‘The Most Ruthless Force?’ Reassessing the role of the Waffen SS 1933-45. Part III

Waffen-SS, 13. Gebirgs-Div.

Men of 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian)

III. Combat Effectiveness.
In our previous discussion we documented how a potent mixture of politics and military training produced a highly effective force which was ready to carry out the Führer’s aims. A new quality emerged called ‘Härte’. It meant many things. Toughness in battle, fearlessness, ruthlessness in the execution of orders and dedication to victory at all costs. It also meant contempt for the enemy, callousness to prisoners and brutality to all who stood in their way. The SS proved to be not just soldiers, but fighters who fought as often as not for the sake of fighting. An American officer, who came up against the Leibstandarte in the Ardennes in 1944 reported: ‘These men revealed a form of fighting that is new to me. They are obviously soldiers, but they fight as if military ways were of no consequence. They actually seem to enjoy combat’. An SS Haupsturmführer recalling the ‘sheer beauty’ of the fighting in Russia in 1942, stated ‘it was well worth the dreadful suffering, after a time we got to the point where we were concerned not for ourselves, or even Germany, but lived entirely for the next clash’. The fighting spirit of the Waffen SS can be put down to ideology, comradeship and in the case of the foreign volunteers, the fact that they could not surrender. Surrender normally meant the firing squad.

The Waffen SS was clearly a formidable opponent. Its successes in the field were frequent. The Leibstandarte seized the first bridgehead over the Dnieper, broke through the Soviet defences at the Crimea at Perekop and stormed Taganrog and Rostov. The 5th SS Viking Division pursued the Russians to the Sea of Azov. Das Reich captured Belgrade in 1941 and later broke through the Moscow defences and came within 50 kilometers of the Kremlin. In defence the SS was equally solid. When the Soviets cut off the Totenkopf and five army divisions at Demyansk in February 1942, Eicke’s division led the defence for several months before spearheading the breakthrough to freedom. In December 1943 the Red Army broke through the German lines in the Ukraine and surrounded 75,000 troops at Cherkassy. Despite being surrounded by two Soviet Army groups, Viking led the break out to the west. The division however, had practically ceased to exist, losing nearly 20,000 men. On these occasions, at Demyansk and Cherkassy, the Waffen SS had prevented another potential Stalingrad. In Normandy in 1944, 19 German divisions were trapped in the Falaise Pocket. They escaped thanks to the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, which kept open a corridor until most of the units had escaped. The cost was enormous, the Division losses during the fighting in Normandy, in the three months from June to September, amounted to 80% of its troops, over 80% of its tanks, 70% of its armored vehicles, 60% of its artillery and 50% of its motor vehicles.. Wherever the enemy breached the lines, orders went out for the Waffen SS. They became the Führer’s fire brigade, always being sent to the areas of the front that were in crisis or where a breakthrough was required. The 1st SS Panzer Corps was rushed to Kharkov in early 1943 to stem the Soviet advance. They succeeded in doing so and by the end of March had actually retaken the city. Hitler was so impressed that he declared the Corps to be ‘worth 20 Italian Divisions’.

Both friend and foe agreed that the armed SS possessed fighting qualities equalled by few. General von Mackensen of 3rd Panzer Corps extolled the Leibstandarte in a letter to Himmler for its ‘discipline, refreshing energy and unshakeable steadfastness, a real elite unit’. The Russians held a similar view. Major General Artemko of the 27th Army Corps, when captured in 1941, stated to his interrogators that ‘his men breathed a sigh of relief when the Viking Division was withdrawn from the line and replaced by a regular army unit’. Impressive as these achievements were, the Waffen SS never succeeded in altering the outcome of the major battles of the war like Stalingrad, Kursk or Normandy. Their successes were at a local level.

Was the Waffen SS a more formidable force than the Wehrmacht that it fought beside? It is certainly true that there were only a handful of army divisions, such as Panzer Lehr and the Grossdeutschland, who could boast a combat record that equalled or surpassed Leibstandarte, Das Reich or Viking. It has often been stressed that the elite Waffen SS Panzer divisions fought so well partly due to the fact that they received better, and on occasion more, equipment than their army counterparts. This ignores the fact that the Wehrmacht had fully fledged Panzer divisions before the SS. Only the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th SS Divisions were made up to Panzer divisions by the end of 1943. The ‘elite’ SS Panzer divisions were, however, substantially larger than those from the Wehrmacht towards the end of the war. By 1944, all Panzer divisions contained an armoured regiment of two battalions – one equipped with Mark IV tanks, the other with Panthers. Army Panzer divisions also contained two infantry regiments of two battalions, but SS divisions mustered six infantry battalions. The average Panzer division went into the Battle of Normandy, for example, with almost 15,000 men at full strength, while SS divisions had up to 20,000 troops. To what extent this extra fire-power accounted for the SS divisions’ fighting prowess is unclear. The allegation that the SS units received better equipment is not convincing. When the Leibstandarte received the new Panzer Mark IVs with 75mm guns and a number of self-propelled guns in 1942, Panzer Lehr and Grossdeutschland received similar amounts of identical equipment.

The Waffen SS divisions that received the best equipment were however a minority, perhaps seven from a force of thirty. Only the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, 10th and 12th SS Divisions were fully fledged Panzer divisions by 1945. The next best equipped were the Panzer Grenadier divisions, consisting of a combination of tanks and infantry. These were the 4th, 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 25th, 28th and 38th. By no means were all of these units well-equipped and at full strength throughout the war. The majority of those Panzer Grenadier units that did grow to divisional size were never fully mechanized and many did not always receive their full allocation of personnel. There were also three cavalry divisions and six mountain divisions. The rest were regular infantry units of varying quality. The majority of these never reached full divisional status, ranging in strength from battalion to regiment size. Less than 30% of SS divisions were equipped for modern mobile warfare, which tends to erode the popular perception of the Waffen SS as a well-equipped and fully motorized Panzer force. This only applied to a handful of units.

The exploits of these ‘elite’ SS Panzer divisions have formed the reputation of the Waffen SS as a whole. The reality is rather different. Wegner’s analysis of SS men who won the Knight’s Cross reveals that the classical units like the Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Viking received the most. These four divisions received 55% of all Knight’s Crosses awarded to the Waffen SS. If one adds eight other divisions, all of which were German, West European or Scandinavian, the figure rises to 84%, demonstrating that less than a third of SS units earned nearly 90% of all crosses. It is evident that the ‘Volksdeutsche’ and Eastern divisions were of little value. The majority performed badly from the outset. The 13th SS Bosnian Handschar Division operated at a satisfactory level fighting against partisans when it first entered the field in early 1943, but losses and declining morale eroded the unit by the Autumn of that year. When the division was first exposed to the Russians in 1944 it disintegrated. It was not unusual for the ‘Volksdeutsche’ and Eastern divisions to fail completely in battle. In January 1945 Himmler informed a subordinate that a regiment from the ethnic German 17th SS Götz von Berlichingen Division had ‘run away on contact with the enemy’. Cases such as this have been overshadowed by the heroic reputation of a minority of SS divisions, most of which could trace their origins back to the pre-war SS, again emphasising the importance of the men who were trained before 1939 and who made up the leadership cadres of the early divisions.

The elite Waffen SS units suffered from high casualty rates. There were repeated complaints from Army commanders who accused SS officers of wasting men. By mid-November 1941, five months into the invasion of Russia, Das Reich had lost 60% of its combat strength, including 40% of its officers. By the end of 1943 150,000 Waffen SS troops were dead, wounded or missing. Such losses helped establish the reputation of the Waffen SS as a force that fought to the last, but had a serious effect on the long-term future of many units. The shortage of leaders often damaged operational efficiency. By 1944 the 12th SS Panzer Division did not have enough experienced officers to lead it. As a result a core of 500 officers were trained from scratch in four months, whereas the early SS units had been led by highly trained personnel from Bad Tölz. Although the new officers were brave and fanatical, their lack of training is reflected in the fact that the division was almost wiped out on its first mission in Normandy.

It is also worth stressing that the stringent selection process that was maintained in the elite divisions during the early part of the war meant that men who could have served as NCOs and junior officers in other units, served as Privates in the best SS units. Germany, facing so many enemies, could not afford wasteful misuse of men and material. It might have been better to utilize such men in regular army formations, thus insuring that they received proper replacements and qualified leaders, rather than concentrating these resources in a handful of formations to the disadvantage of the army in general.

