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The man with iron will and metal teeth

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General Konstantin Rokossovsky (right) with General Filipp Golikov during World War II (Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

The history of World War II is full of interesting, engaging individuals who feel as if they had just stepped off the silver screen or the pages of a book. Douglas MacArthur with his corn cob pipe; Patton with his ivory-handled guns and colorful language, or “Mad Jack” Churchill going into battle with a broadsword and a longbow. Another man whose story reads almost like fiction was Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky (1896-1968). A man who replaced his lost teeth with metal dentures, Rokossovsky first turned from military reformer into a "traitor of the Soviet Union" sent to prison and almost executed during Stalin's purges, only to rise again as one of the most talented Soviet commanders of the war.
 
Rokossovsky was born in Congress Poland, the Polish state ruled by the Russian Empire. His father came from a Polish family of nobility with a history of serving as cavalry officers. Ksawery Wojciech Rokossowski was not part of that tradition, as he worked as a railway official in Russia. Konstantin's mother was Russian and worked as a teacher.
 
Young Rokossovsky was orphaned at the age of 14. He dropped out of school and first worked at a stocking factory, then later learned masonry. He joined the Imperial Russian Army when he was almost 19, and proved himself a talented soldier and leader in World War I as a cavalry officer.

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Rokossovsky as a young cavalry officer (Photo: ww2incolor.com)

In 1917, the Tsar's rule was overthrown in the February Revolution, plunging Russia into chaos and a civil war that lasted until 1923 and ended with the rise of the Soviet Union. Rokossovsky fought for the Communist side in the war, receiving the highest Soviet military decoration in existence at the time, the Order of the Red Banner. From 1921 onward, he was in Mongolia, fighting White Russian forces and helping bring the country into the Soviet fold. In 1924-25, he became acquainted with Georgy Zhukov, arguably the best-known Soviet general of World War II, and Rokossovsky's later superior and rival.

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Graduates of the Leningrad Higher Cavalry School 1924/25. Zhukov is first from right, standing in the third row. Rokossovsky is fitth from right in the same row. (Photo: Public domain)

In 1929-30, he fought in the Russo-Chinese Eastern Railroad War in the Far East. A Chinese warlord on the side of Republican China (the enemies of Mao Zedong's Communist China and ancestors of present-day Taiwan) tried to seize the railway system by force, but it was restored to joint Soviet-Chinese control during the war. In the early 1930s, Zhukov served as Rokossovsky's subordinate. Rokossovsky once described the future Soviet war hero with these words: "Has a strong will. Decisive and firm. Often demonstrates initiative and skillfully applies it. 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... Absolutely cannot be used in staff or teaching jobs because constitutionally he hates them."

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Rokossovsky with Zhukov (Photo: weaponews.com)

Rokossovsky was one of the first Soviet officers to recognize the importance of tanks, and worked to gain acceptance for them. This brought him in conflict with older, hidebound cavalry officers, an animosity which possibly contributed to the ill turn of his fortunes.
 
Between 1936 and '38, Stalin embarked on his Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, the extensive and paranoid destruction of all real or imagined threats to his power; and in 1937, Rokossovsky fell afoul of the Purge. Some historians suggest that his arguments with the above-mentioned cavalry officers, some of whom had Stalin's ear, contributed to his arrest.
 
Rokossovsky was also connected to two other officers who were arrested during the Purge, and that in itself was enough to get someone in trouble. Additionally, he did meet a Japanese officer in the Far East once, a fact he never denied but always claimed was just a meeting about the situation of Chinese prisoners. The fact that he was half-Polish certainly didn't help his case, either. Rokossovsky was charged with sabotage through deliberate negligence and with having links to Polish and Japanese intelligence.

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Kresty prison in St. Petersburg (then Lengingrad), where Rokossovsky was imprisoned (Photo: Vladimir Volokhonsky)

He was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police at the time, and his wife and daughter were sent into internal exile. A dedicated but politically naive communist, Rokossovsky was adamant in his belief that the persecution of innocent people was entirely the NKVD's fault, and steadfastly refused to accept that it was initiated by Stalin himself. He was beaten and tortured to get him to sign a false confession (based on which he would have been then executed), but he refused. His fingernails were torn out, and several of his teeth pulled during his captivity. On two occasions, he was exposed to a mock execution: he was woken up in the middle of the night, escorted to the execution spot by a firing squad, and eventually taken back inside. He never discussed his nearly three years of imprisonment with his family, but he later always kept a gun at home to make sure he would never be arrested alive again.

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A photo on which you can catch a glimpse of Rokossovsky's metal teeth (Photo: Unknown photographer)

While Rokossovsky was in prison, the outside world as changing. In late 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in what became known as the Winter War. The war technically ended with a Soviet victory as Finland was forced to concede some of its territory in the spring of 1940, but the unexpectedly high Soviet losses turned this into a Pyrrhic victory and a global embarrassment for the Soviet Union.
 
The Red Army underwent a rapid expansion to bring it up to strength, and needed many experienced officers. The army's senior officer, Stalin loyalist Semyon Timoshenko, knew Rokossovsky from earlier, since the latter used to serve under him. Rokossovsky was released from prison and given command of the 5th Cavalry Corps at the rank of colonel.

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Rokossovsky during World War II (Photo: pravmir.ru)

Rokossovsky had little time to enjoy his regained freedom, since Hitler caught Stalin entirely unprepared when he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Red Army was desperately trying to put up some form of defense as the seemingly unstoppable German army surged ahead. Serving indirectly under his former subordinate, Georgy Zhukov, Rokossovsky's forces were thrown into the Battle of Brody on the second day of the invasion. During the fight, he received contradictory orders. His immediate superior ordered him to stay on the defense, but his superior, Zhukov, ordered a counterattack. Using his own judgment, Rokossovsky decided that a counterattack would be suicidal and fruitless against the vastly superior German force, and held his ground instead, buying time for other units to reorganize. That was the best outcome anybody could hope for, as there was just no winning that battle. In slightly over two weeks, Rokossovsky's complement of 316 tanks shrunk to a mere 64. His ability as a commander was still recognized, and he was restored to the rank of Lieutenant General, which he held before his arrest. The Southwestern Front ("Front" being the Soviet equivalent of an Army Group), where he served, was one of the few sectors which managed to put up any sort of resistance in the first few days of the invasion.

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A knocked-out T-34 during the Battle of Brody (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Rokossovsky was quickly transferred to the city of Smolensk, where a new crisis was developing from mid-July onward. The city and three entire Soviet armies around it were almost completely surrounded by the Germans, with a single corridor connecting them to Soviet-controlled territory in the east. Two Panzer divisions were threatening to nip off that bottleneck, trapping the Russian armies.

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Map of the Battle of Smolensk (Image: Wikipedia/Livedawg)

Rokossovsky was given command of a stopgap unit called Group Yartsevo (after a local town) to keep that corridor open. On paper, Group Yartsevo was an army-sized formation. When Rokossovsky arrived, he was shocked to see that his "army" was his small command staff, two trucks with anti-air machine guns, and a radio van. He tackled the impossible task by pulling fight-capable soldiers from the retreating stragglers and from among reserve units. As units retreated from the Smolensk pocket one by one, they joined Rokossovsky to guard the passage so that others could follow. Amazingly, Group Yartsevo even managed to go on the offensive and harass enemy forces, confusing German commanders and giving them a false notion of Russian troop strength. By the end of July, however, it was clear that even Group Yartsevo's efforts could not stop the Germans or save all of the Soviet troops in the pockets. Rokossovsky still managed to slow down the German advance and saved a lot of Russian soldiers from death or capture.

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German cavalry in a burning village near Smolensk (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Germans were approaching Moscow by September 1941, and Stalin personally placed Rokossovsky in charge of the 16th Army, one of the formations protecting the Soviet capital. Once again, Rokossovsky failed to see eye-to-eye with Zhukov, now him immediate superior. Zhukov denied Rokossovsky's request for permission to move his troops to a more defensible location. Rokossovsky then went over Zhukov's head, making the same request to the Chief of the General Staff, who immediately ordered a withdrawal. Once Zhukov learned of this, he revoked his own superior's order, forcing Rokossovsky to hold his position – a position that proved untenable when German forces pushed his army aside. Nevertheless, the 16th Army took the brunt of the German effort, contributing to the Germans' ultimate failure to capture Moscow.

