Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army: All What You Need To Know

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This analysis originally appeared at SouthFront in February 2016

The formation of Tank Armies, which were eventually raised to Guards ranks once they demonstrated their ability to defeat Wehrmacht forces, was a major step in the Red Army’s operational evolution during the Great Patriotic War. Even though the Soviets were temporarily surpassed by the Panzerwaffe which gained experience from operations in Poland and Western Europe, once the Tank Armies were formed, German forces could no longer claim to be the most skilled or effective practitioners of armored warfare. The 1st Guards Tank Army was one of six such armies formed during the Great Patriotic War. After the war it became part of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, where it remained until it was withdrawn to Russia in the 1990s.

The changes in the international environment, the desire to cash in on the “peace dividend”, the need to fight the Chechen insurgency, and Russia’s economic crisis all led to the disbandment of tank armies. In the absence of significant external military threat to Russian territory, the only permanent readiness units would be motorized rifle and tank brigades, which were subordinated directly to army headquarters. These brigades would screen the borders and allow the lower-readiness divisions, which were transformed into equipment storage depots with minimal personnel, to be mobilized for war.

The Maidan coup, the high-intensity civil war in Ukraine, and NATO expanding its permanent presence eastward, forced the reversal of the earlier policies. There was now a large country with a hostile, Nazi-friendly regime and close NATO ties right on Russia’s western border. Moreover, the fighting in Ukraine demonstrated the advantage of having large and permanently established maneuver formations. Independently operating battalions, regiments, and brigades lacked the ability to deliver a knock-out punch, and coordinating a large number of such units was difficult for higher headquarters.  The NATO-style tactic of putting together task forces and battlegroups out of available units which was used by the Ukrainian army also proved ineffective because units which do not train together in peacetime will not fight well together in wartime. Therefore the Russian Ministry of Defense decided to reactivate 4 divisions and bring 2 existing ones, the 4th Guards Tank and 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle, to permanent readiness status to give the Russian Ground Forces several large high-readiness formations that would pack the offensive punch smaller units did not have and to re-establish the Soviet-era regiment-division organizational structure which is better suited for high-intensity combat operations. But it went one step further by ordering the reactivation of the 1st Guards Tank Army, with headquarters near Moscow, and assigned to the Western Military District. Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu named the activation of the new formations one of the top priorities for 2016.

There is no information yet on how many divisions and brigades the 1st Guards Tank Army will have assigned.  Great Patriotic War-era tank armies had two or three division-size units permanently assigned. During the Cold War, each Soviet tank army had four tank divisions. The activation of new divisions suggests that the newly reformed 1st Guards Tank Army is likely to have three or four permanently assigned tank and motorized rifle divisions and a number of separate brigades which would make it the largest permanently organized land forces formation between Urals and the Atlantic. Its reactivation will give the Russian Ground Forces the ability to exploit its superior expertise at the operational level of war, which was already shown during the Crimea operation which NATO was took NATO completely by surprise and which is currently being demonstrated in Syria.   The location of its headquarters indicates it will be Russian high command’s strategic reserve, to be used to deliver the decisive blows of the land campaign, following the example of the 1st Guards Tank Army which was among the first Red Army units to enter Berlin in 1945.

In order to ensure battlefield superiority over NATO forces, divisions and brigades of the 1st Guards Tank Army will be the first to receive the new Armata, Kurganets, and Bumerang vehicles once they enter production. In order to ensure high readiness, they will contain a high proportion of contract soldiers. Once it achieves initial operational capability, the army will become an important component of Russia’s conventional deterrence, and a decisive warfighting tool should the need to use it arise.

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  • Barba_Papa

    Interesting. So it’s basically the equivalent to the Western army corps. I wonder why that formation never gained any popularity in the Russian army.

