Red Army

Red Army
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The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (Russian: Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия; РККА or Rabočě-Krěst'janskaja Krasnaja Armija; RKKA) started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.

The "Red Army" name refers to the traditional colour of the workers' movement. On 25 February 1946 (when Soviet national symbols replaced revolutionary symbols), the Red Army was renamed the Soviet Army (Советская Армия, Sovetskaya Armiya).

The Red Army is widely credited with being the decisive force in the Allied victory in the European Theatre of World War II, having engaged and defeated about 80% of the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht and much of the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front. [1]



Red guards unit of the Vulkan factory.

In September 1917 V. I. Lenin wrote "There is only one way to prevent the restoration of the police, and that is to create a people's militia and to fuse it with the army (the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the entire people)."[2]

At this time the Imperial Russian Army was in a state of collapse. 23% of the male population of the Russian Empire had been mobilized, numbering about 19 million. However most of these were not equipped with any weapons and had support roles maintaining the lines of communication and the base areas. The Tsarist general, Nikolay Dukhonin, estimated that there were 2 million deserters, 1.8 million dead, 5 million wounded and 2 million prisoners. He estimated the remaining troops as numbering 10 million.[3]

The Council of People's Commissars decided to form the Red Army on 28 January 1918.[4] Their conception was that it should be "formed from the class-conscious and best elements of the working classes". All citizens of the Russian republic over the age of 18 were eligible. Its specific role was the defense "of the achievements of the October Revolution, the Soviet Power and Socialism. Enlistment was conditional upon "guarantees being given by a military or civil committee functioning within the territory of the Soviet Power" or by Party or Trade Union committees or, in extreme cases, by two persons belonging to one of the above organizations." In the event of an entire unit wanting to join the Red Army, a "collective guarantee and the affirmative vote of all its members" would be necessary.[5]

The Council of People's Commissars appointed itself the supreme head of the Red Army, delegating immediate command and administration of the Army to the Commissariat for Military Affairs and the Special All-Russian College within this commissariat. Nikolai Krylenko was the Supreme Commander in Chief, with Aleksandr Myasnikyan as deputy.[6] Pavel Dybenko and Nikolai Podvoisky were the Commissars for War and the Fleet. Proshyan, Samoisky, Steinberg were also specified as People's Commissars with Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich from the Bureau of Commissars.

At a joint meeting of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries held on 22 February 1918, Krylenko remarked: "We have no army. The demoralized soldiers are flying panic-stricken as soon as they see a German helmet appear on the horizon, abandoning their artillery, convoys and all war material to the triumphantly advancing enemy. The Red Guards units are brushed aside like flies. We have no power to stay the enemy; only an immediate signing of the peace treaty will save us from destruction.".[5]


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Russian Civil War

Military insignia of the Red Army 1919-1924
Revolutionary Poster: The Red St. George (Leon Trotsky) slaying the counter-revolutionary white dragon (derived from the Moscow Coat of Arms), 1918.

The Russian Civil War (1917–23) occurred in two periods. The first period: October 1917–November 1918, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the First World War (1914–18) Armistice, developed from the Bolshevik government's November 1917 nationalization of traditional Cossack lands. This provoked the insurrection of General Alexey Maximovich Kaledin's Volunteer Army in the River Don region. Also aggravating Russian internal politics was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918). This allowed direct Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, in which twelve foreign countries armed anti-Bolshevik militias. Combat was a series of small-unit actions among the Czechoslovak Legion, the Polish 5th Rifle Division, and the pro-Bolshevik Red Latvian Riflemen and others. The second period: January–November 1919, featured the White armies' successful advances, from the south, under Gen. Anton Denikin, from the east, under Gen. Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak, and from the northwest, under Gen. Nikolai Nikolaevich Yudenich, that defeated the Red Army on each front. Trotsky reformed and counterattacked; the Red Army repulsed Gen. Kolchak's army in June, and the armies of Gen. Denikin and Gen. Yudenich in October.[7] By mid-November, the White Armies almost simultaneously became exhausted, and, in January 1920, Budenny's First Cavalry Army entered Rostov-on-Don.

