Konstantin Rokossovsky

Konstantin Rokossovsky
Konstantin Rokossovsky
Rokossovsky in the uniform of a Lt. General
Born December 21, 1896(1896-12-21)
Warsaw, Russian Empire
Died August 3, 1968(1968-08-03) (aged 71)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Buried at Kremlin Wall Necropolis
Allegiance  Russian Empire (1914–1917)
 Soviet Union (1917–1949)
 Poland (1949–1956)
 Soviet Union (1956–1968)
Years of service 1914–1962
Rank Marshal of the Soviet Union
Marshal of Poland
Commands held Russian Imperial Army
Red Army
Battles/wars World War I
Russian Civil War
World War II
Awards Hero of the Soviet Union — 1944 Hero of the Soviet Union — 1945
Order of Victory
Order of Lenin (7)
Order of the Red Banner (6)
Order of Suvorov, 1st Class
Order of Kutuzov, 1st Class
Virtuti Militari
Cross of Grunwald
Order of the Bath
Légion d'honneur
Order of St. George, 4th, 3rd and 2nd class

Konstantin Rokossovskiy (Polish: Konstanty Ksawerowicz Rokossowski, Russian: Константин Константинович Рокоссовский; December 21 [O.S. December 9] 1896 – August 3, 1968) was a Polish-origin Soviet career officer who was a Marshal of the Soviet Union, as well as Marshal of Poland and Polish Defence Minister, who was famously known for his service in the Eastern Front, where he received high esteem for his outstanding military skill. He is considered one of the Red Army's greatest strategists.



Rokossovsky was born in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire. His family had moved to Warsaw with the appointment of his father as the inspector of the Warsaw Railways. The Rokossovsky family was a member of the Polish nobility, and over generations had produced many cavalry officers. However, Konstantin's father, Ksawery Wojciech Rokossowski, was a railway official in Russia and his Russian mother was a teacher.[1] Orphaned at 14, Rokossovsky earned a living by working in a stocking factory, and some time later he became an apprentice stonemason. Much later in his life, the government of People's Republic of Poland used this fact for propaganda, claiming that Rokossovsky had helped to build Warsaw's Poniatowski Bridge. Rokossovsky's patronymic Ksaverovich was Russified on his enlistment into the Russian Army at the start of the First World War to Konstantinovich, which would be easier to pronounce in the 5th Kargopol Dragoon Regiment where he volunteered to serve.

Early military career

On joining the regiment, Rokossovsky soon showed himself a talented soldier and leader; he ended the war in the rank of a junior non-commissioned officer, serving in the cavalry throughout the war. He was wounded twice during the war and awarded the Cross of St George.[2][3] In 1917, he joined the Bolshevik Party and soon thereafter, entered the ranks of the Red Army. During the Russian Civil War he commanded a cavalry squadron of the Kargopolsky Red Guards Cavalry Detachment in the campaigns against the White Guard armies of Aleksandr Kolchak in the Urals. Rokossovsky received Soviet Russia's highest military decoration, the Order of the Red Banner.

In 1921 he commanded the 35th Independent Cavalry Regiment stationed in Irkutsk and played an important role in bringing Damdin Sükhbaatar, the founder of the Mongolian People's Republic, to power in Ulan Bator.[4] It was here that he met his wife Julia Barminan, whom he married in 1923. Their daughter Ariadna was born in 1925.[5] In 1924 and 1925 he attended the Leningrad Higher Cavalry School and then returned to Mongolia where he was a trainer for the Mongolian People's Army. Soon after, while serving in the Special Red Banner Eastern Army under Vasily Blücher, he took part in the Russo-Chinese Chinese Eastern Railroad War of 1929-1930 when the Soviet Union intervened to return the Chinese Eastern Railway to joint Chinese and Soviet administration, after Chinese warlord Zhang Xueliang of the Republic of China attempted to seize complete control of the railway.

It was in the early 1930s that Rokossovsky's life first became intertwined with Georgy Zhukov (later Marshal of the Soviet Union), when Rokossovsky was the commander of the 7th Samara Cavalry Division, and Zhukov a brigade commander under him. A sense of the nature of the beginning of their famous World War II rivalry can be gathered from reading Rokossovsky's comments on Zhukov in an official report on his character[6]:

"Disciplined. Demanding and persistent in his demands. A somewhat ungracious and not sufficiently sympathetic person. Rather stubborn. Painfully proud. In professional terms well trained. Broadly experienced as a military leader."

Rokossovsky was among the first to realise the potential of armoured assault. He was an early supporter of the creation of a strong armoured core for the Red Army, as championed by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky in his theory of "deep operations".

