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The Structure and Organization of the Red Army's Tank Forces

Published on Monday, 28 September 2009 17:21
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Motorized Division, 1940
Heavy Tank Brigade of RGK (Res...
Tank Brigade, september-decemb...
Separated Tank Regiment, 1942
Tank Brigade, november 1943
Tank Division, 1940

Before the start of the Great Patriotic War the armored forces — «avtobronetankovyje vojska» — of the Red Army, (it should be noted that this name was changed to 'armored and mechanized forces — «bronetankovyje i mekhanizirovannyje vojska» — at the end of 1942), consisted of the mechanized corps, several tank divisions, and the tank regiments assigned to cavalry divisions. The army tank formations and detachments as well as tank formations of the Reserve of the High Command (RGK) that existed prior to mid-1940 were used to raise the mechanized corps. At the start of the war there were 29 mechanized corps in different stages of formation. They consisted of 1 mechanized division, 2 tank divisions, a motorcycle regiment, an independent signal battalion, an independent engineer battalion, and other corps auxiliary units.

As a whole a mechanized corps, including its auxiliary units, was supposed to have more than 36 thousand men, 1031 tanks, (including 546 KV and T-34), 358 artillery weapons and mortars, as well as 268 armored cars. However, the formation of such a large number of corps did not correspond to the available resources of personnel, tanks, weapons, and vehicles at the time. By the mid-1941 the great majority of these corps were still under-equipped. The shortage of weapons and equipment, as well as the highly mobile character of the early stages of the war made it necessary for the Soviet command to change the organizational structure of the tank formations. From the end of July through September 1941 the mechanized corps were disbanded. The tank divisions were attached to armies, and the motorised divisions were reformed as rifle divisions. At the same time 10 new tank divisions were formed from the mechanized corps stationed in the interior. They were supposed to have 2 tank regiments, a motorised regiment, an artillery/anti-tank regiment, a recon battalion, an AA detachment, and other units.

At the end of August 1941 the People's Commissar for Defense approved the establishment of regimental tank brigades at 93 tanks. The tank regiment of the tank brigades consisted of 3 tank battalions. One battalion was supposed to be equipped with heavy and medium tanks, the other two with light ones. Yet again in September 1941 the structure of tank battalions was changed, reducing the number of tanks in a brigade to 67. Several flaws in the organization of the regimental tank brigades surfaced after their deployment. In particular, the brigade commander and his headquarters often were unable to react quickly to changing situations owing to the existence of an intermediary regimental echelon in the chain of command which impeded efficient communication. Considering all of the above, the formation of tank brigades consisting of battalions began in September 1941.

At the same time independent tank battalions were raised. The main reason for their creation was the necessity of reinforcing rifle formations defending important objectives, as detaching tank units from one of the tank brigades led to dissipation forces, as well as complicating command and supply.

The first table of organization for an independent tank battalion was adopted in September of 1941. The tank battalion was to have 3 tank companies, (one of medium tanks and two of light tanks), with a total of 130 men and 29 tanks. The need for more powerful tank battalions including heavy tanks soon became obvious and such battalions were created in November 1941. They were to consist of a two-platoon company of heavy tanks, one company of medium tanks and two companies of light tanks, with a strength of 202 men and 36 tanks, (5 heavy, 11 medium and 20 light).

In 1941 and during the winter of 1942, independent tank battalions could have several varying organizations, depended on the conditions of their formation and the availability of equipment in the reserves used for their formation. Thus some independent tank battalions even had more tanks than tank brigades.

The formation of tank brigades for integration with cavalry and infantry began in January of 1942. They were intended to be lean, with minimal auxiliary units. Such tank brigades were to have 372 men and 46 tanks, (an infantry tank brigade would have had 10 heavy, 16 medium and 20 light tanks; a cavalry tank brigade — 20 medium and 26 light tanks). However it turned out to be impossible to form enough of such brigades. In February 1942 it was decided to create tank brigades consisting of 282 men, 27 tanks, and attach them to rifle regiments. However very few of such brigades were formed.

The experience gained in the winter offensive of 1941–1942 proved the validity of the deep penetration theories developed in the USSR in the late 1920s, but also showed that the lack of large tank formations under the control of fronts and armies did not allow the full exploitation of tactical or operational successes. Therefore in March 1942 the formation of the first four tank corps was begun. They consisted of a corps HQ, at first two and later three tank brigades, and a motorised rifle brigade. According to this organization, a tank corps had 5603 men and 100 tanks (20 heavy KV tanks, 40 medium — T-34 and 40 light — T-60 or T-70), but it had absolutely no artillery, engineer or recon units. Command of the corps was in fact to be carried out by a small group of officers who were to coordinate the actions of the brigades.

The first field experience in deployment of the tank corps gained in the spring of 1942 around Voronezh showed that the new formations did not possess the necessary tactical and operational autonomy under real fighting conditions, which resulted in reduced effectiveness.

In July 1942 the organization of a tank corps was augmented by a «Katyusha» detachment, (consisting of 250 men and 8 missile platforms BM-13), a recon battalion, and a motorcycle battalion. A little later 2 mobile repair shops and a company for fuel supply, (allowing refueling and changing oil in the field), were added to the corps. At the same time as the formation of the tank corps (in May of 1942) the tank armies started to be formed.

The first two tank armies (the 3rd and the 5th) were formed in May-June 1942. By the end of July of that year the 1st and 4th Tank Armies were formed under the Stalingrad front, and assigned to the 38th and 28th Armies, respectively. However they were disbanded a month later.

In the beginning the standard organization for tank armies depended on the orders for their formation and thus varied widely. The experience of their use in defensive and offensive operations around Voronezh (5th Tank Army), Kozelsk (3rd Tank Army), and especially in the Stalingrad counteroffensive (5th Tank Army) allowed important deductions regarding their fighting capabilities and organizational structure to be learned. The tank army's complement of rifle divisions, tank corps, and cavalry corps, (with their varying mobility and fighting capabilities), negatively reflected on the quality of organization, cooperation, command and supply. In the end, these tank armies turned out to unwieldy, hard to maneuver, and difficult to control.

The formation of mechanized corps began in September of 1942. Based on the experience gained with the tank corps, the new formations included the specialized and auxiliary units right from the start. However the new corps' organizations were not without variations. For example, the 1st and 2nd Mechanized Corps each had 3 mechanized brigades, 1 tank brigade, an anti-tank regiment, an AA regiment, a detachment of «Katyushas», a battalion of armored cars, a repair battalion, an engineer company, a fuel supply company, and a command company. At the same time the 3rd and 5th mechanized corps each had 2 tank brigades instead of only 1, and the 4th and 6th Corps had 2 independent tank regiments instead of brigades. Thus among the 6 mechanized corps fully formed by the beginning of 1943 there were 3 types of organizations, resulting in different numbers of personnel and equipment. The tanks were distributed as follows: the 1st and 2nd Mechanized Corps were to have 175 tanks each, 3rd and 5th had 224 tanks each, while the 4th and 6th had 204 tanks each. The standard organization was supposed to be that of the first two corps. It became the basis for the organization for all new mechanized corps formed, and in due course all corps with differing organizations were converted to that organization.

In the first half of 1942 tank brigades, both independent and organic, were formed with different organizations. The existence of battalions and companies with heavy medium and light tanks in such brigades impaired their effectiveness. In July of 1942 a uniform organization for all tank brigades was adopted, to which all earlier formed brigades were converted.

Mechanized brigades started to be formed in 1942, i.e. at the same time as the formation of the mechanized corps. Besides that, several independent mechanized brigades were raised.

In 1942 the necessary number of motorised rifle brigades for the tank corps was formed, as well as several independent motorised brigades. All brigades were raised according to the same organization and were supposed to consist of 3 motorised rifle battalions, an artillery detachment, an AA detachment, as well as an auxiliary supply unit. Besides the formation of those tank brigades meant for infantry support, the formation of independent tank regiments, also supposed to reinforce rifle formations, began in September 1942. The organization of these regiments was identical to that of the tank regiments in the mechanized brigades. Almost simultaneously, in October of 1942, the creation of independent break-through heavy tank regiments of the RGK began. These regiments consisted of 4 companies of 5 tanks each, as well as a service and repair company, totaling of 214 men and 21 heavy KV tanks. These new regiments were issued the heavy tanks which had been withdrawn from the mixed independent tank battalions. They also received tanks well as from the few heavy tank brigades which had been created in the summer of 1942 but were being disbanded at the time.

