Caspian Sea Monsters II


The SM-8 [ekranoplans, or wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) craft] WIG vehicle built in 1967 became the second 1/4th scale analogue of the KM ekranoplan; it reflected the changes introduced into the layout of the KM in the course of its design. The SM-8 became the last in the family of SM experimental flying vehicles, the tests of which furnished results essential for the creation of theory and for evolving the methods of designing and developing new models of heavy WIG vehicles for military and civil applications. The testing of the SM-8 proceeded in parallel with the testing of the KM; the analogue served for checking the methods of testing its bigger stablemate.

The SM-8, having an all-up weight of 8,100 kg (17,860 lb), was powered by one turbojet located in the upper part of the fuselage ahead of the fin. Its air intake was protected from spray by a special U-shaped guard. To emulate the blowing (booster) engines of the KM, the SM-8 was provided with a special nozzle device in the front fuselage intended to direct part of the gases bled from the engine under the wings. The vehicle had a cruising speed of 220 km/h (137 mph).

The construction and testing of the SM series (SM-1 through SM-8) were directly connected with the creation of designs that marked the apex of the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau’s achievements – the vehicles known as KM, Loon’ and Orlyonok.


In 1963, in response to an order placed by the Navy, construction was started at the ‘Volga’ shipyard near Gor’kiy (now Nizhny Novgorod) of a gigantic WIG vehicle which was designated KM (korahbl’-maket – ‘mock-up ship’, or rather prototype ship). It was a machine of staggering dimensions, the length of the hull exceeding 90 m (295 tt). It was launched in March 1966 and the first flight took place on 18th October of that year. Further testing of the WIG vehicle took place on the Caspian Sea. Its optimum flight altitude in ground effect proved to be 4 to 14 m (13 to 46 tt). At that time the KM (sometimes referred to as KM-1 in Western sources) was the biggest flying vehicle in the world – its weight in one of the flights reached 544 tonnes (1,299,300 Ib)! Small wonder that it was nicknamed ‘Caspian Sea Monster’ in the West (later some Russian journalists, too, deciphered KM as Kaspeeyskiy monstr). This huge machine was powered by 10 Dobrynin VD-7 turbojets with a thrust of 13,000 kgp apiece; of these, two engines located at the fin leading edge served as cruise engines, while the remaining eight engines were mounted in two packages of four on the forward fuselage sides, performing the role of booster engines for power-augmented takeoff. The machine reached a maximum speed of 500 km/h (310 mph), the cruising speed being 430 km/h (267 mph).

The KM had good manoeuvrability, stability and controllability; it could perform tight turns with large bank angles, the wingtip float touching the sea surface. This machine flew for 15 years and earned a reputation for being a very reliable means of transport. Unfortunately, in 1980 the KM crashed due to pilot error. The pilot, who had not been at the controls of the big machine for a long time, overdid the pitching-up at take-off. The machine began to rise steeply. Losing his head, the pilot throttled back abruptly and applied the elevator in a fashion contrary to flight manual. The winged ship started banking to port, impacted the water surface and sank; the crew escaped unhurt.

In the course of its testing the KM underwent a number of modifications some of which were rather substantial. For example, in 1979 the cruise engines placed on the fin were transferred to a pylon mounted over the forward fuselage so as to lessen spray ingestion. The cruise engines were provided with spray deflectors on the intakes.

 Orlyonok (Project 904)


A Soviet BTR-60PB eight-wheel armoured personnel carrier is about to roll off the Orlyonok. This view shows the design of the double-hinged loading ramps, the overhead actuating cylinder and the many securing clamps around the hatch perimeter; the latter is natural, considering the high stresses in the area.

This troop-carrier/assault WIG vehicle designed in response to an order from the Navy made its first flight from one of the channels of the Volga river in 1972. After this, disguised as a Tupolev Tu-134 airliner, the prototype was transported on a barge to Kaspiysk (a naval base on the Caspian Sea) to be tested in sea conditions. It was the first WIG vehicle intended for speedy transportation of troops and materiel. Its cargo hold measuring 21 m (68 ft 11 in) in length, 3.2 m (10ft 6 in) in height and 3.0 m (9 ft 10 in) in width made it possible to transport self-propelled vehicles that were on the strength of the Soviet Marines.

The Orlyonok features an aircraft layout. It is an all-metal cantilever monoplane with a fuselage provided with hydrodynamic elements in its lower portion (planing steps, hydroskis etc.); it has low-set wings and a T-tail with a horizontal tail of considerable dimensions. Its powerplant comprises two Kuznetsov NK-8-4K booster turbofans rated at 10,500 kgp (23,148 Ib st) for take-off (provision was made for their eventual replacement with 13,000-kgp/28,660-lb st NK-87 turbofans) and one 15,000-ehp NK-12MK cruise turboprop (a version of the NK-12M used on the Tu-95 bomber) driving AV-90 eight-blade contra-rotating propellers. All the engines are maritime versions of the respective aircraft engines. The booster engines are fitted with special pivoting nozzles and used not only for creating an air cushion on take-off by directing their efflux under the wings (blowing mode) but also for acceleration to cruising speed. The air intakes of the NK-8-4K engines are blended into the contours of the forward fuselage, which reduces drag and helps protect the engines from corrosive sea spray. The cruise engine is located at the junction of the fin and horizontal tail; being placed so high, it is less vulnerable to spray ingestion at take-off and landing and to salt contamination from aerosols whose density depends on the height over the sea surface.

The fuselage of the Orlyonok is of beam-and-stringer construction; it is divided into three sections – forward, centre and aft. The centre fuselage accommodates the cargo hold accessed by swinging the hinged forward fuselage 92° to starboard. The hinged part of the fuselage houses the flight deck, the booster engines and a radar in a ‘thimble’ radome. The aft fuselage houses a compartment for auxiliary power units and accessories required for starting the main engines and operating the vehicle’s electrical and hydraulic systems. Placed dorsally on the hull are a turret with twin cannons, the antenna of a navigation radar, direction finder aerials, communication and navigation equipment aerials. To reduce shock loads in the take-off and landing mode the designers introduced hydroskis shaped as simple deflectable panels. The craft is equipped with a wheeled undercarriage intended for beaching the machine and rolling it along paved taxiways on the shore.

The low-set wings of trapezoidal planform comprising an integral centre section and outer wing panels of torsion-box construction are fitted with flaperons. The lower surface of the wings along the leading edge, closer to the wing tips, incorporates special hinged panels which are deflected 70° during takeoff. The wingtips carry floats doubling as endplates. The wing high-lift devices are used for creating an air cushion which lifts the vehicle out of the water. During take-off the efflux of the jet engines is directed under the wings; the pilot lowers the flaps and leading-edge panels, thus barring the way for the gas tending to escape fore and aft. The increased gas pressure under the wings lifts the machine out of the water. The main part of the wings, with the exception of the flaps and leading-edge panels, is manufactured watertight. The wing is divided into 14 watertight bays, two of which are used for fuel.

The sharply swept T-tail comprises a fin/rudder assembly and large-span stabilisers with elevators.

Here are some basic characteristics and performance figures: the machine measures 58.1 m (190 ft 7 in) in length and 31.5 m (103 ft 4 in) in wing span, the width and height of the hull being 3.8 m (12 ft 6 in) and 5.2 m (17 ft) respectively; it has an all-up weight of 125,000 kg (275,600 Ib) and an empty weight of 100,000 kg (220,500 Ib). The Orlyonok’s maximum speed is 400 km/h (249 mph), the cruising speed being 360 km/h (224 mph). The height of flight over the supporting surface can vary from 0.5 m to 5 m (1 ft 8 in to 16 ft), the optimum height being 2 m (6 ft).

To relieve the crew workload in flight, provision is made for automatic stabilisation of the altitude (by deflecting the flaps), the pitch angle (by deflecting the elevators), the heading (by deflecting the rudder) and the bank angle (by deflecting the ailerons). In addition to the first prototype which crashed in 1975, an initial batch of three Orlyonoks was manufactured; they were adopted for squadron service by the Navy and underwent evaluation from 1979 onwards. Each of the three examples had its own factory designation; these three Project 904 machines were designated 8-21, 8-25 and 8-26 (as can be seen on photos, the machines were serialled 21 White, 25 White and 26 White for the greater part of their service career). In the Navy they were known as the MDE-150, MDE-155 and MDE-160 respectively (MDE presumably means morskoy desahnfnyy ekranoplahn – seagoing transport and assault WIG vehicle). They were taken on charge by the Navy on 3rd November 1979, 27th October 1981 and 30th December 1981 respectively. The Naval Command presumed that the WIG vehicles would demonstrate high effectiveness (considerable speed and ensuing capability for surprise actions, capability for overcoming anti-assault obstacles and minefields) and would ensure the seizure of bridgeheads at a coastline defended by the enemy. There were plans in hand for manufacturing 11 Orlyonok (Project 904) machines during the 12th and 13th five-year plan periods (1981-1990), to be followed by the construction of transport and assault WIG craft of a new type (with a new project number) possessing greater cargo carrying capacity. Preparations were made for establishing a WIG vehicle-operating unit in the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. However, for several reasons these plans did not come to fruition. The Orlyonok WIG craft were doomed never to leave the Caspian Sea.

Initially they were operated by the specially established 236th Squadron of WIG vehicles within the brigade of transport and assault ships of the Red Banner Caspian Flotilla. Later an idea cropped up of transferring the WIG vehicles under the authority of headquarters of the Naval Aviation, but these plans met with much opposition on the part of the latter. An end to these disputes was formally put by Order No. 0256 issued by the Minister of Defence on 12th November 1986 under the terms of which ekranoplans became part of the aviation element of the Navy’s Fleets. The document prescribed that WIG vehicles, as well as aircraft and helicopters, must be regarded as a class of the Naval Aviation’s weaponry. In accordance with directive No. DF-035 dated 21st April 1987 the WIG craft operating unit, renamed 11th Air Group, was formally placed under the command of the Black Sea Fleet, albeit it retained its former base on the Caspian Sea the town of Kaspiysk.

The incorporation of the WIG vehicles into the normal activities of the armed forces was not trouble-free and was not pursued all too vigorously. Much time was spent on repairs and modernisation (albeit the machines were almost brand-new!). There were difficulties with crew training. By 1983 four crew captains had received sufficient training; all of them had previously flown the Beriyev Be-12 Chaika ASW amphibian. Up to 1984 crew training was undertaken in accordance with the ‘Temporary course for training the crews of ekranaplan ships’ prepared by the combat training section of the Navy. Later the manual was reworked with participation of the combat training section of the Naval Aviation.

In 1983 GNII-8 VVS (State Research Institute NO. 8 of the Air Force) joined in the test-pulled up a second time and impacted again, sustaining severe damage. Of the ten crew on board nine persons survived, albeit with injuries, and were eventually rescued. The tenth crew member – a flight engineer – was killed. The crippled Orlyonok drifted 110 km (60 nm) and was eventually blown up – the Russian Navy could not afford the price asked for its retrieval by salvage companies. It was presumed that the crash had been caused by a failure of the automatic stability system, although pilot error is also cited.

After this the remaining WIG complement of the Navy came to include two Project 904 machines (Orlyonok) and one Project 903 craft (Loon’). Quite clearly, for many they were a thorn in their flesh. Gradually, the ekranoplans began to sink into oblivion – there were many other things to think of. The vehicles gradually fell into disrepair to the point of no longer being airworthy. Finally, in 1998 the command of the Russian Navy issued an order requiring the Orlyonok WIG vehicles to be written off on account of their alleged unsuitability for repairs and refurbishment. The Orlyonok served as a basis for several versions intended for civil applications.


In the late 1980s the work of the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau on WIG vehicles intended for military application led to the creation of a unique machine – a missile strike ekranoplan. Bearing the manufacturer’s designation ‘Project 903′, it was subsequently named Loon’, which means ‘hen-harrier’ (according to some sources, it was initially named Ootka – ‘duck’, but this sounded totally unwarlike and could also be interpreted as ‘canard’, ie, something bogus). This machine with an all-up weight of 380 t (838,000 Ib), a hull length of 73 m (240 ft) and a wing span of 45 m (148 ft) was launched in 1987. Its design was based on the layout which had already been tried and tested on such vehicles as the KM and the Orlyonok, that is to say, the ‘aircraft’ layout – that of a monoplane with wings of trapezoidal planform and aT-tail.

The Loon’, however, differed a lot from its predecessors – the entire powerplant comprising eight 13,000-kgp (28,660-lb st) Kuznetsov NK-87 turbofans was located on the forward fuselage. Thus, the engines served both as booster (blower) engines and cruise engines. This was apparently associated with another special feature of the machine – the placement of its offensive armament. Mounted dorsally on the fuselage were six launch containers for 3M80 Moskit (Mosquito) supersonic anti-shipping missiles (NATO code name SS-N-22) developed under the guidance of Aleksandr Va. Berezniak. During the launch of these missiles there was a risk of the combustion products being ingested by engines previously placed high on the tail unit, which could cause the engines to flame out. Transferring all the engines into the forward fuselage eliminated this danger.

As distinct from the low-wing Orlyonok, the Loon’ had mid-set wings; otherwise, they were similar to those of its predecessor and were of multi-spar metal construction which was made watertight. Placed on the bottom of the hull was a hydroski device intended to cushion the impact when alighting on water.

The Loon’ was equipped with a radar for air and surface targets detection and with a navigation radar, as well as with an ECM suite. The defensive armament consisted of two gunner’s stations borrowed directly from the II’yushin IL-76M military transport, each with a UKU-9K-502 turret mounting two 23-mm (.90 calibre) Gryazev/Shipoonov GSh-23 double-barrelled cannons.

The machine’s performance included a maximum speed of 500 km/h (310 mph), a cruising altitude of 5 m (15 ft) and a range of 2,000 km (1,240 miles). It had an endurance of 5 days when afloat. The vehicle had a crew of 15.

Armed with Moskit anti-shipping missiles, the WIG vehicle flying at ultra-low level at a speed of 350-400 km/h (218-249 mph) could deal a devastating blow to the potential enemy’s naval units and leave the scene unimpeded. According to Russian press reports, ‘the Project 903 ekranoplan No. 5-31 underwent operational testing in 1990-1991′. In the course of this trial operation live missile launches were made from the onboard launch tubes, as testified by available photos. The machine met the design requirements, but it was ill-fated. Initially, in line with the provisions of directive No. 252-73 issued by the Communist Party Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers on 26th March 1980, the programme of warship construction envisaged the completion of four Project 903 machines in the 12th and 13th five-year plan periods (1981-1990); later the planned figures were increased. Plans were in hand for the construction of six Project 903 WIG vehicles up to 1995 and another four machines of this type before 2000, However, in the late 1980s there came a change of heart towards the WIG vehicles in the command of the Navy. In 1989 it was decided to limit the construction of the attack WIG machines to just one example. A decision was taken to convert the second example of the Loon’, then under construction, into a SAR vehicle.

As for the sole example of the Loon’ combat ekranoplan, it was withdrawn from service and is stored in Kaspiysk. According to one document, ‘in order to preserve the missile-armed ekranoplan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy took a decision providing for its preservation at the territory of the 11th Air Group and for transforming it into an air base (for storage of the ekranoplan), with one crew complement to be retained at the base’.



Stalingrad became a symbol of Russian endurance, of German capability. It also had an important strategic significance. If the Germans had cut across the Volga, they would have sliced right through the Russian lines of communication, for oil and for transport. Stalingrad was not an altogether facile quest on Hitler’s part but it became invested with enormous psychological significance. Both sides in this ghastly chest to chest struggle could not be unlocked. One side, it seemed had to be destroyed and the other become victor. It had the quality of a titanic struggle, the political importance which was attached to Stalingrad by both Hitler and Stalin was immensely significant.


To Hitler, the oil of the Caucasus had always been one of the foremost attractions of Russia. He had mentioned the necessity of seizing the Baku oil fields as early as 31st July 1940, during one of the initial discussions of his plan to invade the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1941 the Armed Forces High Command activated the so-called Oil Detachment Caucasus for the purpose of taking over the oil fields. At that time the Germans expected that their advance into the Caucasus would be so rapid that the Russians would not be able to severely damage the oil wells, and the tables of organization and equipment of the oil detachment were established accordingly.

The next step in this direction was the preparation of Directive No. 32, circulated by the Armed Forces High Command among the three services on 11th June 1941-11 days before the start of Operation BARBAROSSA. This directive envisaged a drive from the Caucasus across Iran as a part of the plan for the continuation of operations against the British Empire following the defeat of the Soviets. At that time German expeditionary forces were to be activated in the Caucasus and sent across Turkey and Syria to Palestine and across Iraq to Basra. The same directive also visualized the use of the Arab liberation movement against the British in the Middle East, and Special Staff F was designated to initiate and coordinate the corresponding military and subversive activities.

A few days later, on 16th June 1941, German counterintelligence submitted to the Armed Forces High Command a plan for securing the Caucasus oil fields as soon as the internal disintegration of the Soviet Union would become manifest. A nucleus of 100 Georgians, trained by German counterintelligence agents in sabotage and revolt tactics, was in existence in Romania. These Georgians would have to be brought to the oil fields by sea or air transport as soon as the German ground forces approached the Caucasus region. In a somewhat optimistic vein the plan foresaw the employment of the Georgians in two to three weeks after D-Day.

On 24th July 1941 the Army Operations Division wrote a memorandum on the conduct of operations after the conclusion of Operation BARBAROSSA. With regard to the Caucasus it was anticipated that the British would seize and block this area as soon as the Germans approached the Sea of Azov. The first British troop concentrations were believed to be taking place along the northern and eastern border of Iraq. Because of terrain difficulties a German offensive from the southern slopes of the Caucasus across Iran into Iraq could not be executed before the spring of 1942. Meanwhile, data regarding the Caucasus were to be collected; a list of German tourists, who had climbed the Caucasus Mountains during recent years and knew the terrain and weather conditions, was drawn up, and books dealing with the same subjects were carefully scrutinized.

At the beginning of August the German Naval Operations Staff submitted an estimate of the probable reaction of the Soviet Black Sea fleet in the event of a German penetration into the Caucasus. It was believed that the fleet could seriously hamper operations by keeping the coastal road and railroad between Tuapse and Sukhumi under fire. Among the Soviet ships suitable for such operations were one battleship, six cruisers, and 15 modern plus five outdated destroyers. In the Black Sea area the German Navy had no units capable of stopping or disturbing the movements of the Soviet fleet. Coastal batteries would be of limited use; even if they did drive the Soviet ships farther off shore, the latter would still remain within reach of the coast. Air force protection was the only effective means of safeguarding coastal traffic.

In late September reports from agents and radio intercepts indicated that the Russians had from five to six divisions in the Caucasus and three in Iran. It was estimated that British troops entering the Soviet Union would take three weeks to get from Iran to the Caucasus and four weeks to the Crimea.


In October 1941 the Operations Division of the Army High Command drew up the first detailed plan for a Caucasus operation. The scope of the offensive was limited to seizing the oil resources of the Caucasus and to reaching the Iranian and Iraqi border passes for a possible farther advance toward Baghdad. [See General reference map of the Caucasus area above.] The operation was to be executed in six separate phases, extending from November 1941 to September 1942. These phases were outlined as follows:

1 Seizure of the approaches to the northern Caucasus, starting in November 1941;

2 A series of preliminary attacks leading to the seizure of favorable jump-off areas by May 1942;

3 Launching the offensive across the Caucasus Mountains in two different stages in June 1942;

4 The advance across Transcaucasia toward the Turkish and Iranian borders;

5 Seizure of favorable jump-off areas within Iran; and

6 Capture of the border passes leading into Iraq. The last three phases were to take place in the period July-early September 1942.

The feasibility of the entire offensive would depend on the course taken by current operations in the Russian theater. The second and third phases could be executed only if German troops reached the lower Volga during the winter of 1941-42. The scope of the preliminary attacks to be launched during the second phase would depend on the overall plan adopted for the offensive across the Caucasus. The latter could be launched via the two roads following the Black and Caspian Sea coasts respectively and over the mountain road leading to Tiflis. The interior roads crossed the mountains over passes more than 10,000 feet in altitude. These roads could be negotiated only by mountain divisions. The movement along the Caspian coastal road would be easier because only a few outdated Russian destroyers were liable to interfere.

During the first stage of the offensive proper, two motorized and two mountain corps were to be employed, driving toward Sukhumi and Kutaisi in the west, Tiflis in the center, and Baku in the east, respectively. As soon as any one of these forces had achieved a breakthrough, one additional motorized corps that was being held in reserve was to move up and launch the pursuit. The commitment of this reserve force would determine where the point of main effort was to be placed during the second stage of the offensive.

