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1941-1945 - The Test of War

The German victory over France in the spring of 1940 revealed the full and shocking potential of Blitzkrieg and alerted the Soviets to the mistake they had made when they truncated their mechanized force structure. Hastily, under the direction of Defense Minister S. K. Timoshenko, the Red Army began creating new mechanized corps, twenty-nine of which were to exist, fully equipped, by mid-1942.5 Consequently, while the Red Army's force structure, particularly that of its mechanized force, was imposing on paper by mid-1941, it was far less capable in practice. In addition, the shockingly efficient performance of the German Army in Poland and France, juxtaposed against the Red Army's dismal performance during the early stages of the Finnish War, rekindled Soviet faith in the concept of deep operations and operational maneuver. Accordingly, Timoshenko reaffirmed the twin concepts (although not by name) in a speech he delivered to senior commanders in late 1940.

The evolution of Soviet force structure during World War II is the story of an army adjusting to the realities of war. The Soviet Army weathered the beatings it took at the hands of the Germans in 1941 and scaled down its forces accordingly. As the tide of war turned in the Soviets' favor in late 1942 and 1943, so .did the Soviet Army grow in complexity and strength. The Soviet Army of 1941 was massive. Its units were large and ponderous. Rifle units organized as armies, corps, divisions, and regiments were the backbone of the force structure. Armies were large, theoretically consisting of as many as three to four rifle corps, for a total of twelve to fifteen rifle divisions, and reinforced by mechanized, cavalry, tank, and artillery units.5 Supplementing the rifle units and providing the mobile offensive punch were mechanized corps, with more than 1,000 tanks each, and separate cavalry corps. In addition, the Soviet force structure had separate tank brigades, separate antitank brigades, artillery regiments, and airborne corps. This large and cumbersome force was difficult to control, required quantities of equipment not available in 1941, and demanded topflight leadership, also generally unavailable when the war began.

The purges had eliminated the most effective large-unit commanders and those who best understood how operational maneuver fit with established offensive techniques. In addition to weak high- and mid-level leadership, the Red Army experienced a multitude of ills associated with simultaneous attempts to alter and entirely reequip its entire force structure. As a result, the Red Army was unprepared for war in 1941 in terms of leadership, command and control, logistics, and training, especially for a war begun by strategic and operational surprise.

The military purges of the late 1930s deprived the Soviet Army of the leadership necessary to implement doctrine artfully and thus to stem the German tide. In general, the survivors of these purges could not imaginatively adapt Tukhachevsky's theories to the reality of a surprise attack employing massed armor and bold maneuver. In the anxious aftermath of the purges, a natural hesitancy to suggest innovation also inhibited Soviet commanders in their adjustment to the deadly, quick-developing German threat. In addition, Soviet industry, also hard hit by the purges, was unable to produce the weaponry needed to re-equip the Soviet force structure.

The first period of war was a formative phase during which the Wehrmacht virtually dismantled the Red Army's force structure in heavy combat and forced the Soviet High Command (the Stavka) to reconstruct it in a painful and costly process of trial and experimentation. Soviet operational maneuver concepts and mobile forces necessary to carry them out emerged in embryonic form during the spring of 1942. Additional battlefield experimentation during 1943 led to the creation of the Red Army's "modern" operational maneuver force and refined concepts for their combat employment. The Soviets improved their mobile forces and concepts governing their use during the third period of war, providing a basis for both wartime victory and an effective military force in the postwar years.

The first period of war began on 22 June 1941. On the night of June 23, draft regulations were discussed, defining the tasks of Party and Soviet bodies in wartime, on entering into force of the mobilization plan for ammunition, the establishment of the evacuation of the Council, the Soviet Information Bureau, on enterprises and institutions Protection, on measures to combat paratroopers and saboteurs in the front line.

Even after Barbarossa was launched, Stalin still refused to believe that Hitler could have ordered it. When Zhukov met him at the Kremlin late on June 22, 1941, Stalin was still insisting that the attack was “a provocation of the German officers” and that “Hitler surely does not know about it”. Stalin made the first attempt to contact the commander of the Western Front. It was followed by the second and third. From the front, staff responded tersely: Nothing definite had not been achieved. Involuntarily there is an opinion that the headquarters of the troops of the front lost control and did not control the course of events. The illusions that Stalin still harbored began to evaporate after unsuccessful attempts to contact the front left on a Shaposhnikov, Kulik and Zhukov. The situation was not clarified and data from places of fights, as Stalin knew, was based on the fragmentary, contradictory data.

