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Red Army Tank Tactics

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  • Originally posted by Artyom_A View Post
    From various after-action and experience reports of the 121 Tank Brigade (Bryansk Front, then South Front), March 1942
    Interesting post. I have not seen much on the use of German tanks in Soviet tank units. Was it a wide spread practice? If I were in a tank brigade with only 9 tanks, I would certainly take any well running tank. Without checking, I think March 1942 was still too early for Lend Lease tanks.
    Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.



      List of units with trophy armor.
      There are no Nazis in Ukraine. © Idiots


      • All sides employed captured tanks in some numbers. Problems with ammunition, spare parts or fuel meant that such employment could be was mostly occasional.
        First employment of lend-lease Valentines was in late November 1941. That was actually the 146 Tank Brigade quoted in one of the previous messages.

        Another units from the South-Front - 4 Guards Tank Brigade. In January-February the brigade took part in a relatively sweeping mobile operation in the South Ukraine and then supported a mobile defense of a cavalry corps against Axis counterattacks. Its after-action report was apparently heavy quoted by the South Front's report posted above, so I mostly omit points already mentioned:

        - The brigade operated with the 5 Cavalry Corps. Characteristic tactical mistakes: tanks were ordered to attack without infantry support. “Tanks thrown to attack alone are doomed”. Artillery or aviation support was never organized. Commanders don’t take into account time needed to prepare an attack. Weather conditions are not considered. In snowstorms periscopes and observation slits are blinded with snow. When tank commander observe from open hatches they are shot by hostile infantry, whereas with closed hatches they are blind and knocked out by hostile weapons.

        - Offensive: in open steppe terrain starting positions were sometimes chosen several kilometers from the objective. Open terrain swept by hostile fire didn’t leave other options, gullies and recessions were impassible for tanks. Advance method and formations could be different and depended on situation. In attacks on Barvenkov and Stepanovka, when situation was uncertain, tanks advanced by bounds behind infantry. At Spassko-Mikhailovka tanks advanced on flanks of the motor rifle battalion due to a threat of armor counterattacks. Barvenkovo was attacked by one tank battalion with a bulk of motor rifle battalion from the front, while the second tank battalion with one rifle company bypassed Barvenkovo from a flank (Scheme 1):

        This maneuver was very successful. When even a handful of hostile tanks appears our cavalry retreats in disarray. The reason is a lack of anti-tank weapons, even Molotov cocktails. Artillery organic to cavalry formations always lags behind due to poor roads. The enemy retreated from Barvenkovo unscathed: tanks couldn’t pursue him since transportation of ammunition and fuel by wheeled transport wasn’t possible. Supply by army motor transport or R-5 airplanes provided only the minimal amount of fuel for heating tanks. Supply should be performed by tractors or horse transport.

        - Defense was organized in settlements. Example: at Ivenskoye combat outposts from the motor rifle battalions were positioned 500-600 meters from the village. A part of tanks were situated at houses on the edge of the village and camouflaged. The bulk of tanks and infantry were at the village center and organized all-around security. At night security was reinforces both on the front and at flanks, also close security was positioned at tanks. One man from each crew was constantly on duty in a tank. Parts of the motor rifle battalion operated as an alarm unit by shifts.
        When the enemy attacked he was met by combat outposts and an alarm unit, if they didn’t suffice, then tanks opened fire from standing positions. In daytime counterattacks by tanks are sometimes needed. At night tanks operate as static weapons only.
        On 1 February 1942 a movement of hostile scouts toward Ivesnkoye was noticed. It was decided to let them come closer and envelop them with one tank carrying infantry riders. The scouting group was destroyed and 4 men were taken prisoners.
        Aleskandrovka was defended by 3 T-34 and 95 men of infantry. The town was outflanked by hostile tanks. After expending ammunition tanks had to abandon the town. If more tanks had been available neighbor villages could be defended and envelopment prevented. Since our artillery was absent, the enemy could advance in columns unhindered to a distance of 2-3 km from the attack objective. Mines laid on roads proved to be ineffective (laid too close). In future mines should be laid at a distance of 2-3 kilometers from a defended object.

        - Enemy:
        At Spassko-Mikhailovka German enveloped both flanks and blocked the roads from a village. The motorized rifle battalion and 2 T-34 tanks had to retreat by a trail.
        In the attack on Aleskandrovka 6 hostile tanks with infantry engaged the town from the front with fire from a long range. Two other groups enveloped both tanks. The frontal groups was stopped and beaten back by fire of our tanks (Scheme 2):

        Conclusion: German tanks evade frontal engagements against our tanks. Unusually a smaller part pins down our tanks from the front with fire, while the bulk of tanks attack flanks with support from artillery. Every movement of tanks is supported by artillery and anti-tank guns. Attacks are as a rule supported by bomber and fighter airplanes.

        Motorized rifle battalion should never be employed separately from tanks. Only combined actions lead to success. Motorized rifle battalion should include anti-tank guns (57-mm or more) towed by tanks.

        Due to poor roads existing anti-aircraft weapons lag behind units. The brigade is left with only rifles and machine guns as anti-aircraft weapons. A tracked chassis is needed for anti-aircraft guns. Existing 57-mm self-propelled anti-tank guns mounted on a tractor proved (*) to be effective, yet underpowered. It needs to be mounted on a T-60 chassis

        - Reconnaissance usually failed to provide sufficiently detailed information on the enemy. On one occasion a tank with infantry riders advanced to Spassko-Mikhalovka and was by hostile fire was opened on it from a range of only 200-300 meters. Combined armed units, including 5 Cavalry Corps, never provided precise information on the enemy, only guesses. Intelligence reports from the 5 CC came one day late. The brigade never received any information from aerial reconnaissance. Further on recon information should be obtained from airplanes by dropped messages or landing near the brigade CP.

        - The brigade didn’t have any evacuation vehicles. “Voroshilovets” or “Komintern” tractors are needed to evacuate damaged tanks. T-60 tanks cannot be employed off-roads and in fields with snow cover 35-40 cm deep. T-60s were not employed in combat.

        - Irrevocable losses: 10 T-34 and 3 T-60 (**). Reasons of tanks losses:
        a) frontal attacks without artillery and infantry support
        b) lack of detailed knowledge of strength and location of hostile weapons, especially anti-tank guns
        c) Lack of time for attack preparation and reconnaissance
        d) Weak armor above motor and transmission compartment. When it is hit by rounds the engine and cooling system are knocked out.

        * Probably a ZIS-30 self-propelled gun on a chassis of "Komsomolets" tractor
        ** Obviously a contradiction to a statement "T-60s were never employed"
        Last edited by Artyom_A; 15 Mar 20, 16:02.


        • Originally posted by Artyom_A View Post
          All sides employed captured tanks in some numbers. Problems with ammunition, spare parts or fuel meant that such employment could be was mostly occasional.
          First employment of lend-lease Valentines was in late November 1941. That was actually the 146 Tank Brigade quoted in one of the previous messages.
          A key factor would be to win and hold the terrain to recover parts from tank kills. If you are on the defensive and lose the battlefield much less chance of recovering parts from knocked out enemy tanks. In early 1942, the Red Army was not holding too many battlefields.

          My best study on Lend Lease Armor by Charles Sharp is Valentines were shipped to the Soviet Union in 1942.
          Last edited by R.N. Armstrong; 15 Mar 20, 15:31.
          Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


          • Originally posted by Emtos View Post

            List of units with trophy armor.
            Emtos, thanks for the posting. If one looks at the dates most of those units used captured tanks were from late 1942 to the end when the Red Army was more in the offense.
            Last edited by R.N. Armstrong; 15 Mar 20, 16:50.
            Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


            • The first convoy with British tanks arrived at Arkhangelsk on 11 October 41:
              Until the end of the year 145 Matildas and 216 Valentines were accepted by the Soviet military.


              • Is Arkhangelsk an open port all year--November, December?
                Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


                • No.
                  For those interested, I came across a Russian über-blog on history of early-war Soviet tank units which is absolutely superior to any printed sources:

                  Regarding episodes of successful actions in 1941: Shtepovka (28 September - 1 October 1941) was briefly mentioned in the Guderian's memoir, otherwise it is nearly forgotten.


