Thursday, February 28, 2008

SS Foreign Volunteers - Estonia

The people who live on the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea are no strangers to adversity. Historically plagued by invading armies and oppressors, from the Teutonic Knights to the Czars of Russia, the three Baltic nations struggled continuously to retain their autonomy. In 1918 it seemed that their hopes for permanent independence would be realized.

The armies of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had heroically expelled both the Russians and the Germans from their homelands. By 1922 the Baltic people had won world-wide recogition for their independence. The Soviet Union signed several treaties acknowledging their sovereignty. Yet by 1940 they were no longer free.

During their brief period of independence the Baltic people gained a high degree of personal freedom and economic prosperity. Their standard of living was among the highest in Eastern Europe and illiteracy no longer existed. In addition the Baltic nations contributed fully to the world community through the League of Nations. The overall conditions that existed in Russia during this time were many years behind those in the Baltic States.

The ominous growth of the German and Russian superpowers, both militarily and politically, sealed the fate of the strategic Baltic area. In the German/Russian nonagression pact of 1939, Germany secretly ceded the Baltic Republics to Russia, on the condition that Germany would be allowed to process the extradition of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsch) from those areas.

In the Autumn of 1939 the three Baltic governments were forced to permit the garrisoning of some 100 thousand Soviet troops in their countries. Starting with Estonia the Russians had lined their troops along the borders and blockaded the seaport of these nations until they were forced to concede. Finland, faced with similar ultimatums was in a posistion to resist. The result was the Winter War of 1939-40, in which tiny Finland sorely humiliated the victorious Russians.

The actual annexation of the Baltic States did not take place until June of 1940. Stalin, fearful of Germany's successes in Western Europe, decided to shore up his defenses. The Soviets merely had to link up with their "Trojan Horse" forces already stationed in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to complete their occupation. As a result several hundred thousand Russian troops poured into the Baltic States. Almost immediately the three republics found they had "voted" I themselves into the Soviet Union.

Although many Baltic statesmen wished to resist the soviets, the majority wanted to placate them at any cost to preserve a semblance of independence. Even this was not granted to them. Ironically the Russians introduced a "Trojan Horse' into their own midst by incorporating the Baltic armies intact into the Red Army. While many of the Baltic soldiers accepted this turn of events, others deserted. The deserters took their weapons into the forests to begin an unheralded guerilla struggle that would not cease for a dozen years.

On June 22, 1941 Germany launched the greatest military campaign ever attempted, Operation Barbarrossa, the invasion of Russia. Simultaneously the people of the Baltic States revolted. Soldiers mutinied and turned on the Red Army, creating a dangerous situation behind Russia's Western defenses.

The condition in the Baltic States shortly after June 22, 1941, was one of extreme chaos. Swift German advances enabled the Lithuanians to drive some of the Soviets from their country. The Latvians and Estonians eagerly awaited German assistance, which came rapidly.


Estonia was the last of the Baltic States to be occupied by the Germans. The Russians had created a massive defensive zone around Tallin, the Estonian capital, in order to distract the Wehnmacht from Leningrad. Tallin was captured with only a minimal delay, but this diversion enabled the Soviets to strengthen the Leningrad front.

As the Wehrmacht swept through Estonia they encountered groups of regular Estonian troops. These troops had been carrying out guerilla warfare against the Soviets. Many of the Estonian partisans were professional soldiers and as such were of value to the Wehrmacht. Eight battalions of Estonians were quickly incorporated into the German Army. In most cases they wore Estonian national uniforms but were supplied with German arms.

The Estonians soon found themselves placed in a frontline capacity. During the Soviet Winter counter offensive of 1941-42, the Estonian battalions fought extremely well, but absorbed tremendous casualties. Although the Waffen-SS laid claim to these units, the Wehrmacht steadfastly refused to give them up. By 1944, more than 20 Estonian Battalions were in service with the Wehrmacht.

Estonian insignia worn with German uniforms consisted of a roundel cap badge displaying the national colors of blue, black and white and two varities of armshields. One Landshield depicted the Estonian crest of three black lions on a gold field with ESTLAND stitched in blue thread across the top. The other Landshield was a design of the national colors in a diagonal pattern, these insignias were worn only by Estonians serving with the Wehrmacht.

When the SS moved into Estonia shortly after, the German occupation, large numbers of Estonians were sought for polIce and anti-partIsan dutIes. Under the dubious auspices of the SS and Security Police, a Selbstschutz, or Estonian self defense force was established. Unfortunately the Selbstschutz was given over to the SS-Einsatzgruppen and became involved in all types of criminal actions including the carring out of liquidations. The Selbschutz soon was replaced by Estonian Security Battalions (Schuma Battalions) which were used in a more legitimate manner.

The Schuma Battalions were filled with conscripts who were to serve for six months durations. Some of these units saw frontline action while others were used for anti-paitisan duties throughout the Ostland Reich Commissarlet (consisting of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and White Russia).Later on in the war, many of the Schuma Battalons transferred into the Waffen-SS.

Uniforms for the Selbstschutz and Schuma units were extremely varied. All types of military and police regalia were worn, including used, outdated black SS uniforms. By the end of the war uniforms had been standardized to Waffen-SS attire with various types of insignia.ยท After 1943 many of the Schuma formations wore Auxiliary Security Police insignia and badges of rank.

In 1942 a campaign began in Estonia for the creation of a truly national military force. The effort was lead by Estonian nationalists intent on securing autoniomy for their nation. Up until 1942 the Estonians serving with the Germans were doing so in a strictly subordinate role. Little concession was given to their national pride. Estonian nationalists felt that an armed force more closely identified with Estonia was necessary to keep their homeland from being totally merged into a larger Nazi province.

After being assured that large numbers of Estonian men would turn out for an Estonian Legion, Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler authorized its creation in August 1942. Almost immediately a 900 man force consisting of ethnic Germans and Estonians was made available to the Waffe-SS. By January 1943 more than 6500 Estonians had volUnteered. Many of these volunteers were sent to a Waffen-SS training camp for foreign volunteers in Sennheim, Alsace. It was here that Himmler inspected a contingent of Estonians and was so impressed by their "Nordic" appearance that he begun to actively lobby for Baltic autonomy to insure the continuing flaw of recruits from the area.

Himmler's efforts to secure limited independence for the Baltic States were sabotaged by Martin Bormann, Head of the Nazi Party Chancellery who was often engaged in a power rivalry with Himmler. Bormann used his direct access w1th Hitler to effectively spike Himmler's proposals. Throughout the war however, local SS off1cials, on their own initiative, continued to promise autonomy to the Baltic people.

Spring of 1943 saw the incorporation of 3,000 Estonians into the Waffen-SS. At that time recruiting and training facilities were being overtaxed and only that number of Estonians could be processed. Some of these volunteers were combined with a cadre from the 1st SS Grenadier Brigade to form the 3rd Estniches SS Freiwilligen Brigade. By October of 1943 the Estonian Legion, at Brigade strength was at the front of Army Group Center engaged in defensive fighting. The Brigade's commander was an Estonian, SS-Oberfuhrer (Senior Colonel) Soodla.

Neary l0OO other Estonian volunteers had previously been formed into a special, well equipped battalion titled "Narwa". Narwa (Narva) is a city, region and river located in extreme Northeastern Estonia. During 1919 the Estonian Army held off 22 consecutive Russian assaults on the old medieval fortresses of Narwa. This was an event of considerable historic importance for Estonia.

The "Narwa" battalion was assigned to the 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division "Wiking" on the front of Army Group South. "Narwa" spent a year with the 'Wiking" Division, during which time it was nearly destroyed in the desperate battle of the Korsun-Cherkassey pocket. In July 1944, "Narwa" was transferred to the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1).

Estonia's Legion, the 3rd SS Brigade, was enlarged into the 20th SS Division during December 1943. By Spring of 1944 the Division was stationed in Estonia and participated in the efforts of Army Group North to hold the Narwa line against heavy Soviet attacks. The Germans were unable to hold Estonia and large forces of disorganized soldiers fled to the south and west.

The Russian Summer offensive of 1944 had totally shattered Army Group Center, annihilating 28 out of 38 employed German Divisions. Much of Army Group North was trapped in Western Latvia, wlile other portions of it, (including the Estonian Division), managed to escape to E. Prussia.

Autumn of 1944 saw the 20th SS Division undergo extensive refitting in Czechslovakia and Western Silesia. The Division at this time was composed of three Grenadier Regiments, one Artillary Regiment, four support Battalions and one company. The commander of the Division was SS-Brigadefuhrer (Major General) Franz Augsberger.

The Estonian Division, which had achieved a reputation for reliability, spent the rest of 1944 engaged in the defense of Lower Silesia. Since the reconquest of Estonia by the Russians however, a feeling of depression gripped the Estonian soldiers. Far away from their homeland, they began to feel that they were fighting Germany's war and not their own.

Rumors circulated through the Division that the Germans were planning to move them westward to engage the Western Allies, which was the last thing the Estonians wanted to do. A growing sense of alienation and hostility towards the Germans came to a climax in January 1945.

The Division was ordered to stop a strong Russian advance on Breslau in Southwestern Silesia. Shortly after being committed to combat late in January, the Division fell to pieces. Groups of Estonians deserted en masse while others mutinied. The combat capability of the formation was lost for two months. After another extensive bout of refitting, the Division again participated in action duning March 1945.

Hitler had heard of the January incident however and wanted to implement the disarming of Himmler's foreign legions and distribute the equipment to German forces. Only two foreign units, the Indian Legion'and the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (Galizische Nr. l), the Ukraine Division, were affected by Hitler's disarmament proposal.

The Estonian Division was used only sparingly for the rest of the war. It finally surrendered to the Russians in Bohemia on May 7, 1945. All survivors were packed up and shipped to Siberian Labor Camps, from which they were never heard from again. The German personel in the Division were probably segregated and sent elsewhere.

Estonians serving in the Waffen-SS were given identifying insignia in the form of collar tabs and armshields. At first members of the Estonian Legion wore the SS "'Sig-rune" collar patch. This was later replaced with a double-swastika collar tab. This insignia was designed so that each angle of the swastika formed a letter "E" With the formation of the Estonian Division the collar patch insignia again changed. The second collar tab worn by the Estonians displayed a mailed arm holding a short sword framing a stylized letter 'E'.

The Estonian SS troops also wore two armsields. One Landshield, worn by the Estonians serving in the "Narwa" Battalion and by a handful of Estonians who served with the 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division "Nordland", showed three black lions on a gold field, the national crest. The other Landshield worn by members of the Estonian Brigade and Division, displayed the national colors, blue, black and white in horizontal bars.

The Estonian Division also used a vehicle identification shield shewing a large circular "E" being diagonally crossed by a short sword. It is possible that a cuffband with the title "Estland' may have been issued to the Brigade and Division.

Richard Landwehr, "Sunburst and Swastika", Military Collectors' News, 1972

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Blogger der freiwilligen said...

Good article. Any story about theirs action in Narwa?


January 25, 2010 1:00 AM  

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