The 1941 battle of Moscow: how successful was Operation Typhoon?
The Germans predicted a swift victory, but as their troops got stuck in the Russian mud, Red Army recruits were massing in the east. Evan Mawdsley tells the story of the battle of Moscow
It was meant to be a ‘decisive’ battle. The plan of Operation Typhoon, launched at the very end of September 1941, anticipated that the crippled remains of the Red Army would have to defend the western approaches to Moscow, and there it would be smashed. The Barbarossa campaign had begun when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941; this defeat before Moscow would bring the war in the east to a triumphant close.
The essence of Germany’s Barbarossa plan had been to conduct a war of movement. The original intention had been for full-scale fighting in the Soviet Union to last only a couple of months. Under the overall command of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, three army groups would advance to the line of the Daugava and Dnieper rivers, 350 miles into Soviet territory, and still about 300 miles west of Moscow. The Red Army was expected to be concentrated in these western borderlands; there it was to be crushed. Stunning successes were indeed achieved in June and July, but the Soviets were able to deploy reserves of troops and equipment in a second line of defence. And there was no political collapse. At the end of July, Hitler had to make decisions about a deeper advance, beyond the Daugava-Dnieper line. Brauchitsch and his senior generals preferred to drive directly towards Moscow with Army Group Centre. Against their advice, the führer used his panzer forces against Kiev in the south and Leningrad in the north.
On 6 September, with Kiev looking set to fall into German hands and the siege of Leningrad about to commence, Hitler finally gave in to his generals. He agreed to concentrate forces for a direct strike towards Moscow. Three weeks would be required to assemble forces within Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Centre. The operation was given the codename Typhoon. The target was the main body of Red Army troops positioned on a north-south line about 150 miles from Moscow, roughly between the towns of Vyazma and Bryansk. The Germans knew this force as ‘Heeresgruppe [Army Group] Timoshenko’, after the Soviet marshal who had commanded these forces for several months.
The army group must be defeated and annihilated in the limited time which remains before the winter weather breaks
The Typhoon directive stressed that speed was still essential: “The army group must be defeated and annihilated in the limited time which remains before the winter weather breaks.” (In fact, Marshal Timoshenko had recently been transferred to Ukraine, and the forces under attack were actually three army groups, of which the most important was the Western Army Group of General Ivan Konev.)
The battle of Moscow was a long one, lasting four months and falling into several phases. The first phase, which began on 30 September, was later known by the Soviets as the battle of Vyazma-Bryansk. They were caught by surprise, and the order to pull back to avoid encirclement came too late. Some 64 rifle divisions (out of 95) and 11 tank brigades (out of 13) were caught behind the pincers of three panzer groups. A million Soviet soldiers were lost; around 600,000 of them became prisoners of war.
With this success, Typhoon seemed to have achieved its objective. At a news conference on 9 October, Reich press chief Otto Dietrich actually declared that victory had been attained: “The campaign in the east has been decided by the smashing of Heeresgruppe Timoshenko.” The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party newspaper, carried a banner headline: “The great hour has arrived: the campaign in the east has been decided!” Early on 8 October, General Georgy Zhukov, Konev’s replacement as commander of the Western Army Group, described the situation over the telephone to Stalin. “The main danger now is that nearly all routes to Moscow are open,” he said. “The weak covering forces on the Mozhaysk Line cannot be a guarantee against the sudden appearance of enemy tank forces in front of Moscow.” The city of Tver (then known as Kalinin), which lay only 101 miles north-west of the capital, fell on 14 October. The next day, Stalin ordered the evacuation of government institutions from Moscow.
Against expectations, however, the Germans were not able to follow their victory with a continued drive on Moscow. The enemy forces surrounded at Vyazma and Bryansk had to be dealt with. The Wehrmacht’s transport system was already overstretched. Especially telling was the onset of the season of autumn mud and rain, known as the rasputitsa, which made rapid movement impossible. All the same, Hitler remained confident. In a speech to the Nazi party’s old guard in Munich on 8 November, he announced that the Red Army had lost 8–10 million soldiers in the war so far: “No army in the world can recover from this – not even the Russian one.”
A life-or-death decision
It was not until 15 November, a month after the victory at Vyazma-Bryansk, that the second phase of the battle of Moscow began. The worst of the rasputitsa was over; the weather was getting colder, but the ground began to harden. A top-level meeting of Wehrmacht leaders overseen by General Franz Halder, chief of the German General Staff, had been held just behind the front. Despite the misgivings of some generals, Halder’s plan for a further attack prevailed; he was supported by Field Marshal von Bock. The aim now was to envelop Moscow. Pincer columns – the three panzer groups – would advance north and south of the city. Yet two weeks of battle did not bring any major German successes. Von Bock was now requesting a halt, in view of the exhaustion of his men and the lack of reserves. He even suggested pulling back a short distance to a readily defensible position. Halder insisted, however, that the Russians had exhausted their reinforcements. “The expenditure of strength worries us too,” he admitted. “But one must summon one’s last strength to bring the enemy down.” Some progress continued to be made. On 30 November, elements of a panzer division reached Krasnaya Polyana, only 20 miles north of the Kremlin. In his war diary on 2 December, Halder noted: “Enemy’s defence has reached its height. No new [Soviet] forces.”
The strength of the Red Army was a key issue. Especially important, in reality, was the Soviets’ ability to mobilise reserves in quantities much larger than the Germans expected. In some respects, August had been a crucial period for the future battle of Moscow, because it was then that new divisions and brigades began to be formed deep in central Russia. Also important were fresh divisions moved from Siberia, although they would make up only 15–20 per cent of the force defending Moscow.
After 15 November, Stalin had to decide on a response to the renewed German offensive. Zhukov believed that the Germans were overstretched, Moscow could be held, and a counterattack mounted – provided he was given reinforcements. According to Zhukov, Stalin asked him: “Are you sure that we can hold Moscow? I ask you with pain in my soul. Speak honestly, like a Communist.” After Zhukov’s guarantees, Stalin agreed to release a number of the reserve divisions that were being assembled east of Moscow. It was a life-or-death decision: if Moscow did fall, there would be no backstop. On 29 Novem- ber, assuring Stalin that the Germans were exhausted, Zhukov asked for and received permission to take action. Two newly deployed armies were transferred to him.
'Are you sure we can hold Moscow?' Stalin pleaded with Zhukov
The culmination of the battle of Moscow came in the first week of December, as counterattacks by the Soviet forces – mainly by Zhukov’s Western Army Group – intensified. Conventional accounts, both official and historical, usually depict 6 December as the moment of truth, but this is too precise. That Saturday was little different from the days just before and after it. There was no carefully calculated sudden strike, as occurred at Stalingrad 11 months later. An attack scheduled for 3 December was postponed. The first move by Red troops was actually made north-west of Moscow on the 5th, by the Kalinin Army Group. But day by day, the increasing pressure of Zhukov’s forces drove the Germans back.
It was certainly some time before the Soviet leadership was confident that the tide had turned. Only on the 12th was Moscow finally prepared to announce the fate of the northern and southern wings of the German attack: “As a result of the counteroffensive that has begun, both these forces have been defeated and they are rapidly withdrawing, abandoning equipment and weapons, and suffering huge losses.” A photograph of General Zhukov appeared on the front page of Pravda, the Communist party newspaper, the following day. The Germans were certainly not ready to publicly admit the crisis. On 10 December, Hitler had made a major speech in which he did not refer to setbacks; heavy fighting was not reported in the German media. But in reality the front-line generals, and their men falling back across the frozen battlefield, were aware of how desperate the position of Army Group Centre had become.
The battle of Moscow did not end in the first week of December. The final phase involved a drawn-out dogfight in the forests west of the Soviet capital. The leaders on both sides had in mind Napoleon’s experience in 1812, when the retreat from Moscow broke the back of the Grande Armée and led to the eventual defeat of France. It remained to be seen how grievous the Germans’ defeat would be. The freezing weather made their position more difficult; retreat could easily turn into a rout. At the beginning of December, Stalin had despaired of holding his capital; two weeks later, on the 13th, he ordered his senior generals to “trap the enemy... give the Germans a chance to surrender and promise to spare their lives, and if they do not, destroy them to the last man”. On the previous day, General Halder had put the situation in the gravest terms: “It is clear to me that this is the most dangerous situation of the two world wars.”
The German army survived. Movement in winter conditions was difficult for both sides, while the new divisions of the Red Army had little training and limited equipment. Hitler played a role, taking direct command of the army. “Large retreats cannot be carried out,” he announced in his famous order of 18 December. “The troops are to be compelled to put up fanatical resistance in the positions they occupy, without being distracted by enemy break- throughs on the flanks or in the rear.” The Germans were indeed able to hold key roads and railways. In mid-February, Hitler could truthfully tell his army-group commanders that “the danger of a panic in the 1812 sense” had been “eliminated”. The Red Army continued to attack on a broad front in February, March and April 1942, but took heavy losses for few gains.
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German hopes dashed
The battle of Moscow was in the end decisive, but not in the way Hitler and his generals had expected in September – and not in the way that Stalin and Zhukov had hoped for after the first week of December. At an operational level, the battle of Moscow was not nearly as bad for the Wehrmacht as the battle of Stalingrad. After the Moscow setback, the Germans had to pull back roughly to the line, still deep in Russia, where they had been deployed in early October. Despite Stalin’s bloody order, no major German formations were captured, let alone destroyed. However, the Germans would never get deeper into central Russia than they did in December 1941. When Hitler attacked again, in May 1942 in southern Russia, he had new objectives: not the complete overthrow of Soviet power in a single blow but rather the seizure of vital resources in the Caucasus.
The blitzkrieg was over. The battle of Moscow had ended the ‘war of movement’ in the northern and central parts of the front, dashing the chances of a quick German victory. The Third Reich did not have the manpower, or resources, to a fight the ‘war of attrition’ in which they now found themselves mired. Such a war meant doom for the Wehrmacht – not only in Russia, but in all of Europe.
Evan Mawdsley is an honorary professorial research fellow at the University of Glasgow. A second edition of his book World War II: A New History was published by CUP in May 2020
This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s Collectors’ Edition, Great Battles of World War Two: Land Battles