Tag Archives: Latvian army

Jews of Latvia fighting for Latvian Independence 1918-1920

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac "The Liberator"

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac “The Liberator”

During the war of independence the new Latvian Republic faced many enemies and nearly impossible task to form own Latvian armed forces. The Bolsheviks wanted Latvia as part of the new Worldwide Socialist republic, while the Baltic Germans striven for Baltic Duchy. However, Latvian Provisional government managed to form an army capable to secure our independence. Not only Latvians fought under the Latvian banner. Latvia was a multi-ethnic country and many national minorities also came to help. One of them were Jews. During the war for freedom more than 1000 Jews fought in the lines of the Latvian army. Some of them received highest state awards. 22 men lost their life’s. Many continued their service after the war. This is a story about them. Some of these soldiers were my personal relatives that make this story even more special.

Latvian Jews were at first quite skeptical about the new Latvian state. Many did not believe it could last for long, others still had a sentiment for collapsed Russian empire or even the new Bolshevik regime. Many searched ways to escape conscription and acquired the citizenship of the short lived Peoples Republic of Belarus and Ukraine. Some just declared allegiance to  non-bolshevik Russia, that was still legally acceptable. However, there were people who joined the Latvian army voluntarily or did not resist conscription.  Some Jews gave charity to Latvian army in Ludza the most contributors for the funds to buy a new flag of Latvia were the local Jews.

On Autumn 1919 most Jews started to support the Republic of Latvia. The support rose sharply during the attack of the Army of Bermont.  Jews understood that the free democratic Latvia is the best form of rule for them. The chance for autonomy of education, political and economic freedoms were more tempting than the brutal Bermont rule and the Red terror.

According to latest research 1000- 1200  Jews took part in the war of freedom. With them 12 officers, 19 medics and war employes. Jews also took part in the Latgalian Partisan Regiment. There were also Jews serving the Landeswerh and German land guard.  The most oldest Jewish soldier was 59 year old Haims Šteins and the most youngest was 10 year old Kopel Gorelik. He could be the youngest Latvian soldier ever. He took part in the 2th Cesis Battalion, later 2th Ventspils battalion where he fought the Bolsheviks for four months. He died in Riga in 1935. Jēkabs (Jakovs) Rics was 13 year old when he joined the 4th auto service. Many young Jewish boys either joined or were conscripted. Some had wrong birth date in the passports Mozus Dobrins was considered as 16 year old, while really he was 3 years younger. He was wounded near Jelgava on 20 November 1920 and later discharged as underage.

Many 18-19 year old’s took part. Hiršs Hermanis from Dobele took joined by his own will already on March 1 1919. He was lost in action against the Bermont army on October 9 1919, in the same day 18 year old Hiršs Hirholm also auxiliary soldier lost his life. Many Jews joined simply because they were unemployed and short of money.

On July 1919 when the Estonian army entered Vidzeme, a mobilization for Latvian armed units were issued. From 40 Jewish families, 20 youths showed at the draft point on the first day. Most of them were sent to 4th company, that was nicknamed the “The Mozes Squad”. In the battles of Cēsis 1 man was lost and six were wounded 2 Jews with them. Some Jews from Estonian towns were also called in the Latvian ranks. Jews supported Latvian army in the Latgalian front and joined the partisan units. Others helped in field hospitals. Many Jewish schoolboys defended the city of Liepāja during the Bermont attack, later they came to Latgalian front.

After the war Jewish veterans formed their own societies. Jewish Liberators of Latvia were active society releasing the journal “Liberator” where they gathered all the info about the Jewish soldiers. Also Jewish retired soldier’s society was present.  At the end of the war there were 84% of Latvians, 5,6% Germans, 3,9% Russians, 1,8% Poles, 1,3% Belorussians, and 1,7% Jews. It was a rather high number knowing the situation. Most Jews were only soldiers or private first class (dižkarievis), first class sergeants were Movša Hemohs Maļeckis, Sergejs Mahmoņiks, Jēkabs Zilberbrants, sergeants Boriss Kessels, Mirons Solomonovičš, Boriss Joffe, Leo Goldarbeiters, Šloms Taube, Rafails Sļedzevicš, Josifs Aļšvangs, corporal Oskars Goldblats, Nahmans Hiršovičs, Leiba Models, Nikolajs Zilberts, Nahmans Jakubovicš, Zamuels Klemptners, Jozefs Taics, Šloma Sandlers and others.

According to information gathered by the Jewish organizations 37 men lost their life’s for Latvia. Their names were imprinted on memorial stone made in 1935 in the Riga Old Jewish cemetery.  However, the latest research concludes that actually 23 Jews lost their life’s, 3 died from other causes, one was part of the Landeswerh unit before it was submitted to the Latvian command. One actually survived. 4 men were not Jews, who simply had surnames that resembled Jewish surnames. 4 others may not be Jews. That however does not wash away the courage and dignity of each of these men who gave their lives for Latvia.

