CHAPTER 24 – The Black Divisions 234
Stalin does not hesitate to use force on an unprecedented scale.
TROTSKY (BO, Nos. 79-80, 1939.)
The main similarity between the First and Second Strategic Echelons was that the most powerful armies in their complements were deployed not against Germany but against the Romanian oilfields. The main difference between them was the colour of their uniforms. The colour of the First Strategic Echelon was the khaki of the tunics worn by millions of soldiers. Khaki was the dominating colour in the Second Strategic Echelon as well, but it had an abundant admixture of black.
I once had occasion to be present at a meeting with the retired General F. N. Remezov, who headed the 2Oth Army. A conversation was going on among members of his circle. No outsiders were present, so it was fairly frank. His listeners were officers and generals of the district headquarters, who knew their subject very well. They began to argue. At the height of the argument, a bold colonel with a sharp tongue put the question directly to General Remezov: ‘Why do the Germans call the 69th Rifle Corps of your 2Oth Army the “black corps” in their documents?’
General Remezov did not give an instructive reply. He deflected everything at the 56th Army, which he was later to command, saying that because of a shortage of grey military greatcoats, some of its divisions had to wear black railway overcoats. That did happen, but in December. Remezov clearly evaded giving an answer. He was being asked about June 1941, when there were no shortages, and when it would have been too hot for soldiers in battle to run about in a greatcoat. Many soldiers in the 69th Rifle Corps wore black uniforms in summer. There were sufficient numbers of these soldiers to draw the attention of German military intelligence, who then unofficially called the 69th Corps the ‘black corps’.
This was not the only corps of its kind. The 63rd Rifle Corps of the 2 ist Army is also referred to in German documents as a ‘black corps’. Komkor Leonid Grigoryevich Petrovsky, who commanded the 63rd Rifle Corps, was an outstanding military leader by any standards. He took part in the storming of the Winter Palace when he was fifteen, went through the entire Civil War and was seriously wounded three times. He finished the war as a commander of a regiment at the age of eighteen. When he was twenty, he passed out from the Academy of the General Staff in brilliant fashion. He commanded the best units in the Red Army, including the ist Moscow Proletariat Rifle Division. At the age of 35 he was deputy officer commanding the Moscow Military District.
In battle, Komkor Petrovsky showed himself to be a military leader of strategic dimensions. He was given the rank of lieutenant-general in August 1941 ;md was appointed to command the 2 ist Army. At that moment, the 63rd Rifle Corps, after much fierce fighting, found itself surrounded. Stalin ordered him to leave the corps and to take command of the army immediately. Petrovsky requested that this order be delayed for a few days, and sent back the aircraft sent to collect him full of wounded soldiers. Petrovsky extracted his black corps from its encirclement, and having done that, he went back into the enemy rear area to bring out another division from the encirclement. This was the I54th Rifle Division, under the command of Kombrig Ya. S. Fokanov. While he was breaking out, Petrovsky was fatally wounded.
The German troops who found Petrovsky’s body on the field of battle were ordered by their High Command to bury the Soviet general with full military honours. A large cross was erected over his grave bearing the inscription in German, ‘Lieutenant-
General Petrovsky, Commander of the Black Corps’. Soviet sources confirm this unusual gesture. The operations of the 63rd black corps may be read about in detail in the Military Historical Journal .(VIZH 1966, No. 6, p. 66) The Soviet Military Encyclopedia (Vol. 6, p. 314) confirms the accuracy of that article. References to Petrovsky’s black corps may be found in Lieutenant-General of Artillery G. D. Plaskov’s book, Pod Grokhot Kanonady (Voenizdat 1969, p. 163)
German intelligence also noticed the unusual black uniforms in other armies belonging to the Second Strategic Echelon. When these uniforms began to predominate over the usual green ones, regiments, divisions, and sometimes entire corps were referred to as ‘black’. The 24th Army of the Second Strategic Echelon, which had secretly been moved from Siberia, was no exception. The Germans gave the name ‘black’ to some of its regiments and divisions during the fighting. But even before the divisions and corps of this army joined in battle, some very interesting things were happening. At the end of June, the 24th Army was on the move across thousands of kilometres of railway track. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Stepan Andreyevich Kalinin, was already in Moscow trying to solve the problem of how to feed it.
He later recalled how he was received by the secretary of the Moscow Municipal Committee of the Party: The secretary of the Moscow Municipal Committee rang up the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. ‘The comrade with whom I have just been talking,’ explained the Municipal Committee secretary, when he had hung up, ‘had considerable experience in organizing food catering. He was doing this type of work for a long time when the Volga-Moscow Canal was being built. He will help you.’ About twenty minutes later the tall stately figure of a commander of the NKVD troops came into the secretary’s office. He wore three diamond-shaped badges on the collar of his soldier’s blouse, which was pulled in round the waist by a tight belt. We quickly came to an agreement with him about everything. (Razmyshleniya o Minuvshem, Moscow Voenizdat 1963, pp. 132-133)
It is a pity that General Kalinin is shy about naming the secretary of the Moscow Municipal Council and the smart, tightly belted visitor with the three diamond-shaped badges. After the very first battles, the 24th Army fell into the right hands. Its command was taken over by NKVD Major-General Konstantin Rakutin. And Lieutenant-General S. A. Kalinin returned to Siberia on Stalin’s personal orders. Not to command the Military District, which was still abandoned, but to form ten new divisions. The formations were to be set up in places where there had never been any units at all before. I had visited these places and got down to work.
My first excursion was to one of the Siberian towns. Some years before the war, a small town of hutments for lumberjacks had been built there in the backwoods of the forests. This was used to billet units of the formation which was being set up. Impassable taiga surrounded the town almost on all sides. (Ibid, p. 182) Everything one needs to know about ‘the small town of hutments for lumberjacks’ is contained in the three volumes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago. Ten new divisions (more than 130,000 men) were set up in the Siberian Military District, not in places where military units had been previously, but in these ‘small towns of hutments’. It may be argued that concentration-camp prisoners were not, of course, being turned into soldiers. General Kalinin was simply using the empty hutments to quarter the reservists who were arriving, and here they would be trained and turned into soldiers. Very well, let us accept that.
Where then did the ‘lumberjacks’ go in that case? Why was the small town (and there was not just one) empty? The simple answer is that General Kalinin filled the ranks of the 24th Army with ‘lumberjacks’ before the war and prepared it in secret to be sent off westwards. That is why the regiments and divisions in this army, and in all other armies of the Second Strategic Echelon, wore black. The ‘lumberjacks’ were frequently not even reclothed in military uniform. That is why the army which Kalinin secretly transferred to the western part of the Soviet Union was maintained by the Chief Directorate of Camps, or GULAG, of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and not by the Board for Organization of the Rear of the General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.
That is why Stalin placed Rakutin, a pure-blooded Chekist at the head of the 24th Army instead of the half-Chekist Kalinin. He was the one who knew best how to deal with ‘lumberjacks’. Stalin is widely known to have cleared out the GULAG during the war, by sending everyone who was capable of carrying arms to the front. Sometimes, due to lack of time or shortage of uniforms, the labourcamp prisoners were sent to fight at the front wearing their own clothes. In theory, there was no great difference: the same imitation leather boots, the same ear-flapped fake sealskin hat for winter, and a jacket which only differed from the soldier’s in its colour.
A belief persists, although nobody knows where it came from, that when Hitler attacked, Stalin sent the labour-camp prisoners to the front to ‘expiate their guilt’. Meanwhile, the German troops first encountered the black divisions and corps at the beginning of July 1941. These had begun their movements to the western frontiers of the country on 13 June 1941. The formation of the armies of the Second Strategic Echelon, which embraced all these black divisions and corps, began in June 1940, when Hitler turned away from the Soviet Union by removing almost all his divisions from the Soviet frontier.
Each army belonging to the Second Strategic Echelon was formed with the special idea that they would then make a sudden appearance on the western frontier. Each army was formed on the route of the greatest arterial railway line. Each one was set up in the area of concentration camps. The inmates of these camps were trained to observe order, they led an undemanding existence, and it was easier to pick them up from the camps than from the villages. So they were all rounded up and organized into brigades. But the main thing was that had the men in the villages been taken, it would not have been possible to avoid rumours about mobilization and war. It was precisely to avoid such rumours that the TASS statement was written.
