The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade

February 24, 1943 the mobilization of men born from 1919 until 1924 to the German labor service was announced. Since the leader of the Estonian Self-Defence, Doctor Hjalmar Mäe, protested against this order, the Germans gave the mobilized men a choice between the labor service and joining the Legion. Among the men called to labor service an active propaganda began to join the Legion. In March 1943 when the Estonian Legion's 1st Battalion (Battalion Narva) had left to the front and only a small number of men remained in Debica training camps, slowly new recruits started to gather. A lot of Estonian men found it was only possible to battle with the enemy by holding a gun in their hands, not digging the ground with a shovel in labor service. In 1943 the Waffen-SS managed to recruit 5,002 men and after the training a new core of the Legion was formed.

October 26, 1943 Hjalmar Mäe announced a direct mobilization to the Legion of the men born in the Republic of Estonia in 1925. The Legion got 3,375 men in addition. More and more men began to hide from the mobilization or escaped to Finland, therefore the following mobilization announced on December 10, 1943, concerning the men born in 1924, practically failed because only 900 men came. From the beginning of the formation until the beginning of 1944 the Legion received 11,000 men thanks to mobilization.

May 5, 1943 the Legion's reorganizing into the Waffen-SS 3rd Estonian Volunteer Brigade began. Two two-battalion infantry regiments were formed (the 42nd and 43rd grenadier regiments), light artillery division and other special divisions. 208 men were sent to Amersfoort artillery school in Holland in July 1943, these men were supposed to become the artillery unit of the Brigade. The junior leaders training company was formed on the spot. The brigade's regiments had numbers 42nd and 43rd. The leader of the 42nd Regiment was Henn-Ants Kurg, the battalion leaders in his regiment were Harald Riipalu and Elmar Lang. The 43rd Regiment's leader was Juhan Tuuling, the leader of his regiment's 1st Battalion was at first Ain-Ervin Mere and later Udo Parrest, the 2nd Battalion's leader was at first Erich Palk and later Rudolf Bruus. The 53rd artillery group was formed under the Brigade and its leader was Aleksander Sobolev, the 53rd anti-aircraft group was led by Fritz Bergmann. The Brigade's reserve battalion leader was the 42nd Regiment's adjutant, Fritz Störz.

In September the same year, when the Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade was ready to battle, it was inspected in Debica by SS leader Himmler with SS-Brigadeführer Johannes Soodla who was the Estonian units' Inspector General. The inspection lasted for two days and during this time Himmler was pleased with the brigade and announced in the speech given at the end of his visit that the Estonian SS Brigade will soon be sent to the front where it will replace the Latvian SS Brigade.

The former SS-Unterscharführer, Leo Sipelgas, remembers: "In mid-September 1943 Himmler came to Debica for two and a half days to inspect our brigade. The headquarters company defiled to him. I was standing in the first line because I could speak German. It was interesting to see the SS leader so close, we didn't know much about him before…He stopped in front of us, smiled and said: 'I am proud of this kind of soldiers!' and kept walking with Augsberger and Kurg. The next day the whole brigade marched in front of Himmler. When we had lunch, Himmler spoke with us too, asked if we wanted to go to the front already, etc. The officers later told us that he was pleased with the brigade."

When the Waffen-SS units were numbered in October 22, 1943 the unit became the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade. The former 1st grenadier regiment became the 42nd and the 2nd regiment became the 43rd. The other units of the brigade were marked with the number 53. In October the same year the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade was sent with the railway-echelon to Army Group Nord command and was subjected to Nord's homefront security units' leader. At the beginning of November 1943 the unit went from Riga to Belarus to participate in operation Heinrich. Its aim was to crush the Rosson partisan republic in Polotski-Krasnopolje-Pustoshka-Idritsa-Sebezh area. Two battle groups were formed: Police battle group Jeckeln and Police battle group von Gottberg.

The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade was subjected to SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the leader of the anti-partisan units and Police General. By October 1943 the front situation had become extremely dangerous in Nevel area because of the Red Army's successful breakthroughs and also because of the partisan units in the forest behind the front. During the Germans' attack the partisans were led by the Red Army officers left in the Rosson area forests and the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This formation of the partisans was mockingly called the "Rosson Republic". The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade received an order to destroy this "republic".

The former 42nd Regiment's 1st Battalion leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, gave a good overview in his memoirs about what exactly was the "Rosson Republic": "What happened was the following: the Germans had simply passed this area of land, which was hardly passable, during their attack of 1941, and they left the retreating Red Army units behind in good hope that the latters will die of hunger and come out. But the Russians kept living in the woods. The Germans' eastern politics brought more and more people from the surrounding counties and the more the Eastern Front moved towards West step by step, the partisans' army's military importance increased. The 'Republic' itself had received its name from the Rosson village, where the Red Army's headquarters had probably been. There were talks that the whole army's strength had increased to several thousands who were led by one Russian officer."

SS-Obersturmführer Argo Loorpärg, the leader of the 42nd Regiment's 14th Anti-Tank Company's 2nd unit, recalls: "The company was unloaded from the train in Sebezh station. Two roads went to Idritsa. The units had received a warning that the partisans had blown up all bridges on the eastern road. When SS-Obersturmführer Langhorst was looking for the road that they had to take from the map, he accidentally chose the wrong road. Unfortunately he didn't consult with us, his unit leaders. After a few-kilometer long hike, the company colon was facing a bridge blown up by the partisans. Once SS-Obersturmführer Langhorst realised his mistake, we could see he was upset. Any moment the colon could have been attacked by the partisans on the highway wall. There was a thick forest next to the road.

Langhorst called me to the beginning of the colon and ordered me to take the Zündapp motorcycle and drive to the village road that heads left from bridge and was supposedly connecting both roads heading towards Idritsa. We needed to make sure this road was passable. For some reason the 1st unit leader, SS-Obersturmführer Telk, who was standing right next to us, said he will drive there himself. After all, he was the deputy company leader. Mine and his messengers joined him on motorcycles. Telk was sitting in Zündapp's sidecar. His messenger was driving in front of him and my messenger was behind him.

They managed to drive about three hundred meters. Then we saw how the first motorcycle drove on a mine on the road and blew into pieces. Shortly after this the second mine exploded under Zündapp's wheel. With his hands spread, Telk flew right to the field, Zündapp and its driver flew left. My messenger, who was the last one, managed to make a u-turn and drove back.

When we got there, it became evident that the first motorcyclist was killed immediately, Zündapp driver's right leg was badly injured. Lieutenant Telk had no wounds. We carried him to the colon. Telk gained consciousness, but was unable to speak. He was strongly shaken and probably had internal bleeding. We put both wounded men into the car and sent them back to Sebezh hospital. The next day we received an announcement that SS-Obersturmführer Telk died in the hospital because of internal bleeding. The Zündapp driver survived. Telk and his messenger were the first killed men in the 42nd Regiment, and probably in the whole 3rd Estonian SS Brigade…"

During the hike, which lasted about a week, the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade passed roads that seemed endless, once flowing through the forest and then passing the swampy lands and went through the villages that were completely empty. In some houses, warm food was still on the table, but there was no one to eat it. The partisans knew of the attack against them and the villagers had escaped to partisan camps. In the attack in an area, which was inhabited by the partisans, the biggest threat to the Estonian Brigade was the land mines placed on the roads. When the partisans were afraid of armed meetings with the Estonian Brigade, they often mined the roads. Sometimes this was done very quickly, using the time in between the moving of the Estonian colons.

Already by October 31, 1943 the police battle group Jeckeln was south of Sebezh-Idritsa-Pustoshka railway line and battle-ready. The operation began on November 1. The battles with the partisans lasted for five days in the forests of Rosson. The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade invaded the partisans' main point in Albrehtovo, which was a relatively large place considering the surroundings.

