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5, July 2010, 721747

Penal Units in the Red Army


This article compares German and Soviet ideas behind raising penal units on the Eastern Front during World War II and their employment in combat, but focuses on Soviet practice. In an attempt to tighten discipline in the Red Army, Stalin adopted the basic draconian measures used by Leon Trotsky, his most bitter rival, during the Civil War of 19181922 but he considerably intensied the scale and scope of repressions thus elevating the brutality on the Eastern Front to new heights.

U strafnikov odin zakon, odin konets: Koli, rubi fashistskogo brodyagu! I esli ne poimaesh v grud svinets, Medal na grud poimaesh Za otvagu. [Penal soldiers know only one law: Kill the fascist bastard! And if you remain alive, You will get a medal For Valour.] (Vladimir Vysotsky, Shtrafnye batalony [Penal Battalions])

IN HIS ORDER NO. 227 ISSUED IN JULY 1942, STALIN CLAIMED that, after the defeats suered in the winter of 19411942 near Moscow, the Germans had organised over 100 penal companies from soldiers who, being cowardly or unsteady, violated the discipline and ordered them to atone for their guilt with their blood. They also formed about 10 penal battalions from commanders who were likewise considered cowardly or unsteady. These commanders were stripped . . . of their decorations, placed . . . at the most dangerous sectors of the front and ordered . . . to atone for their guilt with their blood. Most of what Stalin claimed about the German experience was false, yet he assessed this alleged experience as positive and ordered the Red Army to organise penal units of the types he described (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 27778). This article begins with a brief overview of international and Imperial Russian penal practices in order to set a context for the analysis of the Soviet experience. Subsequently, it examines the roots of penal units in the Red Army, their strength and composition, the legal

ISSN 0966-8136 print; ISSN 1465-3427 online/10/050721-27 2010 University of Glasgow DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2010.481384



foundations for sentencing soldiers to penal service, the missions assigned to penal soldiers, their morale, discipline and combat performance. Soviet penal units are a blank spot in the historiography of World War II. During the war, the mass media never mentioned them. Research on this topic was banned in the Soviet era and most archival les containing information on penal units remain classied at present;1 yet the post-war generations of Soviet people knew from hearsay that such units existed in the Red Army and many adopted a romanticised image of penal soldiers that stemmed largely from the Penal Battalions song (1964) written by Vladimir Vysotsky (19381980), bard and icon of Soviet pop-culture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Only during and after Perestroika were a series of orders on penal units, including Order No. 227, published (Prikaz narodnogo 1988; Zolotarev 1999a; Zhadobin et al. 2003), followed by memoirs of soldiers who had served in these units (Pyltsyn 2003; Suknev 2006; Golbraikh 2007). The published ordersa reliable sourcereveal the considerations behind this punitive policy, the legislative acts that shaped it and the decision-making process related to its enforcement, whereas memoirs show the human dimensions of penal service: the everyday life of penal soldiers, their missions, and the relations between ocers and men. Curiously, the scholarly debate on penal units was spurred up not so much by these publications as by the Shtrafbat [The Penal Battalion] TV serial authored by director Nikolai Dostal and writer Eduard Volodarskii and released in 2004. The serial had a number of factual errors that outraged war veterans who gave many interviews challenging the serials version of penal service. These interviews were collected by Russian historians in several volumes (Daines 2008; Daines & Abaturov 2008; Rubtsov 2007; Pykhalov 2007). The memoirs and interviews published after the fall of communism, when authors were free to speak the truth, are precious primary sources. Of course, anecdotal evidence is always problematic, and Russian war veterans are reluctant to part with the Great Patriotic War mythology. However, the credibility of post-Soviet memoirs should probably be ranked as equal to those of the German generals who survived the war (Manstein 1958; Guderian 1950; Friessner 1956): they can be used as a historical source with caution. These memoirs, interviews and the published documents are the only primary sources currently available. They give the opportunity to establish some basic facts that can serve as a starting point for the research on Soviet penal units. The rst steps in this direction have already been taken by Russian scholars who have engaged in a heated debate. The major points of contention are the morality of this punitive policy in the context of Soviet martial law, its rationality in the context of the Eastern Front and the survival rate of penal soldiers. This article addresses these points. Penal units existed in all major European armies in the second half of the nineteenth century. Soldiers who had committed serious oences were court-martialled and either discharged and sentenced to prison terms as civilians, or they remained with the colours but served their terms in military jails. In the latter case, the inmates formally belonged to a penal unit aliated with a jail. Most armies chose these two types of
In response to the authors inquiry about access to les on penal units, the Central Archive of the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation replied that these documents will be declassied 75 years after their issue, that is, beginning in 2017.



punishment. However, the French Army maintained several penal battalions in Algeria that served as regular units but were subject to punitive restrictions like alcohol bans and endless drills; other French soldiers could be assigned to unarmed engineer penal companies. In any case, those sentenced to penal units had to serve long terms, usually several years. If they behaved well, they could be transferred back to regular units before the end of their terms. Ocers and NCOs who commanded penal units received higher wages and were given more authority to discipline their subordinates than ocers of regular units of the same rank (Afanasev 1890, pp. 10913). A memoir of uncertain credibility by an author who wrote under the pen name Roy Baker describes how he, as a soldier of the French Foreign Legion in the interwar period, was sentenced to seven years of penal service for hitting a sergeant. He mentions other culprits sentenced for up to 25 years for desertion or for killing their ocers. His penal battalion was a non-combat chain gang that worked 14 hours a day building roads and railways in Morocco. The battalion members were subject to extraordinary punishments that were prohibited in the regular army: they could be whipped for insubordination and their commanders could sentence them to several days of salt-pot rationssalty food with no wateror to hours of wooden clamps that squeezed the feet until blood circulation stopped. Since Morocco was under martial law, the ocers summarily executed those who refused to work (Baker & Lind 1934, pp. 39112). The Russian Imperial Army introduced penal service in 1867. Like the armies of most other countries, it discharged court-martialled ocers and, if the oence was serious, sent them to civilian jails. Privates and NCOs who committed common crimes, such as theft and robbery, were also discharged and jailed as civilian criminals. However, privates and NCOs implicated in military oences such as desertion, insubordination, hitting a superior or a sentry, or violation of sentry duties were conned to penal units aliated with military jails. Conscientious objectors, like the Dukhobors and Molokans, were also punished in this manner (Brock & Keep 2001, p. 3; Afanasev 1890, pp. 120, 123).2 They were ocially called inmates. The terms of service in penal units were usually limited to a maximum of three years but in exceptional circumstances they could be extended up to six years. They could also be reduced by one sixth of the original sentence if the penal soldiers behaved well. The inmates were reduced to the ranks and surrendered their decorations for the duration of the penal service. They engaged in parade drills, bayonet ght exercises, fencing and gymnastics coupled with the study of eld manuals, religious education and literacy training intended to improve their moral standards. They also had to perform labour duties to make the jails economically self-sucient. Regular ocers, NCOs and soldiers guarded the inmates and supervised their training (O distsiplinarnykh 1893, pp. 6782; Afanasev 1890, pp. 116, 119). Like the ocers in French penal units, their Russian counterparts had ample leeway to interpret their orders arbitrarily, with little fear of being held to account when they imposed punishments; unlike the regulars, penal soldiers could be ogged for the violation of discipline (Brock & Keep 2001, p. xiii; Afanasev 1890, p. 119). After the end of their penal terms, inmates received back their decorations and
2 Dukhobors and Molokans are Russian pacist Christian sects that oppose the governments interference in their lives.



returned to the regular units. They were restored to their ranks if they showed exemplary behaviour during their penal service; otherwise, as a contemporary author put it, they continued suering the consequences of their penalties (Afanasev 1890, p. 126). By the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Army had four penal battalions with a total strength of about 3,700 men from all branches of the army and navy (O distsiplinarnykh 1893, pp. 7374, 82; Afanasev 1890, pp. 126, 137). The Provisional Government established after the February Revolution of 1917 believed that penal units were incompatible with the society of free citizens and disbanded them. However, the Bolsheviks soon organised a new type of penal units which were to operate as frontline formations. With the beginning of the Civil War in the summer of 1918, the Soviet government introduced military conscription. After that, mass desertion became a major problem for the Red Army and it was fought by drastic means. In November 1918, Trotsky, Peoples Commissar of Defence, ordered:
Obvious deserters should be punished by one penalty only: the ring squad . . . In special circumstances, . . . a tribunal may put deserters or suspected deserters on probation in regular units. It is then necessary to attach black collars [to their uniforms] so that probationary soldiers and their comrades know that in the case of a repeated oence they cannot reckon on mercy. (Daines 2008, pp. 2223, 37)

