CHAPTER 11- Partisans or Saboteurs? 100
Hitler will attack the West, with his main forces, while Moscow will wish to take full advantage of its position. TROTSKY (BO, Nos. 79-80, 21 June 1939)
After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed, the Soviet Union began the systematic destruction of the neutral countries, so that it could ‘move up in all its mass to the German frontier just at that time when the Third Reich had become involved in a conflict to carve up the world’. The ‘liberation campaigns’ proceeded apace, but in Finland a pause occurred. As we have already seen, the Red Army was caught in the Finnish security zone.
Here is a classic situation. A Soviet column of tanks, motorized infantry and artillery is moving along a road through the forest. No one can step off the road, either to the right or to the left, because there are mines there. There is a bridge ahead. The sappers have checked it has not been mined. The leading tanks roll on to the bridge, and the tanks, along with the bridge, go up in the air. Explosive charges had been placed inside the supports of the bridge when it was built. It is not so easy to detect that this has been done, and even if the charges were detected, any attempt to remove them would result in an explosion. Thus the Soviet column, winding like a huge snake across many kilometres, comes to a halt on the road.
Now comes the turn of the Finnish snipers. They are in no hurry – crack, crack. Silence descends on the forest. Then crack, crack again. The snipers are firing from somewhere in the distance. They hit only the Soviet commanders. Crack, crack. And commissars as well. It is impossible to comb the woods. We have not forgotten that on either side of the road are impassable minefields. Any attempt by Soviet sappers to approach the blown-up bridge or to defuse the mines on both sides of the road will be ended by a single shot from a Finnish sniper. Crack! The Soviet 44th Rifle Division, which was bottled up on three parallel roads by three blown-up bridges, lost its entire command staff in one day of fighting. At night the Soviet column is raked by rifle mortar fire from somewhere in the depths of the forest.
Sometimes long bursts of machine-gun fire hit the helpless column from somewhere behind the undergrowth. Then all falls silent again. It is said that the Red Army did not show itself at its best in Finland. That could not be more true. But what would any other army have done in its place? Pull the column back? But the heavy artillery tractors with their great howitzers on tow would not have been able to push their trailers backwards, as these weigh many tons. The snipers now hit the tractor drivers — crack, crack. Finding itself in trouble, half the column goes into reverse and moves backwards. But behind it meanwhile, another bridge has been blown up.
The column is now trapped. All the approaches to this bridge have been mined as well, and here too the snipers can take their time. They fire at the commanders, the commissars, the sappers, the drivers — crack, crack. Ahead lies the almost inaccessible line of Finnish reinfor-ced-concrete fortifications, the Mannerheim Line. It is impossible to break through it without artillery and without thousands of tons of ammunition. When the Soviet troops came up against the Finnish fortifications, their heavy artillery was far behind, lying immobilized on roads through the forests, between minefields and blown-up bridges, under sniper fire.
Having been taught such a lesson in Finland, the Soviet commanders must surely have drawn the appropriate conclusions? Surely light partisan detachments would have been set up even in peacetime in the western parts of the USSR to face a possible enemy invasion? Nature herself could have created the western regions of the Soviet Union expressly for partisan warfare on the communications of any aggressor moving eastwards. Stalin did indeed form such detachments as far back as the 19205. In Byelorussia alone, there were in peacetime six partisan detachments, each with a strength of between 300 and 500 men.
If these numbers seem small, one must bear in mind that the detachments were composed only of commanders, organizers, and specialists of the highest quality. Every peacetime partisan detachment was a nucleus around which powerful formations of several thousand men could be formed at the outbreak of war. Secret bases for peacetime partisan formations were set up in impassable forests and on little islands in the boundless marshes. Underground shelters, hospitals, storage depots and underground workshops for producing arms and ammunition were all built in peacetime. In Byelorussia alone, arms, ammunition and equipment sufficient for 50,000 partisans were placed in underground caches for use in a possible war.
Secret schools were set up to train these partisan leaders, organizers and instructors. Secret scientific research centres worked on developing resources for use in partisan warfare, including special equipment,arms and communications equipment. The partisans went on periodic training courses, on which the OSNAZ divisions of the NKVD usually assumed the role of the enemy. In addition to these partisan formations, small underground groups were trained, but not to take to the forests when the enemy struck. Their purpose was to remain behind in towns and villages in order to help the enemy and be of service to him, while all the time gaining his trust . . .
Work of this type was not only going on in Byelorussia, but also in the Ukraine, the Crimea and the Leningrad District, among other places. Alongside the activities of the secret police, Soviet military intelligence, in parallel with the NKVD but completely independently of it, was engaged in exactly the same work, equipping secret bases, shelters, secret billets and rallying points, and equipping lines for clandestine communications. The military intelligence had its own secret schools, its own organizers, its own instructors.
The Communist Party was also training many of its leaders in the western parts of the country, with a view to their going underground in the event of the territory falling into enemy hands. With their long-standing criminal traditions, the communists knew how to keep their secrets. These traditions went back to their underground activities of the 19205 and 1930s; were the need to arise, many Party organizations could again become deeply conspiratorial centres of secret conflict. These partisan detachments were set up in what was termed the Death Zone — the Soviet security zone where, in the event of Soviet troops being withdrawn, all bridges had to be blown up, tunnels demolished, railway junctions rendered completely unusable, railway points, crossings and even rails and telephone cables lifted and carried off to the interior.
