Red Army Auxiliary Armoured Vehicles 1930-1945
From Pen and Sword's "Images of War" series, we have Alexey Tarasov's outstanding new title on Red Army auxiliary vehicles. The basic information is: paperback, 9.5 X 7.5 inches, 160 pages, with 200 black and white photos and several tables. Paper quality and photo reproduction are mostly excellent. The book is organized into two parts, with all the major text up front and then the photo collection bringing up the rear. Typically we get 2 photos per page.
The subject here is the development and use of auxiliary armored vehicles in the Red Army from 1930 to 1945. Essentially, that means tactical vehicles not including tanks, armored cars or self-propelled guns. The line is a bit fuzzy but, the topic here is all the armored vehicles a modern mechanized force of the 1930s-WW2 era needed to make units as effective as possible.
The author begins with an excellent description of the state of thought with regard to mechanized forces' organization at the beginning of the 1930s. At that time, no army in the world had any combat-operational experience with modern mechanized forces; the automotive industry was still in its infancy with motor vehicles having been invented only four decades earlier (cars and trucks were very common in the USA, with about 93% of US households owning a car or truck by 1930, but they were still rare everywhere else in the world). The WW1 experience had been limited to very short-range tactical use of tanks. By the 1930s it was clear that technology was advancing and that large, operational-level mechanized operations would be possible. The problem was figuring out the doctrine and technology, and building the force structures to make those visions a reality. All the major armies were experimenting and thinking about how to use the new weapons that motorization enabled.
The Red Army was quite advanced in its thinking about armored warfare. This may surprise some readers who stereotype the Red Army as a horde of vodka-swilling peasants who could barely operate their own equipment, but the fact is that the pre-1937 Red Army was doing a lot of thinking, writing and experimenting with combined-arms warfare. Other nations, notably Britain, had done tactical experiments with test units also. Soviet tank production was far ahead of the rest of the world, but their officers knew that the "all tank idea" then popular in e.g. Britain was not the way of the future. They recognized that to have real effectiveness, mechanized units would need a combined-arms approach with tanks, mechanized or motorized infantry, self-propelled artillery, armored engineer vehicles, armored medical vehicles, armored command vehicles, armored, high-mobility supply vehicles and so forth.
The evidence of this thinking and experimenting is in the publications and prototype vehicles that were tested at the time. The photo below, for example, shows an early 1930s design for an fully-enclosed armored personnel carrier on the GAZ-AAA chassis. APCs on the T-26 tank chassis were tested also. The point the author is making here is not that these were especially good designs, but, that the army was thinking about the problems of modern warfare and experimenting with solutions.
There was also recognition that the all-important artillery would need to keep up with fast-moving mechanized units. Tractor production was already famously important to Soviet agriculture, and many of these tractors were adapted (or just painted green) for army use, such as the Stalinetz tractor below. These crawler tractors could not keep up with tank units, but, they were far better than the horse-drawn artillery then universally present in other armies.
Some of the experimental vehicles were attempts to adopt basic engineering tasks to tank chassis. Critical engineering support jobs such as mine-clearing, gap bridging or trench crossing were tried out with mixed results. The BT-based bridgelayer shown below, an early 1930s design, would not have been out of place in any army of WW2 or even the Cold War. The normal BT-2 turret was replaced by a T-38 light tank turret, and the bridge could be laid without the crew having to exit the vehicle. Flamethrower vehicles were extensively tested also.
Less-successful ideas included this bizarre T-26-based trench-crossing tank. The idea was that the large rollers on the sides would enable the tank to 'hop' over trenches.
Mine-clearing vehicles using flails or rollers were developed, and the roller-based concept was of course used in WW2 on T-34 and KV tanks. All of these vehicle types and the doctrine that led to their development is described in a very engaging way by the author. The culmination of much of this thinking was the Red Army's "operations manual", the field regulations of 1936 ("PU-36"). PU-36 laid out the Deep Battle doctrine calling for large-scale, operational-level combined arms maneuver warfare. It was a remarkably modern doctrine, comparable to anything being written in France or Germany at the time. The author does an outstanding job describing the debates, publications and testing work being done at that time. As an aside, this content should put to rest any remaining ideas that the "funnies" of WW2 were especially innovative - most of the basic engineering ideas had been tried out long before the war in one army or another.
As students of Soviet history know, all of this creative experimentation came to a crashing halt in 1937. The Stalinist great purge led to the virtual decapitation of the Red Army, hitting proponents of Deep Battle particularly hard. Some truly backward ideas were endorsed instead, and the period from 1937 to June 22 1941 was characterized by chaotic, constant changes of organization as the Red Army grappled to find its way. By 1941 the army was in a terrible state, with tank units having almost none of the important supporting vehicles needed to operate effectively. This book does a great job laying out the intellectual chaos of the period, which led directly to the ineffectiveness of the Red Army in 1941. Despite having lots of tanks, including superb designs such as the T-34, the Red Army was thoroughly beaten by a much smaller force, and barely survived 1941.
The author goes on to convey the effect all of this had on mechanized operations throughout the war. The short version is that tanks themselves were grossly over-tasked with noncombat work because they were often the only vehicles available, or mobile enough, to do the job. Thus we find records of, e.g. Soviet tank units with low levels of operational readiness because they lacked recovery tractors, high-mobility supply vehicles or high mobility fuel transporters. In mud or snow, tanks themselves were used as trucks, carrying fuel, ammo or spares long distances. This work of course degraded the mechanical condition of the tanks. The Red Army paid a high price for the great purge as late as 1945, with incredible shortages of the most basic support vehicles. The author makes a compelling argument that the weaknesses in Red Army tank units were the result of the purge period, even as the war ended in 1945. He does so with data and unit reports showing the difficulties units had with basic tasks that could have been performed much better had specialist vehicles been available.
This book is quite simply superb. It is a terrific addition to the literature on interwar experimentation with mechanized units, the Red Army and especially on engineering vehicles. It reminded me of some of the work of Robert Forczyk or Thomas Anderson, in that the author goes beyond simplistic conclusions to really dig into the details of how mechanized units must function. It isn't glamorous, but the author shows how important it is. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Very Highly Recommended for anyone interested in the Red Army or in the interwar period of vehicle development. Superb.
Thanks goes out to Casemate Publishing for this review sample.
Reviewed by Dan Egan
If you liked this review, consider joining AMPS. Your annual membership
includes six copies of AMPS's magazine, Boresight,
and helps to support our ongoing reviews.
Click here for more information about joining AMPS