War had been raging for 10 days, and Wehrmacht columns were pouring through Poland in a ceaseless torrent. Thousands of civilians and Polish troops were fleeing the enemy as fast as they could go. At Demblin, a railway bridge that was crucial to the Germans’ continued success, remained intact.
One Polish group, however, maintained a spirit of martial discipline; immaculately turned out, marching proudly while singing a Polish Army song, they arrived at the bridge surrounded by panic stricken refugees. Quickly, the noncom in charge found the commander of the pioneers entrusted with the demolition. The latter was not expecting relief and tried to phone through to his superior, only to find that enemy action had cut the line. Suddenly, a dive bombing Ju-87 Stuka raid sent everyone scurrying for cover.
The kind offer to take over the responsibility for the bridge was hastily and gratefully accepted, and quickly the guard left. When Germans appeared some five hours later, the new demolition guard provoked a panic that cleared the bridge, then, having handed over control to the advancing panzers, they were left with nothing more to do than to change back into their own German uniforms.
Thus ended one of the first instances of the use of special forces by Germany in World War II. The “demolition guard” were all men specially selected from Upper Silesia and were, if anything, more fluent in Polish than in German. Operating behind enemy lines requires guile and a spirit of subterfuge that can only come from first-class training and an unorthodox mind.
From the earliest days of the war, the German high command understood this, and deceit and infiltration were put to good use. The essence of blitzkrieg is the dislocation and disruption of an enemy’s defensive position rather than the piecemeal destruction of his forces. If the speed of advance was to be maintained, then columns of armor and motorized infantry required control of vital road and rail junctions, tunnels, and above all, bridges. The use of parachutists could not guarantee these objectives. Consequently, by 1939, a number of special organizations were already in existence.
Foremost among them was a group formed by the German intelligence and counter-intelligence service, the Abwehr. Expanding rapidly from January 1935, the Abwehr was controlled by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a refined and intelligent officer with experience dating from World War I and an aptitude for languages. By 1939, the Abwehr consisted of three sections. Abwehr I was responsible for espionage and intelligence gathering, Abwehr II for sabotage and special units, and Abwehr III for counter-intelligence, although they were in competition with the security service of the SS, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) commanded by the infamous Reinhard Heydrich.
Within Abwehr II, the first commander of special forces was a man who had paid careful attention to the successful use of commandos in Germany’s African colonies during World War I, and who had studied the writings of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Captain Theodor von Hippel set about recruiting a small force of German fighting men from the border regions such as the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia or the Silesian districts of Poland. He also looked for Germans who had lived abroad, in Africa or South America; Anybody, in fact, who had knowledge of the language and customs of potential enemies. He also looked for the specific personal qualities necessary to make a special forces soldier—self-reliance, imagination, and a spirit of unorthodoxy not normally associated with a good regular.
Every man had to be a volunteer because only a volunteer had the commitment to face almost certain execution, which was very likely if captured while taking part in a covert operation. In 1939, Hippel’s men formed a single unit known as the No. 1 Construction Training Company, whose soldiers were mostly fluent in Polish, and whose success in the initial campaign of the war was to guarantee them further employment.
Just to the east of the border in southwest Poland lay the vital railway junction of Katowice. Before the invasion had even begun, 80 men infiltrated Poland. They disguised themselves as Polish railway workers to avoid drawing attention from Polish troops and to enable ease of movement around the rail network. Immediately after the start of the invasion, they pulled out concealed weapons and set upon the astounded Poles. So thorough was the deception that one group even persuaded a body of Polish troops to board a train which they then drove into a rail siding far from the action.
The operation was completely successful, and German forces began to operate from Katowice Junction. The facility was undamaged, and all its rolling stock in perfect working order at a time when the German Army relied heavily on the railway system.
The Brandenburg Commandos Were Quickly Expanded to Battalion Strength and Subjected to Rigorous Training in Commando and Parachute Techniques.
Unfortunately, not all the operations in the invasion of Poland went quite this smoothly, and other units failed to prevent the destruction of bridges over the River Vistula at Dirschau and Graudenz. A total disaster almost befell another group sent to capture the Jablunka Tunnel where the soldiers failed to receive an order delaying the operation and opened fire some hours before the invasion was actually due to commence. The Poles retaliated fiercely, and the Germans were pursued across country with the two sides still nominally at peace. To maintain the air of respectability, the German government was forced to issue a denial and placed the blame on Slovakian terrorists.
These failures notwithstanding, the German high command was very impressed with the results of these operations and agreed to expand and develop the concept. The various groups involved were duly brought together at Brandenburg-Am-Havel at the end of the year and given the formal status of Baulehr-Kompanie zbV 800 (800th Construction Training Company For Special Purposes) on October 25. Taking the name of the town just west of Berlin where they were based, the Brandenburg Commandos were quickly expanded to battalion strength and subjected to rigorous training in commando and parachute techniques. Their organization and training were further cemented in April 1940, when they took part in the invasion of Norway and Denmark. They were also to play an important role during the invasion of the Low Countries.
The Germans could not afford to get bogged down in Holland and needed a speedy capitulation in order to proceed with the defeat of France. To this end, the Brandenburgers were ideally suited, and on the night of May 9, 1940, they crossed the border. Once more, a railway bridge was a principal target, this time just inside the Dutch border at Gennap in the path of 9th Panzer Division, the only armored formation involved in the invasion of the Netherlands.
The seizure of the bridge was vital, and a particularly subtle deception was planned. A group of seven German prisoners escorted by two Dutch guards arrived at the bridge 10 minutes before the planned attack when, after receiving a signal, they attacked the guard post. Firing broke out, and three of the Brandenburgers were wounded. The mission, however, still had to be carried out, including the capture of the post at the far end of the bridge. With their Dutch accomplices, the commandos advanced upon it.
The guards simply did not know how to react, so swift and complete had been the surprise. A grenade produced the desired effect, and the commandos took control of the detonator which might have blown the bridge just as the first tanks appeared. Unfortunately for the commander, he was mistaken for a Dutchman by the lead vehicle and cut down by machine-gun fire, although he survived to receive the Iron Cross later. Further displays of bluff and ferocious aggression resulted in the capture of other vital bridges at Roermond and Stavelot.
With the Netherlands quickly overrun by aerial and panzer assault, the commandos had another chance to reinforce their Polish success by preventing the opening of the sluice gates at Nieuport. During World War I, the Belgians had successfully flooded the Yser plain and impeded German progress. It was imperative that this setback not be repeated. The pump houses controlling the waters were located south of the river alongside the Oostende-Nieuport road.
On May 27, German forces were close to Oostende and Belgium was close to capitulation. Wearing Belgian infantry uniforms, 13 commandos infiltrated a chaotic mass of people in a captured Belgian Army bus. They fought their way through the morass of humanity until they arrived at the bridge around sunset. British troops holding the bridge ready for demolition opened fire, and the Germans quickly took cover and changed into German uniforms.
With darkness to protect them, a pair of commandos crawled across the bridge, cutting the explosive charges as they went while machine-gun fire rattled overhead. On reaching the far side, the two opened fire, and their comrades charged the bridge using sub-machine guns and hand grenades to neutralize the defenders, whom they now isolated and mopped up. Both the bridge and the pump houses were captured intact.