In the summer of 1941, after having conquered all of Europe, Adolf Hitler turned his sights upon the great rival he had left untouched: Russia. He had at his command the largest invasionary force in history, led by brilliant generals whose tactics of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, had toppled in just weeks such nations as France, Denmark, Norway and Greece. Success, all believed, was virtually assured.
We all know how the story goes. Four years later, instead of Germany’s Wehrmacht marching through the streets of Moscow, the Soviet Red Army had steamrolled its way into the heart of Hitler’s empire. As Russian tanks rolled through Berlin, Hitler dismissed his generals, swallowed cyanide, and, just to make sure, shot himself in the head. In those last moments, the most hated man of all time, despite all his flaws, surely must have regretted his one, brutal mistake. As well he should – for Adolf Hitler is only the last in a long series of conquerors who set out to do the impossible: to march on Moscow, and win.
Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: “Do not march on Moscow”.
That’s the advise of Bernard Montgomery, the famed British war hero. At the time, Nazi Germany’s great failure was still fresh in the mind; but those words would have been reasonable even before the war, or a hundred years before it. Over the centuries, Russia’s vast expanse, frigid and rapidly shifting weather, unpaved dirt-roads, and, above all, its resilient population have reduced the greatest armies of their time to ragtag bands of stragglers. Yet its enemies still come. Here we review some of history’s would-be invaders who met their match in Mother Russia.
Crimean invasions of 16th century
In 1468, Russia as we know it had been born with Moscow’s independence from the crumbling Mongol Empire. Yet the descendants of long-gone Mongols still packed a punch, especially the Crimean Tatars who lived in present-day Ukraine. The Crimeans had on hand a large and well-trained army, famed for their skill with the bow and arrow. In newborn Russia, they found for themselves easy pickings.
Each year, the Crimean army would charge up north for no other purpose than to loot and pillage dozens of towns and villages in southern Russia. These raids made the Crimeans very wealthy – but left the Russian state mostly intact. The Crimeas were not interested in new conquests.
In 1571, that changed. Now allied to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Crimeans assembled a force 120,000 men strong and set off north. Decimating the meagre Russian forces, they reached the suburbs of Moscow. Setting fire to Moscow’s outskirts, they terrified the populace, who fled in a crush into the heart of the city. The fire quickly spread, reducing the Russian capital the ash. Satisfied with their loot, the Crimeans turned around and went back home.
However, the ease of their victory persuaded the Crimean Khan Devlet I Giray that another attempt was in order – this time to conquer once and for all weak Russia and absorb it into his empire. With another 120,000 men, he set off north once again in 1572. This time, though, the Russians were ready for him. With half their enemy’s numbers, the Russian army made a stand 40 miles south of Moscow. Over several days of brutal fighting, the Russians beat the odds thanks to technological superiority, sending the Khan fleeing home with just one-sixth of his troops left alive. By the 18th century, his empire had ceased to exist, swallowed whole by the Russian bear.
Polish invasion of 1610
About forty years after the defeat of the Crimeans, Russia’s greatest threat now found its source within. It was the height of Russia’s ‘Time of Troubles’, when a series of pretenders lay claim to the throne of the Tsars. On Russia’s borders were numerous enemies only too willing to make use of the raging civil war to crush the new upstart power. Within the borders were scores of noblemen only too happy to sell their country away.
To the west, King Sigismund of Poland, then Europe’s largest country, claimed the Russian throne for his own son, Wladislaw. Gaining the support of various Russian factions, the Polish army marched into Russia. In the summer, they arrived at Moscow, whose citizens opened the gates and let them in. Cities and villages across Russia pledged allegiance to their new Polish Tsar, Wladislaw. It seemed Russia’s fledgeling empire was at an end.
However, Sigismund got carried away. Coveting his teenage son’s new throne, he declared himself Tsar instead of Wladislaw, and promised to convert Orthodox Russia to the Catholic faith. Infuriated, the people of Moscow rose up in revolt and threw out their occupiers. In the Kremlin, some 500 Poles remained trapped for two years, waiting in vain for their comrades to launch a counterattack and retake the city. The war would continue for most of the following decade – but Russia held out, and proved itself a worthy adversary to even the greatest of nations. In time to come, the Russian tsars would carve up their old enemy and extinguish the Polish nation until the 20th century.
