Forget Stalingrad: The Battle of Moscow Was World War II's First Major Turning Point

Forget Stalingrad: The Battle of Moscow Was World War II's First Major Turning Point

When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler thought victory would be quick and easy. It was neither.

Here's What You Need to Know: After 1941, the Germans would never again threaten Moscow.

Many consider the Battle of Moscow in late 1941 to be the first turning point of World War II on the Eastern Front. Some even consider the battle for Moscow as the only opportunity for the Germans to prevail in the East. By the middle of 1942, the Soviets had organized enough troops under arms that the Germans could not hope for anything better than a negotiated peace.

Even if the Soviet recapture of Stalingrad in 1942 had never happened and the Battle of Kursk in 1943 had been a German victory, Hitler still could not have won a total victory against the Soviets’ overwhelming numbers.

But, had the Germans been able to take Moscow, or isolated it very early, they might have dropped the Soviets to their knees and forced them to negotiate a cease-fire or perhaps even concede defeat.

After the war, German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of the Luftwaffe units assigned to Army Group Center, wrote: “The capture of Moscow would have been decisive in that the whole of European Russia would have been cut off from its Asiatic potential and the seizure of the vital economic centers of Leningrad, the Donets Basin, and the Maykop oil fields in 1942 would have been no insoluble task.” (Get a full view of the most ambitious military operation in the history of warfare inside our Operation Barbarossa special issue.) 

Why Moscow Was So Important—To Everyone Except for Hitler

Moscow was the center of the Soviet empire. All government offices were there, and it was the main logistics hub and heart of communication and command for all the armed forces. Moscow was at the center of everything, and the Soviets would have been hard pressed without it. Fortunately for them, it never came to that, but it was close—very close.

On June 22, 1941, the German Army attacked the Soviet Union with three army groups on a Continent-wide front from the Baltic coast in northern Lithuania south some 900 miles to the Black Sea coast in southern Romania. German Army Group Center was situated between Army Group North and Army Group South and, at that time, was the strongest of the three. In the first four weeks of the war, Army Group Center surged eastward some 400 miles through Belorussia and then captured Smolensk, a regional administrative city in western Russia only 234 miles from Moscow.

At that point Hitler wasn’t really sure what to do next, but General Franz Halder, chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH), and Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, commander of the German Army, knew just what to do: take Moscow! However, Hitler, calling Moscow “merely a mark on a map,” demurred. Instead, he ordered Army Group Center (AGC) to send half of its armored forces, Panzer Group 2, south to help Army Group South (AGS) capture the Ukraine, and the other half of its armored forces, Panzer Group 3, north to help Army Group North (AGN) take Leningrad.

The leaders of AGC were aghast. Army Group commander Field Marshal Fedor von Bock and his armored commanders, General Heinz Guderian of Panzer Group 2 and General Hermann Hoth of Panzer Group 3, protested loudly.

All had envisioned Moscow as their ultimate goal from the beginning and were stunned to find that Hitler didn’t agree. They all lobbied Hitler at every chance, individually and in groups, but to no avail. Once Hitler had made up his mind about something, he seldom, if ever, changed it, and so it was this time as the panzer groups were sent on their divergent ways on August 23.

On September 6, Hitler released Directive #35 for the continuation of the war in the East: “In the sector of Army Group Center. Prepare an operation against Army Group Timoshenko (Soviet West Theater) as quickly as possible so that we can go on the offensive in the general direction of Vyazma and destroy the enemy located in the region east of Smolensk by a double envelopment by powerful panzer forces concentrated on the flanks.”

Still no mention of an attack on Moscow but at least it wasn’t precluded. AGC commander Bock and Army Chief of Staff Halder agreed that even though Moscow had not been mentioned, it was, in fact, the objective. 

Ten days later, having received news of 2nd Panzer Army’s successful operations in Ukraine, Bock enlarged his army group’s mission. In addition to the encirclement east of Smolensk, Bock added another encirclement, this one in the area of Bryansk, to the south.

