The real suicide squad: Schtrafbatts or to us Stalin era penal battalions
This is the tale of underdogs, people wanting to follow their own path, disobey the laws and do what they feel is right but due to their own powerless-ness are forced to get back in the thick of it for a cause they don’t care for, no I’m not talking about the DC movie, I am referring to the men of the Russian penal battalions of the second world war.
To give a very brief summary of the first year of the Russians fighting in the second world war, they were trounced; nothing but defeats and routes led to a dangerous moral situation in the red armies, and so Stalin made a decree; now this wasn’t one of those forgettable statements of government that nothing then came of which we Brits love to remember, this was the (in) famous phrase “not one step back!” from this decree numerous new ,apparently moral boosting, tactics where then employed such as summary executions after a route and the mass creation of penal battalions.
These battalions though were not made up of real life super villans, these were men who were forced to join their national army then for various reasons disobeyed orders and/or where accused of cowardice; though as battalion numbers needed to be maintained common criminals were used to supplement numbers. The primary idea behind these units was two-fold, keeping undesirables fighting, and showing the common soldier they will be dealt with if they step out of line
The first part of this was a great boon for the Russian military, since had they not been sent to a penal battalion, these man (of whom were not an insignificant number) would have been taken away from the front for a prison sentence; so it effectively kept this segment of the army fighting, and since they were considered state criminals could be sent to the worst parts of the front on semi suicidal missions.
Assignment to a penal battalion was not permanent, terms ranged from 1 to 3 months depending on severity of the actions which had one sent there; for instance a death sentence (the standard charge for members of the penal battalions) would result in a 3 month term of service. The way out of this terrible situation was either to survive and serve out your sentence, be gravely injured in which case your crimes would be considered “cleansed by blood”, perform outstanding acts of heroism in the field which in theory you could be decorated for and then be released early considered fully ‘rehabilitated’, or the final way out which unknown numbers took (not by choice) to be killed in action.
During their term of service in a penal battalion they would be used and re used in the full frontal assaults the Russian front is famed for in popular culture, one could draw the simile that they were like the crumple zones of a car, deliberately put in harms way to reduce damage to the valued parts behind. What I estimate drove these men to do such things was a perceived chance of survival, as during an attack the Nazi German forces would be in front of you, in attacking them you should also have all other material of war directed at them, morters, planes, the rest of the infantry etc; where as if one was to attempt to flee back into your own lines you would be shot by barrier detachments, troops of an orginisation called SMERSH (Smert shpionam) specialised in following penal battalions to ensure they obeyed orders or died trying. The members of these units were offered good pensions and special benefits for their work.
Russia was not the only nation to form such battalions during World War 2, in fact the Nazi German equivalent strafbattalions was set up 2 years before the start of the war to re-educate unruly conscripts. The most disernable difference between these nations penal battalions was that the Russian ones were fairly uniform, deserters crowded together for a semi suicidal military unit; while the Nazi version took on many different variants.
Many where the same model as the Russian ones spoken of above, but it was lot more common for criminals to be put in these battalions for reduced sentences; then there was the 36th grenadier division of the waffen SS, a unit whose mission statement was essentially to ‘weaponize’ Germany’s most dangerous criminals and sociopaths and use them to terrorize civilian populations in the occupied east.[i] This unit barely saw front line combat, it was almost exclusively used for terrorising civilian populations; in fact when sent to confront the enemy its numbers plummeted from 4000 to a few hundred, this is a variant of the penal battalion for which there was no equivalent in Russia.
All of this has been under the heavy implication that it would only be natural for a commander to send any soldier accused of desertion or cowardice to a penal battalion, and maybe for conscripts this was true, but what of veterans? At a time when much of the German army had seen action, as a Russian commander you are assigned a truck load of fresh conscripts, you need some of your men to have experience on the field, to be officers, passive teachers or even just a reliable unit to hold objectives or bring up flanks. When one or some of these refuse to follow an order, and/or are accused of cowardice, are you going to have them sent to a unit they likely will not return from? Or do you sweep the issue under the rug so you can keep some of your best soldiers fighting for you. Unfortunately without finding first-hand accounts I couldn’t find any evidence this was the case, but it was a question raised time and again during research and certainly leaves something to think about.
Much like how this essay has ignored the morality of the use of penal battalions, so too does their very creation, one would like to think that only in a nation led by such a man who is quoted as saying ‘one death is a tragedy a million is a statistic’ would this be possible, but commanders have been using this back against the wall tactic for millennia ‘throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight.’[ii]