Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky


Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857, in the Russian village of Izhevskoye in the rural province of Ryazan, one-hundred twenty miles (195 km) southeast of Moscow. As a young boy, he was full of energy and displayed an eager quest for knowledge. But at age ten he was stricken with scarlet fever, which left him with a severe deafness problem for the rest of his life. Konstantin called his mother the spark of the family, and the one who guided him in coping with his disability. Her early death in 1870, when he was only thirteen, was a most unfortunate hindrance to his developing years.

Shortly thereafter, Konstantin dropped out of school. So the years from 1868 to 1871 marked an understandably frustrating period in the young adolescent’s life. With first the handicap and then the loss of his mother, he cut himself off from the surrounding world. Nevertheless, at age fourteen, he awakened and his appetite for self-education took sudden acceleration.

Tsiolkovsky’s father Eduard must be given credit for holding the family together, and doing what he could on limited means. A forester by trade, he lost his job in 1867, then becoming a clerk. While not particularly successful in his professions, he was a man of strong integrity, devoted to his children, and a believer in hard work. Young Tsiolkovsky took his parents’ positive traits and applied his own brilliant mind, especially to a craving for mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and mechanical creations.

In 1874, when Konstantin was age sixteen, Eduard sent him to Moscow for self-study in the hope that this would lead to entrance to a technical school. He was on starvation wages, but his needs were few and desire for learning high. He continued overcoming his handicap, spending his days at the renowned Rumyantsev National Library and delving into books on mathematics and the sciences. He was also befriended by an influential, eccentric philosopher of the day by the name of Nikolai Fyodorov.

Fyodorov was known for mentoring young men in libraries who were poor – students like Tsiolkovsky. Fyodorov was a believer in a philosophy known as Russian “cosmism,” which espoused that a type of human immortality and salvation could be found through travel to the cosmos: outer space and its moons, planets, and stars. Humans were not to permanently die, but be reconstituted into another kind of life form and settle throughout the universe. Spaceflight and advanced technology were key tenants of the philosophy. So it was during this period that Konstantin was first exposed to visions of space exploration. He would say in later years that the writings of Jules Verne were also an inspiration.

After three years in Moscow, Konstantin returned to his hometown as a tutor. In 1879, he passed the examination required to become a teacher, and the next year took a math and science teaching position in provincial Borovsk. There he continued his readings, began some experiments in a home laboratory, and started recording his findings in a methodical manner. But his ruminations, calculations, and sketches at this time were on a wide variety of scientific problems. He was not yet mentioning rocketry and spaceflight.

Tsiolkovsky would always prove to be a superb teacher; he was one who could present material to his students with enthusiasm. He incorporated the latest teaching methods, and believed in practical experimentation to go along with theory and bookwork.

During his time in Borovsk, he married Varvara Sokolova, who he’d met during his Moscow years. She would prove to be a stalwart supporter of his work during their lifetime together. They would have seven children, although tragically four of these offspring would die during adolescence.

In 1881, at age twenty-four, Konstantin sent a report on the kinetic theory of gases to the Society of Physics and Chemistry in St. Petersburg. While his findings were not earth-shattering, and indeed had already been formulated by others, the esteemed scientists there saw that he had potential.

Then in 1883 he wrote a short work – more a long diary entry and unpublished at the time – titled “Free Space.” In it, he demonstrated a true understanding of the principle of obtaining motion in the vacuum of space by the reaction method. He also described concepts of life in space and zero gravity, drew a primitive design of a spacecraft, and proposed a gyroscope for stabilizing a flying vehicle.

Tsiolkovsky spent the next fifteen years testing the physics and mathematics of his various theories, all the time becoming somewhat more known in Russia through publication of articles in newspapers and his contacts with the Society. But he had many scientific interests at this stage of life. He constructed a wind tunnel – thought to be Russia’s first – and explored topics like air resistance and dirigibles (blimps or zeppelins).

In 1892, Konstantin gained a higher teaching position in the provincial town of Kaluga, to which he moved, living there the rest of his life. The home he eventually resided in with his family had an upstairs workshop. During his free time and among his handmade lathes, wind tunnel, tools, and assorted machines, he theorized and experimented on his inventions.

In 1898, he published research on air resistance in a scientific journal. Due to the interest generated, Konstantin submitted a request for funding in 1899 to the Imperial Academy of Sciences to support further efforts in this field. The Academy granted him some minor funds to continue studies. It was during these very last few years of the 19th century that Tsiolkovsky decided to also turn more of his attention toward solving the problems of the rocket, the reaction process, and flight in space.

Konstantin’s notes show that, from 1898 to 1903, he developed his famous mathematical equation (or formula) the “rocket equation” –which describes rocket acceleration in terms of (1) the velocity of gas exiting from the engine nozzle, and, (2) the decreasing mass a rocket has after liftoff due to consumption of propellants. While others in the 19th century had derived the basic equation, and used it in analysis of flight paths of various objects including rockets, Tsiolkovsky was the first to thoroughly describe and analyze all aspects of this fundamental formula of rocketry. His notes also reveal that he became convinced only liquid propellants – and not any of the known powder combinations – could provide the thrust necessary to launch a rocket-type vehicle out of the atmosphere.

He summed up his findings and sent them to the Russian journal Naootchnoe Obozreniye (Scientific Review). In 1903, Konstantin’s work would be published under an article titled “Investigation of World Spaces by Reactive Vehicles.”

This article was truly significant, as Tsiolkovsky described his rocket equation and the reaction rocket as the necessary vehicle for traveling to and in space. The vehicle he proposed for the mission was elongated to produce little aerodynamic drag, mixed and fired its propellants together in a combustion chamber, and had a compartment for passengers. He addressed multiple-stages as necessary to reach space, and also the propellants liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as the most powerful combination. He continued on to provide detailed mathematical calculations on the required escape velocity that his liquid-propellant rocket would have to achieve to break free from Earth’s gravitational force. This was all trailblazing material for the time. Sergei Korolev, in later years, would also give Tsiolkovsky credit for these ideas: a flared cone for the rocket nozzle, a combustion chamber to which propellants were supplied by pumps, and foreseeing the need for regenerative cooling.

After the article, Tsiolkovsky’s findings were not given much recognition of note. Konstantin would later blame this lack of early publicity on his being a self-taught scientist, laboring in the provincial town of Kaluga This was at a time when science was controlled by what he called the Tsarist cliques in the main Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was truth to his charges. Discouraged at trying to publish rocket theory, he would actually focus, over the first decade of the 20th century, on improving his dirigible designs and solving problems in the growing science of aeronautics.

However, he and his rocket work were not going totally unnoticed. In 1912, a Russian aeronautics journal republished the 1903 paper, having Tsiolkovsky expand on functions such as air resistance and atmospheric pressures on the rocket. Two years later, he self-published a supplement in which he detailed types of propellants to use with rocket engines, as well as further exploring space travel. These publications fit in nicely with a noteworthy pre-revolutionary surge of interest in all types of flight among the Russian populace. Works of popular science and space fiction were particularly sought after by enthusiasts.

The First World War erupted in August 1914, overwhelming all other events. At age fifty-six, Tsiolkovsky was too old to be considered for active duty with the military. Through the war years, Konstantin the genius would soldier on in Kaluga, teaching his pupils during the day, and after school doing research and theorizing on his various interests. In regards to rocketry and space exploration, he wrote science-fiction novels, technical papers, and short pamphlets, not only attempting to popularize these subjects, but to supplement his meager income.

But his lack of success in getting more widespread scientific recognition actually led to states of depression and withdrawal around 1916. Contributing factors were also his low teacher’s salary and failure to get any consistent financing for his experiments.

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the ensuing turmoil that lasted up to the formation of the Soviet Union in late 1922, produced chaos that did not enhance most scientific work. The battle to the death between the remnants of the Tsarist regime (White Armies) and the Bolsheviks (Reds) would bring both positives and negatives to Tsiolkovsky’s fortunes.

On the upside, Konstantin benefitted from several initiatives. In 1918, the new regime’s revamped school system resulted in a better teaching opportunity. He also began receiving a small local education pension.

The revolutionary era had produced a thirsting among the masses for new ideas, science, and technology – all a reaction to discarding the primitive system of the tsars. There was hope for leading better lives. Tsiolkovsky’s ideas on space and aeronautics paralleled the new themes and dreams nicely. Demand for his talents would lead to Konstantin giving lectures on rockets and air flight at local universities, with this boosting his name recognition.

In July 1918, the Bolsheviks established a Socialist Academy of Social Studies as a center to promote Marxist ideas. One of the Academy’s policies was to be more egalitarian in the nature of who could enter its ranks. This standard immediately appealed to Tsiolkovsky, who with no formal education, had always felt shunned by the Imperial Academy elites.

In August 1918, Konstantin sent a letter to the new Socialist Academy promoting his ideas. The initiative was mainly a bid to get monetary support for his work. There has never been any evidence that Tsiolkovsky was politically active; he was first and foremost a pure scientist and theorist simply looking for a funding source. Shortly thereafter, he would be elected as a junior member to the organization for recognition of his achievements. He even started receiving a monthly stipend for this honor.

But in 1919, the revolution demonstrated the turmoil it could bring to individual lives. Konstantin’s initiative to the Academy took a disastrous turn when the money started drying up and he vocally complained; he thus fell into disfavor. He would next find himself ejected from the organization in July 1919, most likely for not being political enough in his views.

Tsiolkovsky’s fortunes continued to plummet. He would be arrested in November 1919 by the Soviet secret police and shockingly jailed in the notorious Lubianka prison in Moscow, charged with being a spy for the White Russians. He received a one-year sentence to a labor camp. Thankfully, a high-level official intervened and ordered him freed while he was still in Moscow, ruling that a former associate of Tsiolkovsky’s was unstable and had made false charges. But Konstantin barely survived the whole ordeal, staggering around the huge city after his release in a daze. He finally found his way to a train station and made his way back to Kaluga.

The year 1921 marked the beginning of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Russia; this a term used by the Bolsheviks for policies attempted from 1921 to 1927 to rejuvenate the generally pathetic state of affairs. One of the tenants of the NEP was to try to improve the lives of scientists. With his constant promotion of rockets and spaceflight, and dirigibles and aeronautics in general, Konstantin would find assistance under this policy.

The Council of People’s Commissars voted him a small government pension for his lifelong works. Added to his local education pension, this new state-level pension meant he could retire from teaching and truly devote himself to research and writing creativity He would receive these benefits the rest of his life, albeit irregularly. Another problem was that the two pensions really didn’t amount to much. Money troubles always plagued Konstantin, right up to his last years.

But Tsiolkovsky’s life had commenced an upward path by the early 1920s. With his retirement from the schoolhouse, he could focus on the cosmos – and his timing was perfect, as during the 1920s significant numbers of people were embracing rocketry and space travel.

Two main promoters of the subjects, in the Soviet Union, were a physics professor and editor of popular journals, Iakov I. Perel’man, and, another professor and space historian by the name of Nikolai Alexsevitch Rynin. Both men were inspired by the ideas of Tsiolkovsky, were in contact with him, and as part of their publications turned the genius’s theories and technical minutia into popular works for the masses.

Out of this popularization of space would come an informal network of believers, who then provided funding for Tsiolkovsky’s writing efforts. These money sources allowed the publication and dissemination of his prolific works during the decade.

In October 1923, attention came Konstantin’s way when the central government newspaper Investiia published a short article by an anonymous author that lauded the just released book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by Hermann Oberth. Praise was heaped upon the German for his superb writing in regards to rocketry and spaceflight theory. Tsiolkovsky was given no mention or credit whatsoever in the piece.

This indignity spurred popular writers like Perel’man to rush to Tsiolkovsky’s defense, noting in a spate of articles the priority of the 1903 “Investigation.” Konstantin then found himself, in the last phase of his life, with recognition he never imagined. He personally got caught up in the wave; he was motivated to ensure his rightful place in rocket and space history.

He started by convincing some associates to assist in republishing an updated version of his 1903 work under the new title “A Rocket into Cosmic Space.” In 1924, the thirty-two page brochure was distributed mainly in Moscow, and proved highly popular among space enthusiasts.

Significant Russian interest in rockets and space travel in the 1920s was made apparent by a series of exhibitions that were sponsored by the Interplanetary Section of the Moscow Society of Inventors in 1927. Exhibits featured displays on Jules Verne, Robert Goddard, Oberth, and of course the homegrown hero Tsiolkovsky.

A model of the Tsiolkovky-inspired spaceship that would take humans to the Moon in the 1936 Soviet movie, Cosmic Voyage.

During the last eight years of his life, Konstantin was cast in the role of the wise and respected old “rocket sage” residing at his Kaluga outpost, in contact with and a hero to a new generation of Russian rocketeers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was sought out for advice by enthusiasts of the newly formed Gas Dynamics Laboratory of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Group for the Study of Reaction Motors in Moscow – the two historic groups which formed the basic organizational pillars of Russian modern rocketry.

