Lest We Forget:
   World War II













Development and Employment of Soviet Armor Tactics Prior to and During the Great Patriotic War
Page 2

As the Russian resistance to the Germans crumbled, so did the resistance to the central role of the army being switched from infantry to armor. The high command realized that their current emphasis on infantry could not, and would not, stop the German advance. With this knowledge, they began to modify the composition and tactics of the army accordingly. New tank brigades and corps were formed, using the superb T34, with command positions going to tank commanders who had survived battle against German tanks. Initially, the tank forces were used only defensively, and not offensively, due to the fact that the Red Army was in no condition to mount, nor was Russia economically or industrially prepared to supply, a counter-offensive.

The first order of business for the Red Army had to be stopping the Germans, and the tactics of the reinvented Soviet army clearly reflect this. The Soviets went to great lengths in their effort to build and man a modern mechanized army. The Red Army enlisted thousands of soldiers to man the new tanks, and in a very short training period, "emphasized driver’s skills, basic gunnery, limited but controlled movements and defensive tactics."9 The training given in the early stages of the war dealt only with the defensive, with scant attention given even to counter-attack. This bare-bones defensive training reflected the dire situation that the Soviet Union faced. Giving only the minimum essentials for combat, and nothing else, Soviet armor training was an effort to man tanks, not to fully prepare men for war. By following the doctrine of quantity over quality, the Red Army desperately gambled to quell the German onslaught.

The success and survival of the Soviet Union depended entirely upon the integration and effective use of armor by the Red Army. The Soviets hoped to accomplish this with the help of the newly formed tank brigades, and the new defensive tactics. The extremely conservative defensive-minded doctrine had little emphasis or tolerance for counter attack, and no place whatsoever for the offensive. Tactics of sheer survival, the Red Army embraced the following principles:

1. "As a rule, tanks are used in the defense"10
2. "Destroy attacking enemy by fire from stationary positions"11
3. "Selecting terrain favorable for committing tanks and improvement of field fortifications."12

Soviet high command implicitly stated that armor was a defensive weapon, to be used only in a defensive manner unless the situation prevented such usage. Going beyond that, they dictated that tanks should be used primarily while stationary, preferably sheltered in fixed fortifications. Though not the most effective manner of employing armor, the Red Army was in such a position that offensive, even counter-offensive, operations were infeasible. The severe shortage of materiel and the advancing German army dictated a policy of pure defense. By following the course of defense, the Soviets traveled the only viable avenue open to them. Though the only option, it was not an inferior or incorrect option; it was actually the best alternative available for Russia.

The future for the Soviets, however, still looked grim. The German Army was so close to Moscow that the spires of the Kremlin were in sight. Moscow, the base of political, economic, and military command, as well as the center of the Russian rail network in Europe, had to be held at all costs. The Red Army, however, was in a state of disarray and general defeat. Much of the army still "did not know how to maneuver defensively,"13 and fought the Nazis in a manner that barely slowed the machinelike German advance. However, the influx of men, machines, and strategy began to have a visible effect in the last months of 1941.

In late November, the Germans threatened the Russian capital from both the north and the south. By this time, however, the Soviets had amassed a semblance of a tank force, as well as many battle-hardened soldiers to man them. The Russian tank force was still considerably inferior to that of the Germans, but the Panzer army under General Guderian was nonetheless unable to defeat the Russian 4th Tank Brigade, with the Russians forcing a stalemate by early December. The thrust from the north fared no better, being stalemated by December as well. Facing defeat at the hands of the Russians for the first time, Guderian reported that the "‘new tactical handling of the Russian tanks was very worrying.’"14 Indeed, the successful defense of Moscow foreshadowed that the shift to an emphasis on armor could shift the tide of the war as well. Once the safety of the capital had been secured, the Red Army made the decision to counter-attack

On November 29, 1941, the Russian army, through the use of massed armor formations, liberated Rostov, the "Gateway to the Caucasus". Rostov had been captured by the Germans six days earlier, with heavy casualties on both sides. The counter-attack against German forces in Rostov, though very costly, was highly significant. The very fact that a counter-attack, though only a local counter-attack, was possible, spoke well for the Soviets, since just days earlier they had been limited to desperate defense. The counter-attack was especially meaningful for the soldiers, since they had been taught that the offensive was the "‘fundamental aspect of combat for the Red Army.’"15 In the waning months of 1941 and the early months of 1942, the tide began to turn along most of the front as it had in Rostov. The Soviets, aided by rapidly increasing industrial production, as well as the harshest winter in over a century, returned to the "fundamental aspect" of combat—the offensive.

In December of 1941, after Moscow had been spared and Rostov liberated, the Red Army launched its first general counter-offensive of the war. In this counter-offensive, the new emphasis on the role of armor was highly visible. In contrast to the early months of the war, when tanks were allocated to infantry battalions, the Moscow counter-offensive featured eighteen autonomous tank brigades and nineteen independent tank battalions, in addition to the nearly one million infantrymen. The Red Army, drawing tactics from the extremely successful German army, shifted away from the policy of pure defense and adopted a counter–attacking policy of envelopment. Much emphasis was still placed on defense, for the Russians were still in an extremely tight situation. However, for the first time, the Red Army embraced offensive, albeit counter-offensive, actions against the Germans. Their policy of envelopment involved a frontal assault on the opposing forces, while a larger force attempted to swing around the enemy.

After a German attack had been slowed or halted, a frontal counter-attack would be launched. This frontal attack would draw artillery support and reserve forces to the front, opening the way for a second, larger wing of Russian forces to envelop the weakened rear of the Germans. After the larger force enveloped the enemy from his rear, the two wings would work towards each other, in effect smashing enemy forces between them. This method, while greatly successful for the Germans, was less successful for the Soviets, for a variety of reasons.

The Red armor crews, because of their rudimentary training, were not accustomed to offensive maneuvers and were in fact rather disconcerted with offensive action. In addition, though industrial production was on the upswing in the fall of 1941, output was still much too low to adequately support the counter-offensive operations. The low "tank production made it impossible to provide the requisite number of tanks necessary to equip [the] brigades"16of the counter-offensive. Russian tank battalions still contained far fewer tanks than their German counterparts. Though the forces looked mighty on paper, they seemed hollow and weak in comparison to the powerful Panzer battalion, and this disparity showed in battle.

Because of this hollowness, the Red armor battalions, though beginning to become capable fighters, were unable to envelop German forces and press attacks to the point of complete operational success. The degree of success, however, constantly improved with time. Industrial output, at the end on 1941, and especially during 1942, began to increase. The expansion was to such a great degree that the Soviets were finally able to fill out the ranks of armor battalions with badly needed tanks. The Red Army, with battalions no longer undermanned, ground the Nazi advance to a halt, and even began to repulse the Germans.

After the German advance had been stopped, and the Wermacht assumed a general defensive stance, the Red Army’s policy of enveloping counter-attacks was no longer applicable to the situation. A viable offensive policy was needed to continue the struggle against the fascist invaders. Accordingly, the high command began searching for a solid offensive strategy. The more they looked, the more they came back to the "deep operations" plan of the 1920s and 1930s. "As the war progressed, the ideas of Soviet military strategists and tacticians of the 1920s and 1930s came into wide use."17 The idea of deep operations, slightly modified, became the tactic of choice for the Soviets through the war’s end.

Deep operations is the idea of creating a hole in the front line, and exploiting it deep into enemy territory. The 1920s and 1930s version of the plan emphasized infantry over armor, but the lessons of 1941 led the Soviets to give the dominant role to tanks. Clearly, infantry plays a large role in any land war, but placing infantry with armor, instead of armor with infantry, greatly increases the versatility and power of military forces. The change in emphasis from infantry to armor, however, was not the only change that the World War II era strategists made. Instead of creating only one hole in the enemy line, the Soviets of the 1940s proposed that two breakthroughs be created.

The two breakthroughs in the front line were to be created through direct frontal attacks. Through these holes, great masses of armor and mechanized infantry would be poured. The creation of two holes would split enemy forces into two, or even three sections, thereby greatly reducing the operational might of the opposing forces.

The revised deep operations plan was essentially a combination of the 1930s deep operations plan and the envelopment doctrine. By splitting and surrounding the enemy, the Red Army was in effect enveloping the opposition. The major difference between the new deep operations plan and the envelopment plan was the manner in which the envelopment was achieved. The envelopment doctrine called for the creation of the envelopment through the use of diversionary attack and maneuver, whereas the modified deep operations plan dictated that brute force was the method to achieve envelopment.

As the war progressed, and Soviet industry produced more and more armor (by war’s end, the Soviet Union had produced over 40,000 T34s)18, this method of warfare became increasingly effective. Any army, no matter how experienced or zealous, will break in the face of repeated human wave attacks. The German army, increasingly demoralized and under-supplied, simply could not fend off the massive frontal attacks presented through the revised deep operations plan. The deep operations plan succeeded not because of tactical wizardry, but because it utilized the tremendous manpower advantage of the Soviet Union. Full frontal assaults, effective when pressed until the enemy breaks, consume mass quantities of men and machines before a breakthrough is created. This grisly facet of the plan, however, did not concern the planners. While the Germans won their battles through speed, maneuver, and intelligence, the Red Army resorted to brute force because it was simple, it worked, and they could absorb the horrific losses.

For the remainder of the war, Soviet armor tactics remained relatively unchanged. Slight modifications to the new deep operations plan were made locally for variations in terrain, weather, and enemy opposition. The basic tenets of the plan, however, remained the same. Victory was achieved by overwhelming defenders with masses of men and machines, and mercilessly crushing all resistance. Through 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945, the Red Army refused to adopt more efficient tactics, instead opting for the simplest option available. This may have been due to the extreme political nature of the Soviet military, which had little tolerance for initiative, and stressed compliance and ultimate victory over efficiency.

Fortunately, as the army became more proficient, and the Germans became weak and demoralized, the brutish tactics of the Soviets did become more efficient, as well as less costly. The constantly shifting tactical policy of the Red Army, both prior to and during World War II, clearly affected the performance of the Soviets against the Nazi invaders. The incorrect pre-war assumptions of the high command led to the severe weakening of the Red Army mechanized armor branch. This weakening was so great that it nearly destroyed the role of armor in the Soviet army. In an era of warfare so dependent upon mobility and firepower, the tank, the perfect mixture of the two, was clearly the decisive weapon. Therefore, the decisions that led to the weakening of the Soviet armor branch greatly weakened the whole of the red Army, almost to the point of debilitation.

This near total incapacitation of the Soviet military became readily apparent in the opening stages of the war between Russia and Germany. In June of 1941, the Germans strolled across Russia, crushing Soviet opposition seemingly at whim. The German army, with the strongest tank force in the world, was so vastly superior to the depleted ranks of the Red Army that German victory seemed inevitable. However, the tide of the war was turned when the Soviets began shifting their military emphasis from infantry to armor.

By at first emphasizing defensive basics, and slowing the German advance, the Red Army gave itself time to reconstruct a respectable armored force. The T34, the greatest tank of the World War II era, gave the Soviets an edge once their tank forces began to materialize. Once the forces were created, and the Russians had the resources to launch counter-offensives, which they promptly did. With the counter-attacks, the Red Army ground the German advance to a halt, and for the first time on the eastern front, put Germany on the defensive. This further aided Russia by allowing the Soviets to build, man, and train one of the largest armored forces in the world. This awesome armored force, aided by the second largest infantry army on the planet, and an increasingly competent air force, simply could not fail.

Though the Germans made some small gains after their initial advance halted, they could not match or defend against the sheer size of the now technologically equal Red Army. Even before the battle of Kursk, the largest battle on any front in World War II, in which the Germans made fairly substantial gains, or their last offensive in 1944, the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. Once the drive to the east had been halted, and the Red Army began throwing millions of men and machines at the Germans, it was merely a matter of time.

Had the Soviets chosen more effective tactics, instead those of brute force, the war may have ended sooner, which would have saved millions of dollars and lives. However, the Red Army realized that it could afford the costs of such tactics, and it went ahead with them. Though hardly brilliant, the human wave tactics employed by the Soviets against Germany in World War II had the desired effects. The quality of the Russian armored forces, namely the T34 tank, combined with the vastness of the Red Army, precluded any possibility of a German victory. As German Panzer general F.W. von Mellenthin put it, "the Russian form of fighting—particularly in the attack—is characterized by the employment of masses of men and material, often thrown in unintelligently and without variations, but . . . [it is] effective."19


1 Scott, Harriet and William eds., The Soviet Art of War: Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics, Boulder Colorado: Westview Press, 1982, 19
2 Armstrong, Richard N. ed. Welsh, Joseph G. trans., Red Armor Combat Orders: Combat Regulations for Tank and Mechanized Forces 1944, London, England: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1991, x
3 Ibid., p. x
4 Ibid., p. xi
5 Scott, Harriet and William eds., The Soviet Art of War, 288
6 Ibid., p. 21
7 Mellenthin, Major General F.W. von, Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War, London, England: Cassell & Co., 1955, 159
8 Armstrong, Richard N. ed. Welsh, Joseph G. trans., Red Armor Combat Orders, xii
9 Ibid., p. xii
10 Ibid., p. 116
11 Ibid., p. 116
12 Ibid., p. 117
13 Paret, Peter ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986, 672
14 Armstrong, Richard N. ed. Welsh, Joseph G. trans., Red Armor Combat Orders, xiii
15 Paret, Peter ed., Makers of Modern Strategy Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986, 672
16 Armstrong, Richard N. ed. Welsh, Joseph G. trans., Red Armor Combat Orders, xiii
17 Paret, Peter ed., Makers of Modern Strategy Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986, 672
18 Goralski, Robert, World War II Almanac: 1931-1945: A Political and Military Record New York, New York: Bonanza Books, 1981, 438
19 Mellenthin, Major General F.W. von, Panzer Battles London, England: Cassell & Co., 1955, 296


Armstrong, Richard N. ed. Welsh, Joseph G. trans., Red Armor Combat Orders: Combat Regulations for Tank and Mechanized Forces 1944 London, England: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1991

•Translated original orders and regulations for Soviet tank and mechanized forces. Excellent for viewing transforming Red Army tactics and strategy. Also useful for verifying other information, since it is genuine Red Army material. My primary source.

Carver, Field Marshal Lord, The Apostles of Mobility: The Theory and Practice of Armoured Warfare New York, New York: Homes and Meier Publishers, 1979

•Traces strategy and tactics of tank warfare from World War I through the early seventies. Used mainly in my research of pre-World War II armor.

Goralski, Robert, World War II Almanac: 1931-1945: A Political and Military Record New York, New York: Bonanza Books, 1981

•Background source, used for logistical information, dates, etc. Best World War II almanac/timeline I have seen.

Macksey, Kenneth, Tank Warfare: A History of Tanks in Battle New York, New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1972

•Mainly a background source, used for studies of German World War II panzer tactics, and to some extent the Soviet response to them. Some useful specific and unique information.

Mellenthin, Major General F.W. von, Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War London, England: Cassell & Co., 1955

•Panzer General’s account and interpretation of World War II tank warfare. Primary source for German tank strategy against Russia. Overall good, but in some places biased and subjective (he seems to be a fairly devout Nazi). ex. "The Russians were strong, but we had Adolf Hitler!" (or something similar)

Murray, Williamson, The Making of Strategy Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994

•Outlines the creation of overall Soviet strategy from World War I through World War II, with some attention paid to tanks. Only a few chapters relevant to time period of topic.

Paret, Peter ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986

•Discusses role of Stalin in Red Army strategy, as well as development of Soviet strategy World War I through World War II. Again, only a few chapters relevant to time period of topic.

Scott, Harriet and William eds., The Soviet Art of War: Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics Boulder Colorado: Westview Press, 1982

•My second chief source, an overview of Soviet strategy and tactics from World War I to the late seventies. Not a great portion of material deals with World War II, but relevant material is excellent.
Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne