“ATTENTION MOSCOW!” The Battle of Moscow, 1941

“1941-2012 Moscow Tverskaya Street. Rifle company on the march,” by Sergey Larenkov. Source: http://sergey-larenkov.livejournal.com/tag/%D0%9E%D0%B1%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B0%20%D0%9C%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B2%D1%8B

At 6 o’clock in the morning on October 16, 1941, the scheduled morning radio programming brought the familiar voice of Yuri Levitan from radios which were worriedly tuned in for the latest from the Soviet Information Bureau regarding the German Army approaching Moscow. “Attention, this is Moscow calling,” Levitan’s signature precursor to the beginning of his government-approved updates, was interrupted by music. Initially, the music was believed to be a familiar and patriotic Soviet song, but slowly it dawned upon the listening audience that the piece they were hearing was the marching song for the German Wehrmacht instead. Abruptly, the music ceased and Levitan continued speaking, “The situation around Moscow has sharply deteriorated!”[1] The confusion in Moscow in late 1941, accurately reflected by the unnerving radio programming, was that of a nation on the verge of self-destructive panic. The subsequent battle for the capital of the Soviet Union, however, would prove to be a noteworthy indication of the determination of the Soviets and the fallibility of the German Army.

From a strategic standpoint, the political victory Nazi Germany hoped for by seizing Moscow would follow the logical progression of what warfare had become by 1941. This pursuit marked a transition from the German offensive effort which began in June of that year- Operation Barbarossa, to Operation Typhoon, which lasted from October 2, 1941 through its conclusion on January 7, 1942 and ended as a result of the successful Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow.[2] This meeting of considerable forces of the Eastern Front became a list of sizeable armies and equally large egos. The Germans, with three Panzer groups, under the command of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch possessed superb subordinate commanders such as von Bock, Guderian, Hoth, and Höpner.[3] Still reeling from the initial onslaught of the unannounced commencement of hostilities as well as the prior purges of their own officer corps, the initial Soviet defense of Moscow fell to General Zhukov and was complimented by the highly regarded leadership of General Rokossovsky and “60 rifle divisions, 17 tank brigades and 14 cavalry divisions.” [4] Given the sizeable numbers of men and equipment available to the Germans and Soviets at the beginning of the battle of Moscow, the resulting combat often becomes a historical footnote in Western texts like many of the fighting on the Eastern Front due to cultural bias and the difficulties of reviewing factual former Soviet literature regarding what is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War”.

Former British Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the 1960’s and during the 1980’s Rodric Braithwaite understood the historical significance of the battle of Moscow.[5] As one of many primary sources, Braithwaite’s work stands out primarily for the fact that he was in a position where understanding Soviet culture was advantageous, if not vital to his posting and subsequent writing. While his work focuses mostly on the information he personally compiled from Russian sources during his time posted in the Soviet Union, this bias is easily overlooked in light of the previously untold perspectives of the emotions in Moscow at that critical and unsure time.

Uncertainty was a fact of life for Soviet officers in the time leading up to the “Great Patriotic War”. In the years immediately preceding the war, the Soviet army removed officers whom they deemed as “politically unreliable” in what was later known simply as the “purge”. The numbers of leaders who became prematurely disposable to the State are staggering as Braithwaite writes: “three of the Soviet Union’s five marshals… fifteen out of sixteen army commanders… sixty of the sixty seven corps commanders, 70 percent of the division commanders, and a large proportion of the senior political commissars.”[6] One of which whom escaped death, but not imprisonment, was General Rokossovski – politically questioned and doubted since 1937, beaten, and jailed, Rokossovski was released in 1940 and promoted to Major General with other prisoners Stalin ordered released due to lack of evidence.[7] As an example of the exceptional German subordinate commanders who proved to be decisive in the battle of Moscow, Heinz Guderian had proven himself to be tactically insightful during operations in France in 1940,[8] despite earlier misgivings by senior generals for his early estimates of Soviet armor capabilities which later proved to be accurate and conservative.[9]

Men such as these examples provided the leadership for their respective armies in their respective paths to the battle of Moscow. Mitcham’s total number of “major formations” or combined military strength indicates the Germans possessed 58 to the Soviets’ 91,[10] however, this number does not include civilian assistance. Unallied to no nation but their own, various partisan groups volunteered to assist the most favorable, and lesser, of the two evils. “Hilfswillige”, civilian volunteers, provided the Wehrmacht with ancillary services such as medical care, administrative, and custodial duties,[11]while the defenses of Moscow were constructed by any able-bodied civilian and units like the 8th Volunteer Division – comprised of “an unusually large number of writers, musicians, and historians.”[12] On September 16, 1941, the orders for the capture of Moscow were officially issued by Field Marshal von Bock and designated “Operation Typhoon.”[13] As the Germans pressed eastward and the Red Army retreated slowly towards Moscow, the mood of chaos, lawlessness, and violence which permeated the capital was fueled by rumor, panic, and a disconcerting silence from the leadership of the Communist Party.[14] For the Soviet Union, the outcome of this battle would expose and challenge the cold hard truth of their ideology and national spirit.

