Hitler’s Germany was known for its organization and efficiency, as well as its deprivations, terror, and cruelty. This was exemplified in its security forces.
Among the many Third Reich police and security organizations were several military police types, the Feldgendarmerie, Geheime Feldpolizei, Heeresstreifendienst, Marinekusten-Polizei, and numerous police-security regiments and divisions. In addition to the military police there were state security organs such as the SS, SD, and the Gestapo, which were also found to operate in combat zones as well as in Germany and the occupied territories.
The Rise of Nazi Paramilitary Police
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, imposed limits on the manpower of the German Army, and military police units were disbanded. With the Nazi rise to power and the start of World War II, the floodgates were opened for numerous police organizations to be formed and also the creation of a chaotic hierarchy of security forces.
The seed of the German military police began with state police organizations. The various state police battalions across Germany in the early 1930s were, in effect, paramilitary organizations, which allowed the Nazis to quickly expand both the Army and the military police by converting these units to national service once the party came to power.
In January 1934, the Nazi regime began unifying the various state police forces into the Landespolizei by transferring police powers to the national level. The post of chief of the German police in the Ministry of the Interior was created with Heinrich Himmler appointed to the position, thus blurring the lines between the police and the SS. As a result, the position of SS and police leader was created in 1938. The purpose of the SS and police leader was to be a direct command authority for every SS and police unit in a given geographical region, answering only to Himmler and Adolf Hitler.
The Feldgendarmerie: Equipment and Duties
The Feldgendarmerie was the regular military police arm of the Wehrmacht. Not only was it associated with standard military police duties, but some Feldgendarmerie units were assigned occupation duties in the territories controlled by the Wehrmacht. Their missions ranged from traffic control and civilian policing to suppression and execution of partisans.
Military police schools taught a wide range of subjects including criminal code, general and special police powers, forestry, fishery and waterway codes, traffic codes, industrial codes, passport and identification duties, folk culture, first aid, weapons drill and instruction, shooting, self-defense techniques, and criminal police methodology. There were also lessons in air defense, animal protection, and typing and stenography courses.
After examinations candidates spent time working at a police station. It was no easy feat passing the requirements and becoming a police officer. From one batch of 219 trainees, only 89 made it as far as the final examination. Former civilian policemen drafted into the Feldgendarmerie acquired military ranks in keeping with their former police status.
Within the German Army, the Feldgendarmerie received full infantry training besides having extensive police powers. They were employed with Army divisions and higher formations.
Each field army of the Wehrmacht had under its command a Feldgendarmerie battalion and each division a Feldgendarmerietrupp. A typical Feldgendarmerie battalion included a command group with one officer, one warrant officer, two noncommissioned officers, three other ranks over three platoons each with an officer, three noncommissioned officer drivers, 17 more noncommissioned officers, and 10 other ranks. A Feldgendarmerietrupp, attached to an infantry or panzer division, would usually comprise three officers, 41 noncommissioned officers, and 20 men.
Military policemen were armed with Walther pistols that had been designed for use by civilian police, either the model PP (Police Pistole) or PPK; they were favored by officers over the Luger PO8 and Walther P38 used by other ranks. Machine pistols were carried by noncommissioned officers, while the Mauser 98K rifle was issued but not widely used. Heavier weapons included the MG34 and MG42 machine guns, often mounted on vehicles for use in defending roadblocks.
The Feldgendarmerie had the authority to pass through roadblocks, checkpoints, and secured areas and were allowed to conduct body and property searches and obtain the assistance of any other military or civilian personnel. They also had seniority over every other soldier, up to their own rank, whatever their branch of service. In the wake of combat operations they acted as temporary town police, rounded up enemy stragglers, dealt with guerrillas, collected refugees and prisoners, guarded captured booty, ensured that civilian weapons were surrendered, were responsible for the organization of civilian labor, and erected military and civil signs.
On the Front Lines
Members served on every front. Toward the war’s end, they were more often employed as frontline troops and were involved in many desperate operations. Many were decorated for bravery. During the last days of the war, Feldgendarmerie caught by Soviet troops, who had been offered a bounty for their capture, could expect to be shot on the spot. Many were issued with a second Soldbuch (paybook) and matching identity tags that could be used to identify them as regular soldiers.
In the late stages of the war, the role of the Feldgendarmerie took on greater significance as they became responsible for the fate of tens of thousands of deserters, called Fahnenflüchtiger or, literally, “runners from the flag.” Many deserters were summarily executed. As public support for the Wehrmacht was evaporating, the Feldengendarmerie also became known as the Heldenklau or “hero-snatchers” because they were assigned the unpopular task of searching streams of refugees for possible deserters and sending rear-echelon personnel to the front.
The Feldgendarmerie wore the standard German Army uniform but with several distinctive features that included orange-red piping on the crown and cap band of the Schirmmütze, or peaked cap. On the uniforms, the orange-red was used as piping to the center of the collar patch bars, to the shoulder straps for noncommissioned officers and other ranks, and as underlay to officers’ shoulder straps. In addition, the Feldgendarmerie were identified by the Polizei-pattern, upper-left-sleeve eagle. This consisted of an embroidered eagle and swastika within a wreath of oak leaves. The swastika was in black and the rest of the insignia in orange-red for other ranks and in silver thread for officers.
On the cuff of the left sleeve of the uniform all ranks wore a 30mm-wide brown cuff with gray cotton edging and inscribed with the word “Feldgendarmerie” in silver-gray machine- woven gothic lettering.
The key identifying feature of the Feldgendarme was the duty gorget or Ringkragen—a half-moon shaped sheet metal plate. Because of their unpopularity among the German rank and file, the Feldgendarmerie were known as “kettenhunde,” or chained dogs, referencing their duty Ringkragen. In the center of the plate was a large spread eagle and swastika over a scroll bearing the legend “Feldgendarmerie.” The gorget was suspended by a neck chain.
As military policemen, their behavior and conduct was to be above reproach. If an officer of the Feldgendarmerie failed to abide by his code of honor, he would be relieved of his command, turned over to the Feldgendarmerie replacement battalion and returned to his home duty station in disgrace. Likewise, all Feldgendarmen who turned out to be unsuitable for further service could, depending upon the severity of their action, be transferred out of the Feldgendarmerie and reassigned to the Feldgendarmerie replacement battalion. What happened after that depended on the nature of the transgression.
The Geheime Feldpolizeiz: The Abwehr’s Eyes and Ears
The Geheime Feldpolizei (GFP), or Secret Field Police, operated as the executive organ of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. It collaborated with other security forces as well as local police and intelligence services.
Established in July 1939, the GFP was the special investigations branch of the Army. Just as experienced civil policemen were drafted into the Feldgendarmerie, so the GFP was staffed by transferring experienced detectives from the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) or criminal police. Although they were authorized to wear the uniform of an Army administration official, they generally wore civilian clothing. GFP personnel worked in close cooperation with the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo) or security police. They undertook the investigation of espionage and treasonable activities, murder, theft, black marketeering, and other crimes within the military. In Belgium and France they were also deployed against the resistance.
Typically, the GFP were deployed in groups of up to 50 officers and men: one officer with the rank of major or higher; 32 with ranks of second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain; and 17 auxiliary personnel. The group could be divided so that one or two men were assigned to police a large area. In some cases, a single GFP officer could be attached to a Feldgendarmerie unit to assist in antipartisan operations.
By the second half of the war, the GFP were increasingly involved in dealing with subversion and sabotage within the Wehrmacht. After the middle of 1943, cases were identified in which German soldiers in France and Russia had deserted to the resistance or partisans. In the spring of 1944, cases of desertion started to rise rapidly. For example, in Army Group Center the GFP were on the lookout for over 3,000 deserters. At regular intervals, a gazette of wanted soldiers was published and circulated to all security and police agencies in the army group.