On the night of the 6th April 1945 members of the Wehrmacht 822nd Battalion, based on the Dutch island of Texel, entered the quarters of their officers and other members of the unit and murdered some 400 of them with knives and bayonets.
Employed on coastal defences most members of the battalion had hoped that the war would pass them by. But when they learnt that that they were being ordered onto the mainland to participate in a last stand against the liberating Allies, members of this battalion were forced into action.
That night was the beginning of a bloody conflict that was to spread to the local population of Texel and not end until the 20th May - 12 days after the end of the war in Europe - when Canadian troops arrived.
The rebellious soldiers were Georgians, most of whom who had previously fought in the Red Army. They owed the Nazis and Hitler no loyalty. Why were they in the Wehrmacht at all?
The following excerpt is just part of the background story, comprehensively related in this volume:
On 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day, Allied forces reaching the village of Turqueville, near Sainte-Mere-Eglise, accepted the surrender of a company of Georgian soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Wehrmacht. They interrogated the company’s commander, Oberleutnant Lomtatidse, who told them that this was the 4th Company of the 795th Georgian Battalion.
It is likely that these were the very first Georgian troops to fall into the hands of the Western Allies, and the interrogation record of Lomtatidse is quite revealing.
He was described as ‘a regular Russian [sic] Officer forced by starvation to join the Georgian Legion’, according to his interrogation report. Previously, Lomtatidse had been an officer of the 646th Infantry Regiment in the 152nd Infantry Division of the Red Army when he was captured by the Germans in the battle for Smolensk in August 1941. The city of Smolensk had fallen to the Germans in July, so Lomtatidse had almost certainly participated in a failed Soviet counter-offensive to retake the town.
He somehow survived eight months of captivity during the first winter of the war on the Eastern Front - a time when Soviet prisoners were dying in their thousands of starvation and cold - and was taken away, together with eighteen other Red Army officers, all of them Georgians, to a prisoner of war camp in Zamostye, near Warsaw. It was then April 1942. As his interrogators summed up his story,
Here about 1,000 starving Georgians were paraded. The German officers ordered all enemies of the Reich to step forward. Nobody stepped forward since this would have meant a bullet in the neck. It was then announced that the ceremony of induction into the German Army was concluded.
Nearly all the Georgians who wound up wearing German uniforms had similar experiences.
One of the first to be captured was Valiko Zhgenti. He was taken prisoner by the Germans in Riga, the Latvian capital, in July 1941, at the very beginning of the German war with the Soviet Union and a month before Lomtatidse fell into German hands. Zhgenti had volunteered to serve in the Red Army, and he claimed that after his capture he escaped three times from custody - but never got very far. ‘I was severely beaten for my efforts,’ he said. ‘The conditions in the camps were so bad that we even eat [sic] any dogs we managed to catch.’
He had become a captive of the Germans at the worst possible time, facing imprisonment during the winter of 1941-2, when conditions were unimaginably bad for the Soviet prisoners.
Noe Gongladze was also captured during those first few weeks of the fighting as the German forces mounted their Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. He was twenty-nine when he was badly injured on 20 August 1941 and taken by the Germans to a camp near Minsk; they refused to treat his wounds. The following month, his group was brought to Warsaw, but by then half of the prisoners had died. In the end, he said, the death toll reached 80 per cent.
Shalva Loladze was a captain who commanded a squadron in the Soviet Air Force. He was shot down in 1942 over occupied Ukraine and captured by the Germans. He eventually joined the Georgian Legion and was given the rank of Leutnant (second lieutenant).
Another of the Georgians captured by the Germans was Evgeni Artemidze. We know more about his recruitment and experience in the Legion because he survived the war to talk about it. According to his daughter Gulia Artemidze, whom I interviewed in Georgia, Evgeni served in the Red Army in an artillery unit, and was captured after having served in Ukraine.
In the German prisoner of war camp in Romania, he was near death and delirious when he heard someone calling out, asking if there were any Georgians in the camp. He thought it was a dream at first. Artemidze was recruited to the Georgian Legion by Georgian emigres, among them General Kvinitadze, who were travelling from one prisoner of war camp to another, searching out Georgians willing to don German uniforms.
Varlam Lomidze joined the Red Army in March 1942. He was a history teacher in Tbilisi at the time. Like many other Georgian soldiers, he was sent to fight in Crimea where he was captured by the Germans. He was forced to march some 800 kilometres to Zhitomir, a city to the west of Kiev in Ukraine, together with 20,000 other prisoners, suffering from hunger the whole way.
Zhgenti, Gongladze, Loladze, Artemidze and Lomidze all wound up in the 822nd Battalion.
As Gongladze recalled, in January 1943: "The Germans brought those of us who could still walk to Kruszyna,’ a town in southern Poland. He had already survived seventeen months in German captivity. He and the others were recruited to the Georgian Legion which was then being formed. As he described the recruitment, ‘Those who refused to put on a German uniform were shot immediately.’ His story is very similar to the one told by Lomtatidse to his Allied captors in France in 1944.
Anything was better than being shot. Our intention was to wait until the injured had regained their strength and we had [to] have weapons. We were waiting to seize the right opportunity. It was here that I got to know Loladze... We swore that we have our revenge.
One of the Germans assigned to work with the Georgians at the Kruszyna camp was Dieter Rohren. He said that there were about 3,000 Georgians and fifty Germans based there. New recruits were brought in all the time, still wearing their Red Army uniforms. In April 1943, about 1,000 of the Georgians were separated from the others and formed into a new battalion - the 822nd.
According to a British War Office report at the time,
Starvation was the prime factor in recruiting ex-Soviet soldiers for the ‘Russian Army of Liberation’ and the various other Eastern Legions. Canteens at prisoner of war camps for captured Soviet soldiers sold human flesh of [the] recently deceased to hungry Soviets.
After their ‘ceremony of induction’, those men who did not step forward and declare their enmity to Reich were made to sign a declaration which committed them to the following:
To be honest, to work conscientiously, to fulfil all orders received from one's commanders, to love Hitler and to work sincerely for Germany. He who breaks the above undertaking becomes an enemy and will be severely punished.
The officers who administered the oath warned the Georgians that failure to sign it was a death sentence. As the Allied interrogation report concluded, ‘Everybody signed.’
This excerpt from Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler's Revenge, April–May 1945 appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author.
N.B. Thanks to everyone who got in touch about Dunkirk and the Aftermath, featured last week, I have updated the comments section with the known details for each image.