The first UPA units appeared in western
Volhynia (now Volhynska oblast and Rivne oblast). They were
organized independently by Taras Borovets (in spring 1942), the OUN-B (Bandera faction) (from October 1942),
and the OUN-M (Melnyk faction) (in spring 1943). As resistance to the Germans
intensified, the military forces of the Bandera faction grew rapidly and established their control over many districts of Volhynia. When talks on
unification among the three groups failed, the most powerful group, the Bandera units, disarmed and absorbed the two other groups,
in July and August 1943. Klym Savur, the leader of the OUN-B for northwestern Ukraine,
became the commander in chief of the unified UPA. German auxiliary police and guard units, composed not only of ethnic Ukrainians but also of other nationals who had served in the Red Army, defected to the UPA. The number of non-Ukrainian UPA soldiers grew rapidly, and peaked in the late fall of 1943. They were organized into separate national units, the
largest of which were the Azerbaidzhani, Uzbek, Georgian, and Tatar. In the autumn of 1943
the UPA established a secret armistice with Hungarian
units which guarded German communication lines in Volhynia. Recognizing the importance of national aspirations, the UPA organized on 21–22 November 1943 the
Conference of the Oppressed Nations of Eastern Europe and Asia. It was attended by representatives of 13 nationalities,
who resolved to support each other's liberation struggles.
The structure of the Ukrainian underground army took shape during the winter of 1942–43. The ranks of the army were notably strengthened by the absorption of between 3,000 and 5,000 Ukrainian policemen who had been ordered by the OUN to abandon German service. The expansion of the UPA took place against the background of perpetual confrontations with enemy forces on three fronts: anti-German (fighting the agencies of the government of occupation), anti-Soviet (fighting Red partisans and NKVD units), and anti-Polish (fighting Polish underground units that considered Western Ukraine part of the Polish state). Nonetheless, the Ukrainian insurgents succeeded in liberating substantial territories from the various occupying forces, and Ukrainian governments were installed in these so-called insurgent republics.
At this time, another difficult problem was overcome — that of the disconnectedness of the various loci of the struggle for freedom — by uniting the diverse units under a single political leadership and military command. By the end of 1943, the armed insurgency of the UPA also encompassed large territories in Galicia (Halychyna), and by 1944 the UPA’s combat actions had spread to the Sian River and Kholm (Chełm) regions. At the apogee of the UPA’s territorial structure, the freedom fighters had a presence in what today are Volyn, Rivne, Zhytomyr, Khmelnytsky, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Transcarpathia oblasts, as well as the eastern parts of the Subcarpathia (Podkarpacie) and Lublin voivodeships in Poland. In 1944, the Ukrainian insurgent movement covered an area of up to 150,000 sq. km, with a population of nearly 15 million people. This corresponds to roughly one-quarter of the territory of today’s Ukrainian state — an area larger than modern-day Greece with a population equal to that of the Netherlands.
From the outset, the UPA considered itself to be an offshoot of the armed forces of the independent and sovereign Ukrainian state, and therefore modeled its structure on that of a regular army. The UPA’s organizational structure was simple and linear, but at the same time it was flexible enough to allow for effective deployment of personnel and materiel while adapting to the changeable circumstances of war, and to achieve important combat victories. Its leaders paid close attention to the need for control from above and at the same time encouraged initiative from below. The military structure of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army was ultimately stabilized in November 1943, when Roman Shukhevych became UPA Supreme Commander and the Supreme Military Headquarters (HVSh) was created. The UPA’s field of operations was then subdivided into three General Military Districts (HVO): UPA-North (the original UPA, based in the northwestern Ukrainian regions Polissia and Volyn), UPA-South (insurgent units in Podillia), and UPA-West (the former Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence [UNS] in Galicia). Each General Military District had its own regional commander with a Regional Military Headquarters (KVSh), and was divided into smaller territorial units called Military Districts (VO). The Supreme Military Headquarters and the Regional Military Headquarters were strategic coordinating centres, but direct control over combat operations took place at the level of the Military Districts.
In trained combat companies, a squad usually numbered between ten and twelve soldiers, each armed with a light machine gun, two or three submachine guns, and rifles. The UPA had a functional system of command designations (Squad Leader, Platoon Leader, Company Commander, Battalion Commander, Brigade (or Tactical Sector-TV) Commander, Division-VO Commander, Corps Commander, Supreme Army Commander). This system arose because of the critical lack of qualified and politically reliable officers during the initial stage of forming combat units and headquarters, and it remained in place thereafter, with formal approval passed in January 1944. From the outset, the UPA made use of traditional military ranks (rank-and file soldiers: Private, Private First Class; NCOs: Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant; and officers: Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier General). A high percentage of promotions in rank were posthumous; to illustrate, seven out of nine promoted generals were awarded this title posthumously.
One of the most difficult problems faced by leaders of the UPA during its early stages was the shortage of senior (officer) cadres. The absence of a Ukrainian state in the prewar period resulted in a shortage of experienced Ukrainian army commanders. Thus, among UPA officers were soldiers who had acquired this experience in foreign armies (Polish, German, and Soviet), and older officers who had served in the army of the UNR in 1917–20. However, there were not enough such officer ranks to satisfy the insurgent army’s growing needs. Therefore, the UPA began establishing its own schools for NCOs and officers, clandestinely training command personnel for the army. The four officer training academies — Druzhynnyky (Legionnaires), Lisovi Chorty (Forest Devils), Hrehit (name of a Carpathian mountain), and Oleni (Stags) — graduated several hundred officers.
