2/8/16

Weird Warriors: The Red 100, Trotsky's Armored Train Crew

Weird Warriors is an ongoing series of posts featuring obscure military units throughout the history of warfare. This series seeks to spotlight a variety of obscure and exotic units ranging from Micronesian warriors armed with shark-tooth weapons to the Italian "human torpedoes" of World War 2. Special attention is paid to the details of the units’ battle honors, tactics, weapons, and equipment.

During the Russian Civil War of 1919-1921, Bolshevik-Russian politician and military leader Leon Trotsky (b.1879-1940), rode throughout Russia in his grand armored train; visiting towns, battles, and the front lines to meet with soldiers, generals, and local political leaders. His armored train, a massive armored rail-cruiser named Revvoyensovet, was staffed by the Red Sotnia, or Red One Hundred (Red 100 from hereaft, an elite and oddly dressed group of Bolshevik soldiers who were charged with defending Comrade Trotsky and his armored train.*

In the prolonged civil war, armored trains and fortified railway cars became the ironclads and dreadnoughts of their time and place. They also became symbols of warfare, death, and tyrannical rule; aiding the Red Army in it's victory over a multitude of Tsarist (White) generals and warlords. Armored trains were a truly fascinating bi-product of the technological innovation of railroads in the 19th and early 20th century. The American Civil War of 1861-1865 saw the first use of armored railway cars which were deployed in combat as early as 1862. Travel by rail also made troop movements much quicker and efficient. Armored trains were utilized in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and  were later deployed by the British in Egypt in the 1880’s and in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902.

 Trotsky standing next to a Red Sotnia c.1920

*Revvoyensovet may be additionally referred to as Predrevoyensoviet or train of the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council.

Armored Trains in the Russian Civil War

The train as an offensive weapon truly came into its own during World War I with both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians using them to some degree of success. Austro Hungarian Panzerzugs were quite formidable serving with distinction on the Italian, Romanian, and Russian fronts from 1914-1916. During the Russian Civil War, the armored train became one of the most potent weapons to be used by either side. Roads were few in number and often impassible due to bad weather in the vastness that was the former Russian Empire, control of the railways became critical to the control of the Russian heartland during the conflict.

From 1916-1918, the grandest armored trains were christened ‘armored rail-cruisers’. These were massive, heavily fortified and armored behemoths. Self propelled rail-cruisers were quick for their size, armored with thick metal plating and dotted with slots for rifles or machine guns. Armored rail-cruisers deadliest weapons were heavy artillery pieces, mostly naval or field guns from the Great War, as well as armored and turreted machine gun emplacements. In 1918, the Red Army had just twenty three operational armored trains but by the end of 1920, they would have some 103 armored trains operational. 

Trotsky on his train c.1919-1920

According to author Steven J. Zaloga, the Red Army’s armored trains were the “most complicated and expensive [tool of war] operated by [the Red Army] and undoubtedly the most effective.” The armored trains used by both sides were a diverse and rag-tag lot, many were formed by soldiers, sailors, and former laborers with little knowledge of train mechanics and design. Some armored trains changed hands multiple times as armies, factions and generals waxed and waned during the conflict. They became bringers of war and destruction during the Russian Civil War and in the associated conflicts in neighboring countries including Poland and the Ukraine in 1919-1920.

Trotsky's Armored Train

Armored trains were feared and Trotsky’s train, Revvoyensovet, Revolutionary Military Soviet, was especially feared by both enemies and comrades alike. The train carried everything needed onboard, including a telegraph and radio office, a power station, bathhouse, and library. The club car was used for the crewmember's downtime and to host a daily audience of military and civil leaders. There was a fully functioning garage onboard which stored at least three armored cars and a large gasoline tank for refueling. Revvoyensovet was so cumbersome that it needed two engines to run and was later divided into two separate trains entirely. While traveling, a printing press was used to create the train's official newspaper, En Route, and telephones could be used to communicate between the cars. Trotsky recorded a total of thirty-six trips on his train covering well over 65,000 miles during the Russian Civil War, but he may have covered twice that distance in reality.

A critical tactical component linked to the effectiveness of the armored train was the raiding party. Raiding parties were used in concert with the natural defensive abilities and offensive capabilities of the armored train and the Red Army utilized raiding teams (desantniy otryads) on most of their larger armored cars. They essentially had to fulfill three main objectives when in service, to protect the train, help local forces whenever possible, and to scout for enemy positions beyond the sight of the railway.  A company of 165 infanty plus 45 cavalry troopers with machine gun support from a mobile tachanka (horse-drawn machinegun cart), was the standard armored train raiding team. The Red 100 utilized armored automobiles instead of the tachanka. Trotsky himself liked the protection afforded by armored raiding teams, remarking that his crew "ran the risk of running into some Cossack band. Automobiles with machine-guns insured one against this."

Red Army armored train with raiding party c.1919

Hell Bent for Red Leather: Trotsky's Red 100

The Red 100 were formed around 1918 as Commissar Trotsky’s train crew and mobile guards. They likely operated Trotsky's pet armored vehicles as well. As such, the Red 100 were uniquely dressed and heavily armed to protect the chairman of the Red Army and his personal staff while aboard the Pullman cars of Revvoyensovet. Tasked with defending him with their lives, they were considered elite soldiers, though some of their number may have been simply army or political appointees, ex-rail workers, or former prisoners rescued by the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution. As the head of the budding Red Army during the Russian Civil War 1918-1921, Trotsky was the top strategist, figurehead, and politician for both the Soviet bureaucracy and military. In modern parlance, he was a high value target and his protection was of the utmost importance to the Soviets at the time. Trotsky acknowledged the effectiveness of his well trained crewmembers supporting allied units in the field remarking in his autobiography, "the appearance of a leather-coated detachment in a dangerous place invariably had an overwhelming effect [on friendly units morale]." The train and crew of Revvoyensovet were later awarded an order of the Red Flag for their services in aiding the defeat of General Nikolai Yudenich, who's army attempted to take Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in October 1919.

Red 100, Trotsky's armored train crew by A. Karachtchouk

The Red 100 staffed Trotsky's armored train and oversaw the heavily laid out defensive and offensive capabilities of the bulky Revvoyensovet, which was the best guarded and armed train in all of Russia or perhaps the world during the Russian Civil War. Red 100 crewmembers would have served from roughly 1918 until November 1920, following the conclusion of the Crimean campaign. Their uniform and equipment, as depicted above by illustrator Andrei Karachtchouk (Osprey Publishing), consisted of a dyed red leather overcoat and red leather pants and boots. Leather was highly sought after by Red Army officers, cavalry troopers, and armored train personnel. Besides the obvious style, the leather offered some protection from the brutal Russian weather. Trotsky remarked that their red leathers made the Red 100 look "heavily imposing."

Artist reproduction of the Revvoyensovet badge

The crewmen's badge depicts Commander Trotsky’s armored train, Revvoyensovet, finely cast at the Soviet mint in silver and red. These were prized unit badges and would have been greatly admired by their comrades in the Red Army. The Red Sotnia depicted by A. Karachtchouk is armed with a Mosin-Nagant carbine of World War I vintage, two German-style stick grenades, and a Nagant M1895 seven shot revolver, though the semi-automatic Mauser K-96 would have been common. According to Mikhail Khvostov, the Red 100 would have preferred beboot daggers and the Mauser broom-handle. The artists' depiction details two cartridge pouches on the soldier's belt and he sports a red budenovka cap, the official head wear of the communist party and the Red Army until the late 1930’s.

Red Sotnia 54mm scale miniature sculpted by Sergey Radilov

Suggested Further Reading

Armored Trains By: Steven J. Zaloga (New Vanguard, Osprey Publishing, 2008). Cited.

The Russian Civil War (1) The Red Army M. By: Khvostov & A. Karachtchouk (Men-at-arms, Osprey Publishing). Cited.

Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War 1918-1921 By: W. Bruce Lincoln (Da Capo Press, 1989-1999).

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