top of page

Grenztruppen der DDR - An Overview

Grenztruppen der DDR


Grenzer is an informal term for an East German border guard: derives from the German word Grenztruppen (border guard).


While much of the media always focused on Berlin and its 166 kilometers of fences and walls, it was only a small fraction of the almost 1,400 kilometers of heavily fortified border that was known as the Iron Curtain. Along this stretch of border the majority of the East German Border Command and units of the U.S. Army faced each other on a daily basis for over 44 years. Compounding the tenseness of this constantly patrolled border were the forward deployed Soviet combat units poised to make a "blitzkrieg" strike into the heart of industrialized Western Europe.


Watching over this deadly border was the border guards or Grenztruppen. Very little was known about these elite soldiers, but provides a rare insight into their military training, duties, and patrol operations. Additionally, you'll see first hand how the United States Cavalry, other military units and West German agencies held the front lines on the Frontier of Freedom since the end of World War II. The collapse of the Iron Curtain and the freedom enjoyed by Eastern Europe today is a direct result of their efforts.















In charge of guarding the 1,378 kilometers of the East German border and 165 kilometers of the Berlin Wall was the Grenztruppen der DDR (Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic). Since their formation in 1946, the Grenztruppen went through numerous organizational changes to keep pace with the increasing complexity of the border security system. Starting as an initial force of 3,000 pistol-packing policemen, the border guard unit grew to a highly trained and heavily armed military force of over 50,000 by the time the units were disbanded in 1990.


The Grenztruppen, who represented the “bad boys” of the Cold War as they watched over the minefields and border fences, exist no more, but the images of the stern-faced guards remain with us forever. This section explores the various aspects of the life of these border guard as well as the intricacies of East German Border operations and Grenztruppen organization.


  • 1946: The Soviet Military Command forms the Grenzpolizei (Border Police) which by the end of the year numbers about 3,000 personnel

  • 1947: Border Police increases to 4,000 personnel

  • 1948: Border Police increases to 10,000 personnel

  • 1949: First Border Policeman are killed in the line of duty; Gerhard Hofert (Aug 3) and Fritz Otto (Sep 1)

  • Total strength increased to 18,000 personnel

  • 1950: June, Grenzpolizei given responsibility for the coast 

  •  October: assumed control of border between East Berlin & the DDR

  • 1951: Name changes to Deutsche Grenzpolizei (German Border Police)

  • 1952: Grenzhelfer (Border Volunteer) program begins

  • 1953: Strength 35,000 personnel

  • 1955: The Soviets hand the border security mission over to the German Border Police but Soviet advisors stay until 1958

  • 1960: Total strength reaches 48,000 personnel

  • 1961: Border Police fall under the command of the NVA and the name is changed to Kommando der Grenztruppen der NVA (Border Command)

  • 1962: The Grenzbrigade Kueste (Costal Border Brigade) is formed to patrol the coastal areas

  • 1963: The Border Troop Officer School opens

  • 1971: The three border commands are formed; North, South, and Central

  • 1974: The Border Command name changes to Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic (Grenztruppen der DDR)

  • 1989: November 9, the border is opened

  • 1990: July 1, the Grenztruppen are disbanded














The Commands

Border Command.

The main headquarters for the Border Troops was Border Command (Kommando Grenztruppen) which was located in the town of Stendal. From there the Command oversaw the operations and logistical support of three, major subordinate commands. These subordinate Grenztruppen Commands, like most military organizations, were assigned specific geographic areas for which they were responsible.

Border Command North. This command was headquartered in Patz and its units patrolled the East/West German border (Landesgrenz). Border Command North’s area of responsibility ran from the Baltic Sea to central Germany. Patrolling the fence on the opposite side of the Command’s border troops were the units of the British Army and U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.


Border Command South.

 The southern border command maintained its headquarters in Erfurt and its units were also stationed along East/West German border. Border Command South’s area picked up in central Germany and extended to the Czech border. Patrolling the fence on the opposite side of the Command’s border troops were the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and units of the 3d Infantry Division.


Border Command Central.

While the Landesgrenz was covered by the North and South Commands, the responsibility for patrolling the Berlin Wall belonged to the Central Command. Not only did the command guard the 166 kilometers of wall ringing the city, but also manned the entry points into Berlin. In addition to the normal complement of border troop units, Command Central also commanded artillery and rocket units that would be used in the defense of East Berlin or for offensive operations into West Berlin. Patrolling the Berlin Wall on the opposite side of the Wall were units of the French and British armies and the U.S. Berlin Brigade


Grenz VR Polen & Grenz CSSR

. Often overlooked are the border units that guarded the less publicized borders. On the eastern frontier of East Germany two independent border regiments manned the Polish and Czech borders. Grenz VR Polen patrolled 456 kilometers of the border between Poland and East Germany, while GrenzCSSR watched over the 430 kilometers of the shared border with Czechoslovakia. Unlike the western Landesgrenz, the border fortifications here were not as formidable and there were fewer restrictions for persons living near the border region. Although Poland and Czechoslovakia were fellow communist countries, a security presence was needed to deter unauthorized travel to both of the countries. Because travel restrictions were more lax there, East Germans would use Poland and Czechoslovakia as a means to slip across the less stringent guarded border between the Czechoslovakian and Austrian/West German borders. The unit worked on the border from 1961-1990.


Coastal Border Brigade.

 Another little-known border unit was the Coastal Border Brigade (Grenzbrigade KUESTE). Headquartered in Patz, this naval unit was unique in that it was part of the East German Navy (Volksmarine), but fell under the operational control of the Border Command. The brigade patrolled 310 kilometers of the East Germany's Baltic coastline, as well as providing patrol boats to cruise inland waterways around Berlin and the Elbe and Seen rivers. Working with local police, the Grenzbrigade KUESTE closely monitored coastal fishing, swimming, and boating, and was further assisted by laws that greatly reduced coastal activity after dark. In addition to looking for potential escapees at sea, the unit also conducted patrols along the beaches.










The Units

The backbone of the Grenztruppen unit structure was the Border Regiment. Strategically placed along the border and around Berlin, the regiment provided the command interface with the Grenztruppen area commands. Down on the front line, though, it was the Border Company that manned the towers and fences along the Iron Curtain.


In addition to the assigned complement of border guards, the Grenztruppen relied on other types of units and detachments to help guard the state border and the Berlin Wall. These special purpose units played an active role in daily patrol operations. Some detachments such as the K-9 teams were widely known and visible on the border. On the other hand, the highly trained border guards called GAKs were not well known although they gathered intelligence and conducted reconnaissance missions into West Germany.


The following information provide a peek into how these organizations enhanced the operational effectiveness of the Grenztruppen mission.


Regimental Organization

A typical border regiment on the Landesgrenz consisted of three battalions. The 1st & 2nd Battalions primarily patrolled along the border, while the 3rd Battalion patrolled in depth in the restricted area known as the Hinterlands.


A typical border frontage patrolled by a regiment was 130 - 160 kilometers.














Battalion Organization

A typical Border Battalion on the Landesgrenz consisted of four companies with the exception of the 3rd Battalion which had only three companies. A typical border frontage patrolled by a battalion was 65 - 80 kilometers of which a company patrolled between 17 - 20 kilometers.

Frontier Troops and their Employment 

bottom of page