Lend-Lease to the USSR

American Lend-Lease supplies to the USSR 1941–45.

Soviet historiography is mocked in the West, where it is seen purely as a propaganda exercise. By way of example, take Lend-Lease. Soviet texts downplay its importance, if they mention it at all. English-language histories credit it with saving the Soviet Union from defeat, bandying about words like “decisive” and “critical”. The truth lies in between these extremes — in the fighting in late 1941, the presence of British-supplied Hurricanes and Tomahawks made a difference around Leningrad and Moscow. The presence of Spitfires and Airacobras helped the VVS defeat the Luftwaffe over Kuban. The Studebaker truck was an important tool for the Red Army. The aluminum and other alloys, the metallurgic technology, the locomotives, the radios and other smaller items, the foodstuffs, all these items helped to strengthen the USSR in their struggle against Germany and her Allies. There is no question. But to state bluntly that without them the USSR would have collapsed is simply untrue, and this is the perspective most often put forward in English-speaking lands. The USSR is/was a great country, with enormous resources, and the Russian people are among the most resilient in the world. With or without Lend-Lease, Germany would sooner or later have been defeated, simply because such a small country could never sustain a war against one so large and so wealthy. The Second World War was a war of attrition, and Germany simply did not have the resources to outlast the USSR. Once German troops were stopped before Moscow, it was only a question of time.

In the final phase of the war, however, the Soviet army was able to move to a conduct of operations that was very close to the concepts that had been defined in P.U. 36: Soviet Field Regulations. It was able to do so for one basic reason the mechanization of the logistic facilities of its seven armored and mechanized armies. This was made possible by U.S.  Lend-Lease, U.S. factories and shipping being responsible for the supply of some 420,000 four-wheel-drive trucks, which put the Soviet army on wheels. The scale of this effort can be understood when it is remembered that this total was greater than the number of motor vehicles in Britain in 1939, and the United Kingdom was second only to the United States in terms of automobile production. Where, however, the concept of Deep Battle continued to elude the Soviet army was in the lack of overall mechanization, since the vast majority of Soviet infantry remained on foot and hoof, of a genuine deep-strike air force, and of adequate airborne forces. As a result the Soviet army, like the German army, was unbalanced, with quality concentrated and narrowly based. Its success in the final period of the war was much to do with superiority of numbers and technique.

The most serious gap in the Soviet armoury at the start of the war was in radio communication and intelligence. In the early months of war there were desperate shortages of radio equipment, which made effective command and control of large numbers of aircraft and tanks impossible and made it difficult to hold together a regular infantry division. And when radio was used German interceptors caught the messages and dispatched air or tank strikes against the unfortunate command post that had relayed them. Soviet commanders soon grew uncomfortable with using radio once they realized it could betray their whereabouts. The system was disrupted in the fast-moving defensive battles of 1941 and 1942, as one communications post after another was overrun by the enemy. The effort to provide effective communication in 1942 was central to the final successes of Soviet mass operations in 1943 and 1944.

It could not have been achieved without supplies from the United States and the British Commonwealth. Under the Lend-Lease agreements drawn up with America and Britain in 1941, the Soviet Union was supplied with 35,000 radio stations, 380,000 field telephones and 956,000 miles of telephone cable. The air force was able by 1943 to establish a network of radio control stations about one and a half miles behind the front, from which aircraft could be quickly directed to targets on the battlefield. Tank armies used the new radios to hold the tank units together, increasing their fighting effectiveness by the simplest of innovations. Finally, the Red Army began to organize its own radio interception service in 1942. By 1943 five specialized radio battalions had been raised; their function was to listen in on German radio, jam their frequencies and spread disinformation over the air waves. In the battles of summer 1943 the battalions claimed to have reduced the transmission of German operational radiograms by two-thirds. In the last years of the war Soviet signals-intelligence underwent an exceptional and necessary improvement. The systems for evaluating intelligence from radio interception, spies and air reconnaissance were overhauled by the spring of 1943, and a much clearer picture of German dispositions and intentions could be constructed. Moreover, radio came to play a major part in the evolution of sophisticated tactics of deception and disinformation, which on numerous occasions left the enemy quite unable even to guess the size, the whereabouts or the intentions of Soviet forces.

It was true that the quantity of armaments sent was not great when compared with the remarkable revival of Soviet mass production. The raw statistics show that Western aid supplied only 4 per cent of Soviet munitions over the whole war period, but the aid that mattered did not come in the form of weapons. In addition to radio equipment the United States supplied more than half a million vehicles: 77,900 jeeps, 151,000 light trucks and over 200,000 Studebaker army trucks. One-third of all Soviet vehicles came from abroad and were generally of higher quality and durability, though most came in 1943 and 1944. At the time of Stalingrad only 5 per cent of the Soviet military vehicle park came from imported stocks. Imports, however, gave the Red Army supply system a vital mobility that was by 1944 better than the enemy’s. The Studebaker became a favourite with the Soviet forces. The letters ‘USA’ stencilled on the side were translated as ‘Ubit sukina syna Adolfa’ – ‘to kill that son-of-a-bitch Adolf!’ The list of other supplies, equally vital to the Soviet supply effort, is impressive – 57.8 per cent of aviation fuel requirements, 53 per cent of all explosives, almost half the wartime supply of copper, aluminium and rubber tyres. Arguably the most decisive contribution was supplies for the strained Soviet rail network, much of which was in the occupied areas in 1941. From America came not only 56.6 per cent of all the rails used during the war but 1,900 locomotives to supplement the meagre Soviet output of just 92, and 11,075 railway cars to add to the 1,087 produced domestically. Almost half the supplies, by weight, came in the form of food, enough to provide an estimated half-pound of concentrated nourishment for every Soviet soldier, every day of the war. The shiny tins of Spam, stiff, pink compressed meat, were universally known as ‘second fronts’.

The provision of Lend-Lease supplies was slow in the early stages of the war, but from late 1942 it became a steady flow through the Soviet eastern provinces via Vladivostok, by the overland route from the Persian Gulf and the more dangerous and inhospitable convoy journeys from British ports to Murmansk or Archangel. Foreign aid on such a scale permitted the Soviet Union to concentrate its own production on the supply of battlefront equipment rather than on machinery, materials or consumer goods. Without Western aid, the narrower post-invasion economy could not have produced the remarkable output of tanks, guns and aircraft, which exceeded anything the wealthier German economy achieved throughout the war. Without the railway equipment, vehicles and fuel the Soviet war effort would almost certainly have foundered on poor mobility and an anaemic transport system. Without the technical and scientific aid – during the war 15,000 Soviet officials and engineers visited American factories and military installations technological progress in the Soviet Union would have come much more slowly. This is not to denigrate the extraordinary performance of the Soviet economy during the war, which was made possible only by the use of crude mass-production techniques, by skilful improvisation in planning and through the greater independence and initiative allowed plant managers and engineers. As a result of the improvements in production, the Red Army faced the German enemy in 1943 on more equal terms than at any time since 1941. The modernization of Soviet fighting power was an essential element in the equation. The gap in organization and technology between the two sides was narrowed to the point where the Red Army was prepared to confront German forces during the summer campaigning season in the sort of pitched battle of manoeuvre and firepower at which German commanders had hitherto excelled.

Soviet reaction to Allied aid during the war was mixed. While sending out extravagant shopping lists to the Western powers, the Soviet authorities complained constantly about delays in supply and the quality of some of the weaponry they were sent. Offers by British and American engineers and officers to follow up the deliveries with advice on how to use and repair the equipment were met with a stony refusal. It was true that aid deliveries were slow to materialize in the fifteen months after the promise was made in August of 1941, due partly to the difficulties in establishing effective supply lines, partly to the demands of America’s own rearmament. But neither Roosevelt nor Churchill were in any doubt that aid for the Soviet Union was vital to the anti-Axis coalition; they bore Soviet complaints without a serious rupture. When the first aid programme was finally settled in October 1941, Maxim Litvinov, by then the ambassador to Washington, leaped to his feet and shouted out, ‘Now we shall win the war!’ Yet after 1945 Lend-Lease was treated in the official Soviet histories of the war as a minor factor in the revival of Soviet fortunes. The story of Lend-Lease became a victim of the Cold War. Even in the late 1980s it was still a subject of which the regime would not permit open discussion. The significance of Western supplies for the Soviet war effort was admitted by Khrushchev in the taped interviews used for his memoirs, but the following passage was published only in the 1990s: ‘Several times I heard Stalin acknowledge [Lend-Lease] within the small circle of people around him. He said that… if we had had to deal with Germany one-to-one we would not have been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry.’ Marshal Zhukov, in a bugged conversation in 1963 whose contents were released only thirty years later, endorsed the view that without aid the Soviet Union ‘could not have continued the war’. All this was a far cry from the official history of the Great Patriotic War, which concluded that Lend-Lease was ‘in no way meaningful’ and had ‘no decisive influence’ on the outcome of the war.

The Soviet Union would not have been able to “fight their fight without allied support.”  However, the contribution of U. S. production and Lend-Lease to the Soviet effort has often been exaggerated.

“Left to their own devices,” as one contemporary source puts it, “Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht.” (David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, ‘When Titans Clashed’, 1995, p. 285)

Glantz and House noted (pp. 150-151, 285) the Soviet economy would have been more heavily burdened without Lend-Lease trucks, the implements of war, and raw materials including clothing.  Ultimately, the authors conclude, the result would have been the same, “except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches.”

