The National Socialist Motor Corps
Jonathan Trigg takes you inside one of the most fascinating, and least well known, paramilitary organisations of the Nazi regime
Within months of Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany in
January 1933, he began a wholesale programme of bringing every aspect of German life under the control of the NSDAP. Women were encouraged to join the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft, (National Socialist Women’s League), teachers joined the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund, or NSLB (the National Socialist Teachers League), while for legal professionals it was the Bund Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Juristen, or BNSDJ (the Association of National Socialist German Legal Professionals). The Party wouldn’t just rule Germany, it would become Germany.
Another target was Germany’s growing number of car drivers. The automobile was still a relative novelty in a country scarred by the bitter years of the Great Depression, but with a plethora of motoring organisations gaining ground, Hitler decided to forcibly amalgamate them all into the Nazis own National Socialist Motor Corps – the NSKK. A successor to the Party’s National Socialist Automobile Corps (NSAK), the motorised branch of its brown-shirted street thugs in the Sturmabteilung
(the SA), the NSKK was headed up by 51-year-old Adolf Hühnlein, a former soldier-cum-tyre industry manager who was an early convert to Nazism. Kitted out with their own uniforms, regalia and badges of rank, the NSAK had begun life transporting Party speakers and SA members round the country for rallies and meetings, but now the renamed NSKK’s role was hugely expanded into every element of motoring. Local branches were tasked to provide roadside assistance, much like the British and American Automobile Associations, and NSKK members directed traffic in major towns and cities. The NSKK were also
used to drive round visiting VIPs and dignitaries, including during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The NSKK in the Third Reich
With all other motoring bodies abolished, membership of the NSKK grew exponentially, rising from 30,000 in April 1933 to 350,000 that September. Ownership of a car wasn’t a prerequisite to join, and members weren’t even expected to be able to drive, with instruction and driving lessons provided to everyone who volunteered. Not that everyone could become a member, as the NSKK abided by Nazi race theory, banning Jews from joining and insisting that applicants demonstrated their ‘Aryan’ genealogy and faith in the Führer to be admitted.
As with everything the Nazis did in German society, the NSKK played a role in providing positive propaganda for the regime. For the NSKK that meant organising and running a host of flashy motor racing events, the biggest being the 2,000km long Race through Germany. All existing motor racing
spectacles came under the aegis of the NSKK, including German Grand Prix races, where Hühnlein himself would award the trophies to the winners, the ceremonies elaborately staged and resplendent with masses of uniformed participants sporting huge arrays of gaudy swastikas and Nazi pomp. Needless to say, all of Germany’s registered race car drivers were required to join the
NSKK or face being barred from the sport, including Germany’s most famous racing driver, Bernd Rosemeyer, winner of the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup in
1937. Rosemeyer was killed the following year as he attempted to set a new land speed record on the main road between Frankfurt and Darmstadt.
Nazi Germany’s rearmament
After World War I the Allies had imposed the Versailles Treaty on a defeated Germany which, among other clauses, reduced the Army to 100,000 men and barred it from possessing tanks. Hitler, however, had no intention of abiding by the Treaty and gave army chiefs the go-ahead to begin rearmament. This was music to the ears of officers like Heinz Guderian, who believed that swiftly moving armoured formations supported by air power was the future – this was blitzkrieg. The Army, though, was a deeply conservative institution, with many senior officers sceptical of Guderian and his ideas, “My inspector [Colonel von Natzmer] informed me bluntly: ‘To hell with tanks in combat! They’re supposed to carry flour!’ And that was that.”
Regardless of the views of men like von Natzmer, the German Army, the Heer, did indeed begin to develop a tank force, the Panzerwaffe, but it struggled to find enough drivers and mechanics for its new panzer fleet. This wasn’t a surprise. The United States was the most motorised nation in the world at the time, with
one vehicle for every three people in the country, and even in Britain the ratio was one to every 14, but in Germany it was only one to every 47.
This gave Hitler a major problem. He always intended to take his country to war, so preparing for war was a key tenet of Nazi ideology. Young men would be brought up to be soldiers, trained and indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth, but modern warfare didn’t just require a mass of soldiers who could shoot a rifle, it needed men who could drive panzers and armoured cars, and men who could maintain those often-complicated pieces of engineering in the field. To incentivise people to learn to drive Hitler announced the abolition of the tax on cars and spoke of the new national roads that were to be built (the famed autobahnen), and of the Volkswagen, the cheap ‘People’s Car’ that was to be mass produced. Hitler also envisaged a leading role for the NSKK.
