Many think that Stalingrad was the turning point of the Second World War. But the moment in the war that began the decline of Nazi Germany was that one winter day in Russia in 1941 when Stalin paced the platform of Moscow station for some time and then did not climb aboard a train that would take him 600 miles east.
By mid-October 1941, most of Moscow's residents were convinced that their city was about to be overrun by the Germans. The NKVD, as the Soviet secret police was then called, had prepared the first of what promised to be a series of pamphlets. "Comrades! We left Moscow due to the continuous attacks of the Germans," it declared. "But it's not the right time for us to weep." The "Underground Party Committee" that signed the statement vowed that Moscow would be liberated. Since the city held out in the end, this admission of defeat was ultimately buried in the NKVD's classified files rather than distributed. In fact, much of the story of how close Moscow came to falling—a defeat that would likely have transformed the course of the war—has been obscured by decades of deliberately distorted history. Now it's a story that can be told.
By Andrew Nagorski
Sept. 10, 2007 issue
Germans fighting valiantly in the Russian snow
Abandoned German military vehicles on the road to Moscow
German soldiers surrender to Russians on the outskirts of Moscow
These pictures tell the sad plight of German soldiers in the Battle for Moscow
dropping below minus twenty degrees centigrade. German tank
engines were frozen solid. In the front line, the exhausted infantrymen
dug bunkers to shelter from the cold as much as from enemy bombardment.
The ground had started to freeze so hard that they needed to
light big fires on it first, before attempting to dig. Headquarters staffs
and rear echelons occupied peasant houses, expelling Russian civilians
into the snow.
Hitler's refusal to contemplate a winter campaign meant that his
soldiers suffered terribly. 'Many of the men are going about with
their feet wrapped in paper, and there is a great dearth of gloves,'
wrote the commander of a panzer corps to General Paulus. Except
for their coal-scuttle helmets, many German soldiers were by now
hardly recognizable as members of the Wehrmacht. Their own closefitting,
steel-shod jackboots simply hastened the process of frostbite,
so they had resorted to stealing the clothes and boots of prisoners of
war and civilians.
from Stalingrad: A Fateful Siege by ANTONY BEEVOR
Russians wait calmly for the German onslaught to Moscow
Desperate Germans fighting hard to take Moscow. December 1941
Those Muscovites who remember Oct. 16, 1941, the day when everyone assumed the Germans were about to arrive, still speak about it with a sense of astonishment. Dmitry Safonov, who was working at an artillery factory near Moscow that was to be evacuated to the Urals, had returned that day to pick up some belongings. "All of Moscow seemed to be streaming out somewhere," he recalled. Cars and trucks were loaded down with personal belongings, and at the railroad station Safonov saw suit-cases, bags, clothes, lamps, even a piano, all abandoned by those who were trying to board anything that was moving out. The train platforms were jammed with people. "I hardly recognized the city," he said.
Stalin's policies and gross miscalculations had led to this near disaster. His wholesale purges of the Red Army in 1937 and 1938 deprived the military of many of its most experienced officers. Among the first victims: Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the aristocrat turned Red Army commander who had predicted that Germany could attack without warning and that the result would be a long, costly conflict. "What are you trying to do—frighten Soviet authority?" Stalin demanded. The Soviet dictator then had him tortured and executed for allegedly plotting a coup with the help of German fascists. Thousands of other senior officers met a similar fate.
Stalin was ultimately saved by Hitler's even bigger blunders. The German dictator sent his armies into Russia in late June 1941 without winter clothing: the Führer was convinced they would triumph before the weather turned.
By mid-July, the Germans had advanced to the Smolensk region, and Hitler's generals, like the panzer commander Heinz Guderian, wanted to keep driving due east to Moscow, only about 230 miles away. But Hitler ordered them to turn south and take the Ukraine first. They did, losing precious time in the process. Once "Operation Typhoon" was launched against Moscow on Sept. 30, the roads quickly turned to mud during the rainy season and then the temperatures began plummeting. Wrapping themselves in anything they could steal from the civilian population, the Germans still froze—and their bodies were often left stacked like firewood since they couldn't be buried till spring.
On Oct. 16, the worst day of the panic in Moscow, Stalin was not yet confident of such an outcome. An Air Force officer saw him sitting at his desk asking himself again and again, "What shall we do? What shall we do?" Two days later, the Soviet leader went to the station where his special train was waiting. As Pavel Saprykin, who was part of the work detail that prepared the train, recalled in his old age, he saw Stalin walk up to his carriage, then pace the platform beside it. But he didn't board it. Instead, he left the station. It proved a fateful decision, signaling that all was not lost.
But the memories of the breakdown of law and order, and how close Moscow came to falling, remain sensitive to this day.
Stalin's mistakes were never mentioned in the official histories. Nor do those accounts admit that if it weren't for Hitler's even greater mistakes, Stalin wouldn't have been able to save his capital—and, quite possibly, might never have prevailed in the larger struggle.
When Napoleon was stopped at Moscow in 1812, the first real cracks in his imperial system opened up. It took Leipzig and Waterloo to finish him off, but Moscow was a decisive turning-point. More than a century later, Hitler learnt the same harsh lesson. Stopped at Moscow in December 1941, the German army was finally finished off at the battle for Berlin four years later. The failure to take the capital (even Napoleon managed to capture a burnt and abandoned city) was the first time since September 1939 that the seemingly unstoppable German armed forces were halted.
Russian soldiers look derisively at an abandoned German heavy artillery
"It is the Führer's unshakable decision to raze Moscow and Leningrad to the ground, so as to be completely relieved of the population of these cities, which we would otherwise have to feed through the winter. The task of destroying the cities is to be carried out by aircraft."
On October 12th, ten days into the attack by Bock's Army Group Centre, he received a further order from German Supreme Command:
"The Führer has reaffirmed his decision that the surrender of Moscow will not be accepted, even if it is offered by the enemy."
Dead Germans who fell on the failed drive to Moscow. Germans reached within 20 kms of Moscow. They had reached the suburbs.
Meanwhile, German progress was already slowing down. The Germans had been almost paralysed when the autumn rains set in, turning roads into stretches of mud. When the frost set in early November, the Germans could use the roads again, but faced the problem of not being well equipped for winter warfare, as Hitler had anticipated a quick victory in the summer. Warm clothing and white camouflage suits were lacking, and more and more tanks and other vehicles were immobilised as temperatures dropped well below freezing. Indeed, the winter of 1941-1942 was unusually cold even by Russian standards.
Germans captured during the Battle for Moscow
Soviet defence on the approaches to Moscow grew increasingly desperate. The Soviets sent in thousands of recruits and volunteers, even women's battalions into German machine-gun fire. It was in front of Moscow that the term Panfilovets was coined: Ivan Panfilov, commander of the Soviet 316th Rifle Division, died in fierce self-sacrificing infantry combat against German tanks. Only a handful of heavily wounded Soviet soldiers survived the carnage; large numbers of German soldiers were killed as well.