The employment of two corps in the west during the first stage would be necessary because of the vulnerability of the lines of communications along the Black Sea. Moreover, in the west was the only opening for launching an enveloping drive, since unfavorable terrain conditions prevented any such maneuver elsewhere. During the second stage of the offensive the penetration into the mountains would have to be exploited by the reserve corps which could thrust either via the Black Sea coastal road to Batumi and from there via Tiflis to Baku; or across the mountains to Tiflis and from there either to Batumi or Baku; or along the Caspian shore to Baku and from there, if necessary to Tiflis.

While the offensive was in progress, German naval contingents would have to protect Novorossiysk and Tuapse by taking over captured coastal batteries. In addition, some submarines would have to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet under control, and the Navy would also have to make available the shipping space needed for carrying supplies from Novorossiysk to Batumi once the Russian fleet had been eliminated.

The Luftwaffe would have to protect and support the ground forces; combat the Red Navy and its ports; commit airborne troops to capture the major cities; use dive bombers against the pass fortifications; and prepare transport planes to airdrop supplies.

This plan met with general approval at an exploratory conference held at Army High Command headquarters upon request of the Operations Division on 24th October 1941. An attack across the Caucasus was considered the quickest solution to Germany’s MiddleEastern problems. The effect of such an offensive would induce Turkey to join the Axis Powers. In addition, British forces that would otherwise oppose Rommel in North Africa would be tied down in Iran.

An offensive launched in the spring of 1942 would first lead to the seizure of the Caucasus oil fields, then open the passes from Iran to Iraq, and finally permit the capture of the Iraqi oil fields in the autumn of 1942, when the weather favored the commitment of large ground forces. The essential prerequisite for such far-reaching operations was the seizure of the west bank of the lower Volga from Stalingrad to Astrakhan. This realization implied that if, for instance, the Germans failed to capture Stalingrad, a complete reevaluation of the plans for an offensive against the Caucasus would become necessary.

Among the essential preparations for a Caucasus operation discussed at this conference were the production of military maps and tropical clothing as well as the activation and equipment of special mountain troops.


In a conversation with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch on 7th November Hitler mentioned that the seizure of the oil fields would have to be delayed until the following year. This delay had actually been anticipated by the Operations Division of the Army High Command. However, a new point was brought up by the Führer when he added that he had no intention of going beyond the Russian border. The scope of the offensive was thus limited to the Caucasus; this change in plans was probably due to the slowdown in the 1941 advance caused by the muddy season.

According to all available intelligence the Red Army intended to put up stiff resistance in the Caucasus. By 9th November German intercept units had identified 5 army headquarters in that area. If exact, this information would imply the presence of at least 15 divisions, whereas prior to that time the presence of only 5 had been assumed. It seemed improbable that the Russians would move sizable forces across their border into Iran. And it seemed even more unlikely that the British would send strong forces northward into the Caucasus. For the time being the situation in the Caucasus remained obscure.

In a conversation with General Halder on 19th November, Hitler stated that the first objective for 1942 would be the Caucasus. An offensive launched for this purpose in March-April 1942 would bring the German forces to the Soviet border with Iran. Depending on the situation at the end of 1941, offensives in the center could subsequently be launched beyond Moscow toward Vologda or Gorki by the end of May 1942. Other objectives for 1942 could not yet be designated.

Their scope would depend mainly on the capacity of the railroads. The question of whether a defensive wall separating Asiatic from European Russia was subsequently to be constructed remained open.

Hitler thus revealed a number of interesting facts. Even as late as 19th November he seemed convinced that the Germans would be able to capture Moscow before the end of 1941. Furthermore, he seemed to believe that the Caucasus offensive across difficult mountain terrain could be successfully executed within a few weeks in April and May, as a kind of southern interlude prior to another offensive farther north. Three days later, on 22nd November 1941, Halder ordered a light infantry division organized for the Caucasus operation and mountain personnel withdrawn from combat. As late as 16 days before the turning of the tide in front of Moscow the atmosphere at Army High Command headquarters appeared definitely optimistic.


An order dated 10th January 1942, originating from the Armed Forces Economics Office and the Organization Branch of the Armed Forces Operations Staff and signed by Hitler brought out the newly imposed material limitations—if not the change in scope—of the 1942 operations.

In the introductory paragraph Hitler stated that the long-range strategic plans remained unchanged; the Navy and the Luftwaffe were to be expanded for the showdown with the Anglo-Saxon powers. Until further notice, however, the operations scheduled for 1942 would not permit a reduction in armaments destined for the Army. On the contrary, the Army would have to be given even more than its ordinary share of manpower and armaments so that it could accomplish its mission for 1942.

In effect, the Army was to have top priority on armament production. Wherever shortages of raw materials developed, the Navy and Luftwaffe would have to take the cuts. Greater standardization, the introduction of more substitutes, and the increased use of captured munitions were recommended as means to overcoming production bottlenecks.

The ground forces were to be ready for offensive commitment by 1st May 1942; supplies for at least four months of continuous operations would have to be accumulated by that time. The units taking part in the offensive would have to be amply provided with supply and service troops as well as motor vehicles, while those committed along the Atlantic Coast would not need many trucks. Ammunition supplies for all weapons used in the Russian theater would have to be built up to one month’s expenditure in addition to the basic load.

The Navy was to concentrate on submarine construction and maintenance. The Luftwaffe was to continue its current programs, except for a temporary curtailment of its ammunition and bomb production schedules.

Among the military-economic programs, oil had first priority. The railroad transportation, signal, and other programs were to be carried on along the same lines as before, whereas the motor vehicle output was to be increased. Military manpower requirements were to be coordinated with the industrial ones.

Perhaps the most striking note in this order was its pessimistic undertone. Written at a time when the Germans were desperately trying to stem the Russian tide west of Moscow, the order showed the many weaknesses in the German war machine which had become manifest after less than seven months of fighting in Russia. During the following weeks further planning for the summer offensive came to a standstill, probably because of the life-and-death struggle that raged along the Army Group Center front.


With the acute danger past at the front, the military planners were able to pursue more actively the preparations for a summer offensive. On 12th February 1942 the Operations Division of the Army High Command issued a directive for the conduct of operations after the end of the winter. An introductory statement anticipated that the Russian winter offensive would not succeed in destroying the German troops and their equipment. During the coming weeks the Germans would have to consolidate their lines, eliminate Russian forces that had penetrated into their rear areas, and generally attempt to seize the initiative. At the same time they would have to prepare themselves for the muddy period following the spring thaw.

The directive then went into great detail in describing the different aspects of the muddy season and the countermeasures to be taken. The Army High Command intended to use this probable lull in operations to rehabilitate and regroup its forces.

Army Group South was to hold its positions and make preparations for the planned offensive. First, the Russian penetration west of Izyum would have to be eliminated, then the Kerch Peninsula recaptured and Sevastopol seized, so that the forces stationed in the Crimea would become available for employment elsewhere.

Army Group Center was to seize Ostashkov and shorten its front line by eliminating various dents and penetrations.

Army Group North was to hold its lines near Kholm, Staraya Russa, and north of Lake Ilmen.

After the end of the muddy season all three army groups were to improve their front lines and establish continuous defensive positions, if possible. Because of the precarious supply situation, it seemed doubtful whether more than isolated strong points could be held along certain sectors of the front. Armored and motorized reserves would have to be assembled in accessible areas.

Units withdrawn from the frontline for rehabilitation would have to train their recently arrived replacements on the basis of past experience in combat. Because of a shortage of equipment, only a certain number of divisions could be fully rehabilitated. The ones selected for this purpose were the armored and motorized divisions as well as the army and corps troops of Army Group South, and three armored and three motorized infantry divisions as well as some of the army and corps troops of Army Groups Center and North. In the process of rehabilitation, each armored division was to have three tank battalions, and each motorized infantry division one. The armored divisions of Army Groups Center and North that were not to be rehabilitated would have to transfer some of their cadres to the south. Three armored and six infantry divisions of Army Group Center were to be moved to western Europe without their equipment. There they were to be completely rehabilitated and reequipped. The armored and motorized infantry divisions remaining with Army Group Center and North would have to be rehabilitated in the line without being issued any new equipment. The armored divisions in this category would probably have only one tank battalion. Approximately 500,000 replacements were supposed to arrive in the theater by the end of April 1942.

A special rehabilitation area for Army Group South was to be established near Dnieperopetrovsk, while for Army Group Center similar areas could be set up near Orsha, Minsk, Gomel, and Bryansk. Those few units of Army Group North which were to be rehabilitated would probably be transferred to the Zone of Interior. Rehabilitation was to begin in mid-March at the latest. After the muddy season the fully rehabilitated units of Army Group Center were to be transferred to Army Group South.

The exigencies of the last few months had led to the commitment of a great number of technical specialists as infantrymen. The overall personnel situation and the shortage of technically trained men made it imperative either to return all specialists to their proper assignment or to use them as cadres for newly activated units. The future combat efficiency of the Army would depend upon the effective enforcement of this policy.

The high rate of materiel attrition and the limited capacity of the armament industry were compelling reasons for keeping weapons and equipment losses at a minimum.

In the implementing order to the army groups and armies, the Organization Division of the Army High Command directed on 18th February that those mobile divisions that were to be fully rehabilitated would be issued 50-60 percent of their prescribed motor vehicle allowance and infantry divisions up to 50 percent. Every infantry company was to be issued four automatic rifles and four carbines with telescopic sights; armor-piercing rifle grenades were to be introduced. Bimonthly reports on manpower and equipment shortages as well as on current training and rehabilitation of units were to be submitted by all headquarters concerned.

The element of surprise was essential to the success of the summer offensive. On 12th February Keitel therefore issued the first directive for deceiving the Russians about future German intentions. The following information was to be played into Soviet intelligence hands by German counterintelligence agents:

At the end of the muddy season the German military leaders Intended to launch a new offensive against Moscow. For this purpose they wanted to concentrate strong forces by moving newly activated divisions to the Russian theater and exchanging battle-weary ones in the East for fresh ones from the West. After the capture of Moscow the Germans planned to advance to the middle Volga and seize the industrial installations in that region.

The assembly of forces was to take place in secret. For this purpose the capacity of the railroads was to be raised before the divisions were transferred from the West. German and allied forces would meanwhile launch a major deceptive attack in the direction of Rostov.

As to Leningrad, the prevailing opinion was that this city would perish by itself as soon as the ice on Lake Ladoga had melted. Then the Russians would have to dismount the railroad and the inhabitants would again be Isolated. To attack in this area appeared unnecessary.

In addition, those German troops that were earmarked for the Russian theater and presently stationed in the West were to be deceived by the issuance of military maps and geographic data pertaining to the Moscow area. The units that were already in the theater were not to be given any deceptive information until the current defensive battles had been concluded. The same directive also requested the Army and Luftwaffe to submit suggestions for other deceptive measures The maintenance of secrecy was strongly emphasized.


The German Navy’s principal concern in the Black Sea area was the transportation of supplies for the Army. The difficulties were caused by the shortage of shipping space and the absence of escort and combat vessels. Measures taken to improve the German position in the Black Sea included transfer of PT boats, Italian antisubmarine vessels, small submarines, and landing craft; mine fields were also being laid. Orders had been issued to speed up these measures and support the Army by bringing up supplies. Russian naval forces in the Black Sea would have to be attacked and destroyed. The degree of success obtained would determine the outcome of the war in the Black Sea area. Attention was called to the fact that eventually it would become necessary to occupy all Russian Black Sea bases and ports.

On the other hand, the remainder of the Russian Baltic fleet stationed in and around Leningrad had neither strategic nor tactical value. Ammunition and fuel supplies were exceedingly low. About 12 of the high speed mine sweepers had been sunk so far, so that only four or five were left. About 65 out of 100 submarines had been sunk by the Germans.


In a summary dated 20th February 1942 the Eastern Intelligence Division of the Army High Command stated that the Russians were anticipating a German offensive directed against the Caucasus and the oil wells in that area. As a countermeasure the Red Army would have the choice between a spoiling offensive and a strategic withdrawal. Assuming the Russians would attack, it was estimated that their offensive would take place in the south. There they could interfere with German attack preparations, reoccupy economically valuable areas, and land far to the rear of the German lines along the Black Sea coast. If they were sufficiently strong, the Soviets would also attempt to tie down German forces by a series of local attacks in the Moscow and Leningrad sectors.

Numerous reports from German agents in Soviet-held territory indicated that the Red Army had been planning the recapture of the Ukraine for some time. At the earliest the Russian attack could take place immediately after the muddy season, i. e. at the beginning of May.

The Russian forces identified opposite Army Group South consisted of 83 infantry divisions and 12 infantry brigades as well as 20 cavalry divisions and 19 armored brigades, plus an unknown number of newly organized units.

Interference from British forces seemed unlikely. The latter would move into the Caucasus area only if their supply lines could be properly secured, a time-consuming process that had not even been initiated. On the other hand, lend-lease materiel was arriving in considerable quantities; the first U. S. fighter planes had been encountered along the German Sixth Army front.


On 5th March an order signed by Keitel summarized the various instructions issued by Hitler to the services during recent weeks. In the general part of this order, the Army and Luftwaffe were reminded that premature attacks conducted without concentrating sufficient forces had failed on several occasions. Efforts to stop Russian penetrations all along the front had led to piecemeal commitment and dissipation of ground forces. The Russians would have to be stopped wherever they threatened vital communications. In the event of a Soviet breakthrough full-strength units were to be assembled along of the salient and the gap was to be closed after the bulk of the Russian forces had passed through.

Minor rectifications of the defense lines were permissible so long as no important installations were thereby abandoned. No local attacks, the results of which were out of proportion with the losses, were to be launched. Luftwaffe support was to be requested only for essential operations, such as destroying concentrations of Soviet armor prior to an attack. Many a Russian attack could be delayed or altogether weakened beyond repair by disrupting Soviet lines of communications. To achieve greater effect, the heaviest bombs available were to be used for all-out air attacks. Since there was a shortage of artillery along many stretches of the front effective air support for offensive operations was essential. Because of the current emergency, air transport was so scarce that no additional airlift operations could be carried out during the muddy period.

In the second part of the order the mission of each army group for the immediate future was set forth as follows:


1 If the Crimea was to be seized with a minimum of delay, the Kerch Peninsula would have to be captured before starting the siege of Sevastopol. The Russian ports and Black Sea fleet would have to be neutralized from the air before ground operations were started in the Crimea.

2 The next step was to eliminate the Izyum salient by first letting the Soviets exhaust their offensive power in that area and then cutting off the salient by thrusts directed from the shoulders. The armored divisions of the First Panzer Army were to carry out these thrusts and were therefore given top priority on tank and motor vehicle deliveries.


All forces available in the Army Group Center area were to be assembled for a Ninth Army thrust in the direction of Ostashkov. This drive was to take place before the spring muddy period. The lines of communications that had been frequently disrupted would have to be secured.


The airlift operations that had been initiated to bring the situation under control were to be stepped up. More reinforcements were to be moved up to permit the consolidation of the situation at Demyansk and prevent an encirclement along the Volkhov. Eventually, Sixteenth Army was to attack from the Staraya Russa area in a movement that was to be coordinated with the Ninth Army drive toward Ostashkov. The VIII Air Corps was to support this operation as well as the Volkhov maneuver.

Another directive, signed by Hitler on 14th March, dealt with the problem of Allied assistance to the Soviet Union. It stated that British and American efforts to bolster Russia’s power of resistance during the decisive months of 1942 would have to be curbed. For this purpose the Germans would have to strengthen their coastal defenses in Norway to prevent Allied landings along the Arctic coast, particularly in the Petsamo nickel mine area, in northern Finland. Moreover, the Navy would have to intensify submarine operations against convoys crossing the Arctic Ocean. The Luftwaffe was to strengthen its long-range reconnaissance and bomber units in the far north and transfer the bulk of its torpedo planes to that area. The flying units were to keep the Russian ports along the Murmansk coast under constant attack, increase their reconnaissance activities, and intercept convoys. Close inter-service cooperation was essential.


The overall situation remained static during the month of March. The Russians showed signs of exhaustion, while the Germans were incapable of launching any major counterattack. Like two groggy boxers, the opponents warily eyed each other, neither of them strong enough to land a knockout blow. The weakness of the Russians became manifest through a number of incidents. In the area around Velizh, for instance, the Germans captured rifles, the butts of which were unfinished, indicating that the weapons had been issued before they were ready. The shortage of infantry weapons, though nothing new, seemed more acute than ever. Russian prisoners stated that wooden rifles were being used for training recruits in the Zone of Interior. In another instance, the Russian cavalry divisions opposite Army group South were so short of horses—their strength had dropped to approximately 60 horses per regiment—that the men had to be employed as infantry.

The true condition of the German forces could be gathered from a status report of 30th March 1942. Out of a total of 162 combat divisions in the Russian theater, only eight were immediately available for any mission, three were capable of offensive missions after a rest period, 47 were available for limited offensive missions, 73 were fully suited for defensive missions, 29 were only capable of limited defensive missions, and two were not suited for immediate commitment. The 16 armored divisions in the theater had a total of 140 serviceable tanks, that is to say less than the normal complement of one division. Because of the shortage of motor vehicles and prime movers, few divisions were more than 20 percent mobile. The few available tanks and self-propelled guns were distributed among various armored and infantry divisions.

Under these conditions the arrival of the muddy season at the end of March, which practically enforced a truce in the fighting, was a relief for both protagonists. Although the mud was less severe than during the preceding autumn, it did not hamper operations for some time.

During March Army Group South was not engaged in any large-scale fighting, and Bock, who had assumed command of the army group after Reichenau’s sudden death on 17th January 1942, used this lull to reinforce the wall around the Russian breach near Izyum.

In the Army Group Center area the heavy fighting in the rear of Fourth and Ninth Armies continued. The Russians did everything in their power to supply their forces behind the German front, and they exerted constant pressure on Army Group Center’s only supply line, the Smolensk-Vyazma-Rzhev railroad. German efforts to keep this route open were handicapped by a shortage of troops. Also, in the Vitebsk-Velikiye Luki area there was a latent threat which the Germans were unable to eliminate. But they were fortunate that the Russians in this region had dispersed their forces over a wide area instead of concentrating them for a southward drive.

South of Lake Ilmen Army Group North had assembled a relief force to establish contact with the Demyansk pocket. The situation along the Volkhov front had deteriorated because a strong attack launched by the Russians northeast of Lyuban resulted in a deep breach, which—in conjunction with the Volkhov penetration—threatened to develop into a double envelopment of the German forces in that area.



There can be no doubt that Hitler himself conceived the plan for the German summer offensive. In addition to designating the principal objectives, he plotted most of the details and even went so far as to dictate the text. His self-confidence as military leader had greatly risen since he had overcome the winter crisis without abandoning a major part of Germany’s territorial gains in Russia. In his recently acquired position of commander in chief of the Army he seemed less than ever disposed to listen to his advisers. Whereas the plans for Operation BARBAROSSA had been prepared according to German General Staff procedures, those for Operation SIEGFRIED—the summer offensive of 1942—were drafted by General Halder and his immediate assistants according to detailed instructions received from Hitler who dictated the final version. In so doing, the Führer completely rewrote Directive No. 41, adding very important parts pertaining to the conduct of operations in particular. At the same time the code designation SIEGFRIED was changed to BLAU, and Hitler specified that the services be given separate instructions regarding the maintenance of secrecy and the scope of strategic propaganda directed at the Caucasus area.


According to the postwar conclusions of Generals Halder, Heinrici, etc., the German summer offensive should never have been launched. The German Army had emerged greatly weakened from the ordeal of the winter 1941- 42. It had no strategic reserves. To concentrate the essential forces for a large-scale offensive, wide sectors of the Russian front had to be stripped of all their local reserves. Even though the Russians were equally weak by spring 1942, they had manpower reserves and natural resources that were not available to the Axis Powers.

In Halder’s opinion the appropriate German strategy for the summer of 1942 would have been to stabilize the front, eliminate the numerous Russian salients and dents in the German lines, and shorten the front line to save personnel. While using active defense tactics at the front, the German Army could have reorganized and refitted for an offensive to be launched at the first favorable opportunity.

Hitler, however, was adverse to any such delay in the continuation of the offensive. In his opinion the Russians had been hard hit during their winter onslaught, and if given time, would get back on their feet. He doubted whether the German Army would be in a more favorable position in 1943 than in 1942. Also, Germany would have to seek a decision in Russia that year, because the Allies might attempt an invasion of western Europe in 1943. While direct and indirect United States aid to Britain and Soviet Russia was steadily increasing, Italy’s military and economic power was gradually deteriorating. The crushing blows suffered by the Italian armed forces in the African and Mediterranean theaters had affected the staying power of Germany’s principal ally in Europe. Moreover, by adopting a defensive strategy, Germany would lose face with Japan and the neutral powers. Finally, Hitler believed that a dictatorship, to maintain itself, had to produce an incessant stream of successes. An offensive in 1942 would be all the more necessary because, with the military-economic situation steadily growing worse since the start of the Russian campaign, time was working against Germany.


The original objective of the campaign against the Soviet Union was “to eradicate the remaining Russian military potential and deprive the Soviets of the resources on which their economy was still based.” The experience of 1941 indicated that this objective could not be attained unless the Russians were prevented from withdrawing. Halder at the time asserted that this would be extremely difficult in the south, where the Russians could afford to trade space for time without suffering a decisive defeat.

The situation could have been different in the center, where the Russian capital was still within German reach. A deep enveloping sweep launched from the Voronezh-Orel region to points east and northeast of Moscow would have had a telling effect. There was little doubt that the Russians would again have summoned all their strength to defend their capital as they had done during the preceding winter. An offensive in this area would therefore have given the Germans a far better chance to deal the Soviets a knockout blow than an operation in the south.

The German offensive in 1942 was, however, launched in the south because Hitler felt that a decisive victory could be won in southern Russia. Germany’s growing shortage of strategic materials influenced the Führer’s thinking so much that he became convinced the Soviets were suffering from similar handicaps after having lost so many rich provinces to the Germans. He argued that if their vital oil supply from the Caucasus was threatened, they would use all their remaining manpower and materiel for its defense. Another factor was that possession of this oil would be of greater importance to the German war effort than anything Moscow had to offer.

According to the postwar writings of General Halder and his associates, Hitler’s decision to launch an offensive in the summer of 1942 in the southern part of the Russian theater was at best a doubtful gamble. His objective could have been obtained only if the Russians had committed the bulk of the Red Army in the Don bend and if the Germans had succeeded in cutting off and destroying these Soviet forces.

Hitler’s directive was issued on 5th April 1942. It read essentially as follows:


The winter battles in Russia were approaching their end and the Germans had won a “defensive success of unequalled magnitude.” The Russians had suffered extremely heavy losses and used up the reserves they had earmarked for subsequent operations.

As soon as weather and terrain conditions permitted, the Germans would regain the initiative so that they could eradicate the remaining Russian military potential and deprive the Soviets of the resources on which their economy was still based. All available forces of Germany and its allies were to be employed for this purpose, taking into account that the occupied territories in northern and western Europe, and especially their coast lines, had to be safeguarded.


While Army Group North was to seize Leningrad and establish contact with the Finns, Army Group Center was to hold. In the south, German attack forces were to penetrate into the Caucasus. To attain the latter objective, the Army would have to proceed by phase lines. In planning the conduct of this offensive factors to be considered were the course of the front lines along which the winter fighting would be brought to a conclusion and the availability of manpower, equipment, and transportation.

All available forces would have to be concentrated for the principal operation in the south in order to first destroy the enemy forces in the Don bend, then seize the oil resources of the Caucasus, and finally cross the Caucasus mountain ranges. The Leningrad operation was to be made contingent upon developments in the overall situation.


As a first step toward accomplishing these missions, the Army was to consolidate its position along the entire Russian front. That would require a number of limited objective attacks which would have to be conducted with maximum power to assure local superiority and rapid success, and to strengthen the German troops’ self-confidence.

Once this consolidation had been achieved, the Kerch Peninsula would have to be cleared and Sevastopol captured. During these preliminary operations the Luftwaffe and Navy were to disrupt Russian communications in the Black Sea. Moreover, the Russian forces that had dented the German lines at Izyum would have to be cut off along the Donets and destroyed.

After these preliminary operations the Army was to launch the Caucasus offensive proper. During the initial phases the Russian forces south of Voronezh and west and north of the Don would have to he destroyed. Since the divisions available for this operation could not detrain and assemble simultaneously, the offensive would have to be executed by consecutive phases that were to complement one another. The delivery of individual attacks in different parts of the theater would have to be so coordinated that maximum power could be developed at the right time at the decisive point.

Encirclements of Russian forces resulting from German breakthroughs and envelopments would have to be tight; the enveloping forces would have to avoid any delay that would offer the Soviets an opportunity to escape. While movements were underway, the armored and motorized infantry units were to avoid losing contact with the infantry divisions; whenever the latter were unable to make headway, motorized elements were to lend them support.

The offensive was to start with a breakthrough from the area south of Orel in the direction of Voronezh. Two enveloping forces were to seize Voronezh. During the second phase, while some of the infantry divisions established a strong defensive line from Orel to Voronezh.


During the summer of 1942 Germany’s allies were to play a much more significant part in the Russian theater than heretofore. In an effort to intensify their participation in the struggle against the Soviet Union, Keitel had visited Hungary and Romania during the preceding winter and Hitler had made a personal appeal to Mussolini. The Armed Forces High Command was to provide all the weapons and equipment it could spare for the allied contingents. The political differences were to be partly overcome by interspersing Italian corps or armies between Hungarian and Romanian ones. In compliance with requests received from Germany’s allies, Hitler on 15th April ordered national units to fight under the command of their own army or at least corps headquarters. This decision was to cost the Germans dearly when their allies collapsed along the Don front under the blows of the Russian counteroffensive.

To ascertain smooth cooperation at different levels of command, the German Army organized a number of liaison staffs to be attached to allied division, corps, and army headquarters. Hitler showed his continued anxiety over the morale of the allied troops a few weeks later, when he stated that Italian and other allied military achievements should be given proper credit in German news releases. Fanatical loyalty on the part of the Germans would in turn inspire their allies with similar feelings.

The Germans counted on the assistance of the following allied forces:

On the other hand, Hitler was unable to satisfy the requests of Generaloberst (Gen.) Erwin Rommel after his meeting with Mussolini at the beginning of April 1942. No motorized army artillery and engineer units could be made available for the North African theater before the successful conclusion of the Caucasus offensive in the autumn of 1942. By June, however, Rommel’s advance into armored and motorized divisions were to continue their southeastward drive along the Don, performing another double envelopment in conjunction with forces thrusting eastward from the Kharkov area.

During the third phase of the offensive the forces following the course of the Don were to link up near Stalingrad with those advancing eastward from the Taganrog area. Every attempt was to be made to seize Stalingrad or at least bring the city within reach of German artillery so that the Soviets would be deprived of its production and transportation facilities. Subsequent operations would be greatly facilitated if the bridges at Rostov could be seized intact and bridgeheads could be established south of the Don.

The German attack force on the right advancing eastward from Taganrog was to be reinforced with armored and motorized divisions in order to prevent major Russian elements from escaping across the Don. Defensive positions would have to be built along the Don while the advance was in progress. These positions would have to be amply provided with antitank guns and so constructed that, if necessary, they could be of service during the winter. Allied forces, supported by German troops, would have to man these positions, and German divisions would have to serve as strategic reserves behind the Don front.

Because of the advanced season the movements across the Don toward the south would have to be so timed that the Caucasus could be reached without major stoppage.


Apart from giving direct support to the ground forces, the Luftwaffe was to protect the concentration of forces in the Army Group South area by strengthening the antiaircraft defense, particularly those of the Dnieper railway bridges. In the event that reconnaissance information should indicate the assembly of Russian attack forces, the Luftwaffe would have to disrupt Soviet lines of communications and above all destroy the railroad bridges across the Don.


In the Black Sea the Navy’s main function was to carry out naval transports. Since the Russian Black Sea fleet had so far not been affected by military events, German naval vessels transferred to these waters would have to be prepared for combat without delay. The Russian Baltic fleet was to be neutralized in the Gulf of Finland.

Special security precautions were to be taken, which—together with strategic propaganda—were the subject of instructions issued simultaneously. The number of persons initiated in the plan for the summer offensive was to be held to a minimum; conversations about possible operations were strictly forbidden; no long-distance calls discussing preparations were to be made beyond army group, air force, and VIII Air Corps. All orders and messages were to be forwarded by courier in writing, and differences of opinion were to be cleared up in personal conferences or through an exchange of coded messages. Germany’s allies were to be informed of only the most essential facts.

Strategic propaganda was to be directed at the Caucasian tribes – independence was to be promised. Liaison officers were to be attached to allied propaganda agencies to guarantee adherence to German policies.

This directive leaves no doubt that Hitler’s principal objective for the summer offensive of 1942 was the possession of the Caucasus and its oil resources The shortage of combat troops and the precariousness of the transportation network made it necessary to place great emphasis on the preliminary operations, whereas the main drive toward the Caucasus was outlined only in its initial phase—the seizure of bridgeheads across the Don. More specific orders for a Caucasus operation were not issued until 23rd July 1942, when the operation was in full swing and Hitler signed Directive No. 45. At the time Directive No. 41 was written, no basic conflict between the eastward thrust toward Stalingrad and the southward drive into the Caucasus was anticipated. Like Voronezh, for instance, Stalingrad was to be a stepping stone along the approach road toward the Caucasus. In the Führer’s mind, however, the desire to conquer the city on the Volga by house-to-house fighting gradually became a fixation. This was all the more difficult to understand because in 1941 he had rejected any direct attack on Leningrad and Moscow. The diversion of more and more forces toward Stalingrad was made to the detriment of the principal drive into the Caucasus, and eventually both efforts were to bog down for lack of strength.



Despite the bitter experiences of the winter 1941-42, the Germans continued to underestimate their Russian opponent. According to an estimate submitted by the Eastern Intelligence Division on 10th April 1942, the Red Army had been greatly affected by the winter fighting. Newly activated units showed deficiencies in training, weapons, and equipment. Not only was there a shortage of manpower, but the limitations imposed by the loss of armament production capacity would hamper the further activation of armored units.

In 1942 the Russians would limit themselves to defensive operations, possibly interrupted by intermittent limited-objective offensives to harass the Germans. Being aware of the German plans for an offensive in the southeast, the Russians could be expected to use every means at their disposal to maintain their lines of communications with the Caucasus. As yet there was no indication that the Russians intended to launch a spoiling attack in the south. In the center they would try to consolidate the defense system around Moscow, whereas in the north the relief of Leningrad would probably be given top priority.

Few Russian units appeared to be at full combat efficiency. While the activation of new rifle divisions was feasible, that of armored divisions seemed no longer possible. Steel production was the bottleneck. No major Russian offensive was to be expected in the foreseeable future. The bulk of the Soviet forces would probably be massed in the south.

Making these ideas his own, Halder reported to Hitler that the great number of Russian divisions identified since November 1941 seemed to indicate that the Red Army had mobilized all its manpower resources and had used up a major part of them during the winter offensive.


On 16th April Generaloberst (Gen.) Fritz Erich von Manstein, commander of Eleventh Army in the Crimea, suggested to Hitler that the attack on the Kerch Peninsula be delayed until 5th May because he was still short some essential items of supply. Hitler approved Manstein’s request, adding that the Luftwaffe would have to give strong support to the ground forces. As soon as Kerch was cleared, Army Group South was to pinch off and eliminate the Izyum salient, after which the siege of Sevastopol was to be begun. The timing of these three preliminary operations was to be made contingent upon the availability of essential air support. Because of the delay in the start of the first attack, the Sevastopol operation would not begin before mid-June at the earliest.


As a result of the shifting of forces to the West, to Army Group South, and to rehabilitation centers, Army Group Center was forced to abandon the attacks on Ostashkov and Toropez. Despite its reduction in strength, however, the army group was ordered to eliminate the partisan forces in its rear, consolidate its front line, reorganize its remaining units, and set aside reserves. After these missions had been accomplished, the army group was to undertake a series of limited objective attacks.


The first phase of the summer offensive was to be conducted by Army Group South, composed of Second and Sixth Armies, Fourth Panzer Army, and the First Army. During the second phase First Panzer Army, the Italian Eighth Army, and probably also Eleventh Army were to intervene. The newly activated Army Group A was to assume control of the movements foreseen for the following phases, while Army Group South would become responsible for securing flank protection along the Don front.


The divisions that were to participate in the German offensive were to be moved up in three echelons. The 41 divisions—21 of which were allied—that were to reinforce the units stationed in the south were none too many for an offensive of such dimensions. Since the Russians had the better railnet for their assembly, they might be able to jump off before the Germans. Much would depend upon the quantities of lend-lease equipment they would receive via Murmansk by June 1942.

The delays in the start of the preliminary attacks would necessarily affect the time of the offensive proper, all the more so because as late as April the Russians were still holding the initiative.

Divisions to be moved up for the Summer Offensive


Hitler, who believed that Turkey would sooner or later join the Axis Powers, ordered the German Ambassador in Ankara to offer the Turks 150 million marks worth of military equipment at a time when he could hardly spare a rifle. However, the deal was not consummated because Turkey refused the passage of German submarines and PT boats through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea. In his search for another solution Hitler ordered the boats disassembled, transported cross country, and reassembled in Black Sea ports. This order was carried out, but it produced no significant results.



During the first phase—the drive on Voronezh—the offensive forces were to be supplied from the supply depots of the Kursk district. After the seizure of Voronezh, the railroad connecting that city with Kursk would become the principal feeder line for the Don front. Nonorganic truck transportation columns were to carry the supplies for the spearhead divisions.

The Kharkov supply district was to support the attack forces participating in the second phase. An advance base was to be set up at Valuiki as soon as the Voronezh forces linked up with those coming from Kharkov.

During the third phase additional advance bases would have to be set up along the railroad leading from the Stalino supply district to Stalingrad and east of Valuiki along the Don. Supply points would also have to be established south of the lower Don as soon as German troops crossed the river for the drive into the Caucasus.

To carry out these different missions, a large number of truck transportation columns would have to be held in readiness. Special supply reconnaissance teams were to follow the spearheads during each movement.


Until Army Group A assumed control in the southern part of the Army Group South area, the supply preparations for Operation BLAU were to be the responsibility of the newly formed Command Staff South.


Aside from the initial issue carried by the troops, the following quantities of supplies were to be stored in depots:

Detailed preparations could be made only for the first two phases for which the necessary data were available. Depots in the Kharkov and Kursk districts were to break down supplies according to the estimated requirements of the forces that were to be assembled in these areas, whereas at Stalino supplies were to be stored in bulk.


By the start of Operation BLAU it was hoped that most of the participating units would be adequately equipped with motor vehicles. Prime movers were still scarce. The preliminary operations as well as the long distances some of the motorized units would have to cover to reach the assembly areas might cause further attrition in organic motor vehicles before the start of the offensive proper. Despite intensive maintenance and repair efforts the spearhead divisions would probably have only 60 percent or less of their organic motor vehicles by the time the offensive was launched. Truck transportation columns with a total capacity of 11,000 short tons would be available by 20th June 1942 to compensate for the shortage of organic vehicles.


During the initial phases of the operation the attack forces could rely on three major rail lines with detraining points in the Kursk, Kharkov, and Donets Basin areas. During the third phase the left arm of the pincers directed at Stalingrad would lack rail support as it extended southeastward along the Don. The right arm would be dependent upon the single railroad connecting Stalino with Stalingrad. This was the only railroad by which the attack forces could be supplied once they were approaching the Volga.


The supply situation during the first phase appeared satisfactory with sufficient ammunition and rations apparently available for the second phase. But POL reserves would be consumed by 15th July, and the continuation of the offensive would have to be assured from current shipments.



The predominant problem facing the Organization Division of the Army High Command was the rehabilitation of units. Altogether three armored and five infantry divisions committed in the Russian theater were selected to be exchanged for one armored and nine infantry divisions stationed in the West. The troops to be withdrawn from the Russian theater were to be deloused twice: first before entraining and then again after detraining.

Some of the army and corps troops as well as the divisions that were to be rehabilitated within the theater could not even be pulled out of the front. They were to be rehabilitated in place, a very unsatisfactory procedure not propitious to raising the combat efficiency of the respective units. Leaves were to be granted to all those men who had served uninterruptedly in the theater since the start of the campaign. Two leave trains per week were scheduled for each army group.


The armored divisions complained about the continued shortage of technicians and the weakness of their cadres. Tank and truck drivers were at a premium. Several orders were issued requesting field commanders to return technicians and specialists to the assignments for which they were trained. To relieve the manpower shortage within the theater, native units were to be activated from the prisoners of Tatar, Caucasian, Georgian, Armenian, and Cossack nationality who would probably be captured during the summer offensive. These units were to assume some of the routine duties heretofore curried out by German troops, thus permitting a more judicious employment of the latter.


On 26th April General Halder issued an order calling for the establishment of a defense system. In view of the general weakness of the front lines, enemy breakthroughs could be prevented only by constructing fortifications, establishing switch positions, and building specific fortified areas.

The front lines were to be fortified in depth. Switch positions were to protect the Bryansk-Kharkov line. Since there was not sufficient manpower to construct continuous lines in the rear, it would be necessary to establish fortified areas that could be held for prolonged periods by weak forces against superior enemy pressure. These fortified areas were to secure important supply and communications centers, such as Melitopol, Dnieperopetrovsk, Poltava, Bryansk, Roslavl, Smolensk, Nevel, Luga, Gatchina and Pskov.

By securing the most important road and rail junctions, river crossings, etc., situated between the front line and the fortified areas in the rear, the Germans could create a defense system capable of successfully withstanding any Soviet armored elements that might break through the front.

Engineer staffs were to be responsible for the construction of the fortifications. Only indigenous labor was to be used because of the shortage of German manpower. The material needed for the construction program would also have to be procured from local resources.


The Oil Detachment Caucasus, formed in the spring of 1911, was expanded because of recent experiences with the Russian scorched earth policy. Since the oil fields would be more severely damaged than originally presumed, the detachment was brought to a strength of 10,794 men and redesignated Oil Brigade Caucasus. The brigade was issued 1,142 vehicles and six planes and ordered to stand by, ready to move into the Caucasus oil fields immediately behind the combat troops.


At the end of the winter fighting, on 30th April 1942, total German casualties, excluding sick, numbered 1,167,835 officers and men. A number of measures to save personnel had been introduced, such as lowering the T/O strength of the infantry divisions. Nevertheless, by 31st October 1942 the estimated shortage of replacements in the Russian theater would amount to 280,000 men, even if all operations proceeded according to plan. The Organization Division believed that it would be impossible to provide sufficient replacements for all three army groups. The three solutions therefore taken under consideration at the end of April were as follows:

1 To give Army Group south its full complement of replacements, in which case the situation at Army Groups Center and North would not be relieved until July 1942;

2 To fulfill only 80 per cent of the Army Group South requirements, as a result of which the position of the other two army groups would improve quite considerably by July 1942; or

3 To give Army Group South its full complement and accelerate the arrival of additional replacements by transferring during May and June to each of the two other army groups 100,000 men with only two months of training.

General Halder chose the third solution, fully cognizant of the disadvantage incurred by committing replacements with only two months of training. Actually, he had little choice in the matter. The monthly report on the rehabilitation of units in the Army Group Center area during April 1942 indicated that the unabated intensity of the defensive fighting as well as the withdrawal of divisions for transfer to the West had almost completely obstructed the reorganization and rehabilitation of the units that stayed in place. In general, the divisions which were to be rehabilitated in place would have only limited mobility and reduced combat efficiency, the shortage of motor vehicles and horses being their greatest handicap.


During the summer of 1942, Germany’s allies were to play a much more significant part in the Russian theater than heretofore. In an effort to intensify their participation in the struggle against the Soviet Union, Keitel had visited Hungary and Romania during the preceding winter andHitler had made a personal appeal to Mussolini. The Armed Forces High Command was to provide all the weapons and equipment it could spare for the allied contingents. The political differences were to be partly overcome by interspersing Italian corps or armies between Hungarian and Romanian ones. In compliance with requests received from Germany’s allies, Hitler on 15th April ordered national units to fight under the command of their own army or at least corps headquarters. This decision was to cost the Germans dearly when their allies collapsed along the Don front under the blows of the Russian counter-offensive.

To ascertain smooth cooperation at different levels of command, the German Army organized a number of liaison staffs to be attached to allied division, corps, and army headquarters. Hitler showed his continued anxiety over the morale of the allied troops a few weeks later, when he stated that Italian and other allied military achievements should be given proper credit in German news releases. Fanatical loyalty on the part of the Germans would in turn inspire their allies with similar feelings.

The Germans counted on the assistance of the following allied forces:

Allied Divisions Available for the Russian Theater (Summer 1942)

On the other hand, Hitler was unable to satisfy the requests of Generaloberst (Gen.) Erwin Rommel after his meeting with Mussolini at the beginning of April 1942. No motorized army artillery and engineer units could be made available for the North African theater before the successful conclusion of the Caucasus offensive in the autumn of 1942. By June, however, Rommel’s advance into Egypt seemed so promising that Hitler suddenly decided to divert to North Africa a number of tanks, trucks, and weapons which had been reserved for the rehabilitation of two Russian-theater divisions.

Aside from Germany’s allies, a number of European states, even some of the recently vanquished ones, offered contingents of volunteers who desired to participate in the campaign against the Soviet Union—which for a time tended to assume the characteristics of a crusade against Bolshevism. But Hitler, distrusting his former enemies, reluctantly permitted only a limited number of Frenchmen to serve in national units up to regimental strength. Party political considerations induced him to transfer the responsibility for organizing foreign military volunteer units from Army to National Socialist Party (Waffen-SS) control.


Anxious to secure the lines of communications of the combat forces, General Halder decided that three German security divisions plus Hungarian and Romanian troops were to follow behind the advance. Each security division was to be composed of one infantry and one security regiment, one motorized military police, one artillery, and one signal battalion, as well as one Cossack troop. Military administrative headquarters and prisoner of war processing units were to be formed in addition.


One of the problems that constantly preoccupied Hitler during the preparatory period was the exposed flank that would extend from Voronezh to the area northeast of Kursk. The Führer ordered this defense line amply provided with antitank guns. A total of 350-400 self-propelled 75-mm antitank guns—more than half of them captured French weapons—and some 150 captured Russian 76-mm guns were to be distributed along this front to repel Soviet medium and heavy tanks. Tractors and captured prime movers were to be employed to give a certain degree of mobility to those guns which were not self-propelled.


The new Army Group A was to be formed under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelm List. To prevent premature discovery of the German intentions by the Russians, the arrival of all higher headquarters in the assembly areas was to be delayed to the last possible moment. The Army High Command was to control the movements of all Army Group A and Fourth Panzer Army units as well as those of the army and corps troops.

The cover names given to each of the Army Group A units were to convey the impression that they were engaged in fortification work. List himself was not to arrive in the theater until shortly before the start of operations. The forward echelon of his headquarters was transferred to Poltava on 12th May, the remaining elements were to arrive at Stalino later in May. By approximately 15th June, when the first phase of Operation BLAU was to be launched, Army Group A headquarters was to be ready to secretly assume command over the Eleventh and Seventeenth Armies, and possibly over the First Panzer Army. The overt assumption of command was to take place shortly afterward.


At the beginning of May 1942 Molotov flew to Great Britain and the United States, where he was promised that a second front would be opened before the end of the year. On 2d May a news agency report from Moscow indicated that the Russians were expecting a German spring offensive launched from the Bryansk-Orel-Kursk area. The probable objective was Voronezh, after which the German troops would advance down the Don to seize Stalingrad, while other German forces thrusting from the Kharkov region would advance eastward.

This news report must have produced a certain effect, since only five days later the Chief of the Armed Forces Operations Staff issued a new directive concerning deception. Referring to the previous directive on the same subject dated 12th February 1942, Jodl divided the period before the start of Operation BLAU into two phases.

During the first phase, which was to last up to 25th May, the existing uncertainty with regard to the true German intentions was to be increased, and the preparations and movements for Operation BLAU were to be dissimulated by showing no point of main effort. Since some of the troops needed for the preliminary operations around the Izyum salient were to assemble behind Army Group Center, the Russians would have difficulty in recognizing the objective of the next major offensive. To German units the troop movements were to be explained as a series of simple exchanges of battle-weary divisions from the Russian theater for fresh divisions from the West. The rehabilitation of numerous divisions had long been overdue. As soon as the preliminary operations got under way, maps of the Moscow area up to the middle Volga were to be distributed to the Luftwaffe units.

The second phase was to start after 25th May. By that time the Russians would be at least partly aware of the German distribution of forces. If their attention was drawn away from Army Group South toward Army Group Center, it might be possible to deceive them with regard to the real German main effort and objective. This deception was to be achieved by replacing German units with allied ones at the front, thus simulating a weakening at a point where in reality strength was being built up. An attack on Moscow was to be simulated by assembling some of the attack forces at the boundary between Army Groups South and Center. By intensifying reconnaissance activities along sectors of the Army Groups Center and North fronts one might simulate offensive intentions. Other means suggested were deceptive radio traffic and supply activities; the formation of fictitious staffs; night march movements of rear elements of security divisions; the erection of dummy planes on airfields in the Army Group Center area; rumors spread by military attachés assigned to neutral countries; the planting of articles in military magazines published in neutral countries, in which special emphasis was placed on Moscow’s significance as the center of Russian resistance, as the hub, and the key to armament production, indicating that after the loss of Moscow the Red Army would be unable to offer active resistance west of the Volga.

To judge by the results, the net effect of these deceptive measures was disappointing, since on 16th June another news agency report from Moscow contained details concerning the German intentions and came very close to the real plans.


Panthers of Army Group Centre 1945

Fighting in the Panther

For German tank crews, the interior of the Panther was a significant improvement on the Panzer IV, which had become more and more cramped as larger guns were shoehorned into the small turret. A Panther’s crew consisted of a commander, gunner, loader, radio operator, and driver. They were all hooked up to an internal intercom system, allowing communication over the roar of the engine and the sounds of battle.

The driver had arguably the hardest job of anyone in the crew. Being able to maneuver around the battlefield effectively without damaging the vehicle’s fragile drivetrain required a deft touch and skilled judgement. He sat on a low padded seat down in the front left compartment of the tank, separated from the radio operator by the tank’s enormous gearbox. Directly in front of him, only a few inches from his face, was the thick bulletproof glass of the viewport, and above that the eyepieces for the two periscopes. The seat was positioned close to the side of the hull, just above the hull floor. To the right of the driver was a control panel with the speedometer, fuel gauge, and other important instruments. The large rubber-tipped gear lever stuck out from the side of the gearbox roughly level with the driver’s hip while the steering levers (one for each track) hung down from mountings on either side of the viewport. The driver’s position was an awkward one, especially for taller men who had to uncomfortably squeeze their legs under the axle for the drive wheels in order to reach the pedals. It did, however, have the advantage of a large escape hatch positioned directly above the seat.

On the opposite side of the gearbox sat the radio operator. His position was the mirror image of the driver’s position, except he had a ball-mounted MG34 in front of him where the driver had a vision port. His only view outside the tank was through the twin periscopes mounted into the roof just above the top of the glacis plate. His bulky radio was mounted over the gearbox to his left. In battle he was supposed to operate the hull machine gun, but his most important role was usually to keep the tank commander updated on orders from the platoon leader. Although it wasn’t officially part of the role, most radio operators also acted as spotters for the gunner, reporting on where shots fell and relaying corrections.

The floor of the turret was about 30cm higher than the floor in the front compartment, meaning that there was only a small opening between the two sections of the interior. The turret crewmembers – gunner, loader, and commander – could only really communicate with the other two using the intercom.

The gunner sat on a low seat mounted to the turret floor behind the driver. He had an extremely uncomfortable and cramped position, with the breech of the main gun almost pressing against his right shoulder. The gunner controlled the turret’s hydraulic traverse mechanism using a pair of foot pedals, but usually had to fine-tune any powered movement with manual adjustments using a wheel on the left of his seat. The ergonomics of his controls were poorly thought through – the turret traverse pedals were at an awkward angle to the seat and the optical sight for the gun was placed so close to the breech that the gunner usually had to remove, or partially remove, his headphones to get his eye up to the eyepiece.

One major disadvantage of the Panther’s design was that the gunner had no periscope, limiting his vision to just what he could see through the narrow field of view provided by the optical sights. This often slowed down the process of target acquisition as he had to scan around to find a target. In experienced crews the commander learned to give very specific references for the location of his intended target, though even then target acquisition was much slower than in a Sherman or T-34. This delay was more than made up for by the astonishing accuracy made possible by the high-quality Leitz TZF 12a gunsight. This design had a 5x magnification and well-designed crosshairs that made it possible to quickly gauge the range and speed of a target. Its only flaw was that it had no forehead guard on the eyepiece, meaning that any gunner to tried to line up a target while the tank was in motion risked jabbing himself in the eye.

In the event that the tank was hit, the gunner typically had the lowest chance of survival. To get out he had to either scramble under the gun and squeeze out of the rear escape hatch or climb up onto the commander’s seat and out through the cupola. If either man had been killed or injured in the attack there was often not enough room for him to get past.

The loader had the simplest job of anyone in the crew, though also the most physically demanding. He had to load the gun with the ammunition specified by the commander quickly and efficiently. In lengthy engagements, this often meant scrambling around pulling heavy shells out of the various secondary storage bins around the interior of the tank. He had a fold-down seat, but in combat had to stand up – an awkward and uncomfortable position for most men as the roof of the turret was only 1.6m high (5ft 3in). His position was relatively open, however, compared to that of the rest of the crewmen, meaning that he was usually the most likely to escape (through the rear hatch behind his position) if the tank was hit.

The most important member of the tank’s crew was the commander. He sat on an elevated seat that was mounted to the interior of the turret just behind the gun. If he wanted to put his head out of the open cupola for a better view of the battlefield, he had to stand up on a metal footrest just under his seat. With his head in the cupola, he had a 360-degree view that enabled him to make tactical decisions about the placement of the tank and decide which targets the gunner should engage. The skill of the commander was often what decided if a Panther crew lived or died. Poorly trained commanders often lost their tanks (and frequently their lives) in their first battles, while others, like Panther ace Ernst Barkmann (82 kills) of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, survived the whole war.

Overall Assessment

The Panther is often hailed as the finest tank of World War II. On paper, this is undoubtedly true. It had a higher top speed, more powerful gun, and thicker armor than any commonly-fielded Allied tank. Moreover it cost only slightly more than the Panzer IV and was simple enough to be constructed in large numbers unlike the heavy Tiger I and Tiger II.

Look a little more closely at the Panther’s specifications, however, and serious flaws can be seen. The armor, though impressive, was not well distributed. The massive glacis plate was offset by dangerously thin side armor which could be penetrated by almost any Allied tank or anti-tank weapon. Similarly, the high top speed and good cross country performance came at the cost of fuel efficiency, making the vehicle prohibitively expensive to operate.

This is before one even begins to consider the appalling mechanical reliability problems that plagued the Panther throughout its operational life. Panther units were rarely able to keep more than 35 percent of their nominal tank strength operational for prolonged periods (compared with close to 90 percent readiness in T-34 units). This negated, to a significant degree, the advantage of numbers that its relatively cheap construction was supposed to enable. Although the Panther was a more common sight on the battlefield than the Tiger I or II, it was never as common as it needed to be to turn the tide.

The Panther was ultimately a success on the tactical level, but a failure on the strategic level. In a straight gunnery duel, the Panther almost always prevailed over its enemies. In war, however, there is no requirement to fight on even terms. The Panther’s lack of strategic mobility meant that it was far easier for Allied units to simply bypass areas where Panthers were active. As the Panther was only able to operate for a very short time without the support of its extensive logistics organization, encirclement meant defeat. When forced to take to the roads and retreat, the Panther sustained heavier losses to its own mechanical flaws than it ever did to enemy action. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is thought that around half of all Panther losses during World War II were the result of immobilized vehicles being blown up by German forces as they retreated.

On 20 April 1945 First Ukrainian Front was putting its armor across the Spree north and south of Spremberg. South of Spremberg the Fourth Panzer Army still had a vestige of a front; north of the city almost the whole Third Guards Tank Army was across the Spree. Schörner reported that he had “hopes” of stopping Konev’s southern thrust toward Bautzen. He intended to try again to close the front on the north, but, he added, “The laboriously organized defense in depth has only in a few places accomplished what one was forced to promise oneself from it.”

On 21 April 1945 Fourth Panzer Army made some local progress in a counterattack northwest of Görlitz. Hitler saw in it the makings of a major thrust that would close the 40-mile gap between the Army Group Vistula-Army Group Center flanks, and from that illusion he derived a “basic order” which Krebs transmitted to the army group by phone in the midafternoon. The “successful” attack at Army Group Center would soon close the front at Spremberg; therefore, it was “absolutely necessary” to hold the corner post at Cottbus. (Ninth Army had taken command the day before of Fourth Panzer Army’s left flank corps at and north of Cottbus.)

Battle of Bautzen (1945)

Marshal Konev found himself faced with a major battle on his rear. During the night of the 22nd, a large German force of two infantry divisions and 100 tanks from the Fourth Panzer Army attacked north-west from the area around Bautzen, on First Ukrainian’s left flank, some 40km (25 miles) north-east of Dresden and 25km (15 miles) west of Garlitz. Driving towards Spremberg, the German armour sliced into First Ukrainian’s side, exploiting the weak seam between 52nd Army and the Second Polish Army. The Polish divisions, which were protecting the left flank of Zhadov’s Fifth Guards Army, were thrown into chaos as the Germans ripped into them and blasted their supply and communications lines. For two days the ‘Garlitz Group’ hacked its way north, towards Spremberg, and appeared to be on the verge of cracking the Soviet ring around the trapped Ninth Army. If it could succeed, there was a reasonable hope that the pressure on Berlin’s south side could be lifted, and the city perhaps saved long enough for a negotiation with the West.

Konev recognised the threat to his position (and his hopes for playing a major role in the city’s capture), and responded quickly. First Ukrainian’s Chief-of-Staff, General I. E. Petrov, was dispatched to the embattled lines to re-group and re-order the chaotic situation. After making his review and issuing his orders, Petrov left Major General V. I. Kostylev behind to co-ordinate the defensive effort. Kostylev, First Ukrainian’s Chief of Operations Administration, performed his job brilliantly, immediately re-establishing contact with the cut-off Second Polish Army, and mounting a counterattack with 52nd and Fifth Guards Armies. By the evening of the 24th, the German thrust had been brought to a halt.


Four major Wehrmacht formations formally swore loyalty to the Dönitz regime on 2 May. In Norway, General Fritz Böhme gave Dönitz his allegiance – along with the eleven divisions and five brigades under his command, totalling some 380,000 men. These were fresh and properly equipped troops, capable of putting up a considerable fight against the Western Allies. On the same day, Army Group Courland also offered its oath of loyalty to Dönitz. More than 200,000 German troops were still holding out in this corner of Latvia, along with a Latvian SS division of some 15,000 men. General Dietrich von Saucken’s Army Group of East Prussia, the battered remnants of the German 2nd and 4th Armies, holding out along the Bay of Danzig and the Hela Peninsula – a gathering of around 100,000 Wehrmacht troops – did the same. And finally, and most importantly, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Centre – stationed in eastern Czechoslovakia – also confirmed its allegiance. Schörner’s army group totalled some 580,000 men.

Ferdinand Schörner was a fanatical Nazi who, like Dönitz, soared high in Hitler’s favour in the last months of the war. His rise had been meteoric. In the summer of 1939 he had been a mere lieutenant colonel and regimental commander. By the end of the war he was commanding entire army groups, first as colonel general and then as field marshal. The Führer said of him in April 1945:

`On the entire front, only one man has proven himself to be a real field strategist – Schörner. Schörner had to endure the worst attacks, but he has maintained the most orderly front. When Schörner had terrible equipment he put it in order again. He has achieved excellent results from every task given to him: he can take over a chaotic situation and imbue its defenders with fresh spirit and determination.’

Hitler specially honoured Field Marshal Schörner in his will, sending him a copy of his last testament and appointing him commander of the German army (a post Schörner was never able to take up). In fact, Schörner’s successes, such as they were, were founded on excessive brutality and fanaticism. He executed more soldiers for cowardice than any other German commander. He sacked divisional, corps and army commanders he did not consider tough enough and established squads of military police to round up stragglers behind the front. His unflattering nicknames included `Wild Ferdinand’, `the Bloodhound’ and `the Legend of a Thousand Gallows’.

The source of most concern was Army Group Center, because it was the largest single force still on the Eastern Front, because it had the farthest to go to reach the Allied lines (of those that had any chance of doing so at all), and because no one knew how Schörner would react to the surrender. Schörner had reported on 2 May 1945 that he had a tight hold on his troops and was starting to manufacture his own ammunition and motor fuel. The last that had been heard from him was that he intended to fight his army group through to the line of the Elbe and Vltava (Moldau) before surrendering. On the 8th an OKW staff colonel with an American officer escort went to Schörner’s headquarters. The colonel reported that Schörner had ordered the surrender terms observed but claimed he did not have the means to make certain they were carried out everywhere. The colonel “assured him that the command difficulties would be brought to the attention of the Americans and the OKW.” The OKW need neither have worried that Schörner would attempt a last-ditch battle nor have hoped that he would find a means to extricate his army group. Schörner deserted his troops on the 8th and in civilian clothes flew a light plane out of Czechoslovakia. He was arrested in Austria ten days later by First Panzer Army troops and turned over to the Americans

Schörner’s War

Those who see the Wehrmacht as an army of brilliant operators like Guderian, Rommel, and Manstein need to clear a space in the memory palace for one field marshal whom we have all but forgotten. Ferdinand Schörner was the typos of the late-war Nazi general. He came to the fore late in the conflict, holding a series of increasingly hopeless commands as Germany’s strategic situation deteriorated: Army Group A and Army Group South Ukraine in the spring of 1944; Army Group North (later renamed Army Group Courland) in the summer; Army Group Center in January 1945, which he led until the end. He never won a battle, but failure wasn’t fully his fault. While Schörner was competent enough in a technical sense, nothing short of nuclear weapons could have evened up the fight on the Eastern Front against a Soviet army vastly superior in numbers and equipment.

If we take as the first rule of generalship “do no harm,” however, then Schörner was a disaster. His art of war consisted of loyalty to Hitler. He was a true believer, a fanatic about holding out to the end, even as things fell apart. Of all the Führer’s minions, Schörner was the most enthusiastic, a National Socialist if ever there was one. Schörner’s bedrock conception of command was to shoot or hang large numbers of his own men for “cowardice” in order to terrorize the others into obeying him. He led through fear—flying his little Fieseler Storch aircraft around the rear areas of his army groups, landing suddenly in a divisional or corps area of responsibility, and handing down death sentences on the flimsiest of evidence—all the while staring down at his immaculately manicured fingernails. The phrase “der Ferdl kommt!” (“Here comes Ferd!”) always meant trouble for the rank and file. He once scolded his chief of staff that “you handle the operations, I’ll keep order,” and in the weeks after the attempt on Hitler’s life he opened staff meetings by asking, “How many men did you hang today?” It is no surprise that Goebbels admired Schörner for his “political insight” and for his “entirely new, modern methods.” To be specific:

He takes special aim at the so-called regular stragglers. By “regular stragglers,” he means those soldiers, who always seem to understand how to remove themselves from their unit in critical situations and vanish back into the rear under some kind of pretext. He deals with such figures quite brutally, has them hanged from the nearest tree wearing a placard that says, “I am a deserter and was too cowardly to protect German women and children.”

“Naturally,” Goebbels concluded, “this has a terrifying impact on other deserters or those who are thinking about it.”54 Hitler, too, appreciated these methods and named Schörner his successor as Commander in Chief of the Army—Nazi Germany’s last.

Like all tyrants, Schörner assembled a posse of thugs around him who did the dirty work. His security troops once came upon a tank workshop where a crew was waiting to get its reconnaissance vehicle fixed. The crew’s actions seem logical enough, but Schörner had the vehicle commander shot for “malingering.” On other occasions, as at Lednice on May 7, 1945, Schörner was reportedly present when his military police shot twenty-two German soldiers for “standing around without orders.” Hitler had been dead for a week by then and the war was all but over, but Schörner was still executing his own men to encourage the others.

Schörner’s excuse for his crimes was that he had to maintain discipline in the ranks so that his army group could escape to the west (toward the Americans) rather than be overrun by the Soviets. His strategy was an organized flight to the west, a maneuver that had to proceed systematically. Just two days before the murders at Lednice, Schörner had issued his last order of the day to Army Group Center. Excoriating the “traitors and cowards” in their midst, he urged his men to be steadfast. “In these hard days, we must not lose our nerves or become cowardly,” he declared. “Any attempt to find your own way back to the homeland is a dishonorable betrayal of your comrades and of our people . . . and will be punished.”

Powerful words—and stirring words! A few days later, on May 9, Schörner bundled himself into his little Storch and flew away, abandoning his post and leaving the men of Army Group Center to their fate as Soviet prisoners. The commander who hanged “traitors” and “cowards” from lampposts and fences and who let his men know that “they might die at the front, but they definitely would die in the rear” had apparently reached his limit, making us wonder whether all the threats, all the abuse he heaped on others, all the summary executions were not merely a compensatory mechanism for some inner weakness. Schörner managed to fly to the safety of American lines, but US troops handed him over to the Soviets, who put him on trial and put him in prison for the next ten years. Schörner did his time next to some of the very men he had left in the lurch—and they didn’t hesitate to let him know what they thought of him. Released in late 1954, he returned to West Germany, provoking angry outbursts from many former soldiers and their families. He went on trial there, too, and spent four more years in prison.

In the end, Schörner had proven his loyalty, but only in the narrowest sense. He had stayed loyal to Hitler to the very end and beyond. To his troops, however, he had shown only callousness, if not outright cruelty. Consider this admonition toward Germany’s former generals from a German author in 1949:

How astonishing that the generals always speak only of their soldierly duty to those above them, never of their duty to those soldiers whose lives are in their hands, the blood of their own nation. No one can demand that you kill a tyrant if your conscience forbids it. But mustn’t we demand the same care and seriousness toward the lives of each of your subordinates?

A particularly good question—and not only for Schörner! Let us recall that he wasn’t the only one “guilty of the senseless death of German soldiers” in the last year of the war. World War II will always be “Hitler’s war,” but Hitler had an officer corps filled with hundreds and thousands of Schörners: the key enablers who helped their Führer launch the war, fight it, and keep fighting it long after any hope of victory had vanished.

Until five minutes past midnight.


Red Army VVS Assault Aviation

The Red Army VVS assault aviation first saw combat near Berezin and Bobruisk. The combination of armament and armor made IL-2 a potent means of fighting enemy ground forces, especially against tanks and motorized units. First days showed German tanks and motorized units’ ability for rapid maneuver and mass strike. Russia’s ground forces could not withstand the Germans and assault aviation rose in value. Because of the lack of special aircraft, IL-2 attacked only moving tank and motorized columns and tank concentrations. Later IL-2 also was used to attack targets on the battlefield.

Early combat showed that the pilot could attack targets from 300-400m using rocket shells and could destroy 1-2 tanks in one passe. Rockets demoralized the enemy, and in several cases tank crews fled their tanks under air attack. Bombs and machinegun fire were also effective.

Analyzing period documents we can see combat experience summarized: how the enemy acted and what was good and bad in applying Soviet assault aviation. In “Conclusion about combat applying West Front VVS” we find: “in the Bobruisk airfield 28-29 June 1941, 30-35 enemy fighters Me-109 were destroyed by sturmoviks from 4th Aviation Regiment on the ground “. In another part German tactics were documented: “There were cases when enemy pilots used deception: 2-3 aircraft JU-88, pursuing escorts, dropped their landing gear above the airfield, descended, went along airfield border and, from an altitude of 400-500m, suddenly attacked (attack on airfield Bihov 28 June 1941). Another document (report ” To the Reserve Front VVS navigator”) spoke about problems that appeared in the first month of war. There were differences between theoretical and practical combat range of the new aircraft (IL-2, MIG-3, and Pe-2), which caused forced landings in first days of war, lack of radio navigation (only by compass or visually), and poor bombing accuracy due to lack of precise target pointing. At the same time the document also spoke about new methods of applying experience. Very good results drove dive attack tactics and emphasized the need for fighter cover during assault operations. An interesting fact concerned the new method of using rockets which were fired backward from the aircraft (rocket launchers were turned around), allowing attacks on enemy columns or position without turning (also used later in Afghanistan and Chechnya). Another instruction (about narrow target attack tactics) pointed to the utility of using Pe-2, SU-2, and IL-2 in small groups (zveno/shesterka) with echelon attack (in 10-15 minute intervals), using sun or clouds to gain surprise. The instruction also spoke about ground target attack effectiveness for IL-2 from low altitude and as a dive bomber in diving maneuvers. Support for ground forces was proposed, in attacking vital points such as small targets; artillery positions and grenade positions. In addition it recommended sending a liaison from AF to ground units for better coordination. Wide use of camouflage on airfields was stressed. Another document concerning assault aviation addressed the need to attack enemy airfields using combined groups (bombers, sturmoviks and fighters). First strike was recommended for fighters (to suppress airfield FLAK), and in common operations, the ratio of fighters and sturmoviks was recommended two to one.

The first big application of Soviet assault aviation was in Mozhaisk defense, as component of Special Air Group under the command of N. A. Sbytova. The group consisted of 46th Bomber Air Regiment (equipped with Pe-2), 65th and 243d Ground attack Regiments (with IL-2). In that operation, the Group interacted with 5th Army. Later in counteroffensive near Moscow, VVS flew 16,000 combat sorties in three days, half of them supporting ground forces. Front Aviation according to the Soviet sources “played significant role in the offensive against Army Group Center”.

Nevertheless, speaking about basic assault aviation aircraft – IL-2 (despite some successes) suffered big losses. The absence of a gunner made sturmovik defenseless to rear-quarter fighter attack. German Air Command formed special fighter group of pilots trained in attacking IL-2 from above and behind. In the combat units (for example in 806 SHAP sturmovik air regiment) engineers and technicians improvised a gunner position using a hatch behind the pilot (made for transporting a maintenance technician). From veterans’ stories, rear gun was sometimes simulated by installing sticks (creating illusion of a machinegun for fighters). The weak point was also a wood tail section (later it was reinforced by a steel longeron). Combat operations also indicate a small speed range for the IL-2 which complicated sturmovik group actions (and led to new engine development).

A special tactic was developed for defense from enemy fighters. Single-seat IL-2 attacked ground targets from a “free circle” with 150-200m between aircraft. When enemy fighters appeared they formed a “closed circle”(forward aircraft was covered by firepower of the one behind).

Nevertheless it was impossible to quickly fix these problems. In October 1941 KB S. V. Ilyushina was evacuated from Moscow. Several aviation factories were also evacuated (including factories that produced IL-2) and because of this mass production of IL-2 was reduced and stopped altogether for 35 days. In very hard conditions people started production in new places, sometimes working under the open sky. At that time two aircraft factory directors Shekman and Tretyakov got this telegram:

“You betray our country and our Red Army. You have not to this date produced the IL-2. Red Army needs IL-2 aircraft as air, as bread. Shekman gives one IL-2 per day, Tretyakov one-two MIG-3. There is a rout on the Red Army. I ask you to not frustrate the government. I require you to produce more IL-2. This is your last warning.” (National Defense Commissar I. V. Stalin P553).

After that IL-2 production increased, partly by reducing MIG-3 production. Finally the two-seat IL-2 started going through its factory tests.

Hostilities also shaped the combat tactics of sturmoviks. Emphasis was made that the basic targets for sturmoviks should be enemy tanks and that it was ineffective to use all ammunition in one attack. The orders spoke about to the requirement to assign the units a clear mission before the flight to include time of target attack, numbers of attacks, time on target, enemy strength, return orders, group actions in air battle, anti FLAK maneuvers, and protection for take off and landing. On 18 June 1942 came Stalin’s order about applying fighters and sturmoviks IL-2 on the battlefield as day bombers with approved weapons variants. Commander of Western Front VVS Colonel Naumenko issued directions that emphasized the need for better interaction between the Army and aviation and aviation units assigned to airfields close to the front line (for faster reaction). He also made special directions about sturmovik actions (prohibition of flying the same route to the targets and the need to have detailed combat plans).

Tremendous changes in USSR military aviation happened after General A. A. Novikov was assigned as VVS Commander (11 Apr 1942). His reformations created Air Armies, which took airpower application to a higher level. The Air Armies enabled force concentration, flexibility, and quick reaction to changes in the situation. Novikov’s next step was to develop communications, which was a weakness in military aviation.

Using of assault aviation also showed new problems – inability for sturmoviks fight against enemy fighters from “hedgehop” altitudes and necessity of creating new methods of attack.

Especially effective against our sturmoviks, enemy fighter groups, attacking our sturmovik employing “hedgehop” tactics, engaged them and shot from close distance. On several occasions ME-109s approached closely to IL-2, dropped their landing gear, stood on their tail, and with carefully aimed fire from machineguns attacked the vulnerable spots of the sturmoviks-between the cockpit dome and fuselage and in the side cockpit dome windows-while they were attempting to land.

New sturmovik tactics emerged: diving attack with new array and target attack order, assault blow from “hedgehop”, bombing from level flight, and defense air battle against enemy fighters.

The next serious phase of applying assault aviation was the battle in Stalingrad. At that time 8th Air Army reinforced by ten regiments (General Novikov’s special order) took part in the hostilities. Seventy-five percent of the Army equipment was new types of aircraft: YAK-1, YAK-7b, IL-2, and Pe-2.

General Falaleev was assigned in June as Chief of Staff VVS. In August the units got his order which emphasized assigning combat missions to the units, fighter coordination, the role of sturmovik units in escort and maneuvers above the target and supporting problems.

During Stalingrad battle, assault aviation was used very frequently and effectively. For example, from 18 to 22 August 8th Air Army flew more than 1,000 sorties to prevent enemy forces from crossing the Don River. Attacks were made by groups of ten to thirty Pe-2 and IL-2, covered by fighters, that greatly increased their effectiveness. On 22 October came General Novikov’s special Directive for ground attack and fighter regiments, “It is necessary to train a minimum of five crews for flying in complex and night conditions”. In the defensive operation phase 406 night sorties were made by sturmoviks IL-2. On 12 November Stalin made clear that his basic objective for VVS in Stalingrad was to concentrate efforts in the breakthrough zone, clear the airspace from enemy aircraft, and create the necessary support and air cover for the ground forces. When the offensive operation started in Stalingrad the battlefield picture was: 17th Air Army supported 5th Tank Army and 21st Army, 16th Air Army supported 65th Army and 8th Air Army assisted 50th Army. In the 16th Air Army in that period almost all assault aviation was replaced by new IL-2s reinforced by two bomber divisions of Pe-2. November’s combat statistics of this Army showed that of 2,848 sorties flown in that period, 2/3 were against Germany’s airfields. A bright spot in the offensive operations were VVS tactics. In December 1942 (16-31) of the 4,177 sorties flown by 2nd and 17th Air Armies 80% supported ground troops. The tactic of assault aviation was constantly developed. A method of attacking targets from low-level with small number of heavily armed IL-2s was created. The example of successfully using that method occurred with 7 IL-2s, under the command of Captain I. P. Baktin and covered by of squadron YAK-1, on 2 January at Sal’sk airfield. Soviet sturmoviks made six passes and destroyed 72 Germany aircraft, losing only four of their own aircraft. On 28 November a Soviet air raid destroyed 219 enemy aircraft on the Gumral and Bol’shaya Rossoshka airfields.

General lessons learned in Soviet military aviation development from the battle of Stalingrad include the clear need to create Air Armies, develop communication systems (to allow coordination of those armies), close coordination with ground forces, and developing new methods of applying assault aviation.

In 1942, many orders and instructions about assault aviation application were issued. Among others, instructions for conditional signals for sturmovik (bombers) and fighter’s interaction were issued. Special instruction: “Sturmovik action against airfields and small targets” were developed. It spoke about choosing and apportioning targets among flying crews, selecting routes to a target, approaching a target, attacking a target, leaving the target, rejoining, active defense against enemy fighters, returning to base, and using bombs with special fuses.

Viewing the “air battle” above Kuban we can divide it in two parts. The first part was fighting to achieve air superiority. The second part for supporting Soviet force offensive operations broadly was applied assault aviation. For example; in the battle near village Krymskaya, sturmoviks from 2nd Mixed Air Corp under command of General Major I. T. Yeremenko supported tanks attack. The 4th Air Army in interacting with naval air units in the period from 29 Apr to 10 May made 12000 sorties and more than half of them against Germany ground positions. In operation of “Blue Line” attack mass strike tactic were again applied: 4th Air Army attacked German positions with 338 combat aircraft. There in the first time IL-2 used special bombs for smoke screen making, under cover of which Soviet ground forces were able to secretively approach enemy position and attack by surprise. Senior Lieutenant N. P. Dedov applied the new tactic in attacking Germany artillery position with 36 IL-2 under fighter cover. They attacked by columns, six aircraft in each, to predefined targets, with changing columns above targets in a circle (later it called “circle of death”), which gave for each pilot more freedom in maneuve.

And of course speaking about Soviet assault aviation application in WWII, we can’t overlook the “Battle of Kursk”. The “Battle of Kursk” became the smithy of new assault tactics against Germany armor. The initial phase of operation, like in Stalingrad, had a defensive character; 16th and 2nd Air Armies participated in it. The VVS was already fully reorganized and rearmed. Sturmoviks IL-2 were changed to IL-2M3 with more powerful engine and a shooter in the back cabin, armed with a 12.7mm machinegun. Also the aircraft had NS-37 guns (constructor A. E. Nudel’man), special pocket shells RBS-82 and RBS-132, cumulative bombs PTAB-2.5-1.5 (constructor I. A. Larionov). The first time that kind of bomb was used occurred on 6 June 1943 in “Kursk Arc” battle. Using those weapons pilots from 291 Assault Air Division (Commander Colonel A. Vitruk) in first five days of “Kursk Battle” destroyed and damaged 422 enemy tanks. In the defensive phase of operations VVS started applying “Okhotniki” (hunters) tactic, including sturmoviks in the teams. Their patrolled pointed areas, attacking all possible targets and exerted constant military pressure on the German Army rear area.

On 12 of July near Prokhorovka, the biggest tank battle of WWII happened, involving some 1200 tanks. Assault aviation from both sides actively participated in the battle, attacking enemy tanks and each other. By the end of battle Germany lost 300 tanks, the Soviet side had commensurable losses, but was better able to absorb these losses. The failure of the German offensive operation “Citadel” enabled the Soviets to launch counteroffensive operation. The VVS in that operation had the followings objectives: establish control of the air space above the battle zone, make a blow against enemy ground forces to create a corridors for own forces, support ground force offensives on the battlefield and continue attacking enemy reserves attacking.

IL-2 contributed to the victory of “Kursk Battle” in a major fashion. Attacking, for example, the 9th Panzer Division in July 7 1943, sturmoviks in 20 minutes destroyed 70 tanks or in four attacks against the 17th Panzer Division destroyed near 200 (from 300). In favor of it powerful weapons and invulnerability IL-2 was named as “flying tank”. An article in the Pravda (August 8, 1943) stated that:

“It was clear to us that air forces would primarily be used in joint operations with land armies and the navy. Therefore, our design ideas were directed toward aircraft that would render the most effective assistance to the ground forces of Red Army”.

Summarizing the experience of assault aviation application in the “Kursk Battle”, we can conclude that it entailed the first mass application against enemy armor and was used in offensive operation for creating “offense corridors”, with later close ground support on a battlefield.

Also assault aviation was broadly applied in the Navy for enemy ships attacks and amphibious support. The effective attack method for sturmovik IL-2 against enemy ships was the “topmachtoviy method”. The results were five-time higher compare with bombing from horizontal flight. An aircraft went on 30m altitude with 400km/h speed, dropped bombs, rebounding on water, smash in the ship’s board. Trying to attach torpedoes to IL-2 wasn’t successful (it was too heavy for IL-2). The great example of applying sturmoviks in the Navy can be operation of Crimea deliverance. In it took a part 23rd Assault Aviation Division, 8th and 47th Assault aviation Regiments (from 11th Assault Aviation Division). In that operation sturmoviks flew ground support sorties, attacking enemy ship convoys with very good results.

by Major Jurijs Plavins



The Baltic littoral – A Nordic Pact?

The end of the war had found the Soviet Union in possession of much of the Baltic littoral, including Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and East Prussia, and in occupation of Poland and the eastern zone of Germany. The USSR had also occupied Finnmark, the northernmost Norwegian province, and the Danish-owned Baltic island of Bornholm in 1945, primarily in order to take the surrender of the German forces; both were, however, handed back peacefully, Finnmark in late 1945 and Bornholm in the spring of 1946.

Despite this, Denmark and Norway found themselves faced with a palpable Soviet threat in early 1948 and started to examine the question of a defence pact, although initially they considered only limited membership based on a ‘Nordic’ grouping. These countries wished to avoid becoming involved in the Great Power rivalry between the USA and the Soviet Union, and were also keen to avoid becoming embroiled in the tensions in continental Europe immediately to their south.

The most powerful and prosperous of the Nordic countries was Sweden, which had successfully maintained its armed neutrality throughout both world wars and wished to continue to do so. Thus, in the immediate post-war period Sweden performed a delicate balancing act, making a 1 billion kronor loan to the Soviet Union, but also purchasing 150 P-51 Mustang piston-engined fighters from the USA, followed by 210 Vampire jets from the UK in 1948.

Norway had been occupied by the Germans during the war, partly because of its strategic position, but also because German industry depended upon Norwegian iron-ore production. In the post-war period Norway considered the Soviet threat to be very real, and its leaders began to seek a guarantee of security which would nevertheless not antagonize the Soviet Union.

Denmark was initially well disposed towards the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war, but became increasingly concerned by the events in eastern Europe. In the spring of 1948 the country was swept by a rumour that the Russians intended to attack western Europe during the Easter weekend. This rumour turned out to have been ill-founded, but the Danes realized that neutrality was no longer a serious option and that some form of multinational co-operation was therefore essential. During its Second World War occupation by the Germans, Denmark, unlike many other occupied countries in western Europe, had been almost totally isolated from the UK and had been forced to look to its neighbour Sweden for what little help and support that neutral country could offer. It was only natural, therefore, that in the late 1940s it should wish to explore the possibilities of an alliance with Sweden.

On 19 April 1948 the Norwegian foreign minister, Halvard Lange, made a speech in which he publicly expressed interest in a ‘Nordic’ solution – by which he meant one involving Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Finland would also have been a natural member of a Nordic grouping, but the USSR made that impossible. The peace treaty had imposed strict manpower ceilings on Finland’s armed forcesfn3 and, as if this was not enough, the country was effectively neutralized by the treaty of ‘Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance’ that the Soviet Union had forced it to sign on 6 April.

The Norwegian initiative was considered by the Swedish parliament, which authorized its government to consult Denmark and Norway on the subject. Throughout these discussions the basic Swedish position was that Sweden would not stretch its neutrality beyond a Nordic grouping, which would be non-aligned and strong enough to remain uncommitted to either East or West; in particular, Sweden was not prepared to participate if any other members had bilateral links to outside parties. On the other hand, the Norwegians considered that their interests would best be served by joining an Atlantic pact (i.e. one involving the United States), while the Danish prime minister sought to find common ground between the other two parties. Having established their initial positions, in September 1948 these three countries set up a Defence Committee whose task was to study the practical possibilities of defence co-operation.

At the political level, in October 1948 the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers sounded out the US secretary of state, George Marshall, about the likely US attitude to a Nordic pact. He told them that it would be very difficult for the US government to give military guarantees to a neutral bloc, and that any supplies of military equipment would inevitably take lower priority than to formal allies.

In January 1949 the Nordic Defence Committee reported that a trilateral military alliance would increase the defensive power of the three participants both by widening their respective strategic areas and through the benefits of common planning and standardization of equipment. All this, however, could be achieved only if Denmark and Norway underwent substantial rearmament. And even if all of this were achieved, the military experts advized that the Nordic pact would be unable to resist an attack by a Great Power (by which, of course, they meant the Soviet Union).

Having received the military report, the three prime ministers and their foreign ministers met on 5–6 January 1949 and discussed a variety of topics, including how to achieve the rearmament of Denmark and Norway. Then on 14 January the US government announced publicly what it had already advised in private, namely that the priority in provision of arms would be to countries which joined the US in a collective defence agreement. The Nordic prime ministers and foreign ministers reconvened at the end of the month, and on 30 January they announced that it was impossible to reach agreement; the potential Nordic pact was thus consigned to history.


At the start of the Washington discussions it was clear that membership of the proposed alliance would include the Brussels Treaty powers (the Benelux countries, France and the UK), Canada and the United States, but there was some discussion over other potential members.

It was considered highly desirable that Denmark and Norway should join the proposed alliance, and, if possible, Sweden as well. These were long-established democracies and were as much threatened as any other country in Europe; indeed, in 1948–9 Norway was probably the most threatened of them all. Further, they occupied very important strategic positions. Denmark sat astride the western end of the Baltic, dominating (with Sweden) the Skaggerak and the Belts; it also owned the island of Bornholm in the middle of the Baltic. Of greater importance to the United States, however, was Danish ownership of Greenland, which was a vital stepping-stone in the air route from the United States to Europe at a time when transport aircraft had a comparatively short range. Norway was also strategically important, since it lay along the southern flank of the Soviet Union’s naval routes to the Atlantic and shared (with the USSR) the island of Spitsbergen. Sweden, however, was adamant that it would not abrogate its neutrality, and its membership was not pursued.



Denmark had virtually no navy at the war’s end in 1945, but on joining NATO in 1949 it was allotted the role of Baltic defence, in which it was joined by West Germany when the latter became a NATO member in 1955. Denmark’s second naval task was the mining of the Kattegat and the Belts to deny the Soviet fleet an exit into the North Sea. The navy also had the national task of patrolling Greenland waters.

To fulfil these missions, the Danish navy maintained a small number of frigates, all designed and built in Denmark, together with three unusual corvettes (Nils Juel class), and also provided a small number of submarines and fast-attack craft. To meet its minelaying commitment the Danish navy was equipped with a number of dedicated minelayers.

