Barrier troops, blocking units, or anti-retreat forces were military units that were located in the rear or on the front line (behind the main forces) to maintain military discipline, prevent the flight of servicemen from the battlefield, capture spies, saboteurs and deserters, and return troops who fled from the battlefield or lagged behind their units.
According to research by Jason Lyall, barrier troops are more likely to be used by the militaries of states that discriminate against the ethnic groups that comprise the state’s military.
In the National Revolutionary Army
During the Battle of Nanking in the Second Sino-Japanese War, a battalion of the 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) was guarding the Yijiang Gate and was under orders to ‘let no one through’. On 12 December 1937, the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) collapsed against the Japanese onslaught. NRA units tried to retreat without orders through the gate, and the battalion shot into the crowd, killing many people.
In the Red Army
In the Red Army of the RSFSR and the Soviet Union the concept of barrier troops first arose in August 1918 with the formation of the заградительные отряды (zagraditelnye otriady), translated as “blocking troops” or “anti-retreat detachments” (Russian: заградотряды, заградительные отряды, отряды заграждения). The barrier troops comprised personnel drawn from Cheka punitive detachments or from regular Red Army infantry regiments.
The first use of the barrier troops by the Red Army occurred in the late summer and fall of 1918 in the Eastern front during the Russian Civil War, when People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs (War Commissar) Leon Trotsky of the Communist Bolshevik government authorized Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the commander of the 1st Army, to station blocking detachments behind unreliable Red Army infantry regiments in the 1st Red Army, with orders to shoot if front-line troops either deserted or retreated without permission.
In December 1918 Trotsky ordered that detachments of additional barrier troops be raised for attachment to each infantry formation in the Red Army. On 18 December he cabled:
“How do things stand with the blocking units? As far as I am aware they have not been included in our establishment and it appears they have no personnel. It is absolutely essential that we have at least an embryonic network of blocking units and that we work out a procedure for bringing them up to strength and deploying them.”
The barrier troops were also used to enforce Bolshevik control over food supplies in areas controlled by the Red Army, a role which soon earned them the hatred of the Russian civilian population.
The concept was re-introduced on a large scale during the Second World War. On June 27, 1941, in response to reports of unit disintegration in battle and desertion from the ranks in the Soviet Red Army, the 3rd Department (military counterintelligence of Soviet Army) of the USSR’s People’s Commissariat of Defence of the USSR issued a directive establishing mobile barrier forces composed of NKVD personnel to operate on roads, railways, forests, etc. for the purpose of catching “deserters and suspicious persons”. With the continued deterioration of the military situation in the face of the German offensive of 1941, NKVD detachments acquired a new mission: to prevent the unauthorized withdrawal of Red Army forces from the battle line. The first troops of this kind were formed in the Bryansk Front on 05 September 1941.
On 12 September 1941 Joseph Stalin issued the Stavka Directive No. 1919 (Директива Ставки ВГК №001919) concerning the creation of barrier troops in rifle divisions of the Southwestern Front, to suppress panic retreats. Each Red Army division was to have an anti-retreat detachment equipped with transport totaling one company for each regiment. Their primary goal was to maintain strict military discipline and to prevent disintegration of the front line by any means. These barrier troops were usually formed from ordinary military units and placed under NKVD command.
In 1942, after Stavka Directive No. 227 (Директива Ставки ВГК №227) issued on 28 July 1942, set up penal battalions, anti-retreat detachments were used to prevent withdrawal or desertion by penal units as well. Penal military unit personnel were always rearguarded by NKVD anti-retreat detachments, and not by regular Red Army infantry forces. As per Order No. 227, each Army should have had 3-5 barrier squads of up to 200 persons each.
A report to the Commissar General of State Security (NKVD chief) Lavrentiy Beria on 10 October 1941, noted that since the beginning of the war, NKVD anti-retreat troops had detained a total of 657,364 retreating, spies, traitors, instigators and deserting personnel, of which 25,878 were arrested (of which 10,201 were sentenced to death by court martial and the rest were returned to active duty).
At times, barrier troops were involved in battle operations along with regular soldiers, as noted by Aleksandr Vasilevsky in his directive N 157338 from 01 October 1942.
Order No. 227 also stipulated the capture or shooting of “cowards” and fleeing panicked troops at the rear the blocking detachments, who in the first three months shot 1,000 penal troops and sent 24,993 to penal battalions. By October 1942 the idea of regular blocking detachments was quietly dropped, and on 29 October 1944 Stalin officially ordered the disbanding of the units.
It has been reported that in the initial stages of the Syrian civil war regular soldiers sent to subdue protesters were surrounded by an outer cordon manned by forces known to be loyal to the regime, with orders to shoot those who refused their orders or attempted to flee.
Practice and Results of Use
Army General P. N. Lashchenko:
“Yes, there were barrier detachments. But I do not know if any of them would shoot at their own people, at least in our sector of the front. Already, I requested archival documents on this subject; there were no such documents. The detachments were at a distance from the front, covered the troops from the rear from the saboteurs and the enemy landings, detained deserters, who, unfortunately, existed; brought order to the river crossings, sent soldiers who had strayed from their units to assembly points. I will say more, when the front received reinforcements, they were naturally green, or as they say, haven’t smelled gunpowder, while protective detachments consisted entirely of seasoned soldiers, those most persistent and courageous and were like a reliable and strong shoulder of an elder. It often happened too that the [barrier] detachments found themselves face to face with the same German tanks or chains of German machine gunners and suffered heavy losses in battle. This fact is irrefutable.”
According to an official letter addressed in October 1941 to Lavrentiy Beria, in the period between the beginning of Operation Barbarossa to early December 1941, NKVD detachments had arrested 657,364 servicemen who had fallen behind their lines and fled from the front. Of these detainees, 25,878 were arrested, and the remaining 632,486 were formed in units and sent back to the front. Among those arrested included accused 1505 spies, 308 saboteurs, 2621 traitors, 2643 “cowards and alarmists”, 3987 distributors of “provocative rumors”, and 4371 others. 10,201 of them were shot, meaning approximately 1.5% of those arrested were sentenced to death.
For a thorough check of the Red Army soldiers who were in captivity or surrounded by the enemy, by the decision of the State Defence Committee No. 1069ss of 27 December 1941, army collection and forwarding points were established in each army and special camps of the NKVD were organised. In 1941-1942, 27 special camps were created, but in connection with the inspection and shipment of verified servicemen to the front, they were gradually eliminated (by the beginning of 1943, only 7 special camps were operating). According to official data, in 1942, 177,081 former prisoners of war and surrounding men entered special camps. After checking by special departments of the NKVD, 150,521 people were transferred to the Red Army.
On 29 October 1944, Order No. 0349 of the People’s Commissar for Defence I. V. Stalin, the barrage detachments were disbanded due to a significant change in the situation at the front. Personnel joined the rifle units.
The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates shows Soviet Red Army barrier troops using a PM M1910 to gun down the few retreating survivors of a failed charge on a German position during the Battle of Stalingrad. The 2011 film My Way also depicts Soviet blocking troops shooting retreating soldiers during a charge.