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"Tactics of Street Fighting on the Russian Front" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on street fighting on the Eastern Front originally appeared in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 26, June 3, 1943.

[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.]


In the Battle of France street fighting played but a small part, since at no time were the Germans forced to assault an important town or city against prepared and determined resistance. Operations in North Africa have not involved street fighting on an appreciable scale. However, the story is different on the Eastern Front. The fact is that this type of fighting has been one of the significant features of operations on the Russian front since the winter of 1941-42, and it may well prove of major importance in possible future operations in Western Europe with its many cities and towns.

With a few exceptions, such as the defense of Sevastopol and Stalingrad, the importance of street fighting in centers of population on the Russian front appears to have been largely overlooked. The following British report on street fighting on this front is therefore of interest. This report is felt to be reliable and to present a good analysis of the tactical principles involved.

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a. Strategic Importance of Town Defense in Russia

Fighting for, and inside, towns and villages on the Eastern Front has developed to a point where it has become of primary strategic importance in certain phases of the campaign.

(1) Early Period: Failure to Defend Towns

During the summer and autumn campaigns of 1941, fighting inside towns and villages did not play an important role in operations. Although the Russians did put up strong resistance in and around certain key towns, like Minsk and Smolensk, on the whole the German strategy of deep and rapid encirclement forced the Russians to abandon valuable towns in an attempt to extricate their armies. Certain cities were defended with great determination, namely, Odessa, Leningrad, and Moscow--but in each case all the fighting took place at their approaches.

(2) Later Period: Towns Are Defended

(a) First Phase: German Defense of Towns

The first phase of the campaign in which street fighting became important was during the Russian offensive in the winter of 1941-42, when the Germans stemmed the Russian advance by their determined defense of key towns and villages along the whole front. The tactical setting for this period of fighting was largely determined by the peculiar climatic conditions, in that an exceptionally cold winter and double the normal depth of snow denied ħo the Russians all freedom of maneuver and imposed on their troops a tremendous degree of hardship. The Germans were able to keep relatively warm in centers of population and to concentrate on the defense of the main approaches, and resorted to stubborn and costly street fighting whenever the Russians did manage to break into a town or village.

(b) Second Phase: Russian Defense of Towns

The second phase of important street fighting was during the latter period of the Russian retreat in the summer and autumn of 1942 in southern Russia and Caucasia. Throughout July and in August, the Germans had advanced rapidly and had overwhelmed Russian resistance in some sectors by local air and tank supremacy. The Russians, at first, attempted to stop the Germans by getting off the main routes of German advance and striking at their lines of communication and supply, but this only interfered with enemy progress and did not stem his advance.

The Soviet High Command then issued strict orders that all withdrawals were to stop and every town and village must be defended street by street and house by house whether it was surrounded or not. This policy was put into effect with determination and ruthlessness, and achieved virtual stabilization of the whole front toward the end of August and throughout September, October, and November. This, in spite of the fact that in the steppe-type of country in southern Russia and north Caucasia the Germans had every facility to maneuver around centers of population. However, the determined defense in depth of all key points on main lines of communication made a sustained offensive by the enemy extremely difficult. The Russians were told to fight in towns even partially destroyed by aerial bombardment, and were taught to appreciate the tactical advantage of fighting in ruins.

(c) Third Phase: Stalingrad

The third phase in the development of the tactics of street fighting centers around the Russian defense of the city of Stalingrad; this operation was of the utmost significance to the whole course of the campaign on the Eastern Front and raised the tactics of street fighting to a level of importance never before envisaged. In this case, determined street fighting inside a large and unfortified city enabled the Russians to deny to the enemy one of the principal strategic goals of his summer campaign--the cutting of Russian communications along the Volga River.

b. First Phase--January - April 1942

(1) German System of Defense

Invariably the Germans prepare a town or village, likely to be attacked, for all-around defense. There is usually a belt of field fortifications outside the populated center, with ditches, minefields and other antitank obstacles protecting all approaches, every obstacle being covered by fire according to a well coordinated fire plan. Antitank weapons and obstacles are generally concentrated along the main avenues of probable tank approach, usually in the outskirts of the town or village.

The populated center itself is fortified according to a carefully designed plan, with emphasis laid on the importance of the element of surprise in all street fighting. Certain buildings are transformed into fortified strongholds, and several such buildings, capable of mutual fire support, form a defense area. Streets and houses which are outside these zones are covered by small-arms fire.

The ground floor of the fortified point is usually reserved for heavy weapons: artillery guns, antitank guns, and mortars. Sometimes tanks are placed in ambush inside barns or buildings, or partly dug in along the outskirts of the town where they might be least expected and, generally, covering the approaches to a fortified zone.

Heavy and light automatic weapons, snipers, and grenade-throwers are dispersed on the upper floors and on roof tops.

