RIFLE DIVISION

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World War II began with most infantry operating as they had in the closing days of World War I. Four years later, it became obvious that infantry operations had to go through another transformation, just as they had done in the last year of World War I. By the end of that war, it had finally been realized that infantry could not just charge ahead through enemy artillery and machine-gun fire. First the enemy had to be smashed with carefully, and quickly, placed artillery fire. The infantry could then advance around remaining enemy strongpoints and into the rear area. Tanks had been introduced late in World War I and became the principal offensive weapon early in World War II. Firepower had increased since World War I. The big German problem was that they were running out of infantry. The Germans ran out of troops first, but the Russians were in the same situation and were down to the dregs when the war ended. Both sides came to the same conclusions about resolving the shortage of infantry and using more firepower and fewer troops. For the Russians, this meant massive artillery bombardments against the German lines before the Russian infantry went into action. The Russians also massed tanks, moving these in front of and among the infantry to give the foot troops some additional protection. Russian infantry were given more personal firepower by increasing the number of machine guns and submachine guns (automatic pistols, small rifles firing pistol-type cartridges) in the infantry divisions.

Russian infantry losses were still horrendous, but without these additional weapons, the casualties would have been worse, mainly because fewer Germans would have been killed and wounded. Mortars and guns were also increased, as well as the number of tanks and assault guns added to infantry divisions assigned to major attacks.

The Russians actually saw these changes before the war began. Their 1939 infantry division organization had no submachine guns and only forty-one machine guns per 1,000 troops. The disastrous war with the Finns in 1940 had something to do with this, but a lot of credit should go to a very bright bunch of senior Soviet officers (who had managed to survive Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s).

At the beginning of the war in Russia, the Germans indisputably had the superior infantry, and it took a while before they noticed they had a problem with infantry losses beyond those caused by the strenuous conditions in Russia. German officers noted the higher proportion of submachine guns in Russian divisions (more than twice what the Germans had, until 1945, when the Germans closed the gap). The generals called for more firepower for the infantry, from submachine guns to mortars, artillery, assault guns, and tanks. But more critical was the shortage of good officers for the infantry. This was a problem in all armies. Even the Germans, who had the best infantry officers of any army, saw the need for better leadership in the infantry companies. The problem was made worse by the very high casualties in the infantry. Officers were lost even more quickly than troops because of the German practice of officers being up front most of the time. Since officers were the major force in raising the training level of the troops, the lack of enough officers put a greater burden on the NCOs and gradually caused the Germans’ qualitative edge in infantry to decline. While the Russians never were able to match the infantry skills of the Germans, the Russians closed the gap as the war ground on and, until the end, had superior numbers.

Weapons per 1,000 Men in Russian Divisional Organizations

Submachine Guns Machine Guns

May 1941                             83                         44

December 1942                  234                         69

June 1944                          250                         68

By the start of 1942 the Red Army expanded to over 400 rifle divisions. Initially, most new divisions were needed to replace enormous losses due to massive surrenders in 1941, which wiped out whole armies and fronts from the order of battle. By early November the Wehrmacht had inflicted over 3 million casualties on the Red Army. Over the following two months the Red Army suffered another 1.6 million combat losses and massive losses of war matériel. The holes in supply and order of battle were so great that some units fighting in Ukraine and Belorussia were forced to use bayonets in lieu of bullets. Newly forming divisions did not have enough rifles for all men, let alone adequate numbers of machine guns, mortars, artillery tubes, or organic transport.

Belt-fed automatic weapons were used by all armies in World War II, with usage in general increasing as the war deepened. Machine guns enhanced the fi repower and lethality of infantry formations. At the start of the Great Fatherland War in 1941, the Red Army still deployed towed 1910 Maxim machine guns that fi red just 580 rpm. The Soviet machine gun with the greatest range was a 1931 model that fi red 600 rpm to a maximum range of 2,700 meters. A 1943 Goruniov weighed 89 pounds. It fi red 700 rpm to a maximum range of 2,000 meters. The DShK was a massive gun weighing nearly 400 pounds. It had a 12.7 mm caliber and an effective range of 2,000 meters. Its cyclic rate was 575 rpm.

German troops in the field often preferred the Soviet PPSh M1941. A much cruder weapon, it had a wooden stock and fired from a 71-round drum magazine (as opposed to the MP38 32-round magazine). Further, the weapon took little notice of weather and could be fired in dusty, muddy, or icy conditions, a characteristic of immense value to the operator.

The later PPS 1943 models were stamped out so that tolerances were maximized, allowing the weapon to gather dust, dirt, carbon deposits, and other encrustations that defeated the more accurately made German weapons. This fact allowed the Soviet weapons to keep on firing when the Germans were struggling with their own weapons. In the fighting in Stalingrad and Berlin, these were the standard house-clearing weapon, in concert with grenades and shovels.

On the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet troops were armed with their M-1891/30 rifle, in 7.62 mm. Various versions were available, including a special sniper version, but the Soviets soon realized that their massive conscript army needed firepower (rather than accuracy, the product of long periods of training), and the submachine gun rapidly overtook the rifle in both numbers and popularity. Nevertheless, research into automatic weapons produced the Tokarev M-1940 as well as its predecessors from 1936 onward. All were in the Soviet 7.62 mm caliber and were well regarded by the Germans, who used the design principles in their own semiautomatic rifles later in the war.

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RIFLE DIVISION

The main Red Army infantry unit. The term was also used for the basic U. S. Army infantry division. Before the major reforms of the desperate summer of 1941, Red Army infantry divisions were called “motorized divisions,” a particularly inapt description given their lack of organic transport. Soviet rifle divisions were organized like divisions in most other European armies, including the Wehrmacht, with three regiments each. At the start of the German-Soviet war on June 22, 1941, the Red Army had over 200 rifle or equivalent mountain divisions Within six months it expanded to 400 rifle divisions, adding another 30 or so by the end of the war, including home guard units redesignated rifle divisions and hastily sent to plug holes in the front lines. The Stavka stiffened Red Army infantry by adding a tank company, or about 25 tanks, to each rifle division. In the aftermath of massive surrenders of whole Fronts in 1941 and 1942, and with continuing enormous losses all through the war, 216 rifle divisions ceased to exist in the Soviet order of battle and had to be reformed in their entirety. More than 50 Soviet rifle divisions were reformed two, three, or even four times by the end of the war.

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