Once the truth finally sank in, he feared that his staggering, glaring display of incompetence would mean the end of him. On the night of June 30 the shock to the psychological state of Stalin was severe. The impetus for this was the news of the fall of Minsk. Then there was a sharp discussion in the General Staff with Timoshenko and Zhukov. As a result, there were symptoms of sleepless nights: hoarseness, runny nose, swollen nose, yellowed eyes. The head of government has become irritable, weak-willed appearance. First, he went from the Kremlin to the Kuntsevo dacha, then moved on further to the cottage dear to his daughter Svetlana. According to the memoirs of contemporaries, often simplified in the evaluation of the events, the psychological shock of Stalin really was serious. Most likely, it came the human condition, for which the process was the fall from Olympin grandeur and infallibility, created both by Stalin and his entourage.

This episode was presented in the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev " when the war began Stalin was in the Kremlin. Beria and Malenkov both told me about it. Beria said: "When the war began, members of the Politburo gathered in Stalin's office. Stalin was completely crushed. His morale was shattered, and he made the following declaration: 'The war has begun. It will develop catastrophically. Lenin left us the proletarian Soviet state, but we have sh-- all over it' [i.e., made a mess of it]. That is literally how he expressed himself. He said 'I am giving up the leadership,' and walked out of the room. He walked out, got in his automobile, and went to his dacha nearest the city." "

However, this didn't last long. When Molotov led a deputation from the Politburo to get Stalin to leave his dacha on June 30, and talk him into coming back to the Kremlin to take charge, Stalin’s initial reaction to their arrival reveals that he assumed they had come to arrest him. Good stories, but from sources that lack reliability: two anti-Stalinist tale-tellers, who have been many times caught lying.

Other acounts relate that on 29 June, instead of falling into prostration, Stalin went (maybe even twice) to the People's Commissariat for Defense, where he tongue-lashed Zhukov. In result the future most famous commander of the Great Patriotic War either "sobbed like a wench" or "told him to fuck off". Taking into consideration Zhukov's temper, the latter is more probable.

During the ensuing two months, advancing German forces literally destroyed the Red Army's initial force structure in intense combat along the Soviet Union's borders. Although Soviet defensive (and counteroffensive) concepts were theoretically realistic, and the Stavka tried in vain to mount an effective strategic defense, the results were disastrous. German armored spearheads easily penetrated Soviet rifle armies and pushed rapidly into the depths of the Red Army's strategic defenses. The new Soviet mechanized corps, hastily assembled and deployed under the ever-present threat of German air power, stumbled into combat, often in uncoordinated and piecemeal fashion, subsequently to be destroyed systematically by German forces. By early July most mechanized corps in the border military districts were fragments of their former selves. As the battle moved eastward toward Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kiev, the remaining corps suffered a similar fate, leaving the Soviets by late July with only a skeletal capability for conducting maneuver war, either tactical or operational.

During the disastrous initial months of war, the Soviet High Command truncated its already-shaken force structure to match its commanders' abilities and available logistical support. The Soviets disbanded the mechanized corps not already destroyed and replaced them first with separate tank divisions and ultimately with numerous small tank brigades. The tank divisions, however, also proved ineffective, and soon the Stavka transformed them into separate brigades or battalions. By December 1941 the Red Army's armored force consisted of 7 tank divisions, 79 separate tank brigades, and 100 separate tank battalions. In conjunction with cavalry corps, cavalry divisions, light cavalry divisions, and new ski battalions, these provided the mobile capability of the Red Army, a pale reflection of the once proud mechanized force of June 1941.

Soviet offensive operations before and during the winter campaign of 1941-1942 vividly displayed the weaknesses of this force structure. Soviet rifle forces penetrated German tactical defenses and pursued into the operational depths at foot speed. They were, however, deficient in staying power; soon growing infantry casualties brought every advance to an abrupt and bloody end. Soviet cavalry corps reinforced by rifle and tank brigades also penetrated into the German operational rear. Once there and reinforced by airborne or air-landed forces, they ruled the countryside, forests, and swamps but were unable to drive the more mobile Germans from the main communications arteries and villages.

