RUSSIAN ANTITANK TACTICS

In 1942, anti-tank gunners received an increase of 100 percent in their base pay (officers 75 percent) and also got bonuses for each enemy tank destroyed.

The Russian was a master of the defense. He attained excellent results not only in construction of positions, but also in camouflage, and in the construction of dummy installations. By unscrupulous use especially of the civilian population (including women and children), he created well-developed zones in depth. In open terrain he dug wide and deep antitank ditches, many kilometers long, forward of his front. Mine fields, wire obstacles, entanglements, and other obstacles were immediately set up everywhere. If, because of the nature of terrain, he expected tank attacks, he developed points of main effort. He was very adept at using villages as strong points. Wherever he could, he set up flanking weapons. As far as the infantry was concerned, he conducted his defense in a mobile manner, but within his defense trenches. He made considerable use of roving guns. He accomplished surprise fires mostly with heavy mortars and numerous multi-barreled rocket projectors. He made little use of methodical artillery harassing fire. Upon the loss of parts of a position, reserves for a counterthrust were always quickly at hand. Counterthrusts and counterattacks were in most instances supported by tanks. He did not often conduct counterattacks that were based on a preconceived plan, since, from the standpoint of leadership, they were too difficult for him. From 1943 on, he strengthened his defense by mass employment of antiaircraft guns and flame throwers in so-called antitank-gun fronts, which were superbly camouflaged and dangerous for tank attacks. Daytime observation was made difficult, because he showed almost no movement. In general, one might say that the Russian undertook his defense in open terrain as well as in wooded areas according to principles rigidly drilled into the soldiers, and that he showed little imagination in developing new methods of battle. He relied, in attack as well as in defense, on reckless employment of manpower.

In 1943, new methods of tank and antitank warfare were introduced, while the methods of the infantry remained the same. Heavy machine guns and dug-in tanks frequently were encountered deep in the battle position. The latter were particularly dangerous because they were well armored and difficult to hit. In sectors in which the terrain was passable for tanks, antitank-gun fronts would be set up in nearly all instances. They were developed to extraordinary strength and foiled many a German armored attack. They were also used against infantry, in which case they fired high-explosive shells.

Areas of great importance were surrounded with heavy fortifications. For instance, the German armored units before Leningrad encountered fortification systems up to ten kilometers in depth, including innumerable earth and concrete bunkers with built-in guns and other heavy weapons. There were even concrete pillboxes with disappearing armored cupolas for artillery and machine guns. They were constructed in the rear area from standard concrete forma, assembled at the front, and equipped with the armored cupolas. The raising and lowering of the cupolas was accomplished by means of improvised wooden levers, which had to be operated manually by the pillbox crew. A speedy elimination of these concrete pillboxes with the means available in mobile warfare was difficult.

The forward edge of such a defense system was generally situated behind an antitank ditch many kilometers long and up to six meters wide and four meters deep. Embedded in the rear wall of this ditch were dugouts housing the riflemen with their defense weapons. A second and third antitank ditch frequently would be located in the depth of the system, and connected by a cross ditch so as to prevent enemy tanks that had penetrated the position from rolling it up. A machine-gun or antitank bunker in every bend of the anti-tank ditch afforded flank protection. It was not unusual to encounter dammed-up watercourses close to the fortified position. They were up to a hundred meters wide and several meters deep, and presented an obstacle difficult to overcome. The Russians eliminated all favorable approaches to their front (forests, underbrush, tall grain fields, etc.) by laying extensive mine fields.

Tactical and Technical Trends, No 35, October 7th 1943

While the tank, which has received its greatest exploitation in the present war, has under certain circumstances proved to be a formidable weapon, important successes have been scored against it by artillery and tank-destroyer guns in North Africa.

The tank has, no doubt, accelerated the speed of battle, helped to overcome space, expanded the area of the battlefield, and increased the tempo of attack.

The experience of the Russians on the Eastern Front in combatting large concentrations of German armor can be read with interest and profit. The following article, a translation of Russian reports, deals principally with Russian defensive measures against large-scale German tank attacks in the Orel-Kursk sector.

1. Organization of the Defense

When beginning large offensive operations, the Germans lay the main stress on tanks. They concentrate them on narrow sectors in order to effect a breakthrough and then push through their motorized units and infantry. The problem of the air force and artillery is one of direct support of the tanks on the battlefield. Therefore, defense must be organized so as to repulse the combined blows of the enemy, and especially his tanks. Experience has shown that the best results are gained by the establishment of antitank defense areas.

From reconnaissance data the Russian commander determines the sectors of primary and secondary importance in connection with possible tank attacks. Where the terrain is the more accessible (level or broken, but without deep ravines and swamps) there must be more antitank defense areas. During reconnaissance, the commander determines the most expedient way of using antitank guns and rifles; the location of the sector where they are to be used and the character and type of the most advantageous obstacles under the given conditions. It must be taken into consideration that not all seemingly impassable sectors are actually so. Therefore, it is advisable to organize a system that keeps the approaches to “impassable” tank areas within fire range.

In one case fifteen German tanks attacked the Russian advanced positions. The left flank bordered on a ravine difficult for tanks to pass. The Russian artillerymen easily repulsed three frontal attacks, but the Germans then blew up the steep sides of the ravine and made it passable for tanks. Since the approaches to the ravine were not covered by artillery fire, the enemy tanks broke through and attacked the Russian battery from the rear. It was possible to restore the position only by bringing in the antitank reserve.

The officer directly in command of the antitank defense areas must calculate the amount of fire power and dispositions. The amount of fire power depends upon the density of the tank attack on the given sector. If it happens that there are not enough antitank defenses, the commander requests more from the higher authority. If, however, the commander has only a limited number of antitank guns and rifles, he must not scatter them throughout the defensive positions but must use them on the main sectors.

