Archive: The Willi Sanger battalion: modern-day Seydlitz troops?

The Nationalen Volksarmee (National People’s Army, NVA) of the defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR), combined the essential elements of Prussian militarism with the writings of Friedrich Engels to form a formidable, high-readiness military, capable of invading western Germany at a few hours’ notice to complete the historic task of reuniting the country under the hammer and sickle.
Doing the necessary…
The Nationalen Volksarmee`s Willi Sänger Battalion
19 March 2005
The Nationalen Volksarmee (National People`s Army, NVA) of the defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR), combined the essential elements of Prussian militarism with the writings of Friedrich Engels to form a formidable, high-readiness military, capable of invading western Germany at a few hours` notice to complete the historic task of reuniting the country under the hammer and sickle.
Fifteen years have elapsed since the collapse of the DDR. In its day the NVA fielded a formidable array of units, although, to one`s surprise one now finds sources flatly contradicting each other on its then organisation and strength. The Soviet War Machine (SWM) put the force at six divisions and then contradicts itself on the number of tank versus motor rifle (MR) formations. It twice puts the figures at four MR and two Tank divisions and once claims four Tank and two MR divisions. In one table it adds two airborne battalions. All were listed at being at between 75% and full strength. World Military Power (WMP) gave the DDR two of each, giving a total of four divisions. The slew of non-divisional units included one airborne battalion. Elite Forces adds more to the mix, identifying the NVA`s elite troops as the 40th (Willi Sänger) Airborne Battalion, the 29th (Ernst Moritz Arndt) MR Regiment, based at Rügen Island on the Baltic, and trained for amphibious landings and “a number of smaller elite groups such as diversionary battalion and a number of combat swimmer companies in the navy (Volksmarine).” Neither SWM nor WMP made any mention of the 29th MRR. No matter. The German sources make mention of Willi Sänger but not of a second unit. No matter. Writing is oftentimes close enough to warfare to apply the dicta of Carl von Clausewitz and auftragtaktik: the writer often has to commit finger to keyboard on the basis of imperfect information.                           
None of the sources make mention of the NVA`s special engineer detachments trained in mock-ups of West Berlin`s sewer and storm drainage systems. The NVA were keen students of experience and had learned much from World War Two, including the difficulty the Germans had in clearing the sewers of Warsaw in 1942 during the Jewish ghetto revolt and again in 1944 during the Home Army`s rising. Sewers also played a role in the 1942/3 battle in and under the ruins of Stalingrad – and in Berlin in 1945. The NVA fully expected more fierce fighting to take the western half of the then divided city and prepared accordingly. By all accounts, the preferred method to take the city would be by coup de main – the unexpected rush before the enemy was prepared – or even aware of the need – to resist.
According to the German sources, these engineer detachments – real or imagined – were not the only forces dedicated to catching NATO by coup de main. As Captain Neuer put it, the NVA did not actually field “real” airborne troops (Luftlandetruppe, LLT). Neuer rather sees them as specialists in fighting behind enemy lines and companions to the Group of Soviet Forces Germany`s Spetsialnoye Nazranie (SPETSNAZ) brigade, rather than the DDR equivalent to regular air-delivered infantry. In this role they were hardly militarily unique. Otto Skorzeny, the German commando leader, dressed up some of his troops as Hungarians when he stormed that country`s royal palace to arrest the Regent and prevent that country`s defection from the Nazi axis. He used a similar ruse de guerre when freeing Mussolini from captivity and during the Ardennes offensive. During the latter, English speaking Germans were dressed up as US MPs to misdirect convoys and otherwise sow panic and alarm.
Many of Skorzeny`s impostors, or “Rejdoviki” (raiders), to give them a current Russian name, ended their lives before firing squads made up of real MPs upon capture, the US taking unkindly to their escapades. Ruses de guerre, where one dresses up as the enemy or flies his flag to deceive the opponent – and gain corresponding advantage – are as old as warfare and is frequently used in naval warfare – but depend for fairness` sake that the ruse be dropped before shots are fired. This was enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. But victory is nine tenths of the law and the 11th commandment is “don`t get caught”. Like the Nazis, communist cadres in the NVA may also have argued that bourgeois notions like fighting fair and obeying the Geneva and Hague conventions did not apply to revolutionaries. As it was, the Cold War was hardly considered peacetime by the DDR, hence a war economy, intense militarization and the existence of units one would normally only encounter in wartime, such as the already mentioned engineer detachments and the Willi Sänger battalion.     
What was the point of units such as this? Simply that until the advent of high-precision weapons in the late 1990s, the only safe way to decapitate an enemy figuratively was to do so almost literally. Even then, such weapons can miss or be otherwise rendered ineffective. Saddam Hussein`s use of doubles and his secretiveness regarding his location and movement made it extremely difficult to target him even with so-called “brilliant” weapons. The US embarrassed itself a number of times by claiming the man dead or by killing bystanders instead. In such cases, a dedicated team of Rejdoviki would more appropriate. This fact was well known to Crusader leaders in the Levant who used Shiite fanatics of the Nizari sect to murder opponents and Sunni enemies. Indeed, it was the Nizari, who used hashish in the preparation of what were often suicide attacks, who gave English the word “assassin” or “user of hashish”. 
As the Willi Sänger battalion`s task list makes clear, such a valuable resource can be put to many other vital military-political tasks, although the termination of enemy political, military and economic leaders remains a top priority task. Such tasks would normally be undertaken wearing and bearing the uniform and arms of NATO troops, in the best tradition of Skorzeny`s commandos. M48 main battle tanks, M113 armoured personnel carriers, jeeps, US uniforms, personal equipment and M16 rifles were all reportedly acquired from Vietnam for this purpose. The Willi Sänger battalion was not the only Warsaw Pact unit dedicated to such tasks. Each SPETSNAZ brigade included a “anti-VIP” company. The NVA`s advantage was that they were native speakers of a NATO language, an advantage no other Warsaw Pact military had. The NVA was also under direct Soviet command (unlike any other WP military) and was politically reliable in a way the Hungarians, Czechoslovaks and Romanians were not.
Other key tasks for the unit included:
  • General commando tasks while masquerading in NATO uniform,
  • Seizing and holding key points in advance of own forces,
  • Leading and supporting underground espionage, sabotage, subversive and partisan groups,
  • Deliberately sowing chaos and panic in the enemy rear by, for example misdirecting convoys while posing as MPs or by way of provocation and “incidents” convincing US soldiers that Bundeswehr troops are actually East German insurgents, etc.
Cornish warn that very few states consider assassination as a tool of policy, although the idea often lies close to the surface of debate. During the 1990s, he reminds us, there were calls for the killing of troublesome or dangerous leaders, such as Iraq`s then president Saddam Hussein, to be adopted as policy by national governments, and even by the UN. “However, quite apart from the fact that international law has no place for such acts, most analysis would agree that the risks inherent in a formal state policy of assassination would outweigh any benefits. The costs of failure can be high. The United States endured years of ridicule after the failed attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to kill Cuba`s Fidel Castro with exploding cigars,” he said. “The failed attempt to capture (if not to kill) Somali warlord Farah Aydid by US troops in 1993 not only embarrassed the United States, it made US and other troops vulnerable to retaliation and, indirectly, damaged the UN`s reputation as an impartial peacekeeping organization,” he added. “The consequences of successful assassination can be unpredictable, rendering it an unreliable tool of policy. There are other, more fundamental issues at stake. To carry out assassination as a matter of policy is to adopt the tactics of state-sponsored terrorism. And to threaten assassination is to abandon the possibility of normal diplomacy; why should any leader negotiate with those whose policy is to kill him? Self-interest also counsels against assassination as a policy: were assassination to become a feature of international political life, leaders of more open societies (particularly in the West) would find themselves uncomfortably exposed.”
Originally the 5th parachute battalion – and later the 40th, the Willi Sänger battalion was created in 1962 and presented to the public on May Day 1964. In keeping with tradition, the unit was also named after a German or international leader or fighter in the revolutionary struggle, in this instance after an anti-Nazi resistance fighter. According to source material dated 1979, the unit, also based on Rügen, was some 400 to 500 strong. It had a conventional organisation, fielding three line and one support companies. Armament was the usual small and light arms and included 82mm mortars for the support company. Service with the unit was at least three years and qualified unit members were entitled to wear a grey beret in the field and a bright red equivalent on parade. Their uniforms were also trimmed with orange Waffenfarbe (arm of service identification colour). Training was tough and aimed to make unit members equally adept at fighting or jumping by day or night – and regardless of season or weather. There was an emphasis on physical fitness, with 100km marches with full pack, 15km runs and speed marches while wearing gasmasks. As befit a unit with its range of tasks, training included mountaineering, skiing, swimming and diving, explosives, foreign languages, survival and sharpshooting.       
What is the point of this? Simply that units like Willi Sänger exist and have a long record of being used where decision makers have decided the rewards outweigh the risks. As the spectrum moves from high intensity, conventional conflicts to the small wars of peace and antiterrorism, unconventional solutions increasingly suggest themselves. Hence the increased use of contractors on and behind the battlefields and the emphasis on “brilliant” weapons and Special Forces during 21st Century force modernisations. As these means close in on the perceived rogues of the day, they may be increasingly tempted to retaliate in Asymmetrical ways – not only with so-called weapons of mass destruction but also with unconventional units such as Willi Sänger – perhaps the ultimate weapon of mass distraction.
German Sources on the NVA`s LLT
Kampf im feindlichen Hinterland, Stechbarth, Generaloberst, Truppenpraxis 5/85, pp498-501.
Fallschirmjäger der Nationalen Volksarmee, Hauptmann Reinhold Neuer, Truppenpraxis 7/83, pp515-520. 
Fallschirmjäger der Nationalen Volksarmee, Oberstleutnant Gottfried Neis, Fliegerkalender der DDR, 1975, Militärverlag der DDR, Berlin, pp40-51.
Die Genossen mit dem grauen Barett, Lt Friedrich Jeschonnek, Information für die Truppe, 8/73, pp27-33.
* The author thanks the German military archive service at Potsdam for making the material available at their cost.
Other Sources
Chris Bishop, Ian Drury (eds.), The Encyclopaedia of World Military Power, Temple Press, London 1988.
Ray Bonds, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the strategy, tactics and weapons of the Soviet War Machine, Salamander, London, 1980.
Paul Cornish, compiler, Assassination, Encarta Encyclopaedia, Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Charles Foley, Commando Extraordinary, Longman`s, Green and Co, 1954.  
Walter N Lang, Peter Eliot, Keith Maguire, The World`s Elite Forces, Salamander, London, 1987.