The Praetorian Guard – Second Century I

The Praetorian Guard had played an enormously important part in the imperial politics of the first century AD. This also coincided with our richest body of written evidence for the Roman Empire. The second century is entirely different. A succession of strong and competent emperors contributed to a period of unprecedented stability for the Roman world. In this context, the praetorians had no opportunity or, it seems, wish to play any part in toppling or appointing emperors. The written canon of evidence also dramatically declines in quantity and quality, leaving us principally with only a series of much later biographies of the emperors, and the epitome of Cassius Dio. The picture that emerges is of a Praetorian Guard that took part in imperial campaigns, such as Trajan’s Dacian wars, and also continued to operate as a police force in Italy.

Domitian’s unpopularity amongst the wider public meant that his assassination caused little or no disquiet. Only the army seems to have been bothered. His use of praetorians to help fight the Dacian war meant that their first response to news of his death was to demand his deification. The only factor that prevented an immediate military uprising in Rome was the lack of any obvious leader. In the event, that position was filled by the prefect Casperius Aelianus in a brief return to the days when the praetorians shaped the course of Roman history, but he took his time before acting.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva’s accession as emperor was clearly a stopgap. In the summer of 96 Nerva was approaching his sixty-fifth birthday and he had no children. There was therefore no question of a new dynasty, though he did have relatives. The ageing new emperor reappointed Casperius Aelianus to the praetorian prefecture, probably to calm down the Guard and the rest of the army. It seems to have worked to begin with. Nerva issued coins in gold, silver and brass, showing two clasped hands grasping a legionary standard with the legend CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, ‘Harmony of the Armies’.

Nerva emptied the prisons of those accused of treason, condemned informers, returned property that had been appropriated by Domitian, and sought out sound advisers. Despite this, he was still the victim of plots, his age at accession being the main reason for unrest. The first was led by a senator called Calpurnius Crassus. An informer told Nerva what was happening, so Nerva outfaced the plotters by providing them with a chance to kill him, even handing them weapons. This was followed by another, led by Casperius Aelianus, who had whipped up the praetorians to demand the execution of his immediate predecessor, Titus Petronius Secundus, and Domitian’s freedman Parthenius. He next encouraged the praetorians to mutiny. Nerva’s considerable personal courage won out again, this time when he bared his neck and invited them to slit it. He survived, but at the expense of Petronius and Parthenius. Nerva knew he was vulnerable and came up with a solution. He selected a promising soldier, a Spaniard called Marcus Ulpius Traianus (known to us as Trajan), and adopted him as his heir. Trajan had a family connection through being the son of Marcia, sister-in-law of Titus.

The behaviour of the praetorians during this time was strangely muted, despite Aelianus’ efforts. They never successfully avenged Domitian, for all their demands that he be deified. Given the time and effort Domitian had expended on massaging the sensibilities of the army, and the role the praetorians had played in acclaiming him in 81, their relative inertia is a little surprising. On the other hand, the crucial factor was perhaps the one Suetonius had observed: there was no obvious champion they could plant on the throne, like Claudius in 41. Moreover, the actions of Aelianus had made him a marked man along with the praetorian mutineers. Pliny the Younger, writing in his Panegyric of Trajan, referred to the mutiny with unequivocal horror: Nerva’s authority had been ‘snatched’, thanks to the breakdown of military discipline. Nevertheless, this does not explain why Aelianus remained in post. Nerva probably feared risking a further confrontation with the Guard by disposing of him, unless Aelianus was involved in the arrangements to appoint Trajan as Nerva’s heir. Indeed, the appointment of Trajan may have formed part of Aelianus’ demands.

Nerva died on 25 January 98 after a reign of a few days over sixteen months. Trajan, who was still with the frontier armies in Germany, did not actually reach Rome until late 99, apparently preferring to consolidate his hold on the vital Rhine and Danube garrisons. Aelianus and the mutineers were summoned, on the pretext that Trajan had a job for them. This ruse not only removed them from Rome, but was also a trick. Aelianus’ only hope would have been to topple Nerva and replace him with his own choice of emperor. Since that had not happened, Trajan was confronted with a praetorian prefect of suspect loyalty, or at any rate someone associated with an emperor (Domitian) who was now being popularly demonized as part of the establishment of the new regime. Aelianus and the mutineers were ‘put out of the way’, an ambiguous term that might mean they were executed or simply cashiered and dispersed, regardless of whether or not Aelianus had helped facilitate Trajan’s adoption. Trajan replaced Aelianus with Sextus Attius Suburanus Aemilianus. He handed Suburanus his sword of office and told the new prefect to use it on his behalf if he ruled well, and use it to kill him if he ruled badly. Suburanus held the post until c. 101, when he was replaced with Tiberius Claudius Livianus who was sole prefect until possibly as late as c. 112.

Trajan’s first public appearance in Rome in 99 was attended by an enormous crowd. According to Pliny, ‘the soldiers present’, who must have been praetorians given that this was in Rome, were dressed as civilians and consequently indistinguishable from everyone else. This may of course have been relatively normal for praetorians but the point being made by Pliny is surely that the praetorians represented no military threat or presence because there was no need to under an emperor who was completely in control. This of course reflects Pliny’s obsequious relationship with an emperor and benefactor he revered, but there was probably some truth in it. Interestingly, Trajan decided to pay only half the accession donative to the soldiers, whereas the amount promised to civilians was paid in full. The reason appears to have been to make a public gesture that Trajan was not seeking to bribe the soldiers into supporting him, whereas the civilians ‘who could more easily have been refused’ were therefore the more deserving.

The question arises here of whether the equites singulares Augusti, the ‘imperial mounted bodyguard’, belong to this date and even whether Trajan brought them with him to Rome from the frontier. They served with the Praetorian Guard in the same way as mounted auxiliary units did with the legions, forming an elite mounted praetorian wing, and had a base on the Caelian Hill. This does not mean they necessarily got on with the ordinary praetorians. They certainly existed by 118 because an unprovenanced and fragmentary diploma refers to the unit with a consular date for this year, though no veteran soldiers’ names are preserved. It is possible that the unit existed even earlier, on the evidence that some attested soldiers’ names include Flavius, which would suggest a foundation under Domitian. What is not clear is whether the equites pushed the praetorians into a subordinate role or operated in a collaborative function, providing a fast mobile bodyguard for an emperor in the field and freeing up praetorians for fighting. The career of Ulpius Titus, although he lived in the late second or early third century, is of interest here. He was selected for the equites singulares Augusti after having served as a cavalryman in a Thracian auxiliary cavalry wing. Thracian cavalry had served in the Roman army’s auxiliary forces for centuries and provided some of the most experienced and important mounted troops in the whole Roman army.

The praetorians themselves seem also to have increased in number by this time, if not already under Domitian or even as early as Vespasian. A diploma from Vindonissa (Windisch) in Germania Superior dated to the year 100 under Trajan clearly refers to the existence of the X praetorian cohort, which presumably had been added at some point between 76 and 100, most likely by Domitian. This makes it possible there were now ten praetorian cohorts from this date. However, a tenth cohort does not help us by confirming the total number of praetorians, or the size of individual cohorts, now or at any other time. Nevertheless, some authorities have assumed that it does, for example arguing that the Guard was made up of ten milliary cohorts thereafter.

Indeed, the praetorians seem to have enjoyed Trajan’s favour. A fragmentary relief from Puteoli, stylistically attributable to the early second century and probably from an arch of Trajan, depicts two praetorians with shields embellished with scorpions associated with praetorians. This is a stylized representation of the Guard in a symbolic setting, and quite unlike the way praetorians are featured at war on several panels on Trajan’s Column in Rome. The reliefs represent the start of a period when artistic representations of praetorians become more frequent and an impression can be gained of how they might have appeared. Of course, the sculptures also tend to depict the praetorians on campaign. There must have been several reasons for this. Such images flattered the praetorians’ vanity, showing them as the emperor’s right-hand men in action. They also showed the praetorians as a military force, and in this capacity were a useful reminder that the emperor ruled with powerful military backing.

The Trajan’s Column reliefs depict his Dacian wars against Decebalus and show the praetorians taking an active part in the campaigns. This was a trend that continued and become the norm during the second century. In the ‘first battle’, praetorians, identifiable from their wreathed standards, stand in the background behind legionaries. Later, a squad of praetorians accompanies Trajan as he is about to embark on a galley; they are his only accompanying troops. Subsequently he reaches a military base with his praetorians in tow, where they are met by legionaries and auxiliaries. Although it is impossible to tell how many praetorians were involved (our principal source, Dio, provides only a brief account of Trajan’s campaigns), there are some attested examples of individuals. Lucius Aemilius Paternus had a distinguished career as a centurion, serving at one point in the IIII praetorian cohort when he was decorated for his service in Dacia. He went on to fight in Parthia for Trajan too. Gaius Arrius Clemens served as both an infantry and mounted praetorian in the VIIII cohort in the Dacian war. He was also decorated, receiving ‘necklaces, armbands and ornaments’. Clemens was later to rise to be an aide to the praetorian prefects, and subsequently a centurion in the VII cohort under Hadrian, when he was decorated again.

During Trajan’s reign these men served under the prefect Tiberius Claudius Livianus who is attested in Dacia being sent by Trajan to negotiate with Decebalus. These men’s careers, and the depictions on Trajan’s Column, show that the Guard was functioning now really as part of the general Roman army rather than as a distinct and privileged separate unit based in Rome. By the late first century and thereafter, the Praetorian Guard was the only Rome-based military unit to participate alongside conventional troops in the field; the urban cohorts and the vigiles routinely stayed in Rome where of course their services were essential for public order and safety.

Since the purpose of the Guard was to protect the emperor’s person, it was only logical that they would participate in wars in which he was personally involved, but the way they were used does illustrate how the Guard was evolving into a part of the regular army. Lucius Laelius Fuscus expired at the age of sixty-five after forty-two years’ military service. From being an eques in the Praetorian Guard he had progressed through various positions to serve as centurion of the I cohort of the vigiles, centurion of the military police (statores), centurion of the XIIII urban cohort, centurion of the X praetorian cohort and, finally, holding the prestigious position of centurion trecenarius of the VII legion Claudia. The style of the inscription on his marble urn is late first or early second century as far as the reign of Hadrian. The VII legion Claudia participated in Trajan’s Dacian and Parthian wars, raising the possibility that Fuscus had been transferred from the Guard during one of those occasions, though there is nothing to substantiate this.

From hereon there is little mention of the Guard in any other capacity until the reign of Commodus, under whom they seem to have degenerated into institutionalized indolence until they were cashiered by Septimius Severus in June 193. However, evidence from Marcus Aurelius’ reign half a century after Trajan shows the praetorian prefects operating as police in Italy, and it is quite possible that this role was already by then well established as the much earlier evidence from Pompeii before 79 suggests. The single most conspicuous problem with the Praetorian Guard after the reign of Trajan until the reign of Commodus is that it is rarely referred to in the extant sources. For this period we are mainly reliant on what remains of Cassius Dio, which for this era only exists in the form of a later epitome, and the biographies of the emperors known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, which were not composed until the fourth century. For the long period of the reigns of Hadrian (117–38) and Antoninus Pius (138–61), the Guard as an organization is virtually ignored. More is known about praetorian prefects, but otherwise the story can only be pieced together from fragments.

Trajan died in Cilicia in 117, suffering from a sickness that was followed by a stroke that left him partly paralysed. His successor Hadrian was the grandson of Trajan’s aunt, Ulpia. Although his side of the family was originally Italian, they had settled in Italica in Spain, where Trajan was from. After his father died when he was ten, Hadrian was placed under the guardianship of Trajan. Hadrian pursued a successful senatorial military and administrative career and early in Trajan’s reign married the emperor’s great-niece, Sabina, becoming a particular favourite of Trajan’s wife Plotina. Hadrian went on to fight in Trajan’s Dacian campaign and proceeded through a number of other posts, including the tribunician power in 105 and then governor of Syria, the post he held when Trajan died. It was an extremely unusual situation. Although Hadrian’s position as heir looks obvious, at the time it was anything but. Other candidates were believed to be favoured by Trajan, such as the famous lawyer Lucius Neratius Priscus. In the end a rumour circulated that Plotina fabricated the claim that Hadrian had been adopted by Trajan on his deathbed. The letter that confirmed this was sent to Hadrian, arriving on 9 August 117, and he was promptly acclaimed emperor by the army in the province, just as Vespasian had been in 69. This equivocal situation made it all the more necessary that Hadrian assert his position extremely quickly. He requested from the senate the deification of Trajan and tactfully apologized on behalf of the troops for acting presumptuously in acclaiming him as emperor.

Publius Acilius Attianus had been praetorian prefect for about five years by 117 and was with Trajan when he died. As far back as 86 Attianus had been the guardian of the ten-year-old Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian), along with Hadrian’s cousin, Trajan. He seems to have shared the prefecture since around 112 with Servius Sulpicius Similis, a modest man who had taken the post reluctantly after he had been prefect of Egypt; earlier in his career he had risen to the heights of primus pilus. When he was still only a centurion Similis was once summoned by Trajan ahead of the prefects. The deferential Similis said ‘it was a shame’ for him to be called in while prefects waited outside. Sent ahead by Hadrian, Attianus returned to Rome with Trajan’s ashes, which were to be placed at the base of his column in the forum, accompanied by Plotina and her niece Matidia (the mother of Hadrian’s wife, Sabina). Attianus seems to have written to Hadrian with the advice that he should order the execution of Baebius Macer, prefect of Rome, on the grounds that there was reason to believe he might object to Hadrian being emperor. Perhaps Macer was known to prefer Neratius Maximus. Other potential objectors were cited by Attianus. Whatever the truth, the outcome is unknown, though Macer was probably at least removed from post.

