Walloon Legion

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Walloon Legion
Wallonie shield.svg
Sleeve insignia of the Walloon Legion, incorporating the flag of Belgium rather than any distinctly "Walloon" symbolism
Active1941–1945
AllegianceNazi Germany Nazi Germany
Branch Wehrmacht (1941–1943)
Waffen-SS (1943–1945)
TypeInfantry
Size2,000 men (maximum strength)
7,000–8,000 men (total, 1941–1945)
Battalion, brigade and later division, though never larger than brigade-strength.
Engagements
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Léon Degrelle (1944–45)

The Walloon Legion (French: Légion Wallonie, lit. "Wallonia Legion") was a collaborationist military and security formation recruited among French-speaking volunteers from German-occupied Belgium, specifically from Brussels and Wallonia, during World War II. It was formed in the aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and fought on the Eastern Front as part of the German Army and later the Waffen-SS alongside similar formations from other parts of German-occupied Western Europe.

Established in July 1941, the Walloon Legion was envisaged by Léon Degrelle's Rexist Party as a means of demonstrating its loyalty and political indispensability in German-occupied Belgium where it had been largely ignored since the German invasion of May 1940. A similar formation had already been created by Flemish collaborators as the Flemish Legion, preventing Degrelle from being able to establish the "Belgian Legion" he had originally intended. The formation, initially part of the Wehrmacht, remained no larger than a battalion and was joined by Degrelle himself who increasingly saw the unit as a more important political vehicle than the Rexist Party. It participated in fighting on the Eastern Front from February 1942 but struggled to find sufficient recruits in Belgium to replace its persistently heavy losses. It was officially designated Infantry Battalion 373.

The unit was integrated into the Waffen-SS in June 1943 as the SS Assault Brigade Wallonia (SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonien) and was almost destroyed by Soviet forces in the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. It expanded slightly after the Allied Liberation of Belgium in September 1944 as Belgian, French, and Spanish collaborators were drafted into the unit. It was upgraded to the notional status of a division and re-designated as the SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonia (SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Wallonien) in October 1944. After heavy losses and desertions during the 1945 retreats, its remaining personnel surrendered to British forces in April 1945.

Background[edit]

At the time of the German invasion in May 1940, Belgium had several political parties that were broadly sympathetic to the authoritarian and anti-democratic ideals represented by Nazi Germany. In Wallonia and Brussels, the largest of these groups was the Rexist Party, led by Léon Degrelle. This had originated as a faction of the mainstream Catholic Block, but split in 1935 to form an independent populist party. Ideologically, Rex supported Belgian nationalism, but its support for corporatism and anti-communism made it sympathetic towards aspects of Nazi ideology. It achieved some early success, peaking in the 1936 Belgian general election in which it received 11.5 percent of the national vote. In spite of this, the party experienced a rapid decline in the years before the German invasion and polled below five percent in the 1939 elections and remained marginal.[1]

After the Belgian surrender on 28 May 1940, the German Military Administration in Belgium and Northern France governed the occupied country. As part of its strategy of indirect rule, the administration preferred to work with established Belgian political and social elites, largely ignoring fringe political groups such as the Rexists.[2]

Creation of the Walloon Legion, 1941–42[edit]

Recruitment poster for the Walloon Legion from c.1943, appealing to Belgian nationalist and anti-communist sentiment. The caption reads "You defend Belgium... by fighting on the Eastern Front".