Although the UPA was not a regular army, it sought to outfit its soldiers in military uniforms with a characteristic cut, gear, and distinguishing marks. A special design for an insurgent uniform was developed in 1943, but production was impossible owing to the extreme conditions. Therefore, the Ukrainian freedom fighters dressed in civilian or pseudo-military clothing, captured military uniforms, or home-made uniforms, and wore distinguishing marks germane to the UPA. Captured uniforms came from the German, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, or Soviet armies. Civilian clothing was often worn under the uniform. UPA soldiers commonly wore a combination uniform consisting of a German jacket and Soviet riding-breeches, etc. Trousers were of various cuts, and footwear styles also varied. For the most part, UPA soldiers wore Soviet tarpaulin boots, German boots with horseshoe heel irons, and—rarely—dress shoes. In winter they wore greatcoats, sheepskin coats, and jackets; and during combat assignments they wore white camouflage cloaks.
The insurgent uniform included various types of headgear: side caps, field kepis (caps with a flat circular top and a visor), forage caps, protective steel helmets (rarely), Petliura caps, triangular caps known as mazepynky (after the style worn by Hetman Ivan Mazepa), and civilian caps with cockades in various shapes of the trident (Ukraine’s state emblem). The uniform also included belts with buckles on which tridents occasionally figured; one or two shoulder-belts; and a map-case. Buckles were introduced early, in the first months of the army’s existence. They were distinguished by their shape, insignia, and manufacture. Some were remodeled German, Polish, or Soviet buckles from which the enemy symbol, e.g., the star or the swastika, was removed and replaced by the trident. The most common buckles were those fashioned from spent cannon cartridges. They were practically identical, with only small differences in size and detail. Some soldiers custom-designed their buckles, produced moulds, and cast them in metal. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army had its own particular system of military decorations and awards that were introduced in early 1944 as a means of recognizing service and achievement. These included Gold (two classes), Silver (two classes), and Bronze Crosses of Combat Merit, while Gold, Silver, and Bronze Crosses of Merit were awarded to UPA soldiers as well as civilians. The actual decorations were manufactured at a significantly later date (in 1951), based on designs created by the well-known insurgent artist Nil Khasevych. In addition to these decorations, which were considered orders of the UPA, the army introduced its Medal for Combat under Circumstances of Extreme Difficulty in 1948. Four years later, in 1952, a medal to mark the 10th anniversary of the UPA was designed.
Raids were one of the best-known elements of the UPA’s insurgency tactics. Thanks to their constant maneuvering and billeting changes, UPA soldiers were able to carry out surprise and harassing attacks while not allowing the enemy the opportunity to strike them with force. Besides the broad use of raids as guerrilla tactics, the insurgents also used them to disseminate their ideas. With this goal in mind, they developed a special type of military propaganda raid. During such raids, the insurgents did not restrict themselves to armed actions, but also distributed leaflets and clandestine literature, talked to local civilians, and organized clandestine meetings. After the Second World War ended, the USSR was able to marshal all its forces in order to crush the Ukrainian national liberation movement. One of the methods of this struggle was to erect an information blockade around the bloody confrontation between the Soviet regime and the freedom fighters, as well as a concerted effort to discredit Ukrainian nationalists as collaborators and “remnants of German lackeys.” In order to smash this blockade and expand its own anti-Soviet front, the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council—after recruiting representatives of the Central and Eastern European nations that had just been subjugated by the Soviet Union—issued an order to carry out military-propaganda raids into the countries bordering Ukraine.
Between 1945 and 1950, Ukrainian insurgents carried out a number of such operations on the territory of the Belorussian SSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In 1950, UPA soldiers made an unsuccessful bid to carry out a raid into Lithuania in order to join their efforts with the Lithuanian insurgents, who were known as “forest brothers.” One of the UPA’s most famous exploits was the 1947 Great Raid to the West. Led by Mykhailo Duda (“Hromenko”), Volodymyr Shchyhelsky (“Burlaka”), and Roman Hrobelsky (“Brodych”), UPA companies marched through the Zakerzonnia region (eastern sections of the Western Ukrainian ethnographic lands, “beyond the Curzon Line,” that were annexed by Poland pursuant to the Soviet-Polish border agreements of 1944–45) and Czechoslovakia in order to reach Bavaria in Western Germany. Hromenko’s company reached its destination without dispersing, while the other companies advanced by splitting into small groups. Covering a distance of more than 1,500 km, the freedom fighters made their way from behind the Iron Curtain to the West, bringing the truth about the Ukrainians’ liberation struggle to light in the West. Their arrival prompted an international sensation, and Western European and American newspapers began writing about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The UPA’s last successful raid into a neighboring country, as an insurgent action in Romania. During a two-week period, an insurgent group succeeded in carrying out important propagandistic work among the Romanians by circulating appeals in leaflet form. After completing their assignment, the UPA soldiers managed to return home without any losses by maneuvering around the specially deployed Soviet forces. Although the UPA’s raids did not lead to the creation of a coherent anti-Soviet front, to a significant degree they fostered local anti - Communist movements and helped inform the free world about the Ukrainians’ valiant struggle for liberation against Stalinist totalitarianism.
The Ukrainian insurgents fired off their last shots in the early 1960s, when their unequal
armed struggle, which had lasted for more than
15 years, came to an end. However, the Ukrainians’ constant drive for freedom was not extinguished. Most notably, the insurgents were replaced by the Shistdesiatnyky (Sixtiers), a generation of young Ukrainian dissident poets and prose writers, who began publishing during
Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” and through different means pursued the cause of their predecessors. Finally, in the 1980s, the winds of change began blowing
in Eastern Europe, and they did not bypass Ukraine. A powerful national-democratic movement arose
like a Phoenix and united hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians around the slogans and ideals of freedom and
independence. Under this pressure, the Soviet-Russian Empire
tottered and ultimately fell, and on its ruins was resurrected the
long-awaited independent Ukrainian state.