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The Death And Rebirth Of Soviet Mechanized Forces

Where are the Heavy ZOCs When You Need Them?

By Frank Chadwick

The Red Army was one of the most forward-looking militaries in the 1930s: the first to conduct mass parachute drops and the first to assemble large (Division-size) Armored formations. The purges of the late 1930s cast much of this experimentation into a negative light, however, causing the disbanding of the Soviet's four pre-war Tank Corps. 

Successive German victories in Poland and France changed all of that. The Soviets clearly understood they were likely the Wehrmacht's next target and their principle threat would be the murderously effective German Panzer Corps. From the Winter of 1940/41 on the Soviets scrambled to put together large Armored formations of comparable or superior power to meet them.

Countering the Panzer Formations

In ETO, the initial Soviet counter to the German Panzer Corps was the large 1941 "Early" Mechanized Corps; they formed thirty of these, employing twenty-seven of them in the western Soviet Union. Each Early Mechanized Corps had two large Tank Divisions plus a Motorized Rifle Division, with a strength of 37,000 men, 1,031 tanks, 268 armored cars, 358 guns and mortars, and over 7,000 other assorted motor vehicles – but that was on paper.

BTs, T-26, T-28, T-34, T-35, and KV) although many of the newer tanks were just arriving from factories and many of the older ones were broken down and waiting repair. Only six Corps (3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 15th) had over 500 tanks and a substantial number of modern medium and heavy tanks. Some of the newest-formed of these Corps had no tanks or only a hundred old light tanks, little artillery, and only requisitioned civilian vehicles. Hampering many of these Corps with newer tanks was a lack of ammunition of the correct caliber, and one Corps went into action with nothing but high explosive rounds for its T-34s and KVs. Thus in ETO, the Soviets place these as Untried (?-[5]) units that can vary widely when revealed from a pathetic 1-[5] Motorized Corps to a beefy 8-4-[5] Mechanized Corps.

Hampering many of these Corps with newer tanks was a lack of ammunition of the correct caliber, and one Corps went into action with nothing but high explosive rounds for its T-34s and KVs.

Early Mechanized Corps were clearly too ambitious, both from the perspective of available armored and motor vehicles, but also from the command perspective. The Soviets did not yet have enough officers with experience commanding large armored formations to make these enormous Corps work. They also needed to strip the command staffs and communication equipment from these Corps' Headquarters to form new Infantry Armies during the invasion crisis. Therefore, in mid-July, the Soviet Early Mechanized Corps units were formally disbanded. The troops (those not overrun) stayed at the front, at least for the time being. Most of the Motorized Divisions became regular Rifle Divisions and surviving Tank Divisions fought on in that form for several more months, although many were reorganized as Tank Brigades.

Whither and Wither the Early Mechanized Corps

In ETO, we do mandate Soviet Early Mechanized Corps disbandment on a fixed schedule (October 1941). This is later than actually occurred because their residual of strength stayed available on the battlefields for some time; keeping the surviving units on the map easily reflects this. Here is how it reads in the rules:


[513.4] Reorganizing Soviet Early War Mech Corps:

When play includes Vol. I: Thunder in the East, Soviet Early Mechanized Corps units have a limited time in play. By October 1941 their experiment has officially ended.

[513.4.1] Irreplaceable: Once USSR and Germany are at war, USSR Early Mech Corps units are irreplaceable. Permanently remove them from play when removed from the map. Prior to that, they are returned to their draw pool.

[513.4.2] Voluntarily Reorganizing: The Soviet player may Reorganize any number of (revealed or unrevealed) USSR Early Mech Corps units on the map regardless of their circumstances during the Soviet Demobilization Step in the following manner:

  1. Replace it on the map with a 4-5-4 Rifle Infantry Army unit (reduced) and

  2. Remove that Early Mechanized Corps unit from play.

  3. Receive 1/2 EP if its hex can also trace an OLoC (141.1).

Just like history... the reorganization of Soviet Early War Mechanized Corps units in THUNDER IN THE EAST.

[513.4.3] Mandatory Reorganization: The Soviet player must reorganize all revealed and unrevealed USSR Early Mech Corps units during their Demobilization Step of October I, 1941. Their conversions to 4-5-4 Rifle Infantry Army units occurs automatically and regardless of their on-map circumstances (which might cause overstacking; see 212.3).


Still, by November and December of 1941, most of them were gone. At that point, the Soviets began pairing Tank units (mostly the new Tank Brigades) with Cavalry Corps to form mobile ("Cav-Mech") Groups

When the Soviets need a Major Heavy ZOC to cut off the Panzer's Retreat -- behold the Cav-Mech Groups!

– the key Red Army mobile formations used in the Soviet 1941/42 winter counteroffensive. To synchronize these into the game, we allow the Soviets to raise their first batch of six 3-1-[6] small Tank Corps units in October 1941; this allows them to pair up existing Guards Cavalry Corps to make 6-4-[5] Cavalry-Mechanized Groups. In fact, the first Tank Corps were not formed until the Spring of 1942, but pushing forward the entry date of a handful of Soviet Tank Corps proved very satisfactory for showing the Tank units available for the Moscow campaign.

Vehicles to Success

3-1-[6] Tank Corps units are Small Heavy units, meaning they have a ZOC for all purposes except blocking enemy Retreats, which is a very nice feature as they can backstop the Soviet line with some ZOCs or breakthrough the Axis line with their annoying ZOCs pressed forward. These units allow formation of the first (6-4-[5]) Cav-Mech Groups (in late 1941) and larger "Tank Armies" -- although the first of these are not the ones seen on the countersheet! The Early Soviet Tank Armies were basically a Rifle Infantry Army with a Tank Corps attached; in game terms, this occurs naturally by simply stacking those two units together in a hex.

It was the appearance of the new-style Soviet Mechanized Corps toward the end of 1942 that finally allowed the formation of the first real Tank Armies that you see in the Soviet Order of Battle. The Guards conversions are underway by then, but Guards Tank Armies show up a little later in the Spring of '43.

Soviet Late Mechanized Corps required a substantial investment in motor vehicles and actually had more tanks than a Tank Corps! These were very powerful and robust units, hence they are Medium-size pieces (having a Heavy ZOC which is perfect for blocking enemy Heavy units' Retreat paths) but also cost 1 Fuel Point to build from the Force Pool. They feature only mid-range Strength values. Tank Corps retain their advantage in stacking and attacking (since they are Small-size units, one can join an attack across the same hexside as a Major unit they are stacked with), and that fact alone makes Tank Corps a good value at 1/2 Equipment Point + 1/2 Fuel Point each to build from the Force Pool. When assembled together, Soviet Tank plus Late Mechanized Corps form the most powerful mobile Ground unit in their arsenal: the Soviet Tank Army.

A Soviet Tank Army is a Large-size unit and its strength is slightly less than a full-strength German Panzer Corps (and much less than a German Panzer Army). Historically, the Soviets never had more than six Tank Armies in the field (compared with about fifteen German Panzer Corps in the east from start to finish). That said, in the middle and later years, a Soviet Tank Army is more likely to be at full strength than is a German Panzer Corps and it is likely that a Soviet Tank Army will never see a German Panzer Army unit on the map in its entire game career. Given the stretched-thin Axis line it is likely to face, a Soviet Tank Army is plenty big enough to conduct overruns, open holes, and exploit them. By 1943, the Soviets should have the instrument they envisioned as early as 1940, but were unable to forge until the lessons of eighteen months of war had been absorbed.

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Alan Emrich
Alan Emrich
Sep 18, 2019

TITE players will note the evolution for Reorganizing "Mystery Mech" Corps. This works out very well in play and "combos" perfectly with the removal of Improved Defense markers for purchase (they are now only obtainable through Free Stuff and card play).

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