A force of 62 Brandenburgers under the command of Baron Adrian von Fölkersam penetrated far into Soviet territory. Disguised in NKVD uniforms and riding in Red Army trucks they passed themselves off so convincingly that von Fölkersam even managed to get a tour of the positions around Maikop with its commander. Before that he had rounded up a group of Soviet deserted and used them to advance to Maikop under the pretence of returning them to the line. Now ensconced among the Soviets the Brandenburgers destroy the city’s communication centre and then convince the defenders that a withdrawal had been ordered. The Germans entered the city on August 9, 1942 without firing a shot.
The Brandenburg Regiment was made up of specially trained commandos of the German Abwehr (Secret Service). Initial operations in Poland, Holland and Belgium demonstrated the utility and strength of specially trained men in modern warfare. The men were trained to fight behind enemy lines, dressed in enemy uniforms or civilian clothes, and some spoke several languages. They carried out many missions in Europe during World War II, missions that have largely been lost in the general military history of the Third Reich.
The Brandenburgers were the true predecessors of today’s special forces units. The unit began as part of the Second Department of the Abwehr (Secret Service). The unit’s task, in the words of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, was: “Brave, ruthless men, who could lie in deep cover for a long time, self-reliant and self-sufficient, who in small groups efficiently carried out tasks that would have been impossible for larger groups.” Before World War II the Brandenburgers in their early days tended to recruit by word of mouth and personal recommendation. Indeed, even men of Jewish descent were recruited. The men selected for the unit were trained on an estate near Brandenburg, hence the name of the formation.
Their first operation was during the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The Brandenburgers were used to infiltrate across the border and seize key tactical objectives, usually bridges, to aid the advance of the German Army. Poland was a start, but their real contribution to the German military effort came during the invasion of the West in 1940. On 8 May 1940, the Brandenburgers, wearing Dutch uniforms, crossed the border with Holland. Their target was the bridge over the River Meuse at Gennep. At 02:00 hours in the morning on 10 May, just as German forces were beginning to roll across the border, Brandenburg Lieutenant Wilhelm Walther started the attack. He and his men were disguised as Dutch military police escorting a number of German prisoners. The eight Brandenburgers took the defenders of the bridge by surprise and two guard posts were destroyed. However, three commandos were wounded, and the posts on the far side of the bridge were still in enemy hands. In his Dutch uniform, Walther advanced on these posts and the defenders hesitated, not wanting to shoot one of their own. This proved to be a fatal error, for the posts were then destroyed and the detonators seized, just as the first panzer tanks arrived to consolidate the victory.
In May 1941, Admiral Canaris and Moruzov, the Chief of the Siguranza (Romanian Intelligence Service), came to a secret agreement regarding the protection of vital commercial and military facilities in Romania, especially the Ploesti oilfields and the river commerce of the Danube. To help the Romanians with security, the Germans transferred the 2nd Battalion, Brandenburger Regiment, from Austria to Ploesti. The Brandenburgers were documented and dressed as oil-rig workers, farmers, athletes and youth group members. The men lived in the local community in and around Ploesti. They allegedly prevented British Special Air Service (SAS) members damaging the vital Iron Gate narrows on the Danube. The Brandenburgers also prevented the SAS from destroying the important bridge over the Danube river delta near the town of Cernavoda.
Following the fall of France in June 1940, Hitler turned his attentions to the Soviet Union. The Brandenburgers, now organized as a regiment, would take part in Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the German invasion of Russia. Before the invasion, some Ukrainian volunteers were recruited for a new detachment within the Brandenburg Regiment. The so-called “Nightingale Group” was attached to the 1st Battalion, Brandenburg Regiment, and was instrumental in capturing a vital bridge across the San River during the invasion. Their Ukrainian patriotism would ultimately end the cohesion of their unit when, after the successful capture of a radio station in Lvov six days in late June 1941, they proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state. The Germans subsequently viewed the unit with suspicion, and disbanded it at the end of the year, deeming it unreliable.
