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Russian Spetsnaz VDV

On 2 August 1930 a small detachment of commando troops was dropped in the region of Voronezh and was supposed during the maneuvers to carry out operations in the rear of the "enemy". Officially this is the date when Soviet airborne troops came into being. But it is also the date when spetsnaz was born. Airborne troops and spetsnaz troops subsequently went through a parallel development. At certain points in its history spetsnaz passed out of the control of military intelligence into the hands of the airborne forces, at others the airborne troops exercised administrative control while military intelligence had operational control. But in the end it was reckoned to be more expedient to hand spetsnaz over entirely to military intelligence. The progress of spetsnaz over the following thirty years cannot be studied in isolation from the development of the airborne forces.

1930 marked the beginning of a serious preoccupation with parachute troops in the USSR. In 1931 separate detachments of parachutists were made into battalions and a little later into regiments. In 1933 an OSNAZ brigade was formed in the Leningrad military district. It included a battalion of parachutists, a battalion of mechanized infantry, a battalion of artillery and three squadrons of aircraft. However, it turned out to be of little use to the Army, because it was not only too large and too awkward to manage, but also under the authority of the NKVD rather than the GRU. After a long dispute this brigade and several others created on the same pattern were reorganized into airborne brigades and handed over entirely to the Army.

To begin with, the airborne forces or VDV consisted of transport aircraft, airborne regiments and brigades, squadrons of heavy bombers and separate reconnaissance units. It is these reconnaissance units that are of interest to us. How many there were of them and how many men they included is not known. There is fragmentary in formation about their tactics and training. But it is known, for example, that one of the training schools was situated in Kiev. It was a secret school and operated under the disguise of a parachute club, while being completely under the control of the Razvedupr (GRU). It included a lot of women. In the course of the numerous maneuvers that were held, the reconnaissance units were dropped in the rear of the "enemy" and made attacks on his command points, headquarters, centers and lines of communications. It is known that terrorist techniques were already well advanced. For example, a mine had been developed for blowing up railway bridges as trains passed over them. However, bridges are always especially well guarded, so the experts of the Razvedupr and the Engineering Directorate of the Red Army produced a mine that could be laid on the tracks several kilometers away from the bridge. A passing train would pick up the mine which would detonate at the very moment when the train was on the bridge.

To give some idea of the scale of the VDV, on maneuvers in 1934, 900 men were dropped simultaneously by parachute. At the famous Kiev maneuvers in 1935 no less than 1.188 airborne troops were dropped at once, followed by a normal landing of 1.765 men with light tanks, armored cars and artillery. In Belorussia in 1936 there was an air drop of 1.800 troops and a landing of 5. 700 men with heavy weapons. In the Moscow military district in the same year the whole of the 84th rifle division was transferred from one place to another by air. Large-scale and well armed airborne attacks were always accompanied by the dropping in neighboring districts of commando units which operated both in the interests of the security of the major force and in the interests of Razvedupr.

In 1938 the Soviet Union had six airborne brigades with a total of 18.000 men. This figure is, however, deceptive, since the strength of the "separate reconnaissance units" is not known, nor are they included in that figure. Parachutists were also not trained by the Red Army alone but by "civilian" clubs. In 1934 these clubs had 400 parachute towers from which members made up to half a million jumps, adding to their experience by jumps from planes and balloons. Many Western experts reckon that the Soviet Union entered the Second World War with a million trained parachutists, who could be used both as airborne troops and in special units - in the language of today, in spetsnaz.

A continual, hotly contested struggle was going on in the General Staff of the Red Army. On what territory were the special detachments to operate - on the enemy's territory or on Soviet territory when it was occupied by the enemy? For a long time the two policies existed side by side. Detachments were trained to operate both on home territory and enemy territory as part of the preparations to meet the enemy in the Western regions of the Soviet Union. These were carried out very seriously. First of all large partisan units were formed, made up of carefully screened and selected soldiers. The partisans went on living in the towns and villages, but went through their regular military training and were ready at any moment to take off into the forests. The units were only the basis upon which to develop much larger-scale partisan warfare. In peacetime they were made up largely of leaders and specialists; in the course of the fighting each unit was expected to expand into a huge formation consisting of several thousand men. For these formations hiding places were prepared in secluded locations and stocked with weapons, ammunition, means of communications and other necessary equipment.

Apart from the partisans who were to take to the forests a vast network of reconnaissance and commando troops was prepared. The local inhabitants were trained to carry out reconnaissance and terrorist operations and, if the enemy arrived, they were supposed to remain in place and pretend to submit to the enemy, and even work for him. These networks were supposed later to organise a fierce campaign of terror inside the enemy garrisons. To make it easier for the partisans and the terrorists to operate, secret communication networks and supplies were set up in peacetime, along with secret meeting places, underground hospitals, command posts and even arms factories.

To make it easier for the partisans to operate on their own territory a "destruction zone" was created, also known as a "death strip". This was a strip running the length of the Western frontiers of the Soviet Union between 100 and 250 kilometers wide. Within that strip all bridges, railway depots, tunnels, water storage tanks and electric power stations were prepared for destruction by explosive. Also in peacetime major embankments on railway lines and highways and cuttings through which the roads passed were made ready for blowing up. Means of communication, telephone lines, even the permanent way, all were prepared for destruction.

Immediately behind the "death strip" came the "Stalin Line" of exceptionally well fortified defenses. The General Staff's idea was that the enemy should be exhausted in the "death strip" on the vast minefields and huge obstacles and then get stuck on the line of fortifications. At the same time the partisans would be constantly attacking him in the rear. It was a magnificent defence system. Bearing in mind the vast territories involved and the poor network of roads, such a system could well have made the whole of Soviet territory practically impassable for an enemy. But - in 1939 the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed.

The Pact was the signal for a tremendous expansion of Soviet military strength. Everything connected with defence was destroyed, while everything connected with offensive actions was expanded at a great rate, particularly Soviet sabotage troops and the airborne troops connected with them. In April 1941 five airborne corps were formed. All five were in the first strategic echelon of the Red Army, three facing Germany and two facing Rumania. The latter were more dangerous for Germany than the other three, because the dropping of even one airborne corps in Rumania and the cutting off, even temporarily, of supplies of oil to Germany meant the end of the war for the Germans.

Five airborne corps in 1941 was more than there were in all the other countries of the world to gather. But this was not enough for Stalin. There was a plan to create another five airborne corps, and the plan was carried out in August and September 1941. But in a defensive war Stalin did not, of course, need either the first five or the second five. Any discussion of Stalin's "defence plans" must first of all explain how five airborne corps, let alone ten, could be used in a defensive war.

In a war on one's own territory it is far easier during a temporary retreat to leave partisan forces or even complete fighting formations hidden on the ground than it is to drop them in later by parachute. But Stalin had destroyed such formations, from which one can draw only one conclusion; Stalin had prepared the airborne corps specifically for dropping on other people's territory. At the same time as the rapid expansion of the airborne forces there was an equally rapid growth of the special reconnaissance units intended for operations on enemy territory.

The great British strategist and historian art, B. H. Liddell H, dealing with this period, speaks of Hitler's fears concerning Stalin's intentions, referring to "a fatal attack in the back from Russia". (Strategy. The Indirect Approach, p.241.) And moves by the Soviet Union in June 1940 did evoke particular nervousness in the German high command. Germany had thrown all her forces against France at that time, and the Soviet Union rushed troops into the Baltic states and Bessarabia. The airborne troops especially distinguished themselves. In June 1940 the 214th Soviet airborne brigade was dropped with the idea of seizing a group of aerodromes in the region of Shaulyai in Lithuania, under a hundred kilometres from the East Prussian border. In the same month the 201st and 204th airborne brigades were dropped in Bessarabia to capture the towns of Ismail and Belgrad-Dnestrovsky. This was close by the Ploesti oilfields. What would Stalin do if the German Army advanced further into North Africa and the British Isles? It is easy to understand why Hitler took the decision in that next month, July 1940, to prepare for war against the USSR. It was quite impossible for him to move off the continent of Europe and into the British Isles or Africa, leaving Stalin with his huge army and terrifying airborne forces which were of no use to him for anything but a large-scale offensive.

Hitler guessed rightly what Stalin's plans were, as is apparent from his letter to Mussolini of 21 June 1941. ("I cannot take responsibility for the waiting any longer, because I cannot see any way that the danger will disappear.... The concentration of Soviet force is enormous.... All available Soviet armed forces are now on our border.... It is quite possible that Russia will try to destroy the Rumanian oilfields.") Can we believe Hitler? In this case we probably can. The letter was not intended for publication and was never published in Hitler's lifetime. It is interesting in that it repeats the thought that Stalin had voiced at a secret meeting of the Central Committee. Moreover, in his speech at the 18t h Congress of the Soviet Communist Party Stalin had had this to say about Britain and France; In their policy of nonintervention can be detected an attempt and a desire not to prevent the aggressors from doing their dirty work . . . not to prevent, let us say, Germany getting bogged down in European affairs and involved in a war... to let all the participants in the war get stuck deep in the mud of battle, to encourage them to do this on the quiet, to let them weaken and exhaust each other, and then, when they are sufficiently weakened, to enter the arena with fresh forces, acting of course "in the interests of peace", and to dictate their own conditions to the crippled participants in the war. (Pravda, 11 March 1939.) Once again, he was attributing to others motives which impelled him in his ambitions. Stalin wanted Europe to exhaust itself. And Hitler understood that. But he understood too late. He should have understood before the Pact was signed.

