In August 1936 Moscow became involved in the Spanish Civil war to further the cause of the Republicans and by October the Soviets were sending weaponry and military personnel to the peninsula. Stalin sent the most advanced military equipment at his disposal and Soviet troops soon would face the German Condor Legion which supported the Nationalists. It was the beginning of a proxy war fought between the two adversaries and Stalin stepped up his measures for a future confrontation with Germany . His second five-year plan (1933-1937) was already in full swing for the benefit of the RKKA which was already the largest military force in Europe. The Spanish war would allow the Soviets to test weapons and fine-tune tactics.
All armies have high command staffs whose function is to prepare plans for every eventuality and the Red Army devised defensive and offensive war plans that were updated periodically. Hostilities in Europe between capitalist states appeared very probable as early as 1935 and the Russians prepared methodically for this contingency.
By 1941 a highly developed defensive plan, named DP-41 was in existence.
One key feature of this blueprint is that the Soviet Supreme Command designed it to defeat an invasion in two fronts simultaneously: against Germany from the West and against Japan from the East. The Soviet High Command anticipated an attacking force consisting of 270 divisions: 233 in the main European front and 37 in the Far East. They assumed that the Germans would launch the invasion with the support of Italian, Finish, Romanian, and Hungarian forces while the Japanese attacked from Asia. Given the size of the adversaries’ military forces and the location of the Soviet Union industrial areas, they recognized that the most important threat came from the West . The noteworthy quality of DP-41 is that the Red Army Staff planned against a worst-case scenario, eschewing any wishful thinking.
The Russians established that to defeat the Western invasion, a force of at least 171 divisions in 3 defensive belts (57 in the first belt, 52 in the second belt and 62 in the third) was necessary. Thus, they expected an enemy’s numerical superiority of 233-to-171 or 36%, but Soviet Generals understood that defense has an advantage over the offense and hence, they judged such force sufficient to defeat an invader.
Based on the experience of the Great War, the Russians assumed grievous fatalities, anticipating the loss of their entire deployed forces every 4 to 8 months of fighting and the need to replace them. To restore the strength of these depleted formations with such an appalling casualty rate, they proceeded to amass large weapon stocks, to instruct sufficient reserves and to gear up their military industrial complex and military school training system. This they did, through a process that took 10 years to complete, giving DP-41 a very robust foundation. This is compelling evidence of two qualities of Stalin’s communist government: the ability to think with clarity in the longer term and aptitude to execute wide-ranging plans that demand a national effort.
By analyzing the geography of the threatened western districts, the Soviets realized that the Pripet Marshes divided the front in a northern and southern sector preventing a connected defense. The Pripet Marshes is a large region of wetlands, approximately 480 km (300 miles) east-to-west and 225 km (140 miles) north-to-south situated in southern Belarus and northwest Ukraine (see following map). The area is, for practical purposes, impassable for large military forces.
It is heavily wooded, and it has few roads, but these are not the main factors that preclude large-scale mobility. Rather, it is the large swamps, ponds, and rivers interspersed through this region that make the movement of heavy vehicles exceedingly difficult. Even under the best conditions, crossing this area on foot or horse is problematic due to soggy ground. Melting snow and rainfall cause extensive flooding that convert the terrain into near impenetrable ground. Words sometimes are insufficient to convey the difficulty of this region to the movement of vehicles because the average reader usually drives through well-paved roads or at most, dry dirt trails. But off-road enthusiasts are aware of how even well-equipped 4x4 vehicles cannot traverse through many areas. The picture above does an excellent job in showing the hard going this terrain entails.
This great obstacle separates an assaulting army in two and the invader, therefore, must decide if his main effort should fell north or south of the marshes. After prolonged discussions, the Russians decided that the Germans would select their main effort in the south. They envisaged a direct advance on Kiev from Krakow with a converging secondary prong from Romania (see next figure). The estimated magnitude of this southern offensive stood at 14 panzer divisions supported with 135 to 160 infantry divisions. To give some perspective, this projected southern force was larger than all the forces utilized by the Germans to invade France in 1940. In addition, in the northern sector, they expected another 60 to 90 infantry divisions stiffened with 1 or 2 Panzer divisions to launch a secondary two-prong attack: From Konigsberg to the Baltic States and from Warsaw to Minsk and Smolensk .
The proper determination of the enemy’s main point of effort is so critical, that there was much debate. Alexander Vasilevskiy, Deputy Chief of Staff at the time, predicted the main thrust north of the Pripet Marshes.
However, ultimately, the plan supported the southern hypothesis, based on the views of Stalin and Georgi Zhukov. There were good reasons for that. The clear terrain in the south was very favorable for tank operations and did not offer concealment to the defender, in contrast with the wooded terrain in the north . Moreover, the indispensable oil fields in the Caucasus were in the south, as well as other key strategic sources of food and raw materials throughout Ukraine.
To defend against this threat the Red Army deployed 220 divisions west of Moscow on the eve of the German offensive: 163 of them in three successive defensive belts starting at the border and a further 57 divisions in operational reserve further back (see map of figure 38). This force exceeded substantially the 171 divisions deemed to be the absolute minimum to defeat the German onslaught according to DP-41. The strength of the arrayed defensive force exceeded the established minimum by more than 29%, giving the Soviet High Command reasons for confidence.
The Order of Battle that the Russians disposed to oppose an invasion from the west was certainly formidable:
3 Army Groups (called Fronts), 21 armies, 79 corps, and 220 divisions. 75 of these divisions, a third of the total, were tank or mechanized divisions, 139 were rifle divisions and 6 were cavalry, all deployed in the western districts and as Stavka reserve. Notably, there were also 16 parachute brigades comprising 5 airborne corps. This force structure amounted to 3.310.649 men, 15.470 tanks, 35.508 artillery pieces (including AA guns) and 10.869 aircraft .
The whole Red Army, totaling the formations in the Far East and the rest of the country, numbered 5.104.000 soldiers in the ground Army and Air Force (476.000 in the VVS) organized in 304 divisions, with 23.295 tanks, 19.093 combat aircraft, 48.247 artillery pieces (calibers between 45-305mm), 8.600 AA guns (between 25-85mm), 56.100 mortars (between 50-120mm), and 272.600 motor vehicles of all types . The Far East forces alone, defending against a possible Japanese attack, consisted of 4 armies, 23 divisions, 500.000 men, 3.200 tanks and 4.100 combat aircraft, under General Eremenko.
This huge army was the largest and best-equipped force in the world. The VVS was numerically the strongest air force in the globe by a wide margin. The only category where the Red Army was numerically inferior to the Wehrmacht is in the number of motorized vehicles, less than half. An indicator that reflects lack of mobility of the Red Army. The size of the land army, including reserves, was unsurpassed by any other power throughout the entire war .
Furthermore, the army gained experience in Spain and had the opportunity to prove itself in battle recently. In 1939 it invaded Poland, testing its operational mobility, and fought wars against Japan and Finland. Its performance was weak on the attack, but it demonstrated toughness and resilience on the defense. Neither Japan nor Finland proved capable of piercing the Soviet lines at operational depth and the red air force gained local air superiority in both cases. Feebly against the Finnish and convincingly against the Japanese.
This strong defense allowed to tip the scales in the Red Army’s favor when it eventually brought to bear its numerical superiority to swamp the adversaries. Just like the Wehrmacht did after the invasion of Poland and France, the RKKA studied its operative mistakes and took corrective action. Similarly, it studied German successes, adopted some of their principles and prepared countermeasures.
In case of attack, the Russians were confident they would stop the invaders west of the Dnieper river based on the ratio of forces. They also started rearming before Germany and enjoyed more time to train, equip and organize their army.
A deeper Nazi penetration was difficult to achieve due to the limited road and rail network and the railroad track width, unsuitable for German rolling stock. Since contemporary armies were dependent on the rail networks for supply and in all the Soviet Union only 82.000 km (51.000 miles) of track was available, the more the invaders advanced the greater the difficulties to keep their armies supplied.
This lofty confidence continued even on the day the Germans finally attacked: The Soviet High Command ordered their troops to destroy the invaders but not to cross the frontier!
RKKA’s deployment in Western Europe had defensive and offensive characteristics. Defensively, each of the armies protecting the border arranged their rifle divisions close to the frontier; each division securing 35 km (22 miles) sectors on average. Commanders took maximum advantage of rivers, placing the rifle divisions behind them, thus reducing surprise and mobility potential of the German army.
A WWII division could fend off attacks defending a 10km sector or it could fight a delaying action (exchanging space for time) screening a 20km sector, hence, by selecting to thinly defend the border it was not possible to prevent the German army from finding meagerly protected areas and penetrate them, even considering that numerous fortified regions bolstered defense lines in all districts .
However, each Soviet army deployed at least one mechanized corps and sometimes two, behind the rifle corps as a tactical reserve to launch vigorous counterattacks that had the objective of stopping the German advance. These mechanized corps, plentifully equipped, had enough tanks in this second echelon to unambiguously outnumber the opposing Panzergruppen in quantity and quality .
Behind the mechanized corps assigned to every army defending the frontier, the Border Military Districts
positioned their operational reserves in a third echelon (up to 400 km, 250miles, from the border) to
launch heavy counterstrokes forcing the Germans on the defense or to allow the creation of new defensive
lines in the rear if things were not turning out as planned.
Finally, Stavka prepared a fourth echelon with strategic reserves behind the operational reserves with the
intention of hurling them at the appropriate moment and force the Germans to retreat. These two additional
echelons, by themselves, deployed more tanks than the Germans utilized overall .
The Soviet high command recognized the importance of achieving air superiority over the battlefield and
supported each military district with one air army, composed of several air divisions. These powerful air
formations fielded 6.890 aircraft making them numerically as strong as or stronger than the Luftflotten
each one faced
and had a reserve of almost 100%
(6.636 aircraft in the interior districts, home defense, and long-range aviation but excluding the 4.100
aircraft in the Far East and naval aviation).
Lastly, a vast pool of 14 million trained reservists remained available, unassigned to combat units but
prepared to form new formations.
In the Southwestern front, where Stavka expected the Wehrmacht maximum effort, the defenders arrayed in
even greater depth and with greater troop density; each division covering 24 km (15 miles) sectors . The 5th and 6th armies, defending the
most vulnerable areas positioned their corps in 2 echelons of great depth, while powerful district reserves
stood behind buttressing these defensive belts. Moreover, 3 armies (16th, 19th, and 21st) from the
strategic reserve waited close to the Dnieper River.
Overall on 22 June 1941, only around 25% of the available red divisions shielded the border. The rest, three-quarters of the force, provided depth and resilience to the defense, a countermeasure devised to counteract the blitzkrieg. By the time the Germans attacked the first belt, the successive Soviet echelons would enjoy ample forewarning.
• Significant forces remained well forward in all sectors, threatening the German territories. The powerful 10th army, poised nearest to Berlin was particularly menacing (from the border to Berlin is the same distance than from the frontier to Smolensk). However, this location, semi-surrounded by enemy territory was vulnerable to attack. The campaign in Poland showed the risk of facilitating German encirclements by faulty forward deployment and the Soviets, after analyzing that campaign, probably recognized it, but chose to do it regardless, for some reason.
• The strongest mechanized corps were close to the border, in the second echelon: 3rd MC (Baltic District), 6th MC, (Western District), and 4th MC (Kiev District). This allowed the launching of offensives towards enemy vulnerable sectors (East Prussia, Poznan, and Krakow).
• The Baltic, Western and Kiev Military districts controlled one airborne corps each. Paratroops exist as offensive troops meant to attack behind enemy lines to support mechanized offensive drives. If the Red Army was not contemplating an offensive, their place was in the rear, as Stavka reserve, not forward.
• Another strong mechanized corps (the 2nd MC) supported by one airborne corps was in Romania threatening the Romanian oilfields.
