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.