Tsiolkovsky was a “living legend” and still publishing voluminously, but reaching the physical end. His works in later years included The Reaction Engine (1927–28), A New Aeroplane (1928), Jet-propelled Aeroplane (1929), The Theory of the Jet-Engine (1930–34), The Maximum Speed of a Rocket (1931–33), and a massive volume on multi-stage rockets titled Space Rocket Trains (1924–1934).

In the early 1930s, Konstantin was bestowed with an even higher level of recognition when the Stalinist state embraced him as a national hero and founding father of cosmonautics. He was honored as an example of a scientist who had struggled against adversity and could excel in the socialist system. The state also decided to finally start sponsoring his work.

Inserted here is a most interesting story concerning the origins of the term cosmonautique (“cosmonautics” equates to “astronautics”). In November 1933, the term itself was first introduced by Ary Sternfeld in his manuscript “Initiation à la Cosmonautique” (Introduction of Cosmonautics). Sternfeld was originally from Poland, studied and lived in France in the 1920s and early 1930s, then immigrated to the Soviet Union – attracted by the country’s socialist ideals – in 1935. While still living in Paris in 1934, he had been awarded the REP-Hirsch Prize for his manuscript. In the Soviet Union, he would find himself mostly relegated to working in his cosmonautics field of expertise in solitude, with his achievements receiving close to nil recognition the remainder of his life.

In 1932, the Communist Party awarded Tsiolkovsky the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, and his meager pension was doubled in size. He would show his appreciation by bequeathing all his personal papers and works to the state and party. In 1935, Konstantin was invited to give the feature speech at the May Day Parade in Moscow. Too frail and sick to attend, he taped a message that was broadcast over Red Square as planes and dirigibles flew overhead in formation – all a most dramatic presentation.

The late acclaim for Tsiolkovsky came despite a decline in interest among the populace toward space in the mid-1930s. Soviet leadership had directed a turn toward more practical rocketry, all due to the very real concerns associated with Hitler and the Nazis coming to power in Germany.

The visionary Tsiolkovsky died at age seventy-eight on September 19, 1935, and has been given the following credits:

––The first individual who thoroughly analyzed the reaction function in relation to rockets launched to outer space, and use of the rocket within space/vacuum.

––Advanced the rocket equation for use with spaceflight.

––Produced groundbreaking mathematical calculations, such as proving a very high escape velocity was required for a vehicle to exit Earth’s atmosphere.

––Earned the title “Father of Cosmonautics” in Russia.

The Soviet Union mythologized Tsiolkovsky late in his life, then let his legacy slip upon his death for two decades. But with satellite launches in 1957 coinciding with the centennial of the distinguished scientist’s birth year, his life and achievements were once again celebrated.

The Legacy of Unternehmen Barbarossa I

As far as high-speed mechanized troops are concerned and their location on the forward zone, one has, in general, to see the threat of their sudden concentration in the mere fact of their existence. These motorized troops, having carried out a march of up to 100 kilometers on the day before or even during the last night, turn up on the very border only at that moment when the decision has been taken to cross the border and to invade enemy territory.

Georgii Isserson, New Forms of Combat

To this day, the coordinated diplomatic and military planning at the heart of Unternehmen Barbarossa remains a model of how to confuse a future enemy with assurances of nonaggression while simultaneously planning a surprise attack. For this reason, among others, Barbarossa warrants careful study, certainly by military planners. The stamp of Barbarossa can be found not only on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and some of the closing campaigns of World War II—the Normandy landings in June 1944, for example—but also on the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War (1967), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), Soviet plans to attack NATO across the inner-German border during the Cold War, and Operation Desert Storm (1991). Other questions arising from Barbarossa are these: Why was the Soviet regime caught unprepared (complicated in part by the sensational claims of Viktor Suvorov)? And how did Hitler influence the decision whether to make the capture of Moscow the highest priority?

There is, of course, one major difference between Unternehmen Barbarossa and the D-Day landings in 1944: there was no nonaggression pact between Britain and Germany that might have led one side to miss the threat. The Germans knew that a landing would be attempted at some stage and were able to take various measures to prepare for it. For their part, the Anglo-American planners were aware that the enemy—an enemy that had repeatedly demonstrated astonishing powers of recovery on all fronts of the European theater of operations—awaited their arrival. Unlike the British army that had exited the European continent in the summer of 1940, the Wehrmacht in France was not psychologically weak in the summer of 1944; it was ready and resolved to fight. The critical problem facing the Allies was therefore how to deceive the enemy concerning the time and place of the landings. In terms of the intelligence battle, the Allies played a masterful hand, confusing and misleading the enemy intelligence services such that total surprise was achieved on 6 June 1944. Even after the Normandy landings, the Germans continued to believe that they were just a diversion. One outcome was that some German units were held in reserve; if they had been deployed on D-Day, they could have affected the success of the landings.

With regard to the period immediately before the outbreak of hostilities in the Six-Day War and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there are some elements that bear a resemblance to the state of German-Soviet relations before the launch of Barbarossa. If the preemptive strikes against Egypt and Syria were to stand any chance of success, Israeli planners knew they had to maintain the fiction that Israel was unprepared for war and willing to negotiate, while simultaneously preparing to seize the initiative. To undermine the resistance of Czechoslovak leaders, Soviet negotiators talked publicly of socialist solidarity and fraternity while mobilizing the forces of the Warsaw Pact for intervention. Even allowing for this unequal confrontation, Soviet deception and intelligence measures, refined in the invasion of Hungary twelve years previously, were impressive. By the time Czechoslovak politicians recognized the truth, it was too late.

Soviet planning for an attack across the inner-German border to defeat NATO forces in a molnienosnaia voina owed much to Isserson. All forces, certainly the armored and mechanized infantry divisions, along with their support services, were located as far forward as possible. This concentration of forces had taken place over years, and once established, it was regarded as the norm. Then, all that was required was an escalation in diplomatic and political tension—ideally, outside the main zone of intended operations, possibly the Middle East—and the Soviet shock armies would be deployed, taking NATO forces in Germany by just enough surprise to ensure the necessary momentum to bring Warsaw Pact forces to the French coast.

With regard to Desert Storm, the situation was more akin to the D-Day landings. In this case, the occupier had considerably less military expertise than the Anglo-Americans’ opponent in Normandy, but Iraq was expecting an attack and had to be taken by surprise. When the advantages of technology and training so overwhelmingly favor one side, as they did in Desert Storm, tactical surprise is not essential, but it is desirable. In the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the role played by intelligence data was crucial, as it was in Barbarossa. Whereas Stalin chose to ignore reliable intelligence material pointing to a German invasion, senior Anglo-American politicians and military leaders were accused of tampering with intelligence material in order to justify military action against Iraq to a skeptical public. These charges have yet to be fully investigated. Mindful of what happened to those individuals who crossed Stalin, Soviet intelligence officers justified telling the boss what he wanted to hear. American and British intelligence officers had no such excuses. Highlighted in both cases—the Soviet Union in 1941 and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—is that leaders who exert too much pressure on their intelligence agencies court national catastrophe (in the case of Stalin) or policy disaster (in the case of the US-led coalition). Hitler’s arrogance about what would happen after the start of Barbarossa anticipated the arrogance and unbridled optimism of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq. Both invaders were taken aback by the insurgencies they unleashed, and both struggled to contain them.

Barbarossa and Stalin

As David Glantz states in his operational analysis of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “The most vexing question associated with Operation Barbarossa is how the Wehrmacht was able to achieve such overwhelming political and military surprise.” There were, he argues, a number of plausible reasons for Stalin to reject the possibility of a German attack: warnings and hints from the British that Hitler was planning to attack were seen as an attempt of the British side to foment a war between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Soviet side had succumbed to the Germans’ deception plan. However, even allowing for the fact that “the purges had decimated Soviet intelligence operations as well as the military command structure,” Soviet intelligence assets were performing very well, judging by the material in the two volumes of 1941 god. There was plenty of evidence from a variety of sources that the huge buildup of German forces was not inconsequential. Confronted with these data, neither the intelligence services nor the leader to whom they reported could afford to assume that these large-scale deployments of men and equipment were benign, certainly not in the tense and uncertain atmosphere of Europe in 1941. The Soviet failure is even more unforgivable and inexplicable because of Stalin’s role in destroying the Polish state. All the negotiations with von Ribbentrop over the Non-Aggression Pact and the secret protocols told him everything he needed to know about Hitler. Having seen the methods Hitler used against Poland, Stalin had no right to assume that the Soviet Union would never fall victim to those same methods. In this regard, Isserson’s analysis of how the war between Germany and Poland started is masterful and prescient, which probably did nothing to raise his stock with his dear leader after 22 June 1941.

Zhukov indirectly acknowledges the importance of Isserson’s analysis in the published version of his memoirs (1969). He makes the unusually candid admission that senior Soviet figures (not just Stalin) failed to grasp the nature of the new type of war pioneered by the Germans:

The sudden transition to the offensive on such scales, with all the immediately available and earlier deployed forces on the most important strategic lines of advance, that is the nature of the assault itself, in its entire capacity, was not envisaged by us. Neither the People’s Commissar, nor I, nor my predecessors B. M. Shaposhnikov, K. A. Meretskov and the leadership stratum of the General Staff had reckoned with the fact that the enemy would concentrate such a mass of armored and motorized troops and deploy them on the very first day by means of powerful, concentrated formations on all the strategic lines of advance with the aim of inflicting shattering, tearing blows.

In a supplement published after his death, Zhukov, having confirmed that the 13 June 1941 TASS communiqué contributed to a dangerous sense of complacency among the border troops, goes much further in his criticism of Soviet conceptual awareness and planning:

But by far the most major deficiency in our military-political strategy was the fact that we had not drawn the appropriate conclusions from the experience of the initial period of World War II; and the experience was available. As is known, the German armed forces suddenly invaded Austria, Czechoslovakoslovakia, Belgium, Holland, France and Poland and by means of a battering-ram strike consisting of huge armored forces overran the opposing troops and rapidly achieved their mission. Our General Staff and the People’s Commissar had not studied the new methods for the conduct of the initial period of a war, and had not imparted the corresponding recommendations to the troops for their further operational-tactical training and for the reworking of obsolete operational-mobilization plans and other plans linked to the initial period of a war.

From an outstanding field commander such as Zhukov, these criticisms, aimed at himself and others, are a fitting endorsement of Isserson.

Regarding whether Golikov, the head of the GRU, had accepted the explanation that deployments in the east were tied to German operations in the Balkans, attention should be drawn to an analysis carried out by Golikov on behalf of the Soviet General Staff. He notes that the buildup of German troops and equipment had not been halted by German operations in the Balkans. Over the last two months (March and April 1941), the number of German divisions in the border zone with the Soviet Union had risen from 70 to 107, and the number of tank divisions deployed had increased from 6 to 12.

Finally, Glantz points to institutional failings as the main reason for the Soviet Union’s failure to act in good time: “In retrospect, the most serious Soviet failure was neither strategic surprise nor tactical surprise, but institutional surprise. In June 1941 the Red Army and Air Force were in transition, changing their organization, leadership, equipment, training, troop dispositions and defensive plans.” On its face, this seems plausible. Unfortunately, it shifts attention from the role played by Stalin. Stalin attacked the security institutions—NKVD, Red Army, and GRU—on which he relied. The institutions that emerged after these terror attacks were gravely weakened. Their institutional failings can be directly attributed to Stalin: they were Stalin’s institutions. Characterizing the outcome of Stalin’s murderous paranoia—and in terms of the Red Army’s ability to prosecute modern war, it was almost suicidal—as institutional failings understates Stalin’s responsibility. Stalin’s judicial terrorism also highlights the ideological failures of Marxism-Leninism and its internal obsession with class war, which were clearly inimical to the cool appraisal of military affairs and the need to prepare for modern war. Appeals to Russian nationalism, which were implied in Stalin’s radio address of 3 July 1941 and made explicit during the battle for Stalingrad, are further evidence of ideological failure. The emphasis on class struggle by Soviet military theorists such as Tukhachevskii, Frunze, and Triandafillov was wrong, and it distorted military planning and the assessment of intelligence data.

Here it is essential to recapitulate the damage inflicted by Stalin’s purges. There were four main effects on the Soviet armed forces, all of which were disastrous: experienced commanders were removed; the subsequent personnel replacement policy resulted in inexperienced commanders being promoted before they were ready; professional competence and morale were undermined; and, after 22 June 1941, political control was tightened even further as a consequence of the command and control failures brought on by the purges.

