Military history

Hitler’s Hubris: The Delayed Battle for Moscow

‘The vastness of Russia devours us,’ wrote Field Marshal von Rundstedt to his wife just after his armies had successfully completed the Uman encirclement. The moods of German commanders had started to swing between self-congratulation and unease. They were conquering huge territories, yet the horizon seemed just as limitless. The Red Army had lost over two million men, yet still more Soviet armies appeared. ‘At the outset of the war’, General Haider wrote in his diary on 11 August, ‘we reckoned on about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360.’ The door had been smashed in, but the structure was not collapsing.

By mid-July, the Wehrmacht had lost its initial momentum. It was simply not strong enough to mount offensives in three different directions at once. Casualties had been higher than expected – over 400,000 by the end of August – and the wear and tear on vehicles far greater than predicted. Engines became clogged with grit from the dust clouds, and broke down constantly, yet replacements were in very short supply. Bad communications also took their toll. The railway tracks, which were a slightly broader gauge, had to be relaid, and instead of the highways marked on their maps, the armies found dirt roads which turned to glutinous mud in a brief summer downpour. In many marshy places German troops had to build their own ‘corduroy roads’ of birch trunks laid side to side. The further they advanced into Russia, the harder it was to bring supplies forward. Panzer columns racing ahead frequently had to stop through lack of fuel.

The infantry divisions, which composed the bulk of the army, were marching ‘up to forty miles a day’ (but more usually around twenty), their jackboots roasting in the summer heat. The Landser, or infantryman, carried about fifty-five pounds of equipment, including steel helmet, rifle, ammunition and entrenching tool. His canvas and leather pack contained mess tin, canteen, an Esbit field stove, a combined spoon and fork in aluminium, rifle-cleaning kit, spare clothes, tent pegs and poles, field dressing, sewing kit, razor, soap and Vulkan Sanex condoms, even though carnal relations with civilians were officially forbidden.

The infantry was so tired trudging forwards in full kit that many fell asleep on the march. Even the panzer troops were exhausted. After servicing their vehicles – track-maintenance was the heaviest work – and cleaning their guns, they had a quick wash in a canvas bucket in a vain attempt to shift the ingrained dirt and oil from their hands. Their eyes swollen from fatigue, they then shaved, blinking into a mirror temporarily attached to a machine-gun mounting. The infantry tended to refer to them as ‘die Schwarze’ because of their black overalls. War correspondents described them as ‘the knights of modern warfare’, but their dust-choked vehicles broke down with monotonous regularity.

The frustrations provoked quarrels between commanders. A majority – General Heinz Guderian was the most outspoken – despaired of Hitler’s diversions. Moscow was not only the capital of the Soviet Union, they argued, it was also a major centre for communications and the armaments industry. An attack on it would also draw in surviving Soviet armies to their final destruction. The Führer, however, kept his generals in order by exploiting their rivalries and disagreements. He told them that they knew nothing of economic matters. Leningrad and the Baltic had to be secured to protect essential trade with Sweden, while the agriculture of the Ukraine was vital to Germany. Yet his instinct to avoid the road to Moscow was partly a superstitious avoidance of Napoleon’s footsteps.

Army Group Centre, having secured Smolensk and encircled the Soviet armies beyond it at the end of July, was ordered to halt. Hitler sent most of Hoth’s panzer group northwards to help the attack on Leningrad, while ‘Panzerarmee Guderian’ (the new designation was a typical Hitlerian sop to a disgruntled but necessary general) was diverted southwards to act as the upper jaw of the great Kiev encirclement.

Hitler changed his mind again early in September when he at last, agreed to Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow. Yet more time was lost because Hoth’s panzer divisions were still engaged in the outskirts of Leningrad. The forces for Operation Typhoon were not finally ready until the very end of September. Moscow lay just over 200 miles away from where Army Group Centre had been halted, and little time remained before the period of autumn mud, and then winter. When General Friedrich Paulus, Haider’s chief planner for Barbarossa, had raised the question of winter warfare earlier, Hitler had forbidden any mention of the subject.

