Ever heard of Bataillon Ebbinghaus? They really were a thing — briefly.
Before World War II, special operations were more the bailiwick of ad hoc, temporary elements, what the British precisely called “mobs for jobs,” than they were assignments to permanent special operations forces. A war would break out, some Robert Rogers would raise a regiment or even a company of special-purpose forces.
In the gear-up to what would become World War II, the German forces took this approach in raising a unit of Polish-speaking irregulars. Writes Mike Bennighof, PhD, on a wargame page:
Theodore [sic] von Hippel, a veteran of the German campaign in East Africa during the First World War, lobbied long and hard for special deep penetration units that would sabotage bridges and other communications nodes ahead of a German advance. The army allowed Hippel to form a special battalion known as the “Ebbinghaus” unit. Hippel recruited Polish-speaking Germans from either side of the border, Poles resident in Germany and Freikorps veterans. And according to some of his detractors, a fair number of petty criminals. They went into action during the German invasion of Poland in September 19391.
Throughout the war, German forces would use units like this, often successfully on the Eastern front. They had less success in the West, where they created a lot of confusion during the Battle of the Bulge but wound up defeated in detail. (Most of the English-speaking, American-uniformed infiltrators were captured, given a summary court-martial, and shot).
Bennighof suggests that the original Batallon Ebbinghaus from the Polish Campaign was not an unalloyed success:
Though there are some unsourced claims that the Ebbinghaus Battalion “performed magnificently” (without giving any details of this magnificence), Polish records give a much different story. The battalion assaulted the Polish factory complex at Slask in Silesia, and were intercepted by local police and army reservists. After an intense firefight, half of the saboteurs were killed2.
One online source suggests that Ebbinghaus was successful in “seizing the bridges over the Vistula” as well as the Silesian factory attack3, but there’s no way to trace it back to a primary source.
Having had their prejudices about special operations confirmed, the army high command dissolved the Ebbinghaus unit. But the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, saw an opportunity. He transferred Hippel to military intelligence and ordered him to form a new unit, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (800th Special Purpose Training and Construction Company). Hippel formed the unit around the Ebbinghaus survivors at a barracks in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, and his company became known as the Brandenburg company.
Recruiting and training focused on language ability and cultural knowledge, to allow saboteurs to pose as enemy soldiers and civilians. Overwhelmingly, preparations focused on the Soviet Union despite Germany’s supposed alignment with the Communist state, reflecting Canaris’ virulent anti-Communism. Canaris eased Hippel aside as the unit began to show real promise4.
So by 25 Oct 39, Ebbinghaus was no more, and the unit was Brandenburg until, after the murder of its sponsor Canaris, it was converted to a conventional unit and expended in combat. Here’s another excerpt mentioning it:
The German high command allowed Hippel to form a battalion to do what he had proposed–sabotage the enemy’s ability to respond to German attacks by capturing roadways and bridges ahead of the main force and securing strategic targets before they were demolished. Known as the Ebbinghaus battalion, the battalion did a superb job in the Polish campaign, despite their excellent performance they were disband soon after. However this excellent performance didn’t fail to go unnoticed, and Admiral Canaris(who at the time was incharge of the Abwehr)gave Hippel the opportunity to form a unit like the Ebbinghaus group for the Abwehr.
On October 15, 1939, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company No. 800), which consisted primarily of the former Ebbinghaus volunteers, was officially founded in Brandenburg [an der Havel near Berlin], where it would take on the shorter name of Brandenburg Company5.
One wonders what sources lie behind the tales, and what was the (probably prosaic) origin of the original name. The only official source we have found is a photo of von Hippel with caption and a few brief paragraphs (.pdf) in the Bundesarchiv, who say the photo came from his personnel file in the archive — a file that ends with his 1943 capture in Tunisia.
One site gives Bataillon Ebbinghaus credit for “prevent[ing] the destruction of Vistula Bridges and sabotage of factories in Silesia” during the Polish campaign6.
But the naming enigma remains. Who, or what, or where was Ebbinghaus that gave this early unit its name? And where, in something as thoroughly explored as the history of Nazi special operations forces, is the history of this brief mob-for-a-job?
