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Leadership Beyond the Brest Fortress

Pictured: Lieutenant-General V.I. Chuikov with his handwritten note “1940 year, Brest.” From the family archive of General Tsvigun.

During my summer season away from a full-time on-ground teaching schedule, I have spent my days reviewing various sources to develop topics for blog entries. As I am still gaining ground on creating a comprehensive timeline of events in the life and work of Marshal Chuikov, I decided to try to focus a bit on his experiences in the early stages of WW2. To that end, I began to research more about the time before the Battle of Stalingrad, specifically the years 1939–1941. During this search, one statement caught my eye. Prominent Russian historian Alexey Isaev wrote the following in his biographical sketch of Chuikov in his work titled The Battle of Stalingrad, an illustrated encyclopedia:

“In September 1939, as commander of the 4th Army, he took part in a campaign in Poland, and his army went to the Brest region. There is a point of view that if Chuikov had remained at the head of the 4th Army until 1941, the scale of defeat in Belarus in the first days of the war would have been less.

In the autumn of 1940, Chuikov returned to his eastern specialization - he was sent as a military attaché to China. Stalin pragmatically assisted the Chinese Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) in the war with Japan, and the role of the military attaché in this complex political and military game was by no means nominal. The mission in China continued for Chuikov until March 1942. The heavy defeats of the summer of 1941, the death of entire armies and even fronts in the encirclement gave rise to a serious shortage of personnel.”

Previous blog entries—the ones covering Chuikov’s response to the inquisition about the difficulties during the Winter War and the interference of Lev Mekhlis—demonstrate the challenges Vasily Ivanovich faced during his time in command of the 9th Army, which occurred from December 1939 to the spring of 1940. After his brief service in Finland, Chuikov returned for a few months to command the 4th Army again until his deployment to China, the activities of which are described in his memoirs titled Mission to China. Wanting to learn more about what happened during his return to the 4th Army in 1940, I discovered General Leonid Mikhailovich Sandalov’s memoirs which shed some light on this time period. Sandalov joined the 4th Army’s Military Council in the late summer of 1940 and worked closely with Chuikov during this time. In his book Experience (Perezhitoe), Sandalov shared about the situation of the 4th Army at Brest Fortress:

“When we arrived at the [Brest] Fortress, the main forces of the 6th and 55th rifle divisions were stationed there. Inspection of the fortress left us not a very encouraging impression. The ring wall of the citadel and the outer rampart, surrounded by water barriers, in the event of war, created an extremely dangerous situation for the troops stationed there. Indeed, according to the district plan, only one rifle battalion with an artillery division was intended to defend the fortress itself. The rest of the garrison had to quickly leave the fortress and take up prepared positions along the border in the army zone. But the capacity of the fortress gates was too small. It took at least three hours to withdraw the troops and institutions stationed there from the fortress. We decided to petition for the immediate withdrawal of the district hospital (located inside the fortress – MK) and at least one division. […]

In the fall of 1940, a large number of junior commanders and privates were fired from [the 49th division]. They were replaced by recruits, which caused the combat effectiveness of the regiments to drop sharply. I had to go to a somewhat unusual measure: the 49th division transferred a significant part of its composition to the divisions of the 28th Rifle Corps, and from there received old-timers in return. Parts of the 49th division were engaged in equipping housing for dugouts and various premises transferred by local authorities, built canteens, stables, and warehouses. And only a few units were busy building field defensive positions in the border zone.

‘This division,’ explained V.I. Chuikov, ‘must equip defense on a forty-kilometer front on its own. In the center of the army strip at the front, up to sixty kilometers, the positions of the division of the 28th Rifle Corps are being equipped. But on our left flank, a section of the border with a length of about fifty kilometers remains unequipped. There are no troops of the 4th Army there, no others either, so the junction is not protected by the Kiev Military District...’ […]

At the end of 1940, the repeated submissions of General Chuikov about the need to unload the Brest Fortress and strengthen the right flank of the army finally took effect. […] However, Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov himself was also ‘relocated’ outside the Western Special Military District in the middle of winter. ‘Apparently, they want to have a more accommodating army commander,’ he bitterly sneered before leaving us. And indeed, as soon as Chuikov disappeared from our horizon, the 4th Army began to be infringed in every possible way. The improvements we had made with such difficulty in the deployment of troops on the border were very soon brought to naught.”

A couple of thoughts to share here… I wonder how differently the course of the Great Patriotic War, especially in relation to the Battle of Stalingrad, would have turned out if Chuikov managed to retain his post with the 4th Army. Of course, one person cannot possibly determine the outcome of a world war, but it can be argued that his leadership—and that of the Military Council of the 62nd Army—was crucial to holding the city during the Battle for Stalingrad in 1942-1943. Also, his military advisory service in China with Chiang Kai-shek proved to be influential in helping to stave off an eastern invasion of the Soviet Union by the Japanese.

If Vasily Ivanovich had been present in the western territory of the Soviet Union during the initial days of Operation Barbarossa, would he and the 4th Army have been able to withstand the German onslaught so early in the war? He certainly wanted his soldiers to be prepared in case an invasion occurred and made multiple requests with frustratingly slow results. German blitzkrieg tactics undertaken in those early stages of the invasion of the USSR overwhelmed Soviet troops, and hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers were captured. Although Chuikov submitted several requests to leave China to return to his homeland to “do his part” in its defense, several months elapsed before he was recalled to Moscow. After his return, he was not sent to the battlefront right away—he was assigned to a reserve army in Tula.

A final, personal reflection… Marshal Chuikov’s grandson once spoke of Vasily Ivanovich’s life purpose and divine protection. Nikolay Vladimirovich claimed, ‘[T]he main thing is that the Lord saved him, as if saving him for a more important mission.’” As a person of faith, I concur with Nikolay on his assessment. It is documented in his memoirs that during the war and especially in times of heavy combat conditions, he avoided certain death numerous times. Perhaps his move to the Far East, out of the way of the German invasion of 1941, was yet another one of the provisions that helped to preserve and prepare Vasily Ivanovich for the pivotal battle on the Volga in 1942…


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