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Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans

By Alexander Hill 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: July 12, 2008 
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Soviet general A. A. Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane cloaked in Soviet colors. (National Archives)
Soviet general A. A. Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane cloaked in Soviet colors. (National Archives)

The Soviets have long insisted that Lend-Lease aid made little difference. Newly discovered files tell another story

After a series of dramatic Nazi successes during the opening stages of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, foreign observers predicted that Soviet resistance would soon collapse. By October, German troops were poised outside both Leningrad and Moscow. But the Germans were doggedly held off in front of Moscow in late November and early December, and then rolled back by a reinvigorated Red Army in a staggeringly brutal winter counteroffensive.

That the Soviet victories of late 1941 were won with Soviet blood and largely with Soviet weapons is beyond dispute. But for decades the official Soviet line went much further. Soviet authorities recognized that the "Great Patriotic War" gave the Communist Party a claim to legitimacy that went far beyond Marxism-Leninism or the 1917 Revolution, and took pains to portray their nation's victories in World War II as single-handed. Any mention of the role that Western assistance played in the Soviet war effort was strictly off-limits.

During Nikita Khrushchev's rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a window of greater frankness and openness about the extent of aid supplied from the West under the Lend-Lease Act—but it was still clearly forbidden for Soviet authors to suggest that such aid ever made any real difference on the battlefield. Mentions of Lend-Lease in memoirs were always accompanied by disparagement of the quality of the weapons supplied, with American and British tanks and planes invariably portrayed as vastly inferior to comparable Soviet models.

An oft-quoted statement by First Vice-Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars Nikolai Voznesensky summed up the standard line that Allied aid represented "only 4 percent" of Soviet production for the entire war. Lacking any detailed information to the contrary, Western authors generally agreed that even if Lend-Lease was important from 1943 on, as quantities of aid dramatically increased, the aid was far too little and late to make a difference in the decisive battles of 1941–1942.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a trickle of information has emerged from archives in Moscow, shedding new light on the subject. While much of the documentary evidence remains classified "secret" in the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian State Archive of the Economy, Western and Russian researchers have been able to gain access to important, previously unavailable firsthand documents. I was recently able to examine Russian-language materials of the State Defense Committee—the Soviet equivalent of the British War Cabinet—held in the former Central Party Archive. Together with other recently published sources, including the wartime diaries of N. I. Biriukov, a Red Army officer responsible from August 1941 on for the distribution of recently acquired tanks to the front lines, this newly available evidence paints a very different picture from the received wisdom. In particular, it shows that British Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union in late 1941 and early 1942 played a far more significant part in the defense of Moscow and the revival of Soviet fortunes in late 1941 than has been acknowledged.

Particularly important for the Soviets in late 1941 were British-supplied tanks and aircraft. American contributions of the time were far fewer. In fact, for a brief period during December 1941, the relative importance of British aid increased well beyond levels planned by the Allies as a result of American reaction to the outbreak of war with Japan; some American equipment destined for the Soviet Union was actually unloaded from merchant vessels and provided to American forces instead.

Even aid that might seem like a drop in the bucket in the larger context of Soviet production for the war played a crucial role in filling gaps at important moments during this period. At a time when Soviet industry was in disarray—many of their industrial plants were destroyed or captured by the advancing Nazi troops or in the process of evacuation east—battlefield losses of specific equipment approached or even exceeded the rate at which Soviet domestic production could replace them during this crucial period. Under these circumstances even small quantities of aid took on far greater significance.

According to research by a team of Soviet historians, the Soviet Union lost a staggering 20,500 tanks from June 22 to December 31, 1941. At the end of November 1941, only 670 Soviet tanks were available to defend Moscow—that is, in the recently formed Kalinin, Western, and Southwestern Fronts. Only 205 of these tanks were heavy or medium types, and most of their strength was concentrated in the Western Front, with the Kalinin Front having only two tank battalions (67 tanks) and the Southwestern Front two tank brigades (30 tanks).

Given the disruption to Soviet production and Red Army losses, the Soviet Union was understandably eager to put British armor into action as soon as possible. According to Biriukov's service diary, the first 20 British tanks arrived at the Soviet tank training school in Kazan on October 28, 1941, at which point a further 120 tanks were unloaded at the port of Archangel in northern Russia. Courses on the British tanks for Soviet crews started during November as the first tanks, with British assistance, were being assembled from their in-transit states and undergoing testing by Soviet specialists.

