That's it! Frozen bodies of the German soldiers found after the battle for Moscow.



The dramatic summer of 1941 was coming to its end. The results of the past months' military campaign on the Eastern front were analyzed in Moscow and in Berlin. The leadership of the Soviet Union was in dismay after the defeats, and losses they claimed. The leaders of the nazi Third Reich - contrary - were euphoric. They believed that only a little last step separated them from the final victory. The following months though were bound to change those moods diametrically.

The German offensive launched on 2 October in the Moscow direction within a few days brought the encirclement and annihilation of substantial Soviet forces near Vyazma. On 3 October the invaders took Orel, on 6 October - Bryansk, on 12 October - Kaluga. It was not until the vicinity of Tula, which is on the same meridian as Moscow, that the offensive was halted. On the day Kaluga was abandoned, the State Defence Committee ordered to build defence lines in the immediate approaches to Moscow. Thus was created the Moscow Defence Zone, which had to be held by the troops of the Moscow garrison, units of the police and other paramilitary organizations, popular militia hastily formed in the whole district of Moscow, and the troops detached from the reserve of the Supreme Command. The situation was extremely serious. Although the Germans concentrated their effort in the direction of Moscow, they also pushed against other sectors of the gigantic front. In the north, on 14 October, they took Kalinin (Tver) and thus cut the direct railway communication between Moscow and Leningrad (Petersburg). In the south they rolled the Crimean Peninsula, besieged Sevastopol, and on 16 October started fights for the Taman Peninsula. In the Moscow direction on 16 October the Russians suffered yet another defeat: after particularly stubborn and bloody fights, the Germans took Mozhaysk, and pierced the front some hundred kilometres from Moscow, having no substantial Soviet forces in between. The panic spread throughout Moscow: inhabitants and institutions started spontaneous evacuation, any troops available were sent to plug the gap. Zealous fights took place near historic Borodino, where in 1812 Russian armies broke the great Napoleon's triumphant career. An eyewitness of the fights, the commander of the 1st Armoured Corps, and later the 30th Army, General Dmitriy Lelyushenko, wrote in his memoirs:

We were under the impression that we faced the History, who told us: "You must not disgrace those, who fell here in glory. Magnify their deeds with new victories. Fight not for life, but for death, and close the enemies the road to Moscow". [Лелюшенко Д. Д. (1987).]

Mozhaysk was lost, but the defence hardened daily. Particularly stout fights took place near Volokolamsk, where was deployed the 316th Infantry Division of General Ivan Panfilov. Arm by arm fought there the Russians, Ukrainians, Letts, Kazakhs, Kirghizes and soldiers of fifteen other Soviet nationalities. They frustrated all the attempts the Germans made to capture Volokolamsk and to open the way to Moscow from the north-west. Their defence was built in the 20-25 km wide complex of anti-tank obstacles, and due to lack of anti-tank artillery they used anti-aircraft guns shooting at blank point. The Germans lost 80 tanks and hundreds of soldiers. The division was later renamed the 8th Infantry Division of Guards.

Despite of the dramatic strategic situation, the Soviet leadership also had to solve current domestic and international affairs. In face of the invasion, the gigantic evacuation from the western areas of the Soviet Union was launched. Wherever time and circumstances allowed, people, livestock and even whole industrial facilities were removed eastward. There, in the deep rear - in the Urals, Siberia and Kazakhstan - the factories evacuated from the Central Russia, Ukraine and Donbass were re-organized. Their facilities often started war production in empty fields, before the walls and roofs were built. Oldies, women and children covered for the men, who went to the war. Vast virgin lands were ploughed up to sustain food production. Many urgent international affairs also needed attention. On 12 July in Moscow was signed one of the fundamental documents of the anti-fascist Great Coalition - the Soviet-British agreement of assistance and support in the war against Germany. The similar Soviet-Czechoslovak agreement followed on 18 July, and the Soviet-Polish one on 30 July. They both provided for the formation of Czechoslovak and Polish troops in the USSR. Soon later diplomatic relations were restored between the USSR and Norway, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia and the Committee Free France.

