The Strategy and Activity of the Forest Brothers: 1947–1950

By: Colonel Martin Herem, Estonian Army

The Forest Brothers' resistance movement in post–world war II Estonia is a topic that has received quite a lot of attention in recent literature, from many different perspectives.2 At the same time, no study has been published so far that examines the Forest Brothers' activities as a military operation. Such research is, at first sight, made difficult by the shortage of source materials, as well as the general opinion that the Estonian Forest Brothers were not an organized movement. Furthermore, the failure of their campaign—the defeat of the Forest Brothers and Estonia's domination by the Soviet Union—may indicate to some that there is little to be learned. Nevertheless, with regard to Estonia's national defense as well as the current campaigns against international terrorism, it is important to understand the reasons behind the ultimate failure of the Forest Brothers.

This article looks at the Forest Brothers during their most active period of resistance, from 1947 to 1950. In those years, a resistance fighter named Richard Saaliste, along with his brother and three other men, played a key part in the strategic preparations for a hoped-for outbreak of war between the USSR and the Western countries. Their strategy will henceforward be referred to, for brevity's sake, as the JORSS strategy. JORSS—an acronym of the surnames Jerlet, Oras, Raadik, Saaliste, Saaliste—was used by the resistance fighters as a radiogram signature in their attempts to establish communication with the Western countries.3

The aim of this article is to evaluate the JORSS strategy and the reasons behind the initial successes and ultimate failure of the Forest Brothers who tried to implement it, by considering the resistance movement in the context of Estonian society at the time. This context is taken to include the society, population, economy, and culture of the Estonian SSR, as well as the anti-resistance activities of the Soviet authorities. Changes in the environment that had an effect on the strategy of the resistance movement are another facet of the evaluation. This method of evaluation, applied here to the Forest Brothers, is adapted from the study "How Men Rebel: An Organizational Model for Insurgency," by William Bender and Craig L. Johnson (hereafter, Bender-Johnson), which describes a method for evaluating resistance movements based on the authors' examination of several theories on organization and resistance.4 This article, in turn, is a brief outline of the author's master's thesis, which applied the Bender-Johnson method to a far more detailed case study of the Forest Brothers.5

General Characteristics of the Estonian Rebellion: 1944–1953

As mentioned previously, JORSS was only a small part of the anti-Soviet resistance that spread across Eastern Europe following World War II, and it shared most of the larger movement's characteristics. The Soviet occupation of the Republic of Estonia in 1940, a result of the Molotov–Ribbentrop nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, inspired two stages of the Forest Brothers' movement: from 1940 to 1941, and from 1944 to 1953. Both of these stages were characterized by an armed resistance movement in support of an anticipated invasion by the United States and European countries. What made the second stage different, however, was the fact that there was no active warfare as such going on from 1945; instead, the resistance was fuelled by the hope for a new onset of war. Estonians in the post-war years had many reasons to hide and fight against the Soviet regime. In 1940–1941 they had endured the Soviet reign of terror that followed occupation. That experience impelled thousands of Estonians to volunteer to serve in the German armed forces' Home Guard during the German occupation. And that in turn was reason enough for them to go into the forest and incite rebellion when the Soviet forces came back in 1944.

Regardless of the number of people who took part in the resistance movement in different periods, and the activity of the Forest Brothers as evaluated by various methods, the entire Forest Brothers' movement must be regarded as an ideological conflict between Soviet rule and the citizens of the occupied territory. In documents on the Forest Brothers from the USSR Committee for State Security (the secret police), the movement is commonly described as nationalist banditry, a bourgeois nationalist underground resistance movement, and a profoundly nationalist underground resistance movement directed at vigorous anti-Soviet operations.6 The "political banditry"7 of the western regions of the USSR was thus distinguished in official documents from the "criminal banditry" of people's struggle for material survival in the rest of the Soviet republics, even by the Soviet authorities themselves.8 Even though the resistance movements in post-war Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia were substantially more widespread, active, and organized, the Estonian Forest Brothers must not be underestimated due to their lack of organization. Although they were eradicated, and no broader resistance movement existed in Estonia as far as we know, the Forest Brothers deserve a place in the theory of resistance. In Mao Zedong's three-stage theory of guerrilla warfare, the post-war Forest Brothers' movement falls under the first stage: the creation of an organization that encompasses a conflict of ideologies, armed fighters, and a purpose for the resistance.9

The post–World War II Forest Brothers' movement has been divided into periods by several authors. Most agree on the years 1944–1945, which were characterized by the ongoing war in Europe and quite a large number of men—estimated at 15,000–20,000—hiding in the forest. This number represents more than 1% of the population at the time.10 During the second period, 1945–1949, the anti-Soviet activities of the Forest Brothers were more dynamic and better organized. The last period of active armed resistance is considered to be the interval from the March deportation of 1949 until 1953, during which the major groups of Forest Brothers were eliminated.11

The casualties on both sides, Forest Brothers and Soviets (including civilians), show the intensity of the conflict. A total of 1,870 armed contacts were recorded during these years. Seventy-four percent of them were directed by the resistance fighters against civilian supporters of the occupation, collective farms, and other public entities.12 A closer study of the victims usually reveals a common reason: revenge against informants and other collaborators who harmed Estonian civilians or the Forest Brothers themselves.13 According to these records, the Forest Brothers killed 1,009 people associated with the Soviet regime: 49% civilians, 29% Soviet activists and voluntary members of destruction battalions, 12% members of the security forces, 5% civilians cooperating with the Soviet security forces, and 5% military personnel. The Forest Brothers' losses during these nine years totaled 16,620 people: 1,495 killed and 9,870 arrested, while another 5,255 surrendered.14 Many of those who were arrested or who surrendered were punished by death or sent to Siberia. The intensity of the resistance was relatively high for such a short period of time. More than a thousand people killed in 1,870 attacks over nine years is not a big number in itself, but it is striking when compared to some other modern insurgent movements.15

JORSS Strategy and Structure

The most important person behind JORSS was Richard Saaliste, one of the best-known leaders of the Forest Brothers. Saaliste was a farmer and reserve officer in 1940 when the Soviet Union first occupied Estonia. By 1941, he had fled into the forest and begun his struggle against the Soviet occupation. Like thousands of other Estonians during the German occupation, Saaliste joined the Home Guard, where he served as a battalion commander. He was wounded twice and in 1944 escaped to Sweden.

In late 1946, Saaliste returned to Estonia, a move that was extremely unusual. The exact reasons behind his return are still unclear. On the one hand, he was performing a task, assigned by Estonians leaders in Sweden, to arrange for the evacuation of certain individuals to Sweden. On the other hand, he began to make contact with the Forest Brothers right after his arrival back in Estonia. Researchers have discussed a possible connection with the intelligence services of some Western countries, but such contacts have never been proved. Other key personnel of JORSS could be called "career Forest Brothers," using the terminology of the Soviet security services. These men were declared outlaws in 1944 or 1945, were not organized on more than a group level up to that point, and, somewhat surprisingly, had no civilian blood on their hands. All of them, however, had battle experience from service in the German army.

It is significant that the JORSS boycotted the strongest Estonian resistance organization at this time: the Armed Resistance Union (RVL). The RVL had a hierarchical structure and recruited members, including civilians in legal positions, with the objective of restoring an independent Estonian republic. Like JORSS, they understood that the restoration of an independent state would be possible only with the direct support of Western countries. But JORSS regarded a formal anti-Soviet organization as necessary only when the international situation, i.e., a commitment to armed intervention from the West, warranted it.16 Until then, the preparatory organizational work had to be carried out. Hence, JORSS leaders disagreed with the RVL's principles of operation, although their anti-Soviet objectives were the same.17 They believed that the RVL, with its conventional organizational structure, was doomed to failure from the moment of its creation, and would be discovered by the MGB (as the Soviet secret police were known at the time) very soon. JORSS leaders, in contrast, opposed any formal registration of the members of the organization, whether through lists, forms, or symbols. They were against including legal citizens in the organization, who might want to restrict the activity of the Forest Brothers with organizational principles, and regarded such activity by the leadership of the RVL as mistaken.

The Strategy

The objective of the JORSS strategy was to win support among the Forest Brothers and the general population for the overthrow of Soviet rule in the Estonian SSR, in the event of a war between the Western countries and the Soviet Union. In other words, the JORSS strategy was based on anticipation of a political or military intervention by the Western countries. This was a common strategic feature of the resistance groups in all three Baltic states. None of the resistance movements aimed at overthrowing Soviet rule on its own, but presumed that an intervention by countries hostile to Moscow would end the occupation of the Baltic states.18 This hope was fed daily through anti-Soviet propaganda in the news media, including Western radio services from Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, and Sweden, Radio Rias from the U.S. zone in Germany, Voice of America Moscow, Estonian programs in German, and anti-Soviet programs on the BBC. In addition, Saaliste had with him some newspapers issued by Estonian expatriates in Germany and Sweden promoting this idea.

