The RONA and the Kaminski Brigade

The origin and eventual fate of the infamous Kaminski Brigade is actuallyquite removed from that of the more popularly known echelons of theRussian’s in German Service under former-Russian General Vlassov’s so-calledR.O.A. “Army of Liberation” (Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia). The formerwas a locally raised militia-group whose members, upon finding themselvessuddenly free of Bolshevik control, hastily gathered on the verges of theBryansk Forest in a small Byelorussian town called Lokot in late 1941 toprotect 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 wastotally self-governed, and allowed by the German occupying authority to armitself and set its own security parameters within the “Lokot Oblast”(district), was the mayor of Lokot (pop.c.6000), Ivan K.Voskoboinikov. Histenure as ‘Warlord’ was quite brief in that he was shortly thereafterkilled in a planned “punishment attack” on the Lokot town-hall by SovietPartisans in January of 1942. He had initially gathered some 400 to 500 menand adolescents to protect his town and local region, and with the Germanshelp, armed them with rifles and other small arms to protect the vitalsupply-road and railways in their district from Red-partisan interdiction.This first hastily-appointed militia-men, wearing a rag-tag mixture ofrevolution-era White Army, Czarist, old Red Army and civilian kit,initially protected only their own homes and farms and the general environsof their enclave in the Bryansk forest from Red partisan activities. Asthey grew in numbers and strength, they would later transcend their primaryself-defense function by providing manpower for German commandedsecurity operations, striking deep into a partisan held territory, as wellas providing men for the nefarious SD-Einsatzgruppe sweeps to clear thesurrounding countryside of so-called undesirables.

Voskoboinikov’s deputy commander, Bronislav Vladislavovich Kaminskiimmediately took over in the leadership vacuum created by the Mayor ofLokot’s sudden assassination. Kaminski, who was born in 1903 inSt.Petersburg was the son of a Polish father and a German mother. A university-certified chemical engineer who spoke fluent German, he wasbranded a bourgeois intellectual early on by the Soviet authorities, andspent some five years in the Gulag, condemned by Stalin’s xenophobicstandards as an enemy of the State. He was released and returned toLokot just prior to the German invasion of June 22, 1941. As the new leaderof the self-proclaimed anti-Soviet district of Lokot, the Germans wouldeventually, extend him quite unprecedented freedom in the reign over his ownpersonal fiefdom of-sorts, because of his efficacious regimentation of thelocal populace into a totally self-sufficient, pro-German, anti-Soviet crop-producing district that met all of the Wehrmacht’s stipulations forthe 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 man brigade-sized unit, and would keep the vast reaches of theBryansk forest within their grasp relatively free of Soviet Partisans whichmight sabotage the German rear-area, and hinder their vital rail-lines tothe front. The Germans were magnanimous enough at this point to allocatesome 36 captured Soviet field-guns and 24 captured T-34 type tanks invarious states of repair to reinforce Kaminski’s Lokot Militia, nowrostered upon the official German order of battle as the KaminskiBrigade. Kaminski himself, whose power had grown in direct proportion tothe German’s continued confidence in his ability to keep his areabandit-free named his private army the Russkaya OvsoboditelnayaNarodnaya Armija or R.O.N.A. – the Russian Army of NationalLiberation.

The early summer of 1943 saw the massive German offensive build-up inByelorussia and Ukraine behind the Kursk salient in preparation forUnternehmen Zitadelle. At the same time, a renewed effort was made by therear-area Security Commands at once and for all eradicate the ubiquitouspresence of the Soviet partisan threat. The Kaminski Brigade, along withthe SS-Penal Battalion Sonderkommando Dirlewanger, composed of ex-KZconvicts and Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS probationers was an integral part ofthis renewed effort. Thier operations, undertaken in a number ofdistrict-wide scorched-earth sweeps were ruthless, bloody, and withouta quarter of the remaining civilian population in the rear areas of ArmyGroups South and Center. After 2 years of numerous engagements in a brutalguerrilla war behind the front-lines, these units had very little tolerancefor the niceties of civilian/military cooperation – their preferred methodof rear-area pacification being that of the “bullet, noose, and cudgel”variety.

While the methodology employed by the German-controlled security units wasremarkably brutal, it was in any event merely a contribution to the cycleof revenge for similarly bloody tactics undertaken by the Soviet partisan’sthemselves in their own no-quarter campaign to hinder and destroy allGerman rear-area movement in the occupied territories.

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

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, andKaminski’s troops and their myriad legions of camp-followers, comprised ofwives, children, and relatives, totaling some 10,500 heads, would glumlyfollow 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 renamedVolksheer-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, wasgranted a commission by SS-Reichsfuhrer Himmler as Waffen-Brigadefuhrerder SS or General of the SS (foreign). During this period quite subtlemachinations were afoot in Hitler’s FHQ and Himmler’s own Kommandostabconcerning the ultimate fate of all Russian formations under Germancommand. While Gottlob Berger and the SS-FHA were confidently making plansto 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 timecontemplating the utilization of General Vlassov’s under-used and broodingROA-Army contingent into a much larger SS controlled entity. As the new(post – July 1944 Plot) Commander of the Ersatzheer, or Home/ReserveArmy – Himmler’s options as warlord had suddenly doubled by the stroke ofthe Fuhrers pen. As events transpired, the proposed 29.Waffen-GrenadierDivision der SS (russische nr.1), though drawn up on paper to be the firstof at least two Russian SS-Divisions, would be redesignated, after theWarsaw uprising, to name an Italian SS-contingent.

During this period RFSS-Himmler came to the realize that he had twodistinct and different saviors of the Russian Nationalistic cause on hishands. While Kaminski, who had always been a willing and malleable tool ofHimmler’s security operations, was open to suggestion, there stillremained the somewhat aloof and martinet-like personality of GeneralVlassov to deal with. How much pondering went into RFSS Himmler’s actualdecision as to the fate of the Kaminski units is not readily clear, butwhat is known is that the ultimate result of this quandary would not favorthe self-titled former Warlord of Lokot, or his Brigade.

The advent of the Polish Home Army’s summer 1944 uprising in Warsaw wouldspell the end of the once formidable rear-area Lokot-Militia. Nowunemployed and demoralized by their relocation to the alien environs ofRatibor, and seething with insecurity in the knowledge that their homelandand former domiciles were irremediably lost and that their future beneaththe aegis of the Third Reich was perhaps limited at best, and most probablydoomed – some two Battalions of around 1,700 of the Kaminski units weredispatched to Warsaw in August 1944 under command of a Major Vromov,(variously named as Lt. Col. Fromov ,or Capt. Tutov). This contingent ofpartisan fighters was also assigned an attached mechanized unit of somefour 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 Ochtadistricts. It was here that numerous acts of pillaging, rape, and murdertook place at the hands of members of the formation. As operationscontinued, incidents of this sort would continue to arise.

While it has never been ultimately resolved whether the members of theKaminski Brigade who found themselves in the Warsaw combat zone in August1944 were ever officially briefed as to who the actual enemy was – thebloodied members of Major Vromov’s detachment cut a swathe of brutalatrocities across the rear-areas of the divided city. Beneath theinept command of SS-Polizei General Hans Reinefarth, Vrolov’s1st Regiment soldiers would henceforth rape and kill their way through thePolish 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 intoundefended areas of the ruined city, wellaccustomed after years of behind the lines sweeps to picking on the remainsof already defeated enemies. While Waffen-Brigadefuhrer Kaminski himselfwas reported to have been in Warsaw for only some 10 days of the month-longcombat, it was reportedly the excesses of the members of his unitsthat would spell his ultimate end at the hands ofhis German SS masters.

On August 19, 1944, the overall commander of the Warsaw Action, SS-GeneralErich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had in his tenure asHSSPF-Russland-Mitte never once shied away from employing the Russianrenegade Kaminski Brigade in actions that were less than savory, summonedRussian SS-General Bronislav Kaminski and his personal staff to acommand-conference in the Polish city of Lodz. Here, the once-usefulKaminski and his staff officers were unceremoniously marched up to awall and shot.

(An official source of outrage was a report to Bach-Zelewski’scombat-command that members of the Kaminski contingent had raped and killedtwo 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 Germanshad suddenly become squeamish at the atrocities committed by Kaminski’s crew in the Warsaw uprising – it is quite probably more to the point thatdespite the reported assault on German female nationals, Himmler had othermore important plans for a far larger contingent of Russian’s nowunder his aegis – Vlassov’s ROA. While a portion of Kaminski’s leaderlesscontingents were subsequently seconded to Vlassov’s Army, there was neverany place in the plan for the autocratic leader of the District of Lokot,Bronislav Kaminski himself, in the overall plan. His summary execution waselaborately disguised as a Polish Home Army assassination, but the truth ofthe 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 theReich.