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the most important stage of an offensive, consisting in the piercing of a prepared defense and destroying the main groupings of the enemy on a particular sector of the front. It is carried out by artillery fire, air attacks, and other weapons, as well as attacks by tank and motorized rifle troops, with subsequent development of activity in the depth and toward the flanks. A breakthrough may be tactical or operational, depending on the scale and aims of the offensive and the men and matériel involved.
The breakthrough was used for the first time in World War I against a continuous defensive front that consisted of positions equipped with a system of man-made constructions and obstacles and saturated with a great number of fire means. Superior forces of infantry and artillery and, in several operations of 1917–18, tanks were concentrated in order to break through such a defense. A breakthrough was carried out either on a narrow sector of the front as in the Verdun Operation of 1916, simultaneously on several sectors of the front as in the offensive of the troops of the Russian Southwestern Front in 1916, or on a continuous broad front as in the offensive of the Anglo-French troops on the Somme River in 1916.
The attack of the infantry was usually preceded by a long artillery preparation, which initially lasted many days and later, many hours. By this means the attacking troops could drive a wedge into the defense, pass through its tactical zone, and sometimes gain operational depth. However, the range of action of the artillery, tanks, and aviation of that time did not exceed the limits of the tactical zone. The attacking forces had no mobile troops to exploit their success and could not increase the momentum of the attack. The defenders could move reserves into the region of the breakthrough and create a new defensive front. The problem of developing a tactical breakthrough into an operational one was not solved in World War I.
In the Civil War of 1918–20 the Red Army gained some experience in the breakthrough of a well-prepared enemy defense, especially in the Perekop-Chongar Operation of 1920. In the 1930’s the Soviet armed forces, on the basis of the experience of World War I and the Civil War, worked out a theory for conducting offensive operations with the breakthrough of a prepared enemy defense along its entire depth. In the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939–40, the Soviet art of war was enriched with the experience of a breakthrough of a fortified region—the Mannerheim line.
The methods and techniques of the breakthrough in the Soviet armed forces were comprehensively developed in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45. Soviet troops concentrated powerful attacking forces on the axes of the main strikes and gained a decisive superiority over the enemy in men and matériel, which enabled them to carry out a breakthrough along the whole depth of the enemy defense. The breakthrough was developed by committing the mobile groups of the fronts (at first tank and mechanized corps; from the summer of 1943, tank armies). Soviet troops successfully broke through enemy defenses in one, two, or more sectors and then developed an offensive toward the flanks and encircled and destroyed big enemy groupings in the Byelorussian Operation of 1944, East Prussian Operation of 1945, Vistula-Oder Operation of 1945, and Berlin Operation of 1945.
In the postwar period, the techniques of the breakthrough are being developed with a consideration toward the possible use of nuclear weapons and the refinement of conventional weapons.
I. S. LIAPUNOV