The Abwehr and the RSHA against the NKVD, NKGB and ‘SMERSH’

‘SMERSH’ and counterintelligence personnel. Two of which are practicing choke holds.

The Russians, who had been waging total war since November 1941, immediately reacted to the increased activities of the Abwehr and the RSHA against the USSR. But this response was only to increase the number of agencies combatting German spies and saboteurs. On 14 April 1943, in addition to NKVD – the main Soviet security service – the People’s Commissariat of State Security (NKGB) was formed. The responsibilities of the new department included: intelligence against other countries, the fight against enemy intelligence, and the protection of the Communist authorities. Commissioner of State Security 1st Rank Vsevolod Merkulov was appointed its chief. He was a former officer of the Russian Imperial Army, who after the revolution joined the Bolsheviks. Merkulov worked for many years in the Soviet secret police and was a close associate of Lavrenti Beria – People’s Commissar (Minister) of Internal Affairs and Stalin’s chief executioner between 1938 and 1953.

However, Soviet paranoia did not end there. Stalin, who was terrified of German spies and doubted the quality of the work of his security services, continued to produce new, but equally ineffective, agencies. On 19 April 1943 the secret decree of the Soviet government on ‘The Basis of the Management of Special Departments of the NKVD’ established another special body of the Main Directorate of Counterintelligence to deal with agents and spies, ‘SMERSH’ (from smert schpionam – ‘death to spies’) of the people’s Commissariat of Defence of the USSR. Its chief was Commissioner of State Security 2nd Rank Viktor Abakumov. He began his career as a packer and worked for a long time in the Soviet trade system. However, soon his life changed dramatically and from knocking nails into wooden boxes, he moved on to knocking confessions out of all sorts of ‘spies’ and ‘traitors’. Joining the Communist Party, in 1932 Abakumov joined the OGPU (Main Political Administration) from where he went to work in the NKVD. But at first, his career in the secret police had gone badly. In 1934, Abakumov was discovered to have used the secret apartments of the NKVD to meet with his numerous mistresses. After that Abakumov was ‘exiled’ to work in the Main Directorate of Concentration Camps (GULAG). During the Great Terror of 1937–8 many vacancies were formed in the central office of the NKVD (most of Stalin’s executioners, responsible for the repression of millions of Soviet citizens, were also accused of treason and executed), after which Viktor Abakumov’s carreer abruptly took an upturn. The new chief of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, found in him a faithful companion and colleague. Beria also successfully combined the sadistic work of Stalin’s chief executioner with debauchery, using his post to flirt with numerous mistresses, preferring underage girls.

All these agencies (the NKVD, NKGB and SMERSH) did not have clearly defined areas of responsibility and, like the Abwehr and the RSHA, actively competed with each other. A consequence of strengthening the security services was even greater surveillance over the population. The Russian ‘leader’ Stalin, like all dictators, was very afraid of his own people, but he was also afraid of his own executioners. Therefore, he fully encouraged rivalry and enmity between them, thus ensuring his dominance and awareness of the tricks of the main executioners.

The Soviet security services sought to detain German agents ‘in hot pursuit’, that is, on the first day after landing. Every day of freedom increased chances of the saboteurs vanishing among the population, moving around the huge country. Rapid captures could be achieved only with the help of a properly-developed system of monitoring the terrain and airspace, and the rapid transmission of information. If the delivery of the next group remained unnoticed and its members could not be caught in the days that followed, some of the agents would manage to escape.

Next, we will give the most interesting examples of delivery of spies into the Soviet rear in 1943. Of course, the authors have information only about the German agents who were caught.

In January, in the Saratov region a group of soldiers who had undergone special training at the Breitenfurt intelligence school was neutralized. The members of the group, disguised as Soviet air force personnel, were to conduct reconnaissance of the aviation industry and energy facilities. Two radio sets, small arms, grenades, several sets of false documents and a large amount of money were captured with them. In the same region three months later, another specialized sabotage group was detained. Its participants had graduated from the Warsaw intelligence school and were assigned to collect information about the movement of military equipment by rail, paying special attention to the products of the Saratov aviation plant (where Yak-1 fighters were produced) and sabotage. From these two cases, the Russian security services concluded that German intelligence was showing great interest in aviation plant No. 292 in Saratov.

