Lithuanian SS Recruits
In addition to the above units, there were also five Lithuanian battalions formed during 1943 which were attached to German pioneer units and under the control of Army Group North. The commanding officers of these units were all Lithuanians. Their tasks were road and railway construction and the building of defensive works. Initially, the units were not armed, but as partisan activity increased they were given light weapons for protection. Many members of the Lithuanian construction units were later asked to join the Waffen-SS; 40 percent eventually did.
In January 1943, the HSSPF in Lithuania, SS-Brigadeführer Wysocki, was ordered to raise a Lithuanian legion for the Waffen-SS, similar to those raised from the Latvians and Estonians. He failed miserably, with very few volunteers coming forward. As a result, Wysocki was replaced by SS-Brigadeführer Harm, although the results still did not improve. Thereafter, the Germans threatened to put all able-bodied Lithuanians into labour camps until a compromise was reached. The Lithuanians were holding out for an independent formation led by Lithuanian officers and not under the control of the SS. They also requested that the formation only be used internally within Lithuania, and not outside their national borders. The Germans, though, wanted the exact opposite. The wrangling continued until February 1944 when the Germans agreed to all Lithuanian requests. The new formation was known as the Lithuanian Territorial Corps (originally, Himmler had refused to accept Lithuanians on the grounds that they were politically unreliable and racially inferior; however, by early 1944, the military situation in the East forced him to lower SS racial requirements).
On 16 February 1944, an appeal was made for volunteers, which yielded more than 19,000 men. The Germans wanted only 5000, and so, much to the Lithuanians’ annoyance, plans were put in motion to use the excess volunteers as replacements for Wehrmacht units. This infuriated the Lithuanians, so to avoid further problems it was agreed to use the excess volunteers to form 13 police battalions and 1 replacement unit. The 14 units were formed in March 1944, and immediately began military training.
However, on 22 March 1944, Feldmarschall Walther Model, commander of Army Group North, made a formal request for the formation of 15 Lithuanian units to be employed to guard Luftwaffe airfields. This move once again greatly upset the Lithuanian volunteers; and, to make matters worse, on 6 May, a general mobilization order was issued (in response to the approach of the Red Army). On 9 May, the Germans went back on their earlier promises of independence from German military control, and all 14 units were placed under Wehrmacht jurisdiction. This caused widespread dissent among the volunteers who refused the new German demands. Thus, all 14 units were formally disbanded in the face of a mutiny. Of the original 19,000 men, about 16,000 deserted while the other 3000 were drafted into Luftwaffe flak batteries.
In June 1944, Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive that smashed Army Group Centre, resulted in the Red Army entering Lithuania. In response, the Germans formed an emergency formation called the Fatherland Defence Force. This new formation consisted of small groups of retreating Lithuanian troops who were organized into two regiments under German command. It was employed in defensive positions near Papiles where, in early October 1944, it was engaged in heavy combat with Soviet forces. Crippling losses caused the formation to pull back and a general retreat ensued. The survivors of the formation, about 1000 men, later regrouped in East Prussia as a new unit known as the Lithuanian Engineer Battalion. This new formation consisted of eight companies, and was tasked with working on defensive emplacements along the Baltic coast. However, it was all but destroyed shortly after formation, and only a very few men managed to escape via the Baltic Sea.
Other units raised by the Germans in Lithuania included an NSKK unit formed towards the end of the war. There were also 1000 young Lithuanian boys and girls drafted into the service of the Luftwaffe to assist with flak, signal, transport and searchlight duties in the last months of the war. In the final analysis, the Germans only trusted the Lithuanians to dig ditches, shoot Jews and communists, and fight partisans. The Germans were more than happy for Lithuanians to undertake these unpleasant tasks. Even when the war had turned against Germany in the East after mid-1943, the Germans were half-hearted and lukewarm in their efforts to raise Lithuanian units.
As a postscript, after World War, II tens of thousands of Lithuanians continued to fight the Soviet occupation forces well into the 1950s. The last of the Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan forces are thought to have been wiped out in 1956.
In contrast to Lithuania, Estonia was looked on more favourably by Himmler for a variety of reasons. First, Latvia and Estonia was the old territory of the Teutonic Knights, the German warrior monks who had battled the Slavs in the Middle Ages. Racially, as he said himself, “they could not be distinguished from Germans. The Estonians really belong to a few races that can, after the segregation of only a few elements, be merged with us without any harm to our people.” He was also careful to stress, however, that “a nation of 900,000 Estonians cannot survive independently, and that as a racially related nation Estonia must join the Reich”.
The collapse of Poland, together with almost total political isolation, paralyzed the Estonian Government. On 24 September 1939, Moscow demanded that Estonia hand over its bases to the Red Army; the government accepted the ultimatum, signing the corresponding agreement on 28 September. This resulted in 25,000 Red Army soldiers entering Estonia on 18 October. On 14 June 1940, the German Army marched into Paris; and on 16 June, Moscow presented an ultimatum to Estonia that a new government be appointed and that the occupation of the whole country be permitted. On 17 June, Estonia accepted the ultimatum and the independence of the country ceased to exist. By the end of the month, there were 130,000 Soviet soldiers, NKVD personnel and so-called “specialists engaged in establishing the new administrative apparatus of Estonia” in the country.
The occupation of their country caused great resentment among Estonians. As a result, an unknown number of men went to Finland to fight voluntarily against the Red Army. At sea, when Estonia was proclaimed a Soviet republic, the crews of 42 Estonian ships in foreign waters refused to return to the homeland. These ships were requisitioned by the British and were later used in the Atlantic convoys. Some 1000 Estonian seamen served in the British merchant marine, 200 of them as officers; and a further 200 Estonians served in the Royal Air Force (RAF), British Army and in the US Army.
In June 1940, the 16,800 men of the Estonian Army became XXII Territorial Rifle Corps of the Red Army. Thousands of men escaped from the corps when it was sent to Russia at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Of those who remained, 4500 went over to the German side (the corps was destroyed in fighting in September 1941). During Barbarossa, the German Army received help from the Estonian “forest brothers” (partisans). Taking advantage of the disarray of the Red Army, the “forest brothers” liberated south Estonia almost on their own. Their strength was between 25,000 and 35,000 men, of whom 12,000 were well armed. In the liberated territories, a Home Guard was formed from the “forest brothers”, which had more than 14,000 men by 1 August and 25,000 men by 1 September. The “forest brothers” and the Home Guard managed to kill 3000 Soviets and took over 25,000 prisoners.
Immediately after the arrival of German troops, the formation of Estonian national units began. First, Ost battalions under different names were formed – Security, East, Defence and Police Battalions – in addition to single companies. Under German Army control, they were used to free up Wehrmacht formations for frontline duties by carrying out guard and anti-partisan duties. The police battalions were used to round up Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill and communists, who were systematically murdered. Initially, the Ost battalions mostly served in the rear of Army Group North. By March 1942, there were 16 Estonian battalions and companies with 10,000 men plus 1500 men in a depot battalion. In total, 54 Estonian battalions were formed, most of them being committed to frontline combat in 1942.
With his regard for the Estonians as racial brothers, it was inevitable that Himmler would raise Estonian Waffen-SS units. The first group of volunteers was raised in July 1941; and in the following months the SS established a number of Schutzmannschaft Bataillonen, which were separate from the army battalions. The next step was the creation of an Estonian legion.
On 28 August 1942, the German powers announced the legal compilation of the Estonian SS legion within the Waffen-SS. SS-Oberführer Frans Augsberger was nominated the commander of the legion, and by the end of 1942 1280 men had volunteered and been sent to the training camp at Debica in Poland. The Estonian Legion had a staff company, three infantry battalions, a heavy mortar company and an anti-tank company.
In March 1943, a partial mobilization was carried out in Estonia, during which 12,000 men were called into service. Of these, 5300 were sent to the legion, and the rest to other units of the German Army. On 23 March, the 1st Battalion was detached and became a motorized grenadier battalion in the Wiking Division. At the same time, the legion was designated the 1st Estonisches SS Freiwilligen Grenadier Regiment. During the summer, the regiment expanded into two regiments and became the 53rd Freiwilligen Brigade with 6069 men. It was renamed the 3rd Estonian SS Freiwilligen Brigade on 22 October 1943.
On 24 January 1944, it was decided to upgrade the Estonian brigade to a division, which was titled 20th Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Division. As the Red Army reached the Narva River at the beginning of February, the division was brought closer to Narva. In April, the battalion that had been attached to Wiking returned to join the division; and in May 1944 it was renamed the 20th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Estnische Nr 1). At this time, the division numbered 10,000 men, which had increased to 15,000 by September.
Estonians were also present in the Luftwaffe (1000, including 140 pilots) and the Kriegsmarine (300) at this time. In total, it is estimated that there were 100,000 Estonians in various units fighting for Germany in the autumn of 1944.
The SS division fought in the six-month battle at Narva, which also involved many other foreign volunteer units of the Waffen-SS. The Estonians, being highly motivated and well trained and equipped, put up a spirited defence and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets. At this time, the division’s order of battle consisted of the 45th Waffen Grenadier Regiment, 46th Waffen Grenadier Regiment, 47th Waffen Grenadier Regiment and the 20th Waffen Artillery Regiment. Space does not permit a full examination of the division’s exploits, but a few examples will be sufficient to illustrate its fighting qualities.
Between 14 and 16 February, one of its battalions (I/45 under Hastuf Harald Riipalu) defeated large Russian forces which had crossed Lake Lammijärv near Meerapalu, inflicting 2000 casualties. On 24 February, the battalion of Hastuf Rudolf Bruus (II/46) destroyed the bridgehead of Riigiküla, and the battalion of Ostubaf Ain-Ervin Meri (I/46) liquidated the bigger bridgehead of Vaasa-Siivertsi-Vepsaküla.
By June, the Estonian division was still in the line at Narva, but no amount of fighting prowess could prevent the impending German defeat (in the Baltic the Germans had two fronts – six to seven armies each – against a weakened Army Group North of two armies). However, the division was still capable of winning local victories, such as stopping the Soviet attack on Auvere, and the division helped to cover the German retreat from Narva in September. The Estonian division was driven from its homeland and forced to retreat along with the rest of Germany’s collapsing forces. It fell back to Silesia and then Czechoslovakia. In May 1945, the less fortunate members of the division were captured by the Soviets, most being shot.
Like Estonia, Latvia raised considerable numbers of men for service with the Germans. Before the war, the country had been ruled by Karlis Ulmanis’ para-fascist Peasant Union, whose main opponent was the fascist Fire Cross Party, later renamed the Thunder Cross. The latter had its own paramilitary units called Greyshirts. The Thunder Cross extolled the virtues of Latvianness, the peasantry and the land, and it regarded the non-Baltic ethnic minorities in the country, especially the Jews, as a problem. When the Germans occupied the Baltic states in 1941, Thunder Cross members took an active part in assisting the Einsatzgruppen. Viktor Arajs, a former communist, was one such individual. When the Germans took over, he placed an advert in a Riga newspaper for men to assist in “cleansing the country of harmful elements”. More than 100 men responded, and their first action was to assist the Germans to massacre imprisoned Jews in July 1941. This marked the beginning of their campaign of murder and rape. On 8 December 1941, they helped to shoot Jews from the Riga ghetto; and by 1942, the so-called Sonderkommando Arajs was conducting anti-partisan operations. The unit numbered 300 men at its height, and many later joined the Latvian Legion.
Following standard procedure, the SS and army formed a number of police battalions for anti-partisan and anti-Jew duties, though those under army command also saw frontline combat. They were raised purely to serve Nazi interests rather than to restore Latvian sovereignty. Latvian independence was never on Berlin’s agenda. Thus, when the Senior SS and Police commander in Ostland, SS-Obergruppenführer Jeckeln, said to Latvian officers, “in a great German empire the Latvian people will have their place in the sun”, he received a stiff rebuke from the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. When Latvian leader and former general Rudolf Bangerskis proposed raising a 100,000-strong Latvian army, the idea received a cool reception. The Germans proposed instead to form a Latvian volunteer legion under the command of the SS. Hitler initially agreed to this, but in their recruitment drive the Germans assured the volunteers they would be fighting for an independent Latvia. The whole idea was therefore quickly scrapped in early February 1943.