740.0011 European War 1939/26333d: Telegram

The Second Secretary of Embassy in the Soviet Union (Thompson) to the Secretary of State

523. From General Hurley for the President.13 I returned to Moscow last night after 10 days at the front in the Stalingrad area. Oh my tour of this front I was accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Park, Jr., United States Army, Acting Military Attaché at Moscow, and Major John C. Henry of the Air Corps, United States Army, as aides.

All of the officials both political and military of the Red Army with whom we came in contact were uniformly courteous and cooperative. They seemed eager to give us the information we desired pertaining to their operations, their supply logistics and their strategy.

We have been told that we were the first officers of any foreign army to see actual combat operations on the Russian front from the Russian side. I am asking Lieutenant Colonel Park and Major Henry to prepare a detailed narrative report on our inspection and our observations for submission directly to G–214 of the Army unless you direct otherwise.

We entered the area reconquered in the present Russian offensive by which the city of Stalingrad and an enemy force estimated at 20 divisions is now completely encircled by crossing the Don River at Serafimovich.

At that point Soviet officers designated to accompany us, Colonel Alexander Rogov and Lieutenant Colonel Onmotinov, gave us the general outline of the area in which five Red armies made their initial attacks across the Don and the objectives of this first phase of their offensive. The offensive opened and has maintained a southward [Page 669] encircling corridor or salient from 60 to 120 kilometers in width. We followed this corridor southward inspecting each point of major battle operations and stopping for the first night at Zakharov.

We next proceeded in a southeasterly direction to the headquarters of the 21st Red Army spearhead of the attacking armies at Golubinskaya. At these headquarters General Chistyakov, Commander, and his staff gave us our first view of the maps of the battle area, details of the battle plan and a description of the engagements which had been fought in the area.

General Chistyakov detailed for us the precautions that were being: taken and the armies which were being employed in protecting the flanks of his salient. He gave us also considerable information regarding his transportation and supply problem. Because of unfavorable weather conditions he said that air strength had not taken any important part in the battle up to that time. He made clear, however, the important part which air strength was expected to play in the subsequent phase of destroying encircled enemy troops.

While we were at General Chistyakov’s headquarters a flight of 26 Junkers transport planes passed over in the direction of Stalingrad with the apparent mission of supplying the encircled German troops. Anti-aircraft fire was directed at them but at that point they appeared to be out of range.

Our next stop was at the headquarters of the 51st Guard Division, spearhead of the 21st Red Army attack, located at Sokarevka.

This division is commanded by Major General Tovartkaledze, 34 years old, who was a colonel when the attack was launched and had been promoted as a reward for the aggressiveness and skill he had demonstrated in handling his troops in battle. He has since been decorated.

In operating as the advance striking force of the 21st Army, the 51st Division had engaged in 12 days and nights of almost continuous fighting and had driven a distance of 120 kilometers into enemy occupied territory.

Generally speaking, this division drove past the enemy strong points, encircled them and attacked from the rear while the elements of the 21st Army attacked from in front. These tactics were employed successfully again and again throughout the entire distance of the advance.

In the vicinity of Selyoni and Marinovka, units of this division made contact with the two Russian Armies of General Trufanov and General Tolbukhin which formed the southern arm of the pincer starting at Krasnoarmeisk, just south of Stalingrad. The meeting of the Red forces at Selyoni and Marinovka completed the encirclement of Stalingrad and of all enemy troops within and in the immediate vicinity of the city.

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Establishing his headquarters at nearby Sokarevka, Major General Tovartkaledze then faced his division eastward and attacked the enemy in the direction of Stalingrad. It was engaged in this attack when we were with him.

General Tovartkaledze showed us maps and details on the engagements which his troops had fought in the past 12 days, and pointed out their further objectives. In their positions of that date—December 1, they were about 51 kilometers west of Stalingrad.

General Tovartkaledze reported that his anti-aircraft batteries had shot down two of the Junkers transports which we had seen heading eastward earlier in the morning over Golubinskaya.

