CHAPTER 28 – Why Stalin Deployed the Fronts 275
The war of the poor against the rich will be the most
bloody war which has ever been waged between people.
F. ENGELS (Works, Vol. 2, p. 504, Berlin 1959)
A ‘front’ is an operational-strategic grouping of armed forces. It includes several armies, air force formations, anti-aircraft defence, back-up units and formations, and rear units. Fronts do not exist in peacetime; military districts exist in their stead. A front is usually only created when war begins. (Soviet Military Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, p. 332)
The Far Eastern Front was set up within the Red Army in response to worsening relations with Japan in 1938. It consisted of the 1st and 2nd Armies, a tactical air force and reinforcement units. On 13 April 1941, a neutrality pact was signed with Japan. The Far Eastern Front, however, remained a front, and was not turned into a military district. Fronts were established for short periods in 1939 and 1940 on the Soviet western frontiers in order to serve the ‘liberation campaigns’ into Poland, Romania and Finland. Once these campaigns had ended, the fronts were immediately disbanded and military districts were set up again to replace them. Historians have
reproached Stalin for entering into pacts with both Germany and Japan, while maintaining a front only against Japan.
This does indeed seem inconsistent at first glance; but Hitler was doing exactly the same thing. While he was deploying headquarters with impressive names against Britain, he was secretly moving his best generals up to the Soviet frontier. That is how a surprise strike is prepared. Stalin had set up a front in the Far East, but the troops and the generals were secretly leaving it. Officially, the western frontiers still consisted of military districts, but here a build-up of troops was going on. Any comparison of the power of the Far East Front and that of any western military district would certainly not come down in favour of the front. While the Far East Front had three armies, all of them ordinary, the Western Special Military District had four armies, including three shock and one heavy shock. Then three more armies belonging to the Second Strategic Echelon arrived on Western Special Military District territory.
No one, on the other hand, was going to the Far Eastern Front; divisions and corps were being taken away from it. There was only one mechanized corps on the Far Eastern Front, while in the Western District there were six. There were no airborne assault troops on the Far Eastern Front, while in the Western District there was an entire corps. The Western Special Military District, moreover, was not the most powerful. The Kiev District was much more so. The Far Eastern Front was not so much a front as a screen intended to show the whole world that war here was possible. But the five western military districts were also screens designed to show that no war was expected there. But the strike power concentrated in these districts after 1939 was rarely equalled by any Soviet front even during the heaviest battles of the war.
The front in the Far East was set up in such a way that everybody knew about it. In the western part of the Soviet Union, however, not one, but five fronts had been established in such a way that nobody knew about them. The Northern, North-West, Western, South-West and Southern Fronts were officially brought into being only after the German invasion. From February 1941, however, these names were already appearing in strictly secret Soviet documents. This security grading was later removed from a number of these documents, and they were put into academic circulation. I quote from one of them: ‘In February 1941 the military councils in the frontier districts were sent instructions . . . that they should immediately equip the front command posts.’ (VIZH 1978, No.4, p. 86)
Officially there were five military districts on the Soviet western borders. Unofficially, each military district was already preparing a front command post. Alongside the usual military-territorial structures, purely military ones were being created -the kind of structures which only spring up in time of war to lead the troops into battle. Pro-Soviet historians assure us that peace existed between the Soviet Union and Germany until 22 June 1941, when this peace was allegedly violated by Germany. This hypothesis is not borne out by facts. The facts speak of the opposite.
By deploying, command posts of the fronts in February 1941, the Soviet Union entered the war against Germany, although it did not officially declare it. In peacetime the officer commanding a military district has a dual role. On the one hand, he is a purely military commander, with several divisions, sometimes several corps and even on occasions several armies under his command. On the other, he controls a strictly defined territory, and carries out the role of a military governor. In the event of war, a military district on the frontier becomes a front. When this happens, three situations can arise. The first of these is where the front wages war in the territories of the former military districts. In this case the officer commanding the front continues to function both as a military commander and as a governor of the territories entrusted to him.
The second situation is where the front is forced to retreat under enemy pressure. In that event, the officer commanding the front will remain combat commander, and as he withdraws he will take along with him the organs of local government of his territory.
In the third scenario, the front moves forward on to enemy territory. It is only when this situation has been foreseen that the functions of the officer commanding are divided. He becomes a purely military commander and leads his troops forward. Some one of inferior rank must remain behind on the territory of the district to carry out the functions of military governor. In February 1941, an event occurred which has so far been overlooked by modern historians. A new post for another deputy to the officer commanding was created in the Western Special Military District. What did this mean? Surely General D. G. Pavlov had enough deputies without yet another one! For several months this extra post of deputy remained vacant. Then Lieutenant-General Vladimir Nikolayevich Kurdumov arrived to take it up. The significance of this event was considerable.
In peacetime, General Pavlov, his deputy, Lieutenant- General I. V. Boldin, and Chief of Staff Major-General V. E. Klimovskikh were all to be found in Minsk. On mobilization, however, Pavlov was earmarked to become the officer commanding the Western Front, Klimovskikh chief of staff of the Western Front, and Boldin the officer commanding the mobile group in the Western Front. If the Western Front was meant to fight in Byelorussia, where it had been situated until the war began, there would have been no need to make any structural changes. But the Western Front was preparing to move on to enemy territory. It was for just such a circumstance that Lieutenant-General Kurdumov was brought in. Pavlov was to concentrate on purely military problems, while his new deputy would deal with territorial ones.
