by Victor Kamenir
At the beginning of World War II, the Soviet armed forces possessed only one marine brigade, part of the Baltic Sea Fleet, and two separate marine companies, one each in the Danube and Pinsk Flotillas. These units were created in May 1940 as a result of lessons learned during the Russo-Finnish War of 1939. During this conflict, the Soviet military’s need for amphibious operations was severely handicapped by the absence of appropriately trained marine forces backed up by mission-specific amphibious landing craft and equipment.
The first Soviet marine brigade was formed by reorganizing the Kronshtadt Fortress Garrison Regiment of the Baltic Sea Fleet. Even though this unit received some marine-specific training and wore distinctive black naval uniforms, it essentially remained a light infantry formation. The marine brigade lacked any landing craft or artillery; even its transport was horse-drawn.
Naval Personnel Transferred to Land Operations
From the outset of World War II, the Soviet Navy assumed a primarily defensive role. While the Black Sea Fleet often engaged Axis naval vessels, the majority of the Soviet Navy was used primarily in support of land operations, often as floating batteries firing at shore targets. This change of mission allowed the Soviet high command to transfer large numbers of surplus naval personnel, including people from naval academies and other training and command/control agencies, to fight as ordinary infantry.
Since there was no time to give the men the appropriate infantry training, they had to learn on the job. As one can imagine, such a mode of learning carried a heavy price tag. Very often, army officers commanded naval infantry brigades, with some army personnel dispersed through the ranks to give sailors assistance in learning their new duties.
Wearing their black uniforms, the sailors came to be called the “naval infantry.” In the Russian language, the present-day Russian marines and World War II-vintage sailors-turned-infantry are both called naval infantry.
The Naval Infantry Units Made a Difference
Among Marshall Georgi Zhukov’s forces that halted the German advance on Moscow in the desperate winter of 1941 were four naval infantry brigades made up of personnel from the Pacific Fleet. Two brigades of naval infantry fought at Stalingrad. In the movie Enemy at the Gates, Russian sniper Vasiliy Zaytsev is portrayed as a brand-new Army recruit. By the start of World War II, the real Vasiliy Zaytsev had already served five years in the Soviet Pacific Fleet and held the rank of chief petty officer. He, along with many of his shipmates, volunteered for service at Stalingrad.
During the four years of war, the Soviet naval infantry participated in 122 amphibious operations. Ten of them were strategic-level operations, 99 were tactical, and 13 were diversionary.
It is virtually unknown that on the first day of the war, June 22, 1941, the marine company of the Danube Flotilla spearheaded a counterattack into Romanian territory. For four days this marine company, a detachment of border guards, and an infantry regiment from the 25th Infantry Division held on to a large portion of the Romanian bank of the Danube. They were pulled back after their parent formation was threatened with encirclement by rapidly advancing German forces.
Overall, the Soviet Navy contributed almost 100,000 sailors to roughly 30 infantry brigades fighting on land. As the war progressed, these naval infantrymen were assimilated into regular Red Army formations. Reclothed in army uniforms, they retained their distinctive blue-striped jerseys. After the war ended, none of these men were returned to the Soviet Navy.