Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Fun Friday Fact #17

Between July and December 1941, with its economic centres around Moscow within reach of the advancing German army, the Soviet Union dismantled 1,523 enterprises piece by piece and transported them to the Urals, Volga, Kazakhstan and eastern Siberia.

On June 22nd 1941, Germany declared war with Russia and launched the now infamous ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Within a matter of months, the German army was only 150 miles away from the Russian capital. The German’s sweep through the rich iron, coal and steel regions of western Russian and the Ukraine had deprived Soviet industry of 3/4 of its iron ore, coal and steel, the beating heart of modern industry. 1/3 of its railway was lost and the availability of resources vital for the production of modern weapons, such as aluminium, manganese and copper, was cut by 2/3. To top it all, the rich grain lands in the Soviet ‘bread basket’ were in enemy hands, so that grain supplies fell by half for the 130 million Soviet citizens living in unoccupied Russia. In short, by December 1941, the Russian economy was on its knees.

Had Russia have fallen in 1941, then it is unlikely that Britain would have survived alone, certainly not against a Germany with the bulk of European industry under its control. But somehow the Soviet economy survived. In a truly staggering feat of human ingenuity, those factories within enemy range were dismantled and carried eastwards out of danger in one and a half million wagon loads on the Soviet rail network. In addition, 16 million Soviet workers were able to escape the German net, to stoke the fires again, some of them starting up production on the frozen floor as the factories were built around them. For the remainder of the war, the Russian war effort was sustained on this remarkable expansion so much so that from 1942, the eastern zones supplied 3/4 of all Soviet weapons and almost all the iron and steel.

The state of the affairs grows all the more incredible when one reflects on the fact that, in 1942, Russian industry produced more weapons in a year than it had done so before and more weapons than the enemy.

The main reason behind Russian industrial success was that the economy was centrally planned. This meant that, unlike America’s free market economy, where one could not simply turn milk into planes, anything and anyone could be used to promote war productions at the expense of everything else. The Soviet Union was turned into ‘Stalin’s single war camp.’ Businesses did not need to show a profit – there were no material incentives offered to factory workers working 16 hour days. The Soviet people were well used to state-set targets, and had been since the pre-war Five-Year plans. They knew the price of failure.

The effectiveness of the Russian economic plan from 1941-45 lay in its scale and its simplicity. The industrial centres in the Urals were not pretty, but each served a specific purpose: Magnitogorsk was the main producer of steel; Chelyabinsk, or ‘Tankograd’ churned out T-34s. The Soviet Union could not afford the luxury of employing a wide range of different types of weapons (they lacked the skilled labour and factory capacity) but this actually transpired to work in their favour. Crude mass-producition ensured large numbers and robust construction of a single model. This meant that spare parts (for tanks, planes etc.) were readily available, and that mechanics were well-versed with a particular model and could fix it quickly when it invariably broke down.

By comparison, the German economy in the Second World War was a bureaucratic nightmare. Hitler had attempted to take military control of economic affairs in a country where there was no precendent. As a result of the German military’s obsession with technological excellence each time a small problem was noticed in the performance of one of their machines, a whole new model would be developed so that the German army fielded a dizzying array of machinery. For example, while the Soviets had 5 main aircraft types, the Germans had 425. There was no chance that a German engineer would know how to fix all of them, or carry the necessary parts.

The German penchant for quality over quantity also meant that they were unable to compete with the Russians in terms of numbers. They saw mass-production as a synonym for ‘shoddy goods’ to the point where each of their weapons was painstakingly custom built. The great strengths of their economy had always been (and still are) high quality, skilled workmanship. But this was not enough. The Germans did produce better weapons than their enemies in many cases, but they were too expensive in terms of money and labour.

This failure on the part of the German economy to identify a winning strategy meant that the new Russian industrial centres were able to outproduce the Germans with a fraction of their resources and from a much smaller skilled work base. In 1943, the Soviet Union turned 8 mil tons of steel and 90 mil tons of coal into 48,000 heavy artillery and 24,00 tanks, while the Germans turned 30 mil tons of steel and 340 mil tons of coal into 27,000 heavy artillery and 17,000 tanks.

However tempting it is to claim the Germans lost the war with Russia, it is clear that the Russians won it. And as I have mentioned before, Stalin owed his country’s survival to the Soviet people, heroically toiling day after day on 1/5 of the British rations. For more details about their story, or the Second World War in general, one should consult Richard Overy’s excellent ‘Why The Allies Won’.

