The Enemy on the Frontiers
To execute Plan Barbarossa the Nazis mustered a huge army and a big fleet against the USSR. Germany reached agreement on co-operation with its allies. Early in 1941, the Luftwaffe repeatedly intruded into Soviet air space in the most arrogant manner in the Baltic and in proximity of Murmansk. When German planes "unintentionally" trespassed, they would appear with increasing frequency over our naval bases, air fields and coastal defence batteries. Late in January, I learnt about an interesting exchange between Yamaguti, Japanese naval attache, and the chief of the Naval Foreign Relations Division. Shortly before, Yamaguti had just returned from Berlin and persistently requested to be received at the People's Commissariat of the Navy. He said:
"The Germans are highly displeased with Italy. One of the 'Axis' friends disgraced himself."
What Yamaguti was alluding to was the defeat the Italian army suffered in the war against Greece. Mussolini had unleashed this war in the hope of an easy victory over a large part of the Balkan Peninsula. He was eager to snatch a sizable portion of the Balkans from under the nose of Hitler who had his eye on them too. But Mussolini overestimated his forces. Though Greece is a little country its courageous army administered a powerful rebuff on the Italian armies and drove them deep into Albania. There they came to a halt being unable to change the situation.
The chief of the Foreign Relations Division asked what Germany intended to do to help Italy.
"Hitler is going to resolve the issue in another place - in the East," Yamaguti replied.
However, he explained straightaway that the movement was to take place in the direction of the straits - the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles - and further on to Britain's colonial possessions. The Japanese naval attache was obviously trying to take us in. He was trying to say: take no notice of the German advance in the direction of Bulgaria, they are not attacking you. But then he added for some unknown reason:
"A clash between Berlin and Moscow is not to be ruled out."
On January 30, we officially reported this curious interview to K. Y. Voroshilov, deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of People's Commissars.
At the time I would keep a file of all minor, though suspicious facts bearing on the behaviour of the Germans to report them personally to Stalin at an opportune moment. More important facts were reported to him in writing immediately.
Early in February, we received several reports which came in one after another on the arrival at Varna and Burgas Bulgarian ports—of German military specialists, on the delivery of coastal defence and antiaircraft guns. On February 7, I reported this information in writing to Stalin and Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars. Whether you wanted to or not you could not help collating the new facts with what the Japanese naval attache toid us. Of course, this experienced intelligence officer had no intention of warning us about the danger. On the contrary, he wanted to lull our vigilance, it was as if he was saying that the Germans had no designs against Moscow but against British possessions. But this appeared too naive. Indeed, had the Germans established themselves only in Varna and Burgas, that would have been one thing. But they were equally active in Romania which was closer to our southern frontiers than to Turkey. They were moving troops to Finland. But surely Finland could not have anything to do with an invasion of Greece or Egypt, for instance. The Germans asked the Swedes to allow their troops to pass through their territory, and the Swedes complied.
The Naval Staff summaries carried more and more data on the movements of German troops in Finland, Romania and Bulgaria. In keeping with a standard operating procedure these summaries were sent to the General Staff every day. What the Naval Staff learnt had bearing above all on the seas, ports and coasts. The General Staff, apparently, knew a lot more - from sources other than ours.
From an interview I had with K. A. Meretskov, Chief of General Staff, late in January 1941 I gathered that the People's Commissariat of Defence was worried about the situation on the frontiers. The People's Commissariat of Defence was preparing an important directive which was to orientate the commands of the military areas and fleets on Germany as the most probable potential enemy in a future war.
The directive was issued on February 23. Of course, that was too late, because there were less than four months left before the outbreak of the war. However, even in the little time we had we could have accomplished a lot. In addition to a general directive, the commands needed definite instructions on heightening the condition of readiness for action. But while the directive was being prepared a new Chief of General Staff was appointed.
It was rumoured that Meretskov was released after an unsuccessful operational war game. He was succeeded by G. K. Zhukov. Neither the government, nor the General Staff effected strict control over the fulfilment of the directive in the forces. Seeing that the superiors displayed no concern about the directive the lower commands were not in a hurry to fulfil it. Late in February-early in March Luftwaffe planes again made several Vagrant intrusions into Soviet air space. They behaved in the most arrogant manner photographing our military objectives. The fleet commanders reported with concern about the Nazis reconnoitering their main bases. "What should we do?" they asked me. I instructed the Naval Staff to order the fleets to open Fire at the intruders without warning. A directive to this effect was forwarded to the fleets on March 3, 1941. On March 17 and 18, fire was opened several times at Luftwaffe planes when they appeared over Libau. What should be done if the aggressor behaves arrogantly? You cannot convince him with words.