The Danish navy found itself facing a major re-equipment problem in the 1980s, which unfortunately coincided with a general domestic feeling of opposition to defence (it was the time of NATO’s ‘twin-track’ approach to the Soviet SS-20 programme). As a result, the navy produced a novel type of warship, the Stanflex 300 (Flyvefisken class), which employed a single basic hull constructed of fibreglass and a common propulsion system, but with changeable weapon and sensor containers, which enabled the ships to be employed and equipped for either fast attack, minelaying, mine counter-measures (MCM) or ASW duties.

West Germany

The West German navy (Bundesmarine) was created in 1956 and from then on was firmly integrated within NATO, its principal tasks being the defence of the Baltic and North seas, in conjunction with other NATO navies. Initially the ships were a mixture of surplus US and British types, with a few German-built ships which had been transferred to the Allies as war reparations being returned as well, but the warship-building industry was rapidly restored.

The largest units were destroyers, of which the first six were ex-US Fletcher-class ships, supplemented in the mid-1960s by four German-designed and -built ships. Next to be acquired were three US-designed Adams-class destroyers and then eight frigates based on a Dutch design. The German navy also provided a large number of fast-attack craft and mine-countermeasure vessels (MCMVs), but, not surprisingly in view of its history, one of its main strengths lay in its U-boats. These were all of German design, and by the 1970s eighteen 500-tonne-displacement Type 206s were in service. West Germany also proved particularly successful in exporting submarines, which helped to sustain its design and construction capability at times when there were no domestic orders.


Norway occupied a particularly important place in NATO’s maritime strategy, since it lay alongside the only route by which ships and submarines of the Soviet Northern Fleet could sail out into the Atlantic. The Norwegian navy was far too small to challenge the large Soviet surface action groups, and it concentrated instead on anti-submarine warfare, particularly in its many fjords. Its equipment included a number of frigates built to a US design in Norwegian shipyards (the Oslo class), and sixteen small diesel-electric submarines (the Kobben class), which were designed and built in Germany. Replacement of the latter by the new Ula class (also German-built) was just beginning as the Cold War ended. Norway also operated some coastal-attack craft and MCMVs.

Soviet Naval Activity

In the immediate post-war years the only naval units of even marginal significance were three battleships: a Russian vessel dating back to tsarist times and two British ships of First World War vintage, which had been lent to the USSR during the war. One of the latter was returned to the UK in 1949, having been replaced by the ex-Italian Giulio Cesare, which the Soviets renamed Novorossiysk.fn3 There were also some fifteen cruisers – a mixture of elderly Soviet designs, nine modern Soviet-built ships, a US ship lent during the war (and returned in 1949), and two former Axis cruisers, one ex-German, the other ex-Italian. There was also a force of some eighty destroyers, also of varying vintages and origins.

During the 1940s and 1950s these Soviet warships were rarely seen on the high seas, apart from a limited number of transfers between the Northern and Baltic fleets, which tended to be conducted with great rapidity. The only exception was a series of international visits, mainly by the impressive Sverdlov-class cruisers, which were paid to countries such as Sweden and the UK. The navy suffered a major setback in 1955 when the battleship Novorossiysk was sunk while at anchor in the Black Sea by a Second World War German ground mine, an event which led to the sacking of the commander-in-chief, Admiral N. M. Kuznetzov; he was replaced by Admiral Gorshkov.

In the early 1960s, however, individual Soviet units began to be seen more frequently in foreign waters, as did ever-increasing numbers of ‘intelligence collectors’, laden with electronic-warfare equipment. These ships, generally known by their NATO designation as ‘AGIs’, monitored US and NATO exercises and ship movements. The original AGIs were converted trawlers and salvage tugs, but, as the Cold War progressed and the Soviet navy became increasingly sophisticated, larger and more specialized ships were built, culminating in the 5,000 tonne Bal’zam class, built in the 1980s. In addition to such ships, conventional warships regularly carried out intelligence-collecting and surveillance tasks, particularly when Western exercises were being held. Apart from general eavesdropping on Western communications links and studying the latest weapons, such missions helped the Soviet navy to learn about US and NATO tactics, manoeuvring and ship-handling.

The Soviets also put considerable effort into espionage (human intelligence, or HUMINT, in intelligence jargon) against Western navies. This included the Kroger ring in the UK, which was principally targeted against British anti-submarine-warfare facilities, and the Walker spy ring in the USA, which gave away a vast amount of information on US submarine capabilities and deployment.

The growth and increasing ambitions of the Soviet navy were best illustrated by the size, scope and duration of its exercises. The first important out-of-area exercise was held in 1961, when two groups of ships – one moving from the Baltic to the Kola Inlet and the other in the opposite direction (a total of eight surface warships, four submarines and associated support ships) – met in the Norwegian Sea. There they conducted a short exercise before continuing to their respective destinations.

In early July 1962 transfers between the Baltic and Northern fleets again took place, coupled with the first major transfer from the Black Sea Fleet to the Northern Fleet. This was followed by a much larger exercise, extending from the Iceland–Faroes gap to the North Cape, which included surface combatants, submarines, auxiliaries and a large number of land-based naval aircraft. The activity level increased yet again in 1963, and the major 1964 exercise involved ships moving through the Iceland–Faroes gap for the first time, while units of the Mediterranean Squadron undertook a cruise to Cuba. By 1966 exercises were taking place in the Faroes–UK gap and off north-east Scotland (both long-standing preserves of the British navy) and also off the coast of Iceland.

In 1967 the naval highlight of the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War was the dramatic sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat by the Egyptian navy using Soviet SS-N-2 (‘Styx’) missiles launched from a Soviet-built Komar-class patrol boat. Not surprisingly, Soviet naval prestige in the Middle East was high, and the Soviets took the opportunity to enhance it yet further by port visits to Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Algeria, employing ships of the Black Sea Fleet.

The following year saw the largest naval exercise to date; nicknamed Sever (= North) it involved a large number of surface ships, land-based aircraft, submarines and auxiliaries. The exercise covered a variety of areas, but the main activity took place in waters between Iceland and Norway. One of the naval highlights of the year, for both the Soviet and the NATO navies, was the arrival in the Mediterranean of the first Soviet helicopter carrier, Moskva.

Further exercises and deployments took place in 1969, but in the following year Okean 70 proved to be the most ambitious Soviet naval exercise ever staged. This involved the Northern, Baltic and Pacific fleets and the Mediterranean Squadron in simultaneous operations, with the major emphasis in the Atlantic. A large northern force, comprising some twenty-six ships, started with anti-submarine exercises off northern Norway between 13 and 18 April, and then proceeded through the Iceland–Faroes gap to an area due west of Scotland, where it carried out an ‘encounter exercise’ against units from the Mediterranean Squadron. The two groups then sailed in company to join the waiting support group, where a major replenishment at sea took place. Other facets of the exercise included units of the Baltic Fleet sailing through the Skaggerak to operate off south-west Norway, and an amphibious landing exercise involving units of the recently raised Naval Infantry coming ashore on the Soviet side of the Norwegian–Soviet border.

This was a very large and ambitious exercise, from which the Soviet navy learned many major lessons, one of the most important of which was the falsity of the concept of commanding naval forces at sea from a shore headquarters. Such a concept had been propagated for two reasons: first, because it complied with the general Communist idea of highly centralized power and, second, because it also avoided the complexity and expense of flagships. Once Okean 70 had proved this concept to be impracticable, ‘flag’ facilities were built into the larger ships, although the Baltic Fleet continued to be commanded from ashore.

The exercise which took place in June 1971 rehearsed a different scenario, with a group of Soviet Northern Fleet ships sailing down into Icelandic waters, where they reversed course and then advanced towards Jan Mayen Island to act as a simulated NATO carrier task group, which was then attacked by the main ‘players’. Again, a concurrent amphibious landing formed part of the exercise.

There were no major naval exercises in 1972, but in a spring 1973 exercise Soviet submarines practised countering a simulated Western task force sailing through the Iceland–UK gap to reinforce NATO’s Northern flank, while a similar exercise in 1974 took place in areas to the east and north of Iceland. Okean 75 was an extremely large maritime exercise, involving well over 200 ships and submarines together with large numbers of aircraft. The exercise was global in scale, with specific exercise areas including the Norwegian Sea, where simulated convoys were attacked; the northern and central Atlantic, particularly off the west coast of Ireland; the Baltic and Mediterranean seas; and the Indian and Pacific oceans. Overall, the exercise practised all phases of contemporary naval warfare, including the deployment and protection of SSBNs.

In 1976 an exercise started with a concentration of warships in the North Sea, following which they transited through the Skagerrak and into the Baltic. Although not an exercise as such, great excitement was caused among Western navies when the new aircraft carrier Kiev left the Black Sea and sailed through the Mediterranean before heading northward in a large arc, passing through the Iceland–Faroes gap and thence to Murmansk. NATO ships followed this transit very closely, as it gave them their first opportunity to see this large ship and its V/STOL aircraft.

The following year saw two exercises in European waters, the first of which was held in the area of the North Cape and the central Norwegian Sea. The second was much larger and consisted of two elements, one involving the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, while in the other ships sailed from the Baltic, north around the British Isles and then into the central Atlantic. Also in 1977 the Soviet navy suffered the second of its major peacetime surface disasters when the Kashin-class destroyer Orel (formerly Otvazhny) suffered a major explosion while in the Black Sea, followed by a fire which raged for five hours before the ship sank, taking virtually the entire crew to their deaths.

In 1978 the passage of another Kiev-class carrier enabled an air–sea exercise to take place to the south of the Iceland–Faroes gap. Similar exercises followed in 1979 and 1980. The 1981 exercise involved three groups and took place in the northern part of the Barents Sea.

There were no major naval exercises in 1982, but the following year saw the most ambitious global exercise yet, with concurrent and closely related activities in all the world’s oceans, involving not only warships, but also merchant and fishing vessels. In European waters, three aggressor groups assembled off southern Norway and then sailed northward to simulate an advancing NATO force; they were then intercepted and attacked by the major part of the Northern Fleet.

The major exercise in 1985 followed a similar pattern, with aggressor groups sailing northeastward off the Norwegian coast, to be attacked by a large Soviet defending task group which included Kirov, the lead-ship of a new class of battlecruiser, Sovremenny-class anti-surface destroyers and Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, as well as many older ships. There was also substantial air activity, which included the use of Tu-26 Backfire bombers. Although not apparent at the time, this proved to be the zenith of Soviet naval activity, and in the remaining years of the Cold War the number and scale of the exercises steadily diminished.

These major exercises enabled the Soviet navy to rehearse its war plans and to demonstrate its increasing capability to other navies, particularly those in NATO. There were, of course, many smaller exercises, such as those involving amphibious capabilities, which took place on the northern shores of the Kola Peninsula, on the Baltic coast and in the Black Sea. It is noteworthy, however, that the vast majority of the exercises held in European waters, and particularly those held from 1978 onwards, while tactically offensive, were actually strategically defensive in nature, involving the Northern Fleet in defending the north Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea and the area around Jan Mayen Island.

Soviet at-sea time was considerably less than that of the US and other major Western navies. The latter maintained about one-third of their ships at sea at all times, while only about 15 per cent of the Soviet navy was at sea, reducing to 10 per cent for submarines. The Soviets did, however, partially offset this by placing strong emphasis on a high degree of readiness in port and on the ability to get to sea quickly.

Soviet Tank Operations in the Spanish Civil War

The use of Soviet tanks in the Spanish Civil War provides an intriguing example of the potential and problems of innovation in military technology. As the first major employment of armor since the end of World War I, the Spanish Civil War was seen by some observers as offering valuable lessons in the debate over the future role of tanks and tank warfare. Yet at the same time, other observers questioned whether the lessons had relevance to major armies due to the small scale of tank employment in Spain, the poor tactics employed, and the unique conditions of the Spanish experience. In the case of the Red Army, the Spanish Civil War experience did have some important consequences in tank technology, but on the tactical side, many lessons were ignored, distorted, or misunderstood.

In the face of German and Italian military aid to Franco’s insurgent Nationalist forces, Stalin decided to send military aid to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. The first shipment of tanks and tank specialists left for Spain in September 1936. The cargo ship Komsomol arrived at the port of Cartagena on 12 October 1936 with a shipment of 50 T-26 light tanks and 51 “volunteer” tank specialists. In the meantime, the Soviet military attaché at the Madrid embassy, Kombrig Vladimir Gorev, had arranged for the creation of a training center near the town of Archene in Mursia, about 90 km. from the port. The Soviet government did not plan to provide crews for the tanks sent to Spain, but rather to train Spanish personnel to operate them. Archene became the main training and technical center for the Republican tank force for much of the war.

The T-26 light tank was the standard infantry tank in Red Army service at the time, and the most widely produced Soviet tank of the inter-war period. Indeed, it was manufactured in larger numbers than all of the other tanks of the world combined of the 1930s. The T-26 was a license-built copy of the British Vickers 6-ton light tank, but with a Soviet designed turret and gun. The Red Army followed the common European practice of the day, employing several different types of tanks for specific roles. While the slow T-26 tank was intended to provide support to Red Army rifle divisions, the BT-5 “fast tank” was intended for the cavalry and deep exploitation role, much like the contemporary British cruiser tanks. Due to the nature of the fighting, the T-26 was the main type of tank sent to Spain during the war, accounting for 281 of the 331 tanks sent to Spain. The T-26 was not ideal for infantry support. It was thinly armored, and vulnerable to contemporary anti-tank guns. In contrast, the newer generation of infantry tanks such as the French Renault R-35 and British Matilda I were significantly better armored. The T-26 had an advantage in firepower, however, being armed with a dual-purpose 45mm gun that was more versatile than the armament on British or French infantry tanks of the period.

The initial training program at Archene was headed by Kombrig Semen M. Krivoshein. Although the initial plans were to confine the use of Soviet personnel to training, by the end of October, the situation for the Republican forces around Madrid was becoming so desperate that the Soviet attaché V. Gorev was authorized to form some ad hoc combat formations from the Archene training center and send them to reinforce the Madrid front. At least three small groups were dispatched to the front, one headed by Komrot A. Novak with six BA-3 armored cars and seven T-26 tanks, a Spanish tank platoon under Major P. Villakansas, and a reinforced company-sized formation under Kombat Paul Arman. The two first groups went into action on the night of 27 October 1936 with little effect. The first significant action by the Republican tank force occurred on the morning of 29 October by Arman’s partially formed 1st Tank Battalion.

Arman was a flamboyant character, a Latvian who had served with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, who then served undercover as a Soviet agent in the Latvian Army until 1926 when he returned to the Soviet Union. After attending Soviet officer courses, he served as a company commander in a Red Army BT fast tank regiment prior to his transfer to Spain. Arman was selected to lead the first training group since, unlike most Red Army officers he spoke several western European languages. Arman had selected the best Soviet crews, mixed with some of the new Spanish crews, for a total of 34 Soviet tankers and 11 Spanish crewmen. In a conversation with one of the Spanish generals at the front, Arman is reported to have quipped “The situation is not so hopeless. They have fifteen thousand soldiers, we have fifteen tanks, so the strengths are equal!”. On the morning of 29 October 1936, Arman’s company was assigned to support a Republican infantry attack by Brigade Lister and Brigade Bueno against Italian and Spanish Nationalist units in the village of Sesena, on the southern approaches to Madrid.

The attack on Sesena displayed problems and potential of the tactical employment of tanks in the Spanish conditions. The Spanish infantry had no training to operate with tanks, and Arman had no patience to wait for them. So ordered his company forward without the accompanying infantry. Of his 15 tanks, three were disabled almost immediately by mines on the road to the town, a novel experience as anti-tank mines had been a relatively rare affair in World War I. Pressing ahead, Arman bluffed his way past a battery of Nationalist field guns in the western outskirts of Sesena and his forces then attacked the main Nationalist positions in the town itself. One of his tanks was destroyed in the street fighting when struck by a flaming bottle of gasoline. This was the first time “Molotov cocktails” had been used in combat in Spain. After shooting up the Nationalist forces in the village, Arman led his company out of town eastward in an attempt to strike at the rear of the Nationalist forces. After overrunning a field gun battery, the T-26 tanks encountered three CV 3/35 tankettes of the Nationalist 1st Tank Company. The little vehicles were armed only with machine guns, and their counterattack against Arman’s force was hopeless. One was destroyed at close range by tank fire, and another was pushed into a ditch and overturned by the much larger T-26 tanks. By noon, Arman’s tank group passed through the village of Esquivias, southward to Borax, and making a circle, finally stopped in a grove on the southeastern outskirts of Sesena. After a rest, the group again attacked Nationalist forces in Sesena, this time from behind the frontlines from the southwest, exited the town, and rejoined Republican forces. During the raid, Arman’s group lost three tanks to Molotov cocktails and artillery fire with three more damaged, and suffered casualties of 4 Soviet and 4 Spanish tankers killed and six wounded. Arman claimed that his group had destroyed two infantry battalions and two cavalry squadrons, ten 75mm field guns, 2 tankettes, 20-30 trucks, 5-8 automobiles, some tank transporters and captured two field guns. Although Arman’s raid was an important psychological boost for the harried Republican forces, the counterattack of which it was a part was a failure due to the inability of the infantry to fight their way into the town lacking the prmised tank support. The poor coordination of tank and infantry at Sesena would prove typical of the Spanish experience.

After several more days fighting around Sesena, the scattered Republican tank formations were united under by Kombrig Krivoshein to form the Aranjuez Group, with a strength of 48 tanks and 9 armored cars. There was no real effort made to concentrate the armor, and Arman’s company was broken off again to support Brigade Lister while the rest of Krivoshein’s force supported the main Republican column retreating to Madrid. The Republicans were unable to stem the Nationalist onslaught, although there was almost universal praise for the performance of Krivoshein’s scattered tank units. The Aranjuez Group took part in the fighting for Torrejon de Velasco and Valdemoro on 4-5 November 1936, the counterattack in the suburb of Cerro de los Angeles on 13 November 1936, and in almost continuous fighting inside Madrid itself through the middle of December 1936.

The pre-war Spanish Army had two tank regiments, the 1st Tank Regiment located in Madrid and the 2nd Tank Regiment in Saragossa. Most of the troops of the 1st Tank Regiment sided with the Republic, and their World War I vintage French Renault FT tanks were consolidated in a company under D. Pogodin to support Krivoshein’s tanks during the Madrid fighting.

The advisory team in Madrid sent this assessment to the Kremlin: “Arman’s tanks group created real miracles. It is possible to say with complete assurance that if the fighter group and Arman’s tanks would not have been present during the first period of the defense of Madrid, the defense of the city would have been an exceptionally catastrophic situation. It is impossible to adequately describe the heroism of the tankers; they prevented the retreat of the infantry: they were always in the vanguard; they fought single handedly with enemy gun batteries, and they demolished the battle plans of the opponent. They always took best advantage of the tanks in infringement of all technical and authorized norms and never refused or questioned orders to carry out a task. Tanks fought all day long; returned to the support area at night to repair the vehicles and during the morning returned to the fight. The impact on the whole staff of Arman’s group clearly demonstrated the best example of the heroism and readiness of our people.”

By the time of the siege of Madrid in mid-December 1936, Krivoshein’s small armored force was largely spent, not only due to battlefield casualties, but due to the mechanical exhaustion of the tanks themselves. Tanks of the 1930s were not as robust as tanks of the World War 2 generation. The T-26 light tank required intermediate overhaul at district workshops after 150 engine hours, and factory overhaul after 600 hours. The poor quality of the fuel of the time led to engine carbonization, fouled spark-plugs, and other problems which could immobilize the tank. Tracks and track pins began to wear out after 500 miles of travel; side clutches became worn out, and the powertrain was gradually knocked out of alignment from hard cross-country travel. In the desperate fighting during the defense of Madrid, Arman’s company had accumulated over 800 operating hours by mid-December, far beyond the regulations, leaving many of his tanks inoperable. Krivoshein’s other units were not in much better shape, as the inexperienced Spanish crews were unable to do field repairs, and their unfamiliarity with tank driving led to high rates of clutch and powertrain failures. There were no established maintenance facilities in the Madrid area, and spare parts were almost non-existent. While Krivoshein’s tank force had succeeded in its immediate mission of bolstering the Republican forces during the defense of Madrid, this was no way to operate a tank force for prolonged campaigns.

The immediate lessons from the autumn 1936 tank fighting mainly concerned technical issues to keep the force in a fighting state. The Red Army had never conducted any prolonged tank operations away from their peacetime training bases, so the combat experiences in Spain were an eye-opening introduction to the day-to-day technical realities that had plagued tankers ever since World War I. Indeed, until 1932-33, the Red Army had only handfuls of tanks and trucks, and the expansion of its tank force and its reliance on poorly prepared conscripts outstripped its ability to maintain a cadre of qualified technical specialists. As was clear from the initial fighting, tank units could not be employed non-stop, day-and-night like infantry, and had to be carefully husbanded for only the most important missions.

