Monday 30 March 2015

NKVD on Tank Use in the Winter War. Part 1: Tactics

"April 5th, 1940

To the chief of the Special Department of the NKVD GUGB, Commissar of State Security 3rd Rank, comrade Bochkov

Report on the deficiencies in units during the period of combat against White Finns (based on materials of special units).

Deficiencies of motorized units in combat

The specifics of the Finnish theater of war did not allow for the deployment of large independent tank units for powerful frontal or flanking attacks against the defending enemy. Tanks fought primarily in small groups with infantry, mainly along roads. Despite this, tanks played a significant role in the combat operations of the Red Army, especially on the Karelian Isthmus, where the main armoured forces were concentrated. During the war, a series of serious drawbacks was discovered among tank forces, which increased the difficulty of armoured warfare in the Finnish theater. The main drawbacks were lack of cooperation with infantry, artillery, and other types of forces, defects in the design of tanks, and deficiencies in the organization of armoured forces.

The specifics of the Finnish theater demanded that tanks must cooperate closely with other types of forces. However, in practice, tanks cooperated little. The cooperation with artillery and infantry was especially deficient.

The commanders of infantry units, regiments and battalions, did not always give clear objectives to the tank units that were assigned to them. Sometimes, commanders lacked significant knowledge of enemy defenses due to weak reconnaissance, and gave orders based not on specific targets designed to suppress specific enemy strongholds, but by lines on a map or landmarks. The path for tanks was often not specified, and was not supported with reconnaissance or infantry support.

In the 39th Light Tank Brigade, as a result of insufficient cooperation with infantry during combat on December 15th, 16th, and 17th, only 34 tanks returned out of 62 tanks that participated in combat. Of those, 5 were burned up by the enemy, 6 were stuck in an anti-tank trench, and the fate of the remaining 23 is unknown. 19 men from the crews died, 23 were wounded, and 32 disappeared. 5 of the dead were company commanders.

The operation started with no reconnaissance, tanks knew about only one trench, but not about the second one. The task of setting up a passage across the trench fell to the sapper battalion of the 49th infantry division and the brigade's sapper company, but the passages were made inattentively and the tanks had difficulty crossing. On December 15th, the 222nd Infantry Regiment that was supposed to support the tank attack at 12:00 was on a lunch break.

Tank units did not get their assignments in time, which made fulfilling orders impossible. On December 18th, 1939, at 12:00, the commander of the 768th Infantry Regiment Major Sokolov arrives at the preliminary positions of the 1st tank company of the 108th Independent Tank Brigade, and ordered Lieutenant Gaitsin on behalf of Brigade Commander Pestrevich: "You are now subordinate to the commander of the 554th infantry regiment. Attack now, as the main attack will start after the artillery barrage at 13:00". One hour remained until the attack, necessary to move into position. When the company arrived at new positions, the commander of the 554th regiment ordered "Attack immediately over there (waved his hand) or the regiment's attack will be late" instead of giving specific orders. When company commander Gaitsin asked for a more specific task, the commander replied "If you do not wish to attack, I will report you to the division commander." As a result, tanks attacked with no infantry. They drove up to the tank traps, found nothing, and drove back.

This situation with cooperation persisted not only in the first period of fighting, during assaults on a fortified region, but after, during the breakthrough and general offensive. Three battalions from the 13th Brigade accompanied by two regiments of the 84th Infantry Division penetrated from the Kamara station to the South-Western ourskirts of Pien-Pero, where they fortified for a defense for three days. Due to a lack of cooperation with neighbours, there was no connection to the rear (tank traps region between Kamara and Pien-Pero). The brigade commanders made no effort to establish cooperation and communication with their rear. Instead, an order was given by radio on February 22nd to attack Pero station without any directions on cooperation with neightbours, no communcation with the rear, and, most importantly, no communication with artillery of the 84th Infantry Division, which remained in the rear, cut off from the enemy. As a result of a lack of cooperation and reconnaissance, combat operations were carried out with great losses, and not always successfully, which is especially confirmed by experience in the February-March battles of the 20th Tank Brigade, which lost 68 tanks from enemy fire, 49 from mines, 3 in swamps, 3 to fire, and 6 were left on the battlefield in February. In total, 55 tanks were lost due to technical reasons.

On March 2nd, 1940, the 95th Independent Tank Battalion of the 20th Brigade was attached to the 201st regiment of the 84th division and tasked with capturing the railroad platform West of Wyborg near height 36,5 and Nameless (map 50000). When the order was given, Colonel Sinenko, HQ chief in the 20th Brigade, did not give an order for reconnaissance. The battalion performed its task without reconnaissance, infantry riding on top of tanks. As a result, the infantry was destroyed by flamethrower and machinegun fire on and around the tanks, while 3 tanks were destroyed by AT guns and 8 tankers were killed.

On March 5th, 1940, at 7:00, the HQ of the 20th Brigade received an order to capture heights 38 and Nameless, ending up at the bridge North-West of Yutnai. The HQ chief wrote an order for the 90th Independent Tank Battalion to attack in the first echelon, and the 95th battalion in the second echelon with elements of the 84th division. The division and brigade commanders did not think the offensive through, and the HQ chief did not check the preparedness of the battalions. As a result, it was only discovered during the offensive that the 90th battalion is not prepared for battle. The brigade commander ordered the 95th battalion, already prepared for a combat mission, to immediately perform the mission of the 90th battalion. The battalion commander was told that he would discover his objectives from the 344th Infantry Regiment. The 95th battalion was supposed to gather up in 10 minutes and go into battle without an objective. Only at the start of the battle did the battalion commander familiarize himself with the order of the 344th regiment, and did not manage to familiarize himself with the orders of the artillery commanders. The attack was planned for 12:00, an artillery barrage was fired, but nobody ended up attacking.

The brigade commanders did not concern themselves with issues of reconnaissance, electing to follow the very general, not always correct, and unconfirmed information of infantry reconnaissance, which was not always suitable for tank units. The 215th Reconnaissance Company, attached to the 20th Tank Brigade, was not used for its intended purpose during the war, and received no orders to discover the location of the enemy. In combat, the reconnaissance company did not perform reconnaissance, but was instead used as a means of communicating with neighbouring units, with the exception of 2-3 tanks observing the battlefield.

Other brigades were in similar shape. On March 12th, the 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade received an order to support the success of the 613th Infantry Regiment, which was tasked with capturing Tammisuo. The battalion could not complete the task due to a lack of knowledge about enemy anti-tank defenses and their route. A part of the tanks got lost and stuck in traffic jams under enemy fire, a part hit a minefield and barricades, and also stopped under heavy fire. The battalion, without completing its objective, lost two men killed, three men wounded, and two tanks knocked out. The 1st Tank Brigade lost 13 tanks in total during the war due to not knowing combat routes and weakness of infantry and tank reconnaissance.

In several cases, infantry did not follow tanks, and did not fortify the areas they captured, leaving tanks to fight AT guns, mortars, and anti-tank riflemen groups alone. On December 17th, 1939, 20th Tank Brigade Commander Barzilov ordered the 95th Tank Battalion to capture Hotinen-Turta, assisted by the 768th regiment of the 138th Infantry Division. Just before the offensive, a message came in from the commander of the 138th Infantry Division HQ, Colonel Bashin, saying that there will be no artillery barrage, as the enemy is on the run, infantry is already in Hotinen and is attacking Turta. Due to this, it was proposed that the battalion goes further past the Summa fortifications, clear the path for the 10th Tank Corps to Wyborg, and follow them.

However, information about Hotinen was incorrect. When the 95th battalion approached the first line of tank traps, it was discovered that they were not destroyed, were followed by minefields, an anti-tank trench, and a second row of tank traps. There were no infantry units from the 138th Infantry Division. When the battalion approached the tank traps, they came under a hurricane of artillery and machinegun fire, and two vehicles were knocked out. The battalion entered battle, crossed the first row of tank traps, but was unable to cross the second due to an artillery barrage, and, without assistance from infantry or artillery of the 138th Infantry Division, were forced to retreat to initial positions.

The 91st battalion of the same brigade suffered a similar fate. It also ran into anti-tank obstacles and was forced to retreat, as elements of the 255th and 272nd infantry regiments lagged 1-2 km behind the tanks and did not go for an attack.

These problems with cooperation happened in later battles as well. On March 7th, 1940, at 16:00, the reconnaissance battalion of the 1st brigade received an order to take the roads in the Kongas region on March 8th, in cooperation with the 331st and 335th Infantry Regiments of the 100th division. The chief of the 1st unit of the division was supposed to direct this operation, but when the representative of the battalion arrived at the divisional HQ, he could not find him. The remaining commanders knew nothing of the offensive. Representatives that attempted to make contact with the individual battalions of the 331st regiment barely found them, as not all battalion commanders knew the exact location of their units.

Nobody in the 335th regiment knew anything about the offensive when contact was made at 01:00 (the order arrived at 02:00). Naturally, the regiments had no success when carrying out the operation, as they acted in an unsynchronized manner and did not advance simultaneously. The 331st regiment started retreating from the railroad and asked the regiment to provide artillery fire at the tank traps, not informing the reconnaissance company commander, whose tanks was currently at the tank traps. As a result, the reconnaissance company and the attached infantry from the 167th Motorized Infantry Battalion took casualties from their own artillery (up to 50 men killed and injured).

Cooperation between artillery and tanks was not always at the required standard. Communication between artillery and tanks, as a rule, was absent. Artillery mainly provided tanks with a passage through only the first row of anti-tank obstacles. In depth, the tanks were left to fend for themselves and received no support from artillery.

Regimental artillery was often late in reaching positions for direct fire support, or was used to fire indirectly. AT guns of advancing infantry were almost never used. Artillery largely shot at areas, and tanks could rarely summon quick fire from divisional artillery to destroy enemy AT guns.

The lack of cooperation between moto-mechanized forces and other kinds of forces, especially artillery and infantry, led to failures to achieve objectives and excessive losses. Frequently this resulted in shelling of our own forces. The above leads to the conclusions that the issue of cooperation was not given its deserved attention during peacetime. This was especially noticeable when attacking enemy fortifications, when it became necessary to hold training exercises between operations to teach various kinds of forces how to cooperate in battle. Unfortunately, these exercises had little effect, as they were very hurriedly prepared."

Continued in part 2.

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