The World at War


Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov

* Strelkova, 1.12.1896
+ Moscow, 18.6.1974

     Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov was born 1896 in a small village of Strelkova south of Moscow, Kaluga Province, and like an immense majority of the peasant population his family were desperately poor. He lived in an old house, in the middle of the village, with one room and two windows, he also was able to attend a nearby school. At aged 10 young Georgi was sent to Moscow to find work with his uncle as an apprentice furrier and found the working conditions severely harsh under the Czarist autocracy. His childhood was ended working twelve-hour days and sleeping on the factory floor.

     The Great War of 1914 for Zhukov was a welcomed relief and in 1915 the nineteen-year-old received his conscripted call-up papers and was posted to a cavalry squadron. By 1916 his aptitude and ability had him selected for non-commissioned officer training. In his recorded memoirs he pointed to the problem within the Russian Imperial Army that the majority of aristocratic generals and officers neglected their troops and had little understanding, or esprit connection, with the ordinary peasant soldiers. He had been decorated for his bravery, and been wounded too, by March 1917 as the revolution, and change of government, swept away the old monarchist order. His poor working class background supported the change for the better and became a member of the Communist Party. Then upon contracting typhus he returned home for convalescence and it wasn't until late 1918 that he returned to military service with what was now named the Red Army. During the ensuing civil war Zhukov through self-determination and self-education showed he was a competent leader and rose quickly through the ranks of the newly formed Soviet military forces. And in 1923 he became a commander of a horse cavalry regiment. He gained a reputation for planning in detail, iron-will discipline and strictness. His potential was obvious to his superiors and, as well as, his command duties, he continually went on training courses. In 1930 he became the commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, giving seminars, held regular war-game exercises and large scale manoeuvres, and wrote manuals and textbooks on various military subjects. He was also keen on experimenting with tanks although his superiors thought otherwise. In an army changing from backward peasantry to reflect an industrial nation, reforms were brutally imposed by Stalin. Also Stalin's paranoia series of purges imprisoned or executed some 40,000 officers, and Zhukov was certain his name was on the list. He had an emergency bag packed always ready for that knock at the door. Even three of the five marshals, the highest Soviet military rank, were exterminated leaving the two others who were the most politically acceptable.

In July 1939 he was sent to Outer Mongolia and was eventually appointed commander of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group as the Japanese invaded the region. Being ordered to Mongolia to fight the Japanese expedition probably saved Zhukov's life and there he quickly organised defences and coordinated infantry attacks with artillery, tanks and aircraft. The Soviet Union had a mutual assistance pact with the Mongolian Peoples Republic therefore reacted against this hostile move by Imperial Japan. Zhukov quickly took charge of a three-pronged counter-attack, he replaced weak commanders with those that would attack the Japanese and because of the Russians sudden ferociousness threw the enemy forces back in disorder. At the river banks of Khalkin Gol the Japanese regrouped, out of reach from the Zhukov led Soviet war machine with the nearest Russian railhead being 400miles (644km) away. He began improving his line of communications clearing the dirt tracks, filling in marsh areas, organising the mass delivery of military material and assembled a large tank force. He used deception to his advantage by having the Japanese think the Soviets were on the defensive but was really planning to an overwhelming combined arms offensive. Having prepared his ground Zhukov unleashed his motivated forces, and within three days, encircled and destroyed the bewildered Japanese. He was awarded the title 'Hero of the Soviet Union' although thousands of Soviet soldiers did not survive the conflict, Zhukov saw such casualties the natural by-product of war. Here he so badly defeated the Japanese militarily that their politicians proposed and signed a non-aggression treaty with Stalin's Soviet Union, perhaps diverting the course of history. Zhukov was summoned to Moscow by Stalin where high level officers in December 1940 had a series of top level war-games ironically in conjunction with Hitler's secret order, Directive 21, to begin planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union. At this time in the Kremlin, Zhukov being in charge of the blue side, representing Germany, totally outplayed his opponents. His ambitious ability impressed Stalin and was promoted to Chief of General Staff (CGS). He worked fifteen-hour days preparing the Soviet forces for the expected and imminent war with Nazi Germany but was short of defensive resources and experienced officers. No clear command structure existed, no defensive doctrine or counterattack reaction that had been successfully studied because their proponents had been executed for being defeatists. And dictator Stalin wanted no provocative plans to incite Nazi-German suspicion about the non-aggression smoke screen to gain time for the conflict he was sure that would come.

     The darkest days for Zhukov were after 22 June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, by Hitler's European anti-communist hordes as he tried to plug huge breakthrough gaps in the frontline and flagging morale as hundreds of thousands of Russian servicemen were killed or captured. STAVKA, Soviet High Command, had a meeting in Moscow, 29 July, on how to stem this seemingly invincible advance. General Zhukov urged withdraw from Kiev and stabilise the whole frontline. Stalin angrily rejected this proposal and instantly accepted Zhukov's resignation and the ailing Marshal Shaposnikov became chief of the Russian general staff, again. Zhukov was sent to command a reserve northern frontline battlezone and his first major task allotted by Stalin was to stabilise the Leningrad Front in September 1941. He replaced the existing commander, and his staff, restoring confidence, imposing discipline and planned for the defence of the starving besieged city, street by street. In the meantime the Axis war machine had lunged for the communist capital and Zhukov was ordered this time to organise the people of Moscow. With the situation deteriorating the Moscovite city looked set to collapse but winter came freezing Hitler's last lunge as German patrols entered the industrial western suburbs, 23.5 miles from Red Square. This gave Zhukov some breathing space and the Russian general launched a minor attack forcing the frozen Germans back across the Volga-Moscow canal. Stalin still in the Kremlin called for an overwhelming massive counter offensive, which Zhukov implored to be delayed to accumulate more superior forces and sufficient reserves. Stalin overruled and he concentrated all his forces on the Central Front for a big push. In early December Zhukov launched an offensive with some 88 infantry divisions, 15 cavalry divisions and 1,500 tanks on a 200mile front, driving the ill equipped for cold weather and supply stretched German armies backward with surprising violence. But despite Zhukov's best efforts, his opinion proved correct, the advance prematurely began to grind to a halt. His finest hour during a severe winter and the first major Soviet success of the war. Nevertheless Moscow was saved and Zhukov knew this small smell of victory was only the beginning, for he realised the German invaders were far from defeated. And now Japan was at war with the United States.

     As Stalin's, the first and one only ever, Deputy Commander-in-Chief, he was sent to Stalingrad during August 1942 to help save that predicament and Marshal Zhukov took with him General Voronov, the artillery specialist. Again by massing supplies and launching carefully timed counter-attacks against weak links in the German frontline. With three army groups under his command he eventually orchestrated another inflicting defeat on the enemy. The German Sixth Army commander von Paulus, promoted to Field Marshal by Hitler because none had been taken alive, surrendered his remnants and broke this military hierarchy suicidal tradition. However the Soviet casualties were enormous, perhaps one million, with many thousands believed to have been executed for cowardice but a vital victory had been gained at a heavy cost in the southern city of Stalingrad at the Volga River. The Russian soldier would fight hard yet only for those they trusted and under Zhukov's leadership they fought their hardest which the casualty figures and wave after wave of Soviet soldiers proved. Some say he was callous and brutal in this respect but the Soviet Union, and the Slav people, were fighting the Nazis and their quisling allies, for the very right to exist. At Kursk in 1943 he mastered a further setback on the German war machine giving praise to the late General Vatutin, a brilliant & courageous Soviet soldier killed in the largest tank battle in history and a turning point for Luftwaffe dominance in Russian skies. Here Zhukov advised to make the enemy exhaust himself against the defences and then bring up fresh reserves for a general offensive to knock them back on their heels. He directed the western Ukraine offensive of 1943 and led the First White Russian Army, after taking over from General Vatutin, on great military operations westward the following year. Zhukov was equally at home in the field or in Moscow planning the overall shape of the Russian campaign and the destruction of Hitler's German Army. The immense Soviet Red Army with the superiority of numbers, raised the Leningrad siege, reached the Baltic Sea by August 1944, and by September the Soviets had entered Bucharest, liberated the Crimea and flooded into Rumania, declared war on Bulgaria and stopped on the banks of the Danube River. In late October East Prussia was invaded, eventually the Russians surged into Poland, and stopped at Warsaw.

     Yet Marshal Zhukov was not the sole master of the massive Soviet Red Army. Stalin, in Moscow, controlled the Great Patriotic War by telephone and no commander could rest for all probability he might at any moment ring-up and ask pertinent & prodigious questions in detail. Zhukov now commanding the First Belorussian Front was ordered by his supreme commander in January 1945 to attack across the Vistula River in response to Churchill's beseeched request to draw Hitler's tanks away from the Ardennes. Here Zhukov employed a mass artillery bombardment to advance past German occupied Warsaw and threatened the war-torn city from the west after five days of embittered battle. The encircled Germans were forced to evacuate and Soviet forces entered the stricken city two days later after Stalin's approval. Zhukov pushed on and advanced his army 300miles (480km) in 20days, sometimes managing 30-40 miles (48-64km) a day, and his tanks upwards of 60 miles, to reach the Oder River. He was poised to strike at Hitler's capital but Stalin playing the politik game at Yalta, negotiating the future of Europe with Churchill & Roosevelt, didn't want to be seen rushing towards Berlin. The window of opportunity had been lost and Zhukov felt it was too late for a successful thrust all the way into Hitler's liar and ordered the operation postponed.

