Many years have passed since the end of World War II, but the debates concerning the causes of the Russian Army defeat in the first months of the war still continue. They even get hotter. Maybe it happens because the official explanations, given before, were contradictory and changed depending on who was at the helm in the USSR.
Stalin explained all the failures of the Soviet Army by Germany’s sudden attack. Then Khrushchev claimed that Stalin’s mistakes caused the Red Army defeat at the beginning of the war.
Gorbachov’s publicity era made it possible to know new facts about those events, but they weren’t completely analyzed.
Unfortunately, there’s still a propaganda cliché, which makes it difficult to estimate history objectively.
Archive documents were declassified in the1990-s, and a new version appeared: the USSR was getting ready to attack Germany. Many archive documents, dating back to that time, are not yet completely declassified, especially those referring to army command. That’s why it’s difficult to analyze the command execution at the beginning of the war.
This short article will analyze, how long it took for an order to come from the Supreme Headquarters to the army on the first day of the war - June 22nd, 1941. The army command was very inefficient in the first days of the war. It played its tragic role in further Red Army defeats at the initial stage of the war.
Let’s try to examine, what happened the day before the war on June 21, 1941 and on the first day of the war on June 22, 1941.
In the evening of June 21st, 1941 the commandment of the Western Special Military district under the command of D. Pavlov and corps commissar A. Fominikh stayed with their families in the Minsk House of officers till late at night. They listened to an operetta “Wedding in Malinovka” with Alla Tarasava playing the main role.
There were several phone calls from the Headquarters at that time to find out the situation on the boarder. The communications commander Grigoryev had convinced the NKVD to provide a House of officers with a high-frequency connection to the General Headquarters. So Pavlov calmed Moscow down right from the performance, saying it was quiet on the boarder. When the high-frequency line was installed in the House of officers, the distance, from which it was possible to wiretap the conversation, wasn't taken into consideration. Thus it was possible to wiretap all high-frequency conversations, using a special receiver.
Abwehr agents (the Brandenburg unit, sent to Minsk) took advantage of the situation. Maybe Germans controlled high-frequency conversations of the commanders of the Western Special Military district, because the security system was of temporary stability. It could easily be intercepted using special interception systems the German intelligence was equipped with.
On June 21, 1941 the Red Army General Staff Commander G. Zhukov received a report from Lieutenant General M. Purkayev, chief of staff of Kiev military district. It was stated there the war with Germans could start in the morning on June 22, 1941.
G. Zhukov recollected:
«The Chief of Staff of Kiev military district Lieutenant General Purkayev called me in the evening on June 22. He said a defector, a German sergeant major, had arrived. He alleged German troops were going to starting lines for the offensive, which would start in the morning of June 22.
I immediately reported the People’s Commissar and J. Stalin about it.
— Come to the Kremlin with the People’s Commissar in approximately 45 minutes, — Stalin said.
The People’s commissar, Lieutenant General Vatutin and I took the draft of a directive for the troops and went to the Kremlin. On the way there we agreed to receive an order to prime the troops. Stalin was alone, when we came. He was worried.
- Could German generals toss up that defector to provoke a conflict? — Stalin asked.
- No, they couldn’t, — Timosheko replied. We think the defector told the truth.
Meanwhile members of the Political Bureau entered Stalin’s office. Stalin informed them briefly.
- What shall we do? - Stalin asked.
There was no answer.
- We should immediately give the army the directive to prime the troops in the frontier districts, - the People’s commissar said.
- Read it! – Stalin said.
I read the draft of the directive. Stalin noted:
- This directive is untimely now. Maybe the matter will be settled peacefully. We have to give a short directive and indicate, that the attack may start with provocative actions of German units. The troops in the frontier districts shouldn’t give in to any provocations not to cause complications.
Vatutin and I didn’t want to lose time. We went to another room and quickly made up a draft of the People’s commissar directive. We returned back and asked for the permission to report. Stalin listened to it, read it once again, made some corrections and handed over to the People’s commissar to sign it.». (Zhukov. Recollections and Thoughts, volume 1, 277-278).
Here is the text of the directive:
«Order of the People’s Commissar of Defense № 1.
To military Soviets of Lvov Military district, Baltic Special Military district, Western Special Military district, Kiev Special Military district Special Military district, Odessa Military district. Copy to: People’s Commissar of the Navy.
1. Germans may attack on July 22 – July 23, 1941 on the fronts of Lvov Military district, Baltic Special Military district, Western Special Military district, Kiev Special Military district, Odessa Military district. The attack may start with provocative actions.
2. Our troops should not to give in to any provocative actions, which may cause considerable complications. At the same time the troops of Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev and Odessa military districts should be fully combat ready for the sudden attack of Germans or their allies.
а) to secretly occupy weapon emplacements in the fortified districts on the state border during the night of June 22, 1941;
b) to disperse all aviation on the airstrips, including aviation, and thoroughly camouflage it on June 22, 1941 before dawn;
c) All the units should be fully combat ready. The troops should be kept dispersed and camouflaged;
d) anti-aircraft defense should be primed without the additional alarm of soldiers. Provide the blackout of cities and objects;
e) no other steps should be undertaken without a special order.
(The directive of the People’s Commissar of Defense S.K. Timoshenko and Chief of Staff G. K. Zhukov to commanders of frontier districts on the alert of the troops due to the possible attack of the fascist Germany on June 21, 1941.» // Interior troops in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945., 32. It’s the same document as the one given in Zhukov. Recollections And, volume 1,278).
One may ask, why Stalin ordered to give a short directive. None of historians has ever explained it before. We’ll try to sort it out.
The General Headquarters Directive was “Top Secret”. It was written and sent to the General Headquarters with an NKVD courier. The NKVD encrypted it and sent to military districts. The text of the encrypted Directive was transmitted over telegraph communication lines according to the order about the transmission of Top Secret documents. Only manual encryption documents were used to encrypt such secret documents.
Let’s calculate, how many signs the Directive consisted of. There were 1190 signs there including blanks. It could be encrypted in not less than one hour and twenty minutes using 1941 pattern manual encryption documents.
On June 22, 1941 at 00:30 a.m. the Directive was encrypted in the General Headquarters. It arrived to the headquarters of the Western Special Military District at 00:45 a.m. Pavlov received an urgent encrypted message from Moscow and arrived to the headquarters of the Western Special Military District at approximately 01:00 a.m. and waited till it was decrypted. At that time he had several conversations via the high-frequency line with the General Headquarters and explained the situation in detail. Thus Germans could efficiently control the situation before the day before the war.
The directive had to be decrypted and then encrypted again using other manual encryption documents to be sent to subordinate headquarters. Naturally manual encryption documents, used to encrypt information, sent from the General Headquarters to district headquarters differed from those, which were used to encrypt information, circulating between a headquarters of a military district and army headquarters, located in a district.
Thus, if we suppose telegraph communication functioned perfectly and didn’t distort the transmitted encrypted messages, the transmission of the order could start not earlier than at 03:30 a.m.
The directive could be decrypted in the army – if it ever reached it - only at 04:40 a.m. on June 22,1941, when hostilities had already begun. Lieutenant General N. Naumenko, the Air Force Commander of the Western Front, reported:
«On June 21, 1941 at 11:00 p.m. German subversives and Polish White Guardists disrupted the wire communication between the Air Staff of the Western Special Military District and division headquarters, and between division headquarters and their regiments. All airfields were isolated. That was the situation when the Great Patriotic war began.» (Extract from the report of the Air Force Commander of the Western Front on the state of the air force and combat actions eight days before the war. (SBD The Great Patriotic War, Edition 35 р. 130).
On June 22, 1941 at 03:15 a.m. Brandenburg special mission units occupied the NKVD building in Kiev and captured all encryption documents of the Western Special Military District. From that time on Germans fully controlled encrypted correspondence of the troops in Western Special Military District. Besides, they could organize successful radio games, send our troops false commands and encrypted messages, causing disorder in the Soviet army command system. That was why they occupied five bridges near Minsk without a single blow. Brandenburg officers spoke fluent Russian and commanded on behalf of headquarters to protect the bridges. By 04:10 a.m. neither ordinary nor telephone communication functioned in Brest. (Annex N 1).
