The 'Blue Dawn' Legacy: From Soviet Planning For WWIII Partisans To The War In Ukraine
A secret oral history, contextualized
Glasnost was a strange time. Seven decades after the Revolution, the late Soviet Union was full of contradictions awaiting resolution.
Perestroika, McDonalds in Moscow, blue jeans and rock and roll all punctured the Warsaw Pact system and let the air out of Soviet communist ideology like a red balloon gently, slowly, sadly. No sudden pop occurred, though we might point to the demolition of the Berlin Wall as a critical turn. Rather, the Soviet Union sagged for a few years, in stages, until a desperate, bungled coup attempt by hardliners brought a merciful end to things.
It was during this time, in between the beginning of the end and the end, that an anonymous young reserve officeer was allowed to see inside a very particular kind of long-term weapon storage facility in southern Russia.
He was amazed to find huge caches of obsolete weapons almost a century old in design. “They are for the partisans,” he was told.
The nearest western combat forces were a thousand kilometers away, but the Red Army had conserved all of this old stuff right there, just in case western invaders ever arrived again in a reprise of Operation Barbarossa.
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For obvious reasons, the original source of this account must remain nameless. Still alive and working (I did check), under the present circumstances he cannot be questioned about the exact location of the facility that he inspected. He is still subject to the laws of Russia, and in wartime.
However, that depot would have been somewhere in the southeastern portion of European Russia, which could suggest any number of locations deep inside the Cold War perimeter of Soviet Security.
“The comment of the officer he knew there about the materiel being held to arm the partisans was not made with irony, but was quite serious,” explains Dr. G. As a further security measure, I am also redacting the surname of the academic historian who met this officer during their own sojourn as a student in Russia.
Among other topics, Dr. G teaches military history at a university in the southeastern United States. He explains that according to his source, the arsenal had been positioned against a future invasion like the German one of the Second World War. It was certainly fresh in the minds of Russian generals in the early Cold War.
“Soviet defense in depth doctrine included establishment of hidden weapons dumps along strategic borders rather far into Soviet territory so that if a border region was overrun, the weapons could be retrieved and used against any occupying force,” Dr. G says. “I believe this also involved specially assigned officer cadres whose mission was to allow the front to pass over them and then emerge to organize partisan groups.”
Partisan warfare had been an effective force multiplier against the Axis powers. Russian planners wanted to replicate the model in a more systematic fashion than they had been able to do in 1941.
Units would organize underground and equip themselves from depots like the one Dr. G’s acquaintance inspected. “These groups would then use the armaments to harass the invading NATO army from the rear, attacking their logistics and communications in the usual hit-and run fashion.”
A proud descendant of Cossacks, that Russian reserve officer went on to become an accomplished academic, too. They became friends in what was still called Leningrad during those strange days when the Soviet system was deflating.
This friend of Dr. G would have been proud to defend his country if the western powers had ever actually invaded Russia. However, the contents of the stockpile he described hardly sounded encouraging.
“The weapons mentioned were Vickers pattern MGs, I believe mod. 91 and 91/30 bolt action rifles,” Dr. G says, “and Russian made, maybe some French import, WW I type 75s.”
Although decades have passed, his friend “was impressed by the sheer volume in storage and the obsolescence of the weapons.” The description was detailed enough that “it seemed I could smell the cosmoline.”
It was the French 75 millimeter cannons packed in grease that triggered my attention when Dr. G first related this story to me more than twenty years ago. On one level it is absurd — unit training offices in the NATO armies never even bothered to stockpile maps of Poland, for Western planners foresaw the evident risks of invading Russia, while their domestic politics generally precluded preemptive war.
As a student of the artillery branch and its historiography, I was struck by a second level of irony to this secret history. Known to the French as Madamoiselle soixante-quinze, “Miss 75,” the Modèle1897 75 millimeter gun was the first successful modern secret weapon program — and the original modern towed artillery gun.
After the disasters of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, the French Army was in a mood for vengeance, doubling down on development secrecy in pursuit of a qualitative edge. Gen. Hyppolyte Langlois, a member of the French Academy, wrote a three-volume doctrine in 1892, The Field Artillery in Relation to the Other Arms, in which he proposed to crush the enemy under a rafale, or “squall,” of intense fire from a new generation of high-tech artillery. Gen. Charles Mathieu, director of the French artillery, was convinced by what he read and asked engineers to design a weapon on the “long recoil” principle as Langlois proposed.
Whereas field guns of the era had minimal recoil mechanisms to avoid breakdowns in battle, and tended to be inaccurate when fired fast, his idea was to use a long piston to make a precision gun that could fire very quickly while staying on target.
