23rd SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division Nederland
|23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier
Insignia of the 23rd SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division Nederland
|Active||February 1941 – May 1945|
|Engagements||World War II|
In February 1945, the 4th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Brigade Nederland was to be merged into the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, but after protests from the Dutch National Socialist movement, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB), it was formed into its own SS Panzer Grenadier Division, although its strength never reached more than a brigade.
After the success of Germany's blitzkrieg attacks on Poland and in the West in 1939–1940, many European fascists saw Germany as an answer to the Bolshevik problem. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, with the support of Adolf Hitler, began a campaign in late 1940 to recruit those European fascists of sufficiently Aryan stock into a series of "Legions", under the control of the Waffen SS. The SS Volunteer Standarte Nordwest was formed to cater for volunteers from the Low Countries.
The Dutch were seen as especially well qualified for service in the SS; a large recruiting drive, backed by the NSB and other collaborating organizations, was begun. The drive was given an air of respectability by the support of Dutch General Staff Officer Lieutenant-General Hendrik A. Seyffardt. The drive was very successful, and by April 1941, volunteers began arriving in Hamburg. They were quickly processed and signed up for service in the Nordwest. Many Dutchmen assumed that service in the Waffen SS would result in a powerful position for the Netherlands in Hitler's New World Order.
By July 1941, the number of recruits meant that the Nordwest could be dissolved and several separate units formed. The Dutch were organized into SS Volunteer Unit Niederlande. Dutch volunteers, many members of the NSB, continued to sign up for the unit, and by July 1941 the formation was the size of a reinforced infantry battalion, boasting five fully motorized companies. The unit was again redesignated, this time as SS Volunteer Legion Niederlande. NSB Leader Anton Mussert saw the Legion as the forerunner to the new model Dutch Army. On 11 July 1941, Mussert called upon all able bodied members of the NSB to sign up for the Legion.
Great efforts were made by the Germans to persuade the Dutchmen that the new unit was an 'All-Dutch' affair, and indeed many recruits were under the impression that the Legion was an independent Dutch formation fighting alongside their German Allies. General Seyffardt was recruited to command the Legion, and all recruits were permitted to wear the Prinsenvlag (an unofficial Dutch national flag) on the sleeve of the uniform. While many recruits were convinced of the independence of the Legion, Seyffardt was aware of its true nature. While strongly anti-communist, he did not subscribe to the NSDAP ideology. When he discovered that his formation was to come under the control of the Waffen SS, he objected, but the Germans ignored his complaints.
The recruits went through basic training in Hamburg, before being sent on to Arys in East Prussia for further training. Despite the harsh attitude of the German Waffen SS instructors, the recruits were committed to their cause and were soon highly trained. In November 1941, the legion was ordered to the front near Leningrad, under the overall command of Army Group North.
Battles around Leningrad
The Legion arrived at the Volkhov river in mid January 1942 and began setting up a defensive line. For the next few weeks it was engaged in operations to prevent the Soviets from establishing a bridgehead on the west bank of the Volkhov. During this period it was also engaged in several offensive operations against Red Army defensive positions, as well as anti-partisan activities. In early February, Mussert visited the front, raising the morale of the troops. On 10 February, the Soviets launched a major offensive aimed at the relief of Leningrad. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Legion held the line, albeit suffering heavy casualties. The Legion was engaged in defensive operations against incessant Soviet assaults until early June, and despite suffering heavy casualties, managed to hold their positions.
In June, the Legion had its first chance to go on the offensive, destroying a large Red Army force near Fuhovga Lake. During this battle, the Legion captured 3,500 prisoners, including General Andrey Vlasov, who was to become leader of the Russian Liberation Army. In late June, it was transferred north to take part in the Siege of Leningrad. After a month's relative quiet in the trenches around the city, the Legion was pulled out of the line in preparation for Operation Nordlicht, an assault on Leningrad which was to be the decisive blow. The launch of the offensive on 14 August was preceded by a Soviet counterstroke. This resulted in the complete failure of the operation, with many units being removed from the battle to stop the counteroffensive.
