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]), 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 and partic­u­larly Gen. Heinz Gude­rian, who had 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. But 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. (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. 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 succumbed to the Germans.

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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 anti-tank 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 anti-aircraft 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 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 his, and 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 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 was relieved, along with 40 other generals, 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