Partisan Warfare in Russia

The legendary First World War and Russian Civil War partisan cavalry unit known as ‘Shkuro’s Wolves’, pictured in 1919 during a lull in anti-Bolshevik operations. Recruited from Kuban Cossacks, the Wolves were named after their wolf-skin standard and papakhas (hat).

Locally recruited Basmachi guerrillas pose with their Soviet commissar and advisor. During the 1920s elements of the native populations of the Soviet Union’s central Asian provinces waged an unsuccessful war against their Russian masters.

The German military had experience of partisan/guerrilla warfare from its days as the colonial power in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) when local uprisings were put down with ruthless brutality. These bandsmen are members of the German colonial forces. Indeed, a nephew of the German commander in this region when they suffered their greatest defeat rose to become head of Germany’s anti-bandit (partisan) warfare on the Eastern Front.

Partisan and guerrilla warfare can be loosely defined and differentiated in the following manner. Partisan troops are those members or affiliated members of the armed forces that are operating behind enemy lines, whereas guerrillas are generally civilians fighting against an occupying force. However, both terms are often used indiscriminately. In addition, the situation is not helped by the Axis use of the umbrella term partisans only to replace it with bandits to highlight the illegal and outlaw nature of the fighters.

In fact, partisans/guerrillas have a long and honourable lineage in Russian and Soviet military history stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars, when partisan units of Cossack and other mounted troops waged war on the Grand Army’s supply lines and rear before and during the retreat from Moscow. During the First World War partisan operations were undertaken by Cossacks and regular cavalry, groups of which infiltrated behind German and Austrian lines to carry out disruptive missions such as blowing up railway lines, intelligence gathering and kidnapping. Specialist units were established in the Cossack formations by order of the Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovitch, the Ataman of Cossack forces at the front during 1915, but reports on their achievements were such that the majority were disbanded. Nevertheless, some units, such as Shkuro’s Wolves, acquitted themselves well. Following the revolution of March 1917, Russia’s armed forces began to go into gradual decline and as that fateful year drew to a close the Bolshevik coup of November led to open civil war that spread across the empire now turned republic. Over the next four years partisan and guerrilla formations of all shapes, sizes and levels of effectiveness flashed across the vastness of Russia from the mountains of the Caucasus, across the steppes of Ukraine, the tundra and forests of Siberia to the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean. As the Soviet government emerged from the civil war victorious and extended its somewhat tenuous grip across the provinces, names such as that of Chapayev became known to the public of the USSR as one of the partisan leaders who had contributed to the destruction of ‘interventionists and counter revolutionaries’. Indeed, the lauding of partisan leaders and groups formed almost a staple of Soviet popular culture into the mid-1930s. Furthermore, the value of partisan warfare was seriously studied by the higher echelons of the Soviet military.

In parallel, Soviet military theory during the 1920s and into the 1930s included the use of partisan formations to disrupt invaders’ lines of supply, communications and reinforcement.

Plans were laid for the establishment of secret bases along anticipated invasion routes to supply partisan groups who would train in the use of ‘captured weapons and equipment’. Local forces would be supported by specialists, such as radio operators and demolition experts, who would be parachuted in. Some work and training was under taken by the Ukrainian Military District in the years leading up to 1936. However, Stalin, increasingly suspicious of the armed forces, was, like Hitler, a military theorist and a firm believer in the offensive as the ultimate strategy. Furthermore, any thoughts that a war would be fought on Soviet territory were anathema to him. Equally unappealing was the prospect of encouraging and arming elements of the populace in the very areas where famine, disease and starvation stalked the land in the wake of his disastrous agricultural policy of forced collectivisation. Training such victims in the ways of partisan and guerilla warfare was not to be encouraged. Consequently, as the infamous purges of the armed forces decimated the officer corps, thoughts of any war waged on Soviet land was replaced by offensive operations beyond the frontiers and the partisan bases already built were allowed to revert to their natural condition whilst the plans mouldered on shelves in the archives. Another major aspect of partisan warfare that Stalin wished actively to eliminate was the very set of characteristics that made for effective leadership in partisan groups: the ability to think and plan independently beyond the control of Moscow; the capacity to adapt to local circumstances as required; and the charisma to hold together such a group in times of danger and low morale. Lumped together, these characteristics were known disparagingly as Partisanshchina–a trait not to be encouraged in a totalitarian regime.

It was the shock of the Axis invasion that would regenerate the need for partisan warfare on a scale unimaginable only a few years before as the people, not only the armed forces, would be called upon to fight a ruthless invader.

Minsk race course witnessed the partisans’ grand parade on 17 July 1944. As one participant recalled, ‘They were met with enthusiasm, they marched proudly with medals on (their) chests! They were the winners!’ Dozens of units were represented and hundreds of fighters marched past the podium where Ponomarenko took the salute alongside other Party luminaries. The final order to the partisans was to, ‘start preparations for (their) disbandment.