After the failure of this offensive, the Legion was moved south of Leningrad, near to Lake Ladoga, to defend against expected Soviet attacks. The following battles were known as the First Battle of Ladoga. The Legion was involved in heavy fighting until the end of 1942, when it was regrouped with the 2nd SS Infantry Brigade . The Legion was moved back into the line alongside the SS-Freiwilligen-Legion Norwegen, a Norwegian volunteer outfit. In early January, the Red Army launched another offensive which would be known as the Second Battle of Ladoga. The Dutch and Norwegians managed to withstand several Soviet tank attacks, destroying many T-34s with their 7.5 cm PaK 97/98 anti-tank guns. After this action, the Dutch SS-Sturmmann Gerardus Mooyman received the Knight's Cross for single-handedly destroying nineteen Soviet T-34s and KV-1s. Mooyman was the first non-German to receive the Knight's Cross.
On 6 February, General Seyffardt, back in Amsterdam campaigning for new recruits for the Legion, was assassinated by the Dutch Resistance group CS-6. The Legionnaires were stunned, but had little time to mourn their lost leader. Soviet attacks resumed and continued throughout the spring thaw. In April 1943, the Legion was ordered back to Sonneberg in Thüringen to be reformed as a panzergrenadier brigade.
Service in Yugoslavia
Upon arrival at Sonneberg, the Legion was dissolved and began the task of reforming as the 'SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Brigade Nederland. The brigade was to consist of two Panzer Grenadier regiments. The two Regiments were granted honour titles, the 48th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Regiment "General Seyffardt", in honour of their dead figurehead, and the 49th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Regiment "de Ruyter"; it was named after the seventeenth-century Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter. Added to this core force were to be Reconnaissance, Pioneer, Panzerjäger and Artillery components. The brigade was to be commanded by SS-Oberführer Jürgen Wagner.
In September 1943, the Brigade was ordered to the Independent State of Croatia (Yugoslavia) to join SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps currently forming in the area. Upon its arrival, the Brigade received 1,500 Dutch recruits, drawn from the veterans of SS Division Wiking. During its time there, elements of the brigade were engaged in operations against Yugoslav Partisans. The fighting was brutal and no quarter was given on either side; however the Brigade showed itself capable in combat. During this period, the brigade was redesignated 4th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Brigade Nederland. At this time, its strength stood at 9,342 officers and men: that of a weak division.
Retreat from Oranienbaum
Upon its arrival at the front, Steiner's SS Corps was deployed to the area near Oranienbaum. the Corps was to form a part of the 18.Armee. Opposing the Corps was General Leonid A. Govorov's Leningrad Front. On 14 January, the Soviets launched the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive aimed at driving Army Group North from the Leningrad region. Govorov was to attack in conjunction with the adjacent Volkhov Front under General Kiril A. Meretskov.
The Krasnoye Selo–Ropsha Offensive cut through the weak infantry units formed out of the 9th and 10th Luftwaffe Field Divisions defending the line, and by doing so knocked two large, if unreliable, units out of Steiner's newly formed corps.
The Nederland, fighting alongside the 11. SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland attempted to stem the tide of Govorov's Front, but were soon forced to fall back to avoid encirclement by Meretskov's Force.
The Nederland was involved in the 150 kilometres (93 mi) fighting withdrawal to the Narva River in Estonia, where a line of defence was to be established. The Nederland was to defend the northern and central flanks of the Ivangorod bridgehead.
Battle for the Narva Bridgehead
Steiner's men had little time to dig-in, with the first Soviet attacks beginning on 3 February. Despite the ferocity of these attacks, the Nederland maintained the bridgehead over the Narva. In early March the main focus of the Red Army assaults were directed at the De Ruyter regiment, defending the town of Lilienbach on the northern flank. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Dutchmen repulsed the Soviet thrusts, forcing Govorov to look elsewhere for his breakthrough.
After a feint attack towards Nordland's positions, Govorov directed his forces at the "General Seyffardt" regiment, holding the centre of the line. The regiment was forced from its positions, but a counterattack led by regimental commander SS-Standartenführer Wolfgang Jörchel retook the defensive works and averted a Soviet breakthrough.
Govorov again shifted his focus of attack back to the de Ruyter, commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Collani, a veteran of the Wiking division. The Dutch line cracked, only the arrival of Nordland's Panzer Battalion saved the situation. When the Panzer counterattack bogged down, Collani ordered his men to fall back to positions closer to Lilienbach. The Soviets saw this, and began laying heavy artillery fire on the withdrawing Dutchmen. This was followed up with a major assault, and the De Ruyter suffered heavily. Company leader SS-Untersturmführer Helmut Scholz gathered a group of men and went into action, retaking De Ruyter's original positions, giving the regiment breathing space and preventing a rout.
