Monday, March 14, 2016
As the headlong advance of the German Army into the USSR continued, the Red Army collapsed in chaos all along the front. Its communications were severed, transport broke down, ammunition and equipment, fuel, spare parts and much more besides quickly ran out. Unprepared for the invasion, officers could not even guess where the Germans would strike next, and there was often no artillery available to blunt the impact of the incoming German tanks. Many of the Red Army’s own tanks, from the BT to the T-26 and 28, were obsolescent: more of the total of 23,000 tanks deployed by the Red Army in 1941 were lost through breakdowns than to enemy action. Radio communications had not been updated since the Finnish war and were coded in such a basic manner that it was all too easy for Germans listening in to decrypt them. Worst of all, perhaps, medical facilities were wholly inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of dead and treat the scores of thousands of injured. In the absence of proper military planning, officers could think of little else to do than attack the Germans head-on, with predictably disastrous results. An orderly retreat was made almost impossible by the Germans’ prior destruction of roads, railways and bridges behind the lines. Desertion rates rocketed in the Red Army as demoralized soldiers fled in confusion and despair. In a mere three days in late June 1941, the Soviet secret police caught nearly 700 deserters fleeing from the battle on the south-western front. ‘The retreat has caused blind panic,’ as the head of the Belarus Communist Party wrote to Stalin on 3 September 1941, and ‘the soldiers are tired to death, even sleeping under artillery fire . . . At the first bombardment, the formations collapse, many just run away to the woods, the whole area of woodland in the front-line region is full of refugees like this. Many throw away their weapons and go home.’
Some idea of the depth of the disaster can be gauged from the diary of Nikolai Moskvin, a Soviet political commissar, which records a rapid transition from optimism (‘we’ll win for sure,’ he wrote on 24 June 1941) to despair a few weeks later (‘what am I to say to the boys?’ he asked himself gloomily on 23 July 1941: ‘We keep retreating’). On 15 July 1941 he had already shot the first deserters from his unit, but they kept on fleeing, and at the end of the month, after being wounded, he admitted: ‘I am on the verge of a complete moral collapse.’ His unit got lost because it did not have any maps, and most of the men were killed in a German attack while Moskvin, unable to move, was hiding in the woods with two companions, waiting to be rescued. Some peasants found him, nursed him back to health, and conscripted him into helping with the harvest. As he got to know them, he discovered they had no loyalty to the Stalinist system. Their main purpose was to stay alive. After battles, they rushed on to the field to loot the corpses. What in any case would loyalty to Stalin have brought them? In August 1941, Moskvin encountered some Red Army soldiers who had escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp. ‘They say there’s no shelter, no water, that people are dying from hunger and disease, that many are without proper clothes or shoes.’ Few, he wrote, had given a thought to what imprisonment by the Germans would mean. The reality was worse than anyone could imagine.
Soviet soldiers and civilians began to listen to Stalin’s new, patriotic message and fight back. Encouraged by Stalin, more and more young men took to the woods to form partisan bands, raiding German installations and intensifying the vicious circle of violence and repression. By the end of the year, the overwhelming mass of civilians in the occupied areas had come round to supporting the Soviet regime, encouraged by Stalin’s emphasis on patriotic defence against a ruthless foreign invader. Escalating partisan resistance went along with a dramatic recovery of the fighting effectiveness of the Red Army. The cumbersome structure of the Red Army was simplified, creating flexible units that would be able to respond more rapidly to German tactical advances. Soviet commanders were ordered to concentrate their artillery in anti-tank defences where it seemed likely the German panzers would attack. Soviet rethinking continued into 1942 and 1943, but already before the end of 1941 the groundwork had been laid for a more effective response to the continuing German invasion. The State Defence Committee reorganized the mobilization system to make better use of the 14 million reservists created by a universal conscription law in 1938. More than 5 million reservists were quickly mobilized within a few weeks of the German invasion, and more followed. So hasty was this mobilization that most of the new divisions and brigades had nothing more than rifles to fight with. Part of the reason for this was that war production facilities were undergoing a relocation of huge proportions, as factories in the industrial regions of the Ukraine were dismantled and transported to safety east of the Ural mountains. A special relocation council was set up on 24 June and the operation was under way by early July. German reconnaissance aircraft reported what to them were inexplicable massings of railway wagons in the region – no fewer than 8,000 freight cars were employed on the removal of metallurgical facilities from one town in the Donbas to the recently created industrial centre of Magnitogorsk in the Urals, for example. Altogether, 1,360 arms and munitions factories were transferred eastwards between July and November 1941, using one and a half million railway wagons. The man in charge of the complex task of removal, Andrej Kosygin, won a justified reputation as a tirelessly efficient administrator that was to bring him to high office in the Soviet Union after the war. What could not be taken, such as coalmines, power stations, railway locomotive repair shops, and even a hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper river, was sabotaged or destroyed. This scorched-earth policy deprived the invading Germans of resources on which they had been counting. But together with the evacuation, it also meant that the Red Army had to fight the war in the winter of 1941-2 largely with existing equipment, until the new or relocated production centres came on stream.
Stalin also ordered a series of massive ethnic cleansing operations to remove what he and the Soviet leadership thought of as potential by subversive elements from the theatre of war. More than 390,000 ethnic Germans in the Ukraine were forcibly deported eastwards from September 1941. Altogether there were nearly one and a half million ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union. 15,000 Soviet secret policemen descended upon the Volga to begin the expulsion of the ethnic Germans living there, removing 50,000 of them already by the middle of August 1941. Similar actions took place in the lower Volga, where a large community of German descent was living. In mid-September 1941, expulsions began from the major cities. By the end of 1942, more than 1,200,000 ethnic Germans had been deported to Siberia and other remote areas. Perhaps as many as 175,000 died as a result of police brutality, starvation and disease. Many of them spoke no German, and were German only by virtue of remote ancestry. It made no difference. Other ethnic groups were targeted too – Poles, as we have seen, were deported in large numbers from 1939, and, later in the war, up to half a million Chechens and other minorities in the Caucasus were removed for having allegedly collaborated with the Germans as well. In addition, as the German forces advanced, the Soviet secret police systematically murdered all the political prisoners in the jails that stood in their path. One hit squad arrived at a prison at Luck that had been damaged in a bombing raid, lined up the political prisoners, and machine-gunned up to 4,000 of them. In the western Ukraine and western Belarus alone, some 100,000 prisoners were shot, bayoneted, or killed by hand-grenades being thrown into their cells.
Whatever their impact on the war effort, such actions stored up a bitter legacy of hatred which was to lead within a very short time to horrific acts of revenge.