The Transfer of Soviet Factories During World War II

In many ways geography served to protect the Soviets during the German invasion in 1941. The extremities of the Russian climate are best known, but the huge expanses of territory were another major consideration, and that was exacerbated by a lack of roads. In one respect, however, geography posed a grave challenge for the Soviets: most of the population, and therefore most of the workforce, lived and worked in European Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia. It was precisely these areas that were most directly threatened by the German invasion. Much of Soviet industry was endangered by the German advance, and so the Soviets undertook a titanic effort to dismantle their factories and transport them to safer sectors in Siberia and the Caucasus.

In the European part of the Soviet Union (everything west of the Urals), heavy industry was concentrated in several key locations. Two of them were the traditional capitals of Moscow and Leningrad, which boasted large populations and the strongest organizational infrastructure. Two other regional centers of industrial production were Ukraine and the Donets Basin in southern Russia, near the Black Sea. The importance of these four areas is also reflected in the principal rail lines. Moscow was the central hub for track that led north, south or east. The two lines that ran north from Moscow led to Leningrad, Murmansk and Archangel’sk, which served as Russia’s northern ports. The southern line ran through Kiev and Rostov-on-Don on the way to the oilfields of Baku. These lines connected all four of the chief industrial zones in the west.

While these areas represented the traditional industrial areas from Tsarist times, the Soviets had expanded their industrial capacity significantly in the 1930’s. Specific information was held in secret for a long time, but the consensus in the outside world held that Soviet industry was growing in the eastern expanses of the country; in fact, the Urals and Soviet Central Asia developed extensive industrial zones, while large pockets of industry sprang up in southern Siberia along the path of the Trans-Siberian Railway. While the loss of the western industrial zones would have been devastating for the Soviet military economy, the temporary disruption of production in the western zones would not cripple the war effort in the long run due to the continuing efforts of these eastern industrial zones.

The dispersion of industry therefore played a defensive role when the German invasion came, but it had not been intended as such. Indeed, in the last years before the invasion, Stalin refused to consider plans for the evacuation of existing factories to safer eastern zones, even as contingency plans in the event of an attack. Such plans suggested that the Soviets might lose in a future conflict, and Stalin intended to win from the start. The key to his plan for success lay in having more tanks, more guns, more planes, more ammunition and more reserves of raw materials than anyone else. This was the intended purpose of the expansion of Soviet industry. Seven large industrial zones could perform far more work than four.

For reasons that remain controversial to this day, Stalin was surprised by the German invasion, and the Germans made impressive progress for the first few months of the operation. Three German Army Groups plunged deeply into the European part of the Soviet Union; one was aimed at Leningrad, one at Moscow, and one at the Ukraine and southern Russia, threatening the four western industrial zones by the end of November. Had the German drive not faltered, the Soviets might easily have lost all four western industrial zones.

If the Soviets had been caught short in the invasion because of unrealistic expectations, they learned quickly enough after it. Indeed, the first two weeks of the fighting were sufficient to demonstrate the magnitude of the threat, and by early July, the Soviet leadership was already making plans for the transfer of important factory resources to secure locations in the east. A governing body, dubbed the Evacuation Soviet, was established to oversee this process on July 3. In the Ukraine it began with the reorganization of military leadership undertaken on July 10. Marshal Semyon M Budenny assumed command of both of the southern Fronts (Red Army formations comparable in nature to Army Groups in the west, but usually smaller in size) in a single organization. Nikita S Khrushchev served as his Commissar, and he was specifically given the task of conducting the transfer of Ukrainian industrial assets.

The transfer was conducted astonishingly quickly. To use one example, the Zaporozhstal’ steel production facilities were emptied between August 19 and September 5. Naturally, the buildings that housed the factories were of no concern. It was the expensive specialized machinery and their related equipment, the capital investment of the factory, that needed protection, and these were hauled to safety along the main rail lines, generally along with the workers trained to do the work of the factory. In the case of Ukrainian and Donets Basin factories, these traveled southeast into the Caucasus, and eventually 226 facilities were evacuated along this line.

