Russia was far from a monolithic structure. It contained numerous diverse ethnic groups, many of which had long histories of resenting Russian suzerainty and domination. Combined with the long standing hatred of Russia, the new Soviet regime was often even more hated, even by the Russians, so when the Germans invaded, their initial reception was often one of liberator than one of conqueror. Deserters appeared in the hundreds before German units offering their services in any capacity and they were taken in gladly. They were given the names “Hilfsfreiwilliger” (Volunteer Helpers) or Hiwis for short. Initially, their functions were the various menial tasks such as cooking, digging latrines, officers’ batmen, etc., but more than once they jumped into combat roles when the opportunity arose. Hundreds of the Hiwis were gradually sucked into the role of combatant, despite the lack of orders and the German ethnic attitudes of the period.
The 134th Infantry Division began openly enlisting Russians in July 1941. Other divisions refrained from such overt violation of Hitler’s orders, but more than willingly took the Russians on an unofficial basis. During the winter of 1941/42 the first Osttruppen or Eastern Troops were formed. By early 1942 six battalions of Ostruppen were formed in Army Group Center under Oberst von Tresckow. These units were given territorial designations, like Volga, Berezina, and Pripet. Initially they were used in the rear on anti-partisan operations with the security divisions, but slowly they were brought forward into the front lines.
In early 1942 racist elements of the German hierarchy brought this to Hitler’s attention. He responded to the movement by prohibiting the use of Russian “sub humans” as soldiers and on 2/10/42 issued a Fuhrer Order that limited their use of those existent units to rear area operations only. Despite his obvious displeasure, the Osttruppen continued to expand. The OKH was to authorize the use of Hiwis up to 10% to 15% of divisional strength and by August 1942 official regulations were issued governing uniforms pay, decoration, and insignia. By early 1943 an estimated 80,000 Russians were serving the Wehrmacht in Ostbataillonen.
The formation of Russian units in the German army would have been quite limited had not the Soviet General Vlassov been captured in July 1942. He had been a prominent general after the war erupted, but in March 1942 he was ordered to liberate Leningrad with the 2nd Soviet Assault Army. His attack failed and his army of nine infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and an armored brigade were surrounded, abandoned by Stalin, and crushed, leaving the Germans with 32,000 prisoners. Amongst the German High Command there had always some hope of forming a Russian army to assist them in the conquest of Soviet Russia. As time progressed, it became apparent that Vlassov was the ideal man to form this army.
As the war progressed and the German effort in Russia began failing, Hitler was eventually persuaded to permit the formation of the army. The first steps occurred in August 1942 when General Koestring formed an Inspectorate which was to organize Caucasian troops. Koestring, however, ignored this limitation and took all volunteers possible. When Koestring retired in January 1943 the post of General der Ostruppen was created and given to General Hellmich, who had no previous experience with the Russians. Fortunately, Hellmich and Koestring’s service overlapped and the two men agreed on Koestring’s earlier decisions.
The Osttruppen was absorbing not only Caucasians, but Ukrainians, Russians, Azberjainis, and Turkistanis. In January 1944 Koestring, now apparently out of retirement, took over from Hellmich with the new title General der Freiwilligen Verbaende (General of Volunteer Units). In the meantime, Hitler had authorized the formation of a Russian army under Vlassov. In November 1942 a Russian National Committee was established in Berlin with Vlassov serving as Chairman. It then issued the Smolensk Manifesto, calling for the destruction of Stalinism, the conclusion of an honorable peace with Germany, and Russian participation in the “New Europe.”
The German Army intelligence then proceeded to drop copies of leaflets over the Russian lines, as well as a carefully planned accident which resulted in their being dropped over German lines as well. It appears that Hitler had forbidden any release of this in the German press. During the winter of 1942/43, faced with the destruction of the 6th Army in Stalingrad and Rommel’s expulsion from North Africa, Hitler began to reconsider the role he had allocated to Vlassov’s Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia or ROA.
The desertion rate from the Soviet army rose to 6,500 in July 1943, compared to 2,500 the previous year, as a result of ROA propaganda and the future looked bright. However, in September 1943 Hitler announced that the ROA was to be dissolved. The German generals pleaded with him, pointing out that the Russian front would collapse, as there were currently 78 Ost battalions, 122 companies, one regiment and innumerable supply, security, and other units then serving with the German army, not to mention the thousands of Hiwis in the German units. Certainly there were 750,000 Russians then serving in the German army and some estimates go so far as to suggest that 25% of the German army on the Russian front was made up of ethnic Russians.
