As we have seen, the German Army initially held the armed units of the SS in thinly disguised contempt. Its leaders were grateful to the SS for helping to eliminate the seemingly much greater threat of the SA; but other than that, they felt the police-type squads and concentration camp guard units were scarcely worthy of their consideration. That attitude changed on 2 February 1935, when Hitler decreed that the SS-Special Purpose Troops would be organised into a division in time of war. The decree caused some perturbation among the German Army’s High Command because Hitler’s accommodation with the army had included the promise that they would remain the sole bearer of arms within the state. This had also underpinned his calculation that the army was a more important ally than the SA. There is no compelling evidence that Hitler, Himmler or anyone else within the National Socialist hierarchy saw the SS as a future replacement for the army, but it was typical of Hitler to keep his options open by creating a force that was entirely at his disposal and need not worry about constitutional niceties.
Some of the military leadership’s concern was assuaged in March 1936, when Hitler decided to reintroduce universal conscription in order to create a standing army of thirty-six divisions. In comparison, the Special Purpose Troops were tiny. Even so, hostility and suspicion remained. Both Minister of Defence von Blomberg and General von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, objected to the formation of an SS division* or any further expansion of the armed formations.
At this point, the situation changed again. In January 1938, the sixty-year-old von Blomberg married Erna Gruhn, who was twenty-six. It was a quiet ceremony, even though Hitler acted as a witness and Goering was the general’s best man. A few days later, while the happy couple was on honeymoon, a Berlin Vice Squad detective who was analysing a batch of seized pornographic photographs realised that one of the women in the pictures was the new Frau von Blomberg. Further background checks revealed convictions for prostitution. Seemingly shocked and embarrassed by this revelation, Hitler summoned the Defence Minister when he returned to Berlin and demanded an annulment of the marriage. Much to Hitler’s incredulity, von Blomberg refused, apparently believing that his comrades in the army would rally to his support. When they did not, he resigned all of his posts.1
The obvious replacement as Defence Minister was von Fritsch. But there were question marks about his propriety, too. In 1935, a criminal named Otto Schmidt admitted to blackmailing a number of closet homosexual establishment figures, including a “General Fritsch.” Recognising the name, the police passed details of the case on to the Gestapo, who investigated further and concluded that Schmidt’s story may well have been true. Himmler showed Hitler the von Fritsch file in August 1936. At that moment, Hitler was entirely uninterested. Von Fritsch was a key figure in the expansion of the Army, and Hitler needed him. Consequently, just as he had done previously with Röhm, Hitler put aside any qualms about von Fritsch’s homosexuality and ordered Himmler to destroy the file. By the end of 1937, though, von Fritsch was exhibiting a distinct lack of support for Hitler’s proposed war of conquest in Europe. In November, the investigation into the Schmidt/von Fritsch affair was quietly reopened; and, if anything, Hitler was looking to get rid of him, rather than hand him the Defence Ministry.
The only other serious candidate was Goering, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, and he was prepared to put a lot of effort into securing the job. It seems that it was Goering who informed Hitler of Frau von Blomberg’s past, and then, twenty-four hours later, presented him with an updated version of the von Fritsch file.2 Von Fritsch was summoned to Hitler’s office, where he found the blackmailer Schmidt waiting for him. Von Fritsch gave his word of honour that he had not met Schmidt before, but Hitler refused to accept his assurances.
Clearly, von Fritsch would not now be succeeding von Blomberg, but at this point Goering’s plan unexpectedly unravelled, too. Von Blomberg, embittered by the lack of support he had been given by his colleagues within the armed forces, suggested during his farewell interview with Hitler that the Führer should take control of the Defence Ministry himself. Hitler agreed, although with one small adaptation: he gave it a new name. On 4 February, he dissolved the ministry and created the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht(OKW—High Command of the Armed Forces), with himself as Supreme Commander and Generaloberst (“colonel general”—a rank roughly equivalent to a four-star general in the UK or US Army) Wilhelm Keitel as his chief of staff. This did not remove all of the obstacles to further SS expansion, but it certainly undermined them. Obviously, Hitler hoped to maintain a balance between the Wehrmacht and the SS, to keep his senior military commanders on side, but he now had much more freedom to do as he wished in respect to Germany’s armed forces.