A senatorial plot to murder Hadrian soon after his accession was thwarted, but it resulted in the senate ordering the execution of four senators. Hadrian denied that he had wanted this, but it marred the beginning of his principate and had implications for the praetorian prefecture. Hadrian hurried to Rome, arriving there on 9 July 118, and offered a large handout to the people in order to offset the unpopularity the executions had caused, and made a number of other conciliatory gestures such as remitting private debt owed to the state. Attianus was awarded the honorific promotion to senatorial status of consular rank in 119. Hadrian appears to have had an ulterior motive. He allegedly believed that Attianus had been behind the execution of the four senators, and resented his power, which of course included the potential power of the praetorians themselves. Supposedly reluctant to be associated with any more executions and also wishing to transfer all the blame for the senatorial executions, Hadrian coerced Attianus into resigning. It is equally possible that Attianus was a loyalist who had carried out Hadrian’s secret wishes and been prepared to take the blame on the emperor’s behalf. If so, it would have made him a good example of how useful the position of praetorian prefect could be to an emperor in a way that had nothing to do with commanding the Guard. The position with Similis is harder to understand. Hadrian’s biographer implies that Similis was another victim of what is described as Hadrian’s plan to remove the men who had smoothed his path to power. Dio, however, suggests that this unassuming man had some trouble in persuading Hadrian to release him. Similis went on to enjoy seven years of retirement, regarding these as the only years he had enjoyed life; all the years of his career he dismissed as being no more than merely existing. This was recorded on his tombstone.

Attianus and Similis were replaced as prefects in or around 119 by Gaius Septicius Clarus and Quintus Marcius Turbo. Turbo, who had a very significant military reputation, seems to have had a longer personal association with Hadrian. As a young man Hadrian served as tribune of the II legion Adiutrix while it was stationed in the province of Pannonia Inferior. Turbo, at some point in his career, was a centurion with II Adiutrix since the tombstone found at Aquincum (within Budapest) of a soldier called Gaius Castricius Victor states that he was in Turbo’s century. There is no certainty that Turbo’s time in II Adiutrix coincided with Hadrian’s, or even that this is the same man. But they might have served with the legion simultaneously, and if so then they might have come into contact and the future emperor been impressed by Turbo, though a personal connection may have played a more important part in Hadrian’s decision.

Turbo was to have a remarkable military career both before and after his appointment as praetorian prefect. He made some of the previous incumbents seem like dilettantes. By 114 Turbo was commanding the imperial fleet at Misenum. Next under Trajan he seems to have been sent to lead an assault on Jewish rebels in Egypt and Cyrene, leading a naval force and one of combined infantry and cavalry. The action was successful and involved the death of a large number of rebels. Soon after Trajan’s death, Hadrian sent Turbo to crush a rebellion in Mauretania. This was evidently also so successful that Hadrian, exceptionally, appointed Turbo temporarily to be an equestrian prefect governor of the important frontier garrison provinces of Pannonia and Dacia. This was so unusual that it must reflect Turbo’s remarkable skills. The only major governorship normally allocated to an equestrian prefect was Egypt, reflecting that province’s nature as the personal property of the emperor; indeed, as governor of Dacia Turbo was considered to hold a rank equivalent in prestige to being prefect of Egypt. The appointment came rapidly after the execution of the four senators and will have involved Hadrian dismissing the consular governor, Lucius Minucius Natalis. The practical effect was to place his own man in charge of an important component of the army. Perhaps Hadrian had in mind Maecenas’ advice to Augustus around 150 years previously on the advantages of distributing patronage amongst the equestrians. Turbo rearranged Dacia into two provinces. Dacia Superior was demoted to the status of requiring only a governor of praetorian, not consular, rank, and Dacia Inferior was to be governed by an equestrian procurator.

Turbo took his new post of praetorian prefect extremely seriously. He lived like an ordinary citizen and passed the day in the vicinity of the palace, even punctiliously checking up on everything late at night. He transferred his morning salutation (salutatio) to the late evening, greeting his friends and clients then, rather than during the day when he was far busier doing his job. Accordingly, the lawyer Cornelius Fronto dropped in to pay his respects after a dinner party, paradoxically greeting Turbo with the evening departure vale (‘farewell’), rather than the morning salve (‘good health’). Turbo was said to have operated on the principle that as prefect he ‘should die on his feet’.

The prefect Gaius Septicius Clarus had been a friend and correspondent of Pliny the Younger. He also had a senator for a nephew. Clarus had urged Pliny to publish his letters and was rewarded by having the collection dedicated to him. Suetonius also dedicated part of his Lives of the Caesars to him. Although Clarus’ earlier career is completely unknown to us, he had probably served in some capacity as an equestrian commanding officer, perhaps commanding an auxiliary infantry unit. His personal tastes and interests were more literary. This probably formed the basis of Hadrian’s decision to appoint him to serve as a convivial and interesting companion rather than as a military official. Hadrian set out for the northern frontier in 121, accompanied by Clarus, presumably with part of the Guard too, as well as Suetonius, his imperial secretary.

Hadrian was away until 125. During this time he paid particular attention to military discipline. While we have no specific information that this was applied to the Guard it must have done, especially with Turbo in charge of those left in Rome. The choice of Septicius Clarus and Suetonius as travelling companions seems to have backfired. Around 122 Hadrian visited Britain where he initiated construction of the wall that bears his name ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans’. At this point in his biography we are told he dismissed both Septicius Clarus and Suetonius, along with several other unnamed people, for being too familiar with Sabina. He was even tempted to divorce Sabina but stopped himself on the basis of the dignity of his office. It is clear from the structure of the biography that this event is placed during Hadrian’s stay in Britain, but since the biographies of this period are notoriously confused in detail in some places, the actual sequence of events may have been different. Quite what had happened is unclear, but there was a suggestion of sexual impropriety, even if it amounted to no more than indiscreet flirting. Aurelius Victor includes a reference to Sabina’s claim that she had deliberately avoided becoming pregnant by Hadrian because she considered him so ‘inhuman’ that she wished to save the human race from any of his offspring. Hadrian had clearly found out about the carryings-on from his spies, the frumentarii, whom he used for all sorts of private investigations in his household and circle of friends. Septicius Clarus had been added to Attianus and others whom Hadrian had once trusted and now regarded as enemies.

An occasional instance of a military career that included a spell in the Guard is available at around this time. Titus Pontius Sabinus was a career legionary who, as primus pilus of the III legion Augusta, was placed in charge of detachments of the VII Gemina, VIII Augusta and XXII Primigenia sent on ‘the British expedition’ around this time, perhaps accompanying Hadrian. The province had been in considerable difficulties since around the end of Trajan’s reign. After this foray into the wilds of Britain, Sabinus was promoted to be tribune of the III cohort of the vigiles, tribune of the XIIII urban cohort, and then tribune of the II praetorian cohort, before becoming primus pilus once again and finishing up as procurator of the province of Gallia Narbonensis. This shows how much experience was considered necessary for a man to hold the tribunate in the Praetorian Guard. His time as tribune of the II praetorian cohort probably occurred under the latter part of the reign of Hadrian. A praetorian denied the chance to accumulate any experience at all was Lucius Marius Vitalis. He joined the Guard when he was around sixteen or seventeen years old during the reign of Hadrian. He left Rome with the Guard, headed for some unknown destination, perhaps with Hadrian, but died aged seventeen years and fifty-five days. Marius Vitalis illustrates how the original Republican tradition of hiring praetorians from experienced soldiers had been at least partly replaced by recruiting very young men. Men of Pontius Sabinus’ calibre therefore found themselves knocking into shape youths with little or no experience at all of soldiering, and who would have taken some time to turn into praetorians with the right skills to serve the emperor either in Rome or in the field. This goes some way to explaining the rationale behind the decision over half a century later in 193 to cashier the Guard and replace it entirely with legionaries who had considerably more to offer in the way of experience.

Meanwhile, the man who replaced Septicius Clarus and continued to command any members of the Guard in Hadrian’s retinue is unknown. That Turbo had remained in Rome is only likely, and not an attested fact. The most obvious choice to replace Clarus would have been the former prefect of Egypt (117–19), Quintus Rammius Martialis; however, not only is there no information to that effect, but unless he was with Hadrian already there would have been something of a delay before he could either fill the post or join him. Hadrian was to remain abroad until 125, finishing up in Sicily by way of Greece before returning to Rome.

For all his skills and experience, Turbo also fell foul of Hadrian’s capricious inclination to turn against those he had trusted, even though Turbo, like Similis, had been honoured with a statue. He was said, along with others, to have been ‘persecuted’, though what that means, or its consequences, is unknown to us. This may not have occurred until Hadrian returned to Rome in 134. The same applies to the Praetorian Guard at this time. We seem to know a remarkable amount about Turbo’s career before he became praetorian prefect and the manner in which he conducted himself in the post, but little or nothing about the praetorians themselves or how he led them. We can only assume that praetorians accompanied Hadrian on his journey between 121 and 125 because Clarus went with him. In 128 Hadrian visited North Africa, returned to Rome and then headed off to the eastern provinces, including Greece, Syria, Arabia and Egypt. We can do no more than speculate on how the praetorians regarded being removed from the privileged comforts of the Castra Praetoria in Rome. If Septicius Clarus had not been replaced, which is quite possible, then Turbo may have been out of Rome with Hadrian on some of his later travels serving as sole prefect; equally, he may have remained in the city with the prefect of Rome, Annius Verus, with a tribune instead commanding a detachment of the Guard accompanying the emperor.


The Praetorian Guard – Second Century II

The governor of Britain, like any provincial governor, enjoyed the prestige of having his own military staff, singulares, drawn from soldiers in the provincial garrison, including the auxilia, and serving on detachment. These men were known as beneficiarii, literally because they benefited from the privileges and status afforded by the job, and carried out the governor’s orders. They were not praetorians but they were the governor’s equivalent. Just as the praetorians amplified the status of the emperor, so the governor’s bodyguard enhanced and advertised his status and made it possible for him to allocate soldiers from his guard to other deserving officials. While governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny the Younger was asked by a visiting imperial freedman procurator for an escort of six soldiers on a corn-procuring mission, to which Pliny added two mounted soldiers.

Under Hadrian, if not before, additional barracks were built in Rome. In 2015 during work on a new metro line a substantial and well-appointed barrack block of Hadrianic date was discovered around half a kilometre south-east of the Colosseum in the vicinity of four other barrack blocks, together with associated burials. It was clearly a dedicated military zone. It is difficult to imagine who the occupants might have been other than some of the praetorians, and in this case it was probably the equites singulares Augusti. The remains uncovered included a corridor around 100 metres long with thirty-nine rooms opening off it. Some of the floors had mosaics that had existed long enough to be patched and repaired. Such decoration was not typical of legionary fortresses and reflects the higher standard of living to which praetorians were accustomed. These facilities were roughly half the distance from the centre of Rome compared to the Castra Praetoria, making them much more convenient and also made a quicker response in a crisis possible. We know so little about the internal layout of the Castra Praetoria that there is every possibility it was not fully used at this time.

It is therefore interesting that around the same time, by c. 120 or not long after, a fort to accommodate the governor of Britannia’s guard was built in the north-west part of the settled area of London, perhaps connected with Hadrian’s visit to the province and to ensure his protection. The location and purpose of the Cripplegate fort resembled those of the Castra Praetoria in the sense that it was a freestanding military base on the outskirts of what was otherwise a civilian and administrative settlement. London, although tiny compared to Rome, was still the largest city in the province of Britannia. The new fort, which may have replaced an earlier timber one, covered 4.5 hectares and was thus far smaller than a legionary fortress, but it was more than twice the size of most ordinary forts. It was large enough to accommodate the equivalent of a milliary infantry cohort, probably with a cavalry component. The location of known gates, defences, and fragmentary traces of barracks suggest that unlike the Castra Praetoria it was conventional in plan, resembling other forts. Evidence from tombstone inscriptions in London indicates that soldiers were detached from all three legions to serve on the governor’s bodyguard, for example Flavius Agricola of the VI legion, which only arrived in Britain under Hadrian, who died in London aged forty-two. The London fort was by no means typical. Roman forts in a civilian context are very unusual, Carthage being an exception. It survived long enough to be absorbed into London’s later Roman walls, just as the Castra Praetoria was absorbed into the Aurelian Walls of Rome in the late third century. All provincial governors had bodyguard units, so far as we know, for obvious reasons of security and prestige. London’s fort suggests that special conditions prevailed in Britain, necessitating a fortified headquarters in the manner of a provincial castra praetoria, but in this case requiring full military defences because of the residual instability in the province.

Back in Rome, by the end of Hadrian’s reign or shortly after the accession of Antoninus Pius in 138 two new praetorian prefects were appointed: Marcus Gavius Maximus and Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. The reign of Antoninus Pius is even less well known than Hadrian’s since Dio’s account is more or less completely lost, leaving us only with the Historia Augusta. It is both conceivable and probable that praetorians participated in wars during the reign of Antoninus Pius, but there is nothing to confirm that.

Hadrian’s original intention had been to be succeeded by Lucius Ceionius Commodus, adopted by the childless emperor in 136 and renamed Lucius Aelius Caesar. The occasion of his adoption was accompanied by the distribution of 300 million sestertii amongst the soldiers. This must have included the praetorians, and at a preferential rate compared to the rest of the army. Aelius, in the event, predeceased Hadrian, dying on 1 January 138. His demise occasioned a crisis for the ailing Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius, a highly regarded senator whose wife Faustina was the great-granddaughter of Trajan’s sister, Marciana. Antoninus and Faustina adopted Aelius’ son, Lucius Verus, along with Marcus Aurelius, the husband of their daughter, Faustina Junior, providing a cash handout to the soldiers on the occasion of that marriage in 145. This complicated web of relationships successfully created a dynasty but for the most part had relied on selecting suitable men rather than on a direct bloodline. Hadrian had even initially considered Marcus Aurelius as his heir, but rejected him on the grounds that at eighteen he was too young.

