♦ The Red Army in World War II ♦

The NKVD at War 1941-45


Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, chief of the NKVD and Marshal of the Soviet Union

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During World War II the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs—Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD—exercised total police power in the USSR. It controlled the ordinary police, the secret political police, the Border Guard, the Gulag (punitive labor camp) organization and the regular prison system. The Internal Troops of the NKVD, nicknamed the Bluecaps, were responsible for the security of public infrastructure such as railroads, industrial installations, power stations, dams, etc., besides maintaining mobile units that could be deployed to break strikes and suppress unrest. In Moscow, the NKVD’s Kremlin Garrison provided security for the nerve center of the Soviet government. All in all, therefore, the organs of state security had a marked paramilitary character.

When war broke out on 22 June 1941 the NKVD’s Main Directorate for Mobile Troops mobilized a number of motorized rifle divisions in addition to its already existing Special Purpose Motorized Rifle Division. These mobile units were intended to supplement the static NKVD guard units and preserve internal order. But in the desperate conditions of the war’s early months many NKVD units had to be committed to combat, fighting as regular soldiers. Additional NKVD rifle divisions were hastily organized, using whatever troops lay to hand, and dispatched to the front.

The 22nd NKVD Motorized Rifle Division was typical. The division was activated in Riga on 23 June 1941. According to the prewar mobilization plan it was to absorb three regiments of the NKVD Internal Troops and to receive various support units from the Red Army. But two of the regiments were unable to join the division and so it was filled out by the 83rd Railroad Protection Regiment, the 155th Escort Battalion and a Red Guards militia battalion. The escort battalion had previously been responsible for transporting prisoners to NKVD camps and prisons; the militia battalion was raised with workers from the factories in Riga. The division received no artillery, antitank or logistical support units. It was assigned to the 10th Rifle Corps of Eighth Army and was effectively wiped out in the subsequent fighting. The division was disbanded in late August of 1941 and its remnants were reassigned.

Other NKVD divisions were eventually transferred to the Red Army. The 13th NKVD Motorized Rifle Division was set up at Voronezh in May 1942. It participated in the fighting on the southern sector of the front, suffering heavy casualties in the defense of the Don River line. In late June the division was withdrawn from the front and sent to Tula for reorganization. In August it was transferred to the Red Army as the 95th Rifle Division and as such participated in the defense of Stalingrad. In March 1943, in recognition of heroic conduct in the defense of Stalingrad, it was redesignated as the 75th Guards Rifle Division.

Color of the 10th NKVD Rifle Division, which fought in the Battle of Stalingrad

But the NKVD’s primary military mission was not to fight, but to make sure that others fought. Even before the war, a special motorized NKVD regiment was attached to every field army in the five western military districts. These regiments embodied a variable number of “blocking detachments,” usually of battalion strength, whose basic task was to stop unauthorized retreats—if necessary by firing on the retreating soldiers. They were also empowered to detain stragglers and deserters, control traffic, process prisoners of war and generally maintain order in the Army’s rear areas, serving in effect as the Red Army military police corps. At first the blocking detachments were made up of ordinary soldiers under NKVD officers, but sometimes they proved reluctant to fire on their own comrades, so eventually the job was handled exclusively by NKVD troops. The blocking detachments were armed and equipped as motorized infantry, sometimes including light tank and armored car companies.

A November 1941 report to NKVD chief L.P. Beria detailed the work of the blocking detachments: A precise total of 657,364 Red Army personnel had so far been arrested on suspicion of desertion, and most were immediately sent back to the front. However, 25,878 were detained and variously charged with cowardice, treason, sabotage, espionage, instigating panic among the troops, self-inflicted wounds, etc. More than 10,000 of these men were executed, a third of them publicly, and the rest were consigned to penal battalions. Every field army maintained such battalions and they were committed to battle in the most dangerous situations, with the expectation most of their personnel would be killed.

Troops of an NKVD blocking detachment (World War Photos)

The NKVD blocking detachments did not always have an easy time of it. On more than a few occasions they had to fight pitched battles with retreating Red Army units that refused to turn back to be annihilated by the Germans. In this manner Stalin’s ringing slogan—“Not one step back!”—was brutally enforced. Only in 1944, after the war situation had turned decisively in the USSR’s favor, were the blocking detachments scaled back.

Sometime in 1942—the details are murky—the SMERSH organization was created within the NKVD; the name is an acronym based on the Russian for “Death to Spies.” SMERSH was broadly responsible for counter-espionage and counterintelligence and one of its departments delt with Red Army affairs. Its duties included securing the front line against penetration by enemy agents and “anti-Soviet elements,” investigating treasonous activities in the ranks, preventing desertion and evasion of duty, and processing military and civil personnel freed from enemy captivity. These latter groups were viewed by the regime with the darkest suspicion as potential subversives, and many such people were summarily dispatched to the Gulag. SMERSH was headed by Viktor Abakumov, who was to become Minister of State Security after the war.

By all accounts SMERSH was highly effective as a counter-espionage and counterintelligence organization. But its supervision of the Red Army was carried out in a manner that reflected Stalin’s own paranoia and cruelty. Among the countless victims of SMERSH was one Captain of Artillery Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, arrested in East Prussia in February 1945 and consigned to the Gulag on grounds of disseminating “anti-Soviet propaganda”: critical comments in a private letter to a friend about atrocities committed by Red Army troops against German civilians. (Solzhenitsyn was later to take a grand literary revenge on his oppressors.)

Given the nature of the Stalin regime, the NKVD played a key role in the Soviet war effort. Patriotic commitment did indeed motivate the Red Army—but it was powerfully reinforced by a systemic reign of terror perpetrated by the organs of state security.

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Organizational Diagram

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