Most people know about the second World War and the battle the Soviet Union had fought against it’s Nazi occupants, although very few know what happened between the front lines. What many don’t know is that a large number of Ex-Soviet citizens joined the Axis in the hope of ridding their countries of the oppressive Communist government.
One such group was the Russian Liberation Army, which sought to create an army mighty enough to take on Joseph Stalin himself. While not an army per se, the term was instead used as a name for several groups of ex-partisans serving on the side of the third Reich both on the land and in some cases, the air.
The Army has it’s start during the early months of the war between the USSR and Germany, when Soviet POWs would do volunteer work in return for being released from the prison camps and avoid death by starvation. These volunteers, or Hilfswilliger in German, were an experiment by the third Reich to test their usefulness. The volunteers were given basic jobs such as storekeeping, sentry work, drivers and so on. Most of the volunteers weren’t able to receive proper uniforms and instead performed work in their old partisan uniforms.
The experiment displayed excellent results. The Germans, realizing their potential abilities, armed them as military police and as a new way to combat the Red Army. Records say that there were as much as 200,000 volunteers by 1942 and even later, a million. The downside to all of this was most of the volunteer troops were disorganized and there was no central command to give orders.
The first true organized form of anti-partisans on the German side was the Russian National People’s Army in 1942, which was a small group of Russian anticommunists (Estimated between 3500-4000) that was later disbanded for failing to provide any meaningful assistance against the Soviets (The troops attempted to reason with the partisans rather than go to battle).
A second, but failed, attempt was the Russian National Liberation Army under the leadership of Bronislav Kaminski. Although the RNLA fought in more battles than the RLA, it met it’s end after poor leadership during it’s actions in the Warsaw Uprising leading to the Ochota Massacre.
Meanwhile, The Soviets were attempting to reclaim Leningrad and mounted an offensive using the 2nd Shock Army, under the command of the Soviet general Andrei Vlasov. The attack eventually failed and Andrei Vlasov fled for a nearby barn in the old believer’s village of Tyhovezhi which he and small amount of surviving partisans hid in for ten days.
He was later captured by the Germans after they were informed by a local villager. Imprisoned, he met Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt who encouraged him to start the Russian Liberation Movement himself after previous attempts in 1941 by Marshal von Bock to create a self-governed army of 200,000 volunteers in Smolensk had failed.Vlasov was later sent to Berlin along with other ex-Soviet officers to being drafting plans for the army.
Vlasov himself was an interesting person, General Vlasov was the son of a Russian Kulak peasant, born in the village of Lomaniko. Vlasov’s first education began in the Russian Orthodox Seminary where he briefly studied before joining the Red army in 1919. After a several week term in regiment, Vlasov was sent to an officers school and finished a four-month course, gaining a commission.He would later join the Communist Party in 1930 to further his military career.
Eight years later, he was sent as an advisor to China for Chiang Kai-Shek, also escaping Stalin’s various purges of military leadership. Vlasov returned to the USSR in 1939 and was placed in command of several military positions during the defense of Moscow and the battle for Kiev. Shortly after he reaffirmed his anticommunist beliefs and became an important part in the creation of the Russian Liberation Army.
Back in the Eastern Front, Vlasov began organizing the existing volunteers into what would be the RLA. Vlasov began writing a leaflet to convince the partisans of the Red Army to switch sides and fight Communist oppression. In the leaflet and throughout his career in the German armies, he encouraged strong nationalism amongst the Eastern troops, this did not bode well with the Nazi leadership, as such, the Gestapo were often given warrants for Vlasov’s arrest. Nevertheless, the leaflet was approved and made into thousands of copies which the Luftwaffe eventually airdropped over Soviet troops on the Front Lines.
During this, the Soviets broke through major German lines of defense during 1943, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel wrote exaggerated documents to Hitler blaming the Russian volunteers for the defeats. This angered the leader, he later gave the order to move 80,000 volunteers to mine for coal in France. Although after realizing this was unrealistic, later disbanded the front divisions.
Nevertheless, the airdrop had great results, literally thousands of Soviet deserters came over to the German side in the hopes of joining Vlasov’s army. The general was taken to a trip across various prison camps and occupied villages in the cities of Smolensk, Mohylev, Bobruisk, Borisov, Orsha, among others to give speeches to the population, later gaining thousands of supporters to his movement Vlasov’s German allies realized that the RLA needed some sort of organized self-government, this is when in 1944, the Committee for the Liberation of the People’s of Russia and the army that served under the committee was officially formed in Prague on November 14 as Vlasov read the Prague Manifesto, which states:
- The equality of all peoples of Russia and a real right for national development, self determination, self rule, and governmental independence.