The experience with the new Spanish tank crews was discouraging, and the Red Army practice of assigning a junior crewman to driving duties usually left it in the hands of inexperienced Spanish crewmen. This led to abnormally high breakdown rates, and forced Krivoshein’s unit to reorganize crew tasks, with tank commanders shifted to the driver’s position in hopes of keeping the tanks operable. However, this adversely affected the combat capabilities of the tanks since the more experienced Soviet tanker was unable to command the tank and direct the gunner from the isolation of the driver’s station. To further extend the life of the tanks, the Soviet tank units began to use trains or heavy trucks to transport the tanks whenever units had to move more than a few kilometers. This was a technique picked up from the Spanish Army, which operated French Renault FT tanks and had copied the French practice and was not a Soviet practice.

There were few tactical lessons from the early fighting. Co-operation between the tanks and the infantry they were supporting was almost uniformly abysmal. There was no training by the tanks and infantry in cooperative tactics before missions, and the tank companies seldom worked with the same infantry unit for more than a few days, so no experience was accumulated. At the time, this was not viewed as a pressing issue given the desperate nature of the fighting, and the parlous technical state of the equipment. The Republicans could not afford to pull the tank companies out of the line for such training, and Krivoshein’s units were reluctant to expend precious engine hours drilling with the Spanish infantry. Krivoshein and Arman were ordered back to Moscow to recuperate and to brief senior Red Army leaders in January 1937.

As Italy and Germany blatantly violated the non-intervention policy and sent more troops and weapons to Franco’s forces, Stalin decided to reinforce the Spanish contingent. While the defense of Madrid was continuing, a second wave about 200 Soviet tank crews and tank specialists arrived aboard the steamer Chicherin on 26 November 1936. The group was a cadre from the 4th Separate Tank Brigade (Light) of the Byelorussian Military District from Stara Doroga headed by Kombrig D. G. Pavlov. The intention was to use these assets to form the 1st Armored Brigade (1.a Brigada Blindada) at the Archene camp. The larger size of this unit was not necessarily a signal that the Soviet advisory group in Spain planned to conduct large scale operations with concentrated tank forces. The Red Army’s light tank brigades were designed to provide infantry support to combined arms armies or rifle armies, and were organized to permit individual battalions to be assigned to the rifle divisions during operations. However, the brigade structure contained a more elaborate logistical infrastructure than Krivoshein’s group, which would help to address the serious maintenance problems plaguing the first Soviet tank units in Spain. Pavlov’s brigade in Spain was only about a third the size of a normal Red Army light tank brigade, with a nominal table of organization and equipment of 96 tanks and an actual strength through most of the winter and spring fighting of seldom more than 60 tanks. As in the case of Krivoshein’s units, there were not nearly enough Soviet tankers to man this unit, and as a result, Spanish crews had to be used. In practice, this usually meant Soviet drivers, platoon commanders and company commanders, with the Spanish tankers serving as turret crew. In total, some 351 Soviet tankers served in Spain during the course of the war, but from available unit records, the total at any one time was never more than 160 men, and usually not more than 100 tankers. Pavlov’s new brigade absorbed the surviving remnants of Krivoshein’s tank units which constituted the 1st Tank Battalion.

Pavlov’s partially formed brigade was pressed into action in early January 1937 with only 47 tanks on hand. The best equipped unit was the new 2nd Tank Battalion commanded by Kombat M. P. Petrov. The intention was to provide support for the 12th and 14th International Brigades during attacks from Las Rosas towards Majadahonda on 11 January 1937 on Madrid’s western front. The attacks began without the promised artillery or air support. In contrast the earlier experience with the Spanish units, the cooperation with the International Brigade infantry was somewhat more successful. The tanks were very useful in overcoming the Nationalist defensive line, which was based around the use of reinforced stone houses. However, once the initial defensive lines were overcome by the tanks and infantry, the infantry was unable to keep up with the tanks and became separated. The tanks could have penetrated the Nationalist lines more deeply, but as Arman’s initial raid had shown, penetrations without accompanying infantry were futile. In three days of fighting, the unit lost five tanks, mainly to enemy anti-tank guns. As Soviet aid to the Republicans increased, so too did German and Italian aid to the Nationalists. The scourge of the Republican tank force was the German 37mm PaK 36 anti-tank gun, though the Italian 47mm Italian infantry gun was also used with some success.

The Majadahonda offensive soon ended, and the Nationalist forces switched the focus of their assault on Madrid to the southeastern front along the Jarama river. Pavlov’s brigade was transported through the city to the new front, and broken up into small company sized detachments to reinforce the Republican lines. As the French had found in World War I, the precense of tanks provided a strong psychological reinforcement to demoralized infantry, and there was great demand for tank support across the madrid front. Even after the losses suffered in recent weeks, the brigade’s strength had increased to 60 tanks as more crews became available and more tanks repaired. The Republican forces went over to the offensive, supported by Pavlov’s scattered units.

The Soviet advisers’ report to Moscow on the Jarama operation was not favorable. During the attack, there had been very poor coordination between the infantry and the tanks. There had been more Nationalist 37mm anti-tank guns present, resulting in higher Republican tank losses, nearly 35-40% in some attacks. The terrain did not favor the deployment of larger formations, seldom more than company strength of 10 tanks. Nevertheless, there were some successes. On 14 February 1937, the brigade was used in a more concentrated form and in a counterattack with the 24th Infantry Brigade, overcame a major Nationalist force, leading to the loss of about a thousand Nationalist troops killed or wounded. The brigade’s units were concentrated again in late February for the assault on Pingarron, and once against, the tanks supported the International Brigades. On 27 February 1937 alone, the brigade launched 5 attacks on Nationalist positions, but took very heavy losses from Nationalist anti-tank guns in the process. In one attack alone, Nationalist artillery destroyed eight tanks, leading Soviet artillery specialist Komkor G. I. Kulik to sarcastically remark that the anti-tank gun could sweep the battlefield of tanks the same way that machine guns swept it of infantry.

In March, the front shifted yet again, this time to the north of Madrid as an Italian offensive began at Guadalajara. Once again, Pavlov’s tanks were called on to save the day, and transported to the new sector. During the initial phase of the campaign, Pavlov’s units were used in a defensive role to rebuff major Italian attacks. On 13 March 1937, one of the few tank-vs.-tank fights took place when the Republican T-26 light tanks shot up a company of Italian CV.3/35 tankettes near Trijueque, destroying five and seriously damaging two more. There were many small unit encounters with Italian forces, and the Italian tankers soon learned to fear contact with the Republican rearguards when supported by T-26 tanks. When the Italian CTV Volunteer Corps’ offensive was finally exhausted, the Republicans went over to the offensive with Pavlov’s tanks in the lead. On 18 March, three Republican infantry brigades with tank support routed the lead Italian units and seized the town of Brihuega. By the end of the day, Pavlov’s force had suffered so many casualties, both to enemy fire and mechanical problems, that of its original 60 tanks at the beginning of the Guadalajara fighting, it was able to muster only nine tanks to chase the retreating Italians. The Republicans were unable to exploit their victory, achieved in no small measure with the support of the tanks.

Pavlov’s force received a major infusion of new equipment and manpower in March 1937 when two more transport ships arrived from the Soviet Union bringing with them 100 new T-26 tanks. This was nearly as many tanks as had been supplied since the beginning of the Soviet intervention. The main problem was to train enough Spanish crewmen to equip them. The unfavorable view held by many Soviet officers of the Spanish tank crew led to plans to recruit tankers from the better-regarded International Brigades. Since there were limits on the amount of training that could be undertaken in Spain, these foreign volunteers were sent to the Soviet tank school in Gorkiy. The first contingent returned to Spain in time to take part in the Brunete campaign in the summer of 1937.

Pavlov turned over command of the brigade in late May to Kombrig Rudoft, and returned to Moscow in June to brief Stalin and the Military Council along with a number of other prominent Spanish Civil War advisers. Due to the influx of new tanks in the spring of 1937, it was possible increase the number of tank battalions in Spain from three to four. These new units, and the demands from other fronts for armor support, led to the decision to organize three additional armored brigades in the spring and summer of 1937. Unlike the 1st Armored Brigade, these later brigades had only a single tank battalion, and two battalions of locally manufactured armored cars. Manned by Spanish personnel, they did not have the mobility or firepower of the 1st Armored Brigade and were not ready until late in 1937.

Soviet Tank Shipments to Spain

Date of Arrival Ship Quantity Type
12 Oct 36 Komsomol 50 T-26 light tank
25 Nov 36 Cabo Palos 37 T-26 light tank
30 Nov 36 Marc Caribo 19 T-26 light tank
6 Mar 37 Cabo Santo Tomas 60 T-26 light tank
8 Mar 37 Darro 40 T-26 light tank
7 May 37 Cabo Palos 50 T-26 light tank
10 Aug 37 Cabo San Agustin 50 BT-5 fast tank
13 Mar 38 Gravelines 25 T-26 light tank


By the time of the Brunete offensive, the 1st Armored Brigade had been raised in strength to its authorized level of three tank battalions, and there was a further reserve of about 30 tanks from the new battalion, bringing Republican tank strength to 129 T-26 tanks and 43 BA-3 and FAI armored cars. Under the plan for the offensive, the 1st and 4th Battalions with 70 tanks and 20 armored cars would support the main assault by the 5th and 18th Corps (one tank battalion per corps), while the 2nd Battalion with 30 tanks and 10 armored cars would support the separate offensive by the 2-bis Corps south east of Madrid.

The Brunete offensive was intended to relieve Madrid by an enveloping offensive, emanating from west of the capital to the southeast, trapping the Nationalist forces on the southern approaches of Madrid. The attack by the 18th Corps on Villanueva de la Canada on 6 July began badly. The tank battalion advanced across an open field with the infantry from the 34th Division following behind, but the tanks were stopped about 500-600 meters from the town by the Nationalists’ two well-concealed anti-tank guns and two field guns. Artillery and air support was requested. But four more attacks failed to overcome resistance in the town. One of the German 37mm guns had been mounted in a church steeple and was credited with a dozen tanks. The town was finally taken by the 15th Division, but the corps failed to reach its objectives during the first day of fighting. Although the 5th Corps made better progress, it too failed its main objectives. Over the next few days, the tanks were used to support the Republican infantry in a series of small local attacks, which largely failed to dislodge the reinforced Nationalist positions. Even after committing its reserve tank battalion, by 11 July, the 1st Armored Brigade in the Brunete sector was reduced in strength to only 38 tanks, all supporting the 5th Corps. On 18 July 1937, the Nationalists shifted to the offensive against the exhausted and demoralized Republican forces. They proved no more able to dislodge the Republicans, and the campaign ended in stalemate by the end of the month.

Brunete attracted far more attention by Western military analysts than most other tank engagements in Spain during the war due to extensive press coverage. The inability of the tanks to advance in the face of enemy anti-tank guns was cited by many as evidence of the failure of the tank to restore mobility to warfare. Even the noted British armor advocate B. H. Liddell Hart began to have his doubts in view of the Spanish experience. Yet to other observers, the tanks had been poorly employed, and there was skepticism whether many lessons could be learned from the Spanish experience. British armor advocate Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller remarked: “Battles are not won by clichés or Liddell-Hartisms” and he dismissed most of the press remarks about armor, attributing the tanks’ poor performance to the abysmal tactics employed in Spain. Russian assessments of the lessons of the Brunete campaign pay little attention to the tank operations and focused instead on the poor quality of the Republican infantry, its continued inability to cooperate effectively with either tanks or artillery, and the inflexibility of the artillery in assisting in offensive operations. It was also pointed out that the sectors where the main attack was launched had an unusually high density of anti-tank guns and artillery, 26.6 guns per kilometer compared to an average of 13.8 guns per kilometer on the front as a whole.

Final Reinforcements

The International Tank Regiment was the last Soviet tank unit deployed to Spain. By the summer of 1937, the Soviet Union had shipped 256 T-26 tanks to Spain for the various tank battalions. The last major shipment of 50 tanks were BT-5 fast tanks. In contrast to the T-26 light tanks, the BT-5 fast tanks were intended for deep maneuver operations, not for close infantry support. They were a license built copy of the American Christie tank, but with a Soviet-designed turret and gun, identical to that on the T-26. They were considered by the Soviet advisers to be the most modern and best tanks in Spain, and were held in reserve through the late summer and early autumn, waiting for a major opportunity to exploit their capabilities. While Pavlov’s 1st Armored Brigade had been recruited from a unit trained and equipped to conduct close infantry support, Kondryatev’s unit had been raised from the Soviet Union’s premier mechanized formation, the 5th Kalinovskiy Mechanized Corps from Naro-Fominsk which had been the show piece formation for Tukhachevskiy’s experiments with deep maneuver. As in the case of other Red Army units deployed to Spain, Soviet crews made up only a small fraction of the personnel in the regiment. However, the International Tank Regiment was allotted the cream of the Spanish trainees and the personnel from the International Brigades who had been set to the Gorkiy Tank School in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1937. The training of the unit, though far better than any other Republican tank unit, was far from complete. In the hopes of preserving the mechanical state of the equipment, training was limited to stationary exercises, and there were no opportunities for the unit to practice platoon or company field exercises. For many of the Soviet advisors in Spain, the International Tank Regiment was the last, best hope to display the power of tanks on the modern battlefield. These hopes would be crushed in the autumn of 1937 during the Saragossa campaign.

Since August 1937, the Republican Army of the North had engaged the nationalist forces in the Aragon region, finally capturing the town of Belchite on 6 September 1937. In early October, another offensive was planned against the town of Fuentes de Ebro on the road to Saragossa. The immediate objective was the seize the town, but the hope was that the use of the International Tank Regiment would permit a breakthrough to Saragossa itself. The attack on the town would be conducted by Gen. Karol (Walter) Swierczewski’s 35th Division consisting of the 11th and 15th International Brigades. The preparations for employing the tanks were slapdash and incompetent. The International Tank Regiment was given its orders at 23:00 the night before the attack, and had a hasty 50 km road march that night to the assembly area. On arriving and refueling near the front lines, the regiment learned only two hours before the start of the attack that it was to carry infantry on the tanks during the attack. This decision was opposed by the Soviet advisers as well as by the tank regiment officers who felt that it would put the infantry at too great a risk. The BT-5 was not well suited to carrying troops, and there were no experiments in doing so prior to this battle. Although the troops from the 15th International Brigade who would ride the tanks were regarded as good troops, the infantry unit that was supposed to accompany the tanks during the attack, the 120th Brigade, was notorious for refusing to leave its trenches. There was no infantry reserve. The mission was planned in such haste that the regimental staff had no time to conduct a reconnaissance of the battlefield, and the Spanish command did not provide adequate details of the battle area or likely Nationalist anti-tank defenses, considering such issues “trivial”. This would prove fatal to the operation. There was virtually no artillery preparation since the paltry two batteries assigned the task were armed with 75mm guns captured a few weeks before with little ammunition. A T-26 battalion was supposed to be used in one of the neighboring sectors, but did not arrive in time to take part in the initial assault.

The attack began shortly after noon. The forty-eight tanks of the International Tank Regiment started the attack with a salvo of their guns, and then set off at high speed “like an express train”, with Spanish infantry clinging to their sides. In the din and dust of the attack, many of the infantry fell off the tanks, some to be run over and crushed by other tanks. Crossing the friendly trenches proved more complicated than expected as the Republican infantry had not been warned, and in the confusion there was some firing between the infantry and the tanks. Once clear of the friendly lines, the tank continued to race forward, only to find that the friendly positions were on a plateau about three to four meters over the plains below. The rushing tanks were brought to a halt, and the units had to find passageways to exit to the low ground. More discouraging still, the terrain in front of the enemy positions consisted of irrigated sugar cane fields, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. The tanks continued their rush forward, but became bogged down in the cane and water-logged soil. They began to take fire from Nationalist field guns and anti-tank guns in neighboring buildings. The advance could not press forward due to the terrain, and there was not enough infantry to hold any territory that had been gained. After exhausting their ammunition, the tanks slowly began to make their way back to the start point with little direction or control, leaving behind several tanks stuck in the mud. The tanks rearmed and were instructed to return to extract the bogged down tanks. Instead, a T-26 battalion that was supposed to be employed in the original attack was sent out with some infantry support. The attempt to extract the tanks cost a further 80 troops. In total, the International Tank Regiment lost 19 of its 48 tanks in the attack and several more damaged, and a third of its tank crews were killed or wounded.

An American tanker in the regiment wrote shortly after the attack: “Courage and heroism are plentiful in Spain and the Spanish people have no lack of it. What they need is tactics. And as for tactics, on 13 October, Regiment BT was bankrupt.” In his report to Moscow, the commander of the 35th Infantry Division exonerated Kondryatev and his unit, and placed the blame squarely on the Army of the North commanders. With the Great Purges underway in Moscow at this time, the Soviet officers in the theatre undoubtedly thought it wise to explain their performance during the fiasco. This small battle on the afternoon of 13 October 1937 is undoubtedly the best documented of the entire war, with nearly a hundred pages of testimony being sent to Moscow by the regimental commander, his assistants, company commanders, and even several tank crewmen. Kondryatev was spared from political recriminations due to their testimony, but unlike most other major Spanish Civil War commanders, was denied the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration. He was severely wounded during later fighting in the Teruel campaign. The great expectations for the BT tank regiment had been foiled by the friction of war.

The fiasco at Fuentes de Ebro on 13 October 1937 was the swan song of the Soviet tank force in Spain. While Soviet tankers would continue to act as advisers, the number of Soviet tank crews continued to diminish and the force became mostly Spanish by the end of 1937. The Soviet Union ended large shipments of tanks after the delivery of the International Tank Regiment’s fifty BT-5 tanks. In October 1937, the head of the Republican tank forces, Col. Sanchez Perales, initiated a reorganization and consolidation of the force. The four armored brigades, one tank regiment, and assorted small units were to be merged into two armored divisions. These armored divisions should not be confused with World War 2 armored divisions as they were not combined arms forces, lacking organic infantry or artillery, and were smaller. With the end of Soviet tank shipments in early 1938, the Republican army attempted to make up for the equipment shortfalls by local production. There had been small scale production of a local tank design called the Trubia since 1926, but it was an archaic design and not very successful. Instead, large numbers of automobiles and trucks were converted into improvised armored cars using boiler plate and unhardened sheet steel. Some of these were quite professional, such as those built in Valencia, but many were slap-dash contraptions with little mobility, little real armor protection, and little firepower. As a result, in may 1938 the Republican armored force had 176 tanks and 285 armored cars, and in December 1938, 126 tanks and 291 armored cars. The character of the armored force continued to shift in the direction of a road-bound force tied to the improvised armored cars as the inventory of tanks shrank due to combat and mechanical attrition. The Republic had no success in purchasing tanks from other sources except for a dozen obsolete Renault FT tanks purchased from Poland.

The last major campaign in which Soviet tank crews participated was the bitter fighting for Teruel from 15 December 1937 to 22 February 1938. The first of the new tank divisions was committed to the fighting, consisting of two T-26 battalions, the survivors of the International Tank Regiment, and other supporting units. A total of 104 tanks took part in the operations, the majority of the Republican tank force at the time. The division was not used as a unified force nor had it ever been intended to be used as such. Instead, component battalions were assigned to support various attacks. The fighting took place under difficult circumstances- extremely cold weather, heavy snow, poor roads, and in mountainous country. The tank units were praised for their efforts by the infantry they supported. While the Teruel campaign has seldom attracted much attention, it was carefully studied by the Red Army. What was striking about the campaign was that the tank force was able to function at all. By the end of 1937, the tanks had exceeded their expected mechanical life span, yet the tank units were able to maintain a respectable fraction of their tanks in combat on a daily basis and overall tank losses were modest under the circumstances- 24 tanks of which seven were captured by the Nationalists. A total of 63 tanks, more than half the force, required intermediate or capital overhaul, which was managed by the units in the field. It was a remarkable accomplishment, and reflected the growing skill of the Spanish tank crews, the maintenance units, and the tank support infrastructure created by Spanish industry. This legacy helps account for the ability of the Republican tank force to maintain its size and fighting potential for most of the remainder of 1938, in spite of the cut-off in Soviet technical aid.

Lessons of the Spanish Civil War

A British attaché during the Spanish Civil War warned that “the greatest caution must be used in deducing general lessons from this war: a little adroitness and it will be possible to use it to ‘prove’ any preconceived theory”. Certainly in the case of drawing lessons on the utility of tanks on the modern battlefield, there was a wide disparity in assessments. Armies which were already committed to the offensive use of tanks, such as the German Wehrmacht, continued their programs in spite of the poor performance of their own tanks in Spain. The Wehrmacht was not convinced that the small scale use of tanks by poorly-trained foreign tankers supporting poorly-trained militia units was an accurate reflection of the operational potential of large armored formations. Other armies were less optimistic about the future of tanks after Spain, while others simply ignored the issue. The Spanish Civil War created more controversy than insight for most armies.

