The Battle for Moscow

Ralph Zuljan

One could say that there were really two battles for Moscow. The first one began in 1940 when the German military began planning a Blitzkrieg campaign against the Soviet Union. From a military perspective there were several factors that made Moscow an important objective in any campaign against the Soviet Union. Moscow was the state capital and its capture would disrupt the government. It was a large industrial center and an important hub in the Soviet railway network. Its capture would cut off Soviet links with the northwestern USSR, thereby ensuring the capture of Leningrad and seriously weakening Soviet contact with the southwest. This result would effectively outflank a Soviet defense in the Ukraine and threaten a deep envelopment of any Soviet forces remaining there.

Adolf Hitler did not share his generals' enthusiasm for attacking Moscow first and it was his intentions that were reflected. The official German plan, Directive 21 -- Operation Barbarossa, did not emphasize or sanction the attack Moscow as a priority. Moscow was ranked as less important than Leningrad. In fact, the plan called for the diversion of armored assets from the Moscow axis after the capture of Smolensk in support of the northern drive towards Leningrad. The advance towards Moscow was to continue only in the event of an extremely favorable strategic position after reaching Smolensk. Perhaps the old military saying about a plan not surviving the first encounter with the enemy held sway with the German generals. This might explain why this plan did not reflect the army's opinion on the matter of the importance of Moscow.

Under Directive 21, the German armed forces available for the campaign in the Soviet Union were divided into three army groups. Army Group North was assigned the task of driving along a single axis northeastward through the Baltic republics with the objective of occupying Leningrad. Army Group Center was to attack eastward along two axes north of the Pripet Marsh with the progressive goals of Minsk, Smolensk and ultimately Moscow. Army Group South was intended to strike southeast toward Kiev with the drive to continue in the general direction of Stalingrad on the Volga. The ultimate objective of the campaign was to reach a line of roughly the Ural mountains in the north and the Volga river in the south.

German force deployment for the campaign against the Soviet Union suggested, however, what after the war ended became fairly common knowledge: the German army general staff believed that the capture of Moscow was the highest priority of the campaign against the Soviet Union. To this end the German army deployed two of the four panzer groups available on the central front aimed for Moscow. In all, more men, more tanks and more aircraft were deployed with Army Group Center and directed towards Moscow than with either of the other army groups. The military's intentions for the campaign, therefore, were reflected in the force distributions and the underlying, yet tacit, agreement of the commanders responsible for the operation.

The divergent views of Hitler and the army over the ultimate strategic direction of the campaign had little impact on the operation when it began on June 22, 1941. During the first weeks of the invasion the Germans broke through Soviet defensive lines with such relative ease that not much consideration was given to the conflicting objectives laid out in the original plan. Yet, even though the campaign against the Soviet Union seemed to be proceeding smoothly, factors which would bring the German dispute over strategic direction into the open were evident before the Battle of Smolensk began in the middle of July.

At that time Army Group North was advancing at a satisfactory pace and was closing in on Leningrad -- it did not appear to require additional panzer troops, called for in the original plan, to reach its objectives. Army Group Center had achieved an overwhelming victory against the Soviet forces opposing it and was well positioned to strike at Moscow in the immediate future. Army Group South, however, had encountered far heavier opposition than anticipated and it was not advancing as quickly as had been hoped. The unexpectedly heavy concentration of Soviet forces in the south accounted for the slowness of the advance on this end of the front.

Differences in the rates of advance were exacerbated by the fact that the army groups were advancing on divergent axes. By early July, this had become painfully apparent in the disposition of forces on the front line. Army Group Center's progress towards Smolensk had created a giant salient in the center of the front. The bulk of its forces were concentrated on the eastward edge and, consequently, it had two relatively exposed flanks which represented inviting targets for Soviet counterattacks. Given that Army Group North was advancing northeastward and Army Group South was advancing southeastward, there was little possibility of these forces providing any coverage for Army Group Center's flanks. Allowing an immediate advance on Moscow by Army Group Center would extend those unprotected flanks, substantially increasing the theoretical risk of a Soviet thrust against them.

The first manifestation of the dispute over strategic direction in the German command system occurred on July 19th when Directive 33 was issued. It instructed Panzer Group 2 to prepare for an advance southward, after the battle of Smolensk was completed, to assist Army Group South. Army Group Center was effectively to be put on the defensive until the completion of this southern excursion. This was not a popular plan among the generals of Army Group Center or of the German Army High Command. In the following weeks, there ensued a series of meetings and the issuance of further directives the results of which were to confirm the initial instructions. Hitler would not back down in the face of military opposition to his plans. The German generals had lost their first battle for Moscow.