On 8 January a group of six Abwehr agents were delivered to the town of Novouzensk, 90km north-east of the Pallasovka railway station. They had a mission to monitor rail movements and to carry out sabotage. The next day one of the agents gave himself up to the local authorities and told them about his ‘colleagues’. The local istrebitelnij battalion conducted a mass round-up, during which all agents were arrested. Weapons, equipment and radio sets were seized.

It should also be noted that the German saboteurs had the indirect assistance of local thugs. In the midst of decisive battles on the Eastern Front, the social and criminal situation in the Volga region was difficult. The main focus of crime was the Stalingrad region. The ruined city and its environs were infested with criminals of all kinds, who armed themselves with weapons scavenged from the battlefields. In the first half of 1943 alone, in the Stalingrad region 18 gangs with a total of 916 members were eliminated, and more than 2,000 bandits and deserters were arrested, who had been responsible for terrorist acts, attacks on NKVD workers, soldiers and commanders of NKVD troops, and the looting of collective farms and state enterprises.

Another unexpected destabilizing factor was the German soldiers and their voluntary helpers (Ost Hilfswillige) trapped far behind Soviet lines without any help from the Abwehr or the SD. Although most of the soldiers of the German Sixth Army surrendered during the first days of February, some of them continued to hide out in Stalingrad and its suburbs in the following months. Despite regular raids, many of them managed to ‘live’ in the city for a long time, helped by the impassable rubble, piles of ruins and many surviving dugouts and shelters. In July 1943, six months after the surrender of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, a major operation carried out by the NKVD in the Stalingrad region resulted in the capture of a large number of German soldiers and officers and the usual criminals, from whom were confiscated almost 500 rifles, 25 machine guns, 14 assault rifles, 9 anti-tank guns and many other weapons. Some Wehrmacht soldiers and especially the Russian volunteers managed to avoid captivity by hiding in neighbouring regions. For example, in July, NKVD officers by chance arrested I.F. Shapkin, who previously served in the Wehrmacht (Sixth Army). He had lived for four months pretending to be deaf and dumb in the village of Ivanovka in the Saratov region.

In a letter of 17 June 1943 the Stalingrad regional office of the Communist Party announced to all the party organizations of the region that ‘the Enemy intensified its delivering to the Stalingrad region of parachutists, intelligence officers, radio operators, saboteurs and other agents for intelligence and subversive activities in our rear.’ In September, in the Ilovaysky district of the Stalingrad region, members of an enemy intelligence group voluntarily surrendered to the local authorities. The former saboteurs announced that another group that had been delivered together with them through the front line into the Balandinskaya district of the Saratov region also wanted to surrender.

Groups of agents were also delivered to neighbouring regions. The delivery of agents of different profiles to the neighbouring regions was actively carried out. In June, the istrebitelnij battalion of the Krasnoyarsk district in the Astrakhan region arrested five German agents who had been assigned to conduct reconnaissance of the movement of military units and equipment. During the arrest they seized machine guns, a radio set, maps and a large sum of Soviet money. In the same month in the Astrakhan region a group of five agents voluntarily handed over their weapons and reported another six-strong group near Lake Baskunchak. In October, in the vicinity of Astrakhan an intelligence group of five people was delivered, headed by a German military intelligence officer. They were to contact the bandits operating in the area. In addition, they were to collect intelligence on the deployment and movement of military units.

In June two agents landed near Penza oblast. In the morning, the drop of saboteurs from the plane was noticed by local residents and reported to the NKVD. Istrebitelnij battalions and militia officers were sent to the landing site. That morning a man in the uniform of a major of State Security entered the Kameshkirskijj District Office of the NKVD. He introduced himself to the duty officer as an employee of the ‘Regional Department’ and demanded a horse to search for parachutists. The attendant knew that the search was indeed underway. The arrival of such a senior figure of the ‘Regional Office’ in this backwater seemed suspicious to him. Came on foot all the way from Penza?! And only here, apparently tired after many kilometres of hiking, decided to continue the journey on horseback? This conversation also seemed suspicious to the duty officer. So he asked the major to wait, and then ran to fetch the militia.

In this episode, the police officer was taking a risk. If the stranger was indeed a major in State Security, it could have dangerous consequences. In the Soviet Union, ordinary citizens and rank-and-file militiamen were terrified of security personnel. The German intelligence services exploited this, putting agents in the frightening form of NKVD officers. On his arrest this ‘major’ was indignant and threatened trouble, but then admitted that he was a spy. On the third day after the delivery of the saboteurs, the local istrebitelnij battalion arrested a second agent, dressed in the uniform of a captain in the Red Army. As usual in such cases, the agent had a radio set with him, a large amount of Soviet money and false documents in the name of Rupasov.

Late on the night of 7 September, the VNOS post in the village of Bolschaya Dmitrovka in the Shiroko-Kurmyshsky district reported to the divisional area air defence headquarters in Saratov that a suspicious aircraft had been spotted. The headquarters of the istrebitelnij battalions immediately sent all his troops to search for the possible landing sites of parachutists in a 100km radius of the specified locality. Many hours of searching through forests and meadows soon yielded results, and several German agents were arrested. They were former soldiers of the Red Army, recruited after being captured. All of them were dressed in the uniform of Soviet pilots. When they were searched, several radio sets, large amounts of genuine money, and a wide range of fake stamps, seals, fake party and military documents, orders, medals and weapons were found.

Under interrogation, the spies confessed that they were to sabotage aircraft at airfields, and to identify the locations of reserve aviation regiments around Balanda, Rtischevo and Atkarsk. As it turned out, from March to September 1943 they had been trained at German intelligence schools near Warsaw and Königsberg. On 3 September they were taken to Zaporozhye, where on 7 September, the group took off in an He-111 in the direction of Saratov and at 23.00 were dropped near the village of Dmitrovka. According to the testimony of the agents, it was found that the same aircraft delivered two more agents near the village of Krasny Yar in the Stalingrad region, who were arrested on 9 September by the NKVD.

In November the Saratov NKVD district office received a report from the village of Talovsky in the Novouzenskiy district that a German agent had turned himself in at the collective farm office, saying that five other spies had been dropped from a plane in the area. Immediately the alarm was raised with the istrebitelnij battalion, which began to search the area, with the result that on the same day two German saboteurs were detained in the village of Kurilovka, and cargo parachutes were found in the fields. The next day two parachutists were arrested to the north-east of the town of Novouzensk, and another in the village of Novo-Repinskoy.

In the central regions of the Soviet Union, the struggle between Stalin’s security services and German spies was also in full swing. For example, on 14 May a German agent was arrested in the city of Yaroslavl. A former commander of a platoon in the Red Army, he had graduated from the Warsaw intelligence school. After his arrest he worked under the control of counterintelligence and regularly reported to the Germans about his alleged ‘work’. The next day another graduate of the Warsaw school was arrested in the neighbouring town of Rybinsk, and also worked for the NKVD. In October, in the Poshekhonsky district of Yaroslavl oblast two German agents, Kuthysov and Nikitin, were dropped, who were soon detained by the NKGB.