First, and most obviously, the purges led to the removal of large numbers of middle-ranking and senior commanders, men who had come through the civil war and gone on to study modern war and the impact of technological changes, especially in armored warfare, and to formulate a new doctrine suitable for the Red Army. Being arrested and executed did not, in itself, mean that a commander was of exceptional caliber, but even moderately competent officers at all levels who are experienced and have passed the necessary training courses—the backbone of any army—are not easily replaced, especially in wartime. It is impossible to know how a Red Army that had not been subjected to Stalin’s purges would have performed in the summer of 1941. However, it certainly would have been much better prepared to take on the Germans. That said, even an unscathed Red Army would have had to contend with the grave handicap of Stalin’s refusal to heed intelligence warnings and act on them. An interesting question here is whether senior Red Army commanders in an army that had been untouched by purges would have tolerated Stalin’s vacillation in the face of obvious danger. Even after 22 June 1941—such was the climate of paranoia—a disbelief in high-quality intelligence data and the practice of telling the boss what he wanted to hear continued. For example, the volume of high-quality information being passed on by the British traitors Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, and Guy Burgess to their Soviet handlers aroused suspicions in Moscow that Blunt and the others were double agents.

The removal of so many commanders at all levels and throughout the institutional structure of the Red Army meant that their replacements lacked the experience and training to command the posts they now occupied. Many of the newly promoted, called vydvizhentsy, surely knew that the bizarre accusations leveled against their former superiors were false, making them far more vulnerable to and more dependent on ideological considerations, rather than purely military ones. As a result, military professionalism suffered, and personal initiative was stifled.

The arrest, public vilification, and execution of so many commanders undermined discipline and weakened junior officers’ confidence in their superiors. In fact, a climate was created in which junior commanders with personal grudges or those driven by ideological vendettas were encouraged to denounce their superiors for lacking vigilance (bditel’nost’), engaging in wrecking (vreditel’stvo), or succumbing to ideological deviation (uklonizm). Predictably, the result was a severe weakening of morale, an eradication of unit cohesion, and a collapse in professional solidarity. History provides plenty of examples of outnumbered armies defeating numerically larger and better-equipped foes, but no armed forces, ancient or modern, can function with poor morale and an absence of unit cohesion and where the heroes of yesterday are vilified as traitors.

The damage done by the purges to doctrine, equipment procurement schedules, training, deployment, morale, effective command and control, and leadership was evident immediately after 22 June 1941, but even when confronted with the catastrophic results of their purges of the Red Army, Stalin and his party apparatus were unable to see that the unfolding disaster was a consequence of their vendettas. On the contrary, they saw it as evidence of treachery on an unimaginable scale. In this grotesque scenario, the basic principle of the purges, they persuaded themselves, had been correct: it had just not gone far enough. What was now needed to restore the situation, they believed, was not less party control but more, and so they reinstated dual command, among other things. Dual command was not merely a very public display of the party’s lack of faith in the Red Army, which was soon picked up by enemy propagandists. Being the very opposite of the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik (military tradition that stresses personal initiative), without which all-arms operations could not properly function, it complicated command and control (to put it mildly), playing straight into the hands of German commanders and enhancing their already demonstrably superior tactical leadership.

The Legacy of Unternehmen Barbarossa II

Barbarossa’s failure to deliver the knockout blow and the subsequent failure to take Moscow suggest that December 1941 was the moment Germany lost the war. At best, it could expect a long war of attrition in a struggle against the combined might of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, with predictable consequences. At the risk of being accused of Anglocentrism, I suggest that the failure to destroy or capture the defeated British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and certainly the failure to invade England in the summer of 1940, marked the moment when Germany’s chances of winning the war were, if not fatally damaged, at least severely undermined. Granted, as von Manstein has explained only too clearly, the risks of Operation Sea Lion were enormous, but if successful, the rewards would have been stunning. That Hitler was prepared to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been eliminated is doubly puzzling. First, it suggests that Hitler did not consider the threat posed by Britain serious enough to warrant giving it immediate priority. Second, the risks of attacking the Soviet Union and failing were far greater than the risks of attacking England and being defeated. Here, the factor of time was critical for German ambitions: if the Soviet Union could be defeated in a short campaign, the full weight of German arms could then be turned against Britain. The longer the campaign on the Eastern Front lasted, the more resilient Britain would become and the greater its capacity to mobilize British military might. An alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union would then be a near certainty. That the British were a meddlesome force in the Balkans and a ubiquitous and aggressive presence in the Mediterranean in the months immediately before Barbarossa, though frequently thwarted by German intervention, was evidence enough of what lay in store for Germany if Britain was not checked.

Instead of invading England and, if succeeding, changing the strategic situation in Europe to his overwhelming advantage, Hitler turned east. The Blitzkrieg failed, and by the middle of December 1941, Germany found itself at war with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The advantages of surprise and the benefits of ruthless treachery that had served Hitler so well since 1933 had now been exhausted. The military, technological, and doctrinal advantages Germany had enjoyed from September 1939 to December 1941 were now being matched and surpassed by its opponents.

Reasons for the Failure of Barbarossa

The factors that contributed to the failure of Barbarossa can be summarized as follows: (1) time, space, and terrain; (2) inconsistent attitudes toward nationalism; (3) the brutal treatment of Soviet prisoners of war and commissars; (4) the role of the Einsatzgruppen (the mass murder of Jews); (5) plans for agricultural exploitation and the retention of Soviet collective farms; (6) the assumption that the Soviet Union would collapse very quickly; (7) Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people; and (8) failure to pursue military objectives—the capture of Moscow—to the exclusion of everything else, as recommended by Guderian and other generals.

Time, space, and terrain, along with weather, are factors in the planning and execution of all military operations. The Blitzkrieg doctrine was best suited to the distances and terrain found in western Europe. Even though there were natural and artificial terrain obstacles in the western theater of operations, these could be overcome, as the Germans demonstrated, without losing momentum because the operational area was so much smaller. Moreover, the advanced infrastructure of western Europe—highways, roads, railways, and bridges—facilitated and accelerated the Blitzkrieg, since the invader could exploit them for the rapid deployment of men and equipment and for purposes of resupply. Another advantage arising from the smaller operational area in western Europe was that the invader could seize assets—arms factories, power stations, dams, ports, ships, and food production plants—in a coup de main before they could be destroyed. In western Europe a scorched-earth policy was neither realistic nor psychologically acceptable to the inhabitants. On the Eastern Front, however, there was often time to evacuate major assets, especially plants and factories further east; where evacuation was not possible, industrial assets such as dams could be prepared for demolition. In the east the invader had to reckon with poor-quality roads and rail lines that were often rendered unusable by rain and snow.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union was also characterized by inconsistent and duplicitous policies toward nationalist movements. In the planning phase of Barbarossa, nationalist movements in Ukraine were exploited by the Abwehr, and the threat posed by these movements was taken very seriously by the NKVD. In contrast, the highest levels of the RSHA (the main terror and police agency of the NS regime) regarded nationalist movements with suspicion, and German planning documents make it clear that there was never any serious intention to abolish the Soviet collective farm system; this would be retained to maximize agricultural production for Germany.

However, there is evidence that some German administrators were willing to grant a degree of local autonomy in the occupied areas. One of the more interesting experiments took place in the Orlov district. The 2nd Panzer Army permitted the creation of the autonomous Lokot region, based on the village of Lokot. By the end of the summer of 1942, the Lokot self-governing region had expanded to include eight regions of the Orlov and Kursk districts, with a total population of about 581,000. All German troops were withdrawn, and the region was given self-governing status. To quote the recent work of a Russian historian:

German troops, headquarters and command structures were withdrawn beyond the borders of the district, in which the whole spectrum of power was conferred on an Oberbürgermeister, based on a ramified administrative apparatus and numerous armed formations made up of local inhabitants and prisoners. The only demands made of the self-government were that supplies of foodstuffs were delivered to the German army and that it prevented the growth of a partisan movement.

It turns out that the Lokot self-government even had its own political party, Narodnaia Sotsialisticheskaia Partiia Rossii (The People’s Socialist Party of Russia), and its main aim was the destruction of the communist system and the collective farms. The leaders of this experiment saw a self-governing Lokot as the basis for the rebirth of Russia. One can only imagine the frenzy of hatred this experiment aroused in Stalin and Beria when they eventually got wind of it.

The question arises: to what extent did the existence of this self-governing region assist the Germans and impede the Red Army before and during the battle of Kursk in 1943? Once the battle of Kursk was over, there is no question that the whole area would have been scoured by SMERSH for any official who had worked in the administration. The fate of the 581,000 inhabitants after the Germans withdrew is not clear. It would have taken SMERSH many months, maybe years, to filter all those it considered unreliable, and this must have generated a massive amount of documentation, which is apparently still classified. German initiatives such those in Orlov would have been far more effective had they been launched from the outset.

Harsh treatment of Red Army prisoners, often stemming from callous indifference, was a disastrous mistake. Such treatment was predicated in part on the assumption that the campaign would be over quickly and that any mistreatment of prisoners would have a negligible impact on German operations. The Germans’ attitude toward prisoners and commissars soon became known on the Soviet side of the front, and the longer the campaign dragged on, the more such policies hardened Soviet resistance. Combined with the mass shootings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war helped the Soviet regime. These killings supported a sense of Soviet solidarity that could possibly overcome the ethnic heterogeneity and fissiparous nature of the Soviet Union. To this end, Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people immediately after the invasion must be seen as a lost opportunity. A direct radio appeal (reinforced by a massive airdrop of leaflets) in which he promised self-rule, abolition of the collective farms, restoration of the church, and an end to communism and in which he urged the people to turn against their oppressors—the NKVD, the commissars, and the party—would have caused utter panic among Stalin’s entourage. But this did not happen, and the peasants were exploited just as ruthlessly by the German occupiers, which undeniably helped the Soviet regime.

A year later, on the eve of the Stalingrad counteroffensive, the consequences of this German error would be fully grasped by the utterly cynical Commissar Getmanov in Grossman’s Life and Fate: “It is our good fortune that the Germans in the course of just one year did more to make themselves hated by the peasants than anything the communists did over the last 25 years.” Getmanov rather conveniently ignores the civil war and the genocide in Ukraine, but there is much truth in what he says. With victory secured, there would be time enough for the German occupiers to renege on these tactical, time-buying promises. The time for implementing the ideological program would have been after the Soviet state had been knocked out. Nonmilitary objectives that were launched before the Soviet Union had been defeated complicated and compromised the essential task of accelerating the collapse of the Soviet state. Again, the full force of the German propaganda machine should have been used to send the message that the German army had come to liberate Russia from communism. The failure to do so was probably based on the belief that such assurances would not be necessary, since the campaign would be a short one. Such considerations bring us to the question of what the primary military objective should have been in 1941.

One question that continues to engage historians of the Barbarossa campaign is whether Hitler’s decision to head south in August 1941 predetermined the outcome of the eventual resumption of the drive on Moscow. For example, Glantz argues that Germany’s best chance to take Moscow was in October 1941.13 In contrast, Guderian and others maintain that the August 1941 decision to go to Ukraine was the main cause of the failure to take Moscow. Citing various factors that he believes would have thwarted German plans to take Moscow in September, Glantz nevertheless concedes that the Germans might have captured the city then. However, that would have been just the start of the Germans’ problems: surviving the winter in a devastated city, protecting their exposed and extended flanks, and withstanding an attack from a Red Army now numbering 5 million men.

The obvious riposte here is Guderian’s insistence on the pressing need to go all out for Moscow. Given the requirements of modern war, the defense of Moscow in 1941 relied on the Soviet rail network. In fact, the critical importance of the rail network for offensive and defensive purposes was well appreciated by Triandafillov, who identified fast and effective rokirovka (lateral troop movements) as crucial for deployment. The loss of Moscow would have meant the loss of all rail and river links to other parts of the Soviet Union, thus effectively preventing the necessary rokirovka and interfering with the movement of reinforcements from the Soviet Far East. Moreover, any Soviet threat to the German flanks and rear was predicated on a supply chain for the Red Army and the Soviet High Command’s ability to move men and equipment by road and rail. If the German attack had succeeded in September, no buildup of offensive forces would have been possible, and the threat posed by millions of Red Army soldiers would have been reduced, since they would have been cut off from their supply bases.

The other factor to consider is the political impact on the Soviet Union if the Germans had taken Moscow. Guderian made a case for an all-out attack on Moscow in a meeting with Hitler:

I explained that from a military standpoint it came down to the total destruction of the enemy forces that had suffered so badly in the recent battles. I depicted for him the geographical significance of the Russian capital that was, I said, completely different from Paris, for example, the traffic and communications center, the political center and an important industrial region, the fall of which, apart from its having an obviously shattering effect on the morale of the Russian people, must also have an impact on the rest of the world. I drew attention to the mood of the troops who expected nothing else than the march on Moscow and who, so inspired, had already, I said, made all the necessary preparations to this end. I tried to explain that after achieving military victory in this decisive thrust and over the main forces of the enemy the industrial regions of Ukraine must fall to us much sooner when the conquest of the Moscow communications network would make any possible deployment of forces from north to south extremely difficult for the Russians.

