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 there high quality as an elite fighting force.
WARTIME RECORD: 1939-1940
POLAND AND FRANCE
As with the rest of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS (still called “SS-VT“) first saw action in the Polish campaign of 1939. Its formations entered the war without all of their proper allocation of equipment, and its units were not yet fighting together as unified divisions. The Waffen was criticized by the regular Army officers for its brashness and over-zealousness; and there were even suggestions to disband its formations and fold them into the Heer. Hitler, however, not only ignored these criticisms but expanded the Waffen during the winter leading up to the Battle of France, the following May. He also ordered the Waffen formations to be designated and equipped as motorized infantry.
During the Polish Campaign, Leibstandarte (LSSAH) became notorious for torching villages, and was involved in the murder of some 50 Jews in a Polish village. Already the Waffen was earning the reputation for brutality that would characterize its performance throughout the war.
On May 10, 1940 the Waffen SS spearheaded the advance of the German forces into the Netherlands, as Sepp Dietrich’s SS Motorized Infantry Brigade Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), wearing Dutch uniforms, surprised and overcame Dutch border guards, opening the way for the advance of the 9th Panzer Divsion. Other SS formations followed in their wake. Two days later they reached Rotterdam, and after intense fighting and bombing by the Luftwaffe the city surrendered on the 14th. On the following day, Leibstandarte captured the Hague, and with it 3,500 Dutch POWs.
Rotterdam, just prior to the German attack in May of 1940Waffen SS troops in the Hague, 1940
As the Battle of France developed SS Motorized Infantry Regiment Totenkopf was involved in the Battle of Arras on May 21st against the British. Operating with Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, Totenkopf found itself over-matched when its 37 mm PaK 36/37 anti-tank guns proved ineffective against the heavily armored British Matilda tanks of the the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments. When the heavily armored Matildas threatened to break through the German position, and neither the standard anti-tank guns nor the German’s own Panzer Mk II and Panzer 38(t) tanks could stop them, Rommel found a solution: he ordered the 88 mm anti-aircraft guns of the division’s Flak Battalion to be fired horizontally, acting as anti-tank guns. The high-velocity rounds tore through the Matilda’s armor as if it were tissue paper. This innovation stopped the British attack with heavy losses; and is the first recorded use of the soon-to-be much-feared 88 in the anti-tank role.
British Matilda II
SS Leibstandarte moved south into France on 24 May, and was placed under the operational control of Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corp. There it conducted attacks against the British in the Dunkirk region. Though Hitler ordered the advance of the Panzer’s halted (one of the great strategic mistakes of the war) Sepp Dietrich disobeyed orders and ordered LASSA to continue the attack; capturing a commanding height from which the British were observing German position. Despite this insubordination, Dietrich was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
Leibstandarte was turned south, and weeks later reached Saint-Étienne, 250 miles south of Paris, advancing further into France than any other German unit. On the following day France surrendered. Hitler expressed his pleasure with the performance of the LSSAH in the Netherlands and France, telling them, “Henceforth it will be your honor, who bear my name, to lead every German attack.”
SS troopers receiving decorations in Paris, 1940
Other Waffen units also fought with distinction, and during this campaign Felix Steiner, commander of SS-VT Motorized Infantry Regiment Deutschland, was also awarded the Knight’s Cross for action along the Leie River at Merville. Here, SS Deutschland forced a crossing, and held the bridgehead against repeated attacks by British armor. Though their perimeter was breached and British tanks came to with 15 feet of Steiner’s command post, the SS Grenadiers drove the British back. For his superb handling of his regiment, Steiner was given command the following year of the newly-created SS Viking Division.
SS General Felix Steiner with men of SS Viking
In August, the SS-VT was renamed the Waffen SS. It was reorganized and received its own high command. By the following spring, the new structure created six Waffen SS divisions: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Das Reich (DR), Totenkopf (TOT), Polizei, Viking (VK) and Kampfgruppe (later Division) Nord. These were at first no larger than reinforced brigades, and would not be fully manned and equipped till late in 1941. To their names these SS formations would later add numbers, one through six.
The “Black Edelweiss” unofficial badge of the 6th SS Nord
YUGOSLAVIA AND GREECE
In early spring 1941, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. The Waffen SS took part in the brief Yugolsav campaign, where SS Das Reich was instrumental in the capture of Belgrade. After the surrender of Yugoslavia, the SS moved south into Greece. SS Leibstandarte won distinction at the Battle of the Klidi Pass in April 1941, where its members fought the Australian 6th Infantry Division for control of the heights. After 48 hours of intense, sometimes hand-to-hand combat, LSSAH eventually gained control of the key Height 997; opening the pass and allowing the German Army to advance into Greece. This victory gained LSSAH grudging praise from the Wehrmacht Command (OKW), cited for their “unshakable offensive spirit”.
The Reconnaissance Battalion of SS LSSAH in the Balkans
LSSAH moved on into western Macedonia, where the Reconnaissance Battalion under the command of Kurt (“Panzer”) Meyer were engaged against the Greek 20th Division in a fierce battle to capture the Klisura Pass. According to some accounts, the SS troopers were pinned down by heavy artillery bombardment, and were only motivated to get up and continue the attack when Meyer threw a live grenade at the feet of his soldiers! The pass was captured, along with 1,000 prisoners of war; at the cost of a mere six dead and nine wounded. The next day, Meyer took Kastoria, capturing 11,000 prisoners of war. By April 20 LSSAH had cut off the retreating Greek Army at Metsovo and forced the surrender of the Greek Epirus-Macedonian Army, following a pitched battle in the 5,000-foot high Metsovon Pass through the Pindus Mountains.
