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Soviet "by the book" tactics

in the Winter War

(in short)






The Army of Soviet Union (the Red Army) was based on the old imperial army of Russia.

The old cadre of professional officers was more or less destroyed by the purges of Stalin. A large part of the new officers were chosen by political abilities, more than military abilities.

The Red Army gained experience in their civil war, wars against Poland and Japan. But the experience gained by those wars were not generally usable in large all-out war. Nevertheless those wars influenced the evolvement of tactics in the Red Army.

The Field regulations of the Red Army from 1929 where active offense was extremely emphasized, but at the same time, the attacking formations were tied down by strict rules. For instance the order of the battle (OB), positioning and the width and depth of the attack sectors were all regulated. The tactic was attack by masses, where the numbers ruled over spirit.

In 1936 a new temporary Field regulations, gave more freedom to commanders as the previous one, but was still quite restricting. Although the new temporary field regulation was some three years in use, the old '29 field regulations had left it’s stiffening mark on the tactics used in 1939.


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Order of battle


The forces were divided into a attack group and a support group, which were deployed in depth of two or three waves to ensure maneuverability. If needed a reserve should be formed to counter any unsuspected events.

In an attack the Attack group should be strong enough to destroy the enemy throughout the attack sector. The majority of supporting (tanks and artillery) elements are committed to the attack group.
    The support group was to tie down the enemy along the front by small scale attacks. The support group was to be relatively weak and attack with local objectives only. Only when the attack of the Attack group shakes the the enemy defenses, should the support group join in the decisive attack maneuver.

The regiments of the attack group deployed side by side, the regiments deployed their battalions in 2 or 3 echelons. The battalions in the 2nd a 3rd echelon received their orders at the same time as the 1st echelon. Their mission was to develop the success further and support the 1st echelon without additional orders. The battalions in the 1st echelon were given attack sectors, while the battalions in the 2nd and 3rd echelon received only attack directions.


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In an attack, the main objectives were:
    - The enemy was to be caught in an enveloping attack on one or both flanks,
    - By a mixed force of tanks and infantry, cut off the routes of retreat from the main force of the enemy (deployed near the front-line)
    - and with the help of air support, armor and cavalry units, prevent the rear elements of the enemy to escape.

The enemy was to be tied down along the whole front, encircled and eventually destroyed, instead of pushing the enemy back.

The recon units should try to find out if the enemy has open flanks, if none can be found, a preferred target for the attack is the boundary between enemy units.


- The divisional tank units were used in infantry support, except the long-range tank group, which was to create havoc in the enemy rear area, by overrunning artillery positions etc. , when a breakthrough was achieved.

- The artillery was to be divided into attack support groups, which supported the regiments of the attack group, and sub-support groups to support battalions and companies. They were committed to different units as was thought to be necessary.
    Corps- and Army-artillery units (normally large caliber artillery) were used to form long range-support groups, whose mission was counter battery fire, prevent the enemy to move his reserves, bombard road-junctions, HQ’s, and to neutralize enemy AA-positions. Super heavy ( > 152 mm) artillery was used against strong fortifications. Infantry commanders ordered the use of artillery in detail.
    The artillery was to destroy the tactical (front-line division) defenses in depth.

- The air support was to be used by massing them to attack tactical targets, which couldn't be suppressed or destroyed by artillery or other means, and attack enemy reserves.


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Breakthrough attack


When the enemy was not in prepared positions, the 1st echelon battalion, in the Attack group, should be supported by an artillery battalion and a tank company, or by two artillery battalions. The attack sector could have a max. width of 600 meters, but if there was more tank and artillery support available, the width could be as much as 1 000 meters

The total width of the Attack group, of a normal division (not strengthened by extra artillery & tanks) , could be 2 000 - 2 500 meters, and if a division was strengthened by a artillery regiment and a tank battalion, 3 000 - 3 500 meters The total attack-sector width of a division (Attack group + support group) could be twice as wide as the width of the Attack group.

- The main mission of the artillery was to support the advances of; 1) the long range tank group, 2) infantry support tanks, 3) the infantry. The main force of the organic artillery, and all extra artillery units were to be used in the support of the Attack group.
    If the number of artillery pieces (not including the long range support group) numbered 30 - 35 pieces /km and the number of tanks available equals 2 tank battalions, the duration of the preliminary bombardment could be reduced to 1 hour. If no tanks were available, the bombardment could take even 3 hours, and if the enemy was strongly entrenched, considerably more.
    If, on the other hand, large numbers of tanks and masses of artillery was available, the enemy front-line could be bombarded only for 10 - 15 minutes, after which the artillery could start to "escort" the tanks by moving the bombardment ahead of the tanks (300 - 400 meters / artillery battalion) .

