CHAPTER 17 – Mountain Divisions on the Steppes of the Ukraine 151
Airborne assault landings will be effective in mountainous battle areas. Since troops, headquarters and organs which operate in the rear are particularly reliant on roads, it is possible to use air assaults to capture enemy troops operating in the rear, to attack his communications and roads, commanding heights, ravines, passes, railway junctions and so on, and this can produce exceptionally important results. In general terms, the dropping of an assault landing force will hardly be expedient outside the framework of an operation. (Voennyi Vestnik, 1940, No. 4, pp. 76-77)
A study of the Soviet armies in the First Strategic Echelon reveals a surprising picture of the Soviet Union preparing itself painstakingly and tirelessly for war. We may be surprised to discover that each army had its own unique structure, its own peculiarities, and its own character. Each ‘cover’ army was established to deal with a clearly defined task in the forthcoming war of ‘liberation’.
Sufficient material has been published to provide for a separate study to be written on each of the 30 Soviet armies. If a study in depth were to be made of the structure, disposition, officer corps and the direction given to the training in only one Soviet army, and it does not really matter which one, then the aggressive tendency inherent in all the Soviet preparations would become quite obvious. As there is no space available to describe all 30 armies, I shall allow myself to dwell briefly upon one of them. Officially it was called the 12th Army.
It had one mechanized and two rifle corps and other units. It had nine divisions in all including two tank and one motorized. It was indistinguishable in number, name and composition from other similar invasion armies. Its history is the usual one. It was set up when the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact was signed. A few weeks after it was formed, it set to work, and ‘liberated’ Poland. It then had a tank corps, two detached tank brigades, two cavalry corps, and three rifle divisions. It was not without purpose that it had little artillery and infantry. There was no need here to break through a powerful defence. But on the other hand there were mobile troops. ‘The I2th Army . . . is in essence a front-line mobile group.’ (SVE, Vol. 8, p. 181)
Its subsequent history was also normal. It completed the ‘liberation’ campaign in Poland, but then for some reason or other the army was not disbanded, and it stayed on the German border. For what purpose? It is said that Stalin was naive and believed Hitler. Why then did he not disband his armies, which had been set up for the event of war? Later the 12th Army underwent the same transformation as all the adjacent invasion armies. Its main strike engine was no longer called a tank corps, but a mechanized corps. This was so that the leaders of neighbouring friendly countries should not become uneasy. The change of name, it is true, was followed by an increase rather than a decrease in the number of tanks in the army. The cavalry was taken away from it.
Its capacity for disrupting the enemy’s defences was increased. The number of rifle divisions was doubled, as was the amount of artillery in each division. In addition to these, one artillery brigade and four detached artillery regiments were added to the army’s complement. The capability to counter the enemy’s engineered defences also increased when a detached regiment of engineers was brought into the army. What was unusual about the I2th Army was its national composition. When he was preparing to invade Poland in 1939, Stalin filled the I2th Army with Ukrainians, apparently bearing in mind the long-standing animosity between the Poles and the Ukrainians. The army was headed by S. K. Timoshenko, and we find a multitude of commanders of Ukrainian origin alongside him.
The army was formed in the Ukraine. It follows that the reservists were also drawn from there, and they formed a solid majority in the I2th Army. After Poland had been ‘liberated’, a slow and almost imperceptible change in the I2th Army’s national composition began. Far-reaching changes had already taken place in 1940. In order that this army’s unusual national composition did not become too apparent, ethnic Russians were appointed to key posts.
The greater part of the army, however, was neither Ukrainian nor Russian. It had become Caucasian. There were Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis in other armies, but their presence was particularly strong in the I2th. There were hundreds of officers’ surnames like Partsvaniya, Grigoryan, Kabalava, Gusein-zade and Sarkoshyan. Such officers were not only to be found at command level in companies and battalions. General Zhukov, who commanded the Military District, sought out Colonel I. Kh. Bagramyan, another Armenian who was a friend of long standing, from his job as a military academy lecturer, and appointed him Chief of the Operations Branch (War Planning), not of any old headquarters, but to none other than the headquarters of the I2th Army.
