CHAPTER 21 – Living Peaceably with Sharp Teeth 188
The enemy must be caught unawares, and the time chosen when his troops are scattered. STALIN (Vol. 6, p. 158)
On 8 May 1941, two days after Stalin’s ‘secret’ speech, TASS broadcast a vigorous denial of a Japanese pressagency report of massive Soviet troop movements: Japanese newspapers are publishing reports issued by the Domei Tsusin Agency in which it states that the Soviet Union is concentrating strong military forces on its western frontiers … In this connection, passenger traffic along the Trans-Siberian Railway has been stopped, so that troops from the Far East can be transferred mainly to its western frontiers. Strong military forces are also being transferred there from central Asia … A military mission headed by Kuznetsov has left Moscow for Tehran.
The purpose of the mission, the Agency notes, is connected with the granting of airfields to the Soviet Union in central and western areas of Iran. TASS is authorized to state that this suspiciously strident Domei Tsusin report, borrowed from some unknown United Press correspondent, is the fruit of the sick imagination of its authors . . . There is no ‘concentration of strong military forces on the western frontiers of the USSR, nor are any envisaged. The Domei Tsusin report contained one grain of truth, which moreover is given out in a crudely distorted form, and this is that one rifle division is being transferred from the Irkutsk area to near Novosibirsk, because there are better billeting conditions in Novosibirsk.
Everything else contained in the Domei Tsusin report is sheer fantasy. Through their American sources, the Japanese newspapers accurately forecast events. Three months later, Soviet troops went into Iran and built not only airfields, but much else besides. Domei Tsusin’s reference to ‘troop concentrations on an exceptionally large scale’ was correct: in addition to other forces, Stalin concentrated 20 mechanized corps and five airborne assault corps on the borders with Germany.
TASS spoke of one rifle division being sent ‘from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk’. Let us hear other witnesses. Lieutenant-General G. Shelakhov was a major-general at the time, and Chief of Staff of the ist Army of the Red Banner on the Eastern Front. ‘According to a directive from the People’s Commissariat for Defence of 16 April 1941,’ he wrote, ‘the headquarters of the 18th and 3 ist Rifle Corps, the 2ist and 66th Rifle Divisions, the 2iith and the 212th Airborne Assault Brigades and several special purpose units were moved from the complement of the Far Eastern Front to the west of the country.’ (VIZH, 1969, No. 3, p. 56)
The transfer of airborne assault brigades to reinforce the five already in the western areas of the country is evidence that an offensive operation on a massive scale was being prepared. The bogus TASS ‘denial’ lent secrecy to the operation, in order that it would take the enemy by surprise. The 212nd Airborne Assault Brigade was Marshal Zhukov’s favourite. In August 1939, it was serving along with the OSN AZ battalion of the NK VD in Zhukov’s personal reserve; when he launched his crushing surprise attack against the Japanese, the brigade was used as crack infantry in the strike which hit at the rear of the Japanese 6th Army.
Zhukov then secretly transferred this, the best brigade in the Red Army, from the Far East to join the complement of the 3rd Airborne Assault Corps on the Romanian frontier. Hitler did not allow this brigade — or any of the massive concentration of Soviet troops on the western border—to be used for their intended purposes. Operation Barbarossa forced the Soviet Union onto the defensive, and the 3rd Airborne Assault Corps was no longer needed. It was then re-formed into the 87th Rifle Division (later to become the 13th Guards Division), and distinguished itself in defensive fighting.
We can follow the secret movement of these troops from the Far East through many sources. Both Marshals Zhukov and I. Kh. Bagramyan confirm that the 3ist Rifle Corps arrived in the Kiev Special Military District on 25 May 1941. This means that when the TASS ‘denial’ was issued, the 3ist Rifle Corps was somewhere on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Colonel-General I. Lyudnikov states that, after he had set up, mobilized and then taken over command of the 2OOth Rifle Division, he was ordered to join the complement of the 3ist Rifle Corps. Then, like all its numerous brothers-in-arms, this corps was secretly moved right up to the German frontier. But Hitler did not allow the 31st Rifle Corps to complete the journey which it had begun.
Anyone who wishes to do so may re-trace the routes which these other corps, divisions and brigades took when they were secretly transferred from the Far East, by referring to the many recollections published by Soviet marshals and generals; to evidence from Soviet soldiers who were transferred from the Far East and who, on finding themselves on the German and Romanian borders on 22 July, became prisoners of war; to German intelligence reports, and to many other sources.
The TASS denial mentioned a rifle division which was transferred from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk because the billeting conditions there were better. For many years now I have been unsuccessfully searching for some trace of this mysterious division. I have found nothing; but in the process, I have turned up a mass of information about other divisions; in Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, in Chita and Ulan Ude, in Blagoveshchensk and Spassk, in Iman and Barabash, in Khabarovsk and Voroshilov.
All of them entrained, not simply to offload in a neighbouring town a few hundred kilometres up the line, but to disembark at the western frontiers. An official history, which was in fact published in Irkutsk (Zabailkal’sky voennyi okrug, Irkutsk 1972), tells of many divisions being loaded on trains, all headed for the western borders. The 57th Tank Division, commanded by Colonel V. A. Mishulin, secretly entrained here in April. Mishulin had no idea for what purpose. From Irkutsk it was conveyed to the Kiev Special Military District, and was ordered to off-load near Shepetovka.
