The troops of Germany’s Army Group Center were more than a week into a fresh offensive to capture Moscow on July 14 when they approached the historic battlefield of Borodino where the Russians delayed Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in 1812. Dug in on the battlefield were the forward elements of a fresh division from the Soviet Union’s Far East Military District that had been rushed to Moscow to thwart the German drive on the Soviet capital.
The burly men, outfitted in fur caps, great coats, and fur boots, belonged to Colonel Viktor Polosukhin’s 32nd Siberian Rifle Division, which had arrived from Vladivostok by rail and reached the old battlefield several days earlier. As soon as they arrived, they entrenched and constructed emplacements for their artillery. Stalin had reinforced the division’s three rifle regiments—the 17th, 113th, and 322nd —with two armored brigades equipped with T-34 and KV-1 tanks.
Approaching their position were elements of General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4. Hoepner had tasked Lt. Gen. Friedrich Kirchner, commander of the 10th Panzer Division, with the destruction of the troops in and around Borodino. Kirchner assigned some of his best units for the hard fighting that lay ahead.
The tactical plan called for Colonel Bruno Witter von Hauenschild to lead his infantry brigade and the SS Reich Motorized Infantry Division in a frontal assault while the 7th Panzer Regiment moved to outflank the Siberians. The attacking armor and infantry were supported by Stuka dive bombers, 88mm flak guns, and Nebelwerfer rocket launchers.
As the battle unfolded, T-34 medium tanks counterattacked in mass formations. The Germans put their powerful 88mm flak guns to work as tank busters. Soviet artillery units and mortar batteries blasted the German grenadiers as they fought their way forward through minefields and barbed wire.
The slugfest at Borodino lasted for nearly a week before threats from the flanks forced the Soviets to retreat. The 32nd Rifle Division was mauled by the Germans, although it inflicted grievous losses on the attacking German units; for example, the Third Infantry Regiment of the SS Reich Motorized Infantry Division suffered such heavy losses that it had to be disbanded and its survivors distributed to other regiments in the division. Nevertheless, the Germans pushed on to the next Soviet line of defense, the Mozhaisk Line. Stalin believed that the 17th Rifle Regiment in particular had fought with great valor, and he therefore awarded it the Order of the Red Banner.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack involving 3.6 million German and other Axis troops organized into 153 divisions. Hitler and his generals had organized the attacking troops into three army groups for the invasion, which was codenamed Operation Barbarossa. Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb’s Army Group North was ordered to push toward Leningrad, Field Marshal Fedor Von Bock’s Army Group Center was tasked with capturing Moscow, and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South was sent into the Ukraine to secure the Donets Basin. The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the German Army High Command, believed that the Red Army could be defeated west of the Dvina-Dnieper line, but it had not developed contingency plans if that did not occur as expected.
Despite suffering devastating losses early in the campaign, the Red Army did not collapse. It was able to hold itself together through the grim determination and draconian measures instituted by the ruling Communist party. The German timetable for a lightning-fast campaign to occupy all of the European Soviet Union within four months slowly began to unravel. Although German panzer formations continued their push eastward, infantry divisions fell far behind, not only because they lacked mechanized transport, but also because they had to methodically eliminate large pockets of Red Army troops.
Army Group Center became embroiled in a two-month-long slugfest known as the Battle of Smolensk in July. The battle raged over a swath of territory that was 400 miles long and 150 miles deep. It began on July 10 when General Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Group 2 and General Herman Hoth’s Panzer Group 3 advanced from Vitebsk toward Dukhovschina and Orsha toward Yelnya. Their objective was to encircle the Soviet 16th, 19th, and 20th Armies. During the titanic clash, the Germans were startled by the effectiveness the Soviet of T-34 medium tank and KV-1 heavy tank, Katyusha rocket launcher, and IL2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft. These weapons platforms awed the Germans and they had no choice but to acknowledge that the Soviets had made impressive strides in military technology.
The T-34 medium tank was superior to any tanks the Germans had in action at the time. The T-34 outclassed the German Army’s Panzer IV in many respects, including speed, armament, and armor. Its 76mm long gun was more effective than the Panzer IVs short-barreled 75mm gun. The two Soviet tanks had sloping hull and turret armor that enabled them to withstand all but the heaviest German antitank guns. Last but not least, both the T-34 and KV-1 had wide treads that gave them better traction on mud and snow than the German tanks.
Hitler and the generals of his personal staff in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) clashed sharply with the OKH generals in regard to how Barbarossa should proceed. The two highest ranking generals of the OKH were Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the Army, and General Franz Halder, chief of OKH general staff. They led a faction that believed that the capture of Moscow would destroy the Red Army’s morale and quickly win the war. They were supported in this belief by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Center, and his hard-charging panzer generals Guderian and Hoth. As for Hitler, he had long favored the destruction of the Soviet field armies over capture of key objectives such as Moscow. Thus, Barbarossa had been a compromise of sorts between the opposing viewpoints.
But after nearly two months of hard fighting in which Army Group North and Army Group South had encountered difficulties, Hitler for all intents and purposes postponed the drive on Moscow by Army Group Center to reinforce the other two army groups. He ordered Hoth’s panzers to reinforce Army Group North and Guderian’s panzers to reinforce Army Group South. Valuable time was lost while Guderian assisted in the destruction of the General Mikhail Kirponos’ Southwestern Front in the month-long Battle of Kiev that began in late August.
In early September, while the Battle of Kiev was still raging, Hitler believed that success on the northern and southern flanks had made a concerted push in the center imperative to bring about the total collapse of the Soviet resistance. Furthermore, he wanted to secure the economic resources of the Ukraine and shore up the flanks of Army Group Center.
Führer Directive 35, which was issued September 6, set forth that the successes on Barbarossa’s flanks had made it possible to resume the advance in the center against Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s Western Front. Timoshenko’s front “must be destroyed decisively before the onset of winter,” the directive stated. With this in mind, von Bock and his staff developed a plan for the final push on Moscow, codenamed Operation Typhoon. In the initial stage of the operation, Panzer Groups 2, 3, and 4 were to surround and destroy the bulk of the Red Army forces facing Army Group Center in and around Vyazma and Bryansk. Next, the panzer groups would swing north and south of Moscow and link up at Noginsk, 20 miles east of the Soviet capital. The northern pincer, composed of the Hoth’s Panzer Group 3 and General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4, would strike at Moscow from the northwest through the city of Kalinin, while the southern pincer, Panzer Group 2, was to advance on Moscow from the southwest through Tula. Meanwhile, General Gunther von Kluge’s 4th Field Army would advance directly toward Moscow from the west.
German forces for Operation Typhoon numbered approximately two million men, 1,700 tanks and assault guns, 14,000 artillery pieces and mortars, and 780 aircraft. Despite seemingly large numbers overall, German units began showing signs of fatigue. Attrition of men and matériel exceeded expectations and replacements did not keep pace with casualties. This situation was especially serious in motorized formations, where loss of tanks and tracked and wheeled transport seriously affected the combat efficiency of the panzer divisions.
Despite the attrition, morale was high and German troops were confident of victory. “The last decisive battle of this year will deliver a destructive blow to the enemy,” exhorted Hitler. “We will remove the threat to the German Reich and all of Europe, which has existed since the time of the Huns and the Mongols, of an invasion of the continent.”
Deployed east of Smolensk, Army Group Center was opposed by Lt. Gen. Ivan Konev’s Western Front, Marshal Semyon Budyonny’s Reserve Front, and Lt. Gen. Andrey Yeremenko’s Bryansk Front. The armies that made up the three Soviet fronts were exhausted from the sustained heavy fighting. Their effective strength at the time was 1,250 men, 1,000 tanks, and 7,600 artillery guns.