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Bittersweet Russian appellation for that country's greatest military ally (assisted by his deputy, Colonel Distance). On two spectacular occasions, Russia has been saved from foreign conquest by the invaders' unpreparedness for the brutal Russian winter.

"General Winter" is a broader form of the expression coined by Tsar Nicholas I in 1854, amid the Crimean War, in which he said he'd let Generals January and February look after the French and British invaders. (In the event, Nicholas died in 1855, of a chill he caught while reviewing troops at the front.) Winter also helped the troops of Peter the Great in 1703-06, in the Great Northern War against Sweden. Thanks, Gorgonzola!

Napoleon

On June 23, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and headed directly for Moscow, on the theory that if he took Russia's commercial centre, the country's back would be broken. He began the invasion with 450,000 men, far more than the Russian army could possibly resist, and the Russians carried out strategic retreat after strategic retreat, fighting and running over hundreds of kilometres. Napoleon's invasion was slowed but not stopped.

The Grande Armée reached the gates of Moscow on Sept. 14, having won two major engagements (at Smolensk and at Borodino) and with the tsar's army not shattered but certainly in disarray. Moscow, however, had been evacuated, its prisons opened and its firefighting equipment wrecked. The clack of horses' hooves echoed on the cobbles as Napoleon and his generals rode through the empty city.

The city was depopulated, void of supplies, and -- whether thanks to French soldiers, released prisoners, or fleeing Muscovites, it's not clear -- soon ablaze. Winter, which in Moscow is six months long, was closing in. Napoleon had struck deep into Russia but Tsar Alexander was still on his throne in St. Petersburg. Napoleon sent him an ultimatum, which the tsar simply ignored, and the French emperor was left with three choices: strike for St. Petersburg now, wait out the winter and move later, or retreat.

Napoleon waited a month for Alexander to agree to negotiations but the tsar never responded to the emperor's demands. With no supply lines to speak of, his men running out of food and literally sleeping in the streets, Napoleon started the long march home on Oct. 19, 1812.

The winter began sharp and early. Temperatures soon dropped well below freezing, there was no food, Cossacks harrassed the retreating French, and there were 500 miles to cover. Of the 450,000 soldiers who'd crossed into Russia in the early summer, only 10,000 crossed the border heading back the other way.

Hitler

Adolf Hitler wasn't ignorant of military history but he refused to believe his Reich was bound by the same physical laws as previous generals. When his army invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Hitler simply refused to consider the possibility his men would still be fighting by the time winter descended.

His Wehrmacht had the unprepared Red Army outclassed, which led to several early victories that only enhanced Hitler's belief that God was on the Nazis' side. His forces tarried on the Baltic coast and then he split them to keep Leningrad under siege and also to strike simultaneously at Moscow and the Caucasus in the south.

The force bound for Moscow (in "Operation Typhoon") only arrived in November, 1941, with temperatures already plunging. They'd been held up by a wet summer and early fall, which had turned roads into swamps and contributed to outbreaks of disease that had already weakened the Wehrmacht invaders.

The Soviets had established two huge lines of defence by sending virtually every able-bodied civilian out to build earthworks and antitank trenches; Stalin ordered the Red Army to protect Moscow at all costs (although his famous "Not one step back" order is usually associated with the defence of Stalingrad, Stalin issued it first to the defenders of Moscow).

Although German soldiers could actually see the spires of Moscow from some of their forward positions, they never got any closer. Heroic Soviet soldiers sustained staggering losses to keep the Germans at a standstill outside the gates.

By early December, Hitler had still refused to acknowledge that his troops wouldn't be warming themselves by the fireplaces of the Kremlin within a few days. German soldiers still hadn't been issued winter uniforms (the government hadn't even bothered to produce many, and eventually took up a winter-coat collection among the civilians of Berlin). Their steel helmets, a tremendous asset in a firefight, became freezer units in below-zero temperatures, and the same was true of the infantry's steel-shod boots.

Panzer motors were freezing solid -- the Germans hadn't developed winter fuel that would work at low temperatures -- and the Luftwaffe planes' engines wouldn't start, even with fires lit under the engines to warm them up. The Germans' vital technological advantages were neutralized, and as the snow started to fall, the strategic situation began to be reversed: the Soviets had winter gear, winter fuels, and ski-equipped units used to operating in Siberia.

In December, the Soviets counterattacked, with troops who had been mustering on the other side of Moscow for weeks. In some places, they were able to drive the Germans back more than 300 kilometres. By April, German casualties totalled nearly a million men and the wreckage of the Operation Typhoon army was in no condition to reinforce the troops who were driving toward Stalingrad in the southeast.

And speaking of Stalingrad, of course, brutal winter conditions in 1942-43 contributed considerably to the destruction of the German 6th Army. Strategic and tactical foolishness played a bigger role, but General Winter was a major factor in the breaking of the Germans' eastern front, and therefore to Germany's loss of World War II.

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