On May 9 Latvia once again fell in the Soviet captivity. This time the Soviet power was intending to stay here forever. However, there were people who did not give up their fight for national independent Latvia and continued to resist occupiers in the forests. So called “forest brothers” or national partisans fought local Soviet government from 1945 to 1956 when most of them were defeated. Soviet government called them “bandits” and used NKVD death squads against them. The national partisans were hoping in the coming war between Western powers and the Soviets. The western spy agencies even sent assistance and special agents to help them. They all were uncovered by the Soviet secret service. After the all hopes for outside support and victory were lost these men left the woods. This is a story about them.
Latvian partisans had not prepared for resistance. There was no support bases, communications and no Latvian government in exile to direct them. The first battle was fought on 27 August 1944 in the Abrene region (now in Russia) 4 NKVD men were missing in action. In whole 1944 NKVD lost 12 men. Most action took place in the eastern regions. In Vidzeme first groups showed up in May 1945 after the ice melted and the warm weather allowed people to gather. Usually a group of 5-7 men assaulted local Soviet activists, beat them up or even killed them. On April 17 Kārlis Krēmers murdered local Dzelzava party organizer (partorg) Mihial Kodalev on his wedding day and wounded many other Soviets.
The organization of the partisan movement started in Latgalia on the winter 1944-1945. In Courland after the end of the war partisans were mostly former Waffen SS Legion members vanished in forests and formed partisan ranks. North Courland Partisan Organization, Latvian National Partisan Organization, “The Hawks of the Fatherland” were part of the Courlad combat movements. In Vidzeme the “The Latvian Self Defense”, in Latgalia “Latvian Fatherland (partisan) union” and “Latvian National Partisan Union”. All movements tried to print their own illegal newspapers and leaflets. At first they were written using typing machine, as the conditions worsened the last newspaper “Homeland” was handwritten. The partisans wanted to inform people about their cause and attract new members.
After first spontaneous formations of the partisan groups in the summer of 1944 they started to look forward to make contacts and form unified command. On Northen Latgalia December 10 in the Abrene district Viļaka parish the Latvian National Partisan Union (LNPU) was formed. It was lead by Pēteris Supe (“Cinītis”). His deputy was the former student of the Latvian University National Economy faculty Staņislavs Ločmelis (“Dūze”). They were even joined by catholic dean Ludvig Štagars. At first LNPU consisted 123 partisans, after forming of united camp in the Stampaku swamp in Abrene district, the fighting force was about 350 men. In 1946 there were already 1000 men.
On March 2 1945 the camp was surrounded by the NKVD forces and local destroyers. Attackers were convinced that there is only 30-35 men there. Instead they met a sizable force that was not willing to give up. The battle lasted all day and the partisans managed to leave the Stampaku swamp and took refuge in pre-made covers. Soviets lost 32 and partisans 28. The leadership changed frequently as commanders fell in battles. Finally after three commanders were lost Antons Circāns (“Spike”) took the lead and re-organized the LNPU. He formed many regional staffs since the central staff could no longer lead all remote partisan units. LNPU operated all around Latgalia and Vidzeme. Most of the staff leaders sooner or later were captured or killed by NKVD. On July 7 the commander in charge Circāns was lost in action. The central staff ceased to exist. Local staffs continued to operate autonomously. On July 4 1948 the head of the Central Vidzeme staff Rusovs was captured along with the archive of the LNPU general staff. In months’ time all groups submitted to him were crushed. The last remnants of the LNPU continued to resist until 1953.
In Southern part of Latgalia on January 28 in Līvāni parish Vanagu catholic church dean Antons Juhņevičs was hiding the Red Army deserters. The church was raided by the NKVD, the partisans fought back and defeated the Soviets. The catholic dean hid in the forest and organized Latvian Fatherland guard (partisan) union (LFG(P)A). The partisans had to give an oath to God and the fatherland. The LFG(P)A) was formed into divisions that would operate in every Latvian region. That was never realized however many sizable partisan regiments Latgalia was formed. The dean wanted a full time resistance army that would lead an armed uprising. He was obviously counting on allies to start a war against the Soviet Union. Because of this he was not prepared for long time partisan warfare . As the winter came his “divisions and regiments” were one by one destroyed. On October 23 1945 NKVD assaulted the Ilūkste staff. In heavy frontal battle with great losses on both side’s partisans retreated to other forests. Since the ammunition was low the regiment was forced to begin talks of legalization – surrender. 90 out of 200 men did this. On 17 December almost all fighters of the Daugavpils regiment turned themselves. The end of LFG(P)A) came when the undercover agent of NKVD captured the leader J Zelčāns.
