Konstantin Konstantinovich Rokossovsky (Russian: КОНСТАНТИН КОНСТАНТИНОВИЧ РОКОССОВСКИЙ, Polish name Konstanty Rokossowski) (December 21, 1896 - August 3, 1968), Soviet military commander and Polish Defence Minister, was born in the town of Velikie Luki near Pskov in northern Russia, the son of a Polish railway worker and a Russian mother. Soon after his birth the family moved to Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) and he grew up in Warsaw. Orphaned at 14, he worked as a stonemason. When World War I broke out in 1914 he joined the Russian Army.
Rokossovsky served as a non-commissioned officer in a dragoon regiment until the Russian revolution of 1917, when he joined the Bolshevik Party and soon after the Red Army. He became a commander during the Russian Civil War. During the fighting against the White Guard armies of Aleksandr Kolchak he twice received the Order of the Red Banner.
After the Civil War Rokossovsky studied at the Frunze Military Academy and became a senior cavalry commander in the Red Army. During the 1920s his division served a posting in the Mongolian People's Republic. In 1929 -- by agreement with the Chinese government -- he took part in defending the Chinese Eastern Railway against warlords . He held senior commands until 1937, when he became caught up in Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and accused of "connections with foreign intelligence".
The NKVD had Rokossovsky arrested as a Polish spy, beaten senseless by interrogators and imprisoned. Brought before a "special military tribunal", he was told that the proof of his guilt was the testimony of a fellow "conspirator," Adolf Yushkevich.
"Can the dead give evidence?" Rokossovsky asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Adolf Kazimirovich was killed in 1920 at Perekop", Rokossovsky answered. "I mentioned to the interrogator that I served with him, but neglected to mention his death."
Rokossowski in Polish uniform
This exchange apparently saved Rokossovsky's life, but he had to serve a sentence in a labour camp, where he remained until March 1940, when he was released without explanation, apparently due to Stalin's intention to participate in World War II. Rokossovsky first revived in the so-called "Villa of ecstasy" in the spa of Sochi on the coast of Black Sea. After the brief talk with Stalin he was restored to the rank of a Corps Commander in the Kiev Military Region.
When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in July 1941 Rokossovsky became commander of the 4th Army stationed near Smolensk. During the bitter fighting in the winter of 1941-42 Rokossovsky played a key role in the defence of Moscow under Georgy Zhukov.
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's 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 Red Army then transferred him to the 1st Belorussian Front, which he commanded during the Soviet advance through Byelorussia (Belarus) and into Poland. He commanded Operation Bagration, which took Soviet forces to the east bank of the Vistula opposite Warsaw by mid-1944. For these victories he gained the title of Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Rokossovsky in the uniform of a Marshal of the Soviet Union
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. Since the AK had the objectives of liberating the city from the Germans before the arrival of the Soviet forces and of preventing the establishment of a Communist government, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to give the rising no assistance, orders which he obeyed, although as a Pole he must have had mixed feelings about them, particularly since several members of his family still lived in the city.
After the fall of Warsaw to the Red Army in January 1945, 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.
With the end of the war Rokossovsky remained in command of Soviet forces in northern Poland and Germany. In October 1949, with the establishment of a fully Communist government under Bolesław Bierut in Poland, Rokossovsky became Polish Minister of National Defence, with the additional title Marshal of Poland, and in 1952 he became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the People's Republic of Poland. Although Rokossovsky had Polish parentage, he had not lived in Poland for 35 years, and Poles generally regarded him as Stalin's agent in subordinating the country to Soviet domination.
When Communist reformers under Władysław Gomułka came to power in Poland in 1956, Rokossovsky had to resign his positions and leave the country. 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 74, and lies buried in Red Square near the Kremlin.
- Rokossowski speech on National Unity Congress in Poland (http://polskaludowa.com/dzwiek/nagrania/Rokossowski_kon_jedn_ludowej.mp3) (December 1949)