The Red Army was the main military force of the Soviet Union. Established in January 1918 by the Bolsheviks as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, it rivalled what was collectively known as the White Army during the Russian Civil War.
During World War Two it constituted the largest of the Allied land forces in Europe, and it was the Red Army which captured the Nazi capital, Berlin, in 1945. Thereafter and until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, the Red Army was the chief enforcer of communist rule from the Adriatic to the Arctic. It was officially renamed the Soviet Army in 1946.
Here are 10 facts about the Red Army.
1. The Red Army was founded by Leon Trotsky
As People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs from 1918 to 1924, Leon Trotsky was in charge of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. The conflict followed the overthrow of the Russian monarchy and the Provisional Government in 1917.
Trotsky reorganised the Bolshevik forces after suffering losses to the anti-communist Whites. The volunteer Red Guards were transformed into an army composed at first solely of workers, and then also of rural peasantry. Mandatory conscription made the Red Army bigger, though relied on coercion, hostage taking and executions.
2. Discipline in the Red Army was strict
Discipline in the Red Army was uncompromising and subservience to political leadership was deeply engrained. The Red Army’s reputation for severity is exampled by Joseph Stalin’s Order No. 277 during World War Two.
Popularised as the “Not one step back!” order, it was intended to ensure obedience among Red Army units following the heavy losses of the first year of the war with Germany. It increased the use of penal battalions, which were sent on suicide missions, and mandated summary execution for unauthorized retreats.
3. The Red Army’s officer corps was drastically purged before World War Two
The Red Army’s officer corps was decimated by Stalin’s 1937 purge, which tore through potential opponents of his leadership. 8 Red Army generals were found guilty of plotting to betray the Soviet Union and executed, and more were dismissed or sent to forced labour camps. The result was a reduction in morale and performance on the eve of the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union.
4. The Red Army’s victory on the Eastern Front was decisive
For over four years and across a frontline over 1,000 miles long, the Red Army resisted and then turned back the German forces during the war on the Eastern Front. The great majority of German military casualties can be attributed to their battles with the Red Army, in which nearly 4 million German troops died.
To bolster the Red Army’s chances of resisting the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the US started shipping military supplies to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Over $11 billion of military aid flowed to the USSR during the war, embodied by Dodge trucks, locomotives and canned rations. This was aid for which the Red Army paid in blood, so Stalin believed.
5. The Red Army captured Berlin
The Nazi capital of Berlin was captured by the Red Army in April 1945. Having advanced hundreds of miles in the preceding months, the Red Army resumed their offensive on 16 April. On 2 May, the city’s garrison surrendered.
2.5 million Red Army troops were involved in the Battle of Berlin, and Soviet prestige was boosted by the military achievement of defeating the Germans. But the battle is also notorious for the mass rape and murder that took place in the aftermath of fighting.
6. The Red Army was regarded as an oppressor as well as a liberator
In parts of Europe, the Red Army was seen as the liberator of the continent. In Czechoslovakia, people embraced marching Soviet soldiers. And in northern Norway, fishers and their families praised the Red Army with banners.
Yet in areas occupied by the Red Army, there was also crude and brutal repression: massacres and atrocities committed by the Red Army affected millions of families. They created an atmosphere of terror which undermined the Soviet ability to govern in Eastern Europe. In the territories through which the Red Army had advanced, millions of Germans fled or were expelled.
7. The Red Army’s invasion of Manchuria hastened Japan’s surrender
Exactly three months after the end of the war in Europe, the Red Army led a surprise invasion of Japanese-occupied Northeast Asia. Their swift victories left Japan exposed while revealing that the Soviets would not mediate in a negotiated peace with the allies, contributing to the Japanese decision to surrender unconditionally.
8. The Red Army was largest at the end of World War Two
By the end of World War Two, many feared the vast forces of the Red Army. In terms of numbers it was superior to all others. Before peacetime demobilization reduced its numbers to around 3 million by 1948, the Red Army had reached a high of 12 million troops in 1945. For the remainder of the USSR, the size of its army typically remained between 4 and 5 million.
9. The Red Army at first regarded ranks and officers as imperialist legacies
The early Red Army rejected the use of a professional officer corps, regarding it as an inheritance of tsarism. The Bolsheviks preferred the use of the word ‘commander’ in place of ‘officer’, and also preferred functional titles and simple insignia.
Modifications to the system took place so that the Red Army’s organisation gradually resembled that of the Imperial Russian Army. From 1943, officer ranks were officially endorsed in addition to epaulettes, which remained in use for the duration of the USSR.
10. The Red Army was destroyed and renewed twice during World War Two
The scale of warfare and loss on the Eastern Front of World War Two was spectacular. At the outbreak of war, 6 million German and Soviet soldiers prepared to exchange fire. By 1943, 11 million soldiers were fighting at any one time.
By December 1941, the Red Army had lost 4.5 million men, almost the entire pre-war army. As Catherine Merrindale writes in Ivan’s War: The Red Army at War 1939-45, “this process would be repeated as another generation was called up, crammed into uniform and killed, captured or wounded beyond recovery. In all, the Red Army was destroyed and renewed at least twice in the course of this war.”