At war's start, the Red Army comprised 299 infantry regiments.[8] Civil warfare intensified after Lenin dissolved the Russian Constituent Assembly (5–6 January 1918) and the Soviet government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) removing Russia from the Great War. Free from international war, the Red Army confronted an internecine war with a loose alliance of anti-Communist forces, comprising the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, the "Black Army" led by Nestor Makhno, the anti-White and anti-Red Green armies, and others. The 23 February 1923 "Red Army Day" has a twofold, historical significance; the first day of drafting recruits (in Petrograd and Moscow) and the first day of combat against the occupying Imperial German Army.[9]

On 6 September 1918, the Bolshevik militias consolidated under the supreme command of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic (Revvoyensoviet, Revolyutsionny Voyenny Sovyet), People's Commissar for War (1918–24), Leon Trotsky, Chairman, and Ioakhim Vatsetis, Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army. Soon afterward he established the GRU (military intelligence) to provide political and military intelligence to Red Army commanders.[10] Trotsky founded the Red Army with an initial Red Guard organization, and a core soldiery of Red Guard militiamen and Chekist secret policemen;[11] conscription began in June 1918,[12] and opposition to it was violently suppressed.[13] To politically control the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Red Army soldiery, the Cheka operated Special Punitive Brigades which suppressed anti-communism, deserters, and enemies of the state.[10][14] Wartime pragmatism allowed recruiting ex-Tsarist officers and sergeants (non-commissioned officers, NCOs) to the Red Army.[15] Lev Glezarov's special commission screened and recruited; by mid-August 1920 the Red Army's former Tsarist troops comprised 48,000 officers, 10,300 administrators, and 214,000 NCOs.[16] At the Civil War's start, ex-Tsarists comprised 75 per cent of the Red Army officer corps,[17] who were employed as voenspetsy (military specialists),[18] whose loyalty was occasionally ascertained with hostage families.[17] At war's end in 1922, ex-Tsarists constituted 83 per cent of the Red Army's divisional and corps commanders.[19]

Lenin, Trotsky and soldiers, Petrograd, 1921.

The Red Army used special regiments for ethnic minorities, like the Dungan Cavalry Regiment commanded by the Dungan Magaza Masanchi.[20]

The slogan Exhortation, Organization, and Reprisals expressed the discipline and motivation ensuring the Red Army's tactical and strategic success. On campaign, the attached Cheka Special Punitive Brigades conducted summary field courts martial and executions of deserters and slackers.[21][22] Under Commissar Jānis K. Bērziņš, the Special Punitive Brigades took hostages from the villages of deserters, to compel their surrender; one in ten was executed. The tactic also suppressed peasant rebellions in Red Army-controlled areas.[23] The loyalty of the political, ethnic, and national varieties of men composing the Red Army was enforced by political commissars attached at the brigade and regiment levels, and to spy on subordinate commanders, for political incorrectness.[24] Despite such power, the political commissars whose Chekist detachments retreated or broke in the face of the enemy earned the death penalty. In August 1918, Trotsky authorized General Mikhail Tukhachevsky to place blocking units behind politically-unreliable Red Army units, to shoot them if they retreated without permission.[25] In 1942, during the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), Joseph Stalin reintroduced the policy via penal battalions.

Polish-Soviet War

In 1919-1921 the Red Army was also involved in the Polish-Soviet war, in which it reached central Poland in 1920, but then suffered a defeat there, which put an end to the war. During the Polish campaign the Red Army numbered some 6.5 million men, many of which the Army had difficulty supporting, around 581,000 in the two operational fronts, Western and Southwestern. Around 2.5 million men + woman were 'immobilized in the interior' as part of reserve armies.[26]

Doctrinal development in the 1920s and 1930s

After four years of warfare, the Red Army's defeat of Wrangel in the south[27] allowed the foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. Historian John Erickson dates 1 February 1924, when Mikhail Frunze became head of the Red Army Staff, as the ascent of the General Staff, which dominated Soviet military planning and operations. By 1 October 1924 the Red Army's strength diminished to 530,000.[28] Divisions of the Soviet Union 1917-1945 details the formations of the Red Army in that time.

In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, Soviet military theoreticians led by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky developed the Deep operations doctrine,[29] a direct consequence of their Polish-Soviet War and Russian Civil War experience. To achieve victory, deep operations comprehend simultaneous Corps- and Army-size unit maneuvers of simultaneous parallel attacks throughout the depth of the enemy's ground forces, inducing catastrophic defensive failure. The deep battle doctrine relies upon aviation and armor advances in the hope that maneuver warfare offers quick, efficient, and decisive victory. Marshal Tukhachevsky said that aerial warfare must be "employed against targets beyond the range of infantry, artillery, and other arms. For maximum tactical effect aircraft should be employed en masse, concentrated in time and space, against targets of the highest tactical importance."

Soviet tanks in the battle of Khalkhin Gol, August 1939

Red Army Deep Operations were first formally expressed in the 1929 Field Regulations, and codified in the 1936 Provisional Field Regulations (PU-36). The Great Purge (1937–39) removed many leading officers from the Red Army, including Tukhachevsky and many of his followers, and the doctrine was abandoned. Thus at the Battle of Lake Khasan, in 1938, and the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, in 1939, major border clashes with the Imperial Japanese Army, the doctrine was not used. It was not until the Second World War that deep operations were to be reused.

