Back to the Future: Next Generation Forest Brothers
By Mareks Runts
"The history provides the familiarization required to avoid the errors to which the historically deprived are especially prone."
The Forest Brothers refers to the organized armed resistance fight in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The movement arose in 1944 at the end of World war II and lasted until 1956. This article will explore the relevance of the Latvian Forest Brothers to the modern Latvian National Armed Forces and attempt to draw lessons from the historical experience of the 20th century movement.
Today, the Baltic states are on the forward lines of NATO's eastern flank. It is a potential front line that became a very topical issue after the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. The armed forces of all three Baltic states and forward-deployed NATO troops are not much compared to Russia's potential conventional offensive military capabilities. In the case of conventional war with Russia, various war game results show that occupation of Baltic states will be fast and inevitable. Therefore, armed resistance and unconventional warfare are an essential part of the Baltic defense plans.
In case of occupation of the country, Latvian resistance effort will be based on a guerrilla fight, where the leading role is for armed forces soldiers, and the similarity with last century`s Forest Brothers experience is significant enough to be taken into account in planning for future warfare. Otto Fiala discusses the Forest Brothers in his Resistance Operating Concept, where he primarily looks at the Lithuanian and Estonian Forest Brothers. This article expands Fiala by considering the Latvian Forest Brothers through the lens of modern Low-Intensity Conflict theory.
Per the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 100-20, there are dynamics common to all insurgencies or resistance movements, namely: leadership, ideology, objectives (strategic, operational, and tactical), environment and geography, external support, phasing, and timing, organizational and operational patterns. As historical examples show, insurgencies or resistance movements were successful if they used these dynamics effectively and according to the changing conditions. It is essential to look at the Latvian Forest Brothers from these dynamics' perspectives to draw the necessary conclusions from this historical experience.
Because of several factors, the Forest Brothers were a decentralized organization, creating strengths and vulnerabilities. In 1944, two establishments worked in Latvia, trying to organize guerrilla warfare. One was the General Command of the German Army, which prepared to stay behind sabotage groups to fight against the Red Army. The other was the Central Council of Latvia, which was preparing to fight for the independence of Latvia against both occupying powers Germany and the USSR. The Germans destroyed the Central Council of Latvia, but the German organization ceased with the German capitulation in the Second World War. As a result, the Latvian Forest Brothers did not have centralized leadership, so the guerrilla movement in Latvia developed independently as a popular initiative.
Larger guerilla organization operated in all the municipalities of Latvia, usually with professional officers in the lead. The organizations consisted of battle groups that were led by officers with combat experience and Latvian army, Guard organization or German legion background. Later in the guerrilla fight, there were attempts to set up a centralized leadership, but they were unsuccessful. It is worth mentioning that a considerable disadvantage is that there was no strategic level leadership because there was neither a shadow government nor a Latvian government in exile. The lack of centralized leadership made it difficult for Soviet Security forces to detect and destroy groups of Forest Brothers. However, it also hindered the greater effectiveness of the guerrilla organizations in the fight against the Soviet occupation regime.
The ideology of the Forest Brothers was based on the struggle for a free Latvia, and they were following classical freedom fighter's ideals. The guerrilla movement was also based on the hatred of the Latvian people towards the communist ideology and occupation. The hatred was based on the recent memory of Soviet occupation in 1940 when certain groups of the Latvian population were deported to Siberia, arrested, or killed. It should be noted, however, that not everyone who joined the Forest Brothers movement was an ideological fighter. Some movement members were certainly driven only by self-preservation instincts: to avoid repression by Soviet forces or to flee mobilization into the Red Army. Today, it is impossible to say how many ideological fighters there were in the Forest Brothers movement and how many just tried to save their lives by joining the movement to hide from the Soviet occupation regime.
Objectives (Strategic, Operational, and Tactical)
The strategic objective of the Forest Brothers was the restoration of Latvia's national independence. It was clear that it could be done only if the Western countries waged war against the Soviet Union, and then the plan was that the guerrillas would support the offensive operation by large-scale disruptive actions. This was the main reason why the Forest Brothers chose a strategy to preserve the guerrillas for Latvia's future war of liberation.
The operational objective for the guerrilla fight was to prevent the strengthening of the Soviet occupation regime in Latvia. To achieve this, the tactical objectives of the Forest Brothers were to disrupt the formation and operation of Soviet civil administration and repressive apparatus in the regions of Latvia, to prevent the collection of state fees, as well as to protect the population from regime repression and terror.
Environment and Geography
The Forest Brothers were a distinctly rural guerrilla movement, and about 80% of the national partisans were peasants. Large percentage of peasants can be explained because, by large, Latvia was an agricultural country, and the auxiliary network was usually family members of the Forest Brothers. That is why guerrilla groups stayed near their homes, where they hid in forests and swamps that provided the best cover and concealment. There are no inaccessible mountain ranges or impenetrable jungles in Latvia, but there are forests that cover about a third of the country's territory and another third of the territory was covered by swamps, which were also successfully used by the Forest Brothers for their benefit.
Figure 1. Plan of the Forest Brothers Camp "Island Shelters" in Stompaku swamp. Example of how Forest Brothers used swamps as a natural obstacle to protect their camps.
The Latvian Forest Brothers were certainly helped by the fact that most of Latvia was dominated by the agricultural economy, and rural areas were widely inhabited by homesteads where subsistence farming was practiced.
The Latvian Forest Brothers movement did not receive the much-anticipated external support from Western countries. The special services of Britain, the U.S., and Sweden did not provide any assistance to the Latvian Forest Brothers. Although they sent their agents to the occupied Baltic territory, their task was to gather intelligence and not to support national resistance movements. It should be noted that there was local support from Lithuanian partisan groups that carried out attacks on Soviet targets in the territory of Latvia and also gave sanctuary in their territory to the Latvian Forest Brothers when they had to avoid the Soviet occupation forces.
Phasing and Timing
The armed resistance of the Latvian Forest Brothers can be divided into three phases. The first phase took place from the summer of 1944 to the summer of 1946. Large-scale guerrilla offensive operations characterized this phase. The offensive operations begin with the advance of Soviet troops in Latvia. The main reason why this phase ended was the loss of international political support. At the 1945 Yalta Conference USSR, U.K. and U.S. divided spheres of influence, and three Baltic states were re-incorporated into the Soviet Union without any objection from allies.
The second phase began in the autumn of 1946 when the Forest Brothers also suffered significant losses amongst guerrilla fighters. Minor guerrilla offensive actions characterized this phase. The main effort was put on preserving the fighting force in hopes that the geopolitical situation may change and there would be an opportunity to contribute to the liberation of Latvia. The phase ended in 1949. when after mass deportations, Soviets destroyed auxiliary networks for Forest Brothers. There was a burst of activity when people joined the Forest Brothers' movement to avoid deportations, and operations were launched to disrupt the activities of the occupying forces. Still, they were quickly suppressed, and the partisans left without a support network were forced to seek refuge or legalize.