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The Brandenburgers

We hear so much of the British Commandos, SAS, LRDG and SBS, the American Rangers, Soviet Scouts and Italian Arditi. These long-range reconnaissance and commando units are famous for their daring raids and penetrating infiltrations behind enemy lines. So what about the Germans?

Between 1939 and 1944 the Germans did have a substantial and successful commando unit raiding and operating in missions behind enemy lines. These were the Brandenburgers.

The Brandenburg unit started life as the brainchild of Hauptmann Theodore von Hippel. He was inspired by the guerrilla campaigns of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s in East Africa and Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s campaigns in the Middle East during the First World War. 

He suggested the formation of a small elite unit specially trained to penetrate the enemy’s defences and seize key objectives prior to the main offensive. His ideas were rejected by the traditionalists of the German Heer Intelligence Staff, but found favour with the Abwehr, the German Intelligence Service.

The German High Command did allow von Hippel to form a battalion of specialists. They were trained in sabotage, infiltration and the capture of key bridges and junctions before the retreating enemy could destroy them.  This first unit, the Ebbinghaus Battalion, took part in the invasion of Poland in 1939 and was made up primarily of Polish born Germans, fluent in the language and local customs. They were a success in their missions, but were disbanded shortly after the campaign. 

Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, welcomed von Hippel’s ideas and asked him to form a similar unit to fall under the second section of the Abwehr (Abwehr II), which was primarily responsible for sabotage, and specialist units (Abwehr I was espionage and intelligence and Abwehr III was counter intelligence).

Many of the volunteers from the Ebbinghause Battalion joined the new unit who set up their barracks and training in Brandenburg-am-Havel in the Prussian province of Brandenburg, hence their name.

The recruitment program ran counter to Nazi political beliefs and recruits were selected on their knowledge of languages, familiarity with other cultures and traditions and for how they could blend in with other populations. 

Members of the Ebbinghaus Battalion 
The range of recruits came from Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) from all over Europe, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. A company was even formed from those who had lived in Africa, Britain and the USA and had extensive knowledge of English.
Hauptmann Theodore von Hippel

The Brandenburgers were initially organised into four companies based on language and custom knowledge.

1. Kompanie (Baltic/Russian)
2. Kompanie (English, Portuguese and French Speaking from North Africa, UK and USA)
3. Kompanie (Sudeten and Yugoslav Germans)
4. Kompanie (other Volksdeutsche)

Methods and Missions

The Brandenburgers’ initial campaigns in 1939-40 relied on surprise and subterfuge to achieve their objectives. They wore enemy uniforms over their Wehrmacht uniforms and would penetrate enemy lines using their language skills and local knowledge to get close to their objectives, before taking them by surprise. They would then hold on until the advancing main thrush would catch up. This allowed them to capture bridges and other vital instillations before the enemy could destroy them.

They took part in operations in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium in 1940. During the invasion of the Netherlands they captured the bridge over the Meuse at Gennep on May 8. Early in the morning a group of Brandenburgers under the command of Leutnant Wilhelm Walther advanced on the defenders of the bridge disguised as Dutch military police escorting German prisoners. Before the Dutch realised the truth the Brandenburgers were on them.

After a short fight they Germans took the bridge. Three Brandenburgers were wounded, but the guardhouses at one end of the bridge were secured. The far side of the bride was still under Dutch control, so Leutnant Walther boldly advanced over the bridge still in a Dutch uniform.  The Dutch soldiers hesitated, unsure if he was one of their own. The delay was long enough to allow the Brandenburgers to rush the last two guardhouses and stop the Dutch blowing the bridge. The leading panzer troops arrived shortly afterwards and advanced across the bridge. 

Admiral Canaris
Dutch Troops in 1940, Photo copyright by The Historical Consultancy 30-45 www.hab3045.nl By 1941 the Brandenburgers had been expanded out to a regiment.

