You can hear this story/claim stated in various way, from just regular troops doing it, to just penal battalions, to strenuous denial nobody ever did this in the Soviet army. (Just look at a Quora thread.)

So what sources do we have (besides that story Zhukov supposedly told Eisenhower) on this issue?

I suspect sources covering Soviet penal battalions are closest to being relevant, because Wikipedia's article on the latter says

the penal battalions usually advanced in a frenzy, running forwards until they were killed by enemy minefields, artillery, or heavy machine-gun fire.

It does cite a book for this (Suvorov, Viktor, Inside The Soviet Army, Hamish Hamilton (1982), ISBN 0-241-10889-6), but not a precise page therein. Given the general scope of the book, I'm not convinced it has more details on this issue.

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    While it's probably not worth an answer, I have a personal anecdote. My grand-grandfather was in a unit that was sent multiple times to "defuse" roads with their bodies. He lost his leg to a mine but survived, and lived long enough to tell me the tale. P.S.: the unit was not a penal, but a national one. The only "crime" of people in it was being German. – Alice Sep 26 '19 at 8:22
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    "It does cite a book for this (Suvorov, Viktor [...]" and that is a massive clue about the reliability of the claim. If you research this author you will see he has been repeatedly discredited. – AEhere supports Monica Sep 26 '19 at 12:25
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    Although it seems a simple claim, it's actually not as clear-cut as it would seem. Soldiers might be sent over a field with a small chance of mines, but at what percentage risk does it move from unlucky to expected? And soldiers may be sent into minefields with inadequate mine-clearing equipment. Even if there was intent, how would you prove it? An officer might send troops running through a minefield in the expectation that some would die but the hope that some would come out the other side and attack; would you allow this, or require that the officer expected all to die? – Stuart F Sep 26 '19 at 13:40
  • @StuartF: I agree there are quite a few nuances to this issue. Frankly I wish there were more academic materials discussing it, but insofar this is what I have found. (My own self-answer was prompted by some VTC with comments [now deleted] along the lines of "not enough research before asking".) – Fizz Sep 26 '19 at 13:44

There are a few recorded instances of Soviet penal troops being intentionally sent over mines, at least according to survivors:

It is hard to judge whether there was a deliberate sacrifice of penal soldiers, but Pyl’tsyn describes how Batov, commander of the army to which his penal battalion was attached, deliberately sent its soldiers—all of them temporarily demoted officers—across a minefield, where they suffered 80% casualties. Pyl’tsyn, who also advanced across the minefield but survived without a scratch, regarded this order as criminal and claims that tanks with ploughs for making passages in the minefield were actually available. The survivors of this action were not pardoned because Batov would not release an uninjured soldier from a penal unit. Significantly, Pyl’tsyn does not reproach his superiors for a mission in which the penal company he commanded spearheaded the attack across the Oder River. Only four men survived without injury by the time they had captured the bridgehead, while Pyl’tsyn himself was gravely wounded in the head.

Quoted from: Alex Statiev, "Penal Units in the Red Army", Europe-Asia Studies, 62:5, 721-747

The full name of the soldier is Aleksandr Pyl’tsyn, and the story is cited to his memoirs in Russian:

  • Pyl’tsyn, A. (2003) Shtrafnoi udar ili kak ofitserskii shtrafbat doshel do Berlina (St Petersburg, Znanie).

"Batov" refers to the commander of the 65th Army, Pavel Batov.

I'm not sure if there are other stories corroborating something like this.

