Foreign SS Legions were to make up a substantial number of men as World War Two proceeded and as casualties in the Wehrmacht increased as they fought on numerous fronts – though the Russian Front in particular was accounting for many casualties. By the time World War Two in Europe ended in May 1945, nearly 350,000 men had served in Hitler’s Foreign Legions; non-German volunteers from sixteen occupied nations.
The Waffen-SS was the military side of the SS. The Waffen-SS had originally been made up of four divisions of ethnic Germans. However, it grew into a mass unit of 900,000 men who fought in 41 divisions and in time over one-third of its force was made up of foreign volunteers. Many of these men fought against the Red Army. By the time the war ended it is thought that as many as 750,000 members of the Waffen-SS had been killed or wounded in combat with another 70,000 missing in action. However, many Waffen-SS records were destroyed before the war ended so accurate figures are hard to attain.
Against a background of military success in the spring of 1940, there was little cause for alarm in the Wehrmacht’s hierarchy with regards to numbers in the army. However, a recruitment campaign was started in Western Europe in July 1940 based on the back of the numerous military successes the Wehrmacht had achieved up to that date. However, a more sustained campaign started in the summer of the following year.
The June 1941 attack on Russia (Operation Barbarossa) was initially very successful. It was against this background that the Nazis introduced a sustained campaign of recruitment based around fighting the Bolshevik horde in the east of Europe. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917, many countries in Western Europe had done what they could to demonise the USSR. Therefore when then Waffen-SS started its campaign to recruit foreigners to join the Waffen-SS against the communists of the USSR, it was not overly surprising that many joined. Lists of recruits that survived World War Two show that 125,000 men in occupied Western Europe volunteered to join the Waffen –SS. Over 200,000 men from the Baltic States and the Ukraine also joined to fight off the yoke of communism. The recruitment of East European men meant that the SS had to dilute its original recruitment requirements with regards to ‘racial purity’. The sheer numbers involved in terms of recruitment meant that it was pragmatic for the SS to do so. The Baltic States and the Ukraine were very keen to free themselves from the rule of Moscow. Therefore many men volunteered to join the Waffen-SS.
The recruits to the Foreign Legions did not receive the type of training that standard German Wehrmacht recruits received. Training tended to last two weeks – possibly three. The whole idea behind these divisions was to get them to the front line as soon as was possible. While it is a generalisation, the standard rule of thumb was that the Wehrmacht received German-made weapons while the Foreign Legions used captured weapons. Whereas Wehrmacht infantry were taught the skills required by an infantryman, foreign members of the Waffen-SS were taught quickly and briefly a multitude of skills (artillery, radio operator etc.) so that they could be sent wherever they were needed and to whatever unit required them. The lack of anything but basic military skills in the field might explain the huge casualty rates that these foreign Waffen-SS units experienced.
Men in the SS Foreign Legions were treated differently to national German Waffen-SS soldiers. They wore a different uniform in terms of the insignia on it. Their commanding officers were national German Waffen-SS and Heinrich Himmler ordered that their units could not be called SS Divisions but Divisions of the SS. Most of the Foreign Legions did not wear the SS insignia on their collars as they wore a symbol of their national origin instead. Though a German national commanded them, many men in the SS Foreign Legions only spoke their own language. Thus communication was a major problem. Their ranks were also different to those held by German Waffen-SS.
The bulk of the Foreign Legions fought on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Stalingrad had been a disaster for Hitler with the loss of a complete army. Despite the obvious signs that Red Army was in a position to take advantage of this major military defeat, Hitler continued to believe that his war against the Bolshevik horde was winnable. It was against this background that the Foreign Legions had to fight. Some units gained a good reputation as fighters – the Walloon Division led by Lèon Degrelles, for example. Others were less successful on the front line and were used to fight partisan groups.
Against the huge number of men, artillery and tanks that the Red Army had at their disposal, defeat was almost inevitable. However, the men who had survived the battles on the Eastern Front could not simply pack their bags and return home. To many in their home nations they were traitors who had taken up the cause of Hitler. If they could have got across Europe it is possible that Franco’s Spain would have taken them in, but such a journey in itself was fraught with dangers. This may explain why so many units of the Foreign Legions fought almost to the point of recklessness. If the Red Army captured them alive, they feared being handed back to their country of origin. The 60,000 Russians who had joined the Waffen-SS knew what they could expect. It was a choice of fighting to the death or being captured and executed as traitors – a fate that befell thousands of Cossacks. Surviving Serbians who had joined the Serbian Volunteer Corps were executed on Marshal Tito’s orders. To many they had little to lose if they carried on fighting. The head of the British Freikorps, John Amery, was tried for treason and hanged. Other members were sentenced to terms in prison. Prison sentences as long as 15 years were introduced in Norway and Denmark. Lèon Degrelles, commander of the Walloon SS, fled to Spain and was sentenced to death for treason in absentia. He continued to live in Spain until his death in 1987.
Figures for European recruits to the Waffen-SS:
Belgian: Flemish 23,000
Belgium: Walloon 15,000
British Commonwealth: (English) 50
Sweden, Switzerland & Luxemburg: 3,000
Others volunteered to join from around the globe – 1,500 from India for example.