Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Moscow, Battle of (30 September 1941-April 1942)

Second major German offensive to seize the Soviet capital following the initial efforts of Operation barbarossa. After phase one successes in Operation barbarossa during June and July 1941, the Wehrmacht appeared to have unimpeded routes to Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. However, phase two proved more difficult for several reasons. Soviet defenses were stiffening after the initial shock of the invasion, and an additional 5 million men in the reserve forces were mobilized and thrown into battle. Also, German leader Adolf Hitler and his generals debated what course of action was best for phase two. The generals considered Moscow the main objective because it was a vital communication and industrial center and the Soviet capital and because a battle for it offered the best chance of destroying the Red Army and ending the campaign. Hitler, however, initially thought taking Leningrad and linking up with the Finns should have priority in order to secure the Baltic completely. By mid-August, Hitler changed his mind and focused the main effort on gaining the resources of the Ukraine and Caucasus, relegating both Leningrad and Moscow to secondary status. He even reinforced his Army Group South, stripping panzer forces from the other two army groups.

Phase two finally began with an assault on Kiev, which fell to the Germans on 19 September and netted 650,000 prisoners. Then, fall rain and mud slowed the German advance in the south. Progress toward Leningrad also ground to a halt, partly because of increased resistance but also because Hitler conceived a new plan. In that plan, which he directed on 6 September, Leningrad was to be encircled, put under siege, and starved into submission, and the Crimea, the Donets Basin, and the Caucasus were to be taken for the coal and oil resources that would fall to German use. The encirclement and capture of Moscow received highest priority, panzer forces previously transferred to the other army groups were now returned to Army Group Center, and operations began on 30 September. Commencement of the new plan, Operation taifun ( typhoon) effectively brought to an end Operation barbarossa.

The battle for Moscow breaks generally into three phases: the first German offensive encompassed the period from 30 September to nearly the end of October; the second German offensive took place between 17 November and 5 December; and the Soviet counteroffensive lasted from 6 December to spring 1942. General Heinz Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group of Army Group Center spearheaded the offensive. It took Orel on 3 October and 17 days later captured 665,000 Soviet prisoners around Vyazma and Bryansk. On 6 October, the Germans broke through the Rzhev-Vyazma Line and advanced toward the Mozhaisk Line, an improvised line of fortifications thrown up by the Soviets 50 miles west of Moscow during summer 1941. The Germans bypassed the Mozhaisk Line on the south and captured Kaluga on 12 October and Kalinin two days later. On 18 October, the Soviets abandoned Mozhaisk itself after heavy fighting.

Also on 6 October, the rasputitsa (literally, time without roads, caused by the fall and spring rain and mud in the USSR) began with the first wet snow, and alternating rain and snow fell almost continuously. At the same time, reinforcements from the Far East Command were on their way to the Moscow Front. These troops had been freed when the Japan-based Soviet spy Richard Sorge assured Josef Stalin that the Japanese would honor their nonaggression pact. On 10 October, Marshal Georgii Zhukov, pulled from commanding the defense of Leningrad where he had been sent only weeks before, took command of Moscow's defense. With the help of the weather and with the defenders' backs pressed against the capital, Soviet resistance solidified as the Germans advanced. For the first time in the war, the Soviets were able to confront the Germans head on and force them to fight for every mile.

On 15 October, with the Germans driving to within 50 miles of the capital, the Soviet government and diplomatic community were evacuated from Moscow to Kuibyshev on the Volga. This caused a panic among the Muscovites the next day; they believed they had been abandoned. The announcement on 17 October that Stalin was in the Kremlin, where he remained throughout the war, returned the city to relative calm. On 20 October, the State Defense Council declared the capital under a state of siege in order to deal swiftly with any other acts of civil disorder.

By 18 October, local Soviet counterattacks and the weather slowed the German advance, and between then and the beginning of November, the Germans made very little progress. It was in this context that, on 7 November, ceremonies commemorating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution were held in Red Square and Stalin made his "Holy Russia" speech, seeking to mobilize resistance to the invaders. The German failure to capture Moscow with the October offensive raised Soviet civilian and military morale and gave the Soviet High Command time to assemble large strategic reserves to the east. However, at the beginning of November, everything pointed to the Germans' preparation for another all-out attack.

The first major blow fell on 16 November in the Kalinin-Volokolamsk sector, and in two days, the Germans entered Klin, north of Moscow, and Istr, only 15 miles west—the closest the Germans were able to get to Moscow in force. To the south, Tula, which had been connected to Moscow by a narrow bottleneck, was encircled on 3 December for a short time, but the Soviets counterattacked and quickly reopened the Moscow highway. On 4 December, temperatures fell to well below freezing and remained there, stalling the German offensive.

On 6 December, the Soviets launched their winter counteroffensive along the Moscow Front from Kalinin in the north to Yelets in the south. By 1 December, 70 Soviet Far East divisions and another 27 from Central Asia had been transferred to the west. Approximately 20 of these entered the fight around Moscow in December. Although the German offensive, after heavy fighting in December and the first half of January, made fairly good progress in the northern and southern flanks of the front, the advance due west of Moscow was much less successful. The Soviets' plan had been to encircle the Germans west of the capital, but Hitler had purged some of his generals in Army Group Center and had taken supreme command himself and ordered a stiffening of the defense east of the Rzhev-Vyazma-Gzhatsk-Yukhnovo Line. By the end of January 1942, the Red Army counteroffensive came to a virtual standstill. Fierce combat in the Moscow area continued from January until the end of April 1942, by which point the German army had been driven back up to 160 miles from the Soviet capital.

The German failure to take Moscow within six months of its invasion of the Soviet Union was as important symbolically as militarily. It demonstrated both the Soviet determination and ability to defend the capital city and the inability of Hitler to conquer the Soviet Union as he had western Europe. Apart from being a substantial propaganda blow to Germany, the Battle of Moscow proved there were definite limits to German military power and marked the end of the German blitzkrieg on the Eastern Front.

Arthur T. Frame


Further Reading
Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.; Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Moscow: 1941, the Frozen Offensive. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1981.; Salisbury, Harrison E. The Unknown War. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.; Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964.; Ziemke, Earl F., and Magna E. Bauer. Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987.
 

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