Timoshenko was a Bolshevik and supported the forces that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. After the Russian Revolution he joined the Red Army and took part in the Russian Civil War. While defending Tsaritsyn against the White Army he met Joseph Stalin. The two men became friends and Stalin arranged for Timoshenko had become commander of the Red Army cavalry forces.
In June, 1937, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and seven other top Red Army commanders were charged with conspiracy with Germany. All eight were convicted and executed. All told, 30,000 members of the armed forces lost their lives during the Great Purge. This included fifty per cent of all army officers. Some historians believe that Stalin was telling the truth when he claimed that he had evidence that the army was planning a military coup at this time. Leopold Trepper, head of the Soviet spy ring in Germany, believed that the evidence was planted by a double agent who worked for both Stalin and Hitler. Trepper's theory is that the "chiefs of Nazi counter-espionage" led by Reinhard Heydrich, took "advantage of the paranoia raging in the Soviet Union," by supplying information that led to Stalin executing his top military leaders.
Timoshenko survived these purges and was now Red Army's senior professional soldier. Stalin was so confident of his loyalty that he arranged for him to become a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee. In 1939, he was given command of the entire western border region and led the Ukrainian Front during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland.
After attempts to negotiate the stationing of Soviet troops in Finland failed, Joseph Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade on 30th November 1939. Although the advance of Soviet troops under Timoshenko was halted at the Mannerheim Line the Finns lost more that 20 per cent of their soldiers in three months. In March 1940 the Finnish government signed a peace treaty in Moscow that surrendered 16,000 square miles of territory to the Soviet Union. As a result of these victories, Timoshenko was made the People's Commissar for Defence and a Marshal of the Soviet Union in May 1940.
On 21st June, 1941, a German sergeant deserted to the Soviet forces. He informed them that the German Army would attack at dawn the following morning. Stalin was reluctant to believe the soldier's story and it was not until the German attack took place, Operation Barbarossa, that he finally accepted that his attempts to avoid war with Germany until 1942 had failed.
The German forces, made up of three million men and 3,400 tanks, advanced in three groups. The north group headed for Leningrad, the centre group for Moscow and the southern forces into the Ukraine. Within six days, the German Army had captured Minsk. General Demitry Pavlov, the man responsible for defending Minsk, and two of his senior generals were recalled to Moscow and were shot for incompetence.
With the execution of Pavlov and his generals, Joseph Stalin made it clear that he would punish severely any commander whom he believed had let down the Soviet Union. In future, Soviet commanders thought twice about surrendering or retreating. Another factor in this was the way that the German Army massacred the people of Minsk. Terrified of both Stalin and Hitler, the Soviet people had no option but to fight until they were killed.
Stalin took over the post of Defence Commissar and sent Timoshenko to the Central Front to conduct a fighting retreat from the border to Smolensk. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) Stalin considered dismissing Timoshenko at this point. "The new Stalin even took some lip from the Politburo. Just after the fall of Smolensk, Stalin summoned Zhukov and Timoshenko to the dacha, where they found him wearing an old tunic, pacing, pipe unlit, always a sign of trouble, accompanied by some of the Politburo." Stalin told him that "The Politburo has discussed dismissing Timoshenko... What do you think of that?" Timoshenko did not speak but on the objections of General Georgi Zhukov he decided to keep his commander.
In September, he was transferred to Ukraine, where the Red Army had suffered 1.5 million casualties while encircled at Uman and Kiev. It was now September and winter was fast approaching. As German troops moved deeper into the Soviet Union, supply lines became longer. Joseph Stalin gave instructions that when forced to withdraw, the Red Army should destroy anything that could be of use to the enemy. The scorched earth policy and the formation of guerrilla units behind the German front lines, created severe problems for the German war machine which was trying to keep her three million soldiers supplied with the necessary food and ammunition.
By October, 1941, German troops were only fifteen miles outside Moscow. Orders were given for a mass evacuation of the city. In two weeks, two million people left Moscow and headed east. Stalin rallied morale by staying in Moscow. In a bomb-proof air raid shelter positioned under the Kremlin, Stalin, as Supreme Commander-in-Chief, directed the Soviet war effort. All major decisions made by his front-line commanders had to be cleared with Stalin first.
In November, 1941, the German Army launched a new offensive on Moscow. The Soviet army held out and the Germans were brought to a halt. Stalin called for a counter-attack. His commanders had doubts about this policy but Stalin insisted and on 4th December the Red Army attacked. The German army, demoralized by its recent lack of success, was taken by surprise and started to retreat. By January, the Germans had been pushed back 200 miles.
On 9th May 1942, General Timoshenko, with 640,000 men, attacked the 6th Army at Volchansk. Paulus, seriously outnumbered, decided to move his troops back toward Kharkov. The 6th Army was rescued by General Paul von Kleist and his 1st Panzer Army when they struck Timoshenko's exposed southern flank on 17th May. General Freidrich Paulus was now able to launch a counter-attack on 20th May and by the end of the month all Soviet resistance had come to an end. A total of 240,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or captured and Paulus was awarded the Knights' Cross.
