Estonia’s Forest Brothers in 1941: Goals, Capabilities, and Outcomes

By: Captain Olavi Punga, Estonian Army

Immediately after the Soviet Union's occupation and annexation of Estonia in June 1940, Estonians commenced various types of resistance, both passive and open, against this foreign power. In the context of the conventional warfare that prevailed in the 20th century, the resistance that arose in Estonia, culminating in the summer of 1941 as the German invasion of the Soviet Union commenced, was viewed by Soviet historians as an inseparable part of World War II (or, as it was officially known in the Soviet Union, the Great Patriotic War). Estonians, in contrast, referred to the anti-Soviet resistance in 1941 as the Summer War and called the participants the Forest Brothers.

The Soviet Union never officially recognized the Summer War as such for two reasons. First, in the Soviet theory of warfare, the theoretical premises for the type of irregular warfare carried out by the Forest Brothers had been dismissed.1 Second, the Soviet political system cultivated the idea that Estonia had voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940. The Estonian refugees who were exiled from their homeland during and after World War II took the memory of the Summer War with them, but later research on this topic has been fairly limited. That is why the Summer War has so far been a subject of research primarily for Estonian historians, who have published their works in Estonian. The term Forest Brothers, commonly used in Estonian literature, has been overshadowed in Soviet or Soviet-biased literature by the use of more general terms such as guerrilla or partisan.

The year of the first Soviet occupation of Estonia caused a small but gradually increasing number of Estonians throughout the country to withdraw from society and go into hiding. They were soon referred to as the Forest Brothers. For several days beginning on 14 June 1941, the Peoples' Commissariat for Internal Affairs (or Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, abbreviated NKVD) deported thousands of people thought to be "anti-Soviet elements" from Estonia.2 More Estonians reacted by becoming fugitives, hiding in the forests and marshes to escape any subsequent deportations.3

The Influence of the Forest Brothers on the Conduct of War

The activities of the Forest Brothers against the Soviet government and its representatives varied greatly, from pranks to well-planned military actions directed against local collaborators and Red Army units. The intensity of the Forest Brothers' activities varied over time, depending largely on the local situation and reflecting the influence of the larger German–Soviet conflict.

The idea of combat activities without a clearly defined front was unknown to the Red Army at the time. Both its leadership and rank and file were unprepared for such warfare, and the Forest Brothers' irregular tactics initially caused confusion and panic in the Red Army. It is possible that activities conducted by the local Forest Brothers were the main reason that the headquarters of the Soviet Eighth Army, which had retreated to Estonia following the initial German attack of Operation Barbarossa, was forced to leave the Suure-Kambja area in Tartumaa on 6 July 1941. The headquarters was relocated to the north, four kilometers from Põltsamaa, which had been assaulted by the local Forest Brothers two days earlier. On the same day, Lieutenant General F. Ivanov ordered the Soviet 11th Rifle Division to "most ruthlessly clear the Army's rear area of bandit and diversion groups."4 Despite the large number of Soviet units that were engaged in these missions against the Forest Brothers, however, Red Army soldiers who fled to the rear later explained that they abandoned their positions because they feared being surrounded, even though the German forces were still far away.

It is important to understand the position of the Estonians as Germany began its invasion of the USSR. After a year of "Sovietization" and terror, Estonian civil society was virtually destroyed. The German invasion gave people hope for relief from Soviet terror and for the restoration of Estonian statehood. But this did not mean the Forest Brothers gave unconditional support to the German forces. Rather, the Forest Brothers viewed the Wehrmacht as a temporary ally in their mutual fight against the Soviet Union.

The Soviet forces that either were stationed in or had retreated to Estonia, as well as the local "red" activists, went through a very intense period of combat from 4–12 July 1941, due to the various resistance operations conducted by the Forest Brothers. During this period, as panicked Communist activists and refugees fled before the oncoming German forces, Pärnu, Valga, Võru, Sakala, and Tartumaa counties came under the Forest Brothers' partial or complete control, even before the advancing German forces reached these areas.5 North of the Pärnu–Emajõe line, numerous small and large battles took place between the Forest Brothers and various Soviet military units. In the middle of July 1941, an operational pause descended on the war in Estonia, a pause that changed the character of the Summer War. An increase in the number of Soviet units fighting against them, as well as more efficient counterinsurgency operations, temporarily stalled the Forest Brothers' hitherto extremely active armed resistance. The Forest Brothers in the northern parts of Sakala and Tartumaa counties, located in the Soviet close rear, suffered heavy losses, caused mostly by NKVD operational units and so-called destruction battalions, and Red Army battalions that had been withdrawn from Latvia and southern Estonia.

Once the Soviet units had recovered from their retreat and the initial confusion caused by the Forest Brothers' attacks, the new commander of the Eighth Army and the newly appointed rear guard commander were able to reestablish command and control over their units. At the same time, the Red Baltic Fleet established contact with the Eighth Army. Subsequently, most Soviet forces in Estonia managed to establish communications and improve cooperation and attempted to seize the initiative in their counterinsurgency operations. The rear guard forces were directed to support the missions assigned to the Army units. In addition, agent networks were established with the purpose of gathering information about the locations of the Forest Brothers' units, and plans to search and locate insurgents in specific areas were put into action. The number of patrols and guard posts was increased to protect vital communication assets, while border guard detachments, railroad security units, operational units, and the destruction battalions, all under the command of the NKVD, assumed concrete areas of responsibility.6

The countermeasures undertaken by the Soviet forces increased the number of armed contacts with the resistance fighters, but these actions had no significant influence on the numbers or fighting will of the Forest Brothers. The Forest Brothers in Harjumaa and Järvamaa counties, caught by a larger operation of the Soviet rear guard forces that was intended to destroy a reconnaissance group sent in from Finland, were affected more than the others. In general, the Soviet rear guard units were successful in a limited number of operations in which one or more of the following was true:

  • the exact location of the Forest Brothers was known from intelligence or agent network information;
  • military tracking dogs were used in searches;
  • the Forest Brothers did not cover their tracks sufficiently; and
  • the Soviets gained the cooperation of local civilians through various methods, including torture.

The Goals of the Forest Brothers

The people who took refuge in the forests were by no means adventurers or "Wild West" outlaws. Nor were they like the ideological heroes of Soviet propaganda films. They were common folk, and probably only a very small fraction of them had a full understanding of the war raging in their country. A person did not become a Forest Brother based on orders or political guidance; it was simply his (or sometimes her) own choice. Estonians' options were limited to enduring the oppression of the new system, moving or being moved to Russia under Soviet authority, or hiding in Estonia as a Forest Brother.

There were different reasons for supporting or living as a Forest Brother, but the most important reason was a desire to avoid the heavy hand of the occupying power and thus survive. By isolating themselves from general society, it was possible for the Forest Brothers to avoid the direct oppression of the Soviets, but they had no guarantees for their continued survival. They considered the possession of firearms to be their only solid assurance. A lack of weapons was the impetus for the initial actions carried out by the Forest Brothers. They used all possible means to arm themselves, such as purchasing guns from hunters, exchanging weapons for vodka with the militsia (Soviet police force), stealing a rifle or pistol from a sleeping soldier, as well as attacking individual soldiers. Once armed, the Forest Brothers were ready to defend themselves and their loved ones, as well as their property. The majority of activities conducted by the Forest Brothers served the sole purpose of saving lives and private property. Many people who joined the Forest Brothers, however, were motivated by their desire to resist the enemy—not just the Red Army but all representatives of the occupation regime. In general, the Forest Brothers fought with these two primary purposes: to defend themselves and to resist the Soviet occupiers. For these small, scattered guerilla units, trying for a larger goal such as destroying the occupying forces would have been suicidal.

Military Capabilities

It is very difficult to give even a general overview of the Forest Brothers' military capabilities. The main factor that determined which skills would be developed was the presence of personnel with relevant military experience and the capability to lead. Among the Forest Brothers, however, nobody had any special training in the conduct of war in the enemy's rear, or in the environment of guerrilla warfare. Former members of the military, border guards, and Kaitseliit (the militia-based Estonian Defense League, founded in 1918 to protect Estonian independence) were the best prepared.

