TWO YEARS after the end of the Second World War, a heavily armed band of Nazi soldiers was fighting on in the mountains of central Germany. The guerrillas, led by an ex-Luftwaffe officer, were harassing Allied soldiers and collaborators in the Harz mountains as late as 1947.
And this band of guerrillas was not alone, according to a new book which reveals that the Werwolf resistance movement in post-war Germany was active for three years after 1945 and was more extensive and influential than previously thought.
Although most records of the Werwolf and its members were destroyed by the retreating Germans, they were suspected of being involved in a sabotage plot to assassinate Field-Marshal Montgomery, the Allied commander, and are now thought to have carried out around 5,500 killings, including the murders of many civic leaders appointed by the Allies and a mass poisoning operation which killed nearly 200 British and US soldiers. Historian Dr Perry Biddiscombe says that the Werwolf was a terrorist army with up to 12,000 well-armed members who had been given new identities and who had sworn allegiance to the movement.
Armed with plastic explosives and weapons stolen from the allies, and equipped with suicide pills in case of capture, they used a network of secret underground bunkers and buried arms caches.
This secret resistance army, dismissed by some historians as a post- war propaganda myth, in fact operated extensively not just in Germany, but also in neighbouring Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Austria and France. So strategic were the Werwolf cells, that the Americans used former German intelligence officers to try and reactivate those in areas controlled by Russia as the basis of an anti-Soviet underground network.
Using previously unpublished British, American, Russian and German documents Dr Biddiscombe says that the scale of the Werwolf was far greater than previously thought, and that contemporary Allied estimates were that they may have had the support of up to 15 per cent of the population.
"The orthodox opinion on Nazi partisan warfare is that it was non-existent, or a myth, produced as a last-minute propaganda campaign by Josef Goebbels. In truth there was an active Nazi resistance campaign," says Dr Biddiscombe in his book, Werwolf, The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, published next week by the University of Wales Press and described as the most complete history of the Nazi partisan movement. He says the origins of the Werwolf can be traced back to 19 September 1944, although the idea of a guerrilla army was first put forward by intelligence officers in the spring of 1943 as a Nazi fall-back strategy,
Taking its name from the German romantic saga of the same name about 17th-century guerrillas on the Luneberg Heath, the structure of the movement may, with some grim irony, have been based on the highly successful Polish resistance.
Dr Biddiscombe says the Werwolf was divided up into cells of four to six men, and charged with sabotage, killing collaborators and promoting unrest. Cell members were equipped with small arms, hand grenades, bazookas, foot mines and plastic explosives and attempts were made to recruit them from a number of areas, including the army and the church.
One of the most successful Werwolf operations was a mass poisoning programme, where lethal doses of methyl were injected into alcohol. Special squads were dispatched to poison liquor and food likely to be consumed by Allied and Soviet troops and by 1946, a total of 190 Allied soldiers died as a result, with many more casualties among Russian troops.
Werwolf guerrillas also destroyed major art collections, stopping them falling into the hands of the allies. One raid cost the Berlin Museum more than all the combined damage incurred during enemy bombing and included the loss of 800 Greek terracotta pieces and 300 ancient vases, says Dr Biddiscombe.
The Werwolf also terrorised civilians to try and stop co-operation with the Allied occupation forces. Red Werwolf runes appeared on the doors of collaborators, and many civic leaders were shot or hanged and their bodies tagged with warning notes. A Werwolf stencil of a silhouetted figure - "the sign of the dark men" - appeared in public places. In one incident in August 1945, the Werwolf was suspected of sabotaging an aeroplane carrying Field Marshal Montgomery. Water had been found in the fuel tanks after the plane crashed. Montgomery was slightly injured. According to Dr Biddiscombe, a historian at Victoria University, the Allies had arrested 80,000 people by 1946 to try and emasculate the resistance, while in Russia, 240,000 "subversives" were arrested.
He says that Werwolf members were still appearing in court to be sentenced to death in 1948. "A lot more happened than has traditionally been thought and as a result it had a much bigger effect on the policy of the Allies than we had imagined," said Dr Biddiscombe. "While there is no doubt that a majority of the population consciously rejected guerrilla warfare measures, there was a minority of some 10 to 15 per cent who were regarded by the Allies as the core of public support for the movement."
There were, of course, some who had suspected what was happening at the time, among them the late war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who wrote: "At night the Germans take pot shots at Americans, or string wires across roads, or they burn the houses of Germans who accept posts in our military government, or they booby trap ammunition dumps or motorcycles or anything that is likely to be touched. But that is at night. In the daytime we are the answer to the German prayer."
Commenting on the book, Dr Adam Tooze, a specialist in German history at Cambridge University, said: "It is generally acknowledged that the Werwolf existed, but not much has been written about it, possibly because the perception has been that it was insignificant. There is a general trend in the literature now to emphasise the existence and the strength of post-Nazi organisations, associations of former SS men, legal teams who worked to get war criminals released and the resurgence of far right politics in the early Fifties."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies