On this day in 1941 – with Nazi forces just miles away from Moscow – Marshal Georgy Zhukov was given command of the Russian armies. This would prove to be an inspired appointment.
Less than four years later, Zhukov – considered by many to have been the most brilliant commander of World War 2 – would be planning his own assault on the German capital after pushing Hitler’s forces out of his homeland and beyond.
Though the blood-soaked rule of Stalin epitomises everything that went wrong with the Russian Revolution, it undoubtedly allowed men like Zhukov to have a chance in life.
Born into a peasant family crushed by desperate poverty in 1896, under the Tsarist regime a man like Zhukov would have been prevented from becoming an officer by his background.
Like many young Russian men of his time, the teenage Georgy left the cripplingly hard and dull life of a peasant in order to find a new life in the city in Moscow – and like the overwhelming majority of such men the reality of city life would not quite live up to his dreams.
He was employed as an apprentice maker of fur clothes for richer Russians, until the outbreak of World War 1 transformed his fortunes. In 1915 Zhukov was conscripted into a cavalry regiment.
The eastern front was less characterised by static trench warfare than the west, and the nineteen year old private was able to prove himself a superb soldier in Tsar Nicholas’ army.
He won the Cross of St George not once but twice for extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, and was promoted to become a non-commissioned officer. Despite this recognition Zhukov’s life was transformed by the doctrines of Bolshevism when stationed in radical St Petersburg in 1917.
Zhukov’s youth, poor background and exemplary military record made him a poster boy for the new Red Army. In February 1917, Zhukov took part in the revolution which toppled the Tsar’s regime.
After fighting with distinction in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 he was awarded with the prestigious Order of the Red Banner and given command of his own cavalry regiment at the age of just 27. Swift promotions followed as Zhukov became a full general and then a Corps Commander.
By 1938 the still relatively youthful Marshal was overseeing the Mongolian front to the east, and here he would meet with his first major test.
The aggressively imperialist Japanese had conquered the Chinese province of Manchukuo, meaning that they were now able to threaten the Soviet Union directly.
Japanese probing into Russian border defences escalated into a full-scale war from 1938-1939, and Zhukov requested major reinforcements to keep the Japanese at bay.
Here he first proved his credentials as a superb commander, using tanks aircraft and infantry together and boldly, and thus establishing some of the characteristic tactical moves that would serve him so well when fighting the Germans.
Zhukov personally oversaw many innovations such as the replacement of gasoline engines in tanks with the more reliable diesel engine. Such developments helped perfect the T-34 Russian tank – considered by many historians to have been the most outstanding all-purpose tank of the war.
After defeating the Japanese the Soviet Union faced the far greater threat of Nazi Germany.
Despite signing a pact with Stalin in 1939, Hitler turned on Russia in June 1941 without any warning – in what is now known as Operation Barbarossa.
The advance of the well-trained and confident Wehrmacht was brutal and swift, and Zhukov – now commanding in Poland – was overrun.
In response, the disgusted Stalin removed him from his post as Chief of the General Staff and gave him command of the far less prestigious Reserve Front.
With the situation becoming more and more critical, however, Zhukov was turned to again and by the 23rd October he was in sole command of all the Russian armies around Moscow.
After months of terrible defeats, this was where the tide of the war began to turn. Heroic resistance around the capital prevented the Germans from making further inroads ans once winter set in the Russians had a clear advantage over their opponents.
The Germans struggled to get supplies to their men in the freezing weather. In November, with temperatures already dropping below -12 degrees Celsius, Soviet ski-troops caused havoc amongst their bitterly cold enemies.
After the German armies ground to a halt outside Moscow, Zhukov was central in almost every major battle of the Eastern Front.
He planned the Stalingrad counteroffensive, oversaw the siege of Leningrad, and even commanded Russian forces at the gigantic and decisive battle of Kursk in 1943.
Zhukov retained command as the victorious Russians pushed the Germans further and further back until they were desperately defending their capital.
Zhukov orchestrated the bludgeoning attack on Berlin, and was present when German Officials formally surrendered on the 8th May 1945.
No other man was so involved at so many of the war’s most important moments – and the achievements of Allied Generals such as Field Marshal Montgomery are dwarfed in comparison.
After the war
Zhukov’s character was blunt and forceful. During the Second World War he was virtually the only man to openly stand up to Stalin – one of the most murderous dictators in history.
Unlike the rest of the Georgian’s fawning entourage Zhukov was honest with Stalin, and made it clear that his leader’s military input was not needed or helpful.
This both infuriated Stalin and lead to a grudging respect for Zhukov while war was still raging and the General was badly needed. After 1945, however, Zhukov’s forthrightness got him into trouble and he fell from favour.
After Stalin died in 1953 the old general enjoyed a brief return to importance, but a governmental fear of powerful people meant that he was eventually forced into retirement again in 1956.
It is said that Zhukov rather enjoyed the quiet life after a lifetime at war, and liked fishing and telling stories of his glory years.
When US President Eisenhower heard about his passion for fishing, he sent the retired Marshal a gift of fishing tackle – which touched Zhukov so much that he used no other or the rest of his life.
After publishing a set of sensationally successful memoirs, Zhukov died peacefully in 1974.
Perhaps Eisenhower’s words on Zhukov to the UN best sum up his importance:
“The war in Europe ended with victory and nobody could have did that better than Marshal Zhukov…there must be another type of Order in Russia, an Order named after Zhukov, which is awarded to everybody who can learn the bravery, the far vision, and the decisiveness of this soldier.”