Episode 56 – Charles XII of Sweden versus Georgi Zhukov

Heading on over to the Military bracket, we begin with Charles XII of Sweden who took on Peter the Great and was one of the first generals to invade Russia from the west.  He faces off against the man who rallied Soviet forces during the bleakest hours of World War II, smashing the Nazi invaders, helping to bring an end to the most significant conflict in human history, Georgi Zhukov. 

My primary sources for today’s podcast include 100 Decisive Battles by Paul K. Davis and Peter the Great by Derek Wilson. It might seem odd that I’m using a book about the Russian Tsar, but Charles XII’s life is inexorably tied to Peter, and the book has quite a bit about the Swedish King. As for Zhukov, I’ve also used Davis’s book along with A History of Russia by Riasanovsky and Steinberg and Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild West by Martin Sixsmith.

Charles XII of Sweden
Charles XII of Sweden

Born on June 17, 1682, at Tre Kroner Castle or Three Crown Castle in Stockholm, Sweden. Prince Charles was the second child and eldest son of Charles XI of Sweden and Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark. He would be the first and only Swedish King born into the purple, so to say. Charles’s childhood was a pleasant one until the death of his mother in 1693 when he was eleven. His father would pass away four years later. Charles the XII would have a regency to aid him, but he was considered an extremely bright young boy, and the ministers around him always included him in any decisions.

Something to note about his name Charles XII. He was actually the sixth Swedish King to go by the name of Charles. The kings used numerological mythology to come up with the number after their name, a tradition that continues to this day. 

Not much has been written about his childhood before he became King, but that is not surprising as he made it to the throne at the tender age of 15. Royal marriages were a significant issue during this time, so of course matches for the young King were being planned. The first was to the daughter of the King of Denmark who just happened to be a cousin of Charles. It was not to be as Denmark joined Saxony and Russia in an alliance against Sweden which was to precipitate the coming of the Great Northern War. Charles was never to marry, and there are rumors that he would remain a virgin until his death at the age of 36 in 1718.

It is the Great Northern War where Charles XII made his bones. He would show off his incredible military skills and elevate his status as one of the greatest tactical minds in world history. Unfortunately, it would also prove to be his ultimate downfall.

In 1700, Denmark and Norway were co-joined much like Poland and Lithuania. They were opposed to the growing threat of a powerful adversary in Sweden. Charles XII first went after his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark who ruled the two countries. Quickly he defeated them and forced them to sign the Peace of Travendal using a force smaller than his opposition. This was to be a common scenario in most of his military campaigns.

On the day that Denmark conceded, Russia, led by Peter the Great, someone we met in episode 2, entered an alliance against Sweden. Peter invaded Swedish controlled Livonia which forced Charles to counterattack at the Battle of Narva in November of 1700. Facing an army at least four times larger than his, Charles’s troops destroyed the Russian Army under cover of a blizzard. It would make Peter revitalize his forces and change the way the Russian Army would operate. It is said that the Russians lost over 10,000 men while the Swedes lost a mere 667.

What occurred after the Battle of Narva has baffled military historians to this day. Instead of continuing his mastery of the Russians, Charles decided to look south and invade Poland instead. Russia was too weak and backward in his mind to cause him any trouble, so he gave them eight years before he would focus his attention on them again. This was to be a fatal mistake as Peter the Great was someone who always learned from his errors and would have plenty of time to reorganize and improve his Army. 

Charles believed that he was destined to control the politics of Central and Northern Europe. His armies were unstoppable, and he gained influence over Poland and who would become King. After defeating Polish king Augustus II and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Kliszow in 1702 he wanted to replace the King. His choice was Stanisław Leszczyński which freed up his southern flank. Charles took his time to deal with the Russians as he had very little faith in their military might. Charles believed that the Russians were a backward people who were no match for his superior Swedish Army.

Moving forward to 1708, Charles decided to attack Russia with a plan to take St. Petersburg, a relatively new city. His encounter with another vastly larger number of Russia troops at the Battle of Holowczyn in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to be “his favorite victory.” There were 12,500 Swedes there against a force of 28,000 Russians, but only 9,000 only fought due to a mix up in command. Charles believed that the Russians were still weak and militarily undisciplined group he fought eight years earlier. He was to be sorely mistaken. 

While technically a victory, the Battle of Holowczyn was not as decisive as most of the Russian troops successfully retreated. It was brilliantly led by the Swedish King, but it could be said that his adversary’s generals had acted so poorly that he was handed the victory. The battle did change Charles’s mind as to his target, and that was to be Moscow to the east. It was a fateful decision that would end up causing him to lose almost all of his Army. 

Peter the Great had made many enemies while ruling Russia with one, Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks actually becoming an ally of Charles XII. With combined forces between the Swedes and Ukrainians, Charles headed towards Moscow, crossing the Vistula River on January 1, 1708, with about 40,000 men. He also expected to get an additional 12,500 thousand Swedes led by Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt, but that Army was ambushed by the Russians at the Battle of Lesnaya on October 9, 1708. Only 1,300 Swedish soldiers made it out and to the camp of Charles.

All was not lost as the Swedes had won ten battles to the one-loss at Lesnaya furthering Charles’s belief that he had the superior Army since the only loss was one where he was not at the helm. The next battle, the Battle of Poltava, which we learned about in episode 16, was to be the end of the Swedish invasion.

One of the problems facing Charles’s Army was the “Great Frost of 1709” which wiped out a large chunk of the Swedish Army and shrunk it to 24,000 men. The Russian winter was to be the great equalizer two more times in history when Napoleon and then Hitler decided to have a crack at it. They should have learned from the Swedish General, but as we know, they didn’t. 

In May 1709, Charles was finally able to find the Russian Army which had been playing a kind of cat and mouse game with the Swedes. They fought small skirmishes hoping to weaken their adversaries which they did. As we know, the Battle of Poltava, fought on July 9, 1709, was a decisive victory for Russia and Peter the Great over the Swedes. As we also know, Charles had been hit by a stray bullet the day before and was not on the battlefield as he had given the command to Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld.

The aftermath of the loss was devastating to Charles as only 500 or so men made it into Ottoman territory and away from the Russians. It would be five years before he would make it back to Sweden which was at war with Russia, Saxony, Hannover, Great Britain, and Denmark. Charles invaded the Danish controlled land of Norway in 1716 but was decisively defeated by Norwegian General Tordenskjold in the Battle of Dynekilen.

Two years later, in 1718, heading an army of 40,000 Swedes Charles again tried to invade Norway laying siege to the fortress of Fredriksten where he was shot to death by a stray bullet on December 11th. There were rumors that his death was not accidental but that it was an assassination either by a disgruntled soldier or a plot by nobles who were tired of the constant wars. Whatever the case, Charles XII was a mere 36 years old and had been on campaign for most of his 21 years in power. 

Next up is the Soviet war hero Georgi Zhukov.

Georgy Zhukov
Georgy Zhukov

Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov was born on December 1, 1896, born to a family quite the opposite of Charles XII as they were a dirt-poor peasant family living in the Kaluga Governate about 100 miles southwest of Moscow. During World War I he was drafted into the Imperial Russian Army and placed into the 10th Dragoon Novgorod Regiment. Zhukov was to win two Crosses of St. George for courage and bravery.

In 1917, he joined the Bolshevik Party after the October Revolution and fought in the Russian Civil War, in the 1st Cavalry Army where yet again, he won awards for bravery, this time the Order of the Red Banner. From here he went from being a soldier to a commissioned officer and commander and went on to the Higher School of Cavalry. Zhukov then studied military science at the Frunze Military Academy graduating in 1931. He also spent time in Germany studying the same subject.

During the following years, somehow, Georgi Zhukov was able to avoid the military purges that Stalin had initiated. These would take the lives of large swaths of officers. The top of the military suffered greatly with three of five marshals, taken out; think of them as four-star generals. Further, 13 of 15 army commanders, eight out of nine admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars were executed. Stalin feared that the military posed a threat to his regime. Unfortunately, his paranoia would prove disastrous in the early stages of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Zhukov may never have risen to the position he got to without the purges.

 1937, he became a commander of the 3rd Cavalry Corps, then to the 6th Cavalry Corps. In 1938, he was named as the deputy commander of the Belorussian Military District Cavalry. While he was considered an excellent leader, it was the next battle that would help launch his career and was also a significant, little known turning point in World War II, the Battles of Khalkhin Gol.

In 1938, Zhukov took command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group which would precipitate the Soviet–Japanese Border Wars which went on from 1938 to 1939. The culmination of these numerous skirmishes was the decisive Battles of Khalkhin Gol. Fought between May 11 and September 16, 1939, against the Japanese Kwantung Army, Zhukov’s leadership was to prove crucial. The defeat of the Japanese at the border of Mongolia and Manchuria, then known as Manchukuo, was to allow Stalin to move vast amounts of men from the eastern front to the western front after German began Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.

Georgi Zhukov was by now considered a top-line military leader and strategist by Stalin. For his innovative use of tanks and airstrikes, Zhukov was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, a prestigious award at the time. In 1940, he was made a full general.

Preparations began in 1940 for the possibility of an invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi forces. War games between Zhukov led armies against Dmitry Pavlov’s men were held with Zhukov winning both major mock battles. Whether playing the Nazi invaders or the Soviet defenders, Georgi came out on top. Because of this, on February 1, 1941, Zhukov was elevated to the position of chief of the Red Army’s General Staff.

In May of 1941, it was pretty well known that the truce between the Nazi’s and the Soviet Union was not going to hold up much longer. At least that is what the military men believed. Stalin was not as sure so when Zhukov prepared and presented the “Strategic plan for deployment of the forces of the Soviet Union in the event of war with Germany and its allies,” it was rejected.

When the Nazi’s invaded, Zhukov initiated “Directive of Peoples’ Commissariat of Defense No. 3.” It directed the Red Army to encircle the incoming troops and destroy them due to the numerical superiority of the Soviet forces. It failed miserably. Not because of the plan drawn up by Zhukov, most military historians put that blame on the lack of qualified commanders due to the Stalinist purges. Millions of men were either killed or captured in the early phases of the invasion. Zhukov was removed as the Chief of the General Staff and moved to the Leningrad Front. It is the defense of the former St. Petersburg that would be another turning point in what the Soviets would call the Great Patriotic War. 

By October of 1941, Zhukov was elevated to head the defense of the entire Western Front which would include the Battle of Moscow. The Wehrmacht forces would reach the outskirts of Moscow coming just 30 kilometers or 19 miles from the city itself. The defense of the city conjured up by Georgi Zhukov was brilliant and brutal. It stopped Operation Barbarossa in its tracks and was considered by many to be the turning point of World War II, at least on the Eastern Front. 

So how did Zhukov pull it off? Remember the Battles of Khalkhin Gol and how it freed the Soviet’s border from the potential of invasion from Japan? Well, those Siberian and Far Eastern Military Districts troops arrived just in time to launch the defense and the ensuing counter-offensive. An interesting side note is that the failure of the Nazi army to take their primary objective of Moscow led to the dismissal of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch with Adolph Hitler taking over the entire war effort. The colonel of World War I, who had no strategic military education, would commit blunder after blunder which doomed the Nazi war effort.

The coming winter of 1941, which was brutal, caught the Nazi’s off guard as they did not supply their men with adequate clothing to handle the harsh weather. Many historians believe that this and the extremely stretched supply lines were more responsible for the upcoming defeats of the Wehrmacht than anything Zhukov did. I have to agree that this was a significant factor, but we cannot diminish the effect of the overall plan that the Soviet General came up with. 

In 1942, Zhukov was now deputy commander in chief of the armed forces and was given the task of heading the defense of Stalingrad. This battle, which we will talk more about in episode 64, was an incredibly vicious street to street, building to building, room to room, fight to the last clash between the Nazi 6th Army and the Soviet defenders. Nikita Khrushchev was one of the commanders, and it was here that what you would call a friendship would develop between him and Zhukov. 