Not only the colonels, but quite a few generals, such as Bagrat Arashunyan, the army’s chief of staff, now came from the Caucasus. Zhukov was a frequent visitor to the I2th Army, and it was not without purpose that he was gathering natives of the Caucasus into its ranks. The I2th was being secretly but steadily changed into a mountain army. Zhukov personally demanded of its command that the I2th should have a thorough knowledge of the Carpathian passes, notjust on paper, but from practical experience.
In 1940, he ordered that ‘specially reinforced groups, made up of various combat vehicles and means of transport, should be sent through the passes in autumn along all more or less passable routes, in order to be convinced they could be surmounted in practical conditions by tanks, motor vehicles, tractors, animal-drawn transport and beasts of burden.’ (Marshal I. Kh. Bagramyan, VIZH 1967, No. I, p. 54)
Hitler was waging war in France, with Germany’s back exposed to the Soviet Union. Yet here was Zhukov carrying out experiments in how to master mountain passes. Zhukov was, of course, unaware that the German generals had only recently been carrying out exactly the same experiments in order to reassure themselves that troops, tanks, artillery tractors and transport could pass through the Ardennes. But it was not defence that Zhukov had in mind when preparing the I2th Army.
Bagramyan, who was responsible for the war plans, recalled that ‘When I was studying the operational plans, I was struck by the following fact – our frontier army had neither a deployment nor cover plan for the frontier.’ (VIZH, 1967, No. I, p. 52) ‘When I was studying the operational plans’ means that the safe of the operations branch of the I2th Army was not empty. There were plans inside it. They were not there simply to be familiarized with in a cursory manner.
They were complex documents which had to be studied. Yet among these war plans there were none for defence. There is an interesting description of the I2th Army exercises, which Zhukov attended in person. The problems were all offensive in character, and on the maps the war took place on German territory. The war game was being played against the real enemy, and not some fictitious one, using real top-secret intelligence information; and it began with Soviet troops fording the frontier river San.
Differences arose between Zhukov and Parusinov, the officer commanding the army. These were not as to whether to advance or to stand and put up a defence. ‘We must do our best,’ insisted Parusinov, ‘to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy with our first strike.’ The wise Zhukov understood that these were good intentions, but a strike had to be made, not on a wide front, but on a very narrow one. That was what the argument was about. Having demolished the army’s commanding officer in military theory, Zhukov did not stop there. Parusinov was shortly afterwards removed from the command of the army, and his place was taken by Zhukov’s old friend, General P. G. Ponedelin.
After these changes, the experiments in how to master the mountain passes continued. They were conducted by Bagramyan in person. It was during these experiments that he supervised an ‘obvious display of defensive works’; in other words, the construction, in clear view of the enemy, of reinforced concrete fortifications right on the bank of the frontier river. Zhukov’s interest in the passes is highly significant. If his purpose had been to render them impassable to the enemy, he would have thrown his troops into the mountains, dug up all mountain paths and roads, and built reinforced concrete fortifications near the passes, instead of right alongside the river.
It would have been more economical, the enemy would not have observed the construction work, and would have been unable to cross the passes. But would anyone really attack the Soviet Union across mountain ranges when there were open spaces in abundance? Mountains were of exceptional importance to the Soviet command. Germany, on the other hand, was separated from its main source of oil by a double barrier of mountains, in Czechoslovakia and Romania. A Soviet strike across the passes in Czechoslovakia and Romania would effectively cut the oil artery.
According to Marshal Zhukov, ‘Germany’s weak point was oil supply, but it made up for this to some extent by importing oil from Romania.’ (G. K. Zhukov, Vospominaniya i razmysh-leniya, Moscow APN, 1969, p. 224)
Everything was simple, but of genius. That Zhukov never suffered one defeat in his whole life was due to his invariably following one simple principle -find the enemy’s weak spot, and then hit it with a sudden strike. The reason why these experiments were going on in the mountains was because Zhukov knew Germany’s weak spot. The capabilities of troops of all kinds, and every type of combat and transport vehicle operating in the conditions which prevailed in the Carpathian mountain passes, were subjected to a scientific study.
Standards were established and carefully checked, and guidance was compiled for the troops. The time taken by the various types of vehicle to negotiate these mountain passes was carefully recorded and analysed. All this was very necessary for the planning of offensive operations; especially lightning operations. Just as in planning a bank robbery, it was essential to take into account every tiny detail, and to calculate everything with the greatest accuracy. All of this, it should be noted, was totally unnecessary for defence.
If the Carpathian passes had to be defended from the enemy, then speed was not needed; all the soldiers had to be told was to stay where they were and not let the enemy pass. Events went on apace. Zhukov was promoted, as was Bagramyan in his wake. But neither of them forgot the I2th Army. Slowly and unceasingly, its structure was changing under their orders. As we have already noted, in the I2th Army, as in all other Soviet armies, things were not called by their names at this time. At the beginning of June 1941, four rifle divisions (the 44th, 58th, 6oth, and 96th) were converted into mountain rifle divisions.
In addition, the recently formed I92nd Mountain Rifle Division was secretly transferred from Turkestan and added to the complement of the I2th Army. What does one call a corps which has two divisions, each of them mountain rifle? What does one call another corps, in which, of its four divisions, three are mountain rifle? What does one call an army which, out of its three corps, has two which are in essence mountain rifle corps, and in which the mountain rifle divisions are in a solid majority?
I should call the corps mountain rifle, and the army a mountain army. The Soviet High Command, however, had reasons for not doing this. The corps went on being called, as before, the 13th and 17th Rifle Corps, while the army was simply called the 12th Army. Here we see only the final results of the reorganization; how it was done is hidden from us. We only know that the mountain rifle divisions were given their official name on i June 1941, while the order was issued on 26 April; and that the transformation of the divisions from rifle into mountain rifle divisions was going on as early as autumn 1940, even before Bagramyan had begun his experiments.
Not only was it changed into a mountain army, the 12th also had an influence on adjacent armies. The 72nd Mountain Rifle Division, under the command of Major-General P. I. Abramidze, had been trained in the 12th Army, and was now transferred to the adjacent 26th Army. Lieutenant-General I. S. Konev’s 19th Army, which was being transferred from the northern Caucasus, was then secretly deployed behind the 12th and 26th Armies. We also find mountain rifle divisions on its complement, for instance the 28th Division under the command of Colonel K. I. Novik.
It was at this time, again under cover of the T ASS report of 13 June 1941, that deployment began in the area between the I2th (mountain) and 9th (heavy shock) Armies in the eastern Carpathians, of yet another army, the 18th. Hitler did not allow its deployment to be completed, however, and we are unable to establish with any degree of accuracy the shape which the Soviet High Command wanted it to take. Hitler threw all the Soviet plans into disarray and then something quite unimaginable began. But even so, there are sufficient documents to enable the conclusion to be drawn that the original idea was that the 18th Army should be a carbon copy of the 12th (Mountain) Army, although like the I2th, it did not bear this name.
Any researcher who studies the archives of the 12th and 18 th Armies will be surprised by their absolute similarity in structure. It is a most unusual example of twin armies. The similarity went as far as the same Caucasian general running the headquarters of both the 18th and the 12th Armies in a completely even-handed way. He was Major-General (later full General of the Army) V. Ya. Kolpak chi. Just before the war began, a school for mountain training was opened in the Caucasus. It trained the best Soviet mountain climbers to be instructors. Once fully trained, these instructors were sent to the Soviet western frontier, since it was precisely here, and not in the Caucasus or Turkestan, that in June 1941 a great number of mountain rifle troops were concentrated. A short article about the school appeared in the newspaper Red Star on i November 1986, under the heading ‘Trained to Fight in the Mountains’.
It is now time to ask the question-in which mountains? There is only one comparatively small mountain range on the Soviet western frontiers. This is the eastern Carpathian mass, the heights of which are more like gently sloping hills than mountains. There would have been no point in having a powerful defence in the Carpathians in 1941, for the following reasons: 1. That area of the Carpathians would not favour an aggressor coming from west to east. The enemy would come down from the mountains on to the plain, and so his army would have to be supplied across the whole of the Carpathians, the Tatry mountains, the Ruda and Sudety hills and the Alps.
All this is highly unfavourable and dangerous for an aggressor. 2. The eastern Carpathians form a blunt wedge on the enemy’s side of the frontier. If many Soviet troops were to be concentrated here, for defensive purposes, even in peacetime they would be surrounded by the enemy on three sides. By making use of the plains further to the south, and especially more to the north of the eastern Carpathians, the enemy could strike at any time at the rest of the troops which had dug themselves in on the mountains, thereby cutting their supply-lines.
3. In 1941, there were insufficient enemy troops in the Carpathians to carry out an aggression, and the Soviet High Command was fully aware of this. (See for example Lieutenant-General Bagrat Arushunyan, VIZH 1973, No. 6, p. 61)
All these factors, which render the eastern Carpathians Mountain Divisions on the Steppes of the Ukraine 151 for example Lieutenant-General Bagrat Arushunyan, VIZH 1973, No. 6, p. 61)
All these factors, which render the eastern Carpathians unfavourable for an aggressive action moving from west to east, make them suitable for an aggression which moves in the opposite direction: 1. As the troops move ahead into the mountains, their supply-lines remain on Soviet territory, mainly lying across very flat terrain.
2. The eastern Carpathians form a blunt salient which juts far out into the west, thereby cutting the enemy grouping in two. This is a natural springboard which, if heavy forces are built up in it even in peacetime, places them as though they were in the enemy’s rear. All they then have to do is to continue to move forward, threatening the enemy’s rear and thus compelling him to withdraw along the whole front.
3. Only negligible enemy forces were located in the Carpathians. The Soviet High Command knew this, and it was precisely for this reason that they had concentrated two armies there. The two armies could not stay on the spot; there was no room for them. They were not needed for defence, nor were they adapted to it. There was only one way of using these armies in war, and that was to move them forward. Two mountain ridges spread from the eastern Carpathians. One goes westwards to Czechoslovakia, the other southwards to Romania. Two directions, two armies; it is entirely logical. Each direction was equally important, for each led to the main oil pipelines.
If only one of the armies succeeded, it would still be fatal for Germany. Even in the event of both armies failing, their operations would lessen the flow of German reserves into Romania. Apart from the two strikes over the mountains at the arteries, there was also the 9th (heavy shock) Army, which was ready to deliver a blow to the heart of the oilfields. Its operations were covered by two main mountain ranges. In order to defend Romania from the Soviet 9th Army, German troops would have had to take these ranges, with an entire Soviet army on each one.
We may disagree over the purposes of the mountain rifle divisions which made up the I2th and i8th Armies, yet these armies were in the Carpathians. But we cannot argue about the purpose of a similar division in the 9th (heavy shock) Army. The 9th was stationed near Odessa, but on the orders of General Zhukov, who bore personal responsibility for both the South and South-Western Fronts, a mountain rifle division was set up as part of the 9th Army. What sort of mountains are to be found near Odessa? The 3Oth Irkutsk, Order of Lenin, Triple Order of the Red Banner, Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR Mountain Rifle Division of the 9th Army could only have been used for its primary purpose in Romania.
It was certainly not by chance that this division, commanded by Major-General S. G. Galaktio-nov, found itself in the 48th Rifle Corps of General P. Ya. Malinovsky. First of all, Malinovsky was the most aggressive corps commander not just in the 9th Army but on the whole of the Southern Front. On the other hand, the 48th Rifle Corps was on the extreme right flank of the 9th Army. This was of no significance on Soviet territory. But if the 9th Army was moved into Romania, it would be wholly on the plain, and its right flank would be rubbing against the mountain range. It was therefore eminently reasonable to have one mountain rifle division on the extreme right flank.
