operation.
Facing the Wehrmacht were three Soviet fronts formed from exhausted armies that had already been involved in heavy fighting for several months. The forces committed to the city's defense totaled 1,250,000 men, 1,000 tanks, 7,600 guns. The Soviet Air Force/Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS) had suffered appalling losses of some 7,500 or 21,200 aircraft. Extraordinary industrial achievements had begun to replace these losses, and at the outset of the campaign the VVS could muster 936 aircraft, 578 of which were bombers, for the defense of the capital. However, even with reinforcements air strength was down to about ¼ of pre-war strength. Troops and weaponry, while presenting a significant threat to the Wehrmacht based on their numbers alone, were poorly deployed in a single line with few or no reserves to the rear. In his memoirs, Vasilevsky maintained that while immediate Soviet defenses were quite well prepared, these errors in troop placement were largely responsible for the Wehrmacht's initial success. Furthermore, many Soviet defenders were seriously lacking in combat experience and some critical equipment (such as anti-tank weapons), while their tanks were obsolete.
The Soviet command began constructing extensive defenses around the city. The first part, the Rzhev-Vyazma defense setup, was built on the Rzhev–Vyazma–Bryansk line. The second, the Mozhaisk defense line, was a double defense stretching between Kalinin and Kaluga. Finally, a triple defense ring surrounded the city itself, forming the Moscow Defense Zone. These defenses were still largely unprepared by the beginning of the operation because of the speed of the German advance. Furthermore, the German attack plan had been discerned quite late, and Soviet troops were ordered to assume a total defensive stance only on 27 September 1941. However, new Soviet divisions were being formed on the Volga, in Asia and in the Urals, and it would only be a matter of a few months before these new troops could be committed, making the battle a race against time as well.
Vyazma and Bryansk pockets[edit | edit source]
Near Vyazma, the Western and Reserve Fronts were quickly defeated by the highly mobile forces of the 3rd and 4th Panzer Groups that exploited weak areas in the defenses and then quickly moved behind the Red Army lines. The defensive setup, which was still under construction, was overrun as both German armored spearheads met at Vyazma on 10 October 1941. Four Soviet armies (the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd) were trapped in a huge pocket just west of the city.
Contrary to German expectations, the encircled Soviet forces did not surrender easily. Instead, the fighting was fierce and desperate, and the Wehrmacht had to employ 28 divisions to eliminate the surrounded Soviet armies, using forces that were needed to support the offensive towards Moscow. The remnants of the Soviet Western and Reserve Fronts were able to retreat and consolidate their lines around Mozhaisk. Moreover, the surrounded Soviet forces were not completely destroyed, as some of the encircled troops escaped in groups ranging in size from platoons to full rifle divisions. Soviet resistance near Vyazma also provided time for the Soviet high command to quickly bring some reinforcements to the four armies defending the Moscow direction (namely, the 5th, 16th, 43rd and 49th), and to transport three rifle and two tank divisions from the Far East.
In the south near Bryansk, initial Soviet performance was barely more effective than near Vyazma. The Second Panzer Group executed an enveloping movement around the whole front, linking with the advancing 2nd Army and capturing Orel by 3 October and Bryansk by 6 October. Luftflotte 2 flew 984 combat missions and destroyed some 679 vehicles on 3 October. On 4 October, a mixture of 100 dive bombers and medium bombers destroyed rail lines and hampered Soviet troop movements in the Sumy-Lgov-Kursk area, severing communications between the Bryansk and South-Western Fronts. The Soviet 3rd and 13th Armies were encircled but, again, did not surrender, and troops were able to escape in small groups, retreating to intermediate defense lines around Poniry and Mtsensk. By 23 October, the last remnants had escaped from the pocket.
By 7 October, the German offensive in this area was bogged down. The first snow fell and quickly melted, turning roads into stretches of mud, a phenomenon known as rasputitsa in Russia. German armored groups were greatly slowed and were unable to easily maneuver, wearing down men and tanks. The 4th Panzer Division fell into an ambush set by Dmitri Leliushenko's hastily formed 1st Guards Special Rifle Corps, including Mikhail Katukov's 4th Tank Brigade, near the city of Mtsensk. Newly built T-34 tanks were concealed in the woods as German armor rolled past them; as a scratch team of Soviet infantry contained their advance, Soviet armor attacked from both flanks and savaged the German Panzer IV tanks. For the Wehrmacht, the shock of this defeat was so great that a special investigation was ordered. Guderian and his troops discovered, to their dismay, that new Soviet T-34s were almost impervious to German tank guns. As the general wrote, "Our Panzer IV tanks with their short 75 mm guns could only explode a T-34 by hitting the engine from behind." Guderian also noted in his memoirs that "the Russians already learned a few things." Luftflotte 2 flew 1,400 attacks against Soviet positions to support the 4th Panzerdivision, destroying 20 tanks, 34 artillery pieces and 650 vehicles of various kinds.
Elsewhere, massive Soviet counterattacks had further slowed the German offensive. The 2nd Army which was operating to the north of Guderian's forces with the aim of trapping the Bryansk Front, had come under a strong Soviet counter-attack. The Soviets supported the assault with heavy air-support. Despite being numerically inferior, the Luftwaffe inflicted heavy losses to the VVS. 152 Stuka sorties and 259 medium bombers blunted the Soviet attack while another 202 Stuka and 188 medium bomber strikes were flown against supply columns in the Brynask area. Soviet Forces were caught in the open, with the Luftwaffe destroying 22 tanks and over 450 vehicles; the Soviet attack had been routed.
The magnitude of the initial Soviet defeat was appalling. According to German estimates, 673,000 soldiers were captured by the Wehrmacht in both pockets, although recent research suggests a significantly lower—but still enormous—figure of 514,000 prisoners, reducing Soviet strength by 41%. The personnel losses (permanent as well as temporary) calculated by the Soviet command are smaller but still massive, namely 499,001. On 9 October Otto Dietrich of the Ministry of Propaganda, quoting Hitler himself, forecast in a press conference imminent destruction of the armies defending Moscow. As Hitler had never had to lie about a specific and verifiable military fact, Dietrich convinced foreign correspondents that the collapse of all Soviet resistance was perhaps hours away. German civilian morale—low since the start of Barbarossa—significantly improved, with rumors of soldiers home by Christmas and great riches from the future Lebensraum in the east.
The desperate Red Army resistance, however, had greatly slowed the Wehrmacht. When, on 10 October 1941, the Germans arrived within sight of the Mozhaisk line, they found a well-prepared defensive setup and new, fresh Soviet forces. That same day, Georgy Zhukov was recalled from Leningrad to take charge of the defense of Moscow., with Colonel General Ivan Konev as his deputy. On 12 October, ordered the concentration of all available defenses on a strengthened Mozhaisk line, a move supported by Vasilevsky. The Luftwaffe still controlled the sky whenever it appeared in strength. The Stukageschwader and Kampfgruppen (Stuka and bomber groups) flew 537 sorties destroying some 440 vehicles (mainly motor vehicles and trucks) and 150 artillery pieces.
On 15 October, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the Communist Party, the General Staff and various civil government offices from Moscow to Kuibyshev (now Samara), leaving only a limited number of officials behind. The evacuation caused panic among Muscovites. On 16–17 October, much of the civilian population tried to flee, mobbing the available trains and jamming the roads from the city. Despite all this, Stalin publicly remained in the Soviet capital, somewhat calming the fear and pandemonium.
Mozhaisk defense line (13 – 30 October)[edit | edit source]
By 13 October 1941, the Wehrmacht had reached the Mozhaisk defense line, a hastily constructed double set of fortifications protecting Moscow's western approaches that extended from Kalinin towards Volokolamsk and Kaluga. Despite recent reinforcements, only around 90,000 Soviet troops manned this line - far too few to stem the German advance. Given the limited resources available, Zhukov decided to concentrate his forces at four critical points: the 16th Army under Lieutenant General Rokossovsky guarded Volokolamsk, Mozhaisk was defended by 5th Army under Major General Govorov, the 43rd Army of Major General Golubev defended Maloyaroslavets, and the 49th Army under Lieutenant General Zakharkin protected Kaluga. The entire Soviet Western Front—almost completely destroyed after its encirclement near Vyazma—was being recreated almost from scratch.
