On September 12, 1941, Joseph Stalin issued a Staff Directive which provided for the creation of anti-retreat troops, in order to suppress defections and panic retreats.
The need for these anti-retreat troops was called for by the growing number of defectors in the first days of the war, when the Red Army sustained constant defeats and soldiers were dispirited and seized by fear and panic. Once the situation worsened, the commanders of the units themselves introduced some sort of barrier troops shortly after the war started; this initiative was later legalized and documented in the shape of the directive on September 12, 1941, which read, “1. Every division should have an anti-retreat formation no bigger than a battalion. 2. The mission of this battalion is to assist the staff in maintaining strict discipline in the divisions and to stop the defection of soldiers overwhelmed by panic, resorting to weapons whenever necessary.”
The barrier troops were introduced in the Red Army from the first days of war. These formations were assembled from the regular army, later transferring under the jurisdiction of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. These special squadrons and platoons set up traps, checkpoints and watches on the alleged defector itineraries. All the soldiers suspected of defection or treason were arrested and brought to a court martial. The report, field by the then-head of the NKVD Lavrenty Beria, states that from the start of the war until October, 10 of 1941, 657,464 soldiers and officers were arrested and charged with defection or treason, diversionist activity or sabotage, with 10,210 executed. 3,321 of these were on the front line, while 632,486 were exonerated and returned to the front.
Contrary to common belief, the anti-retreat troops did not wear the NKVD uniform, and could not be distinguished from regular troops.
Not always, however, was this procedure clear and transparent. Sometimes, either because of the obviousness of the violation or out of an unwillingness to engage in a lengthy court hearing, the final decision was made by the anti-retreat squadron commander – this was one of the reasons many researchers condemned these formations as merely castigator gangs. The other fact that led people to believe so was the troopers’ right to shoot above the heads should the situation go out of control; in reality, they sometimes missed and could accidentally hit innocent soldiers for no reason.
As the major crisis passed with the victory at the battle of Stalingrad, the anti-retreat troops shifted priorities and were employed for regular military purposes.
On October 29, 1944, Stalin issued a decree, confirming that “the positive changes in the general situation at the front rendered the anti-retreat troops unnecessary.” On November 15, they were dissolved and blended into the regular military units.