Four Latvian Jews received the highest Latvian military award – The Order of Lāčplēsis. All of them were awarded with 4th Rank of the order.  Josifs Hops born on 1898 was from Parnu Estonia and was mobilized into Latvian forces. Before he served in the Russian armed forces. He was admitted to the 1st Valmiera infantry regiment. He fought the Bolsheviks and the army of Bermont. From September 1 1919 he was the squad commander. He was promoted to private first class. He was decorated  with 4th Rank of the Order of Lāčplēsis  for crossing the enemy lines from behind, cutting the telephone wires and assaulting the Mamoņu house. Under heavy crossfire they first reached the enemy post and captured the machine gun along with its crew. After that they turned the machine gun towards the enemy and retreated leaving behind many dead and wounded soldiers. After retiring from office in 1921 he and his brother who also served returned back to Parnu Estonia. In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Estonia he joined the Soviet destroyer battalion where he was lost in action.

His brother Zamuēls Hops born on 1890 also served in the Russian army was medic, he then was admitted to Latvian army where he gained the rank of sergeant. He was decorated for his outstanding service as a medic. He survived the Holocaust by evacuating to Russia. He then returned to Estonia where he died on 1962.

Robrts Simons Maļeckis born in 1899 September 17 in Riga was mobilized on October 3 1919. Together with his brother Herman he was admitted to the 1ts Liepāja Infantry regiment. He was decorated for outstanding courage against the Bolsheviks. His brother lived in Soviet Russia and was a high rank official. He joined his brother in USSR and became a communist party member. He and his brother was killed in Great purge of the 1937.

Maksis Gringūts was born in 1896 in Jēkabpils. Served in the Russian ranks, was decorated with the Cross of St George fourth rank. On 1919 he was mobilized in the Latvian army North Latvian brigade. He fought both Germans and Bolsheviks. He received the award for entering the enemy lines from behind and with a rifle fire he dispersed the whole enemy squad allowing for attack to continue and capture two enemy canons. He was later suffered a concussion  and was sent to Border guard. After retiring was caught in smuggling over the Estonian border and fined. He went to France on 1923, later on 1935 returned. He was soon arrested for using fake Czechoslovakian passport. He was jailed from 1936 to 1938 and was dishonored by the Jewish Liberators society. He died in Riga on 1941. Latvian first foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was a Jew from a fathers side, but considered him a Latvian.

Four Latvian Jews received The Order of Three Stars. They received the 5th rank. Hiršs Berkovičš  was from Estonia and voluntary joined the Latvian army. He was a brave soldier who was assigned to difficult tasks and left memoirs of his action in the field. Eliass Rihters fought the Bermont army in Ķemeri, Rīga and Jelgava and was outstanding first line soldier. Zālmans Levinsons and Dāvids Bērs also were awarded.

Nine others were nominated for the order but did not received. Filips Farbmans was a Lithuanian citizen, but joined the Students Company. He showed courage at the battles near Jelgava and Kalnciems. Later he joined the Lithuanian army, but went back to Latvia after the war. Beiness Bērmans a lieutenant of the 5th Cēsis regiment and sergeant Leopolds Šalīts who was the member of the Oskars Kalpaks special Latvian battalion were among the nominated.   The corporal of 4th  Valmiera infantry battalion Jāzeps Binders also my distant relative received the award for capturing the enemy machine gun and as a skilled mechanic he repaired it and used against the enemy. He fought both Bermont and Bolsheviks. Later he was a member of Aizsargi (Civil Guards) and received the Civil Guard cross. From the same 4th Valmiera infantry regiment Zālamans Levitāns made an outstanding act of courage by capturing two Red army soldiers and their machine gun with out using a single weapon. Mozus Lihmans was captured by the Soviets, but escaped captivity. Together with other Latvian soldier he for nine days in cold and hunger reached back his army lines. Leiba Blumbergs was part of the original Kalpaks battalion. Mozus Špungins was one of the first who joined the Latvian army by his own will. Izāks Jāzeps Usikers was nominated to be awarded posthumously.

There was some deserters among the Jews, however their numbers were low. Some Jews fought in Latvia in the enemy ranks mostly in the Bolshevik army together with Latvian Red Riflemen. The Latvian Army was not always tolerant to Jews, there was event of looting the Jewish shops and assaults. Polish army who was present at Daugavpils also made many robberies were Jews suffered. However, in this hard years were Latvia faced many enemies and little support the outstanding courage of these men is to be remembered for ever.

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks (2013)  Aizmirstie karavīri – ebreji Latvijas armijā 1918.-1940. gadā.Rīga : Biedrība “Šamir”

 Atbrīvotājs : almanachs : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrības izdevums.  (1931-1933.) Rīga : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrība.

Dribins, Leo. (2002)  Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga : Elpa

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Latvian Army 1918-1940

The Latvian Army Cockade 1919

The Latvian Army Cockade 1919

No country cannot exist without its armed forces. There are few exceptions with fully sovereign countries without any official national armed forces, but even the smallest nations have their own armies. The Republic of Latvia was born in combat. With great difficulty the national Latvian government managed to form their own armed forces. Latvian Army fought the Bolsheviks and Germans and secured the Latvian independence. During first twenty years, Latvian Army became a disciplined and venerable force. However, in 1939 -1940 Latvian Army was unable to defend their country against Soviet occupation. It was partly due the completely disadvantageous military situation and mistakes done by Latvian rulers. This article tells the story about Latvian army during the years of independence.

When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it had no armed force. Latvia was still under German military control and the Bolshevik invasion was looming. One of the first national armed units was the Special Student Company formed on 20 November 1918. It was formed from University students and members of the student fraternities. They were stationed at Brīvības Boulevard 32 where later for long years the Faculty of History and Philosophy was located. Many smaller units were made with the help of Latvian National Rifleman Union.

The first largest Latvian armed unit was formed in 5 January 1919. The Special Latvian battalion later brigade was commanded by lieutenant – colonel Oskars Kalpaks. He became the first supreme commander of the Latvian army. Sadly he was killed in accidental fire exchange with allied German forces in 6 March 1919. He was replaced by colonel Jānis Balodis. The second largest Latvian armed force was the North Latvia brigade commanded by colonel Jorģis Zemitāns. The brigade was formed with Estonian help. Latvian army baptized in fire in battles against German Iron Division at Cēsis, Bermont army at Rīga and against Soviets in Latgalia. On 1920 52 000 soldiers took part in Latvian army.

First commander of the Latvian Army Oskars Kalpaks

First commander of the Latvian Army Oskars Kalpaks

After peace agreement with Soviet Russia, the army moved to state of peace. The planned size of Latvian peacetime army was planned 240 00 men, but the real count was much smaller. Army was formed in four divisions – Courland, Vidzeme, Latglian and Semigallian with three infantry and artillery regiments in each. The regiments were numbered and named after largest Latvian cities: 1 Liepaja, 2 Ventspils, 3 Jelgava, 4 Valmiera, 5 Cēsis, 6 Riga, 7 Sigulda,8 Daugavpils, 9 Rezekne, 10 Aizpute, 11 Dobele, and 12 Bauska infantry regiment.

The technical units were united in the Technical division. It was based on Auto tank division, Field Engineer Division, Aviation Division, Electro technical division, Armed train division, Heavy Artillery Division, Coastal Artillery Division and Anti-air artillery division. On 1939 the Aviation division was formed of three fighter squadrons, four mainland and one fleet reconnaissance squadron. Latvians had 100-150 planes, but most of them outdated. The most modern aircraft in army where the British biplane fighters “Gloster Gladiator”.  Latvian army command planned to upgrade their air force and started talks with British to purchase “Spitfire” fighters. However, the outbreak of WWII halted this.

Tanks of Latvian army

Tanks of Latvian army

Latvian Air Force. Note the swastika was the official Latvian Air force sign and had nothing to do with Nazi Germany. Swastika was used a prehistoric national symbol

Latvian Air Force. Note: the swastika was the official Latvian Air force sign and had nothing to do with Nazi Germany. Swastika was used a prehistoric national symbol

The whole Semigallian division and Cavalry regiment was stationed in Daugavpils. Latgalian division in Alūksne, Cēsis, Valmiera and Rēzekne. Courland division was stationed at Liepaja.

The Latvian War Fleet was located at Liepaja, the home of ex Russian Baltic Imperial Fleet. Latvian flagship was “Virsaitis”. Latvia had two submarines “Ronis” and “Spīdola”. Two minesweepers “Imanta” and “Viesturs”.

Latvian submarine "Ronis"

Latvian submarine “Ronis”

The Vidzeme division along with Technical division was placed in Riga. According to data in 1 January 1939, Latvian Army had 1969 officers, 3988 service instructors, 11 118 soldiers, and 1244 contract workers. Together 18 389 men. Latvia Army also included Latvian Guard (Aizsargs) organization a paramilitary force that was formed during the War for Freedom. It was under control of Ministry of Interior, from 1937 under Social affairs ministry. Aizsargi was an auxiliary force that maintained civil order in the countryside. They were formed in 19 territorial regiments and had its own aircraft and armed trains.

The most prestigious Latvian armed unit or special guard was the Army Staff Company. Only specially chosen men could serve in it. The requirements were personal height no less than 1,80 meters, the shoe size no less than number 43. Health had to perfect and also recommendation from local authorities were needed. Their tasks were to represent the state in national celebrations or during official foreign visits. Army Staff Company was entrusted of defending the main national objects – Presidential palace and the House of Ministers. Also their most honorable task was the guard of honor of the Monument of Freedom. The Army Staff Company was restored after the regain of independence and is doing the same tasks.

According to Latvian constitution (Satversme) the supreme commander-in-chief was the President of Latvia. Army and war fleet was ruled by the War Ministry. The orders and directions were fulfilled by the Army Staff. Latvia had military draft. The time of service was 18 months after 1931 12 months for infantry and 15 months for rest of the army men.

According to data sent to the League of Nations, on 1 June 1940, Latvia had 2013 officers, medical officers and administrative officers. 27 555 officer deputies, instructors and soldiers in all 29 569 men.

On 17 June 1940 Soviet tanks crossed the Latvian border and occupied Latvia. Latvian army was ready to resist the aggression, but was told not to resist. With Soviet garrison in Courland already stationed according to the Mutual agreement signed in 1939 it was already too late to resist the enemy. As the armies of Estonia and Lithuania also decided not to resist the independence was lost. If there ever was any chance of resistance it had to happen in 1939 by declining the Soviet demands for mutual assistance pact. As in case of Finland such move would cause Soviet invasion, and only joint resistance by three Baltic States would make any difference. Latvian army was subjected to Soviet repressions and its leadership was destroyed. Latvian army was included in Red Army 24th Territorial Corpus that was nearly destroyed in 1941. The trauma of inability to resist the Soviet occupation later resulted in support for forming the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.

Latvian Army was reborn in 1991 after the regaining of independence. Today Latvian army may seem much smaller than before, but it’s a member of NATO and taken part in international operations. The ideals of the War for Freedom and the Latvian army are the prime motivation for Latvian National Armed forces.

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Litene – The Latvian Katyn

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Once again the massive Soviet crime of the Katyn massacre has entered the media spotlight and finally the court. Lets, hope the jury will be on the side of the victims not defenders of the criminals supported the present Russian regime. But Polish army was not the only army that suffered this kind of fate. It was also Latvian Army who after the occupation and annexation of Latvian state in 1940 became subjects of Soviet repressions. On June 14 1941 in Litene army camp hundreds of officers of the Latvian army were either set to Siberia or shot on the spot. It was our own “little” Katyn massacre that also needs to be mentioned publicly and receive justice.

The occupation of Latvia begun on June 17 1940, Latvian army was told not to resist the invaders. The new Latvian communist puppet government liquidated the Latvian Army as the national forces and renamed is as the “Peoples Army”. Army circles were flooded with political activists and soviet agents. All officers were commanded to write their biography, many of them wrote it too honestly exposing all their details, that certainly backfired on them later. Perhaps many of them were not used to lying and did not know what to expect from the new Soviet power.

On August 27 1940 after Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Peoples Army was officially disbanded and inintod in to 24 territorial rifleman corps in the Red Army. 55 Latvian officers were already fired and repressed. Officers and soldiers were called for interrogations from many of them did not return. Many were forced or talked into to become informers for the Soviets.

There are many categories of the Latvian officers in this situation- first were the officers that had resigned from the army until 17 June 1940 and was in the status of the civil person. They were persecuted by Soviet secret police the NKVD. Others who were fired after  June 17 also fell victim to the NKVD. The third category was the Latvian officers who remained in the 24 TR Corps until June 1941, and the last the ones that were arrested on June 14 1941.

First who were arrested were persons with active anti-soviet past, like taking part in battles against the Red Army in 1919-1920 war of liberation. After disbanding the Peoples Army 820 officers were fired, one part of them repressed. The climax of the repressions reached June 1941. They took place in the summer camps made by Latvian Army. Their locations were Carnikava, Lilaste, Litene, Daugavpils, Liepāja and others. Every one of these camps only a regiment or rarely a division could gather since there were no bigger camp spot and the military exercises were rare mostly in the last years before the war. Now Soviet command ordered all 24 TR Corps to gather at one Litene summer camp.

Litene is located at the Gulbene district halfway between the town of Gulbene and Balvi, 19 km from Gulbene. A place notable for its beautiful estate and also railroad were nearby. It was a good place for training base. The army had built barracks and tent spots and roads for supply gathering.

Although the 24 TR Corps command had originally planed to send their man to many different places, all of them were ordered to go to Litene. That made the firsts doubts and suspicion as the camp was too small to hold all the officers and soldiers about 8000 – 10 000 men. Despite the order of getting there at May 15 most of the men only arrived on  June 1 since the climatic conditions were too bad to hold a camp. Plus the camp needed to be upgraded and cleaned after it was left by one Red Army unit that had vastly polluted the place.

The Litene army training camp

The Litene army training camp

Along the men of the 24 TR Corps rumors spread that they will be sent to Russia instead. The corps was filled with conscripts from the Soviet Union, the size of the ethnic Latvians in some units dropped by 2o percent. On the night of the June 14 1941 more than 150 000 Latvian civilians were sent to Siberia, same in Lithuania with 180 000 and in Estonia 10 000 people.

On  June all ex Latvian Army officers serving in the 24 TR corps were arrested on the spot at Litene. The operation was carefully planned. Camp was carefully guarded by the NKVD men, and all the necessary transport equipment was gathered earlier. Camp guard duty was given to Russians and Asians, Latvian men had their guns removed. The officers were told to gather at early morning of June 14 to prepare for tactical training.

The officers gathered at 8:30 in the open air cinema. A lecture by the chief of the staff N Miljevski his assistant Kirilov was announced, the topic was battalion attack. After a half hour lecture the list of training participants were issued.  Strange to all, the list included those in hospitals, on vacation or on missions. Also since only the names and surnames were called not army ranks as it should be, showed that the list was made by the NKVD. For the army surely would list officers by their ranks.

