How the Soviet Union prepared for World War II




The USSR was convinced that military confrontation with Nazi Germany was unavoidable. But it did everything possible to delay it.

Practically from the moment it was founded, the Soviet Union began to prepare for the new world war that the country’s leadership believed was inevitable. A major confrontation with the capitalist West promised to be brutal, bloody and uncompromising.

Under Soviet military doctrine, the Red Army was to withstand an initial enemy attack, defeat the enemy in border battles, launch a large-scale counter-offensive and achieve decisive victory, thereby safeguarding "the peaceful labor of the great family of the multi-ethnic nation".

Red Army carries out military exercise.

Red Army carries out military exercise.

Alexander Ustinov/russiainphoto.ru

"The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will respond to any enemy attack with a crushing blow using the entire might of its Armed Forces..." stated the 1939 Field Manual of the RKKA (’Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army’). "If the enemy foists war on us, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army will be the most attacking army of all the armies that have ever attacked. We will wage war offensively, taking it to the enemy’s territory. The Red Army’s military operations will be targeted at annihilation, aiming to totally destroy the enemy."

Cadres are everything

For a country that had lived through a devastating Civil War and foreign intervention, modernization of its Armed Forces was an extremely important, but very difficult task. Reform and a rearmament of the army on a large scale was in large measure made possible by the industrialization that the USSR launched in 1929.

Soviet troops carry out military exercise.

Soviet troops carry out military exercise.

Andrey Malygin’s archive/russiainphoto.ru

Because of economic problems, for a long time, the Red Army was organized according to the territorial militia principle of recruitment: Those eligible for military service underwent a short period of military training near their places of permanent residence, while the number of regular servicemen (mainly command personnel) was minimal. In the second half of the 1930s, the army was moved to a full-time regular footing, which was conclusively enshrined in the Law on Universal Military Service in 1939.

The Red Army, which numbered 1.9 million on the eve of World War II, had grown to five million by the time of the Wehmarcht’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The process of establishment of new units and formations was well under way. Thus, the number of divisions alone increased from 98 to 303. Such a rapid growth could not but lead to organizational problems, a shortage of command personnel and a deterioration of their quality.

Military parade on Red Square.

Military parade on Red Square.

Emmanuil Evzirikhin/МАММ/МDf/russiainphoto.ru

The mass purges of 1937-1938, which affected tens of thousands of people to one degree or another, also dealt an extremely painful blow to the command personnel of the Red Army. Only two of the first five Marshals of the Soviet Union were still alive by the Spring of 1939.

The consequences of the ‘Great Terror’ clearly manifested themselves during the 1939-1940 Winter War against Finland, which was extremely difficult for the Soviet troops. After its conclusion, the leadership of the Armed Forces underwent a major reshuffle and many commanders who had been prosecuted for political reasons, including the future Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, returned from prison and rejoined the troops.

’The armor is strong and our tanks are fast’

Military parade on Red Square marking the 20th anniversary of Great October Revolution, 1937.

Military parade on Red Square marking the 20th anniversary of Great October Revolution, 1937.

The State Museum of Political History of Russia

In the years leading up to the war, the supply of hardware to the Red Army proceeded at a blistering pace. Between 1939 and 1941, the number of tanks in the Red Army increased from 10,000 to 25,000 (including training models), combat aircraft from 5,000 to 14,000 and field artillery from 34,000 to 91,000 guns.

Among the newest weapons being supplied to the armed forces were the Tokarev self-loading rifle (SVT-40), the Shpagin machine pistol, the 76-mm divisional field gun, the 122-mm howitzer, the 85-mm air defense gun, the T-34 medium tank, the KV-2 heavy tank, the Yak-1 and MiG-3 fighter planes, the Il-2 ground-attack plane and also the Pe-2 dive bomber.

Soviet tanks on the way to the front.

Soviet tanks on the way to the front.

Arkady Shaikhet/russiainphoto.ru

By the Summer of 1941, however, the percentage of modern hardware in the armed forces was still very low, while even older models were sometimes in short supply, too. "During the march, I observed despairingly our antiquated T-26, BT-5 and rare BT-7 tanks, realizing they would not be able to endure extended combat. And that’s without noting that we had no more than one-third of the establishment level of even these tanks," recalled Konstantin Rokossovsky, who commanded the 9th Mechanized Corps in the first days of ‘Operation Barbarossa’.

