The essential element for war waging at the time of Barbarossa was the infantry soldier: a uniformed young man armed with a rifle. Roughly 87% of the German divisional groupings earmarked for the invasion on 22 June 1941 were infantry formations, including a small proportion of motorized-infantry, mountain, Jäger, and security divisions. Likewise, rifle divisions represented 63% of the Soviet divisional order of battle. Even in the German and Soviet armored and motorized divisions, infantry soldiers constituted the bulk of the combatants.
These foot warriors armed exclusively with small arms outnumbered by far any other soldier category in both armies.
The ideal infantry soldier must be highly lethal, invulnerable, invisible, autonomous, fast-moving, capable to advance through difficult terrain, and with the mobility to cover long distances quickly. He should be comfortable operating in any weather, day or night.
Technological and physical constraints in the late 1930s placed definite restrictions on the designers, which found it impossible to deliver such aggressive goals. Nonetheless, they made determined efforts to come up with the best answers for their time. The rifle or carbine remained the soldier’s deadly weapon, adequate to incapacitate an enemy infantryman at distances of 1000m (3000 ft) or less if he had a direct line-of-sight to the adversary. The actual maximum practical distance was typically 500m because of aiming difficulties at longer distances without a rifle scope. Since these weapons were bolt-action firearms, they shot one round at a time using a 5-clip magazine to reduce reload times. This firepower was not enough to overwhelm a small group of enemies advancing rapidly.
The fabric uniform he wore did not shield him against a bullet, but to reduce his vulnerability the designers equipped him with a helmet and a shovel. The first protected the head of the combatant from a bullet fired from some distance. The second helped to safeguard the warrior’s body by allowing him to dig trenches in the ground. He also carried a gas mask that protected him against chemical warfare.
Since invisibility was out of the question, the next best thing is low-visibility. The uniforms were dyed in inconspicuous colors (green-gray for the Germans and brown for the Soviets) that blended more or less, with the surrounding terrain. Later, the Germans would introduce camouflaged outfits to increase concealment.
The combat equipment included gear to carry additional ammunition, food, water, utensils, dressings, cleaning kits for the firearm and himself, and extra clothing for protection against cold and rain. This baggage granted him a limited autonomy of 1 to 2 days if fighting was light.
The designers set a limit of around 30 kg (65 lbs.) of total load on the foot soldier to allow these young men to march long distances and to move with relative ease while fighting. To move faster in the field of battle they could put aside part of the gear.
Since movement depended on his legs, proper footwear was paramount. Comfortable and rugged tall boots that prevented dirt to fall inside the shoes, afforded protection against the elements and provided a good grip on different terrains to avoid slippage .
All combat is small-unit combat. The outcome of a large battle is the aggregate of many small-unit skirmishes. The squad is the smallest combat unit with a fixed organization.
One common attribute that will be found in any fighting unit starting with the squad, is that the unit was built using several identical, less complex units augmented by specialized detachments to increase its firepower and to improve command, control, and logistics. A German 1941 squad had 10 soldiers:
a) A maneuver team composed of 6 soldiers armed with the bolt-action Mauser 98k carbine. The base unit is the individual soldier.
b) A light machine gun team of 3 members: machine gunner, helper, and spotter, armed with 2 pistols and a light machine gun (MG34). The firepower of this weapon was much greater than that of the whole maneuver group combined. It could deliver 900 rpm fired from 50-round magazines. This team provided additional firepower.
c) A leader (a sergeant, -non-commissioned officer-) armed with a submachine gun (MP38 or MP40) that could fire 500 rpm at short distances (the cartridge was smaller than that of the rifle or machine gun) from 32-round magazines. He gave his orders either verbally, with a whistle or with hand signals. The leader commanded the squad and was responsible to ensure it had enough ammo.
Depending on the mission the soldiers might carry with them hand grenades for close-quarters fighting (up to 30m), bayonets and explosive charges (for even closer quarters fighting), and smoke bombs to lay smoke curtains that rendered them invisible to the enemy (for attacking or retreating).
