Until the conclusion of the Polish campaign, the armed SS was a curiosity. Much attention had been lavished on it by Hitler, Himmler and others, but it remained an odd mixture of the political and the military, and it had achieved only moderate results. Its main problem was its size: it was too small to have a decisive impact on any of the operations in which it was involved; yet it was sufficiently large to prove burdensome to the regular armed forces. The experience of the Polish campaign should have convinced the National Socialist leaders to scale down the armed SS units. Then they could have continued to perform their core function—preserving the security of the regime—without causing any more trouble for the army. Instead, the opposite happened. Partly this was due to the efforts of one man: Gottlob Berger—in many respects, the “father” of the Waffen-SS.

Berger proposed a clever scheme that would more than double the strength of the armed SS without infringing the recruiting rules laid down by the OKW. Hitler’s decree of 17 August 1938 had allowed the SS to use members of the Death’s Head units and police reinforcements to bring the Special Purpose Troops up to strength; and a further decree of 18 May 1939 had authorised Himmler to increase the strength of the Death’s Head units to between forty and fifty thousand as “police reinforcements” in wartime. Berger’s suggestion was to transfer sufficient members of the existing Death’s Head units and police formations into the Special Purpose Troops to create two new infantry divisions, and then to replenish the “reinforcement” formations with army-trained members of the General-SS (then some 240,000 strong) and the Order Police. Hitler approved the plan, and by the end of November 1939, more or less at the stroke of a pen, the armed SS formations had grown from four infantry regiments, a few support battalions and a motley collection of concentration camp guard units into a force of three infantry divisions (two of which were motorised), a heavy motorised infantry brigade and a pool of some fifty thousand trained reinforcements/replacements. These three new divisions were the SS-Special Purpose Division, the SS-Death’s Head Division and the SS-Police Division. The Death’s Head Division was a motorised infantry formation with a nucleus of 6,500 former concentration camp guards. They were largely equipped with Czech heavy weapons and were commanded by Theodor Eicke, the brutal and irascible Inspector of Concentration Camps. The Police Division was a horse-drawn infantry division manned by 15,800 members of the Order Police, commanded by Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch.

It was at this time that Berger first coined the phrase “Waffen-SS” (literally “Weapons-SS”) to describe the armed military formations of the SS.1 He did so in a bid to end the friction between the Special Purpose Troops and the Death’s Head units. The former viewed themselves primarily as soldiers—indeed, as a military elite—whereas Eicke’s men regarded themselves as members of the (political) General-SS. The Death’s Head units had always been obliged to undertake military training, but under Eicke—whose own army career had been spent behind a desk—this fell well short of the required standard. Therefore, they were now on a steep learning curve. The designation “Waffen-SS” was designed to smooth over this distinction between the two organisations to create a single armed branch of the SS. After the war, several former Special Purpose Troops commanders claimed that the new set-up had been “an insult to any soldier,”2 but there is no evidence of them raising any objections to it at the time.

The Waffen-SS established its reputation—both bad and good—during the invasion of the Low Countries and France in the spring of 1940. The Police Division spent most of the early part of this campaign in reserve before being deployed across the River Aisne and the Ardennes Canal on 9–10 June, and then moving into the Argonne Forest, fighting a series of engagements against French rearguard troops along the way. By contrast, the Leibstandarte and the Special Purpose Division were engaged from the early stages of the campaign.

The Leibstandarte formed part of Mobile Group North for the attack on the Netherlands. Its initial role was to thrust forwards from Gronau towards the River Yssel when the attack was launched on 10 May. Dutch resistance was so light that elements of theLeibstandarte had penetrated more than forty-five kilometres beyond the river by that evening. Following this, they were attached to the 9th Panzer Division and moved west to link up with German parachute units that had seized key bridges on the southern approaches to Rotterdam. On the afternoon of 14 May, a Luftwaffe airstrike on Rotterdam levelled much of the city centre, killing nearly a thousand civilians, and the town’s garrison commander surrendered. The Leibstandarte was ordered to move through the city and head on towards the Hague, but en route they encountered a group of armed Dutch soldiers (who were probably heading towards a POW collection point) and engaged them with machine-gun fire. This would have been reckless and irresponsible even if they had not hit and severely wounded General Kurt Student, commander of the German 7 Luftdivision parachute unit, as he stood at the window of his command post. Almost simultaneously with this, the Dutch High Command ordered a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, the Special Purpose Division had crossed into the Netherlands on 11 May via the Gennep Bridge, which had been seized in the early hours of the previous morning by army special forces. In company with the 9th Panzer Division, they headed first towards Moerdijk, but were then diverted to intercept a French column that was attempting to block the German advance into North Brabant. Having dealt with this threat, they moved into Zeeland to engage the last remnants of French and Dutch resistance. By 17 May, this part of the assault was over and the division was ordered south to join the French campaign.

