CHAPTER 9 Why the Security Zone was Dismantled on the Eve of War 67
Mines are a powerful thing, but this is a resource for the weak, for those who are defending themselves. We do not need mines as much as we need the means of clearing them.
Marshal of the Soviet Union GRIGORY IVANOVICH KULIK, early June 1941
A country which is preparing its defence deploys its army deep inside its own territory, and not on its very frontier. The object is to prevent the enemy from destroying the main defending forces with one surprise attack. A defending side will normally build a security zone in the frontier areas in plenty of time; a zone where the terrain has been saturated with traps, engineered defences, obstacles and minefields.
The defending side will deliberately avoid constructing anything related to industry or transport in this zone; nor will it keep any heavy military formations or large quantities of supplies there. On the contrary, timely preparations will have been made to blow up all bridges, tunnels and roads in this zone.
Once inside the security zone, the aggressor loses speed of movement, and his troops sustain losses before they even encounter the main forces of the defender. Only small but highly mobile detachments of the defending side operate in the security zone. These detachments spring ambushes, launch surprise attacks and then quickly withdraw to previously prepared positions. Light detachments create the impression that they are the main force, compelling the aggressor to stop, deploy his forces and waste his shells on areas where there is nothing to hit. The light detachments, meanwhile, secretly withdraw to prepare new ambushes.
While the aggressor is waging an exhausting battle with the light detachments of the covering force, the main defending forces have time to prepare themselves to confront the aggressor from positions which favour defence. The deeper the security zone is, the better. As he breaks into a deep security zone, an aggressor involuntarily reveals the main direction of his thrust, and loses the advantage of surprise. Since he does not know how deep the security zone is, he cannot predict when he will encounter the defender’s main forces; thus, the initiative has passed to the defending forces.
Throughout the centuries, and indeed the millennia, Slavonic tribes have created powerful security zones of enormous length and vast depth. Among the many defence obstacles they employed, the most important and effective was the forest barrier. This consisted of a strip through the forest in which the trees were felled at a point in the trunk just higher than a man’s height, in such a way that the felled part of the tree stayed attached to the stump. The tops of the trees were then piled in a criss-cross manner on the side from which the enemy was expected to approach, and were pressed to the ground with stakes. The thin branches were chopped off, and the thick ones sharpened. At those places where it was unlikely that the enemy would appear, the barrier was usually only a few dozen metres deep.
But on the routes along which the enemy would probably approach, the depth of the forest barrier could amount to forty to sixty kilometres of impassable obstacles reinforced by palisades, stakes, concealed pits, terrible traps capable of breaking the legs of a horse, and snares of the most ingenious construction. Forest barriers in Old Russia stretched for hundreds of kilometres; the Great Forest Barrier Line, constructed in the sixteenth century, was more than 1,500 kilometres long. Fortresses and citadels were built behind these lines, which were carefully protected by light mobile detachments. As the enemy tried to penetrate the barrier, these detachments would launch surprise attacks before withdrawing along secret passages. Every attempt to pursue them ended badly for the enemy. False passages were made through the barriers, and these led the enemy into a zone of traps and ambushes.
It is interesting to note that, when the frontiers of Tsarist Russia moved southwards, the old barriers were not destroyed, but were fully preserved and fortified, while a new line of fortifications, fortresses, and fortified towns was constructed, and in front of them a new forest barrier was built. By the end of the seventeenth century, any enemy who tried to attack Moscow from the south would have had to overcome eight of these forest barriers, which had been made to a total depth of 800 kilometres. This was beyond the capability of any one army to penetrate. But even if anyone had decided to try to overcome all these barriers, he would never have been able to make a surprise attack. The aggressor would have been worn down by enormous effort and by constant raids effected by light mobile detachments. Even supposing that he overcame all this, he would find the Russian Army, fully mobilized, fresh and ready for battle, awaiting him at the end of the road.
Security zones still retain their importance in the twentieth century. The Red Army understood full well what a security zone was, having had enormous experience of operating in them. During the 1920 campaign to ‘liberate’ Warsaw and Berlin, the Red Army found itself in a security zone prepared by the Polish Army. Chief Marshal of Artillery N. N. Voronov noted how the Polish troops destroyed everything in the wake of their withdrawal, railway stations, railway lines, and bridges. They burned villages, crops, and haystacks. We moved forward with great difficulty. We had to ford every small river by wading or by improvised means. Having to carry our ammunition made our progress even more difficult. (Na Sluzhbe Voennoi, Voenizdat 1963, p. 34)
After such an experience, the Red Army itself created strong security zones on its own frontiers, particularly its western borders. Special government commissions inspected the country’s western regions and determined which zones an enemy would find easiest to cross, and which would afford him most difficulty. Teams of bridge-protection guards, trained in demolition work, were made ready to blow up all the bridges in the western regions. The 6o-metre long railway bridge at Olev, for example, could have been blown up by the duplicated explosion system in two and a half minutes. (I. Starinov, Miny Zhdut Svoego Chasa, Moscow Voenizdat 1964, p. 24)
Heavy pipe-lines, depots, water pumps, water towers, high embankments and deep cuttings were all prepared to be blown up. (Ibid, p. 18) By the end of 1929, 60 teams of demolition sappers, totalling 1,400 men, had been trained in the Kiev Military District alone. These had at their disposal ’1,640 fully prepared sophisticated charges and tens of thousands of safety-fuse detonator sets, which were ready literally for instant use.’ (Ibid, p. 22) Similar activity was also going on in other military districts. In addition to the teams of demolition sappers which had been set up in the western regions of the country, railway-blocking battalions were formed. One of their tasks was to destroy the main railway junctions in the event of a retreat and to create defence obstacles on the main arterial routes by destroying roads and laying delayed-action land mines lest the enemy should try to rebuild the roads. There were four such battalions in the Ukraine in 1932. (Ibid, p. 175)
Railway points crossings, communications equipment, telegraph wires and in some cases even the rails were got ready to be removed. (M. Tukhachevsky, Izbrannye Proizvedeniya, Moscow Voenizdat 1964, Vol. i pp. 65-67)
The Soviet security zone underwent continuous improvements. The number of targets prepared for demolition steadily grew. New defence obstacles were created: forest barriers; artificial reservoirs in front of defensive constructions; preparations were even made to flood some areas. In the autumn of 1939, the Soviet Union had a great stroke of luck. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it annexed new territories between 200 and 300 kilometres deep. The security zone that had already been set up thus grew considerably in depth. Nature herself could have created these new territories for the express purpose of equipping it as a security zone. They had forests, hills, bogs, deep rivers with marshy banks and, in the western Ukraine, fast-flowing mountain rivers between steep banks. In short ‘the terrain favoured defence and the creation of defence obstacles.’ (Marshal of the Soviet Union A. Eremenko, V Nachale Voiny, Moscow Nauka 1964, p. 71)
As if that were not enough, the network of roads was still at a primitive stage of development. Of 6,696 miles of railway lines, only 2,008 had double tracks, but the capacity of even these was limited. It would have been quite easy, were the need to arise, to make these railway lines quite unusable. It was at this point that the Red Army had spectacular confirmation of the value of security zones to a defending side. In the autumn of that year, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The attack was no surprise, however, for the Finnish forces were far from the frontier behind their own security zone when it arrived.
The failures of the Red Army on this occasion were not simply the results of miscalculations by the Soviet command. More important was the fact that the Finnish Army was prepared for defence, and ready to make sacrifices. The Finns had erected their security zone in front of their main line of defence. This zone -some 40-60 kilometres deep (Sovetskaya Voennaya Entsiklopediya, Vol. 6, p. 504) – was strewn with minefields and defence obstacles. Snipers, sappers and light mobile detachments were extremely active.
The result was that it took the Red Army 25 days to overcome the security zone. They emerged from it facing the main line of defence having suffered great losses, with low morale and without ammunition, fuel or supplies. Space for manoeuvre was severely restricted. One step off the road might be the last one would ever take. The rear units fell behind and found themselves under constant threat of repeated raids by Finnish light detachments, who knew the locality extremely well and who had secret paths through the minefields.
All the Soviet commanders who fought there expressed their admiration of the Finnish security zone. Foremost among them was K. Meretskov, who commanded the yth Army. (Na Sluzhbe Narodu, Moscow IPL 1968, p. 184)
After he had finally overcome the Finnish security zone and had assessed its worth, Meretskov was appointed Chief of the General Staff. So how did he make use of his experience in order to reinforce the Soviet security zone which had been set up along the Soviet Union’s western frontiers? Meretskov ordered that:
1. The security zone which had previously been constructed along the Soviet Union’s western frontiers should be dismantled, the teams of demolition sappers disbanded, the explosive charges removed, the mines rendered harmless, and the defence obstacles razed to the ground;
2. No security zone should be set up in the new lands;
3. The main forces of the Red Army should be moved right up to the frontiers, without a security zone to protect them;
4. The strategic resources of the Red Army should be brought from the heart of the country and concentrated directly on the frontier;
5. A vast works programme should begin at once to build a network of roads and airfields in western Byelorussia and in the western Ukraine: single-lane roads were to be made into dual-lane roads, the capacity of the roads was to be increased; and new roads leading directly to the German border were to be built. The results of this ludicrous policy became clear when Poland was partitioned in 1939. Bridges across what were now frontier rivers remained intact, even though nobody used them. There were six such bridges in the zone of the Soviet 4th Army alone.
For understandable reasons, the Germans never raised the issue of destroying them, although no one needed them in peacetime. But the Soviet leaders did not raise the issue of destroying them either. The moment the war began, all these bridges were captured by the Germans, allowing a great number of German troops to cross them and catch the Soviet 4th Army napping. This army suffered a crushing defeat, opening the way into the rear of the powerful 10th Army, which suffered a quite unprecedented rout as a result. Encountering no further obstacles in his path, Guderian began his drive for Minsk.
‘Why, in particular, were so many bridges across the Bug left intact in the 4th Army zone?’ enquires L. Sandalov, former chief of staff of the 4th Army. (Perezhitoe, Voenizdat 1966, p. 99)
Why indeed? The German command hoped to use the bridges in an aggressive war, so it was clearly not in their interests to destroy them. But what was the Soviet Command hoping for? The decision to leave the bridges intact is usually explained as a piece of incompetence on the part of the Soviet commanders. But it was Sandalov, whose most striking quality was his exceptional prudence and attention to detail, who was responsible for these bridges. It is interesting that no one has blamed him for doing nothing about these bridges, nor has anyone put him up against a wall for it. On the contrary, in June 1941 he began his rapid rise in rank from colonel to colonel-general, and distinguished himself in many operations.
The German troops advanced further without encountering difficulties, capturing bridges across the Dvina, the Berezin, the Niemen, the Pripyat’ and even the Dnieper. A failure to prepare these bridges for demolition could be judged as criminal negligence. But the matter is more serious. They had been prepared for demolition, but were cleared of mines after the common Soviet—German frontier had been established. The mines were cleared everywhere. This means that it happened not because of a whim of individual idiots, but because it was state policy. ‘Our country,’ wrote Colonel Ilya Starinov, ‘was now directly adjoined to the West, which contained the powerful military machine of Nazi Germany.’ The threat of invasion hung over England . . .
When I learnt that preparations were being made to dismantle the defence obstacles in the frontier zone, I was simply stunned. Even everything which we had succeeded in setting up in the years 1926-33 was in fact eliminated. There were no longer any stores with already prepared charges sited near important bridges and other objectives. It was not only that there were no brigades. There were no special battalions either . . . The Ul’yanovsk School of Special Engineering, which was the only training institution which turned out highly qualified commanders for sub-units equipped with radio-controlled mines, was made into a communications school. (I. Starinov, op. cit. p. 175)
The element of surprise – so advantageous to the Germans in June 1941 – could have been reduced had the main Soviet forces been kept away from the actual frontiers. Empty territory, even without any technical defence installations, would have served as a security zone after its own fashion, by allowing the main forces time to get ready for action. But, according to the official Soviet account, The armies . . . were to deploy directly along the state frontier … in spite of the fact that its geographical outline was entirely disadvantageous to defence. Even those security /ones stipulated in our pre-war directives had not been technically prepared, (htoriya Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny, Voenizdat 1961, Vol. 2, p. 49)
Thus Meretskov was acting against Soviet military interests. So why did Stalin not dismiss him? He did; but not because Meretskov had eliminated the security zone and failed to create a new one, but because Meretskov had not been active enough in building roads, bridges, and airfields in the new regions. On 1 February 1941, Meretskov’s place as Chief of General Staff was taken by General G. K. Zhukov. The
work then intensified on a truly Zhukovian scale. Prior to this, there had been five railway brigades in the Red Army. Zhukov immediately increased this number to thirteen.
