CHAPTER 32 – Did Stalin Have a War Plan? 336
Since Stalin never explained or expounded his
points of view or his plans, many people thought
that he did not have any. This was a typical error
made by talkative intellectuals.
ROBERT CONQUEST (The Great Terror)
‘Strategic defence was an involuntary form of combat operations, it had not been planned beforehand.’ That is what the Soviet military textbooks say. We do not need the textbooks, though, to tell us that in the summer of 1941, the Red Army’s defensive operations were pure improvisation. Before the war, the Red Army had not been preparing itself for defence, nor had it ever held any exercises to practise defensive subjects. Soviet regulations contain not one word about defence on a strategic scale. Even in the purely theoretical field, problems of how to conduct defensive operations had never been worked out. What is more, neither the Soviet people nor its army had even been prepared psychologically for defence.
People and army alike had been trained to do defensive things by using offensive methods: ‘It is precisely the interests of defence which demand that the USSR should conduct extensive offensive operations on enemy territory, and this in no way people nor its army had even been prepared psychologically for defence. People and army alike had been trained to do defensive things by using offensive methods: ‘It is precisely the interests of defence which demand that the USSR should conduct extensive offensive operations on enemy territory, and this in no way contradicts the nature of a defensive war.’ (Pravda, 19 August 1939)
In the first hours following the beginning of the German invasion, the Red Army kept on trying to go over to the offensive. Modern textbooks call what the Red Army was doing counter-strikes and counter-offensives. But it was pure improvisation. The problem of counter-strikes had never been worked through in any pre-war exercises, nor indeed had it ever been considered in theoretical terms: ‘the subject of counter-offensive . . . had never been raised before the Great Motherland War’. (IVOSS (the official history of the ‘Great Patriotic War’), Vol. i, p. 441)
Before the war, therefore, Soviet military staffs did not work out any plans for defence, nor did they work out any for a counter-offensive either. Yet they were working very hard on war plans. According to Marshal of the Soviet Union A. M. Vasi-levsky, in the year preceding the war, the officers and generals of the General Staff, the headquarters of the Military Districts and the naval fleets were working fifteen to seventeen hours a day, with no holidays or days off. Marshals Bagramyan and Sokol-ovsky, Generals Shtemenko, Kurasov, Malandin and many others say the same thing. General Anisov reportedly worked a 2O-hour day, and the same was said of General Smorodinov. General Zhukov became chief of the General Staff in February 1941. The General Staff in effect went on to a war footing from that moment. Zhukov himself worked assiduously and did not allow anyone else to slacken.
In the summerof 1939, Zhukov, still holding his rank of komkor, had appeared in Khalkhin-Gol. He personally got to know the situation, quickly drew up plans, and began to carry them out with a vengeance. The slightest carelessness on the part of any subordinate meant immediate death. In the course of a few days Zhukov put seventeen officers on trial, demanding that they be sentenced to death. The tribunal immediately passed death sentences on all of them. Of the seventeen, one was saved on the intervention of the senior command, and the rest wereshot. By February 1941, Zhukov had risen to great heights. His authority had increased several fold, and there was nobody who could save any poor unfortunate from his anger.
General Staff veterans recall Zhukov’s rule as the most terrible period in history, even more terrible than that of the Great Purge. At that time the General Staff, and all other staffs, were working under inhuman pressure. So how could it have happened that the Red Army went into the war without plans? There is something else which cannot be understood. If the Red Army went to war without any plans, then why did Stalin not shoot Zhukov, and all those who should have been helping to make the plans, as soon as he learnt about it?
That did not happen. On the contrary, those involved in making the Soviet plans, such as Vasilevsky, Sokolovsky, Vatutin, Malandin, Bagramyan, Shtemenko and Kurasov, who had all begun the war as major-generals or even colonels, ended it, if not as marshals, then at least as four-star generals. They all showed themselves to be brilliant strategists in the course of the war. They were all conscientious and even pedantic staff officers, who could not conceive of life without a plan. So how could it come about that the Red Army was compelled to improvise in the first months of the war? And why did Stalin not even reproach Zhukov and his planners, let alone shoot them?
When asked the straight question as to whether the Soviet command had any war plans, Zhukov replied categorically that it did have such plans. Then another question arises: if there were plans, why did the Red Army operate in an uncontrolled mass, without any plans at all? Zhukov has never answered this question. But here the answer suggests itself. If Soviet staffs were working very hard to make war plans, and these were neither defensive plans or plans for counter-offensive, then what kind of plans were they? Purely offensive plans.
