Why Did Stalin Build his Big Ocean-Going Fleet?

As the pride of the Soviet fleet, Kirov was finally commissioned on September 26, 1938. She was 628 feet in length, 58 feet in beam, and had a 19-foot draft. While she still could not attain her planned top speed of 37 knots, her generators were able to produce an impressive 113,500shp, and she had a range of 3750nm at 17.8 knots. This was all complemented by her impressive armament and armor: three triple-gun turrets holding 180mm 57 Mk-3-180 guns, six 100mm 56 B-34 DP guns, six 45mm 46 21-K guns, and four 12.7mm DK machine guns. She also had six 533mm 53-38 torpedo tubes and was capable of carrying numerous mines and depth charges. Protection was 50mm armor on her belt, deck, turrets, barbettes, and transverse bulkheads, with 150mm armor on the conning tower.

The decision for the building of the ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’ was taken by Stalin in the last months of 1935. There was during the last part of 1935 a well-considered and exactly planned propaganda campaign to celebrate the successes of the technical reconstruction of the fleet and the progress in the education and combat training of naval personnel. On 23 December 1935 more than 270 naval officers and sailors were decorated with orders and medals for their achievements in spreading the Stakhanov movement in the Navy. And on the same day Stalin, V.M. Molotov, G.K. Ordzhonikidze and K.E. Voroshilov received in the Kremlin a delegation from the Pacific Fleet. After the reception, the High Commands of the Red Army and the Red Navy were ordered to prepare proposals for the development of a great ocean-going Navy and to put them before the Government for acceptance. In the following day’s Pravda there appeared an article which stated that it was the aim of the Soviet Union to become a great sea power over the next few years.

In February 1936 a first variant for this great fleet project was ready, and on 27 May 1936 the Council of Labour and Defence (STO) approved the parameters for the composition of the future fleet and the building programme for 1936–47. It is surprising that only a very short time after the official proclamation of the doctrine of a ‘Small War at Sea’, which was still supported by the then Deputy Chief of the Naval Forces, Flagman 1 Ranga I.M. Ludri, in a review of an American book in the February 1936 issue of the official journal Morskoi sbornik, the official doctrine was suddenly changed to one of a ‘Big Ocean-Going Navy’. The Chief of the Naval Forces, Flagman Flota 1 Ranga V.M. Orlov, who had also been a supporter with the jeune école of a small war at sea, now vehemently propagated this viewpoint in his speech to the Extraordinary Congress of the Union’s Soviets on 28 November 1936. Nevertheless, the then Chief of the General Staff, Marshal A.I. Yegorov, persisted with his requests that the Navy build heavy ships and even aircraft carriers in greater numbers than the Navy wanted.

Where should we look for the reasons for this sudden change? There can be no doubt that the initiative for this change must have come from the top, from Stalin himself, because at this time his dominant position was so effectively established that nobody dared to criticize his decisions or to present diverging opinions. This is especially obvious here, as the top military and naval leaders, who had before clearly been supporters of the ‘Small War at Sea’ theory, suddenly switched to the opposite viewpoint. They must have seen or possibly even anticipated the changed aims of the Vozhd’, of Stalin. What, then, might have been Stalin’s reasons for this change of policy and strategy?

In the mid-1930s Stalin had perceived the ‘people’s front’ concept of cooperation with the Western democracies in a policy of ‘collective security’, as advocated by the Narkom for Foreign Relations, M.M. Litvinov, and promoted by the Komintern, to be a failure. Litvinov’s influence probably began to diminish much earlier than March 1939, as most Western historians have assumed.1 Stalin must have already changed to an independent defence policy by the mid-1930s. One obvious reason was the anti-Soviet and anti-communist policy of Germany, and its closer collaboration with the Japanese and Italians, but also with the former common enemy Poland, and Great Britain, as was demonstrated by the German-British Naval Agreement of 1935, which seemed to be a German approach to one of the most important Western democracies to him. No doubt, Stalin felt that the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly surrounded by possible enemy states. This led him to want to build up the military strength of the Soviet Union to a level superior to that of his neighbours, a tendency seen already in the early 1930s, when industrialization was focused on the production of armaments for the Army, to equip their forces according to the doctrine of M.N. Tukhachevskii and V.K. Triandaffilov of countering possible enemy attacks by counterstrokes deep into their territory.

By the mid-1930s it most probably became evident to Stalin that the other great powers had started to build up their navies, and that a real naval arms race had begun. He must have had the intention of acquiring in all fleet areas a strength comparable or even superior to the probable enemy navies, especially the Japanese in the Sea of Japan and the Germans in the Baltic, and to a lesser extent the Germans and their allies in the Arctic, and the Romanians, the Turkish and the Italians in the Black Sea. Because all the possible hostile sea powers started to build new battleships, he also saw a need to have such ships. This was underlined, when in 1936–37 the Soviet Navy was not able to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, despite the fact that Stalin’s decision to build the ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’ was taken before the Civil War started, which some historians have erroneously linked with the start of the Soviet naval build-up. One other supporting observation was probably the decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said at this time, ‘It’s not possible to believe in treaties, the guarantee lies in a strong fleet. Let’s see how the Japanese could endure a naval arms race.’ On 21 January 1938 the US Congress accepted a new law for an enlargement of the Navy, and on 17 May a programme of a ‘Two-Oceans Navy’ was announced. In addition, there might have been information about new building plans for the Japanese Navy. The mentioned strategic aims developed for the August 1939 naval programme show clearly the intention of acquiring naval supremacy in each of the four fleet areas. If we look at the text of the August 1939 documents, the question is, was the aim behind the naval build-up to gain security against naval threats? Or were the battleship fleets perceived to be a necessary step in ensuring that by 1947 the Soviet Union would become one of the world’s superpowers? At present, this question cannot definitively be answered, but the wording of the now known documents from 1939 to 1941 shows at the least an offensive tendency in Soviet policy and strategy.

Indeed, was Soviet industry able at this time to fulfil the big programmes? The experiences of the developments that followed are proof that the industrial and technological capacities were at the time insufficient to accomplish the big building programme in the seven to ten years envisaged. The very close dates for the building of the big ships were simply not realistic, as was shown in 1936, when only 53 per cent of the plan dates were achieved, and in 1938 only 60 per cent. Notwithstanding the real difficulties, Stalin pushed the building processes, and many historians have assumed that the purges against the naval leadership in 1937–38 had to do with his wish to get rid of the former supporters of the ‘Small War at Sea’ theory and the opponents of the ‘reactionary theory of sea-power’. But if we look at the victims of the purges, we find not only the most important exponents of these theories, like I.M. Ludri, K.I. Dushenov and I.K. Kozhanov, but also people who changed their mind along the lines given by Stalin, like R.A. Muklevich, V.M. Orlov and finally M.V. Viktorov, and Marshal A.I. Yegorov, who since 1935 had been forcefully asking for an accelerated build-up of the Navy. And we must not forget the imprisonment of many of the engineers who were working on designs for the new big ships; or the men who tried to ‘unmask the saboteurs and enemies of the people’, who for a short time became the Chiefs of the Navy, like P.A. Smirnov and M.P. Frinovskii, only to become victims of the purges themselves. So this problem must be assigned to Stalin’s pathological mistrust and his unreal perception of being surrounded by enemies and traitors, as Dmitrii Volkogonov has so convincingly demonstrated.

So we must assume that in the late 1930s to Stalin – as the American historian Richard Humble has said – a battleship, a dreadnought, was a direct historical predecessor to the atomic bomb, a symbol of the highest grade of power, a most powerful and mobile instrument of power politics, that the world had ever known. A state, which wants to be a fully recognized member in world politics, needs battleships and battlecruisers as symbols of power. This might have been behind Stalin’s wish to have a ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’.

But what was Stalin’s intention when the Second World War was over, and a new big naval programme was presented by the naval leaders? The Soviet Union then needed above all to repair the damage done to its industrial base. And the war had itself created much more powerful probable enemies in the United States and its Western allies. The threat perceived lay in the far superior strategic air power of the Western countries, and the capability for amphibious warfare they had demonstrated in Europe and the Pacific from 1943 to 1945.

While the high command of the Navy tried to renew the concept of a traditional fleet made up of all types of warships, from battleships and carriers to motor torpedo boats and submarines, Stalin was preoccupied with industrial capacity and the need to counter any threats of aerial bombardment and amphibious landings. Therefore he tried to push the borders of the Soviet-dominated areas as far away as possible from the centres of his Soviet Union, and tried at first to limit the naval programmes to defence against the amphibious threat. Nonetheless, against the wishes of the admirals, he demanded his beloved battlecruisers, the remnants of his great ocean-going fleet, at the expense of aircraft carriers, which shows that he still had the wish to acquire such old symbols of sea power, not understanding the change in naval strategies, with the carriers now as the most important instruments of naval power projection. This became obvious, when he reinstated Kuznetsov, fired in 1947 for his opposition to the cuts in the naval programme and demoted to Vice-Admiral, again as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in 1951, to manage the delayed naval programme, which was still centred on his outdated battle-cruisers. Stalin’s reluctance to agree with Kuznetsov’s demands for aircraft carriers shows that he was still fixed on the idea that big gun-armed ships were the signs of a naval superpower status.

