The Evolution of Soviet Tank and Mechanized Forces in the Second World War

(by Scott Boston, USA, 2003. FIrst published at Reproduced with kind permission)

The extraordinary development of the Russian tank arm deserves the very careful attention of students of war… In the fiery furnace of war the tank crews of the Red Army were elevated far above their original level. Such a development must have required organization and planning of the highest order. Major General F.W. von Mellenthin [1]

In 47 months of bloody conflict on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, the Red Army evolved from a mostly beaten, collapsed entity to a fully functioning, flexible instrument of war. During this time the Soviets made great strides in perfecting their prewar theories on operational maneuver and the employment of mechanized forces on the contemporary battlefield. The Soviets combined wartime experiences with prewar theoretical background and completely reorganized their mechanized forces, tailoring them specifically for the conduct of successive operations across a wide range of situations, demonstrating remarkable flexibility and coordination at the highest levels of command.

Such a transition came neither cheaply nor easily. The Red Army’s tank and mechanized force structure of 1944 was the result of fierce battles and bloody failures against a skilled opponent, and it represented the best organization of Soviet resources and expertise that the Supreme High Command (Stavka) could manage. The changes in Soviet force structure during World War II created a more flexible, balanced, and combat worthy Red Army and were the result of Stavka studies based on prewar doctrine, wartime experiences, and the technical and tactical capabilities of the Red Army. As these capabilities increased, the Red Army’s battlefield performance improved within the framework provided by the new, more effective organization.

To understand the Red Army of the Second World War, it is first necessary to understand the intellectual origins of its wartime doctrine, formed in the 1920s and 1930s by a host of prominent Soviet military thinkers. Force structure must have its origins in military doctrine, and for an organization to function properly, the doctrine must be sound. The Soviets were fortunate, for the experiences of the First World War, the Russian Civil War, and the war with Poland all created an officer corps with a great deal of combat experience, that went on to create what was probably the most theoretically advanced doctrine of all the great powers of World War Two.

The result of their combined experiences and analysis of emerging trends and technologies in warfare was that the Soviets saw the need to delineate a level of war that linked strategy and tactics. One of the Soviets’ fundamental reasons for the creation of an operational art was the contention that resilient modern armies, backed by industrialized economies, were difficult to completely destroy. Rather, the Soviets proposed successive operations would be needed to gain strategic objectives necessary for success in modern war. Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky, commenting on his own battlefield experience against the Poles in the Russian-Polish War in 1920, wrote that “the impossibility on a modern wide front of destroying the enemy army by one blow forces the achievement of that aim by a series of successive operations.” [2] This concept of the “operational” level of war, the ensuing advances in technology, and the advent of combined-arms eventually allowed the creation of a Soviet way of warfare that was unlike any other power’s in the world in its scope and complexity. The Red Army’s doctrine consisted of the coordination of strategy, operational art, and tactics. [3]

Following the Russian Civil War, the Soviet military finally found time to reorganize. While the Red Army began a program to standardize its equipment and organization, questions arose about the nature of the military in the Soviet Union. The Red Army created a number of high command-level training schools, for the practical and theoretical training of its officers, who universally had a great deal of combat experience to draw upon. [4] Throughout the high command, many issues were hotly debated, each having its own impact on the future image of the Soviet military.

The most important argument in evolutionary terms of the operational art had to do with the depth to which mobile forces should penetrate an enemy defense. While some argued that the mobile force should, upon penetrating an enemy tactical defense, immediately turn and destroy the defenders piecemeal, Tukhachevsky and others pushed for a deep penetration, where the exploitation forces would drive through the enemy’s vulnerable rear area, allowing the forces on the front to be more easily destroyed while restoring mobility to the battlefield and achieving operational aims. This idea in Soviet writings has been referred to as the operation in depth, or Deep Battle. [5]

The ideas of the deep offensive were compiled in Victor K. Triandafillov’s The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies, written in 1929. Triandafillov was influenced by the work of dozens, if not hundreds, of his fellow Red Army officers, and his compilation of and insight into the nature of deep operations was a valuable contribution to Soviet military art. The first part of The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies, “The State of Modern Armies,” analyzed the changes in military equipment and new technologies since the First World War. More importantly, it touched on many of the important discussions and ideas of the Red Army leadership of the time, such as the debate between having a small, professional, fully integrated combined-arms army, or a large, mass army. It examined the contemporary organization of armies of the 1920s, as well as the wartime mobilization of a nation’s resources to allow it to win. [6]

The real contribution of Triandafillov’s book was part two, titled “Operations of Modern Armies.” Triandafillov directly confronted the problem of attacking an enemy force throughout the depth of its tactical and operational defenses, with focus on not only breaking through the enemy line but coordinating the exploitation and destruction of the enemy forces. In a synthesis of the ideas put forth on deep offensive operations, Triandafillov went so far as to lay out requirements for force density in the area of the offensive, and to determine the attacking army’s rate of advance needed to sufficiently transfer its momentum into the enemy’s operational depth. [7]

The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies specifically addressed the force structure requirements of an army attempting a deep offensive. Triandafillov called the force designed to break through the enemy line a shock army, basically referring to any army intended for action within the sector of a main effort. [8] Since these units would be moving quickly and fighting constantly, their force structure would be echeloned to allow for fresh troops to be rotated into the leading edge of an attack. Triandafillov projected that the number of second and third echelon divisions should be half as many as the first-echelon divisions in a shock army. He proposed that each unit assigned to break through an enemy defensive zone be heavily reinforced with artillery and tank assets, and he asserted the need for aviation and ground reconnaissance units, integral close air and fighter support, engineering units, signal units, and chemical weapons. Most importantly, Triandafillov believed a much higher rate of advance was needed to ensure decisive maneuver against a retreating opponent; he advocated the use of tanks and motorization of the army to achieve that rate of movement. [9]

In 1930 the Soviets formed their first mechanized unit, the 1st Mechanized Brigade, which consisted of a tank regiment, a motorized infantry regiment, and reconnaissance and artillery battalions. From this humble beginning, the Soviets would go on to create the first operational-level armored formations in history, the 11th and 45th Mechanized Corps, in 1932. The Red Army organized the 1932 mechanized corps in three brigades, with over 400 tanks and a large number of subordinate units. The result was a tank-heavy division with the engineering, anti-aircraft, artillery, and aviation assets needed to operate in the enemy’s rear areas without outside support from its parent front. [10] (See Appendix A) Because of the emphasis on the use of massed armor in exploitation in Soviet works of the 1930s, the Red Army’s mechanized forces would remain tank-heavy throughout the decade. [11]

The Provisional Field Service Regulations for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, 1936 (PU-36) served to reinforce Triandafillov’s works and make “deep battle” official Red Army doctrine. In it’s first chapter it emphasizes the principles of economy of force, surprise, combined-arms, mass, physical security, and above all, depth in both the offensive and defensive:

The resources of modern defense technology enable one to deliver simultaneous strikes on the enemy tactical layout over the entire depth of his dispositions. There are now enhanced possibilities of rapid regrouping, of sudden turning movements, and of seizing the enemy’s rear areas and thus getting astride his axis of withdrawal. In an attack, the enemy should be surrounded and completely destroyed. [12]

To exploit a breakthrough of an enemy’s tactical defensive zone, PU-36 advocated use of mechanized or cavalry formations, inserted into a penetration sector through a breach in the enemy’s line and used to exploit the success of the assault group.

The Field Service Regulations placed special emphasis on the pursuit of the broken enemy, and in doing so demonstrated a reliance on small-unit initiative and audacity of maneuver:

The destruction of enemy forces that have escaped encirclement can only be accomplished by a bold pursuit. This is undertaken independently by tank and infantry units as soon as they discover enemy elements withdrawing. The pursuit is pressed home with all possible vigour, all commanders exercising their initiative to the utmost. In the pursuit, any waiting for flanking units to catch up is out of the question. By boldness of action the very smallest of infantry or tank elements may inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy. [13]

Pursuit was to be executed across as wide a front as possible, to maintain constant pressure; the broad front in the pursuit would be characteristic of Red Army offensives in the later years of the war with Germany.

PU-36 proved to be the basis for the Red Army’s Second World War operational doctrine, and it heavily influenced the organization of the mechanized and tank forces. The Soviets relied upon assault groupings, composed of infantry heavily reinforced with supporting artillery and armor, to break through enemy tactical defenses. Upon breaching the enemy line, the higher command would introduce its mobile group into the penetration with the intent of quickly exploiting the breach into the operational depth of the enemy held territory. The emphasis on high mobility meant that this mobile group would be very well equipped in tanks and self-propelled artillery, as well as motorized infantry. Forward detachments would facilitate movement of mobile forces by ranging ahead of the moving formation and seizing vital points in order to speed the overall rate of advance. Ideally, the front commander or Stavka representative would introduce multiple mobile groups into different penetrations to keep the enemy off-balance and continually unsure of Soviet intentions, making easier the defeat of the enemy in detail. During this period, the Soviets would employ air assets and airborne forces throughout the depth of the enemy’s defense to sow confusion, disrupt supply flow to the forward units, and to distract and pin reserves in place. While theoretically advanced, the Red Army of the 1930s and the early part of the war had no hope of executing a complex doctrine requiring such detailed and coordinated planning without sufficiently trained personnel and adequate equipment.

It is apparent then that the theoretical background for the Red Army’s force structure already existed by the time of the purges. The concept of consecutive operations, the use of a mobile group separate from an assault group designed to penetrate an enemy’s tactical defense, the echelonment of forces to allow for sustained combat, the use of forward detachments, the coordination of a wide front of pursuit, and the use of closely linked combined-arms were all prewar concepts, established in the 1936 Field Service Regulations.

Disaster came to the Red Army’s sophisticated prewar force structure and indeed, many of its talented officers in 1937 when Stalin lashed out at the Red Army high command. Targeting the officers who posed the greatest threat to Stalin’s rule, the purges eradicated many of the fathers of Deep Battle, including Tukhachevsky and his following, replacing them with officers like Voroshilov, who were known more for loyalty than operational skill. Deep Battle itself was outlawed as a concept, and practice of the operation in depth was suppressed until much later. [14] The purges spared few in the high command, and an idea of their impact can be gained by examining the numbers involved:

3 of the 5 Marshals

13 of the 15 army commanders

8 of the 9 fleet admirals and admirals grade I

50 of the 57 corps commanders

16 of the 16 army political commissars

25 of the 28 corps commissars

58 of the 64 divisional commissars

11 of the 11 vice-commissars of defence

98 of the 108 members of the Supreme Military Soviet. [15]

The purges had dire results for the future. Not only did the officer corps suffer enormously high losses, but those remaining in positions of power in the military generally substituted loyalty to Stalin in place of operational talent. Combined with the hasty expansion of the Red Army in the years prior to the war, the 43,000 officers that were either killed, imprisoned, or dismissed created an extreme shortage of trained officers, especially in the upper ranks. [16] With a sudden disappearance of educated officers, insufficient resources, and poorly trained troops, deep operations had far to go to be practiced on the battlefield.

Fortunately for a small number of Red Army officers, the purges focused on personnel stationed in the West. It was in the Far East, near the Manchurian Border, that the Soviets first successfully practiced their prewar theories of the offensive in depth in August 1939. Led by the later famous Georgi Zhukov, the Red Army’s 57th Corps encircled and destroyed a Japanese infantry division, in a classic double envelopment across the Khalkin-Gol River that served to illustrate the validity of the deep operation as a maneuver doctrine. [17] Unconvinced, members of the high command at Moscow pointed out that it took longer than expected to complete the destruction of the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division despite its encirclement and Soviet superiority in manpower and equipment. [18] Whatever the interpretation, the Battle of Khalkin-Gol was in no small way a demonstration of the principles of PU-36, and a dazzling success when compared to any other Soviet operation in the period from 1939-1941.

At the same time as the Summer 1939 border conflict with Japan, the Soviets formed a commission reviewing the organization of the Red Army’s tank forces. Soviet experiences in the Spanish Civil War led commanders who served there to recommend against the use of large mechanized formations, chiefly due to technological limitations in communication and vehicle effectiveness. The Soviet 1935 pattern tank corps, which had two tank brigades and a motorized rifle brigade in its force structure for a total of 348 tanks, was disbanded in favor of a motorized division that had 275 tanks and more infantry. The most important aspect of this change was that the new 1939 pattern motorized division wholly emphasized the infantry-support role, with little focus on exploitation into the depth of an enemy force’s disposition. [19]

The final combat experience of the Red Army prior to the initiation of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 was the Winter War against Finland in late 1939 through early 1940. Here the Soviets suffered heavy casualties mounting uncoordinated attacks against heavy, permanent field fortifications. Suddenly, the problem of penetrating an enemy defensive zone and destroying its army seemed relevant again, and the Soviets began a shift back toward the doctrine espoused in PU-36. The Russo-Finnish war reminded the Soviets of the need for combined-arms and effective communications, an improved tactical training program for its troops, and renewed emphasis upon coordination of larger units. [20]

In partial response to German successes with massed armored formations in the West, and with an eye on the poor performance of the Red Army’s tank forces in the Winter War, the high command authorized the creation of 29 mechanized corps, and undertook general reforms in organization, equipment, deployment, and doctrine. These changes, initiated in the Autumn of 1940, needed time to take effect; the Red Army was still in the midst of this change when Germany invaded. [21]

The high command designed mechanized corps to function as army mobile groups, but there were flaws in their basic organization, and Soviet industry was unable to fully equip any of them before the war began. They were immensely difficult to command; consisting of two tank and one motorized divisions, each mechanized corps had 1,031 tanks and 36,080 soldiers on paper, but very few radios and large subunits, which were not easily commanded by lower-level commanders. For example, the 1941 Soviet Tank Division had over 300 tanks and 100 armored cars divided into two massive regiments, but only seven tanks in the entire division carried radios. Regiments had a mix of armored vehicles, including light, medium, and heavy tanks, and armored cars, creating immense problems in maneuver due to the differing mobility of the vehicles, as well as the logistical headache of seven different models of tanks in the same unit. [23] (See Appendix B)

The creation of the 1940 pattern mechanized corps, however, was a case of too little, too late. These large, unwieldy formations were still far from complete when Barbarossa came on 22 June, 1941, as their original target date for completion was sometime in mid-1942. The mechanized corps lacked motor transportation and had poor logistical arrangements, and none were even close to their table of organization and equipment (TO&E) strength when war broke out. Across the front, the mechanized corps averaged only 75 percent of their required personnel, and 53 percent of their required equipment, with further deficiencies in training, logistical and service support, essentially consigning them to their fates even before the war began. [24] Soviet industry had produced precious few of the most modern vehicles, including only 1,861 of the required 16,500 T-34 and KV series tanks. As a result, the vast majority of the 14,200 BT and T-26 light tanks in the Soviet inventory on the Western front were qualitatively inferior to the German panzers in 1941. [25]

Caught in the midst of reorganization, unsupplied and only partially mobilized, the mechanized corps’ fate came quickly indeed. Analyses by the corps commanders show that these formations were in absolutely no condition to fight, and suffered deficiencies across the board in all areas. Reports by these commanders were heartbreaking; D.D. Lelyushenko, commander of the 21st Mechanized Corps, wrote of his corps, which suffered 60 percent casualties in the first month of combat.

Damaged KV-1 in Mzensk, 1941

Damaged KV-1 in Mzensk, 1941

While experiencing extreme shortages in artillery, heavy and light machine guns, automatic rifles and mortars, all types of communications equipment (existing communications means were insufficient even for the control of artillery fires), and with considerable shortages in command and political personnel and with understrength staffs, the corps is continuing to struggle, and while its combat spirit has not flagged, it cannot last long both because of the absence of personnel and material reinforcements, and while its cadre are suffering considerable losses. [26]

In a July 1941 report to the chief of the Red Army’s Armored Directorate, Colonel Ivanin, chief of the Western Front’s Armored Directorate noted specific problems in the use of the mechanized corps in battle, stating that one of the primary causes for failure of counterattacks by the Red Army was “incorrect use of mechanized corps on difficult terrain without any communications with the infantry, artillery, and aviation in offensive operations.” [27]

Probably the best example of the operational failure of the mechanized corps was the counterattack by 5th and 7th Mechanized Corps, attached to 20th Army, against the German XXXIX and XXXXVII Panzer Corps near Lepel’ in early July 1941. This was the only offensive use of mechanized corps where the Soviets had time to assemble and plan their offensive. Their failure was commented on by the commander of the 20th Army, Lieutenant General P. A. Kurochkin

The experience of the two-day battle of the mechanized corps showed the following shortcomings in the conduct of the tank battle:

  1. Small tank subunits (companies and platoons) during the offensive moved primarily on the roads and in column, one tank after another. When meeting with antitank artillery the lead tank was usually knocked out, and the remaining, instead of rapidly deploying to attack and destroy the enemy, became flustered, marked time in place, and often withdrew to the rear.
  2. During the operations, maneuver by individual subunits and units was absent…
  3. The absence of cooperation between tanks, infantry, and artillery…
  4. Instead of massive and decisive attacks on the opposing enemy, regimental and division commanders, without need, sent out many different reconnaissance and security groups, dissipating their forces and weakening the tank blow.
  5. The matter of reports and information was criminal. Unit and formation commanders were situated in tanks and lost their radios for communications with higher headquarters. None bore the responsibility for informing higher headquarters…
  6. Orders concerning obstacle detachments and establishing order in the rear area were not fulfilled. March discipline was not observed. Individual tanks by the hundreds, without direction and without concrete necessity, rolled along the road, while passing one another and destroying normal movement. Soldiers by themselves and entire crowds roamed throughout the rear area, not in their [proper] place. [28]

It was after a mere 24 days of combat, on 15 July 1941, that the Soviets deactivated the mechanized corps structure altogether, forming all the remaining armor in the Red Army into independent brigades and battalions, and attaching them directly to higher headquarters. [29] By this time, several of them had already been destroyed, or had almost no equipment remaining. The fact that so many of the Soviets’ armored vehicles had been destroyed or captured forced them to adopt smaller, easier-to-control tank units which functioned in the roles of infantry support and anti-tank defense. The independent tank brigade and tank battalions would be the primary Soviet armor units through the Battle of Moscow and the Winter counteroffensive.