Meanwhile in Courland many ex-Waffen Legion members took refuge in the forests. If they would surrender they would be sent to “filtration camps” in Siberia. Some changed his identity with fake documents. Lieutenant Miervaldis Zeidainis as Miķelis Pētersons worked as an accountant in Ventspils. However, while driving around the countryside he was looking for former Legion members. Soon together with Lieutenant A Zutis, first lieutenant J Bērziņš, first lieutenant Ēvalds Robežnieks he formed The Northern Courland Partisan Organization (NCPO). They wanted to establish connections with the west and 17 men with one Estonian and German with fisherman boat reached Gotland. However, soon both leaders of the NCPO were arrested by the NKVD. But, the NKVD was unable to extract information about other groups hiding in the forests.
In Talsi district Latvian National Partisan Organization (LNPO) was formed lead by former “Jagdverband” leader Alberts Feldbergs. In Kuldīga district Luitenant Ēvalds Pakulis (Sheriff) gathered men in the Latvian National Partisan Unit “Courland”. (LNPU”C”). Both groups made meetings and later were united in the Latvian National Partisan Union “Courland”. Unfortunately NKVD agent Marģeris Vītoliņš was present at the last meeting. He was posing as a British agent and convinced partisans that the British secret service will take command of them. Because of this the partisan leaders were invited to Riga to meet the British resident and discuss further cooperation. Partisans waited for such opportunity for so long that they actually fell for this trap. On October 13 they were arrested at Matīsa street.
At first Soviets sent regular Soviet Army soldiers against partisans. From May 31 to August 9 1945 in Latvian eastern parts operation “Vostok” was issued. 4 divisions and 3 NKVD battalions swept the forests, but only managed to eliminate 21 partisans. However for “filtration” 3471 civilians were arrested, meaning Soviet soldiers fighting more against them rather than partisans. On Summer 1945 battles erupted every day. On Ilūkste district in 10 days time 32 Soviets were shot and 10 wounded. Soviets were only safe in the Ilūkste district center. In Abrene district partisans paralyzed the work of the village soviets. They were either destroyed or unable to operate. On May 25 1945 partisans burned down the Bērzpils executive committee. The Tilža parish center was assaulted in the night burning down the executive building. In Jersika partisans raided the parish executive building killing major Parfenov and captured two Soviet food trucks. In retreat partisans blew up the bridge. Many villages were taken, Soviet activists were constantly under threat and shops were raided. In case of shops, milking farms and money transports partisans spared peoples life’s. But when they encountered soviet activists- the party organizers, committee workers and executive chiefs they were usually executed.
Soviets answered the partisan attacks by sending large forces including armored vehicles. Until September 1945 3145 partisans had either lost their lives or have been legalized. 17 987 people were arrested. Soviets tried to stop the revolt by issuing legalization programs. People were asked to give up their weapons in return facing no repressions. 1268 people did this at the end of 1945. NKVD, however mistrusted them because they could find legal means how to overthrow the Soviet government. Also some of them were hired as double agents and sent back to the active partisan units. Issues of legalization were made many times and many thousand men gave up their fight.
The only event when partisans and NKVD men made talks was the Alsvišķu truce on 28 September 1945. Lutheran priest Eduards Grāvītis was against active means of resistance and did not believe that the allies will come anytime soon. So he made contacts with NKVD to look for peace agreement. On September 4 he met them in the Zeltiņi forest. He demanded to stop repressions and release the captured ones so the partisans can freely give up their arms. He also asked to withdraw the Soviet forces. Two NKVD officials were unable to answer these questions so they proposed to take him to Riga to meet more senior NKVD men. He arrived in Riga and met the NKVD peoples commissar Eglītis. He gave the list of the partisan demands for proper legalization. Eglitis published answer in party newspaper “Cīņa” on October 12 where he called partisans “bandits” who only attack and pillage the locals. At the end he asked the partisans to surrender. Partisans were unable to meet such call. On September 26 commander of LNPU A Circāns met E Grāvītis and asked him to arrange a meeting with the NKVD. Grāvītis informed NKVD about this. On September 28 NKVD Anti-banditism chief lieutenant-colonel Kornejev met Circāns calling himself “major Šmits” and Grāvītis. After two hour talks of useless bloodshed, Circāns proposed a 10 day ceasefire so the signal troops can reach every partisan group and ask about the possibility of legalization. After the talks were over all partisans could freely go back to their forests. The Alsvišķu truce was in effect from September 29 to October 9 in the Valka district. This was the only such case of mutual talks between NKVD and the partisans. However, this caused the opposite effect- LNPU gained so much respect that legalization significantly dropped among Valka district partisans.
