Martyrdom on the Volga

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In war, it is often glibly said that ‘fortune favours the bold’; whether the bold actually deserve or receive such benefit is seldom questioned. By late December 1942, any last luck had run out for the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as it had done so for the Soviet defenders of Sevastopol six months earlier. Common to these two sieges was the remarkable courage and stoicism of the troops involved. But the results of both battles showed that no amount of risk-taking or individual valour displayed at the tactical level could alter necessarily the overall operational and strategic odds. Nations who send their sons and daughters into overexposed outposts abroad would do well to remember this, as many conflicts since the Second World War, including those in Indo-China, Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated amply.

Manstein dedicated his account of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom on the Volga’ to the ‘German soldiers, who starved, froze and died there’. Noting the unlikelihood of any monument being erected to commemorate their sacrifice, he declared eloquently, ‘the memory of their indescribable suffering, their unparalleled heroism, fidelity, and devotion to duty will live on long after the victors’ cries of triumph have died away and the bereaved, the disillusioned and the bitter at heart have fallen silent’. His moving paean for the dead was prompted by the famous epigram of Simonides, dedicated to the brave Spartans who fell to a man at Thermopylae: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.’

For all their fortitude, was the sacrifice of over 225,000 men from the twenty German and two Rumanian divisions and supporting troops worth it? What had it achieved? The lost battle of Stalingrad resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe for Hitler. Worse than the defeat a year earlier at Moscow, it had far more severe political and military consequences. If the losses of the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies smashed on either side of Stalingrad are included, together with the complete collapse of the Italian Eighth Army on the Upper Don and the subsequent defeat of the Hungarian Second Army in January 1943, then the Soviet winter counter-offensive was nothing less than a strategic disaster for the Axis cause. It showed all interested powers, including Germany’s allies and ‘concerned’ neutrals such as Turkey, that the Third Reich had severely overreached itself and could never hope to win against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the net result of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequent operations in its winter campaign was the removal of the surviving Axis contingents from the Eastern Front and the evacuation of German forces from the Caucasus. Although the Red Army had suffered terrible losses in making these gains, everything Hitler hoped for in Operation BLUE had vanished. His fantasy of crossing over the southern Russian frontier and advancing to the Middle East and Iran remained just that – a vain dream devoid of all reality.

The only operational benefit of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom’ was that it had tied down so many Soviet forces for so long, and that Operation SATURN had been downgraded to LITTLE SATURN. Had the Germans lost Rostov-on-Don, the prime terrain objective of SATURN in December 1942, then Army Group A, and particularly a large chunk of First Panzer Army, could not have escaped destruction. Despite Manstein’s and Zeitzler’s constant urging, Hitler’s permission to start this urgently required withdrawal from the Caucasus (and at this stage only a partial one at that) came characteristically late on 29 December 1942 in ‘response to the insistence of Don Army Group’. None the less, Stalin was unable to inflict in full measure his intended mortal blow on the German Army in the East, the Ostheer. Army Groups A and Don survived to fight another day notwithstanding the grievous loss of Sixth Army, Germany’s strongest. As we shall see, Manstein managed to stabilize the southern wing of the front and the Soviet winter offensive was brought to a halt in March 1943 in spectacular fashion, offering a brief glimpse of victory. Yet nothing could disguise the harsh fact that the destruction of so many Axis forces (the equivalent of no less than fifty-five divisions) in the meantime had ‘fundamentally changed the situation to the detriment of Germany and her allies’. The strategic balance had now shifted in favour of the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

For the German people, moreover, there was no way of disguising the magnitude of the catastrophe at Stalingrad and the psychological blow it represented. Too many soldiers’ letters had reached the homeland for it to be brushed aside as a mere setback. Goebbels had tried to counter anguish and defeatism in his famous speech of 18 February 1943 at the Berlin Sportpalast, declaring ‘total war’. The strategic truth, however, had already been drawn on the battlefield. Marshal Zhukov, even stripping away the bombastic tone of his memoirs, hit the nail on the head when he explained the ‘causes of the German debacle’ and the Soviets’ ‘epoch-making victory’:

[The] failure of all Hitlerite strategic plans for 1942 was due to an underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet State, the indomitable spirit of the people. It also stems from an over-estimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities. [Secondly,] utilization of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, accurate detection of weak points in the enemy defences led to the defeat of the German troops in the operation[s] codenamed URANUS, SMALLER SATURN [and] RING.

Zhukov could not avoid listing a number of other contributory factors, not least the ‘Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils . . . and commanders’, ‘who fostered in soldiers confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield’.

For both sides, there was as much a psychological as any physical turning point. Germany’s offensive operations had culminated. In view of the Soviet superiority, the only option available was to switch to a strategic defence. How aggressively it could be conducted at the operational level would depend on the time, space and forces available, and above all, on the skill of its commanders. As Manstein was soon to show, the Red Army could still be defeated in the field.

In the meantime, the final agony of Stalingrad is briefly told. In the grand scheme of the Second World War, it is tempting to describe the German defeat on the Volga in terms of a ‘decisive point’. Although such vocabulary is valid in any strict, detached, military analysis of campaign, it obscures the irrefutable fact that the battle was a human disaster. Manstein was surely right, therefore, to remind his readers:

The death-struggle of Sixth Army, which began around the turn of the year [1942-43], is a tale of indescribable suffering. It was marked not only by the despair and justified bitterness of the men who had been deceived in their trust, but even more by the steadfastness they displayed in the face of an undeserved and inexorable fate, and by their high degree of bravery, comradeship and devotion to duty, and by their calm resignation and humble faith in God.

None the less, it is perfectly appropriate to examine Hitler’s and Manstein’s decision-making during the last few, debilitating weeks of the Sixth Army: after all, the fate of so many thousands of soldiers rested on their political and military leaders.

By late December 1942, the combat power of the encircled troops in Stalingrad had diminished dramatically. On the 26th, when only 70 tonnes of supplies were flown into the pocket, Paulus reported that ‘bloody losses, cold, and inadequate supplies have recently made serious inroads on divisions’ fighting strength’. Moreover, it was ‘no longer possible to execute [a] break-out unless [a] corridor is cut in advance and [my] Army [is] replenished with men and supplies’. So Paulus was in no doubt as to the nature of the impending disaster. He concluded his report with a plea: ‘radical measures [are] now urgent’. None was available.

