♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

On the Eve of War


Infantry of the Red Army on Parade, late 1930s (Imperial War Museum)

● ● ●

In the 1930s the Red Army of Workers and Peasants—to give it its full official name—was widely regarded as the most powerful and forward-thinking army in the world. Years before the first German panzer division was organized, the Red Army set up a number of mechanized corps—armored divisions in effect. It was also first in the field with parachute troops, by 1939 counting more than a dozen airborne brigades in its order of battle. The artillery arm had always been the elite corps of the Russian army and by all appearances this tradition was being maintained in the Soviet era. All in all, there there seemed to be a good deal of truth in the official propaganda line: that the Red Army was incomparably the most advanced and formidable fighting force in existence.

The Army’s basic unit was the rifle division, as its infantry divisions were titled. By comparison with the German Type 1939 Infantry Division, the 1939 rifle division’s size and strength were impressive. The German division had on average 16,000 men, the Soviet division 18,800. The Soviet division had a light tank battalion and an antiaircraft battalion; the German division had neither. The Soviet division’s reconnaissance battalion was mechanized; the German division’s relied mostly on horses and bicycles. Overall the rifle division had more weapons of every category, from light machine guns to artillery, not to mention a higher level of motorization.

Or so it appeared from a comparison of tables of organization and equipment (TOE). But the reality was quite different. Owing to a shortage of motor vehicles, many rifle division had  largely to rely on horse-drawn transport. Many of the weapons called for in the TOE were either short or absent or obsolete models. And in the divisional units requiring trained technical specialists—artillery, engineers, signals—there were many critical personnel shortages.

A BT-7 light tank of the Red Army, late 1930s (Imperial War Museum)

Worse still was the shortage of competent unit commanders and qualified staff officers, a class of personnel that the German Army possessed in plenty. But the Red Army did not, and this was due not so much to the USSR’s backwardness as to the nature of the Soviet regime. In 1937-38 Stalin had carried out a purge of the Red Army high command and officer corps, “repressing” more than 30,000 officers, from marshals of the Soviet Union to battalion commanders. Supposedly the officer corps was shot through with treason and sedition, but this was a lie.

For Stalin and his cronies the political reliability of the Red Army was the paramount consideration. It was not a new issue with them. In its early years, during the Civil War, the Army’s leadership cadres included many former tsarist officers. These men with their military knowledge and experience were essential to the Army’s efficiency. But they were never trusted and when their services were not longer required many were purged. The Party’s distrust of the Army lingered, however, and the latter was subjected to close political supervision. All formations, down to company level, had assigned to them commissars—political officers—whose task was twofold. They were responsible for the political indoctrination of of the rank and file, and for the political supervision of commanders and staffs. In the rifle division headquarters, for example, the political section consisted of eleven commissars. All orders of the division commander had to be countersigned by the chief commissar.

Effective military leadership at a high level demands breadth of vision and a certain independence of thought. But just such traits excited Stalin’s suspicion: Broad vision and independence of thought might not be restricted to the military sphere. They might, indeed, lead to sedition. Thus the high command of the Red Army, headed by Marshal of the Soviet Union Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a farsighted military reformer, had to go. And thus the officer corps as a whole had to be ideologically purified—meaning in practice that political reliability must trump military professionalism. The pretext for this purge was the (fictional) Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization, supposedly a cabal of treasonous senior officers. These men, seven in number with Tukhachevsky at their head, were arrested, brutally interrogated to extort confessions, put through the form of a trial, convinced and shot on the night of 11-12 June 1937. Subsequently 37,761 officers and Red Army commissars were dismissed from the service, 10,868 being arrested and 7,211 condemned to death or the Gulag for crimes against the state. Their replacements, promoted from the lower ranks, mostly lacked the necessary professional military education and training. This was to have baneful consequences.

The Red Army's redoubtable opponent: Finnish infantry during the Winter War (World War Photos)

The deficiencies stemming from the Red Army's equipment and personnel shortages, exacerbated by poor leadership thanks to the ravages of the purge, were exposed in the course of the 1939-40 Winter War with Finland. Stalin’s crony Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, then serving as People’s Commissar of Defense, assured the Soviet leader that the Finnish Army would be vanquished in a matter of weeks. It didn't turn out that way. The theater of operations had few roads and was heavily forested, with numerous lakes, rivers and swamps, and the Chief of Staff, General Boris Mikhaylovich Shaposhnikov, advised that a winter campaign in Finland would be a difficult undertaking. His advice was ignored, Stalin accepting Voroshilov’s view that sheer weight of numbers would guarantee a quick victory.

The invasion was launched on 30 November 1939 and almost immediately ran into trouble. On the Karelian Isthmus north of Leningrad, six Finnish infantry divisions repelled repeated Soviet attacks, inflicting heavy casualties. In central and north Finland, several Red Army divisions were encircled and destroyed. Here the Finns, well trained in winter warfare, employed guerrilla tactics to split up the road-bound enemy formations into small groups and liquidate them. Though its soldiers fought stubbornly on most occasions the Red Army's deficiencies—poor leadership and training, inadequate logistical support—were painfully exposed in battle against a smaller but well trained and skillfully commanded opponent.

Numerical superiority eventually enabled the invaders eventually to prevail, but not before the Finns had inflicted a series of stinging defeats on the supposedly invincible Red Army. It was estimated that Red Army casualties in the Winter War—killed, wounded, missing in action—totaled nearly 400,000, as against some 70,000 total Finnish casualties. Tank losses totaled 1,200. Stalin took alarm at this and various reforms were immediately set in motion, but they barely had time to take effect before Hitler launched his invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941.

● ● ●

Organizational Diagrams


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

BACK to WAR ROOM Front Page