What made the JORSS strategy different were a few details, especially with regard to the organizational structure. The best way to explain the strategy is with a widely used method that focuses on the objective, desired outcomes, methods of achieving those outcomes, and resources (see Table 1).19

A characteristic feature of the Forest Brothers was the structure of JORSS. First of all, it should be clarified that it was not an organization in the common sense. The Forest Brothers themselves denied the existence of any such organization. During an interrogation in 1952, V. Oras claimed that the group only went so far as to make preparations for establishing a Forest Brothers' organization when the situation was right, i.e., once a war was underway. This may be a little disingenuous: even a relatively unstructured group can indeed be called an organization, if an organization is understood to consist of a knowingly coordinated social union that is an identifiable entity and works steadily towards a common goal.

Judging by the statements of the Forest Brothers themselves, the organization even had a structure that covered all of Estonia. According to that structure, Estonia was divided into three parts. Two of the parts were reportedly managed by a major and a captain, and the third part by Richard Saaliste. The structure itself was planned and generally created as follows.

Structure of the "organization" (see Figure 1):

  • Government-in-exile (primarily in Sweden at this time): managed the three staffs (henceforward, 1/3 staffs), each of which oversaw one third of Estonian territory, through directions for long-term action. Further instructions were relayed through proxies, by mail, via broadcast radio in coded messages,20 or by direct radio communications.
  • 1/3 staff: managed the staff branches. To a lesser extent, each staff, consisting of three to five individuals, also coordinated its activity with the other two 1/3 staffs.21 Contact with the staff branches was maintained above all to initiate coordinated fighting and to give specific orders during combat. The instruction these staffs provided in anticipation of coming war was aimed at the survival of the personnel in a hostile environment and to further their political education.
  • Staff branch: maintained constant contact with the 1/3 staff, groups of Forest Brothers, and individuals hiding in their region. The staff branches also were usually three to five people, depending on who was available and the territory and population to be coordinated. Again, most of the instructions they disseminated were to support the survival of personnel in a wartime environment and to provide political education with leaflets and brochures. If necessary, cooperation would be coordinated before the war. In addition, this group received information from other Forest Brothers and supporters by means of personal interviews. The instructions from the staff branch were designed to support survival and reduce conflicting activities among the different groups of Forest Brothers. Intelligence-related tasks were normally not given to groups or individuals but were performed by members of the staff branch.
  • Groups of Forest Brothers/individual members: made their own plans for hiding and operating. They carried out no specific orders or tasks coming from the staff branches. Contact with supporters and informants reinforced the activity or security of the group and was not usually intended to fulfill the needs or tasks of the staff branch.


Supporters of the resistance included farms or individuals who helped sustain the Forest Brothers with material goods or resources, accommodation, medical aid, or transportation, depending on their situation. Their support was organized in an ad hoc fashion, based on their specific capabilities and ideological attitude. A supporter could not go directly to the Forest Brothers but had instead to arrange a meeting with an individual. Meetings could also be set up through intermediaries or a "mailbox" (drop box) arrangement. Information was communicated through personal meetings. In the event of a particular danger, preset signals were used to spread the word. The Forest Brothers made use of informants who were in the service of Soviet authorities, mostly to gather security-related information and relay it at agreed meetings. Communication of crucial information might also take place through a mailbox or via an intermediary. It is important to note that many of the farms run by sympathizers relied on Forest Brothers to work in exchange for food. These farmers then shared in the loot when the Forest Brothers attacked Soviet-run collective farms and cooperatives. This largesse served as a sort of deposit that encouraged further support in later months. The entire structure was designed essentially to serve the strategic goal of maintaining armed strength. In other words, the structure itself did not support operations, but rather the communication of information.

There was no specialization throughout the different management levels of JORSS. For instance, intelligence work was performed according to the abilities of specific individuals. The means and opportunities of each group were determined for that particular group alone. At the same time, each group was prepared to support other groups if security was at stake, because any breach of security threatened the entire resistance movement. The size of the group depended on the experience of the individual Forest Brothers and the task environment (support and risk). There were no joint funds above the group level—each band had to support itself. All documented structures and lists were forbidden. Information on the location and number of Forest Brothers maintained by the 1/3 staff, however, would enable leaders to quickly restructure a fighting force in the event of war.

