Russians in the Service of the Third Reich – Bronislav Kaminski’s RONA
The brutal pacification of the Warsaw Uprising and the residents of Warsaw in 1944 brings to mind not only the cruelty of the Germans, but also the savagery of the infamous auxiliary units in German service. Among these soldiers, collectively referred to by the residents of Warsaw as “Kalmyks”, “Ukrainians” or “Vlasovtsy soldiers”, one unit gained particular infamy: the RONA Brigade (Russkaja Oswoboditjelnaja Narodnaja Armja, Russian National Liberation Army), whose soldiers perpetrated the massacre of the residents of Ochota in August 1944. We must keep in mind, however, that at the time other large collaborationist forces were also fighting arm in arm with the Germans.
Russian Collaborationist Forces
From the very first weeks of the war against the Soviet Union, the Germans used numerous Red Army POWs as auxiliary troops. When the Germans occupied the western territories of the Soviet Union, many of these prisoners formed military and police units of varying size which were used by the Germans in rear-echelon areas to fight Soviet partisans and terrorize the civilian populace. It is worth noting here that the Wehrmacht, police and SS received the support of men from a medley of ethnic backgrounds – Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusian, citizens of the Baltic states (Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians), and also Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Cossacks, and Tatars.
The troops of General Andrey Vlasov were the largest of the collaborationist forces. Vlasov had previously served in the Red Army at various levels of command. In the summer of 1942 he was taken prisoner by the Germans and soon embarked on a path of collaboration, announcing his readiness to take up arms against Stalin and establishing – with German help – the Russian Liberation Army (ROA). Hitler did not fully trust these formations. Due to Vlasov’s political activity among the Russians, Hitler had him put under house arrest and ordered that all Eastern forces be brought under stricter German control. It was only in the spring of 1944 that Vlasov managed to form a larger military force within the so-called Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia. At the time, however, the term Vlasovtsy was becoming widely used to refer to various Eastern forces in the pay of the Germans. These units gained notoriety for atrocities in Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and later also in Poland.
The Kaminski Brigade
In the summer of 1944, however, the so-called Kaminski Brigade was still the largest and best organized Russian collaborationist unit. The origins of this formation go back to the fall of 1941, when the Germans acquiesced to the establishment of a local administration and a small auxiliary militia force in the town of Lokot, situated near Bryansk (which had just been occupied by the Nazis). The newly created authorities were headed by a teacher, Konstantin Voskoboinik, while a former distillery manager, Bronislav Kaminski, acted as his deputy. With the consent of the German military, the numerical strength of the militia grew over time. New forces were formed in various towns of the Lokot Autonomy (as the region came to be called), each up to 50 or so men strong. The militia was tasked with fighting Soviet partisans and patrolling both transport routes and forests. They also protected peasants working in the fields. Local volunteers swelled the ranks of the militia – not only civilians, but also former Soviet Army soldiers, and even partisans.
In January 1942, Voskoboinik was killed by Soviet guerrillas and Kaminski assumed his post. He began to build up his forces, which eventually numbered over 1,000 men. Kaminski’s militia was divided into three battalions. They covered the area of the Lokot Autonomy and continued to fight off the Soviet partisans.
Towards the end of April 1942, the Germans began a military reorganization of the militia. Kaminski’s men received higher quality arms, equipment and uniforms. In May, he ordered a mobilization in order to tap additional manpower. The Germans promoted Kaminski to the rank of brigadier general, and his militia began to participate in large anti-partisan operations. Moreover, its soldiers assisted Germans as interpreters or guides in the forests of the Bryansk Oblast. By the autumn of 1942, terrorizing the local populace, Kaminski carried out another conscription campaign. At the beginning of 1943, his troops numbered almost 10,000 local Russians. The unit’s official name was the “Russian National Liberation Army”, but it was commonly referred to as the “Kaminski Brigade”. The brigade continued to grow, and by the middle of 1943 it comprised some 12,000 men, more than 20 armored vehicles, and a sizeable number of trucks and motorcycles.
