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The Russian Army In The Second World War
The history of the Russian army in the period of the Second World War is an important topic, which has still not been fully explored by historians today. For a long time the documents regarding the Soviet Armed Forces has been kept classified and the Russian authorities only published propagandistic data.
The first wholesome analytics of the Russian army in the World War period appeared due to the efforts of such Russian historians as Victor Suvorov and Marc Solonin. In the recent years Russian historiography has been supplemented by a number of Western documentary publications and studies, which covered various aspects of the subject, providing comprehensive accounts and overviews of the matter. The information from declassified official documents and modern Russian and Western sources today present a complete historical picture of the Russian Army in the period of 1938-1942.
The Russian Army in the period of World War II was known as the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (RKKA or Red Army). The Red Army came about as the Soviet Government's revolutionary militia in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Eventually it grew into the national army of the USSR and since 1946 was called the Soviet Army.
At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army functioned as a voluntary formation, without ranks or insignia. The officers were elected by means of a democratic vote.
In May 1918 a decree was passed imposing obligatory military service for all men aged 18 to 40.Regional military commissions or commissariats were formed to service the massive draft of the multimillion USSR.
As of the 1920 in each region able-bodied men were called up for active duty for set periods over five years. The first call-up period was for three months, with one month a year thereafter. By 1925 this system provided 46 of the 77 infantry divisions and one of the eleven cavalry divisions. The remainder consisted of regular officers and enlisted personnel serving two-year terms.
The RKKA played an important role during all key events and periods in the establishment and development of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, in the 1930s the Red Army became a force of major strength and therefore threat to Stalin and the leadership of the party. The 1930s were largely marked by a series of purges of the high commandment of the Army and the establishment of new units. Counter-revolutionary plots were invoked as the principle accusation.
Forty four thousand high-ranking commanders and almost 200 thousand members of their families were exiled or otherwise eliminated. At the time of peace preceding World War II the Red Army experienced losses never previously known in military history. In 1935, 6198 army officers and personnel were dismissed; in 1937 this number reached 18658.
These military purges resulted in the Russian Army becoming literally impotent and unprepared for any kind of war. The remaining commanding officers lacked experience and were incapable of making competent, independent decisions. A military inspection conducted in early 1940 showed that of the 225 regiment commanders, only 25 had graduated from military school; the other 200 were reserve officer or men having completed sub-lieutenant courses.
In 1938 it was incapable of going to war and its enemies understood it very well. In one of his speeches Adolf Hitler stated that ‘”The Russian military forces represent a clay colossus without a head. They have no experienced commanders and they are poorly equipped.”
Moreover, instead of being feared the Russian Army lived in fear itself. The remaining commanding officers were under constant pressure and threat of repressions in case of failure or defeat.
After the signing of the Molotov-Ribentrop pact in 1939 various military preparations began to be actively developed on the territory of the USSR. First of all the invasion of part of Poland was under way and secondly, there were some suspicions as to Hitler breaking his promiss under the Pact.
Particularly Marshall Voroshylov began to form special military units. Upon his initiative by early 1939 the territory of the Soviet Union was divided into 16 military and administrative units. Special artillery units were being formed and front groups were being established.
Mobilisation of the country began on September 7 1939. As of this date all the existing military units were allocated a number and were renamed accordingly. All regional army units became part of the Red Army.
At the beginning of 1939 the land forces of the Red Army contained 28 units of infantry corps, 100 infantry divisions, 2 rifle brigades, 5 units of cavalierly corps, 25 cavalierly divisions, 2 cavalierly brigades, 4 units of tank corps, 24 light tanks, 4 heavy tank corps and 3 chemical tank units. There were also 4 motorized infantry and machine gun divisions, 6 airborne brigades and 24 infantry regiments.
The mechanized unit formed under Stalin's campaign for mechanization in 1930 was also implemented into the army. By now it was called the 1st Mechanized Brigade and consisted of a tank regiment, a motorized infantry regiment, and reconnaissance and artillery battalions.This in turn developed into the 11th and 45th Mechanized Corps and became the first operational-level armored formations in history. These resembled tank-heavy formations with combat support forces included so they could survive while operating in enemy rear areas without support from a homefront.
On 2 April 1939 the People's Commissar of Defense has drafted Report №80259/cc, in which it was proposed that the Red Army forces in the Far East be strengthened by four infantry divisions. This decisions was argumented by “the increasing threat of unexpected attack from Japan” and by the need to outrun Japan in the build-up of forces. Thus, the Russian armed forces were strengthened in the Far East, closer to the Japanese border.
At the same time the Soviet military leadership began developing a new system of mobilisational deployment of forces. On May 5, 1937 B.M. Shoposhnikov, Commander of the General Headquarters Army Commanders of the 1st rank has presented the People's Commissar of Defense with a report, assessing the organizational development of the infantry forces. This report served as a basis for the reorganization of forces in 1938. The reorganization aimed at the liquidation of the differences between the various infantry divisions, the fortification of regular border divisions and to expedite the mobilization of forces.
In order to carry out the above, four types of infantry divisions were created. These included 14 infantry divisions of the Far East (14 thousand men), 37 regular infantry divisions (6950 men, including the 36th infantry division of 9000 men), 10 regular mountain infantry divisions (4000 men) and 37 infantry divisions of triple deployment (5220 men). Upon mobilization the latter was to be deployed into three different infantry divisions. Moreover, at the end of 1938 it was provided that 172 additional infantry divisions would be deployed.
Shoposhnikov's report underlined that the changes in the political climate of the world call for a strengthening of the military machine and mobilisational preparedness of the Russian infantry forces. A request for the enlargement of the infantry was also included in the report.
The escalation of the Halhingol conflict and of the international crisis in Europe expedited the development of the new system of the mobilisational deployment of the Red Army. The main idea behind the reorganization of the land forces was to create a permanent army, prepared for combat with minimal mobilizational deployment. It was proposed that all secret divisions intended for deployment in case of mobilization become open, transparent permanent divisions. After Stalin's approval it was decided to have all secret divisions reformatted into permanent divisions ready for deployment.
The German campaign of 1940 against France also had a great influence on the formation of the Russian military land forces. On 6 July 1940 the SovietNKOordered the creation of 9 mechanized corps similar to those used during the abovementioned German campaign. Although, on paper, by 1941 the Red Army's 29 mechanized corps claimed to have no less than 29,899 tanks.However, this was a fictious number and there actually were only 17,000 tanks available at the time.
War experience prompted changes to the way frontline forces were organized. After six months of combat against the Germans,the high command of the Red Army - the Stavka - abolished the Rifle Corps intermediate level between theArmyandDivision level because, while useful in theory, in the inexperienced state of the Red Army, they proved ineffective in practice. In January 1942, after the victory at the Battle of Moscow, the high command began to reintroduce Rifle Corps into its most experienced formations. In July 1941 the strength of the front-line rifle division amounted to 6 thousand men on average. At that time there were also 62 Rifle Corps. This number, however, drastically decreased 6 Rifle Corps in 1942 as the divisions were often worn down on continuous operations to hundreds of men or even less. Only by New Year's day of 1944 had it become possible to rehabilitate the number of the Rifle Corps and bring it up to 161.
Apart from land forces the Russian military also employed the air force. At the beginning of 1939 the air force of the RKKA had 3 divisions of special designation, 38 air brigades, 117 air regiments (10 heavy bombing, 9 far bombing, 27 speed bombing, 11 light bombing, 13 assaulting, 43 destroying, 2 mixed, 1 scouting and 1 spare). Through January to August 1939 8 air brigade divisions and 13 air regiments were formed and established to compensate for the forces moved to the Far East. Consequently the number of airplanes employed also increased. If on 1 April 1939 there were 10397 airplanes in the Russian armed forces, by 1 July that year there were already 11176 and by 13 September that number further increased to 12381. By 1 October the Red Army Air Force had 48 divisions of air brigades, 136 air regiments and 93 air bases.
On 16 November 1939 the Head of the Main Division of the RKKA Air Force has sent Report №325778/cc to the People's Commissar of Defense suggesting that in 1940 more attention be paid to the re-armament and re-equipment of the air forces. In 1940 a special far bombing air regiment was to be formed along with one destroyer regiment, 3 spare regiments, one regiment for special tasks and one learning regiment.
Another report was filed with the People's Commissar of Defense in 1940. This report specifically addressed the need and possibility of developing the air forces and increasing the air regiments. It was proposed that by 1943 28 air force academies be established and courses be made available for the preparation and requalification of military personnel.
Between 1939-1940, new units of the Red Army air forces were formed. By 1 January 1940 the air force consisted of 143 regiments (63 destroyers, 61 bombers, 13 assaulters and 6 mixed). By 1 February of that year the Soviet Air Forces had 48 air brigades at their disposal along with 149 air regiments, 49 separate squadrons, 22 spotters, 5 transporters, 101 air bases and 19 engineering and air field squadrons.
The number of air force military personnel also increased, reflecting the process of formation of new regiments and new air force academies. By May 1940 the air forces had 58 offices of air brigades, 188 air regiments, 160 air bases, 8 army detachments and 18 spotting detachments. In total 291210 men served in the Red Army Air Force.
