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Surrender and Capture in the Winter War and Great Patriotic War: Which was the Anomaly?

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This article seeks to explain the apparent anomaly of the vast capturing of encircled Soviet soldiers in 1941 by comparing them to the similar, but generally much smaller, encirclements experienced by the Red Army during the Soviet-Finnish Winter War (30 November 1939 to 12 March 1940). In contrast to 1941, in the Winter War, surrounded Red Army units most often held out, avoiding capture and refusing to surrender. In both cases the majority of Soviet soldiers lost as prisoners of war were due to battlefield circumstances, which laid bare the Red Army's doctrinal, training, and command failures, and less so soldiers' political sympathies. Attitudes regarding Stalinism came into play only after unit cohesion dissolved and officers' command and control fell apart. But, in both cases, encircled forces were destroyed and soldiers taken prisoner because disintegrated leadership and organization put soldiers in the position of having to choose either to resist for no evident purpose, or save themselves. When units tried to hold out, they might be annihilated, but as long as the chain of command remained intact few men would be captured. It was unit disintegration in the act of breaking out from encirclements that led to catastrophic losses of prisoners.
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Keywords: capture; encirclement; Great Patriotic War; prisoners of war; Red Army; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; surrender; Winter War; World War II

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Texas A&M University

Publication date: 01 June 2011

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  • Global War Studies (GWS) is the leading international peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the study of the Second World War, 1919-1945. Published three times annually, GWS features articles and book reviews that explore a broad range of topics, including military, air power, naval, intelligence, and diplomatic history. Additionally, the journal publishes original research on weapons technology, geopolitics, home front studies, the Holocaust, resistance movements, and peacekeeping operations.
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