“The allies were absolutely ready for war. But Germany outstripped in new technologies”
The series of interviews for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Part 6: preparedness of the parties
Realnoe Vremya continues the series of interviews with Russian scientists, dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Today's conversation — with Aleksey Isaev, the expert on military history — is devoted to the power balance before the clash of the world powers, particularly their provision with weapons and equipment.
“The USSR goes further than the wall”
Mr Isaev, can we say that the one who wanted this war 80 years ago, who was better prepared for it, is Germany? Or the other parties, who soon or after a while, became its adversaries were also well prepared?
Everything depended not so much on desire as on technical capabilities and previous experience. Having almost unlimited possibilities in the construction of the armed forces compared the Soviet Union, France, for example, coped with such construction frankly badly, Britain was not a holy grail in that regard either. The USSR went further than the wall in comparison with the previous state's preparedness for serious tests.
But, of course, the strongest economy remained in Germany: the “Versailles period” required the Germans to overcome restrictions and forced them to be “successfully catching up” in many ways.
Hitler intended to expand the lands of Germany primarily in the East, where its main rival was the USSR. Historian Yury Zhukov in an interview with our publication said that technically the USSR in 1939 was not ready for war with such an enemy, which was shown, for example, by our planes, which burned, in his opinion, “like matchboxes” in the war in Spain. Would you agree with your colleague?
As for aviation, the backlog here was during the Great Patriotic War as well, and it was associated with technological issues — primarily in terms of production of high-quality aircraft engines. The war in Spain also showed the superiority of Soviet aircraft over the same German Henkel-51, if we talk about fighters, and the Germans even called our bomber SB (ANT-40) Martin Bomber. No one in the world believed that the USSR could create a perfect bomber — fast enough and load lifting, and in Germany they believed that the Republicans (the opponents of Franco — editor’s note) received such bombers from the United States. There was a backlog of single-engine fighters, but these difficulties were gradually overcome. Therefore, in the 1930s, compared to what had been in the previous war, the USSR did a lot in the fleet.
But in the construction of the Soviet fleet, there were confusion and vacillation. This was due to blurred objectives and requirements. In relation to the fleet, the USSR was spending a lot of money, which was not fully justified. First of all, it concerned the wide range of submarines — they were several types, often produced submarines-babies, but they could not repel the attacks of a large fleet. Let alone the construction of battleships and battlecruisers, the value of which for the USSR as a land power was negligible — nevertheless, they were invested a lot of money in.
The leadership of the USSR did not take into account the experience of the First World War, when the Russian fleet spent most of the time in harbours, and it was with the fleet the revolution began. There was a lack of such necessities as light minesweepers and patrol ships. In this regard, a positive example was given by Germany — it was building motor torpedo boats, which were top-of-the-range by both displacement and armament in their technical characteristics, and justified themselves as universal ships, allowing to deliver trouble to the great maritime power such as great Britain in the immediate vicinity of its shores. If the Soviet Navy went the same way, that is, produced patrol ships and modern torpedo boats, it would be much more useful. But the Tupolev boat was speedy, but did not meet expectations due to that the firing range with them depended on the weather.
“The advantage of Germany at the beginning of the war was created not by the number of tanks, but by the organization of tank divisions”
The development of tank building was going more reasonable way in the USSR — by creating several series of tanks, it came to a high world level. There is enough to take for comparison Italy, which possessed great industry, was able to do a fairly complex technique, but the Italians could make a tank that would be comparable with characteristics of T-34 only in 1943. The Soviet Union produced advanced for its time multi-turreted T-28 tanks, the tank building was developing significantly, and in 1939, the emergence of high-quality tanks was seen in the foreseeable future.
Did the number and quality of tanks play a big role in 1939?
Historians often believe it is important to consider the number of tanks, but still it is not tanks that fight but real organizational units, which already in 1941 were called tank divisions both in Germany and the USSR. These were independent mechanized formations numbering 10,000-15,000 people, which completely moved by tanks, cars and transporter-primemovers. How could Germany win using blitzkrieg? By that it had such organizational unit with the motorized artillery and infantry, but the USSR reached such level of the organization neither in 1939, nor in 1941. The Germans were at the forefront of the progress of independent mechanized units, and the USSR in this respect caught up with Germany only in 1942 (as well as the British). Yes, in 1942, the backlog of tank divisions was eliminated in the USSR and its allies, but the Germans had the military advantage before this period particularly thanks to the use of tank divisions.
In general, it is wrong to compare the number of equipment. Here we take another example of high-speed tractors for artillery. In the 1930s, Germany clearly saw the concept of tank divisions and under producing were doing all the equipment, but the Soviet Union produced mechanized artillery only for infantry and regular rifle divisions. The result was a tractor, which the troops began to call “tadpole”. In 1940, from the high tier, they said that this tractor did not give the specified speed and did not do the work after the tanks, which became a huge problem 1941 — artillery constantly lagged behind and prevented to tear down the anti-tank defences, thereby allowing the Germans time to destroy a few tanks and disrupt the fulfillment of combat tasks. The Germans in tank divisions had already up to 70 anti-tank cannons, and in order to ensure the normal and effective tank attack, the USSR had to have good artillery, and this was a big problem.
So, the main German strike force and hope in 1939 was tank one?
That’s right. German panzer divisions were honed in combat, including during the fighting in Poland. In 1939, these divisions were an important means of war that was lacking in all other participants, which gave the Germans the decisive advantage in the course of the war and before it.
“Why did the Germans come to this in the 1930s, but others did not?”
Another advantage of the Germans, starting with the war in Spain, was developed aviation — particularly the aviation interacting with troops directly on the battlefield, and this boosted effectiveness action in the future war.
Certainly, this had its downside — the development of the German air force gave bias towards aviation, supporting troops on the battlefield, and the Germans did not have long-range strategic aircraft, and this subsequently prevented Hitler from capturing the USSR. But in 1939 and 1940, the presence of aviation, interacting with the infantry, allowed the Germans to move forward in Poland and in France. Such aviation allowed to bomb anti-tank defense: here, for example, Poland put their guns to meet the attacking Germans, and suddenly these trenches with guns were poured by a lot of bombs from the air, and it is clear that in the conditions of the average terrain, it will be a fatal blow to the defence in terms of the defeat of artillery.
This approach of the Germans was adopted by the Soviet command only in 1942, during the battle of Stalingrad. You would ask — why the Germans came to this in the 1930s, but others did not? Let’s go back to the war in Spain. The Francoist army was weak, the Italian troops who fought there were weak either, and the Germans had to help them with aircraft, and this support from the air suddenly had an effect — on the battlefield both the Italians and the Francoists everything began to work out. Moreover, such assistance was unpleasant psychologically — in 1940, the French were sitting even in the concrete pillboxes, but when hundreds of aircraft a day flew on them, the military was psychologically crushed and became an easy victim of the next attack. This also applied to the near rear of the French — German planes were chasing even individual machines. So, readiness is not measured by the number of aircraft and tanks.
What was the readiness for war of France and Britain? Historians often say that the armies of these countries did not pay proper attention to their armies because of economic problems.
Let’s remember the year 1938 and Munich. Then Prime Minister Daladier would ask their troops, most of whom were veterans of the First World War: “Are we ready to fight?” and they answered: “Not ready”. And when the prime minister asked them the same question in September 1939, the military has already said, “Yes, we are.” The acceptable France's willingness to fight, really existed, and therefore Germany was declared the war. If to speak about practical point, then France had a large enough land army, supported by equally large tanks. Yes, there were problems with the aircraft, but it was believed that it was at an acceptable level.
The UK in 1939 reached what the British believed to be important — building a defense. In addition, Britain after Munich started the construction of different kinds of anti-submarine ships to protect convoys — the so-called boats, and all of this worked in 1940, when, they say, come to an hour — with the help of its air defense system the British were able to fight off the German aircraft. What is more, they managed to fight back not so much technically as organizationally — for example, they built the airfields with protected sites, radar stations.
In general, we can say, the future allies of the Soviet Union were ready for war, but another thing — the new technology of the Germans, in particular the blitzkrieg, they could not oppose them. If you subtract all these innovations of the Germans, both France and Britain were prepared to war in an absolute way. The only failure here was only in French aviation for economic and organizational reasons, the construction of the French air force had failed and did not reach the proper requirements even at the level of 1918. Yes, aviation was a negative factor for the French army, but it was ready to fight. It was only necessary to correct the deficiencies.
Was the Polish army strong as surely many in Poland in 1939 has the understanding that the war very likely?
The Germans outnumbered the Polish army — especially by the number of infantry battalions, and the Polish army did not have time to mobilize and prepare to attack Germany in accordance with war plans. In addition, the Polish army was poorly equipped with armored vehicles.
Their armor was just bad, and let me remark that there is to blame for corruption. If we look at how much the production of the Soviet T-26 and identical to Polish 7-TP cost, we see that the Polish was worth seven times more expensive. If Poland bought tanks from the Soviet Union, they could buy several times more, and since they produced their own, which cost an exorbitant price, it is possible to talk about corruption — the difference in price was completely unjustified.
Poland, of course, had a good military equipment, but insufficient for war numbers. This is evidenced by the situation in the aviation industry: they had great pilots, but they flew more often on older aircraft and fighter jets, Poland preferred to sell to other countries for a jingle of coin. Obsolete weapons played a negative role, however, brave Polish pilots gave a decent fight to the Germans.