14 April 1943
4 May 1946
Directorate of Special Departments within NKVD USSR III Main Directorate within MGB USSR
Soviet Union and newly liberated territories (World War II)
Lubyanka (4th and 6th floors) Moscow, Soviet Union
SMERSH (Russian: СМЕРШ – acronym of "death to spies" – Russian: Смерть шпионам [SMERt' SHpionam]) was an umbrella organisation for three independent counter-intelligence agencies in the Red Army formed in late 1942 or even earlier, but officially announced only on 14 April 1943. The name SMERSH was coined by Joseph Stalin. The main reason for its creation was to subvert the attempts by German forces to infiltrate the Red Army on the Eastern Front.
- Operation Barbarossa
- Other activities
- UKR SMERSH units at the front
The official statute of SMERSH listed the following tasks to be performed by the organisation: counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, preventing any other activity of foreign intelligence in the Red Army; fighting "anti-Soviet elements" in the Red Army; protection of the front lines against penetration by spies and "anti-Soviet elements"; investigating traitors, deserters and self-harm in the Red Army; and checking military and civil personnel returning from captivity.
The organisation was officially in existence until 4 May 1946, when its duties were transferred back to the NKGB. The head of the agency throughout its existence was Viktor Abakumov, who rose to become Minister of State Security in the postwar years.
On 3 February 1941, the 4th Department (Special Section, OO) of GUGB NKVD security service responsible for the Soviet Armed Forces military counter-intelligence, consisting of 12 Sections and one Investigation Unit, was separated from GUGB NKVD. The official liquidation of OO GUGB within NKVD was announced on 12 February by a joint order № 00151/003 of NKVD and NKGB USSR. The rest of GUGB was abolished and staff was moved to newly created People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB). Departments of former GUGB were renamed Directorates. For example, former Foreign Department (INO) became Foreign Directorate (INU); political police represented by Secret Political Department (SPO) became Secret Political Directorate (SPU), and so on. The former GUGB 4th Department (OO) was split into three sections. One section, which handled military counter-intelligence in NKVD troops (former 11th Section of GUGB 4th Department OO) become 3rd NKVD Department or OKR (Otdel KontrRazvedki), the chief of OKR NKVD was Aleksander Belyanov, Commissar State Security 3rd rank. On 25 February 1941, Viktor Abakumov became NKVD deputy Commissar in charge of supervising this and several other departments.
The second and most significant part went to the Defense Commissariat Soviet Armed Forces (the NKO) becoming its 3rd Directorate or (3 Upravalenie). The 3rd NKO Directorate took over most of the 4th GUGB Department Sections and was headed by division commissar Anatolii Mikheev, the former and last OO GUGB NKVD chief. The third part of former OO (the 10 Section) became the Navy Commissariat (the Red Fleet) 3rd Directorate. The head of navy KI was Andrei Petrov, a state security captain.
After the 22 June 1941 German invasion of the USSR, Stalin on 17 July, as Chairman of State Defense Committee, signed special decree №187 / ss, by which military counterintelligence was returned to the NKVD as a Directorate of Special Departments or UOO, with Viktor Abakumov as chief. UOO on every level was given much more power and a freer hand in decision making than at any time since the creation of Cheka. Also on 19 July, by the order of NKVD №00940, the UOO was moved from Moscow to the city of Kuibyshev. Navy 3rd Directorate was still under Navy control, till 11 January 1942 when it was incorporated into Directorate of Special Departments.
On 2 July 1941, NKGB USSR was incorporated back into the NKVD structure. NKGB did not return as GUGB, but as separate units. The NKVD structure organisation from 31 July 1941. shows that there are independent Directorates as in the 1st: foreign intelligence, 2nd: domestic KI, and so on. There is no GUGB within NKVD after its official liquidation in the beginning of February 1941
After the situation on the Russian fronts (known as Eastern front) became more stable, on 14 April 1943, the State Defense Committee (GKO), chaired by Stalin, ordered another split of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD USSR) into three organisations: By decision of the Politburo of the CPSU [then VKP(b)] nr. P 40/91People's Commissariat for State Security or (NKGB) was created for the second time. It was based on NKVD's Directorates. The most important of them were: 1st INU (foreign intelligence), 2nd KRU (domestic counterespionage, fighting anti-Soviet organizations and protection of state economy as well as: house searches and arrests ) NKVD 2nd Department (government and party officials protection) was transferred as NKGB 6th Directorate, NKVD Transportation Directorate was absorbed as NKGB 3rd Directorate and NKVD 4th Directorate was moved to NKGB with the same number. For detailed organization please see NKGB. "Regulations of the People's Commissariat of State Security" were approved by SNK in order № 621-191ss from 2 June 1943. After losing most of the operational units to the NKGB, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) was still a very powerful government apparatus. It was responsible for public order in USSR by using heavily armed police in each corner of the country, running the largest slave labour camps under the Gulag Directorate, POWs camps and NKVD troops with loyal and well-equipped soldiers, that by the end of the war the numbers of NKVD troops were 1½ million strong with their own air force, armored and cavalry units
Resolution No. 414-138 ss ordered the NKVD's Directorate of Special Departments to be split into three separate military counterintelligence units, within the NKO, Navy Commissariat and NKVD, respectively, as has been done in early 1941. The same order that created GUKR SMERSH within the NKO created a parallel organisation within the Navy Commissariat, the NKVMF. This organization was known as the Navy UKR SMERSH and headed by Peter Gladkov and his two deputies Aleksei Lebedev and Sergei Dukhovich. In reality, Gladkov reported to Abakumov, by then deputy Commissar of the NKO, and Stalin's deputy. Formally Gladkov was subordinate to his superior People's Commissar Nikolay Gerasimovich Kuznetsov, head of Navy.
