The Russian Corps (Russian: Русский корпус, German: Russisches Schutzkorps Serbien) was an armed force composed of anti-communist Russian emigres that existed during the Second World War in German-occupied Serbia. It fought in alliance with axis forces against the Yugoslav Partisans and later against the Red Army.
General Mikhail Skorodumov, a veteran of the White movement, referred to the German occupational forces, asking for permission to form an armed "Separate Russian Corps" which would defend the Russian population against the communist partisans. In return for being armed and supplied by the Germans, Skorodumov set forth six conditions:
- Only one commander of the Corps is responsible to the German command. All units and ranks of the Corps are responsible only to the commander of the Corps, who is confirmed by the German command, and the leaders that are picked by the commander of the Corps.
- Units of the Russian Corps cannot be integrated into German units, they are entirely independent.
- The Russian corps wears the old Russian uniform, the materials for which must come from the old Serbian supplies.
- The officers of the corps do not make any oaths.
- When the Corps finishes its formation and communism in Serbia is defeated, the German command transfers the Corps to the Eastern Front.
- The Russian Corps may not be used against any government, nor against the Serbian national forces of Draža Mihailović.
In point 5, Skorodumov reasoned - as many Russian white emigres at the time - that it would be possible to take advantage of a foreign war in order to break open a civil war in Russia and overthrow Joseph Stalin's government, which could only be achieved with force. The Corps, he reasoned, was to become the seed of this resistance.
On 12 September 1941, after receiving the written approval of German Colonel Kevish, Skorodumov ordered the formation of the Corps. Three days later he was arrested by the Nazis for forming a "separate Russian corps" and was replaced by his assistant, General Boris Shteifon (who was half Jewish from his father's side), another White army veteran. Shteifon continued the formation of the Corps. At the same time, he was engaged in a diplomatic war with the German command in an attempt to win as much independence and freedom of action as possible. The Corps was a part of the German armed forces and took an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler.
Several thousand Russian emigres living in Yugoslavia and in surrounding Eastern European countries enlisted in the Corps, men from age 16 to those in their seventies were admitted. At the beginning the Corps heavily lacked men in their twenties because most were conscripted into the Yugoslav Royal Army and were either taken prisoner, living in exile, or with the Chetniks. Most volunteers were either young men who grew up in the Russian Cadet Corps of Yugoslavia, or seasoned veterans of the Russian Tsarist and White armies. Consequently, many commissioned officers had to enlist as privates or non-coms. Officers and generals were permitted to wear their old rank on the shoulderboards, while using their collar to display their Corps rank.
The Corps consisted of five regiments, armed with German, Italian, and Yugoslav weaponry. The Corps was not allowed to have heavy artillery, according to Shteifon's speculation this was done to prevent the Corps from becoming a fully fledged, independent armed unit. The Corps initially instituted White Army uniforms, combined with Serbian royalist regalia, but were forced to switch to German uniforms later. These German uniforms were "Russified" by the inclusion of a Russian cockade and Russian medals of distinction. The Corps followed at first the Tsarist military charter for commands, then briefly switched to the 1927 Soviet charter before being forced to conform to the German Wehrmacht charter.
Deployment and growth
The Corps under General Shteifon were used at first primarily for guarding regions from partisan control, then in the spring of 1944 plunged into the heat of the Yugoslav guerrilla war. It engaged Titoists in villages and cities throughout Yugoslavia, often deployed in regions the Germans considered particularly dangerous. This went against the hopes of the founders of the Corps, who had hoped that it would be primarily deployed as a defense unit against partisan aggression and spared from heavy action.
As per Skorodumov's point 6, the Corps refused to attack the national Serbian Chetnik forces. The Chetniks maintained a neutral and occasionally an allied relationship with the Corps, with a few exceptions. The Serbian Volunteer Corps of Dimitri Ljotic, by contrast, were a constant ally of the Corps.
Frictions had also developed between the Corps and the Croatian Home Guard, with which the Corps was in a de jure alliance. This occurred after the Corps' soldiers had intervened several times by force to stop atrocities against Serbian civilians committed by Croatian soldiers.
Shteifon's diplomatic war with the German command forced him to make several concessions. One was the introduction of the German uniform (as the Germans refused to supply anything else), another was an oath all soldiers were forced to give to Hitler. Shteifon was, however, able to win permission to send representatives to occupied territories (notably in Romanian occupied Odessa and Bessarabia) in order to recruit Soviet POWs and civilians for the Corps. Over 5,000 new recruits were successfully enlisted this way. In the wake of this expansion, an officer training program was instituted in order to create new ranks for a future army.
In 1944, the Germans ordered the Corps to cover their retreat from Greece. In September of that year, after the capitulation of Bulgaria and Romania, the Corps found itself confronting not only Josip Broz Tito's partisans (whom Winston Churchill had begun favoring over Mihailović, in view of the former's alliance with Joseph Stalin), but regular units of the Red Army, along with its newly allied Bulgarian and Romanian armies. Heavily outnumbered and poorly equipped, the Corps lost over one third of its men in a few months time. Data from a report dated August 22, 1944 that was prepared by Maximilian von Weichs for Adolf Hitler showed that the Corps had five regiments with 11,188 officers and men.
In the winter of 1944-45, upon learning that General Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army was finally in existence, Shteifon met with Vlasov and offered his "unconditional subordinance". Thus, Shteifon and his men were coopted into the Russian Liberation Army. However, this remained a de jure designation, as the turn of events did not permit Vlasov to include the Corps in his operations.
Rogozhin immediately began planning for a surrender of the Corps to the allies, while avoiding capture by partisan or Soviet forces. After a heavy argument with the German command, Rogozhin marched his men (now numbering 4,500) towards Klagenfurt, Austria, with the intent of surrendering to British troops together with the Serbian Volunteer Corps and Slovenian Domobrantsi.
The surrender to the British took place on the 12th of May, 1945, after which Rogozhin said in his daily order
|“||We with a calm conscience can say that we completely accomplished the duty of the honest Russian soldier. The British commanders have respectfully treated us, as we did not surrender our weapons to those against whom we raised them, - our enemy - the Bolsheviks. With faith in a better future, let us await that moment when the Lord will help us finish our fight for the liberation of our Motherland to victory.||”|
In reality, Rogozhin faced many difficulties with the British command, largely because of their ties with their Soviet allies who wanted the Corps delivered to them. Immediately after surrender, the Corps created their own camp in Kellerberg, which included an Orthodox church. The camp was unknown to the Soviets until an informer from another former Russian axis unit which was stationed nearby told the Soviet authorities of its location.
A confrontation began between the Corps' officers and Soviet SMERSH agents. Unlike with the Cossacks of Lienz and many veterans of the Russian Liberation Army, the British spared the Corps from forceful repatriation, citing that it was formed of people who did not fall under the classification of "former Soviet citizens" (as per the Yalta agreement). Those members of the Corps who were former Soviet citizens (as well as stray members of other Russian units who fled to the Corps' camp) were given false documents to protect them from repatriation.
On November 1, 1945, Rogozhin officially disbanded the Corps and formed a veteran's union (the Russian Corps Combatants) which was responsible for the safety and coordination of its members. Many Corps members emigrated to the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and several European countries.
The corps veterans created a modified symbol which was formed of a white Russian military opolchenskiy cross, upon which was a black cross of the Corps with the letters "R" and "K" (standing for "Russkiy Korpus") inscribed in white. On the blades of the white cross the years 1917 - 1921 and 1941 - 1945 are marked, signifying respectively the years of the Russian Civil War, and the years of its continuation during the Corps action in Yugoslavia.
A chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky (the patron saint of the Corps, on whose day of memory the Corps was originally founded) was erected in the Novo Deveevo Russian Orthodox convent in Nanuet, New York (USA) in honor of the Russian Corps. Many Corps veterans (including Rogozhin) are buried nearby. The Combatants union began publishing a periodical known as Nashi Vesti (Our News).
- Thomas, Nigel; Abbott, Peter (1983). Partisan Warfare 1941-45. Osprey Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-85045-513-7.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (2001). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford University Press. p. 193. ISBN 0-8047-0857-6.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (2001). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford University Press. p. 194. ISBN 0-8047-0857-6.
- M.V. Nazarov, The Mission of the Russian Emigration, Moscow: Rodnik, 1994. ISBN 978-5-86231-172-3
- I.B. Ivanov, N. N. Protopopov, Russkii Korpus Na Balkanakh Vo Vremia II Velikoi Voiny, 1941-1945: Vospominaniia Soratnikov I Dokumenty Sbornik Vtoroi, St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg University, 1999. ISBN 978-5-288-02307-1