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World War II
Human Mine Sweepers during WW2
Posted 15 Feb 2004
The Soviets were meant to have used human mine sweepers during WW2 I asked various people what they thought:
Do you know of any documented instances where the Soviets used human waves to clear minefields before putting in the real assault? I've got an instance in a personal account by a chap in Grosse Deutschland but that could just be a biased German perspective. What do you think?
BTW, is the Soviet 'mine clearing tactic' one of those urban myths gleaned from the biased German histories right after WW2? I just can't imagine any commander no matter how inept, just pushing people through a minefield to detonate the mines for follow on forces. That officer wouldn't last five minutes near any of his men. The Russians may not have had the same level of autonomy or as many officers and NCO's as other armies, but they weren't stupid.
I think its more likely that penal battalions were used to locate mines using sticks and knives, but no real mine clearing equipment. Which may well have given rise to the "urban myth".
Though I don't have much in the way of documented sources, I understand that this was reasonably common practise on the Eastern front. To what extent I don't know; I've read that the Germans used civilians and POWs to clear minefields. The following is an excerpt from Frank Chadwick. A guy post it on the FoW forum a while back:
Myths such as this, once they take hold, develop a sort of self-sustaining momentum that distorts reality to fit the theory and thus provide further reinforcement. A good example of this is the oft-recounted conversation between Zhukov and Ike. Ike is reported to have been appalled at Zhukov's callous disregard for human life as shown by his statement that the Red Army cleared minefields by driving troops through them. This supposed statement has grown in the retelling to the point that many sources declare as a statement of fact that the standard Soviet doctrine on breaching mine barriers was to drive a rifle regiment into it and use up the regiment.
This is very nearly the opposite of Zhukov's position. What Zhukov actually said was that his practice was to attack through mine fields as though they weren't there because this resulted in fewer casualties than any other option. He observed that the Germans tended to place minefields in such a way as to protect areas that were not swept by fire. Thus, if the Soviets found a gap through the minefield, it was sure to be covered by German machine-guns and mortars. Attempting to move through such a gap would inflict more casualties from fire than would have occurred from the minefield. By the same token, if the Russians stopped and attempted to clear a gap through the minefield, it gave the Germans time to bring up reserves and call down artillery fire. Again, more casualties would be inflicted upon the Russians than from the mines alone.
If the minefield could be quickly crossed and the covering German forces driven off, then the task of making gaps in the minefield was made far easier, since German fire would no longer be falling on the troops so employed. Though this tactic meant taking some losses from the mines at first, it also meant taking fewer losses overall.
Thus. when Zhukov preferred to launch an immediate attack directly through the minefields, it was because that method was the most economical in terms of loss of life. Nevertheless. in the midst of the Cold War, this incident was repeated as proof of the Russians' insensitivity to casualties, which was further proof of the Russians' "inexhaustible" manpower reserves and limitless numbers.
(As an historical aside, Patton's own standing orders for the 3rd Army instructed troops encountering mine fields to attack through them without pausing for the same reasons.)
None so far