The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945, ed. David R. Stone

The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945, ed. David R. Stone

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The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945, ed. Stone

The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945, ed. Stone

This book looks at the impact of the German invasion on the Soviet Union and the effectiveness of various elements of the Soviet system in dealing with the German threat.

The book is organized thematically, looking at each aspect of society in turn. There is no narrative account of the war, and it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the course of events.

The book asks two main questions: how did the soviet system as modified by Stalin in the 1930s cope with the impact of war - did it help or hinder the war effort; how did the war change the system and what impact did that have on people's lives. In most cases the answer is a balance - on the one hand Stalin's purges, repression and overly rapid reforms did untold amounts of damage, on the other hand the repression allowed the Soviet government to mobilize the economy effectively if brutally at the height of the crisis.

The overwhelming impression one comes away with is of the enormous sacrifices made by the Soviet people during the Second World War, mostly inflicted on them by the Germans, but often made worse by Stalin and his policies. This is a very valuable piece of work, and an essential part of the literature on the Second World War.

1 - Industry and the Economy, Mark Harrison
2 - Propaganda and Public Opinion, Richard Bidlack
3 - Food Supply, Rationing and Living Standards, Nicholas Ganson
4 - Women, Reina Pennington
5 - The Red Army, David R. Stone
6 - The People's Avengers: The Partisan Movement, Kenneth Sleptan
7 - A Peasant Ordeal: The Soviet Countryside, Jean Levesque
8 - Non-Russian Nationalities, Jeremy Smith

Author: Various
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 250
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2010

Mark Harrison: Publications

The series completed by this volume provides an original, authoritative account of the Soviet economy's industrial transformation between 1929 and 1939. The first volume of the series was published by R. W. Davies in 1980. The most recent volume (before this one) covered the “good years” (in economic terms) of 1934 to 1936. The present volume has a darker tone: beginning from the Great Terror, it ends with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the outbreak of World War II in Europe. A preprint of Chapter 10 is available as The Soviet Economy: the Late 1930s in Historical Perspective. CAGE Working Paper no. 363. University of Warwick. This version 1 March 2018.

Recognized by the Alexander Nove Award for Distinguished Scholarship of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies in April 2020.

  • Harrison, Mark. 2016. One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press (xxii+280 pp.).

Contents: Chapter 1: The Mill (excerpt here). 2: Truth Hurts. 3: Heretics. 4: The Mafia (an early version is Whistleblower or Troublemaker? How One Man Took On the Soviet Mafia, The Warwick Economic Research Papers no. 890, February 26, 2009). 5: You Have Been Warned (an early version is You Have Been Warned: The KGB and Profilaktika in Soviet Lithuania, PERSA Working Paper no. 62, University of Warwick, Department of Economics. October 12, 2010). 6: A Grand Tour. 7: One Day We Will Live Without Fear. Conclusions. Afterword: Fact and Fantasy in Soviet Records.

  • Harrison, Mark. 2015. The Economics of Coercion and Conflict. Author. London: World Scientific Publishing: The Tricontinental Series on Global Economic Issues (428 pp.) Sample chapter.
  • Harrison, Mark, ed. 2014. Unlocking Development. A CAGE policy report. Editor. London: The Social Market Foundation (116 pp.). Online version.
  • Markevich, Andrei, and Mark Harrison. 2013. Pervaia mirovaia voina, grazhdanskaia voina, i vosstanovlenie: natsional'nyi dokhod Rossii v 1913-1928 gg. [First World War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia's National Income, 1913 to 1928]. Moscow: Mysl' (110 pp.). Online version.

Discussed by Boris Grozovskii in Ekonomika grazhdanskoi voiny: skol'ko zaplatila Rossiia in Russian Forbes (30 June 2014)

  • Harrison, Mark. 2008. Guns and Rubles: the Defense Industry in the Stalinist State. Editor. Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stalinism, and the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press. Hardback edition (xxvi + 272 pp.) .
  • Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison, eds. 2005. The Economics of World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hardback edition (xvi+345 pp.). Preview.

Reviewed by Stanley L. Engerman for, January 2006, and Nathan N. Orgill for H-Net, July 2006. Paperback reprint 2009.

  • Barber, John, and Mark Harrison, eds. 2000. The Soviet Defence Industry Complex from Stalin to Khrushchev. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, Studies in Russian & East European History and Society. Hardback edition (xviii+283 pp.).
  • Harrison, Mark, ed. 1998. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Editor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Studies in Monetary and Financial History. Hardback edition (xxiii+307 pp.). Preview.

Reviewed by Geofrey T. Mills for, July 1999. Paperback reprint 2000.

  • Harrison, Mark. 1996. Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden, 1940-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Russian, Soviet, & Post-Soviet Studies. Hardback edition (xxxiv+338 pp). Preview. Data. Paperback reprint 2000.

Awarded the Alec Nove Prize of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies in 1997.

  • Davies, R. W., Mark Harrison, and S. G. Wheatcroft, eds. 1994. The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hardback and paperback editions (xxxii+381 pp.). Preview.
  • Barber, John, and Mark Harrison. 1991. The Soviet Home Front, 1941-5: a Social and Economic History of the USSR in World War II. London: Longman. Hardback and paperback editions (xiii+245 pp).
  • Harrison, Mark. 1985. Soviet Planning in Peace and War 1938-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hardback edition (xiv+315 pp.). Preview. Paperback reprint 2000.

Book Description

This volume showcases important new research on World War II memory, both in the Soviet Union and in Russia today.

Through an examination of war remembrance in its various forms—official histories, school textbooks, museums, monuments, literature, films, and Victory Day parades—chapters illustrate how the heroic narrative of the war was established in Soviet times and how it continues to shape war memorialization under Putin. This war narrative resonates with the Russian population due to decades of Soviet commemoration, which continued virtually uninterrupted into the post-Soviet period. Major themes of the volume include the use of World War II memory for political legitimation and patriotic mobilization the striking continuities between Soviet and post-Soviet commemorative practices the place of Holocaust memorialization in contemporary Russia Putin’s invocation of the war to bolster national pride and international prestige and the relationship between individual memory and collective remembrance.

Authored by an international group of distinguished specialists, this collection is ideal for scholars of Russia across a range of disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, and cultural studies.


During the 1930s, Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov emerged as a leading voice for the official Soviet policy of collective security with the Western powers against Nazi Germany. [7] In 1935, Litvinov negotiated treaties of mutual assistance with France and with Czechoslovakia with the aim of containing Hitler's expansion. [7] After the Munich Agreement, which gave parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, the Western democracies’ policy of appeasement led the Soviet Union to reorient its foreign policy towards a rapprochement with Germany. [7] On 3 May 1939, Stalin replaced Litvinov, who was closely identified with the anti-German position, [7] with Vyacheslav Molotov.

In August 1939, Stalin accepted Hitler's proposal into a non-aggression pact with Germany, negotiated by the foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov for the Soviets and Joachim von Ribbentrop for the Germans. [8] Officially a non-aggression treaty only, an appended secret protocol, [ citation needed ] also reached on 23 August, divided the whole of eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. [9] [10] The USSR was promised the eastern part of Poland, then primarily populated by Ukrainians and Belarusians, in case of its dissolution, and Germany recognised Latvia, Estonia and Finland as parts of the Soviet sphere of influence, [10] with Lithuania added in a second secret protocol in September 1939. [11] Another clause of the treaty was that Bessarabia, then part of Romania, was to be joined to the Moldovan SSR, and become the Moldovan SSR under control of Moscow. [10]

The pact was reached two days after the breakdown of Soviet military talks with British and French representatives in August 1939 over a potential Franco-Anglo-Soviet alliance. [12] [13] Political discussions had been suspended on 2 August, when Molotov stated that they could not be resumed until progress was made in military talks late in August, [14] after the talks had stalled over guarantees for the Baltic states, [15] [16] while the military talks upon which Molotov insisted [15] started on 11 August. [12] [17] At the same time, Germany—with whom the Soviets had started secret negotiations on 29 July [8] [18] [19] [20] [21] – argued that it could offer the Soviets better terms than Britain and France, with Ribbentrop insisting, "there was no problem between the Baltic and the Black Sea that could not be solved between the two of us." [12] [22] [23] German officials stated that, unlike Britain, Germany could permit the Soviets to continue their developments unmolested, and that "there is one common element in the ideology of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies of the West". [22] [24] By that time, Molotov had obtained information regarding Anglo-German negotiations and a pessimistic report from the Soviet ambassador in France. [18]

After disagreement regarding Stalin's demand to move Red Army troops through Poland and Romania (which Poland and Romania opposed), [12] [17] on 21 August, the Soviets proposed adjournment of military talks using the pretext that the absence of the senior Soviet personnel at the talks interfered with the autumn manoeuvres of the Soviet forces, though the primary reason was the progress being made in the Soviet-German negotiations. [17] That same day, Stalin received assurance that Germany would approve secret protocols to the proposed non-aggression pact that would grant the Soviets land in Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and Romania, [25] after which Stalin telegrammed Hitler that night that the Soviets were willing to sign the pact and that he would receive Ribbentrop on 23 August. [26] Regarding the larger issue of collective security, some historians state that one reason that Stalin decided to abandon the doctrine was the shaping of his views of France and Britain by their entry into the Munich Agreement and the subsequent failure to prevent the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. [27] [28] [29] Stalin may also have viewed the pact as gaining time in an eventual war with Hitler in order to reinforce the Soviet military and shifting Soviet borders westwards, which would be militarily beneficial in such a war. [30] [31]

Stalin and Ribbentrop spent most of the night of the pact's signing trading friendly stories about world affairs and cracking jokes (a rarity for Ribbentrop) about Britain's weakness, and the pair even joked about how the Anti-Comintern Pact principally scared "British shopkeepers." [32] They further traded toasts, with Stalin proposing a toast to Hitler's health and Ribbentrop proposing a toast to Stalin. [32]

On 1 September 1939, the German invasion of its agreed upon portion of Poland started the Second World War. [8] On 17 September the Red Army invaded eastern Poland and occupied the Polish territory assigned to it by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, followed by co-ordination with German forces in Poland. [33] [34] Eleven days later, the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was modified, allotting Germany a larger part of Poland, while ceding most of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. [35] The Soviet portions lay east of the so-called Curzon Line, an ethnographic frontier between Russia and Poland drawn up by a commission of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. [36]

After taking around 300,000 Polish prisoners in 1939 and early 1940, [37] [38] [39] [40] NKVD officers conducted lengthy interrogations of the prisoners in camps that were, in effect, a selection process to determine who would be killed. [41] On March 5, 1940, pursuant to a note to Stalin from Lavrenty Beria, the members of the Soviet Politburo (including Stalin) signed and 22,000 military and intellectuals were executed they were labelled "nationalists and counterrevolutionaries", kept at camps and prisons in occupied western Ukraine and Belarus. This became known as the Katyn massacre. [41] [42] [43] Major-General Vasili M. Blokhin, chief executioner for the NKVD, personally shot 6,000 of the captured Polish officers in 28 consecutive nights, which remains one of the most organized and protracted mass murders by a single individual on record. [44] [45] During his 29-year career Blokhin shot an estimated 50,000 people, [46] making him ostensibly the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history. [44]

In August 1939, Stalin declared that he was going to "solve the Baltic problem, and thereafter, forced Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to sign treaties for "mutual assistance." [35]

After unsuccessfully attempting to install a communist puppet government in Finland, in November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. [47] The Finnish defensive effort defied Soviet expectations, and after stiff losses, Stalin settled for an interim peace granting the Soviet Union less than total domination by annexing only the eastern region of Karelia (10% of Finnish territory). [47] Soviet official casualty counts in the war exceeded 200,000, [48] while Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later claimed the casualties may have been one million. [49] After this campaign, Stalin took actions to modify training and improve propaganda efforts in the Soviet military. [50]

In mid-June 1940, when international attention was focused on the German invasion of France, Soviet NKVD troops raided border posts in the Baltic countries. [35] [51] Stalin claimed that the mutual assistance treaties had been violated, and gave six-hour ultimatums for new governments to be formed in each country, including lists of persons for cabinet posts provided by the Kremlin. [35] Thereafter, state administrations were liquidated and replaced by Soviet cadres, followed by mass repression [35] in which 34,250 Latvians, 75,000 Lithuanians and almost 60,000 Estonians were deported or killed. [52] Elections for parliament and other offices were held with single candidates listed, the official results of which showed pro-Soviet candidates approval by 92.8 percent of the voters of Estonia, 97.6 percent of the voters in Latvia and 99.2 percent of the voters in Lithuania. [53] The resulting peoples' assemblies immediately requested admission into the USSR, which was granted. [53] In late June 1940, Stalin directed the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, proclaiming this formerly Romanian territory part of the Moldavian SSR. [54] But in annexing northern Bukovina, Stalin had gone beyond the agreed limits of the secret protocol. [54]

After the Tripartite Pact was signed by Axis Powers Germany, Japan and Italy, in October 1940, Stalin personally wrote to Ribbentrop about entering an agreement regarding a "permanent basis" for their "mutual interests." [55] Stalin sent Molotov to Berlin to negotiate the terms for the Soviet Union to join the Axis and potentially enjoy the spoils of the pact. [54] At Stalin's direction, [56] Molotov insisted on Soviet interest in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece, [56] though Stalin had earlier unsuccessfully personally lobbied Turkish leaders to not sign a mutual assistance pact with Britain and France. [57] Ribbentrop asked Molotov to sign another secret protocol with the statement: "The focal point of the territorial aspirations of the Soviet Union would presumably be centered south of the territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean." [56] Molotov took the position that he could not take a "definite stand" on this without Stalin's agreement. [56] Stalin did not agree with the suggested protocol, and negotiations broke down. [55] In response to a later German proposal, Stalin stated that the Soviets would join the Axis if Germany foreclosed acting in the Soviet's sphere of influence. [58] Shortly thereafter, Hitler issued a secret internal directive related to his plan to invade the Soviet Union. [58]

In an effort to demonstrate peaceful intentions toward Germany, on 13 April 1941, Stalin oversaw the signing of a neutrality pact with Japan. [59] Since the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia had been competing with Japan for spheres of influence in the Far East, where there was a power vacuum with the collapse of Imperial China. Although similar to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with the Third Reich, that Soviet Union signed Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with the Empire of Japan, to maintain the national interest of Soviet's sphere of influence in the European continent as well as the Far East conquest, whilst among the few countries in the world diplomatically recognizing Manchukuo, and allowed the rise of German invasion in Europe and Japanese aggression in Asia, but the Japanese defeat of Battles of Khalkhin Gol was the forceful factor to the temporary settlement before Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945 as the result of Yalta Conference. While Stalin had little faith in Japan's commitment to neutrality, he felt that the pact was important for its political symbolism, to reinforce a public affection for Germany, before military confrontation when Hitler controlled Western Europe and for Soviet Union to take control Eastern Europe. [60] Stalin felt that there was a growing split in German circles about whether Germany should initiate a war with the Soviet Union, though Stalin was not aware of Hitler's further military ambition. [60]

During the early morning of 22 June 1941, Hitler terminated the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of Soviet-held territories and the Soviet Union that began the war on the Eastern Front. Before the invasion, Stalin thought that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union until Germany had defeated Britain. At the same time, Soviet generals warned Stalin that Germany had concentrated forces on its borders. Two highly placed Soviet spies in Germany, "Starshina" and "Korsikanets", had sent dozens of reports to Moscow containing evidence of preparation for a German attack. Further warnings came from Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy in Tokyo working undercover as a German journalist who had penetrated deep into the German Embassy in Tokyo by seducing the wife of General Eugen Ott, the German ambassador to Japan. [61]

Seven days before the invasion, a Soviet spy in Berlin, part of the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) spy network, warned Stalin that the movement of German divisions to the borders was to wage war on the Soviet Union. [61] Five days before the attack, Stalin received a report from a spy in the German Air Ministry that "all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time." [62] In the margin, Stalin wrote to the people's commissar for state security, "you can send your 'source' from the headquarters of German aviation to his mother. This is not a 'source' but a dezinformator." [62] Although Stalin increased Soviet western border forces to 2.7 million men and ordered them to expect a possible German invasion, he did not order a full-scale mobilisation of forces to prepare for an attack. [63] Stalin felt that a mobilization might provoke Hitler to prematurely begin to wage war against the Soviet Union, which Stalin wanted to delay until 1942 in order to strengthen Soviet forces. [64]

In the initial hours after the German attack began, Stalin hesitated, wanting to ensure that the German attack was sanctioned by Hitler, rather than the unauthorized action of a rogue general. [65] Accounts by Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan claim that, after the invasion, Stalin retreated to his dacha in despair for several days and did not participate in leadership decisions. [66] But, some documentary evidence of orders given by Stalin contradicts these accounts, leading historians such as Roberts to speculate that Khrushchev's account is inaccurate. [67]

Stalin soon quickly made himself a Marshal of the Soviet Union, then country's highest military rank and Supreme Commander in Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces aside from being Premier and General-Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union that made him the leader of the nation, as well as the People's Commissar for Defence, which is equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of War at that time and the U.K. Minister of Defence and formed the State Defense Committee to coordinate military operations with himself also as Chairman. He chaired the Stavka, the highest defense organisation of the country. Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov was named to be the Deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces.

In the first three weeks of the invasion, as the Soviet Union tried to defend itself against large German advances, it suffered 750,000 casualties, and lost 10,000 tanks and 4,000 aircraft. [68] In July 1941, Stalin completely reorganized the Soviet military, placing himself directly in charge of several military organizations. This gave him complete control of his country's entire war effort more control than any other leader in World War II. [69]

A pattern soon emerged where Stalin embraced the Red Army's strategy of conducting multiple offensives, while the Germans overran each of the resulting small, newly gained grounds, dealing the Soviets severe casualties. [70] The most notable example of this was the Battle of Kiev, where over 600,000 Soviet troops were quickly killed, captured or missing. [70]

By the end of 1941, the Soviet military had suffered 4.3 million casualties [71] and the Germans had captured 3.0 million Soviet prisoners, 2.0 million of whom died in German captivity by February 1942. [68] German forces had advanced c. 1,700 kilometres, and maintained a linearly-measured front of 3,000 kilometres. [72] The Red Army put up fierce resistance during the war's early stages. Even so, according to Glantz, they were plagued by an ineffective defence doctrine against well-trained and experienced German forces, despite possessing some modern Soviet equipment, such as the KV-1 and T-34 tanks.

While the Germans made huge advances in 1941, killing millions of Soviet soldiers, at Stalin's direction the Red Army directed sizable resources to prevent the Germans from achieving one of their key strategic goals, the attempted capture of Leningrad. They held the city at the cost of more than a million Soviet soldiers in the region and more than a million civilians, many of whom died from starvation. [73]

While the Germans pressed forward, Stalin was confident of an eventual Allied victory over Germany. In September 1941, Stalin told British diplomats that he wanted two agreements: (1) a mutual assistance/aid pact and (2) a recognition that, after the war, the Soviet Union would gain the territories in countries that it had taken pursuant to its division of Eastern Europe with Hitler in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. [74] The British agreed to assistance but refused to agree to the territorial gains, which Stalin accepted months later as the military situation had deteriorated somewhat by mid-1942. [74] On 6 November 1941, Stalin rallied his generals in a speech given underground in Moscow, telling them that the German blitzkrieg would fail because of weaknesses in the German rear in Nazi-occupied Europe and the underestimation of the strength of the Red Army, and that the German war effort would crumble against the Anglo-American-Soviet "war engine". [75]

Correctly calculating that Hitler would direct efforts to capture Moscow, Stalin concentrated his forces to defend the city, including numerous divisions transferred from Soviet eastern sectors after he determined that Japan would not attempt an attack in those areas. [76] By December, Hitler's troops had advanced to within 25 kilometres (16 mi) of the Kremlin in Moscow. [77] On 5 December, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive, pushing German troops back c. 80 kilometres (50 mi) from Moscow in what was the first major defeat of the Wehrmacht in the war. [77]

In early 1942, the Soviets began a series of offensives labelled "Stalin's First Strategic Offensives". The counteroffensive bogged down, in part due to mud from rain in the spring of 1942. [71] Stalin's attempt to retake Kharkov in the Ukraine ended in the disastrous encirclement of Soviet forces, with over 200,000 Soviet casualties suffered. [78] Stalin attacked the competence of the generals involved. [79] General Georgy Zhukov and others subsequently revealed that some of those generals had wished to remain in a defensive posture in the region, but Stalin and others had pushed for the offensive. Some historians have doubted Zhukov's account. [79]

At the same time, Hitler was worried about American popular support after the U.S. entry into the war following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, and a potential Anglo-American invasion on the Western Front in 1942 (which did not occur until the summer of 1944). He changed his primary goal from an immediate victory in the East, to the more long-term goal of securing the southern Soviet Union to protect oil fields vital to the long-term German war effort. [80] While Red Army generals correctly judged the evidence that Hitler would shift his efforts south, Stalin thought it a flanking move in the German attempt to take Moscow. [79]

The German southern campaign began with a push to capture the Crimea, which ended in disaster for the Red Army. Stalin publicly criticised his generals' leadership. [78] In their southern campaigns, the Germans took 625,000 Red Army prisoners in July and August 1942 alone. [81] At the same time, in a meeting in Moscow, Churchill privately told Stalin that the British and Americans were not yet prepared to make an amphibious landing against a fortified Nazi-held French coast in 1942, and would direct their efforts to invading German-held North Africa. He pledged a campaign of massive strategic bombing, to include German civilian targets. [82]

Estimating that the Russians were "finished," the Germans began another southern operation in the autumn of 1942, the Battle of Stalingrad. [81] Hitler insisted upon splitting German southern forces in a simultaneous siege of Stalingrad and an offensive against Baku on the Caspian Sea. [83] Stalin directed his generals to spare no effort to defend Stalingrad. [84] Although the Soviets suffered in excess of more than 2 million casualties at Stalingrad, [85] their victory over German forces, including the encirclement of 290,000 Axis troops, marked a turning point in the war. [86]

Within a year after Barbarossa, Stalin reopened the churches in the Soviet Union. He may have wanted to motivate the majority of the population who had Christian beliefs. By changing the official policy of the party and the state towards religion, he could engage the Church and its clergy in mobilising the war effort. On 4 September 1943, Stalin invited the metropolitans Sergius, Alexy and Nikolay to the Kremlin. He proposed to reestablish the Moscow Patriarchate, which had been suspended since 1925, and elect the Patriarch. On 8 September 1943, Metropolitan Sergius was elected Patriarch. One account said that Stalin's reversal followed a sign that he supposedly received from heaven. [87]

Over 75% of Red Army divisions were listed as "rifle divisions" (as infantry divisions were known in the Red Army). [88] In the Imperial Russian Army, the strelkovye (rifle) divisions were considered [ by whom? ] more prestigious than pekhotnye (infantry) divisions, and in the Red Army, all infantry divisions were labeled strelkovye divisions. [88] The Soviet rifleman was known as a peshkom ("on foot") or more frequently as a frontovik (Russian: фронтовик - front fighter plural Russian: фронтовики - frontoviki). [88] The term frontovik was not equivalent to the German term Landser, the American G.I Joe nor the British Tommy Atkins, all of which referred to soldiers in general, as the term frontovik applied only to those infantrymen who fought at the front. [88] All able-bodied males in the Soviet Union became eligible for conscription at the age of 19 - those attending a university or a technical school were able to escape conscription, and even then could defer military service for a period ranging from 3 months to a year. [88] Deferments could be only offered three times. [88] The Soviet Union comprised 20 military districts, which corresponded with the borders of the oblasts, and were further divided into raions (counties). [89] The raions had assigned quotas specifying the number of men they had to produce for the Red Army every year. [90] The vast majority of the frontoviks had been born in the 1920s and had grown up knowing nothing other than the Soviet system. [91] Every year, men received draft notices in the mail informing to report at a collection point, usually a local school, and customarily reported to duty with a bag or suitcase carrying some spare clothes, underwear, and tobacco. [91] The conscripts then boarded a train to a military reception center where they were issued uniforms, underwent a physical test, had their heads shaven and were given a steam bath to rid them of lice. [91] A typical soldier was given ammo pouches, shelter-cape, ration bag, cooking pot, water bottle and an identity tube containing papers listing pertinent personal information. [92]

During training, conscripts woke up between 5 and 6 am training lasted for 10 to 12 hours - six days of the week. [93] Much of the training was done by rote and consisted of instruction. [94] [ need quotation to verify ] Before 1941 training had lasted for six months, but after the war, training was shorted to a few weeks. [93] After finishing training, all men had to take the Oath of the Red Army which read:

I______, a citizen of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, entering into the ranks of the Red Army of the Workers and Peasants', take this oath and solemnly promise to be a honest, brave, disciplined, vigilant fighter, staunchly to protect military and state secrets, and unquestioningly to obey all military regulations and orders of commanders and superiors.

I promise conscientiously to study military affairs, in every way to protect state secrets and state property, and to my last breath to be faithful to the people, the Soviet Motherland, and the Workers-Peasants' Government.

I am always prepared on order of the Workers and Peasants Government to rise to the defense of my Motherland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and as a fighting man of the Red Army of Workers and Peasants', I promise to defend it bravely, skillfully, with dignity and honor, sparing neither my blood nor my life itself for the achievement of total victory over our enemies.

