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 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 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 his post. 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 had been 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.

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 German 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 (admittedly hard to see), 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