Moscow itself was also hastily fortified. According to Zhukov, 250,000 women and teenagers worked building trenches and anti-tank moats around Moscow, moving almost three million cubic meters of earth with no mechanical help. Moscow's factories were hastily converted to military tasks: one automobile factory was turned into a submachine gun armory, a clock factory manufactured mine detonators, the chocolate factory shifted to food production for the front, and automobile repair stations worked fixing damaged tanks and military vehicles. Despite these preparations, the capital was seemingly within striking distance of German panzers and was targeted in massive air raids, although these raids caused only limited damage because of extensive anti-aircraft defenses and effective civilian fire brigades.
On 13 October 1941 (15 October 1941, according to other sources), the Wehrmacht resumed its offensive. At first, the Germans attempted to bypass Russian defenses by pushing northeast towards the weakly protected city of Kalinin, and south towards Kaluga and Tula, capturing all except Tula by 14 October. Encouraged by these initial successes, the Germans launched a frontal assault against the fortified line, taking Mozhaisk and Maloyaroslavets on 18 October, Naro-Fominsk on 21 October, and Volokolamsk on 27 October after intense fighting. Because of the increasing danger of flanking attacks, Zhukov was forced to fall back, withdrawing his forces east of the Nara River.
In the south, the Second Panzer Army initially advanced towards Tula with relative ease because the Mozhaisk defense line did not extend that far south and no significant concentrations of Soviet troops blocked their advance. However bad weather, fuel problems, and damaged roads and bridges eventually slowed the Germans, and Guderian did not reach the outskirts of Tula until 26 October 1941. The German plan initially called for a rapid capture of Tula followed by a pincer move around Moscow. The first attack, however, was repelled by the 50th Army and civilian volunteers on October 29 after a desperate fight that occurred within sight of the city. On 31 October, the OKH ordered a halt to all offensive operations until increasingly severe logistical problems were resolved and the rasputitsa subsided.
Wehrmacht at the gates (1 November – 5 December)[edit | edit source]
Wearing down[edit | edit source]
David Glantz in his book When Titans Clashed, compared the state of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in late October to that of two "punch-drunk boxers, staying precariously on their feet but rapidly losing the power to hurt each other." The German forces were worn out, with only ⅓ of their motor vehicles still functioning, infantry divisions at ⅓ to ½ strength, and serious logistics issues preventing the delivery of warm clothing and other winter equipment to the front. Even Hitler seemed to surrender to the idea of a long struggle, since the prospect of sending tanks into such a large city without heavy infantry support seemed risky after the costly capture of Warsaw in 1939.
In his study of the Nazi economy, Adam Tooze contends that the very survival of the Red Army as a fighting force indicated that the Germans had lost the conflict in Russia, and thus the war, as moving east of Smolensk meant stretching German supply lines beyond their effective limit. He highlights that the colossal loss of materiel on the eastern front – without having won a decisive victory – was bleeding the German economy to death – reaching "a total impasse". He concludes "It was through the achievement of Lebensraum on American scale that the Third Reich hoped to achieve both the standard of affluence and the encompassing reach of global power already attained by Britain and the United States. As events between June and December 1941 made clear, Nazi Germany lacked both the time and the resources to take this first step."
To stiffen the resolve of the Red Army and boost the civilian morale, Stalin ordered a traditional military parade on 7 November (Revolution Day) to be staged in Red Square. Soviet troops paraded past the Kremlin and then marched directly to the front. The parade carried a great symbolic significance by demonstrating the continued Soviet resolve, and was frequently invoked as such in the years to come. Despite this brave show, the Red Army's position remained precarious. Although 100,000 additional Soviet troops had reinforced Klin and Tula, where renewed German offensives were expected, Soviet defenses remained relatively thin. Nevertheless, Stalin ordered several preemptive counteroffensives against German lines. These were launched despite protests from Zhukov, who pointed out the complete lack of reserves. The Wehrmacht repelled most of these counteroffensives, which squandered Soviet forces that could have been used for Moscow's defense. The offensive's only notable success occurred west of Moscow near Aleksino, where Soviet tanks inflicted heavy losses on the 4th Army because the Germans still lacked anti-tank weapons capable of damaging the new, well-armored T-34 tanks.
From 31 October – 15 November, the Wehrmacht high command stood down while preparing to launch a second offensive towards Moscow. Although Army Group Centre's still possessed considerable nominal strength, its fighting capabilities had thoroughly diminished because of combat fatigue. Although the Germans were aware of the continuous influx of Soviet reinforcements from the east, as well as the presence of large reserves, given the tremendous Soviet casualties they did not expect the Soviets to be able to mount a determined defense. At that time Soviet troops' strength had in fact been reduced to about 500,000 men and 890 tanks at Moscow. But in comparison to the situation in October, Soviet rifle divisions occupied a much stronger defensive position: a triple defensive ring surrounding the city and some remains of the Mozhaisk line near Klin. Most of the Soviet field armies now had a multilayered defense with at least two rifle divisions in second echelon positions. Artillery support and sapper teams were also concentrated along major roads that German troops were expected to use in their attacks. There were also many Soviet troops still available in reserve armies behind the front. Finally, Soviet troops—and especially officers—were now more experienced and better prepared for the offensive.
By 15 November 1941, the ground had finally frozen, solving the mud problem. The armored Wehrmacht spearheads were unleashed, with the goal of encircling Moscow and linking up near the city of Noginsk, east of the capital. To achieve this objective, the German Third and Fourth Panzer Groups needed to concentrate their forces between the Moscow reservoir and Mozhaysk, then proceed to Klin and Solnechnogorsk to encircle the capital from the north. In the south, the Second Panzer Army intended to bypass Tula, still in Soviet hands, and advance to Kashira and Kolomna, linking up with the northern pincer at Noginsk.
Final pincer[edit | edit source]
On 15 November 1941, German tank armies began their offensive towards Klin, where no Soviet reserves were available because of Stalin's wish to attempt a counteroffensive at Volokolamsk, which had forced the relocation of all available reserves forces further south. Initial German attacks split the front in two, separating the 16th Army from the 30th. Several days of intense combat followed. As Zhukov recalls in his memoirs, "The enemy, ignoring the casualties, was making frontal assaults, willing to get to Moscow by any means necessary." Despite the Wehrmacht's efforts, the multi-layered defense reduced Soviet casualties as the Soviet 16th Army slowly retreated and constantly harassed the German divisions trying to make their way through the fortifications.
The Third Panzer Army finally captured Klin after heavy fighting on 24 November, and by 25 November Solnechnogorsk as well. Soviet resistance was still strong, and the outcome of the battle was by no means certain. Reportedly, Stalin asked Zhukov whether Moscow could be successfully defended and ordered him to "speak honestly, like a communist." Zhukov replied that it was possible, but that reserves were desperately needed. By 28 November, the German 7th Panzer Division had seized a bridgehead across the Moscow-Volga Canal—the last major obstacle before Moscow—and stood less than 35 km (22 mi) from the Kremlin; but a powerful counterattack by the 1st Shock Army drove them back across the canal. Just northwest of Moscow, the Wehrmacht reached Krasnaya Polyana, little more than 20 km (12 mi) from Moscow; German officers were able to make out some of the major buildings of the Soviet capital through their field glasses. Both Soviet and German forces were severely depleted, sometimes having only 150–200 riflemen—a company's full strength—left in a regiment.
