Unexpected news from the Nazi-Soviet battle front 45 years ago stunned the Western world. Hitler's troops were retreating from Moscow.

Commemorating the first major victory over Hitler in World War II, the Soviet media this month is giving ample space to the epic battle of Moscow. Movie houses and television are showing documentaries and feature films about it.Champagne is de rigeur. The celebrations coincide with the 90th birth anniversary of Marshal Georgi Zhukov who led the bold counterattack against Nazi troops in December 1941.

In late autumn of 1941 the Nazi Wehrmacht was implementing Operation Typhoon, the plan to capture Moscow. The Soviets had already evacuated all foreigners, non-essential civilians and children to the east.

Then in early December the Red Army - which had previously looked like a punch-drunk fighter - suddenly counterattacked and, for the first time in World War II some of the elite Nazi troops suffered defeat.

I recently met one highly decorated Siberian general, A.P. Belobodorov, who said the Nazis lost more men alone in the battle of Moscow than they lost in all their other battles in Europe.

Red Army losses were staggering. But for the first time Hitler's army took a savage beating. By the close of the battle of Moscow the Wehrmacht had lost no less than 15 percent of its entire force on the Soviet front, 534,970 killed, wounded and missing.

What had happened to the blitzkrieg? Was it Stalin's generals like Georgi Zhukov and K.K. Rokossovsky (both later promoted to marshal) who made the difference? Or, as some Western historians maintain, was it general winter who stopped the Nazi assault on Moscow?

Hitler had confidently hoped to capture Moscow by October. (Many Western military experts predicted it.) The Nazi propaganda chief Dr. Joseph Goebbels had even planned a major propaganda announcement that Moscow and the Kremlin were in German hands.

Now a hero city of the U.S.S.R. because of its epic defense, Moscow was perhaps the world's most impregnable fortress. Hundreds of planes, thousands of anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of barrage balloons protected the city against aerial attack. Moscow had many echelons of defense.

The city's underground train stations served as air raid shelters. Stalin had an emergency underground office and so did the general staff.

Nazi units came close, so close they could actually see Moscow's skyline. So confident were Hitler's generals that they didn't even issue winter clothing to the troops. Neither did Napoleon, come to think of it.

Thousands of Nazi bombers raided Moscow but only a few hundred got through the defenses. An untold story is the number of Soviet pilots who rammed enemy planes when they ran out of ammunition.

Another story that has lately appeared in the Moscow press tells of the big number of artists including well-known musicians who volunteered for the front to help defend the city in a moment of great danger in late 1941. Many were killed in battle. (This was a time when the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, in Leningrad during the siege of that city, worked as a fire brigadier.)

After the war someone asked Marshal Zhukov about the battle of Moscow.

Zhukov said: The Nazis directed their main blow at Moscow. Their best and picked troops were thrown into the battle of Moscow. It was very important for us to hold off the enemy until our reserves, which were being urgently moved

from the east, would arrive. We were taking a risk. We also had a dangerous neighbor in the east - Japan.

It was a brutal winter. Some West European historians say that the military qualities that stood out among Soviet generals in later victories over Hitler, first appeared in the December 1941 counterattack.

Nowadays when you arrive at Moscow's International Airport and drive toward the city you will see symbolic tank traps less than 25 miles from the city limits. They are a vivid reminder of how close to Moscow the Nazis came.

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