The defense of Stalingrad would cost the lives of over 1.8 million people, a truly staggering number. With the incredible sacrifices of the men and women of the Soviet forces, the German 6th Army was almost totally wiped out with about 90,000 Germans surrendering out of an initial force of 248,000. Of those 90,000, only 5,000 would ever make it back to Germany with one of my uncles being one of them. Operation Uranus, which caused the 6th Army to be encircled and crushed, was designed by Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky.

The next fight that Zhukov would lead was the most massive tank battle the world had ever and would ever to date see, the Battle of Kursk. The Nazi’s would throw more than 3,000 tanks at the Red Army beginning on July 5, 1943, with the Soviets responding with over 7,000 tanks when they counterattacked. The massive clashes would go on until August 23rd and would leave the German Army in tatters. 

Soviet losses were staggering, a pattern that would follow pretty much every battle that Zhukov would lead. Two hundred and fifty thousand Soviet troops would lose their lives with over 500,000 more injured or sick. The German losses were pretty horrific as well with over 110,000 casualties. The Soviet Army sent in 2.5 million men into battle with the Nazi’s sending in 900,000.

The tide of the war turned, going from the defense of the Motherland into an offensive war. The race was now one to reach Berlin before their Western Allies got there. This was the plan that came down from the commander-in-chief, Joseph Stalin.

With Zhukov at the helm of the 1st Belorussian Front, the Battle of Berlin was to begin on April 16, 1945, ending a little more than two weeks later on May 2nd with the capture of the city and the suicide three days earlier of Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. Georgi Zhukov was at the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender on May 9th. His military days as the leader of fighting in the Great Patriotic War came to a successful conclusion. 

Zhukov was named the supreme military commander of the Soviet occupation zone. He was extremely popular back home which irked Stalin, so much so that on April 10, 1946, he was demoted and moved to the Odessa Military District which was far away from anything important. Zhukov would suffer a heart attack in 1948 but would recover to be an essential chess piece in the coming days after Stalin’s death in 1953.  

While not entirely historically accurate, the comedy movie, The Death of Stalin, can give you an insight into the importance of Zhukov’s power over the military in the fight for the leadership of the Soviet Union between the secret police head Lavrenti Beria, who we will meet in episode 84 and the rest of the leadership. 

Zhukov would help Khrushchev gain control of the country and help him in a struggle with the Anti-Party movement to oust the leader, but he would fall out of favor as the Soviet Chairman was wary of his power. When Leonid Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev, Zhukov would return to glory but without any real power. Georgi Zhukov would pass away on June 18, 1974, at the age of 77 in Moscow as a true Soviet hero. 

Now we need to head on over to the scorer’s table.

The first fifteen points are for the amount of time in service to their country. Charles XII began his service when he ascended to the throne of Sweden at the age of 15 in 1697 and lasted until his death in 1718 for a total of 21 years. Georgi Zhukov began his military career in 1915 with the Imperial Russian Army, ending with his ouster as the Minister of Defense in 1957 for a total of 42 years. The Soviet commander gets 15 points with the Swedish King receiving 7.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. While Charles affected several countries like Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Sweden, Zhukov was involved in a global conflict helping to defeat the Axis powers in World War II. Twenty points for Georgi, 15 for Charles.

The third criteria we will be judging is their lasting effect on world history for twenty-five points. Now, this isn’t as much of a slam dunk for Zhukov as it may seem. Charles helped to elevate Russia’s standing as a world power with his defeat at the Battle of Poltava. Zhukov’s generalship that led to the defeat of the Nazi’s had a lasting effect on world history that continues to this day although not quite as much as it was when the Soviet Union was still in existence. Twenty-five points for the Soviet General and twenty for the Swede.

Now for the last 40 points for how they affected their country for the better in their time. This is an absolute rout for Zhukov. His actions saved his country from the Nazi’s while Charles XII caused the great power that was Sweden to disintegrate into a minor player in his short reign. For these reasons, I’m giving Georgi 40 points and only 15 for Charles. 

In the most lopsided win in BGH’s podcast history, the Soviet General Georgi Zhukov scores a perfect 100 to the Swedish King’s 57. Zhukov moves on to the second round where he will face off against the winner of the battle between Fredrick the Great versus the founder of the Timurid Empire, Tamerlane also known as Timur.

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