Book Review: Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II


by Roger R. Reese

Lawrence: Univ Press of Kansas, 2011. Pp. xxii, 366. Illus, maps, notes, biblio., index. $37.50. ISBN: 0700617760

Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought is a study of the Red Army’s institutional effectiveness at making enlisted personnel do its will in combat, by Texas A&M Professor Reese, author of several fine military histories (e.g., Stalin's Reluctant Soldiers).  Reese is thorough, readable, and raises many issues for further investigation, some particularly of interest to wargamers.  Those include the mechanics of 1941 mass surrenders and a related decision by the Soviet high command not to have encircled forces retreat into, and hold out in, major urban areas.

The main sections include the 1939-40 “Winter War” with Finland as a predictor of Soviet effectiveness in World War II, a very useful study of the 1941 mass surrenders, how the Red Army obtained wartime recruits, motivation, morale and fear, and the exceptionally wide Soviet use of female personnel and their experiences.  Notably absent is any analysis of the Red Army’s combat effectiveness against enemies – that subject comes up only in relation to the effects on enlisted personnel’s willingness to fight on in the face of defeat after defeat.

Professor Reese implies that the Germans’ 1941 capture of millions of Soviet POW’s was much less a matter of mass surrenders than the rounding up of enormous numbers of small groups of disorganized and leaderless Red Army troops whose feeble C3I systems had been shattered by encirclement. And this despite the fact that prewar Red Army exercises had frequently featured breakout from encirclement!  The two chapters on encirclement read as vindications of the OODA loop theories of William Boyd.

Reese’s most intriguing point concerns a prewar Soviet doctrinal decision, followed in 1941, that encircled units never back into and defend large urban areas, and instead try to break out.  This maximized the effects of the Germans’ superior operational tempo, and resulted in whole Soviet Fronts dissolving quickly in failed breakouts.   He points out that the Minsk, Smolensk, and Kiev encirclements in particular offered the Red Army opportunities for protracted low operational tempo urban defense to block German forward logistics extensions at key communications nodes.  Wargames on the 1941 Barbarossa campaign might offer an opportunity to explore these issues, in terms of options for the defensive benefits of urban terrain and the rapidity with which encircled Soviet forces disintegrate.

Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought is an important book anyone interested in the problem of raising, organizing, and preparing armies for combat and for students of the Russo-German War.


Reviewer: Tom Holsinger   

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