Leo Sipelgas continues his memories: "I can recall from the battles near Rosson that we conquered a relatively large partisans' camp. We lost five men, who were killed, but took twenty to prison and got ten horses, several carriages, a number of pigs and cows, few casks of vodka, mundungus, radio station, field hospital and printing house. We found thousands of copies of underground newspapers, German-Russian dictionaries and potato bags full of rubles from the pringing house.
During the battles a large number of partisans managed to hide in the surrounding forests, nevertheless, I had never seen so many dead bodies before. Some naked Russians were imprisoned while they were in sauna. We were in great mood – everyone wanted to keep storming on after the first victory. Young men like us believed that victory is waiting for us…"

The Estonian Brigade was not able to stay in Albrechtovo for long because at the same time strong Soviet Union regular armies were breaking through the front quite near. On November 6 an order came to move towards east near Lake Neshtsherdo because the enemy had broken through the front in Nevel area. The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade's next assignment was to bar the breakthrough and send the enemy, who this time was the Red Army's regular units, back to its initial positions on the Neshtsherdo and Lake Meshno's line.

During the repositioning the 42nd Regiment's Commander, SS-Standartenführer Henn-Ants Kurg, was badly injured – his car drove on a mine on Idritsa-Sebezh highway. Kurg died a few days later. SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Vent was appointed to his position. The 42nd Regiment's 1st Battalion leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, recalls: "While we were on the edge of the forest in front of Albrechtovo, we suddenly received an order on one November evening: 'The enemy has broken through near Nevel. The Brigade must stop chasing the partisans and has to break through until Lake Neshtsherdo as quickly as possible!' This breakthrough can also be called a cut-through. The road from Albrechtovo until Gorbatshevo and Meshno villages near Lake Neshtsherdo, which was some ten kilometers long, was supposed to be cleared of the trees that were on the road. The Brigade had reached the front. It had reached the eastern border of 'Rosson Republic' and was facing the regular Red Army."

November 10, 1943 von dem Bach-Zelewski subjected the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade to the police battle group Jeckeln. The next day the Estonian volunteers were in between the Meshno and Neshtsherdo lakes and were facing the Red Army's regular troops. The Estonian Brigade attacked the enemy's positions from the right, from the lake's side, conquered the upland and was successful towards north. The enemy retreated through the swampy land behind the upland. They took their defence positions from the middle line of Lake Neshtsherdo to Drissa River. Drissa River was then the border line of the Army Groups Nord and Mitte.

The 42nd Regiment received an order to protect the area from Drissa River until one nameless lake. The 43rd Regiment took its positions towards north. The 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade's headquarters was situated in Stanislavovo area. In connection with some older SS-divisions being formed into regiments, both regiments of the brigade received new numbers on November 12: the 42nd became the 45th and the 43rd became the 46th. A week later the VIII Army Corps' commander took over leading the police battle group Jeckeln and Lieutenant General Thumm's battle group on Pustoshka-Idritsa line. A huge gap was between the two army groups' wings because of the enemy's attacks and this was a big threat to the whole German eastern front.

The commander of Wehrmacht ordered the VIII Army Corps to immediately close the front, but before doing that, they had to crush the Soviet 3rd attack army under Pustoshka. Police battle group Jeckeln was also sent there. The attempt failed and ended on December 8, 1943. The German units retreated in order to establish a front that would not have any gaps in between units. After the battles ended, the soldiers began to build bunkers that could resist the winter.

December 16, 1943 the Soviet 2nd Baltic front began to attack from south the east-western so-called Luehs-Stellungs (the "Ilves" positions), but at the same time immediately sent its forces to secure the 1st Baltic front, which had managed to break through Army Group Mitte's left wing 80 km wide and 30 km deep. Army Group Nord sent there the 132nd Infantry Division (General Major Wagner) from its right wing and this group received a lot of assistance, among others the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade. December 17, 1943 the VIII Army Corps' Commander, infantry General Hoehne, inspected the brigade. According to him, the Estonians made a very good impression and were well armed.

On December 31, 1943 the brigade's lineup was as follows:

  • Officers 178 (3,5%)
  • Junior Officers 864 (17%)
  • Soldiers 4,057 (79,5%)
  • In total: 5,099 (100%)

The relation of the number of officers, junior officers and soldiers was in balance. Thanks to their good weapons and many men having front experience from their defence battalion time, the brigade was ready for battle.

The leader of the 45th Regiment's 1st Battalion, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, recalls: "The division was then between the area of Drissa River and Lake Nedzherno as the most southern unit of the eastern front's northern battle group. The young division made it to the New Year's Eve through battle, which took some brave soldiers out of the line temprorarily or permanently. By now the first battles had already been forgotten, wounds had recovered and some men had grown beards. During the long winter nights the men lied on their beds in the warm bunkers, if they were not on surveillance duty, and could easily tell the war memories to the newcomers."

