By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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
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.
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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,
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
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
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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