The RONA and the Kaminski Brigade

Kaminski Brigade Insignia
Kaminski Brigade Insignia

The origin and eventual fate of the infamous Kaminski Brigade is actually quite removed from that of the more popularly known echelons of the Russian’s in German Service under former-Russian General Vlassov’s so-called R.O.A. “Army of Liberation” (Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia). The former was a locally raised militia-group whose members, upon finding themselves suddenly free of Bolshevik control, hastily gathered on the verges of the Bryansk Forest in a small Byelorussian town called Lokot in late 1941 to protect themselves and their property from plundering Soviet partisans; while the latter was a vast politically hindered multitude.

The first leader of the unique Byelorussian “citizen’s-militia” which was totally self-governed, and allowed by the German occupying authority to arm itself and set its own security parameters within the “Lokot Oblast”(district), was the mayor of Lokot (pop.c.6000), Ivan K. Voskoboinikov. His tenure as ‘Warlord’ was quite brief in that he was shortly thereafter killed in a planned “punishment attack” on the Lokot town-hall by Soviet Partisans in January of 1942. He had initially gathered some 400 to 500 men and adolescents to protect his town and the local region, and with the Germans’ help, armed them with rifles and other small arms to protect the vital supply-road and railways in their district from Red-partisan interdiction. This first hastily-appointed militia-men, wearing a rag-tag mixture of revolution-era White Army, Czarist, old Red Army, and civilian kit, initially protected only their own homes and farms and the general environs of their enclave in the Bryansk forest from Red partisan activities. As they grew in numbers and strength, they would later transcend their primary self-defense function by providing manpower for German commanded security operations, striking deep into a partisan held territory, as well as providing men for the nefarious SD-Einsatzgruppe sweeps to clear the surrounding countryside of so-called undesirables.

Voskoboinikov’s deputy commander, Bronislav Vladislavovich Kaminski immediately took over in the leadership vacuum created by the Mayor of Lokot’s sudden assassination. Kaminski, who was born in 1903 in St.Petersburg was the son of a Polish father and a German mother. A university-certified chemical engineer who spoke fluent German, he was branded a bourgeois intellectual early on by the Soviet authorities, and spent some five years in the Gulag, condemned by Stalin’s xenophobic standards as an enemy of the State. He was released and returned to Lokot just prior to the German invasion of June 22, 1941. As the new leader of the self-proclaimed anti-Soviet district of Lokot, the Germans would eventually, extend him quite unprecedented freedom in the reign over his own personal fiefdom of-sorts, because of his efficacious regimentation of the local populace into a totally self-sufficient, pro-German, anti-Soviet crop-producing district that met all of the Wehrmacht’s stipulations for the handing over of essential resources to help feed the German Army.

By mid-1943, Kaminski’s local-militia would swell into a 5 regiment, 10,000 men brigade-sized unit, and would keep the vast reaches of the Bryansk forest within their grasp relatively free of Soviet Partisans which might sabotage the German rear-area, and hinder their vital rail-lines to the front. The Germans were magnanimous enough at this point to allocate some 36 captured Soviet field-guns and 24 captured T-34 type tanks in various states of repair to reinforce Kaminski’s Lokot Militia, now rostered upon the official German order of battle as the Kaminski Brigade. Kaminski himself, whose power had grown in direct proportion to the German’s continued confidence in his ability to keep his area bandit-free named his private army the Russkaya Ovsoboditelnaya Narodnaya Armija or R.O.N.A. – the Russian Army of National Liberation.

The early summer of 1943 saw the massive German offensive build-up in Byelorussia and Ukraine behind the Kursk salient in preparation for Unternehmen Zitadelle. At the same time, a renewed effort was made by the rear-area Security Commands at once and for all eradicate the ubiquitous presence of the Soviet partisan threat. The Kaminski Brigade, along with the SS-Penal Battalion Sonderkommando Dirlewanger, composed of ex-KZ convicts and Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS probationers was an integral part of this renewed effort. Their operations, undertaken in a number of district-wide scorched-earth sweeps were ruthless, bloody, and without a quarter of the remaining civilian population in the rear areas of Army Groups South and Center. After 2 years of numerous engagements in a brutal guerrilla war behind the front-lines, these units had very little tolerance for the niceties of civilian/military cooperation – their preferred method of rear-area pacification being that of the “bullet, noose, and cudgel” variety.

While the methodology employed by the German-controlled security units was remarkably brutal, it was in any event merely a contribution to the cycle of revenge for similarly bloody tactics undertaken by the Soviet partisans themselves in their own no-quarter campaign to hinder and destroy all German rear-area movement in the occupied territories.

A typical after-action report for this period by units (including Kaminski’s) beneath the command of HSSPF SS-Gruppenfuhrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (Russland-Mitte) during one of several major sweep operations undertaken included these tallies for Unternehmen Komoron (Comorant): “2,559 Bandits killed, 1139 taken into custody, 300 “liquidations” by the SD-Sipofuhrer Minsk and 11 automatic rifles captured. Total = 3698 Bandits neutralized.”

As the Soviets pushed forward in late 1943 and during the summer of 1944, the Independent district of Lokot became a thing of the past, and Kaminski’s troops and their myriad legions of camp-followers, comprised of wives, children, and relatives, totaling some 10,500 heads, would glumly follow the German Army in its westward retreat into Galicia(Weiss-Ruthenien), and finally on to refugee style encampments at Ratiboron the former Polish-Czech border.

