Léon Degrelle was born 15 June 1906, in Bouillon in the province of Luxemburg near the Belgian-French border. Between 1920 and 1924, he attended secondary school at the Jesuit college Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Sacred Lady of Peace) in Namur and went on to study law at the University of Louvain.
He became editor of the student's magazine 'l'Avant Garde' and deemed this so important that he neglected his studies. He became the leader of the 'Association des Etudiants Catholiques à l'Université de Louvain' (Association of Catholic Students at Louvain University) and later on became involved in the 'Association de la Jeunesse Catholique Belge' (Association of Belgian Catholic Youth). In March 1929 he became the editor of the 'Cahiers de la Jeunesse Catholique', (Organ of Catholic Youth) the official paper of the movement.
At the end of October 1930, his mentor asked him to become editor-in-chief of the publishing firm Editions Rex, which published flyers by the name of Christ Rex for the Action Catholique (Catholic Movement). In that capacity he drew the attention of the Catholic Party which was looking for someone to handle their propaganda. Through his publishing firm, Degrelle got heavily involved in the 1932 elections, much to the disgust of the apolitical A.J.C.B.
The papers he published, including Vlan, Soiree and Rex caused a lot of consternation among Catholics for their violent polemics on politics and political programs. In 1933, the A.J.C.B. set Degrelle an ultimatum but a final break with the Catholic Party did not occur until 1936.
Rex as a political movement was established on 2 November 1935, and initially enjoyed quite a following, because of Degrelle's eloquence and his attacks on socialism and capitalism. The elections on 24 May 1936, resulting in 10 seats in parliament for the party were successful but afterwards, support for the party waned quickly. The party did not have a clear political program, hence had little to offer to its electorate and as a result, the elections of 11 November 1937, ended in disaster and those of 2 April 1939, even meant the end of Rex as a political movement, also ending Degrelle's career as a politician.
The predecessor of the Legion
February 1941, the Wehrmacht authorities in Belgium had decided to enlist local troops in the NSKK (National-Socialist Motor Korps) and Degrelle immediately offered his services in the form of the Brigade Motorisée Rexiste (Motorized Brigade Rex) and promised to deliver 1,000 men for the NSKK. He ultimately delivered only 300. Degrelle saw military collaboration as the only means to gain sympathy with the Germans and he eagerly awaited a chance for more.
On 22 June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and that was what Degrelle had been waiting for. Earlier that year, Rex received permission from Berlin to establish the Wallonian Legion (Légion Wallonie), consisting of French-speaking Belgians, anti-Communists and other adventurers. Wanting to set an example for others, Degrelle himself joined on 20 July 1941. His request to be promoted to Lieutenant, a rank more in keeping with his political status, was denied since he had no military experience whatsoever. The Legion was incorporated into the Wehrmacht and left for the Eastern front on 8 August 1941. Its members had been assured to be back with their families before the year was out after having served in rearguard duties only.
In early 1942, news arrived to the effect that between mid-February and the end of March, the Legion had been involved in fierce front line battles around Gromowaja-Balka and had suffered heavily in the process. The mere existence of the Legion was endangered and subsequently, a second contingent left for the East on 10 March 1942. Moreover, on 17 September 1942, in Schadyschenskaja, Degrelle had met with General Felix Steiner and had understood immediately that in the long run, it would be more advantageous for Rex to disengage itself from the reactionary Wehrmacht and join the more dynamic, revolutionary-minded Waffen-SS, which in the end would possess all of the power. According to Degrelle, enrollment in the Waffen-SS would pose no problem for the members of the Legion because they were Belgians, as he said: 'Walloons are a Germanic people that happen to speak French.'
The Wehrmacht period
The Wallonian volunteers were placed in 4 companies of 'Wallonian Infantry Battalion 373' and on 8 August, they left for elementary military training at the Regenwurmlager in Meseritz near the Polish border. Degrelle started his military career as a private with Group 1, first platoon of the first company, and in October 1941, they left for the Eastern front.
On 10 December, the Legion was incorporated into the 101. Jäger-Division and deployed in the Samara region to eliminate Soviet units that had been left behind. On 15 January 1942, Degrelle sustained his first war injury near Nikolewskaja having been run over by a laden munitions sled.
On 18 January 1942, Marshall Timosjenko launched a massive assault against the junction between 6. and 17. Armies and a breakthrough was imminent. On 26 January, the Legion, along with Croatian units was ordered to push through to the river Samara and on 18 February, under withering Soviet artillery fire, they managed to occupy the village of Gromowaja-Balka. On 28 February, a fierce assault by tanks and infantry was launched against the positions of the Legion. After heavy fighting, they were taken by the Soviets but retaken by the Legion. This battle action, the first by the Legion was important enough to be mentioned in dispatches of 100. Infanterie-Division. Degrelle, promoted to Gefreiter on 11 February, was promoted again on the spot to Feldwebel for his courageous actions and awarded the Iron Cross Second Class by General Sanne on 2 March 1942. In a parade on 13 March, a further 35 members of the Legion were awarded the Iron Cross Second Class but the price had been high: losses had been so severe that 2. Company had to be disbanded, only 12 men remained. On 1 May 1942, Degrelle was promoted to Lieutenant and on 5 May, the Legion joined the 97. Jäger-Division. They were to stay with this unit until after the Caucasian campaign in November 1942.
On 9 May, Marshall Timosjenko launched an attack, threatening to break through the front line of 6. Armee. At the same time, Marshall Koniev and his tank army broke through to the railway junction at Merefa south of Charkow. The German positions were in danger and a counter-attack was launched. The Wallonian Legion advanced out of Alexandrowka in order to relieve 101. Jäger-Division near Nowo-Jablenskaja. After heavy fighting, the Soviets were driven from their positions; a Panzergrenadier group occupied the village of Jablenskaja and the Legion secured the village of Nikolajevka. After these engagements, Degrelle was awarded the Iron Cross First Class on 21 May 1942, while a further 12 Wallonians were awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.
Because of the heavy losses suffered at Gromowaja, re-enforcements were desperately needed and so, on 10 March a second contingent of Wallonians left Brussels for the Regenwurmlager. Meanwhile, first, third and fourth companies relieved a German battalion in Spaschowska on the river Donetz. In mid-June, 1. Panzerarmee launched a preliminary attack in order to gain a better starting point for the coming summer offensive. The objective was to capture the last remaining Soviet bridgehead near Isjum. The operation was difficult for the Soviets were solidly entrenched on both river banks; a wide pincer movement was the only possibility. After a heavy artillery barrage on 24 June, the Legion launched its attack and took up positions near the village of Kamenka. They crossed the river and advanced through the woods to the railway line between Kransnyi and Isjum and in the afternoon linked up with units of 97. Infanterie-Division. Their mission had been completed without too many losses and on 25 June, they were pulled back to Brachowka. On 4 July, General Ruppe inspected the unit, presenting the Iron Cross Second Class to a number of Wallonians.
Meanwhile, Hitler had been drawing up plans for a massive campaign in the Caucasus to capture, among other things, the oil fields and so, the Legion left Shurki on 7 July and reached Maikop after completing a forced march of 500 miles in 38 days; due to illness and exhaustion, only 500 men were still fit.
On 26 August, from the village of Tserjakov, a patrol was dispatched to clear out a Soviet mortar nest that had already caused numerous victims. First and third companies combed the hills and managed to eliminate the enemy. Following the fighting, Degrelle was awarded the Allgemeine Sturmabzeichen (General Assault Badge) by General Ernst Ruppe, commander of 97. Jäger-Division; a further 11 men were awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. The skirmishes continued up to 2 September when the Legion was relieved by two motorized companies of 5. SS-Panzer-Division "Wiking". In September and October, the Wallonians advanced along the river Psisch towards Touapse but they would never reach it for on 11 November 1942, they were withdrawn from the front line. 180 men of the first contingent were sent on leave, the remainder was evacuated to the Crimea in February 1943.
In special recognition of their outstanding achievements, the Wallonian Caucasus veterans were given the privilege to wear the Gebirgsjäger-Abzeichen (badge of the mountain troops), an Edelweiss.
The Waffen-SS period
On 24 May 1943, in Pieske barracks near Meseritz, the Legion was inspected by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler who announced that the Legion was to be a part of the Waffen-SS from June 1943 onwards and to be renamed SS-Sturmbrigade Wallonien. From June to October the Legion completed advanced military training at Wildflecken and then left for the East.
In the fall of 1943, on the river Dnjepr, the situation had become precarious for the German Army. The Red Army advanced from all sides and threatened Uman in the Ukraine with the Germans desperately trying to hold on to their positions. One of those was Cherkassy, an industrial area, some 100 miles downriver from Kiev; an unprotected but fiercely defended salient some 15 miles deep. Defense was the responsibility of 5. SS-Panzer-Division "Wiking", commanded by SS-Gruppenführer Herbert-Otto Gille and on 20 November, the Legion joined this unit as a tactical reserve. During December, numerous attacks were launched across the river Olschanka and on 4 January, two Wallonien assault groups had successfully executed a pincer movement near Sakrewka. Meanwhile, two Soviet regiments had captured the Teklino forest. German counter-attacks were repulsed at heavy cost and Degrelle, who had risen to SS-Obersturmführer suggested 4 companies of the Brigade be deployed. After three days of savage fighting they succeeded in recapturing the forest but once they had been relieved, the ground was lost again.