On 22 March another assault hit De Ruyter, this time cutting through the lines on 5 Company's front and threatening to annihilate the regiment. Battalion commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinz Frühauf formed an assault group from his headquarters personnel and attacked the 150 man Soviet force wreaking havoc in the regiment's rear. After destroying the Soviet force in heavy fighting, he then reformed his men and cleared the regiment's trenches of enemy troops.
Withdrawal - Loss of the General Seyffardt
When Govorov realised that the Dutch lines would not crack, he shifted his attention south to the Nordland's Danmark regiment. The launch of Operation Bagration on 22 June resulted in Govorov stepping up the pressure. In February, the Red Army had established the strong Krivasoo bridgehead on the western bank of the Narva and threatened to cut off the entire corps. On 23 July, Steiner ordered a withdrawal to the Tannenbergstellung, a prepared position 16 km to the west.
The General Seyffardt regiment and the brigade's artillery component were to provide a rearguard for the retreating troops. Govorov launched the Narva Offensive on the German lines on 24 July, in the afternoon, the Nederland's Artillery battalion started withdrawing across the Narva bridge. The Dutchmen got involved in heavy fighting but somehow they managed to hold the Soviets while the last of the SS men got across the river. The Nordland's Pioneer Battalion blew up the bridge. However, due to a colossal mistake by its officers, the General Seyffardt regiment would not survive the withdrawal.
Attempting to avoid Red Army forces, the regiment was ordered to take a different route to that originally planned. The withdrawing Dutchmen were discovered by Jabos (fighter bombers) of the Red Air Force, and were soon pinned down. Soviet ground forces were brought in to trap the withdrawing Dutchmen, soon the regiment was under attack from the air and the ground. Trapped in the open, the General Seyffardt never stood a chance. After a short time, it ceased to exist, with only a few survivors under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Nieuwendijk-Hoek reaching the Tannenbergstellung a week later.
With the exception of the "General Seyffardt"'s loss, the withdrawal had been a success, and Steiner's men began to dig-in on the Tannenbergstellung, in preparation for the next Soviet attack. The Nederland had lost one of its two regiments, and many valuable veterans in it. The General Seyffardt was ordered to be reformed at Schlochau.
Retreat into Courland
During the withdrawal to the Tannenbergstellung defensive line, the Nederland was involved in rearguard actions. SS-Rottenführer Derk Elsko Bruins of the Panzerjäger (anti-tank) Battalion destroyed 12 Soviet tanks in one engagement, earning himself the Knight's Cross. When the new defensive line was established, the Nederland was pulled out of combat to act as reserve, allowing the exhausted Brigade a little rest and time to recuperate.
The reaction of the brigade to the 20 July plot on Hitler's life had been one of shock and anger, several letters of sympathy and support were sent to Hitler by men from the Nederland. Despite the horrors of the front, most men of the brigade were still firmly holding to their NSB pro-Nazi ideology. On 24 August, SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a letter to the Brigade, praising its fighting spirit.
In September, Leon Degrelle's Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) from 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien was placed under the command of the Nederland, bolstering its strength. When Hitler authorized the withdrawal of German troops from Estonia, the Nederland found itself with another problem on its hands. Besides the Russians, bands of Estonian soldiers, unwilling to leave their country and furious at the Germans for abandoning them, had turned to brigandry. Nederland's commander, Wagner, was forced to keep a company in reserve to deal with any attacks by the Estonians. Apart from a few skirmishes, the brigade was spared a large scale fight against its former allies.
Battles in Courland and withdrawal to Germany
Nederland began the retreat into Courland on 23 September, executing a fighting withdrawal and arriving in the area near Gumi-Wolmar in mid October. The brigade was almost immediately attacked by a large Soviet combined arms force, and suffered heavy casualties in just a few days fighting. They also managed to cut off Army Group North in the Courland area, creating what was to be known as the Courland Pocket. Stationed alongside the Nordland, the brigade was involved in fierce fighting, protecting the strategically vital city of Libau, one of the embarkation points for troops to be withdrawn to Germany.
During the fighting in Courland, the brigade was subject to heavy partisan attacks, and after a number of these attacks, Wagner ordered the reprisal executions of an unknown number of civilians.
The second Courland offensive was launched by the Soviets on 27 October, the De Ruyter regiment saw heavy fighting, repelling two large infantry attacks. Under almost constant air bombardment, the Nederland began digging-in. The next two major offensives to crush the pocket were not in Nederland's sector, and so besides minor skirmishes, the brigade was left in relative peace for the remainder of 1944. On 26 January 1945, the brigade received orders to evacuate the pocket by sea and report to the Swinemünde (now Bremerhaven-Stettin area to participate in the defence of the Oder line. The evacuation, through the port of Libau, began immediately. The voyage across the Baltic was dangerous, with the Red Air Force sinking many evacuation ships. The brigade arrived in German territory on 4 February.
The Waffen SS command presented the idea of merging the Nederland into the Nordland division, but the NSB would not permit the formation to be disbanded. On 10 February, the brigade was redesignated "23rd SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division Nederland", although its strength at the time was barely 1,000 men. The new division was attached to Steiner's Eleventh SS Panzer Army, defending the Northern Oder region. Despite its weak strength, the Nederland took part in the abortive Operation Sonnenwende, and the battles near Altdamm in February 1945.
In April 1945, the division was split into two Kampfgruppen, based on the reformed 48th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Regiment "General Seyffardt" and the 49th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Regiment "de Ruyter". Kampfgruppe General Seyffardt headed south, Kampfgruppe de Ruyter remained on the northern Oder front.
The final Soviet offensive of 16 April had broken the German lines by 25 April. During the attacks, both formations saw very heavy fighting, the Red Army breakthrough broke the lines of communication between the two Kampfgruppen. "de Ruyter", was pushed back, attempting to halt the Soviets near the town of Parchim. On 3 May, the Kampfgruppe was attacked by a large number of Soviet tanks. In heavy fighting, the Kampfgruppe halted the enemy attack, destroying the spearhead. Hearing rumours of Americans nearby, the formation broke out to the west, surrendering to the US Army and being sent to a POW Camp near Kraak.
Meanwhile, Kampfgruppe "General Seyffardt" was pushed south by the Soviet offensive, into the area around Halbe. The remnants of the Kampfgruppe were absorbed into Kampfgruppe Vieweger of the 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian). During the hellish fighting in the battle of Halbe, the "General Seyffardt" was annihilated.
After the war, the survivors were tried in the Netherlands, with several death sentences being handed down. In Yugoslavia, Wagner faced a trial for war crimes; he was sentenced to death for his actions against the civilian population.
- SS-Sturmbannführer Herbert Garthe (? November 1941 - ? February 1942)
- SS-Oberführer Otto Reich (? February 1942 - 1 April 1942)
- SS-Obersturmbannführer Arved Theuermann (1 April 1942 - ?)
- SS-Standartenführer Josef Fitzthum (? - ?)
- SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Wagner (20 April 1944 - 1 May 1945)
Orders of battle
SS Volunteer Legion Niederlande
- I. Battalion
- 1. Company
- 2. Company
- 3. Company
- 4. Company
- II. Battalion
- 5. Company
- 6. Company
- 7. Company
- 8. Company
- III. Battalion
- 9. Company
- 10. Company
- 11. Company
- 12. Company
- 13. Artillery Company
- 14. Panzerjäger Company
4th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier-Brigade Nederland
- SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Regiment 48 General Seyffard
- SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Regiment 49 de Ruyter
- SS Artillery Regiment 54
- SS Signals Battalion 54
- SS Panzerjäger Batallion 54
- SS Pionier Batallion 54
- List of Knight's Cross recipients 23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland
- Panzer Division
- Waffen SS
- Division (military)
- Military unit
- List of German military units of World War II
- Pierik, Perry - From Leningrad to Berlin: Dutch Volunteers in the German Waffen SS
- Viccx, Jan / Schotanius, Viktor - Nederlandse vrijwilligers in Europese krijgsdienst 1940-1945 (Vol 3: Vrijw. Pantsergrenadier Brigade Nederland)
- Tieke, Wilhelm - Tragedy of the Faithful: A History of III. (Germanisches) SS-Panzer-Korps
- Netherlanders in the Waffen SS
- Steiner, Felix - Waffen SS im Einsatz