The 'Moscow Strategic Defensive Operation' was the Soviet overall designation for the Battle of Moscow, embracing the German 'Taifun' (i) and 'Wotan', and a series of Soviet strategic and smaller-scale operations in defence of Moscow (2 October/5 December 1941).
The seven component operations 1 of the Soviet defensive phase were combined into the 'Moscow Strategic Defensive Operation' (30 September/5 December 1941).
'Barbarossa' had called for the capture of Moscow within four months, that is by the middle of October 1941, by the formations of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' of three Panzergruppen and three armies. Despite lengthy and rapid initial advances, the German forces were slowed by the combination of the distances involved and the Soviet resistance, the latter in particular during the Battle of Smolensk (6 July/5 August), which with its after-effects delayed the German offensive toward Moscow by almost two months. Having secured Smolensk, the German forces then concentrated their efforts in the north against Leningrad and in the south against Kiev, further delaying the central drive toward Moscow.
Thus the German advance on Moscow was renewed only on 2 October in 'Taifun' (i), and was intended to complete the capture of Moscow before the onset of winter. After an advance leading to the encirclement and destruction of several Soviet armies, the Soviets stopped the Germans at the defences of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', just 75 miles (120 km) to the west of Moscow. Having penetrated the Soviet defences, the German progress was then slowed by weather conditions, with the onset of autumn rain turning roads and fields into a thick and cloying mud that significantly impeded the progress of German vehicles, horses and soldiers. Although the onset of colder weather and the freezing of the ground then allowed the German advance to be driven forward once again, the Germans struggled in the face of stiffening Soviet resistance as well as the steadily increasing cold for which they lacked adequate clothing and equipment.
By a time early in December, the leading elements of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe and General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe (from 1 January 1942 the 3rd Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee respectively) of von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were less than 19 miles (30 km) from the centre of Moscow. But the German forces had shot their bolt and were now able to advance no farther.
On 5 December 1941 fresh Soviet troops, previously based in Siberia and excellently prepared for winter warfare, attacked the German forces in front of Moscow, and by 22 January 1942 the Soviets had driven the German forces back to the west over a distance of between 60 and 150 miles (100 and 250 km), so ending the immediate threat to Moscow and marking the closest that Axis forces ever got to capturing the Soviet capital.
The Battle of Moscow was one of the most important events of World War II, primarily because the Soviets were able to prevent this most determined attempt to capture their capital. The battle was also one of the largest during the war, with more than 1 million casualties. It marked a turning point as it was the first time since the German forces began their campaigns of aggression in 1939 that they had been forced into a major retreat. For Hitler, Moscow was the most important military and political target in the USSR as he believed that the capture of the city would in short order lead to the general collapse of the USSR.
The city was thus the main objective for the large and well-equipped Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' which, for 'Taifun' (i), committed Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army, Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army supported by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee, Hoth’s (from 5 October General Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s) 3rd Panzergruppe and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe as well as the air strength of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II. The Germans had more than 1 million men for the operation, together with 1,700 tanks and 14,000 pieces of artillery. But the German strength in the air had been reduced significantly, for since 22 June the Luftwaffe had lost 1,603 aircraft and had damage to another 1,028. As a result Luftflotte II had only 549 serviceable machines, including 158 medium and dive-bombers together with 172 fighters.
The attack relied on standard Blitzkrieg tactics, using Panzergruppen driving deep into Soviet formations and executing double-pincer movements to compress the Soviet formations into pockets which could be destroyed largely by the following German infantry.
The German plan was based on a pair of initial movements, the first a double pincer performed around the Soviet forces of General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s (from October General Georgi K. Zhukov’s) West Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s Reserve Front located around Vyaz’ma, and the second a single pincer around General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s (from 14 October General Major Georgi F. Zakharov’s) Bryansk Front to capture the city of Bryansk. From that point, the plan called for another quick pincer movement north and south of Moscow to encircle the city.
However, the German armies were already battered and experiencing some logistical issues, and facing the German army group the three Soviet fronts were formed from exhausted armies that had already been involved in heavy fighting for several months. The forces committed to the defence of Moscow totalled 1.25 million men, 3,232 tanks and 7,600 pieces of artillery. By this time the Soviet air forces had suffered huge losses, in the order of 21,200 aircraft, but an extraordinary industrial effort had partially offset the loss of these largely obsolete warplanes, and the air forces had 936 generally more modern aircraft, of which 578 were bombers, for the defence of Moscow; 545 of the aircraft were serviceable on 1 October.
While a threat to the German forces in numerical terms, however, these troops were poorly disposed, with most of the troops deployed in a single line, and there was little in the way of reserves which could be summoned from the rear. Moreover, many Soviet soldiers were seriously lacking in combat experience and some critical equipment such as anti-tank weapons, while the majority of the numerically large Soviet tank strength was based on obsolete models.
The Soviet command ordered the construction of three sets of defensive belts to the west of Moscow. The outer part was the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Defence Line' on the line between Rzhev and Bryansk via Vyaz’ma. Nearer Moscow was the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', which was a double line of defences stretching between Kalinin and Kaluga. And just outside Moscow was the 'Moscow Defence Zone', which comprised a triple ring of positions from the south-east on the Moskva river to the north-west on the Volga Canal. These defences were still largely uncompleted by the beginning of the operation as a result of the speed of the German progress. Furthermore, the Soviets had discovered the nature of the German attack quite late, and Soviet troops were ordered to assume a total defensive stance only on 27 September.
However, new Soviet divisions were being formed on the Volga river, in the Ural mountains and in Soviet Asia, and it would be a matter of only a few months before these new troops could be committed, making the battle a race against time as well.
Describing the German advance in the north toward Leningrad, and in the south into the area lying to the east of Kiev, as the precursors of the the 'basis' on which von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' would strike the strategically decisive blow against Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s Western Direction, on 6 September Adolf Hitler issued his Führerweisung Nr 35 for what became the 'Taifun' (i) assault on Moscow. This directive gave notice that the German primary effort would be switched back to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' at the end of September, by which time the army group would have had its detached Panzer and air units returned to it, together with reinforcements in armour from the other two army groups and the reserve held by the Oberkommando des Heeres. Thereafter, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and were to continue their current operations with reduced strength. von Leeb’s army group was to establish contact with the Finnish forces on the Karelian isthmus to the north-west of Leningrad and also drive past the Volkhov river to meet the Finns to the east of Lake Ladoga, while von Rundstedt’s army group was to continue its progress to the east to take Kharkov and Melitopol, and also to detach Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army to the south to enter and overrun Crimea.
During the final week of September, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was authorised to recall Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (from 5 October the 2nd Panzerarmee) and Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe from Heeresgruppe 'Süd', and also acquired the headquarters of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe from Heeresgruppe 'Nord', together with supplementary Panzer corps from Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. By that time, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had taken Petrokrepost (Schlüsselburg in German) on the outflow of the Neva river into Lake Ladoga, thereby severing Leningrad’s last overland contact with the rest of the USSR, and the Finnish forces had established themselves across the Karelian isthmus to the north of the same city and on the Svir river to the east of Lake Ladoga. The spearheads of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' were nearing Kharkov, on the confluence of the Kharkiv, Lopan and Udy rivers, and closing on Melitopol near the mouth of the Molochna river on the Sea of Azov. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' held the line it had occupied to the east of Smolensk in August.
On the Soviet side, the commands for Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment M. Voroshilov’s North-Western Direction and Timoshenko’s Western Direction, whose functions had been assumed by the general staff and the Stavka, had gone out of existence on 27 August and 10 September respectively, leaving only Marshal Semyon M. Budyonny’s (from September Timoshenko’s) South-Western Direction. In the far north, between Lake Onega and the Barents Sea, General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelian Front was managing, with the aid of the approaching winter, to hold the Germans and Finns away from Murmansk and the railway along the western side of the White Sea which linked Murmansk with the rest of the USSR. Against Heeresgruppe 'Nord', the Leningrad Front, with General Georgi K. Zhukov in command after 10 September, when he succeeded Voroshilov, defended Leningrad, and General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front held the line from Lake Ladoga to the south as far as Ostashkov. On the southern flank, Timoshenko took personal command of the South-West Front from General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos on 26 September and, with it, General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s South Front and General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 51st Independent Army in Crimea, assumed responsibility for the defence of the part of the Eastern Front to the south of Kursk. Against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were aligned Konev’s West Front, Eremenko’s Bryansk Front, and the Reserve Front over which Budyonny had succeeded Zhukov as commander.
The long pause in the central part of the Eastern Front had given the Stavka time to rebuild the Soviet defences to the point that the three fronts had a total of at least 1.25 million men. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had a greater numerical strength, but its total of 1.93 million men included a large auxiliary contingent, and its combat effective strength of 78 divisions in fact offered it little more than numerical parity.
The quiet in the area to the west of Moscow ended on 30 September when, in autumnal sunshine, the armour of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' surged to the east once again as 'Taifun' (i) began. Konev and Eremenko had their West Front and Bryansk Front concentrated to the west of Vyaz’ma blocking the direct route to Moscow, and to the west of Bryansk respectively. von Bock’s armour, in the form of the 3rd Panzergruppe in the north, 4th Panzergruppe in the centre and 2nd Panzergruppe in the south, passed round the Soviet forces' outer flanks and between the two Soviet fronts, and in less than one week had encircled six Soviet armies in the area to the west of Vyaz’ma and were forcing almost the the whole of the Bryansk Front, totalling three armies, into pockets to the south-west and north-east of Bryansk.
Near Vyaz’ma, the West Front and Reserve Front were quickly defeated by the highly mobile forces of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe, which swiftly located and exploited weak areas in the defences and then plunged at great speed into the Soviet rear areas. Still under construction, the defence was overrun as both German armoured spearheads met at Vyaz’ma on 10 October. General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 19th Army, General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 20th Army, General Leytenant Stepan A. Kalinin’s 24th Army and General Leytenant Nikolai K. Klykov’s 32nd Army were thus caught in a huge pocket just to the west of the city.
The encircled Soviet forces did not surrender easily, much to the surprise of the Germans, so the fighting was fierce and desperate, and the Germans had to use 28 divisions to destroy the surrounded Soviet armies. Much of this strength had to be diverted from what should have been its more important task of supporting the offensive toward Moscow. The delay imposed on the Germans by the Soviet defence of the Vyaz’ma pocket allowed the remnants of the West and Reserve Fronts to retreat and consolidate their lines around Mozhaysk. Moreover, the surrounded Soviet forces were not completely destroyed, and some of the encircled troops escaped in groups up to the size of infantry divisions.
