Maintaining Combat Capability
Fuel and ammunition shortages were not the only things that could bring operational exploitation to a premature end. Even more serious were insupportable losses, especially in armor. To avoid premature culmination, which would sacrifice the opportunities created by a successful breakthrough, the Red Army paid increasing attention to the repair and restoration of damaged equipment and the replacement of casualties. The system that evolved during the war is best illustrated through the example of keeping up tank and SAU numbers. Maintaining combat capabilities started before an operation began. Every effort was made to bring participating units and formations up to—and, if possible, over—strength, with their weapons and equipment ready for many days of intense usage. Factory-new tanks and SAUs would replace as many worn or outdated ones as possible (the latter would often remain in quiet sectors while their crews were shipped to the assembly area to pick up their new ones for the next operation). Others whose tracks and engines had already been subject to considerable wear and tear would, wherever possible, have at least their most timeworn items replaced. In practice, this was the main means by which the viability of formations was maintained. During the conduct of an operation, the provision of fresh replacements while operating at a high tempo in the enemy’s depth was not a practical option (unless there was an operational pause), even if they were available.
Planning for force regeneration during the course of an operation had to take into account uneven loss rates from two causes: combat (destroyed or, more commonly, damaged) and noncombat (mechanical breakdown or badly mired). By far the heaviest casualties from enemy action would be suffered during the breakthrough. Ideally, these losses would be incurred mostly by the combined-arms armies, with the mobile groups being used only to complete the penetration. Of course, if the operation did not develop as planned and a clean breach was not achieved, an attritional struggle would develop, the casualty rate would remain high, and the depth achieved would be limited; for example, in the Orel Operation, it took Fourth Tank Army ten days to penetrate the defense, and it lost 83.9 percent of its T-34s. During exploitation operations, by contrast, average daily loss rates would remain low. However, there would be increases, sometimes sharp ones, during the penetration of defense lines in the enemy’s depth, when drawn into fighting in built-up areas, when forcing major water obstacles, or (usually as the operation was culminating) during enemy counterattacks; for instance, in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, over 50 percent of First Guards Tank Army’s losses were incurred during the establishment and subsequent defense of the Sandomir bridgehead over the Vistula. The incidence of noncombat losses depended substantially on the duration of the operation, the terrain it crossed, and the weather. Also important, however, was the state of equipment maintenance. The frequency and extent of mechanical failures were noticeably reduced as the war progressed and driver training and unit-level maintenance improved; for example, 334 tanks and SAUs of First Guards Tank Army failed in the Belgorod-Khar’kov Operation, but only 105 during the Vistula-Oder Operation, even though the army in the latter was 30 percent larger. Generalizing very broadly, 70 percent of the tanks and SAUs requiring recovery and repair had been battle damaged, and 30 percent had suffered technical malfunctions or become bogged down.
The system for restoring unserviceable tanks and SAUs and returning them to combat units was designed to cope with maneuver operations at a high tempo. At each level, responsibility for the regeneration of combat power rested with the higher commander. He distributed his assets to reinforce his subordinate formations according to the importance of their missions and the likely strength of the opposition, being prepared to switch resources to different axes as operational requirements dictated. At front level, a reserve was generally held to ensure that adequate facilities were available in the most critical area and at the most critical time.
Units possessed a minimal technical capability that was sufficient only for routine maintenance and the simplest of repairs. Thus, brigades would undertake work requiring no more than two hours. The mobile tank repair bases of corps and armies would establish technical observation posts in the areas where their units and formations had done their heaviest fighting. These would direct evacuation subunits and units in the collection of the casualties inflicted in the latest battle in order to concentrate them at damaged vehicle collection points (save those needing less than six hours of work, which were dealt with on the spot). The repair units would then arrive to work on the contents of these collection points. There was strict prioritization in the execution of repair work. Top priority went to those requiring running repairs needing no more than six to eight hours; then jobs taking up to twelve hours were tackled. Corps repair shops would then move on to repairs requiring twelve to eighteen hours if they remained in the area long enough. If, however, the operation was developing at a satisfactory tempo, they would have to hurry on to the next damaged vehicle collection point, possibly quite distant, usually leaving many relatively minor jobs undone. Army facilities would take their place, and once they had completed the easier jobs, they would start on medium repairs requiring one, two, or even three days. They too would frequently have to move on before completing all the medium repairs. Major repairs would be left to front workshops, but they rarely had time to get to these after catching up with the backlog of medium repairs that resulted from a high rate of advance. An example of the system at work is provided by the two damaged vehicle collection points leapfrogging forward to operate 40 to 50 km (25 to 30 miles) apart in the zone of First Guards Tank Army during the Vistula-Oder Operation. During the forty days of their involvement (which did not end with the army’s transition to defense), one moved three times and the other five times, spending from three to sixteen days at each location. Between them, they repaired 227 armored vehicles and eliminated lesser malfunctions in another 356; 88 were back-loaded to front workshops. Largely as a result of their work, on 1 February 1945 the army’s serviceable tank and SAU strength was 577, or 76 percent of its starting strength. (Second Guards Tank Army did not fare so well, ending up with 495 tanks and SAUs at the conclusion of the operation, 59 percent of its initial 838.)
Table 2 analyzes the armored vehicle losses and repairs of some tank armies during third-period operations selected to illustrate different operational conditions. Second Guards Tank Army in the Vistula-Oder Operation represents the ideal: the armored formation was inserted through a clean breach, and in a high-tempo exploitation to great depth, it forced intermediate defense lines before they could be defended. The tank armies of 1 Ukrainian Front, in contrast, had to complete the penetration before being able to conduct rapid operational maneuver, and this largely accounted for their higher losses. In the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, First Guards Tank Army not only had to complete the breakthrough but, even more significantly, had to engage in a prolonged and wearing fight to hold the Sandomir bridgehead against counterattacks. The East Prussian Operation, mounted as a supporting effort for the main offensive on the Warsaw-Berlin axis, had to gnaw through prepared, unsurprised defenses in depth, and losses were accordingly high.
Table 1 above illustrates how, generalizing broadly from these and other operations of the third period, the total losses of tank armies averaged 70 percent or more, but irrecoverable losses were only about 25 percent of initial strengths. The evolved method of employing recovery and repair facilities made it possible for tank armies to rehabilitate and return to action most tanks and SAUs that could be repaired in the field (although, owing to the shortage of spare parts, a lot of repairable equipment was cannibalized as the operation progressed). In each of these operations, almost all tanks and SAUs that required running repairs and 80 percent of those needing medium repairs were restored to combat units. Indeed, it was not uncommon, as in the case of First Guards Tank Army in the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, for total losses to exceed the army’s initial strength. In the same operation, each of Third Guards Tank Army’s tanks and SAUs was out of commission two or three times, and they were returned to service just as frequently. Of course, a critical factor in the success of the recovery and repair system was battlefield success. When battles ended, the Soviet forces were left in possession of the scenes of carnage, allowing them to scavenge, sort, and classify every vehicle into every category from total wreck to minor mobility problems. For the retreating Germans, on the other hand, every fighting vehicle left on the battlefield was a write-off, no matter how superficial the damage.
The treatment of human casualties followed the same principles that were applied to equipment. The system was calculated to contribute to the maintenance of combat power to the maximum extent possible; it could be described as austere. Thus, for example, ambulances were thin on the ground, and most wounded were taken to the rear in unsprung peasant carts or trucks returning from delivering ammunition. Medical battalions were concentrated on the axes where the greatest casualties were expected, and they moved from one area of fierce fighting to the next, leapfrogging forward. The policy was to treat as many of the injured as possible at each stage in the medical chain; the further back a man was sent, the more difficult it became to reintegrate him into a unit on recovery. At subunit level, only basic first aid was provided; even at unit (regiment and brigade) level, only those casualties were treated that could be returned immediately to combat. The rest were triaged, with the lightly wounded who would be fit for battle in a day or two being sent to divisional field hospitals, treated, and held there until they could be sent forward. Those with little prospect of proving useful during the course of the operation were sorted by injury and dispatched to specialized army or, in the most serious cases, front hospitals. At each stage, emergency aid would be given to save the soldier’s life and stabilize him, but therapeutic treatment was given at any stage only to those who could be expected to recover in a usefully short period of time; such prioritization was considered the greatest contribution the medical services could make to the restoration of combat effectiveness.
The Red Army found that, in offensive operations, it would generally lose one man killed or missing for every three medical casualties (i.e., wounded or sick; the latter usually representing, according to a rather conservative estimate, about 15 percent of the total). Of the medical losses, 81 percent were eventually returned to duty, so permanent wastage represented somewhat more than 40 percent of all casualties. In calculating manpower requirements, Soviet planners learned that, at army level, 65 to 80 percent of the losses incurred in an entire operation would usually be suffered during the breakthrough phase—the first three or four days. Such data informed the provision of medical resources. It was also important for planning on the operations side, as was the realization that, whereas the total casualty bill was largely a function of the enemy’s strength and preparedness, the proportion of Soviet casualties as a percentage of the total force decreased as the superiority ratio increased. Table 2 shows the rough correlation between superiority ratios and percentage losses during the penetration of prepared defenses; apparent inconsistencies can be accounted for by such factors as whether surprise was achieved and the level of enemy preparation. Most importantly, such analysis helped front-level commanders and staffs to establish the numbers of men necessary to sustain the advance through to the entire planned depth of the operation and achieve the assigned objectives.
