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Conventional wisdom says that the USSR was very weak in 1939/40/41, in large part due to the purges of the 1930s, ideological interference in the armed forces, and lack of equipment, preparation and tactical sophistication. This is the usual explanation for the poor showing of the USSR in the Winter War against Finland in 1940 and the colossal defeats in the early stages of Barbarossa. Later in the war, it is said, the Red Army recovered from the purges, Stalin learnt to interfere less and soviet tactical sophistication evolved. But only later on.
Similarly, for a time, Japan seemed unstoppable, with vital areas of China as well as British, American and Dutch possessions overrun at tremendous speed in the early 1940s. Only later was she defeated by the might of a fully mobilised United States and the vastness of China. But only later.
So how then to explain the USSR's defeat of Japan at the little known (in the West) battles of Khalkhin Gol in 1939?
- The small conflict was important to SU but much less so for Japan.
- Japanese ground forces were not the best
- Despite the purges, the Red Army still had some good generals (surprised?)
Stalin wanted to point Japan south and east, freeing himself to pursue his European expansion policy. He wanted to give the IJN a clear boost in its tug of war with the Army over the war objectives, demonstrating that the cost of conquering the Siberian resources would be far too high.
So, for the Japanese this was a side show for the Army, while for the SU this was a critical show of strength.
Being an island nation, Japan placed higher priority on navy and air force development, than on ground forces. This, the quality of their equipment (tanks and trucks) as well as personnel (at all levels) was relatively lower (compared to both their IJN counterparts and Soviet, European and American adversaries) and their initial successes were more due to the Japanese naval and air superiority and poor quality of Chinese infantry.
Basically, the Japanese infantry has never met a modern army before.
Being a continental nation, SU had a highly developed ground forces, including excellent tanks and passable trucks. Despite the purge of the army in 1937-1938, enough good generals remained for the Purge of the Red Army in 1941; in fact, two most important generals who fought on Khalkhin Gol - Grigori Shtern and Yakov Smushkevich - were executed in 1941 and all the credit for Khalkhin Gol was assigned to Zhukov.
The "poor" performance (remember, eventually SU won!) of the Red Army against the Finns was due to the Finns being prepared for what they were to face (a modern army) while the Soviets not being prepared for
- weather (-40C)
- tank-hostile terrain
- well-trained high-morale opponent
- good fortifications
The stunning losses of the Red Army in 1941 obscure the fact that Barbarossa was a failure: Wehrmacht advanced slower than expected and failed to achieve its objective (the destruction of the Red Army). The poor performance of the Soviet troops had many causes, none of which applied to the previous two cases:
- Surprise attack compounded by strict orders not to provoke the Germans.
- The German ground forces were by far the best of the best in the world.
- The sheer scale of the attack - no one in the SU had any experience with warfare at this scale (all the principal leaders who ran the Civil War having been executed).
- The excellent Soviet tanks were poorly maintained and operated (many crews were poorly trained); they were concentrated in Mechanised corps which were tank-heavy but light on infantry and artillery, and, especially and critically, on trucks. Thus those tanks that were in good repair and had trained crews had to fight without infantry and artillery support and were slaughtered.
- Despite incessant propaganda, many conscripts were not completely enamored with the Communist ideas and were not aware of the ramifications of the Nazi ideology. This lead to morale being easily broken by defeats.
- The scale of the attack meant that all officers had to fight, not just the select few. And the officers were the purge survivors; in other words, they learned to fear an internal investigation more than a military defeat.
The Soviets and Japanese were operating in two different worlds. So the respective "characterizations" were relative to their worlds, not compared to each other.
The Soviets suffered mainly in comparison to the German forces, which were the best trained and led in the world. Even the Finnish forces they faced in the Winter War were (indirectly) German-trained (under Mannerheim).
The Japanese distinguished themselves in combat against poorly armed Chinese, badly trained "colonial" (not elite) British and Dutch forces, and unprepared American forces. This was true even for Japanese units equipped with World War I vintage weapons.
But when they met, the modern, Europeanized Soviet forces beat the backward, Asiatic Japanese forces. Specifically, the Soviets had good tanks that the Japanese couldn't counter. And Marshal Zhukov was the most able Soviet commander, who found himself in the Far East for "political" reasons.
The Japanese were totally unprepared for modern tanks. They had no antitank capability and little to no practice with fighting tanks. When they got into a battle in good tank country with a mess of Soviet tanks, the result was predictable.
The Finland failures were due to the inability of the Soviets to deploy and fight their forces in the rough country and winter weather of Finland, not that they couldn't fight. And in the end, the USSR won that war.
The German army was just superior at armored warfare in Barbarossa.
Neither situation applied to Khalkhin Gol - the Soviets could deploy superior forces and thrash the Japanese.
