Wolf’s Lair, Fuehrer HQ, East Prussia · August 23, 1941

On this date in 1941 at his concealed East Prussian “Fuehrer Head­quarters” in the Rasten­burg swamps, Adolf Hitler made a deci­sion that doomed Opera­tion Barba­rossa—his planned liquida­tion of the Soviet Union. Bar­barossa had been launched two months earlier, on June 22. But after three weeks of dis­agreeing with his gene­rals regarding the most urgent objec­tives of his campaign—Lenin­grad (today’s St. Peters­burg, Russia), because of its key posi­tion on the Baltic; Kiev, capital of the agricul­turally rich Ukraine and gate­way to the Cau­ca­sus oilfields; or Mos­cow, center of Soviet poli­tical power—Hitler ordered Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center to make a ninety-degree turn and march south to the Ukraine. War, he chided his generals, was above all an economic event.

The generals, von Bock but particularly Heinz Guderian, the latter having held a field com­mand during the inva­sion of Poland where he was able to per­fect the idea of lightning war (blitz­krieg) and used it spectac­u­larly in the opening months of Barba­rossa, com­plied. Never­theless they sensed that, after ex­pending enor­mous ener­gies, men, and materiel that would be involved in taking the Ukraine, they would have to fight a winter cam­paign to take Moscow. (Indeed, Guderian had been poised to assault Moscow after his 2nd Panzer Group cap­tured Smolensk, 250 miles west of the Soviet capital, on July 16, 1941.)

Opera­tion Typhoon, the Axis assault on Moscow, began on the last day of Septem­ber 1941. Arrayed against Moscow was roughly half of Ger­many’s East­ern Front force, out­numbering the defenders in almost all respects. But snow­falls, which began on Octo­ber 6, favored the defenders. Before mud could freeze to the advan­tage of the mecha­nized Ger­man advance, the Soviets had strength­ened the capi­tal’s defenses. Once the full fury of the Russian win­ter struck, which was the coldest in over 50 years, the Axis armies quickly became un­able to con­duct further com­bat opera­tions, with more casu­al­ties resulting from cold weather than from battle. The Soviet counter­offen­sive soon drove the Axis armies into retreat. Opera­tion Typhoon was Hitler’s first major land defeat, and it marked the begin­ning of the fail­ure of Gude­rian’s blitz­krieg as a strategy. Of the three Soviet cities fixed in Barbarossa’s crosshairs, only Kiev in the Ukraine succumbed to the Germans.

German Invasion of the Soviet Union Stopped Cold by 1941 Russian Winter

Barbarossa, June–December 1941

Above: Map of German operations against the Soviet Union, June 22 to Decem­ber 5, 1941. Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa was the largest mili­tary opera­tion in his­tory in both manpower and casualties.

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

Left: 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 pan­zers (armored units) advancing on the Soviet capi­tal. In the feverish effort to save the city, some 250,000 citi­zens labored from mid-Octo­ber until late Novem­ber digging ditches and building other obstruc­tions. 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. Moscow was, how­ever, the object of mas­sive air raids, though these caused only limited damage because of extensive antiaircraft defenses and effective civilian fire brigades.

Car pulled through knee-deep Russian mud, November 1941Tank stuck in Russian snow, December 1941

Left: German soldiers 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 Wehr­macht (German 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 proved to be Hitler’s, as well as Nazi Germany’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 1941German 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 a snow-covered land­scape west of Mos­cow. Horse-drawn supply trans­ports as well as com­bat units were equally stopped by first autumn mud, then deep winter snow and arctic temper­a­tures. 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.” For his efforts 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. The same weather hit Soviet troops, but they were better prepared for the cold.

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