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 Three, go here.)
Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle (The Battle of Kursk) (see Part Three) and the Allied landings in Sicily, the SS Panzer Korps was broken up and reorganized. 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was sentto northern Italy; where it helped disarm Italian forces that had surrendered upon the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist government. While 3rd SS Totenkopf and the 2nd SS–Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich were sent south to aid 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking in repelling a Soviet offensive along the Mius River.
Viking had not been part of the SS-Panzer Korps during the Kursk offensive; but instead had waited at Izyum on the Donets River south of Kharkov. There, along with the 23.Panzer-Division, it was to form the reserve force for Manstein’s attacking forces. When several Soviet formations attacked towards Orel and Kharkov simultaneously, SS “Wiking” was committed against the Soviet forces near Kharkov, destroying around 100 Red Army tanks over several days. When Zitadelle was cancelled, the division was remained in the area, halting Soviet attacks.
Further to the south, however, on the Mius-Front, a major Red Army offensive, Operation Rumyantsev, threatened to break the German lines. 5th SS Wiking was attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Korps, replacing LSSAH, and sent to the Mius-Bogodukhov sector to halt the Soviet attacks. In subsequent fighting, the SS divisions defeated two Soviet tank armies (totaling over 1,000 tanks), destroying over 800 of them. However, the SS formations suffered heavily in the fighting as well; as illustrated by Totenkopf’s loss of 1,500 soldiers and its Panzer regiment reduced to a mere 20 tanks.
SS-Unterstrumfuhrer Gerhard Mahn of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment Germania (5th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Viking) signals to his armored units as they counter attack behind front line troops in south Russia (modern Ukraine)
Between 20 September and 20 of November 1943 the Das Reich and Totenkopf were pulled out of Russia; and conducted operations against Slovene and Croat partisans on the Istrian peninsula and north of Trieste. This operation was necessary to keep open communications with German forces operating in the south against Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. After this, both were refitted and rested, promoted to the status of full panzer divisions.
In October, SS Viking was again pulled out of the line, and also restructured as a panzer division. To bolster the strength of the division, the Walloon volunteer unit 5th SS-Sturmbrigade “Wallonien” was attached to the division, under the command of Leon Degrelle. (The Walloons were the subject of ridicule by many “Wiking” veterans until they proved their worth in the fighting for a forest near Teklino; thereafter being considered a first-rate fighting formation.)
Following the cancellation by Hitler of the German offensive against the Kursk salient, the Soviets launched massive counterattacks all along the front of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Everywhere the Germans were forced to give ground. Manstein pulled back, and establish a strong, defensible line behind the Dnieper River (the southern part of Hitler’s Panther–Wotan Line) . However, by December 1, 1943 Manstein’s line was broken by continuing Soviet armored offensives; the opening of what became known as the Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. Soon, Soviet Army had crossed the Dnieper in force.
Because of Hitler’s reluctance to allow a general pull-back from the west-bank of the Dnieper, a German force of 58,000 men, 59 tanks and 242 artillery pieces were trapped by the Soviets in a pocket centered on the town of Korsun. Among the trapped units was 5th SS Viking. In the following Battle of the Korsun–Cherkasy Pocket (24 January 1944 – 16 February 1944), Viking acted as a mobile “fire brigade”; stamping out any Soviet penetrations of the pocket. During this crises, the 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH returned to Russia to join with 1st Panzer Division as part of the XLVIII Panzer Corps (under the skilled command of General Hermann Balck) in spearheading the relief of the forces in the pocket; and opening a corridor. During the breakout, Viking sustained serious losses, acting as the German rearguard.
In March 1944 1st SS was moved to France, where it joined old comrades who had been detached from LSSAH to form the cadre of the newly constituted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”).
These two “sister divsions, along with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, would now form new 1st SS Panzer Korps; under LSSAH’s founding commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich. This formation would become the elite strike force of Hitler’s army in the last 12 months of the war in Europe.
The idea of forming a Waffen-SS divison comprised of Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 (17 year olds) was a project enthusiastically supported by Adolf Hitler; and the division was officially created on 13 February 1943. While the rank-and-file was drawn from these Nazi “Eagle Scouts”, the NCO and officer cadre was drawn from veterans of LSSAH. Its commander was SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt; who had served with such distinction in all of LSSAH’s battles to date. He had commanding the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment during the Third Battle of Kharkov (where Witt was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight’s Cross he’d earned in France during the 1940 campaign); and during the fighting of the Kursk battle. His former commander, Paul Hausser, in his Knight’s Cross citation, described Witt as “the model of the young leader, never retreating in the face of anything”. He was an example of the caliber of officers who had survived the first bloody years of the war to come of age by 1943-44: bold and imaginative in a way few “conventional” officers ever are, but which is the hallmark of “special ops” soldiers the world over.
This leavening of young, near-fanatical Nazi youth with veteran LSSAH leaders created, in very short time, an elite division worthy of fighting beside its parent division.
They would soon be tested, and in the testing nearly perish, in the battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944…