If by evil intent I should violate this, my solemn oath, then let the severe punishment of Soviet law and the total hatred and contempt of the working classes befall me. [95]

Tactics were based on the 1936 training manual and on the revised edition of 1942. [96] Small-unit movements and how to build defensive positions were laid out in a manner that was easy to understand and memorize. [97] The manuals had the force of law and violations of the manuals counted as legal offenses. [97] Soviet tactics always had the platoons attacking in the same way - with the platoons usually broken into four sections occupying about 100 yards on average. [98] The only complex formation was the diamond formation - with one section advancing, two behind and one in the rear. [98] Unlike the Wehrmacht, the Red Army did not engage in leap-frogging of sections with one section providing fire support to the sections that were advancing: instead all of the sections and platoons attacked en masse. [98] The other only variation was for the sections to "seep" into a position by infiltration. [98]

When the order Na shturm, marshch! (Assault, march!) was given, the Soviet infantry would charge the enemy while shouting the traditional Russian battle cry Urra! (Russian: ура ! , pronounced oo-rah), the sound of which many German veterans found terrifying. [99] During the charge, the riflemen would fire with rifles and submachine guns while throwing grenades before closing in for blizhnii boi (Russian: ближний бой - close combat - close-quarter fighting with guns, bayonets, rifle butts, knives, digging tools and fists), a type of fighting at which the Red Army excelled. [100] On the defensive, the frontoviki had a reputation for their skill at camouflaging their positions and for their discipline in withholding fire until Axis forces came within close range. [100] Before 1941 Red Army doctrine had called for opening fire at maximum range, but experience quickly taught the advantages of ambushing the enemy with surprise fire at close ranges from multiple positions. [100]

The typical frontovik during the war was an ethnic Russian aged 19–24 with an average height of 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m). [101] Most of the men were shaven bald to prevent lice and the few who did grow their hair kept it very short. [101] The American historian Gordon Rottman describes the uniforms as "simple and functional". [101] In combat, the men wore olive-brown helmets or the pilotka (side cap). [101] Officers wore a shlem (helmet) or a furazhka [ru] (Russian: фуражка - peaked cap), a round service-hat with a black visor and a red star. [101] Rottman described Soviet weapons as ". known for their simplicity, ruggedness and general reliability". [102] The standard rifle, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm M 1891/30, although heavy, was an effective weapon that crucially was not affected by the cold. [103] Every rifle section had one or two 7.62 mm Degtyaryov DP light machine guns to provide fire support. [104] By 1944, one of every four frontoviki was armed with the 7.62 mm PPSh-41 (Pistolet-pulemet Shapagina-Pistol Automatic Shpagin), a type of submachine gun known as a "rugged and reliable weapon", if somewhat underpowered. [102]

The frontovik usually carried all he had in a simple bag. [105] Most of the frontoviki had a perevyazochny paket (wound dressing packet), a razor, a shovel and would be very lucky to have a towel and toothbrush. [106] Toothpaste, shampoo and soap were extremely rare. [106] Usually sticks with chewed ends were used for brushing teeth. [106] Latrine pits were dug, as portable toilets were rare in the Red Army. [107] Soldiers frequently slept outdoors, even during the winter. [107] Food was usually abysmal and often in short supply, especially in 1941 and 1942. [107] The frontoviki detested the rear-service troops who did not face the dangers of combat as krysy (Russian: крысы - rats singular: Russian: крыса , romanized: krysa). [108] The frontovik lived on a diet of black rye bread canned meats like fish and tushonka (stewed pork) shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (porridge).”. [108] Kasha and shchi were so common that a popular slogan in the Red Army was "shchi ee kasha, pisha nasha" ("schchi and kasha, that's our fare".). [108] Chai (Russian: чай - hot sugared tea) was an extremely popular beverage, along with beer and vodka. [109] Makhorka, a type of cheap tobacco rolled into handmade cigarettes, was the standard for smoking. [109]

Rottmann describes medical care as "marginal". [109] A shortage of doctors, medical equipment and drugs meant those wounded often died, usually in immense pain. [109] Morphine was unknown in the Red Army. [109] Most Red Army soldiers had not received preventive inoculations, and diseases became major problems - with malaria, pneumonia, diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhus, dysentery, and meningitis in particular regularly sickening Red-Army men. [109] In the winter frostbite often sent soldiers to the medical system, while in the spring and fall rains made trench foot a common ailment. [109] The frontoviki had a pay day once every month, but often did not receive their wages. [110] All soldiers were exempt from taxes. [110] In 1943 a private was paid 600 roubles per month, a corporal 1,000 roubles, a junior sergeant 2,000 roubles and a sergeant 3,000 roubles. [110] Special pay accrued to those serving in guards units, tanks, and anti-tank units, to paratroopers and to those decorated for bravery in combat. [110] Those units that greatly distinguished themselves in combat had the prefix "Guards" (Russian: Гвардии , romanized: Gvardii, lit. 'of the Guard') prefixed to their unit title, a title of great respect and honor that brought better pay and rations. [111] In the Imperial Russian Army, the elite had always been the Imperial Guards regiments, and the title "Guards" when applied to a military unit in Russia still has elitist connotations.

Discipline was harsh and men could be executed, for desertion and ordering a retreat without orders. [110] To maintain morale, the men were often entertained with films shown on outdoor screens, together with musical troupes performing music, singing and dancing. [112] The balalaika—regarded as a Russian "national instrument"—often featured as part of the entertainment. [112] The Soviet regime held the position that essentially sex did not exist, and no official publications made any references to matters sexual. [112] After the Germans hanged the 18-year old partisan heroine Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya (29 November 1941), the photo of her corpse caused a sensation when published in early 1942 as she was topless, which ensured that the photo attracted much prurient interest. Unlike the German and French armies, the Red Army had no system of field brothels and the frontoviki were not issued condoms as men in the British and American armies were. [112] Venereal diseases were a major problem and those soldiers afflicted were harshly punished if discovered. [112] The widespread rapes committed by the Red Army when entering Germany had little to do with sexual desire, but were instead acts of power, in the words of Rottman "the basest form of revenge and humiliation the soldiers could inflict on the Germans". [112] It was a common practice for officers to take "campaign wives" or PPZh (Russian: походно-полевые жены , romanized: pokhodno-polevy zheny (ППЖ), lit. 'field marching wives'). Women serving in the Red Army Sometimes were told that they were now the mistresses of the officers, regardless of what they felt about the matter. [113] The "campaign wives" were often nurses, signalers and clerks who wore a black beret. [114] Despite being forced to become the concubines of the officers, they were widely hated by the frontoviki, who saw the "campaign wives" as trading sex for more favorable positions. [115] The writer Vasily Grossman recorded typical remarks about the "campaign wives" in 1942: "Where's the general?" [someone asks]. "Sleeping with his whore." And these girls had once wanted to be 'Tanya', [116] or Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. [117]

The frontoviki had to live, fight and die in small circular foxholes dug into the earth with enough room for one or two men. Slit trenches connected what the Germans called "Russian holes". [111] The soldiers were usually not issued blankets or sleeping bags, even in the winter. [118] Instead, the frontoviki slept in their coats and shelter-capes, usually on pine, evergreen needles, fir boughs, piled leaves or straw. [118] In the winter, the temperature could drop as low as -60 °F (-50 °C), making General Moroz (General Frost) as much an enemy as the Germans. [118] Spring started in April and with it came rains and snowmelt, turning the battlefields into a muddy quagmire. [118] Summers were dusty and hot while with the fall came the rasputitsa (time without roads) as heavy autumn rains once again turned the battlefields into muddy quagmires that made the spring rains look tame by comparison. [119]

The Soviet Union encompassed over 150 different languages and dialects but Russians comprised the majority of the Red Army and Russian was the language of command. [119] The Red Army had very few ethnic units, as the policy was one of sliianie (Russian: слияние , lit. 'blending') in which men from the non-Russian groups were assigned to units with Russian majorities. [119] The few exceptions to this rule included the Cossack units and the troops from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who however were few in number. [120] The experience of combat tended to bind the men together regardless of their language or ethnicity, with one Soviet veteran recalling: "We were all bleeding the same blood.". [121] Despite a history of anti-Semitism in Russia, Jewish veterans serving in the frontovik units described anti-Semitism as rare, instead recalling a sense of belonging. [121] During the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht and the SS had a policy of shooting all of the commissars. Jews serving in the Red Army who were taken prisoner by German forces also received short shrift. [122] [ need quotation to verify ] [123] [124] During the war, the Soviet authorities toned down pro-atheist propaganda, and Eastern Orthodox priests blessed units going into battle, though chaplains were not allowed. [121] Muslims from Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Volga and the Crimea were allowed to practice their religion discreetly, though - as with Eastern Orthodox - no chaplains were allowed. [121] Most soldiers carried lucky talismans. [125] Despite official Soviet atheism, many soldiers wore crosses around their necks and crossed themselves in the traditional Eastern Orthodox manner before going into battle, through the British historian Catherine Merridale interprets these actions as more "totemic" gestures meant to ensure good luck rather than expressions of "real" faith. [126] One of the most popular talismans was the poem Wait for Me by Konstantin Simonov, which he wrote in October 1941 for his fiancée Valentina Serova. [125] The popularity of Wait for Me was such that almost all ethnic Russians in the Red Army knew the poem by heart, and carried a copy of the poem - together with photographs of their girlfriends or wives back home - to reflect their desire to return to their loved ones. [125]

"Political work" done by politruks and kommissars took much of the soldiers' spare time, as at least one hour every day was given to political indoctrination into Communism for soldiers not engaged in combat. [127] The term Nazi was never used to describe the enemy, as the term was an acronym for National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party) and the politruks and kommissars found explaining why the enemy called themselves "National Socialists" to be too confusing for the frontoviki. [127] The preferred terms for the enemy were "fascists", Gitleritsy (Hitlerites - the Russian language has no "H"-sound), Germanskii and nemetskiye (Russian: немецкие - a derogatory Russian term for Germans). [128] The commissars had the duty of monitoring Red Army officers for any sign of disloyalty, and maintained a network of informers known as seksots (Russian: сексоты - secret collaborators) within the ranks. [128] In October 1942 the system of dual command, which dated back to the Russian Civil War, and in which the officers shared authority with the commissars, was abolished - thenceforward only officers had the power of command. [129] Many commissars after the Stalin's Decree 307 of 9 October 1942 were shocked to find how much the officers and men hated them. [130] The commissars now become the politruks or deputy commanders for political affairs. [129] The politruks no longer had the power of command, but still evaluated both officers and men for their political loyalty, carried out political indoctrination and had the power to order summary executions of anyone suspected of cowardice or treason. [129] Such executions were known as devyat gram (nine grams - a reference to the weight of a bullet), pustit v rakhod (to expend someone) or vyshka (a shortened form of vysshaya mera nakazanija - extreme penalty). [129] Despite these fearsome powers, many of the frontoviki were often openly contemptuous of the politruks if subjected to excessively long boring lectures on the finer points of Marxism–Leninism, and officers tended to win conflicts with the poltitruks as military merit started to count more in the Great Patriotic War than did political zeal. [129] Relations between the officers and men were usually good, with junior officers in particular being seen as soratniki (comrades in arms) as they lived under the same conditions and faced the same dangers as the frontoviki. [131] Officers usually had only a high-school education—very few had gone to university—and coming from the same social milieu as their men ensured that they could relate to them. [132] The frontoviki usually addressed their company commanders as Batya (father). [132]

The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945, ed. David R. Stone - History

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Hitler&rsquos invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 precipitated a massive clash of arms that gave rise to destruction and suffering on an unprecedented scale. The outcome of this ruthless struggle on the Eastern Front was decisive for the course of the war in Europe. Yet the campaigns fought there still receive less attention than those fought by the Western Allies, and are less well understood. That is why this new survey of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, edited by David R. Stone, is so timely and significant. He has brought together a distinguished group of experts who give a penetrating reassessment of the Soviet war effort and economy. They offer a telling insight into the way in which enormous obstacles were overcome &ndash and sacrifices were made &ndash in order to achieve an overwhelming victory that changed the shape of Europe. Their wide-ranging analysis seeks to dispel myths and misperceptions that have distorted our understanding of the performance of the Red Army and the Soviet people.

The chapters all mesh well together which is a strong point of the material and the individual studies of Women and their role in the war, Partisans and their contributions and the great number of Non-Russians who role is explored make this a must have edition of Pen and Sword books. Giving a well -rounded over-view of eight individual facets of the Soviet Union and a nicely done summation chapter will give the reader a good depth of understanding of the Soviet People and key aspects surrounding the period. David Stone, Kansas State University has done an exceptional job with this text, hopefully we will see more of him and similar efforts in the future. This work lends itself to the making of a fine Soviet or Russian front library along with the other existing and numerous Pen and Sword books covering the larger Eastern Front campaign.

Richard P. Wade MA - Military Historian

This is a very valuable piece of work, and an essential part of the literature on the Second World War. July 2011

As a whole or as individual chapters 'The Soviet Union at War is appropriate for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Anyone interested in war beyond tightly defined tactics and strategy - in other words, anyone concerned with the impact of war on society and the impact of society on how wars are fought - will find this volume useful.

The Russian Review

This book is highly recommended for readers with an interest in the Soviet Union or the Second World War in general. It is the definitive statement on state of current research in this field.

Military Times - February 2011

Editor David R. Stone is professor of history at Kansas State University. He is a leading authority on the military and political history of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. As well as writing numerous journal articles, he is the author of two major studies: "A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya" and "Hammer and Rifle: The Militarization of the Soviet Union 1926-1933".

The Military History of the Soviet Union

The Military History of the Soviet Union and The Military History of Tsarist Russia treat Russian military history from the rise of the Muscovite state to the present, even peeking briefly into the future. The two volumes will cover Russia's land forces extensively, but will also cover the development of the Russian Navy, and the creation and development of the Russian Air Force, parts of the Russian military machine which are frequently neglected in general writings. The historical analysis will address the development and function of the Russian military whether in peace or in war, as well as the impact of war and changes in the military upon Russian society and politics.

