- James Houser
December 5, 1941 - The Battle of Moscow
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
December 5, 1941. The Nazis are on the verge of triumph. Hitler’s Wehrmacht has won an astounding series of military victories since the invasion of the Soviet Union began six months ago, and now the panzer divisions are only miles from the center of Moscow. But the blitzkrieg has ground to a halt. Today, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov will launch his great counterattack in the Battle of Moscow. This, right here, is when Germany starts to lose.
On June 22, 1941, the Axis launched a massive surprise attack on the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. At the time, it was the most colossal and powerful offensive in human history, mustering almost 3.5 million men along a 500-mile battlefront with the goal of overthrowing the largest nation on the planet. The German Wehrmacht made up the bulk of these forces, but units from Hungary and Romania contributed heavily to Axis numbers. The vaunted “blitzkrieg” combination that had conquered so much of Europe by 1941 – the deadly panzer divisions, the powerful fighter and bomber wings of the Luftwaffe, and the hardy German motorized infantry – exploded across the border in an epic show of modern warfare. This campaign was supposed to be the crowning achievement of German arms and will: the destruction of Stalin’s communist regime.
Hitler had launched a war unprecedented in its scope and in its aims. His goal was not the military defeat of the Soviet Union, or even the acquisition of its resources; it was nothing less than a war of annihilation and extermination. Hitler had framed the attack on the Soviet Union as an apocalyptic showdown between German fascism and Jewish Bolshevism, a fight for survival, a war to the death between the forces of “light” (the Aryan race) and “darkness” (the Jewish Communists). The goal of Barbarossa was, in Hitler’s view, the destruction of the Soviet Union and the deliberate murder of tens of millions of Slavic untermenschen to pave the way for German colonization. The remainder of the Slavs were to be reduced to a permanent servile class, and the Jews…well, everyone knew what was going to happen to the Jews. The invasion of the Soviet Union was not just a military campaign to Hitler and the Nazis: it was an ideological crusade on a legendary scale.
The results were legendary, TOO. Hitler’s panzer spearheads struck out in three directions: north towards Leningrad, in the center towards Moscow, and in the south towards the Ukraine – the breadbasket of Europe. While Hitler’s generals regarded the attack up the Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow corridor as the most important, since it would seize the capital and hopefully overthrow the Soviet Union quickly, Hitler regarded the attack in the south towards Ukraine as the most vital. Hitler had his eye on the food production and vital mineral resources of Ukraine, and viewed these as a more important objective than the political overthrow of Soviet power.
The Germans regarded the Barbarossa project with high optimism, even naivete. Hitler famously noted that “we only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down!” German generals planned to engage and destroy the bulk of Soviet forces near the border, crushing the Red Army in a single great battle of annihilation as they had done in Poland and France. In six weeks, the German General Staff predicted, the battle would be over and the only challenge would be blazing down the highway towards their individual objectives. It would be a short, victorious war over an enemy that most German officers perceived as weak, cowardly, and corrupt.
I described the preparation for, and the problems with, Barbarossa in much more detail on June 22 of this year. If you want more details on the German failures in planning and preparing for the invasion of the Soviet Union, head for the article on that date. To sum up, though, the Germans vastly underestimated the Soviet Union’s will and ability to resist their attacks. They got many of the tactical and operational details right – the Germans did win overwhelming victories over the Soviet armies they encountered – but failed to realize the strength of the Stalinist state or the depth of its resources.
The Germans did win major victories in the invasion of the Soviet Union. The panzer spearheads struck out through the deep forests and vast plains of Russia, looking for a fight. The Germans wanted above all else to engage and destroy the major Soviet forces near the border, and feared above all else that the Soviets would retreat into the interior of their country with the Red Army intact. The Red Army, however, did exactly what the Germans wanted: as soon as the Nazi attack became apparent, the Soviets launched massive armored counterattacks. In almost every case, the Soviets met complete disaster. Despite superior numbers and in many cases equipment, the Red Army did not have the tactical skill, training, or experience of the Wehrmacht and suffered accordingly. They were going up against the world’s A-Team in land warfare, and they were not prepared for it.
Throughout the opening months of Hitler’s assault on the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht tore a horrifying path of death and destruction across hundreds of miles of terrain. The panzer divisions encircled enormous Soviet armies, cutting off hundreds of thousands of men in massive “kessels” or cauldrons; they had to be left behind for the slow-moving infantry to encircle before the panzers raced east again to bag the next target. Behind the swiftly advancing frontline came the SS Einsatzgruppen, whose brutal task was to wipe out “Communist rebels” – code for Jews. The Einsatzgruppen killed almost one million Soviet Jews in the immediate wake of the Nazi advance, just as much a part of Hitler’s grand plan as any military campaign.
The Wehrmacht’s victories, nevertheless, were enormous; they lanced deep behind the Soviet formations and wreaked a staggering toll on their foe. by October 1941, almost two million Soviet POWs were in German custody. Most of these were fated to die as slave labor in German factories or deliberately starved in POW camps. The astonishing number of Soviet losses should have crippled the Red Army permanently, and under the original German plan should have meant total success. Stalin’s forces had suffered something like a breathtaking three million casualties, the destruction of most of their equipment, and the complete unraveling of their military command structure. In addition, many of the most important Soviet territories – Belorussia, most of Ukraine, and many major industrial centers – had been lost. The great encirclement at Kiev had taken almost a million men out of the Soviet order of battle; these were losses that no one, not even the mighty Russia, could sustain for long.
The Nazis had achieved everything they expected to achieve, and more. Any other state would collapse under this kind of onslaught, and many had done so in the past two years. But the Soviet Union was much tougher than it looked.
Although the Red Army was getting owned, completely and utterly, it continued to defend and even counterattacked at every opportunity. Even though the Nazis were obviously winning the campaign, the Soviets defended with astonishing zeal and courage. Even when the Germans surrounded one of their “kessels,” many Soviet soldiers escaped and lived to fight another day - whether by sneaking through the German lines back to friendly territory, or by fading into the swamps and forests to fight as guerrillas. The constant counterattacks and the inability of the Germans to cope with the enormous Soviet armies resulted in the Wehrmacht’s cutting edge being steadily blunted the longer they hacked into Russia. Like a poorly forged blade from “Forged in Fire,” their edge was not holding up to the obstacle they had to cut through, and the consequences would soon tell.
The Germans had also underrated Soviet equipment, organization, and willingness to continue the struggle. Soviet tanks such as the heavy KV-series and especially the T-34 were superior to German vehicles; a single KV-2 held up a whole panzer division at a critical bridge for a whole day. The Soviet government also took the lifesaving step of evacuating most of Ukraine’s and Belorussia’s industrial machinery and workers to the far east, well out of reach of German bombers or troops, leaving the Nazi invaders to capture empty skeletons of factories. They also burned the fields of grain and corn that fed the Soviet heartland, ensuring that nothing would fall into German hands.
Finally, the Red Army called on its vast reserve forces, a massive manpower pool that German intelligence had totally overlooked. Within weeks of the invasion, the Soviet war machine had called up five million reservists to the colors. The Germans had estimated that the Soviets could raise 300 divisions in the event of war, but by December the Soviet Union had raised (holy shit) 600 divisions of troops, even though they had lost 100 in the epic battles of encirclement. This was an overwhelming display of state power and ability, something no other nation in the world could have accomplished at the time. Only the iron hand of Stalin’s terrifying regime and the enormous resources of Russia could have resisted and recovered from the terrible blows that the Germans had inflicted. This ability to resist, and the Germans’ ability to strike, created truly one of the most terrible wars in human history. The unbeatable force had met the immovable object.
As the vastness of Russia swallowed the panzer columns, and the German units became exhausted and overstretched, optimism began to fade. The German military’s operations chief, General Franz Halder, was writing that the war may be lost as early as July 1941, even though the Wehrmacht’s greatest victories were still ahead of it. The reason was simple: the Germans had prepared for a short, victorious war that would destroy the Red Army in six weeks. Six weeks had come and gone, but the Red Army was not only still standing but somehow stronger. Germany’s economy and the Army’s supply forces had planned for a short war, in fact needed one, because they weren’t ready for a long one. When the Red Army refused to admit defeat, and Stalin’s regime survived the initial blast of the Blitzkrieg without collapsing in on itself, the German generals began to shift uneasily in their camp chairs. They were supposed to have won the war. They had done everything right. What do we do now?
The German generals and Hitler agreed on the obvious answer: capture Moscow. Capture the enemy’s capital, the seat of Stalin’s power, the great communications and industrial hub, and the war could be won – or at least, propaganda could claim it had been won. The enormity of Russia, the constant pressure of Soviet counterattacks, and the need to clean up Soviet resistance near Kiev all delayed the major strike, though. The clock was ticking, winter was coming, and the Germans raced desperately to assemble a force in central Russia that would be able to strike at Moscow. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center consisted of three panzer armies and three infantry armies, a huge force of some of Nazi Germany’s most veteran soldiers and most skilled generals. Their attack on Moscow, the battle that was supposed to end the war before winter set in, would be codenamed “Operation Typhoon.”
Now for a digression.
In his magisterial work “On War,” Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz talks about a concept called the “culminating point.” Clausewitz theorizes that the beginning of every attack is the moment when it is strongest, and that the force of the attack diminishes from that point on. The point at which the attack needs to be stopped, reconsidered, and reorganized is known as the “culminating point.” Trying to push past this point, trying to continue an attack in the face of all logic and all sense out of some misbegotten pursuit of total triumph, is not just a waste of resources – it is dangerous. Clausewitz states that an army pushing past its culminating point is an army at its most vulnerable.
And on the plains of Russia, just outside of Moscow, the heirs of Clausewitz’s army – 110 years after his death – would go past their culminating point.
Operation Typhoon began on October 2, 1941, as the Germans launched yet another massive stroke, this one aimed at Moscow itself. Once again, the panzer spearheads struck deep across the plains and forests, and once again they performed a classic double envelopment and bagged another massive toll of Soviet prisoners – almost 750,000. For the Russians it was like June, only worse, since this was on the road to Moscow. The assault on the Soviet capital had started well for the Germans, and it seemed like the Kremlin was within reach.
But on October 8, it started to rain. One of the stereotypes about invasions of Russia is that the winter is somehow the worst part of Russian weather for military operations, but this is misleading. The worst point for any invader of Russia is not the winter, but the rasputitsa – that is, the rainy season that comes before and after winter, known to the locals as “the time without roads.” In February and March, and again in October and November, torrential rains hit Russia and turn virtually every road into a miserable treacle impenetrable by beast, man, or machine. The German advance stalled out as the panzers and trucks churned the roads into deep mush. The Germans kept going, lashed on by the rantings of Hitler and the sharp tongues of their officers, but it was no use. By October 22, the panzer spearheads were grinding to a halt in the mud near Kalinin, and Field Marshal Bock talked in his diary about being “stuck fast” on October 25.
The mud had thrown the brakes on the German advance, and this gave the Soviets additional time to prepare for the onslaught. Stalin had bowed to military necessity and put his armies into the hands of one of his most competent officers, the powerful, compelling, and brilliant man who would take Communist arms from the outskirts of Moscow to the heart of Berlin: Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, by my reckoning the greatest general of the 20th Century. Visitors to the bunkers below the Kremlin in November 1941 would spy an unusual sight: Joseph Stalin, one of the world’s most terrifying dictators, taking a back seat to his general. Stalin would stand by in silence as Zhukov rapped out orders over a table adorned with maps and pins, instructing his forces to hoard their manpower and ammunition. The fascists were coming, and Moscow must not fall.
The Soviets put in a herculean effort to preserve their capital. Zhukov did not just want to stop the Germans - he wanted to drive them back. But this could not be accomplished by the uncoordinated, random counterattacks that the Soviets had been making since June. No, it had to be a combined, overwhelming blow that would strike the Germans at their weakest moment and unhinge their forces. Zhukov wanted to force the Germans to their “culminating point,” make them go beyond it, then snap back as hard as he could. This would require iron discipline in refusing to commit the much-needed, well-preserved reinforcements until the time was perfect, whatever the cost to the men on the frontlines. These reinforcements included the veteran Siberian divisions quickly shipped from the far border with Japan. Under Zhukov’s steel grip, Moscow itself prepared for war, with civilians filing out to dig trenches for their comrades. The Soviet Union had been forced to accept Hitler’s logic: this was a fight to the death, and they had to win at any cost.
On November 6, the mud was replaced by the onset of Russian winter: the freeze hit. This was partially good news for the Germans, since it allowed them to break free of the mud and resume their assault on Moscow. But the bad news, of course, was that it was the Russian winter. Temperatures plummeted to –40 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the Germans’ winter supplies were stacked up in depots far to the rear, the casualty of the broken logistics system. The cold inflicted a terrible toll on the attacking Germans, and was just as hard on the vehicles and horses propelling them forward. German tank crews had to light fires beneath their vehicles just to melt the oil in their engines.
The winter, of course, wasn’t the only problem. As the Germans advanced, they ran into the issue of trying to do too much with too little. German plans called for Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army, for instance, to advance in three directions at the same time even as Russian pressure was continuing to grow. As the Germans advanced, they spread out more and more, which allowed the Russians to focus on key points of resistance. Even as Typhoon inched forward, it continued to slow its rate of advance in the face of fanatic Soviet resistance and the atrocious weather. The dulling of the Wehrmacht’s fighting edge in the last six months now became terribly apparent. The German troops were exhausted, their vehicles worn out and lacking spare parts, their uniforms in tatters and their supply systems crumbling. It was apparent by late November that there was going to be no great breakthrough. Even if the Germans managed to reach Moscow, how could they hope to take it?
The closest the Germans probably got to taking Moscow was near the key town of Tula, where Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army tried and failed to take this critical railroad junction. Despite being nearly surrounded, the Red Army clung on with fanatic determination. Guderian’s panzer troops had taken so many casualties getting to Tula that they could never take it, let alone move on to Moscow.
This – this, right here – would have been the moment for the German high command to recall their great theorist of the past century. They had passed the culminating point. All throughout the Soviet Union, in fact, the Germans were reaching the end of their tether and in some places even being driven back. The drive on Moscow had sputtered out, and there were troubling signs of a Soviet buildup BEHIND the city. What the Germans should have done is pull back, regroup, and plan for the next year – but that was not in Hitler’s nature, or in the tradition of the German Army. They continued to press the attack long after it had any hope of success, and in so doing played right into Zhukov’s hands.
On the bitterly cold morning of December 5, 1941, Marshal Zhukov launched his counterblow. He deployed seventeen field armies and two large cavalry corps, spearheaded by the Siberian reserve units in their white parkas and equipped with skis. The Soviet strike was far from just a massive frontal assault, but rather a carefully coordinated series of thrusts aimed at the weak points in the German lines. The overstretch of the Wehrmacht’s attack had created many such weak points, and Soviet cavalry, infantry, and tank forces flooded through these gaps. For the first time in a long time, the Germans now had the opportunity to see what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a surprise mass offensive.
Surprise was complete; the German commanders had regarded the Red Army as a spent force, and here it was not just holding its ground but counterattacking. The result was nearly disaster. Many German units melted away, having reached the breaking point of morale and exertion, and soon the Wehrmacht was looking at a potential disaster. The tanks, nearly frozen to the ground, were almost immovable, and Soviet forces were lancing deep behind the calcified German positions. It had the potential to be the destruction of a German army, much as had happened to Napoleon’s army when it retreated from Moscow in 1812.
The Soviet Moscow counteroffensive did drive the Germans back in almost every sector, but the Wehrmacht eluded destruction. Hitler ordered a famous and controversial order for all units to “stand fast,” – that is, to hedgehog down in fortified positions and defend to the last, even if surrounded. Hitler fired some of his most capable generals, including Bock and Guderian, when they gave orders to withdraw against his wishes. Despite all his generals begging for a large-scale retreat, Hitler refused to modify his instructions, and to everyone’s great surprise it worked. The Wehrmacht may well have crumbled in a full-on retreat; by standing fast, it managed to weather the storm.
Stalin’s unwise decision to try and turn the successful Moscow counteroffensive into a massive assault all along the frontline helped the Germans too, since it diluted Soviet strength and contributed to a general sputtering out of the battle. By January 1942, Soviet momentum had stalled; they were not yet ready to go deep on the Wehrmacht. That day would come later, in the great battles of 1943 and 1944, when they would gain the experience they needed to tear the German Army apart. Zhukov would be at the tip of the spear there, too; for now, he had saved Moscow when the Germans were knocking at its gates, and that was enough. Total victory was a long way away, but total defeat was no longer a possibility for the Soviet Union.
In the cold plains outside Moscow, Operation Barbarossa had finally come to a screeching halt. It was the acid test for Blitzkrieg, and Blitzkrieg – which had performed so well in Poland and France – failed in its winter campaign deep in Russia. Germany had failed to knock the Soviet Union out in a single blow, and had suffered almost one million casualties in the process; these were not losses the Germans could afford, and they permanently dulled the edge of Hitler’s war machine. By failing to win the war quickly, the Germans had probably lost World War II by 1941. From this point on, they would face the twin prongs of Stalinist Russia – total economic mobilization and cruel ruthlessness – backed up by vastly overwhelming amounts of manpower, resources, and material, along with a disdain for losses. They could not keep up. In the end, the Germans had bitten off far more than they could ever chew, and they would choke on it.
When did Germany begin to lose the war? On December 5, 1941, when Blitzkrieg ran into an enemy it could not defeat.