Eastern Front Combatants
Allied Participants in the Ground War in the East 1939-1945

Culled from a variety of sources, special thanks to the knowledgeable and generous posters at the Battlefront discussion board for their contributions - direct and indirect - to this introduction to a broad and complex topic.

The Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is now known to the peoples of the former Soviet Union, may be seen as an illustration of perhaps the largest expression of national will in modern history.   Peoples from across two continents united in their defiance of an enemy led by a man matched only by the Soviet leader himself in terms of ruthlessness.  The Soviet Union emerged not only victorioius but as a main player and catalyst in world events for decades to follow.

Below is the briefest of overviews of the major Allied participants in the Great Patriotic War.


The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was the largest unified nation on the globe in 1941, having been created out of the Revolution and Civil War fought as the rest of Europe wound down the fighting in the Great War (later to be called World War One).  The war against Germany was not popular with Russians, and when military defeat went hand in hand with food shortages at home, riots and economic collapse ensued.  The monarch abdicated in favour of his brother (who renounced his claim not 24 hours later), and a Provisional Government was established.   In October 1917, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Bolsheviks deposed the government in St. Petersburg and withdrew Russia from the war with Germany.  Civil War followed, but by 1920 the Bolsheviks were fully in control, and the Russian Empire had now become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR and Soviet Union for short.

Lenin returned partially and temporarily to a market economy after the Great War, and prosperity and optimism ensued.   After Lenin's death in 1924, a lengthy and divisive power struggle ensued, with one Joseph Stalin prevailing.  Lenin's New Economic Policy was discarded in favour of a plan dictated by the state.  Collectivization of farms was realized as quickly as new industries were created.  Religion was repressed and Stalin's rule became total as dissent was purged both within the Communist Party and among the general populace.   But Stalin's desire for discipline and control had led to brutal excesses; the collectivizations had not been popular, for example, and millions of farmers were starved to death (or murdered by execution squads) - but by 1940 some 97% of farms had been collectivized and placed under government control.  The most productive farmers, though, (the kulaks, or prosperous peasants) had been eliminated (since prosperity outside the realm of communist living was a threat to the Party, these farmers and their families were deported to labour camps and their property confiscated) and agricultural output was hampered enormously by Stalin's actions - not insignificantly by peasants destroying their own land and livestock in protest of collectivization.

The Purges

The military was similarly burdened by Stalin's murderous interference.  When a plot against Communist Party leaders was found to include some Army officers, some 35,000 officers were executed or dismissed in the 1930s.  Civil War and Imperial Army veterans were cast aside, and promotion now went to political reliables, not necessarily those skilled in the military arts.  Large percentages of the highest ranks had been summarily done away with.


Diplomatically, the Soviet Union was in negotiations by 1939 with France, Britain and Germany, signing a Non-Aggression Pact with the latter in 1939, clearing the way for German to first invade Poland on 1 September, and then turn its figurative back to attend to the west, safe from attack in the East.  The Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September, ostensibly to "protect minorities" in White Russia and Ukraine.  France and Britain declared war on Germany, but ignored the Soviet Union's hostile actions.

Early Military Actions

Until 1917, Finland had been part of the Russian Empire; German troops helped them gain their independence, and though they remained neutral in the postwar period, there was always fear that Russia might one day desire her old territory back.   In October 1939, Soviet demands on a base at Hanko and other land concessions failed to yield results and the Red Army was thrown into hostilities by invading that country on 30 November 1939 without declaration of war. Some 350,000 troops crossed the border but was fought to a standstill in what became known as The Winter War; its own shortcomings proved to be numerous.  Commanders afraid to use the slightest initiative, poor discipline, an inefficient supply system and overall bad organization - combined with determined enemy troops fighting on their native soil - all spelled disaster.  A reorganization and renewed offensive in February 1940 brought on fresh losses of both men and equipment, but a peace was settled with Finland on 13 March.  The Red Army had been embarrassed, while the Finnish Army grew in experience and prestige.

In 1940, the Soviet Union also annexed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, though Soviet bases had existed in these nations for some time previous.

Stalin's grip on the nation did not weaken during the Second World War, and the determination of the Soviet people, especially in the early years when allies were few and hope was scarce, saw them build slowly to an unbeatable force to be reckoned with.  The war had visited upon the Soviets vast devastation, but the USSR was also elevated to a world power.  If World War Two was Hitler's War, the man who deserves strong second billing is Joseph Stalin, the "Man of Steel."

ussr.gif (1037 bytes) The Soviet Armed Forces

The Soviet Armed Forces consisted of five principal elements: The Ground Forces, the Soviet Navy, the Red Air Force, National Air Defence and Armed Forces Support.  Almost 80 percent of the men in the Soviet military served in the Ground Forces,   The Ground Forces were further divided into five combat arms - the Rifle Forces, Tank and Mechanized Forces, Artillery, Cavalry and Air Assault Forces.  Other support branches included engineer, chemical defence, automotive, signals and railroad troops.

The units of the Ground Forces were allocated into 16 Military Districts on 22 June 1941, with additional forces allocated to the Far East Front in Siberia, facing the Japanese, and held at STAVKA (the Soviet High Command) as reserves of the high command (RGK).

The equivalent of the German Army Group was called a Front, and like the German Army Groups, they changed over the course of the war.

(research by Greg Guerrero)

Northern N. Western Western S.Western Southern Reserve                
Leningrad N. Western - S.Western Southern Reserve Briansk              
Dec 41 Leningrad N. Western Western S.Western Southern - - Kalinin Transcaucasian          
Leningrad N. Western Western S.Western Southern - Briansk Kalinin Transcaucasian Volkhov        
Leningrad N. Western Western S.Western Southern - Briansk Kalinin Transcaucasian Volkhov Stalingrad N. Caucasus   Voronezh
Leningrad N. Western Western S.Western Southern - Briansk Kalinin Transcaucasian Volkhov Stalingrad N. Caucasus Don Voronezh
Dec 43 Leningrad N. Western/
2nd Baltic
Western S.Western
3rd Ukrainian
4th Ukrainian
- Briansk Kalinin/
1st Baltic
- Volkhov Steppe/
2nd Ukrainian
N. Caucasus Central Voronezh/
1st Ukrainian
Leningrad 2nd Baltic Western 3rd Ukrainian 4th Ukrainian - - 1st Baltic - Volkhov 2nd Ukrainian - Belorussian 1st Ukrainian
Leningrad 2nd Baltic - 3rd Ukrainian - - - 1st Baltic 3rd Baltic - 2nd Ukrainian - Belorussian 1st Ukrainian
1st 2nd 3rd
Leningrad 2nd Baltic - 3rd Ukrainian 4th Ukrainian - - 1st Baltic - - 2nd Ukrainian - Belorussian 1st Ukrainian
1st 2nd 3rd
redarmy.gif (1085 bytes) RKKA - Radbochiy Krestyanskaya Krasnaya Armiya (Red Army of Workers and Peasants)

On 15 January 1918, the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army came into being, born of political strife and numbering 50,000 men, the Red Army grew to 300,000 men by the end of the year, and in 1920 numbered some 5,000,000, though trained officers were few in number.  Leon Trotsky, as Commisar for War, oversaw the force until 1925; his resignation paved the way for demobilization and a peacetime army of 526,000 men, not counting militia units.  Unlike other nations, however, demobilization did not mean near-destruction; by 1933, Soviet artillery pieces were world class while the armoured force had some 10,000 vehicles on hand (15,000 by 1938) and the air forces boasted some 10,000 aircraft.  By 1939, 2,000,000 men were once more under arms as the forces geared towards modernization.

The Red Army was the largest military ground force in the world in June 1941, and fielded more armoured fighting vehicles (30,000) than the rest of the world combined.  It had recent experience fighting the Japanese in 1939 (where it performed well at Khalkin Gol), the Polish (during its unopposed entry into Poland in September of 1939) and the Finns (in the Winter War of 1939-40, where it was made obvious that the Red Army was not suited to fighting modern mechanized battles).

Nationalities and Manpower

There were some distinctions of nationality among the Red Army; some 42 divisions at least were made up of men from specific nationalities, as well as at least 20 brigades.  These Lithuanian, Uzbekistani and Armenian formations (for just three examples) were commanded in general by Russian officers.  Some divisions were recruited along national lines by coincidence, others purposefully designated (such as formations raised in the Baltic states after the annexation of those territories in 1940, where national formations were used for the political purpose of showing local acceptance of their new Soviet rulers.)

The main ethnic groups seem not to have been necessarily represented by national formations. For example,  though most of the armies fighting with the Ukrainian Front were indeed recruited from the Ukraine, none were specifically designated as being such. 

ussrmap.gif (10742 bytes)

In fact, the Red Army was primarily Slavic in 1941, recruiting heavily from Russia, Ukraine and Belorus; recruiting was not extensive at all among the people of central Asia, the Caucasus or the far East (comprising some 25% of the entire Soviet population) since many groups in these regions did not speak Russian.  There were exceptions, such as the Georgians (who joined the mountain rifle divisions in large numbers), and in time recruiting policies changed - especially once large tracts of land belonging to the Slavic peoples were captured by the Germans, leaving little choice but to find new sources of manpower in the wake of catastrophic losses early in the war.  

The German invasion prompted an immediate call-up of males 23 to 36 years of age; the 18 - 22 age group had been conscripted before Barbarossa began.  By July, the Red Army numbered some 5.3 million troops.  By 1945, some ten percent of the Soviet armed forces were women, mostly from Russia.   Originally being assigned to medical and support units, the desperate manpower situation saw them eventually enlisted in the combat arms, as anti-aircraft gunners and snipers.  By 1944-45, tank crew personnel were so depleted that female factory workers - familiar with driving armoured fighting vehicles - were permitted to serve as drivers, with some showing enough skill to rise to command of their units. 

As an example of the devastation wreaked on the Slavic peoples, we can look at the Ukraine.  By war's end, some 4.5 million Ukrainians had served in the Red Army, and although 2.5 million Ukrainians were decorated, between 1.5 and 2 million Ukrainians were killed.  One source (Kosyk) gives 2.5 millon military and 4.5 civilian deaths among the people of Ukraine in World War II (compared to total German losses of 6.5 million.)  Another source (Kondufor) cites 7.5 million losses, including civilians taken to Germany as slave labour, with civilian deaths in Ukraine itself at 3.898 million and military and POW deaths as 1.366 million, for a total of 5.625 million.  Slave labourers amounted to 2.244 million, most of whom were killed in Allied bombing raids.  In all, Ukraine's total casualty rate in World War Two (civilian and military combined) varies between 20 and 25 percent.  Even the most conservative figure of losses assigned to the Ukrainians give a total greater than the combined military losses of the United States (292,100), Canada (39,139), British Empire (505,457), France (210,671), Germany (2.850 million) and Italy (300,000).  Against the backdrop of a total world death toll of 60,000,000 persons, the figure is even more shocking.

In comparison, Russia lost 1,781,000 civilians and 3 to 4 million military lives were lost (between 5 and 6 million in total, again according to Kosyk.

While not directly relevant to World War Two, the effects of these losses were obviously far reaching.  In 1959, a national census showed that the Soviet Union had declined by 40 million people.  But of course, these numbers also reflect the mass shootings and starvations of the 1930s, when Stalin practiced genocide on the peoples of Ukraine and other regions that did not conform to his political ideals.

Politicism and Leadership

The purges of the 1930s had not only deprived the Red Army of a large number of officers and leaders, but these were of high quality.  Some point to the fact that the leadership of Red Army units that did so well against the Japanese in 1939 had largely escaped the purges, while leaders of units that were bled in the fighting against Finland in 1939-40 had not.

In addition to the purges, political meddling in the affairs of the Red Army was noticable by the appointment of kommisars (Commisars).  Each battalion-sized unit had one of these political officers assigned to it, in a joint-command structure with the unit's commander, a legacy of the Civil War of 1917-21 where most Army officers were thought to be unreliable due to their prior service to the Czar.  Commisars were selected from the membership of the Communist Party and were not known for their military skill or experience.   Officially, they were to approve orders (and all major orders had to be approved by the unit's Commisar), build morale, train and indoctrinate the troops in their unit, but many Commisars exceeded these duties, intimidating officers and making their power felt in meddlesome ways.

