It is truly ironic that the most numerous units of foreign nationals raised by the Germans during World War II came from among the “sub-human” Slavs of the Soviet Union. Faced with waging war in a country of vast distances and infested with enemy partisans, the Germans had no choice but to recruit Russians to ease the strain on their own manpower. Even the “Aryan élite”, the Waffen-SS, raised Russian formations.
It is impossible in one article to present a detailed analysis of all the Russian nationals who served with the German armed forces in World War II. Instead, a general summary of the main units raised by the Germans from the different ethnic groups in the Soviet Union will be presented.
The war on the Eastern Front
Before analyzing the Russian nationals who served the Third Reich, it is important to stress the unique nature of the Nazi war in Russia. It was, above all, an ideological conflict, and was waged in varying degrees as such by the German Army, Waffen-SS and the Nazi administrators in the occupied territories. If Western Europe was viewed by Berlin as being populated mainly by Aryans, the peoples of Russia were seen largely as “sub-human” Slavs. Himmler and his cronies may have singled out some ethnic groups, such as the Latvians, as being “racially acceptable”, but even in Latvia the Germans treated the local population atrociously.
On the eve of the campaign in Russia, Hitler informed his commanders: “We must depart from the attitude of soldierly comradeship … we are talking about a war of annihilation … commissars and members of the GPU [secret police] are criminals and must be dealt with as such.” Just before the attack in June 1941, he signed the Commissar Order instructing his generals to have captured commissars shot forthwith. To carry out these instructions, four SS Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Squads), composed of SS, criminal police and security police, operated behind the German lines. Although Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Einsatzgruppen, specified to the higher SS and police officers in charge of captured Russian territory that only “Jews in the service of party and State” were to be shot, it seems very likely that the action squads were encouraged to execute all the Jews they could lay their hands on – which is exactly what happened.
Nazi ideology in the East
Nazi racial publications stressed the ideological nature of the war in the East: “The most dangerous opponent of our worldview at present is Marxism, and its offspring Bolshevism. It is a product of the destructive Jewish spirit, and it is primarily Jews who have transformed this destructive idea into reality. Marxism teaches that there are only two classes: the owners and the propertyless. Each must be destroyed and all differences between people must be abolished; a single human soup must result. That which formerly was holy is held in contempt. Every connection to family, clan and people was dissolved. Marxism appeals to humanity’s basest drives; it is an appeal to sub-humans.
“We have seen first-hand where Marxism leads people, in Germany from 1919 to 1932, in Spain and above all in Russia. The people corrupted by liberalism are not able to defend themselves against this Jewish-Marxist poison. If Adolf Hitler had not won the battle for the soul of his people and destroyed Marxism, Europe would have sunk into Bolshevist chaos. The war in the East will lead to the final elimination of Bolshevism; the victory of the National Socialist worldview is the victory of Aryan culture over the spirit of destruction, the victory of life over death.” (Official Nazi pamphlet outlining racial theories, Berlin 1943.)
Hitler and his General Staff anticipated that the Blitzkrieg against Russia would last a maximum of 10 weeks, during which time the Red Army would be smashed. Afterwards, the defeated Soviet Union would be organized into a series of provinces. As part of the Lebensraum policy, the conquered population would be resettled, Germanized or exterminated.
Against this background, it was inconceivable to Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy that the Wehrmacht should raise foreign volunteer units from among “sub-human” Slavs. As the German Army groups rolled east following the invasion of 22 June 1941, it appeared that the war would indeed be over quickly. But then the offensive ran out of steam at the end of November, and the Wehrmacht was faced with at least another year of fighting in Russia. In the face of military necessity, therefore, the Germans were forced to enlist the assistance of indigenous Slavs in their fight against the Soviet Union.
The first Russian units
The first volunteer units raised in Russia were created in the autumn of 1941 by individual German Army commanders. On their own initiative, they organized auxiliary units made up of Soviet deserters, prisoners (the Germans had taken two million prisoners by mid-October 1941) and volunteers from the local population. The German Army greatly underestimated the number of prisoners it would take. As a result, many prisoners of war (POWs) ended up dying of disease or starvation in overcrowded POW camps. This was a huge waste of potential manpower, especially given the dissatisfaction towards Moscow among many non-Russian ethnic minorities. The so-called Hilfswilligen (volunteer helpers), or Hiwis, were employed as sentries, drivers, store keepers, depot workers and so on. Hundreds of Hiwis also carried out combat roles. In July 1941, for example, the 134th Infantry Division began openly enlisting Russians. By the spring of 1942, there were 200,000 Hiwis in the rear of the German armies, and by the end of the same year their number was allegedly one million.
The Hiwi experiment
The reasons for this rapid expansion are not hard to find: German Army commanders realized that because of the wide expanses under their control and the general shortage of German manpower, they would have to resort to local recruits. Hiwis served either as individuals or as members of a group (up to company size) attached to German units, mainly in the rear. The Hiwi experiment, undertaken without the authorization of either Hitler or the High Command, was a success, and so the Germans gradually expanded the range of jobs Hiwis carried out, their conditions of service were formalized, they were given German uniforms, and their food rations and pay almost achieved parity with those of German soldiers.
