"Quantity Has a Quality all its Own."
By Frank Chadwick
Although the German Army is the dominant force in all ETO games, the Red Army is the largest presence in Thunder in the East and its portrayal provides much of that game's personality. Its raison d'être is most readily apparent in their Infantry dominating the landscape of the game, that omnipresent brown wall of Soviet Rifle units continuously confronting the Germans.
Infantry, Infantry Everywhere
There are three obvious differences between Soviet and German Infantry units.
The first difference is that the most common unit of Soviet Infantry is the Army, not the Corps. The fact that Soviet Rifle Armies in ETO are Large units means three important things:
First, they are stronger than German Infantry Corps; Soviet Infantry Armies are 8-4 at full-strength compared to the best German Infantry unit's 6-4 ratings.
Second, at full-strength, they have three steps instead of just two.
Third, when eliminated, their last step (i.e., their "Corps remnant") is in many ways a more robust version of the German Korpsgruppe, but more on that later.
The second difference is that, although a Soviet Army is stronger than the best German Corps, that is mostly an offensive advantage (due to the one-major-unit-across-a-hexside attack limitation). On defense, the fact it is a Large unit means you can never stack two of them together to make an impenetrable line. It has to be reinforced with Medium (Corps) and/or Small units that are both less effective than their German counterparts and less numerous. That is, the mix of Soviet forces is not as easily configurable as the Germans.
The third difference is their general uniformity of Soviet units. Unlike the German Army, there was little difference between Soviet Infantry units raised in 1941 and those raised in 1944, aside from combat experience gained along the way. There were no special Corps of less-capable troops, such as the German 2nd-Line Corps formed for static defense. (There were some Fortified Region troops fitting this description, but Garrison units cover those in the game.)
If you look at photographs of Soviet Rifle units throughout the war you see soldiers of all ages. In addition, the number of early-formed units which were destroyed, rebuilt from scratch, destroyed again, and then rebuilt again meant that unit identification numbers were given little indication of how long that unit had been around.
For all these reasons, the basic Soviet 8-4 Rifle Army is that strength at the start of the game and at the end of the game, with the counter mix limited to those armies actually raised and fielded in the western Soviet Union (numbered up to the 70th Army, but with a half-dozen numbers missing for those units deployed exclusively in the Far East).
The Soviet Rifle Army loses half of its Attack Strength, and slightly less than half its Defense Strength, when it loses a single step (going from a 3-step 8-4 to a 2-step 4-5-4). What this means in game terms is that a reduced-strength Army can still hold the line but it is definitely spread thin (especially since you cannot stack two of them together). A line of 4-5-4s will not be doing a lot of attacking. When a 4-5-4 loses a step it is replaced with an Untried (?-4) Rifle Corps, and this is another major departure for Soviet Rifle units: you just don't know what's going to happen to them when they take a beating. The remnants of a Soviet Army should be at least as effective as the 1-2-4 Korpsgruppe of a German Infantry Corps, but you could end up with a battle-hardened 4-4 Guards Rifle Corps instead, or a 3-4, 2-3-4, or 2-4.
The idea for the Untried Soviet Rifle Corps came out of playtesting, which demonstrated the necessity for an additional step in the Soviet Rifle Armies and having them function (at full-strength) as uniquely 3-step units. We did not opt for a boring pile of generic Rifle Corps (after some long discussion of what that standardized Soviet Infantry Corps' value would be). Instead, someone (and I can't remember who) suggested using the Untried Corps mechanic we already had for the Soviet Early Mechanized Corps.
Great idea! Besides, with no data on their reverse side, leaving it blank was a waste of a lot of counter real estate; a data point with no data? Horrors!
Untried Soviet Rifle Corps units also meant that when you first raise Soviet Rifle troops you don't quite know what you have until it enters combat or is upgraded to a nice, regimented reduced-strength Soviet Army unit. We hand-made a pool of playtest Untried Soviet Infantry Corps units right there on the spot; they performed very smoothly from the start and really added a nice inflection of narrative the story. With some late adjustments for cards adding Militia and Conscripts units to the Untried Infantry Corps pool (thus "polluting" it until revealed in play and removed from the map), we were all set.
Soviet Infantry Armies are Raised, not Built
The important conceptual difference between Soviet Infantry Armies and the Army units of the Western nations is that Soviet Infantry Armies are not "built" by combining component Corps units together, but are instead "raised" by steadily adding replacements to them over time (the speed limit is one per turn per unit). This works for their regular Rifle Infantry Armies, as well as Shock and Guards Armies, each raised with one variation as illustrated here:
The Soviets have a few Specialist Infantry unit types (some of these with the TITE Upgrade Kit): two 3-4 Mountain Rifle Corps, a handful of small (division-sized) 1-2-4 Parachute Corps, and a couple of 2-4 Marine Divisions.
Mechanized and armored formations were a major part of the Red Army's success story (after a very rocky start), but those are covered in a separate article. One last element of the ground forces deserves special mention: Cavalry.
The Cavalry Arrives
The leaders of the Red Army’s mobile forces were, at their heart, cavalrymen converted to tankers. Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Pavlov, Timoshenko, and Yeremenko were all former cavalrymen, many of them having ridden with Semyon Budyenni's First Red Cavalry Army in the Russian Civil War and Russo-Polish War. Regardless of Budyenni's limitations as a commander in World War II (and they were many), he was an enormously gifted and aggressive leader of Cavalry twenty years earlier. The Division and Regiment commanders who learned their trade under him rose to lead the Red Army. Widely viewed as an anachronism elsewhere, the Red Army used their Cavalry as Mobile Infantry and as deep raiding forces throughout the war and quickly found ways to integrate Cavalry with Armor. The Red Army would use horse-mounted Cavalry units for the last time in 1956 during their invasion of Hungary.
Red Army Cavalry Corps in World War II were quite small, about the size of most Divisions, but in the Autumn of 1941 they were the bulk of the Soviets' mobile troops. Tanks without Infantry support could not accomplish much, and Infantry could not keep up with Armor in a deep advance, but Cavalry could. In the Soviet counteroffensive during the winter of 1941/42, the Operational Groups which broke through the German lines were primarily formed around a Cavalry Corps with several Brigades of reinforcing Armor.
Later in the war, the concept of Cavalry-Mechanized ("Cav-Mech") Groups became more formalized, almost invariably consisting of a Cavalry Corps and either a Tank Corps or a Mechanized Corps. We have chosen the most successful and longest-lasting examples of these to include as game pieces. Historically, these Groups were named after their commander, but we gave them the I.D. number of the Cavalry Corps forming its mounted component.
For those interested, here are the historic Cavalry-Mechanized Groups represented in the game along with this interesting factoid: Pliev's Cavalry-Mechanized Group, driving west in 1944, had a higher sustained daily rate of advance than Guderian's Panzer Group had headed east in 1941.
Baranov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 1st Guards Cavalry Corps, 25th Tank Corps
Kryukov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, 11th Tank Corps
Galikovskii Cavalry Mechanized Group: 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps, 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps
Pliev Cavalry Mechanized Group: 4th Guards Cavalry Corps, 1st (later 7th) Guards Mechanized Corps
Gorshkov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, 23rd Tank Corps
Konstantinov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 7th Guards Cavalry Corps, 9th Tank Corps
Sokolov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 6th Guards Cavalry Corps, 31st Tank Corps