|Allegiance||Nazi Germany (1941–44)|
Russian Liberation Army
|Size||11,197 (maximum strength)|
Boris Shteifon †
The Russian Corps (German: Russisches Schutzkorps Serbien, Russian: Русский корпус, Serbian: Руски корпус) was an armed force composed of anti-Communist Russian émigrés in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia during World War II. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Boris Shteifon, it served primarily as a guard force from the autumn of 1941 until the spring of 1944. It was incorporated into the Wehrmacht on 1 December 1942 and later clashed with both the Yugoslav Partisans and the Chetniks. In late 1944 it fought against the Red Army during the Belgrade Offensive, later withdrawing to Bosnia and Slovenia when the Germans withdrew from the Balkans. Shteifon was killed in April 1945 and was replaced by Colonel Anatoly Rogozhin, who subsequently managed to evade the Communists by surrendering to the British instead. He and his men were eventually set free and were allowed to resettle in the West.
Background and formation
In the Balkans before World War II there were approximately 15,000 White Russian émigrés who had fled there in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. On 6 April 1941, Axis forces invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Poorly equipped and poorly trained, the Royal Yugoslav Army was quickly defeated. The country was then dismembered, with Serbia being reduced to its pre-1912 borders and placed under a government of German military occupation. Milan Nedić, a pre-war politician who was known to have pro-Axis leanings, was then selected by the Germans to lead the collaborationist Government of National Salvation in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia.
The Russian Corps was formed by émigré White Russians and officers of the Russian Imperial Army, which had been defeated by the Communists in the Russian Civil War twenty years earlier. Over the course of the Uprising in Serbia in the summer of 1941, the Communist-backed Yugoslav Partisans killed approximately 300 Russian emigrants and injured many more, sometimes in acts of vengeance. In response, local Russians began to organize themselves into self-defense units. At the time, there were an estimated 10,000 Russian men within the borders of Yugoslavia, the majority of whom lived in Serbia.
The Russian Corps was founded in Belgrade by General Mikhail Skorodumov on 12 September 1941 and took shape under the supervision of the occupying German authorities, with the cooperation of Nedić's regime. At first, the group was an independent force reporting to the plenipotentiary for economic affairs, Franz Neuhausen. It was composed of White Russians who sided with the Germans because of their opposition to Communism and because they believed that their only hope of a non-Communist Russia lay in a German victory in World War II. Russian émigrés from Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary subsequently came to Belgrade to join the unit.
Due to illness, Skorodumov was replaced after only a month by his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Boris Shteifon, who was said to have had "warm and friendly relations with [Milan] Nedić." The Russian Corps was initially designated the "Independent Russian Corps" before being renamed the "Russian Defense Corps" on 2 October. It was envisaged by the Germans as a 3,000-strong unit organized into three regiments. By late 1941, it had 1,500 members. Recruitment was carried out by Major General Kreyter, a White Russian émigré in German service who was the head of the Russian Intelligence Office (German: Vertrauensstelle) in Serbia. The Corps initially consisted of a single regiment, organized into four battalions. Major General Egorov commanded the 1st Battalion, Colonel Shatilov the second, Colonel Endrzheevskiy the third and Colonel Nestrenko the fourth, respectively. A second regiment was set up on 18 October, commanded by Colonel Zhukov.
Although its aim was to fight Communist forces in the Soviet Union, the Russian Corps, when engaged in combat, was used almost exclusively to fight the Yugoslav Partisans in areas of occupied Yugoslavia. Composed of one cavalry regiment and four infantry regiments, it was reinforced with younger émigrés and former Soviet prisoners of war and was armed by the Germans with weapons captured from the Royal Yugoslav Army. Its command language was Russian.
Between the autumn of 1941 and the spring of 1944, members of the Corps were responsible primarily for protecting weapons factories, mines, roads, and railroads throughout occupied Serbia in accordance with priorities established by the German High Command. During this time, the Corps was referred to as the "Russian Factory Protection Group" (German: Weissrussischer Werkschutz). It was initially used during anti-Partisan operations to guard mines in Krupanj, and later in Bor and Trepča. In November 1941 it began actively collaborating with the Chetniks. By this time the Corps was composed of five regiments of about 7,500 men, all of whom were Russian. An attempt was then made to expand it further by recruiting Soviet prisoners. However, this proved unsuccessful and the Corps never operated as a unified fighting force, the regiments being its largest operational units. These were later assigned to act as auxiliaries to German or Bulgarian occupying forces. On 8 December 1941, the Corps defended the Stolice mine against the Yugoslav Partisans. The Corps grew in numbers throughout 1942, following an influx of volunteers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Greece. During this time, it maintained good relations with the Nedić administration. While guarding facilities, members of the Corps were largely assigned to manning brick bunkers, protecting the railway in the Ibar River valley, the Bor, Trepča, Majdanpek, and Krupanj mines, as well as Serbian borders along the Danube and Drina rivers while deployed together with various Serbian collaborationist factions such as the Serbian State Guard (SDS) and the Serbian Volunteer Corps (SDK), with whom they were most closely allied. The Corps also closely cooperated with the Croatian Ustaše and during this period its members often plundered Serbian villages.
Initially, the 1st Regiment was deployed in Loznica, Ljubovija and other towns along the Drina. On the other hand, the 2nd Regiment operated in towns such as Negotin, Bor, and Majdanpek. The two regiments were operationally subordinated to the 704th German Division. The 3rd Regiment was established in Banjica on 8 January 1942, placed under the command of Colonel Shapilov and deployed to Kosovska Mitrovica, where it was operationally subordinated to the 1st Bulgarian occupational corps. The 4th Regiment was established on 29 April with General Cherepov as commander and was deployed to the area around Kraljevo. In May, the Corps was divided into two brigades. The 1st Brigade was placed under the command of Major General Dratsenko and its headquarters was established in the town of Aranđelovac on 22 May. On 30 November, the 4th Regiment was disbanded, its 1st Battalion assigned to the 1st Regiment and the rest of its manpower assigned to the 2nd Regiment. On 1 December 1942, the Russian Corps was incorporated into the Wehrmacht and all its members were required to swear an oath to German leader Adolf Hitler. On 9 December 1942, the 1st Regiment started to be transformed with the arrival of Kuban Cossacks led by Major General Naumenko. By January 1943, it was fully composed of Cossacks. On 17 March 1943, Major General Gontarev replaced Shapilov as commander of the 3rd Regiment. The 1st Regiment fought in Loznica in April and participated in a large operation in Zapolje on 11–15 May, where it engaged in heavy combat with Communist forces. From 1–8 July, the regiment was again stationed in Loznica and Ljubovija, participating in the defence of the Drina Bridge at Zvornik against the Partisans. During this time the regiment allowed the passage of 379 wounded Croatian soldiers and civilians, 1,000 healthy soldiers and as many refugees, sustaining casualties of two killed and seventeen wounded. It clashed with the Partisans over the village of Nedelica on 19 July. Meanwhile, the 2nd Regiment clashed with the Partisans around the town of Negotin. The 4th Regiment was re-established on 15 December, and was based in Jagodina, Paraćin and Ćuprija. Its regimental headquarters were moved to Aleksinac on 30 April and to Čačak on 15 October.
Retreat and surrender
Despite numerous clashes with the Chetniks, the Corps focused increasingly on fighting the Partisans penetrating Serbia from Bosnia and the Sandžak. On 5 January, combat with the Partisans in Klenak resulted in the deaths of three Cossacks of the 1st Regiment. On 18 January, the 5th Regiment was formed in Obrenovac. The 3rd Regiment outfought a 2,400-strong Partisan force advancing towards Jošanička Banja on 31 March. On 28 April, the 1st Regiment prepared defences along the Drina in Zvornik, Bajina Bašta and Loznica areas expecting the 16th and 17th Partisan Divisions to attempt a crossing there. On 1–2 May, the 5th Regiment fought the Partisans in the village of Mravinci, sustaining casualties of 11 killed and 25 wounded. That summer, the Corps mediated an agreement between the Chetniks and the Germans in which the two parties agreed to fight the Partisans in Serbia. On 18 July, the 5th Regiment fought in Jošanička Banja and its regimental headquarters was moved there from Obrenovac, with battalion headquarters being established in Zvečan, Jošanička Banja, Ušće and Vučitrn. Elements of the 3rd and 5th regiments fought the Partisans on 4–5 August near the village of Rudnik. The Partisans attacked the positions of the 5th Regiment in Leposavić on 24 August.
In September, the Corps reached its peak of 11,197 members. Several skirmishes occurred between the 1st Regiment and the Partisans in the Zvornik and Valjevo areas that month. On 7/8 September, the 2nd Regiment fought Partisans at the Ibar River, trying to deny them crossing. On 9 September, elements of the 3rd Regiment moved to Požega and on 11 September to Čačak. On 20 September, the 1st Regiment fought a group of Partisans south of Loznica. Major combat between the 1st Regiment and Partisans erupted in Loznica itself on 23 September, causing the regiment to fall back to Šabac with losses of 7 killed and 23 wounded. Combat continued daily throughout September with the 1st Regiment suffering up to 53 casualties per day. On 8 October, the 2nd Regiment headquarters in Požarevac were evacuated as Soviet armour approached the town. As parts of the regiment moved towards Belgrade and Grocka, the force came into contact with Soviet troops and armour in the Ripanj area south of Belgrade, sustaining heavy casualties. On 10 October the Russian Corps was renamed the "Russian Corps in Serbia". Elements of the 2nd Regiment arrived in Šabac on 22 October, then moved to Sremska Mitrovica on 23 October, Vukovar on 25 October, Osijek on 26 October and then to Vinkovci and Stari Jankovci on 28 October. Further parts of the regiment moved to Zemun on 13 October, Ruma on 14 October, Vinkovci on 16 October, and Stari Jankovci on 24 October. On 19–22 October, the 4th Regiment fought advancing Soviet troops and Partisans and defended the Čačak-Kraljevo road. On 23 October, the 1st Regiment abandoned Šabac and Klenak and moved to Laćarak, and then to Tovarnik on 24 October where they were ordered to hold their ground. The 4th Regiment fought in the Čačak area from 27 October to 2 November. It faced the Red Army and the Chetnik 2nd Ravna Gora Corps before being overpowered and forced to abandon the city. The Chetniks captured 339 of its soldiers and turned them over to the Soviets. On 12 November, the 1st Regiment moved via railway through Vinkovci to Brčko, with elements deployed in Gunja. On 8 December it regrouped north of the Sava and on 11–13 December it fought the Partisans in and near the village of Vrbanja, killing forty-three. The 4th Regiment arrived in Sarajevo on 13–18 December. Elements subsequently moved to Kiseljak on 18 December, fighting Partisans in the Kiseljak-Busovača area on 26–27 December. During this time, the 1st Regiment and a battalion of the 2nd Regiment guarded a bridgehead north of Brčko in order to allow German forces that were stationed in Greece to withdraw through the town.
In January 1945, elements of the Corps participated in the German capture of Travnik, part of Operation Lawine. Afterwards, they withdrew to Slovenia. On 30 April, Shteifon was killed while passing through Zagreb. Colonel Anatoly Rogozhin then took over as commander. On 12 May, Rogozhin surrendered to British forces near Klagenfurt. Members of the Corps were then allowed to resettle in the West after hostilities ceased. At the time of surrender, the Corps consisted of 3,500 to 5,584 men. It had suffered 6,709 members killed, wounded or missing from 1941 to 1945. Overall, 17,090 men served in its ranks over the course of the war.
Order of battle
Throughout its existence, the Russian Corps was composed of:
- 1st Cossack Regiment Generala Zborovskogo
- Infantry Regiments II, III, IV, V
In May 1942, the Corps was divided into two brigades. The 4th Regiment was disbanded on 30 November 1942, and re-established on 15 December 1943. The 5th Regiment was created on 18 January 1944.
The Russian Corps had three commanders during its existence:
- General Mikhail Skorodumov (September 1941)
- Lieutenant-General Boris Shteifon (October 1941 – April 1945)
- Colonel Anatoly Rogozhin (April – May 1945)
Members of the Corps wore the uniform of the Russian Imperial Army from 12 September 1941 to 30 November 1942 as well as the Czechoslovakian helmet . The uniform was sometimes worn with pips of the Royal Yugoslav Army, alongside special rank insignia on the collar. Wehrmacht uniforms and insignia were adopted on 1 December 1942, but the old uniforms continued to be worn for some time.
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