“By 1945, more than 50,000 Wehrmacht troops
had served in punishment regiments.”
CALL THEM THE Fuhrer’s “Dirty Dozens.” The German army’s strafbattalions were infantry units made up largely of convicts, felons, malingerers and thugs.
Inmates in these de facto ‘marching prisons’ could expect only the most hazardous and backbreaking of assignments. When they weren’t being deployed as common labourers, penal units fought as shock troops or were thrown into losing battles to defend hopeless positions. In some cases, whole strafbattalion units would be ordered at gunpoint to march across minefields in order to clear them.
The officers and men of the Nazi prisoner brigades fought without the distinction of rank. Their uniforms bore no unit designation either, save for a telltale red triangle on the sleeve. The battalions were under the direct command of German military police. Discipline was harsh and unrelenting in strafbattalions and soldiers were frequently under-provisioned and poorly equipped. Yet those who refused to perform their duties were liable to be summarily executed. Despite this, assignment to a penal unit wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. The condemned could serve their time and be reinstated to the regular army or in cases of exceptional gallantry under fire have their sentences commuted.
Originally formed in peacetime as simple disciplinary and reeducation units for unruly or disloyal conscripts, by the final two years of the war, the number of strafbattalions expanded to accommodate the growing legions of disaffected and demoralized German soldiers. By 1945, more than 50,000 Wehrmacht troops had served in punishment regiments. Here are some of the units.
Soldiers of the 500th Probation Battalion or Bewährungsbataillone 500 were considered small time offenders. In fact, hardened criminals weren’t even allowed into the outfit. Those sentenced to this frontline unit, which was first formed in 1940, would typically serve their sentences and then be returned to their original regiment. Unlike other German penal units, officers and NCOs in good standing commanded the Bewährungsbataillones, not military police guards. Despite this, life in the 500th was intended to be unpleasant. Casualties were high as the unit fought its way across the Eastern Front. Yet soldiers who performed well could expect to have their sentences reduced.
The 999th Light Afrika Division
By 1942, a shortage of fresh troops compelled the Wehrmacht to scour civilian prisons for criminals who were originally thought unsuitable for military service. Convicted felons were granted a clean slate if they volunteered to serve in units like the Bewährungstruppe 999. The 28,000-man division first saw action in the closing days of the North Africa campaign. But since up to a third of its conscripts were political subversives who had little affection for the Nazi regime, many of them were only too happy to turn themselves over to the Allies at the earliest opportunity. The unit would later serve in Greece and then on the Eastern Front.
Worst of the Worst
Unlike other penal battalions, 36th Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS wasn’t established to punish or rehabilitate felons, but rather to ‘weaponize’ Germany’s most dangerous criminals and sociopaths and use them to terrorize civilian populations in the occupied east.
The unit, which was formed in 1940 on orders of Heinrich Himmler, was originally made up of 300 murderers, thieves, rapists and (oddly enough) a number of game poachers as well. Even its commanding officer was a convicted child molester by the name of Oskar Dirlewanger. The 45-year-old die-hard Nazi eventually grew the unit to 4,000 men.
Once outfitted and trained, the Dirlewanger Brigade, as it became known, was turned loose on partisans and civilians in Poland, Belarus and Eastern Europe with horrifying results. Its worst atrocities included mass executions of civilians, torture and rape. It once even set packs of starving dogs upon the helpless residents of a small village. In another well-documented case, members of the 36th amused themselves by deliberately poisoning a group of children with strychnine. In fact, the Dirlewanger Brigade’s depravity was so revolting, even seasoned SS field commanders voiced their displeasure with the group’s methods. However because of Oskar Dirlewanger’s unflagging political loyalty, high-ranking Nazis blocked the mounting pressure to disband the outfit. All told, the 36th reportedly killed as many as 30,000 civilians in its infamous reign of terror, and quite possibly more.
In 1943, the 36th was eventually transferred to the front and sent into action against the Red Army. Although it had spent years preying mostly upon non-combatants, its members had little real combat experience. Not surprisingly, the 36th suffered appalling casualties and was reduced from its peak strength to only a few hundred survivors. But by 1944, a new batch of convicts had been dredged from German prisons and the outfit was reinforced in time to take part in the brutal suppression of uprisings in Warsaw. During the crackdown’s Wola Massacre, soldiers of the 36th reached a new low when they reportedly machine-gunned and bayoneted 500 youngsters.
By 1945, the Dirlewanger Brigade was pulled back to help defend Germany against the final Soviet advance. But as the Red Army poured into the Reich, its soldiers began deserting in droves. What was left of the outfit was utterly destroyed in battle on May 1. Dirlewanger himself was wounded in one of the unit’s final actions. He was captured in civilian clothes by French troops a month after the war ended and was held in a prison at Altshausen, Germany. Although it’s recorded that he died shortly after of complications from his injuries, it’s believed he was actually beaten to death by a group of Polish guards.
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