OKR SMERSH (Counterintelligence Department) of the NKVD USSR was subordinate to Lavrentiy Beria, People's Commissar of Internal Affairs. The NKVD OKR SMERSH was headed by Semion Yukhimovich and later V. Smirnov.
The GKO officially created SMERSH to ensure the Soviet Union’s security from internal political threats and foreign espionage, although it carried out a wide variety of other tasks between 1943 and 1946 as well. SMERSH’s counterintelligence operations included seeking and destroying counter revolutionaries, finding and interrogating enemy agents, hunting Soviet agents who had not returned by the appointed date, and evaluating the usefulness of captured enemy documents. SMERSH also took an active role in the affairs of the Red Army by ensuring the good quality of Red Army facilities, improving discipline, eliminating poor leaders, and preventing desertion, self-inflicted wounds, panic, sabotage and poor discipline. Other SMERSH activities included: exposing collaborators in areas recently captured by the Red Army; exposing and punishing economic crimes such as black market activity; protecting secret material and headquarters from enemy agents and saboteurs; and determining the "patriotism" of those captured, encircled, and those who had returned from foreign countries. SMERSH operatives also controlled partisan operations behind German lines and evaluated the partisans’ loyalty to the Soviet Union. SMERSH would then arrest and neutralise anti-Soviet partisans, saboteurs, spies, conspirators, mutineers, deserters, and people designated as traitors and criminal elements at the combat front.
The strategic directorate focused on counter-espionage wet operations and counter-insurgency pacification operations that answered directly to Stalin. In March 1946 SMERSH Chief Directorate was resubordinated to the People's Commissariat of Military Forces (Наркомат Вооруженных Сил, NKVS). The NKVS was later reorganized into the Ministry of Military Forces (МVS) soon thereafter, and SMERSH was officially discontinued 4 May 1946.
SMERSH activities included "filtering" the soldiers and forced labourers recovered from captivity. SMERSH was actively involved in the capture of Soviet citizens who had been active in anti-communist armed groups fighting on the side of Nazi Germany such as the Russian Liberation Army, the Cossack Corps of Pyotr Krasnov, and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (see also forced repatriation).
As the war concluded, SMERSH was given the assignment of finding Adolf Hitler and, if possible, capturing him alive or recovering his body. Red Army officers and SMERSH agents found Hitler's partially burned corpse near the Führerbunker after his suicide and conducted an investigation to confirm the events of his death and identify the remains which (along with those of Eva Braun) were reportedly secretly buried at SMERSH headquarters in Magdeburg until April 1970, when they were exhumed, completely cremated, and dumped.
SMERSH fought the Armia Krajowa and post-war organisations participating e.g. in the Augustów roundup.
A separate attachment to GKO decision No. 3222-ss/ov detailed the organisation of SMERSH and its branches in the Army:
The Smersh organs are a centralized organization. At the fronts and military districts the Smersh organs (the NKO Smersh directorates at fronts and NKO Smersh departments at the armies, corps, divisions, brigades, military districts, and other units and organizations of the Red Army) are subordinated to the higher organs.(...) The Smersh organs inform Military Councils and commanders of the corresponding units, troops, and organizations of the Red Army on the matters of their work: on the results of their combat with enemy agents, on the penetration of the army units by anti-Soviet elements , and on the results of combat against traitors of the Motherland, deserters, and. self mutilators.
At the end of the Second World War, American forces examining captured German intelligence sources determined that SMERSH was composed of six directorates, six departments, and three other branches. Directorates conducted operations involving agents on the "frontline" of the intelligence war whereas departments received and interpreted the information coming in from agents and enemy intercepts. SMERSH also ran three other groups; the Komendatura, which guarded and managed SMERSH installations and prisoners; the Troika, which acted as a military court and could administer punishment without defense from the accused; and the Administrative Bureau and Secretariat, which acted as the personal staff of the SMERSH commander.
Below is the organization of SMERSH based on German Intelligence. The second Chart shows another way SMERSH may have been organized.
UKR SMERSH units at the front
GUKR SMERSH directed the work of field directorates, assigned to the fronts. These field organs were referred to as UKR SMERSH (Upravlenie Kontrrazvedki) or Counterintelligence Directorates. The naming distinguished them from the GUKR (HQ) SMERSH headquarters. The difference between GUKR and UKR or OKR was in the status hierarchy in the Red Army Military CI (the same structures were applied in February 1941 to NKO, NKMF and NKVD military counterintelligence units). They were ranked according to their authority. In the case of SMERSH the system of organization was: Main (or Chief) Directorate or GUKR SMERSH, Directorate of Counterintelligence or UKR SMERSH, and Department of Counterintelligence or OKR SMERSH.
GUKR in Moscow consisted of 11 operational and 3 non-operational departments, a total of 646 men. For comparison, GUKR SMERSH's predecessor, UOO NKVD Directorate of Special Departments within the NKVD (Russian: УОО НКВД) consisted of 225 men in 1942. Not all departments corresponded to their UOO NKVD predecessors. With the new focus on the Germans and other enemies, two departments, the 3rd and 4th, transferred from the NKVD/NKGB.[p. 257]
The 3rd Department had the task of capturing German spies in the rear and organizing radio games with their help, and the 4th Department headed counter-intelligence measures behind the front line. Five of the departments, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th. were involved directly in investigation.
The UKR SMERSH (Counterintelligence Directorate) of the front, directed the OKRs Counterintelligence Departments (Otdiel Kontrrazvedki) within the armies and units. There SMERSH officers were attached to each rifle corps. The OKR at the division level consisted of 21 men, including a head, his deputy, a ciphering officer, investigators, commandant, and a platoon of guards. The OKR of each army included 57 men, while the size of the front UKR depended on how many armies composed the front. If the front consisted of five armies, its UKR included 130 officers, if there were fewer armies, the UKR had 112 officers.
Military Districts had a different structure. For example, the Moscow Military District, the biggest one at the time, had between 109 and 193 officers; they went through special training for filtering POWs. SMERSH units at the fronts were supported by NKVD internal troops for guarding prisoners, for operational work UKR and OKR SMERSH units were supported by regular Red Army servicemen. SMERSH front directorates were provided with a battalion, SMERSH army departments with a company, and SMERSH departments at the regiment, division, or brigade level, a platoon.
In its counter-espionage and counter-intelligence roles, SMERSH appears to have been extremely successful throughout World War II. SMERSH actions resulted in numerous captures, desertions, and defections of German intelligence officers and agents, some of whom SMERSH turned into double agents. Indeed, the Germans began to consider missions where their losses were less than ninety percent "satisfactory". According to German sources, the Soviets rendered approximately 39,500 German agents useless by the end of the war.
SMERSH utilized a number of different counterintelligence tactics: informants, security troops, radio games, and the passing of disinformation, ensuring both the reliability of the military and the civilian population. SMERSH set up a system of informants by sending a SMERSH officer to each battalion composed of between 1,000 and 1,500 men. Each SMERSH officer would enlist a number of "residents" who recruited their own "reserve resident" and between six and eight informants. Informants reported those sympathetic to the Germans, desertion, unpatriotic attitudes, and low morale and were authorized to take "immediate corrective action" if the need arose. SMERSH recruited between 1,540,000 and 3,400,000 informants, or about twelve percent of the entire Red Army. However, SMERSH coerced up to half of all of its informants to work for them.
In order to secure the Red Army's rear, SMERSH evacuated civilians and set up checkpoints so as to assert physical control. Next, agents sought and arrested "suspicious persons" who might be German agents. Finally, SMERSH interrogated those arrested.
Compared to its predecessor (Directorate of Special Departments – UOO), Smersh, was mostly focused on enemies spies, although Red Army servicemen were still under suspicion. Abakumov kept Stalin updated on all high-ranking commanders, and on the behavior of a number of leading military officers.
- The arrest of a private or junior officer should be approved by a prosecutor;
- The arrest of a mid-level commander should be approved by the commander and prosecutor of military unit.
- The arrest of a high-level commander should be approved by the Military Council of the [front] and a prosecutor.
- The arrest of a commander of the highest level should be authorized by the People's Commissar of Defense [Stalin].
To confuse German intelligence with disinformation, SMERSH utilized radio playbacks and played over 183 radio games over the course of the war. Operation "Opyt'" serves as a good example of the effectiveness of these radio games. Between May and June 1943, SMERSH used three German agents to spread disinformation about the Kursk counteroffensive by suggesting the Red Army had begun to dig in rather than prepare for an attack, thus contributing to the success of the Red Army’s surprise attack. Before Operation Bagration, the largest Allied operation of the Second World War, SMERSH caught and "doubled" a number of German agents who tricked the German military into underestimating the number of Soviet troops by 1.2 million men.
SMERSH played a major role in creating and controlling partisan operations behind German lines. After capturing German-held territory and reuniting with the Red Army, SMERSH interviewed partisans in order to determine the partisans’ loyalty to the regime.