German Military in the Soviet Union 1918-1933
by Arvo Vercamer and Jason Pipes

For 11 years (1922 to 1933), the whole world was almost entirely shielded from Germany's clandestine military build-up and military development efforts in the Soviet Union. A political flap did occur in 1926 when the Social-Democrats of Germany publicly announced some aspects of the German-Soviet military co-operation efforts (the Manchester Guardian in England also helped by publishing a number of articles on the subject), but it went on largely undetected. After the victory of the Nationalist Socialists in 1933, one-by-one, the veils or remilitarization were lifted until 1935 when the formation of the Wehrmacht was offically announced and the various measures designed to cover up their reformation were dropped.

To more optimally understand how it is that the Germans and Soviets were drawn to each other in the post World War One era, one must first look at both nations as they stood in 1918-1919.

Germany was humiliated in by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was forced to reduce her military capabilities to a token force of limited troops, to have no capital ships, no submarines, to give up all colonial possessions, was proscribed from manufacturing a wide range of military goods, was forced to pay war reparations realistically outside of its means to do so, was forced to give up German territory, and more. Internationally, Germany had few friends or allies to draw on for support.

Similarly, the Soviet Union also found itself in a poor post-World War situation. The Russian Civil War was still going on. The military campaign against Poland had failed. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all declared their independence; the Soviet Union now only controlled the port of Leningrad in the Baltic Sea. The Allied intervention forces were in Archangel and Vladivostok. The military limitations of the new Soviet Union were often the laughing stock of the world. Internationally, the Soviet Union was essentially isolated.

Given the above, both nations quickly realized that their best chances for growth and success in military matters was to rely on each other. The start, in fact, occurred quite early. In August of 1920, Enver Pasha worked as an intermediary between von Seeckt and Moscow. He proposed that Germany provide the Soviet Union with information regarding the Polish military as a gesture of good faith. On their side, the RSFSR selected Viktor Kopp (a very capable diplomat and of Estonian heritage), to work with the Germans. He established a cover office in Berlin, Unter den Linden Nr. 11 (a second RSFSR cover office was located in Tallinn, Estonia; a third in Riga, Latvia and a fourth in Kaunas, Lithuania). Kopp's official task was to work on repatriation issues of Russian POW's and interned Russian civilians in German custody (one of his proposals was to convert Soviet POW commissions into de facto consular missions). His more covert assignment was to work on improving German and Soviet relations. Kopp was successful in getting the Deruluft and Deru-metall companies established, as well as a number of other Soviet-German joint ventures.

Soviet supporters for a secret (or at least not a publicized) partnership included Lenin (only after he became ill), Trotsky, Dzerzhinski, Stalin, Frunze and a host of others.

German supporters for working with the Soviet Union included von Seeckt, von Blomberg, Rathenau and many other civilian and military leaders. Von Seeckt was in fact one of the most vociferous proponents of the program. He did not so much wish to see the Soviet military increasing drastically in strength, but he did see the benefits of working closely with Soviet industry. Von Seeckt believed that the Soviet Union was an excellent source of many hard to obtain metals and minerals necessary for the creation of a modern military force.

The German Reichswehr's counterpart at that time was the Soviet Workers and Peasant's Red Army (RKKA) and the ties that bind moved very quickly in the early days. Both agreed that they had a good co-operation future together. In early 1921, Major Fischer of the Reichswehr was selected to head a special working group within the Reichswehr Ministry. Their task was to work out a basic foundation for future German-Soviet co-operation efforts with their Soviet counterparts.

It all culminated with the Rapollo Treaty of April, 1922. Kopp's behind the scenes efforts in working with von Seeckt, von Hasse and other leading German officials had paid dividends. While the world was quite surprised at this event, the Germans and Soviets were not. It merely legitimized the many plans the Germans and Soviets had regarding their future economies. The most important result of the Rapollo accords was the German-Soviet military co-operation effort. On 11 August 1922, the German Reichswehr and the Soviet Red Army signed a document which allowed the Germans to establish military bases on Soviet soil.