The expansion of the Waffen SS led it to introduce conscription. Thus in one way at least, the armed SS was indeed like the army. It appears that about a third of the total number of men joining the Waffen SS were conscripts or compulsory transferees and that the proportion of such individuals was higher at the end of the war than at the beginning. By the final months of the conflict some 40,000 Luftwaffe and 5,000 Navy personnel were transferred to the Waffen SS. The high losses sustained in Russia also led to a decline in volunteers, put off as they were by high casualty rates. Conscription and compulsory transfers undermined the ideological core of the Waffen SS and may have effected its combat effectiveness. The volunteer in the vanguard of Nazism was a key pillar in Himmler’s concept of political soldiery. The achievements of Das Reich and the Leibstandarte were largely down to their highly motivated volunteers. Reluctant draftees would not fight as hard as the true believers. There were several cases of young party members refusing to join the Waffen SS, expressing a wish to fulfill their military service in the army. Many were threatened with expulsion from the NSDAP, hardly the calibre of recruits required for a Nazi vanguard.

War-time losses and Himmler’s desire to field a larger force also led to the inclusion of foreign peoples into the Waffen SS as the use of German recruits was blocked by OKH. At first these were ‘Aryan’ Scandinavians and Dutchmen. Recruitment was initially slow and by June 1941 only 3000 volunteers had come forward. With the invasion of the Soviet Union, however, the numbers grew rapidly as men were attracted to the anti-Bolshevik crusade in the east. As war progressed and Germany was pushed back on all fronts, Himmler could stretch his principles far enough to include the formerly ‘sub-human’ peoples of the Baltic, Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans. The irony of Slavic volunteers fighting for Nordic racial supremacy was quietly ignored by the Reichsführer. Many of these units performed poorly and contributed little to the combat reputation of the armed SS.


2 thoughts on “‘The Most Ruthless Force?’ Reassessing the role of the Waffen SS 1933-45. Part III

  1. Actually the 12ss left Normadie with 10.245 men, look at Hubert Meyers book 12th Ss. Their Panzer and combat battlions did get bled white. That 500 walk out is a common misconception in English floklore of the 12 Ss in normandie.