Hitler in the Wolfsschanze used to gaze at the operations map showing the huge areas notionally controlled by his forces. For a visionary who had achieved total power in a country possessing the best-trained army in the world, the sight induced a sense of invincibility. This armchair strategist never possessed the qualities for true generalship, because he ignored practical problems. During the brief campaigns in Poland, Scandinavia, France and the Balkans, resupply had at times been difficult, but never an insuperable problem. In Russia, however, logistics would be as decisive a factor as firepower, manpower, mobility and morale. Hitler’s fundamental irresponsibility – a psychologically interesting defiance of fate – had been to launch the most ambitious invasion in history while refusing to gear the German economy and industry for all-out war. In hindsight, it seems more like the act of a compulsive gambler, subconsciously striving to increase the odds. The horrific consequences for millions of people seemed only to strengthen his megalomania.

Field Marshal von Bock had under his command one and a half million men, but his panzer divisions were weakened by the lack of replacement tanks and spare parts. When he assembled his commanders on the eve of the offensive, he set 7 November (the anniversary of the Russian Revolution) as the deadline for surrounding the Soviet capital. The ambitious Bock longed to be known as the conqueror of Moscow.

The Stavka, meanwhile, had been expecting a German offensive against Moscow ever since Army Group Centre had halted in mid-August. Stalin had sent General Yeremenko to organize armies into a new Bryansk Front, while two other fronts, Western and Reserve, were prepared to protect the capital. Yet in spite of these precautions, Yeremenko’s forces were taken by surprise when, early on the morning of 30 September, Guderian’s panzer Schwerpunkte struck their southern flank out of an autumnal mist. The sun soon broke through, making a warm, clear day, ideal for the offensive. The Germans had nothing to fear from the air. At that moment, less than five per cent of Red Army aviation in European Russia still survived.

During the first days of October, the offensive went perfectly for the Germans, with the panzer groups and Field Marshal Kesselring’s Second Air Fleet working closely together. Yeremenko asked the Stavka for permission to withdraw, but no permission was given. On 3 October, Guderian’s point units on the right reached the city of Orel, 125 miles behind Yeremenko’s lines. Surprise was complete. As the leading panzers raced up the main street past trams, passers-by waved to them, assuming they were Russian. The Red Army had not even had time to prepare charges to blow up the important arms factories. On 6 October, Yeremenko and his staff narrowly escaped capture by German tanks soon after midday. All communications were lost. In the chaos of the following days, Marshal Budenny, supposedly commanding the Reserve Front, even lost his headquarters, and Yeremenko, who was badly wounded in the leg, had to be evacuated by air.

Soviet leaders in the Kremlin at first refused to acknowledge the scale of the threat. On 5 October, a fighter pilot reported a column of German panzers a dozen miles in length, advancing rapidly up the road to Yukhnov, not much more than a hundred miles from Moscow. Even when another pilot was sent out on reconnaissance and confirmed the report, the Stavka still refused to believe it. A third pilot was sent out, and he too confirmed the sighting. This did not stop Beria from wanting to arrest and interrogate their commander as a ‘panicmonger’, but it finally succeeded in galvanizing the Kremlin.

Stalin called an emergency session of the State Defence Committee. He also ordered General Zhukov, who had brutally invigorated the defence of Leningrad, to fly back immediately. After Zhukov had seen the chaos for himself, Stalin instructed him to reorganize the remnants from the disaster into a new western front. Every available unit was thrown in to hold some sort of line until the Stavka reserves could be deployed. With Moscow itself now at risk, over one hundred thousand men were mobilized as militia and a quarter of a million civilians, mostly women, were marched out to dig anti-tank ditches.