As a result of the completion of this truly titanic program of creating tank forces, the Red Army had 2 tank armies, 24 tank corps (2 still under formation), 8 mechanized corps (of which 2 were completely formed), as well as a considerable number of different kinds of independent tank brigades, regiments and battalions meant to support infantry by January of 1943.

The organizational structure of the armored and mechanized forces of the Red Army was further improved during the course of the war. Thus, in January of 1943 an anti-tank rifle (ATR) company was added to the organization of the motorised rifle battalion of a tank brigade to increase its anti-tank capabilities, and in March of the same year an AA machine-gun company was added. More substantial changes occurred at the end of 1943, when a new organization for tank brigades was adopted because the T-34/85 had started entering service. The crew was supposed to consiste of 5 men, although this wasn't always complied with. The ATR company of the motorised rifle battalion was abolished and its soldiers were used to fill up the crews of the new tanks in April of 1944. Tank brigades were converted to this standard gradually; the ones that belonged to the tank and mechanized corps being the first ones to do so. There were practically no further changes to the structure of tank brigades until the end of the war.

In January of 1943 for the purpose of increasing the power of mechanized brigades, the tank regiments were reinforced with another company of medium tanks. The total number of tanks in a regiment remained unchanged, i.e. 39, however the number of medium tanks increased from 23 to 32, and the number of light tanks was reduced by 9. In February of the same year the AA detachment was removed from tank brigades and was replaced with an AA machine-gun company. At the same time an engineer company was added to the brigade's organization, and all its transport vehicles were amalgamated into a transport company. Further changes to the organization of the mechanized brigade occurred primarily due to the improvements being made to the organization of its tank regiment. Thus, in February 1944 the tank regiment was converted to a new organization with 3 tank companies equipped exclusively with medium tanks. This resulted in the regiment having a total of 35 T-34. All the light tanks were deleted from its organization. No further changes were made to brigade's structure until the end of the war.

A mortar regiment of the RGK (thirty-six 120 mm mortars) and a self-propelled artillery regiment of the RGK (25 SP-guns) were added in January 1943 to the tank corps to increase firepower. A little later some of the corps received a reserve of tanks (40 vehicles) with crews and 100 drivers. At the same time the size of the refueling company headquarters was increased.

In February of 1943 the corps' engineer companies were replaced with an engineer battalion, and in March an AA regiment was added. In April an anti-tank regiment (twenty 45 mm AT guns) and an anti-tank detachment (twelve 85 mm AA guns) were added. In August 1943 these were replaced by two SP-artillery regiments (SU-76 and SU-152). In October of 1943 the armored car battalion in the tank corps was replaced with an independent motorcycle battalion and in November for the other corps. They consisted of two motorcycle companies, a tank company, an armored personnel carrier company and an AT battery.

In August of 1944 for the purpose of increasing the corps' firepower, a light artillery regiment of twenty-four 76.2 mm guns was added. From the above it can be seen that the tank corps' organization was improved primarily with the aim of increasing its firepower and shock strength, its mobility, as well as self-sufficiency in combat.

The mechanized corps' organization was also improved thanks to the experience gathered in the field and the arrival of new weapons. In January of 1943 the AA detachment was withdrawn from the mechanized brigades, and the mechanized corps lost its AA regiment. Simultaneously the corps received a mortar regiment (thirty-six 120 mm mortars), a mixed SP artillery regiment (eight SU-122 and seventeen SU-76), as well as a reserve of tanks (40 tanks and 147 crew members) and 100 truck drivers. In February the corps' engineer company was replaced with a battalion and in March its administration company was transformed into a signal battalion. At the same time an AA regiment, (sixteen 37 mm AA guns and sixteen DShK AAMGs), was added to the establishment of the corps. In April an AT artillery regiment as well as a flight of 3 airplanes for liaison were added. It was followed in May by an AT artillery detachment and a company of chemical troops. In August 1943 the AT artillery regiment was replaced by a self-propelled artillery regiment of SU-76 (21 vehicles), and a regiment of SU-85 (16 tank destroyers and a T-34 tank) was authorized in place of the anti-tank detachment. At the same time the armored car battalions of tank army's mechanized corps were replaced by motorcycle battalions.