In March 1944 the Kaminski Brigade or R.O.N.A., was briefly renamed Volksheer-Brigade Kaminski, and shortly thereafter, in July 1944interim, officially accepted into the Waffen-SS orbit as SS-Sturmbrigade -R.O.N.A. At this time Kaminski, as a loyal Volksdeutsch minion, was granted a commission by SS-Reichsfuhrer Himmler as Waffen-Brigadefuhrerder SS or General of the SS (foreign). During this period quite subtle machinations were afoot in Hitler’s FHQ and Himmler’s own Kommandostab concerning the ultimate fate of all Russian formations under German command. While Gottlob Berger and the SS-FHA were confidently making plans to incorporate Kaminski’s unit into a fully-fledged Divisional entity (the 29.Waffen-Gren.Div. der SS (Russische nr.1)), Himmler was at the same time contemplating the utilization of General Vlassov’s under-used and brooding ROA-Army contingent into a much larger SS controlled entity. As the new(post – July 1944 Plot) Commander of the Ersatzheer, or Home/Reserve Army – Himmler’s options as warlord had suddenly doubled by the stroke of the Fuhrer’s pen. As events transpired, the proposed 29th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS (Russische nr.1), though drawn up on paper to be the first of at least two Russian SS-Divisions, would be redesignated, after the Warsaw uprising, to name an Italian SS-contingent.

During this period RFSS-Himmler came to the realization that he had two distinct and different saviors of the Russian Nationalistic cause on his hands. While Kaminski, who had always been a willing and malleable tool of Himmler’s security operations, was open to suggestion, there still remained the somewhat aloof and martinet-like personality of General Vlassov to deal with. How much pondering went into RFSS Himmler’s actual decision as to the fate of the Kaminski units is not readily clear, but what is known is that the ultimate result of this quandary would not favor the self-titled former Warlord of Lokot, or his Brigade.

The advent of the Polish Home Army’s summer 1944 uprising in Warsaw would spell the end of the once formidable rear-area Lokot-Militia. Now unemployed and demoralized by their relocation to the alien environs of Ratibor, and seething with insecurity in the knowledge that their homeland and former domiciles were irremediably lost and that their future beneath the aegis of the Third Reich was perhaps limited at best, and most probably doomed – some two Battalions of around 1,700 of the Kaminski units were dispatched to Warsaw in August 1944 under command of a Major Vromov,(variously named as Lt. Col. Fromov, or Capt. Tutov). This contingent of partisan fighters was also assigned an attached mechanized unit of some four T-34 tanks, one SU-76 assault-gun, and a battery of two 122-mm cannon. They began their brutal pacification operations in the Wola and Ochta districts. It was here that numerous acts of pillaging, rape, and murder took place at the hands of members of the formation. As operations continued, incidents of this sort would continue to arise.

While it has never been ultimately resolved whether the members of the Kaminski Brigade who found themselves in the Warsaw combat zone in August 1944 were ever officially briefed as to who the actual enemy was – the bloodied members of Major Vromov’s detachment cut a swathe of brutal atrocities across the rear-areas of the divided city. Beneath the inept command of SS-Polizei General Hans Reinefarth, Vrolov’s1st Regiment soldiers would henceforth rape and kill their way through the Polish Home Army’s rear-lines wherever the opportunity presented itself, without ever answering to the censure or direction of a higher command. According to after-action reports, they insinuated themselves into undefended areas of the ruined city, well-accustomed after years of behind the lines sweeps to picking on the remains of already defeated enemies. While Waffen-Brigadefuhrer Kaminski himself was reported to have been in Warsaw for only some 10 days of the month-long combat, it was reportedly the excesses of the members of his units that would spell his ultimate end at the hands of his German SS masters.

On August 19, 1944, the overall commander of the Warsaw Action, SS-General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had in his tenure as HSSPF-Russland-Mitte never once shied away from employing the Russian renegade Kaminski Brigade in actions that were less than savory, summoned Russian SS-General Bronislav Kaminski and his personal staff to a command-conference in the Polish city of Lodz. Here, the once-useful Kaminski and his staff officers were unceremoniously marched up to a wall and shot.

(An official source of outrage was a report to Bach-Zelewski’s combat-command that members of the Kaminski contingent had raped and killed two German KdF girls (Kraft durch Freude – the Joy Through Strengthorganization) in their indiscriminate sweep through Warsaw.)

In the context of things let it not be quaintly surmised that the Germans had suddenly become squeamish at the atrocities committed by Kaminski’s crew in the Warsaw uprising – it is quite probably more to the point that despite the reported assault on German female nationals, Himmler had other more important plans for a far larger contingent of Russian’s now under his aegis – Vlassov’s ROA. While a portion of Kaminski’s leaderless contingents were subsequently seconded to Vlassov’s Army, there was never any place in the plan for the autocratic leader of the District of Lokot, Bronislav Kaminski himself, in the overall plan. His summary execution was elaborately disguised as a Polish Home Army assassination, but the truth of the event was eventually well known by all and sundry among the Brigade, many of whom would later find themselves abruptly dispatched to digging anti-tank ditches at Stettin as a reward for their former services to the Reich.