Hävituspataljonidest Eestis 1941. aasta sõjasuvel [Abstract: The Destruction Battalions in Estonia in the Summer War of 1941]
Abstract: The Destruction Battalions in Estonia in the Summer War of 1941
A state of war was declared in the western regions of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. This did not in any case mean only purely military operations. The safeguarding of security in the rear was considered extremely important. On 25 June 1941, the Union-wide Communist Party (CPSU) Central Committee Politburo adopted the decision ‘On the tasks in the rear of front-line forces’, which placed all agencies and units of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and State Security (NKVD and NKGB) under the command of the commanders of rear defence of the front lines. The following was prescribed as the more general tasks of rear defence: maintenance of law and order in the rear and on roads; the capture of deserters and ‘disorganisers of the rear’; protection of communications; the organisation of evacuations and the transportation of supplies; the destruction of saboteurs. Since rebellion against Soviet rule also began in parallel with combat action in many regions (primarily in regions that the Soviet Union occupied and annexed in 1939/1940), then combat against the so-called internal enemy became the primary task of rear defence units in the vicinity of the front in many areas. Thirdly, rear defence units were assigned the task of destroying all property of any value that could not be removed from the region of the front in the event of possible retreat.
At the same time, all communications of military importance were to be destroyed in the course of retreat. NKVD internal forces and border guard forces on the one hand, and irregular people’s defence units (destruction battalions, workers’ regiments, people’s defence divisions, etc.) formed locally in the summer of 1941 on the other hand were to bear the brunt of this action. The various irregular people’s defence units were on the one hand supposed to be manifestations of ‘nationwide struggle’ deriving from ideology; on the other hand, the need for an improvised territorial defence force was due to pragmatic needs that made it possible to skip many of the formalities associated with mobilisation, transport, formation and supply. At the same time, the possibilities for utilising these units were also considerably more flexible. The formation and utilisation of the ‘people’s defence force’ varied from region to region. The destruction battalions that were formed in the Estonian SSR are considered illustratively in this article.
As elsewhere in areas in the vicinity of the front, the formation of destruction battalions began in the Estonian SSR at the end of June, 1941. The ‘Estonian SSR operative group of destruction battalions’ was established for their formation and command at the NKVD Baltic Border Guard District headquarters. At the start of July, this operative group was placed under the command of the assistant responsible for rear area defence of the commander of the 8th Army, which had retreated into Estonia.
The destruction battalions did not have any definite composition of personnel. Although the self-evidence of patriotism was stressed, in reality the battalions were manned in Estonia by way of ‘Party mobilisation’. If a person was a member or candidate member of the CPSU or the communist youth organisation and did not have any other administrative duties, joining the destruction battalions was in essence mandatory. Generally speaking, this obligation also applied to the employees of other Soviet institutions as well.
The operations of destruction battalions in Estonia can conditionally be divided into three periods: 1) combat against the armed resistance movement before the arrival of German forces; 2) the direct employment of destruction battalions in military assignments alongside securing the rear area; 3) the deployment of destruction battalions and regiments formed out of them at the front in combat against regular Wehrmacht units.
This periodisation is nevertheless conditional. It is rather difficult to present temporal frames of reference more precisely because the actions and composition of different units varied depending on the situation at the front and they also do not match temporally. While battalions were initially formed in the counties and in the cities of Tallinn and Narva, later on units were disbanded and combined, and new additional units were also formed. In total, over 20 such units operated in Estonia (in addition to several more Latvian destruction units that had retreated into Estonia) in the summer war of 1941. Over 6,000 fighters were entered in the lists of the Estonian SSR militia companies, destruction battalions and workers’ regiments. These in turn were divided up according to specific assignments: some went on raids and later fought at the front line as part of the Red Army; others were part of the armed units guarding certain industrial enterprises or Soviet institutions, or provided security for communications of military importance (railroads, bridges, communications lines, and other such sites). Third, there was a large group that was formally connected to destruction battalions because they were tied mainly to other military-administrative duties (the organisation of evacuation, fortification works, mobilisation of horses and motor vehicles, future partisan warfare, and other such duties).
As the name ‘destruction battalion’ already says, these units were initially supposed to be used mainly in combatting saboteurs, spies and local ‘bandits’, and in carrying out ‘scorched earth tactics’. Yet as we can already see from the previous periodization, the role of destruction battalions in Estonia already became blurred at the start of July, 1941. Since the front was breached in many places, some units that were completely unprepared for it were quickly sent to the front to plug the holes. The Southern Estonian destruction battalions that had retreated in the direction of Narva fell apart, disintegrating into isolated troops that retreated together with civilians who wanted to evacuate. Other units were incorporated into the Red Army in Northern Tartu County in the latter half of July, and most of them were cut off there in a pocket. In August, two companies were formed in Harju County and Narva out of the remnants of the destruction battalions, and were already utilised directly as front-line units.
In conclusion it can be said that while the destruction battalions that operated in Estonia initially were indeed a rather effective force for a short time in the fight against armed resistance, their utilisation in front-line combat not only had negligible effect, it was also rather short-sighted in terms of Soviet rule because it resulted in the destruction of a large proportion of the cadre that was trustworthy in the eyes of the Soviet regime, and this cadre was already quite modest in numbers to begin with. A large proportion of the fighters of the destruction battalions left behind in the rear met their end in the course of vigilante justice in the summer war of 1941. And secondly, since the Germans did not count the members of the destruction battalions as soldiers, the status of prisoners of war did not extend to them, and many of them who were taken prisoner were shot on the spot or were executed at a later time as ‘active communists’.