• The Russians constructed, after significant effort, an impressive number of airfields near the border and then filled them to the brim with combat aircraft . These locations make sense if the RKKA was preparing an offensive and needed to penetrate hostile airspace, otherwise, they become highly vulnerable to attack. For defense, air bases farther from the front are sensible because they can still protect their ground armies and they enjoy more time to respond to the hazard of incoming attacking aircraft. The previous year, the British found that their landing strips near the coast, at 15-minute flying time from standard detection range (70 km or 45 miles) presented an easy target and they situated their main fighter bases at twice that distance. In addition, the RAF based no more than 2 squadrons (about 40 aircraft) per airfield to prevent vulnerabilities caused by excessive air density. Forward air bases did not host permanent squadrons.
• The Red Navy occupied bases in the Baltic capable of interdicting German iron ore imports from Sweden.
The characteristics of this deployment strongly suggest deliberate readiness on the part of the RKKA for a large-scale attack.
This does not necessarily imply that the Red Army was about to launch an assault in the summer of 1941, but not even the stupidest German politician could afford to ignore the grave danger to Germany.
When the Wehrmacht began moving significant troops to Poland, Moscow was quick to request Berlin an explanation, as this was a threatening sign . It should have been quite obvious to Stalin that his own deployment was causing alarm to the Germans .
If Stalin and his generals had known the German Order of Battle arranged against them, their confidence
would probably have increased. The actual forces that the Germans and its allies marshalled for the
invasion were significantly smaller than the projections in DP-41. Germany and her allies committed 179
divisions instead of 233, almost a quarter less than planned .
Stalin would have been even more self-assured had he known the number of German replacements. Only 321.000 troops were available as compared with the 14 million that the Soviets trained. An overwhelming 40-to-1 Russian advantage.
In terms of weaponry, the Germans deployed 3.398 tanks and 3.433 aircraft of all types. The numerical superiority of Russian armament appears overpowering: 4.6-to-1 in tanks and 3.2-to-1 in aircraft excluding the Soviet units in non-western districts. While the Germans employed 32 armored and motorized divisions, the Soviets had 75 immediately available. In summary, the Soviets were 29% stronger and the enemy was 23% weaker as compared with DP-41. They also enjoyed a significant numerical superiority in equipment and had a fabulous capability to restore depleted units.
In theory, Russia had nothing to fear.
With the benefit of hindsight, a rational observer that reflects on the major objective variables that have a bearing on war’s outcome, cannot fail to see that the Soviet Union, thanks to superiority on army size, raw materials availability, size of the country and population, munitions production, its capacity to rebuild strength, and systematic preparation, was capable to prevent a rapid defeat. Then, in a long-drawn-out conflict between large enemies with very asymmetric war potential, the USSR had a telling advantage. History shows that the victor is almost always the side that enjoys a substantial material preponderance as long as it can keep itself technologically competitive.
Local, temporary victories by the smaller side are possible, but they just delay the inevitable .Stalin, so far, had played his hand admirably.
However, factually, the Russians stumbled badly and were very close to defeat in the first year of the war. Subjective variables also played a most important part in the conflict and it is here where the Soviet leaders, Stalin, and his commanders made serious mistakes.
The Germans benefited greatly from four major mistaken Soviet assumptions:
First, the actual point of main effort of the German offensive was North of the Pripet Marshes, not South as the Russian High Command expected. So, the Red Army deployed incorrectly. Although numerically the tank strength of the RKKA exceeded considerably that of the Wehrmacht, this was not the case in the point of main effort. The Special Western Military District totaled only 2.098 tanks against 2.241 of Army Group Center, a near-numerical parity . Worse, the German concentrated the bulk of their best tanks in this sector (793 C-type, 593 B-type, and 537 A-type) giving them an important qualitative edge. The Western Front tank distribution of 396 C-type, 483 B-type, and 1.219 A-type gave it a disadvantage in light and medium tanks and it only possessed superiority in the category of very light tanks,
More importantly, despite a marked numerical superiority of the VVS over the whole theater of operations, the opposing air forces in the central sector fought with a near numerical parity, while Luftflotte 2 enjoyed a distinct qualitative edge over the Soviets. 1.488 German aircraft, including all the Stuka dive-bombers, faced 1.532 Soviet airplanes which lacked accurate bombers and sufficient reconnaissance planes. Kesselring’s air force also had at its disposal the most powerful anti-aircraft corps in the whole German Army, a type of formation that did not exist in the RKKA or VVS.
In comparison, Army Group South’s 1st Panzergruppe had 821 tanks to oppose 4.239 of the Southern Front’s mechanized corps that also included the best machines: 921 C-type tanks, 1.566 B-type tanks, and 1.752 A-type tanks against 455, 54 and 219 respectively on the German side (excluding flame tanks and command tanks). More than 1.000 Soviet light tanks were also available in non-mechanized units. Notably, Luftflotte 4 would cope with 1-to-3 numerical inferiority in the south. No wonder the Germans faced a much tougher challenge here.
Second, Stalin’s belief that it was improbable that the German dictator would launch a two-front war, lured him to deploy his army in a semi-offensive posture making it vulnerable. Adolf Hitler so far had displayed a bold but very rational behavior in the conduct of war and it seemed to Moscow that he would not dare to unleash such a gigantic gamble. Under such assumption, the Soviet Union could benefit by maintaining pressure on Berlin and by continuing preparations to attack Germany if she became sufficiently weakened in the protracted conflict with Britain.
While the Red army deployment in depth limited the effect of surprise considerably, the forward placement of the bulk of its air force disallowed proper defense of airfields and loss of air superiority followed, giving the Germans the strategic initiative.
Third, the Soviet High Command overvalued the capability of the Red Army. Stalin found, after the fact, that army leadership, training, and methods were faulty. He specifically assumed that the effect of the purges of the late ‘30s was not very detrimental to the RKKA efficacy. This was not the case.
After the assassination of the popular Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov on December 1934, a probable rival of Stalin, the dictator launched a nation-wide purge of the communist party to eliminate any potential opponent who could conceivably threaten his power. The suspicious dictator enlarged the purge to include the army when on 11 May 1937, he relegated Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Deputy Minister of Defense under Voroshilov and one of the brightest minds in the Red Army to command a minor military district in the Volga. Soon thereafter the NKVD arrested him, brutally tortured him, and shot him dead .
Stalin, unsatisfied with the torture and death of his general, ordered the arrest of Mikhail’s mother, brothers, sisters and his beautiful wife, Nina. Later, he ordered the execution of Nina and Tukhachevsky’s brothers. His mother and one of his sisters died in prison. Three other sisters survived without their husbands, shot also. Mikhail and Nina’s daughter, underage at the time of her detention, suffered arrest when she attained her age of majority.
This was just the beginning, Stalin sacked, imprisoned or liquidated 3 out of 5 Marshals of the Soviet Union, 11 of 13 army commanders, 57 of 85 corps commanders and 110 of 195 division commanders as well as thousands of junior officers . The Red Army was under tremendous expansion, and it needed to dismiss a significant percentage of officers that did not have the qualities to command men in modern war or which were a hindrance for several reasons. The same happened in other armies. For that reason, some voices insist that the purge in the Soviet Union did not affect markedly the Red Army efficacy.
It is probable that these opinions are wrong. One thing is to remove underperformers and other is to execute some of the brightest minds for political reasons. Not only the individuals disappear, but the doctrines associated with them lose weight, team-work suffers, and initiative and confidence to implement necessary changes diminish dramatically in an environment of fear and self-preservation.
Before 1941, the Russian High Command obtained some factual evidence that something was wrong with the army: during the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 war against Finland the Red Army enjoyed a tremendous material advantage but fought clumsily. The logistics to support the offensive suffered from bad coordination (i.e. in Poland, despite the relatively short distances involved, the Red Army was not able to advance with full units and had to pool fuel to allow part of its forces to move ahead). Responsible commanders rapidly applied corrections but they proved insufficient, despite having more than a year for full implementation .
Undoubtedly, the purges helped Stalin to strengthen his power and discourage opposition. During the whole war, the Soviet officers did not attempt at any time to kill or remove Stalin from power and displayed a remarkable loyalty. This continued to be the case even under the disastrous defeats of the first year and a half. However, the efficacy of the army suffered so badly, that surviving commanders found it difficult to lead large formations and within weeks of the invasion, Stavka found necessary to carry out a full-scale restructuring to simplify the field-unit structures allowing less skilled commanders to carry out their jobs. A clear indicator of their lack of experience.
