It is often supposed that the style of warfare popularly known as Blitzkrieg developed strictly because of changes in technology – or alternately, because of those changes and the willingness of German theorists to accept those changes, as opposed to British and French planners, who allegedly did not. The reality is more complex; German Blitzkrieg is also a product of nearly two hundred years of tradition, and a particular geopolitical set of problems including a lack of strategic resources. On the other side of Poland, the Soviet Union was developing its own strategic plans for the next great war. It, too, took into consideration the new technologies of its day, and in the popular meaning of the term, it embraced a style of warfare that could be called Blitzkrieg. This Soviet strategy, dubbed “Deep Penetration” by its advocates, was founded on the abundance of the very same resources that were scarce for the Germans, and in this respect, it should be viewed as a unique strategy in its own right.
In the beginning of the Soviet period, military thinking was a struggle between two camps, with one side advocating modern professional techniques and the other side relying on the ideological purity of masses activated by class consciousness. Debate remained heated as long as Trotsky remained in charge of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (RKKA); when he was replaced by Mikhail Frunze in 1925, the leadership attempted to proceed with elements of both viewpoints. Frunze died in October of that year, and he was replaced with the bumbling Kliment Voroshilov. The new Chief of Staff had more promise: Mikhail Tukhachevskii.
Tukhachevskii was a good choice to carry on the work of Frunze, in that he united aspects of both persuasions in his background. He had served as a Colonel in the Tsarist Army, fighting in World War I, and so he could appreciate professional perspectives like the importance of military discipline. On the other hand, he had joined the Reds upon his release from a German POW camp, and during the Russian Civil War, he was considered one of the Red Commanders who fought from passion, rather than professionalism. Indeed, he had been responsible for the disastrous attack on Warsaw in 1920. His error then had been to assume that the will of the workers would override military concerns. In a sense, his mission as Chief of Staff was to make good that error by uniting revolutionary passion with sound military practice.
Tukhachevskii considered war to be an essential function of the Soviet State and an important precondition for any extension of the Revolution. As such, he was a leading advocate for the militarization of the Soviet Union that undeniably transpired under Stalin. To Tukhachevskii, the full population and the total economic output of the country needed to be available to support the military when it mattered, whether it was to protect the Revolution at home from foreign agents of Reaction, or to export the Revolution to neighboring lands. The Soviet rhetoric aside, this was essentially a form of the argument for total war that had begun during World War I and was realized on new levels during World War II. In the Soviet case, this included arguments for organizing the industrialization of the Soviet Union with an eye toward maximizing its potential military usefulness.
Tukhachevskii was removed from his post in 1927 due to personal tensions with Voroshilov, but before his departure to the Leningrad Military District, he laid the groundwork for a book entitled “The Future War,” describing successful military activity as the work of enormous offensives carried out with colossal numbers of tanks and planes. At this stage, Tukhachevskii was likely influenced by German thinking, because this was a period when the Germans and Soviets secretly cooperated on Soviet territory to advance their own military capabilities in spite of the strictures of the Versailles Treaty. Among the key components of this cooperation was the development of modern tanks and of a tactical doctrine to employ them in concert with the infantry. While the Germans and Soviets had different assets and challenges in this matter, they were certainly able to learn from the influence of the other.
Tukhachevskii was removed from his staff position before his thinking could develop too far beyond the basic impulse to assemble large inventories of tanks and planes. Even from his new post, he continued to press Stalin to increase the production of such military staples. Key theoretical work for what would become the dominant Soviet strategy was performed between 1928 and 1931 by Vladimir Triandfilov, who also worked in the Soviet general staff.
Triandfilov worked extensively with the sequencing of offensive operations, much as a chess player outfoxes his opponent by sequencing his moves to force the opponent into a desired series of responsive moves. On the modern battlefield, it was not enough to accomplish a breakthrough; one had to take advantage of that breakthrough in the right way, and that meant attacks on enemy communications and logistics, but also attacking enemy concentrations from the rear. Like a chess master, the successful commander would have to think several moves ahead, anticipating not just the breakthroughs but also the methods that his men could use to exploit that breakthrough.