On 25 May 1940 the Soviet Politburo had confirmed Resolution № 1344-524/cc, which implied changes to the organizational structure of the air force. It introduced a divisional organization. The air force became composed of divisions (4-5 air regiments) and separate air brigades (2-3 air regiments).
Eventually three types of air divisions came about: mixed, far bombing and destroying divisions. The mixed divisions were aimed at a direct interconnection with the rest of the armed forces. They were to provide support and cover for the cavalry and mechanized units. The far bombing division was formed with the purpose of destruction of military objects and aimed at the disorganization of the enemy's support. Finally, the destroyer division was aimed at gaining dominance in air space and at the protection of the economic and political centers of the USSR.
By 1 September 1940 it was necessary to form 38 air divisions (26 mixed, 7 long-range and 5 fighters), which included 163 regiments. A task was set to form another 48 regiments (13 long-range, 18-speed bombers and 17 fighters) before 1 January 1941, combining them into 12 new air divisions (5 mixed, 4 long-range and 3 fighters).
In 1940 the People's Commissar of Defence issued directives № 0/4/104724 - 0/4/104735/ss, ordering a reorganization of the military intelligence and the formation of 10 intelligence and 1 mixed regiments. By the end of 1940 the Red Army Air Force consisted of 50 air division offices, 4 separate brigade offices, 249 air regiments, 5 separate and 59 corps squadrons.
On 23 October the People's Commissar of Defence and Chief of Staff reported to Stalin and Molotov on the training of flight and technical personnel and on the strengthening of the Red Army Air Force. In accordance with the Government decision of 25 July 1940 by 1 January 1941 there were to be 239 air regiments and 62 hull squadrons hull, amounting to 15 672 aircrafts.
For this program to be implemented there 98 new air regiments were to be introduced in 1941. This posed certain difficulties. As a compromise it was proposed to increase the number of aircrafts in the squadron of the existing air regiments and form only 20 new regiments, which would provide 19 977 active aircrafts and 3,082 reserve aircraft.
At this point it has also been suggested that the amount of air force military schools and academies be reduced together with the training aircrafts by approximately one thousand, comparing with 1939-1940. However, this reduction of the number of aircraft could have been carried out only at the end off 1941.
Simultaneously by the end of 1941 60 pilots were to be trained and prepared along with 144945 air technicians. In order to illustrate the difficulty of this task it is sufficient to remind that in 1940 there were only 38 thousand pilots and 81563 air professionals.
In accordance with Order № 063 issued by the Head of the Air Force on 23 April 1940 it was decided to form and establish a long-range bombing aviation. This introduced such armed aircrafts as TB-3, DB-3 and TB-7. The divisions which had these aircrafts were known as long-range air divisions.It was proposed that in total 13 long-range air divisions be formed and that by 1941 the number of combat air crafts be brought up to 20 thousand. It was suggested that the amount of long-range air crafts should be proportional to that of the combat air crafts.
During the Second World War and especially at the beginning Russia encountered much military losses and in particular losses of air crafts. The principal cause for these large aircraft losses in the initial period of war with Germany lay not in the lack of modern tactics, but in the lack of experience. While the young pilots often grasped the theory taught in military academies they had no practice as to how to fly and lead air warfare.
A lack of support had also been demonstrated by ground support crews. Many aircrafts were destroyed before they even left the runway. This was often due to command failure to disperse them.
This lack of competence of the pilots, engineers and technical staff had especially drastic effects during Operation Barbarossa. The rapid advance of the Wehrmacht ground troops forced the Soviet pilots on the defensive, while being confronted with more modern German aircrafts.In the first few days ofOperation Barbarossathe Luftwaffedestroyed some 2000 Soviet aircraft, most of them on the ground, at a loss of only 35 aircraft (of which 15 were non-combat-related).
The main aircrafts of the Red Army Air Force during World War II were theIllyushin Il-2ground assault model or the shturmovik and theYakovlev Yak-1, afighter aircraft in many variations. Each of the air planes became the most produced aircraft in history in its class. The Il-2 and the Yak-1 together constituted over half of the strength of the Red Army Air Force during the World War II period.
The Yakovlef aircraft models brought the Air Forces of the RKKA to parity with the Luftwaffe. The Yak-1 had a modern 1940 design, yet was no match for the German Messerschmidt BF 109 and had much room for development. It was only with the advent of the Yak-9 that the Soviet Air Forces were able to gain the upper hand in the skies and retain it until 1944. After the Yak-9 came the out-of-sequence-numbered Yak-3. The latter permitted not only to gain an upper hand, but also to invoke fear in the Luftwaffe, which preferred to avoid combat with this last air craft modification.
The other main types of aircrafts used by the Red Army were Lavochkin fighters. Mainly the Lavochkin La-5 was used. An interesting model was the Petliakov, the Pe-2 version of which was a twin engined attack bomber. And finally another popular model was the Illyushin Il-4. Thismodel was very basic, but at the same time greatly versatile and functional. The Il-4 bomber provided many war privileges during sky combat ot the Russian Army.
The USSR was the only country among all the participants of World War II to initiate a program for involving women in the air force. The Soviet Air Forces practiced providing women with the necessary air training and bringing them into combat air groups.
During World War II there existed three regiment composed entirely of women: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The achievements of all three regiments were very high and soon enough the units were renamed as Guard units. These regiments were colloquially known as Night Witches. They were formed upon the initiative of Marina Raskova, who had some great influence over Stalin.
Beyond the three official all-women regiments, individual Soviet women sometimes served alongside airmen in otherwise all-male groups.Women pilots, navigators, gunners, mechanics, armament specialists and other female ground personnel made up more than 3,000 fighting members of the Red Army Air Force. They received a military and air pilot education alongside men in specially devised courses or air force academies. Eventually the women pilots became not worse than many of their male counterparts.
From 1942 and until the end of the war Alexander Novikov served as Chief Marshal of Aviation. He is known to have introduced several new innovations and weapons systems. For instance, he invented the low flying air craft technique, which allowed to hunt down and shoot individual people on the ground. This technique was so effective and popular that the military leadership allowed even for such ancient planes as the Polikarpov Po-2 to be used.
This technique was only a small portion of what the RKKA Air Force could do. Over the course of the Second World War the Russian military and Air Force developed much experience, sophistication and superiority. In one strategic operation alone, theYassy-Kishinev Strategic Offensive, the5th and 17th Air Armies and the Black Sea Fleet Naval Aviation aircraft achieved a superiority in aircraft over theLuftflotteand theRoyal Romanian Air Force, allowing almost complete freedom from air harassment for the Russian ground troops.
As with many allied countries inWorld War II the Soviet Union received western aircraft byLend-Lease. Lend-Lease aircraft from the US and UK accounted for nearly 12% of total Soviet air power. Among such aircrafts were theP-39 Airacobras,P-63 Kingcobras,Hawker Hurricanes,Curtiss P-40Kittyhawks andA-20 Havocs. Soviets in P-39s scored the highest individual kill totals of any pilot ever to fly a U.S. aircraft.
In total during the Great Patriotic War some 157261 aircrafts were produced with over 125 thousand of them being combat types. By the end of the war Soviet annual air craft production reached 40241.
The navy took part in all major actions and offensive at the Eastern Front. After the beginning of theSecond World War, many sailors and naval guns were sent to help theRed Army. Soviet naval personnel and commandment had especially important land roles in the battles forOdessa, Sevastopol,Stalingrad,NovorossiyskandLeningrad.
In 1941 the Soviet fleet was composed of 3 battleships, 7 cruisers (including 4 modernKirov-class cruisers), 59 destroyer-leaders and squadron-destroyers (including 46 modernType 7 destroyersandType 7U destroyers), 218 submarines, 269 torpedo boats, 22 patrol vessels, 88 minesweepers and 77 submarine hunters. The fleet also included a range of smaller, but no less important vessels.
Similarly to how land and air forces were constantly expanding and growing the fleet was also under constant development and increase in numbers. Orders and Directives were drafted and adopted by the People's Commissar of Defense, providing for the construction of 219 vessels including 3 battleships, 2 heavy and 7 light cruisers, 45 destroyers, and 91 submarines.
At the time of World War II Soviet fleet was still using pre World War I ships. Among the latter were cruises and battleships. There were also some ships the construction of which began in foreign and sometimes enemy countries. For instance, the Italian-built destroyer Tashkent or the Lutzow ship began to be built before the conflicts.
During the war, many of the vessels inthe waters near LeningradandNikolayevwere destroyed. The main methods were either from aircrafts or by mines. The Soviet Navy also received captured Romanian destroyers, as well as an old Royal Navy battleship and a US navy cruiserMilwaukee. Sometimes the Soviet army would acquire these war goods for themselves and sometimes they would exchange ships and share parts of the captured goods among the allies.
However, Soviet ships were also damaged. In particular in the Black Sea, many ships were damaged by minefields and the air forces of the Axis powers.
Despite damages the Soviet Navy helped defend naval bases and bring them supplies, while the latter were under siege. The navy also conducted many evacuation operations of these naval bases and helped lift sieges of various towns and cities.
