One of the defining features of the combat on the Eastern Front was the widespread partisan activities which plagued the Germans mercilessly during their time in the Soviet Union. Partisan, or guerrilla, warfare, is the use of small, mobile forces (often made up of civilians) against a larger, more lumbering enemy. This warfare, at least on the Eastern Front, consisted mainly of ambushes, sabotage, and raids; and it was a serious thorn in the Wehrmacht’s side. Learning about these partisans’ courage and efficiency fascinates me- in fact, partisans are featured in my newly-available novel!
After Operation Barbarossa in June 1941- the point at which things began to go very badly for the Soviet Union and the Red Army- a directive was issued by Soviet leadership, ordering the creation of resistance groups to disrupt the Germans’ operations. Throughout the war, partisan activities were controlled by the government via directives and training, and they proved to be very effective.
Here, a village priest receives a medal for his dedication to partisan activities. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Irpen. Image from public domain of Ukraine
Soviet partisans cut communication lines, burned German supplies and facilities, and ambushed unwitting troops or convoys. Their detailed knowledge of their areas of operation was a great asset, as this knowledge was something that the Germans lacked. Partisans were able to make a difference while the Red Army was in a shambles; therefore, their contribution to the Soviet war effort was invaluable.
Partisan groups were usually well-coordinated and effective, despite their mismatched equipment and lack of prior combat experience. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Irpen. From public domain of Ukraine
The Soviet state lost no time in encouraging the partisans in their work, and in prompting other citizens to take up arms and contribute. The partisan, unlike the Red Army soldier, could be absolutely anyone; and the partisan cause was championed with great diligence in the propaganda of the day. The existence of partisans- ordinary but courageous civilians from occupied areas- did much for the morale of the greater Soviet population.
A propaganda poster exhorting partisans to “beat the enemy without mercy”. Image from http://www.sovmusic.ru/english/p_view.php?id=113 via Wikimedia Commons
Despite the fact that partisans were really just a ragtag bunch of civilians, they were hated and probably feared by the Germans- although the latter was probably never admitted. Even after the Wehrmacht had gained hundreds of miles of territory and as their Red Army adversaries were retreating ever further towards Moscow, partisan attacks continued. These attacks were both a nuisance and a menace, and German troops soon learned to avoid the regions protected by partisans.
Here, Wehrmacht troops pause by a sign denoting a partisan-controlled area. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-007-2477-06/Trautvetter/CC-BY-SA
One of the most successful and famous partisan groups was that of Sydir Kovpak. Kovpak served in World War I (and was awarded two medals for heroism); and in WWII, partisan units under his command successfully controlled territory around Bryansk and in the Ukraine. Kovpak’s partisans were fearsome- he was a strong and seasoned leader, and his men and women caused great damage to the Germans throughout the war.
Two female partisans of Sydir Kovpak’s group; armed with Mosin sniper rifles. Image from http://www.wumag.kiev.ua/index2.php?param=pgs20052/66 via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to the success of large groups like Sydir Kovpak’s, individual partisans made enormous contributions- contributions which they often suffered for. A story of great courage belongs to Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, an 18-year old partisan working behind enemy lines near Naro-Fominsk. Zoya had high ideals, so when the Germans approached Moscow in late 1941, she volunteered for a partisan unit.
In November, she was tasked with burning a village which was home to German cavalry. She did so, but was captured. The Germans interrogated and tortured her, but she refused to give up the names of her accomplices. Standing at the gallows just before her execution, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya uttered her now-famous words of defiance: “There are two hundred million of us. You can’t hang us all!” Today, this brave girl from Tambov Oblast remains one of Russia’s most beloved heroines.
A portrait of Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya. Image from http://www.warheroes.ru/hero/hero.asp?Hero_id=284
It was not unusual to see female partisans- women were also allowed to serve in the Soviet military- but many children and youths too young to enlist also participated in partisan activities. All citizens were urged to contribute to the war effort, and many were eager to do so.
Two female partisans who have been captured by the Germans in late 1942. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J18155/CC-BY-SA
Waffen SS members have captured this extremely young partisan. In some instances, even child partisans were punished or executed- see this story for more information. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Niquille-067-24/Niquille/CC-BY-SA
Reprisals against captured partisans were often severe. Partisans’ crafty and damaging actions incensed the Wehrmacht; which regularly beat, tortured, and executed partisans unfortunate enough to be captured. Partisans were often executed with placards explaining their crimes hung about their necks, and their bodies were often left on display as a warning to other would-be partisans.
A Soviet partisan is interrogated, in what looks like one of the Eastern Front’s kinder interrogations. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to an unspecified member of the Wehrmacht
A firing squad execution. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-212-0221-07/Thiede/CC-BY-SA
Such brutality against partisans seems to have done little to deter guerrilla efforts, however. The Soviet people continued to support partisans, and partisan activities grew in scale and success throughout the four years of war. The Soviet partisan effort is one of the Great Patriotic War’s lasting legacies, and the stories of these partisans continue to influence and amaze me.
A modern Russian coin commemorating the Soviet partisans of the Great Patriotic War. Image from ru.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to the Bank of Russia.