Friday 3 April 2015

Winter War Tank Discussion, Part 2

Part 1.

"Lelyushenko (Brigade Commander, 39th Tank Brigade): I will concentrate on issues that turned up in our experience, using the 39th Tank Brigade as an example. I think that it was a mistake to enter the battle against the White Finns with only two tank battalions. When we were leaving West Belarus, I had 5 battalions, so I ended up with 110 tanks instead of 350. Three battalions were designated as independent and assigned to infantry divisions. These battalions did not have means of repairing their vehicles or replenishing their ranks. The HQ and political department could only service half of the brigade. These tank battalions ended up with 7-8 tanks by December 15th, 1939, and very few men. They had no way to evacuate their tanks or repair them. Tank brigades have excellent mobile workshops for this, a small factory. If a tank is knocked out in the morning, it will be back in action by evening. I had only two battalions, plus later the 204th Flamethrower Battalion and 65th Ski Battalion, and ended the war with almost as many tanks as I had at the start. I repaired my own tanks, and those from other brigades. As a result, the brigade remained combat capable, ready to complete any mission.
What's new with tanks in this war? Before the war, commanders thought that tanks will be of little use in a real war, as the terrain will be 50% forests, 25% water, some percentage of swamps, and only about 10% of terrain will be suitable for tanks. Practice shows that tanks could be used in the Finnish theater, and not only could, but should, with the caveat that organization of cooperation with infantry needs to be theater specific. Infantry must follow tanks closely. When tanks moved slowly (I am talking about tanks with applique armour that were invulnerable to 37 mm guns), infantry walked confidently, holding onto them.
Another issue was new to me. Commanders thought that tanks should not be used at night, and they were used rarely in this way. Experience showed that tanks should be used at night, but how? They should not be used for long range attacks, but for short pushes with infantry to capture important defensive objects. This is how you achieve success. For example, we defeated the enemy with our infantry at the Ilvesk fortified region. Infantry feels our force and support. Tanks, with their guns and flamethrowers, repelled any attempt to counterattack our infantry.
Can tanks be used at night? They can and should be used, but should be combined with carefully organized infantry units and good reconnaissance.
The issue of assault and blocking groups. An assault group is composed of a company of infantry, a platoon of tanks, two anti-tank guns, and one sapper unit. Assault groups should be trained in attacking pillboxes on real terrain. The infantry, not just the sappers, needs to know how to calculate the necessary amount of explosives, attach them, and use them. I had three cases where all sappers were wounded and there was no one among the infantry that could destroy the fortifications. Everyone needs to learn the absolute minimum about explosives in peace time.
Returning to the issues of tank force organization. I think that a tank battalion attached to an infantry division is not enough. They must be removed to create tank regiments and brigades. Experience at the Finnish front shows that the tank battalions are not viable. These battalions don't have the means to evacuate and repair tanks. Replacement of manpower is complicated, as the battalion has no resources to draw the replacements from. Here is what I did in my tank brigade: form an unofficial training battalion. I gathered up 150 men from the supplies, communications, HQ reserve, and other companies. I trained them once in a while, preparing mechanics, drivers, motorists, tank commanders, gunners. This worked out well. I did not receive enough drivers, so I trained my own. They were taught the traditions of combat spirit, and I've never seen one that faltered in battle and turned back, they all raced forward to complete their mission. The 39th Tank Brigade completed all objectives that were given to it."

Seems that this idea of explosives training was not unique.

"Bychevskiy (Major, chief of engineers of the 13th Army): ... I agree that tankers and infantry need to be taught to deal with explosives. There is nothing difficult during explosives training in regular military academies. In practice, we saw that soldiers and commanders could master explosives quickly, and in the end could dismantle minefields on their own. A short training course right on the front lines (3-4 days) showed good results. We definitely need to introduce explosives training for infantry and tankers so they can deal with minefields on their own."

Lelyushenko was not alone in using tanks at night either.

"Mladentsev: (Colonel, commander of the 387th Infantry Regiment): ... On using tanks: tankers, your field manual says that tanks should not be used at night. I used them, and it worked well. Tanks move forward, infantry moves forward, they work together, and work together wonderfully. Infantry is morally supported, tankers are not afraid of the night, even if visibility is poor. Infantry and tanks penetrated enemy fortifications together, and destroyed his counterattacks. Tanks can and must fight at night. We need to practice cooperation of tanks and infantry in peace time."

"Frolov (Corps Commander, 14th Army): ... On tanks: the T-26 tank fully proved itself. The BT was not useful, I should have pulled them back to Petsalmo. Artillery must be replaced. We need a light mountain gun. New model 1936 guns [76 mm F-22] are good, but not useful here. The 122 mm howitzer showed itself well, but it needs a ChTZ tractor, no other tractor can pull it here."

Pavlov (Army Commander 2nd Class, Red Army ABTU Chief): ... Tanks assigned to divisions met a terrible fate, and would have in any war. Pardon my honesty, but everyone that claimed that these tanks will be used to teach cooperation was bluffing, there was no cooperation. More than 7000 tanks were scattered across infantry divisions, and they had no effect. They were helpless. A tank battalion in an infantry division, T-37 and T-26 tanks, is a limited organization. Weak T-37 tanks are incapable of traversing any mud. These battalions were ineffective. Correct me if I'm wrong, but they were mostly used to guard the divisional or regimental HQ.
Voice from the audience: Correct.
Pavlov: And this is more than 7000 tanks. These same battalions inside the brigades, they fought well and achieved more, since they were controlled by the brigade HQ. I have to say that not only HQ staff, but political workers looked after the control. Comrade Lelyushenko said: we're going to attack, political workers, go to the infantry units, make sure they will follow the tanks. This is how we achieved cooperation. It is not always possible to check the cooperation with independent battalions.
Where am I going with this? We need to restore tank brigades using tanks from infantry divisions. In the Kiev Military District, I have 4 brigades with 14 tanks. The tanks were transferred, the brigades fell apart. I will say it outright: if there is mobilization tomorrow, our brigades will not be ready. The tanks will have to be sent back from as far as the Leningrad district. We need to end this practice. As long as I am the commander of this type of armed forces, I will make sure that no more units are dismantled. If they need tanks, take the whole unit.
Regarding the T-37, it is a special type of vehicle, it must be moved to special battalions at the corps level so the commander can use T-37 tanks properly. As far as new types of tanks are concerned, I will make a note: commanders, don't flood the Commissariat and comrade Stalin with telegrams, let us solve the issues of organization in Moscow properly. I know how it is in practice, as soon as a new vehicle is available everyone starts saying that the old vehicles are no good. They say: give us T-34s and KVs, only they are compatible with our theater, no other tanks are compatible. I will tell you now that I will take measures to ensure that not a single telegram like this even receives an answer. We will determine what district gets how many tanks at the General Staff, wait your turn."

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