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"Winter Fighting in Russia" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on winter fighting in Russia during WWII was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 12, November 19, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The following article has been drawn from Russian sources and gives some information on certain aspects of winter fighting in Russia, but it should be remembered that this article refers to only one sector and that some of the comments concerning tactics as well as equipment might not hold true for other sectors of the front.

In the Mozhaisk area, around which the fighting described below took place, snow was lying about 3 feet deep in the open, and slightly more in the forest. The weather was very cold, with temperatures sometimes reaching -40 degrees Centigrade (-40 degrees Fahrenheit).

The ice on the Dnieper river near Vyazma and on the Moskva river near Mozhaisk, was thick enough to hold light tanks and artillery. Even heavy tanks could cross by using wide wooden tracks laid on the ice.

Because of the deep snow, infantry were able to move off roads and trails only with difficulty, medium and heavy tanks were barely able to get across country, and cavalry and artillery were confined to the immediate proximity of roads and tracks. Operations were consequently tied to existing communications, and very narrow frontages were employed.

Roads had to be constantly cleared of snow, and even parts of the broad Moscow-Minsk highway could be kept cleared only enough to permit two-way traffic.

Under such conditions, the Russians use some special ski troops, but these were not attached to every unit, and certain divisions operating in the Mozhaisk sector did not have them. Part of each infantry regiment, as well as the division motorized company, however, were trained to operate on skis.

The German organization included one trained ski company in each battalion and one platoon in every other company. This system was apparently not put into practice, for German skiers were few and poorly trained.

Since many Russians are accustomed to skiing before they are called up, 14 days are allowed for training the normal infantry soldier to operate on skis. The specialist ski troops are given a course of 2 months.

It is reported that during their initial advance the Germans employed a great number of motorcycles. During the winter operations, these were no longer in evidence, although great use was made of bicycles.

The Russian Fifth Army in this sector was operating astride the Mozhaisk-Smolensk road, on a front of about 35 miles, and its normal disposition was with six divisions forward and four in reserve. The division astride the main road worked on a frontage of about 3 1/2 miles, and the normal battalion frontage was about 1,100 yards. Since the advance was normally made along the roads and tracks, actual contact was usually on a very narrow front.

In general, the Russians sought to pin down the enemy garrison by fire, while their main infantry force came forward to finish off the defenders.

They always attempted to gain complete surprise when using these tactics, one of their objects being to deny the Germans time to set fire to buildings. Since surprise was considered so essential, ski parties were rarely accompanied by armored vehicles.

The ski parties were always well-supplied with Tommy guns, and frequently with machine guns and light mortars.

The heavy and medium mortars and antitank guns, pulled on small sleds, were also used. At a later stage medium or heavy tanks were sometimes brought up, either to help forward the main infantry attack or to extricate ski parties which had got into difficulties.

Although the Russians carried out frequent operations by night, the Germans, possibly because they previously had heavy casualties among personnel especially trained for night operations, did not seem to display so much interest in this type of fighting. In the early stages of the war the German troops, including armored units, had made extensive use of night attacks.

At one time during the operations in this sector, the whole of a Russian division's artillery was deployed within 200 or 300 yards of a road, some guns actually firing from the road in column. Although this deployment provided an excellent air target, German air activity was almost negligible, and the Russians could thus afford to take risks.

Russian artillery communications, both wire and radio, were reported good. They used excellent 1/25,000 maps which had enemy positions overlaid by Army Headquarters.

It was found that even deep snow does not lead to more "duds" than under normal conditions. Snow does, however, greatly decrease the fragmentation of shell fire.

In good light the observation of shell fire is much easier in snow-covered country than under normal, summer conditions, but if the light is bad, observation becomes very difficult. For observation, the Russians used a shell with a red smoke-box, experience having shown red to be the most effective color under snow conditions.

In the area between Mozhaisk and Gzatck, the forward German defenses were about 6 miles in front of their main line of resistance. All towns and villages were held as strongpoints, and where villages were some distance apart, they were joined by small defense areas established on roads and paths. These defense areas, however, tended to be rather disconnected and patchy except for the area close to the main line of resistance.

The German strongpoints were generally based on small posts which were designed to take one antitank or machine gun, and which were sited on commanding ground, in groups of four or eight, each post being connected to the other by snow parapet tracks. When time permitted, each post was dug down to a depth of about 4 feet, with a snow and earth parapet, and the whole roofed by logs and boards.

The Russian field defenses, on the other hand, were started with a snow parapet about 8 feet thick. Water was poured on this until it froze, making it bulletproof. If available, logs were used to strengthen it.

For later development, digging was nearly always possible where there was sandy soil. Other types of ground were loosened by charges exploded at a depth of about 4 feet.

The Germans and Russians both used a great deal of heavy wire in forests, with entanglements stretched from tree to tree. Though the German belts of wire sometimes proved a considerable obstacle, it was often found that they were not adequately covered by fire.

In open country the Russians used concertina wire, anchoring it about half embedded in the snow. Frequently they put it completely under the snow in order to obtain surprise, but the latter method, of course, was not used against skiers,

Russian antitank obstacles normally consisted of ditches, wooden posts of at least 6 inches diameter sunk at about 45 degrees, or crow's-feet of very heavy angle-iron. They also used a heavy, coiled, barbed concertina-type wire, buried under the snow to tangle tank tracks. The only effect of snow on antitank obstacles was to make them more difficult to locate and, therefore, more likely to trap a tank.

The Russians found that antitank guns can usually obtain excellent targets if they are sited to fire over areas covered by deep snow, which cuts the speed and maneuvering ability of tanks considerably.

Russian antitank mines were laid at any depth in the snow without their efficiency being affected. As a matter of fact, the more time the Russians had to prepare a minefield, the deeper they put the mines. Both Russians and Germans used a system by which their antitank mines under the snow were linked together in groups for sympathetic explosion.

The Germans soon developed a wooden mine, both for antitank and antipersonnel use, and this mine succeeded, to a large extent, in defeating the efficient Russian mine detector. Neither the Russians nor Germans appear to have made any use of dummy antitank mines.

The Germans used white, red, and green Very lights for signals, but the Russians generally managed to discover their meanings and gain valuable information.

In withdrawal, the Germans sited their defenses in considerable depth and used leapfrog methods of retirement. Each German division normally had a rear guard of an infantry combat team. Divisions usually withdrew on a front of about 6 miles.

The Germans followed a definite policy of destroying all buildings in villages which they evacuated, principally in order to deprive the Russians of accommodations. Destruction proved comparatively easy, since the buildings are normally made of wood.

There was one German armored division in this sector, and the unarmored portion of this unit was detached and used to hold a section of the line. The tanks which were deployed along the front in small groups of four to six were often supported by antitank guns. These groups stuck almost exclusively to roads and trails. The German system, when fighting a rearguard action, seemed to be to present the boldest possible front to the enemy by retaining these small groups on roads leading into the position, keeping them parallel to the new main line of resistance. At the same time they always endeavored to clear at least one lateral track immediately in rear of their main line of resistance, in order to facilitate reinforcement of threatened sections of the line.

German artillery was not very much in evidence in the Mozhaisk sector, and there were few guns heavier than field artillery. The Germans relied mainly on mortars, infantry guns, and antitank guns.

In their main defensive positions the Germans sited their mortars in batteries of four or more, about 500 to 600 yards in the rear of their main line of resistance. Field artillery was sited in depth, although the forward batteries were usually not more than 1,600 or 1,700 yards back. Their normal reaction to any threat was intense fire from the 81-mm mortars, for which they seemed to have a more than adequate supply of ammunition. The Germans usually fired off everything available just before a withdrawal, and the Russians learned that when sudden and very heavy mortar fire came down, and no counterattack materialized, the Germans were almost certainly withdrawing. They were then able to take appropriate action.

In forest country the Germans made every effort to block tracks by felling trees and erecting abatis. Wire was used only on those positions which were to be defended for some time.