The Soviet resistance near Vyaz’ma also provided time for the high command to bring up reinforcements for the 5th, 16th, 43rd and 49th Armies defending the Moscow axis, and to transport three infantry and two tank divisions from the Far East.
Farther to the south, near Bryansk, the Soviet performance was little more effective than that near Vyaz’ma. The 2nd Panzerarmee executed an enveloping movement around the whole front, linking with the advancing 2nd Army and capturing Orel by 3 October and Bryansk by 6 October.
Luftflotte II flew 984 combat missions and destroyed some 679 vehicles on 3 October alone, and on 4 October a force of 100 medium bombers and dive-bombers destroyed railway lines and hampered Soviet troop movements in the area of Sumy, Lgov and Kursk, thereby severing communications between the Bryansk Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front. General Major Yakov G. Kreiser’s 3rd Army and General Leytenant Piotr M. Filotov’s 13th Army were encircled but, again, did not surrender and many of the troops were able to escape in small groups, retreating to intermediate defence lines around Ponyri and Mtsensk. By 23 October the last remnants had escaped from the pocket.
The Germans' final count of prisoners from the Vyaz’ma pocket was some 663,000 men and from those near Bryansk about 100,000 men. But the results of the operations in the extensive forests around Bryansk were somewhat problematical inasmuch as the fighting tied down parts of Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army and the 2nd Panzergruppe until a time late in the third week of the month, and many of Eremenko’s troops eventually either filtered their way out to Soviet territory or hid in the deep woods to become the core of the partisan movement which became so great a thorn in the German lines of communications.
By 7 October the German offensive in this area had become bogged down. The first snow quickly melted, turning roads into deep rasputitsa (glutinous mud). The German armoured formations were slowed to a crawl and found it impossible to manoeuvre with any facility, and both men and machines were steadily degraded in performance.
Generalmajor Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlenkamp’s (from 23 December Generalmajor Dietrich von Saucken’s) 4th Panzerdivision was ambushed by General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s hastily formed I Guards Special Corps, including General Major Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade, near Mtsensk. Here early examples of the new T-34 medium tank were concealed in the woods as the German armour passed and then, as an extemporised Soviet infantry force contained their advance, the Soviet armour attacked from both flanks and savaged the division’s PzKpfw IV battle tank units. This tactical reverse was a major shock to the Germans, who quickly established that the armour of the new T-34 was almost impervious to the fire of German tank guns.
Luftflotte II flew 1,400 attacks against Soviet positions to support the 4th Panzerdivision, destroying 20 tanks, 34 pieces of artillery and 650 vehicles of various kinds.
Elsewhere, major Soviet counterattacks had further slowed the German offensive. The 2nd Army operating to the north of Guderian’s formation with the aim of trapping the Bryansk Front now faced with a strong Soviet counterattack with the ground forces supported by heavy air support. Despite its numerical inferiority, the Luftwaffe inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet air forces: 152 dive-bomber and 259 medium bomber sorties blunted the Soviet attack while another 202 dive-bomber and 188 medium bomber sorties were flown against supply columns in Bryansk area. With the Soviet forces caught in the open, the Luftwaffe destroyed 22 tanks and more than 450 vehicles, and the Soviet counterattack was routed.
The severity of the initial Soviet defeat was huge: the Germans at the time estimated that they had captured 673,000 Soviet soldiers in the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk pockets, but recent research suggests a somewhat lower but still vast figure of 514,000 prisoners, reducing Soviet strength by 41%.
Recalled in haste from Leningrad, where he had succeeded in stabilising the front, Zhukov assumed command of the combined West Front and Reserve Front on 10 October with the primary task of manning the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' with survivors from the Vyaz’ma pocket, recent conscripts, and a leavening of seasoned troops rushed into the area from other sectors and from Siberia.
The desperate Soviet resistance had nonetheless greatly slowed the German advance. When, on 10 October, the Germans arrived within sight of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', they encountered a well-prepared defensive system manned by fresh Soviet forces, and on the same day Zhukov was recalled from Leningrad to take charge of the defence of Moscow. Zhukov at once ordered the concentration of all available defences on a strengthened 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', a move supported by General Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, head of the operations directorate in the Stavka.
While still outnumbered, the Luftwaffe still controlled the sky whenever it appeared in strength. The dive-bombers of the Stukageschwadern and the level bombers of the Kampfgeschwadern flew 537 sorties, in the course of which they destroyed some 440 vehicles (mainly motor vehicles and trucks) and 150 pieces of artillery.
On 13 October Iosif Stalin ordered the evacuation of the communist party, the general staff and a number of civil administration establishments from Moscow to Kuybyshev (now Samara), leaving only a limited number of officials behind. The evacuation caused panic among Muscovites. On 16/17 October much of the city’s civilian population tried to flee, mobbing the available trains and jamming the roads from the city. Despite all this, Stalin publicly remained in the Soviet capital, somewhat calming the fear and pandemonium.
By 13 October the Germans had reached the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' fortifications protecting Moscow against attack from the west and this extending from Kalinin in the north toward Volokolamsk and Kaluga in the south. Despite recent reinforcements, the combined strength of the 5th, 16th, 43rd ands 49th Armies manning the line reached barely 90,000 men, a figure which hardly sufficient to stem the German advance. Zhukov therefore decided to concentrate his forces at four critical points: Volokolamsk, Mozhaysk, Maloyaroslavets and Kaluga.
At this time the entire West Front, which had been almost wholly destroyed in its encirclement near Vyaz’ma, was being rebuilt. Moscow itself was transformed into a fortress. According to Zhukov, 250,000 women and teenagers were used for the creation of the defensive system in tasks such as the digging of trenches and anti-tank moats around Moscow, a labour that involved the movement of a vast quantity of earth without mechanical help. Moscow’s factories were hastily transformed into military complexes: the car factory was switched to the manufacture sub-machine guns, a clock factory produced mine detonators, the chocolate factory delivered food for the troops, and vehicle repair facilities were adapted for the repair of damaged tanks and trucks.
The situation was still critical, however, as the Soviet capital was still within reach of the German armour and, moreover, was now the target for major air attacks, although these caused only limited damage because of extensive anti-aircraft defences and effective civilian fire brigades.
On 13 or, according to some sources, 15 October the Germans resumed their offensive. At first this did not involve any direct assault on the Soviet defences, but took the form rather of an attempt to bypass them by pushing toward the north-east in the direction of the weakly protected city of Kalinin, and toward the south in the direction of Kaluga and Tula, capturing all except Tula by 14 October.
The 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' began to fail on 14 October, however, when Hoepner’s 3rd Panzergruppe took Kalinin. On 17 October, the Stavka established a Kalinin Front under Konev to assume control of Zhukov’s right flank and thereby make it possible for Zhukov to concentrate his efforts on supervising the Soviet effort on only the direct western and south-western approaches to Moscow.
Encouraged by this initial success, the Germans now undertook a frontal assault on the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line', taking Mozhaysk and Maloyaroslavets on 18 October, Naro-Fominsk on 21 October and Volokolamsk on 27 October 27 after bitter fighting. Because of the increasing danger of attacks on his flanks, Zhukov felt compelled to withdraw his remaining forces to points east of the Nara river.
In the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee was advancing on Tula with relative ease as the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' did not extend that far to the south, and because there were no significant concentrations of Soviet troops to impede the advance. Even so, the adversity of the weather, the growing shortage of fuel, and the damage to both roads and bridges all combined to slow the Germans, who reached the outskirts of Tula only on 26 October. The German plan initially called for an instant capture of Tula and for the launch of a southern pincer movement around Moscow. However, the first attempt to capture the city failed as the German armour was stopped by the 50th Army and civilian volunteers in a desperate fight. Guderian’s army had to halt, within sight of the city, on 29 October.
The German forces were now physically and materially exhausted, with only one-third of their motor vehicles still serviceable, infantry divisions down to 33% or at best 50% strength, and major logistical problems preventing the delivery of warm clothing and other winter equipment to the front.
Even Hitler now appeared to have reconciled himself to the inevitability of a longer-term struggle, since the prospect of sending tanks into so large a city without heavy infantry support seemed, after the cost of capturing Warsaw in 1939, very risky.
While the main weight of the Soviet effort was centred on the defence of Moscow, the main German thrusts were in fact aimed past the Soviet capital. During the second week of October, in the north the 3rd Panzergruppe had headed toward Yaroslavl, and in the south the 2nd Panzerarmee (ex-2nd Panzergruppe) was advancing from the south-west on an axis taking it via Orel and Mtsensk, which it reached on 12 October, toward Tula, Ryazan and Gorky. On 12 October, Hitler gave the same order for Moscow which he had earlier given for Leningrad: the German forces were to surround the city and starve it out of existence, and no German soldier was to enter in Moscow until hunger and disease had effectively destroyed the Soviet capital.
The crisis came in the second and third weeks of October. The loss of Kalinin, on 14 October, triggered panic and looting in Moscow and raised the spectre of disintegration among the troops. On 19 October, the State Defence Committee put Moscow under a state of siege. At the front, Zhukov said that 'rigid order was established…Stern measures were introduced to prevent breaches of discipline.' The diplomatic corps and most of the government apparatus were evacuated to Kuybyshev. Hitler’s address on 3 October opening the German winter relief programme had already sounded like a victory speech, and six days later Dr Otto Dietrich, secretary of state in the propaganda ministry and chief press spokesman, had told the foreign press corps in Berlin that the campaign on the Eastern Front had been decided. One day later, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had terminated the 'Platinfuchs' operations of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen' out of northern Finland toward Murmansk as it now believed that the end of the war on the Eastern Front was imminent. Much of the world in general, and the British and US governments in particular, wished to believe otherwise, but this seemed to be unrealistic. The US military attaché in Moscow had reported on 10 October that it seemed 'the end of Russian resistance is not far away'. The British government had suspected that the end might be close during September, before the start of 'Taifun' (i), when Stalin had called urgently on the British to open a second front on the European continent or, failing that, to deliver 25 to 30 divisions to fight in the USSR. Bad as the Soviet situation looked, it was, for the moment, actually worse than either the Germans or the British and Americans imagined. Four months of war, huge manpower sacrifices, and massive territorial losses had combined to reduce Soviet productive capacity by 63% in coal, 68% in iron, 58% in steel, and 60% in aluminium. In October, after rising during the summer, Soviet war production also dropped enormously, probably in the order of 60% or more. During October the Moscow and Donets industrial complexes had been shut down to facilitate their evacuation to the east: the decline continued into November and December, during which months the Moscow area and the Donets basins delivered no coal, the output of rolled ferrous metals fell to 33% of that of June 1941, and ball bearing output fell by 95%. W. Averell Harriman, the US Lend-Lease organiser, had been in Moscow at the end of September and accepted a shopping list from Stalin for US$1 billion on Lend-Lease supplies, but the delivery of the required matériel would take months.