The von Fritsch affair had an appropriately squalid end. Although von Fritsch retired and was replaced as Commander-in-Chief of the Army by the more malleable Walther von Brauchitsch, he demanded an opportunity to clear his name. A court martial was duly convened, presided over by none other than Hermann Goering. Before it started, Heydrich and Himmler already knew the truth. The Gestapo’s enquiries had revealed that Schmidt had actually blackmailed a retired captain called von Frisch. However, they had kept quiet about what was clearly a case of mistaken identity in order to oust von Fritsch. Heydrich, in particular, had allowed the accusations to continue long after he had known they were groundless. This could have caused a great deal of trouble between the army and the SS security apparatus, but ultimately nobody seemed to care too much. While the court martial fully exonerated von Fritsch, no senior army officer emerged from the woodwork to demand his reinstatement. A number of middle-ranking Gestapo officials were disciplined and demoted, while most of the blame fell on Schmidt, who was shot on Himmler’s orders.3 Von Fritsch remained a broken man, but he was made honorary commander of the 12th Artillery Regiment. He fell in action in Poland on 22 September 1939, with many believing that he had actively sought an honourable battlefield death.
THE VON FRITSCH court martial coincided with—and was briefly interrupted by—the German annexation of Austria. This saw the first major combat use of the SS-Special Purpose Troops under army command. The Leibstandarte, the SS-Engineer Battalion and the SS-Signals Battalion were mobilised under General Guderian’s XVI Army Corps; the Germania Regiment was attached to VII Army Corps, with two battalions of the Death’s Head Oberbayern Regiment providing security on lines of communication; while theDeutschland Regiment and a further battalion of the Oberbayern Regiment were attached to Infantry Regiment 61 and Mountain Infantry Regiment 98, respectively, for the occupation of the Austrian Tyrol.4 There seems to have been no friction between the SS and army soldiers on the ground, although there were some logistical difficulties. SS units reportedly caused traffic congestion because of their lack of training and experience in large-scale road moves, and some of their commanders were disgruntled because they were assigned purely supporting roles. This prompted an immediate order from Hitler to Keitel to motorise the hitherto horse-drawn Special Purpose Troops. But a little later, on 17 August, he issued a much more significant decree. This clarified the position of the armed SS and, in effect, created what soon became known as the Waffen-SS.
The decree began by stating that the General-SS was a political formation of the NSDAP and therefore did not require military training or arms. However, “for special internal political tasks…or for use within the wartime army in the event of mobilisation,” the Special Purpose Troops, the officer cadet schools, the Death’s Head units and the police reserves of the SS were to be organised, armed and trained as military formations. In peacetime, these forces would be commanded by Himmler as National Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police, and they would carry out internal political tasks. The SS would pay for their weapons and equipment, which would be supplied by the Wehrmacht as and when required.
The order went on to state:
The Special Purpose Troops are neither a part of the Wehrmacht nor a part of the police. They are a standing armed unit exclusively at my disposal. As such, and as a unit of the NSDAP, their members are to be selected by the National Leader of the SS according to the philosophical and political standards that I have ordered for the NSDAP and for the SS. Their members are to be trained and their ranks filled with volunteers from those who are subject to serve in the army who have finished their duties in the Obligatory Labour Service. The service period for volunteers is 4 years. It may be prolonged for SS [NCOs]. Such regulations are in force for SS leaders. The regular compulsory military service (par. 8 of the law relating to military service) is fulfilled by service of the same amount of time in the Special Purpose Troops.5
Similarly, the Death’s Head units were neither part of the Wehrmacht nor part of the police, but were an armed SS force at Hitler’s disposal for the resolution of internal political problems. At this stage, service in the Death’s Head units did not count as compulsory military service, but the decree made a clear link between them and the Special Purpose Troops, and envisaged that members of the former would be transferred into the latter in time of war to act as their reserve.
In the aftermath of the Anschluss, a third Special Purpose Troops regiment, Der Führer, was established in Vienna and Klagenfurt, as was an Austrian Death’s Head regiment. So the peacetime strength of the SS armed formations was now set as:
• Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (motorised)
• three foot regiments (Deutschland, Germania and Der Führer)
• two motorcycle reconnaissance battalions
• one combat engineer battalion
• one signals battalion
• one medical unit.6
Elements of the Special Purpose Troops were again mobilised under army control for the march into the Sudetenland in October 1938, and for the occupation of the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia the following March. Once more, the army had some minor quibbles about their performance, but generally there seemed to be few problems.