Back at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, the mood had turned to one of frustration and resignation for there was nothing now that could save Sixth Army. As Engel recorded, ‘here [is] deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders.’ However unrealistic the prospect, he felt that the army commander ‘could have got out with the bulk of his men, albeit at a high cost in material’. Yet the fact remained that ‘Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.’ In the face of unfolding events he was powerless to change, the Führer had turned ‘very quiet’, and was ‘almost never seen except at daily situation conferences and to receive reports’.

By the end of the year, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been pushed back to its line of departure, then further west still towards Rostov-on-Don. Building on the success of the Stalingrad counter-offensive, the Soviet Middle Don operation had sealed Sixth Army’s fate. As Zhukov noted accurately, the encircled German force ‘had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, and the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.’

On 9 January 1943, following instructions by the supreme command in Moscow, the Soviet Don Front presented Sixth Army with a surrender ultimatum. The demand was summarily rejected the same day by Paulus on Hitler’s orders. Manstein did not defer. Perhaps tilting at the obvious criticism after the war, he went to considerable lengths in his memoirs to explain why, in his view, a capitulation on this date would not have been appropriate. His rather banal comments that, ‘if every Commander-in-Chief were to capitulate as soon as he considered his position hopeless, no one would ever win a war’ and ‘even in situations apparently quite bereft of hope it has often been possible to find a way out in the end’ provided little justification. What mattered far more was the operational rationale for sustaining the struggle in Stalingrad at such high human cost. The critical consideration, therefore, which he stressed repeatedly, was the fate of the entire southern wing of the German Army on the Eastern Front. So Manstein was on safer ground when he stated:

this in turn brings us to the crucial point which justifies Hitler’s order to refuse to capitulate and also barred the Army Group from intervening in favour of such action at that particular time. No matter how futile Sixth Army’s continued resistance might be in the long run, it still had – as long as it could conceivably go on fighting – a decisive role to fulfil in the overall strategic situation. It had to try to tie down the enemy forces opposing it for the longest possible space of time.

Strictly speaking, he was right in his assessment. Sixth Army’s prolonged and heroic stand on the Volga continued to fix seven armies of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, powerful forces which otherwise could have been employed elsewhere to ‘telling effect’. That said, the conduct of war ought never to be reduced to the moves of an elaborate chess game: the humanitarian imperative to end a lost battle and so prevent any further loss of life must at some stage take precedence over military considerations.

Manstein maintained to his deathbed the deeply held conviction that Germany was not doomed to defeat as a result of Stalingrad. One of his central themes in Lost Victories is that it would have been possible to have come to some sort of draw, however illusory that view might now appear. For all his professional military capabilities, Manstein was not a politically astute man. In propounding his solution, he failed to appreciate the utter determination of Stalin and the Soviet people not only to free their sacred Motherland (Rodina), but also to punish the Fascist invaders and render the aggressor incapable of mounting a war of conquest ever again. He also underestimated the strength of feeling against Germany held by the Western Allies, who at the Casablanca conference (14-24 January 1943) had demanded unconditional surrender.

It would be far too simple, however, to dismiss out of hand Manstein’s perspective that ‘in those days it was by no means certain that Germany was bound to lose the war in the military sense’. Accepting that the military is but one instrument of national power, in early 1943 Germany had yet to realize the full potential of its war economy: that would take another year under Albert Speer’s best efforts. Furthermore, despite its huge losses on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht still had considerable reserves of men and equipment, much of it being squandered in the totally futile defence of Tunisia or dissipated to little benefit in other peripheral theatres such as Norway or the Balkans. The fundamental issue Manstein raised was whether a military stalemate could have been brought about, and if, in turn, it would have caused ‘a similar state of affairs in the political field’. He felt a ‘draw’ ‘would have been entirely within the bounds of possibility if the situation on the southern wing of German armies could in some way have been restored’. All his efforts during and following the disaster at Stalingrad were aimed at achieving that one objective – staving off defeat – as opposed to the pursuit of ultimate victory.

In the weeks that followed Sixth Army’s defiant refusal to capitulate, the Soviet forces slowly but surely pushed in the German defence. Operation RING, designed to reduce the pocket, was prosecuted with ruthless ferocity. Throughout this period, bad weather and heavy fighting continued to hinder aerial resupply. Freezing and worn out, German troops fought on: the sapping starvation of the survivors accelerated, as did the appalling suffering of the injured and wounded. Manstein was not immune to the human misery involved, observing that it was but ‘a cruel necessity of war which compelled the [German] Supreme Command to demand that one last sacrifice of the brave troops of Stalingrad’.

Within Stalingrad, the situation worsened steadily and losses mounted alarmingly. The bread ration was cut from 200 to 100 grams a day; after all the horses had been slaughtered, the dogs came next. When the airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak were lost on 12 and 22 January respectively, the inevitable end drew much closer: no supplies in; no wounded out. The start of a series of concentrated Soviet blows to liquidate the German hold of the city centre began on 22 January. On 24 January, Paulus signalled: ‘Fortress can be held for only a few days longer. Troops exhausted and weapons immobilized as a result of non-arrival of supplies. Imminent loss of last airfield will reduce supplies to a minimum. No basis left on which to carry out mission to hold Stalingrad.’ He requested permission to break out in small organized groups. In response, he received a stark message ‘Re break-out: Führer reserves right of final decision.’ It never arrived.

By this late stage, Manstein had realized the futility of any further sacrifice in Stalingrad and pressed Hitler hard to give Paulus permission to enter into surrender negotiations. The Führer refused point-blank. That same day (24 January 1943), the Soviets had broken through the last remaining coherent front and split the German forces in the city into three smaller segments. Within a week, Paulus (promoted to field marshal to encourage him not to fall into the hands of the Russians alive) and his immediate staff had surrendered at their final command post, the Univermag department store in Red Square.

In one of those great ironies of history, it was Colonel Ivan Andreevich Laskin, a hero of the defence of Sevastopol and now chief of staff of the 64th Army, who arranged the cessation of hostilities in Stalingrad. The guns fell silent on 2 February when the last defenders of XI Corps in the northern pocket gave up. No fewer than 90,000 Germans were captured of which only 5,000 came back to their Fatherland. Although the fighting had stopped, cold, disease and malnutrition in Stalingrad was soon replicated in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps; only the very strongest and exceptionally lucky pulled through.

Manstein had done his very best to relieve Stalingrad. When that attempt failed for lack of forces, he felt compelled by military logic, and in accordance with Hitler’s instructions, to require Sixth Army to fight on. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, he had urged the Führer to agree to its surrender when the airlift was broken and when any further resistance was no longer justified on military grounds. Of the German leader’s role, Manstein wrote:

It was certainly to Hitler’s credit that he accepted responsibility unreservedly and made no attempt whatever to find a scapegoat. On the other hand, we are confronted by his regrettable failure to draw any conclusions for the future from a defeat for which his own errors of leadership were to blame.

One consequence of Stalingrad was the temporary loosening of Hitler’s micro-control of operations in early 1943. It led to timely evacuations from the exposed Demyansk and Rzhev salients that forestalled Soviet blows and created much needed reserves. Manstein also exploited this situation in stabilizing the southern wing of the Eastern Front by the end of March. Without gaining sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he would have achieved anything like the fleeting operational success he gained.

Extracting any flexibility from the Führer, however, drained him. His mounting frustration over Hitler’s way of war caused him to consider tendering his resignation on several occasions. When Hitler denied him urgent reinforcements for Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote to Zeitzler on 5 January 1943 asking to be relieved of command:

Should these proposals not be approved and this headquarters continue to be tied down to the same extent as hitherto, I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by my continuing as commander of Army Group Don. In the circumstances it would appear more appropriate to replace me by a sub-directorate of the kind maintained by the Quartermaster-General.

Hitler refused his request. Matters came to a head again towards the end of the month with the Führer’s rejection of his demand to allow Sixth Army to surrender. His principal subordinates again advised him against resignation. His ‘closest collaborator’ Busse, according to Manstein’s account, is recorded saying in late 1942: ‘If I had not kept begging him [Manstein] to stay for the troops’ sake, he’d have chucked the job back at Hitler long ago.’

Notwithstanding his stated desire to step down, Manstein was probably right in his assertion that Hitler would not have accepted his resignation. The Führer tolerated and needed him for another year. The army group commander had further professional ambitions in any case. He knew that he was well qualified to take over from either Zeitzler or Keitel, or to assume overall command of the Eastern Front. This was a view shared by many of Germany’s generals who criticized the conduct of operations. Hermann Balck, for example, commented in his diary on 17 February 1943 that ‘the solution generally desired throughout the Army’ is for ‘Manstein to assume as Commander-in-Chief East’.

Of more enduring interest are Manstein’s comments against military resignation. He concluded that a senior commander ‘is no more able to pack up and go home than any other soldier’. Furthermore, ‘the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician, who is always at liberty to climb off the band-wagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the Government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered.’ True enough for a politician in a democracy, but dictators such as Hitler are not in the habit of standing down: they either die of natural causes or come to a premature, violent end.

In early 1943, Manstein faced fighting some very difficult battles with Hitler in order to prevent any further disintegration on the southern wing as a result of renewed Soviet attacks. He had been wrestling with this problem since his assumption of command. With Stalingrad soon to fall, resolution of this issue became ever more urgent. It all revolved around securing a more coherent command of the Wehrmacht and the Eastern Front.

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130-mm (5.12-in) KS-30

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One of the standard antiaircraft guns of the Soviet army during World War II was the 85-mm (3,35-in) M1939, replaced in production by the M1944 which had a longer barrel and fired ammunition with higher muzzle velocity for increased range. In 1985 the M1939 and M1944 were still used by almost 20 countries, although in the Warsaw Pact they have been replaced by surface-to-air missiles. After the end of the war the Soviet Union introduced two new towed anti-aircraft guns, the 100-mm (3.94-in) KS-I9 and the 130-mm (5.12-in) KS-30; by 1985 neither of these remained in front-line service with the Soviet Union, although some 20 countries did still use the KS-19 and two or three the much heavier KS- 30.

The Soviet 130mm anti-aircraft gun KS-30 appeared in the early 1950s, closely resembling the German wartime 12.8 cm FlaK 40 antiaircraft gun. The KS-30 was used for the home defense forces of the USSR and some other Warsaw Pact countries. Recognition features are the heavy dual-tire carriage, a firing platform which folds up to a 45 degree angle when the piece is in travel, and the long clean tube without a muzzle brake. The breechblock is of the semi-automatic horizontal sliding wedge type, and the piece is fitted with a power rammer and an automatic fuze setter. Fire control is provided by the PUAZO-30 director and the SON-30 radar. The ammunition is of the fixed-charge, separated type. It is not interchangeable with that of the 130mm field or coastal guns. The KS-30 is now held in war reserve since it was replaced by surface-to-air guided missiles.

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A HAREBRAINED SCHEME

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By October 1962, the lofting of Discoverer XIV on August 18, 1960, had dispelled the darkness from the interior of the Soviet Union for more than two years, permitting an acccurate assessment of its strategic capabilities. Minuteman, the weapon that was to play such an important role in keeping the nuclear peace by safeguarding against the nuclear Pearl Harbor so dreaded earlier, was moving into deployment. The first flight of ten Minutemen went on alert in silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana on October 22, 1962. Yet that same month, in no small irony, the eternal curse of the human race, man’s folly, brought the United States and Russia the closest they were ever to come to nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev precipitated the crisis by shipping Soviet missiles to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in a wild poker play to try to even the strategic odds. When Khrushchev was overthrown two years later in a conspiracy led by one of his principal subordinates in the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, the Missile Crisis was cited as an example of his “harebrained scheming.” It was not the only reason for his downfall. His colleagues had other complaints against him as well, but a harebrained scheme it certainly was.

The genesis of Khrushchev’s Cuban gamble seems to have been a meeting in February 1962 of the Soviet Union’s Defense Council, a gathering that included senior military commanders, leading missile designers like Korolev and Yangel, and members of the Presidium. Khrushchev was informed that it would take a number of years to provide him with a sizable force of reliable and accurate ICBMs. In the meantime, he would have to endure an American opponent in John Kennedy who possessed awesome nuclear superiority. By the end of the forthcoming October, for example, Khrushchev would possess a mere twenty unreliable ICBMs, along with a bomber force of fifty-eight Bison jets, limited to a one-way trip, and seventy-six Tu-95 turboprops, slow planes that were dead pigeons to the American jet interceptors and surface-to-air missiles. In contrast, Kennedy would flaunt ninety-six Atlas ICBMs, fifty-four Titans, ten Minutemen, forty-eight of the Navy’s new Polaris submarine-launched IRBMs hidden on station in the depths, and SAC’s bomber force of 1,741 B-47s, B-58s, and B-52s. Uncounted because of their joint control but also ready were the sixty Thor IRBMs in England, the thirty Jupiters in Italy, and the sixteen in Turkey.

