Seventy-three years ago this month, the men of Gunther von Kulge’s Army Group Center were huddled in mud-filled foxholes or idling the engines of their vehicles in the fields around Mozhaisk, Kallinin, and Serpukhov. A mile or two to the east, across the Nara River, the Red Army was assembling one last defensive position along a line of rolling hills less than 50km (30 miles) from Moscow.
The troops of Army Group Center had been in more or less continuous combat for five months, advancing more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) and capturing hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers. They had enjoyed a run of success almost without parallel, but now they were struggling. The autumn rain had turned the roads into what Heinz Guderian called “canals of bottomless mud” which choked the tracks of the tanks and sucked at the wheels of the supply trucks, breaking axles and wearing out gearboxes. Overburdened horses were collapsing in their thousands, their handlers unable to do anything more than cut them from their harnesses and leave them to die by the side of the road. The fabled ‘General Winter’ had not yet arrived on the battlefield, but conditions were already proving too much for the Wehrmacht’s hasty preparations.
Unsteady though their position was, the Germans felt that they were tantalisingly close to a historic victory. The Red Army had lost around 40 percent of its manpower since the summer and almost all its heavy equipment. Although on paper Stalin had six armies ranged around Moscow, in practice most of these formations were understrength and under-equipped. Ivan Konev, commander of the armies gathered for the defence of they city, had only 479 tanks at his disposal and a desperate shortage of artillery. One more crushing blow, the encirclement of Moscow, was all that would be needed to bring down the Soviet colossus.
Between the 10th and 13th of November the temperature dropped rapidly. This made life even harder for the poorly-equipped German infantry, but made it possible for the panzer armies to get underway once again, moving more easily over frozen ground. The first major attack went forward near Klin (around 80km/50 miles northwest of Moscow) on 15 November. This was supposed to be the northern pincer of the German offensive, tasked with swinging around the city before linking up with the rest of the army on the other side. Despite hitting a relatively weak point in the Soviet line, the panzers could not make the breakthrough they needed. The Soviet 16th Army put up a determined defense, falling back gradually and inflicting heavy losses on the German attackers. The southern pincer of the offensive, led by Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Army, encountered similar resistance. The Red Army was fighting not just for Moscow but for the heartland of Russia, where the armies of Alexander Nevsky and Dmitri Donskoi once fought, and was not likely to give ground easily.
For the next two weeks the advance continued, slowly but continuously. It reached its peak on 28 November. In the north elements of the 7th Panzer Division managed to throw a bridgehead across the Moscow–Volga Canal, while in the south LII Corps reached the town of Kashira on the Oka River, cutting the main highway south from Moscow. Neither of these victories lasted, however. In the north a counterattack by the 1st Shock Army drove the panzers back across the canal, while in the south an ad-hoc formation that included the Soviet 2nd Cavalry Corps, the 173 Rifle Division and the 9th Tank Brigade recaptured Kashira.
With the pincer movement defeated, the Germans no longer had any realistic chance of capturing Moscow. The temperature was dropping fast now, quickly passing the point at which it was useful to the panzer armies. As the Wehrmacht high command drew up plans for a frontal assault on the Russian capital, the temperatures plunged below -20ºC (-4ºF), freezing the engines of the German tanks and hospitalising thousands of infantrymen with frostbite. The December offensive, undertaken with little or no armoured support against the strongest part of the Soviet line, was a predictable failure. Though it is true that the Germans advanced as far as Khimki – a northern suburb some 8km (5 miles) from the city centre – this position was only held for a few hours by a reconnaissance battalion operating far in front of the main force. The bulk of the army never made more than a few small salients in the Soviet stop-line.
Although it is not as well known in the West as the battle of Stalingrad, it has been argued that it is this earlier defeat that marks the real turning point of the war. Though the Germans continued to launch offensives throughout 1942 and early 1943, the economic balance had shifted irrecoverably in favour of the allies. The German armaments industry could never keep up with the vast industrial power of the Soviet Union and the United States. By failing to knock the USSR out of the war in 1941, the Germans had sowed the seeds of their eventual defeat.