Artillery and mortars are also emplaced in parks, gardens, and courtyards and are more effective in repelling tanks than in close fighting.

If one or two buildings of a fortified zone are lost, the Germans attempt to counterattack vigorously before the enemy has time to consolidate his position.

(2) Russian Methods of Attack

(a) Preparation

Through costly experience the Russians learned that it is "the surprise nature of enemy fire in street fighting that has the deadliest effect," and that it is "often more difficult to find out where the enemy strongpoints are than it is to reduce them after they have been discovered"

Hence, the first prerequisite of a successful attack on a town or village according to Russian teaching is to determine the plan of enemy defense in detail, and to prepare a coordinated plan of attack, also in meticulous detail.

Therefore, the Russians insist on the value of detailed intelligence, which must aim not only at locating the fortified zones in the town, but also determining the defensive fire plan and locating the principal weapons. The importance of discovering means of approach to the fortified zones which will afford the best cover is equally stressed.

If all this cannot be established from intelligence sources, thorough reconnaissance and even reconnaissance in force to draw enemy fire is recommended. A detailed plan of the town or village is drawn, if one does not exist, and the probable enemy system of defense is sketched in. Then the plan of attack is worked out in detail.

(b) The Attack

(1) The Approach

The Russians stress the importance of surprise. If reconnaissance has been thorough or local guides are available, they prefer to attack by night. If possible, the attack is carried out by simultaneous thrusts from different directions. A feint is made generally to pin down the main antitank weapons. Although the objective may be surrounded prior to the attack, an avenue of retreat is left to the enemy, for experience has taught that cornered Germans fight desperately and that reducing fortified buildings is more expensive in casualties than is fighting in the open. Therefore, the attempt is made to force the enemy to retreat after a number of strongholds are taken and after the probable line of retreat is ambushed.

The Russians usually employed tanks in attacking villages, but used them sparingly, and often to pin down the main defensive weapons rather than to rush the defenses and take part in street fighting. Often the tanks are thrown in from an entirely different direction from the main infantry attack, but the importance of coordinating and timing these various blows is always stressed.

Close artillery and mortar support is insisted upon. A preliminary bombardment or creeping barrage to cover the approach is not usually necessary. The main thing is to plan and coordinate artillery and heavy mortar fire with the action of other arms and, in the initial stages, attempt to distract or deceive the enemy in order to effect the maximum surprise.

(2) Fighting to Reduce Strongholds

For fighting inside villages and towns the Russians rely principally on infantrymen armed with submachine guns, hand grenades, and bottles containing an incendiary mixture. Although the importance of training all infantry units in the art of street fighting is continually stressed, it is considered advisable to train and equip special detachments of assault troops for this task. It is not known how these groups are organized and whether each infantry battalion, regiment, or division has such detachments. It is known that each detachment is subdivided into a reconnaissance force and a main body. The reconnaissance detachment ascertains the best lines of approach and the cover which will enable the assaulting forces to approach their objective. The main body specializes in assault tactics and in hand-to-hand fighting.

The assault troops are taught to avoid advancing along streets or across squares. They must find their way to their objective by using back yards, fences, and lanes, and even by making their way from house to house, breaking through walls or moving from roof to roof if necessary.

The objective of an assault group should be to isolate and reduce a group of fortified buildings which compose a stronghold, and then go on to the next objective if necessary.

The importance of effective artillery support is stressed, but the difficulty of providing it is fully realized. The following procedure is recommended. Before the attack the infantry and artillery commander agree on a preliminary, definite, and simple plan of artillery support and establish a number of Very light signals, preferably, to indicate the progress of the attack.

On the other hand, it is the duty of artillery and mortar commanders to keep in the closest possible touch with the assaulting troops and to use their initiative in giving them close support wherever circumstances permit. A proportion of guns is actually moved forward to take on targets over open sights and to take part in street fighting.

(3) Consolidation to Repel Counterattacks

The Russians have learned from experience that the German is a skillful and dangerous opponent as long as he can keep his enemy at a distance by effective fire, but that he dislikes hand-to-hand fighting. Thus if the ground floor of a building is captured, there is usually no difficulty in clearing the rest of the house, but if a strongpoint is lost and the Germans have been forced to withdraw by hand-to-hand fighting, they usually stage an immediate and determined counterattack from a new direction.

Hence the importance is stressed of mopping up the ground taken, clearing it of booby traps and mines, and fortifying it against counterattacks as quickly as possible.

It is usual to assign the mission of fortifying and garrisoning a captured stronghold to a specially trained group forming part of the assault detachment.

c. Second Phase--August - November 1942

(1) German Method of Attack

The German methods of attack on towns and villages along their line of advance in southern Russian and Caucasia were radically different from the Russian methods under conditions of winter warfare.