The principal praetorian prefect of the new reign was Marcus Gavius Maximus, who in or around 158 was said to have served in the position for twenty years, so therefore must have been appointed either by Hadrian in early 138 or by Antoninus soon afterwards. With one exception Antoninus Pius kept men in the posts in which they had been placed by Hadrian until they died. The other prefect, Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, died around 143, after which Gavius Maximus held the sole prefecture for the rest of his life. The two men are cited on an inscription of 1 March 139 recording the honourable discharge of thirty-nine equites singulares Augusti. The inclusion of the names of both praetorian prefects suggests a closer link between the office of the prefecture and the emperor’s mounted bodyguard than might otherwise have been obvious.46 In the same year a mosaic floor was installed in the Castra Praetoria with an inscription that commemorated the vicennalia (twentieth anniversary of the accession) of Antoninus Pius. It was an appropriate recognition of the mutual dependence of emperor and his bodyguard.

Little is known about Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. His tenure as praetorian prefect is otherwise only known from a letter of Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He may have previously been prefect of Egypt. After his praetorian prefecture he was awarded honorary consular status by 150, leaving only Gavius Maximus in post. Marcus Gavius Maximus was apparently ‘a very stern man’. He also seems to have been extremely rich. A fragmentary inscription from the port town at Ostia, and another one in the Vatican Museum, suggest that Gavius Maximus had paid for the lavish Forum Baths, which remain one of the most conspicuous and largest ruins at the site today. The structure is imaginatively designed so that the bath chambers, which all face south-west, received sun throughout the middle of the day and afternoon, reflecting the most popular time of the day to visit the baths. Although the building, like all such structures at Ostia, is built largely of brick, it was expensively faced throughout with marble, much of which has since been robbed away. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Gavius Maximus may have paid for the baths at his own expense, but it is also possible that Antoninus Pius subsidized the costs on his prefect’s behalf. Why Gavius Maximus would have wanted or needed to pay for the baths, or indeed how he became wealthy enough to fund them, is unknown. Civic munificence was virtually ubiquitous in the Roman world but we know of no particular connection that Gavius Maximus had with the port town; perhaps he had come from there or his father had made his name in the thriving commerce of the settlement. Either way, there is no obvious connection with the praetorians themselves. Instead we have an image of the praetorian prefect as a member of the imperial court rather than as a military commanding officer, and encouraging public popularity through his gifts to the community. Whether or not he is representative of the praetorian prefects at this date cannot be said. This was certainly what the office had evolved into when the Guard was disbanded in 312.

Marcus Gavius Maximus was succeeded briefly in 158 as praetorian prefect by Gaius Tattius Maximus, who had been prefect of the vigiles since 156. The prefecture was then once again restored to a joint position, with Sextus Cornelius Repentinus and Titus Furius Victorinus being appointed. Cornelius Repentinus’ promotion from his position as imperial secretary did not last long. His reputation was destroyed in 158 when a rumour emerged that he had been appointed with the assistance of Galeria Lysistrata, one of Faustina’s freedwomen and mistress of Antoninus Pius. It should be noted in the emperor’s defence that Faustina, highly esteemed though she was, had died in 141.

One inscription from this era gives us an example of a praetorian operating in the broader community in an official capacity as a surveyor. Blesius Taurinus was a praetorian land surveyor (mensor agrarius) serving with the VI praetorian cohort during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Taurinus was sent on imperial authority to Ardea, 22 miles (35 km) south of Rome, where he determined the boundaries of the settlement. With that done, Tuscenius Felix, serving for the second time as primus pilus of an unspecified unit, delivered a decision (what it was is unknown). As so often in the Roman world, military personnel exhibited the greatest concentration of professional expertise available. In this case Antoninus Pius had used these men to resolve something that had been brought to his attention, perhaps a property dispute. The army was the most convenient, and perhaps the only source of the necessary skills and manpower the emperor could call on.

Antoninus Pius was succeeded in 161 by Marcus Aurelius, who since 145 had been his son-in-law and earmarked as his heir by awarding him the tribunician power at the same time. As he lay dying, Antoninus Pius called together all his friends and prefects, who must have included Titus Furius Victorinus, and told them that Aurelius would be succeeding him. When he assumed power, Marcus Aurelius immediately appointed Lucius Verus, the son of Hadrian’s originally intended successor Aelius, as his co-emperor and had him marry his daughter Lucilla. The reasons were both dynastic and practical. Verus was younger and more interested in participating in the frontier wars that were to be increasingly a characteristic of this reign, and was soon dispatched to fight the Parthians in the east.

The joint emperors’ first act was to head for the Castra Praetoria where they allegedly offered the soldiers 20,000 sestertii each, and proportionately more to the centurions and tribunes. This figure is generally regarded as an obvious exaggeration – though it matched the amount awarded on discharge as far back as Augustus’ time so there is no overwhelming reason to assume it is wrong.53 In 162 the praetorian prefect Titus Furius Victorinus accompanied Lucius Verus to the Parthian war, where he was to die either by fighting or from plague in 167. He was commemorated in the forum at Rome by a statue with an inscription that recorded his exploits and how he had been awarded honorary consular status. Furius Victorinus must have commanded several cohorts drawn from the Praetorian Guard, presumably another occasion when praetorians were now routinely forming part of imperial armies in the field when necessary. This war was to be successful. Verus returned to Rome in 166 where his inclination to luxurious and indulgent living annoyed Marcus Aurelius.

In January 168 veteran praetorians were offered improved support for starting families. In order to help these men acquire wives, any sons born of the marriage would count for their fathers-in-law when it came to seeking a claim for intestate property or claiming exemption from tutela (legal guardianship). In other words, the boys’ maternal grandfathers would now be able to use their grandsons by their daughters (so long as these daughters married a praetorian veteran) in the same ways, legally, as they would have done their grandsons by their sons. Praetorians, like all other soldiers, were not allowed by law to marry while in service and this had been the position from the inception of the Guard under Augustus. In practice, unofficial unions did take place and it is apparent from a number of sources that during the second century such arrangements were sometimes accepted by the authorities, right up to and including the emperor. This was far from guaranteed. In 117 the prefect of Egypt, Marcus Rutilius Rufus, denied a wife the right to a claim on the estate of her deceased soldier husband on the simple grounds that ‘a soldier is not permitted to marry’.

Whatever the legality and unofficial liaisons, praetorians do not appear to have embarked on such relationships to anything like the same degree as ordinary soldiers. On the evidence of funerary epitaphs and who dedicated them, only 3 per cent of praetorians in the first century had unofficial wives; the majority of deceased praetorians were commemorated by fellow soldiers. This rises to over 10 per cent in the second century and to over 25 per cent in the third century. By comparison, a third of the legionaries on the Danube in the second century were likely to be commemorated by a wife – three times as many as a praetorian of the same period. The praetorians may have been subjected to sterner discipline because of their location and involvement in imperial security, but it is no less possible that frontier legionaries found that acquiring unofficial wives was the easiest way of securing female company, whereas praetorians, being based in Rome, had more casual opportunities.

There is some suggestion that the Praetorian Guard also evolved its own distinctive traditions of a more formal military presentation and terminology in which, perhaps, publicly acknowledging the existence of an unofficial wife was less ‘the done thing’ than it might have been amongst legionaries. Praetorians were much more likely to describe themselves as the commanipularis, ‘comrade of the same maniple’, of a colleague than legionaries were. For example, Marcus Paccius Avitus of the V praetorian cohort died at the age of thirty after five years’ service. His tombstone was erected by his commanipularis, Lucius Valerius. Whether this is really evidence of a fundamentally different culture or merely different style is a moot point. Legionaries were more likely to call each other commilito, ‘co-soldier’, or contubernalis, ‘tent-party comrade’, which seems more a matter of style than evidence of different levels of formal military culture. Unless a praetorian had a wife whose name is mentioned on his tombstone, we cannot assume that more praetorians had wives who were excluded from the epigraphic tradition and that therefore, for whatever reason, praetorians were less likely to form unofficial unions while the law remained in force. Moreover, Paccius Avitus had died young and this seems to be common to many of the praetorians we happen to know about. Praetorians of the second century were also more likely to be discharged early than legionaries. Up to 58 per cent had been discharged within seventeen years, whereas legionaries had served ‘much longer periods of time’ before being discharged at this rate. Various factors might explain this, including a possibly higher rate of loss in combat and disease in Rome.

Those who lived long enough to benefit from the shorter terms of service were likely to be awarded an honourable discharge and then move on to prestigious civic jobs such as municipal magistracies in their home towns. Gaius Com[. . .] Secundus, a veteran of the V praetorian cohort, returned to what was probably his home town of the colony of Minturnae (Minterno) where he served his community as an aedile, a magistracy that would have entitled him thereafter to a seat on the town council (ordo) as a decurion (councillor). Gaius Arrius Clemens, who had served with distinction in Dacia under Trajan while with the VIIII praetorian cohort, proceeded to a series of posts as centurion before ending up as a duumvir (one of the two senior magistrates) in the town of Matilica (Matelica) in Umbria, and as patron of the community. Such men were primarily memorialized in their prestigious positions of later life, their service as ordinary praetorians being brushed over if mentioned at all. They would have been more likely to marry during this later time in their lives, having both the money and legal opportunity, as well as having age on their side, unlike legionaries. This would also explain why praetorians received discharge certificates which noted their right now to marry, an essential document if they were to marry non-citizen wives.

The outbreak of war on the Danube frontier, when the Germanic tribal confederation known as the Marcomanni invaded in 168, caused Verus and Aurelius to head out to fight, but Verus died in 169 during their return to Rome. Marcus Aurelius carried on as sole emperor until 177 when his son, Commodus, was elevated from the position of Caesar that he had held since 175, to joint Augustus with his father. During that period, between the years 169 and 172, there is clear evidence of praetorian prefects serving in a capacity we would most easily recognize as commissioners of police. An imperial freedman called Cosmus wrote to the praetorian prefects Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex, who had succeeded the deceased Furius Victorinus in or around 167, with Vindex probably being appointed a little later. Bassaeus Rufus came from modest origins and reached the praetorian prefecture via the prefecture of Egypt, but Macrinius Vindex’s earlier career is unknown. The purpose of the letter was to appeal to the prefects for their help in stopping the magistrates at the cities of Saepinum (Attilia) and Bovianum (Boiano), and stationarii, from troubling lessees of sheep flocks on an imperial estate. The stationarii were armed police installed in specific locations, and had been established by Augustus. It is not clear in this instance if praetorians were being used as stationarii, though some inscriptions show that praetorians could be used in this role and sometimes far beyond Italy. Titus Valerius Secundus of the VII praetorian cohort, for example, was a stationarius at Ephesus where he died in service at the age of twenty-six.

Cosmus alleged that the magistrates and stationarii had been accusing the lessees of being runaway slaves, and appropriating the sheep accordingly. This meant that the magistrates and stationarii were stealing imperial property. Rufus and Vindex obliged. They wrote to the magistrates, attaching a copy of Cosmus’ letter, and it is the text of this that has survived. It was a warning to the magistrates and other suspects to desist, on pain of further investigation and punishment. Although the outcome is not known, the document is one of the most specific records of the praetorian prefects operating in a way more akin to a civilian police force, though urban cohorts seem to have been included as well.

In the meantime, the Marcomannic War continued. For all their responsibilities in homeland policing, the praetorian prefects also continued to serve as military commanders in the field. Both Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex travelled with Marcus Aurelius on campaign in the early 170s, though we do not know how often or the numbers of praetorians involved. Since both prefects were participating it is possible that a large proportion of the Guard had accompanied them, the remainder perhaps being left under the command of a tribune in Rome, apart of course from those dispersed on various duties around the Empire. In the event Macrinius Vindex was to die leading in battle in or around 172.

Macrinius Vindex was not replaced immediately. Marcus Aurelius was said to have had a particular favourite candidate in the senator Publius Helvius Pertinax, praising him both in the senate and also at military assemblies, but regretted that as Pertinax was a senator he would have to pass him over. Of course, given the appointment of Titus as commander of the Guard by Vespasian, this was a technicality which could have been overlooked had Marcus Aurelius really wanted to. Bassaeus Rufus continued in post in the meantime, possibly as sole prefect. He attended the trial of Herodes Atticus before Marcus Aurelius at Sirmium in 173 or 174. Herodes had been accused of tyranny by the Athenians. During the trial Bassaeus Rufus, described as being praetorian prefect by Philostratus, said it was clear Herodes wished to die. Herodes retorted by saying that at his age there was very little he feared. Bassaeus was still in post in July 177, but probably for not much longer, after which he received honorary consular status. His name is recorded in this capacity. Publius Tarrutenius Paternus became praetorian prefect in or around 179, having been a former imperial secretary. He led a force against the Marcomanni in 179 so he must have been in post by then, but is not specifically attested in it until after the death of Marcus Aurelius when in c. 182 he participated in a plot to kill Commodus. The only other possible evidence we have for the Guard in action at this date is the sculpture on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome depicting the Marcomannic War. Unlike Trajan’s Column, the identification is a good deal more tenuous and depends on the belief that scale armour is the distinguishing factor. There is some verification for this in Dio who refers to this feature of praetorian equipment when describing the Guard under Macrinius in 218. Other scenes on the column also show the equites singulares Augusti with Marcus Aurelius on campaign.

This single example highlights the central issue when it comes to dealing with the Praetorian Guard between the accession of Trajan in 98 and the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. These eighty-two years were more than long enough for no one to have any living memory of the power the Guard could choose to exert as emperor-breakers and makers. The reality was that none of the emperors in that period was deficient in any of the key qualities required. Their successions were largely undisputed, their judgement was respected, and their personal qualities for the most part sufficient to ensure that they stayed in power and died in their beds. The Avidius Cassius episode in Egypt in 175 was a rare exception. The state was thus not vulnerable and in these circumstances there was no opportunity or need for the praetorians to try and influence events. They took part in wars, and their prefects served the emperors as advisers, chiefs of police or generals as and when needed. It must have been for the most part an easy, complacent and privileged lifestyle. This was to change dramatically under Commodus who was the first ruler for almost a century to exhibit serious shortcomings in his ability either to rule or to choose suitable men for key commands, amongst which was of course the praetorian prefecture. This was to result in the revival of a badly led and dysfunctional Praetorian Guard which would culminate in one of the most degenerate episodes in its history.

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.

Partisan Warfare in the Rear of Eastern German Army Groups I

A group of partisans stand by the remains of a supply train. They are wearing what appear to be paratrooper jump suits. NKVD and army partisan formations wore as much uniform clothing as they could to help distinguish themselves from the civilian population; it was also a matter of pride in their appearance.

Formation and Composition

Partisan warfare—an old Russian method of combat—has always played a major part in the domestic and foreign conflicts of the Russian people. The Communist state long recognized the importance of employing partisans in the wide-open, sparsely-populated Russian spaces. Soviet leadership, therefore, made partisan warfare an important combat arm, centrally controlled from Moscow. Basing their planning on the extensive experience obtained in the civil war (1918–21), the Russians, prior to the Second World War, made certain preparations which linked partisan organization to the framework of the secret police. During this same period they carried these preparations a step further by publishing service regulations on partisan warfare.

The extensive pre-military training of Russian youths of both sexes, and the control exercised over factory labor forces, facilitated the formation of partisan units. The number of men and women thus trained was so great that at the beginning of World War II—even after mobilization and evacuation of entire labor force—there were still sufficient numbers of trained civilians left in the theater of operations to form the nuclei of partisan units. Soldiers who had lost their units during the initial engagements, as well as entire combat units that had escaped capture during the major battles of encirclement in 1941, joined partisan units or formed new ones. Even completely untrained persons were enrolled in the partisan units, either voluntarily or by force. The winter of 1941–42 marked the beginning of a large-scale organization, although small bands were active before that time.

During the course of the war the partisan units grew to such an extent that they could be considered elements of the Red Army. Staff officers, specialists, agents, radiomen, and other important key personnel were brought to the partisan units either through gaps in the frontline or by air. The mission of these units was to disrupt the German supply system and to harass the German combat forces by attacks from the rear in order to facilitate the combat operations of the regular Russian forces.

Personal initiative played an important part in partisan warfare, and the individual partisan leaders were given unusually extensive authority. Highly centralized control of the partisan units was considered undesirable. Wherever a person suitable for leading a partisan unit stayed behind after the withdrawal of the Red Army, a band would form. It was mainly the capabilities of these leaders which determined the strength and combat effectiveness of the partisan units and their organization, rather than the available manpower, local conditions, or the equipment that could be found.

The organization and strength of the many partisan units varied greatly. There were bands of a few men adjacent to units numbering several thousands. The designations given to some of the units were no indication of their strength. The preferred designation of “brigade” was used even for small bands of platoon strength. Small units with less than 50 men needed no special organization. Normally, they assembled for a specific operation, after which they dispersed and continued with their everyday chores or disappeared from sight. Mobile, large, combat-effective partisan units of from 50 to 1,000 men were organized according to military principles. Only these large units or well-camouflaged small bands could afford to operate on a continuous basis.

Weapons and Ammunition

The partisan groups that formed in 1941–42 gathered their initial supply of weapons and ammunition from the battlefields where great quantities were scattered. Large partisan units even had heavy infantry weapons which they recovered in quantity from the battlefields. Because of their rapid advance, the Germans had been unable to recover or destroy this matériel. The partisans were also able to recover some of the Russian weapons and ammunition used for pre-military training in peacetime, which had been distributed all over the country in many small, well-hidden dumps at the beginning of the war. During their withdrawal the regular Russian forces had often hidden weapons, ammunition, and equipment for the use of the partisans. In one instance, the 11th Kalinin Partisan Brigade even had several tanks, which had been dug in and hidden in the Idritsa forests [east of the Latvian border] by regular Soviet troop units. Russian mines that had been employed in great quantities and had not been disarmed by the Germans during their rapid advance, were removed by the partisans and reused. They also improvised mines from duds and explosives.

When the partisans left their territory, they hid weapons, ammunition, and in fact everything they were unable to take along. Such hidden depots, containing large quantities of weapons and ammunition, were uncovered quite frequently.

The steadily increasing need and consumption of weapons, ammunition, and explosives could not possibly, however, be satisfied for any length of time by thefts from German supply installations and by raids on German troops, supply columns, and supply trains. Such items had to be resupplied regularly. In addition to such small arms as rifles, especially automatic rifles and rifles with silencers, light machine guns, pistols, submachine guns, and daggers, the partisans needed heavy infantry weapons, such as mortars, light antitank guns, and dismounted guns, as well as ammunition and weapons spare parts. They also had a very great need for mines and explosives used in sabotage operations.

Without air transport, it would have been impossible for the Russians to supply the partisans with weapons, ammunition, mines, and explosives. Airlifting these items over the battle front was the primary mission of the air transport supply system.


Since there was no general shortage of manpower in the partisan-dominated areas, only partisan command and staff personnel, specialists and agents had to be brought in by air. Regular troops were, however, continually being moved in by airlift to raise the combat efficiency of the partisans. They had been trained as lower-echelon commanders, indoctrinated as communists, and possessed special qualifications. In addition, regular training cadres were assigned to partisan units from among the officers and NCO’s of the Red Army. This strengthened the units and put their training under partial control of the Red Army. Other replacements sent to the units included sabotage and reconnaissance detachments. Such specialists as radio operators, technicians, doctors, and nurses were also airlifted to the partisans.

Rotation of personnel also took place by airlift. Highly successful partisans were brought to the zone of interior for rest and recreation as well as to receive decorations. In addition, propaganda officers and top-echelon officials were flown on brief visits to the partisans to strengthen their morale in general and to decorate deserving personnel. (Other areas of morale-building were not neglected, for even psychological warfare pamphlets, political writings and propaganda movies were airlifted to the partisan areas. The delivery of mail to the partisans was most important for morale purposes. This function was accomplished by the army postal organization of the Red Army, and all mail was strictly censored.)

Another major airlift mission was to deliver airborne troops to partisan-held airfields and to maintain the flow of supplies to the airlanded forces. Messengers and agents were flown between Moscow and the partisans, carrying orders and directives and taking back reports and information.

On return flights the supply transports served as personnel carriers. They transported wounded partisans, Russian prisoners of war who had escaped from German camps, Russian flying crews who had bailed out and reached the partisans, important German prisoners who were taken to higher Russian headquarters for questioning, and draftees for the Red Army.

Missions, Combat Methods, Command Functions

The overall mission of the partisans was to combat the Germans with every means and wherever possible without getting involved in any action that would reduce their own strength.

Their sphere of activity was behind the German front. They concentrated on destruction by demolition and mining (mainly railroads, roads, bridges, and other construction works, plants of any kind, airfields, communications installations, ammunition, POL, and supply dumps of all types, and billets), poisoning wells, attacks on individual soldiers and small units, transport columns, motor vehicle convoys, etc., as well as all types of sabotage and espionage. In addition to destructive activities, the partisans were charged with the preparation of landing fields for supply aircraft and airborne troops.

Whereas at the beginning of partisan activities the relationship of such operations behind the German lines to the strategic objectives of the Red Army was not obvious (each band attacking wherever it had an opportunity to do so), this relationship became clearly recognizable during the winter of 1941–42, when German Army Group Center was forced to withdraw. At that time the partisan operations carried out in the rear of the German combat zone to prevent the flow of replacements and supplies to the front obviously fitted into the overall Red Army strategy. In addition, major strategic tasks were assigned to the large partisan units, which had to liberate or control entire areas behind the German lines so that the Red Army could use such territories for unimpeded thrusts. Indeed, the actions of the partisans often permitted the Germans to draw conclusions regarding the Russian plan of operations.

The areas in which the partisans remained and operated had not been prearranged according to a military plan. Rather, the availability of personnel was the determining factor. But particular local conditions also were of great significance since the partisans needed hideouts, preferably in inaccessible terrain such as deep forests and swamps. (Eventually, many bands were transferred from the areas where they had been organized to other areas where they were to be committed; in some instances bands moved away on their own.) Within their camp areas the partisans usually built well-camouflaged shelters, posted guards, and sent out reconnaissance patrols. To be able to escape unnoticed if necessary, they prepared new paths that were kept secret from the civilian population. However, even in densely populated areas partisan bands were able to maintain themselves if they were protected by the civilian population. Ruins of bombed cities were good hideouts. During daylight hours, the partisans remained in their hideouts, almost all movements being carried out at night. Indeed, so mobile were these groups that the Germans repeatedly found instances where they had traveled as much as 44 miles in one night.

Partisan units attempted for the most part to avoid combat. Inferior German forces that came too close to them, however, were usually assaulted from ambush. If the partisans were faced by superior forces, they rarely put up a serious defense, even if their camp had been prepared for sustained defense. By the stubborn defense of a few well-camouflaged centers of resistance they attempted to fight a delaying action in order that the bulk of the unit might have an opportunity to escape. Breakout was attempted either by strong forces concentrating in a small area or by individual partisans slipping through the ring of encirclement.

Radio equipment was essential for the maintenance of communications, especially with the central command staff at Moscow. Radiomen who had been specially trained, and equipped with special sets, were flown into the partisan infested areas. Female partisans were preferred as personal messengers: dressed as innocent peasant women they often covered long distances cross-country and, if necessary, even crossed the two frontlines.

The conduct of partisan forces in combat corresponded closely to infantry tactics. Typical characteristics were the use of ruse and deception, skill in camouflage, extreme mobility in every situation, and the exploitation of all terrain features. The frugality and kinship with nature of the average partisan were great advantages. The combat effectiveness of a small partisan group usually equalled that of a strong reconnaissance squad. Major units were equal to an infantry battalion or even a regiment equipped with heavy weapons.

The exercise of command functions within partisan units was very strict. The leaders, who operated independently, exercised their functions without restrictions and with brutal force. Even the smallest infraction was almost invariably punished by death, if such an infraction was contrary to the interests of the group or if it resulted from internal intrigues or insubordination. Whoever was under the slightest suspicion of treason was simply eliminated, and joint family liability was an accepted fact. In this manner the leader maintained close control over the members of his group and assured secrecy. The groups were not correlated and regional chains of command were not introduced, probably because any such action would have harmed the prestige of the individual partisan leaders.

The central command staff—the partisan warfare command staff—was located in Moscow. At first, it was commanded by an important political leader, later on Marshal Voroshilov was appointed chief of staff of the partisan movement. Under his leadership guerrilla warfare was developed according to a planned program and became a centrally organized means of combat.

Principal Partisan Areas

Army Group Center. Whereas the territory of Army Group South (Ukraine) and Army Group North (Baltic States) offered no very favorable conditions for partisan warfare, Army Group Center was very soon forced to engage in anti-partisan warfare, since it entered White Russian territory immediately after crossing the Polish-Russian border.8 Typical of partisan activities at the beginning of the campaign was an action which occurred along the northern flank of Army Group Center. On the first day of the offensive against Russia, 22 June 1941, a partisan group appeared in the rear of advancing German forces in Lithuania. The spearhead division of the German V Corps invaded Russia from the area east and north-east of the pre-war Polish city of Suwalki, (1) which had been occupied by the Germans after the Polish campaign. The division broke through the Russian border positions, and by evening German elements formed a bridgehead across the Niemen River [15 miles south of Alytus], near Kristoniai, Suddenly, armed civilians appeared to the rear, at the village of Seirijai—six miles west of the bridgehead—ambushed a German bridge column, and fired from houses in the village on passing German troops. A reinforced regiment had to be committed against this partisan group that was apparently hiding in a forest near Seirijai. It took an entire day to flush the forest, and even so the 400 to 500 men belonging to the unit were not completely annihilated since some 25 percent escaped. After the fighting was over, the Germans found that while the majority of the force consisted of Russian civilians of the upper class who had settled in the area after the U.S.S.R. had occupied Lithuania, the nucleus of the force was formed by Russian soldiers who had been cut off by the German breakthrough and had put on civilian clothes.

After the Germans had consolidated their situation during the winter of 1941–42, the Russians massed strong partisan units in German rear areas in order to cause a decisive disruption of the German build-up and supply system. The principal partisan areas were the forests of Uzda (2), those areas north, north-east and east of Slutsk (3), the area east and south-east of Minsk (4), and the forests astride the Minsk-Bobruysk railroad (5). These partisan groups were at that time in the formative stage and rarely operated at strengths above 100 to 300 men. They disrupted railroads, without however blowing up bridges or raiding German strong points along the tracks. They did not blow up road bridges, but they did mine roadbeds by night and ambush isolated motor vehicles.

Major partisan centers, where several thousands of men were operating, existed in the forest areas south of the Bryansk-Vigonishi line (6), and in the forests around Kletnya (7), where groups of one thousand men or more were hiding. These strong groups were very active, blowing up railroad tracks, firing at trains, and attacking German strong points along the tracks. The partisans built airfields west of Kletnya and along the northern fringe of the forest area east of Zhukovka (8). Other partisan airfields were situated at the point about half-way between Bryansk and Roslavl where the rail-line crosses the Desna River (8), in the area west of Karachev (6), and about ten miles south of there.

One of these very active partisan groups—the so-called Force Ruda, composed of some 500 men—led by a particularly audacious man, operated mainly west of Bryansk, attacking the Bryansk-Gomel railway and highway. Several German attempts to eliminate Force Ruda failed. The base camp of the force was located deep in a forest surrounded by swamps in an area west of Bryansk. Finally, in December 1942 the base camp was captured. Although Ruda was killed, some of the force escaped after heavy losses. An extensive camp with tons of ammunition, quantities of small arms and equipment of all kinds, and sufficient rations for several months were captured.

From January to March 1942, during the withdrawal from the outskirts of Moscow, the German armies lost contact with one another at several points. Russian troops streamed through the large gaps in an effort to outflank the Germans and get into their rear areas. These Russian forces, in conjunction with the partisan groups in German rear areas, attempted to cut the few remaining lines of communication. By airlifting regular troops and supplies, the Russians reinforced these partisans, who were particularly active in the west and south-west of Vyazma (9, 10) in the extensive forests of Bogoroditsk (11), and in the Yelnya (12) area. They were probably part of the major partisan force operating in conjunction with the Russian I Cavalry Corps (Corps Belov) that fought in the Yelnya-Dorogobuzh-Yartsevo (12) area in the rear of the German Fourth Army.

Part of the large concentration of partisans in the area south-west of Rzev near Olenino (13) was probably the Grishin force which later moved into the area south-west of Smolensk (14). This group, numbering from 1,000 to 2,000 men, was pursued throughout the entire army area from north to south and then again to the north, during which time the force apparently split up. But the Grishin force, after it had suffered losses and had been exhausted by extended periods of fighting, always had access to the large, almost inaccessible and well-equipped partisan camps located in the Mamayevka forest north of Pocher (15), in the forests south-west of Mogilev (16), north-east of Bobruysk(17), and in the Tschetschessk (18) area north-west of Gomel. In these refuges the partisans could rest and re-equip themselves without being disturbed. The Grishin force operated in the Orsha (19) area until the end of 1942, conducting above all demolition raids along the Smolensk-Vitebsk-Polotsk (20) railroad, attacking strong points, and raiding villages. Strong German countermeasures eventually led Grishin to move to the area south of Smolensk (21). The partisan group probably split up in the process, with one element remaining in the Smolensk area while the other moved to the south-east. This latter group was believed to have reorganized its forces in the Mamayevka forest, where shelter and supplies were available and where German troops found access difficult. At least two partisan airfields were identified in this general area, one being located south-west of Rzev near Olenino (13) and the other south-east of Smolensk.

In January 1943 a strong and well-equipped partisan group traveling on sleds—this was the Grishin force again—crossed the Iput river and, advancing from the north-east, raided the German strong points along the Surazh-Klimovichi (22) railroad. The partisans were repelled, but succeeded in breaking through to the west. They were traced to west of Gordeyevka (23), where they had stopped to recruit among the hitherto fairly quiet population of this area. A battalion of German security troops, that had been specially equipped for winter commitment and issued sleds, finally tracked down the partisans, numbering about 1,000 men, in deep snow near Isavinka, north-east of Gomel (24). Forced to fight, the partisans suffered heavy losses before they were able to escape to the south.

Soon afterward the Grishin force was identified in the swamps south to south-east of Zlynka (25). This time the partisans were flushed from their hideout, leaving behind their sick and wounded, their equipment and personal belongings. They escaped southward and disappeared from the Army Group Center area for the time being, remaining for several months in the Sozh-Dnepr triangle (26) without being active. An increasing number of incidents in the area between Bobruysk and Mogilev, especially demolitions along the Rogachev-Mogilev railroad (16a), brought the Grishin group once more to the attention of the Germans. Grishin and his men were identified in the almost inaccessible swamps north-east of Bobruysk (17), appearing once again in great strength and fully equipped. It was not until August 1943 that very strong German troop units succeeded in encircling the Grishin force and in inflicting very heavy losses. But Grishin and combat effective elements of his group broke the ring of encirclement and escaped eastward across the Dnepr. The considerably weakened group reassembled north of Propoysk [70 miles north of Gomel] in the Pronja swamps. In the following month, however, the Grishin force was again active in its new location north of Propoysk and east of the Pronja river. Attacks were made on 30 miles of highway between Krichev and Propoysk. The partisans were encircled and pinned down in a narrow area where most of the group was destroyed, although Grishin and some of his men escaped westward across the Dnepr.

In the early summer of 1943 the Germans obtained information that the partisan staff planning the attacks against the rail line near Borisov (28) had its headquarters at Daliki, in the forests and swamps 10 miles south of Lepel (29). This staff was destroyed during a well-prepared operation.

The large forest area south of Bryansk (6) was also a jump-off area for partisan raids. During the spring of 1943, when the Germans assembled forces for the Kursk offensive and moved many trains along the Smolensk-Bryansk and Minsk-Gomel-Bryansk lines, the partisans continuously disrupted transports by blowing up tracks. In even more effective raids, they overcame the German guards and blew up the two railroad bridges across the Desna river close to Bryansk in March and demolished the Besed river bridge along the Krichev-Unecha line (22) in April. The attacks on secondary rail lines in the Kursk area continued even after the German offensive on Kursk had failed in the summer of 1943, when German reinforcements had to be moved up to stem the Russian assaults against the Orel salient. The large partisan units operating along the Minsk-Gomel and Orsha-Mogilev tracks also resumed their activities.

There was evidence that large partisan bands were located two hundred miles to the west during the winter of 1943–1944. These groups had even built airfields near Mozyr, south of Bobruysk, and north of Slutsk.

During the first six months of 1944, partisan attacks against troop transports and supplies moving up to stop the Russian offensive on both flanks of Army Group Center increased from month to month as the weather improved. The points of main partisan effort were the rail lines Brest-Kovel in January, Brest-Minsk-Orsha in March, and the area around Lepel (29) in May. On the night of 19/20 June a tremendous number of demolitions were carried out along the lines Pinsk-Luninets, Borisov-Orsha, and Molodechno-Polotsk  in preparation for the major Russian offensive against Army Group Center. These attacks resulted in an almost complete stoppage of railroad traffic along the crucial lines leading to the army group area. And at the end of June, strong partisan units interfered with the withdrawal of the German Fourth Army from the Dnepr on both sides of Mogilev. These groups operated out of the extensive forests and swamps of the Pripyat, in the triangle of Minsk-Bobruysk-Mogilev which during three years had been dominated by strong partisan units and had never been cleared, let alone occupied, by German troops. Operating in conjunction with regular Red Army units, the partisans obstructed the German withdrawal across the Pripyat swamps toward Minsk.

Army Group Center—Anti-partisan Warfare

Army Group South.

As early as 1941, shortly after the capture of the Crimean peninsula, partisan units appeared in the Yaila Mountains (36). During 1943–44 the Russians organized very strong partisan units in the Crimea and supplied them by airlift. Even though the Germans employed several divisions, they were unable to capture the partisans. Indeed, the Germans never established firm control over the Yaila Mountains area before they withdrew from the Crimea, and motor vehicles could cross these mountains only under convoy protection. Vehicles driving to and from the south coast were attacked in very skillfully staged surprise raids during which the partisans used all types of small arms and, after 1943, mortars of various calibers.

In 1944, after the Crimea had been cut off from the mainland and the Russians had secured a foothold on the Kerch peninsula (36a), partisans became active in this hitherto quiet area. They attacked motor vehicles and isolated soldiers in broad daylight along the Kerch-Feodosiya road. After several unsuccessful attempts to find their hideout, the partisans were found to be located in several underground quarries south-west, west, and north of Kerch. Only after all exits had been blocked and several determined breakouts had been frustrated, was it possible to exterminate the group by starvation following a final breakout attempt during which the majority of the partisans were killed.

In September 1943, partisans were active on the northern wing of Army Group South.30 In the Dnepr bend south of Pereyaslav-Khmel ‘Nitskiy (37) a partisan unit that had existed there for some time suddenly made its presence felt while the northernmost units of the German Eighth Army, withdrawing westward, were crossing the Dnepr about 75 miles south-east of Kiev near Kanev. These partisan groups, which maintained constant signal and messenger communications with the approaching Red Army units, received the Russian paratroopers who were dropped on 24 September west of the Dnepr Bend and north-west and south-west of Kanev in order to form an enlarged bridgehead in conjunction with the Russian attacks out of the Dnepr Bend. Another partisan unit operating in the primeval-like forests west of Cherkassy (38) was also supposed to receive airborne troops at the same time. These troops, however, were not committed, probably because of the failure of the paratroop operation. The partisan-infested area west of Cherkassy was an open sore in the German lines of communication. It often became acute and could never be completely eliminated by the Germans, who lacked the necessary forces.

In addition to the partisans operating in the Dnepr area from Kanev to Cherkassy, the southernmost reaches of the river were also infested. Indeed, centers of partisan resistance existed all along the western bank of the Dnepr in the extensive forests up to the Kremenchug (39) area.

Army Group North.

During the indecisive fighting of the second half of the winter of 1941–42, confusion reigned along the northernmost sector of the German front (Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies). Terrain conditions were ideal for partisan activities. From the German lines south of Lake Ilmen there was a narrow passage to the Demyansk pocket, in which the Russians had encircled German troops some 50 miles south-east of Lake Ilmen. Behind the pocket a thinly occupied line of strong points led southward to Kholm (41) which was also encircled. Behind that line sparsely settled swamp land covered some 30 square miles and extended westward to the railroad hub of Dno, the main railhead of Sixteenth Army. This no-man’s-land was absolutely dominated by the partisans around Kholm who, when the snow melted in the spring of 1942, directed part of their efforts against the Dno railhead. Most of their activity, however, was concentrated against the rear area of the weak German strong points, the only line of communication from Staraya Russa, just below the southern shore of Lake Ilmen, to Kholm. Because of a chronic shortage of troops the Germans, despite all their efforts, never succeeded in exterminating the partisans. In the late summer of 1942 a reinforced infantry regiment, on a two-week expedition, attempted to capture the supposed main supply dump—so designated by deceptive partisan messages—but the guerrillas evaded the trap and moved northward to the forests of Luga (42). The Sixteenth Army was rid of its partisans, who then became the worry of Eighteenth Army. But by the following autumn Sixteenth Army had them back again.

During their withdrawal from the Leningrad area at the beginning of 1944, the German forces moving across the Luga area encountered strong and unexpected resistance from partisan units. Indeed, not only the areas around Luga, but also those of Pskov (43) and Nevel-Bezhanitsy-Idritsa (44) were infested with partisans until the Germans evacuated these areas in February 1944. German anti-partisan operations in these areas were never more than temporarily successful.

As the examples on the past few pages so clearly demonstrate, the scope and effectiveness of partisan warfare were such that it became a major factor in the campaign in the East. Without airlift, however, the logistical difficulties of the partisans would have been insurmountable.

Partisan Warfare in the Rear of Eastern German Army Groups II

The Red Air Force operated a fleet of aircraft to supply the partisans and evacuate the wounded. The U-2s/Po-2 seen here was specifically built as an air ambulance. Ruggedly constructed, the U-2 was ideally suited for the rough and ready landings it often had to make on extemporised airfields behind enemy lines.


Origin of Organized Operations

Whereas the supply and personnel airlift was carried out by individual aircraft without proper planning until the winter of 1941–42, radio intercepts made during the summer of 1942 indicated that the Russians had formed an air army whose exclusive mission was the transport of supplies to the partisans. The resupply of the partisan units was suddenly organized and centrally controlled.

The air army committed for maintaining the partisans was constantly reinforced and consisted of several air corps by 1944–45. These air corps were responsible for supplying the southern, central, northern, and Baltic sectors—the latter including Finland—under the overall direction of the air army headquarters. The Russian General Staff had diverted these flying units from bombing missions to partisan supply.

Units Employed and Aircraft Types

As previously mentioned, the partisan units were unable completely to live off the land despite their capability to improvise means of conducting guerrilla operations. They had to rely on continuous resupply by airlift. To accomplish this, the following types of units were employed: (1) Transport aircraft regiments of the civilian air fleet; (2) Units of the long-range bomber organizations; (3) Nightfighter regiments; (4) Special courier and liaison aircraft groups assigned to individual sectors of the front and used for supplying partisans in addition to flying courier missions; and, (5) Special groups employed in various sectors when necessary, their mission being exclusively to supply partisans, with strength generally corresponding to that of a squadron; and (6) Glider regiments.

The following types of aircraft were employed as required by the mission:

U-2, R-5, LI-2, C-47, Yak-6, IL-2, IL-4, Cargo glider A-7, and Seaplane ME/B?/R-2. The model PE-2 apparently was also used for partisan support operations.37 U-2 and R-5 models were used for many purposes in the combat zone. They were, for instance, used as ambulance aircraft with emergency stretchers attached below their wings. Other ambulance U-2’s had extended cabins so that either one wounded man could be transported on a stretcher or two sitting up. The U-2 could land and start on the smallest clearings without difficulty. LI-2 and C-47 models were used for carrying heavy loads and for depositing agents far behind the German lines. If a fighter-bomber unit, such as IL-2 equipped units, was employed for partisan support it was used to drop ammunition and rations in low-level flight above a pocket. Cargo gliders were also used regularly for partisan support missions, being towed by SB or IL-4 models. The most commonly used cargo glider was the A-7.

The Techniques of Support Flights

It is not known how much time elapsed between the transmission of a request by partisan units and the execution of a flying support mission. As a rule, however, flying units did not receive their orders until just before take-off. Units that were exclusively employed for partisan support missions generally stored essential supply items at their airfields. Prompter execution of support missions was thus ensured. Data on the partisan unit that was to be supplied, on the type of landing, and related information was provided to the air crews on a need-to-know basis in accordance with security regulations.

