CHAPTER 25 – The Kombrigs and the Komdivs 242
Only he who has first conquered his own
people can overcome a strong enemy.
SHAN VAN, 5th century B.C.
We began the story about the black divisions and corps with the 63rd Rifle Corps of the 2ist Army. Mention was made there of Komkor Petrovsky and Kombrig Fokanov. Why were they not generals? The answer is simple. In the black corps and divisions it was not just the soldiers and officers, but also the senior commanders, who were veterans of the ‘small towns of hutments for lumberjacks’. The military ranks of kombrig, komdiv, komkor and koman-darm were in use in the Red Army for senior command staff officers before 1940. Diamond-shaped badges on uniform collar tabs were used to distinguish the different ranks — one badge for a kombrig, two for a komvid, three for a komkor, and four for a komandarm.
In May 1940, when Stalin was putting his senior command staff in order, he gave new titles of rank in the generals’ series, ordered that generals’ uniform trousers should have side stripes and, as insignia, that they should wear stars instead of diamond-shaped badges. The new ranks of major-general, lieutenantgeneral, colonel-general and general of the army were in no way connected with old military ranks. A Government Commission carried out a complete re-grading of the entire senior command staff, in the course of which many kombrigs became colonels, so that they were in effect demoted to the level they were at several years before. Some kombrigs became major-generals, and Kombrig I. N. Muzychenko became a lieutenant-general. Many komandarms became colonel-generals, although some were demoted to lieutenant-general. But Komkor G. K. Zhukov was given the highest general’s rank, that of general of the army.
One little known fact, incidentally, is that Zhukov was the first officer of the Red Army to be given the rank of general. In all, 1056 senior commanders were given the military ranks of general and admiral in June 1940. The introduction of these generals’ titles was Stalin’s offering of honey-cake after the great thrashings of 1937 and 1938. Why was Comrade Stalin being so kind? Because he was planning to set them to practise their trade in the foreseeable future. Had it been otherwise, he would have been in no hurry with the honeycake. But one thousand generals was not enough for Stalin. Divisions were being raised in increasing numbers, corps and armies were being formed. Colonels were being put into generals’ posts.
At one point there were no fewer than one hundred colonels holding generals’ posts, commanding divisions; we have already encountered Colonel I. I. Fedyuninsky in the post of commander of the I5th Rifle Corps of the 5th Army. There were not enough commanders either. As long as Hitler stood facing him, Stalin could get by with available personnel. But as Hitler turned his face westwards, then Stalin found himself in great need of commanders of senior rank. That explains why the prison wagons were speeding towards Moscow. After arrival, former commanders who had passed through the GULAG were met with politeness in Lubyanka jail, where it was explained that there had been a mistake. Criminal proceedings would be stopped, and previous
convictions expunged. The commanders then hastened to Sochi, and from there to the colours.
Not every commander was treated with the same respect. Some were given a general’s rank, including Major-General Rokossovsky, the future Marshal of the Soviet Union. But most of those who were released from prison were left with their old military rank of kombrig, komdiv or komkor. This brought about a strange situation in the Red Army. There were two parallel systems of military ranks for the senior command staff, two systems of badges of rank, and two different forms of dress. Some commanders went about proudly wearing their stars, striped pants and smart dress uniforms while others, doing exactly the same work, wore only their modest little diamond-shaped badges.
One method used by the Chekists in Kiev during the Red Terror has been described by the Russian historian, S. P. Mel’ gunov, and confirmed by documents. A prisoner who refused to answer questions would without further ado be placed in a coffin and buried. He would then be dug up, and the interrogation would continue. Stalin did much the same thing in the ‘pre-war period’. Thousands of commanders fell into the hands of the GULAG during the years of the Great Purge. Some of them had been condemned to death, others given lengthy prison sentences which they were serving at Kolyma. According to many witnesses (for example, Kolyma Stories, 1978, by V. Shalamov) life there was by no means preferable to being shot.
And now here were people who had already said goodbye to life, being transported in comfortable railway carriages, being fed and fattened in health centres reserved for members of the government, being given back their former authority and allowed an opportunity to ‘expiate their guilt’. However, the rank of general was not conferred permanently, and carried no guarantees . . . Can we imagine how all these kombrigs and komdivs were bursting to get down to work? Stalin’s calculation was correct. Many of those who were released were bursting to go into action and prove that they were worthy of trust. These included Komdiv Grigory Alexeyevich Vorozheikin, who was put in charge of the air arm of the 21st Army of the Second Strategic Echelon.
He distinguished himself in the initial battles in July 1941 and was granted the rank of air major-general. By August he had become Chief of Staff of the Air Forces of the Red Army. He attained a new rank every year until he became a marshal in 1944. Kombrig Alexander Gorbatov, released in March 1941, was given the post of deputy commander of the 25th Rifle Corps of the 19th Army, which formed part of the Second Strategic Echelon. He rose to the rank of general and to the post of officer commanding the airborne assault troops of the Soviet Army. This is how he describes his release:
My wife had been to the NK VD, and was on wings when she left there. She said that they had received her very well, spoke politely, were interested in how she was managing to live, did she need help with money . . . On the night of 5 March 1941 at two o’clock in the morning, an investigator drove me in a small car to friends of mine in Komsomorskaya Square. He dropped me and politely took his leave. ‘Here is my telephone number. If you need anything, ring me at any time. You can count on me to help you. Like a relic, I was carrying along a bag containing clothes, galoshes and sugar lumps which were black as coal, and dried biscuits which I had kept should I fall ill. (Gody i Voiny, Moscow Voenizdat 1965, pp. 168- 169)
Kombrig Gorbatov, like many others, was released on a carefully calculated timetable: a month’s leave in a health centre before acceptance for duty. By the time the TASS report was published, the gallant kombrig was secretly on his way westwards with his ‘Annushkas’. As a true labour-camp prisoner, Gorbatov collected ‘souvenirs’ of the GULAG. Luckily for him, he did not need them again. Others were not so fortunate. Kombrig I. F. Dashichev put his snow boots on for the second time. He was released in March 1941, only to be imprisoned again in October. He remained in the GULAG until at least 1953.
Kombrigs, komdivs and komkors were also used to reinforce the First Strategic Echelon. Kombrig M. S. Tkachev, for example, was posted to the 109th Rifle Division of the 9th Special Rifle Corps; Kombrig I. P. Ivanov was appointed Chief of Staff of the 6th Army: Komdiv A. D. Sokolov, Commander of the 16th Mechanized Corps of the 12th Army; Komdiv G. A. Burichenkov, officer commanding the southern zone of the anti-aircraft defences; Komdiv P. G. Alekseev, officer commanding air forces, 13th Army; Kombrig S. S. Krushin was made Chief of Staff for the Air Force in the North West Front; Kombrig A. S. Titov, head of artillery in the 18th Army, and many more.
In addition, kombrigs and komdivs were used to fill the gaps left in the hierarchies of the military districts when the Second Strategic Echelon moved off to the western border. Kombrig N. I. Khristofanov became military commissar for the Stavropol’ Region; and Kombrig M. V. Khripunov, a chief of branch in the Moscow Military District. The headquarters, as we saw, had been occupied by Chekists with little understanding of military matters after all the commanders had left for the Romanian frontier. So poor old Khripunov was summoned from the GULAG to help them. But even so, most of the komdivs, kombrigs and komkors were earmarked for the Second Strategic Echelon. It is here we find Komkor Petrovsky.
We remember that his last post had been deputy officer commanding the Moscow Military District. After this he was imprisoned. He was released in November 1940 and ordered to form the 63rd Rifle Corps. This is where the black corps began. Of the three divisions in the corps, two were commanded by Kombrigs Ya. S. Fokanov and V. S. Rakovsky. Colonel N. A. Prishchepa commanded the third division. He was not a kombrig, although he had also been a prisoner. There were majors, captains and lieutenants too. The neighbouring 67th Corps of the same army was full of kombrigs. There was even a kombrig at the head of the corps, F. F. Zhmachenko, who later became a colonel-general. Look at any of these armies being secretly moved from the depth of the country, and everywhere you will see hordes of kombrigs who had just been released.
There were two corps in the 22nd Army with a kombrig in each – Povetkin of the 5ist Corps and I. P. Karmanov, of the 62nd. The chiefs of staff, of artillery, of engineers, and of any other service, were all officers just released from prison. Two divisions in this army consisted predominantly of ‘lumberjacks’, with commanders from the same milieu – Kombrig Ya. S. Adamson of the H2nd Rifle and Kombrig A. I. Zygin of the I74th.
The process of releasing kombrigs, komdivs and komkors was begun before Operation Barbarossa was known about, and peaked at the moment when German troops left for France. Having forced a corridor through the neutral states which stood between him and Germany, Stalin now offered a ‘second birth’ to an enormous number of commanders who had been condemned to a rapid or slow death in the camps. These people had once held arms and great power, but every one of them had become a prisoner under sentence of death and was now burning with a desire to get back to the heights from which Stalin had toppled them. While Stalin officially reassured Germany that nothing important was happening, these officers – at the head of vast armies of fellow ex-convicts – were secretly heading for the frontier.
CHAPTER 26 – Why the Second Strategic Echelon was Formed 248