Red Army Wartime Leadership

Published: 2005-09-01

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Vladimir Beshanov, Tankovyy pogrom 1941 goda (Tank Debacle of 1941); Series: Military History Library, ACT Publisher, Moscow, 2000, 528 pp

Vladimir Beshanov. God 1942 – “Uchebnyy” (1942 Year of Learning), Series: Military History Library, Harvest Publisher, 2002, 624 pp

Vladimir Beshanov. Desyat’ stalinskikh udarov (Ten Stalinist Blows), Series: Military History Library, Harvest Publisher, 2004, 768 pp.

In a series of three interlocked books on the performance of the Red Army Stavka and officers corps during World War II, military historian Vladimir Beshanov[1] attempts to answer the question of why the Red Army suffered such terrible losses despite the fact that it entered the war with the most powerful armed forces in the world at the time, bar none. The leitmotiv resounding through the three books is that literally millions of Russians were sent to their slaughter because of incompetent political and military leaders.


“Never, not before the war nor during it, was the Red Army so well equipped, armed, and supplied with war materiel as it was in the early summer of 1941. The Soviet Armed Forces constituted the most powerful army in the world armed, as it was, with a whole series of unique weapon systems.”

Despite the overwhelming numbers of Soviet tanks, field guns, and aircraft on the eve of battle, many of which were even of superior quality to their German counterparts, Soviet losses were catastrophic in the first year of the war and remained inexplicably high throughout the entire war to the very last battle of Berlin. According to Beshanov, Soviet casualties in the first year alone numbered eight million (of which almost four million were POWs). In the same period, the Germans suffered 831,000 casualties. In the first eight days of the war the Germans destroyed six Soviet armies. In those eight days the Soviet Southwest Front alone lost 2,648 tanks or 12% of the entire Soviet tank force.

Of the 25,000 Soviet tanks in combat readiness on June 22, 1941, only 1,731 still remained operable by December. In the next six months, the Germans destroyed another 4,742 Soviet tanks, bringing the total number knocked out to 28,000. Although 3,730 German tanks, almost their entire original inventory, were also put out of commission in the same period, Beshanov notes that most of the German tanks were repaired and returned to the front to fight again. According to Beshanov’s calculations, German tanks went into action on average eleven times, while Soviet tanks were returned to action only three times.

About the same loss ratio existed with respect to aircraft. By August 10, 1941, the Germans had destroyed 10,000 Soviet aircraft in the border districts alone, while losing 4,643 of their own aircraft. Throughout 1941 German flyers destroyed an average of 200 Soviet aircraft each day; the Iron Cross was only awarded after a Luftwaffe flyer had accounted for 75 Soviet aircraft. In the course of the war, Beshanov estimates, 300 German aviators – each averaging 80 Soviet aircraft – shot down 24,000 out of some 45,000 Soviet aircraft destroyed.

Despite Soviet quantitative and qualitative superiority, the Wehrmacht controlled the battlefield and the Luftwaffe controlled the skies until late 1943. It is generally accepted in military circles that attacking forces should have a 3:1 superiority in men and equipment to ensure success. In the case of the German attack of June 22, 1941 and in subsequent battles until the end of the war, Russian “defending” forces usually had a superiority in forces of 3, 4, and even 5 times over the invaders. Paradoxically, the greater the Red Army’s quantitative superiority in men and materiel, the greater was its losses.

Of course Beshanov recognizes the advantages gained by the Germans by striking first. But since the Soviet Union itself was in the process of launching its own surprise attack, the question of guilt becomes moot. What concerns Beshanov most, however, is the criminally incompetent leadership of the Stavka and the Soviet officers corps who were being constantly outsmarted by their German counterparts. The failure to foresee the German attack on June 22, 1941, Beshanov argues, was simply the first of a series of strategic and tactical miscalculations inflicted on the Russian soldiers by their “superior” officers.

As is well known, two major schools of thought pertaining to the background causes, prelude to and outbreak of the Russo-German war have existed since June 1941. The first school, which originated on the day of the German attack and which is adhered to today mostly by U.S. and U.K historians–representatives of the nations that were the Soviet Union’s most important allies in the war–holds that the Soviet Union was woefully unprepared when the madman, Hitler, without provocation or reason, hurled his armies against the peace-loving Soviet people. Even Stalin, who in the minds of the Western media and Kremlinologists had placed his trust in the German leader not to attack, was betrayed by the perfidy. The second school of thought, advanced by German and Russian historians–representatives of the peoples who actually fought the war–recognize and admit that both sides were prepared for a confrontation. Like two cats sitting on a fence, each waited for the opportune moment to jump off. The German cat jumped first.

Beshanov agrees with Suvorov entirely that the Soviet Armed Forces had no plans and made no preparations whatsoever for conducting defensive warfare – neither with respect to large-scale troop and airfield deployment, types of weapons systems, the construction of defensive strong points or lines, nor even to the simple matter of providing the troops with shovels to dig dugouts or trenches. Once caught off balance by the German first strike and then kept off balance by successive German encirclements and advances, Soviet forces were never able to mount a set piece counterattack. Moreover, their ill-prepared and foredoomed counterattacks, Beshanov insists, only exacerbated the situation by wasting more lives and equipment.

For example, Beshanov cites Marshal of the Tank Forces Pavel Rotmistrov who wrote in his memoirs:

“The mechanized corps of the South-West Front went into battle after 200-400-km marches in which enemy aircraft dominated the skies. These corps were committed to battle on the run without proper organization of the offensive and without reconnoitering the enemy or the locale. There was no air and artillery support. Consequently, the enemy could repulse our attacks one after the other simply by maneuvering part of their forces while at the same time continuing to advance in unprotected directions.”

In 1942 the Germans, after being stopped at the gates of Moscow, were able to advance to the banks of the Volga River further south – to Stalingrad. According to Beshanov, the Stavka had again mistakenly expected the Germans to renew their assault on Moscow and thus were not prepared for the thrust toward Stalingrad.

Whereas Suvorov and others in his school have emphasized Soviet WWII strategy as spelt out in contingency war plans concocted at the highest levels (Fronts, armies) and as presented by Stalin and his top generals, Beshanov expands this theme by reaching down to the tactical level (divisions, brigades, corps) and analyzing the performance, morale, leadership, and troop deployments of lower echelon Soviet units. Beshanov also modifies Suvorov’s main contention that Soviet forces were already in an offensive deployment when the Germans attacked. Instead, he posits that the Red Army was still only in the process of assuming its planned offensive deployment when surprised by the Germans.

In yet another departure from Suvorov’s approach, which concentrated on the manner and attitude with which the Stavka and political commissars dealt with the Red Army (top to bottom), Beshanov examines the morale of the troops and their feelings toward their Communist leadership (bottom to top). Millions of Red Army men were former peasants who remembered the collectivization and famine in the mid 1930s. All knew of the Gulag, the excesses of the NKVD, the murder of the Russian clergy, the privileges of Party members, and all had experienced the arrogance of the political commissars. Moreover, the Red Army men were also aware that their offensive deployment was actually taking place on Western lands, not from Russia itself, acquired through the Hitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact. In an attempt to improve troop morale, Stalin was forced to fall back on Russian patriotism and put Communist ideology on the back burner as the war progressed.

With respect to deficiencies in the Red Army command staff and officer training, Beshanov cites chapter and verse. In general, Soviet officers lacked sufficient education and training to make intelligent tactical decisions. Beshanov cites German military writer Frederick von Mellenthin who observed:

“They (the Russians) would advance to take a certain hill, fight with the greatest tenacity to take it, only to find the hill had no tactical importance at all. It would happen repeatedly that Soviet forces would suffer great casualties to take a hill without realizing that it had no tactical value.”

By contrast, forced to operate with limited forces (economy of force), German strategy concentrated and employed their forces only in decisive battles (Entscheidungsschlachten), avoiding senseless waste. Men and materiel had – of necessity – to be husbanded. By employing superior battlefield skills, flexibility, surprise and daring, concentration of effort, and mission-oriented leadership, the German forces, Beshanov notes, were able to hold the initiative during the first two years of the war. Only by late 1943 did the Soviets seize the strategic initiative – but at terrible cost.

Nor would the number of Soviet officers in a particular engagement enhance the quality of troop performance. Typically, the Wehrmacht has one officer for twenty-nine enlisted men; the Red Army had one officer for every six enlisted men. Unlike the Wehrmacht where an NCO could, if required, assume command, lack of initiative and training made it almost impossible for a typical Red Army enlisted man to take command if an officer fell.

Typical examples of Soviet leadership command failures, cited by Beshanov, follow:

“The Germans invariably conducted reconnaissance, they constantly and uninterruptedly tracked the situation familiarized themselves with it; they maintained reliable communications and commanded and maneuvered their forces precisely. Despite the fact that these procedures are the ABCs of military science, our Soviet generals did nothing of the sort. Like a drunken peasant, his eyes blinded, he marched double-time at the enemy with a club.”

When Stalin’s son, Jacob, battery commander of the 14th howitzer regiment of the 14th tank division was taken prisoner, he told his interrogators:

“The failures of the Russian tank forces are not caused by poor-quality armor or armaments, but by command deficiencies and the lack of training in maneuvering... The brigade, division, and corps COs are unable to solve operational problems. This is especially true with respect to the interaction of the different branches of the armed forces.”

According to Beshanov, the unquestioned heroism, courage, and Spartan-like soldierly qualities of the Red Army men were no match for the professionalism of the German military. The fault for the horrendous losses in Russian life is attributed chiefly to the deficiencies of the Red Army officer and command staff:

“German professionalism neutralized Russian heroism.”

While most of the Soviet combat forces were performing poorly, military tribunals and firing squads organized to punish shirkers and would-be deserters functioned without interruption. Even Army Commissar Lev Mekhlis, one of Stalin’s favorite executioners, after executing group after group of Soviet officers as subversives, desertion in the face of the enemy, and dereliction of duty recognized the need to find another, more acceptable explanation for the retreat of the Red Army:

“We will have to think of another way to explain to the Party, the people, and indeed the world, why the Red Army is retreating.”

It was Mekhlis, too, who proposed the formula that any Red Army man that becomes a prisoner of war was a traitor to the Homeland. It is his duty to commit suicide before allowing himself to be taken prisoner. If he permits himself to be taken prisoner and survives the war, then when he returns to the Homeland the Soviet government will do for him what he failed to do himself.

Beshanov, as other Russian military historians, singles out the total disregard for human life especially practiced by Marshal Zhukov in all his campaigns.[2] It seemed the only measure used by the Stavka to evaluate the effectiveness of the Red Army’s resistance was the magnitude of the casualty list: the greater the number of Soviet casualties, rather than the tactical skill displayed by its forces, indicated to the Stavka that the army was fighting well. If Russian casualties were low, the Stavka would suspect that the troops were not fighting.

Indeed Zhukov, another of Stalin’s favorite henchmen, on October 4, 1941, issued ciphergram No. 4976 which even “improved” on Mekhlis’ formula. The ciphergram read: Make it clear to all personnel that entire families that attempt to surrender to the enemy will be shot and those that return from captivity will also be repressed.

The Russian soldiers eventually referred to General Zhukov as “three-wave Zhukov.” He would invariably strew the battlefield with three waves of corpses before leaving the battlefield without achieving any notable success.

As with Napoleon Bonaparte a century earlier, Beshanov contends, the only Russian generals that could really be considered the masters of the German Army were “General Mud” and “General Frost.” As before, the interminable expanses of Russia, the absence of hard roads, the almost inexhaustible pool or Russian and Central Asian manpower, the bitterly cold winters that froze and incapacitated men and materiel, and the “rasputitsa” – the mud seasons that occurred during the autumn and spring thaws – that made the countryside impassable, conspired to defeat the invaders of Mother Russia.

