December 6, 1941

That’s not a typo. This essay is about the day before Pearl Harbor, a day that was of considerable importance in its own right (it was the culmination of what many deem the most important battle of WWII).

Dec. 6, 1941 was the date on which the Russian counteroffensive outside of Moscow began. This battle was important for many reasons, chief of which was that it was the first large-scale battlefield defeat suffered by the German Army in WWII. But beyond this (after all, larger wars are series of battlefield victories and defeats), it was the finishing touch of the growing portent for the German High Command that victory on the Eastern Front was at best a slim possibility.

Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941 and enjoyed considerable success in the early going. Success, to be sure, but at a price I do not think the German High Command expected. In terms of material and soldiers, the massive victories of the summer of 1941 were expensive, more than Germany could sustain over the course of years. But ultimate success seemed inevitable. By late summer, the numbers of killed, wounded, and captured Soviet troops were close to total estimates of manpower available to the Soviet Army in June of 1941. It probably was inconceivable to the German generals that the Soviet Union could continue to mount such dogged and costly defenses as they had done throughout the summer.

(The numbers are truly staggering. According to one source, by the end of August, Russia had lost more than 2.5 million soldiers . This was in one two-month campaign. By way of comparison, total US casualties for all of WWII, in both theatres, were about 1 million killed, wounded, or captured. The carnage on the Eastern Front is frightening to contemplate.)

But fight on the Soviet Army did. And with a ferocity (and cost in lives) that was unabated throughout the late summer and autumn. More defeats were suffered by Russia, much more territory lost, yet the battle raged. This had to concern the Germans, who by now were faced with an growing inhospitable climate as well as savage combat.

In spite of this, by late autumn, the German Army had slogged (and slugged) its way to the gates of Moscow, a prize whose fall was expected to be accompanied by a greater defeat of the remains of the Soviet Union. By early December, spent and ill-equipped though it was, the German Army was poised (or at least dug in, as much as could be done in the harsh winter conditions) to continue menacing Moscow, as they had been for the previous months.  December 6 changed this – the counteroffensive threw the Germans back from the gates of Moscow, and drove them back along a much larger front. Many incredibly bloody years awaited the combatants, years of brutal and horrifying actions on both parts.  But the die was largely cast on Dec. 6, that Germany could not defeat the Soviet Union.

(The scale of the overall Battle of Moscow, that lasted some seven months, was massive, larger than the more famous battles at Stalingrad and Kursk, as well as the Battle of the Bulge.  More than 7 million soldiers fought, and more than 2.5 million were killed, wounded, or captured.)

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2 Responses to December 6, 1941

  1. RBH says:

    Thanks for that reminder. It’s easy to forget in the U.S. that WWII didn’t start with Pearl Harbor.

  2. elmore says:

    Amazing, there is the truth about WW2 and then there is Tom Brokaw’s stupid book. This is a perfect book for people of questionable intelligence that haven’t a clue about actual history and are too lazy too examine the historical records to obtain the truth about World War 2 or to put it more bluntly it’s a feel good book for stupid people. A more accurate description of the time can be found from an old TV documentary that aired in the US in 1975 called THE WORLD AT WAR. This British made 30 part series of one hour shows took you from the political beginning of the Nazi’s during the great depression right through to the bitter end of the Axis forces. This film came out in the cold war years and was surprisingly accurate considering the self serving propaganda of the former allies at the time. I was only 28 years old back then when I watched the entire series and I thought, they never taught this in school.

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