The launch of Operation Typhoon heralded the opening of one of the biggest German offensives of World War II. Indeed, it is surpassed in scale only by the German operations to invade France and the Low Countries in May 1940 (Case Yellow) and the Soviet Union itself in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). Although the fighting on the eastern front is arguably best known for Hitler’s 1942 offensive to reach and conquer the oil fields of southern Russia (Case Blue), culminating in the battle for Stalingrad, Army Group South’s 1942 summer offensive involved only half the number of German troops employed for Operation Typhoon. Likewise, the German summer offensive at Kursk in July 1943 saw some three-quarters of a million German troops engaged, which also falls well short of Typhoon’s proportions. While the German operations to invade France and the Soviet Union were sizeably larger in scale (each involving the commitment of more than three million German troops), command in the field was split between three theatre commanders. Operation Typhoon, on the other hand, was directed by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock alone, making it the largest German field command of the war, with almost two million men taking orders from a single commander.
At the start of October 1941 Germany’s war against the Soviet Union had been in progress for more than three months. They were by far the bloodiest three months of Hitler’s war to date with 185,000 Germans dead1 and many times that number of Soviet soldiers killed.2 Hitler was desperately seeking an end to his war in the east, and to achieve this he and his generals settled on a plan for a massive new offensive in the centre of the front to seize Moscow. In order to achieve this, Army Group Centre, the largest of the three German army groups on the eastern front, was reinforced to some 1.9 million German soldiers and would engage the 1.25 million Soviet troops of the Reserve, Western and Briansk Fronts. The resulting battles at Viaz’ma and Briansk were to become some of the largest in Germany’s four-year war against the Soviet Union. The new German offensive, codenamed Operation Typhoon, aimed to tear a massive hole in the centre of the Soviet front, eliminate the bulk of the Red Army before Moscow, seize control of the Soviet capital and force an end to major operations on the eastern front before the onset of winter. For this purpose the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH), which directed operations on the eastern front, ordered a major reorganisation of the Ostheer (Eastern Army) to provide forces for the new offensive. Army Group Centre was to receive the highest concentration of panzer, motorised and infantry divisions ever assembled by Nazi Germany. In total Bock’s army group took command of seventy-five divisions, which included some forty-seven infantry and fourteen panzer divisions. On 2 October, Operation Typhoon’s designated start date,3 more than 1,500 panzers and 1,000 aircraft would combine for a new blitz-style offensive that was intended to overwhelm the Soviet front and allow a rapid exploitation into the Soviet rear. Not surprisingly, engaging more than a million Soviet troops would necessitate battles of immense scale, and there could be no guarantees of the outcome. Even victory on the battlefield would by no means lead to an end of hostilities. As the Germans had seen time and again since June 1941 there was a wide gulf between operational success and strategic triumph. Operation Typhoon could not be just another extension of the German front netting another bag of Soviet prisoners; the operation had to create the conditions for a definitive victory in the east and, accordingly, the OKH concentrated everything it could spare for one vast final offensive.
If there is one aspect to Germany’s war which I have sought to illuminate in my previous books,4 it is the difficulties that were involved in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Far from waging a seamless blitzkrieg wreaking havoc on the Red Army, the German panzer groups in the conduct of their advance suffered debilitating losses, which, in the first three months of the campaign, had already undercut Germany’s whole war effort. Yet the wide disparity in opposing losses between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army blinded the German command to anything but the most optimistic assessments of the war. As Germany’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, noted on 3 October: ‘On the opposing side there is an optimism regarding the military developments on the eastern front, which is utterly inexplicable.’5 However, General Wilhelm Groener, who helped direct the German occupation of Ukraine in 1918, had warned against precisely such complacency when campaigning in the east. According to Groener: ‘Anyone who wants to grasp the strategic nature of the eastern theatre of war must not overlook historical recollections. Beside the gate of the vast lowland between the Vistula and the Urals, which is the home of one state and one people, stands the warning figure of Napoleon, whose fate should implant in anyone who attacks Russia a sense of horror and foreboding.’6 Historical parallels were one thing, but in the darkest days of October 1941, when Stalin confronted the prospect of losing the Soviet capital, Marshal Georgi Zhukov remained adamant that the Red Army could outdo even Alexander I in 1812 and defend Moscow against foreign seizure. Nor was Zhukov just telling Stalin what he wanted to hear. The Soviet dictator was clearly agitated and emphasised his desire for the truth in whatever form that might take. As Zhukov recounted Stalin’s questioning: ‘Are you sure that we will hold Moscow? I ask you about this with a pain in my soul. Tell me truthfully, as a communist.’ Zhukov’s answer was blunt and unequivocal, which was altogether in line with his uncompromising nature. ‘We will, without fail, hold Moscow.’7 Of course, Zhukov’s assurance was by no means infallible, and Moscow continued to be confronted by a very clear and present danger, but Zhukov had one considerable advantage. As he had already learned in his defence of Leningrad, to beat the Germans he did not have to destroy an enemy force or advance his front to a distant objective; in the autumn of 1941 he needed only to prevent the Germans from obtaining their prize and thereby secure a victory by default. This was of course no straightforward task, but with the entire Moscow region rapidly transforming into a fortified military district Bock was always going to face a bloody battle, and time was not on his side in the worsening autumn conditions.
