During World War I, the legacy of German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s superb guerrilla war in East Africa and T.E. Lawrence’s use of Arab hit-and-run tactics to fight the Turks in the Middle East made a profound mark upon one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s junior officers, a young captain named Theodore von Hippel.
Finding a place in the German intelligence community after the war, Hippel proposed utilizing small, elite units to penetrate enemy defenses before hostilities or offensive actions had begun. However, the idea ran afoul of the stiff-necked Prussian sense of honor. Such units, the majority believed, would be an infringement of the rules of war, and furthermore, such saboteurs were not worthy of being called soldiers. Hippel persevered, however, and when he became an officer in the war ministry’s intelligence agency, Abwehr, his ideas finally found a home.
The Abwehr got its name from the compound of ab-, meaning away or off, and -wehr, which implies defense. This deceptive name was born in the days of the Weimar Republic during the 1920s, when Communists and dissidents were spied on to prevent uprisings. The Abwehr evolved over the years, first under Captain Konrad Patzig and then under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to become an espionage agency that worked for the German military.
The German high command allowed Hippel to form a battalion to do what he had proposed–sabotage the enemy’s ability to respond to German attacks by capturing roadways and bridges ahead of the main force and securing strategic targets before they were demolished. Known as the Ebbinghaus battalion, the unit performed magnificently during the Polish campaign, though it was dissolved shortly afterward. It had not failed, however, to gain notice. Admiral Canaris gave Hippel the opportunity to form a unit like the Ebbinghaus group for the Abwehr. On October 15, 1939, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company No. 800), which consisted primarily of the former Ebbinghaus volunteers, was officially founded in Brandenburg, where it would adopt the shorter name of Brandenburg Company.
Recruitment methods for the elite Brandenburg commandos were almost directly contrary to those of another elite unit, the SS. Instead of seeking out soldiers with Nordic features, blonde hair and blue eyes, Hippel scoured Germany’s borders to find Slavs or other ethnic groups. Every member of the Brandenburg Company had to be fluent in a foreign language, whether it be Czech, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Estonian, Polish, Ukrainian or Ruthenian, and they had to know the country’s or region’s customs as well. Instead of being more ‘racially pure than their enemies, the Brandenburgers had to be the enemy–they had to blend in to be effective saboteurs. They had to know not only the customs of the area they were to infiltrate but also the local habits and the mannerisms of the natives. In the words of one Abwehr agent, a Brandenburger in Russia would have to know how to spit like a Russian.
The Brandenburgers would also receive extensive training for their missions. Self-reliance was the key, for they would often work alone.
On May 10, 1940, German troops poured across the Belgian and Dutch borders, ending the period called the Phony War. Two nights before, on May 8, the Brandenburgers had donned Dutch uniforms and secretly crossed the border. One of their targets was the bridge over the Meuse River at the town of Gennep, Netherlands. At 2 a.m. on May 10, Lieutenant Wilhelm Walther led his eight-man detachment in an attempt to capture the bridge intact after obtaining information about where demolition charges had been placed.
Disguised as Dutch military police escorting a number of German prisoners, the Brandenburgers took the defenders of the bridge by surprise. Two guard posts were immediately destroyed, but three Brandenburgers were wounded, and the posts on the far side of the bridge were not yet under German control. Wearing a Dutch uniform, Walther advanced boldly, and the defenders hesitated. Capitalizing on this mistake, the rest of the Brandenburgers destroyed the remaining guard posts and seized the detonator just as the first panzers rolled over the bridge.
Adolf Hitler turned his attention south toward the Balkans in Operation Marita and, again, the Brandenburgers–now organized as a regiment–paved the way for his armies. On April 5, 1941, one day before Hitler’s invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, a 54-man detachment from the 2nd Battalion secured the docks at Orsova, on the Danube River. With the Balkans in German hands, the Führer made final preparations for a major assault on Russia.
Considering all their accomplishments, it would be difficult to declare one mission more impressive than another, but there was one occasion when the Brandenburgers seemed to outdo even themselves. In early August 1941, a Brandenburg detachment of 62 Baltic and Sudeten Germans led by Baron Adrian von Fölkersam penetrated farther into enemy territory than any other Brandenburg unit. Nicknamed the wild bunch, they undertook to secure the oil fields at Maikop. Using Red Army trucks and the uniforms of the NKVD, the Russian secret police, Fölkersam infiltrated the Soviet lines. The Brandenburgers immediately ran into a large group of Red Army deserters, and Fölkersam saw an opportunity to use them. By persuading them to return to the Soviet cause, he was able to join with them and move almost at will through the Russian lines.
Pretending to be a Major Truchin from Stalingrad, Fölkersam explained his role in recovering the deserters to the general in charge of Maikop’s defenses. The Russian general believed Fölkersam and gave him a personal tour of the city’s defenses the next day. By August 8, the German army was only 12 miles away, so the Brandenburgers made their move. Using grenades to simulate an artillery attack, the Brandenburgers knocked out the communications center of the city. Fölkersam then went to the Russian defenders and told them that a withdrawal was taking place. Having seen Fölkersam with their commander and lacking any communications to rebut or confirm his statement, the Soviets began to evacuate Maikop. The German army entered the city without a fight on August 9, 1942.
By autumn of 1944, the Brandenburgers had been officially dissolved, but not before they had earned more decorations and commendations than any other single unit of comparable size in the German army.
This article was written by Christopher Lew and originally appeared in the June 1997 issue of World War II magazine.
For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!