The Forest Brothers lacked a higher command element and a larger structure (on the county or national level). This lack had both positive and negative effects for them. For example, when any member of the Forest Brothers was captured, the enemy couldn't extract the necessary information, even by torture, that would lead to the capture or destruction of others. On the negative side, however, the Forest Brothers were unable to bring together a sufficient level of manpower and firepower to take over any significant population centers, to disrupt the activities of the destruction battalions, or undertake other such large-scale operations. This weakness was exacerbated by the Forest Brothers' poor armaments and minimal means of transportation, as well as a lack of access to timely information.

Nevertheless, the Forest Brothers' lack of organization, varying unit sizes, and uneven levels of armament meant that the Red Army rarely knew the capability of the unit it was facing. Consequently, the Soviets rarely were able to assemble the appropriate forces to counter the Forest Brothers' units.

The source materials describing the Forest Brothers' activities include several ambiguous terms describing the size of their formations: group, band, and camp. While these are all common appellations, they are vague in terms of indicating actual personnel strength, firepower, command and control structure, and combat capabilities. Based on incomplete data, the total number of Forest Brothers has been estimated at around 12,000. Compared with national armies at that time, this would have been roughly equivalent to the size of an infantry division, but the Forest Brothers were scattered in small groups across the countryside. Considering the partial or sometimes complete lack of command and control, armaments, training, and supporting structures, the overall combat capabilities of the Forest Brothers could not have been very high. But this is only in the context of conventional warfare. The simple lack of reliable, good-quality weapons and adequate ammunition were the most common reasons for the Forest Brothers' failures in battles. The main strengths of the Forest Brothers were their loose organization, their ability to blend into the environment, and the rest of Estonian society's overall positive attitude towards them.

As a rule, guerrilla tactics do not differ greatly from those of conventional small military units. The Forest Brothers implemented some tactics that were more or less adapted from the Estonian Defense Forces' doctrine. The decentralized nature of the Forest Brothers' units and the loose connections between key personnel meant that when a unit of Forest Brothers faced an armed confrontation, it would be able to disperse without significant casualties, or to escape encirclement by breaking into smaller groups. The unit later reassembled elsewhere or simply moved to another area. The Forest Brothers themselves referred to this technique as evaporation tactics: "to disappear from a battle they had started at the right moment in order to disrupt the enemy by opening fire from another direction."7 This tactic underlay the sustainability of the camp or group-centered structure of the Forest Brothers.

Outcomes of the Forest Brothers' Activities

One of the most significant outcomes of the Forest Brothers' resistance was the disruption of Red Army movements and government communications: road blocks, ambushes, and blown-up bridges made railways and highways impassable, while phone lines were cut to slow or prevent the transmission of orders and information. These attacks not only affected the Red Army's command and control capabilities, but also limited the activities of the local Soviet-controlled governing bodies.

Initially, the goal of the Forest Brothers in cutting phone lines was to disrupt the activities of local officials. Later, when the repair crews were assigned armed escorts, the disruptions were mostly used to acquire weapons from these escorts. Before 1941, the communication lines of the Soviet Baltic Special Military District units in Estonia were based on the local phone lines, and even when the war commenced in June 1941, radio communication was almost never used. For this reason, operations by the Forest Brothers to destroy phone lines sometimes caused a complete communications blackout in several areas, and forced the Soviet units to deploy significant forces to secure their communication lines. The attacks disrupted not only communications between the Northwestern Front and the Eighth Army headquarters, but also command and control over the Eighth Army and Red Baltic Fleet fighting units.

In another bid to acquire weapons, the Forest Brothers also attacked various Red Army air surveillance posts, successfully in most cases. These attacks resulted in serious disruptions and gaps in the early warning system of the Tallinn air defense network.

On the level of their individual lives, the Forest Brothers were largely successful. Out of more than 12,000 Forest Brothers, only 561 have been confirmed as killed. This means that at least 11,439 Forest Brothers survived and escaped the regime's oppressions in 1941.8 What is even more important is that while in hiding they felt safe from the reach of the Soviet terror. On a group level, the Forest Brothers minimized the reach and results of several Sovietorganized repression campaigns. For example, they were able to significantly impede the mobilization of conscripts and reservists, forced evacuations, the use of common people in building defensive positions, and requisitions of farm animals and agricultural products.

There have been several statements concerning the use of scorched earth tactics by the Red Army in Estonia in 1941. Compared to the destruction that occurred in Russia during the Soviets' retreat from the advancing German army, such claims don't apply in Estonia's case. When Stalin gave the order over the radio to utilize scorched earth tactics across the Soviet Union, the main idea was to destroy anything and everything that could aid the enemy. In Estonia, much was destroyed, but not everything. This outcome raises some questions. First, why were Stalin's orders not fully obeyed in Estonia? Second, what or who may have interfered with the execution orders? Third, who or what could have prevented the Red Army throughout Estonia from obeying Stalin's orders? There were too few Estonian Communists, and they lacked any authority or power over the Red Army to prevent it from acting on those orders. The advancing German units moved quite fast, but even they could not reach everywhere fast enough to prevent destruction. The evidence points to the Forest Brothers, who guarded their own and their neighbors' households and attempted to prevent the retreating Red Army units from wreaking havoc.

Epilogue: German Occupation

The more active units of the Estonian resistance tried to continue their fight for the complete liberation of their homeland, even after the Wehrmacht had reached the territory already liberated from Soviet control by the Forest Brothers. Along the Pärnu–Emajõe front, former Forest Brothers participated in direct combat against the Red Army until the German reserves arrived. After that, most of the self-formed Forest Brothers' units were simply disbanded by the Germans, as only Germans were allowed to fight under arms on the front. Only in a few cases were former Forest Brothers permitted to participate in combat as a unit, usually to counter intensified resistance put up by the Red Army or to reinforce insufficient German forces in a particular sector.

A handful of less active Forest Brothers continued to live in the forest for days after the front had passed through, before they were informed of the change of power from Soviet to German hands. Most Forest Brothers gradually followed the front, leaving the forests and going home. After the reoccupation of Estonia by the Red Army in 1944, many of those Forest Brothers who had engaged in resistance against the Soviet power in 1941 were persecuted, and many, with their families, were exiled to Siberia.

Closing Remarks

It was common in the Soviet Union to characterize the Estonian Forest Brothers in the context of World War II as supporters of Germany. The main logic behind this (and in some instances, the historical interpretation of Russian historians today) was simple: Because the Forest Brothers were the opponents of the Soviet regime, they were supporters of Germany. This logic was also supported by descriptions of the Forest Brothers' activities recorded during the war.9 However, as Estonian historians repeatedly highlight, there are important flaws in this train of thought. Estonians did not support Germans or the official fascist ideology of Germany. Instead, they saw the Germans as liberators from the Soviet occupation and its oppressions, and thus as their allies against the Soviet Union.

Consequently, the topic of the Forest Brothers has been a favorite subject in Soviet propaganda from World War II to recent times. Connecting the Estonian Forest Brothers to one of the warring parties in World War II enabled Soviet propagandists to apply derogatory labels, such as traitors of the fatherland, bandits, or criminals, in order to smear the Forest Brothers' name. In modern days, the term terrorists has also been added. This is just one example of how the history of the Soviet occupation has been distorted for the sake of propaganda. The authors and supporters of such statements demonstrate a poor knowledge of history and of military operations.

Following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the first War of Chechnya, in 1997 the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Interior Forces Headquarters conducted a joint large-scale study on small wars. In one of its findings, the study highlighted the need for small war theory to be reinstated in the Russian military's formal "science of war." This step gives us hope that perhaps, one day, the Forest Brothers will be viewed as equal to guerrillas and partisans, and the Summer War will be on equal footing with other small wars. Such a change is not needed to enhance the dignity of those who participated or were killed; it would, however, allow historians to draw more fair and objective conclusions based on the theory of unconventional warfare.

About the Author(s): Captain Olavi Punga is a researcher in the Estonian National Defense College's Applied Research Centre.


NOTES:

1. The status of small war theory was not reinstated in Russian military doctrine until 1997.

2. For the most comprehensive and succinct overview, see Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2010), 130–131.

3. The Forest Brothers' activity from 1940 to 1941 can be divided into three periods.

21 June 1940–14 June 1941. This was the "hiding" period, during which those who had gone into the forests lay low. Not many people actually went into hiding at this time. For a law-abiding citizen, the thought of leaving one's home and living like a hunted beast was an almost insurmountable psychological obstacle. In the beginning of June 1941 there were a few outlaw individuals or small groups in the Estonian forests, but they had no central organization or information network at the time. This year-long period is characterized by an almost complete lack of activity.

14–22 June 1941. This was the "waiting" or "confusion" period, and coincides with the beginning of the war on the Eastern front. Everything changed overnight after 14 June, when more than 10,000 Estonians—including entire families—were deported from their homes by the Soviets. The sudden deportations terrorized Estonian society and were immediately followed by a mass flight of citizens from their homes. This eight-day period saw:

22 June–30 August 1941. Third was the "active attacks" period. This period saw the end of active guerrilla combat on the mainland, although fighting continued on the Estonian islands.

4. ERA R–358-1-17, l 77; Eesti rahvas Nõukogude Liidu Suures Isamaasõjas 1941–1945. Dokumente ja materjale. Tallinn 1975, dok. nr 42: "Kaitse organiseerimisest Pärnu-Viljandi-Tartu joonel. 8. armee lahingukäsk. 6. juuli 1941."

5. Different levels of the Soviet power structure were struck by several panic waves in early July 1941. Caused primarily by command and leadership issues, the ensuing chaos made the situation in Estonia even more complicated. The first wave involved mostly local-level Communist activists, between 3–6 July. The masses of retreating units and refugees from Latvia caused tremendous disruption, which was further aggravated by the evacuation of the local Communist functionaries and their families. At the same time, the Forest Brothers became active as well, driven by the general lack of command and leadership, and the distribution of arms to the local Executive Committees. They carried out several serious attacks against Soviet lines of communication and some towns where Communists were living. The confusion caused by the first wave was dying down when a clearly distinguishable second wave of panic arose. The Forest Brothers' activities in the southern part of Pärnumaa County enabled German forces to quickly seize control of Pärnu on 8 July. This caused a serious upheaval among almost all Soviet command and armed forces in Estonia. The Baltic Fleet's War Council and its headquarters escaped to their ships, and the most critical fighting units were evacuated to Kronstadt. Consequently, the capabilities of the fleet in the area of operations was significantly reduced. The government of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic tried to escape to Russia via Narva. The ESSR War Commissar and his subordinates also fled Estonia. The panic wound down by 14 July.

6. The NKVD assigned the following areas of responsibility to units charged with the destruction of the Forest Brothers: - The 6th Border Guard detachment: the territory from Estonia's northern coastline up to 22 km inland; - The 109th Regiment of the 2nd Division of the Railway Guard troops: 7 km–wide zones along the main railroads in cooperation with the respective destruction battalions in the area; - The commander of the NKVD Operational Group of destruction battalions: the remaining Estonian territory, with military objectives of strategic importance being the first priority.

7. Eesti rahva kannatuste aasta, lk. 336. Tallinn, 1995.

8. To be clear, while they may have escaped persecution or death in 1941, this does not mean that all of them were able to escape when the Soviets came back in 1944. See LTC Martin Herem's article, "The Strategy and Activity of the Forest Brothers: 1947–1950," in this issue of CTX.

9. The main sources for research on the Forest Brothers movement are the descriptions of activities and interrogation protocols from the two occupations: Soviet and German. The main differences, but also the main similarities, are in the presentation of the Forest Brothers' activities based on a certain ideology and from a specific viewpoint. During the German occupation, the Forest Brothers were seen in a positive manner, influenced by the prevailing anti-Soviet ideology. The sources recorded during the Soviet occupations showed the Forest Brothers, or people connected to them, as a priori guilty and thus subject to condemnation, regardless of their real activities.

  • the emergence of larger resistance groups and the first forest camps;
  • the organization of armed resistance; and - the beginnings of active resistance by a few groups immediately after the deportations began.
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