Going Deep: The Red Army in World War II

By Robert M. Citino
2/16/2012 • Fire for Effect

Yesterday in my 20th Century Warfare course I was taking my students through the intricacies of “deep battle”—the Soviet warfighting doctrine that arose in the interwar period, came to fruition during wartime, and eventually helped inform U.S. doctrinal reform in the 1980s (the era that witnessed the rise of “AirLand Battle”).

It’s an important topic for students of the war. With all the attention we lavish on the Germans and the Americans in World War II classes, the Red Army rarely gets the credit it deserves. Oh sure, just about everyone now accepts the truth that the Soviets bore the brunt of defeating the Wehrmacht on land. The vast majority of the German army at any given time was deployed in the East, and that’s where it suffered its most catastrophic defeats, just about one a year, in fact: at Moscow in 1941, Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943), and Byelorussia (Operation Bagration) in 1944. Still, there has been a tendency to belittle the fighting qualities of the Soviet army, to attribute its victories to size and mass and numbers alone, to portray it as a big beast with a single-digit IQ, or better yet, as a mindless steamroller that simply flattened everything in its path.

That is in incomplete portrait, however, and I’ll go on record: these guys were good. Before 1939, the Soviet army had a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking and experimental military forces in the world. Guided by the fertile brain of Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky, the Soviets devised a doctrine they called “deep battle”: huge armored formations (styled “mechanized corps”) crashing through very narrow portions of the enemy line, feeding in more men, tanks, and guns along the same axis in one irresistible wave after another (echelons, they were called), smashing hostile resistance and driving far into the depth of the enemy position. He also stressed the notion of “consecutive operations.” Modern armies had grown so large and had such enduring recuperative powers that it had become impossible to destroy them in a single battle. You had to keep pounding them in repeated large-scale offensives, landing a series of non-stop blows on the enemy that would not let him reform his line or recover his equilibrium.

Like all good ideas, these two took a while to put into practice. Stalin’s purges of the 1930s had a ruinous impact on many areas of Soviet society, but they hit the army especially hard. Tukhachevsky was arrested, accused of disloyalty, and shot. Most of the corps and divisional commanders were replaced, and this at a time when the Vozhd was ordering a vast military expansion as a reaction to the dark international situation. The army grew rapidly in this period, therefore, from 1.5 million men in 1937 to 5 million in 1941, but it didn’t grow very good. New generals, a lot of poorly trained manpower, fear hanging over everyone like a shroud: it was a toxic combination for unit quality and cohesion.

And with the Tukh gone, so was deep battle. In its place was a cautious armored doctrine that parceled out small tank brigades as infantry support. It was the same sort of thing the French army was doing at the time—“shallow battle,” we might call it, if we wanted to be sarcastic. Once deep battle got going, however, the Germans never really were able to develop an answer to it, and the Red Army’s battle honors prove it.

If there is one caveat I would introduce at this point, it is to warn against turning deep battle into a fetish or a buzzword. Yes, it presented the Germans with a problem they could not solve. Something else it did, however, was to generate massive casualties, both enemy and friendly. Try running a second echelon against the same position you just assaulted with your first, and then your third echelon against a position you just assaulted with your second. If you didn’t break through immediately, and you often didn’t, you were essentially launching a series of frontal assaults against fully alerted defenders—rarely a good idea against anyone, and never a good idea against the Germans. When deep battle failed (Operation Mars, 1942), it could fail spectacularly. Even when it worked, however, it was expensive.

A last point: deep battle and consecutive operations made perfect sense for the biggest country in the world, one with a massive population, vast natural resources, and a strong stomach for casualties. In other words, Tukhachevsky had come up with a way of war that made perfect sense for the Soviet Union. Could other countries fight this way? Would they want to? The Germans lacked the materiel; the French lacked the space; the British couldn’t afford the high casualties, and the United States saw no need to risk them. In that sense, deep battle is not some sort of recipe for victory. It is, instead, an example of a “military culture,” one linked to a specific army’s history, tradition, and geography.

More next time. But I’ll say it again: these guys were good.

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