Whenever the Germans expected to meet Russian resistance at a key point, they preferred to disorganize the defense by terrific aerial bombardment and rushing the defenses in their stride by a massed tank attack. Their local air supremacy and speed of advance, and the lack of natural obstacles, contributed to the surprise of such an onslaught.

(2) Russian System of Defense

The Russians gradually developed the following means of combating the German blitz tactics:

(a) To prevent the enemy from rushing the town defenses with tanks, a belt of defensive works was constructed in length outside the town. The depth and intricacy of these defenses depended on the garrison available for their defense.

(b) Inside the town, houses are reinforced and organized for defense in groups, as on the German pattern, with artillery emplaced on ground floors, in barns, squares, and parks.

(c) Particular attention is paid to antitank defenses. The Russians insist that tank obstacles to be effective must be planned with ingenuity and cunning. An ordinary tank barrier covered by fire is of little effect. The object should be to erect tank obstacles and traps so as to force the tanks to hesitate or turn and be taken by surprise. For instance, if along the probable avenue of tank approach obstacles are erected in the form of a labyrinth which would force the tanks to maneuver around and through the obstacles, this would allow the garrison to deal with the tanks effectively both by well-concealed antitank guns and rifles and by bundles of hand grenades and incendiary bottles.

(d) The principal lesson which the Russian Command had to teach their troops was that a town or village largely burnt down or even destroyed by preliminary air attacks, was even more suited to prolonged and stubborn defense than one with all its buildings intact.

The troops are taught to improvise fortified nests among ruins and charred remains of houses as quickly as possible, and to provide a number of alternative sites, all interconnected by a system of deep trenches. The debris offers greater opportunities for camouflage, surprise, and ambush than do standing buildings, is not as likely to be affected by subsequent bombardment, and is not vulnerable to incendiary attack.

(e) After the enemy has penetrated the area of the town or village, the importance of surprise counterattacks, when and where he least expects them, is stressed. In order to achieve this, it is important not to give away one's position or fire plan by movement or desultory firing; hence, practically all essential movement is restricted to the night. It is then that supplies and ammunition are brought up and the wounded evacuated.

(f) In preparing fortified positions the importance of eliminating all dead space is stressed. This can be best achieved by enfilading fire and by having mobile groups armed with submachine guns make use of available or improvised cover to attack enemy assault groups in flank and rear. The Russians make excellent use of snipers whose special task is to pick off officers and NCO's. The Germans have suffered heavy casualties among artillery forward observers, who keep in the vanguard of the assault to control the supporting artillery fire more effectively.

(g) It is never advisable to erect tank obstacles or barricades in front of firing points, because the enemy expects it and it is only likely to draw his fire.

d. Third Phase--Defense of Stalingrad

Street fighting tactics in the fighting at Stalingrad (August 26 - November 23) were on the whole no different from those outlined for phase two--both with regard to the methods of German attack or Russian defense--but the scope, intensity, and versatility of these tactics have not been paralleled in this war.

Before even reaching the city's outer defenses, which had been improvised apparently in haste and probably consisted of ordinary field defenses, the Germans pulverized Stalingrad by continuous aerial bombardment. Then followed repeated assaults supported by great numbers of tanks. This is how a German officer described these first assaults on Stalingrad:

"The attacking German troops move forward behind tanks and assault guns, sweep away barricades with gun fire, knock holes into house-walls, and crush down wire obstacles. Guns and mortars batter concealed positions, antitank guns cover the side streets against possible flanking operations by tanks, antiaircraft guns are ready to meet attacking aircraft. Low-flying aircraft and Stukas attack the rear sections of resistance in the inner town, and the supply points and routes inside the town. Machine guns engage snipers on the roofs. Covered thus, infantry and engineer assault detachments, keeping close to the walls, advance over the wreckage from street to street, break down blocked doors and cellar windows with explosive charges and grenades, smoke out the less accessible corners with flame-throwers, and comb houses from ground floor to roof. In all this, they have frequently to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting."

These assaults failed to make much progress, partly due to the great quantity of artillery concentrated by the Russians, and partly due to the way in which the large number of reinforced concrete and stone buildings were adapted by the Russians for defense, even when they were in a ruined condition.

The Germans were virtually forced to give up large-scale tank attacks as being too costly, and the fighting reverted to intense street fighting between relatively small infantry and engineer assault groups, liberally supplied with flamethrowers.

The main difference between the fighting in Stalingrad and that which took place at other inhabited localities along the Eastern Front was that considerable quantities of artillery of every caliber participated on both sides. Many of the Russian batteries were emplaced on the islands and the east bank of the Volga, while others remained among the ruins of the town. The whole site of the city became a complicated tangle of trenches, deep dugouts under blasted buildings, and strongholds in ruins or in the remains of large and strong reinforced concrete buildings, such as abounded in the vast factory area. Here, the theory that the ruins of a city constitute one of the most formidable types of fortification in modern war, was proved to the hilt.


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