A Short History of Mechanized Units in the Red Army

UpdatedApril 5, 2004

   The history of Soviet tank troops begins in 1919 when the soldiers of the 2nd Ukrainian Soviet Army captured four French Reno FT 17 tanks. One of them was sent to Lenin in Moscow, and the other three tanks and an armored car formed a "Special-purpose Armored Battalion" attached to the SNK (Council of People's Commissars, i.e. government) of Ukraine in Kharkov.

The first permanent moto-mechanized unit was the K.B. Kalinovskiy experimental mechanized brigade which was formed in May, 1930. In the autumn of 1932 the first two mechanized corps were formed: the 11th Mechcorps on the basis of the 11th Rifle Division in the Leningrad Military District (MD), and the 45th MC from the 45th Rifle Division in the Kiev Special MD. In 1934 two more mechanized corps were formed: the 7th in the Leningrad MD and the 5th in the Moscow MD. A mechanized corps consisted of two brigades, each with three battalions. Separate mechanized divisions and tank battalions for infantry divisions were also formed. These mechcorps proved to be too unwieldy and difficult to control. In February, 1935 the mechanized corps changed to a new organization: most of the corps service and support troops were removed and only communications and reconnaissance units stayed. Mechanized brigades were equipped with tanks of only one type, mostly BTs.

Because of different opinions among the leadership of the State Commissariat of Defense (Narkom), no more mechcorps were formed between 1935 and the dissolution of the mechcorps in 1939. In August, 1938 mechanized corps, brigades, and regiments were renamed to "tank" without any real changes in their organization or table of organization and equipment (TO&E). Brigades equipped with BTs and T-26s were called light tank brigades, and those with T-28s and T-35s were called heavy tank brigades.

The Polish campaign "demonstrated the difficulty of command and control during operations of tank corps as well as their cumbersome size", but "separate tank brigades operated better and were more mobile". As a result, it was proposed to dissolve the headquarters of the four tank corps, reduce the tank brigades' support tail, and eliminate rifle-machine gun brigades and the rifle-machine gun battalions from tank brigades. The plan was to create sixteen tank brigades with 238 BTs each, sixteen brigades with 238 T-26s each, three brigades with 117 T-28s and 38 BTs each, and one brigade with 32 T-35s and 85 T-28s. Besides this, ten light tank regiments and four motorcycle battalions were created. In wartime it was planned to have seventeen BT tank brigades, twenty-five T-26 tank brigades, three T-28 and one T-35, which would have a total according to TO&E of 11,085 tanks. In peacetime the TO&E of the tank troops was established at 105,086 men and 8,201 tanks.

The decision of the Main Military Headquarters (GVS) dated 11/21/1939 authorized the creation of motorized divisions with 275 tanks and 49 armored cars. In 1940 and the first half of 1941 fifteen such divisions were planned.
In May, 1940 the Narkom at (Ministry) of Defense was working on the organization of tank divisions.On May 27 the Narkom and the Chief of the General Staff presented a report to the Politburo and SNK (Council of Peoples Commissars), which proposed a tank division with two tank regiments, one artillery regiment, one motorized rifle regiment, and an anti-aircraft artillery battalion. By TO&E the division was supposed to have 11,343 men, 385 tanks, 108 armored cars, 42 artillery pieces, and 72 mortars.  It was proposed that tank corps consist of two tank divisions, one motorized division, one aviation squadron with twelve planes, one road battalion, one signal battalion, and one motorcycle regiment which "in the hands of the corps commander, was to be used for exploitation during offensive operations, support when the corps occupied a large front, and support of divisions in the corps".  During offensive operations by the tank corps or to repulse a counterattack by the enemy, no less than one aviation brigade consisting of two bomber and one fighter air regiment was to be attached.

Following this, six tank corps headquarters and twelve tank division headquarters were supposed to be formed on the basis of two cavalry and four rifle corps headquarters, four BT tank brigades, three T-28 tank brigades, one T-35 tank brigade, three motorcycle battalions, five cavalry brigades, and one rifle-machine gun brigade.  Two motorized divisions were formed not by reducing the number of cavalry units, but by reforming two rifle divisions (one in the Byelorussian Special MD and one in the Kiev Special MD.  It was proposed to deploy one tank division in the Leningrad MD, two tank corps in the Byelorussian Special MD (one motorized division in the Moscow MD), two tank corps in the Kiev Special MD, and one tank corps each in the Odessa MD and Trans-Baikal MD.  In all the tank troops were to have 1,260 heavy tanks, 8,711 BTs, 7,238 T-26s, and 1,140 flame thrower tanks, but on April 1, 1940 there were on hand 468 heavy tanks, 7,300 BTs, 7,985 T-26s, 1,027 flame thrower tanks, and 3,228 T-38s.

However, these proposals were not approved, and on June 2, 1940 the Narkom of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff submitted a revised plan for forming tank corps to the SNK and Politburo.  Several changes in the organizational structure of corps and divisions were proposed.  These changes would fit into the Red Army's authorized strength of 3,410,000.  It planned to form eight tank corps, 18 tank divisions, and 8 motorized divisions, four of which already existed.

They were to be formed on the basis of two cavalry and five rifle corps, and six rifle, five cavalry, and 17 tank brigades.  As a result, the Red Army would have 177 divisions (18 tank, 8 motorized, 3 motorized rifle, 92 rifle, and 10 mountain rifle) and 25 tank brigades.  Not counting mobilization reserves and T-37 and T-38 tanks, the tank arm would have 22,398 tanks, 16,851 of which were on hand as of May 1, 1940.  The following deployment of tank corps was proposed:  one corps each in the Leningrad MD, Moscow MD, Odessa MD, and Trans-Baikal MD, two corps each in the Byelorussian Special MD and Kiev Special MD, and one tank division each in the Trans-Caucasus and Middle Asian MDs

The following units were planned to be used in creating the tank corps: in the Leningrad MD - 6th, 18th, 20th, and 34th Tank Brigades, 163rd Rifle Division, 15th Rifle-machine gun Brigade, 25th Cavalry Division, and rifle divisions' tank battalions.

In the Byelorussian Special MD - the headquarters of the 3rd Cavalry and 10th Rifle Corps, the 2nd and 21st Tank Brigades, the 29th and 185th Rifle Divisions, a motorcycle battalion, the 7th and 11th Cavalry Divisions, the tank regiment of the 36th Cavalry Division, and rifle divisions' tank battalions.  

In the Kiev Special MD - the headquarters o the 4th Cavalry and 49th Rifle Corps, the 5th, 10th, 14th, 23rd, and 24th Tank Brigades, the 141st Rifle Division, several units of the 146th Rifle Division, the 81st Motorized Division, the 34th Cavalry Division, and several units of the 32nd Cavalry Division, as well as rifle divisions' tanks battalions.

In the Odessa MD - the headquarters of the 55th Rifle Corps (from the Kharkov MD), the 4th Tank Brigade, the 15th Motorized Division, 173rd Rifle Division, and rifle divisions' tank battalions.

In the Moscow MD - the headquarters of the 57th Rifle Corps, the 39th and 55th Tank Brigades, the 1st Motorcycle Battalion, the 1st Motorized Division, and rifle divisions' tank battalions.

In the Trans-Baikal MD - the headquarters of the 51st Rifle Corps (from the Urals MD), the 15th and 37th Tank Brigades, and the 109th Motorized Division.

In the Trans-Caucasus MD - the 16th Cavalry Division (from the Kiev Special MD), the 7th Tank Brigade, and rifle divisions' tank battalions from the Trans-Caucasus and Northern Caucasus MDs.

In the Central Asian MD - the headquarters of the 25th Cavalry Division, the 146th Rifle Division, the 10th Tank Regiment, and rifle divisions' tank battalions.

Apparently, the Soviet leadership agreed with these proposals, because on June 9, 1940 the Narkom of Defense approved the plan to form mechcorps, and the districts received the corresponding directives.  According to these, by June 30th the Trans-Baikal MD formed the 5th Mechcorps, the Central Asian MD the 9th Tank Division, the Trans-Caucasus MD the 6th Tank Division, the Leningrad MD the 1st Mechcorps, and Belorussian Special MD the 3rd and 6th, the Kiev Special MD the 4th and 8th, the Odessa MD the 2nd, and the Moscow MD the 7th Mechcorps.  However, the preparation for the Baltic and Bessarabian campaigns in June, 1940 interfered with the formations in the European part of the USSR.

On June 30, 1940 the Chief of the General Staff prepared a plan for the Narkom of Defense to deploy troops to the western districts.  The newly-formed Baltic MD was supposed to have a mechanized corps which was intended for the Byelorussian MD.

On July 6, 1940 the SNK issued decree No. 1193-464ss which confirmed the proposed TO&E of the tank divisions and the organization of the mechanized corps.  This was followed by the formation of eight such corps and two separate tank divisions.

On October 4th, 1940 the Narkom of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff reported to the Politburo and SNK that the formation of eight mechcorps, eighteen tank and eight motorized divisions had for the most part been completed.  Twelve BT brigades, four T-35 and T-28 brigades, three chemical brigades, two T-26 regiments, and the tank battalions of the rifle divisions (except for those in the Far East) had been disbanded for this purpose.

On October 14, 1940 the Narkom of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff sent the Politburo report No. org/1/106163ss/ov, which proposed steps which were considered necessary to strengthen the troops in the first half of 1941.  Among these were the formation in the Kiev Special MD of one more mechanized corps (the 9th), twenty separate T-26 tank brigades intended to reinforce and support infantry in battle (one brigade per rifle corps). 

By the end of 1940 these measures allowed the Red Army to deploy three motorized rifle divisions, twenty tank divisions, nine motorized divisions, 45 tank brigades, and three armored brigades.

A new organizational stage for the Red Army began on February 12, 1941 when the military leadership presented to the Soviet government a new mobilization plan which provided for two motorized rifle divisions, sixty tank divisions, and thirty motorized divisions.  The approval of this plan allowed the formation of those units, which did not exist to begin.  In the first place this concerned the creation of twenty new mechcorps, which began in February-March, 1941.

On March 8, 1941 the Politburo approved the appointment of commanders of the forming mechcorps and tanks and motorized divisions.

Besides this, on April 23 decree 1112-459cc by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the SNK of the USSR authorized the formation of ten anti-tank artillery brigades, and five airborne corps by June 1, 1941. The headquarters of the 29th Mechcorps of the 17th Army, Trans-Baikal MD, and other units, were used for the formation of these units.

Translation: G. Dickson

From http://mechcorps.rkka.ru site