The same summer, on 14 August 1941, it came to another fundamental event in the course of building of the anti-fascist coalition: the British prime minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, and the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed aboard the British battleship Prince of Wales the so-called Atlantic Charter. Both statesmen had declared they would pursue the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, peace which would afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and abandonment of the use of force in international relations. In September the Charter became the subject of an international conference, in which took part representatives of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Free France, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, USSR and Yugoslavia. Towards the end of the year, after Japan entered the war, the Charter was signed by the representative of the Chinese nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In the beginning of 1942, following the United States' entry to the war, a number of Latin American countries also joined the anti-fascist coalition.

In autumn 1941 it also happened to solve the problem of Iran. The shah of this oil-rich country, Reza Pahlavi, based his rule and foreign policy on pure nationalism, and was an enemy of both Western democracies and the communist Soviet Union, who sought support in Berlin. On the other hand the geography had put Iran in a very sensitive place - on the crossroads of strategic transport routes to Asia, Africa and the USSR. Therefore the pro-German moods growing in Teheran could not be tolerated. So the British troops from India and Iraq, and Soviet troops from Transcaucasia and Turkmenia, entered Iran. The old shah was ousted and his administration dissolved. The Iranian armed forces did not resist; only few bands commanded by German agents tried to rebel, but they were quickly dispersed. The young prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi became the new shah; he appointed a democratic government and initiated broad reforms, which with time would make Iran one of the best developed countries.

Yet the most important events were bound to happen in Moscow approaches. On 6 November as usual was held the ceremonial meeting of people and their leaders. Only this time it did not took place in the Bolshoi Theatre but in the subway station Mayakovskaya. And on 7 November in the morning the traditional military parade was staged in the Red Square. The parade was prepared in the utmost secret. Even the troops to take part in it did not know the purpose of the preparations. They assumed, and those assumptions purposely were not dismissed, that those were just drills before the march out to the front. The commander of the parade was Lt.-Gen. Pavel Artemyev, the commandant of the Moscow Military District and the commander of the Moscow Defence Zone. During this unprecedented parade the Supreme Commander, Joseph Stalin, addressed to the troops: the whole world is looking to you as a force capable of destroying the brigand hordes of German invaders, and concluded:

Be worthy of this mission! The war you are waging is a war of liberation, a just war. Let the heroic images of our great ancestors - Alexander Nevskiy, Dmitri Donskoy, Kuzma Minin, Dmitri Pozharskiy, Alexander Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov - inspire you in this war!

Let the victorious banner of the great Lenin fly over your heads!

First time since the October Revolution soviet leader mentioned forgotten, and often condemned, episodes from Russia's glorious past. This resounded like an alert. Stalin was speaking in name of the communist party and the communist government, but he realised that the people would not give their lives for a socialist utopia, while they would be capable to do miracles of devotion and self-sacrifice in defence of their land. The whole country was quickly returning to the old traditions. Thousands of inmates were released from prisons and labour camps, churches were reopened, the Internationale was replaced by the new national anthem, the Communist International (or Comintern) was dissolved, the institution of commissars was abolished, and the troops were issued uniforms of national cut with shoulder straps. Propaganda, along the arms and supplies, is a mighty weapon. The Soviet communists exploited it utterly.

And it was about time to consolidate the defence. The German bombings of Moscow intensified. Despite of the well-organized anti-aircraft defence, damages and losses were inevitable. In that situation the State Defence Committee decided to evacuate from the capital all the cultural and scientific institutions, as well as the most important factories producing for the defence. Some institutions of the state and party administration were evacuated to Kuybyshev (Samara); together with them moved the People's Commissariate for Foreign Affairs (later the Foreign Office) and embassies. The parade in the Red Square, which took place amidst the enemy menace and early winter, the parade, after which soldiers marched right to the front, had a tremendous moral impact. Everybody gained strengths and energy, noted the commander of the Red Army's artillery, General (later Marshal) Nikolay Voronov. [Воронов Н. Н. (1963).] Not only energy though - the great country was gradually mobilizing its immeasurable resources.

