I am dying but do not surrender. Farewell, Motherland.
- Scratched into a wall of the citadel of Brest-Litovsk
during its month-long siege.
On 21 June, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, possibly the most ambitious invasion in history. Four million troops, 7,000 field guns and 7,000 tanks surged over the Russian border, spreading confusion and disarray among the Red Army. Confident of their Blitzkrieg, talk of a winter war was banned at German High Command. "The war will be over in four weeks," they confidently declared. Indeed, the Wehrmacht enjoyed a huge number of successes, but such was the vastness of Russia that they seemed relatively insignificant. The Red Army had sustained many millions of casualties and yet still reinforcements continued to appear.
Operation Typhoon was the part of Barbarossa that involved taking Moscow, the capital city of the Soviet Union. Hitler gave it the go-ahead in early september, but it was not until late that month that the forces were finally ready to engage in it. Moscow lay just 200 miles away from a million German troops.
Russian military command had been anticipating the attack and concentrated reserve divisions around the city, but they were still taken by surprise when on 30 September the Wehrmacht smashed into them from the south. Panzer units appeared over a hundred miles behind Soviet lines and cut off over 600,000 troops. Things might have continued to go this well if it weren't for two factors, one which the Germans hadn't counted on but also one which they should have anticipated: Soviet tenacity and the Russian weather.
In virtually all of the old Soviet Union, World War II is referred to as The Great Patriotic War. Such was the spirit in the Soviet Union - Stalin had abandoned attempts to motivate his people through the empty promises of Bolshevism which he had so long ago proved he would not deliver, and had instead whipped Russian citizens into a patriotic fervour. The Red Army was inexperienced and ill-equipped, but their bravery and courage shocked German officers. They continued to fight to the last man "where most Western armies would surrender", observed a Wehrmacht officer. This was a huge problem to the Wehrmacht. Although there was certainly an element of fear of the country's regime among the Red Army troops, there was an immense feeling of patriotism. The Motherland would not be allowed to fall.
The other factor, the weather, is an old chestnut which might have not had such an effect if only Hitler were not so stubborn. The effects of the Autumn rains, which slowed his Panzer divisions on their advance towards Moscow, was an integral problem with the tanks (the tracks weren't wide enough, unlike the Soviet ones), but many deaths by frostbite could have been avoided if only his troops were equipped with proper winter clothes. When the winter arrived his already battle-weary and worn-down regiments found themselves facing an enemy equipped for the winter and full of reserves.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the winter arrived in earnest, a state of siege was declared in Moscow on October 19. Panic quickly spread through the city as rumours flew, but once again Russian patriotic propaganda mobilized the citizens to defend their city and the Motherland. Stalin chose to remain in the city.
Fighting continued fiercly, but time was not on the side of the Germans. The weather was now causing considerable troop casualties, hampering the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and slowing armour movements. They were still convinced they were wearing the Soviet forces down, but unknown to them fresh troops were being rallied at the other side of Moscow.
Without the Luftwaffe, the Germans could not avoid a war of attrition. Eventually the weather and continual reinforcements the Soviets were receiving forced Hitler to call off the Moscow offensive. At their closest, German troops had been only twenty miles from the Kremlin.
What happened next might surprise many. Because, having just observed a German army with overstretched supply lines and exhausted troops getting beaten by his own forces, Stalin made exactly the same mistake in attempting to rout the Germans. However, the Soviets had the advantage of being prepared for a winter campaign - ski troops and cavalary appeared miles behind enemy lines to smash supply posts and artillery, then dissapeared as quickly as they came. Although the Germans were resilient in standing and fighting, at Hitler's orders, they were gradually driven back.
The effect on the people living in the area around Moscow was profound. If the Wehrmacht didn't throw them from their homes and take their food as they retreated, then the Soviet scorched earth policy didn't fare them much better. By the end of that year, the Red Army had sustained five million casualties and three million prisoners of war had been taken, mostly after panzer encirclement.