Soviet Forward Detachments

Bagration: Soviet Peredovoye Otryad
The Forward Detachment within the Soviet Operational Art of War.

By Andy Blozinski

January 1944 marks what the Soviets consider the third period of the war for the Red Army. This was the period of ascendancy into total strategic offensive operations for the Soviets over the waning Wehrmacht. Everything from the training levels of individual soldiers, the quality of their equipment, the development of supply and transportation networks, increased military mechanization and the skills of their military leaders had finally all come together to allow the Soviets to aggressively pursue the German army. The key in how this was accomplished was a uniquely Soviet innovation in military thought: The operational level of military planning. The operational art of war. Operation Bagration was the grand implementation of this on the largest scale ever and the results were tragic for the Germans. A whole army was lost in short order.

Several more were seriously damaged and the Wehrmacht actually had higher casualties than the Soviets for a change while the Soviets ended up in position to attack directly into the Reich. All this was due to higher level planning in terms of the operational level, as opposed to only either tactical or strategic thinking or some connecting combination and the necessary capabilities finally being in place.

In classic military thought, tactics and strategy were connected because a single battle often could affect a war. Nationalised armies and the industrial era changed things. Modern armies became too large, well supplied and resilient to be so easily affected. World War I was an example of the clash between old thought and the new reality. A new level of thought was needed to bridge the gap in scale.

The new level of thought Soviet theorists added was the “Operational” level. This middle level linked the small scale of tactics and individual battles to the much expanded scale of strategy and war changing results. A series of battles would comprise an operation. A series of operations would comprise a strategy for ultimate victory. One very good example as to how the philosophy had changed is provided by examining the actions taken upon breaching a defensive front line. 

Lend-lease Dodge 3/4-ton truck pulling a ZIS-3 gun
Operation Bagration Tactical thinking suggests that a breakthrough is followed by a turn into a flank to widen the breach and further attack the front line or to simply break up local defences. From an operational perspective, this would only be one of many necessary steps for a larger goal. The Soviet “Operational” line of thinking was to attack in a much more thorough fashion. The need to flank a defensive line in operational level thinking was to widen the breach for a complete penetration by a large exploitation force held in a sort of reserve tier for the attack. This exploitation force would then push forward past the front line into the operational depths of an entire enemy force, not just the initial line of defence. Defending elements of supporting artillery, HQs, material support troops, reserves and secondary or tertiary lines of defence. All were to be pursued deeply within the context of a single operation to create “frontal shock”. Entire sectors could be weakened, disrupted and encircled for destruction, in place of previously only achieving localized success limited to the frontline in classic military thought. This was the operational philosophy of attack known as “Deep Operations”.
The Soviet Forward Detachment concept was an important tool in this new philosophy for modern war, with the German Kampfgruppe as perhaps the closest Western equivalent. However, unlike the German Kampfgruppe, Forward Detachments were a formalized component of Soviet military doctrine and their specific role should be understood within the context of Soviet development of the Operational Arts and Deep Operations. For the purpose of representing them in Flames Of War, the Operational Arts in the process of attack will be the focus.

While Forward Detachments had functions in many different types of circumstances, a front wide offensive operation is the best tool to explain its basic role. During an offensive operation, rifle troops were to engage an entire enemy front and lock it. The next step was facilitated by the advent of mechanization, which the Soviets embraced with the view of breaking the deadlock of the Western Front style positional warfare. Mechanized corps were to be highly concentrated in multiple narrow sectors.

These mechanized shock armies were to be comprised of infantry supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft and tasked with creating tactical breaches in the enemy line.

Infantry riding on a SU-85
Soviet Iasi-Chisinau break into Romania in August 1944 Tank based completely mechanized exploitation forces (Mobile Groups) from a follow-up echelon were to advance through these breaches and push throughout the enemy’s operational depths, often with the goal of encircling and destroying the enemy completely.  Defenders were not to be allowed to re-group along a secondary line of defence during this exploitation. All aspects of this plan required a set operational pace to be maintained, as large forces do not stop and start or change directions easily. A loss of momentum could bring things to a halt, behind enemy lines. The specific function of the Forward Detachment in this whole system was to smooth the path for the larger exploitation force so it could maintain the desired operational pace. This could mean any number of missions for the Forward Detachment, such as securing a critical bridgehead, commanding heights or road intersections for movement. It could be clearing minor delaying forces out of the way. It could be to simply keep pressure on retreating enemy defenders so that they couldn’t re-group.

While pure reconnaissance forces acted to determine enemy assets, the Forward Detachments often acted as a reconnaissance in force with respect to both enemy assets and key geographical positions which might impede or facilitate the movement of the parent Mobile Group exploitation force.

The role of the Forward Detachment was not to be limited to only acting as a very specific advance guard for the exploitation forces, though. This was simply the easiest way to explain them. Forward Detachments were also used, for example, to clear the path to keep the pace of a withdrawing force or to secure key positions for shock armies creating breaches in the enemy lines during an offensive. The key connecting point is that the specific function of a Forward Detachment in any phase of an operation was to make possible the movement of large groups consistent at a desired pace. As such, Forward Detachments were expected to be able to operate semi-autonomously well in advance of the force they were spearheading, possibly up to 30km ahead of their parent unit and at times up to 100 km away from the original front lines during the exploitation phase. As a practical result, Forward Detachments needed and received a high concentration of radio equipment to maintain communications and coordination with the parent unit. Another result of this advance position role was that, aside from contact with Soviet reconnaissance forces, combat with Forward Detachments was often the first tactical engagement the Germans faced as part of a larger Soviet operation. Sometimes they were mistaken for THE main attacking force itself and the Soviets occasionally used this to their advantage in deception operations.

The ideal Forward Detachment was comprised of five core elements: tanks, infantry, artillery, sappers and chemical defence troops. After 1943, the artillery component was often self-propelled, although towed guns continued to be used in smaller numbers through to the end of the war. An absolutely critical aspect of Forward Detachments being able to function as intended on the attack required them to be completely mechanized in order to keep up a sustained operational pace as their primary mission requirement. Early uses of Forward Detachments on the attack were not consistently successful as they could not keep the required operational pace due to them having largely leg infantry in support. Tank-riders dismount

As a result, in the early summer of 1943, five new tank armies were formed based on a new TOE. These included considerably larger combat support and logistics components designed specifically with the goal of sustaining deep operations. Existing tank and mechanized corps were adjusted accordingly, while infantry armies and corps received more integral armour support to free up the tank armies for mobile exploitation roles. Another previous shortcoming was a lack of transport, both for supplies and supporting troops. This was subsequently solved by the influx of lend lease trucks, stable tank production and the creative use of tanks as transports.

There was no strict structure for a Forward Detachment; instead the Red Army regulations provided an ideal outline as mentioned above that was to be used as a guideline. It was a genuine task oriented force. The reality, as opposed to the ideal, was that the commanders in the field often used whatever assets were actually available for the mission at hand. Although Forward Detachments were temporary groupings, they were not hastily arranged. Forward Detachments were an important part of a much larger overall operation, thus their composition was often planned at army or corps level with specific mission requirements and composition elements in mind.

Soviet tank-riders

Additionally, there were often multiple Forward Detachments sent out from the same parent force, each with its own composition and mission objective.

The size of a Forward Detachment could vary widely. It might be anything from a reinforced company up to a brigade. The larger Forward Detachments often split off some of their own subunits as well, thus creating multiple Forward detachment tiers. Obviously, the larger a Forward Detachment was, the easier it was to reach the ideal composition described in the regulations. There were actually reinforced platoon sized Forward Detachments used, but their scope was much more limited. They were generally one form of the “subunits” referred to. Post-war these platoon sized units were codified as “Forward Patrols”.

In conclusion, it is worth reiterating that although the Forward Detachment concept has some resemblances to a German Kampfgruppe, it was different in that it had a pre-ordained, important and strictly defined purpose in a larger scale of thinking that reached beyond the tactical battlefield. The coming together of communications, mechanization, both from Lend Lease shipments and a thorough technical training program for the troops by mid 1943 meant not only was the Forward Detachment to come of age, but the whole “Deep Operations” principle as well. The full implementation of the Operational Level in defensive battles was to be the end of the Blitzkrieg; while in the strategic offensive, it was to be the demise of both static and mobile German defences. Whole armies were encircled and destroyed, with Forward Detachments spearheading the way.

In Flames Of War

Given the typical scale of Flames Of War and the rulebook missions, a Forward Detachment is not only a very appropriate Soviet force to represent on the tabletop, but possibly the most common.

Forward Detachments Leading Offensive Expoitation Phase 1
Forward Detachments Leading Offensive Expoitation Phase 2

This article did not have the practical length to discuss all the varieties of Forward Detachments.

Many of them can already be represented in the game. A normal Motor Rifle Battalion or Hero Motor Rifle Battalion (from Bagration: Soviet or Fortress Europe) with medium tanks (or flame tanks) in support, possibly with added sappers and maybe some artillery or recon would be a good representation of a Shock Force Forward Detachment used to aid in breaching an enemy defensive line, for instance.

In the Bagration: Soviet command card we present a Forward Detachment Formation Build of the more unique form of Forward Detachments deployed in advance of the Mobile Group during the exploitation phase of an offensive operation. This Late-war force reflects when the Red Army went on the strategic offensive and had also achieved substantial mechanization. It was during this period that Mobile Groups and their Forward Detachments saw both widespread employment and their most consistent success.

Historical Scenario Suggestion

Forward Detachments very commonly attacked at night, it would be more than appropriate to use the British “Night Attack” rules (see page 89 of the rule book, just read 'British' as Soviet) in coordinated scenario games.


Published sources that influenced this article (Makes for a good suggested reading list!):
“The Soviet Conduct of Tactical Maneuver, Spearhead of the Offensive”, David M Glantz
“Analysis of Deep Attack Operations, Operation Bagration, Belorussia 22 June – 29 August 1944”, William M Connor
“Operational Art: A Definition”, Greg Guerrero
“Operational Art and its Relationship to Strategy and Tactics”, Greg Guerrero
“Soviet Order of Battle, WW II, Volume 12: Red Hammers”, Charles C Sharp
“Soviet Order of Battle, WW II, Volume 3: Red Storm”, Charles C Sharp
“Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman Tanks”, Dmitriy Loza
“Tank Rider”, Evgeni Bessonov

With special thanks to: Gene Ostrovsky, Sonny Smith and Calle Svensson


Bagration: Soviet command cards

Last Updated On Thursday, March 11, 2021 by Wayne at Battlefront