Moscow, Soviet Union · October 15, 1941

On June 22, 1941, the day Adolf Hitler sprang his surprise attack on the Soviet Union, 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, Bela­rus, and the Ukraine. 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 Ger­man con­quest of Russia would al­legedly add more man­power at Ger­many’s dis­posal than all the man­power avail­able to Eng­land, 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, East Prussia (today’s Polish village of Kętrzyn), where the Fuehrer was busy directing mili­tary opera­tions far from the front, the first heavy snow­falls of the Rus­sian win­ter were recorded on this date, Octo­ber 15, 1941. Four days later Soviet offi­cials declared their capital to be in a “state of siege.”

The Battle of Mos­cow (October 1941 to early Janu­ary 1942; the Ger­mans named it “Opera­tion Ty­phoon”) was inten­si­fied as Red Army forces from the Soviet Far East and Sibe­ria began arriving on the Russian Front. On Decem­ber 2 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 ground unit got before with­drawing behind Ger­man lines, where fuel froze, machine guns ceased firing, and ill-clad soldiers died from severe frost­bite. (Tem­per­a­tures reached 36°F below zero.) Hitler’s vague hope that Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin would come to realize the hope­less­ness of further resis­tance, would aban­don Euro­pean Russia to 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.

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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 Union’s capi­tal and largest city. 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.

German car pulled through knee-deep Russian mudGerman tank stuck in Russian snow

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 (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 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 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.” 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 unfor­giving weather hit Soviet troops, too, but they were better prepared for the deadly cold.

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