The Brandenburg Commandos

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Daniel L
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The Brandenburg Commandos

Post by Daniel L » 15 Feb 2003 02:31

The Brandenburg Commandos

The Brandenburg commandos were the warrior spies of the Abwehr, Germany's intelligence agency. by Christopher Lew

During World War I, the legacy of German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's superb guerrilla war in East Africa and T.E. Lawrence's use of Arab hit-and-run tactics to fight the Turks in the Middle East made a profound mark upon one of Lettow-Vorbeck's junior officers, a young captain named Theodore von Hippel.

Finding a place in the German intelligence community after the war, Hippel proposed utilizing small, elite units to penetrate enemy defenses before hostilities or offensive actions had begun. However, the idea ran afoul of the stiff-necked Prussian sense of honor. Such units, the majority believed, would be an infringement of the rules of war, and furthermore, such saboteurs were not worthy of being called soldiers. Hippel persevered, however, and when he became an officer in the war ministry's intelligence agency, Abwehr, his ideas finally found a home.

The Abwehr got its name from the compound of ab-, meaning away or off, and -wehr, which implies defense. This deceptive name was born in the days of the Weimar Republic during the 1920s, when Communists and dissidents were spied on to prevent uprisings. The Abwehr evolved over the years, first under Captain Konrad Patzig and then under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to become an espionage agency that worked for the German military.

The German high command allowed Hippel to form a battalion to do what he had proposed--sabotage the enemy's ability to respond to German attacks by capturing roadways and bridges ahead of the main force and securing strategic targets before they were demolished. Known as the Ebbinghaus battalion, the unit performed magnificently during the Polish campaign, though it was dissolved shortly afterward. It had not failed, however, to gain notice. Admiral Canaris gave Hippel the opportunity to form a unit like the Ebbinghaus group for the Abwehr. On October 15, 1939, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company No. 800), which consisted primarily of the former Ebbinghaus volunteers, was officially founded in Brandenburg, where it would adopt the shorter name of Brandenburg Company.

Recruitment methods for the elite Brandenburg commandos were almost directly contrary to those of another elite unit, the SS. Instead of seeking out soldiers with Nordic features, blonde hair and blue eyes, Hippel scoured Germany's borders to find Slavs or other ethnic groups. Every member of the Brandenburg Company had to be fluent in a foreign language, whether it be Czech, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Estonian, Polish, Ukrainian or Ruthenian, and they had to know the country's or region's customs as well. Instead of being more "racially pure" than their enemies, the Brandenburgers had to be the enemy--they had to blend in to be effective saboteurs. They had to know not only the customs of the area they were to infiltrate but also the local habits and the mannerisms of the natives. In the words of one Abwehr agent, a Brandenburger in Russia would have to "know how to spit like a Russian."

The Brandenburgers would also receive extensive training for their missions. Self-reliance was the key, for they would often work alone.

On May 10, 1940, German troops poured across the Belgian and Dutch borders, ending the period called the "Phony War." Two nights before, on May 8, the Brandenburgers had donned Dutch uniforms and secretly crossed the border. One of their targets was the bridge over the Meuse River at the town of Gennep, Netherlands. At 2 a.m. on May 10, Lieutenant Wilhelm Walther led his eight-man detachment in an attempt to capture the bridge intact after obtaining information about where demolition charges had been placed.

Disguised as Dutch military police escorting a number of German prisoners, the Brandenburgers took the defenders of the bridge by surprise. Two guard posts were immediately destroyed, but three Brandenburgers were wounded, and the posts on the far side of the bridge were not yet under German control. Wearing a Dutch uniform, Walther advanced boldly, and the defenders hesitated. Capitalizing on this mistake, the rest of the Brandenburgers destroyed the remaining guard posts and seized the detonator just as the first panzers rolled over the bridge.

Adolf Hitler turned his attention south toward the Balkans in Operation Marita and, again, the Brandenburgers--now organized as a regiment--paved the way for his armies. On April 5, 1941, one day before Hitler's invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, a 54-man detachment from the 2nd Battalion secured the docks at Orsova, on the Danube River. With the Balkans in German hands, the Führer made final preparations for a major assault on Russia.