The necessity to preserve specialist units for the most vital operations forced the Soviets to take what few armored, engineer, signal, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and field artillery assets they and attach them to Stavka reserve. This system would remain throughout the war. The Red Army tightly centralized its precious specialists, since attaching them out to units in the sector of a main effort gave the attacking units greater flexibility and firepower to complete their missions.

The Soviets endured the Battle of Moscow with very small amounts of armor, using cavalry and ski troops as exploitation forces in the bitter winter battles of December 1941-April 1942. [30] Stavka attached the few existing armored units directly to army level, for use in major operations. When Yeremenko’s 4th Shock Army drove on Vitebsk and Smolensk in January 1941, as the primary effort in the envelopment of Army Group Center, his entire army had two understrength independent tank battalions, with fewer than a dozen of the modern T-34 and KV-1 tanks. [31]

Red Army men on the offensive near Bryansk

Red Army men on the offensive near Bryansk

In March 1942 the newly formed Armored Forces Administration approved the construction of a higher-level formation intended to act as the mobile group for a combined-arms army. [32] Although the Soviets called the new formation a tank corps, with only two tank brigades and one motorized rifle brigade for a total of around 100 tanks, it more closely approximated a division in size. It was, however, commanded by a Major General, due to its designation as a corps; this represented a conscious decision on the part of Stavka to emphasize the importance of these units, as well as to secure the best commanders in the Red Army to lead them. It soon became clear that the three brigade structure would not be sufficient, and in May 1942 a third tank brigade was added to the tank corps organization, which continued to evolve throughout the remainder of the war. [33] (See Appendix C)

While the creation of the tank corps was a bold step toward reestablishment of large mobile formations in the Red Army, combat operations in the Kharkov sector proved that the Soviets still had plenty of room for improvement. The primary difficulty in the execution of the Kharkov offensive in May 1942 was the problem of operational coordination. Specifically, on neither the Northern or the Southern axes did the Southwestern Front release the mobile formations at the correct time. By failing to introduce the mobile groups soon enough to exploit the situation, the Soviets allowed the Germans to move their operational reserves to the front and reinforce their first echelon forces. [34] As a result, instead of facing a disorganized enemy and countering his operational reserves piecemeal in meeting engagements, the Soviet tank and cavalry forces designated for exploiting the German positions found themselves fighting a second penetration battle against an organized defense, and suffering heavy casualties while doing so.

In part as a result of studies conducted on the performance of the tank corps in the Kharkov offensive and during the summer, Stavka authorized the formation in September 1942 of a mechanized corps. The 1942 mechanized corps resembled its 1940 namesake in name only; consisting of 3 mechanized brigades and one tank brigade, it had much more staying power than a tank corps yet better flexibility, balance, and command and control than the early war tank and motorized rifle divisions. Each mechanized brigade was a motorized rifle brigade with an attached tank regiment, so each brigade formation in the corps had integral tank forces. As a result of this the mechanized corps structure had more tanks than its sister organization, the tank corps, although the former had a more favorable ratio of infantry, with 12 motorized rifle battalions and 9 tank battalions. [35]

Stavka found the solution for the lack of a front-level exploitation echelon in the creation of the tank army. In response to the need for larger mechanized formations, Stavka created the 3rd and 5th tank armies in May 1942. Given the severe lack of available equipment for these units, they consisted of a variety of troops, with varying mobility creating an organization that was powerful but difficult to control. Each contained at least one of the new tank corps, but was reinforced by a cavalry corps and a number of rifle divisions, which curtailed the potential speed of this fledgling operational unit. [36] Tank army commanders held the rank of Colonel-General, the highest general rank in the Red Army; this represented the growing understanding that successful employment of mobile forces required the very best aggressive and capable commanders. [37]

Luckily for the Soviets, the tank army organization was sufficient to overcome the resistance of the sparsely deployed Rumanian units on the flanks of Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army along the approaches to Stalingrad. [38] However, deficiencies were immediately apparent. First, the forces detailed to the assault grouping were not strong enough to complete the penetration of enemy tactical defensive zones quickly enough to maintain the high rate of advance the Soviets needed. As a result, both the Stalingrad and Southwestern Fronts committed their mobile groups to complete the penetration; and the exploiting 3rd and 5th Tank Armies suffered casualties and some degree of dispersion before the exploitation even began. Worse still were the problems in coordinating a “mobile group” that consisted of so many rifle units, whose only real means of transport was on foot. As a result, the two exploiting tank armies risked being engaged with too little infantry support unless they limited their advance to the slow pace of their marching infantry counterparts. [39]

It was in January 1943 when the commander of the 3rd Guards Tank Corps, Lieutenant General Pavel A. Rotmistrov, traveled to Moscow to review the tank forces’ performance in offensive operations on the Southern Front. Standing before Stalin, Stavka, and the Politburo, Rotmistrov proposed a comprehensive reorganization of the tank armies, which resulted in the creation of a homogeneous mobile force. He argued that the experiences of the battles around Stalingrad demonstrated that the mixed-composition tank armies, with units of differing mobility, were ill-suited to develop tactical into operational success. [40]

Rotmistrov’s proposal was to remove the rifle and cavalry divisions from the tank army structure, and to increase the mobility of those elements remaining in the formation, notably the headquarters, the artillery, and the rear support services. Instead, the new tank army was to consist of two tank and one mechanized corps, an anti-tank artillery regiment, anti-aircraft artillery units, and rear-service units. After some debate, the committee accepted Rotmistrov’s proposal; his reward was command of the first of these new formations, the 5th Guards Tank Army, reorganized under the new TO&E in February, 1943. [41]

The January 1943 reorganization of the tank army structure was the most important point in the evolution of these formations. By January 1944, six of these structures existed in the Red Army, and they grew in size and combat power significantly before the end of the war. With the basic organization of the Front-level exploitation unit established, the next important step would be to establish how best to use it in combat, based on prewar theory, wartime experience, the available technology, and defensive techniques of the German Army in Russia. When the five homogeneous tank armies were deployed in July 1943, the Soviets finally had a powerful combined-arms organization with the firepower and mobility to operate independently of its parent formation, and often as many as 70-80 kilometers ahead of the slower combined-arms armies. [42]

While Rotmistrov was in Moscow, desperate battles for Southern Russia continued. In order to relieve pressure on troops defending on the Stalingrad axis and to divert forces from the 6th Army relief attempt, the Red Army planned an offensive against the Italian 8th Army, called Operation Little Saturn. During this offensive, the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, reinforced with four tank and one mechanized corps, drove on vital points in the Italian rear area, meeting behind them and destroying the bulk of the Italian force. [43] While the large part of the Italian 8th Army was never combat-worthy on the Eastern Front again, there were still serious problems in the execution of this offensive. Recurring problems in artillery coordination, logistical support, tank-infantry cooperation, and the prolonged penetration time of the enemy’s tactical defensive zone showed that, despite improvements, the Soviets could not yet consistently execute successful operations against a prepared enemy.

Perhaps most noteworthy in this offensive was the problem of coordinating the advances of infantry and tank forces; as the tank corps drove on their objectives, the rifle forces fell behind and were unable to catch up once German forces moved in. While the tank corps commanders fought their units with distinction, great difficulty plagued attempts to communicate with other exploitation units. As the Soviets used each corps in parallel, poor coordination allowed the Germans to engage them in a piecemeal fashion. When the 24th Tank Corps, under the command of Major General V.M. Badanov, seized the city and strategically vital airfield of Tatsinskaya, it was unable to hold long enough for supporting forces to arrive, and finally had to break out of encirclement with very little of its equipment or vehicles still operational. [44]

The lessons of Little Saturn were not lost on the Soviets, but time was needed to enact changes in a Red Army desperately attempting to maintain its grasp on the operational and strategic initiative. The near-annihilation of Badanov’s tank corps demonstrated that these units needed to be used with closer infantry support, and that the lack of coordination between the separate exploiting mobile groups of 1st Guards and 3rd Guards Armies proved costly in terms of casualties and equipment. [45] Sadly, these were changes the Soviets did not have time to make before Manstein’s famous “backhand blow” counteroffensive in March 1943 caught overextended mobile forces advancing past Kharkov, retook the city, and stabilized the front, ending maneuvers until the Summer of 1943. [46]

Soviet M3 Lee tanks of the 6th Guards Army Kursk July 1943

Soviet M3 Lee tanks of the 6th Guards Army Kursk July 1943

The Battle of Kursk in July 1943 demonstrated the flexibility of the new Soviet mechanized forces. Along with extensive preparations and excellent intelligence, the deployment of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Guards Tank Armies was critical to the Soviet success in this, the largest tank battle in history. With the newly organized and exceptionally mobile 1943-pattern tank army, the German offensives were met by powerful counterstrokes everywhere they advanced, and the offensive ground to a bloody halt. [47] But the real blows to the Germans were yet to come.

Even before the struggle at Kursk was over, the Soviets began their counteroffensive. Seizing the strategic initiative from the Germans, the resulting counteroffensives in the North and South of the Kursk bulge drove the Germans back in disorder. In the Belgorod-Kharkov operation, the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Tank Armies deployed as the mobile groups of the Voronezh Front, the first time the new tank armies had functioned as the mobile exploitation echelon of a front. Additionally, four of the five combined-arms armies in the front each had a tank corps as their mobile group; the fifth was placed in front reserve, for use as a second echelon force during the breakthrough, the first time in the war this was done. [48]

With two tank armies advancing in parallel, and independent tank and mechanized corps on their flanks guarding against German counterattacks, the Voronezh Front advanced an average of 20-30 kilometers a day. The new Soviet military art had finally reached maturity, and the Germans fully felt the results. When in mid-August the Germans finally managed a counterattack, the Soviets held and consolidated their gains, with their ammunition and fuel depleted, and forces worn from nearly a month of constant combat. [49]

The Red Army placed great importance on the ability of its mobile forces to respond quickly to the changing battlefield situation. To facilitate this the tank army commander would make use of an ad-hoc formation called the peredovoi otriad, or forward detachment. [50] The forward detachment was the ultimate manifestation of firepower, mobility, and independence in the Red Army. Constructed from available subunits and employed far ahead of the main forces, the typical forward detachment of a tank army consisted of a tank brigade reinforced with self-propelled fire support and mounted infantry. Forward detachments would operate 40-50 kilometers in advance of their parent units, and in the later stages of the war this separation would rise as high as 100 kilometers, as the scope of Red Army operations increased and German resistance began to falter. [51] These units strove to keep the enemy continually off-balance and unable to reform. They generally avoided prolonged combat, instead opting to maneuver ever deeper into an enemy’s rear, striking at targets of opportunity and seizing vital crossroads and bridgeheads. [52]

After Kursk, the Soviets made one more major refinement to their order of battle; although no more overarching changes were necessary as in 1941-1942, the tank and mechanized forces received their final organzation at the end of 1943. As mentioned above, the Soviets then sought to improve their existing formations rather than create new ones, primarily through the use of specialist units and improved equipment. By August 1943, the tank corps structure was allotted two regiments of self-propelled guns, to add to its already not inconsiderable organic firepower. [53] The 1944 tank brigade included 65 of the capable T-34 medium tanks, increasing the mobility and combat power of these units relative to the smaller, mixed tank brigade of 1941-43. [54]

The breakthrough operation in Soviet doctrine was a complicated problem; the conduct of a deliberate attack against permanent, layered enemy defenses is one of the costliest military maneuvers. The Soviets used a closely orchestrated combined-arms assault upon the German defenses to break the line. For such attacks the Soviets assembled a huge local superiority over the Germans in both manpower and equipment. Ruthlessly stripping forces from quieter sectors, the Soviets in the Belorussian offensive in 1944 amassed a great superiority in men and equipment in the four fronts that faced Army Group Center, including an overall numerical superiority of 3:1 in combat troops, and 40:1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. [55]

The Belorussian offensive, codenamed Bagration by the Soviets, also saw the use of cavalry-mechanized groups as the exploitation echelons of the 1st and 3rd Belorussian Fronts. These formations consisted of a cavalry corps and a mechanized corps each, and were well-suited for operations in the particularly difficult terrain of Belorussia. With two of these cavalry-mechanized groups and the 5th Guards Tank Army in the operation, and the majority of German mobile reserves in the South out of position for the main blow of the Summer, Bagration was an enormous victory, the result of a coordinated offensive by four fronts that obtained its strategic objective of liberating the whole of Belorussia. [56]

The experience of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army in operation Bagration was a classic example of the combat performance of one of the Red Army’s new mechanized formations. For this operation, 5th Guards Tank Army had the 3rd Guards Tank Corps and 28th Tank Corps, a Katyusha Regiment, a self-propelled gun regiment, an artillery battalion and the 1st Separate Guards Motorcycle Regiment. [57] This was somewhat weaker than a typical tank army, given its lack of the “standard” mechanized corps, the most powerful corps-level formation in the Red Army. The initial plan committed the tank army through the 11th Guards Army, in support of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts, to drive on Minsk through Borisov. However, 11th Guards ran into unexpectedly tough resistance from the Germans, and so the Front Commander, General Ivan Chernyakovskii, ordered Rotmistrov to consolidate his troops in the 5th Army sector, to exploit its success. At 0400 hours on 26 June, three days after the assault began, the 5th Guards Tank Army moved into a clean breakthrough and into the German rear. [58] Moving as quickly as 55 kilometers a day and operating with 40 kilometers of separation between the tank army and the combined-arms forces, the tank army defeated the German operational reserve, the 5th Panzer Division, and proceeded to drive on Minsk. [59] Acting in concert with the 3rd Mechanized Corps and the cavalry-mechanized group attached to 3rd Belorussian Front, the 5th Guards Tank Army went on to assist in the encirclement of 100,000 German troops in a pocket East of Minsk. Creating the necessary outer and inner fronts of encirclement, Rotmistrov’s tank troops made possible the destruction of the entire enemy grouping in a single week of combat. [60]

In contrast to the German tendency to keep pursuing units under tight control and on a single axis of advance, the Soviets chose to maintain pressure upon the enemy by pursuit across a wide front. Again, the theories of PU-36 and its successors served the Soviets well; by fanning out to take multiple objectives simultaneously, the Soviets managed to confuse the Germans and keep pressure on. As the war went on, improved Soviet tactical experience, better close air support, and faltering German combat effectiveness allowed the Soviets to better avoid the inevitable defeats in detail that this doctrine brought. The end result was a system that provided constant pressure, and capitalized on the constantly improving Red Army’s tactical ability. [61]

While by 1944 the Soviets enjoyed an increasingly large superiority in manpower and equipment, shortages in critical areas still limited their advances. They attempted to cope with their lack of personnel transport by having their infantry ride into battle on the tanks they were assigned to. This technique brought increased casualties among the tank riders, but provided for much increased mobility and infantry support for tanks in combat. [62] This lack of trucks had strategic importance, as it was logistics that limited most Soviet offensives, rather than German opposition. While the Soviet exploitation forces could maintain pressure on the retreating German forces, the advance would continue. As soon as the logistical leash yanked back the Soviet mobile forces, however, the Germans would seize the opportunity to reestablish a defensive line. It was in the area of trucks and motor vehicles where American lend-lease was most felt in the offensives of the third period of the war. [63]

The other area where the armored and mechanized forces suffered was in the amount of radios available. Throughout the war, the Soviets had to depend on wire communications within their combined-arms formations, but the rapidly moving tank and mechanized corps were not so lucky. As a result, the mobile forces generally had weaker communications than in their Western counterparts. For example, in early 1944 the 5th Guards Tank Army, at full strength with two tank and one mechanized corps, had a mere 254 radios; this was less than that assigned to a single US armored division. [64] Such weak radio communications reinforced by default the doctrine of decentralization of pursuing tank forces, as there was simply no way to guarantee that higher commanders could communicate with the tank armies and their subordinate units in combat. Worse still, the critical shortage of radio sets hampered air-ground communication, weakening the effectiveness of Soviet close-air support during the war.

Soviet tanks of the 4th Guards mechanized corps in Belgrade offensive, 1944

Soviet tanks of the 4th Guards mechanized corps in Belgrade offensive, 1944

By the period of 1944-1945, the Soviet material superiority over the Germans grew to become overwhelming, and with it the German ability to withstand repeated offensives dropped significantly, allowing the Soviet manpower advantage to eventually become even more decisive as well. Late-war operations usually consisted of multiple fronts acting in concert against a series of objectives as in Bagration. [65] By the Vistula-Oder operation, Soviet mobile forces averaged advancing as much as 40 kilometers a day throughout the offensive, with up to 90 kilometers advance in a single day, operating independently as much as 100 kilometers ahead of the combined-arms armies. [66]

Throughout the Second World War, the Soviets advanced their practice of the operational art. During their Great Patriotic War, the Soviet mobile force structure went from a bulky, difficult to command force to the flexible, hard hitting, fast moving and independently acting organization that brought about the collapse of the German Army in the East, contributing decisively to the allied victory. These lessons were learned at tremendous cost to the Soviet Union, but the Red Army leadership was quick to learn them and apply their wartime lessons to their prewar theories to arrive at a force structure that was well suited to the war that they intended to fight. By the Summer of 1944, multiple-front strategic operations like Bagration and Lvov-Sandomirz became the norm for Soviet offensives, and the strategic-level pressure generated by these coordinated offensives completely unhinged the Germans across the front.

The Red Army’s wartime restructuring of its mobile forces stemmed from the ability of Stavka and the Armored Directorate to create an organization that allowed the Soviets to fully employ their doctrine of deep operations. Soviet strategic reserves and the vastness of Russia bought the time that Stavka needed to reorganize to defeat its opponent, and costly failures and excessive casualties were the price of experience against an opponent that was all too skilled at warfare at the tactical and operational levels. The prewar theories of talented officers like Tukhachevsky and Triandafillov, reinforced by the cruel experiences of war, formed the basis for changes to the Red Army’s mechanized forces. Rising from the ashes of the catastrophic defeats of 1941 came a mechanized force that was unparalleled in its flexibility and coordination at the highest levels of war. That the Soviets could successfully conduct the reorganization of their mobile troops during the desperate years of 1941 and 1942 showed a high degree of determination and ability to adapt to a complicated situation, traits that eventually brought victory to the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War.

Appendix A: 1932 Mechanized Corps Structure

Source: Charles Sharp, The Deadly Beginning: Soviet Tank, Mechanized, Motorized Divisions and Tank Brigades of 1940-1942. Soviet Order of Battle in World War II, vol. 1.

11th Mechanized Corps

31st Mechanized Brigade

3 tank battalions with T-26 tanks

rifle-machinegun battalion

artillery battalion

sapper battalion

AAMG company

32nd Mechanized Brigade

same as above except had BT tanks in tank battalions

33rd (Motorized) Rifle Brigade

11th Reconnaissance Battalion

11th Sapper Battalion

Flamethrower Battalion

Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion

traffic Direction Company

Aviation Group (reconnaissance and liaison)



Tanks: 430

Armored Cars: 215

Appendix B: Theoretical 1940 Mechanized Corps Structure

(Note: None of these units were at their full TO&E strength when Germany invaded)

Sources: Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle in World War II Vol 1: The Deadly Beginning: Soviet Tank, Mechanized, Motorized Divisions and Tank Brigades of 1940-1942. David Glantz, The Initial Period of War on the Eastern Front, 22 June – August 1941, 19.


1940 Mechanized Corps

2 Tank Divisions

2 Tank Regiments

Motorized Rifle Regiment

Motorized Howitzer Regiment

Antiaircraft Battalion

Armored Reconnaissance Battalion

Truck Battalion

Maintenance Battalion

Medical Battalion

1 Mechanized Division

2 Motorized Rifle Regiments

Light Tank Regiment

Motorized Artillery Regiment

Antitank Battalion

Antiaircraft Battalion

Reconnaissance Battalion

Truck Battalion

Division Trains

1 Motorcycle Regiment

1 Signal Battalion

1 Motorized Engineer Battalion

1 Aviation Troop



1,108 Tanks  (420 T-34s, 126 KVs, 560 Light tanks)

37,200 men

5 Tank Regiments with 20 Tank Battalions.

4 Motorized Rifle Regiments with 12 Motorized Rifle Battalions.

2 Motorized Artillery/Howitzer Regiments with 4 Artillery Battalions.

Appendix C: Evolution of Soviet Tank Corps Structure, 1942-1945

Source: Charles Sharp: School of Battle. Soviet Tank Corps and Tank Brigades, January 1942 to 1945, Soviet Order of Battle in World War II, vol. 2.


Authorized Composition of a Tank Corps, March 1942

Corps HQ

Signal Company

AAMG Section

Tank Brigades (originally 2, changed to 3 by end of March)

Motorized Rifle Brigade

Engineer-Mine Company

Reconnaissance Company

Repair Base (Battalion)


Composition of a Tank Corps, 29 May 1942

Corps HQ

Signal Company

AAMG Section

Heavy Tank Brigade (Replaced by a third ‘medium’ tank brigade in July 1942)

2 (Medium) Tank Brigades

Motorized Rifle Brigade

Antiaircraft Battalion

Guards Mortar Battalion

Motorcycle Battalion

Engineer-Mine Company

Truck Company

Motorized Vehicle Repair Battalion

Armored Vehicle Repair Battalion


Changes to the Tank Corps, 10 January 1943


Mortar Regiment

SU Regiment (Mixed)

Corps Reserves:

33 reserve T-34 tanks

7 reserve T-70 tanks

100 reserve tank drivers


February 1943


Engineer/Sapper Battalion replaced the Engineer-Mine Company


March 1943


Antiaircraft Regiment

Signal Battalion replaced the Corps Signal Company


April 1943


Antitank Regiment

(Separate) Antitank Battalion

(Aviation) Liaison Section – added to the Corps Signal Battalion


August 1943


Heavy SU Regiment (SU-152s)

SU Regiment (SU-85s)


(Separate) Antitank Battalion – to be replaced by the SU Regiment

Antitank Regiment – to be replaced by the SU Regiment


May 1944


Medical Battalion (replaces separate Medical Companies in brigades)


August 1944


Light Artillery Regiment


Final Composition of the Tank Corps, August 1944 to August 1945

Corps HQ

Armored Platoon (3 T-34/85 tanks)

Staff Company (4 LMGs)

Signal Battalion – 3 PO-2 aircraft

Tank Brigade

Tank Brigade

Tank Brigade

Motorized Rifle Brigade

Heavy SU Regiment OR Heavy Tank Regiment

Medium SU Regiment

Light SU Regiment

Light Artillery Regiment

Antiaircraft Regiment

Mortar Regiment

Guards Mortar Battalion

Armored Reconnaissance Battalion OR Motorcycle Battalion

Sapper/Engineer Battalion

Corps Service Troops

Motorized Vehicle Repair Battalion

Armored Vehicle Repair Battalion

Medical Battalion

Truck Company

Chemical (Defense) Company

Fuel Supply Column

Field Bakery


TOTALS in Service Organizations:

836 Men

270 Trucks

241 Other vehicles (tractors, cycles, trailers, etc.)

5 (mobile) kitchens

2 (mobile) bakeries

798 Rifles

31 SMGs

9 LMGs


TOTALS in Tank Corps:

