Although SS-Fj.Btl.-500 is commonly referred to as a penal unit, there is a pejorative nuance to the term in english (ie. punishment) which the Germans disdained to use outright for this type of unit. SS-Fj.Btl.500 was a 500 series Bewährungs or probationary unit in which an enlisted soldier, NCO, or Officer who had dishonored himself by minor infractions of the military code could be given the chance to, in the words of a 2.4.1942 Hitler- decree: "..an der Front bewähren, und eine Amnestie verdienen Könnten." (ie. "...prove oneself by service at the Front, and thereby earn an amnesty."). In other words, it was a unit where officers and men convicted by courts-martial of minor infractions and currently in disciplinary straits could redeem their soldierly honour by participation in hazardous duties and operations.
The 500 series numbering system was also shared by the Heer, but should not to be confused with the post-1940 500 series designated divisional units, which were also to be found resurrected in the July-August 1944 Heer 28th, 29th and 31st mobilization waves of Grenadier and Volksgrenadier formations. Some battalion sized unit numbers of the 5xx series had also been former Bewärungs units (z.b.V.- zur besondern Verwendung - for special employment) of the Heer (also, Waffen-SS and Polizei) employed on the Eastern Front and integrated into new Grenadier formations in the course of, in this case, the July-August 1944 reorganization of the Feldheer.
In the case of the Waffen-SS men being recruited for the SS-Fj.Btl.500, it would have probably been at one of the harsh SS-Strafanstalten, such as that of the notoriously brutal SS-military prison at Danzig-Matzkau, or the punishment- section for SS personnel at Dachau. Prisons for Wehrmacht personnel directed by the OKW also existed at the Alte-Festung Gemmersheim, and after 1940 at Ingolstadt, and at Fort Alvensleben in Metz, among other places. The Luftwaffe also had a disciplinary section at Prüfungslager (testing center) Leipzig- Schünau, and later at Dedelsdorf in Kreis Gifhorn. The Kriegsmarine established a special section for their disciplinary cases at Hela on the Baltic. The Kriegsmarine also had specific battalion sized units for its disciplnary cases, the first being the Sonderabteilung der Kriegsmarine (Naval Disciplinary Unit) which after WWII began was renamed the Kriegsonderabteilung (Wartime Naval Disciplinary Unit). Another such unit was formed later in WWII named Kriegsonderabteilung Ost. Also during the War the 30.Schiffstammabteilung and 31.Schiffstammabteilung (30th and 31st Ship Cadre Battaions) were formed, the 30. for use in the North Sea area, and the 31. in the Baltic Sea area. Interestingly enough, if "further education" was not likely, problem men were transfered into a naval company of the Heer Field Disciplinary Battlion.
Besides the 500 series units for probation, the Heer also exclusively employed both 300 series .z.b.V. units, and 999 series designations for Bew&aml;hrungstruppen; though the latter units were considered soldaten Zweite- Klasse (second-class soldiers), composed of more hardened disciplinary cases that the 500 series would normally not consider for rehabilitation. These prisoners were, by their criminal nature, generally more treated to Strafvollzug, or harsher disciplinary conditioning, than of redemptive probation, that is, activities leading to restoration of rank and placement within their former units. They were, by sentence, those soldiers who had refused direct orders, had assaulted superiors, or were generally serving long terms in military gaol for presumably non-military criminal or political offenses, such as rape or black-marketeering, or active resistance to the NS regime.
The 999 series units are most popularly known to history by way of the 999.Leichte Afrika Division. This unit was formed in Wehrkreis V in October 1942 as Afrika Brigade 999. It consisted of the 961.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment, 962.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment, and 963.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment, all made up of the "verlorener haufe" (lost souls) dredged from the bottom of the Militär-Strafgefängnisse (military prisons) throughout the Reich - men stripped of rank, decorations and dignity. The 999.Leichte.Afrika Division fought well and honorably in Tunisa, and surrendered with the remnants of the DAK in May 1943. It's 963.Afrika-Schützen-Regiment was transferred to Greece from Sicily before ever reaching North Afrika. This unit went on to become the nucleus of Sturm-Division Rhodos (aka 440.Sturm-Div.Rhodos) in May 1943, with the accompanying 999. unit designations intact. After the surrender of the 999.Leicth-Afrika-Division, the Divisional replacement Ersatz u.Ausbildungs organization located at its home station of Heuberg, continued to process potentially redeemable criminal and political prisoners from the various Wehrmachtstrafslager for replacement positions within other Heer units.
The breakdown of the various types of Bewährungs troops can be more clearly established in the following order:
1.Verbände zur besonderen Verwendung (z.b.V.) - Units for special employment:
A: 500er u.a. Bataillone z.b.V. der Heerestruppe - series 500 and other battalions for special employment under command of OKW. B: Sonderstab F und 361er Afrikaschützen - Special Staff F and 361-numbered rifle, or basic infantry units deployed in North Africa. C: Feldbataillone z.b.V. der Luftwaffe - Luftwaffe special employment battalions made up of minor disciplinary cases. D: SS-Sonder und Stürmtruppen - SS Special and Assault troops created from punishment companies
2. Formationen für Soldaten Zweiter Klasse: - Formations composed of 2nd class soldiers:
A: 999er Afrika und Festungstruppe -999 numbered units deployed to Africa, and Fortress units. B: Bewährungseinrichtung der Org.Todt - Probationary hard labor cases assigned to Organiztion Todt construction details at the front
The 2nd class soldiers were stripped of rank, decorations and honor, and considered "un-Wehrwurding", or "unworthy of bearing arms" in the defense of Germany (An important distinction to consider between the types of Straf- or punishment units which only gradually shifted, and was only somewhat relaxed, as the tide of war turned against the Reich).
Perhaps the most luckless of all German military prisoners of this type relegated to Wehrmachtstrafgefangenlager (Armed Forces Punishment camps) were to be found in the Emsland camps of NW Germany at Esterwegen and Börgermoor near Papenburg. These were only two of fifteen notoriously bleak camps situated in the dank peat-bog marshes surrounding the Ems river, near the Dutch border. From their inception in 1933 as SA-manned detention centers for enemies of the new regime, these camps later went on to hold KPD and Socialist Political prisoners, habitual criminals, Jews, religious objectors, military-offenders, and after 1939, Allied prisoners of war. This was perhaps the lowest rung on the military-prison hierarchy to be found in the Wehrmacht prison system, where soldiers convicted of military, political, and civil crimes were purposely sent to be ultimately broken. In fact, once a soldier-prisoner was relegated to Esterwegen camp by the military authority, the imagined benefits of a harsh-but-fair rule of military justice evaporated, as Esterwegen and it's ancilliary camps were administered by the Reichsjustizministerium, which made it a virtual "Zuchthaus" (civil penitentiaray) type establishment subject to all the grim brutalities and deficiencies inherent in an institution ultimately under command of RFSS- Heinrich Himmler as Reichsminister des Innen.
In the harsh disciplinary milieu (Eiserne Disziplin der Truppe) of the Waffen-SS specifically, and the German Wehrmacht in general, there was a quite profound difference between the punishments accorded to the general classifications of "delinquenten", and that of "verbrecher"; (ie. delinquents and criminals.) Delinquenten were minor disciplinary cases scared into discipline by the harshness of their sentence and surroundings, while verbrecher were hard-core cases (recall 2nd class soldiers) upon whom presumably the harshest of sentences had little affect.
In a number of cases, front line commands disregarded official formalities in sending soldiers to the far-rear for proper military-judicial discipline, and simply put disciplinary cases in pre-designated Feldstrafgefangenabteilungen (FstrGAbt.) and Bewährungsabteilungen (Field-punishment and probationary detachments) which performed dangerous engineer and assault functions at the blunt edge of attacks, and anti-partisan operations - ie. the dirty work of clearing mines, fighting partisans, and other so-called himmelsfahrtkommando type duties. (Literally translated, Himmelfahrts Kommando means "Journey-to- heaven-mission" and descibes any operation with extremely high risk, although not nesseccarily suicidal. This colloquialisme is sometimes used in civil connotation also, like for mine or bomb clearing. The term is in reference to a specific type of mission, and not a unit type, such as penal battlion, although members of penal units were often sent on these types of missions. Generally, in the ranks of the Wehrmacht, this black-humor term was understood to mean a mission where the chances of survival were practically nil. Examples were rearguard actions of small groups to cover the retreat of a larger unit by holding a position and delaying the enemy as long as possible until it usually was too late for their own withdrawal, or reconnaissance and commando raids far behind enemy lines.) That is not to say that these local punishments were officially any better or worse than soldiers in a rear-area punishment camps, digging trenches or peat-bogs, cutting wood, or doing the dog construction work of the Organization Todt labor details. It can be concievably stated that life in the dangerous environment of the front only exacerbated the punishment. Depending on the severity of the individual cases, and at the discretion of the Commanding officer, these hapless men would be stripped of rank and decorations, be refused mail and packages from home, and also the ability to write home and to take leave. Another aspect of the duty in these Army, Corps, and divisional Strafabteilungen or penal-detachments is that depending on the gravity of the offense, the individual soldiers paybook (Soldbuch) was usually stamped "no decorations, awards, or promotion allowed." A good example of frontline punishment for disciplinary infractions from early on in the Russian campaign, is that of the 20.Gebirgsarmee (fighting in the far north of Finland, the Kola, and Karelia) setting up three notorious camps known as Feldstraflager I-III, whose harsh wintertime conditions can only be imagined to have somewhat increased the severity of sentence in one of the luckless punishment details.