On 15 October the German forces moving on Moscow were, from north to south, General Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army, Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe, von Kluge’s 4th Army, Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, von Weichs’s 2nd Army and Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee. Aligned against these German forces were, again from north to south, the Soviet 22nd, 29th, 31st, 30th, 1st Shock, 20th, 16th, 5th, 33rd, 43rd, 49th, 50th, 10th and 61st Armies of the Kalinin Front and the West Front.
On 18 October, the 4th Panzergruppe, after driving past Mozhaysk and Kaluga, began turning to skirt Moscow on the south and thereby open the way for the infantry formations of von Kluge’s 4th Army to execute the right-hand inner pincer component of the planned encirclement of Moscow. The 4th Army, anticipating similar assistance on its right from the 2nd Panzerarmee, had issued the orders for the encirclement on 16 October and had set the line of the Moscow peripheral railway as the army’s closest approach to the city. At the rate of advance they had attained in the early days of the month, the tanks of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe would have been less than two days from Moscow when they passed Mozhaysk, but in fact they were now not moving as rapidly as they had before.
The reason for this was simple and characteristically Russian: the Germans were having their first encounter with the rasputitsa, the thick and cloying mud which besets western Russia as the late autumn rains and then the snow begin to fall. The first snow fell during the night of 6 October, and from this time alternating rain and snow and the pounding of tanks and trucks turned the roads into ever deeper quagmires of mud. By the end of the third week in the month, the spearhead divisions of the 4th Panzergruppe and 2nd Panzerarmee had become stretched out over 25 to 32 miles (40 to 50 km) and, in a radical change since the summer months, the infantry was sometimes outdistancing the tanks. The 3rd Panzergruppe even considered the dismounting of its tank crews and going ahead on foot and with panje wagons (Russian peasant one-horse carts). Meanwhile, strong counterattacks on the 3rd Panzergruppe at Kalinin and on the 2nd Panzerarmee along the Zusha river at Mtsensk had demonstrated most disturbingly to the Germans that even though aerial reconnaissance revealed the partial evacuation of Moscow, the Soviets were not entertaining any notion of yielding the city without a fight. Because of the weather, for almost the first time in the war the Soviets were now able to meet the Germans on almost equal terms. Advancing only slowly and confined to the roads, the Germans could be met head-on and forced to fight for every mile. The new Soviet T-34/76 medium tanks, which hitherto had been too few in numerical terms to exert any real influence on the fast-moving encirclement battles, now began to come into their own, for their wider tracks reduced their ground pressure and made them better able to cope with mud than the narrower-tracked German tanks. Heavy armament and thicker armour allowed one or two T-34 tanks to form the core of a roadblock to stop an advance until the Germans could bring up either 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns or 100-mm (3.94-in) field guns, which were the the only mobile pieces of German artillery able to penetrate the T-34’s armour. What the Germans could not ignore, however, was that fact that both of these weapons, but especially the 88-mm (3.465-in) weapon, were both heavy and bulky, and therefore vulnerable, and difficult and thus to be moved over rutted, potholed roads.
At the end of October, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was in practical terms stalled along the line between Kalinin in the north and the Oka river, to the west of Tula, in the south: the centre of this front was 35 miles (55 km) from Moscow. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had meanwhile been forced to forget the possibility of completing the siege line around Leningrad in the area to the west of Lake Ladoga in September after Mannerheim refused to commit more Finnish troops to operations against Leningrad because he had pledged in 1918 not to use the border on the Karelian isthmus as a jumping-off point for any attack on the city, and therefore declined to push the Finnish front any farther to the south. Now holding an uncomfortable Flashenhals (bottleneck), 6 miles (10 km) wide, to the east of Schlüsselburg, von Leeb on Hitler’s orders had begun a thrust to the east on 14 October with the object of advancing from Chudovo to the north-east past Tikhvin to the Finnish line on the lower reaches of the Svir river. This drive also had slowed, and at the end of the month, the rasputitsa brought it to a halt before it had reached Tikhvin.
In the last week of October Heeresgruppe 'Süd' managed to take Kharkov and Stalino, and also to break through the Perekop isthmus into Crimea before the rasputitsa brought in to a stop.
On the Soviet side of the front, the blunting of Germany’s assaults to the east was very welcome, of course, but did not lessen the grave danger in which the country still remained. If Heeresgruppe 'Nord' did manage to reach Tikhvin, it would cut the single railway line to the southern shore of Lake Ladoga and tighten the isolation of Leningrad. At Stalino, Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was on the verge of seizing total control of the heavy industry and coal mines of the Donets river basin. The Panzer formations to the north-east and south of Moscow loomed over the industrial heart of central Russia and were on the verge of leaving the Soviet forces from the Arctic Ocean to the Sea of Azov reliant for their very lives at the ends of a railway system never conceived to provide adequate lateral communications.
In a speech to the Moscow communist party organisation on the night of 6 November, Stalin harped strongly on the nationalist theme, told the party leaders about the recent US$1 billion Lend-Lend agreement, and blamed the defeats so far on the absence of a second front in the west. Both to stiffen the resolve of the Soviet forces and to boost civilian morale, Stalin ordered that the traditional military parade of 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, be staged in Red Square. Soviet troops marched past the Kremlin and most of them then continued straight to the front. The parade was of great importance, for it was a major symbolic demonstration of the Soviet resolve, and was invoked as such frequently in the years to come. In his speech to the troops, Stalin invoked the names of Russia’s heroes of previous ages and demanded that the men emulate the deeds of these great men. In both speeches Stalin predicted Hitler’s ultimate defeat but did not comment on the probable outcome of the current campaign. Before the party audience, he repeatedly spoke of the coalition with the UK and USA as the guarantee of ultimate victory.
Despite the braveness of the show, however, the Soviet forces were in a very precarious position. Although 100,000 additional Soviet troops had reinforced Klin and Tula, where new German offensives were expected, the Soviet defences were still thin. Nevertheless, Stalin demanded that his forces launch several pre-emptive counter-offensives against the German lines, though Zhukov protested, and emphasised the dangers inherent in the complete lack of Soviet reserves.
The Germans were able to repel most of these counter-offensives, further depleting the Soviet forces of men and vehicles that could have been used for the defence of Moscow. The offensive was successful only west of Moscow near Aleksino, where Soviet tanks inflicted heavy losses on the 4th Army because the Germans still lacked any anti-tank weapon capable of defeating the T-34 tank.
Despite this reverse, the Germans still possessed an overall superiority to the Soviets in manpower and equipment. The German divisions committed to the final assault on Moscow included 943,000 men and 1,500 tanks, while Soviet forces were reduced to a shadow of their former selves, with barely 500,000 men and 890 tanks. By comparison with their situation in October, though, the Soviet infantry divisions now occupied much superior defensive positions, a triple defensive ring surrounding the city, and some remains of the 'Mozhaysk Defence Line' still in Soviet hands near Klin. Each of the Soviet field armies was generally deployed in a multi-layered defence with at least two infantry divisions in second-echelon positions. Artillery support and combat engineer teams were also concentrated along major roads that German troops were expected to use in their attacks. Finally, the Soviet troops in general and the officer corps in particular were now more experienced and better prepared for the offensive.
Yet, as light snow and freezing cold signalled the end of the rasputitsa and the freezing of the land which would restore mobility to the German forces, the future faced by the USSR seemed grim. Within a matter of days, the soldiers parading through Red Square could be trapped in a pocket centred on Moscow, with Stalin himself and the Soviet government driven out into the borderlands between European and eastern Russia. The Stavka had started to create nine reserve armies (10th, 26th, 57th, 28th, 39th, 58th, 59th, 60th and 61st Armies), supplementing the 1st Shock and 20th Armies established on a few days earlier, on the line from Vytegra on the south-eastern edge of Lake Onega to the Rybinsk Reservoir on the confluence of the Volga and Sheksna rivers, and thence to the east and south along the Volga river, yet even this seemed to offer no real prospect of any by the shortest-term security as the need to defend this line would indicate that the industrial regions round Leningrad and Moscow had been occupied, and that the USSR could be destroyed as a military power. Stalin had admitted as much when, during the previous summer, he told Harry Hopkins, the US Lend-Lease negotiator, that a German advance of 150 miles (240 km) to the east of Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev would destroy 75% of the USSR’s existing industrial capacity.
Near the end of the first week in November, the front was beginning to became active once more, although on its flanks rather than its centre. Although it had almost been ready to fall back to the Volkhov river in the preceding week, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' managed now to push through the rasputitsa and steadily strengthening Soviet resistance to take Tikhvin on 8 November, allowing von Leeb to state that Leningrad was now also cut off from contact across Lake Ladoga. In the south, the 11th Army, commanded since 13 September by von Manstein after its initial commander, Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert, had been killed in an air accident, by 8 November had cleared all of Crimea but for the Kerch peninsula in the east and the Sevastopol fortress in the west.
von Bock had issued orders on 30 October for his Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to resume 'Taifun' (i), and was waiting only for the weather and ground conditions to make this possible. In the second week of November, as the weather began to clear and the ground to freeze, the German armour once again could get under way. The Oberkommando des Heeres and the field commanders on the Eastern Front now contemplated a troublesome question which had been raised by the time lost during the rasputitsa: where were the German armies to halt for the winter after their post-rasputitsa surge? The plans and preparations for 'Barbarossa' and its successor operations had not contemplated the continuance of active operations into the winter as all command levels had assumed that the campaign would have been completed successfully by the end of 1941. On 7 November, Hitler conceded to Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the army’s commander-in-chief, that the German forces could not reach a number of vital objectives, including Murmansk, the Volga river, and the oilfields of the Caucasus region, during 1941, and on the following day, in a speech to commemorate the 'Beer Hall Putsch' of 1923, called Blitzkrieg a nonsense word and said that he was prepared to prosecute the war into 1942 and beyond. Thus the idea, in fact never more than an illusion, of a single-season victory over the USSR had vanished as the vastnesses of the USSR started to fall subject to bitter winds, deep snow and temperatures well below zero. On 5 November Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, told Oberst Adolf Heusinger, his chief of operations, that Germany needed some way to bring the current campaign to an end.
