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Stalin’s Strategic Dilemma

Hitler’s Decision to commit Germany’s last army to a winter offensive in the west in 1944, rather than to use it as a counter-attack force against the encroachments of the Red Army in the east, might seem with hindsight one of the most perverse of the Second World War. In the east, Germany was defended by neither geography nor man-made fortifications. In the west, both the Siegfried Line (West Wall) and the Rhine stood between the Anglo-American armies and the interior of Germany. Comparatively weak forces committed to hold those obstacles would have sufficed to hold Eisenhower’s troops at bay for months, while the Sixth SS and Fifth Panzer Armies, under which Hitler’s last tank reserve was concentrated, might have won an equal amount of time had they been deployed to fight on the line of the Vistula and the Carpathians instead of being cast away in the Ardennes adventure. Hitler’s rationalisation of his decision is well known: in the west the Allied armies were exposed to a counterstroke towards Antwerp, the success of which would have freed his forces to unleash in the east a subsequent offensive designed to destabilise the Red Army. In short, he chose to strike for the chance of victory rather than settle for postponing the onset of defeat. Events were to rob him of both outcomes. The choice of the Ardennes offensive, though it may have set back a little the launching of the Rhine crossing, actually thereby ensured the unimpeded advance of the Red Army’s offensive in the east whenever Stalin chose to launch it.

Yet it remains generally unperceived that Hitler’s plunge into double jeopardy was determined by his confrontation with not a double but a triple threat. In the west he faced the danger of an Allied assault on the Rhine. In the east the Red Army menaced the Greater Reich on two large and widely separated fronts: from Poland through Silesia towards Berlin; and also from eastern Hungary towards Budapest, Vienna and Prague. Since Hitler had no means of knowing on which of these two axes Stalin would make his major effort, strategic sense positively argued for disposing of the danger in the west first and then transferring his striking force eastward – always supposing it had survived the shock of battle – to oppose the Red Army on whichever sector, north or south of the Carpathians, that it appeared in greater strength. The ultimate validation of this judgement, though Hitler could only guess at it, was that until November 1944 Stalin himself had been in two minds about whether to strike directly for Berlin or to distract and destroy the fighting power of the Ostheer by a thrust elsewhere, the Budapest-Vienna axis being the most obvious choice.

Since the moment when the Red Army had been able to go over to the offensive at Stalingrad in 1942, the sheer size of the Eastern Front, the ratio of force to space, the erratic flow of supplies and the paucity of road and rail communications had time and again forced Stalin into a similar choice between fronts. Even the German army, during the summer months of Barbarossa in 1941, had been obliged to close down Army Group Centre’s front for six weeks while Army Groups North and South made up ground to come abreast of it on the roads to Leningrad and Kiev. Those were armies at the height of their powers, led by commanders flushed with victory, spearheaded by superbly efficient armoured forces and backed by still ample reserves of manpower. The Red Army which went over to the offensive for the first time at Stalingrad, by contrast, had been ravaged by eighteen months of losses on a scale never experienced before in history, was led by generals whose self-confidence had been shaken by a succession of disasters and was fed from a pool of recruits in which the very young and the over-mature were now disproportionately represented. It was an army which had yet to learn how to manoeuvre; until it did so, its operations were perforce limited to responding to German thrusts and to taking up ground by frontal advance on the sectors where the Germans had weakened themselves by over-extension.

The deficiencies of the Red Army, moreover, permeated the Soviet military structure from the bottom to the top. Stalin himself was an uncertain military leader, surrounded by civilian and military subordinates who lacked the experience of directing armed forces under the strain of war, and served by a command structure he had to improvise from scratch. Because of the nature of the Soviet system and of his own devious character, moreover, Stalin could not mobilise and focus upon himself the popular support which so strengthened Churchill’s hand, for example, in rallying the nation to cope with crisis. The peoples of the Soviet Union did not form a nation, the experience of industrialisation and collectivisation had alienated millions from the rule of the Communist Party, the party was further tainted by its exclusive and repressive methods of government, while Stalin himself commanded it by the use of selective terror against his comrades which was made all the more distasteful by his maintenance of the fiction that he was no more than first among equals in a collective leadership.

The spirit of patriotism could to some extent be artificially revived. The epics of Russian history could be recalled, Russian heroes of the past – Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky, Peter the Great – could be rehabilitated, decorations and orders which commemorated victorious generals of the imperial era (Kutuzov and Suvorov) could be created, distinctions of rank and dress, abolished at the Revolution, could be revived. The Orthodox Church, an object of contempt in a professedly atheist state, could even be enlisted to preach the crusade of the Great Patriotic War; its reward, in September 1943, was to be allowed to elect its first synod since the institution was suppressed after the Revolution. These, however, were mere expedients. They were no substitute for an effective organ of strategic command, which Stalin must provide or else fail as a war leader, consigning Russia to defeat and himself to extinction.

Stalin does indeed seem to have come close to breakdown in the first weeks of Barbarossa. ‘For a week’, describes Professor John Erickson,

it was all the anonymity of ‘the Soviet government’, the ‘Central Committee’ and ‘Sovnarkom’, the clamour of organisation, and the rattle of Party exhortations. . . . Stalin, committed irrevocably to war in spite of himself, ‘locked himself in his quarters’ for three days at least after the first, catastrophic week-end. When he emerged, he was, according to an officer who saw him at first hand, ‘low in spirit and nervy’. . . . [He] put in no more than rare appearances at the Stavka in these early days; the main military administration was, for all practical purposes, seriously disorganised and the General Staff, with its specialists dispatched to the front commands, functioned with tantalisingly persistent slowness. . . . The Stavka discussions ground into an operational-administrative bog; while trying to formulate strategic-operational assignments, Stalin and his officers busied themselves with minutiae which devoured valuable time – the type of rifle to be issued to infantry units (standard or cavalry models), or whether bayonets were needed, and if so should they be triple-edged?

In fairness it must be said that Hitler also took refuge in the discussion of military minutiae as an escape from the pressure of crisis and often, if the crisis protracted, refused to discuss anything else, as the surviving fragments of his Stalingrad Führer conference records reveal. Stalin, by contrast, returned quickly to realities. On 3 July 1941, the eleventh day of the war, he broadcast to the Soviet people – an almost unprecedented event – and addressed the ‘comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters’ as his ‘friends’. Moreover, he moved at once to put the government of the Soviet Union on a war footing. The way in which he did so is almost incomprehensible to Westerners, attuned as they are to a strict separation between organs of state and political parties, civil power and military authority, bureaucrats and commanders. In peacetime the Soviet system blurred such distinctions; Stalin heightened this ambiguity in the structure he erected for war. His first move, on 30 June, was to create a State Defence Committee to oversee the political, economic and military aspects of the war; its membership, later slightly broadened, consisted of himself, Molotov, the Foreign Minister, Voroshilov, who had been Commissar for Defence from 1925 to 1940, Malenkov, his right-hand man in the party organisation, and – significantly – Beria, head of the secret police (NKVD). On 19 July he nominated himself as People’s Commissar for Defence and on 8 August secretly assumed the post of Supreme Commander; as Supreme Commander (though he continued to be identified only as Commissar for Defence) he controlled the Stačka, in effect the executive organ of the State Defence Committee (GKO), which oversaw both the General Staff and the operational commands or fronts. As the acts and decisions of the GKO automatically carried the authority of the council of People’s Commissars, of which Stalin was head, and as he could also detach officers of the General Staff, notably and most frequently Zhukov and Vasilevsky, to run fronts or direct specified operations, Stalin dominated the direction of the Great Patriotic War from top to bottom (the designation ‘patriotic’ had been used in his broadcast of 3 July). Though he cautiously disguised from the Soviet people his ultimate responsibility for command decision, and would emerge as Marshal, Generalissimo and ‘the great Stalin’ only when a roll of substantial victories had been secured, Stalin was effectively commander-in-chief from the beginning of July 1941 onwards. He was implacable in that role. When Army Group Centre resumed its advance on Moscow in October, his confidence was shaken almost as severely as it had been in June, but he never relaxed the grip of fear in which he held his subordinates: dismissal, disgrace, even execution were the penalties which awaited failures. General Ismay, Churchill’s military assistant who visited Moscow in October, noted the effect: ‘as [Stalin] entered the room every Russian froze into silence and the hunted look in the eyes of the generals showed all too plainly the constant fear in which they lived. It was nauseating to see brave men reduced to such servility.’

A few held out. Zhukov was notably robust, appearing not to be frightened by Mekhlis, the chief political commissar used by Stalin to bring others down. Zhukov had the advantage of having successfully commanded tanks against the Japanese in a brief and undeclared Russo-Japanese border war in Mongolia in 1939; more important, he was naturally tough, able to accept dismissal by Stalin from the post of Chief of the General Staff and to proceed to an operational command without diminished confidence in his own abilities, which he knew Stalin recognised. Others of Zhukov’s stamp were to appear, notably Rokossovsky and Konev. By the time all three were commanding fronts in 1944, Stalin’s difficulties in finding able subordinates were largely solved.

In the meantime, however, he had to do most of the work of directing the Great Patriotic War and running the Red Army himself; to a greater extent than was true of the high command of any other of the combatant powers, Stalin dominated Russia’s war effort. Hitler and his generals coexisted in a constant state of tension. Churchill imposed his will by argument, which prevailed less and less as the Americans took over an ever greater share of the fighting. Roosevelt largely presided over rather than directed his chiefs of staff. Stalin, however, dictated. All information flowed to him, wherever he was to be found during the day or night, whether in the Kremlin, at his country dacha at Kuntsevo or, while German bombs threatened Moscow, in an improvised headquarters on a platform of the Moscow underground railway; from him all orders flowed back. He held a situation conference three times a day, in a routine curiously similar to Hitler’s, hearing reports first at noon, then at four in the afternoon, and finally dictating orders directly to officers of the General Staff but in the presence of the Politburo between midnight and three or four in the morning.

