THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN IN REVIEW
AN ADDRESS BY
JOHN COLLINGWOOD READE
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, November 20, 1941
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: It is always difficult for a chairman to introduce a speaker who is already thoroughly well known both in name and in fame to every member of his audience. The name of John Collingwood Reade is a household word in the home not only of every member of this audience but also of everyone who is now listening to us on the air.
I said "fame". That is the right word to use, because John Collingwood Reade has built up for himself a fame and a reputation that are enviable. May I remind this audience, and may I remind the audience on the air, that behind that fame and that reputation there is a wealth of experience. John Collingwood Reade served for three years in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He sailed before the mast in South American waters. He worked in western logging camps. He had an academic career at the University of Toronto. In 1937 he spent a whole year in Britain, studying at first hand the rapidly developing events which have shaped up the world as we know it today, and he was still more recently in England with the Prime Minister's party, staying there after the Prime Minister had returned.
It is therefore, Gentlemen, this background that enables him to talk so effectively, so convincingly, and so realistically, as he does day by day over the radio. We are very glad to have him here today in person, and we are particularly glad that he is going to talk to us on Russia, his topic being "The Russian Campaign in Review". John Collingwood Reade. (Applause.)
MR. JOHN COLLINGWOOD READE: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: At the beginning of this past summer, we were breathing a little more easily. The Greek campaign,
it is true, had an unfortunate ending, and Crete, which we had hoped to be able to defend, was lost under circumstances which provoked a good deal of criticism. But the time thus gained had enabled us to occupy Syria, and it was generally felt that, though the Nazis had gained a bridge-head in Crete, they had lost the other end of the bridge across the Eastern Mediterranean because we were now in a position to defend Cyprus.
In those days we were talking about the dangerously extended German lines of supply, and congratulating ourselves on the fact that, so long as Turkey's neutrality was preserved and her undertakings to Britain faithfully fulfilled, the Germans would need to gather up their strength again and embark on another campaign, perhaps through Spain, in order to attack our Mediterranean interests. It was felt then that the Germans would not be likely to attempt an invasion of the British Isles, and that if they did, they would have made the most costly mistake of the war, and put victory well within our grasp.
What has happened since then? Germany, frustrated in the West, incapable of knocking the British Isles out of the war by air attack, and foiled in her attempt to skirt the north-eastern shores of the Mediterranean to reach oil in Iran, turned eastward to Russia. With what elation we first learned that the Russians had accepted the challenge and were prepared to fight in the defence of their territory! We hardly dared to hope that they could remain in the field as an organized force and do battle for more than the six weeks or so which Hitler said he would take to conquer them. We agreed that if Russia were decisively beaten, our position would be worse than it was before, because Hitler would have gained useful supplies from the Ukraine and put himself in possession of oil. Yet we hoped for the best and believed that, at the worst, Hitler would pay heavily in materials, manpower, and time, for his victory.
I don't know whether Hitler really believed that he could smash the Russian armies in six weeks, but I am quite sure that he thought he could do so before winter set in. Now it is clear that our worst forebodings were groundless, and that the best we could reasonably hope for has come to pass. Yet I seem to discern rather more wagging of grave heads today than there was at the beginning of the campaign. Is this trend toward a morbid pessimism justified in reason, or is it merely an intellectual fashion? The question is whether the Allied fortunes have improved, and the prospect of ultimate victory brightened during the past five months, or whether the course of the Russian campaign has placed us in greater jeopardy. The answer to this question is only to be found by striking a balance between the advantages and disadvantages accruing to the enemy, and assessing his chances of winning a decisive victory.
Let us admit, at the beginning, that no one yet knows the truth, either about Russian resources and productive capacity, or about German losses and economic reserves. At best we can only surmise, and our judgment will vary according to our estimate of these vital factors. And if we were all to be perfectly frank, we should probably admit that our estimate of Russia's productive capacity will be influenced by our feelings about Russian policy. Those who hate Russia for what she represents will be inclined to discount her ability to match the Germans in industrial production. Those who admire Russia for the ideals which she professes have a boundless faith in Russian miracles.
