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Defiant Russia:
Soviet Tank Corps, Part One

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2015

War came to the Soviet Union in the early morning hours of 22 June 1941 in a well-coordinated surprise attack. German planes struck targets deep in Soviet territory, German artillery pounded border positions, and German troops and tanks surged over the frontier. Finnish and Romanian troops joined the assault within a few days.

On paper, the Red Army of Workers and Peasants should have been well-positioned to blunt the Nazi onslaught and throw the fascist invaders back. Serious mobilization efforts had begun a month before the attack, and the Soviet inventory numbered over 23,000 tanks — more than the total of every other nation on the planet combined.

And the tanks had been concentrated into a staggering total of 29 mechanized corps, each of two tank divisions and one motorized division. In addition, two more tank divisions and four motorized divisions were present in the Far Eastern military districts without corps headquarters. The tank divisions each had eight tank and three motorized rifle battalions, plus supporting artillery and reconnaissance units. Corps headquarters controlled an engineer battalion and a motorcycle regiment. Like those formed by other nations it was a tank-heavy organization; experience would show the need for more infantry in an armored division.

Despite the Red Army’s armored force, the German attackers crashed through its defenses and brushed off its attempted armored counter-attacks. How did such huge armored forces manage to do so little to stem the invasion?

Even though Red Army commanders listed most of the vehicles (over 18,000 of them) as fit for service, this does not seem to have actually been true. When the divisions received their marching orders and set out to fight the fascists, thousands of tanks promptly broke down. Others ran out of gas; still others had no ammunition. Trained crews and officers also proved to be in short supply thanks to the rapid expansion — few Soviet citizens learned how to drive in civilian life, adding extra steps to the training process.

While the pre-war purges of the Red Army’s officer corps removed potential political enemies of the Soviet state, real or imagined, they also weeded out alcoholics, time-servers and incompetents. Rather than appear on those lists, it appears that some officers made over-optimistic assessment of their vehicles’ readiness for action.

It's also likely that some of those breakdowns were caused by tank crews unwilling to enter battle. Many armies, from Finland to the United States, experienced similar behavior. That would still fall under the overarching problem with these units: the oldest were less than a year old, and the newest had been in existence only a few weeks. Only one tank division had managed to conduct full-scale exercises before the war broke out.

The Red Army also expanded its armored forces very quickly, ordering the formation of 18 tank divisions in July 1940, tripling that in February 1941. Eventually, these would all be equipped with modern new tanks that the Soviets rightly believed superior to any foreign models, but initially the tank divisions mostly had older light tanks taken from existing tank brigades and the infantry-support tank battalions attached to rifle divisions.

Within weeks, almost all of the pre-war mechanized corps had been put out of action, managing to field only small mixed battle groups. Only bravery could be found in mass quantity: tankers of 2nd Tank Division, not issued any 76mm ammunition before the outbreak of war, used their heavy KV tanks to ram smaller German vehicles. But bravery would not be enough.

On paper, at least, the Red Army’s tank corps were numerous and powerful. All of them that saw action in the Great Patriotic War appear in Defiant Russia. Here’s a look at them.

Baltic Special Military District

Third Tank Corps (2nd and 5th Tank Divisions, 84th Motorized Division) had moved into Lithuania during the Soviet occupation the previous year, and never been brought up to full strength in terms of armor. However, it did have a reasonable proportion of modern tanks (KV heavy and T34 medium) and its troops fought with great determination, if very little success, against the German invaders in the first days of Operation Barbarossa.

Twelfth Tank Corps (23rd and 28th Tank Divisions, 202nd Motorized Division) had no modern tanks, but had most of its infantry and supporting arms and responded promptly to the German assault, counter-attacking with a great deal of spirit. But like those of its sister corps, these attacks brought heavy casualties and did little to blunt the enemy invasion.

Leningrad Military District

First Tank Corps (1st and 3rd Tank Divisions, 163rd Motorized Division) entered the war with over 1,000 tanks – a few more than its authorized strength – but only a handful of KV and T34 types had been provided, and those only for familiarization and training purposes. The corps was split at the beginning of the war, with 1st Tank Division fighting around Salla and the rest of the corps south of Leningrad.

Tenth Tank Corps (21st and 24th Tank Divisions, 198th Motorized Division) had no modern tanks at all, but at least had plenty of old ones. The corps began the war as part of Northern Front’s reserves and entered action in July in a series of doomed counter-attacks that destroyed most of its tanks, though the troops apparently fought well.

Western Special Military District

Sixth Tank Corps (4th and 7th Tank Divisions, 29th Motorized Division) had two of the Red Army’s best-equipped tank divisions, with hundreds of KV and T34 tanks and almost all of their other authorized vehicles and weapons. None of that helped: one division lost its headquarters in an air raid on the first day of the war while the other lost its fuel depot. With little fuel and in some battalions no 76.2mm tank ammunition, this impressive force crumbled quickly in just a few days of combat.

Eleventh Tank Corps (29th and 33rd Tank Divisions, 204th Motorized Division) was missing much of its authorized armor, and a fair amount of what it did have was under repair on June 22nd. The corps went into action on the first day of the war but suffered badly from German air attacks, and within days was no longer a viable formation. Like some of the other understrength tank corps in Defiant Russia, it begins the Barbarossa scenario at reduced strength.

Thirteenth Tank Corps (25th and 31st Tank Divisions, 20th Motorized Division) had only some of its armor, and all of them were old light tanks. The divisions had almost all of their heavy weapons but were missing most of their transport, and in one division most of the gun crews were away for special training when the Germans attacked. The corps’ lack of mobility didn’t matter, though: stationed directly in the path of the oncoming panzers, all three divisions were overrun and destroyed in the war’s first days.

Fourteenth Tank Corps (22nd and 30th Tank Divisions, 205th Motorized Division), much like 13th Tank Corps, had its heavy weapons but no modern tanks and less than half of its authorized older vehicles. Many of those could not even be started on June 22nd, while others quickly broke down. One of the divisions had been stationed so close to the border that it came under German artillery fire at the outset of the attack, and most of its equipment was overrun and captured intact.

Seventeenth Tank Corps (27th and 36th Tank Divisions, 209th Motorized Division) probably doesn’t deserve the “tank” designation in Defiant Russia, but we included it to help represent the scattered nature of Red Army armored assets. The two tank divisions had been formed in March and had two dozen old tanks between them, and only some of their other equipment. By the end of July all of the divisions had ceased to exist. It begins play in Defiant Russia already reduced in strength (and it's not very strong to begin with).

Twentieth Tank Corps (26th and 38th Tank Divisions, 210th Motorized Division) had only begun to organize its divisions when the Germans attacked, and though slightly better-off than 17th Tank Corps it lacked just about everything: tanks, transport vehicles, heavy weapons and riflemen. By mid-July the corps had ceased to exist.

The story resumes in Part Two.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.