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The Flemish Legion (Dutch: Vlaams Legioen) was a collaborationist military formation recruited among Dutch-speaking volunteers from German-occupied Belgium, notably from Flanders, during World War II. It was formed in the aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and fought on the Eastern Front in the Waffen SS alongside similar formations from other parts of German-occupied Western Europe.
Established in July 1941, the Flemish Legion was envisaged by the Flemish National Union (Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, or VNV) as a means of maintaining its status as the principle collaborationist party within Flanders since the German invasion of May 1940. It was formed several months after the VNV had begun recruiting Flemish volunteers for smaller Waffen SS formations and was depicted as the future army of an independent Flemish state. Amid opposition from its personnel, the roughly 1,000-strong formation was given a notionally independent status as an SS Volunteer Legion Flanders (SS-Freiwilligen Legion Flandern). It subsequently sustained heavy casualties on the Eastern Front in fighting around Leningrad.
The Flemish Legion was officially disbanded in May 1943 and reformed within the Waffen-SS as the SS Assault Brigade Langemarck (SS-Sturmbrigade Langemarck). 200 soldiers refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler in October 1943 and were transferred to other units or penal units. It was subsequently reorganised on several occasions and was officially designated as a division in September 1944 but remained around 2,000-strong and never expanded beyond brigade-strength. It participated in fighting in Ukraine, Estonia, and Pomerania. Its remaining personnel finally surrendered to the Red Army at Mecklenburg on 3 May 1945.
Flemish collaboration and the VNV
There were several political parties in Belgium at the time of the German invasion in May 1940 that were broadly sympathetic to the authoritarian and anti-democratic ideals represented by Nazi Germany. In Flanders, the largest and most important of these groups was the Flemish National Union (Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, or VNV). The VNV was the successor of the Flemish Movement which had originated as a response to the perceived marginalisation of the Dutch language in Belgium during the 19th century. It became increasingly radical during and after World War I. VNV's ideology was framed in opposition to the Belgian state, calling for Flanders to form part of an racially defined "Greater Netherlands" (dietsland) by fusing with the Netherlands. It was also influenced by Catholicism and anti-communism but was initially distrustful of Nazi ideology which was seen as anti-clerical. Nonetheless, the VNV became increasingly influenced by fascist ideas. At national elections in April 1939, VNV received approximately 15 percent of the Flemish vote.
After the Belgian Army's surrender on 28 May 1940, a Military Administration was created to govern the German-occupied Belgium. Hoping to expand its support in Flanders and influenced by Nazi racial ideals, it adopted the so-called Flamenpolitik which gave preferential treatment to the Flemish population over the French-speaking Walloons in areas such as the repatriation of Belgian prisoners of war. The VNV hoped to use German support to expand its own political influence within Flanders. After the start of the occupation, it shifted its ideological position to be more compatible with Nazi ideas and suspended demands for Flemish secession from Belgium.
Early recruitment in Flanders
At the same time, the VNV came under increasing pressure from smaller and more radical collaborationist groups within Flanders which emerged during the first months of German occupation. These included the Algemeene-SS Vlaanderen and DeVlag which adopted an explicitly pro-German and Nazi ideology which threatened to outflank VNV's support from the German authorities. In September 1940, the Algemeene-SS Vlaanderen announced its intention to recruit Flemish volunteers for the Waffen-SS, initially sent to the SS-Division Wiking. This began a "race" in Flanders to recruit volunteers for the German army although the VNV was initially reluctant to join because it feared it would lose control over its recruits. Between April and June 1941, the VNV recruited 500 to 800 Flemish volunteers for a mixed Flemish-Dutch unit, the SS-Volunteer Banner Nordwest (SS-Freiwilligen Standarte Nordwest) after German promises that it would not be deployed in combat.