Having lost their battle for Moscow with Hitler, the German generals applied themselves to the rapid conclusion of the diversion of Army Group Center's panzers southward with the expectation of advancing on Moscow once this move was complete. Among the benefits of a panzer drive south was that the vulnerable and extended southern flank of Army Group Center would then be secured. Once it was completed, there would be no threat of a northward thrust against the rear of the army group by Soviet forces nominally to the south or southwest of it.

Whether such a threat to the flank of Army Group Center ever existed, however, is open to debate. Despite the fact that the Soviet Southwestern Front was stronger than the fronts opposing the advances of the German army groups further north on the Eastern front, its armies were being pushed back. They had thus far managed to avoid being caught in the destructive battles of encirclement that other Soviet armies had been trapped in, but the Soviet forces fighting Army Group South were not in a position to disengage without risking destruction.

In order for even a small part of these forces to represent a serious threat to the German advance in the center, against Moscow, they would have had to have been fully disengaged in the south first. To do this implied weakening Soviet resistance in the Ukraine. Withdrawing substantial forces would have meant significantly weakening the Soviet defense in the south. Since the Soviet forces in the Ukraine were already being pushed back by the German offensive, doing so would have risked turning what was a battle for the Ukraine into a Soviet rout comparable to that occurring further north. Under these circumstances it was extremely doubtful that an effective Soviet attack could have been mounted against Army Group Center's exposed southern flank.

In the postwar period, under the influence of the writings of German generals involved in Barbarossa campaign -- Guderian in particular, there has been a great deal of attention given to the implications of a successful German attack on Moscow. Some historians, Stolfi for example, have gone so far as to suggest that a German victory in the war against the Soviet Union depended on capturing Moscow before the winter of 1941-42 and that there were no good military reasons for the Germans not achieving this result. Such writings focus on the redirection of panzer forces south -- on Hitler's orders -- as the primary reason the German campaign failed to reach Moscow before the winter. In response, other historians like Glantz have suggested that part of the reason the Germans turned south was the increasing Soviet resistance on the Moscow axis at the time of the Battle of Smolensk and the need to secure Army Group Center's southern flank. These are the same reasons expressed by Hitler in his arguments with the army generals and written into Directives 33 and 34.

In either case, Smolensk is considered the decisive encounter for determining the strategic result of the campaign. The battle of Smolensk was completed on August 5th. According to Glantz, total Soviet casualties in this battle amounted to 344,926 of the 581,600 man strength of their forces engaged in this battle (for the period July 10th to September 10th). The Germans claimed 300,000 prisoners and the destruction of most of the remainder of the 700,000 man strong Soviet force opposing them (by August 5th). Both claims lead to the same conclusion. Army Group Center had severely mauled the Soviet forces in this battle and at the end of it there was no meaningful Soviet resistance left on the road to Moscow. It was early August 1941.

However, in accordance with the revised plan, Army Group Center switched over to the defensive and Panzer Group 2, along with 2nd Army which had been the southern flank of Army Group South, advanced southward beginning on August 23rd. By September 12th, forces of Panzer Group 2, attacking southward, and Panzer Group 1, attacking northeastward, linked up some 160 kilometers east of Kiev. In the process, they encircled a Soviet force of about 600,000 men, effectively collapsing Soviet resistance in the western Ukraine. This movement resulted in a massive German victory over Soviet troops on the southern part of the front but it tied up German forces required for an advance on Moscow until the end of September.

The German forces regrouped for an assault on Moscow in mid-September and operations began on September 31st. In the intervening eight weeks since Army Group Center had last taken the offensive the Soviets had built-up their forces on the Moscow axis and prepared yet another strong defensive position before Moscow. It failed to stop the German offensive. A new series of encirclements ensued and a further 600,000 Soviet troops along with a substantial amount of equipment were lost before the German offensive came to a temporary halt on October 30th. Weather and logistical difficulties were the foremost reasons for this break in the German offensive. But the battle experience also suggested that Soviet resistance was not broken before Moscow.

The Germans resumed their attack towards Moscow on November 15th. However, the supply situation was not substantially improved from that at the end of October and most of the units were severely under strength and unprepared for winter. Soviet troops at the front fared little better but Soviet units that had been held in Siberia up to this time -- against the possibility of a Japanese attack -- were being brought into the strategic reserve at Moscow in preparation for a counteroffensive. German attacks continued with lessening strength against increasing Soviet resistance until December 5th when the operation was officially halted because the prospect of further gains was doubtful. This date generally marks the conclusion of Operation Barbarossa and the German defeat at Moscow. The Soviet winter counteroffensive began on the following day, December 6th.

Part I originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on February 1, 1999. Part II originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on March 1, 1999.
Revised editions published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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