The following is excerpted from Panzer Battles (Panzerschlachten) by Wehrmacht Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin who fought on both the eastern and western fronts, where he commanded the 9th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he moved to South Africa where he founded a comercial airline.
In this section, taken from Chapter 19 of his book, Mellenthin gives his observations on typical Russian tactics, and what sort of training a western soldier or officer would need to beat them.
The Russian form of fighting—particularly in the attack— is characterized by the employment of masses of men and material, often thrown in unintelligently and without variations, but even so is frequently effective. Russians have always been renowned for their contempt for death; the Communist regime has exploited this quality and Russian mass attacks are now more effective than ever before. An attack delivered twice will be repeated a third and a fourth time irrespective of losses, and the third or fourth attack will come in with the same stolid coolness as the first or second. Such ruthless methods represent the most inhuman and at the same time the most expensive way of fighting.
Right up to the end of the war the Russians did not bother to loosen up their attacking waves and sent them forward almost shoulder to shoulder. The herd instinct and the inability of lower commanders to act for themselves always resulted in densely packed attacks. Thanks to superiority in numbers, many great and important successes were achieved by this method. However, experience shows that it is quite possible to smash these massed attacks if they are faced by adequate weapons handled by trained men under determined commanders.
The Russians attacked with divisions, very strong numerically and on very narrow sectors. In no time the terrain in front of the defenders was teeming with Russians; they appeared to spring from the soil, it seemed impossible to stem the oncoming tide, and huge gaps made by our fire were closed automatically. The waves came on and on until the supply of men was exhausted, then perhaps the waves rolled back. But in many cases they did not roll back, but swept forward with an impetus impossible to contain. The repulse of this sort of attack is not merely a question of material; it is more particularly a matter of nerves. Only veteran soldiers were able to overcome the fear which is bound to grip everyone; only the soldier who is conscious of his duty and ability, only he who has learned to act on his own, will be able to withstand the terrible strain of a Russian massed attack. Sometimes the Russians supplied vodka to their storm battalions, and the night before the attack we could hear them roaring like devils.
After 1941 the Russians added masses of tanks to masses of men. Such onslaughts were of course far more difficult to stop, and nervous strain was proportionally increased.
Although the Russians are perhaps not masters of improvisation, they certainly understand the art of having new formations ready at any time to take the place of those smashed or decimated in battle. They replaced their exhausted units with surprising speed and in doing so displayed a ruthlessness only too typical of the Russian mentality. There were cases when Russian military leaders conscripted the male inhabitants of a whole town or an entire district; they pulled them in regardless of age, nationality, or occupation. They sent these people into battle after a few days’ training or with no training at all; they were committed without uniforms, and sometimes without weapons. They learned what they could on the field of battle, where they picked up the weapons of their fallen comrades. Russian officers knew well that the military value of such people was very slight, but they helped to fill gaps, and so fulfilled their purpose.
I have already discussed the Russian genius for infiltration, a form of warfare in which they have no equals. I have also stressed their passion for bridgeheads, or indeed for any advanced position. I must emphasize that it is a fatal attitude to acquiesce in Russian bridgeheads “for the time being.” The bridgehead will continue to receive new troops, new tanks, new guns, until it finally boils over.
The Russians favor troop movements by night, and carry them out with very great skill; however, they do not favor night attacks on a large scale. They seem to realize that their junior commanders are insufficiently trained for such operations. Nevertheless they sometimes make night attacks for limited objectives, either to recover lost ground or to facilitate a daylight attack.
When fighting Russians it is necessary to get accustomed to a new sort of warfare. Fighting must be primitive and ruthless, rapid, and versatile. One must never allow oneself to be bluffed; one must be alert for surprises as anything may happen. It is not enough to fight according to well-proven tactical principles, for one can never be sure what Russian reactions will be. It is impossible to say what effect encirclement, surprise, deception, and so on will have on Russians. In many situations the Russians relied on instinct rather than tactical principles, and it must be admitted that their instinct frequently served them better than the teaching of many academies could have done. At first their measures might seem incomprehensible, but they often turned out to be fully justified.
There was one tactical error which the Russians never eradicated in spite of bitter lessons; I mean their almost religious belief in the importance of high ground. They made for any height and fought for it with the utmost stubbornness, quite regardless of its tactical importance. It frequently happens that the occupation of high ground is not tactically desirable, but the Russians never understood this and suffered accordingly.