A Brief History
From October 2, 1941 to January 7, 1942, the Battle of Moscow was fought on the Eastern Front of World War II (WWII). The Battle for Moscow is known as the one in which Hitler’s military forces were stopped. This German defeat was an important event, given that the same military was able to advance through all of Europe with little to no resistance from the other countries.
Therefore, the Russian leaders at the time, with their decisions, were able to change the course of the war for the good guys. Even if Hitler’s army seemed to be unstoppable and quite a few leaders believed that only madmen would oppose him, it took only a battle in the harsh Moscow to prove this wrong.
But how did this battle change the war course exactly? Moreover, how was Moscow able to withstand Germany’s surprise attack? As we know, the USSR and Germany were part of a non-aggression treaty.
The Bombshell News
As mentioned above, the German military – known as the Wehrmacht – enjoyed success on all fronts and operations. It was able to come out victorious in France, Poland, the Balkans, as well as in Norway, due to brilliant execution and conception of the military.
In the summer of 1941, it was known that Hitler had an invasion of England in mind, as he directed the German High Command to make preparations for it; however, such an invasion was never even attempted.
The High Command weighed the chances of victory and decided not to assault the English Channel and, ultimately, England. Instead, on the 22nd of June 1941, Germany had launched an assault on the Soviet Union, its treaty partner – obviously, this was a surprise assault.
Nowadays, this operation is known as Barbarossa.
The Campaign Details
Reportedly, the long-range preparations for this particular campaign were made in the middle of May 1941 – thus, the German High Command decided to act on rather short notice.
Despite the short notice, the Germans were more than just prepared. The Red Army was encircled on and on, resulting in a massive four million casualties – mainly due to the disorganization present within the Soviet armies.
A couple of months later, in October, the German forces were 200 miles away from Moscow. This was the time when operation Barbarossa would change to Operation Typhoon. The latter was an offensive meant to seize Moscow and end the campaign.
The Results of Barbarossa
The German army – and the state as well – were considered to be invincible. Hitler was able to bring the country victory after victory and he was now ready to end the campaign and occupy Moscow itself; however, many knew that Russia was a Death by a Thousand Cuts for the German Wehrmacht. Why?
First of all, both Germany and its allies brought up more than three million men to take part in Barbarossa. When they reached the gates of Moscow, so to speak, in October, more than 500,000 of them had died – in short, 15% of the German forces.
Still, Russia would not be satisfied with only 15%. Germany also sent panzers for this operation – of which almost all were broken-down on the 500 miles trail the army took into Russia.
The Russian roads were, once again, against the German forces. Poor in quality and few in number, they had destroyed roughly 40% of the Reich’s truck fleet.
As a last resort, Germany would rely on railroads to supply the army with food, ammo, and fuel for the few panzers they had left; however, the Russian tracks were wider than the German tracks.
In the end, German logistics could do nothing else but collapse.
Despite everything the German army had to go through, it was believed that the next operation, Typhoon, would be a success and that Moscow will be captured. It was known that the Wehrmacht had the intelligence and training to win a war, while Russia had soldiers with no training and trenches dug by women and children.
However, it was also known that Russia could muster more people than Germany had sent to conquer them. Even if with little to no training, they could prove useful in repelling any assault.
But, by the time the German army was 12 miles away from Moscow, it was not the Russian army who attacked them. It was Russia itself – once again.
The Power of Weather
Early October came with rain and melting snow. This muddy season had turned the entire Russian landscape into a marsh that was the perfect sinking place for the German vehicles.
German soldiers had a very hard time hauling them out, as their boots would be swallowed by the morass the very moment that they stepped foot near the sinking vehicles.
Naturally, the Soviet T-34 tanks had no issues with the mud – as they had wider tracks than the German panzers. Moreover, they came with a thicker hide, rendering the anti-tank weapons of the Germans useless.
In November, the mud froze and gave the German troops the solid ground they needed to advance. By the end of this month, the troops were 12 miles away from Moscow.
But then came December! Given that ammunition and fuel had priority, the German army was left with no supplies and no winter clothing. The belief that Moscow would be captured before winter didn’t help as well.
The final month of the year brought -45 degrees Fahrenheit with it.
Spies Bring Good News
Even though Moscow was evacuated, Stalin remained there to boost the morale of his weakened troops. While waiting for the final attack of the German army, he received news from Richard Sarge.
The latter was a German national, living in Japan, but who worked for Soviet intelligence. He informed Stalin that Japan would not fight Siberia and, instead, turn to the British and the Americans.
This reassured the Soviet leader that he could transfer all the divisions he had in Siberia to fight in the battle for Moscow. This meant a total of 18 elite divisions, well-equipped for harsh winter and well-trained, unlike most of the men who fought so far in Moscow.
Fighting Off the Scarecrows
The 5th of December marked the Russian counter-offensive. Reportedly, when the Soviet armies attacked, they were met with an enemy that was far from being human. The Germans had now become mere scarecrows.
Their weapons were frozen, the soldiers themselves were frozen and, according to historians, soldiers sometimes froze to their weapons. It is said that the survivors of the German army could only watch the attackers as they emerged from the snow and mist, ready to attack them.
A Fatal Gamble
Nowadays, this fight between the German and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front is known as a slaughterhouse. Both forces had suffered major losses and defeats, yet their leaders didn’t want to retreat.
Hitler wanted Moscow, while Stalin wanted to completely kick the Germans out of the Soviet Union; however, Stalin did not have much to lose, as he could muster all of his country’s forces to fight against the Germans.
On the other hand, Hitler would soon have to consider attacks from all around Germany, as his empire started to collapse.
As a result, 1941 and 1942 were the last years when the German army could fight one-front wars.
The Bottom Line
So, how did the battle for Moscow change the course of the war – especially given that WWII would continue until 1945?
It was a glorious defeat that came after a series of victories that made the German Wehrmacht consider itself as invincible. On top of that, Nazi Germany only tried to subjugate and exterminate the Russian people.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union fought for survival, as the fall of Moscow would have meant a hard peace for them; however, it is believed that the Soviet Union would have fought the German forces even if they lost its capital. In the end, the USSR and the Russian territory (and weather) were the ones who cut deep wounds into Germany’s body, making it vulnerable from all sides.
Naturally, this gave the good guys the opportunity to fight against Hitler and ultimately crush the German Wehrmacht.
Question for students (and subscribers): What if Germany took Moscow in 1941? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Stahel, David. The Battle for Moscow. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a map by Gdr at English Wikipedia of the en:Eastern Front (WWII), en:1941–en:06-21 to en:1941–en:12-05, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Subject to disclaimers.