Tuesday, September 20, 2011


The Bielski family and partisans

The people can be oppressed

by violent measures,

but they cannot be governed by them

--Leo Tolstoy,
letter to Czar Nicholas II

Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it

--George Santayana

Shall I tell you what the real evil is?
To cringe to the things that are called evils,
to surrender to them our freedom,
in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering
--Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Defiance is a book (1993) and a movie (2008) based upon the lives of the Bielski partisans of World War II.
The group was named after the organizers, a family of Polish Jews who rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the Nazi German occupiers and their collaborators in Poland. They saved approximately 1,200 Jewish lives.

The Bielski's story is but one of many amazing wartime stories of average people who endure against overwhelming odds, many of which are probably lost to history. Of the Bielski group,
70% were women, children, and the elderly; about 150 were shooters. The movie delivers a highly romanticized version of a dire existence, replete with the Hollywood sensitive Nazi.

Ranger found the Bielski's behavior links with classic unconventional and guerrilla warfare, though their primary function was to ensure the survival of its Jewish members. His personal SF training was the result of the U.S. adopting UW/GW experience which evolved from the OSS in WW II, reflective of partisan and resistance warfare of WW II. This type of warfare was fought in all theatres in that war, and were aimed if not at destroying, then hamstringing the armies of occupation of the Axis forces.

Partisan units existed to harass, destroy and generally force the occupiers to dilute the combat power of their maneuver units by diverting them to fight the partisans. The titular use of the term in this case is not exactly correct since partisans existed to fight, where the Bielski unit existed primarily to save Jews; they fought only when forced to engage enemy forces.

The regular armies of the Allies provided trainers and support for partisans which enabled the UW/GW forces to exist behind enemy lines. The Bielski unit received limited aid from the organized Soviet partisan units. Though minor, it is doubtful the Bielskis could have endured without it.

Another key point relevant to today's UW/GW scenarios is that the unit would not have survived without the active and passive support -- regardless of how meagre -- of the local population.

WW II is now 66 years old. Can such units still exist in future wars? Will Special Forces maintain their classic OSS/UW/GW orientation in future conflicts? Has Special Forces performed as UW/GW assets in the Phony War on Terror (
PWOT ©), or has their performance been a weak approximation of the OSS template?

The OSS types were originally organized to infiltrate enemy-occupied territory to link up with and train UW forces, then task-organizing them for actual combat operations. All UW/GW operations of significance in WW II complemented the Allied Armies' tactical plans.

Partisans were used to target specific objectives and were discouraged and disallowed from random and unfocused attacks upon the Axis forces. Although the UW/GW units were not strictly military organizations, they were compelled to operate in a military manner.

After WW II, the USSF was organized to operate with partisans and dissident groups in areas occupied by the Warsaw Pact forces. In the Republic of Vietnam, the Special Forces supported the government of Vietnam, while in Europe they opposed the governments of the Iron Curtain countries.
This shows the SF -- like the sword in our unit patch -- is a double-edged weapon which will cut in both directions.

The question is, will SF retain its original function as an UW/GW force multiplier if the U.S. were to engage in a conventional ground war?
Can organizations like the Bielski Partisans survive today's battlefield scenarios? Are partisan units a concept that is still within the realm of military logic?

A good story should provoke such thoughts on the relevance of its topic to the present day.


  1. jim-

    Thanks for keeping the memory of the "Belarus Forest Jews" alive. My maternal family is from Kobryn, Belarus. My grandmother and her three sisters, along with Grandpa (they met in NY, BTW), immigrated to the US, All the rest remained in Kobryn.

    The Nazi occupiers methodically killed and meticulously recorded the names and "serial numbers" of all the estimated 9,000 Jews of Kobryn, except about 100, who were assumed to have joined the "Forest Partisans" as they were also known. 10 of the people from Kobryn are known to have survived. Sadly, none of the 10 survivors are from my family.

    The Forest Partisans are one of only two Jewish groups who are documented to have actively taken up arms to "resist" the Nazis. The others being the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. My Mom, a fighter in her own right, was always proud that the longest and most effective Jewish resistance was our family's friends and neighbors. Since accurate records of those of Kobryn who escaped the Nazis to die in the resistance don't exist (the Nazis were only interesting in maintaining records of those killed["success'], not those who escaped ["failure"]), she always hoped that one or more of our kinfolk might have been among the 90 Kobryn escapees who died anonymously while contributing to this brave band.

    While I also have an interest in SOF (exchange student at Special Warfare School while in the Corps), the personal aspect of Defiance distracts from your SOF issues. However, my Mom, of Blessed Memory, would never forgive me if I were to let this perspective of the Belarus Forest Partisans" not be mentioned.

    Memory Eternal!

  2. Al,
    Thanks for your input, it's appreciated.
    I have a lot of thoughts on this topic , but i'm hoping that a thread will cover these aspects.

  3. Thank you for sharing your mother's memory, Al; may peace be upon her. My own grandfather played a role in shepherding some relations out of Belarus; sadly, most family members were killed.

    Let's not forget Sobibor, helped by some survivors from the Minsk Ghetto:

    "{P}risoners at Sobibor organized a resistance group in the late spring of 1943. After considering several options for escape and augmented in numbers and military training skills by the arrival of a number of former Soviet-Jewish prisoners of war from the Minsk ghetto in late September, the prisoners opted for an uprising, following the liquidation of key German camp officials. On October 14, 1943, with approximately 600 prisoners left in the camp, those who knew the plan for the uprising initiated the operation.

    "The prisoners succeeded in killing nearly a dozen German personnel and Trawniki-trained guards. Around 300 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the killing center that day; around 100 were caught in the dragnet that following and more than half of the remaining survivors did not live to see the end of the war."


  4. The question(s) are, (1) will SF retain its original function as an UW/GW force multiplier if the U.S. were to engage in a conventional ground war? (2) Can organizations like the Bielski Partisans survive today's battlefield scenarios? (3) Are partisan units a concept that is still within the realm of military logic?

    My answers are (1) MAYBE (2) YES (3) YES

    Re (2) Partisans are from the people, and for the people will have the support of, and thus cover provided by the people. Yes, they can operate in today's "sophisticated and high tech battlefield", as it is difficult to identify them apart from the general population. Where they "hide" between strikes, be it the forest, in the city, on farms, or in towns is immaterial. They can hide in plain sight quite well.

    For an oppressed people, partisans provide a means to tie down and or divert oppressor resources, hinder oppressor mobility, dilute the oppressor's ability to control the population, inflict casualties upon the oppressor, cripple his equipment and destroy his supplies. All with small, economical forces.

    Re (3) If the oppressed population is assisted by a liberating military from another country, engaged in "conventional warfare", then the partisans, on behalf of the oppressed populace, can assist the liberating forces by the same actions enumerated above. E.g.- The French Resistance were a vital assistance to the D-day landing's success, according to all rational analyses, and Ike, himself. A very “conventional” operation highly dependent upon partisans.

    To be maximally effective, partisan activities must be coherent and coordinated, and the better trained the partisan the more effective their acts will be. Effective partisan operations are not chaotic, but can cause chaos.

    Re (1). One of my room mates in Flight School (1966-1967), Freddy, was a veteran of 12 years SF service, with about 6 of those deployed to SE Asia. My other” roomie” was a great 19 year old with no more than Army Basic Training under his belt. One day, the 19 yr old referred to SF as “Commandos”. I was struggling to find a simple way to correct this misconception, when Freddy said, “Not at all. SF is the faculty and staff of a school that teaches and coaches on someone else’s school grounds. When “graduation day” comes, the students keep their school and grounds and we leave. I wasn’t a Commando, I was a flat chested, hairy legged school marm.” In 1966 that was still pretty much true.

