Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Red Army Improves 1942 onward...

Stalin was devastated not only by the German attack, but by the inability of his armies to halt it. Hamstrung by shortages of the most basic equipment; many divisions lacked sufficient rifles for their men, let alone ammunition, and of the Soviet Union's 23,000 tanks, over 70 per cent were in need of maintenance or repairs, which were almost impossible to carry out due to shortages of spare parts.16 The huge formations of the Red Army were beyond the means of their officers to control, and their communications equipment was often rudimentary, even when it was available. By the first winter of the war, almost all of the original peacetime army that had been deployed in the west was gone, many of its divisions squandered in pointless head-on attacks against the Germans, who smashed them with their superior firepower. By the end of the winter, the eastern divisions, brought west in time to save Moscow, had themselves been bled white. But the enemy had been halted, and Moscow saved. By the following winter, the hated fascists were encircled in Stalingrad, and the Red Army's confidence was growing again.

That growth was based on many factors. Soviet armaments production, badly dislocated in the first year of the war, was now in full swing, producing tanks in such numbers that Hitler simply refused to believe the figures when his intelligence officers presented them. Supplies of other kinds were flowing, too, particularly of trucks, food and fuel, via convoys from the United States and Britain. The recruits who had filled the ranks in 1941, if they were still alive, were now veterans, with enough experience to survive combat. The role of the political commissars had been reduced, allowing officers a freer hand in military affairs, and those officers themselves were far more skilful and resourceful than the men who struggled to reconcile Party-dictated doctrine with the realities of armoured warfare in 1941. The infantry formations were reduced in size, making them more manageable. Conversely, the armoured formations, often having as few as 20-40 tanks in 1941, were enlarged, allowing them to take on German Panzer divisions with a greater likelihood of success. Starting in 1942, combined-arms formations began to appear, and by 1943 the tank armies that had first been deployed the previous summer were reorganized on more standardized fines, with two tank corps, each with 168 tanks, a single mechanized corps, and other formations such as artillery and engineers.

Training had been improved, with a new emphasis on military matters rather than ideology. Evacuated to Soviet Central Asia, Kobylyanskiy joined an artillery training establishment, where the truncated training programme - reduced from two years for an artillery lieutenant to one year - was intensive and exhausting. After only two months, Kobylyanskiy and other selected cadets were told that they were being sent to a division immediately; the developing crisis at Stalingrad made previous training plans irrelevant. For those like Kobylyanskiy, who had a natural aptitude for mathematics and therefore made an ideal artilleryman, this was perfectly acceptable, as like most young men he had a strong desire to do his patriotic duty. Kobylyanskiy later estimated that only 2 per cent of those who went to the front with him returned alive after the war.

The first victories of 1942 and 1943 were analyzed, hard lessons learned, and remedial steps taken, culminating in the shattering blow that was dealt to the German Army Group Centre through Bagration in the summer of 1944. As the war progressed, the Red Army dealt much better with failure than the Wehrmacht; Stalin allowed officers to learn from their mistakes, rather than replacing them reflexively, as Hitler increasingly did. The Red Army quickly understood the lessons that lay behind each setback, modifying tactics accordingly, while Hitler refused to listen to good advice and fell back increasingly on a dogmatic insistence on rigid defence.

Pavel Ivanovich Batov, who was to command the Soviet 65th Army through much of the war, was assigned to this post as the battle for Stalingrad reached its peak. The evolution of 65th Army shows many of the reasons for the improvements in the Red Army as a whole. Originally raised as 28th Reserve Army in early 1942, it was prematurely committed to the disastrous attempt by Semyon Timoshenko to recapture Kharkov that spring. The German counter-attack that destroyed much of Timoshenko's forces threw 28th Army back to the Don, where its staff was ordered to hand over their units to neighbouring armies and to start the formation of 4th Tank Army in the Volga valley. When Batov arrived to take command of this army, he was astonished to discover its current tank strength amounted to only four tanks; when he raised this with his superiors, the army was renamed 65th Army.

Unlike the opening months of the war, nearly all of the senior staff officers of Batov's new army were veterans with experience of staff posts and hard combat behind them. The only exception was the commander of the communications section, Captain Borissov, but his skill in maintaining communications between army headquarters and its constituent divisions earned him high praise, and the constant fighting on the flanks of the great German bulge around Stalingrad ensured that even he too soon became a veteran. When the army was thrown into the great counter-attack that encircled the German 6th Army in Stalingrad, the staff officers were experts at cooperation and coordination.

By the second half of 1944, the ubiquitous T-34s were equipped with more powerful 85mm guns, and their ranks were supported not only by western-built Sherman tanks, but by a new breed of tanks, the JS-2 and JS-3 'Josef Stalin' tanks. (Note that the Soviets regarded the Shermans as inferior to their own vehicles; due to the ease with which they could be set ablaze, they were nicknamed 'Tommy-cookers' by the Germans when they first encountered them in the west.) The JS tanks, with their immense 122mm guns, were regarded with fear by the Germans, but at least some of this fear was dispelled when they were actually encountered in battle. The 4th Panzer Division first fought them in August 1944, swiftly knocking out eight, breaking the spell cast by these 'enormous hulks, with outrageously large turrets and tree-trunk-like guns'.18 The Germans were surprised to find that these heavy tanks had a very limited quantity of ammunition aboard, making prolonged combat impossible. In some respects, the Soviet tanks were technically inferior to their German and western counterparts -poorer gunsights and radios in particular - but their excellent armour, and simple but robust engines, provided considerable compensation. And they were present in numbers far beyond the resources of Germany.

By late 1944, some Soviet tank armies had dispensed with their mechanized corps. Nevertheless, they remained formidable forces, with more than 600 tanks and nearly 200 assault guns. The rest of the Red Army was organized into combined-arms armies, each with up to 100,000 men, 460 tanks and 200 assault guns. All Soviet armies, corps and divisions had integral artillery formations, but there were also dedicated artillery formations, organized into corps and divisions; these went a long way to offset the shortage of manpower that the Red Army faced in its infantry towards the end of the war.

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