Chinese Soviet War

The Republic of China waged war against invading Soviet and White Russian forces during the Sino-Soviet conflict (1929), the Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang and the Xinjiang War (1937). The Red Army achieved its objectives; it maintained effective control over the Manchurian Chinese Eastern Railway, and successfully installed a pro-Soviet regime in Xinjiang.[30]

The Winter War with Finland

Red Army soldiers display a captured Finnish banner, March 1940.

The Winter War (Finnish: talvisota, Swedish: vinterkriget, Russian: Зимняя война)[31] was a war between the Soviet Union and Finland. It began with a Soviet offensive on 30 November 1939—three months after the start of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Poland—and ended on 13 March 1940 with the Moscow Peace Treaty. The League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union on 14 December 1939.[32]

The Soviet forces had three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army, however, had been crippled by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of 1937, reducing the army's morale and efficiency shortly before the outbreak of the fighting.[33] With over 30,000 of its army officers executed or imprisoned, including most of those of the highest ranks, the Red Army in 1939 had many inexperienced senior officers.[34][35]:56 Because of these factors, and high commitment and morale in the Finnish forces, Finland was able to resist the Soviet invasion for far longer than the Soviets expected; Finnish forces inflicted stunning losses on the Red Army for the first 3 to 4 months while suffering very few losses of their own.[35]:79-80

Hostilities ceased in March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland ceded 11% of its pre-war territory and 30% of its economic assets to the Soviet Union.[36]:18 Soviet losses on the front were heavy, and the country's international reputation suffered.[36]:272-273 The Soviet forces did not accomplish their objective of the total conquest of Finland but conquered sufficient territory along Lake Ladoga, Petsamo and Salla. The Finns, however, retained their sovereignty and improved their international reputation (and increased the moral in the Continuation War).

The Great Patriotic War

Soviet gun crew in action during the Siege of Odessa, July 1941.

In accordance with the Soviet-Nazi Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, after the Nazi invasion on 1 September 1939. On 30 November, the Red Army also attacked Finland, in the Winter War of 1939–40. By autumn 1940, after conquering its portion of Poland, the Third Reich shared an extensive border with USSR, with whom it remained neutrally-bound by their non-aggression pact and trade agreements. Another consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, carried out by the Southern Front in June–July 1940. This conquest also added to the border the Soviet Union shared with Nazi-controlled areas. For Hitler, the circumstance was no dilemma, because [37] the Drang nach Osten ("Drive towards the East") policy secretly remained in force, culminating on 18 December 1940 with Directive No. 21, Operation Barbarossa, approved on 3 February 1941, and slated for mid-May 1941.

Soviet counter-attack during the battle of Moscow, December 1941.

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army's ground forces had 303 divisions and 22 separate brigades (4.8 million soldiers), including 166 divisions and 9 brigades (2.9 million soldiers) garrisoned in the western military districts. The Axis deployed on the Eastern Front 181 divisions and 18 brigades (5.5 million soldiers). Three Fronts, the Northwestern, Western, and Southwestern conducted the defense of the western borders of the USSR. In the first weeks of the Great Patriotic War the Wehrmacht defeated many Red Army units. The Red Army lost millions of men as prisoners and lost much of its pre-war matériel. Stalin increased mobilization, and by 1 August 1941, despite 46 divisions lost in combat, the Red Army's strength was 401 divisions.[38]

The unprepared Soviet forces suffered much damage in the field because of mediocre officers, partial mobilization, an incomplete reorganization and mainly because they were arranged to attack Central Europe, and not to defend Soviet territory.[39] The hasty pre-war forces expansion and the over-promotion of inexperienced officers (owing to the purging of experienced officers) favored the Wehrmacht in combat.[39] The Axis's numeric superiority rendered the combatants' divisional strength approximately equal.[40] A generation of Soviet commanders (notably Georgy Zhukov) learned from the defeats,[41] and Soviet victories in the Battle of Moscow, at Stalingrad, Kursk and later in Operation Bagration proved decisive.

In 1941, the Soviet government raised the bloodied Red Army's esprit de corps with propaganda eschewing class struggle for the defense of Motherland and nation, employing historic examplars of Russian courage and bravery against foreign aggressors. The anti-Nazi Great Patriotic War, was conflated with the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon, and historical Russian military heroes, such as Alexander Nevski and Mikhail Kutuzov, appeared; repression of the Russian Orthodox Church (temporarily) ceased, and priests revived the tradition of blessing arms before battle.

