The Brandenburgers (German: Brandenburger) were members of the Brandenburg German special forces unit during World War II. Originally the unit was formed by and operated as an extension of the military's intelligence organ, the Abwehr. Members of this unit took part in seizing operationally important targets by way of sabotage and infiltration. Being foreign German nationals who were convinced Nazi volunteers, constituent members had lived abroad and were proficient in foreign languages as well as being familiar with the way of life in the area of operations where they were deployed.
|Battalion – December 1939|
Division – February 1943 – March 1944
Panzergrenadier-Division – 1944–1945.
Division "Brandenburg" Vehicle Insignia
Division (at peak)
|Engagements||World War II|
|Theodor von Hippel|
Adrian von Fölkersam
The Brandenburg Division was generally subordinated to the army groups in individual commands and operated throughout Eastern Europe, in southern Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East and in the Caucasus. In the later course of the war, parts of the special unit were used in Bandenbekämpfung operations against partisans in Yugoslavia before the Division, in the last months of the war, was reclassified and merged into one of the Panzergrenadier divisions. They committed various atrocities in the course of their operations.
Background and membership
The unit was the brainchild of Hauptmann (captain) Theodor von Hippel, who, after having his idea rejected by the Reichswehr, approached Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, commander of the German Intelligence Service, the Abwehr. Hippel proposed that small units, trained in sabotage and fluent in foreign languages, could operate behind enemy lines and wreak havoc with the enemy's command, communication and logistical tails. Canaris was at first against the proposal as he viewed such measures similar to what the Bolsheviks had done and was suspicious of Hippel's motives. Still determined to form the unit, Hippel looked to his section chief, Helmuth Groscurth, who supported the unit's formation and the two men conferred on the matter on 27 September 1939. Just a few days after their meeting, the Army General Staff put forth a directive authorizing the creation of "a company of saboteurs for the West." As part of the Abwehr's 2nd Department, Hippel was tasked with creating the unit. Originally, the unit Hippel assembled was named the Deutsche Kompagnie, then later on 25 October it became the Baulehr-kompagnie 800 and then again on 10 January 1940, the unit was called the Bau-Lehr-Battalion z.b.V. 800 (800th Special Duties Construction Training Battalion); but its later more widely-known epithet, "the Brandenburgers", stemmed from the name of the unit's first permanent quarters.
Training for the men in the Brandenburg Division ranged from five to seven months and included course instruction on reconnaissance, swimming, hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, marksmanship in both German and Allied weapons, conventional infantry tactics, and other specialized training. Brandenburg units were deployed as small commando outfits to penetrate into enemy territory and conduct both sabotage and anti-sabotage operations. Despite their demonstrated successes while incurring minimum casualties, many traditionally minded German officers still found their use abhorrent. Most of the personnel were fluent in other languages, which allowed them, for example, to penetrate the Netherlands in 1940 disguised as Dutch barge crews just before the start of the invasion. In 1941, they preceded the invasion of Yugoslavia undercover as Serbian workers. Before Operation Barbarossa began, they were already operating in the Soviet Union as Soviet workers and Red Army soldiers and even adorned themselves in Arab garments to conduct surveillance on Allied warships traversing between the Straits of Gibraltar and North Africa ahead of the Wehrmacht deployment there. Correspondingly, Department II of the Abwehr, under which the Brandenburgers were subsumed, had a distinct sub-component for army, navy, and air force operations.
Many of the Brandenburgers were misfits who could hardly be characterized as conventional soldiers, due in large part to the nature of their operations. They would mingle with enemy soldiers, secretly countermand orders, redirect military convoys, and disrupt communications—all the while collecting intelligence along the way. Ahead of the primary invasion forces in the USSR, operatives from the Brandenburg Division seized bridges and strategically important installations in clandestine missions lasting for weeks before they linked up with advancing forces.
The predecessor formation to the Brandenburg Division was the Battalion Ebbinghaus (aka: Freikorps Ebbinghaus), which originated before the invasion of Poland in 1939. Colonel Erwin von Lahousen (and the defense groups of military districts VIII and XVII) from within Department II of the Abwehr, put together small K-Trupps (fighting squads), which consisted of Polish-speaking Silesians and ethnic Germans, whose job it was to occupy key positions and hold them until the arrival of regular Wehrmacht units. The first members of the "K-Trupps" were German nationals. Generally these men were civilians who had never served in the army but were briefly trained by the "Abwehr" and were led by army officers. After the Polish campaign, this changed as these commandos became members of the Wehrmacht. Despite their seeming lack of prior experience, the demands placed on these newly formed commandos were high. It was mandatory that they be volunteers for this duty. They were also expected to be agile, capable of improvising, endowed with initiative and team spirit, highly competent in foreign languages and in their dealings with foreign nationals, and capable of the most demanding physical performance. Eventually, the early guiding principle that required members of the Division Brandenburg to be volunteers ended with their increasing use and integration with the regular army.
The night before the Invasion of Poland (Plan White) in September 1939, small groups of German special forces dressed in civilian clothes crossed the Polish border to seize key strategic points before dawn on the day of the invasion. This made them the first special operations unit to see action in the Second World War. Battalion Ebbinghaus engaged in atrocities against Poland's population and its captured PoWs. On 4 September, members of the Freikorps Ebbinghaus executed 17 people at Pszczyna, among them boy scouts from the town's secondary schools. They also tortured 29 citizens of Orzesze before executing them. On 8 September 1939, in the upper Silesian city, Siemanowice, they executed 6 Poles and then on 1 October 1939, shot 18 people in Nowy Bytom. Larger massacres were carried out in Katowice, where hundreds of people were executed. Within two weeks of the invasion of Poland, Ebbinghaus had "left a trail of murder in more than thirteen Polish towns and villages".
On 15 December 1939 the company was expanded and re-designated as the Brandenburg Battalion. After its formation, the soldiers of the new special unit were initially employed to protect the Romanian oil fields and later chrome ore supplies from Turkey. The battalion consisted of four companies, organised along linguistic lines: men from Baltic/Russian territories; those who had lived in English-speaking territories, Portugal, and North Africa; Sudeten Germans who spoke Czech, Slovak, and Ruthenian. In addition, the Battalion contained volunteers who had lived in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
A platoon of Brandenburgers, in reality this equated to the rough number of troops of company, took part in Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Scandinavia in April 1940, under the name Nordzug, during which they secured strategic properties in Denmark and Norway.
During the spring 1940 invasions of Belgium and the Netherlands, the Brandenburg units proved essential in seizing "vital points ahead of Guderian's panzers." On May 8, 1940, the men of the 4th company led by Leutnant Walther crossed the Dutch border wearing uniforms of the Dutch police and arrived two days later. When the Wehrmacht began operations at the bridge Meuse of Gennep, they realised that the Dutch had previously rigged it with explosives to prevent its use by the Germans, however overall there were no issues, Walther's group, pretending to escort German prisoners, took the guards by surprise from one side of the bridge and after a brief confrontation three Germans were wounded and the platoon took possession of the station; the Dutch guards on the other side of the bridge in a confused scramble, left the Germans too close to their objective, and they had no difficulty completing the conquest of the bridge, on which the Wehrmacht tanks passed shortly afterwards. At the same time, other Brandenburg units seized several bridges over the Juliana Canal—also in the Netherlands, while their fellow soldiers entered Luxembourg, occupying bridges over the Our (river) and in Belgium carrying out similar actions. Chronicling Brandenburger No. 3 Company's penetration into Belgium, Lahousen was gratified to report that, "forty-two out of sixty-one objectives were secured and handed over to the units following behind." For their exploits in Belgium and the Netherlands, the Brandenburgers were among the most decorated units marching with the invading German armies, which earned them the admiration of the Abwehr Chief, Wilhelm Canaris. On 27 May 1940, chief-of-staff of the High Command of the German armed forces, Wilhelm Keitel, wrote to Canaris that the Brandenburgers had "fought outstandingly well" which was further validated when Hitler presented Iron Cross commendations to 75 percent of the 600 men who participated. By October 1940, the Brandenburgers constituted an entire regiment-sized unit.