Guderian also pointed out that the German supply problem would be easier to deal with if everything were concentrated on Moscow. In addition, it is was essential to move before the onset of the rasputitsa.

Guderian’s views find some support from von Manstein, who maintains—with the benefit of postwar hindsight—that Hitler underestimated the strength of the Soviet system and its ability to withstand the stresses of war. The only way to destroy the system, he argues, was to bring about its political collapse from within: “However, the policies that Hitler permitted to be pursued in the occupied territories by his Reich Commissars and the SD—in complete contrast to the efforts of the military circles—could only have the opposite effect.” This is an obvious point to make, but how do von Manstein’s objections to German policies in the occupied territories fit with his own order issued on 20 November 1941? This lapse in memory notwithstanding, von Manstein’s assessment of the policies being pursued by Hitler underlines the inner contradictions: “So while Hitler wanted to move strategically so as to destroy Soviet power, politically, he acted in complete opposition to this strategy. In other wars differences between the political and military leadership have often occurred. In this situation both elements were controlled by Hitler with the result that the Eastern policy conducted by him ran strictly counter to the requirements of his strategy and perhaps denied it the chance of a quick victory.” Von Manstein believed that the defeat of the Red Army would achieve Germany’s economic and political goals. However, capturing Moscow was the key component: “After its [Moscow’s] loss the Soviet defense would be practically divided into two parts and the Soviet leadership would no longer be able to conduct a uniform and combined operation.”

The period from 1 September 1939 to 22 June 1941 lends some support to Colin Gray’s view that, although it is an intellectual convenience to accept a strict demarcation between war and peace (the title of Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace is an indicator of how deeply this binary division is embedded), there can be a situation in which there is neither peace nor war or, rather, there is peace in war and war in peace.19 In this situation, the conditions for a future war are being created amid circumstances that, to most people not immediately involved with problems of war, appear to be peace. This view suggests that peace is not permanent; it is merely a transitional phase during which old conflicts can be reignited or new conflicts can emerge, often unforeseen, because they are driven by political and technological change.

Diplomacy plays a crucial role in this transitional phase. It is in the diplomatic arena that new conditions and new threats arising from these new conditions are perceived or, rather, are open to being perceived. In these conditions, diplomacy can function as either an instrument to avoid war or one to prepare for war, a policy pursued by Hitler and clearly identified by Churchill and Isserson. Thus, Gray’s thesis of war in peace and peace in war implies some modification of the Clausewitzian idea that war is a continuation of policy by other means. War is not merely a continuation of diplomatic policy by other means: war and diplomacy are not discrete entities; they constitute a single entity used by all states to further their interests, assert their honor, and deal with their fears. This entity is power. Thus, in the conditions we traditionally call peace, a state uses diplomacy to advance its interests (moderately or aggressively), and in the conditions we traditionally call war, the state uses force to advance its interests. Both policies, war and diplomacy, are parts of the same entity we call power. The origins of the relationship between diplomacy and war and the nature of power were first enunciated by Thucydides, and they have certainly been modified and reformulated by Machiavelli, Bismarck, and, more recently, Kissinger. However, in the twentieth century, Hitler’s recognition that diplomacy and war are a single entity, and the degree to which this entity became an instrument of his will, remains one of the most important legacies of the NS regime and the planning for Barbarossa.

Finally, and most importantly, there was the human cost. What made Barbarossa and the war on the Eastern Front so appalling was not, to quote Omer Bartov, that “Nazi Germany exercised barbarism on an unprecedented scale” or that “its declared intention was extermination and enslavement.” What made it so appalling was that both Germany and the Soviet Union demonstrated a shocking capacity for barbarism, extermination, and enslavement. Clearly, this was an ideological war, but the first moves were not made on 22 June 1941. The first moves toward this Weltanschauungskrieg were made by Lenin’s Soviet state. By effectively declaring the Soviet state free of all international norms, free of all moral and ethical obligations in its pursuit of global domination and class war, Lenin promulgated an intoxicating, nihilistic idea that was fully apprehended and applauded by the author of Mein Kampf and informed his own cult of German exceptionalism based on das Herrenvolk.

The Red Army of the Russian Civil War

The supreme achievement of the Soviet government in the civil-wars years: the creation of the Red Army. Much of the credit for this has, rightly, been apportioned to war commissar L. D. Trotsky.

The foregoing account of the 1919 campaigns concentrated on the White advances because the Reds tended not to make grand strategic decisions in that year. Rather, they reacted to the probings of their opponents and took advantage when the latter collapsed. That, however, is not to downplay the supreme achievement of the Soviet government in the civil-wars years: the creation of the Red Army. Much of the credit for this has, rightly, been apportioned to war commissar L. D. Trotsky.

The Red Army was born out of the disintegration of the Imperial Russian Army, which the Bolsheviks had done so much to foster (regarding the army as a nest of real and potential counterrevolutionaries). Prior to October 1917, the party’s propagandizing among troops fostered disorder and desertion; after October, Sovnarkom issued an avalanche of decrees canceling all ranks and titles, permitting the election of officers, expanding the competences of soldiers’ committees, and ordering the demobilization of successive classes of conscripts. All this culminated in the order for a general demobilization of the old army on 29 January 1918. However, the disintegration of the old army did not necessarily imply the creation of a new one.

Like most socialists, the Bolsheviks generally despised militarism and regarded the standing army as the chief instrument of state oppression of the working class. For them, especially those consolidating around N. I. Bukharin, A. S. Bubnov, and V. M. Smirnov as the nucleus of the Left Bolsheviks within the party, one of the essential purposes of the revolution was to destroy the army and to replace it with a democratic militia system. As advocates of the untapped potential for revolutionary creativity of the proletariat, the Left further considered that any subsequent conflict, either domestic or international, would be conducted according to quite different principles of organization and strategy—a concept they dubbed “revolutionary war”—in which what would count would not be military training or experience but the unstoppable and incorruptible élan of the workers-in-arms. However, the militia system failed at the first hurdle, during the German invasion of Soviet territory in February 1918 that was occasioned by Sovnarkom’s initial reluctance to accept the peace terms on offer at Brest-Litovsk. It had been expected that at least 300,000 recruits would come forward for this partisan army, but only around 20,000 were mustered (a third of them from Petrograd). Consequently, the German advance was virtually unopposed during the “Eleven-Days War,” and the Soviet government had to accept the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

All this had an immediate impact on Trotsky, who resigned as foreign commissar and became People’s Commissar for Military Affairs on 14 March 1918. A dedication to order, routine, hierarchy, and discipline was central to his character and style as a revolutionary, and he soon began to impose those characteristics on the Red military. Within a week of becoming war commissar, he was telling the Moscow Soviet, “Comrades! Our Soviet Socialist Republic needs a well-organized army,” and went on to assert:

While we were fighting with the Kaledinites we could successfully remain content with units which had been put together in haste. Now, however, in order to cope with the creative work of reviving the country . . . , in order to ensure the security of the Soviet Republic under conditions of international counter-revolutionary encirclement, such units are already inadequate. We need a properly and freshly organized army!

But how was such an army to be organized and led? Certainly Trotsky knew such a task would be beyond his own capabilities and those of the other journalists and activists who led the Bolshevik party. So, in a leap of faith that must be regarded as one of the key moments in the civil wars, Trotsky grasped the nettle and, in address of 28 March 1918 to a Moscow city conference of the party, he focused on what he termed the “sore point” in party discussions, which for him had to be at the heart of the new army:

the question of drawing military specialists, that is, to speak plainly, former officers and generals, into the work of creating and administering the Army. All the fundamental, leading institutions of the Army are now so constructed that they consist of one military specialist and two political commissars. This is the basic pattern of the Army’s leading organs. . . . Given the present regime in the Army—I say this here quite openly—the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree.

Within a few weeks, more than 8,000 former officers were serving in the Red ranks, and by the end of 1918, 30,000 of them were employed—not as “officers,” but to spare Bolshevik blushes, as “military specialists” (voenspetsy)—a disproportionate number of them being graduates of the imperial Academy of the General Staff.95 There were, of course, cases of treachery and desertion by voenspetsy (notably when virtually the entire faculty of the Academy of the General Staff itself went over to the enemy on the Volga during the summer of 1918), which fed the fires of opprobrium that leftist party radicals felt for this “treachery” to proletarian principles. Also, Trotsky’s wish—expressed in an article of 31 December 1918 eulogizing “The Military Specialists and the Red Army”—that he was returning to the topic “for the last time, I hope,” was not realized: residual Left Bolshevik resentment at such confounding of revolutionary purity remained widespread (and was voiced with great bitterness at a conference of Bolshevik army delegates in late March 1919). Critics of the employment of voenspetsy could point out that it had, after all, been stated, in the Sovnarkom decree of 3 January 1918, which first mentioned the creation of such a force, that “the Red Army of Workers and Peasants will be formed from the most conscious and organized elements of the working masses”—a definition that hardly encompassed the employment of the military elite of tsarist Russia. Debates on this issue would become particularly vitriolic and divisive at the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1919, where concessions had to be made to Trotsky’s opponents in order to defuse a sizable “military opposition” within the RKP(b). This loosely organized group was demanding that military commissars be afforded a greater role in decision making within the army and that party institutions should assume a larger role in directing a Red Army that was increasingly manned by conscripted peasants. Although it was claimed at the time, by Trotsky, that only 5 out of 82 voenspetsy army commanders ever deserted, a more recent investigation of materials in the Russian archives has established that some 549 highly valued genshtabisty deserted from the Red Army in the period 1918–1921, and that in total, almost one in three voenspetsy managed to flee to the enemy. Yet despite this debilitating and dangerous hemorrhage, and despite the lingering qualms of the Leftists, at least the principle of utilizing officers and experts had been firmly established, and the majority of officers employed in the Red Army (including 613 genshtabisty) remained at their posts.

Left Bolshevik (and Left-SR) irritations were at least partly salved by a second, truly revolutionary aspect of the new army: the appointment of so-called military commissars to all units. Although this office was based on the far-distant precedent of a similarly named institution at the time of the French revolutionary wars, and while the Provisional Government of 1917 had also named its special plenipotentiaries at the front and in the regions “commissars,” the military (or political) commissar of the Red forces was an original phenomenon. It was, in fact, one of the key martial innovations of the Reds during the civil war. According to an order signed by Trotsky on 6 April 1918:

The military commissar is the direct political organ of Soviet power in the army. . . . Commissars are appointed from among irreproachable revolutionaries, capable of remaining under the most difficult circumstances, the embodiment of revolutionary duty. . . . [They] must see to it that the army does not become disassociated from the Soviet system as a whole and that particular military institutions do not become centers of conspiracy or instruments to be used against the workers and peasants. The commissar takes part in all the work of the military leaders, receives reports and dispatches along with them, and counter-signs orders. War Councils will give effect only to such orders as have been signed not only by military leaders but also by at least one military commissar.

He was equally insistent, though, that “the commissar is not responsible for the expediency of purely military, operational, combat orders.”

In terms of army administration, the aforementioned Supreme Military Council was at the apex of a still nebulous command hierarchy of what was becoming, in the first half of 1918, the “Worker-Peasant Red Army.” This new, revolutionary armed force had been first mentioned by (a similar) name in a Sovnarkom decree of 3 January 1918 (“On the Formation of Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army”), but did not begin to become a living reality until its founding units were mustered from 23 February of that year (a date subsequently celebrated as “Red Army Day” in Soviet Russia). The Supreme Military Council itself replaced the improvised Revolutionary Field Staff and was given the tasks of providing strategic leadership to the armed forces of the Soviet Republic and overseeing the building of the Red Army. Following the setbacks on the Volga during the summer of 1918, however, it was abolished on 6 September 1918 and was replaced by the Revvoensovet (Revolutionary Military Soviet, or Council) of the Republic (RVSR), which restored some of the influence of senior commissars. In the midst of these events, on 2 September 1918, Vācietis was promoted to main commander in chief (Glavkom) of the Red Army (his predecessor, M. D. Bonch-Bruevich, who had failed to recognize the crucial importance of the Eastern Front, was quietly shunted aside). On 11 September 1918, the RVSR then devised a formal structure for the entire Red Army, which was divided (initially) into five armies, each with 11 divisions of between six and nine regiments (plus reserve units), grouped around three fronts (the Northern Front, the Eastern Front, and the Southern Front) and the Western Fortified Area. Revvoensovets were then established for each army (from 12 December 1918), military commissars were assigned to shadow commanders and to offer ideological guidance and motivation to Red forces, and regular units finally displaced almost all irregular (“partisan”) formations. The structure of the Red Army that would eventually emerge victorious from the wars was thus essentially in place before the end of the first year of serious struggle. Moreover, with control of the heartland of the old empire firmly established, the Soviet regime was able to draw upon the stocks of supplies meant for the old army—supplies that had had to be stretched to breaking point in 1916–1917 to maintain the Imperial Russian Army of some 10,000,000 men, but which would provide rich pickings for a Red Army that would never put in the field more than 5 percent of such a figure.

Thus, the new Red Army (unlike the Whites) had some central, strategic direction (greatly aided by the fact that the Soviet government had inherited, wholesale, the central administrative apparatus and personnel of the old army—from telegraphists to typewriters).105 The Whites were far less fortunate in this respect, having to rely on the meager resources of the outlying military districts of tsarist times to which they had been confined. The coordinating organs of the Red Army were then topped off, following a VTsIK decree of 30 November 1918, with the formation of the Council of Workers’ and Peasants’ Defense (from April 1920, the Council of Labor and Defense, the STO). This body, which was chaired (ex officio) by Lenin and included Trotsky (as chair of the RVSR, although he was rarely available to attend its meetings), Stalin (as the representative of VTsIK), and several people’s commissars of the most interested commissariats, was created by Sovnarkom but was coequal to it, as STO directives were considered to be the equivalent of state laws. It played no part in the formation of military strategy, but STO sought instead to direct and coordinate the work of all economic commissariats with all institutions having a stake in the defense of Soviet Russia. In the circumstances of a confusion of civil wars, it managed that task with relative success. Again, the Whites had nothing to compare with it.

From May 1918, the nascent Red Army could also begin to draw on a steadier stream of recruits, as a general mobilization was instituted and the volunteer principle was abandoned, although the registration of those eligible was rudimentary and the nonappearance and desertion of mobilized men remained a problem. By late 1918, the Red Army was still a long way from resolving this issue, but it was much closer to doing so than were its rivals, and signs were apparent that a solution acceptable to both sides of this bargaining process—the citizens and the state—was achievable. Back in June 1918, the Bolsheviks had attempted to mobilize all workers and all “nonexploiting” peasants aged 21–25 years in 51 districts of the Volga and the Urals, but in the absence of a functioning central draft organization, impromptu and usually unsuccessful local levées had had to be attempted. Hardly more was achieved by a countrywide draft on 11 September 1918, while even by early 1919 drafts were widely evaded; for example, in May 1919, a month after a draft was initiated, Tambov had produced precisely 24 recruits of the 5,165 anticipated, and by the time this round of mobilizations was called off (in June 1919) just 24,364 of 140,000 expected recruits had been mustered.108 In his examination of this phenomenon, Erik Landis describes “hundreds of thousands” of deserters taking up arms in the Red rear and this “green army” severely compromising the stability of Red fronts from around April to September 1919 (just as Denikin was preparing his advance). According to one pioneering Western study of the phenomenon of desertion, the rate of flight was so great throughout the civil wars that ultimately the Reds were only able to triumph over their enemies by dint of the larger pool of men they could draw upon.

This may well have been the case, but a more recent investigation concludes that retention rates were gradually improving in the Red Army. In the most insightful examination of this process to date, Joshua Sanborn dates the beginning of it to a decree passed at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 10 July 1918 that linked citizenship to military service and obliged all healthy men aged 18–40 years to come forward. Improvements thereafter he attributes to the Soviet state building an apparatus that could be seen to apportion the burden of mobilization at least reasonably fairly among its citizens—the crucial factor being that the system was one that was central, not local, and therefore perceived to be less open to abuses. In sum, Sanborn concluded, the Bolsheviks “created a state-sponsored discourse that finally incorporated the idea that soldiers acquired rights when they performed their national duty.” In particular, they were assured that their families would be cared for and that they, as soldiers, would be respected by the state and would acquire privileges above those granted to other citizens. Tied to this, though, was a degree of flexibility in the approach of the state. The Red Army could, of course, unleash terror against those who deserted, and by April 1919 the Anti-Desertion Commission had established numerous branches at local levels, which organized armed patrols to comb the countryside and snare runaways and had the power to confiscate property from the families of known deserters and those suspected of assisting or harboring them. But, as Sanborn notes, commanders actually used a “two-pronged” approach to desertion. This was reflected in an order by Lenin of December 1918 in which, while describing deserters as “heinous and shameful” and representative of “the depraved and ignorant,” he nevertheless offered a two-week amnesty for those absentees who returned to their units. This was accompanied by a nationwide propaganda campaign to convince shirkers and deserters that they could not hide and would be punished, while the Red Army Central Desertion Commission urged that repression be mixed with “proof of concern for the families of Red Army soldiers.” Finally, an intensive and extensive “verification” campaign seems to have been particularly effective throughout 1919, during which all those men of draft age in the Soviet zone were required to attend meetings at which their eligibility for military service would be checked. Of course, given the ongoing chaos, this was never applied universally, but in the second half of 1919, 2,239,604 men attended such meetings and 272,211 of them were then enrolled in the armed forces. By August 1920, a further 470,106 men were recruited by this means. Thus, noted Sanborn, “a military service consensus had been reached and conscription normalized.” Certainly the White forces never came close to emulating this—although their failure to do so had as much to do with a lack of administrative resources in the peripheral areas in which they operated as with ignorance of the importance of such systems of social control. On the Red side, the results were clear: a Red Army of 800,000 men in January 1919 would become one of 3,000,000 by January 1920.

White Defeat in the Russian Civil War

The Red versus White struggle was decided on the battlefield, but the outcome of civil wars also depends on the contenders’ ability, through politics and propaganda, to convince people to fight for them (or at least not to raise arms against them). In this field, governance, the Whites were a spectacular failure. Consequently, no matter how successful their main military thrusts were, when the tide turned and advances morphed into retreats, the Whites had nothing to fall back on. Hence the precipitous collapse of the AFSR, the North-West Army, and Kolchak’s Russian Army.

This is not to say that the Whites did not try to compete with the Bolsheviks on the political plane—however much their background in the Russian military tended to incline them to regard “politics” as a dirty word (a feeling amplified by the disasters of 1917). Both Kolchak and Denikin actually elaborated political programs in 1919 that might—despite the generally held perceptions of the Whites as “reactionaries”—broadly be described as “liberal.” They repeatedly committed themselves to resuscitating local governments, to respecting the right of the non-Russian peoples to self-determination, to respecting the rights of trade unions, and to radical land reform, and vowed that, upon victory in the civil war, they would summon a new national assembly to determine the future constitution of the Russian state. Kolchak, whose Omsk government was more stable, rooted, and fully developed than the rather nebulous and peripatetic Special Council that advised Denikin, tended to take the lead in such matters, but both the main White military camps had phalanxes of Kadet auxiliaries to add flesh to the bones of their declarations on politics and to staff their press agencies, advisory councils, and bureaus of propaganda. Moreover, there is little doubt that both Denikin and Kolchak held genuinely progressive views on a range of issues, including the necessity of radical land reform in Russia—the key issue of the previous century—and that both were entirely sincere in their protestations that they had no personal desire to hang on to political power for a moment longer than it would take to drive Lenin from the Kremlin. Also, although the document that established the Kolchak dictatorship (“The Statute on the Provisional Structure of State Power in Russia”) made no provision for its termination, the admiral put on public record, in a speech at Ekaterinburg in February 1919, for example, a solemn pledge that he would not retain power “for a single day longer than the interests of the country demand,” and asserted that “in the future the only admissible form of government in Russia will be a democratic one.” And these declarations reaped some rewards: in May 1919, for example, the Big Four at Paris were sufficiently impressed with Kolchak’s democratic credentials that they would consider recognizing his regime as the government of all Russia.

However well-drafted or well-intentioned, though, there was always something flimsy, half-baked, and unconvincing about White politics; and a lingering sense prevailed that neither Denikin nor Kolchak was much interested in the details of the political concerns that had been agitating Russia since—and, indeed, long before—February 1917. Moreover, however egalitarian were the personal beliefs and intentions of the major White leaders, who were far from the clichéd caricatures of prince-nez-adorned, sadistic fops of Bolshevik propaganda, this could not disperse the stench of restorationism that suffused their camps, which were heavily populated with the former elite of the Russian Empire. British officers with the mission in South Russia, for example, who had been invited to a banquet held by the local branch of the Union of Landowners at Novocherkassk, soon sensed that they were among “a hot-bed of monarchists” and were deeply embarrassed when one of the guests (a cousin of Nicholas Romanov) ordered the orchestra to play “God Save the Tsar,” the old imperial anthem (which had been banned since the February Revolution).

Consequently, although Denikin’s land laws and labor legislation might have promised fair treatment to peasants and workers, the populace of territory occupied by the AFSR invariably felt the whip and wrath of returning landlords and factory bosses, who had been driven out by the wide-scale seizures of private property that had accompanied the spread of Soviet power in 1917–1918 and now sought revenge and recompense. The same rule applied in the east, as Kolchak’s forces advanced from Siberia (where large, landed estates were almost unknown) across the Urals to the Volga region (beyond which they became general)—despite the fact that Kolchak himself was clearly committed to a progressive land reform resembling that assayed in Russia in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution and that Omsk’s Ministry of Agriculture was teeming with former associates of the reforming prime minister of those days, P. A. Stolypin. Most telling of all was that Kolchak’s “Decree on Land” was not issued until April 1919, when his army’s move toward European Russia necessitated such action. Similarly, on the second great issue of the day—national self-determination—Kolchak also remained silent until the spring of 1919, when the focus of Paris on the Whites’ intentions prompted action—or at least more promises.

A variety of explanations might be adduced for such prevarication. A generous reading of White policy would emphasize that the movement was genuinely committed to a stance of non-predetermination—one that, disinterestedly, inhibited (even forbade) the introduction of significant reforms during the armed struggle; such acts, according to the doctrine, which was routinely espoused by the Whites, would have to await the decisions of a new constituent assembly, once the Bolsheviks had been defeated. A less generous exposition of the “White idea” could cite cynical distortions and maskings of their true aims by the Whites, in order to secure peasant recruits to man their armies and Allied weapons to equip them, while attempting to hoodwink any too-trusting members of the national minorities into accepting that promises of self-determination emanating from Omsk and Ekaterinodar were real.

The Whites’ evasive and contradictory stance on the nationalities question was particularly damaging to their cause (given that, especially in South Russia and the northwest, they tended to be operating from bases in lands where Russians were in a minority and non-Russians were using the postimperial and post–world war hiatus to fashion their independence. Thus, Denikin would occasionally sing the praises of self-determination, yet more often espouse the cause of a “Russia, One and Indivisible,” while engaging in a prolonged border war (the “Sochi conflict”) with the Democratic Republic of Georgia, and also directly insulting the Ukrainians by referring to that land by the condescending tsarist-era term “Little Russia.” He would also offer up such alarming suggestions regarding the proper delineation of a new Polish–Russian border, in the wake of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic at the world war’s end, that Warsaw would call a halt to his army’s operations in the spring of 1919 and then enter into secret peace talks with Moscow that would facilitate the redeployment of 40,000 men from the Red Army’s Western Front to its “Southern Front, Against Denikin” in the autumn of that year. Another instructive example was the case of Daghestan and its neighbors in the Caucasus, who had united in an autonomous Mountain Republic. This regime had initially been dissolved by the Bolshevik-dominated Terek Soviet Republic at Vladikavkaz in the spring of 1918, but had reestablished itself as Soviet power crumbled in the North Caucasus later that year. It then had repulsed a new Soviet offensive in April 1919, only to find that, when Denikin’s forces subsequently occupied the North Caucasus and then Daghestan, it had to flee again—this time from the Whites.

In Siberia, Kolchak had less immediate concerns with the non-Russian nationalities, who were not present in sufficient numbers within his realm to cause harm (although the desertion from his front line around Ufa, in February 1919, of 6,500 Bashkir forces, who had despaired of their treatment by the Whites, left a big hole in the front line). However, as supreme ruler his pronouncements on the issue had national and international consequences, and here it was revealing that Kolchak should choose the case of Finland, which was already independent and certainly unrecoverable, to dig in his heels: when General Mannerheim, in July 1919, offered a deal whereby his 100,000-strong army would capture Petrograd for the Whites in return for some not inconsiderable but hardly outrageous conditions (recognition of Finnish independence, the secession to Finland of Pechenga, self-determination for Karelia, free navigation through Lake Ladoga for Finnish merchant vessels, etc.), Kolchak refused to agree. His advisor, George Guins, would plead with him that “the prime aim must be the defeat of the Bolsheviks and only second the putting back together of Russia,” but the admiral would not recognize the logic of such an approach. For Kolchak, Russia could not be saved from the Bolsheviks if it was in pieces, because Russia in pieces was not Russia.

So, both generous and cynical approaches to White politics have elements of truth to them. Over and above such considerations, however, it has to be conceded that—for what they regarded as the purest of motives—the White leaders distained all politics; their contempt for what they, as officers, regarded as an unwholesome and ungentlemanly pursuit was at least honest, if misguided, and was certainly reinforced by the depressing experience of 1917, when all Russia seemed to have turned into a vast, endless, clamorous, and pointless political meeting.

The Whites’ distaste for politics, and especially class-based politics, knitted perfectly with the claim of their Kadet allies to be, as a party, “above class” and “above politics” (although, again, a cynic might point out that the Kadets were calculating here that there was no strong bourgeois class in Russia that might support their liberal platform) and with that party’s historical tendency to place nation above all else. Moreover, the particular circumstances of post–world war Europe at the moment, over the winter of 1918–1919, that the White movement reached maturity, strongly reinforced this predilection. The White leaders were all too well aware that although there were ranks of irreconcilable anti-Bolsheviks in and around the governments in London, Paris, and Washington, there were many Allied politicians who did not fear the Soviet government, or who hoped to use Russia’s discomfort to their own countries’ advantage, or who were genuinely overwhelmed by war-weariness. In these circumstances, the end of the world war might not prove advantageous: consequently, a Kolchak supporter in the Russian Far East, for example, recorded his impressions of the sight of British Tommies celebrating the armistice as “not particularly joyous,” as civil wars waged on in Russia; the admiral’s secretary, the aforementioned Guins, would reflect that the collapse of Germany had been “fatal to the anti-Bolshevik struggle”; and one of his generals would bluntly assert that, from 11 November 1918 onward, “Kolchak had no Allies.” Consequently, if Kolchak and his supporters were to win what they desired above all else—the admittance of Russia to the family of Allied “victor nations,” a seat at the forthcoming peace conference, and the opportunity to ensure that their country was properly rewarded for the very considerable part it had played in the world war—the lesson was clear. A few days after having assumed the mantle of “supreme ruler” in November 1918, Kolchak spelled out that lesson:

The day is dawning when the inexorable course of events will demand victory of us; upon this victory or defeat will depend our life or death, our success or failure, our freedom or ignoble slavery. The hour of the great international peace conference is now near and if, by that hour, we are not victorious then we will lose our right to a vote at the conference of victor nations and our freedom will be decided upon without us.

Kolchak’s calculations were correct. In November–December 1918, nothing was done by the Allies to dissuade Romania from snatching formerly Russian Bessarabia from its German occupiers. Then, at meetings on 12–19 January 1919 in Paris, the Council of Ten decided that no Russian representatives would be afforded a seat among them. Days later, in accordance with a scheme devised by Lloyd George and Robert Borden, the prime minister of Canada, an invitation was sent out by radio (from a transmitter atop the Eiffel Tower) suggesting that all warring parties in “Russia” should meet at a separate peace conference at Prinkipo, off Constantinople, in the Sea of Marmara. When informed of the latter, Kolchak was aghast and spluttered, “Good God! Can you believe it? An invitation to peace with the Bolsheviks!” Had he been told some weeks later, in early March 1919, that a senior American diplomat, William C. Bullitt, was at that moment being entertained in Moscow, was parlaying in a semi-official manner with Lenin, and was offering very generous terms to end the intervention, Kolchak’s language might have been less temperate. Then, in April, news broke of a scheme approved in Paris for supplying food relief and medicine to the peoples of Russia, including those in the Soviet zone. Kolchak’s precise response to news of this initiative of Fridtjof Nansen is unrecorded, but he probably found himself in unusual accord with Trotsky, who, surveying the scene on 13 April 1919, commented, “We have before us a case of betrayal of the minor brigands by the major ones.”

In the light of all this, it seems sensible to conclude that analyses of the Whites’ defeat in the civil wars that focus on their tardy, half-hearted, and haphazard attempts to win political support are—however accurate such a portrayal—ultimately misguided. “All for the Army,” as the mantra went at Omsk, was probably a reasonable response to the circumstances of the time. The price to be paid, however, in terms of popular support and the concomitant ability to absorb and bounce back from military defeats, was revealed in the manner in which all four of the major White fronts disintegrated once their advances had been turned.


Army Group South Ukraine, 19 August-26 September 1944

The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.


By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner’s strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.

The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector—about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu.

Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine’s retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy’s Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.

At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff’s foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu’s position. On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.


The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu. Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler’s circle to confuse Antonescu’s personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents’ rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.

On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter “possible surprises in Rumanian territory.” Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army’s never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160 miles of the army group’s 392-mile-long front.

In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge. The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as “very positive.” Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other “everything possible.” In the transmission, someone had added, “It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out.”

Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner’s instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he “hoped” if events took such a turn to be able “to give the necessary order in time.” The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.

To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer “who would represent the German interest more emphatically.” Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany “through thick and thin” In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine’s expense.


On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third—much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.

Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were “completely confident” (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.

The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.

Two of Armeegruppe Woehler’s Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army’s right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day’s end Friessner realized that the Rumanian’s performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.

The two Ukrainian fronts—Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka—had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.

The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy’s sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.

On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group’s intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.

When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people “forever.”

During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.

In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now “letting himself be guided solely by military considerations” and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.

For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front’s advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.


In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans. But the King’s broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy—Germany—and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.

The contradiction in the King’s statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.

Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the “Putsch,” arrest the King and “the court camarilla,” and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were “no longer available,” to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler’s assignment over to an SS general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.

Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.

Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.

At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.

In the afternoon, on Hitler’s orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also “getting strange reports” from that country.


The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.

On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.

On the 26th Tolbukhin’s troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy’s forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.

The next day Malinovskiy’s spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army’s encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.


During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner’s command.

The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians’ reach.

The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, “The jig will be up out here.”

On 30 August, Malinovskiy’s troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest. In carrying out Stavka’s orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.

When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.

On 5 September Hungarian Second Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy’s command on 6 September.)

During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians’ success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two—long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.


Army Group South, 5-29 October 1944


Hungarian Second Army advanced again on 6 September, but not as fast as it had the day before. Sixth Army, which had taken command of Eighth Army’s right flank corps, reported that the Russians were in the Oitoz Pass and, off the army’s south front, were already through the Predeal Pass and assembling at Brasov. Friessner authorized the army to start back during the night if the pressure became too great. He told Guderian that the Hungarians could not be expected to reach the Turnu Rosu Pass; the Rumanians had asked for Russian help. He had talked to the Hungarians and they were agreed on going back to a shorter line.

The next day the Hungarian offensive came to a standstill. The effect of its first two days’ success could be observed farther south. Soviet Sixth Tank Army, which had been going toward the Iron Gate, had stopped and turned north. One of its mobile corps was crossing the Turnu Rosu Pass, another was heading into the Vulcan Pass. By noon the lead elements were through the Turnu Rosu and in Sibiu, forty miles from the Hungarian front Friessner then decided to stop Hungarian Second Army, take it into a defensive line, and back it up with all the German antitank weapons that could be scraped together. Orders went out to Eighth and Sixth Armies to start withdrawing that night. During the night the Operations Branch, OKH, tried to interpose an order from Hitler forbidding the withdrawal. When the army group answered that it had already begun, the Operations Branch replied that Hitler “had taken notice” of the withdrawal to the first phase line but reserved all subsequent decisions to himself.

Five days earlier Hitler had personally instructed Friessner to get ready to fall back some forty miles farther west than the proposed line on the Muresul River. In the meantime he had changed his mind, because he was determined to hold onto his last legitimate ally, Hungary, and because he was arriving at a new and novel estimate of Soviet strategy.

The first reason was the more immediate. Hungary, never a pillar of strength in the German coalition, had since Rumania capitulated been in a state of acute internal political tension. Horthy had dissolved all political parties and had declared his loyalty to Germany. His first impulse had seemed to be to seize the opportunity to annex the Rumanian parts of Transylvania, to which Hitler was only too happy to agree after Rumania declared war. But by 24 August the internal condition of Hungary appeared so uncertain that the OKW moved two SS divisions in close to the capital to be ready to put down an anti-German coup.

The events of the next few days, however, were at least superficially reassuring. The military in particular, appearing to be loyal to the alliance, set about mobilizing their forces for the war against their ancient enemy Rumania with, under the circumstances, surprising energy. The appointment on 30 August of Col. Gen. Geza Lakatos as Minister President to replace Sztojay, who was sick, and the appointments to his Cabinet preserved the hold inside the Hungarian Government which the Germans had established in the spring.

On the other hand Horthy kept out representatives of the radical rightist, fanatically pro-German Arrow-Cross Party.

The first overt alarm was raised on 7 September when, in a flash of panic touched off by a false report that the Russians were in Arad on the undefended south border 140 miles from Budapest, the Hungarian Crown Council met in secret and later, through the Chief of Staff, presented an ultimatum to the OKH: if Germany did not send five panzer divisions within twenty-four hours Hungary would reserve the right to act as its interests might require. Guderian called it extortion but gave his word to defend Hungary as if it were part of Germany and announced that he would send a panzer corps headquarters and one panzer division. Later he added two panzer brigades and two SS divisions, bringing the total to roughly the five divisions demanded. Because Hungary was in so shaky a condition Hitler refused to sacrifice the Szekler Strip even though Friessner and the German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest assured him that the Hungarians were reconciled to losing the territory.

On 9 September Friessner went to Budapest where he persuaded Horthy to put his agreement to the withdrawal in writing. The impressions he received from talking to Horthy, Lakatos, and the military leaders were so disturbing that he decided to report on them to Hitler in person the next day. At Fuehrer headquarters Friessner learned the second reason why Hitler did not want to give up the Szekler Strip. He had concluded that having broken into the Balkans (Third Ukrainian Front had crossed into Bulgaria on 8 September), the Soviet Union would put its old ambitions—political hegemony in southeastern Europe and control of the Dardenelles—ahead of the drive toward Germany. In doing so, it would infringe on British interests and the war would turn in Germany’s favor because the British would realize they needed Germany as a buffer against the Soviet Union.30 Since the withdrawal had started, he agreed by the end of the interview to let the army group go to the Muresul on the conditions that the line be adjusted to take in the manganese mines at Vatra Dornei and that it be the winter line. He also decided, after hearing Friessner’s report, to “invite” the Hungarian Chief of Staff for a talk the next day.

In Budapest on the 10th Horthy conferred with a select group of prominent politicians, and a day later informed the Cabinet that he was about to ask for an armistice and desired to know which of its members were willing to share the responsibility for that step. The vote went heavily against him—according to the account the Germans received at the time all but one against and, according to his own later statement, three for him. The Cabinet then demanded his resignation. He refused; or, as he put it in his Memoirs, he decided not to dismiss the Cabinet.

Either way, when the Hungarian Chief of Staff went to Fuehrer headquarters on the 12th he went as an ally. The day’s delay had mightily aroused Hitler’s suspicion, and he told the Hungarian military attaché that he had no further confidence in the Hungarian Government. The Chief of Staff’s visit went off, as Antonescu’s had in August, in mutual complaints and recriminations that were finally obscured by a thick fog of more or less empty promises. On his departure Guderian gave him a new Mercedes limousine, which came in handy a few weeks later when he went over to the Russians.


Army Group South Ukraine completed the withdrawal to the Muresul on 15 September. Tolbukhin’s armies were temporarily out of the way in Bulgaria, and Malinovskiy’s advance from the south was developing more slowly than had been expected. His tanks and trucks had taken a mechanical beating on the trip through the passes. On the other hand, a new threat was emerging on the north where Fourth Ukrainian Front on 9 September had begun an attempt to break through First Panzer Army and into the Dukla Pass in the Beskides of eastern Czechoslovakia and toward Uzhgorod. Behind that sector of the front the Germans were at the same time having trouble with an uprising in Slovakia in which the Minister of War and the one-division Slovakian Army had gone over to the partisans.

While Friessner was at Fuehrer headquarters Hitler had instructed him to use offensively the new divisions being sent. He wanted them assembled around Cluj for an attack to the south to smash Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies and retake the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. Friessner issued the directive on 15 September, but the prospects of an early start were not good. Hitler had some of the reinforcements stop at Budapest, in readiness for a political crisis there.

At the front, the Hungarians, who had not done badly against the Rumanians, were disinclined toward becoming earnestly embroiled with the Russians. To give them some stiffening, the Army group merged Hungarian Second Army with Sixth Army to form the Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico under the Commanding General, Sixth Army, Fretter-Pico. On the 17th Fretter-Pico reported that Second Army was in a “catastrophic” state and that one mountain brigade had run away.