Short answer: Soviet equipment was quite good, but their commanders stank. They got lucky that a few brilliant commanders survived the purges and were given a free hand at Khalkhin Gol.
The problems of the Soviet army in WWII are more ones of leadership than material. They had the men, the equipment, and the tactics, but they had few good leaders to take advantage of them.
Prior to the purges, the Soviet military was feared. Their military was enormous, equipment the interwar standard range of awful to revolutionary, and their tactics excellent. In the 30s, Soviet doctrine followed Deep Battle which is remarkably similar to Blitzkrieg.
Then the purges happened. Most of the top level leadership was killed or banished to obscure posts. Those who remained or were promoted knew more about political reliability than military tactics. Yet pieces still remained of the interwar brilliance.
One of these pieces were the Soviet leaders who were brought in to escalate and win the growing border skirmish, one was Georgy Zhukov who would survive all the purges and go on to win the war for the Soviets. The Soviets built up their strength (500 tanks and 800 aircraft to the Japanese 135 tanks and 250 aircraft), defended against attacks, and then executed a classic double envelopment using concentrated armor to break into the Japanese rear area.
In contrast The Winter War with Finland was planned and fought by leaders who showed little imagination than to bludgeon the Finns. The Soviets relied on frontal assaults, used poorly trained troops, and brought tons of useless anti-tank equipment which fell into the Finns' hands. It was only after a pause and shakeup of leadership and tactics did the Soviets made headway. However, they did show a logistical brilliance in their ability to move and supply 21 divisions (far more than the Finns expected possible) all across the inhospitable Finnish border. The Soviets won their objectives, but the Finns also won in keeping their nation intact. Both took horrific casualties.
Khalkhin Gol was a success, and so would not have made the Soviet high command reflect. It was the humiliation of the Winter War which caused the Soviets to begin reforms, but it didn't happen fast enough to be ready for the German invasion.
The other answers are fantastic, but one more one important point: The perception that the "the USSR was very weak". This perception could be the result of anti-Russian and anti-Soviet propaganda, and is not well grounded in a factual analysis.
Stereotypes about Russian bureaucracy and culture are widely present in historical English language media. Another example of this is the assessment of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. I have often heard some horrible assessment, such as "If the Russian weren't so inefficient, the (non-European) Japanese wouldn't have stood a chance." Meanwhile, military historians have spoken about the high quality of both Russian and Japanese forces in this war, and pointed to this conflict as setting the stage, tactically speaking, for WWI, and suggested that supply chain length/ bad choices by Tsar Nicholas II were primary reason that Russian troops didn't win.Source Here Certainly British / American interests in opposing the southward expansion of Russia in the great game didn't help Russia in the final outcome in 1905.
This remains even today a Battle very much shrouded in mystery… and it's not for lack of Historians digging into the archives.
The only substantive reading on the Battle that I have read is that there were 3 Russian Commanders including Zhukov with one of the other two being executed.
According to most historical accounts this was the first attempt by the Red Army to put into effect what later became known as "Deep Battle Techniques" which involved massive encirclements at great distance to one another and from the enemy itself. For obvious reasons this was impossible to do against Finland… although apparently not to the Red Army at that time… but Historians seem to agree this technique is what devastated the German Armies starting in Stalingrad and then going forward.
The significance of the Battle itself is that it brings for the first time in World War 2 the name "Zhukov" to the attention of the PTB imho.
Japan and Stalin's "newly created USSR" (Stalin was Georgian and never made any attempt to hide this fact) had a non aggression pact… which in the waning days of WW 2 was reneged upon unleashing a truly massive Army upon Soviet Russia's Eastern frontiers. Japan's unconditional surrender quickly followed soon thereafter very much giving us the World we have today.
First up, the effect of the purges is largely overplayed. There were many factors that caused the red army to fail so spectacular during Barbarossa. One of them was a massive mobilization effort that put many units in a state were they were de facto useless due to a lack in artillery, ammunition, fuel and even boots. Not to mention trained personal. The units facing the Japanese in 1939 weren't the best units to begin with… but at least they had all their equipment and the men they needed. And there was quite a lot of them.
On top of that the BT tanks are pretty good tanks. Especially for the rapid advances Zhukov ordered during the counteroffensive. Japanese infantry and artillery had very little training in anti tank roles. And while Japanese tanks could destroy them with relative ease, so could the soviet tanks with the Japanese once.
And then of course the fact that all the advantages the Soviets had were used during the counter attack. Primarily superior numbers. A force twice as large with fast units that can pull of an encirclement and require your own tanks to be redirected to deal with. That's hard to counter if you have been shooting at small groups of unorganized soviet soldiers. The Japanese probably didn't expected that there would be a reaction with such intensity… ever.
Or in other words, Zhukov had a sledgehammer the whole time. And after months of being tickled by the Japanese he finally swung it out of nowhere.