140: The Red Army


How was the Red Army preparing for war?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 140 - The Soviet Union Part 10 - The Red Army. This week a big thank you goes out to Karl, Fitter, Robert, and Martin for becoming members, you can find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Many of the challenges that would be faced by the Red Army in 1941 would be blamed on the purges and the effects that those purges had on the overall performance of the Red Army. And in some ways this is true, the purges resulted in thousands of officers being removed from the army, many of them to be executed. The purges would also have particular effects on the more radical thinking officers, even if that radical thinking was limited to military strategy. The officers that were no longer in the ranks of the Red Army were also those that had built the Red Army up to what it was in 1937, and that process of building, expanding, and improving, was far from complete. So while the purges did have an effect, it is important to remember that there were many other challenges that were facing the Red Army during this time period as well. The first was one of size, throughout the last years of the 1930s the Red Army was expanding rapidly, this placed extreme pressures on the existing leadership structures of the Army, and it put added emphasis on the ability of the Red Army to find and train new generations of officers to staff the ballooning number of units. This was a problem, and it would prove to be almost impossible to create enough officers to meet the demand. There were also challenges just trying to train up the soldiers, a problem shared by every army that was trying to rapidly expand during this period. These challenges would result in an army that was large, but had trouble translating those numbers into battlefield results. It would be placed clearly into focus during the Winter War with Finland, and then would lead to disaster during Barbarossa in 1941. This episode will look at the evolution of the Red Army during the 1940s and how it planned to fight a war with other nations in Europe, and what the challenges were for the army as war moved ever closer during 1939.

Just like many other nations during the 1920s, the Red Army, fresh from the victories of the Civil War were focused on one thing: making sure that the First World War did not happen again. And by that I do not mean they did not want to fight another war, but instead they wanted to make sure that the stagnant battlefields of the First World War did not return. They wanted to ensure that the battlefield was controlled by mobility and maneuver, similar to how the Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War had been fought. After the end of the Civil War the Red Army was demobilized, and reduced from 5.5 million men down to just over 550,000. But even in this drastic reduction of strength there was focus on maintaining some level of mobility, because it was the cavalry divisions that were heavily favored in retention. Officers would then spend the next two decades debating how best to meet the goals of the Army, and how best to plan and prepare for a conflict. The planning would also be tied into Marxist theory, much like the Soviet government, with Mikhail Frunze saying “the character of the military doctrine of a given state is determined by the political line of the social class that stands at the head of it…one of the fundamental theoretical tasks of those concerned with military affairs is the study of the peculiar nature of the building of the Red army and its combat methods.” To to quote Tukhachevskii “the hopelessness of the situation of capitalist states lies in the way the growth of production resources inevitably pushes their armies in the direction of growth, while the industrial base required by this growth of armed forces comes apart at the seams, mass armies being fertile fields for the transformation of imperialist war into civil war.” One of the core foundations of Soviet military planning during this period was a rejection of the kind of a battle of annihilation that many armies before the First World War had pursued, and like the one that for example the Japanese were still planning for in the Pacific. Instead, Soviet military theorists believed that war would be a long slog, involving a succession of operations that would take place over wide geographic areas while consuming men and material. This belief caused a focus on what a type of planning that the Soviets would call operational planning, which was a core building block of military actions. Or to use their own definition, an operation was “a totality of battles, strikes, and maneuvers of various types of forces united by mutual aims, missions, location, and timing, conducted simultaneously or successively according to a single concept or plan aimed at accomplishing missions in a theater of military operations, on a strategic direction or operational directions-in a predetermined period of time.” Or as would be published in 1927 by a faculty member at the Frunze Academy: “tactics makes steps from which operational leaps are assembled; strategy points out the path.” This operational level of thinking would become an important feature of interwar Soviet planning, as it seemed to solve a problem that had been growing in modern war over the previous decades. Tactics and strategy are fine, but they were limiting in their own ways, and as the battlefields of the 20th century became more and more complicated, it seemed that there needed to be a level of thinking in between the two, to manage the massive and complex battles that were developing, which involved many more moving pieces that previous conflicts. Thinking about war from an operational view, allowed the Red Army to focus on planning for a succession of operations that were decided to slowly destroy the enemies ability to fight. But this thinking would also be constrained by the resources of the Red Army, which in the 1920s meant that all planning had to be based mostly on infantry, because that is what the Red Army had. This limited the rate of advance of any attack, and also limited its duration, men get tired. This meant that operational level attacks might be planned for a length of front around 350 kilometers, with the goal being to advance just 5 kilometers per day for a week. Faster would be better though, which is one of the major reasons that Red Army leaders pushed so persistently for Soviet economic resources to be dedicated to the expansion of armor production.

