Walloon Legion

The Walloon Legion (French: Légion Wallonie) was a collaborationist military formation recruited among French-speaking volunteers from German-occupied Belgium, notably from Brussels and Wallonia, during World War II. It was formed in the aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and fought on the Eastern Front as part of the German Army (Wehrmacht) and later the Waffen SS alongside similar formations from other parts of German-occupied Europe.

Walloon Legion
Wallonie shield.svg
Insignia of the Walloon Legion, incorporating the flag of Belgium rather than any distinctly "Walloon" symbolism
Active1941–1945
Country Belgium
AllegianceNazi Germany Nazi Germany
Branch Wehrmacht (1941-43)
Waffen-SS (1943-45)
TypeBattalion, brigade and later division, though never larger than brigade-strength.
RoleInfantry
Size2,000 (maximum strength)
7,000–8,000 men (total, 1941–1945)
Engagements
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Léon Degrelle

Established in July 1941, the Walloon Legion was advocated by Léon Degrelle's Rexist Party as a means of demonstrating its loyalty and political indispensability in German-occupied Belgium where it had been largely ignored since the invasion of May 1940. A similar formation had already been created by Flemish collaborators as the Flemish Legion, preventing Degrelle from being able to establish the "Belgian Legion" he had originally intended. The Walloon Legion, initially part of the Wehrmacht, remained no larger than a battalion and was joined by Degrelle himself who increasingly saw the unit as a more important political vehicle than the Rexist Party. It participated in fighting on the Eastern Front from February 1942 but struggled to find sufficient recruits in Belgium to replace its persistently heavy losses.

The unit was integrated into the Waffen-SS in June 1943 as the SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonia and was almost destroyed by Soviet forces in the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. It expanded slightly after the Allied Liberation of Belgium in September 1944 as Belgian, French, and Spanish collaborators were drafted in and was upgraded to the notional status of a division. After heavy losses and desertions, its remaining personnel surrendered to British forces in April 1945.

BackgroundEdit

At the time of the German invasion in May 1940, Belgium had several political parties that were broadly sympathetic to the authoritarian and anti-democratic ideals represented by Nazi Germany. In Wallonia and Brussels, the largest of these groups was the Rexist Party, led by Léon Degrelle. This had originated as a faction of the mainstream Catholic Block, but split in 1935 to form an independent populist party. Ideologically, Rex supported Belgian nationalism, but its support for corporatism and anti-communism made it sympathetic towards aspects of Nazi ideology. It achieved some early success, peaking at the elections of 1936 in which it received 11.5 percent of the national vote, but experienced a decline in the following years before the German invasion and remained marginal.[1]

After the Belgian surrender on 28 May 1940, a German Military Administration was created to govern the occupied territory. Preferring a strategy of indirect rule, the administration preferred to work with established Belgian political and social elites, largely ignoring fringe political groups such as the Rexists.[2]

Creation of the Walloon Legion, 1941–42Edit

 
Recruitment poster for the Walloon Legion, appealing to Belgian nationalist and anti-communist sentiment. The caption reads "You defend Belgium... by fighting on the Eastern Front".

In order to acquire more influence and German support, Rex attempted to bring itself closer to the occupation authorities. On 1 January 1941, Degrelle announced Rex's total support for the occupation authorities and for the policy of collaborationism. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it embraced the idea of raising a military unit, seen as "a political opportunity to increase the importance of their movements and eliminate political competition".[3] At the same time, the Flemish National Union (Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, VNV), a Flemish nationalist and rival authoritarian party in Flanders, also announced its intention to form a "Flemish Legion" to fight in the German Army in the Soviet Union. This move, combined with the Germans' favourable stance towards the VNV, meant that it would not be possible to realise Rex's preferred option of a national "Belgian Legion" on the Eastern Front.[4]

In July 1941, Rex announced that it would raise a unit of volunteers of its own, dubbed the Walloon Legion (Légion Wallonie). Unlike comparable Flemish and Dutch units, the Walloon Legion was established within the German Army (Wehrmacht) because Walloons were not considered sufficiently "Germanic" by Nazi racial theorists be allowed into the Waffen-SS.[3] Recruitment initially met with little success, leading Degrelle personally to volunteer for the unit as a private as a publicity stunt. In total, some 850 men had volunteered by August 1941, bringing the unit up to the strength of a battalion.[5] Officially designated as Infantry Battalion 373 (Infanterie Bataillon 373), it was sent for training in Meseritz in Germany. As part of Degrelle's ideal of an expanded Burgundian-style Belgium, the unit adopted the Cross of Burgundy as its insignia.

Most of the Legion's initial volunteers were Rexist cadres and many had been part of the Combat Formations (Formations de Combat) which served as the party's paramilitary wing. In propaganda, Rex emphasised the anti-communist dimension of the German war effort and argued that collaboration was compatible with Belgian patriotism.[6] The unit encountered various internal problems with some volunteers being unwilling to swear personal allegiance to Adolf Hitler and others being classed as medically unfit; almost a third of the volunteers were repatriated before October 1941.[7] Over the winter of 1941–1942, it participated in training and anti-partisan operations near Donetsk in the Ukraine.[8]

