Late on the evening of January 5, a sizable group of generals and high-ranking government officials arrived for the meeting in Stalin’s office at the Kremlin. They immediately noticed a significant change in the decor, which suggested to them what the dictator had in mind. The familiar portraits of Marx and Engels had been taken down from their prominent places, and in their stead were hanging pictures of Suvorov and Kutuzov–Russian heroes who had fought in wars against the Turks and French.
First on the program was the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov, a capable career officer who in 1918 had joined the “Workers and Peasants Red Army.” Shaposhnikov sketched out an astonishing plan that he had concocted against his better judgment. Five large- scale offensives would be launched almost simultaneously. They would relieve Leningrad, which had been blockaded by the Germans since last September; would in twin attacks shove the Wehrmacht back on both sides of Moscow; would recapture the rich Donets basin in the Ukraine; and would drive the Germans out of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. These blows, supposedly, would put the Germans to flight out of the Soviet Union.
When Shaposhnikov had finished his presentation, Stalin spoke to dispel any doubts about what his own position was. “The Germans are in disarray as a result of their defeat at Moscow,” he stated. “They are poorly fitted out for the winter. This is a most favorable time for the transition to a general offensive.” Stalin then called on General Zhukov to express his opinion.
Zhukov, who always had strong opinions, said he was in favor of continuing his attacks on the Moscow front if sufficient troops and tanks could be supplied, but he pronounced the other operations much too ambitious for the men and materiel on hand. “Without powerful artillery support,” he asserted, “they will be ground down and suffer heavy-not to say unjustifiable-losses.”
General Zhukov’s position was backed by Nikolai A. Voznesensky, the outspoken Chairman of the State Planning Commission and the chief mobilizer of Soviet war production, which was just now beginning to turn out tanks and planes in significant numbers. Voznesensky declared that there would not be enough materiel to supply all of the operations that had been proposed.
Stalin shrugged off the objections and said impatiently, “We must grind the Germans down with all possible speed, so that they cannot attack in the spring.” This explanation was heartily endorsed by Georgy M. Malenkov, a top political commissar, and NKVD chief Lavrenty P. Beria, whose secret-police force was virtually an independent state with- in the Soviet state. They accused Voznesensky of making mountainous obstacles out of molehill problems.
Stalin asked for any further comments. There were none. “So,” he said, “this, it seems, ends the discussion.”
Discussion? Nothing had been discussed, and Zhukov said as much to Shaposhnikov as the meeting broke up. Marshal Shaposhnikov agreed. “It was foolish to argue,” he said. “The Boss had already decided. The directives have gone out to almost all of the fronts, and they will launch the offensive very soon.”
“Well then, why did Stalin ask me to give my opinion?” growled Zhukov.
“I just don’t know, old fellow,” Shaposhnikov replied with a sigh, “I just don’t know.”
But both men did know: The meeting had been another of Stalin’s charades, designed to key up the generals and remind them that he called the turns. As for Stalin’s plan, no one present that night-not even Stalin himself-genuinely believed that the tide of battle could be turned that year, much less in a winter of desperate preemptive attacks . In fact, these attacks would fall far short of their objectives and make it considerably easier for the Germans to resume their offensive in the spring.
Yet the tide-turning battle on the Russian front the battle that Winston Churchill later called “the hinge of fate” on which World War II swung in the favor of the Allies-would indeed be fought in 1942, and in a place that on January 5 seemed quite safe from the Germans. The place was Stalin- grad on the Volga River, a modest industrial city then 300 miles behind the battle front.
At Stalingrad in August, the Russians and the Germans would clash in an apocalyptic battle that engaged upward of four million soldiers. Both sides suffered a total of 1 .5 million casualties, earning Stalingrad the grisly name of “Verdun on the Volga.” And in the heat of that battle, the Red Army would be forged from scrap iron into steel.