Ukraine World War II

By MSW Add a Comment 12 Min Read


During World War II the Ukrainians experienced the worst of both Hitler and Stalin. As a result of the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, the USSR occupied much of western Ukraine, arguing that it was uniting Ukrainians with their compatriots in Soviet Ukraine. Initially, the Soviets Ukrainianized the administration as well as the cultural and educational sectors. Poles in these regions, meanwhile, were subjected to repressions and massive deportations to the Soviet east. Soon, the Soviets introduced other features of the Soviet system such as expropriations; attacks on the Uniate church, which was predominant in western Ukraine; and collectivization. The Soviet secret police (NKVD) arrested many Ukrainian activists. Meanwhile, the OUN split into warring factions: one, more dynamic and youth-based, led by Stepan Bandera, and the other by Andrii Melnyk. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 22 June 1941, the retreating Soviets executed more than ten thousand of their prisoners in western Ukraine, adding greatly to the already strong anti-Soviet feeling in the region.

After German forces captured Lviv in western Ukraine, Bandera’s OUN attempted to proclaim an independent Ukrainian state there on 30 June 1941. The Germans reacted sharply, arresting the OUN leadership, including Bandera. Moreover. they dashed Ukrainians’ hopes for independence by attaching Galicia to the Polish lands that comprised the General Government (the German-administered areas of Poland). Germanís ally, Romania, occupied Transdnistria, which included Odessa, all of Bessarabia, and parts of Bukovina. Transcarpathia came under Hungarian control.

Central and eastern Ukraine, called Reichkommissariat Ukraine, was ruled by Erich Koch, who instituted the most brutal Nazi regime in all of occupied Europe. In line with Nazi concepts of racial superiority and Lebensraum (living space), Ukrainians were assigned the role of a slave population and their land was earmarked for German colonization. Hopes of independence or self-government were smashed, expectations that collectivization would be abolished were dashed, and mass repressions and executions were frequent. Intent on turning Ukraine into a strictly agricultural colony, Nazi rulers starved major cities. Kiev lost 60 percent of its population and Kharkov’s population declined from 700,000 to 120,000. Especially hated was the policy of sending vast numbers of Ukrainians, about 2.2 million, to Germany as forced laborers. Jews in Ukraine were especially vulnerable. Within months of invasion, Nazi extermination squads, sometimes aided by Ukrainian collaborators, executed approximately 850,000. In Baby Yar in Kiev, 33,000 were killed in two days. Nazi rule was relatively less harsh in the General Government and in 1943 the Ukrainian SS Division “Galicia” was formed there to fight against the Soviets.

Resistance to both Nazi and Soviet rule commenced in 1942 when the UPA (Ukrainian Partisan Army), eventually controlled by Bandera’s OUN, began operations in Volhynia. Led by Roman Shukhevych, it numbered about forty thousand men who were aided by a widespread civilian network. The UPA also sought to expel Poles from Volhynia. In summer of 1943, this resulted in a bloody conflict during which about fifty thousand Polish and twenty thousand Ukrainian civilians lost their lives. Historians in communist Poland and the Soviet Union often accused UPA of fascist tendencies, collaboration with the Nazis, and atrocities, while Ukrainian historians in the diaspora and in independent Ukraine generally view UPA and Ukrainian nationalists in general as engaging in a national liberation struggle. Soviet partisans, supported by Moscow and local communists, were also concentrated in the heavily forested northern regions. In 1943, led by Sydir Kovpak, their units launched a major raid into German-held areas in Galicia.

The resistance organized by Ukrainian nationalists was the largest in the borderlands. At the peak of their strength in 1944, the nationalists fielded between 25,000 and 40,000 guerrillas. Since the insurgents suffered heavy losses in 1944-1945, the total number of people engaged in its activities between 1944 and 1950, including supply, training, intelligence collection, propaganda, and medical service, probably reached 400,000 men and women. The Ukrainian resistance was absolutely dominated by OUN-B. OUN-M believed that armed struggle against the Soviets would be fruitless and virtually abstained from it. In the late fall of 1944, OUN-M advanced the slogan: “Not in the forests but among the people!” implying that political action could be more effective than military action. However, OUN-M had little political influence after the defeat of Germany. In contrast, OUN-B was a deeply rooted underground network enjoying popular support. It exploited peasant hatred of collectivization and the Poles and inspired the resistance, harnessing it and directing it toward its own goals. The UPA was formally a supraparty armed force subordinated to the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council that was organized in July 1944 as a coalition of several nationalist groups. OUN-B, although only one member of the council, in practice controlled both the council and the UPA, imposing its ideology and maintaining a sophisticated civilian infrastructure for the guerrillas. The UPA was organized on a territorial basis. It had an administrative structure similar to OUN; its large operational regions were subdivided into smaller networks with code names. Its commanders planned to have four headquarters: UPA-West and UPA-North in western Ukraine and UPA-South (northern Bukovina and the southern part of central Ukraine) and UPA-East (the northern part of central Ukraine). Bandera was merely the nominal leader of the resistance. He had never been in the Soviet Union and played virtually no role in the armed struggle. After the Germans released Bandera and Stets’ko from a concentration camp in September 1944, no regular communication between them and the guerrillas existed, and the two became increasingly detached from Ukrainian realities. However, most UPA senior and medium-level commanders were OUN leaders. Dmytro Kliachkivs’kyi, UPA commander-in-chief until November of 1943, simultaneously headed the OUN Northwest region; Roman Shukhevych, who succeeded Kliachkivs’kyi as commander-in-chief, chaired the OUN-B central provod beginning in May 1943. The UPA kept its command infrastructure dispersed in the forests, effectively avoiding police raids. Despite their frantic efforts, the security forces were rarely able to capture senior UPA commanders.

In the summer of 1943 Soviet forces launched a massive offensive, involving 40 percent of their infantry and 80 percent of their tanks, aimed at retaking Ukraine. By fall 1943 they recaptured the Left Bank and Donbas; on 6 November they entered Kiev; and by autumn 1944 all Ukrainian ethnic territory was in Soviet hands. To gain Ukrainian sympathies, Stalin also launched a propaganda campaign. It included calling some sectors of the front “Ukrainian,” naming military honors after Ukrainian historical heros, and creating the impression that Ukraine was a sovereign republic.

When the Red Army approached the western borderlands in early 1944, UPA commanders overestimated their own strength. Some of them fantasized that they could capture Kiev before the Red Army did and block the latter at the Dnepr. Anticipating large engagements with the Soviet forces, Ukrainian guerrillas organized large formations. UPA battalions up to 600 men strong readily engaged Red Army or NKVD security units in conventional combat. The Soviets employed tanks and air force against the UPA in several battles. The police recorded that the guerrillas “fought quite actively, sometimes recklessly sacrificing themselves.” On 9 April 1944, the UPA attacked a dug-in NKVD company three times with the war cry, “Glory to Ukraine!” and each time was repulsed, losing, according to a Soviet account, 300 men. Borovets observed that “almost every such prolonged battle was lost” and explained why: “It was not professional officers who commanded [UPA] units but inexperienced party leaders ignorant in tasks and tactics of partisan warfare.” The UPA did score a few impressive successes when it mortally wounded General Nikolai Vatutin, commander of the First Ukrainian Front, in February 1944 and then ambushed and destroyed a regular Soviet rifle battalion in August. Usually, however, the NKVD divisions promptly cornered and annihilated large guerrilla units because western Ukraine had few extensive forests to give them cover. The UPA Zagrava group, the strongest in Volhynia, lost half its strength during 1944 and 47 of the 50 company commanders. By 1945, the UPA had suffered prohibitive casualties. Its commanders realized, belatedly, that their tactics were poor. In February 1945, they ordered their battalions to avoid conventional combat and split them into platoons or sections. Some guerrillas lived as ordinary farmers and gathered only for missions, whereas others were full-time fighters. The police needed better intelligence and greater effort to eradicate this network of small cells engaged mainly in terrorism against local collaborators – Communists and Komsomol members, administrators, militia, and other supporters of the authorities. By this time, however, the flower of UPA manpower had withered; it never recovered from its horrendous losses of the first year after Soviet reoccupation

Ukrainian losses in the war were staggering: the country lost 5.3 million people or about 15 percent of its population. More than seven hundred cities and towns and twenty-eight thousand villages were partially or totally destroyed, leaving about ten million inhabitants homeless. There were some gains, however. Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia were annexed to Soviet Ukraine, uniting all Ukrainians in a single state and, in order to strengthen Soviet influence in the United Nations, Stalin allowed Ukraine to become one of its charter members in 1948.

As result of World War II, the ethnic composition of Ukraine changed dramatically. Nazi persecution decimated the Jewish population; most Poles moved to Poland during the postwar population transfers; and, in connection with industrial reconstruction, great numbers of Russians arrived in the country. For the Soviet regime, the incorporation of western Ukraine was a major problem. There the UPA continued to offer bitter, if hopeless, resistance into the early 1950s. The Uniate (or Greek Catholic) church, a bastion of national consciousness, was disbanded and driven underground and hundreds of thousands of recalcitrant west Ukrainians were deported to the gulags.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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