The European Volunteer Movement in World War II
is fair to say that the European volunteers left a mark on the battlefields
of the Eastern Front far out of proportion to their actual numbers, and
this paper would not be complete if it did not include a sampling of their
In the Linden Hills east of the Oder River, Obersturmführer Capelle's company of Walloon volunteers was in its death struggle. Enemy tanks were swarming all over -- many had been knocked out but all of the Panzerfäuste were now exhausted. At this point, Capelle radioed to "Wallonien" Division headquarters that he was going to try and breakout and link-up with the Division. But escape for the company was no longer possible. Walloon volunteers were crushed to death by tanks running over their foxholes. The badly wounded fired their weapons until their last breath.
Finally all that was left was the company command post. In a heroic stand, the Belgian SS men fought it out until the end. The severely wounded were humanely put out of their misery. The survivors fought on with rifle butts and service revolvers. Incredibly, the command post resisted for the whole day. As it was finally overwhelmed in the early evening, Obersturmführer Capelle went down firing his pistol. Two wounded Walloons reached the German lines during the night to tell of this last battle.
On the next day, 27 February 1945, a supplement to the daily Wehrmacht war bulletin was read over the German radio: "In Pomerania a battle-group from the SS Volunteers Grenadier Division 'Wallonien' under the leadership of SS-Obersturmführer Capelle was deployed for flank for flank protection. Displaying exemplary steadfastness and fanatical battle spirit, it was destroyed (in action)." Capelle was recommended for the posthumous award of the Knight's Cross but documentation for the decoration was lost in the chaos of the war's end.
On the morning of 26 January 1944 a Soviet tank force broke into the town of Gubanizy. The Dutch volunteer Caspar Sporck drove his self-propelled gun right into their midst and began shooting them up right and left, eventually claiming 11 kills. Later, during the last hours of the German retreat to the Narva bridgehead on 31 January 1944, Sporck stayed back alone with his armored vehicle and patrolled far to the east of the main battle lines, seeking out enemy tanks and vehicles and providing protection for stragglers. At dusk, with the enemy close behind, Sporck's assault gun was the last vehicle to cross into the German lines. For his initiative and valor, Casper Sporck was later awarded the Knight's Cross.
On 12 June 1944 at the "Sunshine" outpost to the southeast of the Narva bridgehead, the Danish NCO Egon Christophersen literally saved the main front, when with a small assault troop he counterattacked German trenches that had been seized by the Russians and regained them in hand-to-hand combat. Christophersen and his men then defended the positions against all attackers, enabling the broken German lines to reconsolidate and hold. Christophersen was awarded the Knight's Cross.
At the Vepskula bridgehead on the wast bank of the Narva River in February 1944, the bedraggled German forces were unable to eliminate a dangerous Soviet inroad. Fresh Estonian assault troops were brought in. For a time they too were pinned down. Then the young Estonian Sergeant Haralt Nugiseks led a leap-frog attack that broke through the communist lines. In vicious close combat the enemy trenches were cleared all the way to the river's edge. Nugiseks was awarded the Knight's Cross.
In August 1943 on the Wolchov Front, the Latvian Sergeant Zanis Butkus led a storm troop into the enemy lines and proceeded to capture a string of communist bunkers without loss. He returned to the German lines with many prisoners and much booty. Butkus was given an officer's commission on the spot. Later, after taking part in 59 close combat engagements, Butkus was awarded the Knight's Cross.
In July 1944, on the north side of "Orphanage Hill" on the Narva Front, the Flemish NCO Remi Schyrnen singlehandedly knocked out more than a dozen enemy tanks while wounded and cutoff from his unit. In a 48 hour period he turned back -- all by himself -- several Soviet tank attacks that would have encircled the Flemish and Estonian volunteer battalions fighting nearby. He even scored a lucky "double kill" when one shot from his anti-tank gun penetrated through two tanks advancing side-by-side. Incredibly, in January 1944, Schyrnen had pulled off a similar feat to save the "Langemarck" Brigade near Zhitomir. Schyrnen was awarded the Knight's Cross.
Strong Soviet tank forces were attacking along the road south of Dorpat in eastern Estonia in August 1944 with the intention of severing the entire Estonian Front. The only things blocking their way were three anti-tank guns from the "Wallonien" Division under the direct command of the Walloon Lieutenant Leon Gillis. Gillis positioned his guns directly in the road and flung back attack after attack. In furious fighting that raged all day, the anti-tank guns were destroyed and most of the Walloons wounded. The whole front hinged on Gillis' next move. He chose to attack. The Walloon volunteers knocked out three more tanks with hand grenades and drove back the rest. The enemy was unable to advance. Leon Gillis was awarded the Knight's Cross.
In February 1945, the communists were closing in on the military training camp at Neuhammer in Silesia. The Hungarian Captain Georg Hermandy, in command of the emergency battalion of the 26th SS Division "Hungaria," led his unit in a valiant counterattack to prevent a breakthrough. Even after being badly wounded, Hermandy insisted upon staying in the front lines and directed a successful defensive battle that saved the Neuhammer sector. After the fighting, the Wehrmacht Colonel in charge of the area visited the Hungarian SS positions, took off his own Knight's Cross and draped it around the neck of Hermandy. WaffenHaupsturmführer George Hermandy was subsequently killed on 23 March 1945 leading his men in yet another counterattack.
The last bridgehead on the east bank of the Oder River in March 1945 was held by the 1. Battalion/SS Regiment Division "Wallonien," led by the Walloon Major Henri Derriks. Derriks, or "Der Boss" as he was known to his men, deployed his two tanks and his companies of infantrymen with cool decisiveness, enabling the last German soldiers and refugees to make their way to safety. Finally, with the communists closing in from three sides, Derriks calmly pulled back his forces step-by-step and got them safely across the river, destroying the last bridge behind them. It was nothing new for "Der Boss"; he had earlier commanded the last group of "Wallonien" soldiers to fight their way out of the Cherkassy encirclement in south Ukraine. Later, Derriks led the last assault of the "Wallonien" Division on the Eastern Front. Among his many decorations for bravery, Sturmbannführer Henri Derricks received the German Cross in Gold.
And there were many, many more European heroes, most of whom would not have their deeds recorded at all but would instead find a final resting place in an unmarked grave somewhere in the "East." We cannot begin to do justice to them in this paper, but we can hopefully, lift part of the veil that has hidden their exploits for so long a time.
The ReckoningWe are now at the point where it can be asked, what does this discussion of the European Volunteer Movement prove? I think that it has at least validated the following statement by Beadle and Hartmann in their book, The Waffen-SS: Its Divisional Insignia: (p. 4)
By 1945, the Waffen-SS had proved by its combat success that European people could exist together, but as long as they recognized and accepted the national differences between one another. It had been in the Waffen-SS that, for the first time, Dutch had been commanded by Germans and Germans by Belgians. It was this idealism, dearly bought on the roads of Russia and later in its slave labor camps, that created an outstanding spirit of comradeship and combatant ability among all members, regardless of nationality or rank.Beadle and Hartmann also made one other trenchant statement that I hope is born out in this essay: (p. 4)
The greatest triumph of the Waffen-SS, though, was not on the field of battle. It was in its policy of recruiting non-German volunteers, not as hired mercenaries, but as co-fighters for a European ideal.After a generation of slander, vilification and falsehood concerning the European volunteers, the first rays of light are beginning to shine through. Slowly, but surely, their story is being told. As for the soldiers themselves, many are of the belief that they were ahead of their time, both militarily and philosophically, and that their legacy is yet to be fulfilled. For myself, perhaps the most incisive observation was made by the former Waffen-SS Colonel Jochen Peiper in a letter to his comrades while he was being held in American confinement under sentence of death: "Don't forget that it was in the ranks of the SS that the first European died ... "
Journal of Historical Review, 2/1 (Spring 1981), pp. 59-84. Also see (off-site) Leon Degrelle's Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS.