As the German military over extended itself on the Eastern front, its supply lines and logistical support structure became prime targets for groups of guerrilla fighters. According to William C. Fuller, these resistance fighters, known as partisans, numbered as many as 200,000 individuals in 1943. The presence of such a large fighting force behind German lines proved to be extremely beneficial to Russian military operations as well as exposing failures of German occupation.
Partisan groups were composed of officers, soldiers, as well as local people trained to fight. At the beginning of the war, large numbers of Soviet personnel were trapped behind enemy lines. These groups were some of the first partisan fighters. Despite some military training, partisan groups during the early war period struggled to survive due to a lack of supplies, training, and casualties sustained in military operations. In a move to inspire nationalistic pride, Soviet propaganda circulated the story of Zoya Kosmodemianskaia. Zoya was a partisan teenager who’s story and execution (pictured above) were used as a way to inspire the Soviet people.
Partisan tactics focused on hitting key strategic points such as railways and communication junctions as well as supply lines. Guerrilla warfare suited the forested regions of German occupation. Hit and run attacks were common. Constant strain behind the lines forced German commanders to allocate front-line troops to fight behind the lines against partisans. The continual drain on supplies and men reduced the overall combat effectiveness of German forces fighting the Russian military.
Russian partisans were a diverse group of people. Partisans units consisted of professional soldiers, locals, varying religious faiths, and varying degrees of loyalty to the Soviet government. One of the most famous groups of partisans were the Bielski Partisans. These partisans were responsible for the most successful rescue operation of Jews from Nazi tyranny. Few things could cause such a diverse group of peoples to come together. German treatment of occupied territories was extremely cruel. Starvation was common as well as forced relocation of workers back to Germany for work in German factories. Despite aversion to the Soviet government, peasants took the fight to the greater of two evils, fascism.
Partisans played a critical role in the war. Soviet military blunders cost Russia dearly in the early months of the war, and partisan operations helped slow the seemingly unstoppable German advance.
William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism,” in Russia: A History, by Gregory L. Freeze. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 385.