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

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