Stalin’s War

This book convincingly argues that Stalin’s war began long before the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, and can really be said to have begun in the late 1920s.

Initially, this was a war of suppression at home, combined with subversion abroad. As early as May 1927, Anglo-Soviet diplomatic relations were broken off for three years after a raid on the Soviet trade agency in London produced evidence of widespread Communist infiltration of British politics.

In the early 1930s, Soviet espionage in Britain was stepped up with recruitment of agents including the ‘Cambridge Five’ – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Kim Philby, and Donald Maclean. By 1939, they were passing an average of more than 9,000 classified documents to Moscow each year.

The pattern was repeated in America, where dozens of Soviet agents and members of the Communist Party of the USA infiltrated the federal government. Key sectors of US industry were equally thoroughly penetrated – in 1938, the US air attaché in London was informed that the Russian government had agents in practically every American aircraft factory.

The success of Soviet espionage in Britain and the USA greatly aided Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, which established the war industries required for modernising the Red Army. By 1935, it included three full airborne brigades and more tank units (and indeed more AFVs) than the rest of the world’s armies combined.

However, Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s destroyed much of the officer corps, leaving the survivors thoroughly cowed and understandably terrified of the secret police, the NKVD. In 1939, the Red Army was still a powerful force, but one whose war-fighting capability was crippled by the near total lack of a competent command structure.
Stalin’s grand plan

During the 1930s, Stalin realised that German expansion in Europe and Japanese aggression against China could be exploited to provoke a global war which would exhaust the other great powers and allow Russia to dominate the post-war world.

In 1938, Maxim Litvinov – the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs – told the head of the Czechoslovak Foreign Office that:

We know that the Western Powers would like to have Hitler liquidated by Stalin and Stalin by Hitler, but in that they will not succeed. While in 1914-1917 the Western Powers, sparing their forces, watched the bloody struggle between Germany and Russia, this time we shall observe the contest between Germany and the Western Powers and shall not intervene in the conflict until we ourselves feel it fit to do so in order to bring about the decision.

Although Hitler retained his innate hostility towards Russia, he never let dogma overrule the benefits of realpolitik. In 1939, he saw rapprochement with Stalin as clearly beneficial – it would (at least temporarily) free Germany from the risk of a prolonged war on two fronts and open up a new source of foodstuffs and raw materials to compensate for the blockade which was certain to be imposed if Britain and France went to war in support of Poland.

Stalin was equally eager for an agreement with Germany, especially as it offered a unique opportunity for Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. The author sums it up well: the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 ‘enabled Hitler to circumvent the British blockade – which had ultimately doomed Germany in the last war – at the price of turning Germany into an economic vassal of the Soviet Union’. Stalin agrees the Nazi–Soviet pact with German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in August 1939. The Soviet leader saw the agreement as a unique opportunity for expansion into Eastern Europe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By mid-1940, Stalin had seized eastern Poland, eastern Finland, the Romanian provinces of Northern Bukhovina and Bessarabia, plus Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

The annexation of the Romanian provinces was especially serious for Hitler, as it posed a direct threat to the Ploesti oilfields, which were essential for the German war effort. This prompted Hitler to begin planning an attack on Russia.
An initial contingency study was prepared in August 1940, but attempts to draw Stalin in as a full member of the Axis alliance continued for several months, until negotiations finally broke down in November 1940.

There were signs that Stalin was preparing to attack – the Red Army was massing in the newly occupied provinces bordering Axis territory, while Soviet aircraft were flying regular reconnaissance missions. On 9 December 1940, a formal diplomatic protest was lodged in Moscow regarding nine recent violations of German and Romanian airspace.

On 18 December 1940, Hitler issued Führer Directive 21, ordering preparations for the invasion of Russia – Operation Barbarossa – to be completed by 15 May 1941.

Coverage of the German invasion and the subsequent campaigns is largely at the geostrategic and strategic levels, and is generally very good, while the analysis of Stalin’s exploitation of Lend-Lease to acquire Western military technology is outstanding. The process was aided by Roosevelt’s almost unbelievable naivety, encouraged by Soviet agents such as Alger Hiss in the State Department and Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department. In the author’s assessesment, by 1942 ‘Soviet purchasing agents had such influence in the Roosevelt administration that they functioned, for all intents and purposes, like members of the US government’.

The sheer quantity of equipment and raw materials supplied by the USA and Britain virtually free of charge was staggering – the USA sent 11,400 aircraft, 12,000 AFVs, 427,284 trucks, 35,170 motorcycles, 2,670,371 tons of petroleum products, 4,478,116 tons of foodstuffs, 1,911 steam locomotives, 66 diesel locomotives, and 9,920 railway wagons.

Deliveries from Britain included more than 3,000 Hurricanes, at least 4,000 other aircraft, 27 naval vessels, 5,218 tanks, 4,000 ambulances and trucks, and over 2,500 Universal Carriers.

In February 1943, the USA even agreed to supply enriched uranium, which significantly accelerated Stalin’s atomic bomb programme. One of the few categories of equipment which the Red Army did not request were mine detectors – General Ivan Ratov, the head of the Soviet military mission in Britain, explained to his shocked hosts that ‘in the Soviet Union we use people to clear mines’.

Stalin was equally successful in outmanoeuvring Roosevelt and Churchill when it came to shaping the post-war world. He quickly realised that he could exploit Roosevelt’s uncritical acceptance of Russian good faith to establish Soviet client-states throughout Eastern Europe. Churchill’s efforts to oppose such ambitions were largely thwarted by Stalin’s manipulation of Roosevelt’s innate hostility towards the British Empire.

Though British troops did play a key role in the defeat of Communist forces in the Greek Civil War of 1943-1949, elsewhere the Red Army ensured that Beria’s NKVD had a free hand in brutally eliminating any potential threat to emerging Communist regimes. In early 1945, a British intelligence summary reported that, in Sandomierz, ‘more Poles have been arrested during the few months of Soviet occupation than during the whole five years of German occupation’.

Military errors

While there is much to admire in the author’s coverage of geopolitical/geostrategic issues, there are serious issues when he does examine the balance of forces and military technology. On page 118, he states that: ‘The Finnish Air Force had maybe a dozen fighter planes, facing a Red Air armada of 15,000, with 10,362 brand-new warplanes built in 1939 alone.’ Ten pages later, referring to events of 17 December 1939, Finnish air power has miraculously grown: ‘By then, even the tiny Finnish Air Force of old Dutch Fokker fighters (162 strong) had joined the rout, knocking down Soviet bombers.’

Five minutes’ online research indicates that: ‘At the beginning of the Winter War, the Finnish Air Force was equipped with only 18 Bristol Blenheim bombers and 46 fighters (32 modern Fokker D.XXIs and 14 obsolete Bristol Bulldogs). The Soviet Union is estimated to have had about 5,000 aircraft in 1939, and, of these, some 700 fighters and 800 medium bombers were brought to the Finnish front to support the Red Army’s operations.’

There are also some bizarre references to Western AFVs: ‘on 15 November 1942… the Red Army had… 1,063 Canadian MK-3 light-medium Valentine tanks, 715 British MK-2 medium Matildas, 681 American Stuart light M-3 tanks, 676 American Stuart medium M-3s, 90 American Sherman M2A1 tanks, 41 American Sherman M-2s, 84 new Churchill tanks, 20 older MK-7s, and fully 1,099 Bren Gun Carriers (the mobile workhorse of the British Army), adding up to 4,469 tanks and gun carriers delivered to Stalin’.

The garbled references to the Matilda and Valentine are probably due to their official designations as Infantry Tank Mark II and Infantry Tank Mark III, but the MK-7s are a complete mystery. Things get worse when it comes to the US tanks – the M3 Light Tank was indeed commonly known as the Stuart in British and Commonwealth service, but the M3 Medium Tank was dubbed Lee by the British. It may be that the Stuart designation was used indiscriminately by the Red Army, but research has failed to come up with any other source for this. But there can be no doubt about the mistake with the Sherman – all examples supplied to the Red Army were the diesel-powered M4A2.

There are similar issues with inaccurate captions to some of the photographs. While it may seem harsh to highlight these problems, they do grate and should really have been corrected before publication. Nonetheless, they should not obscure the very real value of this impressive 832-page study.

Review by David Porter.

Stalin’s War, Sean McMeekin, Allen Lane, hbk (£40), ISBN 978-0241366431.