Key point: The Russo-German War was no ordinary conflict fought over territory or resources.
In October 1941, the Second World War teetered on a knife edge.
There was war in China and war in North Africa, and soon there would be war between America and Japan. But in the autumn of 1941, the only war that really seemed to matter was fought in a portion of central Russia.
Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had begun brilliantly on June 22, 1941. Encirclement after encirclement had inflicted almost 4 million casualties on the huge but disorganized Soviet armies. By early October, they had advanced to within 200 miles of Moscow. Now came Operation Typhoon, the offensive to seize the Soviet capital and—or so the Germans hoped—end the campaign.
Desperation breeds optimism, so indeed Germany needed to end the War in the East soon. The newsreels of vast columns of bewildered Soviet prisoners may have conveyed an image of German invincibility, but for the Wehrmacht, Russia was Death by a Thousand Cuts. Germany and its allies had committed more than 3 million men to Barbarossa: by October, they had suffered more than 500,000 casualties, or 15 percent of the invasion force. The panzers sweeping 500 miles deep into Russia left a trail of broken-down tanks. The Russian roads, few in number and poor in quality, had devoured perhaps 40 percent of the German truck fleet. That left railroads as the supply arteries on the Eastern Front, yet Russian railroad tracks were wider than German ones, stranding supply trains that couldn't move forward until repair crews modified the Russian rails. German logistics collapsed, leaving the troops short of food, ammunition and especially fuel for the panzers.