Swedish invasion of 1709
A hundred years after Russia’s ‘Troubles,’ a new Tsar arose with ambitions greater than any who came before. Peter the Great wanted to add Russia to the ranks of the great European powers, but he was hemmed in to the north by what to us now seems an unlikely enemy – Sweden.
The Sweden of the 17th century was a European superpower. Boasting the best-trained army on the continent, the Swedish Empire encompassed Finland, northern Germany and almost the entire Baltic coast. To transform Russia into a great power, Peter needed to gain his country access to the Baltic Sea, where Russia could at last trade on the high seas. In 1700 he made war upon Sweden with the support of Poland and Denmark – but his grand schemes very nearly backfired.
Throwing off the Russian offensives with ease, Sweden’s warrior king Charles XII turned the tables on the Russians by marching into their country with 40,000 of his best men on 1 January 1708. The Russian armies had been shattered earlier, and Charles XII expected to wipe out what remained of Peter’s forces just as easily.
But the Russians refused to play by the rules. Instead of confronting Charles’ army, they withdrew, burning everything behind them. The “scorched earth” policy saw the Russians destroy miles upon miles of their own fields and homes – all to deny the invaders any supplies. With food running short, the Swedish army began to starve. The weeks turned into months, the months dragged on into a year. Forced to detour south far away from their homelands in order to feed themselves, then stricken with disease and silenced by the terrible winter cold, a year and a half later, Charles XII had left only 24,000 survivors from his army. Now the Russians at last turned to fight, and in the Battle of Poltava annihilated the invading army, taking some 19,000 prisoners and killing most of the rest. Charles fled all the way south into Turkey. The war would drag on for more than ten years; but Poltava had marked its turning point, and the end of Sweden’s empire.
The March on Moscow
The penultimate invasion of Russia is also perhaps its most famous. The year is 1812, and all of Europe is under the sway of one man – the French Emperor Napoleon I, better known as Napoleon Bonaparte. He was perhaps history’s most brilliant general, a conqueror who built almost singlehandedly an empire stretching from Lisbon in the west to Warsaw in the East. After trampling in a brilliant 16 year stretch of victory nearly every European power, Napoleon now set his sights on his most dangerous target yet – the Russian Empire. Throughout his career Napoleon had been the master of the lightning war, easily defeating the outdated armies and slow-witted generals his enemies sent against him. In Russia, however, the French Army would not be fighting men as much as they would be fighting the very ground they tread upon.
To topple the Russians, Napoleon pulled together an army with an astounding 650,000 men – the largest invading force ever assembled. In the ranks were Austrians, Germans, Italians, Spaniard and Poles, along with a core of his battle-hardened French soldiers numbering nearly half a million men strong. The “Grand Armee” was opposed by a Russian force which then numbered less than half its size. The wily Napoleon was well aware of the challenges he will face, but believed the very size of his army will force to Russians surrender quickly. He was much mistaken.
In June, the French Army crossed the River Niemen into Russian territory, expecting the war to be over by the end of summer. Napoleon’s men surged across Russia’s western provinces, and Napoleon, like Charles XII before, sought to meet his enemy in a decisive battle and vanquish their forces. But, just as they had done a century before, the Russians melted away before Napoleon’s men, surrendering vast areas of their country – but once again burning everything behind them. This time the scale of the “scorched earth” policy was far more massive and horrific. As the army destroyed the grain fields to starve the French, they were also starving their own people. Widespread famine killed over a million Russian peasants, and brought ruin to others; yet the Russian people carried on, an entire nation risen up in arms against the foreigners who sought to subjugate them.
The strategy was brutally effective. Onwards and onwards the invaders marched, growing ever more hungry as they found less and less grain to feed themselves. As the months piled onto each other Napoleon began to dither. He had never intended to march all the way to Russia’s capital, nearly 2,000 miles away from Paris and in the worst climate imaginable. Yet there could be no victory with the defeat of Russia’s army, and so the march went steadily on.
