Book Review: Stumbling Colossus

Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War by David M. Glantz

Paperback cover of Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War by David M. Glantz

In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union a treasure trove of previously inaccessible information became available from state archives. Examination of this information led some historians to question the traditional narrative of the Great Patriotic War (what Russians call WWII). The new data gave birth to various new theories that attempt to justify the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and which portray the Red Army as a powerful military force that was planning preemptive war against Germany. In his 1998 work Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War historian David Glantz set out to determine whether or not, and to what extent these new theories are correct. In response to his own questions Glantz suggests that based on the evidence it is “totally unfounded” to suppose that the Red Army was ready for, and capable of waging offensive war against Nazi Germany in 1941. In this work Glantz makes a powerful, factual, black and white examination of a trove of sources which speak for themself. Based on this I believe he is absolutely correct in his assertion. The book is a valuable addition to my personal World War II library. 

Red Army Poster (1941) Text at top is in Uzbek. Text at bottom reads: “To defeat the enemy – we swore an oath to the leader. We will keep the covenant of our fathers. Lead us into battle victorious, wise Stalin – Thunderstorm of our enemies, father of warriors!

Prior to the reading I knew that the Red Army was far from prepared to fight a major war in June of 1941. My previous readings on the topic focussed principally on the topic of mechanized combined arms warfare. This book however provided an abundance of data down to the most intricate details regarding the Red Army prior to World War II which has greatly enhanced my understanding of the subject. 

While I found each chapter of the book very thorough and loaded with useful information there were a couple areas that stood out above the rest. The effect of the purges and influence of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on Red Army readiness and morale is a prevalent underlying theme throughout the book. The raw statistics that Glantz provided in the book regarding the purges were eye opening. The fact that in the decades prior to the 1937-1941 purges the Soviets had already removed 47,000 officers from service had the potential to be a death blow to the Red Army. Add to that the tens of thousands, including a majority of commanders from brigade level and up, who were purged by Stalin in the years just prior to world war and it truly was a recipe for disaster. The more I read in the book, the more I have come to believe that nearly all of the Red Army’s deficiencies prior to the war can either be directly or indirectly linked to the purges. After the purges when the Soviet army necessarily had to expand in preparation for war as a result of German victories in the West, the result was a critical shortage of officers with the experience that comes with time in grade in military service. Officers were promoted wholesale to positions for which they were unprepared. Men who only a short time before had been battalion commanders or squad leaders found themselves in command of divisions and regiments.

First five Marshals of the Soviet Union (L to R) Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov, Vasily Blyukher, amd Aleksandr Yegorov. Only Budyonny and Voroshilov survived Stalin’s purges.

The mechanized units of the Red Army that actually could have made a difference in the early days of the war also suffered greatly from the purges. After the elimination of Marshal Tukhachevsky and other experienced commanders of large mechanized formations, all of the Red Army tank corps were abolished. Only after the Wehrmacht’s unprecedented victories in the 1940 French campaign did Stalin realize the folly of this error and ordered the creation of dozens of new tank corps. These formations were in their majority led from top to bottom by men who had little or no experience in modern mechanized warfare. Consequently, what should have been powerful military assets were poorly located, undersupplied, undertrained, lacked proper communication, and ultimately deployed piecemeal and destroyed by the German onslaught.

A second underlying theme in the book is the long shadow cast by Stalin into every nook and cranny of the Red Army. This was very evident in pre-war planning mobilization on the eve of hostilities. Although Red Army planners were all competent and experienced, they were never completely free to acert their opinions and acted timidly. They had been cowed by the purges which were ongoing even as serious war planning was taking place. As a result they acquiesced to Stalin’s views, whatever they happened to be at the moment, right up to the outbreak of war. Although a series of different plans were presented and discussed, an effective defense plan was never produced. In some front sectors Red Army formations were left positioned too far forward where they were unable to maneuver. Others had to move thirty to sixty kilometers laterally to occupy assigned defensive positions. This situation led to the large-scale German envelopments of massive numbers of Red Army troops in the initial phases of Barbarossa. Furthermore, even when all of the evidence pointed to war commanders were not free to mobilize. By the time Stalin reluctantly agreed to mobilization it took place too late and too slowly. 

The issue of poor supply and lack of adequate logistical support was prevalent in all branches of the Red Army during the time in question. The consequences of this crop up throughout the book in the form of critical shortages at the front of just about everything from medical equipment, weapons and ammunition, to communications equipment. However this is one area where I felt perhaps a little more elaboration would have been useful – the effect that lack of logistical support combined with corruption in the supply chain had on the troops. The existing Red Army supply chain at the onset of hostilities was crooked from one end to the other. At each point along the chain corrupt Soviet officials, officers, and common criminals siphoned off goods intended for front line units; everything from shoes and uniform items to foodstuffs and soap were pilfered and sold on the thriving black market. The common soldier was often left with low quality food rations and frequently went hungry. In 1939 the Red Army documented several instances of troops refusing to eat in protest of poor food quality, during the same period of time Red Army doctors recorded seven major outbreaks of food poisoning. Due to these deficiencies Russian soldiers went into battle not only poorly equipped but often hungry or even shoeless.

Altogether, the book was an excellent read and provides an accurate and comprehensive representation of the pre-war Red Army. Its greatest value is in the wealth of detailed information provided on each branch of the Soviet armed forces at the onset of hostilities on the Eastern Front.