Khrushchev saw a way around this dilemma. The Soviet Union possessed plenty of well-tested IRBMs. If a substantial number of these were slipped into Cuba, their presence 90 miles from Key West would, as he put it in his memoirs, equalize “what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power.’” Soviet IRBMs this close would effectively neutralize much of SAC; there would be no time to get planes off the ground in the event of an attack. Besides, he had been particularly rankled by the Jupiters in neighboring Turkey ever since their deployment. “The Americans … would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.” The range of the first-generation IRBM, the R-12, had been extended by 1962 from 1,250 to 1,292 miles and its warhead blast increased from 700 kilotons to the eighty Hiroshimas of a megaton. The R-12 would hold hostage all Eastern cities through Washington to New York, which was 1,290 miles from Cuba, and those as far west as Dallas and Oklahoma City. (During the crisis, the CIA designated the R-12 a medium-range rocket, or MRBM, but rocket historians refer to it as an intermediate-range missile because of its 1,000-mile-plus reach.) The second-generation R-14, at 2,500 miles, would threaten the whole of eastern and much of western Canada and virtually the entire United States out into Montana. The plan was to ship thirty-six R-12s to Cuba with twenty-four launchers for them and twenty-four R-14s with sixteen launchers. (Some of the rockets would be “reloads” for second firings.) The question was whether the missiles could be transported and emplaced in Cuba secretly. Khrushchev planned to complete deploying them on the island in October and then to tell Kennedy they were there after the midterm congressional elections in November, when he assumed the American president would be under less political pressure and more likely to accept the rockets without too much of a fuss. Anastas Mikoyan, like Khrushchev another of Stalin’s henchmen who had survived to be a better man in better days and was now Khrushchev’s closest friend and adviser in the Presidium, urged him to abandon the scheme. It was too dangerous, Mikoyan said. They would get caught in the act and a crisis would ensue. Khrushchev’s foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who had considerable experience dealing with the Americans, warned him that “putting missiles in Cuba would cause a political explosion in the United States. I am absolutely certain of that.” Khrushchev heeded neither man. He seems to have had no conception that, however uncomfortable Russians might be over hostile missiles in adjacent Turkey, Russian sensitivities about Turkey were mild compared to those of Americans about Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole. Americans regarded the Caribbean as the Romans had regarded the Mediterranean. It was Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. Similarly, Cuba had come to be looked upon as an American possession and treated as American territory after the United States seized it from Spain in 1898. This was why there had been such an uproar when Castro had nationalized the American-owned businesses that virtually monopolized the island’s economy and declared himself a Communist. It was bad enough to have the Red Menace now just across the Florida Straits from Miami. No American president could withstand the political firestorm that would ensue if he acquiesced in the positioning of Russian nuclear missiles on the island.

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Soviet ZhDT-3 rail torpedo

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The actual physical destruction of the tracks is not desirable when one intends to use them for one’s own trains, notably during the phase of an advance into enemy territory, which of course is not the case for guerrilla forces who do not operate trains. In the 1930s the Russian Army perfected a type of rail torpedo capable of destroying, or at least derailing, an enemy train. Hence the value of safety wagons at the front of trains.

Soviet ZhDT-3 rail torpedo, designed in the Podolsk factory in 1938. This simple, cheap `fire and forget’ device could cause considerable damage with its 100kg (220lb) explosive charge, launched at 50km/h (30mph) with a range of some 10km (6 miles). Although five examples of this device were issued to each armoured train in 1941, it is not known whether any were actually used in action. Its principal tactical drawback would have been that in `Barbarossa’, the Germans attacked using tanks, whereas the rail torpedo was most useful against enemy railway traffic, armoured or not, using the Russian broad gauge.

Armoured Rail Torpedo Projects by Louis Gregori

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Detail from Patent No 350.169, submitted on 28 May 1904, granted on 13 September 1904.

In 1904, this inventor proposed a `land torpedo’, inspired by naval torpedoes, propelled by a motor preferably powered by compressed air, and protected from rifle fire by a metal casing. The armament consisted of four `warheads’, which from the patent illustration appear to be large-calibre artillery shells with nose-mounted impact fuzes, covering four planes and intended to inflict all-round damage: to track, stations, platforms, enemy trains etc. The first shell exploding when its nose fuze struck a target – most likely the front one but one of the others could be activated if the enemy derailed the device – would then set off the remaining shells.

Twenty-Fourth Tank Corps of 1st Guards Army in the Tatsinskaya Raid, December 1942

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Red Christmas
The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid 1942

On 19 November 1942 Soviet forces launched their carefully prepared counter-offensive against the over-extended German, Rumanian, and Italian forces which had pushed to the frontiers of Asia. By 24 November the Red Army had encircled the German 6th Army, elements of the 4th Panzer Army in Stalingrad itself and to the west, destroyed the 4th Rumanian Army, pushed back the 3rd Rumanian Army to the River Chir and created a gap between the Germany Army Group B in the north and Army Group A in the Caucasus. On the same day Hitler declared that Stalingrad was to be a `fortress’, to maintain its position relying on air resupply which Goering had promised with colossal over-optimism.

This air resupply line presented a clear parallel with the railway lines of former wars. The German forces in the pocket required 600 tonnes of resupply for normal existence with 300 tonnes as the bare minimum. Bad weather, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and fighters combined to prevent even this being attained, the average daily delivery being just over 100 tonnes. From the relative safety of the Germany Army Group, or so the Germans thought, `Don’ aircraft would leave Tatsinskaya airfield, with about 40 kilometres to the next field south of Morozovsk, then another 40 to one south of Chernishkovskiy, and then 150 kilometres over Soviet-held territory to the beleaguered pocket itself.

During the course of the November counter-offensive the Soviet Supreme High Command had initiated plans for a more wide-ranging operation by forces of the South-West Front and the left wing of the Voronezh Front to destroy the enemy on the middle Don and to pursue the offensive towards Kamensk and Rostov. This operation was to be called `Saturn’, and involved the destruction of the 8th Italian Army, the operational group `Hollidt’ and the remnants of the 3rd Rumanian Army. However, the offensive by the Germany Army Group `Don’ with the aim of relieving Stalingrad, which began on 12 December forced the Soviet High Command to revise its plan. Instead of a deep strike against Rostov, the Soviets now planned to send their main forces south east to destroy Army Group `Don’. This was called `Little Saturn’. First and Third Guards Armies of the South-West Front would form two encircling pincers, one striking from south of Verkhny Mamon and the other from Bokovskiy, and converging on Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. Sixth Army of the Voronezh Front (transferred to the SouthWest Front on 19 December) would support the main attack from the west. Tatsinskaya was a target both because of its nature as an air and rail communications centre and because of its position in relation to the forces engaged.

The Middle Don operation began on 16 December. The objective was to destroy the encircled enemy groupings on the southern bank of the Don by day four. The tank and mechanized corps would take the lead in particular 1st Guards Army’s 24th Tank Corps which was given Tatsinskaya as its objective to be taken by 24 December and 25th Tank Corps, targeted on Morozovsk, the other key airfield on the Stalingrad route. These objectives were clearly defined before the offensive, as was that of 6th Army’s 17th Tank Corps, which was to cover the right flank and drive for Kantemirovka. Seventeenth Tank Corps would then continue to the airfield at Millerovo, which it would attack in concert with 18th Tank Corps by 24 December.

Meanwhile, from 12 December, prior to the operation, Soviet Front aviation (17th Air Army) launched attacks on Millerovo and Tatsinskaya airfields and the railroad junction at Likhaya. Immediately before the operation they attacked Tatsinskaya, Morozovsk and the railroad between the latter and Likhaya. Night bombers attacked enemy headquarters and reserves.

First Guards Army was deployed in two echelons for the attack, the three Tank corps (18th, 24th, 25th) forming the second `breakthrough exploitation echelon’. The Tank Corps themselves were also deployed in two echelons before their insertion. Eighteenth and 25th Corps were committed to battle on 17 December and 24th Corps on 18 December. The latter coincided with the collapse of 8th Italian Army two days after the beginning of the Soviet offensive. Twenty-fourth Tank Corps under Major-General Badanov tore into the gap created by the Italian collapse and on towards its distant objective. By 19 December, 17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank and 1st Mechanized Corps were cutting through German support elements and driving south-east in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal routes to the south-west.

German air made strenuous efforts to check the swift advance of 24th and 25th Tank Corps. On 24 December alone the Luftwaffe launched 500 sorties against 25th Tank Corps. By this time, the mobile groups were over 100 kilometres ahead of their supporting infantry, and had covered a total distance of up to 240 kilometres.

Supplies for the Stalingrad pocket were brought into Tatsinskaya by both air and rail. They were stockpiled on the airfield and at the train station. Defending this key point were some 120 men of 62nd infantry division. The Germans had, apparently, realized that Soviet mobile forces might interrupt operations, but requests to move the airlift further west were refused. There were 180 Ju-52 transport planes on the field which, together with the He-111 bombers at the Morozovsk airfield, comprised the entire airflift capability for the Stalingrad pocket. At 0530 on Christmas Eve the tank corps’ artillery opened up with a brief barrage, after which Soviet tanks rushed the airfield.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps launched a concentric attack, – indeed, Marshal Rokossovskiy later commented on the corps’ widespread use of enveloping movements. Fourth Guards and 130 Tank brigades attacked Tatsinskaya from the line of march simultaneously from the north-west, east and south. A tank battalion from 130 brigade attacked the station and destroyed 50 German aircraft with all their fuel. Immediately afterwards, tanks overran the airfield proper from north and south, shooting up aircraft or driving over them. Fifty-fourth Brigade attacked the outskirts of Tatsinskaya town from the west and by the evening of 24 December the German forces surrounded in the area had been destroyed. However, some 124 aircraft managed to take off and a proportion of the Germans got away. Nevertheless, the effect on the already inadequate Stalingrad airlift was noticeable.

The Germans reacted swiftly. On 24 December, even before the airfield and surrounding area was completely in Soviet hands, an advance detachment of 6th Panzer division recaptured the area north of Tatsinskaya. Sixth Panzer closed in, with 11th Panzer and 306 Infantry Division moving in from the east. By 27 December 24th Tank Corps had been encircled, and frantic radio messages in clear calling for 1st Guards Army to come to the rescue of the corps were to no avail. The corps had been refuelled from motor fuel and lubricants captured at the airfield but was dreadfully short of ammunition. An urgent radio message from Badanov on 27 December, and by 2300 hours on the same day Soviet aircraft had dropped 450 artillery shells, 4,500 rounds of rifle and 6,000 of submachine gun ammunition. The official restricted Soviet General Staff deductions from the operation considered that it had only been possible to drop such limited quantities of ammunition because no provision had been made in advance for the resupply of a corps engaged in exploitation of a breakthrough, although `the possibility of fighting in an encirclement had to be expected’.The General Staff went so far as to assert that `had it been possible for the Corps to receive larger quantities of ammunition it would have been quite able to bring into action its 39 T-34 and 19 T-70 tanks and hold out until the arrival of 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps which, by 29 December, had moved into the areas of Kachalin and Lesnoy. 140 By the night of 28 December 24th Tank Corps had no working tanks left and was running out of ammunition. The final hours were savage, the wounded on both sides freezing to death where they fell. Some of the Soviet troops, including general Badanov himself, managed to escape and rejoin their own forces; the rest perished.

Vatutin, commanding the South-West Front, ordered 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to relieve Badanov, but it was too late. However, 24th Tank Corps’ achievement was undeniable. According to Soviet sources, in the ten days (18-27 December) of the operation the Corps killed over 11,000 enemy troops, destroyed 84 tanks and 431 aircraft. It also took 4,800 prisoners although it is not known what the Russians did with them and how, or whether, they were evacuated from the battle zone. The corps was renamed 2nd Guards Tank Corps during the final desperate hours of the fight at Tatsinskaya and on 27 January 1943 received the honorific title `Tatsinskiy’. Its destruction was a tactical reverse for the Russians but the corps was not such a large element of its parent army that its loss was unbearable. `The vacuum created by the loss of Italian 8th Army still existed and the destruction of 24th Tank Corps only eliminated the vanguard of one of the South-Western Front’s advancing armies.’ The corps had been the spearhead of a thrust which, if successful, could have isolated Army Group A which was actually of greater military importance than the Stalingrad airlift. The Germans were also trying to relieve the Stalingrad pocket simultaneously and diverting 48th Panzer Corps against Tatsinskaya left only 57th Panzer to attempt to break the Stalingrad encirclement. The Russians were therefore able to use all their available reserves in the immediate Stalingrad area against the relief attempt. The synergic effect of a Mobile Group penetration and main forces operations is thus emphasized.

On the other hand, the way the Germans dealt with 24th Tank Corps’ penetration is exemplary with a view to countering such deep attack formations in future. First, the Tank Corps (Mobile Group) was isolated from its parent forces (1st Guards Army) and, indeed, from any other OMG-type formations operating in the enemy depth (25th Tank Corps, for example). Next, it was fixed in place while information was obtained about its composition and nature, and simultaneously encircled. Finally, it was eliminated by a series of `well planned, simultaneous and co-ordinated combined arms attacks’. This denied the Soviet commander the opportunity to shift forces to deal with a succession of attacks. These attacks, by their violence and speed, also capitalized on the psychological vulnerability of a force surrounded and cut off in the enemy rear. On the other hand, the fact that they were `deep in a hostile land’ and had `no alternative’, as Sun Tzu realized, almost certainly made the Russians fight harder – until they ran out of ammunition, at any rate.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps was not strongly reinforced with other arms of service: only an extra Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment and Rocket Launcher battalion were attached. Had it been more strongly reinforced with infantry, artillery, engineer, or other specialist units, its ability to fight in the enemy depth would have been enhanced significantly. Substantial, dedicated air support would also have increased its resilience. The need to reinforce deep-penetration formations and increase self reliance was reorganized and acknowledged in the official General Staff deductions from the experience, published in autumn 1943. As well as acknowledging the potential value of air resupply organized in advance, the General Staff noted that most of the corps experienced shortages of motor fuel because the distance between supply bases and advanced mobile formations reached unexpected lengths although the most advanced of all, 24th was able to top up its reserves from the airfield it captured. The General Staff also noted that the Corps’ organic equipment was insufficient for salvaging brokendown transport or fighting vehicles. The experience suggested `the necessity for reinforcing Corps operating far away from and without direct contact with the main forces with salvage companies equipped with powerful tractors’.

The General Staff also drew lessons for the handling in battle and overall composition of mobile groups. In most cases, they had been inserted while the enemy was still holding out and this led to unacceptable casualties: 25th Tank Corps, for example, lost 27 tanks on unreconnoitred minefields. The corps had not been supported by aircraft in the breakthrough phrase: in future, such co-operation should be planned on an army or front scale. When mobile forces were acting in the operational depth, fighter and ground-attack aircraft should be controlled by the Tank or Mechanized Corps commander. The experience also taught that the Tank or Mechanized Corps’ action was bound to achieve more success if their initial successes were exploited and consolidated by infantry. Motorized infantry or cavalry should therefore be organized for this purpose. In order to insure the continuous effectiveness of a thrust throughout the entire depth of the operation, Tank and Mechanized Corps should be merged into one mobile group comprising several corps (not less than two, at least one mechanized and the rest tank) and this group should be committed by echelons – two or even three. It would be more difficult to form and weld together an improvised Headquarters than in the case of infantry, and this suggested that Tank Corps Headquarters should be configured and receive their battle training as component parts of mobile groups. The train of thought leading to larger mobile groups and Tank Armies is clear:

The operation carried out by the South West Front in the Middle Don area serves as an example of such employment of Mobile Groups. The experience has shown that an operation o f this kind can be accomplished only by a group o f Corps placed under a unified command or merged into one Tank Army.

World War Three!?

The situation of the Soviet Union in 1945 was precisely the opposite of that of France. After two decades of effective exclusion from the affairs of Europe, Russia had re-surfaced. The resilience of the Soviet population, the successes of the Red Army and, it must be said, the Nazis’ capacity to turn even the most sympathetic anti-Soviet nations against them, had brought Stalin credibility and influence, in the counsels of governments and on the streets.

This newfound Bolshevik appeal was founded on the seduction of power. For the USSR was very powerful indeed: despite their huge losses in the first six months of the German invasion—when the Red Army lost 4 million men, 8,000 aircraft and 17,000 tanks—the Soviet armies had recovered to the point where, in 1945, they constituted the greatest military force Europe had ever seen: in Hungary and Romania alone they maintained, through 1946, a military presence of some 1,600,000 men. Stalin had direct or (in the case of Yugoslavia) indirect control of a huge swathe of eastern and central Europe. His armies had only narrowly been blocked, by the rapid advance of the British under Montgomery, from moving forward through north Germany as far as the Danish border.

As Western generals well knew, there was absolutely nothing to stop the Red Army advancing to the Atlantic if Stalin ordered it. To be sure, the Americans and the British had a clear advantage in strategic bombing capacity, and America had the atomic bomb, as Stalin knew even before Truman told him so at Potsdam in July 1945. There is no doubt that Stalin wanted a Soviet atomic bomb—it is one of the reasons why he insisted on Soviet control of those parts of eastern Germany and, especially, Czechoslovakia where there were uranium deposits; within a few years 200,000 east Europeans would be working in these mines as part of the Soviet atomic programme.

But the atomic bomb, though it worried the Soviet leaders and made Stalin even more suspicious of American motives and plans than he already was, did little to alter Soviet military calculations. These derived directly from Stalin’s political goals, which in turn drew on longstanding Soviet and Russian objectives. The first of these was territorial: Stalin wanted back the land the Bolsheviks had lost, at the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and in the course of the war with Poland two years later. This goal had been partly achieved in the secret clauses of his 1939 and 1940 pacts with Hitler. The rest he owed to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, allowing the Red Army in turn to reoccupy the disputed territories in the course of its advance on Berlin. That way, the Soviet occupation and annexation of Bessarabia (from Romania), the Bukovina (from Romania), sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (from Czechoslovakia), western Ukraine (from Poland), eastern Finland, the three independent Baltic republics and Königsberg/Kaliningrad in East Prussia could all be presented as the spoils of victory, rather than deriving from unsavoury deals with the Fascist enemy.

For the Soviet Union the point of this territorial aggrandizement was twofold. It ended its pariah status. This was a matter of some importance to Stalin, who now became the leader of a huge Eurasian bloc in world affairs, its newfound power symbolized by the Soviet Union’s insistence on a system of vetoes in the new UN Security Council. However, land represented not just prestige but also and above all security. From the Soviet viewpoint a glacis to its west, a broad swathe of land across which Germans especially would have to pass if they wished to attack Russia, was a vital security concern. At Yalta and again at Potsdam Stalin made explicit his insistence that these territories between Russia and Germany, if they were not to be wholly absorbed into the USSR itself, must be run by friendly regimes ‘free of fascist and reactionary elements’.

The interpretation of that last phrase would prove, to say the least, contentious. But in 1945 the Americans and British were not disposed to give Stalin an argument on the matter. The Soviets had earned, it was felt, the privilege of defining their security as they saw fit; just as it was initially agreed that Moscow was within its rights to extract reparations, booty, labour and materiel from former Axis countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland). Looking back, we may be tempted to see in these territorial seizures and economic spoliation the first stages of the bolshevization of Europe’s eastern half, and so of course they proved. But at the time this was not obvious to everyone—to Western observers there was even something familiar and reassuringly traditional about Moscow’s initial post-war stance. And there was a precedent.

Overall, it is not possible to understand the Communist regime in Russia unless we take seriously its ideological claims and ambitions. But there were moments, and the years 1945-47 are one of them, when even if one knew little of Bolshevik doctrine it would be possible to make reasonably good sense of Soviet foreign policy simply by looking to the policies of the czars. It was Peter the Great, after all, who introduced the strategy by which Russia would dominate through ‘protection’ of its neighbours. It was Catherine the Great who drove the Empire forward to the south and south-west. And it was Czar Alexander I, above all, who established the template for Russian imperial engagement in Europe.

At the Vienna Congress of 1815, where—as in 1945—the victorious and mutually suspicious allied powers met to re-establish continental equilibrium following the defeat of a tyrant, Alexander’s purposes had been quite explicit. The concerns of small nations were to be subordinated to those of the Great Powers. Since British interests lay overseas and no other continental power matched that of Russia, the Czar would serve as arbiter of a post-war continental arrangement. Local protests would be treated as threats to the arrangement at large and put down with appropriate energy. Russian security would be defined by the territory under Czarist control—never again must a Western army be able to reach Moscow unimpeded—and by the success with which its occupants were forcibly reconciled to the new system.

There is nothing in that account which does not apply to Soviet calculations in 1945. Indeed, Alexander and his ministers would have seen nothing with which to cavil in a policy memorandum written by Ivan Maisky, the Deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in November 1944: ‘The most advantageous situation for us would be the existence in Europe after the war of only one mighty continental power—the USSR, and one mighty maritime power—Britain.’ Of course, at a distance of 130 years nothing is ever quite the same: in 1945 Stalin was more concerned with Central Asia and the Near East than Alexander had been (though Alexander’s immediate successors were very active there); conversely, Soviet strategists did not fully share the Czarist obsession with Constantinople, the Straits and the south Balkans. But the continuities of policy far outweigh the differences. They are linked, as it were, by the calculations of Sazunov (Russia’s foreign minister on the outbreak of war in 1914), who was already envisaging the future of eastern Europe as a cluster of small, vulnerable, states; nominally independent but effectively clients of Great Russia.

To these enduring themes of Czarist foreign policy in Europe, Stalin added distinctive calculations of his own. He truly expected the coming economic collapse of the West—extrapolating from inter-war precedent as well as Marxist dogma—and he exaggerated the ‘inevitable’ conflict between Britain and the US as imperial competitors for a shrinking world market. From this he deduced not just a coming time of increased turbulence—and thus the need for the Soviet Union to nail down its gains—but the real possibility of ‘splitting’ the Western allies: over the Middle East especially but perhaps over Germany as well. That was one reason why he evinced no haste in reaching a settlement there—time, Stalin believed, was on his side.

But this did not make him any more secure. On the contrary, defensiveness and a wary suspicion characterized all aspects of Soviet foreign policy—‘the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs’ as George Kennan described it in 1946. Hence the famous February 9th 1946 speech at the Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin announced that the Soviet Union was returning to its pre-war emphasis on industrialization, war-preparedness, and the inevitability of conflict between capitalism and Communism, and made explicit what was already obvious, that henceforth the Soviet Union would cooperate with the West only when it suited her.

There was nothing new here: Stalin was retreating to the ‘hard’ line taken by the Bolsheviks before 1921 and again between 1927 and the onset of the Popular Fronts. The Bolshevik regime had always been insecure—it was born, after all, of a minority coup in unpropitious circumstances and a highly unsympathetic environment—and Stalin, like all tyrants, needed to invoke threats and enemies, whether domestic or foreign. Moreover Stalin knew better than most that World War Two had been a close run thing: if the Germans had invaded a month earlier in 1941 (as Hitler’s original schedule required) the Soviet Union might very well have folded. Like the USA after Pearl Harbor, but with rather better cause, the Soviet leadership was obsessed to the point of paranoia with ‘surprise attacks’ and challenges to its new-won standing. And the Russians (even more than the French) continued for many decades to see Germany as the main threat.

What, then, did Stalin want? That he anticipated a coming cooling of relations with the West and was out to make the best of his assets and take advantage of Western weakness is doubtless true. But it is far from obvious that Stalin had any clear strategy beyond that. As Norman Naimark, the historian of the Soviet occupation of post-war East Germany, concludes, ‘The Soviets were driven by concrete events in the zone, rather than by preconceived plans or ideological imperatives’. This fits with what we know of Stalin’s general approach, and it applies beyond the East German case as well.

The Soviets were certainly not planning for World War Three in the near term. Between June 1945 and the end of 1947 the Red Army was reduced from 11,365,000 personnel to 2,874,000—a rate of cutback comparable to that in US and British forces (though leaving a far larger contingent still in the field, comprising many well-armed, motorized divisions). Of course, Soviet calculations were by no means self-evident to western contemporaries, and even those who read Stalin as a cautious pragmatist could not be absolutely certain. However, Molotov is surely telling the truth when he suggests in his memoirs that the Soviet Union preferred to take advantage of propitious situations but was not going to take risks in order to bring them about: ‘Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible, and if not, we wait.’

Stalin himself was famously risk-averse, which is why some commentators then and since regretted the West’s failure to exercise ‘containment’ sooner and further forward. But no-one wanted another war in these years, and whereas Stalin could readily be dissuaded from trying to destabilize Paris or Rome (since he had no armies there), the Soviet presence further east was a non-negotiable affair, as everyone recognized. In the Allied Control Councils in Bulgaria or Romania the Soviets did not even pretend to take note of British or American wishes, much less those of the locals. Only in Czechoslovakia was there a degree of ambiguity, the Red Army having long since withdrawn.

From his standpoint, Stalin operated in what passed in Moscow for good faith. He and his colleagues assumed that the Western Allies understood that the Soviets planned to occupy and control ‘their’ half of Europe; and they were willing to treat Western protests at Soviet behaviour in their zone as pro forma, the small change of democratic cant. When it seemed to them that the West was taking its own rhetoric too seriously, demanding freedom and autonomy in Eastern Europe, the Soviet leadership responded with genuine indignation. A note from Molotov in February 1945, commenting upon Western interference over Poland’s future, captures the tone: ‘How governments are being organized in Belgium, France, Greece, etc, we do not know. We have not been asked, although we do not say that we like one or another of these governments. We have not interfered, because it is the Anglo-American zone of military action.’

Soviet Artillery – Cold War 1970-89

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While the tank became the public and political symbol of an army’s military prowess, overshadowing other battlefield weapons systems, within armies the importance of the artillery arm remained undiminished and, despite the advent of missiles and rockets, the gun remained the weapon of choice in the tactical battle.fn1 Provided targets were within range, guns were capable of producing extremely accurate and very destructive fire at virtually any spot selected by battlefield commanders. Further, artillery command-and-control systems enabled the guns to switch targets quickly and to increase the weight of fire by bringing additional batteries into action as required.

Artillery was of great importance in the Second World War, and this continued in the many smaller wars between 1945 and 1990, when the tactical value of artillery was demonstrated repeatedly, although never more convincingly than at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indo-China War. During that prolonged siege, which lasted from December 1953 to May 1954, Viet Minh artillery occupied the hills overlooking the French base and from there they totally dominated the battlefield, closed the airfield, cut off supplies, and eventually bludgeoned the garrison into defeat.

In the early 1950s there were only a small number of self-propelled guns, all in open mounts on converted tank chassis, which supported armoured divisions in some armies (e.g. the British and US). The great majority of guns were wheeled pieces, towed either by a specially designed artillery tractor or, in some cases, by an ordinary general-purpose truck. At a US army conference held in Washington in January 1952 it was decided that the speed of modern warfare was increasing to such an extent, particularly with the infantry planning to be mounted entirely in armoured personnel carriers, that wheeled guns would no longer be able to keep up with the speed of movement. Also, the threat of nuclear weapons made it necessary to place the crews inside closed gun-houses (turrets) for protection. Furthermore, tracked vehicles were more capable of moving into temporary fire positions, getting into and out of action quickly, since there was no need to separate the gun from its tractor and set it on a base-plate. Then, after firing, they could move out rapidly – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic – before enemy artillery could determine the source of the rounds and fire a counter-battery mission.

Soviet artillery had established an awesome reputation during the Second World War, but for the next two decades it experienced a conservatism unusual in the Soviet armed forces, which not only adhered to towed artillery, but also invariably deployed it in rows of six guns in uncamouflaged fire positions. Well-established Second World War guns therefore remained in service throughout the 1950s, and their replacements in the 1960s were also towed. It was only in the 1970s that self-propelled guns came into service, in which existing tracked chassis were matched to modified versions of existing guns, producing systems of 122 mm, 152 mm and 203 mm calibre. Although long overdue, these proved to be of excellent quality, with the usual Soviet combination of practical design, simplicity and long range, and caused considerable alarm in the West.

Czechoslovakia made a notable contribution to artillery design with its DANA system, which entered service in 1981. This featured a 152 mm gun in a split turret mounted on a modified 8 × 8-wheeled truck chassis. Although the wheels reduced its cross-country capability in comparison with a tracked vehicle, its performance was more than adequate for service in central Europe with its excellent road systems, and any tactical disadvantages were offset by its high road speed, long road range, considerably reduced capital cost, and ease of maintenance.

As with tankmen, gunners pursued the goal of first-round accuracy. Accuracy on target depended upon knowing the precise location of the guns, and manual methods of surveying gun positions gave way to much faster and more accurate electronic systems. In addition, movements became so frequent and time in any one position so brief that the traditional method of ascertaining meteorological conditions by visual and manual methods was no longer adequate and fully automated systems were introduced.

The introduction of SP guns with the crew housed in a turret meant that visual methods of control on the gun position were superseded by radio. Ever-expanding artillery communication systems also enabled artillery commanders to exercise much greater co-ordination and control of their units, and to respond much more rapidly to requests for fire support. Many national artillery arms were also quick to latch on to the potential of computerized fire-control systems.

Counter-Battery fire

Every military system inevitably preys on its own, and, as artillery became more effective, so too did the duel between artillery systems (known as ‘counter-battery’ fire) intensify. In the early 1950s there were two, fairly primitive, methods of locating enemy artillery. One used analysis of craters to estimate the direction and range of the gun. The other, called ‘sound ranging’, used sensitive microphones placed along a line (the ‘sound base’) and connected by radio; the sound of gunfire was detected by operators, who used the time of detection at the different microphones to compute the point of origin.

In the 1970s, however, the scale and efficiency of Soviet artillery systems, coupled with the ever shorter time spent in any one position, forced NATO to develop more accurate, more rapid and less manpower-intensive systems, such as the US army’s Firefinder, which consisted of two radars: one to detect mortars, the other to detect guns and missile launchers. On detecting a projectile, the radars tracked it briefly and then used the trajectory to compute the point of origin, presenting the precise location of the launch site to the operator before the incoming projectile had hit the ground. The operator then passed the co-ordinates of the enemy position to the fire-direction centre, for it to be included in the counter-battery fire plan.

Artillery: NATO and Warsaw Pact

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