Soviet forecasting of force requirements and probable loss rates, and therefore viability, improved over time. Front calculations became increasingly reliable, albeit consistently on the conservative side and only at the macro level. Although improvements in the organization and training of technical troops and medical services resulted in the return of increasing numbers of temporarily incapacitated equipment and, to a lesser extent, men to service, casualties still had considerable impact on combat capabilities. When a high rate of advance was being achieved, restored tanks and SAUs and wounded men treated at divisional level could not rejoin their original first-echelon units, which would be too far away by that time. Of necessity, they were used instead to restore units that had been temporarily withdrawn from combat or to augment second echelons or create reserves, usually by rebuilding units under the control of headquarters that had lost most of their combat power. Longer-term sustainability at army and front levels did not translate into the immediate viability of leading lower formations.
It was, for example, reckoned that a tank or mechanized corps would be approaching combat exhaustion by the fourth or fifth day of a penetration battle or the eighth to tenth day of operations in the enemy’s depth. Various methods were employed to sustain operational endurance, assuming, of course, there was no second echelon immediately available to assume the role of the depleted formation. Regrouping could solve some problems. Thus, when the headquarters of the still numerically viable 25 Tank Corps was destroyed during the Orel Operation, Eleventh Guards Army transferred the formation to 36 Guards Rifle Corps so that its armor could act under infantry command, providing close infantry support. Where the command and control apparatus remained intact but losses left units verging on combat ineffectiveness, the usual answer was to form improvised groupings. For example, during the Belgorod-Khar’kov Operation, the remains of 29 Tank Corps were reformed into a single composite brigade. An alternative approach was used during the Carpathian-Dukla Operation, when the commander of 4 Guards Tank Corps redistributed the assets of 3 Guards Motor Rifle Brigade between his tank brigades. During its actions in the enemy’s depth toward the end of the L’vov-Sandomir Operation, 25 Tank Corps was down to 15 percent of its tanks and SAUs, 50 percent of its artillery and mortars, 19 percent of its riflemen, and 40 percent of its communications equipment. To create a formation capable of forcing the Wisloka and preventing the enemy’s withdrawal to Krosno, the corps was regrouped into a composite 20 Guards Motor-Rifle Brigade and a tank battalion commanded by 162 Tank Brigade headquarters. Such improvised units and formations were able to shake down quite quickly into effective teams, thanks to a combination of uniform training and simple tactical drills. Nevertheless, the very fact that such ad hoc creations were proving necessary was a warning to senior commanders that their culminating point was nigh.
In the third period, the Red Army executed increasingly deep and continuous operations, more and more frequently mounting successive operations without pauses between them as conservatively calculated goals were achieved at lower than anticipated cost. This was made possible by the evolution of a logistic system well suited to achieving distant objectives at a high tempo. It was designed to support operational maneuver rather than linear-attritional combat. It was austere, with only essentials being resourced. Above all, perhaps, senior commanders laid down clear priorities for the logistic effort and generally eschewed the temptation to pursue all desirable aims simultaneously, thus risking culmination across a broad front with no critical objectives achieved. Secondary tasks were undertaken only through sequenced operations once the main ones were attained.
The Soviets’ logistic reach was extended by the very fact that they accomplished high-speed offensives. The Red Army was routinely left in possession of the battlefield, with all that implied for recovery and repair. The faster the advance, the less chance the enemy had to carry out a scorched-earth policy as he retreated. Railway lines and bridges were often taken intact or with only superficial damage. The enemy sometimes lacked the time necessary to evacuate or even destroy the supply dumps he needed to offer continued effective resistance; captured fuel often extended the reach of advancing Soviet formations. Moreover, consumption fell as the tempo rose. Compare a tank army achieving a rate of advance of 16 to 45 km (10 to 30 miles) per day with one making only 4.5 to 13 km (3 to 10 miles) per day. At the higher rate, it would use only one-third the amount of fuel consumed at the lower rate to cover 100 km (60 miles). It would also expend only one-sixth the amount of ammunition. It suffered less than one-third the number of personnel casualties, and although tank and SAU losses were running close to two-thirds, the vast majority were simple, quickly repairable mechanical breakdowns. Such is the difference between pursuit of an enemy incapable of serious resistance and fighting through a balanced defense conducted by a determined foe. Success bred success—for both the commanders and the logisticians who had the conceptual and organizational readiness to exploit it.