Soviet-Georgian War and Sovietization of Georgia, II-III. 1921

La guerre soviéto-géorgienne et la soviétisation de la Géorgie (février-mars 1921)


By  Andrew Andersen and George Partskhaladze
Revue historique des Armées      Numéro 254, 1/2009



Private archives of  George Partskhaladze and Levan Urushadze

Mikhail Khvostov and Andrei Karachtchouk, The Russian Civil War (I) The Red Army (Auckland, 1996)





Battle of Tbilisi



Within the next 24 hours in spite of sustained resistance of the Georgians, the forces of Soviet Russian Central Group took over strategically important Yaghluja heights while the troops of Left Group (Soviet Russian and Soviet Armenian) entered the towns of Ekaterinenfeld and Elisavettal thus pushing the Georgians back to the line Kodjori-Manglisi, whereas the vanguard of the 26th Rifle Brigade and Mounted Regiment of 9th Rifle Division penetrated Georgian territory as far as the village of Beyuk-Kyasiq. By that moment, the remnants of Georgian Lori group entrenched along the left bank of Khrami river with their flank dangerously open to the Red Army 54th and 58th Rifle Brigades advancing from the Red Bridge. That weakness resulted in their total defeat by the end of the 16th of February[1].



In fact, this was the perfect moment for the Red Army to storm into Tbilisi keeping in mind that by the early morning of the 17th of February the defense forces of the Georgian capital were limited to 400 battle-worthy soldiers and some 150 Military School Cadets. Nobody else was prepared to defend Georgian capital while the reserves were still on their way to the front line and the remnants of jaded Georgian units were in the process of reorganization.[2] Meanwhile, Zakatala direction faced fierce battles for the town of Dedoplis-Tskaro from early 17th until the late 18th of February. The skirmish at Dedoplis-Tskaro resulted in severe casualties from both sides including the death in action of Soviet brigade commander Kuryshko who was in charge of the whole right group of the invading 11th Army. During the first days of war, Georgian government tried to address Moscow in order to stop the war but the only answer they were repeatedly getting from the Kremlin was that there was no war but “some local border clashes”[3] .





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Meanwhile, the Red Army got a serious problem in their rear. National uprising started in recently sovietized Armenia and between the 16th and 18th of February Armenian nationalist rebels were launching their assault on Yerevan.



Early in the morning of February 18, the Commander-in-Chief of all Soviet forces in the Caucasus, Vladimir Gittis, issued an order demanding intensification of all military operations and immediate capture of Tbilisi, Surami and Borjomi by the 11th Red Army with the Terek group simultaneously taking over the Dusheti district to the south of Main Caucasus Range. Other units of the 11th army not involved in the invasion of Georgia were to strengthen the garrisons of Elisavetpol (Gianja) and Shusha in order to prevent possible anti-soviet uprisings in the surrounding area, prevent the spread of Armenian national uprising into Kazakh and Naxcivan districts and launch more active operations against anti-soviet guerillas in Lenkoran. The operations of the 11th Army in Kakheti was to be accompanied with an attempt to seal Georgia’s border with Daghestan where guerilla warfare was still going on. At the same time, the 9th Red Army stationed in Sochi district was to take over Gagra and Sukhumi in Abkhazia in cooperation with pro-Bolshevik rebels of Abkhazia who launched an uprising sponsored by Soviet Russia.



Following the above order, the right wing of the 11th Army was to take Karatapa and Karadjalar with two rifle regiments and two mounted squadrons enforced with the red cadet battalion that just arrived from Baku while the 18th Mounted Division was to take Signakhi, Avchala and Mtskheta thus outflanking Tbilisi from North-East and sealing a major retreat route.



At the same time, the central group was to secure Yalghuja heights, which the Georgians were desperately trying to take back.






An unknown Georgian officer in new-style uniform



The forces of the left wing of the 11th Army were to take over Kodjori heights and possibly Manglisi and after that enter Tbilisi from the South and secure the bridges across Kura (Mtkvari) river. In case of successful capture of Manglisi the troops stationed there were to develop their offensive towards Akhalkalaki.



Soviet air forces were to bomb railway stations and communications in and around Tbilisi[4].



The above plan clearly demonstrates that the Soviet command was quite sure to achieve quick victory. The Soviets counted on panic, weak and ineffective resistance, active fifth column (Georgian Bolsheviks), possible lack of popular willingness to fight as well as weakness and non-professionalism of Georgia’s social-democratic leadership[5].  To a great extent the situation in Georgia came up to Soviet expectations. The government in Tbilisi did not expect Soviet invasion and had no clearly defined concept of national defense. The armed forces were under-funded and the commanders had no clearly defined rights and responsibilities. Had that situation been different, there was a good chance for Georgia not only to defeat the invading Red Army but completely push it out of the South Caucasus in cooperation with Armenian nationalist rebels, Daghestani guerillas and at least passive anti-Bolshevik resistance in Azerbaijan.



It is hard to underestimate active support of Sovietization of the South Caucasus provided by Kemalist Turkey. Since the beginning of the first Soviet-Georgian skirmishes, Turkish Nationalist troops were ready to invade Georgia from the South and South-West and occupy all or at least some of the disputed territories. In addition, during the first days of the Soviet-Georgian war, there were two visiting Turkish officers at the Georgian General Staff who kept providing the Red Army command with strategically important information by wiring it through Ankara.[6]



Facing the disaster and almost total military collapse of the country, the government of Georgia followed the old pattern by appointing the retired general George Kvinitadze commander-in-chief of all Georgian armed forces. Outstanding strategist Kvinitadze immediately reported to the government that keeping in mind the current situation only miracle could save Georgia and for the fourth time in three years led Georgian troops to defend their country.



The first order issued by Kvinitadze was to move all troops he had at his disposal in and around Tbilisi back to the ring of heights dominating the terrain around the capital and contain the enemy on Kodjori-Tabakhmela-Shavnabada-Soganlugi line until the arrival of reinforcements from internal Georgia[7].



Giorgi Kvinitadze


General George Kviniitadze, 1920




Simultaneously, Kvinitadze ordered most of the troops protecting Abkhazia from the advancing 9th Army to re-deploy to Tbilisi leaving minimal amount of soldiers in front of Gagra to retreat slowly along the coastal line with rearguard fighting aimed at wearing out and containing the enemy until the moment when possible success near Tbilisi would allow some troops to be sent back and re-take whatever is lost in Abkhazia. However, even that measure did not prove sufficient for success although it allowed to postpone the loss of Georgian capital to the Soviets.






February 18-20



Early in the morning, on February 18 the artillery barrage from board of two Georgian armored trains stationed on he left bank of Kura (Mtkvari) river forced the Soviets to withdraw from Yaghluja heights their heavy artillery that was placed on the heights the night before to shell Georgian positions in front of Tbilisi. That successful Georgian operation deprived of artillery support the central group of the 11th Army that launched offensive on Tbilisi at night of February 18 and in the morning of February 19. The mountainous range forming natural fortification half-circle to the South-East of Tbilisi along Kodjori-Tabakhmela-Shavnabada-Soganlugi line, was protected by some 5.5 army and guard battalions as well as some 150 cadets of Tbilisi Military School[8]. Several attacks of the Reds resulted in their defeat and retreat.





Modern view of Shavnabada monastery



By the end of 19.02, the 54th Brigade of the 20th Rifle Division was thrown back from the village of Shavnabada while the 58th Brigade was literally decimated near the town of Soganlugi by its 1500 defenders with several armored cars, artillery support from two armored trains and a number of bomb raids of two airplanes. That day the 58th Brigade lost over 530 dead as well as some 1000 prisoners and had to retreat to Sakaraulis mountain.





Georgian military pilots, 1921





According to the Insignia Magazine No. 4 / 2008,  the Georgian Airforce had an estimated strength of 56 Aircraft by Febuary 1921, including 25 Ansaldo SVA-10 and one Sopwith Camel.




On the left flank the 96th rifle brigade of the Reds reinforced by the 12th Mounted brigade captured by the end of Febuary 19 the village of Kodjori because its Georgian defenders ran out of ammunition. That was a serious defeat that could result in the immediate loss of Tbilisi because since that moment Georgian capital could be heavily shelled from Kodjori heights, not to mention that possession of Kodjori allowed the Reds to attack the defenders of Tabakhmela from the rear. To prevent this, General Kvinitadze managed to put together all his reserves including two new battalions that just arrived from Western Georgia and gave them an order to take Kodjori heights back. Meanwhile, early in the morning of February 20, several dozens of Georgian cadets with one officer, counter-attacked the advancing 96th Brigade near the village of Tsavkisi and managed to contain them for a while until several hours later, the last Georgian reserves counter-attacked the 96th Brigade from Tskhneti and Tabakhmela and re-captured Kodjori together with several pieces of heavy artillery that the Soviets were mounting on top of the heights at the very moment of successful Georgian counter-attack.[9]




Georgian cadet Boris Hechtmann




West of Kodjori, Soviet cavalry group made several attempts to take over the town of Manglisi that fell to their hands by the end of the next day only.



On the right flank the 26th Rifle brigade of the 11th Red Army took the railway station of Rustavi and stormed towards Tbilisi along Tbilisi-Elisavetpol railroad. On the 19th of February however, it was stopped by the Georgians between the villages of Karajala and Karatagla. Several hours later the 26th rifle brigade was forced to retreat as far as Amartouli mountain where it was reinforced with a mounted regiment of the 9th Rifle Division. North-East of the railroad, the Reds advancing from Sartichala were also stopped in Orkhevi-Lilo area on the 19th of February and by the end of the 20th they were thrown back East of Sagarejo.



Further North-East of Tbilisi the 18h Mounted Division advancing from Telavi took over Signakhi and by the end of the 20th of February appeared in Kachreti-Kalauri area threatening to envelope Georgian capital from the North[10].



Thus, the end of the 20th of February, 1921, marked the failure of the Soviet-planned blitzkrieg. Georgian defenders of Tbilisi withstood the first attempt to take over the city, and the heavy casualties of the 11th Red Army made it incapable of any serious action during the next 4 days. Decades later, soviet military analysts mentioned severe winter and the destruction of the Poylu railroad bridge that did not allow the Reds to move their armored trains and platforms with tanks to the war theater. Georgian analysts in their turn, tend to believe that Tbilisi withstood the first blow due to the enthusiasm of the army and almost all strata of the civil society.






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February 24-25


During the four days following the victories at Kojori and Soganlugi, Georgians  were planning to launch a counter-offensive against the 11th Red Army from their positions between Lilo and the left bank of Kura (Mtkvari) river in order to throw the Reds as far back from Tbilisi as possible. However, shortage of manpower made that plan unrealistic. Meanwhile, the Red Army kept increasing its numerical superiority by receiving reinforcements that consisted of well-organized troops with combat experience on the fronts of Russian civil war of 1918-1920. During the above-mentioned four days, Soviet engineers also managed to repair the Poylu railway bridge, and the 5 armored trains of the Red Army could come close to the front line together with the tanks mounted on railway platforms.





British made Mark-V tank used by the red army at the battle of Tbilisi



Early in the morning on February 24, the 11th Red Army received a new order, this time also demanding immediate capture of Tbilisi. 24 hours prior to the new offensive, all the forces of the 11th Army were re-grouped into two wings, left and right of Kura (Mtkvari) river.



The right wing of the 11th Army was to advance on Tbilisi trying to envelope the city from North-East. This group consisted of the 9th Rifle Division and the 18th Mounted Division both subordinate to Nikolai Kuybyshev. The backbone of this group was the 26th Rifle Brigade combined with the 154th Rifle Regiment (5 rifle regiments altogether) that was to launch offensive supported by armored trains and tanks from the position between the Lilo railway station and the left bank of Kura. Additionally, the 12th Mounted Division re-deployed on the 21st of February from the left wing was to storm into Tbilisi bypassing Lilo, take over the bridges across Kura and further advance on Mtskheta following the retreating Georgians. Simultaneously, the 18th Mounted division was to raid through Sortichala and Martkobi towards the railway station of Avchala. The capture of Avchala would seal Tbilisi at the west and make impossible both the evacuation of the Georgian government and organized retreat of the army. If it failed to capture Avchala, the division was to destroy the railway to the west of Tbilisi in as many places as would be possible in order to block the movement of trains. The offensive of the right wing was to be actively supported by Soviet airplanes.





