Soviet Disaster in Summer of 1941
The Soviets suffered horrific losses during the opening months of the German invasion in 1941. The seeds were planted years earlier, during Stalin’s Military Purge, starting in 1937, which threw the Soviet military into turmoil by removing its most experienced commanders: 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.
The Purge also decimated the best middle-rank officers. Until 1937, the Soviet military had been innovative, and the intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as the Theory of Deep Operations, was as creative as what the Wehrmacht was doing at the time. The Soviets had their equivalents of Guderians and Mannsteins, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. They suffered the most, because the Purge fell heaviest on 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. Thus, when Hitler attacked, the Soviet military was poorly officered and poorly led.
Stalin also failed to heed warnings of impending invasion. Those who raised the alarm were punished, as Stalin insisted it was a plot engineered by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany, and Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Indeed, hours after the invasion had begun, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders reporting that they were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border incidents, not war.
Stalin also fancied himself a talented generalissimo, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions were ordered to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so. Later, he insisted that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. That led to 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.
The Soviets suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians, in the first 6 months of the war – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifice for them to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves much credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. But Stalin deserves even more credit for the catastrophic debacle at war’s beginning.