The Cossacks

Operation Keelhaul – Betrayal of the Cossacks in Lienz

The Cossacks were probably the most militarily skilled and loyal foreign volunteers of the Wehrmacht.
In September 1942 the German cavalry General von Pannwitz started raising a complete division with Cossacks, by absorption of previous regiment-sized units like Kampfgruppen von Jungschultz, Lehman, Konomow and Wolff, fresh recruitments, and by implanting a ‘stan’ or Cossack settlement in Poland, and later in Northern Italy. In September 1943 this 1. Kossacken Division was ordered to Yugoslavia, to fight the partisans of Tito.

The Cossacks fought bitterly against the partisans, and proved to be more successful in this kind of operations than the German units, their horses giving them a useful tactical flexibility in the wild terrain of the Balkan mountains. At the end of 1943, with a new 2. Division, von Pannwitz formed the XIV Kossacken Korps. General von Pannwitz was so popular amongst his Cossacks that they granted him the title of ‘Feldataman’, the highest rank in the Cossack hierarchy, traditionally reserved for the Tsar alone.

The Cossacks continued fighting against the partisans and later the Red Army until the end, when the majority of them managed to surrender to the British Army. However, Stalin demanded them to be handed over, and the British acceded. General von Pannwitz, who refused leaving his men, was hanged. The Cossacks were shot at once or sent to the Siberian gulags.

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