“Recruits learned infiltration, sabotage and demolition techniques and were trained to kill silently, evade capture and improvise their own explosives using ordinary household items.”
JUNE 5, 1945 — The war in Europe had been over for less than a month when a massive explosion rocked the city of Bremen, Germany. The blast ripped through a U.S. military outpost killing more than 40 civilians and American servicemen. While many blamed the disaster on an unexploded bomb dropped by Allied planes prior to the Axis surrender, others feared the incident was the work of Werwolves – an elusive army of pro-Nazi holdouts organized in the Third Reich’s dying days.
Meet the Werwolves
The Werwolves were established in late 1944 on the orders Schutzstaffel chief Heinrich Himmler.
The unit, which drew as many as 5,000 volunteers from the ranks of the Waffen SS and the Hitler Youth, involved uniformed troops remaining behind when German occupied territories fell to the Allies. Once activated, Werwolf battalions would draw weapons and equipment from pre-arranged caches and conduct campaigns of sabotage, ambush and assassination against the vulnerable British, American and Soviet rear echelons.
The army’s name was cribbed from a well-known German novel entitled Der Wehrwolf, written by Hermann Löns. It’s the story of an ordinary peasant who embarks on a one-man campaign of vengeance after foreign invaders murder his friends and family during the Thirty Years War. Although written in 1910, the tale enjoyed a revival in wartime Germany. And with enemy troops massing on the borders of the Reich, Nazi officials hoped that life could somehow imitate art.
The German Underground
Nazi Werwolves were under the command of Hans-Adolph Prützmann, a die-hard SS officer who had become an expert in partisan warfare after fighting insurgents in German occupied Ukraine for three years. Once promoted to General Inspector for Special Defense in late 1944, the 43-year-old commander scoured the Nazi party, the SS and even the Wehrmacht for ideologically committed volunteers. Volunteers were sent to a secret training center at Hülchrath Castle on the Rhine to be schooled in the art of guerrilla warfare. Recruits learned infiltration, sabotage and demolition techniques and were taught to kill silently, evade capture and to improvise their own explosives using ordinary household items.
Prützmann planned to activate his Werwolf detachments in early 1945 and command them from Germany’s impregnable national redoubt high in the Alps.
By March 23, 1945, with the Allies closing in from all sides, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels took to the air waves to hail the exploits of the Werwolves while urging all German citizens to likewise fight on to the death. Allied intelligence warned commanders to brace for an intractable insurgency as British and American forces drove deeper into Germany. Surprisingly, none would materialize.
The Toothless Beast
Despite the high hopes Berlin had for massive resistance, Prützmann’s Werwolves were effectively crippled by the same supply, manpower and logistical problems suffered throughout the whole of the Third Reich. Ironically, the units had little support from Germany’s generals, many of whom considered the effort as being too little, too late. Similarly, frontline commanders were unwilling to commit their bravest and best remaining men in such a hopeless and reckless gesture. Worse still, the secret stockpiles of equipment scattered throughout the ever-dwindling Reich were being located and captured by the advancing Allies before Werwolf formations could even get at them. British, American and Soviet troops were also netting the operatives themselves.
Less than two weeks before the end of the war, U.S. troops stumbled across an entire platoon of Werwolves hidden in an underground command center along with their weapons, vehicles and months of provisions. Documents recovered showed the unit had orders to assassinate supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Although operations were sporadic at best, some Werwolf teams did carry out their orders. A band of teenaged trainees managed to murder the Allied appointed mayor of Aachen in March of 1945 shortly after the occupation of the town. Werwolves were also blamed for a number of random attacks over the spring.
Yet, as the war edged ever closer to its conclusion, Nazi propagandists continued to trumpet the resistance. Goebbels even established Radio Werwolf, which in between faux news reports of attacks, urged the German people to rise up against the Allies. However, most accounts of sabotage or assassination were wildly exaggerated, falsely attributed to the resistance movement, or completely fabricated. For example, the Werwolves were incorrectly credited with the murder of U.S. general Maurice Rose who was actually killed in action on the frontlines. Other incidents, like the June 5 blast at the Bremen headquarters, as well as a deadly explosion at an ammunition depot near the River Elbe on July 31 were attributed to pro-Nazi holdouts, although there is little evidence to support such claims.
Despite the fact that no serious uprising ever emerged (Prützmann himself committed suicide in May of 1945), the threat of one dogged the Allied occupiers constantly for weeks after the fall of Berlin. Still, British, French and American armies rounded up and detained tens of thousands of German soldiers and civilians they suspected of being insurgents and held many of them in appalling conditions. In the east, the Soviets summarily executed hundreds of young men it considered Werwolves and sent more than 10,000 to special camps.  Many never returned.
Post Script: The Werwolves of Iraq?
Interestingly enough, in 2003 spin doctors in the Bush Administration exaggerated the significance of the Werwolves in an attempt to compare the deteriorating security situation in post-invasion Iraq with 1945 occupied Germany. According to Slate.com, both U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice tried to sooth concerns over increasing insurgent attacks in Baghdad by arguing that the Allies prevailed in Germany despite similar violence carried out by Nazi holdouts well into 1947. It was a claim that was roundly refuted by historians.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov 18, 2013)