♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Large Unit Organization 1941-45


A wartime propaganda poster celebrating the victorious Red Army

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At the beginning of the war, the Red Army’s organization above the level of the division was little different from that of other European armies. Divisions and brigades were allotted to rifle, mechanized, cavalry and airborne corps, which also controlled a number of support units: medium artillery regiments, antiaircraft artillery battalions supply and transportation battalions, medical assets, etc. The corps in turn were assigned to field armies. Their strength was variable, ranging from one corps and some additional divisions to three corps. The average Army controlled three corps with eight divisions.

In peacetime the field armies came under the command of the military districts into which the USSR was divided. For instance the Western Special Military District, headquartered in Minsk, controlled four field armies and an additional four corps totaling 44 rifle, tank, mechanized and cavalry divisions, three airborne brigades and a large number of artillery, engineer and other support units. The military districts also controlled the aviation and air defense units stationed in their area of responsibility. Upon the outbreak of war the front-line military districts became operational commands called fronts (army groups): Northwest Front, West Front, etc. They controlled the armies stationed in their areas plus additional forces allocated to them from the Stavka (high command) strategic reserve.

This neat and tidy scheme promptly fell apart when the Germans invaded in 1941. The disasters that befell the Red Army in the first months of the war showed that it lacked the leadership cadres and technical specialists necessary to support its Western-style configuration. Though the USSR had made significant progress in the area of education, the Red Army was very large. Thus the trained and educated personnel that it needed remained in short supply. And this problem was much exacerbated by the military purge of the 1930s, which had decimated the officer corps. Those purged were mostly replaced by unqualified junior officers, abruptly promoted to fill the vacancies created by Stalin’s distrustful suspicions. Patriotic and brave these new men might be, but the step up from command of a company or battalion to that of a tank brigade or a rifle division was a long one. In time the new men might grow into their new jobs—but on 22 June 1941, time ran out.

T-34 tanks on parade, Red Square, Moscow, 7 November 1941 (Red Army Photo)

It was a fortunate irony that some of the Red Army’s most glaring deficiencies were exposed by the defeats it suffered during the Winter War with Finland (1939-40). By the time of the German invasion certain reforms were already in progress—and under the spur of grim necessity, the reform process was accelerated. The overall theme was simplification. Since the Army lacked sufficient staff officers to make them effective, the rifle corps were abolished. The rifle divisions thus came under the direct command of army headquarters. The mechanized corps, tank divisions and mechanized divisions were altogether abolished, being replaced by tank brigades (really the size of a battalion) and tank corps (really the size of a division). The rifle divisions were stripped of most of their technically trained personnel, which were allotted to large specialized units: artillery brigades and divisions, engineer brigades, etc.

The infantry armies were thus reduced to the approximate strength of a German corps. The number of rifle divisions and rifle brigades assigned to them ranged from six to eight, with perhaps a couple of tank brigades and artillery brigades in addition—all of them chronically understrength. The average configuration of an infantry army in mid-1942 is shown by the accompanying diagram. If earmarked for a major offensive, an army’s units would be brought up to authorized strength and the army itself reinforced with additional units: artillery brigades, tank brigades, self-propelled artillery (armored assault gun) regiments, engineer regiments and, once they became available in sufficient numbers, tank corps.

To supplement the infantry armies, a number of tank armies were set up in late 1941. Initially they were formed with a variable number of tank corps, independent tank  brigades and battalions, rifle divisions, and rifle brigades. By mid-1943, however, their organization was more standardized, consisting entirely of mobile units: typically two tank corps and a mechanized corps, plus a variable number of separate tank and SP artillery brigades and regiments. The accompanying diagram shows the organization of the 1st Guards Tank Army in April 1945, which was typical. The 1st GTA had around 600 tanks of various types plus around 200 armored SP assault guns.

Also set up in late 1941 was the first of the so-called shock armies. These were “breakthrough” formations, intended to be particularly strong in artillery and armor. The first ones were little different from the infantry armies except for being stronger in armor and artillery, but by 1944 they reached the size and configuration shown in the accompanying diagram. By then the rifle corps had been reintroduced, albeit in a much simpler form than hitherto. The corps controlled few if any tank, artillery or other combat units; they were purely tactical headquarters. Non-divisional tank, artillery, self-propelled artillery, antitank, antiaircraft and engineer units were pooled at the army level and allocated to divisions as required. The late-war shock army was almost equal in size to a German, US or British field army and commanded a most formidable array of armor and artillery. Its major deficiency was typical of the Red Army: lack of flexibility.

Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov (right) as commander of the 1st Byelorussian Front in April 1945 (World War Photos)

The highest echelon of command in the field remained the front (army group). A typical one in mid-1943 might control four or five infantry armies and a tank army, plus numerous separate brigades, regiments and battalions of various types. Fronts were given geographical designations, e.g. 1st Baltic Front, 2nd Ukrainian Front, etc. A front earmarked for a major operation could control as many as ten armies plus support units and reserves, the latter frequently including a number of tank, mechanized and cavalry corps. During the first half of the war fronts were about the size of a German field army, but from late 1943 onward they grew closer to the size of a German army group.

At the army and front level, the Red Army came to be organized in such a way as to minimize its systemic deficiencies, maximize its strengths and successfully execute its painfully evolved tactical/operational doctrine. And those practical, pragmatic accommodations to reality furnished the key to victory over a redoubtable opponent: the German Army.

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Organizational Diagrams




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