The form which this way should take appeared different to each of those involved. von Leeb had exhausted the reserves of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in taking Tikhvin and could move forward no farther, was not inclined to withdraw, and described his army group as existing on a hand-to-mouth basis. von Bock had severe doubts about how much farther his Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' could advance but, recalling the disastrous consequences of Germany’s World War I decision to halt and fight on the Marne river in September 1914, was not prepared to forego whatever chance there might still be to take Moscow, and could not currently envisage anything worse than having to sit out the winter just outside Moscow with the Soviets in control of the city and the railway lines extending into it from the north, south and east. von Rundstedt demanded that the Oberkommando des Heeres allow him to halt his Heeresgruppe 'Süd' along the line it currently held so that he could preserve the strength remaining to it after the summer’s long marches and give him the time he needed to rebuild its strength for the next spring’s operations. Halder saw two possibilities: one was the conservation of strength as the determining factor (Erhaltungsgedanken), and the other was the exploitation of existing strength to maximum effect in the time remaining as the determining factor (Wirkungsgedanken). Halder was sure that the two factors would have to be weighed and balanced against each other, and the result converted into guidance for the field commands.
On 7 November, Halder sent to each army group and army chief-of-staff an 11-page document and a map with notice that both options would be discussed at a general staff conference about one week later in Orsha. The map was of European Russia, and had two north/south lines drawn on it: one was designated as the 'farthest boundary still to be attempted', and the other the 'minimum boundary'. The former boundary extended from Vologda in the north via Gorky and Stalingrad to Maykop in the south, and its attainment would cut off the central part of the USSR from railway contact with the northern ports (Murmansk and Arkhangyel’sk) and the Caucasus, and would bring into German possession the whole of the industrial complex centred on Moscow, the upper and middle reaches of the Volga river, and the Maykop oilfields. Halder was uncertain whether or not the attainment of this boundary would end the war, but he believed that it would bring German forces into an alignment they could maintain indefinitely in the event that Hitler decided against a resumption of the offensive to the east. The latter boundary terminated in the north on the middle reach of the Svir river, some 32 miles (50 km) to the east of Lake Ladoga, and in the south at Rostov-na-Donu, at the mouth of the Don river on the Sea of Azov; in its centre it passed about 160 miles (2609 km) to the east of Moscow. This boundary would provide a secure link with the Finns on the Svir river, bring into the German ambit Moscow and the group of industrial cities to the north-east between Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, sever all the railway lines running toward Moscow from the east, and place Heeresgruppe 'Süd' in a position suitable for subsequent advances toward Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, this would be only an interim boundary, and another offensive campaign would be required to bring Vologda, Gorky, Stalingrad and the Maykop and Baku oilfields under German control.
Halder and the operations, organisational, intelligence and supply branch chiefs of the Oberkommando des Heeres arrived in Orsha, in the area controlled by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', during the night of 12 November, and the conference began in the morning of the following day to extend through the day and into the night. Halder’s own thinking, for which he claimed Hitler’s approval, favoured the Wirkungsgedanken, for which he had given the chiefs his position in the paper he sent with the map. The objective to be attained before the current offensive was called to a halt, he stated, should be to secure favourable starting points for 1942 operations while minimising the danger of troops being caught unprepared by the winter: in fact, Halder added, it would be acceptable to take some risks before the onset of winter to reach the farther boundary or at least the minimum boundary.
At Orsha, Halder made the case that carrying the offensive at least to the minimum boundary was necessary as well as advantageous. The fundamental concept on which the campaign of 1941 had been based was the defeat of the USSR be the end of the year. This was no longer fully possible for a number of reasons including natural forces, but primarily the Soviets' surprisingly great military and matériel strengths. Even though the USSR had been weakened radically, its remaining potential was so great that it could not yet be dismissed as a military threat and just kept under observation as had first been planned. Thus the Eastern Front would remain an active theatre into the following year, even though this raised problems. One of these, according to Halder, was the fact that the Oberkommando des Heeres had known from the first that the forces assembled for 'Barbarossa' could not be maintained beyond the end of 1941, which meant that the manpower losses thus far could not be replaced in the coming year, and cutbacks in motor vehicle allotments would reduce the German forces' mobility. If it could survive, however, the USSR still possessed sufficient manpower and industrial capability to rebuild its forces by the summer of 1942. Thus the German forces would still have to seek to inflict on the Soviets forces before the end of 1941 a level of attrition sufficiently great that the German forces would not have to pay in blood during 1942 for what was now neglected.
The chiefs-of-staff of the various armies reminded Halder of matters of which he was already cognisant: as of 1 November, the German casualties were 686,000 men, equivalent to 20% of the 3.4 million men (including replacements) who had been committed to the Eastern Front since the start of 'Barbarossa', and in simpler terms one regiment in every division; of the 500,000 motor vehicles on the Eastern Front, 33% were worn out or damaged beyond repair, and only 33% were fully serviceable; the Panzer divisions now had only 35% of their original tank strengths; and the Oberkommando des Heeres itself rated the 136 divisions currently allocated to the Eastern Front as the equivalent of no more than 83 full-strength divisions.
All of these factors could only get worse if operations continued, and another, logistics, would deteriorate still more, especially as every advance to the east placed a still greater burden on the already overtaxed railways connecting Germany and the Eastern Front, and evidence of this fact was that the troops' winter clothing was already being left in storage because it could not be delivered except at the expense of other supplies. German rolling stock could not be used in the captured parts of the USSR until the tracks had been relaid to the standard gauge; and in the parts of the USSR already seized the Germans had found only 500 Soviet locomotives and 21,000 wagons, this total representing little more than 10% of what was required.
The estimates of the armies' chiefs-of-staff about what might still be accomplished were also very sombre. Generalleutnant Kurt Brennecke, von Leeb’s chief-of-staff, informed Halder that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had no divisions available for any offensive to the east, and could acquire these only by first destroying General Leytenant Trifon I. Shevaldin’s (from 28 November General Major Andrei L. Bondarev’s) Soviet 8th Army, which it had confined in a pocket to the west of Leningrad. von Bock’s chief-of-staff, Generalmajor Hans von Greiffenberg, showed no enthusiasm for Halder’s suggestion that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' should not resume its drive on Moscow for about two weeks so that it could build the strength for a deeper thrust. von Rundstedt’s chief-of-staff, General George von Sodenstern, pointed out that von Rundstedt believed that any advance on Maykop, were it to be undertaken after the long march already made, would remove Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee, the only major armoured formation available to Heeresgruppe 'Süd', from action for most of the next year.
After dinner on the evening of 13 November, Halder summarised his assessment of the conference. He had decided, that the extensive operations he had proposed on 7 November and during the morning’s session could no longer be considered as viable options. Even so, Halder added, he believed that the army groups would still have to get as much as possible from their formations until a time in about the middle of December. Heeresgruppe 'Süd' would have to push forward, though not as far as Stalingrad; Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' would not seek to make any considerable advance to the east of Moscow, but would have to exert greater pressure on the city itself; and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would have to resume its drive in the area of Tikhvin, close on Leningrad, and assist the Finns in the area to the east of Lake Ladoga. Vologda, Gorky, Stalingrad and Maykop would have to be left as objectives for the next summer’s operations, when the Soviets would have, Halder believed, a numerical superiority. On the other hand, Guderian’s chief-of-staff, Oberstleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein, made reference to the 1940 'Sichelschnitt' campaign against France in reminding Halder that the war was not being fought in France and the month was November and not May.
Soviet sources describe the strategic situation at the time of the lull during November in terms which are somewhat contradictory. The official accounts maintain that it was Soviet resistance which halted the Germans to the west of Moscow and dismiss the adverse weather as nothing but a German excuse for failure, but also suggest that the effect of the Soviet success was temporary, and that the strategic and operational initiatives remained with the Germans. In overall terms, therefore, the Soviets sought to portray the period as one in which the Soviets fought the Germans to a halt and thereby gained themselves a brief respite: the Germans required two weeks to prepare their next effort, and the pause allowed the Soviets to reinforce their front and consolidate the defences of Moscow.
By 15 November the ground had finally frozen, solving the rasputitsa problem. The Germans' armoured spearheads were unleashed once more, with the goal of encircling Moscow and linking near the city of Noginsk to the east of the capital. In order to achieve this objective, the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe had to concentrate their forces between the Moscow Reservoir and Mozhaysk, then advance to Klin and Solnechnogorsk, thereby encircling the capital from the north. In the south, it was intended that the 2nd Panzerarmee should bypass Tula, which was still in Soviet hands, and advance to Kashira and Kolomna, linking with the northern pincer at Noginsk.
On 15 November the German armoured formations began their offensive toward Klin. Here there were no Soviet reserves as Stalin’s wish for a counter-offensive at Volokolamsk had forced the relocation of all available reserves forces farther to the south. The first German stage of the German offensive split the front in two, dividing the 16th Army from the 30th Army. Several days of intense combat followed and, despite the German efforts, the multi-layered defence reduced Soviet casualties as the 16th Army retreated slowly and constantly harassed the German divisions trying to make their way through the fortifications.
The 3rd Panzergruppe finally captured Klin after heavy fighting on 21 November, and took Solnechnogorsk four days later. Soviet resistance was still strong, and the outcome of the battle was by no means certain. Stalin asked Zhukov for his honest opinion whether or not Moscow could be held, and Zhukov replied that it was possible, but that reserves were desperately needed.
By 28 November Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision had seized a bridgehead across the Moscow-Volga Canal, which was the last major physical obstacle before Moscow, and was thus less than 22 miles (35 km) from the Kremlin. Then a counterattack by the 1st Shock Army drove the division back across the canal. Just to the north-west of Moscow, the Germans reached Krasnaya Polyana, little more than 12.5 miles (20 km) from the Kremlin.
By this time, however, both the German and Soviet forces had become severely depleted, with regiments sometimes reduced to the strength of a single company.
As a result of the resistance to the arms of their pincer on both the northern and southern sides of Moscow, the Germans attempted on 1 December a direct offensive from the west, along the highway linking Minsk and Moscow near Naro-Fominsk. However, this offensive had only limited armoured support and was tactically inept inasmuch as it was a direct assault on the extensive Soviet defences. After meeting determined resistance from the 1st Guards Motorised Division and flank counterattacks by the 33rd Army, the German offensive was driven back four days later after the Germans had lost 10,000 men and several dozen tanks.
By a time early in December, the temperature, so far relatively mild by Russian standards, dropped to figures as low as -20° to -50° C (-4° to -58° F ), freezing German troops who still had no winter clothing, and German vehicles not designed for weather as severe as this. More than 130,000 cases of frostbite were reported among German soldiers, frozen grease had to be removed from every shell before it could be loaded, and vehicles had to be heated for hours before they could be started.
Thus the 'Taifun' (i) offensive against Moscow had been halted, but the Germans took limited consolation from the fact, according to their intelligence estimate, that Soviet forces had no reserves left, and would therefore be incapable of undertaking a counter-offensive.
