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Shtrafbats (штрафбат, штрафной батальон) were Soviet penal battalions that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II.

The shtrafbats were greatly increased in number by Joseph Stalin on July 1942, via the infamous Order No. 227 (Директива Ставки ВГК №227). Order No. 227 was a desperate effort to re-instill discipline after the panicked routs of the first year of combat with Germany. The order—popularized as the "Not one step back!" (Ни шагу назад!, Ni Shagu Nazad!) Order—introduced severe punishments, including summary execution, for unauthorized retreats.[1]

In his order, Stalin also mentioned Hitler's successful use of penal battalions (See: Strafbattalion) as a means to ensure obedience among regular Wehrmacht units. This observational remark led directly to the creation of a parallel system for the Soviets.


Pursuant to Order No. 227, the first penal battalions were originally planned at 800 men; penal companies were also authorized, consisting of between 150 and 200 men per company.[2] In addition to the battalions already serving with Armies, other battalions, subordinated to Fronts, were introduced. The first penal battalion deployed under the new policy was sent to the Stalingrad Front on August 22, 1942, shortly before German troops reached the Volga river. It consisted of 929 disgraced officers convicted under Order No. 227 who were demoted to the lowest enlisted rank and assigned to the penal battalion. After three days of assaults against the Germans, only 300 were alive.

Soviet penal units were formally standardized in the order entitled 'Status of Penal Units of the Army' (Положение о штрафных батальонах действующей армии) of November 26, 1942 by Georgiy Zhukov, then a Deputy Commander-in-Chief. Penal battalions or shtrafbats were set at 360 men per battalion,[2] and were commanded by midrange and senior Red Army officers and political officers (politruks). Penal companies (штрафная рота, 100 to 150 per unit) were commanded by sergeants (NCOs) and privates.

The total number of people convicted to penal units from September 1942 to May 1945 was 427,910, very few of which were known to have survived the war.[3] However, these totals should be viewed in comparison to the nearly 34.5 million men and women who served in the Soviet armed forces during the entire period of the war.[3]


Men ordinarily subject to penal military unit service included:

  • Those convicted of desertion or cowardice under Order No. 227. While cowardice under fire was punished with instant execution, soldiers or officers in rear areas suspected of having a "reluctance to fight" could (and frequently were) summarily stripped of rank and reassigned to a shtrafbat under Order 227.[4]
  • Former Soviet POWs liberated by the Red Army. During the war, some escaped Soviet POWs were sent to penal units under Order 227 retroactively. Stalin made perfectly clear that under 'Not One Step Back', surrender or falling into live captivity (even if wounded) was tantamount to cowardice in the face of the enemy (and, by Stalinist extension, treason). This official attitude did not require ill intent for guilt, as any Soviets who had been under the control of the Germans for even a brief period were now considered "untrustworthy", "ideologically suspect" and "likely to have been influenced" by their contact with the world outside the Soviet Union. Up to 75% died in captivity, and the few who survived were often stripped of their rank and awards and sent directly from the squalid German POW camps to the Russian Gulag prison camps in Siberia, such as Kolyma.[5][6]
  • Soviet Gulag labor camp inmates. Physically capable prisoners could volunteer for shtrafbat service and many were "drafted" directly from the camps. This included the usual Stalinist mix of civilians, bureaucrats and military (as well as both common and political criminals).[7]

Infantry battalions[edit]

Penal battalion service in infantry roles was the most common use of shtrafniki, and viewed by many Soviet prisoners as tantamount to a death sentence. The term of service in infantry penal battalions and companies was from one to three months (the maximum term was usually applied to those qualifying for the death penalty, the standard punishment for Order No. 227). Standard rates of conversion of imprisonment terms into penal battalion terms existed. Convicts sentenced to infantry units were eligible for commutation of sentence and assignment to a Red Army line unit if they either suffered a combat injury (the crime was considered to be "cleansed in blood") or had accomplished extremely heroic deeds in combat.[8] They could also theoretically receive military decorations for outstanding service and if released were considered fully rehabilitated, though those suspected of political disloyalties remained marked men.

In reality, the promise of rehabilitation was (in most cases) pure propaganda[citation needed] ; penal battalions were administered and commanded by the field units of the NKVD secret police, who treated shtrafniki as a worthless subspecies of soldier, useful only for absorbing heavy casualties that would otherwise be inflicted on a more worthy Soviet unit. They were used in attempts to break through particularly stubborn enemy defenses; to perform hazardous patrols in large groups (reconnaissance-in-force) to determine enemy strength; as sacrificial rearguards during retreats; and as decoys (e.g., wearing dark, instead of snow camouflage clothing to draw enemy fire away from regular Red Army units). They were often sent into battle unarmed, or with sticks to mimic rifles.[1] Most prisoners were transferred to the mine-clearing battalions for trampler duty if they survived infantry combat long enough to risk returning to a regular unit.