At mid-month the Stavka also gave new orders. It directed Tolbukhin, still occupied in Bulgaria, to give Forty-sixth Army to Malinovskiy, and it transferred the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev from First Ukrainian Front. It instructed Malinovskiy to send his main thrust northwest from Cluj toward Debrecen, the Tisza River, and Miskolc, expecting him thereby both to benefit from and assist Fourth Ukrainian Front’s advance toward Uzhgorod. For a week, beginning on 16 September, Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies tried unsuccessfully to take Cluj, which, because of Hitler’s plan, was exactly the place Army Group South Ukraine was most determined to hold.

Friessner was far short of the strength both to fight the battle at Cluj and establish a front west of there. On 20 September a minor Russian onslaught threw back to Arad the Hungarians covering his flank on the west, and the following day they gave up the city without a fight. Thereafter the Hungarian General Staff activated a new army, the Third, composed mostly of recruits and recently recalled reservists, to hold a front on both sides of Arad. Reluctantly, it agreed to put the army under Army Group South Ukraine.

Losing Arad sent another wave of panic through Budapest even though the army group (redesignated Army Group South at midnight on 23 September) was certain that Malinovskiy did not yet have enough strength at Arad to attempt to strike out for Budapest. The German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest reported on the 23d that the Hungarian command had completely lost nerve. It had pulled First Army back to the border, it intended to move two divisions of Second Army west, and it wanted to withdraw Third Army to the Tisza River. The OKH promptly whipped the Hungarians into line and had their orders rescinded. “In view of the Hungarian attitude,” Guderian then sent several strong panzer units to “rest and refit” just outside Budapest.

The Hungarians’ nervousness was premature, but not by much. Malinovskiv was shifting his main force west to the Arad-Oradea area, and Army Group South had too few German troops to keep pace. On the 24th, when Friessner called for reinforcements, the Operations Branch, OKH, replied that it recognized the need the reason the army group had not been given any so far was that Hitler was still convinced the Soviet Union would first attempt to settle affairs in the Balkans on its own terms.

On the 25th elements of Sixth Tank Army, shifted west from Cluj, began closing in on Oradea. Friessner informed Hitler that the next attack would come across the line Szeged-Oradea, either northwest toward Budapest or north along the Tisza to meet Fourth Ukrainian Front’s thrust through the Beskides. He could not stop it without more armor and infantry. Operations Branch, OKH, replied that Hitler intended to assemble a striking force of four panzer divisions around Debrecen for an attack south, but that could not be done before 10 October. Until then Friessner would have to deploy the forces he had in trying to check the Russians in the Szeged-Oradea area.

By the end of the month Hitler had fleshed out his plan for the proposed striking force. The attack would go south past Oradea and then wheel west along the rim of the Transylvanian Alps to trap the Russians north of the mountains. After mopping up, Army Group South could establish an easily defensible winter line in the mountains. For a while it appeared that he might have time enough to put the striking force together. After taking Oradea on 26 September and losing it two days later when the Germans counterattacked, Second Ukrainian Front reverted to aimless skirmishing.

The Stavka was also looking for a quick and sweeping solution. On its orders, Malinovskiy deployed Forty-sixth Army, Fifty-third Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev on a broad front north and south of Arad for a thrust across the Tisza to Budapest. To their right Sixth Tank Army, now a guards tank army, was to strike past Oradea toward Debrecen, the Tisza, and Miskolc, there to meet a Fourth Ukrainian Front spearhead that would come through the Dukla Pass and by way of Uzhgorod. The pincers, when they closed, would trap Army Group South and First Panzer and Hungarian First Armies. Twenty-seventh Army, Rumanian First Army, and Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to attack toward Debrecen from the vicinity of Cluj. Timoshenko co-ordinated for the Stavka.

The plan was ambitious, too ambitious. Men and matériel for an extensive build-up were not to be had at this late stage of the general summer offensive; both fronts were feeling the effects of combat and long marches; and their supply lines were overextended. Because of the difference in gauges, the Rumanian railroads, if anything, were serving the Russians less well than they had the Germans, and Second Ukrainian Front had to rely mainly on motor transport west of the Dnestr. Malinovskiy’s broad-front deployment gave him only about half the ratio of troops to frontage usual for a Soviet offensive. As a prerequisite for the larger operation Fourth Ukrainian Front’s progress through the Dukla Pass was not encouraging; it had been slow from the start and at the end of the month the offensive was almost at a standstill.

After the turn of the month the Soviet attack into the Dukla Pass began to make headway, partly because Hitler had taken out a panzer division there for his striking force, and on 6 October the Russians took the pass. That morning Malinovskiy’s armies attacked. Hungarian Third Army melted away fast. At Oradea, however, Sixth Guards Tank Army met Germans and was stopped.

On the 8th, as his left flank was closing to the Tisza, Malinovskiy turned Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev around and had it strike southeast behind Oradea. That broke the German hold. By nightfall a tank corps and a cavalry corps stood west of Debrecen, and Friessner, over Hitler’s protests, ordered the Armeegruppe Woehler to start back from the Muresul line.

The army group still had one panzer division stationed near Budapest and another, the first of the proposed striking force, at Debrecen. On 10 October the divisions attacked east and west below Debrecen into the flanks of the Soviet spearhead. Late that night their points met. They had cut off three Soviet corps. The army group envisioned “another Cannae,” and Hitler ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to stop on the next phase line.

The next day, when Sixth Guards Tank Army put up a violent fight to get the corps out, who had trapped whom began to become unclear. The flat Hungarian plain became the scene of one of the wildest tank battles of the war. Malinovskiy reined in on his other armies. By the 12th the Russians in the pocket were shaking themselves loose, and Friessner ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to start back again. On the 14th the Russians were clearing the pocket, and Army Group South began concentrating on getting a front strong enough to keep them from going north once more. In the Beskides Fourth Ukrainian Front was moving slowly again south of the Dukla Pass and trying to get through some of the smaller passes farther east.


During the battle at Debrecen the Germans were aware that they were, as someone in OKH put it, “dancing on a volcano.” They sensed that in Budapest a break might come any day, almost any hour. Their suspicion was well founded. In late September Horthy had sent representatives to Moscow to negotiate an armistice, and on 11 October they had a draft agreement completed and initialed without a fixed date. To be ready for any sudden moves, Hitler had sent in two “specialists,” SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS Col. Otto Skorzeny. Von dem Bach had long experience in handling uprisings, most recently at Warsaw. Skorzeny commanded the daredevil outfit that had rescued Mussolini.

The crisis in Hungary resolved itself less violently than the Germans expected. As Hungarian head of state for a generation, Horthy had accumulated tremendous personal prestige, but his authority had declined, and his political position was badly undermined. In the Parliament during the first week of October the parties of the right formed a prowar, pro-German majority coalition against him. The Army was split; some of the generals and many of the senior staff officers wanted to keep on fighting. On 8 October the Gestapo arrested the Budapest garrison commander, one of Horthy’s most faithful and potentially most effective supporters, and, on the 15th, it arrested Horthy’s son, who had played a leading role in the attempt to get an armistice.

The Soviet Union demanded that Hungary accept the armistice terms by 16 October. In the afternoon of the 15th Radio Budapest broadcast Horthy’s announcement that he had accepted. By then he was acting alone. The Lakatos Cabinet had resigned on the grounds that it could not approve an armistice and Parliament had not been consulted on the negotiations.

The next morning, to the accompaniment of scattered shooting, the Germans took the royal palace and persuaded Horthy to “request” asylum in Germany. In his last official act, under German “protection,” Horthy appointed Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow-Cross Party, as his successor. Szalasi, whose chief claim to distinction until then had been his incoherence both in speech and in writing, subsequently had himself named “Nador” (leader), with all the rights and duties of the Prince Regent.

On 17 October Guderian, in an order declaring the political battle in Hungary won, announced that the next step would be to bring all of the German and Hungarian strength to bear at the front. How that was to be accomplished he did not say. In terms of the military situation the victory was one only by comparison with the immediate, total dissolution that would have come if Horthy’s attempt to get an armistice had succeeded. Morale in the Hungarian Army hit bottom. Some officers, including the Chief of Staff, some whole units, and many individuals deserted to the Russians, who encouraged others to do the same by letting the men return home if they lived in the areas under Soviet control.


On the night of 16 October Hitler ordered Army Group South to see the battle through at Debrecen but also to start taking Armeegruppe Woehler back toward the Tisza. Meanwhile, Malinovskiy had reassembled his armor, the two cavalry-mechanized groups and Sixth Guards Tank Army, south of Debrecen. On the 10th the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev broke through past Debrecen, and two days later it took Nyiregyhaza, astride Armeegruppe Woehler’s main line of communications.

The Armeegruppe, which had also taken command of Hungarian First Army, its neighbor on the left, held a bow-shaped line that at its center was eighty miles east of Nyiregyhaza. Friessner’s first thought was to pull the Armeegruppe north and west to skirt Nyiregyhaza. His chief of staff persuaded him to try a more daring maneuver, namely, to have Woehler’s right flank do an about-face and push due west between Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza while Sixth Army’s panzer divisions, in the corner between Nyiregyhaza and the Tisza, struck eastward into the Russian flank.

The maneuver worked with the flair and precision of the blitzkrieg days. On the 23rd the two forces met and cut off three Soviet corps at Nyiregyhaza. Before Russians could break loose, almost the whole Armeegruppe Woehler bore down on them from the east. In three days the Germans retook Nyiregyhaza. On the 29th the survivors in the pocket abandoned their tanks, vehicles, and heavy weapons and fled to the south.

On that day, too, for the first time in two months, Army Group South had a continuous front. On the north it bent east of the Tisza around Nyiregyhaza and then followed the middle Tisza to below Szolnok, where it angled away from the river past Kecskemet to the Danube near Mohacs and tied in with Army Group F at the mouth of the Drava. But it was not a front that could stand long. The Tisza, flowing through flat country, afforded no defensive advantages—the Russians had easily driven Hungarian Third Army out of better positions than those it held on the open plain between the Tisza and the Danube.

Fortress Berlin I

Last Defence before Berlin

By early April the situation for Army Group North, now renamed Army of East Prussia, deteriorated further. Its forces were now hemmed in around the Bay of Danzig from Samland and Konigsberg to the mouth of the Vistula. The remnants of two corps were given the task of holding positions north of Gotenhafen on the Hel peninsula. Hitler demanded that it be held and all costs. He instructed all forces in the Army of East Prussia and Army Group Kurland, to stay in the front, and then hold in order to draw the maximum enemy forces toward itself and hopefully away from the main Soviet drive on Berlin.

In the first two weeks of April as German forces tried to maintain their unstable position in the north the Red Army pulled together its forces into three powerful fronts with the main front being directed against Berlin. In the north the 2nd Belorussian Front was to cross the Oder north of Schwedt and strike toward Neustrelitz. Its thrust was intended to drive out the defending 3rd Panzer Army back against the coast and cover the advance toward Berlin on the north. German forces, however, were determined to try and hold their positions for as long as possible and prevent the Russians from taking possession of German territory. But in spite of dogged resistance in many places the Germans no longer had the man power, war plant or transportation to defend their positions effectively. The 3rd Panzer Army had 11 remaining divisions, whilst the 2nd Belorussian Front had 8 armies totalling 33 rifle divisions, 4 tank and mechanized corps, and 3 artillery divisions plus a mixture of artillery and rocket launcher brigades and regiments. The Germans were dwarfed by enemy superiority but continued to fight from one fixed position to another.

By mid-April the 2nd Belorussian Front had successfully pushed back the 3rd Panzer Army and had taken a bridgehead ten miles long above the city of Stettin. Inside Stettin the city had been turned into a fortress and was being defended by ‘Fortress Division Stettin’. It was formed out of parts of the 3rd Panzer Army, and during its defensive battle it put up a staunch defence.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front the Germans were trying their utmost to hold back the Russian drive. By April 1945 the atmosphere among the troops of Army Group Vistula became a mixture of terrible foreboding and despair as the Russians prepared to push forward on the River Oder. Here along the Oder and Neisse fronts the troops waited for the front to become engulfed by the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed by the Russians. General Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and General Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front were preparing to attack German forces defending positions east of Berlin. For the attack the Red Army mustered some 2.5 million men, divided into four armies. They were supported by 41,600 guns and heavy mortars as well as 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns.

At dawn on 16 April 1945, just thirty-eight miles east of the German capital above the swollen River Oder, red flares burst into the night sky, triggering a massive artillery barrage. For nearly an hour, an eruption of flame and smoke burst along the German front. Then, in the mud, smoke, and darkness, the avalanche broke. In an instant, General Zhukov’s soldiers were compelled to stumble forward into action. As they surged forward, the artillery barrage remained in front of them, covering the area ahead.

Under the cover of darkness on the night of 15th, most German forward units had been moved back to a second line just before the expected Russian artillery barrage. In this second line, as the first rays of light prevailed across the front, soldiers waited for the advancing Russians. Along the entire front the 3rd and 9th Armies had fewer than 700 tanks and selfpropelled guns. The largest division, the 25th Panzer, had just 79 such vehicles: the smallest unit had just two. Artillery too was equally spurse with only 744 guns. Ammunition and fuel were in a critical state of supply and reserves in some units were almost non-existent. Opposing the main Russian assault stood the 56th Panzer Corps. It was under the command of General Karl Weidling, known to his friends as ‘smasher Karl’. Weidling had been given the awesome task of preventing the main Russian breakthrough in the area.

When the Soviet forces finally attacked during the early morning of 16 April, the Germans were ready to meet them on the Seelow Heights. From the top of the ridge, hundreds of German flak guns that had been hastily transferred from the Western Front poured a hurricane of fire into the enemy troops. All morning, shells and gunfire rained down on the Red Army, blunting their assault. By dusk the Russians, savagely mauled by the attack, fell back. It seemed the Red Army had underestimated the strength and determination of their enemy.

By the next day, the Russians had still not breached the German defences. But General Zhukov, with total disregard for casualties, was determined to batter the enemy into submission and ruthlessly bulldoze his way through. Slowly and systematically the Red Army began smashing through their opponents. Within hours hard-pressed and exhausted German troops were feeling the full brunt of the assault. Confusion soon swept the decimated lines. Soldiers who had fought doggedly from one fixed position to another were now seized with panic. The Battle for Berlin had now begun.

Fortress Berlin – Encirclement

On Monday, 23 April in the weakly beating heart of Nazi Germany the less-important courtiers of Hitler’s regime were taking their leave. As some left, others moved in, among them were Magda Goebbels and her six children. Outside the Fuhrer bunker, across the bomb- and shell-ravaged city, Berliners waited for the battle to begin on their doorsteps.

Having fallen back on Berlin, General Helmut Weidling, commanding LVI Panzer Corps, although under sentence of death, arrived at the Fuhrer bunker to find that he was now commander of the capital’s defenders. His own corps consisted of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions, the Muncheberg Panzer Division, the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and fragments of 9th Parachute Division. All were now at a tithe of their titular strength, therefore Weidling told off all bar 18th Panzergrenadier Division, which constituted his reserve, to strengthen the eight defence sectors. The force available to Weidling numbered approximately 45,000 army and SS men and 40,000 Volkssturm with roughly 60 tanks. It was anticipated that stragglers and more cohesive groups would swell the numbers over the next few days.

However, according to NKVD General I. A. Serov’s report on the condition of the city’s defences there was little for Weidling’s men to stand behind: ‘No serious permanent defences have been found inside the 10–15km zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.’ Further comments included intelligence gained from Volkssturm POWs who told how few regular troops were in Berlin, how short of arms and equipment they were and how unwilling the Volkssturm was to fight.

Unaware of this report, troops of First Belorussian Front began to move cautiously into suburban Berlin from the north, the east and the south-east. The main thrust was an attack by Fifth Shock, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies. Several units of Eighth Guards crossed the Spree and Dahme rivers in the direction of the suburb of Britz, on the Teltow canal. To their right, Fifth Shock, with the support of gunboats of the Dnieper Flotilla, also crossed the Spree.

Further west along the banks of the Teltow canal Konev’s Third Guards Tank Army, supported by a colossal concentration of artillery, prepared to launch itself across this vital water barrier. Opposing them were numerous Volkssturm battalions braced with elements of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions.

The Nordland Division, falling back in the face of Zhukov’s Guards infantry and tanks, took the opportunity to refuel its armour at Tempelhof airfield. Any possible repairs were made, and they even received armoured reinforcements. However, the bulk of the fighting rested on the weary shoulders of the infantry, and on 24 April they were launched in a series of counterattacks to push the Soviets back across the Spree river. As Weidling’s counterattacks began, so did Konev’s canal crossing. Soviet artillery and mortars began firing at 06.20 hrs, and 40 minutes later the first footholds had been established. Fighting desperately, the Panzergrenadiers and Volkssturm were unable to hold the line and by midday T-34s began to cross the newly erected pontoon bridges.

To the east Zhukov’s troops held their ground and then counterattacked so successfully in their turn that they overran Treptow Park and reached the line of the S-Bahn railway, where they halted to regroup and bring up supplies.

Third Shock Army, approaching the outskirts of Berlin from the north-east, made steady progress passing through the infamously communist district of Wedding to reach the Schiffahrts canal.

Surrounded though Berlin was to the north-west and the west, the Soviet ring was as yet fairly porous as a group of French Waffen SS men found out as they made their way from the north, passing on the way thousands of refugees, Wehrmacht stragglers and escaping foreign workers. The French were subordinated to the Nordland Division just at the time it was retiring to defend Tempelhof airfield alongside the few tanks and men of the Muncheberg Panzer Division. This latter formation was a remarkable unit, having been formed less than two months previously around a cadre of men and machines from the Kummersdorf equipment-testing facility. Its armoured component included examples of nearly every tank and armoured fighting vehicle ever produced, including one-off experimental types. Even after the losses it had suffered at Seelow Heights and during the retreat into the city the Muncheberg Division could still pack a punch. But even this armoured miscellany could not hold Tempelhof indefinitely. LVI Panzer began to withdraw towards the city centre during the afternoon of 25 April. An officer of the Muncheberg Division described ‘incessant Russian artillery fire…despite strong artillery fire the civilians population tried to escape’ but more ominously the wounded soldiers were ‘left where they were for fear of running into the hands of the mobile courts.’ In the hell that Berlin was becoming, drumhead courts martial roamed the streets rounding up apparent deserters and hanging them from any convenient tree or lamppost with a sign describing them variously as ‘traitors to the Reich’, ‘cowards’ or any other suitable insulting epithet. The officer continued describing the cries of women and children, the whistles of Stalin Organs and the smell of death and explosives mixed with chlorine. His last words were ‘The fight continues tenaciously.’

With Zhukov’s forces heavily engaged around Tempelhof and the Hohenzollern–Schiffahrts canal and the Fifth Shock Army moving into the Freidrichshain district on the eastern edge of the city, First Ukrainian Front had split the defences on the Teltow canal forcing 20th Panzergrenadier Division onto Wannsee Island as its left flank pushed through the Grunwald forest towards Charlottenburg and the centre advanced driving the Volkssturm and 18th Panzergrenadier Division back towards the city centre.

Now, almost everywhere the fighting was taking place in densely built-up areas which neither the Soviets nor the Germans had experienced so seriously since Stalingrad 30 months before. Bombing and shelling had destroyed many buildings creating ready-made fortresses in which defenders could take cover and from which they could launch tip-and-run ambushes. Trams, shattered vehicles, rubble and all manner of everything to hand was pressed into the creation of barricades to block roads and junctions. Where possible, slit trenches and machine-gun or Panzerfaust pits were dug. Railway tunnels were demolished and the guns of the three immensely strong Flak towers were turned to face the approaching Soviet armour.

In the cellars of buildings German troops waited with Panzerfausts, and suddenly Soviet tank and infantry losses began to rise dramatically. Countermeasures were drawn from Chuikov’s notes made during the Stalingrad campaign with updates from his recent experience of urban warfare in Poznan, and the small infantry assault group made its return.

But outside the city events were shaping somewhat differently, and in Hitler’s bunker the last politicking of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ continued at fever pitch.

Fortress Berlin – Fantasy Armies

So far the advance into Berlin was proceeding well but German Ninth and Twelfth armies were beginning to fight back and pose problems for Konev’s rear to east and west. Moscow had been lax in dealing with these formations as its focus was the battle for Berlin. However, when it came, the reaction was swift. General Busse’s Ninth Army included men from XI SS Panzer Corps and V SS Mountain Corps as well as survivors of the Frankfurt garrison and V Corps, in all, upwards of 80,000 troops. The number of civilians who had attached themselves to Ninth Army was not recorded. However, Busse still had 31 tanks fuelled from abandoned vehicles. Ninth Army had been in contact with Wenck’s Twelfth Army on the Elbe river. On 22 April Hitler had agreed to General Field Marshal Jodl’s suggestion that Twelfth Army should be rotated eastwards from its position opposite the Americans on the Elbe and set out to rescue Berlin. Ordering General Field Marshal Keitel to ‘co-ordinate the actions of Twelfth and Ninth armies’, Hitler packed him off with brandy, sandwiches and chocolate for the journey to Wenck’s HQ. Back in the Spree forest Busse was heavily engaged fighting off units of First Belorussian Front. Keitel reached Wenck on 23 April and delivered the order to save the capital. Hitler so lacked trust in his senior officers that he demanded that the order to save Berlin be broadcast on the national radio channel. When Keitel departed, Wenck and his staff planned their move. Part of Twelfth Army would march to Potsdam at the extreme western edge of Berlin while the greater part would head east to link up with Ninth Army. The objective was simple – to save as many soldiers and civilians as possible from the Soviet advance and then fall back to the west, where a screening force was to remain on the Elbe. When the men of the Twelfth Army were informed of this operation there appears to have been little dissent. For the people of Berlin, Wenck’s arrival could not come too soon, as it was about their only hope of deliverance from the Soviets, other than the arrival of the Anglo–Americans. Indeed, so wrapped up in the fantasy was Hitler that he informed Weidling on 25 April that Ninth and Twelfth armies would ‘deliver a crushing blow to the enemy’. Just what sort of blow could be delivered by two small, understrength forces that lacked fuel, armour, men and munitions was not detailed.

Wenck’s XX Corps, composed of four inexperienced, newly raised infantry divisions, set off eastwards on 24 April. One of its units, the Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division, headed for Potsdam, and the others for Ninth Army.

The route that both Ninth and Twelfth armies were to follow led through forests, the most dangerous points of which were the crossing of open spaces, notably the roads that ran across their path. Busse’s force began its exodus on 25 April, ignoring all signals from Berlin. However, behind Ninth Army’s rearguard followed Zhukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps and elements of Thirty-Third and Sixty-Ninth armies. Konev contributed Third Guards and Twenty-Eighth armies. It was a gap between these two armies that Ninth Army broke through on 26 April after bitter fighting. For the next five days Ninth Army fought its way through three lines of extemporised Soviet defence. Finally, on 1 May, Busse’s advance guard linked up with Twelfth Army at the village of Beelitz. Behind them came the rest, moving, as Busse described it, ‘like a caterpillar’. Roughly 25,000 soldiers had escaped, along with uncounted civilians.

Although Konev had had to switch his focus to his rear flanks the effect on the Berlin operation had not been critical.

Tactically the Soviet style had altered. Tanks no longer drove in column down the centre of a road but operated in pairs, one on each side of the road, giving cover to each other from Panzerfaust-wielding ambushers in the cellars and basements, or Molotov cocktails dropped from windows and rooftops. Supporting infantry operated in assault groups of between six and eight, armed with close-order weapons such as submachine-guns, grenades, knives and sharpened shovels. Artillery of all calibres was deployed to clear away barricades and stubborn pockets of resistance. And everywhere were flamethrowers and engineers with demolition charges for ‘bunker busting’.

Late on 26 April, Tempelhof airfield was abandoned as the Muncheberg and Nordland divisions’ remaining armour was ordered back to the Tiergarten. With room to manoeuvre, Chuikov projected his left flank across Konev’s right, cutting First Ukrainian Front off from the Reichstag and glory. As the fighting began to close in on the central defensive area, the Citadel, German reinforcements arrived in the shape of some Kriegsmarine personnel and Latvian SS men.

Elsewhere, Spandau Prison, on the Havel river to the north-west was taken and Gatow airfield came under ground-attack. Along the Landwehr canal, Fifth Shock Army was making progress onto the Wilhelmstrasse while Third Shock Army crossed the Westhafen canal. Pushing on throughout 27 April, the Soviets reduced the German defence area to a zone 5km by 15km, which roughly ran from the Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the Reichssportsfeld in the west.

News, inside this enclave and outside, as Soviet control of many areas was incomplete despite their best efforts, was at a premium as the radio service had virtually ceased to function, therefore one of the major sources was the tabloid Der Panzerbar – The Armoured Bear, referencing Berlin’s symbolic animal, the bear. Der Panzerbar’s headline for 26 April ran, ‘The battle has reached its climax, German reserves are rushing to Berlin.’ Lower down the page, a box read: ‘Whoever shows cowardice over fighting like a man…is nothing but a low-down bastard.’ The same day an attempt was made to relieve 20th Panzergrenadier Division but failed.

In some areas the defenders established in strongly built structures held out. On Third Shock Army’s front the Stettiner Railway Station posed particular problems, as did the Schleisischer Railway Station and the Lowen Brewery for Fifth Shock Army. In these cases the Germans enjoyed the fire support of the two massive flak towers at Humboldthain and Friedrichshain respectively.