The black collars could be removed only in cases of exemplary conduct in battle. These measures proved to be ineective and in January 1919, Trotsky ordered the formation of penal companies from apprehended deserters. This decision was backed retroactively by the Military Revolutionary Council in June 1919 when it issued Regulations on Penal Units. According to the Regulations, soldiers could be sentenced to penal service by a military tribunal or by the decision of a unit commander. Unlike penal units elsewhere, and those in Imperial Russia, Soviet penal companies participated in combat; furthermore, they were assigned to the most dangerous sections of the front. These soldiers had to surrender their boots for the entire period of probation and instead received bast shoes (Daines 2008, pp. 3132, 187, 417, 420).3 They could suer extraordinary penalties if they failed to full their missions. The length of penal service was undetermined but, unlike penal inmates elsewhere, Soviet probationary soldiers could quickly redeem themselves by displaying courage on the battleeld. If they did so, their penal units were turned into regular army units. These measures were intended to not only give deserters and those who retreated without permission a second chance, but also to make it clear that they would be summarily executed in case of another misdeed. In addition, penal companies were to serve as a warning to regular soldiers. Trotsky viewed penal companies and the humiliating black collars and bast shoes as an alternative to harsher measures, like decimationthe execution of every tenth soldier of units that retreated without permissionwhich the Red Army also practised with Lenins approval (Ovechkin 2003, p. 109). During the rst seven months of 1919, military tribunals of the Red Army sentenced 55,000 deserters and draft evaders to penal companies. This included 3,400 of the 4,000 men who had been sentenced to death but whose sentence was commuted to

Bast shoes are a type of footwear woven from bark.



penal service. Trotsky believed that this policy attained the desired ends. He wrote: Experience has shown that such penal units raised from probationary deserters fought . . . courageously and even became exemplary (Daines 2008, pp. 35, 187). The end of the Civil War signalled the end of combat penal companies, but noncombat ones, resembling penal units in other countries, existed in the Red Army during the interwar period. They were intended to discipline court-martialled rank-and-le soldiers with penalties that did not exceed the terms of their military service. These units were small in number and performed mainly hard labour. They were disbanded in 1934, restored in July 1940, but disbanded again in August 1941, as the Soviet government reasoned that non-combat penal service in wartime lost its punitive purpose and so transferred penal soldiers to the regular army (Daines 2008, p. 186).4 Order No. 227 in 1942 restored the type of combat penal units that had existed during the Civil War. Contrary to Stalins claim, the emergence of German penal units on the Eastern Front was unrelated to the defeat of the Werhmacht at the gates of Moscow. The German ideas of penal service stemmed from the stab in the back myth: the Defence Law introduced on 31 May 1935 banned rotten apples from the Wehrmacht in order to prevent mutinies like those of 1918 (Klausch 1995, p. 348). According to this law, court-martialled soldiers and Wehrunwurdigencivilians eligible for draft but regarded as unworthy to defend the Reich, such as common criminals and political prisonerscould not serve in the regular army; nor could those with an undesirable mentality or soldiers deemed troublemakers, even if their actions could not be qualied as crimes. The latter two groups were enlisted into a Sonderabteilung, a noncombat penal unit; Wehrunwurdigen were conned to civilian jails, while those convicted by military tribunals served their terms in military prisons or performed hard labour. In late 1940, Rudolf Lehmann, head of the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) Correctional Department, issued an order requiring military prisoners to stay in the labour camps and jails for the duration of the war but the sentences themselves were to be served after its end: wartime hard labour did not aect their length (Klausch 1995, pp. 36168). Soldiers of the Sonderabteilung and military inmates deemed incorrigible were transferred to concentration camps where the conditions were harsher than in labour camps, or, in extreme cases, they could even be executed for undermining the military might on the basis of a special martial law passed on 17 August 1938 (Klausch 1995, p. 348). In September 1940, Hitler came to the decision to raise combat penal units from military inmates willing to earn pardon by ghting in the most dangerous sectors of the front. He issued an order about the formation of such units on 21 December 1940, three days after he had signed the plan for Operation Barbarossa. The Nazi cultural belief that combat elevated the moral values of individuals, the mystic notion of spilled blood as redemption for a misdeed, and the desire to mobilise additional manpower for the Eastern Campaign were at the root of this decision. Military inmates whose prison terms were over six months and who had no previous convictions were eligible for recruitment to Bewahrungstruppe 500probationary penal battalions whose
In September 1941, the Soviet government began drafting prisoners from the Gulag camps but they fought as regulars before Order No. 227 established the penal units. Beginning with October 1942, most of these recruits were sent to penal units (Kuzmichev 2000, pp. 25, 27).



designation started with 500.5 Unlike those who remained in military jails, did hard labour for the duration of the war, and had to serve their sentences after its end, probationary soldiers began serving their terms on the day they arrived at the penal battalions. These battalions belonged to the Wehrmacht but operated separately from the regular army. Enlistment into penal battalions was voluntary and only those who were expected to ght well were accepted, but obviously these volunteersrecruited in the hard labour camps and jails, and threatened with transfers to concentration campsmade their choice under duress. Yet, since service in penal battalions gave military inmates the opportunity to escape hard labour and even earn full pardon, there was no shortage of volunteers during the victorious campaigns of 19401941. This new policy also oered a chance to some of those sentenced to death to escape execution: military tribunals could commute the death penalty to service in a penal battalion. NCOs and ocers sentenced by military tribunals were demoted to the ranks for the duration of their penal terms and served together with penal privates. Two more types of penal units existed in the German Army. The high casualty rate on the Eastern Front prompted the German leaders to drop the Wehrunwurdigen notion and organise the Bewahrungstruppe 999 Brigade in October 1942, which also belonged to the Wehrmacht. Two-thirds of the penal brigade consisted of non-violent common criminals, and the remainder were political prisoners (Klausch 1995, pp. 68 69). It was primarily engaged in non-combat duties. The second type of penal unit, the Sonderformation Dirlewanger, grew gradually from a company to a brigade. It consisted of convicted bandits and other violent criminals willing to earn pardon. The unit belonged to the SS and was named after its commander, Oskar Dirlewanger, a deranged criminal. Unlike the Bewahrungstruppe 500 battalions, the Sonderformation Dirlewanger fought not as a frontline unit but engaged rst in guarding the Lublin Ghetto and then, beginning in February 1942, in counterinsurgency in Belorussia (Klausch 1993, pp. 39798). Soldiers drafted into both of these units had to serve there for the duration of their sentences, which were set by civilian or military courts. To what extent did the German penal practice serve as a model for the Soviet Union? Stalin stated that the goal of Order No. 227 was termination of desertion and unauthorised retreat. Every frontthe Soviet designation of an army grouphad to organise between one and three penal battalions of 800 men each from ocers who, being cowardly or unsteady, violated discipline. Stalins instructions were to place them in the most dangerous sectors of the front and give them the opportunity to atone for their crimes against the Motherland with their blood. In addition to penal battalions, every army had to organise, for the same purpose, between ve and 10 independent [otdelnye] penal companies with a strength of between 150 and 200 men from privates and NCOs who had committed similar oences (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 27778). Thus, although German and Soviet penal soldiers were to perform similar missionsght in the most dangerous sections of the frontthere were important dierences in the composition of Soviet and German penal units and in the motivations of the German and Soviet leaders who decided to raise them. Unlike German penal battalions, where all convicts served together regardless of the rank
5 Soldiers with sentences shorter than six months had to serve their terms in their own unit (Klausch 1995, p. 417).



they had held in the regular army, Soviet penal battalions were all-ocer units with soldiers formerly holding ranks between junior lieutenant and colonel, while independent penal companies were reserved for NCOs and privates. Generals were not liable to this type of punishment. Hitler organised penal units seeking to increase the Wehrmachts manpower by recruiting military inmates who were already in jails and were willing to earn pardon through exemplary ghting, while Stalin sought to strengthen the Red Armys steadiness through a new set of draconian measures against frontline soldiers who had deserted or retreated without permission, exactly as the Red Army had done in 19181922. We should keep these original goals in mind while examining the development of German and Soviet penal practices. According to Order No. 227, oenders with senior rankbattalion and regiment commanders and commissarscould be sentenced to penal service only by front tribunals, while junior ocers, NCOs and privates could be sent to penal units either by tribunals or by orders from their superiors. Ocers with the minimum rank of brigade commander could impose this penalty on lieutenants and captains, while ocers with the minimum rank of regiment commander could impose it on NCOs and privates (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 31215). No comprehensive data on the proportion of soldiers sent to penal units by their superiors as opposed to those sentenced by tribunals are currently available but the data on the 1st Penal Battalion of the Stalingrad Front show that this proportion was roughly equal: the former made up 177 of the 331 ocers who served there between 1 August and 30 December 1942, while the remainder were those sentenced after court-martials (Moroz 2008a, p. 140). On 21 August 1943, Stalin issued Order No. 413 explaining that only NCOs and privates suspected of grave crimes, which could receive a harsher punishment than a term in a penal company, should be tried by tribunals (Rubtsov 2007, p. 364). After this order, most low-ranking oenders were sentenced to penal units by their superiors without a trial. Their sentences had to be read in front of the units to teach other soldiers a lesson and warn them of the consequences they could face if they failed to full their duty. Soviet tribunals had the choice of sentencing military oenders either to labour camps or penal units, with a legal foundation for the latter. Article 28, clause 2, of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, along with similar articles of the codes of other union republics, gave military tribunals and civilian courts the right to suspend any sentences during wartime, including the death penalty, on the condition that the convict would ght on the front, thus attempting to earn a pardon (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 33233). As military lawyer Aleksandr Dolotsev put it: To give him [a deserter] a prison term meant to full his wish; penal service would be a more appropriate punishment in wartime (Shved 2008, p. 292). Those to whom tribunals chose to apply this article, instead of giving them a jail term, could be sentenced to penal units with or without demotion to the ranks. In the rst case, former ocers found themselves in penal companies. If they survived, they returned to the regular army as privates but their promotion to the ocer rank was usually fast. In the second case, ocers were sent to penal battalions; they were still demoted to the ranks but only for the duration of their penal service. When they returned to their units, their rank was restored, although they usually received a lower position than they had held before the sentence. Penal soldiers preserved their party membership but surrendered their decorations for



the duration of penal service; they wore uniforms without insignia and received privates wages. However, if they were killed or gravely wounded and discharged, they or their families received pensions corresponding to their last position in the regular army (Golbraikh 2008, p. 201; Rubtsov 2007, pp. 12829; Kuzmichev 2000, pp. 26 27). Stalin greatly inated the numerical strength of German penal units when he described them in Order No. 227. In fact, only a minority of the German military inmates found themselves in combat penal units. About 180,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were sentenced to prison terms of over six months between January 1941 and January 1945 and therefore were eligible for penal draft. However, only ve German probationary battalions operated on the Eastern Front and two others on the Western Front. In total, 27,000 soldiers passed through Bewahrungstruppe 500 battalions, and 28,000 through Bewahrungstruppe 999 Brigade during the war, but the latter rarely participated in combat. The Sonderformation Dirlewanger had about 5,000 men at the peak of its strength. The remaining military inmates were Straftruppe, engaged in tough non-combat jobs like trench digging, burying the dead and clearing mineelds (Klausch 1995, pp. 57, 118, 350, 354; 1993, p. 398). In contrast, the Red Army organised 65 penal battalions and 1,048 independent penal companies, although many of these units operated for only several months before they were renamed, disbanded, or destroyed and never restored (Kuzmichev 2000, pp. 2833). Who served in the Soviet penal units? The original targets of Order No. 227 were deserters or frontline soldiers who had retreated without permission. However, the legislation on potential penal recruits became progressively more inclusive in the following years, and eventually most of the penal personnel were soldiers whom Order No. 227 did not target. Instead, penal units were the service place of those who had committed any possible oences while serving in the armed forces. In October 1942, three months after Order No. 227 was issued, the Soviet General Headquarters (Stavka) extended the scope of those liable to punishment by penal service from deserters and frontline soldiers to any thieves of military property, drunkards, malicious violators of the military discipline and other unstable elements all over the Soviet Union, including those in the deep rear (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 33233). Stalins Order No. 413 of 21 August 1943 stated that privates and NCOs could be sent to penal units for any military oence if the regular disciplinary punishments were insucient (Rubtsov 2007, pp. 36465). Many soldiers in the penal unitsdeserters, draft dodgers, thieves and various violators of disciplinedeserved to be there. However, the simplied procedure of sentencing to penal units outside the regular judicial channels ensured the arbitrariness of the punishment. Typical of Stalinism, once an important order was issued numerous opportunists among the senior ocers turned it into a campaign, rushing to nd as many culprits as possible to demonstrate their zeal. According to Aleksandr Pyltsyn, platoon commander in a penal battalion, many of his soldiers were
people who had committed trivial mistakes, errors without which no serious business was possible. The rule was to ndor, sometimes even inventsomeone to blame . . . and ignore the fact that often it was not people but circumstances that had to be blamed. (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 56)



As had happened during the purges of 19361938, the number of oenders snowballed to include those who could be scapegoats for the commanders failure to full an order, those committing minor oences for which earlier they would have escaped with a few days of arrest, and also personal enemies who had committed no oences. Within a week after Order No. 227 was issued, the Stavka learned that the air force of the Kalinin and Western fronts had lost 140 of 400 ghters in heavy ghts: 51 of them were shot down and 89 were inoperative. Obviously, more aircraft were damaged than shot down in every air engagement, yet the Stavka sought to make an example. Its order stated: The Stavka believes that such a high number of aircraft breakdowns within four or ve days is impossible and nds here a clear-cut case of sabotage and cowardice [shkurnichestvo] among pilots who seek to avoid combat, by pointing to insignicant breakdowns. The Stavka ordered such pilots to be organised into penal squadrons and employed for the most dangerous missions, while incorrigible, malicious cowards should be immediately discharged from the air force, demoted to the ranks and sent to penal infantry companies (Zolotarev 1999b, pp. 34142). Another order, issued by the Stavka six days later, pointed to the fact that 326 of the 400 tanks belonging to the Stalingrad Front were lost as inoperative, 200 of them because of breakdowns. This order was almost an exact copy of the previous one but the culprit pilots were replaced in it with culprit tank crews. The order ended with the instruction to organise penal tank companies that were to be employed in the most dangerous missions (Zolotarev 1999b, pp. 35657). No researcher has ever found evidence of penal aircraft squadrons and tank companies operating on the Eastern Front, which suggests that the Stavka had second thoughts about organising them, perhaps because it feared that their personnel could defect to the enemy more easily than infantry. These two orders must have led to the sentencing of numerous innocent pilots and tank crews to penal service, and also to sending damaged aircraft and tanks into battle, and the subsequent sentencing of air force and tank engineers to penal service when the number of ying accidents and breakdowns of tanks inevitably increased. The Stalinist system ensured that Order No. 227 was interpreted in all-embracing fashion. Russian authors mention many incidents when superiors sent their soldiers to penal units for minor oences and for actions that could not qualify as oences even within the framework of the drastic Soviet martial law. For example, the following all found themselves in penal units: a naval captain who, during tests of a repaired ship radio, intercepted and translated a speech by Joseph Goebbels; a soldier who praised a good German machinegun; an air force engineer held responsible for a ghter that crashed due to pilot error; an air squadron commander whose two subordinates crashed; a commander of a tank that fell into a ravine because of the drivers mistake; Baptists who refused to take up arms; and a cook who made a poor dinner. A commander of a penal company who had been awarded his third Red Banner order after fullling an important mission was sentenced to two months of penal service for failure to return the one-day food and vodka rations he received for soldiers lost in this mission (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 5657, 65; Kuleshov 2008, p. 275; Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 56, 63; Rubtsov 2007, pp. 65, 69; Kustov 2007, p. 34). There is at least one registered case, but probably many more incidents



when, after the defections of several soldiers, commanders of the platoon, company and battalion where these soldiers served were all sent to penal units, even though company and battalion commanders could not possibly monitor the morale of every soldier under their command (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 40). According to Rubtsov, senior ocers interpreted the contraction of venereal disease as a selfinicted wound and sent syphilitic soldiers to penal companies. Soon those civilians who were subject to military regulations were assigned to penal units too: fortication builders who were late for work, those who damaged telephone wires during railway repairs, and doctors suspected of groundlessly granting draft postponement (Rubtsov 2007, pp. 9293, 97). Sentencing to penal units was supposed to be done on an individual basis for a particular crime but sometimes it proceeded in a sweeping manner. In November 1944, Stalin turned the entire 214th Cavalry Regiment into a penal unit for losing a banner in combat (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 36); perhaps hundreds of soldiers paid with their lives for the failure of one section to protect a piece of red cloth. When the Red Army began its advance westwards in 1943, penal units received numerous reinforcements recruited among the liberated POWs and those Soviet soldiers whom the Germans had cut o in 1941 and 1942 and who were living afterwards as civilians in the German-occupied regions. All these soldiers were sent to the screening camps set up by Stalins order of 27 December 1941 where they passed through a thorough interrogation by the NKVD about their activities under German occupation (Khristoforov et al. 2003, p. 29). The vast majority of them were not implicated in collaboration, but Stalins Order No. 270 of 16 August 1941 still qualied their surrender to the Germans, or the failure to actively resist them, as treason that could be punished with death (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 5960). By 1943, however, even Stalin realised that the Red Army could not aord to waste this trained manpower. On 10 March 1943, the Stavka issued Order No. 97 stating that soldiers who surrendered to the enemy without resistance, or deserted from the Red Army and remained in the regions temporarily occupied by the Germans, or after becoming cut o near their place of residence, went home and made no attempt to break out had to be promptly sent to penal units after a brief screening . . . Only those whom convincing evidence implicates in anti-Soviet activities should be sent to special [concentration] camps (Daines 2008, pp. 21819). This policy was further developed on 1 August 1943, when Stalin issued another order stating that he sought to give an opportunity to commanders who have been in the territories occupied by the enemy for a long time and did not resist [the Germans] in partisan units, to prove their allegiance to the Motherland with weapons in their hands and thus created a third type of penal unit: all-ocer assault (shturmovye) battalions (Pykhalov 2007, p. 203). While those in penal battalions were sentenced to terms from one to three months depending, at least in theory, on the gravity of the crimes they had committed, ocers sent to assault battalions had to stay there for two months. In all other respects the dierence between penal and assault battalions was marginal: the ocers of assault battalions kept their ranks but were temporarily demoted for the duration of the penal service and their families preserved the privileges allotted to ocer families; assault battalions performed the same types of missions as penal battalions and their attrition rate was similar. In total, the Red



Army raised 29 assault battalions; most of them operated for several months in 1944 and 1945. The total number of soldiers serving in assault battalions is unknown but by 1 October 1944, 18,382 men were sent to these units from screening camps (Pykhalov 2007, pp. 1214). Long before Stalin issued Order No. 227, the Stavka began searching for additional sources of recruits. By 1941, 1,500,000 prisoners were held in the Gulag camps (Vladimirtsev & Kokurin 2008, p. 483). The Stavka viewed them as a potential pool of Red Army manpower. In September 1941, the Head Military Prosecutor Oce of the Red Army suggested that Gulag criminals be conscripted on the basis of Article 28, clause 2, of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation; their sentence was to be suspended until the end of the war (Kuzmichev 2000, p. 25). The Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet issued on 14 December 1941 encouraged the fronts military councils to drop the convictions of conscripted criminals who had distinguished themselves in combat (Zolotarev 1999a, p. 129). Political prisoners made up 31% of Gulag prisoners in 1942 but they were banned from conscription and volunteers were not accepted (Sabbo 1996, p. 1221; Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 69). The authorities did draft deported kulaks from special settlements but not those sentenced to the labour camps. Unlike the OKW, the Stavka was initially unconcerned about enlisting common criminalsthieves, bandits, murderers and rapistsinto the regular army. Between 1941 and September 1944, over one million criminals were conscripted into the Red Army. Most of them were drafted before Order No. 227 was issued and sent to regular units. Beginning in October 1942, most Gulag prisoners were sent to penal companies (Kuzmichev 2000, p. 27; Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 68; Kokurin & Petrov 2000, p. 428). Some penal companies consisted almost entirely of criminals. While ocers sentenced to penal service without demotion to the ranks were sent to their units unguarded, those permanently demoted and also Gulag recruits were delivered to the frontline in cattle cars escorted by NKVD troops with machineguns mounted on the train platforms; the guard was removed only after they were assigned to their units (Kuchugin 2007, p. 128; Rubtsov 2007, pp. 73, 370). By 1944 the Stavka came to the conclusion that the conscription of violent criminals was counterproductive and, on 26 January 1944, it prohibited the draft of those sentenced for banditry, armed robbery, and also recidivist thieves and those who had repeatedly deserted (Pykhalov 2007, p. 308). With the increasing shortage of manpower, even many collaborators were drafted into penal companies. On 11 November 1943, the NKVD (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del SSSR) and NKGB (Narodnyi komissariat gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti) issued a joint directive ordering the conscription of rank-and-le auxiliary policemen who had served the Germans but were not implicated in war crimes. Most of them were subsequently sent to penal units, as were amnestied anti-Soviet guerrillas (Daines 2008, p. 219; Rubtsov 2007, p. 85). In early 1944, 94 former collaborators were dispatched to the 128th Independent Penal Company of the 5th Army after screening, which probably amounted to one third of this company (Moroz 2008b, p. 159). Curiously, the Soviet government trusted those implicated in collaboration with the enemy more than the victims of the 19361938 witch-hunt, most of whom were devout communists. It gave a chance to earn a pardon to the former but not to the latter.



It was army commissions rather than tribunals who decided the fate of the soldiers found after the liberation of the occupied territories, and they did it outside any regular legal framework (Zolotarev & Sevostyanov 1999, p. 190). While the regulations demanded that collaborators who were not implicated in war crimes be sent to penal companies, they said nothing about those thousands of members of the auxiliary Ost-battaillonen who had defected to the partisans and fought in their ranks for months or even years until the regions of their operations were over-run by the Red Army. Many of them found themselves in penal companies. Stavkas Order No. 97 of 10 March 1943 and Stalins Order No. 413 of 21 August 1943 presumed that only those soldiers who surrendered to the enemy without resistance were liable to punishment by penal service (Daines 2008, p. 219; Rubtsov 2007, pp. 36465). The instructions called for screening commissions to investigate the circumstances of surrender, and pardon those taken prisoner when wounded, but the commissions worked in a rush and sent most of these soldiers to penal units on the basis of Order No. 97, even those who had fallen into German hands because they were severely crippled (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 6263; Pyltsyn 2003, p. 30). Thousands of loyal soldiers suered a plight similar to that of Semen Basov, a military engineer taken prisoner by the Germans in August 1942. He escaped a POW camp and walked eastward for several months until he crossed the front. At rst, he was duly assigned to a regular engineering company, but after a period of service he was sent to a screening camp where an army commission sentenced him to two months of service in a penal battalion. Petr Zhdanov, another military engineer, was cut o by the Germans in August 1941 and, having been wounded twice, came home and worked as a farmer until October 1943. He then joined the partisans and fought as a platoon commander until the Red Army came to his region. Subsequently, he was sentenced to one month of penal service. I. Korzhik, a pilot who was shot down over enemy territory and soon joined a partisan unit, was also sent to a penal battalion (Moroz 2008a, pp. 14445; Basov 2007, p. 142; Rubtsov 2007, pp. 15253). Thousands of other soldiers who had gone through similar ordeals and conclusively proven their loyalty faced the same treatment. In this way, the Soviet state equated these cases with those of enemy collaborators. No evidence exists that army commissions that violated the screening regulations were ever punished, which means that the state tacitly approved of it. Thousands of women served in the Red Army as paramedics, signal and laundry personnel, anti-aircraft gunners, snipers and combat pilots. They were formally subject to the same regulations as men. However, few female oenders found themselves in penal units. Most continued to serve in the regular army with suspended sentences and the possibility of earning pardon. Some male ocers forced women into sexual relations by threatening to send them to penal units (Rubtsov 2007, pp. 1045; Kustov 2007, p. 34). In August 1944, two years after Order No. 227 was issued, the Stavka ocially prohibited the sentencing of women to penal service. Both German and Soviet orders dening the range of possible penal recruits and sentencing procedures were often violated. Contrary to the OKWs initial intention to keep combat penal units free of common criminals and political prisoners, some soldiers of the Bewahrungstruppe 999 were passed to Bewa hrungstruppe 500, despite resistance from the penal battalion commanders after the penal brigade had been



disbanded in September 1944 (Klausch 1995, pp. 355, 405). Soviet penal and assault battalions were supposed to be all-ocer units but some of them included criminals and rank-and-le soldiers. Of the 18,382 men sent to assault battalions by 1 October 1944, 16,163 were ocers, while the rest were privates and NCOs. Mikhail Suknev commanded a penal battalion that had an all-ocer company, a company of criminals and a company of amnestied anti-Soviet guerrillas (Pykhalov 2007, p. 14; Suknev 2006, p. 151). On 28 October 1942, the 7th Independent Penal Battalion of the Northern Group of the Trans-Caucasian Front was simply renamed the 7th Independent Penal Company of the 18th Army for unknown reasons (Pykhalov 2007, p. 212). According to Order No. 227, regiment commanders could be sent to penal battalions only after a court-martial. However, on 29 April 1944 Marshal Georgii Zhukov personally sentenced a colonel, commander of the 324th Guards Regiment, to a penal battalion for two months (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 3435). The sentences that German and Soviet soldiers received after court-martials varied from several months of jail to the death penalty. However, unlike German soldiers who were sent to penal battalions for the entire length of their sentence, which could be several years, Soviet soldiers had to serve in penal units for between one and three months, depending on the length of their original sentence. Prison terms of up to ve, seven and 10 years were commuted correspondingly to one, two and three months of penal service, after which convicts were transferred to the regular army as regular soldiers (Rubtsov 2007, p. 73). Longer prison terms did not exist at that time in the Soviet Union; only the death penalty was above the 10-year term. The death penalties of many, perhaps most, soldiers were commuted to three months of service in a penal unit. P. Barabolya, commander of a platoon in a penal company, states that seven of his 60 soldiers had suspended death penalties (Barabolya 2008, p. 239). A term of sentence began once penal soldiers reached the frontline. Thus, a person sentenced to death could earn a full pardon within three months, and many soldiers did. In both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, the personnel of the penal units consisted of the minority coreregular ocers, NCOs and privates who served there permanentlyand the penal majority. Regular sta provided leadership at every level, and regular privates served in the rear as cooks, paramedics, drivers and stretcher bearers. In both armies, penal personnel could be promoted to the NCO rank but no higher (Klausch 1995, p. 400). Penal soldiers could be appointed to ocer positions only in assault battalions. Alexandr Pyltsyn, a 19-year-old lieutenant and a platoon commander from the permanent sta of a penal battalion, had two deputies: a former colonel and former lieutenant-colonel. His section commanders were a former major and two former captains (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 55). The proportion of regular soldiers was far higher in the German penal units than in the Soviet ones. Regulars made up 18.2% of all soldiers who served in German penal battalions (Klausch 1995, p. 350). According to Russian authors, in the Soviet penal battalions, only sta ocers in battalion headquarters, company and platoon commanders and commissars, and several privates and NCOs were regular soldiers (Kuzmichev 2000, p. 26; Rubtsov 2007, p. 107)between 40 and 60 regulars in a battalion of about 800 men, or between 5% and 8%. In fact, this proportion was even lower when penal units arrived at the front because their numerical strength, as a rule, exceeded that of the regular units since they were expected to have a higher attrition



