The most formidable Allied commander of World War II was not British or American but Russian. Georgy Zhukov led the Soviet forces in all the decisive battles that decided the out come of the war on the Eastern Front.
Most Americans don’t realize that the bulk of the fighting against the Germans was carried out by the former Soviet Union, which bore about 90% of Allied casualties.
Zhukov was a budding furrier in Moscow when he was drafted into the czarist armies as a cavalryman during World War I. He sided with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and remained in the military when that conflict ended. Though a loyal communist, Zhukov was first and foremost a soldier. He rose in the ranks during the 1930s, barely escaping Joseph Stalin’s capricious, murderous purges.
Zhukov first showed his extraordinary mettle against Japanese forces on the Mongolian-Manchurian border during the summer of 1939, where the two sides were vying for dominance. Several battles had already been waged by the time Zhukov arrived. With painstaking and detailed planning and training Zhukov pulled together an offensive battle plan that skilfully integrated all facets of the military. He adroitly concealed his intentions from the enemy, a method he would repeatedly employ later against the Germans. That August Zhukov sprang his surprise offensive against the Japanese, routing them even though their forces were slightly larger. His success was overshadowed internationally by the lead-up to World War II. Nonetheless, the repercussions were pro-found:
Tokyo turned its aggressive attention to Southeast Asia, which ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbour.
After Germany invaded in June 1941 Zhukov gave Russia a badly needed victory at Yel’nya, near Smolensk, the only check Germany suffered during its initial sweeping offensive. Stalin, who, unlike Adolph Hitler, grudgingly learned to defer to his principal military commanders, soon, put Zhukov in charge of the Leningrad front. Zhukov stopped the Germans from seizing the city, which prevented the Germans’ flanking Moscow from the north. (The Germans then blockaded the city, which was catastrophic for the civilian population.) Zhukov wasn’t at Leningrad long before Stalin called him to Moscow, where he successfully defended the city against a massive German assault in October and November and then launched a lethal counteroffensive in December.
During 1942-43 Zhukov successfully led the Soviet forces in Stalingrad, inflicting a devastating defeat on the Germans. In the summer of 1943 he was in charge at the critical battle of Kursk, which ended Germany’s offensive capabilities in the East.
Zhukov’s Operation Bagration in 1944 was on an even greater scale than Kursk or Stalingrad, driving the Germans out of Belorussia and most of the Baltic States and knocking Finland, a German ally, out of the war. Then came the push to eastern Germany and the capture of Berlin. There were battlefield setbacks and operational delays along the way, but overall Zhukov had an astounding record of success.
The Soviets had a number of first-rate commanders—Konev, Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky— but Zhukov was the supreme captain. Stalin chose him to receive the German surrender in May 1945, and it was Zhukov, riding a magnificent Arabian, who took the salute at the Victory Parade in Red Square.
Unlike Dwight Eisenhower, who could achieve the pinnacle of political power in the U.S., Zhukov found his post war career blighted by a jealous, paranoid and all-powerful dictator. Not long after the war Zhukov was humiliated and demoted and was virtually erased from official Soviet accounts of the war. He was too popular for Stalin to arrest or execute, a fate that befell some of his associates.
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, whom Zhukov had gotten to know during the war, returned Zhukov to personhood, eventually appointing him minister of defence. There Zhukov was open to ideas of reducing nuclear weapons, initially impressing Khrushchev with his willingness to downsize the massive Soviet military. Zhukov was even willing to cut a deal with the U.S. to make it easier for each country to spy on the other via reconnaissance aircraft.
In 1957 Zhukov played a critical role in saving Khrushchev from being ousted by his Communist Party foes. Khrushchev’s reward was to engineer Zhukov’s second fall from grace, barring him once again from public life and erasing him from official histories. He was even threatened with arrest because he didn’t conceal his disdain for the regime. Khrushchev was later removed, and Zhukov was rehabilitated.
Roberts’ book gives us a true appreciation of Russian general-snip during the war. To judge from many Western histories Germany lost the war because of the weather in Russia, Hitler’s incompetence and Moscow’s willingness to “recklessly” expend human life in fighting the Germans.
Soviet casualties were indeed horrific, as were some of Moscow’s methods of waging war: retreating troops were often shot by special battalions; some 158,000 Soviet soldiers were executed for “disciplinary” reasons. Nonetheless, Roberts writes, “Zhukov was dismissive of the German generals: What none of them would admit, according to Zhukov, was that superior Soviet generalship was the primary reason they had lost the war.” Especially Zhukov’s.
In closing, Roberts compares Zhukov to other Allied commanders. “The conclusion to be drawn from this survey of comparable generals is that while Zhukov did not excel as ‘the best ever’ in any one field of military endeavour, he was the best all-around general of the Second World War. He combined prowess and courage in battle with ambitious strategic vision, determination, and organizational ability. He inspired the affection and confidence of his troops — as well as their fear— if not the grudging respect of his peers. He was stoic in defeat and exuberant in victory. He had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and the will to succeed however challenging the circumstances.
“These were qualities Zhukov needed to deploy again after the war when he came under personal and political attack from Stalin and then from Khrushchev.”
Historian’ battles over the reputations of politicians and military commanders of this war– or of any major conflict—will go on forever. But, this book makes it clear that despite his flaws and mistakes, Georgy Zhukov was at the summit of World War ll’s military mountain.
By Geoffery Roberts, from Forbes Magazine Aug 20 2012