Tough, tenacious and a master of combined-arms warfare, he was also adept at politics and publicity.
What made Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov a great general? Simply put, he was the greatest Soviet commander of World War II because he mastered the concept and practice of combined-arms warfare well before the war with Germany began.
Zhukov was born to Russian peasant parents in 1896, and his military education was both formal and informal. As he advanced in promotion, he attended several military schools, including the prestigious Frunze Military Academy. He also taught himself by reading and thoroughly digesting the cutting-edge theoretical work of the leading Soviet military thinkers of the interwar period—Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafillov and Aleksandr Svechin—on the use of armor, aircraft and massed infantry. Their influence is clearly recognizable in Zhukov’s conduct of operations in World War II.
The most obvious mark of greatness in a commander is success against great odds over a formidable enemy—in Zhukov’s case the forces of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. His success in battle both on the defensive and offensive where others failed also marks him as a great general. His first victory came in the May–September 1939 Battle of Khalkhin Gol against the Japanese, who had invaded the Mongolian People’s Republic. The Soviet General Staff had assigned him to replace the ineffective Maj. Gen. Nikolai Feklenko. By reorganizing the existing forces, acquiring reinforcements, surveying the battlefield and repositioning his forces relative to the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, Zhukov was able to plan and launch a counteroffensive that drove the Japanese army from Mongolia.
In a similar way he succeeded in stemming the 1941 German advance against Leningrad when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin called him in to replace the grossly incompetent Marshal Kliment Voroshilov to save the city. As at Khalkhin Gol, Zhukov reorganized and repositioned the existing forces, but he could not obtain reinforcements. He stiffened the resolve of the more competent commanders and left them with a workable plan of defense, which stood them in good stead for more than two years.
His third major success and arguably his most dramatic and important was the defense of Moscow. Here again brought in to salvage a deteriorating situation, Zhukov amassed reinforcements and maneuvered them to the critical parts of the battle field, where they were able to stem the German advance. Simultaneously he planned and then, once his forces had stopped the attack, launched a counteroffensive that drove the Germans from the capital.
Zhukov’s first purely offensive success came in early September 1941 when he organized a short-lived advance that forced the Germans to retreat from the Yelnya salient southeast of Smolensk. His greatest offensive success in the war was the counteroffensive he planned and orchestrated to win the Battle of Stalingrad. Effecting a double envelopment by breaking through the flanks of the German Sixth Army and attacking deep into the German rear, Zhukov surrounded the Germans in Stalingrad and repelled all efforts to relieve them. The destruction of the Sixth Army and subsequent Soviet advance westward across the Don region forced the Germans to evacuate the Caucasus, bolstered Soviet morale and cemented Stalin’s faith in Zhukov.
From August 1942 on Zhukov was deputy commander in chief of the armed forces, serving directly under Stalin. In that post Zhukov was the military head of the Stavka, the supreme high command, and frequently served temporarily as a front (army group) commander, overseeing several key offensives, especially the drive on Berlin in the spring of 1945.
Zhukov’s greatness shone especially bright in his conduct of battle, notably his superb ability to “see” the battlefield. After careful study of the terrain through map analysis, aerial photography and onsite visits—and digesting intelligence and information on enemy action—he usually could figure out where best to position his men to stop an advance, to counterattack or to break through. Prime examples include the Yelnya Offensive, the defense of Leningrad, the defense of Moscow and the Stalingrad counteroffensive, all of which occurred before the Red Army had built up its overwhelming superiority in armor, artillery and manpower.
Like Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Zhukov appreciated the importance of the materiel factor and always amassed copious amounts of firepower—tanks, tactical aircraft and artillery—in preparation for of fensive operations. More important, he understood how to use these assets in combined-arms warfare. Indeed, he often criticized peers and subordinates for “playing at war” rather than mastering modern warfare. Other generals would use their infantry and tanks separately, often failing to coordinate with their artillery and seldom calling on tactical airpower. Zhukov carefully orchestrated all of these arms to complement and support each other and overwhelm the enemy’s defenses.
Apart from Zhukov’s great success in battle, what enabled him to succeed was a unique combination of personal attributes. First of all, he did not panic when things were going badly—and things were very bad for the Red Army in 1941, when many Soviet generals let defeatism and despair cloud their judgment. Moreover, Zhukov was a perfectionist in all he did and expected the same from others. This created a penchant to be dismissive and intolerant of incompetence by both subordinates and peers, especially those of high rank and responsibility. At the level of senior officer he punished failure without hesitation. Generals disciplining other generals is a difficult proposition in any army, but Zhukov ruthlessly relieved, demoted, reassigned or had arrested any general (except Stalin’s cronies, of course) who showed incompetence, cowardice or negligence, even in the midst of battle.