The NKVD was dissatisfied with the anti-partisan warfare results. In so they decided to make united NKVD-NKGB staffs in the most active areas. Gathering up the forces helped to use effectively the intelligence data and make decisive strikes. During cold winter NKVD was more effective attacking the slow moving partisans. Already mentioned attack on Ilūkste partisan staff was a failure since the partisans escaped. More attacks were made in Madona and Valka district. In Kuldīga parish even tanks and reconnaissance aircraft was used against the force of 30 men. Battles took place all winter with more losses on the Soviet side.
However, the partisans were far from giving up. The Vinston Churchill speech about the Iron Curtain on March 5 motivated them. NKVD made operative fighting groups. To force partisans to legalize NKVD took their families hostage with all their children and abused them. Whole families went to the forest to the partisans. Now women and children died in the battles. To scare the locals Soviets publicly displayed the naked bodies of the killed partisans. Public executions were made as well.
Partisans still tried to assault Soviet, and ambushed and killed the officials and their convoys. The tight security and pressure made impossible to make a full scale attacks. However, in Gulbene district partisans assaulted Līgo village and captured the main building. Soviets sent destroyer battalion and forced partisans to leave. Partisans attacked again and destroyed the executive committee in Galgauska.
NKVD went on full scale attack crushing the partisan movements in every part of Latvia. In some parts partisans were surprised while sleeping in their bunkers, others resisted til the last man. The 15 men group lead by Gulbis was all destroyed, despite his heavy wounds Gulbis fired the machine gun until his final bullet.
On 1947 after heavy NKVD offensive the battles were more quieter. In Talsi district NKVD faced heavy battles with the Felbsbergs group. Partisans assaulted the armored vehicle and killed MGB senior lieutenant Dmitrij Krup. In answering strike Feldsbergs lost his life. On 1948 situation remained the same. NKVD used the effective method of sending double agents within the national partisans and either turned them in or assassinated their leaders. On Marc 19 NKVD assaulted the joint Latvian and Lithuanian bunker in Īle parish. 18 of 24 partisans were killed.
Then on March 25 the Soviet mass deportations took place in all Latvia. Partisans were unable to stop them. Most of them were deeply entrenched in their bunkers because of the winter. And Soviets gathered large security forces. Many partisans learned the fact about the deportations only after a few weeks. Now all could they do is to attack local soviet activists who assisted the deportations.
Soviets thought that is the end of the resistance, and removed the main MGB Interior soldiers and left only the destroyer battalions. Instead new partisans showed up, many who escaped deportations joined in. Partisans started attacks on the soviet activists killing all their families. In Jēkabpils parish partisans ambushed and eliminated whole MGB command. Since the collectivization was underway partisans now attacked the local kolkhoz chiefs. Soviets were forced to resend the MGB forces. Again battles erupted in forests of Alūksne and Jēkabpils district. Heavy battles were also present in Courland. Even in the streets of Saldus, where NKVD was attacking two partisans. Six buildings burned down and 4 civilians were killed along with two partisans. The deportations did not halt the partisan war, but the losses of the partisans were catastrophic. Many strong groups were destroyed and surviving partisans switched to more passive action.
Partisans became more mobile and undercover. NKVD sent fake partisan groups to destroy the real partisans. Partisans became more viscous and murdered the whole families of soviet officials and fighters. NKVD was no less brutal to partisan woman and children. On 1951 partisan activity was minimal. Soviets disbanded the MGB 24th rifleman division and changed with OKON the Special task force team a forefather of the Specnaz. Battles still erupted in some parts. To avoid capture partisans killed themselves singing “God Bless Latvia!”. From 1952 to 1953 the Moscow authorities sent special forces to stop the revolt. The 1953 was the last bloody year with 100 Latvian partisans lost.
After the death of Stalin and fading western support the partisan war activities became more rarer. From 1954 to 1956 11 were killed, 49 captured, 39 legalized. 533 people were still hiding individually or in small groups. In 13 February 1957 Mičulis partisan family of five people came out and legalized. They were resisting from 1945. They still had a sizable arsenal of weapons. Last partisan to leave the woods was Arnolds Spārns who did this in 1959. He resisted the Soviets for 14 years.
The armored resistance was over, however there are many untold stories about the non-violent resistance. Latvian intelligentsia, Jewish Zionists, all kinds of dissidents struggled for many years and made the dream of the national partisans possible.
Turčinskis, Zigmārs. (2007) Karš pēc kara: Latvijas nacionālo partizānu cīņas 20. gadsimta 40. gadu beigās – 50. gadu sākumā. In: Karš pēc kara 1944-1956. Latvijas okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata. Riga. Latvijas Okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata.
Strods, Heinrihs. (2012) Latvijas nacionālo partizānu karš, 1944-1956. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.
The unknown war : the Latvian national partisans’ fight against the Soviet occupiers, 1944-1956 : the battle and memorial sites of the national partisans (2011) Latvian National Partisan Association ; English translation by Peter Jacob Kalnin. Rīga : “Domas spēks”.