Often overlooked, due to the scale of partisan operations behind AGC, the partisan formations to the rear of AGN were to take centre stage as 1944 dawned. During 1942 there had been little activity in the north but the Leningrad Partisan HQ had worked hard to increase the number and efficiency of the units it oversaw. Consolidation of small bands into larger ones and a ruthless review of the qualities of the leaders resulted, by the summer of 1943, in a considerably more effective force. As the area under the control of the LPHQ was smaller than that of, for example, Belarus communications, control and co-ordination were simpler. By the end of 1943 10 partisan brigades, numbering ‘35,000 active fighters and thousands of auxiliaries’ were in place. During October 1943 Fifth Partisan Brigade captured the town of Plijusa on the Luga–Pskov rail line to prevent the deportation of the civilian population. This action was replicated by other formations across the rear of AGN. Indeed, it was the groundswell of popular disaffection that was to lead to Hitler’s decision to withdraw to the Panther Line when the Red Army offensive was gaining momentum four months later.

The Soviets intended to drive AGN away from the Leningrad district into the Baltic States and began their attack on 14 January 1944. Partisan attacks did not begin until virtually all the security troops had been committed to the front line. It was on the evening of 16 January that the partisans began to interfere with the railways by destroying Tolmachevo station. The following night a more general series of attacks on security posts and the track itself were carried out. By 20 January the railway situation was described as ‘tense’ and in some areas as ‘completely paralysed’. Supply and troop transports ground to a halt as partisan attacks increased ‘tremendously’. The 8th Jaeger Division took four days to move and then only partially into position, three days later than anticipated due to the mining of both road and railway. As the Germans withdrew, NKVD personnel were parachuted into Estonia and Latvia to organise partisan groups. By mid-February the Eighth Leningrad Partisan Brigade was identified heading for Latvia. Active measures by the HSSPF Ostland had drafted thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Schuma troops to deal with this threat–they succeeded, intercepting the partisans in a series of running fights. The majority of the partisans from the Leningrad region had been enrolled in the Red Army but the surviving infiltrators behind AGN confined their activities to propaganda and intelligence work due to the general antipathy of the locals to the prospect of Soviet liberation.

Far to the south in Ukraine Medvedev and Kovpak’s units still continued their combat and propaganda missions. The Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Partisan Movement, Colonel General Strokach, was, by late 1943, closely connected with the regular army and expanding his role to look beyond the borders of the USSR. Rather than just sending partisan units behind Axis lines, where the fighting with nationalists was increasing and with much of Ukraine back under Soviet control, Strokach’s staff began to train pro-Soviet partisans for operations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Whatever motives were announced for these activities during the winter of 1943–1944, the long-term aim was to lay the foundations for future Communist regimes in those countries. Czechoslovakia, of which only Slovakia nominally existed, and Poland both had governments in exile in Britain, of which Stalin fundamentally disapproved. However, both had partisan movements and those of Poland were mainly anti-Soviet. The Polish Home Army (the AK) was a large, active and well-organised force that operated in both German and Soviet-claimed Poland. The AK wanted a return to Poland’s pre-1939 frontiers which effectively put it at odds with the USSR’s claims to western Ukraine and Belarus. The Ukrainian Partisan Staff was, therefore, to bend its efforts to create a pro-Soviet, Communist partisan force to match the AK in those areas. By January 1944 the Red Army had crossed into pre-war Polish territory into land Moscow coveted. The Polish government in exile had ordered the AK to support Soviet operations, but Polish partisans could not be mobilised into the Soviet-sponsored Polish Army. In western Ukraine and Galicia NKVD partisan units, such as those of Medvedev, and those organised by Strokach operated regardless of international boundaries. When a frontier was crossed the unit commander would open his sealed orders that generally read that he should ‘act according to the existing conditions’. Fighting promptly broke out with the AK when the Soviets began to bring the tiny GL (Guardija Ludowa) into play. The GL was a Polish Communist Party partisan group. Members of the GL were flown to a Ukrainian Partisan Staff’s training camp where they had prepared for operations in Poland. In April 1944 the Polish Staff for the Partisan Movement was set up in Rovno, overseen by Strokach, to control the GL units that were now operating against the Germans, the AK and the Ukrainian nationalists. At the same time the Czechoslovak Communist Party appealed to Moscow for help in waging a partisan war. Once again a training cadre was taken in by Strokach’s staff. During the spring and summer of 1944 bases were established, particularly in Slovakia, and covert recruitment of local partisans began. Their situation was helped by the Red Air Force that flew in supplies almost at will due to the Luftwaffe’s weakness over Eastern Europe.

Finally, on 28 August 1944 the Slovaks rose up against their pro-Nazi government, but the country was, during the course of the next week, overrun by a motley collection of German troops. A Soviet attempt to alleviate the situation, by elements of First Ukrainian Front battling its way through the Carpathian Mountains, failed. By the end of October the Slovakian Uprising was over, but, nevertheless, some stragglers fought on in the mountains. The Soviet effort in Slovakia was certainly greater than that made to support the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. When that tragic event ended in the defeat of the AK there were many stragglers who made their way east. With the AK apparently a broken force, Stalin directed the NKVD to round-up any units found in Soviet territory. Interestingly, such partisans were referred to in NKVD reports as, ‘illegal formations, rebels or bandits’. Indeed, round-ups of AK fighters had been going on for months prior to the Warsaw Uprising. One unit, answering the call to go to Warsaw in July to reinforce the forthcoming uprising, had arrived east of the city at the same time as the Red Army. Having liberated several villages in the wake of the retreating Germans, they suddenly radioed a message, un-coded, that was intercepted in Britain, ‘they [Red Army] are approaching us . . . they are disarming us’. The foundations were being laid for the Soviet liberation of Poland.

For the Soviet partisans the stage for its most impressive operation had been set several months before. During the winter of 1943–1944 the Soviet fronts facing AGC had been relatively quiet. Hitler, convinced that the next series of Soviet offensives would continue to push against AGS, had split that front into two, Army Group South Ukraine (AGSU) and Army Group North Ukraine (AGNU). The latter was expected to be the target and, therefore, was the strongest in terms of armour. The southern flank of AGC ran south-west from Bobruisk just below the Pripet Marshes to a point west of Lutsk and the AGNU and AGSU took over with fronts that sloped eastwards to the Black Sea west of Odessa.

From the spring of 1944 onwards Moscow had received a stream of intelligence reports that detailed AGC’s order of battle and defensive preparations. More and more partisan and NKVD intelligence-gathering operations were carried out. Before this the NKVD had tended to act alone due to a lack of trust in partisans other than their own units. The reason for this was simple: the NKVD was afraid of its agents falling into the hands of German-run ‘mock partisan’ bands who operated in the hope of flushing out the real thing and bandit sympathisers. However, the orders under which the partisans now operated did not come from the CHQPM, as that body had been wound up on 13 January 1944.

The responsibility for the partisans now rested with the Communist Party of the appropriate republic and its local regional hierarchy. The partisans were directed, by the Belorussian Communist Party’s Central Committee, to cease operations behind AGC to encourage the Germans to reinforce their belief that the offensive was aimed at AGNU. Then, on 20 June, they unleashed another Operation Rail War. This time the targets were the one heavy capacity, double-tracked line and the five lower capacity lines on which AGC depended. The few-surviving German records are slim but indicate almost two-thirds of the 4,000 demolition attempts succeeded, ‘the lines Minsk–Orsha and Mogilev–Vitebsk were especially hard hit and almost completely paralysed for several days’. The Soviets calculated that ‘the partisan bands blew up 40,000 rails and derailed 147 trains’. Roads were mined and convoys attacked.

Operation Bagration burst across the lines of AGC in a series of waves from 22 June 1944, three years to the day after Operation Barbarossa had provoked the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets termed it. However, as the Red Army advanced up to 50km per day, AGC began to collapse, the partisans came out into the open. Several units had been ordered to ambush and mount delaying attacks on retreating German forces and to try and secure river crossings. The latter efforts were generally unsuccessful but the former were not. As German units, escaping from cities such as Vitebsk, disintegrated under air and artillery fire, the partisans, eager for revenge, struck. With no facilities for and probably less inclination to take prisoners, the partisans, their numbers augmented by any civilians inclined to pick up a gun, wreaked a fearful toll. No figures are available but it is estimated that up to 20,000 German troops died trying to escape from the Vitebsk encirclement. Similar episodes occurred throughout Belarus during the last week of June and into July. Within a week the Red Army had reached and crossed the Berezina River and on 3 July entered Minsk, capital of Belarus. AGC had dissolved in less than a month.

Across Belarus thousands of partisans were drafted into the regular army, whilst others took the opportunity to go ‘Fritz hunting’ alongside special army units tasked with flushing out German stragglers, of which there were thousands wandering amidst the marshes and forests.

The partisan parade in Minsk effectively signalled the end of the ‘amateur’ partisan.

Now it was the time for the NKVD, the ‘professionals’, such as Vershigora’s 1st Ukrainian Partisan Division, to head west to continue with their old and new tasks. A partisan medal, in two classes, was struck and issued liberally. In the Baltic States and Ukraine nationalist partisans fought on against Soviet rule for over a decade. Simultaneously, the Soviet partisan movement rapidly became enshrined in many, somewhat embellished, official histories, films and other media forms.

Whilst there is no doubting the vileness of German rule in the occupied territories, there are grounds for doubting some of the tales of the partisans’ achievements, but such histories are always written by the victors. Nevertheless, for the ordinary men and women who lived and fought against the invader it was a time in their lives of which they have every right to be justly proud. There is no doubt that they made a definite contribution to the victory over the Third Reich by their very defiance.

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