    • ‘The battle of the Falaise encirclement was, indisputably, a severe defeat for the German forces in the west. The losses were very high. Reliable figures have not yet been established. The lists of losses for the “HJ” Division offer a nearly complete picture. The reports on losses of I./26 are incomplete, those for the Nachrichtenabteilung are missing.
      Losses during the battles in the Falaise area and the Falaise encirclement in the period 15–22 August 1944.
      The total losses were 45 killed, 248 wounded and 655 missing. This amounted to a total of 948 losses.[War diary Panzer AOK 5 from 10.6.–8.8.1944, -appendix 158]
      Most of the 655 missing were likely taken prisoner. Some were able to flee from imprisonment, others had been dispersed and reached their own units again after days or weeks. Among the missing there is surely also a significant number of killed whose death was not observed and reported by comrades of their own units. More than half of the missing were members of the Artillerieregiment and the Werferabteilung, i.e. 387 officers, NCOs and men. It is probable that most of them were captured as they tried to get out of the encirclement with their heavy vehicles along the congested roads or even cross-country.
      Those units which had been pulled out after the withdrawal from Caen, and moved back to their previous areas, were still combat-ready after the encirclement battle. However, they had only received a small part of the required personnel replacements. Thus, they were not refitted at all when they were sent into action against General Patton’s troops which had broken through toward the Seine river. More on that later.
      The following were located outside the encirclement before it was closed:
      the staff of Panzergrenadierregiment 26 with parts of the Regimental units, core personnel of II./26;
      the staff of Panzergrenadierregiment 25 with parts of the Regimental units, core personnel of II. and III./25 and the majority of the reinforced I./25;
      the core personnel of Panzeraufklärungsabteilung;
      the core personnel of Panzerpionierbataillon;
      crews of the Panzerregiment, without Panzers, and the repair facilities;
      two batteries of heavy field howitzers;
      one battery of 3.7 cm Flak;
      the Feldersatzbataillon (field replacement training -battalion);
      all of the supply units.
      On 1 June 1944, “HJ” Division had 20,540 officers, NCOs and men. From the start of the invasion to 20 July it lost 6,164 killed, wounded and missing.19 From then on, to the end of the encirclement battle, it suffered significant new personnel losses. The total losses to 22 August amounted to approximately 8,000 men. The existing strength of the Division on that day was approximately 12,500 men and not 500 men, as repeatedly reported in the relevant literature. The approximately 2,500 men of the supply units were part of the existing strength. Since the Division had lost almost all combat-ready Panzers, Jagdpanzers, armored personnel carriers and the bulk of guns of the Artillerieregiment, it was no longer ready for action as a divisional fighting unit. It had to be pulled out and refitted as quickly as possible. When Oberführer Meyer and the Ia arrived at the command post of I. SS-Panzerkorps in the afternoon of 20 August, they—who had been believed killed—were warmly welcomed. The chief of staff then briefed them on the overall situation. It was much less than hopeful. They received orders to assemble the embers of the Division coming out of the encirclement east of the Seine. The units of the “HJ” Division which had already been pulled out previously were in combat near Evreux and Pacy-sur-Eure under the command of Obersturmbannführer Mohnke. They were to remain in action until further orders arrived.
      The men of the “HJ” Division asked themselves how the completion of the encirclement could have come about, despite the fact that they had held the northern front of the developing encirclement with their remaining strength. The origin of the battle of the encirclement lay with the failed counterattack near Avranches. The battles of 7. Armee are not the subject of this book. In order to judge the ensuing rearguard action of that Armee and of Panzergruppe Eberbach and the left wing of 5. Panzerarmee, several publications must be awaited: Part IV of the divisional history of “LAH” by Rudolf Lehmann and the history of 116. Panzerdivision by Heinz Guderian. However, the statement, that the order by OKW of 16.8.1944 to withdraw behind the Orne was issued too late, is certainly justified.
      On 21 August 1944, the supreme command of 5. Panzerarmee reported the fighting strength of its divisions to Heeresgruppe B. Indicated for the “HJ” Division were: “. . . 300 men, 10 Panzers, no artillery . . .” These figures can only be an estimate for the units which had broken out of the encirclement and were ready for combat. The combat strength of “Kampfgruppe Mohnke” cannot be included in them. Based on that information, mistaken conclusions regarding the losses in the Falaise encirclement have been drawn. It is completely useless as a basis for such considerations.
      [War diary Heeresgruppe B of 21.8.1944, F/M, RH19/19 IX-88]
      With the move into the Reich territory, the fighting to repel the Allied invasion in Normandy and the ensuing rearguard fighting had found an end. “HJ” Division had stood the test, with excellence, during attack and defense, frequently in situations which seemed hopeless. But, it had also suffered severe losses.
      Killed were 55 officers, 229 NCOs, and 1,548 men; wounded were 128 officers, 613 NCOs, and 3,684 men; missing were 56 officers, 182 NCOs, and 2,012 men; 7 officers, 16 NCOs, and 96 men died outside of hospitals. The total losses amounted to 8,626 officers, NCOs and men, as far as the figure can be confirmed by lists of losses.
      The lists of losses for the following are incomplete: Divisional staff, III./25, Panzerjägerabteilung 12 (officers), Flakabteilung 12 (officers), Werferabteilung 12, Nachrichtenabteilung 12 (communications), Pionierbataillon 12, Instandsetzungsabteilung 12 (repairs), Sanitätsabteilung 12 (medics), and Feldgendarmerie Kompanie (military police).
      The following are missing: Feldpostamt 12 (field post) and Feld-Ersatz-Bataillon 12 (replacements).
      The total losses, including those not documented, probably amounted to almost 9,000 officers, NCOs and men.’
      From: Meyer, Hubert, 1913–
         [Kriegsgeschichte der 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”. English]
         The 12th SS : the history of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division / Hubert Meyer; translated by H. Harri Henschler.— 1st ed.
             p. cm. — (Stackpole Military history series)
         Originally published in English as: The history of the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitler-jugend”. Winnipeg, Man. : J.J. Fedorowicz, 1994.


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