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.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *