A Death Row Army

27 October 2011, 18:14

In mid-summer 1942, the German army reached Stalingrad while some of its units were trying to capture the Caucasus with some success. At the same time, the Red Army was retreating, with and without fighting. Joseph Stalin blamed this on cowardly officers and soldiers. Executions, penal battalions and stop-the-way detachments were the means to strengthen their combat power.

“Not One Step Back!” was the title of Stalin’s Decree 277, issued on 28 July 1942. It introduced penal battalions in the Red Army comprised of workers and farmers, and expanded the functions of stop-the-way detachments. German commanders followed suit shortly thereafter.

“Establish five to ten penal battalions of 150-200 people each in the army and send ordinary soldiers and low-level commanders who violated discipline due to cowardice or emotional vulnerability. Assigning them to difficult areas will give them the opportunity to atone for their crime against their Homeland with blood,” the decree said. The stop-the-way detachments followed army units and were supposed to shoot down retreating “traitors of the homeland”.

Stop-the-way detachments were comprised of deserters, violators of army discipline and former prisoners of soviet camps, as well as criminals who volunteered to “wash away their guilt before the state with their blood.” For one reason or another, a lot of civilians ended up in these detachments.


Penal battalions and stop-the-way detachments were not invented during WWII. Bolsheviks used them extensively in 1917-1921, saying that it was a revolutionary necessity. “A real revolutionary cannot quit death penalties altogether. There has not been a single revolution or civil war that did not have executions,” claimed Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, in 1917.  

The threat of execution could force soldiers go into deadly attacks and fulfill the orders of their commanders, thought Lev Trotsky,  the People’s Commissar for Military and Navy Affairs. “You cannot lead masses to death without the death penalty in your arsenal,” he wrote in his memoirs. “As long as the tailless apes, evil and proud of their technology, called humans, can build armies and fight, officers will offer their soldiers a choice between possible death at the front and inevitable death in the rear.” The memoirs were published as My Life yet they closely resembled Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The purpose of executions coupled with penal battalions and stop-the-way detachments was to ensure the discipline and stability of the Red Army. Their organization was considered to be one of the most significant tasks of commanders and emissaries. “Every large military unit must have a thin yet resilient and reliable net of stop-the-way detachments at its back,” said one of the Bolshevik decrees from the times of the Soviet-Polish war in 1920. “Easy and unpunished desertion from the army can undermine even the best units. A young soldier trying to get out of the line of fire, in which he finds himself for the first time must face a tough hand that will return him with a warning of severe punishment for all violators of their military duty. The running deserter must face a gun or a bayonet…”


During WWII, stop-the-way detachments were thrown to break through “unbreakable” defense lines. They were sent as fighting patrols, to distract landing troops, clear minefields, reveal the enemy’s positions, and cross waterways without water crafts or life jackets.

“These units were of great use to commanders,” claimed Mykhailo Kliuchko, a one-time officer of penal battalion 322. “On the one hand, they maintained at least some semblance of discipline in the army. On the other, the officers could check whether their decision was correct, by using “cheap” cannon fodder. For instance, an officer had an order to seize a strategic landmark. How could they find out the military force of the enemy located there? The officer instructed the commanders of a penal battalion or two, or sometimes a squadron, to go on a nighttime reconnaissance patrol. Nobody cared about any losses suffered by the squadron.”

“Basically, the life of a common soldier was of no value on the frontline or for commanders. Nobody thought of us as people,” Maksym Voronkov, a retired colonel, reflected in 1989. In the summer of 1943, he was the commander of a reconnaissance unit with infantry regiment 128, later downgraded to a regular soldier in a penal battalion. “Is there any other way to interpret the attitude of the top commanders that threw use against the enemy units that were 8-10 times larger? They knew we would all die, but still sent us there. The Germans would shoot at the penal battalion soldiers and thus reveal their positions. Then, our artillery would hit them. Of course, our army lost less people after such patrols but wasn't the price too high?”

German soldiers were shocked by the insanity of penal soldiers. “Crowds of people walked the minefields in a tight formation, side by side,” a German soldier wrote in a letter to his family. “People in civilian clothes and penal battalion soldiers moved forward like robots. Only the mines that injured or killed people, cleared their rows. These people looked as if they felt no fear or had no hesitation. We noticed that the injured who fell, were shot by a small group of commissars or officers that followed the advancing line. I have no idea what these people could have done to deserve such treatment”.


The soviet army returned to Ukraine in 1943. Field enlistment offices reopened on the “liberated” territory and forced the mobilization of all men who were able to hold a gun. In fact, they raided households, and mobilized even 16-17 year olds. Officers determined their age by eye not looking at any documents and ignoring their mothers pleading for their sons not to be taken, since they were underage, incapable ofmilitary service, not to mention unready to immediately participate in military action.

Enlistment office staff and the commanders of military units who liberated Left-bank Ukraine looked at the conscripts as traitors, simply because they had been under German occupation. “People who lived on occupied territory and worked for the enemy were nearly all penal soldiers in the eyes of the soviet government,” Mykhailo Tkachenko told his son Dmytro. Born in 1923, Mr. Tkachenko escaped the forced shipping of Ukrainian labor force to Germany during WWII, but ended up in the Red Army in 1943. “The officers would throw us into second-priority areas as cannon fodder, poorly armed and without any training. Most were killed within a very short period. The soviet leadership did not consider this to be a great loss.”

“Everyone is tortured by the inhuman unprecedented suffering of the nation,” film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko wrote in his diary on 16 December 1943. “Rumor has it that they are enlisting 16 year olds in Ukraine. They hustle these barely trained kids to the fight and look on them as penal battalions. Nobody cares about them, nobody…”

Individual evidence remains that the total male population of some villages, which had spent some time under German occupation, was sent to penal battalions. “When the soviets returned in the autumn of 1943, almost immediately, they grabbed virtually all conscript-aged men in the village of Bulayivka,” Valeriy Semyvolos tells the Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) website. He learned about this from his grandmother’s older sister. “They would take all the men, be they weak, sick or crippled. Of them, only one finally returned. He told the villagers how the men had died. As people under German occupation, they were qualified as enemies of the soviet nation and were sent to a penal battalion. German tanks involved in the Korsyn-Shevchenkivsky Offensive crushed the whole battalion in the first attack. The only weapons they were given immediately before the operation were one rifle per ten people. The officers allowed the soldiers a shot of vodka and sent them to their deaths, with stop-the-way detachments comprised of Uzbeks and other Central Asian soldiers following them with machineguns”.

Commanders would throw the poorly trained and poorly armed boys into last-ditch battles and assaults of strong German posts. For many, the first battle was their last. “As long as I live, I will never forget one assault in the winter of 1943,” Anatoliy Dimarov, a writer and WWII veteran, recalls. “The Germans were fighting from behind thick brick walls of a steelworks above a water reservoir. The colonel and his commisar had nothing better to do than send several hundred new conscripts, poorly dressed and poorly armed, to attack them. They all crowded onto the ice-covered reservoir. The Germans let them get closer, then shot everyone. The ice turned into a bloody black pile of bodies.”


Towards the end of September 1943, the soviet army reached the Dnipro. The German army used locals and prisoners of war to set up a defense barrier with fortifications and convenient shooting spots. The assault crossing near Bukryn began on the night of 22 September. The penal battalion came first followed by the rest of the army. The soldiers attacked the enemy without proper armor or preparation. This was their penance for being under occupation.

People swam to the right bank of the river holding on to logs, pieces of wood and raincoats filled with hay under a hail of bullets. “Machineguns were the worst,” said Viktor Astafiev, an eyewitness. “They had these lightweight, rapid- fire machineguns with cartridges containing five hundred rounds. They had all chosen good locations in advance and were pouring bullets over the bank, the island and the river, which was swarming with human bodies. The old and the young, the passionate and the indifferent, volunteers and conscripts, penal and regular soldiers, Russians and non-Russians, were all screaming one and the same thing; “Oh Mother!”, “Oh, God!”, “Help us” and “Save us”, while the machineguns kept spitting deadly rays of fire at them. The injured and those who escaped the bullets grabbed at one another and drowned in packs. The river was bubbling, quivering from human convulsions and covered in red foam.” The soldiers could not retreat. Stop-the-way detachments were waiting there in the rear, with their machineguns ready.

Of the 25,000 soldiers who entered the water on the Dnipro’s left bank, only 5-6,000 reached the right bank, Mr. Astafiev recalls. Overall, Joseph Stalin’s whim to take over Kyiv by the 26th anniversary of the October Revolution on 7 November 1943 cost 417,000 lives.  

Before the Dnipro operation, soviet commanders met in the village of Trebukhiv in September 1943 to talk about the liberation of Kyiv. Someone mentioned that the nearly 300,000 new conscripts that had been enlisted by the field offices needed weapons and uniforms. Chief Commander Georgy Zhukov said, “They will fight in what they wear now! Why are we wasting our time here, my friends? Why should we dress and arm these khokhols? They are all traitors. The more of them we drown in the Dnipro, the fewer we’ll have to send to Siberia after the war.” This quote comes from the memoirs of Yuriy Konovalenko, a Special Tasks Officer of the Commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front.

“Once the war is over on the territory of Ukraine, everyone who was in occupied territories or was a prisoner of war, had to undergo purges, i.e. an investigation by Smersh, a counter-intelligence agency,” immigrant historian Fedir Pihido-Pravoberezhny wrote. “One of the first questions they asked was “Why didn’t you commit suicide rather than go into German captivity?” The investigations included interrogations that lasted 24 hours, provocative questions, the testimony of friends, the writing of reports and the compilation of detailed dossiers. Those who failed the investigation were sent to concentration camps, special battalions to build Communism in the Northern regions and to penal battalions.”

The first information about penal battalions in the Red Army was published in the USSR during perestroika, since the Red Army Procedure No. 034 on Military Confidentiality in Print during Wartime, approved by Marshall Aleksandr Vasilievski on 15 February 1944, prohibited the publication of  “any information about stop-the-way detachments, penal battalions and squadrons.”  


Whenever we ran across a minefield our infantry moved in as if the mines weren’t there. We estimate our losses from infantry mines as equal to those we would suffer under machinegun and artillery fire if the Germans decided to protect this area with strong military units instead of mines. But the assault infantry do not set off anti-tank mines. Once they get through the mine field and set up a platform, our sappers arrive and make pathways for our tanks.”

From what Georgy Zhukov told Dwight Eisenhower in 1945. Shocked, Mr. Eisenhower recalled later, “I pictured a clear image of what would happen to any American or British officer if he ever employed this strategy”)


Joseph Stalin’s whim to take over Kyiv by the 26th anniversary of the October Revolution on 7 November 1943, cost 417,000 lives

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