Not long after the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, it encountered a brand-new and truly fearsome weapon which rained terror and death down on the unsuspecting invaders. Deadly, mobile, and frightening, this invaluable Soviet weapon was the Katyusha rocket launcher.
The Katyusha BM-13 rocket launcher was an efficient truck-mounted system, in which high-explosive rockets were fired from a set of rails on the back of a pickup truck. This system may seem familiar today, but at the time it was rather revolutionary, and it gave the Soviet Union some much-needed mobile firepower.
The idea of the Katyusha was simple… and effective. Attribution: ChrisO at the English language Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA 3.0
From the beginning of its development, this was a top-secret project, meaning that the weapon’s title, BM-13, was classified even after it had been fielded for the first time. In their first combat, the launchers were operated by a specially-designated unit of NKVD troops (the NKVD being the law enforcement agency which enforced Soviet rule during the time of Josef Stalin), and for some time afterwards the NKVD continued to oversee the units equipped with Katyushas.
Troops load a rocket onto the rails of a Katyusha. Reloading was slow, but this was made up for by the devastating effect of the weapon. Image a scan from Tadeusz Burakowski, Aleksandr Sala Wyrzutnia rakietowa Katiusza. TBiU 7 WMON, Warszawa 1971. Public domain.
Soviet command’s reluctance to broadcast the existence and details of the Katyusha seems to have been well-founded- because this weapon was a real menace. A battery of four launchers could impact an area of 400,000 metres², and then swiftly relocate before the enemy could counter-fire. The Katyusha’s psychological effect was perhaps even more alarming, however. As the rockets launched, they made a sinister howling noise which terrorized the Germans and gave this weapon a distinctive nickname among Wehrmacht soldiers: the Stalinorgel, or Stalin’s organ. You can hear the sound of a Katyusha battery for yourself here.
A battery of Katyushas at Stalingrad in 1942. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #303890/Zelma/CC-BY-SA 3.0
The name Katyusha is actually a nickname as well, albeit one given by Soviet soldiers instead of German ones. This affectionate moniker was taken from the folk song Katyusha, which was immensely popular and inspirational to soldiers and civilians alike during the Great Patriotic War.
From the time it was first used to great effect near Smolensk on July 14, 1941, the Katyusha was an integral part of the Soviet war effort. It was deployed from various platforms after its initial success (such as trains, trailers, armoured tractors, and naval vessels) and it gave rise to many similar systems postwar. However, the most iconic incarnation is undoubtedly the truck-mounted version; and this version served the Soviet Union over all four years of the war, from Smolensk to Stalingrad and on to Berlin.
A decidedly sombre image of German civilians passing a Katyusha launcher, just a week from the Eastern Front’s end. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77872/CC-BY-SA
A memorial in Tula, Russia. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to High Contrast. CC-BY-SA 2.0
I’ve long been fascinated by the Katyusha; because of its simplicity, effectiveness, and importance not only on the Eastern Front, but also to the development of more modern weapons systems. As well, I find the distinctive noise of the rockets both terrifying and compelling- it might be that noise alone that makes the Katyusha such an iconic and special piece of equipment. For me, there are a few weapons which really define the Eastern Front, like the T-34 tank and the Mosin rifle; well, one of those is also the Katyusha BM-13.