rate. Ziya Buniyatov, commander of the 123rd Independent Penal Company asserts that when his unit was ordered to take an important bridge intact, it had battalion strength670 soldiersbut by the end of the day, it turned into a platoon of 47 men (Rubtsov 2007, p. 183). The number of permanent personnel in assault battalions was even smaller: only the battalion commander, his deputy, the chief of sta and company commanders were regular soldiers, while the remaining ocer and NCO positions were assigned to penal personnel. However, machinegun, engineer, anti-tank rie or trench mortar companies attached to penal battalions on a temporary basis, increased the proportion of regulars. A SMERSh (SMERSh: Smert shpionam) ocer of the front or army headquarters monitored penal units but did not belong to them (Rubtsov 2007, p. 111).6 The Soviet regulations on penal units stated that permanent sta was supposed to be selected among the most staunch commanders and commissars who have distinguished themselves in combat (Zolotarev 1999a, p. 312). The German regulations emphasised similar requirements. Both armies expected that the morale of the penal soldiers would be lower than that of regulars. To alleviate this trend, the Wehrmacht appointed as commanders of penal units either members of the Nazi party or those belonging to the conservative military caste who were expected to be stricter than other ocers (Klausch 1995, p. 352). Commanders of the Soviet penal units did not dier in practice from other regulars but commissars responsible for the morale of penal soldiers were appointed even at the level of platoons, at least until 1944, long after Stalin eliminated their positions in the regular army in October 1942 (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 26; Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 32627). As a rule, German and Soviet ocers were shocked by an assignment to the penal units because they understood that they faced a greater risk than regulars and because regulars and civilians transferred their disgust of the criminals to the ocers who commanded them (Klausch 1995, p. 152; Barabolya 2008, p. 238; Savchin 2008, p. 263; Riskin 2008, p. 281). However, the Soviet ocers of penal units received a number of benets: wages that were 20% or 30% higher than those of the regulars, twice as fast a promotion rate, andin penal battalionsthe satisfaction to command former majors and colonels (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 52).7 Whereas regular ocers received no home leaves during the entire war, those from penal units had 10 days of leave after every three months of service, but few of them lasted long enough to use it (Kuchugin 2007, p. 128). The commanders of penal units enjoyed more power than ocers of the same rank in the regular army: a commander of a penal battalion had the powers of a regular division commander; his deputy had the powers of a regular regiment commander; and company and platoon commanders had correspondingly the powers of regular battalion and company commanders (Zolotarev 1999a, p. 312). The commanders of independent penal companies had the powers of regular regiment commanders. When the ocers of penal units were transferred to the regular army, they received positions corresponding to the powers they had in a penal unit (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 11314). All these benets paled against the background of the
SMERSh was the name of the Soviet military counterintelligence. In regular units, one day on the front counted for three days of peace time service; in penal battalions one day on the front counted for six days of peace time service (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 106).
7 6



enormous attrition suered by penal units. The 128th Independent Penal Company of the 5th Army changed ve commanders between 1 January and 10 April 1944; they lasted between 11 and 35 days before being wounded or killed. Between 4 and 10 February 1944, 54 soldiers of this company were killed and 193 were woundednearly its entire personnel (Moroz 2008b, p. 157). In German and Soviet penal units, punishments for the violation of discipline were administered outside the military justice system. Although the Bewahrungstruppe 500 had most of the benets of regular soldiers, with the exception of leaves, punishments for the oences they committed were more severe, and they could be sent to a concentration camp or executed with fewer formalities than regulars. Soldiers serving in Sonderformation Dirlewanger were punished particularly harshly, and nobody controlled Dirlewanger himself, who could do virtually whatever he wanted with his soldiers including killing them. Between 136 and 300 German penal soldiers were executed. Sometimes executions were carried out in front of the penal units to teach them a lesson (Klausch 1995, pp. 350, 35455; 1993, p. 400). In Soviet penal units executions numbered in the thousands. Any ocer of a penal unit, including a platoon commander, had the right to summarily execute any soldier, including a temporarily demoted colonel, for violations of orders, without any formalities (Zolotarev 1999a, pp. 31215). The Peoples Commissariat of Defence described a case when, four days after the 61st Independent Penal Company failed to attack, three randomly picked soldiers were summarily executed, just to teach the others a lesson. Although the Commissariat qualied this action as outrageous, it did not say whether anyone was punished for it (Rubtsov 2007, p. 82). If such murders were committed in cold blood long after the action, surely ocers summarily executed many soldiers in the rush of battle. Em Golbraikh, deputy commander of a penal company, described how he and his superior found several soldiers hiding in the trench when the company went into attack:
We moved towards each other from opposite sides of the trench, holding pistols in both hands, and . . . shot over the heads of these parasites without taking aim but without bothering about the safety of their skulls. They promptly got out and ran into the line. Oh, God! Could I have really done something like this? (Golbraikh 2007)

However, many permanent ocers realised that a large number of their subordinates, like former POWs in the Soviet case, were innocent victims of a witch hunt, and most of those who were indeed guilty of various crimes did their best to earn a pardon. Pyltsyn, who was a platoon and then company commander in a penal battalion for over a year, and perhaps had therefore the moral right to judge his subordinates, believed that it was wrong to send Soviet POWs to penal units. However, he also thought that those who found themselves cut o from the Red Army and did not resist afterwards violated their military oath and had to suer some punishment (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 30; 2007, p. 114). Commanders who shared his views were sympathetic to their subordinates, but even those who did not had to maintain a ne line between enforcing harsh discipline and maintaining working relations with their soldiers, who were rougher than regulars and many of whom believed they had nothing to lose. M. Klyuchko, an ocer in a penal



company, commented: To be arrogant with them [penal soldiers] meant to be killed in the rst action (Savchin 2008, p. 267). Suknev describes how his penal battalion once stayed in a forest next to a female signal unit. His soldiers, drafted from criminals who had not seen women for years, asked him to allow them to invite the female soldiers for an evening party. He faced a tough choice: Had I refused, Id get a bullet in my back in the next action. However, if any scandalous incident had happened during the party, he would himself become a penal soldier. Having weighed the risks, he chose to allow the party (Suknev 2006, p. 153). Fearing to sour the relations with their subordinates over tries, the ocers turned a blind eye to the violation of regulations in matters that had no direct relation to the combat capacity of their units, such as the violence against civilians and German POWs. The Stavka worried that encounters with civilians would cause trouble, so it banned penal companies from staying in settlements: they always had to camp (Golbraikh 2008, p. 204). The memoirs of ocers who commanded penal units report numerous atrocities committed by penal soldiers against POWs. Suknevs soldiers bayoneted 15 prisoners in cold blood and none of them was punished for it (Suknev 2006, p. 171).8 Enemy soldiers who attempted to surrender, especially SS members or collaborators, had a much better chance of survival if taken by regular rather than penal units, partly because many penal soldiers had spent years in German POW camps. As Golbraikh explains, after all the horrors they had experienced [in German captivity], all commissars talks about humanism were pointless (Golbraikh 2008, pp. 21011). While some regulars were sentenced to penal companies for the killing of enemy POWs, penal soldiers did it with impunity. As a rule, the permanent sta of German and Soviet penal units could be transferred to the regular army only after being wounded, and they had to undertake a considerable eort to attain it; otherwise they were assigned back to their penal units after recovery (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 92). As for penal soldiers, they served until they were killed, wounded or their sentences expired, and then they were transferred to the regular army. They could also earn an early pardon for outstanding conduct in action. In the Wehrmacht, an injury did not necessarily mean release from a penal unit. In the Red Army, however, any wound, no matter how supercial, automatically secured the full pardon of a soldier, discharge from the army with honours if the injury was severe, or transfer to the regular army if it was minor; and, for those who had been sentenced without demotion, restoration of their rank (Golbraikh 2008, p. 204). Since even a slight injury secured pardon, some soldiers mutilated themselves. As Pyltsyn describes it,
The inventors of this method threw a hand grenade into a wooden barn . . . and then poked out its fragments from the walls. Afterward they took out a bullet from a submachine gun cartridge, poured out half of the gunpowder and put a fragment in place of the bullet . . . During the next barrage they shot the submachine gun through their soft tissues and received a light wound. (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 66)

See also Golbraikh (2008, pp. 20910) and Pyltsyn (2003, pp. 37, 152).



Those implicated in this oence were usually executed if the wound was severe or received additional penal terms if they still could serve after recovery (Suknev 2006, pp. 15758; Shved 2008, p. 292). Those Soviet soldiers whose penal terms had expired were automatically transferred to the regular army and received back their decorations and rank if they had been sentenced without demotion. However, their platoon or company commanders led transfer requests only after the end of their terms, and they had to continue to ght until these requests were signed by the front or army commander (Kuchugin 2007, p. 129). During the waiting period many of them were killed or wounded. Those who had been sent to penal units by the orders of their commanders and ended their penal term uninjured, received full pardon. However, those who had been sentenced to a prison term by tribunals could receive full or partial pardon. Only those who fought well had their convictions dropped; the rest still had a suspended sentence when they were transferred to the regular army. As F. Podoinitsyn, chair of the Military Tribunal of the 1st Ukrainian Front put it,
only if they show themselves in the new [regular] unit as worthy defenders of the Motherland, will the military tribunal of the front again examine the request of the unit commander, and a new decision of the tribunal can completely waive their sentence. (Rubtsov 2007, p. 147)

Both the German and the Red commanders often pressed released soldiers to remain in a penal unit as permanent sta assigned to rear duties (Klausch 1995, p. 190; Moroz 2008b, p. 154). If the German or Soviet penal soldiers performed outstandingly, their platoon or company commanders could request their pardon before the end of their penal terms. In this case, German penal soldiers could get a full or partial pardon; this depended on how well they fought, and also on the gravity of their oences. If they received a full pardon, they returned to the regular units with their rank restored; in the case of a partial pardon, their penal term could be shortened (Klausch 1995, pp. 187, 351). Soviet soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle received a full pardon, and if they had a conviction by a military tribunal, it was dropped regardless of the length of their sentence. For example, a cadet who had killed an ocer and was sentenced to a penal company with a suspended death penalty returned to his unit merely two weeks later with a For Valour medal. In both armies, pardon orders, like sentences to penal battalions, were read in front of the units to teach other penal soldiers a lesson (Klausch 1995, p. 192; Kustov 2007, p. 41). However, it was dicult to earn a pardon in both armies. Most of those who left the penal units before the end of their terms were wounded. As for uninjured solders who distinguished themselves in battle, their pardon requests went up the military bureaucracy to the army commander in the German case and to the front commander in the Soviet case, after which they travelled back. The requests had to be approved at every level of command (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 44). There were no clear guidelines regarding what should secure an early pardon. While in the Wehrmacht such requests were typically granted, in the Red Army their fate depended not only on the deeds of the penal soldiers but also on the personalities of their superiors. Some of them, who



had suered themselves from the arbitrariness of Soviet justice, like generals Konstatnin Rokossovsky or Aleksandr Gorbatov, granted pardons generously. Gorbatov pardoned an entire penal battalion after its successful raid on the enemy rear despite the fact that the battalion suered relatively light casualties in this mission: between 50 and 60 of its 800 soldiers were killed or wounded (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 3239, 42, 50, 160; 2007, pp. 11617).9 Other senior ocers, like Commander of the 65th Army Pavel Batov, believed that penal soldiers deserved their plight and rejected most early pardon requests. According to unwritten rules, soldiers who destroyed an enemy tank had to be pardoned. However, in Batovs army if the penal crew of an anti-tank rie knocked down a German tank, the soldier who red the rie was pardoned but not the one who loaded it (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 43, 151). Despite the absence of clear regulations on the pardons of uninjured soldiers in both armies, the response to pardon requests was faster in the Red Army than in the Wehrmacht, which was a matter of vital importance given the attrition rate of penal units. In the German case, the whole process typically lasted from six weeks to several months, and it took more time to process the cases of sentenced ocers than NCOs and privates because pardon requests concerning former ocers had to be sanctioned by the OKW, which took on average a month longer (Klausch 1995, p. 189). In the Red Army, according to Russian authors, the matter was decided within days (Golbraikh 2008, p. 211; Rubtsov 2007, p. 144). Yet, only a small minority of soldiers ended their penal terms without injury; especially those with sentences of over one month. No comprehensive data on the turnover of penal personnel exist but the statistics on the 1st Independent Penal Company of the 57th Army show that of the 3,348 penal soldiers who passed through it between August 1942 and September 1945, 796 (23.8%) were killed; 1,939 (57.9%) were wounded; 457 (13.6%) were pardoned for outstanding conduct; 117 (3.5%) were released after they served their terms; and 39 (1.2%) were missing in action or deserted (Moroz 2008b, p. 163).10 Penal soldiers could be decorated but they received fewer and lower-ranking decorations compared to regulars. Of the 3,348 penal soldiers who passed through the 1st Independent Penal Company of the 57th Army between August 1942 and September 1945, only 43 men were decorateda much lower proportion than in a regular unit (Moroz 2008b, p. 163). Most received For Valour or For Outstanding Fight medals, and in truly exceptional cases, Glory, Red Star or Red Banner orders. Ocers serving in penal battalions were reportedly unhappy when they were awarded the Glory order, because it was reserved for privates and NCOs and it betrayed their penal sentence after they returned to the regular units (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 43). At least one penal soldier, Vladimir Karpov, received the top Soviet decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union. Ocers of the penal units led several more requests to award this decoration to their soldiers but their superiors replaced them with lower-ranking orders (Kuzmichev 2000, pp. 2627). A decoration considerably increased the chances of German and Soviet soldiers gaining pardon before the end of their terms, but did not
See also Daines and Abaturov (2008, p. 125). This company was renamed the 60th Independent Penal Company in November 1942 and then into the 128th Independent Penal Company of the 5th Army in November 1943 (Pykhalov 2007, p. 263).
10 9



guarantee it; many decorated soldiers continued to serve in penal units until they were wounded or killed (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 43; Daines 2008, p. 313). In the German 500th Battalion, 70 men received decorations during the spring of 1943 but only 31 persons were scheduled for pardon. Only in Soviet assault battalions did a decoration lead to automatic pardon and transfer to a regular unit (Klausch 1995, p. 419; Pykhalov 2007, pp. 2035). German and Soviet penal battalions were supplied with food and weapons as well as were regular units, including the daily 100 grammes of vodka ration in the Soviet case. According to Pyltsyn they always had plenty of weapons, including the most modern ones (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 135). However, independent penal companies had fewer automatic weapons than regulars, and sometimes they were so short of ries that only some of their soldiers received them while the rest were armed merely with bayonets (Rubtsov 2007, pp. 110, 119; Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 77, 135, 136; Moroz 2008a, p. 138; Babchenko 2008, p. 168). Every penal unit was periodically depleted, after which it was withdrawn to the rear to receive reinforcements. The training of German penal battalions and Soviet penal companies was below average because penal soldiers arrived from all three armsland forces, air force and navyand most of them had no infantry skills. Of the 447 men received by the German 500th Battalion in 1943, 31% were infantrymen, 22% were other soldiers of the land forces (tank crews, gunners, signal corps, pioneers and drivers), 33% were sailors and 14% came from the air force. The composition of Soviet penal units was similar (Moroz 2008a, p. 138; Pyltsyn 2003, p. 51). Since all of them had to ght as infantry, German penal battalions were trained for about a month before being sent to action. As for their Soviet counterparts, they were trained for between one and four weeks if the situation allowed it (Klausch 1995, p. 419; Rubtsov 2007, p. 119). One penal company, consisting of sailors, who had no idea how to re a machinegun or an anti-tank rie, was trained for only two weeks before being sent to the front (Barabolya 2008, p. 241). Some non-infantry penal soldiers understood that they had to acquire infantry training to survive but others scorned it. The cohesion within penal units was weak because the quick turnover of personnel frustrated the establishment of comradely relations and precluded the emergence of primary groupssoldiers who formed a bond and could rely on each other in battle (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 72). Soviet penal battalions probably had a superior combat performance compared to regular ones since these were all-ocer formations; they also had much more to gain if pardoned and did their best to return to the positions held before their sentence. Those who commanded Soviet and German penal battalions claim that most of their soldiers fought well (Klausch 1995, p. 353). The combat performance of Soviet penal companies could not have been impressive. Their soldiers focused mostly on their own survival rather than earning pardons through feats and many of them were criminals with no patriotic sentiments. While the Sonderformation Dirlewanger engaged mainly in counterinsurgency and the killing of Soviet, Polish and Slovak civilians (Klausch 1993, pp. 39798, 4012), Bewahrungstruppe 500 and Soviet penal units fought always as frontline formations. They performed missions that were especially dicult such as frontal assaults, the defence of positions where major enemy strikes were expected, plugging enemy



