Georgi Zhukov

Shad Mickelberry

Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov

Studying World War II in America we focus on the contributions of American forces on the Western Front, Africa, and in the Pacific. Unfortunately, by viewing the war in this light we tend to overlook the importance of the Eastern Front where some of the most important battles of WWII took place. Within these battles, leaders that helped win and lose the war emerged. Among these leaders was Marshal Georgy Zhukov who was the only Soviet field commander involved in every major battle in the Eastern Front. His contribution to winning the war in the east was only rivaled by Stalin. Furthermore, through Zhukov we gain a deeper understanding of the triumph of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht, and the struggle of the Russian people caught in the cauldron of battle.

Zhukov’s early life would serve him well both in his career in the Red Army and politically. He was born to a peasant family in a small town outside of Moscow in 1896. His humble upbringing helped endear him to the Soviet people and added to his popularity during the war. After the Bolsheviks came to power Zhukov volunteered for the cavalry in 1918. Cavalry units were considered elite units in the army and, along with Stalin’s admiration of the cavalry, helped his advancement. Later, Zhukov was influenced by German military theorists, possibly including studying under General Hans von Seeckt, and “became a leading proponent of mechanization and modernization of the Red Army”.[1] Zhukov would command one of the first tank regiments in the Red Army. Understandably, the new technology was of great interest of top military leadership, including Stalin, and Zhukov’s success in organizing the new regiments gained him even more notoriety. Not only did this help to fast track Zhukov’s career path, it may have saved his life from Stalin’s purge of the army.

When Stalin came to power, he sought to eliminate all opposition to consolidate his authority. After clearing the party of political opponents, Stalin set his reign on the military. According to historian Otto Preston, from “1937 to 1938 about twenty-five thousand commanders of the Red Army fell victim to Stalin”.[2] Because of Zhukov’s involvement in the cavalry and assistance in the advancements of Soviet mechanization, Stalin had taken a personal interest in him. With a vacuum of high level Red Army officers, Zhukov actually benefited from the purges. He was promoted to command the Sixth Cavalry Corps and then Deputy Commander of the Belorussian Military District where he would gain national prominence in defending against the Japanese.

In 1939 tensions between the Soviets and Japanese came to an impasse in Mongolia. The Japanese, who defeated Russia in a war in 1904-1905, were confident of their ability to conquer the combined Soviet-Mongolian forces and moved to seize territory along the Khalkhin-Gol River. After early Soviet defeats, Zhukov was sent to the area to take command. During this battle he showed great ingenuity as a military leader. To convince the Japanese the Soviet positions were merely defensive, Zhukov had thousands of leaflets instructing his soldiers in defensive tactics distributed and passed on to Japanese. Zhukov also used camouflaged netting to conceal equipment which was only moved during the night, and used sound equipment to mimic tank movement and construction for two weeks at which time the Japanese ignored it[3]. When the Soviets attacked, they completely surprised the Japanese and won an overwhelming victory.

The battle at Khalkhin-Gol had significant consequences for Zhukov and WWII. Zhukov gained national notoriety, was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union honor, promoted to General of the Army, and put in charge of the Kiev Special Military District. The Soviet Army redeemed itself and proved its superiority to the Japanese forces. As a result, a nonaggression pact between the Soviets and Japanese was signed in 1941. This pact was honored throughout most of WWII which meant the Soviets did not end up fighting a war on two fronts and thus could concentrate all their forces and war material in fighting the Nazis on the Eastern Front.[4]

As head of the Kiev Special Military District, Zhukov commanded an area adjacent to where the Wehrmacht was concentrating forces during 1941. He gave several warnings to the Soviet high command and to Joseph Stalin about the imminent Nazi threat. For example, on June 14th 1941 Zhukov informed Stalin “that according to intelligence information the German divisions were manned and armed on a wartime footing”, to which Stalin replied “You can’t believe everything in intelligence reports”[5]. According to a Stalin biographer Dmitri Volkogonov, “Zhukov said later that Stalin resisted all attempts by the military leadership to put the troops on alert on the western frontier. His fear of ‘provoking’ Hitler had become ‘maniacal’”[6]. Immediately following the Nazi attack the Soviets established General Headquarters of the High Command, the Stavka, with Zhukov as a Chief of Staff[7].

By the end of July 1941 the situation for the Soviets in the Ukraine was grim. Zhukov reported to Stalin that “Kiev will have to be surrendered” in order to prevent the troops there from being overrun and captured by the Wehrmacht and to reallocate them to other sectors for a counter-attack[8]. This recommendation was not received well by Stalin and Zhukov was removed from his position as Chief of Staff. Instead of being ousted from the army, however, Zhukov was allowed to take command of another front. In the end, Zhukov was proven right about Kiev where the Nazis encircled the Soviets and captured “several hundred thousand Red Army troops and capturing large amounts of materiel”[9].

Upon taking command of the 24th Army, Zhukov immediately planned a counter-attack on the Germans. His plan was successful and the Red Army achieved a much needed victory which proved the Wehrmacht could be defeated. This victory also helped reestablish Stalin’s confidence in Zhukov and he was sent to Leningrad to take command of the desperate situation there. After arriving in Leningrad, Zhukov quickly went about restoring order and discipline, fortifying the defenses, and enacted strategic counter-attacks to inhibit the German’s ability to attack. In Leningrad, Zhukov showed his greatness as a commander as well as his ruthlessness. He “warned that all who failed in their duty would be executed”[10]. Through perseverance and tactics the Soviets were able to hold off the German siege of Leningrad for 900 days. Once the battle line had stabilized it became apparent that the Germans were transferring troops towards Moscow and Stalin ordered Zhukov to turn over his command of Leningrad and fly to Moscow[11].

