The war map gave Adolf Hitler every reason to be confident. Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union begun on June 22, 1941, had succeeded spectacularly on nearly every front. One Soviet army after another had been smashed as Germany’s Ostheer, its army in the East, plunged deep into the industrial heart of Josef Stalin’s vast Eurasian state. By September, Hitler’s legions were within sight of Leningrad, while to the south German and Romanian divisions had swept across the north shores of the Black Sea, threatening vital petrochemical and agricultural production within the vulnerable Ukraine and Crimean regions.
Between the two sectors, Army Group Center, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, had taken 610,000 prisoners and destroyed 5,700 enemy tanks. Bock’s soldiers had conquered land as far eastward as the Russian city of Smolensk and were now less than 180 miles from the Soviet capital.
It was time, Hitler decreed, for a push against the center—toward Moscow.
“The Last, Great Decisive Battle of War”
Operation Typhoon, the campaign Hitler predicted would be “the last, great, decisive battle of the war,” was the result of a debate between Hitler and the army high command, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), over the war’s military objectives. From the beginning of Barbarossa, Hitler had insisted that the Wehrmacht give top priority to the destruction of Soviet field armies, and only afterward to the capture of strategic assets in the north and south. Prestige targets like Moscow did not figure prominently in Hitler’s planning, and as late as August 1941, his orders to OKH stressed that “the most important missions before the onset of winter are to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal regions of the Don, deprive the Russians of the opportunity to obtain oil from the Caucasus and, in the north, to encircle Leningrad and link up with the Finns, rather than capture Moscow.”
During the autumn of 1941, German SS troops slog along a muddy road near Moscow. Resolute Red Army defenders and harsh weather combined to doom the German effort to capture the Soviet capital city.
But August brought smashing German successes to the north and south of the Eastern Front, lending credence to intelligence reports that the Soviet regime teetered on the brink of collapse. Moreover, a tempting cluster of Soviet divisions seemed to be massing west of Moscow around the cities of Vyaz’ma and Bryansk, ripe for encirclement by Hitler’s fast- moving panzer spearheads.
Hitler thus allowed himself to be persuaded by OKH and his field generals to launch a major attack against forces defending the Soviet capital. On September 6, he issued Führer Directive 35, which called for the destruction of Soviet armies opposite Army Group Center, to be followed by the pursuit of Soviet forces along the Moscow axis.
Challenges of Logistics
To put Führer Directive 35 into operation, the staffs of Army Group Center and OKH prepared plans for Operation Taifun (Typhoon), a massive offensive along a 150-mile front employing 15 panzer divisions, eight motorized divisions, and 47 infantry divisions—a total of about 1.9 million men. For the attack, Army Group Center assembled 4,000 heavy artillery pieces, 549 combat aircraft, and as many as 1,700 tanks. For once, Hitler’s generals would enjoy numerical superiority over their Soviet opponents in addition to their well-known qualitative edge.
The plan called for a double envelopment of Soviet frontline forces at the rail hub of Vyaz’ma on the Smolensk-Moscow highway. Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Army would surround Vyaz’ma from the north, while Col. Gen. Erich Hoepner’s Fourth Panzer Army would attack from the south. Farther south, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Army would encircle the defenders at the crossroads center of Bryansk. Once Vyaz’ma and Bryansk were encircled and their defenders wiped out, the Soviet capital would presumably be enveloped or overrun, as circumstances dictated. Guderian would strike out for Bryansk on September 30, and the main thrust would begin on October 2.
If the Ostheer had a weakness, it was its logistical tail. Captured rail lines were handling only around half to two-thirds of their former capacity, while competing demands by garrison commanders in Poland squeezed supplies passing through to the front. To make matters worse, Typhoon’s six armies had only four major railheads from which to draw ammunition, fuel, and food, and the armies could not operate far from these railheads, given poor road networks and Germany’s chronic shortage of motor transport. Two-thirds of Germany’s artillery was still horse-drawn as Operation Typhoon began. Of the 13,000 tons of supplies per day needed to sustain Army Group Center’s 70 divisions, its motor pool was able to supply just 6,500 tons over decrepit Russian roads.
The Soviet Army’s Woeful Position
If the situation looked daunting for the German planners, it was far worse for their Soviet counterparts. The grim task of defending Moscow fell primarily to the Western Front, or army group, commanded by Lt. Gen. Ivan Koniev. Koniev’s front consisted of six rifle (infantry) armies, a five-division cavalry group, and three reserve rifle divisions, and it was supported to the south by the three-army Bryansk Front under Lt. Gen. Andrei Yeremenko. These two fronts, plus a six-army reserve front under Marshal Semyon Budenny (which had two armies plugging gaps in the front line), had been engaged in piecemeal counterattacks at Stalin’s insistence since August and were considerably worn down, so that each Soviet army was, more or less, the equivalent of a German corps.
While the Western, Bryansk, and Reserve Fronts amassed 95 divisions with 864,000 combat troops, they labored under crippling disadvantages. All three were seriously short of heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and medium tanks. The average rifle division—composed largely of ill-trained recruits—was around 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers, less than half the authorized strength of around 14,000. To make matters worse, the deeper German columns drove into Soviet territory, the less Stalin tolerated a strategy of trading space for time, which limited his generals’ options.
Putting Pressure on the Capital
The battle for the Soviet capital opened on September 30, with a lightning attack by Guderian’s panzers, which struck northeast toward the transportation hub of Orel and due north toward Bryansk. Guderian’s veterans smashed five divisions and ripped open the southern flank of the Soviet Thirteenth Army. On October 3, his panzers rolled into Orel so rapidly they overtook trams clattering down Orel’s streets, and the Thirteenth Army fled toward Bryansk.
Typhoon’s main effort began on October 2, when the Third and Fourth Panzer Armies turned on the Soviet defenders around Vyaz’ma. Third Panzer, based in Smolensk, hit the juncture of Koniev’s Nineteenth and Thirtieth Armies, rupturing the two armies’ flanks. In two days, it captured bridges over the Dniepr River, opening the northern door to Vyaz’ma.
South of Vyaz’ma, Hoepner’s Fourth Panzer Army attacked on a narrow front and broke through Budenny’s Forty-third Army, holding its LVII Panzer Corps in reserve to exploit the breakthrough. On the way, it dismantled Budenny’s Thirty-third Army, a second-echelon formation, and by October 5 Hoepner had bored a hole in Soviet lines wide enough to throw LVII Panzer Corps into the enemy rear east of Vyaz’ma.
While Bock surged forward with his armored divisions, his three infantry armies (the Second, Fourth, and Ninth) succeeded in pinning the Soviet Sixteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-fourth, and Fiftieth Armies. Fierce pressure prevented those four defending armies from either retreating or coming to the aid of their hard-pressed comrades around Vyaz’ma and Bryansk.