When Pavlov led the Western Front into enemy territory, General Kurdumov would stay behind in Minsk to act as a purely territorial military governor, protecting the local authorities and lines of communication, controlling industry and transport, carrying out additional mobilization and preparing reserves for the front, which by then would have moved far ahead. Kurdumov had commanded the Combat Training Directorate of the Red Army before being appointed to Minsk. From the viewpoint of the war of’liberation’, it was a splendid decision to have such an experienced general sitting in a place through which more and more young reservists would pass on their way westwards. He, better than anyone, would be able to give them their final instructions before going into battle.
Four armies, ten detached corps and ten air divisions then stationed on the territory of the Kiev Special Military District were also preparing to leave for enemy territory. They would be led by Colonel-General Mikhail Petrovich Kirponos, the officer commanding the South-West Front. With this in view, it became essential to split the two functions of the commanding officer. Here too an extra deputy’s post was created, and Lieutenant-General V. F. Yakovlev was appointed to it. Kirponos would advance with his troops, while Yakovlev would remain in Kiev. From the beginning of February onwards, the division of the two functions became increasingly evident. A secret command post was set up in Tarnopol. This was the centre of the military structure. The headquarters was kept on in Kiev to function as the centre of the territorial structure.
A heavily reinforced underground command post for directing the territorial system was set up in Brovary, in the Kiev region. A command post of a very light type, consisting of dug-outs with one timber platform, was built in Tarnopol. This was entirely logical; why put up concrete casements when the military structure was not intended to remain in the Ukraine for long? The structure was also divided in the Baltic Special Military District. The senior command staff moved to Panivejis, which from then onwards was to be the secret centre of the purely military structure of the North-West Front. A second-rate general, E. P. Safronov, was left behind in Riga to exercise military-territorial control after the main mass of Soviet troops had moved off westwards. There was a slight difference in the Odessa Military District. Here it was not the headquarters of the front which was split off from the military district headquarters, but the headquarters for the 9th Army.
Most officers belonging to the Odessa Military District headquarters, with its chief of staff Major-GeneralM. V. Zakharov at their head, were secretly transferred to the headquarters of the 9th Army. Marshal of the Soviet Union I. S. Konev testifies that on 20 June the 9th Army headquarters were raised by a stand-to alert and secretly moved out of Odessa to the field command post. (VIZH 1968, No. 7, p. 42)
Colonel-General Ya. T. Cherevichenko, officer commanding the Odessa Military District, had not been in Odessa for some time. He had secretly been in the Crimea, where he had taken command of the 9th Special Rifle Corps, which had arrived secretly from the Caucasus. Then, passing through Odessa by train, he went to the secret command post of the 9th Army, which had been entrusted to his command. Marshal of the Soviet Union M. V. Zakharov has stated that Cherevichenko was on a train when the German invasion began. (Voprosy Istory, 1970, No. 5, p. 46)
Another general, N. E. Chibisov, appeared in Odessa before the German invasion began; his job was to remain behind to exercise military-territorial control after the 9th Army had left. The Leningrad Military District was an exception. As in the other districts, a front – the Northern – was secretly set up, but in this case the structure was not divided. This was also logical. The Northern Front had until then made no preparations to advance far from Karelian territory, so two separate structures were not necessary. No extra deputy was appointed. Control of both military operations and of the territory would be exercised from the same centre, the headquarters of the Northern Front.
On 13 June, the day the TASS report was broadcast, these divisions in the control structures of all the western military districts – except Leningrad – were completed. On the same day, the People’s Commissariat for Defence ordered all headquarters of the fronts to move to the field command posts. From that point onwards there were two independent military systems of command in Byelorussia: the secretly created Western Front, commanded by General Pavlov with its command post in the forest near the Lesno railway station, and the Western Special Military District, under Lieutenant-General Kurdumov, with headquarters in Minsk. Two independent military control structures also came into being in the Ukraine, the South-West Front and the Kiev Special Military District. According to Marshal Bagramyan, Zhukov sent a special enciphered message that this development ‘must be kept most strictly secret, and the headquarters personnel of the district must be warned to keep it so’. (Tak Nachalas’ Voina, p. 83)
Lieutenant-General of Communications Troops P. M. Kur-ochkin, who at that time was a major-general and Chief of Communications of the North-West Front, describes the same situation in the Baltic: Command elements and branches from headquarters began to arrive in the region of Panivejis. The district command was in fact turned into a front command although officially it went on being called a district command until the war began. A group of generals and officers, who had been given the job of running the district, was left behind in Riga. (Na SZF, p. 196, 1969)
The creation of two independent systems of control inevitably led to the creation of two independent systems of communications. Major-General Kurochkin personally ran the North-West Front communications, while Colonel N. P. Aki-mov, his former deputy, managed the independent communications system in the district. General Kurochkin worked hard at setting up the front communication system. In order not to alert the enemy with a sudden upsurge in conversations on the new military channels, civilian communication lines were used. But the word ‘civilian’ must be placed between inverted commas. No such thing existed in the Soviet Union. The state communications system had been put on a complete war footing in 1939 and placed at the service of the army. The People’s Commissariat (or Ministry) of Communications was placed directly under the orders of the People’s Commissariat for Defence.
In any normal country the military communications system is a component part of the general state communications system, but the reverse is the case in the Soviet Union. General state communications are a component part of military communications; Ivan Terentievich Peresypkin, the People’s Commissar for Communications of the USSR was officially a deputy to the chief of communications in the Red Army. When the command of the North-West Front left for the field command post, the wartime communications system had been laid down beforehand: All documents with the frequency plan, call-signs, and authentication signals were kept in the headquarters, for distribution to the troops in the event of war. There were several thousand radio stations in the district. Consequently at least a week was needed to put the work on a war footing. It proved impossible to do everything required in time. (Lieu-tenant-General P. M. Kurochkin, Pozyvnye Fronta, Moscow Voenizdat 1969, p. 115)
The entire procedure for changing over from a peacetime communications system to a wartime one was based on the assumption that a preliminary signal would come from Moscow at a time to be determined by Moscow. In other words, the plan was not drawn up to meet the conditions of a defensive war. It was drawn up to meet the conditions of a war which was offensive, aggressive and provided for a period of secret preparations. The time for these final preparations to invade had now arrived. On 19 June Lieutenant-General P. S. Klenov, Chief of Staff of the North-West Front, issued an order to Kurochkin: ‘Take action in accordance with the big plan. Do you understand what I’m talking about?’ ‘Yes, I understand everything,’ I reported. (Kurochkin, Na SZF, p. 195)
It is a pity that we do not understand everything about the ‘big plan’; no Soviet general has ever explained what it was. But we do understand that something connected with the ‘big plan’ should have happened in the next few days. But, by taking the action he did, Hitler prevented the ‘big plan’ from being put into effect, and compelled the Soviet generals to improvise instead. This is how General Kurochkin tried to ensure that the ‘big plan’ would be carried out: The district communications branch sent documents dealing with the organization of radio communications … to the headquarters of the armies and of formations under district command. All these documents, duly revised, had to pass along a channel leading through the corps, divisions, regiments, battalions and companies until they finally reached the operating team at every radio station. That would have taken, as I have said already, no less than a week. (Ibid, p. 118)
Top-secret information thus reached thousands of radio operators. It was an irreversible process. It was no longer possible to retrieve the secrets and hide them in the safes again. As soon as the material had left these safes, war had become quite unavoidable. Preparing an aggressive war is something like hatching a coup d’etat. A very small group of people make the plan. They do not trust the thousands who will take part in it with even a fragment of information. As soon as the leaders of the conspiracy reveal even the tiniest part of the plan to the thousands who will have a role in it, it then becomes totally unavoidable that the coup will happen. If they do not do this, the plotters lose their advantage of surprise, which is their greatest trump, and enable the enemy to respond with emergency measures.
But perhaps it was because Lieutenant-General Klenov anticipated German aggression that he ordered that elements of the ‘big plan’ should be revealed to these thousands who were to carry it out? Klenov, however, was quite categoric in his belief that a German invasion was not possible. He refused to believe it even after it had begun, and did nothing at all to repel the aggression after it had started. At the December 1940 meeting of the senior command staff, Klenov had suggested that only aggressive wars should be fought, and that these should be started by surprise attacks by the Red Army. He exceeded even the bold Zhukov in aggressiveness, and had the courage to argue with Zhukov in Stalin’s presence about how a surprise attack should be made.
Like Andrei Andreyevich Zhdanov, his protector in the Politburo, and indeed like many other Soviet military and political leaders at the time including Stalin himself, he simply excluded the possibility that anyone else could make a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. In the days which followed the publication of the TASS report on 13 June 1941, all the engines of war in the Soviet Union went into action. The deployment on the Soviet fronts had gone so far that thousands involved had already been let into secrets of extraordinary importance. The Soviet Union passed the point of no return in the middle of June 1941. After that, war was inevitable. If Hitler had decided to launch Operation Barbarossa a few weeks later, the Red Army would have reached Berlin much earlier than 1945.
When a large-scale offensive takes place, several fronts are engaged in operational action at the same time. This action has to be co-ordinated, and this co-ordination is done by the Representatives of the High Command. These Representatives can help make the strategic leadership considerably more flexible in wartime. They have almost unlimited power in the field of combat. On the one hand, the Representative is a member of the supreme military leadership, and as such knows plans which the officer commanding a front does not have the right to know. On the other, he directs combat operations not from some office in Moscow but directly from the command post of a front or an army, where he presents himself just before the operation begins. The Representative is free from the daily routine work of the officer commanding the front and can devote all his attention to the most important issues.
At a critical moment, he might find himself alongside the Supreme Commander in Chief, giving him essential advice; or else he might find himself sent by the Supreme Commander to the most critical sector where the fate of the war is being decided. These Representatives were the best military minds in the country. Their appearance always meant that great events were about to happen. The day the TASS report was published, many inexplicable events took place. My own information is fragmentary, inadequate, and at times contradictory. On the basis of the little information which can be checked, however, the secret visit of the Representatives of the Soviet High Command to the western frontiers was clearly the main business of the day. Among these Representatives was Lieutenant-General Pavel Rychagov, deputy People’s Commissar for Defence. He was a favourite of Stalin and a personal friend of Zhukov.
Although still only 29, he had already distinguished himself in air warfare in Spain, China, Khasan and at Khalkhin-Gol. He had commanded the ist Army’s air force in the Far East, and then the 9th Army’s air force in the ‘liberation’ of Finland. On Stalin’s personal orders, Rychagov always appeared where the Red Army was about to launch a surprise attack. His promotion was rapid. In 1940 Stalin appointed him a deputy chief of the Red Army Air Force; then in the same year first deputy chief; and in August of the same year the head of the Chief Directorate of the air force of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. In December 1940, a meeting was held of the Red Army’s senior command staff to discuss the subject of war against Germany. It was attended by Stalin and the principal political leaders. Zhukov’s proposal was to put the German Air Force out of action by delivering surprise attacks on German airfields, and then immediately launching powerful attacks by the land troops. (Istoriya Sovetskoi Voennoi Mysli, Izdanie Akademy Nauk SSR, Moscow 1980, p. 173)
Pavel Rychagov warmly supported Zhukov’s proposal. Even before Zhukov, he had recast the training of Soviet airmen in such a way that it almost totally excluded the training of pilots to fight air battles. Instead, they were trained to make sudden concentrated air strikes at enemy airfields. In his memoirs, Zhukov recalled the impassioned speech which Rychagov made at the meeting: ‘General P. V. Rychagov, the chief of the air force of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, talked a lot of sense.’ (Vospominaniya I Razmyshleniya, 1969, p. 194)
It is only a pity that Rychagov’s sensible speech still remains a Soviet state secret half a century after it was made. Zhukov and Rychagov’s arguments apparently convinced Stalin. In the course of the meeting and in the series of strategic map games which followed it, Stalin dismissed the Chief of the General Staff and appointed Zhukov to the post. A few days later Pavel Rychagov was also promoted. In spite of his comparatively modest rank, Lieutenant-General Rychagov was given an extremely high appointment, that of deputy to the People’s Commissar for Defence. Stalin appointed Lieutenant-General P. F. Zhigarev to take over command of the air force from Rychagov. Freed from daily routine, Rychagov became a High Command Representative; it was a very high post with access to state secrets, and with no responsibility for day-to-day minor matters.
Rychagov became in his way a sort of minister without portfolio among the senior Soviet military leaders. He continued to work hard on his ideas of surprise, speed, and concentration, and on how to clear the skies for Soviet aircraft with several hours of concentrated bombing raids on enemy airfields. Zhukov and Rychagov, in fact, were preparing to do what Hitler did on 22 June 1941. As General Ivanov put it, ‘The Nazi command simply succeeded in forestalling our troops in the two weeks preceding the outbreak of war.’ (General of the Army S. P. Ivanov, Nachal’nyi Period Voiny, Moscow 1974, p. 212)
In the spring of 1941, Rychagov was permanently on standby, awaiting Stalin’s orders to go anywhere that fateful decisions on the war had to be made. Now the hour had arrived. On 13 June 1941, under cover of the TASS report, Rychagov went secretly to the German frontier. Falsifiers of history explain Rychagov’s appearance there in quite simple terms. Stalin was worried that the Germans might possibly attack, and so he sent Rychagov to the border to improve the defences there. If Stalin had been anxious about defence, he should have pulled back the Soviet Air Force from the frontiers and re-based it in the depths of the country. The air force would have been quite capable of covering the frontier areas from the interior of the country, while the few hundred kilometres which lay between the airfields and the frontiers would have deprived the enemy of an ability to make a surprise attack on Soviet
But General Rychagov’s visit to the frontier did not coincide with the re-basing of Soviet aircraft in the depths of the country. On the contrary, it coincided with aircraft from the depths of the country being rebased right on the frontiers. In terms of defence, concentrating an air force on the frontiers is tantamount to suicide. But when an offensive is being prepared, it is absolutely essential to concentrate aircraft near the frontiers, so that they can be used over enemy territory to the full extent of their operating radius. The German generals, incidentally, were doing the same thing, although they were some two weeks ahead, and were sparing no effort to re-base their air force close to the Soviet border. Had Stalin been the first to strike, we would now regard the German generals as madmen.
But re-basing an air force near a frontier is madness only from a defensive viewpoint. In terms of an offensive, the German generals were doing everything right, as were their Soviet colleagues. We can only guess why Rychagov went to the Soviet western border. After Operation Barbarossa began, Rychagov was arrested and executed on Stalin’s orders. Why he was executed also remains a mystery. It could not have been for losing a vast number of Soviet aircraft on airfields near the frontier; Pavel Rychagov had ceased to be responsible for the safety of Soviet aircraft in February 1941. Responsibility for that now lay with Lieutenant-General P. F. Zhigarev. Stalin did not shoot Zhigarev for having lost the aircraft. He did not even reproach him for it.
On the contrary, the lieutenant-general rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshal and survived Stalin by ten years. If Stalin did not shoot Zhigarev, who bore the personal, direct and immediate responsibility for the basing of the air force and its security, why then shoot Rychagov, who did not have this responsibility? It is my opinion that Rychagov went to the Soviet frontier on some crucial mission entirely unconnected with the security of the Soviet Air Force. For failing to complete that crucial mission, of which we know nothing, Stalin shot the youngest deputy to the People’s Commissar for Defence that the Red Army ever had.
Colonel-General A. D. Loktionov, candidate member of the Central Committee, held the post of deputy to the People’s Commissariat of Defence as early as 1937. Loktionov commanded the Soviet Air Force until 1940, when in the summer of that year Stalin for some reason gave Loktionov the opportunity to make a very detailed study of the frontier with East Prussia. He sent Loktionov off to command the Baltic Military District, which embraced the territories of the recently ‘liberated’ Baltic states.
In February and March 1941 Stalin began secretly to assemble the Supreme Command Staff in Moscow. Loktionov handed over command of the Baltic Military District (the North -West Front) to Colonel-General F. I. Kuznetsov, and set off for Moscow ‘for medical treatment’. By 13 June, all Loktio-nov’s illnesses were cured and he secretly returned to the frontier with East Prussia. We know that Lieutenant-General of Engineering Troops D. Karbyshev had visited the Soviet western border even before this. One of Karbyshev’s pupils, Lieutenant-General of Engineering Troops E. Leoshenya, has stated that ‘Karbyshev was on a mission for the General Staff in the area of the western state frontier.’ (VIZH 1980, No. 10, p.96)
Karbyshev was not just another of those professors from the military academies who were gathering on the frontier, but one of the Soviet High Command Representatives. He was actively and energetically preparing an offensive operation. It was in Karbyshev’s presence that Soviet frontier guards were pulling down the frontier barriers, in order to clear the way for an extra-high-power and very swift Soviet operation. It was Karbyshev who was teaching the crews of the latest T-34 Soviet tanks how to overcome enemy defences and to ford frontier rivers. In addition, along with commanders from the fronts and the armies, Karbyshev was making reconnaissance trips.
Before taking even one step forward, a commander will inspect the terrain which lies before him. Much information will, of course, have been gathered in advance by reconnaissance. Although the commander will certainly trust his reconnaissance, he will always want to inspect the whole terrain personally. This is no empty ritual. Before moving his troops forward, a commander must get the feel of the land. There’s a hollow here—would the tanks get bogged down in the mud? There’s a small bridge there. Haven’t the supports been sawn through? And a counter-attack could come from that wood there . . . If the commander cannot pass over the whole of the terrain in his imagination, if he is unable to assess all the difficulties which his soldiers will have to face, the price he will pay will be defeat.
That is why, before an offensive battle, every commander, irrespective of rank, will put on a soldier’s uniform and crawl on his stomach in the mud alongside the state frontier or forward area; and why, if he is in a forward area, he will spend many hours inspecting the terrain in front of him, as he tries to foresee and envisage before the battle all the difficulties which might be awaiting him tomorrow. This visual study of the enemy and the terrain by the commander is called reconnaissance. It is not the most agreeable surprise when enemy reconnaissance groups turn up on your frontier. It is not too bad if it is only a tank division commander spending long hours watching you through binoculars from the other side of the border. But imagine the officer commanding a Soviet military district appearing on your frontier, not alone, but accompanied by a member of the Politburo, and spending not hours, but weeks at the frontier posts! What would you think then?
It was like that before every ‘liberation’. In January 1939, K. A. Meretskov, the officer commanding the Leningrad Military District, accompanied by A. A. Zhdanov, shortly to become a Politburo member, drove up and down the whole of the Finnish frontier in a motor car. Their trips went on throughout spring, summer and autumn. They finished their expeditions as autumn was drawing to a close and returned to Leningrad. The next thing was that the ‘Finnish militarist clique provoked war’ From early 1941, German officers and generals began, gradually at first and then with increasing intensity, to reconnoitre the German side of the frontier.
There is a famous photograph on my table showing General Guderian with officers from his headquarters carrying out the final reconnaissance near Brest-Litovsk on the night of 22 June 1941. The German generals are looking at Soviet territory through binoculars. As Operation Barbarossa approached, Soviet generals and marshals noticed an increasing number of German reconnaissance groups on the border. (GlavnyiMarshal Aviatsy A. A. No-vikov v Nebe Leningrada, Moscow Nauka 1970, p. 41) T
he German reconnaissance groups camouflaged what they were doing by every possible means. They donned the uniforms of frontier guards and ordinary soldiers, but an experienced eye could of course distinguish between a reconnaissance group and a frontier patrol. Reports began to flow from the Soviet border that German officers were carrying out intensive reconnaissance. This was a clear sign that war was approaching. Marshal of the Soviet Union M. V. Zakharov, then a major-general and 9th Army chief of staff, has said that from April 1941 onwards, a ‘new situation arose’. It took the form of groups of officers dressed in German and Romanian Army uniforms appearing on the river Prut. All the signs were that they were carrying out reconnaissance. (Voprosy Istory 1970, No. 5, p. 43)
Reconnaissance is preparation for an offensive. What were the Soviet commanders doing? Why did they not take immediate measures to repel the coming aggression, the inevitability of which was being confirmed by the presence of the enemy reconnaissance groups? The Soviet generals did not react to what they saw for one simple reason: the Soviet generals were busy carrying out their own reconnaissance. Major-General Petr Vassilyevich Sevast’yanov was then head of the political branch of the 5th Czechoslovak Proletariat Vitebsk Red Banner Rifle Division of the i6th Rifle Corps of the nth Army of the North-West Front.
He recalled how, ‘observing the German frontier guards from a distance of something like 20—30 paces, and exchanging glances with them, we never gave the appearance of realizing that they were there, or that we were in the slightest degree interested in them’. (Neman-Volga-Dunai, Moscow Voenizdat 1961, p. 7)
General Sevast’yanov’s account shows that he observed the German frontier guards on more than one occasion. In fact it happened regularly. So here is a question: Comrade General, what precisely were you doing so close to the frontier? If you were disturbed at the thought that the Germans might invade, then you should have ordered five or six fences of barbed wire to be stretched out along the frontier, so that nobody could slip through. You should have laid the mined traps more densely. Then you should have laid a real minefield about three kilometres deep behind the barbed-wire entanglements, then dug anti-tank ditches behind the minefields and covered them with static flame-throwers, and behind these, another 20-30 stretches of barbed-wire entanglements, this time on metal stakes, or better still, steel rails set in concrete.
Further back still, another minefield – a false one, with the real minefield behind it. Then dig another antitank ditch. Then behind all this, construct forest traps, and so on indefinitely. If the general had really been preparing for defence, there would have been no need for him to stare at the German frontier guards. He would have had to study not foreign territory but his own, and the more deeply he did it, the better. Near the frontier he could have kept small mobile detachments which, in the event of an attack, could easily have withdrawn through secret gaps in the engineered defences zone, mining the path as it went.
