CHAPTER 15 – The Marine Infantry in the Forests of Byelorussia 131
We have been taught that wars no longer begin with the chivalrous calls of I’m coming after you’. Admiral N. KUZNETSOV, (Nakanune, Moscow 1966, p. 306)
Prior to 1940, the Red Army did not have any marine infantry. It was cheaper and simpler to use ordinary infantry for land battles, and landings on distant shores had not yet entered Stalin’s plans. But then Hitler burst westwards, and turned his unprotected back to Stalin. This imprudent move brought in its train the most radical structural changes inside the Red Army, did away with what remained of defence and sharply reinforced the strike force. In June 1940, while Hitler was invading France, the Soviet marine infantry was born.
At that time, the Soviet armed forces contained two oceangoing fleets, two sea-going fleets and two river flotillas on the Amur and on the Dnieper. The ocean-going fleet was not given any marine infantry; the Pacific and Arctic Oceans for the time being did not interest Stalin. The Amur Flotilla, which protected the Soviet Far East, was not given any marine infantry either. The Dnieper Naval Flotilla, as we have already seen, was divided into two offensive flotillas.
Of these, the Pinsk Flotilla, which was deployed in the forests of Byelorussia, was given a company of marine infantry. It is interesting that marine infantry were stationed in the Byelorussian marshes, although there were none on the high seas. A conclusion can be drawn from this as to where Stalin was preparing his defences, and where he was preparing for an offensive. The Soviet Baltic Fleet, whose only possible enemy could be Germany and its allies, was given a brigade of marine infantry with a strength of several thousand men. The Soviet marine infantry was given its baptism on 22 June 1941 defending the Liepaja naval base.
The base was less than 100 kilometres from the German frontier. It had no land defences and had not been prepared for defence. But according to the testimony of Soviet admirals and of German captured documents, Soviet submarines were crammed into Liepaja ‘like herring in a barrel’. The official history of the Soviet Naval Fleet published by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR openly admits that Liepaja had been prepared as a forward base for the Soviet Fleet to fight an offensive war at sea. (Plot V Velikoi Orechestvernoi Voiny, Moscow Nauka 1980, p. 138)
The marine infantry in Leipaja were so close to the German frontier that they were taking part in defensive fighting even on the first day of the war, although they certainly had not been formed for this purpose. Ordinary infantry are better for defensive fighting than the marine infantry. The Danube Naval Flotilla had two companies of land troops, but these are not officially recorded as marine infantry. This, however, is not evidence of a great love for peace. We already know that, even before Germany invaded, at least two Soviet rifle divisions, the 25th Chapaev and the 5ist Perekop, which were deployed near the Danube Delta, were trained (and very well trained) to go into action as marine infantry.
The Black Sea Fleet had even more powerful forces. Officially it did not possess any marine infantry, but in early June 1941 the 9th Special Rifle Corps under Lieutenant-General Paval Batov was secretly transferred from the Caucasus to the Crimea. This corps was unusual in its composition, its armament, and in the direction which its combat training had been given. On 18 and 19 June 1941, the Black Sea Fleet carried out large-scale exercises on an offensive theme. In the course of these exercises, one of the divisions belonging to the 9th Special Rifle Corps was put aboard warships and carried out an assault landing on the ‘enemy’ coast. This kind of assault landing had never been practised by the Red Army before.
Moscow attached particular importance to the fleet and the 9th Special Rifle Corps having joint exercises. These exercises took place under the observation of high-ranking commanders who had come specially from Moscow to attend them. One of these officers was Vice-Admiral Ilya Ilyich Azarov. He later recalled how all those taking part felt that the exercises were being held for an ulterior motive, and that they would soon have to put their newly-acquired skills into practice in a real war, which would not, of course, be fought on their own territory. (I. I. Azarov, Osazhdennaya Odessa, Moscow Voeniz-dat 1962, pp. 3-8)
If war broke out and the Soviet High Command used the 9th Special Rifle Corps in a way appropriate to its type and the training it had been given, where could it be landed? In theory, there were only three possibilities: Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. But wherever the corps was landed, it would have to be supplied at once. In order to do this, either more troops would have to be landed, or else Soviet troops would have to hasten to join up with the 9th Special Rifle Corps.
In any case, the supplies would have to come through Romania. By a strange coincidence, the 3rd Airborne Assault Corps was also in the Crimea at the time. They were carrying out large-scale exercises, in which the corps headquarters and staff were airdropped along with brigade staffs. Soviet historians never link these events together — the exercises of the I4th Rifle Corps in making assault landings from ships of the Danube Flotilla; the 3rd Airborne Assault Corps making assault landings from aircraft and gliders; and the 9th Special Rifle Corps making assault landings from the warships of the Black Sea Fleebrigade staffs.
Soviet historians never link these events together — the exercises of the I4th Rifle Corps in making assault landings from ships of the Danube Flotilla; the 3rd Airborne Assault Corps making assault landings from aircraft and gliders; and the 9th Special Rifle Corps making assault landings from the warships of the Black Sea Fleet. But these events are all connected in place, time, and purpose. They were preparations for aggression on a massive scale; preparations in their final stages.
CHAPTER 16 – What are ‘Armies of Covering Forces’? 135