It seems there was some slip ups in the Soviet plans, since officers had to wait for transport until 14:00. Probably it took time to gather all the officers and put them into trucks. The convoy was led by armored jeep. After driving 1-5 km from the town of Gulbene, officers were told to leave the car and stand in two. They were escorted to a nearby forest, disarmed and arrested. The forest was full of camouflaged NKVD men and their armed cars. Most of the officers were arrested. However those who resisted were killed and buried on the spot. A mass graves were already dug out  for such occasions. Some of those who resisted managed to kill or wound the Soviet captors but were outnumbered.

After arresting all the officers they were taken to cattle trains and sent to Riga. After bringing extra deportees and searching all the captives, the train took route to Russia. Approximately 560 Latvian officers were sent to Russian Gulag camps at Siberia. After the regaining of independence Latvian archeologists found a grave of 11 Latvian officers killed on the spot by the Soviets.

It was complete destruction of the Latvian Army. From all 2193 officers of the ex Latvian Army  299 were arrested, at one 14 June 562 officers were arrested and deported, 247 officers went missing. In all 1100 Latvian officers from June 17 1940 to June 14 1941 was repressed by the Soviets. The amount of killed officers on Litene still is unknown and could be more that 11 men.

While in Katyn the most Polish officers were simply executed, Latvians were sent to Gulag camps in Dudinsk and  Norilsk. While certainly it was better than be shot on the spot, the conditions in the Soviet camps were beyond any civilized man could imagine. Not all could survive and not all could return to Latvia, only 80 Latvian officers returned to the Latvia, the rest of them stayed in Siberia. Latvian army officers were the elite of the Latvian society that were caught up in the Soviet injustice and treachery. It’s our duty to respect and commemorate  these men.

Selected Sources:

Zvaigzne, Jānis. (2012)   Jūnijs. Litene, 1941. Rīga : Jumava.

Starptautiska konference “1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci”. 1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci : starptautiskās konferences materiāli, 2001. gada 12.-13. jūnijs, Rīga = Deportation of 14 June 1941: crime against humanity : materials of an International Conference 12-13 June. (2001). Riga. Latvijas vēstures institūts.

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The forgotten war. Latvian soldiers in Soviet-Afghan war 1979-1989

Official awards given for service in Afghan-Soviet war. Little to redeem the scars of war

Today the Latvian TV and press regularly pays attention to our soldiers fulfilling their duty at NATO mission at Afghanistan. Documentaries, official greetings at home and rehabilitation programs for returning soldiers are made. But there was another war in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Latvian soldiers were sent there under the Soviet banner, they were sent as conscripts not as professional auxiliaries as today. Their battles were not reported and kept secret from the public. On return these men received little help from the government and kept in shadows. Even after the regain of independence these veterans still has not received enough relief from the state. Latvian society has forgotten this war along with its veterans. The story needs to be reopened and told to the public.

These are live accounts of Afghan war veterans, gathered and written down by Latvian military historian Oskars Krīgers. His text from Latvian has been translated under his permission.

At the beginning of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan 1979. 25 December, one of the first soviet soldiers who arrived there was junior sergeant Gunārs Rusiņš, whose specialty was chemist – scout. Now he is a chairman of Latvian veteran of Afghan war and other military conflict association. About his dispatch to Afghanistan Rusiņš recalls: “I was involved in the Afghan conflict from 25. December 1979. to 26. December. We with help of the helicopter were literally dropped in the Afghan land, already armed to wait for Soviet armed vehicles and move to dislocated place. We did not have any clue that we would be dispatched to Afghanistan or any other hotspot. Before we were gathered in distribution points, where we did not receive any information, and after two weeks we were waken up by alarm at night and was told that we will be sent to Afghanistan. When I got there my place of dislocation was the province of Kunduz.”

During his tour of duty Rusiņš went to many different Afghan provinces, where he performed various tasks, that got to do with fighting the mujahedin insurgents. He remembers his duty with such words: “I fought in many different regions, for there was no two front war, it was a guerrilla war. We were sent to many combat operations and usually these operations took place in high grounds. I moved around in columns and separated combat vehicles from one town to another, in result there were frequent fire ambushes against us. We had one combat operation in summer of 1980, where we almost lost the whole company unit. It was another raid in Kunduz province highland area, where we were sent to combat mission to defined point with a defined goal. The raiding forces were encircled and in the result of firefight a large casualties were suffered until the reinforcements came. I was one of those who came to help and was wounded in result”. Rusiņš left Afghanistan on May 1981, as senior sergeant.  

Latvian soldiers in Afghanistan

On April 14, 1983 junior sergeant Aivars Krūmiņš was dispatched to Afghanistan. Before that for half-year he was on air defense forces namely the air defense missile unit. When he was sent to Afghanistan he was entrusted of commanding the missile vehicle in Kabul, that was to be defended  or fired in the case of need. He and his group’s main task was to defend the headquarters of Soviet 40th. Army.

Krūmiņš spent his whole time of duty in Kabul. But even in Afghan capitol the situation was not stable, for as Krūmiņš points out – they were already attacked on their landing at Kabul airport. And he had to face fire attacks from the enemy every evening during his whole duty. Afghan mujaheddin’s fired with mortars and automatic rifles from the hills. Usually they used snipers so it was impossible to determine their location. There were killed and wounded among the Soviet soldiers. Krūmiņš recalls that a bullet missed 10 centimeters from his head.

There were many cases when Afghans fired “Stinger” rockets at Soviet airplanes from the hills. Krūmiņš remembers: “I saw with my own eyes, how two helicopters were shot down. Afghan mujaheddin’s took cover well in the hills, so it was very hard to defend helicopters and airplanes from the attacks”. 

Afghans also used another ways to fight against the Soviet forces. Krūmiņš tells about it: “There were cases when Afghan shepherds pushed their cattle forward and then suddenly attacked the Soviet soldiers. These shepherds were usually twelve-year-old boys. They also tried to lay mines. Little Afghan boys also tried to influence us with drugs to lower our combat abilities. For not many could mentally survive this hard situation and therefore they used weed to calm down, that lead to dire consequences.”

Krūmiņš left Afghanistan on 16. November 1984. He remembers it such: “I felt happy. For long time we did not believe it. And we did not believe that we would be able to leave for planes were shot down. There were many times when those who were on their way home were shot down. We were lucky”.

Junior sergeant Vents Veinbergs, whose specialty was mortar team commander was sent to Afghanistan in 1985 by driving in along with the column of armed vehicles. He remembers: “We went to new dislocation some 150 kilometers from the soviet border, passing trough the second largest Afghan city Herat. And then 30 kilometers more along the concrete highway forward. At the edge of the highway we started to build new base camp, where 12. Armored infantry regiment was to be dislocated. I served at 1. Battalion at separate scout platoon. We were in charge in keeping the security at this sector”.

Scout platoon were Veibergs served took part in many minor armed struggles with the mujaheddin. He recalls these events: “We did not took part in any strategical advances, but there was a constant intelligence actions with small battles, for we were small combat units. We had to delay the movement the movement of mujaheddin armed groups from one place to another. We had to delay the arm delivery from Iran that regularly took place between various mountain paces. In all time of duty I fought there”.

But large battles took place when 12. Motorized infantry regiment made strategical cleansing in village areas. But the scout platoon did not took direct frontal action there. It had to take place if one of the combat unit falls in encirclement or was at a tactically bad situation.  Then the scout platoon had to find a way to approach enemy from the behind and turn its forces against them, so that troubled unit can get free movement. Veinbergs tells one of such stories: “In the winter of 1985/86 we made an unexpected attack, in which result the part of mujahedin attention was to be directed as, so the soviet infantry and tanks who were stuck in narrow streets could win time to withdraw.” 

Sergeant Veinbergs tells an interesting story about the true mujaheddin tactics against the soviet forces: “In my years of fighting, the Afghan mujahedin fully moved to guerrilla combat tactics. They did not move in large units. Their tactic was to attack the supply columns or idle combat vehicles.  Sometimes they carried out attacks on bridge defense posts. Idle tanks and combat vehicles mujaheddin tried to destroy in number of ways. They vastly used mines sometimes grenade launchers, but mainly mines. In my years of service Afghan mujaheddin were supplied with NATO weapons and these NATO mines were hard to find with mine detectors, because they were made from plastic not metal anti-tank mines, which mujahedin could turn in so-called “fugas” (high demolition bombs). Mining was serious to even destroy a tank. Because only anti-tank mine could only stop the tank (by destroying its track), but it cannot break trough its armor. mujaheddin put 10-20 kilogram TNT box below the mine, and then laid the mine and put another 10-20 TNT box on it. In result the power of anti-tank mine was improved many times. With such strength the tank could be destroyed. Even the tank turret could fly up in the air after such explosion.”

Veinbergs spent all his duty fighting around Herat and was awarded with the Medal of Courage. He was demobilized from Afghanistan at the end of April 1986, and left this land in same rank as junior sergeant. 

  3640 men from Latvia were sent Afghanistan, 177 were wounded.  63 were lost in action and one is still missing. It was tragic time in Latvian history as nobody asked these man if they wanted to go to this hostile strange land, where they could lost their lives and never return home. Latvian veterans who were forced to take place in Soviet military invasions disguised as “international duties” should be recognized as the victims of Soviet regime and receive the same treatment as other victims of soviet government. Many of these man suffer from war injuries both physical and psychological. Lack of public support draws them to separation and alcoholism. Latvia must take responsibilities for their soldiers no matter in which side their fought for their battle was tragedy for whole Latvian nation.