The authors point out, Lend-Lease equipment did not arrive in sufficient quantities in 1941-42 to make a difference.  “That achievement must be attributed solely to the Soviet people and to the nerve of Stalin” and others.  Lend-Lease trucks enabled the Soviets to keep their mobile forces moving, especially after March 1943.  But combat vehicles and aircraft proved less satisfactory.  The Valentine and Matilda tank turrets could not be upgunned.  And the Soviets wanted close air support ground aircraft and low altitude fighters, not fighter interceptors and long-range bombers.

According to Glantz and House (p. 340 n1), from October1941 to May 1942 the Allies delivered 4700 aircraft and 2600 armored vehicles.  In 1941 and 1942, the Soviets produced 8200 and 21,700 combat aircraft respectively, as well as 4700 and 24,500 tanks.  The Soviets lost 17,900 aircraft in 1941 and 12,100 aircraft in 1942 while tank losses were 20,500 and 15,100 for those years. (p. 306).

By mid to late 1942 the 1500 factories moved east of the Urals between July and November 1941 were beginning to meet much of the Soviet Union’s needs. Standardization of equipment and increased use of labor, especially women and teenagers, allowed tank production for example to rise 38% over 1941. Industrial production in the Urals increased 180% in 1942 over 1940, 140% in Western Siberia, 200% in the Volga region, 36% in Eastern Siberia and 19% in Central Asia and Kazakstan. (Source: Colonel G. S. Kravchenko, specialist in military economics, History of the Second World War, 1973, pp. 975-980).

Kravchenko points out that the smallest amounts of deliveries came at the beginning, the hardest period of war while the second front had not yet been opened. Lend-Lease, while important in providing locomotives, rail wagons, jeeps, trucks, raw materials such as aluminum, machine tools, food and medical supplies, only accounted for 10% of tanks and 12% of aircraft. Soviet soldiers appreciated the 15 million pair of boots the U.S. provided.

According to Alexander Werth (Russia at War: 1941-1945) Lend-Lease contributed to the Soviet army’s diet and to its mobility.   Between June 1941 and April 1944, Werth states (p. 567), the US delivered 6430 planes, 3734 tanks and 210,000 automobiles; the British 5800 planes and 4292 tanks; the Canadians 1188 tanks and 842 armored cars.  Given the Soviet attrition rate, (June 1941 to June 1943 – 23,000 planes and 30,000 tanks – Werth – FN p. 610), Allied contributions hardly covered Soviet losses.

Stalin pressed the Allies more for a second front than for supplies in October 1941 as the Germans pressed on Moscow.  It must also be repeated that by the summer of 1942, German resources could not keep pace with demands, and an attack could only be mounted in the area of Army Group South.

No doubt statistics can be massaged to support any point of view.  Glantz correctly concludes that without Lend-Lease, Soviet offensives would have stalled at an earlier stage, and forward troops could not be supplied.  But the outcome was never in doubt.  That outcome would only have taken longer to achieve.

Here are some stats.

Lend-lease supplied the USSR with 1.9% of all artillery, 7% of all tanks, 13% of all aircraft, 5.4% of transport in 1943, 19% transport in 1944 and 32.8% in 1945. Lend-lease deliveries amounted to 4% of Russia’s wartime production.

Soviet production of motor vehicles during the war amounted to 265,00 vehicles. Lend-lease delivered 409,500 motor vehicles. Lend-lease delivery of motor vehicles exceeded Soviet production by 1.5 times. In fact, the Soviets, due to Lend-lease, had more vehicles than fuel for them, i.e. 1st Belorussian Front at the end of 1944 as did the 1st Ukrainian Front. Both fronts requested more deliveries of fuel, less of vehicles.

Russia included lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel in their total production figures. In truth, Lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel amounted to 57.8% of Russia’s production totals. Lend-lease deliveries of automobile fuel were 242,300 metric tons or 2.8% of Soviet wartime production, but their value was much higher because of the higher-octane level.

Lend-lease deliveries of explosive materials amounted to 53% of the total Soviet wartime production and lend-lease supplied an estimated 82.5% of copper production. Lend-lease deliveries of aluminum, essential for production of aircraft and tank engines exceeded Soviet wartime production by 1.25 times. Lend-lease also delivered 956,700 miles of field telephone wire, 2,100 miles of sea cable, 35,800 radio stations, 5,899 radio receivers and 348 radars. Lend-lease deliveries of canned meat alone amounted to 17.9% of total meat production.

Lend-lease deliveries of locomotives exceeded Soviet production by 2.4 times and railroad rails amounted to 92.7% of overall volume of Soviet rail production. Deliveries of rolling stock exceeded production by 10 times. Deliveries of tires amounted to 43.1% of Soviet production.

Soviet production never produced enough material to sustain the war effort in any key area. In tank production, it wasn’t until 1944 that they actually had a year where tank production exceeded tank losses. Lend-lease tanks amounted to 20% of all Soviet tanks operating in 1944 and without these tanks, they never could have formed the Mech Corps they did in 1944.


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