Soon after arriving in Moscow Zhukov was assigned as commander of the newly combined Western Front, what we refer to as Eastern Front, where his most urgent attention was given to the defenses of Moscow. Zhukov reorganized troops and again organized civilians to help with defenses. Eventually, 450,000 Muscovites, many of whom were women, were helping construct defenses and organized into new home guards[12]. Although the Germans came very close, they were not able to break the Moscow defenses. With the onset of winter the German troops were exhausted and poorly supplied. Zhukov saw this opportunity and immediately ordered a counterstrike. The Battle of Moscow ended up being devastating for the Germans. Zhukov recounted, “the Germans lost more than half a million men and officers; 1,300 tanks; 2,500 artillery pieces; over 15,000 motor vehicles” and “were rolled back west from 150 to 300 km from Moscow”[13]. For his part, Zhukov was seen as the savior of Moscow, but his work in the war was far from over as the Wehrmacht moved on Stalingrad.

In late July 1942 German forces began their offensive on the strategic city of Stalingrad. This battle would prove to be one of the most important of the war and the final major offensive of the German army on the Eastern Front. Zhukov writes of the strategic significance of Stalingrad, “I knew the Battle of Stalingrad was of an outstanding military and political importance. With the fall of Stalingrad the enemy command would be able to cut off the south of the country from the centre”[14]. Hitler became obsessed with taking Stalingrad and he concentrated much of the Wehrmacht forces on the siege. In turn, this left their flanks vulnerable that were now guarded by less experienced Rumanian troops. The Stavka saw this opportunity and Zhukov helped plan and lead the counter-offensive. On November 19th 1942 the attack on the German flanks began. The Soviets successfully entrapped the Germans and on January 31st 1943 General Friedrich Paulus surrendered[15]. The loss of men and material at Stalingrad had severe consequences on the ability of the Wehrmacht and is viewed by many as the turning point of the entire war.

Before the surrender of Paulus, Zhukov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union which is the highest rank in the Soviet army. In January 1943 he went back to Leningrad and helped plan a counter-offensive that would finally lift the siege of the city and the suffering of its people. From there Zhukov took command of the forces around Kursk where the Soviets expected a large German offensive. In light of strong German defenses, Zhukov recommended the Stavka allow the Germans to attack, extend themselves, and then counter-attack. Although always eager to go on the offensive first, Stalin agreed and Zhukov’s plan worked. Kursk was the largest tank battle of the war and from this point forward the Germans were retreating.

On March 1st 1944 Zhukov took command of the First Ukrainian Front. A few days later they began pushing the Wehrmacht westward. For the remainder of the year Zhukov’s forces, as well as the other Soviet fronts to the north, steadily forced the German retreat. By November the Soviet high command was making plans for the assault on Berlin. During the first part of 1945, the Soviets pushed the Wehrmacht out of western Poland and East Prussia and were only sixty kilometers away from Berlin[16]. Zhukov, in charge of the First Belorussian Front, was slated with the honor of conquering Berlin. However, as the operation began he met in April 1945; Zhukov’s forces met stiff German resistance. Simultaneously, Marshal Ivan Konev was making good progress with his First Ukrainian Front to the south. After learning of Zhukov’s difficulties, Konev asked and received permission from Stalin to turn his forces towards Berlin[17]. With the prospect of having the glory of conquering Berlin stolen from him, Zhukov pressed his troops and on April 20th began the bombardment of Berlin.

Over the next ten days the bloody and fierce battle of Berlin waged on block by block. This time, however, it was Konev’s army that met stiff resistance as Zhukov’s pushed forward. On April 30th 1945 members of Zhukov’s forces raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag. As Zhukov describes it, that day “will forever remain in the memory of the Soviet people and in the history of their struggle against Nazi Germany”[18]. Two days later the Nazis surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Zhukov represented the Soviet Union at the official signing of the German surrender in Berlin and would serve as commander of the Soviet Occupation Zone until April 1946.

Zhukov emerged from the war as the Soviet Army’s most successful and prominent commander. However, it is his success that would be his undoing. Stalin didn’t want to share too much of the glory so Zhukov was transferred from his command in Berlin and demoted. Later, after Stalin’s death, Zhukov would regain his stature when Nikita Krushchev came to power and Zhukov eventually became Soviet Minister of Defense.

It is difficult to understate Zhukov’s contributions on the Eastern Front during WWII. He was involved in every major battle on the front and has the distinction of having never lost a battle. His tactics and leadership throughout the war certainly warrant all his accolades and merits he has won. However, it may have equally been Zhukov’s acceptance of high casualties that led to victory in the Eastern Front. Moreover, the equally high number of Soviet civilian casualties during WWII leaves us in amazement at the country’s ability to wage ware for so long. Thus, through Zhukov we can better understand the duality of the Eastern Front and perhaps war in general. That is the glory of victory, and the unimaginable suffering that goes along with it.

[1] Otto Preston Chaney, Zhukov (Norman, 1971), 11-15.

2 Preston 31.

[3] G.K. Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, translated by Novosti in First American Edition (New York, 1971), 156-157.

[4] Preston 57-59.

[5] Zhukov 230.

[6] Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy translated by Harold Shukman (New York: 1991), 400.

[7] Zhukov 238.

[8] Zhukov 288.

[9] Preston 101.

[10] Preston 108.

[11] Zhukov 320.

[12] Preston 152.

[13] Zhukov 360.

[14] Zhukov  377.

[15] Zhukov 423.

[16] David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the  Red Army Stopped Hilter, (Lawrence, Kansas: 1995), 254.

[17] Preston 313.

[18] Zhukov 618.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *