Strelkovaya Diviziya

Eastern Front Cover Art Strelkovaya Diviziya
by Phil Yates

The basic Soviet strelkovaya diviziya, or rifle division, is an interesting formation. Although it is superficially the same as most other infantry divisions with three rifle regiments and one artillery regiment, it is very different in detail.

To keep things simple, I will only talk about the December 1942 organisation. It differs little from those of the preceding six months and the official organisations that followed. Earlier organisations were far too optimistic as to the quantity of men and weaponry that the Red Army could provide, while the biggest differences in the later organisations are a continuing series of reductions in manpower as the Soviet Union (like every other country) ran out of reserves as the war progressed.
These were largely left to individual Fronts to authorise, but often resulted in divisions operating at half of their authorised manpower as all replacements were sent to mechanised and tank formations.

So, what is in a full-strength rifle division at the start of 1943? As mentioned, it has three rifle regiments and an artillery regiment. It also has a small company of scouts, an anti-tank battalion, a sapper battalion, and divisional services with 80 trucks and ambulances and 25 horse-drawn vehicles. 

Advancing in the snow
In defence This is a remarkably cut-down organisation. Most infantry divisions have a full reconnaissance battalion rather than the Soviet division’s small company of 103 men (without even bicycles or horses for mobility!) The anti-tank battalion has only twelve light 45mm guns, barely a company by any other country’s standards. Likewise, the sapper battalion has only two small companies and seven horse-drawn wagons, barely more than a company in most armies. While all of these battalions are small, they are at least present, the division is totally missing the usual anti-aircraft battalion!
On top of this, the divisional services are miniscule by anyone’s standards. A German infantry division of the same strength has 227 trucks and motorcycles and 131 horse-drawn wagons in its divisional support and 783 trucks and motorcycles and 1466 wagons overall compared with just 140 trucks and cars and 715 wagons in an entire soviet division. A slightly smaller US division is lavishly equipped with 2142 trucks and jeeps!
HMG position
Shaking hands Strelkovy Polk

While the division is lacking much in the way of support, the Soviet strelkovy polk, or rifle regiment, is remarkably well supported. As well as the usual three rifle battalions, the regiment has a scout platoon, a pioneer platoon, a submachine-gun company, an anti-tank rifle company, an anti-tank battery (six guns), an infantry gun battery (four guns), and a heavy mortar company (six mortars). While extensive, this range of support wouldn’t be unusual if it wasn’t largely duplicated in each battalion as well.
Strelkovy Batalon

Each strelkovy batalon, or rifle battalion, had the usual three rifle companies, plus a machine-gun company, a mortar company, an anti-tank rifle platoon, and an anti-tank platoon of two guns. Once again, this is heavy, but not unusual, except in that it duplicates the regimental support. Most armies provided each type of support at one or the other level, but rarely at both.
What it demonstrates is an unusual feature of Soviet operations. By placing supporting arms as low down the chain of command as possible, the Red Army reduced the complexity of mid-level command. A divisional commander did not need to assign many different supporting battalions out amongst his front-line troops since they were already permanently attached. It was insurance for higher levels of command. If every unit was identical, they could safely make their operational plans without concern for the incompetence of any one officer misusing his supporting weapons. While no units would operate spectacularly, all would meet a basic minimum level of performance, making high-level planning with massed armies possible.

Preparing grenades
Soviet mortar team Strelkovaya Rota

The organisation of a strelkovaya rota, or rifle company, underwent considerable change in detail throughout 1942 and 1943, although in practice casualties and the demands of combat would have quickly evened things out. The one common thread was that each company had three platoons.
At the start of 1942, rifle platoons had (at least in theory) four squads of eleven men each. Weapons were in such short supply that even fully equipped, a platoon would have only three light machine-guns between its four squads. The company had no mortars or heavy machine-guns to make up the deficit either. All of these weapons were grouped at higher levels.

By the middle of 1942, production was back up to a point where each squad could have its own light machine-gun, but many units still took the field with far fewer than they needed. The company was also supposed to gain a platoon of three 50mm mortars, but lost two men per rifle squad (reducing squads to nine men) to man these.

The December 1942 organisation was perhaps the most optimistic giving each platoon six light machine-guns (two squads were to get two each!), and replacing one of the mortars with a heavy machine-gun.

Just how unrealistic that was is shown by the next organisation (August 1943) where each platoon was reduced to three squads with just one machine-gun apiece and the light mortars were dropped altogether. By this time an unofficial issue of submachine-guns to many units resulted in whole platoons of submachine-gunners in better equipped units, which helped keep up their firepower, at least at short range.
Soviet soldier with a DP LMG
HMG position As you can see, there is plenty of variation in theoretical organisation over the period. However, few Soviet units were up to strength for long, even if they were when they were formed, and weapons of all types were in desperately short supply.

Companies armed as Rifle/MG teams represent the lucky units that had a full issue of light machine-guns, while those rated as Rifle teams represent the unfortunates with fewer of these weapons.
As the war went on, the number of units lacking these crucial weapons dropped so that by 1944, every company would be rated as Rifle/MG teams.

While a company with two platoons could represent a unit with two full-strength platoons, it most likely represents one with three weaker platoons. The eighteen rifle teams could represent three platoons with only six teams each just as well, although it makes no difference at all in Flames Of War.
Mortar team in the snow
Zis-3 76mm gun Artilleriyskiy Polk

The artilleriyskiy polk, or artillery regiment, started 1942 with two battalions, each of two batteries of four 76mm guns, and one battery of four 122mm howitzers, a total of 24 weapons per division. This is unusually light by international standards. Most infantry divisions have 48 guns of heavier calibre and the British whose guns are closer in calibre have 72 per division!
In the middle of 1942 the artillery regiment’s total was increased by four 76mm guns and four 122mm howitzers when a third under-strength battalion was added, but this still left the division well short on artillery compared with other armies.

Where the Red Army gained over other armies was in the range of their guns. The 76mm field gun’s 13 km range outdistanced the German 10.5cm howitzer by some three kilometres, much to the discomfort of the German gunners.

The Red Army also formed the first artillery divisions in the world.

122mm Howitzer
Forward! These massive formations were attached to armies or fronts for major breakthrough battles and conducted preliminary bombardments of ferocious intensity (perhaps just as well as the Red Air Force lacked the dive bombers and heavy bombers used by other armies to supplement their preliminary bombardments). Unfortunately these massed artillery formations were also dreadfully cumbersome and of little use once a company engaged the enemy.
An Army For The Masses

The Peasants and Workers Red Army has one thing in bulk, and that is manpower. Everything else was scarce and that dictated much of their organisation and operations.

Everything had to be light enough to be moved by hand with horses providing motive power over longer distances. That meant that supporting weapons were lighter than many armies and usually in smaller units.
Hastily raised units of conscripts were often given only the most cursory training before being sent into battle, resulting in simple tactics relying on mass and brute force rather than subtlety.

Advancing through the wire
Soviet defenders dug-in These two features dictate how your Strelkovy Batalon works in Flames Of War. You will rarely be able to outshoot your opponent, and almost never outmanoeuvre them. Instead you must use your overwhelming manpower to crush them, platoon by platoon. Do not be afraid of taking casualties. Losses are unavoidable with this army.
Instead focus on making the sacrifice of your Motherland’s heroes worthwhile.

Onward to victory comrade!

~ Phil.

Last Updated On Friday, May 7, 2010 by Blake at Battlefront