Friday, April 23, 2010

The Partisan War

An often-overlooked theatre of the Russian front during the Second World War is the vicious and brutal campaign waged by partisans behind the German lines. By the time the Red Army began its victorious drive west to the frontiers of the Third Reich in 1944, there were over half-a-million partisans operating deep within German-held territory. The partisans, men and women living in the woods and marshes of Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia, played a significant part in disrupting German supply, communications and transport to the front lines, and forced the SS and Wermacht to keep large formations of troops away from the front to secure their vulnerable logistical systems.

In the end it was, as in all wars, the civilian population that would suffer the most in the fighting between nazi German forces and the partisans. German reprisals consisted of killing 10 civilians from the nearest villages for every one German soldier killed by partisans, while the partisans themselves would raid their countrymen's villages for food and supplies and to root out and kill anyone suspected of collaborating with the Germans.

At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, explicit orders had been given to the German armed forces concerning resistance in the rear areas. Titled "Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia", this order read "Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people. This battle demands ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs and Jews and the total eradication of any active or passive resistance." Many German officers, tried after the war for war crimes and crimes against humanity, would fall back on these 'guidelines' as proof that they were simply following orders. In any case, this order certainly gave the average German soldier a license to greatly mistreat the civilian population in occupied areas of the Soviet Union.

As German forces drove through the Baltic states and the Ukraine, the people at first welcomed them as liberators from Stalin and his ruthless secret police, the NKVD. Ukrainian girls kissed smiling German soldiers as they marched through captured villages, and in the Baltics flowers were thrown on tanks by the grateful population. The same scenes were repeated in western Belarus but, within a short time, it became apparent that no matter how totalitarian Stalin's rule had been, life under the nazis was infinitely worse.

The ruthless Einzatsgruppen of the SS were tasked with destroying the Jewish population of the Soviet Union but their mission quickly came to include terrorizing the non-Jewish civilian population. Members of the SS were generally fanatical Nazis, and as the elite praetorian guard of Hitler and the Nazi party, membership to the SS was only granted to the most devoted of National Socialists. As a result SS members believed in the theory of racial superiority and the threat that Jews, Slavs and other "subhumans" posed to the "pure" Germanic-Aryan race. The people of the Ukraine and the Baltics who had at first greeted the Germans with flowers were soon turning to acts of terrorism as SS atrocities against them increased.

SS Einzatsgruppen execute Jewish civilians in Belarus

The first partisans were disorganized and badly equipped. In the summer of 1941 the Germans had surrounded large pockets of Red Army troops at Minsk, in Belarus, and Smolensk in Western Russia. Most of these hapless soldiers surrendered to the Germans but many of them melted away into the dense forests of the area. In smaller battles across the front, and in areas by-passed by the German advance, Red Army units did the same. The Wermacht never had the resources to effectively police and control the vast territory of conquered Russia. The bulk of its fighting manpower was needed at the front, so the task of taming the rear areas fell to the SS.

These small groups of Red Army "leftovers" started ambushing German army transports heading to the front in order to steal food, clothing and weapons. The men were living in forests and hiding from the roving patrols of the SS. In some areas, like the Pripet Marshes in north-west Russia, Red Army units linked up to form partisan bands over 2,000 strong! Most of the bands, however, were no bigger than ten or twenty men surviving by raiding and stealing.

After the German defeat at the gates of Moscow and as the terror of the German occupation increased, more and more of the civilian population were disappearing into the forests, sometimes to join up with Red Army groups and many times to form their own partisan bands. In the Ukraine many of the civilian partisan bands fought with both the Germans and other Red Army groups, and they continued to fight the Red Army for years after the war had ended.

A young partisan woman milking a cow for her camp.

Partisans on the move in a Russian forest. Note the captured German uniforms and equipment.

The civilian groups were made up of both men and women, old and young. They were incredibly effective in wrecking German transport and supply lines and constituted a greater threat, at least at the beginning of the war, to German logistics than the Red Army partisans. Railways were mined and locomotives blown up. Groups of civilians, using captured German machine guns and rifles, would leap out of the forest and shoot up German trucks or cars unlucky enough to be travelling on their own. Small groups of German soldiers on leave behind the lines would be kidnapped and killed and left on display for other Germans to see. Fuel and ammunition dumps would be attacked and destroyed and their garrisons killed. Military airfields, with their larger garrisons, were not safe as partisans would storm the fences at night and blow up as many warplanes as possible before melting away into the surrounding forests again.

These partisans built up huge camps within the forests. Bunkers were dug and buildings erected out of felled trees. In some camps there were makeshift hospitals, mess halls and even nursuries for newborn children of partisan women.

Russian female partisans fought alongside their male counterparts. After the war the Soviet Union registered over 30,000 marriages between men and women who fought together as partisans.

The partisans also conducted raids on their own countrymen who collaborated with the Germans. Civilian police stations in the occupied territories were frequent targets, and assasinations of mayors, businessmen and other people who sought to profit off the German occupation were frequent. Villages which refused to supply local partisan groups with food were sometimes destroyed, although this was more common near Red Army partisan units than with civilian partisans.

The arch-enemy of the partisans remained the SS. As the war on the eastern front progressed the partisans were emboldened by Soviet victories at places such as Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk and by the relatively few German forces available to subdue the rear areas. Supply to the German front was becoming catastrophically disrupted due to partisan activity, so much so that Berlin ordered the creation of special SS combat groups to hunt down and destroy partisan units hiding out in the forests.

