The formation of Battalion Narva and training in Heidelager

The Estonian Legion was formed in Heidelager near a small Polish town called Debica. It was a former Polish cavalry's training camp. Debica is situated in the southeastern part of Poland, about 60 kilometers from the Czech border. Heidelager, which in translation means "moorland camp", got its name probably because of the moorlands in that area. These were very sparse wooded heaths and low barrack-type buildings were built there which became a home for the men for six long months.

The buildings and barracks of the camp were in concentric circles, each circle had a different function: officers' houses, headquarters and cultural premises, storage rooms, barracks. The camp was like a small town. The soldiers' barracks, divided into two by a corridor, consisted of sleeping rooms, classes, household rooms and clerical offices. Each company had three barracks. Each room had three-storied bunk beds, closets, chairs and a big table. The warmth came from a small cast iron furnace. The washing rooms only had cold water. In the mornings the company's spiess (sarge) controlled the men so that no one would go to wash himself with his shirt on. It seemed like a small thing, but this hardening sure was necessary later.

The legionnaires received their first necessary items already on the first day: a spoon, knife, fork, napkin. They got sleeping clothes, blanket and night clothes (a long nightshirt). After a few days the civilian clothes were replaced with a working uniform (d rillichanzug), which was dark green and made of thick linen. Every day they received new things: helmet, backpack, 3 sets of underwear, 3 brown shirts, 2 pairs of woolen socks, napkins, etc. The men had trouble storing all this in their cupboards. They were shown how all things must be in the cupboard. The men tried their hardest to follow the lead, but when they returned from their first training, they found all things on the floor: put them into the cupboards again! The load of equipment increased: black tie, neckerchiefs, belt, a bullet pocket, bread and laundry bags, field bottle, tent materials with wooden and metal sticks, gas mask, shovel, bayonet, weapon – and probably much more, which is hard to remember now. Finally they received the most important: a brand new parade uniform, the so-called first fitting and another, older, more worn uniform for trainings. In addition boots, coat and a large overcoat (ü bermantel).

To keep all this in order, they received special bags and packages, which included sowing things, buttons, little brushes, extra nails for boots and materials to clean the weapons. The appearance was very important. Not a single button could be missing from the shirt or coat. The nailed boots had to have all nails. Every single flaw was worthy of a punishment.

The days started with exercising and refreshing. If someone had anything left of the bread, limburb cheese or sausage given the previous evening, he now ate it with coffee. If they had nothing left from the evening, they only drank coffee and took some secret cigarette puffs of the three cigarettes they were allowed in one day. They smoked secretly because no smoking was allowed before lunch. Three cigarettes per day wasn't much, but fortunately the need for a smoke was relieved by marketenders or the soldier's market days. If they had money, they could buy more cigarettes or trade it for something sweet with those who didn't smoke.

Before going to the trainings the rooms had to be in perfect order and if the officers, who were in charge, happened to find some sort of untidiness, the whole room faced misery. The strict Prussian order and cleanness had to be everywhere. Life went like clockwork, according to accurate schedules.

The most expected time was lunch. The boys, who due to trainings were like hungry wolves, did not get much food. They often got vegetables, which luckily were deliciously made. Certain rituals were followed in the cafeteria and everyone had to stick to them. For example, the leader of the table distributed the food portions and they all started to eat at the same time, the phrase "Guten Appetit!" came before the eating began. The eating was finished also at the same time.

The first volunteer units headed towards Debica already in September. At first an echelon from Pihkva came, then a group of Baltic Germans from Kiev police battalion, who in 1939 and 1941 had moved from Estonia to Germany. The first group of men left Tallinn on October 6 and then a new contingent followed each week, every time 70 to 80 soldiers. They came in the clothes they had: some in civilian clothes, some in their some kind of uniforms. Exactly "some" kind of uniforms, because the sight was quite colorful: men in military, defence league and police uniforms from Estonian-time, Latvian uniforms and some "German grays". The journey lasted for three to four days. Several losses happened on the way when here or there some soldiers were left behind. It took a few days before the lost sons reappeared. Nobody went missing.

The first temporary training leader was Lieutenant Paul Maitla, his adjutant was Lieutenant Elmar Silm, both men had come with the 113-men group from Pihkva. At first the trainings took place by barracks. The men, who happened to be in the same room, were formed into units, three units made up one group. One barrack normally consisted of two groups. Then the teachers arrived – the instructors from Regiment Deutschland. One barrack leader was sports fan Lieutenant Schmidt, who was from Austria. He made the men follow a strict training programme, but also knew how to be very friendly. When he was the officer in charge, then the men knew a "masquerade" could take place during the night. If he happened to find the smallest untidiness, he had the men run a few laps around a barrack, ordered them to change uniforms and then made them run again. The men often had to have something in their hands while running, like a drinking cup in the left hand and a spoon in the right one. A more prosaic punishment was collecting cones during the day: they had to collect one thousand cones, bring them to the barrack and pile them into heaps of 100. The men soon learned to hide the already used cones under the moss in the forest so that they could use these the next time.

