Moscow, Soviet Union · December 6, 1941

Three weeks after launching Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa on June 22, 1941, the Ger­mans and their Axis part­ners had reached close enough to Mos­cow to fly sorties and bomb the Soviet capital. Tactically, the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) won resounding vic­tories, taking over three mil­lion Soviet pri­soners in 1941 and seizing some of the most im­por­tant eco­no­mic resources of the Soviet Union, among them the heav­ily pop­u­lated and rich agri­cul­tural heart­land of the Ukraine. But the East­ern Front sucked Ger­many and its Axis allies in and refused to spit them out. 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. On this date in 1941 out­side Mos­cow, Soviet forces attacked Axis lines to begin their suc­cess­ful offen­sive on their western front, the Battle of Moscow. A few Ger­man units had reached close enough to the Soviet capital four days ear­lier to glimpse the fabled golden spires of the Krem­lin, just over a dozen miles away, but the army itself got no further in a white Russian hell where ill-clad soldiers died from severe frost­bite, fuel froze, and machine guns ceased firing. (The day before the tem­per­a­ture stood at 36 below zero.) Gen. Ludwig Bock, com­mander of Army Group Center, 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. General Field Marshal Walther von Brau­chitsch responded to the dis­aster with cor­o­nary fail­ure and resigned. Bock was replaced and Gude­rian sum­marily dis­missed. Brau­chitsch’s replace­ment as com­mander in chief of the armies was none other than Adolf Hitler, but even he could not stem the Soviet offen­sive, which ended on Janu­ary 7, 1942, after 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 cor­poral, would over­see all mili­tary oper­a­tions 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.

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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 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 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. Chief of the Army 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.”

Right: A German tank and crouching infantry make good time crossing the steppes in July 1941. 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.

Car pulled through knee-deep mudTank 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 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 a glimpse of the spires of Mos­cow’s Krem­lin 15 miles away. Some­time later 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.

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

Left: Against the backdrop of burning houses near Moscow in November or December 1941, Germans attend to one of their own.

Right: Two German soldiers in heavy snow on guard duty west of Mos­cow, Decem­ber 1941. Decem­ber’s low tem­pera­ture reached -40°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.

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