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Latvian war for freedom 1918-1920

Latvian soldiers during the battle for Riga

The August 11, is Latvian Freedom Fighters Remembrance Day. On this date in 1920 Latvia signed peace agreement with Soviet Russia. It was the end of 3 year war that was fought in all parts in Latvia against various enemies- the German Iron Division, The Red Army and the Bermont- Avalov army. Sadly there were battles that were fought by Latvians against the Latvians. Latvia was the crossing point of German, Soviet, White guard and Allied interests therefore a newborn state of Latvia had many friends and foes. Without the help of Estonian army, Polish army and Allied Warships Latvia would not win independence alone, but it was the strength and the will of Latvian freedom fighters that helped to win the enemy majority.

On 1915 the German army entered the territory of Latvia. Germans conquered all parts of Courland, Semigallia and Selonia. However Riga was not captured and the war front became stuck near the coast of River Daugava. The invasion sparked a large exodus of refugees from German occupied territories. Masses of Latvians fled to inner parts of Russia. Seeing this as a national tragedy patriotic minded Latvians applied to form national riflemen units in the Russian army. This was the beginning of Latvian armed forces. The units got their own Latvian officers. Without the help of these units Russian army would have a harder time defending Riga.

Germans made breakthrough on September 1917 when they crushed Russian armies and forced the river Daugava. Despite heroic defense of Latvian rifleman Riga was captured and Russian army retreated to Vidzeme. The looming Russian defeat and collapsing Tsarist regime radicalized Latvian riflemen and many of them shift to Bolshevism. Bolshevik agitators gained success within Riflemen inner government and made them support the international socialist revolution rather than national independence.

After the Bolshevik coup in November 9 (October), a majority of Riflemen supported Lenin and Trotsky. Not only they took over parts of Latvia, one large part of them part were sent to Petrograd to support the Bolshevik government. During the Russian Civil war Latvian red Rifleman was one of the most effective and most loyal units of the Red Army. Before the Great Purge of 1937 Latvians took important posts in the Soviet government. All of them perished by Stalin’s orders.

The political road to the proclamation of Latvian independence is described here.  On November 18 1918, the independence of Latvia was proclaimed. In situation where largest part of Latvian Rifleman was fighting for the Soviet cause new Latvian state had to make Latvian national armed forces from scratch.

On  November 11 Latvian National Council defense department begun forming first armed forces. It was supported by the Latvian Rifleman National Union who contributed 400 soldiers for the new army. While Latvians desperately searched for new soldiers, local Baltic Germans by the support of German occupation structures begun to form Baltic Landguard (Landeswerh in German) Even if the Germans had recently capitulated to Allies on  November 11, local German forces were not going to leave Latvia for anytime soon. About 2600 volunteers joined the Landeswerh. They were sons of German noble families who wanted to defend their position against the Bolsheviks who were against the aristocrats.

The prospects of looming Soviet attack made Latvians and Germans unite their forces. Both sides mistrusted each other; Baltic Germans wanted their own state and viewed Latvian state with suspicion. Soviet attack begun in December. The German army was defeated and Red Army quickly entered Latgalia. On December 6 Jānis Zālītis was admitted as the minister of defense. The Red offensive was sweeping. The attack forces included Latvian Red rifleman, Russian divisions and International guards made from Chinese volunteers. This was one of the first time Latvians had contact with this nation and the Chinese soldiers were remembered as atrocious fighters.

Latvian national provisional government lead by Kārlis Ulmanis did not gain enough national support. He did not promise free land for all farmers as the Bolsheviks did. Latvian farmers and workers wanted land and bread now, the talk about national sovereignty was futile to them. Plus the temporary alliance with the Germans was even more disliked by them.

On December 17 Latvian Soviet socialist republic was proclaimed. It was led by Pēteris Stučka a well-known leftist leader now turn to communist. His promise of free land to all was supported by a majority of Latvians. Against him Latvian army only had Cesis Regiment, Student Regiment and other small volunteer units. It was too late to issue a draft.

At the beginning of 1919 German and Latvian governments evacuated from Riga. Latvian provisional government head to Liepaja. As the Soviets entered Courland; first battles between Latvians and Soviets were fought. Latvian forces were commanded by colonel-lieutenant Oskars Kalpaks. On the battle of Lielauce Kalpak’s men met face to face their red Latvian counterparts. On January 29 major battle happened at Skrunda at Soviet offensive was stopped.  The front stabilized across river Venta. While the Soviets gained success in Latvia, they faced defeat in Estonia where Estonian armed forces chased them away back to Narva and head to Valka. Soviets sent forces back to Valka, but could not defend it and Northern Vidzeme was entered by Estonian forces.

During the Bolshevik rule in most parts of Latvia, the land was nationalized; there were first attempts at making collective farms. Also ruthless terror on “enemies of the Soviet” took place. This led to popularity loss to the Pēteris Stucka government.

In the February Estonian army advanced in Vidzeme. Germans enlisted their strength by forming Iron Division led by German general Ridiger von der Goltz. He was strongly against Latvian independence and saw it as temporary obstacle. German forces made a quick push back in Courland. Ventspils, Kuldīga and other parts were recaptured. Latvian forces followed the advance; however after an accidental fire exchange with Germans Oskars Kalpaks was killed. He was replaced by Jānis Balodis. German- Latvian advance was successful as Jelgava was liberated and Riga was close.

