Germany’s conflict with the Soviet Union represented a level of brutality not seen in the other areas of Europe during World War II. Of all the German casualties suffered during the Second World War, nearly 65 percent came in the fight against Russia. Combat on the Eastern Front proved to be an unrelenting meat grinder of men and machines.
Just like every invader before them, the Germans found themselves swallowed up by the vastness of the Russian landscape. With every meter the Wehrmacht advanced, their supply lines seemed to grow exponentially longer. The Soviet partisan groups gained strength and efficiency; meanwhile, the Germans struggled to maintain security in their occupied territory.
Soviet partisans with a DP-27 LMG and the ubiquitous PPSh-41 SMG. Author’s collection
Planned Partisan Resistance
Although the Soviets never expected to suffer such losses in men, equipment and territory during the German invasion of June 1941, there were still plans in place to combat the Nazi advance with irregular groups of resistance fighters in the remote areas behind German lines. The partisan bands that formed in the early days of the invasion gathered their initial supply of small arms from the edges of the massive battlefields and from the Red Army stragglers who appeared in small groups.
In the early days of the partisan war, most Soviet units used small arms typically found in Red Army service during 1941. Automatic guns were in short supply, and ammunition was always quite limited.
The People’s War: The very old and the very young served in the Soviet resistance; many carried the M1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle. NARA
On some occasions, the larger partisan groups were headed by Soviet army officers. These units gained access to hidden firearms, ammunition and equipment that the Red Army had left behind. The 11th Kalinin Partisan Brigade is even said to have had several tanks that had been hidden in the forests east of the Latvian border. Heavy weapons could rarely be kept in action for long, though, as the partisans lacked fuel, spare parts and ammunition. Traditional Russian frugality meant that the partisans would dig up Soviet mines and re-use them in their intended role or strip out the explosives for other demolitions. Dud artillery rounds were also recovered and used for improvised mines.
In the first phase of the war in Russia, many of the partisan groups were simply fighting for their own survival. Almost 40 percent of the Soviet population lived in territory occupied by the Germans and, in many of these areas, the Soviet commissars had abused the local populations so badly that the people greeted the Germans as “liberators.” The German high command never understood or appreciated this early advantage. A 1956 U.S. Army study titled “The Soviet Partisan Movement 1941-1944” remarked:
… 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.
Even so, during 1941-42, the eastern European population was generally unsympathetic to the Soviet partisan cause. The situation grew worse when partisans attempted to deprive locals of their limited food supplies.
German Brutality Drives Partisan Support
The Germans did not consider the Soviet partisan groups to be “military units.” Consequently, they were defined as “bandits” or “terrorists,” and no quarter was given to partisans or anyone believed to be helping them. This was an important turning point in the war in Russia. Hitler’s attitude towards the partisans, and most people in Eastern Europe, is summarized in this passage from “Primordial Violence: German War on Soviet Partisans” by Maj. Gus Costas, USMC (Ret.): “Hitler’s personal enmity and hatred were apparent when he declared that the anti-partisan effort was simply an opportunity ‘to eliminate anything that opposes us,’ and to ‘shoot dead anyone who even looks at us askance.’”
Captured firearms played an important role. Shown here, a German MG34 supports a partisan attack. The man alongside has a Mosin-Nagant Model 38 carbine. Author’s collection
Strength & Experience
The territory behind German lines represented a massive landmass, so the Soviets sought to create as great a disturbance as possible in the Nazi rear areas. In “The Soviet Partisan Movement 1941-1944” (DA-PAM 20-244, August 1956), Soviet “by-hook-or-by-crook” methods of recruiting members for partisan bands as war went on are described:
Manpower for the bands continued to be drawn from a variety of sources. Escaped prisoners of war still drifted into the partisan ranks, while German occupation policies caused many civilians to volunteer. But by and large, as the movement expanded, the larger proportion of the personnel was drafted from the native populace, forcibly when necessary.
The Central Staff constantly advised the lower echelons to foster the best possible relations with the natives as a means of facilitating such recruiting. In some areas recruits were taken systematically by age groups, and at times even women were drafted.
Special attention was paid to recruiting members of the “Komsomolsk,” the communist youth organization. These young Bolsheviks were highly desirable as combat men or political activists because of their fanaticism.
In partisan-dominated areas recruits were put through a training course. Generally, they spent several weeks on probation to prevent escape or defection of those forcibly drafted and to give attached NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agents an opportunity to check their backgrounds against the possibility of infiltration of agents in German pay. Through informants within the units the commissars also kept a constant check on all personnel. Desertions of individual partisans were reported to the Central Staff, and their families, if they could be reached, were sent to labor camps in Siberia. If a defector was apprehended, the NKVD both passed and executed sentence. In a number of cases, the NKVD terrorized German collaborators into double-dealing by forcing them under threat of death to sign oaths of loyalty to the Soviet regime and then threatening to have the oath delivered to the occupation authorities should the individual fail to cooperate with the partisans.
This partisan group appears to be made up of a more uniform Red Army unit. Note the Czech ZB26 LMGs (7.92×57 mm). NARA
The Red Air Force
In 1962, the US Air Force Research Studies Historical Institute produced “Airpower and Russian Partisan Warfare” written by General der Flieger D. Karl Drum. General Drum had first-hand knowledge of the Soviets’ efforts to supply partisan bands by air. He describes the effectiveness of the Red Air Force in this role:
Without the regular system of air transport established by the Red Air Force, the Soviet partisan bands could not have been organized, maintained, and controlled to any effective degree.
The Germans, of course, became increasingly aware of the vital role of airpower in partisan operations. The German Air Force could not spare the necessary aircraft, nor did it possess on the Eastern Front sufficient warning and communications equipment to make its efforts effective.
Without air transport, it would have been impossible for the Russians to supply the partisans with weapons and ammunition. Air lifting these items over the battle front was the primary mission of the air transport supply system.
Communications was another critical component in the partisans’ success. General Drum continues:
Along with the messenger service, radio equipment was indispensable for transmitting partisan intelligence information and orders both for intra-partisan liaison and with communication with the Central Command in Moscow.
Electric power plants (for radios), batteries, receiving and sending equipment, and spare parts, could only be supplied in quantity from the Zone of the Interior by airlift. Often, specially trained radio operators were airlifted or parachuted into the partisan areas.
Likely another Red Army-partisan group operating behind the lines, equipped with M1891 rifles, PPSh-41 SMGs and a DP-27 LMG. Author’s collection
Beginning in 1943, there was far more coordination in the partisans’ efforts and more strategic direction in their attacks. The Soviet Central Staff issued a directive that designated the priority of partisan targets. Primary targets were rail lines and rolling stock, as well as road bridges and German transport vehicles. Additional targets were German communication lines and supply depots. It is important to note that Soviet partisans were directed to take aggressive action in force against German units only when the resistance groups had significant superiority in numbers. The partisans rarely had enough ammunition to remain competitive in an extended firefight.
The U.S. Army study titled “Rear Area Security in Russia: The Soviet Second Front behind the German Lines” (Department of the Army Pamphlet 20-240), described the progression of the armament of their supply troops as the war in the East progressed:
At the beginning of the Russian campaign the crews of Germans supply trucks had small arms, but no machine guns. Later on, after truck convoys had been helplessly exposed to surprise fire and partisan raids, they were issued machine guns which were mounted on the platform of one-half to one-ton trucks. At a still later stage of the campaign the trucks were lightly reinforced with armor plates. Shortage of personnel, however, precluded the use of special machine gun crews and placed an additional burden on the supply troops. On every trip the relief driver had to sit behind the machine gun, ready to fire, while the rest of the convoy personnel was constantly on the alert against surprise attacks. Soldiers returning from furlough were sometimes collected at security strong points along the roads and employed as escort personnel for supply convoys moving up to the front.
Resistance units sprang up in the country, in the towns and in the factories. Here, a man on the right carries a single-shot, .22-cal. TOZ-8 Cadet Rifle. NARA
Arms Of The Partisans
While many photographs show Soviet partisans using captured German small arms (particularly the MP40), these images were often staged propaganda tools created at the direction of the Soviet Central Staff. The use of captured guns stressed the partisans’ logistics, demanding the stockpiling of enemy ammunition and spare parts. After 1942, the expanding size of the partisan groups ultimately required the use of Soviet-made small arms. Even so, captured arms like the MP40, the MG34, the Karabiner 98k rifle, and any type of German pistol were used to supplement partisan firepower.
The German MP40 9 mm SMG was a popular firearm in any resistance group in Europe. Author’s collection
Like most resistance formations, Soviet partisans made extensive use of submachine guns (SMGs). Luckily for the Russians, they were armed with the PPSh-41 (7.62×25 mm Tokarev), easily one of the finest SMGs of the war. The fast-firing PPSh cycled at nearly 1,000 rounds per minute, providing the partisans with a distinct firepower advantage in close-range firefights. The PPSh-41, called “Papasha,” by fighters, used either a 71-round drum or a 35-round box magazine. Simple and sturdy, it became an icon of Soviet resistance in World War II.
The partisan’s best friend, the PPSh-41 SMG equipped with a 71-round drum magazine. The simple PPSh offered tremendous short-range firepower. Springfield Armory
The venerable Mosin-Nagant M1891 (7.62×54 mm R) gave Soviet partisans a simple, reliable and accurate rifle for the light infantry makeup of their groups. One of the classic military bolt-action rifles, the M1891 served from before World War I, through both world wars, and even into the early years of the Cold War. From 1942, greater numbers of M91/30 sniper rifles became available, and Soviet marksmen used them to great effect. Equipped with a 3.5X PU scope, the M1891 was accurate out to nearly 900 yards, just right for a partisan sniper with his sights set on a German officer, truck driver or locomotive conductor.
Total war on the Eastern Front knew no age limit. Shown here, a youthful partisan sights his M1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle. NARA
The Degtyaryov DP-27
The gas-operated DP-27 (7.62×54 mm R) gave partisan groups an effective base of mobile firepower. With just about 80 parts, the DP light machine gun (LMG) was simple enough for quickly trained partisan gunners. The DP-27 weighed 25 lbs. loaded, featured a folding bipod and a built-in flash hider. Rugged and practical, the DP-27 offered a manageable cyclic rate at 550 rounds per minute and was considered highly reliable—earning the nickname “Record Player” for its unique 47-round pan-shaped magazine.
There’s plenty of firepower in this guerrilla band, with DP-27 and ZB26 LMGs to support the rifles and SMGs. Author’s collection
The PTRD-41 Anti-Tank Rifle
During World War II, the Red Army made significant use of a firearm that was considered “obsolete” by the Western Allies—the anti-tank (AT) rifle. Despite Western misunderstanding, the Soviet 14.5 mm PTRD-41 (single shot) and PTRS-41 (semi-automatic) rifles proved to be effective throughout the war when used against the side/rear armor of German medium tanks, assault guns and all lightly armored vehicles. The PTRD-41 was 79 ½” long, weighed 38 lbs., and its 14.5×114 mm rounds could penetrate up to 40 mm of armor at 100 meters. It is important to note that an experienced AT rifleman could hit the most sensitive points on an enemy vehicle and often achieve a “mobility kill.” Once immobilized, the armored vehicle was often assaulted with satchel charges and Molotov cocktails. While Soviet partisans avoided encounters with German armor whenever possible, the 14.5 mm AT rifles were excellent long-range sniping arms against some of their most lucrative targets—German supply trucks and railroad transports. Also, in many areas under partisan control, the German second-line troops used lesser armored vehicles (often French tanks captured in 1940) that were more vulnerable to anti-tank rifle fire.
The Soviet PTRD-41 14.5 mm anti-tank rifle gave Soviet partisans a measure of anti-tank capability, along with powerful sniping and long-range bunker-busting ability. NARA
Mines & Explosives
The pamphlet “Rear Area Security in Russia” describes the Soviet partisans deadly use of mines and explosives:
Daily interruptions of traffic were caused by rail demolitions for which the Russians used various types of mines. Pressure and vibration-type mines were placed in the track, to be detonated by the locomotives. To destroy particularly valuable supplies, such as gasoline in tank cars, the partisans used mines with pull-type fuses which were set off by remote control. Retreating Russian forces often buried mines with long-delay fuses, under the tracks where they might blow up as much as three months later. Mines with simple delay-type fuses were also employed to avoid hitting the protective cars ahead of the locomotive. In order to escape the mine detectors, nearly all of these mines were placed in wooden containers, and their construction was of the most primitive type; some of them consisted of no more than a small package of explosives with a safety fuse. Occasionally, even magnetic mines were used. They served as means of sabotage in workshops and on standing trains and were mostly equipped with delay-type fuses.
Ultimately, using what firearms and supplies they could scrounge, the Soviet partisans played a vital role in hampering the German war machine until the Red Army could begin turning the tide on the Eastern Front. Today, most of the credit is given to the Red Army for Russia’s victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War, but the partisans did their job, too, often without the support or direction given to regular army troops.
From a German wartime painting by G. Vorhauer, in the US Army Artwork Collection, the perfect environment for ambushes: Germany’s supply lines in Russia were long, lonely and difficult to defend. NARA