The covert aspects of the German-Soviet military co-operation agreement all included provisions for joint work on armor matters, aviation matters and chemical warfare issues.

The following guiding principles were key German goals:

  • Development of advanced military technologies, theoretical study efforts and training programs free from third-party interference.
  • Development of tactical applications for weapons systems prohibited by the Versailles treaty.
  • Development and education of an experienced cadre of specialists in all military fields. This cadre group can then be used to establish more formal military capabilities in Germany at a later time.
  • Development of weapons systems prohibited by Versailles; development of weapons systems available in Germany.
  • Development of new strategies and tactics based on the lessons learned in the above categories.
  • Each training class should not last more than one year.

    To accomplish these goals; the Germans presented the Soviets with the following requirements:

  • The use of military facilities suitable for work on armor, aviation and chemical warfare issues.
  • Freedom of action to pursue military development issues.
  • Free exchange of ideas and developed technologies as learned from these sites.

    In short, German bases operating in the Soviet Union were to be primarily used for R&D efforts, tactical training, personnel evaluation, etc, in those disciplines which were expressly prohibited for Germany by the Versailles treaty. In return for these privileges, Germany would allow the Red Army to conduct military exercises alongside the Reichswehr and it would also agree to share industrial and military technology advances as applicable. The Soviet Union agreed to the above cited stipulations.

    By 1924, a Moscow Center office had been opened by the Reichswehr in Moscow. In March of 1924, the Russians approached the Germans to see which types of industrial capabilities could be quietly transferred to the Soviet Union. Could the Albatros Werke build airplanes in the Soviet Union; could Blohm and Voss build submarines, could Krupp build ammunition production plants, etc.

    Co-operation was supposed to be a two-way street. As German military units were gaining experiences in the Soviet Union, a number of Soviet military technology experts and military officers were being secretly trained in Germany. However, in reality, the Germans took far more from the Soviets than they were willing to give in return.

    It was at about this time, 1926, that the Germans encountered a major political problem with their clandestine relationship with the Soviet Union it was no longer so clandestine. As the Reichswehr was secretly importing Soviet munitions (those which Germany was forbidden to produce or import due to the Versailles agreement), the German SPD party realized that the Soviets were also exporting hand-grenades to German communist front organizations. This was not acceptable. During the summer/fall of 1926, the SPD circulated a press release stating that Soviet hand-grenades were killing hundreds of innocent Germans. On 02 December 1926, Britain's Manchester Guardian published an article stating that Sondergruppe-R of the Reichswehrministerium and GEFU and WIKO were working with the Soviet Union on German re-armament issues. This article really helped stir the pot of intrigue and speculation. On 16 December 1926, the German communist party countered the SPD position by stating that the SPD was full of lies, etc. Of key importance to the argument of the SPD was that three Soviet munitions ships had docked in Stettin to unload their cargo of hand-grenades for the communists. Slowly, the political bomb faded from public view as other, more pressing social and economic issues grabbed the headlines.

    Naturally, a clandestine German military development and training effort established in the Soviet Union required a very efficiently organized administrative base. German military and civilian companies worked together to adjudicate all needed cover issues. It need be noted that per the agreement, Germany agreed to bear all operating costs for their bases in the Soviet Union.

    By 1932, and certainly by 1933, the end of German-Soviet military co-operation efforts were in clear sight. Hitler and his Nationalist Socialists were not in a mood to co-operate with the Soviets in secret on military matters. Communism was after all seen as one of the main enemy's of the German people. In the end, it was the Soviet Union, which officially asked the Reichswehr to close all of its facilities and depart the Soviet Union in August of 1933. The Germans had left by September. By that time, the Soviet Union was already expanding its contacts with the British and the French, in part to balance the loss of the German connection.

    German Administrative and Organizational Issues: The German Chef der Heeresleitung was the focal point officer of the Reichswehr for coordinating all negotiated matters with the Soviet Union. Later, this responsibility was transferred to the Chef des Truppenamts (the illegal Chief of the General Staff) of the Reichswehrministry. It need be noted that the General Staff concerned itself primarily with political and economic matters; issues that affected both the Germans and the Soviets as they jointly ran these secret military bases. Political problems were worked in concert with the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The General Staff also adjudicated all cover and front company issues. For cover purposes, the office was called T-3 to denote that it was a part of the Truppenamt.

    The control of more specific military issues was subordinated to various Waffeninspektionen. Armor issues developed in Kazan were under the cover of the Inspektion des Kraftwesens (In 6), aviation issues in Lipetsk were under the cover of the Inspektion der Flieger (In 1) and chemical warfare issues developed at Tomka were under the cover of the Inspektion der Artillerie (In 4). Of note is that each German Inspektion was responsible for its own budget, personnel and operational development issues.

    In terms of financing issues, it must be noted that at that time, Germany, as a nation, operated a number of overt and covert book keeping systems. Overt record books were shown to the many Allied Control Councils and to the less reliable and weaker political parties of the Reichstag. These were for the most part doctored to show the Allies and most Germans exactly what they wanted to see. All covert financing was done through the blue book of the Reichswehr and only selected members of the German government were privy to its contents.

    Because the Soviet Rouble was not convertible on the international market and because the German Reichsmark fluctuated greatly in the 1920's it was agreed to calculate all financial issues on a set exchange rate for the entire period - 1 ruble to 2.16 Reichsmark.

    It is estimated that Germany spent approximately 10 million Reichsmark per year in the Soviet Union (100 million in total). Aviation issues required the greatest amounts of financing; the purchase of airplanes taking a large chunk of the budget. For example, during their years in Lipetsk, non-personnel aviation expenditures alone totaled close to 20 million Reichsmark.

    When traveling to the Soviet Union, a false identity was assumed. For this, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued alias passports. To minimize cover problems, individual travel to the Soviet Union was encouraged; large groups of German tourists were to be avoided. Cover concerns were so strict that even their clothing allowances were dictated by regulation. Officers who were transferred to the Soviet bases for longer periods of time were retired from their home units; their names were taken off of all active duty lists. This had the benefit of allowing for a greater number of officers to rotate in and out of the officers corps, which was also limited in size by the Treaty of Versailles. In case a German died while in the Soviet Union (aviation accident, training death, etc.,) his body was shipped back to Stettin und the cover of a box marked machine parts or the like.

    For most travel into and out of the Soviet Union, German troops boarded the Nord-Express train, which had a regular service from Paris, France to Riga in Latvia. Once in Riga, the German traveler boarded a local train, which took him to Daugavpils and from there to the Latvian-Russian border. At the border, the arriving German only had to show his passport and have his alias name checked off a roster. Politeness was the word of the day; this in contrast to the draconian welcome the few regular tourists and business travelers were subjected to at the non-German control points on the Latvian-Soviet border. Once the training was completed, the German either returned via the same route or he took a cruise/merchant ship via Leningrad back to Germany (usually being off-loaded at night so as not to raise the attention levels.

    Soviet Administrative and Organizationsl Issues: The Soviets handled their cover and budget issues in typical Soviet fashion they did not divulge anything to anyone. In 1923, the Soviets did erect a Moscow Central office. This office was interestingly subordinated to its German counterpart in Berlin. As with the German offices, Soviet offices had to appear to be transparent to everyone. Officially they did not even exist. Their primary function was to ensure that all cover issues inside of the Soviet Union were optimally protected and that the visiting Germans had ample access to all of the needed economic and military supplies they required.

