1 – WWII: the Soviets Defeat the Germans
The Soviets have long insisted that Lend-Lease aid made little difference. Newly discovered files tell another story
After a series of dramatic Nazi successes during the opening stages of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, foreign observers predicted that Soviet resistance would soon collapse. By October, German troops were poised outside both Leningrad and Moscow. But the Germans were doggedly held off in front of Moscow in late November and early December, and then rolled back by a reinvigorated Red Army in a staggeringly brutal winter counteroffensive.
That the Soviet victories of late 1941 were won with Soviet blood and largely with Soviet weapons is beyond dispute. But for decades the official Soviet line went much further. Soviet authorities recognized that the “Great Patriotic War” gave the Communist Party a claim to legitimacy that went far beyond Marxism-Leninism or the 1917 Revolution, and took pains to portray their nation’s victories in World War II as single-handed. Any mention of the role that Western assistance played in the Soviet war effort was strictly off-limits.
During Nikita Khrushchev’s rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a window of greater frankness and openness about the extent of aid supplied from the West under the Lend-Lease Act—but it was still clearly forbidden for Soviet authors to suggest that such aid ever made any real difference on the battlefield. Mentions of Lend-Lease in memoirs were always accompanied by disparagement of the quality of the weapons supplied, with American and British tanks and planes invariably portrayed as vastly inferior to comparable Soviet models.
An oft-quoted statement by First Vice-Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Nikolai Voznesensky summed up the standard line that Allied aid represented “only 4 percent” of Soviet production for the entire war. Lacking any detailed information to the contrary, Western authors generally agreed that even if Lend-Lease was important from 1943 on, as quantities of aid dramatically increased, the aid was far too little and late to make a difference in the decisive battles of 1941–1942.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a trickle of information has emerged from archives in Moscow, shedding new light on the subject. While much of the documentary evidence remains classified “secret” in the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian State Archive of the Economy, Western and Russian researchers have been able to gain access to important, previously unavailable firsthand documents.
I was recently able to examine Russian-language materials of the State Defense Committee—the Soviet equivalent of the British War Cabinet—held in the former Central Party Archive. Together with other recently published sources, including the wartime diaries of N. I. Biriukov, a Red Army officer responsible from August 1941 on for the distribution of recently acquired tanks to the front lines, this newly available evidence paints a very different picture from the received wisdom.
In particular, it shows that British Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union in late 1941 and early 1942 played a far more significant part in the defense of Moscow and the revival of Soviet fortunes in late 1941 than has been acknowledged.
- Particularly important for the Soviets in late 1941 were British-supplied tanks and aircraft. American contributions of the time were far fewer.
- In fact, for a brief period during December 1941, the relative importance of British aid increased well beyond levels planned by the Allies as a result of American reaction to the outbreak of war with Japan;
- some American equipment destined for the Soviet Union was actually unloaded from merchant vessels and provided to American forces instead.
Even aid that might seem like a drop in the bucket in the larger context of Soviet production for the war played a crucial role in filling gaps at important moments during this period. At a time when Soviet industry was in disarray—many of their industrial plants were destroyed or captured by the advancing Nazi troops or in the process of evacuation east—battlefield losses of specific equipment approached or even exceeded the rate at which Soviet domestic production could replace them during this crucial period. Under these circumstances even small quantities of aid took on far greater significance.
According to research by a team of Soviet historians, the Soviet Union lost a staggering 20,500 tanks from June 22 to December 31, 1941. At the end of November 1941, only 670 Soviet tanks were available to defend Moscow—that is, in the recently formed Kalinin, Western, and Southwestern Fronts. Only 205 of these tanks were heavy or medium types, and most of their strength was concentrated in the Western Front, with the Kalinin Front having only two tank battalions (67 tanks) and the Southwestern Front two tank brigades (30 tanks).
Given the disruption to Soviet production and Red Army losses, the Soviet Union was understandably eager to put British armor into action as soon as possible. According to Biriukov’s service diary, the first 20 British tanks arrived at the Soviet tank training school in Kazan on October 28, 1941, at which point a further 120 tanks were unloaded at the port of Archangel in northern Russia. Courses on the British tanks for Soviet crews started during November as the first tanks, with British assistance, were being assembled from their in-transit states and undergoing testing by Soviet specialists.
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