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Waffen SS was designed to protect Adolf Hitler.
The Waffen SS ("Armed SS") was the combat arm of the Schutzstaffel. The Waffen SS was headed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The Waffen-SS saw action throughout the Second World War. A small percentage of The Waffen-SS, nearly 1 million men were charged with war crimes at Nuremberg.
Waffen SS Origins (1929-1939)
After beginning as a protection unit for the NSDAP leadership, the Waffen-SS eventually grew into a force of thirty-eight combat divisions comprising over 950,000 men, including a number of elite army units. In the testimony given at the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to their involvement with the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), and Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded other German combat veterans who had served in the Heer, Luftwaffe or Kriegsmarine. Conscripts were exempted from the judgment on the basis of involuntary servitude.
Basic Background of the The Waffen-SS.
The origins of the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) can be traced back to the creation of a group of 200 men who were to act as Hitler's body guard. This body guard was created by Hitler in reaction to his unease at the size and strength of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or "Storm Detachment"). The SA had grown so large that Hitler felt he needed an armed escort that was totally dedicated to him. Thus the Schutzstaffel (SS) or "protection squad" was created. After Hitler's imprisonment (and subsequent release) in the wake of the failed Munich Putsch in 1923, he saw an even greater need for a body guard, and the place of the SS was solidified in the Nazi hierarchy.
Until 1929 - the SA was still the dominant force in the Nazi Party, however - the SS was growing in strength and importance. In January 1929, Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler to lead the SS (his rank was Reichsführer), and it was Himmler's goal to create an elite corps of armed soldiers within the party. However, the SS was still a very small organization, and Hitler wanted an effective force by 1933. Himmler set out to recruit men who represented the elite of German society, both in physical abilities and political beliefs. Through his active recruitment, Himmler was able to increase the size of the SS to about 52,000 by the end of 1933.
Although the SS was growing exponentially, the SA mirrored the growth of Hitler's private army. The SA had over 2 million members at the end of 1933. Led by one of Hitler's old comrades, Ernst Röhm, the SA represented a threat to Hitler's attempts to win favour with the German army. As well, the SA threatened to sour Hitler's relations with the conservative elements of the country, whose support Hitler needed to solidfy his position in the German government. Hitler decided to act against the SA, and the SS was put in charge of eliminating Röhm and the other high ranking officers of the SA. The Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934 saw the execution of (officially) 82 SA men (today's estimates are that about 200 people were eliminated), including almost the entire leadership, and effectively ended the power of the SA.
During the Night of the Long Knives, the SS performed precisely as Hitler had envisioned, and from that point on, Himmler and his SS would be only responsible to Hitler becoming a major force in the N.S.D.A.P second only to the PO (POLTISCH ORGANISATION-The party cadre organisation). With his new-found independence, Himmler expanded the SS and created several new departments within the existing infrastructure. In particular, Himmler created the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) which was to act as the Reich's security service. In 1936, Himmler was appointed Chief of the German police. It is often mistakenly understood that this appointment gave him command authority over the police. In fact, he was merely granted most, though not all, of the supervisory powers over the police hitherto exercised by the Ministry of the Interior. Himmler was never able to gain command authority over the uniformed police orpo in areas where a civilian administration existed, both within and without the Reich proper. Himmler then reorganized the Reich's police service to include the Ordnungspolizei (uniformed police), and the Sicherheitspolizei (security police-in affect, the detective force). The Sicherheitspolizei was further divided into the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo ("Criminal police") and the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo ("Secret Police"), only the Gestapo was under Himmler and the SS' operational control in the Reich proper (including Austria, the sudetans and the "Polish" gaue), elsewhere however, the fusion of Kripo and Gestapo into the Sichernheispolizei was mostly successful . By September 1939, Kripo, Gestapo and SD were headquartered at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Main office of Reich Security (RSHA). The RSHA was under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich and later Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
In addition to its police powers, the SS comprised a group of armed men that were used for security and ceremonial purposes. This organization was called the SS-Verfügungstruppe. Included in this group was Hitler's protection squad, known as the Stabwache. This protection squad had been created in March 1933 and would be the foundation for the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". Leibstandarte was different from other SS formations in that they had sworn an oath directly to Hitler and thus effectively removed them from control of Himmler. Later, Hitler would form the RSD (Reich Security Service) to provide him and other senior officials with personal security, whereupon the Leibenstandarte would merge back completely into the SS. The RSD, though recruited from SS and police (mostly Gestapo) personnel, and though it used the SS table of ranks, was an entirely separate agency.
When Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, he also mandated that the SS-Verfügungstruppen would be fully formed as a military unit. SS-Verfügungstruppen along with the Totenkopf formations would be the cornerstone of future Waffen-SS divisions. Special schools at Bad Tölz and Braunschweig were created to train future SS officers. Himmler selected former Lieut. General Paul Hausser to oversee the training and schooling of the SS. Hausser also created two new SS regiments. "Deutschland" and "Germania" were formed from various battalions of the Verfügungstruppe and would be the foundation for the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" and 5th SS Panzer Division "SS Division Wiking". After the annexation of Austria, another regiment composed of Austrian Nazis named "Der Führer" was created. Thus, at the outbreak of hostilities, there were four SS armed regiments (although "Der Führer" was not ready for combat).
After the conclusion of the campaign against Poland, the three regiments of the Verfügungstruppe were joined to form the Verfügungsdivision and Leibstandarte was transformed into a motorized regiment. Also, two other divisions were created, the SS "Totenkopfdivision" and "Polizeidivision". In March 1940, after an agreement between the Army and the SS, the title of Waffen-SS was officially given. The Waffen-SS took part in almost every major battle and were shifted from front to front, depending on the severity of the situation. In the end, the Waffen-SS would total 38 divisions (although some of these formations were divisions in name only). Their importance in the history of the Second World War cannot be overlooked. Their effectiveness as fighting units coupled with the atrocities that were committed make the Waffen-SS one of the most feared military organizations in history.
Waffen-SS: Early history; LSSAH, SS-VT, SS-TV.
The original cadre of the Waffen-SS came from the Freikorps and the Reichswehr along with various right-wing paramilitary formations. Formed at the instruction of Adolf Hitler in 1933, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was the first formation of what was to become the Waffen-SS. When the SA was rendered powerless in the Night of the Long Knives, many ex-SA men requested transfer to the SS, swelling its ranks and resulting in the formation of several new units including the SS-Verfügungstruppe, SS-VT (to become the SS Division Das Reich) and the SS-Totenkopfverbände, SS-TV, the concentration camp guard unit (to become the SS Division Waffen-SS: Totenkopf.).
The majority of the Waffen-SS men originally received second rate weapons and equipment with many formations receiving Czech and Austrian weapons and equipment. With the exception of a select few of the 'Germanic' SS Divisions, this policy was continued throughout the war. The majority of the best equipment went to the Heer's elite divisions (Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland and Panzer-Lehr-Division)
The premier Waffen-SS divisions began to receive standard equipment once they proved themselves in the Eastern front and were upgraded to panzergrenadier and later panzer divisions. The remainder of the SS Divisions made do with either standard or second rate equipment.
Concept and training of the Waffen-SS.
SS combat training consisted primarily of several months of intensive basic training with three objectives; physical fitness, small-arms proficiency and political indoctrination. The training was so challenging that two in three potentials failed to pass the course. After basic training, the recruits were sent to specialist schools (such as Panzertruppenschule I) where they received specific-to-trade training in their chosen combat arm. As the war progressed and replacements were required more frequently, the intensity of the training was relaxed somewhat. This was particularly true after the expansion of the Waffen-SS following the success of the SS-Panzerkorps at Kharkov.
For officers, the focus was on leadership and combat command, usually at the SS-Junkerschule at Bad Tölz. The principle of Auftragstaktik which underpinned Wehrmacht and SS training is standard in all armies today, although the concept was invented by the Heer General Staff (and its precursors) rather than the SS. A strong emphasis was placed on creating a bond between the officers and men, and officer candidates were made to pass through basic training alongside the enlisted candidates. This created a mutual trust and respect between the officers and men, and meant that the relationship between these groups was very relaxed, unlike the Heer (German Army), where strict discipline and a policy of separation between the officers and enlisted men existed. In the Waffen-SS, it was not a requirement to salute officers and a more casual salute was adopted (the right arm raised vertically from the elbow - a relaxed version of the Heil salute. This salute is portrayed in many war films). Added to this, the practice of addressing a superior as Herr ("Mr.") was also forbidden, with everyone up to Himmler being addressed simply by their rank.
During the war the organization was presented as a multinational force protecting Europe from the terrible evils of Communism.
In March 1941, a major Italian counterattack against Greek forces failed, and Germany was forced to come to the aid of its ally. Operation Marita began on 6 April 1941, with German troops invading Greece through Bulgaria in an effort to secure its southern flank.
Reich was ordered to leave France and head for Romania, and the Leibstandarte was ordered to Bulgaria. The Leibstandarte, attached to the XL Panzer Corps, advanced west then south from Bulgaria into the mountains, and by 9 April had reached Prilep, 30 miles from the Greek border. Further north the SS Reich, with the XLI Panzer Corps, crossed the Romanian border and advanced on Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, arriving on 12 April to accept the city's surrender. The Yugoslavian Army surrendered a few days later.
The Leibstandarte had now crossed into Greece, and on 10 April engaged the 6th Australian Division in the Battle of the Klidi Pass. For 48 hours they fought for control of the heights, often engaging in hand-to-hand combat, eventually gaining control with the capture of Height 997, which opened the pass, allowing the German Army to advance into the Greek interior. This victory finally gained praise from the OKW: in the order of the day they were commended for their "Unshakable offensive spirit" and told that "The present victory signifies for the Leibstandarte a new and imperishable page of honour in its history."
The Leibstandarte continued the advance on 13 May. When the Reconnaissance Battalion under the command of Kurt Meyer came under heavy fire from the Greek Army defending the Klisura pass, they routed the defenders and captured 1,000 prisoners of war at the cost of six dead and nine wounded. The next day, Meyer captured Kastoria another 11,000 prisoners of war, and by 20 May the Leibstandarte had cut off the retreating Greek Army at Metsovon and accepted the surrender of the Greek Epirus-Macedonian Army. As a reward the Leibstandarte was nominally promoted to a full motorized division, although few additional elements had been added by the start of the Russian campaign and the "Division" remained effectively a reinforced brigade.
Waffen-SS: Soviet Union.
Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, started on 22 June 1941, and all the Waffen-SS formations participated (including the SS Reich which was formally renamed 2 SS Das Reich by the Fall of 1941).
SS Division Nord in northern Finland took part in Operation Arctic Fox with the Finnish Army and at the battle at Salla, where against strong Soviet forces they suffered 300 killed and 400 wounded in the first two days of the invasion. The battle at Salla was a disaster: the thick forests and heavy smoke from forest fires disoriented the troops and the division's units completely fell apart. By the end of 1941, Nord had suffered severe casualties. Over the winter of 1941-42 it received replacements from the general pool of Waffen-SS recruits, who were supposedly younger and better trained than the SS-men of the original formation, which had been drawn largely from Totenkopfstandarten of concentration camp guards.
The rest of the Waffen-SS divisions and brigades fared better. The SS Totenkopf and Polizei divisions were attached to Army Group North, with the mission to advance through the Baltic states and onto Leningrad. The SS Division Das Reich was with Army Group Centre and headed towards Moscow. The SS Division Wiking and the Leibstandarte were with Army Group South, heading for the Ukraine and the city of Kiev.
The war in the Soviet Union proceeded well at first, but the cost to the Waffen-SS was extreme: the Leibstandarte by late October was at half strength due to enemy action and dysentery that swept through the ranks. Das Reich had lost 60% of its strength and was still to take part in the Battle of Moscow, and was decimated in the following Soviet offensive. The Der Führer Regiment was reduced to 35 men out of the 2,000 that had started the campaign in June. Altogether, the Waffen-SS had suffered 43,000 casualties.
While the Leibstandarte and the SS divisions were fighting in the front line, behind the lines it was a different story. The 1 SS Infantry and 2 SS Infantry Brigades, which had been formed from surplus concentration camp guards of the SS-TV, and the SS Cavalry Brigade moved into the Soviet Union behind the advancing armies. At first they fought Soviet partisans and cut off units of the Red Army in the rear of Army Group South, capturing 7,000 prisoners of war, but from mid-August 1941 until late 1942 they were assigned to the Reich Main Security Office headed by Reinhard Heydrich. The brigades were now used for rear area security and policing, and, most importantly, they were not under Army or Waffen-SS command. In the autumn of 1941, they left the anti-partisan role to other units and actively took part in the Holocaust. While assisting the Einsatzgruppen, they participated in the liquidation of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, forming firing parties when required. The three brigades were responsible for the murder of tens of thousands by the end of 1941.
Because it was more mobile and better able to carry out large-scale operations, the SS Cavalry Brigade played a pivotal role in the transition from "selective mass murder" to the wholesale extermination of the Jewish population. On 27 July, the Brigade was ordered into action, and by 1 August the SS Cavalry Regiment was responsible for the death of 800 people; five days later, on 6 August, this total had reached 3,000 "Jews and Partisans". On 1 August, after a meeting between Heinrich Himmler, Erich von Bach-Zelewski and Hinrich Lohse, the brigades received the following order:
Explicit order by RFSS:
Gustav Lombard, on receiving the order, advised his Battalion that "In future not one male Jew is to remain alive, not one family in the villages." Throughout the next weeks, soldiers of SS Cavalry Regiment 1 under Lombard's command murdered an estimated 11,000 Jews and more than 400 dispersed soldiers of the Red Army.
Waffen-SS: 1942 expansion.
In 1942, the Waffen-SS was further expanded and a new division was entered on the rolls in March. By the second half of 1942 an increasing number of foreigners, many of whom were not volunteers, began entering the ranks. The 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen was recruited from Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) drafted under threat of punishment by the local German leadership from Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Romania and used on anti-partisan operations in the Balkans. Himmler approved the introduction of formal compulsory service for the Volksdeutsche in German occupied Serbia. Another new division was formed at the same time, when the SS Cavalry Brigade was used as the cadre in the formation of the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer.
Waffen-SS: Panzergrenadier divisions.
The front line divisions of the Waffen-SS that had suffered through the Russian winter of 1941-1942 and the Soviet counter-offensive were withdrawn to France to recover and be reformed as panzergrenadier divisions. Thanks to the efforts of Himmler and Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, the new commander of the SS Panzer Corps, the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf were to be formed with a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion. This meant that the SS Panzergrenadier divisions were full-strength Panzer divisions in all but name. They each received nine Tiger tanks, which were formed into the heavy panzer companies.
Waffen-SS: Demyansk Pocket.
The Soviet offensive of January 1942 had trapped a number of German divisions in the Demyansk Pocket between February and April 1942; the 3 SS Totenkopf was one of the divisions encircled by the Red Army. The Red Army liberated Demyansk on 1 March 1943 with the retreat of the German troops. "For his excellence in command and the particularly fierce fighting of the Totenkopf", Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross on 20 May 1942.
Waffen-SS: 1943 expansion.
The Waffen-SS expanded further in 1943: in February the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen and its sister division, the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, were formed in France. They were followed in July by the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland created from Norwegian and Danish volunteers. September saw the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend start forming using volunteers from the Hitler Youth. Himmler and Berger were successful in their appeal to Hitler to form a Bosnian Muslim division, and the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian), the first non-Germanic division, was formed, to fight Tito's Yugoslav Partisans. This was followed by the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Galicia (1st Ukrainian) formed from volunteers from Galicia in the western Ukraine. The 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian) was created in 1943, using compulsory military service in the Ostland. The final new 1943 division was the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS, which was created using the Sturmbrigade Reichsführer SS as a cadre. By the end of the year, the Waffen-SS had increased in size from eight divisions and some brigades to 16 divisions.
On the Eastern Front, the Germans suffered a devastating defeat when the 6th Army was defeated during the Battle of Stalingrad. Hitler ordered the SS Panzer Corps back to the Eastern Front for the counter-attack, with the object the city of Kharkov. The SS Panzer Corps was in full retreat, having been attacked by the Soviet 6th Army, when on 19 February they received the order to attack. In an example of an SS Commander disobeying Hitler's order to "stand fast and fight to the death", Hausser had withdrawn in front of the Red Army, but he now turned and attacked. Without support from the Luftwaffe or neighbouring German formations they broke through the Soviet line and advanced onto Kharkov. Despite orders to encircle Kharkov from the north, the SS Panzer Corps directly attacked Kharkov in the Third Battle of Kharkov on 11 March. This led to four days of house-to-house fighting before Kharkov was recaptured by the 1 SS Leibstandarte on 15 March. Two days later the Germans recaptured Belgorod, creating the salient that in July 1943 led to the Battle of Kursk. The German offensive cost the Red Army an estimated 70,000 casualties but the house-to-house fighting in Kharkov was particularly bloody for the SS Panzer Corps, which had lost approximately 44% of its strength by the time operations ended in late March.
Waffen-SS: Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the Jewish insurgency that arose within the Warsaw Ghetto from 19 April to 16 May, an effort to prevent the transportation of the remaining population of the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. The only units involved from the Waffen-SS were 821 Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers from five reserve and training battalions and one cavalry reserve and training battalion.
The next test for the Waffen-SS was the Battle of Prokhorovka, which was part of the Battle of Kursk. The SS Panzer Corps had been renamed the II SS Panzer Corps and was part of the 4 Panzer-Army, which was chosen to spearhead the attack through the Soviet defenses. The attack penetrated to a depth of 35 kilometres (22 mi) and was then stopped by the Soviet 1st Tank Army.
During the fighting over the next few days, the II SS Panzer Corps thought they were close to driving a wedge between the 1st Tank Army and Soviet 69th Army, and had even broken through the third line of Soviet defenses at Prokhorovka. Wrongly believing they had made a breakthrough, they were prepared to exploit the opportunity the next day. The Soviet reserves had been sent south, to defend against a German attack by the III Panzer Corps and with the loss of their reserves, any hope they may have had of dealing a major defeat to the SS Panzer Corps ended. But the German advances now failed - despite appalling losses, the Soviet tank armies held the line and prevented the II SS Panzer Corps from making the expected breakthrough.
Waffen-SS: Trial by fire.
As the outbreak of war neared, Himmler ordered the formation of several combat formations from the SS-Standarten (units of regimental size). The resulting three formations (the LSSAH, SS-VT and SS-TV) took part in the Invasion of Poland as well as Fall Gelb. During the campaign in the West, both the Totenkopf and LSSAH were implicated in atrocities. The overall performance of the Waffen-SS had been mediocre during these campaigns.
The poor initial performance of the Waffen-SS units was mainly due to the emphasis on political indoctrination rather than proper military training before the war. This was largely due to the shortage of experienced NCOs, who preferred to stay with the regular army. Despite this, the experience gained from the Polish, French and Balkan campaigns and the peculiarly egalitarian form of training soon turned the best Waffen-SS units into elite formations.
On several occasions, the Waffen-SS was criticised by Heer commanders for their reckless disregard for casualties while taking or holding objectives during the early months of the Russian Campaign). However, the Waffen-SS divisions eventually proved themselves to a skeptical Heer as capable soldiers, although there were exceptions such as Kampfgruppe Nord's rout from the town of Salla during its first engagement in Lapland.
The Waffen-SS truly proved their worth during the Third Battle of Kharkov, where the II.SS-Panzerkorps under SS-Brigadeführer Paul Hausser recaptured the city and blunted the Soviet offensive, saving the forces of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South from being cut off and destroyed.
In Mid 1943, the II.SS-Panzerkorps took part in Operation Citadel and the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf (all now Panzergrenadier divisions) took part in the immense armour battles near Prokhorovka on the southern flank of the Kursk salient.
Mixed quality and imagined quality of the Waffen-SS.
Several divisions are seen by historians as being elite, notably those with higher proportions of ethnic Germans in them. These divisions were characterised by extremely high unit morale and combat ability, as well as commitment to the ideals of the Crusade against Bolshevism.
These divisions included the LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, the multi-national Wiking, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, and the Hitlerjugend.
In spite of heavy casualties, some of the Waffen-SS units retained their reputations as crack formations until the end of the War, though the quality of formations raised late in the war was often execrable, and some of the Freiwillige troops were prone to mutiny.
Foreign volunteers and conscripts to the Waffen-SS.
Himmler, wishing to expand the Waffen-SS, advocated the idea of SS controlled Foreign Legions. The Reichsführer, with his penchant for medieval lore, envisioned a united European 'crusade', fighting to save old Europe from the 'Godless bolshevik hordes'. While native Germanic-speaking volunteers were approved almost instantly, Himmler eagerly pressed for the creation of more and more foreign units.
In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the Wiking, was authorised. Command of the division was given to SS-Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner immersed himself in the organisation of the volunteer division, soon becoming a strong advocate for an increased number of foreign units. The Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, proving itself an impressive fighting unit.
Soon Danish, French, Azeri, Armenian, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch Freiwilligen (volunteer) formations were committed to combat, gradually proving their worth. Hitler however, was hesitant to allow foreign volunteers to be formed into formations based on their ethnicity, preferring that they be absorbed into multi-national divisions. Hitler feared that unless the foreign recruits were committed to the idea of a united Germania, then their reasons for fighting were suspect, and could damage the German cause.
Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942-43, several new formations were formed from Bosnians, Latvians, Estonians, and Ukrainians. There were plans for a Greek division, but the plan was abandoned after the Greek partisan resistance blew up the organizing party's headquarters. Many Greeks from Southern Russia, however, enlarged the divisions as Ukrainians. Himmler ordered that new Waffen-SS units formed with men of non-Germanic ethnicity were to be designated Division der SS (or Division of the SS) rather than SS Division. In some of these cases, the wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.
All soldiers of non-German citizenship in these units had their rank prefix changed from SS to Waffen (e.g. a Latvian Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). An example of a Division der SS is the Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1). The combat ability of the divisions der SS varied greatly. For example, the Latvian, French and Estonian formations performed exceptionally, while the Albanian units performed poorly.
While many adventurers and idealists joined the SS as part of the fight against Communism, many of the later recruits joined or were conscripted for different reasons. For example, Dutchmen who joined the 34.SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division Landstorm Nederland were granted exemption from forced labour and provided with food, pay and accommodation. Recruits who joined for such reasons rarely proved good soldiers, and several units composed of such volunteers were involved in atrocities.
Towards the end of 1943, it became apparent that numbers of volunteer recruits were inadequate to meet the needs of the German military, so conscription was introduced. The Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1) is an example of such a conscript formation, which proved to be outstanding soldiers with an unblemished record.
Not satisfied with the growing number of volunteer formations, Himmler sought to gain control of all volunteer forces serving alongside Germany. This put the SS at odds with the Heer, as several volunteer units had been placed under Heer control (e.g. volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division). Despite this, Himmler constantly campaigned to have all foreign volunteers fall under the SS banner. In several cases, like the ROA and the 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Wallonien he was successful, and by the last year of the war, most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command. Still another unit, the Indian Legion was composed of Indian troops, mostly prisoners of war recruited by the Germans with help from a marginal Indian anti-colonial leader named Mohammed Shedai. The unit became a part of the political plans of another, more famous, Indian nationalist: Subhas Chandra Bose, who ousted Shedai from his position of favor with the German military authorities, and who wanted the Legion to participate in a German invasion of British India. After Bose left Germany for Japanese-controlled southeast Asia in 1943 to take charge of the Indian National Army (similar to the Indian Legion, but much larger), the Indian Legion was diverted from its original goal of fighting the British in India and absorbed into the German attempt to hold on to occupied Europe. Morale dropped sharply in consequence. The unit was deployed in France, where it earned a reputation for atrocities, although some individual members deserted to the French resistance. The Indian Legion disintegrated in the aftermath of D-Day.
While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland formed the final defence of the Reichstag in 1945.
Among the more unusual units to exist in the Waffen SS was the British Free Corps, a unit composed of citizens of the British Commonwealth, was led by John Amery but never had a strength of more than 30 men at any given time. The American Free Corps or "George Washington Brigade" was also a tiny unit of English speaking SS men raised for propaganda purposes that consisted of no more than 5 members. An attempt to use IRA agents to recruit an Irish unit from among British Army POWs was a similar failure.
After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Those volunteers from the Baltic states and Ukraine could at best look forward to years spent in the gulags. To avoid this, many ex-volunteers from these regions joined underground resistance groups which were engaged fighting the Soviets until the 1950s.
Helped by ODESSA network, Walloon volunteer leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in comfortable exile until his death in 1994. John Amery, the leader of the Britisches Freikorps, was tried and convicted of treason by the British government. He was executed in December 1945. Martin James Monti was charged with treason and sentenced to 25 years and was paroled in 1960.
In Estonia and Latvia, the majority of Waffen SS veterans were conscripts who were at least partly considered freedom fighters. In an April 13, 1950 message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by General Frank McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that
Still, much debate is continuing on this issue and because of general condemnation of Nazi regime across the globe, official statements of the position of Estonian and Latvian Waffen SS veterans remain ambiguous. The Latvian parliament Saeima declared 16 March Latvian Soldiers' Remembrance Day. However, under pressure from the European Union, the members of the cabinet and personnel of National Armed Forces withheld their participation in commemorative events next year, and the parliament eventually reversed its decision in 2000.
By the end of the war, around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.
Waffen-SS action at Normandy.
Operation Overlord, the Allied "D-Day" landings in Normandy, took place on 6 June 1944. In preparation for the expected landings the I SS Panzer Corps Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was moved to Septeuill to the west of Paris in April 1944. The Corps had the 1 SS Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 12 SS Hitlerjugend, the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen and the Army's Panzer-Lehr-Division divisions assigned to it. The corps was to form a part of General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg's Panzer Group West, the Western theatre's armoured reserve. The Corps was restructured on 4 July 1944 and only the 1 SS Leibstandarte and the 12 SS Hitlerjugend remained at strength.
After the landings, the first Waffen-SS unit in action was the 12 SS Hitlerjugend, which arrived at the invasion front on 7 June, in the Caen area. The same day they were involved in the Ardenne Abbey massacre. The next unit to arrive was the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen on 11 June, which came into contact with the 101st Airborne Division. The 1 SS Leibstandarte together with the (SS Heavy Panzer Battalion) arrived at the end of the month. The first action they were involved in was the defense of Carpiquet village and aerodrome in what was known as Operation Windsor.
The only other Waffen-SS unit in France at this time was the 2 SS Das Reich, in Montauban, north of Toulouse. They were ordered north to the landing beaches and on 9 June were involved in the Tulle murders, where 99 men were murdered. The next day they reached Oradour-sur-Glane and massacred 642 French civilians.
The II SS Panzer Corps consisting of the 9 SS Hohenstaufen and 10 SS Frundsberg divisions and the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 102 started to arrive from the Eastern Front from 26 June, just in time to counter Operation Epsom.
Without any further reinforcements in men or material the Waffen-SS divisions were hard put to stop the Allied advance. 1 SS Leibstandarte and 2 SS Das Reich took part in the failed Operation Lüttich in early August. The end came in mid August when the German Army was encircled and trapped in the Falaise pocket, including the 1 SS Leibstandarte, 10 SS Frundsberg and 12 SS Hitlerjugend and the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen, while the 2 SS Das Reich and the 9 SS Hohenstaufen were ordered to attack Hill 262 from the outside in order to keep the gap open. By 22 August the Falaise pocket had been closed, and all German forces west of the Allied lines were dead or in captivity. In the fighting around Hill 262 alone, casualties totalled 2,000 killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. The 12 SS Hitlerjugend had lost 94% of its armour, nearly all of its artillery, and 70% of its vehicles. The division had close to 20,000 men and 150 tanks before the campaign started, and was now reduced to 300 men and 10 tanks.
With the German Army in full retreat, two further Waffen-SS formations entered the battle in France, the SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 49 and the SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 51. Both had been formed in June 1944, from staff and students at the SS-Junkerschules. They had been stationed in Denmark to allow the garrison there to move into France, but were themselves brought forward at the beginning of August, to the area south and east of Paris. Both Brigades were tasked to hold crossings over the Seine River allowing the Army to retreat. Eventually they were forced back and then withdrew, the surviving troops being incorporated into the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen.
Waffen-SS: Arnhem and Market-Garden.
In early September 1944, the II SS Panzer Corps (9 SS Hohenstaufen and 10 SS Frundberg) were pulled out of the line and sent to the Arnhem area in the Netherlands. Upon arrival they began the task of refitting, and the majority of the remaining armoured vehicles were loaded onto trains in preparation for transport to repair depots in Germany. On Sunday 17 September 1944 the Allies launched Operation Market-Garden, and the British 1st Airborne Division was dropped in Oosterbeek, to the west of Arnhem. Realizing the threat, Wilhelm Bittrich, the new commander of II SS Panzer Corps, ordered Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg to ready themselves for combat. Also in the area was the Training and Reserve Battalion, 16th SS Division Reichsführer-SS. The Allied airborne operation was a failure, and the city of Arnhem was not liberated until 14 April 1945.
Waffen-SS: Warsaw Uprising.
At the other end of Europe, the Waffen-SS was dealing with the Warsaw Uprising. Between August and October 1944, the Dirlewanger Brigade (recruited from criminals and the mentally ill) and the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA as well as a number of smaller units were sent to Warsaw to put down the uprising. During the battle, the Dirlewanger behaved atrociously, raping, looting and killing citizens of Warsaw regardless of whether they belonged to the Polish resistance or not; Oskar Dirlewanger himself encouraged their excesses. The unit's behavior was reportedly so bestial and indiscriminate that Himmler was forced to detail an attached battalion of SS military police for the sole purpose of ensuring the Dirlewanger convicts did not turn their aggressions against their own leaders or nearby German units. At the same time they were encouraged by Himmler to terrorize freely, take no prisoners, and generally indulge their perverse tendencies. Favoured tactics of the Dirlewanger men during the siege reportedly included the ubiquitous gang rape of female Poles, both women and children, playing "bayonet catch" with live babies, and torturing captives to death by hacking off their arms, dousing them with gasoline, and setting them alight to run armless and flaming down the street. The Dirlewanger brigade committed almost non-stop atrocities during this period, in particular the four-day Wola massacre.
The other unit Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA volunteers were first given the task of clearing the sector of Ochota district defended by only 300 poorly-armed Poles. Their attack was planned for the morning of 5 August, but when the time came, the Kaminski's men could not be found; after some searching, they were found looting abandoned houses in the rear. At the same time, thousands of Polish civilians were killed by the RONA SS men during the events known as Ochota massacre; many victims were also raped. In the middle of the month, they were moved south to the Wola sector, but it fared no better in combat here than in Ochota; in one incident a sub-unit had stopped their advance to loot a captured building on the front line and was consequently cut off and wiped-out by the Poles. The brigade's commander Bronislav Kaminski was then called to Lódz to attend a leadership conference. He never reached it; officially, Polish partisans were blamed for an alleged ambush in which Kaminski was killed. According to various sources he was either tried first by an SS court or simply executed by the Gestapo out of hand. The behaviour of the RONA during the battle was an embarrassment even to the SS, and the alleged rape and murder of two German Strength Through Joy (Kdf) girls may have played a part in his execution.
Waffen-SS: Vistula River line.
In late August 1944, 5 SS Wiking was ordered back to Modlin on the Vistula River line near Warsaw, where it was to join the newly formed Army Group Vistula. Fighting alongside the Luftwaffe's Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring, they proceeded to annihilate the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps. The advent of the Warsaw Uprising brought the Soviet offensive to a halt, and relative peace fell on the front line. The division remained in the Modlin area for the rest of the year, grouped with the 3 SS Totenkopf in the IV SS Panzer Corps. Heavy defensive battles around Modlin followed for the rest of the year. Together they helped force the Red Army out of Warsaw and back across the Vistula River where the Front stabilized until January 1945.
Waffen-SS: The Ardennes Offensive.
The Ardennes Offensive or "Battle of the Bulge" between 16 December 1944 and 25 January 1945 was a major German offensive through the forested Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium. The Waffen-SS units included the Sixth SS Panzer Army, under Sepp Dietrich. Created on 26 October 1944, it incorporated the I SS Panzer Corps (1 SS Leibstandarte, the 12 SS Hitlerjugend and the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101). It also had the II SS Panzer Corps (2 SS Das Reich and the 9 SS Hohenstaufen). Another unit involved was Otto Skorzeny's SS Panzer Brigade 150.
The purpose of the attack was to split the British and American line in half, capture Antwerp, Belgium, and encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty on terms favorable to the Axis Powers.
The attack was ultimately a failure. It is infamous for the Malmedy massacre in which approximately 90 unarmed American prisoners of war were murdered on 17 December 1944 by the Kampfgruppe Peiper, part of the 1 SS Leibstandarte.
Waffen-SS: Siege of Budapest.
In late December 1944, the Axis forces, including IX Waffen Mountain Corps of the SS (Croatian), defending Budapest, were encircled in the Siege of Budapest. The IV SS Panzer Corps (3 SS Totenkopf and 5 SS Wiking) was ordered south to join Hermann Balck's 6 Armee (Army Group Balck), which was mustering for a relief effort, code named Operation Konrad.
As a part of Operation Konrad I, the IV SS Corps was committed to action on 1 January 1945, near Tata, the advance columns of Wiking slamming into the Soviet 4th Guards Army. A heavy battle ensued, with the 5 SS Wiking and 3 SSTotenkopf destroying many of the Soviet tanks. In three days their panzer spearheads had driven 45 kilometres, over half the distance from the start point to Budapest. The Soviets maneuvered forces to block the advance, and they barely managed to halt them at Bicske, only 28 kilometres (17 mi) from Budapest. Two further attacks, Operations Konrad II and III, also failed.
The Hungarian Third Army had been besieged in Budapest along with the IX Waffen Mountain Corps of the SS (Croatian) (8 SS Florian Geyer and 22 SS Maria Theresa). The siege lasted from 29 December 1944 until the city surrendered unconditionally on 13 February 1945. Some idea of the intensity of the fighting can be had by the fact that only 170 men of the 22 SS Maria Theresa made it back to the German lines.
Waffen-SS: 1945 expansion.
The Waffen-SS continued to expand in 1945. January saw the 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division 30 January formed from the remnants of other units and staff from the SS-Junkerschules. In February the Waffen Grenadier Brigade or SS Charlemagne (1st French) was reformed as the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French), and the SS Volunteer Grenadier-Brigade Landstorm Nederland was upgraded to the 34th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Landstorm Nederland. The second SS Police division followed when the 35th SS and Police Grenadier Division was formed from SS Police units that had been transferred to the Waffen-SS. The Dirlewanger Brigade was reformed as the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, however there was now a real shortage of Waffen-SS volunteers and conscripts, so units from the Army were attached to bring it up to strength. The third SS Cavalry division 37th SS Volunteer Cavalry Division Lützow was formed from the remnants of the 8 SS Florian Geyer and 22 SS Maria Theresia, which had both been virtually destroyed. The last Waffen-SS division was the 38th SS Division Nibelungen which was also formed from students and staff from the SS-Junkerschule, but consisted of only around 6,000 men, the strength of a normal brigade.
The XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, which contained the 1 SS Cossack Division, was transferred to the Waffen-SS on 1 February 1945. Despite the refusal of its commander, General von Pannwitz, to enter the SS, the corps was placed under SS administration and all Cossacks became formally part of the Waffen-SS.
Waffen-SS: Operation Nordwind.
Operation Nordwind was the last major German offensive on the Western Front. It began on 1 January 1945 in Alsace and Lorraine in north-eastern France, and it ended on 25 January. The initial attack was conducted by three Corps of the 1st Army. By 15 January at least 17 German divisions (including units in the Colmar Pocket) were engaged, including the XIII SS Army Corps (17 SS Götz von Berlichingen and 38 SS Nibelungen) and the 6 SS Nord and 10 SS Frundsberg.
Waffen-SS: Operation Solstice.
Operation Solstice, or the "Stargard Tank Battle", in February 1945 was one of the last armoured offensive operations on the Eastern Front. It was a limited counter-attack by the three corps of the Eleventh SS Panzer Army, which was being assembled in Pomerania, against the spearheads of the 1st Belorussian Front. Originally planned as a major offensive, it was executed as a more limited attack. It was repulsed by the Red Army, but helped to convince the Soviet High Command to postpone the planned attack on Berlin.
Initially the attack achieved a total surprise, reaching the banks of the Ina River and, on 17 January, Arnswalde. Strong Soviet counter-attacks halted the advance, and the operation was called off. The III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps, was pulled back to the Stargard and Stettin on the northern Oder River.
Waffen-SS: East Pomeranian Offensive.
The East Pomeranian Offensive lasted from 24 February to 4 April, in Pomerania and West Prussia. The Waffen-SS units involved were the 11 SS Nordland, 20 SS Estonian, 23 SS Nederland, 27 SS Langemark, 28 SS Wallonien, all in the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps, and the X SS Corps, which did not command any SS units.
In March 1945, the X SS Corps was encircled by the 1st Guards Tank Army, 3rd Shock Army, and the Polish 1st Army in the area of Dramburg. This pocket was destroyed by the Red Army on 7 March 1945. On 8 March 1945, the Soviets announced the capture of General Krappe and 8,000 men of the X SS Corps.
Waffen-SS: Operation Spring Awakening.
After the Ardennes offensive failed, the SS Divisions involved were pulled out and refitted in Germany in preparation for Operation Spring Awakening, with top priority for men and equipment. The replacements were a mixed group of raw recruits and drafted Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel no longer needed by their own branch of service, as they had no aircraft or ships to serve in. The 6th SS Panzer Army would again take the lead, with the I SS Panzer Corps (1 SS Leibstandarte and 12 SS Hitlerjugend) and the II SS Panzer Corps (2 SS Das Reich and the 10 SS Frundsberg). Also present but not part of the 6th SS Panzer Army was the IV SS Panzer Corps (3 SS Totenkopf and 5 SS Wiking). This was the first time that six SS Panzer Divisions took part in the same offensive.
As planned, the offensive got under way on 6 March 1945, spearheaded by the 6th SS Panzer Army. The attack managed to take the Soviets by surprise and impressive gains were made for an offensive launched at such a late date in the war. However once the Soviets realized that elite SS units were involved, they took the German offensive seriously, utilizing 16 rifle divisions, two tank corps and two mechanized corps, with some 150 tanks, in direct support just behind the front line south west of Lake Balaton. The Soviets had been building up their forces for their own offensive along the Danube valley, which meant the 6th SS Panzer Army's attack was confronted by an overwhelming Soviet force of more than 1000 tanks, which ground the German advance to a halt.
