“In the early days of the war, the Nazi troops, conducting offensive operations, often did not have a pre-organized fire system, there were no powerful defence lines and interconnected strongholds. The enemy concentrated the main forces and acted in certain directions … On the other sectors of the front, the enemy had weak areas through which one could break through and, acting boldly, penetrate the rear of the enemy and inflict sensitive blows on columns, garrisons, headquarters, communication centres, warehouses, etc., sowing panic and frustration, disorganizing the actions of his troops and rear organs.”
Pliev I. A: Paths of War. Ordzhonikidze, (1985), Page 30
During the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) – which eventually saw Red Army infantry moved around the country carried on specially armoured trains – the formation of the ‘Red Army Cavalry’ in 1918 was a very important event! Air-power was in its infancy and played no real part and what early tanks did exist often proved mechanically unreliable once the psychological shock of their presence wore-off! Despite the increased fire-power of modern fire-arms (including machine-guns, mortars and artillery pieces), cavalry soldiers (often armed with sword, lance and fire-arm), could still be decisive and important on the emerging modern battlefield – providing the cavalry soldier was taught how to fight and manoeuvre not only on horse-back but also on foot! This tactic worked well when the Soviet Red Army moved around Russia by train with the Cavalry Divisions galloping on besides the moving trains! This is how the fledgling Soviet System took on the UK (and thirteen of her allies), and Imperial Germany (and 6 of her allies) between 1918-1921 – although the Russians would lose around 10.5 million men, women and children in the process!
Hitler’s dramatic military successes in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 (and elsewhere throughout Western Europe), led to a greater emphasis being placed upon the formation of armoured divisions rather than soldiers on horseback. This was understandable as the Soviet Authorities attempted to hastily update their military tactics. However, despite this development, there were still 78,000 Red Army soldiers serving in the Soviet Red Cavalry by the time that Hitler attacked Russia during mid-1941! Indeed, throughout the Western border areas of the USSR, 7 cavalry divisions were deployed. The 6th and 36th clashed directly with the main advancing Nazi German Units and fought to the last man (and horse) – with their Red Flags being discovered decades later during historical and archaeological digs throughout the areas of known operations! Although cavalry was supposed only to go into battle covered directly supported by tanks, artillery and airforce, due to the conditions that prevailed during the Nazi German invasion of the USSR, this type of protection was out of the question. This meant that cavalry units started organising ‘harassing’ attacks upon the enemy of a ‘hit and run’ nature.
By the end of 1941, the Soviet High Command had recruited and equipped a full 82 divisions! The Russian winter was severe, and when mechanical parts failed and fuel froze – men and horses could carry-on fighting! These is where the Red Cavalry justified its existence and contributed the most to Soviet military tactics! On a number of occasions, the Soviet Red Cavalry would even clash with the advancing ‘SS’ Cavalry – quite often obliterating the this ‘Prussian’ menace involved in the co-ordinating of torture and atrocities!
Although Officers and men could be armed with swords and lances – Cavalrymen were armed – as a rule – with Mosin and PPSh carbines. With a shortage of carbines, dragoon versions of the Mosin rifles were issued instead. Machine-gun Squadrons of the Red Cavalry carried Maxim machine-guns mounted upon on wagons (tachanka). The mortar and artillery regiment used 122 mm howitzers, 120 mm mortars, and 76 mm guns. The anti-aircraft division had 37 mm cannons and 12.7 mm DShK machine guns – whilst the reconnaissance squadron had a company of BA-64 armoured vehicles. This type of cavalry formed self-contained formations of light-infantry that could cause significant damage to an unsuspecting enemy – relying upon the speed and versatility of the horse for maximum use of ‘surprise’!
As a rule, during the day the cavalry hid away from settlements and roads. At night, the divisions moved to other areas. Specially assigned squadrons and regiments carried out raids on enemy garrisons, destroying them during short-night skirmishes, and ambushes. Grenades, Molotov cocktails and all kinds of quiet ‘edged’ weapons were widely used! Cavalrymen in battles were distinguished by displaying special dashing and audacity! I. A. Pliev recalled the attack on the settlement at Gorbovo. Hitlerite units were entrenched on the outskirts of the village, and in order to drive them out of there, Pliev sent Red Army Cossacks who knew the art of ‘dzhigitovka’! Fifteen horsemen, brandishing swords, attacked the German positions and, having appeared to fallen under machine-gun and rifle fire, collapsed to one side of the horse whilst still holding onto the stirrups! The horses carried these men on to the enemy lines unopposed. Then – the unexpected happened – the “killed” cavalrymen suddenly came to life! They jumped-off their horses and opened automatic-fire whilst throwing grenades. Taking advantage of the confusion, squadrons of the cavalry regiment hiding nearby entered the battle, and the enemy was destroyed!
As time progressed, and material conditions improved, the Red Army Cavalry Units improved in number, training, quality and effectiveness. However, this also meant an increase of the merging of men and horses with tanks – with tanks becoming ever more important and prominent. This led to the cavalry being eventually phased-out and eventually abolished in 1955! Tanks, co-ordinated with artillery, infantry and airforce evolved into a much more effective striking and defence force that did not involve the risk of relatively high casualties experienced by the cavalry regarding horses (which are very high maintenance) as well as in men. However, all through the four-years of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), the Soviet Red Army Cavalry provided an important and vital anti-fascist force that directly took-on the forces of Nazi Germany and its allies from around the world (which were supported by the Catholic Church)! Although out-gunned and always facing the danger of total destruction from the modern technology deployed against them, the Red Army Cavalry utilised unusual tactics, surprise and bravery to overcome these problems!
Within the post-1955 Soviet Union, the former-Red Army Cavalry Units were transformed into mechanised tank and armoured-car formations – often incorporating their own artillery and infantry! This included NKVD (Revolutionary Police) which survived from the cavalry days, together with the Political Commissars – all of which were in-charge of the political education of the men (and occasional woman) – to ensure that the ideological foundation of the units were strictly ‘Marxist-Leninist’. The ‘Marxist-Leninist’ ideology was the reason the Red Army Cavalry Units were so daring, effective and yet ‘humane’ to those it took prisoner! After 1955 (and 1991), Ceremonial Cavalry Units were retained comprising of a permanent number of horses used to train a steady number of ‘Mechanised’ soldiers to learn all the horsemanship-skills that were used for centuries in the Russian and Soviet Cavalry Units! This explains where these Cavalry Units come from on the May 9th Commemorations on the marches through Moscow and elsewhere!
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