To encourage the initiative of Red Army commanders, the CPSU temporarily abolished political commissars, reintroduced formal military ranks and decorations, and the Guards-unit concept. Exceptionally heroic or high-performing units earned the Guards title (e.g. 1st Guards Special Rifle Corps, 6th Guards Tank Army),[42], an élite designation denoting superior training, matériel, and pay. Punishment also was used; slackers and malingerers avoiding combat with self-inflicted wounds [43] cowards, thieves, and deserters were disciplined with beatings, demotions, undesirable/dangerous duties, and summary execution by NKVD punitive detachments.

BM-13 "Katyusha" battery fire, during the Battle of Berlin, April 1945.

In that time, the osobist (NKVD military counter-intelligence officer) became a key Red Army figure with the power to condemn to death and to spare the life of any soldier and (most any) officer of the unit to which he was attached. In 1942, Stalin established the penal battalions composed of gulag inmates, Soviet PoWs, disgraced soldiers, and deserters, for hazardous front-line duty as tramplers clearing Nazi minefields, et cetera.[44][45] Given the dangers, the maximum sentence was three months. Likewise, the Soviet treatment of Red Army personnel captured by the Wehrmacht was especially harsh. A 1941 Stalin directive ordered the suicide of every Red Army officer and soldier rather than surrender; Soviet law regarded all captured Red Army soldiers as traitors.[46] Soviet PoWs whom the Red Army liberated from enemy captivity usually were sentenced to penal battalions.[46]

Victorious Soviet soldiers in Berlin.
Red Army victory banner, raised above the German Reichstag in May, 1945.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army conscripted 29,574,900 men in addition to the 4,826,907 in service at the beginning of the war. Of this total of 34,401,807 it lost 6,329,600 KIA, 555,400 deaths by disease and 4,559,000 MIA (most captured). Of these 11,444,000, however, 939,700 rejoined the ranks in the subsequently liberated Soviet territory, and a further 1,836,000 returned from German captivity. Thus the grand total of losses amounted to 8,668,400.[47] This is the official total dead, but other estimates give the number of total dead up to almost 11 million men, including 7.7 million killed or missing in action and 2.6 million POW dead (out of 5.2 million total POWs), plus 400,000 paramilitary and Soviet partisan losses.[48] The majority of the losses, excluding POWs, being ethnic Russians (5,756,000), followed by ethnic Ukrainians (1,377,400).[47] However, as many as 8 million of the 34 million mobilized were non-Slavic minority soldiers, and around 45 divisions formed from national minorities served from 1941 to 1943.[49]

The German losses on the Eastern Front comprised an estimated 3,604,800 KIA within the 1937 borders plus 900,000 ethnic Germans and Austrians outside the 1937 border (included in these numbers are men listed as missing in action or unaccounted for after the war)[50] and 3,576,300 men reported captured (total 8,081,100); the losses of the German satellites on the Eastern Front approximated 668,163 KIA/MIA and 799,982 captured (total 1,468,145). Of these 9,549,245, the Soviets released 3,572,600 from captivity after the war, thus the grand total of the Axis losses came to an estimated 5,976,645.[51] As regards prisoners of war, both sides captured large numbers and had many die in captivity - one recent British [52] figure says 3.6 of 6 million Soviet POWs died in German camps, while 300,000 of 3 million German POWs died in Soviet hands.[53]


Early in the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army fielded some excellent weaponry, especially artillery and tanks. The Red Army's heavy KV-1 and medium T-34 tanks outclassed most Wehrmacht armor, but in 1941, most Soviet tank units used older models. The Soviet Air Force, though equipped with relatively modern aircraft, initially performed poorly against the Luftwaffe. The rapid progress of the initial German air and land attacks into the Soviet Union made Red Army logistical support difficult, because many depots, and most of the USSR's industrial manufacturing base lay in the country's invaded western half, obliging their reestablishment east of the Ural Mountains. Until then, the Red Army was often required to improvise or go without weapons, vehicles, and other equipment.[54]


Unofficial Red Army flag, since the Soviet ground forces never had an official flag.[55]

At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army functioned as a voluntary formation, without ranks or insignia. Democratic elections selected the officers. However, a decree of May 29, 1918 imposed obligatory military service for men of ages 18 to 40.[56] To service the massive draft, the Bolsheviks formed regional military commissariats (voyennyy komissariat, abbr. voyenkomat), which as of 2006 still exist in Russia in this function and under this name. Military commissariats however should not be confused with the institution of military political commissars.

