Soviet tanks in WWII: The fatal cost of errors

The organization of modern armed forces is an extremely complicated objective. Russia's experience with the operation in Syria clearly demonstrates how serious this challenge is. However, in this case Russia is learning from its mistakes – 75 years ago these errors almost led the USSR and its army to ruin.
Soviet troops
Soviet troops following heavy KV tanks. The Western Front. May 13, 1942. Source: Samariy Gurariy/RIA Novosti

In terms of quality and quantity, the Soviet armored tank forces at the beginning of WWII were one of the strongest in the world. The figures speak for themselves: In 1941 there were more than 25,000 tanks in the Red Army.

In comparison, Germany had assembled only about 4,000 tanks before its invasion of the USSR, which is three times fewer than the number of armored vehicles that the Soviet Union had in its border zone.

Specialists rightly point to the fact that a large part of the Soviet machines were out of date or supposed to be written off. But even what remained was impressive in its power. Stalin had at his disposal more than 1,500 new KV and T-34 tanks, which were superior to the German tanks in a number of different parameters.

Soviet tanks T-34 are pictured in the outskirts of Berlin. April 21, 1945. Source: TASS

This entire tank armada was organized in 20 motorized corps, each of which was like a separate army. Formally, the Germans had nothing similar: Each of their motorized corps had slightly over 1,000 tanks of various types and 35,000 servicemen. If everything had been decided by figures alone, than five such Soviet armies would have been enough to counter all the Wehrmacht’s armored tanks on the Eastern Front.

The strength and weakness of the motorized corps

But the motorized corps turned out to be as ineffective as they were menacing. Gigantomania did the USSR a disservice here – a large number of tanks in a subdivision meant that they did not have high combat capability. The components of the motorized corps were unbalanced and the hurriedness with which they were deployed led to the fact that the subdivisions had different numbers and types of tanks. The motorized corps clearly lacked cars and tractors, which inevitably influenced the tanks' maneuverability. And the crews' training left much to be desired.

Soviet troops heading straight to the front lines after the historical parade held on Moscow's Red Square on November 7, 1941. Source: Anatoliy Garanin/RIA Novosti

For the sake of fairness, it is necessary to say that the tactics of the tanks' military use on the eve of WWII was a difficult challenge for all the large armies in the world. The most successful were the Germans, having created the effective Panzerwaffe, whose basic unit was the tank division, the main instrument of the Blitzkrieg.

In terms of tank numbers, the Panzerwaffe was five times smaller than the Soviet motorized corps, but it was much more effective thanks to a more balanced composition and a high degree of motorization. The German tank division included a mobile motor-infantry and special stress was placed on the anti-tank artillery.

The cost of organizational mistakes

The battles of 1941 demonstrated the price of the organizational mistakes made by the creators of the Soviet armored vehicle forces. The powerful motorized corps were utterly destroyed, and the Red Army's attempt to deal the Wehrmacht a counterblow in Ukraine turned into a catastrophe.

By the end of June the Soviet forces had lost 4,300 pieces there, which was 75 percent of the starting amount, while the Germans lost just 250. Most of the losses were irretrievable. The main reason for the losses were the motorized corps' structural limitations, which turned them into unwieldy armadas, vulnerable in clashes with an experienced enemy.

The Kursk Bulge, July 1943. Reserve troops are moving to front. Source: Fedor Levshin/RIA Novosti

However, the Soviet tank drivers demonstrated their heroism everywhere they could. One of the feats that went down in history was that of D. Lavrinenko, who in November 1941 destroyed seven German tanks in the course of one battle. And yet the human factor could not compensate for the profound organizational mistakes. Two difficult years were needed to fix them.

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