In 1944 the mechanized brigade's tank regiment was converted to a new standard which resulted in it having 35 medium tanks and no light tanks at all.

A special meeting of the State Committee for Defense ( GKO) was held in January of 1943 to develop guidelines for the organization of the tank armies. Preliminary suggestions from several prominent military commanders were heard. Everyone agreed that the first thing to be done was to rid the tank armies of any non-motorised rifle formations and organizationally emphasize their tank nucleus. Thus a tank army as a rule would have consisted of two tank and one mechanized corps, an AA division, a multiple missile laucher «Katusha», howitzer-artillery, AT artillery and motorcycle regiments. The auxiliary units were supposed to comprise a signal regiment, an air liaison regiment (PO-2 airplanes), an engineer battalion, a transportation regiment, and two service and repair battalions. The rear and administration formations and detachments consisted of army field office, food and supply units, medical and chemical troops, as well as artillery and rations supply units. It also included troops earmarked specially for gathering, handling, and shipping captured weapons and equipment to the rear. However the organization of an army was defined according to the orders for its formation and was quite variable. For example in 32 out of 64 offensive operations involving tank armies of the above-described organization, they had only two, not three corps. Only one tank army (the 3rd Guard Tank Army) had three corps throughout the course of the war.

In the beginning of 1944 it was decided to include self-propelled artillery and light artillery brigades in the tank armies. By the end of September 1944 all six tank armies included such brigades. However, to increase the chances of successful operations, tank armies were further reinforced with artillery, AT brigades, and AT regiments. At the end of the war, a three-corps tank army usually had more than 50000 men, 850–920 tanks and SP-guns, about 800 field guns and mortars, and more than 5000 trucks and other vehicles. However, in most cases when tank armies took part in offensive operations, they did not possess the full complement of personnel and equipment.

In February of 1944 the heavy break-through regiments were converted to a new organization and they were renamed 'heavy tank regiments'. The new regiments had 375 men, 21 IS-2 tanks, a submachine-gun company, an engineer platoon, an administration platoon, and a regimental hospital. These regiments were immediately given the honorary status of 'Guard' upon formation. Independent tank regiments were also reorganized. The idea of the reorganization which took place in the beginning of the 1944 was to remove any remaining light tanks, and reinforce the administration and supply units. A regiment was to have 386 men and 35 tanks.

The formation of independent Guards heavy tank brigades began in December of 1944. A brigade was organized with 3 heavy tank regiments, a motorised submachine-gun battalion, as well as administration and supply units, for a total of 1666 men, 65 heavy IS-2 tanks, 3 SU-76 self-propelled guns, 19 armored personnel carrier and 3 armored cars.

Besides the formations already discussed, the Soviet tank troops also had special tank brigades and regiments. In the middle of 1943 an engineer tank regiment was formed. It included 2 companies of T-34 and administration units. The regiment had 22 medium tanks, 18 mine-clear devices and transport vehicles. The brief descriptions of the organization of tank forces given above does not mean that all the regiments, brigades and corps were uniform. In reality, formations, especially those that were part of the mechanized and corps, varied widely in their organization.

In conclusion, the organizational structure of the tank forces throughout the course of the war fully corresponded to the contemporary combat methods and to a great extent contributed to achieving the high combat effectiveness of this military arm.

List of Abbreviations: BMP — battalion medical station
ChT — chemical tanks (often flame tanks)
GAP — howitzer/artillery regiment
ZAD — AAA detachment
ZPU — anti-aricraft machine-gun
MZA — small-caliber AA artillery
MSB — motorised rifle battalion
MSP — motorised rifle regiment
OZAD — independent AAA detachment
PTA — anti-tank artillery
PTD — anti-tank detachment
PTO — anti-tank defense
PTR — anti-tank rifle
RTO — service and repair company
Teletank — radio-controlled tank

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