To complicate the situation further, German leader Adolf Hitler had issued orders on 1 December that threw the German High Command into disarray. On that date, Hitler relieved Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundtstedt as commander of Fifth Panzer Army and personally took command of this crucial sector of the front before Moscow. That same day, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, commanding Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte), relayed the message that German troops were completely exhausted. The German drive against Moscow had ground to a halt.
On 30 November, Soviet leader Josef Stalin had agreed to plans drawn up by the chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov, and the next day, the General Staff made final preparations for the offensive. On 5 December, the Soviet commander on the Moscow front, General Georgii K. Zhukov, started the first great Soviet counteroffensive in the Kalinin sector. Siberian troops, who were extremely effective in cold-weather operations, were used for these actions. The next day, Zhukov ordered a general offensive against German forces west of Moscow—Army Group Center. Some 88 Soviet divisions with 1,700 tanks and 1,500 aircraft attacked 67 German divisions (many of them understrength) on a 500-mile-long front between Kalinin and Jelez. They pushed back the completely exhausted Germans, encircling them where possible and forcing a general retreat.
Hitler, however, forbade anything but the shortest withdrawals. On 8 December, with the Red Army achieving many breakthroughs, he ordered his troops to go over to purely defensive operations and hold their positions at all costs. This decision, though helping to ensure that the retreat did not turn into a general rout, condemned thousands of Germans to death. On 13 December, Soviet forces moved to relieve Leningrad, extending the counteroffensive to the northwest. On 14 December, German troops departed Kalinin, which the Soviets entered the next day. Hitler assumed command of the German army on 19 December, and German forces managed to establish a stable front line some 55 miles west of Moscow one day later. The Red Army's winter counteroffensive continued into February 1942, although its greatest gains were registered at its beginning.
Thomas J. Weiler
Dupuy, Trevor N. Great Battles on the Eastern Front. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982.; Fugate, Bryan I. Operation Barbarossa: Strategy and Tactics on the Eastern Front, 1941. New York: Presidio, 1985.; Glantz, David M. Barbarossa: Hitler's Invasion of Russia, 1941. Stroud, UK: Tempus Publishing, 2001.