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Fun Friday Fact #11

Contrary to popular opinion, a Polish cavalry division did not charge German tanks at Krojanty, September 1st 1939.

I think we’ve all heard the story – a bunch of stalwart nincompoops hurling themselves with reckless abandon towards cold iron oblivion, armed only with stout hearts and mediaeval lances against the most sophisticated fighting force the world had ever seen.

Yes, the cavalry charge at Krojanty – one of the first attacks of the war – has become a legend. But, as is so often the case with these things, the truth is rather different. In actual fact, Polish cavalry charged against German infantry. They met with some success at first, but were subsequently forced to make a hasty retreat out of the range of the German machine-gunners. Italian and German journalists who visited the site of the battle soon after noted the bodies of Polish horses and cavalrymen, and attributed the cause of the destruction to a Panzer division, which had just arrived on the scene. As you can imagine, the Nazi press had a field day with this one, and the charge at Krojanty has since become a symbol for the futility of the struggle against the German tide.

It is sobering to reflect on the fact that Polish forces might as well have charged German tanks, so unable were they to resist the might of the Wehrmacht. Poland capitulated on September 27th and it was subsequently divided up and shared between the Nazis and their new allies the Soviet Union. The rest of Europe would soon follow suit. By 1940 the German army had swept through Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Britain alone remained in opposition. She was saved from certain annihilation by 21 miles of water, a sophisticated RADAR system and, most importantly, by the bravery and skill of a handful of RAF pilots. In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’

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Fun Friday Fact #2

For all the American and British soldiers who died on the Normandy beaches, the same number of Russians fell each day that the Red Army was at war.

This statistic, which I heard about when listening to an interview with Antony Beevor, reminds us that it was the Soviet Union that broke the back of the Germany army. Whilst the British and Americans debated plans for the invasion of Europe, for three years the Russian army grappled with the fearsome Wehrmacht largely by itself. After catastrophic losses within the first few weeks of fighting (roughly 2 million men) somehow the Red Army managed stand firm against the tide. It is estimated that some 10 million soldiers and a further 10 million civilians perished altogether in the course of the conflict. But in spite of these figures (then over a 6th of the entire British population), the line held. By the time the British and American paratroopers landed in Normandy, the war in the East was already won.

For the soldiers of the Western Allies, on the other hand, death was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, according to Richard Overy, only 3% of the American soldiers prepared for war perished. If one compares that to the British casualties of the First World War one finds, in some places, that the survival rate dropped as low as 50%. That’s not to say, I wish to note, that one would fancy those odds. Nothing should be taken away from the bravery of the men making the Normandy assaults.

Why the difference? Well for a start there was no static warfare, aside from a few localised battles. From the day that it was repelled from France in June 1940 to D-day in July 1944 the British (and later American) army largely waged war without really fighting. The major struggle took place in the air, in the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Allied bombing campaign, and at sea, where the Royal Navy and her American counterpart tried to stop German and Italian submarines from starving Britain into submission.

Even in those theatres in which the Western Allies did directly engage German forces they faced but a fraction of their enemy’s strength. In North Africa, for example, the British army was stretched to its limit containing 4 German divisions compared to the 178 that were deployed in Russia.

On August 12 1942 Stalin met with Churchill and pleaded with him to open up a second front in Europe, to ease the strain from his own beleaguered forces digging in around Stalingrad. Churchill hinted vaguely at a campaign in the Mediterranean. No substantial front was opened until D-day.

It is easy to sympathise with Stalin’s frustration. He feared that the British and the Americans were content to let Communism and Facisim wipe each other out; that, as far as they were concerned, Russian soldiers should continue to run onto German lines until the Germans had run out of bullets.

There’s probably some truth in that, but the fact of the matter is that Britain was never in a position to engage in a direct war. Even after Pearl Harbor and the introduction of America into the equation, the Western Allies were still obliged to wage a war that was capital intensive, rather than one that was based on military labour. In this way, when analysing the war effort of the three major allies in terms of casualties, the Russians stand alone.

The story of the Russian people is one of extraordinary courage and tragedy. It was deep war, in the words of Ilya Ehrenburg, at a time full of unobtrusive day-to-day heroism.

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