For my own part, I am inclined to think that, in material matters, there is very little to choose between the German and the Russian system of organization. Both these States have developed a totalitarian system of government. Both have directed the energies of their people to warlike preparations for many years. Both have regimented their manpower and exacted every sacrifice from their people. Germany has a long and excellent tradition of efficient industrial production. Russia has a peasant tradition, but has been industrializing for twenty years. Moreover she has greater manpower and command of boundless resources within her own borders.
At the time of the German conquest of Poland, we were a little shocked at Russia's invasion of Eastern Poland. We were shocked at the unprovoked assault which Russia made on Finland and on the Baltic States. Yet we are inclined to take a more tolerant view of these assaults in the light of recent events. Germany, it is clear, intended to move eastward, and would have over-run these nations in any event. So Russia decided to move first and place a cushion between herself and the striking arm of the conqueror.
There are those who think that Russia was impelled to her western conquests by motives of Imperialism, but I am inclined to think that her rulers knew well enough how treacherous and how desperate was the man with whom they had struck up so strange a friendship. I think the Russians were cunning enough to fondle him and pat him while they filched one of the guns out of his hip pocket.
I doubt very much whether the Russian forces could have withstood the impact of the German attack in all of its fury and still have defended most of their western system of communications and supply, had they been compelled to meet it first on the borders of Russia proper. The long delayed action which was fought over many weeks as the Russians gradually retreated first to the Bug River, then back to the Dnieper, gave them time to move a great deal of their productive machinery behind the Urals, and to prepare mines for the destruction of what they were unable to move. It gave them an opportunity to test the German's strength, and gain experience in German tactics. It won them respite in which to complete the preparation of deep defenses before their most vital centres.
The campaign is now entering a particularly critical state. The main lines of Russian communication north and south, and from the main centres to the interior, have been threatened often, but not yet irretrievably disrupted. The Russian armies have several times come near to being segregated from each other, and to having the unity of their command destroyed. But this catastrophe has not yet happened. On each occasion, when it appeared likely to happen, superhuman efforts and an unexpected reserve of strength have been brought into play to relieve the situation.
I understand from people who are in a position to know-as much as anyone can know-that Russia retains about sixty per cent of her productive capacity as far as the munitions industry is concerned. Whether this is sufficient, when taken in conjunction with her reserve of military stores, to support the operation of her gigantic armies until the spring, I do not know. But neither can we be sure that Hitler's fuel reserves and his ability to continue repair and maintenance so far from home will stand the strain any better.
It is all very well to talk in awe-struck tones of the vast resources and productive facilities which Hitler has been able to incorporate into his war machine as the result of the conquest of nearly all Europe. Napoleon had some of the same advantages, and more time in which to make use of them. The fact is, that the task of adapting these to their new purposes, of incorporating them into a general economic scheme without duplication, and of providing and transporting raw materials from unaccustomed places, since the naval blockade has closed the ports, is a tiresome responsibility on the liability side which almost overbalances the assets. Hitler will find, as Napoleon found before him, that the needs of the conquered people must be served, or he can expect no cooperation from them. The alternative is compulsion, and compulsion involves distributing troops and agents thickly over an area large enough to absorb even his vast army.
If it be true that Russian occupation of territories to the west of her was made entirely for the purpose of preparing a defense in depth against the enemy she knew must eventually attack her, then we must measure Germany's successes with this in mind. In other words, we must not look at the map and note the great distance between the line as it was last June and the line as it is today, and call that the measure of German triumph. For it is evident that most of this ground was intended to be yielded in the process of absorbing shock. Nor am I entirely convinced of the great value of the Ukraine to the enemy. In fact, I question whether its loss will be crippling to the Russians, unless the war drags on for two more years with the Germans in full possession. This territory passed into enemy hands during the last war. Yet Germany's economic collapse was not averted by possessing this treasure house of food and minerals.
I think most military experts will agree that a protracted retreat drawn out over several hundred miles is a much harder type of action to fight and requires more military skill than an advance. It is a sort of leap-frog business, with rear-guard forces fighting delaying actions, while the main forces withdraw. Then the rear-guard has to be withdrawn under cover of aircraft and artillery fire. That the Russians have been able to withdraw with their forces almost intact and to do so for hundreds of miles over a period of five months, and then to make a successful stand when it became necessary, argues that the Russian army is stronger and better led than we had supposed. And it does seem as though this great retreat has sapped enough strength from the enemy's striking arm that his shock tactics are no longer irresistible.
The Russians have given the German army a terrific problem to solve. They have forced the German High Command to support a force numbered in millions, stretched out over a front two thousand miles long, with supplies which must be transported over primitive country, largely in gasoline driven vehicles. Time, distance, and winter are bound to take very heavy toll of these gasoline driven vehicles, and to make serious inroads on Germany's oil reserve. I think, moreover, that the speed with which the enemy has been drawn into Russian territory, coupled with his own encircling tactics, has resulted in an incomplete subjugation of the territory over which he has passed. The activities of isolated Russian units, guerrilla bands, and armed peasants behind the German lines will, in the forthcoming months, acquire a major importance and constitute a serious menace to the organization of German supply.
The most difficult factor to assess at its true value is the respective loss of manpower. Most people are agreed that the Russian estimates of German losses are greatly exaggerated. I have heard quite responsible people suggest that the German losses are really infinitesimal. This is going to the other extreme, and is obviously preposterous.. The Russian army is highly mechanized, mobile, and cunningly led, and is fighting over its own country, so it is not reasonable to suppose that the Russian troops are unduly exposed to a series of desperate actions in which thousands of them must be annihilated by machine gun fire. It is, moreover, a military axiom that the storming of strongly defended positions involves much greater loss of manpower to the attacker than to the def ender.
There can be no doubt that the crossing of the Beretsina River and the drive on Smolensk cost the Germans heavily in manpower. The long stand which the Russians made around Kiev put the enemy to great expense to blast an unobstructed pathway to the Southern Ukraine. And who shall say that an army fighting several hundred miles away from any well established permanent military base, and attacking in successive waves along a three hundred mile front for six weeks, has not sustained appalling casualties? Yet, this is the situation in which the German army has been along the arc from Kalinin to Tula which protects the western defense of Moscow.
No, I think there is no doubt that the German forces have suffered tremendous casualties. Not four million men, perhaps, but something over two. If the fighting had not been pretty terrific, Hungarian and Rumanian forces would scarcely have pulled out of the battle and foregone all hope of profiting by the campaign. The Russians, too, have lost heavily, but they can afford their losses better. They have many times the manpower and no vast areas of conquered territory to police and garrison.
There is one aspect of the fighting on the eastern front which is definitely encouraging, and that is the inability of the German Air Force to win undisputed ascendancy over the Russian Air Force. The most important single factor in Germany's swift victory over Poland was an almost complete and early annihilation of the Polish Air Force. The Russians have not been caught in the same trap, and, though their air losses must indeed be heavy, Russian aircraft are continuing to give valuable support to their troops, while Russian aircraft factories have been able to develop new types of aircraft and put them into service.
It is in this department that British and American material help can be made available most quickly. Mr. Churchill has made reference to the fact that the Germans are short of aircraft. The British, on the other hand, are not short of aircraft for present purposes, and it will only' be a matter of a few months before the combined production of British and American aircraft factories will far outrun Germany's current production. This may prove the decisive factor in frustrating German efforts to break the western system of Russian defenses and communication. As the Germans have good reason to know from their experience in Libya, long -drawn out lines of communication are very vulnerable to powerful and sustained air attacks. British aircraft are already fighting in Russia in large numbers, both as Royal Air Force formations and as contributions to the Russian Air Force. Of recent weeks, American aircraft have made their appearance in the southern theatre of operations. British tanks also have led the Russian forces into action, but it is not clear yet whether they were transferred from the British Army of the Middle East or whether they were shipped direct to Murmansk.