- The confirmation of a popular worker front, before which the interests of the government are subordinate to the goals of raising the well-being and development of the nation.
- The preservation of peace and the establishment of peaceful relations with all nations of the world, an all round development of international collaboration.
- Wide ranging government actions for the strengthening of the family and marriage. A true equality for women.
- The liquidation of forced labor and the granting to the laborers a real right to free labor which creates their material well-being, the confirmation of a wage for all types of labor in an amount that can support an appropriate standard of living.
- The liquidation of collective farms, the free return of land to the private ownership of farmers. The freedom to determine labor land usage. The freedom to use the products of one’s personal labor, the abolishment of forced requisitions, and the cancellation of all debts to the Soviet government.
- The establishment of protected private labor ownership. The reestablishment of trade, crafts, domestic industry, the granting of the right of private initiative and an opportunity for it to participate in the economic life of the nation.
- Granting the intelligencia the opportunity to freely create for the well-being of their people.
- Granting social justice and defense of laborers from any exploitation, regardless of their origin and former activities.
- The creation for all without exception the real right for free education, medical care, vacation, and senior welfare.
- The destruction of the regime of terror and force. Liquidation of forceful repopulations and mass exiles. The establishment of a true freedom of religion, conscience, speech, assembly, press. A guarantee of the protection of person, property, and home. The equality of all before the law, the independence and clarity of the court.
- The liberation of political opponents of Bolshevism and the return to the motherland from the jails and camps of all who were repressed for their battle against Bolshevism. No revenge and persecution for those who stop their battle for Stalin and Bolshevism, regardless of whether this was done by necessity or by conviction.
- The reestablishment of national property ruined during the war – cities, villages, factories, and plants at cost to the government
- Government support of invalids of the war and their families.
Even with the committee issuing orders and dealing with the army’s affairs itself, all decisions and actions had to be approved by the local German leadership. Either way, the Prague manifesto inspired many hoping to work for a better future without Bolshevism, in fact, on the first day since the publication of the manifesto, the committee received over 60,000 applications for service in the RLA, much more than Vlasov expected.
Ranks of the Russian Liberation Army
- Second Lieutenant (подпоручик)
- Senior lieutenant (поручик)
- Lieutenant Colonel (подполковник)
- Colonel ( полковник)
- Major General
At the time, there were about 113 battalions serving under Vlasov, 42 (Roughly 14,000 people) of these were later sent to Poland, Italy, Belgium, Finland, the Balkans and most notably, France where a number of them fought against the allies on the battle of D-Day. On the Eastern Front, two divisions were already created those being the 600th German Infantry led by Sergei Bunyachenko and the 650th German Infantry led by Mikhail Meandrov.
An air force was also created during the RLA’s existence as a division of the Luftwaffe. The RLA air force was led by Aviation Colonel Viktor Ivanovich Maltsev, who personally selected pilots, radio specialists, mechanics, and navigators to be a part of the air division. In the beginning, the RLA’s air force was used for three purposes: delivery of newly-made planes from factories to airfields, repair (The engineer team consisted of about forty people.), and conducting tests with Soviet aircraft, but would later participate in hostile actions against the Soviets, mostly over Belarus.
This is when the air force was divided into the fighter, light bomber, and reconnaissance (Flak regiment, parachute battalion, and signal battalions, respectively.) Figures estimate 5,000 Vlasovites were involved in the air force. The technology the air force was given was mostly captured Soviet planes from an airfield in 1941 or whatever was claimed from the German invasion. This was beneficial in two ways: the first was it gave the Germans the ability to get to know the Soviet Union’s aerial technology and fighting qualities at a closer distance and the second reason being the volunteers were already familiar with the planes from their time prior to being captured.
The Luftwaffe had also donated several of their old planes which were more of a danger than the damaged Soviet ones, most were out-of-date models such as the Gotha Go-145 A (This was actually a wooden biplane used for training, it became obsolete even before the war had begun.), Heinkel Не-50, Heinkel He-46, or Fokker C.V. which is actually a Dutch model rarely used by the Luftwaffe themselves. Despite this, relations between the German Luftwaffe and the Russians were very warm, and they would often come together for what they called “beer meetings”. A quote from the RLA newspaper “Volunteer” (Доброволец) says this:
“You have met us, as brothers
You managed to warm our hearts
And today as one army
We fly to meet a new dawn
Let our homeland be oppressed
But Clouds cannot hide the sun
Together we fly our planes
So we may stand victorious over death and terror”
Several Soviet fighting aces were present in the RLA’s air force, those included Simeo Trofimovich Bychkov and Bronislav Romanovich Antilevsky. The air force was later disbanded in the July of 1944.