    • PZIVJ1943

      After Germany invaded in 1941, Russia found that smaller Army units where easier to manage. It maybe they where lacking enough good officers after Stalin’s bloody purges.
      This was very self-destructive, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would attack.
      This is one reason why the red army suffered huge loses in 1941.
      Anyways the Russian armies where formed into a larger unit called a front, this is comparable in size to a western army.

      • Attrition47

        Lots of peacetime armies sack placemen at the start of a war like Joffre in 1914, Stalin did it sooner so perhaps it increased the quality of the Red Army by getting rid of the old farts.

        • Barba_Papa

          No, it pretty much neutered the Red Army because he killed or jailed any one who competent to decent. Leaving ONLY the idiots and old farts. Had the purges not taken place the war would have gone radically different. With a better officer corps in the opening stages of Barbarosse the Red Army could have put a better resistance, evaded some of the catastrophic defeats. Chances are the Wehrmacht would not have penetrated as far as it did.

          The problem was (and is) that dictators don’t like competent generals. Competent generals are smart generals who might get the idea that they could do a better job. Therefore dictators always neuter their armies and purge them from anyone remotely competent. They want their generals to be stupid, preferably even massively corrupt. Any general who is corrupt is usually more busy lining their own pocket then plotting to overthrow the dictator. It also tends to make them complicit with the regime, meaning they have more to lose if it falls.

          This as opposed to armies in western democracies, where in peacetime politicians tend to favor politicians in uniform as opposed to actually competent generals. Because they know how the political game gets played.

          Different processes, different results.

          • Attrition47

            No he didn’t, the old farts were swept away and new blood installed. All states do this when a backwater starts to come into the foreground. The Red Army wasn’t prepared to take on the Wehrmacht in 1941 but then, no other army was either.

            Western democracies? The Weimar republic was democratic until it was overthrown in 1930, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal ran slave empires, same as the US.

          • Barba_Papa

            The Red Army before the purges was one of the best armies in the world. Where the French and British were still preparing to fight WWI the Red Army of that time was years ahead in developing mechanized warfare, or developing airborne tactics. Where do you think the Germans learned the art of Blitzkrieg? They had an officer exchange program with the USSR at the time.

            And then came the purges. And what was left after the purges? Not the innovating thinkers who developed the precursor to Blitzkrieg. No, what remained was the dead wood. The old farts. Two kinds of officers, those who knew who to keep their mouths shut, who knew not to rock the boat, not show any initiative whatsoever. And those who impressed Stalin with their loyalty. And nothing else. Why do you think the USSR lost 10x as much soldiers then the Fins did in the Finnish winterwar? Because of the Finnish weather (same as in Russia), or because Finland was so well equipped (they weren’t)?

            The Red Army was not prepared for the Wehrmacht because Stalin had butchered the best and brightest of his army. And he was lucky that there were still at least some officers still left alive in the prisons and Siberia. Men like Rokossovsky, who became a hero of the USSR, field marshall, who fought at Smolensk, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, who planned operation Bagration, arguably one of the finest military operations of WWII. And who would have been shot for treason if he hadn’t steadfastly resisted his NKVD torturers who wanted him to sign a confession. But apparently according you he’s a useless old fart.

            We will never know what would have happened if Hitler had invaded the USSR and met those fine officers whom Stalin had so negligently murdered because he was paranoid as fuck. We do know that the purges created a perfect shitstorm that allowed the Germans to almost reach the outskirts of Moscow. A defeat almost so total that it made the performance of Czarist Russia look exemplary in comparison. That state at least lasted for three years before collapsing.

            As for slave empires, what is your point? Democracies can’t have colonial empires that oppress the locals? The Athenians invented democracy, and not only was their city awash with slaves, they built the Acropolis with the money paid for by their defacto colonial empire, the league of Delos.

          • Attrition47

            There weren’t any democracies in Europe after the Weimar republic was assassinated in 1930. Your views were obsolete in 1980, I suggest you do your homework. Notice also the book references in a previous answer.

