At the end of September 1941, more than a million German soldiers lined up along the frontline just 180 miles west of Moscow. They were well trained, confident, and had good reasons to hope that the war in the East would be over with one last offensive. Facing them was an equally large Soviet force, but whose soldiers were neither as well trained nor as confident. When the Germans struck, disaster soon befell the Soviet defenders. German panzer spearheads cut through enemy defenses and thrust deeply to encircle most of the Soviet soldiers on the approaches to Moscow. Within a few weeks, most of them marched into captivity, where a grim fate awaited them.
Despite the overwhelming initial German success, however, the Soviet capital did not fall. German combat units as well as supply transport were bogged down in mud caused by autumn rains. General Zhukov was called back to Moscow and given the desperate task to recreate defense lines west of Moscow. The mud allowed him time to accomplish this, and when the Germans again began to attack in November, they met stiffer resistance. Even so, they came perilously close to the capital, and if the vicissitudes of weather had cooperated, would have seized it. Though German units were also fighting desperately by now, the Soviet build-up soon exceeded their own.
The Drive on Moscow: Operation Taifun, 1941 is based on numerous archival records, personal diaries, letters, and other sources. It recreates the battle from the perspective of the soldiers as well as the generals. The battle, not fought in isolation, had a crucial role in the overall German strategy in the East, and its outcome reveals why the failure of the German assault on Moscow may well have been true turning point of World War II.
Niklas Zetterling is a researcher at the Swedish Defense College. Along with Anders Frankson he has previously written Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis and The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944. Both authors currently live in Sweden.
This is not an Erik Larson, David McCullough, Dan Carlin or Stephen Ambrose level of a story telling. In fact for all the unimaginable suffering and loss in this phase of the conflict you feel almost nothing because that is not what the authors are primarily interested in. They focus painstakingly on equipment, dates, cities, command structure to the degree that the casualties become empty statistics. One such statistic that boggles the mind is 850,000 Russian casualties in the first three weeks of 10/1941! That is the equivalent of the entire state of South Dakota dead, wounded, missing. In just those three weeks, and just army group center. I gave it two stars for at least attempting to illuminate with statistics. I did get something out of it.