Titled Operation Typhoon, the German plan for the capture of Moscow and thereby the destruction of the USSR, called for a two-stage battle. In the first phase German Army Group Center, comprising of almost 2 million men, and commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, would execute a three-pronged attack; with the German 9th Army and Panzer Group 3 advancing to the north between the towns of Vyazma and Rzhev, both 140 miles west of Moscow.
The German 4th Army, and Panzer Group 4, would drive forward along the Roslavl-Moscow road in the center; and Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Group 2, now called the 2nd Panzer Army, would attack to the south between Bryansk and Orel to the city of Tula, 110 miles southward of Moscow. Operation Typhoon’s second phase envisaged the final advance on the Russian capital, conducted by two armored encircling thrusts from the north-west and the southeast.
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The weather and terrain suited the Wehrmacht, for the time being
Operation Typhoon began on 2 October 1941, and in the first three weeks of that month, the Germans captured 663,000 Soviet soldiers and destroyed 1,200 tanks. Including casualties and prisoners taken, total Red Army losses in the opening stage of October amounted to a million troops. In a four-week period from 19 September 1941, taking into account the German capture of Kyiv on that date further south, the Soviets had altogether lost more than 1.6 million men. On 15 October 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered the majority of Soviet government officials to leave Moscow.
They relocated 560 miles further east to the city of Kuibyshev. This indicates that the Soviet leadership was not confident that Moscow could be held. Stalin gloomily informed Harry Hopkins, President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal emissary, that if Moscow was lost “all of Russia west of the Volga would have to be abandoned”. Nevertheless, Stalin remained in Moscow, believing that his continued presence there would maintain morale and prevent unrest among Muscovites, clearly the correct decision. While the Wehrmacht closed on Moscow, the Red Army’s resistance appeared to be weakening.
On 19 October 1941, the Germans took the abandoned town of Mozhaysk, 65 miles west of Moscow. The following day, Stalin declared martial law as the capital was placed under full military control. On 23 October 1941, the Germans crossed the Narva River and were only 40 miles from Moscow. The next day, however, the torrential Russian rainfall (rasputitsa) arrived almost providentially. It quickly turned the unpaved roads and paths into rivers of thick, congealed mud. The Germans were expecting rain to come but the ferocity of it was a shock to them. This meant that no wheeled vehicle could move for consecutive days, and the larger panzers advanced at a snail’s pace.
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The wider-tracked Russian T-34 tanks were more suited to such conditions
British scholar Evan Mawdsley wrote, “The defense of Moscow was certainly helped by changes in the weather” and “Unlike the Germans, the Russians had a working railway system behind their front line. Soviet planes were operating from prepared airfields, while the Luftwaffe now had to make do with improvised muddy landing strips”. By 24 October 1941, as the rains fell, the German invasion was four months old (17 weeks) and in serious difficulty. Adolf Hitler had previously expected to conquer the Soviet Union in less than half of that time (8 weeks).
When France collapsed the Nazi leader told his military advisers Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl that “a campaign against Russia would be child’s play”. Field Marshal Keitel, often accused of being a lackey, disagreed and he was opposed to attacking the USSR. The German High Command (OKH) predicted in mid-December 1940 that “the Soviet Union would be defeated in a campaign not exceeding 8-10 weeks”. Such views were strongly shared by the Anglo-American authorities. Why did these predictions prove so wrong? We can get to the heart of the matter by briefly examining German strategic blunders and, with it, the most important reason: Hitler’s directive of 21 August 1941, that led to a crucial six-week postponement in the march on Moscow; and which came against the wishes of the Wehrmacht’s leadership.
English historian Andrew Roberts observed, “Moscow was the nodal point of Russia’s north-south transport hub, was the administrative and political capital, was vital for Russian morale and was an important industrial center in its own right”. As a transportation hub, Moscow performed a central role in the Red Army’s ability to supply other parts of its front. On 21 August 1941 at his Wolfsschanze headquarters in the East Prussian forests, Hitler temporarily put aside one critical objective (Moscow) and substituted it with five targets of lesser importance. Hitler expounded that he wanted “the capture of the Crimea” and “the industrial and coal mining area of the Donets” along with “the cutting off of Russian oil supplies from the Caucasus” and “the investment of Leningrad and the linking up with the Finns”.
When on 22 August Hitler’s orders were forwarded to Field Marshal von Bock, leading Army Group Center and a very experienced officer, he telephoned General Franz Halder and said it was “unfortunate, above all because it placed the attack to the east in question… I want to smash the enemy army and the bulk of this army is opposite my front!” Von Bock, a monarchist who did not like the Nazis, stated two days later on 24 August 1941, “They apparently do not wish to exploit under any circumstances the opportunity decisively to defeat the Russians before winter!” One can note the normally dour von Bock’s use of exclamation marks, as he believes the chance for victory has been taken away from him.
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General Halder, a key planner in Operation Barbarossa’s original design, felt that Hitler’s directive of 21 August “was decisive to the outcome of this campaign”. For reasons of megalomania, Hitler had overruled his military commanders on a pivotal military issue. American historians Samuel W. Mitcham and Gene Mueller summarized that Hitler’s 21 August directive “was one of the greatest mistakes of the war”. Salt was then rubbed into von Bock’s wounds, as he was compelled to relinquish four of his five panzer corps, and three infantry corps, for the southward assault on Ukraine. It came on top of the opening strategic errors of 22 June 1941, when the Wehrmacht was ordered to attack all of the western USSR simultaneously, and the combined strength of the blow was as a consequence weakened.