The decentralized organization characteristic of the resistance in the Baltic States was also noted by contemporary Russian military analysts. According to them, the lack of common leadership was compensated for by strong discipline on the local level, sustained by the social status of being a Forest Brother and the enforced discipline of hiding and undertaking covert actions over the course of several years while surrounded by the enemy.22 In today's terms, such an organizational structure and system of subordination can be compared to al Qaeda, which also lacks a conventional hierarchical chain of command.23

Information from the archives of the MGB indicates that the various Forest Brothers' groups were aware of each other's existence and had the opportunity to contact one another in accordance with the objectives and methods of the JORSS strategy. It is nevertheless difficult to determine the size, location, and members of the groups precisely, because these kept changing. The thesis from which this article was drawn contains a basic list of the Forest Brothers who were in contact with the branch staff either in person or through proxies.24 The list includes a total of more than 130 people in hiding between 1947 and 1949 who were known to branch staff and could have been mobilized for concentrated action at short notice.25 There were men and women of various backgrounds among them, although the women would likely have played only a supporting role in combat.

To sum up the question of communicating with Forest Brothers' groups and uniting individual resistance fighters, it can be said that more than 100 people were at least in contact with JORSS in 1949. The territory in which they were most active was situated about 50 km from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, and covered an area approximately 60 km square of rural and forested land. There are many examples of Forest Brothers' activities far away from this "main territory," but it should be noted that the whole of Estonia is only about 350 km square.

The Results of the Study

The thesis analyzed the Forest Brothers and the JORSS strategy on the basis of the five theoretical requirements for a resistance movement (the Bender- Johnson method described in the introduction). This section discusses the results of that study, and what it revealed about the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy.

Requirement No. 1: The structure and strategy of a resistance movement must match the environment.

The JORSS strategy was based on an understanding of the prevailing circumstances and the power of the Soviet authorities; hence, it focused on overthrowing Soviet rule only in the event of an outbreak of international war. The tactics were instead based on limiting attacks (usually only on collaborators), so as to maintain a minimal presence in the "market" of Estonian society, and the replenishment of supplies (through attacks on state enterprises and institutions).

The concern was that a more aggressive strategy would only invite a show of force by the Soviets, as occurred in Lithuania in 1947, when brutal attacks by resistance fighters were met with an additional 70,000 troops brought in from Russia. This strategy of minimal violence was adopted by most Forest Brothers.

The JORSS strategy, as well as the Forest Brothers' operations, was based on an awareness of enemy tactics and therefore avoided frequent small-scale actions; the movement thus prevented the Soviets from differentiating between the various regions and groups. This hindered the ability of the enemy to accurately analyze the Forest Brothers, and thus their ability to concentrate countermeasures in specific regions.

The JORSS leaders and, to an extent, the Forest Brothers realized the difficult economic situation of their principal support base—the Estonian population. At the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union, anticipating another war, increased taxes and appropriated such a large percentage of agricultural output that many Estonians suffered from hunger. At the same time, Moscow severely devalued the currency through "reforms." This difficult economic situation was also taken into consideration, for the most part, by the Forest Brothers when planning their activities. At the same time, JORSS staff exercised no higherlevel control in that area nor did they give any instructions of a more specific nature. The weakness of the strategy sometimes manifested when Forest Brothers engaged in the public robbery of private property. The resulting Soviet propaganda and economic controls had a negative impact on the market of sympathizers for the Forest Brothers and lost them support. This in turn enabled the Soviet authorities to develop their intelligence network more effectively.

The strategy as well as the activity of the Forest Brothers showed that working for the people who were sympathetic to them was an important way for the resistance fighters to create a material support base for themselves. The replenishment of supplies through labor was one of the strongest aspects of the strategy and the Forest Brothers' operations. It not only enhanced their base of support but also helped them avoid conflicts with the Soviet authorities, and prevented further deterioration of conditions for the local population (as simple confiscation would have caused).

It must be noted here that the majority of the Forest Brothers studied in the course of this research were arrested and/or killed as a result of intelligence work by Soviet security agents. The available sources suggest, however, that all of those who collaborated with the security agencies were recruited from among legal citizens or those whom the authorities had legalized, with the help of compromising circumstances (e.g., they had served in the German army or the Home Guard, or had recently left the resistance), and that none of them was a current member of the Forest Brothers.

Requirement No. 2: The organization must possess a market and demonstrate its presence in the market.

