Saturday, 13 June 2015
World of Tanks History Section: Tragic '41
Paradoxically, the Red Army fought many wars by the summer of 1941, but none of them serious. Enemies of the USSR in small wars of the 1930s had little in the way of modern tanks, aircraft, and often could not offer significant resistance. All types of forces, including armoured, had a very small percentage of commanders who had experience against a strong and well equipped enemy. Germany invaded the USSR with the idea that it was going to be a breeze, but there's a reason why there's a collection of German memoirs about 1941 called "Wooden Crosses instead of Iron".
Calm before the storm
It would not be proper to say that the Red Army tank forces lived in the past and the commanders had no idea, at least approximately, what the next war would be like. Books and articles written by Soviet military theorists talked about the importance of massed uses of tanks, with mandatory tight cooperation with infantry, motorized infantry, artillery, and aircraft. Armoured forces were not just for penetrating enemy defenses, but for deep operations in the enemy rear, against his headquarters, reserves, and communications. In defensive operations, tanks were supposed to isolate enemy forces that broke through and destroy them with ambushes or counterattacks.
Spain, Khalkin-Gol, and Finland showed that new tanks must be well armoured, well armed, and have reliable communication and supporting vehicles. Factories received many orders from the military for powerful radios, fast tractors, and various armoured transports.
Here is where the bottleneck was. The USSR could not magically produce tens of new factories. No country in the world could. When WWII began in 1939, even Great Britain and the United States ran into problems with supplying their growing armies with modern equipment and vehicles. It took time to mobilize factories for war.
Nobody knew how much time there was. The world was getting ready for a large war that could start in a month or in ten years. This caused problems with technological deficiency, shortage of manpower, and other difficulties of early war.
Weakness in armour
All problems with Soviet armoured forces remorselessly showed themselves in the first battles.
It was difficult to find the advancing enemy along the enormous fronts. The Germans did not march in an unbroken line, they collected their forces into fists and decided where to strike. Even if scouts could discover these forces, they frequently could not inform their commanders in time. There were too few tanks with sufficiently powerful radios. Due to this problem with communication, commanders could not react in time.
The difficulty in using any armoured unit lies in the fact that you don't need to just transport your tanks. You need to deliver fuel, ammunition, supporting infantry and artillery. There was a catastrophic lack of transport vehicles, and STZ-5 agricultural tractors, the backbone of the support forces, were weak and slow. Two or three such vehicles were required in order to tow one heavy gun or howitzer.
Even if the commander decided to use only tanks, this did not solve his problems. Old vehicles, T-26, T-28, BT, were worn out and prone to breakdowns. New KVs and T-34s suffered from growing pains like unreliable engines and poor visibility. By the start of the war, no instruction manuals have been produced for these vehicles. Considering that most drivers had miserly experience in driving these new heavier and more complicated tanks, it is not difficult to imagine why many were lost due to technical reasons.
Endure, withstand, prepare
At first, the Red Army had to fight by Germany's rules. In these difficult conditions, the Soviet people protected their motherland as well as they could.
Tanks that were supposed to fight in large groups were separated into small units or even down to individual vehicles, like in Spain. Often, they had to compensate for the rest of the army. Tankers performed reconnaissance, attacked without infantry cover, became the rebar of defensive lines, guarded headquarters.
Due to a lack of support, Soviet tanks quickly became targets for German AT guns, which were difficult targets to find and suppress. Sadly, the times when KV tanks were invulnerable were long gone. The Germans managed to gather experience in fighting these heavily armoured vehicles.
It happened that tanks penetrated as deep as German headquarters, but tanks alone could not cement that victory. The Germans, with combined forces groups composed of tanks, infantry, and artillery, encircled Soviet forces and deflected their attempts to break out. Any tank that was knocked out was a permanent loss, since the Germans controlled the battlefield.
Taking heavy losses in vehicles, the Red Army moved from mechanized corps to smaller tank and mechanized divisions. Instead of 375 tanks, these divisions had 215. Further restructuring went down to independent battalions and brigades of 53 tanks, in no small part because it was easier to command a smaller unit.
First bricks in the building of victory
Slowly but surely, the tank forces regained their footing after that first punch. The Germans felt this already in the fall of 1941.
One of the most famous and most successful tank brigades in 1941 was Mikhail Yefremovich Katukov's 4th Tank Brigade. It was fairly well armed: more than half of the tanks were new T-34s and KVs, but most importantly, its tankers received bitter experience in the summer of 1941, and that experience was well learned.
In early October, Katukov's men deflected the attacks of the German 2nd Tank Group at Mtsensk. Tankers of the 4th Brigade carefully performed reconnaissance and coordinated their actions not only with infantry and artillery, but with aviation. Tanks had special defensive lines prepared, and were carefully camouflaged. The result was noticeable: the Germans lost not only tanks at Mtsensk, but AA guns and howitzers, a rarity for the time.
The tone of German reports changed around this time. Guderian, who did not notice new T-34 and KV tanks in the summer, suddenly started complaining about their "complete supremacy", while the German offensive in this sector stalled. For its skilful and courageous actions, Katukov's tank brigade was the first to earn the status of Guards.
The experience earned in 1941 was bought at a high price, but was summarized in orders and instructions, and spread among surviving tankers and new replacements. Victory was still far away. New battles lay ahead.
Original article available here.