Considering all their accomplishments, it would be difficult to declare one mission more impressive than another, but there was one occasion when the Brandenburgers seemed to outdo even themselves. In early August 1941, a Brandenburg detachment of 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans led by Baron Adrian von Fölkersam penetrated farther into enemy territory than any other Brandenburg unit. Nicknamed "the wild bunch," they undertook to secure the oil fields at Maikop. Using Red Army trucks and the uniforms of the NKVD, the Russian secret police, Fölkersam infiltrated the Soviet lines. The Brandenburgers immediately ran into a large group of Red Army deserters, and Fölkersam saw an opportunity to use them. By persuading them to return to the Soviet cause, he was able to join with them and move almost at will through the Russian lines.

Pretending to be a Major Truchin from Stalingrad, Fölkersam explained his role in recovering the deserters to the general in charge of Maikop's defenses. The Russian general believed Fölkersam and gave him a personal tour of the city's defenses the next day. By August 8, the German army was only 12 miles away, so the Brandenburgers made their move. Using grenades to simulate an artillery attack, the Brandenburgers knocked out the communications center of the city. Fölkersam then went to the Russian defenders and told them that a withdrawal was taking place. Having seen Fölkersam with their commander and lacking any communications to rebut or confirm his statement, the Soviets began to evacuate Maikop. The German army entered the city without a fight on August 9, 1942.

By autumn of 1944, the Brandenburgers had been officially dissolved, but not before they had earned more decorations and commendations than any other single unit of comparable size in the German army.

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CHRISCHA
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Brandenburgers

Post by CHRISCHA » 15 Feb 2003 12:44

That has answered a couple of questions I had about the Brandenburgers. Thanks for that CDS. What was the fate of the remaining Brandenburgers? I read somewhere they were used as Infantry and wiped out towards the end of the war.

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Daniel L
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Post by Daniel L » 15 Feb 2003 14:56

You're welcome! The were reformed into a Panzergrenadier division and fought on the eastern front during the rest of the war.

Recruitment and Training

From the very start of W.W.II it was apparent to the German High Command that there was a need for special forces to make the tactics of Blitzkrieg a success. Rail junctions , Bridges, crossroad's and tunnels which who's capture is vital to any advancing army need to be guaranteed their seizure before they are destroyed by the retreating army which would hold up the advance. Special commandos would be needed to fulfil this task and the Abwher (German Intelligence Service) had produced a force capable of fulfilling this role. The Brandenburgers were to be a force of highly trained commandos who would capture these key strategic points by whatever means necessary and would set the standard for all modern special forces to come.

Of all of the German divisions of the Second World war, probably the least is known about the Brandenburg Division. The story of the Brandenburgers really starts at the end of the First World War. In 1919/20, the German government created a special unit of men identified as "Industrieschutz Oberschlesien". This group was ordered to do all it could to prevent Polish insurgents to from being able to influence the Silesian plebiscite in Poland's favour. In about 1938, the unit "Industrieschutz Oberschlesien" was redesignated as the "Deutsche Kompanie". During the Sudetentland crisis of 1938, the "Deutsche Kompanie" participated in numerous covert actions. A sister unit, the "Sudetendeutsche Freikorps" was now added to the units roster. But the writing was clear for all to se and what was now needed was a more formal organization controlled by the German military.

The Abwher which had expanded rapidly in 1935 and who's main rival was the SD had expanded in 1935 under the leadership of the ex-WWI U-boat commander Admiral Canaris. Like Admiral Donitz, another W.W.I U-boat commander who became head the Kriegsmarine, Canaris was an intelligent man with a gift for languages who had experience of espionage dating from W.W.I. A secret opponent of National Socialism and Hitler it has been suggested that he formed the Brandenburg Regiment with a view to overthrowing Hitler with his own private army similar to Himmlers SS and Going's Luftwaffe ground units. He would be head of the Abwher until 1944 when he was implicated in the attempt on Hitler's life. Under him the Abwher was split into three sections: Abwher I dealing with espionage and intelligence, Abwher II dealing with covering sabotage and special units and Abwher III dealing with counter intelligence. The Brandenburgers came under Abwher II.

