Gates of Leningrad:
The NKVD’s Armor
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs - the NKVD - came into existence on 10 July 1934, bringing together the Soviet Union’s internal security forces under one directorate answerable directly to Josef Stalin. The new organization included the secret police, formerly known as the OGPU, border guards and railway and factory protection troops.
The NKVD also fielded conventional troops, for use against organized “banditry” (usually meaning uprisings against the Soviet state). After the annexation of the Baltic States, eastern Poland and Bessarabia in 1940, NKVD regular troops were used to arrest potential dissidents, and men from these formations carried out the massacre of Polish military officers at Katyn. Formally, they were considered part of the border guards until February 1941, when the NKVD added a separate command for its own private army.
The centerpiece of this small army had been part of the various secret police umbrella organizations since 1918. By June 1941 the Dzerzhinsky Special Purpose Motorized Rifle Division included three motorized rifle regiments, a cavalry regiment, a rifle battalion and a tank regiment of two battalions. Other NKVD formations included three more motorized rifle divisions (the 21st stationed in Leningrad, the 22nd in Riga and the 23rd in Kiev), the 76th motorized rifle brigade at Tblisi, four separate motorized rifle regiments, two rifle regiments, two cavalry regiments, three independent rifle battalions and an independent rifle company.
NKVD border guards and their dog. He is a bad dog.
Each of the separate motorized rifle regiments included a tank company; each of the motorized rifle divisions on paper should have had a tank battalion though at least one division (the 21st) kept the older organization with each regiment having its own tank company. To supply those formations with crews, the NKVD maintained two armored training battalions.
The NKVD operated tanks from its inception, with 500 T27 tankettes included in its initial formation in 1934 - about one-fifth of the total production run. The T27 was a tiny two-man vehicle, barely armored against small-arms fire, and so small that very short crewmen had to be recruited to operate it. The NKVD put them to use right away in the Caucasus against Muslim dissidents.
In July 1937, the Dzerzhinsky Division formed a special tank battalion of its most politically reliable crewmen and dispatched them to Chinese Xinjiang, as part of a special secret expeditionary force supporting the pro-Soviet warlord Sheng Shicai against pro-Kuomintang Uighur forces. The Dzerzhinsky battalion received new BT-7 fast tanks and T38 light tanks on arrival in Central Asia, and took them into Chinese territory. There Soviets decisively defeated the Uighurs and occupied all of Xinjiang - the Chinese had no anti-tank weapons and no experience of fighting against tanks. The secret operation was wildly successful, but during its course the Japanese attacked China and the Soviet Union reversed its political course to support the Kuomintang against the Japanese.
This BT-7 has met a bad end in Latvia.
In 1938 the NKVD tank battalions began to take delivery of the BT-7 fast tank. By 1940, NKVD tank units had received 329 BT-7 tanks including the standard BT-7 model, the improved BT-7M and the BT-7A “artillery” tank with a short-barreled 76.2mm gun in place of the standard 45mm high-velocity gun. The NKVD troops also received 72 T38 light tanks to equip the reconnaissance battalions of the motorized rifle divisions. Most of the divisional tank battalions had only small allotments of tanks, but the OMSBON special forces brigade had a full-strength battalion with 54 BT-7 tanks and a dozen T38 light tanks, with an additional 17 BT-7 and five T38 assigned to each of its two regiments.
By June 1941 the NKVD tank park, like that of the Red Army of Workers and Peasants, had been reduced by mechanical failures and only 260 of its BT-7 tanks were still in running order. That still represented a significant armored force, and on 27 June Lt. Gen. Ivan Maslennikov, commander of the NKVD’s conventional forces, ordered the Dzerzhinsky Motorized Rifle Division to form a new 1st NKVD Tank Division, to be part of a new NKVD mechanized corps including that division and a newly-raised motorized rifle brigade. The tanks and crews would come from the Dzerzhinsky Division’s battalion and the Omsbon tank units, as Omsbon shifted to an unconventional warfare role.
That plan lasted for all of two days. The Red Army had been in action for one week and already suffered repeated defeats and catastrophic losses. Maslennikov cancelled the plans to form a mechanized corps and instead directed that NKVD troops form the cadres of 15 new rifle divisions and the staff of the new 29th Army, which Maslennikov would command himself. The tanks remained with the motorized rifle divisions, with the OMSBON battalion and companies apparently joining the new 2nd Special Purpose Motorized Rifle Division which fought in front of Moscow alongside the Dzerzhinsky Division (which now became the 1st Special Purpose division).
The NKVD tank battalions don’t appear to have received new vehicles after the German invasion, and so their strength steadily wore away as their tanks broke down or were lost in combat. They saw action as late as the Battle of Stalingrad, where the two tank training battalions fought under the direction of the 10th NKVD Rifle Division. The tank battalions of the two Special Purpose divisions and the 8th Motorized Rifle Division remained intact, at least on paper, until at least June 1943.
NKVD troops served three years rather than the two years of Red Army soldiers, and were generally better trained. That made them valuable cadres around which to form new divisions of recent conscripts, but the tankers don’t seem to have been used for the same purpose. The NKVD held onto these men, at least until they no longer had tanks for them. Unlike the new divisions formed with NKVD cadres, the motorized rifle divisions with which the NKVD began the war had no artillery, greatly limiting their combat effectiveness.
NKVD troops appear in Panzer Grenadier: Gates of Leningrad, and they bring their tanks with them. Not very many tanks, and not very good tanks, but they do have determined crews.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published vast tracts of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.