Meanwhile the flow of troops along the Trans-Siberian Railway (and along all other main lines) was growing. We know that corps from the Far East began to de-train in the Ukraine on 25 May 1941: the 3 ist Rifle Corps, for example, off-loaded near Zhitomir. The following day, the officer commanding the Urals Military District was ordered to transfer two rifle divisions to the Baltic. (Major-General A. Grylev and Professor V. Khvostov, Kommunist, 1968, No. 12, p. 67)
That same day, the Trans-Baikal Military District and the Far Eastern Front were ordered to prepare to send a further nine divisions, including three tank divisions, to the western part of the country. (Ibid) The i6th Army was already on the Trans-Siberian Railway; the 22nd and the 24th Armies were heading towards it. The greatest falsehood in the TASS ‘denial’ was not about ‘billeting conditions’, however, but about the concentration of troops on the western border. ‘There is no concentration,’ it stated, ‘and none is foreseen.’
That was the most important point. First, the concentration was there, and the German invasion confirmed that it exceeded even the most daring forecasts. Secondly, while all these brigades, divisions and corps were being transferred, plans were being laid for an even greater and truly unprecedented railway operation, namely the transfer by rail of the Second Strategic Echelon of the Red Army. The directive ordering the officers commanding the troops to begin the transfer of this echelon was given on 13 May. The TASS ‘denial’ was published while this was being set up. Major-General A. A. Lobachev, who was a member of the Military Council of the i6th Army at the time, recalled the events of 26 May 1941:
The Chief of Staff reported that an important enciphered message concerning the i6th Army had arrived from Moscow . . . this order required that the i6th Army be redeployed to a new location. M. F. Lukin had to report immediately to the General Staff to be given instructions, while Colonel M. A. Shalin and myself had to arrange to send off the military trains. ‘Where to?’ I asked Kurochkin. ‘Westwards.’
We took advice and decided to send the tank crews first, then the I52nd Division and the remaining formations, and finally the army headquarters and the units appended to it. ‘Send the trains by night. No one must know that the army is leaving,’ the Officer Commanding warned. By the time the trains carrying the tanks had left, Kurochkin and Zimin arrived, gathered together the command personnel of the 5th Corps, and expressed the wish to General Alekseenko and to all the commanders that they would not let down the Trans-Baikal traditions . . .
The men listened to these warm parting words, and everybody thought not so much about military training, but that the subject might shortly become one of military action. (General A. A. Loba-chev, Tmdnymi Dorogami, Moscow Voenizdat 1960, p. 123)
General Lobachev was to relate some surprising things later. General Lukin, the officer commanding the 16th Army, Lobachev himself, and Colonel M. A. Shalin, the i6th Army Chief of Staff and future head of the GRU, all knew that the i6th Army was being transferred westwards, but they did not know exactly where. All the other generals in the i6th Army were ‘secretly’ informed that the army’s destination was the Iranian frontier. The less senior officers on the command staff were told that the purpose of the displacement was training exercises, while the wives of the officers were told that the army was off to camp.
In a defensive war, there is no need to deceive the generals in this way. In the German Army, the same thing was being done at the same time, when disinformation was being spread about Operation Sea Lion. It is a sure sign that a surprise attack is in preparation when the troops are deliberately deceived about where operations are going to take place. In order to dissemble from the enemy, one must also dissemble from one’s own troops. Aggressors have always done this: Hitler did it, and so did Stalin.
It is interesting that in April 1941, everybody broadly understood that the i6th Army was going off to war: ‘Are you going off to fight,’ Lobachev’s wife asked him point-blank. ‘Where did you get that from?’ ‘Come off it! I read the papers, don’t I?’ (Ibid)
This was a highly interesting psychological moment. I have questioned hundreds of people who belonged to that generation, and they all had a presentiment that war was coming. I was amazed, and asked where these presentiments had come from. From the newspapers, they all replied. We, people of today, seldom find direct evidence of an imminent and unavoidable war when we scan the yellowing newspaper pages of those years. Yet the people of that generation knew, by reading between the lines, that war was unavoidably approaching.
Those people in Siberia could not have known about the preparations which Hitler was making; their feeling that war could not be avoided must have been based on Soviet preparations. General Lobachev recalls the incredible degree of secrecy in which the army was transferred: the military trains only moving by night; trains which stopped at neither important stations nor at medium-sized ones;
the transfer of the i6th Army headquarters in goods wagons with their doors and windows completely closed; the small stations where the trains halted, with no one allowed to leave the wagons. In those days a passenger train took more than eleven days and nights to cross the Trans-Siberian Railway, while goods trains took
Officers and men can be transported in completely closed wagons. But here we are talking about an army headquarters. Such a degree of secrecy is unusual even by Soviet standards. In 1945 a stream of troops was to flow back along the Trans-Siberian Railway in the opposite direction to take part in the surprise strike against Japanese troops in Manchuria and China. For purposes of concealment, all generals travelled in officers’ uniforms which had far fewer stars on their shoulder-straps than their ranks entitled them to wear, but even so, they travelled in passenger wagons. Yet in 1941 the generals had travelled in goods wagons. Why?
CHAPTER 22 – The TASS Report 195