During the last few weeks before the war Luftwaffe planes appeared not only over separate objectives, but also over the main bases, Polyarnoye in particular. When this happened I ordered the fleets to open fire at them. I also said that such cases should be singled out in operations summaries for the General Staff. I do not remember whether I reported such events orally to Stalin or Molotov. However, as I study anew the reports from the fleets I have found among them official summaries from A. G. Golovko. Northern Fleet commander, which state that antiaircraft batteries opened fire at Luftwaffe planes appearing over Soviet bases. It should be mentioned that when Stalin learnt about my order, he raised no objections. This meant that already then the fleets were engaged in war in the air. The antiaircraft batteries were driving German planes away from the bases. Though our fighter pilots were flying obsolescent Chaika planes, they engaged the Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. As I see it, they had a correct understanding of the formula: "It is necessary to prevent alien aircraft from flying over our bases and at the same time to refrain from being aroused to provocations." They saw it was stupid to try to talk a robber out of robbing your house, after he had broken into it.
However, after an incident of this kind I was summoned to Stalin. When I saw Beria in his office, I immediately knew the source of the trouble.
I was asked on what grounds I had given the order to fire at intruding aircraft.
I tried to explain, but Stalin checked me. I was strictly reprimanded and told to cancel my order.
I could do nothing but to submit. On March 29, the Naval Staff issued another directive: "Fire shall not be opened at intruding aircraft. Fighters shall intercept them and force them to land on our airfields."
It was easy to foresee the results. Feeling that we were displaying caution the Germans started to behave even more arrogantly. On April 5, another Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane appeared over Libau. Our fighters took off. When they "invited" the Nazi pilot to land, he defied their demand. The fighters fired 20 warning rounds. The reconnaissance plane escaped. The German Embassy in Moscow lodged a protest against our planes opening fire at a "peaceful" German plane flying a "weather reconnaissance mission",
The unfriendly actions of the Germans and frequent intrusions of their planes into Soviet air space aroused anxiety among the officers and men of the fleets. Fleet political summaries stated with increasing frequency that the men spoke with anxiety about the possible outbreak of war. They wondered why the government failed to take effective measures.
Late in April or very early in May Ivan V. Rogov, chief of the Political Propaganda Department of the Navy, entered my office. He asked me:
"What are we going to do about talk on the forthcoming German attack on the Soviet Union?"
Ivan Vassilyevich was an exacting and strict worker. The political workers dubbed him Ivan the Terrible. But in this particular case he felt uneasy, because he knew what was happening on the seas and frontiers. When we were alone we would exchange opinions. Just like I Rogov would express concern. He was, of course, aware of the measures that the People's Commissariat of the Navy was taking. However, the official reports in the papers were intended to produce a reassuring effect. Those who mentioned war that the Nazis were preparing for against us risked being stigmatised as "provocators". What were the political workers to do? What should they tell the men?
The question Rogov raised was a very delicate one. After discussing the matter we decided that political organs should be instructed to enhance readiness for action and to explain to the men that Nazi Germany was the most probable potential enemy.
The ships and formations received these instructions without giving rise to any false rumours.
During the last few days before the war the fleets did their utmost to increase their combat capacity. To put the coastal defence batteries into service as quickly as possible the People's Commissariat of the Navy permitted to install them on temporary timber foundations and not on permanent concrete foundations. New airfields were put into operation before the runways were completed. The sailors, artillerymen and combat engineers pooled their efforts to organise perimeter defence works of naval bases from the land. This work was being done regardless of which fighting service - the Army or the Navy - was responsible for the defence of the given base. To prevent the enemy from catching us unawares we constantly sent aircraft and submarines on reconnaissance patrols on the approaches to the bases from the sea. On land we posted reinforced patrols. The fleets increased the combat capabilities of the ships.
As a rule, I would report to the government on these measures of precaution. But I never heard either approval or displeasure. I avoided filing in written reports requesting permission for such measures, because I knew that very often they remained unanswered. All the measures the fleets executed were duly covered by operations summaries of the Naval Staff. Everyday they would be forwarded to the General Staff. I considered this procedure proper.
The situation was becoming increasingly disturbing. In May, more and more Luftwaffe planes were breaking into Soviet air space. Various sources were also reporting on German troop movements close to our frontiers. German warships were being transferred to the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Their frequent visits to Finnish ports where they stayed a long time aroused suspicion. We were particularly worried about the Baltic theatre. The fleet had just obtained new bases there and was establishing itself in them. It was important to fortify them from the sea and to strengthen their rear zones.
The question of Libau arose again. The fact that it was too small for the number of ships moored in it caused anxiety from the very beginning. But in the face of an imminent attack it was necessary to take decisive action. Some of the ships just had to be moved from there. But we knew that Stalin had a different opinion on this matter. We decided to discuss the question officially at a meeting of the High Naval Council in presence of A. A. Zhdanov.
Andrei Aleksandrovich arrived half an hour before the meeting was opened. As soon as he entered my office he asked: "Which ships do you intend to move from Libau and why?"
I unfolded a detailed chart showing the ship station areas. I had prepared it in advance. I explained to him:
"Here they are packed like sardines. The area near Riga is well suited for mooring ships. The ships can put to sea in any direction from there."
"Let us hear what the others will say," Zhdanov retorted. No differences were voiced at the Council meeting. Everybody favoured the transfer of the light forces detachment and submarine brigade to the Gulf of Riga. That was what the Council decided. Bidding me farewell Zhdanov remarked: "You must report this to Comrade Stalin." Zhdanov, beyond doubt, helped the Navy. But at the same time he curtailed our rights in some areas. When I failed to inform him about a decision I had taken, he observed: "I am not just a plain member of the High Naval Council." By saying this he pointed out to me that he exercised the function of control over our People's Commissariat. But if our view differed from that of the "top authority", Zhdanov was not always prepared to uphold it. Thus, he refused to support me when I objected to the sending of submarines to the port of Abo situated deep in the Finnish skerries. Nor did he defend our opinion when Stalin proposed to use Libau as a base for one of our battleships.
But this time it seemed to me that I managed to convince Andrei Aleksandrovich that the ships should be transferred to Ust-Dvinsk. Zhdanov suggested that I should submit to Stalin a report in writing. He did not wish to speak with Stalin on this question. I forwarded a letter immediately, but received no reply. Such things happened quite often. Therefore, whenever I went to the Kremlin, I always carried a folder with copies of our letters. At a moment which I thought was opportune I would open the folder in Stalin's office and say:
"Here is an important paper to which I haven't received a reply. What should I do?"
Quite often Stalin would write brief instructions directly on the copy. In this particular case I reminded Stalin about the decision of the High Naval Council on the transfer of ships. Though Stalin wrote no instructions on the copy of my letter, he gave his oral approval.
The minute I returned to my office I called the Baltic Fleet commander over the phone: "Act as we agreed. Permission has been granted." We were also worried about Tallinn, the Baltic Fleet's main base. Situated in the Gulf of Finland the port of Tallinn was poorly defended from the north. We had not yet installed harbour booms or nets. Two battleships were moored there. Having discussed the matter with the chief of Naval Staff and the fleet commander, we decided to move the battleships to Kronstadt. A few days before the war began the Marat drew out of Tallinn. The other battleship - the Okryabrskaya Revolyutsiya returned to Kronstadt only in July when the war was raging. The movement involved serious risk.
From the very beginning the month of June aroused constant concern. I do not remember a single day when V. F. Tributs would not report distressing news from the Baltic. In most cases he informed me on movements of German Fighting ships close to our frontiers, concentration thereof in Finnish ports and on violation of our air space by Luftwaffe planes.
The situation in the Black Sea was less alarming. It was farther away from Germany. But even there the threat was mounting. This is evidenced by an order issued by Rear Admiral Filipp S.Oktyabrski, fleet commander, in pursuance of a directive of the Naval Staff. It read in part:
"In view of submarines belonging to neighbouring states appearing in proximity of our bases and coast, and unidentified aircraft crossing our frontiers in the context of an increasingly tense international situation in which random provocations are possible I hereby order that
"1. All ships at sea shall post lockouts who shall carry out their duties reliably, displaying special vigilance, and shall keep in standby condition the necessary weapons for beating off an attack.
"2. All ships and observation posts shall immediately report on any submarine, surface ship or aircraft sighted, preceding the report with the word Actually."
Of course, reference in the order to the increasingly tense international situation was not accidental. The fleets anxiously watched the developments and requested permission to take practical measures to ensure security. The fleet commanders repeatedly asked me:
"What should be done if an unidentified submarine is detected or a German plane approaches our ships at a dangerously close distance during exercises?"
I would always say: "Use your weapons." But I always warned them not to open Fire at friendly aircraft or ships by mistake.
In those days information on Nazi Germany's preparations for war was coming in from many sources. I then received a telegramme from M. A. Vorontsov, our naval attache in Berlin, in which he not only informed me on the preparations of the Nazis, but also mentioned nearly the exact date of the outbreak of the war. Among all the messages I was receiving his signal was not something exceptional. However, it was a document sent by a responsible official. In keeping with a standing operating procedure such communications were automatically forwarded to several addresses. I ordered my subordinates to check whether Stalin had received the telegramme. I was told he had.
I must admit that at the time I too doubted the authenticity of the information contained in the telegramme. I, therefore, ordered that Vorontsov should be summoned to Moscow to report to me personally. However, having discussed the situation in the fleets with Admiral 1. S. Isakov I decided to take additional precautions.