♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

General Introduction


Soldiers of the Red Army, 1939. (Red Army photo

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In World War II, some 25 million Soviet citizens served in the armed forces of the USSR, mostly in the Red Army. Well over eight million were killed in action, or died of wounds, or died as prisoners of war in the hands of the Germans. Many—nothing like exact numbers can be cited—were killed by their own side. The “supreme measure”—summary execution for cowardliness, desertion or incompetence—was a standard disciplinary measure.

Yet despite those astronomical casualties, the Red Army emerged victorious from the twentieth century’s most barbaric and vicious war. At enormous cost—and with considerable outside aid—the USSR destroyed National Socialist Germany, ending the war with its troops in occupation of Berlin. How this happened, how the Red Army met catastrophe at the beginning of the Nazi-Soviet War, survived and refashioned itself, and finally defeated a formidable enemy, is a story of absorbing interest.

When World War II began the Red Army was superficially quite similar to the armies of other major powers. Like them it had its field armies, corps, divisions, brigades and regiments, its officer corps, its general staff. But appearances were deceiving for in reality the Red Army suffered from deficiencies that very nearly brought down the Soviet state. These deficiencies can be summarized under two headings: structural and political.

In the 1930s the Red Army acquired a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking, militarily progressive armies in the world. Its mechanized forces—tanks and motorized infantry—made a striking impression on foreign observers. It was a pioneer in the development of parachute troops. In the Russian military tradition, its artillery seemed incomparably powerful. And of course it was very large, there being a pool of more than 30 million men of military age to draw upon. But paradoxically, that very size was a source of weakness.

The invincible Red Army as depicted in Soviet propaganda. The reality was somewhat different.

By the mid-twentieth century the art of war had developed so far as to require a great deal of technical expertise. Mechanized and airborne forces, artillery, communications, mobilization—all depended for their effectiveness on large amounts of up-to-date equipment and strong cadres of technical specialists. Soviet propaganda made much of the regime’s success in industrializing the country and providing the required specialists through an improved educational system. But the truth was that the results achieved were inadequate relative to the great size of the Red Army. All too often, the tables of organization of its units were aspirational rather than actual. Many of the divisions titled mechanized and motorized in 1939-41 were no such thing, since the requisite equipment was lacking. And even when it was, the insufficiency of technically qualified men was a handicap. The artillery regiment of an infantry division might have its authorized 82 guns and howitzers—but not sufficient trained artillerymen to make the most efficient use of them.

These structural deficiencies were exacerbated by political factors peculiar to the Soviet regime. Stalin’s desire to turn the USSR into a major military power was accompanied by fear and distrust of the Red Army, which was one of two Soviet institutions with the power to depose him. (The other was the NKVD.) This obsession with political reliability led him to apply the method of the purge to the Army in 1937-38. Virtually the whole military high command was wiped out, along with a significant percentage of the officer corps as a whole. They were replaced by new men who, with the fate of their predecessors before their eyes, could be expected to remain loyal—the more so as they were closely supervised by a corps of “political officers,” parallel to the military chain of command, answerable to the Party, i.e. to Stalin.

Marshals of the Soviet Union, 1936. A year later three of these men were arrested, tried for treason and shot. (Red Army photo)

But the demanded loyalty was procured at the cost of military competence. Company commanders found themselves abruptly promoted to the command of regiments, battalion commanders to the command of divisions, brigade commanders to the command of corps. And for the most part these new men were not prepared for their new responsibilities, either by training or temperament. The example of the purge had driven out of them all initiative and independence of thought.

Thus when war came to the USSR in the summer of 1941 the Red Army suffered defeat after costly, calamitous defeat. It remains a matter of dispute whether Germany could have defeated the USSR but by all appearances it came close to doing so in 1941. In this series, a companion piece to my series on the German Army in World War II will be examined the process by which the Red Army restructured itself in the course of the war to align its structure with its capabilities.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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