Greatly alarmed by the growing partisan threat, in 1943 the German High Command initiated extensive anti-partisan operations intended to suppress this type of warfare in some of the most vital front sectors. These operations were frequently large scale in nature, and both security forces and regular divisions participated in them, often sup- ported by substantial numbers of tanks and artillery. The main aim of these carefully executed anti-partisan offensives was to encircle the partisan formation tightly and to advance methodically through the woods and swamps to annihilate as many partisan fighters as possible. While the Germans were able to inflict substantial losses on partisan forces, in the long run these operations did not eliminate the movement.
In 1943 the Germans also altered their organisation for conducting anti-partisan warfare. Specifically, the German High Command granted more authority to rear-area commanders in each army group. Now they were responsible for securing, pacifying, administering, and exploiting the occupied territories. They also reorganised the structure of security service in the army group rear areas. Previously, in 1941 and 1942, responsibility for rear-area security in occupied Soviet territory was the shared responsibility of both civilian and military authorities. Specifically, resident German Reichskommissars and the SS Reichsfuehrer and their subordinates shared responsibility with military area commanders and the senior SS and police leaders, who commanded police units, security divisions, and Security Service (SD) formations. In this arrangement, the rear-area commanders of the three German army groups were charged with maintaining security and providing military administration. Therefore, whenever large-scale anti-partisan operations were planned, the local SS Reichsfuehrers and their Wehrmacht counterpart had to prepare in advance special agreements regarding the sub- ordination of army, SS, and police units under single unified command. Given natural jealousies between all parties, this was not always an easy task.
The 1943 changes simplified this procedure. From then on, all rear- area commanders were directly subordinate to the army group’s operations staff (until this time military commanders had been subordinate to the army group Quartermaster-General organisation from which they received their operational instructions). Even more important, the Operational Section of the German General Staff set up a special sub- section concerned with anti-partisan warfare. The SS Reichsfuehrers also established a Commissioner for Anti-Partisan Warfare.
German Security Divisions, which operated in the rear areas of each army group, were the largest military forces concerned with anti- partisan operations. These consisted of three security regiments, each augmented by attached motorised police battalions, artillery and signal units, SS brigades, as well as allied (primarily Hungarian) formations and indigenous police units. In addition, the army groups often used sizeable contingents of regular troops when they conducted their large- scale anti-partisan operations in 1943 and in the spring and summer of 1944. For example, from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944, the German command in Belorussia employed about 380,000 men in large- scale operations against the partisans. This amounted to three times the actual partisan strength in the region. In one anti-partisan operation conducted in Belorussia in the summer of 1943, an operation code-named ‘Cottbus’, the German command assembled 70,000 men to operate against partisans in the Minsk District.
Often German commanders and both military and paramilitary forces displayed utter ruthlessness in their attempts to stamp out or dampen partisan activity. For example, SS Obergruppenfuehrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who bore overall responsibility for anti-partisan operations in German-occupied territories, testified on anti-partisan operations at the post-war Nuremberg Trials. He argued that regular Wehrmacht forces were the main element participating in these operations and not the police, security forces, other nationalist formations. He also testified to the severity of German anti-partisan techniques, giving rise to this exchange between Bach-Zelewski and the US Prosecutor, Colonel Telford Taylor:
Did these measures result in the killing of an unnecessarily large number of civilians?
Was an order issued by the highest authorities that the German soldiers who had committed offences against the civilian population were not to be punished in a military court.?
Yes, there was such an order … The Dirlewanger Brigade consisted for the greater part of previously convicted criminals, among them murderers and burglars. These were introduced into the anti-partisan units partly as a result of Himmler’s directives which said that among the purposes of the Russian campaign was the reduction of the Slav population by thirty million.
A vast number of German documents underscore the harshness with which the Germans dealt with their ‘partisan problem’. At the Nuremberg Trials, a report on the results of Operation ‘Cottbus’ (mentioned above) was presented to the tribunal. The report, which had been prepared on 5 June 1943 by the German General Commission for Belorussia, provided the following grim assessment of casualties produced by the operation:
These [casualty] figures indicate again a heavy destruction of the population… If only 492 rifles are taken from 4,500 enemy dead, this shows that among them were numerous peasants from the country. The Dirlewanger Battalion especially has the reputation for destroying many human lives. Among the 5,000 people suspected of belonging to bands, there are numerous women and children…
However, despite their increased authority and responsibility for rear- area security, German army group commanders still lacked the sort of absolute authority over all security, reconnaissance, and combat units necessary to conduct successful anti-partisan operations. In the opinion of many of these commanders, they simply did not have enough of these type of forces available to do so.
Interestingly enough, in spite of these well-planned and massive anti- partisan operations, many partisan units often managed to escape from the German dragnet before the operation had even begun, simply because local informants in the partisan and Party intelligence network forewarned them about German troop concentrations in the region. A few sources provide assessments of the impact of German anti-partisan operations during the period. For example, Dmytryshyn correctly pointed out:
In the spring of 1943 the Germans used front divisions – some 100,000 strong – to clear the Bryansk forest, but the result achieved did not justify the cost. The same was true of two other mass operations – the summer 1943 offensive against Soviet partisans led by Sidor A. Kovpak, who crossed the Ukraine into the Carpathians, and the perpetual German offensive against the non- Soviet Ukrainian Insurgent Army organized by ‘Taras Bulba’, whose original base of operations was in Volyn. The Germans lost against the partisans because, imbued with fantasies and intoxicated with their earlier victories, they failed to understand the aspirations of other men.
Moreover, German operations against the Briansk partisans in June 1943 deprived them of valuable forces they could have used in the Kursk offensive.
In the summer of 1943 and thereafter, the frustrated Germans unleashed air power against the Soviet partisans. In addition to using aircraft to support its ground troops conducting anti-guerrilla operations, German aviation also bombed and strafed villages in partisan-controlled regions. Often, apparently in accordance with standing orders, aircraft crews dropped bombs on villages as a part of their routine training. From the end of the summer of 1943, Brigadier General Punzert, a commander in the German Sixth Air Fleet, received an official order to commit his auxiliary bombing units in support of ground-force anti-partisan operations. This order remained in effect until the summer of 1944 and was, in effect, rescinded during the catastrophic defeat of German Army Group Centre.
When summing up the impact of German anti-partisan operations conducted in 1943 in the occupied Soviet territory, it is clear that, in most cases, the Germans inflicted heavy losses on the partisans and those in the population who supported them, and they temporarily dispersed the most important partisan formations. However, usually the bulk of partisan fighters, including their commanders and commissars, managed to evade capture and simply moved to another region where they reassembled and prepared to conduct further operations. In other words, most of the anti-partisan operations failed to achieve their premier objectives, namely the complete destruction of the partisan formations. Furthermore, many of those that the German field commanders included among their casualties could be classified as innocent bystanders rather than active or suspected guerrilla fighters. What is clear is that German forces killed many local inhabitants as virtual proxies for suspected partisans.