The dissemination of information, as a means to maintain presence in the market of public opinion, should be regarded as a strength of the strategy. This requirement, however, was only partially fulfilled by the Forest Brothers, primarily with leaflets and other forms of propaganda. The fact that the groups did not spread information about their operational successes, such as attacking Communist activists and collective farms, was a weak spot of the strategy, and lost them the opportunity to gain wider support. It also allowed the Soviet authorities to spread uncontested misinformation about supposed atrocities committed by the Forest Brothers. The restrictions the Soviet authorities put on the dissemination of information (e.g., access to printing facilities), along with the constant barrage of Soviet propaganda, in fairness, made it difficult for the Forest Brothers to meet their information objectives. Meanwhile, the Soviet authorities were busy taking over the opinion market by other means as well, such as managing the safety and welfare of the population. Hence, even if the Forest Brothers had been better at disseminating anti-Soviet information among Estonia's inhabitants, they would not have prevented the Soviet authorities from monopolizing the market.

The maintenance of market share in the form of relaying international information and raising political awareness was also a strength of the strategy. These tactics were put into practice, but again there was a shortcoming in the organizational structure. The number of individuals doing the work was too small, and they all had concurrent duties, which made it impossible for them to work to the best of their abilities in any one area of responsibility.

Requirement No. 3: The structure of a resistance movement should be closed.

In principle, the organizational structure of the Forest Brothers matched the environmental circumstances and the goals of the strategy. It was a closed organization that made the inclusion of new members quite difficult, and the connections among the groups were not susceptible to the counteractivities of the security agencies. This is supported by several examples where the attempted elimination of a group as a whole was unsuccessful, or an attack on one group did not lead the security agents to other groups. In other words, there was no "domino effect" among the rest of the units when Forest Brothers were captured. Nevertheless, there were some significant exceptions. For instance, the elimination of Richard Saaliste and his group became possible through the connections of one person whom the authorities had arrested. At the same time, however, other groups were not threatened by the arrest of their members. Because, as a matter of policy, there were no clear terms of subordination or member lists to be discovered, security service investigation records reveal that the security agencies never grasped the structure of the organization, and this hindered them in planning operations. This closed organizational structure thus can be considered a strength of the resistance's strategy and activities.

When a closed organization is operating in a hostile environment, limiting the information that is available to any individual is of critical importance. Adherence to this rule would have rendered agency work ineffective, but the activity of the Forest Brothers reveals numerous examples where this rule was broadly disregarded. One good example is the case of a legal civilian, a former Estonian officer, who was believed to be a Forest Brother but was actually a Soviet agent. Other Forest Brothers passed information to him that he did not need to know. This breach of discipline enabled the security agencies to largely eliminate three groups of Forest Brothers, including the leader of a 1/3 staff. It should be stressed here that this episode constituted a remarkable violation of the strategy. At the same time, the organization proved unable to respond to such violations and introduce changes to its activities that would prevent another incident.

Forest Brothers were directed to not trust anyone who had changed their ideological view and gave support to the Communists; all contact was to stop immediately. This guidance, however, mistook the real threat. As described earlier, recruited agents cooperated with the regime not because of ideological principles but most often because their background with the German armed forces or the Home Guard, or with the Forest Brothers themselves, left them and their families vulnerable to threats of deportation. This blind spot meant that the strategy focused on ideological differences to evaluate threats, while the Forest Brothers' actual betrayers were not in fact different from themselves. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to say how much this instruction was followed during resistance activities and whether doing so resulted in any actual harm to the Forest Brothers. Such an instruction most likely demonstrates the general views of the Forest Brothers—that is, threats were judged on the basis of ideological stances. Adherence to this directive, combined with violations of the rules of confidentiality, however, had potentially catastrophic consequences for the organization. Taking into account the general environment of Estonia at the time, this instruction can be regarded as a deficiency of the strategy. Despite the instruction given in the strategy that units should operate in an unfamiliar area, this was rarely followed by the Forest Brothers. Most of them were based in their native region, which ensured a better base of material support, access to information, and familiarity with the area of operations. They also enjoyed freedom of movement and a very good overview of the security agencies operating in the area. Although the reasoning behind the strategy's directive is not unsound, the fact that the Forest Brothers largely chose to do the opposite should be seen as a strength.

The requirement to limit the information given to supporters is in large part the same as the rule concerning interactions with legal citizens. Excessive knowledge in the possession of supporters who were arrested served as the basis for successful MGB intelligence work. The Forest Brothers' activities in that area must be regarded as a violation of the strategy.

There are several examples proving that the speed of communications between organizational levels was at least satisfactory. It would likely have served its purpose in the event of war. In addition, the communication network fulfilled security requirements, and, as a result, there is no evidence that it had a negative effect on the activity of the organization. Hence, communication can be regarded as a strength of the strategy and activities.

Requirement No. 4: The success of the organization lies in increasing its numbers and fighting.

From the creation of the JORSS organization in 1947 to its eradication in 1949, it maintained contacts with the Estonian resistance according to strategy, so that concentrated armed action could have been organized in case of the outbreak of war. Hence, this aspect must be deemed a strength of the organization.

The factor that put an end to the growth of the resistance movement was the success of the security forces in infiltrating the organization and recruiting collaborators, which led to subsequent successful attacks against the Forest Brothers. Hence, while the need to raise additional support that came with an increase in group numbers and agent infiltration were not the only reasons behind the dissolution of the organization, they both played a part in it. The failure of the Forest Brothers in the fight against the Soviet security agencies started with the strategy, which touched on the area of recruitment only briefly. Based on the activity of the Forest Brothers, it can be said that they were successful with regard to the growth of the organization and operational planning, while their weakness lay primarily in poor countermeasures against the work of the security agencies. This weakness manifested mainly in violations of the rules of confidentiality. Accordingly, the tendency for the weaknesses of the strategy to be compounded in practice should be regarded as the reason for the movement's failure.

Requirement No. 5: Success depends on short-term as well as longterm organizational decisions.

The maintenance of resistance forces as a long-term decision is a strength of the strategy; however, this was not supported by the short-term activities of the Forest Brothers. Group leaders should have made immediate decisions, for example, to enforce confidentiality or limit attacks against the Soviets, in order to improve the groups' ability to remain in hiding. Opportunities to make such decisions or changes came: 1) after the arrest of Oras in March 1949—the loss of a significant political and operational leader; 2) after the March 1949 deportation of approximately 30,000 people suspected to have connections with the Forest Brothers—a change in the general environment, which heightened fear and insecurity; and 3) after the elimination of the Forest Brothers in the second half of 1949—the success of enemy tactics and agent networks.26 Despite knowing that the secret police were successfully recruiting among their support base, the Forest Brothers failed to adjust their communications strategies or reevaluate their relations with supporters.

Contacts with individuals working in different Soviet power structures ensured that the resistance movement had access to the data it required for general intelligence-related activities as well as the information needed for personal security. There are several examples in the archives of the resistance's contacts with such people and the information the Forest Brothers received from them. Furthermore, the Forest Brothers' awareness of the security agencies' ongoing activities points to the fact that they had sources in the agencies and elsewhere in the Soviet power structures. Despite the eventual dissolution of the organization, their intelligence activity within the Soviet power structures can be regarded as a strength of the activity.


The primary objective of the JORSS strategy—survival of the Forest Brothers as an armed force for the purpose of war between the Western countries and the Soviet Union—based on an understanding of the resistance's capabilities, can be considered a strength of the strategy. The strategy thus identified three desired outcomes. Achieving them would have made it possible to support the overthrow of Soviet rule in the Estonian SSR in the event of a larger war.27 The first outcome required to accomplish the strategic objective of organizational survival was to avoid direct contact with the security agencies and other armed structures. This excluded any attack on the Soviet armed forces or their bases. Armed actions were mostly aimed at replenishing the supply base. Attacks against collaborators or leaders at the local government level were not regulated, but they were avoided by and large as well.

Both spying on the security agencies to increase personal safety and adherence to rules of confidentiality certainly played an important part in the strategy, but these were not regulated in the strategy in detail. In order to mobilize the armed forces of the Forest Brothers in the event of war, the JORSS leadership, specifically the staff branches, had to make contact with different groups and individuals, and establish constant communication. For them to undertake concentrated armed warfare, military support from the Western countries was deemed crucial.

The second outcome set for the JORSS organization was to convince the population to join in the effort to overthrow Soviet rule, as well as hinder the Soviets' mobilization within the Estonian SSR in the event of a war. To attain that outcome, the strategy emphasized spreading political propaganda among the inhabitants, including the dissemination of international anti-Soviet news. Gathering information on the attitudes of the population likely served the same purpose.

The third outcome was to gather information on the situation in the Estonian SSR with regard to population, economy, armed units, and public order and relay it to the Estonian expatriates to help the Western countries prepare for war.

From 1947 on, the Forest Brothers largely performed the tasks set in the JORSS strategy. The research for this study has uncovered some facts that suggest that the scope of the organization, both geographically and with regard to the number of individuals and groups, was probably much greater than the 130 people identified in the thesis. Groups had stable contacts that would have made it possible to bring them together at short notice to support the military action of the Western countries. The author estimates that the high point of operational alertness was from summer 1948 to autumn 1949. Despite the enemy's superiority with regard to weapons and personnel, the Forest Brothers operated effectively during that period, both in staying hidden and in their attacks on state enterprises, institutions, and Soviet activists.

The Forest Brothers' success was aided by years of experience, familiarity with the local environment and remarkably good connections in the security agencies, which made it possible to avoid anti-resistance operations. The connections are illustrated by their awareness of enemy activities as well as relative freedom to move over distances of dozens of kilometers— during daytime, on roads, and by public transportation. The large relative importance of working for local residents as a way to replenish their supplies and win support is also remarkable.

In that period of just over a year, the Forest Brothers were also active in disseminating political information. They compiled informative written materials in a deliberate and coordinated manner, from foreign media channels and personal observations made in Estonia. The author estimates that the level of activity in the field of strategic intelligence, where the data requested by Saaliste was being gathered, was just as high. Given the objective of the strategy—to win over the population— these areas in particular should be highlighted in a positive sense, because the preparations were meant for war, not for the immediate overthrow of Soviet rule. Such activity was much better suited to the strategic goals and opportunities provided by the environment than direct armed conflicts with the Soviet authorities.

Strategic weaknesses, however, developed into catastrophic flaws in practice. As the security agencies realized the ineffectiveness of their counter-resistance strategy, despite having much greater numbers of personnel, the MGB began to focus increasingly on intelligence work. The experience its agents had gained in earlier years and from other regions of the Soviet Union certainly helped. In the author's opinion, the environment of the Estonian SSR was extremely fruitful for counter-resistance activities in 1949. The continually changing social order, the deteriorating economic situation, and the lack of personal security turned people's attention away from the ideology of national independence and toward personal survival. Individuals who had served in the German army or Home Guard, or who had once been Forest Brothers, were excellent targets for agency recruitment due to their compromising past and the ensuing fear of persecution. Such individuals, of course, most likely still harbored anti-Soviet views and were not a particular threat to the Forest Brothers. Nevertheless, the road to success for the secret police was paved by the aforementioned lack of specificity in the JORSS strategy, the organization's unresponsive leadership, and repeated violations of confidentiality in practice.

The systematic, patient, and ruthless activity of the Soviet security agencies— still despised in Estonia to this day—eradicated practically the entire resistance organization between autumn 1949 and spring 1950. Although some experienced leaders of the Forest Brothers survived, the steady losses meant yet more shattered hopes for the so-called rank-and-file members and supporters, and they began to focus more of their attention on personal welfare than on resistance.

The reasons behind the defeat of the Forest Brothers' movement, as this article shows, are different from the assumptions commonly held by historians today. The movement's failure was not directly caused by the loss of people's support, the March deportation of 1949 and the resulting increase in the number of those in hiding, nor the superiority of the security agencies with regard to personnel and weaponry. The main reason was that the group violated the rules of confidentiality to a remarkable extent, which gave the security forces excellent opportunities to plan exact strikes. Or to put it even more simply: the reason behind the eradication of the Forest Brothers lies in the betrayals committed by those who found themselves betrayed.

About the Author(s): Colonel Martin Herem, Estonian Defense Forces, currently serves as commander of the Estonian National Defence College.


1. This article is based on the author's master's thesis, "Analysis of the Strategy and Activity of the Forest Brothers: The Forest Brothers Organized by R. Saaliste between 1947 and 1950" (Estonian National Defence College, Tallinn, 2012).

2. During the Soviet occupation of Estonia from 1945 until the end of the 1980s, this topic was taboo for researchers and historians. Only in the last 20 years or so has new research come to light regarding this period of Estonia's history.

3. It should be noted here that this abbreviation was used among the Forest Brothers only for radio communications. They did not themselves use that acronym to identify their operations.

4. William Bender and Craig L. Johnson, "How Men Rebel: An Organisational Model for Insurgency" (master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, 1995):

5. See Herem, "Analysis of the Strategy and Activity of the Forest Brothers."

6. Decree of the Estonian SSR Minister of State Security, "Võitluse tugevdamiseks relvastatud natsionalistlike bandedega ENSV territooriumil ("For a more vigorous fight against armed nationalist gangs on the territory of the Estonian SSR"). ERAF.131SM.1.122: 44-53. These documents are from the Estonian State Archives. Among them are official Soviet orders, guidance, reports, summaries, etc. concerning the organization, and also the personal trial records of Forest Brothers. Most of these were top secret documents during the Soviet regime, but today they are available for research.

