In the early summer of 1944, Berlin knew the Allies would soon land in Continental Europe, and had assembled 850,000 men and over fifteen hundred panzers to face them. Who many of these men were is one of the most fascinating stories of World War Two.
Fortress Europe – Festung Europa
Amidst the barbed-wire entanglements and sandbag bunkers of Hitler’s much-vaunted Atlantikwall, a stern-faced sentinel stares out to sea, eyes fixed on the horizon, watching for the Allied landing fleet. His Kar98k rifle is slung on his shoulder, and on his head sits his turban.
Yes, turban, because this was no member of the Nazi master race – the Aryan herrenvolk of Goebbels’s delusional propaganda – but a Sikh rifleman in the Wehrmacht’s Infanterie-Regiment 950 (indische), recruited by a Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata) lawyer from former British Army prisoners-of-war.
Several thousand strong, the origins of one of the Nazis’ most bizarre and least well-known units lay in British India’s powerful independence movement. Under the guidance of its spiritual leader – Mohandas Gandhi – the Indian National Congress believed in a non-violent path to self-rule.
However, not all its adherents were wedded to that approach, and one above all – Subhas Chandra Bose – thought freedom would only come through armed struggle.
Escaping house arrest, the bespectacled firebrand arrived in Nazi Germany in April 1941 and offered to form an army to help drive the British out of his country. With German support he toured the POW camps filled with Indian soldiers captured in the fighting in North Africa. One such prisoner – Barwat Singh – remembered his arrival;
“He was introduced to us as a leader from our country who wanted to talk to us. He wanted 500 volunteers who would be trained in Germany and then parachuted into India. Everyone raised their hands.”
In no time the ‘Indian Legion’ – or more dramatically the ‘Tiger Legion’ as it was occasionally called – numbered almost three-thousand men and was being trained and equipped as the vanguard of a future Nazi invasion of the Raj.
German defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad put paid to that fantasy, and the now -purposeless unit was instead sent west to help man the German defences against the anticipated Allied landings. The build-up to D-Day found it on France’s Atlantic coast at Lacanau, near Bordeaux, as part of Kurt von der Chevallerie’s 1. Armee.
As it turned out, the Allied fleet never appeared off Bordeaux, instead its destination was Normandy – some three hundred miles to the north.
The Germans in Normandy
There, the Allied troops would face Friedrich Dollmann’s 7. Armee, which, although without any Indian troops in its ranks, was itself a phantasmagoria of nationalities that mirrored more the polyglot forces of Europe’s Middle Ages than the national armies of the Twentieth Century.
On the beaches themselves, the Allied assault troops would face three of Dollmann’s divisions; the 352nd, the 709th and the 716th.
The latter two were ‘fortress’ formations; disparagingly called bodenständige (literally ‘rooted to earth’) divisions, or more simply ‘belly units’ – many of them equipped with but a single motor vehicle; the commanders staff car.
Only two-thirds the size of normal German infantry divisions, the ranks of the 709th and 716th were filled with the middle-aged, medically unfit or previously-wounded; men like Martin Eineg:
“Although I was tall, I had a chronic lung condition which technically classed me as ‘unfit for active service’. Nevertheless I was sent to France to man the Atlantikwall,”
There was also Gustav Winter:
“I suffered very badly from frostbite during the first winter in Russia…I lost the little fingers on each of my hands…also the tip of my nose, and my toes were damaged as well.”
Standing next to Eineg and Winter were thousands of men of dubious military value; the men of the Ost-Bataillone (‘East Battalions’), ex-Soviet prisoners-of-war or deserters, as well as thousands of beutedeutscher (‘booty Germans’) – ethnic Poles and Czechs caught up in the war against their will, men like Aloysius Damski:
“I am a Pole. I was working in the office of a munitions factory…when the manager called me in and said I could either go into the German forces or be declared ‘politically unreliable’, which almost certainly meant a concentration camp. I was only 20-years-old and I loved life, so I chose the army. After training I was sent to Normandy to a mixed unit of Poles, Czechs, Russians and some German NCOs and officers.”
D-Day – the beaches
On the morning of 6 June the Allies made swift work of much of the defences, as attested by Emil Thiem, an ethnic German farm worker from outside Warsaw who was on Utah:
“I was manning a mortar with my comrades, but it was in an open pit, so we stayed in a bunker a few metres away. The bombardment was terrible….one of my comrades put his head round the corner of the bunker to try and see what was going on, and as soon as he did he was hit by shrapnel – his whole head was gone, just like that…we climbed out of the bunker with our hands up and that was that, our war was finished.”
Not everything went the Allies way though, an intelligence lapse meant they hadn’t picked up that the ‘belly’ 716th defending Omaha had been reinforced by the 352nd. The 352nd was no praetorian guard – its rankers were mainly 17 and 18-year-old conscripts with just a few weeks basic training behind them – but they had a core of experienced veterans and they were ready:
“The Americans were about four hundred metres away from us. I did not sight on them individually at first, but I began firing and swept the gun from left to right along the beach. This knocked down the first few men in each line; the MG 42 was so powerful that the bullets would often pass through a human body and hit whatever was behind it.
So many of these men were hit by a bullet which had already passed through a man in front, or even two men…”
Victory to stalemate
Despite German resistance the Allied landings were astonishingly successful. What followed would become known as the battle of Normandy as the Allied armies poured onto the beaches and came face to face with an all-together different German army, one characterised not by the belly soldiers of the fortress divisions, but by the panzergrenadiers and tank crews of the Waffen-SS and the Panzer-Lehr.
Bose and the Indian Legion
As for the Indians of the 950th Regiment, they found themselves spectators to the Normandy fighting. Transferred to Hitler’s élite as the ‘Indische Legion der Waffen SS’, they were ordered to retreat back to the Reich as Germany’s field army in the west was annihilated at Falaise in August.
Fighting occasional skirmishes against French résistants and the advancing Americans – including one in Burgundy’s renowned wine country at Nuits-Saints-Georges – the regiment reached Nazi Germany and sat – unemployed and unwanted – until the end of the war.
Derided by Hitler himself; “The Indian Legion is a joke…The whole business is nonsense”, the Legion surrendered to the Allies at the end of the war, whereupon its members were shipped home and quietly released. As for Bose, he had left for Japan in early 1943, where he founded the ‘Indian National Army’ from Indian POWs in Japanese camps.
Attempting to flee at the war’s end, he was killed in a plane crash in Taiwan.
Having passed out from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Jonathan Trigg served as an infantry officer in the Royal Anglian Regiment, completing tours in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, as well as in the Gulf. After working in the City, he now has his own business training the long-term unemployed to get them into work. His most recent book, ‘D-Day Through German Eyes‘, was published on 15 May 2019 by Amberley Publishing.
Featured image credit: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel visiting the Atlantic Wall defences near the Belgian port of Ostend. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.