The Battle of Moscow is the name given by Soviet historians to two periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defensive effort frustrated Hitler's attack on Moscow, capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the largest Soviet city. Moscow was one of the primary military and political objectives for Axis forces in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
The German strategic offensive named Operation Typhoon was planned to conduct two pincer offensives, one to the north of Moscow against the Kalinin Front by the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies, simultaneously severing the Moscow-Leningrad railway, and another to the south of Moscow Oblast against the Western Front, south of Tula by the 2nd Panzer Army, while the 4th Army advanced directly towards Moscow from the west. A separate operational German plan, codenamed Operation Wotan, was included in the final phase of the German offensive.
Initially, the Soviet forces conducted a strategic defence of the Moscow Oblast by constructing three defensive belts, and deploying newly raised reserve armies as well as bringing troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern Military Districts. Subsequently, as the German offensives were halted, a Soviet strategic counter-offensive and smaller-scale offensive operations were executed to force German armies back to the positions around the cities of Oryol, Vyazma and Vitebsk, nearly surrounding three German armies in the process.
The original German invasion plan, which the Axis called Operation Barbarossa, called for the capture of Moscow within four months. However, despite large initial advances, the Wehrmacht was slowed by Soviet resistance, in particular during the Battle of Smolensk, which lasted from July to August 1941. At this stage, Moscow was vulnerable, but Hitler ordered the attack to turn south and eliminate Russian forces at Kiev which resulted in a huge triumph for the Germans. Their advance on Moscow was resumed on 2 October 1941, with an offensive codenamed Typhoon. Participating in it were three out of four panzer armies on the eastern front: the German 2nd, 3rd and 4th (or Groups as they are sometimes referred to) along with the 2nd, 4th and 9th infantry armies. This was to be the knockout blow of the campaign.
The initial advance resulted in two huge encirclements around the towns of Vyzama and Briansk which pocketed 660,000 Russian troops. But by mid-October, the Russian rainy period commenced, turning the roads and countryside into muddy quagmires. The German tank forces were reduced to a crawl, often unable to move two out of every three days. Through the great forests which lie in front of Moscow, only the narrow trails were negotiable and it required only small Russian forces to block these. Their cavalry became very active during this period, frequently moving through the woods and getting behind German lines where they laid mines and ambushed supply columns. Even before the poor weather arrived, however, a series of Soviet counter-blows along the entire front helped to stabilize the situation.
Perhaps the most effective of these blows fell on Guderianâ€™s 4th Panzer Division as it approached Mtsensk on 6 October. Here two Soviet officers who later gained fame as superb battlefield commanders cooperated to ambush the Germans. Major-General D.D. Leliushenkoâ€™s 1st Guards Rifle Corps had rushed to the scene to block the advance of Second Panzer Group. Leliushenkoâ€™s troops included two tank brigades, the 4th and 11th and two airborne brigades, the 10th and 201st of 5th Airborne Corps, flown in to a nearby airfield. Colonel M.E. Katukovâ€™s 4th Tank Brigade, equipped with newly produced T34s, displayed a tactical ability that the invaders had not encountered before.
Katukov concealed his armor in the woods whilst the German advance guard rolled by. Leliushenkoâ€™s patchwork collection of infantry and airborne troops blocked 4th Panzer from the front, after which Katukov ambushed the Germans from the flanks. The under-gunned, under armoured German Mark IVâ€™s attempted to break out of the ambush by maneuvering around Katukov but were quickly halted by short counter-attacks. By the end of the day, most of the 4th Panzer Divisionâ€™s armour had been reduced to smoking hulks. This shock to Second Panzer Group, which had just been re-designated Second Panzer Army, was so great that a special investigation was conducted. Even Guderian grudgingly acknowledged that his opponents were learning.
Meanwhile, the Soviet command led by General Georgi Zhukov began creating a reserve around Moscow by taking what was left of the shattered divisions from the Vyazma-Briansk battles (mostly on the flank and unengaged). These were bolstered by scraping up units from other nearby Soviet commands such as Timoshenko's Southwest Front. Moscow was placed under martial law. The civilian population dug several rings of anti-tank trenches around the city and many were incorporated into the militia.
With the onset of cold weather and the freezing of the ground, Axis forces began to move once more. But the change in weather brought new problems for them. Most of the German troops lacked winter clothing resulting in over 100,000 cases of frostbite. Many Axis vehicles could not withstand the cool temperatures, resulting in cracked engine blocks. Tank crews had to maintain small fires under their vehicles to protect them. Perhaps most serious was the effect on their air force, which was grounded much of the time.
Of the two German armored prongs, the 2nd Panzer Army under General Heinz Guderian operating to the south of Moscow got as far as the city of Tula where it finally ground to a halt. In the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies pushed across the frozen Moscow-Volga canal, but no further.
By early December, some leading German units were able to see some of Moscow's buildings with binoculars. On 5 December 1941, fresh Soviet Siberian troops constituting 18 divisions and prepared for winter warfareâ€”attacked along with new and reconstituted units of the Red Army. By January 1942, they had driven the Wehrmacht back 100â€“250 km (62â€“160 mi), ending the immediate threat to Moscow. It was the closest that the Axis forces ever got to capturing the Soviet capital.
The Battle of Moscow was one of the most important battles of World War II, primarily because the Soviets were able to prevent the most serious attempt to capture their capital. The battle was also one of the largest during the war, with more than a million total casualties. The Wehrmacht had been forced to retreat before, during the Yelnya Offensive in September 1941 and at the Battle of Rostov. However, Moscow marked a turning point, as it was the first time since the Wehrmacht began its conquests in 1939 that it had been forced into a retreat from which it did not recover the initiative.