        • Alberto Campos

          Exactly. Not only the old farts with a war-mentality dated way back to Bismarck and WWI but those who could quickly surrender to the enemy or were already compromised with the German nice-talk of peace and cooperation since 1933.

      • Jesus

        The Russian army was prone to the same tactics the French and British armies were prone to, they were not familiar with blitzkrieg, true, the officer staff was decimated, however the Russian territory provided the ideal terrain for German blitzkrieg, it worked in reverse when the Russians got their act together and their armored forces became more proficient.

        • Alberto Campos

          The Stavka tested the blitzkrieg in January and March 41 and was prepared to counter it. That’s why the blitzkrieg was not one, unless you assume some hundred km out of a couple of thousands to be relevant, or to take six weeks to make 450km is a “flash”.

          • Jesus

            How did they test it? Obviously the execution fell short of desired results, hence the Russian defenses were penetrated and encircled on a much larger scale than what the Germans did in the Ardennes when they enveloped the French and British armies cutting them off..

          • Alberto Campos

            The Stavka knew perfectly well, as I said months in advance, that their first defenses, from Bialystok to Minsk, will in any case be penetrated and destroyed. They knew they couldn’t do anything against it (they even sacrificed a field marshal to hide their plan), that the Germans will advance no matter what, but not much further than Vitebsk or Smolensk, which was the case as you know from the “documented” stuff.
            But honestly, I rest my case, no need to argue on this kind of thing.

        • Attrition47

          The only blitzkrieg the Germans tried was Barbarossa and it failed because the German war machine wasn’t big enough to prevail. Shuffling the cards to change the result was futile as 1942-1944 demonstrated.

          • Jesus

            The blitzkrieg I refer to was directed against the French, south of the Magginot Line through the Ardennes forests, where panzer divisions covered forested and hilly terrain, something the French and the British were not expecting. It cut off the French troops manning the Maginnot line and the British expeditionary force stationed in northern France and Holland.
            During Barbarossa in 1941 the Germans bagged millions of Russians as the Russian position stood were encircled, however, the Germans were ill prepared for winter, many of their casualties in 1941 were due to weather exposure.
            In 1942 the Germans had a very good chance to interdict navigation on Volga, cutting off oil supplies coming from Caucasus, if they would not have gotten fixated with Stalingrad.
            In 1943 could have been promising provided the Germans would have adopted a flexible defense, and not been in a hurry for the battle at Kharkov.

            Blietzkrieg is the method of attack, concentrating strong armor and mechanized forces on a limited front and piercing through defenses and moving swiftly by enveloping the rear of the enemy and cutting them off, while waiting for the infantry to advance and reduce the resistance of an encircled army.

          • Attrition47

            That wasn’t a blitzkrieg, it was a desperate throw of the dice. See The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze and Matthew Cooper The German Army, 1933–1945: Its Political and Military Failure.

          • Jesus

            What is the definition of blitzkrieg according to you?
            Blitzkrieg was a new for of warfare involving tanks and providing armies with far greater mobility instead of the murderous static lines prevalent in WW1.
            What does a military strategem wave to do with breaking down of the Nazi economy

            In my opinion Germany did execute their plan well, except their attack on England; after they had taken over the Europe they could have consolidated their gains for a couple of years as war production needed to gear to full capacity. German war economy reached their peak in 1944, subsequently any attack on Russia should have been commenced in late 43, early 44….. instead of 1941.

          • Attrition47

            Blitzkrieg was a myth concocted by British and US journalists, because they weren’t good enough to be reporters. Hitler couldn’t wait on events after the British refused to fold in 1940, because the arms race he started in 1934 didn’t stop in 1939, it accelerated and but for the windfall of France 1940, Germany’s doom would have been all the quicker.

            See The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by K-H. Frieser.

          • Jesus

            What is the difference in tactics Germans used in WW1 compared to WW2?
            Is the outcome a legend? In the first WW1 Germany was a stalemate with French and British forces for 4 years, in WW2 the war was over in a few months that culminated with the French and British defeat.

          • Attrition47

            The Germans couldn’t end the war in 1940; the victory was big but indecisive. The decisive victory was Smolensk 1941. After that the Germans were finished unless the Red Army made even more unforced errors in 1942 than in 1941. It didn’t.

            German tactics in 1940 were 1914 tactics using motor vehicles, tanks and aircraft, a modernised version of 1918.

          • Jesus

            German 1940 tactics were based on Panzer divisions that provided mobility and firepower armies in Europe did not have during WW1.
            Even before 1940, the French and the British had tanks incorporated within their infantry divisions, as a supplemental weapon….mobile artilery, a far different concept envisioned by the Germans.
            Concentrated Panzer division attacks at weak points of enemy defense constituted the basis of blitzkrieg.
            The Germans were not finished in late 1941, had they hunkered down to more defendable positions along with proper winter gear, they would have handled the winter of 41-42 far more effectively without suffering big losses.

          • Attrition47

            No they weren’t, the Germans had ten panzer divisions equipped with a motley of obsolete training tanks fitted with pop-guns and a few decent Czech vehicles, Pz III and Pz IV. The French gig was won by hard-marching infantry and artillery backed by tanks (which crossed the Meuse first?), which astonished everyone when Guderian ran for the sea. That’s why there were three stop orders instead of encirclements and kesselschlachts.

            Once the Red Army showed that it had not collapsed as the Barbarossa strategy held that it would, it was not the catalyst for the collapse of the Stalin regime that it was supposed to be, when the main Red Army forces had been trapped and destroyed west of the Dnieper and Dvina rivers. The Germans ended up retreating from the Yelnya salient instead.

          • Jesus

            The French had as many tanks and greater number of motorized vehicles than the Germans, and they got defeated, not by a frontal attack, but by a flanking attack.
            You fail to see that the flanking attack carried by the panzer divisions encircled the French and British army concluding the wat quickly.
            As far as your assessments on the Russian front, German failures can be attributed to over exuberance and Hitler’s idiotic involvement in the campaign in 1942.
            Had the Germans stayed focused on their planned objectives for 1942, oil shipments from Caucasus would have been cut off and the soviet war machine would have slowed down significantly…..if not come to a standstill.

          • Attrition47

            The Allies weren’t encircled, they retreated to Dunkirk and the panzer divisions were stopped three times for fear that they might be cut off by the French. That isn’t blitzkrieg (sic) it’s panic. Barbarossa was a one-off and the campaign in 1942 was another act of desperation, much smaller than Barbarossa which again demonstrated that the Red Army was un-defeatable but such a small, under-armed, obsolescent and overstretched force.

      • Alberto Campos

        That’s what your “historians” told you all your life and you never felt the need to stop and think.

        • PZIVJ1943

          Think about what?
          Operation Barbarossa is well documented.
          It is the largest land conflict in human history.

  • John William

    I would say the Germans remained the most skilled at tank warfare up until the end of WW 2.They didn’t have the resorces not to mention Hitlers meddling is main reason for their defeats dec 41 and on

    • Attrition47

      Blame Hitler? The Germans lost because the Red Army beat them, admit it.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        Hitler lost.

        • Attrition47

          Stalin won

          • Solomon Krupacek

            Hitler stopped in september the attack against Moscow. In that time there were only few rusiian soldiesrs. The evacuation was running. Due to Hitlers mistake russians got 3 months to send enough soldiers. Inbetween they got lot of equipment from USA. When Hetler renewed the attack, was too late.
            Be sure, if the german generals could have the last word, Germany won the war.

          • Attrition47

            Hitler ordered the attack on Kiev because of the success of the Southwestern Front against Army Group South. An advance on Moscow would have left Kirponos free to counter-attack northwards.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            There was no russian force for counterattack. To stop the attack on moscoe was the biggest mistake of hitler. but so is good.

          • John William

            Russian blood won I’d say. Much respect.

