Marshal Georgi K Zhukov was the most important Soviet military commander in World War II. He was held to be an unbeaten commander; a veteran self-promoter, he would also have been among the first to remind others of this fact. While he may have been fortunate in the degree of some of his successes, however, he certainly deserved his reputation as a skillful strategist. Perhaps just as importantly, he led his subordinates very effectively in an army that was not known for this skill. Taken as a whole, Zhukov’s career must place him among the great generals of World War II in any army.
Zhukov was born in 1896 to a peasant family. His military career began with conscription during the First World War. Zhukov was detailed to the cavalry, where he earned a noncommissioned officer’s rank by 1917. In October of 1918, one year after the Bolsheviks seized power in the Russian capital, Zhukov threw in his lot with them.
Zhukov rose as an officer during the interwar period, taking command of a cavalry Corps by 1938. He survived the purge of ranking Army officers, although not without some danger. General Filipp I Golikov charged him with consorting with counterrevolutionary forces within the Red Army, but Zhukov’s denials were substantiated by the officers of the Belorussian Military District where he was then assigned.
In 1939, he was sent to the Far East to deal with a crisis that had erupted with the Empire of Japan. Japan had been occupying Manchuria since the beginning of the century; the Soviet Union maintained a client state in Outer Mongolia, and hostility simmered along this common border ever since Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. By late spring of 1939, both sides made armed incursions over the border, often without official government sanction, and the scale of these actions grew until the Japanese invaded Outer Mongolia in July. Twice, on the 2nd and 23rd of that month, the Japanese attempted a breakthrough in vain; still, they remained on the Halha River and posed a real threat to the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Stalin placed Zhukov in command of all Soviet forces in that area, which he reorganized as the First Army Group. It was a highly mobile strike force, boasting 500 tanks, and it was supported with substantial air resources as well. On August 20, Zhukov struck the Japanese with the first blitzkrieg attack in history. This battle, known alternately as Khalkin-Gol or Nomonhan, swept the Japanese from Outer Mongolia and kept the Japanese out of Soviet affairs until the Soviets were ready to declare war in 1945.
In 1940, Zhukov oversaw the Kiev Special Military District. In December of that year, he participated in a top secret, high-ranking conference on Moscow to prepare for the coming war with Germany. Then in January, he was named Chief of the Soviet General Staff.
Part of Zhukov’s responsibilities was preparation for the forthcoming war with Germany; moreover, one of his key points of emphasis was the need to protect Soviet aircraft while on the ground, so that they could be used offensively. On June 22, 1941, Germany unleashed Operation Barbarossa, and both of these priorities miscarried. The invasion led to the destruction or capture of large parts of the Soviet Army, while German attacks on Soviet airfields destroyed much of the Soviet air forces on the ground. To Zhukov fell the unenviable task of calling Stalin to inform him of the invasion, but blame for these disasters was laid mainly at the feet of others. Indeed, Zhukov was made a part of the Stavka, an advisory and planning body that centered around People’s Commissar for Defense Timoshenko (soon altered to center on Stalin himself). Unlike the General Staff, the Stavka had no permanent existence or official standing, but in some respects, it was more influential. Much like Stalin’s own position in the Soviet government, it scarcely existed on paper, but it was there that the most important decisions were made.
A month after the German invasion began, Zhukov lost his position in the General Staff due to his opinionated nature, but he remained in the Stavka. Then in September, he was placed in command of the defense of Leningrad. His timing was astonishingly fortunate; the German Army Group North had just received new orders, and enough pressure was removed from the city of Leningrad that Zhukov was able easily to halt the German advance.
Hard upon the heels of this success came another opportunity. On October 10, Zhukov assumed overall command of the entire Western Front (from the Soviet perspective), returning to Moscow to defend that city against the German drive on the capital. Again Zhukov was fortunate; October rain and December snow hampered German operations substantially, but this should not detract from the difficulties that the Soviets experienced in holding out until the winter had firmly taken hold. Circumstances had magnified Zhukov’s reputation, but its foundation remained real.
Zhukov spent the first half of 1942 in Moscow; Stalin feared another drive on Moscow, but his concerns were misplaced, and the German focus was largely in the south. On August 27, Stalin named Zhukov the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Red Army and granted Zhukov the opportunity to deal with the southern sector on his own initiative.
With this freedom, Zhukov organized the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, capturing the remnants of that Army in January of 1943, and pushing the rest of the German line back to the Donets. Success at Stalingrad earned Zhukov the rank of Marshal, and from the headquarters at Moscow, he continued to hammer at the Germans with offensives in the spring and summer. Unusually for Soviet commanders, Zhukov did not micromanage; his subordinates were permitted to exercise their own initiative, but of course, he expected results. He could deal harshly with failure, but also less commonly among Soviet officers, he rewarded success, and this likely served to increase his popularity.
Zhukov assumed a brief field command in March 1944 to cover the convalescence of the commander of the First Ukrainian Front. After using this opportunity to drive a wedge at the center of the German line, Zhukov returned to his central role, crushing the German Army Group Center in the summer. In January, he again assumed a field command, and it was with this this command that he led the capture of Berlin in May.
It would seem natural that Zhukov was placed in command of the Soviet sector in Germany after the war ended, but Stalin’s jealousy ensured that it did not last long. As early as November, Stalin began to complain that Zhukov was claiming too much credit for the Soviet victory; given Zhukov’s nature, this complaint may not be wholly unfounded. In March, Zhukov was removed from this command and sent, instead, to the Odessa Military District.
Zhukov was to experience several more reversals of fortune. In 1953, Stalin died, and Zhukov was made Minister of Defense. From this position, he helped to advance Khruschev’s ascendancy by 1957, only to find that Khruschev distrusted him too. Over the next year, he was relieved of his post and pressured to retire. He died in 1974.
Popularity was always fickle in the Soviet Union, but Zhukov’s role in World War II was too prominent to go unnoticed in the outside world. His talents were highly regarded by allies and enemies alike. If at times Zhukov was prone to overestimate his importance in World War II, it remains that he was among the most influential military men of that conflict.
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Murphy, David E. What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa. Yale, 2006
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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