The next step taken by the Germans was the organization of voluntary military troops, called Osttruppen. These troops, dressed in German uniforms, guarded roads and railway lines, fought Soviet partisans in the German rear (Nazi brutality towards the local population had created high partisan activity behind the German frontline, which army commanders did not have the manpower to deal with) and occasionally held sectors of the front. Osttruppen were usually organized in battalions, and by the middle of 1942 there were six such battalions in the rear of Army Group Centre alone. Each battalion was drawn from a single ethnic group, with liaison and certain command positions being occupied by German officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Each battalion numbered around 750 men, with recruits being drawn from POW camps, recently captured prisoners, conscription by the Germans and men already serving as Hiwis.
Reasons for fighting Stalin
What was the motivation of Hiwis and Osttruppen? Decades of inhumane social, ethnic and religious policies had alienated huge groups of the Soviet population. If in central Russia the state through terror had annihilated or kept under tight check any opposition, in the recently “liberated” Baltic republics, the Ukraine, Belorussia and Bessarabia the harshness of the Soviet regime was still fresh in the memory. Brief acquaintance with the gulag system, NKVD and collectivization in agriculture had shown the true nature of Stalin’s regime. As a result, ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were more than happy to be liberated and even join the fight against Bolshevism. However, it is doubtful that there was a substantial number of pro-Hitler supporters among these peoples. Some were pure opportunists, criminals and adventurers who did not care which side they fought on. Many secretly hated Stalin for collectivization, labour camps and the reign of terror, while others were disillusioned with the Soviet system after the initial collapse of the Red Army. The majority, however, simply did not want to rot in German POW camps. Others, of course, wanted to win independence for their own homelands, i.e. to be free of both German and Russian rule.
As well as German-organized units, there were other more ad hoc formations that were briefly independent before the Germans took them over. The most infamous of these was the Kaminski Brigade.
The Kaminski Brigade
This was a locally raised militia group whose members gathered on the verges of the Bryansk Forest in the small Belorussian town of Lokot in late 1941 to protect themselves from Russian partisans. It was commanded by Bronislav Vladislavovich Kaminski, who spoke fluent German and had spent five years in the gulag for being an “intellectual”. By mid-1943, with the encouragement of the Germans, his brigade numbered 10,000 men in 14 rifle battalions, an anti-aircraft battery and support companies. Each battalion consisted of four rifle companies, plus mortar and artillery platoons. It also had an armoured element which had eight tanks (a KV-1, two T-34s, three BT-7s, two BT-5s), three armoured troop carriers (a BA-10, two BA-20s), two tankettes and cars and motorcycles. Kaminski called himself the “Warlord of the Bryansk Forest” and was given a free hand to clear partisans from the area. He called his force the Russkaya Ovsoboditelnaya Narodnaya Armija (RONA – Russian Army of National Liberation). The RONA enforced security during harvesting, escorted special food trains, guarded railways and mounted “punitive” operations in partisan zones.
By the end of August 1943, the situation in the Lokot district was deteriorating so Kaminski evacuated the RONA and its civilians to the town of Lepel in the Vitebsk region. The mission of the brigade in Belorussia was to guard the rear of the Third Panzer Army. In addition, because of high partisan activity at the beginning of 1944, the RONA was moved to the town of Djatlovo in western Belorussia.
In spring 1944, the Germans conducted some anti-partisan operations in the region between Minsk and Lepel. The RONA took part in these missions as part of a group headed by SS-Obergruppenführer Gottberg, and had the status of assault brigade. By this time, it had been officially accepted into the Waffen-SS as SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, and Kaminski was made a Waffen-Brigadeführer. The brigade acted with great ruthlessness, and Kaminski was decorated with the Iron Cross, 1st class, for his efforts. In July 1944, the brigade became the 29th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russische Nr 1).
At this juncture, it would be useful to say something about anti-partisan operations as many Russian units in German pay undertook these unpleasant missions. On the Eastern Front, the area from the frontline towards the rear up to a depth of 160km (100 miles) was under German Army control. Then came the Reich Commissariats, which were under the control of the SS. Units were under SS or army control depending on the areas in which they were operating. At first, partisan activity in German-occupied areas was light, but due to Nazi excesses, by mid-1942 it had grown enormously. There were no military or political guidelines for the German occupying forces on the treatment of civilians in partisan-infested country. This meant many innocent civilians were arrested and shot merely on suspicion of being partisans.
Regions that contained partisans would first be cordoned off, and then the area would be de-populated and all livestock removed. Men and women who were not shot as partisans were deported to Germany as POWs, and the women taken to work in German factories. Unfortunately for the Germans, partisan areas were often located in swamp or forest terrain, which was difficult to penetrate and clear. In addition, mines and booby traps took a toll on attackers, which resulted in harsh and indiscriminate treatment being meted out to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into German hands.
The Germans used locals and Russian national units to assist them in anti-partisan work. Foresters and game-keepers were especially useful, as were dogs, though many German commanders believed that Russian hounds had been bred with anti-German instincts! Local units, especially Cossacks and Hiwis, were unreliable and often deserted to the partisans. Bearing all the above in mind, it is no wonder that most anti-partisan missions ended in failure.