The Germans destroyed all bridges, both large and small, in their retirement. East of Vyazma they destroyed the railway very effectively, demolishing or removing all sections which the Russians had not already removed in their own retirement. It is of interest to note, however, that despite the destruction, the Russians got a locomotive through to Mozhaisk 7 days after the capture of the town.

The Germans used a large number of antitank and antipersonnel mines in their retirement, sowing them around demolished bridges or culverts in order to catch vehicles using detours. Some minefields were laid in great depth and entirely filled the clearing normally found at each side of main roads through the forest. They also used delayed-action mines and booby traps, although not to a very great extent. Booby traps were usually attached to bright objects like scissors, spoons, or badges.

Cooperation between small bodies of Russian infantry and their tanks appeared excellent. The infantry's sole method of communication with tanks was by light signals, and these were generally used to indicate a target or an objective to be attacked.

There were very few instances in this sector of German tanks attacking under cover of smoke. When smoke was used, it was apparently put down by a normal Nebelwerfer unit.

The reconnaissance unit of the 5th German Tank Division included a certain number of French Panhard armored cars. These vehicles have completely French armament, including coaxial antitank guns and machine gun, and are equipped with Michelin (heavy pneumatic) tires.

German guns on self-propelled mountings were encountered, but the Russians say that in this sector they were normally employed in a defensive role only.

In the earlier stages of the fighting the Germans were operating fairly actively with flights of three or four planes, but after winter came, their efforts were limited mainly to hit-and-run bombing raids by single machines, and during the Mozhaisk operations the Russians definitely had superiority in the air. Russian air units supporting the army work directly under the control of the army staff, for the Russians have no corps organization. There is an air force staff officer at each divisional headquarters. The Russians claim that any request for air support from the commander of an infantry regiment will be answered by bombs on the ground within 1 hour, provided that aircraft are available.

Russian air support during the Mozhaisk operations consisted chiefly of bombing retreating German columns, taking full advantage of the extent to which the Germans were tied to the roads. In attacks against these columns, Russian aircraft armed with cannon soon found it advantageous to carry antitank projectiles. The importance of adequate antiaircraft fire arrangements for such withdrawing columns needs no emphasis; and the Russians were greatly impressed by the intensity of the fire from German mobile antiaircraft weapons and especially by the volume and control of small-arms fire.

German air attacks against Russian land forces, especially on roads, very often consisted of dive-bombing with 100-kilogram (220-pound) and sometimes, 250-kilogram (550-pound) bombs. The accuracy of the German attacks, however, varied directly with the amount of antiaircraft fire encountered.

For camouflage, Russian specialist ski troops wore white coats with attached hoods, while ordinary infantry not equipped with them usually rolled in the snow before going into action. This makeshift arrangement, which produced a mottled effect, was found especially good against a forest background. Similarly, the best form of vehicle camouflage proved to be a pattern of small blobs of white paint, laid on very thickly.

Against winter air observation it proved practically impossible to conceal work actually in progress. Tracks in snow also presented great difficulties, as did smoke from fires. Against ground observation the judicious piling up of snow was found effective, but white material was needed to conceal loopholes.

The Russians lubricated all their weapons with oil of a specially thin arctic type, and recoil mechanisms were also filled with a special liquid. Water-cooled jackets of machine guns were filled with glycerin. All lubricants used were said to be proof down to at least -50 degrees Centigrade (-58 degrees Fahrenheit). Small arms which gummed up were first wiped entirely dry, lubricated with kerosene, and then fired, before receiving normal lubrication.

Since motor transport of all types gummed up very quickly at low temperatures, the Russians provided heaters for all their vehicles. A 1 1/2-ton truck, for example, would get 1 heater; a heavy tank, 12. In addition, mobile heaters, such as those used for ungumming airplane engines at airdromes, were sometimes used.

The lighter Russian weapons were frequently carried on small sleds consisting of a superstructure on a pair of skis, while heavier sleds, for larger weapons, were often pulled along the narrow forest trails by four ponies harnessed in tandem. Also, about 50 percent of the German transport were reported to be working with sleds.

The Germans' red tracer bullets proved very effective against the snow background; the Russians, except for their antiaircraft, had only white tracer.

The Russians gave troops operating in cold weather one hot meal around dawn and another after nightfall. During the day, however, troops existed on a field ration composed largely of bread. Food for the hot meal was cooked in field kitchens--small trailers on two wheels, several of which were towed behind one truck. The food was then sent forward on sleds, in small metal vacuum-flask containers.

As the Germans withdrew, they often burned the villages behind them, leaving the ground thawed around each house. The Russians at once dug this ground down to about 5 or 6 feet. It was then roofed over with logs, tarpaulin, or brushwood, and floored with brushwood, or with straw if available. A stove, with a pipe chimney, was installed in the dugout. These stoves were usually improvised from old oil drums.

Where there were no villages, the Russians would dig the snow in the forest down to ground level, and build up a thick snow wall around an area of 8 feet by 12 or 15 feet. Evergreen fir branches would be used to line the floor and walls, and the compartment would be roofed with more branches, as well as a tarpaulin, if available. Finally the inevitable stove and chimney were added.

For these winter operations, the Russian soldiers were provided with good thick underclothing, of which they frequently wore two sets. Over this was a thick shirt and pullover. Over the pullover went padded trousers and coat, and then an overcoat or the short sheepskin shuba. Headgear consisted of a fur cap, a winter cap, and, frequently, a scarf belonging to the individual soldier. The Russian soldiers wore two pairs of gloves: an inner pair with the first two fingers and thumbs free; and an outer pair of mittens, worn when the use of the trigger finger was not required. No blankets are carried in a Russian division.

On his feet the individual soldier wore the varlenki or felt boot. Socks were not worn under the varlenki, but a piece of cloth, 2 feet by 1 foot 6 inches, was wrapped about the feet and ankles. In deep snow, trousers were worn outside the varlenki and tied round the bottom to prevent snow getting inside the boot.

Russian opinion is that the varlenki is the most satisfactory footwear for snow, and that it has enough wear in it to last through a complete winter. Although it is a felt boot, the wear is less pronounced than might be expected, since the troops can always march on the soft snow by the road. The varlenki has the advantage of drying very quickly in front of a stove, although this is not usually necessary, for in Russia one normally meets a dry type of snow.

Certain specialist ski troops wear a special ski boot, but the ordinary infantry ski in their varlenki.

The Russians claim that they had very few cases of frostbite, and those that did occur were nearly always due to carelessness. The most dangerous areas were found to be the nose and cheek bones, and for troops in short coats, especially skiers, the private parts. Ski troops were issued warm suspensory bandages. Unit commanders issued vaseline or goose fat to their troops to smear on their faces, when low temperatures combined with sharp winds.

The wounded had to be brought in as quickly as possible if they were to escape frostbite. They were collected by regimental stretcher-bearers using low sleds built on two skis.

The Russians claim that the cold had no numbing effect mentally unless the men were tired; that on the contrary it had rather an opposite result, and that troops could go on for long periods of time provided that they were kept on the move, the limiting factor being lack of sleep.

The Russians noticed an obvious drop in the efficiency of German troops when the temperature fell below -20 degrees Centigrade (-4 degrees Fahrenheit). In extreme cold, Germans frequently allowed themselves to be rounded up in houses rather than go outside and face the cold.

The winter clothing of Germans taken prisoner was definitely inadequate. A few wore a second overcoat, but quite frequently they had only their normal clothes. As a result, many suffered from frostbite.

For keeping open the roads in rear of their advancing troops, the Red Army relied almost entirely on large working parties of peasants, who produced excellent results. Snow ploughs were available but apparently were not utilized to any great extent.

On the Mozhaisk front, partisan fighters were very active behind the German lines, and the various guerrilla bands were in close touch with the Red Army commanders. Parties of 40 or so would come through the German lines, receive definite tasks, such as destruction of specific railway bridges, and return through the enemy lines by night. These partisan fighters were armed with rifles and a few Tommy guns and wore civilian clothes. A number of girls were to be found in these bands, which were composed mainly of middle-aged men.


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