I. Characteristics and Training of the Russian Soldier
In World War II, as in preceding wars, the Russian soldier demonstrated that he was closer to nature than his west European counterpart. This was hardly surprising since most of the Russian soldiers were born and raised far from big cities. The civilian occupation of the typical Russian soldier was that of a farmer, lumberjack, or huntsman. From early childhood he had been used to covering long distances across difficult terrain, orienting himself by conspicuous features on the ground, by the stars, and often simply by following his natural instincts. The manifold dangers that were ever present in the wide-open Russian countryside were bound to sharpen his senses, particularly his sight and hearing. Even the city dwellers, most of whom had only recently been transplanted to the densely populated cities as part of the industrialization of the Soviet Union and the resulting concentration of labor masses, remained relatively close to nature. Being attuned to the vast open spaces and desolate steppes with which a large part of his country is covered, the Russian did not know the depressing loneliness and forlornness that often overwhelmed the German soldier. The Russian was accustomed to getting along with a minimum of comfort and equipment under climatic conditions that imposed severe hardship on the invader.
The Russian was able to move without a sound and orient himself in the darkness. On a night patrol he instinctively behaved like a huntsman who is careful to avoid making the slightest noise. During long night vigils the German sentries, on the other hand, often saw no harm in conversing or lighting a cigarette or pipe just to lessen their drowsiness. When reporting to a superior who was checking their post, they spoke in a loud voice without realizing that they often permitted the intently listening Russian who was hiding in the immediate vicinity to gather valuable information. When their not-too-keen ears picked up a suspicious sound. German sentries often fired Very pistols, thus giving away their position to the enemy. Since the Germans were in the habit of posting sentries at the same place night after night over periods of several weeks or even months, Russian agents who were watching the sentries perform their routine, duties were able to infiltrate the German lines without danger to themselves. In contrast to the stereotype way in which the Germans posted their guards at
night, the Russians changed the location of their posts constantly.
The Russian soldier performed particularly well as a night observer. Stern discipline and self-constraint enabled him to lie motionless for hours and observe the German troops at close range without being detected. He waited patiently for the most favorable opportunity to carry out his mission.
Russian junior officers were accustomed to act in accordance with rigid orders. Upon encountering unexpected resistance they were easily confused and, in the event of a surprise counterattack against the flank of their unit, often helpless.
In general, Russian night combat training was adapted to the terrain conditions and the characteristics of the average soldier. The exigencies of war led to an intensification of the training with emphasis on trickery, cunning, and deception rather than orthodox tactical doctrine and independent imaginative thinking.
Russian night movements were in many ways similar to those of the Germans, and the organization and composition of Russian march columns resembled the German pattern. Along wide roads two columns would move abreast. The Russian troops' familiarity with terrain conditions and the support they received from the civilian populace enabled them to undertake cross-country marches in terrain that was frequently considered impassable by their opponents. Both in the planning and the execution of night movements the Russian commanders were ruthless. The welfare and care of troops were of secondary importance, and whoever dropped out was left behind. This was particularly true during the Russian retrograde movements in 1941 and 1942.
Concentrations preparatory to major offensive operations always took place at night. Truck columns would haul the attack formations over long distances; the detrucking points were usually outside inhabited localities. The troops then marched on foot to the assembly areas—also at night—and immediately began to dig in. Armored and motorized infantry formations were brought up from the rear at the close of the assembly phase. In 1944, when the German power of resistance was deteriorating at a rapid pace, the Russians, apparently conscious of their numerical and material superiority, made little effort to conceal their night movements and permitted their motor vehicles to drive without dimming their lights.
In winter the Russians often used tanks to break roads through the snow. As soon as these roads froze solid they formed an excellent communications net behind the front. The following inci-
dent illustrates the Russian adeptness in moving over ice by night. During the winter of 1941-42 the southern wing of the German front was anchored on the north shore of the Sea of Azov at Taganrog. The south shore was still in Russian hands. By January the water had frozen so solid that troops could move across the ice. At night Russian units up to and even above battalion strength crossed the ice; they spent the day a few miles off shore lying motionless on the ice. As soon as darkness set in they proceeded to the shore and raided German billets and rear installations, then withdrew before daybreak. Even though the Russians suffered many casualties from frostbite, they continued their night raids as long as the water remained frozen.
When the Russian soldier was sent out on a reconnaissance mission, he was not confronted by any unusual problems. His natural cunning as well as his typically Slavic astuteness and cleverness stood him in good stead. That he was moving across his own territory and found ready support from the local populace were undoubtedly important but not decisive factors in helping him to achieve success.
The Russian command often combined ground reconnaissance missions with reconnaissance in force and occasionally with full-fledged night operations. The remarkable feature was the strength of the units that were always employed for night reconnaissance in force. At times units up to regimental strength carried out such missions, despite very heavy losses incurred by massing so many troops. The Russian field commanders continued to apply the same methods up to the end of the war, undoubtedly because the presence of such strong bodies of troops complicated the task of the considerably weaker German reconnaissance elements. Occasionally, the Russians added tanks to reconnaissance units, thus giving the infantry patrols support and protection. Along some sectors of the front horse cavalry was employed on night reconnaissance.
In some instances individual Russian reconnaissance patrols, led by capable and energetic officers, managed to slip through gaps or weakly held positions in the German front under cover of darkness. They either restricted their activities to obtaining information or expanded the scope of their mission by disrupting wire communications, laying mines, and carrying out commando-type raids on CP's.
In general the Russian reconnaissance methods were efficient and adapted to the conditions prevailing during the hours of dark-
ness. During fighting on the Kerch Peninsula in the winter of 1942 the Germans captured Russian soldiers who had spent two nights and one day in the immediate vicinity of the German positions and who had been able to obtain a wealth of information during that time. In another instance that occurred during the autumn of 1941, the advance guard of a German infantry division was attacked during the night in a large village where the reinforced battalion had stopped on the way to Kharkov. After the Russian attack had been beaten off, the German battalion commander found that a Russian rifle platoon had been left behind in the village after all other troops had withdrawn and that the men had concealed themselves in groups of two or three in the dunghills near the farm buildings. Their mission was to observe the Germans after their entry into the village and to communicate the information to their parent unit, which was hiding in a near-by woods with the intention of launching a surprise attack.
Infiltration by small detachments, as well as by larger units up to an entire division, was probably the most effective Russian method of night combat. It was effective at all times because the Russians were able to penetrate seemingly impassable terrain in an; kind of weather, all the more so when it was as poorly defended, as during the latter part of the campaign. Once the shortage of manpower had forced the German Army to resort to a system of defensive strong points rather than continuous lines, the Russians could employ their favorite night tactics to their greatest advantage. Time and again their troops slipped through a lightly held sector during the night and were securely established behind the German front by the next morning.
A good illustration of infiltration by night and its serious consequences was provided by a Russian infantry battalion in February 1942. The action occurred in the area north of Shala, about fifty miles southeast of Leningrad, and began during a snowstorm. Personnel of the Russian battalion moved on skis, pulling light and heavy infantry weapons on sleds. (Map 2)
In single file the troops traversed the Kovrigino swamp, just north of Konduya, during darkness and passed silently between two strong points of the 269th Infantry Division. Once established in the rear of the division, the Russians lay low during the day, but came to life night after night. They sowed mines along the routes of communication, attacked columns bringing up rations and ammunition, and assaulted command posts and heavy weapons positions. Every German detachment had to be on the
alert throughout the night, and every morning mine-clearing squads had to remove the mines planted during the previous night.
It was not too difficult to detect the activities of the Russians because their tracks were clearly visible in the snow. But the German troops were not equipped with skis and were, therefore, unable to pursue the Russians who disappeared in the vast, wooded, and uninhabited region in the daytime. At night the enemy force received ammunition, weapons, and rations by air
drop and continued its destructive activities on such a scale that counteraction became imperative. By an intensive German effort, the Russian battalion was gradually ferreted out and annihilated after a series of costly engagements.
For some weeks the communications of an entire division had been threatened and every night the Germans suffered casualties and losses of materiel. With men trained in night combat on skis, the division would have been able to eliminate the threat promptly.
During the following month the 269th Infantry Division was again subjected to extensive Russian infiltration. The division was still engaged in heavy defensive fighting in the Konduya area. The situation grew so critical that the regimental command posts had to be set up in the MLR and the division CP, only some 1,000 yards to the rear, in a dense forest.
One morning at daybreak Markayevskaya, a village located about two miles behind the front along the only communication route, was suddenly attacked by approximately 600 Russians coming from the rear. The division trains and some elements of the signal battalion engaged the Russians in hand-to-hand fighting and, though the German forces suffered heavy casualties, they were able to restore the situation and thereby avert a complete disaster.
The presence of the Russian force had not been observed by any component of the German division, but it was assumed that the enemy battalion had effected a night crossing of the Markayevskaya swamp, considered impassable at the time. Thus there was a combination of elements, such as the cover of darkness, infiltration tactics, and difficult terrain, which the Russians exploited time and again.
