♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Rifle Divisions & Brigades 1941-45


Infantry of the Red Army on the march, 1943, with a female soldier in the lead (World War Photos)

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The German invasion of the USSR, commencing on 22 June 1941, brought catastrophe to the Red Army. Whole divisions, corps, armies were demolished; men in their millions were killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Only the great size of the country and its inexhaustible manpower reserves enabled the regime to stave off disaster. But though replacements were available in plenty, military expertise was not. It quickly became clear to Stalin and his military advisers that a wholesale reorganization of the Red Army was unavoidably necessary.

In May 1941 Stavka, the high command, had already promulgated a revision to the table of organization of the Red Army’s basic unit, the rifle (infantry) division. The Winter War with Finland had shown that the 1939 rifle division was too large, and the 5/41 reorganization cut manpower from 18,800 to 14,400. Most of the specialized units at the division and regimental level—tank, antiaircraft, engineer, field artillery, signal battalions—were either eliminated or reduced in size. This reorganization was in progress at the time of the German invasion and the disastrous results of the initial battles compelled Stavka to order another wholesale cut in the strength of the rifle division in July 1941. Manpower was reduced to 10,700, mostly by eliminating support troops and weapons. For example, machine guns were reduced from 490 to 280, 82mm mortars from 54 to 18, 122mm howitzers from 20 to 8, 152mm howitzers from 12 to zero.

In effect the 7/41 rifle division was just that: a formation armed largely with rifles. From 1941 to 1945, about 50% of a rifle division’s personnel were actually riflemen, as against about 30% in a German infantry division. This reflects the former’s greatest deficiency: the lack of anything in the way of real field artillery. The weapons themselves were good enough, but thanks to the severe shortage of technical specialists, such guns and howitzers as the 7/41 division did possess had mostly to be employed for direct fire, i.e. fire on targets within visual range. Primarily for that reason that the staying power of the 7/41 division was low. With no artillery capable of long-range indirect fire, the division had to rely on its infantry—which inevitably suffered heavy casualties. But at least such rifle divisions could be raised quickly—an imperative necessity with the enemy at the gates.

120mm M1938 heavy mortars in action. By 1943 each rifle regiment had a company with seven of these powerful but short-ranged weapons (Red Army photo)

However, the urgent needs of the front could not be met by the new rifle divisions alone. To supplement them Stavka also ordered the formation of independent rifle brigades, which could be set up even more quickly. Those raised in 1941 and early 1942 mostly had three rifle battalions and whatever support units could be scraped up; the diagram accompanying this article depicts an average 1941 organization. Later they received a fourth rifle battalion and their table of organization was formalized. Over 400 rifle brigades were raised during the war and those not destroyed in combat—as many were—were mostly upgraded to divisions.

As for the specialist troops that had been pulled from the rifle divisions at the beginning of the war, they were consolidated at higher levels of command. Since there weren’t enough of them to go around the logical alternative was to create large specialized single-role units: brigades, divisions, even corps. This happened especially with the artillery, as will discussed in detail here.

Four more reorganizations of the rifle division were ordered between December 1941 and December 1942, and the last of these was final save for some minor changes in mid-1944. The 12/42 rifle division had only 9,619 men, but by way of compensation it received a larger allotment of guns, mortars and, above all, automatic weapons. In the 7/41 rifle division there had been 162 submachine guns; now there were 2,200. Machine guns were increased from 280 to 645. The 12/42 rifle division still had no real artillery, so that the main burden of combat continued to fall on its infantry. Nor did it have much in the way of motorized transport, relying mainly on horses to draw its guns and move its supplies. And by 1943 the manpower allotted to the rifle divisions was generally of poor quality: older age groups, sketchily trained or sometimes even untrained.

Red Army infantry with a 14.5mm PTRD antitank rifle. Every rifle battalion had a platoon with nine of these weapons ( Red Army photo)

The best men went into the mobile forces—the tank corps and mechanized corps—the technical branches, and into those units awarded the title Guards. Units of any size and any branch that performed well in battle could receive this honorific, which carried with it access to the latest weapons and equipment. Guards rifle divisions had more men than the standard 12/42 rifle division: 10,500 versus 9,400. They also had more weapons of the latest pattern. In 1944, for example, the standard rifle regiment included one independent company armed entirely with submachine guns; the Guards rifle regiment had two such companies. Toward the end of the war Guards rifle divisions were also authorized a self-propelled artillery battalion with SU-76M armored assault guns, though not all of them received one before the war ended.

In action against the German Army, the Red Army’s rifle divisions were destroyed or reduced to fragments with what would have been regarded in the US and British armies as depressing regularity. This was due in part to the standard practice of keeping divisions in the line until they were destroyed or burned out. At that point, the remnants would be withdrawn and used either to rebuild the division with replacements or to help form new divisions. The relative crudity of Red Army infantry tactics, particularly on the attack, was another factor. Close coordination between infantry and artillery, a key characteristic of German tactics, was not possible for the Red Army. So unless the preparatory artillery barrage thoroughly disrupted the German defenses, the first wave of rifle divisions would suffer crippling casualties in the breakthrough phase of an attack.

All else being equal, a Red Army rifle division was no match for a German infantry division, due primarily to the latter’s far superior artillery. But during the war more than 700 rifle divisions were raised, and they served their purpose in the operational technique that the Red Army evolved over the course of the conflict, taking it from the banks of the Volga and the suburbs of Moscow to the center of Berlin.

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Organizational Diagrams




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