The Communist Party also used its youth group - Konsomol - to make its power felt in the ranks of the Army.  Young soldiers could join Konsomol before reaching the required age for membership in the Party istelf.  Konsomol members in the military were expected to have private meetings; at these meetings officers (and commissars) were often placed under criticism and permitted to denounce their officers - who would be powerless to discipline them.  As military discipline collapsed in some units, morale also fell, and the disaster in Finland led to swift reforms.  The Commissar's role declined in August 1940, but by June 1941 there was still a shortage of experienced and morally courageous officers.

Rifle Forces

Riflemen (streltsi) were traditionally viewed as an elite seperate from mere "infantry", and so the infantry branch of the Red Army was referred to as Rifle Forces and made up the bulk of the Army.  In June 1941, the Red Army had some 303 divisions (88 of these not yet combat ready) of four basic types - Rifle Divisions (numbering 178 of the total), Mountain Rifle Divisions (18), Motor Rifle Divisions (31 - part of the Mechanized Corps) and Independent Motorized Rifle Divisions (of which there were two).  Some 400 new divisions were raised between June and December 1941 - but only 80 were still in fighting condition by the end of the year, testimony to the horrific losses the Red Army suffered at the hands of the Germans.

While the motorized rifle forces lacked transport, it is worthy of note that the Soviet rifle division also relied on horses - a 14,483 man divisional organization in 1941 called for 3,000 horses.  By December 1944, the division numbered 11,706 men at full strength, and still required 1,200 horses.  Anti-tank weaponry was never well developed by the Soviets; the Molotov Cocktail is well known and some models fired chemically (rather than via a burning wick) were issued, but rocket propelled weapons such as the bazooka or panzerschreck were never developed.  A spigot launcher similar to the PIAT was used to propel molotov cocktails, however.  Captured Panzerfausts may have been used under the designation RPG-1.

Rifle Divisions

The basic Rifle Division was reorganized after the terrible losses suffered in Finland, though many divisions were not reorganized along the 1941 model by the time of the German invasion. 

Model 1941 Soviet Rifle Division

Infantry Regiment Infantry Regiment Infantry Regiment Artillery Regiment Artillery Regiment Anti-Tank Battalion Anti-Aircraft Battalion

Another reorganization followed in July 1941, as a result of combat losses of equipment.   Some 286 Rifle Divisions were created between June and December 1941, with divisional manpower falling from an official total of 14,483 men to some 10,859, with large decreases in the artillery in particular.  For the next few years, Rifle Divisions remained dependent on mortars for organic fire support; by 1944-45 pre-war levels of artillery were again restored to the Rifle Divisions.

People's Volunteer Divisions

Of the 286 new Rifle Divisions raised in the last half of 1941, 24 were People's Volunteer Divisions made up of overage civilian volunteers armed primarily with small arms.

Guards Units

Another Czarist tradition was the use of the "Guards" designations for units deemed worthy of such based on performance in combat.  Guards units received better pay, clothing and equipment.

Scouts (Razvedchiki)

While the Soviets had few special purpose units akin to the US Army Rangers or British Commandos, the Red Army did have an elite in its scout troops.  Assigned one company per rifle regiment, and one battalion per division, scouts were drawn from the best troops and given special camouflage clothing as well as their pick of equipment, uniforms and food.

Mountain Troops

The Red Army initially considered that any unit issued with warm sleeping bags and climbing ropes could be considered a "mountain" unit without reference to its training.  After many bloody battles with well trained German Gebirgsjäger, special mountain-training was instituted for the Soviet mountain troops.

Airborne Assault Force (VDV)

The Red Army pioneered the use of airborne forces, and employed paratroopers in Finland as well as during their occupation of Bessarabia in 1940.  In June 1941, five airborne corps were deployed in Europe with another brigade in the Far East.  Most Soviet transport aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the opening days of the invasion, and airborne units had to rely on civilian Aeroflot aircraft; even then, they were deployed mainly as infantry in 1941.

The first major drops came in January 1942, but bad weather and lack of aircraft had an adverse effect on the outcome of these operations.  A major drop near Vyzazma involving the 4th Airborne Corps was a disaster - 600 aircraft were required to move the troops in a single lift, only 22 were actually available.  As such, the first drops were made on 27 January and not completed until the 23rd of the next month, and in bad weather.  Scattered badly, the corps had to fight its way back to Soviet lines in small groups, some units not reaching safety until June.  The other corps were redesignated Guards Rifle Divisions, and redesignated Guards Airborne Divisions in September 1942 - though remained employed as ground infantry due to the lack of aircraft.

The last major parachute operation involved the 1st, 3rd and 5th Guards Airborne Brigades, when they were inserted into the Dneiper River area in September 1943.  Their attempt to secure a bridgehead over the river ended badly.  

Some naval and regular infantry units were also used for small-scale airborne operations.


The NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was the result of a reorganization of the OGPU, an internal security service tracing its roots back to the "CHEKA" (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage) created in December 1917.   The NKVD were similar to the German secret police services of the 1930s, and like the SS (under whom the German Secret State Police (Gestapo) fell) had its own military branch.  While the German Waffen SS fought more or less as regular soldiers, the NKVD were deployed with the specific purpose of bolstering other troops. 

Among the military units the NKVD fielded were the Border Troops, who obviously saw much action in the opening weeks of Barbarossa.   The Internal Troops were expanded greatly following the German invasion, and were organized as regular rifle or cavalry divisions, with the purpose of maintaining internal security and order.  At the outset of war, some 15 divisions were so organized, and in emergencies were deployed to the front line, sometimes even grouped into Special Purpose Armies.  Their main function in combat zones, however, was to establish blocking detachments, which would gather stragglers and prevent desertions or all out retreats.  They also served to patrol for anti-Soviet partisans, and to punish those Soviet ethnic groups accused of collaboration with the German invaders.

By war's end, the NKVD totalled some 53 divisions and 28 brigades, in addition to the Border Troops, or roughly ten percent of the rifle units of the Red Army as a whole.  None of these units were heavily mechanized or armoured, and in this respect they differed from the Waffen SS.  Their armament was also lighter than that required of front line divisions, and their main role remained anti-partisan work and security until the end of the war - and in fact into the 1950s, in many prolonged anti-partisan wars in Ukraine and the Baltics that extended well past VE Day.  The NKVD also participated in mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet soil in 1943-45.


The Red Army made extensive use of horse mounted troops throughout the Second World War.  While the Red Army followed the lead of many other nations in using re-equipped cavalry units as the basis of mechanized forces, the prominent role played by cavalry in the Civil War of 1917-21 led to their retention in the Red Army - due in part to sentimental attachments between that arm and several of Stalin's closest military henchmen.

In June 1941, 9 cavalry divisions and 4 mountain cavalry divisions were on the order of battle; they did not see much action during the opening weeks of Barbarossa, and August saw their establishment slashed from over 9,000 men per division to 3,000.  By the end of 1941, these smaller divisions numbered 82, though their small numbers made them equivalent to brigades rather than divisions.  Three of these divisions were formed into corps - in reality, then, a division sized unit.  The weakness of Soviet mechanized forces was the reason for this expansion, and were employed primarily as mounted infantry in a reconaissance role.   Given the poor road network and bad weather in the Soviet Union, the cavalry was an acceptable substitute for mechanized forces in many circumstances, and cavalry units also saw success when employed with tanks.

Cavalry units were traditionally associated with the southern regions of the Soviet Union, and during the fighting in that area in 1942, Soviet cavalry performed well.  In the summer of 1942, the Soviets revitalized their mechanized forces, who took renewed responsibility for mobile operations, and a year later cavalry divisions numbered only 27.  Cavalry continued to see action to the end of the war, notably during Bagration in the summer of 1944, and a year later against the Japanese in Manchuria.

Armoured and Mechanized Forces (bronetankovyje i mekhanizirovannyje vojska)

Originally known as simply "Armoured Forces" (avtobronetankovyje vojska), the armoured branch of the Red Army contained mechanized corps, several tank divisions, and included also the tank regiments assigned to cavalry divisions. The mechanized corps had been raised from army tank units in existence prior to mid 1940.

By June 1941 some 39 mechanized corps existed in varying states of readiness, each consisting of a mechanized divisions, 2 tank divisions, a motorcycle regiment, as well as supporting units.  At the opening of Barbarossa, some 28,000 armoured vehicles were on inventory against 3,500 German tanks.  However, many were in a state of disrepair - Soviet emphasis on production figures and the completion of whole vehicles led to shortages of spare parts - and combat losses would reduce the number of operable tanks to about 2,000 by the December 1941.  At the start of the campaign, 44 percent of Soviet armoured vehicles were in need of rebuilding, 26 percent more needed "significant" repairs.  And the mainstay of the armoured force were the T-26 and BT tanks; lightly armoured and with 45mm guns (which were still a match for the PzKpfw II which made up a large proportion of the German armoured force).

However, the Soviets also had introduced the excellent T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tank; these gave the Germans a shock when they encountered them for the first time due to their revolutionary design (incorporating sloped armour in the case of the T-34, and mounting a relatively heavy armament in both cases).  Unfortunately, both vehicles had serious design issues and broke down often due to engine and transmission problems.

All Soviet tanks were initially hamstrung by lack of radio equipment, making communication between vehicles difficult (especially when under fire), and small turret crews often forced tank commanders to divide their time between spotting targets, directing their tank (or an entire platoon of tanks) and acting as loader for the main gun.  Training was lacking among Soviet tank crews, especially driver training, and Soviet tank drivers often took their vehicles along easier, direct paths which were predictable to German gunners instead of using terrain to advantage in concealing their route or protecting their vehicle from direct fire.

Late in the summer of 1941 the Soviets disbanded their mechanized corps and most of their tank divisions in favour of forming smaller units (called brigades, but equivalent to a western battalion).  These brigades were married to a company of mechanized infantry (though these infantrymen were rarely motorized).  The smaller formations were a result of lack of experienced commanders able to handle large units.  By the summer of 1942, with growing experience and confidence, tanks were again organized into corps (though these were really division sized units by western standards).  Initial employment of the new mechanized and armoured corps that summer was still disappointing, but as experience grew, they began to replace the cavalry as the mobile arm of the Red Army.

By 1942, Soviet tank brigades fielded a company of KVs, another of T-34s (with many of the earlier design issues addressed) and a third of light tanks.  This mix - bizarre by western standards - proved impractical and the Soviets followed western practice by organizing their tanks into homogenous battalion-sized units instead.  The speed and lower mobility of the KV relegated their use to independent heavy tank units, being unable to keep up with the faster T-34s.

The introduction of the Tiger and Panther prompted further heavy tank design, and the war ended with considerable numbers of IS   (Iosef Stalin) tanks in the field - classified as a heavy, this vehicle was actually comparable in weight and size to the Panther, which is technically a "medium" tank.

Motorized Rifle Divisions

The Motorized Rifle Divisions were sorely depleted in the first weeks of the war, a handful surviving the autumn of 1941 and remaining motorized in name only; most of these disappeared from the order of battle through combat losses.   the 1st Moscow Motorized Rifle Division managed to survive this period, through first rate combat performance, and was an exception.  Throughout the war, these Motorized Rifle units lacked motor vehicles, but were used as shock troops - their chief tactic was riding on tanks (tankoviy desant, in their parlance).  The Soviet Union never developed armoured or tracked troop carriers akin to the halftracks and universal carriers of the other western armies, viewing them as a luxury they could not afford.  Due to the high losses of tanks suffered by the armoured troops, production was continually geared to replacing these losses at the expense of troop carrying vehicles.


The artillery was a very popular branch for many Soviets; it drew a lion's share of talented officers and attracted skillful weapons designers.  The importance of artillery on the battlefield was lessened slightly by the use of armour but is still estimated to have inflicted bewteen 60 and 80 percent of all casualties inflicted by the Red Army in World War Two.