FREDERICK W. KAGAN is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

ROBIN HIGHAM is Professor of History at Kansas State University.

'. a handy one-volume military history of the Soviet Union that will delight enthusiasts and assist instructors.' - Dr. Matthew R. Schwonek, Air and Space Power Journal

'. these volumes offer a concise, well-organized, balanced and authoritative overview of a centrally important strand in Russia's history.' - Roger Bartlett, SEER

How Nazi Germany Could Have Crushed Russia During World War II

In our last installment, we discussed how Germany could have forced Britain to accept one of his peace offers and keep the United States out of the war. In this article, we shall examine how Germany might have not only avoided total defeat at the hands of the Red Army, but even might have achieved a measure of victory against her much larger and more powerful Soviet adversary, which was over forty times larger than Germany at its greatest extent.

Don’t invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941.

In actual history, Yugoslavia agreed to join the Axis powers in late April 1941 but days later a coup brought new leadership to power more sympathetic to the Allies. While the new Yugoslav leaders promised the Germans to remain aligned with the Axis as previously agreed while remaining neutral in the war, Hitler viewed the coup as a personal insult and vowed to make Yugoslavia pay, diverting German Panzer divisions from Poland and Romania to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. This ended up delaying the planned German invasion of USSR by five and a half crucial weeks from May 15 to June 22, 1941. In retrospect, there was no military necessity for Hitler to invade Yugoslavia in April 1941. He could have merely sent a few German infantry divisions to reinforce Albania to prevent it from being overrun by Greek troops but he feared potential British reinforcements in Greece, which could threaten his southern European flank. Of course, had Britain and France not still been at war with Germany, it is unlikely that Italy would have invaded Greece in 1940–1941 and risked a British Declaration of War so in that case Operation Barbarossa could have kicked off on May 15, 1941 as originally planned, greatly increasing the chances of a German capture of Moscow in 1941. Combined with Hitler’s subsequent decision to divert his two central Panzer Armies to capture Soviet armies on their northern and southern flanks, this five and a half week delay to the start time of Operation Barbarossa proved fatal to German prospects for victory in the war. Even if Hitler hadn’t pursued a Moscow-first military strategy as his generals wisely advised, invading Russia five and a half weeks earlier might well have been sufficient to enable the Germans to capture Moscow by November 1941, albeit at considerable cost in men and material.

Don’t halt the advance on Moscow of the two Panzergruppen (tank armies) of Army Group Center for two crucial months.

While many historians view the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 as Hitler’s biggest blunder, evidence from Soviet archives uncovered following the Soviet collapse in 1991 suggests it was successful in preventing a Soviet invasion of Poland and Romania, which had been planned for July 1941. As it turned out, Hitler was correct in his assessment that his invasion of the Soviet Union was necessary as a preemptive attack against Soviets who were planning to attack Germany. In preparation for his planned invasion of Europe, Stalin had, between August 1939 and June 1941, overseen a massive military buildup of the Red Army increasing its total active-duty manpower from 1.5 million to 5.5 million. This expansion more than doubled their total numbers of divisions from 120 to 303 divisions including an increase in the number of Soviet tank divisions from from zero to sixty-one tank divisions as opposed to only twenty total Panzer divisions available in the German Army at the time of Operation Barbarossa. By June 1941, the Red Army boasted seven times more tanks and four times more combat aircraft than invading German forces. The first objective of this planned Soviet invasion of Europe was to occupy Romania to cut off Germany from its access to Romanian oil fields to immobilize the German armed forces and force their capitulation. Then after conquering Berlin and forcing a German surrender, the Red Army was to occupy all of continental Europe to the English Channel, which noted British author, Anthony Beevor, states that Stalin seriously considered doing at the end of the war as well. Viewed in this light, Operation Barbarossa was not a mistake at all but rather an operation which succeeded in destroying the over 20,000 Soviet tanks and thousands of combat aircraft concentrated at the border to invade German territory and postponed the Red Army subjugation of Germany and Europe by nearly four years. Soviet defector, Viktor Suvorov in his groundbreaking book Chief Culprit goes so far as to credit Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as saving Western Europe from being conquered by the Red Army.

Rather, Hitler’s biggest mistake with regards to his war against the Soviet Union was his decision in early August 1941 to divert the two Panzer Armies of Army Group Center to help Army Group North and Army Group South to overrun and encircle Soviet armies on the flanks of its advance resulting in a two month delay in advancing on Moscow when the Soviet capitol was open for the taking. If Hitler had pursued a Moscow first strategy, he could have captured Moscow by the end of August or early September at the latest. He might even have pushed the Red Army back to the Archangel Volga Astrakhan line by October 1941 or by summer 1942 forcing Stalin to accept an armistice recognizing most of Germany’s hard won gains. In his excellent book Hitler’s Panzers East, R.H.S. Stolfi estimated that would have taken away up to 45 percent of the Soviet industrial base and up to 42 percent of her population making it extremely difficult for the Soviets to recover and take back lost territory. While the Soviets could have relocated many of their industries east of the Urals as in actual history, their industrial production would have been much more crippled than it was in actual history without U.S.-UK military industrial assistance. Had the Germans captured Moscow before winter 1941 and held it through the Soviet winter late-1941, early-1942 counteroffensive, Stalin might have requested an armistice on terms much more favorable to Germany than the ones he offered in actual history. Those terms might have included the transfer of much, if not all, of the oil-rich Caucasus region to Germany in exchange for the return of their all-important capitol city to Soviet control. With the Soviets so gravely weakened, Japan likely would have joined the fight to take their share of the spoils and occupy Eastern Siberia as Japanese Army generals had wanted to do all along. Thus, if Hitler had allowed his generals to capture Moscow first, the Germans likely have won the war.

Manufacture three million thick winter coats and other winter clothing for the German army before Invading the Soviet Union.

Due to Hitler’s rosy predictions for a swift Soviet collapse and an end to the war in the East by December 1941, Germany failed to produce winter clothing for his invading troops. According to some accounts, as many as 90 percent of all German casualties from November 1941 to March 1942, totaling several hundred thousands, were due to frostbite. Only in late December 1941 did the Nazi leadership admit their mistake and urgently collect as much winter gear from German civilians to send to German troops as possible.

Allow national independence and self-rule for all of the Soviet territories liberated by German forces.

Perhaps the biggest key to winning their war against the Soviet Union (other than not fighting the United States and the UK, of course) was for the Germans to not only be seen as liberators from Soviet Communist control, as they initially were when they invaded the Soviet Union, but to actually be liberators from Soviet Communist oppression. The Germans should have used nationalism to rally the people of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States to fight not for the Germans or against Stalin but rather to liberate their own countries from Soviet captivity. They should have allowed self-rule for all of these liberated nations just as Imperial Germany had granted them after defeating the Russian Empire in March 1918 as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In actual history, the Germans captured 5.6 million Soviet troops and captured Red Army Lieutenant General Vlasov offered to lead a Russian Liberation Army to help fight the Soviets while other leaders offered to lead Ukrainian and Cossack Liberation Armies but Hitler would not allow them to be used in combat on the Eastern Front, believing them to be unreliable. If the Germans had treated the citizens of liberated Soviet territories and Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) fairly, millions of additional captured Soviet soldiers might have volunteered to fight on the German side. As it turned out, Stalin ended up using the nationalism of Ukraine and other Soviet republics to defeat the Germans instead of the other way around which represented a major missed opportunity for Germany that helped ensure they lost the war.


In August of 1945 nuclear weapons were exploded upon the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Following these atomic bombings, Japan surrendered. But were the atomic bombings necessary to save Allied lives and end Japan's threat to world peace while avoiding a deadly invasion of the Japanese mainland? The following account summarizes the events that led to Japan's surrender in World War II and then considers other means of achieving Japan's surrender.

For some who are accustomed to the popular beliefs about this matter, this study may be discomforting, although that is not its intent. But if we learn from past occurrences, it may make our future decision-making abilities more capable of saving the lives of our soldiers and sailors and of people on all sides.

The Tide Turns
As the war with Germany drew closer to the end, the Allies waged an increasingly effective war against Japan. After the fall of the Mariana Islands, including Saipan, to the U.S. in July of 1944, the impending defeat of Japan became increasingly apparent to many Allied and Japanese leaders.

The Marianas had been a key area within Japan's defense perimeter now Japan would be within range of bombing runs from Pacific Ocean locations that were superior to the China bases that had been used for bombing missions (Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1945, pg. 174 Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, pg. 176).

And so from November 1944 onward, Japan was the subject of numerous large-scale B-29 non-nuclear bombing raids (Robert Butow, Japan's Decision To Surrender, pg. 41). When Air Force chief General Hap Arnold asked in June 1945 when the war was going to end, the commander of the B-29 raids, General Curtis LeMay, told him September or October 1945, because by then they would have run out of industrial targets to bomb (Sherry, pg. 300 & 410(143n)).

While Japan was being bombarded from the sky, a Naval blockade was strangling Japan's ability to import oil and other vital materials and its ability to produce war materials (Barton Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pg. 54). Admiral William Leahy, the Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt and then to President Truman, wrote, "By the beginning of September [1944], Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade." (William Leahy, I Was There, pg. 259).

Then in May of 1945 the surrender of Germany freed the Allies to focus their troops and resources on defeating the final enemy, Japan.

Although fighting fanatically, Japan had lost a string of high-casualty battles (U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. 1, pg. 905).

The Potsdam Proclamation
On the evening of July 26, 1945 in San Francisco (which in Tokyo was the morning of July 27) a message from the Allies now commonly known as the Potsdam Proclamation was broadcast in Japanese. The broadcast was relayed to the Japanese government on the morning of the 27th (Pacific War Research Society, The Day Man Lost, pg. 211-212).

The proclamation demanded "the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces" (U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam), vol. 2, pg. 1474-1476). It made no mention of Japan's central surrender consideration: the retention of the Emperor's position (Butow, pg. 138-139). What made this crucial was that the Japanese believed their Emperor to be a god, the heart of the Japanese people and culture (Pacific War Research Society, Japan's Longest Day, pg. 20). The absence of any assurance regarding the Emperor's fate became Japan's chief objection to the Potsdam Proclamation (Pacific War Research Society, The Day Man Lost, pg. 212-214). In addition, the proclamation made statements that, to the Japanese, could appear threatening to the Emperor: "There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest" and "stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 2, pg. 1474-1476).

Enter the Bomb and the Soviets
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the people of Hiroshima.

Early in the morning of August 9th Manchuria was invaded by the Soviet Union. The Soviets had notified Japan's Ambassador to Moscow on the night of the eighth that the Soviet Union would be at war with Japan as of August 9th (Butow, pg. 153-154, 164(n)). This was a blow to the Japanese government's peace-seeking efforts. The Russians had been the only major nation with which Japan still had a neutrality pact, and, as such, had been Japan's main hope of negotiating a peace with something better than unconditional surrender terms (Butow, pg. 87). To that end, the Japanese government had been pursuing Soviet mediation to end the war in response to the Emperor's request of June 22, 1945, a fact often overlooked today. (Butow, pg. 118-120, 130).

Late on the morning of August 9th, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb without a second thought, this time on the people of Nagasaki. Rather than wait to see if the Hiroshima bomb would bring surrender, the atomic bombing order to the Army Air Force stated, "Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff." (Leslie Groves, Now It Can Be Told, pg. 308). Word of the second nuclear attack was relayed that day to the Japanese government (Leon Sigal, Fighting To a Finish, pg. 240).

Bringing the nuclear threat closer to home, rumors were reported to the Japanese military that the next atomic bomb would be dropped on Tokyo, where the government leaders were meeting (William Craig, The Fall of Japan, pg. 116). Bombed by the Allies at will, Japan was militarily defeated. It still remained, however, for defeat to be translated into surrender.

After the Hiroshima atomic bombing, the Japanese Army and Navy had sent separate teams of scientists to determine what type of bomb had destroyed the city. By August 11th, both teams had reported to Tokyo that the bomb was, indeed, atomic (Sigal, pg. 236).

No Surrender
Japan had received what would seem to have been overwhelming shocks. Yet, after two atomic bombings, massive conventional bombings, and the Soviet invasion, the Japanese government still refused to surrender.

The Potsdam Proclamation had called for "Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 2, pg. 1475). On the 13th, the Supreme Council For the Direction of the War (known as the "Big 6") met to address the Potsdam Proclamation's call for surrender. Three members of the Big 6 favored immediate surrender but the other three - (War Minister Anami, Army Chief of Staff Umezu, and Navy Chief of Staff Toyoda - adamantly refused. The meeting adjourned in a deadlock, with no decision to surrender (Butow, pg. 200-202).

Later that day the Japanese Cabinet met. It was only this body - not the Big 6, not even the Emperor - that could rule as to whether Japan would surrender. And a unanimous decision was required (Butow, pg. 176-177, 208(43n)). But again War Minister Anami led the opponents of surrender, resulting in a vote of 12 in favor of surrender, 3 against, and 1 undecided. The key concern for the Japanese military was loss of honor, not Japan's destruction. Having failed to reach a decision to surrender, the Cabinet adjourned (Sigal, pg. 265-267).

The Emperor's Desire
On the following day, August 14, Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were still arguing that there was a chance for victory (John Toland, The Rising Sun, pg. 936). But then that same day, the Cabinet unanimously agreed to surrender (Toland, pg. 939). Where none of the previous events had succeeded in bringing the Japanese military leaders to surrender, surrender came at Emperor Hirohito's request: "It is my desire that you, my Ministers of State, accede to my wishes and forthwith accept the Allied reply" (Butow, pg. 207-208).

What made the Emperor's "desire" more powerful than the revulsion the military leaders felt toward surrender? The Emperor was believed to be a god by the Japanese. The dean of historians on Japan's surrender, Robert Butow, notes in regard to the military leaders in Japan's government, "To have acted against the express wishes of an Emperor whom they had unceasingly extolled as sacred and inviolable and around whom they had woven a fabric of individual loyalty and national unity would have been to destroy the very polity in perpetuation of which they had persistently declared they were fighting" (Butow, pg. 224). Or as War Minister Anami said after he agreed to surrender, "As a Japanese soldier, I must obey my Emperor" (Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 87-88).

Surrender was so repugnant to Anami that he committed hara-kiri the day after he signed the surrender document (Butow, pg. 219-220). Where fear and reason had failed, religious devotion to the Emperor enabled the military leaders to overcome their samurai resistance to surrender.

Japanese Hawks versus Japanese Doves
If the hawks in Japan's government surrendered only when the Emperor requested them to do so, what brought the Emperor to express his wish for surrender? For prior to August 1945, it was unprecedented for an Emperor to express a specific policy preference directly to the Cabinet (Butow, pg. 224). The role of the Emperor was to sanction decisions made by the Cabinet, whether he personally approved of them or not (Butow, pg. 167(1n)). As a god, he was considered to be above human politics.

Emperor Hirohito was persuaded to cross this line by the doves in Japan's government, particularly Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kido (the Emperor's closest advisor) and Foreign Minister Togo, a member of Japan's cabinet (Butow, pg. 206 Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 28-30 Sigal, pg. 71 & 268).

If it was the doves, thru the Emperor, who brought surrender, what moved the doves to ask the Emperor to make his direct request to the government? For not only did this circumvent Japanese tradition, it also put the doves in danger of arrest and assassination and the government at risk of a possible coup, by members of the Japanese military.

The military had been arresting people who spoke out in favor of peace. (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 167-168 Butow, pg. 75(56n) & 178-179 Sigal, pg. 228-229). Japan's Prime Minister Suzuki had personal experience with the military's extremism he had been seriously wounded and nearly killed during an attempted coup in 1936 by a faction of the Army (Craig, pg. 137). A careless pursuit of peace could have resulted in the destruction of the peace movement and, perhaps, the end of any chance to preserve the throne.

  1. Some doves, realizing Japan only faced further destruction, had wanted to end the war long before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 11 Toland, pg. 843-845 Butow, pg. 17-18, 46-50, 65(33n), 66).
  2. As noted above, the fear that the Japanese military would destroy the peace movement restrained the doves from taking action sooner than they did.
  3. The doves minimum requirement for surrender was the retention of the Emperor's position (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 200 Butow, pg. 132, 140, 179-180).

The doves were able to surmount their fear of military reprisal when a greater danger appeared: the imminent loss of the Emperor. Even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the declaration of war against Japan by the Soviets, Japan's doves realized that Japan's defeat was certain (Butow, pg. 47 Sigal, pg. 48). But with the atomic bomb, which could bring mass destruction easily and instantly, and the loss of the Soviet Union as a possible mediator of a negotiated surrender, defeat - and the destruction of the Emperor system - became an imminent threat (Butow, pg. 193).

The doves had run out of time their religious devotion to the Emperor forced them to risk their lives to save his or, at the minimum, to save the position of the Emperor (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 200). The only chance to save the Emperor was to surrender.

On August 8 - before the Soviets announced their declaration of war and before the Nagasaki a-bomb was detonated - Foreign Minister Togo met with the Emperor to tell him what he knew of the Hiroshima bombing. They agreed that the time had come to end the war at once (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 300 Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 21-22).

The problem of Unconditional Surrender
But unconditional surrender would still leave the doves' central issue unanswered: would surrender allow Japan to retain the Emperor? Japan's Prime Minister Suzuki spelled out the problem of "unconditional surrender" well for doves and hawks alike when he publicly announced on June 9, 1945, "Should the Emperor system be abolished, they [the Japanese people] would lose all reason for existence. 'Unconditional surrender', therefore, means death to the hundred million: it leaves us no choice but to go on fighting to the last man." (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 127 Butow, pg. 69(44n)). From this time on, if not earlier, the Allies knew that the throne was the primary issue for Japan. While some of Japan's military leaders preferred additional conditions for ending the war, ultimately their control proved to be secondary to the desire of the Emperor - and Japan's doves - for surrender.

Much has been written about the vagueness of the Allies' call for "unconditional surrender". This vagueness, combined with many hostile references to Japan's leaders (Henry Stimson & McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service In Peace and War, pg. 626 Butow, pg. 136), contributed heavily to the conclusion by many in Japan that unconditional surrender could mean the end of their Emperor. Even Foreign Minister Togo, one of the leaders of Japan's doves, noted in a July 12, 1945 message to Sato, Japan's Ambassador to Moscow, "as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it [the war] through in an all-out effort". The telegram was intercepted by the U.S., decoded, and sent to President Truman (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 873, 875-876).

Robert Butow has aptly portrayed the feelings the Japanese had for the Emperor, in noting, "The one thing they could not do was sign a death warrant for the imperial house", and if it appeared that the Allies would take steps against the Emperor, "then even the most ardent advocates of peace would fall into step behind the [pro-war] fanatics" (Butow, pg. 141).

To demand unconditional surrender, without comment as to the Emperor's fate, meant a choice, Truman thought, between an invasion of the Japanese mainland or the use of atomic bombs on Japan, or possibly both. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall thought that even after using A-bombs on Japan the invasion would still be necessary, anyway, as opposed to the belief that using atomic bombs on Japan would make the mainland invasion unnecessary (David Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume Two, pg. 198).

Most high-level discussions that assumed either nuclear weapons or a mainland invasion of Japan would be necessary to end the Pacific war did so with the knowledge that unconditional surrender was the official Allied policy. The "a-bombs or invasion" choice was based in part on the assumption that retention of the Emperor would probably not be offered to Japan. Nor was a warning to Japan of the atomic bomb in the decision-makers' plans, as they considered what would be necessary to end the war. These omissions made the use of the atomic bomb seem all the more necessary for winning the war without an invasion.

U.S. learns of Emperor's importance
The U.S. government was not ignorant of the importance of the Emperor to Japanese surrender. Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew had explained this to President Truman in person on May 28, 1945. Grew had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan for 10 years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and was regarded as the most knowledgeable on Japan of any U.S. government official (Leahy, pg. 274). On May 28th Grew informed Truman, "The greatest obstacle to unconditional surrender by the Japanese is their belief that this would entail the destruction or permanent removal of the Emperor and the institution of the throne" (Walter Johnson, ed., Turbulent Era, Joseph Grew, Vol. 2, pg. 1428-1429).

In a June 18, 1945 meeting with Truman and his military advisors, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy argued that Japan should be permitted to retain the Emperor and should be given a warning of the atomic bomb in order to bring an earlier and less deadly surrender (Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries, pg. 70-71 Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed, The Decision To Drop the Bomb, pg. 134-136).

On June 28, 1945, a memo from Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard was given to Secretary of War Stimson. In the memo, Bard recommended the points made by McCloy and suggested Japan be told that Russia would enter the war against them (Manhattan Engineering District Records, Harrison-Bundy files, folder # 77, National Archives see also Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed, 1987 edition, pg. 307-308). Bard may have also discussed this memo with Truman in early July (Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope, pg. 52-53 altho 15 years later, Bard did not recall the meeting: U.S. News & World Report, 8/15/60, War Was Really Won Before We Used A-bomb, pg. 73).

On July 2, 1945, Sec. of War Henry Stimson and Truman discussed a proposal by Stimson to call for Japan to surrender. Stimson's memo to the President advised, "I personally think that if in saying this we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance". Stimson's proposed surrender demand stated that the reformed Japanese government "may include a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 889-894).

However, the constitutional monarchy line was not included in the surrender demand, known as the Potsdam Proclamation, that was broadcast on July 26th, in spite of Stimson's eleventh hour protestations that it be left in (Diary of Henry L. Stimson, 7/24/45, Yale Univ. Library, New Haven, Conn). Pacific war historian Akira Iriye explains, "One reason for this change [the removal of the Emperor retention line] was the growing influence within the State Department of men like [Sec. of State] Byrnes, Acheson, and MacLeish - with no expertise on Japanese affairs but keenly sensitive to public opinion - and the president's tendency to listen to them rather than to Grew and other experts." (Iriye, pg. 255-256). In regard to his disagreement with Under Sec. of State Grew over allowing Japan to retain the Emperor, Dean Acheson later admitted, "I very shortly came to see that I was quite wrong." (Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, pg. 112-113).

Japan seeks peace through the Soviets
In the meantime, the Japanese government was attempting to persuade the Soviet Union to mediate a peace for Japan that would not be unconditional. This was in response to the Emperor's request at a Big Six meeting on June 22, 1945 to seek peace thru the Soviets, who were the only major member of the Allies that had a neutrality pact with Japan at the time (Butow, pg. 118-120). Unfortunately for all concerned, Japan's leaders were divided over precisely what terms should be sought to end the war, with the Japanese military leaders still wishing to avoid anything that the Allies would have considered a clear "surrender". Surely Japan's leaders hold the lion's share of the responsibility for the fate that befell Japan.

Having broken the code Japan used for transmitting messages, the U.S. was able to follow Japan's efforts to end the war as it intercepted the messages between Foreign Minister Togo and Japan's Ambassador to Moscow Sato. The messages were sent as the result of the June 22, 1945 Japanese Cabinet meeting. The conditions under which Japan was willing to surrender were not clearly spelled out in the messages, aside from a willingness to give up territory occupied during the war and a repeated rejection of "unconditional surrender".

  • July 11: "make clear to Russia. We have no intention of annexing or taking possession of the areas which we have been occupying as a result of the war we hope to terminate the war".
  • July 12: "it is His Majesty's heart's desire to see the swift termination of the war".
  • July 13: "I sent Ando, Director of the Bureau of Political Affairs to communicate to the [Soviet] Ambassador that His Majesty desired to dispatch Prince Konoye as special envoy, carrying with him the personal letter of His Majesty stating the Imperial wish to end the war" (for above items, see: U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 873-879).
  • July 18: "Negotiations. necessary. for soliciting Russia's good offices in concluding the war and also in improving the basis for negotiations with England and America." (Magic-Diplomatic Summary, 7/18/45, Records of the National Security Agency, Magic Files, RG 457, Box 18, National Archives).
  • July 22: "Special Envoy Konoye's mission will be in obedience to the Imperial Will. He will request assistance in bringing about an end to the war through the good offices of the Soviet Government." The July 21st communication from Togo also noted that a conference between the Emperor's emissary, Prince Konoye, and the Soviet Union, was sought, in preparation for contacting the U.S. and Great Britain (Magic-Diplomatic Summary, 7/22/45, Records of the National Security Agency, Magic Files, RG 457, Box 18, National Archives).
  • July 25: "it is impossible to accept unconditional surrender under any circumstances, but we should like to communicate to the other party through appropriate channels that we have no objection to a peace based on the Atlantic Charter." (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 2, pg. 1260 - 1261).
  • July 26: Japan's Ambassador to Moscow, Sato, to the Soviet Acting Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Lozovsky: "The aim of the Japanese Government with regard to Prince Konoye's mission is to enlist the good offices of the Soviet Government in order to end the war." (Magic-Diplomatic Summary, 7/26/45, Records of the National Security Agency, Magic Files, RG 457, Box 18, National Archives).

Objections to letting Japan keep the Emperor
There were various factors that might have made offering retention of the Emperor a difficult choice for Truman. It was believed by some that such a concession would embolden Japan to fight on. This argument, however, rings hollow, for it was all too obvious that the Japanese were fighting on anyway. In regard to American public opinion, it was well known to Truman that unconditional surrender was a popular, albeit vague, idea. For many people, this included punishment of the Emperor. Making an exception in the unconditional surrender to allow Japan to retain their Emperor would have been politically incorrect for the time (and in view of the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit controversy, for the current time as well). In August of 1945 both Truman and his primary foreign policy adviser, Sec. of State James Byrnes, expressed concern over publicly appearing soft on Japan (John Blum, ed., The Price of Vision - The Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942-1946, pg. 474 David Robertson, Sly and Able - A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, pg. 435).

But in spite of the U.S. emphasis that the surrender must be unconditional, the Potsdam Proclamation included in its unconditional surrender terms the condition that the Japanese would be allowed to establish their own government. Perhaps the Proclamation could have gone a step further and stated clearly, as Sec. of War Stimson suggested, that the Japanese could retain the throne. In the end, after atomic bombs were detonated on the people of two cities, the Emperor was allowed to remain, anyway.

