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Posted on Jan 9, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The First Guards Tank Brigade – 1941

By Wild Bill Wilder


Russian tank commanders at the outset of the German invasion of the Soviet Union were at a great disadvantage. While enjoying a huge inventory of armor, their battle doctrines as to its use were so outmoded that they had no chance to exploit the benefits of it.

The anachronistic tank doctrines of portioning out huge tank formations into “penny packets” for infantry support and other insignificant missions nullified any edge that they might have had against the marauding panzer formations.

As the older, more politically influential commanders were killed by the enemy or executed by order of STAVKA (The Soviet High Command) for “failure in battle,” (considered a treasonable offense) younger, more visionary officers took their place. And even if the performance of all Soviet forces at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War could be classified from poor to disastrous, they learned quickly. By the end of World War II, the armored segment of the Soviet military was one of the finest in the world.


After the great Communist revolution of 1917, and the institution of the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism in the biggest nation in the world, the military institutions of Russia went through radical change. The disasters suffered by the Russian army (which in large part would contribute to the overthrow of the Czar) were bitter lessons in warfare. How to avoid such calamities in the future became paramount. The formation of a new doctrine of war was devised and put into effect. Like anything else Russian, it was kept simple. Its plan was easy enough to remember.

1. It began with achieving breakthroughs in the enemy front lines by a concentration of manpower and firepower in important areas of the defensive positions.

2. A widening of the gap with infantry and engineer units, the wider the gap, the better would follow this breakthrough.

3. Once the opening was secure, horse cavalry and mechanized forces (later, large tank units) would roll into the enemy’s rear. They would continue to advance as far as possible, then establish themselves firmly in their new position. If the opportunity afforded it, they would continue the advance to the enemy’s capital and end the war.

The Soviets could, because of the size of the country and its industrial revolution, build many tanks and experiment with different ideas as to their use. While the idea of a strong tank force was only in the mind of German military leaders and allied visionaries, the Russian tank force was growing daily. Designers experimented with amphibious models, airborne prototypes, infantry support armor and fast-moving cruiser type tanks.

Russian KV-1 heavy tank, seen here passing through a city square in the winter of 1941

The tank was a new weapon and some sort of doctrine or guidelines were needed to indicate how it was to be employed in war. The Russians initially thought along the lines of cavalry units and organized its first mechanized Brigade (formed in the Moscow Military District in 1930) according to the tasks it would perform. Its basic organization was as follows.

Reconnaissance Group (a full regiment)
2 light tank battalions
1 armored car battalion
1 motorized machine-gun battalion
1 artillery battalion
Assault Group (a full regiment)
2 heavy tank battalions
2 self-propelled artillery battalions
1 Motorized rifle battalion
Artillery Group (a full regiment)
3 artillery battalions (76mm, 122mm cannons and/or howitzers)
1 antiaircraft battalion
Support units (This included medical, engineers, supply and other basic units to sustain the armored force).

In numbers, it broke down to 4,700 men, 220 tanks, plus the assorted other units mentioned above.

As the Soviet tank force grew prodigiously, a larger organizational structure was needed. This led to the formation of mechanized or tank corps. A corps unit in the Soviet military structure was about the sized of a heavily reinforced division by western standards.

The formation of two mechanized corps was authorized in 1932, beating the German organization of panzer divisions by three years. The first two corps formed were the 11th Mechanized Corps in the Leningrad Military District and the 45th Mechanized Corps, formed in the Ukrainian Military District. Each boasted an armored force of 430 tanks and 215 armored cars.

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