Evolution of the Red Army on the Eastern Front

The reorganization of the Red Army from a mediocre fighting force into a capable, modern army was enabled by increased tactical training and specialization within the military ranks, and by the separation of operational and strategic planning from political maneuvering. A modern army is characterized by a strong grasp of operational mobility and adept use of combined arms and joint operations. The Red Army could not be considered modern in the years preceding the Great Patriotic War due to its spectacularly poor tactical and operational performance during the Winter War. As the war dragged on, the Red Army evolved tactically, operationally, and strategically into a modern army.

1 Handbook of the Russian Army, 27 2 Stolfi, 154-155 3 Parrish, x

The introduction of specialized units and training opportunities reinvigorated the Red Army by refining Soviet tactical doctrine. Initially, the German rapier and Operation Barbarossa cut deep against the blunt Soviet might. Forced to the defensive, the Red Army relied on numerical superiority, simple tactics and the hardiness of individual soldiers to stem the German advance. The 1944 Soviet Handbook of the Russian Army concluded that “only a vast reserve of manpower could have been able to pay the price in losses” entailed by the lack of Soviet military refinement. 1 In the opening two weeks of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army suffered 935,000 casualties compared to just 54,892 German casualties, a ratio exceeding 15 to 1. 2 Soviet losses were not confined to the enlisted and junior officer ranks. Total losses for officers above colonel amounted to 635 casualties throughout the entire war, including captured and purged officers. 3 The high ratio of deaths demonstrated the inability of Soviet tactical methodology to combat the speed and finesse of the German onslaught. With time and blood, however, the Red Army began the slow march towards tactical competency.

4 Handbook of the Russian Army, 10-11 5 Order of the Day No. 95, February 23, 1943 in Stalin, 53 6 Handbook of the Russian Army, 3

The 1944 handbook codified the huge improvements in Soviet tactical warfare, demonstrating new tactical sophistication. The updated manual included separate sections for infantry, armor, cavalry and artillery tactics, applying the lessons learned from Stalingrad and Kursk. Among the revised infantry tactics was the pervasiveness of the sub-machine gun and an increased flexibility for commanders to take advantage of decisive points in a battle. 4 The handbook all but abandoned frontal assaults, advocating its use only in support of flanking movements. Stalin foretold the sentiments of the handbook, dismissing “foolish and harmful linear tactics” and praising the “personal daring and courage” with which Soviet commanders utilized the “tactics of maneuver.” 5 Instead of linear tactics, the handbook promoted the use of concurrent attacks to avoid dispersing the blow over a longer period of time and allowing time for the enemy to utilize its reserves. 6

7 Erickson, 7 8 Handbook of the Russian Army, 7,16,22,25

Though Soviet tactics grew in complexity and intricacy, Red Army training methods remained simple and unsophisticated. The majority of the Soviet rank-and-file was only one generation removed from serfdom. In 1900, over two thirds of the army was illiterate. 7 The lack of sophisticated training was augmented by increased specialization. The Red Army raised elite shock troops designed to move 15-20 miles beyond the front lines and facilitate the penetration of enemy defenses, imitating the tactics of German Stormtroopers from World War I. Additional sections in the handbook outlined tactics for street fighting, partisan warfare and mechanized troops. 8 Despite gains, tactical improvement alone was not enough to overcome the Wehrmacht. Soviet forces lacked the operational finesse and coordination of the German Kesselschlacht.

9 Dallin & Breslauer, 28-29 10 Krivitsky, 240 11 Krivitsky, 218-219, 223 12 Krivitsky, 232

The end of the Great Purge and the abolition of political commissars allowed competent leaders to employ proven operational maneuvers instead of propaganda-inspired offensives and patriotic defensives. The Great Purge was prosecuted by the Soviet secret police (OGPU) and its successor, the NKVD from 1935-39. An estimated seven million people were arrested during the purges. 9 Walter Krivitsky, a former NKVD agent and station chief in the Netherlands, defected to the United States and detailed the extent of Stalin’s purges in his autobiography. Stalin’s motivations for the purge were to appease Hitler and maintain his totalitarian authority. Krivitsky explained that the purge was a conspiracy that allowed Stalin to frame Red Army general by employing “disinformation manufactured by the Gestapo, and fed to the Ogpu through the Czarist forces.” 10 Of the purged officers, the most famous and most important was the Soviet Chief of Staff, Marshall Mikhail Tukhacevsky. Tukhacevsky rose to command, as described by Krivitsky, as “the most brilliant military figure of the Soviet Revolution” for his decisive victories over the Czech and White Forces. He was the lead proponent for motorizing the Soviet Army. 11 Tukhacevsky was not alone in meeting an inglorious end. By 1939, Stalin had purged over 35,000 military personnel, including more than half of the officer corps. Understandably, the army was thrown into a state of panic. 12 Stalin effectively beheaded the Red Army, discarding much of the modernization progress made during the interwar years.

