CHAPTER 18 – The Purpose of the First Strategic Echelon 163
It has to be borne in mind that it is possible simultaneously to carry out two or even three offensive operations on different fronts in a theatre of military actions, with the intention of strategically rocking the enemy’s defensive capability on the widest possible scale. Marshal S. K. TIMOSHENKO, People’s Commissar for Defence of the USSR, 31 December 1940
We have dwelt very briefly on some of the armies belonging to the First Strategic Echelon. We saw the most powerful of these armies on the Romanian frontier. We saw the mountain armies destined to cut off Romania — and its oil — from Germany. We saw five airborne assault corps and a special corps for amphibious assault operations. The First Strategic Echelon of the Red Army had in all sixteen armies and several dozen detached corps. There was a total of 170 divisions in this strategic echelon.
Interestingly, Soviet marshals were discussing the role of this echelon before the war. Marshal A. I. Egorov considered that the forthcoming war would be one in which millions, and indeed tens of millions of soldiers would take part.
But he propounded that an offensive should be embarked upon without waiting until full mobilization had been carried through. It was his opinion that in peacetime it was essential to maintain ‘invasion groups’ in frontier districts, so that these groups could cross the state frontier on the first day of the war, thus disrupting the enemy’s mobilization while at the same time covering that of the Soviets. (Report of the Chief of Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army to the Revolutionary Military Council of the USSR, 20 April 1932)
Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky did not agree with this. In his view, what was needed was not ‘invasion groups’ but ‘invasion armies’. Tukhachevsky insisted that the opportunity to cross the border immediately, along with the declaration of mobilization, must in the first instance dictate the composition of the forward army and the disposition of its troops . . . Mechanized corps must be stationed some 50-70 kilometres from the frontiers, so as to be able to cross the border from the first day of mobilization. (M. N. Tukhachevsky: Izbrannye Proizvedeniya, Moscow Voenizdat 1964, Vol. 2, p. 219)
Tukhachevsky and Egorov were of course mistaken. They had to be shot, and the authoritative, inflexible and invincible General G. K. Zhukov rose to the summit of military power. Least of all was he disposed to abstract thought. He was a practical man who had never lost a military battle in his entire lifetime. In August 1939, Zhukov carried out an operation, staggering in its suddenness and daring, to inflict a crushing defeat on the Japanese 6th Army. (This same method was later to be adapted against the German 6th Army at Stalingrad.)
This lightning rout of the Japanese was the prologue to World War II. When Stalin had received Zhukov’s telegram of 19 August 1939 reporting that he had achieved his main objective of preparing an attack without the Japanese even suspecting that he had done so, Stalin gave his agreement to the establishment of a common frontier with Germany. It was after this that the destruction of the western defences began, and the large shock formations began to be set up.
The Kiev Military District, which was the most important and most powerful of all Soviet military districts, was placed under Zhukov’s command. Zhukov was then promoted even higher, to the post of Chief of the General Staff. It was at this point that the General Staff reached a theoretical conclusion of exceptional importance: ‘It is necessary to place the execution of the invasion armies’ tasks on the whole of the First Strategic Echelon.’ (VIZH 1963, No. 10, p. 31)
Thus all sixteen armies of the first Echelon, which contained 170 divisions, were earmarked for invasion. Not only had the First Strategic Echelon been given the task of carrying out invasion action, but it had actually begun to carry it out. Covered yet again by the TASS report of 13 June 1941, the entire First Strategic Echelon had moved up to the German and Romanian frontiers. Although at this stage there were only about three million soldiers and officers, the power of the First Strategic Echelon grew swiftly. Marshal S. K. Kurkotkin remembered that ‘military units which had left for the state frontier before the war, had taken away with them emergency reserve supplies of uniforms and footwear’. (Tyl SVS V Velikoi Orechestvennoi
Voiny, Moscow Voenizdat 1977, p. 216)
The Marshal states that practically no uniforms or footwear remained in the reserves at the centre. This means that divisions, corps and armies took with them clothing and footwear for millions of reservists. What calculation did they have in mind, apart from an immediate call-up of millions of men?
When speaking of the power of the First Strategic Echelon, mention must not be confined only to how many soldiers it had. A thought must also be spared for the millions whom Hitler did not allow to be called up, clothed and shod close to the frontiers. It was not planned that this awesomely powerful movement of the First Strategic Echelon should come to a halt near the German frontier. That was why Soviet units of the NKVD began to cut the barbed wire on the frontiers on 20 June 1941. The German Army, however, had begun to cut its wire the week before.
CHAPTER 19 – Stalin in May 166