The first snow fell on the night of 6 October, then promptly melted, turning roads to thick mud for twenty-four hours. Bock’s panzer groups still managed to achieve two large double encirclements, one by Bryansk itself and the other round Vyazma on the central route to Moscow. The Germans claimed to have cut off 665,000 Red Army soldiers and to have destroyed or captured 1,242 tanks – more than in the whole of Bock’s three panzer groups.

‘What a great satisfaction it must be for you to see your plans maturing so well!’ wrote Field Marshal von Reichenau to General Paulus, his former chief of staff, and soon to be his successor as the commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army. But groups of Russian soldiers, although surrounded and unsupplied within the pockets, fought on almost until the end of the month. ‘Strong-point after strong-point has to be captured individually,’ Paulus heard from a divisional commander. ‘As often as not, we cannot get them out even with flame-throwers, and we have to blow the whole thing to bits.’

Several German panzer divisions also encountered a new form of unconventional weapon during this fighting. They found Russian dogs running towards them with a curious-looking saddle holding a load on top with a short upright stick. At first the panzer troops thought that they must be first-aid dogs, but then they realized that the animals had explosives or an anti-tank mine strapped to them. These ‘mine-dogs’, trained on Pavlovian principles, had been taught to run under large vehicles to obtain their food. The stick, catching against the underside, would detonate the charge. Most of the dogs were shot before they reached their target, but this macabre tactic had an unnerving effect.

It was, however, the weather which rapidly became the Wehrmacht’s worst hindrance. The season of rain and mud, the rasputitsa, set in before the middle of October. German ration lorries frequently could not get through, so single-horse farm carts, known as panje wagons (panje was Wehrmacht slang for a Polish or Russian peasant), were commandeered from agricultural communities for hundreds of miles around. In some places, where no birch trunks came to hand to make a ‘corduroy road’, the corpses of Russian dead were used instead as ‘planks’. A Landser would often lose a jackboot, sucked from his leg in the knee-deep mud. Motorcyclists could only advance in places by getting off to haul their vehicles through. Commanders, who never lacked for manpower to push their staff cars through a boggy patch, wondered how anybody could make war in such conditions. All of them, however, feared the freeze that would soon follow. Nobody forgot that every day counted.

The German advance formations struggled on as best they could. In the centre, on 14 October, 10th Panzer Division and the SS Das Reich Division reached the Napoleonic battlefield of Borodino in rolling countryside with woods and rich farmland. They were only seventy miles from the western edge of Moscow. On the same day, 100 miles north-west of the capital, 1st Panzer Division took the town of Kalinin, with its bridge over the Volga, and severed the Moscow-Leningrad railway line. Meanwhile, on the southern flank, Guderian’s panzers swung up past Tula to threaten the Soviet capital from below.

The progress of the three-pronged attack on Moscow threw the Soviet leadership into panic. On the night of 15 October, foreign embassies were told to prepare to leave for Kuybyshev on the Volga. Beria started evacuating his headquarters too. The NKVD interrogators took their most important prisoners with them. They included senior officers who, although desperately needed at the front, were still being beaten to a pulp in the search for confessions. Three hundred other prisoners were executed in batches in the Lubyanka. At the end of the month, however, Stalin told the chief of the NKVD to halt what Beria himself called his ‘mincing machine’. The Soviet dictator was more than willing to go on shooting ‘defeatists and cowards’, but for the moment he had tired of Beria’s conspiracy fantasies, describing them as ‘rubbish’.

Stalin demanded accurate reports from the front, but anyone who dared to tell him the truth was accused of panic-mongering. He found it hard to hide his own disquiet. He suspected that Leningrad would fall, so his first consideration was how best to extricate the troops to help save Moscow. His lack of concern for the starving population was as callous as that of Hitler.

There was only one encouraging development at this time. Red Army divisions from the Manchurian frontier were already starting to deploy in the region of Moscow. Two of the first Siberian rifle regiments to arrive had in fact faced the SS Das Reich at Borodino a few days before, but it would take several weeks to transport the bulk of the reinforcements along the Trans-Siberian railway. The key Soviet agent in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, had discovered that the Japanese planned to strike south into the Pacific against the Americans, not against the Soviet Far East. Stalin did not entirely trust Sorge, but this time his information had been confirmed by signals intercepts.

On the morning of 16 October, Aleksey Kosygin, the deputy chairman of Sovnarkom, the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, entered its building to find the place abandoned. Papers had been scattered by draughts, doors were left open, and telephones rang in empty offices. Kosygin, guessing that the callers wanted to check whether the leadership had left the capital, ran from desk to desk trying to answer them. Even when he picked up the receiver in time there was silence at the other end. Only one important official dared to identify himself. He asked bluntly whether Moscow would be surrendered.

At Stalin’s crisis meeting in the Kremlin on 17 October with Molotov, Malenkov, Beria and Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the new chief of the Red Army political department, plans were discussed for mining factories, bridges, railways, roads and even that Stalinist showpiece, the Moscow Metro. No public announcement was made about the evacuation of the remaining ministries to Kuybyshev, but news spread with astonishing rapidity, considering the penalties for defeatist talk. Stories circulated that Stalin had been arrested in a Kremlin coup, that German paratroopers had dropped in Red Square and other enemy troops had infiltrated the city in Soviet uniform. The fear that the capital was about to be abandoned to the enemy provoked thousands to try to get out, storming trains in stations. Food riots, looting and drunkenness turned many minds to the chaos in 1812 which led to the burning of Moscow.

Stalin had considered leaving, but changed his mind. It was Aleksandr Shcherbakov, ‘with his impassive Buddha face, with thick horn-rimmed glasses resting on the tiny turned-up button of a nose’, wearing ‘a plain khaki tunic with only one decoration on it – the Order of Lenin’, who announced on Moscow Radio Stalin’s decision to remain.

A state of siege was declared on 19 October. Beria brought several regiments of NKVD troops into the city to restore order. ‘Panicmongers’ were shot along with looters, and even drunkards. In the popular mind, there was only one test of whether the city would be defended or abandoned: ‘Was the military parade [for the anniversary of the Revolution] going to take place on Red Square?’ The people of Moscow seemed to provide the answer themselves, rather than wait for their leader to speak. Rather like the defence of Madrid exactly five years before, the mood suddenly turned from one of mass panic to one of mass defiance.

Stalin, with his uncanny instinct, soon realized the symbolic importance of the parade in Red Square, even if Lenin’s mummified corpse had been evacuated to a safer place. Molotov and Beria at first thought the idea crazy, with the German Luftwaffe in easy striking distance, but Stalin told them to concentrate every anti-aircraft battery available round the capital. The cunning old impresario was planning to borrow the best-dramatized touch from the siege of Madrid, when on 9 November 1936 the first international brigade of foreign volunteers had paraded up the Gran Vía, to the populace’s wildly enthusiastic but mistaken cheers of ‘Vivan los rusos!’ They had then marched straight on through the city, to face Franco’s Army of Africa on its western edge. In Moscow, Stalin decided, reinforcements for Zhukov’s armies would march through Red Square, past the saluting base of Lenin’s mausoleum, and straight on to face the invader. He knew the value that newsreel footage of this event would have when distributed round the world. He also knew the right response to Hitler’s speeches. ‘If they want a war of extermination’, he growled on the eve of the anniversary parade, ‘they shall have one!’

The Wehrmacht was by now severely handicapped by the weather. Bad visibility hampered the ‘flying artillery’ of the Luftwaffe. Field Marshal von Bock’s armies, forced to halt at the end of October for resupply and reinforcement, were spurred on by desperation to finish off the enemy before the real winter came.

The fighting in the second half of November was relentless. Regiments on both sides were reduced to fractions of their former numbers. Guderian, having found himself blocked by strong resistance at Tula, south of Moscow, swung further round to the right. On the left flank, Hoth’s panzers pushed forward to cross the Moskva–Volga canal. From one point north of Moscow, German troops could see through their binoculars the muzzle flashes of the anti-aircraft batteries round the Kremlin. Zhukov ordered Rokossovsky to hold the line at Kryukovo with the remains of his 16th Army. ‘There can be no further falling back,’ he ordered on 25 November. Rokossovsky knew that he meant what he said.

Russian resistance was so determined that the weakened German forces slowed to a halt. At the end of November, in a last-ditch attempt, Field Marshal von Kluge sent a large force straight up the main road to Moscow, the Minsk Chaussée, along which Napoleon’s troops had marched. They broke through, but numbing cold and the suicidal resistance of Soviet regiments blunted their attack.

Guderian and Kluge, on their own initiative, began to withdraw their most exposed regiments. Guderian took the decision sitting in the Tolstoy house of Yasnaya Polyana, with the grave of the great writer covered by snow outside. They wondered what would happen next along the whole central front. The deep German salients either side of Moscow were vulnerable, but the desperation and shortages of the troops they had been fighting convinced them that the enemy had also been fought to a standstill. They never imagined that the Soviet leadership was secretly massing fresh armies behind Moscow.

Winter had arrived in full force, with snow, bitter winds, and temperatures 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 close-fitting, 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.

Operation Typhoon may have inflicted huge casualties on the Red Army, but it cost the smaller Wehrmacht irreparable losses in trained men and officers. ‘This is no longer the old division,’ wrote the chaplain of 18th Panzer Division in his diary. ‘All around are new faces. When one asks after somebody, the same reply is always given: dead or wounded.’

Field Marshal von Bock was forced to acknowledge at the beginning of December that no further hope of ‘strategic success’ remained. His armies were exhausted and the cases of frostbite – which reached over 100,000 by Christmas – were rapidly outstripping the numbers of wounded. But any hope that the Red Army was also incapable of further attack was suddenly shattered, just as the temperature fell to minus twenty-five degrees centigrade.

The Siberian divisions, including many ski-troop battalions, formed only a part of the counter-attack force prepared secretly on Stavka orders. New aircraft and squadrons from the Far East had been assembled on airfields to the east of Moscow. Some 1,700 tanks, mainly the highly mobile T-34, whose unusually broad tracks coped with the snow and ice far better than German panzers, were also ready for deployment. Most Red Army soldiers, but far from all, were equipped for winter warfare, with padded jackets and white camouflage suits. Their heads were kept warm withushanki, round fur caps with ear flaps at the side, and their feet with large valenki (felt boots). They also had covers for the working parts of their weapons and special oil to prevent the action from freezing.

On 5 December, General Koniev’s Kalinin Front attacked the outer edge of the German’s northern salient. Salvoes of Katyusha rockets fired from multiple launchers, which German soldiers had already nicknamed Stalin organs, acted as the terrifying heralds of the onslaught. The following morning, Zhukov threw in the 1st Shock Army, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army, and two others against the inner side of the salient. To the south of Moscow, Guderian’s flanks were also attacked from different directions. Within three days, his lines of communication were gravely threatened. In the centre, continual attacks prevented Field Marshal von Kluge from diverting troops from his Fourth Army to help the threatened flanks.

For the first time, the Red Army enjoyed air superiority. The aviation regiments brought up to aerodromes behind Moscow had protected their aircraft from the cold, while the weakened Luftwaffe, operating from improvised landing strips, had to defrost every machine by lighting fires under its engines. The Russians enjoyed a harsh satisfaction at the abrupt change in fortunes. They knew the retreat would be cruel for the ill-clad German soldiers struggling back through blizzards and the frozen snowfields.

The conventional counter-attacks were greatly aided by raids causing panic and chaos in the German rear. Partisan detachments, organized by officers of NKVD frontier troops sent behind enemy lines, attacked from frozen marshes and the forests of birch and pine. Siberian winter-warfare battalions from the 1st Shock Army appeared suddenly out of the haze: the only warning was the hiss of their skis on the snow-crust. Red Army cavalry divisions also ranged far into the rear, mounted on resilient little Cossack ponies. Squadrons and entire regiments would suddenly appear fifteen miles behind the front, charging artillery batteries or supply depots with drawn sabres and terrifying war-cries.

The Soviet plan of encirclement rapidly became clear. In ten days, Bock’s armies were forced to pull back anything up to a hundred miles. Moscow was saved. The German armies, ill-equipped for winter warfare, were now doomed to suffer in the open.

Events elsewhere had also been momentous. On 7 December, the day after the main counter-attack started, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Four days later Hitler announced, to the cheers of the Greater German Reichstag housed in the Berlin Kroll Opera, that he had declared war on the United States of America.

During that second week of December, a savagely exultant Stalin became convinced that the Germans were on the point of disintegration. Reports of their line of retreat, with scenes of abandoned guns, horse carcasses and the bodies of frozen infantrymen half-covered in drifting snow, tended to encourage the idea of another 1812. There had also been outbreaks of panic in the German rear. Support troops, whose vehicles often became unusable in the terrible conditions, were shaken by unexpected attacks far behind the lines. Visceral fears of barbarous Russia surged inside them. They felt very far from home.

Stalin was obsessed with the opportunity, and fell into Hitler’s mistake of believing in the power of the will, while discounting the reality of insufficient supplies, bad transport and exhausted troops. His ambition knew no bounds as he gazed at the Stavka ‘decision-map’. He demanded much more than an extension of the counter-attacks against Army Group Centre. On 5 January 1942, Stalin’s plans for a general offensive were fully set out at a joint meeting of the Stavka and the State Defence Committee. He wanted major offensives in the north to cut off the besiegers of Leningrad, and also in the south – back into the lost territories of the Ukraine and the Crimea, an idea strongly encouraged by Marshal Timoshenko. Zhukov and others who tried to warn of the dangers failed utterly.


The Führer, also preoccupied by thoughts of 1812, had issued a stream of orders against any retreat. He was convinced that, if they held out through the winter, they would break the historical curse on invaders of Russia.

His intervention has long been the subject of debate. Some argue that his resolution saved the German Army from annihilation. Others believe that his demands to hold ground at any cost led to terrible and unnecessary losses in trained men which Germany could not afford. The retreat never really risked becoming a rout, if only because the Red Army lacked the communications, the reserves and the transport needed to continue the pursuit. Hitler, however, was convinced that his strength of will in the face of defeatist generals had saved the whole Ostfront. This was to have disastrous consequences at Stalingrad the following year, bolstering his obstinacy to a perverse degree.

The fighting became increasingly chaotic, with front lines swirling in different directions on the map as Stalin’s general offensive deteriorated into a series of flailing brawls. Several Soviet formations became cut off as they broke through the German front with insufficient support. Stalin had underestimated the capacity of German troops to recover from a reverse. In most cases, they fought back ferociously, well aware of the consequences of being caught in the open. Commanders on the spot assembled scratch units, often including support personnel, and bolstered their defences with whatever armament was available, especially flak guns.

North-west of Moscow, at Kholm, a force 5,000 strong led by General Scherer held out, resupplied by parachute drops. The much larger Demyansk Kessel, with 100,000 men, was resupplied by Junkers 52 transports painted white for camouflage. Over 100 flights a day, bringing in a total of 60,000 tons of supplies and evacuating 35,000 wounded, allowed the defenders to hold out against several Soviet armies for seventy-two days. The German troops were half-starved when finally relieved at the end of April, yet the conditions for Russian civilians trapped in the pocket were infinitely worse. Nobody knows how many died. They had nothing to eat save the entrails of the horses slaughtered for the soldiers. Yet this operation determined Hitler in his belief that encircled troops should automatically hold on. It was part of the fixation which greatly contributed to the disaster at Stalingrad less than a year later.