It is sometimes argued that an unconditional surrender was absolutely necessary for the purpose of keeping allies Great Britain and the Soviet Union committed to participation in the Pacific war. But Churchill had reservations about requiring Japan's surrender to be unconditional. He stated them to Truman on July 18, 1945: "I dwelt upon the tremendous cost in American and to a smaller extent in British life if we enforced 'unconditional surrender' upon the Japanese.". Churchill came away from his conversation with Truman believing "there would be no rigid insistence upon 'unconditional surrender'" (Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, paperback edition, pg. 547-548). The Soviets favored unconditional surrender because they felt it would prolong the war, enabling them to advance their troops further into conquered territory. But any desire the West had for Soviet participation in the Pacific war was luke-warm at best after July 21st, when President Truman received the full report of the successful atomic bomb test of July 16. Moreover, the U.S. did not even consult with the Soviets on the Potsdam Proclamation, which contained the proposed terms of surrender, before sending it out.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets were angered by this (James Byrnes, Speaking Frankly, pg. 207). And on August 10th, Truman told his cabinet he was prepared to accept Japan's surrender without Soviet agreement (Blum, pg. 473-474).

Military rather than Diplomatic approach
A point made by then Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy and seconded by the then Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Captain Ellis Zacharias is of particular importance. Regarding the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, McCloy later wrote, "everyone was so intent on winning the war by military means that the introduction of political considerations was almost accidental" (John McCloy, The Challenge to American Foreign Policy, pg. 42, my emphasis). Zacharias lamented, "while Allied leaders were immediately inclined to support all innovations however bold and novel in the strictly military sphere, they frowned upon similar innovations in the sphere of diplomatic and psychological warfare" (Ellis Zacharias, The A-Bomb Was Not Needed, United Nations World, Aug. 1949, pg. 29). Defeating Japan was perceived of by the Allies in the narrow terms of military methods. The Japanese messages intercepted by the U.S. in July showed the Japanese government's view toward the war had changed. However, the U.S. didn't keep up with this change, and the advantage of combining diplomatic methods with military methods was largely missed.

The reason for the emphasis on military solutions, as opposed to diplomatic efforts, may lie in the emotionalism and the desire for revenge that accompanies war. Many found the revenge satisfying, regardless of the loss of additional American lives spent to achieve it.

Truman reflected this feeling in a radio broadcast to the public on the night of Aug. 9, after an atomic bomb had been exploded upon the Nagasaki populace: "Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare" (Public Papers of the President, 1945, pg. 212). However, the vast majority of the people killed and injured by the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not fall into those categories.

From a purely emotional standpoint, the desire for revenge is understandable in a wartime situation. But from the standpoint of finding the least deadly way to bring the enemy's surrender and save the lives of one's own military personnel, emotionalism may divert leaders from considering diplomatic solutions by making military/punitive measures seem more attractive and necessary. This may have contributed to Truman's belief that Japan would not surrender without a large-scale invasion of her mainland and/or atomic bombings.

  1. The atomic bomb had shown the doves that they had run out of time and that further delay would result in the Emperor's demise.
  2. While the Allied surrender terms did not explicitly guarantee the Emperor's retention, neither did they refuse the request made by Japan to the Allies on August 10, 1945 to keep the Emperor.

The Japanese government correctly interpreted this and other statements in the Allied surrender terms to mean that the Emperor could be retained. On August 14 the Emperor told Japan's cabinet, "I have studied the Allied reply and concluded that it virtually acknowledges the position of our note [requesting the Emperor's retention] sent a few days ago. I find it quite acceptable." (Toland, pg. 936-937). With this reassurance and at the Emperor's "desire", on August 14 the Japanese Cabinet unanimously signed the surrender document, agreeing to Allied terms (Toland, pg. 939).

Altho the Japanese military still wished to fight on as late as August 14, it was the doves rather than the hawks in Japan's government who had the final say. As mentioned earlier, it was the atomic bomb plus the belief that the Emperor might be retained that finally led the doves to play their trump card: the direct intervention of the Emperor requesting the Cabinet to surrender immediately.

Were Atomic Attacks Necessary?
But was the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities necessary to bring Japan's doves to play the Emperor card? The Japanese doves had been working to end the war on the condition of retention of the throne (Butow, pg. 141) before the a-bombs that killed over 200,000 people were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (The Committee For the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, pg. 113-114).

Might the war have been ended sooner, with fewer deaths on both sides, before the Soviets had gotten into northern Korea (thus possibly avoiding the Korean War), before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima frightened the Soviets into putting their atomic bomb program into high gear (David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, pg. 127-129, 132), and before an atomic precedent had been set? While there can be no conclusive answer to this question, it is worthwhile to study this topic for whatever insight it may give for future decision-making and the future saving of lives on all sides.

Historian and former Naval officer Martin Sherwin has summarized the situation, stating, "The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare." (Sherwin, pg. xxiv).

Long-time historian of the atomic bombings Barton Bernstein has taken a cautious view of what might have been: "Taken together, some of these alternatives [to dropping atomic bombs on Japan] - promising to retain the Japanese monarchy, awaiting the Soviets' entry, and even more conventional bombing - very probably could have ended the war before the dreaded invasion [of the Japanese mainland by the Allies]. Still, the evidence - to borrow a phrase from F.D.R. - is somewhat 'iffy', and no one who looks at the intransigence of the Japanese militarists should have full confidence in those other strategies. But we may well regret that these alternatives were not pursued and that there was not an effort to avoid the use of the first A-bomb - and certainly the second." (Barton Bernstein, The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered, Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 1995, pg. 150).

Echoing the concern of Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy and Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence Captain Ellis Zacharias that the Allies became overly dependent on military means, Leon Sigal writes, "At worst, withholding force might have prolonged the war for a while at a time when little combat was taking place it would not have altered the final result. Yet restraint could have significantly reduced the gratuitous suffering on both sides, especially for noncombatants." Sigal concludes, "it could be argued that the United States behaved as if the objective of inducing Japan to surrender was subordinated to another objective - in Stimson's words, that of exerting 'maximum force with maximum speed.' American policy was guided by an implicit assumption that only the escalation of military pressure could bring the war to a rapid conclusion." (Sigal, pg. 219).

Regarding claims that the atomic bombings saved lives, Gar Alperovitz has noted, "It has been argued in this connection that using the atomic bomb was less costly in human life than the continuation of conventional bombing would have been. Apart from the fact that accounts which urge such a view commonly leave aside questions concerning [modifying the unconditional] surrender formula and the impact of the Russian attack, by early August 1945 very few significant Japanese civilian targets remained to be bombed. Moreover, on July 25 a new targeting directive had been issued which altered bombing priorities." "Attacks on urban centers became only the fourth priority, after railway targets, aircraft production, and ammunition depots." ". the new directive (as the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted) 'was about to be implemented when the war ended.'". (Gar Alperovitz, The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb, pg. 342).

It didn't take long after the atomic bombings for questions to arise as to their necessity for ending the war and Japan's threat to peace. One of the earliest dissents came from a panel that had been requested by President Truman to study the Pacific war. Their report, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, was issued in July 1946. It declared, "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." (Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pg. 52-56).

In 1948 Sec. of War Henry Stimson published his memoirs, ghost-written by McGeorge Bundy. In them Stimson revealed, "It is possible, in the light of the final surrender, that a clearer and earlier exposition of American willingness to retain the Emperor would have produced an earlier ending to the war". Stimson and Bundy continued, "Only on the question of the Emperor did Stimson take, in 1945, a conciliatory view only on this question did he later believe that history might find that the United States, by its delay in stating its position, had prolonged the war." (Stimson & Bundy, pg. 628-629).

Robert Butow has affirmed Stimson's position: "Secretary of War Stimson has raised the question of whether an earlier surrender of Japan could have been achieved had the United States followed a different diplomatic and military policy during the closing months of the war. In the light of available evidence, a final answer in the affirmative seems possible, even probable." Butow continues, "Although it cannot be proved, it is possible that the Japanese government would have accepted the Potsdam Proclamation immediately had Secretary Stimson's reference to the imperial structure been retained. Such a declaration, while promising destruction if Japan resisted, would have offered hope if she surrendered. This was precisely Stimson's intention." Butow adds, "The Japanese military. interpreted the omission of any commitment on the Throne as evidence of the Allied intention to destroy forever the foundation stone of the Japanese nation. Here was an invaluable trump card unintentionally given them by the Allies, and the militarists played it with unfailing skill." (Butow, pg. 140-141).

Martin Sherwin has also followed up on Stimson's observation: "That unconditional surrender remained an obstacle to peace in the wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Soviet declaration of war - until the government of the United States offered the necessary (albeit veiled) assurance that neither Emperor nor throne would be destroyed - suggests the possibility, which even Stimson later recognized, that neither bomb may have been necessary and certainly that the second one was not." (Sherwin, pg. 237, emphasis in original). As noted earlier, Stimson explained, "the Allied reply [to Japan's 8/10 surrender offer]. implicitly recognized the Emperor's position" (Stimson & Bundy, pg. 627).

In regard to the U.S. knowledge at the time of Japan's effort to end the war, Butow writes: "the fact is there was at least something of an opportunity here, or perhaps a gamble, which might have yielded startling results had it not been ignored. Although this criticism may be the product of too much hindsight, it is difficult to explain why the Togo-Sato intercepted messages did not at least produce a logical revision of the then current draft of the Potsdam Proclamation to include some guarantee - even a qualified one - with respect to the preservation of Japan's imperial system." (Butow, pg. 135).

From information contained in the Togo-Sato dispatches, the U.S. knew that Japan wished to send to Russia "Prince Konoye as special envoy, carrying with him the personal letter of His Majesty stating the Imperial wish to end the war" (7/13/45 message from Togo to Sato U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 879). Here may have been another opportunity to bring the war to an earlier end, with lives saved on both sides. Butow notes, "Had Prince Konoye, as the fully empowered personal representative of the Emperor of Japan, been permitted to travel to Moscow (or anywhere else, for that matter) and had he there been handed the text of this [Potsdam] proclamation prior to its release to the world at large, he conceivably could have resolved speedily the very issues which government leaders in Tokyo spent the next three weeks in debating without result. Had the Allies given the prince a week of grace in which to obtain his government's support for acceptance, the war might have ended toward the latter part of July or the very beginning of August, without the atomic bomb and without Soviet participation in the conflict. Although Stalin's price for co-operation might have been equal to what he had already been promised at Yalta, the Western Allies might at least have been spared the added burden of subsequently having the Yalta concessions flagrantly augmented many-fold by hostile Soviet action in Manchuria and Korea." (Butow, pg. 133).

Use Both Carrot and Stick
The full weight of both carrot and stick could have been spelled out to Konoye in private: an opportunity to retain the throne in return for a quick surrender versus the alternative of Soviet invasion and atomic destruction. Allowing retention of the throne, the threat of Soviet invasion, and the threat of atomic attack were the three most powerful inducements for Japan to surrender. None of the three were mentioned in the Potsdam Proclamation, nor were they used to try to bring surrender before an atomic bomb was exploded upon the people of Hiroshima. Weren't our troops, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, worth this effort to end the war sooner?

Butow adds, "Had anyone thought of pursuing the Konoye feeler in preference to displaying America's atomic achievement and in preference to seeking a belated Soviet entry into the conflict through Manchuria, Korea, and Sakhalin, an excellent avenue of approach existed in Switzerland where the [Allen] Dulles organization [U.S. Office of Strategic Services] had been in touch with the Fujimura and Okamoto [Japanese peace feeler] groups for several months." (Butow, pg. 134).

Setting up surrender talks sanctioned by both the U.S. and the Japanese governments would likely have been difficult. But there is no easy way of ending a war. The primary question is not what is the easier path, but what path will bring a lasting peace while sparing the most Allied lives and, secondarily, "enemy" civilian lives.

While it cannot be proven, had officially sanctioned communication been made by the Allies or the U.S. to Japan thru Konoye, the various peace feelers, or other credible diplomatic channel stating that Japan's time had completely run out due to the impending threats of nuclear destruction and Soviet invasion, and that immediate surrender would mean the opportunity to retain their throne, there is a good chance the Japanese doves would have enlisted the Emperor to bring Japan to surrender in late July or early August of 1945.

We could have informed the Japanese, as Sec. of War Stimson informed President Truman on April 25, 1945, that one atomic bomb "could destroy a whole city" (Stimson diary, 4/25/45), perhaps presenting evidence from the Trinity test. The knowledge that the Soviets were about to declare war upon them would have destroyed any hope Japan had of negotiating peace terms thru the Soviets, and the impending two front war would have disabused Japan's military leaders of their plan to mass their remaining forces against the anticipated U.S. invasion.

And ultimately we did allow Japan to retain their Emperor as Truman biographer Robert Donovan described it, "accept a condition but call it unconditional surrender." (Robert Donovan, "Conflict and Crisis", pg. 99). As Truman wrote in his diary on August 10, 1945 regarding the Japanese request to keep the Emperor, "Our terms are 'unconditional'. They wanted to keep the Emperor. We told 'em we'd tell 'em how to keep him, but we'd make the terms." (Ferrell, pg. 61).

Atomic Bomb - the Last Resort
There is no way we can know for certain whether this approach would have ended the Pacific war sooner and with fewer deaths. But one may regret that such an attempt was not made. Had the attempt failed, the continuing blockade of supplies, Soviet invasion, and the atomic bombs were still available. However, anyone tempted to use the atomic bomb would have done well to share the hesitancy agreed upon by President Roosevelt and Great Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill on September 19, 1944: the atomic bomb "might, perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese" (Robert Williams and Philip Cantelon, ed., The American Atom, pg. 45). (School of Advanced Airpower Studies historian Robert Pape has written an intriguing paper stating that further conventional air bombing would have been unnecessary: Why Japan Surrendered, International Security, Fall 1993).


On 3 February 1941 Hitler hosted an important military conference in preparation for Operation Barbarossa – Nazi Germany's upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. Although Hitler was determined to crush the Soviet Union in a short summer campaign, this was destined to become a titanic clash between two ruthless empires, leading to the largest and most costly war in human history. Hitler was sufficiently aware of the profound scale of the conflict and the momentous consequences it would induce, even in the shortened form that he conceived for it that by the end of the conference he ominously pronounced: ‘When Barbarossa begins the world will hold its breath.’ Nor was this just another bombastic outburst, typical of Hitler's unrestrained hubris. In a radio address on the day of the invasion (22 June 1941) the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told his people:

So now this bloodthirsty guttersnipe must launch his mechanized armies upon new fields of slaughter, pillage and devastation…And even the carnage and ruin which his victory, should he gain it – though he's not gained it yet – will bring upon the Russian people, will itself be only a stepping stone to the attempt to plunge four or five hundred millions who live in China and the 350,000,000 who live in India into that bottomless pit of human degradation over which the diabolic emblem of the swastika flaunts itself. It is not too much to say here this pleasant summer evening that the lives and happiness of a thousand million additional human beings are now menaced with brutal Nazi violence. That is enough to make us hold our breath.

If the spectre of an expanding Nazi empire caused the world a sudden collective gasp, Churchill's words of defiance signalled Britain's determination to go on opposing Nazism and at the same time offered an open-ended alliance to the Soviet Union. It was an alliance born more of necessity than of pre-existing goodwill, for these were the darkest days of World War II. Nazi Germany had amassed the greatest invasion force in history. In the string of preceding campaigns the opposing nations of Europe had fallen in short order to German aggression, leaving the Soviet Union as the sole remaining continental power. With the planned conquest of Soviet territories, Hitler stood to gain immeasurable raw materials, freeing him forever from Britain's continental blockade and providing him with the strategic freedom to wage truly global warfare.

The Soviet Union’s Top-Secret Operation to Repatriate Downed U.S. Airmen

U.S. airstrikes against Japan led to dozens of damaged bombers—including this B-24—landing or crashing in the Soviet Far East.

(U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Stuart D. Goldman, Yaroslav A. Shulatov
April 2021

Hundreds of American fliers ended up stranded in Siberia—creating a conundrum for the Soviets, who were not at war with nearby Japan.

CAPTAIN ED YORK watched the fuel gauges nervously. His bomber hadn’t even reached the Japanese coast before he’d had to switch from the depleted auxiliary fuel tanks to the main tanks. He was burning gas too fast and knew he wouldn’t make it to friendly Chinese territory. It was April 18, 1942, and York’s B-25 was one of the 16 bombers on the Doolittle Raid—America’s first blow against Japan, four months after Pearl Harbor. After his bomb run against a factory near Tokyo, York turned north toward the allied Soviet Union—even though he knew Moscow had denied the United States’ request to use its territory in operations against Japan.

Soviet air defense mistook the B-25 for a similar-looking Soviet Yak-4 bomber. York bypassed Vladivostok and landed at a naval air base 40 miles north of the city. The astonished Soviets greeted the five Americans warmly. Vodka flowed. The base commander asked if they had been part of the Tokyo raid. “I admitted that we had been,” said York, and if he could get some gasoline, “we would take off early the next morning and proceed to China.” To York’s delight, the commander agreed. However, someone up the Soviet chain of command said, “Nyet.”

According to international law, when a combatant enters a neutral country, he is to be interned throughout the duration of hostilities. Although America and Russia were allies in the war against Germany, Russia and Japan were at peace, both upholding their April 1941 Neutrality Pact. When York’s B-25 landed, the Red Army was in a life-or-death struggle against Germany, with the outcome in doubt. Meanwhile, Japan was racking up victory after victory in Asia. Moscow dared not antagonize Tokyo by breaching international law and releasing the fliers, who could again attack Japan. On the other hand, U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Russia was vital, and Stalin was desperate for the Americans to open a second front against Hitler. Washington wanted its airmen back. What was Moscow to do? The solution was an ingenious covert scheme that operated throughout the war and remained classified for years afterward.

Mitchell B-25s cram the flight deck of USS Hornet prior to the April 1942 Doolittle Raid. Fifteen of the 16 bombers crashed in or near China one instead headed toward the Soviet Union. (National Archives)

THE SOVIET FOREIGN MINISTRY made a formal protest to U.S. Ambassador Admiral William Standley and announced publicly that the Americans would be interned. Tokyo got the message: Moscow would follow international law and honor their neutrality pact. Privately, Joseph Stalin assured Ambassador Standley that the airmen were in good condition and would be treated well. Japanese archives reveal that Tokyo closely monitored the situation. It took Soviet authorities a year to devise a plan that would placate their American allies without risking a crisis with Japan.

The Americans traveled by train across Eurasia to a village 300 miles southeast of Moscow, accompanied by an English-speaking escort, Lieutenant Mikhail (“Mike”) Schmaring. They were housed in a large, relatively clean, walled compound. Conditions were decent, and a housekeeping staff took care of all chores. The Americans played volleyball and watched Soviet movies. Some studied Russian and learned chess. “Mike,” their constant companion, translated war reports from Pravda, from which they gleaned that the Red Army was retreating. In August, they began hearing Soviet antiaircraft fire. The fighting was getting closer.

The German offensive that would die in the rubble of Stalingrad that winter led to the internees being moved eastward to the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Their log house had a kitchen, a dining room, four small bedrooms, wood-burning stoves, and a toilet—an “indoor outhouse” with a hole in the floor. This would be their home for the next seven months. Mike remained their daily supervisor and interpreter. Four local women were recruited for housekeeping and cooking, but conditions began deteriorating. October 7 brought the first snowfall soon, the weather turned bitterly cold. The food supply grew critical in November. The men subsisted mainly on frozen potatoes, barley, black bread, and tea—as did most locals. By mid-December, the daytime temperature was below zero, sometimes dropping to 50 degrees below at night.

After dropping his bombs on Japan, Doolittle Raider Captain Ed York (here a major, top) veered north and landed in Russia. The Soviet Union, at peace with Japan after signing the Neutrality Pact in April 1941 (below), was bound by international law to hold York and his crew until the end of hostilities—but Stalin found a workaround. (U.S. Air Force)

(The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

York’s despondent crew decided to appeal to the Soviet High Command. In early January 1943, with Mike’s help, they drafted a letter to the Head of the General Staff asking to be released or given meaningful work in a more moderate climate. Mike promised to mail it. Two weeks later he disappeared, his fate unknown. More discouraged than ever, the airmen’s thoughts turned to vague notions of escape. In late March, however, a Red Army major arrived with the surprising news that their letter had achieved results. They would be transferred south and given work assignments.

The major accompanied them on a long train journey. York’s four crewmen shared two compartments York shared a compartment with an English-speaking passenger in civilian dress they called “Kolya,” who befriended the Americans. Kolya had several bottles of vodka, which cemented the friendship. It turned out they were all headed to the city of Ashkhabad in Soviet Central Asia, near the border with Iran. Kolya stayed in touch upon their arrival.

The Americans’ new duties involved maintaining small military training planes at Ashkhabad’s airport. Kolya, housed conveniently nearby, spent most evenings with them. York and the others stressed how eager they were to get home Kolya listened sympathetically. York believed he was enlisting Kolya’s help to escape, and the Russian seemed ready, willing, and able.

Kolya introduced York to a man he claimed was a smuggler who said that for $250 (almost the exact amount the five Americans had among them), he could get them across the border into Iran, then occupied by British and Soviet troops. Kolya told the Americans they should head for the British consulate in Soviet-occupied Meshed. He helpfully provided a hand-drawn map.

On the evening of May 10, 1943, the Americans climbed into the back of a truck for a 150-mile drive toward Meshed—and freedom. Kolya tearfully saw them off. After a bumpy but uneventful ride, the driver ordered them out near the border. The airmen had to crawl several hundred yards and under barbed wire. Despite a bright moon, border guards took no notice. The truck crossed the border, met the Americans on the other side, and drove them to the outskirts of Meshed. Within hours, the airmen were safely in the British Consulate.

The Brits arranged for York’s crew to be driven surreptitiously through Iran into British India. From there, they flew across the Middle East, North Africa, and the South Atlantic to Miami and, on May 24, 1943—nearly 400 days after bombing Japan—to Washington, D.C. The crew was ordered to treat their time in, and departure from, the Soviet Union as top secret.

After landing near Vladivostok, York and his crew were held for more than a year, finally “escaping” with the help of a Soviet NKVD officer. (National Archives)

Their escape had gone according to plan. But whose plan was it? The fact that York was assigned to a railway compartment with a friendly, English-speaking Kolya—who lived within walking distance of their hut, cultivated their friendship, introduced them to a “smuggler,” and gave them a map for their escape—was too much for mere coincidence in Stalin’s Russia, where consorting with foreigners, not to mention aiding their escape, would ordinarily be suicidal. At the time, the Americans may have taken it all at face value. Within a year, however, it became clear to military insiders that the airmen’s “escape” had been arranged by Soviet authorities, although this was kept secret at the time and for years thereafter. Military historian Otis Hays Jr.’s excellent 1990 book, Home from Siberia, brought some of this to light. Materials released in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union helped reveal the full story.

“Kolya” was Major Vladimir Boyarsky, an NKVD (Soviet secret police) counterintelligence officer. In an interview published in Russia in 2004, Boyarsky stated that in March 1943, “I was urgently summoned to Moscow…and ordered to implement an operation to transport to Iran the crew of an American plane that had made an emergency landing in our country. This was a personal order from Stalin himself. The operation was to be carried out in the strictest secrecy…. The most important thing was for them to believe that they themselves had prepared their escape from the U.S.S.R.”

The local border troops (part of the NKVD) constructed a fake section of the border in a remote area, complete with barbed wire. “We skillfully created the simulation of an illegal border crossing,” recalled Boyarsky. “You should have seen the Americans, in the moonlight, looking around and kneeling in order to crawl under the wire barriers as they fled to freedom.”

Although the charade was very realistic, most of the Americans eventually wised up. Tail gunner David W. Pohl wrote years later, “I now believe that our whole escape was engineered by the General Staff and the NKVD.” Copilot Robert G. Emmens, however, disagreed. “Our escape was too real,” he wrote. “It cost us every cent we had…. [Kolya] kissed each of us when we left him…. He had tears in his eyes.”

Why did Moscow decide to release the Americans after holding them for a year? Perhaps the victory at Stalingrad in February 1943 and Japan’s defeats in the Pacific had reduced Soviet fear of a violent Japanese reaction. Perhaps repeated requests from the U.S. government had some effect. Perhaps the decision was triggered in part by the airmen’s letter to Moscow. Soviet sources claim that York’s wife managed to get through to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who personally interceded with Stalin. In any case, the Americans’ “escape” established a pattern that would be repeated.

B-29 Superfortresses fly past Japan’s Mount Fuji. Japanese air defenses forced four B-29s down in Russia their crews joined the cadre of American airmen held in temporary Soviet custody until additional “escapes” could be set in motion. (National Archives)

IN 1943, U.S. AIR OPERATIONS against Japan intensified. More U.S. aircraft began coming down in the Soviet Far East, adding to Moscow’s problem of interned Americans.

Five days after York’s crew arrived in Washington, U.S. forces recaptured the Aleutian island of Attu, seized by Japan in June 1942. U.S. bombers were soon operating from Attu against enemy bases in the Kuril Islands, the northernmost part of the Japanese homeland. From the northern Kurils one can see the tip of the Soviet Kamchatka Peninsula jutting south from Siberia into the North Pacific like a huge frozen version of Florida.

American pilots recalled Soviet coastal artillery firing safely behind U.S. planes in a “display of neutrality.” Soviet fighters sometimes appeared “to drive off any Japanese fighters that might have followed us.” Still, from August 1943 to July 1945, 32 damaged U.S. bombers carrying 242 crewmen landed or crashed in Kamchatka or ditched at sea nearby. Russian archives reveal that at one point, 34 American fliers were housed in Kamchatka near 17 Japanese seamen rescued from a shipwreck—a delicate problem for Moscow.

The U.S. retook Attu from Japan in May 1943. Access to the Aleutian island’s air base allowed B-25s and other U.S. aircraft to attack Japan, in turn causing more emergency landings in Russia. (National Archives)

The Soviets responded to this influx of American airmen by establishing a permanent internment camp near the village of Vrevsky, 35 miles southwest of Tashkent, the largest city in Soviet Central Asia. Tashkent could provide superior logistical support, there would be no sub-zero weather, and there were road and rail lines leading toward Iran.

The camp at Vrevsky occupied a former school complex with buildings sufficient to house well over 100 internees and a staff of housekeepers, cooks, administrators, guards, and a doctor. The head interpreter, Nona Solodovinova, an attractive woman in her 40s, sympathized with the men’s problems and became known to many of them as “Mama.” The camp was not a prison. There were no fences or walls. The internees could walk into town, shop at the market, and mingle with the local population. But it was neither free nor comfortable. Internees were required to be back in camp each night. A few individual escape attempts ended with the airmen being quickly caught and returned to camp. The camp commandant and the ranking U.S. officers jointly maintained military discipline and order. Food quality and quantity varied, but at best was monotonous and often far worse. Dysentery and bedbugs were pervasive. The men played baseball, volleyball, and chess they had a piano and were allowed a shortwave radio they read magazines, studied Russian, and watched Russian movies. They repeatedly asked, in Russian and English, “When are we going home?” The answer: often a vague “skoro” (soon). The men adopted two mongrel dogs. They named one Skoro. The internees knew nothing of the York crew’s “escape” or of any plans for their own repatriation.

Major Richard McGlinn (far left) and his crew bailed out over Russia after their B-29 was damaged by Japanese flak on August 20, 1944. (National Archives)

In mid-1944, U.S. B-29s began hitting Japan from Chengdu, China. The big new Superfortresses had enough range for the round trip from central China. Their second mission on August 20 met intense Japanese flak. As Major Richard McGlinn banked his B-29, one of his engines was hit. He feathered the prop and headed across the Yellow Sea toward China. But he and his navigator concluded that the plane was too heavily damaged to limp back to Chengdu, so they flew north across Korea toward Vladivostok. In the darkness and heavy weather, they missed Vladivostok and, fearing they had veered west into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, continued north until they were sure they were over Soviet territory. When their crippled plane ran short of fuel, the crew bailed out. In the darkness, 11 men parachuted into the vast wilderness of eastern Siberia. They landed scattered across the sparsely populated and almost impenetrable taiga—swampy forestland between the Siberian steppe and tundra—ill-prepared for the ordeal that awaited them.

Dawn on August 21 found the airmen in three separate groups. Seven landed close enough to each other that they were able to assemble by shouting and firing their sidearms. Led by Lieutenants Almon Conrath, the engineer, and bombardier Eugene Murphy, they followed a stream they hoped would steer them to an inhabited area.

Navigator Lyle Turner and copilot Ernest Caudle landed deep in the forest, apart from the others. They also started following a small stream they hoped would lead to civilization.

Major McGlinn landed on the other side of the mountains. His parachute snagged in a big tree, and he hung 60 feet off the ground, soaked by rain all night. When he finally got to the ground, he started blowing a signal whistle and eventually got a response from his tail gunner, Charles Robson. They united far from the others. Their ordeal would be the longest.

McGlinn’s crew parachuted into unpopulated swampy forestland in the Soviet Far East. Surviving for weeks on “anything that crawled or flew,” they were finally rescued by a Soviet search team. (Tilpich/Getty Images)

The airmen’s gear included emergency rations, matches, compasses, knives, and small arms, but little ammunition. Their survival training had focused on India and China, not Siberia. Trudging through the dense swampy forest sapped their energy. Their rations soon gave out, and they faced hunger. One recalled, “We ate anything and everything edible, including angleworms.” Had their mission been a few months later instead of August, they would all quickly have died of exposure. As it was, they were doomed to a slow death unless they could get outside help.

One of the airmen in the group of seven had a small map of Siberia. After bushwhacking downstream for days, the exhausted men decided to build a raft. Construction consumed several days and much energy, but their makeshift raft could only carry three men. They decided that the three strongest, Lieutenant Eugene Murphy and Sergeants John Beckley and Melvin Webb, would proceed downstream through the wilderness in an effort to bring help to the others. Two days after this party left, navigator Turner and copilot Caudle miraculously stumbled upon the remaining four men. The six hunkered down together.

After a few days on the water, the three trailblazers found the stream impassible and abandoned their raft. A week of hacking through the taiga had left them half-starved and exhausted when, on September 10, they saw several collapsed buildings on the far side of a midsize river. A man and a boy appeared in a hand-hewn boat and ferried them across the river to a tiny village. The local woodsmen spoke no English but treated the Americans kindly and fed them.

A few years ago, one of the authors, historian Yaroslav Shulatov, came across ​an unusual archival document: a short but heartfelt letter from a minor official in an obscure village in the forests of the Soviet Far East to Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister. This document triggered the authors’ research into this story and led to the discovery of unpublished Soviet documents that provided details of the Americans’ rescue not previously known in the West.

The three airmen had reached the village of Bira on the Anyuy River, 100 miles northeast of Khabarovsk, the administrative center of the Soviet Far East. After two more days on the river, they were brought to the town of Troitskoye, where they met an NKVD Border Guard officer who spoke a little English. The Americans immediately explained that their buddies upstream desperately needed help. Soviet officials saw this as a life-and-death situation. The local party boss, Leonid Volkovich, met with the local NKVD commander, Captain Pavel Kolachev, to coordinate rescue efforts. That same day, the first of several groups of hunters and NKVD border guards set out looking for the Americans. Captain Kolachev personally led a search party that trekked nearly 200 miles through the taiga for two weeks. Meanwhile, Volkovich reached out to higher authorities in Khabarovsk for help, and Soviet Air Force planes joined the search.

After three days at Troitskoye’s rudimentary hospital, the three fliers traveled via motorboat to the military hospital in Khabarovsk. That same day, a Soviet pilot sighted a signal mirror flashing in the forest. The six U.S. airmen on the ground were overjoyed when the plane circled and signaled it had seen them. The next day, the plane returned and dropped food and a message in English: “Be patient, help is on the way, your three comrades are safe.”

It took four days for the rescuers to reach them, forcing their way upstream against a strong current, logjams, and debris. In another four days, the woodsmen and border guards transported the six Americans by boat and horseback to Troitskoye, where they received the same kind treatment as their three comrades. Lieutenant Turner later recalled that the Soviets “gave us everything they had, and even more—the nurses even brought us food from their own homes.” The Americans also got another piece of wonderful news: Soviet fliers had discovered two men up north. It had to be McGlinn and Robson.

McGlinn and his tail gunner had landed in a particularly remote area and began trekking northward, but this led them deeper into the wilderness. For weeks they struggled against the nearly impenetrable forest, tortured by clouds of gnats day and night, weakened by chronic hunger, and disheartened by the total absence of any sign of human presence. Mc-Glinn recalled, “Anything that we could catch, whether it crawled or flew, was food.” They were losing nearly a pound a day and were in desperate shape.

Soviet Air Force planes were flying long-range searches. On September 22, 32 days after the Americans blundered into the taiga, smoke from a fire they had kindled caught a Soviet pilot’s eye. He banked closer and saw the flash of a signal mirror. The next day, the plane returned and dropped food and a message: “You are in Soviet territory and Soviet pilots are at your service.” McGlinn and Robson attacked the food and ate for hours. Three days later, the plane brought more food and instructions: “Stay where you are. A rescue party will arrive soon.”

The rescue party, led by an engineer working on a railroad construction project, arrived two days later and brought McGlinn and Robson by boat to the village of Tolomo. (The railroad was a strategic project managed by the NKVD. Ironically, the NKVD—the principal instrument of Stalin’s terror—played a positive role throughout this saga.)

McGlinn later wrote, “The treatment received at their hands…could be likened only to the loving care that any close relative would receive from one of their kin.” Two more days of river travel brought the exhausted airmen to the military hospital in Komsomolsk, some 240 miles northeast of Khabarovsk—40 days after their plane went down. In November 1944, they traveled by train to the camp at Vrevsky, where they joined nearly 100 other interned American airmen.

None of these Americans knew that the previous February, a group of 60 U.S. internees, told they were being moved to the Caucasus, had been smoothly transported by train and truck to Tehran, Iran. Their transfer to the trucks was masked by a pretend mechanical breakdown on one of the railroad cars. It was only then that the airmen learned their true destination. This charade was orchestrated flawlessly by the NKVD. The internees were accompanied by Colonel Robert McCabe from the U.S. Embassy, an NKVD officer, and a Red Army staff officer. From Tehran, the airmen followed a circuitous route back to the U.S. to conceal the fact that they had departed from Russia. Like York’s B-25 crew, they were ordered to treat being interned in and released from the U.S.S.R. as top secret.

When McGlinn’s crew reached the camp at Vrevsky on November 26, 1944, Soviet plans for a third escape to Iran were already well advanced, although the Americans knew nothing of it. The intent was to duplicate the scenario employed the previous February. On November 30, the same NKVD, Red Army, and U.S. Embassy trio arrived. Colonel McCabe told the assembled internees that they were being transferred to Tbilisi in the Caucasus. They were to leave on December 3. “Mama” Nona, who had been in the camp in February, confided to the ranking U.S. officer, “You’re not going to the Caucasus, you’re going home!” But events back home fouled up the plan.

Just before departure, two stories appeared in American newspapers from unknown sources about the Doolittle crew’s release from Soviet internment. The second account was detailed and accurate. When authorities in Moscow learned of these leaks, they halted the operation. By then, the train carrying 100 American airmen was nearing the Iranian border. It pulled onto a siding, and a grim-faced Colonel McCabe told the men that they were going back to Vrevsky. Over the next few hours, separate groups of internees—34 men in all—more or less spontaneously began walking away from the railcars in hopes of reaching the border. None got very far, and they were rounded up by alerted Soviet sentries. By December 13, all 100 men were back in camp. Remarkably, there was no Soviet punishment for the attempted escape.

On January 2, 1945, President Roosevelt assured Moscow that he had ordered strict censorship of any news stories regarding the release of internees from neutral countries. Six days later, the NKVD informed the U.S. Embassy that the “escape” plan could resume.

The internees—this time briefed on the plan in advance—boarded a train on January 26, and two days later transferred to a convoy of Lend-Lease trucks for the two-day drive to Tehran. Greeted by U.S. medical corpsmen, they were deloused, issued fresh clothes, and treated to an American meal. McGlinn recalled that the simple white bread and butter “tasted like angel cake.” Finally, they collapsed in “beautiful, clean, white beds.” The men flew, with many layovers, from Tehran to Naples, Italy, where they boarded a U.S. transport ship that brought them to New York City. They were required to sign pledges swearing them to secrecy about being interned “in a neutral country.” Most men respected the pledges.

Even before this third escape was launched, more American bomber crews were making emergency landings or crashing in Kamchatka. On February 5, 1945, just a week after the 100 internees had left Vrevsky, a fresh batch began arriving. They found ample evidence of the earlier American occupants, but the Russian staff kept mum about what had become of them. By mid-May, there were 43 internees at Vrevsky. Germany had surrendered a week earlier, and the Red Army was secretly preparing to enter the war against Japan. Japan was being crushed by American might, and Moscow was no longer worried about what Tokyo might do in response to the release of American internees. On May 18, Colonel McCabe’s replacement and two Soviet officers flew to Vrevsky to supervise the final “escape.” It followed the same scenario and route as in February, without much drama or a make-believe railcar breakdown. Because of the small number of evacuees and the end of hostilities in Europe, the men flew from Tehran to Washington in four days. Like their predecessors, they were sworn to secrecy.

Over the years, some of the Americans continued to regard their internment bitterly, feeling that they had been treated like POWs. Many more, however, concluded that they were treated as well as could be expected under the extreme conditions in the Soviet Union, which was fighting for survival, suffered 27 million war dead, and had to avoid the risk of a second front against Japan at all costs. “We were treated far better than the average Red Army officer,” Major McGlinn concluded—an opinion shared by many others.

In the fall of 1945, Leonid Volkovich, the man who had helped rescue McGlinn’s crew the previous year, sent the official letter mentioned earlier to Vyacheslav Molotov. Why did an obscure party official from Troitskoye appeal directly to the number-two man in the Soviet hierarchy, over the heads of his innumerable superiors? Volkovich believed he was calling attention to an issue of national importance—the operation that had saved the lives of 11 Americans. Apparently hoping to be recognized and rewarded for his work, Volkovich described the ground and air maneuvers in detail, emphasizing that the “heroic” efforts made to locate and aid the Americans had honored the Soviets’ duty to their U.S. allies. Brimming with emotion, he stressed the successful rescue’s magnitude and value: “We…allowed the airmen to return home and tell their fellow Americans how a large number of ordinary Soviet people, running themselves ragged at great cost and at risk to themselves, rescued them from the arms of certain death…and returned them to the ranks of the United States Army.”

But by late 1945, frigid Cold War winds were already blowing through government offices in Moscow and Washington, chilling the fragile wartime friendship. The Soviet leadership had no sympathy for Volkovich’s glorification of Soviet-U.S. cooperation. The authors could find no reply from Molotov in the archives. ✯

This article was published in the April 2021 issue of World War II.

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  1. Thoth

    Nicely written! Interesting material, it is clear that the author tried.

  2. Halig

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