Texel: Europe's last battle of the Second World War
As Britons celebrated VE Day, German troops were engaged in pitiless clashes on the Dutch island of Texel against rebel fighters – from Georgia. Eric Lee tells the story of the final battle of Europe’s Second World War
In late April 1945, a squad of German troops encircled a farm on the Dutch island of Texel, briefly stopped to catch their breath, and then set about their gruesome work. First they set fire to the farmhouse, and then they waited for their quarry to emerge. They shot those who made the break for safety, and when others took refuge in a nearby pig shed, they set that ablaze too.
However, two men did manage to elude the Germans, taking temporary shelter in the farm’s cellar, and later slipping away under cover of darkness. Exhausted, they hid themselves in a nearby ditch. The following morning, a farmer found them asleep, and alerted the marauding troops. They quickly arrived on the scene and put the fugitives to death. It was a grisly scene. And it was made all the more darkly bizarre by the fact that both the victims, and those doing the shooting, were wearing German uniforms.
So why would Wehrmacht troops inflict such brutalities on so-called ‘comrades’? And why were they doing so during the death throes of the Third Reich at a time when, across Europe, thousands of their compatriots were laying down their arms and surrendering?
The answer lies in the identity of the men they hunted down and killed. These victims may have worn German uniforms but they had no loyalty to the Wehrmacht. They were, in fact, former prisoners of war – Red Army men from Soviet Georgia who had switched sides. And the rebellion they had launched against German forces on Texel would trigger the final battle of Europe’s Second World War.
A stark dilemma
The roots of the Texel rebellion lie not in Texel itself, but hundreds of miles away on the eastern front. For it was here, one day in April 1942, as the great battle raged between the forces of Bolshevism and Nazism, that about a thousand starving Soviet prisoners of war were paraded before their German captors and presented with the starkest of dilemmas. As one soldier later remembers it: “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.”
The PoWs were being recruited into the German army, and those from Soviet Georgia were taken into the Georgian Legion of the Wehrmacht, which was initially deployed against Soviet forces.
Both sides shot prisoners. This was the war of the eastern front, where few rules applied and no mercy was granted
But they proved to be unreliable fighters, defecting to the Soviet side at the first opportunity in many cases. Hitler himself was sceptical about the Georgians. They “don’t belong to the Turkish peoples,” he lectured his generals, when comparing the different peoples of the Caucasus region of the USSR. “The Georgians are a Caucasian tribe that has nothing to do with the Turkish peoples. I regard only the Muslims as safe. All the others I consider unsafe.”
After serving in Poland, the Georgian Legion was redeployed to western Europe, and by early 1945 the 822nd Battalion found itself posted to Texel, the largest of the Dutch Wadden islands off the country’s north coast.
The Georgians soon became embroiled in plots with the local Dutch resistance. However, they initially had little else to do, as the war in the Netherlands was largely being fought in the eastern part of the country.
All that changed on 5 April 1945, when their commander, the German major Klaus Breitner, broke the news to them that they were to return to the mainland to fight against British and Canadian forces in Arnhem. The prospect of siding with the Germans against Allied forces at this stage of the war appalled many of the Georgians. And so that night, their leaders – headed by Lieutenant Shalva Loladze, a former Soviet air force pilot – met secretly to discuss their next move. They decided that they had no choice but to launch a rebellion.
The Georgians’ plan was to strike hard and fast at the Germans that very night. They put that plan into action with brutal efficiency, using their knives, bayonets and razors to slash the throats of around 400 sleeping German soldiers in the barracks they shared.
Red flags flying
At first things seemed to be going well for the rebels. Their main strategic targets the airfield, the ports, the lighthouse and the bunker complex that had served as the German headquarters in the main town of Den Burg – soon fell into Georgian hands. With Dutch and red flags flying over Den Burg, Loladze announced that Texel was now liberated. His men also issued a call to Dutch civilians to come and join them, and began handing out weapons to Dutch volunteers.
As Hans Verhoeven, then a 12-year-old boy on Texel, later recalled: “We had indeed heard gunfire during the night but thought they were on exercise again. But when two Russians [sic] walked into the school playground and fired their rifles triumphantly into the air, shouting that all the Germans were ‘kaput’, we realised that something incredible had happened.”
But the celebrations proved to be premature. Despite all they had achieved, the Georgians had failed to take the naval batteries on the northern and southern ends of the island. And they hadn’t killed their German commander, Major Breitner, who had spent the night not in the barracks, but with his mistress in town. Breitner was able to send a message to Berlin informing Hitler about the “treason” of the Georgians. Hitler’s response came swiftly: kill them all.
At that, the naval batteries turned their guns inland and began to pound the areas held by the Georgians, including Den Burg. Many Dutch civilians were killed in the indiscriminate shelling. Several were rounded up, suspected of helping the Georgians, and shot in cold blood by the Germans.
At the same time, German soldiers began to land on Texel, and to start hunting down the rebels as they marched across the flat fields of Texel, heading north. One of the German troops, Fred Simon, was horrified by what he saw. “We found all of the German soldiers killed, their throats slit,” he recalled. These sentiments were shared by the man charged with coordinating the German response. “We were very angry,” wrote Klaus Breitner. “Everybody was furious about the way in which the rebels had killed our men.” Soon that anger was fuelling a thirst for revenge.
The Georgians retreated from Den Burg, concentrating on holding the airfield and the lighthouse. The airfield was particularly important – though unable to radio the Allies, the Georgians hoped that British troops would soon arrive to support them.