Artillery losses early in the war were catastrophic; during the battle in the Minsk pocket in July 1941 some 1,449 field pieces were captured by the Germans, almost 2,000 more were lost at Smolensk the same month.   By January 1942, only 5,900 artillery pieces were in service along the entire battle front.  Soviet production managed to make good the losses, though focus increased on the production of the cheaper mortars, and by the spring of 1943 19,000 artillery pieces were in service.  Some of these guns were formed into artillery divisions, 29 by the summer of 1943 and 43 by the end of the war.

Artillery was deployed mostly in units organic to rifle divisions and corps; about 80 percent of Soviet artillery was so deployed in this manner in June 1941.  Concentrations of artillery, such as the High Command Reserve, amounted for a small proportion at the onset of war (about 8 percent of Red Army artillery was depolyed with the VGK) but as the war went on, artillery was decentralized at the same time as its numbers expanded.  At war's end, 35 percent of artillery was assigned to the VGK.

Artillery oberservers and fire control directors were apparently in short supply in the Soviet Army, and the Germans felt that while volumes of artillery fire were appreciable, they were not impressed by the conduct of that fire.  Soviet artillery was predictable, and based often around precisely selected targets, and in the early years of the war, these targets were usually immediately to the front of their lines and ignored targets deeper in the German rear.   Soviet artillery tactics improved as the war progressed, however.

The frontline German infantryman, who was usually the target of Soviet artillery fire, learned much more respect for Soviet artillery than the professional gunners of the Wehrmacht.  Between 1941 and 1944, gun densities increased from 70-80 Soviet guns and mortars per kilometre of front to 220, and for the final attacks on Berlin some sectors of front line had as many as 375 guns per kilometre.

The Soviets never developed self-propelled guns for indirect fire as the western Allies did, and SPGs such as the SU-76, SU-85 and SU-100, as well as ISU-122 and ISU-152 were usually used in the direct fire role.   Mortars and rockets, however, were used more extensively than in other armies.

rednavy.gif (941 bytes) The Soviet Navy
Naval Infantry

The Soviet Navy was divided into four fleets; the North Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet and the Pacific Fleet.   Ironically enough, the Navy was to become a large source of manpower for the ground war against Germany; the Baltic Fleet was confined to port during the siege of Leningrad and the Black Sea Fleet was similarly restricted in its movements by the Luftwaffe.  Naval infantry units were a traditional component of the Sovet Navy (dating back to 1705), and in October 1941 and additional 25 naval infantry brigades were raised, with an additional ten being added later in the war.  They were used in ground combat alongside Army units, notably in the Leningrad area but also during the defence of Moscow and the 1942 actions along the Black Sea.  Ad hoc battalions and other units were also formed by some fleets during the war, and the Soviets launched over a 100 amphibious operations during World War Two, primarily from the Black Sea.

Allied Forces

The Soviet Union faced a wide array of enemies in 1941, including national armies from all its European neighbours (save Poland) and many foreign legions.  As the tide of the war turned, many nations changed sides to ensure their continued existence in the postwar world.  Some became true allies in the sense that their troops served alongside Soviet soldiers and formations, others, such as the Finns, were allies only in the most technical of senses.  In addition to the armies mentioned below, Czecho and Yugoslav armies were also created though lack of manpower kept them small.

flagf.gif (860 bytes) FINLAND

After the batlles of June 1944 in which Finland lost all the territorial gains it had earlier made, and had dug in along the post 1940 frontier, the Finnish leadership vowed to remove Finland from the war, concluding an alliance with the Soviet Union on 25 August.  The Finns agreed to push German troops out of northern Finland, with the Germans bowing to Finnish wishes and withdrawing into northern Norway (though some minor skirmishes between Finnish and German troops did take place).

flagh.gif (848 bytes) HUNGARY

In December 1944, the Soviets were able to establish a government in Hungary, and local volunteers began to form companies and battalions within Soviet divisions.  One brigade, with a manpower of 2,500 Hungarian soldiers with artillery and tanks, was formed, and the government promised to create additional formations to fight along with this "Buda Hungarian Volunteer Regiment" - but in the end only one of the promised eight divisions made it to the front line to serve with the Soviets - and appeared too late in the war to see action.

polflag.gif (864 bytes) POLAND

The Polish Peoples Army (LWP) was one of several Allied armies formed in 1943, made of ex-prisoners of war and displaced persons.  As parts of Poland were liberated in 1944-45, the LWP grew considerably; during the fighting in Berlin at war's end, close to 10 percent of the Soviet forces involved were Polish. The First Army fought under the 1st Belorussian Front and the 2nd Army under the 1st Ukrainian Front.

flagrom.gif (879 bytes) ROMANIA

After Romania's defection to the Allies, her Army was the fourth largest ground force to see action against the Germans.

Romanian losses against Germany between 23 August 1944 and May 1945 were heavy; totalling over 169,000 of a total force of 538,000 men.  Romania was not granted a "co-belligerent" status akin to that of Italy after changing sides, and though Romania gained Northern Transylvania after Germany surrendered, Bessarabia remained a part of the Soviet Union.  When King Mihai (Michael) was forced into exile in 1947, Romania firmly became a communist state.   Some 130,000 Romanians had surrendered to the Soviets in August 1944 and were treated as prisoners of war rather than as Soviet allies, with 35,000 of them perishing in captivity.

Anti-German Partisan Forces

"Partisan" warfare - the use of paramilitary forces against military or security forces of an enemy nation - dates back to Biblical times and such activities have been not uncommon throughout recorded history.   Recent examples might include the American Civil War and likes of John Mosby, for example.  Partisan warfare should not be confused with "Resistance" activities - ie those activities revolving around espionage, intelligence gathering, and other forms of military action short of actual armed combat on a large scale with enemy forces.

There were many varying bands of Partisan forces in the Soviet Union, fighting against both the Germans and the Soviets.   Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan groups managed to fight on until the 1950s against the Red Army.  (It is also worthy of note that the remnants of a Ukrainian SS Division hid out in the Carpathians for over a year after the end of World War Two, finally fighting their way to the west in the winter of 1946-47, reduced themselves to the status of partisan troops).

The most famous of the partisans was the Yugoslavian communists under Josef Tito (the AVNOJ), but partisan and resistance fighters of varying degrees of reliability and motivation were sprinkled throughout Yugoslavia, Albanian and Greece, though often in violent conflict with other groups sharing their nationality.