This caused frustration among the Germans, who often committed atrocities in response. During Operation Kottbus, for example, conducted between mid-May and 21 June 1943, an attempt was made to seal off the partisan-infested area between Borissow and Lepe. It involved 16,000 German soldiers and Russian allies. The result was a total failure, with only 950 enemy small arms taken but 12,000 civilians killed.
In August 1944, two battalions of RONA volunteers, headed by SS-Obersturmbannführer Fromov, were despatched to Warsaw to help crush the Polish uprising. They were sent to the district of Wola and committed so many atrocities, including the rape of German girls, that there were widespread demands (even from some SS commanders) for their withdrawal. It was reported that in one day alone – 5 August 1944 – they murdered 10,000 Polish civilians. Kaminski was later shot by the SS, being tricked by the Germans to leave his men and his death made to look like a motoring accident. The division was disbanded, with the personnel being sent to Vlassov’s army and others to the 30th SS Division. The less desirable elements of the division were either sent to concentration camps or shot. The 29th Division was dropped from the rolls of the Waffen-SS, and the title given to the new Italian division that was being formed.
Alongside the RONA was the Russkaya Natsionalnaya Narodnaya Armiya (RNNA – Russian Nationalist National Army) led by a “White” Russian émigré called S. N. Ivanov. The unit was formed at Ossintorf near the Orsha-Smolensk rail line. It was organized along Russian lines, being equipped entirely with captured Soviet arms. Its personnel wore Red Army uniforms with tsarist-type white, blue and red cockades. The unit’s Russian members, along with many other Russian units in German service, wrongly assumed that they were the nucleus of a future great Russian “liberation” army. They therefore decided (without prior German approval) to name their embryonic formation the RNNA. By the end of 1942, the formation numbered 7000 men organized into four infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and an engineer battalion. Recruits came mainly from POW camps, the volunteers joining to escape starvation. Some émigrés also decided to join the RNNA, including Lieutenant V. Ressler, Lieutenant Count G. Lamsdorff and Lieutenant Count S. von der Pahlen.
German policy towards the RNNA
The formation’s first major engagement took place in May 1942, in the Yelnia area east of Smolensk. Some 300 RNNA men were assigned the task of probing the positions of the encircled Soviet Thirty-Third Army, an operation that took several weeks. By December 1942, the RNNA was approximately the size of a German brigade and was a well-trained formation.
Feldmarschall Hans von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, having personally inspected the unit, was impressed by what he saw but issued an order that stipulated that the formation be divided into individual battalions and assigned to separate German units. These actions were in line with Hitler’s order to keep all the units of Russian nationals no larger than battalion size.
The RNNA almost mutinied in protest, since the order destroyed any idea that they were an embryonic Russian army of liberation. The matter was resolved when several RNNA officers were promoted and the formation was not broken up (though neither was it sent to the front). However, the damage had been done and the RNNA soldiers no longer trusted the Germans. Those who remained were later incorporated into the ROA formation (see below).
In parallel to the RNNA were the so-called Eastern Legions (Ostlegionen). In late 1941, Hitler was visited by General Erkilet of the Turkish General Staff, who urged the Führer to intervene on behalf of Red Army POWs of Turkic nationality. Hitler, eager to recruit Turkey as an ally, granted permission in November for the creation of a Turkistani legion. The experiment was such a success that by the end of the year three more Eastern Legions had been formed, the Caucasian Moslem Legion (later split into the North Caucasian Legion and the Azerbaijani Legion), Georgian Legion and Armenian Legion. In addition, by mid-1942, the Crimean Tartar and Volga Tartar Legions had been raised. Hitler, wary of this rapid growth, stipulated that the legions be organized into units no larger than a battalion and then widely dispersed among German Army formations to prevent them being a security hazard. An exception, as a gesture to court the Turks, was the formation of the Turkistani 162nd (Turkish) Infantry Division in May 1943 to serve as the parent unit for the various legion battalions.
Turkic and Caucasian Forces
The most interesting legion was the Sonderverband Bermann, formed by Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris and composed of Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and other Caucasian POWs. The plan was to parachute the unit behind Soviet lines to act as a “fifth column”. Nothing came of the idea, though, and its two battalions ended up fighting at the front.
In August 1942, General Ernst Köstring was made Inspector General of Turkic and Caucasian Forces; by September 1944, he had thousands of legion members under his command. In the legions and replacement battalions were 11,600 Armenians, 13,000 Azerbaijanis, 14,000 Georgians and 10,000 North Caucasians. These nationalities formed a further 21,595 men in pioneer and transport units, 25,000 in German Army battalions and 7000 in Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS formations. This gave a total of 102,195 men.
The legion movement was a success in that large numbers of recruits were raised, which freed up regular German units to undertake combat duties. However, when it came to frontline combat duties they were less useful. Often poorly armed, trained and motivated (especially when they were located away from their region of origin), they were unreliable and next to useless. For example, the 797th Georgian Battalion simply refused to fight when ordered to do so.
No study of Russian units in German service would be complete without mention of the Cossacks. Contrary to popular legend, and despite anti-communist sentiments nourished by many Cossacks and the cracking-down on many aspects of Cossack traditions by the communist regime, the overwhelming majority of Cossacks remained loyal to the Soviet Government. That said, substantial numbers of Cossacks did fight for the Germans in World War II.
On 22 August 1941, while covering the retreat of Red Army units in eastern Belarus, a Don Cossack major in the Red Army named Kononov (a graduate of Frunze Military Academy, veteran of the Winter War against Finland, a Communist Party member since 1927 and holder of the Order of the Red Banner) deserted and went over to the Germans with his entire regiment (the 436th Infantry Regiment of the 155th Soviet Infantry Division), after convincing his regiment of the necessity of overthrowing Stalinism (among the few incidences of a whole Soviet regiment going over to the Axis during World War II). He was permitted by local German commanders to establish a squadron of Cossack troopers composed of deserters and volunteers from among POWs, to be used for frontline raiding and reconnaissance missions. With encouragement from his new superior, General Schenkendorff, eight days after his defection Kononov visited a POW camp in Mogilev in eastern Belarus. The visit yielded more than 4000 volunteers in response to the promise of liberation from Stalin’s oppression with the aid of their German “allies”. However, only 500 of them (80 percent of whom were Cossacks) were actually drafted into the renegade formation. Afterwards, Kononov paid similar visits to POW camps in Bobruisk, Orsha, Smolensk, Propoisk and Gomel with similar results. The Germans appointed a Wehrmacht lieutenant named Count Rittberg to be the unit’s liaison officer, in which capacity he served for the remainder of the war.
The 600th Don Cossack Battalion
By 19 September 1941, the Cossack regiment contained 77 officers and 1799 men (of whom 60 percent were Cossacks, mostly Don Cossacks). It received the designation 120th Don Cossack Regiment; and, on 27 January 1943, it was renamed the 600th Don Cossack Battalion, despite the fact that its numerical strength stood at about 2000 and it was scheduled to receive a further 1000 new members the following month. The new volunteers were employed in the establishment of a new special Cossack armoured unit that became known as the 17th Cossack Armoured Battalion, which after its formation was integrated into the German Third Army and was frequently employed in frontline operations.
Kononov’s Cossack unit displayed a very anti-communist character. During raids behind Soviet lines, for example, it concentrated on the extermination of Stalinist commissars and the collection of their tongues as “war trophies”. On one occasion, in the vicinity of Velikyie Luki in northwestern Russia, 120 of Kononov’s infiltrators dressed in Red Army uniforms managed to penetrate Soviet lines. They subsequently captured an entire military tribunal of five judges accompanied by 21 guards, and freed 41 soldiers who were about to be executed. They also seized valuable documents in the process.
Kononov’s unit also carried out a propaganda campaign by spreading pamphlets on and behind the frontline and using loudspeakers to get their message to Red Army soldiers, officers and civilians. Unfortunately for Kononov, the behaviour of the Germans in the occupied territories worked against his campaign. But Kononov’s Cossacks continued to serve their German “liberators” loyally, and were particularly active with Army Group South during the second half of 1942.
Cossack units in the German Army
Aside from Kononov’s unit, in April 1942, Hitler gave his official consent for the establishment of Cossack units within the Wehrmacht, and subsequently a number of such units were soon in existence. In October 1942, General Wagner permitted the creation, under strict German control, of a small autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban, where the old Cossack customs were to be reintroduced and collective farms disbanded (a rather cynical propaganda ploy to win over the hearts and souls of the region’s Cossack population). All Cossack military formations serving in the Wehrmacht were under tight control; the majority of officers in such units were not Cossacks but Germans who had no sympathy towards Cossack aspirations for self-government and freedom.
The high tide of German conquest
The 1942 German offensive in southern Russia yielded more Cossack recruits. In late 1942, Cossacks of a single stanitsa (Cossack settlement) in southern Russia revolted against the Soviet administration and joined the advancing Axis forces. As the latter moved forward, Cossack fugitives and rebellious mountain tribesmen of the Caucasus openly welcomed the intruders as liberators. On the lower Don River, a renegade Don Cossack leader named Sergei Pavlov proclaimed himself an ataman (Cossack chief) and took up residence in the former home of the tsarist ataman in the town of Novoczerkassk on the lower Don. He then set about establishing a local collaborationist police force composed of either Don Cossacks or men of Cossack descent. By late 1942, he headed a regional krug (Cossack assembly) which had around 200 representatives, whom he recruited from the more prominent local collaborators. He also requested permission from the Germans to create a Cossack army to be employed in the struggle against the Bolsheviks, a request that was refused.
