Tank operation, Panzer corps
TANK FORCES ORGANIZATION 1938-45
The evolution of then Deep operation (panzer operation) concept led to a change in the organization of Soviet armoured and mechanized forces in order to meet the requirements for large-scale offensive actions. Principally this involved the concentration of tanks in large panzer corps rather than rhe mechanized corps. After August 1938, 4 panzer corps were formed, each wirh 2 light panzer regiments and 1 rifle regiment, 12.364 men and 660 tanks. Other units included 6 independent rank brigades and 6 rank regiments as well as 23 tankette battalions.
The new organization of the Soviet tank forces and the Deep Battle and Operation techniques for employing them received a severe reverse between 1937 and 1940. In 1937 Stalin began a ruthless purge of the Red Army's officer corps. In just under two years, 50 percent of all ofticers of the panzer of brigade commander and above were shot, imprisoed or removed from duty. M. N. Tukachevsky and most other Deep Battle and Deep Operation theorists were executed and their ideas banned, a great loss to the Soviets in the early war years.
In conjunction wirh the purges, a commission chaired by Deputy Commissar for Defence. G. I Kulik. undertook a flawed analysis of tank operation in the Far Easr and Spanish Civil War. This concluded that deep raids with tanks were increasingly impractical because of new, more powerful antitank guns. It was argued that the panzer corps were too cumbersome to be controlled in battle. Despite the majority of the commission voting in favour of retaining the tank corps, in November 1939 the Main Military Council agreed with the minoriry position and ordered the corps disbanded. Tanks were to be used in groups no larger than brigade strength, and for infantry support.
The experience of the disastrous Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) and the impressive performance of German armoured forces during the campaigns in Poland (1939) and France (1940) exposed the stupidity of this mistake. In late 1940, orders were given to reform the mechanized corps. At the start of the war, there were 29 mechanized corps in different stages of formation. These were supposed to have three divisions, totalling more than 36.000 men and 1031 ranks, including 256 BT-7, 17 T-37/T-38s, and 546 KVs and T-34s. However, the formation of such a large number of corps proved impossible, given shortages in personnel tanks, weapons, and vehicles. By mid-1941, the great losses that had been suffered meant that the mechanized corps were disbanded.
Panzer regiments were nominally reduced from 93 to 67 tanks. Problems in the efficient handling of regiments in battle caused by the dual system of brigade and regimental commanders were resolved by the dissolution of the latter in combat formations. The preference for equipping panzer brigades with a mixture of heavy-, medium- and light tanks in each banalion severely impaired their effectiveness because of the different capabilities of each panzer type. This led to the establishment of a uniform organization for all panzer brigades in July 1942, which was slightly modified at the end of 1943 ro provide more appropriate support units for the new and formidable standard-issue T-34/85 Soviet tank.
The experience gained in the wimer offensive of 1941 - 1942 validated the basic principles of Deep Battle. but lack of large panzer formations under Army From headquarters control restricted exploitation beyond tactical depth to inflict operational shock. To implement the Deep Operation, in March 1942 the commander of the Red Army Tank and Mechanized Forces, General Fedorenko, began the formation of the first four panzer corps. They consisted of 2, and later 3 panzer brigades, and 1 motorized rifle brigade, giving a strength of 5603 men and 100 tanks (20 heavy KV tanks, 40 medium T-34 and 40 light T-60 or T-70). These were unbalanced forces, having no artillery, engineer or reconnaissance units. The mistake in allocating only a small group of officers to coordinate the brigades was demonstrated during lighting around Voronezh in spring 1942, where lack of tactical flexibility greatly hampered tank operation. The need for greater autonomy of action from higher command was also noted.
Formation of mechanized corps began in September of 1942. Based on the experience gained with the panzer corps. the new formations included the specialized and auxi liary units right from the start. Their were three types of organization for the six mechanized corps formed at th e start of 1943. I and II Mechanised Corps had 175 tanks each and III and V had 224 tanks each, while the IV and VI had 204 tanks each. In due course, the organization of the first two corps became the basis for the organization for all new mechanized corps.