As summer drew to a close, the French discovered that the rain in Russia was just as bad as the snow. The storms turned Russia’s miserable dirt roads into mud, slowing down the march as cannons and horses sank into sludge. Yet still the army marched on. The Russians, too, began to grow nervous. They had still not fought Napoleon’s men. Surely they would put up a fight to save their capital at the very least? Napoleon believed they would – and he was proven right.
Unable to hold their nerve and give up their beloved city, the Russians, led by the savvy general Mikhail Kutusov, finally made a stand some 70 miles from Moscow, around the tiny village known as Borodino. It was here that the fate of empires would be decided. The French Army, wittled down by hunger and disease, still numbered 130,000, in fact outnumbering the Russians gathered at Borodino. Kutusov reinforced the Russian positions around the village with a series of makeshift forts. The men on both sides knew the stakes and were willing to fight to the death. On the 7th of September the two juggernauts met in one of the largest battles the world would see for generations to come. Some 250,000 men met each other head-on, with the fate of the battle swinging from one side to the other.
All day long the armies fought. Napoleon, who had so easily dispatched all the foes he had encountered before, was astonished to see the Russians put up such a fight. As evening drew nearer, however, the Russians were clearly on the verge of defeat. Now was the time for Napoleon to finish them once and for all by sending in his last reserve – the elite and unbeatable Imperial Guard. Unleashed on the disintegrating Russian, the Guard would surely tear them to pieces and end once and for all Russia’s hopes of winning the war. 1700 miles from home, though, Napoleon couldn’t bring himself to risk his last and best line of defence. The Guard remained unused, and so the Russians managed to beat a hasty retreat. The Russian army had lost half its men, but Napoleon too had lost one third of an army, losses which, unlike the Russians, could not be replaced from the country surrounding him. Undeterred, Napoleon marched on. With the Russians in disarray, he could at last reach his goal. On the 14th of September, the Grand Armee marched at long last into a ghostly Moscow, completely abandoned by its inhabitants. Their glory was short lived however. So bent were they on defeating their enemy, the Russians seem to have set fire to their own capital, and burnt Moscow to the ground. Within days, the captured city had turned to ash. The food and shelter which the French troops had sought for so long was now brutally taken from them, exposing the army to the elements for even longer.
As the days dragged on, Napoleon waited for the Russians to come to him to surrender. After all, he had taken their capital. Surely at this point the game was over?
He was to be sorely disappointed. Longer and longer he waited, but no representative of the Russian Emperor was to be seen. With Moscow in ruins and supplies running low, Napoleon was forced to come to terms with the inevitable – he had lost the war without losing a single battle. In the middle of October, the remnants of his starving army at last pulled out of Moscow and made their way home. Like vultures, the Russian swooped down on the struggling Frenchmen, killing them off in a series of lightning raids. The days shortened and as winter fell the French were still marching. Now the terrible Russian cold could be added to the list of killers as men dropped dead while they marched. With prospects dim and fearing his capture, Napoleon silently abandoned his army, hurrying back across Europe at record pace in order to raise more troops. Behind him, however, the army fell to pieces. Russia’s “General Winter” was a brutal adversary, aided by the swarms of Cossacks, Russian soldiers intimately accustomed to the cold who seized upon the straggling remnants of the French Army. Finally, in December, the Grand Armee made it back across the border to safety – now only 22,000 men strong.
The Russians did not stop, and launched a full-scale invasion of Napoleon’s empire. Though he struggled on for two years before his eventual defeat and fall from power, it was in the frigid wastelands where Napoleon truly met his match and lost his short-lived empire. In 1814, the Russian army at last marched into Paris, putting an end to the great French Empire. It would seem this episode proved beyond a doubt the folly of taking on the Russians on home turf. But there are always those foolish enough to try…
Fast forward a hundred and twenty years and another man has, in even faster sequence, conquered most of the European continent. Hitler is known for his hatred of Jews, but what he hated just as much was communism, and Russia in 1941 was the beating heart of world communism. Organised into the Soviet Union nearly twenty years before, it was from Russia that communism would spread its wings throughout the world. In trying to prevent it, however, all Hitler achieved was to make its rise inevitable.
After defeating Poland, Norway, Denmark, France, Yugoslavia and Greece in just two years, Hitler ordered the German army, the Wehrmacht, to prepare for the largest invasion ever attempted. At the borders of the Soviet Union nearly 4 million Axis troops prepared to eliminate their greatest enemy yet – the final piece to the jigsaw that would allow Hitler to form a permanent fascist empire on the continent. Hopes were high – but, as we all know, they were terribly misplaced.
Hitler did not seem to believe very much in omens. Why else, then, would he pick June 22nd to begin “Operation Barbarossa” – the very date Napoleon had chosen for the start of his endeavour over a century before? Hitler believed he was a military genius, despite never commanding his armies in battle. Instead of concentrating his forces on a single target like Napoleon had in the March on Moscow, he spread out his armies over a front 2,900 km long, stretching from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south. In this way, the German could cover all sides of their advance. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Soviets remained blissfully unaware of their impending doom.
In June the Germans surged across the border. Unprepared, the Soviet Red Army detachments on the border were quickly annihilated. The Wehrmacht encircled hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, pummelled Soviet tanks from the sky, while German Panzer (tank) divisions charged ahead at astonishing speed. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin watched in horror as his nation was swallowed by the German juggernaut. Week by week, the Germans drew closer to their ultimate target: Moscow.
The Soviets were in a desperate position. At one point, Stalin had just 90,000 troops to hold his capital against a horde of millions. The Russians had lost nearly all their tanks and aircraft, along with some 3 million prisoners. If the Germans were to strike the final blow now, it would be fatal. Hitler, though, had other plans. At the crucial juncture, mindful of Napoleon’s mistakes a century earlier, Hitler diverted his forces south into the Ukraine, where he hoped to deprive the Soviets of the bulk of their nation’s industry and resources. But in the process he had delayed the attack on Moscow by a matter of months, over the loud remonstrations of all his advisors. Finally, in October, with most of Ukraine seized, Hitler listened to his generals and ordered the attack on Moscow be launched.
But in the meantime the Soviets had gathered together a dozen new armies to defend Moscow, bulked up with troops Stalin had pulled back from the Far Eastern border with Japan in Siberia. These were men who lived and died in the coldest and harshest weather imaginable. The Germans, meanwhile were wholly unprepared for Russia’s “General Winter.” Hitler had believed the war would be over long before his men had to battle the snow, and did not supply them with winter clothing and equipment. While October rains turned the roads to mud and slowed the advance to a crawl, the coming of winter would do much worse. More men were to die from frostbite and disease than any actual fighting. Nevertheless, in the middle of November, the Germans were at last close enough to begin the final assault.
It was to be the pinnacle of a titanic struggle. The Germans, led by their superb tank divisions tried to swing around north and south of Moscow, cutting off the city and trapping the Soviet defenders. At Russia’s final reckoning, however, the Soviets were not ready to give up the fight so easily. The Germans were faced with a ferocious defence, turning the battle into a bloody stalemate. Still the Germans pushed on. On the 2nd of December, German troops reached within 5 miles of the city, marking out the spires of the Kremlin in the distance. It was the furthest they would come.
Badly underestimating the strength and resilience of his enemy, Hitler’s offensive came to a shuddering halt. Now, at last, the Soviet Red Army went on the attack. On the 5th of December, Stalin ordered a counteroffensive all along the front. By the end of winter, the Germans had been pushed back some 250km from the city. While most of European Russia remained in the hands of the enemy, Moscow had been saved. That was all that mattered. By May of 1945, nearly four years after the start of Barbarossa, the Soviets rolled into Berlin, putting to an end at last the bloody reign of the Nazis – and laying to rest once and for all the long-held myth that anyone can ever invade Russia and win.