The 51st Division was designated a guard division as a reward for its conduct during the offensive. We were impressed by the spirit, the morale and physical strength of the troops then in combat with the enemy and which in so many desperately fought engagements had suffered surprisingly few casualties.

After a second stop at the headquarters of General Chistyakov of the 21st Army we proceeded northward to Kletskaya for another crossing of the Don River and the return to Serafimovich by a different route than was followed going down. On arrival there we were taken to the headquarters of Lieutenant General Vatutin, Commander of the armies operating southward in the encircling movement. In addition to the army of General Chistyakov, these included an army on the west flank commanded by Lieutenant General Romanyenko, one on the east flank commanded by Major General Batov, and other forces further to the east.

General Vatutin and members of his staff showed us more maps, outlining fully the plans of the entire offensive and the manner in which these plans were executed. The actual achievements in battle coincided to a remarkable degree with those plans.

The General also described in detail the plan for liquidation of the Axis forces then surrounded in the Stalingrad area.

After completing his exposition the General submitted himself and his staff to any questions which we desired to ask. Our inquiries were directed principally to the problems of flank protection, transport supplies and manpower. They frankly stated that their transport and supply problems are admittedly difficult and complicated. They did not hesitate to explain clearly to us their difficulties.

General Vatutin expressed the conviction, however, that his present operation will be successfully concluded and that with proper supplies and transport the Red Army possesses manpower for the final defeat of the Axis in Russia.

As near as we could determine all enemy troops within the salient visited by us were Rumanian. We were told, however, that two German divisions had been present but we saw no German dead and no [Page 671] German prisoners. We were also told by one Russian division commander that he had taken 575 German prisoners. Russian officers always referred to the encircled enemy troops as being German, but we have no definite information on that point.

The Rumanian troops, judging by the dead we saw on the field and by the appearance of the prisoners, were far below the standard of the Soviet troops. The Rumanians were equipped for the most part with second-rate arms and horse-drawn artillery, although we saw a few modern German tanks and guns. We also saw destroyed German Focke-Wolfe, Heinkel and Junkers airplanes.

While the Russian equipment was not in every respect modern it was superior to that of the Rumanians.

Throughout the entire salient we were hardly ever out of view of dead horses and dead Rumanian soldiers.

One of the battles reviewed was that fought in the vicinity of Verkhne–Buzinovka. In this battle Russian tanks, the Russian 51st Guard Division and Russian cavalry participated. The Rumanian forces in this area were constituted almost entirely of cavalry and horse-draw artillery. From the best information we could obtain the Russian cavalry outnumbered the Rumanian. The Russian cavalry was better mounted, better armed, better equipped and in every way superior to the Rumanian.

Literally thousands of horses were left dead on this field. Interspersed among the carcasses of the horses were the bodies of dead Rumanian soldiers. The field had been swept by artillery; first cold rain, then snow, then bitter freezing weather. The frozen remains of the horses and Rumanian soldiers in grotesque postures made a weird and hideous impression. This battlefield formed a superb and ghastly picture of the horrors of war.

Russian officers told us that the Rumanian horses had been so weakened by water and food shortage that they could hardly run. About 8,000 Rumanian horses were reported captured. We saw several herds being taken to the rear.

Although the Russians usually refer in their news releases and in conversation to the enemy in this area as being German, the commanding officers pointed out that they had chosen this sector for their offensive because it was held by Rumanian troops.

We were also told that both the Italian and Rumanian troops in Russia showed a lack of ardor for the cause for which they were supposed to fight and usually surrendered whenever opportunity presented itself.

Details of the number killed, the number of prisoners taken and equipment captured have all been published by the Russians.

The Red Army is at present being led largely by officers whose military capacity has been developed in the present war. We were told [Page 672] that the leadership is much superior to what it was at beginning of this war. The general officers are for the most part young men and are quick to adopt new strategies and advanced tactics. The drive which we have been describing indicates that they have availed themselves to a great extent of both German strategy and German tactics.