At the same time as the creation of the panzer and mechanized corps, large operational units termed tank armies started to be formed. The first two tank armies (Third and Fifth) were formed in May-June 1942. By the end of July, the FIrst and Fourth tank armies were formed under the StaLingrad Front. before huge losses led to them being 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 the using the Third Tank Army at Kozelsk and the Fifth Soviet Army in the Stalingrad counteroffensive provided insights about their fighting capabilities and organizational structure. The varying mobility and fighting power of the tank army's complement of rifle divisions, panzer corps and cavalry corps created serious problems in terms of cooperation, command and supply, making the 1942 establishment tank armies unwieldy, hard to manoeuvre and difficult to control.
A special meeting of the Main Defence Committee (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. It was decided to rid the tank armies of any non-motorized rifle formations and organizationally emphasize their panzer nucleus. Thus a tank army as a rule would have consisted of two panzer and one mechanized corps, as well as an AA division. a multiple missile launcher 'Katyusha', howitzer artillery. AT artillery and motorcycle regiments, plus auxiliary and support units. In reality, however, the organization of an army was defined according to the orders for its formation. In 32 out of the 64 offensive tank operation which involved tank armies, they had only 2, not 3, corps. Only the Third Guards Tank Army had three corps throughout World War II.
The panzer army's firepower. shock strength. mobility and self-sufficiency in combat were steadily increased between 1943 and 1944 by regular changes to the structure and weapons of the panzer and mechanized corps. During January 1943 mechanized corps received a mixed selfpropelled artillery regiment (8 SU-122s and 17 SU-76s) and a reserve of 40 tanks. In August 1943 the antitank artillery regiment was replaced by a self-propelled artillery regiment of 21 SU-76s, and a regiment of 15 SU-85s with a T-34 command tank. In 1944 the mechanized brigade's tank regiment lost its remaining light tanks, giving it a total of 35 T-34s. The panzer corps combat power was improved in a similar manner in August 1943 with the addition of two self-propelled artillery regiments (SU-76 and SU-152). A year later a light regiment of artillery was added.
In 1944 self-propelled and light artillery brigades were included in the tank armies. To furrher increase success in tank operation. they received additional reinfo rcements of artillery. antitank brigades. and antitank regiments. At the end of the war, a three-corps tank army usually had more than 50,000 men, 850-920 tanks and SP guns, about 800 field guns and mortars, and more than 5000 trucks and orher vehicles. However, in reality, they rarely deployed their full complement of personnel and equipment.
While the creation of the tank armjes provided the tools for implementing Deep operation, throughout the war the Red Army enhanced its ability to carry out the Deep Battle concept by the creation of independent panzer and selfpropelled artillery regiments that could be used to reinforce rifle formations during the breakthrough of the enemy front line. This process began as early as 1942. when independent tank regiments were created in order to support rifle formations during combat.
In October 1942 this process was developed further with the creation of independent breakthrough heavy panzer regiment for use on the main axis of an attack. These regiments consisted of four companies, each of five KV-1 tanks. These formations were initially formed by heavy tanks which had been withdrawn from the mixed independent tank battalions, and recently disbanded heavy panzer brigades. In February 1944 the heavy breakthrough regiments were convened to a new organization and renamed 'heavy tank regiments' with 21 IS-2 tanks and support units. These regiments were immediately given the honorary status of 'Guard' upon formation. Independent panzer regiments were also re-organized by removing light tanks and strengthening administration and supply units. Independent Guards heavy panzer brigades with 65 heavy IS-2 tankswere created in December 1944.
The Red Army of the interwar years was a paradox. On the one hand, its gifted intellectual commanders developed one of the most sophisticated doctrines for using armoured forces in the world. To implement its ideas, it created large panzer formations equipped with some of the most advanced tanks in the world. Yet even before Stalin's crippling purges and the Kulik commission, it had created forces deficient in many equipment areas, and troops and officers inadequately trained to carry out the new and complex tactical and operational ideas. Only in the brutal cauldron of war would the Red Army finally master the techniques for Deep Battle and Deep operation.
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