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Rokossovsky (second from left) and other officers examining captured German vehicles during the Battle of Moscow (Photo: RIA Novosti)

With Moscow out of reach, Hitler turned his attention to the south, intent on securing Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus region, a well-known offensive that culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad. Now commanding an entire Front, Rokossovsky participated in the operation, and was eventually charged with mopping up the remaining German forces in the city.

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Rokossovsky during the Battle of Moscow (Photo: mil.ru)

The tide of war has changed on the Eastern Front, but Germany still had one chance to turn things around. In the summer of 1943, that attempt became the Battle of Kursk, the largest armored battle in history. Commanding the Central Front, Rokossovky played a central role in the battle. The Germans were delaying their attack in order to bring up more reinforcements with Tiger I and Panther tanks, and the latest models of German assault guns. Rokossovsky used this time to construct three sprawling defensive lines, which proved instrumental in stopping the Germans and forcing them on the back foot for the rest of the war.
 
During the battle, Rokossovsky had a close brush with death. Acting on a whim, he set up his signals group in the officers' mess. One night, his HQ was hit by German bombs, and he only survived because he was in the mess.

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Rokossovsky examining a German Tiger tank at Kursk (Photo: albumwar2.com)

In the summer of 1944, Rokossovsky participated in Operation Bagration, the push across Byelorussia (today Belarus). According to an often-repeated story, he managed to lock horns with a superior once again, only this time it was someone much worse than Zhukov to get on the bad side on: Stalin himself. One day, Stalin and his command staff were planning an attack. Stalin wanted to break through German lines at a single point, but Rokossovsky doggedly argued for two simultaneously breakthroughs. Three times, an increasingly annoyed Stalin sent him out of the room to "think it over," and three times Rokossovsky returned with "two breakthroughs, Comrade Stalin, two breakthroughs". After the third, Stalin stepped over to Rokossovsky and placed his hand on his shoulder. Everyone expected him to rip off Rokossovky's epaulet and have arrested (or worse). Instead, he simply said "Your confidence speaks for your sound judgment" and let Rokossovsky have it his away. Naturally, had Rokossovsky's double breakthrough failed after this, he would have had to face consequences. But military fortune was kind to him, and the attack was a success. Rokossovsky was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union for his victories in Belarus and eastern Poland.

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Soviet Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, Rokossovsky and Stalin at Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow (Photo: ww2db.com)

The Warsaw Uprising broke out just as Rokossovsky was approaching the city. The Polish underground resistance launched a surprise attack to liberate the city before the Red Army could, since the Soviet liberation of the Polish capital would have given Poland worse chances for independence after the war. The bitter two-month urban fighting ended with the Germans crushing the resistance and destroying most of the city.
 
Rokossovsky was later criticized for stopping his advance, waiting out the battle on the far side of the Vistula River. Many people at the time (and since) saw this as a callous decision, allowing the Germans to massacre Polish civilians and freedom fighters. For what it's worth, Rokossovky always maintained that he stopped because he had to. His supply lines were dangerously stretched far, and the Germans were building up pressure against his flank; he felt that advancing into the city under such circumstances would have had disastrous consequences.
 
On May 3, 1945, Rokossovsky's forces linked up with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at Wismar, Germany.

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Zhukov, Montgomery and Rokossovsky with other Allied officers at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 12, 1945. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

As one of the Soviet Union's most accomplished generals, Rokossovsky participated in the Soviet Union's victory parade in the Red Square in Moscow, acting as a Commanding Officer of the Parade. He remained the commander of all Soviet forces in Poland after the war, and was later made the Polish Minister of National Defense on Stalin's orders. Rokossovsky, and several thousand Soviet officers under his command, controlled almost all of Poland's military.

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Rokossovsky (on dark horse) with Zhukov at the victory parade in Moscow (Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

It has to be said that Rokossovsky was a believing Communist and he partook in harsh acts on behalf of the Soviet Union. He played a key role in suppressing anti-Soviet sentiments in Poland, condemning some 200,000 men to hazardous work in labor battalions.
 
In 1956, riots in Poland led to a regime change. Władysław Gomułka, the nation's new leader, was still a communist but one less aligned with Soviet interests. His rise forced Rokossovsky to return to the Soviet Union where he lived until his death in 1968. His ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis on the Red Square in Moscow.

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The Kremlin Wall Necropolis (Photo: Alex Zelenko)
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