In the south, near Tula, battle resumed on 18 November 1941, with the Second Panzer Army trying to encircle the city. The German forces involved were extremely battered from previous fighting and still had no winter clothing. As a result, initial German progress was only 5–10 km (3.1–6.2 mi) per day, making chances of success "less than certain" according to Guderian. Moreover, it exposed the German tank armies to flanking attacks from the Soviet 49th and 50th Armies, located near Tula, further slowing the advance. Guderian nevertheless was able to pursue the offensive, spreading his forces in a star-like attack, taking Stalinogorsk on 22 November 1941 and surrounding a Soviet rifle division stationed there. On 26 November, German panzers approached Kashira, a city controlling a major highway to Moscow. In response, a violent Soviet counterattack was launched the following day. General Belov's 2nd Cavalry Corps, supported by hastily assembled formations which included 173rd Rifle Division, 9th Tank Brigade, two separate tank battalions, and training and militia units, halted the German advance near Kashira. The Germans were driven back in early December, securing the southern approach to the city. Tula itself held, protected by fortifications and determined defenders, both soldiers and civilians. In the south, the Wehrmacht never got close to the capital.
Because of the resistance on both the northern and southern sides of Moscow, on 1 December the Wehrmacht attempted a direct offensive from the west along the Minsk-Moscow highway near the city of Naro-Fominsk. This offensive had only limited tank support and was forced to assault extensive Soviet defenses. After meeting determined resistance from the Soviet 1st Guards Motorized Rifle Division and flank counterattacks staged by the 33rd Army, the German offensive stalled and was driven back four days later in the ensuing Soviet counteroffensive. On 2 December a Reconnaissance-Battalion managed to reach the town of Khimki—some 8 km (5.0 mi) away from Moscow—and captured its bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal as well as its railway station, which marked the farthest advance of German forces on Moscow.
The weather dropped to well below freezing. On 30 November, von Bock reported to Berlin that the temperature was –45 °C (–49 °F). General Erhard Raus, commander of the 6th Panzer Division, kept track of the daily mean temperature in his war diary. It shows a suddenly much colder period during 4–7 December: from –36 to –38 °C (–32 to –36 °F). Other temperature reports varied widely. Zhukov said that November's freezing weather stayed around –7 to –10 °C (+19 to +14 °F) Official Soviet Meteorological Service records show the lowest December temperature reached –28.8 °C (–20 °F). The absolute numbers did not matter to the German troops who were freezing with no winter clothing, and whose equipment was not designed for such severe weather. More than 130,000 cases of frostbite were reported among German soldiers. Frozen grease had to be removed from every loaded shell and vehicles had to be heated for hours before use. The same cold weather, typical for the season, hit the Soviet troops, but they were better prepared.
The Axis offensive on Moscow stopped. As Heinz Guderian wrote in his journal, "the offensive on Moscow failed...We underestimated the enemy's strength, as well as his size and climate. Fortunately, I stopped my troops on 5 December, otherwise the catastrophe would be unavoidable."
Soviet counteroffensive[edit | edit source]
Although the Wehrmacht's offensive had been stopped, German intelligence estimated that Soviet forces had no more reserves left and thus would be unable to stage a counteroffensive. This estimate proved wrong, as Stalin transferred over 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East, relying on intelligence from his spy, Richard Sorge, which indicated that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union. The Red Army had accumulated a 58-division reserve by early December, when the offensive proposed by Zhukov and Vasilevsky was finally approved by Stalin. Even with these new reserves, Soviet forces committed to the operation numbered only 1,100,000 men, only slightly outnumbering the Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, with careful troop deployment, a ratio of two-to-one was reached at some critical points. On 5 December 1941, the counteroffensive started on the Kalinin Front. After two days of little progress, Soviet armies retook Krasnaya Polyana and several other cities in the immediate vicinity of Moscow.
The same day, Hitler signed his directive No.39, ordering the Wehrmacht to assume a defensive stance on the whole front. German troops were unable to organize a solid defense at their present locations and were forced to pull back to consolidate their lines. Guderian wrote that discussions with Hans Schmidt and Wolfram von Richthofen took place the same day, and both commanders agreed that the current front line could not be held. On 14 December, Franz Halder and Günther von Kluge finally gave permission for a limited withdrawal to the west of the Oka river, without Hitler's approval. On 20 December, during a meeting with German senior officers, Hitler cancelled the withdrawal and ordered his soldiers to defend every patch of ground, "digging trenches with howitzer shells if needed." Guderian protested, pointing out that losses from cold were actually greater than combat losses and that winter equipment was held by traffic ties in Poland. (The Soviets were also suffering large losses from the freezing cold but nevertheless had better equipment for the cold than the Germans.) Nevertheless, Hitler insisted on defending the existing lines, and Guderian was dismissed by Christmas, along with generals Hoepner and Strauss, commanders of the 4th Panzer and 9th Army, respectively. Fedor von Bock was also dismissed, officially for "medical reasons." Walther von Brauchitsch, Hitler's commander-in-chief, had been removed even earlier, on 19 December.