They could not have known that the British were well aware of what was unfolding on Texel. Not only were codebreakers at Bletchley Park intercepting German updates on the rebellion, four Georgians and a few Dutch civilians had escaped the island and sailed to the Norfolk coast, and were now apprising the British of the fighting.
But British support wasn’t forthcoming. With Allied attention consumed by the drive towards Germany, Texel simply didn’t register as a priority. The Georgians and their Dutch allies were left alone to face a ferocious German onslaught.
As the days wore on, the battle took on the character of partisan warfare. The surviving Georgians hid in Texel’s small wooded areas, among the dunes and on farms. The Dutch helped many, though the locals betrayed some. The punishment for hiding Georgians was death, and the Germans were merciless.
The final battle took place on 20 April a little over two weeks before the war in Europe came to an end – at the lighthouse on Texel’s northern tip. With the Georgians barricaded into the building, the Germans deployed sappers from the Hermann Goering Division, who set explosives that engulfed the building in fire. German troops attacked Georgians fleeing the building with flamethrowers and burned them alive.
Grisha Baindurashvili was one of the few Georgian survivors from the battle. “The lighthouse collapsed,” he said. “The whole place around us was on fire. And it was burning us. Out of 120 people, only eight survived. The rest were killed by fire.”
Yet still the fighting continued. A few rebels escaped and scattered across the island. They had no incentive to surrender. Those who did so were ordered to strip off their Wehrmacht uniforms – the Germans considered them traitors, unworthy of wearing them – and shot. Nor did the Georgians take any German prisoners. This was the war of the eastern front, where few rules applied and no mercy was granted.
The hunt for the Georgian fugitives continued long after the war ended on 8 May. In fact it wasn’t until 20 May, when Canadian troops landed on Texel, that the Germans laid down their arms.
Gathering up the dead
Though the Canadians swiftly removed the Germans from Texel, they allowed the Georgians to remain a little longer to gather up their dead. It was a grim task: of the more than 800 who had participated in the rebellion, only 228 were still alive. Lieutenant Shalva Loladze was among the dead.
And the survivors faced the most uncertain of futures. A number of writers speculated that Georgian war veterans were returned to the Soviet Union where they were either dispatched to the Gulags, or shot. It was reasonable to expect the survivors of the Texel uprising to suffer a similar fate. They had betrayed Stalin twice: first, by surrendering to the Germans at a time when Soviet soldiers were supposed to be fighting to the last bullet; second, by agreeing to join the German ranks, even if they’d had little choice in the matter.
Other Soviet soldiers who had switched to the German side faced the severest of punishments upon their return home. After his capture by the Germans, General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov had defected and led the pro-Nazi ‘Russian Liberation Army’. He then switched sides again, helping to liberate Prague from Nazi control at the end of the war. But that didn’t save him. In 1946, Vlasov and 11 of his colleagues were court-martialled, found guilty of treason and hanged.
Yet the fate of the Texel survivors couldn’t have been more different to the one suffered by Vlasov. Though most remained for a time in the Red Army, all were eventually returned to their homes in Georgia.
One strange case – though not directly related to the battle on Texel – was that of General Shalva Maglakelidze, the first commander of the Wehrmacht’s Georgian Legion. When the war ended, Maglakelidze was not repatriated to the USSR. Instead, he wound up in West Germany where he worked as a military advisor to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In 1954, he was kidnapped by KGB agents in West Germany and taken back home. But instead of being punished, he was set free to live a quiet life in Soviet Georgia.
So why were the Georgians treated so leniently? Part of the explanation may lie in the letters that Allied generals such as Dwight D Eisenhower sent to the Soviets, testifying to their role fighting against the Germans. Another reason was a Soviet desire to engage with the Georgian emigre communities in an attempt to convince them to return home. And there was also the role of the Dutch communists, who attested to the heroism and patriotism of the Georgians on Texel.
The Texel uprising also became an important plank in the construction of a communist myth – one that celebrated those who had risen up against their Nazi oppressors. Soviet officials regularly came to Texel on the anniversary of the end of the war. By the late 1960s, the Soviet regime had even produced a feature film, Crucified Island, casting the Georgians as heroes. Such adulation, it has to be said, did not always sit well with the residents of Texel, who felt that the Georgians had risen up with little concern for the lives of innocent civilians.
The Texel Uprising was an important plank in a communist myth – one that celebrated those who had defied the Nazis
Once Georgia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the new country had to come to grips with a history that, under communist rule, had been skewed by a regime that, at best, had a casual relationship with the truth. But it adheres to the Soviet celebration of the rebellion on Texel, as was shown when the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili visited the Georgian Military Cemetery on the island in 2005.
At the head of that cemetery are a number of symbols, marking the evolution of the memorialisation of the uprising. There’s a monument displaying the symbol of Soviet Georgia (a hammer and sickle) and then, hailing from the post-communist period, a large white cross.
There’s no ignoring the Texel uprising within the confines of the cemetery. Yet step outside and travel around this beautiful and peaceful island, and there is little to remind you of the horrors that took place in the spring of 1945 the final battle of the Second World War in Europe. It was the bloody denouement of almost six years of conflict. And it’s one that we should not forget.
Eric Lee is a historian and author. His latest book is Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler’s Revenge, April-May 1945 (Greenhill, 2020)
This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine