CHAPTER 14 – On to Berlin 121
Of all the aggressive armies which have ever existed in the past, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army will be the most aggressive (Field Service Regulations of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, 1939, p. 9)
Among the many defensive systems which the Soviet Union possessed was the Dnieper Naval Flotilla. The great Dnieper river bars the road for any aggressor bent on moving into the heart of Soviet territory from the west. All the bridges across the Dnieper were mined before 1939, and they could have been blown up in such a way that nothing could have been done to repair them. In all their previous campaigns, German troops had never before had to ford a water barrier as formidable as the Dnieper. In a defensive war, the German thrusts could have been brought to a complete halt, at least in the middle and lower reaches of the river, simply by pressing a few buttons.
It was in order to prevent the fording of the river and the placing of temporary crossings over it that the Dnieper Naval Flotilla was set up in the 1930s. By the beginning of the Second World War, the Flotilla consisted of 120 naval vessels and launches, including eight powerful monitors, each with a displacement of 2,000 tons, armour in excess of loomm, and I52mm cannons. The Dnieper Flotilla also had its own air arm, as well as shore and anti-aircraft batteries. The left bank of the Dnieper is eminently suitable for action by naval river vessels. A multitude of islands, channels, backwaters and inlets enable even the largest naval vessels to take cover and launch surprise attacks to forestall any attempt to ford the river.
The formidable barrier formed by the Dnieper, the bridges ready to be detonated, and the river Flotilla working in cooperation with the field troops, artillery and air force, could have safely barred the way to the industrial regions of the southern Ukraine and the Soviet bases on the Black Sea. The German Blitzkrieg could have been stopped on the river-banks, or at least held up there for several months. Had that happened, the war would have taken an entirely different course. But as soon as Hitler turned his back on him, Stalin ordered that the mines be cleared from the Dnieper bridges, and that the Flotilla be disbanded.
The Dnieper Flotilla could be used only on Soviet territory, and only in a defensive war. Since Stalin was not anticipating a defensive war, he had no need for the Flotilla. Instead of one defensive flotilla, Stalin then created two new ones, the Danube Flotilla and the Pinsk Flotilla. The Soviet Danube Flotilla was formed before the Soviet Union acquired an outlet to the Danube. In the course of Zhukov’s ‘liberation campaign’ in the Romanian frontier regions, Stalin took Bukovina and Bessarabia from Romania. Right at the mouth of the Danube, a sector of the eastern bank of the river, some dozens of kilometres long, passed into the possession of the Soviet Union.
The Danube Flotilla, which had already been set up in expectation of this event, was moved there immediately. To transfer ships there from the Dnieper was no easy matter. A few vessels were transported across by rail, while the larger ones were brought through the Black Sea when the weather was calm. The Danube Naval Flotilla included about 70 naval river vessels and launches, sub-units of the fighter air
force, and anti-aircraft and shore artillery. The conditions where the base had to be built were frightful. The Soviet bank of the Danube Delta was barren and exposed.
The vessels had to moor at open berths, with Romanian troops sometimes only 300 metres away. In the event of a defensive war, the entire Danube Flotilla would have fallen into a trap the moment hostilities began. The enemy could simply rake the Soviet vessels with machine-gun fire, preventing them from raising anchor and casting off. In a defensive war, moreover, the Danube Naval Flotilla would have had
no useful function. Given its location, there were simply no defensive tasks for it to fulfil. The Danube Delta consists of hundreds of lakes, impassable swamps and hundreds of square kilometres of reed marshes. It is the last place through which an enemy would choose to attack the Soviet Union.
There was only one way to explain the siting of the Danube Flotilla; its purpose was to carry out combat operations upstream while Red Army troops were making a general advance. If you gather 70 river vessels in the delta of a great river, they have nowhere to go except upstream. This meant that they would have to operate on the territory of Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany. The Danube Flotilla was of no use to anyone in a defensive war, and it was condemned to be destroyed immediately in its open moorings on a bank raked by enemy gunfire.
In an offensive war, however, the Danube Flotilla would be a mortal danger to Germany. It only had to move 130 kilometres upstream for the strategic bridge at Chernavada to come under fire from its guns. That in its turn would mean that the flow of oil from Ploesti to the port of Constanza would be cut off. Another 200 kilometres upstream and the entire German war machine would come to a halt simply because German tanks, aircraft and submarines would have been left without fuel.
It is interesting that the Danube Naval Flotilla had several mobile shore batteries, equipped with I3omm and I52mm cannons. If the Soviet High Command had really concluded that someone would attack the Soviet Union through the Danube Delta, then it ought to have had the shore batteries dig in immediately, and build reinforced concrete caponiers for them at the first opportunity. Yet no one built any caponiers; the guns were mobile and remained mobile. There was only one way to make use of their mobility, and only one direction in which they could be moved. In offensive operations, mobile batteries accompany a flotilla, moving along the bank and giving fire support to the combat vessels.
The reaction of the commanders of the Danube Naval Flotilla to the beginning of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany was interesting. To the Soviet commanders, the word ‘war’ did not mean defence, but advance. As soon as they learnt that the war had begun, the Soviet commanders put the finishing touches to their preparations to launch an assault landing operation. The action to be taken by the Soviet Flotilla commanders, and also by the commanders of the I4th Rifle Corps, whose divisions were concentrated in the Danube Delta area, and by the commanders of the 79th Frontier Detachment of the NKVD, had been previously planned and worked out with great care.
On 25 June 1941, the Danube Flotilla vessels, under cover of fire from the shore batteries and artillery of the I4th Rifle Corps, landed reconnaissance and sabotage sub-units of the NKVD on the Romanian bank. Regiments of the 5ist Rifle Division of the i4th Rifle Corps were next to be landed. Members of the Soviet assault landing force acted swiftly and decisively. A complex operation involving river vessels, aircraft, field, shore and shipborne artillery, and sub-units of the Red Army and the NKVD had been successfully executed with clockwork precision.
Everything had been prepared, coordinated, agreed and checked many times over. On the morning of 26 June 1941, the red flag was hoisted over the cathedral in the Romanian town of Kilia. A powerful springboard on Romanian territory 70 kilometres long had fallen into the hands of Soviet troops. The Danube Flotilla prepared for further offensive action higher up the river. It only had to sail another 130 kilometres upstream to cut the oil supplies. In the absence of any resistance, and there was hardly any of that, it could have taken no more than one night to get there. The 3rd Airborne Corps, stationed in the Odessa region, could be dropped to help the Flotilla.
The Danube Flotilla was perfectly capable of moving a few dozen kilometres upstream. It proved this later. Formed a second time in 1944, though without aircraft or heavy monitors, the Danube Naval Flotilla fought its way 2,000 kilometres up the Danube and ended the war in Vienna. In 1941 the Danube Flotilla had considerably more strength and was faced by considerably less resistance from the enemy than was the case in 1944- Both Hitler and Stalin fully understood the meaning of the expression ‘oil is the life-blood of war’.
Colonel-General Alfred Jodl quotes Hitler, in an argument with Guderian, as saying ‘You want to advance without oil — all right, we shall see what will come of it.’ As early as 1927, Stalin was seriously occupying himself with matters related to the approaching World War. For Stalin, the central strategic issue was oil. On 3 December of that year, he declared that ‘It is impossible to wage war without oil, and the side which has an advantage in oil has a good chance of victory in the coming war.’
The importance of the oil supply must be borne in mind when trying to decide who was responsible for beginning the war between the Soviet Union and Germany.
In June 1940, when no one was threatening the Soviet Union, dozens of Soviet combat river vessels appeared in the Danube Delta. This step was of no defensive significance. It was, however, a threat to the Romanian oil pipelines, which were totally unprotected. It was also to become a mortal threat to the whole of Germany. In July 1940, Hitler held detailed consultations with his generals, and reached the depressing conclusion that it would be no simple matter to defend Romania. If Germany attempted to do so, the supply-lines would be overstretched and would have to pass through mountainous areas. If a large number of troops were to be thrown into the defence of Romania, then western Poland and eastern Germany, along with Berlin itself, would be open to a Soviet attack.
Nor would it help to concentrate a great number of troops in Romania and support her at any price; the oilfields could be destroyed by the fires which would break out if Romania became an arena for fighting. In July 1940 Hitler first expressed the thought that the Soviet Union could be dangerous, especially if German troops were to leave the Continent for the British Isles or for Africa. In a conversation with Molotov on 12 November 1940, Hitler explained that it was essential to keep many German troops in Romania, clearly alluding, for Molotov’s benefit, to the Soviet military threat to Romanian oil. Molotov let the allusion pass over his head. That is why Hitler, having thought everything over after Molotov had departed, gave the order in December that Operation Barbarossa should go ahead.
In June 1940, while the German Army was fighting in France, Zhukov, acting on Stalin’s orders and without any prior consultations with their German allies, occupied Bessarabia, which was then a part of Romania, and introduced river vessels into the Danube Delta. Were Hitler to take one more step westwards towards Britain, where was the guarantee that Zhukov, again acting on Stalin’s orders, would not make another move, of just another 100 kilometres, to deal a fatal blow to the Romanian oilfields?
Hitler asked the head of the Soviet government to remove the Soviet threat to what, in terms of oil, was in effect the heart of Germany. Stalin and Molotov did not remove the threat, thus provoking Hitler to take reciprocal action. B. H. Liddell-Hart, the British military historian who has made a detailed study of this subject, has established that the German plan in June 1940 was very simple. In order to defend Romania from Soviet aggression, a German attack had to be delivered in some other place, in order to draw the Red Army’s attention away from the oilfields.
In the course of sorting out the options, it was recognized that the blow would have to be both powerful and sudden. The numbers of troops earmarked for such an attack gradually grew, until finally, and this was not recognized at the time, practically all German land forces and a large part of the German Air Force were down to take part in it. Hitler’s calculation was justified. By striking elsewhere, Hitler compelled the Soviet troops to be withdrawn all along the front.
The Danube Naval Flotilla was cut off from its troops with no way to escape. Most of its vessels had to be scuttled, while enormous quantities of stores, which had been intended to supply the Flotilla as it moved upstream in the Danube, were simply thrown away. Hitler’s attack was powerful, but not fatal. Macchiavelli observed that a powerful attack which is not fatal entails the death of its deliverer. Stalin recovered from the surprise blow, although he did so with difficulty. He formed new armies and flotillas to take the place of those which had been lost in the early days of the war, and he cut Germany’s oil jugular, admittedly several years later than planned.
The reason for Stalin’s seizure of Bessarabia in June 1940 is explained in a telegram dated 7 July 1941, which Stalin sent to General of the Army I. Tyulenev, the commander of the Southern Front. Stalin demanded that Bessarabia should be held at all costs, ‘in view of the fact that we need Bessarabian territory as a springboard for attack to organize an offensive’. Although Hitler had launched his surprise attack, Stalin was still not thinking about defence. His chief concern was organizing an advance from Bessarabia. An advance from Bessarabia, however, was an advance on the Romanian oilfields.
Stalin made few mistakes in his career. One of the few, but his most important one, was to seize Bessarabia in 1940. He should either have seized Bessarabia and then moved immediately on Ploesti; or else he should have waited until Hitler had landed in Britain, and then seized Bessarabia and the whole of Romania. Either course of action would have marked the end of the ‘thousand-year Reich’. Stalin had already taken one step in the direction of the oil, and had captured a springboard for a future offensive. He then stopped to bide his time.
By doing this, he revealed his interest in Romanian oil and scared Hitler, who until that moment had been waging war in the west, south, and north, without turning any of his attention to the ‘neutral’ Stalin. The Soviet seizure of Bessarabia and the concentration there of powerful aggressive forces, including an airborne assault corps and the Danube Flotilla, compelled Hitler to look at the strategic situation from an altogether different viewpoint and to take the appropriate preventive measures. But it was already too late.
Even the Wehrmacht’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union could no longer save Hitler and his empire. Hitler understood where the greatest danger was coming from, but it was already too late. He should have thought about it before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. In Marshal Zhukov’s memoirs there is a map showing the location of Soviet naval bases in the first six months of 1941. Among these bases is one near the town of Pinsk in Byelorussia, no less than 500 kilometres from the nearest sea. A naval base in the marshes of Byelorussia is reminiscent of the old Russian childhood joke about a submarine in the steppes of the Ukraine. But there was nothing very funny about this.
After the Dnieper Naval Flotilla had been disbanded, some of its vessels were transferred to the Danube Delta, while others were taken upstream to a tributary of the Dnieper, the river Pripyat’. Far upstream, at a point where the river narrowed to a width of 50 metres, a base was built for the new flotilla. The Pinsk Naval Flotilla was hardly inferior in strength to the Danube Flotilla. It had no fewer than four large monitors, and some two dozen other vessels, an air squadron, companies of marines and other subunits. The Pinsk Naval Flotilla could not be used in defensive action.
The monitors which had gone there could not even be turned round. If the vessels were needed for defence, they would simply have to return to the Dnieper, for there was absolutely nothing for them to do on the quiet forest river Pripyat’, for the enemy could hardly make his way into these impenetrable woods and swampy marshes. The purpose of the Pinsk Naval Flotilla would have remained incomprehensible were it not for the Dnieper-Bug Canal. Immediately after western Byelorussia was ‘liberated’, the Red Army began to dig a canal 127 kilometres long from the town of Pinsk to Kobrin.
Its construction went on in summer and in winter. Taking part in the building work were sappers belonging to units of the 4th Army, and ‘construction organizations of the NKVD’, that is, thousands of GULAG prisoners. The fact that Colonel (subsequently Marshal) of Engineering Troops Aleksei Proshlyakov was in charge of the building of the canal indicates that its purpose was purely military. The conditions under which the canal was built were appalling.
The equipment sank into the swamps, which left only one way to complete the canal within the time laid down by Stalin. That was to do everything by hand. The canal was built. How much it cost in human lives, scarcely anyone knows. But who “was counting?
The canal linked the Dnieper river basin with the basin of the river Bug. Why? To trade with Germany? But trade went through the Baltic and by rail. It was not possible for cargo ships of any commercial freightcarrying capacity to pass each other in the canal. The journey would be a long one; from the Dnieper to the Pripyat’, from the Pripyat’ through the canal to Mukhavets, and from there to the Bug (which at that time carried no commercial shipping), and then from the Bug finally to emerge on the Vistula. No, the canal was manifestly not built for trade; its purpose was purely military.
Nor could this military purpose have been the defence of the Bug. The Soviet Union possesses only one small stretch of the Bug near Brest-Litovsk, where the river makes a sharp turn towards Warsaw. No defensive preparations were being made in these regions. Even the Brest-Litovsk fortress was to have no more than one battalion in the event of war, and that was not for defence, but for garrison duties.
The only purpose of the canal was to let ships pass through to the Vistula basin and thence further westwards.
Once the Soviet Union found itself in a defensive war, it had to be blown up to prevent German river vessels from the Vistula from reaching the basin of the Dnieper. All the vessels of the Pinsk Flotilla were blown up as well. A flotilla was again formed on the Dnieper at the end of 1943. Once again it sailed up the Pripyat’, and once again the Soviet sappers built a canal from the Pripyat’ to the minor river Mukhavets, which led to the Bug.
Admiral V. Grigor’ev, who took over the new flotilla near Kiev in 1943, recalls a conversation with Marshal Zhukov: ‘By following the Pripyat’ you will reach the western Bug, the Narev and the Vistula leading to Warsaw, and further on to cross into the rivers of Germany, perhaps leading, who knows, even to Berlin itself!’ He turned round sharply, looked at me searchingly, and repeated, stressing every word ‘To Berlin itself, yes?’ (VIZH, No. 7, 1984, p. 68)
Admiral Grigor’ev eventually got to Berlin with his flotilla. In The Marine Infantry in the Forests of Byelorussia any book on the history of the Soviet Navy, we shall find the symbolic snapshot showing the flag of the Soviet Navy with the Reichstag in the background. The way things turned out, Stalin arrived in Berlin through responding to Hitler’s attack. But this happened in a way which Stalin did not foresee. Had he believed in the possibility of a German attack, he would have put millions of GULAG prisoners to work on digging anti-tank ditches along the frontier.
However, Stalin intended to get to Berlin, not in response to an attack, but on his own initiative. That is why the GULAG prisoners and the Red Army sappers were not digging anti-tank ditches, but filling them in and building a canal from east to west. Let us not forget these GULAG prisoners whom Stalin destroyed in the quagmire of the swamps in 1940, so that the communist flag could one day fly over the capital of the Third Reich.
CHAPTER 15 – The Marine Infantry in the Forests of Byelorussia 131