Waffen-SS – Very Obscure Units – The Indian Waffen-SS

During the latter part of the war, it was not uncommon for ad hoc SS battle groups to be drawn together from divisional troops, or for smaller units to be absorbed by larger ones which just happened to be located nearby. There were also hundreds of replacement formations, such as the Latvian SS Ersatzbrigade which alone accounted for forty full companies of men under training, and some very obscure units such as the Indische Freiwilligen-Legion der SS, made up of anti-British Indian prisoners-of-war who had been captured in North Africa and Italy. One of the strangest of all was the Osttürkischer Waffen-Verband der SS, composed of three Muslim Waffengruppen der SS recruited from Caspian and Black Sea Tartars under the command of the Austrian SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Hintersatz. He had been converted to Islam during service alongside the Turks in the First World War and took the name of Harun-el-Raschid Bey, under which he was listed in the SS Dienstaltersliste! It was all a far cry from the racial élite of the 1930s.

The Indian Waffen-SS

With the German Army unconcerned about the future of its Indian regiment, Himmler intervened and the unit was transferred en masse to the Waffen-SS on 8 August 1944 and renamed as the Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen-SS, an infantry-heavy unit with a strength of some 2,300 men, 81 motor vehicles and 700 horses. Their new commander was SS-Oberführer Heinz Bertling, and for the first time he was joined by a cadre of Indian officers made up of ex-senior NCOs who had passed a shortened officer training course. Bertling was a former Foreign Ministry official who was deeply unimpressed by his new posting and paid it very little attention from the start. Military life went on though, and the transfer initiated a reorganisation of the regiment resulting in the following order of battle being formalised:

Commander SS-Oberführer Heinz Bertling (from 8 August 1944 to 8 May 1945)

I Bataillon (infantry battalion)

II Bataillon

III Batallion

  1. Infanteriegeschütz-Kompanie (infantry-gun company)
  2. Panzerjäger-Kompanie (anti-tank gun company)
  3. Pionier-Kompanie (combat engineer company)

Interestingly, the Legion was the only ever foreign Waffen-SS unit to be recruited not to fight against the Soviet Union. The ideological struggle against Bolshevism that was so much a part of the Waffen-SS’s make-up was entirely absent from the takeover of the Indian Legion. It was never envisaged to switch the unit to the Eastern Front, and just as with the much more effective 17th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, the Waffen-SS used the Indians solely to face the western Allies. The experiment was a disaster from start to finish. With the post-Falaise collapse of German forces in France, the Indians were ordered back to Germany on 15 August just a week after becoming Waffen-SS ‘stormtroopers’. Like everyone else, they pelted hell for leather for the border, losing a lot of precious equipment and even a few men in the process, as they fought running skirmishes with local guerillas and even a few advanced Free French forces. Along the way they seemed to display disturbing signs of ill-discipline and barbarity, with accusations of atrocities. According to a former resistance fighter, Henri Gendreaux, the SS-Legion retreated through his home town of Ruffec in the Poitou-Charente region and behaved appallingly:

I do remember several cases of rape. A lady and her two daughters were raped and in another case they even shot dead a little two-year-old girl. (From Mike Thomson’s BBC interview with Rudolf Hartog for the ‘Hitler’s Secret Indian Army’ programme, 2004.)

Gendreaux’s claims are unsubstantiated, and it is pretty hard to believe that ex-British soldiers committed these acts, which were entirely absent from their fellow Indians’ behaviour in all other theatres of the War in which they fought. But given the reputation of the Waffen-SS it is not a wholly impossible scenario either.

On arrival back in Germany the Waffen-SS attempted to turn the Legion into a proper fighting unit, however the project misfired from the start, especially as all the Indian’s heavy equipment was pretty much immediately requisitioned for use by the newly-created Hungarian volksdeutsche 18th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Horst Wessel. Without adequate weaponry it proved impossible to deploy the Legion, so that even by March 1945 as the Red Army neared Berlin, the Legion had still not done any real fighting, and when Hitler was informed by an SS liaison officer, SS-Sturmbannführer Johannes Göhler, that the unit was away from the front resting and refitting, Hitler exploded with sarcasm:

As I see it, units in rest and rehabilitation are those who have been engaged in heavy fighting and therefore require refreshing. Your units are always refreshing and never fighting. (From George H. Stein, The Waffen-SS, Hitler’s Elite Guard At War 1939–1945, Cornell University, 1966)

Hitler had more to say of his Indian ‘revolutionaries’ at a conference in the Führer Bunker during the night of 23/24 March, when he held forth with his views on many of Himmler’s eastern units in particular. As regards the Indians he said:

The Indian Legion is a joke. There are Indians that can’t kill a louse, and would prefer to allow themselves to be devoured. They certainly aren’t going to kill any Englishmen … I imagine that if one were to use the Indians to turn prayer wheels or something like that they would be the most indefatigable soldiers in the world. But it would be ridiculous to commit them to a real blood struggle … The whole business is nonsense. If one has a surplus of weapons, one can permit oneself such amusements for propaganda purposes. But if one has no such surplus it is simply not justifiable. (From George H. Stein, The Waffen-SS, Hitler’s Elite Guard At War 1939–1945, Cornell University, 1966)

With Nazi collapse imminent the Legion tried to escape into neutral Switzerland, but this was blocked, so eventually they surrendered to the Americans and Free French. Their German translator, Private Rudolf Hartog (he was Heer and not Waffen-SS), said:

The last day we were together an armoured tank appeared. I thought, my goodness, what can I do? I’m finished, but he only wanted to collect the Indians. We embraced each other and cried. You see that was the end. (From Mike Thomson’s BBC interview with Rudolf Hartog for the Hitler’s Secret Indian Army, programme, 2004)

3 thoughts on “Waffen-SS – Very Obscure Units – The Indian Waffen-SS

  1. The Indian Legion remained at Heuberg until the end of March 1945, when it was transferred to Radolfzell on the shores of the Bodensee on the Swiss border. The Indian SS men then happily turned themselves over to the US Army and French forces in April 1945. Before their delivery into the custody of British forces, it is alleged that a number of Indian soldiers were shot by French troops. The survivors were repatriated to India at the end of 1945, held in captivity but finally released in 1946.

    Handed over to the British, the quandary was now what to do with these most bizarre of renegades. After almost a year in POW camps they were shipped back to India and held in jail pending a final decision as to what to do. The British did put three of their most senior, though still pretty junior, officers on trial in Delhi but there was an outcry in the army and outbreaks of unrest. Wary of creating martyrs and further fuelling an already difficult situation on the sub-continent, the British opted not to make an example of the men and they were all quietly released and sent on their way. By that time it was in no-one’s interest to wreak vengeance on these most ineffectual of all Hitler’s Waffen-SS men. Indeed, all evidence of the Legion was placed under wraps and labelled ‘Secret’, with the relevant papers not slated for release until 2021. When Barwant Singh was finally tracked down by a BBC team intent on making a documentary of the story he said: ‘In front of my eyes I can see how we all looked, how we would all sing and how we all talked about what eventually would happen to us all.’

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