However, Hitler still managed to upset Stalin's plans by starting the war first. The huge Soviet forces intended for the "liberation" of Russia's neighbors were quite unnecessary in the war of defence against Germany. The airborne corps were used as ordinary infantry against the advancing German tanks. The many units and groups of airborne troops and commandos were forced to retreat or to dig trenches to halt the advancing German troops. The airborne troops trained for operations in the territory of foreign countries were able to be used in the enemy's rear, but not in his territory so much as in Soviet territory occupied by the German army. The reshaping of the whole philosophy of the Red Army, which had been taught to conduct an offensive war on other people's territory, was very painful but relatively short. Six months later the Red Army had learnt to defend itself and in another year it had gone over to offensive operations. From that moment everything fell into place and the Red Army, created only for offensive operations, became once again victorious.

The process of reorganizing the armed forces for operations on its own territory affected all branches of the services, including the special forces. At the beginning of 1942 thirteen guards battalions (In the Soviet Army the title of "guards" can be won only in battle, the only exceptions being certain formations which were awarded the title when they were being formed. These included spetsnaz detachments.) of spetsnaz were organised in the Red Army for operations in the enemy's rear, as well as one guards eng i nearing brigade of spetsnaz, consisting of five battalions. The number of separate battalions corresponded exactly to the number of fighting fronts. Each front received one such battalion under its command. A guards brigade of spetsnaz remained at the disposal of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, to be used only with Stalin's personal permission in the most crucial locations.

So as not to reveal the real name of spetsnaz, the independent guards battalion and the brigade were given the code name of "guards minelayers". Only a very limited circle of people knew what the name concealed. A special razvedka department was set up in the Intelligence directorate of each front to direct the work of the "guards minelayers". Each department had at its disposal a battalion of spetsnaz. Later the special razvedka departments began recruiting spetsnaz agents in territories occupied by the enemy. These agents were intended for providing support for the "minelayers" when they appeared in the enemy rear. Subsequently each special razvedka department was provided with a reconnaissance point of spetsnaz to recruit agents. The guards brigade of spetsnaz was headed by one of the outstanding Soviet practitioners of fighting in the rear of the enemy - Colonel (later Lieutenant-General) Moshe Ioffe.

The number of spetsnaz increased very quickly. In unclassified Soviet writings we come across references to the 16th and the 33rd engineering brigade of spetsnaz. Apart from detachments operating behind the enemy's lines, other spetsnaz units were formed for different purposes: for example, radio battalions for destroying the enemy's radio links, spreading disinformation and tracing the whereabouts of enemy headquarters and communication centres so as to facilitate the work of the spetsnaz terrorist formations. It is known that from 1942 there existed the 130th, 131st, 132nd and 226th independent radio battalions of spetsnaz.

The operations carried out by the "minelayers" were distinguished by their daring character and their effectiveness. They usually turned up behind the enemy's lines in small groups. Sometimes they operated independently; at others they combined their operations with the partisans. These joint operations always benefited both the partisans and spetsnaz. The minelayers taught the partisans the most difficult aspects of mine laying, the most complicated technology and the most advanced tactics. When they were with the partisans they had a reliable hiding place, protection while they carried out their operation, and medical and other aid in case of need. The partisans knew the area well and could serve as guides. It was an excellent combination: the local partisans who knew every tree in the forest, and the first-class technical equipment for the use of explosives demonstrated by real experts.

The "guards minelayers" usually came on the scene for a short while, did their work swiftly and well and then returned whence they had come. The principal way of transporting them behind the enemy's lines was to drop them by parachute. Their return was carried out by aircraft using secret partisan airfields, or they made their way by foot across the enemy's front line.

The high point in the partisan war against Germany consisted of two operations carried out in 1943. By that time, as a result of action by OSNAZ, order had been introduced into the partisan movement; it had been "purged" and brought under rigid central control. As a result of spetsnaz work the partisan movement had been taught the latest methods of warfare and the most advanced techniques of sabotage. The operation known as the "War of the Rails" was carried out over six weeks from August to September 1943. It was a very fortunate time to have chosen. It was at that moment when the Soviet forces, having exhausted the German army in defensive battles at Kursk, themselves suddenly went over to the offensive. To support the advance a huge operation was undertaken in the rear of the enemy with the object of paralyzing his supply routes, preventing him from bringing up ammunition and fuel for the troops, and making it impossible for him to move his reserves around. The operation involved the participation of 167 partisan units with a total strength of 100.000 men. All the units of spetsnaz were sent behind the enemy lines to help the partisans. More than 150 tons of explosives, more than 150 kilometres of wire and over half a million detonators were transported to the partisan units by air. The spetsnaz units were instructed to maintain a strict watch over the fulfillment of their tasks. Most of them operated independently in the most dangerous and important places and they also appointed men from their units to instruct the partisan units in the use of explosives.

Operation "War of the Rails" was carried out simultaneously in a territory with a front more than 1.000 kilometers wide and more than 500 kilometers in depth. On the first night of the operation 42.000 explosions took place on the railway lines, and the partisan activity increased with every night that passed. The German high command threw in tremendous forces to defend their lines of communication, so that every night could be heard not only the sound of bridges and railway lines being blown up but also the sounds of battle with the German forces as the partisans fought their way through to whatever they had to destroy. Altogether, in the course of the operation 215.000 rails, 836 complete trains, 184 rail and 556 road bridges were blown up. A vast quantity of enemy equipment and ammunition was also destroyed.

Having won the enormous battle at Kursk, the Red Army sped towards the river Dnieper and crossed it in several places. A second large-scale operation in support of the advancing troops was carried out in the enemy's rear under the name of "Concert", which was in concept and spirit a continuation of the "War of the Rails". In the final stage of that operation all the spetsnaz units were taken off to new areas and were enabled to rest along with the partisan formations which had not taken part in it. Now their time had come. Operation "Concert" began on 19 September 1943. That night in Belorussia alone 19.903 rails were blown up. On the night of 25 September 15.809 rails were destroyed. All the spetsnaz units and 193 partisan units took part in the operation "Concert". The total number of participants in the operation exceeded 120.000. In the course of the whole operation, which went on until the end of October, 148.557 rails were destroyed, several hundred trains with troops, weapons and ammunition were derailed, and hundreds of bridges were blown up. Despite a shortage of explosives and other material needed for such work, on the eve of the operation only eighty tons of explosives could be sent to the partisan. Nevertheless "Concert" was a tremendous success. After the Red Army moved into the territory of neighboring states spetsnaz went through a radical reorganization. The independent reconnaissance units, the reconnaissance posts which recruited agents for terrorist actions, and the independent radio battalions for conducting disinformation, were all retained in their entirety. There are plenty of references in the Soviet military press to operations by special intelligence units in the final stages of the war. For example, in the course of an operation in the Vistula - Oder area special groups from the Intelligence directorate of the headquarters of the 1st Ukrainian Front established the scope of the network of aerodromes and the exact position of the enemy's air bases, found the headquarters of the 4th Tank Army and the 17th Army, the 48th Tank Corps and the 42nd Army Corps, and also gathered a great deal of other very necessary information. The detachments of "guards minelayers" of spetsnaz were reformed, however, into regular guards sapper detachments and were used in that form until the end of the war. Only a relatively small number of "guards minelayers" were kept in being and used behind the enemy lines in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Such a decision was absolutely right for the times. The maintargets for spetsnaz operations had been the enemy's lines of communication. But that had been before the Red Army had started to advance at great speed. When that happened, there was no longer any need to blow up bridges. They needed to be captured and preserved, not destroyed. For this work the Red Army had separate shock brigades of motorised guards engineering troops which, operating jointly with the forward units, would capture especially important buildings and other objects, clear them of mines and defend them until the main force arrived. The guards formations of spetsnaz were used mainly for strengthening these special engineering brigades. Some of the surviving guards battalions of spetsnaz were transferred to the Far East where, in August 1945, they were used against the Japanese Army.

The use of spetsnaz in the Manchurian offensive of 1945 is of special interest, because it provides the best illustration of what was supposed to happen to Germany if she had not attacked the USSR.

Japan had a peace treaty with the Soviet Union. But Japan had gone to war with other states and had exhausted her military, economic and other resources. Japan had seized vast territories inhabited by hundreds of millions of people who wanted to be liberated and were ready to welcome and support any liberator who came along. Japan was in exactly the situation in which Stalin had wanted to see Germany: exhausted by war with other countries, and with troops scattered over expansive territories the populations of which hated the sight of them. Thus, in the interests naturally of peace and humanity Stalin struck a sudden crushing blow at the armed forces of Japan in Manchuria and China, violating the treaty signed four years earlier. The operation took place over vast areas. In terms of the distances covered and the speed at which it moved, this operation has no equal in world history. Soviet troops operated over territories 5.000 kilometers in width and 600-800 kilometers in depth. More than a million and a half soldiers took part in the operation, with over 5.000 tanks and nearly 4.000 aircraft. It really was a lightning operation, in the course of which 84.000 Japanese officers and men were killed and 593.000 taken prisoner. A tremendous quantity of arms, ammunition and other equipment was seized.

It may be objected that Japan was already on the brink of catastrophe. That is true. But therein lies Soviet strategy: to remain neutral until such time as the enemy exhausts himself in battle against someone else, and then to strike a sudden blow. That is precisely how the war against Germany was planned and that was why the partisan units, the barriers and defensive installations were all dispensed with, and why the ten airborne corps were created in 1941.

In the Manchurian offensive the spetsnaz detachments put up their best performance. Twenty airborne landings were made not by airborne troops, but by special reconnaissance troops. Spetsnaz units of the Pacific Fleet were landed from submarines and surface boats. Some spetsnaz units crossed the frontier by foot, captured Japanese cars and used them for their operations. Worried about the railway tunnels on a strip of the 1st Far Eastern front, the Soviet high command created special units for capturing the tunnels. The groups crossed the frontier secretly, cut the throats of the guards, severed the wires connected to the explosive charges, and put the detonators out of action. They then held the tunnels until their own forces arrived. In the course of the offensive a new and very risky type of operation was employed by spetsnaz. Senior GRU officers, with the rank of colonel or even major-general, were put in charge of small groups. Such a group would suddenly land on an airfield close to an important Japanese headquarters. The appearance of a Soviet colonel or general deep in the Japanese rear never failed to provoke astonished reactions from both the Japanese high command and the Japanese troops, as well as from the local population. The transport planes carrying these were escorted by Soviet fighter aircraft, but the fighters were soon obliged to return to their bases, leaving the Soviet transport undefended until it landed. Even after it landed it had at best only one high-ranking officer, the crew and no more than a platoon of soldiers to guard over the plane. The Soviet officer would demand and usually obtain a meeting with a Japanese general, at which he would demand the surrender of the Japanese garrison. He and his group really had nothing to back them up: Soviet troops were still hundreds of kilometres away and it was still weeks to the end of the war. But the local Japanese military leaders (and the Soviet officers too, for that matter) naturally did not realise this. Perhaps the Emperor had decided to fight on to the last man... In several recorded instances, senior Japanese military leaders decided independently to surrender without having permission to do so from their superiors. The improvement in the morale and position of the Soviet troops can be imagined.

After the end of the Second World War spetsnaz practically ceased to exist for several years. Its reorganization was eventually carried out under the direction of several generals who were fanatically devoted to the idea of spetsnaz. One of them was Viktor Kondratevich Kharchenko, who is quite rightly regarded as the "father" of the modern spetsnaz. Kharchenko was an outstanding sportsman and expert in the theory and practice of the use of explosives. In 1938 he graduated from the military electrotechnical academy which, apart from training specialists in communications, at that time also produced experts in the business of applying the most complicated way of blowing up buildings and other objectives. During the war he was chief of staff of the directorate of special works on the Western front. From May 1942 he was chief of staff on the independent guards spetsnaz brigade, and from June he was deputy commander of that brigade. In July 1944 his brigade was reorganised into an independent guards motorised engineering brigade .

Kharchenko was working in the General Staff after the war when he wrote a letter to Stalin, the basic point of which was: "If before the outbreak of war our sportsmen who made up the spetsnaz units spent some time in Germany, Finland, Poland and other countries, they could be used in wartime in enemy territory with greater likelihood of success." Many specialists in the Soviet Union now believe that Stalin put an end to the Soviet Union's self-imposed isolation in sport partly because of the effect Kharchenko's letter had on him.

In 1948 Kharchenko completed his studies at the Academy of the General Staff. From 1951 he headed the scientific research institute of the engineering troops. Under his direction major researches and experiments were carried out in an effort to develop new engineering equipment and armaments, especially for small detachments of saboteurs operating behind the enemy's lines.

In the immediate postwar years Kharchenko strove to demonstrate at the very highest level the necessity for reconstructing spetsnaz on a new technical level. He had a great many opponents. So then he decided not to argue any more. He selected a group of sportsmen from among the students at the engineering academy, succeeded in interesting them in his idea, and trained them personally for carrying out very difficult tasks. This was the beginning of forming many more divisions of Russian Special Forces such as Alga, Vympel, Vitaz and many others.

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