Around the New Year's Eve, a large partisan group tried to break into east through the German front in order to join the Red Army there. The Estonian Brigade did manage to stop the partisans and surround them in a pocket, but when the night came they managed to hide into the forest with suffering great losses. On January 31, 1944 the area was taken over by the I Army Corps and its commander announced in his report to the 16th Army's board: "From the point of view of leading and equipping, there should be at least, if not three divisions south of Drissa River between the swamps and the corps' left wing. Removing the 290th Infantry Division and its equipping units from this location would mean that the situation would continue worsening. This could be changed if the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade would be subjected to the corps and an independent unit and if the 132nd Infantry Division's defence line would be lengthened from the middle line of Lake Neshtsherdo until the corps' left wing. This situation cannot last longer, so we would like to receive one additional division with communication equipment and anti-tank weapons."

The February 1944 issue of magazine "Reiten 'gen Osten" published a propagandist description of the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade's first battles, written by SS war letters writer Berend von Rottbeck: "The Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade has been fulfilling its military assignments for several weeks now. During this time it has had its first battle and acquired first front experiences. The unit had learned about the landscape in the war actions' area – with endless woods, unpassable swamps and the loneliness of the bogs. They have walked along long highways, which's tough, clayish mud seemed to make moving onwards almost impossible, but which turned out to be a meaningless obstacle, just like the attacks of the bolshevists bandite gangs.

On its way to the front the brigade's first assingment with the other German units was to clear the area of bolshevist gangs. On their second hiking day they first time met the enemy. So far the retreating gangs had not shown any resistance, but only mined the highways, blew up bridges and built roadblocks.

This operation was still going on when the Soviet regular armies managed to after rough fighting break into our front south-west of Nevel. Because the situation changed, the Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade also received a new assignment. Along with other German units it had to stop the enemy that had broken through and the breakthrough place needed to be barred. The unit was placed on the forefront the first time and it began the defence near one lake narrowing.

Then the brigade began a counterattack south of its former positions and broke through the enemy's four-rate battle order. The men got one 7,62 cm artillery battery, five anti-aircraft cannons, a large number of automatic weapons and rifles. In this attack, which often became a fierce close combat, the soviet soldiers suffered great losses – they lost a lot of men, many wounded and many killed."

Leo Sipelgas described his front situation under Nevel: "On the last day of 1943 there was about 50 of us in the 46th SS Volunteers' grenadier regiment's headquarters bunker and we made preparations to welcome the new year. The table was set when two officers stepped inside. According to the ordinance of the regiment's commander Tuuling ten men were searched, who would voluntarily be willing to go perform intelligence. I was one of these men. A bit later we crossed our defence line near Lake Neshtsherdo. We were on skiis and reached an island controlled by the Russians without any obstacles. We had to take prisoners and if we had the opportunity, we had to destroy the enemy's firing points. We did what we had to do rather quickly – after one hour we were back with two prisoners and two Maksim machine guns. In addition, we managed to destroy two Soviet 7,62 cm cannons with hand grenades. We had barely managed to jump into our trenches when the Soviet cannons opened a fire on the island. We were lucky – I and my comrades got to welcome the year 1944. I received the second class Iron Cross for this intelligence trip…

At the beginning of February, on one night, a few Russians ran to our side with their field kitchen. They were carrying their guns and corn porridge was cooking in the kettle. The sensational part of it was that they appeared in front of the regiment's headquarters suddenly without someone noticing them beforehand!"

The roughest battles on Nevel front took place in November and December of 1943. After this the front was silent where most battles took place at nights between the Estonian Brigade's intelligence groups and partisans' groups. There were no tank attacks because the land in front of the front was swampy. The enemy had tried it already before the Estonian Brigade had arrived but it was stuck in the swamp. To fight boredom and control the enemy, the men shot the enemy's fire posts and bunkers, which were on the hillside next to the front.

Around January 6 or 7 a battle group made up of volunteers – including two officers, six junior officers, thirteen soldiers – from the 45th Regiment's 1st Battalion (most being from the 1st Company) made an intelligence visit to the enemy's positions. They left 9.40 p.m. Unnoticeably the men passed the enemy's watch points and were in the middle of the enemy's area. Then they attacked, which especially made the enemy panic and think that a large unit was attacking, and opened a fire towards the whole Estonian Brigade's line. The battle group returned without a single loss, bringing one prisoner – a Russian who was wearing the signs of a Senior Sargeant. Besides the prisoner they also brought one light machine gun, two mine throwers and some kones. It turned out that the prisoner was some sort of a doctor or the doctor's assistant from Moscow. This he raported on his own without anyone asking.

The 45th Regiment 1st Battalion leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, remembers: "The guests, invited and uninvited ones, were welcomed according to the front customs. That's what we did now. The enemy's fire was still open outside and we had to wait until the fire would stop in order to secure the prisoner's safety. He lifted his tea glass of cognac. He looked cheerfully at everyone, said 'Na starovje!' ('Cheers!') and drank the whole glass. Habe (E. Persok, the 45th Regiment 1st Battalion 1st Company's 1st Group leader, who was one of the leaders of the battle group that performed the successful intelligence trip) looked at all this wide eyes wide open and said: 'That bloody man is quite a drinker!' The Russian probably understood that he was being praised, he coughed a few times, hit Habe in a friendly way with his elbow and smiled: 'This is stronger than our vodka!'." The imprisoned Russian was taken to the Brigade's leader, SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Vent.

In January 1944 there were no remarkable attacks of the Red Army in the front area of the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade. The Estonians were more worried about the situation in the northern front in Leningrad's front area, where they feared the Red Army's breakthrough. Men were restless and anticipated getting back to Estonia, they felt they are more needed there. January 14 the communist hordes began a massive attack on the Leningrad front. The front was broken near Novgorod. This put the German 18th Army in a very dangerous situation and caused panic in a number of retreating Wehrmacht units. January 21 Novgorod was conquered, January 22 Kingissepp (Jamburg) and January 31 the Red Army reached the Luuga River's line.

January 24, 1944 an ordinance arrived according to which the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade was to be renamed as the 20th Estonian Waffen-SS Division. Harald Riipalu remembers: "What the words 'in Narva space' meant was clear to all soldiers who had been working hard for years. These words meant a tough battle. But despite that, some unexplainable urge called the men there. At that time, no Estonian unit on irgendwo im Felde ('on whichever battlefield') forgot to remind the higher leaders: 'Our right place at this moment is on the border of our homeland!' The Estonian 20th Waffen-SS Division never forgot that."

February 7, 1944 the Estonian units were replaced on Nevel front according to the ordinance of January 24, which renamed the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade as the 20th Estonian Waffen-SS Division, and was sent to Narva front. February 8 the first Estonian echelon left Polotski with the 45th Regiment's 1st Battalion, led by Harald Riipalu, along with the additional 14th Company's anti-tank unit, one infantry cannons unit and anti-aircraft battery. The other units of the 45th Regiment began moving the following day. And then all other divisions followed. The men were in great spirits, the loved fathers' land was waiting ahead with close and loved people.

They reached Tartu by the noon of February 11. The Battalion (on the photo) was greeted by a platform full of Tartu people and an orchestra. Tartu's Mayor K. Keerdoja had also arrived to greet the Estonians. The journey was supposed to continue after a short break, but already at the end of the first greeting Riipalu received an order to unload the battalion. They drove straight, without resting, to the front because the Russians had conquered Piirissaare and tried to continue moving towards Mehikoorma, which would have meant a direct threat to Tartu. The best sons stood up to fight against that!

Works Cited

  • Michaelis, R. Eestlased Waffen-SS-is. Tallinn, 2001
  • Eesti riik ja rahvas Teises Maailmasõjas. Stockholm, 1954-62
  • Riipalu, H. Kui võideldi kodupinna eest. London, 1962
  • Eesti Pildileht (Estonian Photo Paper) No 1, 1944
  • Laar, M. Eesti Leegion sõnas ja pildis. Tallinn, 2008
  • Loopärg, A. Eesti Leegionist Venemaa vangilaagritesse. Tallinn, 2006