Friday, March 28, 2014

Rethinking the Soviet Union's Great Patriotic War

One of the pleasures of having access to a university library is the new book shelf.   God knows I have enough to read, but I can’t resist checking out the new books from time to time.  Often I learn about books I would never otherwise have heard of.

Boris Sokolov is a Russian author based in Moscow.  He held an academic post at the Russian State Social University until 2008, when he claims he was dismissed for writing an article critical of Russia’s war with Georgia that year.  Other than that, I don’t know anything about him or his qualifications, but he seems to have written a lot.

The Role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, translated and edited by Stuart Britton (Helion and Company, 2013, ISBN 978-1-908916-55-6), is a set of essays that are sometimes dense and packed with statistics, but which make several points that I didn’t know about.   Wargamers with an interest in the Eastern Front in World War Two might be interested in the four things I learned from this book.

1) Hitler beat Stalin to the punch.  Sokolov is one of several Russian scholars who believe Stalin was planning  a pre-emptive strike against Germany.   As early as May 15 1941 Red Army planners were preparing to “forestall the enemy in deploying and attack the Germany Army when it is in a state of deployment but has not yet been able to organize the front” (21).   At this time Stalin was worried about a possible British collapse, freeing all German forces for an offensive, so in the second half of May called up 800,000 reservists, transferred large formations to the Western Districts, and was even forming a Polish division for operations in German-occupied Poland.  The idea was that by June the Red Army could mass forces between 20-80 kilometres from the border, deploying aviation to forward airfields, in preparation for an attack most likely on Sunday, 6 July.   These plans ignored the fact that the Soviet military was not ready for war.  There was not enough fuel for air and ground operations, and tank and air crews had only a fraction of the training time they needed.   There is a fascinating “what-if” scenario here, if the Soviets would have landed the first punch and not been forestalled by Barbarossa in June.  I rather doubt it would have gone well for them, and might even have been a worse result than what actually happened.

2) Kursk was far more costly than the Soviets admitted.  While still a victory for them, the Soviets exaggerated German casualties “several times over” while concealing their own “disastrous” losses.  The numbers in this chapter are quite confusing, but I gather from Sokolov’s argument that the Red Army lost 1,677,000 killed, wounded and captured in the whole battle, whereas Wehrmacht casualties were most likely 360,000, a ration of 4 to 1.  Soviet tank losses were a little over 6,000, about 4 times the figure for German tank losses (1,500) in traditional Soviet accounts, another 4-1 ration.   “This very unfavourable ration of losses may be explained by the superiority of the new Gemran tanks and also the superiority of German command and control in armour combat. … Another cause was the comparatively low level of training of Soviet personnel, especially of tank-driver mechanics, who until the end of 1942 received only from 5-10 hours of driving practice, when the necessary minimum was 25 hours (43)."

3) Lend Lease saved the USSR.  An official Soviet history of the Great Patriotic War states that assistance from the Allies “was in no way meaningful and could have had no decisive influence on the course of the GPW” (48), when in fact in 1963 Zhukov himself was heard to admit that without this aid “we could not have formed our reserves and could not have continued the war” (49).  Lend-Lease aid included everything from fuel to steel and aluminium to railroad equipment and explosives for making munitions.   Just one of many statistics in this chapter.  From July 41 to Dec 43 the Soviets made 30,000 T-34 tanks, each of which required 20 tons of armoured steel, far more than the USSR could produce.  If Sokolov is right, almost half of those T34s were made with Lend-Lease armour.

4) World War Two was a massive human catastrophe for the USSR.  Hard data on Soviet military losses is very hard to come by, and trustworthy research was not started unit the late 1980s.   In reviewing this research, Sokolov puts total Soviet dead at almost 43.5 million, compared to just under 6 million Germans.  These figures include military and civilian deaths, as well as potential losses from falling birth rates, which may seem to some as an exaggeration.  Even removing the unborn from the equation, the totals are sobering:  26,548,000 Soviet military dead vs 3,950,000 German military dead, and 16,900,000 Soviet civilians dead vs 2,000,000 German civilians dead  These figures are approximations.  Very few casualty estimates were published in the Soviet era and exact figures are hard to come by because for the first year of the war, many Soviet soldiers were not given identity cards, service or pay books, just (if they were lucky) uniforms and weapons (67).   These high casualties and the massive turnover of personnel in Soviet units as losses were replaced by meant that right up until the end of the war, those who were newly mobilized entered battle poorly trained in military matters” (75), and thus “The Red Army had to pay in blood for industrial backwardness and the inability to use combat equipment intelligently” (91), compounded by the Soviet leadership’s indifference to casualties.

Some thoughts for war gamers.

The Ostfront is always a compelling subject for war gamers, and yet it is one of the bleakest and most tragic spectacles of military history.  This book just makes it all the sadder.  I have to take Sokolov’s figures with a grain of salt, since I haven’t seen any scholarly reviews of this book in academic literature and for all I know the man is a bit of a flake.  However, assuming he is near the truth, what does this mean for war gamers?  I would say that any rules set which doesn’t handicap the Soviets in leadership and tactics doesn’t reflect history.   I know this has long been a debate in wargaming as to whether the Germans are too often portrayed as supermen, and I think those questions are fair.  Certainly by 1943 on the Wehrmacht was being ground down and losing its edge, but I think in almost every case until the end of the war the Germans should have an edge in training, tactics and leadership, a qualitative superiority vs the Soviet quantitative superiority.   

I got to thinking as I read this book, will we see more of this kind of scholarship coming from Putin-era Russia?   A lot of the evidence and scholarship Sokolov cites comes from the late 1980s on, the era of glasnost and post-Soviet opening up of the archives.  It worries me that if Russia goes further down the path of nationalism and chauvinism, we will see a new clampdown on scholars who want to mine the archives for a story that still hasn’t been properly told.


  1. I think some of these ideas are well expressed in some of Beevor's works like Stalingrad, Berlin or more recently the History of the II WW. It seems that this guy was lucky enough to visit some of the Russian archives opened in the Gorbachev era and collect information buyt unfortunately they have been loecked again. I'm afraid that your worries as expressed at the end of the post, are more likely than not to become real.

    1. Hi Benito: I haven't read all of Beevor's work, including his Stalingrad book, but my impression from his book on Berlin 45 was that he had pretty good command of the Russian archival material so he and others may not be surprised by any of this. It would be interesting to know what Beevor and his peers think of Sokolov.

  2. Thanks for the pointer. This seems to be a highly interesting book. Despite knowing the russians suffered tremendous losses during WW2 I'm pretty shocked about these numbers.

    1. I should note that the 26 million figure for Soviet military losses includes the millions of Soviet POWs who perished in German captivity, as well as civilians who died either because of the Holocaust or because they starved due to German policies about diverting food reserves from occupied zones to the Reich, which was a deliberate policy to eliminate civilians classed as "useless mouths". All of which makes this war even more terrible to contemplate.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting book Mike!

  4. I believe some of the ideas expressed in this book (as you have described them) have been canvassed elsewhere, if not in quite the same way. I have read somewhere that although supplies of tanks were appreciated, it was the raw materials for industry - as your pal Sokolov argues - that was of greatest value. I daresay food supplies didn't go amiss, neither (aside from whole gullets it went down).

    But I have often found the Kursk battle rather odd, in that it appeared that the German attacks were bled dry (although the Russian reserves had to be committed earlier than planned), yet Feldmarshall von Manstein thought, at the point it was called off, he was on the verge of victory. It turns out that it was not the opening of the Italian campaign that led Hitler to break off Zitadelle, but the Soviet counter-offensive against the relatively thinly held north and eastern faces of the Orel Salient - IX Army (Model's) sector.

    But there is something else that is puzzling. It appears that the armour losses (to the Germans), and, by implication, to the Russians as well, were much exaggerated, the Germans apparently losing more tanks than they commanded in the theatre at that time. I have read (somewhere) that Manstein's main strike forces had barely 600 tanks; Model would have had rather fewer (90 of which would have been the Ferdinand assault guns. Nor must have the new Panthers and Ferdinands quite the mechanical disaster usually alleged, if the Russians were forced to commit (in the south) most of their reserves.

    Incidentally, it would appear that the Ferdinand (Elefant) must have made some kind of impression on the Russians - their own SU-76 assault gun earning the cognomen 'Golozhopiy Ferdinand' - 'bare-arsed Ferdinand'.

    On the losses to both nations, the figures I had seen before were something like 25,000,000 from the Soviet Union and 6,000,000 Germans dead (of the latter, about half in the last 6 months of the war) - enormous sacrifices to ideology and political incompetence. From the military perspective even in the last year of the war, the casualty ratio, though it had been steadily reducing year by year, still remained markedly in the German 'favour' - (I hate to use 'favour' when we're talking enormous losses here). It is true to say, I think, that the German soldier was always somewhat ahead of his opponents - on the East Front anyhow - but the Soviet leadership, ruthless as it was, was a good match for the German. Of course, its political leadership was always cleverer.

    All the same, Marshal Zhukov presided over one of the most galling failures of Soviet arms at the turning point of the war. Contemporaneous with Operation Uranus about Stalingrad, Operation Mars was launched against an awkward salient west of Moscow (that a large part of the Soviet forces were attacking eastward indicates what a horrible situation the Germans ought to have been in.

    The whole operation came a gutzer, which, you would think, would not have done the careers of its commanders (Zhukov and Koniev) much good.

    Finally, on the matter of whether Stalin was planning a (pre-emptive?) attack on Germany sometime in 1941, I think the jury is still out. The Germans did run very early into a huge concentration of forces somewhere around Bialystok - between IV and IX Armies. German opinion at the time seemed to indicate that, although surprising and just a little suspect, the Russians did not appear to be in a state of readiness to launch an attack any time soon. There appears to be no doubt that Stalin was taken completely by surprise by the German attack, and even denied it at first. Yet, distrustful of Hitler - Stalin must have known of Hitlers notions of lebensraum and expansion eastward of the German State) - I think he intended to hedge his bets, even unto developing a 'first strike' capability. He must have thought he would be allowed more time.

