Zhukov seized the opportunity to restore order, declaring martial law on 19 October 1941 and putting nine reserve armies into place behind the river Volga. Although they consisted mostly of raw recruits and previous military rejects, they numbered 900,000 men in all and would, Stalin and Zhukov hoped, provide a serious obstacle to any German attempt to encircle the city. Moreover, a report from Richard Sorge, Stalin’s spy in Tokyo, not long before his arrest on 18 October 1941, convinced the Soviet leader that the Japanese were not going to attack Russia (indeed, they had other targets in mind). Backed by further intelligence reports, this led to a decisive move: on 12 October Stalin ordered 400,000 experienced troops, 1,000 tanks and 1,000 planes westward across Siberia into position behind Moscow, replacing them with enough newly recruited soldiers to deter the Japanese should they change their minds. The new reinforcements brought up by Stalin were not only unanticipated by the Germans, they also proved decisive. Field Marshal Bock feared the worst: ‘The splitting of the Army Group,’ he wrote on 25 October 1941, ‘in combination with the terrible weather has led to our getting stuck. Through this, the Russians are winning the time to fill up their shattered divisions and to strengthen their defences, the more so as they command the mass of roads and railway lines around Moscow. That’s very bad!’
By 15 November 1941, as winter began to set in, the ground was hard enough for Bock to resume his advance. The tanks and armoured vehicles rolled forward once more, reaching positions within 30 kilometres of the suburbs and cutting off the Moscow-Volga canal. But soon it began to snow, and on the night of 4 December the temperature plummeted to minus 34 degrees Celsius, freezing German equipment and penetrating the troops’ inadequate winter clothing. The next night the thermometer fell still further, reaching minus 40 in some places. In the midst of the Russian winter, the German troops, equipped for a campaign that had been confidently expected to last only until the autumn, were poorly clad and ill prepared. ‘All armies,’ noted Bock already on 14 November 1941, ‘are complaining about considerable difficulties in bringing fresh supplies of every kind – foodstuffs, ammunition, fuel and winter clothing.’ Soon Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels began a campaign to collect winter clothes for the troops. Hitler issued a personal appeal on 20 December 1941, and the same evening Goebbels broadcast a helpful list of the items needed. Woollen and fur clothing was confiscated from German Jews in late December 1941 and sent to the freezing troops on the Eastern Front. But it was all too late; and in any case, transport difficulties meant that much of the clothing would not reach the front. Meier-Welcker was reduced to hoping in late January that the ‘wool collection’ would at least reach the front by the following winter. Cases of frostbite were occurring with increasing frequency among the German troops. ‘Their feet are so swollen,’ he noted, ‘that their boots have to be cut open. That reveals that their feet or at least their toes are blue or already black, and are starting to be affected by frostbite.’
The senior generals had been aware of the problem, but with blind optimism they had thought it would be solved by the occupation of major Russian cities like Moscow and Leningrad, where they could take up warm winter quarters. Winter had come, and they were still encamped on the open steppe. The wind, wrote General Heinrici, ‘stabs you in the face with needles, and blasts through your protective headgear and your gloves. Your eyes are streaming so much that you can hardly see a thing.’ In one infantry division, 13 per cent of the unit’s average strength were invalided out with frostbite between 20 December 1941 and 19 February 1942.294 After weeks without washing or changing their clothes, the men were dirty and verminous. ‘Everybody is swarming with lice, and is constantly itching and scratching,’ wrote Heinrici. ‘Many have suppurating wounds from the eternal scratching and scraping. Many have got bladder and bowel infections through lying on the cold ground.’ His troops were ‘extremely exhausted’. Such conditions were well suited to the Soviet armies, who had learned the lesson of the bitter Winter War against Finland and were now properly equipped for fighting in these terrible conditions, deploying ski battalions to move swiftly over the snow-covered ground, and light cavalry to advance quickly over waterlogged terrain impassable to tanks. The German army’s defensive tactics were based on the assumption that counter-attacks could be met with sufficient forces to provide defence in depth, that the Red Army would mainly use infantry, and that it would be possible for senior officers to choose their ground and make tactical withdrawals where necessary. All these assumptions proved to be wrong from the outset and contributed to the disaster that was about to overtake the German forces. On 5 December 1941 Zhukov ordered a counter-offensive, aiming initially at the German pincers north and south of Moscow, to eliminate the danger of it being surrounded. Soviet troops, he ordered, were not to waste time and lives in frontal attacks on fortified positions but were simply to pass them by, leaving covering forces, and make for the German lines of withdrawal. On 7 December 1941 Bock noted that he was now facing twenty-four more Red Army divisions than there had been in his theatre of war in mid-November. The odds were stacking up fast against him. Without supplies, weakened in numbers, lacking in reserve forces, weary and exhausted, the troops could not be deployed rapidly to meet the onslaught of an enemy ‘who is mounting a counter-attack with the reckless commitment of his inexhaustible human masses’.
Unable to decide whether to continue the advance or break it off, Bock could think of nothing better than sending Halder a continual stream of demands for reinforcements. The next day Hitler recognized the seriousness of the situation by ordering a halt to the advance. Meanwhile, Bock’s dithering began to spread uncertainty among the troops. If they could not advance any further, what were they to do next? Morale began to plummet. Already on 30 November 1941 the corporal Alois Scheuer wrote to his wife from his position 60 kilometres from Moscow:
I am sitting with my comrades in a dugout, in the half-dark. You have no idea how lousy and crazy we all look, and how this life has become a torment for me. It can’t be described in words any more. I’ve only got one thought left: when will I get out of this hell? . . . It has been and is simply too much for me, what I’ve got to take part in here. It is slowly destroying us.
By Christmas Day 1941, Scheuer estimated that 90 per cent of his original company were gone – dead, wounded, missing, ill or suffering from frostbite. His own toes were beginning to turn black. Scheuer survived the experience, lasting until February 1943, when he was killed, still fighting on the Eastern Front. Amidst wild blizzards that brought down the German field telephone lines and blocked the roads, confusion began to set in amongst Bock’s troops. Only a single railway line was available to serve a retreat, and the roads became blocked with immobilized tanks and vehicles, many of which had to be abandoned as the German forces, shocked and surprised by the counter-attack, began to fall back in the face of Zhukov’s onslaught. Smaller counter-attacks in the far north and south, at Tikhvin and Rostov, prevented the Germans from moving reinforcements to the battle-front.300
German tanks and armoured vehicles were in many cases out of fuel. Ammunition and rations were in short supply. Combat aircraft could not fly in the driving snow. On 16 December 1941, after pushing back the German salients to the north and south of the city, Zhukov ordered a full advance to the west. Within ten days the situation for the Germans had become desperate. ‘We have a difficult day behind us,’ wrote Meier-Welcker on 26 December 1941:
Hampered by the snow and especially the snowdrifts, often shovelling ourselves out metre by metre, and travelling with vehicles and equipment that is by no means adequate for the Russian winter, behind us the enemy pressing on, concern to bring the troops to safety in time, to carry the wounded along, not to let too many weapons or too much equipment fall into enemy hands, all this was sorely trying for the troops and the leadership.
Worst of all were the ‘snowstorms, which very quickly rendered impassable roads we had just dug free’. The Russian advance was unstoppable. ‘Equipped with fabulous winter equipment, they are everywhere pushing through the wide gaps that have opened up in our front,’ observed Heinrici on 22 December. ‘Although we saw the disaster of encirclement coming, again and again the command came from above to halt.’ But there was no alternative to moving if they were not to be completely cut off. The result was a chaotic instead of an orderly retreat. ‘The retreat in snow and ice,’ wrote Heinrici, ‘is absolutely Napoleonic in its manner. The losses are similar.’