♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

The High Command 1941-45


Stalin (center) with the officers of Stavka, 1945 (Photo: Pravda)

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On 22 June 1941—the first day day of World War II for the USSR—the country’s highest military organ was the Defense Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars. Immediately under the Defense Committee were the People’s Commissariat of Defense (for the Army) and the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. Within the Defense Commissariat, the principal decision-making body was the Main Military Council. Command of the Red Army rested with the People's Commissar of Defense, whose executive agent was the Chief of the General Staff. Stalin himself, who in May 1941 had assumed the position of chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (prime minister) had not yet established a formal relationship with the armed forces. In the field, the highest-ranking commands were the sixteen Military Districts into which the USSR was divided, plus the Far Eastern Front (army group).

In the event of war, it was intended to create a war cabinet to direct policy and strategy at the highest level, and a supreme military headquarters to plan and direct military operations. Neither of these bodies existed on 22 June 1941, however. The war plan also envisioned the conversion of the five western military districts into operational front (army group) commands.

The military command structure was paralleled by the military commissar system, whose task was to exercise political oversight and control of the Army. The commissar system had originated during the Civil War and after being abolished for a time it was reinstituted in 1937, during the military purge that decimated the officer corps. By 1941 the military commissars, now called deputy commanders for political affairs, were ubiquitous, being assigned down to the regimental level. In July 1941 these political officers were given formal authority to review and revoke commanders’ orders, and in addition so-called political leadership officers were assigned down to the platoon level. At high levels of command political officers were usually senior party officials. Nikita Khrushchev, for example, served on the Military Council of Stalingrad Front as the Party’s representative. Perforce, commanders had to be granted more latitude in the conduct of operations in wartime, but political supervision of the Red Army remained a priority for Stalin and his cronies. The whole system was run by Main Political Administration of the Army, responsible for the political supervision of every commander and the political indoctrination of the troops. The commissar system was supplemented by the all-powerful political police, the NKVD, which maintained a Special Section for Military Affairs.

On 23 June 1941 the Main Military Council became the Stavka (general headquarters) of the High Command. Its principal members were Marshal of the Soviet Union S.K. Timoshenko (Chairman), Marshal of the Soviet Union K.Y. Voroshilov (Chairman of the Defense Committee) General of Army G.K. Zhukov (Chief of the General Staff), Fleet Admiral N.K. Kuznetsov (People’s Commissar of the Navy), Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Budyonny, V.M. Molotov and Stalin (members). In July, when Stalin assumed the title of Supreme Commander (Generalissimus), it became the Stavka of the Supreme Command, and in August it was retitled the Stavka of the Supreme High Command, with authority over all the armed forces of the state. Within Stavka the General Staff of the Red Army was the main military planning agency. The General Staff was also responsible for doctrinal matters: the organization of military formations and their tactical/operational employment.

The Generalissimus: Stalin as Supreme Commander. An idealized portrait by a Soviet artist.

On 30 June 1941, Stalin established the State Defense Committee (GKO), with himself as chairman. The GKO had supreme authority over all political, economic, and military policy. This centralization of war powers was in sharp contrast to the situation on the German side, where competing fiefdoms—the Party, the SS, the armed forces—engaged in a constant struggle for authority and resources, greatly to the detriment of the war effort.

It need hardly be said that whatever the details of Stavka’s organizational template, the authority of Stalin was paramount. His assumption of the position of Generalissimus merely formalized a preexisting situation. Early in the war his influence on military matters was frequently counterproductive—as when he refused to sanction the timely abandonment of Kiev in September 1941, a mistake that led to the loss of some 700,000 men. But unlike Hitler, Stalin learned from his mistakes and on the whole he proved to be a far more effective supreme commander than the German leader.

During most of the war the highest level of command in the field was the front (army group). Fronts were quite variable in size, ranging from three armies to as many as nine. In 1943 infantry armies typically embodied between six and twelve rifle divisions; the average was eight. If earmarked to participate in a major offensive, an army was heavily reinforced with tank, artillery, rocket artillery and self-propelled artillery (armored assault gun) units. Sometimes a full tank corps was attached. Shock armies were similar to infantry armies but with more artillery and a higher level of mechanization. Tank armies usually had two tank corps and a mechanized corps and they too were reinforced with additional units as required. Generally, Red Army units were smaller than German or Western Allied ones with the same designations. Tank brigades were really battalions, tank and mechanized corps were really divisions, the chronically understrength rifle divisions were usually the size of brigades. Until late in the war the Soviet front was smaller than the German army group, two or three of the former, usually, being equivalent to one of the latter.

Marshal of the Soviet Union G.K. Zhukov officiates at the formal surrender of Germany, Berlin, 9 May 1945 (Photo: Red Army)

Major operations involving more than one front were coordinated on Stalin’s behalf by Stavka representatives, Zhukov often serving as such. This was an informal arrangement but it worked well once Stalin learned to listen to his senior military commanders—this in sharp contrast to the situation on the German side, where Hitler’s longstanding distrust of his generals gradually developed into a mania. To be sure, the war opened disastrously for the USSR and many unsuccessful commanders found themselves facing an NKVD firing squad. But eventually there was developed a body of competent, war-experienced senior officers, and though it would be going too far to say that Stalin trusted his generals he and they managed to forge an effective partnership.

The efficiency of its high command was a major factor in the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany. Stavka, and the GKO above it, provided the armed forces in the field with clear direction, establishing strategic priorities and allocating resources in a manner that the enemy’s fragmented command structure could not match.

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Organizational Diagram

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

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