In August 1942, a Brandenburg unit of 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans, commanded by Baron Adrian von Fölkersam, penetrated deep into enemy territory in southern Russia. It would be a classic Brandenburg mission. Its aim was to capture the oilfields at Maikop.Using Red Army trucks and NKVD (Soviet Secret Service) uniforms, Fölkersam’s force infiltrated the Soviet lines and moved towards their target. Then they ran into a large force of Red Army deserters. Deciding to try and use the situation to his advantage, Fölkersam persuaded the deserters to return to the Soviet cause. He and his men were able to join with them and move at will through the Russian lines. This journey took him to his destination, Maikop, where he conferred with the city’s military commander. Pretending to be an NKVD major from Stalingrad, Fölkersam persuaded the Russian commander to give him a personal tour of the city’s defences. With the intelligence he had gathered, Fölkersam devised a plan for the capture of Maikop.
By 8 August, with the German Army only 19km (12 miles) away, the Brandenburgers made their move. Using grenades to simulate an artillery attack, they knocked out the communications centre of the city. Fölkersam then went to the Russian officers of the garrison and told them that a withdrawal was taking place. Having seen Fölkersam with their commander and lacking any communications with the rest of the Red Army, the Soviets believed his story. The Russians left, and the German Army entered Maikop on 9 August 1942 in a bloodless victory.
The Brandenburgers were also active in the far north of the Eastern Front, in a little-known operation against Murmansk. Towards the end of 1941, General Schoerner was summoned to General Dietl’s headquarters. Dietl at this time was head of the Lapland Army and was having problems capturing the port of Murmansk.
Schoerner devised a plan to take a specially trained Brandenburger commando team deep into Soviet rear areas in central or northern Karelia and disrupt as much of the Murmansk rail traffic as possible. Schoerner’s goal was to try to destroy as much US lend-lease goods currently being unloaded in Murmansk as possible. He wanted to concentrate his initial efforts on just a small region in Karelia, but Dietl’s superiors expanded the operational plan to include the destruction of numerous Murmansk railway bridges and regional power stations as well.
XXXVI Gebirgs Corps was responsible for all operations east of the town of Alakurti. Although the Soviet forces opposing the Germans were far more numerical, neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage over the other, due mainly to the restraints of the terrain and the difficulties in getting regular supplies to frontline units. The Luftwaffe carried out sorties against Murmansk itself and the Murmansk railway, but the Soviets were always able to repair the damage within a relatively short period of time. It did not take the Germans long to realize that their best chance of disrupting the Murmansk rail line was through commando actions.
The 15th Company, Brandenburg Regiment, was selected to undertake this mission (two-thirds of the rank-and-file of the company were Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Volga Germans and Germans from the Balkans and from Tyrol in Austria). Ski troops would be needed, so only the best skiers of the German Army were recruited; including one gold medalist from the 1936 Olympic Games. In addition, the Heereshundeschule (Army Dog School) provided 40 dogs who were suitable for operations in Polar regions. A special training session for the selected dogs focused on training them not to bark and to become motionless on command – even under fire (one wonders how effective this was in combat). Additional Finnish and German specialists were also given to the Brandenburgers: two senior German Boy Scouts familiar with the forests of Finland, water-purification specialists, weapons specialists and a meteorological technician. All this took place during the month of October 1941. The Brandenburgers also assembled a team of German scientists and specialists who were to design and build special backpacking equipment. Two months later, in late December 1941, the unit was ready.
Trial and Error
General Dietl decided to send the unit on a “dry run” in April 1942, to disrupt Soviet rail traffic along the Murmansk rail line between the villages of Alakvetti and Liza. Although the Brandenburgers departed as planned, they lacked a proper guide to help them work their way through the thick forests towards the Murmansk line. Tired and demoralized, they decided to abort their mission. The unit were next detailed to stop a Soviet advance near Kiestinki. The exhausted Brandenburgers not only played a key role in stopping the Soviet advance, but were also were instrumental in strengthening the Finnish and German defensive positions in the region. In June 1942, they were withdrawn from the frontline and returned to Rovaniemi.