Tactically, it was the Soviets which benefited from several advantages. First and foremost, the location of Moscow along the river was a key factor in the early location of the city in terms of the natural obstacle it presented for attackers in times of war (Fig. 1).[1] Coupled with the thick birch and pine forests which dominate the rolling plains around the city, these natural barriers limited any avenues of approach by infantry and armor to the existing roadways.[2] Cover and concealment was offered by the efforts of the artists and architects conscripted into defensive preparations in terms of deceptive painting and construction to either alter navigational or aiming landmarks or disguise key buildings such as the Kremlin or Lenin’s Mausoleum.[3] Most importantly, however, was the inescapable obstacle of Russian winter. With snowfall beginning as early as October and lasting through May, the temperatures around Moscow average around 14° Fahrenheit and can fall as low as -40°.[4] During times where the snowfall melts, the resulting mud, or rasputitsa, historically has posed to be the most significant and unforgiving obstacle to defenders and attackers of Moscow. With the first snowfall on October 7 melting shortly thereafter, even the Germans vaunted Luftwaffe were unable to operate from their forward airfields in support of the Wehrmacht’s advancing armies.[5] As the German began their final offensive thrust, which brought the, within sight of Moscow, the plummeting temperatures initially assisted by freezing the mud enough for them to move their vehicles, the severity of the cold proved to be enough to disable their artillery, tanks, and troop-carrying trucks as well as the logistic assets.[6] Individual soldiers suffered the most, due to the cold. With some regiments experiencing over 50 percent frostbite casualties, the remaining soldiers still relatively unaffected were unable to fire more than one round from machine guns and had no other choice but to scrape frozen packing grease on anti-tank rounds in order to merely fit the rounds into their guns.[7]

A comparison of the Wehrmacht and Red Army forces offers an understanding of how a disparity in numerical superiority and technology can become a point of equilibrium in warfare. In terms of pure manpower, somewhat of a balance existed – von Bock possessed almost two million men, where Zhukov had 1.3 million. Strength in terms of armor, however, was where the Germans held an advantage – thirteen Panzer divisions opposed one tank division and two motorized rifle divisions.[8] Soviet reinforcements from the Far East, however, proved to be the factor which tipped favor to the Red Army at the most crucial time of the battle. Arriving around the middle of November, these forces are described by Mitcham as consisting of “15 rifle divisions, three cavalry divisions, and eight tank brigades… as well as 1,500 airplanes.”[9] These fresh troops – well familiar and appropriately equipped for operations in the harsh Siberian winter – proved to be one of the major contributing factors for the successful defense of Moscow.

Technologically, the German army also enjoyed an advantage. Communication problems for German tanks was handled by their well-designed internal radios which were capable of withstanding the abuse of armored maneuver warfare, where the Soviets still relied upon simple visual signals for the most part.[10] Even the communication network between Soviet leadership and partisans was rudimentary as a result of the lack of radios. Liaison officers and biplanes[11] relayed important messages back and forth from Moscow to engaged units at the cost of timeliness and risk to the messengers. Offsetting this deplorable lack of technology, though, was the Soviet “Katyusha”, or multiple rocket launchers which had been developed in such secrecy that operational restrictions were initially emplaced to prevent them from being captured by the Germans.[12] Finally, the equipment and pack animals brought by the Siberian reinforcements proved to be much more effective in dealing with deep snow and frigid temperatures than the ill-prepared Wehrmacht.[13] In the defense of Moscow in 1941, then, it is clear that numbers and technology are not the only factors in victory.

The role of intelligence played in the battle of Moscow has been often understated. As the Germans pressed eastward, intelligence officers noted that the retreat of the Red Army was not accompanied by the standard Soviet practice of burning the villages in their wake. Assumed to be a sign of demoralization, the intelligence officers doubted the possibility that the Soviets were planning on returning at some point.[14] Also overlooked by the Germans were reports of westbound trains on December 2nd and the significance of the possibility of the movement of reinforcements as opposed to the efforts to maintain pressure on Moscow.[15] Ultimately, it was the dismissal of the reports of reinforcements and doubts about possible counteroffensive activities in otherwise quiet areas[16] which placed the German attackers in an untenable situation and halted their offensive capability. Intelligence, for the Soviets, was severely distorted by the “climate of fear and subservience”[17] which led to their inability to operate as an effective arm of the government. In spite of this, though, it was the result of an intelligence operation in Japan which indicated the Eastern borders of the Soviet Union were not in danger of attack by the Imperial Japanese Army. Consequently, this allowed Stalin to conduct a massive transfer of around nine rifle divisions and 1000 much-needed tanks and aircraft to Moscow during October and November 1941,[18] providing a respite to the men and leadership struggling in the city.