The unit was again deployed in Operation Marita, the invasion of the Balkans. On 6 April 1941, during Operation Marita, the Brandenburgers managed to take the strategically important bridge over the Vardar and they also secured the gorge on the River Danube which forms part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania known otherwise as the Iron Gates. Shortly after this, they captured the island of Euboea. Additional operations were demanded of the Brandenburgers during the opening phase for the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, as they were the first to sweep across the border, destroying power facilities, cutting communication lines, spreading disinformation, and activating "sleeper" agents. Their most notable mission was taking the Dvina bridges in Daugavpils on 28 June 1941, during which members of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg Kommandos crossed the bridge in a commandeered Soviet truck, overpowered the guards and held the position for two hours against significant Soviet counterattacks. From June 1942 through February 1943, the Brandenburgers carried out commando operations against Allied supply lines in North Africa by way of clandestine missions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
In early August 1942, a Brandenburg unit of 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans led by Adrian von Fölkersam penetrated farther into enemy territory than any other German unit. They had been ordered to seize and secure the vital Maikop oilfields. Disguised as NKVD men, and driving Soviet trucks, Fölkersam's unit passed through the Soviet front lines and moved deep into hostile territory. The Brandenburgers ran into a large group of Red Army soldiers fleeing from the front. Fölkersam saw an opportunity to use them to the unit's advantage. By persuading them to return to the Soviet cause, he was able to join with them and move almost at will through the Soviet lines.
On 26 December 1942, the men of Parachute Company of the Brandenburg Regiment were transported by gliders in an operation to destroy bridges and supply routes used by the British in North Africa. It was a disaster. Some of the gliders were shot down while flying over enemy lines and others were destroyed approaching their targets. Most of the paratroopers were killed in the operation.
Units of the division were sent to the Balkans to engage in anti-partisan operations. On 25 May 1944, members of the division, attached to SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500, took part in the unsuccessful Operation Rösselsprung, an airborne operation to capture Yugoslav Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito. In mid 1943, many Brandenburger units were moved from the Balkans, and took part in actions to disarm Italian soldiers. One vital area was the island of Kos, in the Dodecanese island chain off the coast of Turkey. Kos had been secured by British troops in September 1943, and a large garrison of allied Italian troops was also present. Along with Luftwaffe paratroop forces, Brandenburgers took part in the recapture of the island.
In September 1944 it was decided that special operations units were no longer necessary. The Brandenburg Division became the Infantry Division Brandenburg and transferred to the Eastern front. Approximately 1,800 men (including von Fölkersam) were transferred to SS-Standartenführer Otto Skorzeny's 502nd SS Jäger Battalion operating within SS-Jagdverband Mitte, but mostly to the SS-Jagdverband Ost until the end of the war. Only the Kurfürst Regiment retained its original role as a commando unit.
The rest of the Brandenburgers were assigned to Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland along with its old training partner from 1940 to 1941, the Grossdeutschland Division. In late 1944, the division was equipped with a Panzer Regiment and redesignated Panzergrenadier-Division Brandenburg and returned to the front. The Brandenburgers were involved in heavy fighting near Memel, until their withdrawal, along with the Großdeutschland, via ferry to Pillau. The division was all but annihilated during the heavy fighting near Pillau and only 800 men escaped to the thin strip of land at Frische Nehrung. While some survivors surrendered to the British in Schleswig-Holstein in May, many Brandenburgers, highly skilled in evading detection, simply disappeared. Others enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and fought in the First Indochina War where their skills proved an asset.
The Bergmann battalion (meaning "miner") was a military unit of the German Abwehr during World War II, composed of five German-officered companies of volunteers from the Caucasus region of the Soviet Union. The battalion was formed of the émigrés and Soviet POWs from the Caucasian republics at Neuhammer in October 1941. Subordinated to the German commando battalion Brandenburgers and placed under the command of Oberleutnant Theodor Oberländer, the unit received training at Neuhammer and Mittenwald (Bavaria) with the Gebirgsjäger. Later a special 130-men-strong Georgian contingent of Abwehr codenamed "Tamara-II" was incorporated into Bergmann. By March 1942, there were five companies of some 300 Germans and 900 Caucasians.