As the Leibstandarte and the Special Purpose Division were moving from the Netherlands and into France, the Death’s Head Division was brought out of reserve in Germany to join in the fighting. All three formations participated in the attacks on the British and French forces that were cut off and squeezed against the north-east Channel coast of France; and all three suffered casualties and reverses. On 21 May, the Death’s Head Division (together with Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division) was on the receiving end of a British counter-attack near Arras that briefly caused near panic in the German ranks. On 25 May, the Special Purpose Division was forced to withdraw from the town of St. Venant by another British counter-attack. And the next day, Sepp Dietrich himself was forced to hide in a ditch when his car was hit by British machine-gun fire. He smeared himself in wet mud to avoid being burned by petrol from the blazing vehicle.

It was during this period that the Leibstandarte and the Death’s Head Division carried out two separate atrocities that have helped to seal the Waffen-SS’s reputation as an essentially criminal force.

On 26 May, the Death’s Head Division was pressing hard against the British rearguard holding the canal line between Bethune and Robecq. By mid-afternoon, members of the battalion headquarters and the Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, were trapped in and around the Cornet Farm on the outskirts of Le Paradis. They were short of ammunition and cut off from any other British forces. The commanding officer, Major Ryder, sought guidance from HQ 4 Brigade, who asked him to try to hang on until darkness before attempting to withdraw. He knew that would be impossible, so he ordered his men to stop fighting and try to escape. A few slipped out of the farmhouse’s side door and hid near by, but the majority exited through the main door to the cowshed, with the intention of surrendering. One of the hiding soldiers describes what happened next:

At first they were met by a hail of bullets then at the second attempt the Germans came rushing out shouting. They were knocked about by rifle butts and kicks, then taken across to some more buildings and searched. After a while they were marched across a road to a farm and as they marched alongside a building two machine guns opened fire and mowed them down. The Germans then went along and shot anybody that moved. By a stroke of luck Bert Pooley and Bill O’Callaghan, although wounded, survived underneath and eventually crawled away.3

The Death’s Head soldiers were members of the 4th Company of the 1st Battalion, Death’s Head Infantry Regiment 2, commanded by Lieutenant Fritz Knöchlein, who gave the orders for the massacre. He was not a popular officer, even within the Death’s Head Division. Born in 1911, he was one of the earliest cadets at the Officer Cadet School Braunschweig, and he served in several postings without particular distinction before being transferred from the Deutschland Regiment to the Death’s Head Division at the end of 1939. His fitness reports labelled him “cocky” and suggested that he “requires a strong hand.”4 At his post-war trial, his defence was that the British had used “dum-dum” ammunition against his men.* This was a ludicrous claim: “dum-dum” ammunition had been outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1899 and had not been issued to British soldiers since before the First World War. In reality, Knöchlein’s company had simply faced infantry soldiers trained to a high standard of marksmanship. The bullets used by the British Army could certainly produce devastating wounds—one Death’s Head soldier described exit wounds of “hand size”5—but they were not dissimilar to those used by the German infantry. And it is highly unlikely that any of the British soldiers in Le Paradis would5have had the time or the inclination to alter their ammunition.

As the British witness noted, Privates Pooley and O’Callaghan survived the massacre, even though Knöchlein ordered members of his unit to shoot and bayonet any survivors of the initial shooting—a process that appears to have taken more than an hour.6 They were both severely wounded, but were cared for by a local Frenchwoman and surrendered to soldiers of the German Army two days later.

News of the massacre spread quickly on the German side, and the commander of the Death’s Head Division’s higher formation, General Hoeppner of XVI Army Corps, initiated an investigation. However, nothing came of it, and the historian of the division speculates that both Eicke and Himmler intervened to protect Knöchlein.7 The incident certainly never harmed his wartime career. He was awarded the Iron Cross (second class) just four days later and finished the war as a lieutenant colonel, having commanded the partly Norwegian Norge Regiment within the Nordland Division. However, the Allies were not so forgiving: Knöchlein was hanged as a war criminal in January 1949.8

Only a day after the Le Paradis killings, members of the Leibstandarte murdered about eighty British prisoners from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and attached units on a farm near Wormhoudt-Esquelbecq. The details of this massacre are more obscure than those of the Le Paradis murders, but it certainly took place. It appears that members of the 2nd Battalion of the Leibstandarte, under the command of Captain Wilhelm Möhnke, assembled the prisoners in a cowshed. The British assumed that they were being provided with shelter from the rain, but then a group of SS men surrounded the building and started to throw in hand grenades. When a British officer ran outside to protest, he was gunned down. Then the Germans shouted for five prisoners to come out. When five did, they were shot one by one on the command of a Leibstandarte officer or NCO. Then the call went up for another five to come out. Gunner Brian Fahey, one of the young British soldiers who was in the cowshed, takes up the story:

I struggled to my feet and a lad about nineteen with a Birmingham accent helped me. We shook hands and took our places. He was at number four, I was at number five.

The officer gave the command. “Eins!” A shot. After what seemed an eternity (in reality, about two seconds), “Zwei!” and another shot. It was surprisingly easy to show no panic. I could only stand on my good leg so movement was impossible. The situation was so hopeless that it was almost a relief to think that it would soon be over.

“Drei!” The third rifle fired and despatched its victim. I tried to concentrate my thoughts on my past life and on my family.

“Vier!” The fourth rifle fired and I saw from the corner of my eye the boy with the Birmingham accent fall. My mind was buzzing with half-remembered sights and sounds. My father practising the cello; the cricket nets on the middle playground at Colfe’s; the smell of the fats and rags and bones in my uncle’s Marine Store at Margate.

“Funf!” It was just like a sharp blow from a fist in my chest that knocked me over. As I hit the ground everything left my mind except the sensation of raging thirst and the certainty that I was dead.

When I opened my eyes I saw the grass and the khaki of my battle-dress. The thought gradually came to me that I was not dead. I lay perfectly still and strained my ears. There was no sound, I raised my head from my arm and felt the pains in my chest and leg. My spectacles were close by and unbroken and that seemed more important. I put them on and looked at my watch. It was four o’clock. The massacre had taken place at noon.9

After shooting the first few groups of five, the SS men had abandoned the procedure as too slow and simply fired their weapons into the cowshed until there was no more movement. But several of the British prisoners escaped injury by feigning death, while others, like Fahey, were unconscious and presumed dead or at least mortally wounded. After several days lying untreated in the shed, the wounded men were found by a German Army patrol and taken to hospital.

No one is certain what motivated this massacre. Some have suggested that Möhnke’s battalion believed that their commander, Dietrich, had been killed in the course of the attack that left him cowering in a ditch, and the atrocity was their revenge. More likely, it resulted from pure frustration. The British rearguard units were conducting a layered defence, which meant that a new obstacle appeared after every previous one had been breached, bypassed or captured by the Germans. Leibstandarte casualties were particularly heavy that day—veterans remembered it as the hardest single day of the whole western campaign10—so their comrades may simply have lashed out at defenceless targets. Either way, no charges were ever brought. Möhnke was captured by the Soviets rather than the British at the end of the war, and they had no inclination either to hand him over or to prosecute him themselves. Much later, in 1988, a German investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against him.

It seems likely that the Le Paradis and Wormhoudt massacres were carried out as local initiatives by relatively junior officers, rather than on the orders of the respective formation commanders. These were isolated events at this stage, and it would be wrong to draw general conclusions about the behaviour of all Waffen-SS units from them. Even so, it may be more than a coincidence that the two SS units that committed the atrocities were predominantly composed of the more “political” element within the Waffen-SS. TheLeibstandarte, as Hitler’s bodyguard, tended to attract politically conscious SS recruits, while the Death’s Head Division was fashioned around a core of men who had practised the casual brutality of National Socialist totalitarianism over several years in the concentration camp system.

WHILE THE FIELD units of the Waffen-SS were fighting in the West, Himmler and Berger were dealing with the consequences of the organisation’s rapid expansion. At the beginning of the Polish campaign, the Special Purpose Troops had a strength of some 18,000 men;11 on 1 May 1940, following the creation of the Death’s Head and Police divisions, the total strength of the Waffen-SS was 124,199.12 In the short term, this represented considerable combat power; but Berger’s difficulty now was to sustain it. In December 1939, he had persuaded Himmler to create a full-scale SS recruiting service (SS-Ergänzungsamt) within the SS-Main Office, with himself as its head. He then opened an SS recruiting office (Ergänzungstelle) within each regional headquarters, and thus within each of the coterminous Wehrmacht military districts. However, while Berger was now free to attempt to recruit young men, the Wehrmacht, which controlled the draft, was under no obligation to let them join the Waffen-SS rather than the regular armed forces. Each year, the army, air force and navy were allocated medically fit young men according to strict quotas, while the Waffen-SS* recruited its members from individuals who volunteered for the organisation from within these quotas. The Wehrmacht was willing to allow the Waffen-SS sufficient recruits to maintain its existing formations, but it was not prepared to let the SS create more reserve units that might subsequently be used as the basis for expansion. After all, both the army and the OKW viewed the Waffen-SS as a small and relatively insignificant part of the German armed forces; and, to a large extent, they wanted to keep it that way. Consequently, Berger had to look elsewhere for recruits.

* Dum-dum bullets were developed at the British Military Arsenal in Dum Dum, India, in the nineteenth century. They were designed to inflict particularly grievous wounds by expanding on impact.

* In March 1940, it was agreed that the Waffen-SS comprised the Leibstandarte, the Special Purpose Division, the Death’s Head Division, the Police Division, the officer cadet schools, the Death’s Head regiments and their Ersatz (replacement) units. The German military system divided military formations into field and replacement units. Each formation had a replacement unit that was responsible for training and holding soldiers in reserve until they were needed by the field unit.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!