Last week in class my group attempted to answer the following question:
Why was the Soviet Union so ill-prepared for the conflict known as the “Great Fatherland War”?
Our three leading explanations were:
- The Nazi-Soviet Pact
- The Skill of the German Army
- The Purges
It is because in all honesty I don’t know which of these is the best answer, or even if there is one correct answer rather than many, that I have decided not to answer this question at all; Rather, I will focus on the discussion of one of our hypotheses: the skill of the German Army.
In my Strategies of Modern Warfare class this semester, we learned about a theory called the modern system of force employment in Stephen Biddle’s book, “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle.” To keep it short, the theory of the modern system of force employment states is supposed to be a strong determinant of capability and success in conflict. Biddle explains it best as, “a tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level and depth, reserves and differential concentration at the operational level of war.” (3) Biddle continues in explaining the importance of numerical preponderance in war and that the implementation of the above tactical and operational elements reduce vulnerability to advanced technology in warfare.
The below image from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History is an example of cover in the Battle of Kursk. Here, men in trenches are safe from the tanks. However, cover is not total and soldiers are still at risk, but vulnerability is reduced nonetheless.
The German military was implementing the modern system even in World War I. An example of which is Operation Michael, four major German offensives in the Spring of 1918. The German military implemented the modern system of force employment both tactically and operationally and were able to pull off an offensive success despite the odds being stacked against them. This, according to Biddle, is because the British defenders did not implement the modern system.
Similarly, in the ‘Great Fatherland War,’ the German military continued to implement the modern system of force employment and had many successes. An example of which is Operation Goodwood, in which German defenses successfully halted British offenses through their implementation of cover and concealment, and dispersion at the tactical level and defense in depth as well as mobile reserves at the operational level. Thus showing the successes of the modern system.
Gregory Freeze does not make mention of the modern system, however, in his book, Russia A History, although, he does note that “at the operational and tactical levels of war the German Wehrmacht was the finest army in the world.” (376) Further, he states that their military strength and skill was a reason for Russia’s “dismal military performance that summer.” (Biddle 376)
Despite my discussion of the skill of the German army and a possible explanation therein, I am still left with questions such as:
Did the Soviet Union’s army implement the modern system?
If the modern system is a determinant of capability and success, why didn’t the German Army prevail in ‘The Great Fatherland War’? (It is important to note that success in a battle does not mean success in a war, and obviously we didn’t want the Germans to win, but still a question worth asking.)
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but after writing all of this out I stand behind my group’s decision to put the German military’s skill as one of the leading explanations for why the Soviet Union was so ill-prepared for the ‘Great Fatherland War.’
P.S. If you are at all interested in learning more about the above mentioned German implementations of the modern system of force employment, here is my Strategies group project!
Edit: Answers based on discussion in comments section:
- The Soviet’s were adopting the “modern” system in the 30s with Tukhachevsky’s “combined” operations largely built on the German model, but when he was purged those operational elements declined until Zhukov’s methods of “deep operations” were implemented during the war.
- Soviet success was allowed by their ability to industrialize and mobilize.
Biddle, Stephen. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton University, 2004.
Freeze, Gregory L. “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism 1941-1953” Russia: A History. 3rd ed., New York, Oxford UP, 374-405. 2009.
Mark Markov-Grinberg: The Kursk Front (1943). Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, soviethistory.msu.edu/1943-2/battle-of-kursk/battle-of-kursk-images/#bwg126/730. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.
This post was featured in our course blog’s “Comrade’s Corner” chosen by the editorial team.