In November 1941 Stalin ordered Stavka member and deputy NKO Commissar Grigorii Kulik to restore order in the Crimea - an impossible mission at the time. In May 1939, his wife, Kira Simonich-Kulik, had disappeared without a trace. Shortly before her disappearance, Stalin told Kulik that his wife was an Italian spy and said that he should divorce her, which Kulik declined to do. Stalin's suspicion of Simonich-Kulik was likely prompted by her foreign contacts: one of her sisters was married to an Italian military attache, and their mother also lived in Italy.

After Kulik's predictable defeat in the Crimea, he reported to Stalin: "The army had turned into a gang! All they did was drink and rape women. I had no chance of defending Kerch with such an army. I arrived too late; it was impossible to save the situation."

Kulik was tried by a special session of the Supreme Court and demoted to major general, dismissed from the post of deputy NKO Commissar, and deprived of all military awards. In vain he appealed to Stalin in a long letter, saying: "If I am a wrecker [as accused under Article 58-7] and conducting underground work, I should be shot. If I am not, I ask you to punish the slanderers." Stalin did not answer. [Later Kulik commanded various formations and was promoted to lieutenant general, but then demoted to major general again. Finally, in 1947, after being arrested for anti-Soviet conversations, he was sentenced to death and executed in August 1950.]

Heavy losses in manpower and materiel at the hands of the Germans, and the relative inability of commanders to control large units, drove the Soviet leadership to truncate and simplify its forces. It scaled down the size of rifle armies, abolished the rifle corps level, and decreased the manpower and weaponry in rifle divisions. The Soviets abolished those mechanized corps not already destroyed by the Germans and in their place created tank brigades to provide necessary armor support to infantry units. The Soviets replaced destroyed rifle divisions with the smaller and more easily created and controlled rifle brigades. They disbanded the large, but incomplete, antitank brigades, pooled support w!'aponry in battalion and regimental strength at the high command reserve level, and parceled it out to armies and fronts as required. The retrenchment program worked, and Soviet forces survived the harsh winter of 1941-42. The Stavka correctly judged that these operations had failed because of the Red Army's lack of large, coherent, mechanized, and armored formations capable of performing sustained operational maneuver. To remedy the problem, in April 1942 the Soviets fielded new tank corps consisting of 3 tank brigades and 1 motorized rifle brigade and totaling 168 tanks each. The Stavka placed these corps at the disposal of army and front commanders for use as mobile groups operating in tandem with older cavalry corps, which by now had also received a new complement of armor. The Stavka employed these new tank corps in an offensive role for the first time in the spring of 1942.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1942, even as the German Operation BLAU (the Stalingrad offensive) was unfolding dramatically across southern Russia, the Soviets created even larger mobile forces. In June the Stavka formed four mixed-composition (rifle, cavalry, and armor) tank armies, each around the nucleus of two tank corps. The combination of tracked, foot, and hoof forces under control of a single headquarters was dangerous, and, understandably, the new tank armies functioned poorly. The 5th Tank Army, committed to combat west of Voronezh with four separate tank corps, attracted German attention and perhaps deflected the German advance southward but failed to halt the Germans' offensive. Two other Red Army tank armies (the 1st and 4th) engaged German forces on the distant approaches to Stalingrad, but suffered heavy losses and were soon renumbered as rifle armies. By November 1942 the two tank armies (3d and 5th), which remained in the Soviet force structure, would soon make their presence felt with stunning effect.

In the wartime Red Army, a number of reforms tended to revive the pre-revolutionary type of military organization as a concession to the feelings of the majority of the commanders. Guards regiments and guards divisions - their very names recalled Tsarist days - were created. Orders of Suvorov and Kutuzov were instituted. Cossack formations, once despised as symbols of Tsarist oppression, were brought back to life and to the old glamour. Saluting was made obligatory and strictly enforced. Exclusive officers' clubs and strictly separate messes for junior and senior officers were opened. Finally, on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution, epaulettes were re-introduced as part of the officer's uniform, the epaulettes that had in one of the first Bolshevik decrees been banned as marks of a reactionary caste system in the army.

