Training classes for volunteers, 1944.
Russian volunteers who enlisted into the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) wore the patch of the Russian Liberation Army, an army which did not yet exist but was presented as a reality by Nazi propaganda. These volunteers (called Hiwi, an acronym for Hilfswilliger, roughly meaning "volunteers") were not under any Russian command or control; they were exclusively under German command carrying out various noncombat duties. A number of them were employed at the Battle of Stalingrad, where it was estimated that as much as one quarter of the 6th Army's strength were Soviet citizens. Soon, several German commanders began forming small armed units out of them for various tasks, including combat against Soviet partisans, driving vehicles, carrying wounded, and delivering supplies.
Adolf Hitler allowed the idea of the Russian Liberation Army to circulate in propaganda literature so long as no real formations of the sort were permitted. As a result, some Red Army soldiers surrendered or defected in hopes of joining an army that did not yet exist. Many Soviet prisoners of war volunteered to serve under the German command just in order to get out from Nazi POW camps which were notorious for starving Soviet prisoners to death.
Meanwhile, the newly captured Soviet general Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, along with his German and Russian allies, was desperately lobbying the German high command, hoping that a green light would be given for the formation of a real armed force that would be exclusively under Russian control. They were able to somewhat win over Alfred Rosenberg.
Hitler's staff repeatedly rejected these appeals with hostility, refusing to even consider them. Still, Vlasov and his allies reasoned that Hitler would eventually come to realize the futility of a war against the USSR with the hostility of the Russian people and respond to Vlasov's demands.
Irrespective of the political wrangling over Vlasov and the status of the ROA, the reality by mid-1943 was several hundred thousand ex-Soviet volunteers were serving in the German forces, either as Hiwis or in Eastern volunteer units (referred to as Osteinheiten ("Eastern units") or landeseigene Verbände). These latter were generally deployed in a security role in the rear areas of the armies and army groups in the East, where they constituted a major part of the German capacity to counter the activity of Soviet partisan forces, dating as far back as early 1942. The Germans were, however, always concerned about their reliability, and with the German setbacks in the summer of 1943 this situation took a turn for the worse. On 12 September for example, 2nd Army had to withdraw Sturm-Btl. AOK 2 in order to deal with what is described as “several mutinies and desertions of Eastern units". A 14 September communication from the army states that in the recent period, Hiwi absenteeism had risen strongly. Following a series of mutinies attempted or successful and a surge in desertions, they decided in September 1942 that the reliability of these units had fallen to levels where they were more a liability than an asset. In an October 1943 report, 8th Army concluded grimly: "All local volunteers are unreliable during enemy contact. Principal reason of unreliability is the employment of these volunteers in the East." Two days previously, army had recorded in the KTB stern measures to be taken in the event of further cases of rebellion or unreliability, investing in regimental commanders far-reaching powers to perform summary courts and execute the verdicts.
Since it was considered that it would improve their reliability if they were removed from contact with the local population, it was decided to send them to the West, which the majority of them were in late 1943 and early 1944.
A large number of these battalions were hence integrated into the Divisions in the West. A number of such soldiers were on guard in Normandy on D-Day, and without the equipment or the motivation to fight the Allies, most promptly surrendered. There were instances of bitter fighting to the very end, triggered by mishandled propaganda from the Allies that accurately told of the quick repatriation of soldiers back to the Soviet Union after they gave up.
A total of 71 "Eastern" battalions served on the Eastern Front, while 42 battalions served in Belgium, Finland, France, and Italy.
An aerial component from Russian volunteers was formed as Ostfliegerstaffel (russische) in December 1943, only to be disbanded before seeing combat in July 1944. The Russian airmen were regrouped into the Night Harassment Squadron 8, whose first and only mission took place on 13 April 1945, when they attacked a Soviet bridgehead at Erlenhof, on the Oder River.