The Russian Battlefield

Website stats

Articles View Hits

The Winter War according to Sokolov

Translator’s note

The following article concerns the works of Vladimir Rezun, a former Soviet intelligence officer who had defected to the West in 1978. Beginning in the early 1990s, Rezun, working under a pseudonym of Viktor Suvorov, published a number of controversial books on Stalin and the Soviet Union in World War II. The most well known of these include “Ledokol” (“Icebreaker”), “Den’ M” (“Day M”) and “Poslednjaja Respublika” (“The Last Republic”), and are focused primarily on demonstrating that Stalin’s intention was to launch a massive assault on Germany in the Summer of 1941, and that the German invasion had by chance pre-empted the Soviet one by roughly two weeks. Rezun’s books have fuelled heated debates among both professional and amateur historians, and have been the subject of several comprehensive rebuttal articles and books, nearly all of them in Russian. While no longer considered required reading for anyone interested in the Great Patriotic War, Rezun’s works remain a smouldering source of controversy even to this day, particularly in the on-line community.

Unfortunately, although Rezun’s books have been translated into dozens of languages, to our knowledge the U.S. editions have been out of print for a number of years. We have thus been forced to translate anew any extracts from Rezun’s books used in the following article, and expect there to be at least some minor variations from the published English translations. In addition, all page number and chapter citations refer to the original Russian-language editions.

It is an unfortunate fact that B. Sokolov, author of the fairly recent "Secrets of the Russo-Finnish War", demonstrably lacks any expertise in Red Army weapons systems and equipment, and, it seems, did not even bother to verify his data by consulting any specialists in this field. This article discusses some of the most egregious inaccuracies and falsehoods contained in Sokolov''s "Secrets".

On page 49 of his book, Sokolov provides a comparison the Soviet I-16 and the Finnish Fokker D-21 fighter aircraft, among other things stating as proven fact that the I-16 had cannon armament. In reality, only about a third of the 10,292 "little donkeys" (Red Air Force nickname for the I-16 fighter - Transl.) manufactured between 1934 and 1943 were cannon-armed. Sokolov''s treatment of the I-16''s maximum speed is similarly sloppy - rather than the stated Vmax of 450 kph, the maximum speeds of various I-16 production models ranged from 362 kph (Type 4) to 470 kph (Type 29) (M. Maslov, "The I-16 Fighter", "Armada" series No. 2, M-Hobby Publishing, Moscow, 1997). Never mind that even if 450 kph were the correct figure, the D-21''s 10 kph (i.e. roughly 2%) advantage is hardly decisive. Interestingly enough, all of the foregoing data and nuances can actually be found on page 402 of Sokolov''s book under Appendix 1, "Technical characteristics of certain Soviet and Finnish aircraft participating in the Russo-Finnish War", suggesting that the author had randomly grabbed charts and tables from various periodicals without bothering to analyze their contents.

Page 90 provides a quote from the memoirs of Artillery Marshall Voronov, which, in Sokolov''s view, serves as evidence of the Red Army High Command''s shortsightedness with respect to sub-machine guns (Finnish infantry''s "wonder weapons", according to Sokolov - Transl.) and the lack of these weapons in the Red Army: "Unquestionably, our leaders were shortsighted in their evaluation of these weapons'' combat capabilities, and as for the number issued to the armed forces…" In reality, sub-machine guns were introduced in the Red Army as early as 1934 (PPD-34), but were withdrawn back into stocks in 1936. In December of 1939 they were once again issued to frontline troops, contrary to Voronov''s assertion that the Red Army had no sub-machine guns until the PPSh-41. In addition, it must be noted that Finnish troops were not universally equipped with "Suomi" SMGs. Rather, a typical Finnish infantryman was armed with a "pirated", to use a modern term, copy of Dragunov''s modified Mosin obr 1891 bolt-action rifle, or, for all practical purposes, the same obr 1891/1930 weapon as many of his Red Army counterparts.

On page 140, Sokolov concludes, at the end of a three-page quote from the memoirs of a volunteer ski infantryman P. Shilov, that the Soviet semi-automatic Tokarev obr 1938 rifle was completely unsuitable for combat. In reality, the quote in Sokolov''s book speaks predominantly to poor weapons training among the men of the 17th Separate Ski Battalion. First, Shilov asserts that the Tokarev obr 1938 could fire in bursts - a physically impossible feat for a semi-automatic weapon, although the Tokarev rifle''s subsequent version, the AVT-40, did have an automatic fire mode. Further on, in recounting his company''s first and last combat, Shilov states that during the battle the firing mechanism on his rifle froze and the rifle became practically useless. But rather than serve as an indication of the weapon''s poor performance, at least in cold weather, this statement reveals that the "Voroshilov Marksman" (a badge awarded in the Red Army for exceptional marksmanship - Transl.) from the 17th Battalion simply didn''t know the first thing about his own weapon. The SVT-38 was a considerably more complex system than the older Mosin bolt-action rifle. Its firing mechanism was designed to compensate for lower bolt recoil distance under low temperatures via a five-stage gas regulator. The lock itself, however, was not made with large tolerances, which meant that it was very averse to being "bathed" in gun oil as one would do with a Mosin bolt-action rifle. In cold weather, any excess oil in the SVT-38 firing mechanism would thicken, stopping the bolt and the lock from working, and rendering the new rifle about as useful as a club.