A screaming and raging Hitler was eventually brought to compromise and only those units whose loyalty was suspect were to be disbanded and the rest would be transferred to the West. This, being left in Wehrmacht hands, the disbandings were limited to 5,000 men and serious procrastination prevented many transfers westwards. However, by October 1943 large numbers of Ostruppen did begin moving west. This was accomplished by exchanging Ost Battalions for German battalions in the west. These Ost battalions were then formally incorporated into the German divisions where they were assigned.
The morale of the Osttruppen began to collapse. Vlassov was persuaded to write them an open letter announcing these transfers were only a temporary expediency and hinted at bigger and better things. When the allies invaded Normandy they were startled to find that many of their German prisoners were, in fact, Russians and soon had 20,000 ROA prisoners in custody. Though Himmler refused to believe Koestring’s reports, at that time there were 100,000 eastern volunteers in the Luftwaffe and Navy and another 800,000 in the German Army.
The continuing reversal of German military hopes was slowly bringing even the SS around to reconsidering the desirability of Russian troops. In the east the SS was, by late 1943, regularly rounding up 15-20 year olds to serve as Flak helpers. There was discussion of the creation of an Eastern Moslem SS Division and several Slavic legions were forming in the SS. Himmler soon began considering himself as the leader of the “Army of Europe” and began taking any non-German human material he could find into his hands. It was not long before he saw Vlassov’s ROA as another force that could be added.
Himmler approached Vlassov and proposed the formation of a Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossi or K.O.N.R.) It was to be allowed to raise an army of five divisions, two of which were to be raised immediately. The personnel would be drawn from the existing ROA units and from among the Ostarbeiter then in Germany. The first two units formed were placed under Vlassov’s command on 1/28/45, the 600th and 650th Russian Divisions. In Neuren an airforce or air division, was organized that consisted of an air transport squadron, a reconnaissance squadron, a flak regiment, a paratrooper battalion, and a flying training unit. This force of some 4,000 men was assigned to General V.I. Maltsev. On 2/1/45 Goering formally handed this division over to Vlassov’s command.
By March 1945 the KONR numbered some 50,000 men. The Cossack Cavalry Corps was promised to Vlassov by Himmler, as was the Russian Guard Corps in Serbia, but in fact neither was ever placed under his command. The KONR fought its first battle in February 1945 when a force of the 600th Division attacked in Pommerania and its engagement was a complete success. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers changed sides and joined it. In March it moved to the Oder front and was ordered to attack the Soviet army near Frankfurt. However, it was so pounded by the Soviets that it withdrew to the south and back into Czechoslovakia. On 5/5/45 the Czech communists began a revolt in Prague and Buniachenko ordered the 600th Division to assist them. Their assistance was refused by the Czechs and, as the war ended the next day, the division was taken prisoner by the Americans. The 650th Division, except for one regiment, were captured by the Russians and either executed or sent into the Russian Gulag. Vlassov was snatched from American hands by the Russians, suffered through a short show trial, and was quickly executed along with the major leaders of the KONR.
599TH RUSSIAN BRIGADE: Formed in April 1945 in Aalborg, Denmark, as part of the Liberation Russian Army under Vlassov. It contained:
1/,2/,3/1604th Grenadier Regiment (from 714th (Russian) Grenadier Regiment) 1/,2/,3/1605th Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/1606th Grenadier Regiment
The division was intended to be expanded to form the 3rd Vlassov Division.
