The Katyusha multiple-launch rocket system became famous in combat on the Eastern Front.
The fighting at Orsha saw the first battlefield use of the Red Army’s experimental battery of BM-13 multiple-launch rocket systems. Later in the war, these fearsome weapons were lovingly nicknamed Katyusha (Little Kate) after a popular wartime song.
The development of these weapons began well before the war, in 1938, with a small trial run of 40 systems built by the time of the German invasion. The prototypes of BM vehicles had mounted launchers at right angles to their long axes; however, this proved very unstable and the launch rails were remounted lengthwise.
The command staff of the first field battery, headed by Captain Ivan A. Flerov, included two civilian advisers to train the crews, A. I. Popov, one of the creators of the launch platform BM-13, and D. A. Shytov, one of the developers of the M-13 round. The first battery consisted of nine launch systems in three firing platoons, a fire direction platoon with one 122mm howitzer for fire correction, an ammunition platoon, a transportation platoon, a POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) platoon, and a medical detachment. One volley of this battery delivered 112 132mm M-13 rockets with high explosive or fragmentation rounds. The highly mobile battery numbered 44 trucks, allowing the transport of 600 rounds of ammunition and enough fuel, POL, and food for at least three days of operations.
The first application of the Katyusha’s firepower was directed at Orsha’s railroad station. While not intended for pinpoint accuracy, the new weapon system delivered a devastating amount of fire over a wide-area target, destroying several trains and causing significant German casualties. The success of its first combat deployment kicked the production of BM-13 systems into high gear, and close to 10,000 systems of all types were produced by the end of the war. In addition to the original BM-13 models, there were multiple variations of 81mm BM-8 systems, some of them mounted on jeeps, and heavy BM-31 launchers for 310mm rockets. The special place of the Katyushas in the Soviet arsenal earned them the official title of Guards Mortars. The Germans called them Stalinorgel, meaning Stalin’s Organ.
In the early stages of the war, the Soviets took great pains to safeguard these weapons, with the immediate security of Katyusha batteries provided by detachments of NKVD (secret police) troops. In cases when a launch vehicle became disabled and retrieval was impossible, it was blown up in place to deny the Germans an intelligence coup. Battery commanders were responsible with their lives for the destruction of disabled launch vehicles. Just such a fate befell Captain Ivan Flerov’s battery. Caught in a cauldron at Vyazma in October 1941, with his vehicles immobilized by marshy terrain and out of ammunition, Flerov ordered them blown up. When fewer than a third of the battery’s soldiers made it out of the encirclement alive, Captain Flerov was not one of them.
Katyushas were inexpensive and uncomplicated to produce and easily mounted on many platforms, initially including only trucks but quickly progressing to tanks, tractors, armored trains, and even small naval vessels. Later in the war, many Lend-Lease tanks, which the Soviet specialists did not consider to be up to the task of armored warfare on the Eastern Front, were used as mounting platforms. However, American Studebaker two-and-one-half- ton trucks were highly regarded for their off-road performance, and thousands of them were used as mounting platforms for Katyushas.
The most widely used of all the Soviet war rockets during World War II was the M-13 132-mm (5.2-in) weapon. It was designed during the late 1930s, and when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 there were only a few production launchers and a small stock of rockets to hand. These were pressed into service as an emergency measure and first went into action on the Smolensk front in July 1941, when they caused near-panic among the hapless German troops. This is hardly surprising, for in a period of under 10 seconds a single M-13 battery could swamp a large area in high explosive to an extent hitherto unseen in warfare.
These first M-13 batteries were very much special units. The launchers for the M-13 fin-stabilized rockets were carried by ZiS-6 6×6 trucks with rails for 16 rockets. The rails were known as ‘Flute’ launchers to the Soviet troops as a result of their perforated appearance, but they soon gained the name Katyusha, and at one time were known as ‘Kostikov guns’ after their supposed designer. For security purposes the launchers were usually shrouded in tarpaulins when not in use, and the crews were culled from Communist party members in order to maintain tight security. But it was not long before the M-13 launchers were in widespread use and their secrets became common knowledge.
The basic M-13 rocket had a range of about 8000 to 8500 m (8,750 to 9,295 yards). The usual warhead was of the HE fragmentation type, and as always with fin-stabilized rockets accuracy was not of a high order. But as the M-13s were usually used in massed barrages this last mattered only little, Later versions of the M-13 used a form of efflux diversion to introduce more spin for increased accuracy, but this measure reduced the range slightly. As mentioned above, the first launcher type used 16 rails and was known as the BM-13-16, but when supplies of Lend-Lease trucks became available they too were used as Katyusha carriers. Several types of truck, including Studebakers, Fords, Chevrolets and Internationals were so used, along with STZ-5 artillery tractors and other vehicles. These BM-13-16 launchers had no traverse and only limited elevation, and were laid by pointing the carrier vehicle towards the target. Some carrier vehicles used steel shutters to protect the cab and crew during the launching sequence.
As the war progressed more types of M-13 warhead were introduced, including armour-piercing to break up tank formations, flare for night illumination, incendiary and signal. One variation was the M-13-DD, which used two rocket motors burning together at launch to produce a possible range of 11800 m (12,905 yards), and this rocket was launched from the upper rails of the launcher only. The M-13-DD had the greatest range of all solid propellant artillery rockets in World War II. After 1945 the M-13 rocket batteries remained in Red Army use right up to 1980, when they were finally replaced by later models.
The end of World War II did not end the Katyushas’ service. Thousands of them were exported to Soviet client states during the Cold War and were built in several countries under license. American forces faced them during the Korean War and decades later in Iraq.