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 printed 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.

Operation Barbarossa, German Invasion of the 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, 1941 Antitank 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 mud Operation 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.

German soldier tugs at horse-drawn cart, winter 1941 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.

Following Initial Successes, Hitler’s Wehrmacht Prepares to Advance on Moscow