Litene – The Latvian Katyn

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Once again the massive Soviet crime of the Katyn massacre has entered the media spotlight and finally the court. Lets, hope the jury will be on the side of the victims not defenders of the criminals supported the present Russian regime. But Polish army was not the only army that suffered this kind of fate. It was also Latvian Army who after the occupation and annexation of Latvian state in 1940 became subjects of Soviet repressions. On June 14 1941 in Litene army camp hundreds of officers of the Latvian army were either set to Siberia or shot on the spot. It was our own “little” Katyn massacre that also needs to be mentioned publicly and receive justice.

The occupation of Latvia begun on June 17 1940, Latvian army was told not to resist the invaders. The new Latvian communist puppet government liquidated the Latvian Army as the national forces and renamed is as the “Peoples Army”. Army circles were flooded with political activists and soviet agents. All officers were commanded to write their biography, many of them wrote it too honestly exposing all their details, that certainly backfired on them later. Perhaps many of them were not used to lying and did not know what to expect from the new Soviet power.

On August 27 1940 after Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Peoples Army was officially disbanded and inintod in to 24 territorial rifleman corps in the Red Army. 55 Latvian officers were already fired and repressed. Officers and soldiers were called for interrogations from many of them did not return. Many were forced or talked into to become informers for the Soviets.

There are many categories of the Latvian officers in this situation- first were the officers that had resigned from the army until 17 June 1940 and was in the status of the civil person. They were persecuted by Soviet secret police the NKVD. Others who were fired after  June 17 also fell victim to the NKVD. The third category was the Latvian officers who remained in the 24 TR Corps until June 1941, and the last the ones that were arrested on June 14 1941.

First who were arrested were persons with active anti-soviet past, like taking part in battles against the Red Army in 1919-1920 war of liberation. After disbanding the Peoples Army 820 officers were fired, one part of them repressed. The climax of the repressions reached June 1941. They took place in the summer camps made by Latvian Army. Their locations were Carnikava, Lilaste, Litene, Daugavpils, Liepāja and others. Every one of these camps only a regiment or rarely a division could gather since there were no bigger camp spot and the military exercises were rare mostly in the last years before the war. Now Soviet command ordered all 24 TR Corps to gather at one Litene summer camp.

Litene is located at the Gulbene district halfway between the town of Gulbene and Balvi, 19 km from Gulbene. A place notable for its beautiful estate and also railroad were nearby. It was a good place for training base. The army had built barracks and tent spots and roads for supply gathering.

Although the 24 TR Corps command had originally planed to send their man to many different places, all of them were ordered to go to Litene. That made the firsts doubts and suspicion as the camp was too small to hold all the officers and soldiers about 8000 – 10 000 men. Despite the order of getting there at May 15 most of the men only arrived on  June 1 since the climatic conditions were too bad to hold a camp. Plus the camp needed to be upgraded and cleaned after it was left by one Red Army unit that had vastly polluted the place.

The Litene army training camp

The Litene army training camp

Along the men of the 24 TR Corps rumors spread that they will be sent to Russia instead. The corps was filled with conscripts from the Soviet Union, the size of the ethnic Latvians in some units dropped by 2o percent. On the night of the June 14 1941 more than 150 000 Latvian civilians were sent to Siberia, same in Lithuania with 180 000 and in Estonia 10 000 people.

On  June 14 all ex Latvian Army officers serving in the 24 TR corps were arrested on the spot at Litene. The operation was carefully planned. Camp was carefully guarded by the NKVD men, and all the necessary transport equipment was gathered earlier. Camp guard duty was given to Russians and Asians, Latvian men had their guns removed. The officers were told to gather at early morning of June 14 to prepare for tactical training.

The officers gathered at 8:30 in the open air cinema. A lecture by the chief of the staff N Miljevski his assistant Kirilov was announced, the topic was battalion attack. After a half hour lecture the list of training participants were issued.  Strange to all, the list included those in hospitals, on vacation or on missions. Also since only the names and surnames were called not army ranks as it should be, showed that the list was made by the NKVD. For the army surely would list officers by their ranks.

It seems there was some slip ups in the Soviet plans, since officers had to wait for transport until 14:00. Probably it took time to gather all the officers and put them into trucks. The convoy was led by armored jeep. After driving 1-5 km from the town of Gulbene, officers were told to leave the car and stand in two. They were escorted to a nearby forest, disarmed and arrested. The forest was full of camouflaged NKVD men and their armed cars. Most of the officers were arrested. However those who resisted were killed and buried on the spot. A mass graves were already dug out  for such occasions. Some of those who resisted managed to kill or wound the Soviet captors but were outnumbered.

After arresting all the officers they were taken to cattle trains and sent to Riga. After bringing extra deportees and searching all the captives, the train took route to Russia. Approximately 560 Latvian officers were sent to Russian Gulag camps at Siberia. After the regaining of independence Latvian archeologists found a grave of 11 Latvian officers killed on the spot by the Soviets.

It was complete destruction of the Latvian Army. From all 2193 officers of the ex Latvian Army  299 were arrested, at one 14 June 562 officers were arrested and deported, 247 officers went missing. In all 1100 Latvian officers from June 17 1940 to June 14 1941 was repressed by the Soviets. The amount of killed officers on Litene still is unknown and could be more that 11 men.

While in Katyn the most Polish officers were simply executed, Latvians were sent to Gulag camps in Dudinsk and  Norilsk. While certainly it was better than be shot on the spot, the conditions in the Soviet camps were beyond any civilized man could imagine. Not all could survive and not all could return to Latvia, only 80 Latvian officers returned to the Latvia, the rest of them stayed in Siberia. Latvian army officers were the elite of the Latvian society that were caught up in the Soviet injustice and treachery. It’s our duty to respect and commemorate  these men.

Selected Sources:

Zvaigzne, Jānis. (2012)   Jūnijs. Litene, 1941. Rīga : Jumava.

Starptautiska konference “1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci”. 1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci : starptautiskās konferences materiāli, 2001. gada 12.-13. jūnijs, Rīga = Deportation of 14 June 1941: crime against humanity : materials of an International Conference 12-13 June. (2001). Riga. Latvijas vēstures institūts.

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