How the Soviets mastered the art of blitzkrieg and beat the Germans at their own game.
The Soviet Union’s massive offensive against the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1944 was the death knell for the German army. When Operation Bagration ended in late August, the Red Army had killed, wounded or captured 450,000 soldiers in 30 divisions, had liberated an area roughly one-third the size of France and was knocking on the door of East Prussia itself. Not only had Germany’s 800,000-man Army Group Center been encircled and destroyed before reaching its goal of Moscow but also Army Group North was cut off from the rest of the Axis forces and faced annihilation.
In debriefings with Allied interrogators, defeated German officers claimed Josef Stalin’s armies lacked any sort of battlefield finesse and had triumphed only through sheer weight of numbers and brute force. Over time this opinion solidified into commonly held wisdom and clouded Western views of the Red Army throughout the Cold War. A careful reexamination of the record shows that the Soviets actually beat the Wehrmacht at its own game. While superior numbers were a factor, along with Russia’s vast scale and the vagaries of its weather, the bottom line is that the Soviets out-planned, outmaneuvered and outwitted their German foes.
Following its near-destruction at the hands of the Wehrmacht early in the war, the Red Army went through a critical period of rethinking its military strategies and completely regrouped. Stalin and his military advisers took a page from Germany’s playbook and systematically equipped the army with strong mobile forces and developed air supremacy, an intelligence and deception infrastructure, effective field-level leadership and infantry-armor coordination—in short, all the elements of a successful blitzkrieg. By mid-1944, the Red Army had assembled the means to unleash that blitzkrieg upon its inventors. Indeed, for the final year of the war, it was the Soviets, not their tormentors, who had perfected the frightening capabilities of a truly mechanized army in the modern age.
The Russians learned their lessons, however, at a tremendous cost. Adolf Hitler’s initial invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, inflicted a succession of calamitous defeats on the Red Army that should have knocked it out of the war. Between June and December 1941, Germany stunned the world by smashing through Soviet defenses in eastern Poland and driving the reeling Red Army back to the gates of Moscow. By September 1942, the USSR had lost tens of millions of acres, and Germans everywhere were confidently predicting the final destruction of the “Communist menace.” Had a similar invasion been launched in the United States, all the territory from the coast of Maine to Topeka, Kan., would have been in Nazi hands.
For the Red Army, the battles of the so-called “first period” of the Soviet-German war—June 1941 to mid-November 1942— were characterized by inflexible, linear tactics, similar to those used in World War I, which almost destroyed it. The initial sweep of Barbarossa demolished virtually all the Red Army’s mechanized forces, depriving Moscow of the ability to support its few remaining tank units with follow-up infantry. Furthermore, inexperienced (and, in many cases, incompetent) commanders were unable to use the thin resources available for anything approaching an effective maneuver-based defense.
During the defense of Kiev in the summer of 1941, the Soviets lost 700,000 men, while losses around Moscow from September 30 to November 5, 1941, topped 650,000. In all, during the first six months of the invasion, the Red Army lost an astounding 5 million soldiers—virtually its entire prewar force. As Waffen-SS General Max Simon summed up the German view from the front: “At the beginning we were not impressed by their attacks, which showed little initiative. They were rule of thumb, cooperation with the heavy weapons was lacking, and one could sense the absence of flexible leadership….The first attack was certain to be followed by a second, third, fourth, fifth, or even more. Never in my experience did these successive assaults differ from the first one.”
When the German attack did literally bog down in late autumn mud of 1941, Stalin received a gift of time and an opportunity to recover. Fully aware by then that a change was necessary, the Soviet premier began to push his remaining military leaders to devise a better method of defense before it was too late.
