In January 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 4 years later, Zhukov – considered by many to have been the most brilliant commander of World War Two – would be planning his own assault on the German capital after pushing Hitler’s forces out of his homeland and beyond.
Here are 10 facts about the Soviet general and Marshal of the Soviet Union who oversaw some of the Red Army’s most decisive victories.
1. He was born into a peasant family
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 One.
2. World War One changed his fortunes
In 1915 Georgy Zhukov was conscripted into a cavalry regiment.
The Eastern Front was less characterised by static trench warfare than the west, and the 19 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.
3. Zhukov’s life was transformed by the doctrines of Bolshevism
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.
4. His skill as a brilliant military leader was first highlighted at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol
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 Manchuria, and created the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. This meant 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.
5. He indirectly helped perfect the famous T-34 Russian tank
While overseeing the Mongolian front to the east, 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.
6. In January 1941, Stalin appointed Zhukov Chief of the Army General Staff
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 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.
7. By 23 October 1941, Stalin assigned Zhukov in sole command of all the Russian Armies around Moscow
Zhukov’s role was to direct the defence of Moscow and organise a counter-attack against the Germans.
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 in-roads, and 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 -12C, 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.
8. No other man was so involved at so many of World War Two’s most important moments
Marshal Georgy Zhukov oversaw the defence of the city in the siege of Leningrad in 1941, and planned the Stalingrad counteroffensive where together with Aleksandr Vasilevsky, he oversaw the encirclement and surrender of the German Sixth Army in 1943.
He even commanded Russian forces at the decisive Battle of Kursk – the largest tank battle in history involving a combined 8,000 tanks – in July 1943. The defeat of the Germans at Kursk marked the turning point of the war for the Soviets.
Zhukov retained command as the victorious Russians pushed the Germans further and further back until they were desperately defending their capital. Zhukov orchestrated the Soviet attack on Berlin, capturing it in April, and was present when German Officials formally surrendered in May 1945.
The achievements of Allied Generals such as Field Marshal Montgomery are dwarfed in comparison to Zhukov’s, such was the extent of his involvement in the war.
9. He was virtually the only man to openly stand-up to Stalin during World War Two
Zhukov’s character was blunt and forceful. 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. Stalin regarded Zhukov as a threat, demoting him to command the Odessa military district far from Moscow.
After Stalin died in 1953 the old general enjoyed a brief return to importance, becoming Minister of Defence in 1955 and also supporting Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin. However, a governmental fear of powerful people meant that he was eventually forced into retirement again in 1957.
After Khruschev’s fall in 1964, Zhukov’s reputation was restored, but he was never appointed to office again.
10. Zhukov enjoyed the quiet life after a lifetime at war, and liked fishing
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 for the rest of his life.
After publishing a set of sensationally successful memoirs, Zhukov died peacefully in June 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 done 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.”