Regular Beginnings for an Irregular Army

29 October 2013, 09:41

During the second half of 1942 and almost all of 1943, one of the most unique military formations in Ukrainian history took shape — the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). It would become an extraordinary example of a self-sustained autonomous military force. Through guerrilla warfare, it sought to be an independent player and pursue its own goals on the enormous battlefield that had engulfed Europe. Surprisingly, the UPA, which to millions of Ukrainians is a paragon of insurgent warfare, was originally conceived as a regular rather than guerrilla army.


By mid-1942, the leadership of the OUN(B) underground in German-occupied Ukraine were faced with serious challenges. On the one hand, the occupation regime had become crueller, especially in the territory of Reichskommissariat Ukraine, which called for more active resistance. On the other hand, there were reasonable fears that the organization would not be able to control the guerrilla element after stirring it up, which would lead to a bloody crackdown by the German authorities. The Resistance Movement would wane, and the very idea of fighting for an independent Ukraine would be discredited in the eyes of the masses. The documents and actions of the OUN(B) clearly reflect this ambiguous situation.

The presence of a spontaneous guerrilla movement forced the OUN(B) leadership in Volhynia and Polissia to opt for deploying a large-scale resistance movement in August 1942. In a printed statement, regional leaders declared, “To an oppressed people, a guerrilla war is, as a rule, the first stage or part of a ‘grand war’, a popular insurrection until armed people are able to form a regular army”. Stepan Bandera’s followers in Volhynia and Polissia sought to form permanent guerrilla subunits which they began to aggregate into larger units in October 1942. German security forces reported on 29 October 1942, “On 16 October 1942, Ukrainian nationalists formed a larger band for the first time near Sarny and are constantly receiving reinforcements”. This was also when the first large-scale actions against the German administration and police were recorded.

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The OUN(B) leadership viewed the situation quite differently: they interpreted the outbreak of a guerrilla war purely as a response to Soviet and Polish provocations aimed at stifling vital Ukrainian forces with German hands. In September 1942, the organization’s leaders were convinced that they had to build up more power in order to deliver a decisive blow at this critical juncture in the war: “We must save our strength, because we believe that at the final stage of the war we will have an opportunity to fight for and build our own Ukrainian state. Not guerrilla warfare of hundreds or thousands but a national liberation revolution of millions of Ukrainians is the path for us”.

The discrepancies between the two tactical approaches to the struggle threatened to become an intractable conflict between the regional leaders in Volhynia and the central leadership. The urgency of the situation forced Mykola “Ruban” Lebed, then chief of the OUN(B), to call a secret military conference in Lviv in October 1942 to work out a joint tactic for military growth and armed struggle.

A compromise was reached with the Volhynian regional leadership, and the OUN(B) sought to develop an underground regular army by reorganizing guerrilla units beginning in early 1943.

The plan rested on the assumption that the superpowers fighting on the Eastern Front would finally become completely exhausted economically, militarily and psychologically, which would lead to internal upheavals and eventual breakup. At the moment when the Third Reich and the USSR would disintegrate, the front would run along the Mozyr­–Voronezh–Rostov-on-Don line. The chaos and transfer of power in Moscow were expected to last for two to three months after which the new rulers would begin to “gather lands”. This hiatus had to be used in order to create a Ukrainian army that would go to the front and prevent Russian intervention. Preliminary efforts to organize an underground army had to be made prior to the disintegration of the Eastern Front. The idea was to reorganize guerrilla units in Volhynia and Polissia into the core of the future underground regular army, which would be transformed into full-fledged armed forces after an open insurgency. Resolute and strict mobilization efforts were expected to yield an 800,000-strong army, including 500,000 personnel in Volhynia and Galicia and 300,000 in other Ukrainian lands.


The first stationary guerrilla units were set up in Polissia in October 1942 through January 1943 and were guided by Serhii “Ostap” Kachynsky, a regional OUN(B) leader responsible for organization. His work relied on the military sections of the organization’s regional branches whose activities were coordinated by Vasyl “Som” Ivakhiv, a leader for military activities in Volhynia and Polissia. In early February 1943, the Regional Military Headquarters (RMH) was set up there. Starting in the spring, the RMH built the future UPA on foundations that very much resembled the structure of a regular army.