This operational thinking was taken a step further by Marshal Tukhachevskii with his proposals around deep battle and deep operations. These two ideas would occupy most of the thinking and planning for war by the Red Army during the 1930s. Here is David Glantz defining deep battle: “consisted of simultaneous attacks on the enemy defense with all means of attack to the entire depth of the defense; a penetration of the tactical defense zone on selected directions and subsequent decisive development of tactical success into operational success by means of introducing into battle an echelon to develop success and the landing of air assaults to achieve rapidly the desired aims.” Tukhachevskii would be one of the important theorists behind deep battle, but he would have help, particularly from Viktor Triandafillov. In some ways Triandafillov should receive more credit that Tukhachevskii, because it was Triandfillov that would take the big ideas of deep battle and turn them into some kind of realistic framework. The core of the idea was to not just attack the enemy’s front, but instead to destroy their entire set of defenses simultaneously which would paralyze the enemy on a wide front, preventing reinforcements from being deployed to stop the attack. Within the confines of the early 1930s, and possessing mainly infantry, the goal was to have two different groups of forces, the first would be thrown against a wide front of the enemy to break through their initial defenses with the assistance of artillery and air power. Then a second wave, the shock army, would be sent through the breach to deepen it and carry forward the offensive. The goal was to make this shock army a mobile force with as many tanks as possible, Tukhachevskii again here: “Modern means of neutralisation, employed on a mss scale, put within reach the possibility of simultaneous attack and destruction of the entire depth of the enemy’s tactical defence. These resources, above all tanks, make it possible.” He considered this to be the most critical point of the entire concept, continuing “The side which is not poised to destroy enemy air bases, to disrupt his railway system, to mobilise and concentrate strong airborne forces, and to act swiftly with mechanised formations will not be able to achieve the requisite strategic concentration and will lose the principle theatres of operations.” Once the shock army was committed, it would dictate the path of the advance, generally in some kind of preplanned direction in pursuit of a specific goal. Of critical importance was the fact that once the offensive began, it had to continue as far and as long as possible. To quote Tukhachevskii “A pause faces [the attacker] with the need to fight a new battle, in which the chances of success are more or less equal for both sides, just as they are in the initial operation.” On the face of it, these theories and ideas where not that much different than what had been present during many First World War offensives, but the major difference was one of size. Instead of attacks attacks on relatively small areas of the front, the Red Army was planning to attack along hundreds of kilometers at a time, with the goal of advancing the infantry 15 kilometers. These were massive efforts that which presented a whole host of problems. The first problem, and one that was largely ignored during the early 1930s, was just getting the resources together, the men, vehicles, and equipment all in one place and ready to attack. The second problem would be given much more thought, and it was around the problem of command and control of such a large operation.

To try and turn Tukhachevskii’s ideas and Triandifillov’s ideas into reality, the Frunze Academy would run multiple map exercises in the first years of the 1930s. During these years the focus of most of the work was on trying to find a way to transition an attack from a tactical penetration, of a few kilometers maybe, into something much larger, aiming to achieve a penetration up to 60 kilometers in depth. There were also suggestions that 60 kilometers was not far enough, a theory argued by Georgi Isserson, who instead believed that to achieve the result hoped for, the goal should be to penetrate over 100 kilometers, it was only by reaching that depth that the attack could push through the first area of enemy defenses. This was not a simple thing to do, especially when working with a primarily infantry based army. It would become easier once it was possible to plan for more mobile units, either with armored vehicles or just with motorized infantry. The work done at the academy confirmed the concept of having two echelons of troops, the first would be thrown against the enemy defenses to breach the forward defenses before the mobile second echelon then carried the attack forward. To facilitate the concentration of resources for these attacks, there were also some writing and studies done on defensive fortifications. But these were always framed as a means to facilitate the offensive operations, with Isserson saying “Tukhachevskii attached great importance to fortified zones established on the frontier. As he saw it, fortified zones should be seen as a shield, providing protection from enemy attack but also concealing the concentration of the leading armies.”

