As the headlong advance of the German Army into the USSR continued, the Red Army collapsed in chaos all along the front. Its communications were severed, transport broke down, ammunition and equipment, fuel, spare parts and much more besides quickly ran out. Unprepared for the invasion, officers could not even guess where the Germans would strike next, and there was often no artillery available to blunt the impact of the incoming German tanks. Many of the Red Army’s own tanks, from the BT to the T-26 and 28, were obsolescent: more of the total of 23,000 tanks deployed by the Red Army in 1941 were lost through breakdowns than to enemy action. Radio communications had not been updated since the Finnish war and were coded in such a basic manner that it was all too easy for Germans listening in to decrypt them. Worst of all, perhaps, medical facilities were wholly inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of dead and treat the scores of thousands of injured. In the absence of proper military planning, officers could think of little else to do than attack the Germans head-on, with predictably disastrous results. An orderly retreat was made almost impossible by the Germans’ prior destruction of roads, railways and bridges behind the lines. Desertion rates rocketed in the Red Army as demoralized soldiers fled in confusion and despair. In a mere three days in late June 1941, the Soviet secret police caught nearly 700 deserters fleeing from the battle on the south-western front. ‘The retreat has caused blind panic,’ as the head of the Belarus Communist Party wrote to Stalin on 3 September 1941, and ‘the soldiers are tired to death, even sleeping under artillery fire . . . At the first bombardment, the formations collapse, many just run away to the woods, the whole area of woodland in the front-line region is full of refugees like this. Many throw away their weapons and go home.’
Some idea of the depth of the disaster can be gauged from the diary of Nikolai Moskvin, a Soviet political commissar, which records a rapid transition from optimism (‘we’ll win for sure,’ he wrote on 24 June 1941) to despair a few weeks later (‘what am I to say to the boys?’ he asked himself gloomily on 23 July 1941: ‘We keep retreating’). On 15 July 1941 he had already shot the first deserters from his unit, but they kept on fleeing, and at the end of the month, after being wounded, he admitted: ‘I am on the verge of a complete moral collapse.’ His unit got lost because it did not have any maps, and most of the men were killed in a German attack while Moskvin, unable to move, was hiding in the woods with two companions, waiting to be rescued. Some peasants found him, nursed him back to health, and conscripted him into helping with the harvest. As he got to know them, he discovered they had no loyalty to the Stalinist system. Their main purpose was to stay alive. After battles, they rushed on to the field to loot the corpses. What in any case would loyalty to Stalin have brought them? In August 1941, Moskvin encountered some Red Army soldiers who had escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp. ‘They say there’s no shelter, no water, that people are dying from hunger and disease, that many are without proper clothes or shoes.’ Few, he wrote, had given a thought to what imprisonment by the Germans would mean. The reality was worse than anyone could imagine.