Latvian Soldiers in the Red Army 1941-1945

Latvian Red Army soldiers in the Battle of Moscow 1941

Latvian Red Army soldiers in the Battle of Moscow 1941

Much has been said about the Latvian soldiers fighting in the German lines. However, there were thousands of Latvians fighting in the ranks of the Red Army. Some of them served the duty with full support of the communist ideas, others were conscripted by force some just wanted to go back to their homeland. During the Soviet times these men were regarded as heroes, however after the regaining of independence they were mostly neglected by the society. The attempts of reconciliation between the veterans of the Legion and Soviet Latvian divisions have been mostly unsuccessful because of the political involvement. These men also deserve to be a part of the Latvian history for their fate and suffering was no less than the Latvian Legion.

The remains of the National Latvian Army were included in the 24th Territorial Corps. On June 22 1941 there 3000 Latvians left in the corps. The corps retreated to Russia, however large part of the soldiers deserted and joined the national partisans. Some were forced to spend many months in the POW camps in Eastern Prussia. Those who made it to Russia faced Germans in the battle of River Velikaya. On Latvian soil many workers guard battalions and the Riga War School faced Germans and were forced to retreat in Estonia. There they were united 1st and 2st Latvian destroyer regiments. They attacked Germans  and also the national partisans and civilians. Later they were included in the regular Red Army ranks, where they suffered heavy casualties near Talinn and Leningrad. On September 1 1940 the surviving men of the 1st regiment were included in the 10th rifleman division 62th rifleman regiment. The 2th destroyer regiment was turned into 76th Special Latvian rifleman regiment, that was completely destroyed and later disbanded.

On August 3 1941 the State Defense Committee and the Latvian Communist Party, issued an order to form a Latvian Rifleman division out of surviving worker guards, militiamen, party members and other Latvian citizens. There were many volunteers who wanted to escape the hard life in the soviet kolhozus. Latvian refugees were suffering from starvation and wanted to get back to Latvia. Women also joined in medical and communication ranks. There were also female snipers. The orders were given in Russian, but many soldiers still used Latvian in their conversations. Because of the Great Purge of 1937-1938 there was a lack of qualified Latvian officers.

The new formation was called 201th Latvian Rifleman division commanded by colonel Janis Veikins. The starting point was the Gorohoveca training camp in Ivanovo region near Gorky. On 12 September 1941 the oath was given and flags were received making one of the first national formations in the war time Red Army. The division consisted of 92th,122th,191th rifleman regiment, 220th artillery regiment, 10th special anti-air battery, 170th special communications battalion, 53th special sapper battalion, 112th special scout company, 43th medical sanitary battalion, and other smaller units. In October there were 10 877 men 1100 of them communists, 940 young communist league members, 70% joined voluntarily. They believed that the victory will come and Latvia will be liberated under the Soviets. At first the division was filled with the communist elite- party member, civil war veterans and Secret police members. Most of them perished in the first years of the war.

On December 1941 the 201th division joined the Battle of Moscow. Under the command of the 33th army their task was to capture the city of Narofominsk. The battle took place in the snowy fields near river Nara. Soldiers had to cross the frozen river. The weather was extreme: -35 on the day and -42 at night. Despite the lack of proper intelligence and artillery support the Narafominsk was captured. 5000 men were either lost or wounded. On January 4 1942 Latvians joined the 33th army and captured Borovsk. 200 Latvians were awarded with orders and medals. On January 16 the division was stationed at Aprelevka and received reinforcements.

In February they were called to join the battle at Staraya Rus. 1st special Latvian rifleman reserve battalion was formed in Gorohovec camp. 33 000 soldiers of them 51% Latvians, 17% Jews, 3% poles and 3% other nationals. After great losses in the Battle of Moscow more non-Latvians were included. Only 60% of the division were from Latvia after the receiving reinforcements. Latvian commander Jānis Veikins was replaced with Russian. Many deserted because of the Russifaction in the division, poor commanding and lack of supplies.

On February-March 1942 201th division took place in the battle of Demyansk. Many villages were captured assisting the encirclement of the German 16th army. The division was positioned in a flooded swamp unable to get supplies by land. Only way to get them was from the air. That was not enough and for many months the division suffered from starvation. Soldiers lived like prehistoric people, eating frogs, horses, birds and gathered nettles, sorrels and berries. 2494 men were taken to hospital because of severe weight loss. In August to September Latvians joined the Battle of Tuganovo. The Junior lieutenant sniper Jānis Vilhelms received the Hero of The Soviet Union tittle and later US medal Distinguished Service Cross.

To mark the achievements in the Battle of Moscow the 201th rifleman division was renamed as the 43th guard Latvian rifleman division. The new commander was major general Detlavs Brantkalns. On 1943 January to February heavy battles took place near Staraya Rus and Nasva. Then it took place in the liquidation of the Demyansk breached. The new flack artillery regiment was made and only national air unit in the Red Army. Latvians had three PO-2 bomber squads that operated at nights in Russia and later Latvia.On January 1944 43th guard division broke trough the German Eastern wall fortifications near Nasva. It was one of the biggest achievements of this division.  On June 1944 Soviets entered Latvia. From the 1sth Special Latvian reserve regiment a 308th Latvian rifleman division was formed. Commander was Voldemārs Danbergs later Mārtiņš Kalniņš. The division consisted of 319,323 and the 325th rifleman regiment, 677th artillery regiment, 377th special anti-tank regiment, 301th special sapper battalion, the 326th medical battalion., 282th special scout company. A 7319 men in whole.

Later, both divisions were joined in the 130th Latvian rifleman corps. The new commander was Detlevs Brantkalns. On 43th guard division there were 47% Russians, 35% Latvians, 8,5% Jews, 2,1% Ukrainians, 3,7% Belorussians, Lithuanians and Tatars. On July 18 this force entered Latvia. They attacked Germans at river Aiviekste and captured Krustpils. Both divisions suffered great casualties, the 43th guard division lost  1192 men, 308th division lost even more. In September 2318 men from Latvia were conscripted into their ranks. All those who were too young to be conscripted by the Germans were now taken to the Soviet army. This was the breach of the 1907 Hague convention that prohibited the conscription of civilians in the occupied lands. Both Soviets and Nazis did this in Latvia. Many deserted, others wanted to get to the hospital as fast as possible.

The 130th Latvian Rifleman corps spent last months in war fighting in Courland. On December 1944 they faced the Latvian Waffen SS 19th division. For the first time Latvians fought each other. The 130th rifleman corps faced great casualties and was unable to break  the German defense line. Battles continued in Courland until May 9 1944 when the war was finally over.

17 368 Latvian Red army soldiers were decorated with Soviet Orders and medals. Jānis Vilhelms, Jānis Rainbergs and Mihails Orlovs received the highest award – The Golden star and became the Heroes of the Soviet Union. 12 men received The Order of Lenin. 80 000- 10 000 men from Latvia fought in the Soviet lines. One part of them were evacuated from Latvia in 1941, the other part was mobilized in Latvia. More than 50 000 men lost their life’s.  While the Latvian Legion members spent their days in Siberian camps and were outcasts of the society; the Red Latvian soldiers enjoyed special social status and propaganda admiration. After the fall of the Soviet Union many of them could not forgive that the state and society’s attention changed positively towards Latvian Legion veterans. We must not forget that both of these groups of people are direct victims of the Nazi and Soviet crimes that forced the Latvian nation to fight under rouge flags.

Selected Sources:

Neiburgs, Uldis. (2011) Latviešu militārie formējumi PSRS un Vācijas bruņotajos spēkos Otrajā Pasaules karā. In:  (Divas) puses. Latviešu kara stāsti : Otrais pasaules karš karavīru dienasgrāmatās. Riga : Mansards.

Kažociņš, Indulis. (1999)  Latviešu karavīri zem svešiem karogiem 1940.-1945. Riga : Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.

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