The partisans remained behind only to ensure that the targets which had been destroyed were not restored. The partisans were virtually invulnerable; their leaders knew the ways through the vast minefields, and could shake off any pursuit by heading for the mined forests and marshes, into which the enemy had no means of finding a way. All this constituted an excellent system of defence: the Stalin Line; the vast security zone in front of it with its boundless minefields; and the partisan detachments, ready to operate from the first minute of war.
But in 1939, Hitler found himself in a very troublesome strategic situation, where he had to wage war in the west not the east. From that moment onwards, Stalin’s defensive systems were no longer needed. The Soviet partisan movement was abolished at the same time as the Stalin Line and the security zone. Partisan detachments were disbanded, arms, ammunition and explosives removed, the secret dug-outs and store depots covered with earth, and the partisan bases laid waste. All this happened in the autumn of 1939. But as autumn drew to its close, the Red Army began its ‘liberation’ of Finland, and there it encountered all those elements of self-defence which until recently had existed in the Soviet Union: the line of reinforced-concrete fortifications, the security zone in front of it, and the light partisan-like detachments operating in this zone.
After he had been taught a severe lesson in Finland, did Stalin perhaps then change his mind and set up new partisan formations in the western regions of the Soviet Union? He did not. On 22 June 1941, numerous improvisations were set in motion, including the formation of a partisan movement. Set up at the last minute, it only grew to its full power in 1943-44. Had Stalin not abolished it in 1939, it would have attained its full strength in the first days of the war, and would then have been many times more effective.
As the war progressed, the partisans had to pay a high price in blood for every bridge they detonated. Before a bridge could be blown up, it had first to be captured, and then guarded while the surrounding trees were felled and the adjacent ground mined. But where were the partisans to find explosives? If any could be found, how much could the partisan group carry along with it? While the detonation was being prepared, the charges had to be hastily put in place, not in the bridge supports but on the spans. The enemy could quickly repair such a bridge once it had been blown up, and then the partisans would have to start all over again from the beginning. While the enemy was repairing one bridge, the other bridges would still be functioning, so the enemy could regulate his flow of transport.
Previously, however, everything had been made ready to blow up all the bridges, in such a way that no partisan blood would have been spilt. To blow them up by simply pressing a button in a secret partisan bunker, and then, from the far side of impassable minefields, to pick.off the officers, the sappers and the drivers with snipers’ rifles. The German Army was exceptionally vulnerable on the roads. The Blitzkrieg could be slowed down considerably by the complete absence of bridges, by hundreds, thousands and indeed millions of partisans’ mines on the roads, by ambushes, and by sniper terror from the first hours of the invasion.
Who then abolished the Soviet partisan movement at the very moment that World War II began, and why? GRU Colonel Professor I. Starinov, one of the fathers of Soviet military terrorism, commanded a secret school in those years which trained partisan groups which were under the command of Soviet military intelligence. In his excellent memoirs, the Colonel names the culprit: ‘Arms and explosives which had been safely hidden in the ground were waiting for their time to come. But before that hour struck, the concealed partisan bases were laid waste, unconditionally, knowingly and, for certain, on Stalin’s direct orders.’ (Miny Zhdut Svoego Chasa, p. 40)
KGB Colonel S. Vaupshas, one of the veterans of Soviet political terrorism, was at that time commanding an NKVD partisan detachment in Byelorussia. He explains the reason why the partisan formations were abolished: ‘In those menacing pre-war years, the doctrine of war on foreign territory was in the ascendancy. It was of a clearly pronounced offensive nature.’ (Na Trevozhnykh Perekrestkakh, Moscow, IPL, p. 203)
One may agree with the KGB colonel, or one may dispute what he said. No one else, however, has yet offered any other reason why these partisan bases and formations were eliminated. Once Stalin had done away with the partisan formations in 1939, he did not dismiss the partisan leaders. After the war had ended, much material was published in the Soviet Union on the war and the period which preceded it. I have collected the case histories of dozens of people who were being trained in 1939 to fight in partisan formations in the western parts of the Soviet Union. After 1939, the fate of these people was identical. They were either sent off to OSNAZ formations of the NKVD, or else they found themselves joining very small groups near the Soviet Union’s western frontier, for some unclear purpose.
Take the two colonels we have already met, Starinov and Vaupshas; two veterans, one from military intelligence, the other from the secret police. On 21 June 1941, Colonel Starinov found himself in the frontier town of Brest-Litovsk, in an area of railway lines leading to the bridges across the frontier. He did not go there to blow up the bridges. He had left Moscow a few days earlier, he was told, on an exercise. But when he arrived at the frontier, he was told that there would not be any exercises. So this experienced saboteur sat down at the frontier to await further orders.
Here is an interesting detail which we shall require later. A soldier named Schleger worked for Starinov as his driver from the day the war began. He was a German national The war came to the Chekist S. Vaupshas, not in the frontier area, but on enemy territory. Vaupshas had a surprising life history. For many years, up to and including 1926, he fought in a Soviet partisan detachment on Polish territory and killed people in order to further the world revolution. After that he became one of the managers of the great GULAG building sites.
Later, in the course of the civil war in Spain, he protected and controlled the Politburo of the Spanish Communist Party and the Spanish Security Service. After that, Vaupshas became leader of a partisan detachment in Byelorussia. After the partisan detachments earmarked for a defensive war had been abolished, Vaupshas, having been given the command of an OSNAZ battalion of the NKVD, set off to ‘liberate’ Finland. Finally, in 1941, this terrorist, this GULAG overseer and scourge, was transferred to the territory of’the probable enemy’ in order to carry out some secret mission there. Perhaps he was sent there for some defensive purpose? No: because as soon as the defensive war began, he immediately returned to Moscow.
Why Did Stalin Need Ten Airborne Assault Corps? 107