Zhukov was definitely not a “people person.” Unlike a great many of his peers, he never drank to excess and was not known to have any close personal friends. He was often impatient and caustic in his relations with subordinates. As a battalion and then a regimental commander Zhukov sought to lead or inspire direct subordinates by example, but he was also ready to resort to formal command authority and fear. The higher Zhukov rose in rank, the more likely he was to simply transfer an incompetent subordinate rather than work with him to improve his abilities. On the other hand he exhibited far more confidence in the common soldier than did many other generals.
As Stalin’s deputy, Zhukov successfully leveraged the state-run and military media to promote his image and inspire confidence in his generalship among the soldiers. After he had saved Moscow, he became a nationally renowned figure whose reputation preceded him. “Where Zhukov is, there is victory,” became a common catchphrase from 1943 onward. Thus it was really his success rather than his persona that inspired troops. Having his name associated with victory gave the soldiers under his command greater confidence and raised their morale, which may have contributed to their success and his. Zhukov was certainly not infallible, but he succeeded in suppressing publicity associated with his failures. Nor was he prone to admit mistakes.
Often overlooked by the men under his command was another factor that enabled Zhukov to succeed—his willingness to accept large numbers of casualties. This was certainly not a rare attribute in the Red Army, but Zhukov’s success made the excessive casualties seem less brutal, compared to generals who wasted men for no gain. This trait first surfaced at Khalkhin Gol. Zhukov recalled that the front commander, Grigori Shtern, advised him to slow the tempo of the offensive and take a break of two or three days to regroup before resuming the encirclement operation in order to reduce casualties. According to Zhukov:
I said that war is war, and that losses are inevitable, that these losses could also be heavy, especially when we are up against a serious and fierce enemy like the Japanese. But if we postponed our original plan for two or three days because of these losses and complications, one of two things could happen: either we would not carry out the plan at all or would do it with great delay, and because of our indecisiveness our losses would be 10 times greater than we are suffering now when we are acting decisively.
Another of Zhukov’s attributes was his skill at assembling competent operational planning staffs. Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky often helped Zhukov plan battles and offensives, bringing his valuable talent, experience and insights to the process. An exacting taskmaster, Zhukov required painstaking thoroughness of his subordinates as they gathered and processed the information necessary for proper planning. He replaced those who fell short of his expectations and seldom gave second chances.
Great generals are also often fortunate generals. One ought not discount the role of luck in success and its affect on a general’s reputation. It is said soldiers are attracted to lucky leaders and shun the unlucky. Zhukov experienced several beneficial runs of good fortune. First, his competition for generalship was not all that in tense. In the inter war period the Red Army simply did not produce massive numbers of competent leaders, so the best moved up easily. Second, the Red Army expanded rapidly in the 1930s, requiring a large number of generals and offering many opportunities for advancement. Third, Zhukov was not arrested or killed during Stalin’s Great Purge.
For the most part there was little rhyme or reason as to who was purged, making luck an operative element, but it seems Zhukov chose his patrons wisely. He associated with superiors who in turn were friends with Stalin’s cronies. These men and their circle largely escaped repression in 1937–39, while those in the Tukhachevsky circle were decimated. It was Zhukov’s association with the future Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, a friend of Stalin crony Marshal Semyon Budyonny, that got him his first combat command at Khalkhin Gol.
Fortunately, Zhukov did not take part in the 1939–40 Winter War with Finland, which ruined the careers of many of the generals involved. Finally, luck placed him in charge of operations to stop or throw back the enemy when they essentially had run out of steam, such as at Khalkhin Gol, Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. Only at Yelnya did Zhukov have to confront the Germans in full stride, and that turned out to be one of his limited successes.
Above all else, his relationship with Stalin enabled Zhukov to rise to the pinnacle of the Red Army high command and prove his ability as a great general. Learning how to work with Stalin and remain in his good graces was a great feat in itself. It was without doubt a hostile work environment, considering the dictator’s unpredictable personality, unlimited power and ruthlessness. Dealing with commanders in chief is an important task for senior commanders and takes talent, which Zhukov clearly possessed. Among his more obvious traits, one that often goes unspoken when discussing generals, was his loyalty to superiors. Zhukov was faithful and obedient to his orders, but he was not a yes man. He felt professionally obliged to give contrary feedback to his superiors—including Stalin—when militarily necessary. Zhukov’s competence and high native intelligence, coupled with persuasiveness and reinforced by his success, seem the keys to his relationship with Stalin. Once he had proved himself, Zhukov was usually able to stand his ground against Stalin’s misguided interference.
For further reading Roger Reese recommends Zhukov, by Otto Preston Chaney, and Marshal Zhukov, by Albert Axell.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.