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The People's Commissar of the Navy N. G. Kuznetsov and his contribution to the development of naval theory

Prepared from materials of the conference on theory and practices by the Candidate of Military Sciences, associate professor, Captain of the 1st Rank Val’kov, V. A.

It is widely known that, in spite of the enemy’s perfidious attack on the morning of June 22, 1941, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Fleet did not incur the loss of a single ship, successfully deflecting airborne and seaborne attacks. This demonstrates the high level of combat readiness of the ships, formations and units of the Fleet, headed by the legendary Admiral Kuznetsov. Supported by his knowledge and wide experience, Nikolay Gerasimovich Kuznetsov made invaluable contributions to the theory and practices of the naval arts, put to practical use in the strategic offensive operations of 1944. It was these operations that served as the decisive factor in the outcome of the Great Patriotic War and of World War II in general. The Red Army’s strategic offensive operations, which history remembers as the 10 “Stalin strikes," crushed Germany’s military might, fully liberating the territories of the Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern Europe.

In the prewar years, naval theoreticians concerned themselves with the development of overarching governing operational-tactical documents. In regard to the strategic use of fleet forces, they aligned themselves with the basic tenets of Soviet military doctrine, the essence of which was formulated in the Field Manual project of 1939: “Any enemy attack shall be answered by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with a crushing blow of the entire might of its Armed Forces… If the enemy imposes a war on us, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army will be the most aggressive of all armies that have ever been on the attack. We will conduct the war offensively, transferring it to enemy territory. Combat operations of the Red Army shall be conducted destructively, with the aim of complete demolition of the enemy…” On the eve of the Great Patriotic War, it was noted in Soviet military strategy theory that the achievement of the tasks set forth for the fleet on each marine theater of operations, as dictated by the general war plans, may entail conducting both independent operations and operations in conjunction with ground forces.

The main principles of the strategic use of the Navy, formulated on the eve of the war, were comprised of:
  • maintaining the forces in combat readiness appropriate to the demands of the war and its every stage;
  • concentrating the main efforts against the major enemy formation and conducting decisive combat operations with the aim of its annihilation;
  • close cooperation of the fleet with formations and units of other branches of the armed forces and between the various fleet forces;
  • using armed forces maneuvers between marine theaters of operations, as well as organizing new formations and conjunctions on the local military bases;
  • maintaining complete covertness in the preparation and strategic deployment of forces;
  • comprehensive support of the fleet’s combat activities;
  • centralized control over the fleet’s forces;
  • systematic consolidation and distribution of combat experience.

These principles were formalized with N. G. Kuznetsov's “Regulations on conducting naval operations” (NMO-40) in 1940, and in general, as demonstrated by the war experience, they were correct.


However, the questions concerning the cooperation of the fleet with ground troops were, in theory and especially in practice, poorly developed. This was a result of the fact that the highest levels of army command did not believe in the fleet's ability to accomplish strategic tasks.

Assessing the prewar condition of naval theory, N. G. Kuznetsov wrote in the pages of the Krasnaya Zvezda many years later: “Unfortunately, in army circles, little significance was given to the war on the seas and in coastal areas. Classic ground war theories predominated, and the General Staff dissociated itself from all fleet questions, attaching little importance to them. ... In other words, on the eve of the war, we had no clear military doctrine, and as a result there could be no clearly formulated fleet directives, its role in the Armed Forces was not defined. Without this, the development of specific tasks for the fleets could not be undertaken.”

The tasks put to the fleets by the People’s Commissariat of Defense in a directive from February 27, 1939 and remaining in force with only minor refinements up until the beginning of the war, had a strategic scope and were generally unachievable. Scenarios of unfavorable turns of events in coastal theaters were not considered at all, so fleets were not given defensive assignments.

The inadequate foundation and lack of clarity of the tasks stemmed primarily from the underdevelopment of specific theoretical problems, as convincingly evidenced by N. G. Kuznetsov’s admission: “We didn't have a single position on the doctrine of conducting a war… The doctrine, as something poorly tangible for us, was concealed in Stalin’s head, and he was reluctant in sharing his thoughts and intentions… It is not by chance that today one cannot find a single example of a document with his signature that would expound his views on conducting war, on the character of war or the interaction between People’s Commissariats.”

For the Soviet Union, the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 bore a continental character, due to which the ultimate goals of military actions could only be reached with a successful campaign on the ground and primarily the destruction of ground forces of the enemy. This fact predetermined the direction of combat activity of our fleets, which throughout the entire war concentrated their main efforts on supporting the coastal flanks of ground forces.

The events of the early stages of the Great Patriotic War confounded all the prewar plans and intentions, especially those regarding the strategic command of the Armed Forces. It was assumed that fleet tasks during the strategic phase would be determined by General Command Headquarters, while tactical tasks during the course of campaigns -- by the People's Commissar of the Navy and commanders of ground troop units, to which the fleets would be operationally subordinate. In practice, however, this did not happen. After the establishment of General Command Headquarters (June 21, 1941), and then the State Defense Committee (June 30, 1941), the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets became operationally subordinate to the War Councils of the coastal fronts.

The general governing of the use of forces on active fronts and of the fleets was performed by the General Staff. On July 10, 1941, due to the establishment of three main commands, the Northern and Baltic Fleets were placed under the Commander-in-Chief of the Northwest direction, and the Black Sea Fleet – the Southwest. To organize the coordination of the various parts of the Armed Forces, naval groups were created in command headquarters of coastal theaters. In the summer of 1942, several fleets introduced the position of Fleet Deputy Commander for ground forces, and on the frontlines, the position of Frontline Army Deputy Commander for naval units. But these groups did not, generally, deal with the issues of cooperation between the armies and fleets.

In April of 1943, the chief of Tactical Command at the Navy Main Headquarters, Rear Admiral V. L. Bogdenko, noted in an internal memo: “Throughout the war, the Navy Main Headquarters was not once directed by the General Staff regarding questions of conducting combat activity and the emerging fleet and flotilla tasks. Without this, Headquarters was placed in a difficult position when assigning fleet tasks, determining the requisite numbers of ships and armaments, planning the development of base and airfield construction.”

All attempts at establishing the mutual exchange of information between Navy Main Headquarters and the General Staff were unsuccessful. In this regard, in December of 1943, N. G. Kuznetsov reported to I. V. Stalin that the commanders of armies and frontlines, when assigning tasks to their operationally subordinate fleets and flotillas for joint operations, not only do not coordinate them with Navy Main Headquarters, but fail to let them know of the planned operation altogether.

He asked that fleet directives be issued only from General Command. It was suggested that the efforts of the General Staff and Navy Main Headquarters be combined when preparing tactical directives to fleets and flotillas. For better organization of the coordination between ground, air and naval forces in frontline and army operations, he suggested that frontline and army headquarters establish naval departments, subordinate to the frontline (army) headquarters commander. On March 31, 1944, a directive issued by the General Command Headquarters formulated the main principles of fleet command and its interaction with other branches of the Armed Forces, and on April 5, N. G. Kuznetsov signed a decree establishing naval departments and groups. Now the fleets and flotillas fell under the People’s Commissar of the Navy. Only the Baltic Fleet remained subordinate to the frontline until December, 1944.

From that time the People’s Commissar became Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. Soon the heads of the General Staff and Navy Main Headquarters affirmed the provision for naval departments. Subsequently, projects issuing tactical directives of the Supreme Commander where tasks were assigned to the fleets in upcoming campaigns or operations began to be developed directly at Navy Main Headquarters, after which N. G. Kuznetsov or the head of Navy Main Headquarters would coordinate them with the head of the General Staff.

Development of the command structure of the forces was furthered by Navy Main Headquarters drawing up a “Provision for naval representation on frontlines, separate armies and military zones of the Red Army,” put into effect on June 8, 1944. The document factored in the experience gained in the first strategic offensive operations of the 1944 campaign. The problem of strategic command of the fleet was significantly simplified with the transfer of N. G. Kuznetsov into General Command Headquarters on February 2, 1945.

In the period of the Great Patriotic War, the main operational activity of the Soviet Navy on all theaters of operation was the support of coastal flanks of ground forces.

Our fleets and lake and river flotillas participated in 27 strategic defensive and offensive operations. At the same time, throughout the entire war our fleet did not conduct a single independent operation of strategic scope.

The experience gained during the first and second periods of the war became the foundation for the use of forces in the strategic offensive operations of 1944. The full extent of the Navy’s military capabilities were demonstrated in 1944 during joint operations with ground forces, in 8 of the 10 strategic offensive operations dubbed the “Stalin strikes.” The Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive operation was educational and effective. It was conducted by forces of the Leningrad, Volkhov and 2nd Baltic Fronts and the Baltic Fleet between January 14 and March 1, 1944.

During the preparational stage of the operation, the fleet’s forces conducted a covert deployment of the 2nd Attack Army from Leningrad and Lisiy Nos to the Oranienbaum staging area. During the actual operation, naval artillery of 100 to 406 mm caliber conducted over 1000 fusillades in the interests of frontline forces. In the vast majority of cases, enemy batteries were brought under fire from our artillery and silenced after having made only 2-3 volleys. Firepower superiority was achieved in our forces’ offensive corridor. One of the most important results of the operation became the full reversal of the Leningrad blockade, the 60th anniversary of which is widely celebrated today.

Equally educational was the Black Sea Fleet’s participation in the Crimean offensive operation. Due to the great importance given to the task of disrupting the evacuation of enemy troops from Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet was transferred from frontline command and subordinated directly to General Command Headquarters. The fleet directive was developed under the direct authority of N. G. Kuznetsov. In fact, the general tasks of the fleet were determined by General Command, while the specific tasks of the individual operation stages were developed at Navy Main Headquarters and issued by the People's Commissar of the Navy. The coordination of actions of frontline troops with fleet forces was overseen by a representative of General Command Headquarters, head of the General Staff A. M. Vasilevsky.

According to N. G. Kuznetsov’s memoirs, the basis of the General Command Headquarters directive on conducting this operation, signed on April 11, 1944 by I. V. Stalin and A. M. Vasilevsky, was formed by proposals developed by Navy Main Headquarters. "I was invited to General Command when the directive was being examined by the Supreme Commander. As I recall, it did not raise any doubts…," wrote N. G. Kuznetsov in the book “On Course to Victory.”


Altogether, throughout the entire operation the enemy lost, according to the most conservative estimate, around 70 thousand men at sea, while during the operation on land, the losses were around 20 thousand killed and 24 thousand taken prisoner. Irreparable losses of the 4th Ukrainian Front and Separate Marine Army comprised around 18 thousand men, and for the Black Sea Fleet – only 226 men.

The weakened state of enemy forces allowed the Iassy-Kishinev strategic operation to be conducted with minimal losses, during which the Black Sea Fleet successfully conducted an operation to destroy enemy fleet forces at the Constanta Naval Base.

On July 27, 1944, “For the skillful and courageous leadership of combat operations and the successes achieved as a result of these operations in battles against Nazi German aggressors,” N. G. Kuznetsov was awarded the highest Naval Order of Ushakov of the 1st degree.

Between October 7 and 29, 1944, the northern flank of the Soviet-German frontline saw the only strategic operation of the entire war, Petsamo-Kirkenes, in which forces of the Northern Fleet played a significant role. For the duration of this operation the Northern Fleet was transferred from frontline command into subordination to the Navy Commander-in-Chief N. G. Kuznetsov. Such a command structure of the forces was justified by the fact that the fleet would have to conduct operations both at sea and in coastal zones. The general command of the forces in both areas was accomplished by the fleet commander Admiral A. G. Golovko. The head of tactical headquarters was Rear Admiral N. B. Pavlovich.

The plan for the operation called on the fleet to accomplish a wide range of tasks. As a result, considering the actions of the Northern Fleet in the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation, it was during this period that the concept of a naval operation first took shape in naval theory. Within the framework of a strategic offensive, the Northern Fleet followed a single design and plan to conduct independent operations and combat activities that facilitated the achievement of a large-scale strategic objective.

The duration of the cooperation of the fleet with ground forces was directly determined by the duration of coastal offensive operations by the Soviet armies. In most cases the cooperation of the fleet with ground troops in coastal offensive operations lasted 25-30 days. For instance, the Baltic Fleet’s support of troops of the Leningrad Front in the destruction of enemy forces under Leningrad and Novgorod lasted 30 days; in the destruction of the enemy on the Karelian Isthmus – 27 days; the Northern Fleet’s support of the 14th Army troops of the Karelian Front in the destruction of the enemy in the polar region lasted 25 days. In separate operations the fleet's cooperation with ground forces lasted over a month, such as the Black Sea Fleet's support of the Azov Military Flotilla during the Crimean offensive: it lasted from April 8 to May 12, 1944. Lengthy joint activity of the fleet with coastal troops could lead to overexertion of the forces and required comprehensive material support, while rapid rates of troop advance required the creation of maneuver bases for fleet forces, to allow for redeployment and the capability to act on a broader tactical radius during the course of the operation.

