Braithwaite – Moscow 1941

Braithwaite’s (2006) “Moscow 1941: A city and its people at war” has a lot of information on Moscow during 1941 – World War II obviously – but relatively little of a direct military nature. I’ve extracted a few snippets.

The book is available from Amazon USA, UK, and Canada:

Braithwaite, R. (2006). Moscow 1941: A city and its people at war. Profile Books.


Moscow is surrounded by a gently undulating sandy plain. Largely thick silver birch and black pine cover the area although some was cleared for agriculture. The Moscow River and tributaries wound through the plain. Most buildings in Moscow were made of wood. Even the grand 18th and 19th century buildings were stucco on a wooden frame.

KV-1s on the Frontier

In Jun 1941 the 32nd Tank Division in Lvov had 300 KV-1 tanks and was commanded by Colonel Pushkin. Under the ruse that the roads between Lvov and the frontier had been damaged by rain and needed checking General Kirponos of Southwestern Front ordered 32nd division to patrol towards the frontier. Lieutenant Gudz commanded the regimental headquarters platoon of five KV tanks, two T-34s, two armoured cars and four motorbikes. Gudz was regimental duty officer on Saturday 21 Jun 1941. Barbarossa started the next morning. Gudz took the initiative to mobilise the division and the tanks were soon on their way to the frontier with the headquarters platoon at the front. The Luftwaffe bombed the column and when German troops – armour, anti-tank guns, infantry – were sighted ahead Gudz was ordered to attack. The platoon destroyed three German tanks, three half tracks, and several cars before the Germans retreated over the border and Gudz was ordered to halt. The Germans attacked again after lunch and Gudz knocked out four more tanks. However the Germans continue their attacks and the division was pushed back to Lvov then Kiev. Luftwaffe attentions meant the division ran short of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition so Gudz and his comrades were forced to burn their tanks outside Kiev. The divisional survivors were then trained to Moscow.

Mozhaisk Defensive Line

On 4 Jul 1941 the GKO began to raise 25 volunteer divisions from Moscow and the surrounding region. This was one division for each of Moscow’s Raions. Each division had a number and carried the name of the Raion in which it was raised. Each Raion also had to raise a reserve regiment for replacements. Divisional and regimental commanders and chiefs of staff were regular soldiers. Company commanders were mostly officer cadets. The volunteers elected their own platoon commanders which meant these often had no military experience. The Raion Party Committees supplied the political commissars. Twelve divisions had been formed by 5 Jul. They had little or no training, weapons, ammunition, equipment, or uniforms. Four divisions had Polish rifles but no ammunition. Two divisions had French machine guns, artillery and mortars. Some antiquated French rifles and captured equipment was also issued. Although some training was given most of the volunteers were assigned to digging trenches.

On 16 Jul the GKO ordered the construction of the Mozhaisk defensive line – more than 170 km frmo the Moscow reservoir to the the north of the city – and the formation of the new Reserve Front. This front was assigned five NKVD divisions and ten of the new volunteer divisions and formed two new armies each with five of the divisions. From what I can tell the volunteer divisions assigned to the front included: 2nd (Stalin), 5th (Frunze), 6th (Dzerzhinski), 8th (Krasnaya Presnya), 9th (Kirov), 17th (Moskvorechie), 18th (Leningrad). At the end of August the volunteers were given proper uniforms and their divisional flag. They were also reorganised into regular rifle divisions with the full complement of supporting arms. August also saw them moving to the front. By the end of September the volunteers had acquired much, if not all, of the weapons and equipment they needed, and had uniforms and some training. That put them on a par with some of the scratch regular units.

On 16 Sep 1941 von Bock issued his operational directive for the capture of Moscow – codenamed ‘Typhoon’. Third Panzer Group (Hoth) would attack from the north, Fourth Panzer Group would attack in the centre, and Second Panzer Group (Guderian) from the south. The operation kicked off on 30 Sep.

