Was Stalin A Good War Chief? – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Before continuing with my review of Diunov’s piece, I want to take a quick sidebar to skim through the biography of General Pavlov, the officer who was blamed for the Soviet Union’s initial defeats in the Great Patriotic War. Diunov just barely mentioned Pavlov who, I believe, deserves a bit more attention, so here is my summary of his Russian wiki:

Dmitry Grigorievich Pavlov was born in 1897 in the Kostroma region of the Russian Empire, located on the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers. Pavlov was born into a peasant family. He had 4 years of primary education at a church-run school, but was able to continue his studies at a regular school and also taking evening classes. In 1914, when war broke out, he volunteered for the Russian Imperial Army and served at the front as an infantryman. Was promoted to the rank of Under-Officer. In 1916 he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. As a POW he was assigned to work in the mines for Germany. He was released only in January of 1919. Returning home, he worked on the farm with his father until eventually he was drafted into the Red Army.

Dmitry Pavlov as a young Russian officer.

Pavlov showed promise as a Red Army officer and was sent to military school in 1920 to further his skills. He was eventually put in command of a Cossack cavalry Division. He fought on both the Western and Southern fronts during the Civil War. Joined the Communist Party in 1919.

In 1922 Pavlov graduated from military school in Omsk. Continued to command both infantry and cavalry divisions. In 1923 he fought in Turkestan against various warlords. In 1928 he graduated from the Frunze Military Academy, the most elite military academy in the Soviet Union, only the best officers could even get into it. Fought in Manchuria in 1929. Continued a series of promotions and educational opportunities. In 1931 became the commander of a mechanized regiment in the city of Gomel (Belorussia). The Brigade under his command was considered one of the best mechanized units in the Red Army and particularly distinguished itself during the Great Kiev War Games in 1935. As a reward for his excellence, Pavlov was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1936.

From 1936-37 Pavlov served abroad in Spain, as a military advisor to the Spanish Republican Government. Under the pseudonym “Pablo”, he commanded a tank brigade of Soviet “volunteers” which distinguished itself in several battles against the Franco forces.

Later he grew a little brush moustache, as was in style back then.

Returning from Spain back to Russia, Pavlov was in charge of tank production for the Red Army. He was also inducted into the Main Military Council of the Red Army in 1938. Played a major role in the development of armored tank units. Fought in the Soviet-Finnish War, his main job being to inspect the use of tanks. He headed a group that was assigned to break through the Mannerheim Line but they unfortunately did not succeed in this goal. After which Pavlov was reassigned (June 1940) to command the troops of the Belorussian Military Okrug. The very place that was fated to fall first to the Germans.

Expecting the German invasion, as did all the Soviet commanders, and recalling his duels with German tanks on Spanish soil, Pavlov led the effort to develop the T-34 tanks. These monsters had diesel motors, anti-shell armor, and cannons capable of piercing enemy tank armor.

On February 21, 1938 Pavlov sent a report to Narkom of Defense Voroshilov, suggesting the following improvements:

  • Leave the T-26 tanks to accompany the infantry
  • Re-equip the T-28 and T-35 tanks with 76mm cannon
  • Build a brand new heavy tank for assault

Pavlov’s suggestions were accepted by Voroshilov.

Next comes more technical tank discussion which tank geeks will love. To the extent I understand what they are talking about, it has to do with Pavlov’s ideas about replacing tank corps with more integrated formations. Marshal Tukhachevsky (who had already been shot by this time) was a huge proponent of all-tank corps. Even though they killed Tukh and called him a wrecker, they had still implemented his ideas in Poland in 1939 (that part of Poland which was incorporated into the USSR as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Pavlov was opposed to this idea of all-tank corps and proposed they be dissolved. He didn’t want to get rid of tanks — far from it — he just thought they needed to be integrated with other types of units. In this proposal, he was supported, among others, by Deputy Narkom Boris Shaposhnikov, who was in charge of the Red Army formations in Poland.

To replace these tank corps Pavlov proposed a whole series of changes, while also converting 15 of the best Red Army rifle divisions into motorized units. Pavlov had worked out a detailed plan for the use of tank brigades and motorized divisions. His ideas were later vindicated and showed their effectiveness in the course of the war, especially in 1944. The star of the show was the T-34.

Unfortunately, Pavlov did not live to see the success of his ideas and plans. At the time of the German attack, he commanded the Western Front. The Red Army suffered a crushing defeat on 28 June 1941, when Minsk fell to the Nazis. Practically all the front-line armies simply ceased to exist, that’s how bad it was. There was some bad intel: The Germans focused their main blow in the direction Minsk – Brest. The Red Army was more focused on the Kiev line, and had insufficient anti-tank artillery on the Brest line. And nobody could have predicted that the 29th Rifle Corps would offer virtually no resistance to the Germans. The enemy quickly crossed into the Minsk rear via Lithuania. When Minsk fell, so did the entire line of fortications along the former Western border of the USSR, as well as the former border between Lithuania and the USSR. It was a complete disaster.

Pavlov and Timoshenko in 1940

On June 30, Pavlov was relieved of his command and summoned back to Moscow. He had meetings with Zhukov and Molotov. (The latter who was performing Stalin’s job at the time, since Stalin much too busy filling his calendar with Beria.) Pavlov must have convinced Zhukov/Molotov of something and talked his way out of a jam, because he was allowed to return to the front on July 2. But with a demotion down to the title of Deputy Commander of the Western Front. With Voroshilov himself taking the role of Commander of the Western Front. Two days later, on July 4, Pavlov was arrested and brought back to Moscow. [Whereas Voroshilov was allowed to get away with everything and keep both his job and his head.] Once he was under confinement, Pavlov was accused, not so much of incompetence, as actual treason. Of participating in an anti-Soviet military conspiracy, betraying the Motherland, and harming the military might of the Red Army. Along with his deputies, Pavlov was prosecuted under Statute #58. He was accused of crimes allegedly committed by him on June 22, even though, on that very day, he was working alongside Marshals Shaposhnikov, Kulik, and Voroshilov. Yet those other three got away with everything, whereas Pavlov took all the blame. He and his three assistants were sentenced to death and shot by firing squad. The order was signed by Stalin himself. The good news is that the final charges against them removed the language about “treason” and “betrayal”, and just charged them with negligence.

Nikita Khruschev, near the start of WWII

Sixteen years later, in July of 1957, the Supreme Court of the USSR rehabilitated Pavlov and overturned his conviction, allegedly based on new “evidence”. His honors, awards, and title of Hero of the Soviet Union were returned to him postumously.

In his memoirs, Nikita Khruchshev revealed, in a sort of classic of the genre “Damning with faint praise“, why he had agreed to rehabilitate Pavlov despite the fact that he felt like Pavlov more or less deserved his punishment:

“I agreed to this because, in the final analysis, it was not Pavlov who was guilty, but rather Stalin. Pavlov was completely unsuitable for this position, I saw with my own eyes how unprepared he was, when I first took his acquaintance. I mentioned this to Stalin, but instead of drawing the correct conclusion and replacing him with a more suitable individual at this post, he promoted him. I personally consider that the post of Commander of the Western (Belorussian) Military Okrug requires more than does the post of commanding armored tanks divisions.”

After this detour into a fascinating biography, we next return to Diunov’s analysis:

[to be continued]

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