Operation Barbarossa: The Defense of Moscow (October-December 1941)


Figure 1.--Here anxious civilians outside a newspaper kiosk read the latest news about the German drive on Moscow. Notice the little girl with adults here. I think she is helping sell the newspapers. I'm not sure when this photograph was taken, but would guess during November 1941. I also don't know what the sign says. The Soviets evacuated the Government and diplomatic corps, but Stalin stayed in the city.

Hitler is finally forced to abandon the attack on Moscow (December 5). The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves west to stop the Germans. The failure of the Axis to coordinate strategy doomed Barbarossa. A Japanese spy in Tokyo had informed Stalin well before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. The Soviet Siberian forces were well trained in Winter warfare, Zukov launched his winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow (December 6). German intelligence failed to pick up any indication of the Soviet preparations. The Wehrmacht was stuned at the extent of the Soviet offensive, assuming that the staggering victories in the Summer had crippled the Red Army. There were no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the camapign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. The Soviets inflict staggering losses of men and material--irreplaceable losses. Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. He even replaces Guderian for disobeying his order not to withdraw (December 20). (Guderian was reportedly only rearranging his front line in order to shorten and make it more defensible.) Hitler's obstinancy may have saved the Wehrmacht from an even greater dissater than what ocurred. An entire Germany Army, the 16th Army of more than 90,000 men, was essentially cut off and only supplied with an enormous effort by the Luftwaffe. A land corridor was not restablished until April 1942. The massive Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength amd huge quantities of tanks, artillery, and supplies. These losses of men and material by the Wehrmacht were especially grevious and Germany did not have the manpower resources or industrial capacity to fully repace and reequip a new army. Most accounts of World War II point to Stalingrad as the turning point of world war II. The Soviet stand before Moscow may have been the decisive action of the War. It certainly meant that Germany had lost its best opprtunity to destroy the Soviet Union and Red Army. What many historians fail to note is that while the Wehrmct had occupied large areas of the Soviet Union, they were still, on the perifery of Russia. What they had occupied was the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, and areas of the Ukraine. Russia, much of the Soviet arms industry, and key resources like oil was still in Soviet hands.

NAZI Goals

Both Lenningrad and Moscow were primary objectives of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler planned to totally destroy both cities once Germany had won the War.

Importance of Moscow

Moscow was the political and economic center of the Soviet Union. This had been the case in Tsarist Russia, but was made even more important in the new Soviet state where ever aspect of political and economic life was controlled by Stalin. Moscow was also a major communications hub. It was also a symbol of Soviet resistance and ythus of major propaganda value. Some military historians are convinced that a NAZI victory in the war with the Soviet Union hinged on taking Moscow before Winter set in. Some believe that haf Hitler not intervened that there was no real military reasons that prevented the Wehrmact from accomplishing just that goal. [Stolfi] No one doubts that Moscow was important, but other historians maintain that Soviet resistance would not have collapsed.

NAZI Drive

Army Group Center made considerable progress on the drive to Moscow in the opening weeks of Barbarossa.

Kiev (August-September)

Hitler delayed the drive by ordering Guderian to turn south and support Army Group South (July 27). Hitler's Directives 33 and 34 significantly altered the Wehrmacht battle plan. Guderian does not immediately comply, but is forced to redirect his front and drive south toward Kiev. Many Wehrmacht commanders believe that this was a grevious error and lay the failure of Barbarossa on Hitler. [Guderian] Many but not all historians agree. [Stolfi] The first snow of the coming Winter occurred (September 12). It was only a minor hinderence, but the weather became a major factor in the campaign. The Wehrmacht achieved one of the most stunning victories in military history. The Germans took Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, destroying seven Soviet armies (September 19). Over 650,000 Soviet prisioners are taken--the largest tally in any battle in history. Hitler called it, "the gratest victory of all time. This had the effect, however, of reducing the strength of the forces moving on Moscow, in effect delaying that drive by about 2 months. Once Guderian was able to move toward Moscow again, the weather caused increasing problems, first the Autumn rains and than the onset of an unusually severe Winter. Taking Kiev and destroying five Soviet armies had the benefit of securing Amy Group Center's souhern flank. Many military historians disagree as to wether this was a realistic possibility.

Smolensk (July 10-September 10, 1941)

Smo;ensk was the gateway to Moscow. This was the case with Napoleon's Grand Arme in 1812. It was also the case if Army Group Center in 1941. German Panzers initiated operations to trap Soviet forces defending Smolensk (Juky 10). Army Group Center's offensive was opposed by the RedCArmy Western Front coimmanded by Timoshenko), the Reserve Front commanded by Zhukov, the Central Front commanded by the Kuznetsov, and Bryansk Front commanded by Yeryomenko. Soviet resistance led by the major luninaries of the Great Patriotic War was fierce. Some historians believe that increasing Soviet resistance at Smolesk was in part the reason that Hitler ordered Guderian south. [Glantz] He wanted to secure Army Group Center's southern flank. Hitler himself made this argument. The Germans completed the cencirclement, but had to fight off Soviet counterattacks. The counterattacks for a ime opened a corridor allowing important Soviets forces to break out of the encirclement. The battle for Smolensk was another German victory, but nothing like the scale of the achievement at Kiev. Soviet losses totaled over 0.3 million men. The Wehrmact reported 0.3 million prisioners. [Glantz] The Wehrmact encountered much more stubboirn Soviet resistance at Smolensk than they had experiuenced in early battles. German losses in the battle were substantially higher than the Wehrmacht had experienced in earlier engagements, 250,000 men. Zukov bought time at Smolensk to strengthen the defenses of Moscow. The OKW concluded, however, that the Soviet miltary forces defending Moscow had been desimated. [Glantz] The Germans during and after the battle, virtually destroyed the city.

Defense of Moscow

Stlain put the defense of Mosow in the hands of his most competent commander, Marshal Georgi Zukov (1896-1974). l Zhukov proceeded to organize the defense of Leningrad (September 13). Zukov has Lenningrad citizens dig anti-tank ditches and other defenses creating multiple lines of defense to protect the city. As the Wehrmact intensified his push toward Moscow, Stalin recalled him to the capital to organize the defenses.

Renewed German Drive (October)

The Wehrmacht after their victories at Kiev and Smolensk regrouped to renew the drive on Moscow. (mid-September). Army Group Central launced the renewed drive on Moscow (September 31/October 2). The OKW assessment was that the principal RedcArmy units had been either destroyed or weakened to the point that the succesful defense of the city was not possible. Hitler speaking at the Berlin Sportpalast, a favored venue, He disparaged the Red Army in the most vulgar terms, calling them "animals and bests". He told Germans "this enemy is already broken and will never rise again". (October 3). The Red Army in the interval provided, by the shift south toward Kiev had ammassed strong forces against the Wehrmacht and deployed them behind strong defensive positions. The Autumn began in ernest (October 7). This rains exacerbated the already serious logistical problems and the Wehrmacht was forced to call a temprary hault in offensuve operations (October 30). The Panzers, however, had scored another series of successes. Major encircleents were executed at Vyasma and Bryansk. The Wehrmacht killed or captured another 0.6 million Soviet soldiers and huge quanyities of equipment and supplies. OKW was astounded, however, at the strength of the Red Army which they had thought a defeated force.

Evacuation of Moscow

Given the speed of the NAZI push toward Moscow, the Soviets begin to evacuate the city. The Soviets evacuate the Government and diplomatic corps Kuibyshev. Moscow residents begin to flee the city as rumors about that the Germans are about to seize the capital. About half of the population had been evacuated (Noveember 7). Stalin's personal train was kept waiting at the train station. He was afraid to fly. In the end he decided to stay in the city.

The Battle for Moscow (November)

