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From the Purges to the Winter War: Red Army operations before Barbarossa
In the late 1930s the Soviet Union experienced a brutal Ezhovshchina– or Purge – which swept through all levels of its society with millions arrested and tens of thousands shot for reasons lacking any form of ethics or justification.
As historian, E.R. Hooton describes in this absorbing and revealing history, the Soviet armed forces did not escape the bloody tidal wave which swept away the majority of their most experienced and gifted officers. One of the driving forces for the Red Army Purges was a bitter dispute between the conservatives and radicals who sought a form of warfare based on deep-roaming mechanised forces. But the conservatives’ ensuing bitterness was due to the fact that the radicals were unable to make the mechanised forces viable operationally and this failure would prove to be the major factor in driving the radicals to the execution chambers.
Yet as the leadership of the Soviet forces was cut to pieces, the Red Army was deployed in operations at the extremities of Stalin’s empire. Despite showing ominous signs of weakness, in every case it triumphed. The Japanese had been defeated on the Korean border at Lake Khasan in 1938 and a year later suffered a major defeat on the Mongolian border at the River Khalkin (Khalkin Gol) in an offensive directed by the future Marshal Zhukov. These guns had barely ceased fire when there was a major invasion of eastern Poland following the Ribbentrop Pact. On the back of that, the Baltic States were compelled to allow the Russians to base forces in their borders.
But as the Purges eased and Moscow became over-confident, the massive Red Army became enmeshed in the disastrous Winter War with Finland of 1939-1940 which saw its military prestige shattered and its invasion not only stopped, but dealt a series of major defeats. Victory of a kind, when it came, was pyrrhic.
In the aftermath, the Red Army hurriedly sought to modernise and to expand in order to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany. It invaded Rumania’s eastern province of Bessarabia in June 1940 to provoke ‘Barbarossa’. Yet the Purges and the Purge mentality continued to wreak slaughter and fear from 1939 to 1941, culminating in a mini massacre of Soviet generals even as Hitler’s armies approached Moscow.
Following detailed research, the author provides a vivid and important insight into the operations conducted by the Red Army from 1937 to 1941 and makes some surprising conclusions about the impact of the Purges.
A five-minute interview with the author, E.R. Hooton
E.R. (Ted) Hooton has been a journalist for 40 years and a defence journalist for about 25 years. He has written numerous articles on military history and three highly regarded books on the history of the Luftwaffe – ‘The Luftwaffe – A Study in Air Power 1933-1945’ (2010) ‘Phoenix Triumphant: The Rise and Rise of the Luftwaffe’ (1992) and ‘Eagle in Flames: The Fall of the Luftwaffe’ (1997) as well as contributing to several others. He has also written a detailed history of air operations over the Western Front, ‘War above the Trenches – Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918’ (2010). Tattered Flag Press recently discussed his latest book with him.
Tattered Flag Press (TFP): Ted – thanks for your time. It is perhaps fair to say that your published books to date identify you as an aviation historian. Also, much has been written about ‘Stalin’s wars’. What attracted you to writing Stalin’s Claws?
E.R.Hooton (ERH): Like many of the books which I have written this originated in frustration at not finding a single source, in this case one combining the Red Army purges and Red Army operations from 1937 to Operation Barbarossa. So I decided to do it myself.
TFP: How difficult was it interpreting the mass of sources you have used?
ERH: Interpreting was not the problem. Acquiring the information was not. One thing which did surprise me was how much information is available directly, and indirectly, through the internet. It is possible to access Russian-language books and a host of specialist websites with well-researched information.
TFP: Having written the book, how do you judge the military decisions of Stalin and the leadership qualities of his generals prior to Barbarossa? Could things have been handled in different ways?
ERH: I think this book clearly indicates that you should never select military leaders just on the basis of their political sympathies. Most of the competent Red Army leadership fell victim to paranoia, as I demonstrate a couple of times, and most of those left, like Kulik, were not capable of running a latrine. A few, however, demonstrated great courage on the eve of the German invasion by putting their forces on alert. But the majority had been cowed into obeying orders.
TFP: Do you consider the Red Army to have been an effective force between 1937-1941, compared to say the German, French and British armies of the time?
ERH: I think the evidence in my book demonstrates that the Red Army in this period was inferior to all its major contemporaries.
TFP: Did the process of writing the book reveal any surprises or make you reassess things along the way?
ERH: The great surprise was the absence of a proper staff, the ‘Brain of the Army’ as Shaposhnikov called his book on the subject. True, most senior leaders went through a staff course, but this was clearly inadequate and throughout this period the Red Army’s mechanised development and operations were plagued by bad staff work. It was this which neutralised the Red Army lead in mechanised forces and was a major cause for the purges. Only when the General Staff began to receive officers from the new dedicated facilities created by Shaposhnikov did it lay the foundation for victory over Germany. Indeed, I suggest the purges were the alibi for the Red Army’s failure rather than the cause. Interestingly, the famed PU 36 regulations never appear to have come into force although they were published.
TFP: What military books are you reading at the moment or have you read recently?
ERH: I am reading a variety of books on the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the Spanish Civil War and the Iran-Iraq War. My favourite military book is Corelli Barnet’s The Swordbearers, although this has been overtaken in some aspects by later research. I also love Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War; it is not a military history as such, but is the only book of which I have three copies. I am also building up my Luftwaffe research library.
TFP: Can you tell us about any future writing projects you have lined up?
ERH: My next book is about what is, arguably, the British Army’s greatest success – the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918. This is due to be published by the end of this year as A Shield Twice Broken by Tattered Flag Press and has quite a lot of information not only about the operations but also the personalities – both Allied and German. I am completing a book on the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars and other subjects I would like to pursue include the air war over the Eastern Front, the Spanish Civil War, Arab-Israeli operations of 1967-1973, the Iran-Iraq War, the Indo-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-1971, the Sri Lanka Civil War, the Out Country War in Indo-China, and also Luftwaffe operations over the Mediterranean, the Reich, and western Europe. And with my left foot…
TFP: OK! Well, we’d better leave it at that! Many thanks, Ted.
ERH: A pleasure.