As commander of LSSAH’s Recon Battalion Kurt “Panzer” Meyer served with great distinction, earning the Knight’s Cross.
Six days later, LSSAH reached the Gulf of Patras, and Sepp Dietrich ordered a crossing of the Gulf to secure the ferry at Patras in the Peloponnesus. LSSAH commandeered fishing boats and successfully completed the crossing, leaving much of their heavy equipment behind. By 30 April the last British Commonwealth troops had either been captured or escaped. LSSAH was given a position of honor in the victory parade through captured Athens.
LSSAH vehicles negotiate difficult mountain tracks in Greece
RUSSIA: OPERATION BARBAROSSA
On 22 June 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Designated “Operation Barbarossa“, it was the largest land operation in military history, involving some four million soldiers of the Axis powers. The Waffen SS formations took part in the fighting.
The SS Divisions Leibstandarte and Viking were attached to Army Group South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, tasked with invading the Ukraine. Operationally both were under the command of 1st Panzer Group under Field Marshal von Kleist. SS Das Reich was with Army Group Centre, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, invading Belorussia; under the operational control of Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group. The SS Totenkopf and Polizei divisions were attached to Army Group North, under Field Marshal von Leeb and tasked with the mission to advance through the Baltic states and on to Leningrad. During this operation both SS formations were under the operational control of LVI Panzer Corps, commanded by General Erich von Manstein.
During this time, LSSAH was involved in the Battle of Uman and the subsequent capture of Kiev. The division saw heavy fighting, with Meyer’s detachment particularly distinguishing itself. The division was also allegedly involved in the murder of 4,000 Soviet prisoners of war, carried out as reprisal for the death and mutilation of six of their own, who were executed in Taganrog For want of reliable evidence, the allegations remained unproven. In September, following the fall of Kiev, LSSAH drove rapidly south to seize the Perekop Isthmus, entry way to the Crimea. Here they were under the command of 11th Army; first under Eugen Ritter von Schobert, then Erich Von Manstein when the former was killed. Manstein (who developed a high opinion of the Waffen SS troops during Barbarossa) committed LSSAH to conduct diversionary attacks prior to the main effort. During this time, LSSAH’s Pioneer Battalion was tasked to clear the “Tartar Ditch”. A fierce ten day battle ensued, in which the SS Pioneers threw back many Soviet counterattacks.
In November, LSSAH drove east, helping to capture the key Don River crossing at Rostov-on-Don.
In the course of Operation Barbarossa, LSSAH drive some 600 miles deep into Russia in 5 months.
Elements of SS Das Reich advancing in Belarus, 1941
Meanwhile, SS Das Reich with Army Group Center took part in Guderian’s drive on Smolensk, fighting in the Battle of Yelnya. Guderian was diverted south in August to aid in the capture of Kiev. But when the belated drive on Moscow was resumed, Das Reich was among the spearhead units. The lateness of the year and the coming of the Russian winter brought the attack to a halt within sight of the Kremlin. Das Reich suffered heavily in the fighting, losing 60 percent of its strength. Following the Soviet counter-offensive, one of its regiments, Der Führer, was reduced to a mere 35 men out of the 2,000 that had started the campaign in June!
In the north, SS Nord was assigned to work with the Finish forces; and took part in Operation Arctic Fox with the Finnish Army. During this time, Nord fought in the disastrous battle of Salla, where the division suffered 300 killed and 400 wounded in the first two days of the fighting. As was the case with much of the SS units in the early part of the war, many of the men and officers were inexperienced and over-zealous; taking unnecessary risks and resulting casualties.
Anti-tank crew from SS Totenkopf advancing with Army Group North; towing a light anti-tank gun.
Like the rest of the German forces in Russia, the Waffen-SS divisions suffered heavily in the fighting and through the winter of 1941–1942. These were withdrawn to France to recover throughout 1942; and were upgraded from Motorized Infantry to Panzergrenadier divisions. Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser was named commander of the new SS Panzer Corps, composed of the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions Leibstandarte, Das Reich, and Totenkopf. Each of these were given a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion; once again an example of the over-strengthening of Waffen units throughout the war. These SS Panzergrenadier divisions were Panzer divisions in all but name. Each also received nine of the new heavy Tiger tanks, placed into the division’s heavy panzer companies.
Meanwhile, the Germans were facing an ever-more troublesome partisan war in the Balkans. To help deal with this problem, two new SS divisions were added to the Waffen: The 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, recruited from Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) from Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Romania; and the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer (the cadre of which was drawn from the existing SS Cavalry Brigade.
A squad of Mountain Troops from SS Division Prinz Eugen operating in the Bosnia
In the summer of 1942 SS Viking was assigned to Army Group South for offensive Case Blue, aimed at capturing Stalingrad and the Baku oilfields. Rostov was recaptured, and in September 1942 Viking (along with the 13th Panzer Division) was involved in ferocious fighting against well-entrenched Soviet forces at the vital city of Grozny. After weeks of fighting, Viking had lost over 1,500 men. Several combat units were reduced to mere dozens of survivors. A veteran later wrote, “Casualties weren’t counted any more, just men left alive.”
Reconnaissance Battalion of SS Viking advancing in the Caucasus
In late-November 1942 the division was re-designated the 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Viking. It spent the remainder of the year fighting its way out of the trap the Caucasus became for the invading Germans after the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, encircling the 6th Army at Stalingrad and threatening the supply line of all German forces in the Caucasus.
NEXT: TRIUMPH AT KHARKOV