The tanks reached the front lines with extraordinary speed. Extrapolating from available statistics, researchers estimate that British-supplied tanks made up 30 to 40 percent of the entire heavy and medium tank strength of Soviet forces before Moscow at the beginning of December 1941, and certainly made up a significant proportion of tanks available as reinforcements at this critical point in the fighting. By the end of 1941 Britain had delivered 466 tanks out of the 750 promised.

The British Military Mission to Moscow noted that by December 9, about ninety British tanks had already been in action with Soviet forces. The first of these units to have seen action seems to have been the 138th Independent Tank Battalion (with twenty-one British tanks), which was involved in stemming the advance of German units in the region of the Volga Reservoir to the north of Moscow in late November. In fact the British intercepted German communications indicating that German forces had first come in contact with British tanks on the Eastern front on November 26, 1941.

The exploits of the British-equipped 136th Independent Tank Battalion are perhaps the most widely noted in the archives. It was part of a scratch operational group of the Western Front consisting of the 18th Rifle Brigade, two ski battalions, the 5th and 20th Tank Brigades, and the 140th Independent Tank Battalion. The 136th Independent Tank Battalion was combined with the latter to produce a tank group of only twenty-one tanks, which was to operate with the two ski battalions against German forces advancing to the west of Moscow in early December. Other largely British-equipped tank units in action with the Western Front from early December were the 131st Independent Tank Brigade, which fought to the east of Tula, south of Moscow, and 146th Tank Brigade, in the region of Kriukovo to the immediate west of the Soviet capital.

While the Matilda Mk II and Valentine tanks supplied by the British were certainly inferior to the Soviets' homegrown T-34 and KV-1, it is important to note that Soviet production of the T-34 (and to a lesser extent the KV series), was only just getting seriously underway in 1942, and Soviet production was well below plan targets. And though rapid increases in tank firepower would soon render the 40mm two-pounder main gun of the Matilda and Valentine suitable for use on light tanks only, the armor protection of these British models put them firmly in the heavy and medium categories, respectively. Both were superior to all but the Soviet KV-1 and T-34 in armor, and indeed even their much maligned winter cross-country performance was comparable to most Soviet tanks excluding the KV-1 and T-34.

A steady stream of British-made tanks continued to flow into the Red Army through the spring and summer of 1942. Canada would eventually produce 1,420 Valentines, almost exclusively for delivery to the Soviet Union. By July 1942 the Red Army had 13,500 tanks in service, with more than 16 percent of those imported, and more than half of those British.

Lend-Lease aircraft deliveries were also of significance during the Battle of Moscow. While Soviet pilots praised the maneuverability of the homegrown I-153 Chaika and I-16 Ishak fighters—still in use in significant numbers in late 1941—both types were certainly obsolete and inferior in almost all regards to the British-supplied Hurricane. The Hurricane was rugged and tried and tested, and as useful at that point as many potentially superior Soviet designs such as the LaGG-3 and MiG-3. There were apparently only 263 LaGG-3s in the Soviet inventory by the time of the Moscow counteroffensive, and it was an aircraft with numerous defects. At the end of 1941 there were greater numbers of the MiG-3, but the plane was considered difficult to fly. The Yak-1, arguably the best of the batch, and superior in most regards to the Hurricane, suffered from airframe and engine defects in early war production aircraft.

A total of 699 Lend-Lease aircraft had been delivered to Archangel by the time the Arctic convoys switched to Murmansk in December 1941. Of these, 99 Hurricanes and 39 Tomahawks were in service with the Soviet air defense forces on January 1, 1942, out of a total of 1,470 fighters. About 15 percent of the aircraft of the 6th Fighter Air Corps defending Moscow were Tomahawks or Hurricanes.

The Soviet Northern Fleet was also a major and early recipient of British Hurricanes, receiving those flown by No. 151 Wing of the RAF, which operated briefly from Soviet airfields near Murmansk. As early as October 12, 1941, the Soviet 126th Fighter Air Regiment was operating with Tomahawks bought from the United States by Britain. Tomahawks also served in defense of the Doroga Zhizni or "Road of Life" across the ice of Lake Ladoga, which provided the only supply line to the besieged city of Leningrad during the winter of 1941–42. By spring and summer of 1942 the Hurricane had clearly become the principal fighter aircraft of the Northern Fleet's air regiments; in all, 83 out of its 109 fighters were of foreign origin.

