Ost 1942 Soviet Recovery




On its own, military manpower could not have saved the Soviet Union. But by early 1941 the Red Army had at its disposal a raft of new military equipment with the potential to match anything in the Wehrmacht’s arsenal. The best of the new fighters, the Yak-1, proved capable of taking on the Me-109s, and the new Il-2 ground attack aircraft was to prove to be devastatingly effective in the battles ahead. German troops were to find the T34 medium tank and the KV1 heavy tank to be perhaps the worst surprises of the early months of the war. With each passing month the reliability of the T34s improved and the competence of the Soviet tank commanders in the use of these battle-winning weapons increased. In the summer of 1941 the Red Army also acquired a highly effective new anti-tank gun. This was the long-barrelled 57mm ZiS- 2 that was easily capable of destroying any tank that the Ostheer could place on the battlefield. Unfortunately for Soviet forces the production costs of the weapon were high and production was discontinued at the end of November 1941 in the mistaken belief that the standard Soviet 45mm anti-tank gun was sufficient for current and future purposes. Soviet infantry also possessed some useful new weaponry. For close quarter and urban fighting the PPSh submachine gun was introduced in 1940 and, subject to ongoing development, was to remain in use throughout the war. It may have been outclassed by the equivalent German weapon, the MP40, but unlike the MP40 the PPSh was simple and cheap to manufacture and was subsequently produced in prodigious numbers. Another highly successful infantry weapon introduced in 1940 was the 120mm heavy mortar. This mortar was so effective that the Germans copied it almost exactly. In 1941 two different types of 14.5mm anti-tank rifle were introduced, the PTRS and the more common PTRD. These weapons, nearly half a million of which were manufactured during the war, were reasonably effective against light tanks and were a threat to the German medium tanks if they could score a hit in the sides or rear at short range. At the outbreak of the war Soviet artillery was also being upgraded, with the 76mm F-22 USV divisional gun, the 122mm M-30 divisional howitzer and the 152mm ML-20 corps gun-howitzer already in quantity production.

The continuing availability of these weapons depended entirely on the ability of Soviet industry to maintain their production, and the ruthlessly efficient transfer of military productive capacity from the vulnerable areas of the Ukraine and western Russia to the safety of the Volga and beyond, was another key factor in the survival of the Soviet Union. Despite its vicissitudes, during the second half of 1941 Soviet industry produced 4,177 tanks, a figure that exceeded the 3,796 tanks and self-propelled guns produced in Germany in the whole of that year. By the end of March 1942 Soviet tank production had been increased to nearly 2,000 machines per month, a rate of production that Germany would never match.

Another key factor in the survival of the Soviet Union in 1941 was the speed with which the Red Army adapted its structure in response to the realities of the conflict with the Wehrmacht. As early as 15 July, with the war just twenty-three days old, Zhukov issued the first of what would be a series of directives on the revised structure of Soviet units. Mechanised corps were disbanded, and motorised rifle divisions were converted to conventional rifle divisions. Tank divisions and subsequently the rifle divisions were reduced in size to around 10,000 personnel, though in the battle for Moscow a rifle division was typically half that size. Only a few of the new tank divisions were actually formed, new tank formations being based on the smaller tank brigade of nine tank companies, six of them composed of light tanks, and the size of a tank company, particularly the medium tank company, was standardised at ten tanks. This process was formalised in an order of 23 August 1941. Also, at the insistence of Voronov, the artillery support to rifle divisions was reduced to one artillery regiment, the other being withdrawn for use in `strategic artillery’ formations. Most of the higher level organisational changes in the Red Army were driven by the chronic shortage of experienced or qualified senior commanders. The shortage was due in part to Stalin’s purges, but losses at the front and the rapid expansion of the Red Army as the hundreds of new divisions and brigades were created were major contributory factors. As a result, the Fronts needed to create formations more easily handled by inexperienced middle-rank commanders. This was achieved by steadily disbanding the rifle corps so that by the end of 1941only six of the original sixty-two remained and the armies, designated `Rifle Armies’, were reduced in size to five or six rifle divisions with appropriate tank brigade and strategic reserve artillery reinforcement as was required for a particular task. Below army level the lack of experienced or qualified commanders and the long lead times needed to create new rifle divisions led to the need to create smaller autonomous combat units. The solution, one that persisted through to 1943, was the rifle brigade. Initially a somewhat ad-hoc formation based on a rifle regiment with assigned artillery support, some 250 rifle brigades were raised in the first year of the war and by the summer of 1942 their structure had been formalised to four rifle battalions, an artillery battalion of twelve 76mm regimental guns, an antitank battalion of twelve 45mm anti-tank guns, a heavy mortar battalion of eight 120mm mortars, and a separate submachine gun company. With a little over 5,000 personnel, these brigades had become well balance `half-divisions’ having a substantial headquarters staff with signals, reconnaissance, engineering and transport companies.

In an effort to compensate for the almost total destruction of the Soviet tank park in the early months of the war, the Red Army saw a dramatic expansion of cavalry forces during this period. Based on a pared-down cavalry division structure of just 2,600 men these forces, used in combat as mobile light infantry, offered Soviet commanders a degree of operational mobility that was simply unavailable to them in the form of mechanised formations. The result of the suite of structural changes during the second half of 1941 was a Red Army in which the army and subordinate units could be more efficiently commanded by a smaller number of commanders obliged to work with inexperience headquarters staff.

During the first period of the war, the Red Army was on a steep learning curve and the lessons were bought at high cost. Yet steadily through experience, by adopting and adapting the things that worked and discarding, irrespective of conventional wisdom, those that didn’t, the effectiveness of Soviet combat units began to rise. To his credit, Stalin was prepared to learn from his own mistakes. After the appointment of a raft of politically loyal NKVD officers to senior combat command positions had proved to be generally disastrous, there evolved a more meritocratic system of promotion that rewarded the strategically perceptive and tactically effective, as a result of which the frequency of change at senior command level began to decline. The command abilities of Zhukov, Vatutin, Voronov and Vasilevsky, had been recognised from the start. Others such as Rokossovsky, Konev, Tolbukhin and Malinovsky, deemed competent for moderately senior command prior to the outbreak of hostilities, were to demonstrate an outstanding ability for command at the highest level. Others, Cherniakhovsky, Katukov, Grechko and Pliev among them, through their demonstrable ability on the battlefield, rose from relative pre-war obscurity to become outstanding senior commanders. There were many others, such as Major-Gen M T Romanov whose 172 Rifle Div conducted a skilful and determined defence of Mogilev in July 1941, whose potential could only be glimpsed before they were killed or taken prisoner in the early months of the war. Stalin himself gradually came to recognise that his senior generals often knew better than he what was required to win a campaign, and he increasingly came to trust their judgement over his own.

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