The Cossack movement
The leading figures in the Cossack movement tried to bring about the creation of a Cossack nation, but were always thwarted by Nazi policy in the East. For example, a former tsarist émigré general named Krasnov, based in Berlin, with Hitler’s blessing backed the foundation (in German-occupied Prague) of a Cossack Nationalist Party. It was made up of Cossack exiles who had fled abroad after the White defeat in the Russian Civil War. Party members swore unwavering allegiance to the Führer as “Supreme Dictator of the Cossack Nation”. Simultaneously, a Central Cossack Office was established in Berlin to manage and direct the German-sponsored party. The ultimate aim was to create a “Greater Cossackia”: a Cossack-ruled German protectorate extending from eastern Ukraine in the west to the River Samara in the east.
The homeless Cossack horde
Though the idea of a Cossack state had no part in Nazi plans, the Germans did agree to enlarge the hitherto existing autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban and to enroll additional Cossacks into the ranks of the Wehrmacht in order to placate the progressively more dissatisfied Cossacks. By the beginning of 1943, though, the Axis was retreating following the disaster at Stalingrad and thus these plans came to nought. Due to the sudden military reverses suffered by the Germans in southern Russia, many Cossack collaborators were forced to join the retreat west in order to escape reprisals from the Soviets. In February 1943, the Germans withdrew from Novoczerkassk, taking with them Ataman Pavlov and 15,000 of his Cossack followers. He temporarily re-established his headquarters at Krivoi Rog in the spring of 1943, and shortly afterwards the Wehrmacht allowed him to create his own Cossack military formation. Numerous Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks were called to the colours, but many turned out to be so unsuitable for combat duties that they were sent to work on local farms instead.
Soon the horde of Cossack refugees was on the move again, eventually ending up at Novogrudek in western Belarus, from where five poorly equipped Cossack regiments were dispatched into the countryside to operate against Soviet and Polish partisans. By this time, much of Belarus was controlled by partisans, and the Cossacks took heavy losses with Pavlov being killed. Domanov was appointed as his immediate successor. As a result of the successful Soviet offensive in Belarus and the Baltics undertaken in the summer of 1944, codenamed Operation Bagration, the Cossack column was once again forced to retreat, this time westwards to the vicinity of Warsaw. By this period, any semblance of discipline had disappeared and the Cossacks left a trail of rape, murder and looting. From northeastern Poland they were transported across Germany to the foothills of the Italian Alps where they ended the war.
The 1st Cossack Division
It was only when the military situation in the East had turned against them that the Germans enticed the Cossacks with promises of greater independence. For example, in mid-1943, the High Command deemed it appropriate to create a Cossack division under the leadership of Oberst Helmuth von Pannwitz. The division was formed at a recently established Cossack military camp at Mlawa in northeastern Poland from Kononov’s unit and a regiment of Cossack refugees. Following its formation, the 1st Cossack Division comprised seven regiments (two regiments of Don Cossacks, two regiments of Kuban Cossacks, one regiment of Terek Cossacks, one regiment of Siberian Cossacks and one mixed reserve regiment). As was customary, the Cossack officers were replaced by German ones, with the sole exception of the most notable Cossack commanders who retained their posts (Kononov being one of them). Nazi racial prejudices resulted in the German officers and NCOs mistreating the Cossacks, who retaliated by assaulting and even killing some of their more arrogant superiors. In September 1943, the division was transported to France to assist in the guarding of the Atlantic Wall. However, the Cossacks requested to be assigned frontline responsibilities outside France. The German High Command thus transferred the division to Yugoslavia to take part in anti-partisan operations.
By the end of 1943, the Germans had retreated from the Cossack homelands in Russia. As a result, the Cossacks in German service became disillusioned, and so, in November, Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and Chief of Staff of the OKW, Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, assured the Cossacks that the German Army would retake their homelands. However, as the military situation made such promises unrealistic, arrangements were made to set up a so-called “Cossackia” outside the Cossack homelands. Eventually, the foothills of the Carnic Alps in northeastern Italy were selected for the purpose of providing the wandering Cossacks with a new home.
The “Directorate of Cossack Forces”
In March 1944, an organizational/administrative committee was appointed for the purpose of synchronizing the activities of all Cossack formations under the Third Reich’s jurisdiction. This “Directorate of Cossack Forces” included Naumenko, Pavlov (soon replaced by Domanov) and Colonel Kulakov of von Pannwitz’s Cossack Division. Krasnov was nominated as the Chief Director, who would assume the responsibilities of representing Cossack interests to the German High Command.
XV Cossack Corps
In June 1944, Pannwitz’s 1st Cossack Division was elevated to the status of a corps and became XV Cossack Corps, with a strength of 21,000 men. In July, the corps was formally incorporated into the Waffen-SS, which allowed it to receive better supplies of weapons and other equipment, as well as to bypass notoriously uncooperative local police and civil authorities. Interestingly, the Cossacks retained their uniforms and German Army officers.
The granting of SS status to the Cossack corps was part of Himmler’s scheme to limit the Wehrmacht’s influence over foreign formations. The Reichsführer-SS was quite happy to accept Cossacks into the SS, as Alfred Rosenberg’s ministry came up with the theory that the Cossack was not a Slav but a Germanic descended from the Ostrogoths. A replacement/training division of 15,000 men was also formed at Mochowo, southwest of Mlawa. The corps fought in Yugoslavia; and at the end of the war, 50,000 strong, retreated to Austria to surrender to the British.