The Leningrad and Moscow facilities were evacuated using the rail lines traveling east from Moscow, but although the transfers were extensive, they were not total. Both cities were placed under siege by the end of 1941, and prudence dictated that some important resources be rescued from the threat, but for a variety of reasons, authorities were slower to order the evacuation than they were in the south. As it happened, neither city actually fell to the Germans, and herculean efforts were performed by the Soviets to ensure that this was the case. The siege of Moscow was broken during the winter of 1941-42, while the siege of Leningrad endured for a further two years.

In the case of Leningrad, a balance needed to be found between the facilities that could safely be permitted to go off-line for a time and those that needed to run constantly. In part, this was because of the conditions of the siege itself; the ability of the Soviets to bring in additional supplies and equipment was limited, so the defenders of Leningrad needed to build as much of the material that they needed locally as they could. At the same time, it was not strictly a matter of what Leningrad needed; the Leningrad industrial zone produced vitally important ammunition stocks for the country as a whole, and at the beginning of the siege, when the railway connection was still usable and alternative sites had not yet been erected, Leningrad needed to fulfill its national deliveries. In an effort to maximize the efficiency of the comparatively few rail trips that were possible during the siege, trains would arrive bringing troops and leave carrying deliveries of Leningrad production, dismantled factories and their key workers, and refugees, in that order.

Even so, some 1300 factories were packed up from the northern industrial sectors and carried east by train into the Urals, Central Asia or Siberia. Moreover, these numbers only reflect large facilities. When all factories, even small ones no larger than simple workshops, are considered, as many as 50,000 may have been transported east. As monumental as this effort proved, it still fell short of all available industry. In the Donets Basin, for example, 64 steel facilities came under threat in 1941, but the Soviets only managed to salvage 17 of them. It was not only facilities that were lost; huge stockpiles of raw materials or refined materials were also abandoned, and areas that produced strategic resources were taken by the enemy. The year 1942 saw the production of steel and coal at rates roughly half of what they had been in 1941.

The remaining industry concentrated on immediate needs, however. In 1941, the Soviets built 6274 tanks. In 1942, they built 24,639. Newly transported factories contributed materially to these numbers, as they were reassembled with the same speed at which they had been dismantled. One Ukrainian factory was rebuilt in the Urals and delivered its first shipment of tanks (25 in number) at the beginning of December, some three months after it had been evacuated.

With so much material to be transported, however, not all deliveries were routed properly. In an effort to make the transport system more efficient, the Evacuation Soviet was replaced on December 25, 1941, with a Committee for Freight Dispersal. By this time, the challenge had seemed to shift from the evacuation of existing facilities to the orderly delivery of equipment waiting for long periods on rail cars or trucks. German offensives in 1942 prompted a fresh set of evacuations, however, albeit on a smaller scale. The system was twice more reorganized in the spring of 1942, with the eventual result that the military governed the rail system. Soviet military successes, beginning in 1943 on a large scale, eased the work of dealing with mobile industrial capacity, and by 1944, the recovery of lost territories allowed the transplantation of the remaining material.

In many ways, the transport of Soviet industry in the wake of the German invasion was highly characteristic of the Soviet system as a whole. In theory, it was governed closely by central committees, but in practice it was often carried out in a chaotic manner by local officials making their best guesses about what to do. Seen in the aggregate, massive quantities of material were moved staggering distances at great speed, making the effort an impressive achievement. While some factories were reassembled and able to resume work within a few weeks, however, others sat unattended on rail cars for months while rail officials struggled to deal with the enormous quantities of material under their care. The effort was often primitive and messy, but it proved effective in the end: the quantities produced by Soviet industry were one of the leading reasons for eventual victory in the war, and those quantities would not have been possible if not for the transfer of thousands of factories threatened by the German advance.



Clark, Alan.  Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45.  Harper Collins, 1985

Dear, I.C.B.  The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995

Overy, Richard.  Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945.  Penguin, 1998

Porter, David.  Order of Battle: The Red Army in World War II.  Amber, 2009

Seaton, Albert.  The Russo-German War, 1941-45.  Random House, 1993


© 2014.  All rights reserved.