Subordinating the generals – the dictators dictate
On 29 July 1941 Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the Chief of the Red Army's General Staff, delivered to Stalin a detailed report on operations across the whole length of the eastern front. Zhukov was unique among Stalin's commanders for being both forthright with his opinion and uncompromising in his judgements, even when he knew these were to prove deeply unpopular. The meeting with Stalin began ominously as Zhukov noted the presence of the notorious Mekhlis, Deputy People's Commissar of Defence, who was infamous for his ruthlessness against the Soviet officer corps during the purge. Zhukov commenced with a long survey of the front, beginning in the north and working his way down to the south. He orientated his audience with large maps of the front, statistics on Soviet losses and the formation of new reserve armies. Finally he came to German deployments and suggested what he believed to be their most likely future course of action. At this point Mekhlis interrupted to question how Zhukov had come by his information about the Germans, to which Zhukov defensively replied that he knew nothing of German plans, but that their disposition of forces suggested ‘certain things’. Zhukov then explained:
On the strategic axis of Moscow the Germans are unable to mount a major offensive operation in the near future owing to their heavy losses and they lack appreciable reserves to secure the right and left wings of Army Group Centre.
On the Leningrad axis it is impossible for the Germans to begin an operation to capture Leningrad and link up with the Finns without additional forces…
The most dangerous and the weakest sector of our line is the Central Front, since the armies covering Unscha and Gomel are weak and badly equipped – the Germans can use this present weak spot to strike into the flank and rear of the South-Western Front.
The Central Front, under Colonel-General F. I. Kuznetsov, had been newly created on 23 July and consisted of the battered Thirteenth and Twenty-First Armies. Its orders were to protect Gomel and the Sozh River sector, but it was hardly in a position to do so. Having identified the weakness, Zhukov recommended reinforcing Kuznetsov's front with three additional armies as well as giving it more artillery and an experienced and energetic commander (Zhukov suggested North-Western Front's Chief of Staff, N. F. Vatutin). Stalin, however, was sceptical and questioned whether the diversion of forces would weaken the vital approaches to Moscow. Zhukov was adamant it would not and explained that in two weeks nine fully equipped divisions could be transferred from the Far East to reinforce the Moscow Axis. Again Stalin was sceptical and he challenged Zhukov by suggesting that this would mean handing the Far East over to the Japanese. Zhukov ignored the comment and went on to explain that South-Western Front would also have to be pulled back behind the Dnepr. ‘And what about Kiev in that case?’ Stalin asked pointedly. Zhukov explained it would have to be given up, but provided a solid military rationale for such a course. Nevertheless, at the mere suggestion of abandoning Kiev, Stalin exploded. As Zhukov explained, ‘He cursed me in crude terms for suggesting we leave Kiev which, like Leningrad, he counted on holding at any cost.’ Stalin also accused him of talking ‘rubbish’, which soon provoked its own outburst from Zhukov who retorted, ‘If you think the Chief of the General Staff talks nonsense, then I request you relieve me of my post and send me to the front.’ Stalin was in no mood to back down and therefore accepted Zhukov's request. The ageing and far more amenable Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov took over as Chief of the General Staff and Zhukov was sent to command the Reserve Front.