This was Finland’s exemplary approach when it was preparing to defend itself. The Finnish generals had certainly no need to stand on the border and scrutinize foreign territory. The Soviet Army, however, did not put up any engineered defences on its frontiers, and Soviet generals, like their German colleagues, ended up spending weeks and months just a few paces from the state frontier. Colonel D. I. Kochetkov recalls that the commander of the Soviet tank division in Brest-Litovsk, Major General Puganov, selected both the site for his divisional headquarters, and the position of his office in it, so that he could ‘sit in the divisional commander’s office with Colonel Commissar A. A. Illarionov and look out of the window through binoculars at the German soldiers on the opposite bank of the Western Bug.’ (C
Zakrytymi Lyukami, Moscow Voenizdat 1962, p. 8)
Idiocy, we cry in indignation. Once the war had begun, it would be a simple matter to fire an automatic weapon from the opposite bank at the divisional commander’s window, or better still, fire a cannon at it. The divisional headquarters was a sitting target. But let us not be too indignant. Seen from the viewpoint of attack, everything falls into place. Guderian was doing exactly the same thing on the opposite bank. His German tank group on the other side had also been moved right up to the river, and he was looking out of his window through binoculars at the Soviet side.
Sometimes Guderian, hiding his identity, would appear with his binoculars at the river’s edge. Just before Operation Barbarossa began, he even stopped trying to disguise himself. There he stood in his general’s uniform, along with his officers, looking through binoculars, just like his Soviet enemies. Let us not call the Soviet generals idiots, for we do not see anything idiotic in what the German generals were doing. It was simply the normal preparation for an offensive. It is always done like that, in all armies including both the Soviet and the German. The only difference was that the Soviet Union was preparing its operation on an incomparably greater scale than the German Operation Barbarossa.
That is why the Soviet commanders began their reconnaissance activities considerably earlier than the German commanders, although they did not intend to complete them until July 1941. In July 1940, on the orders of General K. A. Meretskov, the entire western frontier was reconnoitred. Thousands of Soviet commanders of all ranks took part in it, including generals and marshals holding the most senior posts. Meretskov himself, who had recently surveyed the Finnish frontier, now did the same thing on the Romanian and German frontiers. Then, accompanied by Colonel-General M. P. Kirponos, the officer commanding the South-West Front, Meretskov repeated the reconnaissance along the whole sector of the Kiev Special Military District.
‘From Kiev’, he recalled, ‘I went to Odessa, where I met Major-General M. V. Zakharov, the District Chief of Staff. I went with him to the Romanian cordon. We looked across to the other bank, and saw some military figures looking at us.’ (Na Sluzhbe Narodu) This same General Zakharov had said in April 1941 that the reconnaissance being done by groups of German generals had brought about a ‘new situation’. It is interesting to speculate whether it occurred to him or his fellow officers that the German reconnaissance activities which began in April 1941 were simply a response to the concentrated Soviet reconnaissance which had been going on since July 1940?
Meretskov then hastened from the Odessa Military District to Byelorussia, where hejoined General D. G. Pavlov in carefully reconnoitring the Soviet-German frontier and the territory behind it. After a brief visit to Moscow, Meretskov went again to the Northern Front. He said in passing that he had not found the officer commanding the North-West Front in his headquarters, because he was now spending a great deal of time on the frontier. Lieutenant-General M. M. Popov, the officer commanding the Northern Front, was not at his headquarters either. He too was on the frontier.
In 1945 Stalin and his generals launched a brilliant surprise strike at Japanese troops, and seized Manchuria, northern Korea and several Chinese provinces. The preparations to deliver this surprise attack were made in exactly the same way as the preparations had been made to attack Germany in 1941. The same Meretskov turned up on the frontier. He was by then a Marshal of the Soviet Union. He appeared secretly on the Manchurian frontier under the pseudonym of’Colonel-General Maksimov’. Reconnaissance was one of the main elements in his preparations. ‘He went all over every sector in a cross-country vehicle and even on
horseback in places.’ (Red Star, 7 June 1987)
All Soviet generals and marshals did the same before every offensive. Their opposite numbers in the Wehrmacht, Guderian, Manstein, Rommel and Kleist, did the same. Commanders of Soviet divisions and corps stationed in the depths of Soviet territory were frequent visitors to the frontier. Marshal Rokossovsky (then a major-general commanding a mechanized corps some way back from the frontier) recalls that he often visited I. I. Fedyuninsky, whose corps was directly on the frontier. General Fedyuninsky recalls in his memoirs that his colleagues, including Rokossovsky, did indeed pay frequent visits. The memoirs of Soviet marshals and generals contain hundreds, even thousands, of such instances.
Marshal of the Soviet Union K. S. Moskalenko (then a major-general of artillery and commander of the ist Anti-Tank Brigade of the High Command Reserve, the RGK) makes a direct connection between the TASS report and the sharply increased involvement of Soviet commanders in reconnaissance. When Major-General of Tank Troops M. I. Potanov, the officer commanding the 5th Army, discussed the TASS report with General Moskalenko, he told him to pick ‘some good people who are literate in the military sense and go off to the frontier. Let them do some reconnaissance in the area and observe the Germans and what they are doing. You too will find it useful.’ (Na Yugo-Zapadnom Napravleny, Moscow Nauka 1961, p.21)
In a defensive operation there is nothing for an anti-tank brigade to do in a forward area. The commanding officer of an army will throw an anti-tank brigade into battle only in a really critical situation, when the enemy has already broken through the defences of the battalions, the regiments, the brigades, the divisions and the corps, when a crisis of army proportions has arisen, and when the direction of the enemy’s main thrust is quite clear. This, however, could only happen far in the depths of the Soviet defences.
General Moskalenko’s brigade, however, was neither an army nor a front brigade. It was a brigade of the RGK, the High Command Reserve. In defensive action, it would be held in reserve for an even more serious situation, where the army and even the whole front had been broken, and a crisis on a strategic scale had arisen. In order to solve the strategic crisis, the brigade would have to be situated not on the frontier, but dozens or even hundreds of kilometres from it, in the place where the actual strategic crisis had arisen. When defensive operations are in preparation, the commander of an RGK anti-tank brigade has absolutely no reason to be anywhere near a frontier.
But if a grand-scale Soviet offensive were being set up to move from the L’vov salient into the heart of enemy territory, then the left flank of the most powerful grouping of troops ever seen would be covered by the Carpathians (and the mountain armies who were turning up there), while the right flank would have to be covered by an extra-high-power anti-tank formation right on the frontier. That was where the brigade was, and where General Moskalenko in person set off on General Potanov’s orders to reconnoitre enemy territory. If someone should attempt to explain this Soviet grand-scale reconnaissance by saying that the Soviet Union was preparing for defence, I would remind him that there were very many sappers, including some of
the best, in the Soviet reconnaissance groups.
If defences are being set up, there is no point in having a sapper look at enemy terrain. He has enough work to do on his own ground. The deeper he moves into his own territory, the more work the sapper will have to do. But Soviet sappers for some reason were spending long hours examining enemy territory. If these grandiose reconnaissance operations had a defensive purpose, then they should not have been performed on the frontier. Positions suitable for defending should have been selected and reconnoitred some hundred kilometres inside the country. Then they should have been thoroughly prepared for defensive battles. That done, the entire senior command staff should have fallen back to the old frontier lines to reconnoitre these old abandoned positions, and then deeper still into Soviet territory, to the Dnieper line for example, to prepare still more defences.
Reconnaissance from frontier posts is reconnaissance for aggression. The Politburo held a secret session on 21 June 1941. According to the Soviet historian V. Anfilov, ‘Communist Party leaders and members of the Soviet government were in the Kremlin throughout the day of 21 June, and resolved some state and military problems of the utmost importance.’ (Bessmertnyi Podvig, Moscow Nauka 1971, p. 185)
Only four of the problems under discussion at this meeting are public knowledge. It is not known how many other problems were discussed that day. The first of the decisions which we know about was to arm the Red Army with a BM-13 salvo-fire mobile installation; to begin production in series of BM-13 installations and M- 13 rocket missiles; and also to begin forming rocket artillery units. The BM-13 was given its unofficial name of Katyusha in the weeks which followed.
The second Politburo decision was to set up front formations based on the western frontier military districts. (Lieutenant-General P. A. Zhilin, corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Velikaya Otechestfennaya Voina, Moscow I PL 1973, p. 64) The fronts of course existed before then; the Politburo was merely formalizing decisions which had already been taken. Nevertheless, the decision of 21 June is supremely important because it provides official confirmation of the fact that five fronts were set up and formalized in secret before the German invasion, not after it.
The Politburo session lasted all day and continued far into the night. A few hours later, Zhukov rang Stalin and tried to convince him that something unusual was going on on the frontier. Many eyewitnesses and historians have described that moment. There is no doubt that not only Stalin but Molotov, Zhdanov and Beria all refused to believe that a German invasion was possible. Their unwillingness to believe this is confirmed by everything the Red Army did: anti-aircraft guns did not fire on German aircraft; Soviet fighters were forbidden to shoot down German planes; troops in the First Echelon had their ammunition taken from them; and draconian orders not to give in to provocation flowed from the General Staff.
It is clear from this that the fronts were set up not to repel a German invasion – which the Soviet High Command did not believe was possible -but for some other purpose.
The third decision taken by the Politburo that day was to set up a group of armies of the High Command Reserve (RGK). Marshal of the Soviet Union S. M. Budennyi, first deputy to the People’s Commissariat for Defence, was appointed its commanding officer. Major-General A. P. Pokrovsky (later a colonel-general) became the group’s chief of staff. Seven armies of the Second Strategic Echelon, which had been moved secretly into the western areas of the country, joined the new army group. In his memoirs, Colonel-General Pokrovsky called the new formation ‘the group of troops of the Stavka Reserve’. (VIZH 1978, No. 4, p. 64)
This name indicates the nature of the fourth decision made at this meeting: to set up a Supreme Command Stavka, the supreme body which controls the armed forces in war. It is quite possible that the decisions to set up the group of armies and the Supreme Command Stavka had been taken previously and were merely ratified at the Politburo meeting of June 21. Evidence of this is provided by repeated indications that the German invasion found Major-General A. P. Pokrovsky already at his battle post in the western part of the country. (F/ZHi978, No. n, p. 126)
The fact is that before the German invasion occurred, the Second Strategic Echelon was notjust seven different armies but a fighting machine with one single leadership. Why was this done? In a defensive war, a single leadership for the armies of the Second Strategic Echelon would have been entirely unnecessary. (It was in fact dissolved even before the Second Strategic Echelon came up against the enemy.) In peacetime the Second Strategic Echelon was not needed at all. Nor was there anywhere for it to train or quarter in the European part of the country.
The Politburo meeting gave the overall leadership of the South-West and Southern Fronts to Zhukov, and of the Northern Front to Meretskov. (General S. P. Ivanov and Major-General N. Shekhovtsev, VIZH 1981, No. 9, p. 11)
Meretskov had commanded an army in the ‘liberation’ of Finland not long before. He was now sent back there as High Command Representative. Zhukov had recently been in command of the Southern Front when the eastern areas of Romania were ‘liberated’. He was now sent back there as High Command Representative to co-ordinate the operations of the two fronts. Meretskov left immediately. Zhukov delayed leaving Moscow for a few hours, and Operation Barbarossa caught him in the General Staff building. But that was chance. Had Barbarossa begun a few hours later, then Zhukov himself would have become part of that raging torrent flowing towards the western borders of the country, carrying along with it generals from the General Staff, kombrigs from the GULAG, labour-camp prisoners and their guards, commanders from the reserve, and military academy students and their teachers from far and wide.
Soviet historians say of the German commanders that ‘right up to the time of the invasion of the USSR in June, von Brauchitsch and Halter made one journey after another to visit the troops’. (Anfilov, Bessmertny Podvig, 1923, p. 65) Were Zhukov and Meretskov behaving any differently? The operations of the two armies were strikingly similar. As the one did not know what the other was going to do, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army copied each other down to the last detail. The Soviet commanders moved their command posts nearer the frontier, like their German colleagues; the Red Army concentrated two extra-high-power groupings on the flanks in frontier salients just as the German Army had done.
Soviet aircraft were concentrated right on the frontier, just like the German aircraft. Soviet pilots were forbidden to shoot down German aircraft until a specific moment, just as German pilots were forbidden to shoot down Soviet planes, so as not to set off the conflict before its time, and so that the attack when it came should be a complete surprise. Hitler’s command post was near Rastenburg in East Prussia, while the Soviet Chief Forward Command Post (GPKP) was near Vilnius.
They are exactly the same distance from the frontier; if the Soviet and German chief command posts were marked on a map, and the map was then folded along the frontier, the two marks would come together. After the Politburo meeting on 21 June had ended, many of its members dispersed immediately to their war posts. Zhdanov, who had controlled Finland’s ‘liberation’, got ready to go to Leningrad on 23 June. Khrushchev, who had controlled the ‘liberation’ of the eastern provinces of Poland and Romania, set off for Kiev, and possibly for Tiraspol’ as well. Andreev, who was responsible in the Politburo for war transportation (General A. A. Epishev, Partiya i Artniya, Moscow IPL 1980, p. 176)
sped along the Trans-Siberian Railway in order to accelerate the movement of the Second Strategic Echelon armies. He was seen next day in Novosibirsk. (Lieutenant-General S. A. Kalinin, Razmyshleniya o Minuvshem, Moscow Voenizdat 1963, p. 131) The Politburo’s secret decision to deploy the five fronts on the Soviet western frontiers inescapably committed the Soviet Union to beginning active operations. Each of the Soviet fronts were consuming, among other things, up to 60,000 head of cattle per month. (Marshal S. K. Kurkotkin, Tyl SVSvVO V, Moscow Voenizdat 1977, p. 325)
By the following year, more than three million head of cattle would be needed to feed these five fronts. In addition to these, the seven armies of the Second Strategic Echelon and three NKVD armies which had been deployed behind them all had to be fed, as well as four fleets, the Soviet troops who were preparing to ‘liberate’ Iran, the air force, the troops of the anti-aircraft defences and, above all, the war industry. The Soviet General Staff were clearly concerned: In spite of the great successes in the sphere of agricultural development on the eve of war, the grain problem has not been solved because of a number of reasons. State deliveries and purchases of grain did not meet all the country’s needs for bread. (VIZH 1961, No. 7, p. 102)
A. G. Zverev, the Stalinist People’s Commissar for Finances and member of the Central Committee, claimed that ‘by the beginning of 1941 the number of head of cattle we had was below the level in 1916′. (Zapiski Ministra, Moscow IPL 1973, p. 188)
It must be borne in mind that the level of 1916 was not the normal level for Russia, but the level to which the country’s agriculture had sunk after two ruinous years of war. There were less head of cattle in the Soviet Union in ‘peacetime’ than there had been in Russia at the height of World War I. At these catastrophic levels, disorders can break out, the normal social structure can break down and crowds can take to the streets. Having themselves been carried to power on a wave of disorders, the communists did not improve the country’s food situation. They worsened it to the point where the country was still trying after a quarter of a century to reach the very low level to which the economy had sunk as a result of the Great War. Stalin created a colossal army and a colossal war industry, but for this he sacrificed the nation’s patrimony which had been accumulated over the centuries, and also the nation’s standard of living which he lowered to below the level at which people were living during the Great War.
From the beginning of 1939, Stalin began to transfer the resources of a catastrophically weakened agriculture to the army and war industry. The army and industry swiftly put on weight, while agriculture became horrifying thin. The process gathered speed. The 1,320 military trains laden with motor vehicles on the Soviet western frontier came not from the war industry but from the collective farms. In May 1941, 800,000 reservists were secretly mobilized into the Red Army. They came not only from the labour camps, as we have seen, but also from the collective farms. There were reserved occupations in industry, but not in agriculture. Thus the mobilization added to the number of mouths to feed, while reducing the number of agricultural labourers to feed them.
The existence of five voracious fronts, and the secret mobilization of peasants and technicians before the harvest had been gathered, would have led inevitably to a famine in 1942, even without any intervention by the Germans. Once the all-consuming fronts had been deployed, there was no option but to send them into action the same year. If they stayed where they were, they would quite simply have nothing left to eat. A surprise attack by the Red Army in 1941, on the other hand, held the promise of new rich territories with abundant reserves of food. Even if these supplies proved inadequate, it would not matter too much; a famine in the middle of a war is understandable and can always be explained away.
The only Soviet marshal whom Stalin trusted completely was B. M. Shaposhnikov. As early as 1929, Shaposhnikov had expressed the categoric opinion that it was impossible to mobilize hundreds of thousands and millions of people and keep them in prolonged inactivity in the frontier area. (Mozg Army, Vol. 3, GIZ, 1929)
It is much easier to control an army in the course of a war than millions of armed and hungry men boiling over with frustration and resentment against their leaders. When he set up the fronts, Stalin destroyed the already unstable balance between his huge armies and the country’s exhausted, ruined agriculture. It was all or nothing, and Stalin could no longer wait until 1942 to launch an offensive.
CHAPTER 29 – Why Stalin Did Not Trust Churchill 302