    I believe, then, that Gospodin Sokolov might well be on the money.

    1. Thanks for these wonderful thoughts Ion. You know more about Kursk than I do, obviously, but I suspect the Russian view of German tank losses was exaggerated since the Soviets could not fully appreciate the efficiency of German engineers to recover and repair AFVs.
      Sokolov notes that there was a school of thought in the STAVKA, going back to Trotsky, that defence in depth was the smarter strategy than forward concentrations, so even if there was no pre-emptive strategy (and S thinks there is evidence to say there was), the Red Army obviously decided to park a lot of hardware and troops right on its borders, overestimating their own effectiveness and underestimating German mobility and ability to outfight and encircle them. As you say, a tragedy of incompetence.
      One of Sokolov's minor points is that the Nazis never took steps prewar to weaken their military, unlike the Soviet purges, and inherited the world's preeminent military tradition, so they were in a much better place initially than the Soviets were.

    2. I'm not sure I know all that much about Kursk after all - the sources I've read so far seem to be contradictory and confusing. I've read Maj-Gen. F. W. von Mellinthin's account ('Panzer Battles' - Von M. was Chief of Staff of 48th Panzer Corps during this operation), which speaks of the Germans straining every nerve to make progress at all in the face of constantly renewed Russian counter-attacks. I also have FM von Manstein's account ('Lost Victories'), which is singularly uninformative considering he was commanding the southern pincer. Manstein suggests the Italy invasion was the more pressing issue than the Soviet counter-offensive about Orel - but I think he was right that German over-commitment against the Kursk salient left the line dangerously weak elsewhere.

      I do believe Stalin made a terrible mistake in ridding himself of the services of Marshal Tukhachevsky (not to mention the millions of other lives sacrificed to the enforced 'capitalisation' of rural production). I believe he was the one commander who would have understood the German blitzkrieg mode of warfare, and been able to come up with countermeasures betimes.

  5. Fascinating. This is the kind of book I think I'd like, challenging established notions. It is a shame that the door closed with Putin. We'll have to work with what we know and there'll be a big swath that we may never know better than we don now.

  6. Well, hopefully it doesn't close. However, in doing some online research on the SYW and coming across some Russian military history websites, I was struck by the almost hagiographic tone of some Russian writers. It's also interesting how in recent years Russian studios are revisiting the GPW as a story of heroic virtue and self-sacrifice.

  7. I remember having read his work to pass my Teaching examination. Sokolov is well regarded in the French University World

  8. I apologize for my English (my native Russian). I will be short.
    The Russian historians consider Sokolov as the falsifier.
    1 . "Hitler outstripped Stalin". RKKA only started being restored after the "ingenious" guide of Tukhachevsky and his friends (about Tukhachevsky everything was told still by Plissudsky). Readiness for the USSR for war estimated not earlier than 1942.
    There is a version that RKKA planned a preventive strike limited forces (cover army) what to cover the mobilization and to break German. It didn't turn out (nobody suspected that France will surrender so quickly), the USSR appeared before completely mobilized German army.
    2 . About Kursk - experts will better tell.
    3 . The lend-lease allowed to bring the Soviet industry to new technological level (the new industrial equipment, a number of new technologies). Without Lend-lease of the USSR all the same would win, but number of victims would be higher. Now in Russia nobody denies its role. The help of allies was very much appreciated, especially Valentine tanks (At us in Russia it is considered the best easy tank of World War II) and WS-19 radio stations of the Canadian production.
    4 . Great Patriotic War really the greatest accident, total number of losses about 26 million people (military and civil). Fighting losses are still specified (results are available on the People Feat resource). And even about losses:
    "Human losses of the USSR — 6,3 million military personnel the killed and died of wounds, 555 thousand dead from the diseases which were lost as a result of incidents, condemned to execution (according to reports of armies, medical institutions, military courts) both 4,5 million taken prisoner and missing persons [4]. The general demographic losses (including the lost civilians in the occupied territory and the increased mortality in other territory of the USSR from adversities of war) — 26,6 million people"
    "Irrevocable losses of armies of the USSR and Germany (including prisoners of war) — 11,5 million and 8,6 million people (apart from 1,6 million prisoners of war after the May 9, 1945, unknown losses фольксштурма, the Hitler Youth, Todt's organization, Service of a labor duty, Service of imperial means of communication, police) respectively. The ratio of irrevocable losses of armies of the USSR and Germany, according to Grigory Krivosheyev's center, with satellites makes 1,3:1."

    P. S. about the angry nationalist Putin. You it is better to us to Russia come and look, we will accept with pleasure :-)

    1. Hello Digger:
      Many thanks for your comments! It is a delight to have a fellow gamer from Russia contribute to this discussion. It is very interesting to hear your perspective on Sokolov and his essays.
      I can see where you disagree with Sokolov's views and I wish I knew more about this period to say more, but I would say that history works best when we talk and debate amongst ourselves.
      I would love to come to Russia, it has always been a life goal of mine, and it would be a pleasure to meet you and other Russian gamers.
      Thank you again for commenting on my blog, I look forward to following your blog.
      In peace,


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