Russia’s Greatest General

The cruel and ruthless Russian winter often assisted Russian troops to hold and crush the advancing enemy. However, there were cases when the capricious “General Frost” turned its weapon against its ally.

This important Russian ally has many names: General Frost, General Winter, or General Snow. The harsh Russian winter was a powerful weapon Russia used against its enemies, who were pampered by the mild European winters.

The first time the name “General Frost” appeared was in 1812 in a British satirical cartoon dedicated to Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. The cheering British wrote: “General Frost shaving little Boney.” Since then the name has become iconic.

Napoleon’s generals wrote in their memoirs that the Russian winter was the main reason why the Grande Armée was defeated. But that’s a face-saving ploy. The French troops were in fact crushed by the Russian soldiers’ fortitude, the widespread partisan war and the clever tactics of the Russian command, which exhausted the enemy.

Nevertheless, “General Frost” did strike a deadly blow against the French. The severe frost took a dreadful toll on the ill-prepared Grande Armée on its way out of Russia. Only a few tens of thousands of soldiers out of 600,000 returned home, and winter played a not inconsiderable role in this.

True, “General Frost” showed itself a century before the name appeared. In 1708, during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, the army of Charles XII spent the winter in Ukraine. There, it was struck by the coldest winter that Europe had seen in 500 years.

The harsh Scandinavian warriors were no strangers to the cruel cold, but definitely not for this one. Almost half of the Swedish soldiers and horses froze to death. This significantly helped Tsar Peter the Great in the decisive Battle of Poltava, when the Swedes were totally crushed.

“General Frost” was not always on the Russian side. During the Winter War, for instance, the advancing Soviet troops faced one of the cruelest winters of the 20th century. Entire divisions cut off and surrounded by the Finns froze to death in the deep snow. The Soviet Union won the war, but paid a high price with over 126,000 dead (the Finns lost 25,000).

Another case when the Russian winter could hardly be called a Soviet friend happened during the Battle of Moscow. Wehrmacht generals asserted that the severe cold of -30 and even -50C stopped their offensive. The weather data, however, showed that November of 1941 was rather moderate and conducive to an advance. It froze the ground and helped the German armored divisions to maneuver.

“The cold froze the swamps, and the German tanks and motorized units – the main enemy strike force – were freer to roam. We felt this immediately. The enemy command started to use tanks off the roads,” Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky recalled in his memoirs.

Later, when the Soviet armies went on the counteroffensive in December-January, extremely cold weather set in. The attacking Soviet soldiers froze in the fields and sank in the deep snow, while the Germans clung onto their positions in the seized settlements outside Moscow.

On the whole, the Russian winter greatly helped the Soviets in defending the Motherland. The German troops did not have enough warm winter uniforms, and their military equipment often seized up in the biting cold. “General Frost” literally destroyed the surrounded 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a turning point in the whole war.

General Frost has a powerful ally – General Mud. For the advancing enemy, the Russian autumn was not much better than the Russian winter. Troops were forced to march knee-deep in lakes of mud caused by persistent rains. Bearing in mind the parlous condition of the roads back then, such advances deep into Russian territory turned into real nightmares.

Boris Egerov write on topics of Russian history and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Night Bivouac of Napoleon’s Army During the Retreat from Russia in 1812,” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin, ca. 1896-1897.

Richard Sorge – The Spy Betrayed By Stalin

The Soviet intelligence officer Richard Sorge was worth an entire army. His reports not only saved Moscow during WWII, but also significantly contributed to the victory over Nazism. However, Stalin had a peculiar way of “thanking” him, allowing him to be hanged by the Japanese.

In autumn 1941 the outcome of the whole Soviet-German war was at stake: Hitler’s troops were at the gates of the Soviet capital. However, after some brutal, exhausting clashes, the Soviet army went on the counteroffensive and drove the enemy back.

Victory became possible due to the arrival of fresh Soviet divisions, redeployed to Moscow from Siberia, where they had been awaiting a Japanese attack.

Stalin would never have allowed a weakening of the Soviet forces in the Far East if Soviet reconnaissance officer Richard Sorge had not reported that Japan was not preparing to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, one man saved the capital of the Soviet Union when all seemed lost.

Richard Sorge was born to become an intelligence officer. Smart, attractive and elegant, he was good at making useful acquaintances, which he exploited perfectly in getting vital information.

At the age of 29, young German communist Richard Sorge moved to the Soviet Union, where he soon was recruited by the Soviet intelligence service.

In 1933, Sorge was sent to Japan, where he successfully impersonated a German journalist. His whole future life was tied to this country thereafter, and it was there that he met his end.

His intelligent and amicable manner allowed Richard Sorge to easily befriend people. One of the most important among them was the German ambassador to Japan, Major General Eugen Ott, who had access to all the secrets of Nazi Germany.

Ott completely trusted Sorge, and in fact was the main source of all important information for the Soviet intelligence officer. Ott often shared info and asked Sorge’s advice, since he thought Richard Sorge worked for the German intelligence service, having no idea who Sorge’s real paymasters were…

Richard Sorge’s other major source was Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki. An advisor to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, he was a devoted communist and Sorge’s agent, who had access to the highest ranks of Imperial Japan.

Despite the important and useful information Sorge sent to Moscow, the Soviet leadership was very suspicious of their intelligence officer in Japan. A German, with a passion for women and alcohol, with such friends as Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Sorge was viewed by the Soviets as a double agent.

Still, to gain a spy net in such a closed country as Japan was no easy task, and the Soviet leaders had no choice but to keep Richard Sorge as their main source in the Land of the Rising Sun.

During the series of repressions in the USSR in the late 1930s, known as the Great Purge, Soviet intelligence was literally decapitated, with all its leaders executed, including close colleagues and friends of Sorge. He himself was summoned to Moscow for “talks.”

Afraid for his life, Richard Sorge refused to go, saying he had too much work to do in Japan. This enraged Stalin, who became even more suspicious of “that German.”

These suspicions remained despite the fact that Sorge’s reports significantly helped the Soviet troops to prepare and defeat the Japanese at the Battles of Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkhin Gol (1939).

Despite being thousands kilometers away from Europe, Richard Sorge had perfect ties with German and Japanese high officials and was sometimes better informed about what was happening there than other Soviet intelligence officers in Europe.

Numerous times Richard Sorge warned his chiefs about German plans to attack the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Yet such reports were ignored.

When Sorge was arrested by the Japanese, he said during the interrogation: “There were days when I sent 3-4 encryptions to Moscow, but, it seems, nobody believed me.”

The attitude towards Sorge completely changed after the launch of Operation Barbarossa confirmed his words. Richard Sorge finally won Stalin’s trust.

On 14 September 1941, Sorge sent perhaps the most important message in his life. “According to my source, the Japanese leadership decided not to begin hostilities against the Soviet Union this year.”

This time Richard Sorge’s words were taken seriously. It is believed that this message finally convinced Stalin to order the redeployment of over a dozen fresh, well-trained divisions from the Far East in defense of Moscow, where they became game-changers.

On December 5, the strengthened Soviet troops went on the counteroffensive and threw the Germans back from the Soviet capital. The Wehrmacht suffered its first serious defeat in the war.

In October 1941, Richard Sorge and his entire group were arrested by the Japanese. At first, the Germans didn’t believe that Richard Sorge, who was proclaimed the best German journalist that year, was a Soviet spy. All their requests to free him were denied.

After Sorge’s work for Soviet intelligence was confirmed, the Japanese twice contacted the Soviets regarding his future fate. Both times the Soviet side answered the same: “We in the Soviet Union know nothing about any such person as Richard Sorge.”

Although it remains unknown as to the precise reason why the Soviets declined to exchange Sorge, it is believed that Stalin could not forgive him for acknowledging his work for the USSR under interrogation, something a Soviet intelligence officer should never do.

When Stalin abandoned his best intelligent officer, Sorge was doomed. As a taunt over the Russians, the Japanese hanged him on November 7, 1944, the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

For 20 years the name of Richard Sorge was forgotten in the Soviet Union. But in the U.S. and Europe, quite the opposite, his activity was well studied. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev saw the French movie Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? and was shocked by what he saw.

When Khrushchev found out that Richard Sorge was a real person, he ordered the name and fame of the Soviet intelligence officer to be restored. Sorge was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

 

Boris Egorov is a journalist writing for Russia Beyond.
The photo shows an East German first issue to honor Richard Sorge, from 1976.