In 1941 the Brandenburgers were once more in action in the Balkans and Russia. Dressed in civilian cloths a detachment of 54 Brandenburgers of the II. Battalion took “Iron Gates” at Orsova on the Danube during the invasion of Yugoslavia. This allowed German river traffic to continue during he campaign.
One of the most famous incidents came during the 1942 campaign in Russia. A force of 62 Brandenburgers under the command of Baron Adrian von Fölkersam penetrated far into Soviet territory. Disguised in NKVD uniforms and riding in Red Army trucks they passed themselves off so convincingly that von Fölkersam even managed to get a tour of the positions around Maikop with its commander. Before that he had rounded up a group of Soviet deserted and used them to advance to Maikop under the pretence of returning them to the line. Now ensconced among the Soviets the Brandenburgers destroy the city’s communication centre and then convince the defenders that a withdrawal had been ordered.  The Germans entered the city on August 9, 1942 without firing a shot. Brandenburgers dressed as Soviets
Baron Adrian von Fölkersam 

Other long-range and seize and hold operations continued in Russia during 1942, but by 1943 the Brandenburgers were restricted to long-range reconnaissance only.

he Brandenburgers were also active in Africa. In the spring of 1941 a detachment of 60 was sent to aid Rommel’s campaigns in Africa under the command of Leutnant von Koenen. It was initially intended to be used to secure the Suez Canal and the Nile crossings, but events turned at El Alamein. They Brandenburg “Afrika Kompanie” continued service in Libya and Tunisia, acting in a variety of missions putting their skills to use. Some engaged in LRDG and SAS style raiding, while others were utilised in long-range reconnaissance and sabotage. They were even used to provide escort and protection for agents being planted in Cairo, but British intelligence uncovered the plan and the agents and their Brandenburger escorts were captured. Some Brandenburgers were even used in glider operations to seize bridges.

Both airborne and seaborne specialist units were also created by 1943. The seaborne or “Küstenjäger” were involved in operations in the Sea of Azov against Soviet Naval commandos and in 1943 a unit took part in the seizing of the Greek Dodencanese Islands off the Italians and British.


August 1939: Ebbinghaus Battalion prevent the destruction of Vistula Bridges and sabotage of factories in Silesia.

April 1940: Campaigns in Denmark and Norway. Brandenburgers dressed as Danish troops capture bridge near Grossner.
Brandenburgers take part in glider assaults in Norway.

May-June 1940: Infiltration and capture operations in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

July 1940: Prepare for Operation Sealion (invasion of Britain).

April 1941: Balkan campaign, the capture of Danube “Iron Gate”.

June 1941: Operation Barbarossa infiltration and capture operations.

June 1941: Raid on the Abadan Oil Refinery in Iran.

August 1941: Brandenburgers protect against sabotage in Romanian oilfields.

January 1942: Operations with Indian Legion.

Spring 1942: Attack on Soviet rail supply route to Murmansk.

April 1942: Brandenburg units active in North Africa.

Summer 1942: Recruitment of Caucasus Volksdeutsch and others.

August 1942: Brandenburgers prevent the destruction of the Soviet oil refinery at Maikop by retreating Red Army troops.

October 1942: Anti-partisan duties in Yugoslavia.

Autumn/Winter 1942: Küstenjäger motorboat patrols active against Soviet Naval operations.

November 1942: Brandenburg Paratroopers sent to Tunisia. Take part in combined operations with Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger.

February 1943: Brandenburg Paratroop Battalion raised.

End of Special Operations

In July 1944 the Abwehr lost favour with Hitler after Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris was implicated in the plot to kill Hitler. The Brandenburg Division (as it had now become) was transferred Heer and became an Elite Motorised Infantry Division. Much of the duties of the Abwehr were taken over by the SD. 1800 Brandenburgers transfer to SS under Otto Skorzeny’s SS-Jagdverbande to continue operating as special forces.

The Brandenburg Division continued to fight with distinction, but that is another story.

Last Updated On Thursday, January 13, 2022 by Wayne at Battlefront