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The Rail War

The speed of the Wehrmacht’s advance meant that its efforts on the Eastern Front depended on trains for supplies. This dependency, intensified by the fact that Russian roads were so poor, meant that targeting these lines became a highly effective way to aid the war effort, and from 1942 train lines were identified by Moscow as a central target for partisan activity.



Units would destroy bridges, place explosives on the tracks, or cause derailment by pulling tracks out of alignment. Often under-equipped, partisans had to be resourceful. For example, one unit, having ruined several bridges in the winter of 1942, found themselves short of explosives, so instead hung large pumpkins from the bridge. German engineers reportedly spent over two weeks trying to understand the non-existent explosive device inside the pumpkins, stalling traffic across the bridge for that period.

Individual units, such as that led by Fyodor Malyshev, became renowned in the field of rail sabotage. Malyshev, a trained mechanical engineer, first scored a success in August 1942 when, with the aid of two pre-war acquaintances, he attached a mine to the railway tracks right under the nose of German guards. According to Soviet records, the detonation destroyed a 60-carriage train that was carrying an anti-partisan unit, killing many and halting traffic for days.

By November 1942, Malyshev and his unit had reportedly wrecked 16 trains, and would go on to destroy three more by the time his war ended. After months of immense strain and starvation, Malyshev was dispatched to Moscow to regather his strength, and was forbidden from returning due to his frailty. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union for his efforts.

One spectacular, coordinated partisan attack on rail lines was named Rel’sovaia Voina, or “Operation Rail War”. In July 1943, the day before the Battle of Kursk, partisan intelligence identified the arrival of large numbers German of troops, confirming to Soviet command that a major offensive was underway. Coordinated by the Central Partisan Headquarters, units launched a series of attacks on German railway infrastructure across the Russian front, carrying on for a two month period. Soon followed Operation Concert, ahead of the Battle of Dnieper. Hundreds of thousands of rails were reportedly destroyed in the operations. 

Russian partisans, operating behind enemy lines, setting fire to a freight train at a German supply depot.

(Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)