On 15 November started the last German offensive towards Moscow. They engaged 51 divisions, including 13 armoured and 7 motorized ones. Their first strike was devastating; when on 23 November German armoured divisions overcame the Soviet defence, and took Klin and Solnechnogorsk, they were already within 27km to Moscow. Other German troops at the same time surrounded Tula and created menace from the east. From there the way to Moscow was open; they could march right to the Red Square virtually unmolested. But they had never made it. Why?

The answer is simple and devastating to those, who believe that the Germans just got stuck in the snowdrifts. Their disaster began long before the first snow had fallen, perhaps even before the invasion of the USSR. The Germans controlled vast economic resources of Germany and her allies, occupied Europe, and to some extend also neutral countries. Militarized industry could easily supply their armies for winter war, but such need was simply dismissed. The war with the Soviet Union was supposed to become a yet another swift, victorious campaign. German staffs had planned it to the least detail with the typical Prussian pedantry, but their calculations were based on false assumptions. Thus it was assumed that the Soviet state would not be capable to control the war effort, that it would collapse "like a house of cards". Meanwhile the Soviet state found enough skill, energy and authority to face the challenge and organize the defence. It was assumed that the Soviet leaders would fall in panic and "beg in vain for mercy". Meanwhile the Soviet leadership showed firm determination to win the war or, to capitulate "no sooner than on the coasts of the Strait of Bering". It was assumed that political interests would render an alliance of the USSR and Western democracies impossible, and force the USSR to fight alone. Meanwhile such different countries like the USSR, Great Britain and the USA had concluded an alliance, which united countries of various forms of government in war against the common enemy. It was assumed that the socialist economy would be incapable to bear the burden of war, and the industry would collapse. Meanwhile the industry demonstrated an amazing flexibility and swiftness in switching to war production, and it supplied the army in full with all kinds of weapons, matching or even outdoing the Germans'. It was assumed that the people of the Soviet Union would welcome the invaders as "liberators", raise against the communist régime, and start fratricidal fights among themselves. Meanwhile the Soviet people of all nationalities fought arm by arm with the common enemy or worked for common victory. Finally, it was assumed that the Red Army would collapse under the blows of the "invincible" Wehrmacht, that it would not deliver a serious defence. Meanwhile it was the very Red Army's defence that put the end to the idea of the lightning war. Despite of defeats, despite of human, material and territorial losses, the defence hardening day by day, week by week, was winning time to produce more weapons and to concentrate more forces for pending counter-offensive operations. On 21 November 1941 the official newspaper of the All-Union Communist Party (bolsheviks), the Pravda daily, wrote on its first page:

The heroic resistance of the Red Army troops has stalled the momentum of the fascist hordes. They have been forced to slow down. They are not running forward as it used to happen in the past, but they are crawling slowly, badly bleeding every step of theirs. But they are still crawling. And that means that the effort of the defenders of Moscow must be increased. (...) Hitler's brigand plan must be frustrated at any price. (...) The whole country expects it. (...) The enemy's defeat must begin in the Moscow approaches. [Лелюшенко Д. Д. (1987).]

And the defeat had actually begun. On 1 December the Germans made their last advance - they pierced the front near Narofominsk, in the south-west to the capital. Their tanks and armoured vehicles, which took the road to Moscow, were halted near Kubinka in bloody fights with the 5th Army. After the loss of nearly half of their vehicles, the Germans turned eastward and struck against Golitsyno. And there they met the counter-advance of the fresh 33rd and 35th Armies. By 4 December the Russians, in hard and bloody fights, destroyed the advanced German units and rebuilt their defence positions. The Germans were not able to undertake any effort any more. Many of their armoured divisions were already armoured only by name, many other ones lost 75% to 90% of their equipment. Their infantry divisions were no bigger than regiments, and the frostbites contributed their toll to the combat casualties. The Germans experienced shortages in ammunition, food, medicines and winter clothes. Meanwhile the reinforcements and supplies could not reach them in time, being destroyed or immobilized by the growing partisan activities in the occupied territories. It was actually the end of the German advance to Moscow, which cost them 50,000 killed and 100,000 wounded and frostbitten soldiers. They also lost about 700 tanks, 300 guns and 1500 aircraft. On 4 December Stalin hosted foreign diplomats in the Kremlin. From there they could hear the roar of the artillery fighting in the Moscow outskirts. But that roar was not menacing any more - from then on it could only move away.

In autumn 1941, when the crisis in the battle of Moscow had shaped, the command of the Soviet western strategic theatre was changed. It was entrusted to General Georgiy Zhukov. He was the one, who without exaggeration can be called the man, who won the Second World War. Drafted to the Russian army yet in the beginning of the First World War, he made a brilliant career from the Private to the Marshal of the Soviet Union, holder of the highest Soviet and foreign awards, indisputable national hero of the USSR, and a worldwide respected military expert. Skillful, energetic, ambitious and charismatic, sometimes even rude and brutal, he was not favoured by the leaders of the USSR, and very often got into conflicts with the military authorities, especially when he defended the decisions he believed were right. And as a rule he was right. In August 1939 he was appointed to the lost cause - the command of the joint Soviet-Mongolian forces, which were fighting the Japanese invasion along the river Khalkin-Gol. Yet he turned the inevitable defeat of his poorly trained and equipped troops into a brilliant victory over the prevailing Japanese elite Quantung Army. Later he became the chief of the General Staff of the Red Army, and in the beginning of the war with Germany he used to command forces in strategically important sectors of the front, always with considerable success. Now he had to take the responsibility for the pivotal battle of the campaign. Upon the thorough examination of the situation, he promptly made two unpopular and questionable decisions.

The first decision - to strengthen the defence on the wings of the Soviet grouping at the expense of the relatively weaker centre - was against all the canons of the strategic art. Weakening the defence right at the axis of the enemy's main offensive seemed inconceivable. The second decision - not to engage reinforcements in the battle - was against the Russian military tradition. It was considered a disgrace to procrastinate and to keep the reserve troops idle while their comrades were bleeding in heavy fights. But Zhukov did not procrastinate. He was watching the Germans running towards Moscow, while stretching their communication and supply routes, and expending their combat capabilities, and he was waiting for the moment, when he could strike against the enemy grouping from the wings, cut it out and destroy, and drive the enemy back. In 1812 Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov applied this tactics to destroy French armies, and to put the end to Napoleon's tyranny over Europe. In 1941 it had to work against Hitler's tyranny. But Kutuzov had managed to build up a considerable superiority over the French forces, while Zhukov's forces were outnumbered by the Germans. He insisted that the fresh troops from the Far East, Siberia and Central Asia be transferred to the vicinity of Moscow as the last reserve. He could not waste them in the defence fights. Those troops were kept in the east to Moscow undetected by the German intelligence; they had to be moved to the front lines immediately before the counter-offensive commenced, and introduced to the fights straight away. It was also decided that to augment the surprise factor the counter-offensive would start without the usual artillery barrage. It was a risky plan and would inevitably bring heavy casualties, but it was calculated, that the surprise and mobility of the troops would diminish those casualties. The weather would compensate for the German superiority in the air.

The core of the assault forces naturally comprised large armoured units. Zhukov's grouping received nearly all the tanks T-34 available at that time. But even the best tanks cannot operate without infantry support. Meanwhile the lack of appropriate vehicles and winter conditions would deteriorate infantry's mobility. Therefore to the first echelon of the assault forces were attached large Cossack units. Combined tank and cavalry groupings had to be concentrated in the main axes of the counter-offensive and disorganize the German defence; the second echelon, formed largely by the infantry units, had to develop their success. The counter-offensive started on 6 December - immediately after the German debacle, when their defence was not yet consolidated. The Germans initially ignored Soviet efforts - they did not expect anything sophisticated from the "Russian oafs". And when they finally realised that they in fact faced a major counter-offensive of fresh and determined forces, it was already too late. The Soviet armoured and cavalry units pierced the German defence in the most vulnerable sectors, and literally cut it into pieces, which were instantly deprived of any chance to co-ordinate their activities. Behind the troops of the first echelon poured the masses of infantry on skis and snowmobiles. Airborne troops and partisans struck against the German communications and disorganized their rear. In other words - the Germans were beaten by their own weapon, according to the classic formulae of the Blitzkrieg so hardly laboured by the German strategists. The more so, the German commanders were in disarray - they were not prepared for defence in the lightning war, because they never thought that their opponents would be actually able to apply the same tactics against them. And certainly they would least expect it from the "Russian oafs".

