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Brandenburg Detachments
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2014

As a feudal regime, Nazi Germany fielded a vast array of military and paramilitary forces during the Second World War, as almost every interest group fielded its own armed bands. The “Brandenburg” commando unit, one of the smaller but best-known of these formations, was the private army of the Abwehr, or military intelligence service.

Panzer Grenadier: Eastern Front includes a special commando unit, with special capabilities depending on the scenario being played.

Theodore von Hippel, a veteran of the German campaign in East Africa during the First World War, lobbied long and hard for special deep penetration units that would sabotage bridges and other communications nodes ahead of a German advance. The army allowed Hippel to form a special battalion known as the “Ebbinghaus” unit. Hippel recruited Polish-speaking Germans from either side of the border, Poles resident in Germany and Freikorps veterans. And according to some of his detractors, a fair number of petty criminals. They went into action during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Though there are some unsourced claims that the Ebbinghaus Battalion “performed magnificently” (without giving any details of this magnificence), Polish records give a much different story. The battalion assaulted the Polish factory complex at Slask in Silesia, and were intercepted by local police and army reservists. After an intense firefight, half of the saboteurs were killed.

Having had their prejudices about special operations confirmed, the army high command dissolved the Ebbinghaus unit. But the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, saw an opportunity. He transferred Hippel to military intelligence and ordered him to form a new unit, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (800th Special Purpose Training and Construction Company). Hippel formed the unit around the Ebbinghaus survivors at a barracks in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, and his company became known as the Brandenburg company.

Recruiting and training focused on language ability and cultural knowledge, to allow saboteurs to pose as enemy soldiers and civilians. Overwhelmingly, preparations focused on the Soviet Union despite Germany’s supposed alignment with the Communist state, reflecting Canaris’ virulent anti-Communism. Canaris eased Hippel aside as the unit began to show real promise.

The new company went into action during the spring campaign of 1940, helping to capture bridges and other key points in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Brandenburg infiltrators often wore enemy uniforms to carry out seizures and prevent demolitions, but wore German gear underneath and followed an anachronistic code of never firing under enemy colors, at great odds with the rest of the Nazi state. The Brandenburgers emerged with a high reputation for daring and success, and Canaris expanded his cadre to regimental size for future operations. It once again participated in the Balkan campaign, starting operations before the regular army’s 6 April invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece.

Rapid-Wien takes the 1941
German Miesterschaft from FC Schälke.

But it was Operation Barbarossa for which Canaris had created the regiment, and it saw widespread use in the early days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Finnish Army had provided uniforms, weapons, vehicles and other equipment taken from the Red Army during the Winter War. Most of these operations were small, involving masquerades or even boat-launched attacks. One of the rare instances in which Brandenburg commandos cooperated with regular troops is shown in Panzer Grenadier: Eastern Front. Probably their most daring operation came a year later, when a small Russian-speaking Brandenburg force penetrated the oil center of Maikop in the guise of NKVD guards.

One of the Brandenburg successes, however, cast the entire organization under suspicion. Ukrainian-speaking commandos of the 2nd Battalion seized a radio station near Lviv and declared Ukraine an independent state — and the Nazis most certainly were not fighting their war to create new Slavic political entities.

Brandenburg commandos in Russian uniform, 1941.

Like the Waffen SS, the Brandenburg regiment recruited heavily from outside the German draft pool — non-Germans, ethnic Germans from outside the German borders, and common criminals. Unlike the Waffen SS, which reveled in criminality and an unearned “elite” status, the Brandenburg organization appears to have generally remained aloof from the crimes of the Final Solution. When deployed against “partisans” in occupied Russia and Yugoslavia (often a euphemism for the organized murder of Jews and others) the Brandenburgers performed poorly. Canaris and his deputy, Erwin Lahousen, argued that orders to kill Soviet prisoners of war and civilians were damaging the army’s morale.

“Canaris stated that mention of the customs of international law or the niceties of human behavior would have been merely futile and might have caused the disappearance of Canaris and myself,” Lahousen testified of their protests after the war. “Therefore, although both Canaris and I were convinced that the orders under discussion were merely the expression of senseless murder and brutality, I argued with those present the undesirable effects which these orders were having on other prisoners of war, whose surrender they were stopping.”

Maj. Gen. Alexander von Pfuhlstein
was the Brandenburgers’ last commander.

In particular, the Abwehr officers objected to the German policy of executing captured British commandos, which they believed greatly sapped the morale of their own secret warriors. But there was more than self-interest at stake. The Abwehr organization had sheltered anti-Nazi activities since 1938, and had close ties to Roman Catholic resistors like Josef Müller and Protestants like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Suspicion grew, and surveillance increased. In 1943, the Abwehr came under Heinrich Himmler’s supervision. Canaris was dismissed in February 1944 and arrested in July after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. In April 1945 he was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

When Canaris fell out of favor, so did his private army. To make sure the commandos did not use their skills to rescue their chief or against the Nazi leadership, they were all formed into Panzergrenadier Division Brandenburg in September 1944. Many new recruits joined as well, and troops and entire units were transferred from the Grossdeutschland Division, diluting the Brandenburg cadre and making it less politically suspect. Their commando days over, many of the specialists were killed or wounded in the last year of the war.

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