Soviet Red Army Casualties: Life and Death on the Eastern Front, 1941-45

08 Oct

From the National Archives:
“Happy 2nd Lt. William Robertson and Lt. Alexander Sylvashko, Russian Army, shown in front of sign [East Meets West] symbolizing the historic meeting of the Russian and American Armies, near Torgau, Germany.” Pfc. William E. Poulson, April 25, 1945.

The Red Army sustained high casualty rates due to what John Erickson termed “the Soviet style of war.” This Soviet style, as Erickson puts it, was an amalgam of Stalin’s will along with collective societal will—actualized on the battlefield through sheer numbers.The Soviets were able to transform their war efforts into a more effective methodology following the onset of Operation Barbarossa—although still experiencing high casualty rates. The Soviet style of war, its doctrine, “was adjusted but more important implemented with requisite ‘norms’ of armament and equipment (not simply sheer numbers) and the relationship of ‘will’ to professional competence substantially refashioned.”[1]

The Soviet state was able to sustain these high casualty rates through the transformation of their former lackadaisical code of military justice to that of a rigid, unconditionally rigid set of norms for Soviet soldiers, as noted by Erickson: “Obedience was henceforth to be unconditional, the execution of orders prompt and precise, Soviet discipline to be marked by ‘severer and harsher requirements than discipline in other armies based upon class subjugation.’ ”[2]  Part and parcel to this new discipline was the newly imparted patriotism of the Soviet state following the 1917 Revolution. The Soviet Red Army also enjoyed what must have seemed a never-ending supply of trucks, rail engines, and railroad cars, through Lend-lease. This Allied program gave the Red Army a devastating advantage over Nazi Germany. Glantz and House suggest that “every Soviet offensive would have stalled at an earlier stage, outrunning its logistical tail in a matter of days” without the program. [3]

Glantz and House note that the Red Army was able to deceive and ultimately decimate the Wehrmacht by “concentrating all available forces on a narrow frontage at an unpredictable point.”  They add that the Red Army did not have an unlimited number of men available, as their deception had purported.[4] The enormous victory over Nazi Germany helped to unify the post-war Soviet Union. With its sense of new-found pride followed the burdens of defending a state now paranoid of another foreign invader. In defense-by-proxy, and keeping another aggressor far from Soviet borders, as experienced in Cuba and Vietnam,  the Soviet economy was doomed, along with the Soviet Union itself which ultimately collapsed.[5]

1. John Erickson, Preface to The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999)
2. Ibid., 21.
3. David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995) 285.
4. Ibid., 288.
5. Ibid., 290.

Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Glantz, David M. and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.


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