Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Soviet Union, Army

Russia's defeat in World War I gave strong impetus to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's industrialization campaign of the 1930s. His emphasis on technological progress, articulated in a speech on 4 February 1931, also implied the need for improvements in military technology to enable the Soviet Union to catch up with the western powers. Soviet Commissar of War Kliment Voroshilov claimed that a future war would be "a war of factories." The Japanese takeover of all Manchuria in the same year provided a compelling reason for Soviet rearmament.

Stalinist repression, however, had sharply affected the military leadership. Perhaps 40 million people were "repressed" during the Stalin era; half that number died. The so-called Great Terror that did away with the old-guard Bolshevik leadership also struck down senior military officers. Among the executed were 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 fleet admirals and admirals grade I, 50 of 57 corps commanders, and 154 of 186 divisional commanders. Undoubtedly the purges claimed the most aggressive and outspoken officers, and their loss was keenly felt, especially during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Among those killed was Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who had foreseen in his "Problems Concerning the Defence of the USSR" of 1936 the German operational concept for an invasion of the Soviet Union and had developed a counter to it. Although it enjoyed modern weapons at the beginning of the war, the Red Army remained committed to the concept that wars were won not by training and technology but by the masses and ideology.

Despite the purges, the Soviet military under Stalin had a strong influence on military-economic policy as it pushed for an armament-in-depth that implied not only state investment in stocks of weapons but support for civilian heavy industry. On the eve of World War II, aircraft, tank, and armament plants were concentrated in the western parts of the Soviet Union. Although some efforts were made during the period before the German invasion of June 1941 to relocate military and general industrial production to the less vulnerable area east of the Ural Mountains, advocates of such a policy were often branded as "defeatists." The German invasion of the western Soviet territories was in fact an economic near-disaster, depriving the Red Army of much of its military industrial base.

The alliance between the Soviet Union and Germany of 23 August 1939 brought advantages to each side. It allowed Adolf Hitler to attack Poland secure in the fact that he would not have to wage war with the Soviet Union, and it bought time for Stalin to rebuild the Red Army, which he himself had so weakened in the Great Purges. The pact between Germany and the Soviet Union also yielded great economic advantages to the German war machine in the form of Soviet raw materials and the activities of the USSR as a purchasing agent for Germany abroad. It brought far less advantage to the Soviet Union, although it did secure time for Stalin to rebuild his military, and the Red Army also benefited from establishment of a joint tank training center at Kazan and an air base at Lipetsk. Germany also provided some finished machinery and a few weapons of war. But the German and Soviet division of Poland that flowed from the pact also meant the end of a buffer between the two states and the presence of a common military border.

Stalin was shocked at the speed with which Germany defeated France in 1940. Given the punishment that little Finland had inflicted on the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939–1940, it is no wonder that Stalin doubted the ability of the Red Army to stand up to the German military. The Soviet leadership counted on a stalemated struggle similar to that of the Western Front in World War I, or at least a war of several years. Critical to a prolonged struggle that would give the Soviet Union a chance to win was denying the Germans the eastern Ukraine, which was the reason why so much Soviet armor was positioned forward in June 1941. Stalin quickly acted on the fall of France to cash in any remaining chips under the pact of August 1939, annexing the Baltic states and taking Bessarabia and northern Bukovina from Romania.

The success of the German tank divisions in France also led Stalin to reverse his decision in the fall of 1939 to eliminate the five Soviet tank corps. A decree of 6 July 1940 ordered the creation of nine new Red Army mechanized corps, and, in February and March 1941, other decrees called for an additional 20 formations.

The invasion of the Soviet Union began early on the morning of 22 June 1941. Stalin was determined not to be tricked into a war with Germany. Not only did the Soviet Union provide no provocation, but it continued to make deliveries of goods under the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact even as the invasion was in progress. Stalin rejected calls by his generals in the weeks and days before the attack to put Soviet forces in the border areas on alert. Even when he was informed that German troops were invading and firing on Soviet positions, Stalin refused for hours to allow an order to return fire; he claimed Hitler must not be aware of what was going on.

On paper, the Red Army seemed in an excellent position to resist a German attack. It had some 5.37 million men under arms, and in the two weeks after the invasion another 5 million were called to the colors. It also enjoyed superiority over its attacker in major areas of military equipment. Germany had some 6,000 tanks, the Soviets 23,140 (10,394 of them in the west). Much of this equipment was also of high caliber. By 1941, the Soviets possessed some of the best tanks of the war. Their BT-series and T-26 were superior in armor, firepower, and maneuverability to the German light PzKpfw I and II and could destroy any German tank. Similarly, the Soviet T-34 medium tank and KV-1 heavy tank were superior to the PzKpfw III and IV, and indeed to any German tank in June 1941. Soviet units also enjoyed superiority in numbers of certain weapons. Thus a fully equipped Soviet tank division was to have 375 tanks; a German panzer division had only between 135 and 208. A fully equipped Soviet rifle division had 1,304 machine guns, whereas a German infantry division possessed only 486.

Although Soviet formations in the west were not fully equipped when Operation barbarossa occurred, they should have been able to repel the German attack. Nonetheless, the Red Army sustained staggering losses early in the invasion. The bulk of Soviet forces in the western areas were in forward positions, where they were easily cut off and surrounded. On the first day alone, 1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground. Within two days, 2,000 Soviet aircraft had been lost. Within five days, the Germans had captured or destroyed 2,500 Soviet tanks. Within three weeks, the Soviets had lost 3,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft, and 2 million men, including a significant percentage of the officer corps.

For more than a week, Stalin remained incommunicado, stunned by his failure and hiding from his people. Not until 3 July did he address the nation. Others were made the scapegoats for Stalin's own failures. General Dimitri G. Pavlov, commander of the sector that had borne the brunt of the German attack, had pleaded with Stalin a week before the German onslaught to be allowed to establish rearward defensive positions. He and eight other generals and political officials were tried and shot.

In the first months of the invasion, Stalin consistently ignored sound military advice from his generals, with disastrous results. His orders that the army stand and fight merely meant that larger portions of it were surrounded and destroyed. German armored pincers took Minsk in mid-July, along with 290,000 prisoners, 2,500 tanks, and 1,400 guns. Smolensk followed a week later with 100,000 prisoners, 2,000 tanks, and 1,900 guns. During August and September, instead of letting his armies escape a German panzer pincer on Kiev, Stalin ordered the city held. German infantry then sealed off Kiev. It fell on September 19 and with it most of five Soviet armies: 665,000 prisoners and vast quantities of weapons.

Fortunately for the Soviet Union, the campaign was sufficiently prolonged for Stalin to grow as a war leader. He absorbed specialist knowledge, and, if lacking in imagination, by the end of the war had grown into an highly effective military strategist. He was also famed, and feared, for his frequent and often abrupt interference in the conduct of operations. Front commanders reported to him daily and received orders directly from him. On 8 August, Stalin took over the position of supreme commander in chief. There were frequent changes in the top professional leadership of the General Staff (Glavnokomand). At first, Georgii K. Zhukov was commanding general; from the end of July 1941, it was Boris M. Shaposhnikov; from May 1942 it was Aleksandr M. Vasilevskii; and from February 1945 to March 1946 it was Alexi I. Antonov. Officers who had been imprisoned under the purges were now released to take command. Prominent among some 4,000 so freed was colonel, later marshal of the Soviet Union, Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, who had undergone extensive torture.

Supply remained a serious problem for the army. Early in August 1941, a Main Directorate of the Red Army was established under the General Staff that was responsible for supplying the army. Arms shortages were especially acute in the winter of 1941–1942. By December 1941, only 39 percent of aircraft production goals had been met, and artillery shell production was no more than 20 to 30 percent of targets.

The rapid conversion of Soviet industry to military purposes and the relocation of entire factories east of the Urals both registered considerable results in 1942, when 59 percent of industrial production was devoted to arms manufacture, compared with only 30 percent before 1940. The military share of the state budget on the army also increased dramatically. The General Staff and government concentrated the Soviet Union's entire productive capacity on the war effort, and achievements were dramatic. During 1942, Germany produced 9,200 tanks, but the Soviet Union built 24,089; only the United States, with 24,997, built more. Superior military production to that of Germany was a major factor in the Soviet military victory in the war. In 1944, thanks in large part to the organizing genius of Albert Speer, Germany managed to produce 22,100 tanks, but the Soviet Union kept ahead, with 28,963. Artillery production also grew, from 42,300 guns in 1941 to 127,000 in 1942. Other weapons systems underwent similar production increases.

The vast distances in the Soviet Union and the primitive transportation helped to break down the German blitzkrieg, which had prospered on the short distances of Poland and France. Weather also helped to save the Red Army. Hitler believed that the Red Army could be defeated in a short campaign of only six weeks, and the German army was ill-prepared to deal with the Russian winter and temperatures of –5 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually, temperatures in the winter of 1941–1942 plunged to –60 degrees Fahrenheit. Soviet forces were able to fight in those conditions, but the German army was unprepared.