Recruiting poster for the Flemish Legion, playing on the idea of a "European
" war against the Soviet Union
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 expanded the activities of collaborationist groups in Belgium and elsewhere in German-occupied Europe. On 8 July 1941, the VNV announced its intention to recruit a "Flemish Legion" to fight as part of the German forces on the Eastern Front. Approximately 560 men were recruited between July and August 1941, some believing that it represented the first step towards the creation of an independent Flemish army. The creation of the Flemish Legion also forced the Rexist Party, a largely French-speaking group in Belgium, to recruit a "Walloon Legion" rather than the "Belgian Legion" it had originally advocated.
The Flemish Legion volunteers were transported to Dębica in modern-day Poland in August 1941. There, the Germans attempted to amalgamate them with the Westland volunteers from Flanders. Most of the new volunteers refused to join the Waffen-SS and the units were instead joined into a new battalion-sized Flemish Legion, itself joined to the larger Dutch Volunteer Legion. Initially the VNV had been assured that the Flemish Legion would remain largely independent from the rest of the German military and would be commanded by Flemish officers. This autonomy would be increasingly ignored by the German military authorities and the VNV was unable to protest without compromising its position.
Deployment on the Eastern Front
Battles around Leningrad
By September 1941 the formation was the size of a reinforced infantry battalion and had five fully motorized companies. The unit was again redesignated, this time as SS Volunteer Legion Flandern. Its strength was 1,100 men, of whom 1,000 were Flemings, including 14 officers. On 10 November 1941, the Legion was ordered to the front near Novgorod, under the overall command of Army Group North. The legion was to be subordinated to the 2 SS Infantry Brigade.
Arriving at the front late in November, the Flandern was immediately thrown into combat in the Volkhov region attempting to halt the Soviet attacks. In heavy fighting, the legion proved itself capable in combat, and executed a fighting withdrawal to the Volkhov River line.
On 13 January 1942, the Soviets launched an offensive aimed at the relief of Leningrad. The Flandern found itself in the Soviet line of advance, and saw heavy defensive fighting against relentless attacks which lasted until late February. At the end of February, the Soviet assault petered out, and the Germans went on the offensive, attempting to encircle the extended Soviet forces. For the next few months, the Flandern was engaged in efforts to complete the encirclement of the Soviet forces, and on 21 May 1942, the encirclement was closed. Over the course of the next month, the Legion took part in the reduction of the pocket, being heavily engaged until 27 June 1942, when the exhausted unit was pulled out of the line for a rest and refit.
After two months as reserve, the legion was sent back into the line south of Lake Ladoga, manning trenches which were under attack by Soviet forces intent on relieving the Siege of Leningrad. The Flandern was involved in heavy fighting defeating two major Soviet attacks towards the city. On 31 March 1943, the legion was ordered back to the SS Training Area at Dębica to be reformed.
Soon after arriving at Dębica, the Legion was ordered to move on to Milowitz in Bohemia.
In May 1943, the Flemish Legion was amalgamated with other Flemish volunteers to form the new SS-Sturmbrigade Langemarck on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Tensions between the Flemish volunteers and the SS, however, led to some members refusing to take the SS oath of allegiance. The Germans again insisted that the volunteers take the oath in October 1943. Some 200 "rebels" who refused were transferred to other units or penal units. In August, the VNV's leader Hendrik Elias announced that the VNV would not recruit more members for the German army. The allocation of the title Langemarck, in memory of the bloody World War I battle fought at Langemarck, West Flanders in 1914, was intended to represent Flemish-German camaraderie. However, the Flemings themselves did not understand why they had been given a title which represented the losses suffered by German soldiers trying to take over their country in 1914. The Flemings felt a jealousy that their French speaking countrymen, the Walloons, were granted as a title their home region. Despite this, significant numbers of Flemings continued to sign up for service with the Waffen-SS.
In addition to the veterans of Flandern, the Sturmbrigade now gained a contingent of new Flemish volunteers, an anti-tank Panzerjäger company, an assault gun battalion equipped with StuG's and a FlaK battalion. In October 1943, the brigade was renamed 6th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Langemarck. In December 1943, the Langemarck was ready to be sent to the front. The total unit strength was 2,022 men.
On 26 December 1943, Langemarck was sent to Ukraine to act as a part of Army Group South. Fighting alongside the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, the brigade participated in the heavy defensive battles in the region of Kiev and Zhitomir.
In January, 1944 the Langemarck and elements of Das Reich were encircled by Soviet forces near Zhitomir. Despite this, they fought their way out of the kessel (cauldron), suffering heavy casualties and losing the majority of their heavy equipment and vehicles. By early March, the brigade had been reduced to 400 men. At the end of April, the shattered Langemarck was ordered back to Bohemia for reforming.
Narva – Kurland Pocket
In Bohemia, 1,700 new recruits were waiting to join the division, and soon it was back up to strength. On 19 July 1944, Kampfgruppe Rehmann was formed, commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Rehmann. KG Rehmann, consisting of the Langemarck's 2nd battalion was sent to the Narva front to become a part of Felix Steiner's III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps which was defending the Tannenberg Line. The Tannenberg Line was anchored on three strategic hills. Running west to east, these were known as Hill 69.9 (69.9-Höhe), Grenadier Hill (Grenadier-Höhe) and Orphanage Hill (Kinderheim-Höhe). From Orphanage Hill, the rear side of the town of Narva could be protected. KG Rehmann was tasked with defending Orphanage Hill.
Fighting alongside men of the 11. SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, the 5th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien, the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian), the 4th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Brigade Nederland and several German formations, the Langemarck was engaged in very heavy combat against the Soviets.
Over the next few months, Langemarck, along with the remainder of Steiner's Corps, executed a fighting withdrawal into the Kurland Pocket, the brigade being in combat for much of the retreat. In September 1944, the remains of KG Rehmann were evacuated by ferry over the Baltic to Swinemünde and joined the rest of the Brigade. Following the allied invasion of Belgium, many Belgian fascists fled the country to Germany. The result of this was that both the Langemarck and the 5th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonie were redesignated as divisions on 18 October 1944.
Pomerania – Oder Front
The new Langemarck division was designated 27th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Langemarck. While the influx of displaced Flemings meant that the division had a solid base to be formed on, it also meant that more training was required. It was not until 1 January 1945 that the division was ready to be sent back into the line. The Langemarck was once again attached to III. (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps, now a part of Steiner's newly formed XI. SS Panzer Army located on the lower Oder near Stettin.
On 16 February, a kampfgruppe with the most experienced men of the division was ordered on the offensive as a part of Operation Sonnenwende, the operation to destroy a Soviet salient and to relieve the troops besieged in the town of Arnswalde. The offensive had been conceived by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian as a massed assault all along the front, but had then been reduced by Hitler to the level of a local counterattack.
Despite initial gains, the attack soon bogged down after III. (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps, with Nordland, Langemarck and Wallonie in the vanguard, reached Arnswalde. Heavy Soviet counterattacks threatened to encircle the corps, and so after evacuating all civilian survivors, Steiner canceled the operation and ordered the corps back to the area around Stargard and Stettin.
The Soviet offensive of 1 March pushed Langemarck along with the rest of the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps before it. By 4 March, the division was falling back to the area around Altdamm, the last defensive position east of the Oder. On the 19th, the unit fell back behind the Oder. As a part of Steiner's XI SS Panzer Army, the Langemarck, now reduced to a Kampfgruppe, began falling back towards Mecklenburg where it surrendered to the Red Army on 8 May 1945.
- ^ Initially the Flemish Legion was a notionally independent formation, attached to the Waffen SS. It formally became part of the Waffen SS in May 1943 with the creation of the SS-Sturmbrigade Langemarck.
- Wouters, Nico (2018). "Belgium". In Stahel, David (ed.). Joining Hitler's Crusade: European Nations and the Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 260–87. ISBN 978-1-316-51034-6.