That was not all. The 21st Mountain Cavalry Division, commanded by Colonel Ya. K. Kuliev, was secretly moved out of Turkestan in military trains. Hitler’s attack upset everything, however, and it then became necessary to throw all the forces which had been destined for the south into Byelorussia, including the 19th Army with its mountain rifle divisions. The 21st Mountain Cavalry Division also found itself there. Nobody there needed it; it was not adapted to fighting in the marshlands, and there it ingloriously perished.
But it was not for Byelorussia that it had been intended. The concentration of two Soviet armies in the eastern Carpathians had catastrophic consequences. No one, of course, would have attacked these armies head-on. But the 1st German Tank Group’s attack at Rovno put the Soviet command in a dilemma. They either had to leave the two armies in the Carpathians, where they would perish without ammunition and provisions, or else to withdraw them at once from this mousetrap.
The second of these choices was adopted. The two mountain armies, which were unadapted for fighting on the plains, carrying light armament and a mass of equipment which was now redundant, fled from the mountains and immediately came under attack from the spearhead of German tanks. The 1st Tank Group easily routed the fleeing mountain armies and then drove forward to catch the 9th (heavy shock) Army in the rear.
Once again, let Bagramyan speak: Knowledge of the Eastern Carpathians led to a more clear understanding of how absolutely essential it was to reform as quickly as possible those heavy unwieldly rifle divisions, which were unsuited for action in the mountains, into light mountain rifle .units. When I recall this now, I catch myself thinking of how unintentionally mistaken I had been. At the outbreak of war, these divisions in the main had to fight their battles in the conditions prevailing on the plains, so their reformation into mountain divisions only served to weaken them. (Marshal Bagramyan, VIZH, 1976, No. I, p. 55)
Once the German troops had dealt with these armies, the road opened out before them to the totally undefended bases of the Soviet Fleet, to the Don Basin, Khar’kov, Zaporozh’e and Dniepropetrovsk. These were industrial regions of the utmost importance; once they were lost to the Germans, the Soviet Union succeeded in producing only 100,000 tanks for the rest of the war years. This was much more than was produced in Germany, but had these regions not been lost, Soviet tank, artillery, aircraft and naval production could have been several times higher than their already record levels.
When the Germans broke through to the south of the Ukraine it put the Soviet troops around Kiev in a very serious position and opened the road for Germany to the Caucasus – the heart of the Soviet Union’s oilproduction. Communist propaganda has it that the Red Army was not preparing itself for war, and that this was the cause of all its subsequent troubles. This is not true. Let us retrace, if only through the examples offered by the 12th Army and its carbon copy, the 18th, what could have happened if the Soviet Union had really been unprepared for war:
1. There would have been enormous savings of those resources which were simply wasted on setting up two mountain armies and many detached mountain rifle divisions. If only part of these resources had been used to establish anti-tank divisions, the war would have taken a different course.
2. There would not have been two armies in the Carpathians; they would not have had to be extricated in a panic from this mousetrap; nor would they have fallen under the blow from the German spearhead as they were withdrawing.
3. The German massed tanks to the north of the Carpathians would have met with heavyweight divisions adapted to fighting on the plains and equipped with anti-tank guns and many other types of powerful artillery, instead of the light divisions they actually encountered fleeing from the mountains.
4. If the German tank spearhead had broken through the defences of these divisions which were not fleeing anywhere, the consequences would not have been catastrophic, for the enormous build-up of troops on the Romanian frontier would not have been there, and the German strike would have simply landed in an empty space, instead of into the rear area of these troops. If the Red Army had not been preparing for war, everything would have been different. But it was preparing itself, and very assiduously at that.
CHAPTER 18 – The Purpose of the First Strategic Echelon 163