By the way, because of the drill song the good-natured Doctor Werner Laumann called the Estonians "Freedom Singers". The word "freedom" was quite often in Estonian songs. When the boys had to defy some instructor's misbehavior, the boys sang "Mats alati on tubli mees…" (Mats is always a good man…). This rhythmic drill song was even favored by the Germans until they found out that Mats "doesn't bow in front of the Saxons…" But this made the song even more daring. The German instructors taught the boys German drill songs in the evenings. They learned the songs "Erika", "Lily Marleen", "Westerland" and other popular tunes. They learned other Estonian songs besides soldier's songs, which were good to sing while marching, for example "Sauna taga", "Kuldne õhtupäike", etc.

At first the main focus was on good drill, posture, performance and drill songs. But another important factor was sports. When the drill training was thought to be enough, the boys were divided into companies, they got guns and then the real weapons training began. Their division into companies was very extraordinary, it happened on the basis of the so-called slave market: men were lined up and then the company leaders began to pick one by one. The first choice was made by the 4th Company leader, then the 3rd, the 2nd and finally the 1st Company leader. Then from the beginning. The sargeants registered the names and when men had been divided, they were taken to their new lodgings with all of their belongings.

In October Lieutenant Colonel Augsberger was appointed to the Estonian Legion 1st Regiment leader's position. A bit later the battalion leader, Captain Georg Eberhardt, arrived. More officers and specialists from Division Deutschland arrived in November and then the weapons training began in addition to the drill trainings. According to an ordinance of December 10, 1942 the battalion's size was made up of 3 shooters' companies, one (the 4th) company will be trained as the heavy company, the 5th company was separated from the headquarters company. A new junior leaders training group was formed under the 5th company, which's leader was Ensign Herbert Fiala. The command to quickly begin with intense training was given so that the battalion would be prepared for performing manoeuvres and battle shooting assignments at the end of February.

Additional 97 instructors came at the beginning of December and most of them were appointed to the positions of group, squadron and weapons' leader. The battalion's chief-of-medicine was Doctor Werner Laumann, the leader of the driving school was Ottmar Januschka, the Senior Pioneer Kurt Schärpf and Senior Cashier Karl Felke.

In December a large group of Estonian junior officers was sent to the training course of the junior officers, but many boys were sent to special courses at the beginning of the new year: anti-tank cannon men to Hilversum, wireless operators to Poznan and a group of Estonian officers to Bad Tölz. Until Christmas the men trained only with hand weapons – guns, pistols, submachine guns. New light and heavy machine guns and grenade throwers arrived before the new year, also the distance measurers, anti-tank and the cannons accompanying the infantry arrived. Then a new quality of training began, not a single minute was wasted.

An average day in the heavy machine guns unit was like this: 7.30 a.m. a march from the barracks, they arrived on the field 8 a.m. The first 30 or 40 minutes they practiced the drill and spreading out with weapons in battle situation. When it became brighter outside, they practiced transitions to attack, taking the positions, changing positions. Also the finding of signs and forwarding these to other weapon units and measuring the distances. Aiming with the weapon, working with an optical sight, using side besiegers. Exercises on giving the depth fire (up and down), indirect shooting (indirect, over the hill, over an obstacle, over a ridge when going to attack). Something similar happened in the grenade throwers' group and in the units of machine guns. All weapons had firmly manned numbers, but during the training everyone had to be able to perform others' assignments too. Very important was to know how to use each weapon's possibilities. The trainings on the landscape and indoors were performed by each squadron and weapon separately. Each weapon was handed by three to four men so they all had something to do, there was no time to look around. They had to train their movements again and again and this eventually became boring. But once they got into battle, a lot of men enjoyed it.

One of the easiest, but unpleasant, exercise was the exchange of the shooter, where the 1st and the 2nd number had to change positions. The gunner moved slightly to the left, the shooter had to jump over him and be prepared to shoot immediately. Since the jumping had to happen while lying down, the men landed with some kind of a strange frog jump.

Soldiers also needed entertainment. At first it was offered to them by a cinema and a canteen (a beer hall), later they had a library and a theatre, where guests performed. Estonians of course preferred the canteen. They mostly visited it on their days off. The beer wasn't of the highest quality, but it was good enough for a soldier. They could always meet some old acquaintances there. When a lot of friends met, the mood was good and they began to sing Estonian songs. On several occasions Germans started to mock Estonian songs or complained that the Polish waitresses always served Estonians first. Several fights grew out of these arguments. One of the strongest brawlers was Mihkel Roo, also known as Varba Sass, and others always helped him. After the fights they had to get through the forest to their barrack before the officer in charge got there. Here the Estonian boys were saved by their fast feet.

The Christmas Eve (on the photo) was celebrated in the camp's Soldiers' Home. The mood was held high by the later anti-tank cannon (PAK) leader Ilmar Ainsaar. The men were happy to receive gifts from their homelands. In January Lieutenant Bernhard Langhorst was appointed to the 5th Company leader's position and its size was fixed to 134 men + 28 instructors. On January 20 the battalion received additional 46 men from Kiev.

