Chancellor of Germany Joseph Wirth (2.from left) with Krassin, Georgi Chicherin and Joffe from the Russian delegation.
The Rapallo Accord
In April 1922, long before Hitler and the Nazis, another treaty was signed between the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic in which both countries gave up any territorial and financial claims against each other. The treaty also contained several secret clauses that dealt with cooperation in the fields of armor, military aviation, and gas warfare. Both countries were to benefit from this arrangement. Germany had the capability to develop these fields on its own, but it was impossible to do this in Germany itself, under the nose of the observant Versailles Treaty’s overseeing committee. The Soviet Union was remote enough for this purpose, and anyway there were no foreign forces on its land to report what really went on. Among other things, German engineers worked in the Soviet Union and the two armies exercised together.
This cooperation lasted for about ten years, and in spite of the obvious differences in their ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving, both sides gained handsomely. German engineers, military officers, and pilots spent time in the Soviet Union designing advanced weapons and trying them in the field. The Soviets got modern technology and the opportunity to cooperate with a technological power with a tradition of excellence. The gas warfare work was stopped after a short time, but the cooperation in armor and aviation continued until Hitler came to power.
The work with the Germans solved for the Soviets the problem of technologically catching up. They also examined successful designs abroad and in 1928 bought two experimental tank hulls from Walter Christie, an American engineer.
Christie, a prolific inventor, developed a suspension system for tanks that was revolutionary at the time. It contained large wheels on which the tank could move at high speed on favorable terrain. When necessary, for travel in the field, tracks could be mounted on the wheels. Although the U.S. Army considered his designs and bought some prototypes, these were never put into mass production. Christie then turned to foreign governments, and finally a deal was consummated with the Soviet Union, which started an accelerated program of tank development of its own. In 1938, they also started using diesel engines of local design in their tanks.
In the twenties and thirties, tank warfare theory made great strides in the Soviet Union. Soviet military literature discussed at length the required characteristics of modern tanks, which have not changed even today—protection, firepower, and mobility—and the Soviets applied the conclusions from these discussions to the establishment of a large armored force. From 1928 till 1935, the number of tanks in the Soviet Union grew from ninety to ten thousand.
The Spanish Civil War and the Soviet Visit to Berlin
In 1933, Hitler unilaterally abrogated the Versailles Treaty, and Germany started rearming. During the Spanish Civil War, the Western Powers imposed an embargo of weapons, which affected only the republican government, but the Italians and Germans supported Franco and did not care who knew about it. The Italians sent a large force of “volunteers,” and Germany sent tanks, instructors, and most importantly, the Condor Legion. This was a force of pilots and technicians, and of course a variety of aircraft, for which Spain served as a large, real-life training field and proving ground for the machines, the people, and the operational theories. Since the communists in Spain participated in the republican government, Stalin decided to aid them and sent fighter aircraft, various types of equipment, and instructors. Included were about fifty Soviet-developed tanks, and it quickly became apparent that the pupils had surpassed their teachers. At that time, the Soviets had not yet made up their minds whether tanks should support infantry, like in World War I, or serve as an independent striking force, which advanced thinkers were advocating (and the Germans later adopted). But one thing was clear: on the whole, the Soviet tanks were better than the German ones they faced. This did not prevent Franco from winning, but that happened mostly because of the ineptitude of the republican government and its military commanders.
When the Spanish Civil War ended, everybody tried to understand the lessons it provided. World War II started shortly afterward, and the conquest of Poland and the fall of France gave birth to a new term: Blitzkrieg. But it was also discovered that French tanks were better than German ones. True, German tank commanders knew better how to use the tools at their disposal, but the German ordnance engineers and tank designers were very conservative, both in the design of the tanks themselves and in the design of the tanks’ main armament.
After the failure of the Luftwaffe to beat the RAF, Hitler turned to the Soviet Union, which anyway was on his plan of conquests. The invasion was to start in the spring of 1941 but was postponed a little because of Hitler’s decision to teach Yugoslavia a lesson after they refused to join the Axis Powers.
In April 1941, two months before the intended Soviet invasion, for which the Wehrmacht was industriously preparing, Hitler directed the senior German officers to invite two foreign delegations of armor specialists, one American and one Soviet, to Berlin to show them everything about German armor. This invitation was probably a ruse, hatched by German intelligence, to see foreign reaction to the might of German armor, which the Germans truly believed was the best in the world (Guderian 1961, 119; L. Kirkpatrick 1987, 63–64; Suvorov 2004, 220–221).
The American delegation came first, and as expected, they were astounded by German capabilities in armor. The Soviet delegation, which came after the Americans, was also shown everything: armor training facilities, equipment, production plants, and so on.
It is possible that the Germans had another reason for this invitation. The Red Army had not yet recuperated from its recent purges. The Soviet invasion of Finland (the Winter War, November 1939 to March 1940), which had ended recently, had also brought to the fore the less-than-sterling performance of the Red Army. Admittedly, the Finns asked for the ceasefire and lost some territory, but they retained their independence. It is possible that Hitler thought these officers, most of them new to their jobs, would be impressed by the might of the German army and upon their return spread some defeatism in the ranks.
The visit ran its course, but the Germans were disappointed. Unlike the Americans, the Soviet officers were not impressed by what they saw. They refused to believe that the Panzer III and the Panzer IV were the most advanced German tanks. They were already familiar with the Panzer III (they received several examples as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty) and thought it to be ornate, too comfortable, and most importantly, inferior to their own T-34 (which the Germans knew nothing about) in all three important parameters—protection, firepower, and mobility. They of course did not say that much to their hosts but asked that this “junk” be removed and, as per Hitler’s directive, be shown the really advanced tanks. Furthermore, from the astute questions the Soviets asked, their hosts—SS General Walter Schellenberg (head of SS Foreign Intelligence and probably the one who came up with the idea of inviting the delegations), the German ordnance people, and the manufacturers’ representatives—concluded that the Soviets must have had something better up their sleeves. But these suspicions stopped there and never got down to the German intelligence apparatus, and, worse, not to the operational branches.
