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.