Meanwhile, the Soviet offensive continued in the north. The offensive liberated Kalinin and the Soviets reached Klin on 7 December, overrunning the headquarters of the LVI Panzer Corps outside the city. As the Kalinin Front drove west, a bulge developed around Klin. The Soviet front commander, General Konev, attempted to envelop any German forces remaining. Zhukov diverted more forces to the southern end of the bulge, to help Konev trap the Third Panzer Army. The Germans pulled their forces out in time. Although the encirclement failed, it unhinged the German defenses. A second attempt was made against the Second Panzer Army near Tula, but met strong opposition near Rzhev and was forced to halt, forming a salient that would last until 1943. In the south, the offensive went equally well, with Southwestern Front forces relieving Tula on 16 December 1941. A major achievement was the encirclement and destruction of the German XXXIX Corps, protecting Guderian's Second Panzer Army's southern flank.
The Luftwaffe was paralysed in the second half of December. The weather, recorded as −42 °C (–44 °F), was a meteorological record. Logistical difficulties and freezing temperatures created technical difficulties until January 1942. In the meantime, the Luftwaffe had virtually vanished from the skies over Moscow, while the Red Air Force, operating from better prepared bases and benefiting from interior lines, grew stronger. On 4 January, the skies cleared. The Luftwaffe was quickly reinforced, as Hitler hoped it would "save" the situation. Two Kampfgruppen (Bomber Groups) (II./KG 4 and II./KG 30) arrived from refitting in Germany, whilst four Transportgruppen (Transport Groups) with a strength of 102 Junkers Ju 52 transports were deployed from Luftflotte 4 (Air Fleet 4) to evacuate surrounded army units and improve the supply line to the front-line forces. It was a last minute effort and it worked. The German air arm was to help prevent a total collapse of Army Group Centre. Despite the Soviets' best efforts, the Luftwaffe had contributed enormously to the survival of Army Group Center. Between 17 and 22 December the Luftwaffe destroyed 299 motor vehicles and 23 tanks around Tula, hampering the Red Army's pursuit of the German Army.
In the center, Soviet progress was much slower. Soviet troops liberated Naro-Fominsk only on 26 December, Kaluga on 28 December, and Maloyaroslavets on 2 January, after 10 days of violent action. Soviet reserves ran low, and the offensive halted on 7 January 1942, after having pushed the exhausted and freezing German armies back 100–250 km (62–155 mi) from Moscow. Stalin continued to order more offensives in order to trap and destroy Army Group Center in front of Moscow, but the Red Army was exhausted and overstretched and they failed. This victory provided an important boost for Soviet morale, with the Wehrmacht suffering its first defeat on land. Having failed to vanquish the Soviet Union in one quick strike, Germany now had to prepare for a prolonged struggle. Operation Barbarossa had failed.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
The Red Army's winter counter-offensive drove the Wehrmacht from Moscow, but the city was still considered to be threatened, with the front line still relatively close. Because of this, the Moscow theater remained a priority for Stalin, who at first appeared to be in shock due to the initial German success. In particular, the initial Soviet advance was unable to level the Rzhev salient, held by several divisions of Army Group Center. Immediately after the Moscow counter-offensive, a series of Soviet attacks (the Battles of Rzhev) were attempted against the salient, each time with heavy losses on both sides. Soviet losses are estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, and German losses between 300,000 and 450,000 men. By early 1943, the Wehrmacht had to disengage from the salient as the whole front was moving west. Nevertheless, the Moscow front was not finally secured until October 1943, when Army Group Center was decisively repulsed from the Smolensk landbridge and from the left shore of the upper Dnieper at the end of the Second Battle of Smolensk.