We saw numerous mobile machine shops, transport pools and other evidences of resourcefulness behind their lines.

Heretofore every unit in the Red Army had attached to it a political representative of the Communist Party called a Military Commissar.16 The system was established originally because of distrust in the political inclinations of the Red Army. The execution of any plan by a Military Commander that did not have the approval of the Commissar was at the risk of the Commander. If the plan of the Military Commander failed, it made him liable to being relieved from duty or worse. This situation, we were advised, made many Military Commanders extremely cautious. Fear of the consequences of failure of a military plan made Commanders over-conservative to the point of actual timidity. The result was that Military Commanders seldom took the chances that are always a concomitance of bold and successful military operations.

The Commissars were in many instances almost completely without military training or experience. The system resulted in the control of the Red Army by Commissars and the weakening of essential military leadership.

All this has recently been changed. The Military Commissar system was abolished as of October 10, 1942.17 The need for single command has always been recognized, but a slow transition was necessary.

The Commissars are now subordinate to the Military Commanders. Although they are being given military rank they are designated assistants to the Military Commanders. The Military Commanders now exercise final authority in the execution of military missions.

We were told that the unification of command has contributed greatly to the efficiency of the military leadership of the Red Army. Many of the former Military Commissars have had experience in battle, had become effective military leaders, and have been commissioned as officers in the Army. In these cases the political duties have been transferred to newly appointed Commissars, all of whom are subordinate to Military Commanders.

During our conversations we were frequently asked by Generals when the United States and Great Britain would open a second front [Page 673] in Europe. Almost invariably they expressed the opinion that a second front in France would more effectively divide German forces than one in Italy.

Another angle of my discussions with the generals that may be of interest to you concerned German air power. One Soviet officer asked where the German Air Force had gone; another asked what the Germans were preparing to do with their air power.

In the resultant discussions the Russians said the Germans have been using far less air force than previously employed on the Russian front. They expressed the opinion likewise that the Germans are now using less air force in Africa and comparatively none over the British Isles.

These discussions led to two conclusions: (1), That the Germans are conserving their air power and petroleum for an attack or, (2), that the Germans are building interior defense lines and have decided to conserve their air power for defensive action.

Both of these conclusions left unanswered in the minds of the generals the question expressed in army slang, “What’s cooking?”

Invariably the generals were interested in the amount of war supplies—especially planes, tanks and trucks—that the United States can furnish Russia. Without exception they were of the opinion that time is now running in favor of the Axis and that supplies should be furnished to Russia and a second front opened at the earliest possible date.

Conversations with these officers made it evident that they were not familiar with our transport problems. They discussed their own transport shortage in great detail but expressed surprise that United States and Britain were having difficulties in getting supplies to North Russia by way of the North Atlantic and to South Russia by way of the Persian Gulf.

The average Russian general knows little or nothing about the sea battles of the Atlantic and the Pacific. These subjects have not been publicized in Russia.

It is my conclusion that the Red Army is a far better fighting force and is distinctly better led than it was at the beginning of the war. Its supply and transportation problems however are becoming and will become more acute. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the defeat of the Axis Armies within Russia must depend more and more on supply assistance from the United States.

Arrangements have been made with President [sic] Stalin for us to see the Red Army in the Caucasus. Our departure from here awaits flying weather. [Hurley.]

  1. The President telegraphed the following message to Moscow on December 11, 1942, for General Hurley, who received a paraphrase of it on December 14: “I am delighted with your excellent report and with all that you tell of the magnificent operations and fine morale of the Russian Armies. If you see Mr. Stalin again, please tell him how happy I have been in receiving your report and give him my renewed congratulations.” (861.20/570a) General Hurley did not see Stalin after receiving this message.
  2. Military Intelligence Division, War Department.
  3. Concerning the system of military, or political, commissars, see footnote 35, p. 461.
  4. See telegrams No. 874, October 10, and No. 885, October 14, from the Chargé in the Soviet Union, pp. 461 and 463, respectively.