                  • 5 Guards Tank Brigade (6 Cavalry Corps, South-West Front) – roughly the same area, Barvenkovo-Lozovskaya operation)

                    - Battle for Aleksyeyevka (25 January 42). Reconnaissance revealed concentration of hostile anti-tank weapons on the eastern edge of Alekseyevka. A tank attack was made from north-east and south where it was least expected due to terrain conditions. Hostile anti-tank weapons were bypassed. For street combat in Aleksayavka special assault groups were formed from the motor rifle battalion. These groups included submachine gunners, light and medium machine guns, and also observers with flare pistols and rockets that designated targets for tanks. A combination of a 50-mm mortar and T-60 tank was employed with good effect. The tank transported the mortar and crew and secured them when they dismounted. In its turn the mortar supported the tank by fire against hostile personnel.
                    - In winter settlements are natural anti-tank centers. After strong snowfalls tank can advance to settlements only in a column formation along roads. Fire can be opened only by a forward tank. Hostile anti-tank weapons are positioned on roads.
                    - Supply of ammunition and fuel was inadequate since roads were impassable for wheeled transport. The brigade didn’t have a single tractor. From 21 to 30 January the brigade was supplied from captured German stocks. Supply by airplanes couldn’t meet requirements but still supported minimal daily combat activities.
                    Like the previous documents this report mentions early attempts to supply mobile forces using light airplanes.


                    • Analysis of tank losses of the 80 Tank Brigade 11 February – 20 March 1942:
                      - irrevocable losses: 1 KV and 7 Mk-3 Valentine. 2 Valenties were abandoned on the battlefield (Minovo village) on 11-12.2.42: one was knocked out by AT guns, another – knocked out by a heavy artillery round. One Valentine had chassis and gun damaged by hostile anti-tank guns at Hill 232.0, the crewmen became casualties when they bailed out. One Valentine was knocked out by several anti-tank guns at Fetischevo. 4 Valentines and 1 KV were knocked out by anti-tank weapons in several attacks on Krivtsovo village. In all cases evacuation was impossible, since tanks remained on territory swept by hostile fire.
                      - knockout by artillery fire and evacuated, in need of factory repair: 8 Valentines
                      - 1 Valentine stuck while crossing the Zusha River
                      - 10 KV had technical breakdowns during marches. Of them 8 due to factory defects: 1 had a jammed piston, and 7 had breakdowns of the gearbox.

                      Reasons of losses:
                      a) artillery and mortar fire – 5 T-60 tanks burned down and scrapped
                      b) anti-tank guns – 8 Valentines and 1 KV, of them 2 tanks burned down.
                      c) technical reasons – 1 T-60 (piston jammed, engine was replaced), 8 KV (gearbox failure etc).

                      Inspection of evacuated tanks have shown that hostile anti-tank fire is mostly concentrated on tank turret. Valentine and especially the turret proved to be well protected, its armor was penetrated only by hits of HEAT rounds from a close distance. Hits in the turret ring or gun mask were characteristic and incapacitated tank weapons.
                      On the march from Vypolzovo rail station 8 KV tanks dropped out due to breakdowns of gearboxes, whereas Valentines and T-60 didn’t have ay breakdowns. There were no cases when tanks broke down on the battlefield.
                      Damaged tanks were evacuated from battlefield by tanks returning to a rallying point. One tank doesn’t suffice. Towing a damaged vehicle by two tanks required a large expenditure of time. A forward observation point was established during attacks, but had no own means of evacuation. The brigade doesn’t have evacuation tractors, which it is supposed to have according to tables of organization.

                      Conclusion and proposals:
                      1. Tank attacks were poorly supported by artillery fire. Performance of anti-tank guns of rifle divisions was especially deficient – failed to counter hostile counterattacks. A strong support of artillery, including heavy, is needed to minimize tank losses. Support guns (45-mm or 57-mm) are needed in a ratio of 2-3 guns per a tank company. Their mission is to knock out hostile weapons threatening own tanks.
                      2. Engineer support was deficient. Roads were poorly cleared of snow, tank crews had to clear snowdrifts themselves. The crossing over the Zusha River was poorly prepared. The bridge collapsed after two tanks ran over it, as a result the crossing was delayed for one day. Crossings over
                      Oka and Berezuika Rivers were made 7-9 hours behind the schedule and were not satisfactory (steep climbs and descents).

                      3. Actions of tanks in nighttime are not effective. Crews cannot see targets and aim on them.
                      4. Powerful tractors are needed to evacuate tanks from the battlefield. As a rule disabled tanks should be evacuated when a tank units returns to a rallying point. The enemy doesn’t have time to zero in on disabled vehicles.
                      Experience suggests that 80% of knocked out vehicles could be evacuated in the first night. The bottleneck is availability of means of evacuation.
                      Worth to pay attention to a high rate of technical breakdowns of KV tanks. The brigade had 10 KVs (I guess), most of them broke down on a march from detraining station before they even reached the battlefield.


                      • I have often read in Red Army "soldier wisdom", the way to kill a Tiger tank was to make it move. Apparently this was true for the KV early in the war.
                        Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


                        • Ran across an interesting tactical problem in Sokolov’s biography of Rokossovsky.

                          On the night of October 30, 1941, Zhukov (who assumed command of the Western Front on October 12) sent a directive to Rokossovsky, 16th Army, cancelling Rokossovsky’s order about attaching the tank brigades to the rifle divisions. The directive ordered:
                          1. With the attachment of the tank brigades to the 18th and 316th Rifle Divisions, you have forfeited the single means of maneuver, and the rifle divisions very quickly break up the tank brigades; thus you order about attaching the tank brigades to the divisions is to be cancelled immediately. Hold the 4th Tank Brigade behind the defenses of the 316th rifle Division along the line Volokolansk highway, Novo-Petrovskoe and keep the 28th Tank Brigade opposite Skirmanovo, having strengthened it with rifle and anti-tank means.
                          2. On October 30 move up the 126th Rifle Division to the line Ukino, Novoe Elgozino, Parfen’kino, Steshino, Aksenikha, where it is to deploy on the defensive, having deeply entrenched and having reinforced the defense with engineer and anti-tank means.
                          3. Conduct no attacks and counterattacks prior to creating a solid defense. Use the tank brigades only in ambushes.
                          Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


                          • The author notes Rokossovsky’s reasoning. “Incidentally, in principle Rokossovsky’s decision to use the tank brigades in the role of immediate support to the infantry was correct. Possible the experience of the first months of the Great Patriotic War, including the battering of his mechanized corps in the fighting in the Ukraine had convinced Rokossovsky that the massed use of Soviet tanks against the Germans led only to needless losses, especially when the Luftwaffe maintained superiority in the air and the Germans’ panzer crews and commanders held such an advantage in training and experience. Meanwhile the use of the tanks in penny-packets as direct support for the infantry would have decreased the Soviet losses in armor and to a great extent would have diminished the German superiority in training tankers and the ability to conduct tank combat, while also decreasing the significance of the Luftwaffe’s aerial superiority. However, at Khalkin Gol Zhukov had achieved success precisely due to the massed use of tanks, and so he was hoping with the help of the same tactic to achieve success in the struggle with the Germans. However, against the Wehrmacht, which possessed a large number of tanks and anti-tank guns, the massed use of tanks didn’t justify itself-to a considerable degree because Zhukov proposed to use the tank brigades in isolation from the rifle divisions, and this made the tanks vulnerable to the German anti-tank guns.

                            Who do you think was right in the given situation in 1941, Rokossovsky or Zhukov?

                            Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.


                            • Various points and conclusions from after-action reports of the 54 Tank Brigade (January-March 1942). the brigade was employed in local operations on various sectors of the South Front
                              - Characteristic hostile combat methods:
                              1) Concentration of machine guns and mortar fire against our infantry to separate it from tanks, and then to unleash fire of anti-tank weapons against tanks
                              2) Strong harassing fire against rear areas in order to disrupt supply of ammunition and ordnance.
                              3) Employment of ground-attack and bomber airplanes against combat formations of infantry, tanks and close rears, employment of wandering anti-tank guns against tanks, employment of reserves to recover lost positions. Counterattacks are usually launched at dusk, after our troops are exhausted by daytime combat. Strength of counterattacks – up to an infantry company with a tank platoon.
                              The area in front of hostile positions was swept by flanking fire from neighboring strongpoints. The enemy skillfully adapts settlements, houses and stone fences for defense, embrasures for weapons are cut in wall.

                              - Typical combat formations: KV and T-34 in the first line, light tanks (T-26s) in the second line at supporting distance. Occasionally 2 T-26s are detached as combat reconnaissance in front of the 1st line. On one occasion a platoon of T-26 tanks was detached for direct support of foot elements of the motor rifle battalion.

                              - Our infantry lacks energy. Its attacks are timid, when subjected to hostile fire it becomes disorganized and retreats leaving tanks alone. In many cases commanders had to leave tanks in order to raise infantry to attack. Considerable casualties ensued.

                              - Employment of the motor rifle battalion as tank-riders until hostile defenses are broken through is ineffective. Tank-riders suffer heavy losses and are forced to dismount. It would be more effective to had infantry loaded on trucks are ready for movement to a rallying point where it can be mounted on tanks or employed for pursuit depending on the situation. In all operations the motor battalion demonstrated the best cooperation with tanks and consolidated success gained in attacks far better than infantry of rifle division. It believe, the battalion should be expanded into two battalions or even a regiment.

                              - Command and control. Distribution of the staff: brigade commander with the operations group (chief of staff or operations officer, intelligence officer, chief engineer) at the observation post, the main staff of the command post, supply and administrative sections at the rear post. Communications with radio tanks (command tanks of battalions and companies) via 5-AK radio at the CP, and RB radio at the OP. Communications with units and OP – by radio, wire and liaison officers. Communications with the rear command post – by wire.

                              - General conclusions:
                              a) The tank attack starts when infantry leaves jump-off positions 800-1000 meters from the frontline. Infantry advance starts at daybreak or even later and develops very slowly. As a result infantry is separated by hostile fire from our tanks.
                              b) Infantry doesn’t use its weapons (rifle, light and medium machine guns). “There was no usual crackle of rifle and machine guns shots on the battlefield”
                              c) Infantry attack proceeds spontaneously and uncontrolled. Officers don’t lead their units and don’t use their leadership to advance from areas swept by hostile fire.
                              d) “It’s time to understand that the hostile defense is built upon the principle “defend your neighbor, not yourself””. Due to failure to understand it our commanders direct all the strength of artillery fire against the object of attack, whereas neighbor sectors are left completely unperturbed. The latter, being completely unscathed, unleash flanking fire against the attackers. On 16-17 February one battalion strongpoint at Vesyoloye was attacked by 3 divisions and a tank brigade, while weapons on flanking hills left completely unaffected. I personally reconnoitered Vesyoloye on a tank and saw that it was occupied only by 80-100 men of infantry and 10-12 anti-tank guns, whereas the fire against our troops was directed from elsewhere.
                              e) Artillery support lack energy and coordination with tank attack. Fire against hostile weapons and strongpoints is not accurate enough, so they are only neutralized but not destroyed. Hostile anti-tank guns are not fully neutralized before the attack, thus our tanks always meet strong anti-tank fire and suffer losses. When I proposed to concentrate artillery of the entire group at Veseloye at the moment of the tank attack, the group commander major general Komkov just raised his eyebrows: “Are you talking about 130 guns?” As a result the tank attack was supported by feeble artillery fire and was shot by anti-tank guns when reaching 100-200 meters from Veseloye. With such views on artillery support our tank attacks will continue to face failures in the future.
                              d) A weakness in action of our tanks is lack of maneuver on the battlefield. Tanks attack at slow speed. Part of the reasons is deep snow and ice. Tanks make long halts which facilitates aiming for hostile anti-tank guns. Observation from tanks toward flanks is poorly organized; as a result tanks are shot by flanking fire.
                              e) Large losses of tanks are explained by:
                              1) Employment of tank bound to combat formations of infantry deprives them from ability to maneuver. Tanks engaged in firefight at long halts, which made them easy targets for anti-tank guns.
                              2) Tanks were repeatedly employed on the same direction for several days, so the enemy could draw anti-tank weapons from elsewhere.
                              3) Large strength of hostile anti-tank and artillery fire which could be directed to any attacked sector. Tank cannot hide in defiladed places since the battlefield was well observed from hostile artillery observation posts.
                              4) Slow advance of tanks bound to infantry and a lack of reconnaissance gave the enemy opportunities to lay anti-tank ambushes.
                              5) Tank attack started when the hostile anti-tank weapons were not destroyed by our artillery
                              6) Combined-arms commander didn’t provide support guns. Even when these guns were assigned for support of tank attack they were by 800-1000 meters behind tanks and infantry, and couldn’t carry out their missions.

                              - Proposals:
                              I believe, in future offensive should be based on the following principles:
                              1) Tank attacks should start only when infantry occupies attack positions close (about 200 meters) from the attack objective.
                              2) Infantry should occupy attack positions before dawn. Advance to the range of effective small arms fire should be made in columns and files rather than in line formation. The latter formation is difficult to control.
                              3) While infantry advances to the attack positions artillery should support it directing its fire both against the objective of attack and against flanking localities.
                              4) When tank leave jump-off positions the entire power of artillery should be concentrated against the object of attack, until tank come close. One shouldn’t be afraid of losses due to friendly fire.
                              5) To break strongly fortified resistance nests concentrated employment of tanks by joint actions of 2-3 tank brigades would be effective.
                              6) Leaving tanks on the battlefield during the nighttime should be avoided. Tanks need maintenance, and their crews need rests. When situation requires leaving tanks on the battlefield at night they should be secured by infantry of the motor rifle battalions.
                              7) In attack the motor rifle battalion should be deployed in combat formations of tanks, after breakthrough it should be used as tank-borne infantry
                              8) Combined-arms units should assign anti-tank guns for support of tank attack. These guns should advance closely behind tank formations and knock out hostile anti-tank weapons.
                              Characteristically, the same points very repeated in several after-action reports again and again, sometimes formulated in practically the same words, but with no apparent effect.

                              Miscellaneous observations:
                              - in several cases after a short pause operations are repeated against the same sectors and from the same directions. Result was universally a failure.
                              - several times the brigade committed to action tank replacements received in the process of operation with unsatisfactory results. Usual complains on quality of training of replacement crews.
                              - opinion on modest combat qualities of T-60 tanks was repeated once again. It was also noted that T-26 tanks should not be employed against organized anti-tank defenses. The brigade lost most of 93 T-26 tanks with which it arrived to the South Front just in several days of combat in late November - early December 1941.
                              - experience reports raised already familiar dilemma of coordination between tempo of infantry and tanks. When tanks separated from infantry they were not able to capture attack objectives alone even they reached it and had to return sometimes suffering losses. For example, in several cases tanks entered hostile-occupied villages but were not able to clear them. When tanks were bound to infantry a slow rate of advance ensued or attack was stopped cold altogether. A shift in combat methods is evident as toward the end of period the brigade is expected to advance with infantry or even behind the first lines of infantry. In several cases tanks were employed as assault guns supporting attacks from static positions. The practice of attacks of strongly occupied positions with tank-borne infantry was generally discontinued.
                              Last edited by Artyom_A; 01 Apr 20, 08:22.


                              • Originally posted by R.N. Armstrong View Post
                                Zhukov proposed to use the tank brigades in isolation from the rifle divisions
                                I believe, the question was placing tank brigades in support (using US parlance) rather than directly attached to infantry divisions.
                                With the attachment of the tank brigades to the 18th and 316th Rifle Divisions, you have forfeited the single means of maneuver, and the rifle divisions very quickly break up the tank brigades
                                As plenty of experience demonstrated that was a correct observation.
                                Conduct no attacks and counterattacks prior to creating a solid defense. Use the tank brigades only in ambushes.
                                A generally reasonable instruction.

                                Characteristically, Zhukov's philosophy was that he at his HQ always knew it better than commanders on the spot and he never hesitated to say it openly.


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