Vasilevsky, in effect Stalin’s operations officer, playing a role equivalent to that of Jodl in Hitler’s headquarters, perceptively observed and later recorded the dictator’s methods of command. He noted that Stalin established his dominance over the military in the first year of the war, that is to say far more quickly than Hitler did over the Wehrmacht, perhaps because of his previous experience of operations as commissar of the First Cavalry Army during the Civil War. In the early months he took his confidence too far: in 1941 he was almost wholly responsible for the disaster at Kiev, having refused permission for withdrawal until it was too late for the defenders to escape encirclement; in 1942 he dismissed the danger of a renewed German offensive into southern Russia and committed Timoshenko’s fronts to the Kharkov counter-offensive, an altogether premature seizure of the initiative which resulted in over 200,000 Russians being taken prisoner – almost a repetition of the encirclements of the year before. Thereafter he was more cautious. It was eventually Zhukov and Vasilevsky who proposed the double envelopment at Stalingrad; they outlined the concept to Stalin in his office on 13 September 1942 and he accepted it only after they had reasoned away his cautious objections.

Zhukov’s highly retrospective assessment of Stalin’s worth as a commander was that he excelled above all as a military economist who knew how to collect reserves even while the front was consuming manpower in gargantuan mouthfuls. Certainly his achievement both at Stalingrad and in the two years that followed was to have such reserves at hand – he estimated to the British a consistent surplus over the Germans of some sixty divisions, probably an overestimate – whenever the Ostheer gave him the opportunity to profit by a strategic mistake. He deployed such a reserve in a counter-attack when the Germans had exhausted themselves in the offensive phase of the Kursk operation in July 1943. He sustained the success at Kursk by using his reserve in August to recapture Kharkov, the most fought-over city in the Soviet Union. By October his autumn offensive, fuelled by the units he held in reserve, had retaken all the most valuable territory won by the Ostheer during its advance into Russia in the two previous years – an enormous tract 650 miles in breadth from north to south, 150 miles in depth, beyond which only the Dnieper, the last truly substantial military obstacle on the steppe, lay to oppose the Red Army’s advance. By the end of November the Red Army had secured three enormous bridgeheads on the European side of the Dnieper, had cut the Crimea off from contact with the Ostheer and stood poised to open its advance into Poland and Romania.

Ironically, victory brought Stalin a dilemma. Until Stalingrad he had been staving off defeat; until Kursk he still faced the risk of a disabling German initiative; until the advance to the Dnieper he fed, supplied and manned the Red Army by wartime improvisation. Thereafter he knew, like Churchill, that he ‘had won after all’. Germany’s armoured masse de manoeuvre no longer existed, while he had regained possession of his country’s most productive agricultural and industrial regions. Moreover, he could now count upon shifting much of the burden of destroying the Wehrmacht from the Red Army to the Allies. At Tehran on November 1943, Brooke, Churchill’s chief of staff, noted that in his quick and unerring appreciation of opportunity and situation he ‘stood out compared to Churchill and Roosevelt’. By one of the most brutal contrivances of public embarrassment recorded in diplomatic history, he shamed Churchill into conceding his total commitment to Overlord and to agreeing to name both a commander and a date. Thereafter he could be certain that from mid-1944 Hitler would be caught between two fires, and he could let that in the west blaze while he chose where he could most profitably apply the heat elsewhere. As events turned out, he chose to attack on his northern front, destroying Army Group Centre and driving the Germans back to the Vistula. However, that decision did not commit his hand. He still retained the option of either (like the Western Allies) committing all his strength to a final throw designed to destroy the Wehrmacht in a final battle for eastern Germany and Berlin, or diverting a major part of the Red Army’s force into southern Europe, there to build a Soviet equivalent of Hitler’s Tripartite Pact and so assure the Soviet Union against invasion for decades to come.

It was a tantalising choice. Stalin had not chosen to enter the Second World War; but he had chosen, even before it began, to profit from the tensions that brought it about. In the twenty-one months during which the war had raged while he stood on the sidelines, he had greatly profited from its unfolding. From his alliance with Hitler he had gained in turn eastern Poland, then – through the freedom the non-aggression pact had allowed him to attack Finland – eastern Karelia, then the Baltic states, finally Romanian Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Barbarossa had engulfed his country in the worst of the fighting brought on by the Second World War. By the summer of 1944, however, he could begin to consider again how best the Soviet Union might profit geopolitically from the war’s concluding stage. Stalin, even more than Hitler, was committed to a view of war as a political event. Between Barbarossa and Kursk the ‘correlation of forces’ had worked against him. Thereafter they began to operate to his advantage. Even as Hitler was laying the groundwork for his last offensive in the west, Stalin was considering where he might best seize the opportunities presented by the collapse of Hitler’s strategy in the east.

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