Air force[edit]

Pilots or gunners serving in air force penal squadrons were at a marked disadvantage in obtaining remission of sentence via a combat injury since the nature of air combat usually meant that any injury was fatal. Pilots received no credit for missions flown, and were normally kept in service until they were killed in action. Former Soviet Air Force pilot Artiom Afinogenov recalled the use of air force penal squadrons near Stalingrad:

Penal squadron pilots were sent to the most dangerous places, first of all, to Volga bridge crossings, where the future of Stalingrad was decided, to air fields and enemy tank concentrations. So it was only penal squadrons that were sent to attack these targets, yet these operational flights were not taken into consideration. You keep flying missions and killing Germans, yet it is held that nothing happens, so nothing goes on your record. To be released from penal service you have to be wounded in fighting. But when a military pilot is flying a mission, the first wound he receives may very often be the last one.[9]

The death rate among gunners serving in penal squadrons was exceptionally high. While prisoners assigned as gunners could theoretically clear their sentences after surviving ten missions, like the infantry they were frequently transferred to penal mine-clearing units before reaching this total.[2]

Combat service[edit]

Pursuant to Order No. 227, any attempt to retreat without orders, or even a failure to advance was punished by barrier troops ('zagraditel'nye otriady') or "anti-retreat" detachments of the Soviet special organization known as SMERSH (Smert shpionam), Russian for "Death to spies".[1][2] SMERSH units were used to shoot retreating men serving in penal units should the latter commence a retreat after failing either to advance to secure an objective, or to stop a German attack via counter-attack.[1][10] As a result, with nowhere else to go, the penal battalions usually advanced in a frenzy, running forwards until they were killed by enemy minefields, artillery, or heavy machine-gun fire. If the men survived and occupied their objective, they were rounded up and used again in the next assault.[2]

The battalions were headed by staffs or ordinary soldiers and officers. While out of the line, discipline was enforced by an armed guard company, backstopped by NKVD or SMERSH detachments. Staff and guards were highly paid and got special pension benefits for their unpleasant and sometimes dangerous work. During the war, Soviet penal units were widely employed. Some units achieved considerable fame; General Konstantin Rokossovsky's well-regarded 16th Army was composed completely of penal infantry units. Rokossovsky himself had been "rescued" from the Gulag by Stalin in 1940 after being imprisoned and tortured for 4 years for supporting Mikhail Tukhachevsky; after the onset of Blitzkrieg proved Tukhachevsky's theories of armored warfare correct, Rokossovsky was quietly released from prison and restored to his rank by Stalin, who even bemusedly commented on Rokossovsky's missing fingernails (which had all been pulled out during his torture) while assigning him the command.

The simultaneous formation of penal units and ancillary rearguard blocking troops in Order No. 227 has occasionally led to a modern misconception that penal units were rearguarded by regular units of the Red Army. Although the practice of using regular army troops as a rearguard or blocking force was briefly implemented, it was soon discovered that the rearguard did not always carry out their orders with regards to penal unit personnel who retreated or fled from the Germans. Consequently, until the end of the war, the task of preventing unauthorized withdrawal of penal unit personnel from the battlefield was handled by the anti-retreat SMERSH detachments of the Soviet NKVD.[1]

References in culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Tolstoy 1981[page needed]
  2. ^ a b c d e Suvorov 1982[page needed]
  3. ^ a b Krivosheev 1997[page needed]
  4. ^ Suvorov 1982[page needed] Deserters were not the only category under Order No. 227. Any officer or enlisted soldier who had demonstrated a reluctance to fight was normally stripped of rank and sentenced to a penal unit.
  5. ^ Hatch 1988, p. 115: Many Soviet POWs liberated at the end of the war were summarily executed.
  6. ^ Conquest 1978, pp. 228-229: Soviet POWs not executed at war's end often went to a gulag such as the Kolyma arctic death camp. Still others were released from custody, but stripped of their rank or awards. As one example, see Anna Yegorova.
  7. ^ Lebed 1997[page needed]: In 1937, General Lebed's father, a Red Army officer, was stripped of his rank and given a five-year sentence in a labor camp for twice reporting late for duty - five minutes late, to be exact.
  8. ^ Lebed 1997[page needed]: "My father [then serving in a penal battalion] never shirked his duty...But there was a catch - in order to be transferred from the penal battalion to a regular unit, you had to shed your blood, to redeem yourself. But after the Finnish War, wisdom won out, and he was assigned to a line unit."
  9. ^ Voice of Russia, Interview of Artiom Afinogenov (2003), Article (2003)
  10. ^ Mawdsley 2003, p. 135

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