During the discussions and exercises of the first years of the 1930s, one of the key features of the discussions were tanks, but these did not exist in any real number in the Soviet Union during these year. These were the first years of the Five Year Plans when the ability of the Soviet Union to manufacture tanks was still being built. The demands of deep battle would influence how Soviet tanks were built, with Tukhachevskii saying “the setting up of a deep battle–that is the simultaneous disruption of the enemy’s tactical layout over its entire depth–requires two things of tanks. On the one hand they must help the infantry forward and accompany it; on the other they must penetrate into the enemy’s rear, both to disorganise him and to isolate his main forces from the reserves at his disposal.” But they would also have to be concerned with the efforts of other armies to also mechanize, there would be enemy tanks that would be encountered along the way: “it is likewise of great importance to estimate the extent of future mechanisation in the armies of potential enemies. It is one thing to take on the enemy’s infantry and cavalry with your tanks, quite another to give battle to his tanks.” To try and approach these unique problems specific choices had to be made around armament: “for conflict with armies which had mechanised formations, our mechanised formations must be equipped not only with armoured personnel carriers and engineer and other specialist tanks, but with gun tanks–despite the fact that this is an unnecessary luxury for combat with infantry forces.”

These Soviet theories and their work towards making them a reality were not secret, and foreign military attaches would have a good idea about what the Soviets were writing about, thinking about, and would be able to provide some analysis on the challenges they were facing. This means you can find high level summaries like this one from the United States War Department from 1934 “The present combat principles of the Soviets are based on mass employment of armored forces, the so-called deep tactics and annihilating operations … which they count on yielding better results than the combat methods of the World War.” And you can also find far more in depth analysis like this one from the Major George Arneman, the military attache in Riga in 1932: “The problem of motorization and mechanization is now brought up for urgent discussion in all armies, but it is still unsolved in a definite manner…. This effort also refers to the Red Army where this “Fundamental problem of modern warfare,“as it is called, remains likewise in the stage of discussion and experiments. Under the above mentioned conditions it is natural that official doctrine, i.e., one based on regulations, is still lacking for the motorized and mechanized units. The Red Army combat regulations in 1927 do not deal with this problem at all; the field regulations published in 1929 mention motorized units […] but restrict themselves mainly in individual indications of how protection should be formed against them […]. There remain the semi-official military literature, first of all the military press in whose columns this question is a constant object of discussion.” This does a good job of discussing the state of the situation and the challenges that the Red Army was having in turning them into a detailed actionable plan that worked consistently. The 1936 Regulations would the final set of regulations published before the purges, and they would sort of represent the final evolution of deep battle as it existed at the time. These regulations would include details like force breakdowns, with 2/3 of the total force being dedicated to the attack itself, while 1/3 would be set aside as holding groups while 1/9 dedicated to a reserve. The holding groups would be tasked with protecting the main advance by tying down enemy forces that might be able to move against the primary attack. Meanwhile the main attack would be organized to facilitate an encounter battle: “With an encounter battle in prospect, the laying down of the order of march assumes overriding importance. In principle the order of march should based on specific planned manoeuvre. On the other hand, it should be flexible enough to allow for regrouping on the move in response to newly received intelligence information. […] if an encounter battle is anticipated, the bulk of the engineers in the column should be allocated to the advance guard. The task of the engineers in an encounter battle are to keep the columns moving.” It would also make clear that it was important to launch the attack and the carry it forward as quickly as possible, regardless of whether or not exact information was known about the enemies dispositions and locations “in launching an encounter battle, nobody must wait for the situation to become completely clear. Information from long-range reconnaissance will never be exhaustive and is soon outdated when the enemy is mobile.” This tied back to the earlier concept of once the attack was launched delay was to be avoided at all costs. While the 1936 regulations represent almost a decade of Soviet military theory being put into practice, the purges of 1937 and 1938 would allow for a large change in the other direction. Many of the men who had been at the bleeding edge of deep battle theory and writings were close with Tukhachevskii and were therefore purge targets. The changes that the Red Army would go through from 1937 until the start of the war were led by men like Voroshilov, who had never believed in the deep battle concept that the Red Army was pursuing. He would be the lead critic of the idea of taking Soviet armor assets and concentrating them into large shock armies, instead advocating for an approach where the armored strength of the Red Army was distributed among units, rather than concentrated. This was not some unknown idea, and the two sides of the armor concentration camp, whether they wanted the tanks concentrated into armored divisions and corps, or they wanted tanks distributed out in regiments and brigades, were conversations that would occur in almost every major military in the world. The removal of Tukhachevskii and his supporters in 1937 would provide an opening for armor distributionists to have greater influence on planning and organization.