Great Purge, trial, torture and rehabilitation

Rokossovsky held senior commands until 1937, when he became caught up in Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and accused of being a Polish spy. His association with the cutting edge methods of Marshal Tukhachevsky may have been the real cause of his conflict with more traditional officers such as Semyon Budenny, who still favoured cavalry tactics, and whose policy disagreements with Tukhachevsky triggered the Great Purge of the Red Army, which resulted in the execution of the latter and many others.[7] Rokossovsky, however, survived.

It is reported that he escaped the fate of so many other officers caught up in the purge by proving to the court that the officer who his accusers claimed had denounced him had been killed in 1920 during the civil war.[8] During interrogation under torture he lost nine teeth, had three ribs cracked and had his toes smashed with a hammer.[9] According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn he endured two mock shooting ceremonies where people were shot dead around him.[8]

In his famous "secret speech" of 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, when speaking on the subject of the purges, mentioned Rokossovsky, saying, "suffice it to say that those of them who managed to survive, despite severe tortures to which they were subjected in the prisons, have from the first war days shown themselves real patriots and heroically fought for the glory of the Fatherland.".[10]

After his trial Rokossovsky was sent to the Kresty Prison in Leningrad, where he remained until he was released without explanation on March 22, 1940.

Semyon Timoshenko, who had been named People's Commissar for Defence of the Soviet Union after the debacle of the Winter War and was in desperate need of experienced officers to fill command posts for the rapidly expanding Soviet army, returned Rokossovsky to the command of the 5th Cavalry Corps at the rank of Colonel.[7] Subsequently the 5th Cavalry Corps participated in the occupation of Bessarabia and he was soon promoted to the rank of a Major General and given the command of the 9th Mechanised Corps under Kirponos in the Kiev Military Region, which would later be renamed the Southwestern Front at the outbreak of hostilities with Germany.

World War II

Rokossovsky on 1976 Soviet stamp

When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 Rokossovsky was serving as the commander of the 9th Mechanised Corps, where his command participated in the Battle of Dubno -- an early Soviet counter-attack that ended in the destruction of most of the participating Soviet forces against Von Rundstedt's Army Group South in the Ukraine. As the counter-attack progressed German resistance stiffened; Kirponos, the commander of the Southwestern Front, initially issued instructions to cease offensive operations and then argued with Chief of General Staff G.K. Zhukov, when Zhukov insisted that the counter-attack continue. As a result Rokossovsky's command was bombarded with conflicting orders, and according to Lieutenant-General D.I. Rjabyshev, Rokossovsky "expressed no ambivalence about the proposed counteroffensive" and resolved the dispute by refusing a direct order, saying: "We had once again received an order to counterattack. However, the enemy outnumbered us to such a degree, that I took on the personal responsibility of ordering to halt the counteroffensive and to meet the enemy in prepared defences." [11]

Despite this insubordination Timoshenko brought Rokossovsky to Smolensk in July, in an effort to prevent the fall of the city during Battle of Smolensk. He was given the unenviable task of cobbling together the remnants of D.G. Pavlov's Western Front, which had collapsed under the weight of the attack by the Wehrmacht's Army Group Centre during the Battle of Białystok–Minsk. With a limited force of 90 tanks and two rifle regiments, four artillery regiments and elements of the 38th Rifle Division, he is credited with blunting the advance of Field Marshal von Bock's 7th Panzer, 17th Panzer and 20th Motorized Division at Vyazma and allowing numerous Soviet soldiers to escape encirclement.[12]

In September 1941 was appointed to the command of 16th Army, which was composed almost entirely of soldiers serving in penal battalions, and charged with defending the approach to Moscow. Rokossovsky was now under the direct command of General Georgy Zhukov, his former subordinate. The 16th Army (later renamed the 11th Guards Army) played a key role in the Battle of Moscow when it was deployed along the main axis of the German advance along the Volokolamsk Highway that was a central junction of the bitter fighting during the German winter offensive of 1941 (Operation Typhoon), as well as the subsequent Russian counter-attack of 1941 - 42. On November 18, during the desperate last-ditch efforts of the Wehrmacht to encircle Moscow in 1941, General Rokossovsky, his soldiers under heavy pressure from Hoepner's 4th Panzer Group, asked his immediate superior, Zhukov, if he could withdraw the 16th Army to more advantageous positions. Zhukov categorically refused. Rokossovsky went over Zhukov's head, and spoke directly to Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov, now Chief of the General Staff in Zhukov's place; reviewing the situation Shaposhnikov immediately ordered a withdrawal. Zhukov reacted at once. He revoked the order of the superior officer, and ordered Rokossovsky to hold the position. In the immediate aftermath, Rokossovsky's army was pushed aside and the 3rd and 4th Panzer Groups were able to gain strategically important positions north of Moscow, but this marked the high point of the German advance upon Moscow. Throughout Operation Typhoon, Rokossovsky's 16th army had taken the brunt of the German effort to capture Moscow.

In early 1942 Rokossovsky was transferred to the Bryansk Front. He commanded the right flank of the Soviet forces as they fell back before the Germans towards the Don and Stalingrad in the summer of 1942. During the Battle of Stalingrad Rokossovsky, commanding the Don Front, led the northern wing of the Soviet counter-attack that encircled Paulus' Sixth Army and won the decisive victory of the Soviet-German war.

In 1943, after becoming commander of the Central Front, Rokossovsky successfully conducted defensive operations in the Kursk salient, and then led the counterattack west of Kursk which defeated the last major German offensive on the eastern front and allowed the Soviet armies to advance to Kiev. The Central Front was then renamed 1st Belorussian Front, which he commanded during the Soviet advance through Byelorussia (Belarus) and into Poland.

In a famous incident during the planning in 1944 of Operation Bagration, Rokossovsky disagreed with Stalin, who demanded in accordance with Soviet war practice a single break-through of the German frontline. Rokossovsky held firm in his argument for two points of break-through. Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to "go and think it over" three times, but every time he returned and gave the same answer "Two break-throughs, Comrade Stalin, two break-throughs." After the third time Stalin remained silent, but walked over to Rokossovsky and put a hand on his shoulder. A tense moment followed as the whole room waited for Stalin to rip the epaulette from Rokossovsky's shoulder; instead, Stalin said "Your confidence speaks for your sound judgement," and ordered the attack to go forward according to Rokossovsky's plan.[13] The battle was successful and Rokossovsky's reputation was assured. After crushing German Army Group Centre in Belarus, Rokossovsky's armies reached the east bank of the Vistula opposite Warsaw by mid-1944. For these victories he gained the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union. Stalin once said: "I have no Suvorov, but Rokossovsky is my Bagration."

While Rokossovsky's forces stood stalled on the Vistula, the Warsaw Uprising (August - October, 1944) broke out in the city, led by the Polish Home Army (AK) on the orders of the Polish government in exile in London. Rokossovsky did not order reinforcement to the insurgents. Soviet assistance was limited to airdrops. There has been much speculation about Rokossovsky's personal views on this decision. He would always maintain that, with his communications badly stretched and enemy pressure against his northern flank mounting, committing forces to Warsaw would have been disastrous.

In November 1944, Rokossovsky was transferred to the 2nd Belorussian Front, which advanced into East Prussia and then across northern Poland to the mouth of the Oder at Stettin (now Szczecin). At the end of April he linked up with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's forces in northern Germany while the forces of Zhukov and Ivan Koniev captured Berlin. It has been speculated that he was not allowed to capture Berlin because he was Polish; this is according to Anthony Beevor, author of the book Berlin: The Downfall 1945.

Dates of rank promotion

  • Major General, 4 June 1940
  • Lieutenant General, 14 July. 1941
  • Colonel General, 15 Jan. 1943
  • Army General, 28 April 1943
  • Marshal of the Soviet Union, 29 June 1944
  • Marshal of Poland 2 November 1949


With the end of the war Rokossovsky remained in command of Soviet forces in Poland (Northern Group of Forces). In October 1949, with the establishment of a fully Communist government under Bolesław Bierut in Poland, Rokossovsky, on Stalin's orders, became the Polish Minister of National Defense, with the additional title of Marshal of Poland. Together with Rokossovsky, several thousand Soviet officers were put in charge of almost all Polish military units, either as commanding officers or as their advisors.[14]

In 1952 he became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the People's Republic of Poland. Although Rokossovsky was nominally Polish, he had not lived in Poland for 35 years, and most Poles regarded him as a Russian and Soviet emissary in the country,[15] especially as he spoke poor Polish and even ordered Polish soldiers to address him in Russian.[16] As Rokossovsky himself bitterly put it: "In Russia, they say I'm a Pole, in Poland they call me Russian".[15]

Rokossovsky took part in the suppression of the Polish independence movement and stalinization and sovietization of Poland in general and the Polish Army in particular.[17] As the superior commander of the Polish Army, he introduced various ways of suppression of anti-Soviet activity. Among the most notorious were the labour battalions of the army, to which all able-bodied men found socially or politically insecure or guilty of having their families abroad[18] were drafted. It is estimated that roughly 200,000 men were forced to work in labour camps in hazardous conditions, often in quarries, coal and uranium mines, and 1,000 died in their first days of "labour", while tens of thousands became crippled.[18] Other groups targeted by the repressions were former soldiers of the pre-war Polish Army and wartime Home Army.

