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Sunday Book Review: The Red Army and the Second World War

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Alexander Hill’s The Red Army and the Second World War offers an encyclopedic treatment of the Red Army’s development prior to the opening of the Second World War, and to it performance and evolution during the conflict. It represents the culmination of years of scholarship using both German and Russian sources, and brings together several strands of historiography on the evolution and performance of the Red Army.

The Revolutionary Army

Hill’s account begins in the mid-1920s, and details the series of reforms that the organization underwent in its first decade. Hill has a generally dim view of the army that emerged from the Civil War, suggesting that many of the lessons that had been developed and learned in World War I were lost during the conflict against the Whites.  In particular, Red Army commanders remained obsessed with cavalry to a degree not supported by experience in the Great War.  Of course, the Red Army did not enjoy a high level of mechanization in the late 1920s and early 1930s, making it difficult to construct a more modern force. Hill discusses the various political and demographic challenges faced by the force, including the interference of Communist Party, the generally low level of education of the Soviet people, and the loss of the cream of the Russian military elite in the Great War and the Civil War.

Except as necessary to describe the evolution of the organization, Hill does not delve excessively into operational detail.  Of course, since any history of the Red Army as an organization requires an extensive discussion of how it performed and what it learned from battles such as Kursk, Stalingrad, and Moscow, readers interested in operational history will have some grist to chew.  Mostly, however, this is the history of an organization; how it came together, how it understood itself, how it learned, and how it reacted to setbacks.

One of Hill’s most interesting points involves the development of the Soviet defense industrial base (DIB) before and during the war.  The Russian DIB during World War I was more developed than is generally understood, but the disruptions of the war, the Revolution, and the Civil War were severe.  The CPSU viewed modernization of the DIB as absolutely critical to the survival of the USSR, and took costly steps to get industry back on its feet.  This included heavy state investment (at the expense of civilian industry and agriculture) and the importation of significant amounts of military equipment and technology from abroad.  In the days before export controls, buying military technology even from prospective enemies was much easier than it is today.

In combination with other factors (primarily a reduction in global defense investment after WWI), this meant that by the early 1930s, the USSR had an extremely competitive defense industry in many key areas.  Soviet tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces met or exceeded international standards, although production chokepoints often prevented frontline units from receiving modern equipment.  Innovation in the DIB continued all the way up to the beginning of the war, although by this time Germany had substantially stepped up investment in its own DIB, generating some areas of technological advantage.  Germany also had the benefit of deciding when to start the war, meaning that it could take advantage of cycles of modernization better than the USSR.

The Road to the Great Patriotic War

Hill does not shy away from a full assessment of the influence of Joseph Stalin. On the plus side, Stalin helped establish an innovative, productive defense industrial base that developed and delivered internationally competitive weaponry (often derived from foreign equipment available on the open market) from the early 1930s on. Stalin often intervened directly in decisions about the characteristics of weapons, all the way down to tanks and artillery pieces. Stalin was a competent enough wartime civilian leader, providing political direction for the Red Army, ensuring its access to sufficient resources of manpower and equipment, and giving commanders incentive to push forward. His presence prevented destructive infighting within the party, and between civilian and military authorities.

On the downside…. Stalin was largely (if not entirely) responsible for the catastrophe of June 1941, the catastrophe of Finland, and the unpreparedness of the Red Army to fight on the eve of World War II. Hill does not gloss over the immensity of this catastrophe.  In June 1941, the USSR had an army that was better equipped than the Wehrmacht in many areas, that was considerably larger, and that had the benefit of the recent experience of heavy combat. Nevertheless, a great portion of its strength was utterly destroyed in the first months of the war.  Why? The answer is threefold, and begins with Stalin’s decision to purge the upper ranks of the Red Army.  The purges had annihilated the cream of the Soviet officer corps, replacing competent officers with inexperienced juniors, political lackeys, and often no one at all.  The Soviet system of military education was incapable of replacing that number of officers in the necessary timeframe, one consequence of the USSR’s generally backward economy.  Finally, the purges made organizational learning difficult.  Even as the Red Army was taking in data vicariously (from the experiences of the Spanish Civil War, and of Germany’s wars in the West) and experientially (from Khalkin Gol, Finland, and Eastern Poland) it struggled to construct useful lessons from that data, or to disseminate those lessons across the organization.  Information challenging existing doctrine was often rejected, and the military educational system did not support full and frank discussion of war experience.