In the mid-1920s the territorial principle of manning the Red Army was introduced. In each region able-bodied men were called up for a limited period of active duty in territorial units, which comprised about half the Army's strength, each year, for five years.[57] The first call-up period was for three months, with one month a year thereafter. A regular cadre provided a stable nucleus. By 1925 this system provided 46 of the 77 infantry divisions and one of the eleven cavalry divisions. The remainder consisted of regular officers and enlisted personnel serving two-year terms. The territorial system was finally abolished, with all remaining formations converted to the other cadre divisions, in 1937–38.[58]

Red Army BT-7 tanks on parade.

Under Stalin's campaign for mechanization, the army formed its first mechanized unit in 1930. The 1st Mechanized Brigade, consisting of a tank regiment, a motorized infantry regiment, and reconnaissance and artillery battalions.[59] From this humble beginning, the Soviets would go on to create the first operational-level armored formations in history, the 11th and 45th Mechanized Corps, in 1932. These were tank-heavy formations with combat support forces included so they could survive while operating in enemy rear areas without support from a parent front.

Impressed by the German campaign of 1940 against France, the Soviet People's Commissariat of Defence (Defence Ministry, Russian abbreviation NKO) ordered the creation of nine mechanized corps on July 6, 1940. Between February and March 1941 another twenty would be ordered, and all larger than those of Tukhachevsky. Even though the Red Army's 29 mechanized corps had no less than 29,899 tanks on paper by 1941, they proved to be a paper tiger.[60] There were actually only 17,000 tanks available at the time, meaning several of the new mechanized corps were under strength. The pressure placed on factories and military planners to show production numbers also led to a situation where the majority of armored vehicles were obsolescent models, critically lacking in spare parts and support equipment, and nearly three quarters were overdue for major maintenance.[61] By June 22, 1941 there were only 1,475 T-34s and KV series tanks available to the Red Army, and these were too dispersed along the front to provide enough mass for even local success.[62] To put this into perspective, the 3rd Mechanized Corps in Lithuania was formed up of a total of 460 tanks; 109 of these were newer KV-1s and T-34s. This corps would prove to be one of the lucky few with a substantial number of newer tanks. However, the 4th Army was composed of 520 tanks, all of which were the obsolete T-26, as opposed to the authorized strength of 1,031 newer medium tanks.[63] This problem was universal throughout the Red Army. This fact would play a crucial role in the initial defeats of the Red Army in 1941 at the hands of the German armed forces.[64]


War experience prompted changes to the way frontline forces were organized. After six months of combat against the Germans, STAVKA abolished the Rifle Corps intermediate level between the Army and Division level because, while useful in theory, in the state of the Red Army in 1941, they proved ineffective in practice.[65] Following the decisive victory in the Battle of Moscow in January 1942, the high command began to reintroduce Rifle Corps into its most experienced formations. The total number of Rifle Corps started at 62 on 22 June 1941, dropped to six by 1 January 1942, but then increased to 34 by February 1943, and 161 by New Year's Day 1944. Actual strengths of front-line rifle divisions, authorized to contain 11,000 men in July 1941, were mostly no more than 50% of established strengths during 1941,[66] and divisions were often worn down on continuous operations to hundreds of men or even less.

On the outbreak of war the Red Army deployed mechanized corps and tank divisions whose development has been described above. The German attack caused many , and in the course of 1941 virtually all (barring two in the Transbaikal Military District) were disbanded.[67] It was much easier to coordinate smaller forces, and separate tank brigades and battalions were substituted. It was late 1942 and early 1943 before larger tank formations of corps size were fielded to employ armor in mass again. By mid 1942 these corps were being grouped together into Tank Armies whose strength by the end of the war could be up to 700 tanks and 50,000 men.


The Bolshevik authorities assigned to every unit of the Red Army a political commissar, or politruk, who had the authority to override unit commanders' decisions if they ran counter to the principles of the Communist Party. Although this sometimes resulted in inefficient command according to some American historians, the Party leadership considered political control over the military absolutely necessary, as the Army relied more and more on officers from the pre-revolutionary Imperial period and understandably feared a military coup. This system was abolished in 1925, as there were by that time enough trained Communist officers that counter-signing of all orders was no longer necessary.[68]

Ranks and titles

Memorial to the Red Army in Prague

The early Red Army abandoned the institution of a professional officer corps as a "heritage of tsarism" in the course of the Revolution. In particular, the Bolsheviks condemned the use of the word "officer" and used the word "commander" instead. The Red Army abandoned epaulettes and ranks, using purely functional titles such as "Division Commander", "Corps Commander", and similar titles.[7]

On September 22, 1935 the Red Army abandoned service categories[clarification needed] and introduced personal ranks. These ranks, however, used a unique mix of functional titles and traditional ranks. For example, the ranks included "Lieutenant" and "Comdiv" (Комдив, Division Commander). Further complications ensued from the functional and categorical ranks for political officers (e.g., "Brigade Commissar", "Army Commissar 2nd Rank"), for technical corps (e.g., "Engineer 3rd Rank", "Division Engineer"), for administrative, medical and other non-combatant branches.

The Marshal of the Soviet Union (Маршал Советского Союза) rank was introduced on the September 22, 1935. On May 7, 1940 further modifications to rationalise the ranks system were made on the proposal by Marshal Voroshilov: the ranks of "General" and "Admiral" replaced the senior functional ranks of Combrig, Comdiv, Comcor, Comandarm in the RKKA and Flagman 1st rank etc. in the Red Navy; the other senior functional ranks ("Division Commissar", "Division Engineer", etc.) remained unaffected. The Arm or Service distinctions remained (e.g. General of Cavalry, Marshal of Armoured Troops).[69] For the most part the new system restored that used by the Imperial Russian Army at the conclusion of its participation in World War I.

In early 1943 a unification of the system saw the abolition of all the remaining functional ranks. The word "officer" became officially endorsed, together with the epaulettes that superseded the previous rank insignia. The ranks and insignia of 1943 did not change much until the last days of the USSR; the contemporary Russian Army uses largely the same system.

Military education

The military class: Kursants (cadets), Red Army Artillery School, Chuhuyiv 1933

During the Civil War the commander cadres were trained at the Nicholas General Staff Academy of the Russian Empire, which became the Frunze Military Academy in the 1920s. Senior and supreme commanders were trained at the Higher Military Academic Courses, renamed the Advanced Courses for Supreme Command in 1925; the 1931 establishment of an Operations Faculty at the Frunze Military Academy supplemented these courses. The General Staff Academy was reinstated on 2 April 1936, and became the principal military school for the senior and supreme commanders of the Red Army.[70]


The late 1930s saw the so-called Purges of the Red Army Cadres, which occurred concurrently with Stalin's Great Purge of Soviet society. In 1936 and 1937, at the orders of Stalin, thousands of Red Army officers were dismissed from their commands. The purges had the objective of cleansing the Red Army of the "politically unreliable elements", mainly among higher-ranking officers. This inevitably provided a convenient pretext for the settling of personal vendettas or to eliminate competition by officers seeking the same command. Many army, corps, and divisional commanders were sacked, most were imprisoned or sent to labor camps; others were executed. Among the victims was the Red Army's primary military theorist, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, perceived by Stalin as a potential political rival. Officers who remained soon found all of their decisions being closely examined by political officers, even in mundane matters such as record-keeping and field training exercises.[71] An atmosphere of fear and unwillingness to take the initiative soon pervaded the Red Army; suicide rates among junior officers rose to record levels.[71] Most historians believe that the purges significantly impaired the combat capabilities of the Red Army. However, the extent of the consequential damage attributable to them is still debated.

Red Army marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, executed during the Great Purge in June 1937.

Recently declassified data indicate that in 1937, at the height of the Purges, the Red Army had 114,300 officers, of whom 11,034 were dismissed.[citation needed] In 1938, the Red Army had 179,000 officers, 56% more than in 1937, of whom a further 6,742 were sacked.[citation needed] In the highest echelons of the Red Army the Purges removed 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army generals, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 out of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.[72]

The result was that the Red Army officer corps in 1941 had many inexperienced senior officers. While 60% of regimental commanders had two years or more of command experience in June 1941, and almost 80% of rifle division commanders, only 20% of corps commanders, and 5% or fewer army and military district commanders, had the same level of experience.[73]

The significant growth of the Red Army during the high point of the purges may have worsened matters. In 1937, the Red Army numbered around 1.3 million, increasing to almost three times that number by June 1941. The rapid growth of the army necessitated in turn the rapid promotion of officers regardless of experience or training.[71] Junior officers were appointed to fill the ranks of the senior leadership, many of whom lacked broad experience.[71] This action in turn resulted in many openings at the lower level of the officer corps, which were filled by new graduates from the service academies. In 1937, the entire junior class of one academy was graduated a year early to fill vacancies in the Red Army.[71] Hamstrung by inexperience and fear of reprisals, many of these new officers failed to impress the large numbers of incoming draftees to the ranks; complaints of insubordination rose to the top of offenses punished in 1941,[71] and may have exacerbated instances of Red Army soldiers deserting their units during the initial phases of the German offensive of that year.[71]

By 1940, Stalin began to relent, restoring approximately one-third of previously dismissed officers to duty.[71] However, the effect of the purges would soon manifest itself in the Winter War of 1940, where Red Army forces generally performed poorly against the much smaller Finnish Army.

Weapons and equipment

The Soviet Union expanded its indigenous arms industry as part of Stalin's industrialization program in the 1920s and 1930s.


  1. ^ Norman Davies: "Since 75%-80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front it follows that the efforts of the western allies accounted for only 20%-25%". Source: Sunday Times, 05/11/2006.
  2. ^ 'Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution', Collected Works, Vol. 24, pp. 55-91 accessed 29 may 2010
  3. ^ The Red Army by Erich Wollenberg, accessed 28 May 2010
  4. ^ 15 January 1918 (Old Style)
  5. ^ a b Decree issued by the Council of People's Commissars on January 15, 1918, accessed 28 May 2010
  6. ^ From Tsarist General to Red Army Commander by Mikhail Bonch-Bruyevich, translated by Vladimir Vezey, Progress Publishers, 1966, p 232
  7. ^ a b John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41, pp.72–3
  8. ^ Krasnov (Russian)
  9. ^ S.S. Lototskiy, The Soviet Army, Moscow:Progress Publishers (1971), p.25, cited in Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Eastview Press, Boulder, Co. (1979) p.3. February 08 became "Soviet Army Day", a national holiday in the USSR.
  10. ^ a b Suvorov, Viktor, Inside Soviet Military Intelligence, New York: Macmillan (1984)
  11. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.8
  12. ^ Read, Christopher, From Tsar to Soviets, Oxford University Press (1996), p.137: By 1920, 77 per cent the enlisted ranks were peasants,
  13. ^ Williams, Beryl, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (1987), ISBN 9780631150831 0631150838: Conscription-age (17-40) villagers hid from Red Army draft units; summary hostage executions brought the men out of hiding.
  14. ^ Chamberlain, William Henry, The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921, New York: Macmillan Co. (1857), p.131
  15. ^ John Erickson, The Soviet High Command—A Military–Political History 1918–41, MacMillan, London (1962), pp.31–34
  16. ^ N. Efimov, Grazhdanskaya Voina 1918–21 (The Civil War 1918–21), Second Volume, Moscow, c.1928, p.95, cited in Erickson, 1962, p.33
  17. ^ a b Williams, Beryl, The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (1987), ISBN 9780631150831 0631150838
  18. ^ Overy, R.J., The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, W.W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0393020304, 9780393020304, p.446: at the end of the civil war, one-third of Red Army officers were ex-Tsarist voenspetsy.
  19. ^ Overy, R.J., The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, W.W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0393020304, 9780393020304, p.446:
  20. ^ Central Asian Research Centre (London, England), St. Antony's College (University of Oxford). Soviet Affairs Study Group (1968). Situating Central Asian review, Volume 16. Published by the Central Asian Research Centre in association with the Soviet Affairs Study Group, St. Antony's College, Oxford. p. 250. Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
  21. ^ Chamberlain, William Henry, The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921, New York: Macmillan Co. (1957), p.131
  22. ^ , Daniels, Robert V., A Documentary History of Communism in Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev, UPNE (1993), ISBN 0874516161, 9780874516166, p.70: The Cheka Special Punitive Brigades also were charged with detecting sabotage and counter-revolution among Red Army soldiers and commanders.
  23. ^ Brovkin, Vladimire, Workers' Unrest and the Bolsheviks' Response in 1919, Slavic Review, Vol. 49, No.3 (Autumn 1990), pp.350–73
  24. ^ Erickson, 1962, pp.38–9
  25. ^ Dmitri Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, transl. & edited by Harold Shukman, HarperCollins Publishers, London (1996), p. 180
  26. ^ Erickson, 1962, p.101
  27. ^ Erickson, 1962, p.102–107
  28. ^ Erickson, 1962, p.167
  29. ^ Mary R. Habeck, Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919–1939, Cornell University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8014-4074-2.
  30. ^ Hsiao-ting Lin, Modern China's Ethnic Frontiers: A Journey to the West, published 2010, p.58
  31. ^ The names Soviet–Finnish War 1939–1940 (Russian: Советско-финская война 1939–1940) and Soviet–Finland War 1939–1940 (Russian: Советско-финляндская война 1939–1940) are often used in Russian historiography. See:
  32. ^ "League of Nations' expulsion of the U.S.S.R.". League of Nations. 14 December 1939. Retrieved 24 July 2009. 
  33. ^ Bullock (1993). p. 489.
  34. ^ Glanz (1998). p. 58.
  35. ^ a b Ries (1988)
  36. ^ a b Edwards (2006)
  37. ^ Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, American edition, Boston (1943) p.654, cited in William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Reprint Society, London (1962) p.796
  38. ^ David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998, p.15
  39. ^ a b David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  40. ^ Appendix D of Stumbling Colossus, by David Glantz, shows the correlation of forces, pp.292–95); the Axis forces possessed a 1:1.7 superiority in personnel, despite the Red Army's 174 divisions against the Axis's 164 divisions, a 1.1:1 ratio.