When, after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and Marshal of the Soviet Union Zhukov took the helm, they looked to the Army and especially to the new strategic rockets as the counter to the perceived dangers from their opponents in the Cold War, which was demonstrated by the first launches of strategic intercontinental rockets and the first satellites into space. But they neglected the Navy. When the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Admiral Kuznetsov, opposed this trend and tried to renew the naval programme along the modern lines, he was fired again. His successor Admiral Gorshkov, at first had to follow the wishes of his superiors, especially in the love of modern weapons like rockets and missiles. He was forced at first to cancel the gun-armed ships and to build submarines and ships with anti-ship missiles, before he later also came back to the doctrine of a balanced ocean-going fleet with all the necessary ships from atomic submarines with ballistic rockets, missile-armed cruisers, submarines, and destroyers and escorts, as well as coastal vessels, but finally also to missile-armed battlecruisers and even helicopter and aircraft carriers. It may be that Khrushchev’s successors learned from the experience of the Cuban crisis of 1962 about the need to have modern ocean-going surface ships in order to escort seaborne supplies for the support of revolutionary movements in the Third World. So they allowed Gorshkov to follow this new-old line. During his almost 30-year tenure in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, Gorshkov almost achieved his aims – that is, to establish the Soviet Union not only as an army and strategic rocket forces superpower, but also as a big sea-going superpower. Only a few years after his retirement in 1985, events outside the Navy led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union, in 1991, followed by the deterioration of the Navy, and the rusting away of most of its sea-going ships.


German Forces Post-Kursk

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.

The southern sector of the eastern front saw far more armored action than the other two in the months following Kursk. The Red Army’s performance was also exponentially better. Most of the best Soviet tank generals had been sent to that theater to see off the Kursk offensive and to prepare for the series of strikes expected to—finally—destroy German fighting power in south Russia.

It began on July 17. First Panzer Army and the re-created 6th Army initially held positions along the Mius River. Manstein planned a coun terstrike, using Das Reich and Leibstandarte to stun the Soviets on 1st Panzer Army’s front, then shifting them to 6th Army’s sector to join Totenkopf and 3rd Panzer in a larger concentric attack. When Hitler forbade it, Manstein borrowed the words of General von Seydlitz from two centuries earlier: His head was at the Führer’s disposal, but while he held command he must be allowed to use it.

Eventually, reinforced by a total of five panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, 1st Panzer Army did mount a tactically successful counterattack. But Manstein still faced over two and a half million men, 50,000 guns, 2,400 tanks, almost 3,000 aircraft. Purists sometimes suggest that Stavka should have used this overwhelming superiority to generate battles of encirclement, panzer style. But Stalin remembered all too clearly how Manstein had thwarted a similar approach after Stalingrad. At front and army command levels there also seems to have been a near-visceral desire to smash an enemy that had so often embarrassed them, and to do it with strength the Germans could not hope to match. Even airborne forces were thrown into the operation.

Ninth Army, 4th Panzer Army, and Detachment Kempf, rechristened 8th Army but with the same resources, paid the bill. Model secured Hitler’s permission for a fighting retreat from the Orel salient as part of the general withdrawal of Army Group Center. Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts by the Soviet onslaught, each fighting its own desperate battle. Useful reinforcements were few—the 8th Panzer Division arrived with no tanks. A staff officer at Army High Command confided—but only to his diary—that the end might come before the new year. Manstein had to fight Hitler almost as fiercely as the Russians to secure permission to do anything but “hold, hold, hold!” Guderian cattily observed that Manstein was inappropriately tentative in the Führer’s presence. In fact Army Group South’s commander not only insisted that disaster awaited were he not allowed to fall back to the line of the Dnieper River, but on September 14 he declared that he would issue the orders the next day on his own responsibility. Hitler conceded defeat.

The success of the retreat depended on the panzers. Materially Manstein was playing a handful of threes. In contrast to Kursk, there were few chances to recover and repair damaged tanks. Casualty evacuation was random. Units constantly on the move meant stragglers were usually lost for good. It took two weeks to reach the Dnieper. By that time Army Group South counted fewer than 300 serviceable tanks and assault guns. The average infantry division’s frontline strength was around a thousand men. Its average front was twelve to thirteen miles.

Even Tigers felt the strain. In the course of the campaign, Army Group South’s single battalion of Panzer VIs was increased to four. But their commanders complained the Tigers were victimized by their reputation: thrown in piecemeal, shuttled from sector to sector, denied time to maintain the complex and sensitive vehicle. Too often they were used as mobile pillboxes. Too often their infantry support was nonexistent or ineffective.

The tankers ascribed that last to poor training and low morale. From the infantry’s perspective, it was often common sense. The Tiger was essentially different from the familiar assault guns, whose low silhouettes and maneuverability enabled them to seek ambush positions and use cover—almost like a Landser on treads. The Tigers were big. They drew fire like magnets and attracted Soviet tanks like flies to manure. Any smart rifleman—and slow thinkers had short life spans in the autumn of 1943—was likely to avoid them rather than take the risk of providing close-in protection.

As they fell back, the Germans scorched the earth. That is a polite military euphemism for a swath of devastation covering hundreds of square miles, sparing nothing and no one except by accident. “They are burning the bread,” Vatutin admonished his men. Few Soviet soldiers did not know what hunger felt like. Small wonder the Russians succeeded in throwing bridgeheads across the river. Small wonder that the Germans’ best chance of holding was to destroy them before they could metastasize. And small wonder that they failed.

On November 3 the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Dnieper in force around Kiev, on Manstein’s northern flank. Fourth Panzer Army’s few remaining AFVs foundered in the Soviet tide. The 25th Panzer Division, sent to restore the situation, had spent most of its existence in the peaceful surroundings of Norway. Botched transportation schedules temporarily made it a panzer division with no tracked vehicles at all. Yet the division managed, somehow, to halt an entire tank army and set the stage for another of Manstein’s signature counterattacks.

This one would be made without Hoth, summarily dismissed by Hitler for his failure to hold the river line. His replacement represented no loss in ability. Erhard Raus had been tempered in the front lines from Leningrad to Kursk. Tactical command of the counterattack was in the arguably even more capable hands of Hermann Balck, now commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps. Even the weather obliged, freezing the mud to stability by the time Balck went in.

Hitler had rejected Manstein and Guderian’s proposals to concentrate every tank in the southern sector for a short, massive blow. Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps counted only 200 tanks and assault guns, but they were manned by some of the Wehrmacht’s best, divisions like 1st Panzer, 7th Panzer, and Leibstandarte. For three weeks they ran rings around the baffled Rotarmisten. Balck’s corps was on the point of executing 1941-style encirclement when a captured map showed the intended pocket contained no fewer than seven Soviet corps. Even for the intrepid Balck, that was a bit much. And despite virtuoso German performances from corps headquarters to tank crews, the Soviet bridgehead was still intact.

Further south, 1st Panzer Army and Army Group A, whose sector had been relatively quiet since the withdrawal from the Caucasus, came under increasing pressure in mid-August. Initially it was possible to plug gaps and secure flanks by using available AFVs as emergency relief. But when an eagerly awaited panzer division turned out to consist of seven tanks and an under strength panzer grenadier regiment, operational reality had an unpleasant way of unmistakably asserting itself. The situation was worsened in 1st Panzer Army’s sector, where Hitler had ordered an already dangerously deep salient where the Dnieper bent west at Zaporozhye to be expanded to a bridgehead—not for military reasons but to protect a dam producing electricity described as vital for the industry of occupied Ukraine, a dam that was also widely understood to symbolize Soviet achievement.

The extended deployment required to sustain this propaganda illusion drove Manstein to near-wordless fury. It took only four days for the Red Army to overrun the bridgehead in mid-October. The resources it had absorbed were unavailable to resist a far larger attack against 6th Army on 1st Panzer’s right: over a half-million men and 800 tanks against a fifth of the number of armored vehicles, in wide-open country. By the beginning of November the Crimea was isolated and Army Group A cut in half.

The Russians were learning how to keep moving tactically and operationally, and figuring out how to coordinate their movements on a theater level. On October 15 another sledgehammer shattered 1st Panzer Army’s left wing, and in 10 days covered the 100 miles to Krivoi Rog. On October 24 a second front-level offensive broke out of another Dnieper bridgehead a few miles south of the first. Mackensen, anything but an alarmist, reported the gap could not be closed, that his exhausted men had no more left in them. Hitler responded by giving Manstein control of 1st Panzer Army and a temporary free hand.

This time Manstein planned a movement. A panzer corps headquarters rotated from his army group through 1st Panzer Army’s rear zone into position on its left flank. It took command of Totenkopf, of 24th Panzer Division, in Italy since its reformation after Stalingrad, and of 14th Panzer Division, another Stalingrad revival currently shaking down in France. On August 28 this hastily assembled force drove southeast, into the Soviet rear toward Krivoi Rog. Mackensen’s LVII Panzer Corps attacked in the opposite direction two days later. Both operations took the Russians by surprise and succeeded in linking up to cut off the Soviet spearheads and restabilize the sector.

It was another neat local victory, and Mackensen’s last fight in Russia. On November 4 he was transferred to Italy, replaced by a no less capable man. Hans Hube had lost an arm in World War I, led a panzer corps with sufficient distinction to be flown out of Stalingrad, and done well against the British and Americans in Sicily. He had a reputation for willpower and energy. He would need both in the face of still another coordinated Soviet offensive in what again seemed overwhelming force.

The Soviet Union had paid for its successes against Army Group South with over 1.5 million casualties, a quarter of them dead or missing. The German front still held—barely—but its defenders were so tired and apathetic that in the words of one report, they no longer cared whether they were shot by the Russians or their own officers. And this was the elite Grossdeutschland Division, which enjoyed its own personal battalion of Tigers.

