Barrier troops
Barrier troops, blocking units, or anti-retreat forces are formations of soldiers normally placed behind regular troops on a battle line to prevent panic or unauthorized withdrawal or retreat. Barrier troops may be utilized simply to raise the morale of frontline troops and for the purpose of constituting a reserve force, or they may be used to prevent unauthorized withdrawal of soldiers from the battlefield by any means, including indiscriminate killing. As troops guarding other units are obviously not available to fight the enemy they are a costly, often desperate, measure.

Early history

The concept of barrier troops dates from the earliest days of land warfare, when more experienced troops were regularly placed behind raw recruits to prevent panic and to provide a reserve if needed to stop an enemy advance. Roman legion
Roman legion
A Roman legion normally indicates the basic ancient Roman army unit recruited specifically from Roman citizens. The organization of legions varied greatly over time but they were typically composed of perhaps 5,000 soldiers, divided into maniples and later into "cohorts"...

s were regularly backstopped by experienced triarii
Triarii were one of the elements of the early Roman military Manipular legions of the early Roman Republic . They were the oldest and among the wealthiest men in the army, and could afford good quality equipment. They wore heavy metal armour and carried large shields, their usual position being...

legionaries of many years' service.

During the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

, the losses due to troops deserting battle were regularly greater than the losses resulting from combat. Since desertion was relatively easy in that era, the use of barrier troops enabled commanders to retain cohesive fighting units during the course of a long campaign.

Barrier troops in the Red Army

In the Red Army
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...

 of the Soviet Union, the concept of barrier troops first arose in August 1918 with the formation of the (zagraditelnye otriady), translated as "blocking troops" or "anti-retreat detachments" . The barrier troops were composed of personnel drawn from Cheka
Cheka was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and subsequently led by aristocrat-turned-communist Felix Dzerzhinsky...

 punitive detachments or from regular Red Army infantry regiments.

The first use of the barrier troops by the Red Army occurred in the late summer and fall on the Eastern front during the Russian Civil War
Russian Civil War
The Russian Civil War was a multi-party war that occurred within the former Russian Empire after the Russian provisional government collapsed to the Soviets, under the domination of the Bolshevik party. Soviet forces first assumed power in Petrograd The Russian Civil War (1917–1923) was a...

, when commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky
Mikhail Tukhachevsky
Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky was a Marshal of the Soviet Union, commander in chief of the Red Army , and one of the most prominent victims of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge.-Early life:...

 was authorized by War Commissar Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky , born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and theorist, Soviet politician, and the founder and first leader of the Red Army....

 of the Communist Bolshevik
The Bolsheviks, originally also Bolshevists , derived from bol'shinstvo, "majority") were a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which split apart from the Menshevik faction at the Second Party Congress in 1903....

 government to station blocking detachments behind unreliable Red Army infantry regiments in the 1st Red Army, with orders to shoot if they either deserted or retreated without permission.

In December 1918 Trotsky ordered that additional barrier troops detachments be raised, for attachment to each infantry formation in the Red Army. On December 18 he cabled: "How do things stand with the blocking units? As far as I am aware they have not been included in our establishment and it appears they have no personnel. It is absolutely essential that we have at least an embryonic network of blocking units and that we work out a procedure for bringing them up to strength and deploying them." The barrier troops were also used to enforce Bolshevik control over food supplies in areas controlled by the Red Army, a role which soon earned them the hatred of the Russian civilian population.

The concept was re-introduced on a large scale during the German-Soviet War. On June 27, 1941, in response to reports of unit disintegration in battle and desertion from the ranks in the Soviet Red Army, the 3rd Department (military counterintelligence of Soviet Army
Military counterintelligence of Soviet Army
Military counterintelligence of the Armed Forces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, throughout all its history was controlled by the nonmilitary structure...

) of the USSR's Narkomat of Defense issued a directive creating mobile barrier forces composed of NKVD
The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs was the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union that directly executed the rule of power of the Soviets, including political repression, during the era of Joseph Stalin....

 personnel to operate on roads, railways, forests, etc. for the purpose of catching 'deserters and suspicious persons'. These forces were given the acronym SMERSH
SMERSH was the counter-intelligence agency in the Red Army formed in late 1942 or even earlier, but officially founded on April 14, 1943. The name SMERSH was coined by Joseph Stalin...

(from the Russian Smert shpionam - Death to spies). SMERSH detachments were created from NKVD troops, augmented with counterintelligence operatives, and were under the command of the NKVD
The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs was the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union that directly executed the rule of power of the Soviets, including political repression, during the era of Joseph Stalin....


With the continued deterioration of the military situation in the face of the German offensive of 1941, SMERSH and other NKVD punitive detachments acquired a new mission: to prevent the unauthorized withdrawal of Red Army forces from the battle line. The first troops of this kind were formed in the Bryansk Front
Bryansk Front
The Bryansk Front was a Front of the Soviet Army during the Second World War.General Andrei Yeremenko was designated commander of the Front when it first formed in mid-late August 1941, comprising, in Erickson's words, 'on paper two armies, 50th and 13th, with eight rifle divisions each, three...

 on September 5, 1941.

On September 12, 1941 Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 issued the Stavka
Stavka was the term used to refer to a command element of the armed forces from the time of the Kievan Rus′, more formally during the history of Imperial Russia as administrative staff and General Headquarters during late 19th Century Imperial Russian armed forces and those of the Soviet Union...

 Directive No. 1919 (Директива Ставки ВГК №001919) concerning the creation of barrier troops in rifle divisions of the Southwestern Front
Southwestern Front
Southwestern front may refer to one of the following.*A Southwestern front, a particular geographical area where armies are engaged in conflict* The Soviet Southwestern Front, one of the Soviet Fronts in World War Two...

, to suppress panic retreats. Each Red Army division was to have an anti-retreat detachment equipped with transport totalling one company for each regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

. Their primary goal was to maintain strict military discipline and to prevent disintegration of the front line by any means, including the use of machine guns to indiscriminately shoot any personnel retreating without authorization. These barrier troops were usually formed from ordinary military units, and placed under NKVD command.

In 1942, after the creation of penal battalion
Shtrafbats were Soviet penal battalions that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II.The shtrafbats were created by Joseph Stalin on July 1942, via Stavka Order No. 227 . Order No. 227 was a desperate effort to re-instill discipline after the panicked routs of the first year of combat with...

s by Stavka Directive No. 227 (Директива Ставки ВГК №227) in 1942, anti-retreat detachments were also used to prevent withdrawal or desertion by penal units as well. However, Penal military unit
Penal military unit
Penal battalions, penal companies, etc., are military formations consisting of convicted persons for which military service in such units was either the assigned punishment or an alternative to imprisonment or the death penalty.-Nazi Germany:...

 personnel were always rearguarded by NKVD or SMERSH anti-retreat detachments, and not by regular Red Army infantry forces.

A report to Commissar General of State Security Lavrentiy Beria
Lavrentiy Beria
Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was a Georgian Soviet politician and state security administrator, chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Joseph Stalin during World War II, and Deputy Premier in the postwar years ....

on October 10, 1941 noted that since the beginning of the war, NKVD anti-retreat troops had detained a total of 657,364 retreating or deserting personnel, of which 25,878 were arrested, and 10,201 shot. Most of those arrested were later returned to active duty.

Further reading

  • Karpov, Vladimir, Russia at War: 1941-45, trans. Lydia Kmetyuk (New York: The Vendome Press (1987)
  • Overy, R. J., The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, W. W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0393020304, 9780393020304
  • Органы государственной безопасности СССР в Великой Отечественной войне. Сборник документов,
    • Том 1. Книга 1. Накануне, Издательство "Книга и бизнес", (1995) ISBN 5-212-00804-2
    • Том 1. Книга 2. Накануне, Издательство "Книга и бизнес", (1995) ISBN 5-212-00805-0
    • Том 2. Книга 1. Начало, Издательство "Русь" (2000) ISBN 5-8090-0006-1
    • Том 2. Книга 2. Начало, Издательство "Русь" (2000) ISBN 5-8090-0007-X
    • Том 3. Книга 1. Крушение "Блицкрига", Издательство: Русь, 2003, ISBN 5-8090-0009-6
    • Том 3. Книга 2. От обороны к наступлению, Издательство: Русь, 2003, ISBN 5-8090-0021-5
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