In June 1956 during Poznań protests against poverty of working class, and Soviet occupation of Poland, Rokossovsky approved the order to send military units against protesters.[17] As a result of the action of over 10,000 soldiers and 360 tanks,[19] at least 74 civilians were killed.[20]

When Communist reformers under Władysław Gomułka tried to come to power in Poland in 1956, Rokossovsky went to Moscov and tried to convince Nikita Khrushchev to use force against the Polish state.[21] After Gomułka managed to negotiate with the Soviets, Rokossovsky left Poland. He returned to the Soviet Union, which restored his Soviet ranks and honours; and in July 1957, following the removal from office of Defence Minister Zhukov, Nikita Khrushchev appointed him Deputy Minister of Defence and Commander of the Transcaucasian Military District. In 1958 he became chief inspector of the Ministry of Defence, a post he held until his retirement in April 1962.

He died in August 1968, aged 71. His ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis on Red Square.


  1. ^ "Биография маршала Советского Союза Константина Рокоссовского" (in Russian). http://www.rokossowski.com/bio.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-09.  site dedicated to Rokossovsky
  2. ^ http://www.rokossowski.com/bio.htm
  3. ^ http://english.ruvr.ru/radio_broadcast/2248959/4515909/index.html | Voice of Russia in New York City
  5. ^ http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/military/konstantin-rokossovsky/ | Russiapedia
  6. ^ Soviet strategic thought, 1917-91 By Andreĭ Afanasʹevich Kokoshin. Page 43
  7. ^ a b Sphar (1997-06-17). Stalin's lieutenants: a study of command under duress. ISBN 9780891415640. http://books.google.com/?id=Jt9oAAAAMAAJ&q=command+under+duress+rokossovsky&dq=command+under+duress+rokossovsky. 
  8. ^ a b Helen Rappaport (1999). Joseph Stalin: a biographical companion. ISBN 9781576072080. http://books.google.com/?id=lsKClpnX8qwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Joseph+Stalin:+a+biographical+companion#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  9. ^ Pleshikov (2006-11-15). Stalin's Folly. ISBN 9780618773619. http://books.google.com/?id=gDhpqYwg7MgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=stalin%27s+folly#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  10. ^ http://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24.htm | Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U.
  11. ^ Lieutenant General D.I. Rjabyshev. On the role of the 8th Mechanized Corps in the June 1941 counteroffensive mounted by the South-Western Front. http://www.battlefield.ru/en/articles/168-8mechanized-corps-offensive.html. 
  12. ^ Robert Kirchubel (2007-08-21). Operation Barbarossa 1941 (3): Army Group Center, Volume 3. ISBN 9781846031076. http://books.google.com/?id=x8AYZXD-TxsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Operation+Barbarossa+1941+%283%29:+Army+Group+Center,+Volume+3#v=onepage&q=Operation%20Barbarossa%201941%20%283%29%3A%20Army%20Group%20Center%2C%20Volume%203&f=false. 
  13. ^ Chris Bellamy (2007). "18". Absolute War. London: Panmacmillan. pp. 610. ISBN 978-0-330-51004-2. 
  14. ^ Norman Davies (1982). God's Playground. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05353-3.  (also ISBN 0-231-05351-7)
  15. ^ a b (Polish) Wiesław Białkowski (1994). Rokossowski - na ile Polak? (Rokossowski - How Much of a Pole?). Warsaw: Alfa. pp. 326. ISBN 83-7001-755-X. 
  16. ^ Norman Davies (2004). "Eastern Approaches". Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw. Viking Books. pp. 119–167. ISBN 0670032840. ; Polish excerpts: http://polish-jewish-heritage.org/Pol/July_04_Powstanie_Davies.htm
  17. ^ a b (Polish) Paweł Piotrowski, Barbara Polak (6 2001). "Żołnierze, oficerowie, generałowie (Soldiers, Officers, Generals)" (– Scholar search). Biuletyn IPN 6 (7/2001). ISBN 1641-9561. Archived from the original on March 22, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20050322163658/http://www.ipn.gov.pl/biuletyn/6/biuletyn6_2.html. Retrieved 2006-04-17. [dead link]
  18. ^ a b (Polish) Anna Witalis Zdrzenicka (2005). "Polski gułag. Zapomniana krzywda powraca (Polish Gulag: the Forgotten Lesion Returns)". Gazeta Ogólnopolska 1 (1). http://gazetao.pl/artykul,8.html. Retrieved 2006-04-17. 
  19. ^ (English) Grzegorz Ekiert; Jan Kubik (2001). Rebellious Civil Society : Popular Protest and Democratic Consolidation in Poland, 1989-1993. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 27–29. ISBN 0472088300. http://books.google.com/?id=dXcqupKzt0gC&pg=PA27&lpg=PA27&dq=Poznan+1956. 
  20. ^ according to official figures, as in: (Polish) Maciej Szewczyk (2005). "Poznański czerwiec 1956". Poznańczyk. http://www.poznanczyk.com/index.html. Retrieved 2006-04-17. 
  21. ^ Wprost 24 - Rezydent Wolski

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