Partly due to its complexity, the SVT-38''s reputation for unreliability under combat conditions accompanied it over its entire service life - however, the testimonials regarding the rifle''s fallibility are far from uniformly distributed across its user base. For instance, there were practically no complaints about the SVT-38 in naval infantry units, where it was practically the mainstay infantry weapon during the war, most likely due to these units'' excellent weapons and technical training. Nor were there any reports of defects or sub-par performance when the remaining SVT-38 stocks were resold as rifled hunting weapons in the 1970s. By contrast, the rifle had to be withdrawn from Rifle Infantry units, comprised mainly from "Ivan the peasant" types, within a year after the end of the Great Patriotic War. Could it be that it''s not the weapon itself that matters here, but rather the soldier''s ability to properly use and maintain it?

Sokolov''s creative apogee is reached in the second paragraph on page 95, where the author somehow managed to destroy 67 of the Red Army''s T-35 heavy tanks in a single engagement. This is a highly curious assertion given that the Kharkov Locomotive Factory, which was the sole manufacturer of the T-35 model, produced 2 prototype and 61 serial units over the model''s entire 1932-1939 production run. Moreover, the typical frontline T-35 strength rarely exceeded 50 units, and, more importantly, none of these tanks had participated in the Winter War. In fact, archival evidence suggests that all T-35s were lost during the initial battles against the German Army in the summer of 1941. As a side note, even if the T-35 tanks had taken part in the Russo-Finnish War, they would have been highly suffer such staggering casualties in the course of a single battle - prior to 1939, the T-35 was the only serial heavy tank in the world with armor thick enough to withstand anti-tank shells, and Finnish artillery would have found itself hard pressed to destroy even a few of these machines.

A number of Sokolov''s inaccuracies are bordering on amusing. For instance, on page 129 the author asserts that the T-26 tank possessed better cross-country mobility than the BT light tank due to having wider tracks. One need go no further than the museum on Poklonnaja Mountain in Moscow to be able to compare the track width of an actual surviving T-26 with the nearby remains of a BT-7.

Sokolov''s commentary on the memoirs of Hadzhen-Umar Mansurov in the second paragraph on page 175 is particularly endearing. After quoting the latter''s account of a conversation with the army chief intelligence officer in which Mansurov requested not to time a particular sabotage operation to the 21st anniversary of the Red Army''s founding, Sokolov notes sarcastically that "...perhaps Hadzhen-Umar Dzhionovich had seriously believed that the Finns would expect such a ''present'' on the Red Army''s anniversary day." Perhaps Mr. Sokolov didn''t bother to read his own book before making that statement - for everything he writes about Red Army operations on subsequent pages suggests that the Finns weren''t surprised about the "present" at all, especially as Red Army commanders'' tendency to schedule "commemorative" operations on Soviet holidays had been known all of Europe since the Russian Civil War.

Moving on, only someone''s (whether the author''s, the editor''s, or someone else''s) "inattentiveness" can explain the fact that the radiograms sent by encircled Red Army units quoted by Sokolov on the following pages are identical to the last comma despite having different dates and being sent by different detachments:
- pp. 179 and 185;
- pp. 180 and 185;
- and pp. 185 and 187.

A few minor quibbles. Apparently, the author is very familiar with Luftwaffe''s wartime view that the Eastern Front was not much more than a training ground for new pilots (p. 120). Of course about two thirds of all German pilots who had perished during World War 2 would probably disagree with this view, as this "training ground" wound up costing them their lives.

Separately, Sokolov manages to provide some fascinating information regarding the existence of an American embargo on oil shipments to the USSR, which had apparently created meaningful gasoline shortages, which in turn severely curtailed training activities of tank and mechanized units. Of course, this goes directly against the fact that during the Great Patriotic War American high-octane gasoline was used exclusively for Lend-Lease aviation, while the remainder of the Red Army was supplied with oil from Baku, Grozny and Maikop (and, beginning in 1943, from Tatarstan). In fact, the magnitude of domestic oil production was such that prior to the war the USSR was an active exporter on the European oil markets.

Going through the many other inconsistencies and factual distortions is, frankly, too laborious and time consuming a task to be undertaken within the context of this article, although one must mention the gem on page 398 concerning the new Red Army uniforms and insignia issued in 1943 being, in reality, altered and dyed German uniforms from captured stocks. A late-model Pe-2 dive bomber attacking a "Finnish military installation" (as per Sokolov) during the Winter War is another notable space-time cretinism.

In conclusion, all that is left is to offer the reader a prescription against becoming entangled in works of such "historians" as Sokolov. Prior to actually purchasing any historical work, take a good look at the cited sources. If there are no primary sources of any kind, merely a short listing of other published works, you are likely looking at another "compiler", not a real historian.

Author: Peter Zaika
Literary Editor: Valeri Potapov
Translation by: Gene Ostrovsky

    Post your comments...