Military history

Smash in the Door and the Whole Rotten
Structure Will Come Crashing Down!

Seldom had an attacker enjoyed such advantages as the Wehrmacht in June 1941. Most Red Army and frontier units, having been ordered not to respond to ‘provocations’, did not know how to react. Even beyond the twelfth hour, Stalin still desperately hoped for a last chance of conciliation and was reluctant to allow his troops to strike back. An officer entering the office of Colonel-General D. G. Pavlov, the commander of the central front, heard him yelling in nervous exasperation down the telephone as yet another front-line commander reported German activity on the border: ‘I know! It has already been reported! Those at the top know better than we!’

The three Soviet armies stretched out along the frontier on Stalin’s orders never stood a chance and their tank brigades behind were destroyed by air attack before they had a chance to deploy. The great eighteenth-century citadel of Brest-Litovsk, the town where the Kaiser’s general staff had inflicted such a humiliating Diktat on Lenin and Trotsky in 1918, was surrounded in the first few hours. Army Group Centre’s two panzer groups, commanded by Generals Hoth and Guderian, surrounded large Soviet forces in two rapid encirclements. Within five days their forces had joined up near Minsk, some 200 miles from the border. More than 300,000 Red Army soldiers were trapped and 2,500 tanks destroyed or captured.

In the north, striking out of East Prussia across the river Niemen, the Fourth Panzer Group smashed through the Russian line with ease. Five days later, General von Manstein’s LVI Panzer Corps, advancing almost fifty miles a day, was nearly halfway to Leningrad and had secured the crossing of the river Dvina. This ‘impetuous dash’, Manstein wrote later, ‘was the fulfilment of a tank commander’s dream’.

The Luftwaffe, meanwhile, had continued to annihilate Red Army aviation. By the end of the second day of fighting, it had increased its score to two thousand aircraft destroyed. The Soviet Union could build fresh aircraft and train new pilots, but that immediate ‘infanticide’ of aircrew crushed morale for a long time. ‘Our pilots feel that they are corpses already when they take off,’ a squadron officer admitted to a commissar fifteen months later at the height of the battle of Stalingrad. ‘This is where the losses come from.’

In the south, where Soviet forces were strongest, the German advance was much less rapid. General Kirponos had managed to establish a defence in depth, rather than line his armies along the frontier. But although his divisions inflicted quite heavy casualties on the Germans, their own losses were infinitely greater. Kirponos rushed his tank formations into battle before they could deploy effectively. On the second day, 23 June, General Ewald von Kleist’s First Panzer Group came up against Soviet divisions equipped with the monster KV tank, and for the very first time, German crews saw the T-34 tank, the best general-purpose tank developed in the Second World War.

The reduction of the southern front between the Pripet Marshes and the Carpathian mountains took much longer than expected. Field Marshal von Reichenau’s Sixth Army found itself continually harassed by Russian forces cut off in the wooded swampland to its left. Reichenau wanted prisoners executed as partisans, whether or not they still wore uniform. Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out. There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.

In Lvov, the capital of Galicia, the NKVD slaughtered political prisoners to prevent their release by the Germans. Its savagery was no doubt increased by the atmosphere of suspicion and chaos in the city, with drunkenness and looting. Lvov was subjected not only to aerial bombing, but also to sabotage by German-organized groups of Ukrainian nationalists. The mood of violent fear had been fuelled just before the invasion by jibes from the non-Russian population: ‘The Germans are coming to get you.’

Hitler’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a ‘rotten structure’ that would come ‘crashing down’ was shared by many foreign observers and intelligence services. Stalin’s purge of the Red Army, which had begun in 1937, was fuelled by an inimitable mixture of paranoia, sadistic megalomania and a vindictiveness for old slights dating back to the Russian civil war and the Russo-Polish War.

Altogether, 36,671 officers were executed, imprisoned or dismissed, and out of the 706 officers of the rank of brigade commander and above, only 303 remained untouched. Cases against arrested officers were usually grotesque inventions. Colonel Κ. K. Rokossovsky, later the commander who delivered the coup de grâce at Stalingrad, faced evidence purportedly provided by a man who had died nearly twenty years before.

The most prominent victim was Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the leading advocate of mobile warfare. His arrest and execution also represented the deliberate destruction of the Red Army’s operational thinking, which had encroached dangerously upon Stalin’s preserve of strategy. Former imperial army officers under Tukhachevsky had been developing a sophisticated theory of ‘Operational Art’ based on ‘the study of the relationship between mass firepower and mobility’. By 1941, this was a treasonous heresy, which explained why few Red Army generals had dared to mass their tanks effectively against the German threat. Even though most of the purged officers were reinstated, the psychological effect had been devastating.

Two and a half years after the purge began, the Red Army presented a disastrous spectacle in the Winter War against Finland. Marshal Voroshilov, Stalin’s old crony from the 1st Cavalry Army, displayed an astonishing lack of imagination. The Finns outmanoeuvred their opponents time after time. Their machine-gunners scythed down the massed Soviet infantry struggling forward through the snowfields. Only after deploying five times as many men as their opponents, and huge concentrations of artillery, did the Red Army begin to prevail. Hitler had observed this lamentable performance with excitement.

Japanese military intelligence took rather a different view. It was about the only foreign service which did not underestimate the Red Army at this time. A series of border skirmishes on the Manchurian frontier, which culminated in the battle at Khalkin-Gol in August 1939, had shown what an aggressive young commander, in this case the forty-three-year-old General Georgy Zhukov, could achieve. In January 1941, Stalin was persuaded to promote Zhukov to Chief of the General Staff. He was therefore right at the centre when, on the day after the invasion, Stalin set up a supreme general-staff headquarters, under its old tsarist name of Stavka. The Great Leader then appointed himself Commissar of Defence and Supreme Commander of the Soviet Armed Forces.

In the first days of Barbarossa, German generals saw little to change their low opinion of Soviet commanders, especially on the central part of the front. General Heinz Guderian, like most of his colleagues, was struck by the readiness of Red Army commanders to waste the lives of their men in prodigious quantities. He also noted in a memorandum that they were severely hampered by the ‘political demands of the state leadership’, and suffered a ‘basic fear of responsibility’. This combined with bad coordination meant that ‘orders to carry out necessary measures, counter-measures in particular, are issued too late’. Soviet tank forces were ‘insufficiently trained, and lacked intelligence and initiative during the offensive’. All of this was true, but Guderian and his colleagues underestimated the desire within the Red Army to learn from its mistakes.

The process of reform was not, of course, easy or rapid. Stalin and his placemen, especially senior commissars, refused to acknowledge that their political interference and obsessive blindness had caused such disasters. Front and army commanders had been hamstrung by the Kremlin’s militarily illogical instructions. To make matters worse, the ‘dual command’ system of commissars approving orders was reinstituted on 16 July. The political controllers of the Red Army tried to escape their responsibility by accusing front-line commanders and their staff officers of treason, sabotage or cowardice.

General Pavlov, the commander of the central part of the front, and the general yelling down the telephone that those at the top knew better what was going on, was not saved by having followed orders. Accused of treason, he became the most prominent victim to be executed in this second round of the Red Army purges. The paralysing atmosphere in headquarters can be imagined. A sapper expert in mines, who arrived at a command centre accompanied by NKVD border guards because they knew the area, was greeted by expressions of terror. A general babbled pathetically: ‘I was with the troops, and I did everything – I am not guilty of anything.’ Only then did the sapper officer realize that, on seeing the green tabs of his escort, these staff officers had thought that he had come to arrest them.

During this hysteria of deflected blame, the groundwork for reorganization began. Zhukov’s Stavka directive of 15 July 1941 set down ‘a number of conclusions’ following ‘the experience of three weeks of war against German fascism’. His main argument was that the Red Army had suffered from bad communications and overlarge, sluggish formations, which simply presented a ‘vulnerable target for air attack’. Large armies with several corps ‘made it difficult to organize command and control during a battle, especially because so many of our officers are young and inexperienced’. (Even if the purges were not mentioned, their shadow was impossible to forget.) ‘The Stavka’, he wrote, ‘therefore believes it is necessary to prepare to change to a system of small armies consisting of a maximum of five or six divisions.’ This step, when eventually introduced, greatly improved the rapidity of response, largely by cutting out the corps level of command between division and army.

The biggest mistake made by German commanders was to have underestimated ‘Ivan’, the ordinary Red Army soldier. They quickly found that surrounded or outnumbered Soviet soldiers went on fighting when their counterparts from western armies would have surrendered. Right from the first morning of Barbarossa, there were countless cases of extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice, although not perhaps as many as there were of mass panic, but that was largely due to the confusion. The defence of the citadel of Brest-Litovsk is the most striking example. German infantry occupied the complex after a week of heavy fighting, but some Red Army soldiers held out for almost a month from the initial attack without any resupply of ammunition or food. One of the defenders scratched on a wall: ‘I am dying but do not surrender. Farewell Motherland. 20/VII–41’. This piece of wall is still reverently preserved in the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow. What is not mentioned is that several of the wounded Soviet soldiers captured in the citadel managed to survive Nazi prisoner-of-war camps until liberated in 1945. Instead of being treated as heroes, they were sent straight to the Gulag by SMERSH, following Stalin’s order that anyone who had fallen into enemy hands was a traitor. Stalin even disowned his own son, Yakov, captured near Vitebsk on 16 July.

As the chaos on the Russian side lessened during the summer, the resistance became more dogged. General Haider, who at the beginning of July had felt that victory was at hand, soon felt less certain. ‘Everywhere the Russians fight to the last man,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘They capitulate only occasionally.’ Guderian also admitted that Russian infantrymen were ‘nearly always stubborn in defence’, and added that they showed skill in fighting at night and in forests. These two advantages, above all night-fighting, were to prove far more important than the Germans realized.

The German commanders had believed that no society run by political terror could defend itself against a determined attack from outside. The warm welcome from civilians convinced many Germans that they would win. Devout Ukrainians, who had suffered one of the most terrifying man-made famines in history, greeted the arrival of military vehicles with black crosses as symbolic of a new crusade against the anti-Christ. But Hitler’s plans of subjugation and exploitation could only strengthen the ‘rotten structure’, by forcing even those who loathed the Stalinist regime to support it.

Stalin and the apparatus of the Communist Party quickly recognized the need to shift their rhetoric away from Marxist-Leninist clichés. The phrase ‘the Great Patriotic War’ appeared in a headline in the first issue of Pravda to appear after the invasion, and Stalin himself soon took up this deliberate evocation of ‘the Patriotic War’ against Napoleon. Later that year, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, he went on to invoke the distinctly unproletarian heroes of Russian history: Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Suvorov and Kutuzov.

The preservation of Stalin’s personal reputation was greatly helped by the political ignorance of the majority of the population. Few outside the nomenklatura and the well-connected intelligentsia linked him directly with the refusal to acknowledge the threat from Germany and the disasters of late June. Stalin, in his broadcast of 3 July, did not, of course, take any of the blame. He addressed the people as ‘brothers and sisters’, and told them that the Motherland was in great danger, with the Germans advancing deep into the Soviet Union. On balance, this admission strengthened the mood of the country with its unprecedented frankness, because until then the official communiqués had spoken only of heavy losses inflicted on the enemy. It was nevertheless a great shock to many, such as the students of Stalingrad technical university, waiting to mark the advance of Red Army troops into Germany with flags on their wall-map. When the ‘shocking and incomprehensible’ advance of the Wehrmacht became clear, the map was hurriedly taken down.

Whatever one may think about Stalinism, there can be little doubt that its ideological preparation, through deliberately manipulated alternatives, provided ruthlessly effective arguments for total warfare. All right-thinking people had to accept that Fascism was bad and must be destroyed by any means. The Communist Party should lead the struggle because Fascism was totally devoted to its destruction. This form of logic is captured in Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate. ‘ The hatred Fascism bears us’, declares Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik who had fallen foul of Stalinism, ‘is yet another proof – a far-reaching proof – of the justice of Lenin’s cause.’

Political arguments were, however, of secondary importance for the majority of the population. Their real stimulus came from a visceral patriotism. The recruiting poster, ‘The Motherland Calls!’, showed a typical Russian woman holding the military oath and backed by a sheaf of bayonets. Although unsubtle, it was deeply effective at the time. Huge sacrifices were expected. ‘Our aim is to defend something greater than millions of lives,’ wrote a young tank commander in his diary exactly a month after the invasion. ‘I am not speaking about my own life. The only thing to be done is to lose it to some advantage for the Motherland.’

