Between 1941-45, the Germans recruited around 175,000 men from a number of minorities in the USSR. Of these, many formed rear-area auxiliary units, but at least 55,000 were combat troops. After training in Poland, individual battalions were posted to fill out German regiments in the front lines, at first in Army Group South but later in all three Army Groups fighting on the Eastern Front. On the blog today, Dr Nigel Thomas, author of the upcoming Elite title, Hitler's Eastern Legions 1942–45, explores the origins and development of these legions.
Operation Barbarossa – the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union - can be said to have lasted just over 36 months - from 22 June 1941, when Army Groups “North”, “Centre” and “South”, supported by Hungarian and Romanian divisions, crossed the Soviet border and advanced eastwards, until mid-July 1944, when Soviet forces had finally ejected the enemy from Belarus. From July 1941, when the campaign was scarcely three weeks old, German divisional commanders were reporting to their superiors that Red Army personnel were surrendering in their thousands to advancing German units and offering to enlist as lorry and horsedrawn waggon drivers, labourers and cooks in return for food, protection and avoidance of the (for many prisoners) deadly POW camp.
Whilst German field commanders and to a lesser extent their superiors, were pragmatic enough to accept the offers of help, Hitler and his entourage were extremely reluctant to contemplate enlisting Soviet troops, given that the strategic aim of Barbarossa was to exterminate as many non-Germans, especially Slavs, as possible, and to banish the others to Asiatic Russia behind an Archangel-Astrakhan fortified line. Nevertheless the German generals and colonels were unwilling to reject willing soldiers and so by September 1941 the Soviet volunteers were officially welcomed into German units as ‘Army Auxiliaries’ (Hilfswillige). Initially Hitler insisted that these men could not be armed, for fear that they would turn their guns on their German superiors, and although this risk was never entirely eliminated the numbers of mutinies amongst these men were far fewer than might have been expected, given their precarious circumstances.
The Soviet Union, like the Russian Empire which it had replaced, was a multinational state composed of nationalities which differed from each other regarding ethnicity, language, religion and political experience. However these nationalities were united in their hatred of communism and their wish for the Germans to allow them to form independent nationally-defined states allied to Germany. This applied to the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Russians under Army Group “North”, the Belarusians and Russians under “Centre” and the Ukrainians, Cossacks, Russians, Caucasians and Turkestanis under “South’. This book concentrates on six nationality-groups:- the Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Armenians in the (southern) Caucasus; North Caucasians (containing at least 30 ethnic groups) in Northern Caucasus; the Volga Tatars of Tatarstan on the lower Volga River; the Turkestanis of Turkestan (now Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), In 1942 the Germans transferred suitably qualified and enthusiastic Hilfswillige from these nationalities into six “Legions’. I have also added the Crimean Tartars and the Kalmyck Cavalry Corps from Kalmyckia near Stalingrad, units which deserve consideration, although they were not officially Eastern Legions.
Legion recruitment progressed well in the first half of 1942, as the triumphant Wehrmacht stood at the gates of the oil-rich southern Caucasus region, but the tide of war was about to turn against the Eastern Legions and the Axis. Although Nazi Germany was an authoritarian state, and the Germans had a reputation for efficiency, one great weakness lay, ironically, in its weak central control and rivalry, and this applied particularly to the Eastern Legions, caught between four competing power-bases.
The first organization to take an interest in the Caucasus was German Military Intelligence – the Abwehr, which had formed in December 1941 the 1,200-strong Bergmann Special Unit, consisting of Caucasian volunteers commanded by an Abwehr agent, Theodor Oberländer. Oberländer maintained a very public profile and his photograph is very accessible on the Internet, but other Abwehr agents, like Rudolf Vrba, who worked with the Kalmyck Cavalry Corps, is totally unknown, except for his code-name – ‘Dr. Doll’. Most of Vra’s colleaguesand most of his colleagues remain a total enigma. Abwehr agents were generally sympathetic to the Eastern Legions, cutting ‘Lawrence of Arabia’-like figures in the field.
German Army officers usually maintained a positive attitude to the Legionnaires, which was generally contingent on their performance in combat and varied from enthusiasm to utter contempt. Hoffmann’s book ‘Kaukasien 1942/3’ (see Bibliography) gives detailed examples of Eastern Legions’ performance in combat.
Heinrich Himmler, commanding the SS and German Police, tried to claim all non-German troops for his command, but his attempts to transfer units like the Eastern Legions to his command met with minimal success.
Nazi philosophical principles were xenophobic, rejecting all non-Germans, and initially Adolf Hitler was adamant that non-Germans could not join the Wehrmacht, but after the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 the Führer softened his attitude, although he was always a few steps behind the Wehrmacht in his pragmatism. Moslems were favoured by Hitler and so they were eventually allowed to bear arms, followed by other non-Germans. Nevertheless the Germans insisted that Eastern Legions could not fight above battalion-strength and very few Eastern Legion officers progressed beyond Deputy Company Commander.
What of the Legionnaires themselves? Why did they desert the Red Army and join the Wehrmacht? Motives varied from a wish to avoid death or starvation in a POW camp to a sincere desire to fight for their families, suffering behind enemy lines, and struggle for the freedom of their homelands from brutal communist rule. The Germans distributed propaganda magazines and newspapers, which promised a better life for the legionnaires and their families, but these gestures were totally cynical. If Germany had been victorious the best the legionnaires could have hoped for would have been serfdom under a cruel German overseer.
84 Eastern Legion Battalions, each about 800-strong, were formed, trained and saw action. 22 more were planned but never completed training. Clearly the Eastern Legions made a significant contribution to the German war effort. 20 Eastern Legion battalions fought in the 227-day Caucasian campaign, with Moslem Turkestani Azerbaijani and North Caucasian battalions performed well, whilst the Christian Armenians and Georgians proved much less reliable, reinforcing Hitler’s prejudice that Moslem fighters were the best. By February 1943 the Germans had been ejected from the south Caucasus peninsula and had surrendered its 6th Army at Stalingrad. Thereafter the Axis was in almost permanent retreat. Eastern Legionnaires realized that now they were unlikely to be able to liberate their families and homelands but they continued to fight in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Even so Hitler became convinced that they would desert or mutiny and insisted in February 1943 that the battalions transferred from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, mainly France, to guard the coast from the expected Allied invasion and to defend the French interior from the increasing threat of the French Resistance. Some battalions resisted the Normandy landings in June 1944 and Allied troops were amazed to find themselves opposed by Asiatic soldiers in a sort of German uniform, indeed some U.S. troops assumed that they were part of a Japanese expeditionary force.
Eastern Legion battalions fought in the German Army until VE Day in May 1945. Against all expectations they remained loyal, probably realizing that they faced a grizzly end if captured by Red Army troops. There was however a famous mutiny by Georgian troops at Texel Island, Netherlands which was not crushed until 20 May, twelve days after VE-Day.
Many Cossacks and Russians serving in the Wehrmacht faced a firing squad or long prison-terms if they were captured by, or handed over to, Red Army troops, but the actual fate of the Eastern Legions is difficult to be sure of. They did not emigrate to the West, like the Ukrainian troops, nor did they establish emigré embassies in the West to keep their political cause alive. No western author, like Nikolai Tolstoy, has described their suffering, nor did any Legionnaire write his memoirs as far as we know. The homelands, to whom the legionnaires belonged, are now independent states or Russian autonomous regions, but these territories do not publicly celebrate the achievements of the Eastern Legions. At least the Legions’ political ambitions have w largely been realized, since the lands for whom they fought and suffered do now possess some level of autonomy.
Uniforms and Insignia
My interest in military history began at the age of ten and was initially concentrated on military, particularly German, uniforms and insignia. I have a distant memory of being given a German magazine by the father of a school-friend. The magazine was in Dutch and had coloured plates of military insignia but I did not recognize the German insignia and so I placed it in the bottom of a cupboard and forgot about it. Five years later I took another look at the magazine and identified it as the celebrated ‘Special Eastern Number’ of the German propaganda magazine ‘Signal’, printed in December 1943 with a full-colour plate of cap-cockades, arm-shields and rank insignia of pro-German Cossacks and the Russian Liberation Army and below what purported to be the rank insignia of the Eastern Legions.
Over the years I have collected as many books as I could on military insignia, and a lot of books have been published on Eastern Legions by America, British, German, Russian and French authors. But I have found to my cost that these books very rarely agree, especially as regards military insignia. I often see portrayed the handsome Eastern Legion insignia featured in Signal magazine and it took me longer than it should to realize that these shoulder-straps were never worn, and probably never manufactured. I eventually realized that the page is in fact a Project which was never completed, and indeed after 18 March 1944 most legionnaires were wearing standard German Army uniforms with national arm-shields.
As I have explained this book has been a long time in preparation. I have tried my best to reconcile contradictory sources and to offer the reader as comprehensive and accurate a work as present sources of information allow.
Hitler's Eastern Legions 1942–45 publishes later this week. Order your copy now!