The Brandenburgers were willing to try again against the Murmansk line, but not before they had rectified a number of problems that had wrecked the first mission. First, they had lacked rubber boats to cross they mass of Karelian lakes and rivers. Second, authoritative guides were needed, which were now provided by the Finnish military. Even Soviet soldiers who had crossed over to Finnish/German lines (and who volunteered themselves for service) were enlisted.
The Brandenburgers were ready for a second attempt on 25 July 1942. Accompanied by seasoned Finnish guides, the Brandenburgers, 127 strong, departed from Kuusamo along the Paanajärvi River into central Karelia. Intelligence reported that the Soviets did not have too many troops in their rear areas. This gave the mission a chance of success, though the men would have to live rough as there was a lack of shelter in northern Karelia. Settlements were sparse. As a precautionary measure, the Luftwaffe ceased flying reconnaissance missions over the target region for fear of alerting the Soviets.
The uniforms of the Brandenburger commando team were “sanitized” for this mission: all medals, insignia and other readily identifiable features of Finnish and German militaria were removed. Each trooper was equipped with a pair of rubber boots, a Finnish woodsman’s knife (the German ones were left behind) and an ammunition sack. An insect net and insect-repellent was also issued to every man. Because of weight considerations, the 75mm infantry gun was not taken along. As a replacement, every squad received a grenade launcher with ammunition. Aside from the submachine guns, each squad was also given three light machine guns with 2500 round of ammunition for each gun.
Food supplies were also a problem for the undertaking. The forests of Karelia near the arctic circle did not offer much in the way of nourishment. While some wildlife did exist, the Brandenburgers did not wish to use their guns to shoot animals for fear of giving their positions away. Thus, food supplies had to be taken along, rationed and dropped off at numerous temporary camps. Ultimately, seven supply camps were established by the advancing team as it made its way to the Murmansk rail line. Each supply camp was then guarded by its three assigned supply troops.
Success at Last
The march to the railway was uneventful, and on 8 August the men reached the the Murmansk line. They placed actuated and timed charges along the rail tracks and as far apart as possible (actuated in that every time a train actuated a switch, it would detonate the charge; also a few of charges were set to go off at random). The Brandenburgers were surprised to see no Soviet guards or security precautions along the Murmansk rail line. However, closer reconnaissance revealed that the Soviets did indeed have a guard system in place. From pre-established guard camps, a team of Soviet guards departed from one post, walking along the rail line to the next post, and so on. Having discovered the enemy’s security arrangements, the Brandenburgers worked around them and set their charges on the line.
A fully loaded Soviet train, coming from Murmansk, hit the first explosive charge (which was placed on an iron bridge). The subsequent explosion destroyed the engine and derailed all the wagons. The train with its precious lend-lease goods was lost. A short while later an empty train arrived from the south; it passed over a charge, but the charge was not set to operate on contact. A second empty train arrived shortly thereafter, also from the south. What surprised the Germans observing the whole thing was that the Soviets did not appear at all interested in determining the cause of the accident. Their first and only concern was to repair the rail line as quickly as possible and to salvage as many of the Allied military goods as they could. As more Soviet personnel arrived in the area, the more their repair and salvage activities obliterated the traces of the German charges.
A short while later on the same day, about 9.6km (6 miles) farther up the line, another charge derailed another train. The Soviets sent thousands of NKVD and other troops into the area. NKVD troops shot and executed many civilians who had arrived out of idle curiosity to inspect the scene, suspecting they were saboteurs. Even Red Army soldiers returning from patrol duties were shot on suspicions alone. After the third day, charges were still going off all along the rail line, resulting in more random NKVD shootings against the local population.
Another Brandenburger team was located a little farther to the south. It had set most of its charges, but a few still had to be placed. A few of the Russian-speaking Brandenburgers disguised themselves as Soviet rail-repair crew members and mingled with the crowd. While pretending to repair rail lines, they were actually able to set additional charges undetected. They even managed to escape the NKVD execution squads who were shooting civilians randomly.