On December 24 the Red Army struck again: four fronts, 2.25 million men, 2,600 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army was again hammered into fragments, each making its own way west as best it could. Manstein almost by reflex saw the best response as shortening the front and concentrating his armor for a counterattack, as he had done after Stalingrad. When Hitler refused, Manstein, on his own responsibility, pulled 1st Panzer Army out of the line and redeployed it on 4th Panzer’s right. Hube had his own III Panzer Corps, XLVI Panzer Corps transferred in haste from France, and a provisional heavy tank regiment with a battalion each of Tigers and Panthers, plus some attached infantry and armored artillery. His counterattack cost the Russians a few tens of thousands of men and around 700 tanks. It was a victory—but only in the most limited tactical sense.

The experiences of Mackensen and Hube showed clearly that even in reasonable strength the panzers could do no more than restore local situations. Both counterattacks, moreover, had depended for half their striking power on divisions transferred from the west. How long would it be before Allied initiatives made that impossible?

Any doubts that the balance in armored war had definitively shifted should have been dispelled by the Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans still held a 100-mile stretch of the Dnieper north of that city. Hitler projected its use as a springboard for a proposed spring offensive and forbade withdrawal. On January 24, two Soviet fronts hit the sector with a third of a million men, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in proportion. Inside of a week a half dozen divisions, including what was left of Viking, were cut off in the city of Korsun: around 60,000 men. Their armor support totaled two dozen tanks and half as many assault guns.

Hitler, remembering Demyansk, ordered the pocket to hold and promised supply from the air. Those melodies were too familiar. Manstein, well aware of the morale-sapping fear throughout his army group that the pocket would become another Stalingrad, planned a major relief operation using no fewer than nine panzer divisions. Initially every one of the divisions he proposed to use was already engaged elsewhere in Russia, and one was literally stuck fast trying to move through early spring mud. The four divisions finally assembled under 8th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps had a combined total of 3,800 men in their eight panzer grenadier regiments. Their progress was predictably limited.

That left it up to Hube. His strike force for the unusually domestically named Operation Wanda—III Panzer Corps—included 1st, 16th, and 17th Panzer Divisions, Leibstandarte, and the heavy regiment. But the Panzer IV’s Tigers and Panthers bogged tread-deep in mud the wide-tracked T-34s traversed with relative ease. Fuel consumption spiraled; breakdowns multiplied; supply vehicles were immobilized. By February 15 it was clear that the pocket could not be relieved. Instead Manstein ordered a breakout in the direction of the mired III Panzer Corps, code word “Freedom.”

Orders were to leave anyone unable to march. For one of the few times in Wehrmacht history, something like a mutiny took place. Wounded who could be moved were loaded onto every available vehicle. With its seven tanks and three assault guns, Viking took the point and carried the retreat through the first Russian defenses. But III Panzer Corps was unable to fight its way to the designated meeting point and unable to contact the pocket by radio. Command and control were eroding even before the Germans entered a Russian combined-arms killing zone around dawn on February 16. For over four hours Russian tanks and cavalrymen chased fugitives through the ravines and across open ground. This was one of the few verifiable occasions where T-34s systematically ran over fleeing men. And the killing was likely both payback and pleasure.

Around 36,000 men, including 7,500 wounded, eventually reached III Panzer Corps’s lines. Eighty-three hundred of them belonged to Viking and the Walloon SS brigade attached to it. Total casualties in the pocket amounted to around 20,000: no bagatelle, but a long way from Stalingrad. First Panzer Army’s loss of over 150 AFVs reflected its inability to move immobilized tanks and repair breakdowns, rather than any sudden forward leap in the effectiveness of Soviet armor. Nevertheless, though Goebbels’s propaganda machine described a great victory, the battle for the Cherkassy Pocket highlighted the continuing decline of Hitler’s panzers from a strategic and operational force to a tactical instrument.

To maintain and restore even temporarily Army Group South’s sector of the Eastern Front in the months after Kursk had required the commitment of most of the army’s combat-ready armor. That commitment, moreover, was increasingly ad hoc. A “panzer division” in the German order of battle was increasingly likely to be on the ground with as many tanks as could be made operational combined in a single battalion; the mechanized panzer grenadier battalion and the reconnaissance battalion, both brought to something like table of organization strength by transfers from the remaining panzer grenadiers; the half-tracked pioneer company; and a few self-propelled guns. These remnants were repeatedly thrown in against odds of ten to one or higher without time to absorb replacements and work in new officers. They might bear famous names and numbers. They were not what they once were. But then the same could be said about an entire Reich approaching the point of unraveling.

The tipping point on the Eastern Front was even more clearly indicated in March 1944. The Korsun-Cherkassy breakout enraged Stalin, but was not even a speed bump to the continuing Russian offensive. Zukhov had taken over, and his hands drove the spearheads that tore 50-mile gaps in the front, left 1st Panzer Army facing in the wrong direction, and created within days a pocket containing over 200,000 men, fighting soldiers, their rear echelons, and the detritus of an occupation. Twenty-two divisions were represented. One had only 600 men and not a single antitank gun, and that was all too typical. The isolated Germans counted 50 assault guns and 43 tanks, some of them unable to move for lack of fuel.

One veteran spoke of “clean undershirt time,” when one looked for anything white enough to make a surrender flag. Hitler insisted on “holding what there is to hold.” Manstein informed Hitler that he intended to order a breakout on his own responsibility. Hitler temporized to show who was in charge, then agreed.

Manstein’s plan was by now almost conventional: reinforcements from France, this time the refreshed II SS Panzer Corps, to attack from the outside; 1st Panzer Army to drive west toward the SS spearheads. Radio interceptions—midlevel Red Army communications security had not progressed too far since 1914—helped Manstein time the breakout. Hube brought another idea to the table. His experience at Stalingrad and Cherkassy had convinced him of the risks involved in depending on a relief force. If one appeared and made contact, all was well and good. If necessary, however, Hube was prepared to fight his own way through in a “traveling pocket.”

Hube’s plan and its execution are still studied in war colleges. He had four corps headquarters, three of them panzer. He had elements of 10 panzer divisions—all the command elements he needed. The problem was how best to organize the operation. Given overall Russian superiority in the sector, conventional wisdom suggested a strong armored spearhead. The problem was that the tankers might move ahead too fast and too far, leaving the rest of the army to fend for itself—a polite euphemism for being overrun and destroyed. Instead Hube did the opposite. He organized the breakout in two parallel columns. Each had a vanguard of infantry supported by assault guns. The panzers formed the rear guard, in a position to move forward and support the advance forces when necessary.

Hube commanded the breakout in person. He had kept his men active in the days of preparation, sublimating feelings of despair and panic. Straggling and desertion were minimal. Zukhov’s threat to shoot every third prisoner if the pocket did not capitulate by April 2 was not generally known, but would have surprised few. That the Soviet marshal later restricted proposed victims to senior officers was limited comfort to anyone aware of the concession.

Hube originally wanted to break out to the south and head for Romania. Manstein insisted on a western direction despite the longer distance and the numerous river crossings it entailed. He had the senior rank and the final word. On March 27, 1st Panzer Army started west. It had the advantages of surprise; sluggish enemy reaction enabled the rear guard to close up to the main columns relatively unmolested. Hube kept his men closed up and moving. Improvised airstrips enabled the Luftwaffe to bring in fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded—a major continuing boost to morale and a tribute to “Aunt Ju,” the Ju-52 transports that could land and take off from ground that was unusable by even the American Dakotas. On April 6, 1st Panzer’s spearheads made contact with elements of II SS Panzer Corps. A few days later its divisions were in action on a new defense line that held this time. Hube, awarded the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, was killed in an air crash on his way to receive it.

His death was at once irony and paradigm. Hans Hube had conducted an epic, indeed heroic operation—but in the wrong direction. First Panzer Army brought out its tanks and its wounded at a cost of 6,000 dead and missing. Its anabasis bought time, but to what purpose? “For slow exhaustion and grim retreat/For a wasted hope and a sure defeat.” The words of an American captured on Bataan in 1942 might well serve as an epigram—or an epitaph—for the saga of Army Group South in the endgame months of the Russo-German War.

Early Post-War Soviet Night Fighter Aircraft

Tu-1 (63P)


In 1945 the USSR found itself in possession of not only vast new tracts of land, where it swiftly set up puppet governments, but also thousands of German engineers and scientists, and countless previously unknown items of hardware. Many of the latter were Allied developments, but the greatest effort was put on finding out about German jet and rocket engines. New electronics, especially radar, came a close second. Tens of thousands of prisoners were screened to separate out those with knowledge of these subjects. Very little had been done on radar prior to VE-Day (8 May 1945); Russians said, ‘We were too busy fighting’.

By 1946 substantial research and design teams had been organised to make up for the deficiency, and these naturally made the maximum use of existing German hardware and projects. By the end of that year various radars had flown in Pe-2 and Tu-2 aircraft, and on 22 March 1947 flight-testing began on the Tupolev 63P (P for Perekhvachik, interceptor), with Service designation Tu-1. Distantly derived from the Tu-2S, this impressive three-seater had the awesome armament of two devastating NS-45s under the forward fuselage and two NS-23s in the wing roots, plus upper and lower 12.7 mm UBTs for rear defence. The 63P was the first Soviet aircraft designed to carry AI radar, the installation (called PNB-1 Gneiss-7, gneiss the same word in English) being based on the German FuG 220, with tail warning.

By January 1948 the V-VS (air force) and PVO (air-defence forces) firmed up a long and detailed specification for a jet-propelled night and all-weather interceptor, to be fitted with radar and have the highest possible flight performance (maximum speed was to be not less than 1,000 km/h (621 mph). To support this effort, on 7 December 1948 the Council of Ministers issued a decree calling for the development of the radar, leading to high-priority effort by three specially formed OKBs (experimental design bureaux). Meanwhile, the four principal fighter OKBs also beavered away on the aircraft. Predictably, they all chose to use the imported Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, which was the most powerful fully developed and flight-cleared engine available. With the Soviet designation RD-45, it had been rushed into production at a complex which originally grew to include five major factories.

