THE WAFFEN-SS AT WAR

When German troops marched into Poland on 1 September 1939, the armed SS units were split up among regular army formations dispersed along the invasion front. The SS-Heimwehr Danzig immediately secured that city, while other Totenkopf personnel cut through the ‘Polish Corridor’. The Leibstandarte, supported by the SS-VT pioneer battalion, was attached to General von Reichenau’s 10th Army. The SS-VT Standarte ‘Deutschland’, together with the SS artillery regiment and the SS reconnaissance battalion, joined Generalmajor Kempf’s 4th Panzer Brigade, while ‘Germania’ became part of the 14th Army under General List. The ‘Der Führer’ Standarte was not yet fully trained and consequently did not participate in the fighting. Although ‘Germania’ remained in reserve for most of the four-week campaign, ‘Deutschland’ was heavily engaged in the Battle of Brest Litovsk. The Leibstandarte also had a particularly hectic time, taking part in the drive on Warsaw and the encirclement of Bzura with the 4th Panzer Division.

Despite the obvious fighting commitment of the SS, their disproportionately heavy casualties were criticised by the army which claimed that the losses resulted from poor leadership. Hausser countered these accusations by indicating that, in order to operate efficiently, the armed SS would need to be organised into full divisions. The army bitterly opposed such a development, but Hitler was persuaded to allow it in time for the western campaign. At the end of 1939, the term ‘Waffen-SS’ began to be used in official correspondence when referring to the armed SS, and in February 1940 it became a recognised title. About the same time, army designations such as ‘Bataillon’ and ‘Regiment’, which had been used by the Leibstandarte since 1934, generally replaced ‘Sturmbann’, ‘Standarte’ and the other SS formation titles throughout the Waffen-SS. In some units of the SS-VT, army rank terms, for example Oberleutnant instead of SS-Obersturmführer, were even utilised for a short period, but that was quickly forbidden by Himmler. The purpose of all this was to assimilate the new force and make it easier for the army to accept the Waffen-SS as a legitimate fourth branch of the Wehrmacht, and one completely separate from the Allgemeine-SS.

The consolidation of the Waffen-SS during the so-called ‘phoney war’ brought ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s Leibstandarte up to the strength of a superbly equipped armoured regiment, and the three SS-VT regiments were formed into the first full SS division, the SS-Verfügungsdivision or SS-V, under the command of Paul Hausser. The SS-Totenkopfstandarten amalgamated to become the SS-Totenkopf-Division or SS-T, under Eicke, and a third combat division, the Polizei-Division led by SS-Brigadeführer Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, was created almost overnight by a mass transfer of uniformed police personnel strengthened by cadres of SS-V and SS-T troops. The Polizei-Division was, however, intended to be very much a second-line security unit, and it was organised on the basis of horse-drawn infantry equipped with outdated Czech weapons.

The campaign in the west established beyond doubt the fighting reputation of the Waffen-SS. When the Blitzkrieg began in May 1940, the Leibstandarte and ‘Der Führer’ were deployed on the Dutch frontier and had little difficulty in sweeping through Holland, securing many vital river crossings as they went. On 16 May, SS-T went into action in support of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division in southern Belgium and eastern France, duly committing one of the first recorded SS atrocities when 100 unarmed British prisoners of the 2nd Royal Norfolks were machine-gunned at Le Paradis by inexperienced and panicky Totenkopf troops who had been thrown into disarray by the ferocity of a recent British counter-attack. The German advance soon divided the Allied forces into two, with large numbers of British, French and Belgian soldiers separated from the main bulk of the French army to the south of the ‘panzer corridor’. The Leibstandarte, SS-V and SS-T were in the forefront of the sweep, and ‘Deutschland’ distinguished itself particularly well in some fiercely contested canal crossings. The northern Allies quickly became compressed into an ever-decreasing defensive pocket centring around Dunkirk. The Leibstandarte was heavily engaged in desperate fighting at the nearby village of Wormhoudt, where Dietrich was trapped in a burning ditch for several hours as the battle raged around him, before being rescued by an assault squad. A company of his men under Wilhelm Mohnke retaliated by killing eighty British prisoners-of-war in cold blood. After the Dunkirk evacuation, the Waffen-SS was redeployed against the main body of the French army which was holding a line along the River Somme. While the slow-moving Polizei-Division successfully slogged it out through the Argonne Forest, other motorised SS units had little difficulty in smashing through enemy lines on 6 June and within a week the Leibstandarte had linked up with army panzers as far south as Vichy. The SS-Totenkopf-Division advanced on Bordeaux and the SS-Verfügungsdivision raced towards Biarritz. On 17 June, the French sued for peace and five days later the war in the west was over.

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Assault engineers and artillery of the SS-Totenkopf-Division crossing La Bassée canal, 23 May 1940. Camouflage clothing had not been widely distributed to SS-T troops at this early stage in the war, and field-grey army pattern tunics with matching death’s head collar patches were the order of the day.

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An assault squad of the ‘Germania’ regiment in France, May 1940. Collar patches have been removed for security reasons, and the men carry smocks folded underneath their belts. A variety of equipment and weaponry is in evidence, including the short-lived SS pattern webbing supporting straps worn by the man in the centre, who has attached foliage to his steel helmet.

In recognition of their bravery and leadership during the western campaign, seven SS men including Dietrich and Steiner received the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, at that time the supreme German military award. Many others were decorated with lower grades of the Iron Cross, wound badges and associated combat awards. In September, the Leibstandarte was presented with a new standard by Himmler at their barracks in Metz, and Hitler told them: ‘You, who bear my name, will have the honour of leading every German attack in the future’. The Waffen-SS had won its spurs in convincing style.

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A Leibstandarte machine-gun team marching through the French countryside, June 1940. By this time, the camouflage helmet cover had become a distinctive mark of the Waffen-SS.

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An Untersturmführer of an SS-V ancillary unit, denoted by his lack of a regimental cuff title, during a lull in the western Blitzkrieg, May 1940.