Fortunately, the Nazi leadership was strategically inept
As early as 27 August 1941, the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW) were contemplating that the war in the east would drag on until 1942. The quick knockout blow had not been delivered, and the Soviet Army was fighting with tenacity. An OKW memorandum from 27 August ran, “if it proves impossible to realize this objective completely [the USSR’s destruction] during 1941, the continuation of the eastern campaign has top priority for 1942”. Hitler approved the memo, which suggests that he was starting to think the invasion might not be successfully concluded in 1941. Hitler certainly believed this by November of that year.
The Soviet cause was given a major lift when, on 10 October 1941, Stalin officially granted General Georgy Zhukov the leadership over the majority of Red Army divisions (the Western Front and Reserve Front) for the capital’s defense. The 44-year-old Zhukov was an extremely able, energetic, self-confident and ruthless commander, just the sort of man that was needed. Zhukov pursued a policy of initiating incessant counterattacks and then withdrawing at the final moment. These tactics succeeded in wearing down the belated German march on Moscow. More than any other soldier in the war, Zhukov would play a leading part in the Nazis’ demise. Andrei Gromyko, a prominent Soviet diplomat, wrote that Zhukov was “the jewel in the crown of the Soviet people’s greatest victory”.
At the beginning of November 1941, victory was not yet assured, for the rains disappeared and frost set in. The ground had hardened enough for the panzers to begin rolling again. These colder temperatures were uncomfortable for the German troops, who incredibly were supplied with only light clothing, but the temperature hovered around zero for now and was not unbearable. In preceding weeks, the Kremlin received intelligence reports from their spy in Tokyo, Dr. Richard Sorge, and also from Soviet intelligence agencies, which stated that Imperial Japan was not preparing an immediate attack on the eastern USSR.
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Stalin believed these accounts and, in the first fortnight of November 1941, he transferred 21 fresh divisions from Siberia and Central Asia to the Moscow front. The Germans had no such reservoir of men to call upon. On the night of 11 November 1941, the temperature suddenly dropped to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Frostbite cases were becoming more common among German soldiers, but the Wehrmacht resumed advancing from 15 November. A week later, on 22 November the medieval town of Klin fell, 52 miles northwest of Moscow. The following day, Panzer Group 4 took Solnechnogorsk, 38 miles from Moscow. On 27 November the 7th Panzer Division established a bridgehead across the Moscow-Volga Canal.
Also on 27 November, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich captured the town of Istra, just 31 miles west of Moscow. German historian Jörg Ganzenmüller wrote that Hitler now formulated “a special order”, which was sent to SS major Otto Skorzeny of the Das Reich division. Hitler demanded that Skorzeny and his men occupy the locks of the reservoir on the Moscow-Volga canal, and then open the locks so as to “drown” Moscow by turning it into a massive artificial lake. These orders were obviously never carried out, due to Skorzeny’s unit being unable to advance much further. In late November 1941, it was apparent that the German offensive would likely fail. As of 26 November, the Germans had lost 743,112 men on the Eastern front.
This number does not include frostbite casualties and other soldiers absent due to illness
Because of ongoing Russian resistance – which in general had been much stronger than the Germans anticipated – General Guderian’s panzers had failed to reach the city of Tula, just over 100 miles south of Moscow. Panzer Group 3, which captured the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal on 28 November, could attack no further; and while a division from Panzer Group 4 had proceeded to within 18 miles of Moscow, continued progress for them proved impossible. On 2 December 1941, a motorcycle reconnaissance unit of the 2nd Panzer Division reached the suburb of Khimki, five miles from Moscow and nine miles from the Kremlin; but, isolated, it did not remain for long in this forward position. That was as close as the Germans ever got to the spires of Moscow.
On the night of 4 December, the temperature plummeted again to minus 31 degrees Celsius. Twenty-four hours later, it sank further to minus 36 degrees. It was clear that Operation Barbarossa had failed, and worse was in store for the Germans. If they could not accomplish the USSR’s overthrow in 1941, they could hardly expect to do so in a weaker condition in 1942. On 5 December 1941, the Soviet Army counterattacked the static Germans, by striking Panzer Group 3 on the Moscow-Volga Canal, along with the German 9th Army at the city of Kalinin. The next day, 6 December, General Zhukov’s divisions launched an assault on the 2nd Panzer Army south of Moscow, with both sides suffering serious losses.
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Yet Zhukov prevailed by forcing the Second Panzer Army to retreat over 50 miles. Field Marshal von Bock, irate at these setbacks, wrote in his diary, “Last August, the road to Moscow was open; we could have entered the Bolshevik capital in triumph and in summery weather. The high military leadership of the Fatherland made a terrible mistake when it forced my Army Group to adopt a position of defense last August. Now all of us are paying for that mistake”. In winter weather, the Soviets were a superior fighting force in comparison to the enemy. Soviet divisions were better equipped and had much more experience of adverse conditions. Stalin said shortly after the Red Army had subdued Finland in March 1940, “It is not true that the army’s fighting capacity decreases in wintertime.
All the Russian Army’s major victories were won in wintertime. We are a northern country”. With the Soviets counterattacking continually, one must give the Germans substantial credit for managing somehow to avoid total collapse, which is what had befallen Napoleon’s army in Russia in late 1812. Hitler refused to allow a general retreat, as he ordered on 16 December 1941 that each German soldier display “fanatical resistance”. By the end of December 1941, the Russians had advanced 100 to 150 miles across a broad front. The Red Army did not achieve a truly decisive breakthrough and the fighting would continue into 1942, and indeed well beyond that.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.