breakthroughs, rearguard ghts, capturing bridgeheads and feigned attacks. Penal units often conducted reconnaissance in force, to pinpoint the enemy machinegun and artillery positions and also the borders between enemy units where their defences were weaker. Some particularly reliable penal soldiers were ordered to take enemy prisoners before major oensives; a tough mission that could cost dozens of lives. These missions could be carried out independently or penal units could be attached for a short time to elite formations. However, unlike regular formations that only occasionally performed dicult missions, penal units engaged in them almost permanently. This caused them to suer far heavier casualties. The German 500th Battalion lost half of its strength in its rst engagement on 25 June 1941, at a time when the Red Army was in full retreat. The 550th Battalion suered similar casualties when it entered action on 22 March 1942, and so did two companies of the 540th Battalion during their rst missions on 3 December 1941 and 21 January 1942, respectively (Klausch 1995, pp. 185, 187, 209). The 561st Battalion arrived at the Eastern Front in May 1943; it was frequently attached to dierent divisions and lost 453 men out of 700 within three months. Since the permanent sta had to set an example for their soldiers, they suered, proportionately, even higher casualties than their subordinates: the 560th Battalion lost 158 penal soldiers and 64 permanent personnel killed, wounded and missing between 21 January and 15 March 1943 (Klausch 1995, pp. 399, 40914, 415). G. Krivosheev claims that the average monthly casualties of penal units in the oensive operations of 1944 were between three and six times as high as those of the regular army in the same operations (Krivosheev 2001, p. 441) but no reliable statistics on the casualties suered by penal soldiers exist. According to the testimonies of those who served in Soviet penal units, some of these units were almost entirely eliminated during a single mission. The 53rd Independent Penal Company had 520 men before it engaged in oensive action between 9 and 20 March 1943; 100 men were killed and 369 wounded during this operation, a 90% loss of strength (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 12733). The 275th Independent Penal Company that spearheaded the breakthrough near Rogachev in Belorussia, lost 323 of its 350 soldiers killed or wounded, or 92% of its personnel; only one ocer of the permanent sta survived uninjured (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 115; Pyltsyn 2003, p. 33). The 123rd Independent Penal Company was ordered to break through three enemy defence lines in January 1945 and take a mined bridge intact. By the time they took the bridge, the company had lost 623 of 670 soldiers, or 93%. All the survivors were awarded decorations, and the company commander received the Hero of the Soviet Union title, although the source does not say whether the survivors were pardoned after this action (Rubtsov 2007, p. 183). N. Gudoshnikov, a penal company ocer, wrote: Our company lasted one or two, rarely three serious engagements. Virtually nobody survived for more than a month during oensives (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 114). Pyltsyn commanded at rst a platoon and then a company in a penal battalion from December 1943 to April 1945. Having survived for such a long period, he regarded himself as exceptionally lucky. He was wounded three times; besides, a mine fragment once hit the sub-machinegun on his chest, and a bullet hit the steel spoon in his boot (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 25, 99). The survival rate of penal soldiers was quite uneven and depended on many factors, rst of all, on the nature of the missions they were ordered to perform. Some penal



soldiers were lucky if the division or army commanders, to whom their unit was attached, miscalculated where the toughest ghting would occur and assigned them relatively easy tasks. Pyltsyns battalion once stayed on defence for over two months in the direction of an expected enemy breakthrough that never materialised (Pyltsyn 2003, p. 79). The survival of penal soldiers also depended on the attitude of senior commanders. It was probably fair to assign the most dicult missions to violators of discipline given that these missions had to be accomplished anyway. However, many generals viewed penal soldiers merely as cannon fodder. As Barabolya maintained, Some zealous commanders humiliated the dignity of penal personnel with impunity and threw men to certain death, which was not always required by combat expediency (Rubtsov 2007, p. 113). Vladimir Karpov wrote: The rst penal companies perished senselessly; the words of the order to atone with blood were perceived and executed literally. Penal soldiers were sent into battle without artillery barrage or any other support and their units were cut to pieces. Karpovs company was employed in this fashion and lost 189 of 198 men in one mission (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 93, 113; Daines 2008, p. 310; Babchenko 2008, p. 168; Barabolya 2008, pp. 243, 245; Gavrilenko 2008, p. 259). Many other soldiers mention similar actions that ended with similar results (Rubtsov 2007, p. 190; Suknev 2006, pp. 122, 163; Daines 2008, p. 434). According to Mikhail Klyuchko, platoon commander of the 322nd Independent Penal Company, no one was concerned how many penal soldiers diedtheir actions had to reduce the casualties of regular units (Savchin 2008, p. 267). It is hard to judge whether there was a deliberate sacrice of penal soldiers, but Pyltsyn describes how Batov, commander of the army to which his penal battalion was attached, deliberately sent its soldiersall of them temporarily demoted ocersacross a mineeld, where they suered 80% casualties. Pyltsyn, who also advanced across the mineeld but survived without a scratch, regarded this order as criminal and claims that tanks with ploughs for making passages in the mineeld were actually available. The survivors of this action were not pardoned because Batov would not release an uninjured soldier from a penal unit. Signicantly, Pyltsyn does not reproach his superiors for a mission in which the penal company he commanded spearheaded the attack across the Oder River. Only four men survived without injury by the time they had captured the bridgehead, while Pyltsyn himself was gravely wounded in the head. At that time the division to which his battalion was attached did whatever it could to ease the assault, but the mission was exceptionally dicult. Those four men were pardoned and transferred to the regular army (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 14149, 221, 223, 236). Some soldiers, however, survived several rounds in penal units. Private Fedor Golovachev was sentenced to a three-month penal term for plunder in January 1943. A few days later he received a light wound and returned back to his unit, where he beat up the deputy regiment commander who had sent him to the penal company. Consequently, he received another three-month penal term, which he served and was released from uninjured. In August 1943, he had a conict with another ocer and found himself again in a penal company. Two months later he was gravely wounded, after which he was discharged with honours, having received the medal For Outstanding Fight (Kuzmichev 2000, p. 34).



Heavy casualties undermined the morale of German and Soviet penal units that were also aected by the situation on the fronts. During the rst two years of the Bewahrungstruppe existence the soldiers fought hard to earn pardons, but then their morale plummeted because they began to perceive themselves as condemned to death for a lost cause (Klausch 1995, pp. 35455). The westward advance of the Red Army and the shortage of manpower led to an increasing recruitment of criminals into German penal battalions in 1944. This resulted in the rise of desertions, selfmutilations and unauthorised retreats, which in turn multiplied the severe penalties imposed on German soldiers. In the period from the creation of the Bewahrungstruppe 500 battalions in early 1941 until September 1944, between 600 and 1,000 of their soldiers were sent to concentration camps, whereas between October 1944 and the end of the war, 1,000 more penal soldiers were transferred to the camps (Klausch 1995, p. 357). Bewahrungstruppe 999 was never reliable. The rst attempt to use part of the penal brigade in combat in North Africa was disastrous: it surrendered to the Allies without a ght in May 1943. The second attempt to employ it in combat, this time on the Eastern Front in early 1944, brought about similar results, after which the unit was disbanded. Some of its personnel were sent to labour camps and others were passed to the Sonderformation Dirlewanger. By the end of 1944, German leaders searched for manpower so desperately that they recruited 800 more political prisoners and also enlisted them into the Sonderformation Dirlewanger. Paradoxically, political prisoners, most of them anti-fascists, found themselves in an SS brigade. This destroyed the morale of the brigade and when, in December 1944, it was deployed for the rst time against the Red Army, 500 of its 770 soldiers recruited from political prisoners defected to the enemy, including one entire company (Klausch 1993, pp. 402, 4078). In the Soviet case, there was a considerable dierence in the morale of penal battalions and companies. Soviet senior commanders to whom penal units were attached perceived penal battalions as politically reliable. Pyltsyn describes how in February 1944 his penal battalion was ordered to inltrate enemy positions, cut German communication lines, disorganise the rear of German divisions and pin them down, giving regular Soviet forces the opportunity to attain a major breakthrough. The penal battalion spent ve days in the enemy rear, blew up several bridges, attacked several German columns and destroyed a divisional headquarters; nobody defected despite the soldiers having a greater opportunity to do so in the enemy rear than from the Soviet trenches (Pyltsyn 2003, pp. 3239). The morale of the penal companies, however, was often low and their soldiers deserted more often than regulars (Golbraikh 2008, p. 205; Gavrilenko 2008, p. 258). On 7 July 1945, after the end of the war in Europe, the Supreme Council of the USSR amnestied all soldiers with suspended sentences. The amnesty freed soldiers who were currently serving in penal units but did not eliminate this institution, and new culprits lled the vacant positions after the amnesty. Only after the victory over Japan were combat penal units disbanded (Daines & Abaturov 2008, pp. 82, 134). After the war, the Red Army returned to utilising the type of penal service that existed in all other armiessmall in numbers and engaged in unpleasant non-combat missionsand has continued to exist in this form in the Russian Army until the present day.



