SS Wallonien Panzer Grenadier Division
Members of many European nations volunteered to serve in the Third Reich. But history is written by the victors, and so, unlike those who fought on the side of the Allies, their past is much less recorded in the popular consciousness. The exception is the Walloons, the francophone Belgians whose voluntary wartime involvement is best known through the prominent Belgian collaborator Léon Degrelle.
In the following lines, we will learn not only the fate of the Walloon volunteers, but also the motivations of their main representative, a man to whom Adolf Hitler is said to have said in a personal meeting: „If I had a son, I wish he were like you.“
The formation of the Walloon Volunteer Unit
On the eve of the German western campaign in the spring of 1940, Degrelle was arrested as a potentially dangerous person and interned in a camp in the south of France. He was freed by the Germans after France, ready to win the world war again, „collapsed ignominiously“. Returning home, he quickly understood that the way up was through collaboration with the occupiers. He sought Walloon political independence, but the occupation administration focused on the ‚Germanic‘ Flemings, who were ethnically closer to the Dutch, rather than on cooperation with the francophone Walloons.
Rivalries thus erupted between Belgian, Flemish and Walloon collaborators, and both sides sought to please the Nazis. While Degrelle dreamed of restoring the historical Burgundy, the Flemish collaborators were drunk on the idea of a Greater Flanders, including not only Belgian and French territories but also the Netherlands. When, from the spring of 1941, a Flemish volunteer force began to form, the Walloon collaborators were not going to be shamed. Volunteers willing to „defend Europe against Bolshevism“ were to attract German attention on the eastern front and secure a better position for their nation in the „new Europe“.
Although the military commander of Belgium, General von Falkenhausen, wrote of them that they were „mostly young idealists who became involved when they sensed the Red danger,“ the reality of the motivations for joining the volunteer force was somewhat different. Some of them did indeed join out of conviction, but most were adventurers, persons fleeing from the law or obligations, and later from the workforce in bombed-out Germany. In their coat of arms, the Walloon volunteers had a stylised Burgundian cross, crossed spurs, and bristly trunks with stumps of truncated branches used in the Middle Ages to scale walls. In 1941-1943, when the unit was part of the Wehrmacht, it bore the designation 373rd Infantry Battalion and, after its incorporation into the SS in June 1943, first the SS Strike Brigade „Wallonie“ and, from autumn 1944, the 28th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division „Wallonie“.
In the ranks of the Wehrmacht
Georges Jacobs, a former Belgian colonial official, took command. Degrelle, a politician and journalist with no military training, had to join the unit as a private soldier, but by the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) of the SS. Together with about eight hundred other men, he took part in military training in East Prussia, and in the autumn the Legion was sent to the Eastern Front as part of the German 66th Infantry Division. The „crusade against the plague of Bolshevism“ thus began for the Walloons in October 1941 as part of the German Army Group South in the Ukraine. Like other volunteer units, the German command viewed the Walloon Freiwilligen as a political rather than primarily military project.
Thus, they were not deployed to the front until February 1942 against the Soviet breakthroughs of the front near Dnepropetrovsk on the Donets. Despite two-thirds casualties, they defended the village of Gromovaya Balka from enemy attacks and won the respect of the command. Degrelle himself drew attention to his bravery. In June 1942, the battalion was replenished and assigned to General Rupp’s 97th Bavarian Mountain Hunter Division. Lucien Lippert, popular among the men, took command at that time and Degrelle attained the rank of lieutenant at about the same time. The battalion went to the Caucasus, where the advance of the German forces was halted in the autumn a few dozen kilometres from Grozny. The Walloons again suffered heavy casualties and were withdrawn to the rear.
The Walloons in the Waffen SS
They did not return to the front until November 1943, by then as part of the Waffen en SS, into which they had been incorporated in June 1943. Degrelle in particular had a hand in this change, which was far from being understood by all Rexist politicians and members of the men. Pragmatically, he pursued an increase in his political influence and became increasingly open to ideologically moving closer to Germanic-pagan Nazism at the expense of the original fascist platform.
Sturmbannführer SS Lucien Lippert became head of the shock brigade and Hauptsturmführer SS Degrelle became his deputy. The star hour of the Walloons came in the winter of 1943/1944. In the autumn of 1943 the brigade on the Dnieper was attached to the elite SS Wiking Division, according to Degrelle „an admirable, fully motorized unit with thousands of splendid young men, square as almars and strong as lumberjacks“.
In December 1943, the Soviet offensive to clear the right bank of the Ukraine began. The Walloons, along with other units, found themselves in a buffer role and engaged in the fiercest winter fighting at Cherkasy. The Soviet advance could not be stopped and some of the German units stationed there were surrounded. Approximately 50,000 men, including Walloon volunteers, were in the cauldron near the towns of Korsun and Cherkasy by the end of January 1944, in what Degrelle retrospectively referred to, very hyperbolically, as „a second Stalingrad.“ The noose tightened rapidly around the encircled, and air supply by Ju-52 freighters soon became impossible due to bad weather.
Despite Hitler’s opposition, the attempted breakthrough was eventually agreed to. Under the apocalyptic conditions of a snowstorm, the encircled managed to break through at the cost of losing all their equipment, and about half of the soldiers were saved. Although almost without tanks themselves, they had to face not only the enemy T-34s but also the new IS-2 type armoured vehicles, using only grenades and mines. The Walloons formed the rearguard during the breakthrough. Lippert fell and Degrelle himself took command. The seventy percent casualties of the Walloons caught the attention of Hitler himself. He personally awarded the new commander of the shock brigade the Knight’s Cross in his headquarters in East Prussia. The „Cherkassy Pocket“ made Degrell a celebrity of Nazi propaganda, a symbol of heroism in the fight against the „barbarian hordes“ from the east. He even appeared on the cover of Signal magazine.
Fight to the death in Pomerania
After the heroic performance in Cherkassy, the brigade was withdrawn, replenished with new volunteers and in the summer of 1944 took part in the bloody fighting in Estonia alongside the Flemish and volunteers from Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Holland. The ferocity of the fighting in the Baltic that preceded the demise of German Army Group North is evidenced by the fact that by the end of August only 200 men remained from the shock brigade. For his performance at Narva, Degrelle was personally decorated by Hitler with an oak branch to the Knight’s Cross, which was awarded to only two other foreigners besides him, the Estonian Alfons Rebane and the commander of the volunteer Spanish Blue Division, Agustín Muñoz Grandes.
In his memoirs, Degrelle states that it was during this meeting that the leader expressed the aforementioned paternal affection to him. The remnants of the Wallonian Legionnaires were withdrawn from the front and in October 1944 the unit was converted into the 28th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division „Wallonie“. It was also replenished, both by collaborators fleeing Belgium and by volunteers from Spain and France. Although it was formally designated as a division, its strength did not exceed 8,000 men and in fact it was a reinforced brigade.
In February 1945, the Walloons took part in Operation Sonnenwende (Solstice), an offensive to relieve German troops surrounded at Arnswalde, now Choszczno in northwestern Poland. However, it could not change much of the unfavourable course of the war. Here, too, the Walloons owed nothing to their reputation and suffered heavy losses in the retreat fighting on the Oder. Their last intention was not to fall into the hands of the Soviets.
This was eventually achieved and the remnants of the Walloon volunteers were captured by the Western Allies. The sacrifices of the Walloons to the Nazi „New Europe“ were not insignificant. According to Degrell, 6,000 people passed through the Walloon Volunteer Corps in 1941-45, of whom 2,500 died „in the struggle against Bolshevism, for Europe and for their country“. Of the original 800 volunteers in 1941, three survived, including Degrell. According to his memoirs published in 1949, they fulfilled their „duty as Europeans and Christians“ by fighting „on the steppes of Eastern Europe“.
Epilogue in sunny Spain
This was the end of the story of the Walloon volunteers in the service of the Third Reich, but not of Degrell himself. The slogan of the time proclaimed that ‚with Degrell, happiness is forever with us‘, and as at the front, where he was wounded five times in total, it did not desert him this time. He managed to escape via Denmark to the still unliberated Norway, where, after a personal meeting with Prime Minister Quisling, he fled in a plane to the Iberian Peninsula. A total of 242 collaborators were executed in Belgium after the war, and Degrelle was to be one of them.
Yet in Spain, under the false name of José de Ramirez Reina and under the protection of the Francoist regime, he spent the rest of his life in peace. In any case, he didn’t waste away. He was in the construction business and even built bases for NATO in the 1960s. He did not hesitate to participate in public life. He spoke out against Zionism and even had no qualms about openly denying the Holocaust. Understandably, he returned to wartime events. In his memoirs published in 1949, he portrayed the Eastern campaign as a great adventure, a defence of European, Christian civilisation against Eastern barbarism, exactly in the spirit of Nazi propaganda. He also tried to purge himself retrospectively.
In his memoirs he concentrated on the military side of things, on the everyday heroism of his men, but somehow forgot, for example, the massacres of Jews on the Eastern Front. He managed to create his own legend and, like Rudolf Hess, became a symbol of the neo-Nazi movement. He had no major problems even after the fall of the Francoist dictatorship in the mid-1970s. He died in 1994, and until his death he was photographed in his uniform decorated with his medals. It was as if the war had never ended for him.