Archive for May, 2015

Reading List: Soviet Army

For Adepticon 2016, I’ve embarked on a new game system and a new period.  I will be participating in a Bolt Action version of the Battle of Kursk, taking on the part of the Soviet forces defending against the invading Germans.  I was about to say that the first step is to get educated on the time period, but like any good gamer I purchased a stack of figures then went about learning about the forces involved.

The Battle of Kursk is an iconic clash of armoured forces on the plains of Russia.  A thousand or more tanks from each side fought and burned as the attacking Germans were meet outside of Prochorovka by the counter attacking Soviet forces.  T-34 tanks raced across the Russian steppes to dire point blank at a hundred or more Tiger tanks.  Scores of Tigers burned that day, or so was the story told by General Rotmistrov of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army.

Blood, Steel and Myth by George Nipe.   The first book on my list reconstructs events during the Battle of Kursk using primary sources from German Divisional records to tell the story of a brutal, but not iconic, battle.   These records are used to track the location each German division in the southern front with operational updates & available tank numbers.  Units detailed include the SS Divisions TotenkopfLeibstandarte, Das Reich; the German army division Grossdeutschland & other infantry/Panzer divisions.  The author spends considerable time debunking the common story of the tank battle at Prochorovka, summarized as the three German Panzer divisions in the region started July 12th with 232 tanks (including 12 Tigers) and ended with approximately 62 lost tanks (pg437).  Soviet tank forces in the battle count 520 tanks, made up of T-34, T-70 and a handful of Churchill.

Scattered amongst the tedious details are a number of anecdotes, terrain descriptions and combat behaviors which would be valuable to the average wargamer.  Typical terrain in the Kursk region include swamps & wet lands big enough to immobilize tanks and paralyze unit movements.  The Soviets constructed elaborate defense belts & fortified hill tops.  These strong points were defended with land mines, anti-tank ditches, and camouflaged anti-tank guns.   Many small villages dot the landscape, these also were fortified by the Soviets, with guns gun into the stone buildings.  Notable terrain features include the old Soviet “Baracken” and the railroad line constructed on a 30 foot high berm.

Breaking through the Soviet defense lines occupied much of the German offensive.  Pioniere would advance under cover of machine gun fire to clear a path through the minefields, then assault the trench lines with flamethrowers and explosive packs.  If a Tiger was present, the line breaking tank could advance & clear the Soviet guns & emplacements.  Most of these giant tanks were lost to mine damage to the running gear, underscoring the need for Soldiers and Armour to work together.

The author was critical of the T-34 tank and the lack of command & control which could be exerted over the tank.  T-34s lacked a radio which prevented senior leadership from communicating with tank crews.  Also, the tank commander functioned as the tank gunner.  This restricted the commander to only seeing the small slice of the world shown through the gun site.  Together, these factors prevented Soviet tank forces from taking advantage of battle field opportunities.

The only negative feature about the book is the lack of quality maps.  Each day includes a grey scale map of the area of operations displaying unit locations and movements.  However, landmarks are hard to distinguish – was that line a river, a rail road, or a divisional boundary?  The book could have benefited from small scale, color maps of the daily battles.

Through the Maelstrom by Boris Gorbachevsky, translated by Stuart Britton.  This second book is the memoir of a junior political officer in the Soviet army, recording his life in a Rifle Division from the battle of Rzhev to the end of the war in Lower Silesia.  The author spends many pages chronically the life of the common rifleman in the Red army trenches, covering the lack of rations, the harsh disciple, the problem of desertion, the integration of non-ethnic Russians, and the burning hatred of the Germans.  While the author did not participate in the Battle for Kursk, he does note celebrating at the news of the attack.   His own division was dug in behind deep fortifications & no doubt felt that the attacking Germans were about to run into stiff defense at Kursk.

The author’s career began at Rzhev – known as the meat grinder for the constant stream of Soviet attacks made “at any cost”.  Which in practice meant poorly supported infantry attacks (lacking in artillery and tank support) on dug in German positions.  Casualties were extremely high, with the author quoting a number of 1.3 million Soviet soldiers killed in the 14 month long operation.  Having survived Rzhev, the author is part of the pursuit of the retreating Germans & maintains contact until the Germans reform their defensive lines.  During this period, the author participates in another Red army tactic – reconnaissance through combat. A group of soldiers (platoon, company or battalion) would advance towards the German lines with the objective of having the Germans revile all of their concealed firing positions.  While this might generate valuable intelligence on the German fortification, it often came at the cost of the attacking infantry men. Another slightly less suicidal mission was the hunt for a “tongue”.  A small group of scouts would quietly sneak into the German trench lines & abduct a soldier for interrogation.

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two by Philippe Rio, translated by Lawrence Brown.  This is a picture book of Soviet uniforms and equipment from through out the war period.  Reconstructions of uniforms along with period pieces are displayed in high quality photographs.  A very valuable book for anyone trying to get the right shade for a Soviet uniform, or needing to know the proper color for a shoulder board.