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Eastern Front5th December 1941

Red Army counter attacks

German soldiers captured during the Soviet advance
German soldiers captured during the Soviet advance

By the start of December 1941, German soldiers had crossed the Moscow-Volga canal and forward units were just twelve miles from the Kremlin.i  But this was as close to the Soviet capital as the Wehrmacht would ever get. Because on 5 December 1941, the Red Army began a dramatic counter attack.

Soviet units – many of which had arrived in Moscow only recently from Siberia – confronted German soldiers who had reached the limits of their own endurance. ‘The commanders used to say that the Siberian divisions saved Moscow,’ says Vasily Borisov, one of the Red Army soldiers who had been transported from the East to fight in the battle for Moscow. ‘During the counter attacks there was man-to-man fighting. We had to fight the Germans in the trenches. And the fitter ones survived and the weaker ones died.'

The German soldiers weren’t just exhausted – they were appallingly equipped for winter warfare. The Nazi leadership had believed the war would be won by the autumn of 1941, so why prepare German troops to fight in the winter? ‘When the temperature dropped to below minus 30 degrees Celsius our machine guns were not firing any more,’ says Walter Schaefer-Kehnert, a German officer who fought at Moscow. ‘Our machine guns were precision instruments, but when the oil got thick they didn’t shoot properly any more – this really makes you afraid… We had huge losses from frozen toes and fingers during the night, and when the infantry had to sleep in the open, you tried to make a hole in the snow. Then there was an order that a guard had to go round every two hours and look, because you would freeze to death and you would not realize it was happening. Particularly if we had been fighting during the day and sweating and then we cooled off at night – that was when the greatest danger was of freezing to death. It’s a very nice death but you don’t want to have it!’

German units began to pull back in the face of the ferocity of the Soviet offensive. But Hitler ordered them to stand firm. One of his best commanders, Heinz Guderian, was so incensed by this order that he flew to Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia for what turned out to be a five hour confrontation.ii  Guderian forcefully argued his case – German units must be allowed to retreat to a more defensible line. Hitler – typically – argued even more forcefully back. The very point of being a soldier, he made clear, was to die for your country when the situation demanded. ‘Do you think Frederick the Great’s grenadiers were anxious to die?’ he said. ‘They wanted to live, too, but the king was right in asking them to sacrifice themselves. I believe that I, too, am entitled to ask any German soldier to lay down his life.’ He then accused Guderian of becoming emotionally involved in the fate of his men and advised him to ‘stand back more’ in order to have clear judgment.

Guderian was sacked by Hitler on 26 December. But what’s perhaps almost as significant is that he felt able to confront Hitler directly and argue with him in the first place – a course of action that none of Stalin’s subordinates would dare adopt.

The events of December 1941 were, according to Professor Adam Tooze, ‘an absolutely crucial turning point in the war. It’s the first battle defeat suffered by the German army in quite a long time, since the end of World War One.’ Moreover, says Tooze, this defeat was ‘foreseeable’ because ‘the logic of the [original] German [invasion] plan exhausts itself in the months before. They’re having to make decisions which they know they really needed to avoid. They were no long able to avoid advancing on all three fronts simultaneously. They have to give the Red Army breathing space because they themselves need time to re-equip. They lose the decisive initiative which they’d been able to command since earlier in the summer, and the German advance on the front gets narrower and narrower as the months wear on and the weeks wear on.’

As a consequence of all this, Professor Sir Ian Kershaw believes that the events of December 1941 – collectively – constitute the turning point of the entire war: ‘In December 1941, the Germans encounter their first major setback with the onset of the Soviet counteroffensive in front of Moscow; the first major setback which means that war is going to be prolonged indefinitely. The advance of the Germans had stopped and so that’s a crucial moment. At the same time, well, two days later, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour and immediately the Americans come into the war against Japan. And four days later on the11th of December 1941 Hitler takes Germany into war against the USA – a war he has no idea how they can win. So within a few days you’ve got the German attack on the Soviet Union stopped and the war going into the indefinite future in the Soviet Union when only a Blitzkrieg war had been planned for, and you’ve got the Japanese in the war and you’ve got the Americans in the war and you’ve got the Germans now fighting against the USA. I think that was the beginning of the end.’

Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, agrees. He sees December 1941 as ‘the first time the Germans are actually stopped in their tracks and they don’t know what to do.’ As a result the German leadership are placed in a position where they feel ‘completely clueless’.

‘The German army near Moscow was a very miserable sight,’ is the verdict of Fyodor Sverdlov, a Red Army company commander during the battle for Moscow. ‘I remember very well the Germans in July 1941. They were confident, strong, tall guys. They marched ahead with their sleeves rolled up and carrying their machine guns. But later on they became miserable, crooked, snotty guys wrapped in woolen kerchiefs stolen from old women in villages.'

Nonetheless, these ‘miserable, crooked, snotty guys,’ would continue to fight the Red Army for three and a half more years. But, ultimately, they would find it hard to recover from the brutal and frozen winter of December 1941.


i Richard Overy, Russia’s War, Allen Lane, 1997, p. 115
ii Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, pp. 454-455