Whilst the invasion armies of the Allies were massing in the United Kingdom, particularly in a Northern Ireland and Queen’s University in particular, now cleared of German spies, the German front was losing ground to the Russians and Germany was being subjected to night and day bombing attack: at this time the life of Frank Ryan, whom his associates must perforce know as Francis Richards, was drawing to its close.
Details about the tragic death of this brave but deluded man, former editor of An Phoblacht, the anti-Franco combatant in the Spanish Civil War, have been given by two people who were in close touch with him in his last years: Frau Elizabeth Clissmann and the Irish author and scholar Francis Stuart, who at the time was working as a Nazi collaborator journalist in Berlin.
Stuart published his recollections of his unusual countryman in the November and December 1950 numbers of the Dublin monthly magazine The Bell. Although those parts touching secret activities are unreliable, the details about Frank Ryan’s circumstances and his last illness are more precise.
Francis Stuart claims that Ryan never discussed his relations with those who had freed him in Spain. In 1942 he lived in a large house in Berlin with Helmut Clissmann. At that time he had several good German friends. He was on particularly good terms with Captain Nissen, who was his last hope for returning to Ireland.
Herr Hoven and Helmut Clissmann were both Brandenburgers, members of the Brandenburg German Special Forces unit, Germany’s Elite Warrior Spies during World War II. Units of Brandenburgers operated in almost all fronts – the invasion of Poland, Denmark and Norway, in the Battle of France, in Operation Barbarossa, in Finland, Greece and the invasion of Crete, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Some units were sent to infiltrate India, Afghanistan, Middle East countries and South Africa. They also trained for Operation Felix (the planned seizure of Gibraltar), and Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of Great Britain), and, of course, Ireland.
The unit had stunning successes early in the war acting as advance units that captured strategic bridges, tunnels and rail yards in Poland and the Netherlands.The unit was the brainchild of Hauptmann (Captain) Theodor von Hippel who, after having his idea rejected by the traditionalist Reichswehr, approached Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, commander of the German Intelligence Service, the Abwehr. Canaris gave Hippel the go-ahead to create an Abwehr controlled unit along the lines of the Ebbinghaus Battalion. Basing the new formation on many of the former Ebbinghausers, Hippel formed the original regiment, Lehr und Bau Kompanie z.b.V. 800 (or Training and Construction Company No. 800) on 25 October 1939.
During World War I, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander of the East African theatre, conducted a brilliant guerrilla war against the Allied colonial troops. At the same time in the Middle East, T. E. Lawrence was enjoying great success using Arab hit-and-run tactics against the Turks. Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel had served under Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa, and after the war became a strong advocate of the tactics pioneered by his former commander and Lawrence of Arabia.
Hippel’s vision was reminiscent of that of David Stirling, founder of the British SAS. Hippel proposed that small, élite units, highly trained in sabotage and fluent in foreign languages, could operate behind enemy lines and wreak havoc with the enemy’s command, communication and logistical tails. When Hippel approached the Reichswehr, his idea was rebuffed. The traditionalist Prussian officers saw this clandestine form of warfare would be an affront to the rules of war, and claimed that men who fought that way would not deserve to be called soldiers.
This was identical to the regular British Army’s treatment of the SAS under the great Ulster warrior Blair Mayne of Newtownards, who led them with great distinction through the final campaigns of the war in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Norway, often campaigning alongside local resistance fighters including the French Maquis.
Recruitment for the Brandenburgers was also almost directly contrary to those of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Rather than recruiting only those who embodied the Aryan ideal of the übermensch, Hippel scoured the Reich to find Slavs, Poles and other ethnics willing to fight for Germany. Every recruit had to be fluent in at least one foreign language. However, many recruits were fluent in several. The recruits were also schooled in the customs and traditions of their specific region. Knowing every habit and mannerism in their area of operations would enable the men to blend in and operate as effective saboteurs.
Regiment Brandenburg evolved out of the Abwehr’s 2nd Department (Abwehr II), and was used as a commando unit during the first years of the war. Initially the unit consisted mainly of former German expatriates fluent in other languages. Until 1944 it was an OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres) High Command unit rather than a unit of the regular army (Heer). The unit steadily expanded until it was reallocated to the Großdeutschland Panzer Korps to be used as a frontline combat unit.
Yet, from the beginning, Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr had been watched closely by Himmler’s SS and in particular by Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Amt VI, Ausland-SD which made up the foreign intelligence branch of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS).
The anti-Nazi hierarchy views of the Abwehr, constantly simmering, came to a head in July 1944, when several high ranking Abwehr officials, including Canaris himself, were implicated in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. Control of the Brandenburg division was passed to the SD, but in September 1944 it was decided that special operations units were no longer necessary. The Brandenburg Division became Infanterie-Division Brandenburg (mot) , was equipped as a motorised infantry division and transferred to the Eastern front.
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was hanged by the SS on 9th April, 1945, along with the magnificent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Major General Hans Oster, Judge Advocate General Carl Sack, and Captain Ludwig Gehre, just before the War ended.
To be continued