In Estonian front with the Estonian support a North Latvia brigade led by colonel Jānis Zemitāns was formed. It was a first strongest Latvian unit with 2168 men. As Soviets faced more defeats their morale weakened and more and more Red Latvians deserted and joined national forces.

On the other side of the front Germans were weary about Latvian politics and advances. German leader general Rüdiger von der Goltz was aware of Latvian-Allied talks and Allied warship presence in the Baltic sea. This led to conspiracy in  April 16 when the Germans attempted to arrest Latvian government in Liepaja. Supported by Allied warships Latvian government escaped on board the ship Saratov. Goltz formed his own government led by Andreivs Niedra a pastor loyal to Germans. The Germans started to attack Riga, on May 22 Germans captured Riga. The Latvian army followed them but was unable to reach it first. Bloody battle took place in Kaugurciems were on the beach sands Latvians fought Latvians with bayonets. The Germans made a bloodshed in Riga by executing Bolsheviks and anti-German elements.

In mean time Estonian army captured Valmiera and Cesis. Soviets retreated to Latgalia. While the Latvian government still in exile on board the ship, Goltz now ordered to attack Estonian army as he wanted to defeat all Baltic national armies. In June, a battle at Cesis was fought between Germans and Latvian-Estonian armed forces. The battle was won by Latvians and Estonians. The German plan of making a German state in Baltic region failed.

Allied forces made Germans to sign the Strazdumuiža truce on July 3. They were forced to leave Riga, however as the war in Russia went on and Latgalia was still controlled by the Bolsheviks, allies allowed Germans to stay and re-deploy to fight against the Reds. Latvian government returned to Riga and North Latvia brigade made triumphed march on the streets of Riga.

Now when the majority of Latvians supported Latvian independence, Latvian army was empowered by volunteers. Many new divisions were formed and Allies added tanks and airplanes for Latvian army. Uniforms and new rifles were added to army as it was ready for further battles.

However in the mean time Germans had not given up the fight. In the district of Bauska where Goltz army was located more and more volunteers from Germany arrived. A Russian rotminster a self-declared duke Pavel Bermont managed to gain German trust and made his own army from Russian POW’S in German camps and formed the Army of Bermont. Bermont and Goltz allied together to form Western Russia volunteer army to fight the Bolsheviks. Their forces consisted 52 000 men, with 3 armored trains, 10 armed automobiles and 120 warplanes. Latvian army only had 11, 5 000 men with 1, armored train, 3 armed automobiles and few warplanes.

Riga defense positions November 1919

On October 8, Bermont made swift attack to Riga and quickly pushed away Latvian forces to  the other side of the river Daugava. On 10 October Bermont’s army reached the bridges of Riga; however Latvians prevented the crossing and entrenched in Old Riga and around Riga palace. 3 Estonian armed trains came to help as the Allied ships came close to support Latvians. Bermont stopped the attack and the front line was now located between both sides of the city of Riga.

Latvian government turned down Bermont’s proposal for talks and on the October 11 started counter attack. The Latvian army crossed river Daugava near Bolderaja and Daugavgriva. The attack was assisted by Allied ship cannon fire. The battle for Riga lasted from November 3 to  November 11 when Bermont army was chased away from the city. The 11 November is celebrated as Lachplesis day the day military victory over enemy majority.

The Bermont’s army was pushed back from all sides and in December the remains of his army crossed the Lithuanian border. He lost 5 thousand men, while Latvians lost 2 thousand. Bermont’s army soldiers were ruthless and atrocious. They engaged in killings of the civilians and burned houses and even the palace of Jelgava.

After the complete defeat of German foe, the only thing left was the Soviets who still controlled Latgalia. Since Estonia already had signed a peace agreement with Soviet Russia, Latvia made an alliance with Poland. Together with Polish superior forces Latvians liberated Latgalia. A peace agreement was signed on 11 August. Soviet Russia promised to forever respect Latvian independence and newer engender it. “Forever” was until 1940, when Joseph Stalin decided to end Latvian independence.

The Latvian war for freedom was tough and complicated time. Facing many superior enemies Latvians overcome their differences and united in common cause. It would not be possible without Allied help, but 3046 Latvian men that were lost in the war showed that the Latvian army did enough of its strength to fight.

The war freedom has become legendary time in Latvian history. Movies such “Lachplesis” (1930), and “The Guards of Riga” (2008) is part of making this legend. The fallen heroes of the war of Freedom are laid to rest in BrothersCemetery in Riga and other parts of Latvia. Surviving soldiers were awarded with the Order of Lachplesis. The war for freedom is to be remembered for every Latvian in the future.

Latvian War memorial

Selected Sources:

Pētersone, Inga. (1999)  Latvijas Brīvības cīņas, 1918-1920 : enciklopēdija. Riga: Preses Nams.

Bērziņš, Valdis. (2000) 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture. I, Latvija no gadsimta sākuma līdz neatkarības pasludināšanai, 1900-1918. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.

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