- Higgins, p. 9.
Bennighof, Mike. Retrieved from: http://www.avalanchepress.com/Brandenburg.php
Bundesarchiv. Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel. Retrieved from: https://www.bundesarchiv.de/oeffentlichkeitsarbeit/bilder_dokumente/00863/index.html.de and: https://www.bundesarchiv.de/imperia/md/content/bundesarchiv_de/oeffentlichkeitsarbeit/historische_bilder_und_dokumente/diebrandenburger/hauptmann_von_hippel.pdf
Higgins, David R. Behind Soviet Lines: Hitler’s Brandenburgers Capture the Maikop Oilfields, 1942. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2014.
Lew, Christopher. The Brandenburg Commandos – July ’96 World War II Feature. Retrieved from: http://www.historynet.com/the-brandenburg-commandos-july-96-world-war-ii-feature.htm
Uncredited. The Brandenburg Commandos: Germany’s Warrior-Spies, n.d.. Retrieved from: http://salutinghistory.weebly.com/uploads/5/7/9/2/5792359/the_brandenburg_commandos.pdf
Various. Theodor von Hippel. Axis History Forum. Retrieved from: http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=79070
The post has been edited. Thanks to a comment by our one banned commenter, an error in the date of the Higgins book has been corrected. He’s still banned though — sorry ’bout that. -Ed.This entry was posted in Foreign and Enemy Weapons, The Past is Another Country, Unconventional Warfare on by Hognose.
Former Special Forces 11B2S, later 18B, weapons man. (Also served in intelligence and operations jobs in SF).
The original comments are recreated below for completeness
11 thoughts on “A Forgotten German SOF Unit”
Hauptmann Ernst Ebbinghaus was von Hippel’s nom de guerre during that campaign.
w/ links to amazon
- Hognose Post author
Ah. Why isn’t that in the jeezly book?
And… what happened to Hippel? Died in captivity (he wasn’t young?) Returned and passed away quietly in Germany? Joined the Gehlen Org?
yup, most definitely worth a follow-up on biography and ideas.
during ww1 he was in East Africa with
having the Brits on an epic wild-goose chase;
spent the inter-war years getting a PhD
(in?, where?) and analyzing Lawrence’s
Arab Insurgency, before he joined the
Reichswehr and promptly got into hot
water with his unconventional ideas until
Canaris’s Abwehr got him out and
allowing him to restructure his engineer
after Fall Weiss he had himself
transferred, for health reasons, washing up
in North Africa with Mauretanian
camel-riders and desert raiders at Deutsche-
Arabische Lehr Abteilung and
subsequently taking command of the
KODAT (Kommando Deutsch -Arabische
Truppe) and leading them against George
S Patton’s troops.
POW, apparently, and then ‘pooof’, no trace, no war grave.
his bundesarchiv file BArch Pers 6/8912
is accessible only to family and selected
researchers, and some deep net hauls in
library/university databases came up
well, the hounds are on the spoor.
While not much, he is referenced in the book “Kommando” by James Lucas. I have had it on my bookshelf for years. Now I am going to have to read it again. As soon as I get off of my Rhodesian War and SA bush war habit.
Have you read “Iron Fist From the Sea”?
I hit the post button before I was done. The book “Kommando” gives a decent rundown of the of the ops at the start of the war with Poland. Lucas says that the reason that so little is available about the operations is that the war diaries of the HQ’s that covered the areas were all destroyed during the war.
- Hognose Post author
Thanks. Pretty sure I have Kommando (Red cover, photo of Brandenburg sleeve band and other German badges?) but haven’t read it since I got it some time soon after it was published. Haven’t read Iron Fist, and in fact I hadn’t heard of it. Thanks!
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howto research the arcane
guess the file location from their list (von hippel’s should be in freiburg, but they would or could not tell me over the phone).
apply in writing on their pdf by mail directly to the selected archive and wait for approval (no set guidelines for granting or denying access).
with the request accepted, appear in person or send named representative/researcher to view files on location. No copies through the mail, nil online.
very german. or byzantine.