Third Guards Tank Army
By Greg Guerrero
October 2016

Red God of War is based on the Soviet Operation Mars, one of the Red Army’s twin offensives in late 1942 aimed at siezing the strategic initiative through an operational success. Soviet military theorists in the 1920s articulated the operational level as the middle tier in the military hierarchy. From this cognitive development arose the theories of deep battle and deep operations.

At the core of deep operations lay the task of developing operational success from a tactical breakthrough. The answer, in theory, was to introduce at the point of tactical breakthrough a formation that could maneuver into the enemy’s operational depths, inflicting operational shock. It had to be powerful enough to sustain itself while isolated in a hostile environment, diverse enough to handle a wide degree of situations, and maneuverable enough to maintain a pace of operational significance. In the Soviet-German War, these requirements were difficult for the Red Army to meet against an opponent possessed of superlative tactical skill and a refined operational command structure. Eventually, however, the solution was found in the creation of the tank army. This development was a slow process that only reached maturity by 1944, but it was vital if Soviet operations were to transcend the tactical realm of attritional combat.

One way to examine the development of the tank army is to review some of the war experience of an actual tank army in WWII. A prime example is the 3rd Guards Tank Army. Initially formed around May 1942 as 3rd Tank Army, it was involved in operations three months later in the Kozelsk-Kaluga region. The tank army performed poorly overall, primarily due to overestimates of infantry abilities, and the commander, P.L. Romanenko, was relieved of command. His replacement in September was Pavel Semenovich Rybalko, who remained the tank army’s commander throughout the rest of the war.

Deception Discipline

P.S. Rybalko (left) and senior officers of Third Guards Tank Army, early 1943. This is a carefully posed shot; Rybalko was actually quite short.
By the fall of 1942 the army was well behind the front lines, between Moscow and Rzhev. As part of the theater reserve, the 3rd Tank Army could have been sent to aid in Operation Mars, and Zhukov expected to use it as part of the follow-on Operation Jupiter. Thus its component units appear in Red God of War. They can be used if the Soviet player meets certain objectives.

But Zhukov did not capture Rzhev from the Germans. In October, the 3rd Tank Army was assigned to the Voronezh Front in preparation for the Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh operation at the beginning of 1943. The tank army underwent a series of secret regroupings, traveling under strict maskirovka (“deception”) discipline. The last segment, which brought 3rd Tank Army to its assembly point, was a 130- to 170-kilometer march conducted under very difficult weather conditions.

On 13 January, Rybalko’s army was in place, a single day late from the planned schedule. German intelligence did not detect the tank army’s last redeployment when the Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh operation commenced, and Rybalko’s skill at clandestine redeployment became something of a trademark. Third Tank Army advanced nearly 300 kilometers in 16 days during this operation, meeting its assigned operational objectives in deep winter conditions. The operation was an overall success, and the STAVKA made note of the tank army’s — and Rybalko’s — performance.

The Cost of Kharkov

The STAVKA decided to continue operations westward, Voronezh Front receiving its new orders shortly afterward. Third Tank Army’s new objective was the city of Kharkov. What was to unfold in the battle to retake Kharkov would not be lost on the STAVKA — nor on Rybalko.

In the beginning of February, 3rd Tank Army commenced its attack, initially moving rapidly, but soon slowing around Chuguyev under incessant German air attack. Also, reports of the German SS panzer division, Das Reich, moving up from Kharkov, were a cause for concern. Progress bogged down at the Northern Donets as the tank army sought to secure a bridgehead, while increasing German resistance formed on the right flank. It was only the success of 40th Army, which threatened to envelop the German defenders, that forced “Das Reich” to withdraw from 3rd Tank Army’s right flank. The advance continued, but at a snail’s pace, placing the operation well behind schedule. Rybalko’s inexperience showed when in his desperation to get through the German defenses he spread out his tank units. This and the mixed nature of the formation’s units contributed to difficulties in command and control.

Eventually, Kharkov was taken, but at a heavy cost as the tank army was drawn into fighting against prepared defensive positions — another indication of Rybalko’s inexperience. The 3rd Tank Army commander was even guilty of needless congestion within Kharkov when he brought fresh units into the city rather than continuing his advance south as ordered.

Kharkov Recaptured

After a short respite, 3rd Tank Army resumed the offensive in mid-February in the direction of Poltava. It immediately ran into Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division southwest of Kharkov, and once more the attack moved slowly. Unknown to the Soviets, Manstein was setting a trap for an overextended Southwestern Front, planning to attack the front on the flanks in converging thrusts. The counterattack involved both First and Fourth Panzer Armies, and they struck on 20-23 February.

Speaking of command and control difficulties. ...
As the German counterstroke sliced into the Southwestern Front, the STAVKA ordered 3rd Tank Army to turn south and engage the Germans advancing from Krasnograd. The tank army had already endured 40 days of constant battle, and was down to 110 operable tanks. Supply lines were overextended, and the high command denied Rybalko’s request for a three-day rest to restore some of his formation’s combat effectiveness.

As a result, the tank army was unable to penetrate the German defenses around Krasnograd. Five days later, the situation with Southwestern Front was becoming critical, and 3rd Tank Army was transferred to this battered front. The immediate mission of the tank army was to come to the aid of the 6th Army, which was being hammered by elements of the Fourth Panzer Army. No sooner had Rybalko’s formation wheeled south toward 6th Army than it was attacked on its right flank by the German forces at Krasnograd — which included the SS Adolf Hitler Panzer Division.

On 3 March, the 3rd Tank Army went over to the defensive, struggling against the powerful German assault. By 5 March it effectively ceased to exist, with no more than 50 tanks in various degrees of operation. By 12-13 March, SS Death’s Head Panzer Division had Rybalko’s formation completely cut off from all lines of communications. On 14 March Rybalko received permission for 3rd Tank Army to abandon its position and to withdraw to friendly lines across the Northern Donets River. Over a period of two days the remnants of the tank army made its way through German defensive positions until the last of the units reached Red Army lines. As it was, German forces were too weak to seal the encirclement of 3rd Tank, 1st Guards, and 6th Armies. Only 9,000 Soviet prisoners were captured, but the Germans retook Kharkov.

A Hard Lesson

The source of this debacle, known to the Soviets as the Kharkov Defensive Operation, lay firmly in the previous operation that saw the brief liberation of Kharkov. The 3rd Tank Army’s unit history said of the disaster:

“Due to underestimating the strength and capabilities of the enemy and not knowing his intentions, as well as over-assessing their own successes and giving the troops an impossible mission, the offensive by the 3rd Tank Army to Poltava failed.”

Actually, fault lies not only with Rybalko but a slew of operational commanders all the way up to the STAVKA. Once the Kharkov operation began showing clear signs of success, the commands of Voronezh and Southwestern Front — as well as the STAVKA — proceeded to deceive themselves. The Red Army was so eager for success that it chose to interpret a series of potentially disquieting developments as the clear indications of a crumbling German Army. The Kharkov Defensive Operation proved to be a hard lesson for the Red Army, but it was a lesson learned, and never again would Soviet forces let such unwarranted optimism influence the conduct of military operations in the war.

On 26 April, STAVKA officially disbanded the 3rd Tank Army. Rybalko returned to Moscow to argue for its reconstitution. Rybalko made his case to the commander of Red Army tank and mechanized forces and to the General Staff. They granted his wish on 14 May 1943. The STAVKA issued a directive to form 3rd Guards Tank Army by 5 June.


Placed in STAVKA reserve, the 3rd Guards Tank Army was rebuilt following the newest changes to tank army force structure. When the 3rd Tank Army had originally been formed, it was based on a mixed structure that proved unwieldy:

2-3 tank corps
1-3 rifle and cavalry divisions
1 separate tank brigade
1 light artillery regiment
1 guards mortar regiment
1 antiaircraft battalion


35,000 men
350-500 tanks
150-200 guns/mortars

In January 1943, a new structure had been approved:

2 tank corps
1 mechanized corps (optional)
1 motorcycle regiment
1 antiaircraft regiment
1 tank destroyer regiment
1 howitzer artillery regiment
1 guards mortar regiment
1 signal regiment
1 aviation communications regiment
1 engineer regiment
1 transport regiment
2 repair, reconstruction battalions
1 separate tank brigade or regiment


46,000-48,000 men
450-600 tank/SP guns
500-600 guns/mortars

When the tank army’s original structure had been designed in 1942, the Red Army was still uncertain of the scope of its abilities to conduct operational success via exploitation. The inclusion of the mixed arms was primarily intended to provide the tank army with the means to produce its own breakthrough. The reality was that tank armies had difficulty adequately supporting their own breakthrough attacks — especially with respect to artillery. And even if a breakthrough could be accomplished, the different operational speeds and characteristics of the various arms made synchronization during exploitation cumbersome.

With the new force structure of 1943, the Red Army had finally determined the scope of exploitation needed. The new tank army structure was fully mechanized, and they were to be the mobile group for front-level operations. It was now the responsibility of frontal command to ensure breakthroughs, placing the tank army in the second echelon so that it could be introduced into the breach, and exploit tactical success into operational success.

On to Berlin

This T-34/85 commanded by Guards Lt. Oskin spoiled the King Tiger’s combat debut by ambushing and destroying the entire platoon.
Following the restructuring of 1943, the tank army force structure would remain essentially unchanged until the end of the Soviet-German War, the only modifications being refinements to its versatility, sustainability and firepower.

Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army went on to become one of the premier formations of the Red Army, showing particular skills for secret redeployment and the ability to perform swift changes of direction during operational maneuver. This tank army would go on to distinguish itself in such strategic operations as Kiev, Lvov-Sandomierz, Vistula-Oder, and Berlin. And it would be one of the formations to make the final assault on the city of Berlin.

Put the Third Guards Tank Army into action! Click here to order Red God of War TODAY.