In 1938, high-ranking officers within the Rabotsje-Krestjanskaja Krasnaya Flot (Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Флот) or Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Fleet, also known as the Fleet of the Soviet Union, including figures such as Savichev, Krivosheenko, and Krol, are in deep contemplation regarding the potential utilisation of a submariner’s individual breathing apparatus (IBA) for covert reconnaissance and sabotage missions. These discussions not only revolve around the concept itself but also involve practical exercises to demonstrate its viability. These exercises serve to underscore the feasibility of deploying reconnaissance divers from submarines beneath the water’s surface, thereby highlighting the necessity for specialised units and clearly outlining their primary objectives. However, historical records indicate that the initial efforts to deploy reconnaissance divers from submerged submarines begin in the Pacific Fleet in 1939, yet these trials do not lead to the establishment of a fully-fledged unit.
It isn’t until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 that the Reconnaissance Department of the Baltic Fleet’s headquarters (known as RO SBF – разведывательным отделом штаба Балтийского флота (РО ШБФ)) recognises the critical need for effective clandestine reconnaissance methods to penetrate the German lines. After thorough evaluation, they conclude that the most effective approach is to conduct amphibious landings of paratroopers by sea, utilising lightweight diving equipment.
In July 1941, Senior Lieutenant Afanasyev, an intelligence officer of the RB SBF, proposes the establishment of a specialised unit composed of divers. Later that July 1941, Rear Admiral F. A. Krylov, the head EPRON (Экспедиция подводных работ особого назначения (ЭПРОН)) “Special Expedition for Underwater Works” a government agency of the Soviet Union to salvage valuable cargo and equipment from sunken ships and submarines reports to Admiral I. S. Isakov. Isakov is the Deputy People’s Commissar of the Navy and a representative of the General Headquarters of the Supreme Command, who is assigned to organise the coastal defense of Leningrad. During their discussions, one of the topics covered is the relocation of the diving school in Vyborg.
Rear Admiral Krylov expresses his concerns about the possibility of these trained divers being reassigned to infantry units. Instead, he suggests retaining these divers within the fleet and forming a specialised reconnaissance unit from their ranks. This unit will consist of divers equipped with lightweight diving gear, who will operate in the rear areas of German-occupied territories. The name for this unit is Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya or RON (Рота Особого Назначения). Translated in English it means Special Purpose Company.
Krylov also has a suitable candidate in mind for the role of unit commander, Lieutenant I. B. Prokhvatilov. Lieutenant Prokhvatilov has recently graduated from the M. V. Frunze Military Medical Academy. Rear Admiral Krylov recommended Prokhvatilov for admission to the diving technical school in Balaklava. Following his service at EPRON, Krylov’s encouragement motivated Prokhvatilov to prepare for and attend this school, making him an excellent choice for leading the new unit.
The proposal received approval from Admiral Isakov, and on August 11, 1941, the People’s Commissar of the Navy issued Order No. 72, officially establishing a special-purpose company within the Baltic Fleet. This order marked the creation of a new type of military unit: the Naval Special Intelligence.
The order, addressed to the head of the intelligence department of the Baltic Fleet, included the following directives:
- Establish a special-purpose company comprising 146 personnel units under the jurisdiction of the RO (Reconnaissance Department) of the Baltic Fleet. The company shall be staffed by commanders and Red Navy divers who have received specialized training at the Naval Medical Academy and the EPRON Directorate, as outlined in the attached list. The final training of personnel should be conducted at the premises of VMMA (Naval Medical Academy) and EPRON.
- Appoint Lieutenant Prokhvatilov as the company’s commander and assign Comrade Matsenko as the company’s political instructor. Comrade Savicheva, holding the rank of a military doctor of the 1st rank, is designated to provide guidance and advice in diving training.
- Implement the provisional staff by August 15, 1941, and complete the formation by August 25, 1941. The commander of the Leningrad Military Port is instructed to provide the special-purpose company with all necessary rations.
This order formalised the establishment of the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya, marking the beginning of a unique chapter in the history of the Baltic Fleet. To maintain confidentiality in all official documents, it was referred to as the EPRON Submarine Company (Ротой Подводников ЭПРОНа), and its operatives are informally known as submarine infantrymen.
