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.

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