Archive for July, 2009

Soviet field fortifications, 1926

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I’ve posted here some diagrams from the book Inzhenernoe delo [Engineering], full title of which is Vremennoe nastavlenie po inzhenerno-tekhnicheskomu delu dlia komandnogo sostava vsekh rodov voisk [Provisional Manual for Engineering and Technical Matters for Commanders of All Troop Types], put together by the Red Army Staff and published by the Red Army in 1926.  As far as I can tell, it isn’t even listed in WorldCat.

The book covers roads, bridges, demolition, and a variety of other subjects, but what I’ve posted here is fortifications.  The Red Army was not focusing on continuous trenches, though that had been the experience of the imperial army for long stretches of the First World War.  Instead, the Red Army, judging by this manual, emphasizes separate positions within an overall defensive zone.  This first illustrationSquadPosition is of a variety of squad / section [otdelenie] firing positions, seen from above.  Note the communication trench exiting out the back of the position, and the bends in the position to prevent fire due to enemy penetration of one part of the position from sweeping the entire thing.

This isn’t so interesting by itself, but it gives a little context to this,CompanyDefense which is a company defensive position as part of a continuous front.  The enemy is at the top, and the company defends a frontage of 1000 meters with a depth of 800 meters.  You see two platoons up, one back (I haven’t figured out how to do cyrillic in this post–the word that starts with the letters B3B is vzvod, or platoon).  Each platoon has rifle squads (co), a rifle / machine-gun squad (cno), and machine gun squad (no).

Compare that to this company defensive strongpoint without a continuous front–this comes from the section on maneuver warfare: The strongpoint takes the form of a salient rather than a belt, and is strikingly similar to an 18th-century bastioned fort, and for similar reasons.  While you have the same “two up, one back” arrangement of platoons, the barbed wire is quite different.  It forms straight lines and nice angles, all the better for defense by automatic fire. Note how the machine-gun platoons (nB), the platoon from a machine-gun company (Bnr), and the medium machine-gun squads (ocn) are placed to sweep the lines of barbed wire.  To the right, the same is true of the rifle squads (co).  The defense includes bunkers (y) for protection against artillery bombardment.  Note that there’s no provision for anti-tank defense.  This is 1926, after all, when the Red Army was preparing to fight Poland and Romania and tanks were thin on the ground.  Indeed, the section on defenses against armor in the entire book of 367 pages is only eight sentences long.

The more things change . . .

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I’ve been reading some history of history in preparation for my next round of handling my department’s introductory graduate course in historiography.  I very much enjoyed John Burrow’s A History of Histories
by the way, and recommend it for anyone looking for a look at the development of the discipline that’s actually pleasant to read.

But in looking at another navel-gazing history of history, I ran across a nugget relevant to the ongoing question of the neglect of political, military, and diplomatic history, including a recent New York Times article that produced a lot of reactions across the blogosphere, including here.

Harry Barnes, discussing Herodotus in his History of Historical Writing, writes that “his prestige and importance have been enhanced in our generation as a result of the growing popularity of the history of culture and the gradual eclipse of the long-popular episodical military and political type of history which prevailed from Thucydides until . . . our era.” (p. 29)

So when did Barnes write this account of the decline of military and political history?


Maybe the good old days weren’t so good after all.

Soviet urban warfare and the development of doctrine

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

For obvious reasons, urban warfare has been quite the rage lately.  For a conference a few years ago looking at what was then called MOUT–”military operations on urban terrain,” I put together a piece on the evolution of Soviet thinking about urban combat leading up to the battle of Stalingrad.  The conference volume fell through, so I just published the piece in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies in the second issue of 2009 (volume 22).

One of the things that struck me in doing the piece was how improvised Soviet urban doctrine was in 1942.  I’d like to blame it on the purges, the usual suspect when bad thinking pops up, but the roots go much deeper than that.

Pre-war Soviet doctrine simply hadn’t thought much about urban warfare.  Oriented to the offensive, the Red Army presumed that the cities it encountered would be foreign, and that the poor and working class of those cities would naturally assist it with reconnaissance and such. Needless to say, this proved unhelpful under the actual circumstances of the war.

The first months of the war didn’t provide many practical lessons for fighting in cities.  As I put it in the article, the Soviets conducted lots of “defense of cities, not defense in cities.”  Forced into defending Stalingrad inside the city itself, the Soviets found that this worked remarkably well.

There was certainly a learning process.  The one thing the Soviets did get from pre-war doctrine was an emphasis on individual strongpoints–ochagovaia defense.   This turned out to be too easy for the Germans to reduce systematically.  Improved material circumstances–tanks, artillery, mines, demolition charges–went along with a doctrinal shift to a connected defense network–sploshnaia defense.  The improvement this represented, along with tactical innovations like hugging close to German lines to reduce air attack, and engaging in constant small-scale spoiling counterattacks to disrupt German operations (one good inheritance from pre-war doctrine), produced success.

The other thing worth noting, I think, is just how much Soviet success at Stalingrad depended on individual soldiers.  Storm groups (shturmovye gruppy) were a platoon or so, and the storming sub-groups (shturmuiushchie podgruppy) that forced entry into defended buildings were 6-8 men.  The standard line on the Soviet military has always been that it suffered from a lack of individual initiative.  Clearly, something very different was going on in the streets of Stalingrad.

The golden brain is watching you!

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Golden BrainWhat’s the golden brain?  The name I heard applied in Moscow to the Russian Academy of Sciences building.
The good folks at RFE/RL have gotten ahold of a document that suggests what the campaign against falsification really means (thanks to Brian Whitmore at the Power Vertical).  They present a letter from Valerii Tishkov, head of the history section of the History-Philology Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in which Tishkov requests his subordinates to provide lists of falsifiers in their various fields of expertise, as well as to report on what they’ve been doing to combat falsification.

Evidently Tishkov is claiming the letter is only a draft.  Of course, the very need to compose such a draft is in itself instructive.  A couple things I would point out (scan of Russian original available here)

First, Tishkov gives his people three days to come up with their lists of falsifiers.  Clearly this is not a matter for careful weighing and sifting of archival evidence.

Second, and more significantly, Tishkov’s letter significantly broadens the scope of what Medvedev’s commission is formally charged with doing.  Medvedev’s commission’s title seeks out “attempts at falsifying history in harm to the interests of Russia.”  Tishkov’s version asks the Russian Academy of Sciences to find “falsifications AND historical-cultural concepts, damaging to the interests of Russia [emphasis added].”  What’s the difference?  Tishkov wants to know about historical ideas that are damaging to Russia, whether or not they’re false.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into a single word.  If I’ve mistaken Tishkov’s intent, I look forward to hearing his clarification.

Russia’s Great War: A Call for Papers

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Sometime back, we introduced readers of The Russian Front to a new scholarly initiative aimed at re-examining Russia’s central role in shaping modern history. “Russia’s Great War & Revolution, 1917-1922: The Centennial Re-Appraisal” is an international project comprised of forty leading historians from Russia, North America, Europe, and Japan. They are working to develop a more complete understanding of how Eurasia’s “continuum of crisis” marked by war, revolution, and civil war transformed history and laid the foundations of the twentieth century.

The project’s ultimate contribution will be a series of peer-reviewed volumes expected to be published (both in analog and digital formats) during 2014-2017 — in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Russia’s world-altering events. Additional outcomes, including an interactive website containing images, maps, digitized texts, and audio-visual resources designed for the general public and public school teachers, are also in the works.

Professional historians and advanced graduate students whose research focuses on any aspect of the Russian past from 1914 to the early 1920s are urged to contact series editors.

Followed the highlighted link to make you way to the official Call for Papers.

And tell ‘em The Russian Front sent you.