Leadership and Co-ordination

Partisan bands could not often rely on former military officers for leadership, as there was a reluctance among many officers to do join such ventures.    At the end of 1941, some 300,000 to 400,000 Red Army stragglers were behind German lines but in general only those devoutly obedient to Stalin and communist ideals were recruited for partisan work.  For those that did join the ranks of the partisans, casualty rates among junior leaders were much less (due to the relative rarity of actual contact with enemy forces) than in the regular army, and more of these leaders were able to mature and draw on their experiences to become better tacticians.  Due to the nature of partisan work (where failure usually meant execution by either the enemy or your own side), leaders tended to protect their own interests and well being rather than that of their men.  There was also not wide appeal to joining partisan bands, often seen as little more than lawless bandits, and many high calibre men who might otherwise have held leadership positions in the regular Red Army, saw no reason to enter into these ventures.  In many cases also, young Soviet men saw Axis occupation as a lesser evil than communist rule, if not wholly preferable.    In some cases, partisan bands were sent specially trained officers from the regular army, but partisan warfare and regular warfare called for widely disparate sets of skills that many regular officers would not be suited for.   A final factor in the lack of suitable fodder for partisan leadership was the concerted campaigns that both the Soviet Union and Germany made of destroying the intelligentsia of conquered nations (and in the case of Stalin, his own people.)

A lack of co-ordination between partisan groups was noticable, and two main factors came in to play.  Firstly was a high decree of factionalization of different groups (mostly groups outside of the Soviet Union) and a lack of desire to co-operate with other partisan bands.  Secondly was a lack of technical means; by the middle of 1942, only an estimated ten percent of Soviet based partisan units were linked via radio to Red Army commanders, and by 1944 this number was still below 50 percent.

Tactical Performance

Tactically, partisans in general can be characterized by being ill equipped and ill trained.  Given the paucity of lower level leadership mentioned above, there are other factors to consider when discussing the effectiveness of partisan units.  Initial partisan units formed in 1941 were generally armed with 1914 vintage bolt action rifles, augmented with captured weapons where possible.  Manufacture of weapons was carried out both by Tito's forces in Yugoslavia as well as the Polish Home Army.  Additionally, partisan forces were supplied by the allies where possible (the British dropped thousands of Sten guns to partisan forces in Greece and Yugoslavia, for example, and the Red Army also attempted to supply Tito's men when and where possible).  Even as late as 1944, the Polish Home Army had to send unarmed troops into action in Warsaw.  On the other hand, British and Russian supplies to Tito's forces almost allowed them to operate as a regular army by 1944, complete with light tanks and armoured cars.  Some Soviet partisan units also acquired heavy weapons and vehicles, though these were an exception rather than the norm.

Ammunition was always in short supply for partisans; not only was this a drawback for actual combat conditions but also restricted the amount of live fire weapons training that could be conducted.  The Polish Home Army - those elements that had firearms - had just three days supply of ammunition when the Warsaw Uprising began.  The need for partisan units to remain mobile (and thus undetected) had obvious effects on the ability to transport and cache ammunition.

Lack of radios, again mentioned above, made co-ordination of anything larger than a simple skirmish very difficult to accomplish successfully; poor weapons handling skills probably compounded the possibility of inflicting friendly casualties in large scale actions.  Sheer tactical ineptitude and inexperience resulted in Polish Home Army troops, for example, making daylight attacks against prepared German positions, and both they and some Yugoslav partisans were observed to open fire in engagements far too early, without waiting for the enemy to get within effective range of their weapons.  In time, some tactical problems worked themselves out - Polish Home Army troops began to practice better fire discipline out of necessity due to ammunition shortages.  It is also worthy of note that Yugoslav partisans in time would be praised by their British advisors for their skill at night fighting.

Soviet partisans initially consisted of stragglers of the Red Army bypassed during the large German drives into the country early in the invasion, but grew more and more to include simple peasantry, armed with weapons missed by the Germans during the roundups and confiscations.  Mid-1942 saw some 60 percent of Soviet partisan forces made up of ex-soldiers, and in the summer of 1943 only some 40 percent were ex-military.  This naturally diluted the tactical effectiveness of the forces as a whole, and soldier skills had to be learned not in training but in action.  More and more, civilians were conscripted by local partisan groups rather than volunteering, and discipline of the most severe kind had to be exercised.   Indivividual disobedience was punishable by death for the offender and his entire family.  This too had effects in tactical ability, and individual initiative was discouraged in these conditions.

Partisan troops often had an advantage in intimate knowledge of the terrain they fought over (very often serving in their own home territories)


Wildly optimistic claims of partisan effectiveness have been claimed by all the relevant groups under discussion and a variety of figures will be found in various sources, and the true effectiveness of partisan troops in Poland, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union will always be open to debate.   Generally speaking, we can state that some 35,000 Axis soldiers were killed in all of the Soviet Union by partisan forces (about half of those being German).    Despite Yugoslavian claims to the contrary (which would have us believe that 450,000 Germans were killed in the Balkans), Germany never deployed more than 467,000 men to the entire Balkan region (of which Yugoslavia was only a part) - fewer men than served in Norway. 

The importance of the railroad to German logistics cannot be over-stressed; one double-tracked route could carry the equivalent of 1600 trucks, and moving supplies by rail over a 200 mile distance consumed just 20% of the fuel and 10% of the personnel that a road move would consume.  Coal and iron were also far more plentiful in Europe than the scarce supplies of rubber and oil that were prerequisites of truck travel.  Poor road conditions were also another obvious concern, and attrition rates for motorized transport, even in the rear areas of the communications zone, were extremely high.  The Polish Home Army alone has claimed hundreds of bridges and thousands of rail cars and locomotives destroyed.  In actual fact, Germany ended the war with more locomotives than it started, despite partisan activities in both the west and east, as well as heavy Allied air attacks on German rail targets throughout the war.  Intensified attacks on railways in anticipation of the Kursk battle failed to sever main rail arteries supplying the German 9th Army and 2nd Panzer Army, for example, though some secondary lines were severed.  Nonetheless, if nothing else extensive forces had to be deployed by Axis formations all along the rail lines in order to ensure their security.

In Yugoslavia, many groups of partisans were bent on revenge killings and fighting among themselves.  some estimates have 1.5 million Yugoslavs being murdered by fellow countrymen.  Some 237,000 Yugoslavian partisans died in World War Two, and the country's overall death toll was on the order of 1.75 million (or over 10 percent of the prewar population pegged in 1938 at 15.4 million people).

flagalb.gif (874 bytes) ALBANIAN PARTISANS

Albania was a scene of much turmoil between the World Wars, being under foreign influence throughout her brief history.   Italy occupied Albania in April 1939, and as Italian military defeats piled up in Africa, the ALNA emerged as a partisan movement.  The communists slowly gained controal of the movement, but only by 1943 had it gained any real strength.  It went on to become the only partisan movement to completely rid its country of Axis invaders all on its own, and would in fact go on to help liberate portions of Yugoslavia as well.

flagchet.gif (871 bytes) CHETNIKS

The nominal government of the Yugoslavian government-in-exile in England were the Chetniks.  These disparate units formed from Serb Royalists were named for the "chete" (bands) of armed irregular troops that fought against the Turks in the 1800s.  The most important Chetnik groups were organized in western Serbia under Colonel Mihailovic.  In the wake of terrible German reprisals against civilians for partisan activity, Mihailovic urged the Chetniks to wait until liberation by the Allies (and restoration of the monarchy) was imminent before commiting to armed action against the enemy.  This stance led firstly to what amounted to a truce between them and the Germans, but also led the Chetniks into open dispute with Tito's partisans.  After Serbia was cleared of both Tito's and Mihailovic's forces, Chetnik troops sometimes even joined German, Italian and Croatian units on operations against the communist partisans.  More common was combat against the Croation Ustashi forces, who practiced open genocide against any non-Croats they encountered, and whom even the Germans regarded as extremists. 

The British initially supported and praised the Chetniks, but their wait-and-see attitude caused a shift in support during 1943 to Tito and the communists.  By war's end, the Chetniks were greatly depleted and openly anti-communist, some surrendering to the western Allies and others still in arms against Tito.  Mihailovic was captured in March 1946, tried in Belgrade, and executed.

flaggg.gif (858 bytes) GREEK PARTISANS

Communist Greek partisans (Ellinikos Laikos Apeleyterotikos Stratos, Greek People's Liberation Army or ELAS)  did not emerge as a strong force until 1942; after the invasion of 1941 mild resistance had been offered by guerrilla bands but was usually stamped out quickly by Axis soldiers, and the onset of winter put a halt in partisan activities as well.  Resistance before 1943 was largely ineffective.

In the summer of 1943, a German offensive aimed to reducing partisan activity confined the partisans in Greece to the Pindus mountains, and the ELAS began to take on the appearance of a regular, well-organized force.  Regular officers of the pre-war Army were now made joining the partisan movementThe summer of 1943 also saw the rise of ELAN, the naval arm of partisan activity in Greece. 

As the Germans in Greece withdrew in 1944 (reorganized into Army Group E), British troops took over the hunt for the communists and during the winter of 1944-45, ELAS forces were defeated.

pha.gif (882 bytes) POLISH HOME ARMY

The Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) was the military arm of the extensive Polish Underground State setup under German occupation, and eventually provided the umbrella under which most resistance in the nation were assembled, subordinate to the exiled government in the United Kingdom.  The main activities of the Polish Home Army was to organize military action against the occupying German forces.  There also existed other groups, one source indicated some nineteen in all (two of which were communist).

The genesis of the Polish Home Army was established in September and October of 1939 with the creation of the SZP (Sluzba Zwyciestwu Polski - Service Toward Victory of Poland), an organization based on a co-operation between the prewar political parties in Poland.  In December, the SZP was renamed ZWZ (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej - Union for Armed Struggle).  Civilian and military persons alike came together to attempt to secure support from across the spectrum of Polish society, and to assist in postwar reconstruction.  Eventually, the Polish Home Army came into being, composed of, at peak strength, 400,000 soldiers, which included some 11,000 commissioned officers, 6,000 officer trainees and 88,000 non-commissioned officers. 

Communication with the exiled government of Poland (who financed the Home Army) was done via radio, as well as couriers and emissaries.  Sabotage was the main military activity of the Home Army, including attacks on rail lines and convoys, as well as assassinations - notably SS General Kutschera, Police Chief of the Warsaw district, who was killed on 1 Feb 1944.   Another goal of the Home Army was to train its troops for eventual open combat with the German Army. 

By the summer of 1944, it was felt that the time for open warfare had finally come.  German defences were crumbling in the centre of the Eastern Front, and in five weeks the Red Army was able to advance some 1000 km, placing them within striking distance of Warsaw in July.  The Polish government-in-exile communicated from London their permission to start a general uprising within the city.   On 1 August 1944, some 45,000 partisans initiated an offensive against the Germans within the city.  Aided by the local population, control of the city was rapidly achieved, but German reinforcements flocked to the city while the Soviet Army remained in place, just across the Vistula River.  Soviet commanders denied permission to the western allies to airlift supplies, ammunition and other essentials to the Poles.  After 63 days of fighting, the Polish Home Army was destroyed, along with most of the city of Warsaw.  The surviving population was deported - but most importantly to Stalin, opposition to Soviet political domination in the postwar world had also been destroyed at no cost to the Soviets.   During the Uprising, 10,000 Home Army troops and 250,000 civilians were killed.

The Polish Home Army continued to see action after September 1944, but the advance of Soviet units - with their NKVD detachments - led to the arrest and deportation of many Home Army soldiers.  The Polish Home Army was officially dissolved on 19 January 1945, though other organizations continued to fight against the Soviets for Polish independence until 1953.