In the Baltic Sea, after Tallinn's capture, surface ships were blockaded in Leningrad -Kronstadtby minefields, where they took part inanti-aircraftdefense of the city and bombardment of German positions. The operations in the Baltic sea were perhaps some of the most difficult ones and demanded great levels of resourcefulness from the Russian navy officers.
One example of Soviet resourcefulness was the situation with the battleshipMarat. This was an aging pre-World War I ship used in the Second World War, yet sunk at anchor in Kronstadt's harbor in 1941. For the rest of the war, the non-submerged part of the ship remained in use as a grounded battery.
Another particularity of naval military activities in the Baltic Sea was the use of submarines. As the Baltic Sea provided a simple and quick passage to Eastern Europe it was evident that the defense in this part was to be increased. As a result by using submarines the Russian military forces were able to disrupt Axis navigation of the Baltic sea, thus preventing them from going any further.
Activities of the Soviet Navy in the Arctic sea were somewhat less than in the two seas described above. Here the Navy deployed Northern Fleet Destroyers and smaller crafts. These vessels participated in the anti-aircraft andanti-submarinedefense of Alliedconvoysconducting lend-lease cargo shipping.
During World War II it was not only the ships and airplanes used by the RKKA that were inherited from the period of the First World War. Most machinery, weapons and other military equipment was in dire need of reparation or rather replacement. The pressure placed on factories and military planners to show production numbers also led to a situation where the majority of armored vehicles were obsolescent models, critically lacking in spare parts and support equipment, and nearly three quarters were overdue for major maintenance.
By June 1941 there were only 1,475 T-34 tanks and KV series tanks available to the Red Army. Moreover these were too dispersed along the front to provide enough mass for even local success.
To put this into perspective, the3rd Mechanized Corps in Lithuania was formed up of a total of 460 tanks; 109 of these were newer KV-1s and T-34s. This corps would prove to be one of the lucky few with a substantial number of newer tanks. However, the 4th Armywas composed of 520 tanks, all of which were the obsolete T-26, as opposed to the authorized strength of 1,031 newer medium tanks.This problem was universal throughout the Red Army.
On the outbreak of war the Red Army deployed mechanized corps and tank divisions whose development have been described previously. The German attack battered many severely, and in the course of 1941 virtually all districts and administrative and military units were disbanded.It was much easier to coordinate smaller forces, and separate tank brigades and battalions were substituted.
It was late 1942 and early 1943 before larger tank formations of corps sizewere fielded in order to employ armor in mass again. By mid 1942 these corps were being grouped together into Tank Armies whose strength by the end of the war could be up to 700 tanks and 50,000 men.
As may be seen from the above the Soviet Army was decently equipped and well functional. What it lacked in the beginning was a good command unit able to make fast, independent decisions and to act. Unfortunately the purges carried out by Stalin in the 1930s led to a situation where the army turned out incapable of doing anything that depended on their own assessment. Stalin's Fear of being overthrown and his longing for totalitarian control has left the country almost defenseless in the face of war.
All the high ranking and experienced military leaders and army commanders were purged, exiled or executed. Their families were also eliminated. Thus the country was left with no military elite, commanding officers or men, coming from a military background and educated accordingly.
The young men appointed to commanding positions in the army came from anywhere but military backgrounds. They lacked confidence and experience. They exercised command under immense pressure from the party leadership and lived in fear of being repressed for their mistakes.
These men were weak and easily manipulated. This suited Stalin, but posed great problems for a country at war.
In the beginning of World War II the USSR was not far behind in terms of industrialization and the equipment of the military. The 5 year plans introduced by Stalin were paying off. And although the numbers presented in the official Government statistics were generally of a propagandistic nature, the industrialization level reached by the Soviet Union was impressive.
However, the great developments of the industrial capacity of the country were not sufficient to equip the hundreds thousand of men once imperative mobilization was under way.
The total absence of competent military command and the insufficient equipment of the army made the USSR appear weak in the eyes of its enemies. This assumption was proved by the defeat of the Red Army during the war with Finland in 1939 and by the various defeats suffered by the USSR in the early periods of the Second World War.
Nevertheless, as the war progressed the young military commanders began gaining experience faster than expected. This is explained by their fear of repressions for defeat, loss or other mistakes.
The innovative approaches, new tactics and techniques proposed by the young generation of commander eventually helped the Soviet Army withstand difficult challenges and extreme situations.
The RKKA remained for almost a century the largest army in the world and the most feared military force. The few mistakes made at the beginning of the Second World War almost never came about again. The army was kept as a permanent unit and the policy of the country as a whole was formulated primarily in accordance with military needs and requirements.
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