Certain commanders, in determining the amount of antitank defense calculate on the basis of the theoretical possible density of a tank attack. In reality, however, the Germans have a very limited number of tanks on, many sectors. Therefore, the expected and not the theoretical density of a tank attack must be considered. In case of enemy reinforcements, the antitank defense areas may have to be strengthened.

It is of great importance to have all approaches and intervals between defense areas within range of converging defense fire. In addition, the fire power is disposed so that any tanks, that may have broken into the defense area, may be hit.

2. Disposition of Antitank Guns and Rifles

Combat experience has shown the effectiveness of the following disposition of antitank guns and rifles. Guns are placed at intervals of from 100 to 150 yards and with distances in depth of from 200 to 300 yards. Antitank rifles are arranged in squads. They deliver flank and oblique fire simultaneously with the guns. The intervals between squads of armor-piercing weapons are from 50 to 100 yards and the distances from 100 to 150 yards. With flanking fire, the distance between the guns and rifles must not be over 100 to 150 yards.

3. Cooperation between Defense Areas

Constant communication is maintained between defense areas. There should be complete and detailed agreement as to the methods of cooperation. The distance between the guns on the flanks of the two defense areas should not be over 500 yards. For antitank rifles this distance is reduced to from 150 to 200 yards.

The artillery commander establishes close contact with the infantry commander of the unit in the region in which the antitank defense is formed. Practice has shown the advantage of sending to the combat outpost a special liaison officer, who, in case of a tank attack, determines the number and direction of action and immediately reports to the defense area.

4. Artillery Tactics Against Tank Attacks

For repulsing large tank attacks, artillery of all calibers and heavy mortars are brought into use. Batteries that fire from concealed positions adjust their fire toward the approaches and antitank obstacles. In case of a tank breakthrough there must be a very detailed agreement with the artillery commanders concerning signals. When conditions dictate, divisional and, at times, heavy artillery may be put out into open fire positions; these should be prepared in advance.

The antitank defense system as a whole is thoroughly camouflaged. Strict discipline in firing must also be observed. It is not necessary to fire from all guns at individual tanks or when they appear in small groups of three to four; it is more advisable to allow them to come within range of direct fire. When the enemy makes mass tank attacks the artillery opens fire at the greatest effective range. In addition, mobile artillery of all calibers and firing from concealed positions is used.

5. Antitank Reserves

Since the antitank defense cannot be equally strong throughout its whole system, antitank reserves are of special importance. The reserves are allocated to threatened sectors by army commanders. It is expedient to prepare in advance firing positions for the reserves on sectors that are more likely to be pierced.

It is well for the next higher headquarters to prepare a plan of maneuver for the antitank reserve. In this plan the composition, commander, line of possible deployment and detailed routes are indicated. It is also well to have a signal (known both to the army commander and the commander of the reserve group) for calling the reserve.

6. An Example of Defense Tactics

German tank attacks in the Orel-Kursk sector were characterized by large concentrated blows of several hundred tanks at a time on narrow sectors of the front. Following the first echelons were the second and third, with the number of tanks increasing each time. There were several instances when the Germans brought over 200 tanks into battle at one time. The air force cleared the way for the tanks, and the tanks in turn cleared the way for the infantry. During the very first days the enemy suffered defeat in the battle for air supremacy. This left the tanks to break through the defense without air support while facing our artillery.

Preceding a concentrated tank attack the enemy conducted combat reconnaissance with small groups of infantry and tanks. This reconnaissance usually began 30 or 40 minutes before the attack. Enemy reconnaissance columns consisted of from 50 to 60 tanks and several self-propelled artillery guns on which infantry men were carried. These detachments were usually supported by 10 to 15 airplanes. As a rule the combat reconnaissance lasted not more than half an hour. In repulsing these groups the minimum of fire power was used in order to keep the main artillery positions concealed.

During the first battles the German tanks at times succeeded in piercing our front line as much as a mile. In one case seven German bombers appeared, escorted by fighters. While these planes began to bomb the front line, another group of bombers coming in to take the place of the first group raided deeper in the rear. Each group was followed by another as they worked their way deeper and deeper into our defense positions. Tanks appeared simultaneously with the third group of bombers. Forty of them deploying along the front and in depth, rushed out at our front line, firing as they came. Several were disabled but a part of them passed the trenches of our first line. Our infantry remained in its positions and exterminated automatic riflemen who were carried on the tanks, blew up two self-propelled guns and burned up one tank as it was crossing the trench.

At this moment Soviet fighters appeared over the battlefield. Several enemy bombers were shot down. The artillerymen made use of this and opened up intensive fire on the tanks but 20 enemy tanks succeeded in penetrating to the depth of half a mile, where they were met by self-propelled cannons. By this time a great air battle was under way and 150 more German tanks came out against our positions.

The lessons learned in the Orel-Kursk sector were that in fighting reconnaissance and first echelon groups it is necessary to: (1) not only repulse tanks but destroy them; (2) do this as quickly as possible since hundreds of tanks follow; (3) solve this problem with the minimum amount of fire in order to keep the disposition of all guns concealed.

The main object of our infantry is to isolate the German infantry from their tanks, annihilate them, and protect our artillerymen from attacks. Our infantry has always remained intact when they do not leave the trenches as enemy tanks cross them. By remaining in the trenches they are able to separate enemy infantry from the tanks and also destroy infantry when it is tank borne.

Battle experience shows that we must strike tanks with concentrated artillery fire and from the air on their initial positions and at the approaches to the battlefield. During the attack it is necessary to allow the tanks to approach to be sure of hitting them. The Orel-Kursk battles show that even tank breakthroughs are not dangerous if the enemy infantry has been separated from the tanks.

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