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Operation Typhoon

In the south Guderian’s Second Panzer Group broke through the Bryansk Front and captured Orel on 3 Oct. The German advance penned the Bryansk Front into two pockets. Yeremenko and his staff were flown out but the troops were on their own – they fought on until 16-17 Oct. On 6 Oct Colonel Katukov concealed his T-34s in a wood and ambushed 4th Panzer Division as it passed; at the end of the day many or most of the German tanks had been destroyed. Due to this hold up it took Guderian’s tanks until 29 Oct to approach Tula. A few regular units and a local volunteer battalion were the only defenders but they managed to hold Guderian and Tula never fell.

In the north the Third and Fourth Panzer Groups smashed through the Western and Reserve Front to link up east of Vyazma. They trapped four armies, including 24th and 32nd with most of the Moscow Volunteer Divisions. General Lukin of 16th Army took command of the Vyazma pocket and his men fought desperately. Five of the volunteer divisions that survived the October fighting went on to become Guards Divisions – 18th (Leningrad) was the first – but another five were disbanded due to losses. The disbanded divisions were 2nd (Stalin), 7th (Bauman), 8th (Krasnaya Presnya), 9th (Kirov), 13th (Rostokino).

With the creation of the Vyazma pocket the approach to Moscow was open. The military colleges at Podesk produced a scratch force which, together with two or three regiments of artillery and some air defence units held the Germans at a river crossing on the Warsaw Highway.

October brought the mud of rasputitsa and operations became difficult.

On 5 Oct 1941 Koniev ordered Rokossovski to hand over his sector of the line, take his staff to Vyazma, and with the five divisions he would find there, stop the Germans. He made it to Vyazma on 6 Oct but only found the local police; the promised divisions were already encircled. Rokossovski fled the city just in front of the German panzers. He collected some medium tanks and armoured cars, a squadron of NKVD cavalry, and elements of the 18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division that had escaped encirclement. This force was strong enough to push through the occasional German units they encountered. They reached the headquarters of the Western Front on 9 Oct.

The first snow fell on 7 Oct 1941 however a quick thaw just made the mud worse.

Zhukov arrived in Moscow on 8 Oct 1941 and on 9 Oct was given command of the new Western Front – combining the remnants of The Reserve and old Western Front. The Mozhaisk Defensive Line was still incomplete but Zhukov rushed troops into the line to block the gaps. Six rifle divisions, six armoured brigades, ten artillery regiments and machine-gun battalions. Zhukov ordered Rokossovski to defend 100 odd km at the northern part of the Mozhaisk Defensive Line. There he began to form a new 16th Army from the remnants of Lukin’s old 16th Army, Lev Dovator’s Cossacks, the 316th Rifle Division, a regiment of cadets from the School of the Supreme Soviet, the remnants of the 18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division, and some artillery and other supporting units.

Despite the reinforcements the Germans continued to advance. Kaluga, Borodino, Kalinin, Maloyaroslavers, and Mozhaisk fell.

The 316th Rifle Division, under General Panfilov, was raised in Kazakhstan during the summer, was up to establishment, was well trained, and fully equipped. As soon as it entered the line it earned the respect of the Germans. 316th Rifle Division deployed on the left flank of 16th Army to the west and southwest of the small city of Volokolamsk.

A howitzer battalion of cadets from the Krasin Artillery School in Moscow supported 16th Army’s Cossacks, 316th Rifle Division, and the cadet infantry. Although well trained the artillery cadets had never fired their weapons before they entered combat. They had artillery tractors for their guns but the tractors could go at most 8 km / hour. They handed their guns over to 16th Army on 15 Nov 1941 and returned to training.

5th Army under General Leliushenko was in the centre of the Mozhaisk Defensive Line. On 11 Oct the 32nd Division under Colonel Polosukhin, three tanks brigades, and the cadets from a Moscow military college took up positions at Borodino.

On 12 Oct 1941 the GKO set up the Moscow Defence Zone and ordered the construction of another defensive line around Moscow itself. On 13 the Moscow Raion were ordered to raise another volunteer regiment each but the total was only 10,000 men and they had few arms. Another 30,000 men were added from specialist units of the regular army, conscripts, members of the ‘Destroyer Battalions’. These were used to form five full strength Moscow Rifle Divisions. 600 women joined these divisions. Reserve divisions were also arriving from the east.