Two months later, Hitler attended a demonstration by Deutschland at the Münsterlager training area. He was so impressed that he finally gave orders to the army’s High Command to assist the Special Purpose Troops in creation of a full divisional organisation with integrated artillery support. This should have been fairly straightforward, as the SS-Artillery Regiment had already been established and placed under the command of Herbert Gille. However, the reorganisation was postponed in the summer of 1939 to avoid disruption in the run-up to the invasion of Poland.
When that offensive was launched in September 1939, it was the first time that the armed SS had faced serious opposition. In many respects, it was a baptism of fire. Their marches into Austria and Czechoslovakia had been practically unopposed, but the invasion of Poland was a real shooting war against a determined, if massively outgunned, enemy. Once again, the Special Purpose Troops were committed piecemeal, attached to army formations. Deutschland was grouped with the SS-Artillery Regiment, the SS-Reconnaissance Battalion and an army tank regiment in the 4th Panzer Brigade under command of an army general. Germania was allocated to the 14th Army in East Prussia. The Leibstandarte, together with the SS-Engineer Battalion, were assigned to von Reichenau’s 10th Army, which attacked into western Poland from Silesia. In Danzig, a new unit had been created in July and August from local General-SS members, the 3rd Battalion of the Death’s Head Ostmark Regiment (which was based in Berlin-Adlershof), and members of other Death’s Head units smuggled in by ship from Oranienburg. This motley group of between 1,500 and 2,000 men was named the Heimwehr Danzig (Danzig Home Guard) and took part in covert actions in and around the city as soon as the invasion began.
Again, the SS armed formations received mixed reviews from army commanders. They were criticised for taking heavy casualties (the Leibstandarte, for example, suffered around a hundred men killed in action and three hundred wounded during the campaign7); for poor performance within a division; and for their inability to conduct complicated “combined arms” operations.8 The SS’s response was to say that the army kept them starved of support, supplies and even their own heavy weapons, and denied them the opportunity to train in a divisional context. All of this was largely true.
More friction was caused by the actions of the special task groups and police units operating in the rear. Then, as now, it was difficult to draw a clear distinction between the strictly combat formations of the SS and their comrades in the “special” units, if indeed there was any difference: the Special Purpose Troops may have been militarised members of the SS with a specific wartime role, but the basis of their existence was exactly the same as that of the men who were engaged in killing politicians, priests, intellectuals and Jews in the wake of the advancing forces.
As a consequence of the problems thrown up by the Polish campaign, it was decided to press ahead immediately with the formation of the Special Purpose Division. Furthermore, members of the SS and the police would no longer be tried through the military court martial system. Instead, the military penal system would be applied in their own special courts.
Hausser, still the Inspector of the Special Purpose Troops, had secured a position as liaison officer to the army in the field. Having returned to Berlin, on 10 October 1939 he was appointed chief of the newly formed SS-Verfügungsdivision (Special Purpose Division). At this point, he was an SS-major general, but the fact that he was now in command of an armed division meant that he had to be given formal rank equivalence with his army counterparts. This was the first time that a rank in the SS—which, it should be remembered, was still primarily a voluntary political organisation—was officially equated with a military rank.
The new division was created by the simple expedient of officially combining the three Special Purpose Troops foot regiments—Deutschland, Germania and Der Führer—with the artillery, reconnaissance, engineering and medical elements. Meanwhile, theLeibstandarte was reinforced, but kept separate from the division: it received a fourth battalion of infantry, a motorised “infantry gun” battalion, and ultimately (in April 1940) a full artillery battalion.
Detachments from the unit still provided personal security for Hitler, and in January 1940 he ordered the creation of a “light” Leibstandarte battalion to do the job on a permanent basis.* It was to be based in Berlin.
In spite of the army’s criticism, the armed units of the SS therefore survived and even profited from their baptism of fire in Poland. But it was left to other SS groups to start to forge the organisation’s notorious wartime reputation during that campaign. Their mission went far beyond the occupation of a neighbouring territory: it began the process of putting the merciless SS ideology into practice.
* They resisted this official designation even though they were well aware that the Special Purpose Troops were now of divisional strength.
* This came about after he spent Christmas Eve with the Leibstandarte at their barracks in Koblenz.