The unit’s camp is based on Goloday Island (now Dekabristov Island), Saint Petersburg, Russia. The camp is situated at the end of Zheleznovodskaya Street. At the nearby school site, the economic commander orders to plant vegetable gardens. In the Neva River, specially appointed Soviet Navy men on boats collect fish stunned after shelling. To equip the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya, existing light diving individual apparatus (IPA-2), diving suits (GK), and buoyancy aids in the form of lifebuoys are repurposed. In 1942, a specialised device was developed to enhance waterborne mobility. This apparatus comprised an inflatable floatation pillow paired with a wetsuit crafted from rubberized fabric. Subsequently, Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya personnel initiates the production of individual inflatable boats constructed from balloon material. These lightweight boats, weighing only 3 kg, could carry a capacity of up to 150 kilograms. It’s important to note that during this period, standardised equipment, gear, and weaponry designed explicitly for naval special forces are absent. Most of the equipment used by the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya is developed or redesigned by the unit itself.
On paper the unit is equipped with four vehicles, a motorcycle and three light patrol boats of the MO-4 type. However, in reality the number of vehicles does never exceed three, and the unit receives only one boat, a raid boat on a ZIS-12 truck.
The commander of the company is immediately recognised and respected. His background as a renowned diver, towering stature (standing at 198 cm and weighing 128 kg), distinct Ukrainian accent, and an air of imposing authority all contributes to his instant recognition. Among the scouts, the commander is affectionately referred to as “Batya” a term denoting a fatherly figure who commands both respect and loyalty.
Just prior to the outbreak of the German Invasion of the Soviet Union, the Naval Medical Academy in Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) takes the initiative to establish training courses for paratroopers. By the conclusion of the summer in 1941, these courses are stopped, and the trained specialists they had produce are subsequently transferred to the intelligence division of the Baltic Fleet. However, these men aren’t immediately assigned to the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya. Instead, the unit is primarily staffed with volunteers from the Baltic Fleet’s crew, encompassing individuals of varying ages and qualifications, without the imposition of a medical selection process.
On top of that, the unit’s objectives are initially undefined. No training programs or manuals exist, as there is only limited experience in this domain. Lieutenant Prokhvatilov faces a challenging task assigned by the fleet’s command: to train the company’s personnel in just 30 days. The sole training goal is the ability for each member is to walk a distance of 1000 metres underwater at a depth of twenty metres. Besides that, they have to become proficiency in small arms usage, hand-to-hand combat techniques, and the handling of explosives.
This task was made even more complicated by the fact that volunteers recruited into the unit had no prior experience working underwater and hadn’t undergone medical examinations. Consequently, in August 1941, over eighty individuals had to be discharged from the company.
From its establishment until June 1944, the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya has an authorized strength of 146 personnel, of which 111 serve as reconnaissance divers, including submachine gunners, squad commanders, and assistant platoon commanders. In practice, throughout this period, the RON never has more than 119 members. In terms of organisation, the RON has six platoons, comprising five combat platoons and one training platoon.
Typically, missions are conducted by divers in pairs, and several pairs notably stand out for their exceptional success. These pairs include Frolov and Gupalov, Perepelkin and Lunin, Trapezov and Zventsov, Spiridonov and Zventsov, Kadurin and Borovikov, Kadurin and Kobyak, Nikitin and Vorobyov, Trapezov and Zaitsev, Korolkov and Spiridonov, and Kadurin and Zaitsev. It’s important to note that these pairs are formed based on strong bonds of friendship and complete trust in each other.
It is a continuous challenge to maintain the full complement of the company. The Baltic Fleet, like many other units, faces significant shortages in personnel. Transferring divers from the ACS of the Baltic Fleet to the RON is considered, and there are directives issued for such transfers. However, the demand for divers is much greater than the supply, making it impossible to meet the directives.
Extending the preparation time wasn’t an option. The only viable approach was to gain experience through combat operations. Due to the shortage of time, only a minimal number of hours are set aside for theoretical instruction. After 2-3 classroom lessons, training swiftly transitions to practical diving. Simultaneously, the material aspects are learned through direct diving descents. Individual training is almost non-existent, as 8-10 individuals would typically submerge together during one training session. A guiding line is installed at the mouth of the Malaya Nevka River to assist divers in underwater navigation. Training sessions are conducted around the clock in shifts. Besides diving, substantial time is devoted to general military training.
The high personnel turnover proves detrimental due to the lack of stringent medical assessments of the crew. Instances occurred where, out of fifty individuals selected, only 4-5 prove suitable for diving service. The hasty learning pace also impacts the initial dives, resulting in cases of severe diving-related illnesses, leading to the deaths of three soldiers. By the conclusion of the second week of training, the men can cover a distance of 100-150 meters at a depth of four meters. Despite extending training by an additional 10 days, noticeable improvements are elusive.
Nevertheless, in August 1941, the company is dispatched in full strength to execute a combat mission in Vyborg. The operation aimed to capture one of the Finnish islands. Divers are instructed to traverse two-kilometres underwater routes at a depth of twenty meters during the impending mission. Given the inadequate diving training of the men, this task is beyond their capabilities. Regrettably, efforts by intelligence officers to draw the command’s attention to this circumstance has no results. It is only thanks to the enemy’s observation of the concentration of our troops preparing to assault the island that they decide to vacate it themselves, thereby averting the senseless loss of lives.
