As in peacetime, the army at war resorted to creative, non-traditional methods to fill leadership gaps with trained, semi-trained, and untrained personnel. To fill generals’ positions, the army resorted to rapid promotion and appointment of non-military personnel, particularly in the rear services, and occasionally for opolchenie units. By and large the generals responded to the challenge of modern war particularly at the higher levels where they were not likely to become casualties. Many who survived the painful lessons of 1941 and 1942 went on to redeem themselves in 1943 and after.
Stalin’s high expectations of his generals and marshals transcended friendship during this critical time. After giving his longtime friends Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Kulik several important military commands which they botched he had them both transferred in disgrace to administrative duties. After the war he had Kulik executed. After directing several notorious and costly tactical failures, Stalin named Marshal Georgi Zhukov Deputy Supreme Commander and maintained for himself the active role of strategic oversight which he played with an iron fist, yet by and large he left the generals with the responsibility and initiative for tactical operations though he remained the final arbiter of all major operational decisions.
At the end of 1940, the Red Army had 407 generals; it began the war six months later with 994 generals and ended with 2,952, but as is so often the case in human affairs, as quantity increased, quality decreased. Of the 2,956 generals serving in mid-1944, only eighty had graduated from the Higher Military Academy, seventy-four from the Higher Military Academy short course, 768 from various other military academies, 318 from military academy short courses, 999 from special advanced courses, 494 from military schools but without advanced training, and 223 from various short courses of less intensity than military school. Generals of the rear services, political administration, and juridical service had no military education per se. In Stalin’s opinion over half of the generals had not been properly prepared through the military education system. He claimed personal knowledge of 142 who did not have any military education whatsoever and added that the first thing to be done was to pull them out of their duties and give them appropriate military education.
Similarly, Marshal Zhukov was not impressed at all by the majority of generals. In August 1944 he complained to the cadre section of the Commissariat of Defense that many commanders of armies, fronts, corps, and divisions were not at all well trained. He blamed it on the prewar years when the NKO did not prepare candidates for their higher positions, which also happened during the war. He did not mentioned his culpability as prewar Chief of the General Staff. Zhukov reported that many officers had been called from the reserves to command regiments or battalions who had never had command experience. They learned about war at the front at the price of much blood. He lamented that the reserve system did not actively train officers and keep their skills up or improve them in peacetime. He further decried the lack of culture and sophistication of the majority of high ranking officers. The officer corps was not up to the requirements of modern war, which, according to Zhukov, was eight-tenths technical. He thought the army needed officers who understood their own and the enemy’s technical capacity, in particular artillery, tanks, and aviation – the crux of modern warfare. The Red Army suffered significant material and human losses because many officers were, in Zhukov’s words, “technologically illiterate.” Furthermore, although many generals had passed through the military education system, Zhukov felt that the system, particularly the academies, did not prepare the officer corps to command in wartime. Finally, he saw a big problem with commanders not using their initiative, especially in the first part of the war. This having potential political ramifications, Zhukov put forth no suggestions on how to deal with it. There may be some hypocrisy in Zhukov’s assessment, for as of yet no evidence has surfaced that Zhukov went out of his way to train his subordinate generals during the war.
The experience of war for officers below the rank of general was exceptionally difficult. In the initial period of the war casualties were so high and turnover so rapid, that when coupled with the continuing creation of new units, training was always abbreviated, which then perpetuated the high casualty rate, thus necessitating quick replacement which created a vicious cycle of inadequate training of replacement officers and high casualties for the duration of the war. The result was that a minority of officers in regiments had the chance to assimilate the lessons of war. Add into this equation rapid promotion of inadequately trained junior officers to battalion, regimental and brigade commands and casualties all around stayed high and mastery of the lessons of war remained low.
Russian historian B. V. Sokolov, gives unverified figures of losses of officers in all the armed forces due to death and capture in combat in 1941–45 as 1,023,093 men and women. Another 5,026 died from illness and other reasons, and 20,071 officers were sentenced to demotion by tribunals. The RKKA discharged 1,030,721 because of wounds. He maintains the ground forces alone lost 937,000 officers killed or captured.
The rapid turnover of officers quickly led to a decrease in the ages of new officers. Before the beginning of the great expansion of the army in 1936–37 officers normally began military school at age eighteen and graduated at age twenty or twenty-one. During the war, training prior to commissioning usually lasted only two months and most new mladshie leitenanty took command of their platoons at age eighteen, and were often younger than many of their soldiers. So many young officers flooded the army that men like eighteen year-old Lieutenant Oleg Rakhmanin and his fellow artillery school graduates, who reported for their first duty to participate in the Kursk–Orel offensive in July 1943, jokingly referred to men in the ages of twenty-five to thirty as “Elders” and “Fathers.”
From the beginning to end of the war an overwhelming number of units were commanded by officers of lower rank than the position called for. Dire straits found mladshie leitenanty commanding battalions in the defense of Moscow in 1941. It was normal even in 1945 to find companies commanded by lieutenants rather than captains, battalions commanded by captains rather than majors, and brigades and regiments led by majors rather than lieutenant colonels or colonels. In those cases when a division or corps commander and his staff had mastered the techniques of modern warfare, the lack of expertise in their subordinate regiments continued to keep combat losses excessive.