Survival and Growth

But the army survived.  Even by late 1941 German commanders had come to accept that the Red Army would not disintegrate, and that it could continue fighting in good order for the foreseeable future. And while the losses of 1941 took a devastating toll on the Red Army’s human capital (some self-inflicted in pointless purges), the Red Army improved. By 1944, the Red Army was a vastly more flexible and innovative force than it had been in 1941.  However, in many ways it remained a blunt instrument, not fully capable of engaging in the kinds of operations in which the Wehrmacht had excelled in 1941 and 1942.  The connections between reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, and command autonomy were not well understood at the beginning of the war, but experience helped drive the evolution of tactical and operational practice.  Still, the Red Army was considerably more willing to accept losses in men and equipment than most Western armies, and never achieved the flexibility and fluidity of the most elegant German operations.

The changes weren’t simply because of more individually experienced soldiers and officers, although this surely played a large role.  The organization itself learned the value of intelligence, and of how information should move within and between the different bureaucratic units. In this the Soviets faced some critical deficiencies that could not be remedied on the battlefield; officers were not acclimated to the sharing of unpleasant information, and the need to remain in the good graces of political authorities made it difficult to take note of serious setbacks, or to exploit unforeseen opportunities. The deficiencies were most clear in the case of combined arms tasks, which required tight integration between infantry, armor, and artillery; even at the end of the war the Soviets were allowing tanks to become detached from infantry, often with fatal results.

 

1941 was devastating for the Soviet DIB in the same way it devastated the Red Army.  Shifting industrial production into the deep interior saved many critical production facilities, but it slowed production and innovation as new infrastructure needed to be constructed. Still, with the support of the United States,the Soviet DIB was capable of keeping the Red Army supplied with modern equipment for the duration of the war.  By the end of the conflict, the Soviets were more concerned about running out of people than about being able to equip frontline forces with sophisticated weapons. Hill does not, by and large, concentrate overmuch on the war in the air.  He notes the preoccupation of Red air forces with attack and close air support, often to the detriment of overall control of the air. Red Army aviators simply lacked a level of training to compete with their German opponents, even when they had competitive equipment.

The Soviets did their best to integrate the nationalities into the Red Army, but often found the task extremely difficult.  Levels of education and technical competence in many of the republics were extremely low, making it hard to recruit and train soldiers who could reliably participate in combat operations.  Moreover, many in the republics did not share the same sense of threat as the Russian people, or the same commitment to the survival of the USSR.  Nevertheless, as the Red Army ran short of personnel it increasingly had to rely on conscripts from the Central Asian republics, although these never made up a very high percentage of the overall force.

The need for bodies also drove the integration of women into frontline combat forces.  Despite a political commitment to gender equity, the Soviet Union had not integrated its armed forces prior to the war.  After the devastating losses of the first year, however, women played an increasingly large role in the Red Army.  For the most part this involved support and medical units, but at times women were integrated into frontline combat formations. Generally speaking these formations performed well in combat, although reports of problems common to integrated units (rape, sexual harassment, favoritism, the exchange of sexual favors for desirable assignments) were common.  Women also fought in partisan formations, although we know even less of their total numbers and combat effectiveness.  Towards the end of the war, the Red Army did commit widespread sexual violence against conquered German populations, although Hill suggests that the scale of this violence has been overstated in some sources.  Red Army commanders did take steps to restrain their soldiers, although more out a desire to maintain discipline than to protect German civilians.

Assessment

Generally speaking this is an outstanding work. Hill’s ability to take advantage of both Soviet and German sources is exceptionally rewarding.  In particular, he is able to leverage differences in understanding and focus between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht to paint a picture of how each appreciated the reality of war on the Eastern Front.  In one memorable case, Hill cites a description from German sources of a disastrous Red Army cavalry charge against a well-defended position.  The charge resulted in nearly the complete annihilation of Soviet unit and of its horses.  The Soviet report? No detail, simply a note of near total casualties in a sector that Soviet commanders did not regard as important.

I have only two major reservations, and these have less to do with the strength of the work than on how valuable it is for the general reader. First, this is a book for people who are intensely interested in the Red Army as an organization, who know a great deal about the conduct of the war, and who are familiar with the basic contours of Red Army historiography.  Thus, it’s not for everyone; readers seeking a history of the War in the East, of the major personalities on the Eastern Front, or even of the Russian war experience as a whole will find easier reads in other places.  Second,  Hill’s prose is… dense, with many long sentences and long paragraphs, making it even more difficult for the general reader.  Few of the chapters are broken up into subheading or other identifiable markers of place, sometimes making it a struggle to maintain a sense of place.

Nevertheless, for the appropriate audience this is an extremely valuable volume.  It’s worth reading Hill’s account of writing the book, which goes some distance to explaining many of the decisions he made during the process.

KV-1. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-216-0412-07 / Klintzsch / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

 

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