At the beginning of the year the first cars arrived and the motor courses began. The first drivers' course began in December. The training took place with one old Studebaker, which was used for training on the camp's roads. During the indoor courses they learnt about the structure of engines. When more cars had arrived, several courses started simultaneously – the battalion needed many drivers. They learned about gasoline and diesel engines.

The boys remembered a negative event that took place during these courses: one driving school instructor, a junior officer, was in the eating house during a town drive practice and looked too deep into the glass and crashed the car later in the town. The punishment was harsh: the whole battalion was taken the next night to a penalty hike. Many thought it was a regular training alert and didn't put any socks on, only the boots. After one hour these men had their feet hopelessly in blisters. Each moment of rest the hospital attendants cut the blisters and put iodine on the spots. And the men should be given some credit – nobody stepped out of the line, although the colon was just in case followed by the Red Cross cars.

When they returned in the morning, the battalion was lined up to the training square and the guilty ones were asked to step forward. The men realized only then why the battalion had made such a hike. The shoulder straps were removed from the guilty men and they were put to the cell for 7 days. The others were sent to bed, the trainings were cancelled on that day and the doctors and nurses came to heal the men's feet. The battalion leader Eberhardt and Doctor Laumann personally went through all the barracks. Eberhardt was not angry, he was rather compassionate. And to be honest, the men weren't mad at him, they had began to respect the battalion leader in such a short time.

On February 4 Lieutenant Herbert Burgdorf was promoted to Senior Lieutenant and appointed to the 2nd Company leader's position. A week later the 51 Estonian junior leaders returned who were distributed to different companies. On February 19 the regiment's intelligence company received 25 men, most of them Germans. A day later 75 men were sent to Lauenburg and many of them never returned to the battalion.

The holiest event for a young soldier was giving the soldier's oath. It happened on February 13, 1943 in one rainy gray noon. The battalion lined up to the training square in front of the platform covered with the SS flag. Next to it were the grenade thrower, heavy machine gun and regular guns – the symbols of the soon beginning war.

Elmar Silm: "Once the battalion was lined up and the swastika flag was in the flagpole, the lines of our men wondered: 'Where is the Estonian flag?' The buzz among our men was not unnoticed by the organizers of the swearing. A short time before the regiment leader arrived, someone ran and attached the Estonian tricolor with a random pole to the broadcasting car in the middle of the square. Later, in the discussions amongst ourselves, we couldn't remember who or from where the flag came." It began to rain. "The men's helmets were sparkling after the rain. Thus the contrast of the faces underneath the helmets was even sharper. They knew why they were there, they were representing their people's right to live and this will soon bind them together through this oath that will merge our men with the great battle front."

Elmar Tõnismäe, war letters sender, later anti-tank cannons driver: "We heard the sounds of the orchestra. The honorary company of German junior officers arrived. The battalion Commander Georg Eberhardt arrived precisely 10.45 a.m. He passed the legionnaires' line, went to the platform and greeted the Estonian Legion. The Estonian boys answer to their commander like the thunder. During his short speech Eberhardt said: 'You have come here from different places in Estonia and all of you were brought here by the will to fight for your land. In front of our eyes we can see the brave soldiers' uppermost ode of their life and death as a role model to us. The everlasting image of all heroes lives inside the oath that we will take today…' The Legion froze into watch stand, the honorary company greeted with weapons and the orchestra played the old German soldier's song 'Ich hatte einen Kameraden', which sounded very holy. The battalion leader's adjutant stepped forward holding the revealed sword in his hand. Six private fighters and one officer stepped out of the Legion's line, placed the left hand on the sword and rose their right hands. The other legionnaires rose their hands for the holy oath."

The adjutant read the text line by line and the whole Legion repeated: "Ich schwöre bei Gott diesen heiligen Eid, dass ich im Kampf gegen den Bolschewismus dem Obersten Befehlshaber der Deutschen Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler unbedingten Gehorsam leisten und als tapferer Soldat bereit sein will, jederzeit für diesen Eid mein Leben einzusetzen" Translation: I take this holy oath in the name of God to obey unconditionally the German army's leader Adolf Hitler in the fight against bolshevism and as a brave soldier I am always prepared to give my life in fulfilling this oath!

The weapon oath had been given. It was given truthfully and trustingly to the ally, who helped us to fight against our sworn enemy. But not even the politicians knew the future. The Stalingrad tragedy had ended only two weeks ago. A month later, on March 23, 1943, the 1st battalion was separated from the regiment and sent to the Southern Front in Ukraine. The training was supposed to continue there.

The Battalion included:

Germans
15 officers, 56 junior officers, 126 private fighters

Estonians
7 officers, 68 junior officers, 701 private fighters

In total
22 officers, 124 junior officers, 827 private fighters

Thus the battalion had 973 men. On April 4, 1943 the battalion was loaded on the train in Kokhanovka station. "I'll see you in Estonia," said regiment leader Franz Augsberger in Estonian language. A year later some men did meet him in Estonia, but a lot of boys had remained in the Ukrainian steppes forever.

Works Cited

  • The first part of Battalion Narva history book Minu au on truudus (My Honor Is Loyalty). Tartu: Publishing House Greif, 1995