Each brigade consisted of one regiment, two detached battalions and back-up sub-units. Almost all the railway troops were concentrated in the western frontier regions, where they worked intensively at modernizing old railway tracks and laying new ones leading right up to the frontier itself. (Red Star, 15 September 1984)
The construction of these lines suggests that the Soviet leadership was looking upon the frontier zone not as a battle zone but as its rear area to which, in the event of a rapid advance into the west, it would be essential to send millions of new reservists, millions of tons of ammunition, fuel and other items of supply. The construction of railways was accompanied by the building of motor highways running directly to the frontier towns of Peremyshl’, Brest-Litovsk and Yavarov. When preparations are being made for a defensive war, ‘belt’ roads are built running parallel with the front, so that troops may be moved from passive sectors to those under threat.
These ‘belt’ roads are built deep in the rear; the frontier regions themselves are left as far as possible without roads or bridges. But the Red Army built both railways and motor highways running from east to west, directly to the front. This is done when preparations are being made to advance, so that reserves can be transferred rapidly from within the country to the state frontier, and so that the troops can
subsequently be supplied when they have crossed the frontier.‘The network of motor highways in western Byelorussia and the western Ukraine,’ recalls Marshal Zhukov, ‘was in a very bad condition. Many bridges were unable to bear the weight of medium tanks or artillery.’ (Vospominaniya i Razmyshleniya, p. 207)
The situation should have delighted Zhukov: the supports of these rickety bridges could have been knocked down; anti-tank mines could have been laid on the banks, snipers posted in the undergrowth, and anti-tank guns put in place. Instead, Zhukov was furiously building roads, and replacing old bridges with new ones, so that tanks and artillery could use them. The NK VD and Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria in person gave the Red Army enormous help in this mighty work. The term ‘the construction organizations of the NK VD’ is often encountered in Soviet sources. (Air Chief Marshal A. A. Novikov, V Nebe Leningrada, Nauka 1970, p. 65)
But we now know whom the NKVD used as manpower. Why else were so many labour-camp prisoners held in the frontier zone, particularly on the eve of the war. Meanwhile war was clearly approaching. The official History of the Kiev Military District (Voenizdat 1972, p. 147) states that ‘at the beginning of 1941 the Nazis set about building bridges, railway branch lines and field aerodromes’. These were clear signs that an invasion was being prepared. Yet this is what the Soviet railway troops were doing at exactly the same time. (Ibid, P. 143)
The railway brigades which Zhukov had set up accomplished a vast amount of work on Soviet territory. Their main purpose, however, was to operate on enemy territory in the wake of the advancing troops by rapidly overcoming the enemy’s security zone, by rebuilding roads and bridges and by altering the narrow Western European gauge on the main railway lines to make it correspond to the broader Soviet standard. After the war began, these brigades were used to put up defence obstacles, but this was not what they had been brought into existence to do.
On the eve of the war, the Soviet railway troops did not prepare the rails for removal or demolition. They did not transport their supplies away from the frontier zones. On the contrary, they stockpiled rails, collapsible bridges, building material and coal in considerable quantities directly on the frontier. It was right there that the German Army captured all these stocks. German documents give evidence of this, as indeed do Soviet sources. Starinov, who was head of the Department for Defence Obstacles and Mining in the Engineering Directorate of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, described the Brest-Litovsk frontier railway station on 21 June 1941.
‘Near the railway tracks,’ he wrote, ‘the sun shone down upon mountains of coal and heaps of brand-new rails beside the tracks. The rails sparkled in the sunshine. Everything breathed tranquillity.’ (Miny Zhdut Svoego Chasa, p. 190)
Everyone knows that rails very quickly become covered with a thin coating of rust. The point here is that the rails hadjust been delivered straight to the frontier on the day before the war began. Why? ‘Ah, if only Stalin had not eliminated Tukhachevsky, everything would have been different,’ was the thought which was constantly hammered into our heads. Tukhachevsky had distinguished himself by his brutality in the shootings of both the peasants in Tambov Province and also of the Kronstad sailors who had been taken prisoner; faced with a real war, he had been defeated by the Polish Army.
In all remaining respects he was no different from any other Soviet marshal. ‘When preparing an operation,’ he wrote, ‘it is absolutely esssential to make a stockpile of wooden bridges, and to concentrate railway reconstruction units in the necessary sectors . . . when the narrow gauge is being adjusted to a wide one.’ (Marshal M. Tukhachevsky, Izbrannye Proizvedeniya, Voenizdat 1964, Vol. I, pp. 62-63)
Practically all the Soviet engineering and railway troops were gathered on the western frontiers. Sapper units and units belonging to those divisions, corps and armies which were concentrated on the frontier itself, as well as other units from other formations which had begun to move up to the border, were all operating in the frontier zone before the war began. The Soviet sappers were busy preparing the departure positions from which the offensive would begin; laying down roads for columns to move along; surmounting and erecting engineered defences, creating tactical and strategic camouflage, ensuring that the infantry and tanks which formed part of the assault groups interacted properly; protecting forced river crossings . . . (Sovietskie Vooruzhennye Sily, Voenizdat 1978, p. 255)
Let not the words ‘erecting engineered defences’ mislead the reader. By the time that the decisive attack on the Finnish Mannerheim Line began, Soviet sappers had also built several sectors consisting of engineered defence obstacles similar to the Finnish ones. Before going into battle, the newly arrived Soviet troops were put through these defences, which had been put there for training purposes. After that, they went over to the real attack.
With all due respect to the German Army, it must be admitted that it was catastrophically unprepared for a serious war. The impression is given that the German General Staff simply did not know that winter occurs on occasions in Russia, or that the roads were somewhat different from German ones. The oil used to lubricate German weapons congealed in the intense cold, and consequently they did not work. The German Blitzkrieg was unable to move with the same rapidity over Russian roads as it had over French ones. Hitler knew that he had to make war in Russia; if German industry was producing arms which were only suitable for use in Western Europe and Africa, who can say that Germany was ready for war with the USSR?
Hitler was lucky, however: Zhukov, Meretskov and Beria had obligingly compensated for the defects in German military planning by building roads and laying down great stockpiles of rails, collapsible bridges and building materials just where the enemy could capture them. What would have happened to Hitler’s army had a powerful programme of self-defence been put into effect, with bridges blown up, rolling stock and rails evacuated, all stores destroyed and the roads wrecked, flooded, turned into marshes and mined?
The German Blitzkrieg would have skidded to a halt long before it reached Moscow. It was not, of course, for Hitler’s benefit that Meretskov, Zhukov and Beria had built roads and railways and stockpiled supplies. It was to let the Soviet ‘liberation’ army loose on Europe, with speed and with nothing in its path, and to keep it supplied in the course of its surprise offensive. On the eve of the war, no one in the Red Army was thinking about defensive obstacles. Everyone had his mind on overcoming such obstacles on enemy territory. That is why, under cover of a TASS announcement of 13 June 1939, some Soviet marshals and leading experts on obstacle clearing made their secret appearance on the western frontier. Marshal of the Soviet Union G. Kulik, who had secretly arrived in Byelorussia, discussed the situation with Colonel Starinov. ‘Let’s have mine-detectors, sappers and trawl equipment!’ he demanded (Miny Zhdut Svoego Chasa, p. 179) T
he Marshal was thinking about German territory. All the mines on Soviet territory had already been rendered harmless, and all the obstacles dismantled. ‘You have not named your branch correctly,’ the Marshal went on to tell him. ‘To be in accordance with our doctrine you should call it the branch for the clearance of obstacles and mines. Once we would have thought otherwise, and harped on defence, defence . . . but enough of that!’ (Ibid, quoted by Starinov) The same problem worried General of the Army Dimitri Grigoryevich Pavlov, the commander of the Special Western Military District. He noted angrily that insufficient attention was being paid to obstacle removal.
The Red Army had learnt from its experience in the Finnish security zone, and was carefully preparing itself to surmount the German defences. If only the Soviet marshals had known that the war would begin for them on 21 June, and not as planned in July, then no resources for dismantling mines would have been needed at all. The German Army broke its own rules and did exactly the same thing. It removed the mines, razed the defences to the ground and concentrated its troops directly on a frontier which had no defensive zone whatever. At the beginning of June, German troops began to remove the barbed wire from the frontier. Marshal of the Soviet Union Kirill Sirnionovich Moskalenko considered this incontrovertible evidence that they would soon begin an aggression. (Ha Yugo-Zapadnom Napravleny, Nauka 1960, p. 24)
But of course the Red Army did the same thing very shortly afterwards. The full flower of military engineering thought, including Professor Dimitri Mikhailovich Karbyshev – then a lieutenant-general of engineering troops — came from Moscow to meet on the western frontier. As he left Moscow at the beginning of June, he told his friends that the war had already begun and arranged to meet them in the ‘place of victory.’ Once he had arrived on the western frontier, he became feverishly busy. He attended exercises in fording water-defence obstacles, and in surmounting anti-tank obstacles with the latest T-34 tanks, neither of which are needed in defensive warfare.
On 21 June, he went over to the loth Army. But ‘before this,’ his biographer tells us, ‘Karbyshev, accompanied by V. I. Kuznetsov, officer commanding the 3rd Army and Colonel N. A. Ivanov, commandant of the Grodnensk UR [Ukreplyonnyi Raion – fortified region] visited the frontier detachment. On the Augustow-Seino road along the frontier, our barbed-wire entanglements were still in place in the morning, but by the time they passed them again on their return journey, the barriers appeared to have been removed.’ (E. Reshin, General Karbyshev, Izd. DOSAAF 1971, p. 204)
Interestingly, neither the officer commanding the 3rd Army, who had to wage war there, nor the commandant of the fortified zone which in theory was intended for defence, nor the most senior expert from Moscow, who knew that the war had already begun, reacted in the slightest to these measures. On the contrary, the removal of the obstacles coincided with their visit.
Can we imagine the commander of a Soviet frontier sub-unit, an NKVD lieutenant, removing the barbed wire on his own volition? If he were to give such an order, would not his subordinates regard the order as ‘clearly criminal’? The lieutenant did give such an order, though, and his subordinates carried it out at the gallop; evidently an order had been received from Lieutenant-General I. A. Bogdanov, the head of the NKVD frontier troops in Byelorussia. Bogdanov clearly realized that war was approaching; on 18 June he took the decision to evacuate the families of servicemen. (Dozornye Zapadnykh Rubezhei, Izd. Polit Literatury Ukrainy, Kiev 1972, p. 101)
It is hardly possible that Bogdanov could have decided to evacuate frontier troops’ families and, at the same time, to cut the wire, without the knowledge of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs and General Commissar for State Security. It is hardly possible that Beria could have made this decision by himself either. Nor did he do so. Beria worked in full co-operation with Zhukov. Above them, Stalin must have co-ordinated the actions of the army and the NKVD. The military and the Chekists were acting in coordination. What is more, they were all in full agreement on essentials, on places and on times.
We are assured that the Red Army suffered its first defeats because it was unprepared for war. This is nonsense. If it had not prepared itself for war, then the barbed wire would have been left intact, if only on the frontier. This would at least have gained a little time for the army sub-units to bring their weaponry to readiness, and may have averted the fearful catastrophes that followed. The Chekists certainly did not remove the barbed wire on the frontier in order to allow the German Army to take advantage of the gaps they had opened up. The barbed wire was taken away for other purposes.
Try to imagine a situation where, for whatever reason, the German assault had been delayed. What would the Chekists on the frontier have done? Would they have eliminated the frontier barriers, kept the frontier open, and begun again to erect defensive obstacles? Certainly not. There can be only one alternative to this thesis.
The Chekists cut the wire in order to allow the ‘liberation army’ to pass over the enemy’s territory, without hindrance, in exactly the same way as they had done before the ‘liberation’ of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Bessarabia and Bukovina. Now Germany’s turn had come.
CHAPTER 10 Why Stalin Abolished the Stalin Line 82