During the war, excluding the Warsaw Uprising, 62,000 men of all ranks of the Polish Home Army were lost.  

serb.gif (866 bytes) YUGOSLAV PARTISANS

On 10 April 1941, in light of the German invasion of Yugoslavia, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia created a military committee led by Josip Broz (known familiarly as Tito).  The decision had been made to continue the fight against fascism via partisan warfare; the Yugoslav movement was the best prepared movement in Europe.   In June, following the attack on the Soviet Union, the Narodno oslobodilackog pokreta oslobodenja Jugoslavije (People's Liberation Movement of Liberation of Yugoslavia - NOPOJ) was brought into existence, with Tito as the commander; on 4 July the NOPOJ resolved to rise up against the German occupation forces.  Uprisings soon broke out across the region; on 7 July in Serbia, on 13 July in Montenegro, 22 July in Slovenia, and on 27 July in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with additional insurrection occuring in October in Macedonia.

The communist partisans under Tito came to be the most important anti-German armed force in Yugoslavia, and on 29 November 1943, a group calling itself the Anti-fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia (Antifasisticko Vjece Narodnog Oslobodenja Jugoslavije or AVNOJ) declared itself the only legitimate government in Yugoslavia, based on the Wilsonian idea of self-determination, and standing on the merits of their two year war against the German occupying forces.

While the German desire was to leave local security to local police, by 1943 it was apparent that stricter measures had to be taken.   A major German offensive in January 1943, with half-hearted Italian support, failed to destroy the partisans in Yugoslavia.  After the withdrawal of Italy from the Axis in September 1943, German troops had to take over security duties in Montenegro, Dalmatia and Western Slovenia, and further German offensives failed to dislodge the partisans there. In all, some seven major offensives failed to destroy or dissuade Tito's forces.   By the autumn of 1943, ANOVJ forces consisted of 300,000 soldiers organized into 26 divisions, 10 brigades, 108 detachments and other small units, controlling an area of 130,000 square kilometres populated by some five million persons.

Intelligent leadership by a largely middle-class cadre with a tough soldiery of peasantry made good use of the generous flow of supplies they received from several sources - which was not forthcoming until they had proven themselves in action.  Most support came from western sources, with tangible Red Army support not forthcoming until late in the war.  It should be noted that even Tito arranged cease fires with Axis troops when it was expedient to do so, but his troops remained the most effective and dedicated partisan troops in eastern Europe to face the Axis.  By the middle of 1933 Tito's ANOVJ had 350,000 soldiers and partisans and by the end of December numbered some 500,000 men.

As the Red Army advanced, German withdrawals followed in 1944, Bulgaria joined in the war against Germany, and liberation of Yugoslav territory quickly followed, with Tito's forces entering Belgrade ahead of the Soviets.   An agreement was reached with the Bulgarians, who sent troops to fight in Macedonia and southern Serbia.  Recently liberated Albania also sent troops to help liberate Yugoslavia from the Axis.  Much of Yugoslavia was liberated by partisan forces rather than the Red Army.  British interest in the area, and support for the Greek and Yugoslav partisans, led the way to British administration of the Balkan region encompassing Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia.

On 29 November 1945, AVNOJ officially abolished the monarchy and declared a Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia.  In May 1945, in accordance with discussions made at Yalta in February, the Provisional Government of Democratic Yugoslavia was created with Marshall Tito at its head.  The new Yugoslavia was to live in peace for the next 35 years as a successful Federation of several states whose people had waged vicious war with each other between 1941 and 1945.

rusflag.gif (874 bytes) SOVIET PARTISANS

Postwar accounts lionize the partisans and it is fashionable in some circles to give them disporportionate credit for ultimate victory in the Great Patriotic War.  By the winter of 1941-42 probably about 30,000 partisans were active in the Soviet Union, mostly deserters and stragglers from surrounded or cut-off Red Army units, whose main preoccupation was survival rather than coming to grips with the German invaders - or rejoining the army.  Had the German forces treated the civilian population with any kind of consideration, these forces would probably have retained the reputation as mere bandits, but German excesses granted these groups legitimacy and garnered them many more volunteers than might have been the case.

The first major anti-partisan action fought by Germans in the East was against a group that had captured territory near Yelnya in late March 1942; two security divisions and a panzer division were involved, and the partisans (some on horseback and others armed with artillery and tanks) were driven out of the area.   The lack of recruits began to make itself felt among Soviet partisans, and local Militia and police groups often blocked their recruiting efforts.  From spring 1942, under orders from the Soviet high command, partisan groups were permitted to conscript males and childless females between 17 and 50 years of age under threat of death.   Recruits went into battle unarmed their first time as a form of probation; desertion (and pregnancy in the case of females) was punishable by death of both the offender and their family.

As time went on, Red Air Force aircraft were able to supply more and better equipment to the partisans (as well as bomb villages who resisted recruiting efforts), and Soviet partisan forces grew in sophistication and importance.  By 1942, aerial supply was well established, and the Soviet government and military both were able to centralize control over the significant partisan bands in occupied regions of the Ukraine and Russia, providing for better co-ordination of operations.  Local commanders could be flown in and out of their areas of responsibility in light planes, to be briefed by officials in Moscow.  Trained cadres could also similarly be flown into partisan territory to raise the level of training and leadership, or provide specialized training and functions such as demolitions or communications expertise.

The winter of 1943-44 saw the partisan war take on new dimensions; the pressing need  for the Axis troops was to clear the rear areas before they had to retreat through them.   During this period, Ukrainian nationalist partisans united under the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgency Army) designation.   The Hungarians actually made truces with them - not an easy move for either side after the bitterness over the invasion of Ruthenia.  The Ukrainians in the Romanian area of responsibilty had been far more docile; thousands served as hiwis and Ukrainians from Bukovina and Bessarabia even served as members of the Romanian armed forces.   But by 1944, the Ukrainian nationalist partisans were drawn into the area by local partisan groups (such as the Bukovina Self-Defence Army) and began operations against Romanian military targets.  As well, a small group of communist partisans began operations but had to struggle for simple existence.

By the summer of 1944, with the Red Army advancing deep into the Ukraine, UPA membership was roughly 100,000 across the breadth of the region, with the NSZ numbering at most 5,000.  The two groups fought the communist partisans in the region, the Germans, and each other, and turned to fighting the Red Army as they entered Galicia.

Soviet partisans in the end did play a role in ultimate victory, the benefits of their work coming in the fields of sabotage and intelligence gathering.  For many partisans, however, the war did not end with the defeat of Germany, and nationalist groups would see combat for many months, and even years, after the end of the Second World War.