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. This multi-part series is neither an attempt to glorify or to condemn the Waffen SS; but to examine the military record of this elite organization as objectively as possible, and to present the facts in a balanced fashion.
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 Waffen 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 previous chapters 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. They were 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 sent 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, 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 under-strength 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 its 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.
THE DONETS CAMPAIGN AND THE 3rd BATTLE OF KHARKOV
On January 2, 1943, the Soviets forces in south Russia/Ukraine launched Operation Star and Operation Gallop, which over the next month broke German defenses. On 2 February, German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad. This freed-up large numbers of Soviet troops to join the offensive. The resulting drive shattered the German line, annihilating the Italian 8th Army in the process and surrounding German forces between the Don and Donets.
Red Army troops on the attack. Here a T-34 Medium Tank leads an attack, supported by infantry.
In response, Hitler reorganized the German forces in south Russia. He created Army Group South out of the shattered remnants of the old Army Group A, B and Don, placing all under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most talented strategist.
Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, Germany’s premiere strategist. Portrait by Virgilio Bettinaglio
Meanwhile, Hausser and the SS-Panzer Korp were sent into this cauldron of destruction to reinforce Manstein’s forces. Arriving on the front in late January 1943, the SS-Panzer Korps was thrown into the line defending Kharkov. They found themselves facing a deluge of hundreds of Soviet tanks of Mobile Group Popov, a Soviet Army sized formation spearheading the Soviet advance.
During the second week of February 1943, the LSSAH’s 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, and SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche‘s 1st SS Panzer Regiment fought a bitter delaying action near the town of Merefa, halting a major Soviet attack. LSSAH and its sister divisions in the SS-Panzer Korps conducted a series of fierce defensive battles over the next weeks, gradually being pushed back into the city of Kharkov itself.
SS-Totenkopf soldiers, Kharkov 1943
While the Waffen divisions succeeded in throwing back every Soviet attack, their position became desperate as the Soviets maneuvered around the city, threatening to surround the SS force. On February 15, Hausser disobeyed Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs and withdrew his Corps from the city towards Krasnograd. Over the next week, the SS Panzer Korps fought a series or running battles against the advancing Soviet armored forces. In the process the SS formations showed great skill in the art of maneuver, destroying several Russian divisions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, annihilating Soviet Mobile Group Popov.
Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers riding in Sd.Kfz. 251 half-tracks, advancing along the snow-covered tracks.
Meanwhile to their south the Soviet spearheads had driven deep into German-held territory, driving west across the wide steppes of the Ukraine. At one point, Soviet tanks were within gun range of Hitler himself, in conference with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. The German Führer asked whose tanks these were approaching, and was shocked when told they were Soviet!
Hitler meeting with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. It was during this meeting that Hitler came close to being fired upon by Soviet tanks. This convinced the shaken Hitler that the crises in south Russia required extraordinary measures. Manstein was given permission to act without (the usual) interference by Hitler and his staff.
However great their gains, the Soviet forces had become overextended. To their south flank, Manstein prepared a large mobile force with which to counter-attack the southern flank of the Soviet bulge in the German lines. These forces included the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, and the SS Panzer Korps which was placed under the operational control of 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Herman Hoth.
Manstein’s Donets Campaign began on 19 February and lasted through 15 March, 1943. It caught the advancing Soviet forces “flat-footed”, with the German panzer forces rolling north and destroying Soviet formations piecemeal in a series of meeting engagements. Soviet spearheads in the west were cut off from their supply sources and eventually destroyed. In this offensive, the SS-Panzer Korps played a key role; advancing from the north and linking up with 4th Panzer Army thrusting from the south and “bagging” and destroying large and powerful Soviet armored forces.
