Although the first snows had fallen around Leningrad in mid-September, south west of Moscow the skies were clear and sunny. On 1 October 1941, Field Marshal Fedor Von Bock’s 750,000 men and 1000 panzers of Army Group Center finally launched Operation Typhoon to capture the cultural, industrial, administrative, and communications center for the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and Stalin’s regime. But the month long respite given to Moscow by Hitler (German generals wanted to launch Typhoon in August at the expense of the drives on Leningrad and Stalingrad, Hitler overruled them) was used to great effect by the Soviets, though not initially.
In a week, Von Bock’s men made great gains and encircled and captured more than 500,000 Soviet soldiers. Moscow looked doomed, but on 8 October the weather abruptly changed, not to snow, but to rain. The rain turned the terrain to mud and the roads to a swampy morass, which were impassable to all but tracked vehicles. The Germans struggled through the Rasputitsa, the seasonal mud of Eastern Europe. On 13 October, they hit the well prepared defenses of the Mozhayek Line, still 100 miles from Moscow, which were built during the previous month and allowed the poorly trained, poorly led, and hastily formed Soviet divisions to halt the nearly immobilized Germans, albeit with drastic measures.
On 15 October, Stalin’s fireman, Georgy Zhukov, took control of the Moscow front after stabilizing Leningrad. He stationed thousands of NKVD troops behind the Mozhayek Line with orders to shoot deserters, and then more infamously, report their names back to Moscow so their families were shot also. The controversial order and impending German capture caused widespread rioting in Moscow, but the Germans made no headway for a month.
On 5 November, the temperature plummeted and the mud froze. Two days later the revitalized Germans broke through the Mozhayek Line, and surged 80 miles toward the Soviet capital. But by this point the cold weather was a double edged sword: the terrain was passable but the Wehrmacht was not prepared for it. Although the lack of winter uniforms made soldiers’ lives miserable beyond compare, it was the lack of winterized lubricants and antifreeze that slowed the offensive. German soldiers were required to light fires underneath their vehicles to warm up the frozen engines every morning.
On 4 December, 1941, the lead elements of Von Bock’s Army Group Center reached the western suburbs of Moscow, about 12 miles from the city center, and within sight of the spires of the Kremlin.
They would get no further.