Moscow, Battle of 1941–42

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Moscow, Battle of (1941–42)


combat operations by the Soviet armed forces between Sept. 30, 1941, and Apr. 20, 1942, during the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union (1941–45), to defend Moscow against the fascist German forces and to rout them. The battle of Moscow is divided into two periods—the defensive (Sept. 30-Dec. 4, 1941) and the offensive. The latter consists of two stages: the counteroffensive (Dec. 5–6, 1941-Jan. 7–8, 1942) and the general offensive by Soviet forces (Jan. 7–10-Apr. 20, 1942).

The defensive. In late September 1941 the operational-strategic situation on the Soviet-German front continued to be strained for the Red Army. Soviet forces had been forced to retreat toward Leningrad, abandoning Smolensk and Kiev. The enemy had an overall superiority in forces and means and held the initiative in combat. Although they had made gains during the summer offensive, the fascist German forces had also encountered serious difficulties. They sustained heavy losses in manpower and matériel, and their attempt to drive straight through to Moscow was thwarted by the heroic fighting of Red Army troops in the battle of Smolensk (1941). In early September the fascist German command issued an order for troops in the western (Moscow) operational axis to temporarily take the defensive and begin preparations for Operation Typhoon, a plan to capture Moscow. The operational plan called for powerful strikes by the large groupings concentrated in the areas of Dukhovshchina, Roslavl’, and Shostka to encircle the main forces of the Red Army, which were covering the capital, to destroy them in the area of Briansk and Viaz’ma, and then to capture Moscow by rapidly enveloping it from the north and south. The execution of this plan was assigned to Army Group Center (commanded by Field Marshal General F. von Bock), which was composed of the Second, Fourth, and Ninth field armies and the 2nd Tank Group (from October, known as the Second Tank Army), and the 3rd and 4th tank groups (from January, the Third and Fourth tank armies). By late September a total of 77 divisions, including 14 tank and eight motorized divisions with more than 1 million men, more than 14, 000 guns and infantry mortars, 1, 700 tanks, and 950 airplanes, had been massed.

On the defensive against the forces of Army Group Center at the beginning of the fascist German offensive were the forces of the Western Front, commanded by Colonel General I. S. Konev, with N. A. Bulganin as member of the Military Council and Lieutenant General V. D. Sokolovskii as chief of staff; the forces of the Briansk Front, commanded by Colonel General A. I. Eremenko, with P. I. Mazepov, a Divisional Commissar, as member of the Military Council and Major General G. F. Zakharov as chief of staff; and the forces of the Reserve Front, commanded by Marshal of the Soviet Union S. M. Budennyi, with N. S. Kruglov as member of the Military Council and Major General A. F. Anisov as chief of staff. The Soviet forces had a total of about 800, 000 men, 6, 800 guns and infantry mortars, 780 tanks (140 heavy and medium tanks), and 545 airplanes, most of which were obsolete. Thus, the enemy had 1.2 times as many men, 2.1 times as many artillery pieces and infantry mortars, 2.2 times as many tanks, and 1.7 times as many combat airplanes as the Soviet forces. The enemy also had a great advantage in the mobility of its troops, which had at their disposal a sizable pool of motor vehicles and gun tows. Many newly formed Soviet divisions, especially those on the Reserve Front, including the 12 rifle divisions of the people’s militia, did not have combat experience or adequate armaments.

The plan of the Soviet Supreme Command in the western axis was to inflict the greatest possible losses on the fascist German forces by a stubborn defense and to gain time to form and concentrate new reserves. In accordance with the developing situation, the State Defense Committee (GKO) and the Central Committee of the ACP (Bolshevik) planned to establish on the distant and near approaches to Moscow a deeply echeloned defense consisting of defensive lines 200–250 km deep, stretching more than 300 km along the front and including eight to nine defensive zones. The troops of the reserve formations, divisions of the Moscow people’s volunteer corps, and the working people of Moscow and the oblasts of Smolensk, Briansk, Tula, Kalinin, and Moscow played an important role in preparing the defensive lines. The Communist Party and the Soviet Command paid a great deal of attention to the rapid formation of large reserves in the rear. However, because of insufficient time and forces, most of the measures planned to strengthen the defense were not completed. Firm obstacles had not been established by army engineers, the fronts needed replacements, and there was a shortage of ammunition.

The enemy offensive began on September 30 with a strike by the 2nd Tank Group against the left wing of the Briansk Front. On October 2 the main forces of Army Group Center took the offensive in the areas of Iartsevo and Roslavl’, attacking the troops of the Western and Reserve fronts. Despite the stubborn resistance of Soviet troops, the enemy broke through the defense on the first day, with mobile units advancing 40–50 km toward Orel, Iukhnov, and Viaz’ma. Attempts by the fronts to deliver counterblows with weak reserve forces produced no results. On October 3 the forward units of the 2nd Tank Group reached the withdrawal route of the Third and Thirteenth armies of the Briansk Front, and by the end of the day they had broken into Orel.

The enemy breakthrough of the defense of the Western and Reserve fronts in the Iartsevo and Roslavl’ axes and the withdrawal of part of the forces from these fronts created a dangerous situation in the Viaz’ma axis. On October 4 the enemy took Spas-Demensk and Kirov, and on October 5, enemy forces took Iukhnov and reached the area of Viaz’ma. The enemy took Briansk on October 6. Units of the Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-fourth, and Thirty-second armies were encircled near Viaz’ma. Putting up stubborn resistance, the encircled troops held down as many as 28 enemy divisions, killed thousands of enemy soldiers and officers, and knocked out an enormous amount of matériel. By mid-October part of the forces managed to break out of the encirclement.

The unfavorable development of the military situation near Viaz’ma and Briansk put Moscow in great danger. Under these conditions the Central Committee, the State Defense Committee, and General Headquarters (Supreme Commander J. V. Stalin) took measures to strengthen the Mozhaisk defense line by immediately sending in troops from the Reserve and other fronts. To unify the leadership of the troops in the western axis and organize clearer control over them, the remaining forces of the Reserve Front were made part of the Western Front on October 10. On the same day, General of the Army G. K. Zhukov was appointed commander of troops for the Western Front, and Colonel General I. S. Konev was appointed his deputy. The troops of the Mozhaisk defense line were put under the command of the Western Front on October 12. As a result of the vigorous measures taken by the command, a new defensive front was established on the Moscow axis. Nonetheless, the situation of the troops of the Western Front, who had taken up a defensive position on the Mozhaisk line, remained exceptionally grave. There were only about 90, 000 men in the four armies of the Western Front on the front from the Volga (Ivan’kovo) Reservoir to Kaluga. Under these conditions, the command of the Western Front tried to put up solid resistance only in the most important operational axes leading to Moscow: Volokolamsk, Mozhaisk, Maloiaroslavets, and Kaluga. On these operational axes the Sixteenth Army of Lieutenant General K. K. Rokossovskii, the Fifth Army of Major General of the Artillery L. A. Govorov, the Forty-third Army of Major General K. D. Golubev, and the Forty-ninth Army of Lieutenant General I. G. Zakharkin were on the defensive. Enemy aviation was supreme. The roads were clogged with streams of people, horse-drawn carts, herds of livestock, and vehicles, making the work of the rear of the Western Front, as well as troop control, extremely difficult.

To strengthen the near approaches to Moscow, on October 12 the State Defense Committee adopted a decision to build defensive lines in the immediate vicinity of the capital. The main line was to be semicircular and located 15–20 km from Moscow. The city line ran along the Okruzhnaia (Belt) Railroad. The entire defensive system on the near approaches to the city was called the Moscow Zone of Defense. It included units of the Moscow garrison, divisions of the people’s volunteer corps, and divisions from the General Headquarters reserves.

To build the defensive installations, 450, 000 Muscovites were mobilized, 75 percent of whom were women. The State Defense Committee decided to evacuate some of the party and government institutions, major defense plants, and scientific and cultural establishments from Moscow. The supreme commander, part of the State Defense Committee, and part of the General Headquarters of the Supreme Command (VGK) remained in Moscow. Helping the troops, the Muscovites built the outer defensive belt in a short time and erected fortifications inside the city. Thousands of workers, office employees, scientists, and artists voluntarily joined Communist battalions. The 25 new volunteer companies and battalions created in Moscow in October were formed into three divisions of the people’s volunteer corps. A fourth division was made up of draftees.

In the bitter fighting that developed on the Mozhaisk defense line in mid-October, Soviet forces offered heroic resistance to the superior enemy forces and stopped them for several days. On October 13, Kaluga fell; on October 16, Borovsk; and on October 18, Mozhaisk and Maloiaroslavets. Only by a magnificent effort was the enemy stopped at the line of the Protva and Nara rivers. The fighting was just as fierce in other sectors of the western axis. On October 17, Kalinin was abandoned. To cover the capital from the northwest, the Kalinin Front (Colonel General I. S. Konev in command, with D. S. Leonov, a corps commissar, as member of the Military Council and Major General I. I. Ivanov as chief of staff) was formed on October 17 out of the troops of the right wing of the Western Front (the Twenty-second, Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, and Thirty-first armies). The enemy’s attempt to strike a blow at the rear of the Western Front from the area of Kalinin was thwarted, and the enemy’s attack in the Tula axis was stopped by the heroic efforts of the troops of the Fiftieth Army and the working people of Tula, supported by General Headquarters reserves. On October 19 the State Defense Committee declared a state of siege in Moscow and the surrounding area. During October the enemy made 31 air attacks on Moscow, using 2, 018 airplanes, 273 of which were shot down. The Moscow Antiaircraft Defense Forces waged a desperate struggle with the enemy air forces and saved the capital from destruction.