In his book, 1942: The Learning Year, Beshanov totals the losses suffered by the Soviet military in 1942, revealing them to be as disastrous as in 1941. Throughout 1943 Red Army losses continued to be staggering. According to Beshanov, the Soviet Armed Forces suffered about six or seven million casualties, while the German Army suffered about 520,000 killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Thus, Beshanov concludes, that in 1942 thirteen Red Army men were lost for each German soldier, in 1943, ten Soviet soldiers were lost for a single German soldier, representing only a very slight improvement. In 1944, according to Beshanov, 6.5 million Red Army men were killed or wounded, while 1.6 million Germans suffered the same fate. Thus, the Russian to German casualty ratio in 1943 improved considerably to six Red Army men for one German soldier.

Beshanov attributes the gradual improvement in Red Army performance to several factors: the absolute superiority of the anti-Hitler coalition in resources, the exhaustion of German potential, considerable qualitative improvements in Red Army equipment, Lend-Lease and other aid from the Allies, the opening of the Second Front in France and the subsequent reduction of German forces in the East. As German forces were siphoned off to the West, Soviet forces in the East gained increasing strength.

In a recent interview with Argumenty i fakty, Beshanov even puts the battle of Stalingrad, heralded as a great Soviet victory, in clearer perspective.[3] Stating that the Russian people have been the captives of myths about the battle, Beshanov contends that indeed the battle was won, but at the cost of one and a half million Russian casualties. In June 1942, at the onset of the battle, 540,000 Red Army men with 1,000 tanks opposed 270,000 Germans supported by 400 tanks. Beshanov maintains that by the time the actual storm of the city was undertaken, the Germans attacked with three divisions supported by 200 tanks, while the defenders had 20 divisions and about 600 tanks at their disposal. Moreover, the Soviet Government kept 200,000 civilians in the city to keep the armaments industry running. Most perished during the siege. Beshanov faults the Stavka for keeping most of their strength in the ruins of the city when the 6th Army was already freezing to death and unable to extricate itself. Instead, Beshanov believes, extraneous Soviet forces would have been better employed to cut off the German forces in the Caucasus.

At the time of the Stalingrad battle, Beshanov continues, General Zhukov was in charge of Operation Uranus, involving 1.9 million troops, 3,300 tanks, and 1,100 aircraft, whose aim it was to take Rzhev, northwest of Moscow, cut off German Army Group Center, and advance to the Baltic. The Germans repulsed Zhukov’s attack, leaving about 500,000 Red Army men dead on the battlefield, together with 1,850 wrecked Soviet tanks.

Estimates of Soviet losses in the months-long battle of Stalingrad range from 350,000 to two million. Beshanov puts the number at 1.5 million. Surviving the battle, 100,000 Germans were taken prisoner, of which 95,000 died in the POW Gulag. The Red Army had suffered countless “Stalingrads” of their own during the war, but their seemingly inexhaustible reserves were able to form new armies. The Germans did not have those resources.

During the battle of Stalingrad most of the Soviet Party officials and command staff stayed on the far side of the Volga safe from German fire. The miracle of the Russian victory, Beshanov insists, is that for the duration of the city fighting Russian soldiers were relatively free of interference from the generals, relying on their own toughness, endurance, bravery, fatalism, and dedication. There were no Russian “Napoleons” at Stalingrad – only simple Russian soldiers fighting for the Motherland.

In April-May of 1945, in the final battle for Berlin, with a five-fold numerical superiority over the enemy in manpower, Red Army commanders Zhukov (Belorussian Front) in the north and Konev (Ukrainian Front) in the south – with their customary wanton disregard of human life – stormed the city with four tank armies despite having learned in the case of Stalingrad from German experience that tanks lack maneuverability when operating in city ruins and are not effective. Within the first two weeks the 1st Belorussian Front alone lost 1,940 tanks. The Red Army lost a third of a million men to take Berlin.

Beshanov cites Boris Sokolov to the effect that in the course of the Russo-German War the Soviet Armed Forces suffered 31.1 million dead, while the Wehrmacht lost 2.157 million. The German figure does not of course include those lost on the Western Front, in Africa, or the half million civilians that perished in the terror air raids (the half million number of mostly women and children is roughly equivalent to the toll of three such tsunamis as hit the Indian Ocean area in December 2004). As is well known, millions more Germans (civilian and military) died or were murdered as the result of expulsions, starvation, incarceration, murder, and slave labor after Germany officially surrendered and put themselves at the “mercy” of the victors.