    I answered (1) MAYBE, simply because when $$$ get tight, folks look for a way to hold on to a slice of the pie, and “Rambo The Hi-Tech Killing Commando” will charm the socks off of Congress and the Public a hell of a lot more than “flat chested, hairy legged school marms”, who by their very nature are low profile. Hell, nobody gave a shit about SF until Barry Sadler sang his song.

    I think there is a definite need to retain “traditional” SF formations, doctrine and capability. Let the cowboys do the Rambo crap.

    De Oppresso Liber!

    How’d I do, jim. Is my memory intact? Did the training all those decades ago stick?

  5. Al,
    The new motto is-we oppress libyans.
    SF has become much to direct action these days.They are too willing to go one on one or mano a mano. A mistake- let the Rangers do that crap at the e 3/4 level. Much cheaper.
    The partisans are most effective when liason , like the OSS, are present.
    The problem with Partisans is tha same as that of humans, from Spocks pov. They are too emotional, which should not be a soldierly attribute.
    The mini- manual of the urban guerilla is a good template for city based partisans. Think Bagdad or Khandahar.
    Personally i don't think any partisan/insurgent unit can exist w/o external support and safe haven, AND a large portion of the population being passive in their support.The pop need not be active, ONLY PASSIVE.I think this is true in AFGH.

  6. Lisa-

    Sorry to have failed to mention any of the three known concentration camp "revolts": Sobibor, Treblinka and one at Auschwitz.

    What I meant was armed "partisan resistance" of which only two are recorded - the relatively localized resistance in Warsaw, and the longer and more widespread "forest" resistance in Belarus.

    May peace be upon all who suffered through that barbarity of unimaginable proportions.

  7. Thank you, Al, for your thoughtful and considered reply.

  8. Al,
    Been thinkin' about the Commando thing.
    SF really is the same as commandos when on direct action. What do they do that we don't and vica versa?
    The only discriminator is that we usually stick around after the action, if we are in the uw/gw mode.

  9. What Fred and I were taking about was that it was not the role of SF to routinely act independently as "Commando units" on his watch. Yes, accompany the partisans on raids, intel and sabotage missions, but not alone without indigenous personnel.

  10. Al,
    I'm talking going COMMANDO- like MACVSOG, Son Tay, Desert 1,Grenada, Panama.
    In UW/GW the "Advisers" always accompany the G's.
    In GW1 the 5th SF were doled out to manuever units and were just additional rifles.
    In the 80's SOCEUR had a mission deep behind the FLOT and were expected to destroy key targets. In but no out, unlike Rangers.

  11. I think that the answer to 1) is "probably not", and the reason is more political than military.

    The original SF was, as you have all pointed out, the offspring of the SOE/OSS "Jedburgh" teams of WW2. During the Cold War the possibility of a "Polish Underground" or some similar anti-Communist resistance kept the mission alive to some degree, but the reality was that even as trainers, most SF teams ended up training conventional troops for our foreign buddies' FID/rebellion suppression rather than the guerrilla bands envisioned.

    Now we've gotten to the point where there really ARE no "guerrilla bands", even in places (like Afghanistan) where it would make more sense to train the locals to just add some Western bells and whistles to their local style of raid and counter-raid than to try and make the poor bastards into little imitation GIs...only without the economic muscle, technical, and tactical learning needed to make them effective as such.

    I don't know if it's so much that the SF guys WANT to become killer commandos (tho the outfit has definitely moved towards attracting more of that sort of troop) as their being no real option OTHER than becoming killer commandos.

    And I should note - sadly - that most of the governments we end up sending SF teams to train troops for are often very like the ones we were supposed to be getting all guerrilla-y and rebelling AGAINST. We have become the mirror of our own birthright; the rebels have become the redcoats, the Swamp Fox has become Bloody Ban Tarleton.

    Kinda sad, innit?

  12. Chief,
    To my oral history knowledge of SF the 77th actually penetrated the target areas and did actual recruiting etc..
    The OSS sadness was that they actually helped the Communists in the resistance to eliminate the monarchists/royalty and all other communists counter foils. The OSS was as simplistic as our present breed. It's only right that we carry their colors.
    Remember that these guys started the CIA.
    The book HORSE SOLDIERS makes much of the OSS vibe spun by SF in afgh early days. It just wasn't so, the warlords could teach SF a trick or 2 as we have seen.The only thing SF has that the warlords and insurgents don't have is laser guided bombs.
    Giving beaucoup stars to jsoc/socom killed the concept of SF, as did the crummy selections process. It's now a fraternity complete with hell week.

  13. Al -

    I borrowed a copy of "Brute", a bio of General Krulak, by Robert Coram last year from a buddy of mine in the VFW who is also a member of the JWV. Per Coram his mother's family - Zalinsky - were from near Brest in Belarus just several klicks from Kobrin. They and his father's people from the Ukraine had immigrated in the 1880s following the pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation that came after Alexander II's assassination.

    He was quite a guy. One of the primary developers along with Higgins and Howlin Mad Smith of LCMs and LCVPs, which according to Churchill were a major factor in winning WW2. And after that war he is one of the original movers and shakers that pushed helicopters as a maneuver element for infantry back in the late 40s. In the same time frame he was also the leading member of the Chowder Society that worked through Congress to shut down Harry Truman's effort to dismantle the Marine Corps.

    During Vietnam he was an outspoken opponent of Westmoreland's body count policy. And later, while still on active duty, he was the one who told LBJ to his face that his policy was losing the war and would lose him the election. There is an iconic photo of Krulak and LBJ in the oval office = read the body language.


    He was also an early user of Unconventional Warfare. He lead 650 paramarines against 4000 Japanese at Choiseul to decoy the main thrust against Bougainville.

  14. jim: I agree that the U.S. has typically been way worse at figuring out the political dimensions of foreign wars than solving the military problems. So we end up with bastards like Marcos in the PI and Somoza in Nicaragua or the Shah in Iran because we look(ed) at the "problem" and saw "Commies" while the locals looked at the problem and saw "tyrannical rat bastard backed by the Americans".

    Same-same in A-stan. The rule of thumb on the Afghan plateau has been "Back the Pashtun" since Baibur's day. By picking allies among the Tajiks and Hazaras we guaranteed a long war, the damn stupid long war we're fighting today.

    Al: What I find interesting is the degree to which the U.S. tends to throw out the occasional outstanding unconventional soldier - both in the UW sense and the "thinks-outside-the-box" sense - while in general producing scads of very cookie-cutter conventional officers.

    The USMC seems to do better at this - I'm thinking not just of Krulak but of guys like van Riper in the Second Gulf War - and my guess would be because of their tradition of fighting underresourced campaigns against tough locals. And the USMC seems to, in the way of small services, cherish their mavericks to a greater degree than the USA, where "go along to get along" is the rule.

    I mean, look at the WW2 generation of USA officers, perhaps the most talented we've produced, and even there you have to dig pretty deep to find real genius. Marshall, definitely, as organizer and war-manager. Good, tough conventional officers like Truscott, Bradley, Matt Ridgeway. The occasional oddities like Patton and MacArthur, both sui generis in their different ways. But the USA seems to have always had real problems producing quality; if you read the accounts of the early days in '41 and '42 the Army had to eighty-six scads of officers who were incompetent, indolent, craven, or all three.

    And the application to today's foreign policies we've chosen is that in "little wars" it's often individual brilliance rather than sheer weight of material that wins. Along with some creative and crafty diplomatic muscle. And we don't have a good record of finding and cultivating either one.

  15. Chief-

    It's late, and I have to hit the sack, but I would offer this gem, from Gen John LeJeune, IIRC:

    "Not every lieutenant will become a general, but every general was once a lieutenant. We must select and train our lieutenants accordingly."

  16. chief,
    We picked the NA which gave us the illusion of a quick victory while all it did was insure a long war.
    I often wonder why we empowered the NA with their propensity for IRAN- same for the Shias in IRQ.
    It has always seemed counter to our interests.
    Most of the soldiers that you mentioned matured in 2 WW's.The Germans and Japs had the same school house.
    I have a little hobby of googling the top generals in the US army and i'm always amazed at the lack of valor and CIB's on the combat arms GO's. Just a thought.

  17. Al: I think that a modern U.S. GO might get very little sleep if he thought his lieutenants were liable to think like a GO every so often.

    They might actually start questioning his "leadership" and where would that leave him?

  18. jim: I suspect that has something to do with the sorts of people who are useful in wars are irritating in peacetime, and an army spends most of its time doing stuff other than fighting.

    So the hairy-chested guys with all the hero gongs end up bored, mischievous, and stepping on their poncho hanging around the Dragon Club and don't make their star...

  19. Chief: I think that a modern U.S. GO might get very little sleep if he thought his lieutenants were liable to think like a GO every so often.

    They might actually start questioning his "leadership" and where would that leave him?

    I think Gen LeJeune was was talking about the "raw materials" and the subsequent forging of them into "fine steel". Or, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear".

    I remember a fellow former Marine Army Aviator commenting on Lt Calley, "Poor protoplasm that should have been weeded out in OCS." We had both heard the probably mythical story of of the Marine Officer Candidate who did exceptionally well. He was tall and skinny and wore odd sized uniform components. He was so confident of himself and his surviving the 50% failure rate, he paid cash in advance for his initial uniform purchase, rather than make a "contingency order". He was "Eliminated" (Quantico term for being involuntarily dropped) the final week before graduation. The reason? "Demonstrating exceptionally poor judgement." After all, who would he has sold his odd sized uniforms to if he didn't graduate?

    Back to the point of Gen LeJeune's comment. If a 20 year old hasn't already developed the moral, ethical and intellectual abilities for entering the road to top leadership, what are the odds he will, simply because a gold bar was pinned on him? Since newly commissioned officers are the raw material for flag rank, LeJeune felt that "quality assurance" should "begin at the beginning". In fact, the Corps has, at least philosophically, taken this view towards enlisted Marines as well. Thus, the whole idea of a "Recruit" not being a "Marine" until proving himself in Boot Camp. In fact, back on my watch, "Boots" did not have the Eagle, Globe and Anchor stenciled on their utilities, as they had not yet proven themselves as Marines.

  20. Al,
    Calley should NEVER HAVE BEEN an OCS candidate.
    I doubt that he has a 110 GT/iq.
    The same could be said for GWB and his gold bar.

  21. jim-

    On either one, you will get no argument from this quarter!


  22. jim: Roger that.

    Al: One thing I've always wondered about is the whole "Ct. Cyr/Sandhurst/West Point" system of making officers from schoolboys.

    One the one hand, it does seem to work, more or less.

    But on the other, it seems to contain a very high randomness/uncertainty factor. The bottom line is that actually leading people into live rounds is unlike anything in human experience, and it's almost impossible to imagine a way to come up with a way to determine whether a person has those raw materials...other than seeing him or her under fire.

    My understanding is that the U.S. Army has had a fairly high number of 2LTs from all our commissioning sources - including OCS - who came apart in combat in one way or another. Maybe it's just flat-out impossible to try and predict human leadership capabilities..?

  23. Chief-

    In the main, the service academies you mention are steeped in tradition, a significant intangible. Some state military schools, also steeped in tradition, have had a good track record in producing officers. Perhaps it's a matter of the expectations FROM DAY ONE that the cadet must live up to the tradition?

    There are so many tangible and intangible variables between the US services, that I wouldn't know where to begin to try to compare them. And to try to do so suffers from lack of a "control" population. You could do ex post facto studies, but they are, by nature weak. However, I would be willing to bet that the Corps and its strong sense of tradition has always had higher expectations of its members FROM DAY ONE.

    Whereas West Point has the "Long Grey Line" stretching back to the academy's founding in 1802, and Marines are aware of the Corps' lineage starting at Tun Tavern on Nov 10, 1775, what awareness does the typical LT or PVT have of his Army? The history is as rich as the Corps, yet not equally celebrated. Why?