Later it took the same time for General Headquarters’ orders to reach the fronts on the first days of the war. There was chaos in our army. High command orders arrived, when the situation was different and their execution caused a mess. It’s appropriate to mention here, that on August 20, 1940 Major General A.T. Grigoryev, Chief of Signal Corps of the Red Army, informed in his letter N. Gapich, Chief of the Red Army Communications administration about the state of the Red Army communications. He put it straight, that the Red Army communications were at the Civil war level. Besides, the efficiency of encrypted communication didn’t improve much: terrible repressions in 1937 were aimed against those, who designed and manufactured encryption equipment in the USSR.
The army command in the Western Special Military District was amaizing on the first days of the war. Sub-unit commanders of the Soviet army were to execute orders according to instructions they had been given in sealed envelopes. They had an order to open them and precisely execute the orders in case of a war broke out. The atmosphere of suspiciousness and secrecy was unprecedented in the Red Army those times. That’s why if orders, specified in the instructions, weren’t fulfilled, it could be considered to be a sabotage or espionage. The commander, who dared not to fulfill it, was sure to be arrested.
Dual power in the army aggravated the situation even more. Stalin introduced commissars into the army, because he didn’t trust Red Army sub-unit commanders. Commissars had to control the order execution by superior command authorities. German assault was sudden, the situation changed within minutes and commanders didn’t know, what orders they should fulfill: the orders they had or delayed commands of supreme command, which didn’t take into account the changed situation or false commands of Abwehr agents.
Such a catastrophe made the Chief of Staff G. Zhukov think of a probable treason. This is what he reported to Stalin on August 19, 1941: «...I suppose the enemy is aware of all our defense system and all operation strategic alignment of our troops very well. He is aware of our potential in the near future. It seems the enemy has his people among our prominent authorities, who deal with the general situation...» (Russian archive. Great Patriotic war. VGK Headquarters. Documents and materials ,1941.V.16 , p . 361. М.; TERRA Publishing house, 1996).
The Chief of Staff forgot about the Red Army defeat in 1920 during the battle for Warsaw. Polish special services not only intercepted all Red Army secret communication at that time. They also used radio games efficiently to destroy their enemy. Twenty years later German special services equipped with the best information weapon in the world, excelled them and smashed multiple Red Army units!
It’s a historical paradox! At the turn of the 20th century Russia designed radio games -the most powerful information weapon. That weapon dealt the most destructive and merciless blow to our country in the 20th century wars Russia participated in!
Annex N 1
Report from the Secretary of the Brest Regional committee of the Belorussian Communist Party T. Novikova to the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Byelorussian communist party G. Eidinov on the situation in Brest region
Gomel, July 19, 1941.
On June 22 at 04:00 a.m. the German artillery started shelling the city of Brest. At 04:10 a.m. comrade Bessonov and I came to the Regional committee of the Belorussian Communist Party. Comrade Tupitsin and others were there. The telephone communication in the Regional Committee had been broken. We couldn’t call the Central Committee of the Byelorussian communist party, to the Regional Committee of the Communist party of Byelorussia. We couldn’t get in touch on the phone with other cities. At 04:30 a.m. nearly 100 communists gathered in the basement of the Regional committee. Some of them were sent to the city military commissariat. Some communists stayed at their enterprises and organizations. The Regional Committee had no connection with enterprises and organizations.
There were just a few German airplanes in the city. Germans shelled the fortress, military northern and southern towns, the Regional Committee buildings, the executive committee of the regional Soviet, the regional office of the State Bank, People’s Commissariat of State Security administrations, hospitals. Buildings in Brest are not destroyed, except the railway station and the spirit production plant. They were burning during the first hours of bombing. How could it happen that at night on June 22, 1941 German special mission units seized before bombing five bridges in the suburbs of Brest?
Germans spread anti-Soviet leaflets from planes - on the city and in its suburbs. Most of the people, who picked them up, destroyed them immediately.
The Regional committee didn’t have phone connection with the Post Commander, the 4th army headquarters and the frontier detachment for three hours. The Post Commander and his deputy were nowhere to be found in the city.
Secretaries of the Regional Committee got together twice to decide, what they should do. They didn’t come to any decision. We expected Soviet planes and the army would start fighting. It didn’t occur to us to leave the city. At 07:00 – 07:30 comrade (the surname is not written) came to the Regional committee and declared to comrade Tupitsin, that Germans came into the city. Comrade Tupitsin ordered everybody should leave the city. I saw comrade Tupitsin approximately 6 kilometers from the city. Then I lost him. Comrades Marchenko, Lakhey, Morozov and I went to Zhabinka, then – to Kobrin, Antopol and Pinsk.
All secret correspondence, kept in comrade Tupitsin’s, Bessonov’s and my fire-proof safes, had been destroyed before we left the Regional Committee. The special sector chief comrade Malashenko destroyed “the special file” with bureau resolutions, the resolutions of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party and the Central Committee of the Byelorussian Communist Party, adopted in 1941. He destroyed the cipher as well. He didn’t have time to destroy the resolutions of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party and the Central Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party, adopted in 1940.
I haven’t seen comrade Kopkov, chief of the registration department, but I was told he hadn’t found the keys from the room. It meant all the files in the registration department weren’t destroyed. The Brest City Committee and Regional Committee of the Communist party didn’t destroy registration cards of communists. It was explained by the fact that comrade Korotkov – the second secretary of the City Committee of the Communist Party – hadn’t found comrade Litvinova, chief of the registration department, who had the keys. Korotkov said she had been killed.
Comrade Kluyko, chief of organization-instruction department of the Regional Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party, ran to the Regional Committee twice searching for the chief of the registration department and comrade Dyadev. He searched for them in their apartments, but didn’t find them. That was why the party documents weren’t destroyed.
We retreated from the city in confusion. The city population ran from the city after they had heard the first shots. At 07:00 – 07:30 a.m. the communists of the Regional Committee retreated from the city. Communists, who stayed at enterprises and organizations, weren’t informed about the retreat from the city. That was why some communists remained in the city…
On the way to Slutsk our group shot communists comrade Trofimov – chief of the KGB regional department, comrade Kurus and comrade Ershov - chief of Brest KGB Regional department. They were considered to be subversives.
Nobody saw deputies of the Supreme Soviet comrades Savchuk, Pobudey and Borshchevskaya. They probably stayed in Brest…
Comrade Shiringa, deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (chief of the special department of the Porozovsky region) and Maria Funt, deputy of the Regional Soviet, remained in the Porozovsky region. Comrade Darnits said they had refused to leave the city.
There is no information about other activists.
Up till June 22 the rumors spread in the city that Germans would start the war with the USSR. They said it would happen on June 10, June 15, June 25. As far as I know chiefs of administrations of the People’s Commissariat of State Security, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the frontier unit and the 4th army didn’t inform either the Regional Committee of the communist party, or comrade Tupitsin.
By the way, I talked to comrade Ovchinnikov, chief of the regional administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs on June 22 at 02:00 a.m. He said he had received a People’s Commissariat order on June 21 and had personally ordered chiefs of special facility construction to clear the landing grounds. Colonel Belov told me in Gomel, he had ordered Ovchinnikov to do it on June 20.
The commandment of the 4th Army looks miserable. We were informed the 4th Army Staff had received an encrypted message on June 22 at 02:00 a.m. Comrade Shlukov, member of the Revolutionary Council, went from Brest to Kobrin after a telephone conversation. But no one had called to the Regional Committee from Kobrin. The Regional Committee was not aware, what orders division commanders and the Post Commander had been given, and whether they had ever been given.
When the war started, most commanders, political workers and Red Army soldiers left the city practically armless and half-dressed. Commanders said, there were a lot of armor in the fortress, but ammunition hadn’t been supplied. Most of the commanders lived in the city and the Red Army soldiers were left in the fortress alone. Allegedly on the night of June 22 the commanders went for exercise. It should be checked.
The Regional Committee sent a special report to comrade Ponomarenko on the command of the 4th Army.
I think comrade Kuznetsov, Chief of the frontier unit, behaved improperly. He had received signals, but didn’t inform the Regional Committee. We were informed, that on June 21 our informer told comrade Kuznetsov, that many German troops gathered near the border, weapons and ammunition were delivered there. Comrade Kuznetsov informed comrade Bogdanov in Minsk about it or Headquarters’ orderly officer, but he didn’t say anything to the Regional Committee…
I enclose two reports from comrades Bogdanov and Ioffe with the characteristic of the situation in the regions, occupied by Germans.
Secretary of the Brest Regional Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party T. Novikova
NARB, f. 4p, op. 29, d. 3, p. 54–59. Original.