On 13 July, the German spy Alexander Kryzhanovsky was arrested in the Bogorodsky district, located south-west of Gorky. He was a typical double agent. Back in 1941, he was recruited by the Germans and sent to the city of Krasnodar (Kuban), where he surrendered to the NKVD. Russian counterintelligence turned Kryzhanovsky and sent him on a mission back to the Germans. But there he modestly kept silent about his ‘failure’, and reported on his mission. Throughout 1942, the agent remained in the German rear, then enrolled in the Warsaw intelligence school and graduated with honours. On 12 July Kryzhanovsky, with false documents in the name of Tkachenko, was delivered from Smolensk to the Gorky region. But the region at that time was not a ‘safe haven’. The Luftwaffe’s massive air attacks on Gorky had just ended, and the activities of the security services and istrebitelnij battalions had been greatly intensified. Kryzhanovsky was quickly caught shortly after landing, then convicted and shot.

On the night of 24/25 August 1943, a group of six agents was delivered to the area of Sergach, a large railway junction located 125km south-east of Gorky. One of them broke his leg during the landing. Four, S.M. Chechetkin, I.I. Anichin, V.T. Popov and B.M. Papushenko, surrendered to the NKVD. The fifth, by the name of Zabolotny, did not want to surrender to the authorities and managed to escape.

This delivery is interesting because after landing the members of the group were to split up and go to different regions of the huge country, which explains why they were landed near a major railway junction. The agents revealed that the group had several tasks. Yershov, Anichin and Zabolotny had to go to the Urals, and then to settle in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), to collect information about the local tank factories and other industries evacuated there from Moscow and Leningrad in 1941. The mission also included gathering information on the mood of the local population, the location of airfields and transport operations. Chechetkin and Popov were to go to Sarapul (a city in Udmurtia on the banks of the Kama river) to collect intelligence about local factories. Papushenko alone had to go to Gorky, where he had to collect information about tank production at the GAZ automobile plant and the Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard (which also produced T-34 tanks). The agent was instructed to find out whether specialists from England and the United States were working at these factories.

Another group of three agents was arrested in the Semenovsky district of the Gorky region on the night of 9/10 October. The two agents had a mission to settle in Gorky and collect information about the military factories, transportation by rail between Moscow and Gorky and fortifications in the region. The third agent was to go to Kirov and ‘work’ there.

Similarly, there was a ‘career’ resident of the Crimean city of Yevpatoria 21-year-old Vladimir Sidorenko. At the very beginning of the war, on 3 July 1941, he was captured and then sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. After about a year, in May 1942 he expressed a desire to serve the Germans and agreed to become a spy. After that Sidorenko was sent to Berlin, then to the Warsaw and Königsberg intelligence schools of the Abwehr, where he was extensively trained as a ‘scout-radio operator for industrial facilities’. October 1st 1943 was the turning-point for Sidorenko. Being a particularly capable agent, he received a whole range of responsible missions from his ‘handlers’. He had to collect information about what enterprises were in the Gorky region, paying special attention to aviation plant No. 21 (which produced LaGG-3 and La-5 fighters). He was also instructed to find out the extent of the damage caused to the Gorky plant by the Luftwaffe air raids, whether there was enough electric power for the population and the state of its morale. Other than that, the lone agent had a mission to find out whether there was an agreement for American aircraft to be manufactured in the Soviet Union.

To fulfil this complex mission, the agent was provided with a radio set, false documents and 45,000 roubles (equivalent to thirty-seven times the monthly salary of a professor or fifty times that of a worker in an armaments factory). On the night of 19/20 October Sidorenko was flown from Pleskau (Pskov) to the Gorokhovetsky district of the Ivanovo region. After landing, the agent hitchhiked to Gorky and found accommodation. But he didn’t manage to begin his mission because on 6 November he was arrested.

In this case, the reason for the failure was neither the unreliability of the agent (he was not going to give himself up to the NKVD), nor a bad cover story, nor that someone noticed the flight of a German aircraft. All this was carried out in perfect secrecy. The reason for Sidorenko’s capture turned out to be Soviet spies embedded in the Abwehr itself! They had passed on full information about the agent and his intended missions. Unlike most of his colleagues recruited by the Germans, Sidorenko lived up to the expectations of his ‘masters’. He refused to cooperate with Soviet intelligence. Soon the agent was transported to Moscow, where he was executed.

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