13 Order of the Day No. 55, February 23, 1942 in Stalin, 26 14 Order of the Day No. 55, February 23, 1942 in Stalin, 26 15 White, 412

Stalin’s tone changed dramatically with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and invasion of Soviet Russia. Stalin soon sang the praises of the Red Army, stating that the “strength of the Red Army rests … in the fact that it is waging … a patriotic war”. 13 Especially ironic is Stalin’s evocation of the “manly images of our great ancestors” to stir the Soviet people. 14 Among the ’manly’ ancestors were Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov and General Alexander Suvorov. Kutuzov was famed for commanding at the 1812 Battle of Borodino and saving the Russian army as Napoleon withered in the Russian winter. Suvorov was famed for his strategic excellence and competence. 15 Though Tukhacevsky rivaled these great Russian commanders, Stalin’s quest for totalitarian control overrode any desire to develop a modern army.

16 White, vii 17 White, 395 18 White, 395 19 White, 398 20 White, 391

As the Red Army skirted defeat in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin recognized and embraced the need for commanders to plan their own operational maneuvers independent of political control. The key operational hurdle lay in the broad powers given to military commissars. After years of reestablishment and dissolution, the role of military commissars was defined by decree in 1937. 16 Fedotoff White, a Soviet military sociologist, studied the interactions and tensions between the various subgroups within the Soviet military, including commissars and commanders. With the 1937 decree, White noted that the commissar and commander were deemed jointly responsible for the “politico-moral condition of [the] unit, for the strict carrying out of military duties by its personnel and the maintenance of military discipline by it; also for combat, operational and mobilizational readiness, and for the condition of the armament and military property belonging to the unit.” 17 Additionally, all orders, promotions and service records required the approval of both the commissar and commander. Officially, the commissar served as a political representative to ensure the loyalty of the Red Army to the Communist party. Practically, however, commissars wielded immense control due to their express power to prevent treason and, as White noted, their orders to “halt all actions that could harm the Red Army.” 18 Exacerbating the problem of overlapping command was the qualitative difference between commissars and commanders. Soviet political school candidates were generally inferior to the military school candidates. 19 The conflict of mixed responsibilities and uneven experience further complicated the command environment. Discipline crumbled within the Red Army as soldiers learned to pit commissar against commander. Recanting one anecdote, White wrote that even “after the command ‘Attention!’ soldiers continued to laugh, talk and nudge each other” as the sergeant-major looked on “without making any attempt to stop [the] unmilitary behavior.” 20

21 Handbook of the Russian Army, 3 22 White, 426 23 Order of the Day No. 130, May 1, 1942 in Stalin, 34

Commanders remained burdened by commissar oversight well into the Great Patriotic War. The 1944 Soviet handbook detailed the reevaluation of the assigned commissar duties. The most significant change was the elimination of all commissar responsibility in “purely military matters” in order re-establish “unity of command.” 21 The new handbook relegated the commissar to managing the morale, welfare and training of a Soviet military unit. White identified “unity of command” as a persistent trend in the development of the Red Army. Tied to the trend was an increasing professionalism within the officer corps and a differentiation between officers and rank and file soldiers. 22 The increasing professionalism and political separation within the Red Army allowed a renaissance of the operational art. With political shackles removed, Red Army commanders adeptly integrated artillery, infantry, cavalry, air power and naval power into successful combined arms operations. Stalin also emphasized the use of combined arms, ordering “commanders of all units―to learn to perfection the art of co-ordination the various branches of the service.” 23

