War with Limited Possibilities
The first tanks sent to the White Guard, 20 French Renault FT-17s, arrived in Odessa on December 18th, 1918. They were followed by heavy Mark V tanks and medium Whippets (85 vehicles in total on all fronts). In theory, among all the chaos, two or three working tanks were a weapon that could defeat any enemy. In reality, tanks faced many problems.
There was a lack of trained crews, so it was necessary to rely on British and French specialists. The first White Guard tankers were taught by foreign instructors. Several foreign volunteer units fought until 1920, but after that, only Russians kept fighting in tanks.
The biggest obstacle was the vast size of the fronts. During the offensive of Petrograd by N. Yudenich's army in the fall of 1919, tanks had to go into battle up to three times per day. Over only four days, "Captain Kromi" traveled 160 kph, "Brown Bear" a little less at 155, and "First Aid" traveled 130. For early tanks, these were very long distances. They wore out both the mechanisms and the crews.
There was no semblance of a normal supply line. In the chaos of the civil war, some tankers in the White Army, a rare and elite force, did not even have complete uniforms. One of them recalls: "I arrived at the tank battalion and received my clothing: a sailor's shirt, torn in many places, black pants in terrible condition, and a pair of boots with no soles. I had no cap, no socks, no underwear." Later, the English gifted him a fresh uniform. Unlike their tank crews, Russian crews did not receive a salary, had poor rations, and could not buy tobacco. Fuel had to be transported by horse carts.
Tank Fist of the White Army
Aside from obvious advantages, the appearance of tanks on the battlefield gave a psychological advantage. Even with heavy guns, the enemy did not know how to defeat moving armoured targets. Tank crews insisted that they took fire from 107 and even 220 mm guns, but the shells caused them no harm. "Cut through enemy obstructions, entered their trenches, and, despite a powerful artillery barrage, remained there for 25 minutes, allowing infantry to follow with no losses" was a typical excerpt from a tank commander's award order at the time.
The first tank attacks appeared unstoppable, despite their crude tactics. Loud tank engines gave away their location and cooperation with infantry and aircraft was questionable, but tanks achieved victory after victory. With his tanks, Denikin conquered Tsaritsin and the Donbass.
Red infantry still had no anti-tank weapons. Regular bullets bounced off armour. At most, bits of paint and metal that flaked off the inside scratched the tankers' faces and hands. Methods for anti-tank combat became more and more desirable. A vehicle knocked out by G. Briedres' Latvian gun battery was showed off in Petrograd as evidence that tanks were vulnerable.
By 1920, tactics of White tanks improved significantly. In Wrangel's push out of Crimea, tank units used concealment tactics, were equipped with trucks and motorcycles, and even had an electric generator and a medical unit. Cooperation with sappers and artillery was set up, as well as regular technical service for the vehicles. As a result, the Red front failed, and Wrangel broke through into Northern Tavriya.
A record of a battle at the Preobrazhenka farmstead describes how cavalry and artillery tried to destroy a tank. Cavalrymen dismounted, and hid among tree lines with grenades and machineguns. At first they threw grenades from a large distance, then from thirty paces, with little effect. The tank was not affected by rifle or machinegun fire. One of the Red Armymen walked in the tank's dead zone, knocking on the armour with a grenade, then climbed up on top, but was wounded by an explosion of his own grenade. Horse-drawn gun batteries went into action. In theory, the batteries were supposed to line up in a semicircle and shoot up the tank from the sides. However, fire from one thousand paces was imprecise, so one battery moved up to 500 paces. The tank was knocked out by fire from two batteries, but was then towed away by a second one.
Red Triumph at Kakhov
The culmination of tank use in the civil war happened at the Kakhov foothold on October 14th, 1920. The White offensive under Wrangel's command lined up according to best tactical practices and had a fair chance at success. In the early morning, artillery thundered, and 12 tanks attacked the Red positions with horsedrawn artillery, armoured cars, and infantry.
In an advantageous position, the Whites made several mistakes. They attacked 2.5 hours before dawn. Tanks could not see each other and had to fight individually. Artillery and aircraft could not offer timely support, and White infantry was preoccupied with Red infantry and was unable to help out its tanks.
Red Armymen were wisened by experience from previous attacks and came prepared. The foothold was reinforced with three lines of trenches, anti-tank ditches, mines, and even flamethrowers. Armoured cars armed with cannons were pulled up to the front. Red artillery knew how to fight tanks by this point. Special "dagger" batteries were used, firing from short distances. The result was the capture of five tanks. Wrangel's forces were defeated, and his army lost all hope for a successful offensive.
Article author: Evgeniy Belash
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Original article available here.