Better equipment was an early order of business for Stavka, the Soviet supreme high command. Stalin publicly decried the German advantage in tanks and aircraft in October 1941. Russian industry responded with stepped-up production of the T-34, a medium tank that was a superb balance of speed, mobility, armor and weaponry and could easily withstand hits from the Wehrmacht’s standard 37mm antitank guns. The introduction of the IS-2 “Stalin” heavy tank followed in 1943, and this proved an effective counterweight to the growing threat from the heavy German Tiger tanks being shipped east in increasing numbers. The arrival of hundreds of American and British tanks delivered to the Red Army through the Lend-Lease program further buoyed those homegrown efforts.
More and better aircraft were part of the same strategy. When the Soviet dictator perceived an unsatisfactory production rate at two factories producing Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack planes, he encouraged the plant managers to speed up production with an ominous telegram: “You have let down our country and our Red Army….The Il-2 aircraft are necessary for our Red Army now. Like air, like bread…I ask you not to try the government’s patience and demand that you manufacture more Ils. I warn you for the last time.—Stalin”
Admonitions such as this had the desired effect, and aircraft were soon coming off assembly lines with the same rapidity as tanks. Factories began turning out thousands of Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters in early 1943, while the concurrent introduction of the Il-2M and Il-2M Type 3, with their added 12.7mm machine gun for rear defense, gave the Soviets the kind of hard-hitting ground-air cooperation that the Wehrmacht had enjoyed when Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers flew in close support of its panzers.
Less dramatic, but just as important, the Soviets had obtained thousands of humble but reliable Studebaker trucks from the capitalist heartland through Lend-Lease by 1944. These trucks proved invaluable in moving food, gasoline and ammunition to rapidly moving tank and rifle columns and gave the Red Army a degree of mobility that German commanders could only dream of.
What factories in Russia and the West could not provide to support the Soviet cause, the Nazis, ironically, did. As German atrocities spread across occupied territories in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Belorussia, a population that had been known for its anti-Communist sentiments turned against its new tormentors from the West. Partisan and guerrilla units spread like wildfire, and Stavka was able to use these homegrown resistance organizations to great benefit. A partisan coordination office was established in Moscow, and by mid-1943 Soviet planners were kept well-informed about the placement of German reserve units, coordinated sabotage operations and assisted guerrillas in disrupting rear-echelon rail movements of Axis reinforcements.
The final missing piece of the puzzle was leadership on the battlefield, and until that could be enhanced none of the other improvements would matter. It is to the credit of Stalin and his advisers that they finally managed to see through their paranoia and reverse a policy that had threatened their own demise. Fearful of counterrevolution and imaginary plots in the late 1930s, Stalin had mercilessly purged the Red Army’s officer corps, leading to the execution, imprisonment or dismissal of nearly half of the army’s 80,000 officers. Not only was the crackdown a predictable blow to service morale, it also crippled the normal evolution of Soviet military doctrine and contributed to the dismal performance of Soviet troops in the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40. That debacle, in turn, resulted in a new cycle of dismissals and replacements, leaving a giant army led by cowed sycophants and generally incompetent political appointees. By the time of the German invasion, some three-quarters of all Red Army officers had held their positions for less than a year.
Grasping the havoc his executions had wrought upon his country’s war-fighting capability, Stalin began to see the usefulness of his few remaining professional soldiers, men such as Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Ivan Koniev, and Colonel-General Konstantin Rokossovsky. Armed with the most modern tools of war, these men would save the Soviet Union and destroy the “Fascist Beast.”
The learning curve facing the Red Army was steep. Unrefined tactics led to costly results on the battlefield. The counteroffensive at Rzhev-Viazma in the winter of 1941 and spring of 1942 saw the reserves needed to support a breakthrough being committed to battle in dribs and drabs rather than as a single cohesive force. The results were predictable: The Wehrmacht held the line and 775,000 more Soviet soldiers became casualties. Even soon-to-be-renowned marshals were not immune from such costly blunders. Marshal Zhukov’s disastrous 1942 offensive against Army Group Center—Operation Mars—cost the Red Army approximately 760,000 casualties.
