As an amateur student of military affairs, I have my own informal list of the “best” generals in World War II. The familiar names rattle out easily: Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Marshall and so on.
Now Geoffrey Roberts very convincingly puts forth Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s deputy supreme commander, as “the best all-around general of the Second World War.” He concedes that Zhukov “did not excel as ‘the best ever’ in any one field of military endeavor.” But he was the leader who mobilized the Red Army after the German Wehrmacht smashed its way into the USSR and appeared on the brink of victory. Then he brilliantly directed the defenses of Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow.
His counteroffensive at Stalingrad in late 1942, an encirclement operation, trapped 300,000 German troops. After his decisive victory at Kursk, an epic clash of tank armies, “there was no possibility of the Germans surviving the grinding war of attrition the Soviets had the will and power to inflict on them,” Mr. Roberts writes. Zhukov drove the tattered German army back to Berlin in defeat.
So beloved was Zhukov as the “savior” of the Soviet Union that he led the great “Victory Parade” through Red Square in June 1945 riding a magnificent white stallion. Then he stood beaming alongside Josef Stalin to review the troops, acclaimed as the man who saved the Soviet Union.
Fame and favor proved transitory, however, in the bizarre realm of the mad dictator Stalin. Zhukov’s fall began in 1946, when he was banished summarily to an obscure regional military command. Then he was kicked off the Communist Party Central Committee and investigated for accumulating war booty, including jewels and furs. He was written out of the official history of the Great Patriotic War.
Why the fall from grace? Mr. Roberts writes that the “ostensible reason was that he had been disrespectful toward Stalin and claimed too much credit” for victory. In fact, Mr. Robert writes, his continuing loyalty to Stalin was “beyond question.” His brutal banishment was intended to send a message to other generals that “if Zhukov, the most famous among them … could suffer such a fate, so could any one of them if they did not behave themselves.”
Zhukov enjoyed a brief rehabilitation during Stalin’s last years. He served as minister of defense under successor Nikita Khrushchev, whom he protected from plots over the years. But he objected strongly to Khrushchev’s harsh speech denouncing Stalin’s excesses, and once again, he was in official disfavor. Nonetheless, he remained a hero to the Soviet masses despite his manifold troubles.
Now we have the full story of Zhukov’s stormy and storied career. Mr. Roberts, a professor at University College Cork, Ireland, obtained access to Soviet military archives, which enabled him to sort through the tangle of conflicting accountsof why the Soviet military suffered such grievous losses during the first months of the war and how Zhukov succeeded in restoring it to vigor. Perhaps most important, Mr. Roberts obtained the original manuscript of Zhukov’s memoirs, heavily censored in publication in the USSR.
Zhukov was truly a child of the Russian Revolution. Born in 1896, he entered the Red Army as a peasant lad and fought against the Whites as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power. His first important assignment came in 1939 during bloody clashes between Soviet and Japanese troops along the Mongolian-Manchurian border. One of his early innovations was establishing an intelligence system based on agent infiltration, aerial reconnaissance and prisoner interrogation - basic tradecraft, but heretofore neglected by the Soviet military.
Zhukov made shrewd use of deception and disinformation - maskirovka, in Russian. To shield a planned offense, he ordered a handbook titled “What the Soviet Soldier Must Know in Defense” and made sure copies were leaked to the Japanese. False radio traffic indicated he was digging in for defense. Thus, when he attacked, he achieved total surprise, and in a classic double envelopment, he won what Mr. Roberts termed “a great victory - the Red Army’s first since the civil war.” Politically, the outcome persuaded the Japanese to expand into Southeast Asia and the Pacific rather than bog down in a war with the Soviets in Siberia.
Zhukov somehow escaped Stalin’s mass purges that killed or imprisoned the cream of the Red Army leadership and attained the title of chief of the general staff. He was instrumental in developing the Red Army’s “deep battle concept,” which emphasized that “only offensive action could destroy the enemy, that defense would play a purely auxiliary role in protecting offensive groupings….” Hence, the Red Army neglected training for defense and thus was unprepared initially to counter the German offenses in 1941-42.
One of Zhukov’s key traits, Mr. Roberts writes, was his “capacity to penetrate the complexities of [the] strategic situation and see through battlefield confusion to identify what are the critical positions, decisions and objectives so as to take appropriate effective action.” This “clarity of vision” in large part led to his battlefield successes.
Do not be mistaken: Zhukov was a dedicated communist and a person who admired Stalin even at his worst. He remained loyal to the party even during his periods of exile. Now, in post-communist Russia, Zhukov once again is acclaimed as a national military hero.
Joseph C. Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English” (Dover, 2012).