This proved wrong disastrously wrong, for Stalin had ordered the transfer of fresh divisions from Siberia and the Far East, relying on intelligence from his best agent in Japan, Richard Sorge, who indicated that Japan had decided not to attempt any attack on the USSR. The Soviet forces had accumulated a 58-division reserve by a time early in December, when the offensive proposed by Zhukov and Vasilevsky was finally approved by Stalin. However, even with these reserves the Soviet forces committed to the operation numbered only 1.1 million men, a total which was only slightly greater than that of the Germans. Nevertheless, with careful troop deployment, the Soviets managed to create a 2/1 manpower superiority at a number of decisive points.
For the Soviet high command, as much as for that of the Germans, the critical strategic consideration early in November, aside from the approach of winter which was as welcome to the Soviets as it was unwelcome to the Germans, was the comparative strength and state of the combatant sides. The manpower and matériel which had kept the USSR alive to date, despite truly enormous losses, were sufficient to sustain the USSR for another round of operations. As of 1 December, the Soviet armies in the field would have a strength of some 4.2 million men, which would provide them with a slight superiority in armour over the Germans, about parity in warplanes, and a small inferiority in artillery and mortars.
The Germans gravely underestimated Soviet strength. Estimates given to the chiefs-of-staff at the Orsha conference put the totals of the Soviet formations and larger units at 160 divisions and 40 brigades, and rated their combat effectiveness at less than 50% as more than half of those formations' and units' officers and troops were believed to be untrained. According to the Soviets, their actual numbers on 1 December were 279 divisions and 93 brigades. Many of these formations and units, especially those from the reserves, lacked both training and experience, but fighting alongside these less capable elements was a growing nucleus of seasoned divisions. The man principally, though indirectly, responsible for this increase in readiness was a Soviet agent, Richard Sorge, who operated in Tokyo in the guise of a German journalist until his arrest on 18 October 1941. It seems that by this time Sorge had supplied enough information on Japanese plans, or rather the Japanese intent not to exploit 'Barbarossa' in undertaking a strategic offensive against the USSR in the Far East, to make it possible for the Soviet high command begin shifting some forces to the west even before 22 June. Through Sorge, therefore, Stalin knew about a Japanese decision of 30 June to uphold its neutrality treaty of April 1941 with the USSR and undertake instead the gamble of war with the USA. By the autumn of 1941, Stalin had either become sufficiently convinced of the reliability of Sorge’s information to redeploy more troops from the east to the west. The first of these Siberian troops had reached the front in October, and more became available in November, but the Stavka held most of these capable Siberian divisions back from the front to stiffen the reserve armies which were then being formed. By 1 December the Soviets had transferred 70 divisions from eastern Siberia, and another 27 divisions out of central Asia and the Transcaucasus region. These formations together constituted 30% or more of the total strategic reserves committed during the 1941 campaign.
In a departure from previous practice, Stalin did not commit his main reserves when the German advance was now resumed. The reserve armies were still being formed, and it is possible that Stalin had not yet decided to make a decisive stand at Moscow. Even so, to Stalin the defence of the Moscow area would remain the paramount strategic requirement. (So far, between June and November Stalin had committed 150 divisions, 51% of the Stavka’s total divisional reserves, in the West Front’s sector.) Late in October, Zhukov’s West Front had received 11 infantry divisions, 16 tank brigades and 40 regiments of artillery from the reserve and from other fronts. Then, in the first half of November, it was allocated 100,000 men, 300 tanks and 2,000 pieces of artillery. During this period, industrial and other workers from Moscow and nearby cities had been drafted to form 12 militia divisions and four first-line infantry divisions. On 10 November Zhukov gained General Major Arkadi N. Ermakov’s (from 22 November General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s) 50th Army from the Bryansk Front, which was being deactivated, and a week later General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army from the Kalinin Front. These extensions of his southern and northern flanks respectively gave Zhukov control of the line between a point just to the south of Kalinin to Tula.
In the middle of November, before the weather changed and the lull ended, the Stavka had incorporated almost all of its forces into the defence of Moscow. Zhukov’s West Front held the direct approaches from the west and was to counter the strong armoured thrusts to the west of Klin and at Tula. Konev’s Kalinin Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front were to pin the outer flanks of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and thereby prevent von Bock from shifting more strength to his centre and therefore against Moscow. General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s South Front and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s Leningrad Front were under instruction to prepare offensive action near Rostov-na-Donu and at Tikhvin respectively with the object of drawing German reserves away from the central sector of the Eastern Front.
In the second week of November, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had basically the same deployment as that with which it had entered the lull period. In the north, Strauss’s 9th Army held the left of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', just to the south of the dividing line with Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to the west of Ostashkov, as far as Kalinin. The 3rd Panzergruppe, commanded by Generaloberst Hans Reinhardt, who had replaced Hoth on 5 October, stood on the Lama river, 32 miles (50 km) to the west of Klin, with Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe on its right in the area to the north of the Moscow Highway linking Moscow and Smolensk. The left flank of von Kluge’s 4th Army straddled the Moscow Highway and its right flank linked with Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee on the Oka river. The main weight of the 2nd Panzerarmee's armour was concentrated in a salient to the south of Tula and projecting to the east. von Weichs’s 2nd Army covered the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the area to the east of Orel and Kursk.
Against these German formations, the Kalinin Front, the West Front and the right flank of the South-West Front mustered an initial 14 armies.
Despite his doubts about how much farther Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' could advance, von Bock had tried to retain his option for a deep thrust past Moscow. He had pulled his armour slightly inward toward Moscow, but maintained some armoured strength arching well round and to the east of the city. He directed the 3rd Panzergruppe to the south of the Volga Reservoir in the direction of the Moscow-Volga Canal; the 4th Panzergruppe via Klin toward the Moscow-Volga Canal; and the 2nd Panzerarmee past Tula toward Kashira and Ryazan. These axes would bring the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe to the Moscow-Volga Canal for advances on Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, give the 2nd Panzerarmee the option of heading to the north from Kashira toward Moscow, or to the east across the Oka river toward Gorky, and leave the close encirclement of Moscow to the 4th Army. As time passed, however, von Bock’s strategic doubts increased, and he informed Both Halder and his subordinate army commanders that he did not expect the army group to have sufficient men, armour and supplies to pass beyond the Moscow-Volga Canal in the north and the Moscow river in the south. Despite these caveats, however, von Bock let the armies' original orders stand, and in the process rendered the armies' missions unclear.
On 14 November, and apparently with some reluctance, Zhukov committed General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army, reinforced with one cavalry corps of two cavalry divisions each with 3,000 men), one infantry division, one tank division and two tank brigades, against the right flank of the 4th Army in the area to the east of Serpukhov. This late change in the Soviet defensive plan, despite the fact that Zhukov expected the renewed German offensive any day, was a direct result of Stalin’s insistence on 'counterblows', which Zhukov believed could achieve nothing but complicate the defence.
During the morning of 15 November, one infantry corps of the 9th Army, a formation which was not primarily involved in the renewed German offensive toward Moscow, advanced in the area to the south of Kalinin and experienced something which was entirely novel on the Eastern Front: the 30th Army yielded and pulled back without offering any resistance. Although the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe had less success when the too took the offensive on the following day, the Soviet forces tasked to check them fared badly. A 'counterblow' by the right-flank elements of General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, reinforced by one tank division and five cavalry divisions, ran straight into the 4th Panzergruppe's attack to the east of Volokolamsk and collapsed. On 18 November, in the south of the Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' sector, the 2nd Panzerarmee began its offensive in the area to the south of Tula, and one of its corps advanced almost 25 miles (40 km) during the day.
On the following day, Stalin asked Zhukov whether or not Moscow could be held, and demanded an answer which was truthful rather than politically correct. Zhukov replied that Moscow would be held, but added that he would need at least another two armies and 200 more tanks. Stalin agreed to the provision of the two armies by the end of the month, but not of the tanks. This left the situation around Moscow unlikely to improve, at least in the short term, unless relief came from the operations about to begin on other sectors of the front.
To the east and north of Rostov-na-Donu, Timoshenko had doubled the South Front’s strength in the first half of the month by deploying two fresh formations, General Major Anton I. Lopatin’s 37th Army and General Leytenant Fyedor N. Remezov’s 56th Army. On 17 November the 37th Army, together with elements of General Major Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 9th Army and General Major Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 18th Army, fell on the flank of von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee some 50 miles (80 km) to the north of Rostov-na-Donu. This was the manner in which Timoshenko planned to fulfil the Stavka’s demand for a diversion and at the same time block access to the Caucasus, but the early result of this Soviet effort were poor: General Gustav von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.) stood fast in the north and General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps broke away to the south-east toward Rostov-na-Donu.
The prospect for a successful diversion at Tikhvin appeared still worse. Here General Major Piotr A. Ivanov had taken command of the operational group of the shattered 4th Independent Army on 7 November, just as Tikhvin was being lost, and a mere 12 days later he responded to the Stavka’s urgent demands and went over to the offensive at Tikhvin with the one infantry division and two tank battalions of reinforcements he had just received. Given the straitened situation in which Heeresgruppe 'Nord' found itself, these forces were sufficient to sway the balance of forces in favour of the Soviets, but they were unlikely to yield any rapid of decisive effect.
In overall terms, von Bock’s armoured forces had made good progress in the first three days of the renewed offensive. The ground was frozen hard and covered lightly with dry snow. The Germans had painted their tanks, trucks and artillery white to blend with the landscape, but shortening days, low cloud and snow flurries restricted air support, and temperatures well below zero were new to troops so far accustomed to campaigning in warmer seasons. On the other hand, armour could move across country as though in was travelling on paved roads, for the rasputitsa had now frozen and, as a bonus, the summer’s dust and plagues of insects had disappeared. The terrain was also better: the Belorussian forests and swamps were now behind the Germans, and ahead of them was the Moscow upland dotted with prosperous villages. The Germans were uneasily aware, however, that this was not yet the real Russian winter, in which combat would be of an altogether different nature.
The 3rd Panzergruppe had already informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that while its infantry could be made mobile in the coldest weather and the deepest snow, tanks and trucks did not respond like men, and could not merely be instructed to overcome terrain and climatic difficulties they had not been designed or built to encounter. But examination of weather statistics from as far back as the 19th century gave the Germans no reason to expect heavy falls of snow and the advent of extremely low temperatures before the middle of December.
For the moment, though, the terrain and weather were the least of the troubles facing Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' on 18 November. In three days of fighting, the 4th Army had only with difficulty driven back the Soviet counterblow at Serpukhov. When a second counterblow was delivered in exactly the same place on 18 November, this time using numbers of Siberian troops well equipped and experienced for winter fighting, von Kluge considered a withdrawal of between 9.33 and 15.5 miles (15 and 25 km) to the better defensive line provided by the Protva river. As some of his regiments had been reduced to a mere 400 or 500 men under the command of senior lieutenants, von Kluge believed that his right flank would probably not be able to complete the southern sweep of the Moscow encirclement.
Late on 18 November von Bock and Halder discussed the nature of the prospects which the entire operation still possessed, and came to the conclusion that each side was close to the end of its operation tether, and therefore that victory would go to the better-motivated side. Two days later, von Bock departed in his special train, outfitted as a mobile command post, to his army group’s left in the area behind the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe. Here von Bock revised the operational plan once more, ordering the 4th Panzergruppe to bear father to the east and thus south of Klin, and to add weight on the 4th Army's left flank, and instructing the 3rd Panzergruppe to take Klin and then veer to the south-east along the road and railway linking Klin and Moscow in the direction of Solnechnogorsk. But when the 3rd Panzergruppe took Klin on 23 November, von Bock once again changed his mind. The 4th Panzergruppe's left-flank elements were already in Solnechnogorsk, and von Bock responded to a proposal from Reinhardt to turn his 3rd Panzergruppe to the south-east in the direction of Moscow: he ordered the 3rd Panzergruppe to cover the 4th Panzergruppe's left flank, but also to push due east as far as it could.
After 23 November, as the 3rd Panzergruppe headed to the east from Klin, it seemed that the Blitzkrieg concept was still successful. The Soviets fell back steadily and, somewhat unusually, did not set fire to their villages as they pulled out, which intelligence officers took to indicate that the Soviets were becoming demoralised or, though it seemed unlikely, that they intended to return. The leading formation, Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, currently under the temporary command of Oberst Nikolaus von Vormann, took a Soviet deserter, who told his captors that the Soviets were evacuating the area to the west of the Moscow-Volga Canal and readying fresh troops off the Panzer group’s open northern flank in preparation for an attack toward Klin. The interrogation report did not find its way to the Panzer group’s headquarters until the second week of December.
On 27 November, the 7th Panzerdivision reached the Moscow-Volga Canal, and on the morning of the following, on the assumption that its task was still to push to the east, the 3rd Panzergruppe established a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the canal opposite Yakhroma. During the day the 4th Panzergruppe's leading formation, Generalleutnant Rudolf Veiel’s 2nd Panzerdivision, came almost to a standstill some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south in the area to the west of Krasnaya Polyana, and 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Moscow. Echeloned in a 15.5-mile (25-km) line on the 2nd Panzerdivision's right, Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe had Generalmajor Walter Scheller’s 11th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Gustav Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer' 10th Panzerdivision and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s SS Division (mot.) 'Reich' aimed toward Moscow but scarcely moving as they entered the area of minefields and fiercely defended earthworks ringing the city. The left flank of von Kluge’s 4th Army was also inching forward, but not far or fast enough to remove the need for Hoepner’s forces from having to stretch to maintain contact.
Away to the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee had driven in a large bulge into Soviet-held territory in the area to the south of Tula, but the Soviet 50th Army held its ground with grim determination round the city, and a raid by one of the 2nd Panzerarmee's divisions to the north in the direction of Kashira was attracting a mass of Soviet cavalry and tanks onto Oberst Rudolf-Eduard Licht’s 17th Panzerdivision. In this violent counterattack, which started on the following day, General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s II Cavalry Corps, supported by hastily assembled formations which included the 173rd Division, 9th Tank Brigade, two independent tank battalions, and a number of training and militia units, managed to halt the German advance near Kashira.
At a time early in December the Germans were driven back, a fact which secured for the Soviet forces the southern approach to their capital. Tula itself held, protected by fortifications and a determined defence in which the military forces were greatly aided by civilians. In the south, the German forces could not close right onto Moscow.
On the night of 28 November, von Bock changed his plan yet again, and committed his 'last regiment'. Giving the 3rd Panzergruppe Oberst Walter Krause’s 900th Lehrbrigade, which in fact comprised only one battalion and was now his only reserve, von Bock instructed Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe to forget about its Yakhroma bridgehead and turn to the south along the western bank of the Moscow-Volga Canal to supplement the drive of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe toward Moscow
Meanwhile, in the course of the the past week, Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had become very hard pressed in the area of Rostov-na-Donu. SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' (mot.) had taken the city on 21 November, but in and around Rostov-na-Donu, von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot.) came under attack from the south across the frozen Don river and from the north across the open steppe, and on its left, elements of three Soviet armies battered von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.). von Kleist, commanding the 1st Panzerarmee, had begun to appreciate several days earlier that this onslaught was more than he had foreseen, and on 22 November ordered the III Corps (mot.) to evacuate Rostov-na-Donu and fall back to the west behind the line of the Mius river, but had to cancel this order a day later after von Rundstedt, commanding Heeresgruppe 'Süd', told him that while he himself approved of the evacuation, von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the army, had demanded that the city be held because giving it up would have military and 'far-reaching political results'. The timing of any retreat, regardless of its tactical and operational sense, was indeed wrong as Hitler was preparing for a publicity spectacle to commemorate the renewal of the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact, which was the cornerstone of the German, Italian and Japanese 'Axis', otherwise the Tripartite Pact.
With Rostov-na-Donu lost, Leningrad isolated but not lost, and Moscow in increasing danger, the Soviet strategic position seemed to be worse than ever. However, Stalin clearly believed, as strongly as did Hitler and von Bock, that the struggle was one of willpower at least as much as of military strength, and on 22 November the Stavka told Timoshenko that the loss of Rostov-na-Donu should not impinge on the counterattack on the 1st Panzerarmee. Two days later a directive allocated to Cherevichenko’s South Front the task of encompassing the destruction of the 1st Panzerarmee and recapturing the area of Taganrog and Rostov-na-Donu. Clearly aware by then that his front could not outfight the whole Panzer army, however, Cherevichenko opted for a smaller but more promising approach, and over a three-day period relocated the weight of his forces from the northern part of the front to its southern end at Rostov-na-Donu.
The level of tension was already enormous for the Soviets, and from a time late in November also seized the Germans. von Brauchitsch, not yet recovered from the heart attack he had suffered earlier in the month, became more and more difficult as he sought for the successes which would smooth his interviews with Hitler. von Bock developed severe diarrhoea. von Rundstedt seemed to retreat into himself and let Sodenstern, his chief-of-staff, handle matter with the Oberkommando des Heeres. Hitler moved between the 'Wolfsschanze' headquarters in East Prussia and Berlin on state matters, and on 21 November was in Berlin for the funeral of Generaloberst Ernst Udet, the Luftwaffe’s chief of aircraft development, whose death was being attributed to an air accident but was actually a suicide. On 25 November Hitler was back in Berlin to sign the renewed and revised Anti-Comintern Pact, and to welcome two new but decidedly reluctant members, Denmark and Finland. Hitler spent the next two days in ceremonies and festivities associated with the signing of the revised pact, and on 28 November attended another funeral, that of Germany’s highest-scoring air ace of the time, Oberst Werner Mölders, who had been killed in an air accident as he travelled from the Eastern Front for Udet’s funeral. Hitler spent the rest of the day in talks with visiting diplomats.
Once he had returned to the 'Wolfsschanze' early on 29 November, Hitler learned that German troops were retreating. By 28 November Cherevichenko had committed no fewer than 21 divisions against the III Corps (mot.) at Rostov-na-Donu, and von Mackensen, the corps commander, had reported some weeks earlier, before the last advance had started, that his two formations (the 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' (mot.) and Generalmajor Walther Düvert [from 1 December Oberst Traugott Herr’s] 13th Panzerdivision) were at the limits of their endurance, short of every item of equipment and supplies, at between 50% and 33% of their normal strengths.
On 28 November von Kleist ordered von Mackensen to yield Rostov-na-Donu. When Hitler arrived at the 'Wolfsschanze', the III Corps (mot.) had evacuated Rostov-na-Donu, and the Soviets had a major superiority in position and numbers. During the morning of 30 November, even as he had attempted one week earlier, von Kleist instructed his entire right flank, including the III Corps (mot.), to fall back to the western bank of the Mius river some 46.5 miles (75 km) to the west of Rostov-na-Donu. In purely tactical terms, von Kleist could not be faulted as his forces could gain nothing militarily from a prolonged stand in the open, and the short but relatively straight line of the Mius river offered a good winter position. However, a German retreat of this distance in a strategically important sector of the front at this stage in the Eastern Front campaign was bound to exercise the same psychological effect as a genuine military victory on the Soviets. Hitler was acutely aware of this fact, and in a meeting with von Brauchitsch on 30 November the German leader scathingly excoriated the army commander-in-chief and sought to get von Rundstedt to delay the execution of von Kleist’s order. When von Rundstedt refused and offered his resignation, Hitler dismissed him early on the following day and elevated Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau from command of the 6th Army to command of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. However, after early insistence that the 1st Panzerarmee could hold a line to the east of the Mius river, von Reichenau had to admit during the evening that the full retreat was inevitable and ordered the 1st Panzerarmee to complete its withdrawal to the western bank of the Mius river during the night despite the pressure imposed by the Soviet 37th, 9th and 56th Armies.
Before the break of day on 2 December, Hitler left East Prussia by air for von Kleist’s headquarters in Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov, stopping at Poltava later in the morning to collect von Reichenau and change from his vulnerable Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor four-engined transport to a faster and better defended Heinkel He 111 twin-engined bomber. The weather was unusually cold for December in Ukraine, and to the east from Mariupol there was already a sizeable band of ice along the shore of the Gulf of Taganrog. At Mariupol Hitler and von Reichenau met with von Kleist and Dietrich. There were no more than formal pleasantries, and Hitler apparently wanted from Dietrich, one of his oldest party cronies and former bodyguard, an assurance that Rostov-na-Donu could not have been held, and from all three generals assurances that the Mius river line could and would be held. Hitler then began to speak about a resumption of the offensive in the new year, promising von Kleist everything from tanks and self-propelled assault guns to fresh divisions and airborne forces.
