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Strategy in
Defiant Russia




The Men Behind the Counters:
The Soviet Infantry Platoon
By Dave Murray
January 2013

In this third installment in the men behind the counters series, I examine the most numerous infantry of all, the Soviet infantry platoon. The Red Army of Workers and Peasants was, on the eve of the Great Patriotic War, a paper tiger. Paper regiments and divisions looked awesome, but the reality was very different. Stalinís paranoid purges of the late 1930s had stripped many of the experienced officers from combat units. The infantry had antiquated equipment and lacked any effective anti-tank weapons; the only advantage they had were their numbers. The sacrifices endured by the infantry in the Red Army would have forced any other country into submission. Only the Stalinist system could endure such casualties and still maintain any traces of a system of government.

I would argue that the Soviet rifleman was the most significant military unit responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany. It was the almost unimaginable sacrifice of the Soviet citizens in the infantry that stalled, halted and then reversed the German military juggernaut. The Soviet infantry turned from a disorganised rabble in early 1941 to the efficient and well-armed soldiers that entered Berlin in 1945, but one common experience remained for the infantry throughout this period, that of sacrifice.


The Soviet infantry 4-2 INF counter is used in the Panzer Grenadier games Eastern Front, Kursk: South Flank and Road to Berlin throughout the war. The Red Army at the outbreak of war was the least mechanised of all the major armies, its soldiers some of the worst-equipped with minimal effective training. That said, there are many accounts of these soldiers equaling and in sometimes exceeding the well-equipped and disciplined forces of the Wehrmacht.

The Soviet platoon on the eve of the German invasion was organised thus (at least on paper):

  • 1 Platoon commander armed with a pistol
  • 1 NCO armed with a SMG
  • 1 Messenger armed with a rifle
  • 1 NCO armed with a rifle commanded the mortar squad
  • 1 Mortar gunner with a 5cm mortar, he also had a pistol
  • 2 Ammunition bearers for the mortar both armed with rifles

    The platoon would have four squads each with:

  • 1 Squad leader, an NCO armed with a rifle
  • 2 Soldiers armed with SMGs
  • 6 Soldiers armed with rifles
  • 1 Machine gunner with an LMG, and pistol sidearm
  • 1 Assistant gunner armed with a rifle

    It is almost impossible to accurately represent an infantry platoon during the initial invasion because Soviet organisation was in too much disarray. However, the following variations appear to have been common:

  • The 50mm mortar squad was often not present.
  • There were insufficient Light machine guns and not all squads would have had their allocations.
  • Sub-machine guns were also in short supply and their full allotment was unlikely to have been present.
  • During most of the post-invasion period, the fourth squad of the platoon did not exist as any thing more than a paper reference.
  • Anti-tank rifles were issued to some units. These were present at the outbreak of the invasion but ammunition was not!
  • By mid-1942, infantry platoon organisation had somewhat coalesced into the following pattern, with the squads reduced to 9 men:

  • 1 Platoon commander armed with a pistol
  • 1 NCO armed with an SMG
  • 1 or 2 Sniper/Messengers armed with a rifle

    The platoon would have four squads each with:

  • 1 Squad leader, an NCO armed with a rifle
  • 6 Soldiers armed with rifles/SMG ó still predominantly rifles, but distribution varied widely
  • 1 Machine gunner with an LMG, with a pistol sidearm
  • 1 Assistant gunner armed with a rifle

    By the end of 1942 two additional LMG would have been available to the platoon. Again, it is a moot point as to how often the fourth squad actually existed as anything but a paper reference.

    More changes were forced on the platoon structure as the Soviet infantry continued to suffer staggering casualties into 1943 and 1944. The fourth squad ceased to exist even on paper and the platoonís squads increase to 11 men (at least in organisational documentation). Platoon leaders and sniper/messengers ceased to exist, leaving only the platoon commander as the platoon HQ. It appears that some platoons were allocated a couple of sniper rifles, and presumably the better marksmen amongst the riflemen were equipped with these.

    By 1943, infantry regiments had established SMG companies and it is uncertain how SMGs were distributed within rifle platoons. All we are sure of is that there was a significant rise in the numbers of these weapons available to all infantry units.

    As in all armies of the period, the rifle was the main weapon of the infantry. For the Soviet forces this was the Mosin-Nagant rifle. This rifle was an unremarkable weapon with no features that stand out. However, it was reliable, and the modernised version that appeared in 1930 was easier to manufacture and remained in service throughout the war.

    The Soviets also had available the SVT38/40 semi-automatic rifles. These rifles used a gas release system during firing to eject the spent cartridge, thus greatly increasing the rate of fire. The main problem with these rifles was the considerable recoil and muzzle blast. It was, however, a popular weapon and issued mainly to NCO and individual soldiers who had undergone additional training. Captured SVT40s led the Germans to develop their Gewehr 43 rifle, copying the semi-automatic mechanism of the SVT40.


    The standard Soviet pistol of WW2 was the Tokarev TT-33 automatic pistol. This was basically a copy of a Colt-Browning pistol, modified for easier mass production. The Tokarev replaced the aging Nagant revolvers that had been in service for many years, some of which were still in service at the end of the war.

    The iconic Soviet propaganda photograph at right shows an officer waving a TT-33.

    The sub-machine gun available to the Soviet infantryman at the outbreak of war was the PPD-1934/38. These were never available in sufficient numbers early in the war to make much of an impact and by 1942 were very sparse on the ground as the Germans had overrun the caches of stockpiled weapons during the initial invasion. The Soviets, like the British with their Sten gun and Germans with their MP40, had to have a design that was easy and quick to produce. The design process started in 1940 came up with a weapon that on all counts was superior to the Sten and the MP40. The PPSh-41 was quick and simple to produce; even old rifle barrels were cut down and used in its construction. The weapon begun to appear in 1942 and as the Soviet forces moved on to the offensive it was issued in large numbers. It characterised the Soviet offensive approach well, move quickly and engage at short range en masse, and keep engaging until you have victory.

    The Soviet light machine gun that saw service throughout the war was the rugged DP 1929, with its distinctive round, flat overhead magazine. It was a typical Soviet weapon: robust and simple to manufacture. Easy to maintain and reliable, it was popular among the troops to which it was issued.

    The Soviet army never equipped its infantry with an effective anti-tank weapon throughout the entire war. At the start of the war, the only weapon available to the forces that attempted to halt the Blitzkrieg in 1941 was the PTRD-41 ATR. This woefully inadequate weapon was based on a German WWI design, and although available in numbers during 1941, the ammunition was not. It was not until 1942 that the weapon saw widespread usage, a time when all other powers were discarding such weapons. Only really useful when employed at close ranges against vulnerable areas of a tank, it required nerve, skill and luck to employ successfully.

    Next up: the British infantry platoon from North Africa to the hedgerows of Normandy.

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