Killing the dragon

Andrew Cockburn

  • The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany by John Erickson
    Weidenfeld, 877 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 297 77238 4
  • The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany by John Erickson
    Weidenfeld, 594 pp, £10.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 297 78350 5

Between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945 the Red Army of Workers and Peasants disposed of ten million German troops, destroyed over six hundred enemy divisions, liberated all of Eastern Europe and finally stormed, unaided, the ‘lair of the fascist beast’, Berlin. This achievement must be considered one of the most extraordinary in military history, for at the outset the Russians were caught completely by surprise and almost completely unprepared. Most of their professional military leadership had recently been consigned to the firing squad or labour camps, and had been replaced by incompetent time-servers. Within a few months of the attack a large proportion of the Soviet Union’s industrial and natural resources had fallen into enemy hands. The Russians’ British allies assumed at the time of the invasion that Germany would be victorious within a month or six weeks. Yet by 1943 the Soviet Union had trained new commanders and had rebuilt its industrial machine, far behind the lines, in greater strength than before. It was the British war effort that had become the sideshow.

The consequences of the remorseless Soviet advance from the ruins of Stalingrad to the ruins of Berlin are still very much with us today. Not only is the present political complexion of Eastern Europe determined by that onslaught: so is the near-universal perception of Soviet forces as a juggernaut of men and machines propelled forward with ruthless determination, crushing everything in its path. If the Soviets could overrun half of Europe in the teeth of the Wehrmacht, what is to prevent them continuing their westward march and overwhelming the supposedly puny and divided forces of the Western Alliance? The answer is, and has been since the late Forties, American nuclear weapons. And so, quite apart from the intrinsic interest of the story of the greatest military struggle in history, a proper understanding of the Red Army’s years of triumph is important for a contemplation of the present-day military and political situation in Europe. The Road to Berlin, the long-awaited sequel to The Road to Stalingrad, is as authoritative a summation as we are likely to see of what happened on the battlefields that marked the Soviet advance. Professor Erickson has dug deep into the vast collection of official and personal literature published on the subject in the Soviet Union, though, as he himself admits, the sheer size of that collection – 15,000 volumes – makes an entirely comprehensive survey impossible. In addition, he has had the benefit of personal interviews with many of the leading participants as well as having made considerable use of captured German archives and other non-Soviet material. The picture of the Soviet military machine which emerges from these pages is one of a giant steadily learning to use its faculties to maximum effect against a weakening enemy. On the long and bloody retreat to Stalingrad, the Soviet commanders, and especially Stalin himself, had perforce been educated in the ways of modern warfare. The system was working well enough by the end of 1942 to bring about the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad – although, as Erickson points out, the Soviets miscalculated their catch, thinking they had trapped 86,000 of the enemy. The true figure was over 200,000. In the course of the next 29 months Stalin grew gradually more deft at handling his enormous armies against a steadily diminishing but still skilled and dangerous enemy. At the same time, his marshals and generals became more confident in the deployment and manoeuvring of their forces, and in pressing their professional assessments on the Stavka – the supreme command, which concerned itself with the most minute aspects of operations – and on ‘Khozyain’ (‘the boss’) himself.

That this process of education was not complete by the time of Stalingrad is demonstrated by the great opportunity for the destruction of the German forces in South-Eastern Russia that Stalin missed early in 1943. It was clear to both sides that the loss of Sixth Army had put the Southern Group of German forces – a million German and allied troops stretched east from the Dnieper into the Caucasus – at grave risk. If that huge salient could be cut at the base, then those forces would be doomed. But Stalin repeated his errors of the year before. At that time, emboldened by the success of the counter-attack in front of Moscow, he had dispersed his forces in over-confident offensives along the entire front. This underestimation of the enemy had led to the disasters of 1942. Now he launched an offensive at the crucial hinge of the German Southern Group at Rostov, but at the same time directed many of the armies lately engaged in the destruction of the Stalingrad cauldron against the German forces further north. As a result, the drive on Rostov failed, though only just, and Manstein, the greatest of the German commanders, was able to outmanoeuvre and defeat the Soviet offensive.