Supplied with aircraft, tanks, armored vehicles and light artillery, these SS groups were able to quickly move from one area to another whenever intelligence revealed the location of a partisan group. Gestapo investigators were attached to each combat group. Increased partisan activity in an area could reveal an approximate location of a unit, but diabolical schemes could also root them out of their forest hideouts. For example, it became a common, and effective, tactic to capture a couple of partisans and, after extensive torture, discover which local villages they enjoyed support from. The SS would then move in to those villages and round up the inhabitants and shoot or hang or, in some cases, crucify them all and then burn the village to the ground.

These acts would cause the local partisans to come out of hiding, whether to investigate the atrocity, to find new sources of supply or simply to seek revenge for the deaths of their families and destruction of their homes. The SS would be lying in wait and would ambush the partisans, and then chase the survivors back into the woods to overrun their camps.

These SS units became specialist partisan fighters. Recconaissance aircraft would also be used to locate partisan camps at which point the SS would storm the forest. Some incredibly vicious battles ensued behind the lines, with partisan units defending their camps and SS stormtroopers attacking the perimeters to crush them.

An SS firing squad executing partisans in the Ukraine.

A Russian family left homeless after the SS swept through their village.

In 1942, after the battle of Stalingrad, the stavka, the Soviet military high command, took an interest in the strategic value of the partisans and began to parachute radio sets, weapons and experts in guerilla warfare to the partisans. The Red Army groups were organized into cohesive fighting units and massive operations behind the lines were conducted. As a result, in the lead-up to the decisive battle at Kursk, nearly 1/4 of all German supplies earmarked for the offensive never reached their frontline units. For example, in northern Ukraine an army train transport carrying new Panther and Tiger tanks, along with all their fuel, ammunition and crews, was ambushed by partisans. 36 of the valuable tanks were destroyed on the train flatbeds and over 100 of their crews were killed. Most of the fuel and ammunition was set on fire.

More and more German soldiers were forced to patrol and garrison behind the lines, thus keeping out of the battles at the front. Historical estimates put the number of frontline-worthy German troops, from both the Wermacht and the SS, that were stationed behind the lines because of partisan activity, at over 100,000, or enough to supply another whole German army.

Following the battle of Kursk the Red Army began its drive west, recapturing Soviet territory and eventually overrunning all of Eastern Europe and half of Germany. In this final phase of the war, partisan activity escalated beyond all means of the Germans to control it. As Soviet forces neared, partisans became more bold, attacking strong German garrisons and even the vaunted SS special combat groups. Retreating German soldiers, hoping to escape from the avenging Red Army that was nipping at their heals, found nowhere safe to escape. As German soldiers marched back the way they had come three years earlier, they found only the corpses of their comrades who had gone before them until they in turn were attacked by formations of furious partisans. Morale in the German army crumbled, and the constant attacks by partisans caused massed confusion among the retreating formations, making it impossible for commanders to assemble their units into defensive lines.

Carnage on the German rail lines, courtesy of the partisans.

Partisans investigate a Luftwaffe airfield they have just destroyed.

By 1944 partisan units controlled vast areas of territory, and instituted their own governments and enforced their own laws. As the Red Army swept through these areas, the partisans were rounded up and drafted into regular army units. Many resented this but dissenters, in typical Stalinist fashion, were executed or sent to Siberia by their own government in spite of the sacrifices they had made for the cause.

Stalin was so paranoid of the independence of these partisan units that after the war a mass roundup of all those who had fought in a civilian partisan unit was conducted. Over 100,000 former partisans were sent to the Gulag and it wasn't until after Stalin's death in 1955 that they were granted amnesty and allowed to return home.

The total number of partisans killed or Germans killed by partisans is impossible to calculate. There was no registration system in place for partisans, and the number of people who claimed to have fought with the partisans after the war must be suspect (Stalin had decreed that every Soviet citizen had a sacred duty to either fight or die and those people caught up in the German occupation were later punished by Soviet authorities, so many resorted to claiming that they were partisans). What is known is that many, if not most, of the partisans killed in the war lie in unmarked graves.

In 1960 it was decided that military medals should be awarded to veterans of the partisan war, and in 1995, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, special commemorative coins were minted celebrating the contributions that every man and woman who fought against Nazi tyranny made.


  1. Hi...Excellent, very interesting and informative site.

    My pet topic is the 1945 mutiny and partisan campaign on the Dutch island of Texel by the Wehrmacht's 822nd Georgia Infanterie Battallion.. the June 1945 evacuation of the Georgian survivors to Wilhelmshaven and their subsequent August 1945 repatriation, via East Germany to Soviet custody ((all help offered willingly and warmly accepted; reciprocal help guaranteed.
    Today, I am also interested, helping an associate, in information about the 1st Ukrainian Partisan Division force under General Kovpak which in early 1944 entered Galicia and was subjected to a month-long campaign of German counter-partisan activity led by the Kampfgruppe Beyersdorf of the 14th Galicia SS Volunteer Division.
    Information about partisan and German operations in that campaign, with special focus on Soviet and German commanders and German units, would be especially welcomed.
    I hope that someone can help my searches and again say Well Done on a good site well produced.
    Alan Newark (

  2. Dear Sirs,

    My name is Jay Slater and I am a senior commissioning book editor of all things military and aviation. I am very interested in this topic and was wondering if a book or two might come from this. Please drop me a line: jayslater (at)

  3. The ss squads were the horror of hell