After their military defeat by regular forces, the occupied population produced terrorists who engaged in bombings, sniping, poisonings, and other attacks on occupation forces and on the civilian population. They operated as irregulars in small terror units, armed with automatic weapons and bazookas.
Women and minors as young as eight participated in the terror attacks. They attempted to build weapons of mass destruction, using chemical poisons. They assassinated officials of the occupation regime. They had a special obsession with torturing and murdering “collaborators.” They murdered hundreds of civilians, while thousands of the terrorists themselves were killed by the occupation armed forces. The occupiers responded to terror with brutality and force, sometimes using collective punishment.
The above does not refer to or describe the anti-American and anti-British terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does it describe Palestinian terrorism against Israel launched from the West Bank and Gaza.
What it does refer to is the campaign of terrorism directed against Allied forces in Europe in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany. The terrorists were members of a number of underground “resistance” organizations attempting to punish the Allied “occupiers” and drive them out. The most important of the terror groups was known as Werwolf (German for werewolf).
Until recently, relatively little was known about groups like Werwolf. But several books, particularly those authored by Perry Biddiscombe, a professor of history at the University of British Columbia, have shed light on the activities of the groups and on the anti-terror strategies that ultimately defeated them.
Most of what follows is based on the research of Biddiscombe. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the campaign against the Werwolf, both for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq and for Israel in its battles against Arab terrorism.
For many years now the conventional wisdom has been that terrorism cannot be defeated militarily, that it can only be stopped when its underlying grievances are redressed and appeased. Moreover, the entire strategy of dealing with terrorism militarily has long been under assault by the Western chattering classes as ineffective and unjust.
Anti-terror tactics used by the contemporary Allies in Iraq and Afghanistan or by Israel against its enemies have been denounced by the media and by countless public figures, especially in Western Europe. But the claim that terrorism and guerilla warfare cannot be defeated militarily is false, as illustrated by the campaign against the Werwolf.
Origins and Tactics
Nazi preparations for a campaign of terrorism against the invading Allies were underway by 1943. At first the intention was for irregular fighters to serve as a diversionary force operating behind enemy lines. The name “Werwolf” (also spelled “Wehrwolf”) was chosen from a book by Hermann Lons (Der Wehrwolf) glamorizing a 17th century German guerilla fighter.
The Werwolf developed into a large full-fledged terrorist organization, operating under the command of the SS. It operated in “groups” consisting of 4 to 6 fighters, with 6 to 10 groups forming a “sector” and 6 to 8 sectors forming a “section.” At its height, the Werwolf organization probably had about 6,000 fighters, though it could call on the support and cooperation of other units such as the Volksturm, a militia of the elderly and very young set up by Hitler near the end of the war. Himmler took personal control of operations starting in 1944.
The technology of those terrorists was of course far more primitive than that used by modern Middle East terrorists, but some of the similarities in technique are striking. Beheadings were a common Werwolf tactic. Decades before the pilfering of the museums of Baghdad, the Werwolf were under orders to sabotage and destroy art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions. While Germany never produced a campaign of suicide bombers, Werwolf terrorists were equipped with cyanide tablets and expected to commit suicide rather than be taken captive.
In the campaign against the Werwolf, an estimated 3,000-5,500 terrorists were killed. Werwolf terrorism continued well after formal hostilities ended and Germany had surrendered. In the German area of Italy, South Tyrol, where a German separatist movement was active, sabotage, bombings and Werwolf guerilla violence continued into the 1960’s.
As part of the campaign of terrorism, German Red Cross ambulances routinely carried arms and munitions, long before the Palestinians perfected that technique. Buildings thought to be designated for use as Allied barracks were mined, especially in Lorraine (where the attacks were directed against the U.S. Third Army). Werwolf terrorists collected caches of poison gases and chemical weapons, most of which were discovered by Allied forces before they could be used.
The Werwolf used death squads and assassination hit teams, often against German civilians whom the terrorists suspected of collaboration or defeatism. Civil authorities in German towns under Allied occupation were favorite targets. Priests, public officials, and even German villagers flying white surrender flags were attacked.
Werwolf terrorists were each typically equipped with 15-20 pounds of explosives and small arms, often including bazookas. Generally they operated stealthily without uniform, in civilian clothes. They set up caches of armaments in farms, caves, forests, and abandoned mines. Interestingly, there was a female contingent of terrorists, a unit of which, equipped with bazookas, played an important role in the last weeks of fighting around Berlin.
Children were also frequently used in terror attacks. The Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, was one of the main sources of recruits for the Werwolf. Entire units of Werwolf consisted of minors. Teenage Werwolf terrorists were involved in bombing the Red Army barracks near Hindenberg. Child snipers shot and threw grenades at advancing American forces. Himmler himself invented an incentive system for Hitler Youth serving in the Werwolf: 100 cigarettes for ten sniper kills; 20 days’ leave for twenty kills; a watch and Iron Cross for fifty kills.
A unit of 14-year-olds attacked U.S. forces near Nuremberg. “Operation Nursery,” a campaign against Werwolf terrorism by minors, was mounted by U.S. and British troops and continued well into 1946.
The terrorists used a variety of techniques. In addition to sniping and bombings, decapitation wires were popular – thin piano wire stretched across a road just at the height of the necks of drivers of Allied vehicles or motorcycles. Allied forces sometimes retaliated against such attacks by beheading captured terrorists. In Schleswig-Holstein, the British lopped off the heads of a dozen terrorists.
Mass poisoning was another favorite terrorist method. It was used with horrific success especially, but not exclusively, against Red Army troops. Between February and July 1945, 180 American troops were murdered with poisoned liquor. The Werwolf would spike liquor and food with odorless poison and wait for the troops to indulge. A special entity called the KTI, or Criminal Technical Institute, would prepare the poisons.
While the armed conflict raged, Werwolf terrorists were active in capturing, torturing and murdering enemy troops. But as the war drew to a close, the Werwolf began to specialize in terrorizing German civilians suspected of collaborating with or failing to resist the Allies’ advance.
Werwolf terrorism was strongest on the Eastern front, as Soviet forces threatened East Prussia, Silesia, and other areas regarded by Germans as part of their heartland. The Werwolf even ran its own radio station.
How were those terrorists eventually defeated? With brutal military force and counter-terrorism combined with a long-term program of denazification of German civilians.
The Soviets were by far the least squeamish of the Allies when it came to suppressing Werwolf terrorism. According to a Vatican report, “Russian reprisals…were terrible. Using flame-throwers the Russians destroyed entire blocks of houses causing the deaths of hundreds of the inhabitants.”
Soviet troops dealt with the threat through mass executions, mass arrests, marauding, and arson directed against German civilians. Hostages were grabbed from areas where any Werwolf sabotage took place and often were summarily executed. Any Germans – even hunters – possessing any weapons were shot on the spot as terrorists. Any German witnessing terror attacks who did not come forward to testify about them was shot. Those hiding terrorists or weapons were shot and their homes burned to the ground.
As of October 1946, the Soviets were holding 3,336 Werwolf terrorists in prison within the Soviet zone. The Soviets also crowded 240,000 suspected Werwolf sympathizers into a prison camp (where fully a third simply perished). In Jarmin in Pomerania, when German terrorists killed two Soviet troops, the entire town was demolished. In Schivelbein, after a Soviet general was killed by a sniper, the Soviets murdered every man in town.
Soviet looting and marauding in occupied German areas continued unrestrained into 1947. While such behavior may strike us as barbarous retaliation, Biddiscombe describes it thus: “None the less, given what the Werwolf was doing, or trying to do, the responses of the occupiers do not lay beyond the realm of comprehension.” The Soviets were still concerned about threats of Werwolf sabotage and terror in Eastern Europe during the 1950’s.
The French were second to the Soviets in the viciousness and ferocity of their suppression of Werwolf terrorism. French soldiers pillaged German areas as they fell under their control. Random beatings of Germans by the French were common. The French forcibly expelled all German civilians from numerous towns and villages in their area of control. General Le Clerc issued an edict on November 25, 1944 to shoot five Germans for every act of sniping near Strasbourg.
Following some Werwolf activity around Constance, French forces grabbed 400 hostages and executed two. Any building in the French zone with Werwolf graffiti on it was immediately demolished. Owners had at most an hour to remove such graffiti once it appeared in order to avoid such a fate. Collective fines were imposed on German civilians for sabotage activities in their area. Wholesale travel and curfew restrictions were imposed on the entire German population.
While American troops generally avoided the excesses of the Soviets and French, they were sharply criticized by the British for using excessive brutality and force in suppressing the Werwolf. General Eisenhower ordered the execution of all Werwolf fighters captured in civilian garb.
It was understood among U.S. troops that they had a green light for applying frontier justice to terrorists, with no lawyers or trials. The counterinsurgency manual issued by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expedition Force (SHAEF) recommended that troops simply ignore Geneva Convention rules when dealing with the Werwolf.
SHAEF instructions allowed using captive Germans in forced labor; seizure of German civilians as hostages; collective punishment; shooting of hostages; and massive bombings of civilian areas containing terrorists. Threats to shoot all curfew violators were commonly made. At Lutzkampen, Allied troops threatened to burn down the village if there were any violations of curfew.
When U.S. troops were attacked at Aschaffenburg in Lower Franconia, the entire town was annihilated by Seventh Army artillery. In the fall of 1945, well after the surrender, U.S. forces still regarded Werwolf bands as “one of the biggest potential threats to security in both the American and Allied Zones of Occupation.”
Around Stuttgart, members of Werwolf bazooka teams were shot on sight by American troops. Massive artillery bombardment of civilian areas with snipers was used whenever it was thought such action could prevent Allied troop casualties. In Krefeld, one of the first towns taken by the Americans, 120,000 civilians were rounded up and held in detention camps.
Other Allied forces were vicious in suppressing the Werwolf. The Czechoslovaks routinely tortured and abused captured terrorists. The most dramatic Czechoslovak actions took place in the Sudetenland. After some Czechs were murdered by the Werwolf, local authorities threatened to shoot all German refugees there who had arrived from Silesia.
In July 1945 a large explosion took place in Aussig an der Elbe, killing 50 people. Blaming local ethnic Germans, the authorities killed German civilians in reprisal. The remaining German population was expelled from the town. Slovaks and Poles often treated Germans little better.
Canadian forces were also brutal in suppressing terrorism. Canadian General Chris Vokes carried out large-scale destruction of German property in retaliation for guerilla activities. Towns from which sniper fire was directed against Canadian troops were reduced to rubble. Orders were given to demolish buildings housing snipers rather than risk the lives of troops. German homes were bulldozed. No “solidarity” protesters picketed the corporate headquarters of the companies manufacturing the bulldozers.
As is the case with the terrorism directed against U.S. troops in Iraq and against Jews in Israel, Werwolf terror was never in and of itself an existential threat, nor did it represent a serious military strategy capable of defeating regular armies. Rather, it was designed to demoralize – to defeat the enemy by generating growing casualties over long periods and trigger defeatism among the enemy’s home population.
While no one in his or her right mind would advocate some of the more excessive means used to suppress the German terrorists of the late 1940’s, that era nevertheless teaches us that a determined no-nonsense campaign of wiping out terrorism with armed force is capable of succeeding, even against the most brutal of opponents. Determined denazification of fanatic violent populations was also shown to work.
Such success is not easy, nor does it come cheaply.