From 1935 the NSKK was given the task of training the Wehrmacht’s panzer and vehicle drivers, with Hühnlein working hand in glove with none other than blitzkrieg’s leading exponent, Heinz Guderian. The latter liked the Nazi official, describing him as, “A decent, upright man with whom it was easy to work,” and together the two men set up
a network of 21 training centres spread across Germany where NSKK instructors ran training programmes non-stop.
The demand from the military was astronomical, and not just for the new panzer divisions. The mainstay of the German Army was its infantry divisions, and each one had an allocation of
911 motor vehicles of all types: trucks, artillery prime movers, Kübelwagen jeeps, motorcycles and so on, and they all needed a qualified driver. The next four years saw the NSKK grow to a strength of half a million members and train some 187,000 drivers for the Army.
It still continued with its other roles as well, and to that roster had added transporting workers and materials for another of the Nazis’ paramilitary organisations, this time the giant construction body the Organization
Todt (OT), as it built the Siegfried Line on Germany’s western border with France. Indeed the OT and NSKK worked together on so many projects in the
Nazi empire that in some instances membership of both organisations was almost interchangeable. But it was in training military drivers where its main purpose remained, with the panzer commander Horst Reibenstahl clear as to its importance, “The skills of the driver were of huge importance, quite often the fate of the entire crew depended upon his skills.”
The outbreak of war in September 1939 increased the importance of the NSKK to the German military as its membership were viewed as a valuable resource, both as recruits for the Wehrmacht and as formed units in their own right. The Luftwaffe was gifted two entire brigades of NSKK drivers and mechanics to support its ground infrastructure, and NSKK companies were attached to German Army formations to transport men, ammunition and supplies. Usually wearing Luftwaffe blue or Party brown, NSKK staff were a common sight in the rear area of every fighting front, including in the Soviet Union after the Operation Barbarossa invasion in June 1941.
While performing their duties behind the lines they were often subjected to attack by partisans and were expected to be able to defend themselves and their vehicles if necessary. In fact, their conditions of service specifically stated they were liable for combat duty if required, and in the often-chaotic conditions of the fast-moving Russian Front NSKK members regularly took part in the fighting. However, it was as drivers, particularly as truck drivers, that made
the NSKK indispensable to the fighting units. So important was the NSKK to help cover the vast distances of the Russian steppe, that Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South insisted on being allocated a whole brigade to keep supplies and reinforcements flowing.
The NSKK and its non German offshoots
That same unit, the Transport-brigade Speer as it was known, was constantly short-handed due to casualties and the poaching of its members by the Army. The solution it hit upon to fill the ranks was to recruit volunteers from outside Germany. At first enlistments were encouraged from what the Nazis viewed as suitably Aryan peoples: the Dutch and Belgian Flemish, with over 4,000 Dutchmen alone stepping forward by the end of the war. The men wore Luftwaffe uniform with NSKK rank epaulettes and were entitled to wear an arm badge to identify their nationality. The Dutch wore a yellow wolf hook symbol on a black/ red triangle on their left upper arm, while the Flemish wore a black wolf hook on yellow. Several hundred of these men were subsequently caught up in the Stalingrad Pocket and were either killed in action or disappeared in Staling’s gulags when the city finally fell.
They weren’t the last foreign volunteers. Some 600 Belgian Walloons were recruited from the region’s neofascist political parties, and over 2,000 Frenchmen signed up, providing so many men that they even had their own driving school at Melun in the Seineet-Marne départment. To distinguish themselves from German NSKK members the French wore a tricolour arm badge on their uniform sleeve, while the Walloons
sported a red Burgundian cross on a black shield.
Adolf Hühnlein died of cancer in Munich on 18 June 1942. Given a state funeral, the Reich Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, gave the oration, and Hitler himself laid a wreath on the coffin. Hühnlein was succeeded by his right-hand man, Erwin Kraus, but the organisation that both men had done so much to help grow and lead for almost a decade survived the change in leadership by less than three years. After the successful Allied D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, the NSKK, and particularly its non-German units, were pillaged for manpower for the frontline with thousands of members transferred into the Army’s remaining panzer and infantry divisions. For the non-Germans
it usually meant swapping the dark blue of the Luftwaffe for the camouflage and field-grey of the Waffen-SS. As the Wehrmacht retreated on all fronts back to the borders of the Reich itself, the French NSKK units were concentrated around Ulm in southern Germany, and the Belgians on the Lüneburg Heath. Along with a plethora of other collaborationist formations and hangers-on the Flemish were pressed into service in the 28th SS-Division Langemarck, and the French into the 33rd SS-Division Charlemagne. Many of these were the last defenders of the Reich Chancelry in Berlin. With Germany surrendering in May 1945, the Nazi Party and all its paramilitary organisations were disbanded, including the NSKK, due to its origins and compliance with Nazi race theory.