British and Commonwealth deliveries to the Soviet Union in late 1941 and early 1942 would not only assist in the Soviet defense of Moscow and subsequent counteroffensive, but also in increasing Soviet production for the next period of the war. Substantial quantities of machine tools and raw materials, such as aluminum and rubber, were supplied to help Soviet industry back on its feet: 312 metal-cutting machine tools were delivered by convoy PQ-12 alone, arriving in March 1942, along with a range of other items for Soviet factories such as machine presses and compressors.

Once again, raw figures do not tell the whole story. Although British shipments amounted to only a few percent of Soviet domestic production of machine tools, the Soviet Union could request specific items which it may not have been able to produce for itself. Additionally, many of the British tools arrived in early 1942, when Soviet tool production was still very low, resulting in a disproportionate impact. The handing over of forty imported machine tools to Aviation Factory No. 150 in July 1942, for example, was the critical factor in enabling the factory to reach projected capacity within two months.

Lend-Lease aid did not "save" the Soviet Union from defeat during the Battle of Moscow. But the speed at which Britain in particular was willing and able to provide aid to the Soviet Union, and at which the Soviet Union was able to put foreign equipment into frontline use, is still an underappreciated part of this story. During the bitter fighting of the winter of 1941–1942, British aid made a crucial difference.

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of World War II magazine.

31 Responses to “Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans”

  1. 1
    paul penrod says:

    Even if the USSR hadn't received a single tank or plane from the west they still wouldn't been able to wage a successful offensive war without US/UK assistance. Soviet soldiers were fed (they liked our SPAM) and clothed, were equipped with western radio and telephone equipment, medical supplies, railroad cars and locos (built for the Russian gauge) and especially hordes of trucks to sustain their later offensives. This allowed the Soviets to concentrate their production on tanks, guns and planes.

    • 1.1
      Brent says:

      no they did not like our spam they liked our tusenka. Russian recipe for us canned pork/beef.

    • 1.2
      panki says:

      All that was not aid, but trade. USSR paid every boot, in gold, and that many gold that they could buy world. And if that is help than Germans help Serbia to win WWI against them self, because many of weapons they use were bought from Germans. And if there is some truth in this numbers, message is only that Soviets used better even UK/USA tanks and planes, but if this numbers are really true then we got that Russia made 96 t34 tanks per day in remaining period and what about KV series. Truth is that in best they were producing 33 tanks per day and that is 3x less. Which suggests this trade was like Soviet sources describe it and this trade had no influence in 1941/42 it is just one more Western propaganda. Also you must not forgot that Brits buy 3x times more goods from USA and Canada and didn't nothing for years. Also u must not forgot that USA blackmail UK to give them all patents they had and all Islands near USA and to give up from colonies(which is actually good thing).

  2. 2
    jack turso says:

    If not for our convoys to archangel and murmansk ,and loss of life to brit and usa merchant seamen they were toast..Germany Hitler wanted only short range bombers.the russians moved their factories further north to be out of range of the twin engine bombers..Not to mention the fact that stalian insisted on an invasion of north africia and italy to take the strain off the eastern front,,Worst campaign ever and needless loss of lives.
    Patton wanted to go through the Balkins..the 5th army suffered much needless loss of lives,,Grant you russia had millions of soldiers and had the germans not sacked and raped the civilians who knows? Last but not least,russia had three great generals.JANUARY,FEBRUARY AND MARCH.WORST WINTER IN 100 YRS.WHAT IF GERMANY INVADED IN MAY INSTEAD OF JUNE?

  3. 3
    Peter says:

    Jack turso: the greatest enemy the Germans faced was mud, not snow. It was the mud of October and November slowed the Germans down. When the mud froze solid in late November early December their advance picked up speed again. In early May the Russian ground was still muddy from the previous winters snow melt. Between that and having to bale the Italians out in Greece there was no way that Germany could have invaded in early May. The delay taking Kiev rather than move on Moscow was far more significant although no sane German general could really have left that many Russians on their flank.