In these ways, we have helped Russia already, and I suppose the most important question of the hour is, how can we bring the greatest measure of aid to our Russian allies without jeopardizing the Allied cause by exposing some other vulnerable spot for the Germans to attack. There has, as you know, been a wide-spread clamour for the British Government to open up another front. Britain's failure to do so has started a storm of recriminations which are as mischievous as they are unwarranted. Those who are responsible for directing the Allied strategy and making disposition of the Allied forces take a very broad view. They must keep their eyes on the Pacific, on the Indian frontiers, on the Mediterranean, on the Atlantic, and on western Europe. They must remember that it is more important to win the war than to win a battle. They must bear a number of political considerations in mind, knowing, for instance, that too great a disturbance of the balance of power in the Middle East might have unfortunate effects on Turkish policy, and that the strategic position of Turkey is of paramount importance. They must do the best with what they have, and, since that is little enough, avoid exposing it where they cannot be sure that its effect will be decisive.
Last time, we went to help Greece, and we lost Libya because we didn't have enough forces to hold the dominant position in two theatres of war. In the long run, the best way to help Russia is to assure the ultimate defeat of Hitler, and, if an unduly heavy burden rests on Russian shoulders today, be sure that at the last the burden will fall upon us, not because of our failure now, but because it will be up to us to administer the coup de grace. Landing a powerful force in western Europe involves retaining mechanized equipment in Britain which is now going to the Middle East; it involves the construction and operation of literally hundreds of diesel-driven invasion barges which we do not yet possess, because conventional ships require docks and the enemy controls all the docks in western Europe, and can destroy them; it involves exposing the smaller craft of the Royal Navy to aircraft and torpedo boat attack in confined and heavily mined waters, at a time when they are badly needed in the battle of the Atlantic and to protect our convoys going to the Middle East. Such an offensive presupposes that we shall capture territory and pursue our advantage, and this, in its turn, involves moving in great quantities of supplies through the regular ports after we have made them our own. That implies a diversion of shipping which is already strained to meet our requirements in the British Isles and in the Middle East.
If we are not to lose Egypt and all our Mediterranean bases, which indirectly are of inestimable value to the Germans, we must drive the Axis army out of Libya. So we must continue to build up the strength of the army of the Nile. If Turkey is not to fall victim to German pressure, we must maintain powerful forces at her borders. This also is of vital importance to- Russia.
Looking at the matter another way, we may say that millions of German troops will have died in vain if Hitler does not reach oil in the next few months. To snatch the fruits of victory from his grasp is just the same as inflicting a defeat upon him, and it would seem more sensible to help the Russians defend the Caucasus by keeping supplies rolling up through Iran to the Persian Gulf, and by massing troops where they will be ready if called upon, than to dissipate our strength in doubtful adventures elsewhere.
In conclusion, I should like to say a word about the threat which appeals to prejudice on the one hand and to sentimentality on the other, with respect to our dealings with Russia. Already there are those who are seeking to gain popular favour at the expense of their political rivals by pretending that men of means and position secretly desire Russia's destruction, and are obstructing the fulfillment of British pledges of aid. It is only possible for them to do this if the general public allows its admiration for Russian courage to blind it to the realities of the Soviet State. The Russians have always been veritable tigers in the defense of their own soil. Long before the Communist regime gained power, the Russian proved himself as a fighter and a devoted guardian of his home. The Russians have not changed, but the Communist State is a totalitarian regime, perfectly adapted and well prepared for just such a struggle as this. The political clique in control is more akin to the other dictatorships than it is to the democracies. Germany leans toward military imperialism, while Russia has a longer range policy aimed at first subjecting her own people to an uncritical acceptance of the Communist doctrine and the establishment of a Communist State, and thereafter at extending Communist power by a systematic proselytization of other countries through a well developed technique of agitation and political disruption.
I think we need to remind ourselves of these things from time to time in order that we shall not lose sight of the attitude we have adopted toward the Russo-German war-an attitude proclaimed by Mr. Churchill and endorsed by all the members of the British Commonwealth and their Allies. We are not fighting for Communism. We are not endorsing the religion of materialism and expediency expounded by Marx and interpreted by a small group of people who have consecrated themselves as the priests of a new cult, people who have arrogated to themselves mystical powers to pronounce between right and wrong, and who hold as a monopoly the power to interpret the only true faith, dispense justice, and decide what is truth and what is not.
Now, while we do not subscribe to this mode of organization, yet we must perforce admit that it is no less efficacious a method of organizing for war than the Nazi re gime itself, and that it has the merit, which the Nazis have not, of being founded on a coherent and plausible social philosophy.
We have also committed ourselves to the policy that, no matter what we may deplore in the internal systems of organization adopted by any nation, we cannot tolerate international lawlessness. For, if it is possible for one nation to be attacked for no better reason than that a neighbouring people desire to possess themselves of its property, none of us will be immune from the same type of marauder. Unfortunately, we have only recently decided to give practical effect to this principle which we have always accepted in theory.
Finally, and of most immediate importance, we must join forces with any who fight Hitler-for we could not have defeated him. single-handed. Russia is not, and has not been, an enemy of ours. Nothing she has done has clearly violated any code of international law. If her agents have sinned against our practices, we have had the remedy in our own hands, and have been able to act against them individually without involving ourselves with the Soviet, which has generally repudiated them. Moreover, it must be admitted that, in the field of international relations, Russia has played a proper and moral part, abiding more faithfully by the terms of the covenant of the League of Nations, to which we all subscribed, than we did ourselves.
I have recently had opportunity to discuss Russia as an ally with men in responsible positions in Britain, whose dislike and distrust of Communism is well known, and I can say.with certainty that they are the most ardent advocates of bringing help to Russia. For they are realists, and they understand only too well the consequences of a German victory over Russia, and how, in the process of time, the totalitarian powers, drawing strength from that great storehouse, can drag on the struggle and reduce the world to exhaustion. They know, too, that a Russia which has been aided in her hour of peril, will lose some of the rancour against the rest of the world which she can only nurse and keep warm so long as she stays isolated in her hermit's cave with every man's hand against her.
A strong instinct of self-preservation, and a shrewd estimate of the political effects which the comingling of Russia with the outside world would have, are driving the most hide-bound of British Tories to exert their best efforts on Russia's behalf. Those who say otherwise are merely taking advantage of the British Government's impotence in the matter of opening up another front, to exploit popular sentiment and drive a breach in the Tory stronghold. They are doing no good for Russia, and, if they are gaining any political advantage for themselves, it is only at the expense of the Allied interests. These domestic quarrels can wait, for they will appear of trifling consequence in the shadow of this struggle which bids fair to engulf the whole world. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen, I am sure we are grateful for that address. It will help us to maintain a proper perspective of the war as a whole, and, although the news of the day swings our attention from one battle area to another, John Collingwood Reade's address once more emphasises the unity of the whole gigantic struggle. Russia always has been an enigma. Right into the twentieth century she looked East rather than West; was not particularly interested in Europe, but was motivated by a Pan Slav movement; and was urged by the desire for a warm water port for her sea communications. But today she is in the very vanguard of the European battle-front.
Yet, she is still something of an enigma. We had built up in our minds, or we had let others build up in our minds for us, a false idea of her primitiveness and inefficiency. She has shown by action that she possesses an almost unbelievable efficiency against Hitler's vaunted invulnerability. In the last war the phrase we used was "the Russian steam roller". That is what she is proving to be today. And on behalf of this audience, both those present in this room and those listening to us on the air, I say to John Collingwood Reade that we are most grateful for his masterly survey of the Russian situation, which helps us to keep the whole international picture in perspective. (Applause.)