The moment of launching the infantry attack was the moment when the tanks broke into the defense line. If no tanks were available, the infantry commander signaled the artillery (usually with flares) to move the bombardment behind the chosen attack point.

If the enemy had a secondary line, the breaching of that line was also to be included into the original attack order.


If the enemy was in prepared positions, the time used in preliminary bombardment and air attacks was increased, and the attack sectors of the 1st echelon battalions narrowed.

It's very important to remember that the following echelons were given their orders beforehand. They were to fight their way past the 1st echelon and encircle the enemy.

The attack was to meant to advance like an armored steamroller into the rear of the enemy crushing all opposition.

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Below is a schematic display of the Soviet artillery tactics
(as it was used during the Winter War)

Soviet Artillery tactics, as used in Winter War Regimental artillery (regiment's organic artillery and possibly attached batteries.) bombarded the Finnish front-line in both direct and indirect fire.

Divisional artillery targeted also road junctions and other places of thought importance. The fire was unobserved until on some places, captive balloons were taken into use. Many batteries fired with only increasing and decreasing elevation, "sawing" the targeted area back and forth.

The heavy (long distance) Corps- artillery units fired on targets in the Finnish rear area. The fire from these guns was most devastating when used to destroy Finnish defenses.

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Below is a schematic display of Soviet tactics used in the Bay of Viipuri to capture Finnish held islands

The Soviet tactic when attacking an island The island was first attacked by Soviet aircraft and artillery was brought up to fire both indirect and direct fire.

After the bombardment had begun, tanks surrounded the islet providing support and cutting off any escape attempts.

After the defenders had been suppressed, the Soviet infantry spread out to in order to attack from several directions simultaneously.



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The objectives of defense was:

- to save strength on a broad front, in order to conduct a decisive attack in a chosen direction
- to buy time for the concentration of forces to conduct an attack
- to buy time on a secondary direction until an attack on the decisive direction produces results
- to hold a ordered area
- to wear an attacking enemy down and shake it, and switch to attack

The strength of the defense was thought to base on the use of fire, terrain, field fortifications and chemicals (?) .

The defense should be organized so, that the enemy infantry could be destroyed in front of the line, and the enemy tanks are prevented to break into the defensive positions. Any breakthroughs are destroyed by artillery and a counterattack by Soviet tanks.
    The importance of Antitank (AT) defense is very emphasized.


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When a division deploys for defense without contact with the enemy, the defense position normally contained:

- in front of the defense position, a pioneer-chemical obstacle zone, which was defended by small infantry detachments with artillery support. The front edge could be as far as 12 km from the actual defense line.
    But if the division had contact with the enemy, no pioneer-chemical obstacle zone was formed. The form and position of the pioneer-chemical obstacle zone should deceive the enemy about the position of the main defense position.

- the security zone, which contained several strongpoints with a maximum distance of 3 km from the main defense position.

- the Main Defense position

- a rear position 12 - 15 km behind the main defense position

A division deployed for defense, forms a defense perimeter 8 - 12 km wide and 4 - 6 deep, A infantry regiment forms a perimeter 3 - 5 km wide and 2,5 - 3 km deep, and a infantry battalion a perimeter 1,5 - 2,5 km wide and 1,5 - 2 km deep.
    The battalion perimeters in the front-line had their perimeters touching each other without any gaps, and defensible to every direction (all-round defense).
        The mentioned width and depth depended on terrain and available AT-weapons.

To deceive the enemy;
- the main defense line should be placed, in front of or behind, ridges or hills avoiding any conspicuous terrain and pattern
- in front of the main defense line, especially along suspected approach routes, deception lines should be created running diagonally from the main line, from where the enemy could be caught in a crossfire. The deception line should be manned by forward guards.
- deceptive works, obstacles, bunkers etc. should be made
- all defense works should be carefully camouflaged

Within the defense perimeter;
- all HQ's and artillery positions should be protected by a circle of AT-weapons
- MG's and other infantry weapons should be deployed in depth, and as many ambush positions should be made as possible

In case of an attack, the supporting group (front-line battalions) was to give the enemy a devastating blow rendering him incapable to continue the attack. If the enemy managed to achieve a breakthrough, the attack group (reserve) destroys the enemy with a counterattack and in a favorable situation transform the situation in a strong attack against the shaken enemy.