The objective was generally made known to the crews only one or two hours before starting time. In case the pilot missed the dropping range, he was given one or two alternate targets. If the pilot knew the operational area, the flight route was not specifically designated. In all other cases the air route was prescribed, occasionally including a considerable detour in order to keep to a minimum the flight over ground-defended enemy territory.

If a major support mission was to be executed by units stationed far in the Russian rear areas, a specially organized composite group or an entire unit was usually transferred temporarily to airfields that were closer to the frontline. In such instances the commander of the aircraft that were to be committed generally received his orders directly from Moscow. Intelligence information was provided by the respective air force headquarters. Major missions were frequently flown under the direction of senior staff officers of the Soviet Air Force.

The altitude flown depended on the type and model of the aircraft employed. In general, the main line of resistance was crossed at high altitude, and the aircraft did not drop to a lower level until shortly before the target. As a rule, missions were flown every night (weather permitting), although of course dark nights were preferred. A captured map showed that in some instances lanes of approach—marked by two open fires—were used for directing aircraft toward the partisan-held area. Occasionally, the objective had to be approached from a clearly designated direction.

The marking of partisan-occupied airfields for support flights during the hours of darkness was carried out by open fires. Large piles of lumber were lit, often in pits to hide them from ground observation. When aircraft approached, pine twigs were thrown on the fire to produce a white glare. If there was danger of discovery, the fires were built from twigs or straw so that they could be quickly extinguished. Arrangement of the fires permitted identification of the partisan airfield. Usually, such arrangements changed every day.

Only in rare instances were the fires so arranged that they lit the landing strip or the runway. In most instances the partisans were notified by radio of the arrival of aircraft. They then lit the stakes at the right time so that the approaching planes could recognize the airfields from a long distance. During landing the aircraft illuminated the field with their landing lights.

If the partisans were afraid of German discovery, they lit the fires only after the approaching aircraft had fired a recognition signal. After the landing the fires were immediately extinguished. The crews had instructions to identify the number and order of the fires. If they deviated in any way from the prearranged signal, no supplies were dropped. In some instances the Germans observed that small supplementary fires were lit next to a fire while the plane was approaching, probably to comply with a previous arrangement.

Drop points for cargo were marked by fires generally placed in a north-south direction. The dropping of bags with ammunition or rations was indicated from the aircraft by lighting red or green lights. Special illuminations were used for the commitment of parachute troops. For the infrequent day-time landings the partisans put out recognition markers Drop altitude varied according to the model of the plane: U-2’s releasing their cargo from 330–500 feet, the LI-2’s from 1,650–2,000 feet.

Cargo was dropped in specially made, bag-shaped containers, measuring about ten feet in length and two and one-half feet in diameter, and weighing approximately 260 pounds. They were weighted and cushioned at the bottom to reduce the effect of their dropping to the ground. The packed parachute was at the top.

In airdrop missions using LI-2’s or C-47’s, when the aircraft had reached the area above the drop zone, the entire crew except for the first pilot moved to the rear of the cabin, opened the doors, and waited for the signal to drop the cargo. After the pilot’s signal (and extended sounding of the horn), the drop was effected as the aircraft circled the drop zone. Particularly valuable containers, equipped with electric buzzers, were quickly found by the partisans using special search equipment.

Parachutists were dropped from an altitude of 1,000–1,300 feet according to regulations. The crews, however, often made mistakes in the process, which resulted in accidents (mainly broken legs).

Landings were made only to exchange personnel, to pick up the sick and wounded, and to return valuable prisoners or intelligence information. In addition, landings were made to deliver supply items that were too sensitive, heavy or bulky to be dropped.

Landings were carried out mainly by model U-2 planes, with LI-2’s being used much less frequently and only if suitable landing fields were available. Landings were made on improvised runways or meadows surrounded by forests, and at similar places. The selection, improvement, and maintenance of these installations were the responsibility of the partisans.

Although navigational aids varied according to the model of aircraft, in general they were limited to a map, a compass, and a direction-finding device. Radio and beacons were rarely available, but there were instances in which even glider pilots oriented themselves by beacons. Indeed, to a certain extent the partisan supply aircraft even used German beacons. The obvious, manifold flying difficulties involved necessitated the employment of experienced pilots and navigation officers.

Support missions were carried out under minimal meteorological conditions corresponding to the capabilities of the aircraft models used. The weather problem was complicated by almost exclusive night operations, skillful camouflage of drop zones and landing fields, and the dearth of radio signal and beacon guidance. Occasionally, missions were so urgent that they had to be carried out in any weather. In those instances no consideration could be given to crew or aircraft. Meteorological briefing of partisan support aircraft pilots did not differ from the standard service provided for Russian Air Force units.

No radio traffic between partisans and support aircraft was detected. Aircraft equipped with radio sets were in contact only with their operational base. There was lively radio traffic, however, transmitted in code between the partisan units and the senior partisan commanders behind the Russian lines. By this means supply requests and airlift support demands were transmitted from partisan units to partisan staffs and from these to air force headquarters. Aside from requests for supply items, such radio messages contained regularly transmitted weather reports and prearranged code signals.


Army Group Center

Weapons, Ammunition, etc.

After an air army had been activated exclusively for partisan support operations during the summer of 1942, the number of nightly entries by air into the German Army Group Center area suddenly increased. The mass entries took place via two air corridors, above Orel and above Velikie Luki. The planes penetrated up to 300 miles into the army group rear. The supplies (principally weapons and ammunition) were still being dropped, but radio intercepts indicated that civilians were being ruthlessly forced to construct emergency airfields in the partisan area. The existence, of 20 such landing fields was established during the summer.

The following quotations give an indication of the extent of air supply in the areas of Army Group Center:

“a. 1941. Far in the rear area of Second Panzer Army and Second Army, in the forests south and north of Bryansk, dispersed Soviet elements that had escaped from the Bryansk pocket after the battle of encirclement, which lasted from 2 to 18 October 1941, formed strong partisan units that were constantly resupplied by air and that constituted a continuous threat to the Luftwaffe.

b. 1942. While during the past year [Russian] messengers crossing both frontlines sufficed for maintaining contact and transmitting orders, aircraft flying regular missions—courier and transport planes—next assumed this task. They transmitted orders to the partisan units operating in German rear areas, and supplied them with weapons, ammunition, signal equipment, POL, and medical supplies. Above all, they delivered a great number of radio sets for inter-partisan contact and for communication with the control staff in Moscow.

c. 1942–43. West of Kletnya (7) and on the northern fringe of the wooded area east of Zhukovka (8) the partisans built airfields during the period May 1942 to February 1943. Planes landed at these airfields at night, guided by the fire of stakes, or when unable to land they dropped weapons, ammunition, rations, medical supplies, and clothing.

d. 1942–43. The most dangerous and best organized partisan units were probably in the extensive forests on both sides of the Beresina near Zhlobin, Bobruysk, Borisov, and Lepel. Here the partisans were supplied by air, and they were even supposed to have had airfields where leaders returned from or departed on leave.

e. 1942–43. In a number of partisan areas as, for instance in the Mamayevka forest (15), near Bobruysk (31), Vitebsk (20), and probably also in the area of Zezersk [Chechersk?] there were winterized barracks in camps where battle-weary partisan units could recover from the fighting. These areas were filled with matériel and replacements so that the partisan units could regain their combat effectiveness. During 1942 enemy activities in the army group rear area increased constantly during the hours of darkness. The daily situation map registered many hundreds of support flights.

The following personnel were airlifted into the area: partisan leaders, agents, radio men and medical personnel. In addition, weapons, ammunition, explosives, radio equipment, and medical supplies were airlifted.

In general, personnel and equipment were dropped by parachute. But I have personally observed that in the sector of the 221st Security Division in the partisan-held area of Zezersk [sic]…an emergency airfield was built in the middle of the forest; supply aircraft landed on and took off from this airfield. This was a truly remarkable achievement!

On their return flights the aircraft usually transported key personnel who were sick or wounded.“

Key Personnel and Specialists. One of the most important factors in the effective operation of partisan bands, beginning in 1942, was the continuous flow of key command personnel and various types of specialists to the units. In the vast majority of instances, this personnel reinforcement was possible only by air supply. Several authorities have attested to the importance of this facet of air transportation:

“a. Summer 1942. During the summer of 1942 the Russians made every effort to disrupt the German lines of communication. The scarce POL supplies destined for Army Group Center—the operations in the south had priority—were jeopardized by partisan interference. The demolition squads of the Red Army auxiliaries had only improvised means at their disposal. An emergency combat method developed into a new nuisance arm. Small and very small liaison aircraft with aircooled engines, which had formed the only remnants of ready-for-action planes during the past winter, were used by the Russians to airlift sabotage detachments into rear areas.“

b. Mid-1942. The leaders of the partisan units were mostly specially trained regular army men—even general staff officers—who were airlanded, just like replacements, by parachute or towed gliders….

c. 1944–45. When aircraft began to land and partisan leaders were no longer dependent on airdropped supplies, the partisans became more effective and an exchange of personnel with the Russian zone of interior became noticeable. The Germans now encountered specialists, officers, and medical personnel who had served previously in several sectors of the Russian theater and who were taken prisoner when partisan units were destroyed. They also encountered general staff officers and administrative personnel as well as NKVD groups who reorganized the partisan units and planned their operations.

d. Mid-1943. Radio communications became every more important to the partisan units for the transmittal of orders, reports, supply requisitions, etc. Various types of outstanding personnel, both men and women, were specially trained for this service. Radio operators were parachuted into designated areas or they landed with their shortwave sets, which were the size of a cigar box, at partisan airfields.“

Evacuation Return Flights.

The return flights of aircraft supporting the partisan effort were used for evacuating important prisoners (as for instance General Ilgen who was captured by surprise in the rear area and was taken the same night to Moscow), captured weapons, and wounded partisans, in addition to being used for the transmittal of reports. There was even a reverse flow of supplies. For instance, in the autumn of 1942 the Germans received reports that aircraft landed every second night in the partisan-infested forests around Bryansk (6, 8). These were supposed to have loaded grain requisitioned by the partisans and transported it eastward. And in the same period it was definitely established that Russian aircraft landed every second night in the rear area of Second Panzer Army and, after loading grain, took off flying eastward.

Airfield Construction.

In January 1942 partisan units intervened increasingly in the Fourth Army area; the army employed the bulk of its forces in the Yukhnov area, 55 miles south-east of Vyazma, where it was surrounded by Russians in front and at the rear. The partisans appeared particularly strong west and south of Vyazma (9, 10), in the extensive forests of Bogoroditsk (11), and the Yelnya (12) area.

In this situation the Russians began to airland troops in the rear of the German Fourth Army and the adjoining Fourth Panzer Army. These troops landed both by parachute and from transport aircraft going down at airfields that were prepared and marked by partisans.

These troop airlift operations, both for paratroops and airborne units, continued throughout January and February until the beginning of March. The landings were not concentrated in one definite area at a certain time, but were an airlift operation extending over a span of time and covering a wide zone that was occupied by partisans or regular forces that had previously broken through and taken possession of the area. The flights mostly took place by night, and it was difficult to tell whether troops or supplies were airlifted. In the fighting with these airlanded troops the Germans never encountered a major organized unit. They seemed to have served as cadre and support for partisan units or as reinforcements for the Russian forces that had broken through the German lines.

In the forests north of Bogoroditsk (11) Russian troops airlanded through mid-January. The Russians in that area held several airfields near Lugi, Velikopol’ye (54° 53’N 340 29’E), and Zhelannye (54° 51’N 34° 311E), where they could land without interference. The airlanded forces reinforced the partisans in the Bogoroditsk forests. In the extensive swamps of Bogoroditsk and farther to the north Russian elements, which were resupplied by air and reinforced by parachutists and airborne troops, began to assemble. Radio intercepts made during the summer of 1942 indicated that the partisans had ruthlessly drafted civilians in the area they held and had used them for constructing emergency airfields, 20 of which were located and identified during that summer.

Supply Flights-Statistics.

Supply flights were flown almost exclusively at night, and the main partisan supply airlift effort was made in the area of German Army Group Center. In this area at the beginning of 1942 the Germans counted up to 150 air entries per night by planes that either simply dropped their cargo or landed on airfields in major partisan-held areas. The number of flights was established by air observation and, in many instances, by counting the parachutes on the ground.

In December 1943 the number of Russian partisan support flights dropped considerably from a record maximum of 150 entries per night during the summer of 1943. This drop in air activity coincided with a decrease in partisan operations because of bad weather. In January 1944 airlift flights for partisan supply numbered 217, in March 1944 they rose to 917, an indication of future events at the fighting front. In April 1944 there were 1,359 such flights, but by May 1944 they had dropped to 922.

One source indicated that the number of nightly incursions into the Army Group Center area during the summer of 1942 varied between 250 and 1,000 flights. In general, the aircraft used two air lanes; above Orel and above Velikie Luki (ca. 275 miles west of Moscow). They penetrated into the German rear up to a depth of 300 miles. In the area of Air Command Moscow (Army Group Center) the partisan airlift missions, during the summer of 1944, numbered several hundred per night.

Army Group North

Weapons, Ammunition, etc.