Because of its greater firepower, the machine gun team was the primary element. For defense, it could stop dead in its tracks a large group of soldiers. The rest of the squad protected its flanks. In the attack, the machine gun fired a heavy curtain of projectiles to stop the enemy from moving and to force it to look for cover, allowing the mobile team to maneuver around the enemy position outflanking it. When the attacked rivals found themselves assailed from the front and the back of their positions, they usually retreated.
The Soviet squad was numerically larger, 11 soldiers and had slightly heavier firepower thanks to a second submachine gun and a semi-automatic rifle (not always available). The PPSh SMG fired 900 rpm, or about the same as the Degtaryev DP light machine gun, although the latter had a range 8 times greater as a result of its larger sized ammunition.
The Moisin Nagant 1891/30 was a bolt action rifle capable to shoot one round at a time, but the SVT-38 semi-automatic rifle could fire one round after the other by simply pressing the trigger.
Squads of both armies only possessed small firearms to fight.
The platoon was the next larger-in-size combat unit and it was more complex. A Lieutenant (an officer) would typically lead a unit of this size. The German platoon consisted of 4 squads, a light mortar team for added firepower and a headquarters with 3 messengers, a stretcher bearer and an HQ leader supporting the platoon commander. This unit was 49 men strong with 5 sub-machine guns, 4 light machine guns, and 1 light 50mm mortar.
The German platoon occupied a front that ranged between 200m (in the attack) to 1000 m (fighting a delaying action) across, so lacking radio, the need for messengers to convey the orders to all the squads is apparent. For the same reason, the squads were clustered near each other.
The Soviet platoon also included 4 squads and a light mortar team, but the leader only had the help of an assistant and one messenger, making communication and control less responsive relative to the German platoon. It was 51 men strong, with 9 sub-machine guns, 4 light machine guns, and 1 light 50mm mortar.
The level above the platoon is the company. In the Wehrmacht, the infantry company had 3 platoons, an antitank rifle section that allowed to tackle light tanks, a much larger headquarters commanded by a captain that included a radio set for rapid communication and coordination with the battalion HQ at greater distances. Thus equipped, companies could fight more spread out if needed. Equally important, by continually receiving up-to-date information, the battalion commander could take advantage of opportunities faster. 7% of the manpower consisted of the company’s HQ.
Another 10% of the company’s men were in logistics support to provide the unit with more autonomy. The Germans allocated a combat train of three horse-drawn wagons to collect ammo from the battalion collect points, one wagon for food and fodder for the horses, and 1 baggage truck.
Each platoon and the HQ also contained one wagon to move ammo and equipment from the company collecting point to wherever they required it.
The German company was 187 men strong and controlled 16 sub-machine guns, 12 light machine guns, three 50mm mortars, and 3 AT rifles. It covered a front of 500m length when attacking and 1000m on the defense. When retreating it could cover a line 2000m long.
The Soviet Rifle company had 177 men with 27 sub-machine guns, 12 light machine guns, three 50mm mortars, and 2 heavy machine guns. Although its firepower was slightly greater, its means of command, control and logistics were inferior. Not only was the HQ smaller, but it lacked radio and there were only 2 horse-towed wagons for the full company. This meant that the companies had to fight close to the battalion HQ to maintain the communication and they responded slower to orders from it. It also meant that the company depended on the regiment’s help for resupply in case of heavy fighting.
The battalion is the level above the company. These were the largest formations equipped exclusively with small arms and light mortars. German battalions, led by majors, had 3 infantry companies supported by a 4th heavy machine gun company. The latter had 12 heavy machine guns (MG34 in tripod mount) and six 81mm mortars. Because of the extra weight of weapons and ammunition, 20 wagons and 1 truck complemented the equipment of this heavy company. The battalion commander allocated elements of this unit to reinforce the main sector of attack or defense.
Given its much larger size, the control of this unit was facilitated by incorporating a Signal section. This section deployed 2 telephone teams, 4 radio teams (generally one radio in HQs and one for each company), 2 blinker light teams and a messenger team. A train of 6 wagons and 7 trucks transported the supplies from the divisional collecting points and provided mobility to the signal section and the battalion headquarters. Overall 835 men fought on a German battalion.
The combat frontages were 1000m when attacking, 2000m when defending and 4000m when fighting a rear-guard action.
The Soviet battalion was 676 men strong with 3 rifle companies and a heavy machine company, the latter with 12 heavy machine guns (but without mortars). The organic signal platoon was half the size of the German signal section and held only 2 telephone teams and one radio. The HQ was also two-thirds the size of that of its opponent, making the unit less capable to react quickly to the rapidly changing conditions found in war.
Its vehicle component was only one-third the size of its enemy counterpart and therefore, weaker both in terms of mobility and in terms of being able to sustain the unit in heavy combat.
The next unit in organizational complexity above the battalion is the regiment, which was the first formation to deploy artillery guns. Colonels commanded regiments.
Three infantry battalions provided the fighting and maneuver element to the regiment while additional strong units improved its firepower, capabilities, logistics, and command and control.
The German infantry regiment incorporated an infantry gun company, named the 13th Infantry Howitzer Company (since the 3 infantry battalions had 12 companies in total). This company had 3 platoons of 75mm light infantry howitzers and 1 platoon of 150mm heavy infantry howitzers. These artillery guns lacked indirect-fire capability and supported the infantry by destroying targets in direct line-of-sight firing mode.
A 14th Anti-Tank Company also formed part of its structure. This anti-tank company had 4 platoons of the standard 37mm Pak36 anti-tank gun. This gun was light, easy to move and had ample capacity to destroy most of the Soviet tanks in use in 1941 since it could hit a target and penetrate 31mm of armor at 500 meters. However, it did not have the hitting power to perforate the frontal or side armor of the T-34 except at ranges of 100 m (300ft) or less. It was also a line-of-sight weapon.
An engineer platoon provided means to create or remove obstacles, place or remove minefields and had the equipment to destroy field fortifications. The signals platoon ensured wire (telephone) and wireless (radio) communication between the regiment commander, the division and its subordinate units.
A mounted infantry platoon gave the commander the capability to carry out tactical reconnaissance ahead of the regiment, while the company HQ helped the commander to evaluate the information received by the different channels, to create a picture of the situation, and then to disseminate the orders to the subordinate commands.
Finally, a light infantry column made available transport vehicles to keep the regiment supplied for intense engagements and afforded mobility to the units that required priority (i.e. howitzers, AT guns, signals, and the engineer platoon).
Overall 3.159 men fought in a German IR supported by 144 SMGs, 115 LMGs, 36 heavy MGs, 27 AT rifles, twelve 37mm AT guns, twenty-seven 50mm mortars, eighteen 81 mm mortars, six 75mm light infantry howitzers, two 150mm heavy infantry howitzers, 87 motorcycles, 73 trucks, 214 horse-drawn wagons, and 641 horses.
They were capable of attacking a front of 1000 to 1500 meters, defending a front of 2000 to 3000 meters or fighting a delaying action on a front of 4000 to 6000 m.
The Soviet infantry regiment was similarly sized, and its equipment provided about the same firepower than its German counterpart. It consisted of 3.182 men with 315 SMGs, 116 LMGs, 54 medium MGs, 6 quad AA MGs, 3 heavy MGs, twenty-seven 50mm mortars, eighteen 82mm mortars, four 120mm mortars, twelve 45mm AT guns, six 76mm infantry guns, 17 trucks, 281 horse drawn carts and wagons, and 727 horses.
It was also supported with direct fire howitzers, AT guns, logistics, engineers, signals, a mounted reconnaissance platoon, and other units. The main differences were the scarcity of motor transport: no motorcycles and one-fifth the amount of trucks as compared with the Wehrmacht’s IR.
Even in terms of command and control the unit looks similar, which means that it could command and control effectively its subordinate units and link successfully with the division.
Overall at the level of small units, the size, weaponry, and firepower of German and Soviet units are almost identical. Quantitative indicators suggest comparable capacity. After the war started, German units proved qualitatively superior. The German qualitative advantage was the result of superior training, better command and control, somewhat greater mobility, and enhanced logistics. These advantages were better to put to use in a mobile warfare situation where conditions changed quickly.