Morale and leadership of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in the last months of 1941 offers an idea of the stresses and pressures each were subjected to with the success or failure of the capital defenses. On one hand, the rapid advances of Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group enjoyed relatively easy progress as the made their way north to Tula, a vital industrial target immediately south of Moscow.[19] As October came to an end, the morale could hardly be maintained by German soldiers forced to deal with being at the far end of the stretched and fragile logistic line by eating what tea, potatoes, and horsemeat they could procure.[20] Their determined press onwards to Moscow, a result of the operational leadership countering Hitler’s consideration for the troops to prepare to entrench themselves for the winter,[21] showed that the strategic goal before them proved to be altogether too tempting for dissuasions of logic and reason. While on the other hand, the November 6th parade in Red Square continued as tradition as Stalin wished; it was this gesture of propaganda and defiance which countered the panic less than a month prior and demonstrated to the Germans forces that the threat of air attack would not vanquish the pride of the Soviet citizens.[22] Despite the initial weakening of the soldiers of the Red Army under the earlier onslaught of the Wehrmacht, tales of heroic efforts by common soldiers and citizens and the reminiscing of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in a very similar manner over a century prior[23] offered a source of fierce pride and inspiration for the defenders of Moscow.

The actual battle of Moscow was not one decisive battle with a clear start or end to the fighting. As part of Hitler’s “Directive 35” the German forces south of Leningrad and east of Kiev would form the flanks of a three-pronged attack on the Soviet capital, with the third thrusting eastward in the center. Designated Army Groups North, South and Center, respectively, these large formations of combined Panzer and infantry units, were placed under operational control of Field Marshal von Bock and had the goal of providing an immense threat to Moscow’s entire western side.[24] The Soviet forces, which had been steadily worked their way east towards their capital, were essentially the remnants of larger units which had been involved in the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa and were headed by General Zhukov who was recalled from his duties in stabilizing the Red Army efforts to break the German siege of that city.[25] As the North and South Army Groups attempted to find a way to encircle Moscow, Zhukov’s beleaguered armies attempted limited counterattacks as they stalled for time to allow the reserves promised by Stalin to reach the city.[26] With the fall of Rostov to the reinforced Soviet troops and his tankers running low on everything from viable manpower to antifreeze and socks,[27] the additional threat posed to operations against Moscow were embodied in the loss of Tikhvin and danger of offensive forces being encircle themselves. In spite of the danger, Army Group Center pushed closer to Moscow, coming within twelve miles of the city before being slowed by a combination of exhaustion and defenses.[28] The resulting commitment to a counterattack frantically included the use of many of the Red Army’s reserve forces to prevent the Germans from having the time or ability to establish a defensive line at their closest approaches to Moscow.[29]Thus, with the combined enemy of the weather, the Red Army, and at the extreme limits of the supplies and overall strength of their forces, the Wehrmacht’s momentum to capture Moscow trickled to nothing at the apex of their eastward conquests.

The defense of Moscow poses the results of a clear victory for the Soviets. For no other reason than the timely arrival of reinforcements from Siberia, Moscow remained unoccupied by German forces. While the frigid temperatures and German logistical and operational difficulties were major contributing factors to the success enjoyed by the Soviets, these fresh troops were well adapted and equipped to function in spite of the environmental extremes which hampered the forces contesting the capital. For the Germans, the loss was the beginning of the end of the vaunted Wehrmacht; in the chaotic time following their defeat at Moscow, Nazi leadership sought to save face by shifting focus on other key cities for the rest of the war, but these rapidly changing priorities ultimately sapped the Wehrmacht of men and experience in a slow spiral of attrition. Although the Germans fought according to Hitler’s desire, their defeat was a matter of failing to accurately take into account the intelligence and environmental factors which were almost in the category of “common sense”.

Casualties on either side were high, but pale in comparison to other operations during the war. Definitive numbers are difficult to find, however, estimates reveal 658,000 – 900,000 Soviets lost their lives in the defense of Moscow, while the Germans lost about 145,000 in the same phase. During the Soviet offensive phase, the Red Army lost between 371,000 and 380,000 troops, while the Wehrmacht suffered 103,000 casualties[30]. Subsequent operations for both the Soviets and the Germans were greatly influenced by the fighting that took place in the Soviet capital. By the first of January 1942, the Red Army had managed to retake cities which were earlier sized by the Germans, and were in the process of besieging German strongholds as a larger Soviet offensive was launched along the entire Eastern Front. Stymied further by the weather, the German retreat was slow and ominously shadowed by Soviet forces as the Wehrmacht struggled to regain the tactical and strategic initiative.[31] The lasting effect of Operation Typhoon proved to be the closest the German Army ever came to reaching a definitive symbolic defeat over the Soviets. Subsequent attempts to capture another iconic Soviet city – Stalingrad, six months later – proved equally futile and a general waste of life and fighting capability for the Wehrmacht.