Remarkably, three of the OKBs settled on a unique aircraft configuration, which enabled them to use two engines on the centreline. The Lavochkin, MiG and Sukhoi prototypes all had a nose inlet feeding one engine low in the front fuselage, with the jet nozzle under the wing, and a second engine behind the wing with the jet nozzle at the tail. All three used the Toriy (thorium) radar, developed by the KB of A.V. Slepushkin, which provided search, track and gun-ranging using a single mechanically scanned antenna. A minor problem was that the first examples of this radar could not operate at the 8g design limit set for these aircraft. Lavochkin designed the La-200, with the scanner in the centre of a circular nose inlet. Wing sweep was 40°. The MiG R, or I-320, and Sukhoi P, or Su-15 (no relation to a later Su-15), both had an almost untapered wing swept at 35° and the radar scanner in the 12-o’clock position at the top of the nose, above the inlet. Yakovlev used the derived Korshun (kite) radar, and boldly put it above the nose of a small single-seater which was also bold in having bicycle landing gear (like a Harrier) and wing sweep of 45°.

Before any of these prototypes could fly, Mikoyan put prototypes of the Toriy radar into a modified MiG-15bis, and got it on flight test on 23 April 1949. MiG-factory pilots Col. Gregoriy Sedov and A.N. Chernoburov later also tested five more conversions with the improved Toriy-M, but NII-VVS (air force) testing resulted in the conclusion that a single-seat interceptor was simply too difficult, pilot workload being excessive. Mikoyan suggested to Slepushkin that he should work on automatic lock-follow radars, and meanwhile switched his aircraft designers to the Izumrud (emerald), a 60 kW radar with one dish for search and a second for locked-on target tracking, gun aiming and ranging. Meanwhile, the specially designed interceptors were on flight test, the Su-15 on 11 January 1949, the MiG R-1 (first I-320) on 16 April, the Yak-50-I on 15 July and the La-200-01 (without radar) on 9 September 1949. Each had good and bad points, the most serious problems being that, having had to abandon the Su-15 in flight because of violent flutter, the very experienced LII-VVS pilot Sergei Anokhin found that the neat little Yak-50 suffered severe Dutch roll (an uncontrollable oscillation) above Mach 0.92, and in a crosswind or on an icy runway it was uncontrollable.

In any case, none of this first generation went into production, and the first interceptors to do so were SP-7 versions of the single-seat MiG-17, their service designation being MiG-17P (perekhvatchik). These were fitted with the RP-1 Izumrud, with the scanning antenna in the upper lip of the nose inlet and the tracking/ranging dish in a small radome in the centre. Used as trainers by the PVO and AV-MF (naval aviation), they posed the pilot with the problem of a high and sustained workload, and the upper scanner made the view ahead on landing marginally worse. Armament was two NR-23s, each with muzzle horsepower 5.5 times that of a 20 mm Hispano and almost ten times that of a 0.50 in Browning. By 1951 the MiG-15 had been replaced by the 15bis, with the more powerful VK-1A engine, in turn replaced by the completely redesigned MiG-17. In 1953 the MiG bureau rolled out the SP-6, a MiG-17 prototype filled with RP-1U Izumrud which had the capability of providing a circularly polarized beam, locked-on to the target. Along this beam could fly K-5 AAMs (air-to-air missiles) developed by P.D. Grushin’s OKB-2 Almaz (diamond) bureau. Four of these were carried on underwing rails. In 1955 the missile went into production as the RS-1U, and these equipped a small series of production SP-6 aircraft, which received the Service designation MiG-17PFU. These had no guns, and, after upgrading with the RS-2US missile, served as trainers for pilots selected for the MiG-19PM.

The MiG-19 was a completely new design, made possible by slim axial-compressor turbojets designed by S.K. Tumanskiy. He was working in the engine KB of Aleksander Mikulin, so the first of this engine family was designated AM-5. First tested in early 1950, it was rated at 1,900 kg (4,189 lb), and a side-by-side pair were used in the MiG SM-1, or I-340. This was basically a MiG-17, and it reached Mach 0.997 in level flight. Mikoyan’s team were by this time building the SM-2, or I-360. This was a totally fresh design, with a longer fuselage, slim wings swept at 55° and a high T-tail. Fitted with twin AM-5A engines, it flew on 24 May 1952, and led to the production MiG-19, with many changes, including a low-mounted tailplane. The MiG-19S introduced an all-moving (so-called ‘slab’) tailplane, and by 1954 it had led to a series of SM-7 prototypes which in turn led to the production MiG-19P. These were gun-armed interceptors with RP-5 Izumrud radar and two of the devastating NR-30 guns, the engines being the AM-9 each rated at 3,250 kg (7,165 lb) with afterburner. Level speed was Mach 1.35. By 1957 surviving aircraft were brought up to the standard of the MiG-19PM, fitted with RP-2U Izumrud 2 and four RS-2U missiles. By this time newer interceptors were available, and only about 260 MiG-19PM aircraft were delivered, of which half went to Warsaw Pact countries. More significantly, five were sent in crates to China, where such aircraft were to become much more important.

By 1951 the need for a night and all-weather interceptor had become urgent, to counter the menace of the USAF Strategic Air Command with jet bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons. On 10 August of that year the Council of Ministers, accepting that the first crop of such aircraft (described previously) were inadequate, issued a decree calling for a superior aircraft. Tupolev’s OKB was overloaded with large strategic aircraft, Sukhoi’s had been closed, and Mikoyan was fully occupied with the small aircraft already described, and with plans for much faster aircraft with delta (triangular) wings. Lavochkin persisted with the La-200B, with the engine installation modified with three inlets (the bottom one feeding the front engine, the side inlets serving the rear engine) leaving the nose free for a large radome housing the 1 m scanner of the RP-6 Sokol (falcon) radar. First flown on 3 July 1952, it could be seen from the start to be a basic design developed too far, and not in the same class as its Yakovlev rival.

The Yak-120 was virtually the little Yak-50 scaled up, retaining the same arrangement of nose radar, mid-mounted wing and bicycle landing gear. The differences were that under the wings were two of the slim AM-5 engines, each rated at 2,000 kg (4,410 lb), and behind the pilot was a second cockpit for a radar operator. The ailerons and elevators were hydraulically boosted, and fuel capacity was no less than 3,445 litres (758 Imp. gallons). The radar was to be RP-1 Izumrud, and there was a most comprehensive fit of all-weather avionics for navigation and blind landing. Armament comprised two of the awesome N-37L cannon. The first of two prototypes flew on 19 June 1952, and by late 1954 the production aircraft had entered PVO service, with the designation Yak-25 (a designation which had been used previously for a much smaller jet fighter). After delivering sixty-seven aircraft, production switched in 1956 to the Yak-25M, with RP-6 Sokol radar, RD-5A engines (AM-5A redesignated after Mikulin’s departure) rated at 2,600 kg (5,732 lb) and various other changes. The production plant (GAZ-292, at Saratov) delivered 406 Yak-25M aircraft by early 1957.

Project 877 (NATO Kilo)

Diesel-electric submarines, which were also known as ‘conventional’ submarines, played a significant role in the Cold War from the very start. When NATO became operational in the early 1950s the Soviet surface fleet was generally considered to be of minor importance, since it had achieved little of strategic significance during the Second World War and by the late 1940s most of its ships were obsolescent, if not obsolete. The Soviets were outnumbered in every category, and had no ships at all to match the West’s aircraft carriers and amphibious shipping. There was, however, one area in which they were believed to pose a significant threat: that of attack by diesel-electric submarines on Allied sea lines of communication across the Atlantic. With the memories of the German U-boat attacks in the north Atlantic still fresh, this perceived Soviet threat became one of the driving influences in NATO fleet development and deployment throughout the Cold War.

Fortunately for the Allies, the revolutionary new German submarines, the ocean-going Type XXI and the coastal Type XXIII, were only just entering service as the war ended, but there was no doubt as to their excellence. Both were real submarines, whose natural habitat was below the surface and which surfaced only when forced to do so. Compared with its predecessors, the Type XXI had a stronger and much more streamlined hull, a larger battery and new control systems which enabled it to fight underwater, and its snorkel tube enabled it to recharge its batteries while remaining submerged. Its underwater speed of 17 knots made it faster than most contemporary ASW ships, especially when there was bad weather on the surface. The Type XXIII was a smaller, coastal equivalent; it too was fast and capable, although its value was limited by its ability to carry only two torpedoes.

At the war’s end, the victorious Allies shared forty U-boats between them, with top priority being given to the Types XXI and XXIII; they then scuttled the rest. On receipt of these prizes, only the French and the Soviets put a few Type XXIs into service, while the Americans and British, after very careful examination and trials, used the design innovations, first to adapt their existing submarines, of which both had very large numbers, and subsequently as the basis for new designs.

Soviet submarines were supplemented in 1945–6 by a number of ex-German submarines. Twenty Type XXIs were found incomplete when the Red Army captured Danzig, and it was assumed by Western intelligence that these were completed and pressed into Soviet service. With the knowledge available at the time, this was a reasonable conclusion, but it has since come to light that they were scrapped, still incomplete, in 1948–9. In addition, four serviceable Type XXIs and one Type XXIII (plus four Type VIIc and one Type IXC) were handed over to the Soviet navy in 1945–6 from the stock of captured U-boats administered by the British on behalf of the Allies, and all served in the Baltic Fleet until the mid-1950s. The Soviet navy also received two Italian submarines as part of the peace settlement with Italy.

