When the Red Army first went to war in 1939 during the invasion of Poland and the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, there was a divergence between theory and practice in the employment of infantry. The Provisional Field Regulations of the RKKA (Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army) of 1936 governed the training and use of all combat arms on the field. The infantry would decide the outcome of offensive or defensive operations by resolve, mobility, and the use of supporting fires by tanks and artillery.[i]
The basic tactical unit that Soviet commanders used was the regiment, a unit composed roughly of 4000 men, fifty-four medium machineguns, six heavy machineguns, and forty-three mortars of various caliber—occasionally up to 120mm. In practice, however, these regiments were difficult to control in the kind of mobile warfare that was attempted against the Finns in 1939, with little initiative given to junior officers and limited command and control capability by higher headquarters.[ii] Company assaults were almost unheard of; instead, the battalion was considered the lowest unit that could mount an attack, with the battalion commander managing all aspects of reconnaissance, fire support, and maneuver. The actual assaults would be carried out under artillery bombardment and direct-fire suppression by battalion and regimental machineguns, with the infantry closing to a pre-determined distance before charging into the depth of the enemy’s forward defenses, while tanks penetrated the defense and carried the fight to the rear.[iii] In practice, however, very little coordination existed between tanks, artillery, and infantry, leading not only to friendly fire incidents but also command confusion and ineffectiveness in the face of determined Finnish resistance.[iv] This over-reliance on pre-war tactics resulted in massive casualties in the Russo-Finnish War, as well as a need to substantially retrain and rearm the Red Army, overseen by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko.
From the spring of 1940 to the summer of 1941, new weapons and organizations were introduced into the Red Army as a means of countering the training and performance issues seen in the Russo-Finnish War. First, the SVT-40, a semiautomatic rifle firing the 7.62x54Rmm cartridge in a ten round magazine, was designated as the new standard weapon of the rifleman, and the introduction of the PPD-40 submachine gun was meant for officers and noncommissioned officers.[v] At the same time, training programs for junior officers were accelerated and expanded across the Red Army, in an attempt to have standing units train themselves up to the new standard.[vi] The average infantry company, by April 1941, had the following table of organization and equipment: Five officers, one political officer, twenty-two NCOs, and 149 enlisted men in three rifle platoons and one machinegun platoon, armed with 126 Mosin-Nagant rifles, 64 submachineguns, 12 light machineguns, 2 medium machineguns, and one 50mm company mortar.[vii] The across-the-board rearmament and reorganization of the Red Army, however, had the side effect of leaving the force vulnerable to attack, as units were not at uniform levels of training or equipment. It was against this changing and learning organization that the German Wehrmacht and Axis allies fought against beginning in the summer of 1941.
The typical Soviet infantryman in 1941, therefore, was often armed with an M1891/30 Mosin Nagant rifle, and wore the M35 uniform, with branch colors and rank insignia on the collar piping. Officers and NCOs would be armed with the PPD-40, SVT-40, or the M1891/30 in addition to the Nagant revolver or the TT-33 Tokarev semi-automatic pistol. The standard issue helmet, the M39, was worn as often as the pilotka, or sidecap, with officers and NCOs also wearing the service cap, or furajika. The myeshok and rolled greatcoat often completed the uniform, with ammunition pouches, a canteen, and additional items hanging off the belt. Machinegunners would often be equipped with the DP-28 light machinegun or were part of various Maxim medium machinegun or heavy machinegun crews.
During the invasion of the Soviet Union, the pre-war division’s strength of 18,841 fell dramatically as Soviet corps and armies were encircled and bypassed by the German advance. The massive loss of manpower, coupled with a rushed mobilization for war, led to a reduction in division size to roughly 10,790 officers and men, with the smaller number due to the drastic cutting of artillery and technical troops.[viii] The reduction in division size meant that more could be put on the line, but at a cost of reduced frontage and offensive power. Despite horrendous losses of almost four million men by December 1941, the lean structure also encouraged officer and NCO initiative. At the end of the year, the average rifle platoon consisted of one officer, nine NCOs, thirty-seven enlisted men and nine light machineguns, while the rifle company lacked mortars and medium machineguns—such assets were now concentrated at battalion and above.[ix] The production of the SVT halted, and Mosin-Nagant production resumed, while the PPSh-41, the Red Army’s iconic submachinegun, entered production and rapidly spread throughout the ranks.
In 1942, the average Red Army infantryman was not very much removed from his June 1941 counterpart, but had the addition of the PPSh-41 as another weapon, and it was not uncommon for entire companies and battalions to be outfitted with them, and the weapons quickly became a favorite of the razvedchiki. Instead of the M39 helmet, the M40 was introduced, which had the benefit of being quicker to manufacture. So-called ‘amoeba’ camouflage was now more common than in the past, and the padded winter tunics and trousers had entered production and issue, although the greatcoat was a common sight for much of the war. Throughout the spring and summer offensives of 1942, the Red Army began to learn from the Germans and improve upon their understanding of the Provisional Field Regulations; one such innovation was the adoption of German trench layouts in the Rzhev sector, while maintaining Soviet command and control styles.[x] A key example of this adaptation was the publication of the Red Army’s first urban warfare manual by Lieutenant General Vasili Chuikov during the Battle of Stalingrad, a major departure from the Provisional Field Regulations. Chuikov instructed his troops to move as ‘storm groups’, highly mobile but heavily armed groups of submachinegunners, machinegunners, and sappers armed with satchel charges and grenades. Combined with the tactic of strongpointing key terrain, and secured lines of movement and communication, the less heavily-armed defenders of the city held off a mechanized force.[xi]
As Soviet armies held their ground throughout the spring of 1943 and defeating the Germans at the Battle of Kursk, interesting differences between Western armies and the Red Army soon emerged during the fall offensives. It was not uncommon for high-caliber artillery pieces, such as divisional artillery and even 152mm cannons, to be used in a direct fire role in support of the infantry. Additionally, the Red Army espoused a tradition of aggressive junior officers, cultivated at Stalingrad and eventually accepted across the entire force, with predictably high casualty rates in company grade officers (Junior Lieutenant to Senior Lieutenant).[xii] As officer leadership improved, so too did overall performance of the Red Army soldier. The razvedchiki would often lead battalion-sized reconnaissance-in-force (razvedka boem) efforts to more accurately locate German positions, while anti-tank and infantry units became more adept at separating and annihilating German infantry from their tank support.[xiii] At the operational levels, enough field grade and general officers had survived and gained experience to fully implement the doctrine of deep battle, one of the first mechanized warfare doctrines in the 20th century. In 1943, the Red Army soldier had become the equal in the eyes of his German counterpart.
By the winter of 1943, the average Soviet soldier wore the M43 tunic and trousers, similar to the Tsarist era uniforms that were the norm in the First World War. Rank insignia was now indicated by shoulder boards, with the piping along the edge denoting branch; stripes indicated enlisted rank, and a series of stars indicated officer rank. Submachineguns like the PPSh-41 and PPS-43 were common, as were the Mosin-Nagant series of rifles and carbines. The increased mechanization of the Red Army also meant that the Soviet soldier was often truck-borne or riding with armored vehicles, the latter of which meant that inter-branch cooperation was necessary in order to become effective.
1944, in contrast to 1943, was largely lacking in major offensives until Operation Bagration, an attack across the entire breadth of the Eastern Front to force the Germans back. The Red Army launched a massive mobile warfare campaign, and this was reflected by changes in the infantry’s structure. The average infantry platoon, by the table of organization and equipment, was to have one officer, three noncommissioned officers, and thirty enlisted soldiers armed with submachineguns, the M44 Mosin-Nagant carbine, and three light machineguns, with each machinegun team acting as a base of fire for the squad and platoon.[xiv] Individual initiative, within the concept of the commander’s intent, was highly prized among officers, and this trait extended down to noncommissioned officers and the enlisted by this point in the war. Lieutenant Gorbachevsky, a private who rose through the ranks, documented an incident in which a battalion commander’s subordinates urged him to occupy key terrain, three high hills overlooking the Nemen River during Bagration; when the battalion commander failed to do so, the battalion suffered heavy casualties during a night attack from two of the same hills. Upon being relieved, Lieutenant Gorbachevsky’s regiment assaulted across the Nemen and outflanked the German defenders, occupying a vital crossing for the division and corps into Belorussia.[xv]
The Red Army soldier in 1944 and 1945, therefore, was a highly mobile, lightly equipped soldier. Automatic weapons firepower was the hallmark of the average soldier, with many using submachineguns instead of rifles or carbines, sensible due to the increased fighting in built up and urban areas as the Red Army moved towards Berlin. Towards the end of the war, it was an uncommon sight to see infantry marching, with almost all infantry using vehicles of some sort to reach the battlefield. The infantryman was lightly equipped, often with little more than field rations, ammunition, the greatcoat or plasch palatka, and whatever personal items could fit in the myeshok. He could and did work in conjunction with armored vehicles and direct-fire artillery, as well as air support towards the end of the war. The infantry, during the final drive to Berlin, was a hardened, experienced fighting force that was as different from its 1941 state as the US Army was by this time.
[i] Provisional Field Regulations, 3.
[ii] Zaloga and Ness, Red Army Handbook, 3.
[iii]Provisional Field Regulations, 65.
[iv] Trotter, A Frozen Hell, 80.
[v] Zaloga and Ness, Red Army Handbook, 6.
[vi] Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 39.
[vii] Zaloga and Ness, Red Army Handbook, 8.
[viii] Rio, The Soviet Soldier of World War Two, 27.
[ix] Zaloga and Ness, Red Army Handbook, 16.
[x] Gorbachevsky, Through the Maelstrom, 94.
[xi] Stone, “Stalingrad and the Evolution of Soviet Urban Warfare”, 203.
[xii] Gorbachevsky, Through the Maelstrom, 295.
[xiii] Glantz, Colossus Reborn, 119.
[xiv] Gorbachevsky, Through the Maelstrom, 315; Zaloga and Ness, Red Army Handbook, 28.
[xv] Gorbachevsky, Through the Maelstrom, 323-327.
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