World War II: Marshal Georgy Zhukov

Marshal Georgy Zhukov
Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Public Domain

Born December 1, 1896, in Strelkovka, Russia, Georgy Zhukov was the son of peasants. After working in the fields as a child, Zhukov was apprenticed to a furrier in Moscow at age 12. Completing his apprenticeship four years later in 1912, Zhukov entered the business. His career proved short lived as in July 1915, he was conscripted into the Russian army for service in World War I. Assigned to the cavalry, Zhukov performed with distinction, twice winning the Cross of St. George. Serving with the 106th Reserve Cavalry and the 10th Dragoon Novgorod Regiment, his time in the conflict ended after he was badly wounded.

The Red Army

Following the October Revolution in 1917, Zhukov became a member of the Bolshevik Party and joined the Red Army. Fighting in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), Zhukov continued in the cavalry, serving with the famed 1st Cavalry Army. At the war's conclusion, he was awarded Order of the Red Banner for his role in putting down the 1921 Tambov Rebellion. Steadily rising through the ranks, Zhukov was given command of a cavalry division in 1933, and later was assigned as deputy commander of the Byelorussian Military District.

Time in the Far East

Successfully evading Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" of the Red Army (1937-1939), Zhukov was selected to command the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group in 1938. Tasked with stopping Japanese aggression along the Mongolian-Manchurian border, Zhukov arrived after the Soviet victory at the Battle of Lake Khasan. In May 1939, fighting resumed between Soviet and Japanese forces. Through the summer both sides skirmished back and forth, with neither gaining an advantage. On August 20, Zhukov launched a major assault, pinning down the Japanese while armored columns swept around their flanks.

After encircling the 23rd Division, Zhukov proceeded to annihilate it, while forcing the remaining Japanese back to the border. As Stalin was planning for the invasion of Poland, the campaign in Mongolia was ended and a peace agreement signed on September 15. For his leadership, Zhukov was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. Returning west, he was promoted to general and made Chief of General Staff of the Red Army in January 1941. On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany opening the Eastern Front of World War II.

World War II

As Soviet forces suffered reverses on all fronts, Zhukov was compelled to sign the Directive of Peoples' Commissariat of Defense No. 3 which called for a series of counterattacks. Arguing against the plans laid out by the directive, he was proven correct when they failed with heavy losses. On July 29, Zhukov was sacked as Chief of General Staff after recommending to Stalin that Kiev be abandoned. Stalin refused and over 600,000 men were captured after the city was encircled by the Germans. That October, Zhukov was given command of the Soviet forces defending Moscow, relieving General Semyon Timoshenko.

To aid in the city's defense, Zhukov recalled Soviet forces stationed in the Far East and executed a brilliant logistical feat in quickly transferring them across the country. Reinforced, Zhukov ably defended the city before launching a counterattack on December 5, which pushed the Germans back 60-150 miles from the city. With the city saved, Zhukov was made deputy commander-in-chief and sent to the southwestern front to take charge of the defense of Stalingrad. While the forces in the city, led by General Vasiliy Chuikov, battled the Germans, Zhukov and General Aleksandr Vasilevsky planned Operation Uranus.

A massive counterattack, Uranus was designed to envelop and surround the German 6th Army in Stalingrad. Launched on November 19, the plan worked as Soviet forces attacked north and south of the city. On February 2, the surrounded German forces finally surrendered. As operations at Stalingrad were concluding, Zhukov oversaw Operation Spark which opened a route into the besieged city of Leningrad in January 1943. That summer, Zhukov consulted for STAVKA (General Staff) on the plan for the battle of Kursk.

After correctly guessing German intentions, Zhukov advised taking a defensive stance and letting the Wehrmacht exhaust itself. These recommendations were accepted and Kursk became one of the great Soviet victories of the war. Returning to the northern front, Zhukov completely lifted the siege of Leningrad in January 1944, before planning Operation Bagration. Designed to clear Belarus and eastern Poland, Bagration was launched on June 22, 1944. A stunning triumph, Zhukov's forces were only forced to stop when their supply lines became too extended.

Spearheading the Soviet thrust into Germany, Zhukov's men defeated the Germans at Oder-Neisse and Seelow Heights before encircling Berlin. After battling to take the city, Zhukov oversaw the signing of one of the Instruments of Surrender in Berlin on May 8, 1945. In recognition of his achievements during the war, Zhukov was given the honor of inspecting the Victory Parade in Moscow that June.

Postwar Activity

Following the war, Zhukov was made the supreme military commander of the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany. He remained in this post less than a year, as Stalin, feeling threatened by Zhukov's popularity, removed him and later assigned him to the Odessa Military District. With Stalin's death in 1953, Zhukov returned to favor and served as deputy defense minister and later defense minister. Though initially a supporter of Nikita Khrushchev, Zhukov was removed from his ministry and the Central Committee in June 1957, after the two argued over army policy. Though he was liked by Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksei Kosygin, Zhukov was never given another role in the government. A favorite of the Russian people, Zhukov died on June 18, 1974.