Two rifle divisions broke out of the Vyazma pocket on the night of 12-13 Oct through a swampy sector where the panzers could not operate. Lukin then destroyed his heavy equipment and ordered the men in the pocket to escape in small groups. Some reached the Russian lines and others joined the partisans. Lukin was wounded and captured but survived the war.

On 13 Oct the Germans attacked 5th Army at Borodino and took the Shevardino Redoubt in front of the Russian line. On 14 Oct they broke into the Russian positions. General Leliushenko was wounded in hand to hand combat. But Colonel Polosukhin’s 32nd Division held on for five days before retreating, unbeaten, along the road to Moscow.

On 15 Oct the Germans launched a massive attack towards Volokolamsk. 316th Rifle Division fought furiously but on 28 Oct, against Stalin’s orders, they abandoned Volokolamsk in disorder. Rokossovski and Panfilov were both criticized for their handling of this battle. 316th Rifle Division then rallied to defend Volokolamsk highway.

Operations gradually ground to a halt in the mud.

7 Nov 1941 was the Anniversary of the Revolution and Moscow celebrated with a parade. Stalin had withdrawn the equivalent of two divisions from Moscow’s defensive line to conduct the parade.

On 10 Nov the Bryansk Front was dissolved. Kalinin Front (Koniev) protected Moscow from the northern and Western Front (Zhukov) from the west. Reserves from the far east joined Zhukov. Rokossovski’s 16th Army was deployed in depth with carefully placed anti-tank defenses.

On 14 Nov Stalin ordered Zhukov to launch two spoiling attacks. Rokossovski was ordered to attack at Volokolamsk. Both Zhukov and Rokossovski protested – to no avail. The Russian attacks kicked off on 15 Nov. The Germans had more men, tanks and guns so Rokossovski was forced to send untried units into battle. They took just over 1 km of ground but suffered terrible casualties. Dovator’s cavalry were almost surrounded. German artillery and machine guns wiped out the 44th Cavalry Division, newly arrived from Taskkent, when it tried a massed charge across open ground.

As the Russian attacks faltered on 15 Nov the Germans launched their own offensive. On 16 Nov they attacked the left flank of 16th Army held by Panfilov’s 316th Division and a cadet regiment. German heavy artillery and planes bombarded the defenders. Then the panzers began to roll over the frozen ground. The 1075th Infantry Regiment, 316th Division, held the division’s left flank at a small railway crossing called Dubosekovo. Their job was to stop the Germans reaching the Volokolamsk Highway. The regiment destroyed some tanks and suffered significant casualties themselves before withdrawing, without orders, towards evening. Amongst the defenders was a anti-tank platoon equipped with one machine gun, two anti-tank rifles, and some Molotov cocktails. This incident subsequently got talked up as ‘The Testimony of the 28 Fallen Heroes’. In the PR version the 28 men of the anti-tank platoon, under Commissar Vasili Klochkov, had held off 50 German tanks; one man has fled an been shot by his comrades and the other 27 had died fighting. The truth was somewhat different. The regimental commander had heard nothing of these exploits until told by journalists, several of the men survived: one died in a Soviet hospital, two saw out the war as German prisoners of war, one joined a partisan group formed by soldiers but was subsequent arrested by the NKVD as a deserter, and one returned to the Ukraine because a village elder under the Germans and arrested as a collaborator after liberation.

The Germans continued to push the 136th Division back on 17 Nov. Stalin partially relented to pleas from Zhukov for reinforcements and the 78th Siberian Rifle Division (General Beloborodov) joined 16th Army in the line. The Siberians stablised the line for three days before 16th Army was forced back again. Panfilov was killed by a random mortar round.