After several engineers declined the problem, Col. Albert Deport, director of the Chatillon-Commentry gun foundry at Puteaux, accepted. His engineering team worked from an earlier experimental quick-firing desing, adding a pair of oil- and gas-filled tubes to absorb recoil. It was one of the design elements “borrowed” through patent expionage and incorporated with French developments in smokeless powder, brass cartridges, and a new type of breech screw cap to enable rapid reloading.
As Robert O’Connell explains in “The Miraculous 75mm Gun,” a 2001 article in the Quarterly Journal of Military History, ultimate success came down to a single crucial component.
Everything turned on the development of the recoil mechanism. The work was supervised by Captain Sainte-Claire Deville, a gifted and relentless engineer. The principles for the mechanism were borrowed from a hypopneumatic brake and recuperator devised by a Belgian inventor. They seemed sound, but so great were the pressures involved that the first examples, cast in bronze, oozed glycerin hydraulic fluid through the very pores of the metal. This was corrected by using machined steel, and, gradually, problem by problem, solutions were found until the indefatigable Deville and his team brought the revolutionary 75mm gun to fruition…
As militaria historian Steven J. Zaloga writes in the most recent monograph on the weapon, The French 75, Sainte-Claire Deville’s vital innovation was a diaphraghm which “prevented the hydraulic fluid from leaking into the compressed air piston,” solving a leakage problem. “This permitted an increase of pressure in the air piston and also assured that the recuperator fully returned the gun tube to battery after each firing.”
Upon introduction to service in 1898, painted at first in pearl gray, it was the most advanced field gun in the world. An added semiautomatic breech mechanism allowed the crew of four men, huddled behind the protective metal shield, to fire a high explosive shell every two to four seconds, depending on their level of drill, to a distance of five miles.
Options for a removable rear sight and a telescopic direct-fire sight made it a versatile weapon. Although it was unfit for most trench warfare after 1914, during the war the 75 was mounted as the main gun in French forts and tanks, on motor trucks as a mobile antiaircraft weapon or self-propelled artillery, and even on boats.
Production of the weapon was distributed for two reasons, first, to maintain the security of its design, as only the staff at one assembly point knew how the pieces all fit together. Rather than reform this arrangement at the outbreak of war, the French minister of armaments simply scaled it up. Despite these inefficiencies, by 1918 more than 10,000 had been produced and a new model had extended the range.
Political patronage was the second reason that distributed manufacture succeeded. Parliamentarians were eager to be part of a project that benfitted so many different districts. As a result, according to O’Connell, work on the M1897 “began in utmost secrecy without contract or ministerial approval, funded with a total of sixty million dollars supposedly earmarked for the purchase of property around Paris” to clear fields of fire for the defensive forts around the city.
Seeking to keep their secret weapon a secret as long as they could, France even made it illegal to ask questions about it in the French press. “No figures on ranges, rates of fire, weight of shells, or anything else” were released to the public, O’Connell writes. As a result, “around the world rumors and misinformation about the gun abounded.” Germans simultaneously rubbished the 75 and rushed their own development of fast-firing field artillery in response to it.
Put on display for the first time during the Boxer Rebellion, the 75 would prove to be “epoch making” in the words of Maj. Gen. Fox Conner. A division commander in the American Expeditionary Force that crossed the Atlantic in 1917 with the 75mm as their main field gun, he appreciated its advantages better than most. At the time, the US Army did not have a domestic equivalent, and so a domestic version of the French weapon would remain the American standard for decades.
Even after Germany had long since captured examples for examination, French advisers tried to maintain the secrecy of that all-important recuperator mechanism as they prepared their allies to fight in France during the First World War. Nevertheless, secrecy had practical limits. In 1917, Paris dispatched the first four worn-out 75s to the United States, where they were stripped down and inspected at the Ordnance Department.
“After disassembling the guns, O’Connell writes, “the secret of the recuperator was nothing more than incredibly close tolerances — no tolerances, actually.” French industrial practices were evident: “Each and every example had been handmade by French craftsmen, working with the precision of jewelers.” By then, the French guns were produced in vert armeé (army green) paint.
American artillery was still using updated versions of the famous French guns when the Second World War broke out. At the fall of France, the US sold thousands of them to the British Army, along with a million tons of ammunition, as emergency aid. American GIS used them in North Africa and Europe. Examples abound in museums and outside of American Legion halls. The M1897 75mm field gun has probably become the least-secret secret weapon of all time. Such was the fame of this gun at one time that the reader can still order a French 75 cocktail (gin, lemon, sweetener, and champagne).
It is a good story. One might imagine that Russia, having received some French 75s at some point in the First World War, or American 75s during the Second, might have been impressed enough to copy it, and that reserves of ancient French field artillery design could still be moldering in Russian storage today, ready to appear on the battlefields of Ukraine at any minute, wielded by Private Conscriptovitch.
To be sure, the Bolsheviks would have no problem copying a French weapon they liked, nor would Stalin. That would be a great story, but my research of Russian artillery history shows that despite strategic technology-sharing from the 1890s to 1917, Russia never manufactured its own French 75s. Nor was there ever a significant export line of 75s to Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union, either.
Which is not to say they were unavailable to Russians. France kept right on making the 75mm 1897-pattern weapon right up to the beginning of the Second World War. By then, it had taken on a new role as antitank weapon, in which capacity the Germans overran and captured hundreds of them.
France had also supplied 75s to Poland and Norway. Thus, discernibly-French artillery weapons did see some service on the Eastern Front, though mainly in German and Finnish hands — for example, many were converted into the famous 7.5 cm PAK anti-tank guns. Russia captured 346 of them along with half of Poland, but never made great use of them, as far as I can tell.
So there is a small, but real chance that Dr. G’s friend really saw French 75s, but the more likely probability is that by miscommunication or misinformation or just bad memory, the anecdote of French 75s in a Russian armory during the late 1980s is probably incorrect in the identification.
What that reserve officer most likely saw, and reported to Dr. G, were equivalent Russian field guns similar to the French one. For like every major army in Europe, Russia developed their own response to the famous artillery weapon — and incredibly, that system is still in service right now.
First produced in 1902 at the legendary Kirov plant in St. Petersburg, the 76.2 mm (3 inch) M1902 design was already the main field artillery weapon of the Russian Army divisional formation when war broke out with Japan in 1904. However, Russian artillery doctrine had not caught up with technological developments and they were poorly employed in that conflict.
As in the French case, 1914 and the advent of entrenchment battles rendered the “three-incher” (трёхдюймовка) system less effective for bombardment even as their combat role broadened. Unless used to fire on men in the open, bursting shrapnel shells did little damage, while the shells were too small to deliver effective high explosive power to a dug-in enemy.
Nevertheless, a “light mountain gun” version of the 76mm designed for infantry saw wide deployment during the First World War. Again matching its French equivalent, the basic design was improved during the 1930s to serve as a “universal” gun, meaning that it could be swung up or down and fired in any direction. The resulting F-22 “divisional guns” saw extensive use in the Second World War — and again, the Germans were too happy to modify and use the examples they captured.
During the Cold War, the Soviets gave out F-22s of every type so freely that unlike their French inspiration, some of them remain in service with a few countries even today. Notably, they are still shooting in the Yemeni civil war right now. It is hardly impossible for them to turn up in Ukraine next.
Soviet partisan arms depots may not have survived the post-Cold War 1990s, when everything was for sale. Famously, Russian arms merchants like Viktor Bout glutted the global arms market with surplus Warsaw Pact-made weaponry, feeding Third World conflicts like the one in Yemen.
By then, the 75mm artillery shell was completely obsolete among first-rate powers, even as an antitank gun. When Dr. G talked to his friend, the Red Army had long since standardized the 122mm D-30 howitzer, which is still in use by both sides in Ukraine today as their smallest field gun. During this century, NATO has standardized the 155mm shell as its smallest towed field artillery caliber.
The war in Ukraine has held lots of surprises, the biggest being that Ukraine remains unconquered. However, the story of the T-62 — an obsolete Soviet tank, taken out of mothballs after the defeats of March and April, with scores being destroyed and captured in recent Ukrainian counteroffensives — has observers wondering whether the Kremlin will now order even older, even more obsolete tanks to the front.
Are T-55s next? If that did come to pass, ancient artillery weapons might not be far behind. After all, century-old machine guns of the same vintage as the “Vickers” described in storage are in fact fighting in Ukraine right now. The bolt-action 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles that Dr. G’s interlocutor described have also turned up in Russian-supplied formations of Ukrainian conscripts. Only the ancient artillery is missing.
So if reports of Russians or their proxies using 76mm or even 75mm field guns in the Donbass ever turn up in my newsfeed, I will not be surprised at all. It will just be the legacy of Soviet planners who never threw anything away, who convinced themselves that decadent western capitalists might really be mad enough to invade Russia one day.
They observed a doctrine of deep partisan operations that influenced Chairman Mao, then Ho Chi Minh, and others, a legacy that continues with partisan assassinations and harassment attacks in Russian-occupied Ukraine now.
I hope to update and annotate this oral history some day, history permitting. Until then, it stands as a good example of how HUMINT, or human intelligence, works. Analysts may be working with secondhand reports that are blurred by time or translation, corroborate it all as best they can with other sources, make educated guesses, and draw annoyingly tentative conclusions. It is a frustrating art, much like writing history.
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