♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Artillery Units 1941-45


A 122mm howitzer of a rifle division engaging a target within visual range  (World War Photos)

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The artillery had always been considered the elite branch of the Russian army and this tradition persisted into the Soviet era. In 1941 the Red Army possessed a powerful artillery arm, with guns and howitzers of excellent design and impressive performance. The 1939 Rifle Division had two field artillery regiments with 24 x 76.2mm light field guns, 36 x 122mm light field howitzers and 12 x 152mm howitzers, compared with 36 x 105mm light field howitzers and 12 x 150mm medium field howitzers in the field artillery regiment of the German 1939 Infantry Division. The Army also had a large number of nondivisional medium and heavy artillery regiments. The division artillery was mostly equipped with modernized versions of guns and howitzers originally produced for the tsarist army, such as the 76.2mm M1902/30 field gun, but more modern weapons were in large-scale production.

However, the Army’s ability to employ all this ordnance with maximum effect was doubtful. Of the various deficiencies afflicting the artillery, the most serious was a shortage of technically trained personnel. Modern artillery fire control methods required such specialists in considerable numbers and though the Soviet state had made progress in the field of education, it could not supply sufficient men with the requisite educational background. Another deficiency was a shortage of radios. An efficient communications net was the sine qua non of effective artillery fire control, especially in conditions of mobile warfare. But the Red Army’s artillery was over-reliant on the field telephone, which though adequate for static defense and set-piece attacks, was too cumbersome and unreliable to support a fast-moving mobile battle.

The first, disastrous stage of the war laid these deficiencies bare. In the emergency reorganization of the Red Army that followed, Stavka, the high command, decided to concentrate the artillery—and the available technical specialists—in large single-role divisions and brigades. These would be held in reserve by Stavka or the operational fronts (army groups), to be allotted to the field armies as required. The rifle divisions were stripped of artillery specialists and heavy ordnance, leaving them with just 24 x 76.2mm field guns and 12 x 122mm howitzers, which for the most part could only be employed for direct fire on targets within visual range. The new tank corps and mechanized corps had no real field artillery at all.

A battalion of 76.2mm field guns in action (Photo: Red Army)

At the end of 1942 there were 26 artillery divisions, usually with four brigades, for a total of 168 guns, howitzers and mortars. By mid-1943 there were around 70 such divisions and their average strength had risen to six brigades and 288 weapons. The so-called breakthrough artillery divisions were augmented with additional units and could have over 400 weapons of various types. A breakthrough artillery division typically had one brigade with light field guns, one with medium guns, one with light howitzers and medium gun-howitzers, one with heavy howitzers, and one with heavy mortars. A brigade embodied from two to four regiments or battalions, depending on the type of weapon.

Artillery observation, communications and fire control were centralized, usually at the division level, in an artillery reconnaissance battalion and a signal battalion. As far as possible all artillery fire was pre-planned, aiming points and targets having been located and allocated in advance. Fire missions were assigned to whole regiments and brigades, reliance being placed on weight of fire rather than pinpoint accuracy. This system was adequate for defensive operations and for the set-piece attack, but it was unable to cope with the demands of mobile operations.

The rocket artillery was separately organized in divisions, brigades and regiments. Rocket artillery had been under development in the Soviet Union since the 1930s and during the war there were three types: the light 82mm BM-8, the medium 132mm BM-13 and the heavy 300mm BM-30. The light and medium launchers were usually truck mounted. When first introduced the heavy rocket was fired from a ground mount; a later version was truck mounted. The medium BM-13 was the most numerous type, arming roughly half of all rocket artillery units. A BM-13 battalion had eight ten-rail launchers and could fire an 80-rocket salvo in a matter of seconds—equivalent to the weight of shell that a battalion of twelve 122mm howitzers could deliver in ten minutes. But the BM-13 rocket had only half the range of the howitzer, was less accurate, and the launchers took considerable time to reload. Moreover, the rockets’ prominent backblast gave away the battalion’s position, compelling it to move after each salvo to avoid counterbattery fire. Thus the rocket artillery was most effective when massed to deliver a saturation bombardment, for which purpose a division could embody up to sixteen battalions.

The Stalin Organ: BM-13 rocket artillery (World War Photos)

By late 1944 more than 70% of the Red Army’s artillery was concentrated in non-divisional units: 94 divisions and 149 separate brigades. Late in the war the breakthrough artillery corps appeared, usually consisting of two or three divisions and as many as eight or nine brigades and regiments. Infantry and shock armies participating in major offensives generally had one such corps assigned to them, and usually it controlled the army artillery as well as its own units. Thanks in large part to Lend-Lease, which supplied almost 500,000 US and British trucks to the USSR during the war, all these non-divisional artillery units were motorized.

Of necessity given the shortage of trained artillery specialists, lack of flexibility was a built-in feature of the Red Army’s massive artillery forces. And though concentration in large units represented the most efficient use of artillery possible for the Red Army, it was significantly less efficient than the German field artillery. Respective casualty figures illustrate the difference. On the Eastern Front, 50% of German Army battle casualties were caused by enemy artillery. On the other hand—though precise figures are hard to come by—an estimated 80% of the Red Army’s battle casualties were caused by enemy artillery—this showing the much greater effectiveness of the German artillery.

Once again, however, it was sheer weight of numbers that negated the German Army’s qualitative advantage. Once the Red Army evolved tactical and operational doctrines suitable to its capabilities, its numerical superiority over the enemy proved decisive. As Stalin himself once put it, quantity has a quality of its own—a truism borne out by the performance of the Red Army’s artillery in the second half of the war.

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Organizational Diagrams


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