Following their return from Vyborg to Leningrad, on September 7th, 1941, the special purpose company is placed under the complete authority of the Reconnaissance Department of the Baltic Fleet (RO BF). Captain 3rd rank L.K. Bekrenev who was responsible for the human intelligence operations within the intelligence department, is their direct commander.
Only two weeks later, the paratroopers from Oranienbaum are assigned to the Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya. This action makes the identification and removal of inadequately trained and morally unstable Soviet Navy personnel possible. Consequently, the special forces unit is reinforced and transformed into a combat entity with the capability to effectively accomplish crucial missions.
In the command’s original plan, the RON is established to support human intelligence activities. However, the circumstances of 1941-1942 necessitate the unit’s use for purposes other than its initial intent. During the tense days of September 1941, when the fate of Leningrad is desperate, all available reserves are thrown into battle. The RON participates in several landings, including the Shlisselburg landing, where tragically, some of the most highly trained reconnaissance divers lose their lives.
Amid the harsh winter of 1941, a portion of the RON personnel is dispatched on the first reconnaissance mission of the ice route across Lake Ladoga. These 30 km-long routes, known as the Road of Life, are successfully surveyed within two days. As railway operations commence, reconnaissance divers are consistently used in the recovery of sunken trucks and barges to keep this vital supply route operational.
During this period, there are no official documents that provide clear regulations for the preparation and execution of reconnaissance and sabotage operations. The lack of experience and the absence of well-defined procedures leads to instances where tasks are not successfully completed, particularly in the tumultuous years of 1941-1942.
For instance, the boats provided by the fleet sometimes display impatience and lack of perseverance when supporting reconnaissance groups from the coast. In adverse weather conditions, these boats occasionally return to the base without waiting for the scouts, resulting in mission failures.
Finally, in 1943, the RO of the BBF issues a “Manual for Conducting Intelligence Activities.” This document establishes guidelines for preparing reconnaissance officers for planned operations, the readiness of landing and extraction forces and equipment, the coordination of interactions between reconnaissance groups, and the actions to be taken upon reaching the shore.
The introduction of this manual marks a significant turning point for the RON. Prior to each operation, the personnel receive specialised training in conditions simulating those they will encounter during the upcoming mission. This change has an immediate impact on the company’s casualty rates: seven in 1943 and just one in 1944. It is through this experience that the RON’s operational effectiveness improves.
Regrettably, at its inception, the RON did not have the advantage of officers with prior experience in naval intelligence. All the platoon commanders within the company hold the rank of sergeant major and are later promoted to officers. It isn’t until 1943 that experienced reconnaissance officers are brought in to support the RON. These officers are Captain 3rd Rank Dmitry Uvarovich Shashchenkov and Captain Georgy Vladimirovich Potekhin.
Captain E.B. Yakovlev, an intelligence officer from the Leningrad Naval Base headquarters, also has active interactions with the RON. He serves as the commander of a reconnaissance detachment in the Peterhof direction during the war.
Between 1943 and 1944, RON soldiers undertake numerous operations aimed at reconnoitering and penetrating the enemy’s coastal defense systems, identifying suitable landing locations for troops and reconnaissance teams, as well as capturing prisoners. These operations span various locations, including the southern and northern coasts of the Gulf of Finland, the shores of Vyborg Bay, the islands of Gogland, Bolshoy Tyuters, Rukhnu, and Lake Peipus. During that same period, the RON personnel frequently undertakes the responsibilities of underwater sappers, engaging in the challenging task of detecting and deactivating magnetic mines that were strown throughout the Baltic Sea. The company conducts an impressive 840 diving missions with the aim of neutralising these mines. It’s worth noting that the company achieves success in these operations, even in the face of equipment limitations and inadequate logistical support.
In January 1944, the company undergoes a significant reduction in its staff, the unit is reduced to 104 individuals. This reduction is prompted by a decrease in planned operations in March 1944. By the order of the Baltic Fleet commander, thirty men from the RON are reassigned to the ACS to establish two emergency rescue squads for the Baltic Fleet. The structure of the RON is streamlined to three platoons, consisting of two combat platoons and one utility platoon. On March 15th, 1945, the company is relocated to the village of Kakumäe near Tallinn, where it remains stationed until October 1945.
In the autumn of 1944, concerns about the ongoing relevance of the RON within the naval intelligence system begins to surface within the Navy’s command structure. Rear Admiral M.A. Vorontsov, Chief of the Intelligence Directorate of the Main Naval Staff, is the first to raise these concerns. He conveys his doubts to the headquarters of the Soviet Baltic Fleet and indicated his intention to petition the head of the General Staff to dissolve the company.
