When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they turned what had been a relatively localized readjustment of the balance of power in Europe into a continent-wide total war.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they turned what had been a relatively localized readjustment of the balance of power in Europe into a continent-wide total
The Soviet experience had, in essence, two overall phases. In the first, the Soviets desperately tried to overhaul and re-create the organization, equipment, and doctrine of their military, while at the same time attempting to prevent an utter rout by the Germans. The second came as the Soviets succeeded at that gargantuan task and created a military with the soldiers, training, and ability to defeat the Germans. That accomplishment, possibly more than any other, ensured Germany’s defeat in World War II.
The political context of the Soviet Union during World War II centered on the regime of Communist dictator Joseph
Stalin did not deal well with the outbreak of war. The invasion itself threw him into a state of shock. He did not make a radio broadcast to the nation until July 3, 1941, and remained largely out of sight after that. As the Germans advanced steadily into the Soviet Union, he grew more and more frantic, worrying as much about his loss of power as the loss of Soviet land. When the Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow, Stalin was close to a nervous breakdown.
Stalin’s anxiety created a temporary and partial vacuum at the top of the Soviet hierarchy, but it also had two beneficial effects. First, it allowed senior army officers, such as Marshal Semyon Konstantinovich
Stalin recovered his nerve after winter brought the German offensive to a halt. For the next two years, however, he was politically pinned by the success of the Germans. He had to allow his generals their lead, in the hope that they would be able to prevent the conquest of the Soviet Union. This openness could be seen most clearly in early 1943, when Stalin reluctantly accepted the recommendation of his generals to stay on the strategic defensive until late in the summer.
The political atmosphere changed significantly in late 1943 and early 1944. When it became clear that the Soviets would be able to push the Germans out of Russia, Stalin began reasserting his authority over the Soviet system. He took direct control of the final Soviet offensive into Poland and Germany in January, 1945, effectively undercutting the power of Zhukov, his most successful general.
In addition, Stalin began thinking about the shape of the postwar world. His primary goal was to ensure that the Soviet Union had a military buffer around it of states controlled or influenced by the Kremlin. This strategy had military effects most obviously in
By the end of the war, Stalin’s paranoia had again reached epidemic proportions. He saw, in everything, a threat to his rule. Perhaps the two most endangered groups at this point were returning prisoners of
The Soviet military achievement was simple. The Soviet army absorbed the greatest weight of the German assault and turned it back. This was more than simply a victory over a particular nation. It was also a victory over a particular kind of warfare. The German
German invincibility had seemed to continue in the first six months of the invasion of Russia. The Russians managed, through their doctrinal reorganizations, their employment of land and space, and their studied use of the winter conditions, to shatter the spearheads of the German offensives and turn them back.
The prime example of this achievement was at Kursk in
Soviet weapons tended to be simple but also reliable. They had to be easily manufactured in relatively primitive factories by workers with minimal skills. They had to function in conditions that ranged from the appalling heat of the southern summer to the bitter cold of the northern winter. The results were, for the most part, ruggedly designed and built weapons that could absorb an enormous amount of punishment, both military and environmental, and keep on going. This held true for weapons ranging from the smallest to the largest. Soviet infantry weapons, such as the crude but effective PPSh41 submachine
Oddly, the Soviets nonetheless managed to produce some weapons that not only were reliable and hard-wearing, but also surpassed those of the Germans in technological and military effectiveness. The T-34
In the initial stages of World War II, Soviet military organization was both ineffective and confused. The largest unit in the army was the corps, consisting of nearly 40,000 men and, supposedly, nearly 1,000 tanks. Few of these corps were up to strength, and their units tended to be dispersed widely and, worse, to answer to different regional headquarters. The Soviets thus had neither the large-scale forces needed for a war of maneuver nor the central organization to use the forces they had effectively.
The near-destruction of the military in the initial months of the war led to its drastic and fundamental reorganization, done on the fly and even as Soviet forces were being forced back to Moscow. The military was commanded from the top by the
At first, there were three Main Commands, each of which controlled several fronts, responsible to the Stavka. Stalin and his generals made such a habit of bypassing the Main Command commanders that this tier was soon abolished, and the front commanders became the next organizational level for the rest of the war. These fronts were centered on geographic areas, such as Leningrad, the trans-Caucasus, or Moscow. Each front headquarters controlled all the military forces within that area, armored, air, or infantry. Such headquarters often found themselves barely able to control such an enormous responsibility, and as the war continued, the Soviets increased the number of fronts.
Very quickly, the Stavka abolished the corps and replaced it with a smaller field army. It did so because of both the shortage of equipment, especially tanks, and the lack of experienced midlevel officers.
Along with this reorganization came renewed power for the political commissars who controlled the army on behalf of the Communist Party.
Below the front level, Soviet organization in the first months was chaotic, broken up by the rapid retreat. Beginning in 1942, however, the Stavka began to build up mobile mechanized units, in somewhat of a return to the prewar deep-penetration ideas.
World War II: The European Theater
The first units were tank
Soviet grand strategy shifted as the war went on. Prior to the war, the official Soviet doctrine, as laid out by people such as Marshal Mikhayl Nikolayevich
Thus in the early months of World War II, the prewar doctrine was essentially thrown out the window, and grand strategy centered on the defensive, as the country struggled to survive. The Soviets remade their doctrine on the fly, bowing to the dictates of necessity. In the first year of the war, the holding of critical centers such as Leningrad and Stalingrad was the key.
