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.
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.
Making sure not to be shot as spies if captured, they wore German uniforms underneath.
After the fall of France and the cancellation of planned invasion of Britain, the Brandenbergers, now a regiment, trained to take Gibraltar. Units led by von Hippel shipped out to Libya with the Afrika Korps in early 1941, as others headed to Yugoslavia when Hitler was forced to support Mussolini’s invasion of Greece.
In Libya they were met with resentment by Afrika Korps commander, Erwin Rommel. But after seeing the effectiveness caused by the British SAS LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) to his supply lines, he accepted their methods, hoping to return the favor. In action, they proved difficult to provide transportation and resupply for over the vast desert, suffering many casualties and P.O.W.s. To their dismay, one of those captured was Von Hippel. As the campaign droned on, the first major failure inflicted on the regiment was realized.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Brandenburgers achieved another explosive success entering Yugoslavia and taking hold of the important dockyards of Orsova on the Danube one day before the invasion began. But these accomplishments were soon overshadowed, as a flurry of final preparations began for a much larger action that would see them used in greater numbers than ever before against the hated communists in the East…
When Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on June 22, 1941, the first across the border were again the Brandenburgers. They took roads and railway junctions and caused chaos with feeble resupply lines. As the campaign moved further towards its objectives, a unit went on to capture a vital bridge in Latvia, allowing Army Group North, consisting of a over a million men and thousands of vehicles, to move without interruption to surround Leningrad.
As the weeks wore on Brandenburgers could be found in action all through the country, blending in with locals, gathering intelligence, laying ambushes and conducting many amphibious raids along the coasts of the Baltic, the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
After the Germans were stopped from taking Moscow and the war in the east passed its first year, Hitler launched Case Blue in August, 1942. This was the southern offensive to take Stalingrad and the Caucus oil fields and end Russia’s ability to sustain itself.
When it launched, the Brandenburgers helped clear the way in many sectors, one of which involved 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans penetrating further into the Soviet Union than any unit before it, entering the oil town of Maikop on August 6.
They were dressed as the dreaded Soviet secret police, the NKVD, guarding a gaggle of Russian deserters. So convincing were the units masquerade and mannerisms that the Soviet commander gave the Brandenburgers commander, Adrian von Folkersam, a personal tour of the cities defenses. The next day they struck, knocking out the military communications center. Folkersam then made rounds to the bewildered defenders telling them a withdrawal was taking place. On August 9th, main German forces entered without a shot being fired.
By February 1943, most Brandenburgers were returned to Germany to help form the division Brandenburg. Once again, though in larger groups, they were sent to the ever increasing hot spots in the conquered territories to perform less clandestine roles and act more as a fire brigade of elite combat troops. Back to the Balkans, performing anti-Partisan actions, including a small detachment aiding SS commando leader Otto Skorzeny’s attempt to capture Marshal Tito. And also, back to the Eastern Front, for anti-partisan work and finally, to the Aegean Sea where they performed their last notable action.
On September 14th, 1943, British troops invaded Kos, part of the Dodecanese island chain just off the Turkish coast. Churchill hoped to use this island to launch air attacks against German forces in the Balkans and pressure neutral Turkey into joining the war against Germany. Since Italy had turned to the Allied side in summer 1943, the Italian garrison on the island welcomed the British with open arms.
The Germans began constant aerial attacks on Kos, which lasted until October 3rd when 2 Operation Polar Bear comprising two battalions of Brandenburgers accompanied by an Army battlegroup invaded the island by air and sea, meeting little resistance. Throughout the day they cleared areas, and repulsed a British/Italian counterattack that evening. Initiating their own counterattack they defeated their foes and took control of the island the next day.
Under Hitler’s orders, all Italian officers were executed.
Next was the island of Leros, which underwent similar bombardment until November 12th. “We were watching in agony,” a Brit said. “The glowing bows and the grey tulips up in the sky were becoming dimmer, a sign that the batteries were running out of ammunition. Because of that, the German planes were cawing like birds of prey over the defenders’ heads, asking for their flesh and for the soul of dying Merovigli, where the English headquarters were.”
Operation Leopard brought the Brandenburgers and Army/Luftwaffe units by air and sea to battle the British garrison in close quarters until it surrendered 4 days later. They also captured some of the largest naval guns during the war and used them until their surrender. (As an interesting fact, the battle of Leros became the inspiration for the novel and later movie The Guns of Navarone).
The Dodacanese campaign ended as one of the final German victories of the war.
1944 proved to be the decisive year for the division, as its sponsor Admiral Canaris was implicated and later executed in the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler. The Abwehr suffered as well, losing most of its power, with the division being turned over to the rival SS intelligence service, the SD. 1,800 men transferred out to Skorzeny’s 502nd SS Jaeger battalion, while the rest found themselves being thrown into battle as Panzer Grenadiers, their morale destroyed and specialist skills disregarded as they conducted a fighting retreat against the Red army for months until being annihilated near the East Prussian city of Pillau as the final weeks of the war arrived.
Now, nearly 70 years later, few Brandenburgers remain alive, and most of their accomplishments still remain but a footnote in history. Many stories of them still await discovery, telling of how one of the most elite forces in the world rose and fell within the madness created by Hitler, and through it all managed to be the first boots on the ground in most of the Third Reich’s invasions and major offensives.
Brandenburg Order of Battle
Battalion Brandenburg – December 1939
Division Brandenburg: February 1943 – March 1944
Jäger Regiment – 1 Brandenburg
Jäger Regiment – 2 Brandenburg
Jäger Regiment – 3 Brandenburg
Jäger Regiment – 4 Brandenburg
Tropische Einheiten Brandenburg
Coastal Raiders Battalion Brandenburg
Parachute Battalion Brandenburg
Signal Company Brandenburg
Independent Companies –
15. Parachute Company
Auxiliary Units –
Lehrregiment Brandenburg z.b.v Nr.800 (Training Regiment)
Panzergrenadier-Division Brandenburg – 1944-1945
Panzer Regiment Brandenburg
Jäger(mot) Regiment 1 Brandenburg
Jäger(mot) Regiment 2 Brandenburg
Panzerjäger Battalion Brandenburg
Artillery Regiment Brandenburg
Heeres Flak Battalion Brandenburg
Reconnaissance Battalion Brandenburg
Pionier Battalion Brandenburg
Signals Battalion Brandenburg
This article previously published on SOFREP 09.30.2012 by Mike Perry.