Eastern FrontEdit

In the Wehrmacht, 1942–43Edit

The Walloon Legion fought its first engagement against Soviet forces at Gromowaja-Balka, near Donetsk, on 28 February 1942 as part of the 17th Army. It suffered heavy losses, both from disease and combat, and was reduced to 150 men within its first months.[9] It continued to encounter "enormous losses" throughout 1942.[10] Its record in combat, however, was widely exploited in propaganda and increased Degrelle's legitimacy in the eyes of the German leadership, especially Heinrich Himmler who commanded the SS. In late 1942, Himmler declared the Walloons to be a Germanic race, paving the way for the unit's incorporation into the Waffen-SS on 1 June 1943. The Walloon Legion was re-organised into an brigade-sized unit of 2,000 men, known as the SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonia (SS- Sturmbrigade Wallonien).[11]

The high attrition rate within the Walloon Legion required increasing focus on recruitment. A second recruitment drive was started in February 1942, recruiting 450 new volunteers of whom many came from Rex's small youth wing. A third "frantic" campaign in November 1942 raised a further 1,700 men. These recruitment drives weakened many Rexist institutions by diverting manpower away from projects in Belgium. Attempts to recruit from Belgian prisoners of war proved a failure.[12] However, Degrelle became increasingly keen on the political potential of the Walloon Legion which he saw as a more effective political tool than the Rexist Party in Belgium.[10] As the war continued and the pool of Rexist members fell, the volunteers became "largely non-political 'adventurers' or desperate men", often drawn from the urban working class and the unemployed.[13]

In the Waffen-SS, 1943–45Edit

 
Léon Degrelle, leader of Rex and member of the Walloon Legion, pictured in Charleroi in April 1944. Degrelle saw the Legion as a political tool to gain German support

In November 1943, the new SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonia was deployed for the first time to the Ukraine in response to the Soviet Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. There, the brigade fought as part of the SS Wiking Panzer Division in the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944 and suffered 70 percent casualties.[14] Among those killed was the unit's commander Lucien Lippert.[15] A detachment also fought at the Tannenberg Line in Estonia in June 1944, also suffering heavy losses. Degrelle, however, was widely celebrated for his role in the battle at Cherkassy and received the Knight's Cross, becoming "the poster boy for all European collaborators" and being featured in Signal magazine.[14] The remnants of the unit returned to Belgium where parades were held in Brussels and Charleroi in April 1944. Ahead of its return, largely to encourage more enlistments, the unit was even loaned armoured vehicles by other German units to make it seem more prestigious.[15]

In the aftermath of the Allied Liberation of Belgium in September 1944, Degrelle managed to get the brigade upgraded to division-status, after drafting Rexist refugees fleeing the Allied advance and Walloon volunteers from the paramilitary National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK). The new 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division "Wallonia" (28. SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Wallonien) was created in October 1944. It numbered fewer than 4,000 men, making it considerably understrength,[14] and French and Spanish soldiers from the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF) and Blue Division were folded into the unit to increase its numbers.[15] During the retreat, Walloon soldiers participated in the massacre of 6,000 Jewish female prisoners of Stutthof concentration camp in January 1945.[16] The following month, the remains of the "division" saw action during Operation Solstice and were forced to retreat through Central Pomerania to Stettin on the Oder river. After mass defections in April its remaining 400 personnel fled to Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein where they surrendered to the British Army to escape capture by Soviet forces.

Altogether, between 7,000 and 8,000 men served in the Walloon Legion between 1941 and 1944, slightly less than the number of Flemish who served in comparable formations. Some 1,337 were killed,[17] representing about a fifth of its total strength.[15] However, its maximum field strength had never exceeded 2,000 men.[15] Fearing execution for treason in Belgium, Degrelle escaped to Denmark and Norway and then fled to Francoist Spain where he remained in exile until his death in 1994.[15]

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 261.
  2. ^ Wouters 2018, pp. 262–263.
  3. ^ a b Wouters 2018, p. 266.
  4. ^ Dictionnaire 2008, p. 243.
  5. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 267.
  6. ^ Wouters 2018, pp. 266–268.
  7. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 270.
  8. ^ Dictionnaire 2008, p. 244.
  9. ^ Plisnier 2011, p. 100.
  10. ^ a b Wouters 2018, pp. 271–272.
  11. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 272.
  12. ^ Plisnier 2011, p. 101.
  13. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 286.
  14. ^ a b c Wouters 2018, p. 273.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Dictionnaire 2008, p. 245.
  16. ^ "Des soldats wallons ont participé au massacre de 6000 femmes juives: "Ils décrivent le plaisir qu'ils éprouvaient à les exécuter"". La Libre Belgique. 26 November 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  17. ^ Wouters 2018, p. 274.

BibliographyEdit

  • Plisnier, Flore (2011). Ils ont pris les armes pour Hitler: la collaboration armée en Belgique francophone. Brussels: Renaissance du Livre. ISBN 9782507003616.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • 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. 260–287. ISBN 978-1-316-51034-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Aron, Paul; Gotovitch, José, eds. (2008). "Légion Wallonie". Dictionnaire de la seconde guerre mondiale en Belgique. Brussels: André Versaille. pp. 243–245. ISBN 978-2-87495-001-8.

Further readingEdit

  • Conway, Martin (1993). Collaboration in Belgium: Léon Degrelle and the Rexist movement, 1940-1944. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300055009.
  • De Bruyne, Eddy (1991). Les Wallons meurent à l'est: la Légion Wallonie et Léon Degrelle sur le Front russe, 1941-1945. Paris: Didier Hatier. ISBN 9782870887400.
  • Littlejohn, David (1972). The Patriotic Traitors: A History of Collaboration in German-occupied Europe, 1940-45. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-42725-X.

External linksEdit