Along with Canaris, Hauptmann von Hippel who was both nationalistic and conservative but opposed to Nazi beliefs, had been instrumental in the formation of the Brandenburgers and had studied the the writings of T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and the commando tactics of von Lettow Vorbeck who had operated in Germany's African colonies during W.W.I. He had endeavoured to recruit Germans who had lived abroad or in the countries around Germany's borders. These people known as Volksdeutsche came from Silesia in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Sudetentland and could pass themselves off as locals should operations be conducted in that country. In fact there wasn't a part of Europe that the Brandenburgers were not familiar with the local customs and language. No1 and 4 companies contained men who spoke Russian, Ukrainian Latvian Estonian and Finnish. No2 Company contained men who had lived in the German colonies in Africa and spoke local dialects well as English, Portuguese and French. No3 made up of Volksdeutsche from Czechoslovakia who spoke there native tongue. These individuals, who were all volunteers, had to be self reliant, intelligent and prepared to use unorthodox methods to accomplish their mission should the need arise.

The origins of the first Brandenburg unit can be traced back to a single company raised in the first half of 1939. The men who were from Silesia and the Sudetentland (an area which was in Czechoslovakia) took part in the Polish campaign in September 1939 and given the title Bauhler Kompanie zb V 800. These men brought knowledge of colloquial terms and local customs as well as important documents such as passports, identity cards etc. Two companies were formed from these volunteers with the first company gaining the title of "The German Company".

Training was as realistic as possible and like the Waffen SS with live ammunition being used. The intensive training incorporated partisan tactics in forests and those used by urban guerillas in towns and cities with the emphasis laid on all round ability and self reliability. Tracking and navigation techniques and the skill of moving silently through undergrowth all had to be mastered. Later on with the outbreak of war skills such as parachuting, watermanship and skiing as well as the manufacture and operation of explosives were also taught. In short, every conceivable situation was trained for with several tests of mental stamina and the ability to improvise in various situations, the end result being an all round highly skilled soldier adept at survival in the most diverse situations.

It must be emphasized at this point that these men were not spies by any stretch of the imagination. Yes it is true that they did sometimes wear the uniform of the enemy for intelligence gathering or in order to gain a tactical advantage but they were not spies in the broad sense of the word. This was not the view of several senior commanders who disapproved strongly of these methods of subterfuge and saw the Brandenburg men as criminals and renegades. It was not just the stuffy Prussian military types either who upheld this view, Rommel disapproved of the use of Brandenburg methods during the North African campaign with quite the opposite point of view taken by the British who formed the Long Range Desert Group which was the forerunner of the modern SAS.

The Brandenburg's first taste of action was to come at the very start of the Polish campaign with Brandenburg men being deployed even before the invasion had started. It was their job to ensure the safe capture of factories in Silesia which were essential for the German war effort. In 1940 they were expanded to three companies based at Brandenburg-am-Havel (hence the name "Brandenburg") in western Berlin and were intensively trained in commando and parachute assault techniques. They went on to take part in operations in Denmark and Norway and later in Holland and Belgium.

Image

Brandenburg troops in training for the campaign in the West, 1940.

When the invasion of Britain was cancelled the Brandenburg unit underwent a further period of expansion and training at Quenzsee with particular emphasis played on deception techniques such as the use of enemy uniforms etc. To foster a greater sense of camaraderie recruits were permitted to shake hands instead of formerly saluting and encouraged to form small cohesive units. This was frowned upon by more traditional army commanders who saw the whole concept of special forces a waste of time.

During this training period various tasks were set and some of the more bizarre ones included getting the local police chiefs finger prints without being discovered and another time to capture five Wehrmacht soldiers and bring them to Quenzsee. With the invasion of the Balkans Brandenburg units were used in the capture of the so called "Iron Gate" on the Danube to allow German river traffic to flow.

Image

Brandenburg troops disguised as civilian Serbs during the opening phases of the invasion of Yugoslavia. Brandenburg troops regularly used this tactic of disguise either in civilian clothes or in the uniform of the opposing army. The latter meant that if caught actually wearing uniforms, execution as spies would be almost certain.

Before the invasion of Russia which the Brandenburgers were to play a key role in the opening stages of the campaign, Ukrainian volunteers were recruited for a new detachment within the Brandenburg Regiment. The so-called Nightingale group was attached to 1st Battalion Brandenburg Regiment and were instrumental in capturing a vital bridge across the San River. Their patriotism would ultimately end the cohesion of their unit when after the successful capture of a radio station in Lvov six days after the invasion, they proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state. The Germans naturally denied any such formation and viewed them with suspicion. They fought until the end of the year and were then disbanded as unreliable.

Image

Brandenburg troops belonging to the 1st Battalion manning a radio whilst co-ordinating other units during an anti-partisan raid in Russia in 1942.

The Invasion of Russia also led to a new problem for the German Army-partisans who attacked supply lines and communication networks. The Brandenburgers became the obvious choice to counter such incursions. They were helped by Russian volunteers who made up at least one company of each Brandenburg battalion and who knew the local areas extremely well. This was in effect a mistake and although some local success was achieved a decisive victory against the partisans was never on the cards. Anti-partisan operations were not the only tasks that were carried out and attacks by Brandenburg units were also made on the Murmansk rail route and on Soviet naval commandos using motor boats.

Image

Captured Soviet troops being interrogated by men of the 1st Battalion, Brandenburg Regiment.

In the spring of 1941 the "Afrika Kompanie" was formed and was commanded by Leutnant von Koenen who had a wide experience of Africa. It consisted of 60 men who were also experienced African affairs and had knowledge of North African languages, environment and customs. They were originally designed to be a reconnaissance detachment to Rommel's Afrika Korps who would evaluate the disposition of the British 8th Army. When the British were on the retreat in June 1942 it was decided that the Afrika Kompanie should seize bridges across the Suez Canal and the Nile in anticipation of a German victory. Events were to decide otherwise and Rommel was pushed back to Tunisia by the Allies. Tactics had to be changed and the Brandenburg detachment was ordered to destroy two vital bridges but a gliderborne assault met with disaster and the Bridges remained intact. Another two units were sent to locate a withdrawal route through Algeria but due to poor communications no advantage was taken. Operation Salaam was an attempt to plant German agents in Cairo but this failed due to British intelligence intercepting ULTRA messages and the agents and the Brandenburgers were captured. After the defeat of the Germans in Africa all the Brandenburg commandos were taken prisoner by the Allies.

Brandenburg units took part in the capture of the Island of Leros along with Luftwaffe paratroopers as well as in the failed attempt to capture Tito the Yugoslav partisan leader along with SS Paratroopers in the summer of 1944.

On 13th September 1944 the Brandenburg Division (with the exception of the 3rd Regiment which remained as a mountain unit in Northern Italy) was transformed into a panzergrenadier formation and was amalgamated with the Großdeutschland Panzergrenadier division and formed into a panzer corps. Brandenburg's panzer battalions did not see action with GD but instead went on to form part of Kurmark Panzer Division and another was destroyed by the Soviets in the fighting for Belgrade.

Some elements of Brandenburgers were active in the west with a patrol of the Irish Guards intercepting Germans who turned out to be a Brandenburg unit from Großdeutschland who had been absorbed into the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. Their mission was recorded in the subsequent intergation but it is doubtful that it was of major consequence.

The men of the early Brandenburg units will perhaps forever remain anonymous but there contribution to those early campaigns was vital and set the standard for many of today's elite forces. In many historical writings, the Brandenburgers are often confused with "Strafbatallion 500" and "Strafbatallion 900 (Dirlewanger)" - the Brandenburgers did not obtain their recruits from German corrective or penal institutes. It also need be noted that Skorzeny's Jagdkommando's (Jagdverband der SS) were not fighting as Brandenburgers - they were fighting as an SS unit which contained men and officers who previously had been Brandenburg commandos (approximately 1.800 Brandenburgers transferred to the SS when the Brandenburg Division was incorporated to the Panzerkorps "Großdeutschland").


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Best regards/ Daniel

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