German intelligence failed too. The lessons of the cooperation with the Weimar Republic were still remembered, and the lessons of fighting in Spain and the excellent qualities of the Soviet tanks (though in contrast with their conservative use) were also known to the Germans. Furthermore, the Soviets developed at that time an amphibious tank and had shown it around (Suvorov 2004, 221). All these facts should have drawn attention to Soviet capabilities, or were they all so blinded by the “subhuman” rhetoric of the Nazi leadership.
A KV-1 and a T-34 tanks.
The Development of the T-34
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and pretty soon it became clear what the Soviets knew about tank design. The T-34 was developed between 1936 and 1940 and had its baptism by fire at the end of July 1941. The Germans, who became used to the mediocre (by then) capabilities of the Soviet tanks (the T-26, T-28, and BT), were confronted with a new tank and were stunned by it (Guderian 1961, 179; McCarthy and Syron 2002, 124–25)
German tank shells simply ricocheted off its armor, but the T-34’s gun was able to penetrate the frontal armor of German tanks even at longer ranges, and its wide tracks enabled travel in mud and later in snow. Admittedly, its tactical employment in combat was poorly managed, there was a lack of ammunition for its main armament, and many of the crewmen were not adequately trained, but the tank itself was better than any German tank, and its sudden appearance caused shock and even spread panic. Even in November, four months after its debut, the Germans were still at their wits’ end (Guderian 1961, 190).
This raises another question: Is it possible that the information on the appearance of the T-34 was not properly distributed to everyone who might run into it, and for four long months nobody considered the question of how to tackle the new threat? This affair points to difficulties in the German intelligence service, but this time not on the strategic but on the tactical level. Just the revelation of a new and efficient threat should have spread like a wildfire.
The Germans entered the war in the east with full confidence that the quality of their equipment would compensate for the admittedly numerical superiority of the Red Army. How did it happen that the Soviets developed a good tank, one that was better than standard German equipment?
Already during the war in Spain, the Soviets started working on a new tank. The design was upgraded as a result of lessons from that war and of the very harsh lessons from the Winter War against Finland, particularly with regard to tank vulnerability. In that war, the Soviets lost 1,600 tanks in less than four months. The initial design, dictated from above, still combined Christie-style road wheels on which tracks could be mounted when necessary. The tank was powered by a diesel engine and armed with a 76-millimeter gun. Michael Kushkin, the chief designer, proposed that the ability to move without tracks be eliminated and the saved weight go to improving armor protection. Stalin, who was personally involved in the T-34 project, agreed, and here the T-34, in its final version, was born. The first two prototypes were ready in January 1940 and sent, in midwinter, on a two-thousand-mile trip for testing. Both tanks accomplished the journey, production blueprints were completed, and serial production commenced in September 1940 (Hughes and Mann 1999, 35–36).
It is interesting to note several other failures of German intelligence. By April 1940, the existence of the T-34 and its outstanding qualities (and of the heavier KV-1 tank) were common knowledge among the senior officers of the Red Army. In sessions discussing the failures of the Winter War, presided over by Stalin himself, many officers expressed their wish to receive the T-34 as soon as possible. Dmitri Pavlov, at the time chief of the Red Army Directorate of Yank and Armored Car Troops, answered them, “As for the new makes, I deem it my duty to warn comrade commanders: do not flood the People’s Commissariat and Comrade Stalin with telegrams. Give us, in Moscow, a chance to deal with organizational matters in a proper way. In practice it often happens that as soon as people hear about a new machine they immediately start saying that the old machines are no good. They say: Give us T-34s or KVs, they alone suit our theatre, others do not suit” (Kulkov and Rzheshevsky 2002, 261). Initiating the production of a new tank is a large project by any means. The only explanation for the German intelligence failure, illogical as it seems, was that, more than a year before the coming campaign, they were not interested in or failed to gather information about what the intended enemy was doing.
As mentioned above, the Germans were astonished by the appearance of the T-34. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that they expected to meet the same tank types they saw in Spain. Based on this assumption, they were sure that the quality of their tanks would compensate for the quantities of Soviet tanks. The number cited for Soviet tanks before the war was ten thousand (Kahn 1978, 457). But here we also run into a problem of arithmetic. Guderian (1961, 119) writes that in 1933, he visited a Soviet tank factory that was producing twenty-two tanks a day. Even if we consider obsolescence and accidents, we are still talking about some twenty thousand Soviet tanks in 1941, and later estimates do in fact go up to twenty-four thousand Soviet tanks at the beginning of the war (Kahn 1978, 458). The Germans also failed to discover that by 1940 the Soviets were producing a diesel powered tank (BT-7M) and were showing a growing interest in heavier guns as the main armament for tanks. As shown time and again, the German approach to intelligence in general, and to technological intelligence in particular, was less than successful and bordered on amateur.
To what extent German technological intelligence was disorganized can be understood from the following example: In the beginning of the war, they tended to confuse the T-34 (a medium tank) and the KV-1 (a heavy one). They eventually realized that these were two different tanks. But when intelligence identified these tanks in a certain sector of the front, they did not bother to inform adjacent sectors of the new threat and left it up to them to find this out on their own (Handel 1989, 137).