By October 1940, Benito Mussolini had grown envious of his German ally’s military conquests in the West. Consequently, he launched an invasion of Greece through Albania. However, to the Italians’ surprise, the Greeks proved to be extremely tough opponents. The invasion force was grossly understrength and was forced back into Albania before the harsh winter led to a cessation of hostilities. Hitler chastised Mussolini for his “regrettable blunder,” but felt compelled to intervene to prevent a collapse of the Axis position in the Balkans.
Germany now pressured the government of Yugoslavia to join the Axis in order to facilitate a German assault on Greece. This was anathema to the Yugoslavs; but with the only alternative seeming to be a German invasion, the government eventually signed the Tripartite Pact on 25 March 1941. However, two days later, elements within the Yugoslavian armed forces allied with Serbian nationalists to launch a coup d’état. They deposed the Regent, Prince Paul, and proclaimed the eighteen-year-old King Peter II as the new ruler. Enraged by this affront, Hitler immediately ordered an invasion of Yugoslavia to run in tandem with the attack on Greece. This meant that the planned invasion of the Soviet Union would have to be postponed.
Once again, Waffen-SS units were to be at the forefront of the German assault. The Special Purpose Division had spent the winter of 1940–41 in eastern France, training for the proposed invasion of Great Britain. In December, it had been renamed theDeutschland Division—which of course caused confusion with the regiment of the same name—so shortly thereafter it had been redesignated the Reich Division. On 28 March, it was ordered to move into south-western Romania. There it joined the XLI Panzer Corps to take part in the main thrust towards Belgrade. Meanwhile, the Leibstandarte, which was now of brigade strength and subordinated to the 12th Army, was to attack from Bulgaria, across southern Yugoslavia and into Greece.
The assault was launched on 6 April. In Yugoslavia, resistance was virtually non-existent. A combat group of the Reich Division, led by SS-Captain Fritz Klingenburg, raced across the country and reached Belgrade on 13 April, whereupon Klingenburg accepted the surrender of the city. The Yugoslavian Army surrendered four days later. The Germans lost just 151 dead in the entire campaign.
Resistance in Greece was somewhat stiffer, but the outcome was the same. A British expeditionary force had been rushed into the country during March, but it was ill equipped and its air support was no match for the large numbers of combat aircraft available to the Germans. In danger of being stranded, the British began an evacuation on 21 April. With no prospect of holding back the Germans, the Greek Army capitulated two days later. For the whole of the next week, the British fought some desperate rearguard actions as they sought to protect their evacuation sites. By 30 April, German troops controlled the whole country.
Now, a little behind schedule, Hitler was finally able to turn his attention to what had always been his primary target.
• • •
AT 3 A.M. on 22 June 1941, the largest military force ever assembled in Europe began to cross into Soviet territory: one hundred and fifty-three divisions, organised into three army groups* (North, Centre and South, commanded by Field Marshals von Leeb, von Bock and von Rundstedt, respectively), comprising more than 3.5 million soldiers and 3,600 tanks, and supported by three tactical air forces with around 2,700 aircraft. The front stretched from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Astonishingly, the invasion came as a surprise to the Soviets. Although their intelligence had watched the buildup of forces with increasing anxiety, Stalin had convinced himself that Hitler would not move east until Britain had been decisively defeated. After a decade of terror in the Soviet Union, no one was prepared to contradict him.
Of course, the destruction of the Soviet Union and its “Jewish Bolshevism” was at the core of Hitler’s personal belief system. He had floated the idea in Mein Kampf in 1924, but 1941 was probably the first realistic opportunity that he had to carry it out. It was a colossal gamble but he took it, perhaps feeling that the forces under his command were invincible after their lightning successes in the West, perhaps genuinely believing that the “inferior” Russians would be unable to put up any significant resistance. In spite of Germany’s shortage of men and matériel (at least when compared to the almost limitless resources of the Soviet Union), Hitler seems to have convinced himself that victory was inevitable. Then, once the Third Reich had conquered the USSR, it would have access to vast amounts of land, untold natural resources and millions of “primitive” people who could be forced into the largest slave labour force the world had ever seen. Hitler viewed it as the twentieth-century equivalent of Britain’s subjugation of India in the nineteenth, and envisaged similarly rich rewards.
As with the invasions in the West and the Balkans, the Waffen-SS played a full role in the opening stages of the campaign in the East. The Leibstandarte was re-designated as a division in June 1941—becoming the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division—even though it boasted only eleven thousand men, significantly below conventional divisional strength. It was then attached to Army Group South, along with the newly formed Wiking Division. The Reich Division was placed in von Bock’s Army Group Centre, while the Death’s Head and Police divisions were subordinated to Army Group North for the push towards Leningrad.1
On paper, another new Waffen-SS division should also have been heavily involved in Operation Barbarossa (the code name of the invasion). In late 1940, the 6th and 7th Death’s Head regiments—comprising concentration camp guards and reservists—had been transferred to southern Norway to act as a garrison and security force. A few months later, these regiments were combined with a signals unit to form the Nord Battle Group, which was under the tactical command of the army. Then, on 17 June 1941, the unit was re-designated the Nord Division after the addition of a reconnaissance unit, an anti-aircraft battery, logistics units and so on. Five days later, it was on the Finnish-Soviet border, eager to join the offensive. However, it was far from ready for action: it had fired its artillery only once, its men were barely competent with their small arms, and its officers had had virtually no military training. Its performance in the opening few days of the invasion was so appalling that General von Falkenhorst, commanding the XXXVI Army Corps, had no option but to withdraw it from combat to reconstitute.2
Elsewhere, though, the opening months of Barbarossa seemed to be a massive success for the German armed forces: their tanks swept through the western Soviet Union, bypassing vast numbers of helplessly disorganised Soviet troops as they did so. By the beginning of December, Germany and its allies had virtually cut off Leningrad in the north; and they were within eighteen miles of Moscow’s Kremlin in the centre. However, they had also reached the limit of their manpower and matériel strength.
Then, on the night of 5–6 December, a Soviet counter-offensive took von Bock by surprise, causing a near collapse of the German front to the west of Moscow. By the time that the front stabilised in January, the Germans had been pushed back 150 kilometres. Although they still held vast swaths of Soviet territory, in six months of fighting they had already lost 918,000 men killed, captured, wounded and missing. The Soviets had lost many more—3.35 million had been captured alone—but they had a far larger population in reserve. By contrast, the German losses represented a whole generation of the nation’s manpower, and the blow had fallen just as heavily on the Waffen-SS as it had on the Wehrmacht.3
Despite these colossal casualties, it did not become apparent that the tide was turning against Germany for more than a year. Although the forces of Army Group Centre had been stymied in their push towards Moscow, in the north the German forces laid siege to Leningrad from September 1941 until January 1943. Meanwhile, Axis forces* pushed ever further to the south-east, towards the River Volga and the Caucasus oilfields, throughout the first half of 1942. They reached Stalingrad in July. The setbacks of the previous winter were glossed over as the German commanders demonstrated their operational flair against their lumbering Soviet opponents.4
This invasion created a number of recruiting opportunities. Right-wing “patriots” in countries occupied by the Germans, and anti-communists in neutral countries, convinced themselves that Hitler’s action was the first step in a crusade against Bolshevism, and offers of help began to trickle into German diplomatic offices from individuals and organisations anxious to play their part. As early as 29 June 1941, Hitler gave his assent to the formation of “legions” of foreign volunteers, which would soon be hurled into the fighting.5
Of course, foreign legions have played significant roles in warfare for centuries: George III deployed Hessian mercenaries during the American War of Independence; Napoleon maintained his Polish Lancers; and even today the Pope has Swiss Guards and the British Army has Nepalese Gurkhas. Most, if not all, of these foreign fighters have been motivated primarily by material advantage, joining prestigious regiments in the hope of achieving a better quality of life. Those who fought for the Axis against Soviet Russia were different: in the main, they were driven by fervent anti-communism.
The day after Hitler gave the go-ahead for the formation of the foreign units, the German Foreign Office called a conference that was attended by representatives of the OKW, the Waffen-SS Command Main Office and the Overseas Organisation of the NSDAP. This meeting decided that “national” contingents would be recruited by the Waffen-SS and the army to fight in German uniform (with distinguishing badges), under the same pay and conditions as the German soldiers and as part of the German armed forces. However, wherever possible, they would be directly commanded by officers of their own nationality. The Waffen-SS was given responsibility for Germanic recruits, while the army would deal with all the others, including Frenchmen, Walloons (French-speaking Belgians) and Spaniards (the famous Spanish Blue Division was already in the process of being formed).6
After the meeting, the Waffen-SS set to work organising four separate national contingents for its volunteers: the Netherlands Legion, the Flanders Legion, the Norway Legion and the Denmark Free Corps. Once again, the organisation was hardly swamped with applications, but the Netherlands Legion eventually fielded a force of just over two thousand men, while the others each mustered over a thousand.7
Ultimately, the national legions proved to be a relatively short-lived experiment. They served on the Eastern Front throughout 1942 and into 1943, but as they started to lose men in the fighting they found it impossible to recruit more to take their place. This was partly because they were in competition for recruits with the SS’s own Wiking Division, which had suffered severe casualties as part of Army Group South. Before long, the decision was taken to pull the surviving Western European volunteers out of the line in the summer of 1943. This would allow them to be re-formed into new national formations that would be integral parts of the Waffen-SS, rather than attached to it. If these formations were short of men, they would be supplemented by German nationals and ethnic Germans (with the latter coming mainly from Romania). The original intention was to create a division called Nordland comprising Danish and Dutch motorised infantry regiments and a Norwegian light reconnaissance regiment. Meanwhile, the Flemish Legion would be expanded into an infantry brigade named Langemarck. These would then be combined with the Wiking Division to form a new Germanic Panzer Corps.8
However, the Dutch National Socialist leader, Mussert, strongly objected to these plans on the grounds that he did not want his countrymen fighting in a mixed-nationality division. Moreover, many of the foreign volunteers themselves were unhappy: a significant number of them had signed on with the legions for only two years, so they were due for release in mid-1943. As it turned out, the OKW was unable to release the Wiking Division from combat to form the new corps. In order to compensate for this, it was decided to expand the Netherlands Legion into a Panzer-Grenadier brigade called Nederland while grouping the Norwegian volunteers in the Norge Regiment of the Nordland Division. Formation of the Germanic Panzer Corps began in April 1943 under the command of Felix Steiner. It was deployed for the first time on anti-partisan operations in Croatia in September that year.
It is worth noting that, despite the nomenclature, there were never many Scandinavian volunteers in the Nordland Division. On average, at any one time, it could boast about 1,200 Danes and about 600 Norwegians. Around 25 per cent of the division were German nationals, and roughly 35 per cent ethnic Germans from Romania.
• • •
GERMANIC WESTERN EUROPEANS and Central European ethnic Germans obviously fitted in well with the creed of the Nordic SS order; but in order to maintain their intended expansion of the Waffen-SS, Himmler and Berger had to cast their net wider. As a result, the organisation’s next foreign formation seemed to fly in the face of all previous SS racial ideology.
In Yugoslavia, bands of communist and nationalist partisans were vying with the German occupiers and each other for control of the country. The German response, in 1942, was to form a Waffen-SS mountain division known as the Prinz Eugen Division, which comprised ethnic Germans from Romania, Croatia and Hungary.9 However, it soon became clear that this unit was not up to the task, so Himmler and Berger looked for more potential recruits to supplement it. They hit upon the idea of enlisting the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is easy to see why they thought this might work. The Bosnian Muslims had been persecuted by both Serbs and Croats for centuries, so Himmler rightly predicted that they would possess a natural hostility to these nationalities, which made up the majority of the partisan forces. He hoped to turn them into an infantry formation that could be used to secure territory while better-equipped German and ethnic German units acted as mobile, highly manoeuvrable strike forces.10
Hitler granted permission to begin recruitment of the Bosnians on 10 February 1943, but finding volunteers was not easy, partly because the Croatian puppet regime* was loath to lose potential manpower from its own forces. Nevertheless, by July 1943, some twenty thousand Bosnians and a few hundred Kossovar Albanians had been enlisted, either voluntarily or through conscription and press-ganging. They were then transferred from Croatia to Le Puy in southern France to begin training.11
The division was organised around an officer cadre of German citizens and ethnic Germans, many of whom had previously been in the Prinz Eugen Division. But these officers found it very difficult to come to terms with the new recruits. They could not understand and did not respect the rules and customs of Islam, even though a group of Bosnian imams had been recruited for the soldiers’ benefit and to liaise with the German command cadre. This, together with infiltration by a number of partisans, led to considerable unrest. In mid-September 1943, a group of “Mujos” (as the Germans called the Muslims) mutinied at Villefranche-sur-Roche, killing several SS officers and NCOs before loyalists in the division managed to quell the uprising. A number of Muslims from each side died, too; and, later, some of the ringleaders were court-martialled and shot. (Several others escaped and took refuge with French resistance units in the area.)12 Shortly thereafter, the division—now named the Handschar Mountain Division—began a short period of training in Silesia. It was finally deployed in northern Bosnia in February 1944 as part of the 5th SS-Mountain Corps.
This ramshackle infantry unit of doubtful competence and reliability could hardly have done much to buttress the elite image of the Waffen-SS, but it did finally remove Berger and Himmler’s recruiting inhibitions. Over the next eighteen months, SS divisions were formed from Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Kossovar Albanians, Byelorussians and Hungarians; French and Walloon formations were transferred from the army to the Waffen-SS; and the Dutch and Flemish SS brigades were expanded into divisions. Similar expansion occurred in more dubious formations, including the Dirlewanger unit: its recruiting charter was extended to include former Soviet POWs, political prisoners from concentration camps as well as convicted military criminals from the Wehrmachtand the Waffen-SS.13
Inevitably, this massive expansion caused the Waffen-SS to lose some of its original character. In 1940, it had legitimately been able to claim that it was an elite: a small, well-equipped, well-trained and well-led showpiece force of the “best” German and Nordic human material. In May of that year, it had a strength of 90,368, excluding the Police Division. By 1 September 1942, this had risen to 236,099. By 1 December 1943, it was 501,049. And by 30 June 1944, it stood at 594,443 (368,654 of them combat troops).14Around half of that final figure were non-German nationals. Whatever ideology they espoused, it was hardly likely to be entirely congruent with German National Socialism. The Waffen-SS’s German national divisions remained among the Third Reich’s best military formations. But the bulk of the organisation’s combat units were manned by soldiers who could often barely speak German and were, at best, dubiously motivated. In no military sense could they ever be described as a corps d’élite.
* An army group usually comprised two or more conventional armies, commanded by a general of at least four-star rank.
* Romania and Italy also contributed troops to this theatre of Operation Barbarossa.
* The fascist Ustaša movement, headed by Ante Pavelic´, ruled Croatia from 1941 until the end of the war.