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A Warning from Stalin

Pictured: The Commander of the 8th Guards Army, Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel-General V.I. Chuikov sets the combat mission, 1944.

Even the best leaders have challenging days, and Marshal Chuikov was no exception to this. During the Great Patriotic War in May 1944, he received a reprimand from Josef Stalin himself, calling Chuikov’s attention to troop preparedness at the Dniester River in Moldova. As one can imagine, it must have been a harsh “wake-up call” to be presented with such a communication. Receiving a stern, written warning from a superior tends to cause a subordinate to pause, assess the situation, and swiftly make adjustments to comply. Failing to address such concerns typically has harsh consequences, leading up to termination.

To better understand what happened in May 1944, it is helpful to review the Marshal’s own account from his memoirs titled In Battles for Ukraine:

“The Nazi command could not help but launch an offensive on the Dniester, at least with the goal of eliminating the bridgeheads we had captured on its right bank, so that, having strengthened along the entire right bank, thus putting a barrier to the advance of Soviet troops in the Balkans.

We should have expected the Nazis to intensify their actions; this explained the concern of the Supreme High Command with the construction of defensive lines along the left bank of the Dniester. [More on this later… MK]

By May 8, the enemy concentrated against the Pugachen bridgehead, which was defended by four rifle divisions of the 8th Guards Army, four infantry and three tank divisions with a total of about two hundred and fifty tanks. By this time, our divisions occupying the bridgehead had not yet received reinforcements in either manpower or equipment. The army had only ten tanks on the bridgehead, half of which were captured. […]

On May 10, at 2:50 a.m., the Nazis began artillery preparation against our front line and the depth of our defense. After forty minutes of intense artillery fire, supported by aviation, infantry and tanks moved into the attack. This furious attack of the enemy was unexpected for us. However, the first attacks were repelled. The night attack, designed for surprise, also failed. The Nazis rolled back, suffering significant losses in manpower and equipment.

With the onset of dawn, the enemy, having resumed artillery and aviation preparations, brought into battle forty to fifty tanks and self-propelled guns, with air support from forty bombers, pushed the right-flank units of the 28th Guards Corps to the northwestern part of Pugachen, and then to the center of this populated area point. It was clear that the enemy was trying to reach our crossing through Pugachen, along the bank of the Dniester. […]

On the day of the battle, on May 10, more than four thousand enemy soldiers and officers were killed, over sixty tanks were destroyed and burned, and fifteen enemy aircraft were shot down in air battles and by anti-aircraft artillery. […]

Malinovsky was awakened by artillery cannonade at about three o'clock in the morning. Having understood the situation, he ordered front-line aviation to join the battle with all their might against the enemy advancing on the bridgehead. At dawn, the commander of the air army, Colonel General V. A. Sudets, arrived at my observation post on a mound between the villages of Butor and Tashlyk. Following him, the commander of the front artillery, General M. I. Nedelin, arrived. I coordinated with the first one air strikes on enemy tank and infantry columns, and asked the second one to deliver more ammunition.

On the night of May 10-11, the enemy did not show much activity, but all the time he kept up strong rifle and machine-gun fire on the front edge of our defense and carried out fire raids on the crossings of the Dniester and on the approaches to them through the villages of Tashlyk and Butor.”

The mound near the village of Butor is one of the largest in Eastern Europe.

From here, the legendary hero of Stalingrad, General Vasily Chuikov,

led the battle for the Sherpen-Pugachen bridgehead.

On May 10, 1944, one of the largest battles on the banks of the Dniester began.

The fighting lasted for almost two weeks. The Wehrmacht threw several hundred tanks and

thousands of infantrymen to eliminate the bridgehead, where units of the

Stalingrad 8th Guards Army were located. The famous Stalingrad sniper

Vasily Zaitsev was wounded in the battles.

The New York Times reported an update on the battle, provided by the United Press on 11 May 1944:

Huge forces of German tanks and infantry are attacking the Soviet bridgehead on the west bank of the Dniester River above Tiraspol, but so far the Red Army has thrown them back with grave losses in men and material, Moscow reported tonight. Berlin claimed that German troops had broken through to the river and, fanning out, had wiped out the entire bridgehead in one sector, inflicting heavy casualties and capturing more than 563 guns. The German communiqué said the attacks, obviously aimed at forestalling a Soviet drive to complete the conquest of Bessarabia, began yesterday. 

In response to the heavy Red Army losses and perceived lack of watchfulness by the command staff, Stalin sent a communique to Chuikov and the Commander of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, Rodion Malinovsky:

On May 10, the troops of the 8th Guards and 57th Armies, occupying a bridgehead on the Western Bank of the Dniester south of Grigoriopol, were subjected to a sudden attack by the enemy, as a result of which they lost this operationally important bridgehead for us and suffered heavy losses to their forces and equipment. This could only have happened as a result of unacceptable carelessness and loss of vigilance, both on the part of the front command, and especially on the part of the command of the 8th Guards Army.

The transition to defense should not mean the cessation of combat activity of troops and cannot serve as a reason to weaken their combat readiness. I draw your attention to the inadmissibility of such a weakening of the leadership of the troops and warn you that from now on you will be held strictly accountable for any manifestation of carelessness and loss of vigilance.


Letter from Stalin to Malinovsky, Layok, Chuikov in connection

with the loss of an important bridgehead about the inadmissibility

of weakening the leadership of the troops.

It is important to recall that before the Wehrmacht's invasion of the USSR, Stalin himself made a strategic mistake by not believing in Hitler's treachery. Thus he showed carelessness and lack of vigilance to all reports from Soviet intelligence officers. Moreover, he accused his surroundings of panicking in the face of an impending mortal threat. Many diplomats and military personnel suffered because of this. However, this is a topic for another blog entry...

Back to the current issue... After receiving Stalin’s stern communication, Malinovsky counseled Chuikov and then documented the event. It appears that after the conversation, Vasily Ivanovich made adjustments quickly to rectify the situation, based on Malinovsky’s comments:

Combat Characteristics of 20 May 1944

He exercises leadership of the troops skillfully and competently. Operational-tactical training is good. He knows how to rally his subordinates around him, mobilizing them for the firm performance of combat missions. Personally energetic, decisive, brave and demanding general. Recently, Comrade Chuikov found a manifestation of elements bordering on conceit and disdain for the enemy, which led to complacency and a loss of vigilance. But, having received strict instructions on this matter, Comrade Chuikov decisively overcame these weaknesses. In general, Colonel-General Chuikov is a fighting and decisively offensive army commander, who knows how to organize a modern breakthrough of the enemy's defense and develop it to operational success.

Front Commander, Army General Malinovsky

Member of the Military Council, Lieutenant General Zheltov

***Special thanks to Alexey Korshunov for his contribution!***


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