Until the end of March 1943, the nationalist military units acted in separate squads, platoons and companies which were organizationally coordinated by the OUN(B) network and operationally by the RMH, causing some serious confusion and hampering further efforts to form an underground army. To avoid this duplication of functions, the OUN(B) Leadership of the Northwestern Ukrainian Lands and the RMH held a joint meeting on 9 April 1943 and decided to call all of the OUN(B)’s military units the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army”. The UPA had to be divided into groups, with each group having a clearly defined territory in which military okruhas (districts) were formed as administrative-territorial structures. They also served the purposes of mobilization and supply. The group commander was, at the same time, the commandant of the respective okruha in the territory assigned to his group. This did away with double leadership, and the OUN network was tasked with serving the needs of the emergent army.

On 15 July 1943, Dmytro Kliachkivsky set up and headed the first Supreme Command of the UPA, which relied upon the OUN(B) Leadership of the Northwestern Ukrainian Lands. A month later, the UPA Headquarters was fully staffed. It included former UNR army officers, such as Lt. Col. Leonid Stupnytsky (chief of staff), Col. Mykola Omeliusyk and Col. Ivan Lytvynenko.

From August 1943, the OUN(B) underground in Volhynia and Polissia partially revealed itself and switched to military activities. The leaders announced the formation of a “front”, which included all UPA units, and a “zapillia”—rear-line services provided by the OUN’s military-administrative structures.

In May 1943, Lebed, who was opposed to guerrilla warfare, was removed from the OUN(B) leadership, and Roman Shukhevych, aka Taras Chuprynka, became the de facto head of the organization. As chief of the Leadership Bureau, he became increasingly involved in developing the UPA jointly with a group of military specialists. After carefully analysing the situation, they launched another round of reorganization in autumn 1943. In November 1943, the new UPA Supreme Command was set up and headed by Shukhevych himself. The Supreme Military Headquarters was also formed and headed by Dmytro “Perebyinis” Hrytsai. It consisted of seven sections: I – operations, II – intelligence, III – rear services, IV – organization and HR, V – training, VI – political propaganda and VII – military inspection. Subordinated to the UPA’s military chief were also the UPA’s communications service and the Central Technical Communications unit, which secured contact with the UPA Supreme Commander, group commanders, chiefs of staff and heads of individual units.

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During the reorganization period, the Ukrainian National Self-Defence (UNS), which was set up earlier in Galicia, was incorporated in the UPA, contributing 5,000-6,000 men. On 18 December 1943, Shukhevych signed the order “On Forming the Ukrainian Armed Forces” to unify and merge the UPA and the UNS into one insurgent army.

In late 1943 and early 1944, the UPA’s field of action covered three krais, or general military regions (in the system of territorial division involving the OUN network and zapillia): UPA North (Volyn, western Polissia, Zhytomyr region and north-western Kyiv region; commander Dmytro Kliachkivsky),  UPA West (Galicia, the Carpathians, Bukovyna, Transcarpathia, Kholm region, Hrubeshiv region, Tomashiv region, Liubachiv region; commander Vasyl Sydor) and UPA South (what is now Khmelnytsk, Vinnytsia and part of Cherkasy and Kirovohrad oblasts; commander Vasyl Kuk). The UPA Titiunnyk, an okruha group that was part of the UPA North group and active in the Zhytomyr region, was expected to become UPA East, a new krai group tasked with operations in Polissia in Chernihiv and Sumy regions.


Modelling itself after a regular army, the UPA command placed great emphasis on discipline. For example, in 1943-44 the UPA had special punitive units to which flagrant transgressors were sent. In September 1943, the UPA Military Field Gendarmerie was formed, while police stations dealt with criminal cases in the zapillia.

In 1944, the “forest army” also formed intelligence and counterintelligence services. Following instructions from high command, intelligence units were to be set up inside UPA headquarters and tasked with establishing a network of agents in their areas, as well as organizing and guiding reconnaissance and raiding units.

In autumn 1943, the underground of the Ukrainian Red Cross (URC) and the UPA Sanitary Services were formed. The URC structures operated in zapillia, recruiting and training medical personnel, collecting medications, medical supplies and instruments and setting up underground medical institutions. The URC had to set up one sanitary kryivka (hiding place) in the territory of each organizational kushch (territorial unit composed of several villages) and provide it with all the supplies needed to take care of the wounded and the sick. Each district had to have one clandestine hospital able to accommodate up to 15 wounded people. Nearly 100 professional doctors and 150 medical students were recruited to the UPA Sanitary Service through the URC network. Hundreds of girls from the OUN women’s section were trained as nurses.

Without a state of its own on which to rely, the UPA command did its utmost to systematically supply the army with materiel and foodstuffs. Following the example of regular military formations, it sought to train commissioned and non-commissioned officers, secure proper pre-mobilization training and establish a clear system for recruiting youth to the UPA. Most of these issues were addressed by organizational-mobilization and materiel sections in the zapillia or the OUN. They acquired and stored weapons and ammunition to be supplied to military units, set up production facilities to serve the needs of the army (repairing weapons, sewing clothes, making footwear, processing agricultural products, etc.) and provided foodstuffs to military units. They also kept a register of men capable of military service, sought necessary military and technical specialists for the UPA, and reinforced and staffed new insurgent units.

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An important task of the military mobilization section was to provide military training to the population in cooperation with other zapillia structures. (In 1942, 10,000 people received military training in Rivne Oblast alone.) In addition to being taught practical and theoretical military science, future conscripts received training in liberal arts, politics and ideology. Young men also received a sound knowledge of Ukrainian literature, Ukrainian and world history, geography, geopolitics and the ideological foundations of Ukrainian nationalism. Evidently, it was largely this comprehensive liberal arts and ideological training that compensated for the lack of material resources and made insurgents extremely efficient within the complex circumstances of the struggle.


A characteristic feature of the UPA’s evolution on the model of a regular army was the addition of military institutions to train commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Five such centres were set up, providing training to a total of some 700 officers who took commanding posts in the UPA. The first centre, “Druzhynnyky”, was established in Polissia and headed by Lev “Horyn” Krysko. Its teachers were former officers from the UNR’s army, the Red Army and members of the Legions of Ukrainian Nationalists (Nachtigal and Roland). Some 60 people were trained there in August through December 1943.

In September 1943, the second UPA training centre, “Lisovi Chorty”, was set up and headed by Fedir “Pol” Polovy and Vasyl “Borovy” Brylevsky. It operated in Volhynia until January 1944. After training 150 men, its staff was moved, in February, to a place near Dolyna in the Carpathians where the third centre, “Oleni”, was established under the guidance of Stepan “Khmel” Frasuliak and later Fedir “Pol” Polovy. This centre trained 350 men, including 230 commissioned and 120 non-commissioned officers. The latter completed training by mid-June 1944 and the former in July 1944.

Soviet security agencies that fought with the UPA beginning in early 1944 noted that the insurgents had a good system of training commanders, involving a four-month training course for commissioned officers and a two-month course for non-commissioned officers. Cheka men did not want to believe that insurgent commanders could be properly trained underground, and provided their bosses with false information claiming that in addition to attending underground centres, UPA officers were trained by the British in Canada!

In 1943-44, the leadership of the OUN’s underground and the UPA’s commanders did the impossible in laying the foundations for a future regular army. However, when they made plans for military capacity growth in late 1942 and early 1943, they had no way of knowing that the front of the great war would cross the Dnieper a year later and completely “flood” the UPA’s mainstay regions by the end of 1944. The arrival of the front, followed by Stalin’s totalitarian regime with its “all-seeing and all-knowing” security services, frustrated existing plans.

The established structure of the UPA had to be constantly changed for the purposes of secrecy and simplicity of command, while some attributes of a regular army (such as the military field gendarmerie) had to be abandoned. In 1944 through 1946, the UPA South and UPA North groups were completely disbanded and their remaining staff transferred to the OUN’s armed underground. By the end of 1947, a similar process came to an end in the territories of the Buh, Lysonia and Sian military okruhas. In the “Karpaty Hoverlia” okruha, incomplete insurgent companies operated until the end of 1949, after which they were disbanded on orders from higher command and their staff were moved to the armed underground. Curiously, even after the essential incorporation of the insurgents into underground structures, the Supreme Command and headquarters were kept intact, allowing for a rapid restoration of the UPA’s structure and its transformation into a regular armed force under favourable geopolitical circumstances.

Photos provided by the Centre for the Study of the Liberation Movement, Lviv

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