By the fourth week of September, all the operations on the flanks had run their course, and the armored units were returned to AGC command to begin realigning for the continuation of the attack eastward. Panzer Group 3’s attack to the north had been only marginally successful, and AGN never did capture Leningrad. But Panzer Group 2 became an integral part of the AGS’s swift capture of the Ukraine, destroying six Soviet armies and eliminating 665,000 enemy troops.

The 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies Mobilize

Up to this point, the Germans had been dominant; they had overrun or encircled nearly all the enemy they engaged. But the troops were becoming exhausted, and the equipment was badly in need of repair or replacement. Some of the panzer divisions did receive a few replacement tanks, but most other equipment was nearly worn out.

For the continuation of the attack, Army Group Center deployed a total of six armies—9th, 4th, and 2nd, as well as Panzer Groups 2, 3, and 4. All three panzer groups were the size of an army and would be renamed as panzer armies over the next three months, so for clarity here they will all be referred to as panzer armies. AGC had a total of 1,929,406 men in 49 infantry divisions, 14 panzer divisions, eight motorized divisions, and one cavalry division, with more than 1,000 tanks, 14,000 artillery pieces, and 1,390 combat aircraft.

AGC held a 450-mile-long north-south front about 200 miles west of Moscow. The 9th Army was deployed on the northern flank of the army group from Andreapol on the Daugava River northeast of Toropets, south to Berezhok on the Dnieper River 23 miles east of Smolensk.

The 3rd Panzer Army was deployed near the center of 9th Army, east of Velizh.  South of 9th Army and in the center of the AGC front was 4th Army; its front ran south from Berezhok to Yekimovichi on the Desna River northeast of Roslavl. 

The 4th Panzer Army was on the 4th Army’s southern flank; its front ran from Yekimovichi south along the Desna to near Zhukovka, while 2nd Army held the front south from Zhukovka to Pochep on the Sudost River southwest of Bryansk. The 2nd Panzer Army front ran south to the Army Group South front near Romny.

Facing the AGC attack and defending the western approaches to Moscow was the West Theater, commanded by Marshal Semen Timoshenko, composed of three Soviet fronts, a Soviet front being equivalent to a German army group. Combined, the three fronts had 1,250,000 men in 85 rifle divisions, eight cavalry divisions, four mechanized divisions, one tank division, and 14 tank brigades. Combined they had 7,600 artillery pieces, almost 1,000 tanks, and more than 360 aircraft. 

On the northern flank, facing 9th Army and 3rd Panzer Army was the Soviets’ Western Front with six armies: 22nd, 29th, 30th, 19th, 16th, and 20th. The Reserve Front had two Armies in the front line: 24th and 43rd south of the Western Front, facing the German 4th Army and 4th Panzer Army, and four Armies: 31st, 49th, 32nd, and 33rd lined up behind the Western Front in reserve. The southern end of the Soviet line was held by the Bryansk Front with three Armies (50th, 3rd, and 13th) facing the German 2nd Army and 2nd Panzer Army.

At the southern end of the attack front, 2nd Panzer Army was the farthest from Moscow at just over 300 miles, and it began the attack on the Soviet capital, Operation Typhoon, on September 30, two days earlier than the rest of the army group. In the center of the 2nd Panzer Army attack, XXIV Panzer Corps, at Glukhov, stepped off at first light on the 30th. All of the German panzer corps started the war as motorized corps, but all were eventually renamed as panzer corps, so for clarity here all will be referred to as panzer corps.

Exploding Dogs? 

The corps’ lead element, 3rd Panzer Division, quickly became the first unit to encounter two of the Soviets’ new weapons of war. The division’s tanks were maneuvering across an open field when several dogs were spotted running loose. Closer inspection through field glasses revealed something strange; all the dogs had small sticks sticking up from their backs. One of the nearby dogs was shot and exploded! Exploding dogs?

The Russians had strapped TNT to the dogs’ backs with triggers attached to the sticks and had trained the dogs to run underneath a tank to find their food. When they did, the sticks were pushed back and tripped the explosives. The tankers had no choice but to shoot all the dogs.