Moscow, Soviet Union October 15, 1941

On June 22, 1941, the day Adolf Hitler sprang his surprise attack on the Soviet Union, a country of 180 mil­lion people to Germany’s east, he report­edly con­fided to some of his inti­mates: “I feel as if I have opened a door into a dark, unseen room—with­out knowing what lies behind the door.” His gloomy pre­mo­nitions soon gave way to glee as intox­i­cating reports of mili­tary vic­tories came across the news wires. Advanc­ing German armies occu­pied vast stretches of the Bal­tic States in the north, the Ukraine on the Black Sea in the south, and Bela­rus in between. At a press briefing in Berlin on Octo­ber 10, 1941, Hitler’s press chief, following a meeting with his boss the day before on the Eastern Front, released the first sub­stan­tial news about Opera­tion Barba­rossa. The very last rem­nants of the Red Army, Otto Dietrich told jour­nal­ists, were locked in two German steel pockets before Moscow, the Soviet capital, and were under­going swift, merci­less anni­hila­tion. The road to Moscow for German panzer (armored) armies was now open, the war was as good as over in Hitler’s mind (Hitler issued a chest-thumping procla­ma­tion to the troops expressing these senti­ments), and the German high com­mand’s nightmare of a two-front war in the West and East was swept from memory.

The German conquest of Russia would allegedly add more man­power at Germany’s dis­posal than all the man­power avail­able to Great Britain, North Amer­ica, and South Amer­ica com­bined—a very dis­turbing devel­op­ment were it to be realized. Omi­nously, how­ever, for the war plan­ners at Hitler’s remote dream world, “Wolf’s Lair” (Wolfs­schanze) in Rasten­burg’s forests in East Prussia (today’s Polish village of Kętrzyn), where the Fuehrer was busy directing mili­tary opera­tions now far from the front, the first heavy snow­falls of the Rus­sian win­ter were recorded on this date, Octo­ber 15, 1941. Shortly there­after a pre­mature, unu­su­ally bitter arctic winter set in. The Wehr­macht (German armed forces) had counted on at least four addi­tional weeks of mobil­ity in their drive east­ward. Instead their armies were frozen in place, and the earlier Octo­ber proph­ecy of a war as good as won was shelved for now to Hitler’s undying embarrassment.

The Battle of Moscow (October 1941 to early Janu­ary 1942), named by the Germans “Opera­tion Typhoon,” was inten­si­fied as Red Army forces from the Soviet Far East and Sibe­ria began arriving on the Russian Front. (Soviet spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo assured his Moscow handlers that Hitler’s Axis partner Japan had no inten­tion of attacking the Soviet East; instead, the Japa­nese were preparing to launch a mas­sive offen­sive into South­east Asia and the Pacific, which they did on Decem­ber 7 and 8, 1941.) Early in Decem­ber a single German bat­tal­ion snow-shoveled close enough to Moscow to glimpse the golden spires of the Kremlin. But that was as near as any Wehr­macht unit got before with­drawing behind German lines, where fuel froze (tem­per­a­tures sank to 36°F below zero), machine guns ceased firing (bolts stuck), vehicle hoses and belts cracked and broke, and ill-clad soldiers died from severe frost­bite or were inva­lided tem­po­rarily to the rear, reducing the strength of a typi­cal com­bat com­pany to that of a squad. Hitler’s vague hope that Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin would come to realize the hope­less­ness of further resis­tance, would aban­don Euro­pean Russia to Nazi Germany, and would con­tent him­self with a country east of the Ural Moun­tains was swept away by frigid typhoon-force winds now blowing in his face.

German Invasion of Soviet Union Stopped Cold by 1941 Russian Winter

Operation Barbarossa, June–August 1941

Above: Map of German operations against the Soviet Union, June 22 to Decem­ber 5, 1941. Occurring in three stages, each weaker than the one before, Opera­tion Barba­rossa was the largest mili­tary opera­tion in history in terms of man­power, casual­ties, and pris­oners of war (four million Soviet POWs). Hitler formal­ized the end of Oper­a­tion Barbarossa in Fuehrer Directive No. 39, issued on December 8, 1941.

Digging tank traps outside Moscow, 1941Antitank barricades, Moscow, October 1941

Left: On October 19, 1941, Soviet officials declared their capital and the country’s largest city to be in a “state of siege.” That month almost two million men and three of Germany’s four panzer groups manned the German front­line west of Moscow. Armed with heavy shovels, a hastily assembled work force of Moscow women, teen­agers, and elderly men gouge a huge tank moat out of the earth to halt German panzer units advancing on the city. In a feverish effort, some 250,000 citi­zens labored from mid-Octo­ber until late Novem­ber digging ditches and building other obstruc­tions on Moscow’s outskirts. When completed, the ditches extended more than 100 miles.

Right: Muscovites installed antitank barri­cades on city streets in Octo­ber 1941. Between Octo­ber and the end of Novem­ber, the capi­tal remained within reach of German pan­zers, which never came. If they had, dyna­mite charges, which had been placed in all impor­tant buildings, including the Kremlin, would have left the Germans mostly gazing at piles of smoking rubble. The city was, how­ever, the object of mas­sive German air raids, though these caused only limited damage owing in part to exten­sive anti­air­craft defenses and effec­tive civil­ian fire brigades, as well as to the evac­u­ation of fac­tories, govern­ment offices, and people hun­dreds of miles to the east. By the end of 1941 Moscow’s pop­u­lation had been reduced by half.

Operation Barbarossa: German car pulled through knee-deep Russian mudOperation Barbarossa: German tank stuck in Russian snow

Left: In the wake of autumn rains, German soldiers struggle to pull a staff car through heavy mud on a Russian road, Novem­ber 1941. Hitler, arrogant and ruinously over­con­fident owing to his blitz of suc­ces­ses in West­ern Europe, expected a vic­tory in the East within a few months, and there­fore he did not pre­pare his armed forces for a cam­paign that might last into a wet late fall, much less a bitterly cold winter. The assump­tion that the Soviet Union would quickly capit­u­late—Hitler had promised his gene­rals that a single cam­paign would crush “the rotten edi­fice of bol­shevism”—proved to be his, as well as the Wehrmacht’s, tragic undoing.

Right: On December 2, 1941, the first blizzards of the Rus­sian winter began just as one unit of the Wehr­macht caught a glimpse of the spires of Moscow’s Kremlin 15 miles away. That same day a recon­nais­sance batta­lion crept to within 5 miles of Mos­cow, but that was as close to the mili­tary prize as any Wehr­macht unit managed. In this photo a Panzer IV tank in white camouflage is stranded in deep Russian snow as its crew attempts to free it. At the right edge of the photo is a war corres­pondent who filmed the scene for audiences back in Germany.

Battle of Moscow: German soldier tugs at horse-drawn cart, winter 1941Battle of Moscow: German soldiers in heavy snow west of Moscow, December 1941

Left: A German soldier with machine-pistol and white winter coat tugs at a horse pulling a cart in snow-covered land­scape west of Moscow. Horse-drawn supply trans­ports as well as com­bat units were equally stopped first by autumn mud, then by deep winter snow. Heinz Guderian, commander of the German Second Panzer Army, 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.” By coin­ci­dence, the Soviets launched their counter­offen­sive on the very day that the German high com­mand called a halt to Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa. For his efforts to avoid catas­tro­phe and his sanc­tioning unautho­rized pull-backs Gude­rian, along with 40 other generals, was relieved of his command on December 26, 1941.

Right: Two German soldiers in heavy snow on guard duty west of Mos­cow, Decem­ber 1941. Decem­ber’s low temperature reached –20°F. More than 130,000 cases of frost­bite were reported among German soldiers, most of whom lacked winter uni­forms. The unfor­giving weather hit Soviet troops, too, but they were better conditioned and equipped for the deadly cold, partic­u­larly those who had been rushed in from Siberia to defend the capital. Many had proper winter boots, heavy jackets and over­coats, and white camou­flage coverings. All this proved an increas­ingly criti­cal factor in the Battle of Moscow as more and more ill-clad, freezing, and exhausted German soldiers were being captured or were surrendering to the Soviet enemy.

Color Footage of Battle of Moscow, October 1941 to January 1942. (Footage switches between combatants. You may want to mute the music.)