Germany’s success in western Europe opened up a new reservoir of pro-Nazi Volksdeutsche and Germanic peoples whom the Wehrmacht had no authority to conscript and whom Gottlob Berger’s SS Hauptamt set about recruiting into the Waffen-SS. With the consequent increase in SS numbers, the Leibstandarte was upgraded to a brigade and a completely new division was authorised, the bulk of its personnel being Nordic volunteers from Flanders, Holland, Norway and Denmark. The leadership of the new division was drawn from existing formations, and it totally incorporated the ‘Germania’ regiment of SS-V. Initially adopting the name SS-Division ‘Germania’, the new unit was retitled ‘Wiking’ (‘Viking’) at the end of 1940 and placed under the command of Felix Steiner. It was to become one of the finest divisions in the SS Order of Battle.

To make up for the loss of the ‘Germania’ regiment, the SS-Verfügungsdivision was assigned a Totenkopfstandarte and in January 1941 it was renamed SS-Division ‘Reich’. The other Totenkopfstandarten were reorganised to play a more active role as independent formations. Two Death’s Head regiments, plus artillery and support units, were formed into SS-Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’, and another Standarte was sent to Norway for occupation duty as SS-Infantry Regiment 9. The five remaining Totenkopfstandarten went to the Waffen-SS training ground at Debica in Poland, where they were reequipped and designated as SS-Infantry Regiments. Finally, the existing Death’s Head cavalry units amalgamated to become SS-Kavallerie Regiments 1 and 2.

During the spring of 1941, Germany prepared for the impending invasion of the Soviet Union. When Mussolini’s surprise attack on Greece went disastrously wrong, and a new anti-German régime seized power in Yugoslavia, Hitler ordered immediate action to secure his southern flank. On 6 April, a Blitzkrieg was unleashed on Yugoslavia and Greece. SS-Division ‘Reich’ was in the forefront of the attack and a small assault detachment under SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Klingenberg audaciously captured the Yugoslavian capital, Belgrade, on 13 April. By using a motor boat, Klingenberg and his men were able to slip through the city defences and force its surrender from a confused and bewildered mayor. In Greece, the Leibstandarte was engaged in a series of more hard-fought battles against not only the Greeks but also British and New Zealand troops. After suffering heavy losses at the Klidi Pass, the LAH reconnaissance battalion commanded by SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer took the strategically crucial Klissura Pass and almost 11,000 prisoners into the bargain. On 20 April, General Tsolakoglu of the Greek III Army Corps surrendered to ‘Sepp’ Dietrich and a week later Athens fell to the German forces. By the end of the month, the Balkan campaign was effectively over. It had been another victory for the Waffen-SS. Klingenberg, Meyer and Gerd Pleiss, commander of the Leibstandarte’s 1st Company which had been most active at Klidi, became the latest recipients of the Knight’s Cross. A propaganda film, Der Weg der LAH, extolled their exploits.

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SS-Totenkopf troops celebrate after the fall of France. The man on the right wears the white ‘Hilfs-Krankenträger’ armband of an auxiliary stretcher-bearer, and a typical mixture of clothing and insignia is evident from the appearance of the others. One soldier even wears contradictory rank insignia, i.e. the blank left-hand collar patch of an SS-Schütze in conjunction with the arm chevron of an SS-Sturmmann. Anomalies such as this were usually the result of field promotions.

At dawn on 22 June 1941, Hitler ordered his forces into Russia to begin the epic conflict of ideologies which became a war of extermination and was to change forever the hitherto generally chivalrous character of the Waffen-SS. The rigours of the eastern front, encompassing everything from bitterly cold winters to sweltering summers, and from endless steppes and swamps to mountains and forests, brought out the very best, and the very worst, in Himmler’s men. The German deployment for Operation Barbarossa extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea and was organised into three Army Groups designated North, Centre and South. The SS-Totenkopf-Division, the Polizei-Division and Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ were assigned to Army Group North, SS-Division ‘Reich’ to Army Group Centre and the Leibstandarte and SS-Division ‘Wiking’ to Army Group South. The latter two formations particularly impressed their army counterparts by their aggression and skill in attack. ‘Reich’ was heavily engaged at Minsk, Smolensk and Borodino, where Hausser was severely wounded and lost his right eye, and the division came within a few kilometres of Moscow at the end of the year. The only real SS failure occurred on the Finnish front when the second-rate troops of Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ were thrown into a mass panic and ignominiously routed on 2 July. The unit had to be withdrawn and completely overhauled, and it was thereafter reinforced with seasoned veterans from the Totenkopf-Division to become SS-Division ‘Nord’.

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The Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ took part in the Berlin victory parade on 19 July 1940. Some participating soldiers were already wearing collar patches without the black/aluminium twisted cord piping, which was officially abolished the following month.

At the end of 1941, the great German offensive came to a halt, totally exhausted. Blitzkrieg techniques had met their match in the vast expanse of the Soviet Union and the stamina and apparently endless manpower reserves of the Red Army. The force of the Russian counter-offensive during the winter of 1941–2 shocked the German Army High Command, which argued for full-scale withdrawals. Hitler overruled the generals, however, taking personal command of the army, and the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS had their first opportunity to exhibit their steadfastness in defence. German troops began to find themselves cut off in isolated pockets, the most notable being that at Demjansk which contained six divisions, including ‘Totenkopf’. The winter campaign was so harsh, with temperatures regularly falling below -40°C, that a special medal was later authorised for participants. The honour of designing it fell to SS-Unterscharführer Ernst Krause, an artist serving as a war correspondent with the Leibstandarte.

In the spring of 1942, the Germans opened a new offensive in the south, to reach the oil-rich Caucasus region. During the course of the year the Waffen-SS divisions, still suffering from the battles of the previous winter, were withdrawn in turn and refitted with a strong tank component plus assault guns and armoured personnel carriers. In May, the upgraded SS-Division ‘Reich’ was renamed ‘Das Reich’, and in September the SS-Kavallerie-Division was activated for anti-partisan duties behind the lines. November saw ‘Das Reich’, ‘Totenkopf’ and ‘Wiking’ officially redesignated as SS-Panzergrenadier Divisions, now equal in terms of equipment to many full panzer divisions of the army. The Leibstandarte achieved similar status, with the new division being entitled ‘Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler’ in commemoration of Hitler’s bodyguard, which was its nucleus. The Führer was increasingly impressed with the combat performance of the SS, and in December ordered the formation of two completely new Waffen-SS divisions, named ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Frundsberg’. By the end of the year, Waffen-SS troops in the field numbered around 200,000.

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Himmler and SS-Brigadeführer Knoblauch reviewing Totenkopf cavalrymen in Russia, July 1941. At this stage of their development, the Waffen-SS Reiterstandarten were mounted on bicycles as often as they were on horses! The officer behind Himmler, wearing a steel helmet, is Hermann Fegelein, later commander of the cavalry division ‘Florian Geyer’.

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Himmler greeting Waffen-SS cavalry officers on the eastern front, 24 July 1941.

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The face of the SS at war: troops of the 6th SS-Totenkopf Infantry Regiment operating a captured Czechoslovakian ZB53 machine-gun in Russia during the autumn of 1941, when German spirits were still high.

The Soviet offensive of December 1942 proved disastrous for the Germans. All attempts to capture Stalingrad failed and by early 1943 General Paulus’ 6th Army was totally isolated and forced to surrender. Other German forces in the Caucasus also faced the grim possibility of being cut off by the speed and depth of the Soviet penetration. Field Marshal von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, managed to withdraw his forces from the Russian trap, however, and sensing that the Soviet thrust had become dangerously over-extended he launched a rapid counter-attack in the Kharkov region. Kharkov was a prestige target, a prewar showcase for communism, and to spearhead the assault to retake the city an SS-Panzer-Korps comprising the Leibstandarte, ‘Das Reich’ and ‘Totenkopf’ was formed under the overall command of Paul Hausser, who had now gained something of a celebrity status on the eastern front as ‘the SS general with the eye-patch’. For the first time, a substantial body of Waffen-SS troops fought together under their own generals and the result was a resounding victory. The Soviets were thrown into disarray, their 1st Guards Army was destroyed, Kharkov was recaptured and the Germans were able to restore order in the south. The SS suffered 12,000 casualties in the process. To Hitler, who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with army failures, it was proof of the capabilities of the Waffen-SS. Decorations were showered upon the victors of Kharkov, and no less than twenty-six Knight’s Crosses, four Knight’s Crosses with Oakleaves, and one Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords went to the men of the SS-Panzer-Korps. The city’s Red Square was renamed ‘Platz der Leibstandarte’ in honour of Hitler’s guards. Moreover, the Führer arranged for his old favourite, Theodor Eicke, who had been killed during the early stages of the offensive, to be buried in the style of the ancient Germanic kings, with all the attendant pagan ritual.

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Heavily armed Totenkopf troops take a meal break during the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The period after the German recapture of Kharkov was relatively quiet, as both sides prepared to resume hostilities in the summer. The Soviet salient around Kursk became the focus of events, and when battle commenced on 5 July Hausser’s SS-Panzer-Korps, with 340 tanks including ‘Tigers’ and 195 assault guns, was deployed on the southern flank. The Germans made reasonable progress in the first few days, but the nature of the war had changed and greatly improved Red Army forces held the enemy at bay before successfully counter-attacking. The SS-Panzer-Korps, ultimately reduced to 200 tanks, again fought well, despite being weakened by the removal of the Leibstandarte which was transferred to bolster the German army in Italy following the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July. Kursk was a strategic failure for the Germans. They lost their chance to gain the initiative and from then on were forced to react to Soviet moves. For the rest of 1943, the Germans fell back westwards across the Soviet Union. The three élite SS divisions, now redesignated as full panzer divisions, spent these hard months acting as Hitler’s ‘fire brigade’, being sent from one flashpoint to another as the situation demanded. The decisiveness with which both ‘Das Reich’ and ‘Totenkopf’ threw back Russian assaults earned them repeated praise from those army generals who were fortunate enough to have them under their command. In November, the Leibstandarte returned to the eastern front re-equipped with large numbers of the latest ‘Panther’ tanks, and together with army panzer divisions it crushed a Soviet armoured corps in the Ukraine and retook Zhitomir.

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A Leibstandarte motorcycle combination moves through a burning Russian town, July 1941. The divisional emblem of a skeleton key or ‘Dietrich’, clearly a pun on the name of the LAH commander, was introduced at the suggestion of Wilhelm Keilhaus and can be seen on the rear of the sidecar.

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SS soldiers lie where they fell, killed in the Soviet counter-offensive which took place during the horrendous winter of 1941–2. It is likely that the Russians staged this shot to show as many SS insignia as possible, thereby indicating that the Waffen-SS was not the invincible force which Nazi propaganda had portrayed.

While the Waffen-SS was locked in battle on the eastern front, Hitler continued to authorise the formation of new SS divisions, including ‘Hitlerjugend’. The German position in Russia underwent a drastic deterioration on 14 December 1943, when the Soviets launched another massive offensive in the Ukraine. The battle lasted for four months and culminated in the expulsion of the German forces from the south. The speed of the Russian advance led to the encirclement of large numbers of Wehrmacht troops. ‘Wiking’, now under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Herbert Gille, and Léon Degrelle’s Belgian SS Brigade ‘Wallonien’ were caught in the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket in a scene reminiscent of Stalingrad, but managed to smash their way out suffering 60 per cent casualties in the process. Degrelle received the Knight’s Cross, and Gille the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, for this action. In a similar engagement, the Leibstandarte and elements of ‘Das Reich’ were trapped around Kamenets Podolsky and had to be rescued by ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Frundsberg’. Worn down and exhausted, the Waffen-SS formations were now increasingly unable to stem the advancing Russian tide.

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Alfred Wünnenberg wearing the police litzen collar patches used by the Polizei-Division between 1939 and 1942. This photograph is also interesting for its portrayal of the common wartime press ploy of ‘touching up’ old pictures to update them for propaganda reasons. Wünnenberg won the Knight’s Cross on 15 November 1941 as a police Oberst at Leningrad, and that is when this photograph was originally taken. On 23 April 1942 he was awarded the Oakleaves as an SS-Brigadeführer, and for the purpose of an immediate press announcement the old photo was dragged out of the files and had the Oakleaves painted on. This type of alteration can often be seen on surviving press pictures, and extends to rank badges as well as decorations.

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A motorised column of the Leibstandarte entering Kharkov, 14 March 1943.

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On the same day as the SS-Panzer-Korps retook Kharkov, ‘Sepp’ Dietrich became the first SS recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords. The decoration was accompanied by this elaborate citation, signed by Hitler.

In the spring of 1944, the battered Leibstandarte and ‘Das Reich’ battle groups were sent westwards to refit and prepare for the expected Anglo-American invasion. The former went to Belgium while the latter went to southern France. They were joined by ‘Hitlerjugend’ and the ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ division, which had been formed in France a few months earlier. ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Frundsberg’ were relocated in Poland in anticipation of another Soviet attack, along with the emaciated ‘Wiking’, while the long-suffering ‘Totenkopf’ remained in front-line service in the east.

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A motorcyclist of the 5th Reconnaissance Company, ‘Das Reich’, on the Mius front in August 1943. The twin bar emblem on the front of the sidecar was used as a divisional emblem by ‘Das Reich’ during the Battle of Kursk, while the Leibstandarte used a single bar and ‘Totenkopf’ a triple bar. Hausser had devised these temporary formation signs with the intention of confusing Russian intelligence in the lead-up to Kursk.

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Totenkopf personnel watching Russian positions on the southern sector of the eastern front, October 1943. The man with the binoculars wears the recently introduced Einheitsfeldmütze, while the panzer officer still sports his black version of the M40 Schiffchen with aluminium piping. Note also the unofficial sheepskin overjacket and fur cap used by the soldier on the right.

When the Normandy landings took place on 6 June, ‘Hitlerjugend’ was the first SS formation to engage the enemy. The ferocity of the SS assault, combining the youthful enthusiasm of the troops with the battle-hardened experience of their officers, shocked the Allies. However, the latter’s command of the air prevented proper deployment of the SS division and the attack ground to a halt. Two months of bloody fighting ensued. The Leibstandarte and ‘Hitlerjugend’ were grouped together to form a new corps, the 1st SS-Panzer-Korps under ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, and were immediately assigned the task of defending key positions around Caen. ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ was hindered by constant air attacks on its journey north from its base in the Loire Valley, and did not reach the invasion front until 11 June. ‘Das Reich’, travelling from Gascony, took even longer, being subjected to a series of ambushes carried out by the French Resistance. Frustrated at the consequent delays and loss of life, the division wreaked havoc upon the local population, whom it suspected of sheltering the partisans. The village of Oradour-sur-Glane was systematically destroyed and 640 of its inhabitants were shot, and the little town of Tulle was also devastated. ‘Das Reich’ eventually reached its positions north of St Lô at the end of June, to join up with Willi Bittrich’s 2nd SS-Panzer-Korps, comprising ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Frundsberg’, which had been hurriedly transferred from the east.

Throughout July, the six SS divisions struggled ceaselessly to contain the Allies in their beachhead, taking a heavy toll of British and American armour. In one notable engagement, SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann and his Leibstandarte ‘Tiger’ crew destroyed twenty-one British tanks and twenty-eight other armoured vehicles in a single hour. However, the Germans were overpowered by the sheer weight of Allied numbers and were frequently reduced to operating as ad hoc battle groups. By the middle of August, nineteen German army divisions had become trapped around Falaise, and only determined efforts by ‘Das Reich’, ‘Hitlerjugend’ and ‘Hohenstaufen’ kept open a gap long enough for them to escape. Increasingly, while ordinary German soldiers were prepared to surrender to the Allies, it was left to the Waffen-SS to fight on.

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The PzKpfw III command tank of 1st battalion, 3rd SS-Panzer Regiment, ‘Totenkopf’ Division, in southern Russia during November 1943. The officer on the left is Hauptsturmführer Erwin Meierdrees, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves, who was killed in action near Dunaalmas, Hungary, on 4 January 1945.

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A soldier of the Belgian SS Assault Brigade ‘Wallonien’ under shellfire at Cherkassy, December 1943. Of the 2,000 Walloons trapped in the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket, only 600 survived unscathed.

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In a scene reminiscent of the First World War, an SS-Schütze shelters in his trench dugout on the eastern front, spring 1944.

Meanwhile, in the east, the Red Army had struck again on 13 July and ripped Army Group Centre apart. Once more, the SS panzer divisions were thrown into the breach. ‘Wiking’ and ‘Totenkopf’, grouped together as the 4th SS-Panzer-Korps under Herbert Gille, repulsed the Soviet attack on Warsaw during August, while in the Balkans the backbone of the German defence was provided by ‘Prinz Eugen’, ‘Handschar’ and other nominally second-grade formations of SS-Obergruppenführer Artur Phleps’ 5th SS-Gebirgs-Korps, which had been diverted from their usual anti-partisan duties.

In September, the British airborne assault at Arnhem was countered and defeated by ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Frundsberg’ in a battle noted for the mutual respect held by each side for the fighting abilities and fair play of the other. This victory, and the general slowing down of the Allied advance across France due to over-extended supply and communications lines, persuaded Hitler to launch a major offensive in the west, in an attempt to repeat the successes of 1940. Two panzer armies were assembled to spearhead the attack, the 5th Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel, and the 6th SS-Panzer Army, the larger of the two forces, under ‘Sepp’ Dietrich. The nucleus of the latter army comprised the Leibstandarte, ‘Das Reich’, ‘Hohenstaufen’ and ‘Hitlerjugend’, now equipped with some of the latest ‘King Tiger’ tanks. On 16 December the offensive began in the Ardennes, but the hilly and wooded terrain naturally favoured defensive action and after only five days the German advance ground to a halt. SS frustration again translated itself into the committing of atrocities, this time the massacre of seventy American prisoners by men of Joachim Peiper’s battle group at Malmédy. A subsidiary offensive in Alsace, led by ‘Götz von Berlichingen’, also came to nothing and the division ended up trapped in Metz. With a virtual stalemate in the west, Hitler pulled his SS divisions out and sent them eastwards, where the situation had once more become desperate.

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SS panzergrenadiers entrenched in a village on the eastern front, October 1944.

On 12 January 1945, a great Soviet offensive was launched across Poland in preparation for the final assault on Berlin. Even so, Hitler’s main concern was to safeguard the tenuous hold he still maintained over the Hungarian oilfields. The SS cavalry divisions ‘Florian Geyer’ and ‘Maria Theresa’ were besieged in Budapest, and in an effort to relieve them ‘Totenkopf’ and ‘Wiking’ were transferred from their key positions on the German–Polish border. A month-long battle failed to save the city, however, and it fell to the Russians on 13 February, with only 785 German soldiers escaping from the original garrison of 50,000 men. The 6th SS-Panzer Army was immediately moved in from the west and on 6 March a German counter-attack began. It was conducted by the largest aggregation of Waffen-SS forces ever witnessed during the war, comprising the Leibstandarte, ‘Das Reich’, ‘Totenkopf’, ‘Wiking’, ‘Hohenstaufen’, ‘Hitlerjugend’ and ‘Reichsführer-SS’, the latter division having been transferred from northern Italy. At first the SS did well, but there were insufficient back-up resources and by mid-March their advance had been halted.

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‘Sepp’ Dietrich at the time of the Ardennes offensive, wearing his collar patches as SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer und Panzer Generaloberst der Waffen-SS, the senior active tank man at the front. Although promoted to this rank on 20 April 1942, Wehrmacht pressure prevented him from using it or adopting the appropriate insignia until he had secured command of a suitably large force, which he did in the autumn of 1944 with the formation of the 6th SS-Panzer Army.

The failure of the Waffen-SS in Hungary, following on from the collapse of the Ardennes offensive, had a devastating psychological effect on Hitler, who had come to expect the impossible from them, and he openly accused Dietrich and his subordinates of betrayal. Despite that, SS troops carried on fighting as loyally as ever as they slowly retreated into Germany, bowed under the weight of superior Allied numbers and equipment. By now, thousands of grounded Luftwaffe personnel and ‘beached’ sailors from the Kriegsmarine had been pressed into an infantry role alongside the Waffen-SS. During the last week in April, when Soviet forces broke into Berlin, Felix Steiner led a battle group of hard-core Waffen-SS including elements of the ‘Polizei’, ‘Frundsberg’, ‘Nordland’, ‘Wallonien’, ‘Charlemagne’ and ‘Nederland’ divisions, as well as some 600 men from Himmler’s personal escort battalion, in a life and death struggle to defend the Führerbunker. However, most other SS units had by then accepted the reality of the situation and were pushing westwards to surrender to the Anglo-American Allies, rather than risk capture by the Russians.

It is estimated that some 180,000 Waffen-SS soldiers were killed in action during the Second World War, with about 400,000 wounded and a further 70,000 listed ‘missing’. The entire establishment of the élite divisions, Leibstandarte, ‘Das Reich’ and ‘Totenkopf’, were casualties several times over, with only a few battle-hardened veterans surviving to train the continual injections of young Germans and Volksdeutsche fed in as replacements via the divisional training battalions. A close comparison between the number of men recorded killed, wounded or missing in the ‘Totenkopf’ division (60,000) and ‘Wiking’ division (19,000) gives a startlingly different loss ratio. Since both divisions served for the most part alongside each other, the only reason for such horrendous losses must have been the mishandling, or at least rough handling, of ‘Totenkopf’ troops by their commanders. Certainly, Eicke and his successors were not renowned as humanitarians and it is known that ‘Totenkopf’ had more requests for ‘transfers out’ than any other Waffen-SS division. A large proportion of the men who volunteered for service in the SS paratroop forces were ‘Totenkopf’ transferees, and it was widely recognised that the paratroop battalion was virtually a suicide squad. The fact that many hardened soldiers chose to escape from ‘Totenkopf’ by signing up with the paras gives an indication of the severity and long-term nature of the suffering which ‘Totenkopf’ troops had to endure. Among other Waffen-SS men, Death’s Head units became known colloquially as ‘Knochenstürme’ (Bones Companies), or ‘that lost lot’.

By 1944–5, SS soldiers were normally in their late teens, and the average age of a Waffen-SS junior officer was twenty, with a life expectancy of two months at the front. Moreover, it was not uncommon for divisional commanders to be in their early thirties, men like Kraas, Kumm, Meyer, Mohnke, Wisch and Witt who had joined the LAH or SS-VT around 1934 and progressed through the ranks. The combination of youthful enthusiasm, political indoctrination and hard-bitten experience was a winning one, and goes a long way to explaining how a division such as ‘Hitlerjugend’ could suffer 60 per cent casualties over a four-week period in 1944 and yet still retain its aggressive spirit, thereby gaining for the entire Waffen-SS the admiration of friend and foe alike.

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The Flemish SS-Sturmmann Richard ‘Remi’ Schrijnen of 3rd Company, SS-Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade ‘Langemarck’, being paraded before his fellow soldiers near Prague after receiving the Knight’s Cross on 21 September 1944. He is accompanied by Konrad Schellong, the brigade commander, and adjutant Willy Teichert.

Ultimately, more than half the membership of the Waffen-SS comprised non-Germans. In line with Himmler’s intention that the SS should develop as a Germanic, rather than a German, organisation, small numbers of suitable foreign nationals had been admitted to the armed SS even before the war, including at least one soldier of dual German/British nationality who served with the SS-VT Standarte ‘Deutschland’. Docu-mentary proof of Aryan descent was initially a prerequisite for acceptance, but with the rapid expansion of the Waffen-SS after 1940 the racial rule became something of a dead letter. During the war, the hard-pressed RuSHA authorities were content to accept a signed declaration of Aryan descent from enlisted German and west European Waffen-SS men, which could be investigated later when necessity demanded or when the opportunity presented itself.

With the German conquest of western Europe, the door to a huge pool of manpower which the Wehrmacht had no authority to conscript was opened to Berger’s recruiting officers. Large numbers of pro-Germans, anti-Bolsheviks, members of local pseudo-Nazi political parties, adventurers and simple opportunists were only too eager to throw in their lot with the winning side. The first complete unit of foreign volunteers to be raised by the SS was the Standarte ‘Nordland’, from Norwegians and Danes. It was soon joined by the Standarte ‘Westland’, comprising Dutchmen and Flemings, and in December 1940 these two formations combined with the SS-VT Standarte ‘Germania’ to become SS-Division ‘Wiking’, a truly European force. The main impetus to the recruiting of further so-called ‘foreign legions’ was the impending invasion of the Soviet Union, and in order to attract sufficient numbers of these troops the Germans reluctantly accepted that they would have to co-operate with the pro-Nazi political parties in each country, and that the new units would have to retain some of their own national characteristics. The idea of national legions was quickly extended from the Germanic countries to those ideologically sympathetic to Germany, such as Croatia. However, during the early stages of the war at least, Himmler was not prepared to accept racially dubious volunteers into the SS and so the eastern legions, such as the French, Walloon Belgians and Spaniards, were assigned to the army.

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Léon Degrelle and men of his Walloon Division in Pomerania, 9 March 1945. Degrelle wears the Close Combat Clasp in Gold and his unique ‘Wallonien’ cuff title hand-embroidered in Gothic script. The SS-Unterscharführer in the foreground is a Frenchman, Jean Lejeune. When Belgium was liberated at the end of 1944, Degrelle was sentenced to death in absentia as a collaborator. In May 1945 he flew from Oslo to Spain in Albert Speer’s private aircraft. He was protected by General Franco, became a wealthy industrialist and was granted Spanish citizenship in 1954, taking the new name of Léon José de Ramirez Reina. In the 1960s he attended his daughter’s wedding wearing the full uniform of an SS-Standartenführer! Degrelle, who dubbed himself the world’s last Fascist leader, died on 1 April 1994, aged 87.

During 1940–1, the SS-sponsored legions ‘Flandern’, ‘Niederlande’, ‘Norwegen’ and ‘Freikorps Danmark’ were raised. Their troops were distinguished from those in the German SS proper by special national badges and by their oath, which committed them solely to the war against communism. The legions were categorised as being ‘attached to’ rather than ‘part of’ the Waffen-SS, and were designated by the new title of ‘Freiwilligen’ or ‘Volunteer’ units. The recruitment programme soon ran into difficulties, however, when the legionaries found that many of their German colleagues held them in low regard. Despite promises of free land in the conquered east for all victorious SS soldiers, and the bestowal of full German citizenship upon every foreign volunteer after the war, morale plummetted, particularly when ‘Flandern’ was decimated in Russia early in 1942 and had to be disbanded. The other three legions were reinforced and, at the end of 1942, amalgamated to form the ‘Nordland’ division. A year later the Dutch contingent was sufficiently strong to be removed and given the status of an independent brigade, which eventually developed into the ‘Nederland’ division. Both ‘Nordland’ and ‘Nederland’ fought well on the eastern front, particularly in defence of the Baltic states, and, together with the rest of Felix Steiner’s 3rd (Germanic) SS-Panzer-Korps, they took part in the celebrated ‘Battle of the European SS’ at Narva in July 1944 before being destroyed in the final struggle for Berlin the following year. Other western SS formations of note included the ‘Wallonien’ Division, which was transferred from the army as a brigade in 1943 and fought with distinction under the Belgian fascist leader Léon Degrelle; and the French ‘Charlemagne’ Division, again transferred from the army, which was one of the most redoubtable defenders of Berlin. A fifty-eight-strong ‘British Free Corps’ was drawn from former British Union of Fascists members and other disaffected individuals in British prisoner-of-war camps, but was of propaganda value only.

Despite the good fighting reputation quickly gained by the western volunteers, they were simply too few in number to meet SS requirements for replacing battle casualties and so Berger turned to the Volksdeutsche scattered throughout central and eastern Europe. In just three countries, namely Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, it was estimated that there were some 1,500,000 Volksdeutsche in 1939, and this was clearly a rich source of potential manpower. Recruitment of Romanian Volksdeutsche began as early as the spring of 1940, but a sudden influx of volunteers from Yugoslavia after the invasion of April 1941 led Berger to suggest to Himmler the formation of an entire division of Yugoslavian Volksdeutsche. The result was the raising in the summer of 1942 of the SS-Gebirgs Division ‘Prinz Eugen’, designed for anti-partisan duties against Tito’s mountain-based resistance movement. Later that year, faced with an ever-worsening manpower crisis, Hitler gave the SS formal authorisation to conscript the Volksdeutsche, who fell outwith the remit of the Wehrmacht as they were not German nationals. In that way, an impressive numerical level of recruitment was maintained, but many of the conscripts were poor in quality and consequently Volksdeutsche units tended to be second rate. They soon earned for themselves the reputation for being specialists in perpetrating massacres against civilian populations and other soft targets. The associated policy of recruiting Croatian and Albanian Muslims into the ‘Handschar’, ‘Kama’ and ‘Skanderbeg’ Divisions, to take on the Christian Serbs from whom many of Tito’s partisans were drawn, was a total disaster and all three divisions had to be disbanded in order to free their German officers and NCOs to fight elsewhere.

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SS-Obergruppenführer Artur Phleps, founder of the ‘Prinz Eugen’ division and commander of the 5th SS-Gebirgs-Korps in 1944. Phleps was an ethnic German from Romania who had served on the General Staff of the Imperial Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War and later as an instructor at the Bucharest Military Academy. Unlike most of his Volksdeutsche subordinates, Phleps was granted full SS membership as indicated by the runes worn below the left breast pocket. He was captured and subsequently killed by Russian soldiers on 21 September 1944, near Arad.

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Himmler inspecting Bosnian Muslims of the ‘Handschar’ artillery regiment being trained in the use of a Pak 38 anti-tank gun at Neuhammer in Silesia, October 1943.

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In May 1944, Haj Amin al-Husaini, the self-styled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and spiritual leader of Bosnia’s Muslims, reviewed troops of the ‘Handschar’ division, who were kitted out with their distinctive field-grey fez.

In the Soviet Union, the Germans made better use of local nationalist groups opposed to Stalin’s government, successfully persuading large numbers of the native population to enrol in the Schutzmannschaft for counter-guerrilla operations. The breakthrough for the Waffen-SS recruiters came in April 1943, when no less than 100,000 Ukrainians volunteered for a new SS division, of whom 30,000 were duly accepted. Over 80 per cent of them were killed the following year when the Ukrainian division was trapped in the Brody-Tarnow pocket. In the summer of 1944, after the failed July bomb plot against Hitler, Himmler was given unprecedented military powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, which effectively gave him control over all reserve and replacement forces in the Reich. He took the opportunity to enhance his personal status still further by transferring many Armenian, Baltic, Caucasian, Cossack, Georgian and Turkestani volunteers from the hastily mustered foreign legions of the German army into the Waffen-SS. However, while the wide range of nationalities involved undoubtedly had some propaganda value, the actual performance of the eastern troops in combat left much to be desired. The Baltic SS divisions, grouped together under SS-Obergruppenführer Walter Krüger as the 6th Waffen-Armeekorps der SS, lived up to modest expectations and were particularly ferocious when defending their homelands, but the remainder were poor at best and at worst a complete rabble. Himmler regarded them merely as racially inferior auxiliaries, in effect expendable cannon-fodder. They were never considered for SS membership proper, and were prohibited from sporting the SS runes. Although they wore a sort of diluted SS uniform for convenience, they had their own series of distinctive badges so that there would be absolutely no possibility of their being mistaken for ‘real’ SS men. Not surprisingly, the loyalty of the easterners was always in question, and their horrific behaviour when set loose among the civilian population of Poland during the Warsaw uprising of autumn 1944 led to frequent demands for their withdrawal, even from other SS commanders. Several units had to be disbanded, and some of their leaders were tried by SS courts martial and executed for looting and other excesses.

Non-German nationals ultimately made up the greater part (57 per cent) of the Waffen-SS. It is estimated that 400,000 Reich Germans served in the Waffen-SS during the war, as opposed to 137,000 pure west Europeans, 200,000 pure east Europeans and 185,000 Volksdeutsche. A detailed breakdown of non-Germans by nationality is shown below:

West Europeans

 

Dutch

50,000

Flemings

23,000

Italians

20,000

Walloons

15,000

Danes

11,000

French

8,000

Norwegians

6,000

Spaniards/Swiss/Swedes/Luxembourgers/British

4,000

East Europeans

 

Cossacks

50,000

Latvians

35,000

Ukrainians

30,000

Estonians

20,000

Croatians

20,000

Serbians

15,000

Byelorussians

12,000

Turkestanis

  8,000

Romanians

  5,000

Albanians

  3,000

Bulgarians

  1,000

Finns

  1,000

Volksdeutsche

(by country of origin)

 

Hungary

80,000

Czechoslovakia

45,000

Croatia

25,000

Western Europe

16,000

Romania

  8,000

Poland

  5,000

Serbia

  5,000

Scandinavia

     775

Soviet Union

     100

France

       84

Great Britain

       10

USA

         5

Brazil

         4

China

         3

South-West Africa

         3

South-East Africa

         2

South America

         2

Spain

         2

Palestine

         2

Japan

         2

Sumatra

         2

Mexico

         1

Australia

         1

India

         1

New Guinea

         1

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Pro-Nazi Cossack volunteers riding under the flag of the death’s head, 1944.

While the majority of Waffen-SS men were non-Germans, the wartime Waffen-SS officer corps consisted almost entirely of German nationals, who held all of the most senior posts. The vast majority of non-German officers in the foreign divisions of the SS had their ranks prefixed by ‘Legions-’ or ‘Waffen-’ rather than ‘SS-’ (e.g. ‘Waffen-Stand-artenführer der SS’) and they, like their men, were not classed as SS members. Because of this, even ‘heroic’ figures such as Léon Degrelle, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and first recipient of the Close Combat Clasp in Gold, did not merit inclusion in the Dienstaltersliste.

The summer of 1941 saw the Waffen-SS officer corps in its best condition, and witnessed an influx of recruits from the police, transferred Wehrmacht officers, party and state officials, doctors, lawyers and youth leaders eager to serve with the new élite before the anticipated victorious cessation of hostilities. However, the subsequent blood-letting in Russia destroyed the cream of the early graduates of Bad Tölz and Braunschweig, and their replacements bore scarcely a token resemblance to them. By 1 July 1943, the officer corps numbered 10,702. Even so, only 4,145 were designated as career or professional officers, with about 1,000 of them holding ranks of SS-Sturmbannführer and above. Himmler observed at that time that the ‘Führerdecke’, or ‘officer cover’, for many front-line SS units was lamentably thin, and that the state of the officer corps had deteriorated drastically since the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Three times as many SS officer dossiers survived the war as there were numbers of SS officers in 1941. The great bulk of the remainder related to battlefield commissions granted to Waffen-SS NCOs who had proved themselves at the front between 1942 and 1945. Many thousands of officers were thus added to the corps in a fairly short period, men whose ties with the NSDAP and prewar SS were tenuous or even non-existent. The ‘military élite’ commanding the European SS of 1944 was, therefore, far removed from the politically motivated SS-VT officer corps of the late 1930s. During the last year of the war, Waffen-SS senior officers’ conferences saw elderly former Wehrmacht and police officers standing shoulder to shoulder with the younger generation, many of whom had been NCOs or subalterns in 1939 and were now hard-bitten and highly decorated colonels and brigadiers. The members of this new officer corps were dubbed by the SS Old Guard as ‘Nur-Soldaten’, or ‘only soldiers’, men whose responsibilities were limited to fighting and whose remit did not include the eventual policing of a conquered Europe. The result was a fragmentation of the officer corps between the ‘politicals’ and the ‘fighters’, a split which grew ever wider as the war drew to a close. The Waffen-SS uniform never supplanted the Allgemeine-SS membership card in Himmler’s mind, and by 1944–5 the typical Waffen-SS officer at the front identified far more with his bloodied Wehrmacht colleagues, and even with his long-suffering enemies, than with his bureaucratic SS seniors in Berlin and Munich.

Although given suitably heroic names from an early date, Waffen-SS divisions were not numbered until 15 November 1943. Unit titles and designations were frequently altered, either to acknowledge a change in status or, particularly late in the war, to camouflage a formation’s true identity and confuse enemy intelligence. The ‘Das Reich’ Division was a typical example, and had its nomenclature altered no less than eleven times:

September 1939

Panzerverband Ostpreussen

September 1939

Panzer Division ‘Kempf’

10.10.39

SS-Verfügungstruppe-Division (Motorised)

4.4.40

SS-Verfügungsdivision

1.12.40

SS-Division ‘Deutschland’

28.1.41

SS-Division (Motorised) ‘Reich’

May 1942

SS-Division (Motorised) ‘Das Reich’

May 1942

Kampfgruppe ‘Ostendorff’

14.11.42

SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Das Reich’

15.11.43

2nd SS-Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’

24.2.45

Ausbildungsgruppe ‘Nord’

Divisions staffed by Germans were known as ‘SS-Division’, while those comprising mainly Volksdeutsche or Germanic personnel, whether volunteers or conscripts, were called ‘SS-Freiwilligen Division’. Units composed primarily of east Europeans or Russians came into the category of ‘Waffen Division der SS’, a term of inferiority which denoted attachment to, rather than actual membership of, the Waffen-SS.