Of course when a war is won, the victors automatically assume that their military leadership had to have been superior. Military analysts, years later after close and impartial examination of casualties and troop performance, may come to a different conclusion. Thus, for example, in Britain John Keegan in his Six Armies in Normandy[4] and Max Hastings in his just published Armageddon, recognize the superiority of German forces over the Western Allies. Or as Professor Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished British military historian who saw action against the Wehrmacht, put it:[5]

“They were better than we were: that cannot be stressed too often. Every Allied soldier involved in fighting the Germans knew that this was so, and did not regard it as in any way humiliating. We were amateurs, drawn from peaceful industrial societies with a deep cultural bias against all things military, fighting against the best professionals in the business.”

Thus it was that the German military could win almost every battle but still lose the war because of overwhelming enemy quantitative superiority.

Stalin himself tacitly admitted the grief the German High Command and officer corps had caused the Red Army when in Yalta he proposed that 50,000 German officers be executed out of hand after the war. Although Churchill opposed the idea, President Roosevelt voiced no objection. It is not known precisely how many German officers were actually hanged, executed, or otherwise put to death in the Gulag and other POW camps after they surrendered. Many thousands certainly.

In conclusion, Beshanov, to emphasize his distain for the competence of the Red Army political and military leadership, but his love and admiration for the average Russian enlisted man, recalls the festive occasion in August 1945 when Generalissimo Stalin invited General Eisenhower and other Western generals to Moscow to celebrate victory over the Third Reich. Only after a multitude of toasts to the great victory, to the Soviet Union and its Western Allies, to the political leaders of the USSR and the West, and to each other for their brilliant military leadership, did a lowly American Lieutenant in the Eisenhower party propose his toast:

“I want to propose a toast in honor of the most important Russian in the Second World War. Gentlemen, let us drink together in honor of the unknown common soldiers in the Red Army.”

The last sentence of his third book summarizes Beshanov’s opinion on the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics:

“The USSR collapsed because it was built on a total lie and eventually Soviet society poisoned by this lie finally broke down into indifferent groups and individuals who believed in nothing.”

Reviewer’s Comment: Beshanov’s books, like so many otherwise good Russian texts, unfortunately lack references for internal citations. Moreover, the books do not have a subject index, making it very difficult to track down specific topics. He does provide a general bibliography however.


[1]Representing a new generation of free Russian historians, Vladimir Vasil’yevich Beshanov was born in 1962. He graduated the Kaliningrad Higher Naval School in 1984, and served in the Soviet Navy four years on ships of the Northern and Black Sea Fleets. He was discharged from the Navy in 1992 when the Ukraine took over the Black Sea Fleet. He has been an instructor of military history at the Brest Pedagological University since 1996.
[2]See also: Viktor Suworow. Marschall Schukow: Lebensweg über Leichen (Marshal Zhukov: A Career Built on Corpses. Pour-le-Mèrite, Selent, Germany, 2002, 350 pp.; also B. Sokolov. Georgiy Zhukov. Triumfy i padeniya (Georgi Zhukov. Triumphs and Failures. ACT – Press Kniga, Moscow, 2003, 592 pp. Zhukov’s bloody career did not end with the war. As Minister of Defense in 1954 he presided over nuclear tests conducted with unprotected Russian military personnel and again in 1956 in crushing the Hungarian Revolution.
[3]The Unknown Stalingrad. Argumenty i facty. No. 04(1161), January 22, 2003. At the conclusion of Beshanov’s interview, AiF has Doctor of History Georgiy Kumanev, director of the Center of Military History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, refute Beshanov’s arguments.
[4]John Keegan. Six Armies in Normandy. Penguin Books, 1983, 365 pp.
[5]Max Hastings. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Knopf, 2004. 584 pp.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Daniel W. Michaels
Title: Red Army Wartime Leadership, Reviews
Sources: The Revisionist 3(1) (2005), pp. 98-102
Published: 2005-09-01
First posted on CODOH: July 24, 2012, 7 p.m.
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