Apart from fighting the Soviet partisan movement in the forests of Oryol and Bryansk Oblasts, the brigade’s tasks included maintaining order, protecting the harvest, and escorting trains and transport columns. The Germans held the Kaminski Brigade in high regard, as its presence hindered the actions of Soviet guerrillas, and indeed some deserters from the partisan forces even joined the ranks of the Brigade. Therefore, the Germans continued to supply the unit with arms. In effect it acquired a military character, although its Russian members, commanded by former officers of the Red Army, lacked discipline. Moreover, RONA soldiers were unfavorably disposed to being made subordinate directly to the Germans. In return for their services, they received regular pay and steadily better equipment. In May 1943 a new uniform pattern was introduced, complete with an arm badge: a shield with a smaller, red-rimmed white shield featuring St. George’s Cross below the Russian acronym, POHA, sewn onto it.
In the summer of 1943, when the Eastern front started to move westwards, the Brigade was gradually withdrawn, although its forces took part in combat with the Red Army. On 29 July Kaminski ordered his unit and the citizens of the Lokot Autonomy to march to Belarus; the evacuation began in August. The majority of soldiers and civilians obeyed the order, although some were reluctant. Many soldiers did not want to leave their homeland and were prepared to fight the Bolsheviks. Desertions followed, and as anti-German sentiment grew, some companies rose up in open rebellion; Kaminski, however, did not hesitate to use the death penalty to quash all dissent. At the time, the fighting with the Soviet partisans grew in intensity, as all attempts on the part of the guerrillas to induce Kaminski to come to their side proved unsuccessful. After many months of warfare, the Brigade – held in increasingly greater esteem by the Germans – was gradually withdrawn to Polish territories. Already in the area of Grodno, RONA encountered a new enemy: the Home Army.
The rapid advance of the Red Army forced the Brigade to relocate westwards. By the end of July 1944, it had retreated as far back as Częstochowa. The Germans had planned for the unit to fight Polish partisans, but it soon began to rob the local populace. Towards the end of July, the Kaminski Brigade was made subordinate to the SS.
Atrocities Committed by RONA in Warsaw
The Warsaw Uprising was soon to mark a new stage in RONA’s violent history. Fierce fighting in the capital of Poland forced the Germans to dispatch relief troops to Warsaw at short notice. And although we should add that other “Eastern” formations also took part in the pacification of the city, none committed atrocities on so gargantuan a scale. The decision to use RONA, which had already gained some fighting experience in rear-echelon areas, was made by Heinrich Himmler, Head of the SS. The battle group that was actually deployed comprised 1,700 men: 300–400 volunteers from each regiment of the Brigade, all of them unmarried and many with criminal pasts.
This undisciplined, ruthless and demoralized formation was tasked with the pacification of the city. On 4 August 1944, one of its columns entered Ochota from the direction of Okęcie. Kaminski and his staff took up headquarters in the building of the Free Polish University (now Banacha Street 2). His subordinates were to launch an operation against the insurgents only the following day, but soon after their arrival the soldiers got drunk on vodka and started ransacking their immediate vicinity (Opaczewska Street, Banacha Street, Krakowska Avenue) in an orgy of murder and rape. People were thrown out of their houses, which were subsequently set on fire. Groups of drunken soldiers beat and shot civilians wherever they found them – in flats, basements, streets and allotments, also at Pole Mokotowskie. However, the RONA battle group was not able to murder all the residents of the district. Already on 5 August, hundreds – and later thousands – of people were marched to the so-called Zieleniak, a market place at the junction of Grójecka and Opaczewska streets. In the course of the next hours and then days, the Zieleniak was transformed into a transit camp for the pacified populace, filling to the brim with terrorized Varsovians. Conditions were deplorable – they had no shelter from the elements, no water or food, and neither medical assistance nor sanitary facilities, while guard duties were performed by drunken RONA soldiers. The latter, having taken up headquarters in the administrative building of the market place, perpetrated murders, abducted and raped women, and shot at the detainees “for fun”. The bodies of those who died or were killed would be arranged, among others, in piles by the wall of the market place.
In the following days the RONA detachment continued to bludgeon its way forward along Grójecka and neighboring streets in the direction of Zawiszy Square, leaving behind a trail of death and devastation. Having reached the vicinity of Wawelska and Kaliska streets and Narutowicza Square, the battle group suffered its first tangible losses after engaging with insurgents holed up at two points of resistance: at Wawelska Street and Kaliska Street. The poorly armed Poles manning these redoubts withstood the assaults of the Germans and their Russian auxiliaries until 11 August.In the vicinity of Banacha Street, undisciplined RONA soldiers exchanged fire with the Germans, while at Narutowicza Square they accidentally came under German fire.
Despite mounting losses, brought about in no small measure by the chaotic, indeed suicidal nature of their advance, the detachment continued to move forward, inspiring dread among Varsovians and arousing indignation on the part of the Germans, for whom RONA was of little – if any – military use. The bestiality of the Russians rekindled the insurgents’ fighting spirit reinforced their will to resist. The Germans were also displeased with Kaminski’s increasing insubordination – he refused to submit to the authority of local German commanders and would frequently pillage of his own accord.
By mid-August, depleted groups of RONA soldiers reached the area of Starynkiewicza Square, Żelazna Street and Srebrna Street. The route of their week-long march through Ochota was marked with the sites of dozens of brutal murders, some committed in hospitals (for example in the Radium Institute at Wawelska Street, where both the wounded and the personnel were killed). In total, some 10,000 residents of Ochota had perished. The macabre exploits of the RONA battle group have come to be known as the Ochota Massacre.
The Downfall of the Formation
Having pacified the district, the RONA soldiers were moved by the Germans – appalled and disgusted by their contribution – to the Kampinos Forest. At the same time, Kaminski was recalled from Warsaw. His rapacity and unwillingness to fight exasperated the Germans; finally, he was arrested on charges of insubordination and executed by firing squad on 29 August in Łódź. His soldiers were informed that their commander had been killed in an ambush set up by Polish partisans.
The RONA units quartered in the village of Truskaw (having first robbed and evicted its residents). They were tasked with protecting the area from the Home Army, and specifically against the “Kampinos” grouping of Major Alfons Kwiatkowski, pseudonym “Okoń”, which operated in the Kampinos Forest at the time. The partisan command decided to attack the RONA forces. The Polish assault was carried out on the night of 2/3 September 1944 and ended in a comprehensive victory. The enemy was taken totally by surprise, losing almost 400 soldiers killed and wounded. In all, during one month of operations in the Warsaw area RONA lost more than 800 soldiers.
Following the death of Kaminski, Vlasov managed to gain German consent to the formation of the so-called Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia, and also Russian armed forces, to which the surviving soldiers from the RONA Brigade were transferred. At the beginning of 1945 one division reached combat readiness. Almost 20,000 Russians and Belarusians were conscripted, but as the War was drawing to a close, the 1st Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia was the only formation that ever went into battle. Its combat trail led through Kostrzyn nad Odrą and Budziszyn, where it clashed with the Red Army. At the end of April the Vlasovtsy soldiers reached Czech territory, where in the first days of May they assisted the anti-German uprising in Prague. They then tried to surrender to the Americans, unaware of the tragic fate that awaited them: the Western Allies handed them over to the Soviets, and in effect they faced either death or deportation to the GULAG. Vlasov himself also ended up in the hands of the Soviets. He was hanged in Moscow on 1 August 1946.
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Sławomir Kosim – a historian and graduate of the University of Warsaw, he currently works at the Royal Castle and cooperates closely with the Warsaw Rising Museum. He has authored many historical works, which were published by the Bellona Publishing House, and in the “Focus Historia” and “Uważam Rze” journals.