Stalin’s callous abandonment of General Andrey Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army, cut off in marshes and forests a hundred miles north-west of Demyansk, did not, however, serve as a warning to Hitler, even after the embittered Vlasov surrendered and, throwing in his lot with the Germans, agreed to raise an anti-Stalinist Russian army. As if to offer a curious dramatic balance, the commander of the relief force at Demyansk, General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, turned against Hitler after being captured at Stalingrad. Then, in September 1943, as will be seen, he volunteered to raise ‘a small army from prisoners of war’ to be air-landed in the Reich to start an uprising. It was a proposal which the suspicious Beria did not take up.

With troops in the open at temperatures sometimes dropping to minus forty degrees centigrade, Hitler’s almost superstitious refusal to order winter clothing had to be remedied. Goebbels quickly managed to mask the truth. An appeal to the population at home provided newsreel footage of national solidarity, with women handing over fur coats, even winter-sports champions bringing in their skis for the Ostfront. The response encouraged Hitler to declaim over lunch at the Wolfsschanze: ‘The German people have heard my call.’ But when the clothes started to arrive towards the end of December, soldiers tried them on with cynical amusement or wonder. The garments, clean and sometimes smelling of mothballs, created a strange impression on the lice-plagued recipients. ‘You could see the sitting room with the sofa,’ wrote a lieutenant, ‘or the child’s bed, or perhaps the young girl’s room from which they came. It could have been on another planet.’

Sentimental thoughts of home were not just a form of escapism from their world of vermin and filth, but also from an environment of escalating brutality in which conventional morality had become utterly distorted. German troops, most of them, no doubt, loving fathers and sons at home, indulged in a sort of sick war tourism in Russia. An order had to be circulated which forbade the ‘photographing of executions of [German] deserters’, events which had greatly increased with the sudden decline in morale. And executions of partisans and Jews in the Ukraine – to judge from the audience shown in the pictures – attracted an even greater throng of amateur photographers in Wehrmacht uniforms.

A German officer described how shocked he and his soldiers had been when Russian civilians had cheerfully stripped the corpses of their fellow countrymen. Yet German soldiers were taking clothes and boots from living civilians for themselves, then forcing them out into the freezing wastes, in most cases to die of cold and starvation. Senior officers complained that their soldiers looked like Russian peasants, but no sympathy was spared for the victims robbed of their only hope of survival in such conditions. A bullet might well have been less cruel.

During the retreat from Moscow, German soldiers seized any livestock and food supplies on which they could lay their hands. They ripped up floorboards in living rooms to check for potatoes stored underneath. Furniture and parts of houses were used for firewood. Never did a population suffer so much from both sides in a war. Stalin had signed an order on 17 November ordering Red Army units – aviation, artillery, ski-troops and partisan detachments – to ‘destroy and burn to ashes’ all houses and farms for up to forty miles behind the German lines to deny the enemy shelter. The fate of Russian women and children was not considered for a moment.

The combination of battle stress and the horrors of war increased the suicide rate among German soldiers. ‘Suicide in field conditions is tantamount to desertion’, troops were warned in one order. ‘A soldier’s life belongs to the Fatherland.’ Most shot themselves when alone on sentry duty.

Men would pass the long, dark nights thinking of home and dreaming of leave. Samizdat discovered by Russian soldiers on German bodies demonstrates that there were indeed cynics as well as sentimentalists. ‘Christmas’, ran one spoof order, ‘will not take place this year for the following reasons: Joseph has been called up for the army; Mary has joined the Red Cross; Baby Jesus has been sent with other children out into the countryside [to avoid the bombing]; the Three Wise Men could not get visas because they lacked proof of Aryan origin; there will be no star because of the blackout; the shepherds have been made into sentries and the angels have become Blitzmädeln [telephone operators]. Only the donkey is left, and one can’t have Christmas with just a donkey.’*

The military authorities were concerned that soldiers going home on leave would demoralize the home population with horror stories of the Ostfront. ‘You are under military law’, ran the forceful reminder, ‘and you are still subject to punishment. Don’t speak about weapons, tactics or losses. Don’t speak about bad rations or injustice. The intelligence service of the enemy is ready to exploit it.’

One soldier, or more likely a group, produced their own version of instructions, entitled ‘Notes for Those Going on Leave’. Their attempt to be funny reveals a great deal about the brutalizing effects of the Ostfront. ‘You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those to which you have become accustomed. You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much. Food: Do not rip up the parquet or other kinds of floor, because potatoes are kept in a different place. Curfew. If you forget your key, try to open the door with the round-shaped object. Only in cases of extreme urgency use a grenade. Defence against Partisans: It is not necessary to ask civilians the password and open fire on receiving an unsatisfactory answer. Defence against Animals: Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union. German dogs in the worst cases bite, but they do not explode. Shooting every dog you see, although recommended in the Soviet Union, might create a bad impression. Relations with the Civil Population: In Germany just because somebody is wearing women’s clothes does not necessarily mean that she is a partisan. But in spite of this, they are dangerous for anyone on leave from the front. General: When on leave back in the Fatherland take care not to talk about the paradise existence in the Soviet Union in case everybody wants to come here and spoil our idyllic comfort.’

A certain cynicism even emerged over medals. When a winter-campaign medal was issued the following year, it quickly became known as the ‘Order of the Frozen Flesh’. There were more serious cases of disaffection. Field Marshal von Reichenau, the commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army, exploded in rage just before Christmas on finding the following examples of graffiti on the buildings allotted for his headquarters: ‘We want to return to Germany’; ‘We’ve had enough of this’; ‘We are dirty and have lice and want to go home’; and ‘We didn’t want this war!’ Reichenau, while acknowledging that ‘such thoughts and moods’ were evidently the ‘result of great tension and deprivation’, put full responsibility on all officers for the ‘political and moral condition of their troops’.

And while a small group of well-connected officers led by Henning von Tresckow plotted to assassinate Hitler, at least one Communist cell was at work in the ranks. The following appeal in ‘Front Letter No. 3’ to set up ‘soldier committees in each unit, in each regiment, in each division’ was found by a Russian soldier in the lining of the greatcoat of a German soldier. ‘Comrades, who is not up to his neck in shit here on the Eastern Front?… It is a criminal war unleashed by Hitler and it is leading Germany to hell… Hitler must be got rid of and we soldiers can do this. The fate of Germany is in the hands of people at the front. Our password should be “Away with Hitler!” Against the Nazi lie! The war means the death of Germany.’

The dynamics of power during total war inevitably strengthened state control even further. Any criticism of the regime could be attacked as enemy-inspired propaganda, and any opponent could be portrayed as a traitor. Hitler’s ascendancy over his generals was unchallenged and they became the scapegoats for the former corporal’s obsessions. Those commanders who disagreed with his policy of holding on at all costs in December 1941 were removed. He forced Brauchitsch to retire and appointed himself commander-in-chief instead, on the grounds that no general possessed the necessary National Socialist will.

The German Army managed to re-establish a firm defence line east of Smolensk, but its eventual destruction had become virtually certain. We can now see, with the benefit of hindsight, that the balance of power – geopolitical, industrial, economic and demographic – swung decisively against the Axis in December 1941, with the Wehrmacht’s failure to capture Moscow and the American entry into the war. The psychological turning point of the war, however, would come only in the following winter with the battle for the city of Stalingrad, which, partly because of its name, became a personal duel by mass proxy.

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