Timoshenko was now placed in overall command of the Stalingrad. In the summer of 1942 General Paulus advanced toward Stalingrad with 250,000 men, 500 tanks, 7,000 guns and mortars, and 25,000 horses. Progress was slow because fuel was rationed and Army Group A were given priority. At the end of July 1942, a lack of fuel brought Paulus to a halt at Kalach. It was not until 7th August that he had received the supplies needed to continue with his advance. Over the next few weeks his troops killed or captured 50,000 Soviet troops but on 18th August, Paulus, now only thirty-five miles from Stalingrad, ran out of fuel again.
When fresh supplies reached him, General Freidrich Paulus decided to preserve fuel by move forward with only his XIV Panzer corps. The Red Army now attacked the advance party and they were brought to a halt just short of Stalingrad. The rest of his forces were brought up and Paulus now circled the city. As his northern flank came under attack Paulus decided to delay the attack on the city until 7th September. While he was waiting the Luftwaffe bombed the city killing thousands of civilians.
As the German Army advanced into Stalingrad the Soviets fought for every building. The deeper the troops got into the city, the more difficult the street fighting became and casualties increased dramatically. The German tanks were less effective in a fortified urban area as it involved house-to-house fighting with rifles, pistols, machine-guns and hand grenades. The Germans had particularly problems with cleverly camouflaged artillery positions and machine-gun nests. The Soviets also made good use of sniper detachments deployed in the bombed out buildings in the city. On the 26th September the 6th Army was able to raise the swastika flag over the government buildings in Red Square but the street fighting continued.
Adolf Hitler now ordered Paulus to take Stalingrad whatever the cost to German forces. On the radio Hitler told the German people: "You may rest assured that nobody will ever drive us out of Stalingrad." When General Gustav von Wietersheim, commander of the XIV Panzer Corps, complained about the high casualty rates, Paulus replaced him with General Hans Hube. However, Paulus, who had lost 40,000 soldiers since entering the city, was running out of fighting men and on 4th October he made a desperate plea to Hitler for reinforcements. A few days later five engineer battalions and a panzer division arrived in Stalingrad. Fighting a war of attrition, Joseph Stalin responded by ordering three more armies to the city. Soviet losses were much higher than those of the Germans, but Stalin had more men at his disposal than Paulus.
The heavy rains of October turned the roads into seas of mud and the 6th Army's supply conveys began to get bogged down. On 19th October the rain turned to snow. Paulus continued to make progress and by the beginning of November he controlled 90 per cent of the city. However, his men were now running short of ammunition and food. Despite these problems Paulus decided to order another major offensive on 10th November. The German Army took heavy casualties for the next two days and then the Red Army launched a counterattack Paulus was forced to retreat southward but when he reached Gumrak Airfield, Adolf Hitler ordered him to stop and stand fast despite the danger of encirclement. Hitler told him that Hermann Goering had promised that the Luftwaffe would provide the necessary supplies by air.
Senior officers under Paulus argued that they doubted if the scale of the airlift required could be achieved during a Russian winter. All of the corps commanders argued for a breakout before the Red Army were able to consolidate its positions. General Hans Hube told Paulus: "A breakout is our only chance." Paulus responded by saying that he had to obey Hitler's orders. Throughout December the Luftwaffe dropped an average of 70 tons of supplies a day. The encircled German Army needed a minimum of 300 tons a day. The soldiers were put on one-third rations and began to kill and eat their horses. By 7th December the 6th Army were living on one loaf of bread for every five men.
On 30th January, 1943, Adolf Hitler promoted Paulus to field marshal and sent him a message reminding him that no German field marshal had ever been captured. Hitler was clearly suggesting to Paulus to commit suicide but he declined and the following day surrendered to the Red Army. The last of the Germans surrendered on 2nd February. The battle for Stalingrad was over. Over 91,000 men were captured and a further 150,000 had died during the siege. The German prisoners were forced marched to Siberia. About 45,000 died during the march to the prisoner of war camps and only about 7,000 survived the war.
After his success defending the city General Timoshenko was sent to help deal with the Seige of Leningrad in June 1943. The Leningrad–Novgorod strategic offensive was launched by the Red Army on 14th January, 1944. After two weeks of fighting the Red Army regained control of the Moscow–Leningrad railway, and on 26th January, 1944 Joseph Stalin declared that the Siege of Leningrad was lifted. Stalin's relationship with the military daughter was reinforced when his son, Vasily, married Timoshenko's daughter, Ekaterina.
After the war, Timoshenko was commander of the Belorussian Military District. In 1960, he was appointed Inspector-General of the Defence Ministry. From 1961 he chaired the State Committee for War Veterans.
Semyon Timoshenko died in Moscow on 31st March, 1970.