In 1937, Stalin purged the majority of his top military officers, starting with Marshal Tukhachevsky This disorganized the Red Army, to say the least, and helped account for its later poor performance against Finland, in 1939-1940, and even later against the Nazis, immediately after the invasion in June, 1941.

How well did the Red Army perform during its (brief) 1939 invasion of Poland? (Apparently they inflicted more Polish casualties than they lost of their own men.) Was the Red Army's performance "misleading" by being better than it was later? Did this episode expose weaknesses that foreshadowed the Red Army's later problems? Or was it a "trivial" passage that did not meaningfully test the Red Army?

  • The effect of the repressions is overestimated. There are reports from major military manuvers of the RA before and after the repressions and they generally don't show drastic difference in military operations quality.
    – Zmur
    May 10, 2021 at 18:35
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    2 remarks: First, the Finnish war can be misleading: there were no shortages of capable military officers who thought the Red Army was doing it the wrong way, they were just not in charge. Khalkin Gol was contemporary, for example. Second, the Red Army's dismal performance in 1941 might be less due to ineptitude in general, but more to the specifics of Stalin's idiotic defense-in-place orders which led, time and again, to massive encirclements that were the sweet spot for German Kesselschlacht doctrine. That would not have been apparent when attacking Poland. May 10, 2021 at 19:05
  • 1
    Katyn forest massacre rings a bell? The mass murder of so many people in so short a time is highly efficient (and no, I'm not defending it at all) and was done on orders from Stavka, so not a loss of command structure at all.
    – jwenting
    May 11, 2021 at 11:20
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    Let us be realistic: SU was backstabbing a country which is in a middle of a blitz-war with the most capable army of the continent and its army was in the middle of total collapse. Poland was also totally unprepared to a two front war, initially leading all his army to the German border. I am not sure that doing well in such a situation is something extraordinary.
    – Greg
    May 13, 2021 at 19:34

2 Answers 2


There were worrying signs of trouble

Although Poles offered only sporadic resistance, and Soviet leadership characterized operation as "military walk" and not a real war, number of deficiencies were noted. Stalin himself acknowledged that in his speech to Soviet leadership in spring of 1940. In his own words, Polish campaign spoiled Red Army and strengthened spirit of complacency, but following major flaws were revealed :

  • Slow and inefficient mobilization of both the reservists and material means like trucks and other mechanization, horses etc .. Mobilization centers were too far from frontline units, civilian authorities did not cooperate with military authorities and sometimes did not understand their role in military effort. As a result, both reservists and material were critically delayed and usually arrived in their units with 7-8 days of delay, sometimes when the operation was already over.

  • Rear area services (logistic) of the Red Army failed completely. They were not prepared for the operation, were often immobile, could not supply frontline units with fuel, food, forage and ammo, sometimes didn't even have enough uniforms to issue to the soldiers. It was estimated (a bit prophetically) that in case of a clash with stronger opponent than Poles (with strong air force and armored-mechanized forces) rear will suffer significant losses.

  • Communications inside Red Army were also deemed insufficient. Lack of radio, poor quality of mobile radio sets that did exist, and immobility of larger and more powerful radio stations. Insufficient communication with air force, especially concerning cooperation with ground troops, insufficient command and control of tank corps which proved to be too cumbersome as an organization (thus decision to disband them on the eve of Barbarossa) . It was also noted that armies and fronts (army groups) often did not have an idea where their units were, and this painful flaw would latter reveal itself in full light during German invasion.

  • Finally it must be noted that losses in the campaign were not small. Especially worrying was loss of around 20 aircraft and around 150 (120 by some accounts) armored vehicles (tanks or armored cars). According to some accounts most of these were not lost in action, but due to various mechanical breakdowns or crew incompetency. It was noted by Soviet authorities that in many units there was simply not enough trained personnel to handle modern and more complex equipment .

Overall, Red Army was enormous system with impressive number of soldiers, tanks, guns and aircraft. On paper it was strongest army in the world at that time. But internal organization of this complex organism was severely lacking. Communist were obsessed with huge numbers, but seriously lacked knowledge about maintenance, logistic and command & control. Although Polish campaign was short it did show many potential flaws that latter materialized in Winter War and even more so when Germans invaded in 1941.

  • I always wondered why early wwii soviet tankers mostly did not have radios. Interestingly, you show Uncle Joe himself telling us they knew lack of radios was an issue generally. So it was not a purely doctrinal issue as some claim, they knew radios should be there. Lack of industrial capacity, priority/political issues or quality/management/personal issues? good question.
    – Luiz
    May 14, 2021 at 18:28
  • @Luiz Lack of technology to produce sufficiently small, powerful and reliable sets. Plus too many tanks/aircraft for their own good.
    – rs.29
    May 14, 2021 at 21:28

It wasn't much of a war, so analyzing the performance is difficult

When the Red Army had attacked Poland from the east on the 17th September 1939, it had used 465,000 troops and 485 tanks. Against them, there were 12,000 border defense troops and, a bit more to the west 200,000 mostly poorly armed conscripts, that were planned to be used to patch the loses in the west.

In the evening of the 17th, Marshall Rydz-Smigły, the Commander-in-chief of the Polish forces made an unclear proclamation:

„Sowiety wkroczyły. Nakazuję ogólne wycofanie na Rumunię i Węgry najkrótszymi drogami. Z bolszewikami nie walczyć, chyba w razie natarcia z ich strony albo próby rozbrojenia oddziałów. Zadanie Warszawy i miast, które miały się bronić przed Niemcami – bez zmian. Miasta, do których podejdą bolszewicy, powinny z nimi pertraktować w sprawie wyjścia garnizonów do Węgier lub Rumunii”.

The Soviets have invaded. I order general retreat towards Romania and Hungary. Do not fight with the Bolsheviks, unless they attack you first or they try to disarm your troops. Warsaw and other cities defending from the Germans - no change to orders. Cities approached by the Bolsheviks should negotiate to allow the retreat of troops towards Romania and Hungary 1

(note, by "Bolsheviks" he meant of course the Red Army).

As you can see, the order was to "if possible, retreat without fighting", so most forces were doing exactly that: either avoiding fighting or surrendering quickly. Still, some commanders decided to ignore the order and fight, even managing to achieve a few small victories routing and destroying the Red Army forces in Szack, or Parczew.

So in summary, whenever the Red Army met resistance, the results were close to a draw, as both sides were ending up with heavy loses. If not for the fatal order, eastern Poland could stand and fight for quite a while, but in the end the Russian victory was inevitable.

1 https://przystanekhistoria.pl/pa2/teksty/29173,Z-bolszewikami-nie-walczyc.html


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