600TH (RUSSIAN) INFANTRY DIVISION Formed on 12/1/44 as part of the Russian Liberation Army under Vlassov with what was to have become the 29th Waffen SS Grenadier Division (1st Russian). On 2/28/45 it contained:
1/,2/1601st Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1602nd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1603rd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/,4/1600th Artillery Regiment 1600th Division Support Units
650TH (RUSSIAN) DIVISION Formed in March 1945 as part of Vlassov’s Russian Liberation Army. The division was organized with prisoners of war and contained, on 4/5/45:
1/,2/1651st Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1652nd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1653rd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/,4/1650th Artillery Regiment 1650th Divisional Support Units
The division was not fully formed and remained in Munsingen until overrun. On 17 January 1945 the organization of the 650th Infantry (Russian) Division was established as follows:
DIVISION STAFF: Division Staff (2 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Mapping Detachment 1650th (mot) Military Police Detachment (3 LMGs)
1651ST INFANTRY REGIMENT: REGIMENTAL STAFF Staff Staff Company (3 LMGs) 1 Signals Platoon 1 Engineer Platoon (6 LMGs) 1 Reconnaissance Platoon (3 LMGs) 1 Signals Platoon 2 BATTALIONS, each with 3 Infantry Companies (9 LMGs ea) 1 Heavy Company (8 HMGs, 4 75mm infantry support guns, 1 LMG & 6 80mm mortars)
13TH INFANTRY SUPPORT COMPANY: (2 150mm leIG, 1 LMG, 8 120mm mortars & 4 LMGs)
14TH PANZERJAGER COMPANY (54 Panzerschreck, 18 Reserve Panzerschreck & 4 LMGs)
1652ND INFANTRY REGIMENT: same as 1651st 1653RD INFANTRY REGIMENT: same as 1651st
1650TH (MOUNTED) RECONNAISSANCE BATTALION: 4 Squadrons, each with (9 LMGs, 2 80mm mortars)
1650TH PANZERJAGER BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 (mot) Staff Company (1 LMG) 1st Company (12 75mm PAK & 12 LMGs) 2nd (armored) Company 14 Assault Guns (sturmgeschutz) & 16 LMGs Detachment captured Russian tanks 3rd (mot) Flak Company (9 37mm Flak guns & 5 LMGs)
1650TH ARTILLERY BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 1ST, 2ND & 3RD BATTALIONS, each with: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 2 105mm leFH Batteries (4 105mm leFH & 4 LMGs ea) 1 75mm Battery (6-75mm guns & 3 LMGs) 4TH BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 2 150mm sFH Batteries (6-150mm howitzers & 4 LMGs ea)
1650TH (BICYCLE) PIONEER BATTALION 2 (bicycle) Pioneer Companies, each with: (2 HMGs, 9 LMGs, 6 flame throwers & 2 80mm mortars) 1 Pioneer Company (2 HMGs, 9 LMGs, 6 flame throwers & 2 80mm mortars)
1650TH SIGNALS BATTALION: 1 (mixed mobility) Telephone Company (4 LMGs) 1 (mixed mobility) Radio Company (2 LMGs) 1 (mixed mobility) Signals Supply Detachment (2 LMGs)
1650TH FELDERSATZ BATTALION: 1 Supply Detachment 5 Replacement Companies, with a total of: (50 LMGs, 12 HMGs, 6 80mm mortars, 1 120mm mortar 1 75mm leIG, 1 75mm PAK, 1 20mm/37mm Flak, 2 flame throwers, 1 105mm leFH 18 , 6 Panzerschrecke, & 56 Sturm Gewehr 41
1650TH DIVISIONAL SUPPORT REGIMENT: SUPPLY TROOP: 1650th (mot) 120 ton Transportation Company (4 LMGs) 1/,2/1650th Horse Drawn (30 ton) Transportation Companies (2 LMGs ea) 1650th Horse Drawn Supply Platoon OTHER: 1650th Ordnance Troop 1650th (mot) Vehicle Maintenance Troop 1650th Supply Company (3 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Field Hospital 1650th (mot) Medical Supply Company 1650th Veterinary Company (2 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Field Post Office
In a parallel formation to the ROA and KONR another large force of Russians was formed in March 1942 by German Intelligence. This force was the Versuchsverband Mitte (Experimental Formation of Army Group Center). Though officially known as Abwehr Abteilung 203 the unit was to have several names – Verband Graukopf, Boyarsky Brigade, Russian Special Duty Battalion, Ostintorf Brigade, and finally the Russian National People’s Army (Russkaia Natsionalnaya Narodnaya Armiya or RNNA). The unit was started when a Russian émigré, Sergi Ivanov, recruited several prominent Russian prisoners of war and other Russian exiles, to the German cause. Ivanov, acting as a liaison officer for the Abwehr, worked with Igor Sakharov, son of a White Russian General and émigré to Germany, and slowly they organized a force of 3,000 former prisoners of war.
By December 1942 they had 7,000 men training. A brigade was formed consisting of four battalions, an artillery battalion, and an engineer battalion. The organization of the units was based on the Russian model. In August 1942 Colonel Boyarsky took command in December Feldmarschal von Kluge inspected the brigade, was pleased with what he saw, and expressed his pleasure with its actions in combat in the German rear in May 1942. He then stated that he would issue the unit German uniforms and weapons and split it into a number of infantry battalions, which would be assigned to various German combat divisions. This offhanded command shattered the brigade’s morale and 300 men promptly deserted. It had seen itself as the cadre of a Russian army of liberation. Despite their protests, the brigade was broken into the 633rd, 634th, 635th, 636th, and 637th Ost Battalions and employed in anti-Partisan operations.