Tactically, Operation Typhoon rallied the demoralized Soviet Army, which, up to that point in the “Great Patriotic War” was facing defeat after defeat at the hands of the Germans. The loss of experienced officers during the “purges” was nullified by the operational experience gained by Soviet leadership at all levels. While this benefit was offset by the continued sacrifice of countless valuable and competent officers and men as a result of the political paranoia inherent in Soviet ideology, the institutional knowledge of the Red Army benefitted greatly from stalemates as much as it did victories during their fight against the Germans. Strategically, Operation Typhoon proved to be not much more than a waste of German initiative and lives. Through poor timing, the mistakes made by Napoleon in 1812 in his quest to seize Moscow were repeated by Hitler, despite his attempts to use the example provided by the French as an idea of the operational risks specific to military operations against Moscow. For the Soviets, however, the dire threat posed by the Germans on their march to Moscow served as a clear indication to increase their production far beyond what it was at the start of the war in 1941.[32] Thus, the threat the Germans sought to subdue became the biggest threat to their national identity as the “1000 Year Reich.”

In 2010, road workers uncovered over 900 artillery shells varying in size from 76mm to 152mm, and of these shells, 28 were armed.[33] These artifacts of a time of panic in the Soviet capital relate a sense of the desperate measures taken by Red Army soldiers and Muscovites alike in their preparations for the rapidly approaching Wehrmacht. While Moscow was spared the violence and destruction experienced by other major cities during the “Great Patriotic War”, the uncovered shells indicate that the determination of the Soviet defenses would ultimately prove to be the beginning of Nazi Germany’s downfall.
[1] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 10.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 191.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Philip Bell, Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War, (New Haven, US: Yale University Press, 2011), accessed April 20, 2016, ProQuest ebrary, 51.

[6] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 212.

[7] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 218.

[8] Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 211.

[9] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 216.

[10] Ibid., 88.

[11] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 89.

[12] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 178.

[13] Ibid., 289.

[14] Ziemke, and Magna E. Bauer, “Hyperwar: Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision In the East,” Ibiblio.Org, (2016), accessed April 21, 2016, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-EF-Decision/USA-EF-Decision-3.html, 53.

[15] Ibid., 57.

[16] Ibid., 63.

[17] David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, (New Haven, US: Yale University Press, 2005), accessed April 21, 2016, ProQuest ebrary, xx.

[18] Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, 89.

[19] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 210.

[20] Ibid., 212.

[21] Ibid, 213.

[22] Bell, Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War, 53.

[23] Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 233.

[24] Ziemke, and Magna E. Bauer, “Hyperwar: Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East,” 34.

[25] Ibid., 37.

[26] Ibid., 53.

[27] Ibid., 55.

[28] Ziemke, and Magna E. Bauer, “Hyperwar: Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East,” 57

[29] Ibid., 62.


[30] David Glantz, “Battle of Moscow 1941: Campaigns of World War II.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “German Casualties, Tank Losses, and Logistics,” Militera.Lib.Ru, accessed April 23, 2016, http://militera.lib.ru/h/stolfi/10.html,

[33] Vladimir Isachenkov, “More than 900 World War II Artillery Shells Found Under Road in Moscow,” The Canadian Press, Mar 17, 2010, http://search.proquest.com/docview/346595701?accountid=8289.

[1] Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, (London, GBR: Profile Books, 2011), accessed April 21, 2016, ProQuest ebrary, 245.

[2] David Glantz, “Battle of Moscow 1941: Campaigns of World War II,” Mapswar2.X10host.Com. (2016), accessed April 22 2016, http://mapswar2.x10host.com/Battle_of_Moscow_1941_World_War_2_Campaigns.htm.

[3] Glantz, “Battle of Moscow 1941: Campaigns of World War II.”

[4] Samuel Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, (Havertown, PA, USA: Casemate, 2010), accessed April 21, 2016, ProQuest ebrary, 216.

[5] Viv Groskop, “Observer Review: Moscow 1941 by Rodric Braithwaite,” The Guardian, April 8, 2006, accessed April 21 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/apr/09/historybooks.features.

[6] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 49.

[7] Braithwaite, 43.

[8] Braithwaite, 69.

[9] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 33.

[10] Mitcham, 216.

[11] Braithwaite, 330.

[12] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, 119.

[13] Braithwaite, 211.

[14] Mitcham, Men of Barbarossa: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, 210.


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