The High Command 1941–45
On 22 June 1941 — the first day of World War II for the USSR — the country’s highest military organ was the Defense Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars. Immediately under the Defense Committee were the People’s Commissariat of Defense (for the Army) and the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. Within the Defense Commissariat, the principal decision-making body was the Main Military Council. Command of the Red Army rested with the People’s Commissar of Defense, whose executive agent was the Chief of the General Staff. Stalin himself, who in May 1941 assumed the position of chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (prime minister), had not yet established a formal relationship with the armed forces. In the field, the highest-ranking commands were the sixteen Military Districts into which the USSR was divided, plus the Far Eastern Front (army group).
In the event of war, it was intended to create a war cabinet to direct policy and strategy at the highest level and a supreme military headquarters to plan and direct military operations. Neither of these bodies existed on 22 June 1941, however. The war plan also envisioned the conversion of the five western military districts into operational front commands.
At all levels, the military command structure was paralleled by the military commissar system, whose purpose was to exercise political oversight and control of the Army. The commissar system had originated during the Civil War and after being abolished for a time it was reinstituted in 1937, during the military purge that decimated the officer corps. By 1941 the military commissars, now called deputy commanders for political affairs, were ubiquitous, being assigned down to the regimental level. In July 1941 these political officers were given formal authority to review and revoke commanders’ orders, and in addition so-called political leadership officers were assigned down to the platoon level. The whole system was run by the Main Political Administration of the Army, responsible for the supervision of every commander and the ideological indoctrination of the troops. The commissar system was supplemented by the all-powerful political police, the NKVD, which maintained a Special Section for Military Affairs.
On 23 June 1941 the Main Military Council became the Stavka (general headquarters) of the High Command. Its principal members were Marshal S.K. Timoshenko (Chairman), Marshal of the Soviet Union K.Y. Voroshilov (Chairman of the Defense Committee) General of Army G.K. Zhukov (Chief of the General Staff), Admiral N.K. Kuznetsov (People’s Commissar of the Navy), Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Budyonny, V.M. Molotov and Stalin (members). In July, when Stalin assumed the unique title of Supreme Commander (Generalissimus), it became the Stavka of the Supreme Command, and in August it was retitled the Stavka of the Supreme High Command. Within Stavka the General Staff of the Red Army was the main military planning agency.
It need hardly be said that whatever the formal organization of Stavka, the authority of Stalin was paramount and his orders were final. His assumption of the position of Supreme Commander merely formalized a preexisting situation. Early in the war his influence was frequently counterproductive — as when he refused to sanction the timely abandonment of Kiev in September 1941, a mistake that led to the loss of some 700,000 men. But unlike Hitler, Stalin learned from his mistakes and on the whole he proved to be a far more effective supreme commander than the German leader.
During most of the war the highest level of command in the field was the front (army group). Fronts were quite variable in size, ranging from three armies to as many as nine. In 1943 infantry armies typically embodied between six and twelve rifle divisions, sometimes reinforced with a tank corps; tank armies usually had two tank corps and a mechanized corps. Until late in the war the Soviet front was smaller than the German army group, three of the former, usually, being equivalent to one of the latter.
Major operations involving more than one front were coordinated on Stalin’s behalf by Stavka representatives, Marshal Zhukov, as he eventually became, often serving as such. This was an informal arrangement but it worked well once Stalin learned to listen to his senior military commanders—in sharp contrast to the situation on the German side, where Hitler’s longstanding distrust of his generals gradually developed into a mania. To be sure, the war opened disastrously for the USSR and many unsuccessful commanders found themselves facing an NKVD firing squad. But eventually there was developed a body of competent, war-experienced senior officers, and though it would be going too far to say that Stalin trusted his generals, he and they forged an effective partnership.
Besides planning and direction of operations, Stavka was concerned with doctrinal matters: the organization of military formations and their tactical/operational employment — to be described in a forthcoming article.