Concept and Formation
Before the outbreak of World War II, Fascism was quite popular in Belgium , particularly in the French speaking region of Wallonia . Leon Degrelle , owner of a newspaper and ardent catholic had founded the Rexist party in 1930 . The Rexists watched the rise of Adolf Hitler's NSDAP in Germany through the 1930's and campaigned strongly for similar changes in their own country, some even fighting for the establishment of an independent Wallon nation.
When the Germans launched Fall Gelb in May 1940, the Belgian authorities placed Degrelle in custody to prevent him assisting the advancing enemy by raising dissent. Soon after Belgium's capitulation, Degrelle was released and he immediately set about the work of furthering the Rexist party's aims of an independent Walloon state. Despite his efforts, Degrelle's Rexists were largely ignored by the Germans, who were focusing their efforts on rousing the Flemings to their cause. Degrelle, seeing that Germany was not interested in his Rexists, began using his excellent oratory powers to gather a fighting force together for the expected Crusade against Bolshevism .
The unit, consisting mostly of men from the Formations de Combat , the paramilitary arm of the Rexist Party, was christened Corps Franc Wallonie (Free Corps Walloon). While Degrelle was in Paris campaigning for recognition of his party, the Germans ordered the formation of Wallonische Legion for service in the east. Degrelle rushed back to find that his pretensions of military leadership were not to be. Command of the Legion, which had absorbed the Corps Franc Wallonie , was to go to Captain-Commandant Georges Jacobs , a retired Belgian colonial officer.
Degrelle's lack of military training meant that his request to be commissioned as an officer was denied, and so he signed on as a private soldier. On 8 August 1941 , the Legion, now 860 strong, was sent to Meseritz in East Prussia for basic training. In early October, the Legion was incorporated into the Heer as 373. (Wallonische) Infanterie Battalion . On 15 October, the Battalion was ordered to the front, to operate as a part of Army Group South currently advancing through Ukraine .
A Shaky Beginning - Career With the Heer
Upon its arrival at the front, the Battalion was assigned to the rear area to participate anti- partisan duties. At this stage, the German commanders saw the little Battalion as a political statement, rather than a combat worthy formation, and so were hesitant to commit it to a major action.
After a brief stint serving under Panzergruppe 1 , the Battalion was attached to the 17. Armee . During this period, the Walloons were the subject of ridicule by their German counterparts, and several complaints were filed with the OKW . The Battalion suffered casualties during the winter of 1941-42, and the combination of this and the ridicule of the Walloons by the Germans meant that the Battalion's morale plummeted. To make matters worse, on 10 December all the Battalions heavy weapons were confiscated and distributed to combat units. With the Walloons close to outright mutiny , the Germans appointed a new commander, Belgian staff officer Hauptmann B.E.M. Pierre Pauly and attached a German liaison officer.
Before the effects of this change could take effect, the Battalion was thrown into the line to halt a Soviet breakthrough near Dnepropetrovsk on the Donets river . Fighting alongside the SS Germania regiment from the SS-Division Das Reich , the Walloons defended the village of Gromovayabalka from attacks by large enemy forces. After a second attack on 28 February, 1942 took most of the village, Pauly rallied his men and in fierce house to house fighting recaptured the position. On 2 March, the Battalion was relieved. During this action, the Walloons had lost over a third of their strength, but gained the respect of their Heer counterparts. Among those who received decorations was Leon Degrelle, who was also promoted to Feldwebel for his bravery in the action.
The action at Gromovayabalka had restored the battalions morale, and soon after Pauly was replaced by Hauptmann Georges Tchekhoff , a former Imperial Russian naval officer who had emigrated to Belgium after the October Revolution . More recruits from the Rexists arrived to restore the strength of the Battalion, and in May it was attached to the 97th Jäger Division . Hauptmann Lucien Lippert replaced Tchekoff as the formations commander, and he proved popular with the men. During the reforming of the Battalion, Degrelle was finally commissioned as a Leutnant .
During Fall Blau offensive into the Caucasus , the Walloons were positioned to guard the supply lines of the assault, seeing little action. In early August, the Walloons were called upon to clear a small village. During this battle, Degrelle was awarded the Iron Cross second class. In late August, the Battalion was pulled out of action and posted to flank security. During this time it came into contact with Felix Steiner's SS-Division Wiking . Degrelle and Steiner got along well, and Degrelle was impressed by the ethos of the Waffen-SS . In December, Degrelle was ordered to Berlin to coordinate the formation of a second Walloon Battalion, but Degrelle had already decided to take his Walloons to the Waffen-SS.
