Soviet Paratroops Early Disaster

While generally people think of the Soviet Union as backward in the running up to WWII, in fact, in many ways the Soviet Union was already a growing technical superpower.  The Red Army was working with clubs across the country prior to the war to teach skills in parachute jumping, creating a cadre for future parachute brigades.
So when the war came along, or at least the Barbarossa phase of it came along, the Soviet Red Army appeared to be well prepared with a highly trained cadre of experienced jumpers.

Paratroopers were held back, even in the face of dire needs, in the hope that they would spearhead a counterattack.

After the battle of Moscow, the opportunity seemed to present itself.  Near Vyazma, German logistic trails seemed to be wonderfully exposed and the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps had effected a breakthrough which threatened a significant rail line which could expose Army Group Center.

In fact, Army Group Center was already in retreat, or at least reforming.  However, in order to try to affect an encirclement and help the 1st Guards Cavalry, STAVKA decided to commit the 4th Parachute Division, to be inserted behind enemy lines via an airdrop.

So here we have my new scenario:  Wretched.  Near the small town (really small) of Ozerechnya, near Smolensk, the 8th Parachute Brigade was inserted to help the advance of the 1st Cavalry.

The idea behind this scenario is to give a small, simple scenario which allows players to get a hang of air drops (E9.1.)  It is a technical, teaching scenario, not an action-oriented or tournament type scenario.

Ozerechnya turned out to be an unmitigated, well, mostly unmitigated, disaster.  In the end, 2000 paratroopers hit the ground (out of 10,000 planned), perhaps a one in three found their way into combat formation and a mere handful were on hand to be rescued by the advance of the 1st Guards Cavalry.

What went wrong?

The Weather:  The drop was made in clear but bitterly cold weather.  The idea was that it was so cold that the Germans would hole in up captured villages and cities, ignoring the important reconnaissance.  Such was largely the case, but Red Army paratroopers suffered from the cold as well and had a hard time prying warm buildings from the hands of the Wehrmacht before they were torched.

Planning:  There were insufficient aircraft to drop the entire 4th Parachute Division on a single night.  As a result, only the 8th Brigade was dropped on the first night.  The next day, many vital Soviet airdrop aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe, leaving the 8th Brigade out on a limb.

Further, the Soviets suffered mightily from the effectiveness of their own camouflage, which made many of their supply canisters difficult to find in the deep snow.  Red Army paratroopers, already suffering from extremely cold conditions, were frequently left without food and ammunition due to the loss of valuable supplies.

For reasons which are not quite clear, the 8th Brigade did not form up very well.  This isn't necessarily surprising.  The Allies found the same problems in Normandy.  But combat effectiveness was dashed by the chaos of the Soviet drop because of the lack of radio communication and rigidity of the Soviet command formation.

Support:  Finally, one of the things that the Germans understood about airborne operations early on that was totally missed by the Soviets was that airborne troops required air support throughout their operations.  This required two things that did not exist in the winter of 1942.  First, command of the airspace (or at least the ability to locally control the airspace.)  Second, communications between the dropped troops and their supporting units.

During the winter of 1942, the Red Army wasn't even close to controlling or even competing for the control of the air over the central part of the line in Russia.  It lacked the qualitative or quantitative capability of challenging the Luftwaffe.  This is clear because of the loss of the airborne transport to raids in the single day between the two nightly drops.  Once dropped, the 8th was no longer an encircler but became the encircled.

Communications should have been vital for airborne units as they would depend on air support for "artillery" and for anti-tank protection.  The 8th Brigade was taking on the 4th Panzer!  Sure, the 4th was a shadow of its former self and probably had a handful of tanks still running at this point, but still, the 8th had no other anti tank weapon other than the PTRD anti-tank rifle.  The PTRD is a fine weapon, and I am very fond of it, but it is a very small fellow in the wide world after all, to misquote Gandalf.

So it is hardly surprising that the paradrop in the Vyazma sector came to a bad end.  It was not well thought through and represents very well the willingness to toss away the lives of brave young Red Army soldiers for no practical purpose in order to show an offensive spirit.

Well, not exactly no practical purpose.  In the end, this reformed Soviet practice for airborne operations.  In 1942, the Red Army had no conception of how to use units below the Corps, much less Division and in this case it clearly showed.  A Brigade of paratroopers was beneath consideration and, once the die was cast, the Red Army condemned the unit to decimation.  However, as the war ran on, the Red Army learned to use particularly paratroops in smaller, independent organizations which were trained to link up with partisans and operate more independently to disrupt German rear areas.

Enjoy the scenario as a way to learn parachute drops!


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