All the Waffen-SS divisions which had been mustered, at least on paper, by 1945 are listed in the table below. Many divisions numbered above 20 were merely upgraded regiments, flung together in a hurry using any ‘spare’ personnel available and given grandiose titles. The number of Knight’s Crosses awarded is a good indication of the effectiveness and battle experience of each division.

WAFFEN-SS DIVISIONS, 1939–45

Title

(and Divisional Strength

at Beginning of 1945)

Granted

Divisional

Status

Primary

Composition

Knight’s

Crosses

Awarded

1st SS-Panzer Division ‘Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler’ (22,000)

1942

German volunteers with Hitler’s SS bodyguard regiment as the nucleus

58

2nd SS-Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ (18,000)

1939

German volunteers with the SS-Verfügungstruppe as the nucleus

69

3rd SS-Panzer Division ‘Totenkopf’ (15,400)

1939

German volunteers with the SS-Totenkopfverbände as the nucleus

47

4th SS-Polizei Panzergrenadier Division (9,000)

1939

German police transferees

25

5th SS-Panzer Division ‘Wiking’ (14,800)

1940

German/west European volunteers

55

6th SS-Gebirgs Division ‘Nord’ (15,000)

1941

German volunteers with Totenkopf regiments as the nucleus

4

7th SS-Freiwilligen Gebirgs Division ‘Prinz Eugen’ (20,000)

1942

Yugoslavian Volksdeutsche volunteers

6

8th SS-Kavallerie Division ‘Florian Geyer’ (13,000)

1942

German volunteers with SS-Kavallerie regiments as the nucleus

22

9th SS-Panzer Division ‘Hohenstaufen’ (19,000)

1943

German volunteers and conscripts

12

10th SS-Panzer Division ‘Frundsberg’ (15,500)

1943

German volunteers and conscripts

13

11th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division ‘Nordland’ (9,000)

1943

West European volunteers, many from the disbanded SS foreign legions ‘Niederlande’, ‘Norwegen’ and ‘Freikorps Danmark’

25

12th SS-Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ (19,500)

1943

German Hitler Youth volunteers

14

13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Handschar’ (12,700)

1943

Yugoslavian Muslim volunteers

4

14th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (22,000)

1943

Ukrainian volunteers

1

15th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (16,800)

1943

Latvian volunteers, many transferring from the Schutzmannschaft and Police Rifle Regiments

3

16th SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Reichsführer-SS’ (14,000)

1943

German/Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts, with Himmler’s escort battalion as the nucleus

1

17th SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ (3,500)

1943

German/Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts

4

18th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division ‘Horst Wessel’ (11,000)

1944

Hungarian Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts

2

19th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (9,000)

1944

Latvian volunteers, many transferring from the Schutzmannschaft and Police Rifle Regiments

12

20th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (15,500)

1944

Estonian volunteers, many transferring from the Schutzmannschaft and Police Rifle Regiments

5

21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Skanderbeg’ (5,000)

1944

Albanian Muslim volunteers

0

22nd SS-Freiwilligen Kavallerie Division ‘Maria Theresa’ (8,000)

1944

German/Hungarian Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts

6

23rd Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Kama’ (disbanded late 1944 and number ‘23’ given to next division)

1944

Yugoslavian Muslim volunteers

0

23rd SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division ‘Nederland’ (6,000)

1945

Dutch volunteers, many formerly of the SS foreign legion ‘Niederlande’

19

24th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS (3,000)

1944

Italian fascist volunteers

0

25th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS ‘Hunyadi’ (15,000)

1944

Hungarian volunteers

0

26th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (13,000)

1945

Hungarian volunteers

0

27th SS-Freiwilligen Grenadier Division ‘Langemarck’ (7,000)

1944

Flemish volunteers, many formerly of the SS foreign legion ‘Flandern’

1

28th SS-Freiwilligen Grenadier Division ‘Wallonien’ (4,000)

1944

Walloon volunteers, many formerly of the German army’s Wallonische Legion

3

29th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (disbanded late 1944 and number ‘29’ given to next division)

1944

Russian convict volunteers

0

29th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (15,000)

1945

Italian fascist volunteers

0

30th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (4,500)

1945

Russian volunteers, many transferring from the Schutzmannschaft and Police Rifle Regiments

0

31st SS-Freiwilligen Grenadier Division (11,000)

1945

Czechoslovakian Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts

0

32nd SS-Freiwilligen Grenadier Division ‘30 Januar’ (2,000)

1945

German conscripts and SS training school personnel/Volksdeutsche volunteers and conscripts

0

33rd Waffen Kavallerie Division der SS (destroyed soon after formation, and number ‘33’ given to next division)

1945

Hungarian volunteers

0

33rd Waffen Grenadier Division der SS ‘Charlemagne’ (7,000)

1945

French volunteers, many of them formerly of the German army’s Französisches Legion or LVF

2

34th SS-Freiwilligen Grenadier Division ‘Landstorm Nederland’ (7,000)

1945

Dutch volunteers, many formerly of the Landwacht Nederland

3

35th SS-Polizei Grenadier Division (5,000)

1945

German police transferees

0

36th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (6,000)

1945

German/east European volunteers, including a large number of convicted criminals from the Dirlewanger Brigade, a terror unit used against civilians

1

37th SS-Freiwilligen Kavallerie Division ‘Lützow’ (1,000)

1945

Hungarian Volksdeutsche conscripts and remnants of the ‘Florian Geyer’ and ‘Maria Theresa’ divisions

0

38th SS-Grenadier Division ‘Nibelungen’ (1,000)

1945

German volunteers, conscripts and SS training school personnel

0

During the latter part of the war, it was not uncommon for ad hoc SS battle groups to be drawn together from divisional troops, or for smaller units to be absorbed by larger ones which just happened to be located nearby. There were also hundreds of replacement formations, such as the Latvian SS Ersatzbrigade which alone accounted for forty full companies of men under training, and some very obscure units such as the Indische Freiwilligen-Legion der SS, made up of anti-British Indian prisoners-of-war who had been captured in North Africa and Italy. One of the strangest of all was the Osttürkischer Waffen-Verband der SS, composed of three Muslim Waffengruppen der SS recruited from Caspian and Black Sea Tartars under the command of the Austrian SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Hintersatz. He had been converted to Islam during service alongside the Turks in the First World War and took the name of Harun-el-Raschid Bey, under which he was listed in the SS Dienstaltersliste! It was all a far cry from the racial élite of the 1930s.

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