Having done their job, the two small teams made their way back to the town of Rovaniemi. General Dietl was now convinced of the value of his “partisan” units and proceeded to issue medals to his returning heroes.
Far to the south of the Arctic Circle, the Brandenburgers were also active in North Africa. Rommel, ever a commander who liked to take risks to achieve results, gave the Brandenburgers a free hand in their operational activities, though he did forbid them wearing enemy uniforms. During the month of October 1941, two attempts were made by the Brandenburgers to infiltrate Cairo to make contact with Arab nationalists and help them to mount an insurrection against the British. The first attempt to reach Cairo was made via a seaborne infiltration operation. This attempt failed and the team returned to its bases in Libya. The second attempt was to land a team via parachute near Cairo. That also ended in failure. Another team of Brandenburgers set out by car and truck, crossing Egypt near the town of Asyut to meet with Arab nationalists. These German-Arab talks included the late Anwar Sadat, who later became the president of Egypt. However, nothing came of these meetings.
Shortly before the capitulation of all German and Italian forces in North Africa in May 1943, the surviving members of the Brandenburgers in Africa were withdrawn and brought back to Germany. Their next missions would take them to the Balkans.
On the 12 September 1943 British forces seized several islands in the Dodecanese, including Samos, Kos and Leros. The occupation of these small islands directly threatened the shipping lanes between the German-occupied island of Rhodes and the mainland of Greece. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) immediately began bombing enemy objectives in Rhodes, the seat of Axis power in the Dodecanese. It also carried out attacks against Crete. The German High Command also feared that these islands may well be used as a forward base by the Allies to invade the Balkans.
Plans were immediately made to recapture these islands from the British. The first of a series of assaults was to take place on the island of Kos (Operation Polar Bear), on 5 October 1943. Kos was chosen as the first objective because it was the only island with an airfield, which could be used as a forward base for the Luftwaffe in future operations in the Dodecanese. It also prevented the RAF from providing air cover to the other islands, especially Leros, which was next on the list of German objectives in the area. The operation on Kos was carried out successfully by the paratroop company of the Brandenburg Regiment, which landed on the island in gliders. Additional forces were supplied from the 22nd Air Landing Division.
The assault on Leros would be the biggest operation in the Dodecanese and the most important due to its harbour facilities. The island was being used by the British as a naval base, a squadron of sea planes were also being operated from Leros, and thus it was a serious threat to German shipping. The operation was codenamed Leopard and would consist of a combined air and seaborne assault.
The day for the start of Operation Leopard was 12 November 1943, and the Luftwaffe had softened up the island’s defences for several days in preparation for the assault. The amphibious convoy set off from ports on the east coast of Greece. At dawn on the 12th, Ju 52s took off from an airfield outside Athens for their one-hour flight to Leros. The aircraft approached the island and the paratroops jumped onto the planned landing zone, the flat area of land between the bays – the neck of the island. Before the defenders could react to the landing, the paratroopers were on the ground. The companies were split up and given individual objectives: cutting roads, reconnaissance and providing defensive screens.
Victory on Leros
On 13 November the Germans succeeded in cutting off the British forces in the north and south, and German reinforcements successfully parachuted in. In the next few days the British mounted several unsuccessful counterattacks against the German positions. The battle for the island was over by the evening of 16 November, with the capture of 3200 British and 5350 Italian troops. German losses had been minimal. The Brandenburgers had overcome superior numbers who were backed up by heavy artillery and coastal guns in only four days, and once again the Germans had gained control in the Dodecanese.
The operation on Leros was a great success, but by 1943 the Brandenburgers had moved away from strictly covert missions, Leros notwithstanding. Expansion from regiment to division size in late 1942 marked the end of covert operations for this special forces unit and its transformation into a conventional formation. This division saw much action on the Eastern Front, where it was largely destroyed in the great German retreat, but it fought a largely conventional war.