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Below is a schematic display of Soviet defenses
(as encountered by the Finns in the Karelian Isthmus)

In the security zone , the Soviet units had several small forward positions armed relatively strong with MG's and LMG's

The main defense line was deployed with relative depth, employing large numbers of MG's and LMG's

The Attack group and reserves
Artillery positions were  protected with strong rings of MG's, AT-guns and tanks.

The Attack group, strengthened by tanks, is positioned in a junction enabling quick response to many directions.

Tanks patrol on the roads behind the front.

Soviet defenses as encountered by the Finns in the Isthmus


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Winter warfare


The Soviet Field regulations have also mentioned winter warfare. What makes winter warfare special, is the snow cover, coldness and the short period of daylight.
    The winter have the following effects in the operations;
- The importance of urban areas in providing shelter and a place for rest, for the troops.
- The need of skis when moving out from the roads
- The increase of marches in dark

( Interestingly ) The Soviet Field regulations had the following notion: "The maneuverability of the troops in winter, depends entirely on their experience in winter warfare, their winter gear and the nature of the terrain.
   Troops which don't have had practice for winter warfare and are not properly equipped, will quickly lose their combat effectiveness, while their heavy equipment (unsuitable for winter operations) will become a burden.
  If the enemy has any of these weaknesses, our troops should use it to their own benefit and try to actively and relentlessly destroy the enemy."                                            

(Note:This is my own translation from a Finnish text, so it's likely that it's not a precise translation from the original Russian text.)


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The unique characteristic


In the areas north of Lake Ladoga, the Finns encountered a surprising characteristic in the Soviet soldier. In cases, where he became surrounded, he rather dug in, than tried to break out and retreat towards friendly lines.
    In the Finnish operations in the area, many Soviet pockets were surrounded, and the surrounded units formed defensive circles using whatever equipment was present (called "Motti" by the Finns) . As the food & other supply situation worsened, breakthroughs were attempted, but in most cases, the surrounded soldiers showed remarkable passiveness (quite often, the lack of Finnish manpower led to the point where several Motti's were guarded only by frequent ski patrols, and still no breakout attempts were made) .
    The usual Finnish lack of artillery resulted in the habit of letting the cold and hunger to weaken the Motti's before it was attacked. The Finns learned to respect the almost inhuman resilience of the Soviet soldier, enduring cold and hunger remarkably long.


Below is an example of a Soviet defense of a motti

The "Armor"-motti "Armor"-Motti, map legends

1) the Lemetti - Uomaa road
2) an entrenched AT-gun
3) Soviet tank
4) artillery pieces in direct fire positions
5) Soviet shelters (connected with trenches)

This is the western part of the "West-Lemetti Motti" or the "Armor Motti" ("Lemetti lšntinen" or "Panssarimotti" in Finnish). The defenders dug in on January 11th, when they were harassed from every direction

The west Lemetti Motti was very strong. The tanks had formed a ring of mobile pillboxes which proved out to be hard to destroy, as the Finns had only satchel charges and Molotov cocktails. Also the lack of artillery was a handicap. The infantry had entrenched between the tanks.

The West-Lemetti Motti was in two parts, the other one being the so-called "Mylly" ("Mill" in English) strongpoint. The western part was destroyed on February 2nd at 0315 hrs. After that the Finns concentrated against the strongpoint "Mylly", which was stormed on February 4th at 0430 hrs.

- From the western part, the following war booty was captured; 25 tanks (from which many were captured without damage) , 2 field guns (76 RK 27) , 1 AT-gun (45 mm) , 1 AA-mg , 2 field kitchens , 12 trucks . It appears that all rifles, mg's and lmg's were taken into use by the Finns immediately, because no data remains of the number of captured infantry weapons.

- From the strongpoint "Mylly", the following war booty was captured; 7 tanks , 2 field guns , 1 AT -gun , one 82 mm mortar , 13 front wagons for field guns , 4 field kitchens , 26 trucks , 4 cars , 10 horse carriages , 1 radio station , a field bakery , the equipment of the division's orchestra. Again, most of the infantry weapons were taken into use, but this time 5 LMG's , 1 MG and 210 rifles were handed over to be transported to the Finnish depots.

For more information of this subject go to "Motti's"



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