Berlin, Germany October 15, 1939

On this date in 1939 Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German Ab­wehr (mili­tary intel­ligence), directed Capt. Theodor von Hippel to raise a com­mando unit that would become known by year’s end as the Branden­burgers. The name derived from the unit’s training site, Branden­burg on the Havel, roughly 54 miles east of the German capital, Berlin. The idea for the for­ma­tion of this special forces unit came from Hippel him­self when he out­lined the role of a unit able “to seize vital objects such as bridges, tunnels, cross­roads and arma­ments plants and hold them until the arrival of the leading units of the German Armed Forces.” Located in the Abwehr’s Depart­ment II, which handled all sabo­tage actions and special mis­sions carried out by the Ab­wehr, the unit’s cover name was the 800th Special Con­struc­tion Training Com­pany (later Batal­lion). The unit’s ances­try dated to a com­pany of mostly civil­ian volun­teers (Frei­korps): one from Sudeten­deutsches Frei­korps (Sude­ten German Frei­korps, resi­dents of German-speaking Czecho­slo­va­kia) and one from Frei­korps Ebbing­haus named for its commander. The two com­panies were the crea­tion of sep­a­rate Abwehr stations in Dresden and Breslau (today Wrocław, Poland), respec­tively. The volun­teers were given limited Abwehr training for special use in the September 1939 invasion of Poland.

Elite units like the Brandenburgers required profes­sional sol­diers and extremely well-trained fighters. Chief among the Branden­burgers’ tasks were covert spe­cial oper­a­tions often behind enemy lines: recon­nais­sance, raids, sabo­tage, seizing stra­tegic tar­gets (e.g., road and rail­way bridges, tun­nels, road crossings, sea locks), supporting pro-Axis guer­ril­las in the enemy hinter­land, con­ducting counter­insur­gency oper­a­tions against Allied par­ti­sans or nation­alist insur­gents in German-occupied or -aligned states, and other types of irreg­u­lar war­fare. Con­trary to cus­tomary inter­na­tional law, com­man­dos’ dis­guises some­times included dressing par­tially or entirely in their oppo­nent’s uni­forms or in civili­an clothes. Many Branden­burgers were former moun­tain troops or Germans who were born or had lived aboard and knew the lan­guage and way of life in their deploy­ment areas. Many were simply ardent National Socialists who had served in one of the Freikorps in the 1930s.

Brandenburgers were deployed in small groups, never as an entire entity until shortly before the end of the war when their organ­i­za­tion was reclas­si­fied as a con­ven­tional Panzer­gren­a­dier divi­sion in the German Wehr­macht (armed forces). At that point, many Branden­burgers trans­ferred to Otto Skor­zeny’s SS-Jagd­verbaende (SS hunting asso­ci­a­tions; see photo essays below). For most of their career Branden­burgers were subor­di­nated to army groups in indivi­dual com­mands. Their field of covert oper­a­tions included Western and Central Europe, Italy after Germany’s Axis ally had switched to the Allied side in October 1943, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and Afghan­i­stan. In some areas of oper­a­tions the Branden­burgers and simi­lar German special forces acquired well-deserved repu­ta­tions for acting with ruth­less effi­ciency against their ene­mies—com­bat­ants and civil­ians alike—often committing war crimes according to current views.

German Special Operations Forces, 1938–1945. Focus on Otto Skorzeny (1908–1975)

Brandenburger commandos: Feeder organization Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, 1938Operation Oak, Mussolini’s rescue, September 12, 1943

Left: This photo shows members of the para­mili­tary Sudeten­deutsches Frei­korps (aka Frei­korps Hen­lein) on Octo­ber 10, 1938, in Niemes (Czech, Mimoň), Sudeten­land. The lineup of men took place less than two weeks after the prin­ci­pal European states­men had awarded the German-speaking Czech border­lands to Germany in the wake of the infa­mous Munich Agree­ment of Septem­ber 30, 1938. The Sudeten­deutsches Frei­korps was con­trolled by far-right Sudeten German leader Konrad Hen­lein and his pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party. Hen­lein openly pushed to join Sudeten­land to Germany. On Octo­ber 1, 1938, Adolf Hitler appointed a grate­ful Hen­lein Reichs­kom­missar of the incor­po­rated Sudeten terri­tories. That same month Hen­lein dis­banded his Frei­korps. Many ex-mem­bers joined various Nazi orga­ni­za­tions. Some joined Frei­korps Ebbing­haus, which took part in the 1939 inva­sion of Poland, and some joined the Brandenburger special forces.

Right: Not all unconventional German warfare was con­ducted by the Abwehr’s Branden­burgers. The Abwehr had a fierce com­pet­i­tor. Hitler’s Nazi Party’s SS (Schutz­staffel) had formed a para­military unit called SS-Sonder­verband z.b.V. Frieden­thal (the initials z.b.V. indi­cated special duties). The unit was com­manded by Haupt­sturm­fuehrer (Captain) Otto Skor­zeny, a self-promoter if there ever was one. In this photo, Skor­zeny (center, dan­gling bin­oc­u­lars) stands with the lib­er­ated Italian dicta­tor Benito Musso­lini, Septem­ber 12, 1943. Neither a planner of Musso­lini’s rescue nor its leader, Skor­zeny (who had dis­covered Mus­so­lini’s where­abouts), along with 15 of his SS com­mandos, accom­panied dozens of German para­troopers (Fall­schirm­jaeger) to the Gran Sosso’s Hotel Campo Impera­tore high up in the Apen­nine moun­tains, where the deposed Italian dictator was held cap­tive. Skor­zeny pru­dently in­vited sev­er­al war corre­spon­dents to record the his­toric raid. The high-risk Opera­tion Eiche (Oak) saved Mus­so­lini by one day from being turned over to the Allies under the terms of the Long Armi­stice. At the same time it cata­pulted the derring-do SS-com­mando leader to world­wide fame. Besides a pro­mo­tion to Sturm­bann­fuehrer (major), Hitler awarded Skor­zeny the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and sent him, as a token of his personal grati­tude for res­cuing Mus­so­lini, a signed enamel-and-gold cig­a­rette case crafted in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp and a solid-gold death’s head SS ring. Skor­zeny used the honors to grab more head­lines and more fame later in Hungary and in the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge).

Skorzeny’s Operation Panzerfaust, Budapest, October 15–16, 1944Operation Greif: Execution of 3 Skorzeny spies, December 23, 1944

Left: SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Skorzeny (left) and ex-Branden­burger Adrian von Foelker­sam (middle) with Skorzeny’s SS-Jaeger-Batail­lon 502 (formerly Sonder­verband z.b.V. Frieden­thal) on Castle Hill, the govern­ment dis­trict in Hun­gary’s capi­tal, Buda­pest, Octo­ber 16, 1944. Picked for having famously snatched Axis ally Benito Musso­lini from his Ital­ian captors the year before, Hitler entrusted Skor­zeny with kid­napping Miklós (“Miki”) Horthy, Jr. Oper­a­tion Panzer­faust (aka Oper­a­tion Micki Maus, Octo­ber 15–16, 1944) was intended to force Horthy Jr.’s father to abdi­cate as Hun­gary’s head of state following that coun­try’s pre­lim­i­nary armi­stice with Germany’s enemy, the Soviet Union, on Octo­ber 11. (Horthy Sr. abdi­cated in exchange for his son’s life.) Skor­zeny took father and son back to Germany, where the senior Horthy lived under round-the-clock SS guard until freed by ele­ments of Lt. Gen. Alex­an­der Patch’s U.S. Seventh Army. The younger Horthy sur­vived his impri­son­ment at Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp. The two Horthys went into exile in Portugal after the war.

Right: Skorzeny was Hitler’s choice to head Oper­a­tion Greif, the Fuehrer’s own brain­child that in­volved planting German special forces person­nel behind Allied lines during the Ardennes Offensive, aka Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16 to Janu­ary 25, 1945). Specially trained sol­diers from Skor­zeny’s SS-Panzer Brigade 150 (the latest rein­car­nation of his special forces) were to con­ceal them­selves in U.S. and British army uni­forms, carry and drive Allied equip­ment, and be famil­iar with the enemy’s lan­guage and cus­toms. Besides tasked with cap­turing bridges, they were to sow dis­rup­tion and disin­for­ma­tion behind Allied lines. On Decem­ber 19, 1944, three of Skor­zeny’s Trojan horse com­man­dos were captured behind U.S. lines in Amer­i­can uni­forms. The three—Sgt. Man­fred Pernass, Sgt. Guenther Billing, and Lance Cpl. Wilhelm Schmidt—were given a mili­tary trial two days later, found guilty of espio­nage, and, as seen in this photo, bound to posts and exe­cuted by firing squad on Decem­ber 23. Over the next three weeks 13 more of Skor­zeny’s comman­dos were caught and exe­cuted. Skor­zeny and eight offi­cers of his panzer brigade were tried as war crimi­nals at the post­war Dachau Trials for allegedly breaching the inter­na­tional laws of war (Hague Land War­fare Regu­la­tions). A U.S. mili­tary tri­bunal acquit­ted all defen­dants after a covert agent testi­fied that he and his oper­a­tives wore German uni­forms behind enemy lines while working for the British Special Operations Executive.

Hitler’s Elite Special Forces: The Brandenburger Commandos

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