♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Tank Corps & Cavalry Corps 1943-45
 

 

The Red Army's T-35-85 medium tank (World War Photos)
 


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The 1943-45 tank corps was considerably larger than those originally formed in early 1942having gradually acquired a number of additional units. Prominent among these were self-propelled artillery (armored assault gun) regiments. Usually there were three such regiments assigned: one light, one medium and one heavy. Sometimes the heavy SP assault gun regiment was replaced by a heavy tank regiment. Also added was a light field artillery regiment (76.2mm guns), an antiaircraft artillery regiment, a rocket launcher battalion and an engineer battalion—all motorized.

Overall, therefore, the tank corps became similar in structure to the mechanized corps, albeit with three tank brigades and a motorized rifle brigade versus three mechanized brigades and one tank brigade. The tank corps had around 12,000 men while the mechanized corps had around 17,500, a difference largely accounted for by the stronger infantry contingent of the latter.

By 1943 the tank brigades of the tank corps were predominantly equipped with the T-34 tank; the self-propelled assault gun regiments had various SU and JSU models armed with an 85mm, 100mm, 122mm or 152mm gun. The heavy tank regiment, when present, was at first equipped with KV-series tanks and later with the powerful JS-series tanks, armed with a 122mm gun. In late 1942-early 1943 most tank brigades had two battalions, for a total of 42 tanks, but the desired standard was three (63 tanks total) and by mid-1943 most tank brigades assigned to tank corps had reached this strength. The numerous separate tank brigades mostly remained at a strength of two tank battalions and some were equipped with Lend-Lease British and American tanks such as the Valentine and the Sherman.

Beginning in 1943, the motorized rifle battalions of the tank brigades were converted into motorized submachine gun battalions. The had two companies armed predominantly with submachine guns—one motorized, one tank rider—and a motorized rifle company plus antitank, mortar and antiaircraft machine gun companies. The battalions of the motorized rifle brigade were also reconfigured, with a larger allotment of submachine guns.
 

Troops of a motorized rifle battalion riding in British Universal Carriers (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

All these extra units and new weapons considerably augmented the combat power of the tank corps but it was still deficient in field artillery. By 1943, however, the Red Army had evolved an operational doctrine that accounted for this deficiency. The basic operational unit for mobile forces was the tank army, usually with two tank corps, a mechanized corps and an array of support units. The tank army was used offensively to exploit gaps opened in the enemy’s defenses by the rifle divisions and the artillerydriving forward to seize key terrain and objectives. Defensively, the tank army was employed to deliver counterattacks against attacking enemy forces, if possible converting these to a full counteroffensive.

Besides the tank corps and the mechanized corps, the Red Army had one other mobile unit: the cavalry corps. The cavalry arm had always enjoyed a certain prestige that dated from the Civil War (1918-21) and the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21). In Eastern Europe and the USSR, where good roads were few and there was much rough much terrain, the horse was a useful and sometimes superior mode of transportation. At the beginning of the war in 1941 there were five cavalry corps and a few independent cavalry divisions.

The 1941 cavalry corps was organized with two divisions and various support units. As was often the case with Red Army formations, designations were deceptive. With around 4,500 men, the cavalry divisions were really the size of brigades; the cavalry corps was the size of a division. By 1943 there were three divisions in a cavalry corps, along with one or two tank regiments, a light self-propelled assault gun regiment and various support units, for a total of some 18,000 men. They were usually committed to action in sectors were the terrain was challenging for motor vehicles. Tactically the cavalry functioned as mounted infantry, moving on horseback and fighting on foot. However, the troopers were armed with sabers and sometimes conducted mounted attacks in the traditional cavalry style.
 

Red Army cavalry charging with the saber (World War Photos)

Late in the war a cavalry corps was sometimes combined with a mechanized corps to form a cavalry-mechanized group. This operational-level formation, usually named after its commander, was set up on an as-needed basis using formations held in reserve by a front (army group). Its function was to penetrate deep into the enemy’s rear area following a successful breakthrough. Such operations could be perilous, as the Germans could be counted on to react energetically to any such threat. During the Battle of Debrecen (Hungary, October 1944) the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev was badly mauled, and though escaping destruction lost most of its tanks and other vehicles.

The odds being roughly equal, the Germans could rely on gaining the upper hand in a clash between their panzer forces and the Red Army’s mobile forces—thanks mostly to superior staff work, greater tactical flexibility and better cooperation between artillery, tanks and mechanized infantry. But by the end of 1943 the odds were no longer equal. More than two years of intensive combat and high casualties had precipitated the German Army into a manpower crisis from which it was never to recover. And though the Red Army could not hope to match its enemy’s level of tactical and operational expertise, it had succeeded in creating powerful mobile forces that made the most of the resources, human and material, that the Soviet state could supply.

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Organizational Diagrams

 

 

 

 


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