Russian Paratroopers Were Critical To Stopping Germany's World War II Attack On Moscow

Robert Beckhusen

Key point: They undertook many bold operations to stop the Germans.

The Soviet Union was a pioneer in airborne warfare in the years before World War II — the first conflict to see widespread use of paratroopers. And in the USSR, this development was part of an intense period of post-revolutionary military experimentation that would eventually experience the shock of Stalin’s purges in 1937 and the German invasion in 1941.

By late 1941, German troops were directly threatening Moscow. In December, the Soviets’ Moscow strategic counter-offensive saved the city, inflicting heavy losses on the German armies, overstretched and inexperienced in winter warfare as they were. However, by January 1942 the Soviet push was bogging down in the face of German resistance and incomplete Soviet planning, organization and strained logistics.

This led the Red Army to call up its paratroopers for a bold operation in the dead of the Russian winter. While not the first Soviet combat drop, it would be the largest Soviet parachute operation to date, with the plan being to drop 10,000 paratroopers from the Soviet Fourth Airborne Corps behind enemy lines to the west of the town of Vyaz’ma, cutting off major roads and railroads supporting German Army Group Center.

Vyaz’ma sat between Smolensk — in German hands — and Moscow. If it worked, the operation would disrupt and isolate Army Group Center as Soviet armies to the east advanced. And it would all be done in freezing, sub-zero temperatures.

The situation on Jan. 25 is seen below in a map published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in the 1984 study The Soviet Airborne Experience by David Glantz, a historian of the Soviet military.

On the paper, the size of the operation approached the German airborne invasion of Crete the previous summer, which numbered some 14,000 paratroopers and suffered high casualties. But the Red Army’s airborne drop at Vyaz’ma did not go according to plan,  Glantz wrote.

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