7. Such expressions were used in the Soviet security agencies.

8. This could be called the "criminalization of resistance." J. Burds, Sovetskaja agentura. Otsherki istorii SSSR v poslevojennõje godõ 1944–1948 (Moscow and New York: Sovremennaja istoria, 2006), 30.

9. Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung: On Protacted War (May 1938):

10. J.R. Misiunas, R. Taagepera, Balti riigid: Sõlteaastad 1940-1990 (Tallinn: Koolibri, 1997), 85–86.

11. 11 P. Kuusk, Nõukogude võimu lahingud Eesti vastupanuliikumisega. anditismivastase Võitluse Osakond aastatel 1944–1947 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2007).

12. T. Tannberg, "Relvastatud vastupanuliikumine Eestis aastatel 1944-1953 julgeolekuorganite statistikapeeglis," Tuna, no. 1 (1999), 24-30.

13. According to my research on this subject, it appears that most of those who were murdered were previously warned to cease their collaboration. This warning might take the form of a beating. If the targeted individuals continued to help the Soviets, they were killed. Collaboration with the regime at some levels, however, was ineluctable—somebody had to organize local life, which meant accepting an appointment from the occupation authorities. This in itself was not a reason to be killed. Murder was likely only if a person took actions that harmed locals or betrayed the Forest Brothers. For example, the director of a local collective farm or chairman of the local government was usually not attacked, despite working for the regime. But if he helped deport people in 1949, or collected information about locals whose family members were in the forest, he risked being killed.

14. Tannberg, "Relvastatud vastupanuliikumine Eestis aastatel 1944- 1953:" 24-30.

15. For example, the Basque ETA separatists have carried out approximately 3000 attacks that killed 829 people over a 40-year period. See Spain's Ministry of the Interior, "Ultimas victimas mortales de ETA: Cuadros estadisticos:" http://www.interior.gob. es/prentsa-3/balantzeak-21/ultimas-victimas-mortales-de-etacuadros- estadisticos-630?set_locale=es

16. In this regard, it is likely that they had a structure with a clear hierarchy and chain of command in mind, rather than a loosely affiliated organization as defined in this study.

17. V. Oras, ERAF.129SM.1.23845: 215–218; ERAF.130SM.1.9329,vol. 6: 60.

18. V.N. Bogdanov, S.P. Osabtšev, and V.V. Terehov, "Armija i vnutrennõje voiska v protivapovstantšeskoi i protivopartizanskoi borbe. Mirovoi opõt i sovremennost," Glavnoe komandovanije vnutrennõh voisk MVD, Rossii, Institut vojennoi istorii, Ministerstva oboronõ Rossiskoi Federatsii, Moscow, 1997: 48.

19. A.F. Lykke, Jr., "Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy," in Joseph R. Cerami and James F. Holcomb, Jr., eds., U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, U.S. Army War College, 1995:

20. In statements, V. Oras mentioned the intention to receive radiograms by means of an ordinary radio. ERAF.130SM.1.9329, vol. 6: 74.

21. Richard Saaliste was reportedly in contact with the captain and major in charge of the other two 1/3 staffs. In summer 1949 he allegedly met with Major Lilleleht, who may have been the major in question.

22. Bogdanov, et al., "Armija i vnutrennõje voiska:" 52.

23. "Al-Qaeda Organizational Structure," Global Security:

24. See Herem, "Analysis of the Strategy and Activity of the Forest Brothers," Appendix 3, "Forest Brothers in the JORSS organization."

25. Note that these 130 people were only those I found to be in communication with a staff branch and available to be mobilized at the outbreak of war. At this time, however, as noted earlier, there were thousands of rebels hiding in the forests. A larger study would reveal a much more extended network than what my research uncovered.

26. From July 1949 to April 1950, approximately 75% of those 130 key people in the organization were eliminated. Every month somebody was taken, and every time it happened there was a secret service recruit behind it.

27. The fact that this war never came, and that the Forest Brothers were thus doomed to failure no matter how well they adhered to the JORSS strategy, has to be seen in the context of the time. It was impossible for the anti-Soviet resistance to overthrow their oppressors without outside help, but it was equally impossible for them to give up and simply surrender. Both in the Soviet Union and across Europe, talk was of a coming invasion by the Western allies. The hopes of those living under Soviet occupation were particularly high after the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949. Thus the Forest Brothers' only course of action, even if they began to feel betrayed, was to survive as long as possible in the belief that war was imminent.

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