Design of the first post-war submarines began in 1946, and these, based on earlier Soviet designs, entered service in the early 1950s, quickly building up in numbers. The early versions of the two larger classes, Whiskey and Zulu, were armed with deck guns but did not have snorkels. Contemporary Western intelligence assessed that these types were Soviet adaptions of the German Type XXI, but this was incorrect: they were developments of previous Soviet designs, but incorporating a few German ideas.

Western intelligence was convinced that the Soviet navy was intent on repeating the German U-boat war on the NATO sea lines of communication across the Atlantic, and the large-scale production programmes for the Whiskey and Zulu classes appeared to reinforce this theory. There was therefore some surprise when the production of both types ceased in 1957–8, and this was thought to be a prelude to production of the first Soviet SSNs, until it was discovered that a new conventional submarine was in production: the Foxtrot class.

The Foxtrot design was larger, and was in fact the first Soviet design properly to incorporate all the lessons of the Type XXI. Sixty-two were produced for the Soviet navy, and the type became the workhorse of the fleet, being found in every ocean of the world. A second, and very similar, class, the Romeo, was produced by another design bureau, but presumably the Foxtrot proved the better boat, as production of the Romeo finished with the twenty-first unit. The Romeo was, however, exported and the design and tooling were sold to China, where it was built in large numbers.

It was then expected in the West, once again, that the Soviet navy would follow the US lead and build only nuclear-powered submarines in future, but this too proved to be erroneous, and twenty Tango-class boats were built between 1971 and 1982. Displacing 3,900 tonnes, these were the largest diesel-electric submarines to be built during the Cold War and were intended to contribute to the ASW defences for the SSBN bastions. Significantly, although all other Soviet diesel-electric submarines were exported, no Tango-class submarine was ever passed to another navy.

Construction of diesel-electric submarines continued with at least twenty-four Granay-class (NATO = ‘Kilo’) boats built from 1979 onwards for the Soviet navy. A very similar but less sophisticated design, the Washavyanka class, was designed for the export market, particularly for Warsaw Pact navies.

The Soviet navy also experimented with unconventional, but non-nuclear, air-independent propulsion systems. Thirty Quebec-class boats were built in the 1950s which ran on a Russian-developed ‘Kreislauf’ system, using liquid oxygen, while the German Walter hydrogen-peroxide system was tested in the single Project 617 submarine. Neither type proved successful, but intelligence reports of the existence of the Walter project caused some alarm in the West.

Perhaps the greatest significance of the Soviet submarine fleet was that throughout the first twenty years of the Cold War its strength, capabilities and intentions were consistently overestimated by Western intelligence. This was partially due to the imposition of an information blackout by the Soviets themselves, which led to Western naval experts taking the worst-possible view (from the Western aspect) of Soviet capabilities and production, as was their wont. These estimates were reinforced by debriefings of repatriated German prisoners of war and scientists who were abducted to the USSR in 1945 and returned in the 1950s. These men gave reports which were frequently incorrect or exaggerated, or were based on the knowledge of just one element of a large programme. Western intelligence, alarmed by other elements of the Soviet threat, extrapolated from these and all too often came up with conclusions which were widely wrong. The Soviets, of course, did nothing to contradict the Western estimates.

As then-Captain Brooks had observed, the Soviets consistently showed a major commitment to diesel electric submarines to complement their growing fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines. In 1975, work began on the new generation submarine, Project 877 (NATO Kilo). Designed at the Rubin bureau under chief designer Yuri N. Kormilitsin, the singleshaft ship has electric drive. The diesel engines (generators) are not connected to the propeller shaft, but serve to charge the batteries for the electric motors that drive the single propeller shaft. (In 1990 the Black Sea-based Kilo B-871 began conversion to a pump-jet propulsor of 5,500 horsepower; however, progress was slow, and the submarine did not return to sea until 2000 because of the lack of batteries. At the time she was the only fully operational Russian submarine in the Black Sea Fleet.)

The Kilo has six bow torpedo tubes and an advanced sonar installation. Two of the tubes are fitted for launching wire-guided torpedoes. The automated reloading system provides for rapid torpedo firing: The first salvo of six can be launched within two minutes and the second salvo five minutes later. The submarine can carry up to 24 tube launched mines in place of torpedoes.

Like previous Russian combat submarines, the Kilo retains the double-hull configuration and has bow-mounted diving planes. The 32 percent reserve buoyancy provides “surface survivability, the ability to remain afloat with at least one of the submarine’s six compartments and adjacent ballast tanks flooded.”

Construction began at three shipyards-Komsomol’sk in the Far East, Sudomekh/Admiralty in Leningrad, and the inland Krasnoye Sormovo yard at Gor’kiy- giving promise of a large building program. The lead ship, the B- 248, was built at Komsomol’sk and entered Soviet service on 12 September 1980. Through 1991- and the breakup of the Soviet Union-13 submarines had been built at Komsomol’sk and 9 at Gor’kiy. Beginning with the 14th ship, these submarines were increased in length to accommodate improved machinery. (Two more Kilos were completed for the Russian Navy in 1992-1993.)

The Project 877MK variant of the Kilo was a quieter submarine, and Project 636 was a greatly improved variant, initially intended only for Soviet service, but made available for export from 1993. The Project 636/Kilo has more powerful electric motors, increasing the underwater speed to 19 knots, while more effective machinery permits slower propeller rotation, significantly lowering noise levels. Also, Project 636 was fitted with the MGK- 400EM digital sonar, which provided improved passive detection of submarine targets.

From the outset it was envisioned that Kilo variants would be supplied to Warsaw Pact and other navies, accounting for the non-standard project number and the Russian nickname Varshavyanka (woman from Warsaw). The Krasnoye Sormovo and Sudomekh/Admiralty yards worked together to construct ships for foreign use, most designated 877EKM. Since 1985 the yards have completed 21 submarines specifically for transfer: Algeria (2), China (4), India (10), Iran (3) Poland (1), and Romania (1). Some U. S. reports cited a large number of units being sought by China. 48 However, China’s economic situation, coupled with its submarine construction capability, makes indigenous production-with Russian assistance-more likely. With some modifications, the foreign units are designated 877E and, with features for tropical operation, 877EKM.

In all, two dozen Kilos were produced for Russia, the final Kilo for Russian service being launched at Komsomol’sk on 6 October 1993. With another 21 built for foreign customers, the total production of Projects 636/877 was 45 submarines.

While the Russian submarines can launch both anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, the foreign variants are armed only with torpedoes, except for the Indian units. Five or six of the Indian Kilos are fitted to fire the 3M-53E Klub-S anti-ship missile, which India also hoped to modify for land attack.

While Russian and many foreign sources are highly complementary of the Kilo, a British submarine officer who had an opportunity to visit one was not as sanguine. Commander Jonathan Powess had just relinquished command of an Upholder-class SSK, Britain’s last diesel-electric submarine design:

The two classes had almost identical layouts. Talking to crew members, it was plain that the Russian boat had similar endurance and performance, but its noise isolation and shock resistance [were] suspect. Also, the larger crew-12 officers, 12 warrant officers, and 33 conscripts-was crammed in with little regard for comfort or ability to rest while off watch. The most obvious shortcoming of the Russian boat was the crude control-room equipment. It relied upon manual operation of all systems, using the remote controls as a backup. Interestingly, the Russian officers dismissed the Upholder class as being too delicate and likely to fail because of over-reliance on automated systems.

Still, there may be some mitigation of the views of Commander Powess as the Project 877/Kilo was initially designed for Warsaw Pact navies to operate.

Soviet Light Cruisers 1950s

Technical data of the light cruiser designs

In the ten-year programme of November 1945 there were besides the five prewar cruisers of projekt 68K25 new light cruisers planned. They were intended for classic cruiser tasks, defending the fleet against surface and air torpedo attacks, covering convoys, undertaking raiding operations and laying minefields. The Navy had first issued a TTZ for a cruiser of 8,000-8,500t stdd., with 152mm guns. But when the TsKB-17 worked on such a ship it soon became much bigger and reached between 14,500 and 18,000t, and it was suggested that the ships be armed with 180mm guns instead of the 152mm. In 1947 the TsKB-17 developed no less than 40 variants of the projekt 65 cruiser with 12,800-16,850t and three or even four triple turrets of 180mm guns to be superior to the latest US cruisers of this type, the Worcester, and the British Superb, or to be armed with nine 152mm dual-purpose guns. But Stalin did not like this project, and during a meeting at the Kremlin in 1947 it was cancelled, and Stalin wanted to have the new light cruisers built as improvements of the projekt 68K, using the proven systems and some of the German developments in fire control and stabilized 100mm dual-purpose guns.

The design work was done at the TsKB-17 by A.S. Savichev, and on 27 May 1947 the projekt 68-bis was approved for series production, and the first three orders went out on 3 December 1947 to the yards No. 189 and No. 194 at Leningrad and No. 444 at Nikolaev, using the names of the laid-down but not completed ships of the pre-war design projekt 68: Sverdlov, Dzerzhinskii and Ordzhonikidze. The Dzerzhinskii was the first to be laid down at Nikolaev on 21 December 1948, followed in October 1949 by the other two ships. During 1948–53 18 more orders followed, eight to the No. 189 yard at Leningrad, five to yard No. 194 at Leningrad, of which two should be sent to Molotovsk, three to yard No. 444 at Nikolaev, and two to yard No. 402 at Molotovsk. One more of each were planned to be ordered in 1954 for each of the four yards. The Ordzhonikidze yard 189 built – besides the Sverdlov, which was commissioned in May 1952 and surprised the public in the Western countries when it appeared at the coronation parade at Spithead in June 1953 – four more which were commissioned from December 1952 to December 1954: Zhdanov, Admiral Ushakov, Aleksandr Suvorov, and Admiral Senyavin. The Marti yard No. 194 at Leningrad completed two more ships in 1952 and 1953: Aleksandr Nevskii and Admiral Lazarev, the Marti yard No. 444 at Nikolaev in 1953 and 1954 also completed two, the Admiral Nakhimov and Mikhail Kutuzov, and finally yard No. 402 at Molotovsk two ships in 1954 and 1955, the Molotovsk and Murmansk (ex-Kozma Minin).

