The Company Leader in Estonian Brigade

It seemed quite hopeless to form a strong battle unit out of Estonians in 1943. The Estonian Brigade was formed out of leftover men. The search for additional men to Estonian Brigade started all over the world. It was a brigade which had the letters SS in front and it was called the Estonian Volunteer Brigade. What happened next was a mandatory sending of the "volunteers" to the Legion. At first men came from the eastern and police battalions. Six annual volumes of young Estonian men were called to Germany for compulsory labor service. They were able to choose – either to join the labor service or the Legion – to battle for Estonia with a shovel or a gun. The majority of men chose the gun. The enemy had to be destroyed and who else will do it if not they? The Association of Friends of the Estonian Legion was born and its task was to encourage men to join the Legion.

Even nowadays we can hear the angry and hateful statements: these men were the members of the SS! But we know how they got there: foreigners were not allowed to join Wehrmacht so they had to choose either to become armor-bearers in some homefront service, or join the elite which was called the Waffen-SS. Besides, there was about 8,000 Estonian men in Heidelager. A half of them were "compulsory volunteers" or in other words brought there by mobilization through the labor battalions. The only thing that inspired the men was the knowing that in the future they get to battle against this horrific regime, which had caused so much horror in Estonia and this made the men mad and made them reach for a weapon.

On May 5 the lineup of the Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade was confirmed. It contained two grenadier regiments and one special unit, in total of 5,000 men. From that moment on harsh trainings began that lasted from early morning until late night. The main principle was – hard in training, easy in the battle. The most important thing was: the brigade was equipped with good and new weapons. The men had battled on the Eastern Front with the weapons taken as plunder from Russians. The men completely approved the new German weapons. Estonians believed that with these weapons they can send the cruel enemy away from their homeland. The things that might seem complicated are actually quite simple.

At the end of September an event happened in Heigelager which gave the red propagandists the chance to call the Estonian soldiers Nazis for years. The brigade was visited by SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler with the Inspector General of the Estonian units, J. Soodla. A photo was taken of this visit where the SS national leader, wearing a leather coat, talks with Estonian junior officers who are nervously holding their hands on their sides (on the photo). Himmler, who visited Estonia several times during the war, had always only good things to say about Estonians. His words were hardly an honor to our men but it showed that the German higher board didn't have any certain plans with the Eastern countries. This time Himmler praised the men of the Battalion Narva in the lines of the Panzer Division Wiking and expressed his hope that the Estonian Brigade men will be as successful in battling with the bolshevists. The leader of the 42nd Regiment was Henn-Ants Kurg, the last Estonian military attaché in France. The leader of the 43rd Regiment was Colonel Juhan Tuuling. The artillery unit was led by Major Aleksander Sobelev. Brigade leader was Franz Augsberger. Paul Maitla became the leader of the 45th Regiment 1st Battalion's 3rd Company. That's where his actual soldier's path towards the Knight's Cross and officer's fame began, which made him the hero of the Sinimäed Hills.

Maitla Received the Iron Cross Under Nevel

At the end of November the German military leaders decided that the Estonian Brigade was ready to battle. Nobody's ever actually ready for that but they were prepared for this great battle the way they were and had been trained in Heidelager. The men were loaded on a train and the road to the unknown began. They hoped, as always, that the train takes them to Estonia. But this hope disappeared when somewhere near the Latvian border the train headed towards east. Soon they realized – they're going towards Nevel. The Russians had broken the German front with strong units under Nevel and the Estonian Brigade now had to block the enemy.

The men were unloaded in Shebez station. From there they moved through the Rosona Republic – that's how the partisans' area was called. Having passed this rarely dangerous area without damages, they were facing the Russian regular units. The brigade received an order to beat off the enemy to the Mesno and Nezero Lake line. From that moment on, fierce battles began. The Estonians showed once again that they were first class soldiers. "By the morning of November 23," wrote Lieutenant Georg Ilta in his war memoirs, "The whole front line was securely in our hands." Nothing certain is known of Paul Maitla's participation in these battles. However, there are proof according to which he and his men battled very well. The 1st Battalion, which's 3rd Company leader Maitla was, was in charge of leading the units through the Russian regular army. Maitla acted as a real front officer. On December 8 he received the 2nd class Iron Cross for his bravery in the battles.