But as I mentioned earlier, the Red Army was going to have challenges even before the purges. And many of these problems were around expansion and training. In the years after the Civil War the structure of the Red Army was a mix of regular army forces and then territorial forces, which were maintained at a much lower readiness and training level. By 1935 the territorial system had been abolished, with the territorial units transitioned into regular forces. This had required them to be expanded and their officer components to be bulked up. While the units had been classified as territorial troops the officers, especially lower ranked officers like platoon commanders had a very low level of training and experience, they were often just the same type of young individual who had been picked for a few weeks of special training. During most of the interwar period these formations were manned by men between the ages of 21 and 30, all of which were obligated to serve some period of time in the Red Army. However, for most of the 1920s and into the 1930s there were a whole list of exemptions that could be applied for, and many conscripts were able to obtain those exemptions. But this started to change in the mid 1930s when efforts began to be put in place to expand the Red Army, with the easiest way to do that being to stop granting so many exemptions. Along with this the conscription age was reduced from 21 to 19. This brought more men into the Red Army, which were used to create a large number of new, but not fully manned divisions. The plan was to then add large numbers of reserve troops into each division to bring them up to full strength at the start of a conflict. But in many of these divisions, officers were commanding unit above their rank due to their not being enough officers, and that was before the purges. This often meant officers were sent to units with less training, which limited their ability to train their units because they simply did not know themselves how to do things. The core problem was one of recruitment, there were just not enough officer candidates entering officer training which was a combination of entry requirements and the lower literacy rate in the Soviet Union. Being literate was an important part of functioning as an officer in the army, and unfortunately for the Red Army millions of Russians simply could not read and write due to lack of education. Then from 1938 to 1941 the Soviet military would expand by almost 3 million soldiers, almost tripling in size. This turned the officer shortage into a much greater problem, that would take years to solve. The challenges faced by the Red Army would be on full display during some of the early war campaigns that it would participate in. In Poland the Soviet invasion would encounter almost no resistance, and so few problems were experienced it was more of a victory march. But then the Winter War happened, which will be covered on this podcast starting in 3 episodes, but in summary the Red Army would eventually be victorious over the Finns, but the campaign would see a series of mistakes by the Red Army at all levels of command that would result in much higher casualties and a much longer campaign. Then, in an attempt to absorb the lessons of the fighting in Finland the Red Army would put way too much focus on fixing the problems they experienced during that fighting, particularly around offensive actions against a small, highly motivated enemy occupying prepared defenses, a scenario that would not be the primary method of fighting for the Red Army for much of the Second World War. So to summarize: The Red Army would massively expand in the years before the war, but they did not have the officer numbers or the officer pipeline to fill out their new units. They exacerbated this problem with the purges and the removal of tens of thousands of officers. At the same time they were having issues getting their military theories of deep battle to function in exercises, and then after the purges started to pursue a different path altogether, a path that they were still trying to solidify by the time that the Red Army was called into action against Poland and then Finland.