“This is not the month of May, and we are not fighting in France!”
– Lt. Col. Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein,
Gen. Heinz Guderian’s chief of staff, Nov. 12, 1941
The map of the Eastern Front in Adolf Hitler’s bunker, the Wolfsschanze(Wolf’s Lair), in Rastenburg, East Prussia, revealed the breathtaking extent of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union launched in June 1941. In the north, Leningrad was isolated and under siege. In the south, German troops were in the Crimea and in defensive positions outside of Rostov. In the center German troop advances were still advancing. The troops in Operation Typhoon, the campaign to capture Moscow, were now so close to the outskirts of the Soviet capital that at night lead elements of the German army could see the gun flashes from Moscow’s anti-aircraft artillery defenses. So close, and yet. . . .
According to the plans for Operation Barbarossa, Moscow was to have been captured within four months by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center. That didn’t happen for three reasons: the start date was pushed back from May to June, the Red Army put up a stronger-than-expected month-long defense of Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, and Hitler had ordered a temporary halt of Army Group Center and diverted some of its panzer units to Army Groups North and South to assist in the attacks of Leningrad and Kiev, respectively. This pause was a strategic mistake, and Gen. Georgi Zhukov, charged with Moscow’s defense, seized the opportunity with both hands.
Operation Typhoon began on Oct. 2, 1941, and the German troops’ two-month advance to the outskirts of Moscow was a herculean effort made under appalling conditions. Army Group Center found itself fighting three enemies: the Red Army and two Soviet allies known in Russian history as General Mud and General Winter. Soviet roads were little more than dirt trails that the autumn rains, under the “command” of General Mud, turned into quagmires.
Shortly thereafter, General Winter announced his arrival. Neither the German troops nor its vehicles were equipped or conditioned for winter fighting. When temperatures regularly dropped to –40 degrees to as much –60 degrees Fahrenheit, lubricants froze, engine blocks cracked, and frostbite cases ballooned (more than 100,000 frostbite cases would be recorded that winter).
German soldiers supplemented their summer weight uniforms with crumpled newsprint and propaganda leaflets addressed to Soviet troops, calling for them to surrender. Cooked food froze before a meal could be completely consumed. In open, windswept countryside where all buildings had been blasted to smithereens and the ground frozen rock hard, even the simple act of going to the bathroom could be fatal, as Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, commander of the 2nd Panzer Army Group, recorded in his diary on Dec. 10, 1941, writing that “many men died while performing their natural functions, as a result of a congelation of the anus.”
A campaign medal would later be struck for German army participants of the Eastern Front campaign in the winter of that year. Not surprisingly, it received the nickname Gefrierfleisch Orden, the Order of the Frozen Meat.
The deteriorating conditions caused Chief of the General Staff Generaloberst Franz Halder to call for a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the subordinate armies in Bock’s army group on Nov. 12 at Army Group Center’s headquarters at Orsha. The question on the table was a simple one: should Army Group Center take up “winter quarters,” rest, refurbish, and plan to campaign in 1942, or should it continue the attack?
The meeting elicited a storm of protests against further advance from some of the chiefs of staff. But, in the end Halder’s decision was that the advance to Moscow be continued.
Three weeks later, the blow that everyone in Army Group Center dreaded finally fell. In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 5, the battle lines along the Moscow front erupted in flame as artillery batteries from seventeen Soviet armies fired barrage after barrage into the ranks of Army Group Center. Zhukov’s carefully concealed counteroffensive, totaling about a million troops, had begun. Up and down the German lines, communications between front-line commanders and headquarters were shattered. Slowly, the beleaguered German troops began to retreat. It rapidly became obvious to commanders from Army Group Center’s front lines all the way to Hitler in Rastenburg that unless control was restored, that retreat would soon turn into a panic-stricken rout.