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Eastern Front Reconnaissance By Combat:
Doing It The Red Army Way
by Phil Yates

I’ve just finished reading Boris Gorbachevsky’s autobiographical book, Through the Maelstrom. It is an excellent account of a Red Army soldier’s experience. Gorbachevsky survived a human-wave attack towards Rzhev in 1942, then two
reconnaissance by combat attacks to take part in the vicious fighting in Prussia at the end of the war. It’s an amazing insight into the war in the East, but the thing that stood out for me was the truly callous approach adopted by the Red Army in the first half of the war.
Reading about Gorbachevsky’s experiences, reminded me of another account I’d read about Vladimir Kantovski’s
experience of a reconnaissance by combat in a penal unit. In both cases they were ordered to make suicidal attacks, just to make the enemy open fire and reveal their firing positions. Of 240 men in Vladimir Kantovski’s company, only nine escaped being severely wounded or killed in their reconnaissance by combat. Kantovski was one of the lucky ones. His wounds were severe, but he recovered and was discharged. It also made me think about how to set up a game to show people what ‘reconnaissance by combat’ was all about.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it rapidly destroyed almost every prewar formation of the Red Army. They were aided by Stalin’s purges over the previous three years which had eliminated many of the Red Army’s officers and sent many more to the gulags.
…Reconnaissance through combat was the brainstorm of the Supreme Commander [Stalin] and his generals. Depending on the task, they would send a platoon, a company, or a battalion; the size of the force didn’t matter. In reality they were driving people to their slaughter, to their certain death. The point of the operation, as they considered it…, was to give the enemy a big scare, so that he might think a large-scale offensive was beginning and cause him to open fire from all of his positions, thereby revealing them to our intelligence. Subsequently, we could easily knock them out. In practice things rarely turned out that way.
— Gorbachevsky on reconnaissance by combat.
Despite these losses, the Red Army was reformed and sent back into battle. The result was a huge army with very few officers or soldiers with much training or combat experience. They attempted to fight ‘by the book’ using the pre-war manuals as their guide, but lacked the skill to succeed.

The artillery is supposed to neutralise the enemy’s firing positions while the infantry attacked in overwhelming force. Unfortunately, for this to work, you need to locate the enemy firing positions and to have artillery with the skill and ammunition to destroy them. Lacking this, the massed infantry attacks degenerated into human-wave attacks relying on sheer numbers to overcome the opposition.

Soviet infantry push towards the German position
I had already heard so many tragic stories about these operations. …How highly the commanders believed in them and valued them, and with what horror did the soldiers utter this phrase! Rare was the soldier who remained alive after such an assignment, and it was considered a success if you were just wounded and your own guys managed to drag you off the battlefield.

— Gorbachevsky on reconnaissance by combat.
While this worked on occasion, the usual result was simply mass slaughter. In the week of Gorbachevsky’s regiment’s first attack, the medical battalion treated over 4000 wounded soldiers (including him). On top of this, there were uncounted missing and dead.
Having barely survived this human-wave attack, Gorbachevsky was ordered to take part in two ‘reconnaissance by
combat’ operations. These were intended to overcome the problem of locating the enemy firing positions. The concept behind a reconnaissance by combat was simple—launch a small attack to force the enemy to reveal their firing positions. Then, using this information, the artillery should be able to neutralise them ahead of the main attack.

Fortunately for Gorbachevsky, the first attack was cancelled just as his unit was about to charge. Later, as the regimental Komsomol (communist youth movement) organiser observing a reconnaissance by combat, he was ordered forward to get the stalled attack moving. He didn’t get far, being wounded in the arm as he left the trench.
It won’t be easy to deal with him [the enemy], but we have tanks, and not only that, we have 34’s, the best tanks in the world! Moreover, our artillery and Katyusha rockets will smash all their defences to pieces, even before we attack, and our airplanes will give us support—the Germans won’t be able to withstand it, so our commanders tell us…

— Gorbachevsky’s thoughts before a human wave attack.
Soviet infantry under heavy German fire
I strain my lungs and shout ‘Ura-a! Ura-a!’… We are attacking head on, in echelons, and my company is advancing in the second line. Other men are hurrying in front of us and behind us… A growing destructive fire sweeps up and down the attacking lines with a storm of machine-gun fire. The hoarse coughing of mortars follows the machine-guns. Artillery starts to roar. Enormous geysers of earth toss the living and the dead high into the air. … How can this be?! It appears that the artillery did not reconnoitre the enemy’s firing positions. Did they just pound vacant space for 30 minutes?

— Gorbachevsky’s experience of a human wave attack.
Reconnaissance by combat had three main failings. First, the unit conducting the reconnaissance was invariable wiped out. Second, the Red Army lacked sufficient artillery to effectively neutralise enemy positions located by the ‘reconnaissance’ until the advent of massed direct-firing self-propelled guns in 1944, and finally, against a defence in depth, the best that could be hoped for is the neutralisation of the forward defences.

Despite these problems, the Red Army continued to use reconnaissance by combat, substituting penal units for regular rifle units, until the end of the war.

~ Phil.

Download a PDF version of this article here along with Reconnaissance by Combat scenario for Flames Of War here...

Further Reading

Gorbachevsky, Boris, Through the Maelstrom, A Red Army Soldier’s War on the Eastern Front, 1942-1945. 2008, University of Kansas Press. ISBN 978-070061605-3

Rees, Lawrence, War of the Century. 1999, BBC Worldwide Ltd. ISBN 0-563-34877-8

‘As soon as we showed ourselves, the enemy opened fire. And our officers shouted “Onwards, onwards!” I don’t think you can feel any patriotism when you are participating in such an attack. I think the over-riding feeling is one of
bluntness—your feelings are blunted. You feel fatalistic. You know what’s going to happen is unavoidable, fatal, and it’s like a game of Russian roulette. Well, what is your lot going to be?’ … Kantovski felt bullets hit his arm and shoulder: ‘I was wounded and began to bleed. You had to be heavily wounded to be pardoned, but how can you
know whether you are badly wounded or not badly wounded? Until I became convinced that I was heavily enough wounded I didn’t dare set off towards the
first aid centre. It was hard to move—my arm was not working, so I had to crawl lying on my back.’


— Kantovski’s experience of reconnaissance by combat from War of the Century.
Soviet infantry treaten the German defences


Last Updated On Thursday, February 17, 2011 by Blake at Battlefront