Many years later, books are still being written and songs composed about that period. Here is a fragment by Vladimir Vysotsky:
The gates, new prisoners arriving,
The glass-framed epitaph is blunt,
When to our memory proclaiming
They all went off to fight the front.
Mikhail Demin, the former criminal, wrote that ‘almost the whole of Rokossovsky’s army consisted of inmates of the labour camps’. (Blatnoi ‘Rusika’, New York 1981, p. 26) Rokossovsky commanded only one army, the i6th, in his lifetime. He forgot to say in his memoirs of what it consisted. This forgetfulness is typical of him. He begins his memoirs with the words, ‘In the spring of 1940, I was in Sochi [a famous Black Sea resort] with my family,’ forgetting to say that before that he had been in the GULAG. Later in the book, Rokossovsky says in passing that ‘life has convinced me that one can even trust a man who at some time has allowed himself to break the law. Give such a man the chance to atone for his guilt and you will see that the good in him will come to the surface, and love for the Motherland, for his people, and his longing to return their trust at whatever the cost, will make a courageous fighter of him.’ (Marshal of the Soviet Union K. K. Rokossovsky: Soldatsky Dolg, Moscow Voenizdat 1968, p. 136)
This is a tacit admission that Rokossovsky had had sufficient opportunity to become convinced that a soldier could be made out of a labour-camp prisoner. But that is not the main point. What is important is that Stalin gave the labour-camp prisoners ‘the opportunity to atone for their guilt’ and ‘become courageous fighters’ before Hitler attacked. Armies specially adapted to recruit labour-camp prisoners into their ranks as cannon fodder were being raised even before the planned Operation Barbarossa was heard of. The i6th Army, which was the precursor of the Second Strategic Echelon, was formed on the Trans-Siberian Railway for the purpose of rapid transportation westward; and in Trans-Baikal because there was an adequate number of labour-camp inmates available.
A penal army had existed there even before Rokossovsky arrived in August 1941. Before he arrived it was run by another general who had also been a victim of the Great Terror. This was Mikhail Fedorovich Lukin, who was to distinguish himself in heavy fighting at Smolensk. Gravely wounded, he was taken prisoner, and had a leg amputated. When he refused to co-operate with the Germans, he suffered four appalling years in German concentration camps. After being liberated from the German camps, he was sent once again to the GULAG. The German High Command’s encounter with Lukin’s 16th Army at the end of June 1941 came as a complete surprise, as did the existence of the entire Second Strategic Echelon.
It is for that reason that so many documents about this encounter have been preserved in German records. Anyone who so wishes can find many hundreds of photographs in these archives of Soviet soldiers from the Second Strategic Echelon being captured. There, among all the young lads, one may glimpse now and again the face of a man who has clearly been hardened by life, a man wearing semi-military uniform. Sometimes he is wearing a green military jacket without any badges of rank. But even the green military jacket does not make him look like a soldier. Each one of these men has strong calloused hands, a shaven head and emaciation in his face. These men had not yet passed through the German concentration camps. Senior officers such as Rokos-sovsky came into the army from the GULAG having taken the precaution to fatten themselves up in Sochi; but Sochi passed these poor fellows by.
Given that the German Army came across divisions and corps made up of labour-camp prisoners at the beginning of July, and if these divisions and corps formed part of armies which came from distant provinces in the Urals, Siberia and Trans-Baikal, it means that Stalin put arms into the hands of labour-camp prisoners before 22 June 1941. I do not now what German military intelligence knew in the first half of June, but let us assume that it knew very little — no more than the fragments which are known to us today:
1. Some armies were secretly moving towards the western frontiers of the Soviet Union.
2. These armies consisted of a fixed number of soldiers, sometimes entire division, each with a complement of some 15,000 men, and even entire corps, each with more than 50,000 men clad in unusual black uniforms similar to those worn in prison.
3. At least one of these armies was completely fed and maintained by the GULAG of the NKVD.
4. The Soviet government publicly and categorically denied in the TASS statement that there was anything unusual in these troop movements or in their mass character, speaking simply of ‘normal training exercises’. How was the head of German military intellligence to interpret the facts before him? There was, of course, only one interpretation: they must attack Stalin, otherwise they would be his victims.
CHAPTER 25 – The Kombrigs and the Komdivs 242