Saturday, March 14, 2009

Soviet unpreparedness in June 1941

Alexander Werth, in Russia at War, 1941-1945, has an excellent chapter on “Soviet Unpreparedness in June 1941.” Werth doesn’t speculate much about why the Red Army defenses were so poor right at the beginning. He mentions Stalin’s “only explanation given in July ”: which was the ‘suddenness and perfidiousness’ of the German attack.”

But Werth (on page 132) goes on to say “This explanation did not entirely satisfy the Russian people at the time; they had been told so much for years about the tremendous might of the Red Army that the non-stop advance of the Germans steam-roller during the first three weeks of war – to Smolensk, to the outskirts of Kiev and to only a short distance from Leningrad – came as a terrible shock.”

Further down Werth writes, “ . . at first Russia proved totally unprepared to meet the German onslaught, and . . . in October 1941 the Germans very nearly won the war.”

Werth then refers to “Soviet military historians” for the reasons for this unpreparedness. I’ll provide a few passages I found interesting:

“Among the principal long-term causes some were historical (e.g. the 1937 purges in the Red Army); some were psychological (the constant propaganda about the invincibility of the Red Army); some were professional (lack of any proper experience of war among the Red Army as compared with the Germans and, in many cases, a low standard of training); some, finally, were economic (the failure of the Soviet-German Pact, to turn the Red Army into a well-equipped modern army).

Page 134: “There were other shortcomings. The Red Army had had very little actual experience of war. Its only major experience dated back to the Civil War of 1918-20, and the conditions in which that war was fought had very little relevance to modern warfare. Experience was, indeed, soon to show that heroes of the Civil War like Budienny and Voroshilov were completely out of their depth in the war conditions of 1941.”

Page 135: “There had also been, in 1938-9, the successful battles against the Japanese at Lake Hassan and Halkin Gol, but these again were different from the vast war of 1941. Certain bitter lessons, it is true, had been learned from the Winter War in Finland, but had not yet been sufficiently implemented. As for the German invasion of Poland and France, there was still an irresponsible tendency in the Red Army to imagine that ‘it couldn’t happen here’. At least not along a vast front.”

Page 136: “No less serious than this psychological unpreparedness for an all-out war against Nazi Germany was the military unpreparedness of the Red Army both as regards the actual training of the men and the quantity and especially the quality of their equipment.”

Page 138: “Another very serious weakness of the Red Army was the absence of a large-scale automobile industry in the Soviet Union: in June 1941 the Soviet Union had a total of only 800,000 motor vehicles, and a large proportion of guns had to be drawn either by horses or by wholly inadequate farm tractors.”

“Very few officers or soldiers in 1941 had had any direct experience of war, and many of them were novices who had only lately been trained as ‘replacements’ for the thousands of officers who had been purged back in 1937 and 1938.”

Page 140: “No doubt the Soviet Government took a few belated precautions in May 1941; but the troops that were moved nearer the frontier ‘were neither fully mobilized nor at full strength, and they lacked the necessary transport.”

“’The whole defense of the State frontier was based on the assumption that a surprise attack by Germany was out of the question, and that a powerful German offensive would be preceded by a declaration of war, or by small-scale military operations, after which the Soviet troops could take up their defensive positions. . . No operational or tactical army groups had been formed to repel a surprise attack’.”

“. . . in the main invasion areas the Germans had a clear four or five-to-one superiority over the Russians; but, in addition to this numerical superiority, they also enjoyed great qualitative superiority, many of the Soviet soldiers in the frontier areas being fresh conscripts – youngsters without any knowledge or experience.”

Page 142: “. . . neither the General Staff, nor the Commissariat of Defence would have shown such incompetence ‘if there had not been those wholly unjustified repressions against the leading officers and political cadres of the Army in the 1937-8 Purge’.

“This reference to Tukhachevsky and the other victims of the Purge is, of course, a monumental understatement when one considers that perhaps as many as 15,000 officers—probably about ten or fifteen percent of the total, but with a higher proportion of purgees in the higher ranks – were either temporarily, or finally eliminated. Among those temporarily eliminated were such distinguished soldiers as the future Marshals Govorov and Rokossovsky.


Stalin and the Soviets had their own unique paranoid way of doing things, but there is much here that is comparable to the American situation. Americans were not prepared for the Germans either, and they didn’t know it. When they first arrived in Britain they wanted to invade France immediately. Churchill and the British military staff thought that would be a disaster. The British knew they weren’t up to it and they feared that the American forces were even less qualified. Hence the relatively timid steps in North Africa and Italy; where the Americans gained the fighting experience that would qualify them to be successful on D Day.

While Americans hadn’t purged any officers, it didn’t have a good way of knowing that the officers initially used in North Africa and Italy were not the best officers for those tasks. A lot of trial and error was engaged in, and perhaps this is always the case. Before page 176 of Davies No Simple Victory, are the photos of four generals and the note “None of the generals who had established top reputations by the end of the war had been prominent in the early stages.” The photos are of Georgiv Zhukov, Konstanty Rokossovskiy, George Patton and Walter Model.

But if the surprise isn’t totally successful, and Hitler’s wasn’t, in time the opposition may become just as good. Then things are different. Eventually, the Red Army got as good if not better than the Wehrmacht, and the Americans got very good as well, especially under Patton.

Does any of this have application for the future? While it would be paranoid to be prepared at all times to fight a new Wehrmacht, it wouldn’t be paranoid to prepare to fight real dangers. The American war planners had throughout the Cold War prepared for massive wars against either China or the USSR, but it would be silly for them to keep such plans up to date now. Neither China nor Russia represent the sort of danger we believed them to be during the Cold War. Instead we, and perhaps the Russians as well, face the asymmetric challenge of the Islamists. They don’t need tanks and planes. They have Allah on their side; so they make do with IEDs and suicide bombers and terror attacks and cleverly planned ambushes. How do you “war plan” against that? Can any of us do any better than improve our tactics? We can improve our equipment against IEDs and learn how to identify a suicide bomber and develop rapid response teams to respond to terror attacks but these are all tactics. Is there a strategy?

At the philosophical and religious level there is a strategy that could be very helpful if not absolutely effective. There are good Islamic arguments against the Islamist teachings of Sayyid Qutb, Ruhollah Khomeini and their followers. Traditional Islamic scholars describe the Qutb/Khomeini Islamist teachings as heretical, but they have not yet stood up to these teachings in Sunni and Shiite nations. They have not spoken out. The “Traditional” Muslim we hear so much about is a very quiet fellow. The Islamic Traditionalists need to develop the courage to stand up against the Islamists. Until they do, we in non-Islamic countries will do our best to fend off the terror attacks they send us through their cowardice by means of the heretical Islamists.

No comments: