Smolensk Russia, Headquarters, German Army Group Center (AGC), December 3, 1941; Army Group commander, 61-year-old Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock is a troubled man.
The day before, he had told his field army commanders who were attacking Moscow that the enemy was close to breaking. Today he wasn’t so sure. Today the Army Group’s 4th Army, directly west of Moscow, had gone over to the defensive. The army commander, 59-year-old Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, halted the attack because his troops were simply exhausted and could go no farther.
General der Panzertruppen Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd and Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Armies north of Moscow, as well as Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army south of Moscow, were similarly idled. Panzer Groups One and Two had been renamed Panzer armies in October; Panzer Groups Three and Four would be renamed as such in January 1942. For clarity, all are here referred to as Panzer Army.
Motors would not turn over, the oil in their crankcases turned to ice; machine guns would not fire, their mechanisms frozen solid. At night the temperature hovered around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was a blizzard blowing around the capital. What the Red Army had not been able to accomplish, “General Winter” did. The German advance on Moscow had literally stopped cold.
This was what the Soviets had been waiting for. They knew that the moment the Germans stopped advancing was the moment that they must take the offensive. They could not let them prepare positions or bring forward infantry to hold the line. They must strike now—whether their assault units were in position or not. That is exactly what they did; the order for the counteroffensive went out on the night of the 4th.
Army General Georgii Zhukov, the 45-year-old commander of the Western Front, would command the counteroffensive. Zhukov had bested the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol prior to World War II but had found little success thus far against the Germans.
Zhukov had seven new armies from the strategic reserve to throw against the Germans. In addition to his Western Front, Zhukov’s command for the attack included two armies from the Kalinin Front to the north and two armies from the Southwest Front to the south; in total: 1.1 million men, 7,652 guns and mortars, 774 tanks, and 1,000 aircraft.
Bock’s AGC had perhaps half again as many men, but they were bone weary, famished, and freezing. The Soviets had fresh forces from all over the country; rifle divisions and tank units from the Volga, the Urals, and the Far East, ski troops from the Gorki and Kirov areas, cavalry formations from Central Asia. They would not all attack at once, but would be fed into the battle in stages as the offensive developed.
Zhukov’s plan was nothing if not ambitious. The first phase would strike at the most serious threat at the moment—the 3rd and 4th Panzer Army’s thrust north of Moscow, with the 30th Army, 1st Shock Army, 20th Army, and 16th Army. This would be closely followed by the 10th Army, 50th Army, and the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps attacking Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army salient south of the capital from three sides.
At the same time, the 3rd and 13th Armies would attack General der Panzertruppen Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army on the army group’s southern flank while the 31st and 29th Armies would attack Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army on the army group’s northern flank. Meanwhile, in the center the Soviet 5th, 33rd, 43rd, and 49th Armies would only demonstrate and not attack initially in order to discourage the transfer of German reinforcements to the north or south.
In phase two, after success on the flanks, the Red Army units in the center would go over to the offensive and accomplish the general destruction of von Bock’s Army Group Center. Zhukov’s eventual goal was to push the AGC front all the way back to the line Staraya Russa-Velikiye Luki-Vitebsk-Smolensk-Bryansk.
The offensive began at Kalinin, 100 miles northwest of Moscow, in deep snow and a temperature of -22 degrees Fahrenheit at 3 am on Friday, December 5, when the Kalinin Front’s 31st Army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Vasili Yushkevich, struck out across the Volga River ice from positions just south of the city. Just before noon the 31st’s running mate, Lt. Gen. Ivan Maslennikov’s 29th Army, struck out across the ice just north of the city held by Strauss’s 9th German Army.
The next morning the attack against the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies commenced when the Western Front’s 30th Army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Dmitri Lelyushenko, attacked Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzer Army east of Klin.
At the same time, the 1st Shock Army, headed by Maj. Gen. Vasili Kuznetsov, attacked and fought its way into Yakhroma, while Lt. Gen. Andrei Vlasov’s 20th Army hit Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army at Krasnaya Polyana. At first light on the 7th, Lt. Gen. Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 16th Army smashed into other 4th Panzer Army elements near Khimki.
South of Moscow the Soviet offensive began on December 6. On the left flank of the Western Front the 10th Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Filipp Golikov, attacked Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army at Mikhailov, while Maj. Gen. Pavel Belov’s independent 1st Guards Cavalry Corps hit Guderian’s formations at Kashira.
Tula, 100 miles south of Moscow and 90 percent encircled by 2nd Panzer Army for weeks, was held by Lt. Gen. Ivan Boldin’s 50th Army, which attacked southeastward into the encircling ring on the afternoon of the 8th. Its aim was to cut off the retreat of any German forces north and east of Tula.
Finally, on the far south wing of AGC, the 13th Army, under Maj. Gen. Avksenti Gorodianskiy, struck Schmidt’s 2nd Army on both sides of Yelets, 220 miles south of Moscow, on 7 December—the same day Japanese forces were attacking Pearl Harbor. This was followed the next day by Maj. Gen. Yakov Kreizer’s 3rd Army attack on Yefremov.
Almost the entire front around Moscow, which was covered in several feet of snow and constantly subjected to blizzard conditions, was, by the end of the first week of December, fully in flames. From Kalinin in the north 320 miles south to Yelets, the Germans and the Soviets were fully engaged in mortal combat.
On the northern flank, Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army had managed to hold off the 29th and 31st Armies on December 6 and keep them from closing their encirclement of Kalinin. In this Strauss got generous help from the Luftwaffe, which had a great deal of immobile equipment and temporarily non-airworthy aircraft at Kalinin.
Reinhardt’s 3rd and Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Armies had already begun pulling back from their exposed forward positions and were going over to the defense when the Soviets struck. On the morning of the 7th, the roads leading to Klin from the east were packed with 3rd Panzer Army rear echelon troops heading west. Many guns and much equipment, not to mention tanks, were left behind because motors and transmissions were frozen. There was very little gasoline, and unless a motor was left running constantly it would freeze up. The men had to leave, but much of their equipment could not. The 1st Shock Army followed hesitantly from its breakthrough at Yakhroma.
The bigger threat to Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzer Army at the moment was from Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, farther north. The 30th broke through at Rogachevo and surged eight miles that first day, approaching Klin from the northeast. The next morning the lead detachment surprised the LVI Panzer Corps headquarters at Bolshoye Shchapovo, barely three miles northeast of Klin. (Note that the German Panzer Corps had all originally been named Motorized Army Corps [A.K. (Mot.)]. They were all renamed Panzer Corps at various dates in 1942. For clarity, all are here referred to as Panzer Corps.)
The corps commander, General der Panzertruppen Ferdinand Schaal, was seen dispensing aimed fire from his carbine as he fled. The next day the Russians cut the main north-south highway three miles northwest of Klin as thousands of German troops squeezed through the town, flooding west. Klin was the main crossroads point north of Moscow through which most all German troops in the area had to withdraw; it must be held as long as possible.
South of 3rd Panzer Army, Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army had initially fared a bit better. His troops were holding off the Soviet 20th Army east of Solnechnogorsk, and the 1st Shock Army was moving only cautiously along the 4th’s northern boundary with 3rd Panzer Army. In fact, 1st Shock was moving so slowly that Zhukov ordered it to pick up its pace on December 7.
That same day, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army joined the attack. The 16th was one of the best equipped Soviet armies of the Western Front and showed it that first day, surging some 20 miles and capturing Kryukovo on the 8th.
In the center of the army group front, von Kluge’s 4th Army, the last army to halt its attack on Moscow, was initially very fortunate. As mentioned, the Soviet units opposite 4th Army were not to attack initially––only “demonstrate,” and most did little of that. Consequently, 4th Army had a chance to dig in and consolidate its front. They were even able to spend some time reconnoitering and improving the “Winter Line” positions to the west into which they expected to withdraw.