Hitler, on the other hand, carried out his own mini-purge in 1938, when he removed the Minister of Defense, Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Supreme Commander, Werner von Fritsch, along with other officers perceived as uncooperative. The dictator did not kill or imprison any of them, or their families. Curiously, most historians have fiercely criticized this ouster as an example of Hitler’s ruthlessness and excess , but in comparison with Stalin’s, the Fuehrer’s effort was exceedingly timid. The Chief of Staff, Ludwig Beck remained in his post as well as Admiral Canaris, both of whom remained conspirators and sought to undermine Hitler at every opportunity. While the performance of the German army continued unaffected, he was incapable of attaining the same level of loyalty as Stalin did. The plotters inside Germany eventually became emboldened and a large faction of the generals did their best to weaken the head of state. Even when Beck quit his post, he continued to challenge the regime and he remained in close contact with Halder, his successor in the Army High Command, and many other unsupportive or outright treacherous elements within the Reich’s circles of power. The German High Command became a nest of conspirators disloyal to the Fuehrer. This disloyalty is a contributing factor of German defeat down the road, but its negative effect was not yet critical in 1941.
Both dictators failed to achieve the proper balance between military loyalty and efficacy and this translated in millions of deaths on both sides. Stalin should have been less brutal, and Hitler should have been more ruthless. In 1941 however, Stalin’s mistake had much more impact than Hitler’s.
Lastly, the Russians undervalued the competence of the German Army. They assumed complete ability to stop
any German offensive before the Dnieper River, not realizing in its proper magnitude the one aspect that
the Germans got especially right: the deployment of the most skillful army of modern times wielding an
implacable method of waging operational war. Specifically, they failed to appreciate the decisive
importance of the control of airspace in modern war. Like the boxers that find themselves face to face in
the ring to contest the championship fight, the real surprise for Stalin and his Generals was not so much
that the Germans attacked or even the timing, but the obvious skill of their foe that translated into an
amazing fighting power. This is evident when considering that on year after the invasion, in the 1942
campaign, the Germans once again demolished the Russian defenses despite significant numerical inferiority
and the Russian’s knowledge that an attack was coming in summer.
Stalin, for political reasons, needed to justify to his people the reason of the enormous initial success of the German offensive (and consequently the enormous failure of the Soviet government) and did so with the excuse of surprise: a treacherous attack of an evil foe over an innocent and peace-loving country. Although he meant to convince his uneducated populace, his argument also persuaded generations of western historians.
Establishing the relative power of opposing military units is not a science though. Modern wargames do this all the time by studying what in fact, happened in the past. To plan their future actions, both Germans and Soviets established their estimates using objective and subjective data, but the Soviets proved less conservative in the latter case and were disturbingly surprised.
Stalin and the Soviet state, nevertheless, were better able to respond to their initial errors because of the Soviet command structure. Stalin never occupied the position of minister of war or supreme commander of the army. He could select whoever he saw fit for those positions and he was sure he would do his utmost or risk his life. He could also immerse himself in important army decisions or detach himself to analyze grand strategic matters. This allowed him to keep a grand strategic perspective during the war.
By contrast, Hitler became de facto minister of war when he occupied the post of supreme commander of the armed forces, forcing him to view the war from the strategic, as opposed to grand strategic, vantage point. By the end of 1941, he would narrow his view, even more, when he occupied the position of supreme army commander, thus restricting his perspective even more (to strategic-operational level). This factor had a disastrous impact on the conduct of the war on the German side since the Fuhrer started a trend to spend scarce time controlling army operations in lieu of more decisive problems.
It is easy to find fault on decisions made at the time with the help of retrospection and thence, the world is full of armchair quarterbacks. The American army succinctly explains the conundrum: “the future confounds even the most rigorous attempts to accurately predict how it will unfold. Because the future is difficult to predict and understand, warfare often resembles a race between belligerents to correct the consequences of the mistaken beliefs with which they entered combat”. Once war started we would be able to see how each party reacted to correct its mistakes, but now we need to see how the Germans prepared for the invasion.