Furious that his army had been unable to take Moscow, Hitler dismissed his commander-in-chief, Walther von Brauchitsch, on 19 December 1941, and took personal charge of the Wehrmacht, effectively taking control of all military decisions and setting most experienced German officers against him. Additionally, Hitler surrounded himself with staff officers with little or no recent combat experience. As Guderian wrote in his memoirs, "This created a cold (chill) in our relations, a cold (chill) that could never be eliminated afterwards." This increased Hitler's distrust of his senior officers and severely reduced the German advantages due to their superior military leadership. Germany now faced the prospect of a war of attrition, something it was not prepared for and bound to lose in the long run. Overall, the battle was a stinging defeat for the Axis, though not necessarily a crushing one, and it ended German hopes for a quick and decisive victory over the Soviet Union.
For the first time since June 1941, Soviet forces had stopped the Germans and driven them back. This resulted in Stalin becoming overconfident and deciding to further expand the offensive. On 5 January 1942, during a meeting in the Kremlin, Stalin announced that he was planning a general spring counteroffensive, which would be staged simultaneously near Moscow, Leningrad and in southern Russia. This plan was accepted over Zhukov's objections. Low Red Army reserves and Wehrmacht tactical skill led to a bloody stalemate near Rzhev, known as the "Rzhev meat grinder", and to a string of Red Army defeats, such as the Second Battle of Kharkov, the failed attempt at elimination of the Demyansk pocket, and the encirclement of General Vlasov's army near Leningrad in a failed attempt to lift the siege of the city. Ultimately, these failures would lead to a successful German offensive in the south and to the Battle of Stalingrad.
Nevertheless, the defense of Moscow became a symbol of Soviet resistance against the invading Axis forces. To commemorate the battle, Moscow was awarded the title of "Hero City" in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of Victory Day. A Museum of the Defence of Moscow was created in 1995.
Casualties[edit | edit source]
Both German and Soviet casualties during the battle of Moscow have been a subject of debate, as various sources provide somewhat different estimates. Not all historians agree on what should be considered the "Battle of Moscow" in the timeline of World War II. While the start of the battle is usually regarded as the beginning of Operation Typhoon on 30 September 1941 (or sometimes on 2 October 1941), there are two different dates for the end of the offensive. In particular, some sources (such as Erickson and Glantz) exclude the Rzhev offensive from the scope of the battle, considering it as a distinct operation and making the Moscow offensive "stop" on 7 January 1942—thus lowering the number of casualties. Other historians, who include the Rzhev and Vyazma operations in the scope of the battle (thus making the battle end in May 1942), give higher casualty numbers.
There are also significant differences in figures from various sources. John Erickson, in his Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies, gives a figure of 653,924 Soviet casualties between October 1941 and January 1942. Glantz, in his book When Titans Clashed, gives a figure of 658,279 for the defense phase alone, plus 370,955 for the winter counteroffensive until 7 January 1942. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, published in 1973–1978, estimates 400,000 German casualties by January 1942. Another estimate available is provided in the Moscow Encyclopedia, published in 1997; its authors, based on various sources, give a figure of 145,000 German and 900,000 Soviet casualties for the defensive phase, along with 103,000 German and 380,000 Soviet casualties for the counteroffensive until 7 January 1942. Many of the Soviet casualties, however, consisted of captured men. On the other hand, Wehrmacht daily casualty reports show 35,757 killed in action, 128,716 wounded, and 9,721 missing in action for the entire Army Group Center between 1 October 1941 and 10 January 1942. Therefore, total casualties between 30 September 1941, and 7 January 1942, are estimated to be between 174,000 and 400,000 for the Wehrmacht (GSE / Moscow encyclopedia estimate) and between 650,000 and 1,280,000 for the Red Army (Erickson / Moscow encyclopedia estimate).
Regardless of these disagreements, the Battle of Moscow is considered among the most lethal battles in world history.
See also[edit | edit source]
Footnotes[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
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