Moscow, Soviet Union December 6, 1941

Three weeks after launching Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa on June 22, 1941 with the express goal of “crush[ing] Soviet Russia in a quick cam­paign” (Fuehrer Direc­tive 21, Decem­ber 18, 1940), the Germans and their Axis part­ners had indeed reached close enough to Moscow to fly sorties and bomb the Soviet capital. Tacti­cally, the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) won resounding vic­tories, over­running both Soviet frontier and rear defenses, slaughtering poorly equipped, poorly trained and led Red Army sol­diers where they stood, destroying the Red Air Force on the ground (1,500 or more air­craft on the first day), engulfing the Soviet-occupied Baltic states, and taking over three mil­lion Red Army pri­soners, many of them deserters, in 1941. The German jugger­naut seized some of the most impor­tant eco­no­mic resources of the Soviet Union, among them the heav­ily pop­u­lated and rich agri­cul­tural heart­land of the Ukraine. But Germany’s East­ern Front sucked the Wehr­macht and its Axis allies in and refused to spit them out until they’d been mauled by Mother Nature, or been bloodied in fierce combat, or been victims of both actions. By Novem­ber 1 the advancing German Army and Luft­waffe were para­lyzed in their tracks by the worst winter weather in 140 years. The Wehr­macht in 1941 was simply not equipped for this kind of winter warfare; the Red Army was.

On this date, December 6, 1941, outside Moscow, Soviet forces attacked Axis lines to begin their suc­cess­ful offen­sive on their western front, the Battle of Moscow (German, Opera­tion Typhoon). Ele­ments of 2nd Pan­zer Divi­sion, rein­forcing Gen. Ludwig Bock’s Army Group Center in its push toward Moscow, got with­in 6 miles of the capi­tal and could see the gold domes of the city’s churches, but the Wehr­macht got no further in a white Russian hell where exhausted and ill-clad soldiers died from severe frost­bite; fuel (of which there was little), motors, and trans­mis­sions froze; and machine guns ceased firing. (The day before the tem­per­a­ture stood at 36 below zero.) Gen. Bock and Gen. Heinz Gude­rian, who held com­mand of the Second Pan­zer Army, knew their men were at the end of their abil­i­ties and resources. In one three-week period, German dead and wounded totaled 155,000. Some divi­sions were a fraction of their orig­inal strength. Hun­dreds of miles from their main supply depots front-line German forces were now depending on air-dropped supplies to sur­vive. Back at Fuehrer head­quarters in East Prussia, Gen. Eduard Wagner, the Wehr­macht quarter­master-general, stated for the record: “We are at the end of our personnel and materiel strength.” Col. Gen. Franz Halder, Chief of the Army High Com­mand General Staff, recorded the same in a diary entry: “We have reached the end of our strength.”

General Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch responded to the dis­aster with cor­o­nary fail­ure and resigned his post as Commander-in-Chief (Oberbefehlshaber) of the German Army (Heer). Bock was replaced and Gude­rian sum­marily dis­missed for trying to per­suade Adolf Hitler to reverse his Decem­ber 16 order, reaffirmed four days later in a strongly worded Halte­befehl (stand-fast) direc­tive to Army Group Center, to hold the front line at all costs. Brau­chitsch’s replace­ment as supreme army com­mander on Decem­ber 19 was none other than Hitler him­self. Hitler’s insis­tence on “fana­tical resis­tance,” with­out regard to German casual­ties, could not stem the Soviet offen­sive, which ended on Janu­ary 7, 1942, after bone-weary and depleted Axis armies had been pushed back 60 to 150 miles. For the dura­tion of the war Hitler, whose highest rank as a German sol­dier in World War I was lance cor­poral (Gefrei­ter) and his mili­tary occu­pa­tional spe­cialty (MOS) that of regi­mental message runner, would assume opera­tional (but not admin­is­tra­tive) com­mand of the army on the Eastern Front right up to the day of his sui­cide on April 30, 1945, as Red Army sol­diers closed in on his under­ground head­quarters beneath the shattered capital of his Thousand Year Reich.

Operation Barbarossa: Germany’s Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941

Barbarossa, June–December 1941

Above: Map of Axis and Finnish 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. It even­tually cost the German Army (Heer) over 210,000 killed and missing and 620,000 wounded in 1941, a third of whom became casu­al­ties after Octo­ber 1. Unknown is the precise number of casu­al­ties among Romanian, Hungarian, and Waffen‑SS units, as well as co-belligerent Finns.

Armored units traversing Belarus dirt road, June 1941German infantry and tank in steppe

Left: Panzer units from Army Group Center speed into West­ern Belarus (the Soviet Republic of Byelo­russia; White Russia on the map) on an unpaved road, June 1941. By the end of the first week of Opera­tion Barba­rossa, all three German Army Groups—North, Center, and South—had achieved major cam­paign objec­tives. The chief of the Army High Com­mand General Staff, Franz Halder, trumpeted in his diary: “It is thus pro­bably no over­state­ment to say that the Russian Cam­paign has been won in the space of two weeks.” Hitler’s Luft­waffe adju­tant wrote a couple of days after Barba­rossa’s kick­off: “The ease of our victories along the whole front came as a sur­prise to both Army and Luft­waffe.” When the Belarus capital Minsk fell on June 28, German troops, given their rate of advance, would have been in Moscow, 434 miles to the east, within two weeks. “Everything is lost,” Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lamented upon learning of Minsk’s loss. Deter­mined to give lie to his earlier lamen­ta­tion, Stalin had him­self appointed chair­man of the State Defense Com­mit­tee on July 1, 1941, where he directed the successful prosecution of the war against Germany.

Right: A German tank and crouching infantry make good time crossing the steppes in July 1941. By then some German spear­heads had already advanced over 250 miles from their starting posi­tions. But four months into the cam­paign, tem­pera­tures fell and there was con­tin­ual rain, which by mid-Octo­ber would have turned this un­paved road into a muddy bog. The changed road con­di­tions slowed the German advance on Moscow (Operation Typhoon) to as little as 2 miles a day.

Battle of Moscow: Car pulled through knee-deep mudBattle of Moscow: Tank stuck in Russian snow

Left: German soldiers exhaust themselves pulling 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, a panzer pio­neer bat­talion of the 258th Infan­try Divi­sion that had halted in the town­ship of Khimki close to the Moscow ring road, reputedly caught a glimpse of the golden domes and spires of Moscow’s Red Square and the Kremlin 14 miles to the south using high-powered bino­culars. (The spires of the Kremlin had been camou­flaged with dark paint and the Kremlin walls were painted to look like buildings with windows, so the account appears to have been exag­gerated or the Germans saw other towers and spires.) Some­time later a recon­nais­sance bat­talion is said to have 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 winter-clad crew attempts to free it. At the right edge of the photo is a war corres­pon­dent (admittedly hard to see), who filmed the scene for audiences hungry for front-line news back in Germany.

Battle of Moscow: German medics attended to wounded soldier, late 1941Battle of Moscow: German soldiers in heavy snow west of Moscow, December 1941

Left: Against the backdrop of burning houses on the outskirts of Moscow in Novem­ber or Decem­ber 1941 German medics provide aid to a wounded comrade. Army Group Center suffered more than 300,000 casualties.

Right: Faces wrapped in scarves and wearing heavy great­coats, two German soldiers in knee-deep snow stand guard duty west of Mos­cow, Decem­ber 1941. Those lucky enough to own a toque—a sleave-like wool tube that was pulled over one’s head—were able to pro­tect their necks and parts of their face from the bitter cold. Some­times soldiers wore two or three toques along with scarves for extra insu­la­tion. Decem­ber’s low tem­pera­ture reached ‑40°F. More than 130,000 cases of frost­bite were reported among exhausted German soldiers. The same arctic conditions plagued Soviet troops, but they were better prepared for the cold.

Battle of Moscow (Operation Typhoon), September 30 to December 8, 1941