♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Mechanized Corps 1942-45
 

 

Combined arms: tanks and infantry of a mechanized brigade in attack formation (Red Army photo)
 


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Having survived the opening round of the war and administered a hard check to the German invader in the 1941-42 winter offensive, the Red Army embarked upon the rebuilding of its mobile forces. The old mechanized corps had mostly been shattered in the opening battles and the formations that replaced them were of a new, smaller but more efficiently organized type. First came the 1941-42 tank brigade, which became the basic unit of the division-sized 1942 tank corps. This was a powerful unit for its size but it had some disadvantages. With no real field artillery and only six infantry battalions—three of which were really half-battalions—the tank corps lacked defensive staying power. It could deliver a punch and gain ground but when stopped it became extremely vulnerable to counterattack. Many tank corps were mauled or destroyed in this manner.

Realizing the need for a large mobile unit that could move rapidly, seize objectives deep in the enemy’s rear area and defend itself against counterattacks, Stavka formed the first mechanized corps in September 1942. Essentially they were large armored divisions with plenty of infantry. The mechanized corps was designed to serve as an exploitation force alongside the tank corps, advancing through the gaps created by the rifle divisions and the artillery. Though like the tank corps it had no true field artillery, the mechanized corps did have ten rifle battalions, nine of them in the corps’ basic unit, the mechanized brigade. This was a motorized rifle brigade identical to that in the tank corps, but with the addition of a tank regiment—actually a battalion-sized unit with 41 x T-34 medium tanks. However, the first mechanized corps to be raised received whatever armor was available, including Lend-Lease British tanks such as the Matilda and the Valentine.
 

British factory workers with brand-new Valentine infantry tanks destined for the USSR (Imperial War Museum)

The mechanized corps was formed with three mechanized brigades, a tank brigade identical to that found in the tank corps, a heavy tank regiment, two self-propelled artillery (armored assault gun) regiments, a 120mm mortar regiment, a rocket artillery battalion and various support units. This table of organization required a large and varied number of motor vehicles, and made great demands on scarce technical resources. Thus the Red Army was never able to raise more than thirteen of them, some from scratch and some by converting tank corps.

For the same reasons, when the mechanized corps were first set up some lacked various sub-units. For example, the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps, assigned to Southwestern Front for the Battle of Kursk in 1943, had no tank brigade and only one self-propelled artillery regiment. On the other hand the 3rd Mechanized Corps, assigned to the 1st Tank Army at Kursk, had two tank brigades, possibly in compensation for its lack of self-propelled artillery battalions. Only in 1944 were the mechanized corps largely standardized. It was common, however, for extra units—typically tank and self-propelled artillery regiments and rocket artillery battalions—to be attached to the corps when deemed necessary. Also common were detachments of corps assets—usually tank and self-propelled assault gun regiments—to other formations.

It should be noted that Red Army unit designations sometimes gave a false impression of size. Medium and heavy tank regiments were actually battalion-sized units with 41 tanks for the former and 21 for the latter. The tank brigade found in the mechanized and tank corps was also the size of a small battalion, with 41 to 63 tanks. Self-propelled artillery regiments were also battalion sized, with 21 armored vehicles. And as has been noted, the mechanized corps and the tank corps were actually the size of German or Western Allied armored divisions.

As for equipment, by 1943 in most mechanized corps the tanks and self-propelled assault guns, antitank guns and artillery were of Soviet manufacture. The T-34 medium tank, indeed, was one of the war’s outstanding weapons—especially the T-34-85 with its powerful 85mm gun, which entered service in 1944. But many other vehicles, particularly trucks, were acquired via Lend-Lease. The US and the UK provided about 410,000 trucks to the USSR, as against the 300,000 or so manufactured domestically. The entire production of 2.5-ton cargo trucks by Studebaker’s South Bend, Indiana manufacturing plant went to the USSR. The Red Army received in addition thousands of US armored halftracks, US armored scout cars and British Universal Carriers. Large numbers of such vehicles found their way into the mechanized corps, as shown in the accompanying diagrams.
 

Red Army soldiers armed with the PPSh-41 submachine gun. It was widely issued to troops of motorized, mechanized and armored units (World War Photos)

At the operational level, the mechanized corps was usually assigned to a tank army, the standard organization in 1944-45 being two tank corps and one mechanized corps. Sometimes a mechanized corps was assigned in place of a tank corps to an infantry or shock army participating in a major offensive; others were held in reserve at the front level.

A mechanized corps (or units thereof) was sometimes paired with one or two cavalry corps in a cavalry-mechanized group (CMG). This was an exploitation force for employment in attacks over rough terrain. In addition to its major elements, the CMG included an array of support units: self-propelled artillery regiments, artillery brigades and rocket artillery regiments, antitank and antiaircraft units, etc. The CMG was not a permanent, numbered formation, being formed with units held in in front reserve, and it took the name of its commander, e.g. Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov.

Making due allowance for the limitations imposed by Soviet conditions, the mechanized corps was a large, well-armed mobile formation that when properly handled was more than capable of standing up to the German panzer division. What gave the German division its edge was better staff work and training plus real division artillery. Though these advantages diminished over time, the German Army was generally more efficient to the Red Army right up to the end of the war. The latter only acquired a decisive advantage from late 1943 on, when its numerical superiority in manpower and every category of weapon became overwhelming.

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Organizational Diagrams

 


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