Roads to Moscow | A Haunting Song of History’s Most Devastating War

Roads to Moscow, by Al Stewart…seems like a suitable way to help kick off Tank Week.

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I love great music. I have no talent for it, but I love it just the same. Every once in a while, I come across a song that, for whatever reason, resonates in my soul, from Gordon Lightfoot’s wistful The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald to the gritty vocals and cool guitar of the Rolling StonesGimme Shelter. Something in those songs just grabs me. More rarely, words, music, and subject matter all come together in a song that is so powerful that I listen to it over and over.

Al Stewart’s Roads to Moscow is such a song.

As a military historian, the subject matter attracted my interest right away. The song begins with a Russian soldier on the morning of 22 June 1941, when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, sending the Wehrmacht lunging into occupied Poland and the Soviet Union.

Stewart, who often addresses history in his music, is said to have read numerous books on the subject before writing the song in 1973. What follows is a tour de force of intricate guitar work and haunting lyrics and chord changes leading the listener through four years of brutal warfare.

Germans vs. Russians on the Eastern Front.
German soldiers maneuvering near shattered armor.

The shock and near-hopelessness of the Russians are clear in the first verse, which begins with the German surprise attack and then shifts to the narrator’s personal experience:

They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay

Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away

I softly move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and our knees

(Chorus)

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze

Germans Attack on 22 June 1941 Operation Barbarossa; The song is based on the experiences of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The song is based on the experiences of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who served as an artillery officer in the war. Solzhenitsyn experienced the bitter retreat in the summer and fall of 1941 when the German Blitzkrieg reigned supreme.

Operation Barbarossa; The song is based on the experiences of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
German soldiers with MG34, unknown AO.

The Red Army essentially fought a seemingly unending series of savage holding actions to buy time for the organization of reserves and for the Russians to move their industrial assets further east. But the greater mobility of the Germans always resulted in armored pincers surrounding hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, creating massive pockets to be collapsed by the following German infantry and artillery, the classic kesselschlacht, or “cauldron battle.” of German doctrine.

A haunting song of "kesselschlacht."
General Heinz Guderian.

Millions of Soviets were killed or captured in the first months of the war. The second verse illustrates it beautifully:

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel

Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill

kesselschlacht - it was the fate of many Germans retreating from Russia in WWII.
Soviet POWs – hundreds of thousands were captured by both sides.

The imagery here is accurate, for the most part. But it’s tough to convey the details of so complex a campaign in a song of eight minutes. The giant encirclements sometimes netted entire army groups. At Kiev alone, the Germans caught 665,000 Soviet soldiers in an armored trap covering almost as much area as Germany itself. In France the previous year, maneuver had sufficed to entice the British to evacuate at Dunkirk, a smart move, and the French government to capitulate. The Germans didn’t have to collapse those pockets by force.

Not so in the USSR.

The Russians fought ferociously at every turn. They may have been outmaneuvered, but they forced the Germans to beat them down. Giant pockets became smaller, and still smaller, pockets that had to be reduced by fire. German casualties were high and significant assets were tied down by the hard-fighting Red Army. One German officer noted that things would have to change “before we win ourselves to death.”

Haunting Song
Russian Soldiers and a T34 March Out to Defend Moscow

The encirclement of Vyazma, completed on 7 October, was considered by the German General Staff to be the most significant victory of the campaign to date, but German armored units were now operating at about 35% of their authorized strength. The logistical situation had become critical as the panzers stretched the supply lines to the breaking point.

Orel did fall to the hard-charging Second Panzer Group under General Heinz Guderian, but his advance was blunted by a ferocious counter-attack by a brigade of Soviet T-34 tanks, which were far superior to the Panzer IVs of the Germans.

Russian and German locked in close combat during a bitterly cold winter on the Eastern Front.
Dogged in defense.

Still, the Germans were able to regroup and move on Moscow, which, after the defeat of the vicious counter-attacks, lay wide open. It was here, despite quickly-deteriorating logistics, the German High Command fell victim to what their Japanese allies might have called the “victory disease.” Instead of concentrating for a final thrust to the capital, they dispersed their forces to seize a number of objectives which had presented themselves after the Soviet collapse. Even this seemed to fall their way as elements Guderian’s newly-renamed Second Panzer Army drove northeast from Tula and the Fourth Army and Fourth Panzer Group moved to encircle Moscow from the north.

The Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.
German Soldier at Stalingrad with Russian PPSh-41 Submachine Gun. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-168-618/CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It seemed indeed that the panzers were “riding the wind like a bell,” prompting a panic in the Soviet capital. The Communist Central Committee made plans to evacuate and destroy what they couldn’t take with them. Factories shut down and crowds looted parts of the city. Stalin himself planned to evacuate on 18 October but was persuaded by General Georgi Zhukov to stay. The panic was quelled and the situation stabilized by the 20th. The song picks up here:

Winter brought with her the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground
While the sky filled with snow

(Chorus)

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the snow on the breeze

The weather had indeed stopped the German juggernaut. The fall rains began on 6 October. By the 8th, the Russian rasputitsa, literally the “time without roads,” had arrived in full force. The roads of the western USSR, never good to begin with, turned to “oceans of mud,” slowing the German armored advance to a pace of a half-mile per hour when it could move at all. The roads not only stopped the tanks but the already strained logistical columns. Trucks couldn’t move. Thousands of horses were killed trying to navigate the harsh conditions. It was noted that it often took 24 horses to move a single artillery piece. If the vehicles sank past their axles, the horses sank to their bellies in the ever-clutching mud.

The Russian saying that “in autumn, a spoonful of water makes a bucketful of mud” proved all too true. By the end of October, the slogging infantry had caught up to the armored “spearheads” in many places. The pursuit of the beaten Red Army had stopped. German plans for the drive to Moscow are full of qualifiers like, “if the weather holds;” or “with moderately good weather.”

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Astoundingly, it appears that the German command failed to account for the rasputitsa, a well-known meteorological phenomenon that was and is, so predictable as to be redundant.

The German high command appears to have failed to account for the rasputitsa.
Soviets advancing at Stalingrad

The Germans would not recover their momentum until the winter kicked in for real that November. Plummeting temperatures froze the mud, allowing vehicles, horses, and men to move once again on solid ground. But the window of opportunity had closed. Zhukov had directed Herculean efforts to build defenses around Moscow, using over 100,000 civilians to dig massive anti-tank ditches and fortified fighting positions. Stalin had also used to time to bring in reinforcements from the Far East, including fresh soldiers trained and equipped to fight in the bitter cold.

Meanwhile, the German logistical system, unable to deliver even the minimum requirements of food, fuel, and ammunition, could not supply the worn-out German landsers with anything approaching appropriate winter gear. Operation Typhoon, the plan to encircle and take Moscow, ran out of steam and ground to a final halt on 5 December. Some German troops could see the spires of buildings in Moscow, but they had nothing left with which to fight and were utterly exhausted by the sub-zero temperatures and mounds of snow. The massive, and perfectly-timed, Soviet counter-attack struck on the night of 5-6 December 1941.

The Germans would never again threaten Moscow.

Operation Typhoon.
Female Soviet soldier in a defensive trench.

Here, the tone of Roads to Moscow changes from desperation to hope and righteous vengeance:

In the footsteps of Napoleon, the shadow figures stagger through the winter
Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines, the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise
You’ll never know, you’ll never know
Which way to turn, which way to look
You’ll never see us
As we’re stealing through the blackness of the night
You’ll never know, you’ll never hear us

And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning road leads to Stalingrad and the sky is softly humming

A Russian T34 at Orel, 1934.
Russian T34 at Orel, 1934.

The Germans were driven back along the path of retreat taken by Napoleon in 1812, resulting in the first of Adolf Hitler’s infamous “stand-and-die” orders. As the Soviet offensive began to slow in early January, Hitler concluded that his order had saved Army Group Center from complete disintegration. He believed that by mimicking the Soviets’ ferocity in the encirclements of the summer and fall, German soldiers bought time for their commanders to stabilize their positions and bring up the scarce reinforcements available to them.

In reality, the Soviets had not yet developed the command and control or logistical systems to exploit their initial successes, thus allowing the Germans to regroup. But Hitler, being Hitler, did not grasp this, prompting him to fire his top commanders and essentially assume command of the war in the East for the rest of the war, which turned out to be a good thing for everyone save the Germans.

Charging Russians with PPSh-41s.
Charging Russians with PPSh-41s.

It’s not my intent to recount the entire war on the Eastern Front, so I’ll move along.

The song says “…the morning road leads to Stalingrad,” and most are aware that the brutal fight for Stalin’s city was one of the worst setbacks for Germany in the East, with the encirclement and loss of the Sixth Army in February 1943. But Stalingrad was not inevitable. In my opinion, the Germans should have bypassed the city entirely, but Hitler made it into a pissing contest over the prestige of Stalin’s name.

Even then, there was a lot of fighting left and the Wehrmacht wasn’t beaten. German General Erich von Manstein would still deal the Soviets a major defeat with his “backhand blow” around Kharkov in February and March. Stalingrad may have been the morning, but the sun wouldn’t set on the Third Reich for three more blood-soaked years.

Russians with SVT-40s.
Russians with SVT-40s.

What Stalingrad had done was to cripple the Germans and give the Soviets rough strategic parity. The turning point, as I see it, came in the gigantic armored clash at the Kursk Salient in July. The failure of the German offensive, Operation Citadel, followed by the powerful Soviet counter-attacks to the north and south, ceded the initiative to Stalin for good. The Germans were mostly on the defensive from that point and, with the destruction of Army Group Center in Operation Bagration the following summer, the Russian steamroller aimed squarely at Berlin:

Two broken Tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin

It’s been almost four years that I’ve carried a gun
At home, it’ll almost be spring
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin

Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can’t slow us down

(Chorus)

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening now
It’s the end of the dream

Soviet troops in a bounding advance.
Soviet troops in a bounding advance.

I love the imagery here. Toward the end, the Germans used their tanks as fixed gun emplacements along the approaches to Germany since Hitler had forbidden them to retreat. Soviet accounts are full of reports of German tanks spouting flames as they “brewed up.” If ever there was a sign that the Wehrmacht was beaten, it was this. Guderian never envisioned his tanks being used like that.

A Tiger tank on the move
Tiger tank on the move.

It is also true that large sectors of Berlin’s defenses were manned by old men and children, mostly Hitler Youth. Siegfried Knappe, the operations officer of the 56th Panzer Corps who directed the final defense of Berlin, despaired when he inspected those defensive positions. His commander initially refused to accept the Hitler Youth units, but eventually agreed.

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Animation of a modern tank firing, first at real speed then in slow motion.
Learn more about “Land Ironclads” and their crews.

It’s easy, I think, to say that the Hitler Youth deserved what they got at the hands of the swarms of veteran Soviet troops. Perhaps they did. Just an exclamation point on the end of the primal ferocity of that war. As the song says, the eyes of the city were opened as the German people finally reaped what their leaders had sown.

A German casualty.
Russland, gefallener Deutscher Soldat.

The song finishes with the narrator’s joy at finally going home:

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels
As we roll across the border

This staged photo of a Soviet soldier on the Reichstag in Berlin is probably the most famous photo of the German capital’s fall.

And now, one more transition…from joy once more to despair as the war in the East, which claimed an estimated 40 million lives (mostly civilians and including the numbers for the Holocaust, since the war made it possible for those people to be murdered) turns ugly once again for one of the victors:

And now they ask about the time that I was caught behind their lines
And taken prisoner
They only held me for a day, a lucky break I say
They turn and listen closer

I’ll never know, I’ll never know
Why I was taken from the line of all the others
To board a special train
And journey deep into the heart of Holy Russia

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A surviving French St. Chamond WWI tank in motion - Tank Week on Breach-Bang-Clear.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been captured briefly during the war. Despite his service, he and others like him, no matter the duration of their captivity, fell victim to the famous Stalin paranoia. Solzhenitsyn and thousands of others were detained by the NKVD and shipped off to the gulags of Siberia. It seems the Stalinists believed they had been co-opted by the Nazis, never mind how horribly they had been treated. Solzhenitsyn was eventually freed and became a thorn in the side of the Soviet government with his published accounts of life in the gulag. But we are left wondering about the fate of the song’s narrator…

And it’s cold and damp, in the transit camp
And the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October
Whispers the snow will soon be coming

And I wonder when I’ll be home again
And the morning answers “never”
And the evening sighs
And the steely Russian skies
Go on…Forever…

Here are two versions of this beautiful and tragic song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_ZG6tRGMYk

Read up:

Robert M. Citino, The German Way of War

Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht, The German Campaigns of 1942

Robert M. Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats, Fighting a Lost War, 1943

Robert M. Citino, The Wehrmacht’s Last Stand, The German Campaigns of 1944-1945

Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg, Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East

David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed, How the Red Army Stopped Hitler

Christian Hartman, Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945

Siegfried Knappe with Ted Brusaw, Soldat, Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

 

In the mood for more music?

Ferris Bueller sings on Breach-Bang-Clear; Mad Duo Singalongs
Check out more singalongs.

“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”  Bob Dylan

“Music is for every single person that walks the planet.” Robert Plant

“All of these situations involve aspects of a ritual where soldiers come together and participate, either by listening or singing/yelling along with the lyrics, in organized, pre-combat actions. Many times these actions are repeated before each mission or patrol. In this way, metal and rap are means of creating aspects of social ordering. The soldiers psychologically prepare themselves for the possibility of combat through the shared experience of music…Music is a means of establishing the identity of the group and supports the feeling of togetherness through a ritualized musical experience.” The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Warfare.

“Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier’s life since the dawn of history. Even the instruments on which it is played have themselves acquired great symbolic power — a regiment’s drums are second only to its colors as an emblem of honor and tradition. In the 18th century, the act of enlisting was described as ‘following the drum…” William Trotter

Read Trotter’s Music of War here.

 

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If you wish to cite, syndicate, or curate our material, or if you’re wondering about our please be so kind as to read our Terms, Conditions, and Disclosures.
Take heed! We have advertisers, sponsors, and affiliate relationships with some of the companies you will be reading about (particularly, but not limited to, archival posts). If you purchase one of those items, we will get a small commission from the sale at no additional cost to you. A lot of work goes into Breach-Bang-Clear; by making your purchase through one of our portals you’ll be supporting our work. This will help us buy beer, bullets, and barbecue, and we won’t have to put pop-up ads and other such stupid shit into our articles to pay our expenses. 

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