Lest We Forget:
   World War II













Development and Employment of Soviet Armor Tactics Prior to and During the Great Patriotic War
Endnotes and Bibliography located at bottom of page 2

At three o’clock in the morning, on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa, the German offensive against Russia, was launched. At the International Bridge on the Russo-German frontier in eastern Poland, German sentries simply gunned down their Russian counterparts instead of saluting them, opening the way for the greatest military excursion in history. Advancing along a two thousand-mile front, the offensive involved over three million soldiers, seven hundred and fifty thousand horses, and nearly two thousand planes--on the German side alone. The Russians were over four and a half million men strong along the frontier but were caught completely off guard and unprepared.

Stalin, believing that reports of invasion were faulty, misconstrued, or a misunderstanding, went so far as to order Russian soldiers not to fire upon their German "allies". Even after the order had been countermanded, and the Germans met resistance, the Wermacht easily rolled across western Russia. The initial German success, though partially due to complete operational surprise, is largely contributable to Germany’s early superiority in the field of armored warfare. The battle hardened and experienced Panzer force, over three and a half thousand strong, overwhelmed and annihilated the weak Soviet armored force, and displayed general dominance over the Red Army. The Soviets, realizing that effective tank warfare would be essential to slow, let alone stop the Germans, began emphasizing and overhauling armor strategy, tactics, and operations. The stressing of armor, the high quality of Russian tanks, and the eventual skill of the Soviet armored force were perhaps the greatest factors that contributed to Germany's defeat.

Soviet theoreticians, through their analysis of World War I and the Russian Civil War, gained a strong appreciation for the role of maneuver and firepower on the modern battlefield. They realized that "the decisive weapons in future wars would be tanks, artillery, and aircraft."1 With the advent of the first mechanized mobile armies, Soviet theoreticians "called for the creation of powerful, highly mobile mechanized forces that could strike the entire depth of enemy dispositions."2 As early as the 1920s, the Red Army realized that mechanized mobilization would be one of the deciding factors in contemporary warfare. Unfortunately, the backwards Soviet economy was in no way able to produce armored vehicles, due to the great lack of established heavy industry. Even so, they began to plan for the use of, and possible defenses against, armored vehicles.

Before the rapid industrialization of the Five-Year Plans, Soviet industry, as far as military production was concerned, was impotent. Steel and other materials vital to the military were so scarce that an attempt to build up any sort of mechanized force would have been laughable. However, due to the preliminary planning of Soviet strategists, in spite of being

constrained by equipment . . . the Red Army in the late 1920’s possessed the theoretical groundwork to realize a combat concept of deep operations centered upon a future Soviet tank and mechanized force.3

Therefore, when heavy industry began its astronomical increase in output, the Soviet military was prepared to reap the benefits of industrialization. In fact, one of the central goals of the 1929 Five-Year Plan was to dramatically increase the Red Army’s technological force: namely tanks, aircraft, and artillery.

In the early to mid thirties, with the success of the Five-Year Plans, the Soviet military not only grew, but modernized as well. Russia experienced a period of dramatic military change from 1931 to 1937. In addition to shifting away from reliance upon militias to establishing a standing professional army, great technological advancements were made in the army, especially in the field of mobile warfare. Strangely, though the Soviets adapted modern machines into their armies, their tactics did not change to accommodate the new, supposedly decisive weapons.

Rooted in Napoleonic ideals, the Soviet perception of war was one of decisive battle and complete destruction of the enemy. These ideals had been outdated even before the American Civil War, nearly eighty years earlier. Since the 1860s, warfare had undergone radical change, outdating the ideals even further. One can not blame the Soviets for their backwardness, however, because even after the harsh lessons of World War I, much of Europe remained bogged in archaic Napoleonic ideals. It is rather interesting, because though Soviet strategists had the foresight to see that mobile warfare would become the dominant force on the battlefield, they failed to incorporate tactics that would allow armor to reign. Instead, the tank was viewed more as "mobile artillery" which would lend close support to the infantry. Once the Red Army realized the true nature and potential of armor, after the first major armored field maneuvers in 1936, this misappropriation began to fade.

In the 1936 maneuvers, Soviet strategists and tacticians affirmed the "‘great mobility, strong firepower and great striking force,’"4 of tanks, and realized that their current tactics were such that the full potential of armored warfare could not be realized. The great power of armor and combined arms, once assimilated into the military, would allow the Red Army to create breakthroughs in enemy lines. The capability to create holes in the enemy line would subsequently allow the Soviets to pursue "deep operations".5 A true combined arms theory, the idea of deep operations lent great importance to armor, though the primary role of tanks was still to support the infantry. By "deep operations," the Soviets meant that a great breakthrough would be created in the enemy line, through which great numbers of tanks and mechanized infantry would be pushed. These forces would then attempt to destroy not only front line enemy forces, but the opponent’s operational and strategic reserves as well.

This more armor-friendly policy became the central strategy of the Red Army in the mid 1930’s. Before any real implementation of deep operations could come about, however, Stalin instituted his great purge of the military, in which he executed the cream of the officer corps. The deaths of nearly all of the military officers crippled the Red Army not only through the obvious loss of leadership and morale, but in a way that greatly affected the "deep operations" plan and its implementation as well. By executing nearly every officer with experience in the conducting of modern battle, Stalin set the Red Army back years, especially in the field of armor and mobile warfare. The creators of the deep operations plan were executed, named traitors, and their ideas were labeled traitorous as well. "The concept of independent actions of large mechanized units ahead of the front was called an attempt to sabotage the armed forces."6 The Soviets accordingly returned the use of armor to infantry support and abolished the deep operations plan.

The role of armor in the Red Army was further retarded by Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War. The performance of the inept Soviet forces, no match for the elite German army, convinced the Soviet high command that mechanized corps were wholly ineffective. In actuality, it was Soviet men, and not Soviet machines, that were ineffective. This faulty dismissal of armor’s tactical value led the high command to abolish all armored corps and sent the Red Army even further into the past. Though still the second largest standing army in the world (behind the Chinese) the Red Army became so antiquated that, by the late 1930s, it was no longer the Herculean military machine it had once been.

In September of 1939, the Soviets recognized their blunder. Unfortunately, the realization came much too late. The astonishing success of German armored units in the invasion of Poland, and Russian travails in Finland shocked the Red Army and caused it to hastily begin reorganization of armored corps. In addition, frantic efforts were made to produce new, improved weaponry, with an emphasis on tanks and anti-tank guns. Again, though technology was being incorporated into the army, tactics to fit the modernization were not forthcoming. Instead, tanks were again forced into infantry support roles, though not to as great a degree as before. At the same time that the Soviet military was beginning to inch toward tank warfare, the Red Army made the solid decision to stress the medium, instead of the light or heavy tank. The decision to move back to armored mechanization, combined with the decision to emphasize medium tanks, was one of the primary factors that saved Soviet Russia from Nazi Germany.

The medium tank combines the speed, mobility, and range of the light tank with the firepower of the heavy tank, creating a lethal hybrid of speed and power. The Russian T34, a medium tank, was arguably the greatest tank of World War II. Though the early T34/76 was foolishly built without coaxially mounted machine guns, making it ineffective at close quarters against infantry, the later T34/85, complete with machine guns, was highly effective in all situations, even against the feared German "Tiger" heavy tank. The success of the T34 helped promote the use of armor as a weapon in and of itself, instead of as a mere infantry aid. Once the role of armor was established properly, with the aid of the T34 and other positive factors, the Red Army would regain power in proportion to its size, instead of drawing ineffective power from the sheer immensity of the Soviet military machine. The return to mechanized mobilization, however, took time--time that neither the Soviet Union nor the Red Army had.

When Germany launched the 1941 invasion of Russia, the Wermacht at first met with remarkable success. The highly experienced and mechanized German army simply overwhelmed the unprepared and technologically obsolete Soviet forces. As one German general put it, "The tactical superiority of our Panzer divisions was fully demonstrated."7 The Red Army, in the process of making the transition to mobilized mechanization, was still primarily an army of infantrymen, with relatively few tanks or anti-tank weapons. In the face of tanks, infantrymen without anti-tank weapons or tank support become little more than targets for the metal monsters. Since the Red Army was primarily composed of infantrymen, with only a handful of ineffective tanks, and few anti-tank weapons, the armor laden German army had few difficulties in fighting the Soviets.

The few armored vehicles that the Russians had present on the front proved ineffective for various reasons. First of all, the Russian tanks were somewhat outdated, and completely outmatched in comparison to the German tanks. Secondly, the tank crews had been trained not to combat other tanks, but to provide support to infantry. This vast disparity between training and reality deeply hindered Soviet performance. Finally, the swarming German armor vastly outnumbered the Russian tanks.

The late, abrupt effort to reorganize caught mechanized units in a debilitating expansion with relatively hollow formations. The tank division was no more than a tank brigade; the tank brigade, no more than a battalion. . . . The Red Army entered the war without fully formed mechanized units and without experience in the use of such troops.8

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Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne