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Posted on Feb 7, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Guards Return To Fight In Russia – 1941

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Great Military Purging in the USSR

Just when it seemed that the Soviets might soon have the mightiest, most effective armored force in the world, Stalin initiated the military purges of 1936, which ravaged the ranks of military leadership in the Soviet Union. These purges or systematic imprisoning or murder of any officer who seemed to be a threat to Stalin continued for five years. It was still going on in 1941 when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa.

Naturally, this had a severe debilitating effect on the newborn armored force. As an example, the faculty of the Armored Academy was completely purged three times in less than two years (1937-39). Students went through three sets of instructors during that time. Marshal Budenny, himself a close personal friend of Stalin, was protected from this “cleansing.” 


His own vision of war and his personal intelligence (or lack thereof) led him to state to a very worried aid, “Don’t worry. They’re only killing the smart ones.” These smart ones would be sorely missed in the first six months of the war with Germany!

Thus a contradiction of sorts began to take place. Instead of implementing the new ideas in tank warfare, they were shelved and other older and faulty battle plans were kept. No one wanted to risk his life by making sweeping changes. It was far safer simply to remain quiet and go with whatever the Soviet politicians suggested.

One good idea went sour on the Soviets in 1938. It was decided that each tank platoon would have five tanks instead of three. The basic idea, which in itself was quite valid and practical, was that in this way, the platoon would be divided into two sections, a “light” and a “heavy” section.

Such an organization would give the platoon the ability to fire and maneuver. The sections would mutually support one another. This system would be employed by the United States and Germany (at least the first year of the war for Germany) and work well.

It became a disaster for the Soviet tankers, however, as only one tank in the platoon had a radio. This meant that the other tanks would have to be in visual contact at all times with the platoon leader in order to know what to do. Orders would have to be communicated visually, further exposing the platoon leader to enemy fire as he stood in the unbuttoned turret and used hand signals to give the subordinate tank crews instructions.

Such a strategy required that the platoon leader be extremely sharp and skilled. With all of this type being imprisoned or killed off, the result was chaos. During the outbreak of hostilities, tank platoons became scattered and disoriented. With no contact with the leader of the units, they just became individual tanks fighting on the battlefield.

This loss of cohesiveness and control meant the death of thousands of tanks and their crews in 1941. Before the end of the year, the Soviets learned from their error and reverted back to the old system of 3 tanks in each platoon, thus increasing the command control of the unit. 

This was one of many concepts adopted by the Soviet Union military that while having great potential, was faultily applied to their own situation. The end result, of course, was a worsening of the situation.

Tanks, Tanks, and More Tanks

Even with all these setbacks and problems, material production of tanks continued through the years so that by early 1941, the USSR could rightfully boast of having by far the largest tank army in the world.  No precise figures can be given, but it is estimated that the number of tanks in the Red Army at that time was about 24,000! This included, of course, every type of armored vehicle. There were tankettes, amphibious tanks, light tanks, cruiser tanks, medium and heavy tanks and infantry tanks. There were dozens and dozens of models and many more variants of these types.

Here again was an inherent weakness. The multiplicity of tank types meant different types of ammunition, repair parts, and training courses. It became a nightmare in logistics. A change was taking place in the Soviet Union, however, that would come to greatly simplify all of this.

Two new tanks were beginning to be produced. These two models would do as much as any military decisions of STAVKA to change the course of the war between Germany and Russia. They were the KV (Klimenti Voroshilov) series of tanks, including the KV-1 with a high-powered 76mm gun.

A variant of this model was produced. It was the second in the series, called the KV-2. It boasted the same tank chassis as the KV-1 (a chassis so dependable that it would form the base for many self-propelled guns later in the war), but with an elephantine turret and a huge 152mm artillery piece, ideal for infantry support and bunker busting.

A T-34 Tank, as exhibited at Aberdeen Ordnance Museum. 
Picture by Brian King,
ACG Website Editor.

The second tank that would exert even a greater influence in the war was the T-34 tank. It was later dubbed the “Queen of Tanks” and vies even today for the title of the best tank of World War II with the Mark V German Panther. The T-34 was a product of the Khoshkin design team. It employed the British Christie high-speed suspension and possessed a mathematically angled hull armor that even protruded over the tank tracks and protected them (nothing worse than a lame tank on a mobile battlefield!). The sloping armor gave the new tank a ballistic protection equivalent to twice its 45mm thickness.

Both the KV and the T-34 used the same high-performance diesel engine. Both had wide tracks, specifically designed to deal with the mud and snow of Russia.  In addition, they were made with the possibilities of upgrading in the future without any major changes. In essence, they were a revolution in tank design, incorporating the three vital components of a successful tank: (1) mobility, (2) firepower, and (3) defense. Many tank experts even today point to the T-34 as the beginning of modern tank design.

Of course, this simplification and concentration of two good tank designs would allow the Russians to produce these tanks in quantities that exceed that of any other country in the world. America did a similar thing in the production of the venerable M-4 tank. Once tank production got into gear and was running at full steam, a T-34 tank was coming off some assembly line in Russia every 12 minutes! Germany would eventually learn to her regret that it would never have those physical production capabilities.

The initial weaknesses of the Soviet armored forces did not lie in its equipment, but in its use. Poor leadership and inadequate tank doctrine meant that thousands of Russian tank crews burned alive or were blown to pieces as military leaders made blunder after blunder. As mentioned before, they learned quickly. By the end of 1941 a coherent tank doctrine had been formed. It did not take them long to see the difference between their performance and that of the German tanks.

The idea of a tank corps, which had begun and then been abandoned, was reinstituted. This corps, about a division and a half in size when compared to western units, included 400 tanks, motor rifle regiments (now supporting tanks instead of tanks supporting them!) and an artillery regiment. Now the evolution of tanks and their use, which had changed slowly after World War One, would be accelerated, and hurriedly. The survival of the Soviet Union depended upon it!

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1 Comment

  1. I wanted no part of the tank corps. I went in the Infantry so I could breathe fresh air and see what I am shooting at.