The one thing that did count overwhelmingly in Bock’s favour was the professionalism of his forces. In 1941 the Wehrmacht was second to none and there was little immediate pressure which Britain could exert on Germany to help counter the blow Bock was about to deliver.8 Yet, as Army Group Centre experienced at Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev, even successful offensives could prove remarkably costly, and none of these battles had induced the much sought-after peace dividend or capitulation from the Soviet government. Meanwhile, the longer the war lasted the more eroded the elite German panzer forces became and the more the front settled down into static positional warfare. Operation Typhoon was therefore a final effort aimed at breaking the looming danger of a stalemate and avoiding the uncertainty of a winter campaign. Capturing Moscow and ending the war in the east was always going to be a tall order, and yet, more than at any other time in 1941, the strategic situation in mid October convinced the German high command that they were set for victory against the Soviet Union. Even the Soviet government was planning for the loss of Moscow and nominated a new capital some 800 kilometres further east. Thus, for all the difficulties of the panzer groups, Hitler’s new October offensive appeared to reinvigorate Germany’s war in the east and, in the view of the German command, brought the Ostheer closer than ever to outright victory.
There can be no question that Bock’s reinforced army group constituted a potent force at the beginning of October but, for all the power concentrated in the centre of the eastern front, Germany’s Typhoon was on course to hit Russia’s own weather storm, the so-called rasputitsa.9Throughout the summer, even periodic downpours had played havoc with German supply and transportation, forcing brief pauses in German operations. Now, however, the Germans were to encounter something entirely new. The strangling mud of the rasputitsa not only confronted Bock’s motorised columns with an unprecedented topographical challenge, but also denied his panzer forces their much prized ‘shock’ and rapid manoeuvre. Yet, while the seasonal difficulties in the autumn period are the best-known impediment to Bock’s autumn offensive, they were by no means the only one. Indeed, German military files make clear that the rasputitsa accounts for only part of the difficulties Operation Typhoon would confront and that alone it would most likely not have stopped the German offensive from maintaining its advance, albeit at a slower pace. The fact was that even after the initial battles at Viaz’ma and Briansk, Army Group Centre was still bitterly opposed by Soviet forces on the Mozhaisk line, around Kalinin and on the approaches to Tula. The road to Moscow was never open and the Red Army was never absent. Clearly, therefore, the rasputitsa was not the only factor which stood in the way of the German high command’s plans in October 1941.
For all that Bock was able to array against the Soviet capital and for all the professionalism of his forces, on the opposing side the Soviets met the Germans with fanatical levels of determination and their trademark resilience in the face of daunting odds. The few western observers who experienced the war from within Moscow gained a sense of the totality with which the Soviet regime approached the battle. As the BBC correspondent Alexander Werth noted:
All the military talent – discovered and tested in the first battles of the war and, in some cases, before that in the Far East – was assembled, all available reserves were thrown into battle, including some crack divisions from Central Asia and the Far East, a measure made possible by the non-aggression pact concluded with the Japanese in 1939.10
Whatever bad memories and reservations the generals may have had, Stalin had become the indispensable unifying factor in the patrie-en-danger atmosphere of October–November 1941.11