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    It would worth to mention if we read the whole story in Pal'tsyn's book )ref: , sorry no idea if it was ever translated to Eng.) it won't appear that simple. For instance Pal'tsyn mentions that a few hours before the attack a they sent a sappers team to demine the field (if there're any mines). In an hour the team returned and reported there're no mines ahead. – seven-phases-max Sep 25 '19 at 16:32
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    @seven-phases-max: Interesting. Statiev's article is citing quite a few other pages from that book for other issues, so it doesn't look like he didn't read it more of it. – Fizz Sep 25 '19 at 16:40
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    Pal'tsyn mentions that later, colonel Baturin (at the time a lower commander under Batov) confessed they do it (reported no mines) intentionally by Batov's order. And then (in the book) come complected Pal'tsyn's thoughts and ideas on who's order it actually could be (Batov? Baturin? Someone else? Was such an order at all?). Pal'tsyn concludes that most likely it was Batov basing on an after war Batov 's person characteristics read in other memoires, but states it was not something he thought to deep of in 1945. That's it. – seven-phases-max Sep 25 '19 at 16:52
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    @seven-phases-max: it looks like the book was translated in English. amazon.com/Penalty-Strike-Memoirs-Commander-Memories-ebook/dp/… – Fizz Sep 25 '19 at 16:58
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    I can distinctly remember reading similar statements in the memoirs of other Soviet soldiers I've read over the years, but can't recall the names or titles involved. So it appears to not have been an isolated incident (as these were memoirs of various campaigns). – jwenting Sep 26 '19 at 3:28

Soviets were generally tactically inept in WW2, but wanted rapid advance

First, let's quickly look at the Red Army situation before WW2 and in early months of the conflict in the East. The Red Army was expanding in late 1930's and early 1940's as were practically all European (and even world) armies, preparing for the conflict that seemed inevitable. Rapid expansion introduces the problem of having enough competent officers and NCOs to lead new units. This problem was further exacerbated with the Tukhachevsky Affair and consequent purge of the Red Army, which left it practically leaderless and without much of competent trainers of troops. As a consequence, disaster happened in the first few months of the war, with further loss of experienced officers, this time as KIA or MIA .

Now, Soviet general-staff (Stavka) and to a lesser extent commanders of fronts, armies and corps, did purify themselves from incompetent officers fairly quickly (in 1941 and early 1942) . But the problem was deep rooted, down to regimental, battalion and company level. Most of junior officers didn't know how to fight, they had to be trained on the job, which is the worst kind of training for military - mistakes were paid with blood.

Consequently, while Soviet offensives from late 1942 onward were usually planned with considerable strategic and operational skill, on tactical level they were often crude and sacrificed lives of men in the first echelon in order to achieve quick success, thus saving lives of those in second echelon and reserve. The usual pattern would be heavy artillery fire, and then advance of infantry, sometimes supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, in order to breach the line . This advance would more often then not be a simple mass charge, without developed small units tactics, especially early and mid war . But if done sufficiently rapidly, mechanized and cavalry forces could be inserted trough the breech before German armored & mechanized reinforcements arrived, thus creating opportunity for envelopment and encirclement, the favorite Soviet strategy.

Now, considering Soviet Shtraftbats, or penal battalions and other penal units, official Soviet statistics says that 427 910 men or 1,24 % of all those serving in Red Army passed trough them. The average monthly casualties (KIA, WIA, MIA) in 1944 for penal units were 14 191 men, which scaled to proportion, is 3 to 6 times more than casualties in non-penal units. This of course makes sense, shtrafniki were there to "expunge their crimes with blood". This would of course depend on the local commander (Pavel Batov was supposedly notorious for this), but generally what they could expect is to be sent to the most dangerous places, and to lead the attack on prepared positions.

As for mine clearing and general tasks of military engineers and sappers, Soviets did have lot of specialized units for those tasks. On paper, they were well equipped and trained. Also, Soviet infantry, at least in theory, should have had basic mine clearing training, enough to create paths trough German minefields. Therefore, the tactic of deliberately sending men into minefields in order to detonate them and create passage for other units is not justified, especially since Soviets actually didn't have unlimited reserves of manpower, and faced shortages even in 1942-42, due to massive casualties and limited recruitment potential (large parts of Soviet Union occupied). This goes even for shtrafniki, if Soviet government wanted to kill off these men, they would have done that unceremoniously, without the need to send them to the front. However, what is possible and plausible is the situation where the local commander, in order to save time, sends penal battalion(s) to attack trough the minefield, calculating that incurred loses would be far higher if they waited for combat engineers and allow the enemy to reinforce the position. This would be in line with the aforementioned Soviet line of thinking, with relatively crude tactics but grandiose strategic goal in mind. Such situations would likely develop in the middle of an offensive operation, for example suddenly coming to a well defended objective that could not be bypassed but must be taken quickly.

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