The counteraction of Soviet forces gradually became stronger and more organized, but the enemy brought new units into battle and continued to have numerical superiority on the axes of the main attacks, especially in combat matériel. Therefore, it was not possible to stabilize the defense on the distant approaches to Moscow, and by the end of October fighting was taking place 80–100 km from Moscow. An immediate threat hung over the capital. By their heroic resistance Soviet forces stopped the enemy offensive in all sectors of the western axis in early November. The fascist German command blamed the failure of the October offensive on the mud and the breaking up of the roads (rasputitsa), even though the unfavorable weather affected both sides equally.

Hitler demanded that Moscow be captured before the beginning of winter at any cost. The German command brought up all available reserves and regrouped. It deployed 51 divisions, including 13 tank and seven motorized divisions, to renew the offensive on Moscow. The enemy continued to have superiority of forces: twice as many personnel, 2.5 times as much artillery, and 1.5 times as many tanks. On the Volokolamsk and Tula axes the enemy superiority was even greater. According to the plan of the fascist German command, Army Group Center was to defeat the flank units of the Soviet defense and encircle Moscow from the northwest and southwest.

With the regrouping of enemy troops, the Soviet command reinforced the critical sectors of the front with reserves and replacements. On November 11 the Briansk Front was disbanded, and the Fiftieth Army, with its defense zone, was turned over to the Western Front. On November 17 the Western Front took over the Thirtieth Army of the Kalinin Front with its defense zone.

The German offensive against Moscow was renewed from the northwest on November 15–16 and from the southwest on November 18. In an attempt to envelop Moscow on the north and surround it from the south, the enemy concentrated its attack on the Klin-Rogachevo and Tula-Kashira axes. By late November, at a cost of heavy losses, the enemy had managed to capture the Klin, Solnechnogorsk, and Istra areas, reach the Moscow-Volga Canal near Iakhroma, and take Krasnaia Poliana (27 km from Moscow). At this point the enemy was stopped and forced to take the defensive. There was fierce fighting near Kashira and Tula in late November. The Soviet command brought up additional forces for the most seriously threatened sectors. On November 27, Soviet forces delivered a counterblow against General H. Guderian’s Second Tank Army and drove it back from Kashira, toward Mordves. Having suffered a defeat at Kashira, the German Second Tank Army attempted to envelop Tula from the northeast, cutting off the Serpukhov-Tula railroad and highway. A counterattack by Soviet forces drove the enemy back to its original position. Signs of a crisis in the fascist German offensive appeared, and the initiative began to pass to the Soviet forces.

On December 1 the command of Army Group Center made another attempt to break through to Moscow near Aprelevka but failed. The General Headquarters of the Supreme Command ordered that the Twenty-fourth and Sixtieth armies be included in the Moscow Zone of Defense, in addition to the First Shock Army and the Tenth and Twentieth armies, which had been sent from the General Headquarters reserves to the Western Front. On December 2 the forward units ofthe First Shock Army and the Twentieth Army repelled all enemy assaults north of Moscow near Dmitrov and farther south and forced the enemy to halt the offensive. On December 3–5 the First Shock Army and the Twentieth Army delivered several strong counterblows near Iakhroma and Krasnaia Poliana and began to press the enemy. In a coordinated action with the Fifth Army, the left-flank divisions of the Sixteenth Army drove the enemy back from the great bend in the Moscow River northeast of Zvenigorod. A main attack force of the Thirty-third Army restored the position on the Nara River by routing enemy units on December 4—5. The Fiftieth and Forty-ninth armies repelled all enemy assaults north of Tula.

Thus, as a result of counterattacks by Soviet forces in early December, the enemy’s last attempts to break through to Moscow were thwarted. Between November 16 and December 5 alone the enemy suffered 155, 000 deaths and casualties and lost about 800 tanks, 300 guns, and about 1, 500 airplanes. The strength and morale of the fascist German army were broken in the course of the defense of the capital, and the stage was set for Soviet forces to take the counteroffensive.

The offensive. The troops of the Kalinin and Western fronts and two right-flank armies of the Southwestern Front, commanded by Marshal of the Soviet Union S. K. Timoshenko, were brought in for the counteroffensive. The main attack was delivered by the Western Front. In early December, Soviet forces at Moscow included about 720, 000 men, 5, 900 guns and infantry mortars, 415 rocket-launching artillery installations, 670 tanks (205 heavy and medium tanks), and 760 airplanes, including 590 new models. At this time fascist German forces included 800, 000 men, about 10, 400 guns and infantry mortars, 1, 000 tanks, and more than 600 airplanes. The plan of the Soviet command was to destroy the enemy strike groupings and drive their remnants back farther from the capital. The execution of the plan was to be aided by troops attacking on the Tikhvin and Rostov axes, by the aviation of the Supreme Command Reserve, and by partisans operating in the enemy rear.

The counteroffensive began on December 5–6 on a front running from Kalinin to Elets. Combat operations became fierce immediately. Despite lack of superiority in forces and means, the bitter cold, and the deep snow, troops of the left wing of the Kalinin Front and the right wing of the Western Front broke through the enemy defense south of Kalinin and northwest of Moscow in the very first days of the counteroffensive, cut the Kalinin-Moscow railroad and highway, and liberated a number of populated areas. The troops of the left wing of the Western Front and the right wing of the Southwestern Front passed to the counteroffensive at the same time as the troops attacking to the northwest of Moscow. The powerful strikes by Red Army troops against flank groupings of Army Group Center—the groupings that had been assigned to surround Moscow—forced the fascist German command to take measures to save its troops from destruction.

On December 8, Hitler signed a directive ordering his forces to adopt a defensive position along the entire Soviet-German front. Army Group Center was assigned to hold strategically important regions at any cost. On December 9, Soviet forces liberated Rogachevo, Venev, and Elets; on December 11, Stalinogorsk; on December 12 Solnechnogorsk; on December 13 Efremov; on December 15, Klin; on December 16, Kalinin; and on December 20, Volokolamsk. By the beginning of January 1942 the troops of the right wing of the Western Front had reached the line of the Lama and Ruza rivers. At the same time forces of the Kalinin Front had reached the Pavlikovo-Staritsa line. On December 26 troops of the center of the Western Front liberated Naro-Fominsk; on January 2, Maloiaroslavets; and on January 4, Borovsk.

The counteroffensive developed successfully on the left flank of the Western Front and in the zone of the Briansk Front. Reformed on Dec. 18, 1941, the Briansk Front consisted of the Third, Thirteenth, and Sixty-first armies and was commanded by General Ia. T. Cherevichenko, with A. F. Kolobiakov as member of the Military Council and Major General V. Ia. Kolpakchi as chief of staff. On December 25, Soviet forces reached the Oka River along a wide front. Kozel’sk was liberated on December 28, Kaluga on December 30, and Meshchovsk and Mosal’sk in early January 1942. In a coordinated action with troops of the left wing of the Western Front, troops of the Briansk Front reached the line of Belev, Mtsensk, and Verkhov’e by early January 1942, creating favorable conditions for surrounding Army Group Center. However, the attacking Soviet troops did not have sufficient forces for this. The pace of the counteroffensive slowed.

The counteroffensive, as a result of which the main forces of the German Second, Third, and Fourth tank armies and units of the Ninth Army were routed, was completed by early January 1942. The enemy suffered heavy losses; 38 German divisions, including 11 tank and four motorized divisions, were destroyed. The destruction of the strike groupings that had attacked Moscow caused confusion and dissension in the fascist German command. Hitler relieved a number of officers of their commands—commander in chief of ground forces Field Marshal General W. von Brauchitsch, commander of Army Group Center F. von Bock, and H. Guderian, E. Hoepner, and A. Strauss, commanders of the Second and Fourth tank armies and of the Ninth Army, respectively.

In early January 1942 the General Headquarters of the Supreme Command adopted a decision to take a general offensive on all the main strategic axes (the northwestern, western, and southern), with the objective of destroying the main enemy groupings. The troops of the Kalinin and Western fronts were assigned to surround and wipe out the main forces of Army Group Center in a coordinated action with adjacent armies of the Northwestern and Briansk fronts. However, the forces and means on hand were inadequate to achieve these objectives. On January 10 the troops of the Western Front, breaking stubborn enemy resistance, liberated Mozhaisk, Vereia, Medyn’, Kirov, Liudinovo, and Sukhinichi. The breakthrough of the enemy defense on the right wing and in the center of the Western Front paved the way for splitting the defense in the Viaz’ma axis and surrounding the Viaz’ma enemy grouping from the southeast.

The offensive on the Kalinin Front and the left wing of the Northwestern Front developed successfully in January. The towns of Peno, Andreapol’, Selizharovo, Toropets, and Zapadnaia Dvina were liberated. In mid-January troops of the Kalinin Front encircled the Olenino enemy grouping from the west and east, and the Thirty-ninth Army reached the area of Sychevka in the rear of the Olenino grouping. On January 22, General Headquarters transferred the Third and Fourth shock armies of the Northwestern Front to the Kalinin Front. The offensive against Viaz’ma by forces of the Western Front (the Thirty-third Army, General P. A. Belov’s cavalry corps, and the IV Airborne Corps), which began on January 26 as a coordinated action with the XI Cavalry Corps of the Kalinin Front, failed to encircle the Viaz’ma enemy grouping from the southwest and north.

On February 1 the position of commander in chief of the western axis, which had existed between July 10 and Sept. 11, 1941, was restored, and General of the Army G. K. Zhukov was appointed to the post, also remaining commander of the Western Front. General Headquarters demanded that the destruction of the main forces of Army Group Center be completed. At the same time, the fascist German command brought reinforcements into the Viaz’ma area. In a coordinated air attack, they repelled assaults by Soviet forces on Viaz’ma from the north and south. At the same time, the enemy delivered strong counterattacks against the lines of communication of the Thirty-third, Thirty-ninth, and Twenty-ninth armies, which had moved out in front, and in early February these troops were forced to take the defensive. Additional forces were needed, but at that time the Soviet command did not have them at its disposal. In late March and early April the troops of the Kalinin and Western fronts made one more attempt to rout the Rzhev, Olenino, and Viaz’ma enemy groupings and join the forces operating in the enemy rear near Viaz’ma, but they were not successful. On April 20 the troops received the order to take the defensive on the Rzhev, Gchatsk, Kirov, Zhizdra line.

Although it was incomplete, the general offensive in the western axis was, on the whole, a major victory. As a result of the counteroffensive and general offensive the enemy was thrown back 100–250 km. Moscow, Tula, and Riazan’ oblasts and many regions of Kalinin, Smolensk, and Orel oblasts were completely liberated. The enemy lost more than 400, 000 men, 1, 300 tanks, 2, 500 guns, and more than 15, 000 motor vehicles and suffered heavy losses in other matériel.

During the battle of Moscow, Soviet forces inflicted the first great defeat of World War II on the fascist German Army, dispelling the myth of its invincibility. Although Army Group Center could not be completely destroyed because of limited forces and means, the battle of Moscow played an enormous role in the war. Hitler’s blitzkrieg was thwarted. Soviet forces took the strategic initiative away from the enemy. The Red Army victory at Moscow had tremendous political and military significance. It marked a decisive military turning point in favor of the USSR and had a great impact on the whole subsequent course of the war.

The victory at Moscow was attained thanks to the mass heroism of Soviet soldiers and the labor of the Soviet people. Orders and medals were given to 36, 000 soldiers and commanders, and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union was conferred on 110 fighting men who especially distinguished themselves, including 28 members of the Panfilov Division (the 8th Guards Rifle Division). Great combat skill was demonstrated by many army commanders, including I. V. Boldin, L. A. Govorov, F. I. Golikov, M. G. Efremov, F. Ia. Kostenko, V. I. Kuznetsov, D. D. Leliushenko, and K. K. Rokossovskii. Corps, division, and brigade commanders V. K. Baranov, A. P. Beloborodov, P. A. Belov, L. M. Dovator, D. A. Zhuravlev, M. E. Katukov, I. D. Klimov, A. I. Liziukov, K. N. Leselidze, K. S. Mel’nik, I. V. Panfilov, I. F. Petrov, V. I. Polosukhin, I. A. Pliev, P. A. Rotmistrov, and P. G. Chanchibadze also showed great skill in combat. The partisans, who operated in the enemy rear, rendered great assistance to the troops. In recognition of the special contribution of the working people of the capital, Moscow received the honorary title of Hero City in 1965. The medal For the Defense of Moscow, which was established in 1944, has been awarded to more than 1 million persons.


Razgrom nemetsko-fashistskikh voisk pod Moskvoi Moscow, 1964.
Velikaia bitva pod Moskvoi. Moscow, 1961.
Proval gitlerovskogo nastupleniia na Moskvu. Moscow, 1966.
Bitva za Moskvu. Moscow, 1966.
Zhukov, G. K. Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia. Moscow, 1969.
Rokossovskii, K. K. Soldatskii dolg. Moscow, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.