The Red Army Won Only by Weight of Numbers
A myth developed during and after the war, propagated by German generals whose memoirs explained their defeat by claiming that their professional and technical superiority were undone by the Soviets swamping them with numbers. Running counter to that perception, before the war was even a year old, is the often ignored Battle of Moscow in 1941 – history’s biggest battle when measured by number of participants. During most of that battle, the Germans outnumbered the Soviets by 2 million men to 1.4 million, yet the Soviets not only halted their foes but went on the counterattack and pushed the Germans back 100 miles.
During the war’s first year, Soviet performance, with some exceptions, was marked by incompetence and poor leadership. However, the Germans and bitter experience were good teachers, and by late 1942 Soviet commanders had become quite proficient. Indeed, many of the Soviets’ greatest victories resulted not from superior numbers, but from superior Soviet generalship. Examples include Operation Uranus in November 1942, which caught the Germans by surprise and culminated in the surrender of a German army at Stalingrad, and Operation Bagration in June 1944, which completely wrong-footed the Germans, shattered an entire army group (Center), and cost the Wehrmacht upwards of 500,000 casualties.
During the first year of the war, particularly after the huge losses of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans frequently outnumbered the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The Soviets eventually gained a numerical superiority and steadily widened the gap, but numerical superiority was not something they enjoyed throughout the entire conflict, and they did manage to hold on when they were outnumbered. By the war’s late stages, the Soviets achieved significant numerical superiority during offensive operations, but it was not because of unlimited manpower, but because Soviet commanders had grown adept at concentration of force, and because the necessary logistics had improved significantly.
Stalin, especially early in the war, frequently overrode his military professionals’ advice and ordered ill-advised last stands or foolhardy attacks. Even without Stalin, Soviet commanders were more ruthless and less concerned about casualties than their Western counterparts. However, it was not a reflection of callousness, but a mark of their desperation early in the war, when they had to buy time at any cost. Later in the war, when on the offensive, it reflected a rational calculation that even a high price paid upfront in an attack, so long as it resulted in an exploitable breakthrough, would translate into overall lower casualties, both in the medium term because losses during rapid advances following a breakthrough were lower than the norm while those of the reeling Germans were higher, and in the long term by bringing the war to a speedier end.