German soldiers surrender, 27 December 1941
German soldiers surrender, 27 December 1941

The Battle of Moscow was the turning point of WWII

By Brandstories Time of article published Oct 7, 2021

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On 22 June 1941, at 4AM, while the country was sleeping peacefully, without a formal declaration of war, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – a plan, designed to destroy the USSR, to literally wipe it from the face of the Earth and turn its citizens into slaves, in full accordance with the Nazi theory of racial superiority. Thus, the Great Patriotic War (often dubbed in Western historiography as WWII at the Eastern Front) had begun. It claimed the lives of more than 26,6 million Soviet citizens.

World War II, the most destructive war in the history of mankind, was also the most destructive war in the history of Russia, as the Soviet Union bore the brunt of Nazi Germany and its satellites’ aggression. At the Soviet-German Front, the Nazis’ main forces operated. Germany and its allies kept between 95% (in Summer 1941) to 74% (late 1944) of their ground forces in the area from the White to Black Sea.

85% of the military casualties the Germans suffered while fighting the USSR while only 15% in the fight against Soviet Union’s allies in the anti-Hitler coalition. The Red Army confronted the Wehrmacht in numerous clashes, including the Heroic Defence of the Brest Fortress (22 June 1941 – early July 1941), Battle of Stalingrad (17 July 1942 – 2 February 1943), Battle of Kursk (5 July 1943 – 23 August 1943) and many others.

The Red Army not only managed to drive the Nazi oppressors out of the territory of the Soviet Union, but also to liberate a number of European capitals: Warsaw, capital of Poland, on 17 January 1945; Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, on 20 October 1945; Vienna, capital of Austria, on 13 April 1945; Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, on 9 September 1944; Prague, capital of Czechoslovakia, on 9 May 1945.

This streak of glorious victories commenced on 30 September 1941, 80 years ago, when the Battle of Moscow began. This battle was destined to become the turning point of the entire World War II.

The storm is coming

According to Nazis’ plans, in line with their strategy of the so-called “swift war” (Blitzkrieg), Moscow was to be seized within the first 3 or 4 months of the war. Yet the Wehrmacht’s onslaught was stalled for several months, due to the Red Army’s heroic defence of Smolensk and Kiev. German advance to Moscow was resumed only on 30 September, marking the beginning of the Battle of Moscow.

The Nazi Army Group “Centre” was assigned for the objective of capturing the USSR’s capital city. This operation was codenamed as “Typhoon”. Within days, German troops captured the cities of Orel and Tula, covering a distance of 474 km. Just 184 km more and they’d reach Moscow. Every day, every hour, every second, the enemy moved closer to the heart of the Soviet Union.

Time is of the essence

In order to amass enough personnel and equipment to repel the German attack on Moscow, Soviet supreme command desperately needed time. USSR is a large country – it takes a while to bring the troops from remote regions, and when a relentless enemy was approaching, every second counted.

To buy time, the Soviet command decided to send airborne brigades behind enemy lines. Over 6000 troops successfully landed and engaged in combat. Shortly afterwards, they were supported by Soviet 4th Tank Brigade from Stalingrad, under command of Colonel Mikhail Katukov - two times Hero of the Soviet Union, and one of the most prominent Soviet tank commanders of WWII era.

In the Battle of Mtsensk (an episode of the Battle of Moscow) which took place on 4-11 October 1941, Colonel Katukov claimed the first major victory for Soviet armoured troops by defeating General Heinz Guderian – commander of the Army Group “Centre”. This success allowed to stop Guderian’s advance to Moscow for a while. In the meantime, other forces of Army Group “Centre” were still moving from the West. They even managed to encircle a significant number of Soviet troops. At that point in time, the Nazis were free to pick any direction to continue their assault. In this dire, nearly hopeless situation, Joseph Stalin summoned Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who at the time was in charge of organizing the defences of the besieged Leningrad, to Moscow.

Red Army soldiers on position, October 1941

Georgy Zhukov (four times Hero of the Soviet Union) was a military commander of extraordinary talent. He proved that time and again, winning crucial battles against Nazi Germany’s finest strategic minds. For his vast contribution to the Great Victory over Nazism, he was nicknamed as “Marshal of Victory”. Back in 1941, he was assigned for a seemingly insurmountable task – save Moscow…and the Soviet Union. The enemy was closing in, there was hardly any time to do anything, but skillful leadership together with Red Army soldiers’ courage, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice managed to hold and, eventually, push the Nazis back.

7 November 1941: Parade on the Red Square. A manifestation of unbreakable will

From the beginning of the Battle of Moscow, Joseph Stalin never left the Soviet capital. On the contrary, he supervised the reinforcement of Moscow’s defences. Moreover, he assumed supreme command over the Red Army on 8 July 1941, a little less than two months prior to the Battle of Moscow. It was Joseph Stalin who proposed to hold a parade on the Red Square on 7 November 1941, in commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.

Military Parade on the Red Square, 7 November 1941

The preparations for the parade were carried out in absolute secrecy. At 8 o’clock in the morning, on 7 November, all Soviet radio stations broadcasted Joseph Stalin’s speech. In part it read: “Our enemy thought that after its very first strike, our army would be destroyed, and our country would be on its knees. Yet the enemy thought wrong. Despite temporary setbacks, our army and our navy heroically repel enemy attacks along the frontline, making it suffer heavy losses, and our country turned into one big military camp to help our army and our navy destroy the Nazi invaders”.

The speech had an enormous impact on Red Army’s morale. It re-energized the will of Soviet soldiers and officers to fight, inspired the homefront workers to continue their efforts to support the frontline, and reassured ordinary Soviet citizens that the USSR would prevail however dire the situation seemed. So it happened.

The Red Army’s counter offensive

Moscow’s defenders’ - both military and civilian - heroic resistance forced the Nazi assault to bog down. Once the Wehrmacht lost the initiative, the Red Army seized that opportunity to launch a counter offensive, which began on 5 December 1941. It lasted till April 1942. The immediate threat to Moscow had been eliminated and it was time to prepare for new battles.

Destroyed German convoy on Volokolamsk Road, December 1941

Operation Typhoon’s failure had thrown the German supreme command off its stride. The Nazis deemed the capture of the Soviet capital, as well as the USSR’s ultimate defeat, a mere matter of time. On 3 July 1941, even before the Battle of Moscow began, Nazi General Franz Halder wrote in his diary: “It won’t be an exaggeration to say that we’ve won the campaign against Russia within 14 days”.

Soldiers of 166th Rifle Division gather before a battle at distant outskirts of Moscow, October 1941

As it turned out, it was an exaggeration. Even in late November 1941, the Nazis were sure that the victory over the USSR was within their grasp. Only 8 kilometres separated the German vanguard forces from Moscow’s outskirts. However, despite all that, the Soviet people found enough strength to force the enemy to retreat. The Nazi soldiers and officers, who dreamed of marching on the Red Square in a parade to mark the victory over Soviet Union, were moving away from USSR’s capital – further and further away from their dream. In fact, they did walk the streets of Moscow after all, but not as conquerors, as they’d imagined, but as prisoners of war. This happened on 17 July 1944 during the so-called March of the Defeated.

Crew of Soviet Petlyakov Pe-2 bomber getting ready for combat mission, 15 January 1942

Changing the tide of war

The importance of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Moscow, for not just the Soviet Union but for the entire world cannot be overestimated. Failure of Operation Typhoon was the Wehrmacht’s first major defeat in WWII. The myth of Nazi war machine’s invincibility was dispelled. Hitler, who couldn’t believe that Moscow was still standing, assumed personal command over the German army. The Nazi tactics of Blitzkrieg didn’t work out – Hitler’s hope for a quick victory against USSR did not come true. The whole world witnessed the Soviet people’s unbreakable will to victory.

As a result of the defensive battles in the vicinity of Moscow and its counter offensive the Red Army destroyed over 500’000 Nazi troops, 1300 tanks, 2500 cannons. In comparison, the Wehrmacht lost 44’000 troops during the entire campaign against Poland, and in France it lost 154’000.

During the Nuremberg Trials, German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was asked a question: when did he start to realize that Operation Barbarossa failed? In response, he pronounced only one word: “Moscow”.

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