In September 1942, the Soviets formed eight mechanized corps, each consisting of one tank brigade (or three tank regiments) and three mechanized brigades. The Soviets relied on these new tank armies, tank corps, and mechanized corps to spearhead their offensive operations in the winter campaign of 1942-1943, which commenced in November 1942 at Stalingrad and against the Rzhev salient, west of Moscow.

Soviet strategic plans for the summer of 1943 increasingly relied for success on the operations of the premier Soviet mobile forces, the five new tank armies created by a January Stavka order, each consisting of two tank corps, an optional mechanized corps, and a variety of mobile support units. The new armies fielded over 500 tanks each and were soon augmented by newly formed self-propelled artillery units.30 Similarly, the Soviets refined the structure of separate tank and mechanized corps by adding more combat and combat service support units. By July 1943 the Soviets fielded twenty-four tank and thirteen mechanized corps.

The new tank armies and augmented tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps provided operational maneuver capabilities to both front and army commanders. In all major operations, the Stavka allocated one or two tank armies to front commanders and one mechanized or tank corps to army commanders operating along main attack axes. These mobile units conducted operational maneuver under direct control of their parent headquarters. On difficult terrain or in bad weather (spring), cavalry corps served as front or army mobile groups, and by the fall of 1943 front commanders in these circumstances employed cavalry-mechanized groups (usually one mechanized or tank corps and one cavalry corps) to perform operational maneuver. In theory, rifle forces, supported by an increasing array of artillery and engineer units, penetrated enemy tactical defenses to a depth of 8-12 kilometers, and then army mobile groups began the operational exploitation.

The first "modern" Soviet operations in terms of operational maneuver occurred during the Kursk strategic operation (July-August 1943). Subsequent Soviet employment of multiple tank armies, mobile corps, and cavalry- mechanized corps fragmented German defenses in Ukraine and forced German forces to withdraw from the Ukraine into Poland and Romania. Improved Soviet mobile force logistics permitted deeper operations over longer periods. Soviet operational maneuver forces and techniques achieved their greatest successes in 1945. This was due to more experienced Soviet commanders, improved weaponry, and the weakening of German forces, which had been dealt such devastating blows in 1944 and now had to contend with a two-front war.

Throughout 1944, the complexity and strength of Soviet forces grew. The number of tank corps, mechanized corps, and tank armies increased. Rifle corps links appeared in virtually every army, and the number and fire power of rifle divisions grew. Rifle brigades dwindled in number as the Soviets replaced them with streamlined rifle divisions. To provide combat support, the Soviets created a host of units of every type including artillery brigades, divisions, and corps; tank destroyer regiments an.d brigades; antiaircraft regiments and divisions; engineer sapper units from battalion to army size; guards mortar (multiplerocket launcher) regiments, brigades, and divisions; self-propelled artillery battalions, regiments, and brigades; and antiaircraft divisions and regiments. Soviet forces slowly developed a capability - absent in the first two years of the war - to fully implement Soviet doctrinal concepts prevalent from the 1930s. Deep operations again became possible, if at first costly. The growing maturity of doctrine and the education of Soviet forces in the art of mobile warfare gave rise to further sophistication in the force structure manifested by the changes of 1944-45. By 1945, the Soviet force structure had fully matured. Bloodied by heavy wartime losses, the Soviet Army turned to fire power, mobility, and machines to compensate for the acarcity of manpower. The Soviets blended new tactical techniques with a carefully articulated force structure to achieve success. Nowhere was this more evident than in Manchuria, where the last adjustments were made to the force structure and its use before the postwar reforms.

The conduct of the Red Army in newly-occupied countries beyond Russia's frontiers signified an ominous deterioration in Red Army morale. The attitude of the supreme leaders toward this deterioration was ambiguous. In Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia, and, in the first place, Germany, the advancing units of the Red Army drank, looted and raped on a large scale. Their conduct left indelible impressions affecting the postwar attitudes of Russia's neighbor populations towards the Soviet Union. In Yugoslavia wherever the units of the Red Army passed, the people complained about their behavior. Many women were assaulted, many were raped, there were cases of murder and robbery.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:10:03 ZULU