“PENAL BATTALIONS” - how did/do they work then?

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by RCT(V), Mar 15, 2008.

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  1. (I do appreciate, that now all-ranks carry the same weapon. However, in the past, I always did wonder from whom the officers and NCOs were supposed to be protecting themselves, carrying the SMG, when "the lads" were armed with SLRs !! Anyway . . . . ).

    Serious question - "PENAL BATTALIONS" - how did they work then?

    Were they trained/employed (the convicts) in specialist roles/skills, RA, RE, REME, etc., or were they just used for laborious tasks (as might have been associated with the Pioneers), and/or as infantry?

    (With due respect to today's Army, it is appreciated the modern infantry are so highly trained/skilled, that they are now necessarily excluded from this discussion).

    To what useful, productive, purpose might a "PENAL BATTALION" be used these days??
  2. oldbaldy

    oldbaldy LE Moderator Good Egg (charities)
    1. Battlefield Tours

    How did they work when?

    I'm not aware of any in the British Army!
  3. You've been reading too much Sven Hassel my friend... or perhaps you thought Arrse was a Bundeswehr forum
  4. The Waffen SS had a penal unit SS Dirlewanger recruited from military and civilian prisons and insane asylums, they were used for anti partisan duties on the Eastern front, but commited so many atrocities even the other regular SS units asked Himmler for them to be removed.
    The CO Oskar Dirlewanger was a convicted child molester who would inject captured women with poison and see how long it took them to die.

    All in all not very nice people.

    I'd imagine a penal unit today would be used as cannon fodder, given the most dangerous AOR's etc as who would care if they got slotted.
  5. Never heard of UK penal bn. But Red Army and Wehrmacht used them in WW2 as an alternative (same result but slower) to execution. Penal Battalions had harsher discipline, less rations and all the really nasty taskings, like minefield clearance under fire, suicidal unsupported assaults and being used as a cheaper alternative to a donkey for carrying stores.
    If you aquitted yourself with distiction in a Penal unit then it was possible to be reinstated to the real army, but this rarely happened.
  6. There were also penal bns on both sides of the Eastern Front who werent peodoes and nutters.

    If you were naughty ie you ran or slept on post you could be sent to a penal Bn for the rest of your life (not long I can assure you) or for an alloted period of time.

    Tasks were generally those likely to get you killed. Mine clearance in front of attacks, mine clearance in general, moving of stores in vulnerable areas etc. etc.
  7. I am not aware of the British Army ever having penal units, certainly not in the last 100 years. The only ones i have actually heard of are French, German and Soviet.

    Thread on feldgrau which explains German WW2 penal units in detail:


    These units were quite varied, from Afrika Regiment 361, composed of former Foreign Legionnaires being given their last chance to prove themselves as good Germans, to combat units for relatively minor disciplinary cases, to work/pioneer units for more hardened cases, to the SS Dirlewanger brigade (employed on anti-partisan duties on the Eastern Front), composed to a large extent of common criminals- Dirlewanger himself was a convicted rapist.


    Soviet penal units (shtrafbats) were composed both of disciplinary cases and "normal" civilian prisoners transferred from the gulags. This article is mainly about them:


    The only example I can recall of Commonwealth disciplinary cases going into action together was in the invasion of Crete in 1941, when the prisoners from the NZ Field Punishment Centre were led into action by the provost staff. UK/Commonwealth tended to deal with discipline a bit differently eg. the Salerno mutiny in 1943. Most of those convicted for this offence were given harsh sentences (death in some cases) but the sentences were suspended on the condition they returned to the front lines. The soldiers in question were then posted to whatever units needed replacements- the idea was to split them up, not keep the "bad apples" together.
  8. oldbaldy

    oldbaldy LE Moderator Good Egg (charities)
    1. Battlefield Tours

    Perhaps RCT(V) has started on the vino early
    • Like Like x 1
  9. The 27th Panzers :D
  10. Then there were the penile battalions, which had to do the same stuff but with their dicks hanging out.
  11. It was inevitable !!
  12. Is this current affairs ?
  13. Good heavens! " . . prisoners from the NZ Field Punishment Centre were led into action by the provost staff".

    You think it would have been safer for the Provo staff to have followed them into battle.

    Many thanks for this, and all the other responses.

    I had never heard of them - not even from Russia, Germany or other countries. But, they were mentioned in another thread, and I've been wondering about them ever since.

    (PS. How many minefields are there in Afghanistan?!).
  14. From my grandfather's memories about the war there was at least one penal battalion in the South Wales and Borderers (SWABs). From what he explained some who had a custodial sentence within a certain area were offered the chance to serve it out in the SWABs, they got a small amount of pay and knew that if they broke any rule they would be back to prison. This was in force during the Second World War, might have been before as well or was just a special measure for the war.
  15. I don't know about penal battalions, but I think we could get some of the 80,000 prisoners sitting on their 'duffs' in prison and get them to do some hard labour in cleaning up this country.

    I find it particularly satisfying that when I am in Florida on holiday, I would often see a sign displayed by the side of the highway, 'State Prisoners Working' and there they were, dozens of them, dressed in orange suits toiling under the hot sun clearing ditches. All under the watchful eye of the local sheriff. Justice seen to be done and for all law abiding citizens seeing these people put something back into the community as part of their punishment.

    I can already hear the howls of the civil liberty 'mob' in the UK, crying about the human rights of the prisoners and the pathetic weak politicians rolling over yet again.