A History of Spetsnaz
In order to grasp the history behind spetsnaz it is useful to cast our minds back to the British Parliament in the time of Henry VIII. In 1516 a Member of the Parliament, Thomas More, published an excellent book entitled Utopia. In it he showed, simply and persuasively, that it was very easy to create a society in which universal justice reigned, but that the consequences of doing so would be terrible. More describes a society in which there is no private property and in which everything is controlled by the state. The state of Utopia is completely isolated from the outside world, as completely as the bureaucratic class rules the population. The supreme ruler is installed for his lifetime. The country itself, once a peninsula, has after monumental efforts on the part of the population and the army to build a deep canal dividing it from the rest of the world, become an island. Slavery has been introduced, but the rest of the population live no better than slaves. People do not have their own homes, with the result that anybody can at any time go into any home he wishes, a system which is worse even than the regulations in the Soviet Army today, in which the barracks of each company are open only to soldiers of that company.
In fact the system in Utopia begins to look more like that in a Soviet concentration camp. In Utopia, of course, it is laid down when people are to rise (at four o'clock in the morning), when they are to go to bed and how many minutes' rest they may have. Every day starts with public lectures. People must travel on a group passport, signed by the Mayor, and if they are caught without a passport outside their own district they are severely punished as deserters. Everybody keeps a close watch on his neighbour: 'Everyone has his eye on you.'
With fine English humour Thomas More describes the ways in which Utopia wages war. The whole population of Utopia, men and women, are trained to fight. Utopia wages only just wars in self-defence and, of course, for the liberation of other peoples. The people of Utopia consider it their right and their duty to establish a similarly just regime in neighbouring countries. Many of the surrounding countries have already been liberated and are now ruled, not by local leaders, but by administators from Utopia. The liberation of the other peoples is carried out in the name of humanism. But Thomas More does not explain to us what this 'humanism' is. Utopia's allies, in receipt of military aid from her, turn the populations of the neighbouring states into slaves.
Utopia provokes conflicts and contradictions in the countries which have not yet been liberated. If someone in such a country speaks out in favour of capitulating to Utopia he can expect a big reward later. But anyone who calls upon the people to fight Utopia can expect only slavery or death, with his property split up and distributed to those who capitulate and collaborate.On the outbreak of war Utopia's agents in the enemy country post up in prominent places announcements concerning the reward to be paid to anyone killing the king. It is a tremendous sum of money. There is also a list of other people for whose murder large sums of money will be paid.
The direct result of these measures is that universal suspicion reigns in the enemy country.
Thomas More describes only one of the strategems employed, but it is the most important:
When the battle is at its height a group of specially selected young men, who have sworn to stick together, try to knock out the enemy general. They keep hammering away at him by every possible method — frontal attacks, ambushes, long-range archery, hand-to-hand combat. They bear down on him in a long, unbroken wedge-formation, the point of which is constantly renewed as tired men are replaced by fresh ones. As a result the general is nearly always killed or taken prisoner -unless he saves his skin by running away.
It is the groups of 'specially selected young men' that I want to discuss in this book.
Four hundred years after the appearance of Utopia the frightful predictions of that wise Englishman became a reality in Russia. A successful attempt was made to create a society of universal justice. I had read Thomas More's frightening forecasts when I was still a child and I was amazed at the staggering realism with which Utopia was described and how strikingly similar it was to the Soviet Union: a place where all the towns looked like each other, people knew nothing about what was happening abroad or about fashion in clothes (everybody being dressed more or less the same), and so forth. More even described the situation of people 'who think differently'. In Utopia, he said, 'It is illegal for any such person to argue in defence of his beliefs.'
The Soviet Union is actually a very mild version of Utopia — a sort of 'Utopia with a human face'. A person can travel in the Soviet Union without having an internal passport, and Soviet bureaucrats do not yet have such power over the family as their Utopia counterparts who added up the number of men and women in each household and, if they exceeded the number permitted, simply transferred the superfluous members to another house or even another town where there was a shortage of them.
The Communists genuinely have a great deal left to do before they bring society down to the level of Utopia. But much has already been done, especially in the military sphere, and in particular in the creation of 'specially selected groups of young men'.
It is interesting to note that such groups were formed even before the Red Army existed, before the Red Guard, and even before the Revolution. The origins of spetsnaz are to be found in the revolutionary terrorism of the nineteenth century, when numerous groups of young people were ready to commit murder, or possibly suicide, in the cause of creating a society in which everything would be divided equally between everybody. As theywent about murdering others or getting killed themselves they failed to understand one simple truth: that in order to create a just society you had to create a control mechanism. The juster the society one wants to build the more complete must be the control over production and consumption.
Many of the first leaders of the Red Army had been terrorists in the past, before the Revolution. For example, one of the outstanding organisers of the Red Army, Mikhail Frunze, after whom the principal Soviet military academy is named, had twice been sentenced to death before the Revolution. At the time it was by no means easy to get two death sentences. For organising a party which aimed at the overthrow of the existing regime by force, Lenin received only three years of deportation in which he lived well and comfortably and spent his time shooting, fishing and openly preaching revolution. And the woman terrorist Vera Zasulich, who murdered a provincial governor was acquitted by a Russian court. The court was independent of the state and reckoned that, if she had killed for political reasons, it meant that she had been prompted by her conscience and her beliefs and that her acts could not be regarded as a crime. In this climate Mikhail Frunze had managed to receive two death sentences. Neither of them was carried out, naturally. On both occasions the sentence was commuted to deportation, from which he had no great difficulty in escaping. It was while he was in exile that Frunze organised a circle of like-minded people which was called the 'Military Academy': a real school for terrorists, which drew up the first strategy to be followed up by armed detachments of Communists in the event of an uprising.
The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks demonstrated, primarily to the revolutionaries themselves, that it was possible to neutralise a vast country and then to bring it under control simply and quickly. What was needed were 'groups of specially selected young men' capable of putting out of action the government, the postal services, the telegraph and telephone, and the railway terminals and bridges in the capital. Paralysis at the centre meant that counteraction on the outskirts was split up. Outlying areas could be dealt with later one at a time.
Frunze was undoubtedly a brilliant theoretician and practician of the art of war, including partisan warfare and terrorism. During the Civil War he commanded an army and a number of fronts. After Trotsky's dismissal he took over as People's Commissar for military and naval affairs. During the war he reorganised the large but badly led partisan formations into regular divisions and armies which were subordinated to the strict centralised administration. At the same time, while commanding those formations, he kept sending relatively small but very reliable mobile units to fight in the enemy's rear.
The Civil War was fought over vast areas, a war of movement without a continuous stable front and with an enormous number of all sorts of armies, groups, independent detachments and bands. It was a partisan war in spirit and in content. Armies developed out of small, scattered detachments, and whenever they were defeated they were able to disintegrate into a large number of independent units which carried on the war on a partisan scale.
But we are not concerned here with the partisan war as a whole, only with the fighting units of the regular Red Army specially created for operating in the enemy's rear. Such units existed on various fronts and armies. They were not known as spetsnaz, but this did not alter their essential nature, and it was not just Frunze who appreciated the importance of being able to use regular units in the rear of the enemy. Trotsky, Stalin, Voroshilov, Tukhachevsky, inter alia, supported the strategy and made extensive use of it.
Revolutionary war against the capitalist powers started immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power. As the Red Army 'liberated' fresh territory and arrived at the frontiers with other countries the amount of subversion directed against them increased. The end of the Civil War did not mean the end of the secret war being waged by the Communists against their neighbours. On the contrary, it was stepped up, because, once the Civil War war was over, forces were released for other kinds of warfare.
Germany was the first target for revolution. It is interesting to recall that, as early as December 1917, a Communist newspaper Die Fackel, was being published in Petrograd with a circulation of 500,000 copies. In January 1918 a Communist group called 'Spartak' emerged in the same place. In April 1918 another newspaper Die Weltrevolution, began to appear. And finally, in August 1919, the famous paper of the German Communists, Die Rote Fahne, was founded in Moscow.
At the same time as the first Communist groups appeared, steps were taken to train terrorist fighting units of German Communists. These units were used for suppressing the anti-Communist resistance put up by Russian and Ukrainian peasants. Then, in 1920, all the units of German Communists were gathered together in the rear of the Red Army on the Western front. That was when the Red Army was preparing for a breakthrough across Poland and into Germany. The Red Army's official marching song, 'Budenny's March', included these words: 'We're taking Warsaw — Take Berlin too!'
In that year the Bolsheviks did not succeed in organising revolution in Germany or even in 'liberating' Poland. At the time Soviet Russia was devastated by the First World War and by the far more terrible Civil War. Famine, typhus and destruction raged across the country. But in 1923 another attempt was made to provoke a revolution in Germany. Trotsky himself demanded in September 1923 to be relieved of all his Party and Government posts and to be sent as an ordinary soldier to the barricades of the German Revolution. The party did not send Trotsky there, but sent other Soviet Communist leaders, among them, Iosef Unshlikht. At the time he was deputy chairman of the Cheka secret police. Now he was appointed deputy head of the 'registration administration', now known as the GRU or military intelligence, and it was in this position that he was sent illegally to Germany. 'Unshlikht was given the task of organising the detachments which were to carry out the armed uprising and coup d'etat, recruiting them and providing them with weapons. He also had the job of organising a German Cheka for the extermination of the bourgeoisie and opponents of the Revolution after the transfer of power.... This was how the planned Revolution was planned to take place. On the occasion of the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution the working masses were to come out on the streets for mass demonstrations. Unshlikht's "Red hundreds" were to provoke clashes with the police so as to cause bloodshed and more serious conflicts, to inflame the workers' indignation and carry out a general working-class uprising.' (B. Bazhanov: 'Memoirs of a Secretary to Stalin', pub. Tretya volna 1980, pp 67-69.)
In view of the instability of German Society at that time, the absence of a powerful army, the widespread discontent and the frequent outbursts of violence, especially in 1923, the plan might have been realised. Many experts are inclined to the view that Germany really was close to revolution. Soviet military intelligence and its terrorist units led by Unshlikht were expected to do no more than put the spark to the powder keg.
There were many reasons why the plans came to nothing. But there were two especially important ones: the absence of a common frontier between the USSR and Germany, and the split in the German Communist Party. The lack of a common frontier was at the time a serious obstacle to the penetration into Germany of substantial forces of Soviet subversives. Stalin understood this very well, and he was always fighting to have Poland crushed so that common frontiers could be established with Germany. When he succeeded in doing this in 1939, it was a risky step, since a common frontier with Germany meant that Germany could attack the USSR without warning, as indeed happened two years later. But without a common frontier Stalin could not get into Europe.
The split in the German Communist Party was an equally serious hindrance to the carrying out of Soviet plans. One group pursued policy, subservient to the Comintern and consequently to the Soviet Politburo, while the other pursued an antagonistic one. Zinoviev was 'extremely displeased by this and he raised the question in the Politburo of presenting Maslov [one of the dissenting German Communist leaders] with an ultimatum: either he would take a large sum of money, leave the party and get out of Germany, or Unshlikht would be given orders to liquidate him.' (Ibid. p. 68)
At the same time as preparations were being made for revolution in Germany preparations were also going ahead for revolutions in other countries. For example, in September 1923, groups of terrorists trained in the USSR (of both Bulgarian and Soviet nationality) started causing disturbances in Bulgaria which could very well have developed into a state of general chaos and bloodletting. But the 'revolution' was suppressed and its ringleaders escaped to the Soviet Union. Eighteen months later, in April 1925, the attempt was repeated. This time unknown persons caused a tremendous explosion in the main cathedral in Sofia in the hope of killing the king and the whole government. Boris III had a miraculous escape, but attempts to destabilise Bulgaria by acts of terrorism continued until 1944, when the Red Army at last entered Bulgaria. Another miracle then seemed to take place, because from that moment on nobody has tried to shoot the Bulgarian rulers and no one has let off any bombs. The terror did continue, but it was aimed at the population of the country as a whole rather than the rulers. And then Bulgarian terrorism spread beyond the frontiers of the country and appeared on the streets of Western Europe.
The campaign of terrorism against Finland is closely linked with the name of the Finnish Communist Otto Kuusinen who was one of the leaders of the Communist revolt in Finland in 1918. After the defeat of the 'revolution' he escaped to Moscow and later returned to Finland for underground work. In 1921 he again fled to Moscow to save himself from arrest. From that moment Kuusinen's career was closely linked with Soviet military intelligence officers. Kuusinen had an official post and did the same work: preparing for the overthrow of democracy in Finland and other countries. In his secret career Kuusinen had some notable successes. In the mid-1930s he rose to be deputy head of Razvedupr as the GRU was known then. Under Kuusinen's direction an effective espionage network was organised in the Scandinavian countries, and at the same time he directed the training of military units which were to carry out acts of terrorism in those countries. As early as the summer of 1918 an officer school was founded in Petrograd to train men for the 'Red Army of Finland'. This school later trained officers for other 'Red Armies' and became the International Military School — an institute of higher education for terrorists.
After the Civil War was over Kuusinen insisted on carrying on underground warfare on Finnish territory and keeping the best units of Finnish Communists in existence. In 1939, after the Red Army invaded Finland, he proclaimed himself 'prime minister and minister of foreign affairs' of the 'Finnish Democratic Republic'. The 'government' included Mauri Rosenberg (from the GRU) as 'deputy prime minister', Axel Antila as 'minister of defence' and the NKVD interrogator Tuure Lekhen as 'minister of internal affairs'. But the Finnish people put up such resistance that the Kuusinen government's bid to turn Finland into a 'people's republic' was a failure.
(A curious fact of history must be mentioned here. When the Finnish Communists formed their government on Soviet territory and started a war against their own country, voluntary formations of Russians were formed in Finland which went into battle against both the Soviet and the Finnish Communists. A notable member of these genuinely voluntary units was Boris Bazhanov, formerly Stalin's personal secretary, who had fled to the West.)
Otto Kuusinen's unsuccessful attempt to become the ruler of Communist Finland did not bring his career to an end. He continued it with success, first in the GRU and later in the Department of Administrative Organs of the Central Committee of the CPSU — the body that supervises all the espionage and terrorist institutions in the Soviet Union, as well as the prisons, concentration camps, courts and so forth. From 1957 until his death in 1964 Kuusinen was one of the most powerful leaders in the Soviet Union, serving simultaneously as a member of the Politburo and a Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party. In the Khodynki district of Moscow, where the GRU has its headquarters, one of the bigger streets is called Otto Kuusinen Street.
In the course of the Civil War and after it, Polish units, too, were formed and went into action on Soviet territory. One example was the 1st Revolutionary Regiment, 'Red Warsaw', which was used for putting down anti-Communist revolts in Moscow, Tambov and Yaroslav. For suppressing anti-Communist revolts by the Russian population the Communists used a Yugoslav regiment, a Czechoslovak regiment, and many other formations, including Hungarians, Rumanians, Austrians and others. After the Civil War all these formations provided a base for the recruitment of spies and for setting up subversive combat detachments for operating on the territory of capitalist states. For example, a group of Hungarian Communist terrorists led by Ferenc Kryug, fought against Russian peasants in the Civil War; in the Second World War Kryug led a special purpose group operating in Hungary.
Apart from the 'internationalist' fighters, i.e. people of foreign extraction, detachments were organised in the Soviet Union for operating abroad which were composed entirely, or very largely, of Soviet citizens. A bitter battle was fought between the army commanders and the secret police for control of these detachments.
On 2 August 1930 a small detachment of commando troops was dropped in the region of Voronezh and was supposed during the manoeuvres 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 mechanised 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 reorganised 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 information 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 manoeuvres that were held, the reconnaissance units were dropped in the rear of the 'enemy' and made attacks on his command points, headquarters, centres 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 kilometres 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 manoeuvres in 1934 900 men were dropped simultaneously by parachute. At the famous Kiev manoeuvres in 1935 no less than 1188 airborne troops were dropped at once, followed by a normal landing of 1765 men with light tanks, armoured cars and artillery. In Belorussia in 1936 there was an air drop of 1800 troops and a landing of 5700 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 neighbouring 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 enemyterritory 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 kilometres 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 defences. 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 together. 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 B. H. Liddell Hart, 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 18th 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 neighbours 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 reorganising 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 engineering 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 reconaissance 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 minelaying, 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 paralysing 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 fulfilment 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 1000 kilometres wide and more than 500 kilometres 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 neighbouring states spetsnaz went through a radical reorganisation. 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 5000 kilometres in width and 600-800 kilometres in depth. More than a million and a half soldiers took part in the operation, with over 5000 tanks and nearly 4000 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 reorganisation 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. During manoeuvres held at the Totskyie camps, when on Marshal Zhukov's instructions a real nuclear explosion was carried out, and then the behaviour of the troops in conditions extremely close to real warfare was studied, Kharchenko decided to deploy his own group of men at his own risk.
The discussions that took place after the manoeuvres were, the senior officers all agreed, instructive — all except General Kharchenko. He pointed out that in circumstances of actual warfare nothing of what they had been discussing would have taken place because, he said, a small group of trained people had been close to where the nuclear charges had been stored and had had every opportunity to destroy the transport when the charges were being moved from the store to the airfield. Moreover, he said, the officers who took the decision to use nuclear weapons could easily have been killed before they took the decision. Kharchenko produced proof in support of his statements. When this produced no magic results, Kharchenko repeated his 'act' at other major manoeuvres until his persistence paid off. Eventually he obtained permission to form a battalion for operations in the enemy's rear directed at his nuclear weapons and his command posts.
The battalion operated very successfully, and that was the beginning of the resurrection of spetsnaz. All the contemporary formations of spetsnaz have been created anew. That is why, unlike those which existed during the war, they are not honoured with the title of 'guards' units. (Kharchenko himself moved steadily up the promotion ladder. From 1961 he was deputy to the Chief of Engineering troops and from February 1965 he was head of the same service. In 1972 he was promoted Marshal of engineering troops. Having attained such heights, however, Kharchenko did not forget his creation, and he was a frequent guest in the Olympic Village', the main spetsnaz training centre near Kirovograd. When he was killed in 1975 during the testing of a new weapon, his citations used the highest peacetime formula killed in the course of carrying out his official duties', which is very seldom met with in reference to this senior category of Soviet officers.)