As the tide shifted, the Soviet leadership began to look to a series of massive counteroffensives that built upon one another to sweep them back through their lost territory and into Germany. The 1942 fall offensives, which included a pincer movement on the German forces at Stalingrad and a major assault on the German army group facing Moscow, were perceived as the foundation for a wave of attacks that would end the war.
Although the Stalingrad Offensive
Russians race to take up a new position near Stalingrad.
This was the pattern the Soviets followed after their victory at Kursk. Thus, from December, 1943, through April, 1944, Soviet armies in the south pushed back the German forces in the Ukraine, while attacks in the north finally freed Leningrad after three years of encirclement. Once those offensives had met with success, the Soviets paused and built their forces up in the center, eventually attacking the Germans in front of
Soviet operational strategy was based on gathering overwhelming numbers and firepower at the point of decision, whether in attack or defense, and using it to overcome the Germans. Once the infantry and artillery had created a break, mobile mechanized forces came up to exploit the gap, surge far into the German rear, and cut off the Wehrmacht forces. That was the theory, anyway. In execution, Soviet commanders often committed their mobile reserves too early and allowed them to be destroyed by the German defenders. This occurred as late as April and May, 1945, when Zhukov put in his armored forces too early during the Battle of Berlin, causing them to be entangled not only by the German defenders but also by the logistical tails of their own infantry. For the greater part, however, the Soviets found immense success with this strategy, successfully cutting off the German army led by Friedrich
Two external factors aided the Russian strategy. The first was Adolf
Soviet tactics relied on infantry-armor combinations, backed up by overwhelming fire support from both artillery and ground attack aircraft. A typical assault in 1944 or 1945 began with reconnaissance battalions infiltrating the German defensive lines to seize key points. As this was occurring, artillery and air units would pound the Germans to soften them up for the assault. After the initial phase, the bombardment would shift to targets in the rear, allowing an assault on the German lines by infantry, heavy armor, and combat engineers. Finally, combined-arms groups would follow up and take advantage of newly made gaps to begin encircling the German forces.
The cost of this strategy was enormous. Estimates of Soviet military casualties ranged from twenty to forty million soldiers. Civilian casualties may have been higher. Overall it was estimated that the Soviet Union lost up to twenty eight million dead. In addition to the human cost, the western half of the Soviet Union was dealt an enormous economic and social blow. Millions of people were made refugees, and the industrial infrastructure was either destroyed, captured, or uprooted. For the second time in the century, European Russia had borne the brunt of total war. It was an experience the Russians wished never to repeat, and, more than anything, this desire would inform their postwar
When the Soviet army rolled into Berlin in May, 1945, it was perhaps the most powerful army the world had ever seen. It had successfully learned from the disasters of 1941 and 1942 and applied the harsh lessons of total war to its doctrine, organization, and technology. It had rebuilt itself, even while fending off the Wehrmacht deep in the Russian steppes. It had done so at immense cost in the lives of both soldiers and civilians, but it had done so victoriously. Perhaps the only military to undergo a similarly triumphant transformation was the United States Navy during the Pacific war against Japan from 1941 to 1945. In essence, the Soviet military, supported by the iron will of the Russian people, had ended the Nazi threat. Rightly, their performance in the “Great Patriotic War” was viewed with pride.
A vast array of material has been published in Russia on World War II, but little of it has been translated into English, the major exceptions being
Dunn, Walter S. Hitler’s Nemesis: The Red Army, 1930-1945. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Continuing the History of Stalin’s War with Germany. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. _______. The Road to Stalingrad. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. Forczyk, Robert. Leningrad, 1941-44. New York: Osprey, 2009. Glantz, David M. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Glantz, David M., and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Jukes, Geoffrey, The Second World War (5): The Eastern Front, 1941-1945. New York: Osprey, 2002. Morgan, Hugh. Soviet Aces of World War 2. New York: Osprey, 1997. Rottman, Gordon L. Soviet Field Fortifications, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2007. _______. Soviet Rifleman, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2007. Sakaida, Henry. Heroes of the Soviet Union, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2004. Shukman, Harold, ed. Stalin’s Generals. New York: Grove Press, 1993. Smith, Myron J. The Soviet Army, 1939-1980: A Guide to Sources in English. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1982. Stolfi, R. H. S. Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reconsidered. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Zaloga, Steven J. The Red Army of the Great Patriotic War, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 1989. Army Group North: The Werhmacht in Russia. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 1999. Ballad of a Solider. Film. Mosfilm, 1959. The Battle of Russia. Documentary. Hughes Leisure Group, 1991. Defiance. Film. Paramount Vantage, 2008. Enemy at the Gates. Film. Paramount Pictures, 2001. The World at War. Documentary. Thames Television, 1973.
World War II: United States, Britain, and France
World War II: Germany and Italy
World War II: Japan
Small Arms and Machine Guns
Tanks and Armored Vehicles
Aircraft, Bombs, and Guidance Systems
Rockets, Missiles, and Nuclear Weapons
Chemical and Biological Weapons
Sieges and Siege Techniques: Modern
Armies and Infantry: Modern
Naval Development: The Age of Propulsion
The Age of Bismarck
The “Great” War: World War I
The Spanish Civil War