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The left wing of the 11th Army under the command of Mikhail Velikanov was to enter Tbilisi from the right bank of Kura (Mtkvari) and develop further offensive on Mtskheta. In order to fulfill this task, the 25th, 54th and 58th Rifle Brigades supported by heavy artillery battalion, were to take over the Tabakhmela and Shavnabada heights. The 96th Rifle Brigade supported by the 9th Mountain Battery, Red Armenian irregulars and Red Cadets from Baku  -  was to capture the Kodjori heights. At the same time, the combined cavalry group consisting of the Mounted Regiment of the 20th Rifle Division, Red Armenian Mounted Brigade and one light battery, was to storm into Tbilisi from the West through the village of Tskhneti[11].



The following 48 hours were marked by fierce fighting around the Georgian capital. In spite of overwhelming superiority of the enemy, Georgian soldiers, guardians, cadets and irregulars put up stiff resistance, especially along the line Lilo-Kura, Kodjori heights, near the village of Tabakhmela and Height 104, as well as in Shavnabada section. Many positions changed hands several times because each time the Soviets took them, Georgian counterattacks forced them to withdraw. All the defense positions around Tbilisi were evacuated by the end of February 25 only after Georgian troops were given an order to retreat. Most of them withdrew in perfect order.





Hugo Maler, officer of Georgian Counterintelligence



In fact, the Soviet plan of full encirclement of Tbilisi failed. The 18th Mounted Division that was to block the evacuation route west of Tbilisi managed to capture the village of Martkobi. However, several miles to the west, near the village of Norio it had to withstand a desperate counter-attack of scanty Georgian cavalry (400 against 1500). The 18th Division managed to defeat the Georgians near Norio and stormed further westwards along Mamkoda-Gldani-Avchala line. Avchala station was captured by the Soviets for several hours but evacuated by the end of the 24th after the counterattack of Georgian irregulars from Tbilisi supported by an armored train. This local victory made it possible to successfully evacuate the national government and battle-worthy armed forces that occurred next day.


Simultaneously, the combined Cavalry group that tried to attack Tbilisi from the West, had no success in her attempts to defeat the Georgians entrenched around strategically important. Height-1496. After a series of ineffective attacks supported by artillery barrage on the 24th and 25th of February, this group relocated north-eastwards to Tskhneti area where it also proved unable to crush Georgian resistance. However, the mounted patrols of this group appeared in Digomi area, and Georgian command considered that maneuver a serious threat.



Newspaper_death-in-action report_1921


Newspaper clip informing on the deaths in action



Maria Makaschvili


Field nurse Maria Makashvili mentioned in the above clip as killed in action




Keeping in mind the overpowering numerical and technical superiority of the Red army, Georgian command made a decision to evacuate all positions around Tbilisi as well as the capital city herself. Both the well-organized retreat of Georgian army towards Mtskheta and quick evacuation of the Government occurred by the end of the 25th of February. While losing the capital, Georgians managed to save both their armed forces and administration to continue armed resistance.


On February 25, the “Revolutionary Committee” moved into Tbilisi from Shulaveri and for the second time proclaimed itself the only legitimate government of Georgia.




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[1] Ibid., p. 279.

[2] Ibid., p. 283.

[3] Ibid., p. 281.

[4] A.B. Kadishev, Intervention and Civil War in Transcaucasia (Moscow, 1961), p.386-389.

[5] Kvinitadze,  p. 301.

[6] Ibid., p. 277.

[7] Ibid., p. 269.

[8] Ibid., p. 285.

[9] Kvinitadze, p. 288-289.

[10] Kadishev, p.391.

[11] Ibid., pp. 392-393.