Hitler also miscalculated Soviet manpower resources. In 1941, some 22 million Soviet citizens had experienced some degree of military training. Before the invasion, the Germans had estimated Soviet strength in the west at about 155 divisions: 100 infantry, 25 cavalry, and the equivalent of 30 mechanized. This was not far off the mark; actual Soviet strength was 177 divisional equivalents, but this included air force and border troops, and Soviet divisions were smaller than their German counterparts. By mid-August, the Germans had met and defeated the Soviet force they had expected, but by then another 160 Soviet divisions had appeared. By the summer of 1942, despite near-catastrophic losses, the Soviet field army numbered 5,534,000 officers and men.

The bulk of Soviet soldiers were poorly trained. The low educational level of the population hampered creation of technically effective combat units. The numerous nationalities and languages of the Soviet Union also worked against an efficient, cohesive military establishment. Women proved invaluable in the war effort; some 10 percent of Soviet military personnel and 15 percent of partisan forces were female, many of them serving in combat roles. Women went to the front as pilots, navigators, mechanics, and political officers. In sharp contrast to other armies in the war, there were also all-women ground units, including the 1st Independent Volunteer Women's Rifle Brigade and the 1st Independent Women's Reserve Rifle Regiment. Women also were heavily involved in partisan activities in the western portions of the Soviet Union occupied by the Germans.

Improving circumstances enabled the Red Army to take the offensive in November 1942. The winter campaign of 1942–1943 broke the German stranglehold on Leningrad and drove Axis forces west. Stalingrad, Rostov, and Kursk were all liberated. When the Germans began Operation citadel in the summer of 1943, the Red Army halted the German drive in the great Battle of Kursk. That summer and fall, the Red Army resumed the advance, and from this point the Soviets maintained the initiative for the remainder of the war. On a 1,200-mile front, Soviet forces destroyed more than 200 Axis divisions and more than 14,000 aircraft. During this period, partisan activity complemented the combat actions of the regular Soviet forces, tying down large numbers of German troops in maintaining lines of communication stretching all the way back to Germany. In the newly liberated regions, industrial enterprises were set up that increased steadily growing military production. Soviet forces also received improved arms: the machine pistol (PPS), a new heavy machine gun, the 76 mm artillery piece, a 57 mm antitank gun, a new 152 mm howitzer, and 120 mm and 160 mm mortars. Furthermore, production was increased of the magnificent T-34 tank with its 76 mm gun, and new KV-85 and IS heavy tanks were introduced.

A large amount of U.S. Lend-Lease aid was certainly important to the Red Army's war effort. The Soviet Union received 375,000 American trucks, 50,000 Jeeps, and 12,000 railroad cars. These greatly enhanced the mobility of the Red Army and allowed it to carry out sustained offensive operations. The United States also supplied sufficient food to provide one-half pound per Russian soldier a day.

If lacking in flair, many Soviet soldiers fought hard during the war with a dogged persistence, even in hopeless situations. Nonetheless, a staggering 5.25 million Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner during the war. Desertion rates remained high, in part because of the brutal conditions. One source estimates that the Soviet Union executed 157,000 people during the war on charges of cowardice or desertion.

Soviet military casualties continued to be high, in part because of the costly Soviet practice of attacking without tanks, holding the armor back until a breakthrough was achieved. The Soviets lost more men in the battle for Berlin alone at the end of the war than the United States lost during the war in all theaters combined.

By the end of 1944, the Red Army had almost completely liberated Soviet territory. In January 1945, the Red Army began its offensive against Berlin. The East Prussian Campaign and the Vistula-Oder Operation were the most important strategic operations for the Red Army in the war. In spring 1945, the Red Army mounted simultaneous operations on a vast front extending from the Baltic to the Carpathians. On 25 April, troops of the First Ukrainian Front met the First American Army in Torgau at the Elbe, symbolizing the end of Nazi Germany. By the end of the fighting in Europe, despite its horrific losses during the conflict, the Red Army had 6 million men under arms, double the number for the German army.

Three months after the conclusion of fighting in Europe, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. On 9 August, Soviet forces mounted a large, rapid, and highly successful invasion of Manchuria. Lasting only a week, this bold operation was conducted in difficult terrain against what were considered some of Japan's best troops and ended with Soviet control of Manchuria.

Eva-Maria Stolberg and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Bialer, Seweryn. Stalin and His Generals: Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II. New York: Pegasus, 1969.; Dubb, Walter S., Jr. The Soviet Economy and the Red Army, 1930–1945. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.; Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.; Glantz, David M. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.; Gorodetsky, Gabriel. Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.; Harrison, Mark. Soviet Planning in Peace and War, 1938–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.; Shtemenko, Sergei M. The Soviet General Staff at War 1941–1945. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970.
 

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