Finally, Army Group Centre was allowed to begin the offensive against Moscow. Three panzer groups - a total of 1500 tanks - were earmarked to storm Stalin's capital. But could Moscow be taken before the weather broke?
By superhuman efforts the Soviets had established a defence line in front of Army Group Centre. This comprised a system of deep defences in echelon and in several zones, one behind the other. Although some of these fortifications were still under construction, the Germans would have to smash through them in order to reach Moscow.
German intelligence estimated that six Soviet armies - 55 divisions, under the command of Marshal Timoshenko, with his advanced headquarters at Vyazma - were deployed along the Smolensk-Moscow road. It was also believed that to the south, between Pokshep and Glukhov, General Yeremenko was organizing a new front with three armies of some 30 divisions, while to the rear there were between 10 and 15 reserve divisions.
In fact, Konev had replaced Timoshenko as commander of the Western Front, and the force actually consisted of the Sixteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-Second, Twenty-Ninth and Thirtieth Armies. Reserves comprised Marshal Budenny's Reserve Front: the Twenty-Fourth, Forty-Third, Thirty-First, Forty-Ninth, Thirty-Second and Thirty-Third Armies. Although seemingly impressive, Konev had only 479 tanks.
The Germans marshalled their forces. At Smolensk, General Hoepner (Fourth Panzer Group) and General Hoth (Third Panzer Group) stood ready. To the south, at Glukhov, was Guderian (Second Panzer Group). The latter would attack from Glukhov via Orel towards Tula. It would have been better if Guderian had been farther north, and thereby closer to Moscow, but his participation in the Kiev encirclement ruled this out.
On 24 September, plans were discussed at the headquarters of Army Group Centre at Smolensk. Present were Field Marshal von Bock, army and panzer group commanders, plus the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, von Brauchitsch, and Chief of Staff Halder. Orders were issued two days later.
Von Kluge's Fourth Army and the Fourth Panzer Group would attack along the Roslavl-Moscow road, and General Adolf Strauss' Ninth Army would advance on the north side of the Smolensk-Moscow road. The two armies would then swing in and trap the enemy to the east of Vyazma. To the south, the Second Army would attack north of Bryansk, while the Second Panzer Group would advance northeast, link up with Second Army units and thereby trap enemy units around Bryansk. Guderian would then push on to Tula to secure the flanks of his comrades farther north. Army Group South was ordered to advance in the direction of Oboyan, while units belonging to Army Group North were to move up to the Ostashkov lakes. This was the plan for the capture of Moscow, codenamed Typhoon.
Army Group Centre mustered 44 infantry divisions, 14 panzer divisions, eight motorized infantry divisions and one cavalry division. In the air, II and VIII Fliegerkorps of Luftflotte II were assigned to support Typhoon.
Von Bock chose 30 September for the attack of the Second Panzer Group, and 2 October for the general attack. But now success depended more on the weather than the fighting ability of the army's divisions.
When Typhoon opened it did so in sunny weather, and five days later the spearheads of the Fourth and Third Panzer Groups trapped large parts of five Soviet armies - Thirtieth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, Forty-Third and Thirty-Second - in the Vyazma area. Guderian charged towards Orel while diverting some of his panzers to Bryansk. The latter was taken on 6 October, and his men linked up with the Second Army on the 9th. This trapped two more Soviet armies - the Third and Thirteenth - while to the north of Bryansk the encirclement of the Soviet Fiftieth Army began.
Units were not to be wasted in mopping up the pockets - the momentum towards Moscow was to be maintained. Von Bock ordered the Second Panzer Army (the new term for Guderian's command) to take Tula on 7 October, and then drive on to the southern outskirts of Moscow. The Fourth Panzer Group was to strike for Mozhaysk, 96km (60 miles) from Moscow.
It appeared that the Soviet capital would be taken with ease, but then heavy rain set in on
8 October which severely slowed all movement. To the south, moreover, Guderian was engaged in the fighting on both sides of the Bryansk Pocket. This, combined with the weather and fuel shortages, prevented the advance on Tula. The reduction of the Bryansk Pocket ended on 20 October, but once again large numbers of enemy troops escaped into the forests, later to reappear as partisans. More promising for the Germans was the fighting at Vyazma, which ended on 14 October.
The double battle of Vyazma/Bryansk had yielded a rich haul: 673,000 prisoners, 1242 tanks and 5412 artillery pieces. Eight Soviet armies of 86 divisions, 13 of them armoured, had been destroyed.