Towards the end of 1941 the situation of the German troops ventured to the Moscow approaches was miserable: they were already boasting that they could see the red stars of the Kremlin in their binoculars, they were promised an easy victory, comfortable winter quarters, a lot of vodka, caviar and women. Meanwhile they were in complete rout, retreating through snowdrifts and scorched land, leaving behind frozen bodies of their comrades and piles of destroyed equipment. The supreme German commanders did not foresee such a turn, they were not prepared to wage the winter war in Russian plains. All they could do was a hasty requisition of warm clothes throughout the whole occupied Europe - as if such a measure could compensate for the lack of strategic planning. The German Army regarded so far invincible, wrote a German staff officer and military historian, Gen. Siegfried Westphal, had found itself at the brink of annihilation. [Westphal S. (1951).] John Frederic Charles Fuller, a British historian rather far from pro-Russian sympathies, adds:

Further, the failure to take Moscow put new heart into the occupied countries where - particularly so in Yugoslavia (...) - the exploits of the Russian partisans became an example to follow. Thus were the brutalities of guerilla warfare fortified in Europe, and with them also the brutalities of the German Gestapo. Added to these things, when winter set in, people in Germany began to whisper of defeat. Such were the few small cracks in the plaster of the German home front, and though barely visible, it was none the less a portent that foundations might be sinking.

Lastly, of all its influences, those on the German Army and its Command were the most disastrous. The first never recovered the vigour it lost, and in the eyes of the world, it was no longer the invincible army. The second was literally annihilated. First, on or about 19th December, Hitles dismissed his Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, and General Halder, his Chief of Staff, who had disapproved of the entire autumn campaign, and himself assumed personal command with Generals Jodl and Zeitzler as his assistants. Secondly, Field-Marshals von Rundstedt, Ritter von Leeb, von Bock and List, as well as Generals Guderian and von Kleist, for the time being lost their commands. Such a pogrom of Generals had not been since the Battle of the Marne. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

Indeed, the German armed forces had not seen such a military disaster since 1914. It was not the annihilation yet, but the lightning march forward was halted, and then driven back. On 20 December Soviet forces overcame the last German organized defence near Volokolamsk, and started pursuit after the retreating German troops. On 26 December they liberated Narofominsk and Maloyaroslavets - the towns located some 100km away from Moscow. On 30 December a Soviet rapid corps, composed of one armoured, one cavalry and one infantry divisions after heavy fights liberated Zhukov's native town - Kaluga. Soon later was liberated Kalinin. The Soviet counter-offensive extinguished in the beginning of 1942.

On 19 December Hitler sacked Walther von Brauchitsch. Contrary to Fuller, a historian otherwise outstanding and brilliant, sometimes visionary, von Brauchitsch had never been the Commander-in-Chief for Hitler himself was the Commander-in-Chief. Brauchitsch was his commander of the land forces, and Franz Halder was the chief of staff of the land forces; he was actually sacked a couple of months later. Hitler himself took the command of the land forces. Some Generals, like Gerd von Rundstedt or Heinz Guderian, soon were back in favours. Some of them, like Fedor von Bock, would be later sacked again. Brauchitsch had never returned to the service; his career though did not end after his dismissal. After the war he was tried for war crimes and died in prison in 1948.

To Marshal Zhukov the significance of the battle of Moscow was of the utmost importance. He wrote in his post-war memoirs among others:

When I am asked what event in the last war impressed me most, I always say: the Battle of Moscow. In severe, often unbelievably difficult, conditions our troops matured, accumulating battle wisdom and experience, and as soon as they received the minimum necessary technical means they turned from a retreating defensive force into a powerful offensive one. [Zhukov G. K. (1971).]