World War II: Battle of Moscow

Battle of Moscow
Soviet forces during the Battle of Moscow. Public Domain

The Battle of Moscow was fought October 2, 1941 to January 7, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fast Facts: Battle of Moscow

Dates: October 2, 1941 to January 7, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Soviet Union Armies and Commanders

German Armies and Commanders

Battle of Moscow - Background:

On June 22, 1941, German forces launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. The Germans had hoped to commence the operation in May, but were delayed by the need to campaign in the Balkans and Greece. Opening the Eastern Front, they quickly overwhelmed Soviet forces and made large gains. Driving east, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Center won the Battle of Białystok-Minsk in June, shattering the Soviet Western Front and killing or capturing over 340,000 Soviet troops. Crossing the Dnieper River, the Germans began a protracted battle for Smolensk. Though encircling the defenders and crushing three Soviet armies, Bock was delayed into September before he could resume his advance.

Though the road to Moscow was largely open, Bock was forced to order forces south to aid in the capture of Kiev. This was due to Adolf Hitler's unwillingness to continue fighting large battles of encirclement which, though successful, had failed to break the back of Soviet resistance. Instead, he sought to destroy the Soviet Union's economic base by capturing Leningrad and the Caucasus oil fields. Among those directed against Kiev was Colonel General Heinz Guderian's Panzergruppe 2. Believing that Moscow was more important, Guderian protested the decision, but was overruled. By supporting Army Group South's Kiev operations, Bock's timetable was further delayed. As a result, it was not until October 2, with the fall rains setting in, that Army Group Center was able to launch Operation Typhoon. The codename for Bock's Moscow offensive, the goal of Operation Typhoon was to capture the Soviet capital before the harsh Russian winter began (Map).

Battle of Moscow - Bock's Plan:

To accomplish this goal, Bock intended to employ the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Armies which would be supported by Panzer Groups 2, 3, and 4. Air cover would be provided by the Luftwaffe's Luftflotte 2. This combined force numbered just short of two million men, 1,700 tanks, and 14,000 artillery pieces. The plans for Operation Typhoon called for a double-pincer movement against the Soviet Western and Reserve Fronts near Vyazma while a second force moved to capture Bryansk to the south. With the success of these maneuvers, German forces would advance to encircle Moscow and hopefully compel Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to make peace. Though reasonably sound on paper, the plans for Operation Typhoon failed to account for the fact that German forces were battered after several months of campaigning and that their supply lines were having difficulty getting goods to the front. Guderian later noted that his forces were short on fuel from the outset of the campaign.

Battle of Moscow - Soviet Preparations:

Aware of the threat to Moscow, the Soviets began constructing a series of defensive lines in front of the city. The first of these stretched between Rzhev, Vyazma, and Bryansk, while a second, double-line was built between Kalinin and Kaluga and dubbed the Mozhaisk defense line. To protect Moscow proper, the capital's citizens were drafted to construct three lines of fortifications around the city. While Soviet manpower was initially stretched thin, additional reinforcements were being brought west from the Far East as intelligence suggested that Japan did not pose an immediate threat. This was further bolstered by the fact that the two nations had signed a neutrality back in April 1941.

Battle of Moscow - Early German Successes:

Storming forward, two German panzer groups (3rd and 4th) quickly made gains near Vyazma and encircled the 19th, 20th, 24th, and 32nd Soviet Armies on October 10. Rather than surrendering, the four Soviet armies tenaciously continued the fight, slowing the German advance and forcing Bock to divert troops to aid in reducing the pocket. Ultimately the German commander was forced to commit 28 divisions to this fight. This allowed the remnants of the Western and Reserve Fronts to fall back to the Mozhaisk defense line and for reinforcements to be rushed forward. These largely went to support the Soviet 5th, 16th, 43rd, and 49th Armies. To the south, Guderian's panzers rapidly encircled the entire Bryansk Front. Linking with the German 2nd Army, they captured Orel and Bryansk by October 6.

As in the north, the encircled Soviet forces, 3rd and 13th Armies, continued the fight and eventually escaped east. Despite this, the initial German operations saw them capture over 500,000 Soviet soldiers. On October 7, the first snow of the season fell. This soon melted, turning the roads to mud and severely hampering German operations. Grinding forward, Bock's troops turned back numerous Soviet counterattacks and reached the Mozhaisk defenses on October 10. That same day, Stalin recalled Marshal Georgy Zhukov from the Siege of Leningrad and directed him to oversee the defense of Moscow. Assuming command, he focused Soviet manpower in the Mozhaisk line.

Battle of Moscow - Wearing Down the Germans:

Outnumbered, Zhukov deployed his men at key points in the line at Volokolamsk, Mozhaisk, Maloyaroslavets, and Kaluga. Resuming his advance on October 13, Bock sought to avoid the bulk of the Soviet defenses by moving against Kalinin in the north and Kaluga and Tula in the south. While the first two fell quickly, the Soviets succeeded in holding Tula. After frontal attacks captured Mozhaisk and Maloyaroslavets on the 18th and subsequent German advances, Zhukov was forced to fall back behind the Nara River. Though the Germans made gains, their forces were badly worn down and were plagued by logistical issues.

While German troops lacked appropriate winter clothing, they also took losses to the new T-34 tank which was superior to their Panzer IVs. By November 15, the ground had frozen and mud ceased to be an issue. Seeking to end the campaign, Bock directed 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies to encircle Moscow from the north, while Guderian moved around the city from the south. The two forces were link up at Noginsk approximately 20 miles east of Moscow. Rolling forward, German forces were slowed by the Soviet defenses but succeeded in taking Klin on 24th and four days later crossed the Moscow-Volga Canal before being pushed back. In the south, Guderian bypassed Tula and took Stalinogorsk on November 22.

Pushing onward, his offensive was checked by the Soviets near Kashira a few days later. With both prongs of his pincer movement bogged down, Bock launched a frontal assault at Naro-Fominsk on December 1. After four days of heavy fighting, it was defeated. On December 2, a German reconnaissance unit reached Khimki only five miles from Moscow. This marked the furthest German advance. With temperatures reaching -50 degrees, and still lacking winter equipment, the Germans were forced to halt their offensives.

Battle of Moscow - Soviets Strike Back:

By December 5, Zhukov had been heavily reinforced by divisions from Siberia and the Far East. Possessing a reserve of 58 divisions, he unleashed a counter-offensive to push the Germans back from Moscow. The beginning of the attack coincided with Hitler ordering German forces to assume a defensive stance. Unable to organize a solid defense in their advance positions, the Germans were forced from Kalinin on the 7th and the Soviets moved to envelop the 3rd Panzer Army at Klin. This failed and the Soviets advanced on Rzhev. In the south, Soviet forces relieved pressure on Tula on December 16. Two days later, Bock was sacked in favor of Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. This was largely due to Hitler's anger over German troops conducting a strategic retreat against his wishes (Map).

The Russians were aided in their efforts by extreme cold and poor weather which minimized the Luftwaffe's operations. As the weather improved in late December and early January the Luftwaffe began intensive bombing in support of German ground forces This slowed the enemy advances and by January 7, the Soviet counter-offensive came to an end. In the course of the fighting, Zhukov succeeded in pushing the Germans 60 to 160 miles from Moscow.

Battle of Moscow - Aftermath:

The failure of German forces at Moscow doomed Germany to fighting a prolonged struggle on the Eastern Front. This part of the war would consume the vast majority of its manpower and resources for the remainder of the conflict. Casualties for the Battle of Moscow are debated, but estimates suggest German losses of between 248,000-400,000 and Soviet losses of between 650,000 and 1,280,000. Slowly building strength, the Soviets would turn the tide of the war at the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943.