The pre-war German Army rejected Captain Theodore von Hippel’s idea of using small units of highly trained men to penetrate enemy defenses before main actions began. They felt it was beneath the dignity of true soldiers to engage in such renegade conduct and so sent the young Captain packing. Down but not out, he ended up joining the German intelligence agency known as the Abwehr, in whom he found its commander, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a willing listener.

His ideas, much of which were learned from studying World War 1 guerilla leaders, were approved and forwarded to the German High Command (OKW), who agreed to the formation of a battalion of men trained in the arts of combat and espionage. These troops were tasked with capturing bridges and roadways ahead of advances and holding them until relieved.

Theodore von Hippel
Theodore von Hippel

This first unit became known as the Ebbinghaus battalion. And when it went to war on September 1st, 1939 in the Polish campaign, it performed as expected, slipping across enemy lines, holding vital roads and crossings, as the columns of panzers rumbled triumphantly past, unaware many of those who waved them on had been wearing Polish army uniforms a short while before.

Strange but true, just as they destroyed any lingering doubts to their effectiveness, the order came to disband. Ebbinghaus had been assigned to OKW and no more need was seen for it.

Canaris wanted more units though, but just for the Abwehr. He ordered another unit raised. Called the Lehr und Bau Company z.b.v. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company 800), it was formed in the town of Brandenburg where it soon adopted the name Brandenburg Company.

Hippel brought back many Ebbinghaus veterans in addition to recruiting new members. One thing unique to the Brandenburgers is that Hippel wanted men who looked like the enemy; racial purity was to play no part in selection methods. Even those the Nazi’s considered racially inferior, Slavs and other ethnic groups, soon found themselves training alongside ordinary Germans ranging in specialties from weapons to dog sleds.

Whether operating as a 2-man team or unit of 300, every Brandenburger was required to be fluent in the language of their destinations. They had to know the customs and history of regions so they could blend in and move without being noticed. Even the mannerism of how to properly spit like the locals, for example, was ingrained during training.

After an influx of recruits, the company swelled to a battalion three months after being raised. They went into combat during the campaign against the West in 1940. On May 8, two days before the offensive began, small groups of Brandenburgers slipped across the borders of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. They hit objectives minutes after the campaign began, wearing enemy uniforms as they exchanged fire with similarly attired troops, and sewing confusion throughout the countryside.