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Soviet Tanks in the Great Patriotic War

The set-backs suffered by large tank forces in Spain (1937-38) and the Soviet Army's difficulty employing large formations of mechanized forces in eastern Poland in September 1939 resulted in the elimination of the large corps. The tank corps were then replaced with smaller motorized divisions and a shift in doctrine favoring smaller and more easily controllable formations followed.

The Soviets did not stress the use of armor until after they had fallen victim to a devastating German blitzkrieg in the early years of World War II. The blitzkrieg tactics used by Hitler's forces were thought to herald a new form of warfare. Based on Germany's success with armor units, the Soviets realized they had drawn incorrect conclusions on the employment of armor, and set about trying to rectify the situation by frantically rebuilding their tank force. But the Russians learned quickly, modeled their organizations after those of their assailants, and came roaring back in some of history's most spectacular armor exploitations.

While in 1941 the Germans swept across the Russian countryside, individual Soviet units had put up stubborn defenses. When faced with Russian T-34 and KV-1 tanks, whether in the advance or in and encirclement, the Germans found themselves outgunned and insufficiently armored.

During World War II, it was determined that tank designs incorporating two or more traversing turrets were impractical. As a result designs for tanks and other armoured vehicles only feature "a single traversing turret". Even the Soviet T-28 medium tank carried a 76.2mm cannon and four 7.62mm machine guns. These over-equipped tanks did not survive the early days of World War II.

The main Soviet tanks of World War II were the T-34-85 medium tank and the KV1 heavy tank. The T-34-85 weighed 32 tons, had a five-man crew, and carried an 85-mm cannon and two 7.62mm machine guns. The KV-1 weighed 47.5 tons, had a five-man crew, and carried a 76mm cannon and four 7.62mm machine guns. The KV-1 Soviet heavy tank took the Wehrmacht's soldiers and officers by surprise. The tank was heavily armored, impenetrable by any German anti-tank gun of that period. But the KV's were very heavy, immobile, suffering from an incredibly poor transmission, and that meant un-manuverable. And they were fitted with the same 76mm gun as T-34s.

The competion with new German armor and the lessons of Kursk stimulated the designing of the new modifications of KV, which finally resulted in IS family of tanks. In 1943 the work on the new Soviet heavy tank Iosif Stalin were completed. A small number of new JS-1 (named for Josef Stalin) heavy tanks were built. The IS-2 was produced in 5000 pieces. The heavy tank Joseph Stalin, with its 122mm gun was clearly superior to the German Tigers.

The Soviets followed Stalingrad with the introduction of a new Front Mobile Group at Kursk in July, 1943 -- again with great operational level success. Then, in August 1943, the Soviet's 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army, once again under front control, defeated the German LII Army Corps northwest of Belgorod. In 1944 the Soviet's conducted the largest operational level action of the war to date. Named, "Operation Bagration," the Soviets simultaneously maneuvered four fronts against very deep objectives. The result of "Operation Bagration" was not only the encirclement of 36 German divisions, but Soviet forces on the East Prussian borders of Germany by July 1944. Operational warfighting had thus come full circle in the Soviet military.

In 1944, during the Bessarabia-Moravia campaign, they drove armor spearheads deep into organized German defense areas, where the terrain consisted of heavily wooded areas and thawing swampy ground. The Japanese, too, were treated to a display of Soviet armor power. In the amazing dash through Japanese-held Manchuria, some armored units were reputed to have covered 700 miles in five days. During these campaigns, the Soviets quickly learned that the combined arms team of tanks, infantry, and artillery could be decisive.

In the last year of the war, analysis and correction of the JS-2's weaknesses resulted in the JS-3, which introduced an improved hull design known as the "Pike Nose" and a reshaped "frying pan" turret, though retaining the JS-2s 122-millimeter gun. It is questionable whether or not the JS-3 saw service during the war. The JS-3 represented an entirely new concept in tank construction. The angling of forward armor in both the horizontal and vertical planes was a quantum leap ahead in armored vehicle design, as was the "frying pan" turret.

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