The Russian Resistance movement had a major impact on the course of the war on the Eastern Front. Those who fought in the Russian resistance movement are better known as ‘partisans’. In the immediate aftermath of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, people in certain parts of Russia saw the Germans as liberators from the tyranny of Joseph Stalin as opposed to an evil invading conqueror. When the numerous atrocities against the people of western Russia started, attitudes changed and many turned to the resistance movement as a way to help defeat Germany.
The partisans in Russia invariably fought in terrain that the Germans found impossible to patrol and control. The bulk of the partisans operated from and were based in the Pripet Marshes – a vast area of bog land four hundred miles to the south-west of Moscow. As the Germans advanced towards Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, as Blitzkrieg steamrollered all before it, the death squads of the SS started their grim work. Many thousands of Russians joined the partisan groups in the marshes and attacked the German Army in the rear as it advanced east. The forests of Belorussia were also a major centre for partisan activity. Both the forests and the marshes had one similar feature – they were all but impossible to police. Those in the partisans knew their home territory and such knowledge gave them a huge advantage over the better armed and equipped Germans.
In May 1942, a Central Staff was set up in Russia to direct the activities of the partisans. By July 1943, the number of partisans fighting against the Germans was estimated at 142,000. They operated as far a field as Lake Peipus in the north to the Crimea in the south. In August 1942, the Central Staff called the work of the partisans unsatisfactory and ordered an increase in activity against the Germans. In the same month, the Central Staff also ordered a full amnesty for all who had collaborated with the Germans. The partisans had been utterly ruthless with any collaborators they had caught. However, the Central Staff wanted all Russians in the west to work as one unit – and the treatment of collaborators and suspected collaborators was a de-stabilising element within the area.
Partisans engaged in classic guerilla activity – hit and run tactics. Strategic targets were selected and attacked – with the attackers drifting away into the night. For the Germans, chasing them into forests or marshland was a demoralising task – and invariably fruitless. As a result, the general population of western Russia was targeted by the Germans. Civilian blood was spilt in retaliation for partisan attacks. However, the more civilians were targeted, the more people joined the partisans. The Germans created what was effectively a vicious circle. They had to do something, but they could not find the partisans to punish. By punishing the innocent, the Germans were simply converting more to the cause of the partisans. By the autumn of 1941, the Bryansk Forest, covering an area of 125 miles by 40 miles, had only an estimated 2,500 partisans there. Within 12 months, the figure had greatly increased – though any figures given out by the government were always open to interpretation as partisan figures were frequently used for propaganda purposes.
The importance of the partisans to the Russian war effort can be seen by the fact that Stalin ordered that the Central Staff had to ensure that the partisans in the west were well equipped. Though some units clearly had to improvise, many of the larger units, such as the Kovpak and Saburov brigades in the Bryansk Forest, were equipped to a level where they could take on the Germans. Though supplies could never be guaranteed on a regular basis, guns, rifles and ammunition were usually well supplied. While the number of official partisan detachments increased in 1943 from 661 to 1,06, the number of radio sets made available to the partisans increased from just 217 to 300. However, many partisan units were self-contained, so communication outside of their locality was never a major problem – especially as Stalin had ordered that partisan leaders did not have to await for orders from above or confirmation of orders. Explosives were also short supply – so the partisans learned to recycle the explosives from unexploded shells.
The impact the partisans had on the Germans was huge. The damage done to military property, communication and supply lines was a major factor in the Germans inability to sustain its war effort in the east. The impact the partisans had on morale is probably impossible to calculate.
|“So far we have managed to reach Minsk. Our motor column had to make six stops owing to damaged bridges and four times we were stopped by enemy rifle and machine-gun fire. The stop between Slinim and Baranovichi was particularly long for we were ordered to repair a big bridge there, which had been destroyed by the guerillas about two hours before our arrival. We hardly made 20 kilometres when we ran into heavy fire which was fearful indeed and this went on until we got out of the forest. As a result four men were killed and three were wounded in our vehicle. After Minsk, our column split up and we went different ways. We proceeded on foot. We did not stop fighting these invisible men until we got to the front. In the proximity of Berezino we fought a real battle with them. As a result our company lost 40 men.”Corporal Gran, German 445th Infantry Regiment|
The brutality handed out to each other if caught knew no limits. However, this did not stop young people wanting to join the partisans. New recruits needed to have their loyalty tested first. To start with any new recruit was not allowed a weapon. He or she did menial jobs around a partisan group’s base. if at any stage, they were thought to be disloyal, they were shot as was their family. The family home would also be burned to the ground. Such brutality sent a very clear warning out to those who might have been bought off by the Germans.
After the start of the German retreat after the Battle of Stalingrad, the Germans went straight into the stronghold of the partisans. Attacked by the Red Army in the rear and partisans in front of them, the German Army had a fearful time during its retreat. The Germans attempted to take on the partisans especially in the Bryansk Forest. Up to 60,000 German soldiers were sent into the forest to seek and destroy partisan strongholds. Their mission was a failure. But this was a classic example of the partisans sucking away from the main battlefield, troops who could have been doing their duty elsewhere.
As parts of western Russia were cleared of their German occupiers, the partisans dealt with those who they believed had collaborated with the Germans and had remained unpunished up to that point. Any woman who had given birth to a child fathered by a German was arrested and handed over to the secret police. Few of these women ever returned to their towns/villages.
In July 1943, the Central Staff announced its ‘rail war’. The partisans were ordered to all but destroy the rail network of western Russia. Between February 1943 and July 1943, there was a three-fold increase in attacks on railways – 1,460 attacks in July alone, averaging just under 50 attacks a day. Forty-four bridges carrying rail lines were destroyed as were 298 locomotives. Such targets were vital if Germany was to be strangled of supplies and the ability to move any supplies around. Hence why the Central Staff ordered that whatever was left should be destroyed.
Any figures associated with the partisan movement in Russia have to be treated with caution as commanders in the field often greatly exaggerated their successes in an effort to please Moscow. However, the Central Staff that controlled partisan activity stated that in just two years, the partisans in Belorussia had killed 300,000 German soldiers, attacked rail lines 3000 times, destroyed 3,263 bridges, 1,191 tanks, 4,097 lorries and 895 store rooms.
|“We entered a gloomy wilderness in our tanks. There wasn’t a single man anywhere. Everywhere the forests and marshes are haunted by the ghosts of the avengers. They would attack us unexpectedly, as if rising from under the earth. They cut us up to disappear like devils into the nether regions. The avengers pursue us everywhere. You are never safe from them. Damnation. I never experienced anything like it anywhere in the war. I cannot fight the spectres of the forest.”Friedrich Buschele, killed by Byelorussian partisans.|