After the October Revolution it was decided by Vladimir Lenin that the old Russian Army would have to be turned into an instrument of the Communist Party. The old army was demobilized and in January 1918 the Soviet government ordered the formation of the Red Army of Workers and Peasants.
Leon Trotsky, the Commissar of War, was appointed the head of the Red Army on 13th March, 1918. The army had to be established quickly as it was needed to fight the White Army during the Civil War. Trotsky was forced to recruit a large number of officers from the old Russian Army. He was criticized for this but he argued that it would be impossible to fight the war without the employment of experienced army officers.
Initially a volunteer army, losses during the Civil War forced the Soviet government to introduce conscription in June, 1918. Lenin was impressed by Trotsky's achievements and in 1919 remarked to Maxim Gorky: "Show me another man who could have practically created a model army in a year and won respect of the military specialist as well."
At the end of the Civil War there were over 5,000,000 men in the Red Army. They were demobilized with 600,000 men retained to form a regular army.
When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 the Soviet government decided to increase the size of the Red Army to combat the dangers of Nazi Germany. By 1935 the Red Army had grown to 1,300,000 men. The Soviet Union also had 10,000 tanks and 5,000 front-line planes.
Joseph Stalin gradually became convinced that the leadership of the Red Army was planning to oust him from power. 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 were executed. This included fifty per cent of all army officers.
When the Red Army was originally established soldiers swore an oath to fight for international socialism. This was changed in January 1939 and recruits had to pledge himself "to protect with all his strength the property of the Army and the People and to cherish unto death his People, the Soviet homeland and the government of Workers and Peasants, also to respond at the first call from the government of Workers and Peasants to defend the homeland, the USSR."
The Red Army also contained political commissars whose role it was to ensure loyalty to Joseph Stalin and his government. Often members of NKVD, the Soviet secret police, the presence of political commissars created an inefficient duality of field command.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the Red Army had an estimated 1,800,000 men in its ranks, of whom one fourth were stationed in the Far East.
In November, 1939, the Red Army invaded Finland. Marshall Carl Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, was able to block the Soviet advance at Kemijarvi and Karelian. It was not until the spring of 1940 that the 7th and 13th armies led by General Kiril Meretsokov, was able to break through the Finnish defences.
Finland agreed peace terms on 13th March, 1940. The war cost the Soviets 200,000 men, 700 planes and 1,600 tanks. Joseph Stalin now came to the conclusion that the Red Army was not able to fight a major war and helped to confirm his view that it was vitally important to avoid a war with Nazi Germany for as long as possible. The Soviet-Finnish War also convinced Adolf Hitler that the German Army would easily beat the Red Army when the war eventually took place.
After the war with Finland Stalin rapidly increased in size of the Red Army. By 1941 it had grown to 3 million men (300 divisions). Most of the men served in unmechanized rifle divisions. The infantry were supported by horse-drawn artillery and the cavalry. Over half of the soldiers in the Red Army were stationed in the west facing the much smaller German forces.
The Red Army also had two new tank corps. This included the KV and Russia's new "shellproof" tank, the T-34. The tank was provided with sloped armour to deflect shells that was welded instead of riveted. Fitted with a powerful diesel engine, its main armament was a high-velocity 76mm gun.
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. Joseph Stalin was reluctant to believe the soldier's story and it was not until the German attack took place 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 Germans 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.
Joseph Stalin appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army on 20th July, 1941. A new Conscription Act was passed on 31st August 1941. The age of military conscription was lowered to eighteen for youths without secondary education and nineteen for those who had been educated above that level.
The first few months of the war was disastrous for the Soviet Union. The German northern forces surrounded Leningrad while the centre group made steady progress towards Moscow. German forces had also made deep inroads into the Ukraine. Kiev was under siege and Stalin's Chief of Staff, Georgi Zhukov, suggested that the troops defending the capital of the Ukraine should be withdrawn, thus enabling them to take up strong defensive positions further east. Stalin insisted that the troops stayed and by the time Kiev was taken, the casualties were extremely high. It was the most comprehensive defeat experienced by the Red Army in its history. However, the determined resistance put up at Kiev, had considerably delayed the attack on Moscow.
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 Germans, 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.
Stalin's military strategy was basically fairly simple. He believed it was vitally important to attack the enemy as often as possible. He was particularly keen to use new, fresh troops for these offensives. Stalin argued that countries in western Europe had been beaten by their own fear of German superiority. His main objective in using new troops in this way was to convince them that the German forces were not invincible. By pushing the German Army back at Moscow, Stalin proved to the Soviet troops that Blizkrieg could be counteracted; it also provided an important example to all troops throughout the world fighting the German war-machine.
Helped by aid from the United States and Britain, the Soviet Union was able to build up the Red Army. The large tank corps were replaced by independent tank brigades of about 90 tanks. In late 1942 the Red Army created tank corps that contained one motorized infantry and two tank brigades. These new units were used to exploit gaps created by massed infantry attacks.
In July 1943 a Red Army attack using 3,000 tanks defeated the German Army at Kursk. This was followed by steady Soviet advances along the Eastern Front. The pace of success was increased when the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944.
In 1945 the Red Army moved into Germany. Afraid of being captured by the Soviets and being paraded around the streets in a cage, Adolf Hitler commits suicide and on 2nd May, the Commander of German troops in Berlin surrendered.
At its peak an estimated 12.5 million men and women fought in the Red Army. It is unknown how many were killed but after the peace was signed the government claimed that over 20 million Soviet citizens died during the Second World War.