Training of the Soviet army commanders. Marshal Semyon Timoshenko presides over the evaluation of the manoeuvres of the Kiev Military District in the autumn of 1940.



Changes in the political configuration of the Soviet Union's western frontier, which occurred in 1939-1940, brought the necessity of numerous corrections in the Soviet strategic defence plans. Since the spring of 1940 those corrections had been made at the General Staff, and involved Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov (Chief of the General Staff), Gen. Nikolay Vatutin (Chief of Operations of the General Staff), Gen. Alexander Vasilevskiy (Deputy Chief of Operations of the General Staff), Gen. Kirill Meretskov (Deputy People's Commissar for Defence), Gen. Gherman Malandin (Deputy People's Commissar for Defence), Gen. Andrei Anisov (Deputy People's Commissar for Defence), Gen. Georgiy Zhukov (Commander of the Kiev Special Military District), and many lower-ranking officers of the General Staff. Gen. Vasilevskiy thus wrote about that work:

We were working concertedly and hard. Operational plans occupied all our thoughts on those days. Nazi Germany was deemed the most probable, and main, opponent. It was accepted that Italy would enter the war alongside Germany, but she would limit herself, as it was specified in the plans, to the military operations in the Balkans to create a menace to our southern frontiers. Most likely on the German side would operate Finland (whose leadership embraced pro-German stance after the fall of France and the disaster of the English troops at Dunkirk), Romania (Germany's typical "raw material appendage" since 1939, which in the summer of 1940 completely abandoned the policy of neutrality and sided with the fascist block), and Hungary (at that time a member of the "Anticomintern Pact" as well). B. M. Shaposhnikov favoured the view that an armed conflict may be limited to the western frontiers of the USSR. In that case the operational plans foresaw concentration of the main forces in the west. Although those plans did not exclude a Japanese attack on our Far East, they provided for concentrating there forces sufficient to maintain stable situation.

Furthermore, as we discussed the direction of the probable enemy thrust, B. M. Shaposhnikov maintained that the most convenient to Germany, and therefore the most probable, was deployment of the bulk of the German forces in the north to the mouth of the River San. Our plans provided, accordingly, for deployment of our main forces along the line from the Baltic coast to Polesye, that is in the operational zones of the North-Western and Western Fronts. The southern sectors were assigned to two Fronts as well, but with lesser number of troops and equipment. Overall, it was expected that Germany woud need 10 to 15 days to deploy its forces along our borders, beginning from their concentration. Possible dates of attack were not discussed. Those were general plans.

Those plans, along with the plan of the strategic deployment of the Red Army forces were reported directly to I. V. Stalin in September 1940 in the presence of some members of the Party's Political Bureau. (...)

As he commented on the most probable direction of the enemy thrust, I. V. Stalin voiced his point of view. According to him, in case of war, Germany would try to concentrate its main efforts not in the centre of what would become the line of the Germano-Soviet front, but in the south-west, in order to wrestle from us our most valuable economical, industrial and agricultural, areas. Therefore, the General Staff received orders to re-work the plans to bear in mind amassing the bulk of our forces in the south-western sector. [Василевский А. М. (1978).]

New plans foresaw that the war from the onset would assume protracted and heavily materiel course, and that in the initial phase the Germans would not risk to engage th bulk of their forces in fights, but they would gradually introduce fresh troops in the sectors where they gain local successes. Therefore, the Soviet plan foresaw organizing the Red Army's forces in two strategic echelons. The forces of the first strategic echelon, comprising resources of the five westernmost military districts, received the following orders:
  • to prevent incursion of the enemy forces into the Soviet territory;
  • to cover, through flexible and active defence, based on the system of so-called fortified districts, areas of concentration and deployment of the Red Army's second strategic echelon;
  • to organize anti-air defence and air force operations to maintain regular railway communication, and uninterrupted transfer and deployment of the troops;
  • to scout the areas of concentration and strength of the engaged enemy units and reserves;
  • to wrestle the command of the air from the enemy;
  • to disorganize concentration, and to stall the advance of the enemy troops through attacks on railway nodes, bridges, and communication routes.
Second strategic echelon, formed along the line of the rivers Dnieper and Western Dvina, had to be introduced in fights after the collapse of the German initial offensive with the task of unfolding counter-offensive operations, crushing the German forces in the main sectors of hostilities, and conducting major strategic operations coming out of the actual military situation.

Soviet military and state authorities reviewed that plan twice in February and April 1941, and received the final approval upon implementation of Stalin's directive to concentrate the main effort in the south-western direction. Operational deployment of the first echelon units according to the strategic defence plan was accepted, and respective orders were communicated to the appropriate commands in the beginning of May 1941. The operational deployment provided for the following organization of the Soviet defences:
  1. Leningrad Military District (Gen. Markian Popov) was assigned to assume defences along the Finnish frontier, from Murmansk and Petsamo on the Barents Sea to Vyborg on the Gulf of Finland, and farther along the coast to Tallin. Altogether, the Leningrad Military District deployed 18 infantry divisions and 4 armoured divisions along the 1670km-long front.
  2. Baltic Special Military District (Gen. Fyodor Kuznetsov) was assigned to defence of the Baltic coast from Tallin to Memel (Klaipeda), and the frontier from Memel to Grodno along the River Niemen. Altogether it had to cover a 720km-long front with the centre of gravity between Tilsit and Grodno, where were concentrated most of the District's 26 divisions, including all 4 armoured divisions.
  3. Western Special Military District (Gen. Dmitry Pavlov) was assigned to cover the 470km-long front from Grodno to Wlodawa with the centre of gravity around Grodno and Minsk. Gen. Pavlov had 44 divisions under his command, including the most worthy armoured ones.
  4. Kiev Special Military District (Gen. Mikhail Kirponos) was assigned to defence of a 860km-long frontier from Wlodawa to Lipkany.
  5. Odessa Military District (Gen. Yakov Cherevichenko) was assigned to defence of the state border from Lipkany to the Black Sea along the 650km-long front, where it had deployed the 9th Army, and the 2nd and 18th Mechanized Corps.
To the support of the land forces were designated the naval forces of the Northern Fleet (Adm. Arseniy Golovko), Baltic Fleet (Adm. Vladimir Tributs), and Black Sea Fleet (Adm. Filipp Oktyabrsky), as well as units of long-range bomber aviation.

A particular feature of the deployment of the Soviet defences was that each army, despite of having stretched its defence sectors, detached strong units for the second line, and assigned to counter-attacking enemy forces wedging into the first line. Effectively, 63 infantry divisions were deployed along the first line of the Soviet defence, while 51 divisions, including all the armoured and mechanized ones, were deployed along in the second line and reserves. Some 100 to 150 km behind the second line, military districts deployed 45 reserve divisions, and another 20 divisions were detached to the strategic reserve of the Supreme Command.

To make those plans true, in May and the beginning of June about 800 thousand reservists were mobilized and sent to reinforce divisions of the first line. Also, it was decided to transfer 28 infantry divisions from the central to the frontier provinces of the USSR, and to create new armies: 16th (Gen. Mikhail Lukin), 19th (Gen. Ivan Konev), 20th (Gen. Fyodor Remezov), 21st (Gen. Vasiliy Gerasimenko), and 22nd (Gen. Filipp Yershov). However, the process of reinforcement had not been finished before the outbreak of the war. Thus, instead of the planned 63 divisions the first line of strategic defence was formed of 56 divisions and 100,000 border guards. The second line was formed of 52 divisions, that is slightly more than planned, but they were incomplete and deployed some 100 to 150 km behind the first line. Reserves comprised 62 divisions at various stages of formation, and they were deployed as an average 400km from the western border.

Therefore, the Soviet leadership strove to gain by all means time to increase combat capabilities of the elements of the strategic grouping. Very characteristic in this question are Kirill Meretskov's memoirs, who recalled the conversation with the people's commissar for defence, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko on 21 June 1941, who outlined to him the main concern of that time:

Previous directives are still valid. To win peace for the country, as much as possible: a year, six months, a month. We shall gather the harvest. We shall build new factories. More mechanized corps shall be formed. We shall launch production of the fast aircraft. May be the international situation will improve. But if it won't, if the war breaks out anyway, not now, but later, it'll be easier to wage it. We must win time whatever it takes! Another month, another two weeks, another week. May be the war will start tomorrow. But we must do everything possible so it won't start tomorrow. Do everything possible and a little bit of impossible. Don't surrender to provocations; after all the treaty with Germany is enacted. Don't go with the flow, but take the situation under control, manage it, stream it into the right direction, and make it to work for the concepts we have worked out. But what can we do today so the war will not start tomorrow? [Мерецков К. А. (1968).]