The Russian formations suffered from exhaustion after weeks of continuous combat, having penetrated (in some cases) 500 hundred miles; and having outrun their supplies were short on fuel and ammunition. In the rapidly changing conditions of rolling tank battles on the steppes, the Russians were severely handicapped by a lack of radios in each tank; and by a rigid operational doctrine that did not encourage initiative among junior officers, or straying from original battle plans by senior officers, no matter how much the situation changed on the ground. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, and particularly that of the Waffen-SS which fully encouraged individual initiative and aggressiveness, and an informality between superiors and their subordinates. This is a feature found in all “Special Operations” units in modern history but is seldom found in “conventional” forces. (Time and again, Waffen-SS commanders defied orders and took what actions they saw necessary. It is telling that Hausser could defy Hitler himself at Kharkov and be spared even a reprimand. In the Red Army, attempt at such action would have been cut-short by a Kommissar’s bullet to the head!)
The SS-Panzer Korps prepares to advance and recapture Kharkov
By 5 March the SS-Panzer Korps had reached the outskirts of Kharkov again. Ordered to encircle the city to the north, Hausser instead chose to attack the city on 11 March, disobeying orders from both Hoth and Manstein. For the SS it was now a matter of pride that they recapture the city they had been forced to abandon just weeks earlier. A bloody and decisive struggle ensued, the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. LSSAH attacked from north, Das Reich from the west, and Totenkopf formed a protective screen along the north and northwestern flanks.
Waffen panzergrenadiers advancing through the streets of Kharkov
For this operation LSSAH divided into flexible Kampfgruppe (“Battle Groups”), commanded by intrepid young commanders Fritz Witt, Theodor ‘Teddy’ Wisch, Max Wünsche, Joachim Peiper, and Kurt Meyer; under overall command of division commander Sepp Dietrich. The attacks were fiercely resisted by the Red Army. But the SS formations conducted a skilled and determined assault, sometimes fighting house-to-house, block by stubborn block. During the battle, Myer’s Kampfgruppe succeeded in capturing the entire command staff of a Soviet division. However, their rapid advance outpaced other supporting units, and Myer’s group found itself surrounded in the middle of the city. Despite fierce attack by much larger Soviet forces bent on annihilating his surrounded command, Meyer’s grenadiers held on until relieved by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe; Meyer’s small-unit leadership greatly contributing to his force’s success. By 14 March, Kharkov had fallen again and the German battle flag once more waved over Dzerzhinsky Square.
Waffen-SS “Young Guns”: (top row, left-to-right) Joachim Peiper, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer. Bottom row, left-to-right: Theodor Wisch and Max Wünsche
The spring thaw (rasputitsa) and the resulting muddy morass brought Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt none too soon for the Soviets. Army Group South’s Donets Campaign had cost the Red Army some 52 divisions, over 70,000–80,000 casualties, and these from their most mobile forces. The Germans had destroyed the Soviets west of the Donets, restoring the line and retaking Kharkov and Belgorod (captured on March 18). It was the last great victory of German arms in the eastern front.
The spring thaw turned the dirt roads of Russia into a muddy morass, bringing Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt, and setting the stage for the Battle of Kursk.
For the SS-Panzer Korps the cost had been high. Leibstandarte alone had suffered some 4,500 casualties, and losses within the other two SS divisions were as proportionately high. The founding commander of SS-Totenkopf, Theodor Eicke, had been killed on the 26 February while conducting an aerial reconnaissance over the battlefield, when his single-engine Fieseler Storch was shot down. (Eicke was succeeded by the very capable Hermann Priess.)
As was often the case during the war, the Waffen was again involved with an atrocity: after the recapture of Kharkov soldiers from LSSAH allegedly murdered several hundred wounded Soviet soldiers in the city’s military hospital. Such abominable actions blackened the name of what was an otherwise superb and admirable fighting force.
Standartenfuhrer Fritz Witt, commanding officer of 1st SS PG Regiment, conferring with Hauptsturmfuhrer Max Wünsche, commander of 1st Battalion/1st SS Panzer Regiment during the fighting around Kharkov.
The mud had brought the advance to a halt short of Kursk, and left a westward bulge remaining in German lines. Manstein wished to continue the northward drive and eliminate this dangerous salient as soon as the ground hardened.
Hitler agreed, but decided to make this operation the main German summer offensive on the Eastern Front. To this end plans were drawn-up at OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces”) for a grand offensive, a pincer move from the north and the south of this salient.
The stage was set for the Battle of Kursk.