Now came one of the crucial decisions of the war. In February 1943 Manstein, who had just lured the Russians into retaking Kharkov and had then successfully counter-attacked on their flank, proposed to Hitler that he try the same gambit on a bigger scale by retreating all the way to the Dnieper, and then striking back and encircling the pursuing Russian forces. Hitler vetoed the notion because ‘it smacked too much of withdrawal.’ Instead he opted for an attack on the enormous Russian salient in front of Kursk, to the north. This offensive duly went ahead on a massive scale in July 1943, and ended, after the greatest tank battles in history, with the panzer divisions disabled. From then on it was not a question of whether the Soviet Union would be victorious, but when.

Why did Hitler insist so adamantly on the ruinous policy of ‘no withdrawals’? It was of inestimable help to the Soviet Union, since the German generals were adept at strategic manoeuvres, which, as the Russians drew steadily ahead in men and material, became Germany’s only viable option for staving off disaster. Certainly the defeated generals’ postwar reminiscences are replete with complaints about the ‘madness’ of Hitler’s policy, which led time and time again to German troops holding on to untenable positions before being overrun. Nevertheless, despite the military catastrophes it produced, Hitler’s policy may not have been as irrational as it sounds. He had, after all, to consider the political ammunition a precipitate retreat might have given putative opponents in the German High Command. Thus he viewed any general who advocated withdrawal, however plausible the military rationale, with suspicion. In the same way, the inhuman treatment meted out to the Soviet population under German occupation, particularly in the Ukraine, is often cited as another costly error on the part of the Nazis. The barbaric occupation policy ensured that otherwise disaffected elements rallied to the support of the Soviet regime. But Hitler could not afford to treat conquered Slavs as other than untermenschen, for he had since the beginning made his anti-Slav campaign one of the bases of his political support in Germany.

Stalin and Hitler had much in common as supreme commanders. Both showed a considerable insight into the technical aspects of weapon design. Stalin insisted on the ‘no frills’ design of the hugely successful T-34 tank, despite the advice of professionals who hankered for something more complex: ‘a tank,’ he once told a group of designers, ‘is not a department store.’ Hitler correctly insisted that his tanks should have a high-velocity cannon, a stricture which the military-procurement bureaucracy blithely ignored for some time. It must be said that there are no comparable cases of insubordination under Stalin.

Like Hitler, Stalin had demanded a strategy of no withdrawals in the bad years. If the political rationale was the same, the military results were almost equally disastrous – notably the encirclement and capture of nearly three-quarters of a million Soviet troops round Kiev in 1941. Later Stalin put a gloss on that dreadful period by promoting the notion that he had deliberately retreated to ‘buy time’. As the tide turned, he grew somewhat more tolerant of military advice. In June 1943 he let the formidable professional team of Zhukov, Vasilevski and Antonov talk him into authorising a defensive strategy at Kursk – allowing the Germans to expend their lives and machines against prepared positions rather than pre-empting the attack as he himself wished. As a result of this strategy, the German Army suffered terminal damage at Kursk (Erickson, unlike Manstein, gives no credit to the diversionary effect of the Allied landings in Sicily). The Soviet offensives that followed after Kursk had the primary aim of liberating the Ukraine, and thus restoring to the Russians those vital resources in coal and other mineral deposits, food and manpower that had been so usefully employed by the Germans. With these prizes within his grasp Stalin travelled to meet with Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran in November 1943.

After so much fine detail on the progress of the battlefronts – which occupy the bulk of Erickson’s attention – it is something of a relief when he occasionally shifts gear and recounts Stalin’s encounters with his Western comrades-in-arms. These meetings demonstrated Stalin’s sure grasp of political and strategic realities. He gained advantage by keeping his own hand well-concealed. His allies, for example, normally ignorant of Soviet military disposition on the Eastern front, were therefore appreciative when the Russians revealed at Tehran that they had 330 divisions in the field. As it happened, the information was false: the Red Army had well over four hundred and fifty divisions in action at that time. But Stalin had no desire to diminish his friends’ enthusiasm for the invasion of France.

After Kursk the German front was steadily rolled back in a series of offensives unleashed at different times on different sections of the front. Stalin had grasped by now that it was unwise to attempt to counter-attack everywhere at once. Until the early summer of 1944 the South remained the main focus of attention, as the Ukraine was progressively cleared before the Soviet armies were launched into the Balkans. In the north the terrible siege of Leningrad was finally lifted. Then, in June 1944, Operation Bagration tore apart the hitherto relatively unmolested forces of German Army Group Centre, in a battle that far eclipsed in scale and success the simultaneous Allied landings in Normandy. These onslaughts, and the subsequent ones that took the Red Army half-way across Germany, displayed common themes.

As mentioned earlier, the Soviet staff and field commanders during the latter stages of the war were of a high calibre. Some of them, like Zhukov, had been at the centre of events from the beginning, but others like Bagramayan, Vatutin, Chernyakovski, Chuikov and Malinowski were the ‘new class’ of military leaders, who rose to high rank on the basis of battlefield performance, and even won grudging admiration from their German opponents. With this increased military proficiency among the senior officer corps came a certain political self-confidence as well. By 1943, Stalin had conceded the important principle of ‘unity of command’, which meant that the political commissars were now subordinate to the unit’s military commander. In a more visible bolstering of professional military status, the system of formal ranks – abolished at the time of the Revolution – was restored, and the beneficiaries were allowed to deck themselves out in gold braid (to the disgust of the British, who resented the demands on valuable convoy space for shipping it). As the end grew near, though, Stalin concerned himself with cutting the ‘military heroes’ down to size again, and reasserting the role of the party.

Even during the period of enhanced professional prestige and a certain limited operational independence for field commanders, there was never any doubt as to who the boss was, and the boss was still capable of making expensive mistakes. Malinowski, who commanded the drive into Hungary in 1944, found that out at the end of October when Stalin rang from Moscow to order him to assault and capture Budapest forthwith. Malinowski protested that he had at that moment insufficient forces for the assignment: ‘If you give me, as of now, five days, five days as an absolute maximum, Budapest will be taken. If we go over to the offensive without delay, the 46th Army, for sheer lack of forces, will not be able to develop its blow quickly, it will inevitably get bogged down in heavy fighting at the very approaches to the Hungarian capital. Putting it briefly, it cannot seize Budapest off the march.’ Stalin: ‘You are arguing all to no purpose. You do not understand the political necessity of mounting an immediate attack on Budapest.’ Malinowski: ‘I understand all the political importance of taking Budapest and for that very reason I am asking for five days ... ’ Stalin: ‘I categorically order you to go over to the offensive for Budapest tomorrow.’ As usual, the supreme commander hung up without saying goodbye. Malinowski did as he was told. The attack failed, and Budapest did not fall for another three and a half months, and then only after a prolonged and bloody siege. Erickson reports that Stalin subsequently avoided the subject in conversation with his commanders.

An interesting aspect of the Soviet forces that emerges from Erickson’s densely packed pages is that of a first and second-class Red Army. Units that had managed not only to survive encounters with the enemy but to distinguish themselves were designated ‘Guards’ units, and thereafter received favoured treatment in pay and equipment. These troops were used for the more demanding tasks in attacks and breakthroughs. Behind them, both literally and figuratively, came the ‘field’ armies, which were liable to be made up of barely-trained soldiers recruited or pressganged from newly-liberated areas or POW camps. Zhukov may have had them in mind when he complained in 1944 that ‘we are not training our troops in the proper use of features of the locality in the attack, we are simply training them to rise up and shout “hurrah” and advance toward the enemy.’ Training was not apparently regarded as a high-priority investment even for the crucial armoured troops. Foreign military liaison officers who had occasion to visit training centres in connection with Lend-Lease activities were aghast to note that tank troops were given as little as 72 hours training before being sent to the front. With this kind of human material, it is hardly surprising that Soviet formations remained for the most part ‘unbelievably sluggish’, as German commanders liked to point out. It would have been futile and indeed dangerous to attempt to manoeuvre a half-trained rabble as if it were a fine-tuned panzer division.

This parsimony may have been linked to and influenced by official attitudes towards casualties. Zhukov’s chilling observation to Eisenhower that the best way to clear a minefield was with the feet of a marching column is well-known, but the experiences of the Polish formations that fought with the Red Army are also instructive. Both the British and the Russians fielded Polish formations, which were regarded as excellent troops by their sponsors. The Polish troops launched by the British against the strong point of Monte Cassino in 1943, which was heavily defended by a crack German unit, lost 25 per cent of their men in the assault. The Poles employed by the Russians against the small Byelorussian town of Lenino, which was neither regarded as a key strong point nor heavily defended, also lost a quarter of their men. This was not, apparently, an untypical casualty rate for a Soviet assault.

The devastating scale of the Red Army’s casualties is not always revealed in Erickson’s account: it tends to reflect the coyness with which Soviet historians customarily treat details of their losses. Only occasionally, as in the final liquidation of the Stalingrad pocket in which Rokossovski lost 26,000 men and half his tanks in a single day, does the cost of Soviet victories become clear. Otherwise the rate of attrition can only be surmised from the state of units at the end of an offensive. Time and time again Erickson records that divisions were reduced to half a dozen tanks or so, or less than a thousand men.

The great offensives tended to repeat the same pattern: the high command would assemble a vast store of tanks, guns, ammunition, fuel and men (many of them raw recruits) and then launch a shattering blow on the enemy defences. The Germans would be encircled or smashed and the front would move westwards. But at a certain point the attackers, having outrun their supply lines, would come to a halt for lack of fuel and ammunition: whereupon the front would stabilise while the authorities went through the laborious process of building up supplies again, either for another attack on the same front or at another spot. Such logistical difficulties were compounded by the somewhat ponderous offensive style favoured by many, though not all, of the senior Soviet commanders. For the final assault on Berlin Marshal Zhukov assembled no less than 41,000 guns and mortars for the preliminary bombardment over the Oder. Manhandling this enormous arsenal into position took a great deal of time and effort, as did its redeployment once the line had moved forward. Indeed Chuikov, Zhukov’s subordinate in that battle, commented caustically in his memoirs on this and other aspects of Zhukov’s bulldozer approach, pointing out that the massive concentration of guns simply meant they ran out of ammunition that much sooner.

Unfortunately, Erickson has to devote so much space to recording the movements of units on the ground, and the command decisions which dictated them, that he has little room for adequate analysis of how the Russians fought. Vital considerations such as training and logistics are given far shorter shrift than they deserve. Equally unfortunate is the paucity and inadequacy of the maps to illustrate the detailed descriptions of the battles. On the other hand, The Road to Berlin is certainly not tedious. The relationship of Stalin to his military chieftains and to his allies is vividly presented. Just as it is a relief to find the narrative shifting from fronts and armies to the encounters of Stalin with Roosevelt and Churchill, or Tito (who had the nerve to talk back), it is diverting to come across individuals like Major Lukyanov of the Second Air Army, who ‘lavished infinite care’ on the construction of dummy airfields, or the dashing General Badanov, whose early success in the Donbas had later ‘quite gone to his head’. Erickson shows a nice touch, too, with the aftermath of some of these ghastly battles. Among German tanks after Kursk, for instance: ‘the crews splayed out beside them or interred within these steel tombs, mainly fragments of men in a horrifying litter of limbs, frying pans, shell cases, playing cards and stale bread’.

How relevant is the Red Army’s victory to the present military balance in Europe? Some differences, usually ignored, are easy enough to spot. The Soviet Union did not launch a blitzkrieg in 1941: it was attacked. The war in large degree then followed Russian military precedent. As with earlier Swedish and French invasions, the initial disasters were succeeded by long retreats, the training of commanders in serious warfare, the overextension and exhaustion of the invaders, and their eventual repulse and destruction. Now that is not the scenario projected for a Warsaw Pact-Nato encounter. The postulate since the late Forties has been that of the Soviets jumping off from their post-war borders in Eastern Europe and streaking west with forces fully endowed with clear-sighted leadership, combat-trained commanders, effective weaponry and overwhelming numerical superiority – just like the army that took Berlin. A little reflection suggests that the Red Army has changed since those days. It is hard to imagine Chernenko and Ustinov running as tight a ship as Stalin. Apart from the Afghan counter-insurgency action, no serving officer has command experience in combat. Complex and delicate weapons systems like the T-72 tank (which would certainly have come under Stalin’s definition of a ‘department store’) are very different from the austerely simple T-34. Nor can it be demonstrated that the Soviets today enjoy overwhelming numerical superiority in the relevant categories. Some things do indeed remain the same: a lackadaisical attitude to troop training, rigid tactics, and the old problem of logistics.