     The Oder River is about 40miles from Berlin, the hardest miles that would require all his skill as a general and 300,000 dead Red Army soldiers, including women fighting battalions and searchlight operators. This next encounter for the city of Berlin became Zhukov's final, biggest and most important battle that he declared it would be the concluding operations of war. Only with the raising of the Red Soviet flag at the heart of the Nazi regime would the Second World War in Europe finally end. His leadership had taken the Soviet Red Army from the defences of Moscow in late 1941 to the gates of Berlin by early 1945. As the Soviets entered Austria on 29 March Zhukov was recalled to Moscow for meetings with Stalin. An overall plan was agreed to, Zhukov's 1st Belorussian, and Koniev's 1st Ukranian would burst over the Oder River and double envelope Berlin, with Marshal Rokossovky's 2nd Belorussian going north towards Denmark.

     As dictator Stalin's subordinate deputy Zhukov knew he was a military pawn, acting with great courage and caution in this role. Yet Stalin, unlike Hitler, listened to his generals advice, on occasions, and no officers opinion he listened to more now than Zhukov, even though he was more concerned with political objectives and now determined to take Berlin before the First of May holiday. This Zhukov understood and performed to his best ability to fulfil this hard task under these deliberate lashing orders within the allotted time frame. Huge quantities of supplies were prepared and Zhukov stated he'd drive up route one, Riechstrasse 1, the shortest way to his main objective. He wanted to break the German 9th Army on the defence line in the Seelowe Hills, over the Oder, rather than in the streets of Berlin. Zhukov prepared very carefully, ordered reconnaissance planes to survey the area, used captured documents and prisoner interrogation reports to compile detail maps, and had a exact model of the Berlin, its suburbs and defences constructed, for that extra detail in conveying his intent to subordinate commanding officers. The varied defences along the Oder were of three strips of different depths and levels of obstruction.

     After the fall of Vienna on the 13 April 1945 Zhukov launched a probing attack against the Oder defences and was able to overrun the forward German trenches guarding the east bank. He always tried new innovations and ideas, and although they did not always succeed he never gave up experimenting what works best to exploit the situation. At Seelow he organised his numerous artillery, wheel hub to wheel hub, for the most intensive and terrifying barrages of the war, followed by an aerial attack of mass magnitude. The clear day was turned dark as the dust and debris filed the sky but destruction fell on evacuated German frontline fortifications, an old WW1 ploy remembered. German casualties were slight but the emotional impact of such devastation terrified the defenders who now knew they were about to suffer something even more extraordinary. Zhukov ordered a night assault, contrary to normal doctrine, the ground assault being supported by 140 searchlights aimed at the enemy. An impressive and questionable idea that had merit but no practicable result as it effected the Soviets more so than the enemy. The Germans were well dug in on, and behind, Seelow Heights, many Soviet vehicles were destroyed by anti-tank defences, 700 Russian tanks lost in 4 days, and Zhukov bitter at the result blamed himself for this setback. His resilience was strength to his aggression against his foe. Things were not going too well but he retained control of the situation. He changed his plans massing his tanks and throwing them against the horrified defenders. The Germans always knew that in order to breakthrough Zhukov would accept any number of casualties. After his debacle Stalin played him off against his rival colleague Koniev, another successful Soviet commander, operating south of Berlin and whom eventually linked up with the Americans on the Elbe. Zhukov renewed his assault with extra vigour to reach Berlin proper, and the Riechstag.

     The German 9th Army defences fell apart on the 19 April and the Soviets were through, the mined and marshy ground either side of the Riechstrasse had took a heavy toll of the attackers. Zhukov bypassed strongpoints that had been ordered by Hitler not to retreat, as they posed no threat to his army as they might have if the Germans had retreated and set up a new defence line. By 20 April long range artillery began pounding Berlin. Since 1943 the western Allies had continually bombarded the city and from the beginning of February 1945 thousand bomber raids had killed thousands of people, many refugees from the east and west. And up until mid April over 45,000tons of bombs had been dropped, now Zhukov's artillery would follow this onslaught with a greater tonnage of death and destruction. The final assault began, Zhukov a commander of armies that took on the bitter urban confined street fighting & canal crossing of the Nazi's capital city. Battle raged in the suburbs and into the city between Soviet heavy combined arms groups and every German in Berlin, whether sixteen or sixty. Buildings in Berlin, particularly the corner houses, were fortified, barricades of all sorts were erected on the narrow streets already congested with the rubble from destroyed structures. In the open areas, and grassy parkland, of the inner city were furrowed with trenches, communication slits, anti-tank ditches, and anti-personnel entanglements. Also the sewers, underground transport systems and sections of the S-Bahn were incorporated into the die-hard defences by the Nazi authorities. Zhukov instructed his troops to push on methodically, shifting from set piece battlefield organisation to street by street, house by house urban terrain fighting components. Each attack was preceded by superior aerial and artillery attack with two heavily armed groups proceeding down along each side of the street and a third group mopping up the bombed out buildings behind them.