After the completion of the first 14 ships it was planned to complete the other 11 vessels to a changed design as projekt 68-bis-ZIF with a changed A/A armament and protection against a radioactive fallout. But after Stalin’s death in March 1953 it was decided not to lay down the last four vessels, which were planned to be ordered in 1954 with one unit for the four yards. But in early 1956 the decision was taken to stop the construction of the incomplete vessels, which were in the meantime planned to be rebuilt to projekt 75. So the Kronshtadt, Tallinn and Varyag, laid down in 1953 and early 1954 at No. 189, the Shcherbakov, laid down already in 1951 at No. 194, the Admiral Kornilov, laid down in 1951 at No. 444, and the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok, laid down in 1954 at No. 402, were laid up and from 1959 to 1961 scrapped. The Kozma Minin and the Dmitrii Pozharskii, laid down in 1952/53 at No. 194, were sent in sections to No. 402 to be used for the Molotovsk (renamed Oktyabrskaya revolyutsiya in 1957) and the Murmansk under construction.

From the mid-1950s there were many plans to rebuild some of the aforementioned cruisers into anti-aircraft vessels armed with rockets and others to be armed with cruise missiles, as is mentioned later. A new projekt 84 light cruiser, for which an OTZ was issued in 1955, was not realized.

Sverdlov Class

Type and Significance: These light cruisers were among the world’s last vessels whose armament was composed solely of guns.

Dates of Construction: Laid down between 1949 and 1954, with the last being completed in 1955.

Hull Dimensions: 689’ x 72’ 2” x 24’ 7”

Displacement: 16,000 tons

Armor: A belt with a maximum thickness of 5 inches, a deck that varied between 3 inches and 1 inch in depth, and 5-inch turret armor.

Armament: 12 5.9-inch guns in four triple gunned turrets, two each being located fore and aft, 12 3.9-inch guns, antiaircraft weapons, and 10 20.8-inch torpedo tubes.

Machinery: Turbines fed by six oil-fired boilers that could produce 110,000 horsepower.

Speed: 32.5 knots

Complement: 1,010

Summary: These ships engendered alarm in the naval officials of the Western powers, as they were perceived as significant threats. Although powerful in appearance, however, the Sverdlov-class cruisers were rendered largely obsolete by the beginning of the missile age. The Admiral Nakhimov and Dzerzhinski were refitted in the late 1950s to test early Soviet SSM batteries. The former unit was scrapped in 1961. The Ordzhonikidze was sold to Indonesia the following year and sold for scrap in 1972. All the other units except one were scrapped by 1994. The Mikhail Kutuzov was put in reserve in 1989 and remains in that status.

Soviet Parachute Operations – January-March 1942

The Soviet Union was one of the first countries to realize the unique potential of parachute forces. As early as 1927 there were reports of parachute troops being used against bandits in Central Asia. Within the next two to three years Leonid G. Minov began to organize the first military parachute units. He traveled to the United States to study parachute strategy and techniques employed in air rescue missions. He returned to his country with a supply of American-made Irvin parachutes. In April 1930, Soviet industry produced its first run of domestic parachutes, not surprisingly patterned on the Irvin style.

In a parallel development, General Mikhail Tukhachevski, commander of the Leningrad Military District, began theorizing about and earnestly exploring the plausibility of using airborne troops. Tukhachevski was one of a group of farsighted Soviet military officers who developed the concept of deep battle. This military concept seemed ready made for the employment of parachute troops.

The earliest Soviet involvement with parachute operations went through several phases of development. This was especially true with air delivery techniques. As with many novel developments in military planning, airborne troop theory outpaced the practical aspects of plane design and implementation. The first paratroopers exited their transport plane by climbing through a hole in the top of the fuselage. They then had to crawl along the spine before making their way out along a wing. From the wing the paratroopers rolled off and deployed their parachutes using a rip-cord system. Later Soviet plane designers added small compartments that were constructed under each wing. Paratroopers were then transported to the target areas and dropped like bombs over their drop zones. Still later, Minov switched from the ripcord method of opening parachutes to the static line concept. This method consisted of hooking deployment lines attached to the backpack of the parachute to a fixed cable inside the airplane. The act of jumping out of the plane stretched the static line to its maximum length and the falling paratrooper’s body pulled the parachute pack opening tie loose, thus deploying the parachute.

Stalin’s military purges of the late 1930s robbed the Red Army of its top leadership. The parachute force was especially hard hit and lost virtually all of its leadership down to about the rank of major. Included in the first round of purges was Tukhachevski himself. Despite the severe impact of the purges, experimentation with unit size or mission types continued. Parallel studies were conducted as to methods of transport and coordination with other units in the Army. By June 1941 there were five airborne corps in the Red Army, each consisting of about 10,000 troopers. These corps had been built from the cadres of the five Airborne Brigades (the 201st, 204th, 211th, 212th, and 214th). These brigades had been the standard unit until changes were initiated sometime in 1940. The corps consisted of three airborne brigades, each composed of four battalions of 678 men each. The organization of airborne forces looked like this:

1st Airborne Corps(Kiev Military District)

1st, 204th, and 211th Brigades

2nd Airborne Corps(Kharkov Military District)

2nd, 3rd, and 4th Brigades

3rd Airborne Corps(Odessa Military District)

5th, 6th, and 212th Brigades

4th Airborne Corps(Western Special Military District)

7th, 8th, and 214th Brigades

5th Airborne Corps(Baltic Special Military District)

9th, 10th, and 201st Brigades

202nd Brigade(Far Eastern Military District)

The most immediate problem faced by the Soviets, which was problematic to most of the countries that employed parachute forces, was the lack of transport aircraft. Soviet production of transports had to be cut in order to satisfy a more pressing need for fighters and bombers. Among the few transport crews available most had no experience in formation flying, night navigation, or combat operations. To complicate things even more, the Lutfwaffe had maintained complete dominance in the air since the German invasion in June 1941. This air superiority severely restricted the use of Soviet airborne troops in their original capacity.

The Soviets were now confronted with the necessity of employing the deep battle concept. Soviet parachute forces, or “Locust Warriors” as they were called, were now deployed on missions that required them to link up with local partisan units in the areas where they were active. The paratroopers then became responsible for supplying, training, and leading these partisans in combat operations. All these operations were coordinated within the framework of larger army battle strategy or front missions.

Soviet airborne forces were first employed on a major scale during the defense of Moscow. In the early winter of 1941, the German Fourth Army and Fourth Panzer Army ground to a virtual halt just 25 miles from Moscow. Facing the Germans were the Russian Tenth and Thirty-third Armies. German forward advances were thwarted and the battle lines became stabilized just east of the area that included Vyazma and Yukhnov. The supply trucks, on which the Germans relied heavily, had to pass through these towns. To arrive at their forward positions, these German convoys had to pass several pockets of partisan activity. These partisan forces began to grow more active. Soon they were conducting raids to interdict supply routes in the areas west and south of Vyazma and in the area of Yukhnov.

In order to assist a counterattack forming on its left wing, the Red Army’s West Front (Army Group) ordered an airborne assault to seize key air, road, and rail transport facilities. The goal was to block any further movement of German supplies, equipment, and reserves from reaching the front. For the next two months, the Soviets began conducting airborne assaults. These were conducted mostly at night and against targets along both supply routes. Most of the airborne units involved belonged to 4th Airborne Corps. Original plans called for the entire corps to be dropped but combat developments, as they so often do, forced a change in these plans. One of these developments was weather. By early January 1942 the temperature had dropped to minus 44 degrees in the area around Vyazma.

On the evening of 2/3 January 1942, the airborne phase began when 348 men of the 1st Battalion, 201st Airborne Brigade, under the command of Captain I.A. Surzhik jumped in the vicinity of the airfield at Myatlevo. This was east of Yukhnov and along the southern supply route. The airborne unit’s mission was to clear and secure the airfield for the air-landing of the 250th Rifle Regiment. In addition, the battalion was to capture and hold the bridge over the Shanya River. Surzhik’s battalion landed successfully but then the weather quickly worsened. The next two days were spent clearing snow from the airfield while also repulsing several counterattacks by the Germans.

Eventually the Soviet high command decided not to send in the 250th. The parachute battalion was ordered to begin independent activities. For the next two weeks the battalion conducted several guerrilla-style raids, overrunning several German garrisons near Gribovo and Maslovo. Since holding the Shanya River bridge was now implausible, Surzhik and his men blew it before infiltrating back to their lines.

On the night of 3/4 January, the remnants of an improvised airborne detachment under the command of Captain I.G. Starchak was deployed. This unit, originally composed of 415 men plus 50 men from 214th Airborne Brigade, had been used in a combat jump to the northwest of Moscow in December. The current plan called for Starchak’s men to jump near the Bolshoye Fatyanova airfield. The transport, however, dropped the paratroopers over a widely scattered area due mainly to heavy German antiaircraft fire. In fact, six of the planes returned to their airfields without having dropped their paratroopers. On the evening of 7/8 January, Starchak and his unit seized the Myatlevo train station and blew up all the rolling stock to be found in the vicinity. By 20 January, Starchak was wounded and had only 87 men left under his command. Remnants of his unit finally were able to join up with elements of advancing army units near Nikolskoya.

