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The ‘Siberian’ Divisions and the Battle for Moscow in 1941-42

According to current historical wisdom, large numbers of veteran and well equipped Siberian divisions were deployed protecting the USSR’s eastern borders against a possible attack by Japan on 22nd June 1941. They were then apparently transferred west from October to November 1941 in time to have a decisive influence on the battle for Moscow. According to the same historical wisdom these divisions were released from October to November 1941, after Stalin had learned from his spy network in Japan, run by Richard Sorge, that the Japanese had no intention of attacking the USSR. Apparently by November 1941 these same Siberian divisions were being encountered all along the front protecting Moscow.

The following quote typifies the current common perception, “The Siberians are coming! It was a cry that spread terror through the ranks of the German Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941. Since June 22, the Red Army had lost millions of dead, wounded and captured soldiers, while the Wehrmacht had advanced to the very gates of Moscow itself. Now, however, new armies seemed to be springing out of the Russian soil as if by magic as the Germans prepared their final thrust toward the Soviet capital. The ever distrustful Josef Stalin had primarily put his faith in the word of one man (Richard Sorge), and had ordered division after division of his armies in the Far East to be transported as quickly as possible to the west to blunt the German advance”.(1)

Did this really happen? An objective and detailed look at the history of each division involved gives a much more accurate and truthful historical picture.

Red Army Divisions Transferred West from June to July 1941
Red Army Divisions Transferred West from August to December 1941
Where did the New Red Army Divisions Come From?

(1) WWII History, Sovereign Media Company Inc, March 2002 issue, pp. 30, 81. Examples of these or similar statements are common in WWII historical literature and most film documentaries on the subject. Eg, A.Clark , Barbarossa, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1995, p. 170. The Times Atlas of the Second World War, Times Books Ltd, London, 1989, p. 60.

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Red Army Divisions Transferred West from June to July 1941

For the purposes of this discussion, territory in the ‘western’ USSR is defined as west of a line running north/south, 100km west of the Urals. Therefore the following military districts and non-active fronts are included as being east of this line,
An individual examination of the history of each Red Army division that existed on 22nd June 1941 reveals that from 23rd June to 31st December 1941, a total of 28 divisions were transferred west. This included 18 rifle divisions, one mountain rifle division, three tank divisions, three mechanised divisions and three mountain cavalry divisions. The transfers occurred mainly in June (11 divisions) and October (nine divisions).
Of the 11 divisions transferred in June, nine were rifle divisions already assigned to the Reserves of the STAVKA GK. These divisions comprised the 153rd, 174th and 186th Rifle Divisions attached to the 22nd Army (moving from the Urals Military District), and the 91st, 119th, 166th, 107th, 133rd and 178th Rifle Divisions attached to the 24th Army (moving from the Siberian Military District). Both these armies were already in transit or already under orders to move on 22nd June 1941. The decision to move the 24th Army from Siberia with its six rifle divisions had already been made before Barbarossa started, and by this time the 24th Army was already in Stavka reserve. The 24th Army’s rifle divisions had all arrived west of Moscow by 7th July 1941 and these were all committed before the end of the month. All these divisions were formed in the Siberia Military District and so by rights could be called ‘Siberian’ divisions. The 91st and 166th were completely destroyed in the Vyazma pocket in October 1941, whilst the remaining divisions were mere skeletons of their former selves by October 1941.

After the invasion started, the 57th Tank and 69th Mechanised Division were immediately ordered west and they arrived in June/July. In July 1941, only three divisions went west, namely the 194th Mountain Rifle Division, the 221st Mechanised Division and the 21st Mountain Cavalry Division.

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Red Army Divisions Transferred West from August to December 1941

Only 14 divisions transferred west from August to December 1941, and these are the only divisions that could possibly have been influenced by any information from Richard Sorge’s spy ring (going back as far as early August 1941). These are shown in the table below.

Soviet Divisions Transferred to the 'Western' USSR: August to December 1941
and type

Where and when assigned after transferPossible
26th RifleFar EastFar East11th Army, Northweatern Front, Sept 41
21st RifleSiberiaFar East17th Seperate Army, Sept 41
114th RifleT BaikalT Baikal7th Seperate Army, Sept 41
92nd RifleFar EastFar East4th Separate Army, (in Volkhov area), Oct 41
65th RifleT BaikalT Baikal4th Army, Volkhov Front, Nov 41
32nd Rifle Volga/SibFar East15th Army, Western Front, Oct 411
93rd RifleSiberiaT Baikal143rd Army, Western Front, Oct 411
78th RifleFar EastFar East16th Army, Western Front, Oct-Nov 411
238th Rifle*Cen AsiaCen Asia49th Army, Western Front, Oct 411
58th Tank*Far EastFar East16th Army, Western Front, Nov 411
60th Tank*Far EastFar East4th Separate Army, (in Volkhov area), Oct 41
82nd MechT BaikalT Baikal5th Army, Western Front, Nov 411
18th Mtn CavCen AsiaCen Asia30th Army, Kalinin Front, Nov 411
20th Mtn CavCen AsiaCen Asia16th Army Western Front, Nov 411
* Only started forming in March-April 1941

Of these 14 divisions, two were small mountain cavalry divisions from Central Asia, while the three tank and mechanised divisions were very new and had very little (if anything) to do with Siberian personnel. The 58th and 60th tank divisions had only started forming in March-April 1941.

Of the rifle divisions, three arrived in August and September and were sent to 11th Army defending the southern approaches to Leningrad or 7th Army defending the far north against the Finns. Only six rifle divisions arrived in October and only four of these went to any Army that could be even remotely linked to defending Moscow against Army Group Centre. These were the 32nd, 93rd, 78th and 238th Rifle Divisions. Of these only the 32nd and 93rd Rifle Divisions had a significant proportion of Siberian personnel, while the 238th had only started forming in March 1941 in Central Asia.

In short, of all the divisions transferred west after August 1941, only three rifle divisions originated with Siberian personnel and only two went into the Western Front defending Moscow. Where are the ‘newly arrived Siberian divisions being encountered all along the front protecting Moscow’? To fulfil this statement there would need to have been 10-20 Siberian divisions in Western Front. The only division which actually earned the reputation bestowed upon the Siberian divisions in 1941 was the 32nd Rifle Division which defended near Borodino in October 1941. Ironically this division was formed in 1922 in the then Volga Military District and only a portion of its personnel came from western Siberian oblasts.
Another thing apparent from the table above is how early these divisions transferred. Most sources claim the information from Sorge’s spy ring came in October 1941 at the earliest and November 1941 at the latest. Yet it is apparent that the decision to move the vast majority of available divisions west was made well before this time and no new rifle divisions were actually shipped after October.

What of Siberian divisions formed after 22nd June 1941? There were six rifle divisions formed after June 1941 in the Siberia Military District. They were the 366th, 374th, 382nd, 372nd, 376th and 378th Rifle Divisions. All six divisions were assigned to the 59th Army in Volkhov Front defending south of Leningrad in November 1941. These were all brand new Divisions, their combat performance was average and they had nothing to do with the winter offensive against Army Group Centre.

Whichever way data is analysed, the whole Siberian transfer story is a myth in all respects: including timing, numbers, source of personnel and overall combat performance

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Where did the New Red Army Divisions Come From?

So the question is; who stopped the Germans in December 1941 if it couldn’t possibly have been hordes of newly arrived Siberian or East Front troops? The answer is a massive number of newly mobilised and deployed divisions and brigades. The Soviet land model shows that 182 rifle divisions, 43 militia rifle divisions, eight tank divisions, three mechanised divisions, 62 tank brigades, 50 cavalry divisions, 55 rifle brigades, 21 naval rifle brigades, 11 naval infantry brigades, 41 armies, 11 fronts and a multitude of other units were newly Mobilised and Deployed (MD) in the second half of 1941. If Mobilized and Not Deployed (MND) units are included then this list is considerably higher.(2)  Even if the few Siberian divisions exhibited a higher than average combat proficiency in the winter of 1941/42, their contribution was almost insignificant compared to the mass of newly mobilised units. There is no doubt that the 1941 Soviet mobilisation programme was simply the largest and fastest wartime mobilisation in history. The multitude of average Soviet soldiers from all over the USSR that made up these units saved the day, and definitely not the existing units transferred west after June 1941, or the mostly non-existent and mythical Siberian divisions.

It seems very likely the term ‘Siberian’ was applied to any division that exhibited an above average proficiency or resilience in combat. This was similar to, but less official than, a ‘Guards’ designation which the Stavka started awarding to such divisions in 1941. Ultimately it cost nothing to name a division ‘Siberian’, ‘Guards’ or ‘elite’, and if it enhanced morale, scared the enemy and enabled better divisions to be easily identified then it was certainly worth while. It is easy to forget that all combatants in WWII were waging a morale and propaganda war alongside the real one. Unfortunately much post WWII history calls on the same propaganda based stories as the basis of historical fact. This then results in certain war stories, legends and myths become cemented over the years as unquestioned historical events.

(2) Refer to Part IV 7. – ‘Soviet Mobilisation After 22nd June 1941: The Actual Strength of all Soviet Land Combat Units Mobilised from 22nd June to 31st December 1941’, for a full description of all Soviet MD and MND units in 1941

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Website copyright Nigel Askey 2008.                                                                                          Last updated, 27th Sept 2008.