11,788 Men

208  Medium Tanks

21 Heavy Tanks OR Heavy SUs

20 Medium SUs

21 Light SUs

8 BM-13 Rocket Launchers

174 other artillery and mortars


  1. F.W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballantine Books, 1956), 361.
  2. David Glantz, Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle (Portland: Frank Cass, 1991), 21.
  3. Walter Dunn, Hitler’s Nemesis: The Red Army, 1930-1945 (Westport: Praeger, 1994), 11-12.
  4. V. Ye. Savkin, The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics (A Soviet View) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), 40-41.
  5. Dunn, 12.
  6. V.K.Triandafillov, The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies, William Burhams, trans. (Portland: Frank Cass, 1994), 9, 30.
  7. Ibid., 113-116.
  8. Ibid., 90.
  9. Ibid., 136.
  10. Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle World War II Volume I: “The Deadly Beginning,” Soviet Tank, Mechanized, Motorized Divisions and Tank Brigades of 1940-1942 (Privately Published, G.F. Nafziger, 1995), 2-3.
  11. Edward Drea, Nomonhan: Japanese-Soviet Tactical Combat, 1939 (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College, 1981), 91-95.
  12. Richard Simpkin, trans. and ed., Provisional Field Service Regulations of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, 1936, in Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshall Tukhachevsky (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1987), 182.
  13. Ibid., 239.
  14. Earl F. Ziemke, “The Soviet Theory of Deep Operations,” Parameters vol XIII no 2 (1983), 24.
  15. Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 489.
  16. Ibid., 489.
  17. Alvin Coox, Nomonhon: Japan against Russia, 1939 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 999.
  18. Jonathan House, Toward Combined-Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 69.
  19. Ibid., 67-68.
  20. Carl Van Dyke, The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939-40 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1997), 196.
  21. House, 96.
  22. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998)., 116.
  23. Sharp, The Deadly Beginning, 50.
  24. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 118.
  25. Ibid., 116-117.
  26. David Glantz, trans. and ed., “Doklad komandira 21-go mekhanizirovanogo korpusa komanduiushchemu 27-i armii o sostoianii korpusa na 23 iiulia 1941 g,” [A report by the commander of 21st Mechanized Corps to the commander of 27th Army concerning the corp’s condition on 23 July 1941] in Stumbling Colossus, 128.
  27. David Glantz, trans. and ed., “Doklad komandira 32-i divizii nachal’niku avtobronetankovogo upravleniia iugo-zapadnogo fronta o boevykh deistviiakh divizii za period s 22 iiunia po 14 iiulia 1941 g.” [A report of the 32nd Tank Division commander to the chief of the Southwestern Front Armored Directorate about division combat operations from 22 June through 14 July, 1941] in Stumbling Colossus, 132.
  28. David Glantz, trans. and ed., “Prikaz komanuiushchego 20-i armiei no. 7 ot 8 iiulia 1941 g. o nedostatkakh, yiavlennykh v 5-m i 7-m mekhanizirovannykh korpusakh v khode dvukhdnevnykh boev,” [Order no. 7 of the 20th Army commander, dated 8 July 1941, about the shortcomings revealed in 5th and 7th Mechanized Corps during the two-day battle], in Stumbling Colossus, 133.
  29. Ronald Wright, “Halting the Blitzkrieg: June 1941 – November 1942,” in Historical Analysis the Use of Mobile Forces by Russia and the USSR (College Station: Center for Strategic Technology, 1985), 227.
  30. Albert Seaton, Battle for Moscow (New York: Sarpedon, 1971), 211.
  31. Yeremenko’s 117th Tank Battalion had 12 Lend-Lease Matilda IIs, 9 Valentines, and 10 T-60s, while his 141st Tank Battalion had 4 KVs, 6 T-34s, and 20 T-60s. John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 309.
  32. House, 100.
  33. David Glantz, David. Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a Military Disaster (New York: Sarpedon, 1998), 72.
  34. Ibid., 235.
  35. Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle World War II Volume 3: “Red Storm,” Soviet Mechanized Corps and Guards Armored Units 1942 to 1945 (Privately Published, G.F. Nafziger, 1995), 4-5.
  36. David Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: Universty Press of Kansas, 1995), 102-103.
  37. Richard Armstrong, Red Army Tank Commanders: The Armored Guards (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1994), 26-27.
  38. Erickson, 426.
  39. Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (New York: Viking, 1998) 239-243, 248-249.
  40. F. Ye. Bokov, “A Conference at Headquarters on the Reorganization of the Tank Army,” in Voyenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal (Moscow: No. 3, 1979), 38.
  41. Ibid., 42.
  42. V Karpov, “The Front in Wartime Strategic Operations,” in Voyenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal (Moscow, August 1981), 27.
  43. Glantz, From the Don to the Dnepr: Soviet Offensive Operations December 1942-August 1943 (Portland: Frank Cass, 1991), 18-25.
  44. Ibid., 74-76.
  45. Ibid., 79.
  46. Ibid., 213-215.
  47. Glantz and House, 166-167.
  48. Wright, 310-311.
  49. Ibid., 314.
  50. David Glantz, The Soviet Conduct of Tactical Maneuver: Spearhead of the Offensive (Portland: Frank Cass, 1991), 2.
  51. Ya. Malinovsky and O. Losik, “Methods of Conducting Highly Maneuverable Combat Operations of Armored and Mechanized Troops from the Experience of the Belorussian and Vistula-Oder Operations,” Voyenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal (Moscow) no. 9 (1980), 24.
  52. Wright, 359-360.
  53. Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle in World War II Vol 2: School of Battle: Soviet Tank Corps and Tank Brigades, January 1942 to 1945 (Privately Published: G.F Nafziger, 1995), 94.
  54. Wright, 340.
  55. Karpov, 26.
  56. Glantz, in From the Dnepr to the Vistula, 298.
  57. Armstrong, 370.
  58. Ibid., 372.
  59. P. Kurochkin, “Operations of Tank Armies in Operational Depth (From World War II Experience)” VM (Moscow), no. 11 (1964) 70.
  60. Malinovsky and Losik, 21.
  61. Also see note 3, pages 5-6. House, 124-125.
  62. Ibid., 124.
  63. Glantz and House, 150.
  64. Sharp, Red Storm, 5-6.
  65. Wright, 341-342.
  66. Kurochkin, 70.



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