    German Bases in the Soviet Union 1922-1933: In 1926, the Germans established a Panzerschule named Kama in Kazan. It was to teach both the practical and the theoretical. By 1929, the basic infrastructure had been built at the base and the first Panzers started arriving; six 23-ton tanks (BMW engines; 75mm main gun) and three 12-ton tanks armed with 37mm guns. The Soviet Army gave the Reichswehr a number of British Carden-Lloyd light tanks. In return for those, Germany provided the Soviet Union with a number of industrial and manufacturing tools the Soviets were not yet capable of fabricating. General Lutz of the Reichswehr was the Commanding Officer of the Motor Transport Inspection Nr. 6. One of the schools most famous teachers was Heinz Guderian. No German uniforms were worn; only civilian clothing was permitted, though on occasion, the Soviets who trained there as well let the Germans borrow their uniforms for a while.

    In terms of aviation matters, the following approximate timetable applied: In 1921 Germans worked on establishing aviation manufacturing capabilities in the Soviet Union. In 1924, German personnel and German material support built the Lipetsk facility. From 1925 to 1927, German pilots (old and new) received refresher courses based on the existing flight school curriculum. Both pilots and instructors were familiarized with equipment and with flight strategies/tactics. In 1926, Reichswehr officers were trained to become pilots and flight leaders. In 1928, Jungmärke (young pilots) were now accepted into the training program. This lasted until 1933. The aerial observation program was started, but dropped in 1930. Numerous technical innovations in military aviation were also tested and evaluated while battle strategies and tactics evolved. In 1933 the Lipetsk school was closed.

    Germany's first efforts in working with Moscow resulted in the construction of the Junkers factory in Fili (near Moscow). Negotiations dragged on for nearly a year before the Germans and the Soviets could agree on a signed document (October 1921 to December 1922). 300 metal-skinned a/c were supposed to be built at the plant per year; never reached. Politics interceded (on both sides), though the Soviets also stole many items from the plant a nd that did not make the Germans happy campers. In the end, the Junkers concession in Fili was liquidated.

    In terms of giving the Germans a military aviation base, the Soviet Union at first proposed a military aerodrome in Odessa. These facilities were not only practical from a meteorological point of view; they also satisfied a number of requirements levied by the Reichsmarine (naval aviation issues).= But then the Reichsmarine withdrew itself from working with the Soviets. Because this eliminated the need for a naval aviation base, the Soviets now offered Lipetsk (north of Voronezh) to the Germans, which they accepted with no problems.

    In 1924, the Germans established their flight-school in Lipetsk (complementing the one they opened up in Italy). For nine years, the German school operated under the cover of the Soviet Fourth Air Squadron. At its inception, the German flight school contained close to 60 a/c; mostly Fokker D-XIII variants (50 were given to the Soviet Union in 1933 when Hitler ordered the base to close). By 1931, more modern a/c types became available (at Soviet insistence because the Germans were dragging their feet here somewhat). That same year, high-altitude flights were also experimented with.

    It was in 1925 that the Germans fielded their first Jagdlehrstaffel at Lipetsk. Flight training took place during the hot summer seasons and on the coldest of winter days. The following structure prevailed:

  • Single a/c
  • Kette (3 a/c)
  • Staffelverband (9 a/c)

    While the Staffel was the largest operational element at Lipetsk (in fact, only one German Staffel ever operated there at one time), Lipetsk often operated two Staffeln when practicing mock dogfights with their Soviet ounterparts.

    During the summer of 1931, German and Soviet squadrons participated in mock attacks against daylight bombers devising the most optimal attack and defense techniques. The Germans in the Soviet Union never wore military uniforms; they always wore civilian clothing to protect their cover as much as possible. The training program was a very flexible one, that is, there were no set requirements. The driving idea was to allow creative thinking, to experiment and to innovate. By 1933, over 1,200 Luftwaffe pilots had been trained at Lipetsk. Of note is that many of the early R&D efforts of the Ju-87 were carried out at Lipetsk. General der Flieger, Helm Speidel, participated in aviation matters there. Later, he would rise to become Rommel's last Chief of Staff and a General in the West German Luftwaffe.

    The German facility for chemical warfare development issues in the Soviet Union was code-named Tomka. This base was located near Podosinky (Ivshchenkovo) in 1926 (in the Samara Region of the Volga). The location was not by chance. The base would need to draw on German speaking individuals for many support functions thus regions close to German colonies in the Soviet Union were always high on the site-selection list of the Reichswehr.

    During the months of August and September of 1923, the German company of GEFU (Gesellschaft für Förderung gewerblicher Unternehmungen) created a joint-venture company with its Soviet counterpart, Bersol. Two headquarters were created; one in Berlin and one in Moscow. In 1925, GEFU became WIKO (Wirtschaftskontor).

    The Germans brought in many chemical warfare experts and established a very comprehensive CW program there. In May of 1926, the first batch of gas (diphosgene) was ready. Large-scale tests were conducted near Luga. Within a short period of time, many other types of gasses were also being produced at Tomka (coded yellow cross, blue cross, green cross, etc.)

    Officer Training School: A small officer training school was established in Moscow. Known graduates included Keitel, Mannstein and Model.

    Soviet Expectations 1922-1933: In 1926, a Soviet naval delegation visited Berlin. They offered to build German designed submarines and torpedoes in the Soviet Union in return for German assistance in a number of naval fields. The German navy reviewed the proposal and declined to accept it. It was of the opinion that German covert naval efforts currently in place in the Netherlands, Sweden and in Finland were superior to what the Soviets could offer. They also did not wish to upset the Royal Navy who the Germans knew were monitoring Germany very closely. Only in 1938 and 1939 did the Kriegsmarine take a more serious interest in Soviet naval matters, but by then it was already too late to establish reliable contacts.

    In terms of aviation issues, the Soviets maintained a large presence at Lipetsk. They were especially keen on working closely with the Germans on technical development and manufacturing capabilities. Not only did VVS personnel work with the Germans, Soviet civilian experts were also detailed to Lipetsk.

    Throughout their stays in Germany (up to 1932/33), Soviet military visitors continuously praised German technological advancements and their penchant for producing a quality product. The Soviets were exposed to nearly all facets of the German military build-up effort. They were impressed with the fact that a German heavy MG could fire at a ground target in one moment, and 30 seconds later, be adjusted for use as an anti-aircraft machine gun (designed by N. von Dreise). The German 75mm FLAK gun was nearly twice as good (could fire twice the distance) as the current Soviet version. Siemens and Zeiss military optics were unsurpassed for their versatility. The Soviets also gained quite a bit of tactical and operational knowledge from the Germans as they were observing German Reichswehr maneuvers in and around the Weimar Republic.

    Much to the dismay of the Soviets, the Germans always seemed to find an excuse as to why this or that could not be accomplished. Berlin always had to be consulted with. Often the Soviets were of the feeling that the Germans were holding back on their sharing efforts; but in many cases, the Germans were not holding back what they showed the Soviets was really the latest in German technology (the Soviets did not tell the Germans for example that their T-34 was light years ahead of any German Panzer). The Germans also did not trust the Soviets; in part because they kept stealing so many of the little things of life which were common in Germany (soap, pencils, toothpaste, precision tools, foodstuffs, etc.) but which were always in short supply in the Soviet Union.

    The following Soviet military individuals received extensive training in Germany; Efimov (Deputy to head of Armaments); Kuibishev (Red Army Staff), among others. It is highly unlikely that the Soviets really gained large amounts of applicable military leadership skills by working side-by-side with the Germans during this era, though they probably learned a great deal in terms of industry and technology. This is because in all probability, Stalin's purges of the 1930's killed the majority of the Soviets who now had uniquely learned military skills and the German invasion of 1941, most likely took care of those who survived the purges.