7. The Suddenness of Operation Barbarossa Stunned the USSR
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin nearly brought his country to ruin in the years preceding the USSR’s entry into WWII, and in the first year of the conflict. It began with a massive Military Purge, that he launched in 1937. It wreaked havoc upon the armed forces, and threw them into turmoil by removing their most experienced leaders. The victims included 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. Worse, Stalin’s homicidal housecleaning decimated the best middle rank officers.
In line with the communist state’s radicalism, the pre-Purge Soviet military had been radically innovative. Until 1937, the intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as the Theory of Deep Operations, led to as much creativity as what was going in the Wehrmacht at the time. The Soviets had their equivalents of Germany’s Guderians and Mannsteins, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. The Purge fell heaviest upon the most creative and free thinking officers, since they stood out and were thus prime suspects of harboring the deviationist tendencies Stalin wanted stamped out. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and suddenly attacked the USSR on June 22nd, 1941, the Soviet military had not yet recovered from the Purge.
Stalin also ignored warnings of impending attack, and those raising the alarm were punished, as the Soviet dictator insisted the warnings were just a plot by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany. Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Even hours after the invasion had begun, Stalin disbelieved reports that Soviet units were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border incidents, not war.
The Soviet dictator also fancied himself a generalissimo, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions in the war’s first year were orders to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so, and demands that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. Such orders resulted in a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans would capture up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement. By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity.
In the war’s first 6 months, Operation Barbarossa cost the Soviets over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifices for the Soviets to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel, but he deserves even more credit for the catastrophe at the war’s beginning.