By 14 March the attack was in serious trouble. The advance of the 6th SS Panzer Army, while impressive, was well short of its targets. All the Waffen-SS divisions suffered grievously during Spring Awakening, and by the end most were below 50% strength without much prospect of reinforcements to replace losses.
The Army Group Vistula was formed in 1945 to protect Berlin from the advancing Red Army. It fought in the Battle of the Seelow Heights (16-19 April) and the Battle of Halbe (21 April-1 May), both part of the Battle of Berlin. The Waffen-SS was represented by the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps.
On 16 April, the remnants of the 11 SS Nordland, 33 SS Charlemagne and the Spanish Volunteer Company of SS 101, were all ordered to move to the front line east of Berlin. From 17 April to 20 April they were in constant combat all along the front and pushed back into the city.
On 23 April, Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke was appointed by Hitler the Battle Commander for the centre government quarter/district (Zitadelle sector) that included the Reich Chancellery and Führerbunker. Mohnke's command post was under the Reich Chancellery in the bunkers therein. He formed the Kampfgruppe Mohnke (Battle Group Mohnke) and it was divided into two weak regiments. It was made up of the LSSAH Flak Company, replacements from LSSAH Training and Reserve Battalion from Spreenhagan (under Standartenfuhrer Anhalt), 600 men from the Reichsführer SS Begleit Battalion, the Führer-Begleit-Company and the core group being the 800 men of the LSSAH Guard Battalion (that was assigned to guard the Führer).
On 25 April, Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg was appointed the commander of (Berlin) Defence Sector C which included the Nordland Division, whose previous commander Joachim Ziegler was relieved of his command the same day. On 27 April, after a spirited but futile defence, the remnants of Nordland were pushed back into the centre government district (Zitadelle sector) in Defence sector Z. There Krukenberg's Nordland headquarters was a carriage in the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station. The men of Nordland were now under Mohnke's overall command. Since Mohnke's fighting force was located at the nerve centre of the German Third Reich it fell under the heaviest artillery bombardment of the war which began as a birthday present to Hitler on 20 April 1945 and lasted to the end of hostilities on 8 May 1945. Under pressure from the most intense shelling, the SS troops put up stiff resistance as the Red Army raced to take the Reichstag and Reich Chancellery. This condemned the SS troops to bitter and bloody street fighting. By 26 April, the Nordland defenders in the centre government quarter were pushed back into the Reichstag and Reich Chancellery. There over the next few days, the survivors (mainly French SS troops from the former 33 SS Charlemagne) held out against overwhelming odds.
On 30 April, after receiving news of Hitler's suicide, orders were issued that those who could do so were to break out. Prior to the breakout Mohnke briefed all commanders that could be reached within the Zitadelle sector about the events as to Hitler's death and the planned breakout. The break out started at 2300 hours on 1 May. There were ten main groups that attempted to head northwest towards Mecklenburg. Fierce fighting continued all around especially in the Weidendammer Bridge area. What was left of the 11 SS Nordland under Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg fought hard in that area but Soviet artillery and anti-tank guns dispatched the groups. Several very small groups managed to reach the Americans at the Elbe's west bank, but most, including Mohnke's group, could not make it through the Soviet rings.
On 2 May hostilities officially ended by order of Helmuth Weidling, Kommandant of the Defense Area Berlin. News of the surrender lead some of the encircled Waffen-SS men to change their minds as to suicide. Author Thomas Fischer related the following example of the mindset of some of the men:
War crimes and atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS.
Many formations within the Waffen-SS were found guilty of war crimes in all theatres they served; in the west the most famous incidents included Oradour-sur-Glane, Marzabotto, against Canadian soldiers in the Battle of Normandy and Americans in the Malmedy massacre.
The Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades (later to become the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS and 29.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (russische Nr.1) respectively) were notorious for their reputation in the east. These formations, composed mostly of ex-Einsatzgruppen, released criminals and Russian prisoners of war and commanded by the fanatical Nazis Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislaw Kaminski, were engaged in numerous atrocities throughout their existence. After their actions in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, Heer (the regular Army) complaints resulted in these units being dissolved and several members (including Kaminski) being tried and executed for their role in several incidents.
Similarly, the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA had a combat record riddled with atrocities as well as abysmal conduct when faced with front line service.
While some Waffen-SS divisions such as Nordland and Nord are not associated with battlefield atrocities, others were involved to some degree in systemic criminal acts. The debate over the culpability of the organisation as a whole is the center of much so-called 'revisionism' .
On one end of the debate, in addition to documented atrocities, certain Waffen-SS units did assist in rounding up Eastern European Jewry for deportation. Also, some SS-Division Totenkopf personnel convalesced at concentration camps by serving routine guard duties, and utilised Scorched-earth tactics during anti-partisan operations.
On the other end, some assert that with over 900,000 men serving in its ranks from 15 nationalities, the Waffen-SS was a pan-European military formation embedded with a socio-political ideology, similar in composition to the 19th-century Napoleonic forces or even modern-day NATO military organization.
Regardless of the record of individual combat units within the Waffen-SS, the entire organisation was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials, except conscripts, who were exempted from that judgment as they were forced to join.
Uniforms and unit insignia of the Waffen-SS.
Tangible evidence of the "elite" status of Waffen-SS units was the award of named cuff titles; while the use of cuff titles was common in many military and paramilitary organizations in the Third Reich, there were few combat units permitted to wear them as a means of identification.
Varied from place to place but standard issue for the most part was "German fleck" a type of green digital looking camouflage that proved itself very useful.
Like most Army commemorations rank was displayed on the left lapel and for the most part were medals. Most were represented by different ranking of the medal by pattern and color of the ribbon. The highest medal awarded was the Knight's Cross.
References to the Waffen-SS.
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