On 20 January, the Germans on the Dnjepr found themselves completely trapped and the Wallonians were ordered to cover a breakout by holding the village of Nova-Buda at all costs. Degrelle, who had been promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer in the meantime was injured and was evacuated. He was awarded the Nahkampfspange in Silber (Close Combat Clasp in Silver) and the Verwundetenabzeichen in Gold (Wound Badge in Gold).
The Brigade was the last unit to retreat from the area. In recognition of their courageous actions, they were mentioned in a Wehrmacht dispatch; Degrelle was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross) for his participation. Of the 1850 men who participated in the Cherkassy campaign, only 632 remained. In March 1944, a number of them returned to Belgium and held a victory parade in Charleroi on 1 April and the next day in Brussels.
The last months
In the summer of 1944, a battalion of Wallonians was sent to Estonia in support of the local troops. On 20 July, 452 officers and men arrived in Voka training barracks, 30 miles west of Narwa. They were inspected by SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner nine days later. Degrelle, who had attended his brother's funeral who had been murdered by the Belgian resistance on 14 July, arrived as late as 8 August. He left two days later with the second and fourth companies for Maarja-Magdaleine, north of Dorpat, in support of Kampfgruppe Wagner holding a number of fortifications along a line 20 miles long from Elva and Lüva to Patska south of Dorpat. On the 19 August, the Wallonians were dispatched to Patska to drive the Soviets out of a heavily fortified position. Their mission succeeded but they lost 65 men. The next day, the Soviets attacked again and the Wallonians, meanwhile re-enforced by first company were forced to retreat to Kambja.
On 23 July, Degrelle left Dorpat to visit his troops and near Lemmatsi he ran up against Soviet forward units. Local Estonian troops could not withstand the pressure and fled in disarray. Degrelle rounded up every soldier, Wallonians, Estonians, Germans alike and established a defensive line which they just managed to hold. This courageous action prevented a possible encirclement of Dorpat, a dangerous situation for the Germans. For this action, Degrelle was nominated for the Eichenlaub z. Ritterkreuz (Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross) by Commander Army Group North), General Schörner, as well as by General Grasser, commander of Army Group Narwa. He received this decoration on 27 August.
Meanwhile on 24 August, the Soviets captured the bridge over the river Ema near Nöela, again threatening Dorpat with encirclement. The Wallonians, 150 out of the original 452, were thrown into battle again but due to their small number, they did not achieve their objective of driving the Soviets out. The remaining 70 or so were posted to various units and continued fighting until the end of August. Those surviving the battles, some 20 men were awarded the Iron Cross First Class and returned to Germany by way of Maarja-Magdaleine in early September.
On 23 September, Degrelle announced that the Brigade had been renamed 28. Freiwilligen- Grenadier-Division Wallonien (Volunteer-Grenadier-Division Wallonia), as of the seventeenth and that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had named him Kommandeur (Commander) of the unit.
After the liberation of Belgium, vast numbers of Rex followers and other paramilitary had fled to Germany. Degrelle argued that within a reasonable time span, he could establish a force of 8,000 men strong but mid-December, the Division consisted of some 4,300 men, including a company of Spanish volunteers.
On 2 February 1945, the Division arrived in Stettin, Poland to try and stop the Soviet advance. Fierce rearguard battles were fought in various places at high cost, reducing the Division to the strength of a Kampfgruppe. All to no avail; however, on 3 May 1945, the last volunteers, numbering some 400 including many injured, were taken prisoner near the city of Hamburg. Meanwhile, on 31 March, the Rex movement had officially been disbanded by Degrelle.
Between September 1944 and December 1949, a total of 110,803 former followers and leading members of Rex had been brought to trial and sentenced. On 27 December 1944, Degrelle was sentenced to death for collaboration with the Germans; in absentia because he had already fled to Spain. In 1964, to prevent the execution of his sentence from expiring, the Belgian government passed a law, the Lex Degrellania extending the period for execution with ten years. In 1974, he was denied entry into Belgium indefinitely. He died in Spain at the age of 87 in San Antonio Park Hospital on 31 March 1994.
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