River Battleships:
Black Sea Fleet Naval Infantry
by Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2023

Imperial Russian sailors became the shock troops of the Bolshevik Revolution, making the October Revolution possible. Fed poorly, left in barracks for months or even years with nothing to do as new ship construction had come to a halt with the outbreak of war, the thousands of idle sailors readily listened to the Bolshevik message.

Soviet “Marines,” properly called Naval Infantry, played a major role in the 1941 and 1942 campaigns in Ukraine and Crimea. Like most European navies, the Red Navy put its new recruits through infantry basic training before assigning them to specialist schools to prepare for shipboard or other service. Those schools, shore establishments and men waiting for assignment to shipboard service (the Red Navy had a large pool of the latter) provided a ready source of trained, disciplined manpower during the crisis following the Axis attack on the Soviet Union.

The 1937 Provisional Naval Regulations laid out the Red Navy's doctrine for amphibious operations. The first wave, made up of specialized Naval Infantry, would seize a beachhead at least 300 to 600 meters deep, to push any defenders back out of machine-gun range. The next wave, not necessarily naval troops, would follow quickly with the objective of deepening and widening the landing zone to place the beaches out of enemy artillery range.

In 1940 the Red Banner Baltic Fleet formed a specialized unit for amphibious landings, the 1st Special Marine Brigade. The other four fleets had much smaller units, and all of them had Naval Infantry battalions, sometimes organized into brigades, to defend naval installations. Each river flotilla also had a company of naval infantry.

Naval Infantry prepare for landing.

In October 1941, the STAVKA (Soviet general staff) directed the formation of 25 additional Naval Infantry Brigades under Navy command, and the transfer of additional naval personnel to the Red Army. The Navy provided the manpower for two different types of units. Naval Infantry Brigades (Brigada morskoi pekhoty) wore black Navy uniforms, drew Navy pay, were led by naval officers and drew their weapons from Navy depots. Naval Rifle Brigades (Brigada morskoi strelkovy) were formed from naval personnel, but wore Army uniforms, drew Army pay and weapons, and followed Army officers – other than the origins of their manpower, these formations were no different than the Red Army’s rifle brigades.

The Black Sea Fleet formed its first Naval Infantry brigade in August 1941, drawing on its existing Naval Infantry battalion plus surplus sailors from technical schools and those awaiting assignment to ships under construction. The 7th Naval Infantry Brigade mustered in Sevastopol and went into action in November; it was destroyed at the end of June 1942 when the Sevastopol fortress fell to a German and Romanian assault.

Initially planned to field five infantry battalions, the 7th Marine Infantry Brigade never actually got more than four into action. The 5th Battalion was destroyed soon after its first combat, before the 3rd Battalion had been activated. The survivors helped fill out that battalion, but not until March 1942 with an influx of NKVD sailors from the Marine Border Guard did the brigade reach five battalions. It had an artillery battalion with three batteries of 76.2mm field guns, two combat engineer companies and a mortar company.

The 8th Naval Infantry Brigade formed in Novorossisk in September 1941 from naval reservists recalled to the colors. The brigade had no artillery, a handful of automatic weapons and very little basic training when it was rushed to Sevastopol in October to join the defense of the fortress. It would be formally disbanded in January 1942, with its men distributed among the 7th Naval Infantry Brigade and the 79th Motor Rifle Brigade. Those men fought on in their new formations until the fall of the fortress in June 1942.

A well-armed Naval Infantryman and his comrades.

During its service in the Sevastopol garrison the 8th Naval Infantry Brigade appears to have gained a few temporary attachments of artillery and mortars. The brigade initially fielded four infantry battalions, adding one more later.

The first version of the 9th Naval Infantry Brigade formed in September 1941 at the Kerch naval base, drawing on personnel from the base, ships of the Black Sea Fleet and the NKVD Marine Border Guard. It had four rifle battalions, an artillery battalion with three batteries of 76.2mm field guns, and a reconnaissance company. Committed to the fighting on the Kerch Peninsula at the eastern end of Crimea in November 1941, the brigade lost 70 percent of its personnel. The remainder escaped across the Kerch Strait to the Taman Peninsula, and from there the front-line troops were shipped to Sevastopol to reinforce the 8th Naval Infantry Brigade with more experienced men.

Meanwhile, the 9th Naval Infantry Brigade’s command staff began forming a new brigade from men evacuated from the Kerch naval base, some from the Novorossisk base, ships’ crews and others released from naval hospitals. They returned to battle in December, spearheading the amphibious landing at Feodosiya on the Kerch Peninsula. The brigade also took command of a small battalion of Naval Infantry paratroopers, who landed behind the beachhead.

While the landings managed to regain the Kerch Peninsula, they did so at the cost of enormous casualties and once again the 9th Marine Infantry Brigade was left a shell. The surviving rank-and-file went to the newly-formed 83rd Naval Rifle Brigade, while the staff set to work once again to rebuild their formation.

Naval Infantry aboard an MO-4 type submarine chaser, often used for landings.

This time the staff went to the naval base at Batumi, in the Caucasus near the Turkish border, where the base commander, Col. Vladimir Vilshansky, had previously commanded the 8th Naval Rifle Brigade. Vilshansky worked to provide the rebuilt brigade with the experienced manpower and heavy weapons that his own brigade had lacked.

When the 9th Naval Infantry Brigade moved to Sevastopol in May 1942, it had 4,200 men organized into four rifle battalions, an artillery battalion with two batteries of 76.2mm field guns and two of 122mm howitzers, a battalion of heavy mortars, a recon company and anti-tank batteries for each rifle battalion. The brigade arrived just in time to fight against the final German-Romanian assault, and though it fought well, the end was not in doubt. All of the brigade was lost except for 11 men who rowed across the Black Sea to Turkey in a small boat, and the brigade commissar who fled and somehow made his way back to Soviet lines nine months later.

In addition to the Naval Infantry Brigades, the Black Sea Fleet fielded many smaller formations: independent regiments and battalions that followed the same pattern as the brigades (Navy officers, pay, weapons and uniforms) and often fought under the command of larger Red Army units. Several independent battalions fought in the Crimea and the Taman Peninsula; two independent regiments formed in Odessa fought in the Romanian siege of that fortress-city as part of the Red Army’s 421st Rifle Division.

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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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his dog, Leopold. Leopold knew the number.

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