The arms and vehicles the RLA used came from both the Soviets and the Germans. Basic assault weapons were usually the PPSh-41 and the MP40, although some Mosin-Nagant rifles were being used as well. The DP machine gun and the MG 34 were both used, although the latter was only brought in the year of 1945. Tanks and armored vehicles were usually whatever the ex-partisans managed to bring or capture, this included the BA-64, BA-20, or T-34. Hetzers were also common during the Prague Uprising.
Uniform of a Private in the ROA (1942-1945)
- dutch field jacket with ROA collar tabs and shoulder straps, Heeres eagle on the right breast.
- M-40 trousers.
- Dog tag.
- M-34 forage cap with ROA badge.
- M-42 leggings.
- German main belt with ammo pouches.
- M-24 grenade.
- M-31 canteen.
- M-39 webbing.
- M-35 helmet with camouflage net.
- “Novoye Zhizn” newspaper for the “Eastern” volunteers.
- 7,62 mm Mosin 1891/30 rifle.
Back on the ground, the Russian Liberation Army only saw one major battle against the Soviets on the River Oder swamp where the first division was sent to attack a Soviet entrenchment covered by mortars and mounted guns. The battle ultimately ended in defeat, forcing them to retreat to the city of Prague. All the while, morale was low, and supplies even lower as requests for additional support went unanswered and the troops were forced to live off of whatever they brought with them or could capture from the Soviets. Knowing this, Vlasov was having second thoughts on allying with the Germans, this is when he decided he would call for the assistance of the Western Allies in his battle against Communism.
While he sent delegates to negotiate an agreement, the now-combined armies of the RLA were caught in the Prague uprising where several Czech insurgent groups were fighting against the Nazi occupation. Bunyachenko, leading the army, requested Vlasov to give permission to fight the Occupation and change sides once again. A definite reason was not given as to why the RLA switched sides once again, it may have been the fact that Bunyachenko had heard of the cries for help from the Czech people or it may have been his dislike of the national socialist ideology.
For the next three days, The RLA fought it’s last battle with a total force of three T-34-72’s (2 1942 models, 1 1940 model, two of those were lost during the battle), two Panzer IV ausf. H’s, three Hetzers (One of these were lost), two Panzerjager model I’s (one of these were destroyed in battle as well), one StuG IV, one AMD 35 Panhard, four Sd.Kfz. 250’s, one Sd.Kfz.263, two Sd.Kfz.232’s, one Sd.Kfz.234 Puma, two BA-20’s (One of which was destroyed), one BA-64, one BA-11, one Wespe, around ten loading trucks (A fifth of these were lost in the fighting) , and roughly the same number of light vehicles and jeeps at their disposal, a number of machine guns and artillery placements were also available. The battle later ended in victory for the Czech people and the Vlasov’s delegates returned without a definite answer. Not knowing this, Bunyachenko and his troops began leaving the city to escape to escape capture from the Communist partisans in the hope of being aided by the US Third Army.
Unfortunately, the Americans, in fear of angering the Soviet Union, held the surviving members, now including General Vlasov himself, in captivity. Soon after, Vlasov and his allies (Including refugee families) were later given over to the Soviets and sent to Moscow for evaluation, this was known as Operation Keelhaul. During this time, the general was given the opportunity to escape on a plane to war-neutral Spain, he refused the proposition, choosing instead to stay with his people and take on whatever lay ahead for him.
On August 1, 1946, Vlasov and eleven other officers were hanged in Moscow for betraying the Soviet Union. Several remaining leaders from the RLA’s Cavalry division later suffered the same fate. Most of the remaining low-rank soldiers were either hanged to send a message to would-be defectors or put to work in the Gulag for a minimum of 10 years. Interestingly, some of the troops from the second division were given jobs as armed guards in the Gulag instead.
Of the remaining RLA members, some managed to escape death, either by being released to safe zones through the pity of the Americans or by reaching war-neutral Liechtenstein. Constantine Kromiadi, Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt, and Boris Holmston-Smylovskiy (Two of which have written books on their experiences.) are the most prominent examples.
In modern opinion, Vlasov is seen by some as a traitor for betraying his government, although others see him as a hero because he went to great lengths to give his countrymen a better life. In retrospective, the movement was something the Russian people badly needed (This is shown at how fast the army was receiving volunteers) even if it made more problems than it solved and failed to bring upon a new Russia without Communism. Yet for some, the movement’s actions were an inspiration in the fight against oppression. Several monuments have been constructed to the army, one of those being in Nanunet, New York, where bi-annual church services are held in the army’s honor.
More information can be found in the links, although some are in Russian: