Waffen-SS in the Second World War

The period of 1939-1940

A large number of the Waffen-SS units participated in the war against Russia. As elite units, the Waffen-SS units were sent to places where the roughest battles took place. The SS units gained Hitler's trust with bravery which they showed in occupying Poland and conquering the Western Europe. Himmler was proud of his SS units.

The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) and SS-Standarte Germania participated in conquering Poland under the 10th and the 14th army. They stuck out as strong units with good fighting moral. 1st SS-Standarte Deutschland was formed into Panzerverband Ostpreußen or otherwise known as Panzer Division Kempf. 3rd SS-Standarte Der Führer was on defence position near the Western Wall.

After the armistice was announced, all units were brought back for reformation.

LAH remained an independent motorized regiment but received new equipment. The other three SS-Standartes (regiments) were merged on October 10, 1939 near Pilsen at Brdy's training camp into one division which was named the SS-Verfügunsdivision. The leader of this division was SS-Gruppenführer Paul Hausser. The division's artillery was at first given to other units for help. In 1940 the SS-Verfügunsdivision was renamed as the SS-division Das Reich.

It is interesting to see the SS-Totenkopfverbände security units merging with the Waffen-SS. We should now go back to the year of 1934.

July 4, 1934 Theodor Eicke joined the SS-Verbände and started to form the surveillance units of concentration camps. This was followed by him becoming the leader of the SS-Wacheinheiten which was renamed during time and eventually it was changed to SS-Totenkopfverbände. On august 2, 1938 Eicke received a post in the "SS-town" Oranienburg.

In 1939 the structure of the Totenkopfverbände was changed. Four SS-Totenkopfstandarte (the Death's-Head Units) were formed out of volunteers similarly to the SS-Verfügunstruppe, which were motorized in winter of 1939:

  • 1. SS-Totenkopfstandarte "Oberbayern" (located in Dachau),
  • 2. SS-Totenkopfstandarte "Brandenburg" (in Oranienburg),
  • 3. SS-Totenkopfstandarte "Thüringen" (in Buchenwald),
  • 4. SS-Totenkopfstandarte "Ostmark" (in Linz).

In addition, two battalions (Ersatz-Sturmbanne) were in Breslau. In 1939 these units had 6,500 men.

In September 1939 three of those units were sent to Poland as security and police forces to guard peace and all problems were settled in a cruel way. Afterwards three regiments were withdrawn from Poland to return to Germany for reformation. A battle division was formed out of all four SS-Totenkopfstandartes, the SS-Verfügunstruppe men and the Allgemaine-SS reservists. This was named the Totenkopf-Division and its leader was SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke.

Unwillingly the question of why Himmler chose to send his security units to the war raises into our minds. This can be explained by the fact that Himmler intended to increase his army. The administration of Wehrmacht did not want Himmler to have the best soldiers under his command. As an SS-Reichsführer and the chief of police, Himmler had the chance to get the best men. The Totenkopf men were transferred into a battle division and Himmler got new men under his command. All this was part of Himmler's plan to expand his fighting units. He received the right to form new security units. During the years of 1939 and 1940, ten new SS-Totenkopfstandartes (regiments) were formed. These were the first German security units in occupied countries. 14th SS-Totenkopfstandarte was in Denmark, 6th and 7th SS-Totenkopfstandarte in Norway, 4th and 11th SS-Totenkopfstandarte in Holland.

In February 1941 these units were dismissed and the members were merged with the Waffen-SS. The successors of the security units were the SS police regiments.

The SS-Totenkopfstandartes were renamed during the war as the SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiments (infantry regiments).

Besides the aforementioned 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th SS-Totenkopfstandarte merging into a Totenkopf Division, there were other units formed within the Waffen-SS:

  • 6th, 7th and 9th SS-Totenkopfstandarte were formed into an SS-division called "Nord";
  • 8th and 10th SS-Totenkopfstandarte were formed into the 1st SS Infantry Brigade;
  • 5th, 12th, 13th and 14th SS-Totenkopfstandarte were formed into the 2nd SS Infantry Brigade;
  • 11th SS-Totenkopfstandarte was merged with the SS-division Das Reich when its regiment Germania became the forerunner to the SS-division Wiking;
  • 1st and 2nd SS-Totenkopf-Reiter Standarte were formed into an SS Cavalry Brigade, which later became the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer.

As we can see, the units of SS-Totenkopfverbände merged with the Waffen-SS during the war.

In 1940 the units did not have such an important role in the battles as they did later on the East Front and in the battles that took place at the end of the war. Because these were new troops, many photos were taken of them but their achievements did not stand out and the reason for this was simple – there were only two divisions of the SS army and one regiment alongside of the Wehrmacht's 89 divisions. Nevertheless, the LAH and Das Reich, which were renamed as the SS-Verfügunsdivision, fought well. The Totenkopf was not that successful because they lost a lot of members.

In 1940 the SS-Verfügunstruppe was renamed as the Waffen-SS. In June 1940 the SS troops consisted of 100,000 men, 56,000 of them were in the Waffen-SS and the rest were the members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände. On August 15, 1940 a control centre (Kommando-Zentrale) was established in SS-Führungshauptamt for the popular and expanding Waffen-SS. By the end of the year Waffen-SS had 150,000 men.

The period of 1941-1942

In the spring of 1941, the LAH and Das Reich were sent to the Balkan where they showed the importance of their motorized troops during the most decisive moments of a battle. Many important victories were gained.

In June 1941 they participated in invading Russia: LAH fought in the south, Das Reich in the middle and Totenkopf in the north of Leningrad. All these units were subordinated to the Wehrmacht's corps' and armies' and at first there was no need for the SS corps.

Himmler managed to convince Hitler after huge arguments to decide the destiny of another Totenkopf security unit, which was planned to merge into a new SS-division. The new division was SS Mountain Division "Nord" which was formed before invading Russia.

Himmler got the control over one police formation – "Polizei-Division". This division fought in France for a short period and then it was sent to Poland to set an order. At this time, this division did not belong under the Waffen-SS yet.

But the most important new unit was an SS Division Wiking which took part in invading Russia in the lines of the group of armies called "Süd".

Before invading Russia, the SS main government planned to establish European voluntary units. The SS-Gruppenführer, Felix Steiner, managed to form this division out of Western European volunteers in the European countries which were occupied by the Germans. These young daredevils made up more than a half of the SS Division Wiking membership. Later the European voluntary units were merged with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps which had its main battles on the Narva front, in Sinimäed, Kuramaa and Berlin.

Western countries thought this kind of unit to be impossible and believed that its members can only be criminals or "traitors". But the volunteers' units of 1940-1941 were the ones with high fighting moral and their reputation among other units was high. Despite the names of these units, such as the "Flandern" or the "Danmark", these units consisted many Germans.

Along with the division Wiking other voluntary units were formed – Legions, which towards the end of the war expanded into SS-divisions. The most noteworthy ones are the Flemish SS-Legion Flandern and the Dutch Legion Niederlande which operated under the Wehrmacht, and the Walloon "Legion Wallonie".

Three famous SS-divisions and the new one, Wiking, had to face rough battles in Russia. It was in those battles where the Waffen-SS got its fearful reputation. The men stood out with their iron will to win. But they also had to face great losses. The two new SS-divisions were not that successful in the battles – the division "Polizei" fought poorly and the SS Mountain Division "Nord" lost the other units' respect because its members were constantly running away.

At the beginning of 1942 the tank battalions (Panzer Abteilung) were established in SS-divisions. Each division had two to three tank battalions, each battalion had more than fifty tanks. The first division to get an armor battalion was 5th SS-division Wiking. In connection with that, the SS-grenaders divisions were renamed to SS-tank divisions.

In 1942 the "Polizei-Division" was accepted in the Waffen-SS. At the same time a new SS Mountain Division "Prinz Eugen" was formed in Balkan out of Volksdeutches. The division was sent to Yugoslavia in autumn of 1942 to fight against the Tito partisans.

In summer of 1942 the eighth SS-division was formed. It started out as an SS Cavalry Brigade (one out of three SS-Totenkopf brigades, the other two were infantry brigades), which was later expanded into an SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer. The brigade was kept for security and to set an order in the home front in Russia. It was mostly liable to Himmler, but when needed, it was also liable to the local Höhere SS und Polizeiführer (HSSPF). Towards the end of the war both SS-infantry brigades withered. The members that were still left were merged with other SS-formations which all had had to face difficult losses in 1941-1942 during the Eastern Campaign.

The period of 1943-1945

By 1943 the situation of the Germans had turned dramatic. The Wehrmacht had to face huge losses in Russia and in Africa and the complicated situation forced Hitler to find new measures. Hitler realized that it was no longer possible to talk about the quick and victorious end of the war. He needed generals and divisions that would win battles.

At the same time Paul Hausser retook the city of Harkov in Ukraine with his SS-tank corps. This was one of the biggest wins for the Germans over a long time.

The expansion of the Waffen-SS was decided. Hitler gave his approval and the formation of new units began rapidly.

Three new divisions were formed out of Reichsdeutsches which merged with the "classical" SS-divisions. At the same time the formation of SS-corps' began.

In connection with the difficult situations on several fronts, the German military leaders were forced to seek help from other nations. They started to form units out of foreign men – at first Legions and later these were expanded into brigades. But these were formed under the Waffen-SS because non-Germans were not allowed to be part of the Wehrmacht's members. This is the reason why the national units wore a dead skull's sign on their hats and SS insignia. It has to be pointed out again that this type of units were not connected with the concentration camps nor with the crimes against humanity. These were merely patriotically inclined volunteers who fought against communism.

Tens of thousands of volunteers came from occupied West, Middle and East European countries (For instance, 40,000 from Belgium, 55,000 from Holland, 8,000 from Denmark, 7,000 from Norway, 1,200 from Finland, 200 from Sweden; from the Middle Europe 73,000 from Latvia and 50,000 from Estonia; from East Europe 20,000 from Ukraine).

Police and anti-partisan fighting units were merged with the Waffen-SS.

An interesting fact is that the racial principles were largely ignored and the SS Mountain Division "Handschar" was formed out of Muslims in Bosnia.

The number of the Waffen-SS formations continued to increase until the end of the Second World War. New units were formed mainly of Volksdeutsches and foreigners because the German generation had fallen. During 1943-1945 the Waffen-SS expanded from 8 divisions to 38 divisions. Waffen-SS had become an unique elite army that reached over the whole Europe.

Nevertheless, several divisions existed only on paper or were active for a short time. Their membership was too small to be named a division. Also, not all SS units had as high fighting moral as people thought. Some divisions had only a few hundred men and poor equipment.

Towards the end of the war, when Germany's situation was hopeless, navy and air force members were merged with the Waffen-SS because they did not have any more planes, fuel or ships. Men came from the police, the SS schools and lastly from the reserve of the Allgemeine-SS.

However, only a small number of divisions consisted of this kind of mixed people and their importance was small. At the same time, the other Waffen-SS elite divisions were Germany's best units at the beginning of the war, during the war and at the end of the war. Those famous SS-Panzergrenadier divisions managed to keep the front more or less stable despite the enemies' troops being much bigger and let the Wehrmacht units retreat.

The Waffen-SS divisions were at the very front during the attacks and they were also the last units to retreat. It can be claimed that without the Waffen-SS the war would have ended much quicker for Germany.

On June 30, 1944 the Waffen-SS had 595,443 men, by the end of the year it had 910,000 men. 310,000 of these men were Volksdeutsches, 50,000 were "German volunteers", 150,000 from other nationalities and the rest were Germans. As a comparison it can be said that the Wehrmacht had about ten million men at the same time.

At the end of the war the Waffen-SS divisons had two main directions. Important SS-tank divisions converged to protect Berlin and Vienna: 11th SS Panzer Army was under Berlin and 6th SS Panzer Army retreated from protecting Vienna to the boarders of Germany.