In all, around 250,000 Cossacks fought for the Germans in World War II. The Germans used them to fight Soviet partisans, to undertake general rear-area duties for their armies, and occasionally for frontline combat. But they were held in scant regard by most German Army commanders.
General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov
A far more important pro-German Russian force was the liberation army under the command of the former head of the Thirty-Seventh and Twentieth Soviet Armies, and later deputy commander of the front on the River Volkhov: General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov. The son of a Russian peasant born in Nizhni Novgorod, in the spring of 1919 he was recruited into the Red Army and fought against the Whites as an officer. He did not join the Communist Party until 1930 but thereafter his rise was rapid: a major-general by 1938 and a divisional commander by December 1939. During Operation Barbarossa, he commanded a tank corps then an army, taking part in the Battle of Kiev and the defence of Moscow. In March 1942, he became deputy commander of the Volkhov Front but was taken prisoner at the end of June.
Thousands desert to the Germans
He immediately aroused the interest of the 4th Propaganda Section of the Wehrmacht (WPrIV) and was transferred to a special, comfortable camp for important Russian prisoners. There he was subjected to a subtle propaganda campaign which played on his aversion to the Soviet system (of which the Germans must have been aware before his capture). His personal charm, effective manner of speaking, gift of inspiring confidence and high rank earmarked him to head the Russian liberation movement. The persuasion worked, as in September 1942, still in the POW camp, Vlassov wrote a leaflet calling on the officers of the Red Army and the Russian intelligentsia to overthrow the Stalinist regime.
The leaflet was dropped by the thousand from Luftwaffe aircraft, and the response was good. Day after day, the German High Command received reports from all the army groups that thousands of Red Army deserters were coming over to the Germans and asking for General Vlassov.
These reports infuriated Hitler, though, who prohibited any talk of General Vlassov and Russian formations (there was to be no collaboration with the “sub-human” Slavs). However, by January 1943, the leaflet campaign had yielded such good results that the higher echelons of Army Groups Centre and North invited General Vlassov, on their own initiative, to go on a tour of their areas and deliver speeches to POWs and the local population. In March, Vlassov visited Smolensk, Mohylev, Bobruisk, Borisov, Orsha and other places, and later toured the areas of Army Group North. His reasons for taking up the fight against Bolshevism were listed in a letter to a German newspaper in March 1943:
“I realized clearly that Bolshevism had dragged the Russian people into the war in the alien interests of Anglo-American capital. England has always been an enemy of the Russian people. It has always striven to weaken and harm our motherland. But Stalin saw a chance to realize his plans for world domination by following Anglo-American interests. In order to realize these plans he tied the fate of the Russian people to the fate of England, and plunged the Russian people into war, condemning it to countless disasters. These calamities of war crown all the other miseries which the peoples of our country have suffered under 25 years of Bolshevik rule.
“Would it not therefore be criminal to continue shedding blood? Is not Bolshevism, and Stalin in particular, the main enemy of the Russian people? Is it not the primary and sacred duty of every honest Russian to fight against Stalin and his clique?”
Hitler and Feldmarschall Keitel remained deeply hostile to the whole idea, and suggested in June 1943 that Vlassov’s recruits should be sent to Germany to work in coal mines as replacements for Germans.
The KONR Army
The result was that by the middle of 1944, Vlassov’s formation, the Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia (ROA – the Russian Army of Liberation) was not an army in the sense of a military organization. Units that bore its name were mostly commanded by German officers, and were dispersed all over Europe. General Vlassov and his Russian National Committee had no influence whatsoever, and were not recognized by the German Government. In July 1944, however, Himmler, seeing the dire situation the Reich was in, decided to meet with Vlassov (the Reichsführer-SS at this time had great power, being Chief of the SS, Chief of the Police, including the Gestapo, Minister of the Interior and, since the attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944, also Commander of the Reserve Army). Because of the attempt on Hitler’s life, the meeting did not take place until 16 September 1944. Himmler agreed to the creation of a new committee called the Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossi (KONR – Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia), and to the creation of the KONR Army under General Vlassov’s command. The committee and army were to embrace all Soviet citizens living under German rule, in order to unite their political and military activities in the fight against Bolshevism. To begin with, five divisions were to be organized from among POWs and workers brought to Germany from the occupied territories in the East (by this time, the Red Army had entered Poland, reached East Prussia and was at the Yugoslav border).
The Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia
The representatives of the non-Russian nationals, who wanted to sever all ties with Russia and create their own independent states, were against the idea of the KONR Army. Despite Himmler’s threats, the Ukrainians, White Ruthenians (a former province in eastern Czechoslovakia), Georgians and Cossacks refused to join the KONR.
On 14 November 1944, the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia held its inaugural meeting in Prague. The Prague Manifesto was proclaimed detailing KONR’s aims: the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny, the liberation of the peoples of Russia from the Bolshevik system, and the restitution of those rights to the peoples of Russia which they had fought for and won in the people’s revolution of 1917; discontinuation of the war and an honourable peace with Germany; and the creation of a new free people’s political system without Bolsheviks and exploiters.
A large recruit pool
All decisions and instructions had to be “coordinated” with the appropriate German commissar. Nevertheless, the publication of the Prague Manifesto made a deep impression on many Russians. First of all, it brought forth a great number of voluntary applications for service in the KONR Army, a number that surpassed all expectations. On 20 November, for example, 60,000 applications were received. Large numbers of volunteers from among POWs and Soviet refugees who had left their native lands voluntarily with the retreating German armies, preferring a wandering life in strange and perhaps unfriendly lands to a return under the NKVD yoke, were received. Bizarrely, desertion from the Red Army to the Germans increased after the publication of the manifesto, despite the looming defeat of Nazi Germany.
The KONR Army had begun to form in November 1944, accompanied by shortages of arms and equipment. As a result of the deteriorating military situation in the East, the five divisions were reduced to two. Despite his difficulties, Vlassov formed an army headquarters, two motorized divisions, one reserve brigade, an engineer battalion and support units – a total strength of 50,000 men. On 28 January 1945, he officially took command of the army.
The 1st KONR Division
The 1st KONR Division, under the command of General Sergei Kuzmich Bunyachenko, was given the name 600th Panzergrenadier Division. Its organization began in November 1944 at Muensingen, and operational readiness was reached in mid-February 1945. The nucleus of the division consisted of the remnants of the 30th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russian No 2), which had been greatly reduced during the fighting in France, and the remnants of the infamous Kaminski SS division. When the rabble of the latter formation arrived at the camp where the division was being formed, gangs of armed and unarmed men in all kinds of uniforms, accompanied by women in gaudy dresses, spilled out of the railway carriages. At the sight of them, Bunyachenko exclaimed in anger: “So this is what you’re giving me – bandits, robbers, thieves. You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” Amazingly, despite acute shortages of arms, equipment and supplies, at the beginning of April the division reached the front on the River Oder.
The 2nd KONR Division
The 2nd KONR Division, under the command of General G. A. Zveryev, was named the 650th Panzergrenadier Division. Its formation began in January 1945 in Baden, some 69km (43 miles) from the camp of the 1st Division. Owing to the shortages in arms and equipment, it never really reached operational readiness. The nucleus of the division consisted of a few battalions withdrawn from Norway, and some recently captured Russian prisoners. In addition, the KONR Army’s headquarters, the reserve brigade, the engineer battalion, the officers’ school and other units, in all some 25,000 men, were being formed in the same area as the 2nd Division. The organization of the 3rd Division was begun in Austria, but its strength apparently never exceeded 2700 men.
In mid-April 1945, the 1st Division was given the task of capturing the Soviet bridgehead in the area of Frankfurt-on-Oder. This bridgehead had been previously attacked by the Germans, but without success. The attack of the 1st Division also failed, with heavy losses owing to lack of adequate artillery and air support. After the failure of this attack, Bunyachenko withdrew the division on his own authority, and a few days later began the march towards the frontier of Czechoslovakia, together with other Russian volunteers – more than 20,000 men in all. On the way, the Germans tried in vain to induce him to obey their orders. At the end of April, the division reached the frontier of Czechoslovakia where Vlassov himself joined it.
The saga of the KONR army
On 2 May, they stopped short of Prague where they were informed that the army’s headquarters, 2nd Division and the remaining formations of the KONR were on their way through Austria to Czechoslovakia.
At this time, Prague seemed to be the objective of both the American and Soviet armies which were approaching from two directions. This induced the Czechoslovak National Council to call for an uprising against the Germans, which began on 5 May. On the same day, the Czechs implored the Allies by radio to come to their aid because Prague was threatened by the Germans. Receiving no reply to its appeal, the council turned for help to General Bunyachenko. On the morning of 6 May, the 1st Division joined the fight, and by the evening had cleared Prague of SS troops. The Czechs greeted Vlassov’s men joyfully, but the next day Bunyachenko was informed that Prague would be occupied by the Red Army, not by the Americans as he had expected, and that the Czechoslovak National Council was being replaced by a pro-Soviet government headed by Eduard Benes. The latter demanded that the forces of General Vlassov were either to await the Red Army’s entrance in order to surrender, or leave Prague as soon as possible. On the morning of 8 May, General Bunyachenko’s troops began to march towards the same area from where they had come only four days before.
A few days after leaving Prague, the 1st KONR Division laid down its arms in the Czech village of Schluesselburg in the American zone. On 12 May, Bunyachenko was informed that Schluesselburg would be included in the Soviet zone, and that the local American commander did not consent to letting the division march beyond the new demarcation line. The only possible solution, suggested the Americans, was that the soldiers of the KONR might try to cross over to the American zone individually. General Bunyachenko immediately disbanded the division, advising his subordinates to try their luck on their own. During the flight, however, many were shot by Soviet troops and the majority were captured by the Red Army. Some 17,000 of them are said to have been deported to Russia, where they suffered death or life imprisonment. General Vlassov himself fell into Soviet hands on 12 May.
The 2nd KONR Division split into two parts; the greater part, together with the Pannwitz’s Cossack corps, surrendered to the British on 12 May in Austria, to be interned in the area of Klagenfurt. One regiment of the 2nd Division and the army’s headquarters reached the American zone after a long and weary journey, and were interned at Landau in western Bavaria. Thus ended the saga of the ROA.
One group that deserves special mention with regard to foreign units in German service are the Ukrainians. Ukraine contributed thousands of recruits to the German war effort during the four-year war on the Eastern Front.
In mid-September 1939, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, western Ukraine (western Wolhynia and eastern Galicia) was handed over to the Soviet Union and incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). In June 1940, Bessarabia and northern Bukovyna were annexed from Romania and added to the Ukrainian SSR. Western Galicia was under German control.
The aim of Ukrainian nationalists was independence from both German and Russian rule. The Organizacji UkraiÄskich Nacjonalist—w (OUN – Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was formed in 1929 and headed by Stepan Bandera. Its military wing, the Nationalist Military Detachments, was organized in 1939 under the leadership of Colonel Roman Sushko. It had the support of the Germans immediately before their war against Poland, but existed for a very short time, being disbanded when the Nazi-Soviet pact came into effect. In February 1940, the OUN split into two hostile factions: OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk; and OUN-B, led by Stepan Bandera. They and their followers were popularly known as Melnykivtsi and Banderivtsi.
The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists
During Barbarossa, the Germans had captured most of the Ukraine by the end of November 1941. Galicia was attached to the General Government of Poland, while Bukovyna and the area up to the southern River Bug, including Odessa, was handed over to Romania. The remainder was organized as the Reichs Commissariat Ukraine, administered by Erich Koch. With the German armies came Ukrainian nationalists. The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists was organized with the support of the Germans and fought under the auspices of the Bandera faction of the OUN (OUN-B). It was divided into two battalions: Nachtigall and Roland. Nachtigall had about 1000 men in Lvov when a Ukrainian state was proclaimed by OUN-B in June 1941 (to the great surprise of the Germans, who arrested both Melnyk and Bandera and the OUN-B leadership). Both battalions were returned to Frankfurt-on-Oder and there organized into Guard Battalion 201, which was sent to Belorussia to combat partisans. Because of various complaints about the Ukrainians’ insubordination, almost all its officers were arrested and the unit disbanded. One officer, Captain Roman Shukhevych, escaped and later became commander-in-chief of the Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya (UPA – Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist as opposed to communist organization). He headed the Ukrainian underground until his death in a battle with Soviet MVD troops in March 1950, near Lvov.
The Galician Division
Galicia’s governor-general, Otto Wachter, approached Himmler with a proposal to create a frontline combat division from Galician recruits. After speaking with Hitler, Himmler gave Wachter the go-ahead and ordered the creation of the 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division Galicia. Despite Himmler’s position as the head of the SS, he encountered opposition to the idea. Erich Koch, Karl Wolfe (Waffen-SS liaison officer on Hitler’s staff) and SS General Kurt Daleuge (Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia) believed that the weapons supplied to such a unit would be turned on the Germans. Himmler stood firm, though, and the Galicia division was established. He had two reasons for doing so: the loss of manpower after the defeat at Stalingrad meant the Reich desperately needed new formations; and he had a fear that disaffected Ukrainian youths would join the underground movement, i.e. the UPA.
The 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division was formed in mid-1943 from 80,000 applicants. The best 13,000 were selected and the rest were used to form police regiments. From its inception, UPA members infiltrated the unit. Despite this, it was trained and equipped and passed out with a strength of 18,000 men. Like other Slav units, the division’s commander, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Freitag, and his officers were all German. In June 1944, the division was part of Army Group North when it was committed to its first and only major battle – in the Brody-Tarnow Pocket – which almost destroyed it. Following this engagement, the division numbered only 3000 men. After a period of rest and refitting, the division participated in several half-hearted anti-partisan operations in Slovakia and Slovenia before surrendering in Austria in May 1945.
The Ukrainian Liberation Army
Other Ukrainian units were formed by the Germans from Red Army POWs. This was the case with the Sumy (Ukrainian) Division, created in late 1941 and early 1942, which was nearly destroyed during the fighting at Stalingrad in 1942-43. In 1944, its remnants were attached to Vlassov’s ROA.
As a result of Ukrainian complaints, all Ukrainian units were separated from the ROA and reorganized as the Ukrainian Liberation Army in the spring of 1943. Its original strength was around 50,000, but by the end of the war this had increased to 80,000. However, it was short of arms and other supplies, and took heavy casualties fighting the Red Army. The remnants ended up in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.
In a typical German response to the dire situation in the East, in early 1945 all Ukrainian units or their remnants were brought together under one command, when the Ukrainian National Committee, headed by General Pavlo Shandruk, was established in Berlin. In addition, the Germans finally agreed to the creation of the Ukrainian National Army (UNA). The core of the army was to be the reorganized Galician Division, which was to become part of the UNA’s 1st Division. Although this plan was never fully realized because of Germany’s defeat, the Germans’ consent to Ukrainian control of these units gave the Ukrainians a free hand too.