Four million people volunteered or felt obliged to volunteer for the opolchentsy militia. The waste of lives was so terrible, it is hard to comprehend: a carnage whose futility was perhaps exceeded only by the Zulu king marching an impi of his warriors over a cliff to prove their discipline. These untrained soldiers, often without weapons and many still in civilian clothes, were sent against the Wehrmacht’s panzer formations. Four militia divisions were almost completely annihilated before the siege of Leningrad had even begun. Families, ignorant of the incompetence and chaos at the front, with drunkenness and looting, or NKVD executions, mourned almost without criticism of the regime. Anger was reserved for the enemy.

Most acts of bravery from that summer never came to light, having disappeared with the death of witnesses. Some of the stories, however, did emerge later, partly because a strong feeling of injustice grew in the ranks that the deeds of many brave men were not being acknowledged. For example, a letter was found on the body of a Surgeon Maltsev at Stalingrad expressing his need to testify to the courage of a comrade during the terrible retreat. ‘Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, a big battle will take place,’ he had written, ‘and I will probably be killed, and I dream that this account will be published so that people will learn of the feats performed by Lychkin.’

Tales of bravery offered little compensation at the time. By mid-July, the Red Army was in a desperate position. In the first three weeks of fighting it had lost 3,500 tanks, over 6,000 aircraft, and some two million men, including a significant proportion of the Red Army officer corps.

The next disaster was the battle round Smolensk, during the second half of July, in which several Soviet armies were trapped. Although at least five divisions escaped, some 300,000 Red Army prisoners were still taken by the beginning of August. Over 3,000 tanks and 3,000 guns were also lost. Many more Soviet divisions were then sacrificed, one after the other, to prevent Field Marshal von Bock’s panzer divisions seizing the rail junctions of Yelnaya and Roslavl and sealing another pocket. Some historians, however, argue convincingly that this delayed the German advance at a crucial moment, with important consequences later.

In the south, Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s army group, now supported by Romanians and Hungarians, took 100,000 prisoners from the divisions trapped in the Uman pocket early in August. The advance into the Ukraine across the open, rolling prairie with sunflowers, soya beans and unharvested corn, seemed unstoppable. The greatest concentration of Soviet forces, however, lay round the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Their commander-in-chief was another of Stalin’s cronies, Marshal Budenny, with Nikita Khrushchev as chief commissar, whose main responsibility was the evacuation of industrial machinery to the east. General Zhukov warned Stalin that the Red Army must abandon Kiev to avoid encirclement, but the Soviet dictator, who had just told Churchill that the Soviet Union would never give up Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, lost his temper and removed him from his position as Chief of the General Staff.

Once Rundstedt’s mobile forces had finished at Uman, they continued, veering to the south of Kiev. The First Panzer Group then swung north, joining up with Guderian’s divisions, whose sudden strike down from the central front took the Soviet command by surprise. The danger of a terrible trap became plain, but Stalin refused to abandon Kiev. He only changed his mind when it was far too late. On 21 September, the encirclement battle of Kiev ended. The Germans claimed a further 665,000 prisoners. Hitler called it ‘the greatest battle in world history’. The Chief of the General Staff, Haider, on the other hand, called it the greatest strategic mistake of the campaign in the east. Like Guderian, he felt that all their energies should have been concentrated on Moscow.

The advancing invaders, overrunning one position after another, suffered a confusion of emotions and ideas as they gazed with a mixture of disbelief, contempt and also fear on the Communist enemy, who had fought to the last. The piles of corpses seemed even more dehumanized when charred, and with half their clothes stripped from them by the force of a shell blast. ‘Look closely at these dead, these Tartar dead, these Russian dead,’ wrote a journalist attached to the German Army in the Ukraine. ‘They are new corpses, absolutely brand-new. Just delivered from the great factory of the Pyatyletka[five-year plan]. They are all the same. Mass-produced. They typify a new race, a tough race, these corpses of workers killed in an industrial accident.’ Yet, however compelling the image, it was a mistake to assume that the bodies before them were simply modern Communist robots. They were the remains of men and women who, in most cases, had reacted to a sense of patriotism that was somehow both spiritual and visceral.

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