Hitler became confident that Moscow would at last be conquered. On 12 October, OKW issued the following order: "The Führer has reaffirmed that the surrender of Moscow will not be accepted, even if it is offered by the enemy ... Everyone who tries to leave the city and pass through our positions must be fired upon and driven back ... It would be utterly irresponsible to risk the lives of German soldiers to save Russian towns from fires or to feed their populations at Germany's expense."
The Second Panzer and Fourth Armies and the Fourth Panzer Group closed in on Moscow. In the capital the mood was grim: the government and diplomatic corps were evacuated to Kuybeyshev on the Volga on 16 October, though Stalin himself remained in the Kremlin and declared a state of siege three days later.
The second half of October was characterized by thick mud, into which the German Army sank. Roads became almost impassable, and the movements of units were slowed down or brought to a complete standstill. Overnight the amount of fuel being used by German vehicles trebled as they tried to force their way through the quagmires.
Vehicles began to break down and horses died in their hundreds through overwork and starvation. Guns and heavy transport ground to a standstill and the only transport still capable of movement were the tracked recovery vehicles. Guderian wrote: "The roads became nothing more than canals of bottomless mud, along which our vehicles could advance only at a snail's pace and with great wear to the engines ... The next few weeks were dominated by the mud. Wheeled vehicles could advance only with the help of tracked vehicles. These latter, having to perform tasks for which they were not intended, rapidly wore out." The panzer general noted bitterly that Hitler was living in a "world of fantasy" when he talked of fast-moving units.
The whole front ground to a halt. T-34 tanks, appearing in increasing numbers, added to the Germans' woes. Communications were also affected, as reconnaissance vehicles could not report to their headquarters, which made strategic leadership impossible. Reinforcements reached the frontline at a trickle, if they reached it at all. Fuel, which had to be transported to the front by vehicle, began to run out, thereby further diminishing the strike power of the motorized units.
At the end of October 1941, the condition of the German Army in the Soviet Union was grim. The 101 infantry divisions in the East had a fighting strength equivalent to 65 divisions at full strength, while the 17 panzer divisions had been reduced to a fighting strength of the equivalent of six at full strength. Guderian, who had earlier been so enthusiastic about attacking Moscow, argued that his "army" was incapable of achieving its objectives. One of his panzer corps, for example, had only 50 tanks left out of a full establishment of 600!
The onset of the cold weather in November brought even greater hardship to the troops. Guderian again: "The icy cold, the lack of shelter, the shortage of clothing, the heavy losses of men and equipment, the wretched state of our fuel supplies, all this makes the duties of a commander a misery, and the longer it goes on the more I am crushed by the responsibility I have to bear."
Requests by frontline officers for winter uniforms and protective clothing for their men came to nothing because there was no transport to move them from rear supply depots, and those railways that were working were earmarked for ammunition and fuel.
The Soviets, on the other hand, were well prepared and equipped to deal with the adverse weather. That said, the Red Army had suffered massive losses and was in a depleted state. It did not yet have the reserves to launch a substantial counterattack. It therefore concentrated on small-scale operations to slow down the weakening German panzers. These often consisted of nothing more than using tank obstacles and other improvised methods.
The advance continued at an agonizing pace. The Fourth Army reached the River Oka at Naro-Fominsk. The Ninth Army, following severe fighting around Kalinin, established a defensive front north of Rzhev and made contact with the southern wing of Army Group North near Ostashkov. But the weather was getting worse every day.
Von Bock wrote the following in his diary on 25 October: "Resistance on the Fourth Army front is stiffening. The enemy has brought up fresh forces from Siberia and the Caucasus and is making counterattacks on both sides of the roads leading southwest from Moscow. The southern half of the Fourth Army, which has not yet got up most of its artillery because of the mud roads, is forced on to the defensive. On the northern flank of the army, the left wing of the Fourth Panzer Group is making some progress in the direction of Volokolamsk ... Near Kalinin there are new and fierce attacks by the Russians, who on the west side of the city are pushing southeast across the Volga.
"But if one thinks on larger lines, all this is nothing. It is the dispersal of the Army Group and the frightful weather that have brought us to a standstill. The Russian is winning time to reconstitute his shattered divisions and bolster his defences and it is he who controls the railways and roads that centre in Moscow. It all looks very bad."
Despite Guderian's anguish, he pushed his army on, and by 30 October his spearhead approached Tula, but was not strong enough to capture the city. Then his right flank was attacked by enemy cavalry, which were repulsed at Teploye after a battle lasting several days. But reconnaissance revealed more enemy forces were in the area. The Second Army, now switched to the south, had reached Kursk, but the north wing of Army Group South had been held up at Belgorod, creating a gap of 128km (80 miles) in the German frontline.