The partisans in Russia invariably fought in terrain that the Germans found impossible to patrol and control. The bulk of the partisans operated from and were based in the Pripet Marshes - a vast area of bog land four hundred miles to the south-west of Moscow. As the Germans advanced towards Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, as Blitzkrieg steamrollered all before it, the death squads of the SS started their grim work. Many thousands of Russians joined the partisan groups in the marshes and attacked the German Army in the rear as it advanced east. The forests of Belorussia were also a major centre for partisan activity. Both the forests and the marshes had one similar feature - they were all but impossible to police. Those in the partisans knew their home territory and such knowledge gave them a huge advantage over the better armed and equipped Germans.
In May 1942, a Central Staff was set up in Russia to direct the activities of the partisans. By July 1943, the number of partisans fighting against the Germans was estimated at 142,000. They operated as far a field as Lake Peipus in the north to the Crimea in the south. In August 1942, the Central Staff called the work of the partisans unsatisfactory and ordered an increase in activity against the Germans. In the same month, the Central Staff also ordered a full amnesty for all who had collaborated with the Germans. The partisans had been utterly ruthless with any collaborators they had caught. However, the Central Staff wanted all Russians in the west to work as one unit - and the treatment of collaborators and suspected collaborators was a de-stabilising element within the area.
Partisans engaged in classic guerilla activity - hit and run tactics. Strategic targets were selected and attacked - with the attackers drifting away into the night. For the Germans, chasing them into forests or marshland was a demoralising task - and invariably fruitless. As a result, the general population of western Russia was targeted by the Germans. Civilian blood was spilt in retaliation for partisan attacks. However, the more civilians were targeted, the more people joined the partisans. The Germans created what was effectively a vicious circle. They had to do something, but they could not find the partisans to punish. By punishing the innocent, the Germans were simply converting more to the cause of the partisans. By the autumn of 1941, the Bryansk Forest, covering an area of 125 miles by 40 miles, had only an estimated 2,500 partisans there. Within 12 months, the figure had greatly increased - though any figures given out by the government were always open to interpretation as partisan figures were frequently used for propaganda purposes.
The importance of the partisans to the Russian war effort can be seen by the fact that Stalin ordered that the Central Staff had to ensure that the partisans in the west were well equipped. Though some units clearly had to improvise, many of the larger units, such as the Kovpak and Saburov brigades in the Bryansk Forest, were equipped to a level where they could take on the Germans. Though supplies could never be guaranteed on a regular basis, guns, rifles and ammunition were usually well supplied. While the number of official partisan detachments increased in 1943 from 661 to 1,06, the number of radio sets made available to the partisans increased from just 217 to 300. However, many partisan units were self-contained, so communication outside of their locality was never a major problem - especially as Stalin had ordered that partisan leaders did not have to await for orders from above or confirmation of orders. Explosives were also short supply - so the partisans learned to recycle the explosives from unexploded shells.
The impact the partisans had on the Germans was huge. The damage done to military property, communication and supply lines was a major factor in the Germans inability to sustain its war effort in the east. The impact the partisans had on morale is probably impossible to calculate.