Hitler then flew back to the 'Wolfsschanze', which he reached on 4 December, only to discover a foretaste of another event similar to that at Rostov-na-Donu. von Leeb, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', believed that the Soviets were starting to perceive the chance not only of retaking Tikhvin but also of lifting the siege of Leningrad: the latter, especially, would by a huge political and morale boost for the Soviets, as well as a major Soviet military success. On 1 December the Soviets had halted at Volkhov, some 34 miles (55 km) to the south of Lake Ladoga, a German push to the north out of the Tikhvin salient in the direction of the lake. If the Soviets now retook Tikhvin and reopened the railway line to Volkhov, the could pour into the sector the reinforcements they were delivering to the north-west and create an attack on the Leningrad bottleneck. (German air reconnaissance had reported 29 trains heading to the west on the railway line linking Vologda and Tikhvin on 2 December.) What was of greater concern to von Leeb was less the situation of his own Heeresgruppe 'Nord' than that of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to its south. von Leeb believed that if a major threat to Moscow could not be maintained, the Soviets would inevitably be in the position to release sufficient strength to make the attempt to retake Tikhvin and lift the siege of Leningrad.
On 27 November there arrived a critical moment for the Soviet defence of Moscow. To the north of this city, the progress of the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe past Klin and Solnechnogorsk had opened a gap, 28 miles (45 km) wide, between Dimitrov on the Moscow-Volga Canal and Krasnaya Polyana 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Moscow. After taking command on 18 November, Lelyushenko had brought the 30th Army back under control, though he had not achieved this in time to prevent it from being driven into a corner in the angle of the Volga river and the Moscow-Volga Canal where, at least in the short term, the army could do nothing to block the German advance to the east and south. Since the front had been broken open in the area between Klin and Solnechnogorsk, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army had been compelled to extend its flank to the east in order to cover Moscow and to take the whole shock of the German assault toward the city.
Farther to the south, the 17th Panzerdivision's thrust toward Kashira was starting to create a deep pocket around Tula and had put the 2nd Panzerarmee's spearhead within 62 miles (100 km) to the south of Moscow.
The failure of the 30th Army had delivered one important result for the Soviets, however, for its had given the Stavka an intimation of further trouble in the offing, giving the Stavka just sufficient time to assemble the means to tackle this crisis when it arrived. Unlike von Bock, Stalin was apparently not prepared to venture his 'last regiment' in the battle for Moscow, but then he still possessed the resources for another bout of operations. Late in November, Stalin allocated to the West Front nine infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions, eight rifle brigades, six tank brigades and 10 independent tank battalions. Of those, three infantry divisions were given to the 30th Army; one infantry division and the two cavalry divisions were used to create General Major Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps; part of the armour went to the Kashira area; and the rest went to the 16th, 5th and 50th Armies and to the front reserve.
Moreover, as the German forces were passing Klin, Stalin and the Stavka had begun to create two reserve armies to cover the gap that would soon be developing farther to the east. Kuznetsov took command of one of these, the 1st Shock Army, on 23 November along the line of the Moscow-Volga Canal in the area to the south of Dimitrov. New in conception, the shock armies were planned on the basis of considerable weight in armour, motorisation, artillery, and automatic weapons, but the 1st Shock Army (like other shock armies established in the winter of 1941/42) was not actually equipped to the planned standard. When Kuznetsov reached Dimitrov on 23 November, his new army comprised only one infantry brigade, but within a week had one infantry division, nine infantry brigades, 10 separate battalions, one regiment of artillery and a contingent of multiple rocket-launchers. About 70% of his men were more than 30 years old. The second of the two new reserve armies, the 20th Army, was built in what, by 27 November, had become the most critical sector of the entire front, between the right flank of the 16th Army and the Moscow-Volga Canal, which included the ravaged village of Krasnaya Polyana. Because of the subsequent behaviour of its commander, General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov, as a German collaborator after his capture, Soviet accounts of the Battle of Moscow make little mention of the 20th Army’s role at this critical phase in Soviet history. Late in 1941, however, at the age of 41 Vlasov was regarded in the Soviet army as one of its most brilliant younger generals. He had commanded the 37th Army, which had been destroyed in the Kiev pocket, but had escaped along with some of his staff. Like Kuznetsov, Vlasov had to make do with whatever formations and units could be scraped together: he himself later commented that he had one Siberian infantry brigade, about 10,000 criminal prisoners and 15 tanks. But the 20th Army, which was also positioned to assume control of at least part of the 16th Army’s right-flank elements, was quickly brought up to a strength at least equal to that of the 1st Shock Army.
During the final week of November, the Stavka also began to bring forward from the line of the Volga river five of the 10 new reserve armies: three of these (the 24th, 26th and 60th Armies) were positioned to the east of Moscow, one (the 61st Army) was located behind the South-West Front’s right flank, and the last (the 10th Army) was deployed to the west of the Oka river below Kashira in position to block the thrusts of the 2nd Panzerarmee toward Kolomna and Ryazan. Under the command of General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov, the 40th Army was in all probability typical of the new reserve armies: the primary elements of its 100,000-man strength were seven reserve infantry divisions recruited in the Moscow region. Setting off on 24 November, the 10th Army had to cover more than 310 miles (500 km) from its original base at Syzran on the Volga river by rail and on foot as it possessed almost no motor vehicles.
During 29 November, the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe had their first encounters with elements of the 1st Shock Army and 20th Army at Yakhroma and to the west of Krasnaya Polyana. Late in the day, after Zhukov had assured him that the Germans would not commit any new large forces in the near future, Stalin allocated the 1st Shock Army, 20th Army and 10th Army to Zhukov’s control for a counterattack. In the course of the same day, moreover, the 3rd Panzergruppe made its planned turn to the south, and the 4th Panzergruppe advanced only a little. Discussing the matter with Halder, von Bock expressed his fear that if the attack from the north did not succeed the battle would soon degenerate into an attritional nightmare akin to the Battle of Verdun in World War I.
During the night of 30 November, while von Leeb worried about what might happen at Leningrad once the pressure was off Moscow and von Rundstedt was on the verge of dismissal, von Bock was confused. While his Panzer forces had been able to report small advances during the day, Heusinger, the head of the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had spoken to von Bock by telephone in a manner which suggested that the encirclement of Moscow was merely the preliminary to thrusts toward Voronezh and Yaroslavl. von Bock later telephoned von Brauchitsch to inform him that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' lacked the strength to encircle Moscow let alone attempt anything greater, but had to ask several times whether or not von Brauchitsch was still listening to him. Early on the morning of the following day, and wondering if von Brauchitsch had listened to him, von Bock repeated by teletype what he had said on the previous day and added that the belief in an imminent Soviet collapse was nothing by a fantasy. von Bock further commented that his formations were exhausted, and that the offensive had lost 'all sense and purpose'. von Bock ended by telling von Brauchitsch that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' would shortly and of necessity come to a halt just outside the Soviet capital, and that immediate thought must be given to what should be done when this happened.
During the morning of 30 November, Zhukov offered the Stavka his plan for a West Front counter-offensive to the north and south of Moscow. The basic concept was not new, of course, and as Zhukov himself put it, a counter-offensive had been under development right through the defensive actions. One of the moist constant features of the Soviet strategy since the start of 'Barbarossa' in June had been to let the Germans wear themselves out, to bring them to a halt, and to create the conditions for the successful implementation of a successful counter-offensive. The Soviets had attempted counter-offensives in the frontier regions during June and on the Dniepr-Dvina line in July, and the Stavka and general staff had given consideration to others throughout the campaign, most recently after the Germans had been brought to a halt on the Moscow approaches early in November.
However, neither the plan Zhukov submitted on 30 November in response to earlier orders from the general staff nor the circumstances under which the plan was to be executed conformed to previous thinking. This had envisaged a counter-offensive against Germans after the latter been halted. The plan was conceived as a late effort in a battle which was likely to turn against the Soviets. Zhukov apparently informed Stalin during the night of 29 November that the Germans had been bled white, and the essence of his plan was to drive past Klin and Solnechnogorsk some 62 miles (100 km) to Teryaeva Sloboda and Volokolamsk in the north, and about the same distance past Stalinogorsk to the Upa river in the south. General Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the acting chief of the general staff, in briefing the commander of the Kalinin Front, Konev, two of whose armies were to be included in the counter-offensive, said that the Soviets could only halt the German attack toward Moscow, and thereby create the situation in which to begin the infliction of a serious defeat on the Germans by active operations with a decisive aim, and that if the Soviets failed to do so in the next few days, it would be too late.
Kuznetsov, commander of the 1st Shock Army, received his orders for the counter-offensive during the morning of 2 December. He was to use the Zakharov group to attack toward Dednevo and Fedorovka, and then toward Klin. Dednevo and Fedorovka were villages directly opposite the 1st Shock Army’s left flank, and the Zakharov group (parts of three divisions and a tank brigade under the command of General Major Fyedor D. Zakharov) had been the rearguard at Klin and was pinned down to the west of the Moscow-Volga Canal by the 3rd Panzergruppe's vanguard.
Zhukov’s chief-of-staff, General Leytenant Vasili D. Sokolovsky, later reported that the primary objective of the Soviet counter-offensive was to break up the German offensive decisively and to provide the Germans with no opportunity to regroup and entrench themselves close to Moscow, and Zhukov reported similarly but added that the Soviet initial task was the removal of the immediate threat to Moscow, and that the Soviets would need more forces with which to plan and allocate longer-term and more decisive undertakings. Willing during the summer to commit reserve armies into counterattacks as soon as they could be formed, Stalin was now proving very reluctant to allocate such forces for the planned counter-offensive, however. The reserve armies to the east of Moscow were allocated for the defence if necessary, or in the event they were not needed for the development of the counter-offensive. All decisions about the manner and time in which the reserve armies were to be committed rested entirely with the the Stavka, which in effect meant Stalin, who had yet to arrive at any decision.
During December’s first two days, it seemed that von Bock might have been overly pessimistic and that the Soviet counter-offensive might very well come too late. To the surprise of the Germans as much as of the Soviets, Generalleutnant Karl Pflaum’s 258th Division of the 4th Army broke through the Soviet line to the south of the Moscow Highway on 1 December. To the north-east of Tula, on the following day, the 2nd Panzerarmee began a hook to the west which, had it cut off the city, could have brought the right flank of the 4th Army into motion. von Bock had reverted to fighting what he assumed to be the 'battle of the last regiments', and in the process lurching between desperate type of hope and a gloomy type of fear. Early on 2 December, von Kluge informed von Kluge, Reinhardt and Hoepner that the Soviets were close to breaking point, but talking to Halder later on the same day he said that the combination of decreasing strength, the cold and stiffening Soviet resistance was raising definitive doubts about success in his mind.
On the next day, and despite still greater reasons for doubt, von Bock’s determination showed a slight increase. In the morning, when von Kluge proposed to end the 4th Army's attack because it would not penetrate to Moscow, von Bock opted to wait for two or three days and see what effect the 3rd Panzergruppe could have. By a time late in the afternoon, the 258th Division was fighting its way to the west out of an encirclement, the 4th Panzergruppe had reported its offensive strength as largely exhausted, and the 3rd Panzergruppe was fighting the 1st Shock Army at Yakhroma. To the south, the 2nd Panzerarmee was still advancing in the area to the north-east of Tula, but only through a blizzard which was heaping snow all along the army group’s front. Bock told General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s chief of operations at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, that he would maintain the offensive even though his troop strength had been almost totally exhausted, and added that the reason he was persevering was that retaining the initiative was preferable to assuming any form of defensive posture with weakened forces in exposed positions.
During the previous fortnight the weather had become steadily colder, with temperatures ranging between 0° and 20° F (-18° and -7° C). After a heavy fall of snow on the previous day, on the morning of 4 December the temperature was -4° F (-20° C). During the day the 4th Army went over to the defensive on a front which had fallen quiet. The 4th Panzergruppe beat off several tank-led Soviet counterattacks in the area to the south-west of Krasnaya Polyana, and confirmed that it could not advance until the 3rd Panzergruppe had come abreast of it. The 3rd Panzergruppe had meanwhile been attempting to bring three Panzer divisions into action in the area to the south-west of Yakhroma, but was being pressed by Soviet reinforcements (some of them Siberian in Reinhardt’s estimation) on its front to the north-west of Yakhroma. The 2nd Panzerarmee was regrouping in preparation for another attempt to pinch off Tula.
von Bock had again decided to remain on the offensive and, when he received reports of some six new Soviet divisions on the front to the north-west of Moscow, all with numbers of tanks and rocket-launchers, decided that these were probably not new strength but units redeployed from nearby quiet sectors. In his last report of the day to the Oberkommando des Heeres, von Bock opined that a counter-offensive was not probable as the Soviets lacked the strength for any such effort.
Stalin remained in close touch with Zhukov during in the first days of December, for it was a matter of the utmost importance that in so complex a situation that the timing for the shift from the defensive to the offensive be exactly right, the Soviets rightly concluding that the optimum moment for the shift to the counter-offensive would be as the Germans were compelled to halt their attack but could not mount an effective defence because their troops were not yet properly regrouped and realigned, no reserves had been created and no defensive lines had been prepared. Sokolovsky later reported that the decision to shift to the counter-offensive was taken on 4 December as the Soviets realised that on this day the West Front had halted the Germans near Moscow and it then became vital to begin the counter-offensive without delay.
Vasilevsky, who later reported that the Stavka set the date for the counter-offensive as 5/6 December, went to the headquarters of the Kalinin Front on the night of 4 December to deliver the general staff directive to start the counter-offensive, and possibly to ensure that this front got under way on 5 December. Claiming he had neither the armoured nor the infantry strength to attack, Konev had expressed his opposition to a counter-offensive when Vasilevsky spoke to him three days earlier.
The task of the Kalinin Front was to strike the front of the 9th Army in the area to the south-east of Kalinin with its 29th and 31st Armies, and to head to the south and west toward Minkulino-Gorodishche some 25 miles (40 km) to the east of Klin. Vasilevsky told Konev on 1 December to have the Kalinin Front ready to start in two or three days. At the South-West Front, Timoshenko received his orders on 4 December to strike the 2nd Army in 6 December with the 3rd and 13th Armies and to head for Yefremov and past Yelets toward Livny: Yefremov was just behind the front on the northern flank of the 2nd Army and Yelets, in the centre, was then still in Soviet hands.
Vasilevsky’s later account indicated that the Stavka’s orders to start the counter-offensive on 5/6 December covered the West Front as well as the Kalinin Front and South-West Front, but Zhukov described his discussion with Stalin late on 4 December in which they talked about air and armour reinforcements for the West Front and which Stalin closed by reminding Zhukov to remember that the Kalinin Front and South-West Front would begin their counter-offensives on 5 and 6 December respectively.
During the night of 4 December, the temperature dropped to -25° F (-32° C), and one German regiment on a night march suffered mote than 300 frostbite casualties, and several of its wounded men froze to death. On the following morning tanks would not start; machine guns and artillery would not fire because their lubricants and the oil in their recoil mechanisms had congealed; and each army reported numerous frostbite cases. In this paralysing morning cold, the Soviet 29th Army attacked across the ice-covered Volga river in the area to the west of Kalinin and broke into the line of the 9th Army to a depth of about 1 mile (1.6 km) before being brought to a halt. Reinhardt and Hoepner each reported more fresh Soviet troops on his front and the offensive capabilities of his own Panzer group evaporating. Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzergruppe sought to drive a wedge to the south between the left flank of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe at Krasnaya Polyana and the Moscow-Volga Canal, but his men found that their automatic weapons would not work and their energy was sapped by the cold, and the attack had scarcely begun before it had to be called off and the men pulled back. In the morning, Guderian thought that his 2nd Panzerarmee could still take Tula, but by the evening of the same day his confidence had faded, and he proposed a gradual withdrawal from the entire bulge to the east of Tula and a retirement to the Don and Shat rivers. Guderian complained that his armoured vehicles were breaking down in the cold, while those of the Soviets kept running.
Zhukov’s order to begin the counter-offensive on 6 December was send to the West Front’s armies on 5 December. The Germans later came to believe that the drastic temperature drop on the night of 4 December was involved in Zhukov’s timing. Early in 1942, when the information was too late to be of any use, German intelligence circulated to the commands on the Eastern a partial transcript of statements Timoshenko and Zhukov were supposed to have made at a Moscow conference late in November urging a counter-offensive at Moscow: this information was described as having come from a very good source. Timoshenko, the forces of whose South-West were at the time of the conference approaching victory at Rostov-na-Donu, recommended that priority be given to Zhukov’s West Front on the grounds that the great danger for the German command was that the first major change in the weather would render all of its motorised equipment immobile, and that the Soviets must hold out as long as possible but go over to the offensive immediately after the first few days of cold had broken the will as well as the capability of the German forces. This capability, Timoshenko averred, was the Germans' tanks and motorised artillery, which would become useless when the temperature fell to -29° C (-20° F). Zhukov added that he planned to let the start and the course of the offensive be determined by the weather, and expected a level of success proportional to the freezing of the German equipment.
Soviet accounts totally ignore the possibility of the weather’s having had any part in the timing of the counteroffensive, however, and respond to contentions that the cold worked to the Soviet advantage by pointing out that both sides had to cope with cold and snow and that temperatures in December 1941 were not actually as low as was claimed, though one Soviet work asserting these two points does give the December mean temperature as recorded by Soviet weather stations around Moscow as -19.3° F (-28.6° C). The relationship between the weather and the counter-offensive would seem to be coincidental up to 4 December, but after this date there is a greater probability that it influenced the timing of West Front’s counter-offensive.
From 5 December the 2nd Panzerarmee, the 3rd Panzergruppe and the 4th Panzergruppe found it impossible to move as a result of the weather.
In the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation', the West Front was to smash its way forward toward Klin, Solnechnogorsk and Istra in order to destroy the German forces on its right flank, and to also to deliver 'blows' to the flanks and rear of the 2nd Panzerarmee in the areas of Uzlovaya and Bogoroditsk to achieve a similar destruction of the German forces on the Soviets left flank. The final order Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army on 5 December demanded the clearance of the area of Dednevo-Fedorovka area and then an advance in the direction of Klin.
Soviet accounts have treated the comparative strengths of each side' forces on the eve of the counter-offensive as something of great historical import. They emphasise that on 5 December the German forces outnumbered Soviet forces in the Moscow sector. However, the figures they quote differ from each other, and in overall terms fail to prove a Soviet numerical inferiority. The figures given in the History of the Second World War are 1.708 million Germans and 1.1 million Soviets on the approaches to Moscow. The numbers given in earlier Soviet works were 800,000 or 'more than 800,000' Germans and between 719,000 and 760,000 Soviets. The German strength as it appears in the History of the Second World War includes all personnel, including air force troops, assigned to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', while the Soviet strength is that of the forces assigned to the counter-offensive. The strengths given in the other works are said to be those of the divisions and brigades of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and those of the Soviet fronts or, in other words, the combat strengths for the two sides. None of the Soviet strengths include the eight armies still in the Stavka reserve, a total of about 800,000 men.
It is clear that, even without the reserve armies, the Soviet forces facing Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were, in relative terms, stronger on 5 December than they had been in October when 'Taifun' (i) began. While Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had been unable to replace its losses of men and equipment, the Soviet armies in the Moscow sector had acquired 33% more rifle divisions, 500% more cavalry divisions, 200% artillery regiments, and 250% tank brigades by 5 December than they had had on 2 October.
Along the front around Moscow at daybreak on 6 December, the temperature was low as -39° C (-38° F). During the night, von Bock had approved Guderian’s proposed withdrawal of the 2nd Panzerarmee, told Reinhardt and Hoepner to 'adjust' their plans for the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe for withdrawals from Yakhroma and Krasnaya Polyana to a line covering Klin, and called General Rudolf Schmidt, the acting commander of the 2nd Army that had been drifting slowly to the east in the direction of Yelets for the past several days, to tell him top bring his command to a halt lest this army soon find itself farther to the east than any of the others.
On the first day of the full counter-offensive, the performance of the Soviet armies varied considerably. The 31st Army joined the stalled 29th Army on the Kalinin Front but failed to cross the Volga river in the area to the south of Kalinin. The 30th Army made the days best and, for the Germans, the most dangerous progress by breaking into the deep flank of the 3rd Panzergruppe to the north-east of Klin to a depth of 8 miles 13 km). The 1st Shock Army and 20th Army struck the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe between Yakhroma and a location to the west of Krasnaya Polyana, but only the 20th Army made a gain, and only small, on the southern edge of Krasnaya Polyana. The 10th Army, most of which was still on the march from Syzran, began its attack on Mikhaylov, on the eastern rim of the Tula bulge, with one rifle division and two motorized infantry regiments. In the course of the day the 2nd Army took Yelets, and the South-West Front’s 13th Army was going over to the offensive there.
Before 12.00 on 6 December, Reinhardt informed von Bock that his 3rd Panzergruppe would have to start pulling away in the south during the night to provide some armour to fight the 30th Army. This meant that the 4th Panzergruppe. on the right of the 3rd Panzergruppe, would also have to start moving backward. The Soviet pressure subsided everywhere during the afternoon, and von Kluge spoke to von Bock about keeping the pace of the withdrawals slow so that all the German equipment and supplies could be evacuated. Nevertheless, in the bitter night that followed, the tide of the battle turned. From Tikhvin to Moscow to the Mius river, the 'Barbarossa' campaign had come to its end.