Triandfilov died in an accident in 1931, but Tukhachevskii, supported by other planners, took up his ideas and developed them further. Gradually, the strategy of Deep Penetration emerged, characterized by heavy attacks along a lengthy segment of the front, ensuring that the enemy will be disoriented; the systematic combination of infantry, armor, artillery and air assets; the rapid deployment of mobile elements deeply into the enemy’s position and the systematic disruption of all of his activities, from command and control and resupply to any organized defense.
As a thumbnail sketch, this resembles Blitzkrieg strongly, and indeed, it can be considered the Soviet form of Blitzkrieg. A closer study of the two systems demonstrates substantial differences, however.
German Blitzkrieg was founded on the relative scarcity of men, weaponry and other supplies, and the consequent needs to conserve power and to seek a conclusion as rapidly as possible. Blitzkrieg called for a rapid offensive characterized by close cooperation among armored units, infantry and air units (which largely replaced artillery in the offensive); such cooperation required lengthy training for all involved. With limited resources, the focus of the attack was directed at a single target, known as the Schwerpunkt; armored and air assets took the lead, with infantry in support, and when a breakthrough was effected, columns of armor would pass through it, seizing primary objectives and disrupting enemy efforts to respond to the change in circumstances. Whenever possible, German efforts would exploit the path of least resistance, avoiding enemy concentrations that did not need to be eliminated immediately.
In contrast, Soviet Deep Penetration theory was founded on an abundance of men, materiel, and space. There was no need to conserve any of these components, including manpower. Instead of focusing on one Schwerpunkt for the campaign, Soviet armies could attack along an entire front with many concentrations of effort comparable to a single German Schwerpunkt in each case. The attack called for close coordination of infantry, armor, artillery and air assets at the headquarters level, but it required far less in the way of training for the troops. When the attack began, the infantry made first contact, pinning the enemy forces in place while the other arms (including a heavy artillery component) hammered at the enemy all along the front, engaging enemy strong points and weak zones alike. Additional units with a heavy armored component remained in reserve, and where enemy cohesion broke, they would pass through the gaps in the enemy line, moving deeply into the rear. Such activities also included the disruption of command and resupply efforts, as with the Germans, but were extended to the immediate destruction of enemy strong points by assaulting them from flanks and rear.
In the early 1930s, this theory seemed to be in the ascendancy, and in 1933, the Red Army distributed “Provisional Instructions for Organizing the Deep Battle.” Tukhachevskii and like-minded planners built on the Deep Penetration concept and extended its logic to defensive operations as well. Then, in 1937, the purges of high-ranking Soviet society were extended to military men, and Tukhachevskii was one of the first to be arrested. The charges of treason were almost certainly groundless, but the underlying reality is still unknown: Stalin may have wanted to be rid of these leaders for his own reasons, or the initiative might have been in the hands of National Commissar for Internal Affairs Yezhov, seeking to build up his own importance at the expense of others. Following a one-day trial, Tukhachevskii was shot on June 12.
The disgrace of its promoters consigned the strategy of Deep Penetration temporarily to a form of limbo. No one was permitted to speak of it, or to employ it officially. On the other hand, no new doctrine was officially presented to replace it. Poorly-executed echoes of it can be seen in the invasion of Finland in 1939. Certainly, Soviet performance after the German invasion in 1941 demonstrates the inability, at that time, to execute Deep Penetration, but starting with the Moscow campaign, the idea resurged and became the dominant characteristic of Soviet fighting during World War II.
It may seem paradoxical, but the official discrediting of the theory by the Soviet government does not necessarily mean that the highest leadership abandoned the theory. Stalin and his aides gave their support to men like Voroshilov, who thought in terms more consistent with World War I, but at the same time, Soviet industry worked at a feverish pace to produce modern weapons like the T-34 medium tank and the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, which were ideally suited to carry on the kind of fighting that men like Triandfilov and Tukhachevskii had envisioned. Whether the strategy of Deep Penetration was truly suppressed, or merely seemed to be suppressed, it returned in full force at the end of 1941, and characterized Soviet strategy for the rest of the war and beyond.
Hart, Stephen. Atlas of Tank Warfare: From 1916 to the Present Day. Amber Books, 2012
Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945. Penguin, 1998
Rice, Condoleezza. “The Making of Soviet Strategy” in Paret, Peter ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, 1986.
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