Labour battalions

​Militarised labour units in the Red Army during WWII that drew together men mobilised among ‘untrustworthy nations’ whom the authorities did not want to arm and send to the front.

‘Labour battalion’ was a general term denoting labour units subordinated to the Red Army and the NKVD that were used in the rear as well as in the immediate vicinity of the front line. The term includes labour columns, construction columns and construction battalions. Representatives of untrustworthy nations and of those deemed to be unfit to be sent to the front, such as Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and other nationalities, were sent to these units. Thousands of men from Estonia were sent to the rear of the Soviet Union under mobilisation and as members of destruction battalions, workers’ regiments, militia units, staffs of evacuated industrial enterprises and the 22nd Estonian Territorial Corps. The conscripts and reservists mobilised into the Red Army from Estonia were initially not sent to the front, but directed to labour units in the rear. In larger numbers, Estonians were located in labour units in the Arkhangelsk and Ural Military Districts, where they were grouped into 1000-man construction battalions and labour columns. They were mostly used in construction work and logging.

In September 1941, all former construction battalions were renamed construction columns and made self-sufficient. The lives of the members of these columns depended, to a very great extent, on the honesty of the leaders of particular units, meaning how much of the funds designated for provisions were used for that purpose and how much of them were illegally appropriated. Disorder and mismanagement made the conditions of the men especially difficult when winter came, because they were still wearing the summer clothing they had had on at the time of their mobilisation. In the autumn and winter of 1941, men started to die in large numbers, the main causes being hunger, contagious diseases, pneumonia, beatings, malnourishment, freezing temperatures and suicides. When the formation of Estonian national units was started in the Red Army at the end of 1941, the survivors of the labour battalions made up the main part of the troops. According to the known data, 12 840 men – more than a third of all men mobilised into the Red Army from Estonia – perished in labour battalions.

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