Conversely, Rear Admiral Petrov, who leads the RO of the SHBF, along with his deputy, Captain 2nd rank P. D. Grishchenko, Captain 3rd Rank I.B. Prokhvatilov, the Commander of the RON, and personnel from the Main Directorate of the State Migration School, including Captain 1st Rank L.K. Bekrenev, Captain 2nd Rank D.U. Shashenkov, and Colonel N.S. Frumkin, hold a different viewpoint. They believe that such units should be a part of the fleets not only during wartime but also during peacetime, and they emphasise the importance of continuous improvement and development of these units.
In October 1944, Captain I.B. Prokhvatilov, while advocating for the necessity of maintaining naval special forces, makes an appeal to Ru GMSh: “This is a novel endeavor that, under certain circumstances, holds significant promise, as long as intelligence remains indispensable. Utilising specialised equipment, our light diver-reconnaissance teams consistently executed covert landings, even in areas with a high troop presence and heightened vigilance at the landing sites. The intelligence gathered was consistently reliable… This raises the question of whether a light diving unit should be retained during peacetime.”
Prokhvatilov proposes the establishment of a special school based on the company within the Main Directorate of the State Reconnaissance School. Such a school would be responsible for training reconnaissance divers, developing diving equipment, providing the necessary technical support, and enhancing reconnaissance methods employed by these divers.
Unfortunately, these appeals and recommendations went unanswered. After the ending of World War 2 in September-October 1945, Rear Admiral Alexandrov, the head of the Baltic Fleet RO, and NSh of the Baltic Fleet, conducts an inspection of the Baltic Fleet. He concludes that maintaining reconnaissance detachments during peacetime is inappropriate. This conclusion is included in the inspection report, which is signed on October 10th by the head of the General Naval Staff, Admiral I.S. Isakov. On October 14th, 1945, the Commander of the Soviet Baltic Fleet issued Order No. 0580 to disband the RON by October 20. By the end of October 1945, the unit is disbanded.
In the Pacific Fleet, submarine training begins in the first half of October 1941. In accordance with the order of the commander of the Pacific Fleet, a Submarine Landing Team, Podvodno-Desantnaya Komanda (подводно-десантная команда) of fifty people is formed. A group of carefully selected cadets of the diving training squad and ten well-trained submariners are sent to form the nucleus of this unit. Lieutenant Kreyman is appointed as the team’s commander.
The new unit is assigned the following tasks:
- Optimise the general and light diving training.
- Teach personnel to cross underwater distances at a depth of twenty metres using a compass.
- Train paratroopers in subversive warfare.
- Practice exiting the submarine through torpedo tubes and hatches and returning to the submarine.
- Study and practice basic reconnaissance methods.
After completing their training, during which each combat diver learns to cross a 3-kilometres underwater distance, most men of the team are transferred to Stalingrad. There, they are responsible for ensuring the transportation of equipment and troops across the Volga River. However, not all combat divers are deployed to the front lines. It’s worth noting that the Pacific Fleet continues the traditions established in 1939 of conducting exercises involving the landing of reconnaissance groups from submarines underwater through the submarine’s torpedo tubes. Members of the Podvodno-Desantnaya Komanda are used in submarine landings throughout the war.
|Razvedyvatel’nyy Otryad Osobogo Naznacheniya|
In 1944, following the directives of the Intelligence Directorate of the Moscow General Staff, similar units of reconnaissance divers to the Baltic Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya are established in other fleets. For instance, in the Black Sea Fleet, a Special Purpose Reconnaissance Detachment, Razvedyvatel’nyy Otryad Osobogo Naznacheniya (Pазведывательный Oтряд Oсобого Hазначения (РООН)) is formed in April 1944. The unit consiting of ten members is under the command of Senior Lieutenant Osipov (a former Baltic Rota Osobogo Naznacheniya platoon commander) and his assistant, Midshipman Pavlov.
|140th Razvedyvatel’no-diversionnyy Otryad Podvodnogo Plavaniya|
In January 1945, following a directive from the Chief of Staff of the Pacific Fleet, preparations commence for the establishment of the 140th Razvedyvatel’no-diversionnyy Otryad Podvodnogo Plavaniya, 140-й разведывательно-диверсионный отряд подводного плавания (Reconnaissance and Sabotage Underwater Detachment) with a target activation date set for March 15th, 1945. Senior Lieutenant Leonov, the decorated Hero of the Soviet Union renowned for his service in the Northern Fleet, is appointed as the detachment’s commander. The unit plays a part in the Soviet occupation of the Northern part of Korea.