Joint strategic operations typically drew all combat-ready forces of the fleet. The specifics, character and progression of combat activities of the fleet forces in strategic offensive operations derived from the high-level conception and the progress of the offensive operations of Red Army forces on coastal flanks. The plan for each operation, as envisioned by Navy Main Headquarters and N. G. Kuznetsov, determined the direction of the main thrust, the contingent of forces and the character of their operation.

Another particularity should be noted. In participating in strategic operations, the fleet typically created two main groups: one – for actions on coastal flanks in support of frontline forces; another -- for maritime operations. For instance in the Petsamo-Kirkenes offensive operation, the fleet group advancing jointly with troops of the 14th Army was headed at first by the commander of the Northern Defensive Region, Major General E. T. Dubovtsev, and later by the head of Northern Fleet headquarters, Rear Admiral V. I. Platonov. The marine campaign group, including all of marine aviation, was led by the fleet commander A. G. Golovko. The organization of forces and their command was dictated by an order from the fleet commander, while the progression of their operations, by the plan chart. Both documents were cleared with N. G. Kuznetsov.

Over a half century later, it is often difficult to see N. G. Kuznetsov’s personal contribution to the planning of strategic offensive operations. In his memoirs he wrote more of those around him than of himself. But one thing is clear – the principles of the cooperation between Army and Navy, and its practical realization, are a result of N. G. Kuznetsov's talents.

He was able to detach the fleet from the close guardianship of the General Staff and to engage specialists of Navy Main Headquarters in the process of planning strategic operations. On the eve of operations, in the interests of organizing and coordinating fleet actions with frontline armies, N. G. Kuznetsov frequently visited the regions of upcoming operations. For instance, on the eve of the Vyborg operation, he twice met with the commander of the Leningrad Front L. A. Govorov, and together with him sought the close cooperation of ground troops with the Baltic Fleet and the Ladoga Military Flotilla. Prior to the Iassy-Kishinev strategic operation, under orders from General Command Headquarters, he, together with G. K. Zhukov, arrived at the 3rd Ukrainian Front command headquarters and personally delved into the issue of cooperation of the Black Sea Fleet and the Danube Military Flotilla with frontline forces.

In general the war served to affirm the correctness of the basic tenets of Soviet naval theory, set forth in the provisional “Regulations on conducting naval operations” of 1940. Furthermore, outdated and unjustified provisions were discarded, and as a result, domestic naval theory was rewritten. In the course of the war, the theory of strategic use of the Navy was conceived as a result of the participation of the fleets in joint strategic operations conducted by the Armed Forces on coastal flanks. Within the framework of these operations the fleet forces were given a broad range of tasks, conducting operations and combat actions.

During the Great Patriotic War, the main factor in the development of naval theory was combat experience. In the very beginning of the war, by order of N. G. Kuznetsov, a historical department was created within Navy Main Headquarters, in order to generalize combat experience and disseminate it to all command echelons. Officers of this department prepared 42 volumes for publication, dealing with the questions of combat activity of fleets and flotillas. Special attention was given to determining the specific reasons for the success or failure of combat operations, as well as to the advocacy of new operational tactics that proved successful.

The collection for the most part focused on operations of a tactical scope, however on the whole, they painted a specific picture on the strategic use of the Navy. Often, prior to the publication of the next volume, N. G. Kuznetsov overviewed the operations and combat activities in his orders and directives. In 1942 the People's Commissar of the Navy sanctioned new “Regulations on submarine combat operations,” next year, “Regulations on antisubmarine boat combat operations.” In 1943, “Regulations on joint operations of ground forces with the Navy and military river flotillas" was issued, which proved to be an important contribution to the development of naval theory. In 1944, he published an article in the pages of the Marine Digest, “On the strategic tasks of fleets and flotillas in the course of war,” where he expounded his vision on their form and methods of use.

Translation: RusNavy.com