The contribution of penal soldiers to the Soviet war eort could be assessed on the basis of their proportion in the frontline Soviet forces. All Russian authors who touch upon this topic cite G. Krivosheev who refers to an archival document that gives the annual data on the number of penal soldiers shown in Table 1. Since the annual strength of the frontline Red Army formations uctuated between 5,000,000 and 6,500,000 men, with an average of 5,750,000 men (Krivosheev 2001, p. 246), Krivosheevs data suggest that penal soldiers made up about 3% of the frontline units in 1943, and 2.5% in 1944, and had lower proportions in 1942 and 1945. However, these data raise serious doubts about their credibility because they contradict common sense and other data given in Krivosheevs study. In 1942, the Stavka persistently pressed the frontline divisions to enforce Order No. 227 thus turning it into a major political campaign. Post-purge Stalinist culture presumed that in order to survive, superiors at all levels had to show the utmost zeal in any political campaign, and this zeal usually peaked soon after the beginning of a campaign, and then it gradually subsided. In view of this culture, the number of soldiers sent to penal units in 1942 given by Krivosheev (24,993) seems improbable: it is too low as compared to the other years. Furthermore, a minority, of the 157,000 Gulag prisoners conscripted in 1942 (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 68) were sent to penal companies probably more than the total number of penal soldiers in 1942 cited by Krivosheev. The numbers of penal soldiers given by Krivosheev for the other war years seem also too low: most of the 171,220 prisoners drafted in 1943 from Soviet jails, and an unknown number of prisoners drafted from the Gulag (Kokurin & Petrov 2000, p. 428),11 were sent to penal companies but soldiers memoirs leave the impression that prisoners made up a minority of the penal personnel. As for the data related to 1944, Krivosheev states rst that 143,457 soldiers fought in penal units that year and then that the total casualties of penal units, including permanent sta, equalled 170,298 men. Permanent sta made only a small fraction of penal units; and some penal soldiers, perhaps between 15% and 20%, survived their terms uninjured.12 Furthermore, in another section of his book, Krivosheev states that during the






KRIVOSHEEV (2001, P. 441)

1942 24,993

1943 177,694

1944 143,457

1945 81,766

Total 427,910

This NKVD report shows incomplete data on the number of prisoners conscripted into the Red Army by September 1944. According to it, 859,274 prisoners were drafted from the Gulag camps and 171,220 prisoners were conscripted in jails in 1943, making in total 1,030,494 prisoners, a number that excludes those drafted from jails during the rst eight months of 1944. According to Daines and Abaturov, most of these prisoners were conscripted before Order No. 227 was issued, and they were sent to regular units (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 68). However, beginning with October 1942 most drafted prisoners were sent to penal companies (Kuzmichev 2000, p. 27). 12 See the example of the 1st Independent Penal Company of the 57th Army (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 163).




Second World War 422,700 soldiers were sentenced to penal units (Krivosheev 2001, p. 246). This suggests that Table 1 may refer only to Red Army personnel sentenced to penal units by tribunals and sent there by their superiors13 but excludes the Gulag prisoners and the ocers serving in assault battalions; and even then the number of sentences in 1942 seems too low if compared to the subsequent years. Krivosheev, therefore, substantially understates the number of penal soldiers, and, accordingly, their contribution to the war eort, which, however, cannot be quantied with the sources that are currently available. Conclusion The Red Army adopted some punitive policies used by other armies, such as the connement of court-martialled soldiers to penal units, the possibility of early release due to exemplary behaviour and the exceptional powers given to ocers commanding penal units. However, unlike most penal soldiers elsewhere, their Soviet counterparts were not inmates sentenced to jail for long terms but probationary ghters, who had to redeem themselves within a short timeframe by ghting in the most dangerous sectors of the front. The Red Army pioneered this approach during the Civil War. Soviet penal soldiers, unlike those of the French Foreign Legion, could not be subjected to corporal punishment but their life expectancy was much shorter. The German experience, distorted by Stalin in Order No. 227, was not the model for the Soviet penal units, as Stalin claimed, but merely an excuse he used to restore a series of draconian disciplinary measures the Red Army had employed during the Civil War. The German and Soviet leaderships had fundamentally dierent ideas driving the formation of penal units. The Nazi leaders sought to separate the black sheep and thus preserve the morale of the regular army. They also viewed the employment of penal units in combat as a purgatory measure, meant to cleanse the Herrenvolk from the dregs of society, sacricing some of them in tough missions that had to be performed anyway, while transforming others into exemplary soldiers (Klausch 1993, p. 400). The Soviet leadership had no such motivations; they sought merely to tighten the discipline of frontline Soviet soldiers. In both of these opposing armies, penal units provided those who had failed with the opportunity to earn pardon in battle. However, service in a German penal combat unit was presented as an option awarded only to those who deserved it and was oered to convicts who were already in jail. The Stavka, in contrast, interpreted penal service primarily as a means of intimidation intended to preclude desertion and unauthorised retreat. Over time, the understanding of the purpose of penal units changed in both armies. The shortage of manpower forced the OKW to draft all sorts of criminals and even political prisoners into penal units. The Stavka increasingly expanded the number of misdeeds punishable by penal service, and, beginning in 1943, the original targets of Order No. 227deserters and those who retreated without orderwere only a small
The dierence between this number and that given in Table 1 (427,910) can probably be attributed to imprecise data on men sent to penal units by their superiorsthese were registered less accurately than those sentenced formally by a tribunal.



minority of the penal personnel. The largest groups were soldiers who had made trivial mistakes, those cut o by the Germans in 19411942 and prisoners recruited in the Gulag. Both German and Soviet penal units performed the most dicult missions and their casualty rates were similar. Although Germany sent far fewer soldiers, and especially ocers, to penal units than the Soviet Union,14 it was harder for a German soldier to get out of a penal unit than for a Soviet soldier. To what extent did the reintroduction of combat penal units in the Red Army increase the brutality on the Eastern Front? The ever-expanding legislation on misdeeds punishable with penal service further narrowed the small margin of error tolerated in the Red Army, which increased the weight of the penalties and the arbitrariness of punishment. The ensuing witch-hunt, an inevitable outcome of Stalinist political culture in any punitive campaign, ensured that a large part of the orders victims were innocent people. But the Soviet leaders perceived this as an acceptable price for the desired endsthe tightening of disciplineand, according to the nearly unanimous opinion of Soviet veterans as expressed in their memoirs, the threat to be sent to a penal unit did strengthen discipline. The order also led to an enormous waste of valuable manpower because those with special skills but without infantry trainingocers and men from tank, artillery, signal, naval and air force unitswere deliberately used merely as a cannon fodder. However, the measures stemming from Order No. 227 should be assessed in the context of the Soviet martial law. The Red Army manuals stated that Soviet soldiers did not surrender under any circumstances; those who surrendered committed a grave crime (Zolotarev & Sevostyanov 1999, p. 169). Order No. 270, passed on 16 August 1941, and other similar orders interpreted all those who were uninjured and taken prisoner, those who did not resist the Germans after being cut o from their armies, and certainly those who had joined a collaborator unit as traitors liable to execution. Penal units gave these soldiers a chance to earn a pardon, and most of them did. In total, 994,300 Soviet soldiers received various sentences during World War II, of them 422,700 were sent to penal units, 436,600 were dispatched to labour camps and 135,000 were executed (Krivosheev 2001, p. 246).15 Those with a choice between penal service and the ring squad certainly preferred the former. It is dicult, however, to ascertain whether those sentenced to the Gulag camps had a better chance of survival than penal soldiers. The compounded death rate among Gulag prisoners in 19411945 equalled 68.6% (Kokurin & Petrov 2000, p. 428), which was probably double the average mortality of penal soldiers,16 but many of those who were released from penal units died after their transfer to the regular army. Conversely, those penal soldiers who survived the war, even if they were discharged from army service after suering a serious injury in penal units, returned to society as respectable citizens and victors with all the benets of war veterans. Most of those who received long Gulag terms were
For instance, of 447 men assigned to the 500th Battalion in 1943, only four were former ocers and 60 were former NCOs (Klausch 1995, p. 419). 15 The number of penal soldiers probably excludes the ocers serving in assault battalions, and it contradicts the total number of penal soldiers given by the same author in the same book, which is 427,910 (Krivosheev 2001, p. 441). 16 See an example of the 1st Independent Penal Company of the 57th Army (Daines & Abaturov 2008, p. 163).



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