24 Erickson & Feuchtwanger, 191 25 Erickson & Feuchtwanger, 191 26 Glantz, 238 27 Erickson & Feuchtwanger, 191

The advances of the Red Army operational art is exemplified by the Novorossiisk-Taman operation in September 1943. The goal of the operation was to capture the city of Novorossiisk and to help break the German ’Blue Line’. 24 The plan involved both the Red Army and Navy, requiring the 18th Army to converge from the east and west as additional troops arrived from an amphibious landing. 25 As the amphibious landing occurred, the Soviets bombed German communications. 26 Historians John Erickson and E. J. Feuchtwanger wrote that this was the first Soviet operation with a “unity of command and a unity of plan”, highlighting the Red Army’s significant advances in operational planning. 27 The Novorossiisk operation successfully coordinated infantry, naval, air and artillery forces, all the while deceiving the Germans about Soviet objectives. Ultimately, Soviet success required Stalin’s direction to link operational targets to strategic goals.

28 Dallin, 362 29 Krivitsky, 4 30 Dallin, 365

Stalin’s improved strategic vision following his submissive deference towards Hitler allowed a coherent strategy to emerge that carried the Red Army to victory. As the Wehrmacht prepared for Operation Barbarossa, Stalin and the Kremlin remained naively hopeful about chances for continued agreement with Germany. Though Russia gained significant territories by avoiding conflict with Germany, Russian scholar David Dallin explained that the policy ultimately “doomed the Soviets to passivity.” 28 Similarly, Krivitsky noted that “the more aggressive Hitler’s policies became, the more Stalin pressed his courtship” with Germany. 29 Germany pressed the Soviets hard, making over 180 flights into Soviet territory 6 months before the start of Operation Barbarossa. 30 Even through early June of 1941, as 30 German divisions lined the Russian border, Stalin worked to rewind the doomed relationship. Stalin clung to the hope of returning the Soviet-German diplomatic relationship back to 1939. Stalin’s strategy of appeasement proved disastrously optimistic as Germany invaded weeks later on 22 June 1941.

31 Swider, 85 32 Speech at Celebration Meeting in Stalin, 37 33 Order of the Day on the Red Army’s Victories, July 24-September 25, 1943 in Stalin, 63-65

Though caught off-balance, Stalin formed a strategic plan that mobilized and guided the Red Army and Soviet society to costly victory. By February 1942 Germany had exhausted their element of surprise and Stalin had formed a plan. Soviet historian Raymond Swider enumerated Stalin’s five factors necessary to win the war, namely “stability of the rear, morale of the troops and the home front, the quantity and quality of divisions, the quantity and quality of material, and the quality and capability of the commanding cadres.” Swider noted that these factors served as a “practical, realistic blueprint for victory.” 31 Stalin’s increased awareness was highlighted by his analysis of German strategic weakness. After the initial three front push of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin noticed that Hitler was only able to mount a southern offensive. 32 While Stalin managed the strategic direction of Soviet Russia, he left operations to his general staff, frequently congratulating their efforts in multiple speeches. 33

Tactically, the Red Army advanced through the trials of combat, slowly incorporating the costly lessons of war. Operationally, the Red army progressed by removing the weight of political oversight and management. Strategically, the Red Army conquered Germany as Stalin refined the goals and targets on which to concentrate Soviet might. The rapid evolution of Soviet military strategy at the tactical, operational and strategic levels was enabled by the adaptive and introspective ability of the Red Army to modify their political and operational military structures.


Dallin, Alexander and Breslauer, George W., Political Terror in Communist Systems (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1970).

Dallin, David J., Soviet Russia’s Foreign Policy 1939-1942 trans. by Leon Dennen (New Haven, Conneticut: Yale University Press, 1942).

Erickson, John and Feuchtwanger, E. J., editors, Soviet Military Power and Performance (London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1979).

Glantz, David M., Soviet Military Deception in the Second World War (New York: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1989).

New Notes on the Red Army: Tactics and Organization – Handbook of the Russian Army (London: Imperial War Museum, 1998).

Krivitsky, Walter G., In Stalin’s Secret Service (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1939).

Parrish, Michael, Sacrifice of the Generals: Soviet Senior Officer Losses 1939-1953 (Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2004).

Stalin, Joseph, On the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union – Speeches, Orders of the Day, and Answers to Foreign Press Correspondents (London: Hutchinson & CO., 1943).

Stolfi, Russel H. S., Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Swider, Jr., Raymond J., Soviet Military Reform in the Twentieth Century (London: Greenwood Press, 1992).

White, Dimitri Fedotoff, The Growth of the Red Army (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1944).

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