To preface any remarks about the impact of the Spanish experience on the Red Army, it is essential to note the tribulations of senior army leadership at this time. In June 1937, shortly before the Brunete operation in Spain, Stalin began his purge of the military leadership with the arrest of Mikhail Tukhachevskiy and a number of other senior military leaders. The rationale for these destructive purges remains controversial but the effect was not only to destroy the generals but “also their policies and prestige”. Tukhachevskiy had been the Red Army’s primary architect of its large armored force and its primary proponent of offensive deep battle doctrine. His execution, and the execution of other officers associated with these programs such as the head of the Auto-Armor Directorate, I. Khalepskiy, hung over any discussions of the future of the Soviet armored force. The decimation of the advocates of armored warfare in the Red Army was paralleled in 1938 by a scouring out of the tank design bureaus, which claimed the lives of the design teams who had developed the T-26 light tank and BT tanks used in Spain. In addition, many of the veterans of the Spanish Civil War came under suspicion for possible Trotskiyite contagion and were executed, including the military attaché Gorev who had been so instrumental in the defense of Madrid. In an atmosphere of paranoid suspicion, an honest opinion publicly expressed about the potential for tank warfare or tank technology could prove fatal.

The Red Army had authorized a new set of field regulations, PU-36 in 1936. It was hoped that the Spanish experience would help to amplify and correct the field regulations, and the Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army not only collected data from the Spanish theatre for this purpose, but tasked some of the unit commanders with comparing their understanding of PU-36 to their experiences in the field. The first and only unit to methodically do so was the International Tank Regiment, formed in August 1936 under the command of Kombrig S. I. Kondryatev. Part of the problem with PU-36 was that it provided only the broadest sort of guidelines for tank operations and did not foresee the actual types of difficulties faced by tank units in combat. The Red Army had a wealth of reports and studies on tank operations in Spain. In general, these studies noted the many difficulties attending the use of armor. But at the same time, they duly noted the strained local circumstances, and the significant contribution that tanks had made in bolstering the very shaky performance of Republican infantry in many battles. The poor training of the Republican tank crews, particularly in the 1936-37 fighting, was often mentioned. As a result of the Spanish experience, as well as field exercises, the General Staff began the preparation of a series of reports which amplified PU-36’s coverage of tank tactics.

The most thorny tactical problem in Spain was cooperation between tanks and infantry. In most cases, it had proven to be difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Many of the Republican infantry units had poor morale and little practical training, and would simply refuse to accompany tanks into action. Even the usually stalwart International Brigades found it difficult to operate in unison with tanks. Seldom if ever was there any training or instructions in such tactics for either the tank crews or the infantry formations. There was no established procedure for communications between the tanks and the infantry, and neither had effective tactical radios. The slow walking speed of the infantry and the much higher speed of the tanks in cross-country travel was also a problem, since once battle was joined, the tankers tried to use the speed of their vehicles to avoid being hit by Nationalist anti-tank guns and field guns. As a result, infantry units and their supporting tanks usually became separated. The tankers expected that the infantry would assist them in locating their main adversary, the concealed anti-tank gun. But even if the infantry did locate and identify the anti-tank guns, there was no reliable means to communicate this information to the tankers.

The poor level of training of the mixed Russian/Spanish crews did not foster much tactical innovation. For example, the use some of the tanks in an overwatch position to deal with the anti-tank guns, or the defense of the tanks against anti-tank guns by the use of artillery or mortar-fired smoke were seldom if ever attempted. The fighting in Spain led the Red Army to abandon the practice of tanks firing on the move since it was felt that this was ineffective and a waste of ammunition. This was an important shift in tactics and paralleled similar German tactics of the time. However, the British Army, lacking the Spanish experience, continued in this practice, much to its detriment in the tank fighting in the early years of World War II.

The coordination of tanks on the battlefield had proven far more difficult than expected. The Red Army provided only about one tank in three with a radio, allotting them to the company commanders and battalions commanders and sometimes to platoon commanders. The radios were nearly useless when the tanks were moving due to their fragility, the difficulty of keeping the radios tuned to the proper frequency when moving, and the vulnerability of the “clothesline” antenna to damage. The lack of reliable radios made it almost impossible to conduct operations above company size since units could not coordinate their activities once the battle had started. The prescribed method of communication within the platoon and company was the use of colored flags. This method proved not only useless but also dangerous. The flag colors were easily misidentified under all but the best lighting conditions, and using the flags made the platoon commander readily identifiable and vulnerable to enemy fire. The use of flags was abandoned almost immediately by Arman’s group in the autumn of 1936 and not widely used afterwards. In its place, the crews were told to keep an eye on the platoon commanders tank and to follow his example. Platoon commanders generally led the three-tank unit into action, and so as often as not were the first put out of action by enemy fire. Soviet tankers’ training was not entirely satisfactory, to say nothing of the Spaniard’s training, and Arman noted that crews seldom showed any initiative once commanders were lost.

The inadequate communications of the tank battalions was one of the root causes of the difficulty that tank units experienced in coordinating their actions with friendly infantry and artillery. If cooperation between tanks and infantry was poor, it was essentially non-existent between tanks and artillery. The lack of direct radio communication between the tanks and the artillery meant that it was impossible for the tanks to receive fire support against their most deadly enemy, the anti-tank guns. The tank radios seldom operated well while the tanks were in motion, and at longer distance, Morse code had to be used for which there were few trained radio operators.

Red Army theorists did not immediately reject the concepts of deep battle or of large mechanized formations in the wake of the Spanish experience. Judged against the inflated expectation of armor theorists such as Fuller and Liddell Hart in Britain, the performance of tanks in Spain may not have seemed impressive. But many judgements in western Europe were based on the very incomplete press accounts of the use of tanks in Spain. There was a popular simplification in the press, sometimes promoted by extremists in the tank warfare debate, denigrating the tactic of using “penny packets” of tanks for close infantry support as antideluvian in contrast to the bright shining future of massed tank formations. This false dichotomy cloaked the real debate. All successful armies continued to use armored vehicles for close infantry support throughout World War 2 whether in the form of the Wehrmacht’s Sturmgeschutz battalions, the US Army’s independent tank battalions, or the Red Army’s SU-76 regiments and separate heavy tank regiments. The real debate was over how much of any army’s armored strength would be divided between these different roles. Secondly, there was no consensus amongst armored force advocates over whether large mechanized formations should be used to achieve the breakthrough during offensive operations or whether they should be held back until the breakthrough was achieved by infantry, supported by tanks and artillery, and then deployed in the exploitation phase of the operation.

The Red Army’s lessons of the war in Spain were summarized in a 1939 study. The study began by noting that lessons of the war in Spain were important since all modern combat arms had participated in the fighting and the results were likely to be absorbed by all modern European armies. Specific tactical lessons of the conflict were highlighted including the need for the support of infantry attacks by tanks, the need for coordination between the infantry, armor, and artillery, and the vulnerability of tanks to anti-tank defenses without such coordination. In regards to the use of tanks in the defense, the report singled out the role of tanks as a key element in carrying out local counterattacks based on several examples of the 1st Armored Brigade in 1937. The study was extremely cautious is drawing any lessons about the use of armor in deep battle since there were no experiences of the use of large armor formations in Spain. The report was skeptical about the possibilities of using independent tank groups to achieve breakthroughs in the face of well prepared defenses. The General Staff view was that the full potential of tanks had not been displayed in Spain and that the Red Army should continue to pursue plans to use tanks, but on a mass scale, with full artillery support. Georgiy Zhukov’s successful use of mechanized formations in his defeat of the Japanese Kwangtung Army at Khalkin Gol in 1939 further reinforced the advocates of armored warfare.

The Red Army reorganized its tank force in 1938, enlarging the four mechanized corps and renaming them as tank corps. In addition, many of the scattered tank battalions and regiments were consolidated into 25 independent tank brigades, and efforts began to expand tank platoon strength throughout the army from three tanks to five. This last change was a direct consequence of the Spanish experience. The five tank platoon was introduced due to a string of reports from Spain complaining that the three tank platoon was too weak to carry out most tasks.

The importance of the tactical lessons for the Soviet armored forces drawn from the Spanish experience should not be exaggerated. Prior to the Polish and Finnish campaigns, Soviet studies of future tank warfare tended to employ examples from World War I tank fighting to establish combat norms, since the Spanish examples were on such a small scale. After the commitment of substantial Red army tank units to combat in Poland in September 1939, in the Far East at Khalkin Gol, and against Finland in December 1939, the focus shifted to lessons from these campaigns and the Spanish experience was pushed into the background. For example, during the 28 December 1940 meeting of the Military Council on the utilization of mechanized formations in contemporary offensive operations, chaired by Spanish Civil war veteran, Gen. Col. D. G. Pavlov, there was no mention of the Spanish experience while more recent campaigns involving armored vehicles including Lake Khasan, Poland, and Finland were discussed.

If some tactical lessons from Spain had been appreciated and acted upon, many had not. Spain highlighted the lack of durability of tank designs of the 1930s and the need for expanded technical support within the armored units. This was not acted upon, due to inertia in the industrial ministries from the paralyzing effect of the purges as well as Army inaction and complacency. The level of spare parts availability remained chronically low, and the level of technical competence of the burgeoning officer cadres was inadequate. As a result, the technical status of the Soviet tank park reached appalling levels by the time of the war’s outbreak in June 1941. The T-26 and BT tanks, which still made up the vast majority of the Red Army tank park, had engine reserves on average of only 75-100 hours and about 29% of all tanks were in need of capital overhaul, that is, factory rebuilding. The result was that in 1941, far more Soviet tanks were lost to mechanical breakdown during road marches than in combat.

Calls for better training of tank crews also went largely unheeded. While the traditional view has held that the Red Army’s poor performance in 1939-41 was due to the lingering effects of the purges, recent studies have begun to explore the broad range of difficulties of introducing novel technology and novel tactics into large armies dependent on conscripts and poorly trained reservists. In the 1941 campaign, Soviet tankers displayed a poor level of training and divisional records are replete with references to their inability to carry out simple functions such as driving the tank, operating the gun, or carrying out basic maintenance duties.

Of critical importance to the viability of large mechanized formation, the issue of command and control went unaddressed. This was in part due to the backward state of Soviet radio technology compared to German or American radio technology at the time. Although steps were taken to develop a new generation of tactical radios durable enough for armored vehicle use, they were not generally available until well into the war years, and even then in small numbers. It is no surprise that one of Germany’s prime architects of its armored force, Gen. Heinz Guderian, was a former signals officer. The importance of radios in particular, and command and control in general, remains one of the most inadequately studied issues of the development of armored warfare in the inter-war years.

The single greatest failure of the Red Army in assessing the Spanish Civil War experience was in the area of tank-infantry cooperation. It is difficult to find any of the Soviet after-action reports from Spain that did not begin with the lament that “tank-infantry cooperation was poor”. Soviet tankers held a very negative view of the average Spanish infantrymen, and this jaundiced view led them to discount the problem of tank-infantry cooperation, presuming that the situation would be better when operating with Red Army infantry. As was so evident in Finland in 1939-40 and in the opening phases of the war with Germany in the summer of 1941, this problem was not confined to Spain. The Red Army ignored institutional reforms to increase tank and infantry cooperative training and ignored the needs for improved communication between the tanks and infantry.

If Soviet tanks were not prepared to cooperate with infantry in small-unit operations such as Spain, they were even more poorly prepared to conducted coordinated maneuvers during deep offensive operations. The Red Army’s existing plans to employ trucks to transport infantry formations during deep operations was shortsighted given the poor cross-country capabilities of Soviet trucks of the late 1930s as would be so evident in the Finnish campaign of 1940. Attempts to move motorized infantry units forward in a timely fashion were frustrated by road congestion. While this was partly due to the severe weather conditions in Finland, it was exacerbated by the lack of cross-country capability of the Red Army trucks. Recognizing this problem, Germany at the time was developing its panzergrenadiers and the US Army its mechanized infantry battalions, using armored half-tracks capable of moving with the tanks. Infantry mechanization remained one of the singular failures of Red Army tactics in World War 2, and forced the adoption of wasteful and humanly-costly improvisations such as the use of tanks to transport troops into battle, so-called tank desant. The problems with tank-infantry cooperation in Spain could have acted as a catalyst to a debate on infantry mechanization, but the dilemma was not appreciated by the Red Army.

While the professional ranks of the Red Army did not reject the important role of armored warfare on the future battlefield, far more conservative views were held by the post-Purge leadership of the army, made up of cronies of Stalin from the 1920 Russo-Polish war such as defense minister Klimenti Voroshilov. Voroshilov was skeptical of Tukhachevskiy’s bold vision of deep battle and would have preferred to break up large mechanized formations and spread out their equipment to the rifle and cavalry divisions, thereby limiting their role to direct support. Voroshilov, and others in the army saw Spain as evidence of the difficulty of operating tanks, even in short range missions, and insisted on a larger role in maneuver warfare being played by horse cavalry.

Voroshilov’s opportunity to impose his view arose following the Soviet participation in the invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939. The performance of Soviet armored brigades in Poland was disappointing. The uncontested Polish invasion was the largest employment of Soviet armor until the outbreak of the war with Germany in 1941, and involved the use of two tank corps, seven independent tank brigades, four cavalry tank regiments and six infantry tank battalions, totaling 4,120 armored vehicles. Combat losses were miniscule, only 42 armored vehicles. Yet the armored force lost nearly ten percent of its vehicles in the first few days of moving into Poland due to mechanical breakdowns, ten times the level of combat losses. In a November 1939 meeting of the Military Council, Voroshilov advocated the dismantlement of the four tanks corps, and was supported in this effort by the head of the Auto-Tank Directorate (ABTU), Gen. Col. D. G. Pavlov. While Pavlov’s support of Voroshilov’s effort to trim the wings of the independent armored force has often been tied to his experience in Spain, the broader political context of this decision cannot be ignored, particularly the lingering effects of the Purge. Pavlov had no personal experience with large armored formations in Spain, never commanding a unit much large than a battalion. His own lack of success in achieving tactical breakthroughs using tanks in Spain may partly explain his skepticism of the use of large armored formations. But he also realized that supporting the view of Stalin’s confidant, defense minister Voroshilov, was a prudent way to avoid an executioner’s bullet, a fate which it should be recalled, befell his predecessor I. Khalepskiy.

One of the largely unheralded lessons of Spain was in the area of tank design. There was general satisfaction with the performance of the T-26 light tank. It was considered a robust and capable vehicle, and was especially appreciated in comparison with the dreadful Italian CV.3/35 tankette, the weakly armored and poorly armed German PzKpfw I light tank, and the Spanish army’s old and worn-out Renault FT light tanks. Both of the Nationalist tank types were armed only with machine guns, and so could not defeat the T-26 in battle, and both were too thinly armored to resist the T-26’s 45mm gun. The T-26 was so superior to the Italian tankettes and German light tanks that the Nationalist army offered a bounty of 500 pesetas for every example captured; the Moroccan troops showed a special talent in this regard.

The T-26’s design had taken place before the Red Army had developed any experience in tank combat and the fighting in Spain revealed some significant shortcomings that had not been foreseen by its designers. It’s main failing was its poor armor, and immediate steps were taken to improve this through the introduction of sloped armor on the T-26S Model 1938. Its vision devices were completely inadequate in combat. When buttoned up, the crew was limited to small armored glass viewing slits, and in the case of the turret crew, a periscopic sight with a very limited viewing angle. The crews had an almost impossible time spotting enemy targets, especially the small anti-tank guns. So the crews tended to operate with the driver’s hatch and the turret hatch open for adequate visibility. As a result, 75% of tank casualties were inflicted on crews through the open hatches. Trophies from the 1939 Polish campaign provided a partial solution, with the Red Army adopting copies of the Polish Gundlach tank periscope on future tank designs.

At the time of the Spanish Civil War, the Red Army was debating the requirements for its new cavalry tank to replace the BT fast tank and a new infantry tank to replace the T-26. The Auto-Armored Directorate defined a requirement that was a modest evolution of the BT with the same gun, but with slightly better armor and improved mobility. The requirement for the T-26 infantry tank replacement was similar, retaining the same 45mm gun, but improving the armor protection. The Red Army did not see the need for a revolutionary change in tank design, but this view was not shared by some of the tank design teams.

In early 1938, the design team from the Kharkov Locomotive Plant attended a meeting of the Military Council in Moscow in which the assistant commander for technical affairs of the International Tank Regiment, Aleksandr Vetrov, answered questions about his experiences in Spain, including both the Fuentes de Ebro battle and the fighting in Teruel. The design team came away from the meeting further reinforced in their view that the ABTU requirement was misbegotten and that the new fast tank should have thicker armor to protect it against anti-tank guns better than the German 37mm gun encountered in Spain, and should have a better gun than the old 45mm “sparrow-shooter” of the T-26 and BT. The resulting tank would emerge in 1940 as the T-34, a revolutionary design which would be the benchmark for world tank design through the first part of World War 2. The T-34 replaced both the BT and the T-26, since by a fluke of timing, the new T-50 infantry tank was delayed in development. By the time it finally did appear after the outbreak of the 1941 war, it was recognized to be too expensive and inferior to the T-34. So the T-34 was deployed instead to fulfill both roles.

Recent research on the origins of the T-34 design contradicts the widely held view that Soviet weapons design was a simple conveyor belt process, with the army developing the requirement based on its tactical doctrine, and the industrial ministries and design bureaus simply obeying and turning out a precise reflection of the Army’s requirement document. Had the design bureau ignored the Spanish experience and followed the army requirements, the next generation Soviet tank would have been a mediocre design more akin to the British cruiser tanks of the period. The Kharkov design bureau’s actions in this case displayed a hallmark trait of successful technological innovation in weapons design- the ability to see past the current threat and base the weapon on a projection of what the future threat would resemble. Organizationally, it was able to do so as the Soviet design bureau were given a surprising degree of latitude in the design process. Their small size did not foster to the type of paralysis that affected larger bureaucratic institutions of the Red Army, caused at the time by the Purge and the lack of consensus about the nature of future tank warfare. As a result, the tank engineers were able to use the lessons of the Spanish Civil War more effectively than the Red Army itself in assessing future technological needs.

The Spanish Civil War is regarded by many military historians as a testing ground for the weapons and tactics of the ensuing Second World War. However, some caution must be using in assessing the lessons of the conflicts. The significance of the war for armored warfare tactics has often been exaggerated, often based on misperceptions of the size of the armored forces employed and the goals of the forces involved. The Soviet-led tank units in Spain never attempted to prove or disprove theories of deep battle since the units involved were much too small to carry out such army-level or front-level operations. Nevertheless, Spain did provide a number of valuable lessons in the area of technology, training, and tactics, some of which were appreciated, many of which were not.

Bibliographic Note

The primary archival source for this article was a collection of documents obtained from the Russian State Military Archives (RGVA) by Yale University and currently housed at the Manuscript and Archives branch of Sterling Memorial Library. The Russian State Military Archive Collection (RSMAC-Group 1670) deals with Soviet-German Military collaboration in the 1920s and with Soviet military participation in the Spanish Civil War. About half of the Spanish Civil War collection consists of a variety of documents including daily reports from various advisers to Moscow, reports on unit actions, and studies on various subjects related to the fighting. The other half of the collection consists of the Soderzhanie Sbornika (Digest Collection), a special document collection prepared by the Red Army intelligence directorate for senior government and army officials and consisting of reports on key battles as well as special digests of reports on specific technical subjects such as tank operations, aircraft tactics, air defense technology in Spain and so on. For example, the Soderzhanie Sbornika No. 37 (Technical Notes on the actions of Republican Tanks in Spain) prepared in 1937 was printed in eight copies including copies for Stalin, defense minister Voroshilov, first deputy for defense Yegorov, foreign minister Molotov, and chief of staff Shapashnikov. The Yale Sbornik collection is not complete, missing a run of volumes from the summer of 1937. The bibliographic citations here refer to the Yale archives notations, not the original Russian archives, since according to Yale archivists, the Russian collection subsequently has been closed to western researchers. The author would like to thank Mary Habeck and the staff of the Manuscript and Archives division for their kind assistance on this project. Many of the other contemporary reports as well as pre-war editions of Voenniy Mysl and Voenno-istorichesskiy zhurnal were found in the collections of the Lehman Library, School of International Affairs, Columbia University.

published in Journal of Slavic Military Studies Vol. 12 No. 3, Sep 1999

By Steven J. Zaloga 1999