Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Deer transportation battalions: how reindeer herders defended their homeland

The Red Army's unique units

9 may 2023

There is an unusual monument in Naryan-Mar—a sculptor cast in bronze the figure of a Nenets man with a rifle, a musher's pole and his faithful companions: a reindeer and a dog. It was erected in 2012 to commemorate the men of the deer transportation battalions who fought valiantly in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. Eight years later, a monument to the heroic labour of the deer transportation battalions was erected in Murmansk. Their role in defending the northern frontiers of our homeland can hardly be overestimated, as it was their responsibility to maintain the transport infrastructure in the most dangerous and difficult areas of the Arctic theatre of operations.

The motherland is calling!

In 1941, the offensive of Hitler's army took several vectors, one of which was aimed at Murmansk. The unfrozen port was an indispensable operational base that hindered the Nazis on both sea and land. A massive attack was taking place in Karelia, and in November of the first year of the war, the first reindeer herders were drafted into the ranks of the 14th Karelian Army, along with their sledge reindeer. They formed three transports, each manned by 154 people, 77 of whom were mushers. Each unit consisted of 76 light sledges, 270 cargo sledges and 15 reindeer dogs. The herders were mainly Sami, an indigenous people who had been roaming the European North for hundreds of years. They became sedentary in the USSR, but retained their traditional ways of life, were skilled hunters and were perfectly adapted to survive in the Arctic.

A secret decree of the State Defence Committee, No. GKO-930s, soon came out announcing additional mobilisation among the reindeer herders of the Nenets District in the Arkhangelsk and Komi regions of the USSR. A total of 10,000 reindeer and 1,400 mushers in 500 sledges went to war.


'The fighters were recruited directly from reindeer-herding camps, fishing settlements and villages. The best young reindeer herders, the backbone of the Nenets tundra, went to the front,' says Irina Heno, author of the project 'Ethnos and Time.' The conscripts were mainly representatives of indigenous peoples, but there were also Russian mushers who lived and worked in the tundra.


During the war, they saved the lives of 10,412 wounded soldiers, bringing them under fire on the road in the bitter cold from the front line to the hospitals; 7,985 people were delivered to the place of combat deployment, providing them with 17,000 tons of ammunition. The sledge teams even managed to transport downed planes—162 of them were returned, as well as engines and spare parts from machines no longer suitable for restoration. Some fighters made it to Europe as well—the 31st Reindeer-Ski Brigade made it through Poland to the capital of the Czech Republic.

Why reindeer?

The deer transportation units were engaged in a whole range of military tasks. The main ones, of course, were delivering supplies and transporting the wounded in off-road conditions. One cargo sledge could be loaded with up to 300 kg in winter, equivalent to about 5,000 rifle cartridges. The average speed of the reindeer transport was about 5–6 km/h, and they travelled 35 to 40 km per day. In case of an intensive march, the transport could cover up to 80 km, but such intensive movements could only be due to vital importance or an extremely high level of threat. The mushers and their charges also solved highly specialized tasks—reconnaissance, including capturing prisoners, evacuating crews of downed planes behind the front lines, etc. Many of the mushers were excellent riflemen and masters of camouflage, and their skills proved extremely useful here.

Reindeer also proved to be an exceptionally efficient mode of transportation. To begin with, they required no special care. The reindeer feeds itself, is extremely resistant to high temperatures and can move both in open spaces and over rough terrain, including in the woods. And it's also silent.


'Dogs in sledges are noisy, they bark, bicker among themselves, figure things out, horses make loud noises too, but reindeer don't. Any other animal but not a deer. It makes no sound, absolutely no sound at all. Really, they could easily pass under the nose of the enemy,' told Domna Homyuk, a resident of the Sami settlement of Lovoozero, to TASS.


Military exploits

The deer transportation units soon became such a nuisance to Hitler's army that they became a priority target.


'The enemy pilots would hunt for reindeer sledges with gusto. When they saw a fresh trail of reindeer sledges, a pilot was sure to fly on that trail and catch up with the sledge,' recalls veteran Nikolay Antipovich Rochev.


The mushers countered enemy aviation with the ability to hide themselves and their reindeer. One common way to keep the herd alive was to shelter the animals in the woods. They could spend up to a day there in complete silence. The fighters themselves had mastered various devious camouflage techniques, including in open terrain.

However, they did not stay in debt. In addition to armed escorts, deer transportation units made raids behind enemy lines in order to destroy strongholds and exert moral and psychological pressure. And they often managed to arm themselves with more than just small arms and grenades. During the colder months, when the ice was firmly frozen and the load-bearing capacity of the sledges increased, the fighters mounted mortars, light cannons and other field artillery on improvised skis, then suddenly attacked the enemy from the rear. They have also been responsible for sabotage—destroying bridges and damaging roads. Thanks to their stealth and high speed, the mushers would appear and disappear like ghosts long before Hitler's soldiers were aware of the next attack.

Read more Reindeer herding in the Arctic People cannot survive in tundra without reindeer


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