Much has been said and written regarding the role that was played by NKVD in the politically motivated purges that decimated Red Army in the late 30s, as well as much talk arose around NKVD activities in the World War II—anti-guerrilla operations, behind-the enemy-lines terror squads, blocking detachments that executed on spot the retreating regular troops and so on, but too little information appeared concerning the NKVD troops actually fighting as combat units on the front. Partly this is due to the fact that the main bulk of NKVD archives is kept secret even now, 26 years after the collapse of the USSR. We hope that this essay might shed some light on the subject.
The origin of NKVD troops can be traced back to October 1925, when the first two divisions of Escort Troops were formed to ensure the necessary security regime for gigantic Soviet prison and concentration camp system. With the emergence of NKVD these two divisions grew and changed both in size and in strength—as the political repressions, collectivisation, purges and forced labour industrialisation projects had been carried out. In course of 1939-1940, in the Winter War with Finland, NKVD troops alongside with the NKVD Border Guards assisted Red Army to breach the enemy defences. In order to assure rapid advance of main forces and make captured Finnish ground in Soviet rear areas a secure place, a joint order of the People’s Commissariats of Defence and Internal Affairs ordered to raise 7 NKVD operative regiments and 1 reserve regiment, 1500 men in each, giving birth to the frontline NKVD troops as such.
It is evident that an intensive project of raising and enlarging NKVD divisions was well underway before the “Great Patriotic War” started on June 22, 1941, with 21st, 22nd and 23rd NKVD Motorised Rifle divisions being raised in Baltic, Western and Kiev Special Military Districts. There was a total of 6 NKVD divisions formed and being in combat-redy shape, with 9 divisions being raised. Basically, these divisions were created with the same TO&E as regular Red Army divisions, apart from strong armoured fists and motorization that enabled their impressive performance in the early days of the war. We also encounter queer formations like NKVD Railway Guarding Troops divisions, whose primary goal was to establish a firm control of the railway network during the mobilisation period, secure effective shipment of military materials to the frontline troops and eventually provide the maintenance of the railways on the occupied territories; their TO&E included four Rifle regiments, as a rule each possessing an armoured train for mobile artillery and anti-aircraft support. As of June 22, 1941, they were deployed as follows:
2nd NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Karelia and Estonia
3rd NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Byelorussia
4th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Kiev-Chernihiv-Zhitomyr-Vinnytsia-Odessa railway
5th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Eastern Ukraine
9th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Brest-Vilnius railway
10th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Western Ukraine
13th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Bielcy-Bendery-Uman railway
24th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Minsk-Smolensk railway
27th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Far East
28th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Far East
29th NKVD Railway Guarding Troops division: Transbaikal railway
Therefore, it is obvious that the main bulk of these NKVD troops was engaged in the activities concerned with the future war, a war that was relentlessly approaching, either as a planned Soviet scheme, or an imminent German invasion prospect.
Curiously, in many cases it were exactly NKVD troops subunits that first came under devastating German fire in the early hours of “Barbarossa”, as in case with the 132nd Separate Escort Troops NKVD battalion stationed in the notorious Brest citadel. All in all, there were also 53 units of NKVD border guards, 9 NKVD border commands, 30 engineer NKVD battalions working on construction sites in the border Military Districts and entering combat almost instantly.
But we must remember that while certain NKVD units fought staunchly during the first days of the war, other committed mass atrocities and war crimes. For instance, it is known that the 5th Motorised Rifle regiment of the 22nd NKVD division was attacked by Luftwaffe aircraft at 10.00 in the morning of June 22, in the vicinity of Shauljaj, while marching along the Baranovichi-Riga line, coming back from the operation in Byelorussia, whose primary goal was to ensure the forced deportation of the civilians from the areas close to the borders. The scale of the similar operations before June 22 is still obscure, and yet it is known that in many cases massacres took place, often following the news of the German attack. It should be also stressed that the elements of the 22nd NKVD Motorised Rifle division participated in the defence of Riga, suppressing the rebellion instigated by Latvian nationalists on June 28, followed by massacres of Latvian civilians by NKVD troopers after the nest of resistance were destroyed on the following day.
Similar actions were undertaken in Ukrainian SSR by the notorious 13th Escort Troops NKVD division(with headquarters in Kiev, later in Brovary and Kharkiv), consisting of the 233rd Regiment(Lviv), 227th Regiment(Kiev), 249th Regiment(Odessa), 228th Regiment(Kharkiv), 229th Regiment(Lviv, responsible for the maintenance of Polish POWs since 1939), 237th Regiment(Kishinev) and 154th separate battalion(Chernivtsi). Aware of the imminent advance of the German spearheads in the Western Ukraine, the units of Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries began to concentrate in the vicinity of the major cities, to prevent the massacres of the prisoners guarded by the 13th Escort Troops NKVD division. However, NKVD assassins were supported by the regular Red Army units in their endeavours to avoid the liberation of the prisoners, who were considered “the fifth column” and “counter-revolutionary scum”—for instance, in Lviv the Red Army command was forced to designate the units of the 4th Mechanised Corp(32nd Motorised Rifle regiment of the 32nd Tank division, 202nd Motorised Rifle regiment of the 81st Motorised division) to withstand the pressure of paramilitary units trying to break to the city prisons. The butchers of the 13th Escort Troops NKVD division massacred up to 20,000 of imprisoned civilians in the prisons of Lviv, Ternopil, Lutsk, Peremyshl, Volodymyr-Volynskyj, Rivne, Dubno, Kolomyja and Stanislav. However, in some cases(for instance, the city of Sarny) the units of Ukrainian nationalists managed to demolish NKVD garrisons and hold the towns up to the arrival of German vanguards.
Conducting a fighting withdrawal, NKVD troops were subordinated to the Red Army formations and formed their operative reserves, owing this role to their mobility, political reliability, ruthless leadership and armament. The afore-mentioned 22nd NKVD Motorised Rifle division defended Riga, then, being pressed by the German troops, withdrew to Estonia, secured the retreat of regular Red Army formations, got encircled and was evacuated to Leningrad by sea—to be disbanded due to heavy losses. In order to raise more reserves for the frontline service, achieve better performance of NKVD troops and to widen the sphere of their employment, the Soviet Stavka of High Command issued the following order.
Concerning the formation of Rifle and Motorised divisions of the NKVD troops personnel
29th of June 1941
Immediately proceed to the formation of 15 divisions, of which 10 Rifle and 5 Motorised. For the formation of these divisions a proportion of NKVD border guards and internal security troops personnel should be employed, including privates, NCOs and commissioned officers. The remaining strength should be drafter from reserve.
The People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs L.P. Berija should be charged with the responsibility of raising these divisions; Red Army Chief of Staff should provide the divisions being raised with the necessary personnel, material resources and weapons according to the application of NKVD.
Stavka of High Command