German reinforcements drove the Russians back another 16 km. By 19 Nov 16th Army was at risk from encirclement. Zhukov denied Rokossovski’s request to withdraw to the Istra River thus allowing the Germans to take the river at a rush. The Germans captured Istra, Klin and Solnechnogorsk, and got to the Leningrad Highway. 16th Army was again nearly encircled. Rokossovski was nearly captured at his headquarters at Kriukovo. The T-34 troop guarding the headquarters went to refuel thus leaving the staff exposed as Germans entered the village. Rokossovski and his staff quickly evacuated. The Germans kept pushing against the 78th Siberian Rifle Division and 18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division, attacked the Sheremeievo airport, captured the Yakhroma bridge over the Moscow-Volga canal, and reached Krasnaya Polyana.

Stalin relented again and committed 20th Army, General Vlasov with fresh Siberian divisions, on the right of 16th Army. And by this time Russian aircraft were challenging the German air superiority. The Siberians pushed the Germans back across the canal. That was the closest the Germans got to Moscow.

The Germans tried again on 1 Dec from the north, west and south. The western attack was the most successful, breaching the defences on the Mozhaisk Highway, and reaching Golitsyno. 1 Dec also saw von Rundstedt sacked by Hitler for unauthorised withdrawal.

The Soviets launched a counter-offensive on Friday 5 Dec 1941. The temperature fluctuate between 0° C and -40° C. The attackers advanced about 3 km / day for the next four days. Although Zhukov ordered them to maneuver and infiltrate between prepared German positions, too many conducted costly frontal attacks.

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Winter 1941
Soviet counter offensive

Lieutenant Gudz, seen above fighting on the Frontier in June, was now in a tank battalion under Captain Khorin. Gudz had been involved in the parade on Red Square on 7 Nov but had gone back into action afterwards. By 5 Dec and the commencement of the Russian counter-offensive the tank battalion was down to a single KV and a few T-60s. Khorin was ordered to destroy the 18 German tanks in the village of Nefedievo by 0800 hours on 6 Dec 1941. Khorin in turn ordered Gudz to accomplish this mission with the KV and a picked crew. The crew loaded up armour piercing shells and machine gun ammunition then after dark drove to the front line just over 1 km from Nefedievo. Gudz reconnoitred on foot before the tank moved across a river into position. A modest artillery barrage helped conceal the KV’s engine noise. The snow stopped and the temperature dropped below freezing as Gudz waited for the German voices in the village to die away. Gudz attacked at dawn. Eight panzers were knocked out before the Germans could respond. The German shells bounced off the KV’s armour so the panzers sheltered behind buildings. German infantry advanced in support but the KV’s machine gunner cut them down. The Germans began to retreat as Russian artillery opened up and the nearby Russian infantry crossed in support of the KV. Gudz pursued the Germans as long as his ammunition lasted.

On 8 Dec 16th Army recaptured Kriukovo and 20th Army retook Krasnaya Polyana and pushed on to Solmechnogorsk. As 16th Army approach Istra the Germans blew up the dam of the reservoir. The 78th Siberian Rifle Division and 18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division had to scavenge what they could to float across the icy torrent and continue their attack, retaking Istra on 11 Dec.

General Dovator took his Cossacks of the recently redesignated Second Guards Cavalry Corps on a deep raid behind German lines. By 19 Dec they were on the Ruza River. Dovator was killed whilst reconnoitering a German position.

On 10 Jan 1942 the Stalin launched a massive offensive. Koniev, backed by 16th and 20th Armies, broke through the German defences on the Volokolamsk Highway. The Second Guards Cavalry Corps (now under Pliev), tanks and ski battalions went through the gap they created. Zhukov pushed along the Mozhaisk Highway. Belov’s cavalry and Yefremov reached a point southwest of Vyazma but were then encircled themselves; it took until July for Belov to return to the Soviet lines.