Transfer to the Waffen SS - Dnieper Battles
In June 1943, after arranging the transfer with Heinrich Himmler , the Battalion was transferred to SS command. Around 1,600 volunteers who had been assembled in Meseritz to form the second Heer battalion were also transferred to the SS training area at Wildflecken . Over the next few months, the Heer Battalion was transformed into the SS-Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade Wallonien , commanded by Oberst (now SS-Sturmbannführer) Lucien Lippert with SS-Hauptsturmführer Leon Degrelle as second-in-command. In October, the Wallonien was redesignated 5. SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien , and was to be equipped as a fully motorised brigade with a complement of 250 vehicles. By November 1943, the Wallonien was deemed fit for combat and was sent to Ukraine to fight alongside the Wiking , now designated 5. SS-Panzer Division Wiking .
On December 24, 1944 the Soviets launched "Operations for Ukraine, Right Bank", an operation aimed at clearing the area west of the Dnieper of German forces. Involving four Ukrainian Fronts and one Byelorussian Front, these operations would last until April 24, 1944. The Wallonien and the Wiking , along with eleven other German divisions of 1. Panzer Army and 8. Army were positioned in a salient based on the western bank of the river, and so were naturally the first target for the Soviet operations.
Soviet forces occupied the strategically important forest near Teklino , and threatened to sever communication lines between Smila and Cherkassy. After three failed assaults by Wiking's Germania and Narwa SS-Panzergrenadier Regiments, the Wiking's commander ordered the Wallonien into action. The day before the assault, skeptical Wiking veterans posted signs around the assembly area:
The Wallonia Circus. Free Shows tomorrow from 06:00 to 08:00.
In temperatures below freezing, with 2 feet of snow on the ground, Wallonien attacked across an open field towards the forest, clearing the treeline and advancing into the forest, being halted just short of their objective. Realising that enemy reinforcements were reacting quickly to any attack and stalling the Wallonien's attacks, Lippert ordered a dozen three man machinegun teams to infiltrate the enemy lines and take up positions covering the route the Soviets used to bring up reinforcements. He then ordered the Wallonien to attack again. Over 700 Soviet log-pits and bunkers were destroyed during the attack. Despite this victory, the Soviets soon encircled the forces of XLII and XI Army Corps near Korsun .
Korsun Pocket - Battle of Narva
While Wallonien and Wiking were engaged defending the brunt of the Soviet attack, several Soviet Tank formations had advanced along the side of the salient and succeeded in encircling the German forces.
During the battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket , the Wallonien was tasked with defending against Soviet attacks on the Eastern side of the pocket. After the 105. Regiment of the 72. Infanterie Division became exhausted defending Novaya-Buda from Soviet attacks, the Wallonien was sent to relieve them. While General der Artillerie Wilhelm Stemmerman , the overall commander for the trapped forces, moved his forces to the west of the pocket in readiness for a breakout attempt, Wallonien and Wiking were ordered to act as a rearguard. During the desperate fighting, Lippert was killed. Degrelle quickly took command of the Brigade, and after repulsing all Soviet attempts to break through near the town of Novaya-Buda, the Wallonien began withdrawing one platoon at a time, under cover of darkness. Advancing through Hell's Gate , the brigade came under heavy enemy fire with little or no cover. Of the brigades 2,000 men, only 632 survived the carnage of the Korsun Pocket. For his actions in the battle, Degrelle was awarded the Knight's Cross and promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer. Degrelle, who had become one of Hitler's favourites, was confirmed as commander of the Brigade, with ex-Belgian army Colonel, SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Hellebaut in tactical command. A propaganda campaign was launched which successfully portrayed Degrelle as a hero to pro-German Europeans. The gravity of the Korsun disaster was downplayed, and Degrelle took an active role in promoting the Wallonien , addressing 10,000 people at the Brussels Sports Stadium. When he was awarded the Knight's Cross in Berlin, Hitler said to him of the Korsun affair You had me worried . The veterans of the 6.SS Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade Langemarck , the other Belgian SS formation, caustically remarked that they too had suffered a Korsun, but they had no Degrelle to make a fuss about it.
