The Cold that Destroyed an Army

By some great misfortune, I feel the cold very deeply. Simply going outside for a few minutes (or, in extreme cases, staying inside but making the mistake of not wearing a sweater) can give me a chill for hours. So it is not too peculiar that I have been quite cold during the past few months! Canada, especially my part of it, is never warm in wintertime, and this winter has been both unusually cold and unfairly long.

But the biting cold has an upside- like many other small and seemingly inconsequential things in my life, it reminds me of World War II and the Eastern Front. Late last evening while walking my dog in the -30° C cold, I could not help but think of how horrible the winters of Russia must have been for soldiers of all nationalities seventy years ago. Although they do not make me like the cold any better, such reminders help me to appreciate all that soldiers endured; in addition, if so many survived the Russian winter and the stresses of combat, then surely I can hold out until spring!

It is an indisputable fact that the strength of the Red Army was not the only thing underestimated by Adolf Hitler- he also underestimated the severity of the Russian winter. The significant German gains of June and July became a distant memory as the snow began to fall, slowing the invaders’ advance and giving the defenders some much-needed hope. Accounts of the freezing temperatures vary, but the temperatures seemed to have ranged in November and December from about -10° C to -35° or even -40°. Such cold was painful even for the well-acclimatized Soviet troops, but for the Germans it was a cold, frozen hell.

German soldiers in snow near Moscow

Photo of Germans in snow near Moscow: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Wilhelm Gierse.

No one in Wehrmacht command had prepared for such temperatures; indeed, many had believed in the early days of the invasion that Russia would be finished within two weeks. Winter, in the optimistic heat of late June, was not on anyone’s mind. As a result, preparation for colder temperatures was nonexistent, and the German soldiers paid a heavy price for their leaders’ arrogance and oversight.

Records show that 130,000 cases of frostbite occurred among the Wehrmacht troops involved in the Battle of Moscow, and just before Christmas Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s chief of propaganda) sent out an appeal for donations of warm clothing to the German nation. The need was evident to all levels of command; Heinz Guderian, the famous Panzer commander, wrote in his journal that it was fortunate he had stopped his troops in early December, “otherwise the catastrophe would have been unavoidable”. But the greater catastrophe was unavoidable, and the Soviets drove the Germans back from the environs of Moscow on January 7, 1942.

Map of Soviet counter-offensive

Photo of Soviet winter counter-offensive: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown employee of the United States Government.

The adverse effect of such severe cold on warfare in the 1940s, and indeed even today, cannot be understated. Bare skin freezes to metal in the cold, and the bolts of rifles are liable to freeze and become inoperable. Grease freezes and lubricants thicken, making machinery unusable. Vehicles must warm up for inconveniently long periods of time, and roads are often impassable after a heavy snowfall. But what is more, any prolonged exposure to cold is a mental hurdle as well. I find that being cold gets into one’s mind and becomes a consuming distraction- much like a fierce hunger, the discomfort of cold distracts one from other matters and causes much suffering and frustration.

As previously mentioned, German troops facing their first Russian winter were painfully ill-prepared. Many men took to wearing their drill fatigues over their uniforms in an attempt to stay warm, and even padded their clothes with paper.

German soldiers in Russia

Photo of Germans poorly-dressed for Russian winter: from Bundesarchiv, Bild 101l-214-0328-28/Gebauer/ CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Soviet troops, on the other hand, were well ready for their bitter winter. Compressed felt boots called valenki were issued, as well as warm hats called ushanki, which were made out of a strange synthetic material known as “fish-fur”. I can speak from experience and say that ushanki are wonderfully warm, and very practical, pieces of headgear! Padded clothing was also issued, and snipers were given special mitts with an uninsulated trigger finger.

Ushanka

My beloved Russian ushanka, on left

Many Soviet troops had grown up in close proximity to nature, and were used to hunting or working outdoors year-round. Thus, fighting in the merciless winter was not too foreign to them, although the climate of Russia is notoriously cold- winters around Moscow can see temperatures from -10° C to -30°. Conversely, the Germans- coming as they did from a smaller and more developed country where the average wintertime temperature is not too far below 0° C- were not as used to being outside or to being in a frigid climate.

In contrast to Hitler’s leadership, Soviet command prepared shrewdly for the winter, organizing ski battalions which found it easy to navigate through the snowy expanses of western Russia. Such ski battalions had actually been used to great effect against Soviet forces in the Winter War with Finland, and they had similar success against the beleaguered Germans in 1941. Also, the cold temperatures and snowy landscapes were better suited to defensive battles, favouring the Soviets and making it hard for the Germans to gain ground.

Soviet troops in winter camouflage

Photo of Soviet troops in winter camouflage: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

Ultimately, the unrelenting winter of Russia played a huge part in stopping the Germans short of Moscow. Coupled with the dogged defence of the Soviet troops, it humbled a once-arrogant army and handed the Wehrmacht its first taste of defeat. But this post is not meant to dwell on the results of the Battle of Moscow. Instead, I wished to focus on the struggle itself, and all the frigid hardships endured by the soldiers of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. This monumental struggle defined the Great Patriotic War, and must have been a true terror for all involved.

REFERENCES

Fowler, W. (2004). Barbarossa: The First 7 Days. Havertown, PA: Casemate.

Bethell, N. (1977). Russia Besieged. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.

Battle of Moscow. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Moscow

Germany. Retrieved from http://www.weatheronline.co.uk/reports/climate/Germany.htm

Russia. Retrieved from http://www.weatheronline.co.uk.reports/climate/Russia.htm

 

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3 thoughts on “The Cold that Destroyed an Army

  1. Reblogged this on Lest We Forget and commented:
    I share the same feeling when the temperature is freezing as I am shovelling snow. I always think of Russian and German soldiers at Stalingrad.

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