In order to acquire more influence and German support, Rex attempted to bring itself closer to the occupation authorities. On 1 January 1941, Degrelle announced Rex's total support for the occupation authorities and for the policy of collaborationism. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it embraced the idea of raising a military unit, seen as "a political opportunity to increase the importance of their movements and eliminate political competition".[3] At the same time, the Flemish National Union (Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, VNV), a Flemish nationalist and rival authoritarian party in Flanders, also announced its intention to form a "Flemish Legion" to fight in the German Army in the Soviet Union. This move, combined with the Germans' favourable stance towards the VNV, meant that it would not be possible to realise Rex's preferred option of a national "Belgian Legion" on the Eastern Front.[4]

In July 1941, Rex announced that it would raise a unit of volunteers of its own, dubbed the Walloon Legion (Légion Wallonie). Unlike comparable Flemish and Dutch units, the Walloon Legion was established within the German Army (Wehrmacht) because Walloons were not considered sufficiently "Germanic" by Nazi racial theorists be allowed into the Waffen-SS.[3] Recruitment initially met with little success, leading Degrelle personally to volunteer for the unit as a private as a publicity stunt. In total, some 850 men had volunteered by August 1941, bringing the unit up to the strength of a battalion.[5] Officially designated as Infantry Battalion 373 (Infanterie Bataillon 373), it was sent for training in Meseritz in Germany. As part of Degrelle's notion of an expanded Burgundian-style Belgium, the unit adopted the Cross of Burgundy as its insignia.

Most of the Legion's initial volunteers were Rexist cadres and many had been part of the Combat Formations (Formations de Combat) which served as the party's paramilitary wing. In propaganda, Rex emphasised the anti-communist dimension of the German war effort and argued that collaboration was compatible with Belgian patriotism.[6] The unit encountered various internal problems with some volunteers being unwilling to swear personal allegiance to Adolf Hitler and others being classed as medically unfit; almost a third of the volunteers were repatriated before October 1941.[7] Over the winter of 1941–1942, it participated in training and security operations near Donetsk in Ukraine.[8]

Eastern Front[edit]

In the Wehrmacht, 1942–43[edit]

The Walloon Legion fought its first engagement against Soviet forces at Hromova Balka, near Donetsk, on 28 February 1942 as part of the 17th Army. It suffered heavy losses, both from disease and combat, and was reduced to 150 men within its first months.[9] It continued to encounter "enormous losses" throughout 1942.[10]

The high attrition rate within the Walloon Legion required increasing focus on recruitment. A second recruitment drive was started in February 1942, recruiting 450 new volunteers of whom many came from Rex's small youth wing. A third "frantic" campaign in November 1942 raised a further 1,700 men. These recruitment drives weakened many Rexist institutions by diverting manpower away from projects in Belgium. At the same time, it failed to secure significant numbers of recruits from among the Belgian prisoners of war held in German camps.[11] However, Degrelle became increasingly keen on the political potential of the Walloon Legion which he saw as a more effective political tool than the Rexist Party in Belgium.[10] As the war continued and the pool of Rexist members fell, the volunteers became "largely non-political 'adventurers' or desperate men", often drawn from the urban working class and the unemployed.[12]

Its record in combat, however, was widely exploited in propaganda and increased Degrelle's legitimacy in the eyes of the German leadership, especially Heinrich Himmler who commanded the SS. In late 1942, Himmler declared the Walloons to be a Germanic race, paving the way for the unit's incorporation into the Waffen-SS on 1 June 1943. The Walloon Legion was re-organised into an brigade-sized unit of 2,000 men, known as the SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonien.[13]

In the Waffen-SS, 1943–1945[edit]

Léon Degrelle, leader of Rex and member of the Walloon Legion, pictured in Charleroi in April 1944. Degrelle saw the Legion as a political tool to gain German support

In November 1943, the new SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonia was deployed for the first time to Ukraine in response to the Soviet Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. There, the brigade fought as part of the SS Division Wiking in the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944 and suffered 70 percent casualties.[14] Among those killed was the unit's commander Lucien Lippert.[15] A detachment also fought at the Tannenberg Line in Estonia in June 1944, also suffering heavy losses. Degrelle, however, was widely celebrated for his role in the battle at Cherkassy and received the Knight's Cross, becoming "the poster boy for all European collaborators" and being featured in Wehrmacht's Signal magazine.[14] The remnants of the unit returned to Belgium where parades were held in Brussels and Charleroi in April 1944. Ahead of its return, largely to encourage more enlistments, the unit was even loaned armoured vehicles by other German units to make it seem more prestigious.[15]

In the aftermath of the Allied liberation of Belgium in September 1944, Degrelle managed to get the brigade upgraded to division-status, after drafting Rexist refugees fleeing the Allied advance and Belgian volunteers from the paramilitary National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK). The new 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonia (28. SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Wallonien) was created in October 1944. It numbered fewer than 4,000 men, making it considerably understrength,[14] and French and Spanish soldiers from the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF) and Blue Legion were folded into the unit to increase its numbers.[15] During the retreat, the unit's personnel may have participated in the massacre of 6,000 female Jewish prisoners from Stutthof concentration camp at Palmnicken in East Prussia in January 1945.[16] The following month, the remains of the "division" saw action during Operation Solstice and then retreated through Central Pomerania to Stettin on the Oder river. After mass defections in April, its remaining 400 personnel fled to Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein where they surrendered to the British Army to escape capture by Soviet forces.

Commanders[edit]

  • Captain-Commandant Georges Jacobs (August 1941 – January 1942)
  • Captain Pierre Pauly (January 1942 – March 1942)
  • Captain George Tchekhoff (March 1942 – April 1942)
  • SS-Sturmbannführer Lucien Lippert (April 1942 – 13 February 1944)
  • SS-Sturmbannführer Léon Degrelle as political leader of the unit.
  • SS-Oberführer Karl Burk (21 June 1944 – 18 September 1944)
  • SS-Standartenführer Léon Degrelle (18 September 1944 – 8 May 1945)

Post-war activities[edit]

Altogether, between 7,000 and 8,000 men served in the Walloon Legion between 1941 and 1944, slightly less than the number of Flemish who served in comparable formations. Some 1,337 were killed,[17] representing about a fifth of its total strength.[15] However, its maximum field strength had never exceeded 2,000 men.[15] Fearing execution for treason in Belgium, Degrelle escaped to Denmark and Norway and then fled to Francoist Spain where, sentenced to death in absentia, he remained in exile until his death in 1994.[15]

Most former members of the unit returned to Belgium and where they were offered re-education and training classes between 1946 and 1951. It was reported in 1992 that there were around 1,000 surviving veterans. Many were unrepentant and claimed not to have had any knowledge of Nazi atrocities.[18]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 261.
  2. ^ Wouters 2018, pp. 262–263.
  3. ^ a b Wouters 2018, p. 266.
  4. ^ Dictionnaire 2008, p. 243.
  5. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 267.
  6. ^ Wouters 2018, pp. 266–268.
  7. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 270.
  8. ^ Dictionnaire 2008, p. 244.
  9. ^ Plisnier 2011, p. 100.
  10. ^ a b Wouters 2018, pp. 271–272.
  11. ^ Plisnier 2011, p. 101.
  12. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 286.
  13. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 272.
  14. ^ a b c Wouters 2018, p. 273.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Dictionnaire 2008, p. 245.
  16. ^ Vandenberghe, Gérald (26 November 2019). "Deuxième Guerre mondiale: des soldats wallons ont participé au massacre de 6000 femmes juives". RTBF Info. RTBF. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  17. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 274.
  18. ^ Bailly, Michel (29 February 1992). "Sur la réinsertion des survivants de la Légion Wallonie". Le Soir. Retrieved 8 November 2020.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Plisnier, Flore (2011). Ils ont pris les armes pour Hitler: la collaboration armée en Belgique francophone. Brussels: Renaissance du Livre. ISBN 9782507003616.
  • Wouters, Nico (2018). "Belgium". In Stahel, David (ed.). Joining Hitler's Crusade: European Nations and the Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 260–287. ISBN 978-1-316-51034-6.
  • Aron, Paul; Gotovich, José, eds. (2008). "Légion Wallonie". Dictionnaire de la seconde guerre mondiale en Belgique. Brussels: André Versaille. pp. 243–245. ISBN 978-2-87495-001-8.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]