    The claim that Russia was saved by winter diminishes the way the Russians defended Moscow. Zhukov fought a very, very clever defence of the city and the Russians halted the Germans with blood. The foul winter of 1941 hurt the Russians as much as the Germans…. the Russians aren't snow proof. If German tanks couldn't move neither could Russian ones.

    Getting back on topic at the Battle of Prokhorovka the only significant quanity of heavy tanks available to the Soviets were 31 Lend lease Churchills. The way some Russians dismiss the aid they recieved from Britain is highly offensive. I had a great uncle die on a petrol tanker heading to Archangel… we'll never know if he burnt or froze/drowned. Likewise my Grandfather in North Africa would have had an easier war if the tanks and fighters we sent to Russia had been available to his division instead.

    • 3.1
      s gosling says:

      Does not affect the fact that Russia won the war. 88% of German casualties inflicted by Russians!

      • 3.1.1
        Phillip says:

        Actually it was the Soviet Union, not Russia. Also 88% may be a little high. I have seen statistics which indicate that the figure is 70%, not 88%. Either way, it's historic fact that The Soviet Union's Red Army killed more Germans than all other Allies combined. The Soviet Union also suffered more casualties than everyone else combined. Just google it.

        And if someone on your winning team scores 70 or more points out of 100, then who won the game? The Soviets deserve at least MVP, and most of the time we Americans doesn't even mention the UUSR and are always acting like we won the war single-handedly, and, my friends, it just ain't so.

        This of course doesn't lessen individual casualties of other countries such as someone's great uncle, or my own uncle, who died as a result of Nazi injuries.

        But as a former simple U.S. soldier from the 1960's and 70's war, I hate to see lies in reporting. even more I hate war. period.

        May God grant us peace, so that the common soldier doesn't have to die for politicians.

  4. 4
  5. 5

    [...] proportion of tanks available as reinforcements at this critical point in the fighting" Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans, Page 2 Reply With [...]

  6. 6
    Marcelo Jenisch says:

    WWII was won by the joint Allied effort. The USSR was more important in the ground war against most European Axis; the remaining Allies in the air and on the sea; and figthing Japan (let's not forget China); as well as supplying the Soviets with vital assistance as show here. The 'my dick is bigger than yours' business is not only nonsense, but also a big disrespect to all people who perished in that war. Period.

  7. 7

    [...] in service, with more than 16 percent of those imported, and more than half of those British. Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans This subject is very complex. For every advantage one side has, the other has others. And I'm also [...]

  8. 8
    Mike says:

    Without US assistance ALL of Europe was kaput.

  9. 9

    [...] the popular historical view of the Eastern Front Article about the British help in 1941: Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans Reply With [...]

  10. 10

    [...] the bitter fighting of the winter of 1941–1942, British aid made a crucial difference.[/I] Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans The British needed to protect the country, the Impire worldwide and still helped the Soviets. [...]

  11. 11

    [...] forces had first come in contact with British tanks on the Eastern front on November 26, 1941. Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans And lets look at the year 1941/42 From December 1st 1941 to November 1st 1942 the Red Army [...]

  12. 12
    Igor says:

    This is wrong. Lend-Lease was very importaint for britain, but not fpr the Soviet Union. Lend-Lease was only 4-6% of the soviet war production.

    Soviet Union was in war not only against germany. It was Germany with european ressources. With french, czech industries and so on.

    And Soviet Unino lost 1941 50% (!!!) of soviet industry. Soviet Unino has fought with one hand.

  13. 13
    Major Tom says:

    I have been reading extensively on this recently and a slim majority believe the Soviets would have won without the Western assistance. A substantial minority are undecided

    Most agree that it would have been a long torturous war of attrition lasting 10 or more years.

    The wild card is technology. German nuclear research was not as advanced as some believe but add another 3-4 years to the equation and it is hard to believe they would not have the bomb.

    Germany with nukes means game over. Without nukes I imagine the Soviets would have ground them down

    All of this presupposes that Germany would retain all their allies and the USA and Britain are totally out of the fight. For the purposes of this discussion, we will also assume Japan is no factor.

    • 13.1
      geoduck says:

      If you want to suppose a 'clean slate' without the US and UK in the war then why not suppose that the UK and US are neutrals willing to solve their own economic problems by selling arms and materials to whoever has the gold to pay for them. In 1941 that would have been Germany and 'game over' for the Soviet Union. The point is you can't cleanly separate what happened on the eastern front from pre-war politics and economics. If you're looking for the fractal butterfly it might have been Wallis Simpson. Or maybe Belgium in 1914. If the Kaiser had gone on the defensive in the west…

      • 13.1.1
        Major Tom says:

        All true and excellent points. There are always new factors that can be added and subtracted ad infinitum, Adding or subtracting factors do not validate or invalidate speculation at any level

  14. 14
    Wolcott says:

    I agree that lend-lease aid made little difference to the Soviet victory on the Eastern Front. In fact, I would believe that it made absolutely no difference at all.

    I don't recall any lend-lease aircraft or tank (American and British) being ever appreciated by the Soviets. From Operation Barbarossa until the fall of Berlin, it was always domestic vehicles like the T-34 tank and Il-2 Shturmovik aircraft which were given credit.

    All this aid could have been much better off in countries which never had them and as a result fell to the Axis powers (Malaya, Singapore, Philippines etc).

  15. 15

    [...] the Soviet rifle cartridges. The discussion evolved from this thread over in American politics. Here's another article about lend lease to the USSR Now the question is whether or not the western allies were decisive in winning the war in Russia. [...]

  16. 16
    Me says:

    So the fact is still that the foreign \aid\ to the USSR did not exceed 4% of the national production during the war.
    Supplying trucks and foaks is an insult when your ally is facing 2000 Panzers and 250 Nazis Divisions !

    The Red Army kicked the ass of Adolf with the power and the will of the Soviet People, cause they were so happy to enjoy a Communist Regime that they would never have given it up !
    French people has been screwed up by its government, the British didi NOT want to fight against the German, just as the German did not want to invade these useless british islands. So the \war\ between UK and Germany has been declared, but has never been undertaken (30 000 dead in the UK in 1940 ? it has not been even a single day of the casualties made in the USSR by the Nazis !).

    Thanks to the USSR, the Nazis have been defeated, sent to hell.
    The USSR has saved the whole Humanity.

    • 16.1
      Major Tom says:

      Well, I have already agreed that unless the Nazi developed nukes the Russians would have probably won a 10 year war.

      Just a couple of comments. The Russian people won the war not the "Soviet" people. If Hitler had been smart enough to not mistreat the Russians that greeted them as liberators early on it might have changed things. Stalin was hated in Russia as much as Hitler in 1940. There was nothing political about the defeat of Hitler. The Russians fought for their homeland, not for the now failed communist system

      There is no question that Russia paid the highest price for victory in WWII and the lend lease aid was indeed insignificant.

  17. 17
    Major Tom says:

    All true and excellent points. There are always new factors that can be added and subtracted ad infinitum..

  18. 18

    [...] in the defense of Moscow and the revival of Soviet fortunes in late 1941 than has been acknowledged.Read more on HistorynetShare this:StumbleUponPinterestTumblrPocketRedditRelated posts: Lend-Lease was signed on this day [...]

  19. 19
    SkipNChurch says:

    Interesting book well worth reading concerning Lend Lease materials from uS to Russia is titled "From Major Jordan's Diaries".
    George Racey Jordan witnessed and wrote in his diaries noting thousands of items and things sent to Russia :off the cuff"

    Here is a URL that had this book in pdf format:

    Virus, crap free. very interesting read.

  20. 20
    Archil says:

    Are you discussing \Big Troika\s decisions? After all it was Churchill's and Roosevelt's decision to have coalition and it was the only way to win and win with lowest casualties possible. Not every western operation was success and probably only hate for casualties delayed end of war for an year or so.

  21. 21

    [...] Country Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans [...]

  22. 22

    [...] victory at Moscow. 30-40% of Soviet medium/heavy tanks during the Battle of Moscow were British. Did Russia Really Go It Alone? How Lend-Lease Helped the Soviets Defeat the Germans Sign in or Register Now to [...]

  23. 23
    Gil says:

    The British were already fighting in North Africa when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The invasion of Italy was Churchill's idea, not Stalin's. The Balkan strategy, of which the Italian invasion was a piece, was also Churchill's idea. Italy was selected as the second front at the insistence of Churchill at the Casablanca conference in 1943. That turned out to be one of the worst allied decisions of the war.

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