♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Mobile Forces 1932-42


The Red Army's KV-1 heavy tank. In 1941 it was far superior to any German tank in service. (World War Photos)

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The Red Army was a pioneer in the field of mechanized warfare, organizing its first large armored units as early as 1932. (The first three panzer divisions of the German Army were set up in 1935.) These division-sized units, initially called mechanized corps and later tank corps, had three tank brigades and an array of support units. The tank brigade had four tank battalions (204 tanks total), a mechanized reconnaissance battalion, a motorized rifle battalion and a motorized combat engineer regiment. Tank brigades organic to the tank corps were equipped with the BT-series or T-26 light tank (45mm gun)—over 600 in all. There were also a number of separate tank brigades and some of these had the T-28 infantry tank (76.2mm gun).

The prewar tank corps, like the early panzer division and the early British armored division, had too many tanks and insufficient infantry. During the Red Army's 1939 invasion of eastern Poland they proved unwieldy, taking up far too much road space. The obvious solution was to reduce their size but instead it was decided to disband the tank corps altogether and distribute the tank brigades among the rifle (infantry) corps. Characteristically, politics played a role in this decision. The development of large mechanized units was associated with the group of military leaders headed by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky—the officers condemned and executed on trumped-up treason charges in 1937. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a Stalin crony who’d played a role in Tukhachevsky’s downfall, was People’s Commissar of Defense in 1939 and he had been opposed to the dead man’s military theories. It was at Voroshilov’s instigation that the tank corps were disbanded.

However, the combat debut of the German mobile forces in Poland inspired second thoughts. Voroshilov, whose poor performance as commander during the Winter War with Finland had angered Stalin, was replaced by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko in May 1940. On his initiative the Red Army began to set up mechanized corps of a new type. They were very similar to the German motorized corps, with two tank divisions and one mechanized division, the latter in effect a light armored division. But this corps/divisional organization proved too sophisticated for the Red Army, which lacked sufficient technical specialists to make it workable and, thanks to the 1937-38 purge, was short of trained staff officers and competent commanders. Moreover, many of the mechanized divisions were so in name only—this thanks to a critical shortage of motor vehicles. Nor were there enough tanks to fully equip all armored units, a fifth of which of which actually had none at all.

Red Army tank rider infantry, armed with submachine guns, dismount from a T-34-76. (Red Army photo)

By the time of the German invasion (22 June 1941) there were 29 mechanized corps at least nominally in existence and these were largely destroyed in the opening battles. In the subsequent reorganization of the Army, the tank brigade was revived in a simplified and smaller form. In its new version it was really was an armored battalion with an infantry contingent. Gone were the reconnaissance and engineer units, and there were only two tank battalions with fewer than fifty tanks between them. The motorized rifle battalion was also reduced in size. At first these tank brigades were thrown together using whatever troops and weapons lay ready to hand but by early-1942 their organization had been standardized. In late 1941 and early 1942 some tank brigades and independent tank battalions were equipped with British tanks acquired through Lend-Lease. Most were Matilda Mark II and Valentine Mark II infantry tanks, and during the Battle of Moscow (winter 1941-42) they made up some 30% to the Red Army's front-line tank strength.

Also in late 1941 a start was made on the recreation of the tank corps, albeit on a smaller scale than before. The first four had two tank brigades and whatever infantry and support units that could be scraped up. By the end of the year, however, their organization was standardized with two tank brigades and a motorized rifle brigade. Tank strength was 20 KV-1 heavy tanks (76.2mm gun), 40 x T-34 medium tanks (76.2mm gun) and 20 x T-60 (20mm gun) or T-70 (45mm gun) light tanks. Originally it had been intended to equip the tank corps exclusively with KV-1s and T-34s, but it was some time before the factories that had been hastily evaculated from the threatened areas of the USSR could produce them in sufficient numbers. So light tanks—the inadequate T-60 and the only marginally better T-70—had to be substituted. The motorized rifle brigade had three battalions plus support units. The motorized rifle battalion had one platoon armed exclusively with submachine guns,  considered the ideal weapon for infantry fighting in cooperation with tanks. There troops often rode into action on the tanks they supported. Later in the war, whole companies were armed with submachine guns.

T-34-76 tanks in the winter of 1941-42. More than 57,000 T-34s were produced during the war (Red Army photo)

With just 80 tanks and 5,600 men, the new tank corps proved to be too small. In early 1942, therefore, they received a third tank brigade and a motorcycle reconnaissance battalion.  By late 1942 a heavy mortar regiment with 36 x 120mm mortars,  a self-propelled artillery regiment—really an armored assault gun battalion—and a light antiaircraft battalion  with 37mm guns had also been added. The 120mm mortar partially compensated for the lack of field artillery; the SP artillery regiment provided direct fire support for the tanks and infantry.

Thus by 1943 the tank corps was remarkably similar to the US Army’s “light” armored division: Each had three tank battalions, three motorized infantry battalions and a mechanized reconnaissance battalion. But the US division also had three battalions of self-propelled artillery—and this was genuine field artillery, capable of indirect fire and of operating under centralized control. The tank corps’ most glaring deficiency was the absence of such field artillery—unavoidable since the Red Army lacked sufficient trained personnel to provide it. Otherwise, however, the tank corps was a well-organized formation with a heavy punch relative to its size. As the war progressed it grew somewhat larger and received more and better equipment, much of it via Lend-Lease.

In total the Red Army raised 31 tank corps during World War II, though though only 25 saw action in that form, some being converted into mechanized corps. There were also numerous separate tank brigades that were used either to reinforce mobile formations or support rifle divisions, particularly on the attack. They could not be used to form additional tank corps since qualified personnel for the necessary support units were unavailable. The existing tank corps, however, were gradually enlarged with additional units such as rocket artillery regiments, self-propelled artillery regiments and heavy tank regiments.

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Organizational Diagrams




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