Leon Degrelle as deputy commander of SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonien , 1944.
The ragged remains of the Wallonien was sent back to Wildflecken to be reformed. Large numbers new recruits were arriving thanks to the propoganda campaign, which had been augmented by a widely attended march of the Wallonien survivors through Brussels . In June 1944, the Battles around Narva (Known as the Battle of the European SS ) were beginning to go badly for the German Army Group North . A 440 man battalion of the Wallonien was sent to Estonia to assist in the defence of the Tannenberg Line . Operating under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner's III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps , the battalion was thrown into the line near Dorpat , attempting to halt a Soviet breakthrough at Pskov . On 10 August, the battalion joined Kampfgruppe Wagner, and for three weeks fought against Soviet tank, infantry, artillery and air attacks. By the end of the month, only 200 men remained. After Operation Bagration , Army Group North began to fall back into what would be known as the Kurland Pocket . During the retreat, the battalion escaped entrapment by leaving through the port of Reval on the Baltic . During this period, the leader of the Panzerjäger platoon, SS-Untersturmführer Léon Gillis, received the Knight's Cross for his actions in single-handedly destroying several T-34s . In early August, Degrelle was flown out of the Kurland Pocket to receive the Oakleaves to his Knight's Cross for his actions during the Battle of Narva.
The shattered remnants of the Battalion were sent back to join the rest of the Brigade, now located at Breslau .
Upgrade to Division - Final Battles
As was the case with Langemarck , the allied invasion of Belgium in 1944 had resulted in an influx of new volunteers. Together with the Langemarck , the Wallonien Sturmbrigade was upgraded to become the 28.SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Wallonien in October 1944. Despite this upgrade in Status, the actual strength of the Wallonien remained that of a reinforced Brigade, around 8,000 men. The division was first sent to Southern Hanover then to Braunschweig to continue training. The new Walloon recruits were joined by Frenchmen from the LVF and Spaniards of the Blue Division . Most of the new recruits lacked any military training, so only about 4,000 men were ready for action. These men were formed into a Kampfgruppe and sent to the region near Stargard and Stettin in Pomerania , joining the XXIX Panzer Corps , a part of Felix Steiner's XI SS Panzer Army .
The Wallonien was scheduled to take part in Operation Sonnenwende , the major offensive to relieve German troops encircled at Arnswalde . Wallonien was to operate in the area between the Madu See and the Plone See , covering the flank of the main attack. The offensive was launched on 15 February 1945, and met with initial success. However, after the III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps reached Arnswalde, the situation changed and the Soviet defence began to solidify. Despite the XI Panzer Army causing heavy casualties, the offensive stalled. In heavy fighting, the Wallonien sustained as well as inflicted heavy losses, and eventually began a fighting withdrawal.
The Soviet counter-offensive, launched on 1 March, pushed the Wallonien before it, and over the next few weeks was in almost constant combat until it reached the Oder near Stettin. The Wallonien , fighting alongside the Langemarck managed to hold a thin strip of land on the eastern bank of the Oder until it was forced back across the river in early April. At this point the Walloons held a council of war and released those volunteers who no longer wished to continue the hopeless fight. 23 Officers and 625 men chose to remain, and they assembled in one last battalion, plentifully equipped with machine guns, panzerfausts , mortars , and automatic rifles. At the end of March, a second battalion was formed from men of the artillery and engineer units who had come forward from their technical schools, but this formation appears to have never been committed to battle. The Langemarck , who had also consolidated their remaining troops into two heavily armed battalions and an artillery section, was merged with the Wallonien under command of its tactical leader, SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Hellebaut. Joining the Belgians was one German battalion and a section of tank destroyers. Langemarck's SS-Standartenführer Schellong commanded the artillery and one of the Flemish battalions.
After the final Soviet offensive of 20 April, 1945, the Belgians held as best they could, but were soon swept aside by the advancing Soviets. After several unsuccessful counterattacks, the Belgian units realised all was lost and Degrelle ordered his troops to make for Lübeck, where they eventually surrendered to British troops. He then drove with his bodyguard into Norway. He then flew to Spain where he spent the rest of his life in exile. Degrelle died in 1994.
Order of Battle
28. SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Wallonien