CHAPTER 12 – Why Did Stalin Need Ten Airborne Assault Corps? 107
In the battles to come, we shall operate on the territory of the enemy. That is prescribed by our rules. We are military people, and we live according to these rules. COLONEL A. I. RODIMTSEV (from his speech at the i8th Congress of the Party, 1939)
Airborne assault troops are intended for attack. Countries concerned only with their defence did not need them. Before World War II, there were two exceptions. Hitler was getting ready for aggressive wars, and in 1936 he created his airborne assault troops. By the time that World War II began, the parachutists among these troops numbered 4,000. Stalin was the other exception. He established his airborne assault troops in 1930. By the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union had more than one million trained paratroopers – 200 times more than all other countries in the world put together, including Germany.
The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to create airborne assault troops. When Hitler came to power, Stalin already had several airborne assault brigades. A parachute psychosis was already raging in the Soviet Union. The older generation can remember the time when no municipal park could get by without a parachute tower, and the parachutist’s brevet became an indispensable symbol of macho masculinity for every young man. It was not at all easy to obtain such a brevet; they were only given to those who had made real parachute jumps from an aircraft, and the only persons who were allowed to make such jumps were those who had previously passed tests in running, swimming, shooting, grenade-throwing (both long-distance and precision), in surmounting obstacles, in the use of anti-chemical defensive resources and in many other skills indispensable in war.
Parachute-jumping was in effect the concluding stage of the individual training given to future soldiers of the airborne infantry. In order to appreciate the seriousness of Stalin’s intentions, it must not be forgotten that the parachute psychosis reigned in the Soviet Union at the same time as did the terrible famine. Throughout the country, the bellies of children were swollen with hunger, but Comrade Stalin was selling grain abroad in order to buy parachute technology, to build great silk-producing complexes and parachute factories, to cover the country with a network of airfields and aero clubs, to put up parachute towers in every municipal park, to train thousands of instructors, to build drying rooms and storage depots for parachutes, to train one million wellfed parachutists and to buy the arms, equipment and parachutes they needed.
Parachutists are not needed in a defensive war. To use a parachutist as ordinary infantry in defensive warfare would be a ridiculous waste of resources. Sub-units of paratroopers do not have to carry the same heavy weaponry as the ordinary infantry do, and therefore their stability in defensive battle is considerably lower. The cost of training of one million Soviet parachutists was dear, and Stalin paid for the training of these parachutists and for their parachutes with the lives of Soviet children in great numbers. For what purpose were these parachutists trained?
Certainly not to protect these children who were dying of hunger. People in our village in the Ukraine still remember the young woman who killed her own daughter and devoured her body. Everyone remembers it because she killed her own daughter. They do not remember those who killed the daughters of others. In my village people ate belts and boots. They ate acorns in the bedraggled wood nearby. The reason for all this was that Comrade Stalin was preparing for war. He was preparing as no one had ever before prepared. True, all these preparations turned out to be unnecessary when the defensive war came.
Airborne assault troops are not necessary in a defensive war. There is no point in throwing them into the rear of the enemy in such a conflict; it is much simpler to leave partisan detachments behind in the forests as you withdraw. It could be argued that these million Stalinist parachutists were simply material from which combat subunits- battalions, regiments, brigades – would be established. Sub-units had to be set up and given intensive training. In the 1930s, the western regions of the country were repeatedly shaken by very large-scale manoeuvres.
These manoeuvres had only one theme. That was the operation in depth, a surprise attack launched by a vast number of massed tanks striking to a great depth. The scenario was always simple, but formidable. In the course of each exercise, the surprise attack by the land troops would be preceded by a no less unexpected and no less crushing strike by the Soviet Air Force against ‘enemy’ airfields. This would be followed by a parachute assault landing with the purpose of capturing the airfields. This first wave of parachutists would be followed by a second wave of paratroopers carrying heavy weapons, who would land by plane and then disembark on the captured airfields.
In the course of the manoeuvres held in Kiev in 1935, a parachute assault force of 1,200 men was dropped, immediately followed by an air-landed assault force of 2,500 men armed with heavy weaponry including artillery, armoured cars and tanks. In Byelorussia in 1936, in the course of practising the same offensive theme, a parachute assault force of 1,800 men was dropped. They were followed by an air-landed assault force of 5,700 men armed with heavy weaponry. In the same year, the full complement of the 84th Rifle Division made an air-landed assault in the course of offensive manoeuvres in the Moscow Military Division.
In 1938, as he could see the ‘liberation campaigns’ coming, Stalin established a further six airborne brigades with a strength of 18,000 parachutists. In 1939, Stalin abolished the partisan bases and formations which had been intended to operate on their own territory, and established new assault landing sub-units, regiments and detached battalions. In the Moscow Military District, for example, three regiments, each made up of three battalions, were set up along with several detached battalions, each one with a strength of between 500 and 700 men. (Ordena Lenina Moskovsky Voennyi Oknig, Moscow 1985, P. 177)
Soviet assault landing brigades made their first parachute landings in combat conditions in June 1940. The 201st and 204th Brigades landed in Romania, and the 214th in Lithuania, near its frontier with East Prussia. Both assault landings seriously worried Hitler, especially the landing in Romania. The entire German Army was concentrated in France at the time, and Romania was the source of its oil supplies. Had Soviet transport aircraft gone 200 kilometres further before discharging their loads, Germany would have been left without oil the very life-blood of war.
In 1940, Stalin crushed all the neutral countries dividing the Soviet Union from Germany, so that the two powers now shared a common frontier. Stalin ought then, it would seem, to have reduced his airborne units; all that lay to the west was Germany and its allies, with whom the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact. But Stalin did not disband his airborne units. On the contrary, in April 1941 five airborne corps were secretly deployed in the Soviet Union. All five were set up in the western regions of the country.
In order to appreciate the magnitude of this development, it must be remembered that even today there is not one formation in existence any where which has the full right to bear the title of airborne corps. A corps is too large and too expensive to maintain in peacetime. In addition to the usual assault landing infantry, the airborne corps had fairly powerful artillery and even battalions of light amphibious tanks. All the corps were given intensive training for airborne assault warfare.
They were concentrated in woods far from the gaze of outsiders. They were all established sufficiently close to the frontier for them to be dropped on target countries without further redeployment to more forward bases. The 4th and 5th Corps were aimed at Germany, the 3rd at Romania, and the ist and 2nd at both Czechoslovakia and Austria. One of their missions was to cut the oil pipe-lines in the mountainous areas through which they passed on their way from Romania to Germany. The Directorate of Airborne Troops was set up in the Red Army on 12 June 1941, folio wed by another five new airborne corps in August. This second series of airborne corps was not intended as a response to the German invasion, for it is quite impossible to use paratroopers in such massive numbers in a defensive war.
Of all the corps of the second series, not one fought in the war in its proper function. Of all the corps in the first series, only one corps was used as intended and on only one occasion, in the course of a counteroffensive in front of Moscow. A third series of airborne corps came later, and one of these corps made an air assault landing in 1943. The five corps of the second series are a good example of the Red Army developing through inertia. The decision to establish these corps was taken before the German invasion, and was never countermanded. In any event, assault landing in 1943.
The five corps of the second series are a good example of the Red Army developing through inertia. The decision to establish these corps was taken before the German invasion, and was never countermanded. In any event, the parachutes, the weaponry and even the paratroopers in the airborne corps of the second series were all prepared before the German invasion. Apart from the airborne corps, brigades and regiments, there were also a great number of airborne battalions in the ordinary Soviet infantry. Marshal Bagramyan states that in early June 1941, in the 55th Rifle Corps which was then deployed on the Romanian frontier, intensive training was being given to parachute assault landing battalions.
Judging from Bagramyan’s description, as well as from other sources, it seems that the 55th Rifle Corps (there were in all 62 rifle corps in the Red Army) was more the rule than the exception. Apart from purely parachute sub-units, some ordinary rifle divisions were trained to make air-landed assaults in the rear of the enemy. On 21 June 1941, for example, a specially trained division mounted an airlanded assault in the rear of the ‘enemy’ in the course of exercises being held in the Siberian Military District. Until then, all Soviet experiments in airborne assault landings were carried out in the western regions of the country. So why should such experiments suddenly be taking place in Siberia? Because at that point in time all the troops in the Siberian Military District had already been secretly combined into the 24th Army which was about to turn up on the German frontier.
The 24th Army was carrying out its final exercises before boarding the westbound trains. No comment is called for on the objectives at which this training was directed. No country in history, or indeed all countries in the world put together, including the Soviet Union, has ever had so many paratroopers and air assault landing sub-units as Stalin had in 1941. If one counts up all the airborne troops in the world, including the Soviet airborne troops in existence at the end of the twentieth century, the total comes to only thirteen divisions, of which eight are Soviet. The reasons which impelled Stalin to establish airborne troops in such numbers, and especially the furious pace at which these extremely powerful airborne corps were set up in 1941, have still to be studied and explained.
While gathering material on Soviet airborne troops, I turned my attention to an interesting detail. Each Soviet commander with the rank of colonel or major-general who at that time either belonged to the airborne forces or was preparing to join them, had sergeants and soldiers of German extraction in his immediate entourage. One commander had a German working for him as his personal driver. Another had a German batman, while a third had a German orderly. Each of these Soviet commanders speaks of it as though it were an amusing detail of no importance.
They say, of course, that the Germans began the war, and here am I with a driver who is a German. But he is a good lad, of course, disciplined and devoted. Colonel K. Stein, who commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Airborne Corps had a soldier of German origin as his batman. Colonel A. Rodimtsev, the commander of the 5th Brigade of the 3rd Airborne Corps had a German driver. This, incidentally, is the same Rodimtsev who proclaimed at the Party Congress that the Red Army would fight only on enemy territory. I happened to hear Rodimtsev make a speech when he had become a colonel-general. He was very eloquent. He said that in 1942 his guardsmen were holding the very last houses right on the Volga in Stalingrad.
His brigade, like everyone else, had to be re-cast into ordinary rifle divisions, and so they had had their parachutes taken from them. They were given defensive weapons instead, and they acquitted themselves not at all badly in the fighting. But in 1941 neither Rodimtsev nor his subordinates had any thought for defence. They had no defensive weaponry, nor had they studied defensive tactics. But they had studied offensive tactics, and they did have parachutes. At the beginning of 1941, Stalin needed paratroopers, more paratroopers and still more paratroopers. Many Soviet generals and senior officers hastened to change the branches in which they were serving. A particularly high number of commanders got ready to leave the cavalry, which had outlived its time, in order to become paratroopers, including Rodimtsev himself.
To do this, an ability to speak German was essential. Cavalry general Lev Dovator’s widow, writing in the newspaper Red Star, recalled the beginning of 1941: ‘There was one German in our regiment. So Lev Mikhailovich brought him home pretty well every day. They practised, you see, in conversation. And by the time the war started, he could already speak German fluently.’ (Red Star, 17 February 1983)
The Red Army’s links with the German communists were close and long-standing. When he came to the Soviet Union, Ernst Telmann himself was in no way shy about appearing in Soviet military uniform. Walter Ulbricht was enrolled as a soldier in the 4th German Proletariat Rifle Division. That was done for effect, but there were other less obvious things going on. As early as 1918, the Special School for German Red
Commanders was set up in the Soviet Union. It was run by Oscar Obert, a German communist. The school changed its name more than once, first becoming secret, then overt, then secret again. The school turned out quite a few combat commanders of German nationality.
Some of the graduates from the school attained the rank of general in the Red Army. At the beginning of 1941, many graduates of this and other similar schools aspired to march under the combat banners of the Soviet airborne corps. A study of publications on the Soviet airborne corps which were formed in 1941 leads us to the conclusion that the number of officers, NCOs and soldiers bearing clearly German surnames was, not to put too fine a point on it, higher than normal.
CHAPTER 13 – The Winged Tank 115