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. But what is indisputable is their high quality as an elite fighting force.
Formed originally in 1933 as a 120 man “commando” under the command of Sepp Dietrich, the Waffen (meaning “Armed”, or “Fighting” SS) was created as the combat wing of the Nazi Party‘s Schutzstaffel (Protective Squad). It rapidly grew during the Second World War, and at its largest was 38 divisions along with some ancillary formations. During its 12 year existence the Waffen SS gained a reputation for ferocity, imagination, resilience, and tenacity second to none in the Second World War. Though under the operational control of the Wehrmacht (the German Armed Forces) the SS were autonomous in every other way.
The Waffen SS began as the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) (SS Dispositional Troops). They bore this name until August 1940, when Hitler in a speech gave the SS-VT its new name: the Waffen SS. Originally limited to Germans of impeccable “racial” background, by 1941 the Waffen had sold itself to young men across Western Europe as the tip-of-the-spear in the Nazi “crusade” against world-wide communism. Volunteers from all over Europe swelled its ranks, as idealistic (if misguided) young men enlisted to defend western civilizations from “the godless hordes of communism”.
Examples of Waffen SS recruiting posters
Though the brainchild of Hitler and his henchman Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, the military father of the Waffen was a former Reichswehr lieutenant-general, Paul Hausser. In 1936 Himmler convinced Hausser to come out of retirement to be Inspector of the SS-VT with the rank of Brigadefuhrer. Hausser transformed this earliest incarnation of the Waffen into a real military force, on a par with the regular German Army.
Paul “Papa” Hausser, the Reichswehr General who made the Waffen into a professional fighting force
While many of its formations were specialized (such as Partizanjaegers, or “partisan hunters”) the core units were Panzer, Panzergrenadier, or specialized infantry (such as SS Nord, a mountain division that spent most of its time fighting in northern Finland and Norway). The premier Waffen divisions were 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”); and the 5th SS Panzer Division Viking (mostly foreign volunteers from Western Europe and Scandinavia). The 12th SS Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) was formed in 1943/44 from members of the Nazi youth organization of that name, and led by a cadre of veterans from LSSAH. It joined these others as a premier Waffen fighting unit, quickly earning a reputation for ferocity bordering on fanaticism.
Sepp Dietrich, Hitler’s top SS combat officer. His humor and up-front leadership style was much appreciated by the men under his command.
In mid-1943 some of the premier armored divisions were organized into two SS panzer corps: the 1st SS PK, commanded by Sepp Dietrich, and comprised of the 1st and the 12th SS Panzer Division; and the 2nd SS PK, commanded by Paul Hauser. This latter was comprised of the 2nd SS Panzer and 9th SS Panzergrenadier Division Hohenstaufen. (These groupings were fluid: at Arnheim the Das Reich was rotated out and 10th SS Frundsberg took its place). As Hitler’s elite, these (and the other) SS divisions tended to have the “state-of-the-art” equipment and were always over-strength: an SS Panzergrenadier division had as many panzers (tanks) as a Heer (Army) Panzer Division.
With the exception of North Africa, the Waffen SS took part in every major campaign that Germany engaged in during the war. During this time they exhibited a nearly suicidal aggressiveness, combined with innovative tactics and a tight bond between the officers and the NCOS and other “enlisted”. Unlike in the regular German Army, the relationship in the Waffen SS between officers and their men was much less formal; much as is the case in modern special operations units. In fact it is ironic that the way in which the Waffen SS operated was much more like that of the modern Israeli Defense Forces, with men and officers on a first-name basis, and officers leading from the front.
The lack of experienced officers in the first years of the war led to the Waffen taking unnecessarily high risks, with attendant casualties. This reputation for “dumb courage” would follow them through the war; though from 1942 onward this was much less the case, as the Waffen divisions became among the most experienced and tactically capable in the German Armed Forces.
Because of several well documented killings of Allied prisoners on the battlefield, and because of its association with the genocidal actions of other components of the SS; the Waffen was condemned after the war as a “criminal organization”. Membership within the Waffen became a crime, whether or not the individual member or unit had participated in any atrocity or war crime. In truth, the Waffen SS committed perhaps a greater number of documented killings of prisoners than other formations during the war. But these were no more egregious “war crimes” than were seen committed by Allied units during the war. Russian units were infamous for their brutal treatment of German soldiers and civilians alike; and even some American units were known to have killed German prisoners during the Normandy campaign.
Particularly on the Eastern Front against their arch-enemy, the Soviet communists, Germany was engaged in a “war to the knives”; one in which the fanatical Waffen SS was in its element!