Up to 40 percent of the military budget was being spent on the development of the Soviet air force in 1940. MiG-3 and LaGG-3 fighter planes, which, in terms of performance characteristics, were capable of holding their own against their Luftwaffe counterparts, were already in service by the start of the conflict. But their production was only just getting under way in 1941 and the vast majority of fighter planes were still the old models.

Military aircraft inspection.

Military aircraft inspection.

Evgeny Khaldey/МАММ/МDF/russiainphoto.ru

The military conflicts against the Japanese and the Finns in the late 1930s, from which the military leadership drew the appropriate conclusions, played an important part in raising the country’s defense capabilities. Thus, inter alia, after the conclusion of the Winter War, the USSR boosted production of mortars and submachine guns many times over, their role having previously been undervalued.

The ‘Stalin Line’

The plan was for the multimillion-strong and well armed Red Army to meet and smash the enemy on prepared defensive positions along the Soviet border. Construction of a network of fortified districts in Byelorussia, Ukraine, the Pskov Region and in Karelia began in 1928. These districts would be known subsequently as the ‘Stalin Line’.

Fortified district of the ‘Stalin Line’.

Fortified district of the ‘Stalin Line’.

Bundesarchiv

Each fortified district consisted of a system of interconnected strongpoints located in the path of an expected enemy offensive. The units deployed in defensive positions here had machine guns and anti-tank and caponier artillery at their disposal.

The 1,835-km long ‘Stalin Line’ was twice the length of the Maginot Line, but was noticeably inferior to it, in terms of the number of combat structures. Because of the large distances, the fortified districts had almost no possibility of coordinating their actions with one another.

After the USSR’s absorption of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia in 1939 and then the Baltic states in 1940, the Soviet border was moved hundreds of kilometers to the west. Construction of the ‘Stalin Line’ was suspended and the defensive structures were mothballed.

German soldiers standing at the entrance of a bunker on the ‘Stalin Line’ destroyed with explosive charges, July 1941.

German soldiers standing at the entrance of a bunker on the ‘Stalin Line’ destroyed with explosive charges, July 1941.

Mondadori/Getty Images

Construction of fortified districts began on the new border, but, by the start of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, they had been 20 percent completed at best and could do nothing to hinder the enemy’s advance.

At the same time, the "veteran" defenses, which were hastily brought back to life, did, one way or another, manage to show their worth. Even if the tenacious defense put up by the soldiers of the Red Army in the fortified districts of the ‘Stalin Line’ only succeeded in holding up the Germans for a few days, this frequently gave their comrades precious time to withdraw and avoid being surrounded.

The Sebezh fortified district held out for a full 10 days and the enemy only managed to take it by assailing it from the rear. The Karelian fortified zone, in turn, remained one of the key points in the defense of Leningrad until the blockade was lifted in 1944. It was where the Finnish army which had advanced on the city from the north was stopped.

Winning time

Burining Soviet T-26 tank.

Burining Soviet T-26 tank.

Archive photo

Despite the Soviet Union’s accelerated preparations for war against Nazi Germany, in the inevitability of which no-one had any doubt, a plethora of problems remained unresolved by the time it broke out.

Surpassing the Wehrmacht in tank and plane numbers, the Red Army really did look impressive, but, at the same time, many formations proved under-equipped in these categories of hardware. They also lacked haulage and transport equipment and this significantly reduced their mobility.

By the start of the war, quite a number of subdivisions had not undergone appropriate military training, had not rehearsed operational coordination and were experiencing a severe shortage of junior command personnel — the military schools simply could not turn them out at the required rate for the rapidly expanding army. On top of this, there were catastrophic problems with the availability of radio communications in the units, and poor organization of the work of HQs and the command and control of troops.

Destroyed Soviet ХТ-130 flamethrower tank and T-34 tank, June 1941.

Destroyed Soviet ХТ-130 flamethrower tank and T-34 tank, June 1941.

Archive photo

The Soviet leadership was by and large aware of the day-to-day problems and strove to push back the start of the conflict by at least a year. Border guards and servicemen of units deployed on the border were ordered at all costs "not to yield to provocations".

In a conversation with the deputy people’s commissar for defense, Kirill Meretskov, in February 1941, Stalin remarked: "We won’t, of course, succeed in staying out of the war until 1943. We’ll be drawn into it, whether we like it or not. But, it can’t be ruled out that we’ll stay out of the war until 1942."

Many of the programs for the reorganization and rearmament of the ground troops, air force and navy were slated for completion in 1942 and, in the Summer of 1941, these programs were in full swing. The USSR was in great need of a delay, but, in the end, it was not destined to get it.

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