♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

Self-Propelled Artillery Units 1942-45
 

 

The SU-76M armored assault gun  (World War Photos)
 


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The Red Army’s interest in self-propelled artillery stemmed from its early encounters with the German StuG III assault gun, an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) based on the Panzer III tank with a short-barreled 75mm gun mounted in an armored casement. Conceived as an infantry support weapon with superior mobility and protection compared to the towed 75mm infantry gun, it proved readily adaptable to the antitank (AT) role when armed with a high-velocity 75mm gun. The StuG III was also easier and cheaper to produce than tanks with equivalent firepower, its only real disadvantage being the limited traverse of its main gun.

Design work on the first two Soviet assault guns began in early 1942 and they entered production late in that year. The SU-76, based on the T-70 light tank, was armed with the new 76.2mm antitank gun mounted in a lightly armored, open-topped fighting compartment. Thanks to its simple design the definitive model, designated SU-76M, became the second most-produced Soviet AFV of the war, after the T-34 tank. The SU-122 was based on the T-34 tank; it was armed with a 122mm howitzer in a fully enclosed, armored fighting compartment.

The SU-76M and the SU-122 were supplemented by two other assault guns: the Su-76i and the SU-57. The former mounted a 76.2mm gun on the chassis of captured German Panzer III tanks; the latter was the US M48 halftrack mounting a 57mm antitank gun. The SU-76i, though it proved effective, did not last long thanks to a shortage of spare parts but the SU-57, of which nearly 500 were supplied, was well liked for its mobility and mechanical reliability, and remained in Red Army service until the end of the war.

The Red Army designated the units armed with these assault guns as self-propelled (SP) artillery, but this was something of a misnomer. They were seldom if ever used as conventional artillery employing indirect fire. The SU-76M functioned primarily as a tank destroyer and light assault gun, while the SU-122 served as a heavy assault gun—both engaging targets by line of sight. When it first entered service the SU-76M was capable of destroying any German tank and also proved itself in the infantry support role, the open-topped fighting compartment facilitating communication with the infantry. The SU-122 was equally effective it its designed role, particularly against fortified positions.

The first SP artillery regiments were set up in late 1942 and they entered combat in early 1943. These were mixed units, with sixteen SU-76Ms in four batteries and eight SU-122s in two batteries. But this configuration proved to be less than ideal. The two weapons had quite different characteristics and could not easily operate together. Moreover, with two different types in the same regiment intermediate battalion headquarters were necessary, an inefficient use of manpower. Accordingly the SP artillery regiments were reorganized to embody a single type: light (SU-76M), medium (SU-122) and heavy (SU-152 when it entered production in early 1943).
 

The SU-152 armored assault gun (Red Army photo)

The SU-152 was based on the KV heavy tank and was armed with a 152mm howitzer. Though designed as a heavy assault gun the SU-152 somewhat surprisingly proved effective as a tank destroyer firing standard high-explosive ammunition. Though the howitzer’s muzzle velocity was relatively low, the 152mm HE projectile was so large that a direct hit could be counted on to destroy any German AFV. In the Battle of Kursk the SU-152 gained a fearsome reputation as a tank killer, proving capable of blowing off the turret of a heavy Tiger tank with a single well-aimed shot.

The success of these first three assault guns encouraged the Red Army to develop the concept further. The SU-85, which entered production in mid-1943, was based on the SU-122 but with the new 85mm antitank gun in place of the 122mm howitzer. It was designed  to serve primarily as a tank destroyer, as was its successor, the SU-100 with the more powerful 100mm antitank gun. The SU-122 and SU-152 were eventually replaced in production by the JSU-122 and JSU-152. These were based on the JS series of heavy tanks, with thicker armor and various other improvements.

By 1944 the SP artillery regiments had become standardized, differing only in the number of personnel required for their assigned weapons system. All had twenty assault guns or tank destroyers in five batteries, plus a T-34 tank in the regimental headquarters (sometimes replaced by a twenty-first assault gun or tank destroyer). Like the tank brigades and the heavy tank regiments they included a motorized submachine gun company and a motorized antitank rifle company—experience having demonstrated that close infantry support was very necessary, particularly in urban combat.
 

The SU-100 armored tank destroyer (Red Army photo)

The 1944-45 tank corps and mechanized corps usually had three SP artillery regiments: one light, one medium, one heavy. Others were held at army or front level to be allocated as circumstances dictated, and sometimes they were grouped under a brigade headquarters. In mid-1944 Guards rifle divisions were authorized an SP artillery battalion with sixteen SU-76M, but not all received them before the war ended. This divisional battalion did not include an infantry component, since that could be provided by the division, each of its three rifle regiments including two independent SMG companies.

The assault guns and tank destroyers of the Red Army’s SP artillery proved themselves in combat and some models, particularly the SU-100 and JSU-152, remained in service for many wars after the war. Considerable numbers were supplied to the Warsaw Pact countries, China and other socialist states. The SU-100, for example, was in widespread service as late as 1980. Some are still serving today in the armies of North Korea and Vietnam: a testament to the soundness of the SU-100’s design.

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