Stalin did not shoot Zhukov and the other war-planners for one very simple reason. They had never been given the job of working out plans for a defensive war. Of what then could they be accused? Stalin gave the task of making plans of some other kind to Zhukov, Vasilevsky, Sokolovsky and other outstanding strategists. These were very good plans, but the moment the defensive war began they became unnecessary, just like the motorway tanks and the airborne assault corps. Murder will out. The Soviet High Command took measures to destroy everything related to Soviet pre-war war plans. But these plans were held by all the fronts, all fleets, dozens of armies, more than one hundred corps all warships, hundreds of divisions, and thousands of regiments and battalions. Something must have survived.
Research carried out by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR has shown that before the war the operational mission of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was to undertake ‘active hostilities against enemy ships and transport near the Bosphorus and in the approaches to enemy bases, and also to co-operate with land troops as they move along the Black Sea Coast’. (Plot v VO V, Moscow Nauka 1980, p. 117)
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergei Georgiyevich Gorshkov has said that, as well as the Black Sea Fleet, the Baltic and Arctic Fleets had been given purely defensive missions, but it was planned that these missions should be carried out by purely offensive methods. This was standard Soviet thinking before the war, and was expressed both at secret meetings in the Soviet command, and openly in Pravda: ‘To wage a defensive war in no way means to stand on the borders of one’s own country. The best form of defence is a swift advance until the enemy has been completely destroyed on his own territory.’ (14 August 1939)
Operations of the Soviet fleets in the first minutes, hours and days of the war show sufficiently clearly that they did have plans, but that these were not plans for defence. On 22 June 1941, Soviet submarines of the Black Sea Fleet immediately put to sea and headed for the coasts of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The same day submarines of the Baltic Fleet set sail for the coasts of Germany, with a mission to ‘sink all enemy ships and vessels, in accordance with the rights of unrestricted submarine warfare’. (Order of Officer Commanding Baltic Fleet, 22 June 1941, Plot v Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voine, Moscow Nauka 1980, p. 279)
The order did not even make an exception for hospital ships flying the Red Cross flag. Beginning on 22 June, the air arm of the Black Sea Fleet carried out active combat operations in support of the Danube Naval Flotilla with the objective of opening a way upstream for the flotilla. On 25—26 June, surface warships of the Black Sea Fleet appeared off the Romanian port of Constanza and began an intensive artillery bombardment with the obvious intention of making a naval assault landing. At the same time the Danube Naval Flotilla began to carry out assault landing operations in the Danube Delta. On 22 June, the garrison at the naval base at Hanko, on Finnish territory, instead of going over to a stonewall defence, initiated some sustained assault landing operations, and held nineteen Finnish islands for several days.
On 25 June, in spite of the enormous losses which the Soviet Air Forces had sustained in the first hours of the war, 487 aircraft belonging to the Baltic and Arctic Fleets launched a surprise strike at Finnish airfields. Again in spite of these enormous losses, the Soviet air forces conducted themselves with exceptional valour and aggression. On 22 June the ist Air Corps made a concentrated raid on military objectives in Konigsberg.
None of this was improvisation. At 6.44 am on 22 June the Soviet Air Force was given the mission of operating in accordance with its plans, and for a few days it tried to do this. On 26 June, the 4th Air Corps began bombing raids on the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. During the few days’ duration of these raids, oil output in Romania fell almost by half. Even in conditions where practically the whole of the Soviet Air Force had been destroyed on the ground, it still found sufficient strength to wreak great damage on the Romanian oilfields. In any other situation the Soviet Air Force would have been even more dangerous, and could have paralysed completely Germany’s military, industrial and transport power with its operations against these oilproducing areas.
Hitler understood this threat only too well, and considered that his only defence was to invade the Soviet Union. On 22 June 1941, the 4ist Rifle Division of the 6th Army’s 6th Rifle Corps, without waiting for orders from above, crossed the state frontier near Raval-Russkaya. That same morning, and without waiting for orders from Moscow, Colonel-General F. I. Kuznetsov, officer commanding the North-West Front, ordered his troops to launch an attack towards Tilsit in East Prussia. This decision came as no surprise either to the headquarters staff of the North-West Front or to the officers commanding the armies and their staffs, for a version of the attack on Tilsit had been played out in headquarters exercises held a few days previously, ‘and it was very familiar to the commanders of the formations and their headquarters’. (Bor’ba za Sovetskuyu Pribaltiku, Eesti Raamat, Tallinn 1980, Vol. i, p. 67)
Colonel-General Kuznetsov simply put the pre-war plan into action. On the evening of the same day, the Soviet High Command, still unaware of General Kuznetsov’s operations, ordered him to do precisely what he was doing already, that is, to attack Tilsit. The High Command gave the adjacent Western Front the task of launching an extra-high-power attack in the direction of the Polish town of Suwalki. And that came as no surprise either to General D. G. Pavlov, the officer commanding the Western Front. He himself knew what his front had to do, and had already given the order to advance on Suwalki long before the directive to do so arrived from Moscow.
To advance was hardly the best thing to do, however, when the German Air Force had not been destroyed on the ground as planned, and the Soviet Western Front had itself lost 73 8 aircraft in the first hours of the war. This operational mission had been spelt out to all Soviet commanders. Of course, the commanders at tactical level were not entitled to know what their tasks would be, but in the senior headquarters, these tasks had been exactly defined and formulated, placed under seal in secret envelopes, and kept in the safe in every headquarters, up to and including the level of battalion.
For instance, the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 27th Rifle Division, concentrated close to the frontier near the town of Augustow, was preparing to carry out combat reconnaissance in the direction of Suwalki. (Arkhiv MO SSSR, Archive 181, list 1631, item i, p. 128)
The task of the Reconnaissance Battalion was to ensure the swift advance of the entire 27th Division from near Augustow to Suwalki. We know even more about this from overt sources than we do from pre-war archives. Enormous Soviet forces were concentrated near Augustow. That was the place where the Soviet frontier guards had been cutting the barbed wire on their frontier. That was the place where Lieutenant- General V. I. Kuznetsov, officer commanding the 3rd Army, and High Command Representative Lieutenant- General of Engineering Troops, D. Karbyshev, had spent long hours surveying German territory from frontier posts. That was the very place where General Karbyshev had been training assault groups to cut off and neutralize the enemy’s reinforced-concrete defensive installations.
Enormous numbers of Soviet troops had been assembled near Augustow long before the war. Right on the frontier and flowing parallel with it on Soviet territory is the Augustow Canal. If defence had been in preparation, the troops would have deployed behind the canal, using it as an impassable anti-tank ditch. But the Soviet troops crossed over to the western bank of the canal and deployed on the narrow stretch of terrain between the canal and the frontier, from which all barbed wire had been removed. At dawn on 22 June, thousands of Soviet soldiers were wiped out by sudden destructive fire. The troops, with the canal behind them, had nowhere to go to retreat.
Is not this perhaps just the usual Russian stupidity? Not at all. German troops had also been assembled in great numbers right up against the frontier, from which they also had removed their barbed wire. Had the Red Army attacked the day before, the losses on the other side would have been no less. Deployment of troops right on the frontier is exceptionally dangerous in the event of the enemy launching a surprise attack, but a deployment of that nature is eminently suitable for launching such an attack. Both armies were doing the same thing.
Soviet generals never concealed that it was offensive tasks which they had been given. General K. Galitsky, when speaking of the concentration of Soviet troops near Augustow, insists that the Soviet High Command did not believe that a German offensive was possible, while the Soviet troops were preparing to carry out an offensive operation. And since the Soviet fronts facing East Prussia and Poland were preparing only for an offensive, it follows that the fronts concentrated against Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia must also have long been preparing themselves only for an offensive as well. Major-General A. I. Mikhalev frankly admits that the Soviet High Command did not plan to use either the Southern or South-West Fronts for defensive or counter-offensive operations: ‘it was intended that the strategic aims should be to have the troops of the fronts go over to decisive offensive’. (VIZH 1986, No. 5, P- 49)
Whether we believe the Soviet publications or not, the Red Army operations in the first days of the war are the best evidence of Soviet intentions. Zhukov, who co-ordinated the operations of the Southern and South-West Fronts aimed at Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, went on insisting on offensives until 30 June 1941, and demanded nothing but offensives from the officers commanding the fronts.
It was only in July that he and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the Red Army would no longer find it all that easy to advance. It would be a mistake to underestimate the enormous strength and vast resources of Stalin’s war machine. Despite its grievous losses, it had enough strength to withdraw and gather new strength to reach Berlin. How far would it have gone had it not sustained that massive blow on 22 June, if hundreds of aircraft and thousands of tanks had not been lost, had it been the Red Army and not the Wehrmacht which struck the first blow? Did the German Army have the territorial expanse behind it for withdrawal? Did it have the inexhaustible human resources, and the time, to restore its army after the first Soviet surprise attack? Did the German generals have any defensive plans?
CHAPTER 33 – The War Which Never Was 344