The Very Last Days
The Black Sea Fleet had planned an exercise for June. But the international situation was so tense that I was gripped with doubt. Perhaps, it would be better to cancel it? Since it was intended to conduct it in co operation with the forces of the Odessa Military Area, we asked the view of the General Staff. Having received no answer, we decided to change our plans. Out of caution we instructed the fleet to keep the weapons ready for immediate action. Admiral 1. S. Isakov, chief of Naval Staff, went to the Black Sea Fleet to effect guidance of the exercise. Before he left we agreed that, if the situation developed into an emergency, I would immediately inform him. On receiving the signal he was to instruct the fleet commander to employ weapons, if necessary.
A group of political workers of the Political Propaganda Department headed by Brigade Commissar I.I. Azarov went to the Black Sea Fleet too. His instructions were to tell the local political workers in plain language that the weapons should be kept ready for action in case of German attack.
Later Azarov told me that he got into a very difficult position. Addressing the crew of the cruiser Krasny Kavkaz he said that a conflict with Nazi Germany was possible. He called on the men to display vigilance. But two days later, on June 14, 1941, the ship received the TASS statement which categorically
denied the rumours about the possibility of war. The statement described these rumours as provocative. A. M .Gushchin, commanding officer of the cruiser Krasny Kavkaz, asked Azarov to address the crew again and to explain to the men the actual situation.
Azarov decided to stick to his original stand. He made it clear to the officers and men that the TASS statement was of a diplomatic character, that its purpose was to delay the clash and to win time for preparation. It was the duty of the servicemen to be on the alert at all times. The crew accepted Azarov's communication with understanding.
The TASS statement of June 14 is particularly void of logic today. We know how Hitler responded to it. On June 17, i. e. three days later, he ordered the Wehrmacht to start enacting Plan Barbarossa at daybreak on June 22, 1941. And now again, many years later, I went through the summaries we received. It was on that portentous day—June 17—that German activities sharply soared at sea.
Thus, on that day the Germans burnt all the bridges behind them. It was vital to take all the emergency measures including general mobilisation. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
It should be mentioned that every single day brought news that gave rise to intense concern. Just like always before a denouncement the rate of developments skyrocketed. The Naval Staff kept a record which showed that the intervals between the arrival of German ships at Soviet ports increased more and more. The curve sharply dropping to the zero mark revealed that the Germans had produced a plan and were carrying it out with typical German meticulousness. Even in Tallinn whose harbour was only recently full of German "merchantmen" which were being loaded with shale Germany needed so badly there were only two or three of them. We learnt that von Baumbach, German naval attache, asked his superiors for permission to go home on business. These facts could not be regarded as a mere coincidence.
I invited Rear Admiral V. A. Alafuzov who was acting chief of Naval Staff while Admiral 1. S. Isakov was away with the Black Sea Fleet and asked him whether we should interrupt the exercise in proximity of Odessa. One consideration deterred us from taking this step. A fleet at sea in a condition of complete readiness for action would not be caught napping. We were talking these matters over on June 16 or 17. According to a rumour that reaches us, Churchill and Roosevelt had sent messages to Stalin warning him about the imminent German attack.
I saw Stalin on June 13 or 14. This was our last meeting before the outbreak of the war. I informed him about the latest intelligence reports from the fleets, about the big exercise of the Black Sea Fleet, and about the Germans making no more deliveries of equipment for the cruiser Lutzow. He asked me no questions about the readiness of the fleets. I was irresistibly tempted to tell him that German transport vessels were departing from our ports. I also wanted to ask him whether we should limit the movements of Soviet merchant ships in German waters. But I saw that my further presence was obviously undesirable.
I am sure of one thing. Stalin did not rule out the possibility of war with Nazi Germany. On the contrary, he considered it probable and even, sooner or later, inevitable. He regarded the non-aggression pact of 1939 as a means for postponing the war. But the war was postponed for a much shorter time than he had expected. In my opinion, he made a mistake in determining the time of the conflict. Stalin made preparations for war on a big scale and in many Fields. But he proceeded from a remote date he himself had fixed. Hitler upset his calculations.