In the early morning hours of 18 January, 1/201st and part of 2/201st Airborne Brigade jumped into a scattered area between Znamenka airfield and the village of Zhelanke. This area was about halfway between Vyazma and Yukhnov. Their mission was to seize and secure this airfield for a follow-on air-land operation that was to bring a rifle regiment into the field. The units were then to move south to Yukhnov and cut off the supply route. This action was designed to support the advance of the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps against Myatlevo. The jump operation was unopposed. Surzhik’s unit formed up first and attacked a German unit at the airfield. The Germans, however, held. Rather than suffer further casualties in an attempt to capture the airfield, Surzhik and his men created an improvised airstrip near the village of Plesnovo and radioed that they were ready to receive the air-land elements. Immediately, the remaining 200 men of 2/201st air-landed, accompanied by the control group for the overall operation. Between 20 and 22 January, the 250th Rifle Regiment also landed in force.

The Germans, noting the volume of nighttime air activity, became concerned about a railroad bridge on the Ugra River, south of Vyazma. Virtually all of their important supply trains, running south, had to use this bridge and to have it captured or destroyed would seriously interrupt this logistical flow. Therefore, four rifle companies were dispatched to secure the bridge. Their movement was essentially lateral traffic behind the German front. However, when the Germans arrived on 1 February they were immediately attacked by Surzhik’s battalion. Although they could not destroy this enemy threat, the Soviets had the Germans surrounded and railroad traffic was effectively stopped.

According to plan, 2/201st and most of the 250th Rifle Regiment units fought their way south toward Yukhnov and the supply route. The rest of the Soviet forces remained at the airfield to block the north-south road between Vyazma and Yukhnov. On 25 January, 1st Guards Cavalry Corps broke through the German lines, crossed the southern supply route, and continued north to link up with the airborne units.

Between 27 January and 4 February 1942, the three brigades of 4th Airborne Corps (7th, 8th, and 214th) were dropped piecemeal in the general vicinity of Vyazma. They landed along the northern supply route with the mission to cut the northern rollbhan that ran from Smolensk through Vyazma. Most of the drops were not very concentrated due to the inexperience of the Soviet transport pilots. During the day Luftwaffe bombers attacked airfields that were being used to drop and resupply the paratroopers. By night, the airfields were repaired and put back into use. Bad weather finally put a stop to all air operations.

On 3 February, the Soviet Thirty-third Army drove a wedge five miles deep between the two German armies. The Germans quickly regrouped, cutting this salient and sealing it off. A five-division corps was then assigned the mission of reducing this pocket and clearing the parachutists who were threatening Vyazma and the northern supply route. Despite horrid weather, some of the pockets had been eliminated and supplies were rolling into Vyazma on a regular basis by mid-month.

From 17 to 23 February, more Soviet paratroopers (2/8th Airborne Brigade, 4/204th Airborne Brigade, and all of 9th and 214th Airborne Brigades) had jumped into the general areas of Staritsa, Monchalova, Okorokova, and Zhelanye. Of the 7,373 dropped, some 5,000 paratroopers managed to quickly assemble and continued on their mission to attack toward Yukhnov. Once the drops had been completed the units moved quickly. The recently arrived airborne units linked up with the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps and the remnants of the airborne units that had parachuted in earlier. Another attack against the southern supply route was launched. The road was cut and held by the Soviets for two days. A strong German counterattack again reopened the road.

The Red Army paratroopers maintained heavy pressure on the Germans and forced them to withdraw from Yukhnov on 3 March. On 6 March, the Russian airborne and cavalry units drove to within four kilometers of the southern supply route before being stopped. At the same time, a parachute battalion of 450 men jumped near Yelnya, farther to the west. A link-up with local partisans was effected. The combined force attacked and seized a supply base in the railroad center at Yelnya. They also succeeded in surrounding the fairly small German garrison in this area.

On 7 March, another German front line corps, the XLIII, was taken off the line and committed against the Soviet cavalry, airborne, and partisan forces operating in their rear. By 19 March, the Soviets were slowly, but steadily, driven into the forests around Lugi. A reinforced German company was also sent to relieve the besieged units at the Ugra River railroad bridge, but this effort failed. Then, beginning 25 March and lasting for one month, the two German armies (the Fourth and Fourth Panzer) coordinated a strong, slugging, give-no-quarter attack against the encircled Soviet units.

On 19 April, 4/23rd Airborne Brigade of the 10th Airborne Corps jumped into the area around Svintsovo. They were to reinforce what was left of the 4th Airborne Corps, which was now down to about 2,000 effectives with perhaps another 2,000 sick or wounded. By 23 May, the corps strength was 1,565 with 470 sick and wounded. A final effort to reinforce the remaining paratroopers was launched between 29 May and 3 June. The remaining battalions of 23rd Airborne Brigade and 211th Airborne Brigade were dropped into the western end of the pocket at Dorogobuzh. But this effort was mostly to no avail.

On 25 April, the Thirty-third Army surrendered. The Germans spent May and June systematically destroying the remaining airborne and cavalry units still operating in the area. It was only during this final drive against the paratroopers in Yelnya and those that had surrounded the Ugra River bridge, that the Germans could boast of finally defeating this enemy.

The German commanders who survived the war tended to minimize the role of the Soviet airborne in this battle. This was not, however, the prevailing opinion at the time of the fighting. The Germans then had admitted that the presence of the Soviet parachute units in their rear area was the chief cause of their withdrawal from Yukhnov in March. One German unit claimed the paratroopers were the very best of the Soviet infantry.


As with the Allied Market-Garden operation in 1944, military writers are split on the issue of whether using Soviet airborne units in the Vyazma-Yukhnov battles was successful. The mixed opinion regarding this subject is precisely because this military action was more a campaign than an operation. It was part of a mighty struggle to drive the Germans away from Moscow. From the Soviet perspective, this fighting in the Vyazma-Yukhnov area was an overwhelming victory in the defense of Moscow.

This campaign was justified by a political decision based almost entirely on desperation. It required that the Soviet high command use all of the capabilities at its disposal. Because it was required, the high command then employed conventional infantry, at least two corps of cavalry, and as much of its parachute forces as could be conceivably jammed into the battlefield.

To highlight this sense of desperation, there have been stories recounting the fact that the Soviets dropped paratroopers into the snow without parachutes. This is in fact known to have happened on at least two occasions. The first was in Finland. The second was during the Vyazma operation. In both cases the planes were flying low and slow, and the drops were made into deep snow drifts. In the Vyazma operation, discussed here, there is even a mention that some of the paratroopers were wrapped in burlap sacks before they were dropped. The mere existence of these stories should point out the utter desperation in which the Soviet high command found itself while defending Moscow. In a desperate situation such as this the necessity of using special operations forces, regardless of the outcome, should not be second guessed.

Employing Vandenbroucke’s criteria, there are negative observations to be made in two areas of the campaign. There was a good deal of wishful thinking on the part of the Soviet high command that the airborne portion would have great success.

The planners, however, seem to have overlooked or disregarded several things. First and foremost, was the general lack of transport aircraft available to bring in airborne forces in strength. Additionally, the pilots of what transports were available had not flown jump operations before. This prevailing negative also applied to many countries in the course of the war. Departure airfields, to be used by the paratroopers, were constantly being changed due to tactical considerations. Granted, not much could be done about this. However, moving the paratroopers from one place to another, on short notice, just delayed their arrival at their targets. Many of the transports that were available in early 1942 were also used to evacuate the wounded, thus causing scheduling nightmares. In the final analysis, wishful thinking or not, the supply routes were bona-fide military targets and the paratroopers were available.

There is at least one indication of inappropriate intervention. Once the operation started the paratroopers were virtually committed to suffer for long periods of time without hope of reinforcement or replacement. Again, however, the desperate nature of this struggle certainly justified this.

Employing the McRaven criteria, only a few problems were to be found and they were in the execution phase. These were problems with the twin issues of security and repetition. These issues only became problems once the operation began. Security was very good until the Germans discovered the presence of the paratroopers. There were only so many places for the paratroopers to be dropped, leading to the repetitious use of the same drop zone. The problem of using the same drop zones, on succeeding nights, was just inviting German initiatives and the paratroopers were hit hard once on the ground. Furthermore, German anti-aircraft units were now on the alert and positioned themselves to score several major victories. The element of speed was lost when the units and/or their drop zones were discovered. Although the fighting was tenacious and prolonged, the Germans usually destroyed the Soviet units in detail—and not just the airborne units.

One negative assessment of this campaign took issue with the fact that while the organization and planning of the parachute assaults were conducted by the staff of the airborne forces, once on the ground the paratroopers fell under the operational control of the army group, which had taken no part in the original planning. This is really petty criticism. Even though the airborne staff planned the operation the Soviet high command could and did change it to meet operational needs. To be truly effective special operations forces must fill a role in the overall theater operations plan. This means that the ground commander, who may indeed not have helped shape the original planning, must still maneuver all the forces available to him to achieve victory. That is, after all, why he is in command—to achieve victory.

In the long run, this campaign was successful. There were local victories in the German rear areas and a German plan to resume the offensive in March had to be discarded because of the imminent threat to their rear area supply routes. The final assessment as to its success lies with the fact that the Germans never again threatened Moscow.



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————; “Soviet Airborne Forces: Increasingly Powerful Factor in the Equation”; in Army, April 1976

Georgii Isserson (1898–1976)

Georgii Samoilovich Isserson

The significance of Isserson’s 1940 work Novye formy bor’by (Opyt issledovaniia sovremennykh voin) (New Forms of Combat [An Essay Researching Modern Wars]) for any study of Barbarossa, in particular, and for the development of deep operations, in general, is the author’s clear and penetrating understanding of what the German army achieved in the invasion of Poland and the obvious dangers that operation, and subsequent developments in the French campaign, posed for the Soviet Union.

In his introduction, Isserson explains the implications of the “new forms of combat” in his title: “Every time when the development of productive forces creates new technical means, when societal relations and social conditions change, when politics brings forward new aims of struggle both the forms and methods of the conduct of war change.” Isserson then proceeds to explore the theoretical aspects of and problems arising from these new material changes in war, with brief reference to the Spanish Civil War and a more in-depth examination of the German-Polish war in September 1939.

In writing about the use of tanks in Spain, Isserson’s analysis shows signs of being influenced by the German success with armored divisions in both Poland and, more recently, France (Isserson wrote his book in June–July 1940 and stated he would deal with the German invasion of France at a later date). Thus, he implies that the conclusion drawn by some Soviet military theorists about the future deployment of tanks based on what happened in Spain is premature. Although he is ostensibly addressing Fuller’s assessment of the use of light Italian tanks in Spain, Isserson is also responding to those in the Soviet Union who have been too quick to draw the wrong conclusions:

From the point of view concerning the perspectives of a large modern war and of the mass use of new means of fighting this conclusion was exceptionally shortsighted. In the general history of wars there are few situations when a new means of waging war has immediately exerted a decisive influence on the character of a struggle since the art and ability to use it does not usually arise at the same time as the appearance of the weapon.

This is intended as a warning to Soviet thinkers not to dismiss the mass use of tanks. Isserson’s own views are clearly in the German direction, since he says that tanks were used in Spain in small groups or in isolation, so they were easily knocked out; as a result, the advantages of operational mass in the depths of the enemy’s positions were not achieved. His observation on this matter is indisputable: “Generally, the experience is frequently important not in itself: far more important are the conclusions that can be drawn from it.” Isserson’s basic point is that the war in Spain—or rather the use of tanks there—owed too much to World War I and thus offered no real insights into how tanks could best be used. According to Isserson, one must look to the war in Poland to see what is really possible.

Isserson’s analysis of the German-Polish war is often eerily prescient with regard to what happened to the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, he warns that because the German-Polish war was over so quickly—though he rather conveniently fails to mention the Soviet Union’s role in the downfall of the Polish state—it can tell us nothing about how a war between two equal states or an all-embracing war—total war—would progress. Isserson’s analysis concentrates on five factors: (1) the move leading to war; (2) the conditions giving rise to a war of maneuver; (3) the operational deployment and potential of modern means of war, particularly airpower and motorized-mechanized troops; (4) the development of maneuver in the war, up to attaining a decisive outcome; and (5) the means of conducting operations.

Isserson shares Triandafillov’s view that the first phase of war is critical. With regard to the start of the German-Polish war, Isserson calls it “a new phenomenon in history.” In this case, the Poles were not unaware that the political relationship between Germany and Poland was deteriorating and that this might lead to war; even so, the German invasion caught the Polish side totally by surprise. The critical point here is that there was no obviously discernible mobilization, as had been the case in World War I. The war began with an invasion, not with a declaration of war followed by hostilities. Isserson’s conclusions on this state of affairs have profound implications for what would eventually happen on 22 June 1941:

In the course of all these proceedings, the old tradition, according to which it is necessary to deliver a warning, before one launches any blow, is dispensed with. In general there is no declaration of war. The war is merely started by armed forces which have been deployed in advance. Mobilization and the concentration of forces do not relate to the period after the onset of a state of war, as was the case in 1914, but are conducted imperceptibly and gradually well before. It goes without saying that this cannot be entirely hidden. In varying degrees the scope of the buildup becomes known. However, only one step ever remains from the threat of war to the entry into a war. It gives rise to doubt whether in actual fact a military intervention is being prepared or not or whether it is only a threat. And while one side remains in a state of doubt, the other side which has taken a firm decision to enter into a war, continues the concentration of forces, until, finally, a huge armed force turns out to have been deployed on the border. After this it only remains to give the signal and the war is unleashed in all its force. The German-Polish war began in such a way. It revealed a new method of entry into a modern war and that was, in essence, the main strategic surprise [glavnaia strategicheskaia vnezapnost’] for the Poles. Only the fact that military operations had been opened, finally, resolved the doubts of Polish politicians who, more than anything, by their arrogance, had provoked the war but, who at the same time turned out to be those who were most of all caught unawares.

When he turns to the series of errors made by the Polish General Staff, Isserson inadvertently highlights the future failures of Stalin’s regime. If the Polish General Staff was guilty of staggering incomprehension and a fundamentally incorrect assessment of what was happening, resulting in Poland being taken by surprise, what can be said about Stalin and his staff in the period leading up to 22 June 1941?

Isserson identifies three major errors made by the Poles. First, they assumed that the bulk of German forces would be deployed in the west, in the expectation that the Anglo-French armies would attack Germany. Anglo-French guarantees to Poland were worthless—they had no intention of attacking Germany from the west—and the Poles’ dissemination of misinformation about full mobilization, designed to alarm the Germans, was a bluff that the Germans called. (The Germans discerned the weakness behind the bluff, just as they would a year later with the promulgation of the TASS communiqué of 13 June 1941.) Second, the Poles failed to grasp the scale of German ambitions and believed the Germans would be content with Danzig. As a consequence, the Poles were caught unprepared. Third, the Poles assumed that Germany would be unable to mobilize all its forces at once, giving them time to react. To cite Isserson:

In such a way, Germany’s mobilized readiness and its entry into a war with all the forces immediately designated for this purpose remained unknown to the Polish General Staff. The Poles had not examined the strategic situation. And that meant that at the very least they lost the first phase of the war, and then the entire war. In this regard, for Poland, the war was lost even before it started.

In examining these Polish failings, Isserson is also highlighting what would go wrong in the Soviet Union. Polish mobilization started too late, occurring in the confusion and chaos of the opening hours of war. From the outset, the Poles were at a huge disadvantage from which they could not recover. When Isserson asks how the Germans could concentrate such a vast army on the Polish border largely unnoticed, he raises a question that goes to the heart of Stalin’s failure in 1941. A buildup that progresses in stages over a long period does not attract the same attention as a sudden large deployment of men and equipment. Even when it is noticeable, the question remains: does it signify war, or is it merely an attempt to apply diplomatic pressure? Isserson maintains that the Polish General Staff should have kept a constant eye on the German buildup in eastern Prussia, Danzig, Pomerania, Silesia, and Slovakia, noting “every new detail of concentration, periodically summarizing the established facts and drawing the necessary conclusions therefrom. If this did not happen, there is nothing surprising in the fact that one fine day Poland saw the huge armed forces of Germany deployed on its borders.”

The Polish General Staff’s failure to see the storm clouds meant that the Polish air force was caught unawares and that the rail network, essential for mobilization, was effectively paralyzed by both German air attacks and the congestion resulting from the delayed mass mobilization of Polish reserves. The speed of the German advance meant that the Poles had no time to consolidate new lines of defense, and their unit cohesion disintegrated under attacks from the air and the deep thrusts of tanks. Command and control broke down, contact with the troops was lost, and there was a complete collapse of transport links in the rear. However, the main factor, according to Isserson, was that “the head of the armored formations penetrated deep into the body of the army [Polish]; between the retreating troops they penetrated into the deep rear, right up to the capital, way ahead of the retreating columns, everywhere entering into their rear and leaving them behind on all the most important lines right up to the Vistula and San.” Isserson shows a good grasp of what the German army had achieved, especially in the use of armor, as envisaged by Guderian:

The independent use of armored and motorized divisions in order to solve operational tasks in the enemy’s deep zone, way ahead of the front of the all-arms infantry formations for the first time received its practical use in the German-Polish war and immediately imparted a character profoundly different from the military operations of past wars. The theory of this question, as the essence of the new forms of a deep operation, was formulated in the years preceding. This conception stemmed from the very nature of the fast-moving means of war and only required the corresponding organization and exploitation.

Such an intimate understanding of the Guderian doctrine suggests that Isserson either read Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer! (1937) or, quite independently of Fuller and Guderian, realized the importance of the mass deployment of armor and mechanized infantry. In any case, and regardless of any familiarity with Guderian’s ideas, Isserson provides an exceptionally clearheaded analysis of German doctrine and what became known after the Polish campaign as Blitzkrieg. Remarkably, for an analysis written by a Soviet military theorist in June 1940, Isserson’s book is largely unencumbered by ideological incantations and deals essentially with the facts as they are known to the author. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, there are no references to or conclusions about the obvious role played by the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact in the crushing and dismembering of Poland.

Isserson’s study is especially valuable for the student of Barbarossa and Soviet military doctrine because it demonstrates that there were high-quality military analysts in the Soviet Union who had identified the dangers posed by the new German doctrine of high-speed warfare not just for the hapless Poles and the Anglo-French armies but potentially for the Soviet Union. In fact, one might go further and argue that much of Isserson’s book, especially as it concerns the failings of the Polish General Staff, is intended to warn Stalin and the Soviet General Staff—albeit in the form of allegory—of the dangers posed by mass armored attacks, mechanized infantry, and superb ground-to-air cooperation. Isserson’s advocacy of mass armor—echoing the Guderian maxim Klotzen nicht Kleckern! (concentrate, not dissipate)—is especially timely in view of the conclusions being drawn in certain Soviet quarters about the use of armor, which were in complete contrast to German thinking. Perhaps the most wounding part of Isserson’s book, assuming Stalin ever read it, is the warnings about monitoring the buildup of enemy forces on a shared border, especially relevant after the carving up of the Polish state to avoid falling victim to strategicheskaia vnezapnost’ (strategic surprise).