By 1943 most sectors of the German front were easily penetrated by the Russians during the hours of darkness. Numerical weakness forced the German commanders to group their men in a system of strong points, while small detachments made periodic night patrols across the intermediate terrain. This German weakness was quickly noted by the alert opponents. At night they silently slipped through the gaps in the German defense system and quickly established themselves unless the Germans launched an immediate counterattack. A number of such penetrations generally resulted in the loss of the German position, since the understrength units were unable to defend themselves on both sides.
In August 1943 the XXXIX Panzer Corps, composed of the 18th Panzer Grenadier and 337th Infantry Divisions, was withdrawing according to plan from the area north of Dorogobuzh toward Smolensk. Some sixteen miles east of the confluence of the Dnepr and Vop Rivers, the corps had established a delaying position
against which the pursuing Russians exerted strong pressure. (Map 3)
On 17 August the corps commander had to commit the last available reserves to hold off superior Russian forces. The 337th Division pulled out every last squad from those sectors that were not under attack and moved these troops to the Dorogobuzh-Smolensk road to prevent an enemy break-through. Along a swampy area situated some five miles south of the road, the division commander left only weak security detachments. Nothing unusual was observed during the night of 17-18 August.
On the morning of 18 August the Russian attacks against the 337th Division front slackened noticeably. However, at about 1200 an ammunition column that was setting up a dump approximately four miles behind the front was fired on from a wooded area near by. During the early afternoon German reconnaissance elements reported that the western and northern edge of this woods was held by enemy forces of unknown strength. Since these Russian forces would be able to interfere with traffic along the Dorogobuzh-Smolensk road, the corps engineer battalion was given the mission of clearing the woods the next morning. In addition, the corps commander reinforced the troops guarding the Dnepr and Vop bridges south of Yartsevo.
During the night of 18-19 August the engineer battalion moved to the wooded area and assembled for an attack that was launched early the next morning. Upon entering the woods the battalion encountered no Russian troops. Obviously, the Russians had withdrawn.
On the morning of 20 August the German troops guarding the eastern approaches to the Vop bridge, about eight miles south of Yartsevo, reported that they were being attacked by superior enemy forces. The Russians were repelled with the assistance of service troops and personnel from corps headquarters. At the time it was assumed that the attack had been made by strong partisan forces who had previously been active in this area. Since the lines of communications between the Vop bridge and the 18th Panzer Grenadier Division had to be kept open, the corps assigned two engineer battalions and one infantry battalion the mission of cleaning out the intermediate wooded area. During the night of 20-21 August these units assembled f or an attack against the "partisans." While the preparations were under way, it was learned that shortly after nightfall the troops guarding the Dnepr bridge had been attacked by enemy forces, estimated at one to two companies and equipped with mortars and infantry heavy weapons. The raiders were repulsed by the strengthened guard.
On the morning of 21 August the three battalions began to comb the forest northeast of the Vop bridge. By good fortune they ran almost immediately against a Russian regimental headquarters, which they overpowered. Enemy resistance thereupon slackened and about 150 prisoners were captured, all belonging to a regiment that had infiltrated the German MLR four nights earlier.
Prisoner interrogation revealed that the entire regiment had infiltrated the German MLR south of the Smolensk road by night and had assembled in the woods four miles behind the 337th Division's lines. The mission of the Russian regiment was to cut the German lines of communications by capturing the Dnepr and Vop bridges and to support by an attack from the rear the frontal assault on the German lines that was scheduled for 22 August. On 18 August, when the regimental commander realized that the presence of his unit in the woods had been discovered by the Germans, he waited until darkness and led his regiment northward across the Dorogobuzh-Smolensk road. Upon reaching the south bank of the Dnepr he divided his force, leaving one battalion in the forest south of the river and crossing with the other on improvised floats. He spent the next day hiding in the forest northeast of the Vop bridge and let the supply trucks of the 18th Panzer Grenadier Division pass through without interference in order to escape detection by the Germans. During the night he assembled
his forces for the attack on the Vop bridge and, after its failure, he moved to the battalion on the south bank of the river and led it in the night attack on the Dnepr bridge.
Despite their failure to reach the designated objectives, the Russian forces demonstrated remarkable skill in infiltrating the German lines by night without being observed and in reassembling in the woods south of the highway. During the subsequent days the Russians moved quietly and withstood the temptation of making daylight attacks on near-by objectives, with the result that they escaped notice several nights in a row. Another notable feat was the night crossing of the Dnepr without the use of any bridging equipment.
Here, as in many other instances, most of the infiltrated Russians were annihilated, but not until they had caused much damage and confusion, and had tied down considerable German manpower. Along all sectors of the Russian front German units were plagued by constant infiltrations at night, which meant that troops at the front and in rear areas had to be especially alert during darkness.
V. Offensive Operations
Russian doctrine on the conduct of night attacks. underwent many changes during World War II, both with regard to the objective that was to be attained and the methods of execution. The performance of the Russian unit leaders improved gradually. Whereas at the beginning of the campaign Russian commanders often demonstrated a lack of initiative and resoluteness, they executed many very daring maneuvers toward the end of the war. During the initial phase of the campaign they often failed to exploit an opening, but their conduct of operations gradually improved so much that eventually they were able to score major victories, especially since German resistance was diminishing and the defense usually lacked depth.
In 1941, after the German offensive had ground to a halt, the Russians reorganized their units by the integration of thousands of insufficiently trained infantry replacements. The night attacks executed by these units often were not properly co-ordinated. Massed infantry, insufficiently supported by artillery, was hurled against the German lines, its sole objective being the seizure of the outpost area. At this time the Russian command followed the World War I pattern of massed night attacks that nearly always miscarried.
By 1942 the Russian. night combat methods had been improved on the basis of the lessons learned from experience. Tanks that
had been concealed during daytime suddenly made an appearance at dusk or in darkness. The probable reason for the employment of armor at night was that poor visibility protected the Russian tanks from the otherwise too accurate German antitank fire. In general, night attacks launched during this phase had only limited objectives. During the preparatory stage of such attacks, the Russians proved very skilled and courageous in clearing German mines by hand. Even in deep snow and extreme cold they spent long nights searching for mines. When they found them, they often merely detached the fuses and then covered the mines with a layer of dirt or snow.
Russian commanders had no scruples about casualties when a mine field had to be cleared in a hurry. On 28 December 1942 on the Kerch Peninsula, for instance, a Russian penal battalion was driven across a particularly dense German mine field during the hours of darkness which preceded the attack. The casualties were very high, but several lanes were cleared for the follow-up units.
In another instance, occurring on the night of 1-2 December 1942 in the sector of the German Army Group Center, the Russian II Cavalry Corps with. three horse cavalry divisions attempted to exploit a three-mile daytime advance achieved by armored units twenty miles south of Rzhev. Making full use of the cover of darkness, the cavalry units sped across the snow in open formation, disregarding the losses inflicted by a few remaining German machine gunners and riflemen, and a weak artillery barrage. The Russians penetrated the German lines and, without exploiting their success, returned to their starting positions during the same night. Their objective was never known.
A few months later, in mid-August 1943, in the southern sector of the German front the Russians attacked with overwhelming forces and in the course of the day overran a weak, battle-weary German division. By nightfall the Russian infantry and armor stood about four miles behind the former German MLR within reach of a stream which, according to a map captured by the Germans, was their immediate objective. Contrary to their previous practice the Russians did not halt but immediately went on to exploit their success. During the same night, after crossing the river, they broke through the hastily organized German position, and by dawn Russian tanks stood far to the rear of the German lines. The Russian break-through could not be offset by countermeasures and led to decisive developments in this area. In this instance a bold Russian night attack could not be contained by the weak German defense.
By 1944 the Russians often continued during the hours of darkness a major offensive operation they had started in the early
morning hours. Armor always led the way. Even when carried out on a wide front, these attacks usually bogged down in the German battle position, although they occasionally penetrated up to the artillery emplacements. The slow progress of the attackers usually left the German commander sufficient time to move up reserves, which were able to restore the situation by the next morning. In the summer of that year the Russians introduced a new procedure. Before major offensives they would use deceptive and diversionary measures on a wide front. At the point of main effort they would commit infantry units supported by tanks in a night attack with limited objective. Evidently the intention was to soften up the German defense at night and to open gaps for the follow-up units. Heavy artillery preparations usually preceded the infantry assault. At the crack of dawn armored formations, held in reserve for the break-through, went into action.
VI. Defensive Operations
The Russians were always prepared to defend themselves, even during the short lulls that occur during any offensive operation. Wherever they stopped, they dug in and vanished from sight. As a rule Russian defensive positions were organized in great depth and held by strong infantry forces. Cover and concealment were excellent. Dense wire entanglements and well-laid mine fields in conjunction with ceaseless night reconnaissance provided a high degree of security. A multitude of heavy weapons, multiple rocket projectors, flame throwers, and artillery pieces gave the defensive system a firm backbone. However, the Russians did have difficulty at night in effectively co-ordinating artillery fire and in neutralizing the German artillery by counterbattery fire. Apparently, they either lacked well-trained observation battalions and flash and sound-ranging batteries, or else they did not employ them effectively. Their flat-trajectory night fire on roads, crossroads, and prominent landmarks was often very accurate, probably as a result of highly developed meteorological observation and an accurate knowledge of climatic factors.
Counterattacks, most of them supported by tanks, were well prepared and executed with great assurance. At points where the Russians expected German armored thrusts they often set up antitank fronts interspersed with individual tanks.
On the whole, Russian defensive tactics lacked flexibility during the early stage of the campaign. The German experience of the last year of the war indicated, however, that the Russian command and troops had adopted the principal features of the more mobile and flexible German tactics.
An order, issued by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko in 1941 and captured by the Germans during their advance toward Moscow, encouraged the Russian troops to make more use of night fighting, close combat, and fighting in the extensive forests. These three types of combat, he stated, were the forte of the Russians and the weakness of the Germans, who placed too much reliance on their machines. At night and in the forests, he continued, mechanical equipment loses some of its effectiveness, and hand-to-hand fighting, for which the Russians have a traditional aptitude, comes into its own.
VII. Retrograde Movements
The only Russian strategic withdrawal occurred at the very beginning of the German campaign. During the initial phase of the retrograde movement the Russians executed consecutive night marches with two columns often marching abreast. After the initial shock of the German attack had worn off, the Russians began to fight a series of delaying actions. During the battles of encirclement that took place during this phase, the Russians in the pockets would abandon their heavy weapons, equipment, and supplies and, taking advantage of the hours of darkness, would attempt to break through the German ring. Masses of infantry would hurl themselves against the German lines at what seemed to the Germans the most unfavorable points, that is to say, in open terrain, far away from any road or highway.
In carrying out retrograde movements at night Russian field commanders had no qualms about sacrificing rear guard units, which were often ordered to fight to the last man. In such emergencies the civilian populace was put to work digging antitank ditches, delaying positions, dummy fortifications, etc. The importance of mines in night combat operations was fully realized by the Russians from the very beginning of the campaign. Whereas the Russians employed armor during every phase of this retrograde movement, their air force intervened only rarely.
VIII. Partisan Warfare
Shortly after the start of the Russian campaign partisans began to harass the German rear areas, especially in the central and southern regions of Russia. Time and again German logistical plans were threatened by nightly partisan forays on supply installations, rail lines, and other important military objectives. Destruction in the rear areas was often as costly as losses at the front.
The effectiveness of night attacks by partisans was demonstrated by the experience of the 98th Infantry Division after its withdrawal across the Kerch Straits late in 1943. Behind the division front there was an extensive system of underground quarries near Adzhim-Ushkay, two miles northeast of Kerch, which were interconnected by long subterranean galleries. The partisans hidden in these quarries were well equipped, and they undoubtedly maintained contact with the Russian units across the straits.
Starting at dusk, partisans equipped with infantry heavy weapons emerged from their inaccessible hideouts to cut German supply lines, destroy signal installations, and attack weak German service units. At daybreak they disappeared without giving the German troops an opportunity to come to grips with them.
In this primitive country, with its many inaccessible hiding places, the Germans were at a loss to combat the partisans effectively because the latter were able to attack in small groups during the hours of darkness and then vanish. In view of his limited manpower the local commander was unable to cope with this persistent menace.
In the spring of 1944 the German V Corps was engaged in heavy defensive battles near the city of Kerch. At that time the corps' line of communications was subjected to frequent night attacks at points some sixty miles west of the front line. Partisan forces numbering 400 to 1,000 men made frequent night attacks on vehicles moving along the supply route Simferopol-KarasubazarFeodosiya, as well as on villages in the same area. The partisans were hiding in the inaccessible Yaila Mountains of the Southern Crimea, where they were supplied by nightly airdrops. As a countermeasure, the corps furnished armed escorts for vehicles moving in convoy, but this meant a considerable diversion of manpower for the hard-pressed corps. No matter how vigorously German units combatted these and other partisan groups, there was no end to partisan night attacks behind the front and especially against rear installations. Darkness was the protector of the partisan, particularly in difficult terrain that the numerically weak German troops were often unable to comb.