Stalin's mistrust of Great Britain and America only made matters worse. Of course, he had many reasons to believe that Great Britain and America were anxious to draw us into a conflict with Germany. This was the policy the Western powers were pursuing. There was nothing secret about it. Stalin's distrust of these nations and hostility towards them stemmed from here. He doubted all British and American information about Hitler's actions or rejected it. This was his attitude not only towards reports from random sources, but also towards communications from our official envoys in these countries and towards statements by British and American statesmen.
The staff of our embassy in Britain notified us about the shifting of German troops to the Soviet frontier, stating the dates and numbers of the divisions. This information was held in doubt solely because it came from British government circles. When these data came from other sources, even from Germany, they were also disregarded.
Though mistrust of West European political leaders was, apparently, understandable, it assumed tremendous proportions. As I see it, Stalin reasoned along the following lines: "It the British want us to fight Germany, this means that all the information on the possibility of war in the immediate future has been fabricated by them."
But why did he not take elementary precautions? As a man of great experience and an outstanding political leader he realised that you could bring the aggressor to his sense only by showing that you were ready to retaliate in kind, to deal a blow, if he risked hitting you. If the aggressor is raising his fist, you should show him your fist.
Hitler's fist was the German divisions concentrated on our frontier. This meant that Soviet divisions were our fist. It is not enough to have only divisions, tanks, aircraft and ships. They must be maintained in a state of immediate readiness for action. The entire military establishment, the whole of the people and the entire country should be on the alert.
It seems to me that the pressure of inexorable facts caused Stalin to realise, early in 1941, that Hitler's attack was possible. Seeing that his hopes for a later war were unfounded, that our Armed Forces and the country could not be adequately prepared for war within the next few months he tried to do everything he thought possible to delay the conflict. He did not wish to give Hitler any pretext for attack, any pretext that could provoke war. Desiring to show that we had no intention of fighting Germany, he painfully responded to any report on Nazi Germany's preparations for war. So when Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes photographed our bases, his orders were not to open fire. The planes caught over Soviet fortifications were forced to land on our airfields. His orders were to let them go. When the British warned us about an imminent German attack, we responded with the publication of a statement refuting all rumours and adhering to the terms of the nonaggression pact.
Of course, there could be all sorts of reports. Among them there could have possibly been messages of a provocative character. But even a highly critical analysis of all this information led one to the conclusion that Hitler would start war against us at any moment.
During those feverish days N. F. Vatutin, deputy Chief of General Staff, came to my office. He said that he carefully read our operations summaries and submitted them to his superiors. Vatutin promised he would immediately notify us, if the situation became critical.
We decided not to await instructions any longer and to take action on our own. On June 19, readiness for action, condition 2, was announced for the Baltic Fleet. This would save it from surprises. The situation in the North was not as tense as in the Baltic, but the Naval Staff effected condition 2 for it too. On June 18, the Black Sea Fleet returned to Sevastopol harbour from the training area and was ordered to maintain operational readiness, condition 2.
During the last prewar year we established a heightened condition of readiness for separate formations or even whole fleets. This was done for purposes of training. This time operational readiness, condition 2, was of a different character, because the actual situation demanded it. And the crews understood the need for it.
In analysing the events of the last few days of peace I am of the opinion that Stalin believed the Armed Forces were in a higher condition of readiness than they really were. Knowing the number of the latest aircraft stationed on his order at frontier airfields, he thought they could take off as soon as the alert was sounded to beat off an enemy attack. He was simply overwhelmed, when he heard that our planes were destroyed on the airfields before they could take off.
I cannot venture an exhaustive answer about the causes of such an unfortunate beginning of the war. But I am sure that one of the reasons was that none of the state leaders had authoritatively announced that the Homeland was in danger!
Instead of making an objective appraisal of the international situation which was not in our favour Stalin preferred to stick to his subjective view about the possible time the clash with Nazi Germany would take place. And this subjective view prevailed at the time.
The situation, as I see it, was further complicated by shifts of commanders both in the centre and the localities. Relying on Stalin's authority the new commanders did not resolutely state their opinions to him.