Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.
(To read Part One, go here.)
From the start of the war in 1939 to the beginning of operations in 1943, the main formations of the Waffen-SS earned a reputation for bravery, audacity, and tactical innovation second to none in the German armed forces. However, they also developed a reputation for reckless courage and tenacity that led to a higher than necessary casualty rate. Worse, they reflected the darker, sinister side of the Nazi state; committing numerous atrocities that would later lead to the organization being declared a “criminal organization”; and many of its officers tried (and in most cases convicted) for war crimes.
SS-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, commander of LSSAH till ’43, then of the 1st SS-Panzer Korps. One of Hitler’s favorite soldiers, Dietrich was indicted and convicted at Nuremberg for culpability in war crimes committed by Waffen-SS units under his command. He was sentenced to 25 years, but only served 10.
Though not directly responsible for the implementation of Hitler’s genocidal policies towards Jews and various other ethnic or political groups, certain Waffen-SS formations were at times tasked with helping their komraden in the Allgemeine SS and in the SS-Totenkopfverbände (concentration camp guards) to carry out these vile acts of repression and murder. Efforts by apologists to absolve the Waffen of any culpability in these crimes rings as hollow today as it did during the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal hearings.
That said, the bulk of all Waffen-SS formations were involved with direct military actions through most of the war; fighting beside other formations of the Wehrmacht; and under the direct operational control of the German Army (Heer). In Part One of this series, we discussed the expansion of the Waffen-SS through 1939 to the end of 1942. During this period, the premiere Waffen-SS combat formations were originally organized as motorized infantry; and continuously upgraded, first to Panzergrenadier divisions, then to full Panzer division status. In all cases, Waffen formations were over-strengthened: a Waffen Panzergrenadier division had as many tanks as a regular German army Panzer division (a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion); and a Waffen Panzer division was stronger than any equivalent formation in the Wehrmacht.
By 1942, the Waffen was receiving the best and most modern equipment available (and, in some cases, captured Allied equipment, particularly Russian). This had not always been the case: at the start of the war, the Waffen formations were under-equipped and even using obsolete weapons discarded by the Heer. But by the mid-war only Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland had an equal priority to the best men and equipment.
A widely circulated propaganda postcard, showing Waffen-SS soldiers carrying a wounded comrade during actions in Belgium, 1940. This image shows the Waffen soldiers carrying a variety of weapons, including the obsolete MP-34.
After being pulled out of intense fighting in Russia in 1941 and early 1942, most of the main-line formations were pulled out to rest and refit in France. During this period, at the urging of and under the command of SS-General Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, three of the premiere combat formation were formed into an SS-Panzer Korps. This was comprised of 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich (DR), and the 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf (TK). As pointed out above, all three were over-strength, panzer divisions in all but name; and in fact stronger than a standard army panzer division.
SS Panzer Korps commander, Paul “Papa” Hausser (left) lost an eye in combat during Operation Barbarossa.
While the authorized strength for a panzer division was 13,000–17,000, these Waffen divisions were about 19,000 strong. While most Panzer divisions were woefully understrength in tanks (only able to field 70-100 panzers at any given time during this period), the rested and reconstituted Waffen panzergrenadier divisions had about 150 tank, as well as a battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracks (as opposed to trucks) for all of their infantry. Further, each had been assigned a Heavy Tank (Schwere Panzer) Company of 9 Tiger tanks (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E); Germany’s new “super-tank”, very well armored and armed with the deadly 88mm gun, capable of killing even the best-armored Allied tanks.
Waffen-SS Tiger tank in action. In 1942, each division of the SS-Panzer Korps received a Heavy Company of Tigers.
This newly-christened SS-Panzer Korps was a very potent formation, indeed.
In early 1943, crises on the Eastern Front called the Korps back to Russia, where it would fight in some of the greatest tank battles in history…..
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