20. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS
(Estland Nr. 1)
Existed non-officials: "Narva“ and "Estland“
|Naming History:||10/1942: Etnische SS-Legion – Battalion "Narva“|
10/1943: 3.Etnische SS-Freiwilligen-Brigade
01/1944: 20.Etnische SS-Freiwilligen-Division
05.1944: 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1)
|Divisional Status:||January 1944|
|Fought in:||Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, Silesia.|
|RK||5, Alfons Rebane, Harald Nugiseks, Harald Riipalu, Paul Maitla and Franz Augsberger.|
|Fate:||Most surrendered to the Russians in May, 1945. Some fought their way to the American lines but were soon handed over to the Soviet Union.|
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The 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) was a Baltic Waffen SS Grenadier division recruited by Germans from mainly Estonian conscripts. It saw action on the Eastern Front during World War II.
Soviet invasion - German liberation
When the German forces of Army Group North rolled into the Baltic States in 1941, they were greeted as liberators by much of the local population. The states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had only been under the control of the Soviets for just over a year. In June 1940, the Red Army had occupied the small states, installing their own communist puppet governments. Great Britain, USA, and other democratic nations never recognised this occupation, but due to the current threats posed by Nazi Germany, their reaction was limited to diplomatic opposition. The Soviets dealt severely with any form of nationalism, and mass repressions were carried out. Over 60,000 Estonians - 5% of the population - were massacred during the period known as the Red Terror. In June 1941, just prior to the German invasion, over 10,000 Estonians, mostly former cultural elite, were deported to Siberia.After the June 22 invasion, the Soviets mobilised approximately 50,000 Estonians. While some of these went to form the 8th Rifle Corps, many Estonians were put to work in Russian armaments factories and labour camps. During this period, many Estonians had fled to the forests or to Finland, some signing up with the Finnish Army. As the Soviets were pushed back by the advancing Germans, the NKVD carried out executions and deportations of all remaining nationalists.When the Germans occupied Estonia in late 1941, many Estonians had hopes of the re-establishment of the independent democratic pre-war state. Many Estonians, eager to secure themselves from their far more powerful eastern neighbor, signed up for service in the Wehrmacht. Despite their hopes, Hitler had no intention of creating any independent states, and instead Estonia, along with Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, was designated Ostland. The Einsatzgruppen also went to work, liquidating Jews, suspected communists and anyone the Nazi Party deemed undesirable. Around 8,000 Estonians died during the occupation.
Formation of the Narwa Regiment
Despite this, many Estonians were still firmly behind the Germans. On the first anniversary of the German capture of Tallinn, the Estonian capitol, the formation of an Estonian legion under the name of Estnische SS-Legion, a formation of three battalions, was initiated. The formation was to be placed under the control of Heinrich Himmler's Waffen-SS, and formation and training was to take place at Debrecia in Poland. In early 1943, it was decided that the first battalion, about 800 strong, was to be restructured as a Panzergrenadier formation. Accordingly, the unit was redesignated Estnisches SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Bataillon Narwa (Estonian SS Volunteer Armored Infantry Batallion "Narwa"). In late February 1943, the Finnish Volunteer Battalion of the SS (Finnisches Freiwilligen-Bataillon der SS), which had been serving with the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking was dissolved, and the Estonian battalion was ordered to the Ukraine to replace the Finns.
The Narwa in Action - Formation of the Estonian Brigade
The Narwa arrived at the front in early April, and were equipped with the weapons and vehicles of the departed Finns. The unit was not to have much time to settle in, and they were soon thrown into combat. Over the next few months, the Narwa was engaged against partisan forces. In mid July, the battalion was thrown into the line near Andrejewka, south of Kharkov. From 17-19 of July, the battalion was under almost constant attack. Despite being severely outnumbered, the 800 man battalion proved its worth. It inflicted over 7,000 casualties on the Soviets, and destroyed 100 tanks. Only 157 of its men remained unwounded, and almost forty Iron Crosses were awarded to men of the Narwa after this battle. Over the next six months the Narwa remained in action with the Wiking division. In January 1944, the formation was trapped in the Cherkassy Pocket and took part in the desperate fighting withdrawal. After its escape from the pocket, the Narwa was sent back to Debrecia to be integrated in the Estonian SS Division. Meanwhile, the Estnische SS-Legion was still undergoing formation in Debrecia, and by this time it had expanded to brigade size. It was redesignated as the Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Brigade in May 1943. In October 1943, all SS brigades were numbered, and so the brigade became the 3. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Brigade. Formation and training continued for the rest of the year.
Division - Battles at Narva
In January 1944, the 20. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen-Division began formation. The majority of the troops were drawn from the 3. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Brigade, but elements from Ost Battalions Nr. 658, also known as Pups of Rebane (="Fox") and Nr. 659, the 287.Polizei-Füsilier-Bataillon and the returned Estonian volunteers of the Finnish army unit Infantry Regiment 200 were also absorbed into the division.On 8 February 1944, the division was attached to SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner's III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps, then defending the heavily pressured Narva bridgehead. The division was to replace the remnants of the 9th and 10th Luftwaffe-Feld-Divisions, which were struggling to hold the line against a Soviet bridgehead near Siivertsi. Upon arriving at the front on 20 February, the Estonians were immediately ordered to eliminate the threatening Siivertsi Soviet bridgehead. In nine days of heavy fighting, the division pushed the Soviets back across the river and restored the line. The division remained stationed in the Ssivertsi sector, being engaged in heavy combat. In May, the division was pulled back and reformed as the 20. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1), and the recently returned Narwa battalion was absorbed into the division as the reconnaissance Abteilung (batallion). By that time active conscription of Estonian men into the German armed forces was well under way, in violation of the international law of war. By spring 1944, approximately 32,000 men were drafted into the German forces, with the 20. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1) consisting of some 15,000 men.When Steiner ordered a withdrawal to the Tannenbergstellung on 25 July, the division was deployed on the Kinderheim-Hights, the first line of defence for the new position. Over the next month, the division was engaged in heavy defensive battles on the Kinderheim- and Grenadier-Hights. In mid-August, the division's 45th Estland and 46th regiments were formed into Kampfgruppe Vent and sent south to help defend the Emajogi river line, seeing heavy fighting.When Hitler authorised a full withdrawal from Estonia in mid September, all men who wished to stay to defend their homes were released from service. Many chose this offer, fighting the Soviets alongside other Estonians and then withdrawing into the forests to become the Forest Brothers. Severely weakened by this, the division was withdrawn to Neuhammer to be refitted.
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Vistula-Oder Offensive - Final battles
Eventually, the reformed division numbered roughly 11,000 Estonians and 2,500 Germans. It was returned to the line in late February, just in time for the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive. This offensive forced the German forces back behind the Oder and Neisse rivers. The division was pushed back to the Neisse, taking heavy casualties. The division was then trapped with the XI. Armeekorps in the Oberglogau - Falkenberg - Friedberg area. On 17 March, the division launched a major escape attempt, but despite making headway, the attempt failed. On 19 March, the division tried again, this time succeeding but leaving all heavy weapons and equipment behind in the pocket.In April 1945, the shattered remnants of the division were moved south to the area around Goldberg. After the final Soviet offensive, the division attempted to break out in the west, in order to surrender to the western Allies. After marching over the Reichenberg and Annaberg mountains, the division was encircled by Russian forces and capitulated on May 8. Some of the Estonians who had reached the western allies were handed back to the Soviets. The survivors could, at best, expect a lengthy stay in the Gulags.In contrast, some veterans of the Estonian Legion served as guards under American leadership at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trials.
The Nuremberg Trials, in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organisation, explicitly excluded conscripts in the following terms:Tribunal declares to be criminal within the meaning of the Charter the group composed of those persons who had been officially accepted as members of the SS as enumerated in the preceding paragraph who became or remained members of the organisation with knowledge that it was being used for the commission of acts declared criminal by Article 6 of the Charter or who were personally implicated as members of the organisation in the commission of such crimes, excluding, however, those who were drafted into membership by the State in such a way as to give them no choice in the matter, and who had committed no such crimes.
In April 13, 1950, a message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by John McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that:The Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.
In 2002, the Estonian government forced the removal of a monument to the division erected near the Estonian city of Pärnu. The inscription To all Estonian soldiers who died in the second war for the liberation of the fatherland and a free Europe in 1940-1945 was the cause of the controversy, as it allegedly promoted anti-Semitism.
In 2004 the monument was reopened in Lihula but shortly after removed again because of the Estonian government opposed the opening.
"Then it began a trial with it, and monument was returned to owner, Ants-Eduard Teder, a veteran of Estonian SS-Battallion "Narva". The coverment agreed that the monument was place to a museum. And then it was placed in October 2005 to Freedom fighter museum in Lagedi."
In 15th of October 2005 the monument was finally opened in grounds of private museum located in Lagedi near Estonian capital Tallinn. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre had provided the Estonian government with information on alleged Estonian war criminals, all former members of the 20.Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS. After investigation, the Estonian government concluded that the claims were false and rejected the centre's demands to try the veterans.On May 22, 2004, the Jerusalem Post ran a story about the plans of some Estonian individuals to build a monument to the 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. International outrage followed, due to the criminal status of the non-conscript Waffen-SS, after the Nuremberg Trials. Russia's chief Rabbi, Berl Lazar condemned the action, stating it would breed anti-Semitism.The matter of the Estonian SS is still hotly debated.
SS-Brigadeführer Franz Augsberger (20 August 1942 - 19 March 1945)
SS-Brigadeführer Berthold Maack (20 March 1945 - 8 May 1945)
Orders of Battle
3.Estnische SS-Freiwilligen-Brigade, October 1943
42. SS-Freiwilligen Regiment (renumbered 45 in Nov. 1943)
43. SS-Freiwilligen Regiment (renumbered 46 in Nov. 1943)
SS-Ausbildung- und Ersatz-Regiment 33
SS-Artillerie-Abteilung 53 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1), Narva 1944
Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS 45 Estland (Estnische Nr. 1) SS-Obersturmbannführer Harald Riipalu
1st Battalion – SS-Hauptsturmführer Paul Maitla
2nd Battalion – SS-Hauptsturmführer Ludvig Kiisk
3rd Battalion was still in the process of forming
Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS 46 (estnische nr. 2) SS-Standartenführer Juhan Tuuling
1st Battalion – SS-Hauptsturmführer Heino Rannik
2nd Battalion – SS-Sturmbannführer Friedrich Kurg
3rd Battalion – SS-Obersturmführer Arseni Korp. The battalion was based on the 660th Ost Battalion.
Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS 47(Estnische Nr. 3) SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Vent
1st Battalion – SS-Sturmbannführer Georg Sooden. The battalion was based on the 659th Ost Battalion.
2nd Battalion – SS-Hauptsturmführer Alfons Rebane. The battalion was based on the 659th Ost Battalion.
3rd Battalion – SS-Hauptsturmführer Eduard Hints. Formed from mobilized men and was at this moment just arriving to the front.
Waffen-Artillerie Regiment der SS 20 - SS-Obersturmbannführer Aleksandr Sobolev.
SS-Waffen Füsilier Batallion 20 - SS-Hauptsturmführer Wallner. He was wounded on 25 July and replaced by SS-Obersturmbannführer Oskar Ruut. The latter was killed on 3 August. After that SS-Hauptsturmführer Hando Ruus took over. The battalion was based on the “Narva” battalion (Division “Wiking”), but was reinforced with conscripts.
SS-Waffen Pionier Batallion 20
SS-Feldersatz Batallion 20
SS-Waffen Nachrichten Abteilung 20
SS-Ausbildungs- und Ersatz Regiment 20