Russian volunteers with the German Army
The continuous drain of German military personnel brought about by the bitter fighting on the Eastern Front, together with increasing partisan activity in the German rear, brought about a gradual process which began with the employment of the vast numbers of Red Army prisoners of war held by the Germans.
These selected Red Army men were given German uniforms stripped of insignia, and were often entered on the strength returns of the German unit. These ‘frans’ or Hiwis (short for Hilfswillige or volunteer helper) meant that German units could use all German personnel in the fighting units and rely on Hiwis to carry out all the supply, construction and other noncombatant tasks.
It is estimated that about 1,500,000 Soviet citizens served in the German forces.
The next phase was to employ Hiwis in a more active role, either as interpreters, scouts or sentries, and finally as fighting soldiers. At the same time the commanders of the vast rear areas began to recruit units, usually of battalion strength, from Red Army prisoners, who were then employed on security duties protecting the German rear and particularly the vital railway network which was the prime target of Soviet partisans. At first these men wore Red Army uniforms stripped of Soviet emblems and with an armlet identifying them as being ‘Im Dienst der deutschen Wehrmacht’ (In the Service of the German Armed Forces’). By August 1942 these uniforms had been replaced by German ones on which was worn newly-introduced insignia.
On 4 August 1943 the 1st Cossack Division was formed with six cavalry regiments ( 1 & 5 Don, 2 Siberian, 3 & 4 Kuban, 6 Terek), divisional support units and services. It served in Croatia from October 1943, and in November 1944 transferred to Waffen-SS control, divided into 1st and 2nd Division and forming XV Cossack Cavalry Corps.
Nine independent Cossack infantry and 19 cavalry battalions fought on the Eastern Front with German divisions.
In July 1942 the staff of the disbanded German 162nd Infantry Division in occupied Poland was used to train battalions of the six newly established Armenian, Azerbaijan, Georgian, North Caucasian, Volga-Tartar and Turkestan Eastern Legions. In all 98 Eastern Legion battalions were formed (82 by the 162nd Division) and 79 served on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts 1942-45; 12 of these transferred to France and Italy in 1943-44.
Russian Liberation Army (ROA)
In January 1943 the Eastern Battalions were transferred to the Russian Liberation Army (Russkaya Osvoboditel’naya Armiya) or ROA, under the command of the ex-Soviet general Andrey Vasslov. He hoped to unit all Russian volunteer units into an army to free the Soviet Union from communist control, but the battalions were used individual within German divisions. At this time there was still a strong resistance by the Nazi party and Himmler’s SS against the Russian liberation movement. A total of 71 battalions of the ROA served on the Eastern Front, but from October 1943, 42 battalions from destroyed German divisions were transferred to Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy.
Together with the Eastern Legions there existed in the of summer of 1944 total 160 Battalions with approx. 300,000 Russian volunteers.
Only after the collapse of the Eastern Fronts on 14 November 1944, the ROA was officially re-designated the ‘Armed Forces of the Committee for Liberation of the Russian Peoples’ (VS-KONR) with about 50,000 Russian troops, but the term ROA was commonly used until the end of the war. The 1st Russian Infantry (600th German) Division was formed on 1 December 1944 and fought on the Oder Front from April 1945. The 2nd Russian Infantry (650th German) Division and 3rd Russian Infantry (599th German) Division were never fully established and operational.
Ranks of Russian Volunteers
1st row: Patches of the Russian and Ukrainian Army of Liberation (above: men; below: officers). Shoulder straps of the Russian Army of Liberation and the Cossack units (Volunteer, Lance-Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant). Patches of the Cossack units (above: men; below: officers).
2nd row: 2nd Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, Lieutenant-General.
3rd row: Sleeve badges and cockades (Russian Army of Liberation, Ukrainian Army of Liberation, Don Cossacks, Terek Cossacks, Kuban Cossacks.
4th row: Patches and shoulder straps (Volunteer in the Turkestan Legion, Lance-Corporal in the Volga-Tartar Legion, Corporal in the North Caucasian Legion, Sergeant in the Azerbaijan Legion, 2nd Lieutenant in the Armenian Legion, Lieutenant in the Georgian Legion, Captain in the Georgian Legion.
5th row: Major in the Turkestan Legion, Lieutenant-Colonel in the Volga-Tartar Legion, Colonel in the North Caucasian Legion, Major-General in the Azerbaijan Legion, Lieutenant-General in the Armenian Legion, General in the Georgian Legion.
6th row: Cuffs and cockades (Turkestan Legion, Volga-Tartar Legion, North Caucasian Legion, Azerbaijan Legion, Armenian Legion, Georgian Legion.
References and literature
The Armed Forces of World War II (Andrew Mollo)
Zweiter Weltkrieg in Bildern (Mathias Färber)
Signal, Years of Triumph 1940-42 + 1943-44 – Hitler’s Wartime Picture Magazine (S.L.Mayer)
A World at Arms – A Global History of World War II (Gerhard L. Weinberg)