In August 1942, Bergmann went to the Eastern Front, where it saw its first action in the North Caucasus campaign in August 1942. The unit engaged in anti-partisan actions in the Mozdok-Nalchik-Mineralnye Vody area and conducted reconnaissance and subversion in the Grozny area. At the end of 1942, Bergmann conducted a successful sortie through the Soviet lines, bringing with them some 300 Red Army defectors, and covered the German retreat from the Caucasus. Bergmann went through a series of engagements with the Soviet partisans and regular forces in the Crimea in February 1943 and was dissolved—like other Ostlegionen units—at the end of 1943. The significantly shrunken ex-Bergmann companies were dispatched to conduct police functions in Greece and Poland.
Nachtigall and Roland Battalions
The Nachtigall Battalion, officially known as Special Group Nachtigall, and the Roland Battalion, officially known as Special Group Roland, were the subunits under command of the Abwehr special operation unit Brandenburgers (1st Brandenberg Battalion). They were the two military units formed 25 February 1941 by head of the Abwehr Wilhelm Franz Canaris, which sanctioned the creation of the "Ukrainian Legion" under German command. They were manned primarily by occupied Polish citizens of Ukrainian ethnicity directed to unit by Bandera's OUN orders.
In May 1941, the German command decided to split a 700-strong Ukrainian Legion into two battalions: Nachtigall ("Nightingale") and Roland Battalion. Training for Nachtigall took place in Neuhammer near Schlessig. On the Ukrainian side, the commander was Roman Shukhevych and on the German, Theodor Oberländer. (Oberländer was later to become Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and War Victims in the Federal Republic of Germany.) Ex-Brandenburger Oberleutnant Dr. Hans-Albrecht Herzner was placed in military command of the Battalion. The Nachtigall unit was outfitted in the standard Wehrmacht uniforms. Before entering Lviv, they placed blue and yellow ribbons on their shoulders. In comparison to Nachtigall – which used ordinary Wehrmacht uniform – the Roland Battalion was outfitted in the Czechoslovakian uniform with yellow armband with text "Im Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht" (In the service of the German Wehrmacht). They were given Austrian helmets from World War I.
The Battalion was set up by the Abwehr and organized by Richard Yary of the OUN(b) in March 1941, prior the German invasion to Soviet Union. Approximately 350 Bandera's OUN followers were trained at the Abwehr training centre at the Seibersdorf under command of the former Poland Army major Yevhen Pobiguschiy. In Germany, in November 1941 the Ukrainian personnel of the Legion were reorganized into the 201st Schutzmannschaft Battalion. It numbered 650 persons which served for one year at Belarus before disbanding. Many of its members, especially the commanding officers, went on to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and 14 of its members joined 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician) SS-Freiwilligen-Schützen-Division Galizien in spring 1943.
- A large number of the recruits were small time criminals who fled from Poland.See: Wrzesień 1939 na Śląsku (September 1939 in Silesia) – p. 37 Paweł Dubiel – 1963.
- By no means was the Brandenburg Division the only German special operations unit of the Second World War, as they also had Otto Skorzeny's Friedenthaler Jagdverbände (which rescued Mussolini) and the Airborne Kampfgeschwader 200.
- See: The fate of Polish children during the last war by Roman Hrabar, Zofia Tokarz, Jacek Edward Wilczur, Rada Ochrony Pomników Walki i Męczeństwa (Poland) Interpress, 1981; Rocznik przemyski – Volume 21 – p. 130, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk w Przemyślu, p. 130 (1982); A więc wojna":ludność cywilna we wrześniu 1939 r. Anna Piekarska, Instytut Pamieci Narodowej (2009) Reviews Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, p. 21.
- The battalion also included motorcycle and paratroop platoons.
- It is an undisputed fact that units of the Brandenburg were used in guerrilla warfare. Covering long distances and violating the martial terms of Hague Convention, the Brandenburg Division was conceived to be a special forces unit veritably designed for the sake of partisan warfare. Brandenburgers participated in partisan war in the East, in some cases as a cover for the murder of minorities. Partisan warfare was nevertheless a deadly reality to the German authorities and was actually considered a military necessity. This fact does not detract in any way or excuse the commission of war crimes by members of the Brandenburg Commandos at the local level by individual units or commands.
- Due to the nature of their operations and the inherent hazards they faced, very few of them survived the war.
- See: Боляновський А.В. Дивізія «Галичина»: історія — Львів: , 2000. (Bolyanovsky AV Division "Halychyna": History — Lviv, 2000)
- Lew 1997, The Brandenburg Commandos.
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