8th (Krasnaya Presnya) Volunteer Division

The 8th (Krasnaya Presnya) Volunteer Division contained an unusually high number of writers, musicians, and historians. Initially under Brigadier Skripnikov by the end of September Colonel Zveriev was in command. The “Writers’ Company” was 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment. Many of the more experienced writers were subsequently reassigned as journalists which probably saved their lives. The 2nd and 3rd companies of 1st battalion contained 250 musicians from the Conservatoire. 1,000 men came from the University of Moscow. Recent graduates of the History Faculty of Moscow University were assigned to the Division’s artillery regiment. The division trained outside Moscow and were issued uniforms in late Jul 1941. The divisional artillery were given horses to pull the guns when the rains started in September. The division had 7,500 men when trapped in the Vyazma pocket by Fourth and Third Panzer Groups in Operation Typhoon. 8th division entered combat for the first and only time on 4 Oct 1941 when German tanks, guns and aircraft closed in. The division effectively ceased to exist. During the first day 1,200 men were wounded, the staffs were decimated, and the ammunition supplies practically exhausted. 1,400 volunteers died in a failed break out at the village of Korobets. The divisional survivors were split into two detachments and ordered to make their way through the forests if they could. German tanks crushed the first detachment on 6 Oct. The other traveled through the forests to the southeast for about 100 km until they reached the Soviet lines near Tula. The division was disbanded however Colonel Zveriev was one of the survivors and he was sent to the rear to form a new 8th Rifle Division. This new division was surrounded in 1942 and Zveriev was captured. He subsequently joined Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army and was executed by the Soviets after the war.

5th (Frunze) Volunteer Division

The 5th (Frunze) Volunteer Division under General Presnyakov were also in the Vyazma pocket. They suffered heavy artillery and aerial bombardment but repulsed the first German attack. As the German tanks and motorised infantry pushed up the Warsaw highway 2,000 of the division assembled in a wood. They were split into groups and ordered to make their escape to the east. A German column surprised them but, after a brief panic, the Russian fought back and destroyed some tanks. By now the division was down to 300 men without ammunition and equipment. They killed the few German prisoners they had and pushed east again. The Germans rounded them up near Yukhnov.

6th (Dzerzhinski) Volunteer Division

Some officers and men from 6th (Dzerzhinski) Volunteer Division managed to escape the Vyazma pocket with the divisional flag. The division was reconstituted, participated in the Dec 1941 counteroffensive, and fought its way to Berlin.

17th (Moskvorechie) Volunteer Division

17th (Moskvorechie) Volunteer Division under Colonel Kozlov tried to fight its way out of the Vyazma pocket. Heavy bombing destroyed most of their vehicles. When the fuel ran out they abandoned the rest. They were ordered to escape in small groups. The survivors made it out with the divisional flag, 123 rifles, two sub-machine guns, and a machine gun. They were refitted and reinforced by still had less than 3,000 men by mid-October. They fought through the defence of Moscow and ended the war in East Prussia.

18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division

18th (Leningrad) Volunteer Division escaped encirclement at Vyazma with its equipment. It joined 16th Army under Rokossovski, took part in the December counteroffensive, was the first of the former volunteer divisions to become a Guards division (11th Guards Division), and ended the war in Germany.


One of the new formations raised in Moscow was the NKVD’s Independent Special Purpose Motorised Rifle Brigade (Otdelnaya Moto-strelkovaya Brigada Osobogo Naznachenia or OMSBON). The brigade was intended for special operations and contained regular NKVD troops and also athletic volunteers selected by the Komsomol. The OMSBON also contained Spanish Republicans, a company of Finns and some Georgian girls knicknamed “Beria’s eyes”. There were four battalions:

  1. NKVD troops and militiamen
  2. Veterans from the Spanish Civil War including exiled Spanish Republicans
  3. Students and teachers from the Central Institute of Physical Culture
  4. Ditto

In Oct 1941 OMSBON stopped training to help restore order in Moscow. During the Soviet counteroffensive of Dec 1941 OMSBON personnel were sent through the lines to harass the German rear.

Must check out The Russian Battlefield: OMSBON – Independent Special Purpose Motorized Rifle Brigade


Braithwaite, R. (2006). Moscow 1941: A city and its people at war. Profile Books.

Wikipedia: Battle of Moscow

Books to find

Bek, A (1944). Volokolamsk Highway.

Aleksandr Bek fought in the 8th voluntary division “Krasnaja Presnja” in the defence of Moscow. Although a “novel” the book describes his battalion’s experiences on the highway to Moscow near Volokolamsk. Volokolamsk Highway is hard to find, or at least expensive to obtain, but SovLit have a Summary of Volokolamsk Highway.

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