During an anti-partisan operation conducted by a reinforced German infantry regiment against a major partisan unit that had been active in the rear area of Sixteenth Army south of Lake Ilmen since the winter 1941–42 and had always managed to escape, the Germans succeeded in occupying the main supply camp in the center of the partisan area. While the Germans had hoped that capture of this camp would eliminate the partisan threat, they did not find a single round of ammunition or one bag of flour in the camp. They had been deceived by a very clever partisan ruse carried out by faked signal traffic. The enigma of the methods used to supply such a large partisan unit was solved during the night after the capture of the camp. Until then the Germans had found only cattle in abundance which were killed by fire from aircraft. That night the Germans were surprised as follows:

“Aircraft flew in, no doubt Russian aircraft, and when they were distinctly audible flares went up all around the hedgehog defense surrounding the regiment on the spit of land. Flares even appeared from the strip searched by the regiment during the day. Several smart Germans recognized the uniform pattern of flares, whereupon they imitated it when the next planes were approaching. To their surprise, parachute containers dropped to the flare-lit area containing Russian ammunition and, unfortunately only in a few of the containers, a kind of candy bar and tobacco. The enemy was there, all around the regiment. Despite this realization, the operation conducted during the second day was once again fruitless. After darkness the same pattern of events occurred: aircraft approached the area around the regiment’s hedgehog defenses. After midnight it began to pour with rain.”

A German commander in the Lithuanian area recorded air supply operations in support of the partisans in that area:

“In October 1942 I assumed command of Group IV of Bomber Wing Hindenburg No. 1 at Schaulen in Lithuania. At that time strong partisan units hid in the extensive forests east of Schaulen. They were supplied by night by Russian aircraft that apparently landed in the area. I personally established during a night observation flight that light signals and flares originated from the forests. I did not observe any aircraft, but the German police commander of Lithuania had reliable reports of airlift operations.”

Partisan Warfare in the Rear of Eastern German Army Groups III


By Army and Counterintelligence Agencies

Attacks on Partisan Airfields.

The Army security troops and police units committed in the rear areas of Army Group South, Center, and North were’ often supported by aircraft and antiaircraft units provided by the Luftwaffe as well as by air force headquarters troops employed for ground combat. In the course of their anti-partisan operations, these troops attempted to seize the airfields used for resupplying the partisans. Since these airfields were located in partisan-infested areas in fairly inaccessible forests and swamps, and since they were furthermore well secured and defended, they could usually not be attacked on the ground. By the time a major German unit, after serious fighting, finally succeeded in penetrating to such an airfield, the aircraft and installations had already been destroyed. Destruction by artillery fire usually failed because of the difficulty of bringing the guns sufficiently close to the target or because of a shortage of ammunition. Sometimes, however, a major operation of this type was rewarding, as when the Germans succeeded in capturing an airfield in the Lepel area on which there were more than 100 Soviet cargo gliders.

Deceptive Measures.

The German ground forces had a certain amount of success in imitating landmark beacons of the Russians by setting up similar fires and flares. In this manner the Germans succeeded in several instances in seizing air-dropped supplies or in making Russian aircraft land within their territory. For example, during an anti-partisan operation conducted south of Lake Ilmen in the winter of 1941–42 by a reinforced German infantry regiment, the troops fired the same flares as the partisans, whereupon Russian supply aircraft dropped parachute containers enclosing ammunition, rations, and PX supplies. The principal achievement, however, was that the Russians grew far more careful after that.

In February 1942 counterintelligence agents of Eighteenth Army captured a sabotage detachment composed of 8 men near Tosno (59° 33’N 30° 53’E). During his interrogation one of the radio operators stated that they were expecting an aircraft with a new commander and a new radio operator. Moreover, he informed his interrogators that the light signal to be given at the time of arrival of the plane above a small lake was the Russian letter “G.” Upon request from the Germans, the radio operator contacted the Leningrad station and found out that the plane would arrive the following night. At the indicated time the area was surrounded by German troops. The aircraft landed on the ice with four men aboard. While the two pilots were able to shoot themselves, the two passengers were captured alive.

But the Russians did not always fall into such traps, as is shown in the following case. In the spring of 1943 the 318th German Counterintelligence Group staged a similar operation in the Surash forest, some 20 miles north-east of Vitebsk (20), hoping to seize an aircraft that supported the Partisan Brigade Sokolov. The plane actually arrived, but instead of landing it strafed the area and dropped bombs. On their return trip the Russians who were working for the Germans on this mission fell into an ambush prepared by Sokolov’s partisans. The cause of this failure was never established. Although the Germans had used proper signals and code messages, the central partisan staff probably became suspicious because the clearing in the forest indicated by the Germans had not yet been used for landing operations. The Germans could not have used the customary airfield because all access roads were mined and the field was too close to the camp of Brigade Sokolov.

The German counterintelligence agents were able to obtain some of the partisan-destined supplies by playing German-prepared codes into partisan hands.

Such deceptive measures probably did not interfere much with the airlift of supplies to the partisans. Interference from the air was far more promising.

By Luftwaffe Agencies

Attacks on Jump-off Bases and Partisan Airfields. The Russian advanced landing fields, generally known to the Germans, were in the principal sector of Army Group Center as follows:

“1941–43: Kaluga (about 100 miles south-west of Moscow), Sukhinichi (approximately 70 miles north-west of Bryansk), and Kalinin (about 95 miles north-west of Moscow);

1943–44: Konotop (about 110 miles north-west of Kiev) and Sechniskoya (between Bryansk and Roslavl).“

The German Air Force units did not launch any mass attacks on these airfields; they made nuisance raids instead, mainly because they lacked sufficient strength to do better. These units also had other targets in the combat zone that had higher priority than airfields serving partisan support.

Again because of the shortage of forces the Germans were unable to launch planned offensives against partisan airfields, even in the central sector of the Russian theater.76 They were forced to improvise measures against these targets. Nuisance bombers had orders to drop bombs in their raids on these well-known airfields, if such action promised results. Bombers were also ordered to attack such airfields as a secondary-mission. But only in a few instances did the Germans score successes in bombing raids on partisan air-drop points, and the number of Russian aircraft shot down in such raids was small.

To restrict Soviet night flying activities that were constantly increasing, the security divisions of Army Group Center were each issued three close reconnaissance aircraft, model Focke-Wulf. After a slow start they proved very effective. They succeeded, for instance, in identifying the well-camouflaged and forest-hidden emergency airfield at Zezersk [Chechersk], north-west of Gomel, at a time when a plane was on the field. It was destroyed on the ground and another one was later shot down while landing. The airfield was then destroyed during a special operation and made inaccessible, after bombing from the air had proved of little lasting effect.

At the end of 1943 the close reconnaissance units of the 1st Air Division committed in the Central Army Group sector at Mogilev were employed in the partisan-held area to the west with orders to fire at every light signal. If the pattern of light signals indicated the existence of a landing field, the German planes were to wait for Russian aircraft to land, then drop flares and set the enemy planes on fire.

During the period 1 September 1943 to the summer of 1944 an air commander (Brig.-Gen. Punzert) on the Sixth Air Force staff was responsible for committing his auxiliary bombing units not only for night nuisance raids on nearby enemy forward areas but also for supporting anti-partisan operations of the ground forces and attacking Russian supply aircraft. These auxiliary units received their personnel and equipment from flying schools. They were organized as follows:

(1) 1st Night Ground Attack Group with 5 squadrons, equipped with the following model aircraft: Arado 66 (single-engine school and training planes of an old type), Heinkel 45 and Henschel 126 (antiquated, single-engine reconnaissance aircraft), and Focke-Wulf 189 (twin-engine close reconnaissance planes).

(2) Combat Command Liedtke, consisting of 3 squadrons, equipped with Junkers F 13 (single-engine, commercial aircraft), Henschel 123 and 126 (antiquated, single-engine close reconnaissance aircraft), Heinkel 111 and Dornier 17 (antiquated, twin-engine bombing and long-range reconnaissance aircraft), and Messerschmitt 109 (single-engine, single-seat fighter).

(3) Special Squadron Gamringer (for reconnaissance and combat) composed of 12 planes of the following models: Arado 66 (single-engine school and training planes of an old type), Junkers 87 (dive bomber), and Messerschmitt 109 (single-engine, single-seat fighter).

The armament of these planes was improvised with machine guns, while the Focke-Wulf 189’s and Heinkel 111’s also had cannon. Bombs were dropped by hand, except for the Heinkel 111’s which were equipped with bomb release and bomb sight devices.

The commitment of the few aircraft suitable for night fighting against the approaching supply transports failed, although not through any lack of personnel. The aircraft were insufficiently equipped with navigational aids, their armament was unsatisfactory, and the pilots had not had enough training in firing guns. The aircraft warning net did not offer sufficient coverage and the Russians adroitly exploited this weakness. For these reasons the Germans had to be satisfied with keeping the areas through which the Russian aircraft entered their territory under surveillance. This was achieved by tracing the fiery glare of the engine exhaust until the landing of the aircraft and then bombing the landing ground. This procedure was only rarely successful, because the partisans improvised an antiaircraft defense of the landing fields. At first they responded with immediate and intensive rifle and machine gun fire; after a while, they also used light antiaircraft guns with considerable success. Only in 2 or 3 instances were the Germans able to establish that they had destroyed Russian aircraft on the ground.

The 1st Night Ground Attack Group was committed along the northern sector of the Russian front, under the command of the 3rd Air Division, from the beginning of 1943 to 6 July 1944. The group flew night bombing missions against nearby targets such as troop assemblies, tank-staging areas, motor-vehicle columns, and artillery positions. Originally designated as a nuisance bombing group, the group was equipped with inferior and partly unarmed school and training aircraft and antiquated close reconnaissance planes, and could therefore be employed against these targets only by night. When partisan activities in the immediate rear of the combat zone, especially in the partisan-infested area south-west of Leningrad around Luga, required anti-partisan operations in September 1943, individual planes of this group were committed as reconnaissance and bombing planes in support of the ground forces in daytime missions.

South of Luga the partisans had prepared a landing field for supply transports—model U 2—in virtually inaccessible terrain. The borders of the landing surface were surrounded by piles of twigs that were lit when Russian supply planes were expected. One of the Heinkel 46 aircraft succeeded in arriving at precisely that moment and attacked a U 2 with machine-gun fire as it was landing. The crashed aircraft was sighted the next day. Constant disruption of their supply system must have created great difficulties for this partisan unit, since the Germans intercepted radio messages indicating that the partisans were unable to operate for lack of supplies.

In the southern part of the Russian theater the Germans also had to improvise. Thus, in 1943–44 Russian aircraft, even twin-engine types, landing on partisan-prepared airfields on the high plateau of the Yaila Mountains, were attacked by German auxiliary units equipped with school and training planes.

Attacks on Transports in Flight. Since the supply aircraft flew only under cover of darkness, it was difficult to combat them with flak and fighters. In contrast to Western Europe, the Germans in the Russian theater had a weak night-fighter organization.

In the Sixth Air Force area in the central sector, the II Corps and the 1st Air Division had improvised a night-fighter intercept organization against Russian supply transports. Radar intercept detachments were installed on railroad cars and thus given the necessary mobility for commitment at enemy points of main air effort in accordance with German air and railroad capabilities. These detachments were instrumental in scoring the greatest number of night kills; but their number was insufficient to achieve more than very limited local coverage.

Deceptive Measures.

The small U 2, a slow but maneuverable aircraft, used by the Russians to carry supplies into areas close to the front, was suitable for night missions because the German night fighters could not easily shoot it down. Moreover, it could take off from and land on small airstrips that could be found in great number. It could also land on skis wherever such landings were possible. These airstrips were known to the German Air Force and new ones could rapidly be identified by air reconnaissance units. The Soviet command, however, did not have to make frequent switches in landing, supply, or airdrop fields because the German ground forces were too weak to seize them and the German night fighters were not very effective in attacking them.

By constant surveillance the German command sometimes succeeded in identifying the signal markers on landing grounds. Night fighter and reconnaissance aircraft provided data for deceptive measures to mislead Russian supply aircraft approaching by ground orientation markers. Along a frequently used Russian air-supply route in the Sixth Air Force area the Germans reconnoitered a landing field at the rear border of an area of the front that was firmly controlled by the German ground forces. This field was “prepared for landing,” and occupied by an air force liaison detachment and one light antiaircraft platoon. On the basis of frequently observed landing signals at partisan airfields, a list of signals was established for the liaison detachment and the night reconnaissance aircraft that was to observe and radio the proper signal for the respective night to the liaison detachment. The personnel of the latter thereupon set up the lamps in the proper pattern so that the approaching Russian supply transports would assume that they had arrived at destination and would land.

The success of this type of deception depended on the following:

(1) The “trap” had to be along the approach route because the Soviet aircraft had sufficient means of ground orientation to detect major deviations from their course.

(2) The trap could not be too far ahead of the destination since the crews would notice major differences in flight time. On the other hand, it had to be sufficiently far from the point of destination so that the two signals could not be seen simultaneously from the air.

(3) The light signals could not be made up of the customary flashlights, but had to consist of lanterns or straw fires as used by partisans at their airfields. The strong while light of electrical flashlights would have aroused the suspicions of the Russian crews.

Because of the requirement that such traps be set up close to the real landing field, the successful use of this deceptive measure was limited. Use of this measure was also limited to clear nights during which such navigational aids as ground orientation markers consisting of fires would permit the moderately trained and primitively equipped Russian crews to fly such missions. Nevertheless, such traps were at times successful;86 in one instance, six aircraft of a U-2 squadron landed at short intervals and were captured by the Germans. A seventh plane escaped, the pilot probably becoming alarmed because the preceding aircraft had not been brought under cover with sufficient speed.

Radio was sometimes, though more rarely, utilized. The following report pertains to a case of particularly successful radio deception:

“As I remember, Army Group Center in 1944 maintained a separate situation map on the partisan-held area west of Mogilev and around Lepel, where German police units and Hungarian elements operated. These partisans regularly received airlift supplies, according to these situation reports. For this purpose, the partisans had built several airfields in the midst of extensive forests, where aircraft landed at night under improvised illumination. The Russians used mainly R-5 model aircraft. I can remember an experience report, of which we received a copy, describing an operation against several of these airfields. An Air Force officer had discovered the airfields and had captured one after the other so that he could signal down the arriving aircraft during subsequent nights, using the prearranged code signal for landing. He then seized the aircraft and their cargo. The officer was decorated with the Knight’s Cross for this action. It must have been in the spring of 1944.”


The preceding description of Russian partisan warfare against the German invaders indicates that this type of warfare inflicted heavy damage, both in personnel and matériel, on the German Armed Forces. It also tied down strong forces that had to be denied to the frontline fighting proper. Partisan warfare may have contributed considerably to the German defeat.

The conditions which made the successful conduct of partisan warfare possible were as follows:

(1) Russia’s tremendous size, bad roads, and the many possibilities for hiding in the extensive forests and swamps that were available even to large partisan units.

(2) German inability to capture the numerous Russian soldiers, whose units were dispersed after the initial battles and the armored breakthroughs which followed. These men went into hiding behind the German lines and rapidly formed large combat-effective partisan units.

(3) The ability of the first partisan units to arm and equip themselves from the enormous quantities of matériel that had remained on the battlefields; also their ability to live off the land.

(4) The abundant energy and brutality demonstrated by partisan leaders of all ranks.

(5) The Russians’ highly developed ability to improvise, their primitiveness and their frugality.

(6) The Russians’ patriotism, which is so great that they will make any sacrifice; their fatalistic attitude; the conviction, inculcated into them, that their communist “achievements” were endangered; all these characteristics contributed to their self-sacrificing spirit.

(7) Last but not least, the false propaganda and poor treatment of the Russian civilian population by German political leaders created resistance instead of maintaining and exploiting the advantage of the initial confidence displayed by many elements of the population, as for instance in the Ukraine, where the Germans were received as liberators.

The partisan units could not have continually increased and improved their arms and equipment or have fought and trained and carried out increasingly complicated missions, however, without airlift operations. These assured a steady flow of weapons, ammunition, explosives, fuses, and, wherever necessary, rations, clothing, signal equipment, POL supplies, staff and headquarters personnel, training personnel, specialists, and agents. The airlift also provided courier service for written and oral orders and directives, propaganda for the partisans and the civilian population, military mail service, and other means of maintaining combat effectiveness and morale.

This leads to the conviction that impeding or at least strongly-hampering airlift operations would have stopped partisan warfare altogether or weakened it to such an extent as to obviate its significance in the struggle.91 As described in the preceding pages, the Germans did not succeed in disrupting the airlift operations to a degree that would have put the flow of partisan supplies in question. Despite a few partial successes in anti-airlift operations, the Germans were generally no more successful in this field than in anti-partisan warfare on the ground. What were the reasons for this failure?

The Germans had neither sufficient fighter nor antiaircraft units at their disposal properly to combat the Russian air force units in the German rear areas. In order to combat the supply transports flying exclusively under cover of darkness, the Germans needed night-fighter units for interception and the necessary equipment for the direction of interception from the ground. Such auxiliary measures as have been described caused a certain amount of disruption, but did not lead to any decisive success because the “auxiliary units” had neither the planes nor the training, nor were there enough of them. Efforts to hamper the Russian airlift operations by attacking take-off and landing fields in partisan-held areas could be carried out only by emergency units and were therefore doomed to failure. Combat units were urgently needed in the combat zone itself and could be made available only occasionally and then only for nuisance raids.

The command for anti-partisan operations was unsatisfactory and ineffective because no top-level staff was in charge of the Army and Air Force elements, the SS and police forces, the counterintelligence, and other units used for anti-partisan operations. Although the Germans were aware of certain Russian preparations for partisan warfare even before the outbreak of hostilities, no timely preparations were made except for the activation of Army security divisions to protect the lines of communication and the organization of special SS and police forces. But no individual or staff was responsible for the overall command of anti-partisan operations. Whereas the Russians had put one man in charge of the entire partisan warfare operation, the Germans suffered from internal difficulties and overlapping responsibilities. Neither local nor specific spheres of responsibility had been established, let alone general ones.

The so-called rear area commanders of each army group were responsible for securing and pacifying the occupied territories and administering and exploiting their areas. Only too late, in autumn of 1943, was the rear area commander of Army Group Center, which suffered most from partisan activities, redesignated “Armed Forces Commander.” Whether he actually was given command over all units that were to be committed against partisans in the area under his jurisdiction seems doubtful. But to fight partisans successfully when they become as powerful and as numerous as in the Russian campaign, one must have absolute command authority over all security, reconnaissance, and combat units that are needed for anti-partisan operations. Moreover, these units must be available in sufficient number and strength.

1942- One Last Opportunity: The German Experience with Indigenous Security Forces


The last stand of an isolated detachment of the French Foreign Legion in Mexico came to represent the spirit of that illustrious unit. Their self-sacrifice epitomized the sense of duty and honour that superseded all other considerations, including survival, and symbolized the determined ethos of the Legion.

The French military intervention in Mexico, subsequently known as the Franco-Mexican War, had been provoked by the Mexican government defaulting on interest repayments in July 1861. The fleets of Great Britain, Spain and France arrived at Veracruz soon after, with the intention of pressuring the republican government of Benito Juárez into submission. Though some Spanish troops had been dispatched, it was neither the intent of Britain nor Spain to launch a full military expedition. It was the arrival of the French army and their occupation of the eastern city of Campeche on 27 February 1862 that demonstrated the French were far more belligerent than their other European partners. Concerned that France intended to establish a permanent occupation, the British and Spanish withdrew their forces.

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, believed the situation in Mexico offered him a number of benefits. He was eager to demonstrate the military power of the French empire and thereby to establish a more favourable diplomatic position in Europe. He was also keen to re-establish good relations with the Austrian Habsburg empire after an inconclusive and costly war against them in 1859, as such diplomacy would be the means to link the crowned heads of Europe and suppress republican or revolutionary movements. Action against the secular republic of Mexico in favour of a Catholic restoration and a rapprochement with Austria would also please Napoleon’s Roman Catholic supporters at home. In April 1862, however, the Mexican government remained defiant, and a blockade of the Pacific port of Mazatlán failed to change the situation. Indeed, the check of a French force at the Battle of Puebla (5 May 1862), at the hands of the Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza, indicated the need for a stronger effort. The Mexican army was halted outside the city of Veracruz at Orizba on 14 June, and French reinforcements began to arrive in September (rising to a total of 38,400 troops by the end of the year). Through October, General Achille Bazaine repeatedly took the offensive, capturing Tampico, Tamaulipas and Xalapa, and then, after a bombardment on 15 January 1863, securing Veracruz.

The next objective of the French expeditionary force was Puebla, and, in March 1863, General Élie Frédéric Forey was tasked to lay siege to the city. The Mexicans could muster a total of 80,000 men but most of these forces were dispersed in garrisons. It was still possible, however, to dispatch relatively small formations to harass the French and try to cut their lines of communications from the coast. The French besieging force at Puebla had requested stocks of food, ammunition and tools, as well as three million francs. These supplies had to be transported with a relatively small guard along an obvious route: factors that played into the Mexican army’s hands.

The protection of the convoy was the responsibility of Captain Jean Danjou, who was assisted by Lieutenants Clément Maudet and Jean Vilain, and accompanied by 62 Legionnaires of the 3rd Company, Légion étrangère (French Foreign Legion). Danjou was a veteran with considerable military experience. He had served in Algeria where, during a close-quarter battle, his rifle had exploded and so damaged his hand that it had to be amputated. Despite the injury, Danjou went on to serve in the Crimean War at the Siege of Sebastopol, and then at the battles of Magenta and Solferino in northern Italy during the Franco-Austrian War (1859). When he received orders to assist in the protection of a supply column of carts and mules, he lost no time in assuming command of a small detachment of Legionnaires. Dressed in their characteristic blue jackets, baggy red pantaloons and white kepis, they each carried a rifled musket with its long bayonet and laboured under the weight of a heavy pack. The force was, as everyone later agreed, far too small for the task, but sickness had reduced the number of available troops and the dashing Danjou was forced to press the only men he had left into service.

This small detachment had marched through the night to avoid the heat of the day, and at 0700 hours on 30 April, they halted to rest. Before they had even had the opportunity to brew coffee, several squadrons of Mexican cavalry appeared, and the Legionnaires had to scramble into a square formation – still the traditional way to resist attacks by horsemen despite the introduction of longer-range rifled weapons in the French army. The Mexican cavalry nevertheless believed that their superior numbers and the element of surprise gave them a distinct advantage and charged. For some time, the French Legionnaires held their position, inflicting a number of casualties on the Mexicans and driving off several spirited charges. Despite this, Danjou was aware that his position was too exposed and the densely packed ranks were too large a target. He therefore ordered that, while maintaining a loose square, the Legionnaires were to withdraw towards a hacienda near by. They did so, taking casualties along the way. Hacienda Camerone was a rough adobe-and-wood structure, but it possessed a 10-foot (3-m) high mud wall that would at least offer some protection against cavalry. Danjou’s aim was to hamper the Mexican cavalry long enough for the convoy to escape. While some of the Mexican cavalry dismounted to engage the French, Danjou had at least survived the initial onslaught.

The French position was critical. The Mexican cavalry had prevented Danjou entering the village of Camerone, and even the main structure of the hacienda had fallen into their hands. Confined to a compound around which stood some ruined outbuildings, the position was hardly tenable. Mexican sharpshooters accounted for some Legionnaires who were trying to cover the gaps in the walls, but the French did manage to beat off the rushes of dismounted troopers and the mounted charges.

Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan, the commander of the Mexican cavalry, believed that the foreigners had no options left. He called on the French to surrender, but Danjou was still hoping to buy time and refused. It is alleged that the French captain also swore he would fight to the death and that his Legionnaires, inspired by this determination, expressed the same sentiment. Their situation began to change at 1100 hours when Milan’s reinforcements, a battalion of 1,200 infantrymen, arrived. The hacienda was soon encircled and fire began to pour in. Outnumbered twenty to one, the Legionnaires were exposed to the cruel heat of the sun, had no water, and had only the ammunition that each man carried in his pouches. For over an hour shots were exchanged, with casualties mounting steadily on both sides. The hacienda caught fire, the smoke and flames adding to the miseries of the dwindling garrison. By midday, half of the French force was either dead or wounded. Then, suddenly, Danjou himself was hit full in the chest. He died instantly.

Under cover of fire, the Mexican infantry tried to edge forward, and for a further four hours the French detachment maintained their fusillade. It was a very one-sided affair. Vilain was killed towards the end of the afternoon, leaving Maudet and just 12 others to continue the resistance. Surrounded by the dead and dying, and wreathed in smoke by the smouldering ruins of the hacienda, this tiny force was unable to cover the entire perimeter. The Mexicans were now able to bring fire to bear on every part of the position, and at around 1700 hours, after a day of fighting, only Maudet and five Legionnaires remained.

With all their ammunition expended, Maudet and his men decided to launch a desperate bayonet charge in order to take as many Mexicans with them as possible. It was a hopeless but courageous gesture. As they emerged from the ruined hacienda, the fire intensified. Two were killed instantly but the others raced forward. As the bullets cracked around them, Legionnaire Catteau tried to shield the lieutenant with his own body, but he was shot down and Maudet fell seconds later. The two survivors, both shot and wounded, lay exhausted and resigned to death, but the Mexican commander ordered a ceasefire. He offered them the chance to surrender, and, defiant to the end, they would agree only if they were permitted to keep their rifles and escort the other wounded, and the body of Captain Danjou, back to the coast. Somewhat astonished, but touched by their devotion to duty and to their fallen leader, Milan agreed. It is claimed he muttered to his own troops: ‘What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.’

Thanks to the unquestionable heroism of Danjou and his men, the convoy did indeed make its way intact to the French forces besieging Puebla, and seventeen days later the city fell. General Bazaine defeated the Mexican relieving force at the Battle of San Lorenzo (8 May 1863) and then went on to enter Mexico City in June that year. The Mexican government fled to the north to continue its resistance from there, but more and more of the country fell under French control. On Napoleon III’s prompting, the Habsburg dynasty provided the new ruler, Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, in April 1864. An Imperial Mexican army was created, with Austrian volunteers augmenting the new force. Republican Mexican resistance continued, however, into 1865, and the United States, emerging from four years of Civil War, demanded that the French occupation be brought to an end. Some 50,000 US troops assembled on the Rio Grande and, fearing a war with America, the French began to evacuate Mexico in February 1866. Maximilian’s forces were subsequently defeated by Mexican republicans in a series of battles until, in 1867, the capital fell back under the control of Juárez. Maximilian, accused of having ordered the execution of all rebels who opposed him, was shot by firing squad in June that year, and the republicans were restored to government.

The French Foreign Legion, which had suffered the bulk of the casualties of the French expeditionary force in the war, was eager not to lose sight of the achievement of Danjou and his detachment at Camerone. Some time after the battle, Danjou’s prosthetic hand was found on the site of the fighting. He had worn the wooden limb painted as a glove, but somehow it must have been ripped from his body in the confusion of battle and been left behind. It was restored to the Legion some years later and on Camerone Day the wooden hand is still paraded. The Legionnaires also drink a ceremonial coffee to remember the fact that Danjou’s men were denied this small privilege on the morning of 30 April 1863. The battle honour ‘Camerone’, embroidered on the flag of the Légion étrangère, is held in particular esteem by the Foreign Legion. The epitaph erected at the site of the battle, but since lost, recorded that: ‘They were less than sixty opposed to a whole army. Its mass crushed them. Life rather than bravery gave up these French soldiers at Camerone on 30 April 1863.’ Even if one allows for a certain license in this text, Danjou and his Legionnaires had exhibited an exceptional courage, and, more for the sake of honour than any tactical reason, they had fought on against all the odds.