OKW planned to take Moscow in another giant encirclement. OKW ordered the resumption of the drive toward Moscow (November 15). They had not resolved logistical problems. Colder weather was resolving the problem of mud-clogged roads, but creating even woese problems for the poorly prepared German soldiers. Barbarossa was to be a Summer Blitzkrieg. The Germans had not yet reached Moscow and the Winter had set in. Most German soldiers were still fighting in their Summer uniforms. Although the Wehrmacht had inflicted enormous losses on the Red Army, the Germans had taken unexpectedly serious casulaties. Major German formations were now under strength and fighting with significants losses of equipment. More equipment was imobilized by the weather. German lubriucants in particular were not designed to function in Winter conditions. Red Army units also suffered in the cold weather, but they were trained and equipped to deal with it. Unbenongst to OKW, Stalin had authorized the transfer of string Red army units from Siberia. Throughout the early campaign of Barbarosa, the Soviets had kept substantial forces in Siberia, assuming that Japan would join their Axis pasrtners and attack from Manchuria. Upon learning that the Japanese had no such intention, Zukov brought a substantial part of these forces were brought west to strengthen Red Army formations around Moscow. He added them to the strategic reserve he was building in rear areas. German intelligence did not preceive this build up. OKW and Hitler continued to believe that the Red Army was nearing the break up. Zukov fed his reserves sparingly into the front line. The northern pincer of the NAZI attack reached Krasnaya Polyana about 30 km from Moscow. Guderians was attacking from the south. The NAZI forces to the west of Moscow were about 50 km away. Guderian was still driving north to complete the encirclement. It is at this point that Russia's ancient ally--the weather joined the battle. Until this point the weather had been cold, but not bitter. Temperatures plummeted. The Germans were confronred with temoeratures -20F and some Wehrmacht units reported temperatures of nearly -60. I was to be one of the most severe Winters in recent history. Hitler and refused advisers whoo had suggested equipping the Wehrmacht Winter clothing. He was insistent that Barbarossa was to be a Summer campaign. Guederian reported that his troops were "done for (end of November). The Panzers to the west of the city made a last desperate attempt to break through to Moscow. were within a few kilometers of the Soviet capital. Forward units reached the suburbs and could see domes of Red Square through their field glasses before being driven back. [Fest, pp. 653-654.] Hitler was finally forced to abandon the attack on Moscow (December 5). This can be considered the end of Operation Barbarossa.

Japan

The Japanese decission to strike America rather than Russia, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves west to stop the Germans. A German journalist (Soviet agent) in Tokyo informed Stalin well before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. Most historians agree that this was the critical decession of World War II. America was not yet in the War, but President Roosevelt's diplomatic resistance to Japanese operations in China and Indo-China and decession to move the Pacific Fleet to Pear Harbor appears to have caused the Japanese to confront America rather than the Soviet Union. Their experience in the 1939 border war with the Soviets was probably another factor. The failure of the Axis to coordinate strategy doomed Barbarossa and in the end was a central factor in the eventual Allied victory.

Soviet Counter Offensive (December 6)

Zukov strategy was to bleed the Wehrmacht as it drove toward Moscow, build up a powerful force, and then strike when the Wehrmacht had been weakened. Here he made full use of the Russian Winter that was handing a terrible impact on the unprepared German soldiers. The Soviet Siberian forces were well trained in Winter warfare, Zukov launched his winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow (December 6). German intelligence failed to pick up any indication of the Soviet preparations. The Wehrmacht was stuned at the extent of the Soviet offensive, assuming that the staggering victories in the Summer had crippled the Red Army. There were no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the camapign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. The Soviets inflict staggering losses of men and material--irreplaceable losses. Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. He even replaces Guderian for disobeying his order not to withdraw (December 20). (Guderian was reportedly only rearranging his front line in order to shorten and make it more defensible.) Hitler's obstinancy may have saved the Wehrmacht from an even greater dissater than what ocurred. An entire Germany Army, the 16th Army of more than 90,000 men, was essentially cut off and only supplied with an enormous effort by the Luftwaffe. A land corridor was not restablished until April 1942.

Axis Losses

The massive Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength amd huge quantities of tanks, artillery, and supplies. These losses of men and material by the Wehrmacht were especially grevious and Germany did not have the manpower resources or industrial capacity to fully repace and reequip a new army.

Sigificance

Most accounts of World War II point to Stalingrad as the turning point of world war II. The Soviet stand before Moscow may have been the decisive action of the War. It certainly meant that Germany had lost its best opprtunity to destroy the Soviet Union and Red Army. What many historians fail to note is that while the Wehrmct had occupied large areas of the Soviet Union, they were still, on the perifery of Russia. What they had occupied was the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, and areas of the Ukraine. Russia, much of the Soviet arms industry, and key resources like oil was still in Soviet hands.

Sources

Fest, Joachim. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Glantz

Guderian.

Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler's Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted.






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Created: 3:39 AM 2/25/2005
Last updated: 3:39 AM 2/25/2005