        • John William

          Thank god for that

    • PZIVJ1943

      A war of attrition set in on the eastern front in the winter of 1941. By springtime the Germans where short 1 million replacements! Their Army Group Center would be on the defensive for the rest of the war. In 1942 Hitler went for the Stalingrad/North Caucasus (oil) gamble.
      We all know how that turned out.
      Even the Russian field mice where chewing away at the wiring of the German vehicles.
      Those where some patriotic rodents :-)

    • Nigel Maund

      The Germans were very skilled but they lost too many skilled tank crews and irreplaceable Panzer V and VI models at Kursk. The Russians were prepared for “Operation Zitadelle” and prepared their forces, especially anti – tank defences accordingly. Also, the Russians with their manufacturing well out of German bomber range in the Urals were manufacturing 7 tanks to the Germans 1 and moreover were fighting on one front whereas the Germans were fighting on three fronts (Italy, Normandy and Russian). The Germans to counter new T34 and KV variants and increasingly improved Russian Self Propelled Guns and later on the powerful JS 2 tank were forced to rely on cheaper StuG III and IV models. German tanks had between 3,000 and 4,000 different parts whereas Russian tanks had between 800 – 1,200; hence with a myriad of model variants the German quartermasters were overwhelmed. By 1943 and 1944 the allied bombing campaign was bearing real fruit and the Germans had no chance of replacing their losses on all fronts to match the ourput of Russian factories. Finally the Russian airforce overwhelmed the Luftwaffe giving the Russians command of the skies and ability to wipe out German forces behind the front line. Kursk was the watershed and after that it was all downhill for the Panzerwaffe and Germany.

      • Brad Isherwood
      • John William

        Different story if it wasn’t for stalins purge. The German officers on all levels were the finest in history.Plus Germans had radios in most tanks from the start

    • Alberto Campos

      Most skilled? And took nearly two months, under fine summer weather, to reach Kiev and another four to approach Moscow. And as the myth goes, their tanks were only capable of moving on nice highways like my sedan hahahaha not on earth, sand, grass, mud, etc, even though through flat ground without geographical obstacles, they were not designed for it hahahaha

      Stay blind to the evidence, son, and keep feeding your “historians”.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        IDIOT!

        • Alberto Campos

          Really? So explain me why did they spend three long and hard Winter months (June, July, August) and three more to reach Moscow. Were the Germans too busy shooting Solomons that they forgot to fight in a “blitz” way?

          • Solomon Krupacek

            how many millions of square kilometers were together? whirt that technique was miracle. how lonng time needed the rad army for the same distance, ha??? :DDDDD

      • John William

        Germany attack too soon because hitler found he had parkasins and wanted to share in the glory.The Germans were under equipped for the invasion and lost precious time figuring out how to deal with t 34 n kv tanks.german officers were 2 to none on ww2

  • chris chuba

    For any who read WW2 history, I was often confused by accounts until I realized a fundamental difference between German and Red Army organization
    1. A Soviet tank corps roughly equals the strength of a German Panzer division
    2. A Soviet, tank army roughly equals the strength of a German Tank Corp.

    So when you read about Army Group South at the battle of Kursk with the 48th, 2nd, and 3rd Panzer corps that was some serious hitting power. Especially, since they were brought up to full strength.

  • Brad Isherwood
  • John William

    The purges decimated the the Russian armed forces period. No good came from it. Leadership is the most important thing in war with information close by. The Russians were the most forward thinking military until the purges. Take America. We have never had a standing Army after wars until 1945 1952 r so. How ever we kept a strong officer class who could lead grunts. Officers take years to mold

  • John William

    This tank army Russia is building seems to be the finest since ww2.I pray that thoes puny forces we putting in the Baltic stats don’t go against it. Cuz Out forces will be wiped out r surrender. And then America will be embarrassed and then it’s on. And well teach Russia a lesson they will never forget. No nukes tho. Cowards use nukes