  41. ^ David Glantz, Colossus Reborn, 2005, p.61–62
  42. ^ David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas (2005), p.181
  43. ^ Merridale, Catherine, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, New York: Macmillan (2006), ISBN 0805074554, 9780805074550, p.157: Red Army soldiers who shot or injured themselves to avoid combat usually were summarily executed, to save the time and money of medical treatment and a court martial.
  44. ^ Toppe, Alfred, Night Combat, Diane Publishing (1998), ISBN 0788170805, 9780788170805, p.28: The Wehrmacht and the Soviet Army documented penal battalions tramplers clearing minefields; on 28 December 1942, Wehrmacht forces on the Kerch peninsula observed a Soviet penal battalion running through a minefield, detonating the mines and clearing a path for the Red Army.
  45. ^ Tolstoy, Nikolai, Stalin's Secret War, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1981), ISBN 0030472660: Stalin's Directive 227, about the Nazi use of the death penalty and penal units as punishment, ordered Soviet penal battalions established.
  46. ^ a b Tolstoy, Nikolai, Stalin's Secret War, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1981), ISBN 0030472660
  47. ^ a b See Г. Ф. Кривошеев, Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: потери вооруженных сил. Статистическое исследование (G. F. Krivosheev, Russia and the USSR in the wars of the 20th century: losses of the Armed Forces. A Statistical Study, in Russian)
  48. ^ Vadim Erlikman. Poteri narodonaseleniia v XX veke : spravochnik. Moscow 2004. ISBN 5-93165-107-1
  49. ^ Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.600–602
  50. ^ "It seems entirely plausible, while not provable, that one half of the missing were killed in action, the other half however in fact died in Soviet custody", Rűdiger Overmans Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1
  51. ^ Rűdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1
  52. ^ Richard Overy Stalin's Russia, Hitlers Germany
  53. ^ German-Russian Berlin-Karlhorst museum,
  54. ^ Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (1998) ISBN 0-14-024985-0
  55. ^ "флажные мистификации [The flag Hoax]" (in Russian). Retrieved 11 September 2010. 
  56. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.5
  57. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.12
  58. ^ David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.717 note 5.
  59. ^ Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle World War II Volume I: "The Deadly Beginning," Soviet Tank, Mechanized, Motorized Divisions and Tank Brigades of 1940–1942 (Privately Published, George Nafziger, 1995), 2–3, cited at [1][dead link]
  60. ^ House, p. 96
  61. ^ Zaloga 1984, p 126.
  62. ^ House, Jonathan M. (1984). Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027–6900: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, p. 96
  63. ^ Glantz, pg.35
  64. ^ Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, p. 117
  65. ^ Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.179
  66. ^ David Glantz, 2005, p.189
  67. ^ Glantz, 2005, p.217–230
  68. ^ Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the USSR, Eastview Press, 1979, p.13
  69. ^ John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41
  70. ^ Carey Schofield, Inside the Soviet Army, Headline, London (1991), pp.67–70
  71. ^ a b c d e f g h Merridale, Catherine, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, New York: Macmillan (2007), ISBN 0312426526, 9780312426521, p. 70
  72. ^ Bullock, Alan Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), ISBN 9780679729945, p.489.
  73. ^ Glantz, David M., Stumbling Colossus, p. 58.


  • Carrere D'Encausse, Helene. The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-09818-5
  • Erickson, John. The Soviet High Command - A Military-Political History 1918–41, MacMillan, London, 1962, OCLC 569056
  • Glantz, David, Colossus Reborn, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 9780700613533
  • Glantz, David. Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 9780700608799
  • House, Jonathan M. (1984). Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027–6900: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, OCLC 11650157
  • Isby, David C. Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army, Jane's Publishing Company, 1988, ISBN 9780710603524
  • Moynahan, Brian. Claws of the Bear: The History of the Red Army from the Revolution to the Present (1989)
  • Odom, William E. The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, ISBN 9780300074697
  • Reese, Roger R. Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II (University Press of Kansas; 2011) 400 pages
  • Schofield, Carey . Inside the Soviet Army, Headline Book Publishing, 1991, ISBN 9780747204183
  • Scott, Harriet Fast, and William F. Scott. The Armed Forces of the USSR, (3rd ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Co., 1984), ISBN 0-86531-792-5
  • Zaloga, Steven J.; Grandsen, James. Soviet Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War Two, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984,

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