Regular Cavalry RKKA (1939-41)

RKKA Cavalry 1939-1941

The Interwar period was a period of rapid technological progress. Naturally much of this innovation was intended for, or later found, a martial application, thereby necessitating a reconfiguration of all modern armies. The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, or RKKA, was no exception. Land vehicles and tanks became more reliable, and the destructive potential of aircraft became increasingly appreciated. Though these mobile units began to usurp the role traditionally reserved for cavalry, there is, nevertheless, a tendency to exaggerate the degree of this substitution and underappreciate the efforts of the RKKA Cavalry contingent throughout the Second World War.

It is true, however, that to remain effective, cavalry had to be integrated into an increasingly motorised and tank inundated army. The two Cavalry Armies, the exploits of which are described in our other segment (devoted to set no.164), were disbanded during the early 1920s. All remaining cavalry detachments were then incorporated into field armies, under the auspices of infantry-centric commanders. The only notable exception is that of the later Cavalry Army Group (1938-1940), an Army Group directly subordinate to the Kiev Military District. After the Civil War, cavalry was also considered to be either strategic or integrated in nature. The former included Cavalry divisions and corps, which were to be used by High Command in case of a breakthrough, whereas the latter performed support functions as part of rifle units. It is notable that many such cavalry detachments were ethnic or national in character, since many were recruited from the Caucasus. By 1936, after considerable debates surrounding their loyalty, and after continuous post-Revolution repressions, expressly Cossack cavalry was allowed to be recruited. On the eve of the Second World War strategic cavalry divisions were further split between heavy (around 9,000 men) and light (around 3,500 men) variants. Heavy divisions were to consist of recon plane, tank, anti-air and anti-tank detachments, as well as logistics, signal, medical and engineer companies, in addition to the cavalry crux itself.

The use of such cavalry formed an essential part of the Soviet Deep operation doctrine. A combined cavalry, mechanised and motorised force was to exploit multiple breakthroughs created by more unwieldy and powerful Army elements. These units were then expected to rapidly advance great distances, envelop combatants and harass the operational rear of the enemy. New manuals instructed personnel to fight almost exclusively in a ‘dragoon fashion’ by dismounting upon encountering resistance. Operation Barbarossa brought considerable disruption to such plans, however.

Although RKKA Cavalry participated in the 1939 Polish Campaign, its contingent, from 1938 to 1941, decreased from 7 corps (each numbering 2-3 divisions) and 32 separate divisions, to 4 corps and 13 divisions, respectively. Four of these divisions were also lighter and mountain oriented. The 1941 German invasion saw the encirclement of many heavy cavalry divisions which were often too large and difficult to control. Nevertheless, the almost complete destruction of Soviet motorised and mechanised army elements, with huge loss of material and vehicles, at the initial stages of the plan Barbarossa also meant that cavalry, intended as a quick and cheap replacement of mobile units, found itself in ever greater demand. By the end of 1941 the Red Army maintained 82 cavalry divisions of the lighter variant combined into Corps. It is notable, that horse was often more mobile than a motorised equivalent, particularly in roadless, forested, uneven, or fluminous terrain. These divisions were employed in the 1941-42 Counter Offensive around Moscow, along critical points, and often in conjunction with tanks. By February 1942 a peak amount of cavalry divisions was deployed at 87. However combat losses, a severe winter and a horse deficit meant, that around 41 divisions had to be disbanded between April and August of the same year. The remaining divisions formed Cavalry Mechanised Groups (CMGs), an offensive asset in which cavalry supported advancing tanks along a narrow front. These CMGs, though later replaced in this role by the even more motorised Tank Armies, continued to perform offensives along difficult terrain and against shattered enemies, both in Europe and Manchuria. Cavalry was crucial in ensuring the encircling of Axis troops around Stalingrad, in the success of the Bagration Offensive (resulting in the complete destruction of Army Group Centre in Belorussia) and in subsequent Central European Offensives, most notably those around Prague, Vienna, Brandenburg and Berlin. By the end of the war seven of eight Red Cavalry corps had been designated as ‘Guard’ corps.

Although the mid-50s saw the complete disbanding of such units, the overall importance and exceptional survivability of the RKKA Cavalry contingent in the context of total and modern warfare is remarkable and cannot be overstated.