But the gradual dissipation of Nazi offensive capability deep inside Russia—illustrated most dramatically by the destruction of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43—provided Stavka with another opportunity to recover. Dusting off previously discredited “deep penetration” ideas of the prewar years, a revised operational doctrine decreed that any advance by rifle (infantry) divisions or combined-arms groups would be preceded by forward “reconnaissance in force” detachments and supported by concentrated artillery fire. The aim of these opening moves was to penetrate forward German defensive positions and create a gap through which fresh armored forces could pass. This arrangement allowed the armored columns to preserve their ammunition and fuel for encirclement work 50 to 500 kilometers behind the initial front lines and to defend against the inevitable enemy relief effort.
After breaking free of the enemy’s first line of defenses, Soviet armor would then drive rapidly toward strategic objectives in the enemy’s rear, such as major cities or road junctions. Failing that, they would occupy a bridgehead over the next major river barrier in preparation for a follow-on first offensive. From an operational standpoint, reserves would be concentrated rather than distributed among all sectors, as they were in early 1942 when the Red Army lacked the ability to deal a decisive blow against Army Group Center west of Moscow—in part because Stavka had dispersed its nine new rifle armies across the Eastern Front.
To provide the maneuverability these new tactics required, the high command authorized the creation of tank armies, groups of two tank corps (each fielding around 170 to 200 tanks) and one mechanized corps, supported by highly mobile reconnaissance, rocket, howitzer, anti-aircraft and antitank regiments. To make all the components uniformly mobile, it removed rifle and cavalry divisions from existing tank armies. Ultimately, six of these formidable tank armies were created and spearheaded Soviet encirclement operations after November 1942.
To ensure that the initial attacks succeeded in creating the necessary breach, the high command also adjusted the makeup of rifle or combined-arms armies, typically giving each army three or four infantry corps (including infantry-support tanks), plus heavy concentrations of engineer, artillery, antitank, mortar and anti-aircraft support units.
Perhaps the most important change in the Red Army was in the minds of its leaders. By 1944, training manuals stressed the need for surprise, maneuver and initiative, giving battlefield commanders a freedom of action and decision making unheard of by their predecessors. “Maneuver is one of the most important conditions for achieving success,” the 1944 operational manual decreed. “Bold and intelligent daring should always characterize the commander and his subordinates. Reproach is deserved not by the one who in his zeal to destroy the enemy does not reach his goal, but by the one who, fearing responsibility, remains inactive and does not employ at the proper moment all of his forces and means for winning victory.”
A higher priority placed on maskirovka, or deception, as a precursor to attack added to the battlefield commander’s bag of tricks. The Luftwaffe’s waning power deprived Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the German high command, of crucial reconnaissance behind Soviet front lines, making this effort particularly effective. With the sky often swept clean of enemy aircraft, Stalin’s new tank armies were able to concentrate for large offensives with less risk of detection than in 1941. A shift to a telephonic communications system (which was not as vulnerable to interception), simulated radio traffic in other sectors, feinted probing attacks, night movements and phony troop concentrations kept the Nazis distracted from the intended point of attack with increasing effectiveness from 1944 to the end of the war.
Hitler launched the last real effort to break the Red Army in July 1943. The Nazi offensive against the Kursk salient—a heavily fortified position the Soviets had constructed as a bulwark against Panther and Tiger tank formations—began on July 5. After a week of ferocious combat, the Red Army stopped the Germans in their tracks, and the Führer effectively acknowledged defeat when he transferred the powerful II SS Panzer Corps from the Eastern Front to deal with the new threat posed by the British and American invasion of Sicily. Some of the top panzer commanders served in the corps, manning some of the more lethal armored weapons in the German arsenal. With their departure, the Red Army had the opportunity to put its version of blitzkrieg to the test.
Stalin’s generals launched their counteroffensive toward Oryol on the other side of the salient, while the attention of the German high command was distracted by its effort to extract as many of its men and machines as it could from the failed operation at Kursk. The action validated much of what the Red Army had been preparing for since 1941. At the beginning of the offensive, four infantry armies cut a 9-kilometer hole in the German lines, allowing the Third Guards Tank Army and two additional tank corps to pass through. Although the Landsers fought so hard that some tank units had to be stripped from the exploitation column to widen the breach of the front lines, the Red Army soon captured Oryol and eliminated a German salient around the Oryol-Briansk region.
The Red Army proved more nimble in its push to drive the Axis back across western Ukraine in the late winter and early spring of 1944. The offensive to liberate the Soviet Union’s breadbasket involved two tank armies supported by four rifle armies. This potent force temporarily encircled Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s First Panzer Army, and by May, Ukraine and Crimea were largely clear of Axis troops. In the process Stalin’s tanks had also mauled the First Panzer, Sixth, Eighth and Seventeenth armies, and critically weakened Germany’s position on the Eastern Front. Shocked at these reversals, Romania and Hungary showed signs of abandoning their once invincible ally.
The success of the operation led OKW to conclude that the next Soviet offensive would likely strike western Ukraine, and it diverted valuable military assets to that region. Apparently the Germans had not yet come to appreciate that they were facing a new, and much more capable, opponent.
Stavka took advantage of its enemy’s fixation with Ukraine to strike a hammer blow against Army Group Center and liberate Belorussia. Aptly named after Piotr Bagration, a hero of the Napoleonic wars, Operation Bagration showcased the marriage of blitzkrieg tactics and the irrepressible industrial might of the Communist state. Even while holding the Germans in check elsewhere along the front, the Red Army assembled an incredible 2,755 tanks, 1,355 assault guns, 2,318 fighters, 1,744 groundattack planes, 12,869 heavy artillery pieces and rocket launchers, nearly 1,000 bombers and 118 infantry divisions, totaling 1.7 million frontline troops, plus another 1.8 million men in support. It was the largest military operation of the war, dwarfing even the Western Allies’ mighty D-Day effort.
By the time of Bagration, the Red Army was fielding tanks comparable to Germany’s Panzer III and IV models. In the air, the Soviet air force’s thousands of Bell Airacobra and Yak-9 fighters dominated Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s few dedicated pilots in Messerschmitt fighters, while Soviet Il-2 Shturmoviks proved more effective in strafing and tank-busting than the Luftwaffe’s famous Stukas.
Just as important, the Red Army was more mobile than the entrenched Wehrmacht; the thousands of Studebakers rolling back and forth from the supply bases kept Soviet frontline troops moving forward faster than the still largely horsedrawn German army could retreat. Adding to the material handicaps and poor intelligence, Hitler’s steady stream of “no retreat” orders severely hamstrung his generals by depriving them of their greatest asset—their ability to trade non-German territory for time and maneuverability.
In Bagration, the Soviet reliance on infantry to capture tactically valuable footholds for tank and tank-destroyer columns demonstrated an appreciation of the concepts of fire and maneuver. This saved lives and added to the effectiveness of each successive operation. As the German Ninth Army’s headquarters ruefully reported: “The enemy adopted completely new tactics. He no longer attacked as in the past on a broad front with very heavy artillery support, but instead employed concentrated groups of infantry supported by highly concentrated and well-controlled fire from heavy weapons. He went first for good tactical ground to establish favorable initial positions. Behind these assault groups, undisclosed until needed, lay tank forces to follow on and break through.”
There was no letup for the war-weary Wehrmacht. All told, from June 1 to November 30, 1944, the Red Army killed or captured some 903,000 men and 254,000 horses and other draft animals. From a strategic perspective, Hitler’s Romanian, Finnish and Balkan allies were out of the picture, setting the stage for the final Soviet push through Germany. That the Soviets had the ability to launch not just one but a series of hugely successful offensives offered firm proof: The Red Army had become the new master of modern maneuver warfare.
Jonathan W. Jordan is an attorney and historian who writes from Marietta, Ga. For further reading, see: When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, by David M. Glantz and Jonathan House; and The Road to Berlin, by John Erickson.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.