     On the 28 April, Zhukov's troops reached the Moltke Bridge and an assault was imperatively launched with great losses by both belligerents. Across the other side of the heavily defended river Spree watercourse the Soviet soldiers entered the Ministry of the Interior building, next was the Riechstag. Only first the Kroll Opera House had to be neutralised to extricate the Germans from their rear. More severe casualties were inflicted by both sides in this congested killing field. At the battle scarred Riechstag building, what the Soviets considered the centre of Nazi Germany, and so stoutly defended, were breached after several assaults at the entrance. By 10.50pm on the night of 30 April, just before the May Day deadline set by Stalin, a big Red Flag, with its larger hammer & sickle then usual was raised on the roof, although desperate fighting continued inside the oversized bunker for several days. Once that objective was secured Zhukov's troops went on to storm the Reichs Chancellory, where they would find the site of Hitler's last headquarters, the Russians second main objective. They found the Fuhrer's dead and charred body outside his bunker and Zhukov reminded the surviving suicidal stalwarts of the Nazi regime that only unconditional surrender would suffice.

     German General Weilding, defence commandant of Berlin, surrendered on 2 May 1945 and Zhukov stated "Finally, the goal for which our nation had endured its great suffering the complete crushing of Nazi Germany, the smashing of Fascism, the triumph of our cause". On the 8 May Zhukov presided over the complete and final capitulation of German armed forces at Karlshorst, west of Berlin, even though the Allies had accepted unconditional surrender at Reims, in France, and of course Monty's little capitulation jaunt. Operation Berlin was a crowning success of Zhukov's military career, to take a nations capital city heavily defended is definitely one of the hardest military objectives imaginable, requiring Clauswitz's massive deployment of destructive forces. Whatever the hindrance Zhukov would do what was necessary to lead his men forward, where as lesser leaders of soldiers would have crumbled, his command and leadership skills saw that it was done. He returned to Moscow and Stalin insisted he ride a white horse at the front of the massive victory parade, only because Stalin had fallen off during a rehearsal and was not such a good horseman, so the story goes. Back in the ruins of the Nazi capital on the 9 July, a few hundred yards from the Russian memorial to the conquerors of Berlin, was the first ceremonial encounter between British & Soviet commanders. Here on this day two months after the end of the war in Europe, yet the Western Allies had only been in Berlin less than a week, British Field Marshal Montgomery invested Georgi Zhukov with the Knights Cross of the Order of the Bath.

     He posed a potential threat to Stalin's avarice attitude, was announced as a un-person, and sent away to pointless appointments far from Moscow. An injustice in Zhukov's mind after years of dedication and loyalty. He still feared for his life and by keeping that packed suitcase still ready for when the authorities came to arrest him, at least, he would be able to leave quickly causing no danger or threat to his family. When Kruschev took over after Stalin's lonely death Zhukov was briefly restored serving as Deputy Minister of Defence in a role formulating nuclear policy until 1957 he was retired, some say he became too heavy handed, tactless and arrogant. He was rehabilitated again in 1965 for the twentieth anniversary of the end of WW2 and probably welcomed by his comrades, peasant soldiers, like he always was. He lived the rest of his life in obscurity stressed with regret due to not receiving recognition of a great commander. As a great commander of the Twentieth Century he was decisive and inventive, realised political imperatives, was tenacious in attack and strong willed to see decisions through to conclusion. He worked hard to ensure all plans had been carried out by those under his command and he personally visited the soldiers in the frontline. He also done his own reconnaissance, was noted for his ruthless discipline using a firing squad and the infamous penal battalions that fought at the most dangerous front line sector as a means to keep his subordinates in line, and he kept his commander well informed at all times. His death in 1974 was marked by burial with full military honours in Red Square at the Kremlin Wall. A phrase coined in the Soviet Red Army during the war was

"Where you find Zhukov, you find victory"

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